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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urban Nutcracker depicts all the classic scenes from Tchikovsky’s production with an inviting twist featuring a diverse, multi-talented cast.  In a magnificent coat and top hat, Gianni Di Marco is captivating as wise, charismatic and exuberant Drosselmeyer.  He not only wows adults and children alike with tricks and presents, but his sweet interactions with Ruby, portrayed by enchanting Juliet Brown and Stella Kotter, provide some of Urban Nutcracker’s most memorable moments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exploring theatre, nature, space and more, Boston Landmarks Orchestra’s Christopher Wilkins talks depth and diversity in free summer concert series

From exploring live theatre and music to nature to science to space as well as taking on racism, climate change, and many more important topics all involving a vast array of community members, organizations, and performers, Boston Landmarks Orchestra is so much more than a beautiful free Wednesday night concert outing at the Esplanade.  Boston Landmarks Orchestra Gala will celebrate 90 years of free concerts on the Esplanade in October.

WCRB is a media partner for the Boston Landmarks free concert series.  Click here for Boston Landmarks Orchestra’s complete summer schedule at Boston’s renowned Hatch Shell and here for further details on the upcoming Gala.

It was an honor to speak with Christopher Wilkins, Boston Landmarks Orchestra’s conductor and Music Director, who took time out of his busy schedule to discuss the highlights of the Boston Landmarks Orchestra’s summer season and what is coming up.

The Sleepless Critic:  The season kicked off on July 10 with the second annual “Season Tune-Up” party.  What was that like?

Christopher Wilkins:  It was a gorgeous night with a great turn out.  Lots of children attended and we introduced our audience to many of our partner organizations which include musical organizations, music educational schools, and partners like the New England Aquarium and the Museum of Science.  The “Season Tune-Up” Party featured fun games, a performance from the Everett High School band, and our Maestro Zone where kids can step up at the podium, wave the baton, look at a score, and get a conducting lesson.  We offer Maestro Zone at our regular concerts as well.

Boston Landmarks Orchestra Maestro Zone Assistant Conductor Shuang Fan

The Maestro Zone with Maestro Zone Assistant Conductor Shuang Fan

SC:  We’ve been blessed with some beautiful nights this summer.  You have been the Music Director and conductor for the Boston Landmarks Orchestra since 2011.  What has it been like for you collaborating with different theatres and new works each year?

CW:  Our mission is to engage as many Bostonians as possible from all walks of life and one of our strategies is to develop partnerships.  They feature an array of organizations to get their fans, their folks, and their constituency excited to come to a concert and work with us.

One of our best strategies is to create composer residencies in different neighborhoods around Boston so people who might not ever encounter an orchestra can develop some way of making music or dancing or some other performing art that they can bring to our stage and perform with the orchestra. We have a lot of inexperienced young performers throughout the summer and some who have never been onstage before.   We do all that along with an eclectic lineup of Dvorak, Broadway, symphonies, and a great choral repertoire.

SC:  It must be an incredible experience to see how everybody interacts with each other and how it turns out onstage.

CW:  It’s wonderful to perform it in the Hatch Shell because it is an iconic venue, people associate it with orchestral music, and it is in the heart of the city.  The Hatch Shell is also quite enormous. We can fit 5,000 people or more at our concerts and that is typically what we draw when the weather is nice.

SC:  Such depth in a free event.

CW:  It’s important to many people that can’t afford to come otherwise.  It’s also a powerful emblem of the idea of universal access.  Everybody is welcome.

We just think about access barriers, which are not only economic.  Cultural assumptions in a community can cause people to stay away.  At Landmarks, we think deeply about what those barriers are and do what we can to get rid of them.

SC:  Yes, and you have held many events so far this season.  For example, you recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landing with Symphonic Space Odyssey.  How did you pay tribute to this historic event?

CW:  We performed that in Jordan Hall because it was a stormy night.  Jordan Hall is one of the most beautiful venues in America and the sound indoors just rattles your bones.  We didn’t have to change the program at all, just the venue.

The Moon Landing is one of the most amazing achievements in the history of mankind.  It was an awesome night and we celebrated it with the Museum of Science which was perfect because they have had an exhibition ever since the moon landing occurred.  The Museum of Science prepared fabulous video footage relating to the moon landing, space travel, rockets, and deep space taken from materials produced in house at the Hayden Planetarium for their full dome experience.

SC:  What are you most looking forward to this season?

CW:  Each week is so over the top that it’s hard to pick a favorite.  We have a wonderful collaboration on August 14 with the New England Aquarium featuring some remarkable video material that will be synchronized live to the orchestra.

Boston Landmarks Orchestra New England Aquarium

Boston Landmarks Orchestra partners with the New England Aquarium for a free concert on August 14 Photo courtesy of Boston Landmarks Orchestra/New England Aquarium

The subject is climate change and we’re performing Vaughan Williams Symphonia Antarctica which is originally a film score, but now set to a more recent film made by Natural History New Zealand featuring all shots from Antarctica.

Then we have a beautiful photographic sequence put together by Boston Globe writer David Arnold called “Above and Below.”  He’s taken Brad Washburn’s iconic aerial photographs of glaciers and coral reefs mostly from the 1930’s and then taking the same shots today.  Of course what you see is a devastating record of loss set to Adagio for Strings.  The program also includes optimistic shots from Boston Harbor and other places from then and now which shows tremendous improvement environmentally and send the message that we can do something about climate change.

We did an extremely interesting panel discussion recently which has some caused useful and in depth panel conversation called “Who Should Sing Ol’ Man River?” around race and the portrayal of racial themes at WBUR CitySpace.  Our moderator was Emmett G Price III, a celebrity in Boston and a wonderful musician, historian, pastor, and radio personality.  It was a wonderfully experienced and informed panel who weighed in on a lot of these questions and shaped how we put together the following week’s concert.

Boston Landmarks Orchestra Alvy Powell

Bass Bariton Alvy Powell Photo courtesy of Boston Landmarks Orchestra

SC:  Ol’ Man River from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Showboat” is such an amazing song and I’ve seen it done is so many different ways.

CW:  It’s a showstopper.  Our base Alvy Powell has sung Ol’ Man River in the White House for the last six sitting Presidents in a row.  He sang it at George H.W. Bush’s funeral at President Bush and his wife Barbara’s request.  He also sang it at Gerald Ford’s funeral.  If anyone should sing Ol’ Man River, it’s Alvy Powell and he performed it that night.

SC:  What kind of conversation sprung from that panel?

CW:  That’s a good question.  We got into questions of language, dialect, the history of black music, and cultural appropriation.  Quite an interesting segment was when we were looking at where we go from here.  One of our panelists was Ashleigh Gordon, founder of an organization that has attracted a lot of praise and attention called Castle of Our Skins.  It celebrates African American composers and performers.  She’s done an amazing job furthering the discussion and coming up with creative ways of producing eye catching programming.

They are opening a permanent set of offices at the Boston Center for the Arts.  We are collaborating with Ashleigh, Castle of Our Skins and Anthony Green, a composer she works with frequently on the Esplanade on August 21 for our Landmarks Dance Night.  The project surrounds the music and dance of Haiti because we are also including the Jean Appolon Expressions Dance Company.

Boston Landmarks Orchestra Jennifer Ellis Matthew DiBattista, Maesto Wilkins, and One City Choir

Christopher Wilkins with Jennifer Ellis Matthew DiBattista, Maesto Wilkins, and One City Choir Photo courtesy of Boston Landmarks Orchestra

It’s often our best vehicle for showcasing the diversity of traditions and types of cultural expression.  I grew up here, but the city is infinitely more diverse now than it was when I grew up.

SC:  Absolutely.  What have you liked most over your time with the Boston Landmarks Orchestra?

CW:  We’ve had lots of great moments over the last eight or nine years.  My first concert was conducting Beethoven’s 9th at Fenway Park so that is pretty hard to top.  We did an amazing night celebrating the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream Speech with Governor Deval Patrick as our narrator and featuring a lot of video and photographic imagery.

We did a memorable collaboration with the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum when their director, Peggy Fogelman, first arrived in Boston.  Another highlight was a series of programs with Commonwealth Shakespeare Company.  We performed full productions of musicals or a Shakespeare play such as “Midsummer Night’s Dream” with Mendelssohn.

The musicians learn something they know so well and are able to put it into the context of the play while the actors now can play off a symphony.  Now how often does that happen?   It is amazing for the performers and the audience.

SC:  You’ve performed all over the United States.  What do you like best about your time with the Boston Landmarks Orchestra?

CW:  I love our mission.  It’s readily understandable to most people in the community which I think is why we are receiving increasing levels of support from all quarters from individuals and foundations and from political reps because we are using great music with its level of complexity, depth, and emotional appeal and a first class professional orchestra as a means to gather community together.

I don’t know another orchestra that has a mission defined in this way.  I learn a lot and meet all kinds of interesting people doing interesting work.  We get to come together in a musical setting and it’s almost guaranteed everybody has a wonderful time.

Sit back and enjoy the Boston Landmarks Orchestra free every Wednesday night.  Click here for the full schedule and how to support future concerts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

REVIEW: Billy Joel brought his A-game for his fifth year at Fenway Park

Grammy award-winning singer-songwriter Billy Joel will not be sharing new music any time soon.  Renowned for his library of hits in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, he stuck with the chart toppers and some lesser known singles at the Fenway Park field on Friday, August 10 as part of the Plainridge Park Casino Fenway Concert series.

Billy Joel Fenway Park

Photo credit to IheartMedia

‘I haven’t had a hit in 25 years,’ he muses, ‘but I have also not released an album in 25 years.’  Opening fittingly and dramatically with the theme song from The Natural, a beloved 1984 sports film starring Robert Redford, Billy Joel took the Fenway Park stage for his fifth year.  Click here to see where Billy Joel will perform next.

Showcasing his biggest hits along with a few of his lesser known ones, Billy Joel brought his A-game.  Kicking off shortly after eight in the evening as fans were still filing into the park, he arrived behind his piano for his straight-talking hit Big Shot, a song that was said to have been inspired by a dinner he had with Mick and Bianca Jagger.  Under multicolored lights and an infectious beat, from the start Billy Joel proved his ceaseless energy at 69 years old.

On a cloudy, but rainless night in Fenway, Joel referred to Boston as the birthplace of freedom where he wrote the song, My Life.  He also mentioned the Red Sox, though he’s an avid NY Mets fan, before a stirring rendition of NY State of Mind, which featured shots of New York City’s famous landmarks.  He even playfully sang Boston’s More than a Feeling before jokingly “forgetting the words.”

Billy Joel Fenway

Photo courtesy of Jeanne Denizard

Sharply dressed in a dark suit and tie, Billy Joel spoke with humor and frankness, sharing personal details behind his music, his voice matured into a deeper, grittier growl with all the same power behind it.  He treated the enthusiastic full house to a spectrum of his famous and lesser known songs as he reflected, ‘I worked just as hard on the lesser known songs as the hits.’  Some of those lesser known songs included Summer, Highland Falls, Zanzibar, The Downeaster Alexa, and Vienna, a sweet, quiet tune from his album The Stranger and was also featured on the 13 Going on 30 film with Jennifer Garner.

Accompanied by a robust rock, jazz, and horn-infused big band, Joel performed upbeat number, Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song), a hit song that inspired a 2002 Tony award-winning Broadway musical of the same name.  The musical highlighted a number of Billy Joel’s greatest hits.  Dedicating a song to his three year-old daughter, Joel performed Don’t Ask Me Why as well as many of his signature hits including a resonant Only the Good Die Young, Scenes from an Italian Restaurant, a colorful, extended version of River of Dreams, and It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.

The award-winning singer-songwriter kept the crowd on their feet with surprise guests from two vastly different genres.  Peter Wolf, lead singer of the J.Geils Band, a group Billy Joel opened for early in his career.  Wolf performed the band’s 80s hit, Centerfold before calling Joel one of the nicest in the business.  Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott, who was to perform with the band at Fenway the following night, also joined Joel.  Accompanied by powerful guitar, Elliott’s deep, throaty vocals delivered their audacious hit, Pour Some Sugar on Me.  As welcome as their appearances were, it couldn’t beat their return to the stage later to sing with Joel for You May Be Right.

Joel also had his share of quiet moments as he silenced the crowd with the emotional, heartfelt number, And So it Goes and She’s Always a Woman.  Sitting behind the baby grand piano most of the evening with a brief stint humming on the harmonica for Piano Man before taking to the guitar during an epic, four-song encore, Billy Joel still has a seasoned passion for the stage and left with hardly a voice, delivering short of a three hour performance.