Lyric's "Little Foxes": The Gripes of Wealth

The Cast of "The Little Foxes"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

When playwright Lillian Hellman wrote The Little Foxes back in 1939, audiences were already well aware of her social and political views, having seen them as integral bases for her plays such as The Children's Hour and Dead End. This time her target was the corrupt underbelly of the American dream, wherein she exposed the fundamental avarice so rampant in those (and these) times. In its current revival of her work, Lyric Stage Company doesn't shy away from the internecine struggle of a family whose values, such as they are, betray their warped priorities and insatiable hunger and greed. It takes place in 1900 in a small town in Alabama where the members of the family plot against one another to seize control of the family wealth. The plot served as a basis for a 1941 film version as well as the 1948 opera Regina by Marc Blitzstein, the same year Hellman wrote a prequel, Another Part of the Forest (set in 1880). But it'sThe Little Foxes that provides a villainess we love to hate, which is a major reason this play keeps getting revived so frequently.

Anne Gottlieb & Amelia Broome in "The Little Foxes"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

That villainess would be Regina Hubbard Giddens (Anne Gottlieb). In a day when paternal fortunes went only to sons as legal heirs, she is determined to outwit her two brothers, Benjamin (Remo Airaldi) and Oscar (Will McGarrahan) in their struggle to control the family's fortunes. She receives no support from her very cautious wheelchair-bound husband Horace (Craig Mathers) as her siblings aim to build a cotton mill, but need money from Regina and Horace to do so; meanwhile, they are exploiting the poor by gaining still more money for themselves. Not coincidentally, Oscar's wife Birdie (Amelia Broome), whom he married solely for her money, owns a cotton plantation. They all scheme to set up Regina and Horace's daughter Alexandra (Rosa Procaccino) and Oscar's son, bank teller Leo (Michael John Ciszewski), for a future dynasty, to no avail. Pressure is put on Leo to commit a crime to accomplish their aims . Meanwhile Horace tells Regina he's going to leave all his fortune to Alexandra, but doesn't get to alter his will. There follow some cataclysmic events (no spoilers here) involving such familial traits as theft, blackmail, virtual murder and extortion. Talk about family values.

Kinson Theodoris, Amelia Broome & Cheryl D. Singleton in "The Little Foxes"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

And what a fascinating family it is. Airaldi and McGarrahan, both actors well-known locally, are as sinister as they come, and Mathers creates a memorable spin as the vulnerable Horace. Procaccino and Ciszewski give well-rounded portrayals as the manipulated offspring. Also in the cast are Mr. Marshall (the sublimely oily Bill Mootos), who presents the family with the controversial business venture, their maid Addie (Cheryl D. Singleton), an actress who can speak volumes with her silence, and Cal (Kinson Theodoris), whom the family commandeers into helping them against Regina. It says something when even the smallest supporting roles are filled by such accomplished performers. But it's Broome and Gottlieb on whom this play's riches (in more ways that one) depend, and they don't disappoint. One can easily imagine what fun it might have been to alternate these two women in these roles, as was done in a recent revival in New York. This is literally a stellar production.
In these days of paltry ninety minute two-handers, it's refreshing to have three acts with two intermissions, count them, for a total of 150 minutes, and a production with really memorable sets and scenery. Dynamically Directed by Scott Edmiston, it boasts stunning Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland (with a suggestively grand staircase, and gaudy chandeliers), exquisite Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley (truly elegant including the impossible-to-miss fur stole for Regina), dramatic Lighting Design by Karen Perlow and engrossing Original Music and Sound Design by Dewey Dellay. It's unsettling to see how zealously the rich never cease seeking to become still richer. Interestingly, in the current film Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the master forger played by Melissa McCarthy is watching (and matching word-for-word) none other than the Bette Davis-led film version of The Little Foxes. What goes around, comes around.

The Cast of "The Little Foxes"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

There remain some issues with the play itself, which has been criticized in the past for its melodramatic moments and traditional playwrighting baggage (characters arriving on set just as others conveniently exit, Mr. Marshall's awkward reference to the family's living by the “teachings of Christ”, and the like). There is at several points significant lack of subtlety as well. But there is also clever attention to detail (a description of Horace's safe deposit box that includes a piece of a violin, hinting at how he and Birdie might have had a future together, for example, or the description of a dream about lengthening fingers that with little difficulty could apply to rapacious claws). Or Regina's comment on being reminded about their grandparents marrying as first cousins (“and look at us”).

The title comes from no less than the Old Testament, chapter 2 verse 15 of Song of Solomon: Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes”. It remains to be seen if Regina and her like enjoy the spoils of their destructive natures. In the end, Regina reaps what she has sown, as “one who eats the earth”, and is left with.....well, be careful what you wish for.


Boston Symphony Orchestra's "Suor Angelica": Bonjour Tristesse

Kristine Opolais as "Suor Angelica"
(photo: Winslow Townson)

Hello darkness, my old friend....

With apologies to Simon and Garfunkel, one was reminded of this lyric during the Boston Symphony's program last night (to be repeated tomorrow evening), as it consisted of a triplet of compositions: Lili Boulanger's D'un Soir triste, Claude Debussy's Nocturnes, and Giacomo Puccini's opera Suor Angelica, (usually performed as the middle third work in another triplet, along with Il Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi, beloved as Il Trittico). While it may strike some as an evening with too much sadness, the overall beauty of the three musical pieces more than compensated for their downbeat themes, not to mention that it was obvious that no one in the hall wanted the evening to end, instantly rising to a well-earned standing ovation. While on paper it portended sadness, in performance it rose to the sublime.

Boulanger's D'un Soir triste (“Of a Sad Evening”), is a twelve-minute work written at the same time as Puccini's opera (1918) and echoes its morose nature. It's essentially a mysterious mood piece that sets the tone for the evening. Claude Debussy's Nocturnes, entitled Nuages (“Clouds”), Fetes (“Festivals”) and Sirines (“Sirens”) were rewritten by the composer over the years, finally published posthumously in 1939, based in part on the paintings of James Whistler (especially his Arrangement in Black and Gray (popularly known as “Whistler's Mother”) and the poems of either Henri de Regnier (L'Homme et la sirene) or Swinburne (Nocturne) both dealing with mermaids and their influence on the love expressed by mortals. This last piece included a women's wordless chorus performed by the Lorelei Ensemble (Beth Willer, Artistic Director), who later provided exquisite depth in the opera.

After intermission, the orchestra was joined not only by soloists but also by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (James Burton, Conductor) and the BSO Children's Choir for the haunting tale of Suor Angelica. The story of the titular nun (soprano Kristine Opolais) living with the tragic secret of her child born out of wedlock is a brief but potent one, running just under an hour in this concert performance that demonstrated why it has become a perennial favorite. This production also featured mesmerizing mezzo-soprano Violeta Urmana (as the Princess, a character one loves to hate), soprano Fatma Said (as Sister Genovieffa), mezzo-soprano Dana Beth Miller (as The Abbess) mezzo-soprano MaryAnn McCormick (as the Monitress), as well as members of the Lorelei Ensemble including Emily Marvosh, Katherine Growdon, Sarah Brailey, Christina English, Sophie Michaux, Meg Dudley, Claire McNamara and Sonia Tengblad. Each was dressed in black and white, though more glamorous than what might be habitual, and they all provided proof that, while this opera deals with loss and shame, it finds redemption in the end.
Kristine Opolais as "Suor Angelica"
(photo: Winslow Townson)
Words fail. The performance soared to the heights with this opera's lovely (and, yes, sad) aria, “Senza mamma”, in which Sister Angelica prays for her son (“without your mother, o baby, you die”). Opolais sang and acted absolutely full-throttle, turning a night that was infused with melancholy into a magnificent triumph. Conductor Andris Nelsons and his orchestra, in all the pieces played, showed an appreciation for nuance the likes of which one rarely hears. The Puccini work has been criticized in the past for being overly sentimental, but no such view was tenable given the simultaneous beauty and ferocity provided by Opolais. It was undeniably the finest BSO performance in eons, indeed a night to treasure.

This week also brought the long-awaited announcement of the Boston Pops' Spring schedule at Symphony Hall. As was the case with last year's programming, there will be some standout guest artists joining the anticipated roster, leading off with Bernadette Peters as the season opener, followed by Leslie Odom Jr. of Hamilton fame (who had to cancel his appearance last year due to a scheduling conflict), Jane Lynch (from Glee), Arlo Guthrie and television travel host Rick Steves. Stay tuned for more specifics on the Pops' 2019 Spring season.


Odyssey Opera's "Paride ed Elena": The Farce That Lunched a Thousand Chips?

The Cast of "Paride ed Elena"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

Paride ed Elena, Odyssey Opera's production of the 1770 opera by Christoph Willibald Gluck, with libretto by Ranieri de' Calzabigi, was performed over this past weekend, in its Boston premiere. The third of his “reform” operas, after Alceste and Orfeo ed Euridice, rarely performed (in part due to the requirement of a trio of superb sopranos), is the composer's attempt to replace the overly complex music and abstruse plots of opera seria with what was referred to as “noble simplicity” in both drama and music. Once again, this adventurous company presented an overlooked work by an acknowledged master composer. In the case of such operas, one should bear in mind the possible reasons for their relative obscurity.

Meghan Lindsay as Paris in "Paride ed Elena"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

This is a relatively short opera with a familiar backstory, as Christopher Marlowe described Helen as the “face that launched a thousand ships”. It's an easy work to detail in a synopsis, because very little actually happens. The opera takes us from the first meeting of the two titular lovers, to their eventual flight, five acts later, taking place on an ancient Spartan shore. The other venues are the palace of Elena (Mireille Asselin), an arena, her bedroom, and the shore once again. The Scenic Design by Lindsay Fuori was (one should excuse the expression) appropriately Spartan, as were the Costume Design by Brooke Stanton, Lighting Design by Russell Champa and Direction by Crystal Manich,

Mireille Asselin as Helen in "Paride ed Elena"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

We first learn that the heroic Paride (Meghan Lindsay) has chosen Aphrodite over Hera and Athena and, with encouragement from Erasto (Erica Schuller), seeks the love of the famous Helen of Troy. Paris and Helen meet at her royal palace and instantly are taken with one another's beauty. She asks him to be the judge of an athletic contest, where, when asked to sing, he does so about her beauty, admitting that the reason he has come is to win her love. She first dismisses him, but as he persists in despair she begins to give in to his entreaties. Eventually, through the intervention of Erasto (who admits he is really Cupid or Amore), they are on the same wave length, though Pallas Athene (Dana Lynne Varga) warns them of sorrow to come. In the final scene, the lovers prepare for their journey to Troy.

Erica Schuller as Amore, Meghan Lindsay as Paris
 & Mireille Asselin as Helen in "Paride ed Elena"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

The opera was a mixed bag. It soared where it mattered, namely in the exquisite vocal contributions of Lindsay, Asselin and Schuller, as well as a brief appearance by Varga. Fortunately, each was in fine voice, especially in the very demanding role of Paris which Lindsay tossed off seemingly effortlessly. It was such a lovely score that it seemed a shame to burden it with the all too frequent (and all too lengthy) dance sections that were intrusive, repetitive and endless. Would that this had been a concert rather than fully staged, with the more significant arias, recitatives and choruses (the last under the direction of Mariah Wilson) intact. The extremely stylized Choreography by Melinda Sullivan may have been historically accurate (and very well rehearsed), but this sort of thing went out with the tongue-in-cheek depictions in such treatments as that found in the musical The Music Man (think “one Grecian urn, two Grecian urns...”), providing farcical elements more suited to later opera comique. At intermission, audience members appeared divided between those in favor of this staged version and those who pined for it in concert form. One wag even complained there had been ample time to finish an entire jumbo bag of potato chips during the first three acts (out of five).

As always, the production was Conducted by Gil Rose, with his usual effectiveness, if a bit lugubrious at times, finally ending on an upbeat note (despite Athene's dire prophecy). It was an afternoon for true lovers of early music, especially the works of Gluck (too long interred) to treasure.


"Spamilton": In the Room Where It Harpoons

The Company of "Spamilton"
(photo: Roger Mastroianni)

One went last night to “Spamilton”
a parody of “Hamilton”
an eighty minute laugh-a-minute
bunch of jokes, a lot of fun!

Created written and directed
by Gerard Alessandrini
native Needham wunderkind
(Forbidden Broadway's gentle meanie)

Its satire skewers Broadway
just as Ahab did to Moby Dick
the hippest-hoppist live stage show
(Lin-Manuel first did the trick)

Chuckie Benson, Ani Djirdjirian & Datus Puryear in "Spamilton"
(photo: Roger Mastroianni)

It's multi-racial through and through
With no regard for blacks or whites
And multi-role'd, not one or two,
But that's just how Miranda Writes

Chuckie Benson is Ben Franklin
As well as several others,
Ani Djirdjirian's all the ladies
(And some of them are muthas!)

Brandon Kinley's George the Third, a hoot
Adrian Lopez, Lin-Manu-el,
Daveed Diggs by Dominic Pecikonis,
And Datus Puryear's Burr- all swell 

Dominic Pecikonis in "Spamilton"
(photo: Roger Mastroianni)

Gerry McIntyre's Choreography's
The current best in Boston Beanery,
As is Dustin Cross' Costuming
And Morgan Large's red brick Scenery

Michael Gilliam's Lights illuminate
Fred Barton music-supervised
Curtis Reynolds directed music
All creative choices very wise

Rest assured you needn't see it
In the form of Broadway's “Hamilton”
To appreciate the references
As presented now by Huntington
The Company of "Spamilton"
(photo: Roger Mastroianni)
For the targets of this parody
Include more shows as parity
Though some references are hidden
There is much here re-Forbidden

Get thee quick by April 7th,
While the Calderwood's still hot
Where the cast is still revolting
So you won't throw away...

...your shot.


Bedlam's "Pygmalion": Silent Music Starts to Play

Vaishnavi Sharma, Eric Tucker, James Patrick Nelson, Grace Bernardo
 & Edmund Lewis in Bedlam's "Pygmalion"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

Ever since George Bernard Shaw's 1913 comedy Pygmalion (now being performed at Cambridge's Central Square Theater by the New York company known as Bedlam, presented by Underground Railway Theater) was transformed by the team of Lerner and Loewe into their 1956 musical megahit My Fair Lady (successfully transformed yet again in the 1964 film version), it has become challenging to attend any staged performance of Shaw's original work without “hearing” a cue for a song. The story and the musical score are forever bound up in our collective memory, as is the romanticized happy ending (at least for the male lead) that was the musical's most significant alteration from Shaw. In this riotous production from Bedlam (who graced the local stage scene in recent seasons with their presentations of Saint Joan and Sense and Sensibility), all of the Shavian wit and wisdom remain intact.

Vaishnavi Sharma & Eric Tucker in Bedlam's "Pygmalion"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

Yet with a few changes, and the choice to cast the role of Eliza Doolittle as a young woman from Delhi (Vaishnavi Sharma), Bedlam has introduced new levels of conflict and interest. There remains the issue of the bullying and misogynistic condescension and petulance of phoneticist Henry Higgins (Eric Tucker, also the wondrous and versatile Director and Sound Designer of this production), but Higgins is what he is, a snob unwilling to admit his affection for his “creation”. Shaw's play is indebted to the Cinderella fable on the one hand, and the realism of Ibsen's treatments of middle-class life on the other. As Eliza, Sharma is a comic gem, and the perfectly pompous Tucker is her perfectly imperfect foil, whereas Colonel Pickering (James Patrick Nelson, also playing Mrs. Eynsford-Hill) conveys his avuncular championship of Eliza, and her father Alfred P. Dolittle (Michael Dwan Singh) bemoans middle class morality. Also in the cast, in multiple roles, are housekeeper Mrs. Pearce (Grace Bernardo, who also plays Clara Eynsford-Hill, and a parlor maid), and Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Edmund Lewis, also hysterically portraying Mrs. Higgins). They are all at their funniest when rapidly switching roles and hats. The creative contributions include Costumes by Charlotte Palmer-Lane, Lighting by Les Dickert, and Scenic Design by Joseph Stallone and Elizabeth Rocha.

Whereas the film version of the musical portrayed Eliza's roots as being exposed in the Ascot scene (“Come on Dover, move yer bloomin' arse!”), Pygmalion does so at a garden party where, when asked if she's going to walk, she declaims, in pluperfectly elegant diction: “Not bloody likely! I am going in a taxi!”. If Shaw were to attend the current Broadway production of the musical version (at Lincoln Center), he would doubtless be pleased to hear how his female lead has regained the upper hand as, rather than fetch his slippers, she throws them at him and storms triumphantly out of the theater, faithful to Shaw's original intent. In the final scene of the 1956 staged My Fair Lady, Higgins bellows “Eliza? Where the devil are my slippers!”, after which she is described in the script: “with tears in her eyes, she understands”. In Pygmalion, on the other hand, rather than restoring her role as slipper-fetcher, she is the one to bellow “what you are to do without me I cannot imagine” and then “she sweeps out”. In microcosm, Shaw here demonstrates whose story this is, who has become confident, determined and independent. It is Eliza who understands that it is Pickering who proves to be the true gentleman of class, having treated her as a lady long before she became one. As Shaw once wrote, art can never be anything but didactic; this play is more about class distinctions than speech. Bravo, Bedlam, you've done it yet again.

And would Shaw take umbrage with the minor little changes to the script, given our modern day issues of immigration and wall-obsessed hysteria? 
Not bloody likely.


Symphonic Superbowl: Haydn, Mendelssohn & Janacek

Juanjo Mena conducts Julian Rachlin & the BSO
(photo: Hilary Scott)

Attending a performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in midwinter is often a truly welcome antidote to the external elements assaulting one outside Symphony Hall. This was never truer than the orchestra's most recent, memorably balanced program, with selections spanning three centuries and several mood swings. The program got off to a self-reflective start with Haydn's Symphony No. 44 in E minor (“Trauersinfone” or “Mourning Symphony”) but lightened with Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor Opus 64 especially towards its more spirited end. After the intermission, the program turned the other Czech, as it were, with two pieces composed by Leos Janacek, his operatic suite from Cunning Little Vixen and his Sinfonietta. It was a full buffet under the direction of Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena, with Lithuanian violin soloist Julian Rachlin impressively delivering the Mendelssohn, and the orchestra itself increasing in size with each piece as the afternoon program built to an extraordinary climax in the final piece by Janacek, with something for everyone.

The Haydn symphony betrayed its Sturm und Drang contemporary influences (first heard around 1771) offsetting the era's somewhat cool rationality with more expressively subjective contrasting elements, usually, as in this case, in minor key. Its contrapuntal orchestration calls for a classical treatment with its relatively modest-sized assembly of strings, two oboes, two horns and a bassoon, with a lovely solo by the principal oboist. Haydn is said to have wanted the penultimate Adagio movement to be played at his own funeral, which led to its commonly known unofficial title as his “Mourning Symphony”, though, as the program notes put it, it was really more wistful than mournful. However one sees it, its themes are fundamentally natural with considerable wit and charm, as evidenced in the contributions of both conductor and orchestra throughout this first piece of the afternoon.

Juanjo Mena conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra
(photo: Hilary Scott)

The Mendelssohn concerto for violin (first heard in 1845) demands an enhanced orchestral presence, with two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets and timpani and strings. It's generally considered one of the finest, as well as most original and pleasing concertos ever written. The composer solved some of the problems inherent in the form by first intertwining in the opening movement both orchestra and soloist, employing the composer's own cadenza, and allowing for virtually no pause for applause between movements. Rachlin was in superb form, intensely moving without the excessive gestures some violin soloists often employ; he confidently confirmed in performance the astonishing promise of his biography.

But it was in the Janacek pieces that the program delivered the goods. After the brief but pleasant suite based on his Cunning Little Vixen opera, an enjoyable if slightly bizarre hint of things to come, conductor and orchestra really came into their own with the composer's 1924 Sinfonietta. It was bombast at its most overwhelming and challenging to execute especially for the four trombones, joined by no fewer than four flutes and piccolos, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, E-flat and bass clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, fourteen trumpets, three tubas, timpani, bells, cymbals, harp and strings (and, not to worry, there won't be a quiz). The piece has roots in folk and dance music, but the size and scope of its orchestration is undeniably stirring and unforgettably moving.

There was ample impetus for a well-deserved standing ovation (too common and often undeserved these days) that continued longer than is typical, as the enraptured audience confirmed that this concert qualified as the Superbowl of the present symphonic season.