REVIEW: Embrace SpeakEasy Stage Company’s illuminating ‘English’

Learning a new language brings all kinds of emotions to the surface.   One is swept out of one’s own element and that can be as exciting as it is daunting. It can also become a long and awkward struggle to capture the essence of a new culture while steeped in a new language. Though one is gaining something new, one might also be losing a bit of themselves.

Thoughtfully directed by Melory Mirashrafi, Speakeasy Stage Company continues Sanaz Toossi’s English at Calderwood Pavilion in Boston, Massachusetts live and in person through Saturday, November 19.  The performance reviewed was audio described and one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission. Click here for more information and tickets.

The company of English. From left: Deniz Khateri, Josephine Moshiri Elwood, Lily Gilan James, Zaven Ovian, and Leyla Modirzadeh. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

One of the most fascinating messages in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s English is the realization that one can learn many languages, but can only know one. That one native language is the foundation for all the rest.  In learning to speak a new language, it can reshape what comes naturally.

English delves into the lives of four students living in Iran who are learning the English language for TOEFL, a standardized test that stands for Test of English as a Foreign Language. The production is mostly in the English language with no subtitles.  It takes a moment to catch on, but Mirashrafi cleverly depicts when characters are speaking in their native tongue.

Leyla Modirzadeh as Roya in SpeakEasy’s production of English. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

This multi-generational cast has various and deep seated reasons for learning English and this production resonates universal truths of having to learn a new language whether by choice or necessity. English does explore the political climate of learning English in Iran, but what is most memorable are the hardships, victories, competitiveness, and the often flustered frustration of learning a peculiar new facet of life.  Each individual demonstrates a different degree of longing to belong. It is not difficult to relate to this small and dynamic cast in their obstacles, earnestness, but most importantly, in the strength in who they are.  Deniz Khateri depicts complicated Marjan, who seems to firmly place herself in the world of the language she teaches. In a multi-layered performance, Khateri as Marjan is engaging and encouraging, but also firm and mysteriously guarded.  She lends to the show’s tension and subtle humor and has unique chemistry with each student. Lily Gilan James portrays wide-
eyed and optimistic Goli with effervescent candor. She stands on her own mistakes while earnestly articulating the nature of her wishes. 

The company of English. From left: Deniz Khateri, Josephine Moshiri Elwood, Lily Gilan James, Zaven Ovian, and Leyla Modirzadeh. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

Leyla Modirzedeh as wise and headstrong Roya is strongly urged to learn English to communicate with new members of her long distance family.  A sympathetic character, Modirzedeh powerfully evokes Roya’s sincerity and her struggle between her heritage and this new way of communicating.   Zaven Ovian depicts Omid with easygoing charm and he shares some compelling scenes with Khateri as Marjan and with witty, outspoken and understandably frustrated Elham, a standout performance by Josephine Moshiri Elwood.  Elham is a complex individual who is as compassionate as she is bold and is often hardest on herself.

Josephine Moshiri Elwood as Elham in SpeakEasy’s production of English. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

Nina Vartanian’s culturally sound and vivid costumes pop in Janie E Howland’s realistic classroom staging and enhanced by an elegant, multicolored portrait in teal, orange, red, brown, and beige.   

English is an honest, straightforward, warmly funny, and universally relatable journey of discovering a new language and in all of its difficulties, deciding whether or how to embrace it.  See English and embrace its life lessons. 

Deniz Khateri (left) and Zaven Ovian in SpeakEasy’s production of English. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

SpeakEasy Stage Company presents Sanaz Toossi’s English live and in person at the Calderwood Pavilion in Boston, MA through Saturday, November 19.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

REVIEW: Greater Boston Stage Company’s ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ a family treat and delivering more surprises than things that go bump in the night

Under a glimmering moon, fog rolls in as a candle burns. 

Near a tattered fence and curtains behind a pedestal table sits The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’s author Washington Irving, portrayed by Boston-based actor Paul Melendy.  Poised to share his gothic novel, Washington Irving is just one of several personas Melendy charismatically manifests for Greater Boston Stage Company’s semi-interactive, one man performance of Halloween classic, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Paul Melendy in Greater Boston Stage Company’s ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ Photo credit to Nile Scott Studios

With lively direction by Weylin Symes, Paul Melendy aptly bares the weight of this local, legendary, and family-friendly tale live and in person at Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham, Massachusetts as well as virtually through Sunday, November 6.  This show is just under 90 minutes with no intermission.  Click here for more information and tickets.

Already proving to be a wonderful talent in Greater Boston Stage productions such as The 39 Steps and Miss Holmes Returns, Paul Melendy captures the spirit of Sleepy Hollow through a frenzy of distinct personalities, rapid fire mannerisms, and occasional scares.  This version has a historical and contemporary context, delivering more family- friendly and comedic content than a fright fest.

Paul Melendy in Greater Boston Stage Company’s ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ Photo credit to Nile Scott Studios

Melendy’s Icabod Crane is an eccentric, bumbling, and polite schoolmaster in love with the lovely Katrina and sets out to impress her and her family, but rumor has it that something ghostly just might be lurking through Sleepy Hollow.  Feeding off the audience while drawing comedic inspiration and wide- eyed vigor reminiscent of Jim Carrey or Jerry Lewis, Melendy’s pliable features transform into a number of characters ranging from the elegant Katrina to a tough guy New Yorker to the mysterious Mister Knickerbocker.  A cross between a recollection and a retelling, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow treats the audience to an assortment of dynamic characters who roam through this secluded valley along the Hudson River.

Melendy is an animated and quick-witted storyteller on this partially introspective journey as David Remedios’s chilling sound effects highlighted by a wild horse whinnying, Katy Monthel’s haunting scenic design, and Deirdre Gerrard’s eerie lighting elevate the production’s mysterious and uneasy tone.  Add Melendy’s exuberance to the mix and audiences are in for an enjoyable ride.

The cast and creative team for Greater Boston Stage Company’s ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ Photo courtesy of Nile Scott Studios

Greater Boston Stage Company presents The Legend of Sleepy Hollow live and in person in Stoneham, Massachusetts as well as virtually through Sunday, November 6.  This show is just under 90 minutes with no intermission.  Click here for more information and tickets.

REVIEW:  Greater Boston Stage Company’s family comedy ‘Popcorn Falls’ zippy, lighthearted fun

Two dynamic actors take the stage for some wacky fun in Popcorn Falls, a wild, improv-inspired tale about a small, provincial New Hampshire town brimming with zany townspeople of all ages affectionately called, “kernels.”  From a feline-loving librarian with a flair for the dramatic to jack-of-all-trades Joe, Popcorn Falls must find a way to save itself from bankruptcy before it’s too late.

Christopher Chew and Sarah Elizabeth Bedard in ‘Popcorn Falls’ Photo courtesy of Greater Boston Stage Company

Written by James Hindman and directed warmly by Lisa Rafferty, Greater Boston Stage Company presents quirky, family-friendly comedy, Popcorn Falls live and in person through October 2 at Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham, MA.  This show is 90 minutes with no intermission.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

Sarah Elizabeth Bedard and Christopher Chew in ‘Popcorn Falls’ Photo courtesy of Greater Boston Stage Company

Doing the heavy lifting is Christopher Chew depicting a set of unique characters including the Town Mayor and Sarah Elizabeth Bedard who portrays other wild characters including Joe.  They are more than up for the challenge of keeping the pace of this lively production from a broken mic wire to journeys unknown.  From shifting voices to lightning-fast wardrobe changes thanks to dynamic Properties Designer Sarajane Mullins and Costume Designer Deirdre Gerrard, Bedard’s ability to transform into a wide spectrum of characters from seductress to meet cute to smarmy sometimes in mid-sentence is amusing to say the least.  The kernels can make a lot of noise and the audience is in on the joke rooting on each shifting character.  Christopher Chew largely portrays the straight man with few exceptions, enduring the eccentricities of each alternating character in stride while putting his own twist on his changing persona.

‘Popcorn Falls’ full cast and artistic team Photo courtesy of Greater Boston Stage Company

Kristin Loeffler’s inviting town hall set up including a brick backdrop, a chalkboard, and a town flag does little to reveal the path this duo is about to embark on while sound designer Caroline Eng enhances each running gag.  Popcorn Falls doesn’t take itself too seriously, but each prop, sound, and set piece lends itself to the production’s playful and zany antics. 

Sarah Elizabeth Bedard and Christopher Chew Photo courtesy of Greater Boston Stage Company

Quite a tale develops as this play kicks off in mid-action as the audience must piece together what exactly is happening onstage and what “kernel” the audience is sure to meet next.  Popcorn Falls is a feel-good show for the whole family that will keep the audience guessing at each unpredictable turn.  It is endearing and funny journey that saves the big, eye opening reveal for last.

Greater Boston Stage Company presents quirky, family-friendly comedy, Popcorn Falls live and in person through October 2 at Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham, MA.  This show is 90 minutes with no intermission.  Click here for more information, discount tickets, and more.

REVIEW: SpeakEasy Stage Company’s ‘Heroes of the Fourth Turning’ delves deep

A fire pit and backyard party in the deep woods of Landon, Wyoming seems the perfect setting for fun and good conversation.  What could go wrong?

Certainly a relatable situation in contemporary society, Heroes of the Fourth Turning knows how to tackle difficult discussions in a heady and thought provoking way, but leaving the conversation between these five distinct individuals unscathed is seldom a realistic scenario.

Dayna Cousins, Nathan Malin, and Jesse Hinson in ‘Heroes of the Fourth Turning.’ Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

Directed by Marianna Bassham who previously directed SpeakEasy’s acclaimed People Places and Things, SpeakEasy Stage Company presents Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning through October 8 live and in person at the Calderwood Pavilion in Boston, Massachusetts.  This show has adult themes.  Click here for more information and tickets.

One of the greatest strengths of Heroes of the Fourth Turning is its multifaceted approach to each of its characters.  Each individual is complex and struggling in some way, but are rarely stereotyped and the production is not approached in a divisive way.  The show is most effective by keeping an open mind.

It is satirical and darkly humorous from its opening scene with Justin, in hunting gear and a plaid shirt, moments away from shooting a deer.  This scenario may seem indicative of some the preconceived notions of conservative thinking and the nature of its forthcoming characters, but it gradually thwarts any preconceived expectations.  Its strength is not in the black and white, but delves into the gray corners of each of its characters.

Arbery’s script does not shy away from hot button and controversial issues and the atmosphere can get realistically heated and uncomfortable as it would at any gathering in contemporary society.  It offers a glimpse of each character’s unique perspective while their struggle unfolds as well as their flaws.

Dayna Cousins, Nathan Malin, and Jesse Hinson in ‘Heroes of the Fourth Turning.’ Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

This cast of well rounded characters and their easy camaraderie is a convincing depiction of a group that has known each other for years, especially between Dayna Cousins as Teresa and Nathan Malin as Kevin.  The quirks they know about each other demonstrate their long history.  Visiting her hometown from New York, Teresa is the seeming intellectual of the group.  Portrayed with nerve and intensity, Teresa has adapted a way of know-it-all thinking that makes her cold and unable to see another viewpoint, stereotyping whoever is unlike her.  As she boldly discusses her opinions on the world, she lets loose an air of authority, waiting to be challenged.

Dayna Cousins, Nathan Malin, and Jesse Hinson in ‘Heroes of the Fourth Turning.’ Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

Nathan Malin, who showed off his impressive dark comedic skills previously in SpeakEasy’s Admissions and The Sound Inside, portrays comical, chatty, and tormented Kevin.  Always ready for a party and deep conversation, Kevin longs to know the real secret of happiness in life as he contends with deep seated guilt and loneliness.

Justin, host of the party and veteran, is portrayed with a mix of sympathy and an air of mystery by Jesse Hinson.  A seemingly compassionate individual and clearly affected by his past experiences, it doesn’t take long to see there is much more to his story.

Jesse Hinson, Dayna Cousins, and Karen MacDonald in ‘Heroes of the Fourth Turning.’ Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

Battling physical ailments is Emily, an angelic portrayal by Elise Piliponis.  Emily is sweet and nonjudgmental, but with her own strong and compassionate views.  Bearing the brunt of her daily challenges, Emily is insightful and introverted and would like to do anything but argue. 

Emily’s mother and much admired Gina, portrayed with charisma and decorum by Karen MacDonald, is no stranger to complex characters such as in SpeakEasy’s The Children and as Erma in Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s Erma Bombeck:  At Wit’s End.  MacDonald thrives here too, depicting a complicated political figure that has impacted each of the other character’s lives.

Jesse Hinson, Dayna Cousins, and Karen MacDonald in Heroes of the Fourth Turning. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

Heroes of the Fourth Turning is a fascinating, darkly humorous, and concerning look at human nature and though the ending seems outlandish, the clever script offers an interesting perspective on what happens even among the supposed like minded.

SpeakEasy Stage Company presents Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning through October 8 live and in person at the Calderwood Pavilion in Boston, Massachusetts.  This show has adult themes.  Click here for more information and tickets.

REVIEW:  Hub Theatre Company of Boston’s zany and immersive dinner comedy ‘Slow Food’ survival of the hangriest

Having to wait for food isn’t easy, but the crazy antics that result are quite extraordinary in Slow Food, a wild comedy that focuses on a long time married couple on their anniversary vacation who finds themselves in pursuit of their meal.  It’s a good thing that Hub Theatre Company of Boston cleverly sets this production in a dinner theatre setting because not only does the show address love, marriage, manipulative food service and more, but most importantly, the very art of being frustratingly hangry.

With witty direction by Daniel Bourque, Hub Theatre Company of Boston presents Slow Food through Saturday, July 30 live and in person at Club Café Boston at 209 Columbus Ave in Boston, MA.  This show is 90 minutes with no intermission and tickets are on a pay-what-you can-basis.  Club Café offers a discount on the menu when attending Slow Food.   Click here for more information and for tickets.

Jyoti Daniere as Irene, Victor L. Shopov as Waiter Stephen, and Steve Auger as Peter Photo courtesy of Lauren Elias/Hub Theatre Company of Boston

Club Café’s backroom was once artfully transformed into a hair salon setting for Steel Magnolias, one of Hub Theatre Company of Boston’s lighthearted past productions held at Club Café Boston.  Though a Palm Springs Greek restaurant setting is less of a stretch, set designer Justin Lahue’s subtle candlelit setting, vine adorned walls and framed photos onstage flow with the candlelight and Ukraine flags that frame Club Café while sound designer Ted Kearnan’s inviting Greek soundtrack sets the mood. 

Slow Food’s immersive and interactive vibe continues as Jyoti Daniere as Irene, Steve Auger as Peter and Victor J. Shopov as Stephen the Waiter wander through Club Café at various times, making it easy to engage in the frustrating hilarity of this pair as they attempt to navigate a stubborn, preoccupied waiter and each other through it all. 

Jyoti Daniere as Irene, Victor L. Shopov as Waiter Stephen, and Steve Auger as Peter Photo courtesy of Lauren Elias/Hub Theatre Company of Boston

Slow Food features a small and strong cast with dialogue that is pretty snappy at times.  Shopov pushes all the right buttons and stealthily builds tension as a nosy, savvy and neurotic waiter that doesn’t know his boundaries. With a dry sense of humor, natural chemistry, and a gift for pushing each other’s buttons, Daniere and Auger make a likeable and relatable couple. Daniere as perceptive, exasperated, and sympathetic Auger as business minded, occasionally distracted and blunt Peter know they must rally to negotiate a good meal if they can get past their personal grievances as secrets gradually unfold along the way.

Jyoti Daniere as Irene, Victor L. Shopov as Waiter Stephen, and Steve Auger as Peter Photo courtesy of Lauren Elias/Hub Theatre Company of Boston

Slow Food is only the name of the show and Club Café delivered quick and attentive service.  Try the delicious Raspberry White Chocolate Cheesecake for dessert.

Hub Theatre Company of Boston presents Slow Food through Saturday, July 30 live and in person at Club Café Boston at 209 Columbus Ave in Boston, MA.  This show is 90 minutes with no intermission and tickets are on a pay-what-you can-basis.  Club Café offers a discount on the menu when attending Slow Food.   Click here for more information, tickets, and for more about Hub Theatre Company of Boston.

REVIEW: Tension mounts for an endearing couple in Lyric Stage’s meaningful production, ‘The Light’

One night can change everything.

Genesis and Rashad think they know each other well.  This lovable couple jokes, knows each other’s likes, quirks, habits, and dreams, and yet in one night, they start to see each other in a new and unfamiliar way.

With multi-layer direction by Jacqui Parker, Lyric Stage Company presents Loy A. Webb’s The Light through June 26 at Lyric Stage Company live and in person in Boston, Massachusetts.  The show is 70 minutes long with no intermission and is Lyric Stage’s final show of the season.  This show contains mature topics.  Click here for more information and tickets.

Dominic Carter as Rashad and Yewande Odetoyinbo as Genesis in ‘The Light’ Photo by Mark S Howard

Surrounded by Baron E. Pugh’s inviting apartment setting which includes a purple couch, teal chairs, and colorful accents by Lauren Corcuera while sketches of Beyoncé, Maya Angelou, Michelle Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsberg hang overhead, Genesis and Rashad know this isn’t just any night.  It’s their anniversary.

Yewande Odetoyinbo as Genesis and Dominic Carter as Rashad in ‘The Light’ Photo by Mark S Howard

Elmer Martinez’s expressive lighting enhances the evocative nature of this production.  It is a meaningful show hinging on the strengths of its leads and Yewande Odetoyinbo as school principal Genesis and Dominic Carter as firefighter Rashad are more than up to the task.  While both characters are stubborn, Odetoyinbo’s grounded and witty nature as Genesis strikes an important balance with Carter’s optimistic and playful sense of humor as Rashad.  Carter is charismatically charming and leads in some of the production’s funniest moments while Odetoyinbo as Genesis is best as the tension builds.  It is a joy to watch as they zing each other, tease, dream about the future, debate, and share some of their most treasured memories together.  Their innate and compelling chemistry attract such a fondness for this couple that it is easy to get lost in what seems like their complete compatibility.

Dominic Carter as Rashad and Yewande Odetoyinbo as Genesis in ‘The Light’ Photo by Mark S Howard

However, realizations and revelations run deep on this special night. Webb’s clever script invites the audience into this couple’s intimate relationship in all its charms with some passing notes of underlying resentment while carefully laying its cards on the table and raising the stakes through every twist and turn.  Odetoyinbo and Carter are a true force as they approach the humor, tension and the difficult and serious topics with compassion. 

Yewande Odetoyinbo as Genesis and Dominic Carter as Rashad in ‘The Light’ Photo by Mark S Howard

The Light makes the most out of its 70 minute run time.  It has good pacing and escalates quickly, fueled by Odetoyinbo and Carter’s natural chemistry as the show veers toward its powerful conclusion.

Lyric Stage Company presents Loy A. Webb’s The Light through June 26 at Lyric Stage Company live and in person in Boston, Massachusetts.  The show is 70 minutes long with no intermission and is Lyric Stage’s final show of the season.  This show contains mature topics.  Click here for more information and tickets.

REVIEW:  Mikko Nissinen’s ‘Swan Lake’ returns in riveting and enchanting splendor

Mikko Nissinen’s Swan Lake will enchant you from the start.

Swan Lake has stood the test of time for generations and it is no mystery why.  Seeped in regal splendor, Swan Lake is a visually-striking portrait of elegance and grandiosity similar to another one of Tchaikovsky’s classics, The Nutcracker. Both known for their iconic scores, mystical elements, and magnificent presentation, but Swan Lake’s sophisticated splendor, dark charm, intricate choreography and mirror image story of true love sets it apart from the rest.  Like The Nutcracker, Swan Lake has a universal appeal and memorable qualities that even those who don’t care for ballet will still enjoy Swan Lake.

Boston Ballet in Mikko Nissinen’s Swan Lake; photo by Rosalie O’Connor, courtesy of Boston Ballet

With seamless musical-direction by Mischa Santora, Tchaikovsky’s majestic score navigates a classic tale of love, torment, betrayal, magic, and unbridled joy as Boston Ballet rises out of Mikko Nissinen’s Swan Lake continuing live and in person at the Citizens Bank Opera House in Boston, Massachusetts through Sunday, June 5. Swan Lake will then stream from the comfort of your home from June 9 through June 19.  Performed in memory of John W. Humphrey, Swan Lake has returned to the Boston Opera House for the first time since Mikko Nissinen re-imagined the ballet in 2016.  This four-act performance has one intermission.  Click here for more information and tickets.

Taking a mysterious and thrilling tone from the start, Swan Lake is a fanciful tale involving sought-after Prince Siegfried, portrayed with zest and charm by Patrick Yocum, who sets his sights on a flock of swans drifting over a misty and enchanted lake.  Swan Queen Odette, portrayed with graceful fragility by Lia Cirio, catches his eye and it is love at first sight.  It soon becomes clear that the swans were once women cursed by sorcerer Von Rothbart, depicted menacingly by Tyson Clark.  Tyson Clark as Rothbart is an incredible and unpredictable force as he athletically and perilously tears through the mist as Prince Siegfried vows to set Odette free.

Golden-braided, ornate headpieces, flowing pastel garments, parasols, garlands, exquisitely feathered tutus and pristine crowns are just a glimpse into Robert Perdziola’s opulent and meticulously-detailed, handmade costumes that enrich the lush and picturesque royal garden setting as well as the haunting mirror image and mystical lake bathed in luminous blue moonlight by lighting designer Mark Stanley.

Marked by such precision, Mikko Nissinen’s choreography is ballet at its finest.   Emily Entingh and Sage Humphries are visually-stunning rising gracefully and beautifully fluttering out of the mist.  A gathering of cygnets demonstrate perfect synchronicity as they glide in lithe, delicate strokes.  The swans are ethereal and immaculate as they simultaneously rise exquisitely out of a swallowing mist.  It still stands as one of the beautiful displays of ballet I have ever seen.

Boston Ballet in Mikko Nissinen’s Swan Lake; photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy of Boston Ballet

In the castle gardens, dancers whimsically join together in a feast dance with goblets and joyfully present the prince with rich garlands.  While the castle garden depicts almost a dreamlike setting, an equally opulent ballroom with vast ceilings lit in red later depict a livelier setting as a  grand and dynamic lineup of guests gather to charm the kingdom including princesses, czardas, and Neapolitans.

Patrick Yocum is impressive as Prince Siegfried as he evokes loneliness and melancholy in an emotive and carefully-executed variation and then later in a flawless and joyful dance as if floating across the stage.  Light and dark in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake is demonstrated impeccably in Lia Cirio in a complex, dual role.  As guarded Odette, her every move diligent and yet her statuesque beauty and downcast demeanor enrich her mysterious and powerful presence.  Tingling violin resonates in Tchaikovsky’s emotive score as Cirio and Yocum share a hesitant and sweet encounter.  He tenderly lifts and comforts her at every turn.  Cirio can craftily engage an audience and masters her dual role as mysterious and confident Odile.  That striking look she gives reminded me of the fire she brought to her 2020 performance in Boston Ballet’s Carmen.  Cirio’s cunning smile and playful charisma gleam as Yocum takes her hand playfully and yet, almost possessively in a spellbinding and exhilarating dance.    

Boston Ballet in Mikko Nissinen’s Swan Lake; photo by Rosalie O’Connor, courtesy of Boston Ballet

Swan Lake is such a haunting and beloved tale of tender grace and arduous passion that, like The Nutcracker, it has been adapted in various forms for stage and screen over the years including Darren Aronofsky’s Academy award-winning Black Swan.  Mikko Nissinen has adjusted a few scenarios in Swan Lake since its re-imagining in 2016, but only for its betterment to create an even more thrilling, illuminative and memorable experience.    

Mikko Nissenen’s Swan Lake continues live and in person at the Citizens Bank Opera House in Boston, Massachusetts through Sunday, June 5. Swan Lake will then stream from the comfort of your home from June 9 through June 19. Click here for more information and tickets.

REVIEW: Boston Lyric Opera’s boxing opera ‘Champion’ a triumph in jazz

The brutal world of boxing punctuated with the complex harmonies of jazz set to simmering opera?  This premise might seem outlandish, but Terence Blanchard’s Champion An Opera in Jazz cleverly weaves these three elements together into an absorbing true story and cautionary tale of a welterweight boxer and a symbolic shoe that gains more significance than anything that takes place in the ring.

Boston Lyric Opera presented ‘Champion An Opera in Jazz’ Photo courtesy of Boston Lyric Opera

Boston Lyric Opera (BLO) presented their final show of the season, Terence Blanchard’s Champion An Opera in Jazz, for one weekend only through Sunday, May 22 at the elegant Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston, Massachusetts.  It is a shame this captivating production was limited to two exclusive concert-style performances in Boston, but it could not be helped due to COVID.   Champion An Opera in Jazz has adult themes with one intermission.  Click here for more information about the Boston Lyric Opera, upcoming events, and for details on BLO’s recently announced upcoming season. 

Boston Lyric Opera 2022-23 season Photo credit to Boston Lyric Opera

As the chorus took up the boxes in the balcony to produce a resonant, semi-surround sound quality led by Brett Hodgdon, the orchestra warmed up and played onstage for the duration of the performance.  With creatively engaging stage direction by Timothy Douglas, the intense drama and interaction within the strong cast far exceeded my expectations as concert versions of a work often focus more on music than plot.  In a packed house, Blanchard leaves much to unpack in this show’s more than two hour time frame. 

Brian Major as Emile Griffith Photo by David Angus/BLO

This introspective tale explores the complex relationships, trauma, abuse, neglect, and harrowing circumstances in welterweight boxer Emile Griffith’s life.  However, what really affected me the most was just as Emilie Griffith discovers who he is and who he wants to become, he endures constant pressure and insistence from others to be the version they see in him.  Griffith had the talent and ambition to craft his own vision, but his destiny ultimately takes a detour.

Musically-directed by David Angus, Champion is helmed by an insightful and fierce cast that eloquently evoke Michael Cristofer’s multi-layered libretto.  Champion has plenty of heart and heartache, but also has a redemptive quality and joy in life’s smaller victories.  Three versions of Emile Griffith portrayed by Brian Major as older Griffith, Markel Reed as younger Griffith, and Jonathan Harris as Little Emile Griffith each deliver a fresh perspective at pivotal points in Griffith’s life.  With uplifting and humorous commentary at times to lighten the production’s darker moments, ring announcer Matthew Arnold serves fittingly as a semi-narrator of this work.

MARKEL REED, TERRENCE CHIN-LOY, AND BRIAN MAJOR IN BLO’S 2022 PRODUCTION OF CHAMPION: AN OPERA IN JAZZ Photo by David Angus/BLO

A profound and engaging baritone, Major is heartrending and charismatic as he delves deep into Emile Griffith’s continuing and complex struggles.  Griffith has a lot to handle and it is touching to watch his sweet scenes with tenor Jesus Garcia as patient and grounded Luis.

Markel Reed delivers an exceptional portrayal as Young Emile Griffith.  Reed’s dynamic vocals blended with the sheer mastery of Griffith’s physical and psychological transformation from a wide-eyed, idealistic, and determined young man to an adult with eyes wide open to his future is a marvel to watch.  Jonathan Harris as adorable Little Emile Griffith makes a brief, yet significant mark in this story as well. 

Stylishly adorned in a floral dress and matching hat, Tichina Vaughn strikes a delicate balance of playfulness, detachment, and mournfulness as mysterious and headstrong Emelda Griffith.  This brilliant mezzo-soprano accomplishes a degree of sympathy for Emelda which is difficult to muster as Emelda struggles with her aching discontent, heartache, and constant need for greener pastures.

TICHINA VAUGHN AND CHABRELLE D. WILLIAMS IN BLO’S 2022 PRODUCTION OF CHAMPION: AN OPERA IN JAZZ Photo by David Angus/BLO

In a crisp blue suit, Wayne Tigges also brings some sympathy to tough-talking Howie Albert who has a skewed vision of Griffith, setting Griffith on an uncertain path.  Wayne’s multi-layered, rage-inducing aria of Killer Instinct is prevalent throughout the show and Wayne’s rendition particularly makes it memorable.  Tenor Terrance Chin-Loy as Benny ‘Kid’ Paret and soprano Chabrelle D. Williams as Sadie Donastrog Griffith both demonstrate their remarkable range in contrasting dual roles.

It was once difficult to imagine jazz as a boxing opera, but having heard the smooth, unpredictable, thrilling, and moody undertones as the music builds tension and urgency, I cannot imagine Champion An Opera in Jazz any other way.  Champion’s unconventional and stirring delivery is just what makes the show’s ubiquitous message ring true.

Champion An Opera in Jazz was Boston Lyric Opera’s final production of the season.  Click here for more information about the Boston Lyric Opera, upcoming events, and for details on BLO’s recently announced upcoming season. 

REVIEW:  Central Square Theater and Front Porch Collective’s ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ The Fats Waller Musical’ dazzling, engaging, and sensational fun

Whether it was a wink, a smile, Anthony Pires Jr’s mischievous laugh, the crackling chemistry and snappy asides among this multi-talented, finely adorned cast or Central Square Theater’s transformation into a vivid vintage Harlem nightclub, Ain’t Misbehavin’ certainly knows how to throw a roaring party.

Innovatively directed with stellar choreography by Maurice Emmanuel Parent and Ilyse Robbins with musical arrangements by Luther Henderson, Central Square Theater and The Front Porch Arts Collective continues sensational Ain’t Misbehavin:  The Fats Waller Musical live and in person at Central Square Theater in Cambridge, MA through Sunday, May 29 before moving to the Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham, MA from June 9 to June 26.  Click here for more information and tickets.

Jackson Jirard and Christina Jones in Central Square Theater’s ‘Ain’t Misbehavin” Photo credit to Nile Scott Studios

With festive lighting by Jeff Adelberg, red cocktail tables and lamps lining a gold-embroidered stage that frames the intimate, big band orchestra while eye-catching portraits hang on each side of the stage, Jon Savage’s alluring set design immediately sets the mood for an interactive, carefree, spontaneous, and humorous concert event fueled by Fats Waller’s tremendous talent.

The cast of ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ The Fats Waller Musical’ Photo credit to Nile Scott Studios

Accented by Elizabetta Polito’s distinctive costumes from furs to glimmering garments to slick pinstripe suits and bowler hats, Ain’t Misbehavin’ seamlessly rewinds the clock to the roaring 20s where Harlem nightclubs and speakeasies sprung up for a boisterous night of revelry during the Prohibition era.  Kicking off the show with a recording from Fats Waller himself, Ain’t Misbehavin’ reveals Waller’s catchy musical repertoire ranging  from exuberant romance to humorous irreverence to playful flirtation while also addressing significant and sobering issues of the era that remain rife today.  This incredible cast depicts it all with clever and mesmerizing swagger as well as some measure of illuminating heartache.

Led and enhanced by conductor Dan Rodriguez’s swift and extraordinary piano work especially for the thrilling stride piano number, Handful of Keys, this fiery, six-piece orchestra masters every brass-tinged and drum-laden beat with finesse. 

The cast of Central Square Theater and Front Porch Arts Collective’s ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ The Fats Waller Musical’ Photo credit to Nile Scott Studios

With an vocal aptitude for exciting, big band numbers as well as ardent crooning, a few of this show’s many highlights include Lovely Hoffman’s clever and moving Mean to Me and the sheer energy and vibrant vocals in Yacht Club Swing and The Joint is Jumpin.’ 

Ain’t Misbehavin’s  crackling chemistry is well demonstrated between Lovely Hoffman and Anthony Pires Jr as they deliver a playful duet for the light and amorous number, Honeysuckle RoseChristina Jones and Jackson Jirard take the stage for a sweet version of I Can’t Give You Anything But Love and Sheree Marcelle and Anthony Pires Jr deliver an equally charming duet for I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.  Accented by Jirard’s limber movements and amazing choreography through hazy lighting, the show takes on a captivating, psychedelic turn as Jirard sings The Viper’s Drag.  Anthony Pires Jr shows off big personality and comedic sass for Your Feets too Big before the cast gathers for a heartrending Black and Blue.

The cast of Central Square Theater and Front Porch Collective’s ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ The Fats Waller Musical’ Photo credit to Nile Scott Studios

The only thing more exciting than the music are the side smirks, irritated looks and onstage antics clearly hinting of the juicy drama happening between cast members behind the scenes, though it is all part of a show that thrives on the audience’s enthusiasm and interaction.   Ain’t Misbehavin’ is a riveting musical celebration for a multi-talented musician clearly ahead of his time.

Central Square Theater and The Front Porch Arts Collective continues sensational Ain’t Misbehavin’  The Fats Waller Musical‘ live and in person at Central Square Theater in Cambridge, MA through Sunday, May 29 before moving to the Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham, MA from June 9 to June 26.  Click here for more information and tickets.

REVIEW: Featuring Grammy award-winning mezzo-soprano Krista River and special guest musicians, A Far Cry ended season with a stirring ‘Sunset’

Having witnessed A Far Cry’s triumphant return to performing live and in person last September as they kicked off their 15th season with Circle of Life, it was an honor and fitting to review Sunset, A Far Cry’s final concert of the season.  Sunset was originally scheduled for March 2020 and this Grammy-nominated, self-directed chamber orchestra was thrilled to finally present it onstage.  With a heartfelt introduction by Sarah Darling, Boston-based A Far Cry brought a diverse repertoire of suspense, tragedy, and soaring vocals by mezzo-soprano Krista River before joining a collection of promising musicians including Project STEP for a robust finale.

A Far Cry criers at Jordan Hall Boston MA Photo credit to A Far Cry

Following opening group Project STEP, A Far Cry took the gorgeous Jordan Hall stage in Boston, MA for their final concert on Friday, May 13 for 90 minutes with no intermission.  A Far Cry will cap off their 15th season with a Spring Soiree on June 1 at the Nathaniel Allen Center for Arts and Culture in Newton, MA.  The event includes a sneak peek of next season, outdoor cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, and a charity auction with the option to attend in person or virtually.  Click here for more information and here for a look at A Far Cry’s upcoming season.

Grammy-nominated Chamber Orchestra A Far Cry Photo courtesy of A Far Cry

Elegantly dressed in flowing dresses and suits, A Far Cry opened their final concert with all 18 criers for Julius Eastman’s Joy Boy.  A piece likened to the feeling of falling in love, Joy Boy has a trickling and mounting intensity as the orchestra gradually comes to life.  It is fascinating to watch the ebb and flow in Joy Boy’s soothing opening rhythms which escalate to a gripping crescendo before lulling into its resonating finale.

Imagine moments before a stunning discovery in a suspenseful film.  That’s the escalating tension built around Lutoslawski’s fiery Musique Funebre, Spanish for Funeral Music.  A Far Cry performs this chilling and somber dirge with rich, Hitchcockian flair enhanced by a stroke of the viola and plucking, creeping rhythms.  Fueled by searing drama and violin-tinged, pulsing urgency, A Far Cry plays furiously to bring this masterful work to an exciting and astounding climax that might leave you with a few goose bumps by the finale.

‘Il Tramonto Photo credit to Sarah Darling/A Far Cry

Led by Grammy award-winning mezzo-soprano Krista River’s airy and soaring vocals, A Far Cry took on Respighi’s classic piece, Il Tramonto, which is an Italian phrase translated as The Sunset.  It is a popular piece having been featured in films such as the western classic, The Good the Bad and the Ugly.  Adorned in a shimmering blue gray gown with her hair swept into an updo, River’s expressive vocals and her stirring countenance brings out the surreal poignancy of this tragic romance.  Based on a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Il Tramonto has a moving story behind it and possibly inspired by a real life disaster in Indonesia. 

Mezzo-soprano Krista River Photo credit to A Far Cry

A Far Cry recalled how music has been “cathartic journey” and like many in the arts and beyond, the love for the arts has been tested, especially in the last few years.  Joined by promising musicians in New England Conservatory, NEC Prep, and Project STEP, A Far Cry brought this concert to a robust and wondrous close with Vicente Lusitano’s Aspice Domine and Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme, the latter dedicated to an inspiring teacher that encouraged young musicians to pursue their musical aspirations.  Highlighted by a duo of skilled violinists, this group of musicians brought A Far Cry’s 15th season to a glorious close with a mix of fragility, power, and a stirring finale.

Students in Project STEP Photo credit to Project STEP/A Far Cry

A Far Cry will cap off their 15th season with a Spring Soiree on June 1 at the Nathaniel Allen Center for Arts and Culture in Newton, MA.  The event includes a sneak peek of next season, outdoor cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, and a charity auction with the option to attend in person or virtually.  Click here for more information and here for a look at A Far Cry’s upcoming season.