Category Archives: Theater Reviews

“Oklahoma!” At The Ogunquit Playhouse Is More Than Okay

Oklahoma!

Directed by Fred Hanson
Through July 7
The Ogunquit Playhouse
Ogunquit, Maine
ogunquitplayhouse.org
207.646.5511

Stephen Mark Lukas and Cast
(Photo: Gary Ng)

It has been seventy-five years since Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein collaborated on their first play and changed musical theatre forever. Oklahoma!, with a bit of refreshing, has held up well and the latest production now playing at the Ogunquit Playhouse gives this great work the respect it deserves.

The play about the growing pains of the soon to be 46th state takes place, with the exception of the final scene, in one day. There are two romantic stories, the one between Curly (Stephen Mark Lukas) and Laurey (Taylor Quick), and Ado Annie (Chessa Metz) and Will (Colby Dezelick), as well as the conflicts that arise as two groups, the cowboys and the farmers have to learn to live together and share the land. There is also the matter of Judd (Timothy John Smith), the brooding and scary loner, who doesn’t fit in.

As the overture plays, beautiful scenes are projected on the curtain that give us a sense of the vastness of the Oklahoma territory. The opening scene, which was a departure from usual theatrical formula at the time in which the play first hit Broadway, shows Aunt Eller (Susann Fletcher) churning butter while, from offstage Curly begins singing Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’, which is as effective now as it must have been in 1943.

The sets which include a cabin, windmill, cornfield and a backdrop that seems to go on forever are constant reminders of the vastness of and challenges faced by those building a community on this new land.

The Farmer and the Cowmen
(Photos: Gary Ng)

The score is still as fresh as the morning dew on the cornfield. Stephen Mark Lukas and Taylor Quick in the leading roles combine the acting chops and voices that their parts demand. It is said that Rodgers and Hammerstein would cast singers who could act rather than the usual model of finding actors who could sing. I’m not sure what formula was used here, but it certainly works.

This production is based on the 1998 London revival, which ironically did not transfer directly to Broadway because Actors Equity demanded only American actors be allowed to play in it. The choreography by Susan Stroman is the same used in that revival, and is led here with some additions by choreographer Ginger Thatcher who has worked with Stroman. It is important this was handled well as Oklahoma! is as much a dance piece as it is the musical, and Ms Thatcher gets it done darn well.

The dream sequence ballet ending Act I is breathtaking.

The dream sequence Out Off My Dreams-Ballet ending Act I is breathtaking. Ms Thatcher along with this amazingly talented cast have given audiences a scene that will be talked about for years. Atmospheric, emotionally jarring, and just magnificent. At the performance I attended the audience was in awe as they stepped out for intermission.

The play, that at moments teeters on the brink of sentimentality but never goes over the edge also has a dark side to it. The character Judd who comes across as creepy and threatening, and with good reason, never fits in with the others. In all of the pieces I have read about the play I have not read any that show sympathy with him. In this production Timothy John Smith gives us all of the darkness of Judd, but also an undercurrent of how things may have been different if the others had made an effort to understand him. I’m reminded a bit of Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny. Could a sympathetic ear have made a difference? After all, early in the play it is Curly who shows a dark side when, in jealously over Judd’s escorting Laurey to the box social, he visits Judd and attempts to convince him to commit suicide (Poor Judd His Daid). While the song is funny it is also quite disturbing, and the Calibanish Judd sees through it. Not exactly an invite to join in with the community. Mr. Smith brings more complexity to this character then I have seen before, and he does it very subtly. Quite impressive.

All of the musical numbers are memorable with People Will Say We’re In Love, The Farmer And The Cowmen, The Surrey With Fringe On Top, and the finale Oklahoma! being particularly outstanding.

Taylor Quick and Stephen Mark Lukas
(Photo: Jay Goldsmith)

Oklahoma! is a wonderful musical but it is more. The story has many levels to it, and it is one that can make us think about the challenges of working together to build and maintain a community. In a way we are all farmers and cowmen who have to work on being friends. It is also a reminder that being able to get along does not mean not having differences, but instead to respect those differences. It also means striving to understand the outsider.

With cornfields that literally reach out to the actors, an unbeatable score, a cast that abounds with talent, lighting and scenery that are beyond impressive, this is a theatre experience not to be missed. Director Fred Hanson has pulled it all together and the Ogunquit Playhouse stage is the perfect theater to witness it in.

Every so often I like to remind my readers that the Ogunquit Playhouse is not summer theatre. It is a full blown theatrical company that rivals Broadway in quality. As is seen in Oklahoma!, you get top talent with a production team that knows how to out on a play. And, it all takes place in a beautiful and comfortable theater. If you haven’t been before, don’t hesitate to take a drive up to beautiful Ogunquit, Maine and see for yourself. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein would be pleased. You’ll leave the theater saying “Oklahoma!, You’re Okay!”

Attention Was Not Paid: “Fall”

 Fall

By Bernard Weinraub

Directed by Peter DuBois

Through June 16

The Huntington Theatre Company

Calderwood Pavillon, Boston 

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

(Note: This play had an emotional impact on me, and because of that I have decided to focus more on the story than in writing an in-depth review of the production.)

Watching a recent performance of Bernard Weinraub’s Fall at the Calderwood Pavillon was an emotional experience. The play about Arthur Miller, his wife Inge Morath, and their son Daniel who was born with Down Syndrome is not a happy story. It certainly stirred up a lot of anger in me. Before I get into the story I want to say a few words about the production so as not to confuse my feelings about the play with the my opinion of how fine a production this was.

Nolan James Tierce and Josh Stamberg
(Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson)

The cast is led by Josh Stamberg as the great playwright Arthur Miller, with Joanne Kelly as his third and last wife. John Hickok plays theatrical producer Robert Whitehead,  Joanna Glushak as Dr. Wise. Nolan James Tierce, an actor with Down Syndrome, takes on the role of Daniel, and while Mr. Tierce does not have a lot of lines, I found his words to be the most moving of any uttered by the rest of the cast. 

This was a superb production from top to bottom with each cast member giving strong performances, a tight script, incredible sets and lighting, along with the usual excellent direction of Peter DuBois. 

The difficulty I had with it had nothing to do with the production, it had to do with the subject matter, and Arthur Miller in particular. I know author Bernard Weinraub did not want to portray him as a villain, but after watching Josh Stamberg’s solid performance as Mller I felt nothing but disgust for that self-centered hypocrite. Joanne Kelly’s Inge comes across a bit more sympathetically, but in the end I even felt the pangs of loathing for her.

Josh Stamberg, Joanne Kelly, and Joanna Glushak
(Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson)

Early in the play we witness Miller and Morath after she has given birth to their son Daniel. They are in the hospital and are given the news that there is a problem with their son. When they are told he has been born with Down Syndrome they are devastated, as just about any parents would be. They have to make some decisions about how to care for Daniel. It is 1966 and at that time doctors were advising parents that the best course was to have “these children” institutionalized as that would ensure they would get the best care. Inge wants to keep her son, Arthur can barely look at him. The decision is made to send him to an institution. It is all quite heartbreaking.

For the almost two hours that follow we witness the story of how Arthur and Inge went on with their lives. Of how Miller refused to even see his son, or as it is said “deleted” him from his life. The great moralizer continued to speak out about social justice causes, preaching on how we should treat each other all the while neglecting his own son. He continued living life fully in the public eye while keeping Daniel hidden away.

We hear of how his creative abilities diminished after Daniel was born. I am not sure if that is supposed to elicit some sympathy for the man, but I could not muster any. Now, I am fully aware that at the time of Daniel’s birth things were different. Many parents were only trying to do the right things when following the advice of the doctors who recommended institutionalization. However, in Miller’s case it is clear he wanted Daniel “erased” from his life. He saw this as “a life sentence”. Why? Was it shame? Was it fear he would not be able to be a good father to his son? Or was it merely that Daniel was going to be an imposition on his and Inge’s lives? Whatever it was, I saw no sign that he felt any love at all for Daniel. It was that coldness that struck me deeply and made me unable to find any sympathy for the man. In fact, by the time the play was concluded I was filled with disgust for him. 

Fall gives us much to think about. It is easy to say “it was different then,” that today we understand people better and are more compassionate, but is that really true? Today, more likely than not Arthur and Inge would have known about Daniel’s condition before he was born. They most likely would have “deleted” him before he came into the world. Miller would have been able to continue moralizing with a clear conscience. The latest figures I could find say 67% to 90% of unborn babies diagnosed with Down Syndrome are not brought to term. It has to be a heart wrenching decision for parents to make, and I can’t imagine being in that postion. I doubt very much that the parents who make such a decision feel they are erasing a child from their lives. They must suffer greatly. I doubt very much Miller would have agonized for even a moment over the decision, and that is what I found so disturbing. It is and should be, a very difficult and heart breaking decision. 

We find out at the end of the play that Daniel is still alive, and he has lived a very happy and fulfilling life eventually living with a foster family who loved him. He did go to meet his father once but was not greeted warmly. Daniel’s words spoken by Nolan James Tierce at the end of the play show what a truly remarkable man Daniel has become. How he came to know the true meaning of family. And, how lucky the world is that he was not deleted. 

On a personal note. I grew up in a neighborhood where there were a number of children with Down Syndrome. This was not long before Daniel was born. I never heard about having such children sent off to institutions. They were part of our community and were well loved. Maybe, people in my area could not afford to send their children away. I believe they kept them because they could not imagine life without them. With the advances in science that now allows us to know before birth if a child will be born with Down Syndrome I can’t help but wonder if we really have changed all that much. Some questions haunt me. Is a child with Down Syndrome less worthy of being brought into the world? If so, what does that say about the children who are living? Are they less worthy than others? These are hard questions.

Nolan James Tierce
(Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson)

As I was leaving the theater I was thinking how nice it would have been to see the story told from Daniel’s side. This was still all about Arthur Miller and his egotism. Attention must be paid, and it should be paid: to Daniel. When you see Fall listen closely to the words spoken from the heart by Nolan James Tierce at the end. Pay close attention to those words as they are so much more important than trying to figure out why Arthur Miller behaved so terribly.

The Monster Speaks: Dr. Jordan Peterson at the Shubert

By
Edmond D. Smith

Tuesday night, May 22 at the Shubert Theater in Boston the monster spoke. Dr. Jordan Peterson the Canadian clinical psychologist, author, professor and newly minted YouTube and media sensation gave a two hour (a one-and-a-half-hour lecture followed by a half hour q&a) presentation expounding on the themes of his internationally bestselling book, 12 Rules For Life, An Antidote To Chaos. Dr. Peterson’s emergence as a public intellectual with a growing following has been met by howls of protest and derision including accusations of his being a Nazi, homophobe, misogynist, anti-Semite and the leader of a cult of neocavemen.

Tuesday night, the monster himself took the stage at the Shubert to a capacity house of, if his critics are to be believed, exclusively male, knuckle-dragging troglodytes. The first shock of the evening came when it turned out that in reality his audience consisted of casually dressed, polite (predominantly but not exclusively) men; but women were certainly there in abundance as well. The evening’s second shock came when Dave Rubin walked onstage to warm up the audience and introduce the monster. Rubin is a former liberal, a Jewish comedian, and host of the increasingly popular podcast The Rubin Report. He is also a happily married gay man. His introduction of Peterson was funny, warm and admiring.

Then came the main event. The monster walked out onto a stage bare but for a stool holding bottles of water. He was thin, of average height, wore a gray suit and tan shoes (loafers?). When he began to speak his voice was mild. His mannerisms were restrained. He presented as the antithesis of the fire-breathing hate monger that much of the press has portrayed. Over the next two hours he covered a wide-ranging territory that included some personal history, (He grew up in a small, rather bleak town in Alberta, Canada. The closest big city was Edmonton, five hundred miles distant.) much discussion of his intellectual heroes Carl Jung and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, his distaste of deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida, and his fascination with both biological and social hierarchies. Apparently, his audience of devolved knuckle-draggers had come out to hear a lecture about ideas.

And he was an explosion of ideas. His manner of speaking was professorial without being didactic.

And he was an explosion of ideas. His manner of speaking was professorial without being didactic. He gave the impression of a man who isn’t just teaching: he paused often as he seemed to be carefully considering what he would say next, checking it in his mind for consistency, veracity and value. Its an unusual style that has the effect of making his audience feel as if they are discovering ideas with him, as if they are part of his process. And he readily admits that he doesn’t have all the answers but is sincerely interested in finding them.

At times he was personal and emotional, choking up a bit in remembering his mother-in-law’s difficult passing. At other times he was amusing as when he talked about the need rats have for physical nurturing. He also addressed some of the criticism he has gotten from the media including his now infamous TV interview with British journalist Cathy Newman, in which prior to the TV cameras coming on she was polite, charming and sympathetic and then completely changed her demeanor when the cameras were  turned on. He also addressed another recent controversy in which a phrase, “enforced monogamy”, has been used to delegitimatize him. His explanation of his actual meaning was dealt with in the post-speech q&a which can be seen in the link below:

If there was any one issue that propelled him into the spotlight it was his stance on a piece of Canadian legislation, Bill C-16 which stipulates that people must address transgendered or other “non-binary” people by a pronoun of their choosing. To fail to do so can lead to governmental sanctions. Peterson took to YouTube to voice his objection to the idea of compulsory speech which he vociferously contends is a violation of the principle of free speech. Suddenly he went viral.

Much of what Peterson has to say is his extrapolation of what are the consequences of the hierarchical structure of society, itself embedded in the biological foundations of humanity. His analysis considers the stories of ancient heroes and stories of how man succeeds and fails. This leads him to Christianity which relies on the primacy of the individual. This he contrasts with the collective, which history shows invariably leads to tribalism and the segmentation of society into separate interest groups. And it is here that we can see the genesis of the Left’s hatred of Peterson. By his reckoning history is rife with the failures of collectivism, including the horrors of Nazism, socialism and communism. And he sees the current growth of intersectionality, the collision of differing groups invariably leading to the strong marginalizing the weak, bringing about group conflict, with groups of the privileged victimizing the groups of the less powerful.

He believes that the only way out of these constantly recurring collectivist societies which distort man’s true nature and inexorably leads to societal disaster is through making the individual preeminent. Thus Christ is literally and metaphorically the individual who shoulders responsibility and saves the world. Individual consciousness, the individual’s sense of responsibility despite the burden it places on man is the way out of the collectivist trap.

And it is Peterson’s utter rejection of collectivism as anathema to the flourishing of the human spirit that makes him such a target for the Left.

And it is Peterson’s utter rejection of collectivism as anathema to the flourishing of the human spirit that makes him such a target for the Left. If people once again start to believe in the primacy of the individual, the individual with a sense of meaning, then the Left’s entire narrative crumbles and blows away like dust. This is why they see him as such a danger, as such a monster. To watch the cheer that rose up from the audience when Peterson pointed to the necessity of their taking responsibility for their own actions would be enough to drive the Left to the paroxysms of hate that they have directed at Peterson.

So the monster concluded with a call to people to live up to their “true nature” by accepting personal responsibility for their lives, and taking up… “an ethic of fair play and courage” which “…keeps us a good distance away from Hell.”

By the conversations that could be heard when Dr. Peterson had concluded his presentation the now obviously non-troglodytic audience left inspired to shoulder heavier burdens of responsibility in order to dedicate themselves to a higher purpose.

At this point it became impossible to view the humble academic whose words had just held our attention for two hours as having any of the characteristics of a monster. If a monster had been expected to show up on the Shubert stage that night, he never appeared. In fact he seems never to have existed at all.

 

Smokey Joe’s Cafe At The Ogunquit Playhouse Treats You Nice

 

Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Music of Leiber and Stoller

Through June 9 at The Ogunquit Playhouse

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Kyle Taylor Parker, Dwayne Cooper, John Edwards, and Jelani Remy
(Photo by Gary Ng)

Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Music of Leiber and Stoller now playing at the Ogunquit Playhouse is 90 minutes of non-stop entertainment. This high energy musical revue showcasing the classic rock and roll hits of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller has a cast of ten backed up by a six person orchestra. The musicians are onstage, and sometimes take center stage, throughout the performance. 

Most people are familiar with the Leiber and Stoller songbook. 38 of the songs are performed on the Playhouse stage, including a few of the lesser known works, which is an added treat as they should be better known. 

If you are looking for the story behind the songs you won’t find it here. What you will find is a cast that works non stop from start to finish while all the time appearing to be having as good a time on stage as the audience is having while watching them. From the opening number to the final encore there is never a dull moment. The cast has the Ogunquit Playhouse really rocking. 

The outstanding set is two levels with winding iron stairways on both sides. It has a bar and the walls are mostly red brick. There is much neon lighting. Those neon lights are put to good use during the number On Broadway. The tables and chairs are also used in many of the numbers. Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt has done a marvelous job. 

Dionne D. Figgins and Dwayne Cooper
(Photo by Joan Marcus)

At no time during the performance did I feel like I was simply watching a bunch of musicians belting out one song after another. Thanks to the brilliant choreography of Josh Bergasse who is also the director, each number was something unique and special. Running through just a few of them, there was Jelani Remy’s Jailhouse Rock with some acrobatic dancing that would have impressed Elvis. 

Remy, along with John Edwards, Dwayne Cooper, and Kyle Taylor Parker captured the original Coasters sound on Searchin’, Young Blood, Charlie Brown, and a truly inspired and crowd pleasingly funny version of Along Came Jones. John Edwards brought the house down with his portrayal of Poor Sweet Sue who keeps falling into the clutches of Salty Sam. 

Nicole Vanessa Ortiz and Alysha Umphress, along with Max Sangerman on guitar gave a solid performance on Kansas City. Ms Ortiz’s version of Hound Dog reached back to the wonderful original version by Big Mama Thornton while Dionne Figgins and Jelani Remy gave a sensual Spanish Harlem with Ms Figgins moving beautifully around the stage while being serenaded by Mr. Jelani. The touch of Spanish guitar was perfect for it.

Emma Degerstedt withJelani Remy, Shavey Brown, Dwayne Cooper, and Max Sangerman
(Photo by Joan Marcus)

Emma Degerstedt on Teach Me How To Shimmy is attired in a hot pink shimmy dress that in and of itself deserves to be listed as a member of the cast. Alysha Umpress captures the melancholy mood on Pearl’s A Singer. 

Max Sangerman and the rest of the male members of the cast harmonize beautifully on an a cappella version of Loving You. Alysha Umpress performs Trouble while accompanied by Yuka Tadano, giving it a jazz flavor.

For Dueling Pianos most of the orchestra was rolled out on center stage with two upright pianos back to back. With Sonny Perkins and Matt Oestreicher facing off on the keyboards it was like having Jerry Lee Lewis in stereo. This was a rip roaring number. 

I have only touched on a few of the many great songs performed in this revue. There is much, much more. 

 

Jelani Remy, Shavey Brown, John Edwards, Dwayne Cooper, and Max Sangerman
(Photo by Joan Marcus)

Smokey Joe’s Cafe is really enhanced by the choreography. All of the movements on stage go perfectly with this great music. The energy pumping out on stage is impossible to resist. At times the cast members dance up and down the aisles while the entire theatre is rocking. It is something to experience. 

On the evening I was there Mike Stoller was also in the audience. After the encore he took to the stage to say a few words. It was very touching as he spoke of his late partner Jerry Leiber. He told of how he would call him whenever he had news, and took this occasion to relate what he would have said to him after watching these young performers do such a fine job with the music he and Mr. Leiber created. He was deeply touched by it all. 

This production of Smokey Joe’s Cafe; cast, sets, and costumes, along with director Josh Bergasse will be transferring to New York in July. I highly recommend seeing it now before it moves on. It’s been a long winter and I can think of no better way to get ready to welcome the summer than by taking a ride to beautiful Ogunquit, Maine and getting your rock and roll juices flowing with this knock out of a show. 

Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Music of Leiber and Stoller

Playing through June 9

The Ogunquit Playhouse

Rt. 1 Ogunquit, Maine

207.646.5511

ogunquitplayhouse.org 

A Family’s Struggle With Its Government And With Itself

 

Allegiance

By Marc Acito, Jay Kuo, & Lorenzo Thione

Directed by Paul Daigneault

SpeakEasy Stage Company, Calderwood Pavillon

Boston

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

The production of Allegiance currently running at the Speakeasy Stage Company in Boston shows everything they do best. In the capable hands of director Paul Daigneault, with choreography by Ilyse Robbins, and their truly amazing design team, the SpeakEasy has breathed new life into this work that has met with mixed reviews in the past. One of the critiques is still valid and I will speak to that later, but this is really a remarkable production.

The story is loosely based on actor George Takei’s experiences from when he and his family were sent to an internment camp for American citizens of Japanese background. It was a shameful episode in the history of our country. The play deals with that and also with the conflict it caused within the families sent to these camps over how to deal with the situation.

“Gotta Get In The Game”
Photo: Nile Scott Studios

The story revolves around the Kimura family and how they dealt with the requirement to sign a loyalty questionnaire, specifically questions #27 and #28. Question #27 asked if the men would be willing to fight with the armed forces of the United States, while question #28 asked about their loyalties to the Emperor of Japan and if they would swear loyalty to the United States. Some agreed, believing this would help allay suspicions many had about Japanese Americans’ support of the United States, while others saw this as a violation of their rights, after all, they were American citizens and no other American citizens were being asked to fill out such questionnaires. 

Grace Yoo and Sam Tanabe
Photo: Nile Scott Studios

Sammy Kimura (Sam Tanabe) and his sister Kei (Grace Yoo) are at odds on this with Sammy willing to answer and also anxious to join the army and fight for his country, while Kei sees it as a violation of their rights. Their father Tatsuo refuses to answer and is taken away in handcuffs to another camp. It is all heartbreaking.

The song Gaman, Japanese for “endure with patience and dignity” leaves the question open as to how you retain your dignity under such circumstances. It is a beautiful and moving song delivered with “dignity” by Grace Yoo whose voice is lovely.

Michael Hisamoto plays Mike Masaoka who represents the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) that was highly criticized for not taking a stand against the interment. His go along to get along attitude certainly does not endear that organization with the audience. 

Cast of Allegiance
Photo: Nile Scott Studios

Frankie Suzuki (Tyler Simahk) who becomes a leader in the resistance movement begins seeing Kei romantically. He and Sammy are at odds as seen through the song “Resist”. Sammy sees Frankie as being disloyal for not being willing to sign up with the armed forces to fight while Frankie believes in the principle of not giving any ground in defending his rights as an American citizen. This all gives a micro treatment to the larger issues and is quite effective.

With a beautiful set and lighting that conveys much atmosphere and including Japanese lanterns hung around the theatre that dim and are blown around to great effect, this play touches many emotions. There was hardly a dry eye in the house at the end. 

I have heard criticisms of the score, but I found it beautiful and the choreography amazing. Get In The Game is a unique piece with a baseball theme that is a joy to watch. What Makes A Man sung by Sammy poses questions that are not easy to answer, especially when faced with this situation. It may seem odd when seeing a work that deals with such a dark subject, but there is much that is uplifting in this story as well. 

My one quibble with Allegiance is with the many historical inaccuracies in the script. I fully understand the artistic license that is used and can understand the reasons for it, but the actual story is bleak as it is, and I fear straying too far from the truth gives those who would want to diminish what really happened ammunition to say it all as been exaggerated. That simply isn’t true. It was a terrible thing and we should see that it never happens again.

As I said at the beginning, this is the SpeakEasy at its best. Simply outstanding. 

speakeasystage.com  Box Office: 617.933.8600

This Elvis Impersonator Won’t Drag You Down

 

“The Legend Of Georgia McBride”

By Matthew Lopez

Directed by Russell Garrett

Greater Boston Stage, Stoneham, MA

Through May 20

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

In The Legend of Georgia McBride, Casey (Jared Reinfeldt) is an Elvis impersonator whose career is hardly on the road to Vegas. Working at Cleo’s Bar on the Beach in Panama City, Florida before sparse audiences he is finding it difficult to pay the rent for the apartment he shares with his pregnant wife Jo (Jade Guerra). The landlord, Jason (Alex Pollock),  has come knocking and they are on the verge of eviction.

Alex Pollack, Jade Guerra, Rick Park, Jared Reinfeldt,and Ed Peed

Eddie (Ed Peed), the owner of Cleo’s is also having trouble making ends meet and has made the decision to try out a new act comprised of two female impersonators comprised of Miss Tracy Mills (Rick Park) and Rexy (also Alex Pollock). This leaves Casey demoted to working as a bartender, his dreams of Elvis gold dashed.

Ah, but in true A Star Is Born fashion, one night Rexy shows up too drunk to perform, and with a full house waiting to be entertained, Casey is talked into taking her place. This he does reluctantly as Tracy transforms him into drag. He overcomes his awkwardness by looking at it as playing it as if he were taking on any role he might appear in in theatre.

This may all sound rather simplistic, but what unfolds is a very charming and enjoyable play with some underlying, though not terribly deep messages. With the exception of one song, all of the music is lip-synced. The scene where Casey is first dressed to perform in drag is interesting to witness. It is quite the transformation. His first number is to be Edith Piaf’s Padam, Padam. Of course, he does not know the lyrics so Tracy gives him a pointer about mouthing a certain expletive in order to fake it. There is also some fun with choosing a stage name for Casey. A couple of the many suggestions include Tequila Mockingbird and Sharia Law, before settling on Georgia McBride. The formula used for this is something you might want to try for the fun of it.

Things work out as you may expect. Casey goes on to become a big hit. Rexy returns angry at what has happened. Her speech about the struggles she and so many other gay men have dealt with over the years is filled with anger and rebellion while also quite moving without turning into a lecture. The words make an important point while not diminishing the fun taking place on the stage in Stoneham.

Ed Peed comes close to stealing the show with his excellent portrayal of the crusty bar owner Eddie who goes from awkward M.C. to being quite the ham. While not taking the drag route, we do see his transformation as well.

Jade Guerra and Jared Reinfeldt

Jade Guerra has wonderful presence playing Casey’s wife who has been kept in the dark about his new career path. It is quite the emotional roller coaster and she conveys those feelings well. Jade is also quite impressive in one of the musical numbers.

Alex Pollack’s Rexy is edgy and intense. The first instinct is to not like her, but she earns respect and understanding in the course of the play. Pollack is also wonderful as Jason, Casey’s landlord. He provides quite a few laughs.

There are many musical numbers that kept the audience in attendance the afternoon I was there more than happy. Rick Park’s Tracy as Carmen Miranda was quite the spectacle, bananas and all. The duet with two Nancy Sinatras and their boots a walking featuring Georgia and Miss Tracy was another treat. 

It is unclear at the end whether or not Casey continues to see performing in drag as just a role he is playing or has found some deeper meaning from listening to Rexy, but it does make good food for thought.

The Legend of Georgia McBride is an enjoyable and mostly lighthearted work. I think you will find it worth the trip to Stoneham.

One reminder. While not gratuitous, there is some pretty salty language and adult themes that may not be suitable for younger ears.

greaterbostonstage.org 781.279.2200

Ishaq and Zeblyan: Stubborn, Vindictive,  Miserable, And Very Funny

Two Jews Walk Into A War…

By Seth Rozn

Directed by Will LeBow

At The New Rep, Watertown, MA

Through May 20

As Seth Rozin’s Two Jews Walk Into A War…begins we see Ishaq (Joel Colodner) and Zeblyan (Jeremiah Kissel) standing over the coffin of Yakob. The three had been the only Jews still living in Kabul,Afghanistan, now with Yakob gone it is down to the two of them. You would think they would feel a common bond that would unite them in their struggle to survive and keep Judaism alive in their part of the world. It turns out Ishaq and Zeblyan hate each other. Yakob had been the peacemaker, and now with him gone the gloves have come off.

Ishaq (Joel Colodner) and Zeblyan (Jeremiah Kissel)
(Photo: Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures)

The bickering begins and insults are exchanged with each trying outdo each other with how much they have suffered, how much their families have suffered, how much each other’s family is to blame for their circumstances, and just about anything else that happens to cross their minds. The exchanges are funny and fast paced. Kissel and Colodner combine great comedic timing with subtle, and not so subtle, facial expressions and hand gestures. 

The two do finally begin to settle on a common goal; Keeping Judiaism alive in Kabul. They first decide that repopulating the city with Jews should be the goal, but war torn Afghanistan is not quite on most people’s lists of places to relocate to. Ishaq then comes up with the  idea of converting a Muslim woman to Judaism and fathering a child by her. This poses a number of problems including the fact that there can be no conversion rite without a Torah, and the Torah from their synagogue had been stolen by the Taliban. The two now set out to produce a new one.

Ishaq and Zeblyan
(Photo: Andrewn Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures)

Ishaq has memorized the words from the Five Books of Moses and will dictate them to Zeblyan who will act as scribe. In fact, Ishaq has not only memorized the words but also the punctuation leading Zeblyan to say to him “You’re a Torah Geek!” The two continue to argue, even coming to blows at one point, but make progress over time in working together to accomplish their goal. 

 Some of the funniest lines come when Zeblyan questions the word of God. For instance, he wants to know why it is forbidden for a man to a lie down with another man but their is no such pronouncement about a woman lying with another woman: “Could Shem have a little girl/girl thing going on here?”  While funny, it does show how when looking into one’s faith questions and doubts do arise. 

The play also relates much about human nature. While both men are petty and vindictive, they both struggle for a common and larger goal, never giving up on their faith. Their spite and stubbornness actually fuel their resolve and give them the strength to carry on. It is where they find their resilience. 

The play is described by director Wlll LeBow as a “vaudeville” but I also see touches of Godot. In spite of their suffering and anger towards each other, Zeblyan and Ishaq never come close to giving up. 

Ishaq and Zeblyan
(Photo: Andrewn Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures)

Jeremiah Kissel and Joel Colodner don’t slow down for a minute in this fast moving piece that makes for a wonderful theatre experience. Two musicians off to the side of the stage playing on drums and an oud along with an excellent and perfectly lit set that recreates the interior of the only remaining synagogue in Kabul, is just the right atmosphere to enhance this fine performance. 

I very much enjoyed my evening with Zeblyan and Ishaq. The New Rep has closed out their latest season on a high note. 

Two Jews Walk Into A War…

By Seth Rozin

Directed by Will LeBow

Through May 20

The New Rep Theatre

Mosesian Center For The Arts

321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA 

617.923.8487

newrep.org

Unpacking Anna Christie At The Lyric

Anna Christie
By Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Scott Edmiston
The Lyric Stage, Boston
lyricstage.com

Through May 6th

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

When Lindsey McWhorter first steps onto the stage in the role of Anna Christie she is carrying a suitcase. This single piece of luggage that doesn’t look particularly large or heavy,  Anna is toting as if it contains the weight of the world. And, symbolically, it does. Anna has returned to see her father after an absence of 20 years. She has had an undisclosed illness and to convalesce has made the trip to New York from Minnesota. She was sent to Minnesota to live with relatives after her mother died.

Nancy E. Carroll and Lindsey McWhorter
(Photo Credit: Mark S. Howard)

Chris (Johnny Lee Davenport), Anna’s father had received a letter from her announcing her planned visit. While excited about seeing her again, he is nervous and also has to adjust his living arrangements as he doesn’t want his daughter thinking ill of him. This means telling his live in girlfriend and drinking buddy Marthy (Nancy E. Carroll) she will have to move off the the barge they have been sharing. Marthy is at first angry but understands.

By chance, Marthy meets Anna before she has a chance to see her father. The two share drinks in the local bar. Marthy quickly picks up on the fact Anna is no stranger to hard drinking. She can also sense Anna has brought more luggage with her than what is in her suitcase.

The dialog is what you would expect of Eugene O’Neill, intense but not heavy. A lot is said but none of it is superfluous. These are the type of words I would imagine actors must savor working with. And this cast is made up of some very fine actors.

Johnny Lee Davenport, Lindsey McWhorter,Dan Whelton
(Photo Credit: Mark S.Howard)

Ms McWhorter is powerful from start to finish. Her Anna, with a hard exterior formed from years of abandonment and abuse from the men around her, still hasn’t lost the desire to be loved. She does struggle with her lack of self worth and suspicion of men, yet retains a strength and a desire to be accepted for who she is, faults and all.

Johnny Lee Davenport’s Chris couldn’t be better. From the moment he orders his first drink and starts speaking with his rich voice I felt I wanted to pull up a chair next to him and join in. Chris has not led an easy life either. He sent Anna off in hopes of allowing her to have a better life, one away from men who make their living at sea. Mr. Davenport conveys the love that Chris never lost for Anna. His pride for her shows in his body language and eyes when he speaks of, and anticipates, his daughter’s return.

Things become more complicated when an Irish seaman by the name of Mat (Dan Whelton) is washed ashore after a shipwreck and he and Anna begin to fall in love. Anna’s distrust of men is one obstacle, but other tings in her past are also something she struggles to deal with. It is now that her baggage begins to be unpacked.

Johnny Lee Davenport and Dan Whelton
(Photo Credit: Mark S. Howard)

Dan Whelton displays a wonderful Irish accent as he goes back and forth with Anna and Chris. Mr. Whelton and Mr. Davenport have a wonderful energy between them as they seem at times ready to kill one another, yet are very much alike; Stubborn, bullheaded, and kind hearted.

Unfortunately, Nancy E. Carroll’s Marthy is not on stage after the first act, but while she is, it is a joy watching her perform. She speaks the words O’Neill has written with a swagger reminiscent of a character from a 1930’s gangster movie; a touch of Edward G. Robinson and Jimmy Cagney. This conveys the rough edge she has from living and working on the waterfront as well as her way of dealing with the rough edged men in her life. And, as with the others, she betrays a tenderness and understanding. It works very well.

James R. Milord plays Larry the barkeeper. After having served Chris and Anna hard liquor separately, he shows subtle amusement when each tones down their wicked ways in order to put on a good face for the other.

Watching all of this unfold is sad, touching, and even funny at times. Director Scott Edmiston has pared done the script without losing any of the essential parts, leaving us with a Eugene O’Neill play that takes place in less than two hours.

I’m sure that many will read into this work issues of the power men have over women and how women deal with it. While that is understandable, it is also good to see this as what happens when people are able to accept each other with all their faults, face their own weakness, and allow better natures to prevail. This is a story that could have ended on a very ugly note. It didn’t, and we can all learn from that.

Eugene O’Neill’s works are among the greatest in American drama. They can be very heavy and usually are long but also amazing. This play is deep and filled with emotion, but it will not leave you filled with despair, and it certainly is not drawn out. Director Scott Edmiston has gotten it right, and I would encourage those who have not taken in a work by O’Neill to start here. It will stir your emotions but not overwhelm you. You will see five very fine actors working with the words of a great playwright. And, you will see it all at the wonderful Lyric Stage Theater, a warm and intimate performing venue.

Opening The Door To Talking About Depression and Suicide

Every Brilliant Thing
SpeakEasy Stage Company, Boston

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Every Brilliant Thing is a one person play about depression and suicide, two subjects that undoubtedly make most people very uncomfortable when talked about. But talked about they should be, and author Duncan Macmillan has shown us the way to do this in this charming, caring, and quite funny work that also conveys so much of what we should be hearing in any conversation about this subject.

Adrianne Krstansky
(Photo Credit: Maggie Hall)

The production now playing at the SpeakEasy Stage is set in the round with the lights up throughout the entire performance. It is billed as a one person piece, that one person being played by Adrianne Krstansky, but it also involves a tremendous amount of audience participation. Ms Krstansky, whose character remains unnamed throughout, is in the theater meeting with audience members as they take their seats. She is giving many of them slips of paper with a number and words written on them. She is also making eye contact with others to see who would be comfortable with being a part of the show but is careful not to make anyone feel uncomfortable as the whole point of this is to put people at ease while talking about difficult things.

The numbered slips of paper contain  entries from a list called Every Brilliant Thing, thoughts Ms Krstansky’s character began compiling at the age of seven as a way of coping with her mother’s depression and attempts at suicide. The list is not about material things, but is rather quotidian with thoughts such as “People who can’t sing, but don’t know or don’t care”, “Ice cream”, “Christopher Walken’s hair”, and “The prospect of dressing up as a Mexican wrestler”. You’ll find yourself making your own list as the play moves along.

Adrianne Krstansky
(Photo Credit: Maggie Hall)

Adrianne Krstansky moves about the stage and through the audience with calm and grace as she interacts with and has members step in to play various people who come into her life; There is the vet who euthanizes her dog, Mrs. Patterson who uses a sock puppet, the lecturer at university who has his students read Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, and her first love and future husband Sam. At the performance I attended, the young man who assumed the role of Sam became quite emotional at one point. The spontaneity made for a very touching experience, something that makes this work so powerful.

In an interview with the author in the program notes, Duncan Macmillan tells us he wants the work to show us a way to talk about the most serious things in a way that isn’t serious. Now, while that may sound a bit oxymoronic it is just what he has accomplished. Every Brilliant Thing does not leave you emotionally drained, but it does get a very serious message across, and while this isn’t a group therapy session you will feel a bond with the people sitting around you and especially with Ms Krstansky who speaks to and touches all of us.

If you suffer from depression or know anyone who does you will find comfort in this play. And for those of you who have known someone who has fallen victim to suicide or if you have had such thoughts you will find there are those who understand you. There is so much to learn from attending a performance. I didn’t know that whenever a high profile person takes his or her own life it cause a spike in suicides, something known as the Werther Effect. With depression it is, as Mr. Macmillan says, either “treated as a taboo and ignored, or it is fetishized and glamorized”. It should be neither. We have to learn to discuss it with the understanding and caring that is conveyed in this play, and that is why I believe the people who most would benefit from seeing it is those who think depression is something you can just will away, it isn’t.

Do not be afraid to see Every Brilliant Thing as you will not be forced to speak or play a part in it unless you want to. You will not be made to feel uncomfortable. The treatment of the darkness that touches so many of us is dealt with in a way that allows us to talk about it in order to dispel the shame that causes so many to withdraw to an even darker place. Putting words to suffering is such an important step in dealing with it. Having people with empathy and openness listening allows sufferers to feel unafraid to talk.

As I was exiting the theater I couldn’t help but think how leaving the stage lit during the play was a metaphor for us shedding light on a subject that has remained hidden for too long. For all of our so-called understanding of and openness about mental illness we are still miles away from removing the stigma attached to it. The SpeakEasy Stage Company, Adrianne Krstansky, Duncan Macmillan, and director Marianna Bassham have done much to change how we view this illness. This message should be heard. Every Brilliant Thing could be the most important play performed this season. It very well may change your life, and that is a good thing.

Every Brilliant Thing
SpeakEasy Stage, Calderwood Pavillon, South End, Boston
Written by Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe
Directed by Marianna Bassham
Performed by Adrianne Krstansky
SpeakEasy Stage Company
Calderwood Pavillion, South End, Boston
Through March 31
speakeasystage.com 617.933.8600

An Up Close Richard III In Cambridge

Richard III
Actor’s Shakespeare Project
Swedenborg Chapel
Harvard Square, Cambridge
Through March 11

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

One of the great enjoyments of Actor’s Shakespeare Project productions is they are held in different venues. This provides both an opportunity and a challenge for directors. In the decision to stage Richard III at the Swedenborg Chapel, director Robert Walsh was given both.

Upon entering the chapel and taking my seat in one of the pews, I was puzzled by how I would be able to see the play. After all, the only clearly visible place where an actor could be seen would be from the pulpit: Hardly the spot to stage the Battle of Bosworth Field.

The gothic architecture, shadowy lighting, and smell of incense in the air certainly created a fitting atmosphere in which to witness Gloucester as he plots and executes his way the throne. But again, there was the question of actually getting to see it all.

Steven Barkhimer as Richard III
Photo Credit: Nile Scott Shots

Director Walsh answered my question from the moment the opening lines were said. This production would not take place on a stage, it would happen amongst the audience. The action, or at least 90% of it happens in the aisles alongside and in between the pews. Theatre does not get any closer or more personal than this. This works particularly well with Richard III as I do not believe there is another character in the works of Shakespeare who speaks directly to the audience as much as the title character does.

I have seen productions of Richard III where Gloucester comes across quite cunning and charming almost to the point where the audience members felt taken in by him and had pangs of guilt towards the end when his ruthlessness is on full display.

This is not the way Steven Barkhimer plays him. Dressed in black, walking with a limp, arm in a sling, and wearing a beret in the first act, and a headband representing a crown in the second, Mr. Barkhimer gives us a Richard whose phony charm is easily seen through from the outset. This approach allows us to see just how quickly the other characters are willing to compromise their morals in order to share in his power. They are not being taken in by his cunning, but instead willfully sell out to him. It is his power that corrupts the others, not his charm.

Steven Barkhimer and Mara Sidmore
(Photo Credit: Nile Scott Shots)

The scene where Richard woos Anne while standing next to the body of her husband whom Richard had slain is a perfect example of this. The grieving Anne, played by Mara Sidmore, is disgusted by the overtures but also realizes the power she will gain by giving into Richard. Ms Sidmore plays this tension very well. It is morality versus practicality, and in spite of Anne’s protestations, we know early on what her decision will be. It’s not Richard’s talk, but rather what he has to offer that allows him to woo her in this way. Mara Sidmore is also excellent as Catesby. Wearing a black fedora style hat she elevates the role of Richard’s most loyal follower.

The cast is limited to six actors playing the numerous roles, and they all manage to move from one character to another along with their differing personalities seamlessly. Deaon Griffin-Pressley who plays Hastings, Rivers, Terrell, and Richmond also plays Murderer 2 opposite Paula Plum as Murderer 1. Mr. Griiffn-Pressley speaks with a Jamaican Patois while Ms Plum has the swagger of a 1930s movie gangster. It is an interesting combination and well chosen.

Ms Plum also plays Queen Elizabeth, and the scene where Richard attempts to get Elizaleth’s approval for marrying her daughter is particularly powerful in this intimate setting.

Michael Forden Walker plays Buckingham and Stanley, but is at his best in the role of the tragic Clarence. Clarence relating his dream is moving, and his plea for sparing his life is so dreadful and sad.

Jennie Israel
(Photo Credit: Nile Scott Shots)

And now to Jennie Israel. Ms Israel comes close to stealing the show as she plays Brackenbury, King Edward, and Ratcliff. Her Margaret is just wonderful. Her presence is strong but not overwhelming, and her rhythm is beautiful. Ms Israel and Ms Plum are also impressive in red bows playing the two young and ill fated princes.

Richmond’s speech before the Battle of Bosworth Field is always powerful but more so in the hands of Deaon Griffin-Pressley as he walks through the aisles addressing the audience. Given in this setting it is particularly effective.

Richard gives his speech from the pulpit which is the highest spot in the chapel to perform from, it is a fitting place to have him speak just before his downfall. Mr. Barkhimer shows the failing despot giving it his one last try to keep the troops in line.

The battle itself is something to witness. It is a dance/fight scene brilliantly choreographed with drums playing in the background and the actors banging sticks together as they move through the chapel. I did duck for cover on more than one occasion.

Deaon Griffin-Pressley and Paula Plum
(Photo credit: Nile Scott Shots)

I doubt you will get the chance again to see such an intimate production of Richard III, nor one so creatively done. The chapel setting could not be more perfect. The lighting, which I was told was limited and challenging was also very effective. There was one scene where shadows are cast on the back wall that elicited a gasp from the audience. It was something to see.

It is also great for people like me who tend to fidget in their seats. While seating is in the pews, they are quite comfortable, and the ASP has also allowed quite a bit of seating room so audience members have no trouble shifting around to watch the action as it moves about them, and that is great news for us fidgeters.

For those of my readers who enjoy Shakespeare, you will be very pleased by this production. For those of you who have shied away from seeing these great works there could be no better introduction. It is helpful to read a synopsis of the play before going, but don’t be intimidated by it. Sit back and let it play out before you. You will be wooed.