A Triumphant Ode to Friendship, Nature and the Imagination

Birdy, Commonwealth Shakespeare Company [Babson Arts, Wellesley, through March 17. commshakes.org]

By Jules Becker

Decades before experts identified PTSD, William Wharton was vividly and hauntingly describing it in his memorable novel “Birdy.”

A moving look at the adolescence to adulthood bromance of two fictional best friends, “Birdy” also focuses in good part on the wartime treatment of the title character’s formidable disorder and buddy Al’s considerable efforts to help. Talented playwright Naomi Wallace+ (“One Flea Spear”) gave impressive attention to both their singular friendship and Birdy’s profound struggle in her affecting adaptation of the same name – now in a soaring production by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company at Babson College’s Carling-Sorenson Theater.

Spencer Hamp (top) as Young Birdy and Maxim Chumov as Young Al in CSC production of ‘Birdy’ (Photos courtesy Evgenia Eliseeva).

Clint Ramos’ brilliant scenic design serves notice — before a word is spoken – of the challenges confronting both friendship and treatment of Birdy’s disorder. A stage-spanning metal construct resembles in its own way a jungle gym on which Birdy and Al will climb. Exploring its three levels and many experience-related props — among them hub caps and baseball bats – the stalwart friends will arrive at the construct’s top meant to serve as a kind of roof and take-off place for Birdy’s flight. Wallace has smartly turned the two men into Young Al and Young Birdy, and Al and Birdy, to facilitate the play’s flashbacks and insights about the characters’ very different fortunes and development.

CSC artistic director Steve Maler sure-handedly pilots the highs and lows of the friends’ experiences and their respective moves between past and present. Maxim Chumov captures Young Al’s appealing ardor and support for Young Birdy. Spencer Hamp finds all of Young Birdy’s reserve and diffidence. One of the most arresting moments in the play involves sexually savvy Young Al educating Young Birdy about the intimacy essential to dating. That education has Young Al even inviting Young Birdy to practice by caressing his pecs as though they were breasts. The result is a stretch of homoerotic closeness that most importantly demonstrates not only Young Al’s caring for Young Birdy but also the former’s apparent lack of uptightness where sexual matters are involved.

Will Taylor and Keith White in ‘Birdy’ at Babson College.

That self-confidence continues with Al, played with tenacity and feistiness by Keith White. White’s Al rightfully stands up to Dr. White, who treats Birdy as though the top priority is sending him back to the war front as soon as possible. Here candid Al intrepidly rejects the hardline doctor’s seeming insinuation that the two soldiers are impulsively pleasuring each other. Steve Barkhimer has all of White’s one-track medical attitudes. By contrast, Damon Singletary — replacing James Ricardo Milord as Renaldi — has all of his understanding and patience nursing Birdy.

Perhaps most stunning of all is Will Taylor’s uncanny portrayal of Birdy. Watch Taylor’s second act foot movements as he crouches in an amazing balletic stance on his toes and his corresponding arm gesturing. Taylor truly captures Birdy’s attention to identifying with the pigeons and other flyers that he prizes and with whom he identifies. Losing himself in the role, he instantly brings an unlikely majesty to this unforgettable character.

If you have read the fine novel (or merely seen the sensitive 1984 movie version), you will find Wallace’s adaptation and Maler’s staging equally triumphant. Most of all CSC makes Wharton’s beautiful ode to friendship, nature and the imagination take wings.

Advertisements

Capturing the Mystery and Vitality of Eartha Kitt

Who Is Eartha Mae?  Bridge Repertory Theatre, (Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center, Cambridge, through February 24. bridgerep.org)

By Jules Becker

Jade Wheeler as Eartha Mae Kitt (courtesy Bridge Repertory Theater)

Many Eartha Kitt fans know and love the late great multiple talent – singer,dancer and internationally renown entertainer. Fewer know Eartha Mae Kitt – who rose above severe poverty, repeated family abuse, prejudice and hateful pushback for her principled anti-Vietnam War stance. Creator and performer Jade Wheeler stirringly and uncannily brings all of these roles and aspects of Miss Kitt’s remarkable and fascinating life together in a 75-minute one-woman show simply and appropriately called “Who Is Eartha Mae?”

Jade Wheeler in ‘Who Is Eartha Mae?’ (Photo: Andrew Brilliant)

 

At the same time, she proves herself a major talent as her portrayal captures the essence of Eartha Kitt’s vitality and seductive, tigress-like approach to dance – especially under the influence of legendary choreographer Katherine Dunham and Kitt’s acclaimed performance in “Timbuktu” and song – notably “C’est si bon.” As sharp director Cailin Doran notes in the show’s playbill, Kitt was an icon of empowerment and social activism as well as the arts. Wheeler captures the humor and the seriousness in this unique woman and human being. I was privileged to see her electric work in “Timbuktu” and meet her after she gave a terrific concert at Sculler’s. May her memory and achievements continue to move the world. Wheeler is doing a lot to demonstrate her timelessness.

A Stirring Celebration of Carole King’s Life and Art

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, National tour presented by Broadway in Boston at Opera House. [through February 17. 800-982-2787 or BroadwayinBoston.com]

By Jules Becker

Carol Joan Klein may have adopted the last name King as a singer/songwriter to avoid still pernicious anti-Semitism in mid-20th century America. What she has never changed is an ongoing determination to make a difference. With both determination and talent, the Kennedy Center honoree (2015) has become a major role model both as a musical artist and a woman. Likewise “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” — the Tony-nominated musical now on tour at the Opera House — proves a stirring celebration of her life and art.

Douglas McGrath smartly begins his book for this upbeat bio-musical with a first act that briefly looks at Carol’s childhood but centers on her pivotal collaboration with first husband Gerry Goffin (1959-1968). As pop music buffs know well, composer King and lyricist Goffin collaborated on more than two dozen hits for musical groups like The Shirelles (“Will You Love Me Tomorrow”) and The Drifters (“Up on the Roof”).

Two very different challenges confront her at the start of the second act — her painful break-up with her husband over his serial affairs and the inner need to perform her own compositions. Her personal triumph — and the close of the musical — arrives with the landmark four Grammy-winning 1971 album “Tapestry” (best album, song, record and female pop vocalist) and an acclaimed performance at Carnegie Hall.

If the musical’s book lacks the kind of fully taut narrative of a “Jersey Boys,” it nevertheless presents a vivid portrait of King and an intriguing look at what may have been a kind of polyamory at Goffin’s core. At the same time — particularly in the first act — “Beautiful” provides a concise understanding of the song for group composing by which recording impresario Don Kirshner obtained new material from competing songwriters – here King and Goffin on the one hand and Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann — of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” fame — on the other. The fascinating added factor with quick wit Weil and hypochondriac Mann is their best friends relationship with King and Goffin.

Under Marc Bruni’s sharp direction, a strong opening night cast gave full expression to the friendship and musical richness of this very affecting show. Sarah Bockel — who alternates with Kaylee Harwood and Elise Vannerson — demonstrated a demeanor, a performance style and even a voice quite similar to those of Carole King herself — especially on such “Tapestry” gems as “It’s Too Late” and the title song itself. Dylan S. Wallach caught Goffin’s deep concern about artistry coupled with his personal irresponsibility and vulnerability. Alison Whitehurst had the right attitude and spirit as Weil, while Jacob Heimer caught Mann’s sense of merriment and relative nonchalance.

“Beautiful” may not move the theater floor, but audience members should still feel that they have a good friend at the Opera House

This ‘Ragtime’ Hits All the Right Notes

Ragtime, Wheelock Family Theatre at Boston University [through February 17. wheelockfamilytheatre.org]

By Jules Becker

Before “Hamilton” there was “Ragtime.” If the former speaks of immigrants getting things done in America, the latter equally praises new would-be citizens — most notably Latvian Jewish budding artist Tateh and his daughter Little Girl. The budding artist turned successful silent film maker who becomes Hollywood director Baron Ashkenazi tells his daughter, “A Shtetl Is Amereke” – America is a shtetl – in this case a country with great possibilities.

“Ragtime’s” gifted late author, E.L. Doctorow, saw the early 20th century as a time of great change — much of it arising through encounters between immigrants eager to share the American dream, African-Americans struggling for full freedom and equality of opportunity and White Anglo-Saxon Protestants largely resistant to both groups. Wheelock Family Theatre at Boston University is the latest local company to stage the inspired Broadway musical that captures both conflict and connection — here in an inventive production that celebrates the novel as much as the show’s strong Terrence McNally book and lush Stephen Flaherty-Lynn Ahrens score.

The Wheelock staging’s inventiveness begins before a word is spoken. Audience members will find a diversity of children at a stage library. Little Boy, the son of the New Rochelle-based Protestants of the book, is reading a book that turns out to be Doctorow’s benchmark novel itself. As company artistic director Emily Ranii observes in the playbill, this production emphasizes African-American piano player Coalhouse Walker, Jr.’s motto-like advice to adults to “Teach every child to raise his voice.” Not surprisingly, Little Boy — like a young Zelig — appears at the back or side of many scenes as a kind of witness to the march of change and its impact on America in the early 1900’s.

Introducing the staging at the performance this critic saw, Ranii greeted theatergoers: “Welcome to our library!”

Emma Goldman ( Nicole Paloma Sarro, on podium) addresses strikers and Younger Brother (Jonathan Acorn, on chair) in Wheelock Family Theatre revival of ‘Ragtime.’ (Photo: Nile Scott Studios)

In fact, “Ragtime” champions learning and understanding by children and adults, whites and blacks and diverse ethnic groups. Lindsay Genevieve Fuori’s handsome library-dominated scenic design — complete with high-rising shelving and ladders — smartly serves the musical’s book and score. For example, during the stirring early number “Journey On,” director Nick Vargas has Protestant Father and Tateh crossing paths on high wheeled library set pieces that serve as ships as the former sets out to explore and the latter approaches America. Shelving sometimes suggests Coalhouse’s piano as well. Only Coalhouse’s car — meant to be both a stylish vehicle and a sign of his growing success — needs more of a sharply defined prop. Even so, Vargas keeps the set changes smooth and the individual and intersecting stories of Mother and her son Little Boy, Tateh and his daughter Little Girl and Coalhouse and his wife Sarah and son Coalhouse Walker III.

A high energy cast does its impassioned best to capture this singular musical’s sweeping evocation of a changing America as embodied in Doctorow’s insightful novel and the new music evoked in the title. Tony Castellanos has all of Tateh’s protective love for Little Girl — whom he drapes in his Talit — and his newfound confidence as he moves from making silhouettes and movie books to actual films. His rendition of Tateh’s care-rich number “Gliding” is a high point of hopefulness.

Lisa Yuen finds Mother’s inner nobility and her self-empowerment — especially on the lyrical solo “Back to Before.” Anthony Pires, Jr. catches all of Coalhouse’s infectious optimism with Sarah on the show-stopping number “The Wheels of a Dream” as well as his fiery concern on “Make Them Hear You.” Pier Lamia Porter is properly affecting and vulnerable as Sarah – most notably sweetly delivering the touching solo “Your Daddy’s Son.” With his big voice, Peter Adams gives the best portrayal of largely clueless Father that this critic has ever seen. Other standouts include Jonathan Acorn’s earnest Younger Brother (Mother’s), Ben Choi-Harris’ always direct Little Boy and Nicole Paloma’s feisty Socialist activist Emma Goldman. Music director Jon Goldberg does full justice to the richly eclectic score.

“Ragtime” resonates more than ever at a time when Jews, African-Americans and immigrants are confronting both new and familiar opposition and challenges. Wheelock Family Theatre’s wonderfully fresh revival brings timely immediacy to its haunting message of hope and understanding in the face of hate.

‘Wolves’ Offers Up Lively Insights into the World of Adolescents

The Wolves, Lyric Stage Company of Boston [through February 3. lyricstage.com]

By Jules Becker

The indoor suburban America soccer field set at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston — great credit to Shelley Barish — has the look of authenticity. Joining that look is the wide-ranging banter of a diverse team of female adolescents as they warm up and prepare for their next game. The team and the play bear the name “The Wolves.”

Sports enthusiasts and athletes will especially welcome the spirit and vitality of Sarah De Lappe’s earnest play clearly guided by soccer consultant Olivia Levine as much as by director A. Nora Long. While the dialogue and movement keep DeLappe’s effort intriguing, “The Wolves” ultimately lacks the kind of championship impact that distinguish such other sports-centered plays as David Storey’s “The Changing Room” and Eric Simonson’s “Bang the Drum Slowly.”

Wolves, of course, move in packs and socialize significantly within their groups. So it goes for the nine soccer-playing schoolgirls — attired in handsome blue and white uniforms by Amanda Mujica — whose moves and dialogue take up virtually the entire 90 minute, no-intermission play — the exception a Soccer Mom who enters at a dramatic moment.

Players open up about adolescence, and the world around them and beyond, on the soccer field set at the Lyric Stage Company. [Photo: Mark S. Howard]

Throughout those 90 minutes, the team loosens up, stretches, executes jumping jacks and does laps — all the while exchanging thoughts and feelings about the challenges of adolescence and throwing out eclectic references about the world. In their un-self-conscious atmosphere, one player casually suggests that there are no dildos in China. At the same time, another player brings up the Khmer Rouge and calls the genocide-directed Cambodian group the Nazis of the 1970’s. At various moments, players alternately exchange and reject gossip-like comments about adoption, pregnancy and abortion.

If anyone keeps the team on target despite distractions, it is #25. Leader-like (in the absence of the actual issue-possessing coach), she takes her fellow players through their regular training. “Teamwork makes dream work,” she advises. There are sharp grapevine and kicking routines. Energizing the team, she calls on her teammates to push farther. Her seriousness about the group’s effort may not succeed in making them a league contender, but Texas A & M scouts are reportedly looking for particularly talented players.

With the entrance of Soccer Mom – played with a solid combination of tenacity and wistfulness by gifted Laura Latreille, playwright DeLappe clearly means to bring the players’ experiences full circle as a kind of rite of passage. Unfortunately, the ending seems more of an anti-climax than a strong moment of connection and reflection.

Even, there actresses playing the Wolves are fully convincing in their socializing as well as their practice. Valerie Terranova has terrific authority as take charge #25. Jariette Whitney demonstrates the right combination of sassiness and insight as #13. Lydia Barnett Mulligan catches newcomer #46’s vulnerability as well as her candor. A. Nora Long’s direction is generally well-paced though there are some slow spots in cool down moments.

It may be hard to howl about “The Wolves,” but the high energy ensemble at Lyric Stage does provide some lively attention to adolescence and the concerns of young women.

Upcoming: Seth Rudetsky and Christine Ebersole at BCA Jan 26. ‘Fun Home’ returns in June.

By Jules Becker

Seth Rudetsky is becoming an annual favorite in the Hub. The Jewish Broadway expert and Sirius radio personality — whose Huntington Theatre Company presentation at the Calderwood Pavilion with Chita Rivera made the special theatrical portion of this critic’s ‘Best of 2018’ list — returns January 26 at 5 and 8 p.m. in the BCA’s Calderwood Pavilion. This time the IRNE Award winner will be joined by two-time Tony Award honoree Christine Ebersole (“42nd Street” and “Grey Gardens”). This critic was wowed by Ebersole’s brilliant work as the Beales—mother and daughter—in “Grey Gardens.” She recently played Elizabeth Arden with compelling tenacity in the somewhat absorbing Broadway musical “War Paint,” which also featured bravura work from Patti Lupone as Jewish cosmetics queen Helena Rubenstein. Gifted Ebersole is always a must-see for her glorious voice and superb dramatics.

jules-ebersole

Seth Rudetsky and Christine Ebersole perform at BCA’s Calderwood Pavilion Jan 26. (Photo: Rob Latour)

If you missed SpeakEasy Stage Company’s inspired production of the Tony Award-winning Lisa Kron-Jeanine Tesori musical “Fun Home,” you have a second chance June 8-30. Virtually the entire strong cast will return in this ‘Best of 2018’ staging.

The Best of Boston Theater – 2018

The Year in Review – Theater 2018

By Jules Becker

The South End in particular and Boston in general stand out in much of ‘the best and near-best theater of 2018.’ The childhood, college experience and adult insights of novelist Alison Bechdel came to vivid life in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s spirited staging of the Tony Award-winning musical “Fun Home,” while the inner sparring of sexually conflicted middleweight boxing champion Emile Griffith proved as eye-catching as his championship bouts in Huntington Theatre Company’s visceral and very moving production of the Michael Cristofer drama “Man in the Ring.”

Star Trek regular George Takei actually attended the press opening of SpeakEasy Stage Company’s earnest area premiere of his autobiographical musical dealing with the internment of thousands of patriotic Japanese-Americans during World War II. Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s revival of “The Wiz” proved as special as Dorothy’s shoes. The Emerson Colonial Theatre, the beautifully renovated jewel of the Theatre District, reopened with the auspicious flashy pre-Broadway world premiere of “Moulin Rouge.”

Victor Almanzar as Luis and Kyle Vincent Terry as Young Emile in Huntington Theatre Company’s production of ‘Man in the Ring’ [Photo: T. Charles Erickson]

Alan Cumming combined activist passion about immigrants with dynamic singing of Broadway and other standards in an electric appearance at Symphony Hall. New York multiple talent Seth Rudetsky — pianist, writer and radio personality, among others —returned to the Boston Center for the Arts, this time with luminous legend Chita Rivera.

Area companies have produced so much fine work that once again this critic has put together separate small stage and large stage best lists. Here they are [in alphabetical order]:

Best of 2018 – Small Stage Theater

Between Riverside and Crazy – SpeakEasy Stage Company

Cabaret – Moonbox Productions: Chillingly fresh take on the landmark Kander and Ebb musical.

Dancing at Lughnasa – Gloucester Stage Company: A cast including Lindsay Crouse and Jenny Israel caught the music of Brian Friel’s masterwork.

Fun Home – SpeakEasy Stage Company: Rite of passage and family tension, especially between a closeted father and his lesbian daughter, hauntingly evoked.

Marissa Simeqi as Small Alison and Todd Yard as her father Bruce play ‘Airplane’ in ‘Fun Home’ [Photo: Nile Scott Studios]

Hype Man – Company One: This undaunted troupe forcefully captured the insight of Idris Goodwin’s striking play about music, friendship and diverse

Liaisons Dangereuses – Nora Theatre Company: A stellar gender-bending ensemble, including Greg Maraio and Eddie Shields, examined this Laclos-based drama with new immediacy.

Love! Valour! Compassion! – Zeitgeist Stage Company: A poignant revival of the Terrence McNally modern classic. Area theater goers and stage-supporting corporations need to rescue this financially strapped company from closing despite terrific work here and throughout its Boston Center residency

Ripe Frenzy – New Repertory Theatre: timely and trenchant staging of “Our Town” offspring.

The Last Act – Israeli Stage: Emerson alumnus Guy Ben-Aharon’s taut staging of this provocative Joshua Sobol drama.

The Wiz – Lyric Stage Company of Boston: A superb ensemble eased on down the road of this snappy Tony Award musical with high energy.

Honorable mention

A Dead Man’s Diary – Arlekin Players
Allegiance – SpeakEasy Stage
Guards at the Taj – Underground Railway Theater
NSFW – Theatre on Fire & Charlestown Working Theatre
Peter and the Starcatcher – Hub Theatre Company of Boston
Red Velvet – OWI (Bureau of Theatre)
Shakespeare in Love – SpeakEasy Stage

Danny Burstein as Harold Zidler in Colonial Theatre’s re-opening new musical ‘Moulin Rouge’ [Photo: Matthew Murphy]

Best of 2018 Large Stage Theatre

An American in Paris – Ogunquit Playhouse: Arguably the most exciting musical revival of the year.

Anything Goes – Reagle Music Theatre: Vibrant vocals from Leigh Barrett and especially Jared Troilo.

The Niceties – Huntington Theatre Company: possibly the year’s best verbal fireworks.

Lost Laughs: The Slapstick Tragedy of Fatty Arbuckle – Merrimack Repertory Theatre: A needed new look at the underrated title silent film talent.

Mame – North Shore Music Theatre: The Jerry Herman banquet beautifully served.

Man in the Ring – Huntington Theatre Company: The standout play production of the year and arguably the best effort of 2018.

Moulin Rouge – Emerson Colonial Theatre (opening fall, 2019 at Broadway’s Hirschfeld Theatre): This splashy new musical gave the beautifully renovated Emerson Colonial Theatre an auspicious re-opening.

Ragtime – Trinity Repertory Theatre: an arrestingly no-frills but superbly sung revival.

Richard III – Commonwealth Shakespeare Company: Stunning look at a British monarch’s fake news and heart-wrenching subtext about concurrent damage to women and children.

The White Card – American Repertory Theatre and Arts Emerson: Strong exchanges about white and black perceptions as well as prejudice and political correctness.

Honorable mention

Barbershop Chronicles – A.R.T.
Jagged Little Pill – A.R.T.
Murder for Two – Merrimack Repertory Theatre

The cast of ‘Hamilton.’ (Photo courtesy Joan Marcus)

Best of 2018: Visiting Theatre

Bedlam’s Hamlet – Arts Emerson
Born for This – Arts Emerson
Hamilton – Broadway in Boston
The Humans – Boch Center for the Arts
The Play That Goes Wrong – Emerson Colonial Theatre

Special Theatrical Events

Alan Cumming Legal Immigrant – Celebrity Series of Boston
Chita Rivera with Seth Rudetsky – Huntington Theatre Company