"Lettice & Lovage" : A Tour de Force at the Crane Estate

"Lettice & Lovage" : A Tour de Force at the Crane Estate

I’m not sure that I will ever again bear witness to a local theatrical production that has a more suitable setting than the Great House at the Crane Estate is for The Trustees/Castle Hill Productions of Lettuce and Lovage, an engaging and often humorous character study given a unique presentation where its venue itself actually gets listed in the program as part of the cast.

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Chilling Minimalism Brings "The Diary of Anne Frank" To Life

Melrose’s Theatre To Go brings The Diary of Anne Frank to its stage this month, and with it some memorable performances. The classic true story of the Frank family’s ordeal in the upstairs rooms in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation is brought to life by director Michael Molineaux, whose minimalist vision works to evoke the fear and anxiety that the family had to endure during those bleak days during World War II.

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"Urinetown" is Not Quite Liquid Gold

Urinetown may be one of my favorite, yet under-appreciated musicals. You will rarely see a company attempt this parody of life and theatre (blame it on the piss-poor title). So, when I saw that Burlington Players was performing this laugh-a-minute musical, I had to show up. Unfortunately, they did not. Except for a few stunning performances by some leading actors, the production felt weighted by the musical’s hefty demands. For audience members familiar with the show, the Burlington Players’ production felt like a lukewarm and flat take on the vibrant show; for new patrons to the wonders of Urinetown, the laughs kept coming and they were impressed with seeing musicals parodied and life satirized. Don’t confuse good subject matter for good performance.

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A Half-Hearted Smile for "A Little Night Music"

The summer night may smile three times, but it might have smiled a fourth time on The Arlington Friends of the Drama’s 429th production A Little Night Music, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler. The community theatre boasts some wonderful talent on the small stage, and mostly succeeds in orchestrating the complicated waltz of Sondheim’s score and Wheeler’s story under the careful direction of Joe Stallone and music direction of J. Parker Eldridge. They trip in the casting of essential characters, but manage to glide through the production on the coattails of David Warnock’s Fredrik and the surprising luster of Emily Earle’s Petra.

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Dragonfly’s "As You Like It"

In the middle of Dedham, Massachusetts, a new theatre company spread its wings with a production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. This production choice was the perfect summer treat and an excellent decision for the young and growing Dragonfly Theater. With strong female leads and plenty of supporting ensemble roles, As You Like Itproved why it is one of Shakespeare’s most lighthearted comedies and easily accessible plays for modern audiences.

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Brushing Up My Shakespeare with The Longwood Players

Kiss Me, Kate is a tough piece. It requires actors not only to pull off Shakespearean text, but also to dance with expert skill and stretch their range with Cole Porter’s operatic score. It’s not beginner’s musical theatre. Therefore, The Longwood Players’ choice to present this classic is a bold choice. While Director Anna Waldron made some equally bold (and mostly effective choices), the cast did not have the chops to carry the show beyond mediocre community theatre.

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Hovey Players’ "Next Fall" Falls on Its Face

Some performances stick with you; some productions stick with you for all of the wrong reasons. Hovey Players present the intelligent play Next Fall without much of the intelligence. Playing to the LCD (“Lowest Common Denominator”), the cast bypass a lot of the cleverness and heart of the play to perform the hilarious comedy underlying the piece. While extremely entertaining, this production is not Geoffrey Naufft’s play. Instead, the cast create a farcical take on the poignant tale that won my heart at the SpeakEasy two years ago.

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"The Baltimore Waltz" Misses The Beat

I wanted to like this play. I have a love of the playwright, Paula Vogel, since before college. The play is part of the LGBTQ theatrical canon and provides magical, but heartfelt, portrayal of living and suffering from HIV and AIDS. Yes, the play is topical (if slightly dated with the advent of new medicine and increased awareness of preventive measures and testing). It’s certainly supposed to be moving (Vogel wrote the play almost as a eulogy for her brother, who died of AIDs in the late 1980s). The director, Kamela Dolinova, has a deep connection with the play as highlighted in her Director’s Note. I would even say that she has a vision or concept for the production, as spectacularly articulated in the “beautiful, vertiginous, frightening in the visceral, unformed way that only dreams can be” as a waltz. Unfortunately, that’s where (most of) my praise stops.

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Theatre@First’s "Bent" Delights and Shocks

Good theatre produces reactions; you feel compelled and excited after leaving the theatre. And I was energized after leaving Theatre@First’s opening night of Bent, a harrowing story of the not-so-legendary Pink Triangles. I’ve been disappointed by Theatre@First in the past- most notably their original adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, but even theirEquus failed to move and excite. Bent exists on an entirely different level. Upon reading the program notes, I knew I was in for a treat. Director Nick Bennett-Zendzian has a keen sense of this play’s trajectory and purpose. He grounds his director’s note in Bent’s application to current events, making the characters’ journeys even more poignant and heartbreaking. Injustice, battles, and regression are harrowing terms that darken our evening, and yet Bennett-Zendzian manages to lighten the mood considerably amidst the turmoil and strife.

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"Songs for a New World" : In Tune but Out of Sync

Song cycles are tough. With isolated songs and vignettes, the audience glimpses briefly into the lives of the people in Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World. These people are faced with that moment of decision-making, where they stand on the brink of choice and change. I find the concept really electric and intriguing. Who do we become when we are faced with some of life’s more challenging problems and concerns, where just one step and we’re in a new world? The Longwood Players have a rich tradition of producing outstanding musicals and plays with IRNE and DASH nominations and awards in recent years. Yet something is missing in their recent production of Songs for a New World. I didn’t have a hard time figuring out the missing element; some of these actors lacked a connection with their material and, while vocally outstanding and impressive, some struggled under the weight of telling about the compromising decision-making process and the effect their choices have on their life.

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Life of the Party

Jamaica Plains’ Footlight Club boasts being the oldest community theatre in the United States, and it’s not hard to see why they have sustained for over 130 years. The Footlight Club attracts many talented actors, designers, and directors, but most of all, they establish a strong sense of community within its company. Their passion for the arts is apparent from the moment you walk into Elliot Hall. I thought it was a charming and delightful touch for artwork to be displayed in the lobby before the show, giving early patrons like myself something to observe and talk about with friends. A newcomer to the Footlight Club, I didn’t know what to expect, despite the hype that other audience members and reviewers gave to Footlight Club’s newest production, Andrew Lippa’s Wild Party. I quickly learned that I had a ticket to one great party.

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Theatre@First Does "Pride and Prejudice"

Pride and Prejudice

An exciting adaptation was featured in Somerville, Massachusetts for the past two weekends. Elizabeth Hunter, a 2011 My Theatre Award nominee for her work in Equus, wrote and directed an original stage adaptation of Jane Austen’s popular novel Pride and Prejudice. Produced by Theatre@First in the stunning renovated Somerville theatre, the production showed much promise. Unfortunately, it failed to live up to expectations, with some notable exceptions.

Hunter’s script features most of Austen’s popular quips from the original novel, and it’s clear she intended to stay true to the story’s text. Thankfully, almost all of Mr. Bennet’s lines remain, though a few characters were cut to accommodate the shortened adaptation. I missed only Kitty—I worry that Hunter underestimated this character’s seemingly innocuous presence in the novel. Many other stage adaptations keep her as a sidekick for Lydia, and I agree. Especially when Hunter chose to include a silly Miss Anne de Bourgh, I think she could have sacrificed a few of the other Bennet sisters’ lines for Kitty’s sake. Moving along, Hunter tried to write her own dialogue to fill in some noticeable gaps from the novel’s exposition. I don’t particularly like these additions though I can’t argue with their necessity; I think another draft and staged reading would have polished the dialogue, especially between Jane and Elizabeth. Perhaps Hunter’s boldest move is the social whirl she creates onstage with the instantaneous passage of time. Scenes move fluidly into one another and months become moments of waiting. I appreciated her strong storytelling—more on this below—but I worry that something was lost. I think future drafts can help solidify the same feelings of anticipation from Austen’s day while keeping the heightened urgency needed for a stage adaptation. Overall, her script is well thought-out and very accurate to Austen’s original.

Pride and Prejudice - Lizzie and Mr Darcy

Her cast, however, faces an insurmountable challenge in portraying Austen’s larger-than-life characters. The actors seem to wobble between realistic portrayals and caricature. This dichotomy is anything but pleasant, and down-right confusing. At the heart of the story is the Bennet family, which includes the widest range of acting abilities. Mr. Bennet, played with cheek by Doug Miller, is excellent and perhaps even underused because he provides some of the most-needed one-liners, while his wife, Mrs. Bennet, played with verbosity by Dayenne Walters, could use some focus. Walters attempts to create her own hysterical interpretation of the infamous gold-digging mother but strays too far from our modern conception of the classic role, fully landing in the satirical category. The daughters, however, never reach this extreme, no matter how “silly” they are supposed to be. Mary Bennet, played with groundedness by Lisa Sturgeon, is perhaps too realistic, but has some wonderful moments on-stage even with her limited dialogue. Jane Bennet, played with blasé melancholy by Tegan Kehoe, is too unaffected by the play’s dialogue to develop a clear personality. In fact, her character is so bland that I wondered what her and Bingley, played with some charm by Jared Hite, could possibly discuss in their quiet asides. The star of the family, surprisingly, is Lydia Bennet, played with star-quality by Melody Martin. Martin picks her moments with care, and bursts with energy and life that is perfectly timed and extremely necessary. During a sluggish Act II, she carries the show’s plot in ways that few of the other characters manage.

Other supporting stars include Charlotte Lucas, played by the extremely under-utilized Jacqueline Bennett; Caroline Bingley, played with subtly and craft by Leslie Drescher; and Mrs. Gardiner, played with vivaciousness by Renée Johnson. While others may enjoy J. Deschene’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh, I felt the actor missed the mark on this iconic character. With such antecedents as Dame Judi Dench, I think the role deserves a little more respect. I’ll agree that the role did add much-needed humor in a rather dull Act II, but given the role’s history and the novel’s focus, I think the portrayal detracted more than added, especially for the production’s Austenite crowd.

And that brings me to the leads. Elizabeth Bennet, played with earnestness by Brigid Battell, struggles under a lack of star quality. It’s a difficult quality to explain, but I’ve heard it called “The IT factor” and Battell just didn’t have it in this role. For an audience whose sole focus is on Elizabeth’s story, we’re a little lost most of the time, jumping instead to focus on more dynamic characters like Martin’s Lydia or Drescher’s Caroline. Battell generates good chemistry with each and every character, an important quality, but her most notable relationship with Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy fails to excite. Darcy, played with a deep bass, yet repetitive speech pattern by Keais Pope, is, dare I say, dull. Pope misses many moments to relay Darcy’s complexity to the audience. It’s not until late in Act II that Pope stops his monotonous speech pattern to include some inflection. I believe Pope was trying to emulate Colin Firth’s notable turn as Darcy, but few actors, especially an American, can capture Firth’s charming aloofness. I wish Hunter had realized how incredibly dull Pope’s attempts to copy such a hit performance were and worked to create a happy medium. I think much of Pope and Battell’s chemistry could be solved in a more dynamic and nuanced portrayal of Darcy, though Battell suffers from her own lack of imagination and charm, falling more into the Keira Knightley camp than the Jennifer Ehle foray.

Unfortunately, these key problems led to a sluggish Act II, especially in the last twenty minutes. With a show running almost three hours, the later scenes could use some rewriting and some heavy polish. I didn’t care for anything after the marriage acceptances, and yet we unhappily plodded through several scenes to see how the rest of the cast reacts to the unexpected news. To the production’s credit, the scenes did zip along, thanks to a highly successful stage crew, led by Technical Director and Set Designer Jo Guthrie. I was highly thankful for the lack of blackouts, though I found it amusing how little time we spent in each location. I longed for the adaptations with block sets because I wanted to focus instead on these rich and dynamic characters. The costumes by Elizabeth Ryan and her crew are stunning, and the hair by Arwen Miller and her crew is superb. I thought Maya Attia’s dancing was overused, especially in the highly complex ballroom scenes; I would’ve liked a lighting fade so the dancers became shadows in the background of Darcy and Elizabeth’s lively first meeting.

Overall, the production features some commendable performances and an invigorating new adaptation of Austen’s classic story. The play keeps many of the novel’s original themes, but it fails to introduce any of its own. With more polish, the script might be a gem, especially in its creative use of time, but with sluggish pacing and an uneven cast, this production doesn’t shine. 

As originally published on My Entertainment World.

"Into the Woods" Isn't Your Average Fairy Tale

I’ve argued with many friends about the purpose of theater; some people believe that theater is meant to tell a story and entertain, while others maintain that a performance is not complete without leaving the audience with some message or question to ponder later that night. I can think of no finer work to satisfy either group’s desires than Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods. In the hands of the Newton Country Players, the ambitious production featured an especially strong supporting cast, but lacked magic in its execution.

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