REVIEW:  Spectacular and uplifting, the world premiere of ‘The Neil Diamond Musical:  A Beautiful Noise’ is anything but a song sung blue

After watching The Neil Diamond Musical:  A Beautiful Noise, one thing is clear.  Every story should be told with brilliant swing backup dancers.

Directed shrewdly by Michael Mayer, The world premiere of The Neil Diamond Musical:  A Beautiful Noise continues its pre-Broadway run at Emerson Colonial Theatre in Boston, MA live and in person through August 7.  The show is two hours and 30 minutes including an intermission.  Click here for more information and tickets.

Tony Award® nominee Will Swenson as Neil Diamond – Then and the Swings Photo credit to DCM O & M/Emerson Colonial Theatre

Kicking off with surprising, self-deprecating humor, A Beautiful Noise might have been just what one would expect from a musical biopic, but Neil Diamond takes it to the next level.  Diamond’s music beginnings are a bit reminiscent of Carole King’s journey from creative songwriter delivering hits such as I’m a Believer to songwriter solo act. Part riveting, sing-along concert within a musical, part dive into Diamond’s past, but yet there is so much more to this solitary man.  Even if Neil Diamond’s songs aren’t at the top of your playlist, this wonderful musical helmed by Will Swenson’s stellar performance as then Neil Diamond just might end up being music to your ears.

Tony Award® nominee Will Swenson as Neil Diamond – Then Photo credit to DKC O & M/Emerson Colonial Theatre

One of the best selling musicians of all time and yet Neil Diamond is not what one might expect.  Now Diamond, portrayed with pensive fortitude by Mark Jacoby, is a rather gruff and unassuming man who does not like to talk about himself.  Many deep thinking individuals steeped in the pressures for success seem to also have what Neil Diamond calls ‘clouds’ and the show does not shy away from that, but this musical is much more of a celebration. 

Neil Diamond’s hit songs are explored, but on a more comprehensive and personal level.  Much of the production is a luminous foray into how songs like catchy Cherry, Cherry, Song Sung Blue, America which delves into Diamond’s Polish heritage, traditional Boston Red Sox song Sweet Caroline met with rousing applause and many others factor into this revered songwriter’s remarkable journey. 

Tony Award® nominee Will Swenson as Neil Diamond – Then and Tony award nominee Robyn Hurder as Marcia Photo credit to DKC O & M/Emerson Colonial Theatre

Charismatic and charming, it is difficult to imagine a better Then Diamond than Will Swenson.  A compelling singer with a dry sense of humor, Swenson has an indelible stage presence from the moment he first appears with his guitar.  He and Jessie Fisher as optimistic and sympathetic Jayne Posner have endearing chemistry and deliver a powerful and tense duet for Love on the RocksRobyn Hurder gives an electrifying performance of Forever in Blue Jeans as charming and soulful Marcia Murphey.  Bri Sudia in a dual role is comic gold as outspoken and caring record producer Ellie Greenwich from her very first line with Swenson as Then Diamond. Their snappy chemistry creates some of the production’s funniest and most inspiring moments.

Tony Award® nominee Will Swenson as Neil Diamond – Then with Swings Photo credit to DKC O & M/Emerson Colonial Theatre

Whether soaked in beautiful shadows or in a multi-colored glow on a concert stage, lighting designer Kevin Adams exacts each mood-induced scene masterfully.  Emilio Sosa’s lively and glittering costumes have a retro feel delving into the wild, vibrant patterns of the late 60’s and onward while Diamond’s progressive stage presence flaunt his signature fringe, suede, leather, and glittering sequins.  David Rockwell’s inviting and eye-catching set design enhances this dazzling musical experience which includes dynamic hanging light fixtures and a stunning, innovative multi-tiered, spot-lit band richly conducted by Sonny Paladino and Sinai Tabak.

Tony Award nominee Mark Jacoby as Neil Diamond – Now, Linda Powell as Doctor, and the Swings Photo credit to DCM O & M/Emerson Colonial Theatre

A Beautiful Noise is a clever, eloquent, and illuminating look at Diamond without taking itself too seriously.  Now to those incredible swing dancers that accompany Diamond on his journey.  Fueled by Steven Hoggett’s upbeat, athletic, and era-driven choreography, the Swings brightened each scene even its darker moments to make this effervescent musical journey feel so good.

The world premiere of The Neil Diamond Musical:  A Beautiful Noise continues at Emerson Colonial Theatre in Boston, MA live and in person through August 7.  Click here for more information and tickets.

REVIEW:  ‘34 Carmine Street,’ featured at the New York City Indie Film Festival, gets to the heart of small business

You’ve Got Mail, a hit film starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, explores the virtues and survival of a small business bookstore up against a number of factors including corporate bookstore chains.  Small bookstore owner Kathleen Kelly and her fictional Shop around the Corner is embraced by the community for its rich history, Kelly’s unique personality reflected in every aspect of her bookstore including the storefront, her handpicked books, and the selection of readers and performers that appear at her store.  Every aspect is meticulously designed to make a particular impression for the customer.  The Shop around the Corner’s small but knowledgeable staff would not only know each handpicked book by heart and personally assist you in making a selection, but probably knows most of their devoted customers not only by name, but as a friend.

Supporting small business has not only always been a prevalent topic, but has gained that much more significance in the last few years, especially during the height of the pandemic.  Corporate business, rising real estate prices, the tough economy, and many other factors continuously impact the survival of small businesses and without more support, they often get left in the dust. 

34 Carmine Street was part of the Documentary 14 series featured at the New York City Indie Film Festival that continued through June 19 in person at the Producers Club in New York City.  Curated by Gerard van den Broek, Documentary 14 series also included documentary films Cinema and Sanctuary and Trash Day.

The New York City Indie Film Festival featured a variety of films from shorts to narratives to documentaries curated with common themes.  Sleepless Critic had the opportunity to review screenings on music, small businesses, love and connection and much more. 

Co-founded by Executive Director Dennis Cieri and Director Bonnie Rush, this renowned festival has screened thousands of films since it was first launched in 2010.  Click here for more information, film submissions for next year, and click here to see what we had to say about NYC Indie Film Festival’s Narrative 14 series and here for what we had to say about the films in the Documentary 12 series.

Photo credit to the New York City Indie Film Festival

Directed insightfully by Beatriz Browne, renowned short documentary 34 Carmine Street makes a strong argument not only for the survival of a historic and strong minded Greenwich Village bookstore and other unique, longtime small businesses on that street, but encapsulates what makes small businesses an irreplaceable part of the community without being preachy or political.  It digs deep into a part of Greenwich Village’s history where these small businesses have survived for decades while always having something significant to say about the world.  It may also change your mind about where you shop next.

34 Carmine Street, Cinema and Sanctuary, and Trash Day were all part of Documentary 14 at the New York City Indie Film Festival which continued through June 19 in person at the Producers Club.  Click here for more information on this annual festival and its winners.

REVIEW:  NPR storyteller Kevin Kling reflects on the wonders of childhood in Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s lively and humorous ‘Best Summer Ever’

How can a childhood fib possibly be part of the best summer ever?

Amid Carter Miller’s vivid and dynamic lighting against a cloud covered sky as multi-instrumentalist and sound effect aficionado Robertson Witmer stands over a grill in an apron and sunny yellow sneakers ready to serve a hot dog, Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s Best Summer Ever might give you the urge for summer to arrive a little sooner.  Rowan Doyle’s breezy set design is not the alone in setting up the carefree days of summer.  In a button down shirt, dark pants and striking red and white sneakers relaxed in a lawn chair, popular storyteller and NPR contributor Kevin Kling is an open book ready to share an engaging, wild, and moving account of incredible hijinks during the life changing and unforgettable summer he experienced at 9 years old.

Kevin Kling and Multi-instrumentalist Roberson Witmer in Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s ‘Best Summer Ever’ Photo by Megpix/Meghan Moore.jpg

With compelling direction by Steven Dietz, Merrimack Repertory Theatre presents the east coast premiere of Best Summer Ever through Sunday, May 22 live and in person at Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, MA.  There will be no virtual show available and the show runs 70 minutes with no intermission.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

Kevin Kling knows how to tell a great story.  Full of liveliness and spontaneity, what sets Best Summer Ever apart from other productions is Kling’s unique and distinctive touch.  He shares personal anecdotes with plenty of asides, quirky details, and having experienced the show on Mother Day, it is easy to tell each tailored performance is fueled by the interaction and enthusiasm in the audience.  He has a great rapport with Rob who dives head first into some of the production’s sillier moments of Vikings, a purple snow cone gone awry, and chilling ghost stories.  Both seem a kid at heart and they work succinctly as Rob provides the soundtrack and dynamic mood-setting sound effects at a sometimes thrilling pace. 

MRT’s Best Summer Ever – Kevin Kling Photo by Megpix/Meghan Moore

Kling strikes a clever balance of adult reflection and falling right back into his childhood mindset of growing up in Minnesota.  He uses the phrase, ‘unstructured time’ and equating that with ‘boredom’ or in speaking about his farming grandparents, Kling exclaims, “If Grandpa could cut it off, Grandma could pickle it.”

The show also has its share of heartwarming family moments and explores the wonder and imagination of childhood that just might take you back too.

Silly moments with Kevin Kling and Roberson Witmer in MRT’s ‘Best Summer-Ever’ Photos by Megpix/Meghan Moore

Merrimack Repertory Theatre presents the east coast premiere of Best Summer Ever through Sunday, May 22 live and in person at Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, MA.  There will be no virtual show available and the show runs 70 minutes with no intermission.  Thursday, May 19 will be a Q and A Ask the Artists night.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

REVIEW:  The Game is Afoot for Greater Boston Stage Company’s world premiere of ‘Miss Holmes Returns’

Set in Victorian England, 221B Baker Street London is once again shrouded in a murder mystery.  However, the famous detective has another face this time…the lovely Miss Holmes.  With darting eyes taking in every last deduction in an ornate red and black waistcoat, this poker faced beauty seems incapable of being distracted from a case.  Portrayed with steely charisma by Marge Dunn with a knack for deadpan humor, Miss Holmes carries herself with ceaselessly logical and observational prowess, but this particular case just might be over her head. 

Richly written by Christopher M. Walsh and meticulously directed by Weylin Symes, Greater Boston Stage Company with Don Fulton New Works Project presents the world premiere of psychological murder mystery thriller Miss Holmes Returns live and in person at Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham, MA and now available virtually through Sunday, May 8.  The show is approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.  Click here for more information and tickets.

The cast and crew of Greater Boston Stage Company’s ‘Miss Holmes Returns’ Photo credit to Nile Scott Studios/Greater Boston Stage Company

In the tradition of Sherlock Holmes or most murder mysteries, Miss Holmes Returns begins immediately with a murder as David Ramedios’s suspenseful violin-tinged score haunts the scene.  A man is murdered and Sherlock and Watson must assess the case as a mysterious woman associated with a group with a seemingly checkered past portrayed by Shubhangi Kuchibhotia, flees the scene.

Boasting an esteemed cast, the dynamic between each character remains faithful to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic characters.  Sherlock is not quite complete without a Watson and Shonna Cirone fits the bill as good humored, intuitive, and sharp Dr. Dorothy Watson.  The show shrewdly uses the flipped gender of this duo to its advantage. Both outspoken and resolute feminists, Dunn and Cirone share some fascinating and fun moments observing how these two differing, yet complementary personalities approach attempting to solve the crime.  They complement each other much like the classic Holmes and Watson duo and their untimely friendship. 

Alexander Platt as Mycroft Holmes and Marge Dunn as Miss Holmes Photo credit to Nile Scott Studios/Greater Boston Stage Company

Alexander Platt, in a dual role, depicts Sherlock’s stern and demanding brother Mycroft with a mysterious and villainous air.  Platt’s darker take on the character makes him much more fascinating. Cheryl McMahon, who was a delight in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s clever Admissions, is wonderful in a dual role which includes the feisty and humorous Mrs. Hudson, the landlady of 221B Baker Street.

Paul Melendy, who led the stellar cast of Greater Boston Stage Company’s recent The 39 Steps, impressively portrays warm and quirky Adam Worthington while Joshua Wolf Coleman as Inspector Geoffrey Lestrade of Scotland Yard assigned to the case, is enthralled by Sherlock’s keen observations on the scene.

Marge Dunn as Miss Holmes and Paul Melendy as Adam Worthington Photo courtesy of Nile Scott Studios/Greater Boston Stage Company

Fans of previous Sherlock adaptations will appreciate the various Easter eggs subtly scattered around set designer Katy Monthei’s vintage and stately scenery which includes colorful, vintage lamps, a selection of well worn books, double tier shelving, and floral-adorned furniture.  From Worthington’s rich green cravat to Lestrade’s black bowler hat to the detailed lace and velvet costumes to Sherlock’s amazing Victorian boots, costume designer Deidre McCabe Gerrard brilliantly captures the sophistication of Victorian England.

Miss Holmes Returns boasts fastidious dialogue as well as clever and comical moments as the plot thickens.  The show may be a bit lengthy in its deductions, but its various twists and turns are well worth finding out whodunit.

Greater Boston Stage Company with Don Fulton New Works Project presents the world premiere of psychological murder mystery thriller Miss Holmes Returns live and in person at Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham, MA and now available virtually through Sunday, May 8.  Click here for more information and tickets.

REVIEW:  Go see Academy of the Company Theatre’s heartwarming, moving, and family-friendly ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’

The one thing more magnificent then Joseph’s dream coat is the tale behind it.  An interactive, endearing, and humorous production, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat has been entertaining audiences for over 50 years with its exuberant story and its versatile and brilliant music by the Academy Award-winning team of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.  Joseph’s music offers a wide spectrum of music genres for any taste from calypso to rock and roll which accompanies the unique retelling of a sacred tale of treachery and unceasing hope.

Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

A tale so wonderful that it needs three narrators, Academy of the Company Theatre (ACT) presents Andrew Lloyd Webber’s wondrous and family-friendly musical comedy Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat continuing at the Company Theatre in Norwell, MA through Sunday, May 1.  The production is almost sold out.  Click here for more information, tickets, and for classes that ACT has to offer.

Cate Healey, Gilbert Dabady, and Elizabeth Nunnery as Narrators with Tim Bevens as Joseph Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

Based on the Book of Genesis and set in the land of Canaan and Egypt, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat explores the incredible journey of Joseph and his brothers as Joseph struggles to discover his destiny.  It is very much a collaborative, ensemble piece featuring three engaging narrators portrayed by Gilbert Dabady last seen in ACT’s Les Miserables, Cate Healey, and Elizabeth Nunnery as they share Joseph’s tale not only with the audience, but with the surrounding and energetic young cast gathered onstage.  Dabady, Healey, and Nunnery all have powerful and very different voices that complement each other throughout the performance.

Brothers – Corin O’Neill – Abington, Jay Feeney- Hansen, Henry Jacobs – Norwell, Colin SanGiacomo – Norwood, Roland Schulze – Hingham, Matthew Porro – Hanover, Tim Bevens (Joseph) – Hingham, Ben Cavallo Smith-Hingham and cast Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

With a sweet smile and unassuming demeanor, Tim Bevens portrays humble, yet forthright dreamer Joseph with instant likability from his first opening number, a warm and melodious rendition of Any Dream Will Do.  Bevens delivers a compelling performance as a naïve outsider, his versatile vocal range effortless for the soothing Any Dream Will Do to stirring Close Every Door, his tone heart rendering and sympathetic.

Wearing a white beard, Jacob Yates takes on the mostly silent role of Jacob, Joseph’s devoted father.  Yates makes the most out of this role with an amusing walk and some physical humor.  Led by Charlie Flaherty’s standout portrayal as Joseph’s smirking and sneaky brother Reuben, One More Angel in Heaven depicts the united camaraderie not only by Joseph’s eleven brothers, but from the cast, all in on a little secret.  Another excellent number that depicts the brothers’ united front is delivered by Ben Cavallo-Smith as Judah and his brothers for Roland Schulz as Benjamin, a catchy, amusing song called Benjamin Calypso.

Combining blue, glitter, and gold into dazzling Egyptian attire, Sal Garcia, who was last seen as Jean Val Jean in ACT’s Les Miserables, makes a grand entrance in suave sunglasses and a bouffant hairstyle as Pharaoh, complete with shimmering gold sneakers.  Garcia shows off his comedic talent and charisma in the show stopping number Song of the King, combining the essence and high energy of a certain king not to be revealed here and Jack Black.  It is fun to watch Garcia in a role where he can let loose.

Sal Garcia as Pharaoh Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

The transformative lighting by Dean Palmer Jr. ranges from a lone spotlight to doubling for the hot, desert sun to flashing, multicolored spotlights for Go Go Go Joseph to the warm candlelight and modest staging of Close Every Door.  Though most of the sets are colorful and fun, there is something special about the translucent, simple staging for Close every Door by candlelight, letting Tim Bevens’s poignant rendition speak for itself without distractions. 

Elsa Hancock-Happ – Rockland, Calvin Jacobs – Norwell, Reese Warshaw – Hingham, Izzie Donnelly – Hingham, Nora Joyce – Weymouth, Silvia Thompson – Hingham, Tim Bevens – Joseph – Hingham, Laird Lacoste and cast Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

Among the vibrant and bold costumes by John Crampton and Alison Gordon is the famous coat in yellow and green and ochre… Joseph’s magnificent, flowing, and sparkling coat is a head turner decked out in multi-colored stars on the back.  The cast wearing sunglasses, an unusual camel, and cute Egyptian “beetles” among the crowd on a unconventional journey to Egypt are just a few of the subtle, cheerful touches added to this lighthearted production that certainly has its share of stirring and difficult moments, but with far more uplifting and spirited ones, it’s difficult to feel down for long.

Tim Bevens (Joseph) and cast Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

Directed by Zoe Bradford with lively choreography by Sally Ashton Forrest and musically directed by Melissa Carubia, Academy of the Company Theatre (ACT) presents Andrew Lloyd Webber’s wondrous and family-friendly musical comedy Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat continuing at the Company Theatre in Norwell, MA through Sunday, May 1.  The production is almost sold out.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

REVIEW:  Lexus Broadway in Boston’s ‘Ain’t too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations’ powerhouse vocals as compelling as their back story

Get ready for a whirlwind concert experience fueled by vocal powerhouses.  Having been familiar with the award-winning 1998 The Temptations miniseries produced by Temptations founder Otis Williams and based on the book featuring a special appearance by Smokey Robinson, it is no secret just how much material this musical had to cover and does so with finesse and upbeat pacing.

The Temptations Marcus Paul James as Otis Williams, James T. Lane as Paul Williams, Jalen Harris as Eddie Kendricks, Harrell Holmes Jr as Melvin Franklin and Elijah Ahmed Lewis as David Ruffin Photo credit to Lexus Broadway in Boston

Directed slickly by Des McAnuff and produced by Otis Williams and Shelly Berger, Lexus Broadway in Boston presents Tony award-winning jukebox musical Ain’t Too Proud:  The Life and Times of the Temptations at Citizens Bank Opera House in Boston, MA through Sunday, May 1.  The show is 2 hours and 30 minutes including an intermission.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

Behind every monumental group is a colossal tale.  The story behind the Temptations spans decades encapsulating wild drama (some of which seems too incredible to be true) while members of the Temptations changed like a revolving door.  Some of these legendary performers haunted by the past wrestled with inner turmoil and demons that indelibly impacted their own lives and with timeless and groundbreaking music comes sacrifice.

Marcus Paul James as Otis Williams (center) Photo credit to Lexus Broadway in Boston

Based on the Otis Williams and Patricia Romanowski’s The Temptations autobiography, the journey began in Detroit.  Marcus Paul James is part preacher, part storyteller, and all heart as Temptations founder Otis Williams recalls admiring groups like The Cadillacs in his hometown when he wasn’t getting into trouble.  Finding his calling to sing was like ‘the heavens opening up.’  Immediately engaging, James guides the audience through decades of the Temptations musical journey through the losses, the humor, dedication, arrogance, passion, tragedy, and fleeting success to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Most importantly though, it is a rich voyage through the classic Motown tunes that have stood the test of time not just by The Temptations, but the Supremes and other famous Motown classics of that time.

Jalen Harris as Eddie Kendricks with the Temptations and The Supremes together. Photo credit to Lexus Broadway in Boston

Decked out in suave matching gray suits and ties and launching into The Way You Do the Things You Do featuring the five original members composed of James T. Lane as Paul Williams, Harrell Holmes Jr as Melvin Franklin, Elijah Ahmad Lewis as David Ruffin, Jalen Harris as Eddie Kendricks, and Marcus Paul James as Otis Williams, Ain’t too Proud is an interactive, energetic, concert-driven locomotive as sliding vintage black and white photos and film depict the fans, the touring, the injustices, and the milestones through the years.  The frequently moving, multilayered set by Robert Brill combined with Howell Binkley’s impressive lighting gives the slick illusion of the quick pace of their lives and the audience riding along for each transforming scene.

The Supremes – Traci Elaine Lee as Mary Wilson Deri’Andra Tucker as Diana Ross and Shayla Brielle G. as Florence Ballard Photo credit to Lexus Broadway in Boston

Not only does Ain’t too Proud feature Tony award-winning choreography, but some dynamite vocals from start to finish.  Traci Elaine Lee delivers a dual role first with brief, but memorable impromptu vocals as fast-talking Johnnie Mae in a spectacular onstage Cadillac as as Mary Wilson of The Supremes.  The Supremes, adorned in dazzling gowns by costume designer Paul Tazewell, make brief but memorable appearances with seamless vocals for classic numbers such as You Can’t Hurry Love and I’m Gonna Make You Love Me led by Deri’Andra Tucker as the luminous Diana Ross. 

Though each member of the Temptations have good chemistry, baritone Marcus Paul James as Otis and Harrell Holmes Jr as dedicated and forthright bass singer Melvin, have an exceptional brotherly connection. Jalen Harris as falsetto Eddie Kendricks performed a memorable Just My Imagination to an enthusiastic crowd. Elijah Ahmad Lewis portrays complex and sensational tenor David Ruffin with charisma, arrogance, and affliction from the sweet first notes of My Girl to I Wish it Would Rain.  The stirring I Wish it Would Rain symbolizes much more than love lost in this particular production.

Harris Matthew as Dennis Edwards (center) Marcus Paul James as Otis Williams, James T. Lane as Paul Williams, Harrell Holmes Jr as Melvin Franklin, and Jalen Harris as Eddie Kendricks Photo credit to Lexus Broadway in Boston

Ain’t too Proud delves into the lives of the Temptations, the classic tunes, what tears them apart, and what ultimately makes them the greatest Rhythm and Blues group in music history.  With a total of 24 Temptations over the years, it is quite the tale to tell. 

Lexus Broadway in Boston presents jukebox musical Ain’t too Proud:  The Life and Times of the Temptations at Citizens Bank Opera House in Boston, MA through Sunday, May 1.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

REVIEW: Singer-songwriters Natalie Price and Grace Pettis share resilience through struggle and the joy of performing live onstage again

It is no surprise that guitar strumming singer-songwriters Natalie Price and Grace Pettis recently brought a mix of emotional weight to the Club Passim stage in Cambridge, MA.  Not only in the great joy of performing for an audience again, but the heartache, loss, and reflection in their music as a result of these past couple of complicated years.  However, within this sadness lies resilience for thriving again.  

Grace Pettis and Natalie Price Photo credit to Natalie Price

Singer-songwriter Natalie Price debuted at Club Passim and opened for returning Club Passim favorite Grace Pettis on Thursday, April 14 in person and on live stream for one night only.  Click here to see where Pettis will perform next and here for more on Price.  Click here for more on Club Passim, their educational programs, upcoming events, and how to support local music.

A smattering of spotlights lit the Club Passim stage as Dallas-born Natalie Price delivered a mix of reflective, sorrowful, and playful love songs during her brief opening set.   Price’s sound has a tinge of Natalie Imbruglia or Lisa Loeb as she shares her experiences.

These Days is a clever track about the memory of escaping an unhealthy relationship and if the timing of that relationship were any different, Price might not have escaped.  Price sings, ‘I’m so glad I wasn’t younger when we met’ and ‘The heaviness, strangled me/A songbird in a cage.’  Its seemingly lighthearted chords contrast a returning and complex memory that changes over time.

Another highlight was The Island, a song performed entirely with a music box-sounding Kalimba instrument.  It is a melodious track about the euphoria of new love while Done is another clever piece that delves into the erratic and frantic feelings of unsteady love.  Price ends the set with a catchy and cheerful tune about devotion.

Natalie Price’s music can be found on Band Camp or on her website.

Grace Pettis Photo credit to Nicola Gell

Before taking the stage alone, Grace Pettis joined Price for an unconventional and sweet lullaby Pettis wrote and performs for a Ukrainian child living with Pettis and her family in Ireland called Sleepy Lobster.  Pettis had a table set up that evening to support Ukraine.

Florida-born Grace Pettis delves into a collection of powerful, somber, and soulful tunes, a reflection of some of the complex, life-changing experiences Pettis endured over the last two years.  In a burgundy shirt and black pants, Pettis is an unassuming presence with a certain personable charm and expressed her gratefulness to be back at Club Passim sharing her music with a crowd again.

Her passionate and powerful vocals in Pick me Up and Never Get it Back from her new album, Working Woman from MPress Records, has universal appeal with the latter a bittersweet message on the importance of living in the present and the former finding the strength to keep going in spite of life’s hardships.   Though Pick me Up could simply be interpreted as a love song, it could also apply to a larger message about faith and finding loyal support through life.

Pettis mused in Rain’s lyrics, ‘I don’t know how to be happy’ when she recalled being tasked with writing a song about sunshine.  The somber track was inspired by November rain in Ireland.

So many of Grace’s work addresses strength through struggle.  Mean Something also from Working Woman has a soothing quality about finding hope while Birthright, which is a Nobody’s Girl song, reveals the struggles of living with the pain of the past.  Pettis is an apt songwriter reflecting on the end of a life-changing relationship. She sings, ‘Brace myself for unwanted advice…I’m the box forgotten in the attic.’

However, one of my favorite tracks is Corner, a complex love song about unconditional loyalty, the pain thick in Grace’s voice.  Though the show had its share of solemn musings, Pettis ends the set with Working Woman’s fiery and meaningful title track, her powerful belt demonstrating though hardship, Grace Pettis has thicker skin than that.

Click here for more information on Grace Pettis and where she is touring next.  Learn more about Natalie Price here and click here for more on Club Passim, their music classes, upcoming concerts, and how to support local music.

REVIEW:  Dreams proceed with caution for Central Square Theater’s illuminating ‘Young Nerds of Color’

When I first witnessed the hit film Hidden Figures, I was absolutely amazed for a couple of reasons.  In the early 60’s, a team of phenomenal NASA mathematicians were so talented that some astronauts including Neil Armstrong refused to board the space shuttle without their astute calculations.  The other amazing and frustrating detail is that for all that these African-American women accomplished, I had never heard of them or worse, was never taught about them at school.  Hidden Figures stayed with me.  These genius mathematicians made such an indelible impact in the world and yet, I was learning about them for the first time in this film.

‘Young Nerds of Color’ cast and creative team Photo credit to Nile Scott Studios

Directed remarkably by Dawn M. Simmons, Underground Railway at Central Square Theater presents Young Nerds of Color arranged by Melinda Lopez live in person through March 20 at Central Square Theater in Cambridge, MA and virtually through April 3.  The show is approximately 75 minutes with no intermission.    Click here for more information, tickets, and COVID-19 guidelines.

The night before reviewing Young Nerds of Color, I attended an astronomy group meeting that featured a documentary about a rarely predictable phenomenon.  A professor claimed he knew when the next supernova would occur.  A supernova is when a star explodes and disperses its matter into the galaxy.   It turns out the professor made a tragic miscalculation and the supernova never occurred in the documentary.  However, Young Nerds of Color depicts two beautiful ones thanks to Andrea Sofia Sala’s innovative lighting while also symbolically illuminating some big and impactful ideas such as the discovery that matter from a supernova is directly connected to eyesight. 

Lindsey McWhorter as Portia Long, Daniel Rios Jr as Reinaldo Herrera and DJ Lopez, and Alison Yueming Qu As Chloe Chen Photo credit to Nile Scott Studios

An educational and unconventional play full of discoveries, Young Nerds of Color translates like a flowing and collaborative academic dialogue among geniuses with performances so subtle and convincing that I had to glance back at the program to make sure they were actors and not the actual professionals they are depicting.  A show gathered from 60 interviews with real life scientists, cast members deliver their point of view in their own unique style as they discuss the journey to make their ambitions come to life. 

Ricardo Engermann as Jim Gates, DJ Thomas, Reinaldo Herrera and DJ Lopez Photo credit to Nile Scott Studios

Sponsored in part by MIT, Young Nerds of Color examines the lives of renowned scientists and engineers from diverse backgrounds whose career dreams were more difficult to achieve than they ever expected even before they discovered that dream.   Living in pre-segregated Boston, racism and economic struggles was just a portion of the challenges they faced for being “young nerds of color.”  They all collaboratively take on the role of scientist and educator as they share with the audience and usher in the next generation to proceed toward their dreams with cautious optimism.

Lindsey McWhorter as Portia Long and Karina Beleno Carney as Dr Maria Hernandez Photo credit to Nile Scott Studios

Shelley Barish’s straightforward and illuminated set features two double helixes that might also symbolize that long career ladder and periodic table while Nona Hendryx creates memorable compositions with catchy and cosmic-sounding rhythms and original music.

Some of the cast depicts multiple roles and have engaging chemistry as they portray the journey from childhood experiments fueled by curiosity to those dangerous discoveries that can change the world all while presenting themselves in a way that society might accept so they too might thrive.   I should have learned about this astounding group before now.

Hidden Figures stayed with me and Young Nerds of Color sure does too.

Underground Railway at Central Square Theater presents Young Nerds of Color arranged by Melinda Lopez live in person through March 20 at Central Square Theater in Cambridge, MA and virtually through April 3.  The show is approximately 75 minutes with no intermission.    Click here for more information, tickets, and COVID-19 guidelines.

REVIEW:  Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s insightful ‘Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End’ will delight more than the domestic housewife

At long last, it is here and I can’t help being thrilled.

When Merrimack Repertory Theatre (MRT) first announced that Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End would be part of MRT’s upcoming season, my heart leapt.  Having taken great joy in reading Bombeck’s comical works such as The Grass is Always Greener over the Septic Tank and If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits, I had high expectations for this production that ended up being delayed a few times due to Covid. 

Karen MacDonald in ‘Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End’ Photo credit to Megpix/Meghan Moore

Sponsored in part by WBUR and intuitively directed by Terry Berliner, Merrimack Repertory Theatre presents Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End virtually and live in-person at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, MA through March 13. The show is just over one hour with no intermission.  Click here for more information and tickets.

Erma Bombeck’s column about life as a housewife made her a household name.  She became the most distributed column in America and it is easy to see why.  Before I ever grasped the concept of being a housewife, I loved reading Erma Bombeck.  As an adult and still not a housewife, I still revel in her sharp and timeless humor.  She never misses a beat relating to women everywhere and though her advice dates back as early as the 60s, most of it remains relevant today.

Dan Zimmerman’s intriguing multi-level and colorful set is a relic of a 1960’s house equipped with period kitchen cabinets, dated upholstery, an old phone, and retro household appliances.  Joel Shier’s lighting is subtly appealing alongside Scott Stauffer’s charming and well-timed sound effects.  Though MacDonald is only present onstage, a supporting cast can be heard that lends to the pacing and a larger sense of realism to the production.

Karen MacDonald in ‘Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End’ Photo credit to Megpix/Meghan Moore

In classic pearls and a blue floral dress, Karen MacDonald as Erma looks the quintessential housewife as she takes the audience from 1962 through 1996.  Bombeck longed to be a foreign correspondent and instead became a suburban housewife residing in Cherrywood Acres in Dayton, Ohio.  She quipped, ‘I blazed a trail all the way from the laundry room to the sink.’ 

Allison and Margaret Engel’s screenplay is chock full of clever anecdotes and MacDonald’s warm and inviting presence gradually feels like visiting with an old friend.  The quick, peppy, and semi-interactive screenplay is peppered with Bombeck’s astute observations as she shares her remarkable journey to becoming a writer, her zany family life, and gathering her sense of self over the years.   

Much like Julia Child of the same generation, Bombeck is self-deprecating in her imperfections and prides herself on honesty.  MacDonald slips into Bombeck’s natural and relatable tone comfortably brimming with advice, but never in a ‘know-it-all’ sort of way.   A few of her marvelous observational gems include ‘Why take pride in cooking when they don’t take pride in eating?’ or ‘My idea of housework is to sweep the room with a glance’ or ‘What doesn’t kill you now, comes back a few days later to try again.’

Karen MacDonald in ‘Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End’ Photo credit to Megpix/Meghan Moore

That last piece of advice also resonates with the darker side of Bombeck’s humor.  Surprisingly, Erma Bombeck had her share of haters and struggles.  However, she proves herself a source of strength and fortitude.  Even her most serious reflections and recollections are met with a jovial and contemplative quip.  Though the production is considered mostly lighthearted, MacDonald as Erma manages to find humor in pain which is a rare quality indeed.       

Merrimack Repertory Theatre presents Erma Bombeck’s ‘At Wit’s End’ virtually and live in-person at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, MA through March 13.  Click here for more information and tickets.

REVIEW:  Company Theatre’s regal ‘The Audience’ delivers lessons from a queen

So much can transpire in a certain room.

Though I’m not a fan of The Crown, the intriguing Oscar-nominated Spencer is new on Hulu and I was too curious about the polarizing acting abilities of Kristen Stewart to miss this film.  Not only does the film focus on the tension, the princess’s fragility, and her deteriorating marriage, but  what is deemed a fable of a tragedy taught me a bit about the monarchy’s strict regime before heading out to see the Company Theatre’s production of The Audience.

Directed by Steve Dooner and the inspiration behind the Netflix’s hit drama The Crown, Company Theatre presents Peter Morgan’s The Audience through Sunday, February 20 at Company Theatre, 30 Accord Park Drive in Norwell, Massachusetts.  The show is 2 hours and 15 minutes including an intermission.  Click here for more information and tickets.

Carol Laing Stearns as Queen Elizabeth II with Pembroke Welch Corgis Gregory and Laci Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

The Audience is named after an important room inside Buckingham Palace where Queen Elizabeth II discusses a wide range of topics with various Prime Ministers over the Years.  As Queen, she must live up to certain standards to have these meetings on a certain day for a certain length of time and keeping discussions strictly to Cabinet, Parliament, and Current Affairs.  Needless to say, conversations often take a turn in unexpected directions.  The show delivers light and subtle humor throughout the production, but this is mostly a historical drama.

Carol Laing Stearns portrays the sharp and coolheaded English monarch with sophistication, grace, and underlying prowess (with her royal corgis in tow).  She dryly describes herself as “a postage stamp with a pulse,” but we all know better.  Stearns has a natural and likable presence, but also stoic and headstrong.  She rarely lets her emotions get the better of her, even when she is commenting on it.  It is interesting to see the quirks and tenacity, navigating her age progression well.  However in a rare moment, thanks to the keen lighting design of Dean Palmer. Jr, the spotlight shines on Stearns in a moment of vulnerability, and it is difficult not be entirely moved by it.

Carol Laing Stearns as Queen Elizabeth II Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

Ryan Barrow’s elegant set is flanked with wall-to-wall gold trim, historical portraits, and a sparkling chandelier shining overhead.  Charismatic Rama Rodriguez as Equerry acts as half narrator and half historian, sharing the relevance of this special room and its astute history.  From a tartan skirt to the dapper suits on each Prime Minister to the very replica of Queen Elizabeth II’s white dress and royal sash symbolizing her position as the Dame Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order, costume designer Elizabeth Cole Sheehan has a meticulous eye for historically-accurate regal flair.

The depiction of Elizabeth II’s flashes of childhood is handled in a unique and insightful way though at first it can be a little confusing.  Young Elizabeth, portrayed as a precocious and inquisitive old soul by Samantha LeBretton, struggles with her destiny and the separation of her public and private figure.  Although she is unsure of her place exactly, she feigns surefootedness, but not without questions. 

Chris DiOrio as Harold Wilson is the most sympathetic among the Prime Ministers while Julie Dennis as Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher comes in like a lion and remains one.  The tension between Stearns and Dennis as a compelling Thatcher is quite thrilling to witness as two people with much in common can barely agree.  DiOrio as Wilson thrives in the role, his strong Northern accent only accentuates his likability. 

Among the many political, social, and personal topics addressed, the clash between royal rituals and traditions with modernization and talk of the end of the monarchy is always looming.  However, The Audience presents a bigger picture and depicts just why Queen Elizabeth II’s, who just celebrated her Platinum Jubilee this month and is the longest reigning English monarch in history,  secret to her longevity reaches far beyond her wit.

Company Theatre’s ‘The Audience’ is the inspiration behind Netflix’s ‘The Crown’ Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

Company Theatre presents Peter Morgan’s The Audience through Sunday, February 20 at Company Theatre, 30 Accord Park Drive in Norwell, Massachusetts.  The show is 2 hours and 15 minutes including an intermission.  Click here for more information and tickets.