Huntington's "Fall": The Price

Joanne Kelly, Josh Stamberg, Nolan James Tierce, Joanna Glushak & John Hikock in "Fall"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

"My name is Daniel Miller”; with those simple words of self-identification, the central character in a new play, Fall, by Bernard Weinraub, being given its world premiere in Boston by Huntington Theatre Company, begins this compelling depiction of a complicated father and son relationship. The father is famed playwright Arthur Miller (Josh Stamberg), best known for works that dealt with fathers and sons, and their mutual responsibility toward one another. Thus it came as quite an ironic revelation when a 2007 Vanity Fair article first made public one of Miller's deepest secrets, namely that for decades he and his third wife Inge Morath (Joanne Kelly) kept the fate of their son in the shadows, never sharing the stark reality that their son was born with Down Syndrome. That Daniel's birth was kept private should in no way be surprising, as it was generally considered in those days to be in a child's best interest to be brought up by specialists (in other words, institutionalized). It also reflected the profound shame that led to their decision about the 1996 birth of Daniel (Nolan James Tierce). Though identified a century prior by Dr. John Down, it was generally misunderstood. The Millers were advised, here in the person of their physician Dr. Wise (Joanna Glushak) to have the child placed in institutions and did precisely that, as did most parents at the time. What Arthur Miller did subsequently, however, is the crux of Weinraub's play: he not only never spoke publicly about their decision, but he essentially erased their son's very existence.

Josh Stamberg & Joanne Kelly in "Fall"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Though based on real-life events, the play is a fictionalized vision of the challenge faced by these two well-meaning parents. It portrays a true American tragedy in its failure both as a community and as individuals to deal responsibly with the dilemma that well-meaning people encountered in a less informed era. It speaks to the inherent shame and guilt that drove parents virtually to deny reality, and caused the Millers to leave their story untold. Weinraub chooses to imagine the motivations behind the public facade. In so doing he takes on the daunting task of creating imagined dialog and incidents, which is always problematic when dealing with high profile characters. There exists an inherent challenge in filling in such illustrious blanks where the factual and the fictional are so intertwined.

Weinraub largely succeeds in his attempt to present the complexities faced by a celebrated couple. He does so by including in his storytelling the real-life role of Miller's frequent producer, Robert Whitehead (John Hickok), who serves to illustrate for an audience what life was like for a respected playwright whose career had the usual highs and lows. Weinraub mostly avoids the pitfalls of other such “and then I wrote” dramatizations, while succeeding in informing theatergoers of the historical markers of Miller's journey of denial. He also uses the professional life of renowned photographer Morath as analogous to their private issues, as when she reveals how she captures the moment when her subjects truly reveal themselves. At the same time, Weinraub utilizes the character of Dr. Wise to show the gradual growth in understanding in the medical world.

Josh Stamberg, Joanne Kelly & John Hikock in "Fall"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

For most of this play, Daniel is not merely marginalized but basically forgotten. The focus is on Arthur's career as a reluctant celebrity, which allows Weinraub to interject some memorable humor, much of it topical, as when, bemoaning her son's Republicanism including working for Bush 43, Dr. Wise declares “it can't get any worse than Bush”. This is balanced by references to Nazi Germany's gassing of “mongoloids” as undesirable and “disposable”, and Arthur's life-long political activism in the era of McCarthy. And there is an ever-present cloud hovering over the Millers, expressed by Inge in words with which Arthur could easily identify: “we're going to pay a price for this”.

And so they did, not least in denying to themselves the opportunity to appreciate just how remarkable their son was. As briefly and beautifully enacted by Tierce (an actor self-identified as having Down Syndrome), the loss seems unfathomable for both parents and child, and Kelly complements with her poised phlegmatic portrait of a conflicted spouse and mother with moments of utter despair at her own version of Sophie's Choice. In their significant supporting roles, both Glushak and Hickok provide the story with depth and context. But it's Stamberg's choice that drives the play, a difficult task in humanizing an introvert agonizing over his guilt as a father at letting someone down and consequent shame at its permanent baring of his soul, leading to the “revenge” of a son. In the end it's Daniel's revenge to live an undeniably remarkable life.

Nolan James Tierce in "Fall"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

This production also succeeds on the creative level, with taut direction by Peter DuBois, some ingeniously fluid Scenic Design by Brandon McNeel, apt Costume Design by Ilona Somogyi, effective Lighting Design by Philip Rosenberg, Original Music and Sound Design by John Gromada, and Projection Design by Zachary Borovay.

This is one of Huntington's finest original works. Weinraub owes the entire small cast and creative crew a huge vote of thanks, as they manage to engage us in these roles even when some scenes could use some trimming. For a play that is being shared with an audience for the first time, however, it too is remarkable.

You may catch this Fall from grace through June 16th at the South End's Calderwood Pavilion.


Lyric's "Wiz": Everything's Up-to-Date in Emerald City

Martin, Borders, Green & Smith in "The Wiz"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

Rumor hath it that a certain theater critic went kicking and screaming (well, at least reluctantly) to The Wiz, the final production of the season by Lyric Stage Company. Loosely based (very loosely) on the 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, this version, (as a Broadway show), won seven Tony Awards in 1972, including Best Musical and Best Score by Charlie Smalls (notably not for its Book by William F. Brown). The competition was weak that season, from the little-known-and-now-forgotten The Lieutenant (9 performances), a lovely flop Jerry Herman work about Mack Sennett, Mack and Mabel (66 performances), and the stage version of the popular film Shenandoah (1050 performances). The concept of an adaptation of “Wizard” with an all African-American cast was unusual enough to help it last for 1,672 performances, though a poorly executed 1984 revival lasted only 13 performances. A 1978 film version was a colossal flop though it became a cult film (preposterously starring Diana Ross as Dorothy, when Ross was thirty-three years of age, albeit starring not as a student but as a teacher). A 2015 version televised live received no bad news critically, but lost in the ratings to a football game. In all its incarnations, its score was considered merely serviceable (though with a few showstoppers), with a scant book. Yet it was acclaimed for its hopeful inspiration to “believe in yourself”. None of the various versions, however, came even close to that of the original film that took us over a much more melodic and colorful rainbow. All relied heavily on the quality of the performances.

Singletary, Odetoyinbo, Saxon, Smith, Green, Martin & Borders in "The Wiz"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

And so it continues to depend on its cast (and creative crew). You all more or less already know the story about Dorothy (Salome B. Smith) who leaves behind her Aunt Em (Carolyn Saxon) and Uncle Henry (Damon Singletary) and along her way encounters three characters, Scarecrow (Elle Borders), Lion (Brandon G. Green) and Tin Man (Steven Martin) all of whom have requests to submit to The Wiz (Davron S. Monroe). This updated version includes several witches, namely: Addaperle (Yewande Odetoyinbo), the Good Witch of the North; Glinda (Saxon again), the Good Witch of the South; and Evilene (Odetoyinbo again), the Wicked Witch of the West. Surprisingly this production by Lyric Stage departs from the Lyric's usual nontraditional casting, in that the cast consists completely of performers of color. And as for “I'll get you...and your little dog, too!”.....there's also, sadly, no sign of the famous mutt, only an off-stage bark. What there is, however, is a stupendous cast, from the powerful voices of Smith, Saxon and Odetoyinbo to the versatility of Borders, Martin and the Ensemble that includes Singletary as well as Soneka Anderson, Juanita Pearl, Pier Lamia Porter and Lance-Patrick Strickland, all of whom sing and dance their hearts out. And there is a Wiz to wonder at in Monroe with his grace and operatic presence. As in most versions of the story, the best-written role goes to the mesmerizing Green whose Lion would be a standout in any cast, always in character and always a delight, as he and the other road trippers challenge the Wiz's goals of power, prestige and money.

Singletary & Monroe in "The Wiz"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

Over its long history, from the Broadway stage to the silver screen to television to (regional) stage, there has always been one thing in common: a silly pseudo-hip script and a score you'll either love or endure. These issues remain, but under the inspired vision of Director Dawn M. Simmons, and Music Direction by Allyssa Jones, all excel with fabulous Choreography (and a lot of it) by Jean Appolon, effective Scenic Design by Baron E. Pugh, hilarious Costume Design by Amber Voner, complex Lighting Design by Jen Rock and Sound Design by Rachel Neubauer. The orchestration has elements of creole music, as this Oz is set in New Orleans. And what the show has in abundance is wit and whimsy, as well as a heart, a brain and the courage to deliver sometimes painful puns (Lion: “I was an only cub”; Addaperle: if she'd revealed the secret of the slippers earlier in the show, “think of all the people I'd have put out of work”). In the end, this is almost certainly the best Wiz you'll ever see, and way more fun than a barrelfull of funky monkeys.

Pearl, Anderson, Odetoyinbo & Strickland in "The Wiz"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

You may ease on down the road until July 1st, so long as you don't mind a radically different and brilliantly creative Wizard of Oz that doesn't follow the original in Toto.


Boston Pops "Bernstein Tribute": Glitter & Be Gay

Andrew Tighe, Keith Lockhart, Aimee Doherty, Matthew DiBattista & David McFerrin
(photo: Hilary Scott)

The title of the Boston Pops says it all: Leonard Bernstein Centennial Tribute, celebrating not only the centennial of the birth of the prolific composer but also the 133rd season of the Boston Pops. As such, the program faced an embarrassment of riches. Any retrospective of the composer's life work would have to include some of the more obvious choices, such as the overture to Candide, his early accomplishments such as Fancy Free and its later evolution into On the Town, and the hugely successful groundbreaking West Side Story. In some respects, choosing from the depth and breadth of his works is easy; in some other respects, it's well nigh impossible, since he made his mark on the symphonic stage, opera, Broadway, art songs and one film score. Under the direction of locally renowned actress Paula Plum, five expert vocalists presented several of Bernstein's signature pieces, under the energetic direction of its long-time conductor, Keith Lockhart. He also provided back stories to some of the chosen works, much of it from memory, and made sure his audience would be struck by the famed composer's unmatched versatility. As he said at one point, Bernstein would have excelled in so many genres save for the fact that his talent was so expansive that he chose not to restrict himself in any one direction. And it was sobering to be reminded that the composer's first conducting role with a professional orchestra was with the Pops, in 1941.

David McFerrin & The Boston Pops
(photo: Hilary Scott)

After a Pops favorite, the overture to Candide, (discuss amongst yourselves whether to consider this work an operetta or an opera), and an orchestral nod to the ballet Fancy Free with its distinct Galop, Waltz and Danzon, the program segued to the more fully developed musical that was to be On the Town. With lyrics by Comden and Green (created, as Lockhart noted, by a trio who were all in their mid-twenties), the program included the stirring New York, New York, the haunting Lonely Town, the hilarious I Can Cook, Too and the wistful Lucky to Be Me. The performers included local luminary Aimee Doherty (fresh off a smashing star turn in Moonbox Productions' recent Cabaret) the commanding baritone voice of David McFerrin, and the winning Andy Tighe, as well as another well-known local performer, Teresa Winner Blume. There was also a last-minute replacement, opera singer Matthew DiBattista, who stepped in for the ailing Matthew Anderson. All showed themselves to be well up to the task of conveying Bernstein's sultry slow moments as well as the jazzier fast tempi.

Matthew DiBattista & Teresa Winner Blume
(photo: Hilary Scott)

The program continued with a selection from Bernstein's sole film score from On the Waterfront (the love scene and finale) and an explanation from Lockhart as to why the composer never wrote again for the silver screen. Bernstein felt that music should always be paramount, rather than relegated to the background and the necessary restrictions inherent in scoring for the movies. One couldn't help but think of frequent Pops conductor John Williams to appreciate fully the demands of such focus on a composer. Happily, the mood changed abruptly with the next work heard, the crazy Wrong Note Rag from Wonderful Town, (best appreciated by true musicians who understand just how miraculous a composition this is), which introduced a medley of numbers from this show, again with lyrics by Comden and Green, including the witty What a Waste, the ironic A Little Bit in Love, and the concluding selection for the first half of the program, Conga, (with updated lyrics referencing border walls, Keith's band, and Brady's rings) with which the singers exited dancing through the audience.

Matthew DiBattista, Andrew Tighe, Aimee Doherty, David McFerrin & Teresa Winner Blume
(photo: Hilary Scott)

The second part of the performance began with selections from Bernstein's arguably most beloved work, West Side Story. Lockhart here correctly noted that the original title was to have been East Side Story, about Jewish and Irish gangs; fortunately the composer went with West Side Story and its Latino conflicts that could entail jazz and other musical influences, as demonstrated by Something's Coming, One Hand, One Heart, Tonight, and America! To end the program there was a segment devoted to the more “classical” songs, once again from Candide: The Best of All Possible Worlds, I Am Easily Assimilated, the rousing Make Our Garden Grow, and perhaps the composer's finest number, Glitter and Be Gay, hysterically delivered by Blume with her lyric coloratura. Standout renderings of the songs also included Doherty's wildly perfect I Can Cook, Too, McFerrin's heartbreaking Lonely Town, Tighe's irresistible Lucky To Be Me, and DiBattista's powerful Something's Coming.

And, just when we thought we'd heard everything Bernstein, the orchestra and soloists gave us an encore, perhaps as we had been secretly wishing, absolutely his finest song, at least in this critic's lexicon, the bittersweet Some Other Time from On The Town. It was the perfect ending to a well-thought-out and beautifully presented tribute.

And that some other time? The program will be repeated on May 17th, May 29th and May 30th.


BLO "Trouble in Tahiti": Skid a Lit Day!

The Set Design for BLO's "Trouble in Tahiti"
(photo: Liza Voll)

They had us with the nightclub set, or rather Set Designer Paul Tate dePoo III did, with what can only be described as giving a whole new dimension to the word immersive. Not since the work of Scenic Designer Mimi Lien (who created the visual world of Broadway's Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 a few seasons ago) has a visual encounter been so breathtakingly fabulous. Boston Lyric Opera has done it again, placing one of its seasonal offerings in an unusual and original setting, namely Leonard Bernstein's 1952 one-act opera, Trouble in Tahiti, presented at the Mass Department of Conservation and Recreation's Steriti Memorial Skating Rink in the North End. The venue has been totally made over to provide a smashing environment including all the supper club accoutrements one could possibly have anticipated, right down to the cabaret-style tables. Fittingly for a space that normally features hockey games, BLO has pulled off, with the set, lighting and costumes, the ultimate hat trick. But, as they say, you can't hum the scenery.

Fortunately, things are just fine in the vocal department as well, for the five singers on stage are nothing short of spectacularly well prepared and easily up to the demands of Bernstein's intricate musicianship. This production is a far cry from its relatively modest beginnings at its 1952 premiere at Brandeis. The work was dedicated to Bernstein's close friend Marc Blitzstein (known for his anti-capitalist works) and was the only composition for which Bernstein wrote both music and lyrics. Performed in seven scenes (and two interludes), the forty-five minute work was described by the New York Times as “clever and appealing”. It was last seen locally in 2010 as part of a double bill produced by Boston Midsummer Opera with Judy Kuhn (with Lee Hoiby's Bon Appetit). Much has been made of the fact that Bernstein began composing it as his own honeymoon began. Whether this reflected his conflicted sexual orientation, or was a commentary on his parents' marriage, may never be resolved, but there's no denying its topicality given the lines about the sun's kissing everything, in Scarsdale, Beverly Hills, Wellesley and even Brookline.

The Cast of BLO's "Trouble in Tahiti"
(photo: Liza Voll)

The title Trouble in Tahiti comes from a romantic movie that a couple named Sam (baritone Marcus Deloach) and Dinah (mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson) attend, she for the second time (having gone by herself earlier that day to a matinee). After a day in the life of their miserable marriage, they find they can no longer communicate, or even where to start. The prelude, in the form of scat singing (Skid a Lit Day) by a jazz trio, (soprano Mara Bonde, tenor Neal Ferreira and baritone Vincent Turregano) represents according to Bernstein himself “a Greek chorus born of radio commercials”. The first scene finds the couple at breakfast in a” little white house”, deciding to discuss their marital woes later that same night. Then Sam is shown at work where he treats men applying for loans differently, sometimes because of personal hook-ups such as his handball tournament buddies. Next Dinah tells her analyst about a dream of her standing lost in a field of weeds (but hearing a voice promising to lead her to a “quiet place” in the work's loveliest aria, There Is a Garden), after which she and Sam accidentally run into one another on the street, both claiming prior lunch commitments (both non-existent). An interlude by the scat trio sings about possessions (including children) and “who could ask heaven for anything more?”. Later in the gym Sam sings of being a born winner, and that men are all unequal. Then there's the Island Magic dream. Finally, later that night, they decide to attend the same film, as Sam sings men will pay through the nose, neither having gone to Junior's play. And there is of course the unspoken irony of the title and melodramatic fable of the movie they go to see.

The Cast of BLO's "Trouble in Tahiti"
(photo: Liza Voll)

While not considered one of his masterworks, it was reasonably well received, so Bernstein composed a sequel, A Quiet Place, in 1983, taking place thirty years later, after Dinah dies in a car crash, and the kids (Junior and Dede, neither seen nor heard in the first work) come home. It wasn't generally well regarded, though it is sometimes still found on a double bill with Trouble in Tahiti , or both combined into one opera of two flashbacks. In this BLO version, the opera is combined with Bernstein's 1988 song cycle Arias and Baccaroles, with perhaps a more mature view of marriage and familial love, more informed, with deeper cynical wit. The title comes from a critique by none other than President Eisenhower: “It's got a theme, not just all them arias and baccaroles”. It was the composer's last completed work, consisting of nine pieces, solos and duets: a prelude, love duet, the brief story of little Smary and her lost Widdut (?), the love of their lives, some greetings, a song about a Jewish wedding (Oif mayn Khasneh), Mr. and Mrs. Webb Say Goodnight and Nachtspiel (in Memoriam). While this segment of the performance was less enthralling, it was a clever means of demonstrating the composer's growth over the years, with some atonal touches, cynical wit and whimsy. The pairing of the two pieces were actually redesignated as Sam and Dinah Say Goodnight, (Scenes from a Marriage).

Both principal singers impressed with their delivery of their roles, as did the jazz trio chorus. Superbly conducted by David Angus (also at the piano with Brett Hodgdon), with terrific Stage Direction by David Schweizer, pluperfect 50's Costume Design by Nancy Leary, fantastic Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg, astoundingly effective Video Design by Johnny Rogers, and fluid Movement Direction by Melinda Sullivan, it just simply doesn't get any better than this.

In performances through May 20th, one can only add, in the spirit of a hockey venue: Goal!


SpeakEasy's "Allegiance": It Can't Happen Here Again

The Cast of "Allegiance"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

At the heart of Allegiance, the 2015 Broadway musical, is the oriental concept of gaman, or “endurance with dignity and fortitude”. The show ran for about a hundred performances, and is the current offering by SpeakEasy Stage Company, directed by Paul Daigneault in its New England premiere. On Broadway, it received mixed notices for its Book (though surprisingly focused given that it was written by three people, Jay Kuo, Marc Acito and Lorenzo Thione) and Score (with Lyrics and Music by Kuo), but was nonetheless recognized for its originality. The musical was first created by, directed by, starred and was presented from the point of view of predominantly Asian-Americans, a first for Broadway. This production, a streamlined version, still speaks (and sings) strongly of the story of the fate of Asian-Americans at the start of World War II.

Grace Yoo & Sam Tanabe in "Allegiance"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

Though the story it tells focuses on a fictional family, the Kimuras, it's a composite based on true-life experiences by Japanese-Americans just after the attack on Pearl Harbor, including the family of George Takei (of “Star Trek” fame), praised for its portrayal of a family's varied but dignified endurance to a reprehensible period in our nation's history. The story begins with a flashback as the Kimuras, headed by patriarch Ojii-chan (Gary Thomas Ng), are forced to move from their home in Salinas, California to an internment camp near Heart Mountain in Wyoming. The family consists of his son Tatsuo (Ron Domingo), his granddaughter Kei (Grace Yoo), in love with Frankie Suzuki (Tyler Simahk), and young grandson Sammy (Sam Tanabe), who falls for military nurse Hannah Campbell (Melissa Geerlof). Also featured is the real-life character of Mike Masaoka (Michael Hisamoto). As were some 120,000 other Americans of Japanese descent, they were presented with a “loyalty questionnaire” which some refused to sign on principle. Some, like Frankie, were so enraged by this pledge that they organized a camp revolt. And therein lie a few plot points best not divulged here. On Broadway, about 120,000 people saw the musical, the same number of those interned.

Gary Thomas Ng, Grace Yoo, Ron Domingo & Sam Tanabe in "Allegiance"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

Critical reaction to the Broadway version seems in retrospect to have been unduly harsh, though there is in the development of the story line a repeated tendency to inject a happy number right after a real downer, so it might have been more successful as a straight play without music. It has a somewhat melodramatic book devoid of subtlety and a sometimes derivative score, but strong performances from Yoo and Ng, and an ensemble who sang quite well together, compensate. The creative elements include Scenic Design by Eric Levenson, Costume Design by Miranda Kau Giurleo, Sound Design by Andrew Duncan Will, and Lighting Design by Daniel H. Jentzen, all professional, and the energetic choreography by Ilyse Robbins is amazing for such a small stage. A work with so much heart (admittedly too often on its sleeve) deserves to be seen.

Of course, it couldn't happen here anymore. We as a country have grown, to a place in which no group would ever be denied entrance, registered, rounded up or restricted based on their beliefs, appearance or ethnicity. Oh, wait..... Perhaps the French saying is correct: plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose; that is, the more things change, the more they remain..... the same?


Trinity Rep's "Ragtime": Ever the Melting Plot

Rebecca Gibel (as Evelyn Nesbit) & The Cast of "Ragtime"
(photo: Mark Turek)

When news first broke that Trinity Rep had scheduled as its final show of the season the 1998 musical Ragtime, it struck one that this epic piece of Americana was a perfect choice for a true repertory company with a suitably sprawling venue like the Chace Theater. The opening number alone has always been worth the price of admission, surely one of musical theater's greatest, right up there with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum as an introductory masterpiece of stagecraft. Most of the versions seen in the past presented three distinct groups singing the title song in a strikingly syncopated rhythm, separate from one another from the start, long before they discover what they would eventually learn to share. Surprisingly, in this version, Director Curt Columbus and Choreographer Shannon Jenkins have no such distinctions, with the entire cast mingled, with premature anticipation of a future melting pot of cultures. Frankly, this approach lacks the visual force of the productions seen on Broadway, on tour and in other regional theaters over the past couple of decades. It no longer raises goose bumps, and while it requires more of an audience's imagination, it is no longer as magical nor is it reflective of the score's syncopation.

Adapting a huge and sprawling book for the stage is always a daunting task, rife with huge challenges. Ragtime, winner of Tony Awards for its Book by Terrence McNally, Music by Stephen Flaherty, Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and original Orchestrations by William David Brohn, was such an adaptation, based on the popular 1975 book by E. L. Doctorow, made into a popular film in 1981. In this musicalized version, it's the score that primarily makes the show as wondrous as it is, including cakewalks, gospel, marches and, of course, ragtime. Scott Joplin would have been proud, as the music itself proudly proclaims the greatness of America as that great melting pot, with the stories of three representative families. Despite the inherent problems in adapting a novel so stuffed with characters, it has become a deservedly acclaimed piece of theater, which has now taken on much relevance in these politically scandalous times, especially in its depiction of the importance of immigrants to our country.

Rachael Warren (as Mother) & Mauro Hantman (as Father) & The Cast of "Ragtime"
(photo: Mark Turek)

As those familiar with the novel and film version will recall, those three families portrayed (beginning in 1902) have eventual interlocking stories, each with a strong central character. There is the tale of the black Harlem musician Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Wilkie Ferguson III) and his lover Sarah (Mia Ellis), who gives birth to their baby. Then there is the upper class white suburban family from New Rochelle consisting of characters known only as Father (Mauro Hantman), Grandfather (Brian McEleney), Mother's Younger Brother (Alexander DeVasconcelos Matos), Boy (Evan Andrew Horwitz) and its central figure, Mother (Rachael Warren). Lastly there is the Jewish immigrant Tateh (Charlie Thurston) from Latvia, and his daughter, identified only as Girl (Olivia Miller). Also involved in their lives, somewhat peripherally, are real-life characters such as Harry Houdini (Stephen Thorne), Evelyn Nesbit (Rebecca Gibel), Booker T. Washington (Taavon Gamble), Emma Goldman (Janice Duclos), Henry Ford (McEleney again) and J. P. Morgan (Fred Sullivan Jr.). Even a cursory glance at the cast's size and variety, obviously heavy with historical figures, gives a clue to its being overpopulated with so many characters to absorb or get to know, and many of them are only tangential to any of the three main stories; there is in fact a cast of seventeen, ten of whom are Resident Acting Company members. There are some rousing songs (the title song, as well as “Wheels of a Dream”, “Till We Reach That Day” and especially the haunting “New Music”), but also some insignificant ones. As is the case with many a musical based on a novel, (for example, the original “Color Purple” before its recent transforming condensation), one's involvement with fundamental themes is diluted. There is also the issue of highly improbable coincidences that interconnect the stories which won't be divulged here (except for Boy's inexplicable pyschic fortunetelling).   Despite these issues, the score carries the day, making for a truly memorable theatrical experience. This show demands excellence from its four leads, and Ferguson, Ellis, Warren and Thurston don't disappoint, nor does the choral singing.

Fred Sullivan Jr. (as J.P.Morgan) & Brian McEleney (as Henry Ford) & The Cast of Ragtime"
(photo: Mark Turek)

The creative elements are a very mixed bag. The spare unit set by Eugene Lee is, according to the program notes, meant to "imagine" us into a rehearsal room to show how we as a people keep rehearsing the same issues, but minimizes the show's potential historical impact. Additionally the use of a mix of modern and period attire (probably to illustrate how problems persist from era to era) by Costume Designer Kara Harmon (for example, a modern t-shirt proclaiming “the future is Latina”) is distracting (though there is a very clever newspaper costume for Gibel, while she sings about being “the girl in the swing” with no swing in sight). On the plus side, there is the multitasking Music Direction by Michael Rice (leading a band of six), fine Sound Design by Peter Sasha Hurowitz, and Lighting Design by Dan Scully. The heroine of the performance was Foley Artist (and Associate Director) Julia Locascio, who continuously provides crucial sound effects. There are some witty visuals, such as a human assembly line and the use of a steering wheel to approximate a halo for Henry Ford.

Mia Ellis (as Sarah) & Wilkie Ferguson III (as Coalhouse) in "Ragtime"
(photo: Mark Turek)

This time around, for three more weeks, the unabashedly patriotic piece of Americana that is Ragtime overflows with musical riches, just when we needed a diversion from undocumented presidents.


"The Sound of Music": Mit Schlag

Jill-Christine Wiley & The Cast of "The Sound of Music"
(photo: Matthew Murphy)
You want schlag with that? Some theatrical productions overdo the extra whipped cream and fall into the trap of excess schmalz. Miraculously, the current national tour of the universally beloved chestnut The Sound of Music, manages to avoid the extremes as they compete with an audience's cherished memories of views of the Austrian countryside in the film version or the various star turns on stage and screen in presenting the story of the original Trapp Family Singers. Most people undoubtedly number this musical as one of their favorite things, and why not? It boasts one of the finest scores by Composer Richard Rodgers and Lyricist Oscar Hammerstein (their last collaboration), provided the basis for one of the most beloved family films ever, and made a huge impact on tourism to Salzburg. Fans upset that Julie Andrews was passed over for Eliza Doolittle in the film version of My Fair Lady (and played by Audrey Hepburn, dubbed by Marnie Nixon) could finally forgive Hollywood (while alienating fans of Mary Martin in the process; what goes around comes around). Thus you might be more than a bit pleasantly surprised to see just how good this current version is.

Lauren Kidwell & Jill-Christine Wiley in "The Sound of Music"
(photo: Matthew Murphy)

When the show opened on Broadway in 1959 it earned five Tony Awards including Best Musical, and received a mixed reception among some of the more vitriolic New York critics. Perhaps the weakest creative element in the show was the sanitized Book by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, which only occasionally reminded audiences about the annexation of Austria by Germany (the infamous Anschluss) and made their exodus over the Alps far more dramatic than the reality of their emigration. It's fitting that two songs from the original stage version that were dropped for the film, How Can Love Survive? and No Way to Stop It, each more politically aware, are intact in this version, replacing songs written by Rodgers for the film (after Hammerstein's death), such as I Have Confidence.

This production, in Boston until May 13th, boasts a cast and creative crew that belie the old “bus and truck national tour” paradigm. Not only are there fine singing actors and unexpected delights from the scenic and costume designers, but we're treated to a crucial and brilliantly sung performance of the Mother Abbess by a local graduate of Boston Conservatory, Lauren Kidwell. Also very memorable are Maria (Jill-Christine Wiley), Captain Von Trapp (Mike McLean), Liesl (Keslie Ward) and the other children, Louisa (Sienna Berkseth), Kurt (Matthew Law), Marta (Amaryllis C. Miller), Friedrich (Paul Schoeller), Brigitta (Valerie Wick) and the adorable Gretl (Sophia Massa). The “heavies”, if you will, are Rolf (Chad P. Campbell), Max (Jake Mills) and Elsa (Melissa McKamie). The creative contributions include the original direction by Jack O'Brien, as well as Tour Director Matt Lenz, Original choreography by Denny Mefford, as well as Tour Choreographer Jonathan Warren, Musical Direction and Conducting by Michael Uselmann, Scenic Design by Douglas W. Schmidt, Costume Design by Jane Greenwood, Lighting Design by Natasha Katz and Sound Design by Shannon Slaton. All are in fine form for a touring production, which you owe it to yourself to enjoy. One of the realities you may have forgotten was that shows back in those days had songs that advanced the story.

Mike McLean & the Cast of "The Sound of Music"
(photo: Matthew Murphy)

The show has some significant Boston history: during its local pre-Broadway tryout, the song “Eidelweiss” was written in the men's room lounge of the Shubert Theatre, across the street from its current home at the Boch Center Wang Theatre. Or so theater legend goes. It may be of interest that the true life Trapp Family built (and still operates) their own lodge in the Alpine-like village of Stowe, Vermont. This critic once spent a delightful weekend there in a friend's time share. And there wasn't a Lonely Goatherd in sight.



New Rep's "Two Jews": Bah-dah-ping!

Joel Colodner & Jeremiah Kissel in "Two Jews Walk into a War"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)
Two Jews Walk into a War, a ninety minute intermissionless two-hander, is the last offering of the season by New Repertory Theatre in Watertown. Self-described as “vaudeville-inspired”, this production features three of our finest local actors, two on stage and one at the helm. The last is Will LeBow, who directs Joel Colodner and Jeremiah Kissel in this work written by playwright Seth Rozin. They portray a staple of vaudevillian days, the comic duo (think Abbott and Costello, or perhaps more appropriately, the team of Polish Jews, Weber and Fields). The play (if one can call it that) was given its regional premiere at Merrimack Repertory Theatre a decade ago. It's more of a series of vignettes utilizing black-outs and even the ping of bullets in lieu of a drum roll.

Joel Colodner & Jeremiah Kissel in "Two Jews Walk into a War"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

Ishaq (Colodner) and Zeblyan (Kissel) are the last remaining Jews in Kabul, Afghanistan in the final days of the Taliban regime, in what remains of a chapel in the only synagogue not fully destroyed. They both share a mission to repopulate their community, but there's a hitch: they hate each other, with a passion (we never learn the source of this antipathy, which is problematical). Still, they must create a Torah (the Jewish code of laws), from memory, to entice rabbis to lead their proposed flock. Ishaq states: “I dream of being a tolerated minority,” while Zeblyan notes that the Torah leaves out many a prohibition against women or lesbians (with a politically incorrect allusion to “fruitcake” in the case of the latter). Much of their discussion centers around sex, some of it out of character (Ishaq again: “Thou shalt not wank is not one of the commandments”). Fortunately, these two actors have impeccable timing with respect to their verbal delivery and facial expressions. 

The Set and Cast of "Two Jews Walk into a War"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

On the creative side, the complex and evocative Set Design is by Jon Savage, with excellent Costume Design by Nancy Leary, dramatic Lighting Design by Karen Perlow, and apt Sound Design by Lee Schuna (with music consultation by Hankus Netsky, represented in performance by Grant Smith on percussion and Neema Jan on the Oud).

Though it's not a requirement, it nonetheless helps to be Jewish, with a certain tolerance for the sort of Catskills skits of yore and burlesque-era jokes . (Example: “why don't we advertise?”). Then and now, timing is what it's all about. Fortunately this talented cast of two know the ropes, as does their director LeBow, and they manage to resuscitate burlesque, at least for an hour and a half. If you like this sort of thing, you will like this sort of thing.

And, by the way, who's on first?