Category Archives: Theater Reviews

Review: “Mame” At The Reagle Music Theatre Of Boston

Mame At The Reagle Music Theatre 

Is A Satisfying Banquet

Don’t Miss Out

 

Reviewed By Bobby Franklin

Through June 23 At The Reagle Music Theatre Of Boston

617 Lexington Street

Waltham, MA

781.891.5600

www.reaglemusictheatre.org 

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Ensemble With Leigh Barrett
Photo: Reagle Music Theatre/Herb Philpott

One of my favorite lines from Mame is “Life is a banquet and most poor sons of bitches are starving”. The production of Mame now playing at the Reagle Music Theatre of Boston in Waltham is a delicious feast of this classic Broadway musical. It will nourish your theatrical soul.

Led by uber talented Leigh Barrett as Patrick Dennis’s Auntie Mame, the entire cast is solid and tight. Ms Barrett who thrilled audiences in last year’s Lyric Stage production of Gypsy has met, or I would argue, even exceeded that performance here. Leigh Barrett delivers what is best described in the words of the great theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, “a high definition performance”. She is stage presence personified. 

This is the story of the “live life to the fullest” Mame who has taken on the care of her nephew Patrick Dennis. Mame faces many obstacles in watching over young Patrick, including threats to have him taken away from her for her unconventional lifestyle, as well as financial ruin (the play is set in the 1920s and 30s when the stock market crash destroyed many people’s finances), but you can’t keep her down.

While Ms Barrett’s performance is something to behold, she is not on the Reagle’s stage by herself. In fact, she is accompanied by 38 other highly talented actors who light up the theatre along with a full orchestra, a rarity today and such a pleasure, led by Dan Rodriguez. Upon entering the theatre I could hear the musicians tuning up. This lends an air of anticipation and excitement to the evening. 

Ben Choi-Harris and Leigh Barrett
Photo: Reagle Music Theatre/Herb Philpott

Regarding the other performers; well, there are too many to mention by name and any omissions are in no way a slight against any of them. Eleven year old Ben Choi-Harris who pays young Patrick Dennis is a rising star who more than held his own playing opposite Leigh Barrett in the first act. I had to check to make sure this wasn’t a fifty year old veteran actor heavily disguised to look like a boy, as Ben looks as if he has been on the stage for years. The duet between Mame and young Patrick on My Best Girl is just beautiful. Their warmth and love are fully conveyed to the audience. Mame’s nephew also makes a fine martini.

Katie O’Reilly takes on the role of the homely and lovable Agnes Gooch, who learns to open up and let go; well, a bit too much. In Gooch’s Song, Ms O’Reilly shows incredible comedic timing while keeping her character real and sympathetic. 

Mark Linehan, seen last year at the Reagle as Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man, plays Beau, the Southern Gentleman who falls for Mame and takes her hand in marriage bringing her love and wealth. He also ends up taking another fall, literally, while traveling with his new bride. Mr. Linehan has appeared on the Reagle’s stage eight times and once you see him you will understand why they keep bringing him back.

Mame’s house servant Ito is played by Simon Rogers. Mr. Rogers brings a depth to this loyal character while not sinking into caricature. The laughs are never at him, but with him. He, along with Vera, Mame, Patrick, and Miss Gooch are all family.

Maureen Keiller and Ensemble
Photo: Reagle Music Theatre/Herb Philpott

Speaking of Vera Charles, this has to be a dream role for many actors, and Maureen Keiller is having her dream come true. Ms Keiller is hysterical as the “world’s greatest lush” and dear but difficult friend of Mame’s. In fact, they are Bosom Buddies which they sing together in one of the many well known songs from the play. Ms Keiller also gives a hilarious performance on the number The Man In The Moon Is Lady. 

At the beginning of Act II the role of young Patrick transitions to the older Patrick played by Will Burke. The reprise of the song My Best Girl is begun by young Patrick and moves smoothly to older Patrick. It’s a touching moment.

Mame is directed and choreographed by Eileen Grace and the stage is filled with music and dance. The large cast is always in synch, and if you love dancing you will not be disappointed. It is a treat to see and hear them work the boards.

If He Walked Into My Life Today is one of the better known songs from Mame, but it is often not heard in context and is usually thought of as a romantic song about lost love. Seeing it sung here by Ms Barrett you fully grasp the feelings of doubt and regret Mame has over whether or not she has made the right choices in how she raised Patrick. Every parent feels this way at one time or another. 

Maureen Keiller and Leigh Photo: BarrettReagle Music Theatre/Herb Philpott

The title song, which closes the first act, is a lavish musical number that fully allows the audience to see what a classic Broadway Musical looks like. The stage is filled with dancers and singers all moving about effortlessly while performing their hearts out. As I was exiting the theatre I could hear people singing and humming the tunes. That’s a nice feeling.

Artistic Director Robert J. Eagle founded the Reagle Musical Theatre fifty-one years ago and it is a gift to have his creation still going strong after all that time. I suspect it easily has another fifty ahead of it. If you haven’t yet been there, well, what are you waiting for? If you have, I’m sure you won’t want to miss the current production. Mame is playing through June 23 and the theater is easy to find and has plenty of parking. 

As the Mame household reminds us, there are times We Need A Little Christmas, and I couldn’t think of a better Christmas present with which to begin your summer.

Review: “Jersey Boys” Ogunquit Playhouse

Jersey Boys

Stays Just A Little Bit Longer

At The Ogunquit Playhouse

Even Better The Second Time Around

Jersey Boys

Though June 15

The Ogunquit Playhouse

Ogunquit, Maine

207.646.5511

ogunquitplayhouse.org

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Photo Credit: Paul Charest

The Ogunquit Playhouse closed out their 2018 season with the hit jukebox musical Jersey Boys, which played to sold out audiences for eight weeks. Building off of that success, OPH Artistic Director Brad Kenney chose to hang on to what they got and begin the 87th season where they left off.

I very much enjoyed  Jersey Boys last August and gave it high praise. Settling in for this year’s return engagement, I planned on reliving that experience and looked forward to another great evening with the music and story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. Well, it turns out I was in  for a surprise. The great production I saw last year has been ramped up and matured. A new lighting system, some tweaking of the script, and the actors reprising their roles with more depth has taken the 2019 version of Jersey Boys to another level. 

Photo Credit:Morgan Gavaletz LaMontagne

Matthew Amira, Andy Christopher, Matt Magnusson, and Jonathan Mousset playing Nick Massi, Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito, and Frankie Valli respectively dig down deeper into their characters. The story of the four boys from New Jersey who went on to record mega hits amid much drama in their relationship served as a solid narrative to support the great musical score. That narrative has now become a more integral part of the production as the personal aspects of their lives are brought out more powerfully. The result is a Jersey Boys that is nothing short of spectacular.

This enhancement of the story does not take away from the power of the musical numbers; in fact, it adds to them by stirring the emotions while leading into each song. Mr. Mousset’s amazing take on My Eyes Adored You coming off the scene where we see Frankie Valli’s marriage breaking up really tugs at the heart. 

Photo Credit: Morgan Gavaletz LaMontagne

While standing ovations are not unusual, especially at the Ogunquit Playhouse, it is rare to see audiences jump to their feet during a performance. Both Sherry and Walk Like A Man had the crowd out of their seats cheering the performers on. I could see just how much this touched the members of the cast. One of the wonderful things about attending live theatre is getting to experience that symbiotic energy occurs  between actors and the audience. In this case it was electrifying for both.

The boys went through a number of names for the group before settling on The Four Seasons and later, after a couple of them left, it became known as Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. In Jersey Boys, each of the  four originals is given the recognition they deserve. 

Matt Magnusson plays Tommy DeVito, the bad boy who got the group going. A part time crook who had done time, he had that combination of daring and recklessness that it often takes to succeed in such a tough business. Mr. Magnusson captures his character with a Jersey accent and a mischievous twinkle in his eye. DeVito can drive you crazy but you can’t help but like him. He also serves as narrator for the first part of the play. 

Photo Credit: Paul Charest

In contrast to DeVito is Bob Gaudio who was introduced to the group by Joe Pesci (Tommy Martinez), yes, that Joe Pesci. Andy Christopher takes on the role of the man who not only wrote the songs that put the group on the map, but also was able to use his keen head for business and making deals to get them heard. Mr. Christopher plays the part of Gaudio with the perfect balance of calmness and drive that helped make the group so well known. 

Bass player Nick Massi describes himself as the Ringo of the quartet. Played by Matthew Amira, Massi is not left out. Mr. Amira gives a strong performance that is filled with humor and frustration. His description of rooming with Tommy DeVito is a riot. 

And that brings us to Jonathan Mousset who is reprising the role of Frankie Valli from last year. As I said earlier, there is a deeper layer of emotion in the 2019 Jersey Boys, and Mr. Mousset really plumbs the part and gives us a Valli torn between driving for success and living up to his “Old School Values”. Along with his amazing falsetto voice, he shows fine acting chops and brought more than a few tears to the eyes of those in the audience on the evening I attended. 

The entire cast is great, including Doug Storm who plays a number of roles including lyricist Bob Crewe. Storm comes close to stealing a few of the scenes with some well timed glances and asides. You might want to consult him about your horoscope. While Neal Benari as the gangster Gyp DeCarlo is the local Godfather type who helps the boys out of a few jams. The scene where he is brought to tears when he hears Frankie sing My Mother’s Eyes, is one of those touching comedic moments.

The new lighting system that has been installed at the playhouse is incredible. In the hands of lighting designer Richard Latta the effects are amazing. The use of spotlights and shadows is breathtaking. The scene recreating the evening the boys debuted on the Ed Sullivan Show is striking. Add in Choreography by Gerry McIntyre, Scenic Design by Adam Koch, and the work of Costume Designer Tristan Raines and this rivals anything you will see on Broadway. I also want to note that Ogunquit Playhouse productions are not touring companies, but are built from the ground up. 

Director Holly-Anne Palmer has been with Jersey Boys from its inception and she clearly has lost none of her enthusiasm for it. She has upped her game with this run. 

The music is still front and center with all of the hits plus more being performed powerfully, and the unique sound of the Four Seasons is captured perfectly. Dawn, Big Girls Don’t Cry, Let’s Hang On, Stay, December ’63, along with some  early 60s standards such as Short Shorts and Earth Angel. Caroline Iliff led Hillary Porter and Bailey Purvis in a smashing rendition of  My Boyfriend’s Back complete with big hair and bobby sox. Music to feed the nostalgic soul.

Jonathan Mousset’s rendition of Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You is a classic show stopper. Seeing it performed after hearing the story of how it almost never got released is amazing. Hey, the entire show is amazing.

The 2019 Season at the Ogunquit Playhouse is off to a tremendous start. Tickets for last year’s performances of Jersey Boys sold fast. I would recommend you book your seats soon so you don’t miss out this year. If you’ve never seen Jersey Boys, don’t let this opportunity pass you by. If you have seen it, come back and be as surprised as I was at how a very good play can get even better . Oh! What a night it is!

Review: “American Moor”

Keith Hamilton Cobb Starts An Important Conversation

Review: American Moor

Written and Performed by Keith Hamilton Cobb

Directed by Kim Weild

Presented by ArtsEmerson

Through April 21

Emerson Paramount Center, Boston

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Photo Credit:Chris Lang Photography

Keith Hamilton Cobb loves the work of William Shakespeare. His passion for and relationship with the words are conveyed strongly early on in American Moor, the autobiographical play he has written and he is now performing in at the Emerson Paramount Center in Boston. His enthusiasm is infectious as he takes the stage and recites lines and passages while telling the story of how he came, at an early age, to love the great plays. He is funny, provocative, and touching. If this were only a work about one man’s journey of discovering Shakespeare it would be outstanding. However, there is much more to Mr. Cobb’s story.

You see, Mr. Cobb is an actor and a Shakespearean. He is also a 6’4” black man, and in his relationship with the theatre that fact cannot be ignored. Early on when he was asked what characters from Shakespeare he would like to perform he mentioned Hamlet, Romeo, and even Titania from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was assumed he would say Othello, or the big “O” as the role as become known. It is here where we begin to see his anger. 

Mr. Cobb is on the stage alone for the entire 90 minute performance. Josh Tyson plays a director who speaks from a seat in the audience, and the dialog between the two is both funny and revealing. As Cobb is reciting his lines the director is giving him suggestions on how he should deliver them. Cobb pulls no punches in his feelings about people who interpret Shakespeare with an arrogance and superiority as if they had been close friends with him. It is particularly irritating to him when he hears “What Shakespeare was trying to say here…” His responses to these comments are spoken aloud with anger and frustration, and he is quick to point out that he didn’t actually say them when being auditioned but was thinking then. After all, he was trying to get a job, and he doesn’t get to interview the artistic directors.

At this point we see his bond with Othello begin. Othello was also involved with acting a certain way in order to maintain his job. He becomes protective of the Moor and questions how a white director can understand what goes on in the mind and psyche of a black character, and a black actor. He argues that his being a large black man gives him a particular insight that a white person could never feel. 

This work is a great starting point for a “conversation”, a word that is so often used today but rarely happens in America, about race. Is it true that only a black man can  inhabit and understand the role of Othello? And if that is true, doesn’t it mean that Mr. Cobb could end up pigeon holed in roles that only match his race? I certainly hope not. I’d love to hear more of his thoughts about cultural appropriation and how it should be handled in the theatre. 

In the end Cobb does reveal that he was making it too personal, that he is the vessel for the words of Shakespeare. It might also be asked how this dead white male was able to create such a complex character who was so different from himself.

Photo Credit: Ernesto Galan

American Moor is a fascinating work that touches on so many emotions and questions. It would be easy to sit through it and treat it as a lecture on how white people just don’t get it, and in so many ways that is true. But, it would be a shame if it is only seen as that. It is such a good place to begin the conversation, and theatre is a place to explore the feelings of those different from us and to speak openly and honestly with those with whom we have differences. 

 I do know the hour and a half I spent watching Mr. Cobb perform got my mind working. His strong emotions got my own to react. In my mind I was having a conversation with him, and I left the theater with many questions.

He talked about people expecting a black actor to behave in a certain way. It is also true many white people think they have to behave in a certain way when interacting with a black person. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could be ourselves and speak openly about these issues. 

Keith Hamilton Cobb has been open with his emotions. He is honest and revealing and that takes courage. Exploring these issues through the work of William Shakespeare is a fine way to approach them. I recommend you head over to the Emerson Paramount Center and listen to what Mr. Cobb has to say. If the conversation makes you uncomfortable, he is doing his job. If you manage to leave the theatre without wanting to hear more Shakespeare, well, then you really weren’t paying attention. 

Review: “Twelfth Night” At The Lyric Stage

Art Thou Ready To Rumble?
Paula Plum Scores A Knockout
With The Lyric Stage/Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s 

Twelfth Night

 

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Bobbie Steinbach, Alejandro Simoes, Michael Forden Walker

Twelfth Night is considered one of William Shakespeare’s three great comedies. It is also a dark comedy, as well as the Shakespeare play that contains the most music. While it is not exactly known what the songs would have sounded like in the original productions, the lyrics are contained in the plays.

In this production, the Lyric Stage Company has joined with Actors’ Shakespeare Project and the results are delightful. Under the creative direction of Paula Plum, the action is moved from the Elizabethan Period to the 1920s. The set is modeled after New Orleans’ French Quarter and is softly lit, giving it a jazz club feel.

This is fitting, as Ms Plum has employed the very talented David Wilson to compose music to accompany the lyrics Mr. Shakespeare has provided. The bluesy jazz has the feel of Billie Holiday crossed with George Lewis. The songs are performed by Rachel Belleman in the role of Feste. Ms Belleman has an exquisite voice as she sings while being accompanied by digital music that is piped in through a juke box. Other than realizing there is not an orchestra present, you would never guess Mr. Wilson has made this happen through the wonders of modern technology. There are also flapper era songs such as I Wanna Be Loved By You and Someone To Watch Over Me that are played as incidental music.

Twelfth Night utilizes many of the familiar devices Shakespeare uses. A pair of twins that are separated, gender bending, a shipwreck, mistaken identity, and a character who is outcast by the others. It can get confusing, but that is the charm in it all.

In addition to Rachel Belleman’s Feste, and she brings much to her fine performance than her amazing singing talents, the stage is populated with a strong cast of Boston veteran actors and young talent who do not disappoint.

Richard Snee, Michael Forden Walker, Bobbie Steinbach, Jennie Israel

Bobbie Steinbach and Alejandro Simoes as Sir Toby Belch and Aquecheek respectively, bring a vaudeville/slapstick flavor to their parts. There are also shades of Laurel and Hardy. They are dressed in brightly colored costumes and wear derbies. Ms Steinbach reminded me a bit of the Penguin from the Batman series. As usual, she is a presence on the stage but never at the expense of her fellow players. Michael Forden Walker in straw hat as Valentine and Maria played by Jennie Israel round out the gang who set up Malvolio. This is Shakespeare meets vaudeville.

They are really funny, but the darkness also comes through when they begin to gaslight the somber Malvolio played by Richard Snee. This is a more sympathetic Malvolio than is sometimes seen. He is stern and unforgiving in his treatment of Sir Toby and Viola. A steward to Olivia, he is duped into believing she has romantic intentions toward him. The scene where he dresses in cross garters and yellow stockings is right out of Sid Caesar and is hysterical, which makes his embarrassment the more palpable when he finds out he has been duped. Imprisoned for madness, his rage is understandable, and Mr. Snee delivers Malvolio’s angry words to his tormenters like a cannon shot fired into the audience.

Richard Snee, Samantha Richert, Rachel Belleman

The dueling scene is presented as a boxing match, and while the legacy of Joe Louis is not threatened, it is fun and lively. Hearing the lines “Art thou ready to rumble?” was really amusing and a nice touch by Ms Plum.

Samantha Richert is a boozy Olivia dressed as a 1920’s flapper. She and Orsino are both smitten with Cesario who is really Viola in disguise. Played by Hayley Spivey, Viola has been shipwrecked in Illyria and believes her twin brother Sebastian (Dominic Carter) has been lost.

Ms Spivey and Mr. Carter are both making their Shakespearean debuts in Twelfth Night, but you would never know it by their performances. Hayley Spivey is confident and recites her lines flawlessly. Her timing is impeccable and precise as she moves effortlessly across the stage.

Dominic Carter has fewer lines, but the old saying about less being more certainly holds true for him. There is almost a shyness about his performance that makes it both subtle yet understatedly powerful. I was very impressed with both Mr. Carter and Ms Spivey. I hope they will take to the stage in future Shakespeare productions.

Hayley Spivey, Alejandro Simoes, Samantha Richert, Dominic Carter

This Lyric Stage/Actors’ Shakespeare Project collaboration is terrific. The Lyric has not put on a Shakespeare play in some time and opening up the theatre in Copley Square for this production shows how well two different companies can work together. I thought “Oh No! Two Artistic Directors working on the same project at the same time! This could get crazy.” However, Spiro Veloudos at the Lyric and Christopher Edwards from ASP obviously work well together. I think they also let director Paula Plum have a free hand, and that was wise.

Some people are not happy when a Shakespeare play is set in a more modern era. It never has bothered me as long as it stays true to the original in dialog and meaning. This does not mean it always works. This one does, and it works extremely well. It is highly entertaining, funny, the music is perfect while the story remains intact and as meaningful as ever.

Alejandro Simoes, Hayley Spivey

To those of you who still suffer from the slings and arrows of that high school teacher who managed to instill in you a lifelong dislike of the world’s greatest playwright, have no fear as you will enjoy this production. I heard some people at intermission saying the play was confusing. Well, it is and is supposed to be. The characters become confused. Many plays take time to resolve themselves as they progress, and this is rarely an issue. In Shakespeare, however, I think the ghosts of teachers past sometimes haunt us. My advice: don’t hang on every word, don’t worry if you feel you are not getting the story immediately, remember that you will not be given a test right after, and most of all, remember that you are not reading it. You are watching it which is the way it was meant to be experienced.

Relax and enjoy what has to be one of, if not the, best productions of a Shakespeare play this season. As Orsino says “If music be the food of love, play on; Give me excess of it”. The music at the Lyric stage is certainly the food of love…and of great theatre.

Photos by Mark S. Howard

Twelfth Night
Through April 28
The Lyric Stage, Copley Square, Boston
lyricstage.com 617.585.5678

Review: “Onegin” At Greater Boston Stage Company 

Onegin

By Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille

Directed By Weylin Symes

Musical Direction By Steve Bass

Choreographer Ilyse Robbins

Through March 31

 

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Sarah Pothier and Mark Linehan
Photo by: Maggie Hall Photography

Onegin, now playing at the Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham is the U.S. premiere of the musical based on the epic poem of the same name by Alexander Pushkin. It has been very popular in Canada, and after seeing this production I can understand why. In this version, Russian literature meets rock opera. The result is two hours of very enjoyable theatre that you won’t want to miss.

Set in 19th Century Russia, it is the story of Evgeni Onegin (Mark Linehan) who has moved to the countryside where he has inherited his uncle’s estate. There he befriends the young poet Vladimir Lensky (Michael Jennings Mahoney). To cheer his new friend up, Lensky introduces Onegin to his girlfriend’s sister Tatyana (Sarah Pothier). 

We hear how Tatyana is immediately taken with Onegin as she sings Let Me Die, in which she tells of her love of books and her feelings that Onegin has walked out of one of the great novels she has read. Ms Pothier’s rendition of Let Me Die is beautiful. Her voice is sweet and conveys a vulnerability that captures the essence of Tatyana. 

Sarah Pothier
Photo By: Maggie Hall Photography

Unfortunately, the object of her affection does not respond in kind. He makes his feelings clear in Onegin’s Refusal in which he sings the lyric, “Marriage is not for me.” Mark Linehan’s voice is strong and rich, and it doesn’t take long to understand the character of the self centered Onegin. 

The story moves to tragedy as Onegin’s thoughtlessness causes his friend Lensky much pain. Onegin’s flirtation with Lensky’s fiancé Olga (Josephine Moshiri Elwood) leads to the two friends having a duel. The result causes much pain while giving Onegin what appears to be the first sense of caring for others. 

Christopher Chew
Photo by Maggie Hall Photography

While tragic, the play has many upbeat and funny moments. Christopher Chew as Triquet puts on quite the rock star performance during “The Queen Of Tonight”. Kerry Dowling’s glower seems aimed at each audience member as she sings Rules For Dueling while dressed as a Cossack complete with mustache. There are a number of memorable moments such as this.

Michael Jennings Mahoney who plays Lensky has a remarkable voice. The melancholy that shows during Olga Will You Weep is deeply moving. I was impressed and taken with what I heard.

The five piece orchestra was on stage throughout the performance as are most of the cast members. And, in a nice touch, a few members of the audience are also seated on stage and take part in some of the numbers. 

Onegin plays through March 31 in Stoneham, and I highly recommend it. This Greater Boston Stage Company production is well worth seeing.  With political divisions permeating so much of our daily lives, it is nice to be able to take a break from the madness and see a play that is touching, human, and has such a great score. 

Onegin

Greater Boston Stage Company

395 Main Street, Stoneham, MA

781.279.2200

www.greaterbostonstage.org 

Review: “An Inspector Calls” At ArtsEmerson

Be Sure To Visit This House

Review: An Inspector Calls

Directed By Stephen Daldry

A National Theatre Landmark Production

Through March 14

ArtsEmerson

Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, Boston

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Photo by Mark Douet

When the curtain rises for An Inspector Calls, now playing at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, a magnificent Victorian mansion appears center stage shrouded in mist and rain. It is rather breathtaking to see as we hear the occupants talking over dinner. Eventually, the sides of the house swing back revealing the diners while allowing the audience to get to know each character. 

At first I thought the house would steal the show, but nothing could take away from the fine acting on display over the next 100 minutes of this fast paced production filled with rapid fire dialog.

Jeff Harmer, Hamish Riddle and Andrew Macklin
Photo by Mark Douet

J.B. Priestly’s play which was written in 1945 and is set in 1912, takes in place the home of the prosperous Birling family, celebrating the engagement of their daughter Sheila (Lianne Harvey) to Gerald Croft (Andrew Maclin). Croft’s family runs a company that competes with the Birling’s firm, and the wedding appears to be as much a business merger as an affair of the heart.

The mood begins to change quickly when the mysterious Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan) arrives and begins questioning the individuals about a young woman named Eva Smith. Eva has taken her own life and the Inspector acts as a conscience while going from person to person while finding blame in each for driving the young Smith to such despair.

Priestly made no attempt to hide his agenda and it is clear the story comes down to a very black and white social commentary; wealthy industrialist is cruel and exploitative while the workers have no control over their lives. It is a theme that will be popular with many of today’s Millennials who seem to be quite taken with socialism, but it does not lend itself to discussion. Priestly has written a work that is more of a sermon promoting rather than an argument for his beliefs.

Liam Brennan, Jeff Harmer, Hamish Riddle, Andrew Macklin
Photo by Mark Douet

Does this mean only people who agree with the author should see it? Not at all. Actually, it is a very good work with excellent dialog, many surprises, and characters that are well developed, and that while it is strongly political in nature, there is much in it that will resonate with people from all spectrums of opinion. Step back from where Priestly is trying lead the audience and you have a story about human nature and the harm people do to one another because they don’t understand or simply choose not to see the consequences their actions have on the lives of others. This is a problem for not only wealthy capitalists, but for many people when they have power over others. It could even be true of college professors or lower level management people. 

This is the U.S. tour of the National Theatre production of An Inspector Calls, and the set from the original London West End theatre has been brought over. It is a first rate work that is a pleasure watch. At times I felt as if I were sitting in a London theatre while watching this incredibly talented troupe of actors plying their art. Costumes, lighting, and effects further enhanced the performances. 

Liam Brennan’s Inspector Goole is a combination of avenging angel and Ghost of Christmas yet to come, while Jeff Hamer in the role of family patriarch Arthur Brilling takes his character, who could have easily slipped into caricature, and fills him with depth and emotion.

Lianne Harvey’s Shelia Brilling at first appears to be uncaring, or rather naive, but then becomes a voice of reason and understanding. Eric Brilling, the alcoholic son played by Hamish Riddle, gains much depth as the play moves on, and his pain is deeply felt as the final scenes unfold. 

Gerald Croft (Andrew Maclin), the future son in law, and Sybil Birling (Christine Kavanaugh), the family matriarch, struck me as the coldest of the bunch. Both appeared to be from the school that says if nobody sees you, you didn’t do anything wrong. 

Not to be forgotten is Edna, the Birling’s maid. Played by Diana Payne-Myers, she has very little dialog but acts as witness to all that happens. While subtle, she is quite moving and plays an important role in the play.

Opening night was also Ms Payne-Myers 91st birthday. She has been performing the part for 22 years, I think she has it down pat. 

Jeff Harmer, Diana Payne-Myers, Lianne Harvey, Hamish Riddle, Andrew Macklin, Christine Kavanagh and Ensemble
Photo by Mark Douet

Be neither turned off or on by the political bent of An Inspector Calls. It is excellent theatre and it would be a shame not to take it in. We are in such polarized political times, but that has always been true to some degree. The important thing is to be able to listen to one another no matter how much we may disagree. While you may or may not agree with J.B. Priestly’s political views, there is much common ground to be found in how we can improve our lives when it comes to treating others with kindness and respect.

One thing everyone can agree on is this is a superb production that should not be missed. 

Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, 219 Tremont Street, Boston. Tickets may be purchased online at www.artsemerson.org  by phone at 617.824.8400, or in person at the box office.

Review: “Once”

“Don’t Be Wastin’ Life 

‘Cause You’re Frightened Of It”

Once

At SpeakEasy Stage Company

Through March 30

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Nile Scott Hawver and MacKenzie Lesser-Roy
Photo Credit: Maggie Hall Photography

Once, the Tony Award winning musical based on the 2007 movie of the same name, is a love story that takes place over five days in Dublin, Ireland. The lead characters are called simply Guy and Girl. The cast is made up primarily of musicians who play their instruments on stage during the performance. This gives a coffeehouse feel to the work.

Guy, played by Nile Scott Hawver, is a singer/songwriter who is despondent after having broken up with his girlfriend. She was the inspiration for his songs, and he has now decided to give up music. 

Girl, an “always serious” Czech pianist, played by MacKenzie Lesser-Roy, sees Guy discard his guitar on the street and approaches him. Guy is put off by her aggressiveness as she pushes him to pick up his instrument. He resists, and then “destiny” steps in.

It turns out Guy repairs Hoovers, as in vacuum cleaners, for a living, and it just happens that Girl has a Hoover in need of repair. This sets the stage for the pretty predictable story that follows.

The two begin to fall in love, but that love will not be able to blossom for a number of reasons; however, they both have much to give to and learn from each other in the time they spend together. Until they met each other they were both stuck, and from each other they have come to understand they cannot remain that way. As Guy says, “Don’t be wastin’ life ‘cause you’re frightened of it”.

Billy Meleady and Kathy St. George With Cast
Photo Credit: Maggie Hall Photography

Along the way there is much music and many characters, including Guy’s Da (father) and Girl’s mother, Baruska, played by Billy Meleady and Kathy St.George. Girl has a young daughter, Ivonka, who was played by Reagan Gardiner at the performance I attended. Clara Cochran also plays Ivonka in alternating appearances. Add to this a number of Girl’s Czech friends and the local Dubliners and you get some interesting cross cultural interactions. 

While the story is pretty basic and the music is not of the type you will be singing to yourself as you leave the theater, the production is uplifting and enjoyable. Ilyse Robbins has done a splendid job in choreographing the musicians, all of whom are first rate. The set design, mostly brick with wood floors, is warm and welcoming while the lighting accents the colors and frames the actors in a way that keeps them from becoming too large on the small stage of the Robert’s Theatre. It is all splendidly done. 

I want to make special mention of Billy Butler who plays Billy, the owner of a recording studio. Mr. Butler is quick and sharp with some great lines. He is a pugnacious character who has to temper his fighting spirit because he has a bad back. Of course, his back seems fine until he appears ready to fight. I was quite impressed with Mr. Butler’s sharp performance and well timed facial expressions. 

MacKenzie Lesser-Roy and Scott Hawver
Photo Credit: Maggie Hall Photography

Nile Scott Hawver and MacKenzie Lesser-Roy are charming as Guy and Girl. Both have delightful voices and are accomplished musicians. They convey warmth and understanding in their lines to each other. By the end of the two hour performance you will find you really like both of the characters. 

The rest of the cast are also very good. While most are musicians they also display excellent acting talent and are quite comfortable on the theatrical stage.

This is my first time seeing Once. It was originally an off Broadway work that moved to Broadway. While it had great success there and won 8 Tony Awards including Best Musical, I get the feeling it works best in a smaller theatre such as the Robert’s. As I wrote at the beginning, it has a coffeehouse feel to it, and seeing it staged so well on this small stage makes me believe this is how it should be experienced. 

Photo Credit: Maggie Hall Photography

Once is a nice story, and The Speakeasy Stage Company production of it is pitch perfect. I doubt it was serendipitous that a love story set in Dublin would happen to arrive on a Boston stage during St. Patricks Day, but it is a nice treat. And get there early as the cast puts on a lively little musical session before the play begins that you won’t want to miss. 

Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company

Book By Enda Walsh

Music and Lyric By Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova

Directed By Paul Melone 

Choreography by Ilyse Robbins

Through March 30

SpeakEasy Production Company

Calderwood Pavillion, South End, Boston

speakeasystage.com

617.933.8600

What Are We Without The Memories?

The Heath

By Lauren Gunderson

Directed By Sean Daniels 

Through March 10

Merrimack Repertory Theatre

Lowell,MA

https://mrt.org/show/heath

Reviewed By Bobby Franklin

George Judy and Miranda Barnett
Photo by Meghan Moore

In The Heath, author Lauren Gunderson tells the story of her Paw Paw’s (grandfather) withdrawal from life due to the ravages of Alzheimer’s Disease. It is also the story about the regrets she has in not having gotten to know him better. Using scenes from King Lear as well as playing the banjo and singing, we are presented with an original and fascinating look at life and aging.

Miranda Barnett plays Lauren and does so with complexity and depth. Lauren is filled with regret for not having had more conversations with her Paw Paw whose name is KD, and struggles to understand what has happened by reading King Lear. The set is split between a home and a heath. George Judge in the role of KD as well as Lear is touching, warm, and powerful. His voice shifts from a Southern accent to a naturalistic Shakespearean delivery seamlessly as the scenes move from the dialog between Lauren and KD to out on the heath as we watch Lear’s descent into madness. 

George Judy
Photo by Seaghan McKay

While we often think of Lear as having gone mad, in The Heath we see it as being much more than that. Ms Gunderson shows how the diseases of an aging mind are not madness but a loss of self. She tells us, “They are lost before they are gone”. It is heart wrenching to witness a man who led a full life, who fought in Europe in WWII, raised a family, loved and was loved go to that place where he no longer knows anyone, even himself.

While at times Lauren comes across as self centered, she also does her best to reach out to KD. She learns to play the banjo because she remembered how he loved to listen to the music of Flatt and Scruggs. In addition to portions of some Gospel tunes, Ms Gunderson has also written a number of touching songs for the play. In Let It Be Me she asks “Who are we without the story?” It is the stories, the memories that are stolen from those suffering from dementia. 

This is all pretty heavy stuff, and the realities are not glossed over here. Having said that, the play is not a downer. There is much to smile and laugh about as KD’s life is recounted through conversations with Lauren as well as projections onto the back of the set. She learns from going through old letters that her Paw Paw called her grandmother Sugar Babe. She remembers watching Atlanta Braves baseball games together and the fun they had. They also had some interesting conversations about religion, a topic they didn’t exactly see eye to eye on. Those differences lead to some funny exchanges between the pair.

George Judy and Miranda Barnett
Photo by Meghan Moore

The scenes where Mr. Judge assumes the role of Lear are stunning. He steps onto the heath and recites his lines which have been framed by KD’s story. In the final storm scene from Lear, Lauren takes on the part of the Fool, and in creating the last scene with Lear and Cordelia, she is the King’s youngest though she worries she may have been more like Goneril. The sound, the lighting, and the emotions are a theatre experience to remember. Ms Barnett and Mr. Judge deliver amazing performances on the MRT stage. 

The Heath will touch everyone. It is a reminder that none of us gets out of life without suffering. That no matter how hard we try we will have regrets. It also tells us that our lives are filled with meaning and love, and it is up to us to strive to understand the gift we are given. 

Don’t be afraid of the subject matter. You will be enriched by this story. Our lives are our memories. Throughout the play texts are displayed on the backdrop. One is, “You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing. – Luis Bunuel, My Last Sigh”

Don’t miss this production, it will touch you and help you to better understand the journey we are all on. 

Reaching For The Light Without a Net

When Angels Fall

Directed and Choreographed By Raphaelle Boitel

Presented By ArtsEmerson

Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, Boston

Through February 24

https://artsemerson.org

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Raphaelle Boitel describes When Angels Fall as a dystopia. Set some time in the future, the performers emerge from darkness and never speak. Instead, we are left to interpret what is happening by witnessing a combination of aerial acrobatics, dance, and other expressive movements, some as simple as people walking across the stage. This is accompanied by original and very moving music composed by Arthur Bison. Add to all this,  lighting that is used sparsely but oh so effectively and a fog machine that at times gives the feeling that the aerialists are drifting through clouds makes this a captivating work that fascinates and intrigues. 

Ms Boitel’s future is cold. It is a place where human connection is frowned upon if not outright banned. As the work opens a performer is lowered from above to the song A Bicycle Built For Two (Daisy, Daisy). The old tune will be heard again, and in different versions, throughout the production. The reactions of the characters to this simple song of love and togetherness seems at first humorous, but as their confusion and fear shows it is apparent just how far removed they are from being able to understand and feel human connection, and that is where it becomes so very sad. It may be the future, but things have not moved forward. 

Throughout all of this there is one character, a noble savage type, who is looking for more. She is looking for conversation and is looking off stage toward someone or something as she reaches out for connection. 

The use of beams of light cutting through the fog and the darkness gives a feeling that all is not hopeless. The striving to reach up to the light that is expressed through the amazing aerial acrobatics is just astounding. The beauty and danger that are combined touch the emotions as the struggle to be allowed to feel is strongly conveyed. Can she escape and reach the light or will she fall?

In the 70 minutes it lasted, my eyes never left the stage. The movements, the music, the aerial feats were all spellbinding.  The seven performers were perfectly in sync while making it look effortless, which it certainly wasn’t. 

This is the first season I have covered ArtsEmerson, and I have been quite impressed. Artistic Director David Dower has made the unusual the usual under his direction. 

When Angels Fall is only playing until Sunday so don’t hesitate, you won’t want to miss this very original work. The Emerson Cutler Majestic is a beautiful theatre and this is a must see production. It is touching, enthralling, and deeply moving. And if you haven’t guessed by now, I really enjoyed it.

Photos by Sophian and Georges Ridel

Review: “The End Of TV” At ArtsEmerson, Boston

 

A Warm And Touching Story
Of Two Lives Connecting
Now Playing At ArtsEmerson

 

The End Of TV
By Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman
Created by Manual Cinema
Through January 27
ArtsEmerson
Emerson Paramount Theater
Boston

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Photo Credit: Judy Sirota Rosenthal

If you were to just sit and listen to the original music and lyrics composed by Ben Kauffman and Kyle Vegter that accompanies The End Of TV, that alone would be a pleasurable experience. But having that music along with the story that grew from it makes for an incredible evening of theatre.

Now being presented by ArtsEmerson at the Paramount Center in Boston and created by Manual Cinema, The End Of TV is certainly one of the most original works you will see this season. Combining that sublime score with visual effects that include shadow puppets, overhead projectors, actors performing in silhouette, and a touching and moving story, it leaves you with 75 minutes of theatre that is deeply moving.

The story, set during the 1990s in the Rust Belt, focuses on Flo (Kara Davidson), a retired factory worker who spends her days watching home shopping channels on her TV, and Louise (Sharaina L. Turnage), a recently laid off factory worker who has taken a job working for Meals On Wheels. Flo is slipping into dementia and her world is her television set. Louise is working to reinvent her life.

Photo Credit:Judy Sirota Rosenthal

Louise meets Flo while delivering meals to her, and at first their contact is brief, limited to the time it takes Louise to drop off Flo’s dinners. The two actors have no lines and are seen in silhouette projections on a screen hanging above the stage. The audience can see what is going on behind the scenes as the actors work in front of backdrop where their actions are captured and projected onto the overhead screen. The story is told with these images along with shadow puppets and scenes from television. It is remarkable to see the large array of emotions and expressions that are conveyed by the actors’ body movements. The lack of dialog and facial expressions actually enhances the emotional effect. A simple wave of the hand as a greeting gives the sense of connection that is building between the two women. It is fascinating to watch.

The only dialog is from the actors portraying the people from the home shopping channel and 1990’s TV programs who are also projected onto the screen. There are even appearances by the Jolly Green Giant. The five piece orchestra is on stage throughout the performance. The sound from a television can be heard throughout giving us the feeling of what it is like to be living in Flo’s world.

We also learn about Flo and Louise through flashbacks. Flo had worked in the factory during WW II. It appears it is the same factory Louise was laid off from. Both have had ordeals to overcome, and I was struck by the quiet strength of each.

The bond that grows between the two during the brief visits by Louise shows how important even a simple gesture of kindness can be. The fact that this is being done through silhouettes and without words makes it all the more touching.

Photo Credit: Judy Sirota Rosenthal

Discussing the subject of aging and the onset of dementia can make people very uncomfortable in today’s society. Not so in The End Of TV. There is a raw honesty to this work that allows us to watch and understand what happens in life as the aging process sets in. Seeing how much simple acts of kindness can mean to a person shows the importance of being connected to one another. And this is not just about what Louise does for Flo, but it also how Louise finds strength and hope in communicating with Flo.

While dealing with sad topics, this is not a sad play; It is heart touching and hopeful. The use of shadow puppets interspersed with the actors give it a childlike innocence that helps to simplify the complexities of the story. The warmth that comes from witnessing Flo and Louise connecting serves to remind us of our capacity for kindness and understanding, something that we tend to lose touch with in this fast paced world. There is so much to be given to and learned from one another. In my mind I still have the image of Flo and Louise gently waving to one another, so simple yet so very moving.

After the performance, the audience is invited onto the stage to speak with the actors and to see how it was all done.

Creative, unique, fascinating, humorous and touching, this is a work that will capture your heart. The End Of TV is one of the high points in a very rich Boston theatre season. It is a beautiful work and I highly recommend it.

For more information:
617.824.8400
artsemerson.org