Uncorked’s Talented Cast Brings Wit, Humor to Revival of ‘Ruthless’

Ruthless! The Musical, Theater Uncorked (Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through November 24. 617-933-8600 or theateruncorked.com)

To be talented or not to be talented. That is the question that Sylvia St. Croix poses to seemingly un-extraordinary housewife Judy Denmark and her daughter (would-be Hollywood actress Tina), at the beginning of “Ruthless! The Musical,” the somewhat amusing 1992 Off-Broadway hit now in a pleasant Theater Uncorked revival at the Calderwood Pavilion.

Shana Dirik as Sylvia St. Croix (photos: Robert Mattson)

Calling to mind the bloodthirsty young villainess of the film, “The Bad Seed,” Tina is ready to do anything to achieve her goal – even kill a girl rival for the lead role in a school production of “Pippi Longstocking.” The second act of this 90-minute Marvin Laird (music)-Joel Paley (book and lyrics) spoof finds Judy herself emerging with a talent only dreamed and sung about by Mama Rose in “Gypsy” and Mame in the musical of the same name. Other revelations follow almost as quickly as allusions to “Phantom,” “Les Miz,” “Follies,” “Annie” and “Fiddler on the Roof” and even a stretch sending up “All About Eve.”

If killings become as frequent as at the end of “Hamlet,” they seem more of a rush than the madcap fare they should be.

Still, director Russell R. Greene makes the show’s sometimes witty silliness generally engaging thanks to the talented leads of the musical’s all-female cast. Ekin Cakim (Fiona Simeqi alternates) captures all of Tina’s spunk and fully convinces on her signature solo “Born to Entertain.” Rene Bergeron makes a persuasive transformation as Judy from frustrated housewife to breakout talent in her own right – especially on the show’s best song, “It Will Never Be That Way Again.” Company artistic director Shana Dirik catches Sylvia’s attitude as well as her tenacity.

Ekin Cakim as the ruthless and talented Tina, with her mom, Judy (actress Rene Bergeron).

“Ruthless! The Musical” could do with the unrestrained riotousness of “Forbidden Broadway,” but Greene and company make the Theater Uncorked revival worth a shot of champagne.

‘Fellow Travelers’ Tackles Lavender Scare of 1950s

Fellow Travelers, Boston Lyric Opera (Paramount Center, Boston, closed November 17).

The early 1950’s “Red Scare” – during which Senator Joseph McCarthy conducted a veritable witch hunt to find Communists government workers and labeled many Jews and others guilty by association – is fairly well known. Less so is the “Lavender Scare” that called gays “sexual subversives” and led to the firing of 5000 men and banning lesbians and gays through an executive order from then President Eisenhower (April 27, 1953).

Jesse Blumberg as Fuller and Jesse Darden as Laughlin in the Gregory Spears opera ‘Fellow Travelers’ with libretto by Greg Pierce.

That time of fear and intimidation governs 1953 Washington, D.C. in the earnest and moving if musically uneven 2016 opera “Fellow Travelers,” in a well sung and acted Hub premiere at the Arts Emerson Paramount Center – especially by Jesse Blumberg and Jesse Darden respectively as emotionally and sexually involved lead characters Hawkins Fuller and Timothy Laughlin.

Based on the 2007 Thomas Mallon novel of the same name, “Fellow Travelers” centers on the ups and downs of their intense relationship. The Greg Pierce libretto is remarkably candid abut their feelings, and stage director Peter Rothstein unflinchingly moves their involvement from initial flirtation on a Dupont Circle Park Bench to fairly erotic bedroom scenes.

Jesse Darden and Jesse Blumberg (photo: Liza Voll).

Blumberg and Darden carry the opera with their commanding efforts as a study in contrast. Blumberg has all of Fuller’s early confidence and drive but never loses sight of his intention to keep his orientation closeted. Darden captures Laughlin’s tentativeness and Jesuit need to pray for understanding yet also finds his impassioned honesty about being gay. Spear’s music and Pierce’s libretto do provide each singer with a strong solo – with both high points in this production. There are moments when Bizet and Philip Glass come to mind, but Spear’s melodies often prove repetitive. Pierce’s libretto fares better with clever moments of humor and irony that contrast with the climate of fear and suspicion. Still, moments of interrogation could do with more. Chelsea Basler displays rich coloring and fine nuance as Fuller’s confidante Mary Johnson, and Michelle Trainor is also a standout as savvy government worker Miss Lightfoot.

The Eisenhower order was not officially repealed until 1995, and workplace discrimination still remains an ugly reality in many locations. “Fellow Travelers” needs a stronger score, but the BLO deserves considerable praise for embarking on its important odyssey.

Splashy Crowd-Pleasing ‘Six’

More substance and context would lift this high-stepping musical about the wives of Henry VIII even higher.

Six, American Repertory Theatre, Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, Mass. 617-547-8300.

Call the six wives of England’s Henry VIII a kind of on-going 16th century royal Me,too! movement – at least in the visiting “Six:The Musical.” This splashy crowd-pleasing musical followed Edinburgh Fringe Festival and West End London runs with a stretch at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. Much of the world probably knows the emotionally volatile monarch most for these very different spouses. There ought to be an epic musical centering on his long and turbulent reign and its impact on all six. Regrettably, the show high-stepping at the Loeb Drama Center and heading for Broadway (previews beginning February 13 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre) fails to reach that high bar.

Adrianna Hicks (at center) and the company of ‘Six.’ (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Quite frankly, the 80 minute show needs more substance about the six and more insightful context. Energy and individual effort may be enough to satisfy some theatergoers – and they certainly satisfied the largely standing ovation audience that included this critic. The often high pitched score lacks the kind of attention to history and ideas that enrich Lin Manuel Miranda’s musically varied and thematically strong musical “Hamilton.” The ‘competition’ to crown the queen that suffered the most may be initially interesting but ultimately not fully enlightening. In fact, if creators Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss – the latter also a skillful director here – had only focused in part on the irony and powerful historical aftermath that saw Elizabeth I become a powerful queen and a true ancestor of the #me too movement, this could have been a landmark herstory phenomenon.

Still, Carrie Anne Ingrouille’s lively choreography keeps the musical’s talented sextet – clad in Gabriella Slade’s sharp and blingy outfits – eye-catching and well-timed. Anne Uzele is a standout as strong-willed Catherine Parr. Abby Mueller as Jane Seymour – familiar to Hub audiences from her fine tour in “Beautiful” – delivers the notably reflective “Heart of Stone” with great feeling. Look for equally convincing work from Adrianna Hicks as Catherineb of Aragon, Andrea Macasaet as Anne Boleyn, Courtney Mack as Katherine Howard and Nicole Kyoung-Mi Lambert(stepping in for Brittney Mack) as Anne of Cleves.

Will “Six” do well in New York? Advance sales may be the key, buy this flashy show needs a lot more soul and substance.

A Snappy and Stellar ‘Lion King’ Delights Yet Again

Disney Presents The Lion King, (Citizen Bank Opera House, through October 27. 800-982-2787 or BroadwayinBoston.com)

by Jules Becker

It may be no accident that Julie Taymor directed the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical “The Lion King.” While the gifted Brookline native (an innovative revival of “The Music Man” among others) is the product of a Jewish secular home, her staging seems to possess a kind of biblical continuum — starting with ruling lion Mufasa and ending with his son Simba. Mufasa’s scheming, villainess brother Scar clearly resents the latter’s position as king of beasts — calling to mind Esau’s lingering resentment of Jacob’s better blessing from Isaac. Simba’s rescue of his fellow lions and the other creatures around them may somewhat suggest Noah’s bravery with the world’s animal kingdom. Taymor certainly captured the majestic tone and celebratory feel common to the bible. All of these elements are richly on display in the visually exquisite tour of “The Lion King” at the Citizen Bank Opera House.

The Elton John-Tim Rice collaboration’s opening “Circle of Life” procession of animals and birds — both on stage and down the aisles — remains one of the great sequences in modern musical history. As always, give kudos to Taymor for the kaleidoscopic beauty of the costumes here and throughout the show.

Under James Dodgson’s taut musical direction, drums and other percussion instruments — perched at all times in the upper box seat areas on both sides of the house — fire up the ritual-like movement of the performers evoking such striking animals from elephant and rhinoceros to zebra, giraffe and of course the title ruling creatures. As fans of the fine Disney animated film and the long-running musical know, Simba will undergo a rite of passage during which he learns about the joys and the sorrows of life’s circle — particularly his growing love for childhood friend and also maturing lioness Mala as well as the great loss of Musafa.

If the Roger Allers-Irene Mecchi book proves as simply plotted as always, do not worry. Young and grown-up theatergoers alike will continue to be blown away by the musical’s stunning visuals and Steve Canyon Kennedy’s often properly explosive sound design. They will also give themselves up to the persuasive ensemble and individual performances. At the performance this critic saw (some cast members change from performance to performance), Mukelisiwe Goba displayed an impressive belt as herald-like Rafiki. Gerald Ramsey demonstrated the right paternal caring and majesty as Mufasa, while William John Austin was commandingly menacing as his brother Scar with rich vocal resonance.

Jared Dixon moved convincingly from an insecure heir to a forceful new leader, and Nia Holloway captured his betrothed Mala’s inner strength. Tony Freeman caught Timon’s amusing delivery and Ben Lipitz captured Pumbaa’s quirkiness — especially on the now iconic duo “Hakuna Matata.” Greg Jackson evoked advising Zazu’s wisdom and good intentions. Ensemble performers danced Garth Fagan’s snappy choreography in sync with occasional flips and consistently high kicks and leaps.

“The Circle of Life” is a lavish celebration of nature and an ode to an animal family. As climate change increases, it also provides a sub-textual lesson about respect, love and the priceless nature of life. At the same time, the stellar tour will have you virtually dancing out of the Opera House.

Witty ‘Purists’ Blends Humor, Music Among Friends

Strong direction and acting propels this exploration of friendship outside a NYC apartment building.

The Purists, Huntington Theatre at Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through October 6. bostontheatrescene.com.

By Jules Becker

Can an apartment building stoop serve as a regular meeting place for music enthusiasts and an early ersatz performance place? Such was the case for this critic vocalizing pop and rock tunes across from Dorchester’s Jeremiah E. Burke High School as an adolescent. So it also goes for the five very different characters enlivening a New York City counterpart in the warm and winning Dan McCabe world premiere play “The Purists” at the Calderwood Pavilion in the Boston Center for the Arts.

Under the strong direction of amazing talent Billy Porter (Tony winner for “Kinky Boots,” Emmy honoree for the current FX series “Pose” and an acclaimed recent revival of “The Colored Museum”), a spirited quintet make McCabe’s witty dialogue seems to dance to its own disarming rhythm.

J. Bernard Calloway and John Scurti in ‘The Purists’ at Huntington Theatre.

Set at an apartment building in present day Sunnyside, Queens, the stoop in question takes center stage as a pivotal part of Clint Ramos’ vivid design with resident Gerry Brinsler’s well-detailed apartment at stage left. White Brinsler and his African-American counterparts have distinct though sometimes overlapping musical tastes.

Teledirector Gerry has a strong preference for Broadway musicals—demonstrated in part by visible show posters on his apartment’s wall (especially a large one for the original staging of “Follies”) as well as his knowledge of musicals and their composers—with his favorites being Jewish composers Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim.

Lamont Born Cipher, a former legendary rapper and a kind of purist in his very specific views about hip-hop, can be quite judgmental in his approach to specific artists—for example Eminem—and early and contemporary musical styles.

Mr. Bugz, a genial DJ, counts Lamont as a longtime friend and yet seems drawn to Jerry. A kind of male answer to Imelda Marcos, he speaks of having 400 pairs of shoes. Young budding performers—rapper Val Kano and hi-hip and show fan Nancy Reinstein—engage in an eye-catching competition during the second act. Reinstein may be somewhat of a cultural Jew (considering her last name) with her feeling for show music, though the play does not identify her as such.  If respect for each other’s musical preferences becomes a kind of common denominator by the end of the play, the strongest relationship development involves Gerry and Bugz.

In the latter part of the first act, Gerry massages Bugz’s calves and admits to a real emotional attraction to him. Gerry comes across as gay though he speaks of having slept with a woman in his past. For his part, Bugz appears to surprise his good friend Lamont and even himself as he becomes aware of his own hitherto closeted attraction to men. While McCabe could say more pro or con in the second act dialogue about their feelings, he does make each character sympathetic. In the long run, the play certainly puts down labeling of characters and their respective relationships, choosing instead to see sexuality as fairly fluid.

John Scurti, Morocco Omari, and J. Bernard Calloway in ‘The Purists.’ (photos: T.Charles Erickson)

Cast members give fluid and natural performances. Morocco Omari has the right combination of tenacity and sensitivity as Lamont. Omari and Calloway as Bugz are very convincing as enduring friends. Calloway finds Bugz’s nonchalance as well as his angst. John Scurti makes the most of Gerry’s preference for the old-fashioned—for example, the film “On Golden Pond.” Calloway and Scurti’s first act tenderness is a clear highlight. Analisa Velez is properly cocky as Val, while Izzie Steele displays impressive style as Nancy.

“The Purists” possesses a blend of humor and human understanding rarely staged with such rich vitality. On the strength of “The Colored Museum” and this disarming keeper, Huntington has found its alchemist, and his name is Billy Porter.

This ‘Little Shop’ Blooms with Wit and Vitality

Little Shop of Horrors, Lyric Stage Company of Boston. Through October 6.  (617-585-5678 or lyricstage.com)

By Jules Becker

Ask Bernie Sanders to pick his favorite musical and he might just name “Little Shop of Horrors.” A blend of camp, comedy and horror, the Alan Menken-Howard Ashman rock and Motown collaboration (1982 Off-Off Broadway and Off-Broadway and 2003 on Broadway) ultimately sends up the dark side of capitalism as vigorously as the Vermont senator campaigning for President in one of his signature rallies.

At the same time, the abuse of the show’s flower shop worker Audrey at the hands of sadistic dentist boyfriend Orin resonates all the more tellingly in the era of the Me, Too! movement. Gifted director-choreographer Rachel Bertone (the recent haunting Moonbox Productions staging of “Cabaret”) has brought her green thumb magic to the Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s 45th season opener and turned its revival of “Little Shop” into a winning blossom.

That magic begins with the Skid Row, New York (Los Angeles in the 1960 now cult classic film of the same name that featured Jack Nicholson) ambience of Janie E. Howland’s disarmingly spare set. In the fairly intimate Lyric Stage Company space, a disheveled derelict struggles to find his bearing at the side of Mushnik’s initially run-down and poorly stocked flower shop. The harried Jewish florist and his unassuming clerk Seymour Krelborn look as forlorn as their rubbish-littered surroundings with only fellow employee Audrey dressed in a minimum of kitschy fashion — credit goes to Marian Bertone for smartly chosen designs. Chiffon, Crystal and Ronnette — named, of course, to suggest doo-wop groups — enter and re-enter throughout in glistening matching outfits as they sing Greek chorus-like observations about the changes in Mushnik Florists and plant-carrying Seymour. The musical’s book adds witty Yiddish references — for example, Mushnik advising Seymour about orders for the major customer Shivah (Hebrew and Yiddish for the seven-day mourning period) family.

Dan Prior as Seymour and Remo Airaldi as Mushnik in Lyric Stage Company of Boston revival of ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ (Photo: Mark S. Howard)

Initially resembling a Venus flytrap, the plant — as fans of the show will remember — becomes a kind of growing Mephistopheles with whom Faust-like Seymour makes a bargain for wealth and fame. That deadly bargain involves Audrey II — the name Seymour gives the plant — demanding much more blood than the drops the somewhat desperate employee extracts from his own fingers. As Audrey II grows from a hand-carried plant to a shop floor covering creature complete with sizeable tendrils — kudos to puppet designer Cameron McEachern, the enormity of Seymour’s brutal soul-selling becomes all the more evident.

Director-choreographer Bertone generally keeps Seymour and Audrey II’s by turns darkly humorous, ironic and macabre relationship well-paced and blocked — including rhythmic interactions during which the former feeds the latter. The same goes for Mushnik’s growing pride in Seymour’s entrepreneurial success. Here Bertone smartly creates a “Fiddler on the Roof” riff as the shop owner officially adopts him as his son. Mushnik calls him ‘boychik’ (affectionate Yiddish for ‘son’) and they dance a brief hora to Klezmer orchestration on “Mushnik and Son.” Hub veteran actor Remo Airaldi (an IRNE winner for “The Island of Slaves”) shokels as Mushnik a la Tevye on “If I Were a Rich Man” in “Fiddler,” and Dan Prior frolics as once innocent but now increasingly shrewd Seymour. Airaldi proves the best Mushnik this critic has seen, and Prior fully captures the changes in Seymour.

Katrina Z. Pavao naturally catches Audrey’s vulnerability and vitality. She also finds her inner grandeur – particularly as she sings with lyrical beauty of Audrey’s suburban dream future on “Something That’s Green.” Jeff Marcus has Orin’s nastiness with Audrey and demonstrates impressive versatility in a number of small roles. Pier Lamia Porter, Lovely Hoffman and Carla Martinez move in smooth sync and sing vibrantly respectively as Chiffon, Crystal and Ronnette. Tim Hoover is skillful as Audrey II’s puppeteer and Yewande Odetoyinbo enjoyably funky as her voice.

Appreciate “Little Shop of Horrors” on three levels. Enjoy its sharp take-off on horror stories — with Audrey even talking about seeing the film “The Blob” (the cult Steve McQueen original). Enjoy the unlikely romance between Seymour and Audrey and the former’s curious relationship with Audrey II. Capping the show’s fragrant mix, of course, is the metaphor for selling out or living by honor. Lyric Stage Company’s aromatic revival of “Little Shop of Horrors” is a vivid bouquet with pleasures for everyone.

‘Dolly’ Still as Warm and Winning as Ever

One of the finest national tours in many years.

Hello, Dolly!  National tour presented by Broadway in Boston at Opera House. Through August 25. (800-982-2787 or BroadwayinBoston.com)

By Jules Becker

“Hello, Dolly!” is still going strong, and so is gifted actress-singer Betty Buckley (Tony Award for “Cats”) in the iconic title role. The landmark 1964 musical (10 Tony Awards) remains as warm and winning as the 1938 Thornton Wilder comedy “The Merchant of Yonkers” (renamed “The Matchmaker” in 1958) on which it is based.

‘Hello, Dolly!’ (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Buckley is mining the comic gold of the show’s Michael Stewart book with superb timing – especially when Dolly eats with gusto while those who serve as her entourage appear before a judge. At the same time, the indomitable stage legend continues to bring fresh phrasing and vibrant tone to a standout Jerry Herman song like “Before the Parade Passes By.” Wilder had the right idea moving the emphasis to Dolly from entrepreneur Horace Vandergelder. After all, Dolly not only matches others, but ultimately claims her match once she is sure about a ‘sign’ from her late husband Ephraim Levi.

Theatergoers will need no sign that this is one of the finest national tours in many years. Under Jerry Zaks’ zippy direction, besides Buckley’s virtuoso work as Dolly, look for smart moves and smooth deliveries from Lewis J. Stadlen as Horace. Particular vocal standouts are robust Nic Rouleau on “It Only Takes a Moment” as adventure-seeking Cornelius Hackl, and sweet-voiced Analisa Leaming on “Ribbons Down My Back” as strong-willed millinery shop proprietor Irene Molloy.

Choreographer Warren Carlyle – working a la the late Gower Champion’s brilliant combinations, has the dancing waiters at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant doing flips and a variety of routines with terrific sync and timing.

“Hello, Dolly!” is a lavish, fast-paced salute to love and living. Embrace its singular blend of elegance and fun at the Opera House.