BLO's "Pagliacci": Well-Cured Ham, Hold the Eggs

Michael Mays in "Pagliacci"
(photo: BLO)

Opera lovers (and we are legion) typically attend a duo program of Leoncavallo's Pagliacci and Mascagni's Cavelleria Rusticana, with such frequency that they are fondly referred to as Cav and Pag, or more humorously as Ham and Eggs. For its initial production of the season, however, Boston Lyric Opera has chosen to present just Leoncavallo's 1892 work, while creating a thoroughly immersive carnival atmosphere that beckons the audience to a more active role, with unexpectedly enjoyable results, and some well-cured ham. That would be the foreplay performed by circus folks, with decidedly comedia del arte touches, outside the operatic stage, with sideshow tents, jugglers, food trucks and the like.

Lauren Michelle, Michael Mayes & Rafael Rojas in "Pagliacci"
(photo: BLO)

This may seem like an oxymoronic approach to introduce what will become a very tragic night, but one must remember that the story it tells, despite the famed aria about a laughing clown, (Vesti la giubbe), is literally deadly serious, not to mention that the opera's title translates as Clowns. At its heart it is a relatively simple fable of love, jealousy and murder (all the things operagoers love) with a bit of purposeful upstaging in the extreme. It's oddly sung in English and Italian, (mostly the former) with sometimes silly English translation by Bill Bankes-Jones. (Leoncavallo must be rolling in his grave over such lines as “where's the frickin' chicken?”). This production is performed in about ninety intermissionless minutes (originally divided up into a prologue and two acts), and, because of the novel way it is being presented, it becomes a play within a play within a play.

Tobias Greenhalgh & Lauren Michelle in "Pagliacci"
(photo: BLO)

As is often the case, BLO takes on operatic challenges (even when presenting war horses) and succeeds in revitalizing them, with respect not only to form but also to venue (in this case, a revisit to the Steriti ice skating rink in the North End). The cast, as is typical for BLO, was outstanding, consisting of only five soloists (but a crackerjack chorus of some thirty-two, under Chorus Master Brett Hodgdon). They include Canio (Rafael Rojas), Nedda (Lauren Michelle), Tonio (Michael Mayes), Silvio (Tobias Greenhalgh) and Beppe (Omar Najmi). Michelle was outstanding, matched by both Greenhalgh and Rojas (who, it was announced, was indisposed, though his performance never seemed less than memorable). Once again, Conductor David Angus led the BLO Orchestra, with Stage Direction by David Lefkowich (too often showing undisciplined crowd movement that detracted from sight lines and distracting call/responses), minimalist Set Design by Julia Noulin-Merat, witty Costume Design by Charles Neumann, and Lighting Design by Pablo Santiago. On virtually every level this was a crowd-pleaser, even with its topsy-turvy tragicomical story.

Rafael Rojas in "Pagliacci"
(photo: BLO)

So, laugh and cry, fellow clowns, until October 4th (the October 6th matinee is sold out already) at the North End skating rink, a perfect choice of venue given the opera's Italian sources and sauces.

BSO's "Beethovan/Strauss": All in the Family

Andris Nelsons & the Boston Symphony Orchestra
(photo: Boston Symphony Orchestra)

The second program of the current season of the Boston Symphony Orchestra was a mixed bag, offering concrete evidence of why some musical compositions attain the status of “war horses”, beloved by concertgoers and thus frequently a part of an orchestra's offerings, while some sink into relative obscurity. To the former category of works one would by all means include Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D, Opus 61, which has been performed in about seventy-five BSO concerts over the years, and featured such soloists as Heifetz, Menuhin, Perlman, Mutter, Midori, Zukerman and Bell.

The violinist for the present program was renowned instrumentalist Augustin Hadelich, born in Italy of German parents, now an American citizen, who has justly been universally acclaimed for his performances of this piece, and proved to the BSO audience that this reception was well earned. Conductor Andris Nelsons led the company in a beautifully nuanced rendition that respected both the soloist's sensitivity and the orchestra's professionalism. Broadly lyrical as the work is, it displays the composer's relaxed expression in contrast to his prior work on the Eroica, but still conveying the heroic elements of his music. First written for, and performed by, the famed prodigy Franz Clement (at one time the conductor of Vienna's Theater an der Wien) in 1806, the concerto was first heard in America at the Philharmonic Society at the Academy of Music in New York in 1861, though its first movement was presented eight years earlier by the Mendelssohn Quintette Club in Boston. It would not be heard in Symphony Hall until 1884, but swiftly became a solid staple of the orchestra over the years. In this production, Hadelich showed why it has also become a personal staple, with the added flourish of the well-regarded cadenza created by Fritz Kreisler. He surely earned the several standing ovations he received, and rewarded the response with an encore, definitive proof of familiarity not breeding contempt.

Violinist Augustin Hadelich
(photo: Boston Symphony Orchestra)

The second work performed was a decidedly less familiar one, namely the "Symphonia Domestica”, Opus 53, by Richard Strauss. While it has been described as a showpiece for an orchestra, it hasn't achieved popularity or even familiarity among concert audiences, perhaps because of its being more of a tone poem, written in 1903 after another of his tone poems, A Hero's Life, about himself, no less. This domestic symphony, about forty-five minutes in length, is explicitly about a day in the life of his family, with themes centering around his wife, their infant son Franz, and, again, himself. The composer spelled out the various themes (basically a cradle song, an extended love scene and a morning after breakfast dispute, which he introduced at Carnegie Hall, to little acclaim. It struck audiences then (and now) as unfocused and disjointed. While it has some moments of interest that show the promise of works that would follow (operas of course, such as Der Rosenkavalier), it remains more of a curiosity than a piece of memorable composition. The Boston Symphony Orchestra gave it its due with a rousing performance of the work when indicated, but did little to enhance the reputation of the music, given its specific concentration on the composer's family and a rather prosaic day in their lives.

Strauss' disdain for critics of the work was expressed after its premiere in New York in 1861, in correspondence to his parents, with the description of the critics having “swung into line and shut their collective trap”. And so shall we.


New Rep's "Nixon's Nixon": "I Am Not a....."

Jeremiah Kissel in "Nixon's Nixon"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

New Rep's new Artistic Director Michael Bobbitt kicked off the company's thirty-fifth season with an enthusiastic welcome to its first production, the satirical political play Nixon's Nixon by Russell Lees. The work, which holds the distinction of having had two Off-Broadway runs, first in 1996 and a revival in 2006, imagines the extended conversation that took place between Richard Nixon (Jeremiah Kissel) and Henry Kissinger (Joel Colodner) in the White House (with no one else present) on the night before Nixon announced his resignation. One needn't be a nuclear physicist to grasp how timely the subject matter is; the only question might be whether it is still comedic rather than tragic in our age of political strife. Director Elaine Vaan Hogue, whose previous work with New Rep includes Straight White Men, Oleanna, Imagining Madoff and Kite Runner, assumes the task of conveying the mindset of the then occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as he wrestled with his impending decision. Given the constraints and limitations of a typical two-hander, she succeeds in keeping the play from being too static or preachy, necessitating that these two consummate professional actors present credible portrayals of all-too-familiar larger-than-life historical figures.

It's a credit to Kissel and Colodner that they manage to present believable characters without resorting to caricatures, given how easy it would be to coast on familiar turf. Though they do occasionally give into the unavoidable temptation to stoop to cliched images (such as Nixon's V-for-Victory stance), they manage to pull off some humorous depictions of personages like Brezhnev, JFK, Mao, Golda Meir and Julie Nixon. They're supported by a creative team that provides much detail, from the Scenic Design by Afsoon Pajoufar to the Costume Design by Zoe Sundra to the Lighting Design by Aja Jackson and Sound Design by Elizabeth Cahill.

Jeremiah Kissel and Joel Colodner in "Nixon's Nixon"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

As Vaan Hogue puts it in the program notes, the use of power to attain personal gain can be seen to be inevitable, at least in the wrong hands. The playwright has stated that his work is "not so much about historical personages and their character traits as it is about the very human and personal struggles in retaining or relinquishing great power and coming to terms with one's legacy". As the President says in the play, "they gave me so much power, why are they surprised I used it?", and is asked by Kissinger whether he contemplates "what the history books will make of you" and whether he wonders about his ultimate place in history.

Very telling for our current time, Vaan Hogue quotes two additional larger-than-life figures, Karl Marx ("history repeats itself- first as tragedy, second as farce") and Abe Lincoln ("the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people"). The parallels are obvious, as the playwright rightly insists that he doesn't seek to reflect historical accuracy, but "the fear and failings that so often turn politics into drama". This play resonates in just ninety intermissionless minutes as a fantasia of sorts.

One may relive that era (and acknowledge our own) at New Rep until October 6th.


Odyssey Opera's "Henry VIII": And Then There Were None

The Cast of "Henry VIII"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

The opera Henry VIII by Camille Saint-Saens, lesser known and less often performed than his 1877 Samson et Dalila (but more than his remaining eight other operas), with Libretto by Leonce Detroyat and Armand Silvestre, was presented, for one performance only, at Jordan Hall by Odyssey Opera. As it restored almost an hour of traditional cuts, this may be considered its world premiere, given in four acts (with two intermissions) for a total length of four and a half hours, in French with English surtitles (which took a while to function). Conducted by Odyssey Opera's Artistic Director Gil Rose, leading the Odyssey Opera Chorus and Orchestra, it was one for the history books.

Michael Chioldi as "Henry VIII"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

True to those history books, the opera takes place in London from 1521-1536, during the reign of Henry VIII (Michael Chioldi) while he is married to the Queen, Catherine of Aragon (Ellie Dehn), as he eyes the ambitious young lady-in-waiting Anne Boleyn (Hilary Ginther). The Spanish Ambassador, Don Gomez (Yeghishe Manucharyan), confesses to Le duc de Norfolk (David Kravitz, a last minute replacement) that he is in love with Anne, and entrusts her love letter she sent him, to his confidante the Queen. The Queen's moral right and Anne's unconcealed motives are explored, followed by a ballet. Seven short scenes concern Henry and the Papal Legate Cardinal Campeggio (Kevin Deas) as well as Cranmore, Archbishop of Canterbury (David Cushing), Le comte de Surrey (Matthew DiBattista), Lady Clarence (Erin Merceruio Nelson) and the Garter of Arms (Jeremy Ayers Fisher). The judges declare Henry and Catherine's marriage to be null and illegitimate, clearing the path for Henry to pursue Anne. And there is that letter. As she lays dying, Catherine throws it into the fireplace.

Ellie Dehn in "Henry VIII"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

True to those history books, the opera takes place in London from 1521-1536, during the reign of Henry VIII (Michael Chioldi) while he is married to the Queen, Catherine of Aragon (Ellie Dehn), as he eyes the ambitious young lady-in-waiting Anne Boleyn (Hilary Ginther). The Spanish Ambassador, Don Gomez (Yeghishe Manucharyan), confesses to Le duc de Norfolk (David Kravitz, a last minute replacement) that he is in love with Anne, and entrusts her love letter she sent him, to his confidante the Queen. The Queen's moral right and Anne's unconcealed motives are explored, followed by a ballet. Seven short scenes concern Henry and the Papal Legate Cardinal Campeggio (Kevin Deas) as well as Cranmore, Archbishop of Canterbury (David Cushing), Le comte de Surrey (Matthew DiBattista), Lady Clarence (Erin Merceruio Nelson) and the Garter of Arms (Jeremy Ayers Fisher). The judges declare Henry and Catherine's marriage to be null and illegitimate, clearing the path for Henry to pursue Anne. And there is that letter. As she lays dying, Catherine throws it into the fireplace.

Hilary Ginther in "Henry VIII"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

For the most part the libretto follows familiar history (there was no actual confrontation between Catherine and Anne, for example) so it made it possible to focus on the lovely score and the lively singing. Chioldi was especially impressive in the title role, matched by his first queen in the person of the exquisitely-voiced Dehn and the intensity of his second queen, Ginther. Also making a solid impression was Deas in a relatively small role, and Manucharyan in a larger one. The Odyssey Opera Orchestra (especially in the ballet scene) and Chorus were, as always, outstanding. The ballet music was anticlimactic dramatically speaking, and might have been more suitable as a curtain-raiser, allowing the second of four acts to end with its magnificent septet.
It was a thrilling (if buttocks-challenging) opportunity to experience this work in its entirety, for the first time ever, and yet another proof (as though one needed one) of the vital presence of Odyssey Opera in our musical community.


BSO: Poulenc et al

The Jussen Brothers, Nicole Cabell, Andris Nelsons & Eric Nathan

The opening concert of the Boston Symphony Orchestra was by and large a crowd-pleasing success. Music Director Andris Nelsons chose to feature two pieces by Poulenc, one by Beethoven and a fourth by a local composer which was also a world premiere. The last received a decidedly mixed reception from the audience which reflected its somewhat eclectic nature.

The first piece was Poulenc's Concerto in D Minor for Two Pianos featuring guest soloists Lucas and Arthur Jussen, the duo of pianists, who are brothers from the Netherlands. They have established quite a reputation throughout the music world with their interpretations of this composer's work. Immaculately attired in identical military style dress, the twosome demonstrated with their enthusiastic and detailed precision why they are so well regarded. It was an engrossing demonstration of the critical importance of intense rehearsals that conveyed a true command of the material as well as comfort with it. Poulenc intended the piece to convey cheerfulness with its primary goal of entertaining, which is exactly what familiarity with the music, and with one another, produced.

The second piece on the program was a bit of a curiosity, given that its composer was Beethoven. He wrote the work, Fantasia in C Minor for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra, Opus 80, in some haste to be performed himself in 1808 at the Theater an der Wien (a popular venue for operettas) in Vienna. By all accounts, it was a rather disastrous event after which the composer never again played the piano in public. This Choral Fantasy was not to be performed by the BSO until a century and a half later, perhaps because of the success of the Ninth Symphony that stylistically features music that both pieces share. Nelsons and his orchestra nonetheless provided insight into what would later be developed into the more familiar themes of the great Hymn to Joy.

The penultimate piece, Eric Nathan's Concerto for Orchestra was performed with the composer and his parents present in Symphony Hall. A short piece of some eighteen minutes, it succeeded in portraying the virtuosity inherent in an instrumental section-based work. On first hearing it was, for both orchestra and audience, a challenging composition, including as it did a lengthy beginning and ending mimicking the cacophony of the sound of automobile horns. One might be tempted to pity the modern composer whose music was sandwiched between that of Poulenc and Beethoven; clearly the concerto will profit from future familiarity, and placement with more appropriate programs.

The last piece was a moving rendition of Poulenc's Gloria, featuring soprano Nicole Cabell and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. It proved a satisfying end to this program, since it was commissioned by, and first performed by, the BSO, in 1961, then, as now, presented with the Poulenc double piano concerto to great applause.



Nora Theatre & Bedlam "Crucible": Historical Hysteria

The Cast of "The Crucible"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

"Goody Goody": so goeth the tag line (referencing "goodwives") for the current Nora Theatre/Bedlam production of the 1953 Tony Award winning The Crucible by Arthur Miller (extended through October 20th). It's more than a clever play on words with Eric Tucker (whose previous directing roles at Central Square Theatre include Pygmalion and Saint Joan) once again at the helm. There is little goodness in this arresting depiction of mass hysteria in 1692 Salem, Massachusetts, but plenty of evil. As was obvious in the era of the McCarthy hearings at the time of the play's first production, audiences may be forgiven for sensing a corollary in our country today, as pointed a portrayal as ever in the current swamp of "witch hunts". It was Miller's genius to see beneath the political surface to the miasma of corruption that was all too pervasive then, and continues to this day. It is the exquisitely pitch-perfect presentation on view that transcends and transports. 

The Cast of "The Crucible"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)
In Tucker's vision, there is little black and white, but lots of gray in this depiction of flawed women and men at the mercy of their own beliefs and superstitions. Most audience members will assume familiarity with Miller's work in its historical context, but this is a far more complex treatment of the issues at hand. When Reverend Hale (played by Tucker himself), invited by Reverend Samuel Parris (Randolph Curtis Rand) arrives on the scene, the populace is already whipped into a frenzy about the accusation of naked dancing and witchcraft. John Proctor (Ryan Quinn) and his wife Elizabeth Proctor (Susannah Millonzi, who also plays accuser Betty Parris) become the primary victims of the bearing of false witness by Abigail Williams (Truett Felt), Mary Warren (Caroline Grogan), Mercy Lewis (Karina Wen) and Susanna Walcott (Eliza Rose Fichter) as they testify before Ezekial Cheever (Michael Dwan Singh), Giles Corey (Stewart Evan Smith) and Thomas Putnam (David Keohane), in the kangaroo courtroom of Deputy Governor Danforth (Joshua Wolf Coleman). Also on hand for some much-needed comic relief is the Barbadian slave Tituba (Dayenne CB Walters, who also plays Rebecca Nurse as well as Francis Nurse).
The Cast of "The Crucible"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

True to form, every single actor in the baker's dozen of performers (enacting twenty-one roles) lives up to one's preconceptions about the artistry that is Bedlam. As the initial cacophonous scene transpires, one begins to appreciate the complexity of the playwright's insights and this company's strengths. The mastery of Coleman in the pivotal role of Danforth is matched by the desperation of Mellonzi and Quinn ("leave me my name") as the besieged Proctors, and the quartet of underage accusers are terrifying in their warped and wicked wiles. It's hard to imagine any ensemble creating as horrifyingly believable a zealous community as this troupe does, as "doubts multiply" and they "touch the bottom of the swamp", a paralyzing and polarizing prophecy if there ever was one. The creative elements include the simple but suggestive Costume Design by Elizabeth Rocha, the stark Lighting Design by John Malinowski, minimalist Scenic Design by Lindsay Genevieve Fuori and eerily suggestive Sound Design by Ted Kearnan. But it is in Tucker's direction and the consummate acting chops on display that in the end make this production take flight. In its uncompromising depiction of the sometimes fatal flaws of woman and man, one may easily identify with John Proctor's statement that his wife's "justice would freeze beer". It's a demanding piece for players and public, at a fast-paced three hours of unparalleled theater.

As Hale expounds at one point, "these are strange times"; "in a culture in which power resides in the hands of men- who(m) do you believe?" becomes as much a query as to where we are as it is to whence we have come.


SpeakEasy's "Choir Boy": Scaling the Heights

Isaiah Reynolds & Jaimar Brown in "Choir Boy"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

Choir Boy, by Tarell Alvin McCraney (winner of an Oscar for adapted screenplay for Moonlight), the first production of the season by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Calderwood Pavillion in the South End, was nominated this past season for four Tony Awards including Best Play. A play with music, as opposed to a traditional piece of musical theater, this work, at an intermissionless hundred minutes or so, features gospel numbers, spirituals, and R & B music to set the stage (if not precisely to advance the story).
The action takes place “last year” at the Charles R. Drew Prep School, renowned for fifty years for its education of young black men as well as for its gospel choir. The newly-chosen head of the choir is Pharus Jonathan Young (Isaiah Reynolds), a gay student whose effeminate mannerisms are not ephemeral but are central to his being his own true self, as he tries to reconcile his identity with his community. He is verbally bullied by his classmate, Bobby Marrow (Malik Mitchell), who just so happens to be the nephew of the school's Headmaster Marrow (J. Jerome Rogers). The other choir members include Pharus' supportive roommate Anthony Justin “AJ” James (Jaimar Brown), David Heard (Dwayne P. Mitchell), Junior Davis (Aaron Patterson), Khamary (Antione Gray), Adrian (Thomas Purvis), and Daniel (Nigel Richards). The remaining character is a white former teacher at the school, Mr. Pendleton (Richard Snee) who figures briefly in the plot as a clueless presence (with his comments about the students' “i-mail” and “g-tunes”) and a catalyst of sorts for the percolating tension permeating this unique student body, which will be left to the audience to discover.

The Cast of "Choir Boy"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

But it is the boys-to-men who command one's attention, and each of the ensemble of eight is a wonder in his own particular way (though some look a bit mature for prep-schoolers). One of the means for expressing themselves is the frequent use of “stepping”, using movement, words and sounds (footsteps, clapping and spoken dialog) to communicate solidarity within one's group, which was first seen and heard in this country in the early 1900's in African American sororities and fraternities. As Music Director David Freeman Coleman references in his program notes, when this stepping is combined with the music of spirituals it strives to convey harmony with nature and the cosmos. It's as much about feeling and expression as it is about content. Pharus understands spirituals on a deeper level because of who and what he is. How he interacts with the choir shows us just how to reach the heights through music. 

Nigel Richards, Thomas Purvis, Malik Mitchell, Dwayne P. Mitchell,
 Jaimar Brown & Aaron Patterson in "Choir Boy"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

As beautifully Directed by Maurice Emmanuel Parent, with electric Choreography by Yewande Odetoyinbo and Ruka White, it's a real crowd-pleaser, and rightly so. There is more energy on stage than in any dozen musicals. On the creative side, the Set Design is by Baron E. Pugh, with Costume Design by Rachel Padula-Shufelt, Lighting Design by Oliver Wason and Sound Design by Darby Smotherman.

Malik Mitchell and Members of the Cast of "Choir Boy"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

Hats off to SpeakEasy and Parent for discovering eight performers who have to sing, dance and act, and manage to do so virtually without a break. It's a fascinating theatrical experience to encounter black people as the majority of their community, as Parent states in the program, “dealing with issues within a culture that flourished despite racism, slavery and oppression”, with morality straight out of the 50's with “queer kids of color under systems of oppression that are rooted in old thinking”. The playwright clearly knows this community intimately, and, after spending time with this remarkable troop, so will you.

See and hear them scale those heights now through October 12th.


Huntington's "The Purists": Queens for a Daze

John Scurti, Morocco Omari & J. Bernard Calloway in "The Purists"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The Purists, a comedy by Dan McCabe, is the season opener for Huntington Theatre Company, at the Calderwood in the South End. It's a challenging new work that's harboring two secrets. One is really an open secret, namely that it's Directed by Tony and Grammy winner Billy Porter, who never ceases to amaze whatever role he assumes, in front of or behind the scenes. The other is the predicament that one of its characters finds himself in, which is gradually revealed during the course of the play (and won't be spoiled here), which is what lifts this work beyond the comedic to the potentially tragic. There are laughs aplenty, but rest assured the playwright has more than a few thoughts to share about race, friendship and ultimately love. Behind the superficial banter of its quintet of actors, it's asking its audience to see how individual values and points of view can unite people because of these differences as opposed to despite them. If we're a bit dazed now and then it's partly due to the dazzling rap numbers that punctuate the play's progress.

John Scurti, Analisa Velez, J. Bernard Calloway, Izzie Steele & Morocco Omari in "The Purists"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The play opens with lively debates on a stoop in the Sunnyside area of Queens among black former rapper Lamont Born Cipher (Morocco Omari), DJ Mr. Bugz (J. Bernard Calloway), also black, and white showtune-loving telesales director Gerrry Brinsler (John Scurti, in his professional theatre debut). They spar about musical tastes leading to an impromptu rap battle between two younger aspiring emcees, Val (Analisa Velez), who is Puerto Rican, and Nancy (Izzie Steele), who is white. By the time all of them have been portrayed by this engaging ensemble, the audience is by and large won over by the sheer force of the performances and the detailed direction by Porter. The creative team, as typical for Huntington, provides crucial support, from the cleverly busy Scenic Design by Clint Ramos to the spot-on Costume Design by Kara Harmon, effective Lighting Design by Driscoll Otto and integral Sound Design by Leon Rothenberg, with frequent Musical Compositions by Michael Sandlofer. But it's fundamentally Porter's show, which is clear from how each of the characters is meticulously directed and not once out of character.

J. Bernard Calloway, Izzie Steele, Analisa Velez & Morocco Omari in "The Purists"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

What is out of character is some of the dialog, sometimes lost in the dialects, which sounds a bit forced (as when Val says “hoisted on your own petard”, or when Lamont references a Langston Hughes poem, “you done taken my blues and gone”, applied by him to white music executives and their usurping of black rap). It may require some patience to get to a particular plot point or two. With some tightening, especially in the initial byplay among the three male characters as they become more and more distinct from one another, this should help keep a stronger focus on the larger issues percolating beneath the surface. Even its title suggests several possible meanings, from one's choice of musical forms to racial identity or to one's place on the gender spectrum. In the end, just who are The Purists? Or who are not?

This intriguing world premiere has already been extended through October 6th.


Lyric's "Little Shop": It Grows on You

Lovely Hoffman, Carla Martinez, Pier Lamia Porter, Katrina Z Pavao & Dan Prior in "Little Shop of Horrors"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

Beware all living things: Little Shop of Horrors is back (at Boston's Lyric Stage), with a vengeance. She’s green and mean, this cousin of the Venus fly trap. A true pistil-packing momma, she’s the horticultural star of this former off-Broadway hit (of the 1982 season, with a five year run, winning the New York Drama Critics and Outer Circle Critics Best Musical Awards), based on a much-beloved, campy cult black and white 1960 film by Director Roger Corman (the king of the low-budget B movies) and Screenwriter Charles Griffith. It ultimately became a 1986 film musical, and was revived on Broadway in 2003. Most prophetically, it was the first mega success of novice creators Alan Menken (Score) and the late Howard Ashman (Book and Lyrics), who would go on to “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast”. Perhaps you’ve heard of them.

“Little Shop”, only their second work together, was a loving tribute in farce to the horror movie genre, spoofing 60’s rock and roll, doo-wop, and Motown sound, television sitcoms, and several other targets. Ashman’s book and lyrics were filled with intentionally outrageous puns (for example, referring to the character of a sadistic dentist as the “leader of the plaque”). Some of his other references (“Father Knows Best”, “The Donna Reed Show”, “December Bride” and even “Howdy Doody”) may not resonate with younger audience members today, but most of their fang-in-cheek humor is timeless, as treated with uncanny affection by Director/Choreographer Rachel Bertone and Music Director Dan Rodriguez.

Katrina Z Pavao & Audrey II in "Little Shop of Horrors"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

Ah, and this cast. Seymour Krelborn (Dan Prior) is the ultimate nerd working in a struggling flower shop; his innocent mimicking of his co-worker Audrey’s accent (living in “the guttah”) is a hoot. Katrina Z Pavao plays Audrey (the part played so memorably by Ellen Greene in both the original production and the film musical) with the perfect tone of the clueless bimbo, with her boyfriend Orin the Dentist (Jeff Marcus). Standouts were the three “urchins”, Chiffon (Pier Lamia Porter), Crystal (Lovely Hoffman), and Ronnette (Carla Martinez), a sort of Greek chorus. Also terrific was Mr. Mushnik, the owner of the flower shop (Remo Airaldi). And then there was “Audrey II” (puppeteer Tim Hoover, voiced by Yewande Odetoyinbo). Don't overlook that unforgettable villain’s cry, “Feed me!”, oxymoronically, from a hysterically hammy plant. How “Audrey II” miraculously appears, unites Seymour and Audrey, grows, and forever changes the lives of most of the cast, is best left for audience members to discover. Suffice it to say that Pavao alone is worth the price of admission; her Audrey is plain priceless, as are the wonderful Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland, exhuberant Costume Design by Marion Bertone, Lighting Design by Franklin Meissner Jr., Sound Design by Andrew Duncan Will and Puppetry Design by Cameron McEachern (an essential element to say the least).

Dan Prior & Katrina Z Pavao in "Little Shop of Horrors"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

A disclaimer might be in order here: “Little Shop” is one of this reviewer’s all-time favorite shows. Thus it was a relief to find it recreated and refreshed by trust in the material, which truly paid off. Those familiar only with the film musical version will note some differences; here there is no masochistic dental patient (as in both film versions), and, most significantly, a darker ending. Audrey II is about to take over the world. As one character puts it earlier in the show, “you’re not in Kansas anymore”. She is, after all, an omnivore, devouring actors, audiences, theater critics....and even on one's fifth viewing, it grows on you. (In fact this may well be the best version yet seen). It's a stupendous start for Lyric Stage's season.

One piece of sage advice sung at the end of the show (performed through October 6th) bears repeating: “Don’t feed the plants!”