Talkin’ Broadway: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Little Shop of Horrors, The Women

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

The opening of Boston’s very own company of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee gave me occasion to revisit the show, which I first saw over a year ago in its Broadway incarnation. At the time, I posted my feelings on a message board:

“The show is very, very funny. Very funny. Hilarious. The performers are all fantastic, landing every joke, nuance, and song. But … but …

“Well, you can feel the show’s roots in improv. The characters are all fully realized, and the situation is funny, but there’s not a whole lot of depth. Any ‘journey’ a character takes happens in typical William Finn ‘one song epiphany’ style. There’s not much of a through line or an arc to the evening.”

While all of this is still true, it didn’t bother me nearly as much the second time around. Perhaps because I knew what I was in for, I was more able to simply sit back and laugh, which is exactly what I did.

The cast assembled for the Boston production is every bit as good as the New York originals, in a few cases even better. Betsy Wolfe, as host and former spelling champion Rona Lisa Peretti, provides the perfect center to the exuberantly chaotic goings-on at the Bee, a mothering presence who nonetheless has a touch of zaniness herself. She’s joined on the adult side of the proceedings by two excellent character actors: Daniel Pearce, pathetically hilarious as Vice Principal Douglas Panch, and James Monroe Iglehart, striking both fear and comfort into the hearts of spellers and audience members alike as comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney.

Each of the “kids” is a standout in his or her own right. To single out a few: Sara Inbar, as the earnestly dorky, politically-active Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, is so perfect in her role that I hoped this time she might win despite the script. Stanley Bahorek’s Leaf Coneybear, the
weirdest of the weird kids assembled, manages to be entertainingly odd in an entirely different manner than Jesse Tyler Ferguson was on Broadway. Jared Gertner captures the nuances of William Barfee, the loser who has convinced himself that winning is better than having friends, without being quite as creepy as Dan Fogler was in the part. The result is a character who’s just as memorable, but considerably more likable and easy to root for.

James Lapine’s direction keeps the show moving along at an exciting pace, and he’s adapted the show well to a more traditional proscenium setup. The design team transfers the show’s gymnasium feel to theatre well, with Beowulf Boritt’s set extending out through the audience and even into the
lobby, thanks to lots of laminated “schoolwork” and motivational posters. The five-piece band serves the score well, with conductor Janet Roma getting in a couple of choice moments of stage business as well.

Spelling Bee may not be a classic for the ages, but it’s a guaranteed evening of laughs. And you’ll definitely want to catch this talented young cast so that when the 50th Annual Bee rolls around, you’ll be able to say you saw them when …
Little Shop Of Horrors

For a different sort of “I saw them when …” opportunity, head down to the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre, where the Animus Ensemble’ fourth season has begun with a new production of Little Shop of Horrors. The company seems to specialize in musicals about people living on the fringes of society, having presented memorable productions of Once Upon A Mattress (with a male Winifred) and Promises, Promises in previous seasons.

Like those shows, Little Shop deals with outsiders looking for a way into society, in this case the poor schlemiel Seymour Krelborn (Christian Daniel Kiley), orphan flower-shop attendant who sees his big break come in the person of a strange and unusual plant dubbed Audrey II (Neil
Graham). What sets this production apart from every other Little Shop you’ve ever seen is that rather than haul old the rented Audrey II puppet, director John Ambrosino has cast a large, bald, tattooed rock and roll singer to not only voice but also embody the plant on stage. (As the plant
grows, Graham is joined by dancers Erin Pellechia, Christin Fagone, and Maria Larossa.)

The good news is, the approach works, and not only because Graham is a tremendously charismatic personality on stage. Removing the puppet forces audience members who have seen the show before and think they know it inside and out to reconsider what’s happening on stage and take Audrey II a
bit more seriously as a character. The tone shifts from that of a campy tribute to shlock horror to something more akin to a morality play. The result is sometimes goofy, but more often provocative and even a little bit threatening, without sacrificing any of the warmth or humor of the script.

The production is also blessed with a perfect pair of leads. Kiley is a strong singer and endearing presence, winning over the hearts of the audience so we’re on his side even as he begins to kill his acquaintances to feed his plant. Erin Tchoukaleff brings to the role of Audrey a sense of knowing worldliness underneath the bimbo exterior that adds weight to her decisions. It doesn’t hurt that she sings beautifully, either.

The show is played on a unit set, designed by Peter Watson, dotted with evocative ’50s era propaganda and film posters. Choreographer Josie Bray utilizes the “plant dancers” and the ubiquitous urchin girls (Heather Fry, Emilie Battle, and Sehri Wickliffe) in establishing the atmosphere for various scenes, giving each group their own distinct dance vocabulary. And the four-piece band, led by Bob Mollicone, ably balances the rock and roll leanings of the score with the theatrical necessities of the piece, letting loose at just the right moments.

While the show aims high, it doesn’t quite reach the stature of previous Animus productions. Eric Ruben is miscast at Mr. Mushnik, delivering a rather flat portrayal of the flower shop owner. And at times, the performances of supporting players Jim Jordan (hilarious as Dr. Orin Scravello, the S&M dentist) and Perri Lauren in a variety of small roles slip dangerously close to silly collegiate theatre.
The Women
Maureen Keiller and Georgia Lyman in The Women
Next door at the BCA’s Roberts Studio Theatre we have almost the opposite situation: one of our most established
theatre companies (SpeakEasy Stage Company) performing a classic play (The Women) in a relatively straightforward rendition. Director Scott Edmiston wisely gets his ladies on stage and then lets them do what they do best without too many bells and whistles. And this stage is filled with just about the best set of actresses I’ve ever seen assembled. The play centers on Mary Haines (Anne Gottlieb), a sweet woman married to a successful businessman. Mary’s biggest flaw, at least at the start of the play, is her choice of friends, a bunch of gossipy, catty women whose happiness seems dependent on the suffering of others. Of course, what may be misery for the characters is pure delight for the audience, and Clare Boothe Luce’s script is chock full of bon mots deliciously delivered at a breakneck pace.

Leading the charge is the hilarious Maureen Keiller as Sylvia Fowler – imagine Christine Baranski playing Dorothy
Parker in a foul mood, and I mean that in the best possible way. Nancy E. Carroll is the perfect counterweight as Nancy Blake, the acerbic narrator of the show whose deadpan delivery is an ideal balance to the larger than life
Keiller. Gottlieb treads the middle ground, succeeding in the difficult job of creating a sympathetic, interesting, and real heroine amidst the verbal barrage of her friends. Gottlieb manages the most surprising trick in the show – making the audience care as much about the story as they do about the oratory acrobatics.

So much of the cast is so perfect, it’s impossible to find descriptions of their performances, but trust me when I say that from the youngest (Sophie Rich as Little Mary) to the oldest (Mary Klug’s Countess de Lage, or perhaps Alice Duffy’s Mrs. Morehead) the cast sparkles. Georgia Lyman, as
the “other woman” in Mary’s husband’s life, is a pro at the screwball-style machine-gun patter but occasionally missteps in her more dramatic scenes. But most of the missteps are minor in the scheme of this production.

The only serious flaw comes at the end of the first act, when for reasons entirely unclear to me Edmiston makes his directorial hand all too visible by inserting a musical number. The song isn’t entirely inappropriate – Cole Porter’s “Down in the Depths (on the 90th Floor)” certainly captures Mary’s mood at the end of the act, and one could envision it as background music during a filmic fade out on that scene. However, Edmiston brings out his entire cast of nearly two dozen women to belt out a jazzy rendition that dissolved much of the audience at the performance I attended into giggles.

Luckily, that moment is followed by intermission, enabling us all to regain our composure and erase the memory of the moment by the start of act two, which quickly returns to the high quality of the rest of the show.

Photo: Mike Lovett

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Talkin’ Broadway: Once Upon A Mattress

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

once upon a mattressPlease pardon the pun, but there’s only one way to describe the Animus Ensemble’s cross-cast production of Once Upon a Mattress, now playing at the Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts: Ballsy.  Director John Ambrosino has pushed the core joke of the show to the limit: now when Prince Dauntless sings that he’s “in love with a girl named Fred,” the irony isn’t that his beloved is somewhat masculine – his beloved is an actual man!

The gay marriage edition of Once Upon a Mattress was bound to happen sooner or later, and there could not have been a more skeptical audience member than I before the show started.  With gay anthems from Cher and Madonna playing on the PA and a hot pink set design by Andrew Haserlat looking more Taboo than Camelot, I braced myself for the worst.  The opening number featured a Minstrel portrayed by Stefanie Tovar as a butch dyke performance artist.  This, I thought to myself, is going to be a very long night.

And then something magical happened.  The stage flooded with fresh-faced young performers in modern dress carefully put together with some clever touches by Katie Sikkema. And backed by a band sounding much bigger than their numbers should allow (under the baton of Gary Durham), the company sold “Opening for a Princess” as the tuneful, funny song that it is.  Despite the modern dress, the clubland set, and Josie Bray’s choreography (unfortunately influenced by Wayne Cilento’sWicked moves), the number worked.

And the show kept working.  For, despite any political posturing Ambrosino might claim to be doing, at heart he (and, apparently, the rest of the Animus Ensemble) is just a big ol’ musical theatre queen, and I mean that in the best way possible.  Rather than directing the show to comment on the material, as the directors of both the recent television incarnation and the slightly less recent Broadway revival did, he infused his actors with the greatest gift a director can give: trust in the material.  So, by the time Brent Reno shows up in Esther Williams drag as the anything but “shy” Princess Winnifred, it doesn’t matter that the princess is being played by a man.  What matters is that the princess is being played by an actor who isn’t afraid to make the comedy as broad as can be while keeping the emotions of the love story honest and believable.  His impeccable timing and solid belt don’t hurt either.

Reno sets the bar high with his performance, moving instantly from madcap to touching.  But he’s matched by the other leads, from Kate deLima’s hilarious mile-a-minute Queen Aggravain to Todd Sandstrom’s sweetly dorky Dauntless.  Ariel Heller provides a solid legit sound to Sir Harry, although he’s somewhat upstaged by his Lady Larkin, Erin Tchoukaleff, who is about as ideal a soubrette as musical theatre could demand.

There are a few rough patches in the show, mostly centered on the secondary characters of the Jester and the Minstrel.  The material for these characters is tenuously connected to the main story at best, and this production offers no solution to this problem, although there is a spectacularly bizarre attempt to make the song “Very Soft Shoes” work that has to be seen to be believed.  I won’t spoil it for you here.

Still, the missteps are few and far between, and the rewards of this production are many.  As the opening (and closing) number says, a genuine princess is exceedingly rare.  I’d add that a relatively new theatre company with such a solid understanding of what makes musical comedy work is even rarer than that.  Don’t miss this one!

Once Upon a Mattress (Music by Mary Rodgers, Lyrics by Marshall Barer, Book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller, and Marshall Barer)  in the Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street in Boston, now through June 24th. Tickets are $33.50 – $38.50, with student and senior discounts available. For tickets or information, call the Box Office at 617-933-8600 or visit the Calderwood Pavilion box office, 527 Tremont Street, or visit one of these websites:www.animusensemble.org or www.bostontheatrescene.com.

 

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