Talkin’ Broadway: The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

Stephanie Umoh and Jaime Cepero III

Don’t be scared by the verbose title:Bubbly Black Girl is a surprisingly traditional musical coming of age story.  The spirited cast takes us from Los Angeles in the early ’60s to New York in the mid-’90s in a series of musical scenes loosely based on the life of playwright/composer/lyricist Kirsten Childs.  Childs first hit the stage as a Broadway dancer, eventually starring in Chicago opposite Chita Rivera.  Becoming frustrated with the roles available to African-American actors, she turned her talents to writing.

Bubbly Black Girl follows the story of Viveca, a black woman not entirely unlike Childs, who finds life much easier to navigate with a smile and a “bubbly” exterior. Eventually, her experiences growing up in the civil rights era and struggling to succeed as a Broadway dancer call into question the wisdom of living behind this façade. As the title promises, by the eleven o’clock number we see her shed her “chameleon skin” and commit herself to living with integrity.

Jacqui Parker, the star of last year’s Caroline, or Change, has stepped into the director’s spot for this outing.  Along with choreographer David Connolly, she’s put together a show that dances from scene to scene, era to era with grace befitting a show written by a dancer. Connolly makes good use of period dance steps to convey the passage of time, and he gives us a couple of delightful set pieces showing off the entire cast.

Stephanie Umoh, as Viveca, is on stage for almost the entire intermissionless show. While she sings and acts well, she’s not particularly convincing as a dancer, and she never quite achieves the luminosity of star quality called for by the role. She’s entertaining, but not nearly magnetic enough to carry this show on her back.

Her job is made a bit harder by the terrific supporting cast, many of whom prove to be far more interesting than the leading lady in the scenes they share with her.  Anich D’Jae, as Viveca’s friend Emily, exhibits expert comic timing as she teaches her friend the new rules for courting in the age of Black Power.  Jaime Cepero II similarly steals the spotlight as Viveca’s love interest, Gregory.  From his very funny turn as the only little boy in Viveca’s childhood dance class to his more adult declaration of love in the number “Beautiful Bright Blue Sky,” Cepero is a magnetic presence on stage.  Towards the end of the show, Trecia Reavis brings down the house with “Granny’s Advice,” a show-stopping blues number.

The cast is ably supported by a tight five-piece band under the direction of José Delgado.  John R. Malinowski’s evocative lighting and Eric Levenson’s minimal set pieces skillfully convey the variety of locations called for by the script.  Seth Bodie’s costumes are at times delightful, especially when he takes the opportunity for exaggeration, such as in the hippie and Black Power scenes.  However, his clothes for Umoh are distractingly ill-fitting, and some of the wigs employed make the women of the cast look like drag-queens parodies of the ’70s.

The biggest problem inherent in the show is one that Parker never quite solves.  The play is not nearly as edgy or adventuresome as one might expect from the title.  And that title also tells us exactly how the play will end, so the director’s challenge is making the journey there as captivating as possible.  And, despite some great supporting performances and a few excellent numbers, Bubbly Black Girl never quite sheds its own theatrical skin to become something greater.

SpeakEasy Stage Company presents The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds her Chameleon Skin, now through December 9 at the BCA Roberts Studio Theatre, 527 Tremont Street in Boston’s South End. Tickets and times atBostonTheatreScene.com, 617-933-8600, or at the Calderwood Pavilion Box Office, 527 Tremont Street.
Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

 

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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: 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: 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: Johnny Guitar

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

Kathy St. George stars as Vienna with (from left) John Porcaro, Christopher Cook and Drew Poling

Kathy St. George stars as Vienna with (from left) John Porcaro, Christopher Cook and Drew Poling

Do you ever go to the theatre and find yourself entertained, but feeling like something is missing from the experience? Get ready for that old familiar feeling once more, as The SpeakEasy Stage Company presents the New England premiere of last season’s Off-Broadway musical adaptation of the 1950s camp western filmJohnny Guitar. The play, a 2004 Outer Critics Circle Award winner, offers laughs, social commentary and a pleasant score. The script by Nicholas van Hoogstaten is solid, filled with laughs and just as relevant in today’s world of the Patriot Act as the novel and film were in the days of the House Un-American Affairs Committee. All it needs now is a reason for singing.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with the songs of Johnny Guitar. There’s just no particular reason for them to be attached to the play. With few exceptions, the songs feel like filler. Many of the songs, which have music by Martin Silvestri and Joel Higgins, with lyrics by Higgins, are first class filler, from the opening number that perfectly captures the style of a 1950s film title song, to the sweetly reflective first act closer, “Welcome Home.” But that doesn’t change the fact that when I wanted to write something nice about the song “In Old Santa Fe,” a lovely ballad from the middle of the first act, I couldn’t find the words to describe the song’s function in the show – because it doesn’t have one. Music Director José Delgado should be commended, however, for making the most out of slight material. The four-piece band perfectly captures the feel of both country western and 1950s doo-wop, and the singers do their best to make up for the lack of relevancy with considerable panache.

If a handful of extraneous (but by no means offensive) songs don’t bother you, there’s a lot to like about the show, particularly in the SpeakEasy’s production, wittily directed by the company’s Producing Artistic Director, Paul Daigneault. The cast is first rate, with particularly sterling performances from Kathy St. George as Vienna, the role originated by Joan Crawford in the film, and Margaret Ann Brady as her nemesis, Emma Small, the Mercedes McCambridge part. St. George perfectly embodies the power and self-consciousness of the saloon owner without belittling the character’s truth beneath the camp. Brady gives in to histrionics as she cackles her way through the show, but as the arch-villain of the piece, she’s allowed. The men are all capable, if a bit interchangeable. Christopher Chew’s Johnny Guitar isn’t so different from his rival for Vienna’s affection, The Dancin’ Kid (Timothy J. Smith), but the show, like the film before it, isn’t really about the men. The supporting cast turn in fine performances, particularly the trio of Christopher Cook, Luke Hawkins, and Drew Poling, who function as a Sons of the Pioneers style back-up group in many of the songs in addition to playing a multitude of supporting characters on both sides of the Vienna/Emma rivalry.

There are clever (and appropriately campy) stage effects, from a tumbling tumbleweed that opens the show to a chandelier that has a couple of tricks on hand. The set, designed by Caleb Wertenbaker, is just cartoonish enough to remind us not to take anything too seriously without looking silly. The costumes, designed by Gail Astrid Buckley, are never quite as fun as the rest of the production, but often mirror the look of the film and certainly serve their purpose. The lighting by James Milkey is somewhat more problematic, often leaving supporting characters or back-up singers in the dark, and trying unsuccessfully to substitute three static spotlights for a much-needed follow spot in the opening number, leaving the lead singer crossing through darkness in the middle of lines. Similarly, the sound design (by Briand Parenteau, with effects by Laura Grace Brown) is uneven, particularly when the lead singers are backed by the vocal trio, and everyone is over-amplified. In a theatre the size of the Roberts, these singers could certainly handle this score without any microphones, and hopefully, as the SpeakEasy gets more used to performing there, unamplified voices will become the trend.

Johnny Guitar in the Nancy and Edward Roberts Studio Theatre in the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St in Boston now through December 18th. Wednesday – Saturday at 8:00pm; Saturdays at 4 pm; Sundays at 3 pm. Tickets range from $30 to $40; $20 student rush available with valid college ID, at the box-office only, one hour before curtain, subject to availability. For tickets or information, call the Box Office at 617-933-8600 or visit the Calderwood Pavilion box office, 527 Tremont St. or visit one of these websites: www.speakeasystage.com or www.bostontheatrescene.com.
Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

Talkin’ Broadway: Company

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

Most theatre companies are considered bold and edgy when they occasionally stray from the endless succession of Shakespeare and Ibsen revivals to venture into the untested waters of new works. How ironic it is that The SpeakEasy Stage Company, Boston’s company so known for “staging Boston premieres” that the phrase is part of their logo, has chosen to inaugurate their new home in the Nancy and Edward Roberts Studio Theatre in the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts (say that one five times fast!) by making the bold and edgy choice of a revival! Of course, Sondheim and Furth’s Company certainly isn’t seen as often as Hamlet, but the obvious question everyone is asking is … why?

In the show’s program booklet, director Paul Daigneault suggests the time is right for Company, both because the new theatre offers physical resources necessary for the show that were previously unavailable to the SpeakEasy, and because the definition of marriage is such a hot topic in Massachusetts these days. One can’t argue with the former reason – this is certainly the largest production I’ve seen by the SpeakEasy, with a two-story set, a nine piece band, and an ensemble cast of fourteen, at times all on stage together. But does Company, which had its world premiere in Boston in 1970, really have anything to say about what constitutes a marriage in 2004?

Daigneault tries his best to say it does. Taking advantage of the minimal updating to the script and orchestrations from the 1995 Broadway and West End revivals of the show, Daigneault has chosen to set Companyfirmly in the present. Eric Levenson’s set is a slick, modern structure of chrome and light, juxtaposing a sleek, modern sensibility with a decidedly retro bachelor pad feel. While the disco-style light-up floor panels may hark back to Company‘s groovy origins, the costumes, designed by Gail Astrid Buckley and ranging from the wives bedecked in current shopping mall chic to a Marta (Sara Chase) dressed like a Britney Spears acolyte, making it clear that this Company takes place now. The actors gamely try to pass off dialogue referring to themselves “getting soused” and being “hopelessly square” as current slang, and they almost succeed. But the mere portability of the show from the 1970s to today does not instantly make it relevant to the politics of today.  Continue reading