Category Archives: Theater Reviews

Review: “Swan Lake In Blue: A Jazz Ballet” At Greater Boston Stage Company

Swan Lake Swings

At The Greater Boston Stage Company

Swan Lake In Blue: A Jazz Ballet

Greater Boston Stage Company 

Stoneham, MA

Through March 1

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Sara Coombs and Andy McLeavey

In 1960 Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn recomposed selections from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker for jazz big band. After discovering this work, composer Steve Bass was inspired to recompose his own jazz ballet and chose Tchaikovsky’s other masterpiece Swan Lake. The result is Swan Lake: A Jazz Ballet now playing at the Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham.

The music is original with three themes taken from Swan Lake. The story has been moved to 1940’s New York where producer Florenz Siegfried (Andy McLeavey) is auditioning dancers for a musical. Odette (Sara Coombs), the swan here portrayed as a burlesque dancer, walks into the auditions and Siegfried is immediately taken with her. However, she quickly retreats to the Swan Club where she works for the possessive Von Rothbart, a shady gangster.

The adaptation works wonderfully. The score is solid and if you have ever caught yourself saying “Why don’t they write music like that anymore?”, you will be pleasantly surprised by what you will hear in this work. 

Andy McLeavey

The stage is set with a full big band/jazz orchestra directed by Steve Bass that transports the audience back to that golden musical age. The overture sets things in motion and the stage is then energized with non stop dancing. Ilyse Robbins has choreographed stunning and powerful numbers. With 21 pieces of choreography this had to be a daunting task, but Ms Robbins has scored a knockout. There isn’t a dull spot in the entire production.

Being a ballet there is no dialog, at least no spoken dialog, but the expressive dance speaks clearly and the story is told beautifully. Bringing Swan Lake into the 20th Century works and works very well. The stage full of talented dancers never leave the audience wondering what is happening. Sara Coombs and Andy McLeavey as the leads Odette and Siegfried are a joy to watch. Briana Fallon and Gillian Mariner Gordon as Little Swans join Ms Coombs for a burlesque number that uses swan feather fans to create a Sally Rand type piece that is sultry and sexy. 

David Visini is dark and menacing as Von Rothbart. He is downright scary and his presence further conveys the ability for words and mood to be expressed through dance. 

H.C. Lee, Jackson Jirard, Michael Skrzek, and Mike Herring

Jackson Jirard, Mike Herring, H.C. Lee, Erica Lundin, and Michael Skrzek make up the ensemble, giving a master class in tap. All are superb with Mr. Jirard adding an exclamation mark to the numbers they do together. If you can sit still during these performances you would have to be heavily sedated. 

There is also a teen ensemble that is made up of Lily Lawrence, Claire Lawrence, and Maya McClain. These young people are real pros and all have great futures in theatre. Maya McClain moved like a veteran professional in her numbers with Jackson Jirard. It’s nice to know there will be no dearth of talent in the years to come.

Costume Designer Kevin Hutchins does a beautiful job with the outfits the cast wears. The flavor of backstage musical theatre of the 1940s is captured in the clothing that is reminiscent of Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. The soft hat worn by Von Rothbart is put to great use in expressing his gangster persona, while the dance numbers in the Swan Club capture the Age of Burlesque. Combined with the lighting designed by Chris Fournier, the atmospherics are sublime.

Maya McClain, Jackson Jirard, Erica Lundin and Cast

Steve Bass and Ilyse Robbins have created an original work that is being seen for the first time on the stage in Stoneham, but I believe this is something that will move on to other venues. This is no commodity musical. It is a marvelous piece that is destined to become part of musical theatre history. From top to bottom this is a first rate production, and you don’t want to miss it. Someday you’ll get to say you saw it when it premiered. You’ll also be saying “They really do write music and choreograph dancing the way they used to”.

What: Swan Lake In Blue: A Jazz Ballet

Where: The Greater Boston Stage Company, Stoneham, MA

When: Through March 1

Tickets: Phone: 781.279.2200, Box Office: 395 Main Street, Stoneham

Website: www.greaterbostonstage.org Review

Review: “The Cake” At The Lyric Stage In Boston

The Cake

Nobody Has The Corner On Self Righteousness 

Reviewed By Bobby Franklin

Karen MacDonald

I almost declined the invitation to review The Cake, now playing at the Lyric stage in Boston. Many works today are taking on societal issues, and getting people to think about what is going on around them while being more open to listening to the views of others is a good thing. It is healthy when we challenge ourselves and our, very often, deeply held views. It doesn’t mean we will necessarily change them, but understanding where others are coming from and why they feel the way they do helps to prevent us from putting up walls between one another and feeling anger. As hard as it is to believe, we can actually get along with people with whom we disagree. 

The problem with much theatre that I attend today is that it is self righteous. Instead of posing questions that will make us consider other views, many of the works I see tend to preach, and worse, demand that the audience members fall in line with a particular view point. I have received press packages that are filled with materials that all but tell me what I am supposed to feel about the play and about myself. Frankly, I find this insulting and disrespectful. It is also counterproductive. 

Kris Sidberry and Chelsea Diehl
Photo: Mark S. Howard

This used to be rare, but it is becoming too common today probably due to the polarizing times we live in. One exception to this is Ayad Akhtar’s The Who & The What that played at The Huntington Theatre in 2017 and dealt with the issues facing a Muslim family living in America. It was thought provoking but not preachy. Mr. Akhtar has said “Advocacy is not art, it’s advertising”. I couldn’t agree more.

In The Cake, author Bekah Brunstetter takes a similar approach. The play is about a gay couple living in New York, Jen (Chelsea Diehl) and Macy (Kris Sidberry), who have traveled to Jen’s original home in North Carolina where they plan to get married. Jen wants the ceremony to take place in the same venue where her parents were wed. Her mother has passed on but it is apparent she is looking for acceptance as she can not know, but does suspect, how her mother would feel about this. 

The play opens at Della’s Sweets, a bakery run by Della (Karen MacDonald) who was close to Jen’s mother and has known Jen since she was little. Della is very excited about having become a contestant on The Great American Bake Off, and is describing what it takes to make a good cake. Jen wants Della to bake the wedding cake for her and Macy. Macy arrives at the shop ahead of her and engages Della in conversation. 

At this point it all seems to be very predictable; the dumb and bigoted hick will respond with hate and disgust at the request while the enlightened couple will be both victim and moral superiors to the backward folks living down south. That is not at all how this plays.

Karen MacDonald and Chelsea Diehl
Photo: Mark S. Howard

Ms Brunstetter shows empathy for all of the characters and allows that many issues are not that cut and dried. In a twist, Macy turns out to be the self righteous one who has no room for differing views, while Della is willing to face the conflicts she faces with her beliefs. It is refreshing to see a Southern Evangelical treated with respect. And while Della is willing to question herself, Macy is very judgmental and believes “If you don’t want to be a bigot you have to think like me”. 

Jen is the most conflicted as she had been close to Della and was brought up in the same cultural environment. It is clear that Della is a mother figure to her. Having Della bake the cake for the wedding is important to her, but Jen is also understanding, while hurt, when Della makes excuses for not doing so. Della is also feeling pain as she loves Jen. There is a lot of emotional conflict here that spills over into the relationship between Macy, who grew up in New York, and Jen.

Fred Sullivan,Jr. and Karen MacDonald
Photo: Mark S. Howard

Karen MacDonald is perfect as Della, a woman without an inch of hate in her heart but views that are considered backwards, and even hateful, by big city liberals. Tim (Fred Sullivan, Jr)., Della’s husband, is a plumber. This is where I felt things could fall apart as the stereotype so often portrayed of white working class men is not usually flattering. While Tim is set in his ways, he is also a decent man who deeply loves Della. He also enjoys mashed potatoes which makes for a very funny scene, but you will have to see the play to find out what that is all about.

The interactions between Macy and Jen as well as between Della and Tim are both insightful into why they believe the things they do and what they believe about others. It is this hard facts back and forth that occurs between Della and Jen that really digs into the conflicted feelings they both are dealing with as well as a way to start understanding each other. 

Chelsea Diehl digs deep down into Jen emotions, those of a woman with a foot in two cultures. Jen does not agree with Della, but she understands her, while Della’s moral code precludes her from baking the cake, her heart tells her it is good that the little girl she has always loved has found someone she is in love with. They truly care for each other.

Chelsea Diehl and Kris Sidberry
Photo: Mark S. Howard

The one fault I found with the play is in the character of Macy. Kris Sidberry gives us a character that is so certain of her beliefs that she has an almost religious fervor about them, and many of us will recognize that person; the take no prisoner true believer. However, by the time the play moves to where the characters are beginning to find common ground it is too little too late for Macy. She has done something particularly cruel that gets brushed off and shouldn’t. And though she finds some common ground toward the play’s end, her journey there is not fully developed.

The Cake may involve a baker and the choice not to bake a cake for the wedding of a gay couple, but it is not about the right or wrong of making that choice. This is a play about how listening, and more importantly, treating one another with respect is the way to finding a way to understand one another. A way not to react with hate at that with which we do not agree. That goes for all people. 

This is a sweet play baked with warmth and humor about people being, for the most part, kind and understanding of one another without having to compromise their beliefs. This is not a dig in your heels political diatribe, but rather a thoughtful look at how we are all human, and of how we really can get along. The Cake is refreshing and delicious and is certainly worthy of being tasted.

The Cake

Directed By Courtney O’Connor

Through February 9

The Lyric Stage, Copley Square, Boston

617.585.5678

lyricstage.comR

Review: “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” At The Boch Center Wang Theatre, Boston

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas 

Is A Dream 

At The Boch Center Wang Theater

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

White Christmas now playing at the Boch Center Wang Theatre in Boston is based on the 1954 movie of the same name. The story of two WWII veterans and Army buddies, Bob Wallace and Phil Davis who form a musical act after the war and, at the urging of Phil, start pursuing love interests Betty and Judy Haynes is corny, formulaic, and great fun. 

During the course of catching up with Betty and Judy, who are also performing as musical artists the Haynes Sisters, they end up at the Columbia Inn in Vermont run by their former Commanding Officer General Waverly. The inn is failing, and well, you can figure out the rest. 

What is wonderful about musicals like this is they are a perfect showcase for the amazing music taken from the Great American Songbook, in this case the songs of Irving Berlin; tunes such as Count Your Blessings Instead Of Sheep, I Love A Piano, Let Me Sing And I’m Happy, and Blue Skies. It is also, as the title reminds us, Christmas Season and Mr. Berlin wrote many of the Christmas songs that have become standards. Along with the title number these include Happy Holidays, Snow, and I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm.

Blue Skies

The huge stage of the Wang Center can be overwhelming, and at first I thought the players were going to be lost in their surroundings. However, their powerful performances and the beautiful scenery prove large enough to fill their surrounding and more. Blue Skies performed by David Elder as Bob Davis along with the chorus all dressed in white and  set against a  background of sky blue with wisps of clouds was food for the eyes while the singing and dancing were spectacular. 

Kerry Conte and Kelly Sheehan as the Haynes Sisters are delightful while performing the number Sisters, a song that is later reprised by Bob and Phil in a bit of  twist. There is great chemistry among the four actors both when all together and when paired off separately. 

Judy and Phil

Phil played by Jeremy Benton sings one of Berlin’s best songs I Love A Piano while dancing atop a small grand piano. He is joined by Judy and the pair perform a tap dance routine while seated on the piano with their feet hitting the stage. It is innovative and received a well deserved round of applause.

Bob and Betty bring tenderness to Count Your Blessings, a song that is not only appropriate for the Christmas Season, but one that delivers a message we should all take to heart each and every day.

Judy performs How Deep Is The Ocean set at the Regency Room in New York City. Here is where that large stage really works. Judy is joined by Phil as they sing and dance under a beautiful chandelier and are surrounded by gorgeous white draperies. 

The set designs adapted by Kenneth Foy from the 2009 production sets designed by Anna Louizos are breathtaking. The colors vivid and warm are marvelous. The scenes at the inn capture what it feels like to be in New England at Christmastime. I don’t want to give away the ending, but I can assure you that you’ll be in awe at what you see.

Lorna Luft

Lorna Luft plays Martha Watson the manager of the Columbia Inn in Vermont. When she sings Let Me Sing And I’m Happy it is impossible not to think of her mother Judy Garland, but she is not performing an imitation of her famous mother. Ms Luft is a consummate stage professional who can not only sing beautifully but also has tremendous stage presence and exquisite timing. 

Conrad John Schuck as General Henry Waverly is a cross between George Patton and General George C. Marshall, proud, firm, and tender. In the performance I attended Kyla Carter played Susan, the granddaughter of General Waverly. (The role is alternated with Emma Grace Berardelli). Ms Carter was impressive when she reprised Let Me Sing And I’m Happy. It must have been a bit intimidating to be performing the number in front of Lorna

Kyla Carter, Conrad John Schuck, and Lorna Luft

Luft just minutes after Ms Luft had sung it, but Ms Carter was poised and powerful. 

The character of Ezekiel Foster has few words, but his “ayuhs”, high waisted pants, cigar, and facial expressions are subtle and very funny. Cliff Bemis originated the role and is on the stage here in Boston. It takes on even more meaning to native New Englanders. Is he good? Ayuh!

Director and choreographer Randy Skinner has put the large stage to good use, keeping it open and vast on numbers such as Blue Skies, while using the scenery to shrink it a bit and frame scenes tastefully such as the ones at the inn. 

This is a big production with a full orchestra and very large cast. Irving Berlin’s White Christmas is just the thing to make you forget about your troubles and become filled with the joy and spirit of Christmas. Great music, great talent, and great scenery on a great big stage is just the ticket for a great night of theatre.  This should be a part of any Christmas celebration in Boston.

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas 

Directed and Choreographed by Randy Skinner

The Boch Center Wang Theatre, 270 Tremont Street, Boston

Through December 29

bochcenter.org 

Review: “Annie” At The Music Hall In Portsmouth, NH

Leapin’ Lizards!

The Ogunquit Playhouse Production Of

Annie

Is Great Fun At The Music Hall

In Portsmouth

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Josie Todd as Annie and Macy as Sandy
Photo By Gary Ng

The Ogunquit Playhouse has been closed down for the winter, but the season is not quite over. Ogunquit’s Executive Artistic Director Brad Kenney has joined forces with Patricia Lynch who is the Executive Director of The Music Hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire to bring a lovely holiday gift to New England theatre goers. That gift is the superb production of the musical Annie playing at the Music Hall through December 22.

Directed and choreographed by Jamie Rocco, Annie is running on all cylinders on the stage of the magnificent Historic Theater in Portsmouth. Just stepping into this beautifully restored Victorian Era theater is a breathtaking experience. Even before the curtain goes up it is impossible not to be impressed by the surroundings. And once the orchestra starts playing the overture and the actors first take to the stage it all comes together for a wonderful night of theatre

Annie first appeared on Broadway in 1977 and has lost none of its charm over the years and through many revivals. The Ogunquit Playhouse version  playing in Portsmouth has been freshened up a bit while retaining its original score and still brings smiles to the faces of the audience while tugging at the heartstrings. 
ring that dream with a very lucky audience.

This production of Annie is flawless and rivals anything you will see on Broadway. It is a top notch production that should not be missed.

Josie Todd as Annie, the orphan who sets out to find her birth parents, is feisty and lovable. She leads the other orphans in great renditions of Maybe and It’s A Hard Knock Life and takes it to the top with Tomorrow. I would imagine this is a dream role for Ms Todd and she is sharing that dream with a very lucky audience.

The orphans at the Municipal Girls Orphanage run by Miss Hannigan are played by an ensemble of young actors who are excellently choreographed and get to really show their talents in the number You’re Never Really Dressed Without A Smile. Each and every one of them performed like experienced Broadway performers.

Robert Newman brings an Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks to the stage who shows the strength and drive that made him a billionaire while conveying the warm heart that is melted by his relationship with Annie. Mr. Newman’s version of Something Was Missing is touching and lovely. 

I last saw Gail Bennett in the 2014 production of Mary Poppins at the Ogunquit Playhouse. In Annie she is cast as Grace Farrell the personal assistant of Oliver Warbucks. It was a pleasure to see her on the stage again.

Josie Todd (Annie), Robert Newman (Daddy Warbucks), and Cast
Photo by Julia Russell

The scene recreating a 1930’s radio broadcast where Oliver Warbucks takes to the air offering a reward to find the birth parents of Annie, it is filled with nostalgia. Kevin McMahon plays host Bert Healy wearing a straw hat and accompanied by a ventriloquist with a dummy, and a sound effects man (Trent Kidd) There is also an Andrews Sisters style singing group the Boylan Sisters (Karen Largerberg, Zina Ellis, and Kym Chambers Otto). The program revolves around the song You’re Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile. It is all set in a recreated radio station. There is quite an enjoyable tap-dancing number performed by the sound effects man using  wooden shoes on a table. 

Cast of Annie
Photo by Gary Ng

This wonderful cast has another member who is truly unforgettable; Sally Struthers reprising her role as Miss Hannigan. It is more than a bit ironic that Ms Struthers who has spent her life advocating for children would be playing a character who runs an orphanage as if it were a prison. In the number Little Girls she is very funny while displaying her dislike of the children by manipulating a doll in a rather sociopathic manner. It is a scene that was suggested by Ms Struthers and could only be pulled off by her.

Sally Struthers is a regular at the Ogunquit Playhouse every year and never disappoints. In her role as Miss Hannigan she outdoes herself. I’ve mentioned it before but must do so again in saying that she has a knack for comedic timing that is rarely seen. Her pauses and glances at the audience induce laughter every time. Ms Struthers also shows what a true professional she is by never attempting to steal scenes from the other actors. She works well with everyone. Of course, she is working with a cast that is deeply talented and all enhance one another.

Ms Struthers is at her character’s conniving best when plotting with her younger brother Rooster (Jeffry Denman) and his girlfriend Lily St. Regis (Angie Schworer). They are all wickedly funny.

What would Annie be without her dog Sandy who is played by rescue dog Macy. Macy comes close to stealing the show and captures the hearts of the audience with her beautiful eyes. She was an orphan in real life so it is only fitting she has a role in this play about orphans.

Set during the Great Depression the story has many references to figures of that era and includes a scene with Franklin D. Roosevelt (Doug Carfrae) and his cabinet joining Annie in singing Tomorrow. I’m not sure how many young audience members will be familiar with the names of these confidantes of FDR as well as the references to figures of the day such as Harpo Marx, Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Bernard Baruch, Herbert Hoover, and Fiorello LaGuardia, but not knowing them takes nothing away from the enjoyment. Mr. Carfrae is returning to the Ogunquit Playhouse after an absence of a mere 46 years. He still has it!

In the spirit of the season the play closes with a beautiful Christmas party. This combined with the festive decorations in the theatre and then stepping out to the streets of Portsmouth to breath in the Christmas Season is a delightful experience.

This production of Annie is flawless and rivals anything you will see on Broadway. It is a top notch production that should not be missed. I highly recommend you take in a performance. It’s a wonderful coda to this year’s Ogunquit Playhouse season. 

Many people give up on the coast of northern New England after summer, but by doing so they are missing out on a very beautiful time of the year.

Ogunquit Playhouse’s Annie at the Music Hall in Portsmouth is just the recipe for getting into the holiday spirit. You’ll leave the theatre filled with the Christmas Spirit that will have the biggest Scrooges smiling. Head north, see Annie, enjoy Portsmouth, and then continue on to Ogunquit and the many other places that put the joy in this time of the year. You’ll be glad you did.

Annie

Though December 22

The Music Hall at the Historic Theatre

28 Chestnut Street,

Portsmouth, NH

603.436.2400 themusichall.org 

Review: “An Iliad” ArtsEmerson

The Anger of Achilles

An Iliad

At Emerson Paramount Center 

Through November 24

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Denis O’Hare
Photo by Joan Marcus

The other night I saw An Iliad at the Emerson Paramount Center. Presented by ArtsEmerson, this modern take on Homer’s Iliad is funny, stirring, and thought provoking. Written by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, it is directed by Ms Peterson and stars Mr. O’Hare. 

It first played in Boston the weekend after the Marathon bombings and has now been brought back for a very limited engagement. 

In approximately 100 minutes, Denis O’Hare accompanied by Eleonore Oppenheim on bass, tells the story of the Trojan War and the endless saga of man’s attraction to war and addiction to power. Mr. O’Hare is a dynamo on the stage while Ms Oppenheim adds mood and sound effects that beautifully enhance the performance.

There is a lot packed into this production, and you may feel a bit lost at moments, but you will never be bored and you will be moved. As time is running short, rather than have you spend time on more of my take on it I suggest you head over to the Paramount and see for it yourself. You’d better hurry though as there are only two performances left. Saturday at 8:00 P.M. and Sunday at 2:00 P.M.

An Iliad

Presented by ArtsEmerson In Association With Homer’s Coat

The Emerson Paramount Center

559 Washington Street, Boston

617.824.8400  artsemerson.org

Review: “Admissions” At The SpeakEasy Production Company, Boston

Talking The Talk

Not Walking The Walk

Admissions 

At SpeakEasy Stage Explores Privilege, Values, Snobbery,

And Hypocrisy

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Nathan Malin Photo by Maggie Hall Photography

A few years ago I was watching a news program featuring a story about a successful inner city high school where most of the graduates were going on to college. It was an uplifting story, but one part stuck in my mind to this day. A young African American girl was asked why she wanted to go to college. She responded, “So I can be better than other people.” My heart sank when I heard those words.

In watching Joshua Harmon’s newest play Admissions, now at the SpeakEasy Stage Company in Boston, those words kept echoing in my head. The play which takes place far from the inner city, at a second tier, on the verge of being first tier, prep school in New Hampshire, deals with what happens when white liberals who are in a position of power, in this case expanding minority admissions to the school, talk the talk of making their school more inclusive and diverse and then have to face the reality of walking the walk when it turns out it means giving up their own privilege. 

Sherri Rosen-Mason is the Head of Admissions for Hillcrest Prep School. Her husband Bill is the Headmaster, and their son Charlie is a senior who’s dream has always been to attend Yale. He has worked hard toward that goal and has the grades and test scores to show for it. Things don’t work out as planned when Perry, Charlie’s close friend who is biracial is accepted at Yale while Charlie’s application is deferred. Charlie believes it is his skin color that has made the difference.

Cheryl McMahon and Maureen Keiller
Photo by Maggie Hall Photography

I have seen three of Joshua Harmon’s plays, and he is a master at writing dialog. In the opening scene of Admissions the back and forth between Sherri Rosen-Mason (Maureen Keiller) and Roberta (Cheryl McMahon) who works in development at the school is both funny and telling. Roberta is working on the school catalogue and Sherri is critiquing her work for not showing how racially diverse the school is. It becomes a numbers game about how many students of color attend the school and if they are properly represented in the catalogue. More so, are minority kids made to feel comfortable when perusing it. 

The conversation between the two on who qualifies as black enough becomes awkward for Sherri as Roberta cuts to the quick with just what Sherri is trying to say. While funny, the conversation can also make many in the audience feel uncomfortable as while the goal of being more inclusive is good, the discussion of putting people into boxes based on ethnicity has ugly overtones.

This combination of humor and questioning of values is also evident in Charlie’s diatribe when he confronts his parents about why he wasn’t accepted at Yale. Nathan Malin as Charlie is positively outstanding when he goes on about what he sees as the absurdity of figuring out who qualifies as a minority and who doesn’t.  Sherri and Bill (Michael Kaye) are stunned by what their son has said. Bill, “It looks like we successfully raised a Republican”. Oh! The horror! 

Marianna Bassham and Maureen Keiller
Photo by Maggie Hall Photography

Another awkward moment occurs when Perry’s mother Ginnie (Marianna Bassham) is sharing her joy over her son being accepted to Yale when she realizes Sherri is implying he only made it because of his skin color. Later in the play Ginnie captures the difficulty her son and so many others have to face because many people feel that way. Marianna Bassham is terrific as always.

The part of the play I found most revealing was where Charlie had decided to take things into his own hands and walk the walk that his parents talked, and made his own decision about where to attend college. Bill launches into a revealing screed about how his son will now have to do such low level jobs as “tossing pizzas and bussing tables”. He also can’t contain his disgust for community colleges. It really does all come down to being better than other people. 

While the play is meant to make people look at their own privilege, in this case white privilege, it is about much more than that. No matter how well intentioned people are, when it comes to getting ahead, or having their children get ahead, are they ever going to cede their connections and power to make things happen? 

White liberals will see this play and feel appropriately guilty. But how many of them will be willing to have a minority student take the seat at the table they reserved for their son or daughter? And is that really the solution?

Michael Kaye and Nathan Malin
Photo by Maggie Hall Photography

As with other Speakeasy Productions, I would love to see a more politically diverse audience attend and participate in a discussion. Joshua Harmon knows how to raise questions. He is not afraid to make people uncomfortable, and I would assume this includes himself. And, unlike so many of today’s authors, he does not preach. The audience has to grapple with these questions on their own. 

Sherri’s words are very telling, “If you don’t have a school like a Yale or Harvard on your resume, that actually puts a ceiling on what’s possible in your life. And our son is smart enough to see that. Going to Yale means your life contains all the possibility in the world. Not going there, or one of a handful of schools like it, means there are tables you will never get to sit at, tables whose existence you may never know about.” 

Keeping the table small means always putting limits on what people can achieve. Maybe it’s time to find new places to sit.

While it is easy when hearing about Admissions to put it in a box as a play by and for liberals, it should not be dismissed as such. This is an excellent work and a superb production. The talented cast is outstanding. The set which smoothly transitions from campus office to family kitchen is perfect. No matter your political beliefs, I would strongly urge you to pull up a chair to this table at the SpeakEasy.

Admissions

By Joshua Harmon

Directed by Paul Daigneault

Through November 30

SpeakEasy Stage Company

South End, Boston

speakeasystage.com

617.933.8600

Review: “Marie And Rosetta” At The Greater Boston Stage Company

The Godmother Of Rock And Roll

Receives The Respect She Is Due

In 

Marie And Rosetta

At The 

Greater Boston Stage Company

Reviewed By Bobby Franklin

Lovely Hoffman
Photo: Nile Scott Studios

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a major influence on rock and roll music. She was a favorite of Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and many other top names from the early days of rock music. Beginning in 1940 Sister Rosetta began using electric guitar in her Gospel Music performances. Her unique style would influence Chuck Berry and Elvis. Just last year she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Still, most people have not heard of her. With the advent of Youtube, videos of her performances are now available for the general public to view. 

In Marie And Rosetta, playwright George Brant has attempted to tell the story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. This is done by setting the play in a funeral home where Tharpe and her young protege Marie Knight are having their first rehearsal, as they are joining together for upcoming performances. Why a funeral home? The story takes place in 1946 in Mississippi and the Jim Crow South wasn’t exactly accommodating to black performers traveling through the area. Since they could not stay at the local hotels, they were dependent on friends finding them a place to stay. On this night it happened to be a funeral home. Toward the end of the play that symbolism will play into the story.

Lovely Hoffman and Pier Lamia Porter
Photo: Nile Scott Studios

Pier Lamia Porter as Marie and Lovely Hoffman as Sister Rosetta both deliver terrific performances and have amazing voices. Ms Hoffman’s interpretation of Tharpe brings the soul of her being to life at the theatre in Stoneham, MA. This is not impersonation or caricature, but rather an exploration of a dynamic and powerful woman. Accompanied by Marquis Lewis on guitar and musical director Erica Telisnor on piano, (Ms Hoffman and Ms Porter go through the motions on muted instruments) the musical numbers are outstanding.

Pier Lamia Porter and Lovely Hoffman
Photo: Nile Scott Studios

Not all of Sister Rosetta’s hits will be familiar to most audience members, but you will leave the theatre wanting to hear more. From Gospel songs such as Were You There, to This Train, and Didn’t It Rain to the smoking Tall Skinny Papa and rocking Up Above My Head, there is never a dull musical moment. 

Ms Hoffman, who said she grew up in the church (her father was a minister) knows her Gospel music. She, as Sister Rosetta did, is able to combine the spiritual with a rocking and soulful influence to recreate the sound that was at the root of the early rock era. While she is not actually playing the guitar, her movements with it show how much Tharpe influenced the early musicians. I was very much taken with her performance and was left wanting more.

Ms Porter as Marie is at first seen as shy and reluctant to step into the spotlight but quickly gains confidence with Tharpe’s encouragement. Her interpretation of Were You There is marvelous, as was her take on Peace In The Valley. 

Lovely Hoffman and Pier Lamia Porter
Photo: Nile Scott Studios

Both Hoffman and Porter were outstanding when singing together, most notably on Didn’t It Rain, Up Above My Head, and Tall Skinny Papa. The two had just worked together in Little Shop of Horrors at the Lyric Stage and actually began prepping for Marie and Rosetta while still there. If there was any strain with working together through two shows without a break, it didn’t show here.

The music is the strong part of this production, and while Sister Rosetta’s story is a fascinating one, the dialogue gets a bit muddy and drawn out at times. This is not a major flaw and certainly is no reason to pass on this wonderful show. I just wish it had been a bit stronger. I think what is a very good story could be made into a fantastic one with a little touching up. 

The Sister Rosetta Tharpe story is an important one to tell. She is known as the Godmother of Rock and Roll, and is certainly deserving of that title. Seeing Marie and Rosetta at the Greater Boston Stage Company is a fine way to be introduced to this musical legend. As was the case with me, you will find yourself wanting to hear more of her music. You will also want to learn more about this amazing woman who said “I brought a little club to the church, and a little church to the club”.  

I recommend you head up to Stoneham to see this solid and very enjoyable musical play, not only because it is very good, but also because it is important to get to know Sister Rosetta Tharpe. You’ll be glad you did.

Marie And Rosetta

Directed By Pascale Floresta

Though November 10

The Greater Boston Stage Company

In Collaboration With Front Porch Arts Collective

Stoneham, MA

781.279.2200

greaterbostonstage.org 

Review: 7 Fingers’ “Passengers” At ArtsEmerson

7 Fingers’ 

Passengers 

At ArtsEmerson

Is Astounding

 

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Sereno Aguilar Izzo and Sabine Van Rensburg
Photo Credit: Alexandre Galliez

I am a late arrival to the experience of contemporary circus, and if  Passengers performed by The 7 Fingers now playing at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre is any indication of what I have been missing, I have been making a huge mistake in not attending a performance years ago. I am now hooked and can’t wait to go again.

Presented by ArtsEmerson, this United States premiere is not your father’s big top. Contemporary circus brings the essence of circus combined with dance, music, and a theme that runs throughout the performance. In this case the theme is passengers on a train that can be interpreted different ways, but at bottom it is what the production notes say; “The journey is the destination” and that captures it perfectly.

What I witnessed was astounding. Performances of death defying feats (and I am not exaggerating when I use that term) moving seamlessly from one to another while tapping into a wonderment that at times was mesmerizing. This was mixed with a raw beauty and a celebration of the human body that was breathtaking. 

Freyja Wild
Photo Credit: Cimon Parent

The performance opens with eight performers boarding a train and using their breath to create the sound of the locomotive picking up speed. Rear projections, shadows and silhouettes are used subtly and with great effect. The action moves to each performers’ particular talent while never straying from the theme. Freyja Wild with hula hoops demonstrates an art form I didn’t know existed. Hoops were rolling in from off stage and Ms Wild would catch them with her feet, hands, and arms. She was fascinating to watch.

Sabine Van RensburgPhoto
Credit: Sébastien Lozé

Freyja also plays ukulele and sings a tune entitled Roam about her colleague Sabine Van Rensburg who performs using aerial silks. The song describes the beauty that Sabine creates while climbing high on the gorgeous silks that make her appear to be floating on clouds that she has made. While this is extremely dangerous and physically incredibly challenging, she looks as if she is doing it all effortlessly. I couldn’t help but think of the lines from the poem “High Flight”; “Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth.” as I watched.

Sereno Aguilar Izzo displays a number of talents highlighted by his juggling that is both deeply intricate and humorous. At one point he was tossing about more balls than I could count, catching them in not only his hands, but with the crux of his elbows, chin, and in his shirt. His expressions contained a warmth that was charming and kind.

To a tango/blues version of St. Louis Blues, Sereno and Sabine worked the trapeze. At times the two appeared as one with their bodies connected and arms and legs seeming to be extensions of each other. The musical arraignment was superb as was the performance.

Sereno Aguilar Izzo Juggling
Photo Credit: Alexandre Galliez

Contortionist Maude Parent put on a display that had my tight and aching back envious. What makes this special is she is not performing a feat as much as giving expression with her amazing talent that touches on the beauty and adaptability of the human body. It isn’t so much being an observer of what she was doing as being moved deeply by it.

As with Ms Parent, Brin Schoellkopf’s performance on the tight wire was about grace and balance, something that speaks to us as we strive to lead better lives. This is not to take away from his amazing physical talent but to appreciate how he uses it to convey much more than just the physical.

Conor Wild
Photo Credit: Alexandre Galliez

Conor Wild is a master of the Chinese pole. The smooth metal pole rises high from the center of the stage and Mr. Wild climbs it without any aids. Once at the top he performs moves that make him appear weightless. At times when he is reaching out from the pole with only his leg barely wrapped around it to hold him, he looks free and peaceful.

Towards the conclusion, Louis Joyal and Samuel Renaud give a performance of Russian cradle. Playing on a theme that runs throughout the production, this epitomizes the trust one human will place in another to survive a dangerous challenge. From a platform erected high above the stage, Joyal makes acrobatic flips and leaps into the air trusting Samuel to catch him as he begins to fall. Renaud covers his hands and forearms in rosin for a better grip. The powder drifts into the air. This combined with rear wall projection gives an amazing feeling that was like something out of  scene from an old movie showing the steam from trains at a station.

I have given a rundown of the various parts of Passengers, but it is not a series of acts. Rather, it is an interwoven work that creates an emotional stirring within. It is contemplative, thought provoking, and inspiring. The mixture of theatre, dance, and music with circus performance skills results in an expressive art form unto itself. 

The music is mostly original and the arrangements are excellent. In fact, I have just purchased the score which is a joy to listen to by itself. Lyrics, music, and arrangements are by Colin Gagne in collaboration with Jean-Sebastian LeBlanc, Boogat, Freyj Wild, and Jerome Guilleume. Direction and choreography are by Shana Carroll.

Sereno Aguilar Izzo and Sabine Van Rensburg
Photo Credit: Cimon Parent

I think what I found most impressive, and there was plenty to be impressed by, was that while these talented people were in constant danger of serious injury and even death, I never felt they would get hurt. There were a couple of reasons for this. One was the fact that they were not emphasizing the death defying aspect of what they were doing, but rather the beauty contained in their movements, which were indeed beautiful. The other, and more important part was how they conveyed the trust they had in one another. They had no hesitation at all when leaping, hanging, swinging, or balancing that they would be there for one another. There was a beauty in that display of the human spirit that was deeply moving. I might also add that each had to trust in his and her self; to have the confidence their training, practice, and physical conditioning would carry them through. It is all quite remarkable.

Seeing Passengers is an incredible experience. It is something you most likely will want to see more than once. ArtsEmerson continues to enhance its reputation for bringing the unusual and unique to Boston stages. I look forward to seeing much more in the future.

ArtsEmerson Presents 

7 Fingers

Passengers

Through October 13

Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre

219 Tremont Street, Boston

617.824.8400

tickets [at] artsemerson [dot] org

Review: “Kinky Boots” At The Ogunquit Playhouse

Walking In One Another’s Shoes

Kinky Boots At The Ogunquit Playhouse

Kinky Boots

Through October 27

The Ogunquit Playhouse

ogunquitplayhouse.org

207.646.5511

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Photo by Gary Ng

Kinky Boots, the smash Broadway hit musical by Harvey Fierstein and with music by Cyndi Lauper, is closing out the Ogunquit Playhouse’s 87th season, and what a way to end the summer. This powerful production is led by Graham Scott Fleming and Kyle Taylor Parker as Charlie and Lola with direction and choreography by Nathan Peck. The sets and costumes from the Broadway production have been brought in and are incredible.

The story about Charlie who has reluctantly taken over his father’s shoe manufacturing factory which has fallen on hard times is one about looking beyond the differences in people’s lifestyles and working toward finding what makes us alike.

Photo by Gary Ng

Graham Scott Fleming brings complexity to the character of Charlie who has been struggling to establish his own identity against the wishes of his father who wants him to take over the factory. This is laid out in the opening number Price & Son. Charlie does not share his father’s love of designing and manufacturing shoes (The Most Beautiful Thing).

Kyle Taylor Parker’s Lola is outrageous and explosive as he takes the stage (The Land of Lola) surrounded by six angels, all men dressed in drag. The costumes and Angels are stunning and very high energy. When Mr. Parker makes the transition from Lola, the flamboyant and exciting drag queen to Simon, his real name, dressed in men’s clothing it is amazing to see the difference in personality. It is also quite touching.

Lola and Charlie have teamed up to start producing women’s shoes for men, a move that has saved the factory but caused tension between some of the workers who are not comfortable working with a drag queen. Charlie also begins to have some issues with this even though he and Lola/Simon have learned they share very similar issues with their fathers (I’m Not My Father’s Son). 

Don (Joe Coots), one of the factory workers, is unable to accept Lola and the tension between the two leads to Lola challenging Don to a contest where each must do one thing requested by the other. This leads to a boxing match, Don’s request, between them (In This Corner). The scene is choreographed beautifully and leads to the pair finding respect for one another. Lola’s request is an interesting one and not what you may think. I’ll leave it at that, but it is moving.

Lauren, played by Maggie McDowell, is also a factory worker who has a crush on Charlie but believes he is out of her reach (The History of Wrong Guys).  Ms McDowell brings a subtle humor to the role that is perfect for the part.

Photo by Gary Ng

George (John Scherer) the factory manager is staid yet able to adapt to the changes that are happening. He is loyal to the Price legacy and is the man behind the man who keeps things together. Mr. Scherer underplays the part just enough while conveying humor and tradition.

Other outstanding numbers include Everybody Say Yeah where boots and dancers cross the stage on conveyor belts. It is original, lively, and exciting. Charlie’s reflection on his struggling with accepting his friendship with Lola and his new business venture is captured beautifully in The Soul of a Man.

Photo by Gary Ng

The finale which is staged as a Milan fashion show with the Angels strutting down the runway in elaborate and colorful costumes while showcasing the new line of boots from Price and Son is incredible. Even Don puts on a pair and struts his stuff.

This is a feel good musical with a very touching story. Everything about this production is tops. It is so strong that I left the theatre feeling a bit drained as energy is flying is all directions. It’s a good way to feel.

I have talked with friends who are planning on going to see Kinky Boots at the Ogunquit Playhouse and they tell me tickets are selling fast. It is playing through October 27, so I would suggest ordering your tickets soon. Ogunquit is lovely this time of the year, and adding Kinky Boots to your visit will guarantee you will have a great time. I have no reservations about recommending this one.

Review: “Little Shop of Horrors” At The Lyric Stage In Boston

Little Shop Of Horrors

At The Lyric Stage 

Will Grow On You

Review: Little Shop of Horrors

Directed by Rachel Bertone

At The Lyric Stage

Copley Square, Boston

Through October 6

lyricstage.com

617.585.5678

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Dan Prior, Katrina Z Pavao with Audrey II
Photo: Mark S. Howard

Little Shop Of Horrors, the rock and roll musical based on the 1960 cult film of the same name has shown incredible legs. It first appeared Off-Off-Broadway in 1982, moving to Off-Broadway, and then finally to a full Broadway run. It is as fresh today as it was then. The wonderful score which is based on a combination of Rock and Roll, Motown, and the girl groups of the early 1960s is the kind of music that has audiences tapping their feet and experiencing ear-worms as they leave the theatre.

Little Shop Of Horrors is an ideal musical with which to begin the 45th season at the Lyric Stage in Boston, and it gets the full Lyric treatment from Director/Choreographer Rachel Bertone. Set in Mushnick’s Florist shop on Skid Row in New York, the set, designed by Janie E. Howland, is inviting with various hues of green. Add in Dan Rodriguez as Music Director along with costumes by Marian Bertone and lighting by Franklin Messner Jr and you have a must see production that is nothing short of sensational.

Dan Prior, Remo Airaldi
Photo: Mark S. Howard

Remo Airaldi plays Mr. Mushnik, the florist who is struggling to stay in business while employing two workers, the hapless Seymour Krelborn (Dan Prior) and Audrey (Katrina Z. Pavao). Just when Mushnik is about to close up shop for good, Seymour reveals a “strange and interesting plant” he has been nurturing. The plant is put on display in the window of the flower shop and business begins to boom. There is just one problem; the plant named Audery II by Seymour, has a strange dietary requirement. The Venus Flytrap style vegetation desires human beings rather than houseflies. This all makes for an interesting story that combines Science Fiction and musical comedy all flavored by the 1960’s rock theme. This formula makes for two hours of great fun.

Chiffon (Pier Lamia), Crystal (Lovely Hoffman), and Ronnette (Carla Martinez) perform as a Girl Group version of a Greek Chorus and get things off to a strong start with the title tune. Moving through various homages to the music of the early Rock years, they touch on such memorable groups as the Ronettes and the Supremes. In both shimmering and taffeta dresses that invoke the period, they are outstanding while performing from various spots on the stage including the two balconies, one on each side. The score is well crafted and gives all the flavor of the period while also remaining original. 

Lovely Hoffman, Carla Martinez, Pier Lamia Porter, Katrina Z Pavao, Dan Prior
Photo: Mark S. Howard

Katrina Z. Pavao as Audrey, the sweet girl who has been finding love in all the wrong palces, displays wonderful acting skills along with a singing voice that delights. On Somewhere That’s Green she takes us on a nostalgic trip through the 1950s complete with mentions of Betty Crocker and I Love Lucy. Corny? Not really. Ms Pavao delivers it with a soft warmth that is touching. She brings a depth to her character that transcends the comedy. Yes, she is quite funny, but also a very sympathetic character. It would be easy to play Audrey as a ditz, but Ms Pavao takes it much further and displays wonderful talent. This is her Audrey. 

Audrey is in an abusive relationship with a sadistic dentist (is there any other kind?) played by Jeff Marcus,and a black eye and a broken arm make for some moments that are very dark. Mr. Marcus plays multiple roles and uses many different voices, not an easy task. His rendition of Be A Dentist with backup by Lovely, Crystal, and Ronnette is painfully funny as he describes taking his mother’s career advice; “Son, you have a talent for giving pain, be a dentist”. If you’re an anti-dentite, after seeing the dreaded chair and drill on stage this will only fuel your hatred. Ouch!

Dan Prior, Lovely Hoffman, Carla Martinez, Pier Lamia Porter
Photo: Mark S.Howard

Dan Prior as Seymour fits into his role as if it were a suit tailored especially for him. His timing is perfect, and his interactions with Remo Airaldi’s Mushnik work very well. As usual, Mr. Airaldi does not disappoint. I still remember his terrific performance in last year’s SpeakEasy production of Shakespeare In Love. There is a degree of abuse in the relationship between Mushnik and Seymour as well, and it is that common trait shared by Audrey and Seymour that draws them together.  They both lack in self-esteem and find love as they see the good in each other, and express it in  Suddenly Seymour. It is a touching and sweet number as the two open up to one another.

There is one other character not to be overlooked, a certain plant that eventually takes center stage and has a voracious appetite. Audrey II has four incarnations as the play progresses. The creation of puppet designer Cameron McEachern, Audrey II is simply amazing. Growing from a small potted plant sipping on blood to a full grown man-eating creature, it is a marvel to see. Tim Hoover inhabits the large version and moves it in synch with the words spoken and sung by Yewande Odetoyinbo. 

Katrina Z Pavo and Audrey II
Photo: Mark S. Howard

It is fascinating to watch Mr. McEchern’s creation in action as it swallows people whole.  After the performance I attended had concluded, audience members lined up at the stage to stare at Audrey II who was still on display. The plant that drew spectators to Mushnik Florist had that same pull at the Lyric. People were fascinated by it, I know I was. What a piece of work is this plant.

The Lyric Stage’s Little Shop of Horrors is theatrical perfection from top to bottom. Don’t miss it. I doubt a better production of it has ever been done, nor will there be one to top it in the future.