JewishBoston.com: In a Love Triangle with Art & Religion: My Name is Asher Lev at the Lyric Stage Company

Originally published on JewishBoston.com.

When someone inherits more than one tradition, how can he make them mesh? For many contemporary Jews, this question may arise when parents come from different faiths or different Jewish streams. For the title character of My Name is Asher Lev, the challenge arises when a Hasidic boy turns out to be an artistic prodigy. Religious Jews aren’t meant for the arts, we’re told. To paint requires breaking all manner of mitzvot (religious laws), from the second commandment (you know, the one about graven images) to the rules of modesty and honoring one’s parents. Those last two are particularly troublesome for Asher, whose artistic impulse leads him to paint nudes and eventually crucifixion scenes featuring his parents. To use director Scott Edmiston’s art-world metaphor, Asher must figure out in which frame he will live his life.  Continue reading

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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

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, visitwww.ZeitgeistStage.com.

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