Category Archives: Theater Reviews

This Man of La Mancha Is Not Quite The Impossible Dream

Man of La Mancha at the New Rep

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

The New Rep Theatre’s current production of The Man of La Mancha directed by Antonio Ocampo-Guzman looked promising as the cast took the stage. It appeared it would be earthy and salty, but unfortunately, it did not turn out that way. I found this version to be disjointed and confusing. At times I wasn’t sure if it was reminiscent of a production done in Berlin in the 1920s or a Harvard Square coffee house in the 1960s. The transitions were choppy and it did not convey the edginess that it meant too.

Having the musicians playing instruments while acting their parts on a set that resembled backstage at a theater was a nice touch but the music was at many times tinny. Lead actor Maurice Emmanuel Parent who was superb in the Speakeasy Production’s Scottsboro Boys doesn’t seem able to quite settle into his role. I don’t think it is as much him as it is the material he is working with.

This is a production had a lot of potential, but it could be possible the director got too caught up in trying to send a message about the current state of politics today instead of letting the work be more subtle and allowing the audience to read into it their own interpretation.

Man of La Mancha
Through December 31st
New Rep Theatre
Watertown, MA

She Loves Me Is A Romantic Delight In Stoneham

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

If you are feeling a bit overwhelmed by holiday shopping I would suggest you take a couple of hours away from the madness and stop by to see the Greater Boston Stage Company’s production of She Loves Me. This very warm musical, which had its first run in 1963, will be familiar to many of you who have seen the movie The Shop Around The Corner. The story about a romance that began through letters and involves mistaken identity is funny, touching, and warm. It is also quite enjoyable.

Jennifer Ellis

Of course, with Jennifer Ellis in one of the lead roles you could never be disappointed. Ms Ellis is a positively outstanding talent with a superb singing voice and amazing acting ability. I would pay just to see her read the phone book. Yes, she is that good.

Ellis as, Amalia Balash, plays opposite Sam Simark, who takes on the role of Georg Nowack, have an onstage chemistry that is magical. Having such a wonderful score to showcase their voices doesn’t hurt.

Sam Simahk

The play is set in Hungary as Christmas approaches and revolves around the romances both Amalia and Georg are having via mail (not email, but the ones you have to put a stamp on and deposit in a mailbox, remember those?), with people they have not yet met. It turns out the two have been writing to each other without realizing it, which becomes more complicated when Amalia gets a job at Maraczak’s, a perfumery, where Georg is already employed. The two do not hit it off well. The confusion draws in the other employees of the store as well as Mr. Maraczak (Tom Gleadow) who is also dealing with a case of mistaken identity.

Jared Troilo

Local favorite Jared Trolio plays the obnoxious Steven Kodaly who is pursuing fellow employee Ilona Ritter played by Aimee Doherty. Trolio is just wonderful in the number Ilona, which has a bit of a Mambo beat. Ms Doherty will have you smiling with A Trip To The Library.

A Romantic Atmosphere with Nick Sulfaro as the maitre d’ of a local restaurant is one of many stand out numbers that include Tonight At Eight (Georg), Vanilla Ice Cream (Amalia), and Where’s My Shoe (Amalia and Georg). Perspective sung by employee Ladislav Sipos (Robert Saoud) is filled with advice on how to keep your job. The delivery boy and aspiring clerk Arpad (Brendan Callahan) appeals for a promotion in Try Me. It would be very hard to refuse him after this appeal.

The story is not a complicated one, but it is so enjoyable to watch. The musical numbers are just wonderful and with Musical Director Matthew Stern at the helm the orchestration is tight. Choreography is by director Ilyse Robbins and is smooth and light.

While the entire cast and production are wonderful, Ms Ellis and Mr. Simahk are positively great. This is a play worth seeing. It will leave you with a big smile on your face.

She Loves Me
Through December 23rd
The Greater Boston Stage Company
Stoneham, Ma

Words That Sparkle

Tartuffe At The Huntington

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

You could sit through the current production of Moliere’s Tartuffe now playing at the Huntington Theater with your eyes closed and have a wonderful evening. Open your eyes and the experience is sublime.

…a fast paced feast of words that never lags, not for even moment.

Director Peter DuBois chose to use a new translation by Ranjit Bolt which is all in verse, done in octameter (eight syllables per line), with rhymed couplets. The result is a fast paced feast of words that never lags, not for even moment.

The play, set in a Manhattan style terraced apartment with Louis XVI furnishings, is about family patriarch Orgon (Frank Wood) who is conned by the religious charlatan Tartuffe (Brett Gelman). All around him are able to see through Tartuffe but none can convince him of what is happening. The opening scene sets the tone where Dorine (Jane Pfitsch), the outspoken servant and truth teller, is reporting to Orgon on what has happened at home while he was away. To Dorine’s frustration, all he wants to know about is Tartuffe. Ms Pfitsch is very strong in her role and never misses a beat.

Frank Wood (Orgon) and Brett Gelman (Tartuffe)
(Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson)

While Tartuffe is often described as a hypocrite, preaching fealty to God while trying to bed down his follower’s wife and steal his fortune, he is “a rare trickster” who has no convictions to be unfaithful to. He is fully aware of all he is doing and has carefully planned out his plot. Orgon’s weakness is his own hypocrisy. He has supposedly become a man of the Lord while now turning his back on his family, so much so that he is giveing his home over to Tartuffe and even promises his daughter’s hand in marriage to him. He also remains blind to the advances his idol is making towards his wife Elmire (Melissa Miller).

Brett Gelman’s Tartuffe is barely seen until late in Act I, but when he does arrive he is impressive. Wearing a black fez, long coat, and with religious symbols hanging from his neck, he is the picture of phony piety. Though obviously sleazy, he is also very funny as he manipulates Orgon while fending off being exposed by those around him. Frank Wood conveys just enough weakness to be vulnerable to a con man, but at the same time is someone who certainly should know better.

A scene where Orgon is hiding under a table while Tartuffe is attempting to seduce Elmire is sidesplittingly funny. Melissa Miller and Brett Gelman show off their wonderful comedic talent, while Mr. Wood is a positive riot as he is peaking out from under the table.

There is never a dull moment.

The words, the movements, the glances all make this just a joy to watch. The verse keeps them all so well connected and everything just flows. There is never a dull moment.

This play is very, very funny. It is also ironic that with all of the wonderful language, one of the funniest scenes is when Orgon and Elmire’s daughter Mariane (Sarak Oakes Muirhead) is caught in the middle of an argument about her future. Ms Oakes is positively hysterical without saying a word. Her movement about the stage and her facial expressions are simply hilarious.

Paula Plum swings a mean walking stick in the role of Madame Pernelle, Orgon’s mother. Matthew Bretschneider as Orgon and Elmire’s son Damis is a riot as he is recording the madness on his IPhone. Kate Elinoff is not on stage for long, but she manages to get a couple of the biggest laughs in the role of Madame Pernelle’s maid. Again, ironically, she does this without saying a word, but her facial expressions are priceless. Matthew J. Harris is solid as Cleante, a voice of reason and calm. Gabriel Brown brings a charm to his role as Valere, Mariane’s fiancee. And be sure to pay attention as Steven Barkhimer’s Laurent ascends the stairs in his religious garb. As Tratuffe’s servant he brings a touch of Marty Feldman’s Igor from Young Frankenstein to the play. The entire cast is just wonderful.

Melissa Miller (Elmire) and Brett Gelman (Tartuffe)
(Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson)

The Huntington’s Tartuffe is one not to be missed. While you will be tempted to make the comparisons with what is happening on stage with all of the madness going on the in world, just remember it is still okay to laugh. And, if this play does not have you laughing you have truly lost all sense of humor. It sparkles! I enjoyed every second of Tartuffe, and I am sure you will too. Don’t miss it.

The Huntington Theatre
Through December 10
264 Huntington Ave., Boston



A Powerful Musical In Ogunquit

From Here To Eternity: A New Musical
The Ogunquit Playhouse

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

James Jones was at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He had enlisted in the U.S. Army before the war and was stationed in Hawaii in what seemed like a world away from the war raging in Europe that threatened to include the United States. Army life even before the war was not easy. Many of those who enlisted were living very difficult lives in Depression Era America and looked at the Army as being a way out.

Derek Carley and Company
(Photo Credit: Gary Ng)

Jones wrote about his experiences during this time in the novel From Here to Eternity, which was later made into an Academy Award winning movie. The novel was a no holds barred look at Army life during that period. It was not pretty. The movie shows much, but not all, of what Jones wrote. Now, a musical play with lyrics by Tim Rice, music by Stuart Brayson, and book Donald Rice & Bill Oakes presents us with a work that is much closer to the original novel. It is a painful story but it is told with understanding and sympathy for those involved. All the characters are based on people James Jones knew while serving.

The set at the Ogunquit Playhouse is atmospheric. With large palm trees and multiple levels with lattice work that reaches to the ceiling the beauty of Hawaii is felt but with a dark overtone. Subtle set changes along with images being projected on the walls are used to set the different moods and they are used well.

Kevin Aichele and Company
(Photo Credit: Gary Ng)

The score is outstanding and hits hard and fast with the opening number G Company Blues. The choreography is tight and very physical, conveying the hard life these men lived. Other songs such as Thirty Year Man, Don’cha Like Hawaii, and I Love The Army. Something In Return is an amazing number that was superbly done. It allows us to experience the hope and despair of those stationed on the island as well as the women who share this difficult life. These women include prostitutes and the wife of an ambitious and cruel officer.

Those familiar wth the book and/or movie will quickly recognize most of the characters. If not, they will quickly become known to you. The outstanding cast plays each as their own, and with their solid acting and beautiful voices make this a very powerful work indeed.

The story of cruelty and the misuse of power hardly seems the material for a musical but it works and works well here. With an outstanding cast led by Derek Carley as Private Prewitt and Kevin Aichele in the role of Sargent Warden the pain and struggles of these individuals is brought to life in a way that is both painful to watch but done with tenderness and compassion.

Robyn Hurder plays Karen Holmes the abused wife of the ambitious but weak Captain Dana Holmes played by Bradley Dean. They make the ugliness of such a marriage almost too real, but it is necessary. We do get to see the tender side of Karen in her scenes with Sargent Warden with whom she is having an affair. And for those who might be wondering how the famous beach scene from the movie is recreated, I will just say this is not a staging of the movie; however, the emotions from that iconic movie movement are captured here.

Michael Tacconi and Reed Campbell
(Photo Credit: Gary Ng)

The wise cracking Private Angelo Maggio has been cast perfectly with Michael Tocconi in the role. His rendition of I Love The Army is heart wrenching. Reed Campbell returns to the Ogunquit stage after his outstanding performance in Bullets Over Broadway, and proves that he was no one shot wonder. He again shows his amazing talent as the sadistic Sargent Fatso Judson. By the time Judson gets what is coming to him there is nobody in the house who feels sympathy for him.

Jenna Nicole Schoen plays the prostitute Lorene that Private Prewitt falls for. She has a beautiful voice and is wonderful in her part. Ms Schoen captures in her character a loving woman who has had to turn her feelings off in order to survive in a hard world. Private Prewitt manages to break through the wall she has put up. Jodi Kimura as Sandra, the madame of the local brothel, conveys the combination of a jaded life along with
compassion and understanding.

The finale with the attack on Pearl Harbor is spectacular with slow motion sequences from the actors as well as magnificent use of the projection equipment that brings the audience into that infamous day. It also shows us how life has been transformed by world events and the tragic consequences of people who wield their power, no matter how small, over others with cruelty that result in such horrific consequences. The song The Boys of 41 which is reprised at the end of the play is poignant and moving as we see the names of those who gave their lives projected onto the walls of the theatre.

I do have to mention the amazing job Richard Latta has done with the lighting for this production. The subtle changes are so very effective in setting the mood for the different scenes.

From Here To Eternity at the Ogunquit Playhouse is truly an experience not to be missed. Artistic Director Brad Kenney has closed out the Playhouse’s 85th season in spectacular fashion.

Just a final note. This is not a play that would be appropriate for children. It does handle the serous themes in a tasteful way but I believe it could be disturbing for children.

From Here To Eternity: A New Musical
The Ogunquit Playhouse
Ogunquit, Maine
Through October 29

Men On Boats A Sinking Ship

Men On Boats

The SpeakEasy Stage, Boston

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Photo Credit: Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots

Men On Boats looked to be an interesting, thought provoking, and even edgy play. Unfortunately, it was none of those things. The story based on John Wesley Powel’s 1869 expedition down the Colorado River to the Grand Canyon has a cast made up of non male actors in the roles of the explorers. It is an interesting concept and one I was looking forward to.

Author Jaclyn Backhaus is quoted in an interview when asked if she would call it a feminist play that “I would like it to be one, if only to piss off the six or seven old white men who walked out during the first half of this past run.” Well, as an old white man all I can say to Ms Backhaus is the only thing about this play that pissed me off was the extraordinary tediousness of it. I would have been happy to have been offended, challenged, or provoked by this production. I appreciate edgy work even if I don’t agree with it. However, this was far from provocative. It was simply a dreadful waste of 100 minutes. If she wants to make people angry, and that is a very legitimate thing to do with theatre, she needs to do better than this. I would much rather be offended than bored to death.

I have always admired the SpeakEasy Stage Company for its willingness to put on new and challenging works. And I have no doubt they will continue to do so. We are lucky to have such a company in Boston I think it is important they do that, and I must say I have been influenced by many of the fine productions have seen there. This just is not one of them.

Men On Boats
Through October 7
The SpeakEasy Stage Company

The Royale Comes Out Swinging

The Royale

At The Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Lowell

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

The Royal, directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian, this year’s season opener at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, is a fast paced work that doesn’t let up for a moment during its 80 minutes. Very loosely based on Jack Johnson’s fight against Jim Jeffries it is the story of Jay “The Sport” Jackson who is the first black man to challenge for the Heavyweight Championship of the World.

Toran White and Thomas Silcott. Photo by Meghan Moore.

Jay Jackson is played by Thomas Silcott who brings us into the ring with and into the mind of the confident but conflicted challenger. Playwright Marco Ramirez has given him plenty to work with in this thought provoking play, and Silcott has an amazing presence on the stage. The dialogue is crisp and sharp like an action filled boxing contest. Ramirez not only gives us insight into what a fighter is thinking about while in the ring, but also deals with the wider implications of of having a black man win the white dominated championship in 1910.

Silcott has an amazing presence on the stage.

This conflict is sharpened by a conversation Jackson has with his sister Nina played by Ramona Lisa Alexander. Nina warns Jackson that his victory could result in violence against blacks across the nation, and she suggests subtly that it may be better for everyone if he lost. She feels that things are moving too fast and questions if Jackson is putting his personal gain ahead of his people. It is an intense back and forth that has the power of a hard fought boxing match.

Toran White, Mark W. Soucy, and Thomas Silcott.
Photo by Meghan Moore.

Mark W. Soucy plays the fast talking white promoter Max who also serves as reporter and commentator for the two boxing matches that take place in the play. His sharp dialog keeps the adrenaline flowing. As a ballyhooer he puts Don King to shame. You can feel the excitement build listening to him. He’s good.

George Bennett Watson as Wynton, Jackson’s trainer, and Toran White who plays Fish, Jackson’s opponent in the opening scene as well as his sparring partner for the big fight, are both excellent in their roles which are a bit lower octane but no less important. Wynton has been around the game for some time and seems a bit uncomfortable with the social implications of the fight. Fish is excited to be a part of such a great event but also is naive and is the character who elicits sympathy from the audience. Both actors are strong and very competent in their roles.

Lighting (Karen Perlow) and sound (David Remedios) are used very effectively. A scene where Jackson is hitting the heavy bag while his shadow is cast against the side and back of the stage is very powerful. Mr. Ramirez has said that he sees boxing as a percussive sport and incorporates a hip hop rhythm into the play. Something that works very well.

Ramona Lisa Alexander and Thomas Silcott.
Photo by Meghan Moore.

The fight scenes are different in that instead of having the boxers throw staged punches at each other they face the audience and punch towards them while also using the noise of stomping feet and claps to represent punches. It is a novel and very effective way to stage a fight and the accompanying dialog along with superb lighting allows us to step into the minds of the fighters.


The Royale is a boxing play but it is much more. In these heavily politicized times I am always fearful that a playwright will, as they too often do, preach to the audience about how it should think. Mr. Ramirez instead choses to leave us with questions. This is far more effective in helping bring us together to find common ground.

Whether or not you are a boxing fan, The Royale is a play that you should not miss.

The Royale
Through October 8
The Merrimack Repertory Theatre
Lowell, MA 978.654.4678


Friends To The Beginning

Merrily We Roll Along
The Huntington Theatre

Through October 15

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

The Huntington Theatre Company plans to produce all fifteen of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals. This year they have begun their season with Merrily We Roll Along, the Sondheim play with book by George Furth that had a very rocky beginning in 1981, closing on Broadway after just 16 performances. Sondheim and Furth revised the play in 1992, but not on Broadway. Twenty years after that Maria Friedman, who played Mary in the 1992 production, directed a new production that became a hit in London’s West End.

And now, thanks to Huntington’s artistic director Peter DuBois, Boston audiences have a chance to see this wonderful production with Maria Freidman directing. For a play that had such a rough beginning it has grown into a solid work.

Mark Umbers and Aimee Doherty
Photo; T. Charles Erickson

The story about three friends, Frank, Charley, and Mary is told in reverse. The play begins as their friendship is coming apart in 1976 and works it way back to when they first got together in 1957. It is a story of the challenges facing friends as they move ahead in life and begin to define their values, which can often turn out to be much different as they experience life. There is no doubt audience members will find much that is familiar in the play.

As the play opens we learn of the tension between Frank and Charley who’s friendship had also turned into them becoming a song writing team and playwrights. Creatively they worked well together. The two had become quite successful, but each measures success in a different way, and this has caused much tension between them.

…a stage that is overflowing with talent giving us theatre that is a joy to watch.

Frank and Charley are played by Mark Umbers and Damian Humbley respectively. They are reprising their roles from the West End production and are marvelous together. Mary is played by Eden Espinosa who brings an honesty as well as a tenderness and wit to the role of Frank and Charley’s novelist friend who sees the destructive effects success is having on the friendship but is not able to do anything to stop it. She is also in love with Frank but never lets on to him.

Damian Humbley, Mark Umbers, and Rebecca Gibel
Photo: T. Charles Erickson

In what is one of the musical highlights, Mr Humbley as Charley is positively superb when he encapsulates all of his misgivings about what Frank is doing wth the direction of their career. The number, Franklin Shepard, Inc, takes place during an interview at NBC studios and is a high octane piece that is a show stopper. The audience at the performance I attended loved it, as did I.

There is so much to enjoy about this show. The score has to be structured in an unconventional manner as the story is moving backwards. I would imagine Sondheim enjoyed playing with this musical timeline.  Music Director Matthew Stern is in top form in his treatment of it. The Choreography by Tim Jackson is fantastic. Watching the company moving about the stage during “The Blob” set in 1962 is both very funny and brilliantly done. Other numbers include the touching but upbeat Old Friends, Not A Day Goes By performed beautifully by Jennifer Ellis, and the Vaughn Meader influenced Bobby And Jackie And Jack a comic musical takeoff of the Kennedy’s.

Eden Espinosa, Mark Umbers, and Damian Humbley
Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Taking this ride back to where it all began is a fascinating journey. Along the way we go from the judgements we make of the characters having seen them after so much occurred to learning how they got that way. It is so interesting to observe as it reminds us how fragile friendships can be, and how what we value as individuals can create conflicts with those we love. It also reminds us of how hard it can be to frame our values when we are not sure of what it means to be successful.

Umbers, Humbley, and Espinosa are just fantastic. Add the remarkable Jennifer Ellis as Beth and Aimee Doherty as Gussie and you have a stage that is overflowing with talent giving us theatre that is a joy to watch.

Jennifer Ellis and Mark Umbers
Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Many years ago a very successful man gave me a piece of advice. he told me not to chase success but to chase the idea. Success will follow. I believe by success he meant happiness is seeing your idea blossom. Charley understands this,  while deep inside Frank does too, but just can’t allow himself to accept it. Mary feels the pain for both of them.

I recommend this play as it is not only so well done, but it will also leave you reflecting on your own definition of success and the value of friendship. You could do worse than to ponder such things. And, you couldn’t do better than to see this production of Merrily We Roll Along at the Huntington.

Merrily We Roll Along
Through October 15
Huntington Theatre Company
Boston 617.266.0800

The Lyric Stage Finds Its Gypsy

A Theatre Experience To Remember 

Gypsy at the Lyric Stage, Boston Through October 8th

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Lyric Stage Artistic Director Spiro Veloudos has found his Gypsy. In Leigh Barrett he has found an actor who can step into the iconic role of Mama Rose. Ms Barrett makes this her Rose and we get to see one who fully embraces the part with a powerful performance. From her first number, Some People, you know she is going to be very special. It has to be a daunting role to step into, but she’s got what it takes.

Kirsten Salpini
(Photo Credit: Mark S. Howard)

He has found his Louise in the amazingly talented Kirsten Salpini who gives a perfectly measured Louise who goes from being the unsteady second fiddle to her sister and grows in confidence and the ability to stand up to her domineering, and it can be argued, abusive mother. With Ms Salpini we see that transformation occur seamlessly. It is not an easy part to play.

He has found his June in Kira Troilo who gives us the fair haired daughter who finally realizes she has to flee the smothering grip of her mother. She is the child who realizes that in order to become a woman she has to walk away from it all. At first her character seems very superficial, but Ms Troilo gives her a sensitivity and a humanity that allows us to respect June and leaves us knowing she will make a good life for herself.

And then there is Herbie. Spiro has found a marvelous Herbie for us in the ever so talented Steven Barkhimer. Mr. Barkhimer gives a character who could be taken for weak but has us see it is not weakness but kindness that inhabits this very decent man who has taken up with a very difficult woman. Having seen Mr. Barkhimer before I was not at all surprised to see how truly wonderful he is in this role, and it is such a pleasure seeing him practice his craft.

If you miss this production you are making a huge mistake.

Spiro has found all of this talent and more including the young June and Louise played by Margot Anderson-Song and Cate Galante who, accompanied by fabulous ensemble contribute so much to the very strong first act. They are very impressive.

Leigh Barrett
(Photo Credit: Mark S. Howard)

And finally, he has found Director and Choreographer Rachel Bertone who pulls it all together for an amazing Gypsy. Ms Bertone gets it all just right in this scaled down but amazing production of what has been called the greatest of all Broadway musicals.

The six piece orchestra led by Dan Rodriguez coupled with a simple but poignant set make this a first rate work capable of rivaling any huge stage production. I would go as far as to say it is better. Seeing this in the intimacy of the Lyric Stage Theatre brings us close not only physically but emotionally to the story. A story that has been described as Lear-like and while filled with some of the greatest numbers in the history of Broadway musicals, it can be searing and painful to watch.

Stephen Barkhimer, Leigh Barrett, Kirsten Salpini
(Photo Credit: Mark S. Howard

The score is timeless and simply great with music by Jule Style and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The songs are unforgettable, and it is all pulled together in the book by Arthur Laurents. Numbers such as Let Me Entertain You, Some People, Small World, If Mama Was Married, Everything Coming Up Roses, You Gotta Get A Gimmick, and my favorite Little Lamb, that Kirsten Salpini does with such tenderness speak for themselves. This is the stuff of legend.

Okay, so now I have to add something, and I know I am in a very tiny minority when I say this. I have seen productions of Gypsy before, and I have always enjoyed  Act I. It is Act II that would leave me flat, or rather with the feeling the story is left unresolved and with an unnecessary cruelty. I feel the dysfunction of Mama Rose has been taken too far. In truth, I was not looking forward to seeing it again, Act II that is. This time was the exception as Director Bertone brings it all together thoughtfully at the conclusion. Yes, Rose is still flawed but something special happens. It may not be a Kodak Family moment, but it is real and it works.

As I said at the beginning of my review, Spiro has found a great Gypsy, with Barrett, Salpini, Troilo, Barkhimer, and company lighting up the Lyric Stage. If you miss this production you are making a huge mistake.

Spiro Veloudos has kicked off his 20th year at the Lyric Stage in great fashion. He has found something very special and is sharing it with all of us. Accept this gift from this wonderful man. He knows how to Light the Lights!

The Lyric Stage, Boston through October 8th 617-585-5678


There’s Good Rockin’ In Ogunquit!

Heartbreak Hotel
Ogunquit Playhouse
Through September 30th

reviewed by Bobby Franklin

The early years of Elvis Presley are too often overlooked. Most Presley impersonators portray the Elvis of the Vegas stage years wearing capes and sequined jump suits. At this later point in his life the drug use was really beginning to show, and the rock icon was becoming a tragic figure. The hard living would result in his untimely death at the age of 42. It is unfortunate it is this Elvis who is most often portrayed

Photo Credit: Gary Ng

While the Las Vegas Elvis fits into the much too often tragedy of a great talent taken down by his own success, the more interesting story lies in his early years. This is where Floyd Mutrux, the creator of the Tony Award winning Million Dollar Quartet, which played to sold out crowds at the Ogunquit Playhouse the past two seasons, has stepped in to tell the truly fascinating story of Presley’s early life.

Heartbreak Hotel is a prequel to Million Dollar Quartet and focuses on the Sun Records years of the young truck driver who would skyrocket to fame overnight.

The world premiere of Heartbreak Hotel is now playing at the Ogunquit Playhouse. It is an interesting production to watch as it is still a work in progress. The music is positively outstanding with all of the actors playing their own instruments.

Clendening captures the persona of the young Elvis.

Eddie Clendening who originated the role of Presley in the Broadway production of Million Dollar Quartet is not an Elvis impersonator. He brings much more to the stage than just imitating the rock icon. Clendening captures the persona of the young Elvis. Most impressively, he is able to rock out with the raw energy of Presley while always retaining that shyness that made him so charming. While ripping out on songs such as Good Rockin’ Tonight with hips swiveling and lip twitching we see that young boy who still seems just a bit uncomfortable in the spotlight even while he is thriving on it. Clendening really pulls this off and it is no easy task to do so. This is as close as you will come to experiencing the young Elvis, a paradoxical figure who was shy and yet craved attention.

Photo Credit: Gary Ng

The story is not just about Elvis but also about the era. It was an amazing and transformational time in music and there are cameos from many of the other great performers of the time. These include Wanda Jackson (Brenna Bloom) and Sister Rosetta Tharpe played by Terita Redd who deserves an Amen! for her amazing rock/gospel singing.

Geno Henderson nearly steals the show playing numerous greats including Chuck Berry and Nat King Cole. Mr. Henderson moves seamlessly through his parts.

The interplay between Colonel Tom Parker (Jerry Kernion) and Sam Phillips (Matt McKenzie) creates a tension with Parker seeing Presley as a product and Phillips recognizing him as a great artist. It leaves us wondering just what would have happened if Presley had decided to remain with Phillips.

Yes, this play is a work in progress with the musical numbers, the sets, the lighting, all outstanding. I don’t think this time of Elvis Presley’s life has ever been captured so well. Where the production is weak is in the book. The early life of this seemingly simple southern boy is a very complex story. It is a huge challenge to try to capture even a very condensed version of all that went on in those early years while still focusing on the music. What I saw on the stage in Ogunquit is a great start to what can be a wonderful and important story. It will be interesting to see how it all develops.

There are more than a couple of reasons to see Heartbreak Hotel. First, watching Eddie Clendening as the young Elvis is a truly great experience. He really gets it. Second, while this is a work that is still being developed it is fascinating to be a part of the process as I am sure the writer and director are taking the pulse of the audiences. It might not be a bad idea for them to have suggestion boxes placed at the exits. I know I would have contributed a few.

Heartbreak Hotel takes us back to one of the most incredible eras in the history of American music. It is just amazing when you realize how fast things changed. It was an exciting time that lives on in music through this day. It’s rather ironic that Colonel Parker chose to take Elvis to Hollywood and Vegas as he didn’t believe Rock N Roll was going to last. Sam Phillips knew better.  207.646.5511


Ragtime, A Delightful and Thought Provoking Syncopation In Ogunquit

The Ogunquit Playhouse Through August 26th

reviewed by Bobby Franklin

As the musical Ragtime begins it appears to be a bit overwhelming. The play has a huge cast, and I wondered how I would keep track of all the characters and what was going on. I soon realized that it was like watching a huge chess board with numerous pieces that were constantly in motion. All of these pieces had a purpose that soon became very clear.

Cast of Ragtime
(Photo: Gary Ng)

The story, set in early 20th Century America, revolves around three groups of people, the established old guard, the recent immigrants (Mostly from Eastern Europe), and African Americans. The struggles, pain, hopes, disappointments, coping with change, successes, failures, and tragedies are all captured in this work. And while it takes place over a hundred years ago, many of these struggles are constant in a free society that is continually dealing with changes. It is what makes the United States so great while also so vulnerable to making mistakes.

Ragtime has a truly marvelous score. The fact that so much of it is played with the delightful syncopations of ragtime is fitting. Fitting because the new music of the time represents so many of the changes then occurring. I am not a musician but I felt there was more to the music than just being used as a period piece, so I looked up the definition of syncopation. I found it is a term for “a disturbance or interruption of the regular flow of rhythm” a “placement of rhythmic stresses or accents where they wouldn’t normally occur.”; and that is just what is going on in Ragtime.

This fine production captures so well that interruption of the regular flow in the lives of all involved. Everyone one involved is dealing with change, drastic change. Tateh (Josh Young) the Jewish immigrant from Latvia who has brought his young daughter to America in the hope of giving her a better life, Coalhouse (Darnell Abraham), the African American musician, who has worked hard to make a good life for his family, the unnamed father and mother (Jamie LaVerdiere and Kirsten Scott) who are faced with the “interruption” in their way of living they have known for some time.

For one it turns out well, for another tragic, and for another transformational. It is fascinating, though at times overly predictable, to watch. It is also quite thought provoking because none of the issues addressed are simply black and white. What is to be done when change doesn’t occur fast enough? When justice is not equally applied? Is vengeance ever justified? We hear from Booker T. Washington (Rod Singleton), Emma Goldman (Klea Blackhurst), and Admiral Peary (Joel Robertson).

The discussion between Washington and Coalhouse after a terrible injustice has occurred is very thought provoking. How to deal with such injustice is a question that is not easy to answer.

Josh Young and Ella Luke-Tedeschi (Photo: Gary Ng)

Though dealing with so many serious questions, this is also a lively and funny play. There are appearances by Harry Houdini (Freddie Kimmel) and the singer Evelyn Nesbit (Carly Hueston Ambur), and a wonderful scene at a baseball game that captures the fun of the early game but also shows the difficulty in some being able to accept the changing ethnicities of the players.

The score is superb. It flows smoothly and keeps the story connected. Darnell Abraham’s rendition of Make Them Hear You is particularly powerful not only in its lyrics but because of the deep emotion Abraham brings to it.

As I have said, this play has a huge cast so it is impossible to give credit to all of the excellent performances in the limited space I have. However, i have to mention one member of the cast that not only impressed me but who also had the audience talking about him after the show.

Seven year old Tyler Wladis as The Little Boy was just phenomenal. I have never seen such talent in someone so young. Tyler had a huge part with many lines, both opening and closing the play. His opening monologue set the tone for what was to unfold. His expressions and movements about the stage were just impeccable. This young man has an energy and timing that is truly amazing. He was simply a joy to watch and will surely be seen again.

Ragtime at the Ogunquit Playhouse is an interesting and well done work. It is thought provoking and fun. It will provoke much discussion afterwards. I would just warn you not to take a position of moral superiority when having a conversation about it. Remember, just because someone has views that differ from yours or is not from the same socio economic background does not mean they are evil. I firmly believe that the vast majority of the American people only want better lives for their families and for others. The approaches to the problems facing our society may be different, but if you keep in mind our goals are similar and meant for the better it will maybe, just maybe, make it easier for us to talk to each other.

Ragtime shows us the difficulties in dealing with change, but change will always be occurring as it always has. We can deal with it. Let’s tone down the moral superiority and stop the shouting and lecturing. That is what I have taken away from this wonderful play. It will never be easy, but there s much more kindness than cruelty out there. We just need to listen.

Ragtime Through August 26th
Ogunquit Playhouse, Ogunquit, Maine