Cirque du Soleil's "Luzia": A Suffolk Downs Sure Bet

(photo: Cirque du Soleil)

Luzia, the latest Cirque du Soleil extravaganza, now being presented at Suffolk Downs, is one of the best in this company's history. Premiered in Montreal in 2016, its name is a combination of luz or “light” and Iluvia or “rain”, the two elements at the core of the creation of this show, one of more than three dozen shows in the company's history. This employs some 44 artists from 15 countries under the artistic and creative guidance of Guy Laliberte and Jean-Francois Bouchard, with a core focus on Mexico. Even the colors of the Grand Chapiteau tent reflects these themes, based on the solar system, especially the moon, the sun and the paths of the planets. Briefly referenced are the historical Dia de los Muertos or “Day of the Dead” and papel picado cut-outs (as in Pixar's recent Oscar-winning Coco), utilizing some five thousand live marigolds, or cempasuchil, a mainstay of the altars erected on the Day of the Dead, and Mexican wrestling (luchadors, “free style” lucha libre), but most of the show's creations are less traditional. There are mixtures of imaginary Mexico as though waking from a dream, with images from old Mexican movie sets to the ocean to a dance hall to the desert, from urban to natural world , from past to present.

(photo: Cirque du Soliel)

As is typical of many of the company's offerings, there are animals (imaginary) such as the Aztec hummingbirds (the dead returned to life) and Bahlam (the Olmec myth of the Jaguar) and other myths such as Chaak, the Mayan god of rain. The performances include the prologue with a Clown in the desert of Luzia, the Running Woman (Shelli Epstein) and the Butterfly, Hoop Diving, Adagio (another allusion to Mexican films), Cyr Wheel (a large hula hoop) and Dance Trapeze amongst peyote or agave, Clown at the beach, Hand Balancing (Hugo Laffolay), Football Freestyle, Clown with rain, Percussions Parade, Masts and Pole Dance, Swing 360, Jaguar, featuring solo singing by Majo Cornejo, Aerial Straps (Stephen Brine), an Oasis, Juggling (Cylios Pytlak), wondrous Contortionist (Alexsei Goloborodko), Scuba Diving, Swing to Swing, and the Finale Fiesta.

(photo: Cirque du Soleil)

The score's composer is Simon Carpentier (with elements of salsa-like cumbia, bandas or brass band, flamenco-like huapango and Norteno from Northern Mexico). The entire production is under Director Daniele Finzi Pasca's elegant care, with Set and Prop Design by Eugenio Caballero, Costume Design (including a dress that turns from white to red flora) by Giovanna Buzzi, Puppet Design by Max Humphries, Lighting Design by Martin Labreque, Projection Design by Johnny Ranger, Sound Design by Jacques Boucher and Choreography by Barata, Debra Brown, and Sylvia Getrudix Gonzales. Along the way there are crocodile heads, an iguana shawl, a cockroach, a grasshopper, an armadillo, a snake, several swordfish, some tuna heads, and two giant treadmills. They portray the performance's main themes of the monumental, speed, rain and surreal menagerie (including the spirit of the animal in the human from birth, or nagual). This production includes the best lighting and projection design ever offered by the company, as well as the finest clown, a consummate mime by the appropriate name of Eric Fool Koller from the Netherlands. It also presented a cast of international athletes that undoubtedly have never let their gym memberships expire.

It was a sublime visual experience with frequent reminders of what our southern neighbors have contributed to our culture over the ages, and continue to do despite the unfounded hysterical rants by our country's current politicians in power. It was a different kind of power on display, the sort that transcends bigotry and ignorance. Viva Mexico!
So go ahead. It's a sure bet; until August 10th, as the cast says online, “lose ya'self”.


Fathom Events' "Bandstand": Dancing Feat

The Cast of "Bandstand"
(photo: Jeremy Daniel)

Bandstand , the Broadway musical, was presented on June 25th by Fathom Events as the latest in an ongoing series of recorded-live performances of theatrical events. It was first seen on Broadway in 2017 (after a run at Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey in 2015), but lasted for only 24 previews and 166 performances. It nonetheless managed to score two Tony Award nominations, for orchestrations and choreography, winning the latter for Andy Blankenbuehler, who also directed (and had won the Tony for choreography just the season before for Hamilton). It should be noted that it was a comparatively competitive year, what with Dear Evan Hansen, Natasha Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, Come From Away and Groundhog Day all in contention. In almost any other year, there would surely have been more recognition for Bandstand, especially for its performances and dancing.

Corey Cott in "Bandstand"
(photo: Jeremy Daniel)

The story centers on Donny Novitski (Corey Cott, who appeared previously in Newsies and Gigi on Broadway), a hunky veteran returning from World War II with other vets suffering from what would today be recognized as PTSD, OCD and survivor's guilt. The settings are various venues around Cleveland and New York City, as Novitski forms a veterans' band to perform in a national radio contest. The score, with a healthy emphasis on swing and bebop with original songs by Rob Taylor (who also wrote the Book) and Richard Oberacker, is enjoyable, though the lyrics are often predictable, as is the Book. There are a couple of surprises, not to be revealed here, but the main interest remains the incredible dancing and movement (even in the roles of stagehands), and those performances, chiefly those of the charismatic Cott and his love interest, Julia Trojan, wonderfully played by Laura Osnes (a Broadway veteran herself, including such shows as Grease, South Pacific, Bonnie & Clyde, Anything Goes, and Cinderella). She had been previously nominated twice for a Tony Award, for Bonnie & Clyde and Cinderella. The rest of the cast was uniformly (no pun intended) terrific, with some of the best one-liners delivered by Beth Leavel as Julia's mother and Brandon J. Ellis as Davy Zlatic on bass. The rest of the on-stage band included James Nathan Hopkins (sax and clarinet), Alex Bender (trumpet), Geoff Packard (trombone) and Joe Carroll (drums).

Corey Cott, Laura Osnes & the Cast of "Bandstand"
(photo: Jeremy Daniel)

The versatile Scenic Design was by David Korins, with mostly apt Costume Design by Paloma Young, fluid Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter and Sound Design by Kevin Steinberg, all contributing to the look and sound of the play with a cast of twenty seven, in a production lasting just over two hours.

As fine as these creative elements were, the show's impact was really all about the dancing, with Blankenbuehler's outstanding contribution. The script may disappoint in several scenes, but no matter. It's worth the trip for that unforgettable dancing feat.

An encore HD Broadcast will be offered on Thursday June 28 at a theater near you.


Boston Pops: In the Room Where It Happened

Renee Elise Goldsberry of "Hamilton"
(photo: Boston Pops)

The focus of the Boston Pops schedule says it all: a season-long homage, 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 in Symphony Hall. As noted earlier this season, 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 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.

After a new Pops favorite, the selection To Lenny! To Lenny! by John Williams, and the Candide overture, the program segued to the more fully developed musical that was to be On the Town. With lyrics by Comden and Green (created by a trio who were all in their mid-twenties), the program included the stirring New York, New York and West Side Story, introduced by Conductor Keith Lockhart with his oft-told story about the latter work's creation. Arguably his most beloved work, West Side Story, it was correctly noted, 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 “Mambo”. 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. The first half of the program also included the “Simple Song” from Bernstein's Mass, which isn't heard as often as one might wish.

After intermission, Lockhart introduced (though, as they say, needing no introduction) Renee Elise Goldsberry, an accomplished Broadway luminary known best for her Tony-winning role as Angelica Schuyler in the smash hit Hamilton, an American Musical. Greeted with truly thunderous applause, she gave rousing performances of songs from On A Clear Day You Can See Forever (the title number), Carmen Jones (the translated Habanera), The Lion King (her Broadway debut), and Hamilton itself. Goldsberry then introduced her stage sister (as Eliza Hamilton from Hamilton), Phillipa Soo, also to a huge audience response, who sang numbers from Into the Woods (“Children Will Listen”) and more of Hamilton. The two singers joined together for yet more from Hamilton. Goldsberry ended the evening with a medley of songs from Rent (in which she played Mimi in its final run on Broadway) and a heartfelt rendition of “You'll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel. The audience truly loved them both.

Anyone hoping for another dose or three of Bernstein need not fear. The Pops schedule will complete its homage to “Lenny” with a concert version of his West Side Story at the end of this week, concluding its current season. But wait, there's more. The BSO calendar for Tanglewood will include a semi-staged production of his On the Town, his opera Trouble in Tahiti, his Chichester Psalms, the entire score to his West Side Story (accompanied by a showing of the film version), a Bernstein Songfest, his A Quiet Place (a sequel to his opera Trouble in Tahiti), and fully-staged presentations of his Fancy Free and Candide. To which one can only respond: Lenny! Lenny!


Boston Pops: Thoroughly Modern Foster

Sutton Foster at Boston Pops
(photo: Boston Pops)

A Broadway Celebration with Sutton Foster with the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall last night was proof that Foster has had a remarkable career over the past couple of decades or so. Here, in more or less chronological order, is an amazing list: Les Miserables, Grease, Annie, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Little Women, Drowsy Chaperone, Young Frankenstein, Shrek the Musical, Anything Goes and Violet. Along the way she has received countless nominations and awards including winning Tony Awards for Thoroughly Modern Millie (her “overnight” starring breakthrough role in 2002) as well as Anything Goes. She's also performed in concert versions of Chess and Funny Girl and is currently in the cast of television's hit show Younger, in which she plays a forty-year-old woman who passes as twenty-six to win a job. It could serve as a metaphor for Foster herself, in that she looks (and much more importantly, sings) younger than ever.

Her choices for songs to share with a very simpatico audience of fans fell into categories such as numbers she herself has made popular, others from lesser known composers whom she has championed, and even those that evoke memories of her own family. Beginning with a nod to Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific (“Cockeyed Optimist”) mixed with lesser known Sondheim in his famous flop Anyone Can Whistle (“Everybody Says Don't”), she went on to Cole Porter's somewhat obscure Paris (“Don't Look at Me That Way”) and his more familiar Can-Can (“C'est Magnifique”), to his even less known DuBarry Was a Lady (“Give Him the Ooh-la-la”). Then she alluded to a show her brother Hunter Foster had been in, the recent Bridges of Madison County (“It All Fades Away”) by composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown. Then it was back to Cole Porter territory with Anything Goes (the title song, in the show for which she earned one of her two Tony Awards), followed by a nod to her late mother and one of her favorites, John Denver's “Sunshine on My Shoulders”, a folk song that turned out to be her only regrettable choice, at least as over-orchestrated in this performance. After a second brief nod to “Cockeyed Optimist”, she segued to a really unknown (except to avid fans of Sondheim) “Take Me to the World” (from the televised Evening Primrose musical). She ended with the title song from the Maltby/Shire review, Starting Here, Starting Now, with an encore from her first big break, Thoroughly Modern Millie, “Gimme Gimme”.

And give she did. Interspersed with personal reflections (such as being a new mom and having a starring role in a television series in its fifth season), she demonstrated just how deeply she continues to invest herself in live performing. She acknowledged that Broadway is her first love, and went on to prove it. The Pops gave her great support in most of her chosen repertoire (a good deal of it from her brand new album, Take Me to the World). As always, they performed superbly under the baton of Conductor Keith Lockhart, with pianist Michael Rafter as Foster's accompanist.
An added bonus at this concert were the five winners of the 2018 Fidelity Young Artists Competition awards, starting with the amazingly controlled countertenor Sam Higgins, a fifteen-year-old freshman from Milton High School who sang Bereite dich, Zion from Bach's Christmas Oratorio. This was followed by Arlington High School's Giulia Haible on cello and Caroline Dressler on violin performing Cassel's The Glass Case of Emotion and Kohler's Hornpipe, in near perfect synch. Then soprano Sydney Penny from Needham High School delivered a smashing coloratura rendition of Dell'Acqua and van der Elst's Villanelle, truly reminiscent of the young Barbara Cook (making one wish to hear Penny deliver “Glitter and Be Gay” from Candide, especially in this year of Bernstein). The final performer in the group, Wellesley High School cellist Michael Arumainayagam, beautifully played Dvorak's finale from his Cello Concerto in B Minor, acknowledging his teacher Eugene Kim, Boston Pops cellist.

Much of this program continued the series of performances centering around Broadway hits, from the previous offerings this season of Disney's Broadway Hits and On the Town, with upcoming concerts by two stars of Broadway's hit musical Hamilton: An American Musical , Renee Elise Goldsberry (Angelica Schuyler) and Phillipa Soo (Eliza Hamilton) substituting for the originally programmed An Evening with Leslie Odom, Jr., due to a scheduling conflict for Odom), and the highly awaited concert version of West Side Story. It's a season of Broadway and Bernstein, and who could ask for anything more?

The program was given an encore performance at Symphony Hall on Thursday June 7th.


Greater Boston's "Calendar Girls": Cheeky Britcom

Karen MacDonald, Kerry A. Dowling, Sarah deLima, Bobbie Steinbach,
 Maureen Brennan & Mary Potts Dennis in "Calendar Girls"
(photo: Nile Scott Shots)

One might as well grin and bare it, theatergoers, that cheeky 2003 British film comedy, Calendar Girls, has had a change of life, now being presented as a live theatrical production by Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham. Adapted in 2009 by Juliette Towhidi and Tim Firth (who also co-wrote the screenplay), the play version, as was the film, is based on a true story about eleven members (six, in this version) of the British ladies' club, the Women's Institute, in their small and peaceful village of Knapeley in the Yorkshire Dales. After Annie (Maureen Brennan) loses her husband John (Sean McGuirk), a “sunflower” of a gent, to leukemia, the other members set out to raise money for the Leukemia Research Fund (to provide a replacement for a “man-eating” settee for a hospital waiting room) by selling calendars featuring the ladies themselves nude (“not naked”, as they twice point out).

The unanticipated celebrity that the success of their endeavors creates threatens to cause a cleavage between Annie and Chris (Karen MacDonald), Annie's best friend, who welcomes the notoriety. The other ladies with varying reactions include: Marie (Cheryl McMahon), for whom the Women's Institute is a trophy; Ruth (Sarah deLima) Marie's right hand person, emotionally abused by her husband; Celia (Mary Potts Dennis) a rebellious sort who decries materialism; Cora (Kerry A. Dowling), an inveterate joker; Jessie (Bobbie Steinbach), a mature teacher; and Lady Cravensire, (Kathy St. George), an imperious representative of the British upper classes. Two remaining female characters are St. George again, in a brief appearance at the start of the show as a guest lecturer, whose next lecture threatens to be “the history of the tea towel”, and make-up artist Elaine (Jade Guerra). There are also a couple more males in the cast besides the ailing John, namely Rod (Michael Kaye), Chris' husband, another jokester, formerly John's best mate, and Lawrence (Nael Nacer), a shy hospital orderly (or “porter”) who conveniently also happens to be an amateur photographer.

Some of the intended humor of the piece got lost in translation to the colonies (references to plum jam and such), and in the disturbing noise during the first quarter hour (yes, one clocked it) of noisy late arrivals who often drowned out the actors on stage. One can surely blame the management for the very misguided decision not to delay the “curtain” but to continue to allow late seating of what seemed like busloads of attendees. One can also place blame on already-seated theatergoers who must have thought they were watching a televised Britcom, giving a quite audible running narration. In decades of theatrical attendance, this had to have been the rudest audience ever. Those who had never seen the film must have been struggling to comprehend the dialog on stage, which of course was an unforgivable distraction for the actors themselves. One had looked forward to seeing this particular group all together on a stage in the all-together, but a weak script and interruptions fought against it.

The basically one-joke first act text is a very long lead-up to the visual punch line of the ladies more or less nude; the entire second act was anticlimactic and could easily have been radically trimmed to a short coda after the scene everyone was waiting for (which went off without a stitch, to quote a bank's ad in the program). It's a shame that this production's cast outclassed the material, as Directed by Nancy E. Carroll. The creative team included Scenic Design by Jenna McFarland Lord (an intentionally cluttered parish hall), authentically dowdy Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley and appropriate Original Music Composition and Sound Design by Dewey Dellay.

You may take time to enjoy the view until June 17th, as this cast is certainly not a bust.