Company Theatre’s Michael Hammond reveals his favorite part of theatre, a secret project, and ‘Fun Home’

Just prior to the pandemic, an award-winning, intriguing production not only made its debut but closed in one night on the Company Theatre stage in Norwell, Massachusetts over a year ago.  Onstage as the meaty role of Bruce, Company Theatre’s Director of Development Michael Hammond experienced that incredible and bittersweet night and what it meant to the cast of the musical memoir Fun Home. Click here for our full podcast conversation.

Aimee Doherty as Alison, Michael Hammond as Bruce, and Riley Crockett as Small Alison Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

The Company Theatre is offering a chance to see Fun Home for the full run they had originally intended in October.  Michael talks about his experience as Bruce, his favorite part of theatre, and a secret upcoming project. 

Click here for Sleepless Critic’s Fun Home review and here for tickets and further information about the Company Theatre.

Sleepless Critic: So you’ve been in theatre since you were a kid and now that we have had the pandemic, what was your favorite part of the theatre before and was there a change in your favorite or what you miss the most when we had a break?

Michael Hammond: I think we take a lot for granted in life.  We forget how much fun it is to sing with an orchestra or to perform on a beautiful set someone built.  Ryan Barrow does amazing sets at Company Theatre and it’s thrilling to perform on one of his sets.  It’s thrilling to perform with Steve Bass conducting an orchestra and thrilling to perform Sally Forrest’s choreography under Zoe Bradford’s direction. 

I think we take that for granted in some ways and as much as I enjoy it and maybe as I got from show to show to show, I think I just liked performing specific roles for the experience of getting to know a new cast.  I did a Christmas show at Company Theatre and just recharged my energy to be around such beautiful people and exciting kids and talent.  You’re in a flow and you are doing shows and enjoying it. 

The cast of Company Theatre’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

You get what you get out of it, but when the pandemic was coming, I was doing Fun Home with an extremely talented cast.  Riley Crockett was playing the youngest Alison.  I was re-experiencing theatre through her eyes and she had never been on a big stage or performed with an orchestra which is shocking because she is so talented.  She would ask me, ‘Are you nervous for your solo tonight?’  I would say, ‘I am a little.’  She would say, ‘Good, now you know how I feel.’  Ok, she needs a little more support and encouragement in that moment. 

Then we were standing on top of a staircase and we were about to walk down for our first entrance and she said, ‘Michael, I’ve never performed on a set like this.  This is a big deal.’  I said, ‘Yes, it is a big deal.  You are right. This is a beautiful experience and you’re about to sing live with an orchestra for the first time in a big theatre on a beautiful set.’  It made me look at what we are doing and not take it for granted. 

So we were fortunate to open and close Fun Home on the exact same night because the pandemic had really hit.  That day everyone was cancelling their performances but we went on because we had a feeling this would be it.  I’m so glad we did because it was one of the most exciting and electric experiences of my life.  People were rebellious and excited.  They knew this might be the last time they ever saw this show and Fun Home is not a super positive and happy experience.

Riley Crockett as Small Alison and Michael Hammond as Bruce Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

SC:  It is melancholy.

MH:  Right, but the audience treated it like it was a rock concert! 

SC:  Yes, I was there to review your first and final performance.  I felt so comfortable and wonderful and I had saw this show in Boston before.  What I liked about watching this particular show is that you can make it so different every time you perform it.  The parts can be portrayed very differently and you can do so much with the show.  In a way, if you had to say goodbye to theatre for awhile, I felt like that was such a poignant thing to do in that moment.

MH:  It was.  It was one of the most beautiful experiences I think I ever had and it was just so bittersweet because it was the last show with Jordie.  How thrilled and grateful am I that I got to have Jordie’s final show be Fun Home and I got to be a part of it. It was just such a fantastic experience and she loved the show. It was such a joy to go through that process with her. 

SC:  It is one of those shows that sneak up on you unexpectedly.  You’re experiencing the show and you enjoy it, but once it’s over, it is really thought-provoking. 

MH:  I saw it on Broadway and loved it.  I thought that I don’t necessarily need to see it again.  It was beautiful and moving and I think of it like a beautiful film.  You watch it and then you watch another film.  When this opportunity came around to work on the show, I have such a great appreciation for it.  I think it’s just one of the greatest things ever written where you’re dissecting and it personally and really in the trenches on it.  It’s so much more brilliant than I realized. 

SC:  It has such multi-layered performances as well. 

MH:  I was thinking today that there were so many things about Bruce,  I almost feel like I just left my body.  I personally couldn’t be any part of this character because it just wasn’t anything like me.  Sometimes I think about it and it feels really difficult to do it again because I remember it as ‘What did I even do?’  I feel like something else took over and performed the role for me.

SC:  I don’t often see you play parts like that.  Not to reveal anything, but your character is very complicated.

MH:  Then to hear compliments like you should do roles like that more often is such a compliment because people think of me as a song, dance, and musical theatre man.  Not that I shy away from roles like that, but it was very gratifying to play that part especially opposite such a talented cast.  It’s unbelievable.

SC:   I know you’ve written a few works with Jordie and Zoe over the years.  Please tell us how that came about.

MH:  I co-wrote Paragon Park the Musical with Zoe, Jordie, Sally, and Michael Joseph for the first production and Steve Bass for the second who worked on the music.  I love amusement parks and I loved Paragon Park. I went there so many times in my life. 

When I heard that Zoe and Jordie were thinking of writing a musical about Paragon Park, I selfishly just wanted to see it.  I had no inkling that I would be involved or that they would want me involved.  I just wanted to see that production so it got mentioned many times over the years and one summer I designed a poster Paragon Park the Musical coming summer of whatever year it was.  It was a long time ago. 

One day Zoe decided years after the poster even to start doing some research.  She said, ‘Why don’t you come with me?  We’ll get lunch.’  We went to the Hull Library which was incredible.  They put us in a private room and provided us with access to microfiche, boxes of memorabilia, and photographs.  They were so generous.  It just snowballed from there.  We just couldn’t stop.  We were researching and loved what we found.  It did not end up being the musical we thought we were going to write because the ideas we had in mind turned out to be completely not true.  It all got shifted.

We thought maybe there was this seedy underbelly to the park and that once the park was closed, things happened at night.  It was going to be dark and mysterious and then we find out from the park owners that ‘Oh no, we locked that place, sealed it like a drum at 11 pm, and went out for Chinese food.’  Nothing happened at the Park after hours.  So much for that, but the Stone Family provided us with so much information that we were able to write a really interesting and factual musical.  It was 80% true except for the love story we incorporated. 

SC:  Not only did you write it the first time around, but when it came back around, you got to star in it too. 

MH:  I did and it was a thrill!  The nicest feeling about that show and being in it is to be putting on a costume and as I’m by myself getting dressed, I would hear people walk down the hallway singing the songs or they would say that they get to do that scene they love now.  There was so much positivity and to realize we wrote a show that was really fun to perform.  Some of the kids were in Ragtime and we used to make these funny backstage videos.  So I said, ‘Why don’t we make videos during Paragon Park?’  They said, ‘Michael, you and Zoe wrote a show where there is no time to make videos.  When would we do that?’  It was nice to know we had a hand in creating this really fun experience.   It was quite thrilling to be able to perform something that I helped write.

Michael Hammond in Company Theatre’s ‘Paragon Park the Musical’ Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

SC: Please tell me about the projects you are working on now and upcoming projects.

MH: I’m devoting all my time to Company Theatre and Zoe and I thought, ‘Why not write another musical?’ It’s a completely different project from Paragon Park and we can’t quite announce yet what it is, but Zoe is incredibly inspired by this project. 

Watching her, it’s almost like she is channeling something like I’ve never seen.  She’s a beautiful artist and I’m obsessed with the way she draws and paints.  So she just took out a magic marker and a gigantic pad of paper and drew what she saw in her head for the plot of this show and it was quite impressive to watch.  Her ideas are flowing through her.  It is unbelievable so we’re hoping that will probably be the summer of 2023. 

A celebration of life for Company Theatre co-founder Jordie Saucerman. Visit companytheatre.com to learn how to be part of this tribute. Photo courtesy of The Company Theatre

Company Theatre, 30 Accord Park Drive in Norwell, Massachusetts, is presenting Fun Home in October as well as devoting a night to their late co-founder, Jordie Saucerman, in November.  Click here for more information and check back to find out about Company Theatre’s mystery original production.

REVIEW: Led by powerhouse vocals, SpeakEasy Stage Company’s engaging ‘Songs for a New World’ a memorable musical experience

We are all hearing soon.  Soon we will be back together in the theatre for a wonderful live theatrical experience.  How it has been missed! 

However convenient it is sitting in front of a computer for a virtual show, there is nothing quite like the anticipation of live theatre in person with an audience in a shared experience.  SpeakEasy Stage Company’s remarkable concert musical benefit show, Songs for a New World, accomplishes quite a bit in its hour and a half runtime.  Through clever cinematography that still adheres to Covid guidelines, SpeakEasy Stage Company recreates the thrill of seeing actors together onstage and it is easy to see each cast member’s excitement through their own extraordinary performances.  We’re not quite there yet, but this is getting ever closer.

‘A New World’ featuring the entire company Video courtesy of SpeakEasy Stage Company

Directed by Paul Daigneault and musically-directed by Jose Delgado, SpeakEasy Stage Company continues their 30th anniversary season with John Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World streaming through June 8.  The show was filmed onstage at the Calderwood Pavilion in Boston, Massachusetts.  Click here for more information and tickets.  Discount tickets are also available.  Click here for more information on SpeakEasy Stage Company’s recently announced 2021-22 season.

It is difficult to describe the anticipation of seeing SpeakEasy Stage Company’s concert musical benefit, Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World.   The last Jason Robert Brown musical I witnessed was a film adaptation of The Last Five Years.  It was a glorious, resonating tear jerker featuring reliable talents Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick

Songs for a New World explores a variety of characters that are faced with the ultimate, sometimes humorous and other times harrowing life-changing decisions and deciding what to do next.  With simple staging and an onstage band conducted by Jose Delgado, Songs for a New World has humor and heartache enhanced by some of Boston’s most recognizable vocal powerhouses.

Rashed Al Nuaimi sings ‘She Cries” Video courtesy of SpeakEasy Stage Company

From the inspiring, tremendous, and relatable opening number, A New World featuring powerful, upbeat harmonies between Dwayne P. Mitchell, Davron S Monroe, Mikayla Myers, Rebekah Rae Robles, Alexander Tan, Victor Carillo Tracey, Laura Marie Duncan and Rached Al Nuaimi, this production proves to be something to behold.  A New World/Time to Fly gives the audience a glimpse into the shared experience of what each character is feeling and the hope their decisions will turn out right.

Songs for a New World is full of powerful performances and each song is as strong as the last, but here are a few highlights.  One standout performance is a tender and stirring rendition of On the Deck of a Spanish Ship, 1492 as Monroe exclaims, “Have Mercy Lord” while the cast embarks on a harrowing, life-changing journey.  Dressed in a long fur coat, Laura Marie Duncan is wildly entertaining as a scorned woman in an extreme situation in Just One Step.  Duncan’s expressive personality and her sheer energy drive this amazing performance. 

‘I’d Give it All for You’ Jennifer Ellis and Dwayne P Mitchell Video courtesy of SpeakEasy Stage Company

Jennifer Ellis performs some vocal gymnastics as Mrs. Claus for Sweabaya Santa, reimagining Santa as an absent, judgmental husband whose love is as fleeting as his sleigh.  Dwayne P Mitchell literally rises from the ashes of his childhood in this boastful, self-assured rendition of The Steam Train.  Ellis and Mitchell have sweet chemistry in a beautiful duet about the complexity of love in I’d Give it All for You.

Rached Al Nuaimi demonstrates zany, emotional turmoil and building frustration in She Cries and Jennifer Ellis delivers a bold and anguished performance in The Flagmaster, 1776.

SpeakEasy Stage Company’s Songs for a New World also boasts an incredible finale not to be missed with Hear My Song.  Glad to add John Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World as another memorable musical experience. 

SpeakEasy Stage Company continues streaming Songs for a New World through June 8. Click here for more information, tickets, and how to support the SpeakEasy Stage Company.

REVIEW: Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s quintessentially local ‘A Woman of the World’ fascinating and full of surprises

Scandalous secrets unfold and things are not what they seem in Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s  (MRT) quintessentially local and fascinating production of A Woman of the World by Rebecca Gilman streaming on demand through Sunday, May 30.  Partnering with the Emily Dickinson Museum and directed cleverly by Courtney Sale, this one-woman show led by Massachusetts native Denise Cormier lights up the stage with natural charisma as enigmatic lecturer and historical figure Mabel Loomis Todd. She claims to bring insight into the real life of the late, renowned poet Emily Dickinson, but what she unveils is so much more. 

It was wonderful to see another production from MRT filmed onstage.  A Woman of the World also offers plenty of local references such as Harvard, MIT, the New England Conservatory, Boston, Amherst and the surrounding areas.  The show contains some hinted adult themes.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

Denise Cormier in MRT’s ‘A Woman of the World.’ Photo: Kathy Wittman/Merrimack Repertory Theatre

Scenic designer Bill Clarke and Original Music/Sound Designer David Remedios seamlessly combine the inviting comforts of home with the sights and sounds of a serene Maine setting.  However, don’t let the serenity of this island home fool you.   Mabel gears up for a quiet storm as the sound of the wind and crickets fill the air.

From welcoming to haunting, Carolina Ortiz Herrera’s soft, dynamic lighting not only transforms each mood in an instant, but does more so with Cormier.  At first Denise Cormier as Mabel seems a lively, well-to-do speaker with well coiffed blond hair, but as the show progresses, the subtle lighting reveal tinges of gray. 

Denise Cormier in MRT’s ‘A Woman of the World’. Photo: Kathy Wittman/Merrimack Repertory Theatre

Though it is a one-woman show, other “cast members” such as Mabel’s daughter Millicent is addressed offstage.  Delivering a multi-layered performance, Mabel’s charm to win over her audience first comes off as egotistical, but gradually becomes earnestness and she soon seems like an old friend.  Nothing short of a captivating showman, a warm and inviting presence, but the guarded moments intertwined in her storytelling is the stuff that keeps you hooked and her drifting reflections are when the show truly hits its stride.  Having had a stroke, Mabel is also somewhat an unreliable narrator in more ways than one. 

Denise Cormier in MRT’s ‘A Woman of the World’. Photo: Kathy Wittman/Merrimack Repertory Theatre

The show tackles relatable issues on feminism and Cormier as Mabel may make you root for her one moment and against her the next.   However, she’s a survivor and an enigma ahead of her time. 

Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s production of A Woman of the World by Rebecca Gilman is streaming on demand through Sunday, May 30.  Following the production is a short interview between director Courtney Sale and Denise Cormier on the inspiration behind the show.  Click here for more information, tickets, and for more about the Merrimack’s Repertory Theatre’s season.

Tony Williams Dance Center’s ‘Urban Nutcracker’ an immersive heartfelt letter to Boston in 2020

2020 has made an indelible impact on our society affecting family life, schools, businesses, the arts, and the very nature in which we live.  When Urban Nutcracker returned for its 19th season in 2019 and took the stage at Boch Center’s Shubert Theatre, it delivered dazzling style, live, multi-genre music, and the thrill of a classic tale with a unique perspective.  It was one of the many inventive performances taking the stage at Shubert Theatre or at any venue in Boston during the holiday season.

Seeing it now evokes an air of wistfulness.  Being a lover of city life in Boston for decades, seeing it now makes me long for Boston’s exciting streets, sit in the Boston Common, walk through Faneuil Hall in its crowded, bustling glory, and watch people marvel at the lights and holiday spirit of the city.  Make Way for Ducklings, the Duck Boats, the Boston Harbor, live music at the Hatch Shell, and the crowds filing into Fenway Park are a memory this year.  Especially at this glorious time of year, the warmth of the holidays in phenomenal Boston fills this city-lover’s mind with nostalgia and an enduring fondness for its boundless energy and heart.  How it is missed.

Filmed in 2019 at the Boston’s Shubert Theatre and featuring the City Ballet of Boston, Tony Williams Dance Center’s Urban Nutcracker continues streaming for free for its 20th anniversary through Christmas Eve.  Click here to see the show and more information on Tony Williams Dance Center.

Nutcracker Prince portrayed by Tony Tucker battles Haissen Booth as the Rat King Photo credit to Peter Paradise Michaels/Urban Nutcracker

The dynamic orchestra is the first to set the show’s immersive tone as they greet the setting audience traveling through the aisles playing their horn-infused, big band sound on instruments stringed in colorful lights.   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 sign, Massachusetts State House, and Downtown Boston’s Custom House Clock Tower are set strategically on Boston’s city skyline.  The orchestra plays above the performers, delivering a robust sound in a plethora of music styles that match the cornucopia of festive costumes by Dustin Todd Rennels and Rebecca Cross as cultures from around the world unite onstage. 

Gianni Di Marco as Drosselmeyer and Juliet Brown as Ruby and the cast Photo credit to Peter Paradise Michaels/Urban Nutcracker

When Tchaikovsky, Duke Ellington, and David Berger combine for the eclectic score musically directed by Bill Whitney, it is a journey of unfettered entertainment.  Urban Nutcracker has a modern, relaxed, family-friendly vibe which is depicted in the show’s bright and jubilant colors, an urban-chic apartment with a distinctive tree, and the dance styles intonate a party that could happen anywhere in the city today especially as kids gather for a picture using a selfie stick.

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 is captivating as wise, charismatic and exuberant Drosselmeyer.  He not only wows adults and children alike with tricks and presents, but his sweet interactions with Ruby, portrayed by enchanting Juliet Brown and Stella Kotter, provide some of Urban Nutcracker’s most memorable moments.

Khalid Hill dazzles in multiple roles, but his tap dancing shines most on the city streets as dancers synchronize beats on trash cans.  Ronnie Thomas is excellent as a funky soldier doll bouncing and coasting around the stage.

The Snow Queen and King, portrayed by Ruth Whitney and Joe Gonzalez, is the picture of elegance surrounded by luminous snowflake dancers and a glittering view of the Boston Common.  Gonzalez also delivers a visually-rich and daring performance in a duet with Ruth Whitney as Arabian dancers.

Betsy  Boxberger Khalil stuns as the Sugar Plum Fairy not only in a beautiful, upbeat solo but in a later performance with Joe Gonzalez and Gianni Di Marco during a jazz-infused Nutcracker Suite.  The lifts themselves are spectacular.

Several fun performances included athletic hula hoop dancers featuring Kendra Frank, a high-energy performance featuring skilled, tap-dancing workmen, Urban Nutcracker’s amusing answer to Bo Peep, but Urban Nutcracker’s answer to Make Way for Duckling featuring Michael Oliver Slayton as a tap dancing cop and an adorable troupe of ducklings led by Simone Wolfhorst, is a favorite, an unforgettable and endearing performance.

Urban Nutcracker offers something for everyone without being boxed into any particular music taste while also delivering a timeless message of the season.   It also pays unparallel tribute to Boston and if you are feeling nostalgic for the city, make sure to see this show.

Tony Williams Dance Center’s Urban Nutcracker continues streaming for free through Christmas Eve 2020.  Click here for more information, how to access the show, and how to support this organization.

REVIEW: Boston Film Festival’s US Premiere of ‘The Girl Who Wore Freedom’ a moving tribute through generations

The 36th annual Boston Film Festival featured the debut of shorts, feature films, and some fascinating documentaries such as the world premiere of This Hits Home, Me The People, Beyond Zero, and ‘25’ Tony Conigliaro The Documentary, the US Premiere of Memory of Water, as well as the East Coast premieres of Knots:  A Forced Marriage Story, Stro:  The Michael D’Saro Story, and After the Rain on September 24 through September 27.  The festival offered virtual options and live screen opportunities at the Showcase Icon Boston at the Seaport in Boston, MA.   Q and A panels were held with actors, directors, and foremost experts.  Click here for the full schedule.

Showplace Icon Theatre, located at Boston Seaport. Photo courtesy of Jeanne Denizard

Director, executive producer, writer, and narrator Christian Taylor explores the complicated road to forgiveness in her moving D-Day documentary, The Girl Who Wore Freedom which made its US Premiere at the Boston Film Festival.  This extraordinary film provides a unique perspective on D-Day on June 6, 1944 through the eyes of a variety of groups associated with D-Day including citizens of Normandy who were children when the bombs dropped.  20,000 French civilians were killed on D-Day.  Taylor narrates this film as an awed spectator and tourist as she invites D-Day survivors to recall their experiences while she demonstrates the paradoxical ways veterans are treated in Normandy than they are in the United States.

Flo Boucherie, pictured, co-producer of ‘The Girl Who Wore Freedom’ Photo credit to ‘The Girl Who Wore Freedom’

The Girl Who Wore Freedom’s co-producer Flo Boucherie is the symbolic Normandy girl that inspired the film’s title.  She has a particular tie to D-Day partly because her parents were D-Day survivors when they were children.  Her mother worked with the veterans, made Flo’s dress, and participated in the D-Day ceremonies. 

Citizens of Normandy, historical representatives, medics, and veterans describe the impact and the dynamic experiences they had from a Normand child’s encounter with an American veteran who inspired him to never start smoking to trading shoes for eggs to harrowing stories of a civilian who got shot and the museum that resulted from it.  It also recalls some of the significant and surprising events that occurred after D-Day and how perspective changes over the years as generations look back. 

Despite its serious material, the film is not without its lighthearted moments. It is about trauma, heartache, and harrowing loss, but also about liberation, love, friendship, and compassion.  What unfolds is a testament to the power of healing and forgiveness, not lost on anyone who has been at war. 

Watching this film is an eye-opening experience of one of the most harrowing events in world history.  Its emotional complexity may leave some conflicted of what should come out of the atrocities of war. 

Tom Rice, an American veteran who was in the March on Carentan Photo credit to ‘The Girl Who Wore Freedom’

The Girl Who Wore Freedom has been released at a pivotal time in the United States and the world with a sorely needed, universal, and thought-provoking message.  It encourages you to reflect inwardly and empathize with one another’s struggles.  The Girl Who Wore Freedom will unexpectedly move you to tears and make you grateful for the experience.

D-Day Parade Photo courtesy of ‘The Girl Who Wore Freedom’

The Girl Who Wore Freedom is currently touring the film festival circuit nationwide.  Click here to see where The Girl Who Wore Freedom will be shown next and here for more about this year’s Boston Film Festival and future updates.

REVIEW: Compassion and tension drive compelling feature film ‘Paper Spiders’ at the Boston Film Festival

Sponsored in part by NBC Universal, Boston Magazine, and Maydaze Films, The 36th annual Boston Film Festival took place virtually this year due to Covid-19 with the option to attend live screenings in Boston, Massachusetts from Thursday, September 24 through Sunday, September 27. 

Boston Film Festival offered live and virtual films during the 4-day festival Photo courtesy of the Boston Film Festival

Featuring the award-winning documentary, Jay Leno’s Garage, the four-day festival included the US premiere of feature films Small Town Wisconsin and Paper Spiders, a wide variety of short films, and powerful documentaries such as the world premiere of This Hits Home, Me The People, Beyond Zero, and ‘25’ Tony Conigliaro The Documentary,  the US Premiere of The Memory of Water, and The Girl Who Wore Freedom, as well as the East Coast premieres of Stro: The Michael D’Saro Story, Knots:  A Forced Marriage Story and After the Rain. Q and A sessions were held with actors, directors, and foremost experts.  Click here for the full schedule.

Your Virtual film selection the Boston Film Festival website Photo courtesy of the Boston Film Festival

The Boston Film Festival offered an option to see scheduled screenings of select films at the stellar Showplace Icon Theatre.  Located at the Boston Seaport and conveniently located at the Courthouse stop on the Silver Line, The Showplace Icon Theatre features state-of-the-art stadium seating with plush reclining chairs, a beverage holder, and a place for your popcorn.  Click here for a closer look at this amazing theatre and here for more information and tickets.

Showplace Icon Theatre, located at Boston Seaport. Photo courtesy of Jeanne Denizard

No matter what the circumstances, it is not easy dealing with mental illness, especially if it is a parent.  However, that is not the crux of the US Premiere of Paper Spiders, a coming-of-age tale about a teenager named Melanie portrayed with endearing maturity by Stefania LeVie Owen, and her relationship with her widowed mother Dawn, portrayed masterfully by Lili Taylor.  They are a fractured but seemingly happy family coming to terms with loss and attempting a new beginning. 

Set in Syracuse, NY, The film picks right up with relatable mother-daughter chatter at a pivotal time in Melanie’s life as they tour a college Melanie is interested in attending. Their sweet conversation makes it easy to see their close relationship, but later when their neighbor hits a tree in their front yard, what ensues is nothing Melanie could have ever imagined.   

‘Paper Spiders’ made its US premiere at the Boston Film Festival Photo courtesy of the Boston Film Festival

Each member of this compelling cast becomes more complex as the tale progresses, led by Lili Taylor as Melanie’s widowed and troubled mother, Dawn.  Taylor is no stranger to quirky characters and her usual odd charm shines through as Melanie’s talkative and anxious mother.  With a particular talent for exuding fear in her eyes, Taylor evokes sympathy and dismay as Dawn transforms from a concerned mother to living her life with one eye open, her vulnerability palpable as she struggles to see things clearly.

Stefania LeVie Owen is wonderful as responsible, cautious, and practical Melanie as she struggles to achieve a nearly impossible balance between being a teenager and handling her mother’s increasingly concerning episodes. What makes this struggle more poignant is the natural chemistry between Owen and Taylor who exude as much ease as they do strain.  This escalating tension mounts in quick paces as viewed through Owen’s innocent and alarmed perspective.

Peyton List, seen more recently as Tory in Netflix’s popular Cobra Kai series, is a welcome addition as Lacy, Melanie’s fun-loving and promiscuous best friend.  Serious and quiet, Melanie and Lacy’s contrasting personalities offer a break from the film’s serious nature.  Ian Nelson is charismatic as Melanie’s good humored, persistent, and wealthy classmate Daniel.  Nelson and Owen are charming together and also contribute to some of the film’s lighter moments until life inevitably gets more complicated.

Lili Taylor as Dawn in ‘Paper Spiders’ Photo courtesy of the Boston Film Festival

Director and writer Inon Shampanier and his wife and writer Natalie Shampanier create a beautiful blend of funny moments and engaging montages with a deeper look at Dawn and Melanie’s daunting reality.

After all, mental illness can become a roller coaster of emotions such as grief, anger, paranoia, loneliness, and anxiety, but the crux of Paper Spiders isn’t any of these things.  It’s about the struggle through this unpredictable journey with those you love with understanding, ever holding on to hope.  Paper Spiders never loses sight of that.

Paper Spiders is currently touring the film festival circuit nationwide.  Click here to see where Paper Spiders will be shown next and here for more about this year’s Boston Film Festival and future updates.

REVIEW: SpeakEasy Stage Company’s intriguing ‘The Children’ explores resilience and buried secrets

What would you do in the face of a disaster?

Under the roof of a shabby and antiquated seaside English cottage, Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children looks into the lives of three brilliant and possibly doomed people that may be more connected than they seem.  Not without its dark sense of humor and charm, The Children is a gripping exploration into the meaning of survival in a crumbling landscape and what happens next has never been more important.

The_Children_0092

Paula Plum, Karen MacDonald, and Tyrees Allen in SpeakEasy Stage’s production. Photo by Maggie Hall Photography

Directed with profound insight by Bryn Boice, SpeakEasy Stage Company recently had to discontinue the remaining performances of The Children at the Calderwood Pavilion in Boston, Massachusetts due to COVID-19 concerns. This show contained adult themes and some smoking onstage.  Click here to learn about the remaining shows of SpeakEasy Stage Company’s 2020 season.

Paula Plum as Hazel chillingly recalls the disaster, “It looked like the sea was boiling milk and it just kept boiling and boiling.”  Married couple Hazel and Robin face day-to- day life in the aftermath of a disaster.  With few resources, they attempt to build a new life when an old friend, one that Hazel thought was dead, arrives unexpectedly.

Technical Director Taylor Hansen and Master Electrician Becky Marsh launched some incredible special effects built into the stage.  Rachel Padula-Shufelt’s colorful costumes flourish against Cristina Todesco’s bleak scenic design while lighting designer Jeff Adelberg and David Remedios’s sound design skillfully complete the show’s haunting seaside solitude.

The Children is steeped in as much looming sadness as engaging humor.  That is in no small part due to its three stellar actors and sharp script that swings from humor to tragic in a single quip.

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With a thick, Yorkshire accent, Paula Plum embodies low key, practical, and increasing complex Hazel.  Simply dressed in overalls and a turtleneck, Plum is as capable of leveling a room with her eyes as she is with her dry wit.  Plum seems to relish cynical and stealthy characters behind a seemingly ordinary facade and Hazel holds her own surprises.  She reconnects unexpectedly with enigmatic, free-spirited, and one-time confidant Rose, portrayed with gumption and gall by Karen MacDonald.  Watching Plum and MacDonald spar and interact with each other is like watching a tense chess match where you are anxious to find out who will make the next move.  They share stories, philosophize, and trade smiles while wondering what kind of secret the other one is hiding.

Having last portrayed Pops in SpeakEasy Stage’s critically-acclaimed Between Riverside and Crazy, Tyrees Allen is a charismatic and often fun loving presence as Robin, Hazel’s dairy farmer husband.  Allen and Plum have a seemingly effortless chemistry with an even mix of irritability and adoration illustrated in old married couples.  A man of stubbornness and solutions, Allen’s seemingly carefree attitude cuts through Plum and MacDonald’s building tension before he creates some of his own.  The deliberate unfolding of this story occurs in sharp, sequential pieces with hardly time to digest the last big revelation before the next one is unveiled.

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Tyrees Allen, Paula Plum, and Karen MacDonald in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s ‘The Children’ Photo by Maggie Hall Photography

So why is this production called The Children?  While Hazel is grounded by her three children, Rose is single and childless.  Children are explored in multifaceted ways whether referring to Hazel’s children, the community children, the things we learn from children, and the things we wish we knew as children growing up.  However, life begins and ends with children in this production and the very foundation in what holds them together is also what can tear them apart.

Click here to learn more about The Children and the remaining shows of SpeakEasy Stage Company’s season.  Click here to learn about auditions, support, and how to get involved with SpeakEasy Stage Company.

 

 

REVIEW: SpeakEasy Stage Company and Front Porch Arts Collective delivers a no holds barred, twist-filled ‘Pass Over’

The setting could be anywhere.  However, that feeling of impending doom cannot be shaken as SpeakEasy Stage Company and Front Porch Arts Collective presents the twist-filled, semi-interactive, and award-winning Pass Over by Antoinette Nwandu continuing through Sunday, February 2 at the Calderwood Pavilion in Boston, Massachusetts.  This show is not appropriate for young children for explicit language and adult themes.  Pass Over is an hour and a half with no intermission.  Click here for more information and tickets.

Directed cleverly by Monica White Ndounou, Pass Over is part absurdist drama that tackles a number of social issues including racism and police brutality and weaves them together into a culturally meaningful narrative. Its theatre-in-the-round and semi-interactive setting helps pull the audience into the drama and never lets go.

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Hubens “Bobby” Cius and Kadahj Bennett in SpeakEasy Stage’s production of ‘Pass Over’ Photo by Nile Scott Studios

Alternating swiftly from humorous to harrowing,  Pass Over mixes the real with the seemingly imagined, often leaving you wondering whether what you are seeing onstage is actually happening.  Kathy A. Perkins’s lighting and pulsing sound by Anna Drummond seamlessly navigates the distinct, intense mood of this piece.

This suspenseful tale comes with simple staging by Baron E. Pugh and Wooden Kiwi Productions with only a nondescript lamp post and chain link fencing.  Anything more than that would be distracting.  Costume designer Chelsea Kerl keeps Kitch and Moses local with Red Sox caps and Celtics gear.

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Hubens “Bobby” Cius and Kadahj Bennett in SpeakEasy Stage’s production of ‘Pass Over’ Photo by Nile Scott Studios

The joint charisma of the two main characters is what hinges on the show’s credibility and they have that in spades.  The magnetic camaraderie, natural rhythm, and gift for physical humor between pensive Moses, portrayed by Kadahj Bennett, and funny, fast-talking Kitch, portrayed by Hubens “Bobby” Cius, gives this show its intriguing vibe as they joke, dream, plot, and wait on a deserted street corner.  They keep each other strong as they dream of rising up to their full potential and escape what is holding them back.  “Pass Over” means freedom.

Lewis D. Wheeler’s over-the-top performance enhances the palpable tension in this production.  As Mister, he plays an intricate part and takes on more than one role in this thought provoking tale.  In a beige suit and panama hat while carrying a wicker basket, Mister’s back story faintly resembles little red riding hood as he creates an impossible situation.

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Lewis D. Wheeler in SpeakEasy Stage’s ‘Pass Over’  Photo by Nile Scott Studios

Without being preachy, Pass Over delivers a powerful message while exploring some of the darker, hypocritical sides of human nature and treats its serious themes with sensitivity.

SpeakEasy Stage Company and the Front Porch Arts Collective present Pass Over through Sunday, February 2 at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street in the South End of Boston, Massachusetts.  Click here for more information and tickets and here to learn more about the Front Porch Arts Collective. The Children and Bright Star still coming up as part of SpeakEasy Stage Company’s 2020 season.

REVIEW: Mikko Nissinen’s ‘The Nutcracker’ remains a visually-stunning journey for all ages

With enchanting special effects and performances that would endear any holiday pessimist, Mikko Nissinen’s The Nutcracker once again returns with an entire world seeped in the fondest of daydreams for adults and children alike. With the enhancement of internationally-renowned Finnish lighting designer Mikki Kunttu and Tchaikovsky’s classic score conducted by Misha Santora, The Nutcracker is as picturesque as ever, emphasizing its mark as an annual holiday institution.

Boston Ballet The Nutcracker cast Photo by Liza Voll

The 150 dancers making up ‘The Nutcracker’s’ spectacular cast. Photo credit to Liza Voll/Boston Ballet

The castle on a cloud is only the prelude to an enchanting journey as Mikko Nissinen’s The Nutcracker returns to the Citizens Bank Opera House with new surprises.  An elegant party, a valiant battle, and a variety of spectacular toys springing to life is just part of Clara’s exquisite journey when she is gifted an intriguing Nutcracker for Christmas.

The Boston Ballet takes the stage for Mikko Nissinen’s The Nutcracker continuing through Sunday, December 29.  The Boston Ballet features discount youth pricing. Click here for more information and for tickets.

The Boston Ballet The Nutcracker

Stage view Photo courtesy of Jeanne Denizard

Robert Perdziola’s meticulously-detailed set and costume design not only create an inviting atmosphere whether inside a fire lit, multi-dimensional living room with a towering, emerald-lit Christmas tree or surrounding an outdoor fire pit where locals can keep warm, but also creates a pristine wintry wonderland where you can almost feel the chill.  The ornate period costumes are gorgeous as women are adorned in velvet, silk, and ribbons and the men are dressed to the nines. Sweet, sophisticated, yet playful Clara, portrayed impressively by Emma Blake, is lovely in her pale blue coat, bonnet hat, and fur hand warmers.

Boston Ballet The Nutcracker Party Scene by Liza Voll

Party scene. Photo credit to Liza Voll/Boston Ballet

Christmas Eve is a magical time, especially for children.  Paulo Arrais unveils some of that magic as charismatic and confident showman, Drosselmeier.  Mustachioed Arrais is a grand presence as he delivers visions sprung from the imagination, showing children anything is possible.

Boston Ballet Nutcracker Ricardo Santos and Ji Young Chae by Rosalie O Connor

Harlequin Doll and Ballerina Doll. Photo credit to Rosalie O’Connor/Boston Ballet

Among the most memorable moments is a Soo-bin Lee’s convincing portrayal as a Ballerina Doll, her rigid movements out of the box a fascinating sight.  Tyson Clark’s Harlequin Doll and Sun Woo Lee’s life size, exotic bear are exuberant, playful, and among the most highly- anticipated scenes in this production.

The appearance of the Nutcracker Prince, depicted by a chivalrous and gallant Derek Dunn, is extraordinary surrounded by bright, multicolored, shimmering ornaments in a magnificent tree.  His appearance highlights one of the most spectacular and exciting special effects of the production that will not be revealed here.  His encounter with Alec Roberts’s bold and at times humorous Mouse King is thrilling and partially what makes The Nutcracker a children’s classic.

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Alec Roberts as the Mouse King and a valiant battle Photo credit to Liza Voll/Boston Ballet

Seo Hye Han and Tigran Mkrtchyan are visions as The Snow Queen and King on a sparkling silver sleigh as surrounding dancers joyfully flock and frolic in a glorious scene.  Seo Hye Han and Tigran Mikrtchyan have a sweet chemistry as they join together in a captivating dance.

Boston Ballet The Nutcracker Snow fairies by Liza Voll

An enchanted winter wonderland. Photo credit to Liza Voll/Boston Ballet

Under glimmering chandeliers is a group of remarkable, electric performances which is less story progression and more showcase driven presented by the iconic and sparkling Sugar Plum Fairy, portrayed with finesse by Chisako Oga.  Two pairs of Spanish dancers portrayed by Ekaterine Chubinidze, Haley Schwan, Daniel Cooper, and Benji Pearson, sway and twirl in a dazzling spectacle.  Chyrstyn Fentroy and Paul Craig receive a rousing applause as a pair of exotic and athletic Arabian dancers while Desean Taber, Daniel Durrett, and Fuze Sun show off their flexibility and athletic prowess as a trio of leaping Russian dancers.

Among the most humorous scenes is an adorable appearance by Bo Peep accompanied by a mischievous black sheep and Graham Johns as towering and surprising Mother Ginger.

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Clara, portrayed by Mia Steedle, Nutcracker Prince portrayed by Tigran Mkrtchyan, and reindeer by students of Boston Ballet School Photo credit to Liza Voll/Boston Ballet  

Whether seeing Mikko Nissinen’s The Nutcracker for the first time or returning to enjoy it all over again, The Boston Ballet is as elegant and magical as you remember with enough refreshing additions to endure as a splendid holiday treat for the entire family.

The Boston Ballet takes the stage for Mikko Nissinen’s The Nutcracker continuing through Sunday, December 29 at the Citizen Bank Opera House, 539 Washington Street in Boston, Massachusetts.  These performances feature group rates and discount youth pricing.  Click here for tickets and for more information on Boston Ballet’s 2020 season.

 

 

Artistic Director and founder Tony Williams describes how ‘Urban Nutcracker’ became a hit

What if the spirit of Boston as well as hip hop, tap, Mexican folk dance, flamenco, swing dancing and more were weaved into Tchaikovsky’s beloved holiday classic, The Nutcracker?  Celebrating its 19th anniversary, The City Ballet of Boston (CBB) presents Tony Williams’ family friendly Urban Nutcracker from Thursday, December 19 through Saturday, December 28 at the Boch Center Shubert Theatre in Boston, Massachusetts.  Click here for more information and tickets.  Click here for a sneak peek at the show.

Tony Williams, acclaimed choreographer, founder, and Artistic Director of the Urban Nutcracker and the Tony Williams Dance Center, talks about Urban Nutcracker’s humble beginnings and how it has evolved to become the hit it is today while every year featuring something new.

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Founder and Artistic Director of Urban Nutcracker Tony Williams Photo courtesy of Tony Williams/City Ballet of Boston

Sleepless Critic:  What I love about Urban Nutcracker is while the traditional Nutcracker is rooted in fantasy, the heart of the Urban Nutcracker is in Boston and its history.  What inspired this concept?

Tony Williams:  I was raised in Boston and danced in the premiere of the first major professional production of Boston Ballet’s The Nutcracker conducted by famed conductor of the Boston Pops Arthur Fiedler in 1965.  I danced in the traditional Nutcracker for many years and when I stopped, I still performed large and smaller productions in and around Boston.

About 20 years ago, I started my dance school in Jamaica Plain.  I had two male African American dancers working for me teaching tap and hip hop.  In my school’s first year of enrollment, I had about 20 boys which is a huge amount of boys than in most dance schools.  I had the makings of a youth cast for a production and wanted to showcase the kids, but most of the boys came for tap and hip hop where I was teaching ballet.

I thought about putting on The Nutcracker and the parents can be involved and bring their kids.  With so many traditional Nutcrackers out there, maybe we can create an urban contemporary Nutcracker with hip hop, tap, and ballet incorporating our hip hop teacher Ricardo Foster and tap teacher Khalid Hill.

Coincidentally around that time, I came across Duke Ellington’s jazzy, big band Nutcracker Suite.  I can use that and mix in the traditional Nutcracker like a soup and hope it turns out right.  A smaller dance troupe also performed a Nutcracker in New York City around that time.  Their background was in New York City and they based the show in Central Park.   I decided to freshen up this old classic chestnut, The Nutcracker, and put it in present day Boston.

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Sneak Peek of the Urban Nutcracker at this year’s Boston Tree Lighting in the Boston Common Photo courtesy of Tony Williams/City Ballet of Boston

SC:  It has been very successful because I believe next year will be Urban Nutcracker’s 20th anniversary in 2020.

TW:  It’s amazing we’ve succeeded all of these years.  We evolve, tweak, and polish the show every year and it’s a challenge financially to pull it all together.  The first year we were on a shoestring budget.

People have supported the show all of these years and I feel fortunate it is still around.  Not so much for my personal ego, but for the opportunity to have it for the City of Boston.  You don’t have to know Boston in order to like the show but if you do, you will have more of a connection to it.

SC:  You feature some traditional and international roots in the Urban Nutcracker such as The Russian Dance.

TW:  We have the Russian Dance which we call Caviar Caper, the Arabian Dance we call Desert Chiffon, and the Chinese or Tea Dance which we call Ginseng Brise.  Brise is the French word for a dance step in ballet.

This year, we have a major addition to Act II and one of the divertissements will be based on the story, Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey from 1941.  We introduced ducks in the snow scene in the past and it didn’t quite fit.  This year we are calling it Mrs. Mallard and her Duckling Delights with a tap dancing policeman and Mother Duck will dance on Pointe.  The cute baby ducks have their own dance which the kids will love.

We’re doing a new Russian dance with two couples and many more surprises!

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Urban Nutcracker cast Photo courtesy of Tony Williams/City Ballet of Boston

SC:  How did this become a tradition?  The reception must have been extraordinary that first year.

TW:  The first year we were trying to introduce this new creation was right after 911 and the whole world was in a depression.  A friend of mine told me it wasn’t the time to do this kind of show and I thought about that.

I was sad about what had happened, but working with the young kids brought about a rebirth of hope and I continue the show because of them.  We did three sold out performances the first year at the Strand Theatre in Dorchester.

I was so nervous that first night and had no idea how it would be received.  We had no money or advertisements except a great story in the Globe.  From the opening dance in the prologue right before the story line began, the dancers and musicians in Downtown Crossing and Quincy Market danced outside with their hats out for donations.  The ovation was so loud and that’s when we knew we had something.

SC:  I understand that the show features The City Ballet of Boston.  Is that your troupe?

TW:  It used to be the Tony Williams Ballet Company, but last year it evolved into the non-profit City Ballet of Boston.  The core group is comprised of eight cohesive adult professional dancers that have been with me for the second year.  It is expected we have top notch professional dancers at the Shubert Theatre which is partly why I did that with the company.  I call it City Ballet of Boston because we are proud of Boston.  Hopefully, when I am no longer around, The CBB will be able to produce this show for generations to come.

A woman who happens to work at the Boch Center Shubert Theatre came for the first time last year and brought her three year old daughter while her husband was away on business.   Her parents were visiting from Chicago and the four of them came to the show.  She told me afterwards she really enjoyed the show, but was struck that her daughter, father, and mother were so raptly attentive to the show as well.   Each generation enjoyed it!

SC:  What are your future plans?

TW:  We have the family production, Peter and the Wolf from April 29 to May 2, 2020 at the Calderwood Pavilion.  We’ve been doing some classical and contemporary pieces and it will be something for everybody.

SC:  You tend to mix contemporary with traditional dance.

TW:  I do it because it is intriguing creatively, artistically, and it’s fun to work that way.

SC:  That way you can keep surprising people with your work.

TW:  I need to do something fresh not only for the audience and the dancers, but I get a charge out of that too.

Urban Nutcracker returns to the Boch Center Shubert Theatre, 265 Tremont Street in Boston, Massachusetts from Thursday, December 19 through Saturday, December 28.  Click here for more information, tickets, and learn more about Tony Williams and his work.