Category Archives: Theater Reviews

Review: “Breath & Imagination” At The Lyric Stage In Boston

“Things Being Hard Don’t 

Give You The Right To 

Give Up”

Breathe & Imagination

The Story Of Roland Hayes

By Daniel Beaty

Directed by Maurice Emmanuel Parent

Through December 23 

Lyric Stage and The Front Porch Arts Collective

Copley Square, Boston

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Asher Denburg and Devron S. Monroe
Photo Credit: Mark S. Howard

While Roland Hayes is well known and highly admired in the world of classical music, it is surprising and regretful that he is not better known by the general public. His story of determination, talent, and belief in himself is inspiring to say the least. In a time when we are sorely lacking in role models, you won’t go wrong looking back to Roland Hayes as an example of how to live one’s life. Breath & Imagination now playing at the Lyric Stage in Boston brings us his story and music. I hope it also makes more people aware of this very important man who spent much of his life living in Brookline, MA while also teaching and performing in Boston.

Davron S. Monroe plays Mr. Hayes in this 90 minute production that is filled with music both spiritual and classical. The cast is small and the play is intimate with Mr. Monroe being accompanied by Asher Denburg on the piano. Mr. Denburg is also the Music Director. Doug Gerber plays Mr. Calhoun, Roland Hayes’s first voice teacher. Nile Scott Hawver takes on a number of other parts that include Miss Robinson, a voice teacher, as well as the King of England. 

Davron S. Monroe and Yewande Odetoyinbo
Photo Credit: Mark S. Howard

The play revolves around the relationship between Hayes and his mother Angel Mo played by Yewande Odetoyinbo. Roland’s father died when he was young, but we learn from his off stage voice (Nile Scott Hawver) how he influenced his son by talking him for walks in the woods while teaching him how to listen for the sounds of nature and to try to mimic them. This is where the young Hayes first became enthralled with what he could do with his voice.

Angel Mo encouraged him to develop his voice hoping he would use this “gift from God” to become a preacher. Roland had other ideas. After hearing a recording of Enrico Caruso, the young man wanted to became a classical singer. This put him at odds with his mother. Watching the story unfold, while both Mr. Monroe and Ms Odetoyinbo fill the theatre with their beautiful voices,touched my heart. Both actors play their characters over the course of many years, and the transition from youth to old age is flawless. 

Davron S. Monroe and Yewande Odetoyinbo
Photo Credit: Mark S. Howard

Roland Hayes was the grandson of slaves. He was stepping into a world that was not exactly welcoming to African Americans. At times he became discouraged. At one point he wanted to quit. In a moving scene he sings “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord”. It is here, when Hayes wants to pack it all in that Angle Mo says to him “Things being hard don’t give you the right to give up”. It’s tempting to call this “tough love’, but it’s not tough, rather it is  a strong and loving mother who believes in her son and knows he can succeed. He may not be fulfilling her wish of becoming a preacher, but he is using his God given gift to do much good. It is scenes like this that make this play so inspiring.

Breath & Imagination is not a detailed account of the life of Roland Hayes. What it does is give us good overview of his struggles, his doubts, his steadfastness, and his belief in himself. There were many times when that belief was shaken, but this was Angel Mo’s son, and he was not going to give up.

Davron S. Monroe and Yewande Odetoyinbo
Photo Credit: Mark S. Howard

The music that fills the Lyric Stage Theater is very special. Ms Odetoyinbo and Mr. Monroe are both excellent actors, and they are actors who can sing, and sing magnificently. I was deeply moved by both of them, as I was by this production. Listening to Angel Mo, as her days are winding down, singing “When I’m Gone” is both sad and joyful. Ms Odetoyinbo was very impressive. She is young but you would swear she has been at this for decades. She plays a very strong woman in Angel Mo while giving her character the deeply loving heart that makes us wish we all had an Angel Mo in our lives. The lucky ones do.

Davron S. Monroe was last seen at the Lyric in The Wiz. After seeing him in Breath & Imagination, I can’t sing his praises high enough. From the spirituals to the magnificent classical pieces, his voice comes to us from deep within his heart. In the time of Roland Hayes people were denied the opportunity to develop their talents all because of the color of their skin. Roland Hayes played a big part in changing that when it came to music. Mr. Monroe honors his great legacy by lending his talent to tell us that story. He also gives us the joy of music along with the lessons to be learned from this great man’s life.

Breath & Imagination is a must see. It will move you and I certainly hope it will bring the life of Roland Hayes to more people. The Lyric Stage is filled with music and love, take part in it. 

lyricstage.com 617.585.5678

Review: “Man In The Ring” At The Huntington

A Compelling And Intense 

Life Story Of Emile Griffith 

At The Huntington

Man In The Ring

By Michael Cristofer

Directed by Michael Greif

Through December 22

The Huntington Theatre Company

Boston

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Kyle Vincent Terry and John Douglas Thompson
(Photo: T. Charles Erikson)

I was apprehensive when going to see Man In The Ring. The play by Michael Cristofer recounts the life of six time world boxing champion Emile Griffith. Mr. Cristofer had not even heard of Griffith until being asked to write the libretto for an opera about the former champ. That experience led to him writing the play. Given that, I thought this could turn out to be a real mess. 

I felt there was so much he would get wrong.  Boxing is a complicated, dark, and emotional sport. Emile Griffith’s life story is a complex one that is filled with many contradictions along with much success and terrible tragedy. There are a number of different parts of his life that could have dominated this work, but Mr. Cristofer has done a masterful job of giving us a complete and honest portrait of Griffith’s life. 

The fact that Mr. Cristofer did not have previous knowledge of Emile Griffith has proven to be an asset when it comes to telling the story. He comes to it with a blank slate and gets all of it right. Along with writing theatre reviews, I have also been a boxing writer for a number of years, as well as having spent a lifetime around the sport. If anyone would be sitting in a theatre looking for flaws in the story it would be me. It turns out I would have to dig pretty deep to point out any mistakes here. I was very impressed, and I am not easily impressed by boxing dramatizations.

Emile Griffith is played by two actors. Kyle Vincent Terry is the young Emile while John Douglas Thompson is Griffith in his later years, when the effects of the punches he took have begun to appear in what was known as Dementia Pugilistica, today as CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). Both actors appear on the stage together throughout most of the play, with the older Emile looking back on his youthful self while reflecting on the choices he made. It is fascinating watching the story unfold in this manner. There are times when the two have exchanges. 

John Douglas Thompson
Photo: (T. Charles Erickson)

John Douglas Thompson is among the finest stage actors performing today, and it is uncanny how he captures Griffith in the years when his mind is beginning to fade. In scenes that are both funny and tragic the effects of the dementia as it progresses are brought to the audience. One such moment occurs when Luis (Victor Almanzar), Emile’s lover and now caretaker brings him his shoe which ended up in the refrigerator. The exchange between the two is quite funny but also very sad. 

Kyle Vincent Terry’s young Emile is filled with the positivity and optimism that was Griffith (“Always hang your hat higher than you can reach”). The magnificently built immigrant from St.Thomas arrived in New York City to join his mother. He decided to come to the States to make it as a baseball player and/or singer. He also had quite a knack for making lady’s hats. This led him to a job with a fellow named Howie Albert (Gordon Clapp), a once aspiring boxer who now runs a millenary business. He was immediately taken by Griffith’s physique and talked him into taking up boxing. Mr. Terry really impressed me as Emile. As they would say in boxing “You got what it takes kid’, and he sure does.

Gordon Clapp and Kyle Vincent Terry
(Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Boxing fans will notice the absence of Emile’s trainer Gil Clancy in the play. This is not an oversight, the author has rolled Clancy and Albert into one character. It works very well. Mr. Cristofer also, and I am not sure if this is intentional, shows how poorly Griffith was managed at the beginning of his career. Emile is what is known as a “survivor” in boxing. His was repeatedly thrown in with opponents who were far ahead of him in experience yet still managed to win. Albert didn’t develop a great fighter, he got lucky. Emile had incredible natural talent and a head for boxing. He was mostly self taught.

Kyle Vincent Terry and Cast
(Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Griffith’s bisexuality was always an open secret in boxing and could have dominated this play. It certainly and rightly is a major part of the story, and Emile’s ambiguity about it is shown. His lifestyle was rarely if ever publicly discussed, that is until the weigh-in for his third fight with Welterweight Champion Benny “Kid” Paret (Sean Boyce Johnson). The scene is staged with an emotional intensity that reaches out to the back rows of the theater. Paret’s shouting “Maricon” (a Spanish slur for a gay man) at Emile caused the lighthearted challenger to lose his temper. 

What occurs next is seared into the memories of older boxing fans. In the fight which was broadcast live on nationwide television, Griffith unleashed a vicious beating on Paret while knocking him senseless. Paret would die ten days later. I have read that an earlier production of this play had trouble staging this scene. Director Michael Grief along with fight directors Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet pull it off brilliantly. Using a revolving boxing ring, a tall projection screen showing footage from the actual fight, as well as using stop action effects with flash bulbs going off brings that terrible event vividly to life. Paret’s wife Lucia (Carla Martina), standing above and to the side of the action tells us what was going on with Benny before the fight. Lucia is joined by Emile’s mother Emelda (Krystal Joy Brown) and Paret’s manager Manuel Alfaro (Eliseo Gatta) in giving all the background that led up to this tragic outcome. They make it clear Paret never should have been in the ring that night. It is very, very powerful. Whether or not you are a boxing fan, you do not want to miss this.

There is music throughout the play. Caribbean children’s songs are sung by the actors accompanied by two musicians. It is not a musical, but the music is an integral part of the play, and just wonderful.

CastOf Man In The Ring
)Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Man In The Ring is a complex work about a paradoxical man. Emile was a fun loving gentle man in the most violent of professions. A man who spent much time at gay bars while participating in the manliest of sports (this was at a time when being gay was equated with being a “sissie”). He was deeply effected by the death of Paret yet kept fighting for years after, though it was apparent he no longer fought with the same intensity.

As the play nears its conclusion we see Emile, now deeply suffering the effects of CTE, being brought to meet with Benny Paret’s son in a park. Emile is confused but the moment is touching. Young Paret, Luis, and Griffith are all involved in trying to make sense out of what happened. 

As a boxing historian I found so much in this play. The accuracy is just stunning. Mr. Cristofer not only did incredible research, but he also understands the subject.This is very impressive for a boxing “civilian”.

As a play reviewer, I saw an amazing work of theatre. This can be called a boxing play, and boxing fans should definitely see it. It is an important piece of work that should be added to the great literature on boxing. 

Beyond being a great boxing play, Man In The Ring is amazing theatre. It is impressive how much is covered in just 110 minutes. The entire cast and production team are nothing short of outstanding. It would be foolish to miss any work with John Douglas Thompson in it, but this work is solid from top to bottom.  

You might think I am giving this high praise because of my boxing background. If anything, my knowledge of the subject would have been more likely to have caused me to go negative. The fact that Mr. Cristofer was able to impress me speaks very well to this play. I brought an extra critical eye to the Huntington on the evening I saw Man In The Ring. I can assure you, you will not be disappointed in this play. It is a great boxing story, it is a great human story, it is great theatre. I highly recommend Man In The Ring.

huntingtontheatre.org 617.266.0800

Review: “Fun Home” at SpeakEasy Stage

Fun Home

At SpeakEasy Stage

Is First Rate

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Three Alisons (Marissa Simeqi, Ellie van Amerongen, and Amy Jo Jackson)
Photo: Nile Scott Studios

The musical Fun Home now playing at the SpeakEasy Stage Company is deeply moving and complex. Based on the graphic memoir of the same title by Alison Bechdel, it tells the story of of Ms Bechdel’s childhood and her coming out as a lesbian while in college. However, this is not a story simply about a young woman coming to terms with her sexuality. It is much more complicated than that. In reality, her coming out is not the center of the story. 

The play opens in, what seems to be, the happy home of the Bechdels (Welcome To Our House on Maple Avenue). Alison’s father, Bruce (Todd Yard), is an English teacher as well as a director of a funeral home. The title of the play is taken from the shortened and more enjoyable name the Bechdel children use for the family business. Alison has two brothers, Christian (Cameron Levesque) and John (Luke Gold).

Alison is played by three actors depicting her at different ages. There is Small Alison (Marissa Simeqi), Medium Alison (Ellie van Amerongen), and present day Alison (Amy Jo Jackson). The play does not follow a chronological order, but rather follows the present day Alison as she looks back on events in her life while drawing cartoons as she relives the various times. Much of the time she is sitting at a writing desk or standing off to the side looking on and drawing as her memories are played out by the others. She makes comments as she observes. I found this very effective as it is common for people to look back on their lives as if they are witnessing a play or a movie. Trying to figure it all out can get complicated, and this story is no different when it comes to complications.

Marissa Simeqi (Small Alison)and Todd Yard (Bruce)Photo: Nile Scott Studios

Those complications are not so much in Alison’s coming to grips with her own sexual identity, she does quite well with that, but more with her father’s having to deal with his. It turns out Bruce is gay and has never come out. He has gotten into trouble for “procuring alcohol for underage boys”. Tyler Simahk, last seen at SpeakEasy in Allegiance plays multiple roles as the young men Bruce procures beer for. He is also somewhat controlling, not abusive, of his children, and it is easy to gather that controlling behavior is reflective of his attempts to control his own behavior. It is painful to watch him struggle. 

In the song Maps Alison talks about drawing maps of the neighborhood as a child. At one point she says about her father “I can draw a circle, his whole life fits inside”. That line had me thinking of how trapped Bruce must have felt. 

Bruce eventually killed himself by stepping in front of a truck. This was not long after Alison came out, and she says “My beginning would be your end”. These words are powerful as they so strongly convey the torment in not being able to live who you are openly. Alison was fortunate, though it still wasn’t easy, to have come of age in a time when she could find support and acceptance. Bruce had to live his life in the shadows and with guilt and anger that was turned within.

One of the most powerful moments in the play is when Alison’s mother Helen (Laura Marie Duncan) sings Days and Days:

Welcome to our house on Maple Avenue
See how we polish and we shine
We rearrange and realign
Everything is balanced and serene
Like chaos never happens if it’s never seen.”

In which she laments her life, feeling she wasted it in attempting to be the good wife.”

 She advises Alison: 

“Don’t you come back here

I didn’t raise you

To give away your days

Like me.”

The song is strong and delivers the message of how living lies is painful to all involved. Fortunately, Alison has learned that difficult lesson.

Helen (Laura Marie Duncan)Photo: Nile Scott Studios

While this story is one that involves much struggle and pain, it also has its happy moments. Although Bruce was in much pain and controlling, he was also a loving father. The children loved him and Helen, as well as each other. The song Come To Fun Home is a rousing number sung by the three siblings as they pretend to make a commercial for the funeral home. It is somewhat of a cross  between the Osmands and the Jackson Five, and all much fun. Marissa Simeqi, Cameron Levesque, and Luke Gold bring the house down while dancing around a casket, and taking turns singing into a can of Pledge used as a microphone. 

Desire Graham plays Joan, the understanding, though edgy, friend Alison makes on campus and who eventually becomes her lover. Joan may be a bit tough but she is kind, and just the supporting figure Alison needed 

Amy Jo Jackson in her role as present day Alison comes across as thoughtful and wise. It is interesting watch her expressions as she observes and begins to understand her life as it evolved  Often, when looking back we see ourselves with a more sympathetic eye. It is good when we can cast that view onto our present day selves. We can learn that from Alison Bechdel.

Fun Home

Music by Jeanine Tesori

Book and Lyrics by Lisa Kron

Directed by Paul Daigneault

Music Direction by Matthew Stern

Through November 24 at the Calderwood Pavillon

527 Tremont Street, South End, Boston

617.933.8600

speakeasystage.com 

Review: Measure For Measure Presented by ArtsEmerson

“Measure For Measure”

At ArtsEmerson

Is Not A Problem

William Shakespeare’s  Measure For Measure is considered his first problem play. The production now playing at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre presents only one problem. It is here for only six performances, and a few of those performances are competing with the Red Sox in the World Series. This is too bad as the play, which is a collaboration by London’s Cheek By Jowl and Moscow’s Pushkin Theatre, directed by Declan Donnellan, and with a cast that speaks entirely in Russian (there are subtitles), is as interesting a production of one of Shakespeare’s works as you will see.

Set on a nearly bare stage with five large red boxes lining it, and an array of hanging lights of the type you might see in an industrial building, the starkness takes on a full life as the cast of thirteen enter and begin this story of power, the fairness and abuse of authority, hypocrisy, and conflicting principles. It is one of Shakespeare’s least performed, yet most moving works.

And yes, I wrote it is performed entirely in Russian, which may seem offsetting to some who can’t imagine seeing the works of the Bard performed in anything other than the original verse. However, I am here to tell you it works wonderfully when performed this way. There is definitely a synergy   when Russian actors take on Will Shakespeare. 

Interestingly, two of the most widely acclaimed film versions of King Lear and Hamlet were produced by Russian director Grigori Kozintsev, so this mix is not new. 

As the play begins the cast moves about the stage in a tight group without uttering a line. It is a device that is used to varying extents throughout the play as the crowd, in different sizes serves as witnesses, or perhaps a conscience, to and for the main characters. 

Angelo (Andrei Kuzichev) is played as a mousy bureaucrat who is given power by the Duke (Alexander Arsentyev), in the classic ambivalent role.

Anna Vardevanian’s Isabella is very interesting in that she gives us a more fragile and complex reading then I have seen before. Her “Man proud man” speech when confronting Angelo over his lack of compassion when enforcing the law is spoken more in mockery than anger. I found this to be very effective. Her facial expressions are priceless, especially in the closing scenes. 

There is much more to be said for this very talented cast, but time grows short, and you really should be making plans to see this Measure For Measure. It is a timely work that will have you reflecting on how power is wielded and what happens when people are too rigid and hypocritical when ruling over others. Of course there is much more to it, but you should really see for yourself. I highly recommend you do.

This is a unique and fast moving production that should not be missed. ArtsEmerson is giving Boston theatre goers a gift. Accept and enjoy it.

Measure For Measure

Cheek By Jowl and Pushkin Theatre

Presented by ArtsEmerson

At The Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre

219 Tremont Street, Boston

Through October 28

tickets [at] artsemerson [dot] org | 617.824.8400

Photos by Johan Persson

Within This Wooden O

Hartford Stage’s 

Henry V 

In The Round

Henry V

Through November 11

The Hartford Stage 

50 Church Street

Hartford CT

www.hartfordstage.org

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

The cast of Henry V

As the Chorus (Peter Francis James) sets the scene at the opening of Shakespeare’s Henry V now playing at the Hartford Stage, the audience is reminded that what they are about to see is all illusion. He asks that those in the theater use their imagination in order to see the story about to unfold.

Director Elizabeth Williamson has chosen to set this production in the round with very few props and effects. Other than a couple of tables and chairs, a few guns and knives, costumes that are not period specific, subtle lighting, a minimum of sound effects, and a floor that has a map inlaid in it, the rest is left to the actors, the language, and yes, the imagination. And it is Shakespeare’s language in the hands of the actors that makes the story  so vivid. 

Peter Francis James as the Chorus

Peter Francis James fills the theater with anticipation with his exciting opening monologue that invites all who are there to participate in the  events about to unfold. His rich and enthusiastic voice does indeed get the “imaginary forces” working. Throughout the play he returns to carry us along and set the upcoming scenes. It is a pleasure to listen to him.

Henry V is played by Stephen Louis Grush and he faces the challenge of reciting some of the Bard’s most rousing speeches, many of which will be familiar to the audience, such as The St. Crispin’s Day speech before the Battle of Agincourt. His battle cry (Once more unto the breech dear friends…) during the siege of Harfleur is  somewhat drowned out by sound effects at first, which is odd since they are so little used, but is still rousing as the noise fades and the words are heard. Mr. Grush sometimes appears a bit uncomfortable but settles down as he allows the words to flow from his mouth. He will only get better during this run.

Miles Anderson (Pistol)

Miles Anderson as Pistol (he also plays the Bishop of Ely) almost steals the show and his interactions with Nym (Felicity Jones Latta), Bardolph (Liam Craig), and Fleuellen (Baron Vaughn) are comic and touching. The almost knife fight between Nym and Pistol is a memorable scene that had the audience laughing while it revealed the character of the two participants. Mr. Vaughn also takes on the part of Nell Quickly and is campy and quite funny.

Director Willamson’s decision to set this in the round was a wise choice as Henry V fits well into this setting. As the actors turn about the stage addressing each other, they are also speaking to the audience. It adds an intimacy that gives the work more emotional power.

Felicity Jones Latta (Alice), Evelyn Spahr (Katherine)

Watching Katherine (Evelyn Spahr) practicing her English with Alice (Felicity Jones Latta) while moving about the stage is quite charming. Ms Spahr also plays Boy and Lord Scroop. Her Boy is innocent and yet insightful. Her Katherine is tender yet smart.

I feel I must mention Peter Francis James again. Mr. James’s Chorus paces his speeches perfectly and, without overreaching, brings a depth of excitement to the swelling scenes.

Now, since this is Henry V and we are asked to use our imagination, I beg to indulge for just a moment. During the Battle of Agincourt while the sound of machine guns were used for effect, my mind went to the swoosh of arrows being let loose from the long bows that were so effectively used to defeat the French. I think it would have been very effective here as well.

I make it a point to travel to the Hartford Stage each year to see their productions of the works of William Shakespeare. They are among the best staged anywhere. While this year’s work is a bit uneven, I thought the scenes in the French Court were stiff, it is still a worthy production not to be missed. 

Liam Craig (Bardolph), Felicity Jones Latta (Nym)

If you are among those who sometimes believe William Shakespeare wrote in a foreign language, lay your fears aside. While the text is untouched, the focus given the words and the clarity with which they are spoken here will leave you fully engaged. This is an excellent reason to make the trip to Hartford. You will leave the theatre feeling comfortable with the language of Shakespeare and glad you have seen these few, these happy few perform. 

All photos by T. Charles Erickson

A Boy Named Hamnet

Hamnet

Arts Emerson

Through October 7

Emerson Paramount Center

Boston

artsemerson.org 

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Photo by Gianmarco Bresadola

The U.S. premiere of Dead Centre’s  Hamnet now playing at the Emerson Paramount Centre in Boston is a powerful 60 minutes of theatre. The multi media production brings us into the world, past and present, of Shakespeare’s only son Hamnet who died at the age of 11. The work is an original, creative, and very interesting look at the relationship between a father and son, and the effect that relationship, or lack of, has on the mind and emotions of a young boy.

I say past and present as the ghost of Hamnet fills the theater in what could be seen as a mix of Hamlet and Waiting For Godot. Ollie West plays the title character who brings us into his world as he deals with the struggle to understand his relationship, or lack of, with his famous father whom he barely knew. Young West is first seen live with a knapsack projected onto a large screen as he makes his way from the audience onto the stage. The screen and the projections on it will be used to incredible effect throughout the performance.

Photos by Gianmarco Bresadola

We learn right off this isn’t going to be a historical work, but instead a metaphysical exploration. While bouncing a ball off the screen Hamnet tries to explain, with the use of Google, the theory of quantum tunneling. He admits he has no idea what it means but assure us if his father were there he would know.

What’s in a name? A lot when your father is William Shakespeare. But it is not the name Shakespeare that troubles him. Hamnet is aware that his name today is most often seen as a typo, and he is trying to measure his self worth. Hamnet has many questions and turns to the audience and Google for answers. But as Vladimir and Estragon find in Godot, often times there simply are no answers. 

“Why would anyone chose not to be?” is one of those questions, and in the remarkable scene where he gets to face his father he asks that, and many others. The scene is done with the senior Shakespeare appearing on the screen with his son. Hamnet is seen both on the screen as well as on the stage itself at the same time. Shakespeare is  with him on the screen throughout most of this time, giving it a  Banquo’s ghost flavor. I’m not sure how all of this was done, but it is amazing to watch. The fact that there is a bit of the handy dandy to it does not diminish how powerful the dialog between father and son is. Whether you see the work of Shakespeare in this conversation, or Beckett, or even Bart Simpson, you will be touched by it. Can fathers and sons ever understand each other? Here, they do try, but it is emotional and awkward for them. 

Photo by Gianmarco Bresadola

Using the relationship between Hamnet and Will Shakespeare to explore so many questions does not limit us to just these two people. It speaks to all of us, and it will leave you with more questions than answers, but also with more understanding.

Ollie West, who is simply outstanding as Hamnet, will be replaced by Aran Murphy midway through this run. I highly recommend you take in this amazing production. I would even go as far as saying it would be worth seeing a second time when the cast change is made. 

 

“Between Riverside and Crazy” Life As A Poker Game

At The SpeakEasy Stage

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Octavia Chavez-Richmond, Tyrees Allen, and Lewis D. Wheeler
Photo Credit: Nile Scott Studios

Walter “Pops” Washington (Tyrees Allen) is a former N.Y. City police officer who is living in a rent controlled apartment. He is no longer on the force because he was shot six times by a rookie cop. The shooting took place at an after hours bar when Pops was off duty. Pops is black, the cop who shot him is white.

Between Riverside and Crazy by Stephen Adly Guirgiis does not fit into a narrative of a racist white cop shooting a black man. It gets much more complicated as the story moves along. Pops is sharing his apartment with his son Junior (Stewart Evan Smith), an ex con who is trying to turn his life around, though it appears he may still be a bit stuck in his old ways. Along with Junior is his girlfriend Lulu (Octavia Chavez-Richmond), who is pregnant and might be working as a prostitute, and Oswaldo (Alejandro Simoes), a friend of Junior’s who has been doing his best to stay clean and sober. 

Alejandro Simoes, Stewart Evan Smith, and Tyrees Allen
Photo: Nile Scott Studios

While the relationship between Junior and Pops is strained, Oswaldo appears to understand the cantankerous Pops and the opening dialog between the two is both funny and revealing. The elder Washington displays a degree of bitterness as he spends most of his days sipping whiskey. He is not only angry about having been shot, but also over the loss of his wife who died after a long illness. He spends time sitting in her wheelchair and you can see that he’s also dealing with the guilt of not having been the ideal husband. 

He filed a law suit against the city eight years earlier and is seeking $5 million dollars in damages, but the city has not settled because of the circumstances of the shooting, which we learn more about as the play progresses. He is also receiving eviction notices.

As I said, this is not a play about police shootings. It is about how people play the game and play a bit fast with the truth to get what they want. While at times it seems underhanded, it never really goes over the top. How the rules are bent is in the eye of the beholder. 

It is also a play about relationships. Pops finds it difficult to show affection to Junior, while he is  more comfortable getting closer to Oswaldo and Lulu, both of whom he shows much empathy to.

Pops former partner Detective O’Connor (Maureen Keiller) and a Lieutenant Caro (Lewis D. Miller) visit Pops for dinner one evening. It doesn’t take long to realize there is an ulterior motive for the meeting as Caro attempts to get Pops to agree to a deal with the city. The smarmy Caro, the smarminess is overplayed here, is not so much looking out for Pops as he is advancing his own career by helping the city put this lawsuit behind them. Pops, as well as the audience, quickly sees through this game. 

There are a number of other stories playing around all of this including Junior’s relationship with Lulu as well as how he seeks to receive words of affection from Pops, Oswaldo’s own issues with his father and his set back with staying clean. All are interesting, but I found a certain depth lacking in the way these stories are portrayed. While good, I thought there was so much to work with here that was left not fully developed.

There are two scenes where things seemed to really catch fire. When tempers flare between Pops and Caro over settling the lawsuit, it appears things are really going to get moving. It is a powerful scene, but the action fades shortly thereafter.  It does regain steam later, but it felt to me like momentum was lost.

Celeste Oliva and Tyrees Allen
Photo: Nile Scott Studios

The other scene is when the Brazilian Church Lady (Celeste Oliva)  comes to visit Pops. She is filling in for another caregiver, and like many of the characters in the play, is looking to get something for herself. It is quite the perfomance, both steamy and funny, Ms Oliva plays it outstandingly. Its a scene you will not forget.

Towards the end of the play Pops finds out Lieutenant Caro likes to play poker, and this is when we see how much of what is going on is like a giant poker game, with each player looking at his cards and seeing just how much he can bluff.

The play ends on an interesting note as the characters are pretty much revealed and while we may be tempted to judge some, if not all of them, harshly, just think about how you may have acted if you were in any of their positions.

Yes, I think this play could have been better, but it is definitely worth seeing. Tyrees Allen’s portrayal of Pops is a pleasure to watch. His humor, his anger, his human weaknesses, and his quest to find what he considers justice is well served in the hands of Mr. Tyrees, who does a wonderful job in the role. You’ll feel much the way Junior does when watching him. He will aggravate you, frustrate you, anger you, but you won’t be able to resist liking him.

I would also like to say that Alejandro Simoes is touching as Oswaldo. It is heartbreaking to see how bad things engulf good people. You will be rooting for him to make it and overcome the demons in his life. People make bad choices, but that doesn’t mean they are bad people. Smith’s Oswaldo shows us that. 

I would recommend not approaching this play as a commentary on the ills of society, but rather to look at it through  more personal lens. I believe in doing so, you will develop a more sympathetic view of people who play life’s poker game while keeping a few cards up their sleeves.

 Just a note for those considering taking children to this play. It has much adult language and situations.

Between Riverside and Crazy

By Stephen Adly Gurgis, Directed by Tiffany Nichole Greene

At The SpeakEasy Stage Company, Calderwood Pavillon, 527 Tremont Street, South End, Boston.

Through October 13

speakeasystage.com 

617.933.8600 

Oh What A Night With “Jersey Boys” In Ogunquit

Jersey Boys

At The Ogunquit Playhouse

Through October 28

The Ogunquit Playhouse

Ogunquit, Maine

ogunquitplayhouse.org 

207-646-5511 

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Photo credit: Gary Ng

Jersey Boys debuted in 2005 and was an immediate hit. I am probably one of the few people who had not seen it before taking it in at the Ogunquit Playhouse the other night. As the old saying goes “Good things come to those who wait”, and what I witnessed was beyond good.

Of course, being of a certain age, I was very familiar with the music of the Four Seasons. Their unique sound was something I grew up with and have never tired of hearing. That music is all included in Jersey Boys, along with the very interesting, and very 1950’s, story of how the group came to be. It is a story that takes us from the street corners of New Jersey to clubs, bowling alleys, the back seats of cars, recording studios, and the Brill Building. Disc jockeys, gangsters, loan sharks, and record producers are all part of the story. 

Director Holly-Anne Palmer points out in the program that a Rashomon approach is taken to telling the story, with each member of the group taking a turn giving their version of events. The segments where each member takes over the narration are divided by season, with wisecracking Tommy DiVito (Matt Magnusson) starting things off in Spring. He is followed by song writer Bob Gaudio (Andy Christopher) in Summer, Nick Massi (Matthew Amira) bringing us Fall, and Frankie Castelluccio, make that Frankie Valli (Jonathan Mousset) ending with Winter. Each actor brings us the differing personalities of the four members of the group along with the varying views of events each had. It makes for a fascinating story, or perhaps I should say stories.

While the tale of the four young men from New Jersey who escaped from a criminal past and dealt with financial troubles, conflicts among themselves, and family tragedy, is told with much depth, emotion, and humor by these fine performers, it is the music that evokes a tremendous audience response. No, this is not a tribute band performance, and don’t get me wrong, the story is a major part of what makes this so good to see. The songs contain even more power when enhanced by learning how it all came to be.

I was very much taken with the constant energy displayed during the production. Set changes happened without a pause as props were moved on and off the stage without the action skipping a beat.

…a super high energy evening of music and theatre.

Nearly three dozen songs are performed and each one is enhanced by the amazing lighting and framing the production team has put together. The colors are amazing. Neon style signs, wonderful costumes, and terrific choreography add a strong touch of the spectacular to songs such as , Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like A Man, and Rag Doll.  Jonathan Mousset really brought the house down with Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You. In fact, the audience leapt to its feet after many of the numbers during the show. I could feel the anticipation people had before each song began, and their excitement as soon as the first few notes were played. This is a super high energy evening of music and theatre. 

Photo credit: Gary Ng

Jersey Boys brings us back to a different time without getting overly nostalgic or sappy. While the story is predictable, what works here is the way the actors give us the strong insight into each of the character’s personalities. By the end of the play you will have experienced how we all see things through our own individual lens. It is also interesting to see how people with so many differences can still work together to accomplish great things. There was a synergy between the cast and the audience that filled the theater with excitement all evening.

Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons had a very original sound that has held up through the decades. While their music is in the “Golden Oldies” category, there is nothing moldy about it. Listening to it performed live reminded me of just how fresh and original it still is. 

The Ogunquit Playhouse is closing out its 86th season, one of its best, in great form. Jersey Boys is not to be missed. You would be hard pressed to see a better production of this very exciting play anywhere. I do know tickets have been selling strong for this all summer. Fortunately, it runs through October, so you can take advantage of the off season rates if you want to stay in Ogunquit. Fall is a beautiful time in southern Maine.

When it comes to summer in Ogunquit Let’s Hang On To What We’ve Got! And there’s no better way to do that than with Jersey Boys. 

 

Review: “Kiss Of The Spider Woman

Lyric Stage’s

Kiss Of The Spider Woman

Spins An Interesting Web

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

 

Eddy Cavazos and Taavon Gamble

The Lyric Stage Company in Boston has kicked off its 44th season with the rarely produced Kander and Ebb musical Kiss Of The Spider Woman. The play, with book by Terence McNally, is based on Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel and the movie that followed. The Tony Award winning musical first appeared in 1993. This production is directed by Rachel Bertone who helmed last years wonderful Gypsy at the Lyric. 

The story, which takes place in an Argentine prison, revolves around Molina (Eddy Cavazos), a gay window dresser who has been imprisoned for “corrupting a minor”, and Valentin (Taavon Gamble), a Marxist revolutionary, who has been sent to jail for his political activities. Valentin is initially tortured and then tossed into a cell with Molina who nurses him back to health. Upon regaining consciousness, Valentin draws a line down the center of their shared cell marking of each’s territory (I Draw The Line). He clearly is not comfortable with the gay Molina.

Eddy Cavazos, Lisa Yuen, and Taavon Gamble

Molina has learned to cope with the horrific conditions of being in prison by escaping in his mind to the movies he used to see when he would accompany his mother (Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda) to the cinema she worked in. One actress occupies his mind, Aurora (Lisa Yuen), whose movies he replays over and over in his head. We meet Aurora in the opening number Aurora.The one role she played that terrifies him is when she played a spider woman who kills with her kiss. As we see Molina and Aurora, through his imagination reenacting scenes from her movies, the character of the spider woman reappears over again as the haunting kiss of death that the prisoners live with everyday.

While Molina is apolitical, Valentin sees in his life a mission to change society. The two learn from one another, with Valentin it is begrudgingly, and eventually form a bond that turns into love. 

The set is provocative as it reaches out to the audience giving a feeling of bringing everyone into the prison. Lighting and shadows on the floor alternate between a spider web and the outline of prison bars. It is subtle yet effective.The off stage screams of prisoners being tortured is unsettling, as it should be, and adds to the feeling of hopelessness Molina and Valentin feel. 

This was my first time seeing a production of Kiss Of The Spider Woman, and my take away is it is a work that is very dependent on having the right people in the roles in order for it to work. Eddy Cavazos is superb as Molina. His body language speaks as much to the audience as do his lines. He moves about the stage with a patience that proves very effective for conveying the depth of the character of Molina. Watching Molina as he copes with the misery and suffering around him, and that is inflicted on him, we also see how he learns to understand his value as a human being. This is a role that could easily be overplayed, but Mr. Cavazos resists that temptation.

Eddy Cavazos and Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda

Of course, this is not a one person show, and Taavon Gamble has his work cut out for him as Valentin, the angry young man who feels he will never get the chance to save the world. Valentin, who wants equal rights for all is confronted with having to face his own problems, now is having to share a cell with a gay man. Can he retain his masculinity while at the same time having feelings and caring for a gay man? It is where he learns we are defined not by what we are but rather by who we are. Mr. Gamble has done a marvelous job in bringing so many conflicting emotions to the stage in a way that we can understand them and share in his growing affection for Molina.

Lisa Yen is Aurora and she sparkles in numbers such as Aurora and Let’s Make Love. She is also haunting as the spider woman who is the ever present shadow of death. Ms Yen is joined by Katrina Zofia, who plays Valentin’s girlfriend Marta, on the song I Do Miracles. 

Molina’s mother is played by Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda. Her rendition of You Could Never Shame Me is a touching and moving love song showing a mother’s unconditional love for her son.

Taavon Gamble, Eddy Cavazos, and Lisa Yuen

While Kiss Of The Spider Woman is a story with much darkness and horrific situations, the tension is broken in the same way Molina has learned to escape from his misery; through the imagining of Aurora’s performances and show tunes, which are excellent. These breaks are much needed and make the story bearable. It is also much in the tradition of Kander and Ebb to take such dark stories and make them palatable. We can witness the suffering and misery while not being overwhelmed by it. That enables us to try to understand it and find ways to prevent it, or at least get through the suffering in life.

Today, almost everything is viewed through a political lens, particularly in theatre, and this play is political. While many will look to find comparisons with what happens in the play with what is happening in our society, it might be a good idea to look a bit further away and a bit closer to where the play is set. In Argentina there is some good news, three decades of Kirchener rule may be coming to an end, while in Venezuela the Marxist government has left the once prosperous country in a state where people are now starving to death. Cuba is still very much a prison island lacking basic human rights. Perhaps Valentin will reconsider his Marxist views in light of all this. I hope so, as he has the drive to do much good.

Kiss Of The Spider Woman

Through October 7

The Lyric Stage, Boston

lyricstage.com  617.585.5678

These Grumpy Old Men Will Put Smile On Your Face

“Grumpy Old Men: The Musical”

At The Ogunquit Playhouse

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Brenda Braxton, Mark Jacoby, and Ed Dixon
Photo by Gary Ng

The United States premiere of Grumpy Old Men: The Musical, based on the 1993 movie, is now playing at the Ogunquit Playhouse, and it is a show filled with lively music, funny lines, great scenery, as well as a touching story. In short, this is a play not to be missed. The music written by Neil Berg with lyrics by Nick Meglin is memorable, and Dan Remmes has done an excellent job of adapting the movie for the stage.

The story about neighbors John Gustafson (Mark Jacoby) and Max Goldman (Ed Dixon) who have been feuding for fifty years is peppered with one line insults, many of which you might want to jot down for future use. “I’d give you a dirty look, but I see you already have one”, is just one example of the shots these two take at each other. I won’t ruin the fun by giving away the others, but I can assure you they get even better. The two were childhood friends but became enemies when John married Max’s high school sweetheart. Both are now widowers with children of their own. Max has a son, Jacob (Kevin Massey) and John has a daughter, Melanie (Laura Woyasz). 

Mr. Jacoby and Mr. Goldman are well paired in their roles as Gustafson and Goldman. These two really know their way around the stage and exchange their lines with perfect timing. They also convey how underneath all of the animosity there is still a bond between the old curmudgeons. I very much doubt that two people who hate each other as much as John and Max would have us believe they do could put so much feeling and energy into their insults.

The opening number Wabasha introduces us to the town and people of Wabasha, Minnesota where ice fishing is a popular pastime. There is the upbeat owner of the general store Chuck Barrels (Doug Eskew) the accident prone Harry (Blake Hammond) the mailman, and the ditzy but very lovable Punky Olander played by Ogunquit Playhouse favorite Sally Struthers. 

Eric Jon Mahlum, Blake Hammond, Tony and Emmy winner Hal Linden, Mark Jacoby, and Doug Eskew
Photo: Gary Ng

Hal Linden plays Grandpa Gustafson. On the number Way To Go, John, Max, Chuck, and Grandpa are ice fishing and we begin to see the direction the story will take as the four reflect on life. Do we stay stuck with our regrets or do we move forward and live?  Mr. Linden brings a depth to this song that will have you taking stock of your own life.  Ultimately, it is all about choices, and sometimes people don’t realize they have choices until something or someone comes along to open their eyes. In this case that someone is Ariel Truax (Leslie Stevens), a college professor who has inherited a house in Wabasha. 

Ariel arrives on the scene riding a snow-mobile with her red hair blowing in the wind singing Heat Wave. This heatwave puts Max and John back into the love rivalry business as they both vie for her attention. Ariel likes to drop quotes from classic authors but she is no highbrow. She is a caring and insightful person, and Ms Stevens gives her character the depth that she deserves.

The book is great, the score is outstanding, the cast

is solid from top to bottom.

Tony nominee Brenda Braxton plays Sandra Snyder an IRS agent who has come to Wabasha in pursuit of unpaid taxes owed by John Gustafson. In Snyder Comes Along we see just how much she relishes her work. You wouldn’t want Ms Braxton showing up at your door to conduct an audit, but you will certainly enjoy watching her perform on the stage. There is a touch of the devil in her, but also a twinkle in her eye. 

I loved the music in this production. Doug Askew’s Chuck touched everyone with Angel. His voiced filled the theater with warmth and richness. It is a powerful number well done. Our Friend Is Gone sung by the ensemble is sad but also reminds us to appreciate the blessing of friendship. Jacob and Melanie sing Parents and Paradise, a song that deals with their life choices and with the difficulty when those choices conflict with caring for parents. 

Grumpy Old Men: The Musical has so much going for it. It is a pleasure to watch the strong cast perform. Sally Struthers’s role has Punky could have been written just for her. Her non-sequiturs are very funny and when she breaks into faux Swedish along with yodeling, well you just have to see her. 

Hal Linden, best known for playing Barney Miller on TV, has also had a long career in music and on stage. He brings that experience to the Playhouse stage and it is a pleasure to watch such a master at work. When he says the line “Life is all about livin’” he is proof of it. Mr. Linden has amazing stage presence. You don’t want to miss him.

This musical really works. The book is great, the score is outstanding, the cast is solid from top to bottom. Every song is good and filled with meaning. It’s a feel good play that doesn’t get hokey. It’s also a play about choices, about how we can do that “livin’” Grandpa Gustafson is talking about, and age should not get in the way. 

I would be very surprised if this production does not move on to Broadway. I recommend you see it now at the Ogunquit Playhouse while you have the chance, you won’t be disappointed. 

As I have said, this play is about choices, and you have a choice; Head to the Ogunquit Playhouse and have a memorable evening or stay home and miss out on some very good theatre. I highly recommend Grumpy Old Men: The Musical.

Grumpy Old Men: The Musical

Through September 1

The Ogunquit Playhouse, Ogunquit, Maine

ogunquitplayhouse..org 207.646.5511