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.

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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.

An Impassioned ‘La Cage’

La Cage Aux Folles, Reagle Music Theatre, Waltham, through August 18. 781-891-5600 or reaglemusictheatre.com.

Jules Becker

Could Mike Pence be an American Monsieur Dindon? After all, the anti-gay Vice President of the United States would easily support the Moral Majority positions of the fictional homophobic French politician in the acclaimed 1983 musical “La Cage Aux Folles”(1984 Tony). Put another way, the defense of diversity in the show—specifically the longtime love and coupling of Georges and Albin—resonates as much today in America and elsewhere as it did when the musical first dazzled Boston in tryout and later Broadway. Now Reagle Music Theatre is closing a Jerry Herman-friendly summer season—that began with a solid revival of “Mame” with Leigh Barrett triumphant in the title role—with a high-stepping and appealing edition of “La Cage Aux Folles.”

Based on the French play by Jean Poiret, the Jerry Herman(score)-Harvey Fierstein(book) collaboration smartly provides ‘Legend of the Riviera’ Albin, Zaza on stage, with a properly show-stopping solo “I Am What I Am”—that doubles as an unabashed anthem of pride for the gay headliner as well as a general declaration of sexual and emotional honesty. Early on, of course, straight Jean-Michel pleads with his father to reign in Albin’s flamboyance in order to conceal their orientation from Dindon and assure his marriage to daughter Anne. Ultimately, the union of Georges and Albin stands poignantly strong free of apologetics and rich with their mutual love and understanding.

Along the way humor and high energy blend with real feeling. Les Cagelles, the dancers who surround Zaza at the title drag club, slither in the original feathered and shimmering costume design of Matthew Wright and attain full integrity in onstage routines and brief offstage exchanges. Stage managing Francis requires a neck brace and a sling to cope with the sadism of whip-wielding Hannah in their unusual relationship. Very atypical housekeeper Jacob becomes a self-styled protégé to Zaza and dresses with as much singular flair as his unlikely mentor. The most touching moments involve Jean-Michel appreciation of Albin’s selfless parenting and Georges and Albin’s enduring love.

Talented Reagle veteran director-choreographer Susan M. Chebookjian (IRNE Award for a company revival of “42nd Street”) captures all of these elements with sharp pacing and well-synchronized dance sequences. Essential to any satisfying revival is a very dynamic Albin, and James Darrah more than fills the bill. Big-voiced Darrah builds the show-stopping “I Am What I Am” from initial candor to fiery dignity. He brings full conviction to wary diva Zaza and understated bravery to Albin as a parent and spouse. J.T. Turner finds Georges’ sense of responsibility as club impresario and his emotional depth—the latter especially when Georges gives insight to Jean-Michel about Albin’s parenting. Darrah and Turner have the right wistfulness on the love duet “Song On the Sand.”

Benz Atthakarunpan catches Jacob’s gusto in donning a full spectrum of getups and his embrace of every adventure that comes his way. Jonathan Acorn persuasively evolves from judgmental to understanding as Jean-Michel. Lily Steven has Anne’s fairness and sweetness. Rich Allegretto is properly tightlipped as Dindon but could do with more attitude. David Allen Jeffrey’s scenic design catches the tastefulness of Georges and Albin’s home in the early going but could do with more phallic and gay motifs to make the second act monastic transformation (to please the Dindons) more pronounced and amusing.

The best of times will have arrived when all people—gay and straight—live in harmony with each other and their respective differences. “La Cage Aux Folles” is a tuneful call for that harmony—one which Darrah and the Reagle cast give impassioned expression.

Shakespeare’s Cymbeline Offers Hilarity and Caring

On Boston Common
Cymbeline, Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, Boston Common, through August 4.

By Jules Becker

Can a Shakespeare play have an identity crisis? One of the Bard’s last efforts is certainly a good case in point.

Entitled initially “The Tragedy of Cymbeline (in the First Folio and probably staged at least by 1611), this cross-genre work has been described by some scholars as a tragi-comedy and by other mavens — gifted actor Fred Sullivan, Jr. (IRNE Award for his performance in the recent Trinity Repertory Company production of “His Girl Friday”) among them — as a romance. With the presence of the Roman king of the gods Jupiter (Zeus to the Greeks), the play takes on fantasy elements as well.

Is “Cymbeline” more of a multi-cuisine smorgasbord than a Michelin star honoree? Director Sullivan may not be able to convince many theatergoers that this hybrid is stage ambrosia, but he wisely does full justice to great Shakespeare heroine Imogen and her roller coaster-like fortunes in Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s rollicking latest Boston Common offering.

As Sullivan notes in the company playbill, this is CSC’s first staging of “Cymbeline.” Arguably the Common run may be many Hub audience members’ first experience of the play. In this regard, area theatergoers would do well to arrive early to familiarize themselves with the major characters and important secondary ones. Credit goes to CSC for presenting the cast of characters clearly by location – namely Britain, Italy, and Wales. That clarity will help audience members who might be confused by Elisabetta Polito’s costumes — which intriguingly dress such Romans as Ambassador-later General Caius Lucius in togas and British figures like King Cymbeline (inspired by first century A.D. legendary monarch Cunobeline) in suits.

Jesse Hinson as Iachimo and Nora Eschenheimer as Imogen in Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s production of “Cymbeline.” (Photo courtesy Evgenia Eliseeva)

Perhaps, in this light, CSC and Sullivan see the play itself as a kind of crazy quilt of plotlines that call to mind other Shakespeare plays. After all, Cymbeline misunderstands innocent daughter Imogen for much of the play much as King Lear under-appreciates devoted daughter Cordelia. Posthumus Leonatus approaches wife Imogen with unjust jealousy a la Othello’s wrong assumption about wife Desdemona. Italian rogue lord Iachimo uses Imogen’s jewelry to insinuate infidelity much as Iago plants Desdemona’s handkerchief to suggest an affair between her and Cassio.

A major difference in “Cymbeline,” of course, is that the misunderstandings do not result in tragic resolutions. At the same time, the fantasy elements here call to mind those in the unquestionably superior “The Tempest.” Still, the creation of Imogen — one of Shakespeare’s finest heroines — is alone a justification for prizing her emotional odyssey and seeing this sometimes mystifying play.

Nora Eschenheimer’s radiant portrayal of Imogen is as poignant as the Bard’s rich characterization of her. She will make newcomers to the princess’ story care deeply as she battles misunderstanding and bravely dons the disguise of a page a la Viola in “Twelfth Night” during her transformation. CSC should look to Eschenheimer as a major find going forward. Daniel Duque Estrada has all of Posthumus’ flair at one moment and naivete at another. Jesse Hinson is a convincing standout as Iachimo both in toying with Imogen and Postumus and later finding redemption as a humbled penitent. Remo Airaldi, always persuasive with CSC, has authenticity as Posthumus’ loyal servant. Gamm Theatre artistic director Tony Estrella brings the right early cluelessness to Cymbeline. Kelby T. Akin catches the Queen’s son Cloten’s striking ditsiness.

“Live and deal with others better,” Posthumus counsels Iachimo near play’s end. Sullivan and company — especially Hinson and Eschenheimer — live up to this timely advice. At a time when a leader deals with others worse, CSC’s impassioned “Cymbeline” tempers breakout levity with resonant thoughtfulness. Head to the Common for both hilarity and caring.

Faye Dunaway Shines as Kate Hepburn in ‘Tea’

Tea at Five, Tea at Five LLC pre-Broadway run at Huntington Avenue Theatre, Boston. (through July 14. huntingtontheatre.org)

By Jules Becker

Faye Dunaway must feel right at home in the Hub. After all, the legendary stage and screen actress cut her performing teeth obtaining a bachelor’s degree in theater at Boston University. This critic fondly remembers her combination of vitality and vulnerability playing the great opera diva Maria Callas in the affecting Terrence McNally drama “Master Class” (1997).

Now the formidable 78-year-old Oscar winner (“Network”) has come home once again — this time to evoke feisty if sometimes fragile Katharine Hepburn in the Matthew Lombardo play “Tea at Five.” If Lombardo’s 75-minute one-act edition is no more fully compelling than its two-act predecessor, nevertheless Dunaway brews up a richly rewarding portrayal of Hollywood royalty.

If production values and Dunaway’s talent alone could pave the way for a successful Broadway run, “Tea at Five” would be well on its way to a successful Broadway run. Gifted scenic designer Scott Pask (three Tony awards: “The Book of Mormon,” “The Coast of Utopia” and “The Pillowman”) has captured the warmth and wood-dominated elegance of the living room of Fenwick, the Hepburns’ cozy Old Saybrook, Connecticut summer home — complete with a stage right fireplace and handsome large windows. In the 2002 two-act version, Lombardo set the first part in 1938 — when the eventual four-Oscar actress was labeled box office poison after films like “Bringing Up Baby” (with Cary Grant) turned out to be financial flops — and the second part in 1983 after she breaks an ankle when she loses control of her car on a highway.

Faye Dunaway as Katharine Hepburn in Scott Pask’s set for ‘Tea at Five’ (photo: Nile Scott Studios)

In the new one-act edition, the playwright has turned the earlier material into back story. Here the play begins with Hepburn using a walking stick at Fenwick — “my paradise,” she calls it — after the accident, thinking about her family and reflecting on her earlier ups and downs and struggles with Hollywood studios. Essentially the structure of “Tea at Five” resembles that of many one-person bio-plays. Too often the playwright tries to cover too many areas of the subject’s life so that the cumulative facts and name-dropping contribute little in the way of true insight.

So it goes with Lombardo’s newer effort as with the longer 2002 one. The one-act play might have had more substance and proved more compelling if the author had focused more on Hepburn and Spencer Tracy’s near 30-year relationship instead of giving a bit of attention to a lot of topics — among them Kate’s progressive but differently demanding parents, her suicide committing older brother Tom, her theater training and her early stage work. At the same time, Lombardo’s play resorts to conventional devices such as Hepburn calling out to a Nora, who of course never shows up to help her. There is also a kind of cute phone frame dealing with Warren Beatty’s request that she play his character’s aunt in his 1994 remake of the 1939 film “Love Affair” (in fact her last film).

By contrast, Dunaway is always compelling. Under John Tillinger’s attentive direction, her portrait is so natural and well detailed that it consistently compensates for the play’s shortcomings. Throughout the play, she moves with Hepburn’s remarkable posture and captures her strong speaking voice. Her Hepburn is as persuasively un-affecting as her Callas was convincing grand and majestic. Perhaps the play’s most haunting moments center on the loss of her gay older brother Tom — who committed suicide after being rejected by the male friend for whom he had a crush. Dunaway captures Hepburn’s pain with great emotional truth. At a very different moment, she combines tenacity and free spirit as Hepburn describes the challenge of working with John Barrymore on the early film “Bill of Divorcement” and a very naughty action by the iconoclastic actor.

In a moment of singular candor, Hepburn observes that audiences do not want to watch older women. Dunaway quite simply defies that contention. Her blend of feeling and intensity brings redeeming bouquet to “Tea at Five.”

Fellini Meets Chaplin in Cirque’s ‘Corteo’

Corteo, Cirque du Soleil, Agganis Arena, Boston. (through June 30. cirquedusoleil.com/corteo)

By Jules Becker

Imagine Fellini meeting Chaplin. “Corteo,” in a lively if not extraordinary Cirque du Soleil production at the Agganis Arena, calls to mind the Italian master director’s “8 1/2” as well as the light-heartedness of the gifted actor. As with the Fellini director in “8 1/2” who brings together an ensemble of talents from his own life, “Corteo” focal clown Mauro dreams/imagines a funeral procession or cortege – hence the title – of fellow performers celebrating his life and art.

Bouncing Beds (Photo courtesy Cirque du Soleil)

Will Mauro ascend to heaven? There are winged angels who seem ready to accompany him, but this escort proves fairly conventional. Ultimately, Daniele Finzi Pasca’s writing does not match his directing here. Dominique Lemieux’s striking costumes are not as stunning as those of Cirque’s first class “Alegria.” At the same time, Martin Labrecque’s lighting is notably nuanced. Young audience members will enjoy the puppet theater “Romeo and Juliet,” though grownups may find its humor more silly than inspired.

Still, as with all Cirque shows, there are standout feats that appear to defy gravity. Most amazing is the ladder act, in which a superbly agile and athletic performer smoothly climbs the rungs of ladders of different sizes. Aerial artistry possesses true poetry, and a bouncing bed routine sparkles with arresting leaping. Teeter board talent includes remarkable agility. Trademark feats include cyr wheel – a solo as well as a qunitet of wheels – and generally sharp juggling.

“Corteo” may not prove as heavenly as Cirque du Soleil’s best shows, but it does offer the company’s hallmark spirit skill.