BMOP/Odyssey Opera's Grammy Winning "Mr. Fox"

The Cast of "Fantastic Mr. Fox"
(photo: BMOP)

Tobias Picker: Fantastic Mr. Fox is the official title of the Grammy Award winning operatic compact disc release of the work by Picker, the current Artistic Director of Tulsa Opera, who pulls off the almost impossible feat of composing an opera that is aimed directly at families, not just children; that is, children of all ages. With his welcome use of melodic tonal lyricism, even though a modern piece, and the caustically witty Libretto by Donald Sturrock, this work is sure to charm listeners of any vintage. Performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) under the direction of Gil Rose, the recording features members of Odyssey Opera, the Boston Children's Chorus, and a host of well-known vocalists. Commissioned and premiered in 1998 by Los Angeles Opera, this recording was made during its performance period in Boston in 2014.

Based on the revered children's novel by Roald Dahl, the fable centers on the efforts of the eponymous fox (baritone John Brancy), the antihero who's on a food-finding mission on behalf of his family, contemporaneously thwarting the aim of three mean farmers, Boggis (bass- baritone Andrew Craig Brown), Bunce (tenor Edwin Vega) and Bean (baritone Gabriel Preisser) to kill the varmint that's been eating their chickens and geese and drinking their cider. Mr. Fox enlists his forest friends, including Mr. Porcupine (tenor Theo Lebow), Miss Hedgehog (soprano Elizabeth Futral), Rita the Rat (mezzo-soprano Tynan Davis) and others. The remaining characters include Mrs. Fox (mezzo-soprano Krista River), Agnes the Digger (countertenor Andrey Nemzer), Mavis the Tractor (soprano Gail Novak Mosites), Badger the Miner (baritone John Dooley) and Burrowing Mole (tenor Jonathan Blalock). There are also four fox cubs: Abigail Long, Abi Tenenbaum, Zoe Tekeian, and Madeleine Kline. The story is accessible as is the music (this despite the fact that Picker was trained by a trio of Modernist composers, Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, and Charles Wuorinen).

Picker has stated that there can be found in this work a “green message”, if one wishes to find one (with its portrayal of the barren land above ground and the warmer natural world below). There are instances of slapstick, European styles, and neoclassical Stravinsky-like sound. In several passages, including those utilizing the Children's Chorus, there is sublime music for adult and child listeners. In short, it's both relatively brief and compellingly approachable in its score with an ample supply of cleverness and wit in its libretto, with no evidence of being “dumbed down” for its target audience. What more could anyone want in an opera for the whole family?
And speaking of families, there's that other frequently-composed royal one, namely the Tudors, whom Odyssey Opera (and BMOP) will again revisit, this time for one performance on next Saturday February 1st at 7:30pm at Jordan Hall; it's the third of a sextet of operas they're producing this season, this one being Arnold Rosner's "The Chronicle of Nine" about Lady Jane Grey. So go on and lose your head again.


Huntington's "We All Fall Down": Why is this Play Different....

The Cast of "We All Fall Down"
(photo: Nile Hawver)

We All Fall Down is Huntington Theatre Company's current production, the world premiere of a comedy by Somerville resident Lila Rose Kaplan, in her Huntington debut. It's the story of Linda (Eleanor Reissa), the matriarch of a non-observant Jewish family who suddenly decides to plan a Seder in her home in Westchester at “Passover in early April”. This comes as a surprise to the family, especially her husband Saul (Stephen Schnetzer), and the other characters, which include their two grown daughters Sammi (Liba Vaynberg) and Ariel (Dana Stern), Saul's sister Nan (Phyllis Kay), their former neighbor Beverly (Sarah Newhouse) and Linda's assistant Ester (Elle Borders). As Kaplan notes in the program, it started as a play about a daughter, evolving into a play about a whole family, in keeping with the playwright's body of theatrical works that emphasize women's stories and family intergenerational relationships. As she puts it, “we are so many ages inside. To put more than one age on stage and the page is really a more true portrait of what it is to be a human.” Director Melia Bensussen adds that the Haggadah, a text that tells you all the steps in a Seder, tells the story of Moses from birth to exodus, in the process becoming a theatrical experience that Kaplan describes as the original dinner theater. At a spare ninety minutes or so, it's fast if not furious, and soon answers the query as to why this play is different from other plays. Because it is.

The Cast of "We All Fall Down"
(photo: Nile Hawver)

It's a curious amalgam of Borscht belt comedy (for example, having Beverly, who is not Jewish, refer to Passover as the “Jewish Easter”) and underlying family tragedy. There is a longing for the beliefs that once brought people together. First-timers to a Seder are advised to bring with them a measure of patience, and no bread (or anything with leavening, no yeast or beer). It comes to pass that we realize that there's a place for everyone here, as we celebrate liberation: while we were once slaves, we are now free. Playwright Kaplan admits that the fact that her first name, Lila, means “night” in Hebrew, led her to explore why this night is different from all other nights, and to reflect on the reason people from Jewish culture are drawn to Seder, namely the same reason we are all drawn to theater: we come together for storytelling, which helps us to become better at being human. This concept comes vividly true toward the end of the play when it somewhat suddenly shifts to seriousness even as the family re-enacts the old familiar nursery rhyme from childhood:

     Ring around the rosy, a pocket full of posies, ash, ash, we all fall down.

The meaning of the song has long been lost to the ages, but the use of it in this pivotal scene exposes what one already has surmised if she or he has been paying attention to the clues the playwright has dropped along the way.

The Cast of "We All Fall Down"
(photo: Neil Hawver)

This play, already extended through February 15th, features the sadly funny Reissa in the matriarchal role, a difficult character to play given her obtuseness about some every day factoids, and the secretive Schnetzer, a Catholic Memorial High School graduate (as is this critic), holding his own surrounded by a half dozen actresses: Borders, Newhouse, Vaynberg, Stern and especially Kay (long associated with Trinity Rep in Providence). Under the direction of Bensussen, they manage to elevate the more sitcom moments in the work (which even has black-outs, and features a trio of urination scenes). The creative team boasts clever Scenic Design by Judy Gailen, Costume Design by Karen Perry (one really over the top), Lighting Design by Russell H. Champa and Sound Design by David Remedios.

Lurking beneath the sporadic hilarity of the play, as in most comedies, is a serious look at the ever-expanding reality that many folks of previous faith have lost the spiritual aspects of their daily existence, exhibited in the wry expression “I don't believe in God, but I miss Him”; or, as Pogo long ago put it in his comic strip philosophical musings, “God isn't dead, He's just unemployed”.


speakeasy's "pass over": but also.....

dapping up: hubens "bobby" cius & kadahj bennett in "pass over"
(photo: nile scott studio)

pass over, a new play by antoinette nwandu, is the current co-production by speakeasy stage company and the front porch arts collective. after first being performed by chicago's steppenwolf, it was then produced in new york at lincoln center, where it won the lortel award for best play (and was filmed for amazon by none other than spike lee).

described as a “mash-up” of waiting for godot (considered by some as a theatrical masterpiece and by others as like watching paint dry) and the exodus story. at a spare ninety minutes, directed by monica white ndounou, it's written all in lower case, reminiscent of the poetry of e.e.cummings, performed as though it were blank verse or rap without music. the setting is “now, right now, but also 1855, but also the thirteenth century b.c.e”. the time is “a ghetto street, a lamppost, night, but also a plantation, but also egypt, a city built by slaves”.

ossifer enters: lewis d. wheeler, hubens "bobby" cius & kadahj bennett in "pass over"
(photo: nile scott studios)

its cast is spare as well. one is a young black man named moses (kadahj bennett) “but also a slave driver, but also the prophesied leader of god's chosen people”; a second young black man is named kitch (hubens “bobby” cius) “but also a slave but also one of god's chosen”; the remaining two roles, both played by lewis d. wheeler, are mister, a seemingly wholesome chap given to expressions like “gosh golly gee”, “but also a plantation owner but also the pharoah's son” and ossifer, an officer of the law (or “po-op”), “but also a patroller but also a soldier in the pharoah's army”. as in the becket play, the two lead characters are unable to leave their street corner. there is no intermission; if moses and kitch cannot leave neither can we.

mister's picnic: lewis d. wheeler, kadahj bennett & hubens "bobby" cius in "pass over"
(photo: nile scott studios)

there are some obvious parallels to becket even in a brief synopsis of the work, but it stands on its own as an absorbing and alarming expose of contemporary black experience. kitch declares that the name “moses” portends that he will lead “deez boys right off deez streets on to dat promised land”. moses himself alludes to a land of milk and honey despite lactose intolerance and glycemic indexes, as these are the least of their troubles, truly nothing compared to the obliviousness of “mister” who cannot grasp why they get to use the “n-word” but he does not; he is clueless about his not having the right to use the word. (yet, interestingly, the playwright feels free to portray moses' use of the charged term “faggot”). moses disses those who are fixated on passing over to the promised land of heaven, where he proclaims he wants that good life now. it's telling that both young men can recall every name of those who have been killed in their hood, giving the lie to the presumption that these victims (including one of the most oppressed societal groupings, that of trans people of color) are ordinary, even forgettable. in ancient pyramidal times, in the not-so-ancient plantation era, and on the inescapable street corner, once again history repeats itself, or at least rhymes.

promised land: hubens "bobby" cius & kadahj bennett in "pass over"
(photo: nile scott studios)

attention must be paid not just to the triumph of the playwright's words on the page but also in its execution by director ndounou and her three stellar actors, each of whom seems to be thoroughly immersed in his character. the simple but effective contributions of the creative team include scenic design by baron e. pugh, costume design by chelsea kerl, lighting design by kathy a. perkins, and sound design by anna drummond.

promised land 2: hubens "bobby" cius & kadahj bennett in "pass over"
(photo: nile scott studios)

as the playwright herself puts it, an audience won't be immediately transformed or relieved of her or his baggage, but find such baggage “a little bit shifted”. the most memorable aspect of her play, as opposed to becket's, is that her characters aren't left alone, to age. just as the frequent use of the “n-word” can never be completely erased, and in fact has become for the community of color an expression of brotherhood (and sisterhood), so audience members may find this sometimes enigmatic work either an affirmation or a revelation.

what they won't feel is that it is forgettable, (extended through february 2nd), but also.....


Lyric's "Cake": More than a Mere Trifle?

Karen MacDonald, Chelsea Diehl & Kris Sidberry in "Cake"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

Anytime local theatrical treasure Karen MacDonald takes to the stage, there is cause for celebration, perhaps calling for an appropriate response, which might well result, given the right vehicle, in the creation of a cake. Such is the case in the current Lyric Stage offering, the new comedy The Cake, by Bekah Brunstetter, wherein MacDonald and her three co-stars react in various ways to the gradual revelation that there is to be a wedding for which she is asked to provide the central culinary element. By the time it becomes clear what the decision to bake or not to bake will be, the audience will have been exposed to the existential crisis that this seemingly simple request will entail, and how religious and political contrasting viewpoints will be exposed as a recipe for conflict.

Karen MacDonald in "Cake"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)
You see, the ceremony is to join in matrimony Jen (Chelsea Diehl) the daughter of the late best friend of Della (MacDonald) to her bride-to-be Macy (Kris Sidberry), which causes a dilemma, since Della is the proprietress of North Carolina's Della's Sweets and is not coincidentally a far-right bigot married to another far-right bigot, Tim (Fred Sullivan, Jr.). There are other layers in the story (notably an upcoming appearance on a televised baking show contest), which seem to exist primarily to assure us that Della is still “agreeable” despite her deep-seated ideas regarding same-gender marriages. But it's somewhat equivalent to the concept of a mother-in-law recipe with something intentionally omitted.

Fred Sullivan, Jr. & Karen MacDonald in "Cake"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

That omission is the very real issue of discrimination, which is treated comically, glossing over the ugly underbelly of this ninety-minute one act treatment. It's a tribute to MacDonald's prowess as an actor that she manages to present her character in a believable way; the same could be said for the remainder of the cast, with Diehl's earnest portrayal alongside Sidberry's overt LGBTQ militancy and Sullivan's hilarious spouse with his heterosexual intimacy hangups. It's of some interest that the creative team includes an Intimacy Director (Ted Hewlett) in addition to the expert Direction by Courtney O'Connor (currently the Acting Artistic Director of the company). Despite the histrionic talent on display, the play has some half-baked elements, but this production is fortunate to have several estimable creative contributions, from the Scenic Design by Matt Whiton, to the Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker, Lighting Design by Aja Jackson and Original Music and Sound Design by Arshan Gailus. They're all supportive of the play's heart, with MacDonald as the frosting.

Kris Sidberry & Karen MacDonald in "Cake"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

There are some clever elements to the story (references to Noah's Ark and the dinosaurs, Chick Fil-A and the like) and a few hysterically memorable moments. This being a comedy, the end is rather baked in, so to speak, and its intentions, though often predictable, are admirable. On the whole, this production is well done.
As Della ultimately proclaims, “you need cake”, until February 9th.


BSO's "Beethoven/Tchaikovsky": Two Fifths

Marcelo Lehninger conducting the BSO
(photo: Hilary Scott)

Beethoven's Overture to the Creatures of Prometheus, Opus 43 made for a fine if relatively slight curtain raiser (only five minutes in length) for the Boston Symphony's latest program. First performed in Vienna in 1801, it was introduced to Tanglewood audiences in 1958 (and again, most recently, in 2014). It was for the youthful composer his first mature score for theatrical use, namely to support a ballet. The brevity of the piece about the fable of Prometheus and two statues brought to life makes for an uncharacteristic comparatively light composition for Beethoven, but served to set the mood for this BSO concert, under the baton of Marcelo Lehninger, former BSO Assistant Conductor, who last led the BSO in 2014.

There followed a performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.5 in E-Flat, Opus 73, a substantially more impressive work (clocking in at forty-two minutes), featuring Pianist Javier Perianes, who last played with the BSO in 2016. Aptly described in the program notes as “heaven-storming”, it was Beethoven's final concerto, first heard in 1811, as part of what is generally acknowledged as the “heroic period”. Its initial BSO performance was in 1911 and at Tanglewood in 1947. It was seen by the composer himself as a real affirmation while in the midst of “terrible times” (Austria being engaged in one of several consecutive wars with France). Known in English-speaking countries as the “Emperor” (for reasons that are totally unclear) it is a deservedly beloved work that includes amongst its movements the longest he ever wrote. The audience at the matinee performance was nothing short of ecstatic for Lehninger, Perianes (who earned his encore) and the orchestra itself.

Maestro Marcelo Lehninger & Pianist Javier Perianes with the BSO
(photo: Hilary Scott)

The second half of the program consisted of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No.5 in E Minor Opus 64, another rousing piece at forty-seven minutes with its powerful lyrical theme of the Fates that unites all four of its movements. His Fourth had been his symphony of triumph over fate, an imitation of Beethoven’s Fifth. As noted in this concert's program, for Tchaikovsky’s own Fifth Symphony, we have an outlining for the scenario for the first movement: “Introduction. Complete resignation before Fate, or, which is the same, before the inscrutable predestination of Providence. Allegro. Murmurs of doubt, complaints, reproaches against XXX. Shall I throw myself in the embraces of faith? A wonderful program, if only it can be carried out.” The composer's reference to “XXX” is generally considered most likely an allusion to his homosexuality, which terrified him as a possible cause of scandal; others attribute this to his gambling addiction. Though he detested it when writers interpreted his musical processes too literally, the theme with which the clarinets (beautifully played and justly singled out for applause), in their lowest register, begin the symphony has a function other than its musical one: it reappears as a catastrophic interruption of the second movement’s love song, with the languid dance of the waltz, and in its majestic E major triumph. Tchaikovsky’s terrific gift of melody is shown in his delight in what he calls “strong effects” and his skill at bringing them off, with quite remarkable effect yet with great economy. After his return from a journey to Prague (where the experience of conducting the Fifth produced the most depression in him) he quickly began work on The Sleeping Beauty, and not long after that, his finest operatic score, The Queen of Spades. But once again Lehninger (conducting this time from memory) proved the Fifth Symphony itself worthy of the almost hysterical climaxes it provides. Both central movements were delights in quite different ways, and the audience for both gave enthusiastic approval. It was the Boston Symphony Orchestra at its finest.