"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.