REVIEW:  Academy of the Company Theatre’s parody ‘Puffs’ full of lively, enchanted fun

Those first few chords seem familiar, but no, this is not quite the John Williams classic score about THAT wizard, but another earnest group of wizard hopefuls.  Not quite ‘saint-like,’ but fun loving and enthusiastic underachievers nonetheless.  Some legendary faces appear and make quite an impression, but the Puffs are the real stars.

Full of inside and self aware jokes, 90s pop culture references, chocolate frogs, almost every flavored bean, and not nearly as long as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts 1 and 2 comes Puffs, a spot on parody that tells the epic tale of the seven years Harry Potter attended Hogwarts from the viewpoint of some of the lesser known wizard students that aimed for first, but would also settle for third.  It is a hilarious exploration that is best appreciated by Harry Potter fans due to its share of spoilers, but anyone would enjoy a wealth of improvisational fun and physical humor as well as Dean Palmer Junior’s impressive lighting and special effects.  The introduction of hilarious dragons and haunting dementors are just some of the show’s highlights.

Bath scene. Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

Directed cleverly by Corey Cadigan, Academy of the Company Theatre (ACT) presents Matt Cox’s Puffs for one exclusive weekend from October 22 through October 24 at Company Theatre in Norwell, Massachusetts.  Click here for all of Company Theatre’s upcoming events including a tribute to Jordie Saucerman, Company Theatre’s late co-founder.

The timing is perfect for Puffs as next year marks 25 years since JK’s Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone hit bookshelves in 1997, making the author one of the richest people in the world.  With Harry Potter and the Cursed Child back on Broadway and around the world and Fantastic Beasts 3: The Secrets of Dumbledore slated for next year, Harry Potter remains a phenomenon.

Annie Dunn as Sally Perks and others and Marissa Tolini as Susie Bones and others Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

This is absolutely not a retread of Harry Potter though, but tells a slightly different and more humorous tale along Harry Potter’s timeline.  It is difficult to choose which characters makes the biggest impression because each cast member collaborate so well together and as a big Harry Potter fan, I found myself laughing right through my mask which is required within Company Theatre’s comfortable theatre space.

Brianna Casey as Narrator Courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

Many cast members transfigure into multiple roles as Brianna Casey serves as Puffs scholarly narrator.  Casey’s benevolent and dignified delivery adds gravitas to an often whimsical role, keeping the tale focused as some of the more spontaneous characters could have led the story astray.  Will Moon epitomizes Cedric’s rock star persona and charismatic scene stealer in a dual role and Alex Norton’s Wayne Hopkins is talkative and charming as the tale’s ‘would be’ hero.  Morgan Hurley offers a memorable portrayal of conflicted Megan Jones, a rebel with a chip on her shoulder.  She shares endearing chemistry with Sean Lally as Wayne’s nerdy best friend, Oliver Rogers.

Anastasia Ferrera is bubbly and delightful as Leanne among others and James Keyes as goofy J. Finch as well as other roles is often the life of the party.  One of the many collaborative scenes and highlights of the show involve a party with too much butter beer and a familiar sounding 90s dance song.   Some scenes seem a random addition, but are always smartly done.

With intricate, multi-functional sets and props (those wands and that sorting hat!) by Ryan Barrow and colorful, distinctive, and humorously outlandish costumes by John Crampton, Puffs is a lighthearted and wonderful journey while still delivering important life lessons so prevalent in the books such as valuing the power of friendship, dreaming big, and being true to oneself.  It’s a shame the show is only presented for one weekend with a cast that is having so much fun.

Brianna Casey as Narrator and Max Ripley as Ernie Mac and others

Academy of the Company Theatre (ACT) performs parody Puffs through October 24.  Click here for more information and for all of the Company Theatre’s upcoming events.

REVIEW: Liars and Believers’ inventive ‘Beyond a Winter’s Day’ aims to chase away pandemic blues

It has been said, ‘Happiness is good food and good company.’

For those who miss hugs and some good company, Liars and Believers (LAB) in Cambridge, MA may have a cure for that with their interactive, virtual, and family-friendly production of Beyond a Winter’s Day continuing through Saturday, March 27.  This production is offered on a pay-what-you-can basis.  Click here for more information and for tickets.  These are live streaming zoom performances that are scheduled at specific times.

Jason Garlick as Stanislav and Glen Moore as Fergus Photo credit to Liars and Believers

Directed shrewdly by Jason Slavick with video editing by Sam Powell, Beyond a Winter’s Day is more an experience than simply a theatrical production.  What makes this experience rather unique is how cleverly it is put together.  Not only does Beyond a Winter’s Day deliver a selection of insightful, creatively dynamic stories including an open-ended tale that ticket holders are encouraged to finish, but takes it one step further. 

Before watching, ticket holders are offered three recipes that could be considered hearty comfort food for a winter’s day to be prepared prior to the production.  The food is cleverly woven into the storyline and cast members enjoy the food with the audience during key points in the production, creating a multi-sensory experience. 

Rachel Weise as Isabel Photo credit to Liars and Believers

Though a portion of the production is set in space, Beyond a Winter’s Day attempts to evoke the comfort you might feel sitting in front of a campfire while eating, conversing, and sharing stories.  The colorful cast, portrayed by Rachel Wiese as Isabel, Rebecca Lehrhoff as Mishka, Glen Moore as Fergus, and Jesse Garlick as Stanislav, address the audience on occasion and the audience can respond via messaging.  A marginally self-aware piece, each nuanced character that introduces the tales all react differently to being separated from their other cast mates and gradually learn how best to capture that light and feeling of togetherness once again. 

Each tale is produced with varying creative styles and conveys a strong message about the underdog, judging a book by its cover, a campfire fable with unexpected attendees, and an open-ended story for you to finish. 

Vasalise the Blessed Photo credit to Liars and Believers

Each tale possesses its own strengths, but Vasalise the Blessed, an original work written by Rachel Wiese, was a particular highlight.  Its rich shadow puppetry boasts a passing resemblance to The Tale of Three Brothers in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I film.  The haunting, detailed quality of this work is evident right down to the lattice pattern in Vasalise’s dress and the poignant story seems to come out of a set of dark fairy tales.

Jesse Garlick’s Malka and the Bahema is a fascinating Yiddish morality tale that involves a variety of puppetry including hand and finger puppets as Malka embarks on a harrowing journey to prove an entire town wrong and Kendra Bell’s mischievous and expressive costumes for a bedtime fable look like they walked right out of storybook.

Beyond a Winter’s Day also features its own version of musical storytelling in the live, upbeat, and relaxing acoustic rhythms from singer-songwriters Carlos Odria and singer Mali

Liars and Believers present innovative Beyond a Winter’s Day through Saturday, March 27.  This show is on a pay-as-you-like basis and streams live at scheduled times.  Click here for more information and tickets.

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.

Renowned Broadway producer Ken Davenport talks Tony Awards, Hollywood, and ‘Gettin’ the Band Back Together’

Ambitious Tony award-winning Broadway and off-Broadway theatre producer and writer Ken Davenport has had a passion for theatre his entire life.  He has produced renowned musicals from Godspell to Kinky Boots to this year’s Tony-nominated Once on This Island and helms the North American activity for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group.  Dedicated to bridge the gap between the stage and its audience, he is also behind an interactive theatre app, Didhelikeit as well as the hit board game, Be a Broadway Star.

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Ken Davenport Photo courtesy of Ken Davenport

Ken talked to Sleepless Critic about when he first discovered the theatre, Hollywood and the Tony Awards, and his upcoming musical comedy, Gettin’ the Band Back Together.  Click here for more on Ken Davenport and see who the the big winners are on the 72nd annual Tony Awards on Sunday June 10.

The 72nd Annual Tony Awards hosts

Hosts Josh Groban and Sara Bareilles Photo credit: Cliff_Lipson-CBS

Sleepless Critic:  What awakened your interest in theatre and how did the opportunity to become a Broadway producer come about?

Ken Davenport:  My mom told me I first kicked when she was watching a production of Godspell, so I think I’ve always wanted to be part of the theatre.  I produced the first revival of Godspell on Broadway in 2011.

Being a producer is like starting your own business.  Opportunities don’t come about.  You have to make them happen.

SC:  What do you like most about producing and what production did you find to be the most challenging?

KD:  I love watching the audience’s expressions on their faces at the end of the show whether they are laughing, crying, or cheering.  We’ve affected them and that’s a joy to watch.

The most challenging part of producing is getting everyone on the same page.  It’s like getting ten people to paint the Mona Lisa.

SC:  Is there a show you turned down that you ended up wishing you were a part of?

KD:  Nah, I have no regrets.  I’ve passed on shows that have gone on to be hits, but they weren’t me.  They still wouldn’t be me, even if I had a few more bucks in my pocket.  I’d much rather stay true to what I want to do.

SC:  The musical, Mean Girls is one of the big Tony nominees this year and it is one of many Hollywood to Broadway musical crossovers.  From Pretty Woman to Heathers, do you think that this method has been an effective way to draw a wider audience to Broadway?  From what I’ve seen of Mean Girls and having recently seen Waitress, it seems to be working well.

KD:  Movies have become a common source for adaptations in the last ten years, but it doesn’t guarantee success.  I think the adaptations that work best are the ones that don’t have super popular source material.  It’s like when a movie is made from a book.  Most people think the book is better.  That happens a lot when popular movies are made into musicals.  It’s a very high hurdle to jump over.

SC:  What has been your favorite Hollywood to Broadway crossover musical so far?

KD:  Kinky Boots because I am one of the producers.

SC:  From classic musicals like Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel to Spongebob Squarepants, what nominations most surprised you and which did you think should have been nominated?

KD:  I think my choreographer from Once on this Island, Camille A. Brown should have been nominated as well as Alex Newell.

SC:  Which do you predict will be the standout production to win?  I’m sure you were thrilled when Once on This Island was nominated, a show you have produced.

KD:  I think the awards this year will be spread out amongst several shows rather than one big winner taking home multiple awards.

SC:  You work to make Broadway a more interactive experience.  Please tell me about the apps you promote.

KD:  We have an app for our website, Didhelikeit.com that gives you a snapshot of show reviews and focuses on the New York Times.

Gettin the Band Back Together

‘Gettin’ the Band Back Together’ premieres on July 19.

SC:  Just a few of the productions you have worked on is Groundhog DaySpring Awakening, and The Play That Goes Wrong.  The musical comedy, Getting the Band Back Together is coming up.

KD:  I’m super excited about Gettin’ the Band Back Together, which starts performances on July 19.  It’s such a fun show to be a part of and totally original.  It has an original story, music, etc.  It’s going to be a blast so come see it!

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Click here for more information on Ken Davenport and here for more on Ken’s current project, Gettin’ the Band Back Together.  Hosted by Josh Groban and Sara Bareilles, find out who wins on CBS for the 72nd annual Tony Awards on Sunday June 10 at 8 p.m.  Follow The Tony Awards on Facebook.

For Performing Arts news, interviews, reviews, and much more in Boston and beyond, follow us on Facebook @sleeplesscritic and subscribe.

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.