REVIEW:  Whimsical and festive, Celebrity Series of Boston at Home extends the holiday season with Jason Palmer Quintet’s distinct and upbeat free digital concert

We all just wanted the holiday season to last just a bit longer.

With the uncertainty and bitter temperatures in this New Year just weeks into 2022, it is difficult to part from the bustling excitement of last year’s holiday season.  Musicals, plays, concerts, and more burst onto the stage cautiously but assuredly to deliver holiday cheer, some escapism, and to offer new and hopeful insight into what we have all been going through.

Trumpeter Jason Palmer, tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger, pianist Kevin Harris, bassist Max Ridley and drummer Lee Fish continues digital stream for two more months. Photo courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston

In December, The Jason Palmer Quintet lit up the Arlington Street Church in Boston live and in person amid festively adorned green and gold wreaths while sharing some new music twists to a few beloved Christmas carols.  Don’t expect to hear these traditional Christmas carols without some clever and spirited flair.

Celebrity Series of Boston at Home is extending the spirit of the season with their free pre-recorded digital concert, part of the Neighborhood Arts, Jazz and Contemporary Music Series, The Jason Palmer Quintet.  This warmhearted concert is accessible for two more months and runs under 90 minutes with no intermission.  Click here for more information and additional selections from Jason Palmer and his quintet.

Trumpeter Jason Palmer, tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger, bassist Max Ridley and drummer Lee Fish Photo courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston

Infusing music dynamos Duke Ellington and brothers Elvin and Thad Jones into eloquent compositions, The Jason Palmer Quintet arranges what trumpeter Jason Palmer affectionately calls ‘derangements.’ These derangements weave unique and lighthearted spins into traditional carols while each performer has their own chance to shine. 

Bassist Max Ridley and drummer Lee Fish caught on camera! Photo courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston

Some of the concert highlights include an extended and impressive trumpet solo to open the show in the smooth and mid-tempo Sunset and Mockingbird/Christmas Song and Lee Fish’s playful drum solo during Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer as the drum beat imitates hooves on a rooftop.  It’s a sweeping, quiet build to Rudolph’s catchy chorus.  Trumpeter Jason Palmer, tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger, pianist Kevin Harris, bassist Max Ridley and drummer Lee Fish are all so well in sync and it is fascinating to watch them pair off as the instruments ‘chat,’ jam, and gradually build before circling back to that familiar tune with an unexpected flair and flourish.

ChristmasTime is Here is an expressive, rumbling, and fast-paced imagining of Vince Guaraldi’s easygoing classic number.  With more hustle, the musicians glide and veer into their own peaks and valleys highlighted by dynamic pianist Kevin Harris tickling the keys under a church sign that reads ‘To the Glory of God.’

Pianist Kevin Harris in action Photo courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston

What is certain about this quintet is if the viewer listens carefully to their clever compositions, one may detect an extra carol or two within their potent rhythms.  For example, stray lyrics to Sleigh Ride can be heard within an eclectic medley of Silver Bells/A Child is Born and Santa Claus in Coming to Town emerges from a rolling and upbeat Greensleeves medley.  They certainly kept this enthusiastic audience on their toes.

Celebrity Series at Home is extending the mistletoe and holly with free digital concert, The Jason Palmer Quintet for two more months.  Click here to view the concert, more information, and additional selections from Jason Palmer and his quintet.

REVIEW:  Boston Ballet’s virtual ‘The Gift’ spins retro Nutcracker gold

If there wasn’t enough time to see The Nutcracker over the holidays or even if you have and would like to see more, the Boston Ballet is offering a spin on The Nutcracker Duke Ellington-style choreographed by Boston Ballet dancers right from your home.

With special commentary by jazz-enthusiast Eric Jackson nicknamed the ‘Dean of Boston Jazz Radio’ and host of GBH’s Eric in the Evening who rewinds the clock to take a peek at the inspiration behind Ellington’s timeless, progressive Nutcracker Suite, Boston Ballet along with Boston Ballet II and Boston Ballet School post graduates choreograph a lively program from 2020 that highlights and spins some of the Nutcracker’s best moments with their own vibe.

Viktorina Kapitonova and Tigran Mkrtchyan in The Gift; photo by Brooke Trisolini; courtesy of Boston Ballet

The Gift is a dynamic program where each dancer seems they are being moved by the music more than moving to the music.  As much as I am a fan of Boston Ballet’s classic works, there is something even more thrilling when it is infused with upbeat and contemporary flavor. 

From sleek and sophisticated flair to casual and carefree fun, Boston Ballet presents this virtual holiday treat The Gift through January 9 which includes behind the scenes footage and runs approximately 50 minutes.  Click here for more information and access to the show.

The exuberance and sparkling elegance of Viktorina Kapitonova and Tigran Mktrchyan accompanied by pianist Alex Foaksman bring to life the Snow Queen and King’s triumphant Pas de Deux.  All in sepia and crème, they move with a dreamlike sway culminating in a joyful and fanciful reunion.  Some other highlights within the striking variety of dances from Duke Ellington’s upbeat and catchy Nutcracker suite include Overture with choreography by Chyrstyn Fentroy as the number explores the mystery behind The Gift as a package hangs overhead and the dancers gradually get swept away by the song.  Toot Tootie Toot or Dance of the Reed Pipes with choreography by Gabriel Lorena is a brief sashaying escapade as dancers in flowing skirts strut and prance to Ellington’s light and airy rhythms enhanced by an intricate and memorable collective pose.  Peanut Brittle Brigade with chorography by Haley Schwan infuses swing and other dance styles to the beat of Ellington’s bluesy composition.

Boston Ballet in The Gift; photo by Brooke Trisolini; courtesy of Boston Ballet

Arabesque cookie or Arabian Dance with chorography by Haley Schwan, John Lam, Chyrstyn Fentroy, Paul Craig, and My’Kal Stromile, has a bustling rhythm and a retro feel as the number opens with a soloist’s fancy footwork.  It has urgency, poise, and athleticism as each soloist slides in shadow to a transforming color backdrop.  The Voga Vouty or Russian dance with choreography by John Lam showcases savvy and sophistication steeped in black and white as they perform a striking sequence in a spotlight. Chinoserie or Chinese Dance with choreography by Arianna Hughlett is full of mischievous and lighthearted fun as dancers creep and freestyle to the rhythm of Ellington’s chiming beat parting and uniting in shadow.

The finale culminates in a beloved Boston Ballet location worth waiting for.

The Boston Ballet’s virtual holiday treat The Gift continues through January 9 which includes behind the scenes footage.  Click here for more information and access to the show.

REVIEW:  ‘Christmas Revels In Celebration of Winter Solstice’ a clever and inviting return to the stage

Performing for a full and enthusiastic crowd and dedicating the performance to Revels friend Julie Smith, this year’s Christmas Revels offers a lot to its audience, but most importantly, it ushers in the excitement and gratefulness of being together again with a sing-along as well as emphasizing helping those in need.   

Christmas Revels’ audience sang live in Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts and now until January 9, you are invited to sing along virtually from your own living room.  Be sure to download the program first and follow along to songs from the middle ages to classic Christmas carols to contemporary classic songs.   Directed cleverly by Patrick Swanson, The Christmas Revels in Celebration of Winter Solstice is approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.  Click here for more information and how to see this year’s show.

Scene from the Mummers Play (William Forchion as The Dragon, Regie Gibson as the MC/referee, and Mark Jaster as Saint George) Photo courtesy of Shep Ferguson

From last year’s selection of new songs mixed in with some of their greatest performances over Christmas Revels’ 50-year run, Christmas Revels is back to a bit of storytelling and theatrics while still tying in the past with the present day – pandemic times, masks, and all.  An unconventional battle with a dragon is only portion of this wild and peculiar tale where traditions are challenged and life today takes an unexpected turn for this lively cast during a caroling and Christmas party. 

It also weighs in the vintage with the contemporary while infusing its own share of lighthearted humor and enough fantastical elements to create a concise and innovative story.  Acknowledging our present woes, Christmas Revels offers insight and hope into how to best help each other through these difficult times. 

Christmas Revels boasts a large, collaborative cast which includes the lighthearted return of Paula Plum and Richard Snee’s quick-witted observational skills.  With dynamic chorography by Kelli Edwards, Tony Tucker, and Gillian Stewart, charismatic David Coffin returns as Master of the Revels leading an uplifting rendition of Lord of the Dance and beautiful a cappella harmonies for Donna Nobis Pacem.  Alex Cumming and the Revels Morris dancers also impress with the traditional and eclectic Pudding Jig.

The Elizabethan’s arrive! (William Forchion, Regie Gibson, Mark Jaster) Photo courtesy of Shep Ferguson

William Forchion portrays pub owner Joe with Carolyn Saxon as his wife.  Forchion is affable and charismatic keeping a cool head as the pub experiences some unexpected surprises.  He shows off some fancy footwork in a drum-infused sword dance and his smooth vocals are also put to the test in a dual role that is anything but cool.  Regie Gibson portrays sophisticated and no nonsense Reginald while Sabrina Selma Mandell amusingly delivered cheerful comedic nonsense as Flunky, a seemingly dimwitted jester. 

Carolyn Saxon bringing the house down at the George and Dragon’s annual carol party Photo courtesy of Shep Ferguson

Carolyn Saxon gives an amazing performance every time she lifts her voice.  Her vibrant vocals shine in her warm delivery of Oh Happy Day, her heartfelt rendition of Lean on Me, and inspiring Someday at Christmas accompanied by the entire cast.

The Ha’Penny Wassail Children also do a splendid job as they join together for a festive “zoom” to We Wish You a Merry Christmas, their own sweet rendition of Someday at Christmas with harp accompaniment, and leading off a glorious Wassail medley while decorating a tree.

Elizabethan’s strut their stuff (dancing) Photo courtesy of Shep Ferguson

Heidi Hermiller’s colorful costumes varies from humorous ugly Christmas sweaters to festive pub wear to resplendent, gold embroidered and delicately laced gowns.  Jeremy Barnett’s hospitable and festive pub setting includes subtle sparks of hope and encouragement weaved into the surroundings such as a ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ sign by the bar.  With a glowing fireplace in the background, the warm atmosphere boasts a festively decorated room enhanced with lit evergreen trim wrapped around the entire theatre as Jeff Adelberg innovative lighting flashes to the beat as the live onstage Pickled Eggs House Band showcase a variety of music styles led by Music Director George Emlen and Associate Music Director Edmar Colon.

The Christmas Revels in Celebration of Winter Solstice continues its virtual run through January 9.  Click here for more information and how to see the show.

REVIEW: Tony Williams’ ‘Urban Nutcracker’ makes a vivid and engaging return to the stage for its 20th anniversary

The thrill is back. 

For an interactive and engaging show like Urban Nutcracker, experiencing it online last year on its 19th anniversary offered a glimpse into its dazzling style, multi-genre music, and the unique perspective within a classic tale. 

However, sitting in the Boch Center’s Shubert Theatre as Urban Nutcracker’s dynamic orchestra traveled down the aisles performing their horn-infused, big band sound on instruments stringed in colorful lights created an authentically immersive experience.  This year marks Urban Nutcracker’s 20th anniversary live onstage, an innovative show that not only pays tribute to Tchaikovsky’s classic holiday tale, but to the beauty and spirit of Boston.

Featuring the City Ballet of Boston, The Brooklyn Ballet, Phunk Phenomenon Dance Complex, the Northeast School of Ballet, and Revels, Tony Williams Dance Center’s Urban Nutcracker is available for a limited engagement continuing through December 22 at the Boch Center Shubert Theatre in Boston, Massachusetts.  The show is approximately 2 hours with one 15 minute intermission. Click here to for more information and for further details about the Tony Williams Dance Center

Click here for an interview with Tony Williams about his dance center and how the Urban Nutcracker began.

Prefaced by festive carols from the likes of Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Nat King Cole, the enthusiastic crowd was more than ready to experience The Urban Nutcracker live and in person again and from the spontaneous cheers from the crowd, showed no sign of disappointment. 

As the band settles inside a replica of the Hatch Shell above the stage amid Janie Howland’s amazing scenic design, identifiable landmarks such as the CITGO signMassachusetts State House, Green Monster, and Downtown Boston’s Custom House Clock Tower  (which comes alive upon closer examination) are set strategically on Boston’s city skyline.  The orchestra plays above the performers, delivering rich and funky rhythms inspired by a variety of music styles that match the vast array of festive, eye-popping costumes by Dustin Todd Rennels as cultures from around the world take the stage once more.

Ruth Whitney and Ronnie Thomas Photo credit to Peter Paradise

When TchaikovskyDuke Ellington, and David Berger come together for this eclectic score musically directed by Bill Whitney, it takes this timeless tale to the next level.  Urban Nutcracker delivers a modern, sparkling, family-friendly vibe which is depicted in the show’s rich colors as a chic and contemporary apartment with a distinctive tree, glimmering cushions, and large and festive bulbs covering the windows is revealed.

What is particularly noticeable this year is the gathering.  The variety of children and adults dancing and playing with their new toys as a group come together for an amazing photo with a lengthy selfie stick.  The sheer joy of a houseful of children and adults enjoying each other’s company has been something dearly missed.

Selfie stick Photo credit to Peter Paradise

Horn infused jazz, hip hop, and the blues are just a few of the genres explored in this tradition meets contemporary Urban Nutcracker.  It was amazing to watch the adults dance with elements of swing and ballet integrated into their steps.

Urban Nutcracker depicts all the classic scenes from Tchikovsky’s production with an inviting twist featuring a diverse, multi-talented cast.  In a magnificent coat and top hat, Gianni Di Marco has more than one trick up his sleeve as captivating Drosselmeyer.  He not only wows adults and children alike with tricks and presents, but his sweet interactions with Ruby including one point as the duo watch from the balcony provide some of Urban Nutcracker’s most memorable moments.

Drosselmeyer does his magic as children look on. Photo credit to Peter Paradise

Khalid Hill returns and again masters multiple roles including a catchy break dancing, tap and toe tapping routine on the city streets as dancers synchronize beats on trash cans.  Ronnie Thomas is excellent as a wiry soldier doll in bright orange and purple as he bends in incredible shapes around the stage as well in an exciting rat battle as the Nutcracker Prince.

The Snow Queen and King, portrayed by Ruth Bronwen-Whitney and Ronnie Thomas, are sophisticated and elegant gliding in a snow-covered landscape of the Boston Common surrounded by luminous snowflake dancers.  Thomas also delivers a visually-rich and memorable performance in a duet with Ruth Bronwen-Whitney as Arabian dancers.  Spain’s spectacular costumes glitter in a flowing flamenco dance as a bull rider dominates the background while China’s dancers are bursting with color in a spinning fan dance.

Kirsten Glaser leads Spain dance Photo cred to Peter Paradise Michaels.

The Sugar Plum Fairy, performed by Kseniya Melyukhina and Ruth Bronwen-Whitney, has a more traditional look in lilac this year, but nonetheless stands out for a beautiful, upbeat solo and a later performance with Gianni Di Marco during a jazz-infused Nutcracker Suite. 

Kseniya Melyukhina in Urban Nutcracker Photo credit Peter Paradise

Several lighthearted performances return to the stage including the athletic hula hoop dancers in Revere Beach with back flips included, a lively and humorous performance featuring skilled, tap-dancing workmen in hardhats and paint-splotched overalls, but a favorite performance of Urban Nutcracker’s answer to Make Way for Ducklings is endearing and heartwarming featuring Michael Oliver Slayton as a tap dancing cop and an adorable, yellow feathered troupe of ducklings led by Simone Wolfhorst.

Urban Nutcracker still offers something for everyone with a unique twist on a classic while still reminding audiences what is truly important this time of year.  It is a unique and exciting Boston tribute with surprises along the way.

Tony Williams Dance Center’s Urban Nutcracker continues through December 22. Click here for more information, tickets, and how to support this organization.

REVIEW:  GBH’s ‘A Christmas Celtic Sojourn’ full of gratitude, wistfulness, and holiday cheer

As the world shut down last year and domestic and international performers could not take the stage on A Christmas Celtic Sojourn’s usual tour around Massachusetts, GBH decided to bring the audience virtually to them in 2020.  From stunning Sligo Cathedral in Ireland to Scotland to Canada and various parts of Massachusetts, viewers could see a mix of Christmas traditions and scenery on location right from their own living room as well as experience traditional and contemporary harmonies performed simultaneously internationally through brilliant technology.  What hadn’t changed was A Christmas Celtic Sojourn’s master of ceremonies, Brian O’Donovan who delivered a mix of humor, melancholy, and warm reflections through engaging storytelling and fond tidings.  

From L to R: Windborne, Brian O’Donovan and Moira Smiley Photo credit to Matthew Muise

This year should seem more familiar.  Host Brian O’ Donovan and a mix of renowned performers from around the world returned to the stage for A Christmas Celtic Sojourn to deliver glad and wistful tidings through uplifting Celtic step dancing, musings, music, and storytelling while making stops in Rockport and Boston. 

Brian O’Donovan and the Christmas Celtic ensemble Photo credit to Matthew Muise

Directed with a mix of festiveness and reflection by Jenna Worden, the live and in person tour included a sold-out show at Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, Massachusetts on December 14 and at the Cutler Majestic Theatre from December 17 through 19 in Boston, Massachusetts.  The show is 90 minutes with no intermission.

GBH’s virtual A Christmas Celtic Sojourn is still available.  Click here for more information and to enjoy the show on-demand through December 26.  A Christmas Celtic Sojourn would also like to hear what you thought of the program by visiting their Facebook page.

Nearing its 20 year-anniversary, what this annual production and concert certainly masters is the quiet and stirring.  That is just how the show begins as A Christmas Celtic Sojourn welcomed the audience with crisp, a cappella harmonies led by singer-songwriter Moira Smiley accompanied by returning folk singers Windborne.  Weaving in contemporary songs with God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, their chiming vocals brought distinctive warmth so prevalent to the production.

In front of a painted mural of a serene Irish countryside transforming from dawn to dusk by innovative light designer Dan Jentzen, remarkable Christmas carol compositions, stirring remembrances, lively Celtic step dancing, and rousing jam sessions or  Celtic ‘round robins’ brought beauty, celebration, and stillness into the season. 

Speaking of ‘round robins,’ the Christmas Celtic ensemble composed of co-music director and multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan, Celtic Harpist, pianist and co-music director Maeve Gilchrist, multi-instrumentalists Owen Marshall and Yann Falquet, Fiddler Jenna Moynihan, Kate McNally and Neil Pearlman on Fiddle and Piano, and Chico Huff on Bass, dedicated an uplifting and freestyle number to Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains who passed away in October.  It was fascinating to see how pianist Neil Perlman keeps the lively beat playing as his feet danced along. 

By candlelight and Christmas tree, host Brian O’Donovan recalls childhood memories in Ireland where Protestants and Catholics were brought together singing Christmas carols and the lingering smell of bacon wafted through his home weaving in anecdotes from Welch poet Dylan Thomas.  Brian also shared historical musings and performed a humorous rendition of Miss Fogarty’s Christmas cake

Singer-songwriter Moira Smiley Photo credit to Matthew Muise

Singer-songwriter Moira Smiley also delivered a mix of reflective and ruminating lyrics with Days of War about hard times as well as the rich folk lullaby Johanna Dreams on banjo.  Smiley’s remarkable, round, and velvety vocals enrich each verse.  She also shares the stage with Windborne and Brian O’Donovan in a stirring and gorgeous rendition Silent Night, O Holy Night and with the entire cast joined in for a treasured and traditional Auld Lang Syne and Here We Come A-Wassailing.

Entire Company of ‘A Christmas Celtic Sojourn’ Photo credit to Matthew Muise

However, most memorable is a vivid gathering as the stage transforms into a warm and inviting living room with the atmosphere of family and friends singing around the piano sharing various Christmas carols such as Joy to the World.  The stage is bright and festive as Celtic step dancers join in this familiar picture of the spirit of the season joyfully leaping in velvet attire and bejeweled shoes led by Ashley Smith-Wallace.  It is a picture treasured for the Christmas season and reflective of what is soon to come. 

GBH’s virtual A Christmas Celtic Sojourn is still available.  Click here for more information and to enjoy the show on-demand through December 26.  A Christmas Celtic Sojourn would also like to hear what you thought of the program by visiting their Facebook page.

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REVIEW:  Greater Boston Stage Company’s ‘All is Calm:  The Christmas Truce of 1914’ moving and miraculous

Witnessing a phenomenon is a rare and precious thing.  It was nothing short of miraculous watching Greater Boston Company’s All is Calm:  The Christmas Truce of 1914 which details that short period in history where enemies united briefly during the depths of War War I on Christmas Eve 1914.  Disillusioned and missing their loved ones, soldiers demonstrated compassion and the mercy of the human spirit as both sides sang carols, exchanged goods, and mutually wished for the war to end.

In the Greater Boston Stage Company’s lobby. Authentic combat uniform and gear from the Veteran Association of the First Corps of Cadets and Museum Photo courtesy of Greater Boston Stage Company

Directed poignantly by Ilyse Robbins and compellingly written by Peter Rothstein, Greater Boston Stage Company presents the award-winning documentary musical,  All is Calm:  The Christmas Truce of 1914 through December 23 as a digital performance and live in person at Greater Boston Stage Company, 395 Main Street in Stoneham, Massachusetts.  The show is approximately 70 minutes with no intermission.  Click here for more information and tickets.

It is surprising that The Christmas Truce of 1914 is not more widely known.  Joyeux Noel, The Christmas Truce, various documentaries, and this show are a few of the ways that this short historical period is recorded.  It should be an annual tradition like How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Frosty, Rudolph or A Charlie Brown Christmas.  It stands as a significant reminder of a Christmas Eve miracle that occurred only once during War World I’s long and grueling four year time span.  Most soldiers first joined thinking the war would end by Christmas. 

The cast of ‘All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914’ Photo credit to Nile Scott Studios/Greater Boston Stage Company

A dimly lit, bare stage is all that is revealed at the start of All is Calm, but what transpires as the show progresses is a rich landscape of moonlight, song, and memories.  Though this show features musical interludes, it is not a traditional musical.  It is more like a documentary that features stunning music and carols inviting the audience into the warmth, spirit, sacrifice, and the true meaning of the season.

Comprised of ten cast members who take on several identities during the production as they recollect that time period, All is Calm boasts powerful and silvery harmonies chiming into the wintry night sung a cappella without a band.  Music Director Matthew Stern does a sensational job with Erick Lichte and Timothy Takach’s vocal arrangements which includes popular carols such as Silent Night, O Holy Night, We Wish You a Merry Christmas, Angels We Have Heard on High, and Auld Lang Syne.

Michael Jennings Mahoney and the cast of ‘All is Calm’ Photo credit to Nile Scott Studios/Greater Boston Stage Company

 All is Calm is a beautiful ensemble piece and each cast member rises to the occasion, but when a renowned German tenor leads a stirring rendition of Franz Gruber’s Stille Nacht in No Man’s Land, it is difficult to pinpoint a more memorable moment. 

Dressed in muted military uniforms and kilts faithful to the era’s period and culture by Bethany Mullins, the collaborative cast demonstrates heartwarming chemistry and yet simultaneously depicts each soldier’s growing isolation in sorrow, fear, turmoil, and anguish as they progressively experience war’s cruel reality.  Integrating direct quotes from soldiers, narration, and uplifting carols such as Wassail as well as exceptional and heartrending songs such as I Want to Go Home, many times moved me beyond words. 

Though the extraordinary harmonies are a large part of the production, the production’s real mastery also resides in its stillness.  That brief interlude during a harrowing time where friendships were forged and sweet peace was nestled in the silence of enemies who joined together in the joy of the season and the sadness in their hearts for what was in store.

Greater Boston Stage Company presents the award-winning documentary musical, All is Calm:  The Truce of 1914 through December 23 as a digital performance and live in person at Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham, Massachusetts.  The show is approximately 70 minutes with no intermission.  Click here for more information, tickets, and a look at their upcoming events.

REVIEW:  Lyric Stage Company’s ‘The Last Five Years’ a shrewd and beguiling look at love

Start from the beginning.  No, start from the end. 

Not certain which way is best to tell a love story, but Jason Robert Brown certainly makes a powerful argument by the innovative way this story is told as Lyric Stage Company ’s musical The Last Five Years continues through December 12 at the Lyric Stage Company, 140 Clarendon Street in Boston, Massachusetts.  The show is 90 minutes with no intermission.

Directed intuitively by Leigh Barrett with eloquent musical direction by Dan Rodriguez, The Last Five Years describes an ardent romance between a promising writer and an up and coming actress.  It’s blissful love at first sight when suddenly, life goes into overdrive.

Jared Troilo as Jamie and Kira Troilo as Cathy Photo by Mark S Howard/Lyric Stage Company

Having seen the 2014 film adaptation of the same name starring Broadway dynamos Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick, I had high hopes for this production and like Jamie Wellerstein and Cathy Hiatt, fell for both immediately.  The Last Five Years is a compelling, poignant and multi-dimensional journey of love’s elation, humor, compromise, and struggle as life veers into unexpected directions.  The Last Five Years doesn’t hold back in revealing the complex nature of this blossoming relationship, showing its vibrancy and its cracks in equal measure.  How do two people stay afloat when life is throwing so many things at them in completely different ways?

Intimately performed in theatre-in-the-round with a seamless six piece band, the beauty in Lyric Stage Company’s The Last Five Years is not only in its wonderful lead casting with married couple Jared Troilo as Jamie and Kira Troilo as Cathy, but in its unique depiction of time and place through a cosmic and multi-functional rotating stage and the engaging way it consistently involves the audience. 

Jamie and Cathy are earnest and likable and their faults are seen and met with sympathy, heartache, and a degree of discernment when they don’t perceive their own shortcomings.  It’s an intriguing and thought-provoking piece as it explores a kaleidoscope of emotions with intensity and realism and perhaps recognizing yourself in their shoes for a moment or two.

Having witnessed amazing Jeremy Jordan as Jamie in the film adaptation, Jared had a lot to live up to, but he captures the essence of Jamie’s endless humor, charm, and determination while adding his own contagious enthusiasm and captivating vocals.  He is a gleeful and conspiring storyteller for The Schmuel Song and displays ego and earnest sincerity in If I Didn’t Believe in You.  Kira’s soaring vocals depict Cathy’s fragility, sheer determination, and playful optimism in I Can Do Better Than That.  Another highlight involves Kira reflecting on A Summer in Ohio, portraying Cathy’s dry sense of humor and insecurity.  However, she is the most enchanting in Goodbye until Tomorrow.   

Kira Troilo as Cathy Photo by Mark S Howard/Lyric Stage Company

Jenna McFarland-Lord’s enthralling set design and Karen Perlow’s mood-induced lighting reflects two sides of love through its multi-color backdrops such as violet, teal, and purple as well as floating gold rings that shine alone and in pairs.

Jason Robert Brown’s music ebbs and flows much like love from bright to poignant, confident to humbling, and from rueful to triumphant.  No matter how love changes, it is always a memorable journey.

Lyric Stage Company presents Jason Robert Brown’s musical The Last Five Years through December 12 at Lyric Stage Company in Boston, Massachusetts. Click here more information and tickets.

REVIEW:  Boasting two stellar leads, Central’s Square’s ‘The Half Life of Marie Curie’ full of inspiration and crackling chemistry

For revolutionary physicist and chemist Marie Curie, not everything can be solved through a calculation.

On the verge of her second Noble Prize for Chemistry, anxious and introspective Marie Curie finds herself embroiled in a scandal and at one of the lowest points of her life.  Quite literally bursting onto the scene is brilliant and charismatic electromechanical engineer and suffragette Hertha Ayrton ready to bring humor and optimism to what seems like a bleak situation.

Lee Mikeska Gardner as Marie Curie Debra Wise as Hertha Ayrton Photo courtesy of Nile Scott Studios

Brimming with crackling chemistry between Lee Mikeska Gardner as Marie Curie and Debra Wise as Herthe Ayrton, Central Square Theater opened their fall season with Lauren Gunderson’s The Half Life of Marie Curie continuing through December 12 at the Central Square Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  The show is 85 minutes with no intermission.  Click here for more information and tickets.

The stage is deceptively serene for Lauren Gunderson’s The Half Life of Marie Curie. Lindsay Genevieve Fuori’s colorful, innovative, and functional scenic design comes to life as stirring sound effects and a mysterious and foreboding piano score by sound designer Elizabeth Cahill make an intriguing combination fused with Whitney Brady-Guzman’s dynamic and surreal lighting.

A production that picks up from the very start, these two driven pillars of science with contrasting personalities are a fascinating pair to watch and listen to their musings.  Gunderson’s sharp script strikes a delicate balance between intellectual prowess and absorbing dramedy.  They share their views on life, family, and work with wit, humor and candor, yet instinctually encourage each other forward with respect and admiration.  Both are widows and mothers who struggle with how women were perceived in the early 20th century, but their sheer determination and passion for science ultimately make an indelible mark on the world.

Lee Mikeska Gardner as Marie Curie and Debra Wise as Hertha Ayrton in 1910s swimwear Photo courtesy of Nile Scott Studios

Adorned in a lovely feathered black hat and flowing emerald green dress, Debra Wise brings gravitas, confidence, ego, and clever charm as Hertha Ayrton.  From the moment Ayrton bursts onto the stage with a confident cock of her head, gleam in her eye, and cheerful intonation, a lightheartedness sets in to her passionate and outspoken persona as opposed to Curie’s darker sensibilities.  Dressed demurely in a rich purple dress, Gardner skillfully embodies tense Curie in her careful and calculated movements.  You can practically see the wheels turning in Curie’s constantly analyzing mind and consider the lengths she would go for the sake of her work.

Lee Mikeska Gardner as Marie Curie Debra Wise as Hertha Ayrton Photo courtesy of Nile Scott Studios

Marie Curie and Hertha Ayron’s exchanges are no ordinary gabfests.  From sexual politics to love to family and everything in between, Wise and Gardner, as different in their approaches are and as opposite their personalities, they understand each other as equals, colleagues, and kindred spirits. Celebrating each other’s triumphs and supportive in hardship, theirs is a true testament to unyielding and enduring friendship and it stands at the center of this auspicious and biographical story.

Directed astutely by Bryn Boice, Central Square Theater presents Lauren Gunderson’s The Half Life of Marie Curie through December 12 at the Central Square Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  The show is 85 minutes with no intermission.  Click here for more information and tickets.

REVIEW: SpeakEasy Stage Company’s comedy-drama ‘BLKS’

A glow in the dark graffiti soaked Brooklyn apartment and street set the stage for SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of BLKS continuing through Saturday, November 20 live and in person at Calderwood Pavilion at Boston Center for the Arts in Boston, Massachusetts.  Raw, raunchy, and at times more shocking than funny, BLKS delves into one long and hazy 24-hour period for a group of 20-something city singles.  Infidelity, danger, and sex are just a few of the issues addressed in this one hour and 45 minute comedy-drama by Aziza Barnes.  This show has no intermission and contains mature themes, adult content and language.  Click here for more information and tickets.

Shanelle Chloe Villegas, Kelsey Fonise, and Thomika Marie Bridwell in SpeakEasy Stage’s production of ‘BLKS’ Photo by Nile Scott Studios

On the surface, BLKS tackles the life of a group of strong Brooklyn 20-something singles living together.  After they all endure a tough day, they decide to party and forget their troubles.  However, as the night wears on with plenty of pitfalls in the way from a broken heel to a broken heart, getting what they hope for will be far more difficult than they ever expected.  Each individual faces their own insecurities and long for belonging, whether it comes to love, commitment, career, or identity.  They all want to fit in where they are and yet, each person can’t shake what is missing.

Struggling comedian Imani, portrayed by Kelsey Fonise, longs to be like comedy legend Eddie Murphy and like Murphy’s standup comedy, much of the humor in BLKS is fierce, aggressive, and pulls no punches.  It runs the gamut of relatable to squeamish to unabashedly funny.  Thomika Marie Bridwell as level headed June seems to be climbing the corporate ladder, but is perpetually stuck in love while filmmakers Sandra Seoane-Seri as forthright Ry and Shanelle Chloe Villegas as flighty Octavia clash as they attempt to label their relationship.  Bridwell has a gift for the one liner while Villegas as Octavia displays a knack for physical humor. 

Sharmarke Yusuf portrays a number of dynamic characters including seemingly sweet Justin.  A climatic scene between Yusef and Villegas in an apartment display the daring lengths these two will go for a laugh.  Bridwell as June and Yusef as Justin also share some charming moments.

Roommates Octavia, June, and Imani have a moment on the street and one in the apartment when they reflect on the struggles they deal with on a daily basis and this is where the production shows such potential and solid relevance.  With the exception of Justin who reveals an immediate emotional center, it is a chance to get to know these characters on a deeper level, but these moments pass by too soon.  It gets weighed down at times by the need for shock and comedy over substance rather than delving into these characters more closely.

BLKS is primarily a comedy and these roommates also share their fill of junk food, gossip, and partying in their quest to find love, success, and contentment in which they all share good chemistry.  Like many 20-something singles, they find comfort facing the struggle together.

Directed by Tonasia Jones, SpeakEasy Stage Company’s continues Aziza Barnes’s production of BLKS through Saturday, November 20 at Calderwood Pavilion at Boston Center for the Arts in Boston, Massachusetts.  Click here for more information and tickets.

REVIEW: TCAN Players’ classic comedy ‘Harvey’ full of imaginative charm

We’ve all had that peculiar relative.  It might be an odd extended family member that raises a few eyebrows at family gatherings.   A sweet and wonderful person that is often misunderstood.   In the Dowd family, that person is Elwood P. Dowd, a mix of old fashioned charm, amiability, and humbleness who just so happened to have inherited his mother’s estate.  He is a wealthy bachelor that likes to socialize around town and graciously supports his socialite sister and niece.  However, Elwood has something that probably no other relative you might know has in common…Elwood claims a large bunny called Harvey is always by his side.  Is he crazy?

Now, Harvey is no ordinary bunny.  He’s a rather extraordinary figure to anyone around him and he makes an incredible impact in TCAN Players classic comedy, Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvey continuing through Sunday, November 14 at TCAN Center for Arts in Natick, Massachusetts.  Click here for more information and tickets.

Photo courtesy of TCAN Players

This popular 1944 production was adopted into an Oscar-winning film of the same name starring Jimmy Stewart, steeped in affable charm as Elwood and accomplished Josephine Hull, who nabbed an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as Veta.  TCAN Players’ Harvey boasts a wonderful cast especially from Jo d’Angelo as Veta.  D’Angelo perfects Elwood’s dramatic, intense, at times hysterical, but caring socialite sister who certainly goes through quite a lot in the production’s full three acts.  She portrays fed up to a tee and her sharp comedic skills have her swinging from collected to sheer panic in an instant.  D’Angelo takes on this meaty role so naturally that it is easy to get swallowed up in her unending drama. 

Ashley Harmon gleefully portrays conspiratorial and impressionable Myrtle Mae, Veta’s cooped up daughter longing for adventure.  Scott Salley has a gift for comedy as seen in previous TCAN productions such as First Things First and he holds his own as he portrays the straight man in this production.  As resident psychiatrist Lyman Sanderson, Salley’s smooth, seemingly knowledgeable delivery with a touch of arrogance makes for a number of amusing moments.  He has great chemistry with Sylvia Czubarow as beautifully beaming and complex nurse Ruth Kelly who offers a few zingers of her own.  David Dooks depicts seemingly level headed and imposing psychiatrist William Chumley with gravitas and some good-natured absurdity, especially in scenes with delightful John Alzapiedi as Elwood.  Though the role of Elwood is so clearly made for Jimmy Stewart which brought Stewart an Oscar nomination, Alzapiedi clearly does not lean on the portrayal and makes compassionate and forthright Elwood his own.

Directed with vintage flair by Lisa Astbury, Harvey is set in the present, but from the classic songs bookending the show, the polished set design by Tom Powers, and Donna Cabibbo’s detailed, retro costumes nods to the show’s 1944 setting.  Warmly decorated in floral trim and vintage portraits hanging from the Dowd’s library as well as rotary telephones hearken to that era.  The costumes are also faithful to the period ranging from women adorned in floral dresses, rabbit furs, and sophisticated hats to men decked out in trench coats, ties, and sharp suits. The set is divided into two sides, the latter a typical doctor’s office.

Harvey delves into some darker places, but never let you forget it is a comedy.  Elwood’s lightheartedness seems to diffuse any stressful situation simply by Alzapiedi’s soothing, influential voice and good nature so the show never embarks into disturbing territory.  It is an exploration into relatable family dynamics, a touch of greed, and the power of a little faith.

TCAN Players presents Mary Chase’s inventive comedy Harvey live and in person through Sunday, November 14 at TCAN Center for Arts in Natick, Massachusetts.  Click here for more information and tickets.