Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Four Reviews"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2006 by Beverly Creasey


A Week of Diverse Pleasures

By Beverly Creasey

By Beverly Creasey With over one hundred theater companies and at least three dozen music organizations up and running, there really is something in Boston for everyone. You could go to the theater every night and still not see it all. Here’s a week’s worth, for what it’s worth.

If you love candy and squirrels (And who doesn’t?) the Wheelock Family Theatre is your cup of hot chocolate--- in the form of Roald Dahl’s deliciously sinister CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (adapted for the stage by Richard George). James P. Byrne’s production is downright hilarious. His staging is ingenious and it really is sophisticated enough for parents as well as kiddies. The theatrical version is lots more fun than the movie because you get to see one of the brats disappear before your eyes into a rolling tide of all consuming chocolate. Everyone laughs with glee, adults and children alike, when one spoiled little monsterilla doesn’t heed Willy Wonka’s warning about the squirrels, and is dispatched posthaste by the busy, furry little critters. It’s simply special effects in the movie.

Jane Staab is just menacing enough as Mr. Wonka and projected onto Byrne’s movie-sized screen, the gigantic Staab is cheerfully diabolical. Tim McCarthy and Michael Duplessis’ psychedelic movies make the show pop. Wheelock regulars delight: Dan Bolton is perfectly smarmy as the emcee, Khalil K. Flemming is a whirlwind as the boy of the title who gets to inhabit the candy factory. Talia Weingarten is positively frightening as the demanding darling who tries to control the world. Lisa Korak and John Davin are run ragged as her spineless parents—and in the show’s best sight gag, Davin emerges from the garbage chute with a banana peel for a hat.

Wonderful performances abound, from Greg Nash and Gamalia Pharms’ sleepy grandparents to Andrew Barbato’s wired teenager (as well as his own fabulously tiny puppet) to Susan Bigger’s hysterical turn as Andrew Schlager’s mother to Ilyse Robbins and Mansur’s loveable old fogies. The technical hi-jinks alone are worth the visit, particularly the ubiquitous shape shifting, not to mention direction altering elevator. Take the stairs, just to be on the safe side, but get there before May 14th when the candy shop closes.

If rock ‘n roll opera is your thing—and not the Who’s style of rock opera, mind you—the American Repertory Theatre is presenting ORPHEUS X through this weekend only. Rinde Eckert’s opera (about the mythological musician who travels to Hades to find his lost Eurydice) is filtered through the medium of rock with a decidedly “new music” sensibility. ORPHEUS X strikes a dissonant note somewhere between Gluck and Pink Floyd. The rock band is loud and boisterous when Eckert is wailing his sorrow but when the music requires pianissimo for Eurydice (the ethereal Suzan Hanson), they deliver. Joining Eckert as Orpheus and Hanson as his wife is John Kelly first as the poet/musician’s ruthless agent and then as the goddess Persephone.

The piece feels minimalist, as new opera often does. The most effective music in the piece is strangely hypnotic, especially the urgent, plaintive “In My Dreams” and the sweet “Harbor of Sympathy” arias. Director Robert Woodruff separates the three characters into a triangle for most of the opera. Orpheus hardly moves, reminding me of Carlo Bergonzi, who always stood statue still when he sang at the Met, while Hanson madly scribbles stage right, with Kelly hovering upstage. Denise Marika’s videos cleverly flow onto the narrow girders which divide one realm from the other, reminiscent of one of Daniel Pinkham’s multi-media productions from the seventies. One could say, in a parody of the maxim, that everything new is old again.

Good old RAGTIME made an appearance this weekend when American Classics presented their feel good tribute, ALL ABOUT RAGTIME. At the beginning of the 20th century it was “the fashion [and everyone’s] only passion,” as the Berlin song says. He happily rhymed ‘syncopation’ with ‘nation’ and “just a million acres of shoulder shakers.” And we were. You couldn’t help yourself. The American Classics folks were joined by Eli Newberger’s Jazz Band and to quote another giant of the period, Fats Waller, “The joint was jumpin” at the Longy School. When you go to one of American Classics’ performances, one thing is sure: You’ll have a grand time AND you’ll learn something about the era. You’ll have another chance to be educated and amused on June 25, when they’re back for ROMANCE.

The audience was treated to the dueling ukeleles of Guy Van Duser and Peter Miller and several astonishingly intricate piano rags flawlessly executed by Margaret Ullmer (who we suspect of having four hands from the sound of the keys). The big brass band rocked the hall and Ted Casher brought down the house with his bluesy, New Orleans jazzy clarinet and vocals in “St. James Infirmary.” The singers took turns narrating juicy tidbits about the era, then Joei Marshall Perry wowed us with her high flying soprano acrobatics and the only people having more fun than Classics regulars Mary Ann Lanier, Brad Conner and Ben Sears were the rest of us!

THE SWEETEST SWING IN BASEBALL is Boston Theatre Works’ hip, thoroughly engaging production of Rebecca Gilman’s dramedy about art, the measure of success and the maize that is our health care system, playing through May 6. Its connection to the national pastime comes, well, out of left field.

Gilman calls the heroine of the story Dana Fielding for a reason: She’s pretty good at catching what life throws her way, except when she gets depressed. She won’t take meds because she thinks they’ll dull her creativity. She’s a painter with an agent and a gallery to show her work and she doesn’t want to jeopardize it all just to feel less paranoid. She’s got a boyfriend but she’s sure he’ll leave her. She’s got an exhibit of her newest work but she’s gotten a couple of nasty reviews, one of which hilariously says her art is “opportunistic and evacuated.” So what’s a girl to do? Slash her wrists, of course. Now, this isn’t funny to her, of course, but all the Sturm and Drang sure is to us.

She ends up in a mental hospital full of wacky characters, lucky for us. Just when the docs are threatening to send her home because her HMO limits the stay for depression, a delightfully demented stalker patient suggests she fake multiple personality. Delusional patients get sixty days. So voila, she’s Darryl Strawberry, the star outfielder who crashed and burned under the pressure of the major leagues.

The best feature of THE SWEETEST SWING is that the actors play multiple roles except for Sarah Newhouse as the painter. Director Jason Southerland gets to call up a bench-full of colorful characters to the plate: Chris Brophy is Newhouse’s hangdog, nice-guy boyfriend. Then he gets to come unglued as the sardonic psychotic she befriends at the mental hospital. Adam Soule gets lots of laughs as a pretentious, self-centered artist. Then he gets to warm the cockles of our hearts as a sweet recovering alcoholic.

Maureen Keiller is the gorgon at the gate as the heartless gallery owner who calls herself, importantly, the “gallerist.” Then she tries to cope with a motley crew of patients as well as their insurers, as the psychiatrist in charge of diagnosis. Eve Passeltiner, too, turns in a lovely performance as Newhouse’s concerned agent/friend and later as her warm but stern therapist. Gilman lampoons everything from “outsider art” to fleeting fame. The baseball metaphor wears a tiny bit thin toward the end of the play but the sensational actors hit Gilman’s script home.


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