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 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 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