REVIEW:  ‘Freestyle Love Supreme’ an astounding good time

A roaring crowd greeted hip-hop comedic dynamos, Freestyle Love Supreme opening night at the Emerson Colonial Theatre in Boston on Friday, March 18.  Packed with plenty of self-proclaimed Freestyle Love Supreme super fans, witnessing this unique, interactive, Tony award-winning production feels more like attending a rock concert.  The anticipation leading up to it was palpable and I immediately got the sense I was in for a truly remarkable experience.    

Before In The Heights or Hamilton, there was Lin Manuel Miranda’s Freestyle Love Supreme which continues live and in person at the Emerson Colonial Theatre, 106 Boylston Street in Boston, MA through April 2.  The show is approximately 90 minutes with no intermission. Click here for more information and tickets.

L to R: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Kaila Mullady AKA Kaiser Roze, Anthony Veneziale AKA Two Touch and Aneesa Folds AKA Young Nees Photo credit to Joan Marcus

No wonder Freestyle Love Supreme is beloved seeing that the show still features some of the founding cast members since the group started in 2004 and went on to be featured in the self-titled Hulu documentary and on Broadway.  Founding member Chris Sullivan AKA Shockwave wows with phenomenal hip hop beats (and seemingly impossible) sound effects, Aneesa Folds AKA Young Nees can perform powerful vocal gymnastics to anything that is thrown Young Nees’s way, and founding member Anthony Veneziale AKA Two Touch is a great and welcoming host.  Not only can every cast member deliver clever quips at the drop of a hat, but the show is friendly, interactive, and inclusive.

From L to R: Chris Sullivan AKA Shockwave, Richard Baskin Jr AKA Rich Medway, Anthony Veneziale AKA Two Touch and Aneesa Folds AKA Young Nees Photo credit to Joan Marcus.

Is Freestyle Love Supreme a big party?  A resounding yes, but every performance is unique so it is best enjoyed just knowing the basics.  Don’t feel pressure to participate, but the more enthusiasm and participation, the better the show.  Trust me.  Even in masks which Freestyle Love Supreme deems ‘consonant killers,’ the audience is invited to demonstrate what they are saying in creative and amusing ways.  It is fun, has heart, and there wasn’t a dull moment.

The show is tailor made for the locals boasting a slew of signature Boston and pop culture references.  Listen closely for the inventive and masterful delivery of these brilliant, high-speed rappers.  The possibilities are endless.  They also aren’t shy about what they say onstage.  This may sound a bit like Whose Line is it Anyway and Wayne Brady was part of the cast at one point, but accompanied by an intimate live band, Freestyle Love Supreme is just on another level.  For example, one audience member suggested the word, ‘Yankees’ and it was amazing to see how just many ways that one word was demonstrated led by the vocal styling of hilarious Jay C. Ellis AKA Jellis J.

The cast of ‘Freestyle Love Supreme’ Photo credit to Joan Marcus

Freestyle Love Supreme is hilarious, relatable and brilliantly fast-paced, but what makes the show most endearing was not so much the spectacle, but how much the cast does not hesitate to share their personal experiences as each show is shaped into a carefully tailored crowd pleaser. To think for the first time ever, the show’s full set was not delivered by opening night!  I can’t imagine having a better time.

Freestyle Love Supreme continues live and in person at the Emerson Colonial Theatre in Boston, MA through April 2.  Click here for more information and tickets.

REVIEW: Overcoming an important theme in NYC’s Indie Theatre Film Festival’s dynamic ‘Coming of Age’ short films

A spontaneous escape, an evil queen, finding inspiration and discovering super strength is just the tip of the iceberg for New York City’s Indie Theatre Film Festival’s Coming of Age Shorts Screening.  These shorts explore overcoming troubles, fears, and heartache in remarkable ways including a sense of humor as demonstrated in Dianne Diep’s Cloud Gazing.  Peals of laughter can remedy almost any situation.

The New York City Indie Theatre Film Festival continues streaming through Sunday, February 20.  Click here for more information and how to stream a variety of dynamic films including animation and documentary works.

Photo credit to the NYC Indie Film Festival

In the face of chaos, there is strength.  Overcoming is such a prevalent theme in these coming of age shorts and none quite faces it like Jonah Beres as Sam Wheeler in Balloon, a boy who is relentlessly bullied at school. Who can Sam really turn to? Beres’s sympathetic eyes and careful demeanor resemble a young Dane DeHaan.  DeHaan has a knack for portraying characters with pent up emotion just on the brink of letting go.  Directors Jeremy Merrifield and Dave Testa capture a captivating burst of emotions and the awkwardness of childhood through nature, at home, and symbolically in a popping balloon. 

Jonah Beres as Sam Wheeler ‘Balloon’ Photo credit to NYC Indie Theatre Film Festival

Directed and produced by Dianne Diep, Cloud Gazing is a lighthearted take upon a common rite of passage in New York City.  It is the epitome of looking at the bright side as Dianne Diep as Mia makes the best of her latest apartment in the Big City.  The silly and imaginative dialogue, cinematography, and the peals of laughter from Shannon Whelan as Dylan and Dianne Diep as Mia could leave the most serious heart uplifted.  Click here for more on Cloud Gazing and Dianne Diep can also be seen in upcoming Mia:  Unraveling Series.

Photo credit to NYC Indie Theatre Film Festival

Profound life advice is hard to come by.  For example, ‘Life is better than a movie…buy cookies and cream’ is a notable and memorable quote from Tom’s Bench.  Directed by Richard H. Pluim, it’s a heartwarming short film taking place on a special Astoria Park bench in New York.  Most notable is the soothing and fitting Simon and Garfunkel-style closing song Come and Go by the Timber Choir

Adam Patterson and Kyle Stockburger on ‘Tom’s Bench’ Photo credit to NYC Indie Theatre Film Festival

Starting a new day holds new meaning for an unhappy wife in Expectations directed by Vic Dominguez.  It is also directed, written, and starring Kaitlin Gould.  This short would benefit with a longer screen time because Gould’s actions only bring up more questions. 

Photo credit to NYC Indie Theatre Film Festival

Overcoming has several meanings for a discouraged artist longing for inspiration and she may find it in a most unconventional way in You and I written directed and produced by Yiqing Zhao.  It is a quirky, colorful, and sweet film about overcoming doubt for the dream in your heart. 

To the sounds of Gymnopedie No 1, Fair is a stinging, deeply relatable, and inventive short film infusing fairy tale with stark reality as a woman, portrayed by Marissa Molnar, must overcome her current circumstances.  It is a clever and fascinating piece that has moments of charm and humor in its brief time frame. 

Marissa Molnar is ‘Fair’ Photo credit to NYC Indie Theatre Film Festival

School life isn’t easy for Angella Cao as Jessa in Pippi, a nod to the famous children’s book character, Pippi Longstocking.  Most notable is the moving and poignant interactions between the adorable Cao and Karoline Xu as her mom. 

Angella Cao as Jessa in ‘Pippi’ Photo credit to NYC Indie Theatre Film Festival

A woman is on a mysterious voyage in Goat.  This short film has beautiful cinematography and its share of odd humor.  Ben Lewis as Simon is an especially intriguing character.

The New York City Indie Theatre Film Festival continues streaming through Sunday, February 20.  Click here for more information and how to stream a variety of films.

REVIEW:   NYC Indie Theatre Film Festival’s drama ‘Get it Together’ cleverly subverts expectations

College students Mary Hewitt (Andie Lerner) and Harold Kruger (Eric Bermudez) decide to meet upstairs at a house party in a small town in Pennsylvania.  At first glance one can form a few assumptions about this scenario, but Get it Together’s clever dialogue and building tension only keeps the viewer guessing on what could possibly be next in its approximately 45 minute timeframe.

Written and directed by Michael Quinn, Get it Together is a drama film in the New York City Indie Theatre Film Festival (NYCITFF) which continues streaming online through Sunday, February 20. This film contains some mature themes.  Click here for more information and how to get access to a wide range of short and full length films in a variety of genres.

From having fun to sharing secrets to betrayal to creepy and back again, Mary and Harold have a bit of a history.  Deep thinking Scarlett and secretive Horan have peculiar and evolving chemistry and it is interesting to see the way the tone of the film changes at the drop of a hat. 

The push and pull of the dialogue constantly ambushes expectations.  Are these two people adversaries, acquaintances, friends, lovers?  Each carefully selected line of dialogue will leave the viewer constantly guessing about what these two mean to each other.  It is an encounter that will possibly simmer in your mind long after the film is over.

Get it Together, part of the New York City Indie Theatre Film Festival (NYCTIFF) continues streaming online through Sunday, February 20.  Click here for more information and how to get access to a wide range of short and full length films in a variety of genres.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REVIEW: Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s ‘Until the Flood’ a raw, complex, and gripping docu-drama

Until the Flood begs the question, “How do you want to be remembered?”

Director Timothy Douglas frames a poignant, moving portrait of a community in pain with Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s virtual docu-drama Until the Flood continuing through Wednesday, May 5. The content of this program is not recommended for youth under age 16.  This program was originally commissioned by The Repertory Theatre of Saint Louis.  Click here for more information on Merrimack Repertory Theatre and how to stream the show.

Based on real life accounts gathered in 2014 by Pulitzer prize-winning finalist Dael Orlandersmith, Until the Flood delves deep into the emotional and complicated perspectives and recollections of this community and how it affected each person following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. 

Maiesha McQueen in one person show ‘Until the Flood’ Photo courtesy of Kathy Wittman/MRT

A colorful, makeshift memorial is strewn on a chain link fence shrouded in a blue, haunting darkness.  Sirens ring out in the distance amid tingling and powerful music.  Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s Until the Flood sets a foreboding undertone through Lindsay Jones’s chilling sound design and Bill Clarke’s haunting and true-to-life set pieces.

Encapsulating all the anguish, uncertainty, doubt, fears, and hope is Maiesha McQueen in a tour-de-force performance onstage as she takes on eight individual composites drawn from real life interviews in this one person show.  From a 17 year-old teenager to a 75 year-old retired police officer, McQueen digs into the heart of each individual and delivers the kind of multi-layered performance that flows with each individual.  From a subtle head tilt and a tumult of emotion brewing in her eyes to the careful movements and creaking in her bones as she takes on the persona of an ailing senior to the confident swagger of a teenager that feels like he can take on the world, McQueen writhes and broods with each character.  Dressed in colorful and consistent street clothes by Yao Chen, each perspective and recollection made by each individual is fleshed out and brought together by McQueen as she pours herself into each character and makes each stand on their own.  Her pliability transforms her stature, stance, rage, compassion, sadness, and anger “like the flood” over the state of the world. 

Until the Flood provides not only each individual account of what they heard, saw, or experienced of the Michael Brown shooting, but a deeper look into how each person lived their life before and after this harrowing incident within this community.  It is a raw, gripping look at how ugly and how beautiful a society can be and how easily friendships can change when people do not see eye-to-eye.  It delves into anger that can be unleashed too easily, anguish, sadness, harrowing fear, and unbridled hope in fellow human beings in spite of life’s sorrowful circumstances.  Most of all, it presents a fairly even handed, but complex account of what truly motivates human nature and how fear and hope takes shape.

Merrimack Repertory Theatre, located in Lowell, Massachusetts continues streaming Until the Flood through Wednesday, May 5.  Click here for more information and tickets.

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.

The Whiskey Treaty Roadshow’s David Tanklefsky talks songwriting and the band’s touring adventures

The Whiskey Treaty Roadshow, who recently released their live debut album, The Heart of the Run is returning to Club Passim for a sold out CD release party in Cambridge, Massachusetts on Friday, June 7 at p.m.  Sam Luke Chase is opening for the group.  Click here to learn where Whiskey Treaty Roadshow is opening next on their ‘Band Together’ tour and here for future performances at Club Passim.

Whiskey Treaty Roadshow’s David Tanklefsky talks about Whiskey’s unique songwriting, the Beatles, and their touring adventures.  Click here to see their award-winning, short documentary and follow them on Facebook.

Sleepless Critic:  You’ll be at Club Passim on Friday, June 7 and are currently touring.  You have also performed at Club Passim for their bi-annual interactive ‘Campfire Festival‘ which features an interactive concert experience on Memorial Day and Labor Day weekend.

David Tanklefsky:  Passim is a special place and we are lucky to have it in the area.  It seems like as less money is available to go around in the music world, the relationship between musicians and venues has become more transactional.  Passim is the opposite. They are unique and truly care about developing musicians and giving them a platform for being heard.

SC:  How did Whiskey Treaty Roadshow form and how did you meet?

DT:  Tory Hanna is really the conduit through which the band came together.  One of my best friends, who I was in a band with for years growing up, was living in a loft in Brooklyn with Tory and we started hanging out through him.  His wife Susie went to high school with Greg Smith and Tory knew Billy Keane through the Berkshires music world.  Billy had played a few shows with Chris Merenda and was a big fan of his old band, the Mammals. It happened very naturally, which I think is the best way for creative groups to get together.

Whiskey Treaty Roadshow band

With Chris Merenda, David Tanklefsky, Greg Daniel Smith, Tory Hanna and Billy Keane Photo courtesy of Whiskey Treaty Roadshow

SC:  Whose idea was the award-winning, short documentary and how did you decide on the details to the documentary?  It features lots of scenic, peaceful views of different areas of Massachusetts.

DT:  Tory grew up with a filmmaker named Tim Bradley who was looking for a new documentary project.  Tim captured our rehearsals for a four night tour we had organized through Massachusetts.  It was our first time playing together as a group.

Watching it now is such fun because it’s a snapshot of a band just starting out without any expectations beyond playing four great shows.  Tim meticulously planned out all the locations and the amazing videography.  When Tory mentioned his friend wanted to film us, I trusted his judgment but never imagined Tim would come up with such a well-crafted film.  It really helped catapult us into being a real band.

SC:  You have a relaxed sound, a rhythm likened to a drive down a peaceful country road.  You have a bit of a country tinge to some of your music.  Was that planned?  How did you end up conforming to a sound?

DT:  In folk music, there are songs and chord progressions that become seared into your soul over time. We’ve never had a discussion about it, but everyone brings songs to the table that we think will work with our instrumentation and vocal abilities. I think the folk/country/Americana textures come from having many stringed instruments on stage and the collaborative spirit of just sitting around, passing the guitar, and sharing songs.

SC:  Folk music is full of rich stories and each of you has a distinct style.  How do you come up with your songs?  Do you write a song together or are the songs bits of each songwriter or one song written by one another?

DT:  In this project, everyone writes independently and then brings songs to the table in various forms of completeness. We’ve been tinkering with different instrumentation and having some songs with more minimal arrangements as it has evolved.  We ask ourselves, ‘Do we need five people strumming away like mad men through this whole song?’  Often the answer is no. In the next few months, we’re planning to do a little songwriting retreat where we write more actively together for the first time, which will be new, exciting, and hopefully fruitful.

SC:  Where did your love for songwriting start?  Your particular songwriting style has a bit of humor with some rich lyrics and a bit of an unpredictable tempo at times.

DT:  When I was 10, I had an unhealthy obsession with the Beatles for three years straight.  I thought they were a perfect band.  My friends and I went as the Beatles for Halloween every year between ages 10 and 13. No one wanted to be Ringo and no one was left-handed like Paul so we were four kids with mushroom cuts and right-handed cardboard guitars.

Later I became inspired by songwriters that are always growing, pushing, and challenging their listeners.  I think Paul Simon is the gold standard for that.  I’m in awe of the insatiable curiosity he taps into and I try to write from a position of newness like that.  Being unaware of where my curiosity will take me but trying to just follow it through.

SC:  I understand you are touring.  What kind of venue would be an ideal place for you to play?

DT:  It was a huge thrill to perform with Woody Guthrie’s granddaughter Sarah Lee. That’s way up on the list.

We’ve had the opportunity to play some amazing old theatres. We loved the Northampton Academy of Music and the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield.  It was total thrill to sell out Mass MOCA, but some of our best shows have been in how-did-we-end-up-here type places too.

We played a last minute show in Cambridge at a really tiny place in Central Square and it was packed in with people standing on tables, total chaos.  The bouncer was adamant that no one else could come in because it was too packed.  One person left outside was our drummer, Jimmy.  He came in the back door and was kicked back out onto the street. We said, ‘But that’s the drummer!’  The bouncer replied, ‘I don’t care, I said no more!’  Eventually we brokered a deal and Jimmy was allowed inside and the show went on.  Theatres and dive bars are both okay in our book.

Click here for more information about Whiskey Treaty Roadshow and  and here for future concerts at Club Passim, 47 Palmer Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, conveniently located in Harvard Square.  Not only a haven for music lessons, Passim offers live concerts nearly 365 days a year featuring Grammy winners to musicians with a dream.  Click here for their music schedule and follow Passim on Facebook and Twitter.

 

 

 

Cambridge Symphony Orchestra’s renowned conductor Cynthia Woods discusses ‘Angels and Heroes’ and describes her inspiration

On International Women’s Day, the Sleepless Critic pays homage to women who are making their mark around the world.  One woman who is thriving in the Boston area and beyond is renowned Cambridge Symphony Orchestra (CSO) conductor, Cynthia Woods.

Cynthia has toured around the world and put together Cambridge Symphony Orchestra’s latest show, ‘Angels and Heroes,’ a one day only concert performance on Sunday, March 17 at Kresge Auditorium at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  Click here for more information and tickets.  The Sleepless Critic interviewed her about her exciting music background, what inspires her, ‘Angels and Heroes,’ and her future plans.

Angels and Heroes

Photo courtesy of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra

Sleepless Critic:  Grammy award-winning composer Nan Schwartz has not only composed arrangements for Natalie Cole and is from a long line of women composers, but she has also created orchestration for several films such as My Week with Marilyn, Life of Pi, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, and Julie and Julia.  What inspired the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra to take on Nan Schwartz’s latest work, the 15-minute trumpet tone poem, ‘Angels Among Us?’  I understand this piece will be performed live for the very first time.

Cynthia Woods:  I met Nan Schwartz a few years ago and immediately thought her music would be a great way to broaden our programming.  I asked her to keep me in the loop about her works for concert orchestra and she very kindly did.

Simultaneously, I was actively looking for some fresh concertos that use the brass to break up the piano or violin concerto routine and found a great fit when I heard Angels Among Us.   Its beautiful lines and lush melodies evoke shimmering imagery and its rich, jazz influence brings a breath of freshness to the concert repertoire.

SC:  One of the featured soloists for the afternoon is trumpeter Joseph Foley.  He has performed all over the country and his first solo CD makes its debut this year.  How did he become part of this performance?  I understand this is a particularly challenging piece.

CW:  I knew I needed an exceptional trumpet player who was also very comfortable crossing idioms and had a range that went much higher than what is considered standard.  Joe, whom I have known for years, came to mind right away as the perfect choice.

SC:  It is easy to see why this performance is called ‘Angels and Heroes’ because Joseph Schwanter’s powerful piece, ‘New Morning for the World’ pays tribute to the great Dr. Martin Luther King, JrReverend Ray Hammond of Bethel AME Church will narrate some of Dr. King’s most acclaimed speeches.

CW:  As you know, Art reflects the times we live in and the struggles we face as a society.  I wanted to program something that reflected some of our current struggles we face while adding a historical context.  Schwantner’s brilliant ‘New Morning for the World’ was a perfect choice.  Dr. King preached hope and love and Schwantner represented that by using bold, fractured rhythmic cells to represent the unrest and despair of inequity against the soaring, vocal-like writing of the strings and brass.

The text is drawn from a series of some of King’s most famous speeches including ‘Behind the Selma March’ ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ and ‘I Have a Dream.’  We are thrilled Reverend Dr. Raymond Hammond is joining us to narrate these speeches and to bring renewed life and hope to Dr. King’s words.

SC:  The theme of this concert is using your voice to break through feelings of powerlessness.  Please expand on that.  I understand the pieces in this performance complement each other.

CW:  Yes, all the works in some way celebrate the human spirit and its ability to transform our lives for the better. The ‘Angels’ of Schwartz’s work are the ordinary people such as parents, teachers and friends, who, in the quietest way, change our lives for the better.  Schwantner reminds us while we may face many challenges and heartbreak in life, we must have hope for change ‘because the arm of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’ (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.). The Sibelius, which was inspired by the simple beauty of 17 swans soaring overhead, reminds us of the simple beauty and inspiration our lives hold on a daily basis.

SC:  You have worked all over the world.  Please tell me what first inspired you to choose a career in music and what has been your favorite career moment so far?

CW:  My parents enrolled me in a Preschool for the Performing Arts when I was three, and I think I have had the music bug ever since.  I have very vivid childhood memories from when my folks would take my brother and me to the local orchestra concerts, which were conducted by the pioneering conductor Catherine Comet. My eyes were glued to her and thought it looked like fun! My passion for music began early and never dimmed.

I have so many wonderful memories. One of my favorite moments might be our recent ballet production of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream.  It ended up being everything I could have hoped for artistically as a synthesis of music and dance, two of my favorite art forms.

SC:  Is there a particular conductor that has inspired you over the years?

CW:  It’s hard to choose because there are so many wonderful conductors out there, but my favorite one would be Bernard Haitink if I had to choose.  He seems to overflow with music every time he performs.

SC:  I understand you conducted Conrad Pope’s The Little Match Girl, such a compelling tale. You also worked on Morgan Neville’s documentary on Amar Bose.  Please tell me more about that.

CW:  Two seasons ago, the CSO was very fortunate acclaimed Hollywood composer Conrad Pope agreed to write The Little Match Girl for us.  With youth runaways and homelessness at an all time high, we envisioned a tone poem outlining a story that is still very relevant today. Instead, it found its essence as a ballet filled with various scenes of our heroine’s life, from snow ball fights to teasing a grumpy old man to her vivid memories of her grandmother waiting for her in heaven.  Due to this evolution, both Pope and I hope to see it fully staged at some point in the future.

I worked with Morgan Neville on his documentary about Amar Bose filmed on location at various parts of MIT where Bose was a student and he designed where the CSO performs, the Kresge Auditorium.  Anytime you work with artists of different fields, it gives you a broader sense of your own idiom.  It was an inspiring and rewarding experience.

SC:  When you are not conducting, you are also a lecturer and writer.  Any new projects you’d like to let people know about?

CW:  We are busy planning lots of great things for our 45th anniversary season next year including a newly commissioned ballet of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. We also hope to commission a new work for our Family Concert series as well as continue to highlight diverse and relevant programming that inspires our audiences. I think it will be our most challenging and rewarding season yet.

Cambridge Symphony Orchestra’s latest show, ‘Angels and Heroes will be held Sunday, March 17 at Kresage Auditorium at MIT.  Click here for more information on Cambridge Symphony Orchestra and for tickets.

REVIEW: Inspiring documentary ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor’ more than a beautiful day in the neighborhood

“It’s such a good feeling to know we are lifelong friends,” was Mr. Rogers final words as he closed out his show, Mr. Rogers Neighborhoodin 2001.  However, the impact he has had on the world is timeless.

Though The Sleepless Critic usually tackles the very best in music and theatre, one has to make an exception to express the rare, extraordinary quality in Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor, a moving, deeply personal documentary which highlights Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, a children’s show that was unconventionally the best in television and ran from 1968 through 2001 on PBS.  The film is currently in limited release.  Click here for more information and ticket availability.

This is not to say Won’t You Be My Neighbor didn’t explore the power of music.  American cellist Yo-Yo Ma appeared on Mr. Rogers Neighborhood at a young age and shared his exceptional musical talent.

Mr. Rogers also used music as a powerful tool to influence his viewers such as with his original song, It’s You I Like.   An introvert from childhood, Mr. Rogers often expressed his feelings through music.  This inspiring documentary opens with Mr. Rogers offering a metaphor on the piano about life’s difficult transitions.  He expressed how easy it may be to get from a C note to a D, but how challenging it is to transition from an F to an F sharp, paralleling the challenges children face growing up.  His dedication to children through television offered children support on how to overcome the hardships of life and feel like they have a unique importance in this world.

The film draws from Mr. Rogers’s charisma, which softened the toughest of hearts with his assertion that everyone either had love or lacked it.  Through his family members, cast, crew, and some of his adversaries, it is a balanced portrayal of an ordained minister with a simple purpose, a purpose that was not always understood.  Nonetheless, Won’t You Be My Neighbor is an important film that has navigated generations of children through grief, assassination, divorce, disabilities, and other hardships, providing glimpses into devastation in recent history such as war, the Challenger tragedy, and 9/11.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor was also not without its own sense of humor from backstage antics to show parodies.  However, the best quality of Won’t You Be My Neighbor is, like a good neighbor, Mr. Rogers had a warm smile and an open door, and he genuinely cared.  That’s an awful lot of comfort in a troubled world.

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See Boston Marathon film documentary ‘Boston’ nationwide for one night only

Finding strength and endurance in life’s challenges is easier said than done, especially when it comes to one of the most cherished and epic races in history.  Hailed as one of the most demanding marathons since its inception in 1897, for many, The Boston Marathon encapsulates a lifelong goal.  It takes the utmost endurance, agility, stamina, and determination for some the fastest runners in the world to conquer and suffer through the Boston Marathon’s annual awe-inspiring journey from Hopkinton to Boston.  Boston invites audiences to hear a few of those extraordinary stories and more for just one night on Wednesday, April 19.

In its 120th year, the Boston Marathon will show its first feature-length documentary film, Boston as a nationwide Fathom event on April 19 only.  Narrated by Academy Award-winner Matt Damon, Boston explores the extensive history, the building momentum of the Boston Marathon over the years, the incredible stories of its runners, and continuing the race following the tragic events in 2013.  Sponsored by John Hancock, learn the story of the Boston Marathon’s first charity runner, Stelios Kyriakides, who ran to support poverty-stricken Greece during World War II.  Boston interviews first female runner Bobbi Gibb, the first Kenyan and African to win Boston, Ibrahim Hussein, and shares the story of exceptional runner Johnny Kelly, who ran the Boston Marathon 61 times.

Boston is directed by award-winning filmmaker and marathon runner Jon Dunham, who was able to share exclusive marathon footage, photos and memorabilia with permission from the Boston Athletic Association.  Jazz instrumentalist and Emmy award-winning composer Jeff Beal, best known for creating the haunting score of the Netflix’s drama series, House of Cards, composed Boston’s extraordinary soundtrack, which was recently recorded live at Symphony Hall.

Click here for a closer look and tickets to Boston. Get further details on their Facebook page.