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“A great painting, like a great boxing match, can be appreciated on many different levels.”

Boxing Paintings: The Big Three From An Artist’s Point of View

By
Mike Silver

Sol Korby
Self Portrait

From ancient times to the present, the visual and emotional drama that is inherent in the sport of boxing has always attracted and inspired artists. Statues, friezes, vase paintings, and murals depicting boxing scenes and boxers have been discovered in ancient Crete, Greece and Rome. Many are on display in the great museums of the world. One of the earliest known images is a stone slab relief, discovered in Baghdad, which shows two boxers with taped leather hands. It is estimated to be 5000 years old.

In more recent times important American artists have produced an impressive volume of work devoted to the sport. Three of the most famous boxing paintings of the 20th century were done by American artists. They are Dempsey and Willard by James Montgomery Flagg; Dempsey and Firpo by George Bellows, and Brown Bomber by Robert Riggs. Each of these compelling masterpieces depicts a scene from an iconic heavyweight championship contest.

Three of the most famous boxing paintings of the 20th century were done by American artists.

A great painting, like a great boxing match, can be appreciated on many different levels. There are layers and nuances to each—some obvious and some not so obvious. I can analyze a fight much easier than I can analyze a painting. So, I thought it might be interesting to seek out the expert analysis of an accomplished artist and hear what he had to say about the aforementioned paintings.

One of my dear friends is renowned artist Sol Korby. Sol is an award winning painter and illustrator. After service in World War II Sol was employed by various advertising agencies, and subsequently for most of the leading book publishers including Time Inc., Dell, Ace, Fawcett and Avon. (A sampling of Sol’s amazing creations can be viewed at: SolKorbyIllustrations.com)

Sol is ageless. At 90 years plus he is still active and productive, working in his studio almost every day. He is also familiar with boxing’s colorful history. In fact, his work includes a number of boxing subjects. I was anxious to hear what he had to say about each painting.

But first a brief history of the artists and their subjects:

“Notice how Flagg put a cloud in the sky and how he silhouetted Dempsey’s head against the white cloud to emphasize Dempsey’s importance.” –Sol Korby

Dempsey and Willard
James Montgomery Flagg
(Click On Image To Enlarge)

Dempsey and Willard (6’ x 19’): James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960), was a popular and prolific artist best known for his World War I recruiting poster of Uncle Sam pointing to the viewer (inspired by a British recruitment poster showing Lord Kitchener in a similar pose) with the caption “I Want YOU for U.S. Army”. The Dempsey and Willard mural is 6 feet high by 19 feet wide and is by far the largest of the three paintings. It depicts heavyweight champion Jess Willard and challenger Jack Dempsey in a scene from the July 4, 1919 title fight. Dempsey was 60 pounds lighter than the 6’ 6 ½” 250 pound champion. It didn’t matter. In a savage beat down Dempsey floored Willard seven times in the opening round. The game champion withstood a terrible beating until his corner finally threw in the towel before the start of the 4th round. The electrifying “Manassa Mauler” would hold the title for the next seven years and become the greatest sports superstar of the roaring twenties.

The mural was commissioned by Jack Dempsey and completed in 1944. It was prominently displayed on the wall of his popular Broadway bar and restaurant. Although invited to participate in the celebrity packed unveiling Jess Willard declined to attend. He wired Dempsey, saying, “Sorry I can’t be there. But I saw enough of you 25 years ago to last me a lifetime.”

After the restaurant closed in 1974, Dempsey and his wife Deanna donated the painting to the Smithsonian’s National Gallery of Art in Washington D. C. where it is on permanent display.

Dempsey and Firpo
George Bellows

Dempsey and Firpo (51” x 63 ¼”): George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925) was one of the most renowned artists of his generation. His previous boxing paintings and prints, numbering 46 in all, had already won him considerable fame, most notably Stag at Sharkey’s. Bellows was commissioned by the New York Evening Journal to cover the heavyweight title fight between champion Jack Dempsey and Argentina’s Luis Angel Firpo on September 23, 1923 at New York’s Polo Grounds. The fight was witnessed by 90,000 fans who contributed to boxing’s second million dollar gate.

In a wild first round Firpo was dropped seven times and Dempsey twice. The painting captures the dramatic moment when Dempsey is knocked out of the ring by Firpo. As the painting shows, he landed on reporters sitting in the first press row. Controversy erupted when it was claimed Dempsey was unfairly aided by the reporters who proceeded to push him back into the ring (in the painting one reporter’s hand is seen on Dempsey’s back).
Bellows inserted himself in the painting. He is the bald fellow seated on the extreme left. The painting is owned by the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Brown Bomber
Robert Riggs

The Brown Bomber (31” x 41”): Robert Riggs (1896-1970) was a painter, printmaker, and illustrator well known in the 1930s for his realistic images of the circus, boxing matches, hospitals and psychiatric wards. The Brown Bomber is the nickname of the great heavyweight champion Joe Louis, who held the title from 1937 to 1949 and defended it a record 25 times. The scene depicts the climactic ending to the historic championship fight between Louis and Germany’s Max Schmeling on June 22, 1938 at Yankee Stadium. Louis was seeking to avenge his knockout loss to Schmeling (the only blot on his otherwise perfect record) that had taken place two years earlier. This fight had huge political and social significance. On the eve of World War II, with Nazi Germany ascending, the world focused their attention on this fight. Louis was not just fighting for himself. To the 70,000 fans in the sold out stadium and millions more listening on radio, the fight symbolized the struggle between democracy and Nazi Germany. Joe Louis’ swift and brutal annihilation of Schmeling in the very first round made him a national hero and cemented his legendary status for all time. The painting is owned by the Taubman Museum of Art, in Roanoke, Virginia.

Of the three paintings, Dempsey and Willard is Sol Korby’s favorite: “I think most people who are interested in art would say Bellows is the best painter of the three, probably because he’s in between Flagg and Riggs. Riggs is too stylized, and Flagg is not stylized at all, and Bellows is right in the middle. Personally, I like Flagg best because his work is realistic. I do that kind of work. I like to see things the way they are in nature. When I do a painting I try to make it as close as possible to nature.

“One of the main differences between Flagg’s mural and the two paintings by Bellows and Riggs, aside from the size, is that the others have action. This painting is not really a fight picture the way you and I know a fight picture. There’s no action. There’s no blood. It’s just the two principle fighters in their typical poses. Flagg depicts the two fighters in their prime and the way they move. Willard is moving forward and he’s got one glove near his chest and the other is down near his thigh. He’s not concerned that Dempsey’s going to hit him. It shows he’s not afraid of him at all. He thinks he can beat Dempsey. It wasn’t until the first couple of punches that Willard really knew he was in for a fight now.

“On the left side of the painting you have the referee standing there. He’s not running towards them. He’s just standing there to balance out the ring post on the right side of the painting. It works as a mural because we’re talking about a painting that’s measured in feet. The other paintings are measured in inches. So you have a painting that’s 6 feet by 19 feet symbolizing their fighting styles. I think he did a fantastic job on it.

“This painting is an example of what I call a David and Goliath theme. Flagg wanted to get that big vs. little effect. You’ve got the small guy, who everybody roots for, and you’ve got the monster who everybody wants to lose. Flagg shows Dempsey at his best in that tiger crouch against this giant. He looks like he’s just about to spring up. You’ll also notice how Flagg put a cloud in the sky and how he silhouetted Dempsey’s head against the white cloud to emphasize Dempsey’s importance.

“Flagg and Dempsey knew each other very well. They traveled in the same circles. He was always in the restaurant.”

“Flagg and Dempsey knew each other very well. They traveled in the same circles. He was always in the restaurant. The end result was a very personal type of painting. Flagg put all his friends in the first row. Not only his friends, but also friends of Dempsey. He’s got different sportswriters and people they associate with, including satirist Damon Runyon, cartoonist Rube Goldberg, promoter Tex Rickard, humorist Bugs Baer and Dempsey’s trainer, Jimmy DeForrest. [note: Flagg, like Bellows, inserted himself into the painting and is seated in the first row]. That’s the intent of this picture. It’s not really a boxing picture like the others because there’s no action in it and there’s no blood and neither is being knocked down.

“Many of Flagg’s friends were in show business. Two of his best friends were comedian W.C. Fields and actor John Barrymore. He used to go out all night with them carousing and drinking and would get home very late. If they weren’t in a play or anything they had nothing else to do, so while they had a lot of time, he had work to do and, tight or not, he could knock off an entire illustration in one afternoon. That’s how fast he was.

“In his painting of Dempsey and Firpo, George Bellows did something very unique”, explains Sol. “He has Dempsey falling back and somebody in the press row with his hand on Dempsey’s back is about to push him back into the ring. Many people today are not familiar with this fight, even though they may have heard the name Jack Dempsey. Looking at the painting for the first time they might think it is Dempsey who knocked Firpo out of the ring. But the one thing that tells you Dempsey won this fight, even though you know he is knocked out of the ring, is to look at his hair. His hair is immaculate. There is not one strand out of place. The guy was knocked out of the ring and his hair didn’t move! Bellows painted it that way to show Dempsey wasn’t even hurt to begin with and, as we know, he got back into the ring and knocked out Firpo in the next round.

“Dempsey had only ten seconds to make it back into the ring before being counted out. Bellows shows the referee starting the count right away. In this way he draws attention to the controversy about whether Dempsey could have gotten back into the ring in time without the help of the people who pushed him back.

“You’ll also notice that at the top of the painting there are lights above the ring and two more lights in the far reaches of the stadium. Bellows didn’t want all that area dark. He wanted to show there was space and distance and he wanted to show where the lighting on both figures is coming from and it works very well. And he has nice little figures in the back all cheering and raising their hands and hats and all those things going on in the ringside to show that everyone is excited about what’s happening.

“Robert Riggs’ painting, The Brown Bomber, takes a little explaining, because this is a violent picture. It is the aftermath of violence. This is really an amazing picture in terms of its composition. Starting with the referee’s outstretched arms, and going clockwise past Louis’s back we see the towel flying into the ring and then the guy who threw in the towel, and then we see the heads and the shoulders of all the people sitting at ringside, which brings us right back to the referee. In other words, it makes a complete oval.

The title is The Brown Bomber but this painting is not about Joe Louis. This painting is about Max Schmeling!”

“Just off center in the oval, on all fours, is Schmeling. He’s out, completely finished, and Louis is standing over him. If he ever attempts to get up he’s going to be smashed down again. The title is The Brown Bomber but this painting is not about Joe Louis. This painting is about Max Schmeling! The whole thing is about Max Schmeling. He’s in the oval and he’s groping to get up. His head is turned because he wants to see where Louis is and he can’t do anything about it. Look at the people at ringside. They are all looking at him. They are not looking at Louis. Nobody is looking at Louis, including the referee, who is about to stop the fight. This painting is about Max Schmeling. Joe Louis is one of the figures that complete the arc. He’s part of it, but he’s not the main figure in the painting—Schmeling is.

“This is the most violent of the three paintings. Dempsey being knocked out of the ring didn’t hurt him, didn’t bother him. But this one, Schmeling is in agony and there’s no getting away from it.

“Each of these artists had different styles. Flagg paints in a more true to life style. Bellows and Riggs are more stylized and you can see it in everything they do, especially in the heads and figures around the ring and the shapes of the fighters’ bodies. Everything is stylized. But that is the property of the artist. They feel they’re enhancing the subject. An example is Louis’ arm. Riggs paints him with more muscles than Louis ever had. But he wanted that. It shows that Louis had the strength to do what he did, to put Schmeling on all fours on the canvas. He also made Schmeling’s muscles prominent to show he wasn’t just a tomato can. He was a good fighter. He was champion at one time. Louis is not beating some club fighter—this was a champion.”

There you have it, an artist’s take on three magnificent boxing paintings. Sol asked me which one I liked best. Well, here it is almost two weeks later, and I am still trying to decide. All three are so unique and spectacular in their own way. At this point it’s a dead heat. Which one is your favorite?

Mike Silver’s newest book is The Night the Referee Hit Back: Memorable Moments from the World of Boxing. Available from Amazon.com or publisher’s website: Rowman.com

 

25th Anniversary of Riverdance Comes To The Wang Center

25th Anniversary of Riverdance Opens March 31 At The Wang Center

See RIVERDANCE as you’ve never seen or heard it before in the new 25th Anniversary production! For over 25 years, nothing has carried the energy, the sensuality and the spectacle of RIVERDANCE. In a powerful and stirring re-invention of this beloved favorite, renowned composer Bill Whelan brings this mesmerizing, Grammy Award®-winning soundtrack back to life, completely revitalized for the first time since those original orchestral recordings. Producer Moya Doherty and Director John McColgan have produced an amazing new 25th Anniversary production with innovative and spectacular lighting, projection, staging and costume design, and an all-new finale number which will blow audiences away

www.bochcenter.org/buy/show-listing/riverdance-2020

Ogunquit Playhouse Announces 2020 Season Lineup

Tony-winners Jason Alexander and BD Wong to Premiere New Shows at
Ogunquit Playhouse as Part of its 2020 Season

Jason Alexander

The legendary Ogunquit Playhouse is thrilled to announce an exciting lineup of shows for its 88th season that includes the Northeast regional premiere of the hilarious dark comedy The War of the Roses, a new play based on the novel by Warren Adler and helmed by Tony Award-winner Jason Alexander, and the world premiere of the funny and heartwarming musical adaptation of Mr. Holland’s Opus, helmed by Tony Award-winner BD Wong. The season opens with the high-energy musical sensation Dirty DancingThe Classic Story on Stage based on the smash-hit film, then continues with a stunning revival of the Tony Award-winning, all-Gershwin, tap dancing extravaganza Crazy for You, and the exhilarating Broadway hit musical based on the lives of Grammy Award-winning husband-and-wife team Gloria and Emilio Estefan, On Your Feet!. The season will stretch to the holidays once again with the return of the hit show White Christmas in collaboration with The Music Hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

BD Wong

“We are honored and thrilled to be collaborating with an incredible team of industry leaders on a number of premieres as part of our 88th season in 2020,” stated Bradford Kenney, Ogunquit Playhouse Executive Artistic Director. “It’s been a great honor to be able to collaborate with Eleanor Bergstein to bring to the stage her iconic film Dirty Dancing. We have been working closely with Tony-winner BD Wong and Tony-nominee Wayne Barker over the last several years on the development of the new musical adaptation of Mr. Holland’s Opus, and we are thrilled to produce its world premiere for Playhouse audiences this year. We have also been working alongside Tony-winner Jason Alexander and the Broadway team on the development of the hilarious new play The War of the Roses, which makes one of its premieres on our stage in late summer. The cultivation of new works is now part of our mission as we produce world-class performances, tell the most compelling stories, and challenge and inspire our audiences in new ways. We are honored that these wonderful new shows will be seen alongside the entire season this year at Ogunquit Playhouse.” 

Five-show season ticket subscriptions are on sale now and the only way to guarantee the best seats for the best price to these exciting shows! Three and four-show subscriptions are on sale beginning Tuesday, February 18. Prices start at only $250 for a five-show subscription and $150 for a three-show subscription. Individual tickets are on sale exclusively for Ogunquit Playhouse Members starting March 11. Individual public ticket sales begin Wednesday, March 18 with prices starting at $53. Gift certificates are also on sale online and through the Box Office. To learn more about becoming a Member, season subscriber, or to purchase tickets and gift certificates, visit www.ogunquitplayhouse.org or call the Box Office at 207-646-5511. 

“Menopause The Musical” Opens At Ogunquit Playhouse September 4

Menopause The Musical 

to Open at Ogunquit Playhouse

It’s time to grab your best gal pals and head to Ogunquit Playhouse for the hilarious musical comedy Menopause The Musical®, on stage September 4 through September 14. A raucous celebration of womanhood created by Jeanie Linders and inspired by a hot flash and a bottle of wine, Menopause The Musical® applauds women who are on the brink of, in the middle of, or have survived “The Change.” The show is produced by special license from GFour Productions, the producers of MENOPAUSE THE MUSICAL®, now in its 18th year, and 14th as the longest-running musical in Las Vegas history. The director of the Ogunquit Playhouse production is Tony Award®-winner Seth Greenleaf. This joyful parody of 25 re-lyricized classic hits from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s features chart-toppers including “I Heard it Through the Grapevine that You No Longer See 39,” and the disco favorite “Stayin’ Awake, Stayin’ Awake!” 

Joining the cast of the Ogunquit Playhouse production are Anise Ritchie as Professional Woman, Kathy St. George as Soap Star, Melanie Souza as Earth Mother and Roberta B. Wall as Iowa Housewife. They will be joined by television star Cindy Williams as Hostess. 

Anise Ritchie has been with Menopause The Musical® for over 10 years starting in San Francisco and is now touring around the U.S. with the show. She has also performed in many regional theatres throughout the U.S. in such shows as A Little Night Music, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Big Fish, Smokey Joe’s Café, Showboat, and Little Shop of Horrors. Kathy St. George appeared on Broadway in two productions of Fiddler on the Roof including the Tony Award®-winning revival. Her many Off-Broadway and regional theatre credits include I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, 9 to 5 the Musical, Peter Pan, The Divine Sister, Once, and Gypsy. Melanie Souza recently performed in the National Tour of Menopause The Musical®. She has also performed in many regional theatre productions including In the Heights, Bikinis, Mamma Mia!, Breaking Up is Hard to Do and Sister Act. Roberta B. Wall was part of the original Broadway cast of Sister Act, and Leap of Faith. Her First National Tours include Sister Act, and Beauty and the Beast as Mrs. Potts. Ms. Wall has been performing in Menopause The Musical® since 2003 in cities across the country as both Iowa Housewife and Earth Mother. 

Cindy Williams

Joining the cast as Hostess is Cindy Williams who is most recognized for her role as “Shirley Feeney” in the TV comedy series Laverne and Shirley. She landed her first television roles on Room 222, Nanny and the Professor and Love, American Style.  Her many guest-starring roles include Law And Order: SVU, Seventh Heaven and 8 Simple Rules, The Odd Couple for CBS, A Dream Of Christmas for Hallmark Channel and Sam And Cat for Nickelodeon. Cindy’s stage credits include, the National Tour of Grease playing Miss Lynch, the National Tour of Deathtrap with Elliot Gould, The Female Odd Couple with Jo Anne Worley, Steel Magnolias as Ouiser Boudreaux. She made her Broadway debut in the role of Mrs. Tottendale in the award-winning musical The Drowsy Chaperone in 2007. Her many films include GAS-S-S-S with Talia Shire and Ben Vereen, Travels With My Aunt with Maggie Smith, directed by George Cukor, and The Conversation with Gene Hackman, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and American Graffiti co-starring with Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss and Harrison Ford, directed by George Lucas. 

The director for the Ogunquit production of Menopause The Musical® is Seth Greenleaf. He won the Tony Award® for his work on the 50th anniversary production of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf. A graduate of UCLA’s School of Theatre, Film and Television, his many credits include producing 9 to 5 the Musical on Broadway with Dolly Parton, co-financing the Tony Award® and Olivier Award-winning musicals The Book Of Mormon and Matilda The Musical, and directing the award-winning documentary F(L)AG Football. He currently has The Play That Goes Wrong and The Book Of Mormon running on Broadway; Tina The Musical, Bitter Wheat and SIX running in London; and Fiddler On The Roof and The Play That Goes Wrong on National Tour in the U.S. Three of his productions are currently Broadway bound: The Inheritance begins previews September 27, Tina The Musical begins previews October 12, and SIX begins previews February 13, 2020.

Individual tickets are on sale now. Preview performances start at $36 and economy seats start at $51 each. For tickets visit www.ogunquitplayhouse.org or call the Ogunquit Playhouse Box Office at 207-646-5511.

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Review: “Pacific Overtures” At The Lyric Stage, Boston

This 

 Pacific Overtures

Is Worthy Of A Shogun

 

Pacific Overtures 

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Book by John Weidman

Directed by Spiro Veloudos

Lyric Stage, Boston

Through June 16

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Carl Hsu, Micheline Wu, and cast Photo by Mark S. Howard

Pacific Overtures deals with the opening of Japan to the West and Commodore Perry’s excursion there in 1853. The Japanese had isolated themselves from the rest of the world  many years earlier. They had decreed that no foreigners would ever again be allowed to step on their soil. They saw outsiders as barbarians and savages, as people who would destroy their culture and exploit their products. It has a familiar ring to it: Gunboat Diplomacy, isolationism, xenophobia, expansionism, and a fear of change are subjects touched upon.

It was first produced in 1976 at a time when the Vietnam War was very fresh in people’s memories, so it would have been natural for people to have focused on American forays into other nations at that time. Given the state of the nation today, where trade wars and isolationism are popular, and a fear of those who are different is in ascendence on both the Left and the Right of the political spectrum, it is very possible audiences will see another message in this very fine work.

Alexander Holden, Karina Wen, Kai Chao, with Gary Ng.
Photo by Mark S. Howard

I last saw Pacific Overtures in 2003 in a lavish production that was incredible. From my count, the original consisted of a cast of 36. The Lyric is working with just 11, with actors taking on multiple roles. Of course, the theatre in Copley Square is also quite small, and the orchestra is much reduced. So how does taking such a huge production and reducing it in size work out? In a word, magnificently. 

Director Spiro Veloudos, working with Musical Director Jonathan Goldberg and four additional orchestra members take Sondheim’s score and work wonders with it. The music which plays off many Japanese styles includes Haiku, as well as nods to Gilbert and Sullivan, and a multinational flavor that, while showing how different nations can be, also captures the fact that all countries benefit when they cooperate with one another. Unfortunately, historically this cooperation has not always gone smoothly, and that is also brought out clearly here.

The set is simple yet gorgeous. Designed by Janie E. Howland, it has a backdrop made up of four Japanese screen panels with Hiroshige style illustrations on them. They are rotated very subtly during the play depicting different scenes as the story moves along . The floor gives the appearance of tatami mats, an item that will serve an important purpose in the negotiations between the Americans and the Japanese. Branches from a cherry blossom tree hang from above. I have read that Someone In A Tree is Stephen Sondheim’s favorite song from his own work, and seeing it performed by Brandon Milardo and Karina Wen under the branches is just lovely.

Lisa Yuen with Brandon Milardo, Jeff Song, Elaine Hom, Gary Ng .
Photo by Mark S. Howard

The cast is led by Lisa Yuen as the Reciter and Shogun. From the opening number The Adventures of Floating in the Middle of the Sea, Ms Yuen keeps the narrative flowing without forcing it. Her voice is clear and warm.

Carl Hsu and Sam Hamashima play Kayama and Manjiro. Kayama is a low ranking Samurai who ends up as the leading negotiator with the Americans, a job he was not exactly thrilled to be appointed to. Manjiro is a fisherman who had lived in the United States after being rescued by American sailors. He has returned to Japan to warn his leaders of the approaching Americans. He is not received well. Kayama and Manjiro form a bond when they find they can help each other through their problems.

Carl Hsu and Sam Hamashima.
Photo by Mark S. Howard

In Poems the two exchange multiple haiku. It is fast paced and through it we see their friendship grow. I loved how Hsu and Hamashima moved about the stage while performing this number. Choreographer Micheline Wu deserves much credit for the fine work she has done.

The entire cast, playing multiple roles, did not disappoint. Gary Thomas Ng  plays the Madam leading her Geisha Girls in Welcome to Kanagawa. With twirling umbrellas and flirtatious glances the number was fun and beautiful.

In Please Hello, representatives from the United States, France, Holland, Great Britain, and Russia all besiege Lord Abe (Jeff Song) with trade agreements. The play on Gilbert and Sullivan’s Modern Major General is delightful along with some French Can-Can, Dutch clog shoe dancing, and the frequent admonition from the Russian representative to “Don’t touch the coat!) 

Jeff Song, Gary Ng, Brandon Milardo, Kai Chao, Micheline Wu, Alexander Holden.
Photo by Mark S. Howard

Spiro Veloudos has chosen to have the actors wear masks when playing non Japanese parts. The masks are somewhat grotesque and reminiscent of the caricatures of foreigners that have been used over the years in many countries. These caricaturization represent how the Japanese saw outsiders. It is also interesting that many of the American parts were spoken with Southern accents. It is funny, but I notice that many directors in this area do that when trying to show Americans in a negative light. I wonder if directors in the South have their actors use Boston accents to get the same effect..

Pacific Overtures may very well have Sondheim’s best score. It is certainly the one that will continue playing in your head when you leave the theater. I loved every song and will be listening to the sound track often.

Karina Wen, Brandon Milardo, Lisa Yuen
Photo: Mark S. Howard

One of the beautiful things about theater is it can be fun at the same time it is dealing with serious and difficult subjects. We live in very polarizing times and have for many years. Too often when trying to make a point, a playwright can leave the audience feeling further divided. I found much in Pacific Overtures to give us reason to strive to understand each other and find ways to exchange the best we all have to offer. Tearing down walls and barriers to the free exchange of ideas and goods is a positive thing, though it is difficult to accomplish. I think of the words of Frederic Bastiat “If goods aren’t allowed to cross borders, armies will.” 

This is the final production of the Lyric’s 2018-2019 season, and they are finishing on a high note (pun intended). Pacific Overtures should top your list of plays to see. You are making a huge mistake if you miss this one. Spiro Veloudos works magic when he brings these large productions down in size for the intimate confines of the Lyric Stage Theater. After attending a number of these scaled down versions, I could argue this is a better way to see them. Well, it certainly is when produced by the Lyric Stage. 

Boston Lyric Stage

140 Clarendon Street

Copley Square, Boston, MA

617.585.5678

www.lyricstage.com

“When Angels Fall” Coming To ArtsEmerson

ArtsEmerson Presents The New England Premiere

Of

When Angels Fall

A Delightfully Dark And Mesmerizing Feat Of Visual Storytelling

Created And Directed By Raphaelle Boitel

Photo Credit:Sophian Ridel

ArtsEmerson is hosting the New England premiere of When Angels Fall, a riveting tale of flightless angels surviving in the wake of a global collapse. 

As a mesmerizing contortionist and aerialist herself, French creator and director Raphaelle Boitel’s storytelling is singular, and her ability to transform space in the air to the ground with large scale illusions along with bodies streaming across the stage is magical. Boitel brings her spellbinding visual storytelling (no words are uttered on stage) for five performances only, February 20-24, at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, 219 Tremont Street, Boston.

Blending circus, dance, and cinema, When Angels Fall is a dystopia where the resilience of the human spirit is pitted against the sterile and mechanical. Drawing inspirit from such disparate artists as Pina Bausch, David Lynch and her long time collaborator, James Thierree, This delightfully dark and entrancing theatrical premiere explores how the beauty of let go gives us the strength we need to rise. When Angels Fall will summon laughter and awe during its harsh descent from the heavens.

“I was delighted to discover the work of Raphaëlle Boitel on her last US tour,” says Artistic Director David Dower. “There is a freshness of voice and of spirit alive in her that charms and powers the deep, dark, hallucinatory beauty in her work. Boston audiences are well-versed in the elements she’s mixing to create her visually stunning and dream-haunting pieces. She’s combining aspects of circus, modern dance, and multimedia performance— but her results are entirely new to us. I am excited to introduce a fast-rising female-led company to the city.” 

For more information:

617-824-8400, ArtsEmerson.org 

The Royale Comes Out Swinging

The Royale

At The Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Lowell

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

The Royal, directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian, this year’s season opener at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, is a fast paced work that doesn’t let up for a moment during its 80 minutes. Very loosely based on Jack Johnson’s fight against Jim Jeffries it is the story of Jay “The Sport” Jackson who is the first black man to challenge for the Heavyweight Championship of the World.

Toran White and Thomas Silcott. Photo by Meghan Moore.

Jay Jackson is played by Thomas Silcott who brings us into the ring with and into the mind of the confident but conflicted challenger. Playwright Marco Ramirez has given him plenty to work with in this thought provoking play, and Silcott has an amazing presence on the stage. The dialogue is crisp and sharp like an action filled boxing contest. Ramirez not only gives us insight into what a fighter is thinking about while in the ring, but also deals with the wider implications of of having a black man win the white dominated championship in 1910.

Silcott has an amazing presence on the stage.

This conflict is sharpened by a conversation Jackson has with his sister Nina played by Ramona Lisa Alexander. Nina warns Jackson that his victory could result in violence against blacks across the nation, and she suggests subtly that it may be better for everyone if he lost. She feels that things are moving too fast and questions if Jackson is putting his personal gain ahead of his people. It is an intense back and forth that has the power of a hard fought boxing match.

Toran White, Mark W. Soucy, and Thomas Silcott.
Photo by Meghan Moore.

Mark W. Soucy plays the fast talking white promoter Max who also serves as reporter and commentator for the two boxing matches that take place in the play. His sharp dialog keeps the adrenaline flowing. As a ballyhooer he puts Don King to shame. You can feel the excitement build listening to him. He’s good.

Jeorge Bennett Watson as Wynton, Jackson’s trainer, and Toran White who plays Fish, Jackson’s opponent in the opening scene as well as his sparring partner for the big fight, are both excellent in their roles which are a bit lower octane but no less important. Wynton has been around the game for some time and seems a bit uncomfortable with the social implications of the fight. Fish is excited to be a part of such a great event but also is naive and is the character who elicits sympathy from the audience. Both actors are strong and very competent in their roles.

Lighting (Karen Perlow) and sound (David Remedios) are used very effectively. A scene where Jackson is hitting the heavy bag while his shadow is cast against the side and back of the stage is very powerful. Mr. Ramirez has said that he sees boxing as a percussive sport and incorporates a hip hop rhythm into the play. Something that works very well.

Ramona Lisa Alexander and Thomas Silcott.
Photo by Meghan Moore.

The fight scenes are different in that instead of having the boxers throw staged punches at each other they face the audience and punch towards them while also using the noise of stomping feet and claps to represent punches. It is a novel and very effective way to stage a fight and the accompanying dialog along with superb lighting allows us to step into the minds of the fighters.

 

The Royale is a boxing play but it is much more. In these heavily politicized times I am always fearful that a playwright will, as they too often do, preach to the audience about how it should think. Mr. Ramirez instead choses to leave us with questions. This is far more effective in helping bring us together to find common ground.

Whether or not you are a boxing fan, The Royale is a play that you should not miss.

The Royale
Through October 8
The Merrimack Repertory Theatre
Lowell, MA
MRT.org 978.654.4678

 

The Hitmen Have A Hit In Ogunquit

Bullets Over Broadway

Ogunquit Playhouse

Through July 29

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Early in Bullets Over Broadway now playing at the Ogunquit Playhouse playwright David Shayne and a group of artist friends are discussing a hypothetical situation; If a building was burning down and the choice had to be made to save a person or the last remaining copy of the works of Shakespeare what would you choose to do? Shane and most of his friends said they would save the Shakespeare, as art was more important than the life of just one person. Later in the play he would be tested on this question and find the decision to be a bit more complicated.

Photo by Jay Goldsmith

Bullets Over Broadway is adapted from the 1994 Woody Allen film of the same. It has been turned into a musical, and after seeing both the movie and this fine production I have concluded it should have been a musical from the outset.

It does not have an original score. The music consists of catchy tunes from the period between World War I and II. Some of the songs will be familiar to the audience and some are fairly obscure. The music adds an atmosphere that was missing in the movie. It works and works well.

Playwright David Shayne, played with just the right amount of angst and comedy by the very talented John Rochette, has agreed reluctantly to compromise some of his artistic integrity by allowing the girlfriend of mob boss Nick Valenti to have a role in his play in exchange for having the gangster bankroll the production. Vincent Pastore, reprising his role from the original Broadway version of Bullets, is ideal as the man who takes time between musical numbers such as Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You sung to his ditzy girlfriend Olive played by Jemma Jane, to order hits on his enemies.

Photo by Gary Ng

Ms Jane is a hoot when she sings The Hot Dog Song, a saucy piece filled with double entendres and some interesting moves on her part. She appears to relish her role as the not so bright Olive. It is all such fun.

Reed Campbell is positively outstanding as Cheech, (“Not Mr. Cheech, it’s just Cheech.”), Valenti’s top hitman, who has been charged with keeping an eye on Olive as she attends rehearsals for the play. Cheech still finds time to make a hit while tending to Olive. There is an interesting scene where he and an accomplice take a victim for a ride while singing Up A Lazy River. Sure, it’s morbid, but it is also very funny.

Meanwhile, Shayne seems to be at peace with the deal he has made now that leading lady Helen Sinclair (Michele Ragusa) has agreed to star in his play. That peace is soon disrupted when he hears Olive rehearsing her lines with a voice that makes him cringe. He lights up the stage with I’m Sitting On Top Of The World. Mr. Rochette shows great chops as a song and dance man as he moves about the stage. He is very good.

Ms Ragusa does a fabulous job as the aging diva with a touch of Sunset Boulevard mixed in. Using an overly dramatic theatrical voice she is funny without becoming a caricature. She and Mr. Rochette are delightful singing There’s a Broken Heart for Every Light on Broadway.

This is musical theatre at it’s best. It is the Ogunquit Playhouse at its best.

One of the high points of the play, and there are many, is when Cheech and his fellow gangsters perform the song and dance number, Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do, Reed Campbell was absolutely fantastic with this high energy number and had many in the audience on their feet by the end. Campbell is an amazing talent who time and again wowed the crowd at the Playhouse.

In this interesting and funny story we see Cheech taking over authorship of the play as Shayne has to deal with having compromised his artistic integrity. Along the way we are treated to dancing hot dogs, an amazing set consisting of New York City rooftops, a train, vintage car, an actor who is also a compulsive eater who gives new meaning to growing into a part, and wonderful lighting. We are also gifted with the amazing Sally Struthers as Eden Brent who appears with her dog who also displays great acting ability. Ms Struthers take the stage in Ogunquit each season and never disappoints. She is the master of comedic timing.

This production is directed by Jeff Whiting who worked closely with Susan Stroman on the original production. He has recreated that direction and choreography for this show.

I want to add that both John Rochette and Reed Campbell are extraordinarily talented young actors. Having them share the stage with such experienced actors as Vincent Pastore and Sally Struthers is great to see. Both of these men have promising careers ahead of them. I could also say this about the entire cast. Everyone was wonderful. You could just feel the energy and excitement as it spilled into the audience. This is musical theatre at it’s best. It is the Ogunquit Playhouse at its best.

I rarely am disappointed by a show at the Playhouse, though there have been a few that aren’t on my see again list. But, the vast majority are extremely good. Bullets Over Broadway ranks as one of the best I have ever seen there. I strongly recommend you get to Ogunquit and see this production. I have a feeling tickets will be selling fast so I would not hesitate.

Oh, David Shayne finds he has a different answer to the question of whether or not to choose Shakespeare over the life of a human being when he is faced by the choice Cheech makes with dealing with Olive dragging the play down. It turns out Cheech has more artistic integrity, but David has found his humanity.

Bullets Over Broadway
Though July 29
The Ogunquit Playhouse
Ogunquit, Maine
ogunquitplayhouse.org
207.646.5511

 

Kisses and Laughter Aplenty At The Lyric

Stage Kiss

The Lyric Stage

140 Clarendon St. Boston
Through March 26th

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Kiss now playing at the Lyric Stage is two plays within a play that centers on the problems that arise when former lovers are cast opposite each other in a revival of a 1930s melodrama, The Last Kiss, which is also about two former lovers.

Make no mistake, this play is very funny.

He (Alexander Platt) and She (Celeste Oliva) the former lovers who haven’t seen each other in over ten years are brought together when trying out for roles in a revival of a 1930s Noel Coward style play The Last Kiss. Sexual tension immediately arises as old passions become inflamed. She, who is now married and has a daughter while He is in a relationship with a woman from either Iowa or Illinois (you’ll understand when you see it), don’t take long to act on their desires.

Will McGarrahan, Celeste Oliva, Michael Hisamoto (Photo: Mark S. HowardMake no mistake, this play is very funny. Ms Oliva, as She, is a positive riot as she reads for the part in front of director Adrian Schwalbach (Will McGarrahan). It is her first time trying out for a production in years and Oliva plays the part with a frenetic humor that conveys She’s self doubt. I couldn’t help but think this might not be much of an exaggeration of what many actors have been through. Mr. McGarrahan as Schwalbach is the perfect straight man. His timing is excellent as he knows just when to deliver a line or a look to allow the lines to sink in. I have seen him in a number of productions and he as yet to disappoint.

Alexander Platt and Celeste Oliva. (Photo: Mark S. Howard)

He is played by Alexander Platt. He, shallow and self centered, lives just in the moment. He seems not at all concerned with the fact that She is married and has a child. At first this doesn’t seem important as the laughs keep coming and it is amazing to see the set for The Last Kiss come together as the action moves along. The play begins with an almost bare stage that evolves into a beautiful setting with lovely costumes. It is magical to see as it happens bit by bit while the lights are dimmed.

Director Courtney O’Connor also plays a bit with the audience on when intermission is about to start. It is all fun and a nice touch.

In Act II things begin to falter a bit. The Last Kiss has been a flop and now He and She are teaming up with Adrian in a new play he has written and is producing in Detroit. She has left her husband Harrison (Craig Matthers) and her daughter Angela (Theresa Nguyen) to be with He. He’s former girlfriend Laurie (Gillian Mackay-Smith) and Harrison have taken up with each other. Angela’s reaction to all of this is not hurt but anger that doesn’t seem all that real. She also seems quite self centered.

And this is why things don’t quite work in the second act. While there are plenty of funny situations, we are still seeing a marriage torn apart and a child whose mother has walked out on her. I never got the sense anybody really was feeling much pain about all that had happened. Towards the end Craig Mathers gives a very moving and well done monologue about marriage that feels out of place as he appears to be the only one who grasps what has really happened. The lines he delivers include “Marriage is about repetition. Every night the sun goes down and the moon comes up and you have another chance to be good. Romance is not about repetition.” Beautiful words, and while She does go back with him, I don’t believe it is the words that have moved her. Her shallowness still rings through. Without an emotional investment in the characters it is hard to feel much even when listening to these lovely words so well delivered by Mr. Mathers.

Will McGarrahan, Celeste Oliva, Alexander Platt, Michael Hisamoto. (Photo: Mark S. Howard)

Now, I do have to say something here about Michael Hisamoto who plays a number of parts including the Kevin the understudy in The Last Kiss and a pimp in the play in Detroit. Mr. Hisamoto almost steals this production. He is positively hilarious in his scenes with Ms Oliva in Act 1. Their kissing scene is side splitting funny. Every time he steps onto the stage you can feel his energy. His presence is subtle but very strong. He can elicit laughter with just a sidewards glance. He is a very talented young actor and I hope we get to see more of him soon.

Mr. Hisamoto almost steals this production

Stage Kiss may have some flaws, but it is still a production worth seeing. It is refreshing to sit in a theater and laugh. It is nice in this very heated political era to be able to step away from all the arguing and be able to escape for a couple of hours. Theatre plays many roles in our society. Some of it is political. But it is also important that it gives us a break from the anxieties that creep into our lives. Stage Kiss does that.

Stage Kiss

by Sarah Ruhl

Directed by Courtney O’Connor

Lyricstage.com

Jack Sharkey vs Joe Louis

The Gob Showed Brilliance
In His One Sided Defeat

by Bobby Franklin

“Fear is looking across the ring at Joe Louis and knowing he wants to go home early.”

Sharkey and Louis Weigh In

The works of great artists show us something new no matter how many times we view them. I have yet to walk away from viewing or reading a play by William Shakespeare without seeing something in it I had not seen before. That is sometimes true because of the way it is directed or performed, but I have the same experience when I read his works. Great art is always open to interpretation. It also effects different people differently, and even can have a different effect on the same person each time he views it.

Often times there are subtleties we miss during a previous experience. Many times I have noticed something in a movie I had missed before even if I have seen the film multiple times. I have watched The Third Man at least two dozen times and I still find new things in it.

Over the past few years I have enjoyed revisiting fights from the past. I have found it interesting how many times I have been surprised at how different a fight was from my memory of it from either having seen it when it occurred or having watched it many years ago and seeing it again for the first time after all those years. The first Louis vs Conn fight and the Ali vs Foreman fight are two that I have written about that turned out to be very different from what my memory told me. In the case of the Louis Conn bout, there seems to be a collective memory that has grown into a legend about that match that is really quite different from what actually occurred that night.

Sharkey In Defensive Mode

There is something else I have learned from reviewing these fights from boxing’s great past. It is possible to learn a lot from watching a great fighter at the end of his career even in a one sided defeat. I recently watched the Joe Louis vs Jack Sharkey bout and found it very interesting. The match lasted only seven minutes and was a one sided win for the Brown Bomber, but Sharkey was very interesting to watch as he fought the last fight of his career.

The bout took place on August 18, 1936 at Yankee Stadium. Just two months earlier Louis had suffered his first career loss, a knock out at the hands of Max Schmeling. Close to 30,000 fans showed up to see if the loss had a lasting effect on Joe.

Jack Sharkey, also known as the Boston Gob, and his manager, Johnny Buckley, had talked their way into the fight with Louis and even managed to get a guarantee of 25% of the gate. It looked like a good final payday for the ex champ. Unless Louis had been completely demoralized by Schmeling, it didn’t appear Sharkey would have any chance of beating him.

Sharkey had lost the title to Primo Carnera in 1933. After that, Jack had six fights leading up to the Louis fight. He only won two of them with three losses and a draw. Given his record it would appear he would be a perfect comeback opponent for Louis, and maybe that is why they were agreeable to giving him such a good payday. He still had the cache of being a former Heavyweight Champion of the World.

When the opening bell rang it didn’t take long to see that Joe was not at all gun shy. The loss to Schmeling had not hurt his confidence. If anything, it had only made him more determined and focused.

Jack came out to meet Louis in the first round only to run into a sharp young opponent. Max Baer once said “Fear is looking across the ring at Joe Louis and knowing he wants to go home early.” Well, Sharkey may not have felt that when he stepped into the ring, but he certainly knew that’s what he was dealing with seconds into the bout.

Now here is where my comments about seeing things that have gone unnoticed in previous viewings come into play. Jack Sharkey was definitely an artist in the ring. He was a master boxer who’s biggest fault was his lack of consistency. Given that, he still possessed outstanding talent. At this point in his career he was well over the hill. You can see that in his lack of leg movement. Jack had been light on his feet when younger, but now they looked to be stiff and tired. It is not good being in a race with a young athlete while having two flat tires.

Once the bout got underway Jack had to know he had no chance of beating Louis. But Jack was also a champion and wasn’t going to just quit. So, what could he do? Well, this is where you get to see some amazing moves.

Jack reached down for every trick he knew. He used body feints, arm feints, he rolled with the punches, he tied Louis up when he could. He attempted to counter Louis’s jab, but no longer had the reflexes to be effective.

Louis Drops Sharkey

What you end up seeing when watching this fight is a once great boxer preforming some amazing moves, only they are now being done in slow motion, which makes them easier to see. Nothing worked to save him from being stopped, but they did prevent Jack from suffering a much worse beating.

The treat for students of boxing in watching this seven minute fight is in studying how Sharkey attempts to survive the Louis onslaught. Yes, it is a one sided fight, and Sharkey goes down four times, but in between you get to see a formerly great artist reaching to his palate in an attempt to paint one more masterpiece. He is not able to do it, but he does still show amazing skill. A lot can be learned from watching Jack Sharkey during his final few minutes in the ring.