ART's "We Live in Cairo": Hopeful Arab Springs Eternal

The Cast of "We Live in Cairo"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)
It was an unforgettable visual image on our television screens back in 2011 when Egyptian protesters took to the streets around Tahrir Square in Cairo in an attempt to overthrow the regime of President Hosni Mubarak. The current production at ART in Cambridge of the play We Live in Cairo seeks to convey what was happening and what it led to, as portrayed in the form of a musical with Book, Music and Lyrics by Lebanese-American brothers Daniel and Patrick Lazour. It is their sincere effort to convey the aftermath of that hope-filled Arab Spring that is at the heart of this production.

Jakeim Hart & Abubakr Ali in "We Live in Cairo"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

And heart, as well as hope, is what this work is all about. The winner of the 2016 prestigious Richard Rodgers Award for musical theater (previously bestowed on ART's Witness Uganda), it seeks to inform audiences that the ill-fated revolution of Cairenes against their repressive dictator “ended” with an eventual military coup and disastrous regime change. The play, billed as a musical but more correctly viewed as a piece of theater with music, wears its heart on its well-intentioned sleeve and its hope in defiance of the government that would emerge as more oppressive than the one it replaced and that the world regards as over, dead. It was a time that had its own beauty and creativity in the face of religious and militaristic powers; it was, at its fundamental existence, a celebration of “almost”, what they came close to achieving in their zeal and basic love of country.

Parisa Shahmir in "We Live in Cairo"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

This production mirrors that celebratory “almost”, at least in its present form. There are a few moments when one can revel in the pure theatricality of its technical prowess, notably the marvelous all-enveloping Projection and Video Design by David Bengali, the orchestrations by Daniel Lazour and Broadway veteran Michael Starobin (who also serves as Musical Supervisor), as well as the intricately coordinated Lighting Design by Bradley King and Sound Design by Kai Harada. Less inspired are the Scenic and Costume Design by Tilly Grimes, which appear to be authentically drab, and the almost manic choreography by Samar Haddad King, not to mention the unfocused Direction by Taibi Magor. The pluses certainly outnumber the minuses with respect to the creative team, however.

Jakeim Hart & Parisa Shahmir in "We Live in Cairo"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

But the problem with this intensely sincere work is that it fails to engage on several crucial elements, especially the declamatory dialog, simplistic lyrics and stereotypical characters about whom we learn little. There's a brief nod to romance between songwriter Hany (Abubakr Ali) and photographer Layla (Parisa Shahmir), and even more briefly between street artists Karim (Sharif Afifi) and Hassan (Gil Perez-Abraham). The other principal roles, fellow songwriter Amir (Jakeim Hart) and activist Fadwa (Dana Saleh Omar), as well as two actors who are identified as the “Ensemble” (Waseem Alzer and Layan Elwazani), are all obviously committed and talented, even though not given much to fill in about their parts. Unfortunately they aren't sufficiently differentiated from one another (which is also true of the unidentified musical numbers) to make one's involvement as complete as it should be.

The production, to be performed through June 23rd, gives still more evidence of ART's commitment to portrayals of victims of social injustice who merit our attention. With perhaps more concentration on character development and less attempt at presenting itself as a musical polemic, this work might be on a better path. At the moment, it's promising, hopeful and honest.


Lyric's "Pacific Overtures": The Shogun Must Go On

The Cast of "Pacific Overtures"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

They had us with the cherry blossoms. And the screens, so brilliantly lit. “They” would be the stars of the current Lyric Stage production of the musical Pacific Overtures, namely Scenic Designer Janie E. Howland and Lighting Designer Karen Perlow. This is not to say that they are the only outstanding contributors to this show, but they help to overcome some of the challenges this work presents, especially in this most intimate setting. Never has it been more accurate to state that less is more, more or less.

In 1976, Pacific Overtures, a new Sondheim musical bound for Broadway, received its world premiere in Boston. The unusual premise of the play was the Japanese viewpoint of the incursion of American warships under Commodore Perry in 1853 Japan, to initiate trade with a country that had been closed to foreigners for centuries. It offered Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a Book by John Weidman (a wise choice, given that he majored in Eastern Asian History at Harvard). The Broadway mounting lasted only six months, despite ten Tony Award nominations, and remains one of Sondheim's least performed works. Thus it was joyful news for lovers of the show to hear that Lyric would be producing it, Directed by Spiro Veloudos, the company's Producing Artistic Director. About as far from the stereotypical tired businessman's musical as one could get, it demands a great deal from its audiences as well.

Micheline Wu in "Pacific Overtures"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

In the preface to the published version of the play, its creators acknowledge their unusual use of Japanese kabuki theater's three conventions: all roles, male and female, played by male performers; the use of a Reciter who alternately comments on the action, joins it, or speaks in place of one of the other characters; and the presence of a hanamichi or runway, allowing performers to make entrances and exits through the house, as well as the changing of props and costumes onstage by a group of stagehands clad in black (the color of non-existence to the Japanese, literally invisible to them). They also wrote, in the spirit of Japanese haiku poetry, with its distinctive brevity, lack of explicitness, and strict form. While there are, strictly speaking, few pure examples in the text, the form is self-evident, avoiding what Sondheim notes in his monumental work, Finishing the Hat, the dual traps of banality and vagueness leading to “less is less”, keeping it simple (but dense) vs. simplistic, balancing that fine line "between economy of means and penury of ideas".

Carl Hsu & Sam Hamashima in "Pacific Overtures"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

The current Lyric presentation preserves much of this, while not limiting the performers to men (which the original did until its contemporary finale). In so doing, something is gained and something is lost. Sondheim's “less is more” is one of his three fundamental dicta (the other two being that content dictates form, as well as style, and that God is in the details). His lyrics are lean, making the most out of the least, which he describes as an unforgiving compact form. In that sense, losing the kabuki core element of an all-male principal cast loses significant impact as a deeply imbedded cultural norm. On the other hand, mixed gender casting allows for a broader version of how all people share in the success and failure of a historically crucial encounter. It does make it difficult to tell when actress Lisa Yuen, with no costume change, is speaking as Reciter or Shogun. Lyric's vision is also less physically overwhelming than past lavish productions, gaining intimacy and approachability where others were grander and more removed. The spare but lovely Scenic Design is an example of something gained while other things are lost (not unlike the folk song by Joni Michell, “Both Sides Now”, popularized by Judy Collins), in living everyday. As with much of Japanese culture, what is omitted is as important as what is left in.

Kai Chao in "Pacific Overtures"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

As it might be put in Japanese poetry, with its three lines with five, seven and five syllables each:

          In style of haiku
         This multi-gender casting
         Is kabuki light

This is obvious in Act I, which consists of unadorned basic vocabulary with an archaic feel, while Act II, beginning with “Please Hello” uses longer words with Latinate roots. The story is narrated by the Reciter, who is both teacher and guide, which begins with the reactions of two men and follows for fifteen years thereafter the relationship between them: Kayama (Carl Hsu), a minor samurai who is instructed to order the ships to leave, and Manjiro (Sam Hamashima), a fisherman recently returned from the U.S. Throughout the tale, there are many basic superstitions, requiring some ingenuity on the part of the Japanese (for example, they avoid having the foreigners touching the land, as they build platforms to prevent it). Much of the story is told in its music: in one comic scene, admirals from five countries pitch their goods via differing musical styles: the U.S. (using Sousa inspired march), England (Gilbert and Sullivan patter), the Netherlands (a clog dance), Russia (a dirge) and France (a can-can). At the heart of the meeting is the song “Someone in a Tree”, wherein an Old Man (Brandon Milardo) complains that when he was a Boy (Karina Wen), he could see everything but heard nothing, while a Warrior (Gary Thomas Ng) grouses that he heard all but saw nothing, setting the stage for a Rashomon allusion.

The Cast of "Pacific Overtures"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

As is typically the case in a Sondheim musical, most story lines occur in song. There is the ironic song “Bowler Hat”, the bittersweet evolution of Kayama's gradual Westernization, and the people's cry that they thought the arrival of the warships as “the end of the world”, and the Reciter's powerful answer: “And it was”. Then there is the long song “Chrysanthemum Tea” as the Empress poisons her son: “ships in bay...must be illusions”; there is the fatalistic notion that “the blossom falls on the mountain, the mountain falls on the blossom, all things fall.” The “tipping point” is the final number, “Next!”, with its apocalyptic imposition of Western culture over the haiku. Sondheim once joked that this was “historical narrative as written by a Japanese who's seen a lot of American musicals”.

This version, pared down though it is, is vocally sublime. The talented ensemble (there are eleven performers in fifty-three roles) was composed of Kai Chao, Alexander Holden, Elaine Hom, Brandon Milardo, Gary Thomas Ng, Jeff Song, Karina Wen, and Micheline Wu (who also provided the choreography). The Music Director was Jonathan Goldberg (who is rightly singled out in the program), along with Associate Music Director Matthew Stern (in his Lyric debut, but well known in several other regional companies), with Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley, Sound Design by Andrew Duncan Will, Mask Design by Brynna Bloomfield and “Violence Design” by Ted Hewlett. Still, some of the choices made remain inscrutable, losing that sense of the remote and exotic, the foreign and formalized, as when at the end of Act I, with no visible sense of its being a “lion dance” fizzled, through no fault of Kai Chao who, as Perry, performed it.

Audiences should in the end be thankful to encounter this rare work, through June 16th.


"See You Yesterday": Tomorrow Is Another Day

The Cast of "See You Yesterday"
(photo: Jacqueline Lessac)

See You Yesterday , the current production under the ArtsEmerson umbrella at the Paramount Theatre's Robert J. Orchard stage, is a fascinating phenomenon, part whimsy and part horror, as it recalls the Cambodian Genocide of 1975. And it works. Since 2012, Global Arts Corps has been in partnership with the Phare Performance Social Enterprise and the Phare Ponleu Selpak Association, with their stated purpose being “to bring together people from opposite sides of violent conflict”, and to “shatter the silence of history with each breath” as a “circus community creates a theater piece”. In the course of a mere sixty-five minutes, in its U.S. Premiere, nineteen Cambodian performers, second generation survivors of the four year Khmer Rouge reign, enthrall with fragmented narratives inherited from their parents and grandparents via their interviews (including one former Khmer Rouge child soldier). With their limber physical skills (from acrobatics to other circus arts), they travel back in time to destroy that legacy of silence.

Cast Members of "See You Yesterday"
(photo: Jacqueline Lessac)

In 1975, the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), otherwise known as the Khmer Rouge, won the Cambodian civil war, seized the capital and overthrew the government. From then until 1979 the people lived under the Dictator Pol Pot who envisioned a “master race”; in just four years, he managed to wiped out a fourth of the country's population, and rid the country of its currency and religions, even stooping to the use of child soldiers (like the one this troupe met in one interview). In all, some 1.7 to 3 million people were executed, in what would become infamous as the Cambodian Genocide. The artists here, ranging in age from eighteen to twenty-five, are obviously a tight-knit community, as they applaud even when one or two of them briefly drop the ball, or juggling pin, or a fellow gymnast. This production was Directed by Michael Lessac, Artistic Director of Global Arts Corps, with Associate Artists Arben Bajraktaraj, Robert Berky and Andrew Buckland; the Director of the Circus was Khuon Det, Artistic Director of Phare Ponleu Selpak. It was energetically Choreographed by Chumvah Sodhachivy, with authentic-sounding Original Score by Michael Jay, dramatic Production and Lighting Design by Dave Feldman, eerie Sound Design by Scott Lehrer and simple subdued Costume Design by Vong Vannack.

The Cast of "See You Yesterday"
(photo: Jacqueline Lessac)

This work was both visually stunning and emotionally cathartic. For most of the piece, time flew, and the acts spoke louder than words as they portrayed the circus of life, at times becoming part of the landscape as human bridges or flowing rivers, conveying everything from birth to deaths, from torture and separation to freedom and escapes, always aware of the danger facing them both in the past and in their physical recreations of danger. Near the end the entire company forms a human pyramid (of victims or of resisters), never failing to act as a family representing their country with pride. If ethnic exposure and a sense of history are your thing, you shouldn't miss this brief but pithy reminder of the consequences of war.

See it before tomorrow becomes yesterday, through May 19th only.


SpeakEasy's "SCHOOL GIRLS": Pales by Comparison?

Sabrina Victor, Crystin Gilmore, Shanelle Chloe Villegas, Geraldine Bogard & Tenneh Sillah in
(photo: Maggie Hall Photography)

SpeakEasy Stage's current production actually doesn't pale by comparison to other comedies; in fact, it's incomparable, given its unique perspective from the points of view of a half dozen teenagers in Ghana, with the somewhat cumbersome title of SCHOOL GIRLS: OR, THE AFRICAN MEAN GIRLS PLAY. And, though the actual term “colorism” (discrimination based on skin tone) is never explicitly named in the play, it's clearly the unspoken basis for how outer appearance dictates one's worth, and the subsequent hierarchy in the beehive which is female adolescence. This often hilarious eighty-minute play by Ghanaian-American author Jocelyn Bioh won the 2018 Lortel Award as Best Play off- Broadway (in a tie with Martyna Majok's Cost of Living), now in its New England premiere. Bioh's aim is to tell true stories about African and African-American characters that buck expectations and defy stereotypes, and her aim is on target, as she notes she's not reinventing the wheel, but “just adding new spokes”, portraying how vicious teenage girls can be when left to their own devices. So can teenage boys, it must be said, but they're not the object of this playwright's skewering here.

Ireon Roach, Crystin Gilmore & Victoria Byrd in
(photo: Maggie Hall Photography)

The story takes place in 1986 (reflecting the playwright's self-confessed obsession with the mores and manners of the eighties) in a Ghanaian boarding school cafeteria. Paulina Sarpong (Ireon Roach) is the currently reigning “queen bee” (thus someone we all went to high school with) of her entourage of sycophants; that is, she rules until the arrival of one Ericka Boafo (Victoria Byrd), the relatively pale-skinned daughter of a local cocoa tycoon, who transfers from Ohio back home to Ghana for her senior year. She's clearly the shiny new object of attention for Paulina's classmates, or underlings, including Gifty (Geraldine Bogard), Mercy (Tenneh Sillah), Ama (Sabrina Victor), and Nana (Shanelle Chloe Villegas).

Ireon Roach & Victoria Byrd in
(photo: Maggie Hall Photography)

Further complicating matters is the more subtle contrast and more universal contest between the traditional Headmistress Francis (Crystin Gilmore) and the more fashionable beauty pageant recruiter, and former Miss Ghana twenty years prior, Eloise Amponsah (Kris Sidberry). As the play progresses, it becomes apparent that there are more stingers present than at first glimpsed. This clever narrative deals with ambition and deceit when one's place in such a hierarchy is threatened, as well as the culture clash between political correctness and West African truth-telling, and the reality of being “othered”. They express such desires as to be popular rather than “fat”, for “once in my life, to finally be seen” on each girl's journey to owning her self.

Victoria Byrd & Ireon Roach in
(photo: Maggie Hall Photography)

These can be weighty subjects for a brief work such as this, but Bioh knows her territory well and is well-served by Director by Summer L. Williams, who has a knack for mixing the serious with the comic, as each member of the cast stands out as a distinct and memorable individual. One only has to hear the unenthusiastic first greeting of their communal listless “hi” to know that Bioh's writing is in good hands. From Roach's haughtiness to Bogard's movements to Villegas' shy reticence, to each actor's particular acting gifts, this is an ensemble to treasure. They're complimented by the spot-on Scenic Design by Baron E. Pugh, sly Costume Design by Miranda Kau Giurleo, and accomplished Lighting Design by Devorah Kengmana and Sound Design by Allyssa Jones.

Bioh herself has stated that “comedy is just a funny way of being serious”, and proves exactly that in this wise, witty and wicked trifecta: female author, director, cast (and most of the crew).
This comic tragedy of pageantry should win your heart and your funny bone, through May 25th.


BLO's "The Handmaid's Tale": I Tell, Therefore You Are

One Inspiration for "The Handmaid's Tale"
(photo: Boston Lyric Opera)

We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.” So begins the nightmarish tale that is the source for the opera The Handmaid's Tale, Boston Lyric Opera's current production being performed in Harvard's Lavietes Pavillion, a former basketball arena (historic Briggs Cage). Based on the phenomenally popular 1985 novel of the same name by Margaret Atwood, set in and around Cambridge (especially Harvard), it serves as a reaction to the ascent of the Christian right movement which inexorably led to a modern dystopia. With Music by Poul Ruders and Libretto by Paul Bentley, the opera had its world premiere in 2000 at the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen, followed by a production by the English National Opera in its English language premiere. Harold Pinter had adapted the novel for a film version and it was the basis for a 2013 story ballet by Lili York for the Royal Winnepeg Ballet, as well as a wildly popular television series. In this new operatic edition, commissioned by the BLO, in its Boston area premiere, the opera, sung in English with English surtitles, boasts thirty-eight scenes in a prologue and two acts, clocking in at just under three hours, utilizing an orchestra of sixty five and a chorus of thirty-four.

Jennifer Johnson Cano in "The Handmaid's Tale"
(photo: Liza Voll)

The setting for the story is Gilead, a theocratic republic in the near future, founded on seventeenth century Puritan principles. There are leading roles for twelve women and five men, attesting to the fact that even in a patriarchal society, women are primary villains, even though they are forbidden to read or write, hold jobs or own property. Not coincidentally, the plot echoes the very real Salem witch trials; Mary Webster of Hadley, said to be an ancestor of Atwood, was tried and (unsuccessfully) hanged. In this production, colored habits signify roles: upper class Wives in light blue (for purity), lower class Econowives in drab colors, authoritarian Aunts (basically chaperones) in khaki, and finally Handmaids or sexual surrogates in red with face-hiding bonnets (suggested by Atwood based on her childhood fear of the figure on Old Dutch Cleanser cans). Atwood's vision had the Secret Service based in what had been the Widener Library, which lends an eerie substrate to the current production. The opera adds the role of a double, Offred's younger self, in flashbacks, in what amounts to a story fairly faithful to the original. Chillingly, it begins with a prelude of anti-Beatitudes such as “Blessed are the silent”. The Handmaids' enforced silence causes them to “learn to whisper almost without a sound”.

Caroline Worra in "The Handmaid's Tale"
(photo: Liza Voll)

The narrator, Offred (mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano) is the surrogate sexual slave of the Commander Fred (baritone David Cushing), hence the diminutive name of “Of-Fred”. She is charged with successful reproduction or else being sent to the nuclear waste dumps. Her handmaid friends include Moira (soprano Chelsea Basler), Ofglen (soprano Michelle Trainor) and the unbalanced Janine who becomes Ofwarren (soprano Kathryn Skemp Moran). Their Aunt is Lydia (soprano Caroline Worra), the Scarpia-like threat. Serena Joy (mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak) is the legal wife of Fred. Also in the Commander's residence are the “Martha” (an all purpose maid and nanny with low status related to her infertility) Rita (alto Lynn Torgove) and the servant Nick (tenor Omar Najmi). Offred has a monthly check-up with a doctor (tenor Matthew DiBattista). She begins a relationship with Fred by, of all things, playing Scrabble with him, which of course is strictly forbidden. The second act features memories of the “time before”, and a visit to Jezebel's, a private club. The Handmaids also gather inside the wall of the Salvaging Center where they punish an accused man. Offred discovers a hidden inscription carved by her unknown predecessor on the wall of her room: nolite te bastardes carborandorum (“don't let the bastards wear you down”). Serena and Rita confront Offred and the Commander with their indiscretions as a police siren is heard. Nick bursts in and Offred is swiftly swept away, to an unknown fate, as in The Lady or the Tiger.

Chelsea Basler & Jennifer Johnson Cano in "The Handmaid's Tale"
(photo: Liza Voll)

The music is fascinating and intricate on first hearing and the libretto is taut and precise, with excellent performances from the entire cast, notably the two antagonists Cano and Worra. The Direction by Anne Bogart (a frequent presence in the theatrical history of Cambridge) employs the style of acting known as Viewpoints, a technique involving integrated movement, gestures and creative space, thus with significant dependence here on the fluid Movement Direction by Shura Baryshnikov. As Conducted by David Angus, the orchestra was in rare form, as were the creative elements, with Scenic and Costume Design by James Schuette, Lighting Design by Brian Scott (which succeeded even with afternoon light reaching the stage through the arena's glass ceiling), Sound Design by J. Jumbelic (superb considering the customary acoustics in an athletic venue), and Video Design by Adam J. Thompson. With such glorious singing from all the soloists and choruses, a score to thrill for, and acting to, well, die for, this is unquestionably the finest, most creative and unforgettable production in BLO's storied history. Full stop.

Jennifer Johnson Cano & David Cushing in "The Handmaid's Tale"
(photo: Liza Voll)

This “memory play”, as Bogart calls it, is summed up by repetitive words (“what I feel is emptiness”) and music (as in three drastically different versions of Amazing Grace). Offred expresses her sorrow that her story is so fragmented and painful. “I tell therefore you are” is Awood's clever upending of the Cartesian cogito ergo sum, where performer and audience need one another to exist as such. And the concept of “it can never happen here” reminds us what we must face when we leave the theater to revisit our own dystopian republic. There may be no balm in our Gilead.

Do keep resisting, but don't resist this wondrous milestone, here with us until May 12th.


Huntington's "Indecent": A Blink in Time

The Cast of "Indecent"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

As one enters the Huntington Theatre, one is confronted by an already-seated cast of ten on stage, still, mute and harshly lit, awaiting us and awaiting their fate which they are about to reveal to us in a play-within-a-play. Behind them is the first of many projections that will aid us in understanding their history:”Indecent, the true story of a little Jewish play”. Soon, very quietly, they take their positions, seven actors and three musicians, ready to share the real evolution of the 1907 play God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch in its trajectory from page to multiple world stages and the reception (and rejection) it received. Its notoriety was based on the fact that two of the actors portray lesbian lovers (one a brothel owner's daughter, the other a prostitute), as well as some less than savory Jewish characters. Asch was advised to burn it but refused, producing it across the world from St. Petersburg to Constantinople to New York, leading to a 1923 obscenity trial. Then, as now, the world was beset with fear, xenophobia, homophobia and anti-Semitism.

Adina Verson & Elizabeth A. Davis in "Indecent"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

This play (Indecent, that is), by local Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Paula Vogel, was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play, and its Broadway Director Rebecca Taichman, (repeating her work here) won the Tony for Direction of a Play in 2017, 94 years after God of Vengeance first saw the light of day. This current mounting is a co-production by Huntington Theatre Company and L.A.'s Center Theatre Group, in its Boston premiere. Some of the actors and musicians from the Broadway production (aired a few seasons back on PBS) echo their roles here. The result is a production in which performers truly inhabit their roles in such a compelling and natural manner that it's impossible not to be deeply moved by them. The concept of love, chronicled in the requited passion of the two lesbians, and extending to the basic love of performing, conquers everything and is all-pervasive.

Joby Earle & Adina Verson in "Indecent"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Little should be revealed concerning this relatively short (just under two hours) work; the less one knows, the more one will be justifiably captivated by the truth and its reenactment. In such a small, tightly knit ensemble, it's also crucially dependent on the entire cast (and that would include its “traveling” musicians) to share the ferocity of their love vs. the forces of hate. Each has an opportunity in multiple roles to memorialize this little-known piece of history, especially the Stage Manager Lemml (Richard Topol), the brothel owner's daughter Rifkele (Adina Verson), and the prostitute Manke (Elizabeth A. Davis); equally memorable were the roles performed by Joby Earle, Harry Groener, Mimi Lieber, and Steven Rattazzi, as well as the musicians Lisa Gutkin (also Music Supervisor and Co-Composer with Aaron Halva), Matt Darriau and Patrick Farrell. The other talent on view is the excellent Choreography by David Dorfman, the spare Scenic Design by Riccardo Hernandez, the fine Costume Design by Emily Rebholz, Sound Design by Matt Hubbs and Projection Design by Tal Yarden. Special mention should be made of the Tony-winning Lighting Design by Christopher Akerlind.

The Cast of "Indecent"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Huntington is renowned for its intelligent choices, and this ranks among their best, notably in the choosing of Vogel and Taichman to recreate the tale they have brought to life. Several of the projections used to clarify the progress of the story as well as to comment on the severity of their plight as opposed to the joyfulness of their love of theater, resonate. One repeated phrase is “a blink in time”, which the Stage Manager reiterates as he first blinks, then shuts his eyes long enough to exclaim “please don't let this be the ending!”. By the end of this play, we are all metaphorically (and for some, literally) washed clean.

Not to attend this play, here through May 25th, would be, well, downright indecent.

BSO Finale: Happy Aether

Baiba Skride, Andris Nelsons & the BSO
(photo: Robert Torres)

It was a fitting finale for the Boston Symphony Orchestra this weekend as they performed, once again under Conductor and Music Director Andris Nelsons, a triplet of works that show the broad spectrum of its musical accomplishments, from the familiar to the unknown. They included the well-known and beloved Till Eulenspeigel's Merry Pranks and the even more classic piece Petrushka as fitting bookends to the presentation of the world premiere of local composer Sebastian Currier's Aether.

The ultimate curtain raiser, Richard Strauss' Till Eulenspeigel, based on an actual living person who became a folk hero in medieval Germany, is portrayed in the music as a prankster, beginning with the famous (and famously difficult) part that has become a frequent warm-up exercise for horn players, here delivered exquisitely by Richard Sebring. When properly delivered, this is a true audience pleaser, officially identified as Till Eulenspeigel's Merry Pranks, After the Old Rogue's Tale, Set in Rondo Form for Large Orchestra, Opus 28. It's Strauss at his funniest and most lively, an entertaining ride that features the title character in arguments with the clergy and riding a horse through a crowded marketplace. His name alone should be a give-away, as it translates roughly as “owl in a mirror”, signifying his role as one who revenges himself opposite the haughty bourgeoisie and clergy of the time. He was originally consider by Strauss as the focus of an opera but ultimately described in this tone poem which he first presented on May 6, 1895, 124 years ago this week. It was wonderfully conducted and played, setting the stage for for the brand new concerto by Currier.

This concerto for violin and orchestra, with the intriguing title of Aether, is not the first work by this composer to be co-commissioned by the BSO (with the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig) but it's the first to be composed specifically for a particular violinist, Latvian Baiba Skride. Thus it was doubly compelling to hear it played by the violinist herself, to be replicated later this month in Leipzig, subsequently in its European premiere in Spain, then on to China and Japan. That mysterious title references the substance (invisible to the naked eye) that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was thought to be what pervaded all the universe between celestial bodies, as Currier notes in the program: this “still lingers on as a term referring to something remote, mysterious, invisible and out of reach”. The four movements of his concerto are said to be embedded in the orchestral “aether” music; it may be seen as two musical pieces, a complete concerto and a separate musical environment of ethereal music that envelops the concerto. It was well received on first hearing and may be expected to become part of the BSO's repertoire.

The final work in this ultimate program of the BSO's season was the familiar piece by Igor Stravinsky, known as “Petrushka”, Burlesque in Four Scenes. It was his second successful composition for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballet Russes (after his Firebird but before his Rite of Spring). Originally intended to be a sort of concerto for piano (which retains a large role in this 1947 revised form), it evolved into this witty treatment of the hysterically joyful celebrants of a Russian Shrovetide (an archaic designation for Mardi Gras at the beginning of Lent) as they react to the puppet Petrushka (similar to Punch in the Punch and Judy shows) brought to life by his creator, who finally kills him off by proving he was never truly alive in the first place. It was a lively way to consummate the BSO season.

The BSO's 2019-20 season, starting September 19th, is open for subscriptions (individual ticketing at 10am on August 5), and promises to be another comprehensive and fulfilling year.


Goodspeed's "Music Man": High Watt-age Harold Hill

The Cast of "The Music Man"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

You know you're in good hands when the first song in a musical is an a cappella number that introduces a notorious con man headed for River City, Iowa, as envisioned by the multitalented
Meredith Willson. A traveling trainful of salesmen eloquently mimic the sounds and jostling of a moving railroad car. It's the unforgettable beginning (“Rock Island”) of The Music Man, with Book, Lyrics and Music all by Willson, now being performed by Goodspeed Musicals. It was his first musical (to be followed by The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Here's Love, and 1491), and arguably his best as well as most popular. This production shows why; it now looks and sounds as terrific as the great American iconic work that it has become.

Ever hear of any salesman Hill (Edward Watts), a fake who doesn't know the territory?” That would be Harold Hill, and he's certainly interested in the local librarian, Marion Paroo (Ellie Fishman), whose mother, Mrs. Paroo (Amelia White), warns her she's becoming a spinster, and whose little brother Winthrop Paroo (Alexander O'Brien) suffers from a speech impediment with pronouncing his “s's”, as piano student Amaryllis (Katie Wylie) announces. There's another questionable character in town, Hill's old associate Marcellus Washburn (Juson Williams), and a few odd locals, including Mayor Shinn (D.C. Anderson), his wife Eulalie MacKecknie Shinn (Stephanie Pope) and their daughter Zaneeta Shinn (Shawn Alynda Fisher), who's fond of a boy from the other side of the tracks, Tommy Djilas (Raynor Rubel). There's also little Gracie Shinn (Maddiekay Harris) and a suddenly formed singing Quartet: Jeff Gurner, C. Mingo Long, Kent Overshown and Branch Woodman. Well, you no doubt know how everything turns out in this quintessentially small town tale. Along the way, Willson provides some true knee-slappers (and a few groaners) as well as an infectious score.

Ellie Fishman & Edward Watts in "The Music Man"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Willson, in his autobiography covering the creation and nurturing of The Music Man, his first musical, appropriately titled But He Doesn't Know the Territory, shares the somewhat torturous journey from page to stage as he resisted the idea proposed in 1951 with the typical Iowan “posture of irrefragability (sic) that is the normal Iowa response to any suggestion of any nature whatsoever.” Such an attitude found its way ultimately into the show in its second number, "Iowa Stubborn", not to mention the ladies' paean to small town gossip, “Pick-a-little, talk a little”. So many of the songs that found their way into the score display this first-hand and first-rate knowledge of this slice of Americana, which ended up taking its author/composer six years to finish. And that score is far more complex than one might catch on first hearing. Consider that the two songs sung by Hill (“Seventy-Six Trombones”) and Marion (“Goodnight, My Someone”) are in fact the same number, as illustrated by their use toward the end of the play when each character swaps melodies, proving beyond reasonable doubt that these two were meant for each other all along. Meredith surely knows the territory.

Alexander O'Brien & Ellie Fishman in "The Music Man"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

As do the cast and creative team of this version. In the title role, Watts is an inexhaustible dynamo, and Fishman is his perfect match (though we don't have the chance to appreciate her talent's full range until the second act, a fault one always feels with the libretto which doesn't feature this role early enough in the play). The rest of the cast consists of some familiar performers as well as some who will be new to Goodspeed audiences. Standouts include White who never permits her character to become a caricature, and O'Brien, who makes an endearing Winthrop. The dancers are wonderful, as are the rest of the entire cast uniformly  (though Mayor Shinn could show more bluster).

This production is energetically helmed by Goodspeed favorite Director Jenn Thompson (Oklahoma!, Bye Bye Birdie), with Choreography by Patricia Wilcox (Bye Bye Birdie), picture postcard perfect Scenic Design by Paul Tate dePOO III, witty Costume Design by David Toser, fine Lighting Design by Paul Miller, Sound Design by Jay Hilton and typically wonderful Musical Direction by Michael O'Flaherty (in his twenty-eighth season with the company).

The Cast of  "The Music Man"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

It's hilarious to see how Harold Hill's “think system” works in this show. At many points in this production (yet not overdone), members of the cast enter, exit and entertain from the audience aisles, drawing one into the action and involving all of us as River City folk. Is it ever corny? You bet. But it's the cream of the crop of American musicals.

The production has already been extended through June 20th. In order to nab a ticket, start using the think system.