ArtsImpulse Must See: January 2016

We start another year in Greater Boston theatre.  What will 2016 bring for our community?  How are we growing and changing?  Are we, as a theatre community, adapting to our evolving community?  Are we surviving, instead of thriving?  We had a long December to reflect on where we are and where we’re going in the new year.  In January, many theatre companies rehearse for February openings, but a few brave theatre companies have brought their brilliant “A” game already for our 2016 ArtsImpulse season, promising a number of Must See productions.

This month, we have a number of plays that focus on being an outsider in a community, whether isolated by others or by ourselves.  These productions, as usual, range from new plays to old familiar favorite musicals.  These productions bring a sense of challenge to the status quo, however.  These outsiders question how our society is constructed, the way our people think and act, and what our future can bring.  Keep a watchful eye for the possibilities and opportunities; these voices bring much-needed reflection and potential change to our communities, told through their journeys and quests, their solitude and longing, and their hopes and dreams.  We can learn so much from these stories, if only we take the chance to listen and embrace how their societies resemble and differ our own, and how these characters offer truths that can apply to our own lives. 

As always, a challenge to our readers and community:  Which production or story presents the best opportunity for our Greater Boston community to grow?  Which outsider would be the best leader for us to recognize and emulate?  To who do we need to listen and learn?  And, finally, where are they in our community, and how do we give them the opportunity to teach us?

This month, we feature:

            DISGRACED by Huntington Theatre Company

            VIOLET by SpeakEasy Stage Company

            AN OCTOROON by Company One

            MARY POPPINS by Wheelock Family Theatre

            WINTER PANTO: THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ by imaginary beasts

            SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM by The Lyric Stage Company of Boston

Disgraced

DISGRACED

Written by Ayad Akhtar

Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Huntington Theatre Company

Avenue of the Arts/BU Theatre

264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115

January 8 - February 7, 2016

A 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama winner, Disgraced by novelist and screenwriter Ayad Akhtar might be one of the best new plays this century.  A bold statement for a bold play.  The play opens like so many other domestic plays, including a dinner part for two couples on the Upper East Side.  The tight 90-minute, one-act play evolves into a play about some of our deepest fears, prejudices, and tensions in a post-9/11 world of political correctness, controversy, and culture.  At the table, we have an ex-Muslim, an African-American, a Jew, and a Wasp.  What might seem like a contrived scenario quickly becomes the most enlightening of experiences for the audience, as we are exposed to questions of faith and humanity in a world where these notions are tested on a daily basis and we are swept away by Akhtar’s controversial playwriting.  The Huntington Theatre Company’s reputation for excelling in these nuanced plays for a contemporary audience (remember their success with Smart People, God of Carnage, The Cocktail Hour, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) make Disgraced an obvious and welcome choice.  One of the most performed plays in 2015, Disgraced is given the Huntington treatment and skill, and, as we as a community grapple with a growing wealth and cultural disparity, the humanity and depth within this play offer a potential catharsis and jumping-off point for future discussion.

Violet

VIOLET

Music by Jeanine Tesori

Lyric & Book by Brian Crawley

Based on “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts

Directed by Paul Daigneault

Music directed by Matthew Stern

Choreographed by David Connolly

SpeakEasy Stage Company

Stanford Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts

527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA 02116

January 9 - February 6, 2016

Musical journeys always get me.  The soaring music, the sweeping changes for the protagonist, and the beautiful resolution make me feel like I am with them, experiencing a life-changing opportunity for growth and reflection.  Violet is one of the most compact and soulful journeys, premiering Off-Broadway in 1997 and reviving in 2014 on Broadway.  While the original opened to mostly positive reviews, the revival with Sutton Foster as Violet received almost unanimously outstanding reviews.  Perhaps with the growing divide between the North and South, the emerging sensitivity with #BlackLivesMatter, and the compassionate touch by Sutton Foster as the leading, flawed character, we were more willing to accept the young girl’s journey towards faith and healing. 

Now, we are treated to Director Paul Daigneault’s own revival of the musical for the SpeakEasy Stage Company’s 25th anniversary season.  Daigneault has brilliantly cast the smart Alison McCartan as Violet, an actress who brought the deeply-flawed Daphna in Bad Jews to the SpeakEasy Stage in 2014.  Diagneault goes one further and assembles a cast that brings the beautiful story to light for us; joining McCartan are Dan Belnavis as Flick, Carolyn Saxon as Lula Buffington, John F. King as the Preacher, and Kathy St. George as Hooker.  The result?  I won’t spoil the stunning effect, but be warned; like Violet, you might look at others with a bit more compassion, a bit more faith, and a lot more hope for the love that we all seek.

An_Octoroon

AN OCTOROON (New England Premiere)

Written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

Directed by Summer L. Williams

Company One

Co-Produced with ArtsEmerson

Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre, Paramount Center

559 Washington Street, Boston, MA 02111

January 29 - February 27, 2016

I had the opportunity to read Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon in early 2015, and I was blown away.  A complex retelling of the classic play The Octoroon by Dion Boucicault, An Octoroon asks many of the same questions as its predecessor, but one hundred years later with a clever reframing and restaging.  Characters retain much of their original dialogue, but, through the staging and actors, we are forced to question many of the original play’s statements of truth, society, and morality.  Race is at the forefront of this play, and I can’t imagine a better Boston theatre company to tackle this play’s intersection of history and progress than Company One.  Company One has established itself over the past few seasons as the most innovative and diverse Greater Boston theatre company.  They produced Jacob-Jenkins’ other controversial and wildly popular play, Neighbors, in 2011, and, production after production, have compelled audiences and our community question our approach to race, culture, and humanity.

Focusing on the love triangle among George, a white man played by an African American actor; Zoe, a light-skinned bi-racial woman (who turns out to be an octoroon, or one-eighth black); and Dora, a rich white woman who is in love with George.  Within this love story, we are faced with the legacy of slavery and genocide, the complexity and lack of fluidity within American identities, and disenfranchisement that continues today.  As the HowlRound article accurately points out, in today’s society, we no longer have the octoroon, but an octoroon, and a recurring race problem, in Boston and across our nation.  Once again, Company One gives us the resources and opportunities to address this problem, and other concerns, within the context of their brilliant production.

Mary_Poppins

MARY POPPINS

Music by

Book by Julian Fellowes with the original music by the Sherman Brothers

Additional music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe

Based on the books by P. L. Travers and the Disney Feature Motion Picture

Directed and choreographed by Russell Garrett

Wheelock Family Theatre

200 The Riverway, Boston, MA 02215

January 29 - February 28, 2016

It should come as no surprise that Disney has drastically reshaped Broadway and musical year in the last 20 years.  From The Lion King to an upcoming Frozen musical, Disney has offered family-friendly fare to the Great White Way and, through its money and influence, has cleaned up Times Square for tourists.  We can thank them another time.  However, even within this distilment of musical theatre, we are occasionally graced with gorgeous and beautiful storytelling.  Mary Poppins is your traditional Disney fare, but it is being given a royal treatment by Wheelock Family Theatre, an award-winning theatre company focused on accessibility and inclusion within the theatre community and audiences.  

Their Mary Poppins continues its traditions and mission by welcoming one of the first Asian-American actresses to play the practically perfect nanny.  Actress Lisa Yuen returns to Boston, after impressing audiences in The Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s Into the Woods (as The Baker’s Wife) and Sweeney Todd (as The Beggar Woman).  Joining her are a host of young, talented children making their Wheelock Family Theatre debuts, including Eowyn Young, Cameron Levesque, and Asher Lavisky, with Lily Ramas (returning from last season’s Shrek: The Musical). Theatre should be experienced by all ages, teaching lessons to each of us in our own special ways, and opportunities like Mary Poppins to include the whole family should not be neglected. 

Winter_Panto

WINTER PANTO: THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ (World Premiere)

Written by Matthew Woods

Directed by Matthew Woods

imaginary beasts

Plaza Black Box, Boston Center for the Arts

539 Tremont Street, Boston, MA 02116

January 9 - 30, 2016

An annual treat, the imaginary beasts’ Winter Panto is one of the only pantomimes (not to be confused with mimes!) in this country, and they have perfected this talent over years of fine-tuned skill and hard work.  This year, they feature their newest story, an original adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz originally by L. Frank Baum and gorgeously retold by Matthew Woods and his top-shelf cast.  Returning is the Dame Joey Pelletier as Auntie Em, Sarah Gazdowicz as Dorothy, Kiki Samko as Glinda the Good, William Schuller as Toto Too, and Matthew Woods as the Witched Witch of the West herself, among many other familiar faces. 

The panto is a unique treat to experience theatre on multiple levels, as children enjoy boo-ing and hiss-ing at the baddies and the adults laugh at topical references like the snow in Boston or the ne’er-gonna-werk MBTA.  Each year, we know that we are going to be the first to experience something new, something topical, and something deeply collaborative by this tight-knit company of talented actors and designers.  We must continue to support the opportunity to educate our community and our new generations on accessible and enjoyable theatre in all of its forms.

Sondheim_on_Sondheim

SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Conceived by James Lapine

Directed by Spiro Veloudos

The Lyric Stage Company of Boston

140 Clarendon Street, Boston, MA 02116

January 15 - February 20, 2016

Many theatre companies have recently made commitments to performing Sondheim’s canon of work over the next few years in Boston.  Few companies, however, can boast The Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s mastery of Sondheim’s musicals, through the genius interpretation and steady hand of Director Spiro Veloudos.  Next, we are treated to the rarely-done musical revue, Sondheim on Sondheim.  With a limited run on Broadway, this musical features Sondheim’s music at its most intimate level.  Featuring taped interviews with the composer himself, and including well-known, unknown, and omitted songs from many of Sondheim’s works, Sondheim on Sondheim offers audiences an inside view into a genius who has changed the face, structure, and form of musical theatre for our generation. 

While Sondheim has worked with expert book writers such as James Lapine (who conceived this musical), Hugh Wheeler, and Arthur Larents, it is Sondheim’s music that has drastically transformed and inspired future musical theatre writing.  In this musical revue, we see this brilliance materialize with some of Boston’s finest interpreters of Sondheim’s songs: Leigh Barrett, Aimee Doherty, Sam Simahk, Christopher Chew, Maritza Bostic, Davron Monroe, Patrick Varner, and Mala Bhattacharya.  Through their expert voices and skillful acting, and Veloudos’ unparalleled understanding of Sondheim’s music and themes, we are treated to a broad stroke and intimate experience of multiple Sondheim shows.  Think of it as an education, a reintroduction, or a whetting of the palette for the future Sondheim productions in Boston; you likely won’t see anything like it for some time.