REVIEW: Bridgewater State University’s Family Performing Arts Center’s lighter ‘The Wizard of Oz’ inventive fun for the whole family

A group of Nelson Mandela Fellows and visitors from China we among the enthusiastic audience attending Bridgewater State University’s (BSU) Family Performing Arts Center’s ‘The Wizard of Oz.’  Featuring full versions of ‘The Wizard of Oz’s’ beloved soundtrack such as Somewhere over the Rainbow and If I Only Had a Brain, this ‘Wizard of Oz’ is a bright, inventive look at a sweet Kansas farm girl and her dog who find themselves in a strange land with no idea how to get home and a witch suddenly in their wake.

Family Performing Arts Center presents ‘The Wizard of Oz’ through Sunday, July 28 at Bridgewater State University’s Rondileau Campus Center Auditorium in Bridgewater, Massachusetts.  Click here for more information and for tickets.  Click here for a closer look at the production.  Save 10% when you use the code ‘BRAIN’ at online checkout.  This show is suitable for all ages.

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Mary Kate McDonald as Dorothy Gale and her dog Toto Costumes by Mary Hurd and Photo credit to Deidre Confrare/BSU’s Family Performing Arts Center

From the moment Mary Kate McDonald as Dorothy, in braids and blue gingham overalls, vocally glides through the full version of Harold Arlen’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow which includes the song’s lesser known introduction, it was clear this show was going to be something special.  A beautiful soprano, McDonald is adorable as spunky Dorothy, depicting her with curiosity and a determined spirit, but careful not to let her impulsiveness get the better of her.  Her interaction with Toto, portrayed and operated by an ensemble character, gives Toto dimension.  Though at first it was disappointing Toto wasn’t a live dog, it ended up being a clever touch.  The human expressions and movements make Toto that much more endearing.

Featuring a couple of songs and a few characters not included in the 1939 film and a subtle twist ending, BSU’s Family Performing Arts Center keeps this production with its share of freshness and surprises.  With orchestration by Larry Wilcox and Peter Howard and background music by Herbert Stothart, ‘The Wizard of Oz’s’ enchanting soundtrack is no joke, as rarely heard and welcome introductions are weaved into each familiar number.  Conducted by Eli Bigelow, the orchestra impressively sets the mood to each comical and exciting scene.  Though the Jitterbug number is not included in the 1939 film and seems a bit dated and silly, the kids will certainly enjoy the darkly comedic piece.

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A Kansas landscape Costumes by Mary Hurd and Photo credit to Deidre Confrare/ BSU’s Family Performing Arts Center

‘The Wizard of Oz’ also boasts unique choreography, rich lighting, and picturesque sets.  For example, the yellow brick road is cleverly demonstrated more through props and choreography than a literal road.  Another notable moment is the intriguing choreography used during the poppies scene enhanced by bright, hand painted sets by Maia Hay and Michael Duarte.  Christopher Scully’s brilliant lighting and Michael Duarte’s sets portray rich silhouettes of the Kansas landscape and Oz which can dazzling or frightening.

This production has a few more comical moments to keep the show a bit lighter, but does not take away from the show’s poignancy and excitement.  It was a surprise to discover Haley McKenney as Glinda and Aunt Em.  McKenney could not have portrayed the two characters more differently.  Decked out in a feathered stole and shimmering tiara, McKenney’s vivacious Glinda is a high energy diva, chipper-voiced and almost maniacally giggly while the plainly stoic Aunt Em is a practical, but the nonetheless a compassionate soul.

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In a winged black hat, Katia Greene’s unpredictable Wicked Witch has her wicked moments, but portrayed a bit more comically with a spin on the character that I’ve never considered.  Greene clearly relishes the role, delivering an energetic and intimidating performance.  Neha Groves captures the mysterious, well meaning, but somewhat bombastic Professor Marvel.

However, Christopher Starr is an expert tumbler and his pliable body and good-natured demeanor make him a wonderful Scarecrow.  Steven Sawan as Tinman and Jim Quinn as Cowardly Lion both give endearing, comical performances.  Quinn’s baritone and quick wit make the number, If I Were King of the Forest a lot of fun.  With McDonald as Dorothy, they develop a lasting, captivating camaraderie that ring especially true during the numbers We’re Off to See the Wizard, The Merry Old Land of Oz, and Lions and Tigers and Bears.

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Christopher Starr as Scarecrow, Steven Sawan as Tinman, Mary Kate McDonald as Dorothy, and Jim Quinn as Cowardly Lion. Costumes by Mary Hurd and Photo credits to Deidre Confrare/BSU’s Family Performing Arts Center

Take a trip down the yellow brick road with BSU’s Family Performing Arts Center’s production of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ continuing through July 28 at Rondileau Campus Center Auditorium, 19 Park Avenue in Bridgewater, Massachusetts.  Click here for more information and for tickets.  Save 10% when you use the code ‘BRAIN’ at online checkout.   Follow BSU’s Family Performing Arts Center on Facebook for future events and more.

REVIEW SpeakEasy Stage’s ‘Once’ a celebration even within its quiet moments

Dancing fiddlers and a rollicking music celebration is only the beginning.  Directed by Paul Melone and adapted from the 2007 romantic musical film of the same name, The SpeakEasy Stage Company presents the Tony Award-winning musical, Once extended through Sunday, April 7 at the Calderwood Pavilion in Boston, Massachusetts.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

Welcoming early arrivals to the show is a lively, comical, pre-show band that is also part of the talented Once cast.  Each cast member is also a musician and they all get their moment to shine.  With naturally flowing choreography by Ilyse Robbins, stomping guitarists and dueling fiddlers joyfully romp in a freestyle dance with the drummer.  The band has such personality and the performance is a wonderful preface to a quietly beautiful love story about a pair of lonely musicians who long for their place in the world.

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Eric Levenson’s absorbing set design enhances the production’s soulful atmosphere, featuring instruments hanging around a brick arch while musicians pop up sporadically during the production.  Though Once is set in Dublin, takes a lot at Czech and Irish traditions.  Guy is a lonely, sensitive street performer from Northside Dublin.  Portrayed with tight lipped earnestness by Nile Scott Hawver, Guy expresses his raw emotion through his songwriting, immediately leaving an impact with his first number, Leave.

Guy meets Girl, a talkative Czech pianist portrayed with quirky charm by Mackenzie Lesser-Roy.  Their immediate, humorous chemistry and her heartening, compassionate demeanor toward him is a particular highlight only topped by their remarkable duets, heightened during the show’s signature song, Falling Slowly.

Hawver does an impressive job portraying Guy’s gradual vulnerability while showing off his comic chops, especially during the song Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy, but it is Lesser-Roy who shines, her chiming voice delivering a stirring rendition of The Hill and If You Want Me.  She carries a longing and loneliness she recognizes in Guy and her plucky, irrepressible optimism leaves a mark on everyone she meets.

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Once also has its share of amusing moments.  Billy Butler is hilarious as hot blooded, macho music shop owner, Billy.  Jeff Song is a delight as Bank Manager in a wildly enthusiastic version of Abandoned in BandonJacob Brandt and Kathy St. George are charming as perpetual dreamer Andrej and as candid, strong-willed Girl’s mother Baruska respectively.

The songs on Once’s acoustic, fiddle-laden soundtrack contain timeless, contemplative messages and the ensemble certainly contributes to its playful moments, but Once’s greatest strength is its subtle nuances and the impalpable stillness within this simple tale, most evident in the ensemble’s lovely, a capella version of Gold.  Love can a simple, quiet declaration that lingers long after the show is over.

SpeakEasy Stage presents the Tony Award-winning musical, Once extended through Sunday, April 7 at the Calderwood Pavilion, 539 Tremont Street in Boston, Massachusetts.  Click here for more information and for tickets.  Click here for a closer look at the SpeakEasy Stage and its 2019 season.

REVIEW: SpeakEasy Stage’s award-winning drama ‘Between Riverside and Crazy’, a powerful, darkly comical look at a family gone awry

“Eat vegetables.  Fiber is your best friend.  Potassium combats blood pressure.”  This sage, conventional advice was delivered in a humorous moment by Pops in an earnest attempt to be an average, conventional dad.  Though wise in his own way, Walter “Pops” Washington is anything but conventional as an alcoholic widow, father, and head of a wildly dysfunctional household in the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Between Riverside and Crazy that recently completed its run at the SpeakEasy stage at the Calderwood Pavilion in Boston, Massachusetts.  This production is not meant for children.  Click here for more information on the SpeakEasy Stage, winner of the 2018 Boston’s Best by the Improper Bostonian, and its upcoming productions.

Directed by Tiffany Nichole Greene and written by Stephen Adly Guirgis, Between Riverside and Crazy takes an edgy, at times controversial look at a struggling family who is losing their connection to each other while trying to survive by any means necessary.  With darkly humorous moments that delve into issues of racism, privilege, and deception, this message-driven production grows every bit as crazy as the title suggests.  However, things are certainly not all that they seem and the show is all the better for it.  The Washington family has a great deal of underlying heart and blunt honesty, but it takes some digging to get there.

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Lewis D. Wheeler, Maureen Keiller, Stewart Evan Smith, Tyrees Allen, and Octavia Chavez-Richmond in SpeakEasy Stage’s production of BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

The real strength in Between Riverside and Crazy is in its energetic, complex performances.  With a gravelly voice, more than his fair share of obstinacy, and traces of Red Foxx from Sanford and Son, Tyrees Allen slips smoothly into Walter’s tough skin with an inner turmoil that is always brimming to the surface, at the brink of revealing itself.   Every snarl, agitation, and sorrow flows eloquently, delivering a powerful punch to a performance that should not be missed.   It is easy to spot his outspokenness brashness in his son Junior, portrayed with a tough exterior, but with charm and secretiveness by Stewart Evan Smith.  Their exchanges, like most of the show, are quick paced and snappy, and if it wasn’t for the darker nature of this show, shows earmarks of any relatable American family.

Completing this family is Alejandro Simoes who delivers a quiet and sympathetic performance as Walter’s adopted son Oswaldo.  A bit naïve and with a secret of his own, Simoes delivers a clever and at times shocking performance of a troubled individual who is not all that he seems.

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Octavia Chavez-Richmond and Stewart Evan Smith in SpeakEasy Stage’s production of BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

With over-sized gold earrings, a tiny outfit and a Puerto Rican accent, Octavia Chavez-Richmond portrays the mysterious and often humorous Lulu.  Chavez-Richmond delves into this juicy, darkly comical role with gusto every time she takes the stage.  She is particularly funny during an exchange with Junior about their future and during a subtle, fascinating scene with Oswaldo and Junior discussing Ring Dings, bologna, and grape soda.

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Octavia Chavez-Richmond, Tyrees Allen, Lewis D. Wheeler, and Maureen Keiller in SpeakEasy Stage’s production of BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

Maureen Keiller as warm, but complicated Detective O’Connor and Lewis D. Wheeler as brown nosing Lieutenant Caro are outspoken New York police officers who have a history with Walter.  Some of the most memorable scenes of the show are between Keiller, Allen, and Wheeler, each exchange between them like a fascinating game of poker.  Although brief, Celeste Oliva offers a bold, pivotal, and controversial performance as Church lady.

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Celeste Oliva and Tyrees Allen in SpeakEasy’s production of BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

As a lit Christmas tree sits in the corner and what looks like a functioning kitchen, Eric D. Diaz and Wooden Kiwi do a wonderful job to portray a warm and inviting apartment equipped with a built in brick terrace, a set that is consistent throughout the entire show.  The staging is also strong as simultaneous scenes play out throughout the household, not a moment of it distracting.

Though it is not a show for everyone, its underlying themes, powerful performances, and meaty, twist-filled story delivers its award-winning appeal.  Between Riverside and Crazy kicked off Speakeasy Stage’s 28th season.  Next for the SpeakEasy Stage is the contemporary, Tony award-winning musical Fun Home, continuing through November 24.  Click here for more information of their current season which includes the the Tony award-winning musical Once and The View Upstairs.