Talkin’ Broadway: John and Jen and blue/orange

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

Eric Rubbe and Leigh Barrett in John and Jen

John and Jen, now playing at the Stoneham Theatre, and blue/orange, now at the BCA courtesy of the Zeitgeist Stage Company, are in some ways as different as plays can be: the former an Off-Broadway chamber musical about one woman’s relationship with the men in her life, the latter a British play about the psychiatric examination of a young man claiming to be the son of Idi Amin. And yet, both are intimate three-character plays exploring the question of what makes us the way we are – really, what makes us each crazy.

John and Jen (book and lyrics by Tom Greenwald, music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa) first surfaced in the mid-1990s at the Goodspeed Opera House, before making its way off-Broadway. The first act tells the story of Jen (Leigh Barrett), who grows from an overprotective older sister to a distant, war-protesting, drug-taking hippie, while her beloved younger brother John (Eric Rubbe) grows into a young soldier in the model of the father Jen tried so hard to protect him from. The second act finds Jen as a single mother, raising her son – also named John, and also played by Eric Rubbe – while trying to hold on to him tight enough to not lose him as she did her brother.

The audience’s acceptance of the play hinges on whether the adult actors’ portrayals of children feel real enough to become a non-issue. The good news is that Eric Rubbe nails the childlike qualities of both of the kids he plays, even as his first-act John ages from infancy to young adulthood. He’s got a real musical-theatre voice that delights equally in the ballads and the comedy numbers. Leigh Barrett has more of a challenge with the earliest stages of her character’s life. Jen is in a tough position at the start of the play, needing to communicate not only her love for John, but also her fear of her abusive father. Unfortunately, the gravity of her situation overshadows any childlike nuance, making her seem more like an adult in a silly dress. The play quickly shifts focus from the kids’ relationship with their dad to their relationship with each other. When this happens, Barrett portrays a teenaged Jen much more believably, and by the time she hits college, it’s hard to remember there were ever quibbles with her performance. By the second act, the actors really hit their stride, which is particularly important as the material becomes more abstract and the direction more nebulous – are mother and child actually appearing on a string of television talk shows, or have we moved into psychological space? Director Scott Edmiston doesn’t give us any clues.

The physical production of the show is clever but problematic. The stage is filled with clothing and trunks and a few furniture pieces, suggesting an attic, or even memory – things that are stored away haphazardly, to be taken out and played with or cast aside at whim. Above the stage hang paintings of the children at different ages, highlighting the closeness of their relationship. But dead center is a giant screen. And on that screen is projected the worst thing to happen to regional theatre in recent memory: the PowerPoint Presentation. The idea of using projections to bring the audience into the 1960s (and later, the 1980s) is a good one. However, the bells and whistles of PowerPoint – the animated comings and goings of the slides and the occasional title in a font that screams out 1990s – create the opposite effect, pulling the audience back into the present. Nobody is helped by Gail Astrid Buckley’s costumes, which never quite capture either the age of the characters or the time of the situations.

There is one more element that reminds the audience of the 1960s, and for this we should all be grateful: the singers perform the entire show without microphones. The theatre has fantastic acoustics (and sightlines), and the blending of two excellent voices with the fantastic three-piece band (under the expert direction of Timothy Evans) is worth the price of admission itself.

The Stoneham Theatre should be cheered for choosing a challenging show from Off-Broadway that hasn’t previously been seen in Boston. Despite the 1960s grounding of the work, the story is really a timeless and heart-wrenching exploration of the relationships between siblings and between parents and children. So bring your brother, sister, father or mother – and bring some extra Kleenex.

Steven Barkhimer, Dorian Christian Baucum, Eric Hamel in blue/orange

(l-r) Steven Barkhimer, Dorian Christian Baucum, Eric Hamel in blue/orange

You won’t need Kleenex at the BCA, but bring your thinking cap. The Zeitgeist Stage Company’s production of Joe Penhall’s blue/orange is tremendously thought provoking, asking the question of whether psychiatric diagnoses are influenced by a cultural divide between patient and doctor. But don’t worry; under the direction of David J. Miller, there are also plenty of laughs in the show, a 2001 Olivier Award winner for Best New Play.

The scenario begins simply: Bruce (Eric Hamel), a young doctor at a teaching hospital, has been examining Christopher (Dorian Christian Baucum) for the past month. Christopher is in the hospital under court order, but his mandatory twenty-eight days are up. Bruce wants to keep him for further diagnosis and treatment. Bruce’s supervisor, Robert (Steven Barkhimer), would rather let Christopher back into society. What begins as a dispute over diagnosis quickly becomes and argument over hospital politics. Before long, Robert reveals he is currently working on research into cross-racial diagnosis and treatment, suggesting that Bruce may be blaming psychosis for some of Christopher’s behavior that is actually quite “normal” on Christopher’s side of the cultural divide.

Miller – credited with both direction and scenic design – keeps the play moving along, with the focus firmly on the words and ideas at stake. For this the audience can be thankful, for the script is full of Briticisms that one needs an extended glossary (or strong powers of deduction) to fully grasp. And yet, even without catching every word, the debate is engaging and engulfing. Throughout the play, members of the audience find themselves switching sides more than once, at times agreeing with Bruce, at times with Robert, in no small part thanks to the charisma Barkhimer and Hamel bring to their roles. The role of Christopher is something between a pawn and a plot device, but Baucum’s performance endows him with a humanity and import that he might not actually deserve.

The strength of the play is also its downfall. There are so many ideas – meaty, worthy ideas, about race, politics, power and more – being discussed and debated, it becomes impossible to find resolution in the situation. Sure, at some point, one of the doctors gets to decide whether Christopher stays in the hospital or not, but by the end of the play, that’s far less relevant than the question of whether or not race and culture affect what we think of as “crazy.” But if you’re looking for the kind of play you will continue to discuss on the ride home (and probably over breakfast the next day, and possibly beyond that), blue/orange may be just what the doctor ordered.

John and Jen runs now through March 6th at the Stoneham Theatre, 125 Main Street, Stoneham, MA. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 4:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:00 pm. Tickets are $32 for adults, $27 for seniors, and $16 for students. Tickets are available online or by calling (781) 279-2200. The Stoneham Theatre’s season continues with The Old Man and the Sea March 17 – April 3.

blue/orange runs now through March 5th at the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Black Box Theatre, 539 Tremont Street in Boston’s South End. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 4:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sunday 2/27 at 3:00 pm. Tickets are $25, with discount tickets available for students and seniors for $19.50. Thursdays are “Pay What You Can” performances. Tickets are available online or by calling (617) 933-8600. For more information,

The Zeitgeist Stage Company’s season continues with Tooth and Claw, April 29 – May 21.

Talkin’ Broadway: The Sound of Music

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

When I was in high school, my drama teacher absolutely refused to even consider mounting a production of The Sound of Music, claiming that once the movie was made, it was pointless to do the show without the actual Alps in the background, not to mention the unfairness of asking a young actress to compete with the indelible image of Julie Andrews. And surely, approaching a production of The Sound of Music in an age when two generations have been brought up on the classic film must leave many directors asking themselves, “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” Happily, director Jane Staab at the Wheelock Family Theatre has found the answer in the person of Angela Williams, a Maria so effervescent that by the time the Von Trapp children are introduced, you’ll be saying “Julie Who?”

While both the Boston press and the Talkin’ Broadway chatterati have said much about Maria being played by an African-American woman – even the one-paragraph publicity blurb makes sure to describe Williams as a gospel singer – you will forget it ever mattered once Williams bursts through the doors of the theatre to sing the timeless title song. Fear not – she sings the score with a perfectly appropriate Broadway style, not a single gospel inflection in evidence. But what a voice she has! And what charm! Williams is the real thing, an actress who makes Maria believable without becoming syrupy, a singer who handles the ballads and up-tempos equally as well, and most importantly, a real star presence who nonetheless allows the rest of the ensemble to shine.  Continue reading