REVIEW:  Umbrella Stage Company unveils riveting musical, ‘The Color Purple’

How does one find faith when everything falls apart?

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker, The Color Purple is a powerful and thought provoking historical drama that examines life’s true meaning, redemption, transformation, and the search for faith and love when all seems lost.

With stirring direction by BW Gonzalez, Nathanael Wilkerson’s lively music direction, and instinctively choreographed by Najee A. Brown, Umbrella Stage Company continues the Tony award-winning musical, The Color Purple by Marsha Norman through Sunday, June 4 live and in person at the Umbrella Arts Center in Concord, MA.  The show has two acts with one intermission and contains some mature themes.  Some package shows also offer walking tours.  Click here for more information and tickets.

Shy’Kira Allen as Celie and cast Photo by Jim Sabitus

Umbrella Stage Company could not have chosen a better time to bring this particular musical to the stage this year.  The Color Purple celebrated the 40th anniversary of the acclaimed novel last year and the 1985 film directed by Steven Spielberg featured an all star cast including Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey.  It garnered several Oscar nominations including Best Picture. This December, a musical film adaptation of The Color Purple will premiere featuring a multitalented cast including Taraji P. Henson, Halle Bailey, Fantasia Barrino, and H.E.R.

Having never read the book or seen the film, The Color Purple was an eye opening experience.  It holds turmoil, peril, and cruelty, but it is also an extraordinary tale of miracles, transformation, humor, and unyielding hope exclaimed by a mesmerizing cast of powerful voices each with their own challenges to overcome.  Walker’s dynamic characters possess a wealth of depth and complexity that deliver some astonishing twists and turns.  The Color Purple features a powerful and Grammy award-winning score that infuses gospel, ragtime, jazz, and blues. The uplifting Our Prayer is gripping right from the start and the tapestry of moving numbers that follow makes the musical all the more enthralling.

‘Our Prayer’ from The Color Purple Photo by Jim Sabitus

SeifAllah Salotto-Crisobal’s impactful lighting design meticulously sets the tone in creative and multicolored pastels transforming Janie E. Howland’s modest wooden set equipped with whips and a silver barrel.  Covering a 40 year range, costume designer Danielle Dominigue Sumi navigates various eras with finesse including culturally appropriate attire from muted to kaleidoscopic colors.

Shy’Kira Allen as Celie and Kayla Leacock as Nettie Photo by Jim Sabitus

In 1909 rural Georgia, Celie at 14 is about to give birth.  She finds solace in her buoyant and discerning sister Nettie in a beautiful depiction by Kayla Leacock.  Their genuine camaraderie is sheer joy to witness as Celie navigates her own unmerited suffering.  Nettie is one of many spiritually strong and often challenged women surrounding inquisitive, naïve, obedient, and shy Celie depicted remarkably by Shy’kira Allen, that teach her about resilience and fortitude.  Kai Clifton is a powerful force as daring Sofia with a trailblazing attitude and demeanor rare of a woman in the early 1900’s as demonstrated in a sage and commanding rendition of Hell No!  Crystin Gilmore holds her own power as captivating and liberated performer Shug Avery who breezes into Georgia on a whim bringing excitement, scandal, and humor to the town as demonstrated in an alluring rendition of Push the Button.  However, Gilmore truly shines in quieter moments with her tender rendition of Too Beautiful for Words as well as the show’s heartfelt title track.

Crystin Gilmore as Shug Avery and cast Photo by Jim Sabitus

Shy’Kira Allen rises to the challenge as complicated Celie and though Allen has many memorable scenes with the cast, her most powerful scenes are the ones she must stand on her own such as in Lily of the Field, Dear God, and a brilliant rendition of I’m HereBrian Demar Jones is impressive and deceptively charismatic as short sighted and egocentric Mister while Jordan Aaron Hall is likable as compassionate yet impressionable Harpo.  Rural Georgia is an area not without its gossip and keeping the mood light in the midst of the show’s most difficult moments are the humorous and ever knowing Church Ladies, their clever vocal styling slick for Shug Avery Coming to Town and Uh Oh.

Kai Clifton as Sofia and cast Photo by Jim Sabitus

Umbrella Stage Company delivers Alice Walker’s message with such collective fervor, make time to witness this Color Purple

Umbrella Stage Company continues the Tony award-winning musical, The Color Purple though Sunday, June 4 live and in person at the Umbrella Arts Center in Concord, MA.  The show has two acts with one intermission and contains some mature themes.  Click here for more information and tickets.

REVIEW: Front Porch Arts Collective serves up a spirited and resonating ‘Chicken and Biscuits’

‘Family is a loaded word.’

Spoken by one of the characters in Chicken and Biscuits by Douglas Lyons, this statement perfectly encompasses the essence of this spirited family dramedy. The holidays tend to bring out family dysfunction in rare form and Front Porch Arts Collective has it covered with Chicken and Biscuits delivered just in time for the holidays on December 9.

Judgment is passed at every angle and tensions run high as one family must reunite for a funeral honoring the family patriarch. As Jacqui Parker as Baneatta’s opening scene suggests, the power of prayer may be the only way for this family to get through this complicated day.

Matriarch Beneatta Jacqui Parker contemplates the family’s happy future in Front Porch Arts Collectives production of Chicken and Biscuits PHOTO credit Ken Yotsukura

Hosted by Suffolk University, Front Porch Arts Collective ventured into their first solo show in residence with The Huntington with Chicken and Biscuits at the Modern Theatre in Boston, Massachusetts through January 8.  Directed reflectively by Lyndsay Allyn Cox, Chicken and Biscuits is one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

Everyone is part of the congregation in Modern Theatre’s modest sized theatre without a bad seat in the house.  Set inside a sunlit church in Connecticut, one of the beautiful highlights of Erik D. Diaz’s transformative set design include the tree lined and then colorful stained glass windows with authentic hanging sanctuary lamps. Anna Drummond’s dynamic sound design lent to the heart and humor of the production while M. Berry’s exceptional lighting varied from somber to uplifting and every mood in between as revelations unfold.  With fine details by Earon Chew Neasley, Zoe Sundra’s striking costumes which includes dignified hats varying from elegant to over the top, embellish each character’s distinct personalities. Prop master Lauren Corcuera’s intricate details completed the hospitable atmosphere, especially those homestyle chicken and biscuits.

Reginald Robert Cornelius preaches a sermon in Front Porch Arts Collectives production of Chicken and Biscuits PHOTO credit Ken Yotsukura

Though this production delves into grief and family dysfunction, it also delivers a wealth of high spirited comedy and stirring moments from a cast of vibrant characters.  It does not take long to grasp that Father and Grandfather Bernard Jenkins was the glue that held this family together. His loss has touched each family member in a unique way while a few of the family members have their own unique ideas on how to celebrate his life.

Filled with quiet consternation, Jacqui Parker portrays compelling Baneatta who is just barely holding it together as she and her optimistic and charismatic husband Robert Cornelius as Reverend Reginald Mabry prepare to attend the service.  Baneatta has a unique effect on each family member and Parker carries that aura with a certain gravitas.  Though she and her husband appear to be opposites, Cornelius and Parker are impressive as a longtime married couple comfortable with each other’s idiosyncrasies.  Cornelius has a natural charisma and delivers a particularly noteworthy and powerful performance as easygoing Reginald, especially as he addresses the congregation with a rousing sermon.

From her razor red fingernails to her curve hugging blue dress, Thomika Bridwell depicts outrageous and outspoken hairstylist Beverly Jenkins with Lorraine Kanyike as La’Trice Franklin, Beverly’s smirking aspiring rapper daughter, not far behind.  Bridwell and Kanyike’s snappy comedic dialogue and chemistry make for some ludicrous and entertaining moments as they proudly march to the sound of their very own drummer.  Fiercely protective and flirtatious, Beverly’s scene stealing personality is a force to be reckoned with while Kanyike, in a pleather vest and revealing pants, exudes La’trice’s confident, attention seeking demeanor which also contains a grain of insightful teenage wisdom.

L to R Mishka Yarovoy Thomika Bridwell and Adrian Peguero in Front Porch Arts Collectives Chicken Biscuits PHOTO by Ken Yotsukura

Mishka Yarovoy delivers an empathetic and endearing performance as Logan, who longs for as little as the family getting his name right and Adrian Peguero as conflicted Kenny mourns a grandfather who understood him best.  However, Sabrina Lynne Sawyer stands out in a stellar performance as serious, distinguished, and multi-faceted Simone who struggles and strives for perfection.

Anxiety, gossip, bickering, and a few surprises are inevitable at most family gatherings whether it is on a holiday, a family reunion, or even at a family funeral.  Chicken and Biscuits, named after Bernard’s favorite meal, can also provide comfort, grace, and love as long as everyone can sit together, take a breath, and listen. 

Hosted by Suffolk University, Front Porch Arts Collective ventured into their first solo show in residence with The Huntington with Chicken and Biscuits at the Modern Theatre in Boston, Massachusetts through January 8.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

REVIEW: Christmas Revels 50th virtual anniversary delivers mirth, merriment, and reflection

For what marks its 50th year, Christmas Revels has been entertaining audiences by delving into vast cultures and recreating historical moments and holiday traditions with drama, dance, humor, and song.  Christmas Revels made its debut in 1971 and though it is limited to the screen this year, this engaging production brought a mix of new material while glimpsing some of their best performances in their long history. 

Father Christmas makes an appearance in The Christmas Revels annual “Mummers Play” Photo courtesy of Revels

Having never seen Christmas Revels before, it was a lot to take in and quite a feat to encapsulate the best moments in such a broad time frame.  Catching glimpses of some of their special guests, returning favorites, and new faces was an innovative way to recap a half century of productions, but it also had me longing to see more, especially as I glimpsed some of their best, most enduring performances.

Christmas Revels is still available to stream on-demand through Thursday, December 31.  Click here for more information and how to support future Revels productions.  The 50th Anniversary of Christmas Revels is also available as a 2-CD set.  Click here for more information.

Statues: Paula Plum as James Otis and Richard Snee as Josiah Quincy Photo courtesy of Revels

Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre is as majestic and welcoming as ever even as it fills for a virtual audience.  The dark, wooden stage is softly-lit with two stately, marble Greek statues sitting on each end as a grand, dimly-lit bronze chandelier floats overhead.  Hosted by acting dynamos Paula Plum and Richard Snee as James Otis and Josiah Quincy who were immortalized as those legendary statues on the Harvard University stage and the only souls who have seen every Revels performance and then some, Christmas Revels blends humor, stirring moments, and a wistful trip down memory lane to witness some of Revels’ earliest performances as it gradually became what it is today.  

From humorous moments to joyful carols such as 1984’s Yorkshire Here We Come A Wassailing, Go Tell it On the Mountain with Janice Allen and Joy to the World featuring choruses from Christmas past and virtual Christmas present, and a serene Dona Nobis Pacem featuring renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Christmas Revels does not predictably explore its past in sequence, but in clever moments such as merging a past and more recent performance of a song  by various performers, setting a different tone to its enduring meaning.

Yo-Yo Ma with Audience: Cellist Yo-Yo Ma performs the peace round “Dona Nobis Pacem” with members of the Revels Virtual Audience Photo courtesy of Revels

One of the best and most exciting examples of this was in 1997’s and 2015’s Lord of the Dance featuring David Coffin, Neena Gulati, and Patrick Swanson as they explored eastern and western Hindu traditions.  Audience members were on their feet as enthusiastic performers led audience members to spill out into the Sanders Theatre’s lobby singing along.  1993’s Kukko dance featuring the Karelian Folk Ensemble stood out as one of the more exotic cultures while 1997’s Niska Banja featuring the Revels Women, New England Romanian Ensemble, and Cambridge Symphonic Brass Ensemble revealed beautiful and distinctive garb.  2007’s Shopsko, choreographed by Petre Petrov with Mladost Folk Ensemble, The Village Band, and Cambridge Symphonic Brass Ensemble offered memorable upbeat and bustling Bulgarian dance. 

Johnny Nichols, Jr. and Carolyn Saxon perform the spiritual “Hold On” in a segment linked to Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise”, exploring the ongoing journey towards justice and equality Photo courtesy of Revels

 Janice Allen and the Silver Leaf Gospel Singers took the stage in 2000 for a stunning, acapella version of Amazing Grace while 1986’s impressive Appalachian Clogging with Ira Bernstein and the Big Gap String Band and Jean Ritchie delivered a captivating Kentucky folk carol, Christ Was Born in Bethlehem.  Another indelible moment rested in a powerful medley of 2000’s Underground Railroad featuring Sheila Kay Adams and Janice Allen, Jordan Ashwood, and Cyrus Brooks, Silver Leaf Gospel Singers, Roaring Gap Chorus, Rocky River Children, Carolyn Saxon, and Johnny Nichols, Jr.

Christmas Revels’ ever changing repertoire is too numerous to mention every highlight, but there are plenty of surprises.

The detailed, rustic sets and the meaningful, meticulous costumes ranged from festive to humorous to haunting.  It was marvelous to witness the virtual technology that was such a big part of this production.  The virtual choir delivered moving, crisp carols and seeing the creators including founder John Langstaff and Revels Directors Patrick Swanson and George Emlen united in present time without actually being onstage provided some comfort that technology can still make some things possible. 

Christmas Revels is still available to stream on-demand through Thursday, December 31.  Click here for more information and how to support future Revels productions.  Click here for more information on The 50th Anniversary of Christmas Revels available as a 2-CD set. 

REVIEW: Greater Boston Stage Company and Front Porch Arts Collective’s ‘Marie and Rosetta’ showcase one dynamite duo

From the first musical number This Train, it was easy to see that Greater Boston Stage Company and Front Porch Arts Collective’s Marie and Rosetta was going to be something special.  Lovely Hoffman and Pier Lamia Porter easily stood out as two of the three powerhouse voices that fueled the Ronettes in Lyric Stage’s recent eye-popping production of Little Shop of Horrors.  As impressive as they were in that show, they are a musical force to be reckoned with in Marie and Rosetta.

Directed beautifully by Pascale Florestal with musical direction by Erica Telisnor, Greater Boston Stage Company once again collaborates with Front Porch Arts Collective for the inspiring musical, Marie and Rosetta continuing through Sunday, November 10 at Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham, Massachusetts.  Marie and Rosetta is part of Greater Boston Stage Company’s 20th anniversary year.  Click here for more information and for tickets and here to learn more about the Front Porch Arts Collective.

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Pier Lamia Porter as Maria (on piano) and Lovely Hoffman as Rosetta (on guitar) Photo courtesy of Nile Scott Studios/Greater Boston Stage Company

Taking place in the 1940’s, Marie and Rosetta is about a captivating musician and her first encounter with a young fan.  However, this meeting is so much more than it seems.  Nicknamed The Godmother of Rock and Roll, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, portrayed magnificently by Lovely Hoffman in a silvery gown, not only had an incredible talent that inspired everyone from Little Richard to Elvis Presley to Karen Carpenter, but also had a lot to say about the world.

Full of humor, tenacity, and set in her convictions, Lovely Hoffman’s Rosetta is a charismatic free spirit.  This role has more than a few dark edges, but Hoffman is an avid, lighthearted storyteller wise beyond her years.  Confident and outspoken, Hoffman has sweet and amusing chemistry with Pier Lamia Porter as shy, traditional, and sweet-natured Marie.  It is fascinating to watch them together as Marie’s nervous chatter is diffused by Rosetta’s sage advice.

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Lovely Hoffman as Rosetta and Pier Lamia Porter as Marie Photo courtesy of Nile Scott Studios/Greater Boston Stage Company

During one of the shows lighter moments, Hoffman as Rosetta attempts to ease Marie’s nerves by assuring her blush brings what is on the inside out.  It is Hoffman’s frank optimism and electrifying, groundbreaking vocal style that make her such an appealing persona, especially through the soulful number Rock Me to the playful Sit Down to the insightful Gospel song, I Looked Down the Line.  

In a pink chiffon dress and ballet flats, Pier Lamia Porter delivers a brilliant turn as Marie and the perfect foil for Rosetta.  Marie takes on the soul stirring number, Were You There in a rich, traditional vibrato and always playing by life and music’s rules while Rosetta’s soaring soprano takes a more spontaneous turn.  Pier Lamia Porter also delivers a gorgeous, moving rendition of Peace in the Valley not to be missed.  There is a lot more to Marie than she lets on leaving plenty of room for the two of them to learn from one another.

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From L to R: Pier Lamia Porter as Marie and Lovely Hoffman as Rosetta Photo courtesy of Nile Scott Studios/Greater Boston Stage Company

While the two have little in common, they make a dynamite duet for rock gospel song, Didn’t it Rain and a powerful, rousing rendition of Up Above My Head as this powerful musical moves into high gear.

Greater Boston Stage Company and Front Porch Arts Collective continue Marie and Rosetta through Sunday, November 10 at Greater Boston Stage Company located at 395 Main Street in Stoneham, Massachusetts. Click here for more information and here to learn more about the Front Porch Arts Collective.

REVIEW: Grammy award-winning Soweto Gospel Choir makes a mesmerizing and festive Celebrity Series of Boston return

It was a special evening for the Soweto Gospel Choir having recently learned that their latest album, Freedom has been nominated for a Grammy on December 7.   Marking their 15th anniversary as a group, this Grammy award-winning South African Gospel group has toured all over the world and shared the stage with legendary performers such as Bono and Queen.

Celebrity Series of Boston presents Soweto Gospel Choir 'Songs of the Free'

Soweto Gospel Choir Photo courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston

Marking their sixth appearance since 2005, Celebrity Series of Boston welcomed back this renowned group to the Berklee Performance Center in Boston, MA for one night only to pay special tribute to the late Nelson Mandela who would have celebrated his centenary this year, Aretha Franklin, and perform a bit of James Brown’s fancy footwork.  Combining African Gospel, reggae, and American pop music and sung in six of South Africa’s eleven official languages, The Soweto Gospel Choir’s expressive rhythms, mesmerizing harmony and lively choreography is amazing to behold.  Click here to find out where the Soweto Gospel Choir will perform next and here for more information on Celebrity Series of Boston’s 80th season and more.

Accompanied by a keyboardist, slide whistle, and a drummer who performed a captivating drum solo, the concert’s first half was dedicated to depicting the realities of apartheid as well as perform songs from their latest album.  Dressed in colorful, coordinating traditional garb, The Soweto Gospel Choir’s energy is contagious whether they are sharing a powerful message or joyfully ringing in the Christmas season.

Celebrity Series Soweto Gospel Choir Dance

Photo courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston

Though each song delivered flawless harmony and the captured the spirit of their message, a few of the particular highlights were Sabashiya a Abuzai, Sabela, Thua Mtanami Medley, Johnny Clegg and Peter Gabriel’s Asimbonanga/Biko, and Letta Mbulu and Mbongeni Ngema’s Freedom Songs Medley:  Jikiela, Rolihlahla Mandela.  They also sang a heartfelt Amazing Grace in smooth harmony and beautiful baritone.

The second half delivered a wide range of Christmas Carols including an enthralling version of Go Tell in On the Mountain/He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands and a partially acapella version of Silent Night.  Soweto Gospel Choir delivered a spiritual Wade in the Water which included a drumming dance competition.  What makes this group unique is the joy and power they evoke though their music, their compelling rhythms, and their freestyle, free spirited choreography that will make you get on your feet.

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Soweto Gospel Choir Photo courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston

Ending the evening is was a grateful, heartening version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, dedicating the song to their latest Grammy nomination.  With talent like this, Soweto Gospel Choir has a lot to be grateful for.

Celebrity Series of Boston is currently offering big savings for the holiday season, which expires on December 28.  Click here for information about that special offer.

A few of the Celebrity Series of Boston’s 2019 highlights include the debut of guitarist Pablo Sainz Villegas in January, Mark Morris Dance Group and Mnozil Brass, Cirque in February, Voci Angelica, and Castle of Our Skins in February, and the return of NPR’s Rob Kapilow’s What Makes it Great on Bands of the Swing Era in March.  Click here to see all that Celebrity Series of Boston has in store.

Queen Latifah, Ben Folds, ‘Jaws,’ and ‘E.T.’ part of the Boston Pops ‘Celebrating John Williams’ season

Sometimes the most tremendous talent is located right in the backyard.  Responsible for a wealth of critically-acclaimed and celebrated music scores over a career that spans six decades and beyond, Boston Pops Laureate conductor John Williams has been nominated for 50 Academy Awards, winning five.  Legendary film scores for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, Jaws as well as the Olympic Fanfare and theme and NBC Sunday Night Football are just a glimpse of the spectacular works by the incomparable John Williams.

In honor of John’s 85th birthday and his incredible accomplishments over the years, The Boston Pops dedicate their season to Celebrating John Williams from Wednesday, May 10 through Saturday, June 17 at Boston Symphony Hall.  The season will kick off with multi-talented actress and singer Queen Latifah from Wednesday, May 10 to Thursday, May 11 and finishing off with the 25th anniversary of Gospel Night on Saturday, June 17.

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Queen Latifah opens the Boston Pops season Photo courtesy of Boston Pops

The Boston Pops also offers a pre-season concert series hosted by Indiana Jones star, Karen Allen and the live recording of Boston Pops CD release on Friday, April 7.  Click here for Boston Pops tickets and here for more information on upcoming BSO concerts.

Led by accomplished conductor Keith Lockhart, a compelling roster of renowned artists and celebrity appearances enliven this spring’s Boston Pops season.  The stage and screen have never been brighter with iconic artists such as musicians Ben Folds, Leslie Odom, Jr, and the Party with the B-52s.  Other highlights include The Beatles & Beyond, Jaws in Concert, Mamma Mia, E.T. in Concert, Cirque De la Symphonie,  Lights, Camera, Music, The Music of John Williams, and more.

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Ben Folds Photo courtesy of the Boston Pops

The Boston Pops presents the always phenomenal and wildly-popular Gospel Night once again led by Charles Floyd and the return of Film Night with John Williams.  Click here for a full list of performances.

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Leslie Odom, Jr from Hamilton will perform with the Boston Pops Photo courtesy of the Boston Pops

Click here for tickets, call SymphonyCharge at 1-888-266-1200, or visit the Symphony Hall box office during business hours at 301 Massachusetts Ave in Boston, Massachusetts.  Follow The Boston Pops on Facebook and Twitter for updates.


Company Theatre proudly presents the uplifting musical comedy, ‘Sister Act the Musical’

With an incredible lineup of catchy, uplifting songs by Academy award-winning composer Alan Menken, Company Theatre proudly presents the hilarious musical comedy, Sister Act the Musical from Friday, March 17 through Sunday, April 9 at the Company Theatre in Norwell, Massachusetts.  Based on the 1992 smash hit film starring Whoopi Goldberg, Sister Act the Musical is a humorous, inspiring story about loyalty, friendship, and discovering what is really important.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

Set in Philadelphia, lounge singer Deloris Van Cartier finds herself in a terrible predicament and needs protection.  She finds it in a convent with a group of dutiful nuns led by rigid Mother Superior, but she has never felt more out of place until the power of music steps in.  Featuring a cast that will bring audiences joyfully to their feet, see Sister Act the Musical from Friday, March 17 through Sunday, March 19 then Wednesdays through Sundays through April 9.

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‘Sister Act the Musical’ cast Photo courtesy of Michelle McGrath/Company Theatre

Sister Act the Musical is part of Company Theatre’s stellar 2017 season which includes Disney’s The Little Mermaid with an adult cast this summer.  Auditions will be held on May 3.  Click here for audition details.

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Company Theatre presents Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ this summer. Courtesy of the Company Theatre

Other highlights of the season include the psychological thriller, Lizzie Borden in October and the holiday family musical comedy, Company for the Holidays in December.  All performances take place at the Company Theatre, 30 Accord Park Drive in Norwell, Massachusetts.  Get discount tickets on Family & Friends Fridays. Click here, call the box office at 781-871-2787 for tickets or email for more information.  Follow the Company Theatre on Facebook.