Talkin’ Broadway: Caroline, Or Change

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

Jacqui Parker and Jacob Brandt

Everything about Caroline, or Change should work. The characters are interesting, full of the kind of emotion that practically demands show-stopping numbers. And the show-stopping numbers are in evidence, performed by a fantastic cast blessed with top notch pipes. There’s even at least three different “main” characters who provide the audience with openings for identification to offer easy entrée into the story, depending on who resonates most closely with you. So why is it that the technically excellent production ofCaroline or Change, presented by the SpeakEasy Stage Company in association with North Shore Music Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Calderwood Pavillion failed to move me?

The play concerns the intersection of two families at the time of President Kennedy’s assassination. Caroline Thibodeaux (Jacqui Parker) struggles to balance raising her own children – especially budding activist Emmie (Shavanna Calder) – with her job as a maid to the Gellmans. Stuart Gellman (Michael Mendiola) lost his wife and recently married her best friend, New Yorker Rose Stopnick (Sarah Corey). He has retreated into his own world, but she tries to reach out to his son Noah (Jacob Brandt), who really only wants to connect to Caroline.

There’s no shortage of talent on stage at the Roberts Studio Theatre. Parker brings almost supernatural power to the difficult score. She is matched note for note by A’lisa D. Miles, who gives voice to many of Caroline’s fantasies as both The Washing Machine and The Moon. Brandt has cornered the market on adolescent Jewish boys in musical theatre, shining even brighter here than he did in last season’s outstanding production of Falsettos. And Calder makes the adolescent dilemma of simultaneously rejecting and loving her mother feel immediate and real.  Continue reading

Talkin’ Broadway: Boots on the Ground

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

Richard Donelly, Stephen Thorne, Joe Wilson, Jr., and Rachael Warren

When I first heard about the Trinity Rep’s Boots on the Ground, I thought to myself, “Dear Lord, do I really want to sit through a ‘docu-drama’ about the Iraq War … and its affect on Rhode Island?” Believe me when I say, no one is more surprised than I that the answer is an emphatic yes. For, while the new play by Laura Kepley and D. Salem Smith is based on over 200 hours of interviews with 70 different Rhode Islanders, the authors have wisely put the focus on the drama, creating a moving tapestry of individuals, families, and communities touched by a war half a world away.

The genius of Boots on the Ground is not that it presents real people in their own words; we’ve seen that plenty of times before. Rather, it focuses on the human element of the war, emphasizing relationships over politics, emotion over ideology. Kepley, pulling double-duty as director, has assembled a first-rate cast of five who collectively bring to life twenty-three fully realized characters. Despite only adjusting their costumes by slight tweaks between each character, there is never a moment of confusion or doubt about which character is on stage.

The cast is so note-perfect it’s hard to single any one out, but each performer blesses the audience with at least one particularly powerful moment: Richard Donelly, portraying the executive editor of the Providence Journal, Joel Rawson, reflecting on the difference between being a soldier in Viet Nam and being an embedded journalist in Iraq; Ann Scurria, as an anonymous soldier questioning whether the greeting the soldiers received upon crossing the Iraqi border was born of gratitude or fear; Stephen Thorne as a young National Guardsman, forced into the service for lack of a way to earn a living; Rachael Warren, a young wife torn longing for her husband but trying to keep her life together; and Joe Wilson, Jr, as her husband, a young commanding officer dealing with the loss of his best soldier.

This is all made so much more powerful by its local connection. The script perfectly preserves the cadence of Southern New England speech. The characters are our neighbors, our friends, ourselves. The deceptively simple costumes, built from a palette of khaki by William Lane, allow the actors to fully embody their characters in stance and speech without needing to “dress up” extensively. Beowulf Boritt’s sand and hardwood set, aided by adept lighting by Brian J. Lilienthal and sparingly used videos by Jamie McElhinney, suggests Providence living rooms and Iraqi dessert all at once.

The play either concludes with, or is followed by, an audience discussion facilitated by Pam Steager. The Trinity hasn’t quite made up its mind whether the discussion is in fact act two, as it’s billed in the program, or a “post-show” element, as it’s announced. Either way, it’s a fascinating and necessary part of the experience. As fascinating and moving as it was to watch the actors portray Rhode Island’s reaction to the war, it was doubly fascinating and moving to hear it from fellow audience members. Most surprising was how individuals in the audience experienced the play so differently from one another, and Steager skillfully allowed all voices to be heard.

Boots on the Ground, from its unique genesis to its unique production format, is a very special theatrical experience. And it’s one you won’t want to miss.

Boots on the Ground at the Trinity Repertory Company, 201 Washington Street, Providence, Rhode Island, now through May 21st. Tickets are $40 on weekdays, $50 on weekends. Discounts are available for educators, military, firefighters, police, students, and seniors. Rush tickets available two hours prior to showtime. For tickets, performance schedule, and information, call the box office at (401) 351-4242 or visit www.trinityrep.com

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Talkin’ Broadway: Talley’s Folly

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

Stephen Russell and Marianna Bassham

Is it possible to employ the word “folly” in the title of a play without making a pun? In the case of Lanford Wilson’s Talley’s Folly, the folly in question is both the foolishness of Sally Talley, who believes her “dark secret” has shut her out of the game of love, and in the slightly more archaic sense, the decaying, riverside gazebo erected by her ancestor that provides the setting for the play. But at least in director Adam Zahler’s production at the Lyric Stage, there’s another folly involved: the darkening of what should be, in the play’s own words, “a waltz.”

The play opens with Matt Friedman (Stephen Russell) addressing the audience directly, with the house lights up driving the point home. We are to see a love story, a dance, he tells us. Russell’s playful portrayal of Matt, teasing the audience and wielding the magic of stagecraft to create the perfect summer night, sets the perfect tone for a love story. As he leads us into the main section of the play, he’s significantly aided in this pursuit by Janie E. Howland’s picturesque set and John Cuff’s subtle, effective lights.

Matt has come to the Talley home in the summer of 1944 to pursue the hand of aging daughter Sally (Marianna Bassham). Their courtship has stalled, in part because Sally’s family will not accept Jewish Matt Friedman as a suitable mate, but in part because Sally is withholding a piece of herself from her beau.  Continue reading

Talkin’ Broadway: Brooklyn Boy

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

Victor Warren and Ken Baltin

Victor Warren and Ken Baltin

We’ve all heard the platitude “you can never go home again,” but Donald Margulies isn’t listening. In his play Brooklyn Boy, now playing a limited engagement at the SpeakEasy Stage Company, Margulies counters this cliché both in his story and in his setting.

The plot follows newly successful author Eric Weiss as he takes a detour from his book tour to visit his ailing father in the Brooklyn hospital where he himself was born. The return to Brooklyn is also significant for playwright Margulies, whose early successes were all set in Brooklyn, a site he hasn’t written about since 1991’s Sight Unseen. But whether the return is significant to the audience is a somewhat more complicated question. Continue reading

Talkin’ Broadway: Promises, Promises

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

Aimee Doherty and Jeff Mahoney

It seems contradictory to call a 37-year-old musical about adultery and attempted suicide a breath of fresh air, but the Animus Ensemble’s production of Promises, Promises is exactly that. The Burt Bacharach/Hal David/Neil Simon adaptation of The Apartment is rarely produced, perhaps because its distinctive sound is as dated as its outlook on women, relationships, and the workplace.

The story still has plenty of “ick” factor. The basic scenario: a young, would-be executive named C.C. Baxter (Jeff Mahoney) discovers the real trick to succeeding in business: loaning out the key to his apartment to his superiors at work, all looking for a place to take their mistresses. Mahoney comes across with a natural likeability, milking the comic potential of his character’s nebbishy tics to help distract from the sliminess of his actions. While his singing voice is a little thin for the score, he’s a terrific dancer and able to sell most of his numbers.

Baxter’s game comes crashing down when his boss, Sheldrake (Jerry Bisantz), uses Baxter’s apartment to sleep with Baxter’s crush (Aimee Doherty). Doherty sings beautifully and captures the sadness of her character, but her role is so underwritten that she simply isn’t given enough to work with. Bisantz, on the other hand, beautifully mines all sides of his character, almost making Sheldrake sympathetic, which only means his ultimate selfishness hits that much harder.

Just about every character in the show has questionable morals, which can make it a hard show to love. Thankfully, the actors and director John Ambrosino don’t shy away from the reality of these characters. That’s not to say this is a gritty Promises. The script frequently takes us from a dark moment to a hilarious comedy bit, and Ambrosino handles the transitions expertly. The show plays out against a Day-Glo set (designed by Peter Watson), with spot-on costumes by Courtney Dickson and Meghan O’Gorman. But the production’s aesthetic embraces the reality of the characters and the piece’s setting, relishing the look and feel of the late ’60s without letting the show get campy or ironic.

The entire show surges along with the syncopated pulse of Bacharach’s trademark rhythms, embodied perfectly through the choreography of Josie Bray. Her dances channel the best of Michael Bennett without once feeling like a retread. Every frug and swim feels appropriate and character driven, but mostly exciting and fun. Luckily, Bray is given much to do, from a fully choreographed overture to the show-stopping “Turkey Lurkey Time.” Unfortunately, the orchestra (under the baton of Brian D. Wagner) can’t quite keep pace with the demanding score.

Despite a few missteps along the way, the youthful enthusiasm of the show (right down to the most enthusiastic troop of ushers I’ve ever seen – in matching track suits, no less!) carries the evening. Promises, Promisesmay not leave you with deep questions to debate over post-show drinks, but it will send you off with a smile on your face and a catchy tune stuck in your head, and frankly, I can’t think of a better present for this holiday season.

Promises, Promises, presented by the Animus Ensemble at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street in Boston’s South End, now through December 18. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday evenings at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 pm; Saturday matinee at 4:00 pm; Sunday matinee at 2:00 pm. Tickets are $38.50, with student and senior discounts available. Tickets are available at the BCA box office, throughBostonTheatreScene.com, or by calling 617-933-8600.

The Animus Ensemble’s season continues with a workshop production ofAlice, a new musical by Phoebe Sinclear and Scott Murphy, March 17 and 18 at the Green Street Studios.
Photo: Jess Dugan

 

Talkin’ Broadway: Carmen

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

Christina Baldwin and Bradley Greenwald

The American Repertory Theatre made a bold gamble opening their 2005-2006 season with Carmen, Bizet’s classic opera. However, the gamble paid off, and the theatre company known for its heady, stylish and sometimes impenetrable productions has given us (with the assistance of Minneapolis’s Theatre de la Jeune Lune) a passionate, grounded, stripped-down shock to the system.

Carmen is the story of two overlapping love triangles. Don Jose (Bradley Greenwald), a Basque soldier stationed in Seville, is torn between the love of Micaela (Jennifer Baldwin Peden), a pixie-like orphan taken in by his mother, and Carmen (Christina Baldwin), the gypsy woman working at a Seville tobacco factory. Carmen is the “love them and leave them” type, but when she attempts to trade Don Jose for Escamillo (Bill Murray) the toreador, tragedy sets in.

Baldwin is sublime in the title role. She avoids the clichés of the smoldering firecracker, finding Carmen’s sexiness in a laissez-faire attitude towards the men around her. When her claws come out in the second act, the effect is as devastating to the audience as it is to her lovers.

Peden gives us a quirky Micaela, far more interesting than the simple country girl the lyrics imply she is. Her big aria in the second act is a show-stopping tour de force, filling the entire theatre with her beautiful anguish.

Unfortunately, the men in the show don’t match the women. Greenwald’s Don Jose has a tendency to fade into the background. He holds himself with an awkwardness that is certainly in character with his wandering outsider status. Yet his portrayal leaves the audience wondering how he ever ended up in the center of a love triangle between two gorgeous women.

Thomas Derrah, the only member of the A.R.T. repertory company appearing, also is the only actor with a non-singing role. He brings a suitable nastiness to the role of Zuniga. Murray, as the toreador, is not quite threatening enough, not quite sexy enough, and not quite up to the vocal demands of his part, although he comes close. And yet, the show works, in large part on the strength of the women.

Musically, the show is a treat. Music director Barbara Brooks, who doubles as one of the two pianists, has made the most of Bizet’s many textures and dynamics. Singers explore the full range of their voices, from full-throated to whisper, and it all sounds crisp and clear without a microphone in evidence.

Opera purists may blanche at the loss of an orchestra, or to the lowering of some keys for a baritone in the role of Don Jose (generally a tenor role). But the two-piano arrangement, splendidly realized by the fingers of Brooks and Kathleen Kraulik, creates an intimacy that befits a production in a theatre this size.

Don’t let the label of “opera” fool you. This is theatre for everyone, and the best kind at that. It will draw you in, engage your mind, provoke your heart, and leave you wanting more.

Carmen, presented by the American Repertory Theatre in association with Theatre de la Jeune Lune at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street in Cambridge, now through October 8. Consult the A.R.T. websitefor curtain times. Ticket prices range from $37 to $74. Discounts available for students, seniors, and subscribers. Tickets for all performances can be ordered in advance through the A.R.T. Box Office by calling (617) 547-8300, by mail, or through the Internet at the A.R.T.’s website at www.amrep.org. Box office hours are noon to curtain time on performance days, noon to 5 p.m. on non-performance days, closed on Mondays.

The A.R.T.’s season continues with the English-language premiere ofThe Keening, by Humberto Dorado, at the Zero Arrow Street Theatre, October 14 – November 12.

Photo: Michal Daniel

 

Talkin’ Broadway: Frogz

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

Children’s theatre that delights and inspires young audiences is a rare treat to be commended. Children’s theatre that also entertains, or better yet, engages adults is even rarer. Frogz, a production by the Imago Theatre currently being presented by the American Repertory Theatre, falls somewhere in between. The show is more an exploration of movement akin to Cirque du Soleil than a legitimate play, featuring a series of unconnected, wordless scenes set to music. Each scene involves actors in elaborate costumes, invoking everything from animals to inanimate objects through the sort of exercises typical to those used in acting classes. For example, the show opens with three frogs staring at the audience for an uncomfortably long time. Then, one frog moves its head in a rather frog-like way, and we are all expected to delight in the veracity of its froggishness. To the production’s credit, the children in the audience giggle and squeal with excitement, although at the performance I attended, the adults remained nonplussed.

While some scenes feel like overblown descendents of skits from The Muppet Show – think dancing accordions and floating, black-lit string creatures – the show does get more interesting as it progresses. A cowboy whose face has been replaced by a contraption that scrolls drawings to tell the story is entertaining, if occasionally a little off-color for children’s theatre. A troupe of sloths have some funny business stacking boxes. Penguins play musical chairs. If it all sounds rather simplistic, well, it is, but there is often charm in simplicity.

The five performers – Rex Jantze, Jonathan Godsey, Kyle Delamarter, Danielle Vermette, and Leah James Abel – all ably throw themselves into the proceedings, squeezing the most fun they can from the material. Carol Triffle and Jerry Mouawad, together credited with creation, design, and direction of the show, have put together a stylish evening, but one can’t help but wish there was a little substance to go with the style.

Imago Theatre’s Frogz, presented by the American Repertory Theatre at the Zero Arrow Street Theatre in Cambridge, now through July 31. Curtain times are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday at 7:30 pm, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm. Ticket prices are $50 for Friday and Saturday evening, and $40 for weeknights and matinees. Kids (under age 15) pay half price. Seniors, students, A.R.T. subscribers and members receive $10 off regular prices. Tickets for all performances can be ordered in advance through the A.R.T. Box Office by calling (617) 547-8300, by mail, or through the Internet at the A.R.T.’s website at www.amrep.org. Box office hours are noon to curtain time on performance days, noon to 5 p.m. on non-performance days, closed on Mondays.

The A.R.T.’s summer offerings will also include the return of the sold-out centerpiece of the A.R.T.’s recent South African Festival – Pamela Gien’sThe Syringa Tree, directed by Larry Moss, for a limited engagement July 15 – August 7 at the Loeb Drama Center.
Photo: Jerry Mouawad

Talkin’ Broadway: Into The Woods

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

Aimee Doherty (Cinderella), Miguel Cervantes (Jack), Evan Harrington (Baker) and Veronica J. Kuehn (Little Red Ridinghood)

The production is the final show of the 20th anniversary season. It’s also the company’s last hurrah in its current theatre space before moving to a brand-new, larger, state-of-the-art theatre. And the cast is a Who’s Who of Boston theatre. So to say expectations were high for the New Repertory Theatre’s production of Into The Woods might be something of an understatement. Happily, director Rick Lombardo has crafted a crowd-pleaser that’s both delightful and provocative.

Originally intended to open the company’s new theatre, Into The Woodsis a sprawling show – with seventeen cast members and an eight-piece band. Squeezing it all into the company’s tiny space is a feat all in itself. Lombardo and choreographer Kelli Edwards have compensated by utilizing every inch of space in the theatre, bringing characters into the aisles and even above the stage. The result is a more intimate Woods, where the characters’ realism trumps their fantastical elements, making the story of communal responsibility and parental obligations resonate even stronger.

Continue reading

Talkin’ Broadway: You Never Know

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

Haviland Stillwell and Ben Steinfeld

Can musicals still enchant a cynical audience, sweep us into a fantasy land, and maybe even make our lives a little better? Charles Strouse sure thinks so, and he’s written a delightful new show to prove his theory. You Never Know, now playing its world premiere engagement at the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, RI, is Strouse’s love song to the power of musical theatre. While the show is not without problems, it is undoubtedly the best thing to emerge from his pen sinceAnnie.

Ben Shapiro (played by Ben Steinfeld) is a young composer at a crossroads: his lawyer father wants him to go to law school, but his passion is in the theatre where his late grandfather toiled unsuccessfully. His granddad – also named Ben – has recently passed away, so young Ben has rented out a rehearsal studio for a public read-through of the unfinished musical left behind. As friends and strangers join the reading, their lives get tangled up in the story they’re enacting. Before long, both the characters and the audience are immersed in the show within the show, awash in tap dancing and those elusive (but rewarding) hummable tunes.

The conceit of the show works, but sometimes it works against itself. The book, which is credited as “by Charles Strouse with Rinnie Groff,” is solid, with plenty of laugh lines and a compelling story. Because the show is set in a rehearsal studio, there’s a piano on stage at all times. The two-level set features another studio above where a band and some dancers are rehearsing. By the second number, when the band conveniently begins playing a dance tune as the characters reach a dance moment, I found myself hoping that this wouldn’t be a musical that pretends it’s not a musical. Will there be some sort of textual excuse for every note that’s sung, every step that’s danced? Thankfully, this idea is gradually abandoned as the power of the music takes over. And, with songs that echo the best of Gershwin and Kern, and dances (by Christopher d’Amboise) reminiscent of Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor’s work at MGM, it’s easy to get taken in quickly. Still, some of the songs and scenes from the play-within-the-play are laughably bad, particularly those that suffer from too much exposition. Are the creators trying to show us why the elder Ben’s career never took off, or are they making fun of musicals of the 1940s? Either way, both the play and the audience would be better served by better material, matching the quality of the “old show” to the “present day” material. Continue reading

Talkin’ Broadway: The Trojan Whore

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

Lonnie McAdoo and Jason Myatt

Did you hear about the unwinnable war being fought for personal reasons that went on for far too long? Yeah, me too. And so, apparently, have the folks at the Mill 6 Collaborative, who are currently presenting The Trojan Whore, a new comedy by Sean Michael Welch all about that war. That’s right, I was talking about the Trojan War, you silly readers.

If you thought the above paragraph was arch and clever, you’re in for a treat with Sean Michael Welch’s play. If, however, you’re tired of loose metaphors for the Bush administration’s policies disguised as political theatre, you might want to stay away.

Even for those of us tired of preachy, anti-Bush shows, there is a lot to recommend in The Trojan Whore. John Edward O’Brien has staged the work effectively in the tiny, 30-seat Devanaughn Theatre at the Piano Factory, emphasizing the personal conflicts that underlie national battles. The cast is uniformly talented, eliciting their fair share of laughs and even a bit of pathos.  Continue reading