Category Archives: Theater Reviews

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

Reagle Music Theatre’s “The Music Man” Knows The Territory

Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man” At The Reagle Music Theatre Of Greater Boston

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

 

Mark Linehan and Cast: Ya Got Trouble

The other night I paid my first visit to the Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston, and I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw. The Reagle stages productions of Broadway Musicals at the Robinson Theatre located in Waltham High School. Don’t be fooled by the location. The auditorium is a great venue with comfortable seats and a great view no matter where you are seated. More than that, the play I saw was a top notch production that included a full orchestra, something you rarely see today in regional theatre. That full orchestra really makes a difference and was extremely impressive. 

The production currently playing at the Reagle is Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, one of, if not the, best musicals ever written. It is certainly a favorite of mine and I was skeptical that this would rate very high in quality. My doubts were soon chased away once the orchestra began playing the overture which led into the opening number, the onomatopoeic Rock Island, which takes place on a train. This train left the station and the audience was in for a wonderful ride to River City along with Professor Harold Hill, the flim flam man who would eventually be won over by the Iowa Stubborn folks he was trying to take with his scam about starting a boy’s band.

Mark Linehan, in his seventh production at the Reagle, had his work cut out for him in the role of Hill. Most audience members know Hill from the movie version of the play and have Robert Preston’s version burned into their memories. Mr. Linehan does not attempt an impression of Preston, but instead gives his own interpretation of the smooth talking traveling salesman. It doesn’t take long to embrace Linehan’s Hill and to appreciate what he does with the role. Ya Got Trouble, The Sadder But Wiser Girl, and the rousing Seventy-Six Trombones are all classic Broadway musical numbers that Linehan delivers right on the mark. 

Jennifer Ellis and Mark Linehan

It is also quite the treat to see Jennifer Ellis as Marion Paroo, the librarian with a heart like a lump of lead as cold as steel, but who eventually finds her way to allowing that heart to melt and opens her eyes to seeking her white knight. Ms Ellis puts her heart as well as her beautiful voice into Willson’s warm and touching numbers Goodnight My Someone, My White Night, Will I Ever Tell You, and Till There Was You. Was there ever a better score than this? I don’t believe so, and Jennifer Ellis was born to sing these amazing songs. 

The Music Man has a huge cast and you might think a small company would pare it down a bit, but the Reagle does not. Director and choreographer  Susan M. Chebookian goes all out to give a full scale production here. Using choreography based on the original by Onna White, the huge dance numbers in Seventy-Six Trombones and Shipoopi are a site to behold. Watching and listening to The Wells Fargo Wagon gives you the feeling of excitement the residents of River City have while waiting for the approaching delivery. 

 Ms Ellis and Mr. Linehan are superb, and they are backed up by a strong cast including Harold “Jerry” Walker as Mayor Shinn and Lori L’Italien as his wife Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn. Both have wonderful comedic timing and both are able to push their characters to the edge without crossing into caricature. They are real pros. 

 Shipoopi is a number that is sometimes knocked as not fitting into the play, but when you see see Daniel Forest Sullivan as Marcellus Washburn lead the cast in this more than lively number you won’t be able to imagine it not being included. Sullivan really kicks in on it. 

School Board

Oh, such a large and wonderful cast. The School Board comprised of Louis Brogna, Matthew Gorgone, Antonino Ruggeri, and Tom Sawyer keep perfect harmony in their barbershop quartet numbers. Singing in counterpoint with Ms Ellis on Lida Rose/ Will I Ever Tell You it is a feast for the ears. 

Jonathan Tillen, Marylee Fairbanks, and Jennifer Ellis “Gary Indiana.

I’ve always felt that the Mrs Paroo must be a dream role, and Marylee Fairbanks makes that dream come true as the mother of Winthrop and Marion. Strong and kind with her Irish determination and heart of gold. Ms Fairbanks’s Paroo has the twinkle in her eye and just enough skills at manipulation to push her daughter in the right direction.

Perhaps the real stars of this production are the children and young adults who worked endless hours preparing for their moments on the stage. Jonathan Tillen as the withdrawn Winthrop Paroo shows us the growth of the self conscious young boy with a lisp who has sunk into despair since the death of his father but now begins to find himself through Professor Hill. In both The Wells Fargo Wagon and Gary, Indiana we see him emerge and you can’t help but feel touched by young Tillen’s performance.

Jennifer Ellis and Cate Galante

Winthrop’s friend Amaryllis who prays for him every night is played by Cate Galante. Cate’s Amaryllis is full of life and love. Her feelings for Winthrop warm the heart. She sparkles on stage.

Ye gods! I can’t forget Isabelle Miller who takes on the role of Zaneeta Shinn, the Mayor’s daughter. Zanneta is quite taken with bad boy Tommy Djilas played by Bernie Baldassaro who saves the day, and Professor Hill’s neck, by putting a band together. Both performers are vibrant and interact well together. 

The ensemble is large and in sync. It is quite something to see how they light up the stage in Waltham. Their energy is boundless. The Music Man has a short run at the Reagle in Waltham so you should plan on getting there soon. You don’t want to miss this one. A classic musical with a cast and director that gives it the treatment it deserves. Hop on board, River City next stop!

Meredith Willson’s The Music Man

Through August 12

The Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston

The Robinson Theater, 617 Lexington Street, Waltham

781.891.5600 www.reaglemusictheatre.org

Review:”Born For This: A New Musical” At Emerson Majestic

Born For This: A New Musical 

At Emerson Majestic

Is Musically Uplifting

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Born For This: A New Musical now playing at the Emerson Majestic Theater in Boston is the story of BeBe and CeCe Winans. The brother and sister are the youngest members of the Winans family and a number of their ten siblings, comprise the Gospel singing group The Winans. 

Milton Craig Nealy as Pop Winans with cast. (Photo Credit: Joan Marcus)

Raised in a religious and loving family, BeBe and CeCe  were not part of the group their brothers formed, but in 1982 CeCe was invited to audition for Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Praise The Lord Network in Pineville, North Carolina. When CeCe was accepted her parents agreed to let her move south from Detroit on the condition BeBe would accompany her. Before long BeBe would also join the network as a singer. 

Born For This has a compelling story about the rise of the two young Winans and the success and conflicts they faced; however, the musical numbers overshadow that story. This is not a bad thing as the score, written by BeBe Winans, is powerful, spiritual, and uplifting.

Donald Webber Jr. plays BeBe and Loren Lott takes on the role of CeCe. Both are fine musical talents and deliver their numbers exquisitely. Milton Craig Nealy as Pop Winans nearly steals the show with his rich voice which is filled with warmth and strength. His rendition of I Got A New Home is something to behold. 

Chaz Pofahl as Jim Bakker, Kirsten Wyatt as Tammy Faye Bakker, Loren Lott as CeCe Winans, and Donald Webber Jr. as BeBe Winans (Photo Credit: Joan Marcus)

Chaz Pofahl and Kirsten Wyatt play Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Mr. Pofahl gives us a sympathetic Jim Bakker who was the first white televangelist to have African Americans included in broadcasts. The Bakker’s received multiple threats when they first featured the Winans, but they did not back down and to this day BeBe feels he and his sister were treated very well by the couple whose ministry ended up mired in scandal. Unfortunately, Ms Wyatt’s Tammy Faye is played more in caricature, and while quite funny, diminishes the deeper story.

That story is a good one and deals with so many issues such as struggling with what success truly is, the conflict with monetary gain while retaining one’s integrity, the strength of family, faith in God, and the flawed nature of even the best intentioned people. But as I said, the music takes front row in this production. 

At times I got the feeling I was at a taping of American Idol, as each cast member stepped forward and gave every number their all while the audience cheered them on. The theater was filled with energy. There is no lack of musical talent on the stage of the Emerson Majestic.

While the entire cast is strong I would just like to mention a couple of others who were particularly moving. Nita Whitaker as Mom Winans and Brad Raymond who plays Ronald Winans both have great presence as well as great voices. Both were deeply moving.

Though lacking in dramatic tension, the story is still a touching one that will leave you feeling good. The music will leave you smiling. 

It will be interesting to see how well a musical that shows Evangelical Christians in a good light is received here in the Northeast, but it is hard not to feel positive after being filled with the wonderful spirit and music of BeBe Winans. 

Born For This: A New Musical

Presented by Emerson Arts

Now through July 15

Emerson Cutler Majestic Theater, Boston

Bostontickets [at] artsemerson [dot] org

617.824.8400

 

 

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

Oklahoma!

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

Stephen Mark Lukas and Cast
(Photo: Gary Ng)

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

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

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

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

The Farmer and the Cowmen
(Photos: Gary Ng)

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

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

The dream sequence ballet ending Act I is breathtaking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attention Was Not Paid: “Fall”

 Fall

By Bernard Weinraub

Directed by Peter DuBois

Through June 16

The Huntington Theatre Company

Calderwood Pavillon, Boston 

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Monster Speaks: Dr. Jordan Peterson at the Shubert

By
Edmond D. Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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