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.