REVIEW: Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston makes an exciting return to the stage with a moving and remarkable ‘West Side Story’

‘I’ve just met a girl named Maria/And suddenly that name/will never be the same/to me.”

Having seen the classic musical West Side Story from the stage to the 1961 film adaptation to Spielberg’s recent Oscar worthy film, Reagle Music Theatre’s Blake Du Bois as Tony’s moving rendition of the classic song, Maria is a must see.  Many Tonys have floated through this number with surprise, naiveté, and the excitement of attraction while blinded by love, but Du Bois’s delivery evokes a more meaningful perspective.  Enhanced by his extensive vocal range, this soulful rendition depicts not naiveté, not necessarily blindness, but an overwhelming feeling of love for Maria and the fear of what that means.  So overcome by love that he must move forward in spite of it. It was like understanding Maria anew.

Eevie Perez as Maria and Blake Du Bois as Tony in Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston’s ‘West Side Story’ Photo by Herb Philpott/Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston

Sharply directed and choreographed by Rachel Bertone with seamless musical direction by Dan Rodriguez, Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston delivered powerful and clever performances as it kicked off its summer musical season with West Side Story continuing through July 16 at Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston live and in person in Waltham, MA.  This show is not intended for children under 13.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

Based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story is the timeless tale of the Sharks and the Jets, two rival gangs who cannot seem to coexist in Manhattan without a fight.  However, when Blake Du Bois as streetwise Tony and Eevie Perez as idyllic Maria lock eyes, everything quickly becomes complicated.

Helmed by a captivating cast, Reagle Music Theatre’s West Side Story is intriguing from the start as it lays out mischief, antics and petty outrage over owning the streets.  A broad city landscape, chain linked fences, a retro jukebox and detailed drug store are just part of Janie Howland’s retro, rolling set that successfully rewinds the clock back to the 1950s. 

The cast of West Story Photo by Herb Philpott/Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston

A great deal of West Side Story hinges on its sharp dance and fight choreography and director and choreographer Bertone hits the ground running.  Along with Fight and Intimacy Director Angie Jepson, the high-kicking choreography blurs the lines between dance and fighting as the gangs intertwine in innovative and precise movements.  A leap becomes a punch and aggressiveness turns graceful…all in the same move.  Jack Mullen delivers an intense performance as the tough talking, swaggering Jet leader Riff, especially during a catchy and memorable rendition of Cool as each tense moment pops to Franklin Meissner, Jr’s intricate lighting.  Mullen as Riff and Du Bois as Tony share some affable camaraderie as they do with their fellow Jets and their fair share of united animosity toward the Sharks.  Nate Walsh stood out as hot head Action, on edge and ready for a fight while Gracin Wilkins delivers a stirring performance as outcast Anybodys.

Bianca Rivera-Irions as Anita with the Shark Girls performing ‘America.’ Photo by Herb Philpott/Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston

Eevie Perez is charming and spot on as Maria, her chiming vocals and naiveté especially evident with Ana Viveros as Consuela, Marissa Pineda as Rosalia, and Karina Gonzalez as Tesesita in the exuberant and playful number, I Feel Pretty and in a gorgeous duet with Du Bois as Tony for One Hand, One Heart.  Tall and distinctive, charismatic Bianca Rivera-Irions as Anita knows how to make an entrance in a show stopping red dress, just one of the many rich, vintage, and vibrant costumes provided by Tiffany Howard.  A lively dancer, Rivera-Irions as Anita stands out in any room as only Anita can.  Rivera-Irions as Anita and Diego Klock-Perez as proud and protective Shark leader Bernardo share lighthearted and steamy chemistry.  The dynamic cast performs an exhilarating rendition of Tonight, their robust sound and stirring harmonies build the anticipation and excitement of a night that will change everything.

Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston presents musical classic West Side Story continues through July 16 at Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston live and in person in Waltham, MA.  This show is not intended for children under 13.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

REVIEW: Boston Lyric Opera’s boxing opera ‘Champion’ a triumph in jazz

The brutal world of boxing punctuated with the complex harmonies of jazz set to simmering opera?  This premise might seem outlandish, but Terence Blanchard’s Champion An Opera in Jazz cleverly weaves these three elements together into an absorbing true story and cautionary tale of a welterweight boxer and a symbolic shoe that gains more significance than anything that takes place in the ring.

Boston Lyric Opera presented ‘Champion An Opera in Jazz’ Photo courtesy of Boston Lyric Opera

Boston Lyric Opera (BLO) presented their final show of the season, Terence Blanchard’s Champion An Opera in Jazz, for one weekend only through Sunday, May 22 at the elegant Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston, Massachusetts.  It is a shame this captivating production was limited to two exclusive concert-style performances in Boston, but it could not be helped due to COVID.   Champion An Opera in Jazz has adult themes with one intermission.  Click here for more information about the Boston Lyric Opera, upcoming events, and for details on BLO’s recently announced upcoming season. 

Boston Lyric Opera 2022-23 season Photo credit to Boston Lyric Opera

As the chorus took up the boxes in the balcony to produce a resonant, semi-surround sound quality led by Brett Hodgdon, the orchestra warmed up and played onstage for the duration of the performance.  With creatively engaging stage direction by Timothy Douglas, the intense drama and interaction within the strong cast far exceeded my expectations as concert versions of a work often focus more on music than plot.  In a packed house, Blanchard leaves much to unpack in this show’s more than two hour time frame. 

Brian Major as Emile Griffith Photo by David Angus/BLO

This introspective tale explores the complex relationships, trauma, abuse, neglect, and harrowing circumstances in welterweight boxer Emile Griffith’s life.  However, what really affected me the most was just as Emilie Griffith discovers who he is and who he wants to become, he endures constant pressure and insistence from others to be the version they see in him.  Griffith had the talent and ambition to craft his own vision, but his destiny ultimately takes a detour.

Musically-directed by David Angus, Champion is helmed by an insightful and fierce cast that eloquently evoke Michael Cristofer’s multi-layered libretto.  Champion has plenty of heart and heartache, but also has a redemptive quality and joy in life’s smaller victories.  Three versions of Emile Griffith portrayed by Brian Major as older Griffith, Markel Reed as younger Griffith, and Jonathan Harris as Little Emile Griffith each deliver a fresh perspective at pivotal points in Griffith’s life.  With uplifting and humorous commentary at times to lighten the production’s darker moments, ring announcer Matthew Arnold serves fittingly as a semi-narrator of this work.

MARKEL REED, TERRENCE CHIN-LOY, AND BRIAN MAJOR IN BLO’S 2022 PRODUCTION OF CHAMPION: AN OPERA IN JAZZ Photo by David Angus/BLO

A profound and engaging baritone, Major is heartrending and charismatic as he delves deep into Emile Griffith’s continuing and complex struggles.  Griffith has a lot to handle and it is touching to watch his sweet scenes with tenor Jesus Garcia as patient and grounded Luis.

Markel Reed delivers an exceptional portrayal as Young Emile Griffith.  Reed’s dynamic vocals blended with the sheer mastery of Griffith’s physical and psychological transformation from a wide-eyed, idealistic, and determined young man to an adult with eyes wide open to his future is a marvel to watch.  Jonathan Harris as adorable Little Emile Griffith makes a brief, yet significant mark in this story as well. 

Stylishly adorned in a floral dress and matching hat, Tichina Vaughn strikes a delicate balance of playfulness, detachment, and mournfulness as mysterious and headstrong Emelda Griffith.  This brilliant mezzo-soprano accomplishes a degree of sympathy for Emelda which is difficult to muster as Emelda struggles with her aching discontent, heartache, and constant need for greener pastures.

TICHINA VAUGHN AND CHABRELLE D. WILLIAMS IN BLO’S 2022 PRODUCTION OF CHAMPION: AN OPERA IN JAZZ Photo by David Angus/BLO

In a crisp blue suit, Wayne Tigges also brings some sympathy to tough-talking Howie Albert who has a skewed vision of Griffith, setting Griffith on an uncertain path.  Wayne’s multi-layered, rage-inducing aria of Killer Instinct is prevalent throughout the show and Wayne’s rendition particularly makes it memorable.  Tenor Terrance Chin-Loy as Benny ‘Kid’ Paret and soprano Chabrelle D. Williams as Sadie Donastrog Griffith both demonstrate their remarkable range in contrasting dual roles.

It was once difficult to imagine jazz as a boxing opera, but having heard the smooth, unpredictable, thrilling, and moody undertones as the music builds tension and urgency, I cannot imagine Champion An Opera in Jazz any other way.  Champion’s unconventional and stirring delivery is just what makes the show’s ubiquitous message ring true.

Champion An Opera in Jazz was Boston Lyric Opera’s final production of the season.  Click here for more information about the Boston Lyric Opera, upcoming events, and for details on BLO’s recently announced upcoming season. 

REVIEW:  Central Square Theater and Front Porch Collective’s ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ The Fats Waller Musical’ dazzling, engaging, and sensational fun

Whether it was a wink, a smile, Anthony Pires Jr’s mischievous laugh, the crackling chemistry and snappy asides among this multi-talented, finely adorned cast or Central Square Theater’s transformation into a vivid vintage Harlem nightclub, Ain’t Misbehavin’ certainly knows how to throw a roaring party.

Innovatively directed with stellar choreography by Maurice Emmanuel Parent and Ilyse Robbins with musical arrangements by Luther Henderson, Central Square Theater and The Front Porch Arts Collective continues sensational Ain’t Misbehavin:  The Fats Waller Musical live and in person at Central Square Theater in Cambridge, MA through Sunday, May 29 before moving to the Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham, MA from June 9 to June 26.  Click here for more information and tickets.

Jackson Jirard and Christina Jones in Central Square Theater’s ‘Ain’t Misbehavin” Photo credit to Nile Scott Studios

With festive lighting by Jeff Adelberg, red cocktail tables and lamps lining a gold-embroidered stage that frames the intimate, big band orchestra while eye-catching portraits hang on each side of the stage, Jon Savage’s alluring set design immediately sets the mood for an interactive, carefree, spontaneous, and humorous concert event fueled by Fats Waller’s tremendous talent.

The cast of ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ The Fats Waller Musical’ Photo credit to Nile Scott Studios

Accented by Elizabetta Polito’s distinctive costumes from furs to glimmering garments to slick pinstripe suits and bowler hats, Ain’t Misbehavin’ seamlessly rewinds the clock to the roaring 20s where Harlem nightclubs and speakeasies sprung up for a boisterous night of revelry during the Prohibition era.  Kicking off the show with a recording from Fats Waller himself, Ain’t Misbehavin’ reveals Waller’s catchy musical repertoire ranging  from exuberant romance to humorous irreverence to playful flirtation while also addressing significant and sobering issues of the era that remain rife today.  This incredible cast depicts it all with clever and mesmerizing swagger as well as some measure of illuminating heartache.

Led and enhanced by conductor Dan Rodriguez’s swift and extraordinary piano work especially for the thrilling stride piano number, Handful of Keys, this fiery, six-piece orchestra masters every brass-tinged and drum-laden beat with finesse. 

The cast of Central Square Theater and Front Porch Arts Collective’s ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ The Fats Waller Musical’ Photo credit to Nile Scott Studios

With an vocal aptitude for exciting, big band numbers as well as ardent crooning, a few of this show’s many highlights include Lovely Hoffman’s clever and moving Mean to Me and the sheer energy and vibrant vocals in Yacht Club Swing and The Joint is Jumpin.’ 

Ain’t Misbehavin’s  crackling chemistry is well demonstrated between Lovely Hoffman and Anthony Pires Jr as they deliver a playful duet for the light and amorous number, Honeysuckle RoseChristina Jones and Jackson Jirard take the stage for a sweet version of I Can’t Give You Anything But Love and Sheree Marcelle and Anthony Pires Jr deliver an equally charming duet for I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.  Accented by Jirard’s limber movements and amazing choreography through hazy lighting, the show takes on a captivating, psychedelic turn as Jirard sings The Viper’s Drag.  Anthony Pires Jr shows off big personality and comedic sass for Your Feets too Big before the cast gathers for a heartrending Black and Blue.

The cast of Central Square Theater and Front Porch Collective’s ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ The Fats Waller Musical’ Photo credit to Nile Scott Studios

The only thing more exciting than the music are the side smirks, irritated looks and onstage antics clearly hinting of the juicy drama happening between cast members behind the scenes, though it is all part of a show that thrives on the audience’s enthusiasm and interaction.   Ain’t Misbehavin’ is a riveting musical celebration for a multi-talented musician clearly ahead of his time.

Central Square Theater and The Front Porch Arts Collective continues sensational Ain’t Misbehavin’  The Fats Waller Musical‘ live and in person at Central Square Theater in Cambridge, MA through Sunday, May 29 before moving to the Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham, MA from June 9 to June 26.  Click here for more information and 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:  True Repertory Theatre’s ‘Ellen’s Boys’ a heartwarming and heartrending family tale

Family life can get complicated and for the large Irish Catholic Flaherty family, complicated is an understatement.   Though Ellen’s Boys are a big part of this dramedy, the real center of this production lies in Ellen, the stubborn, pushy, and interfering Flaherty matriarch in a powerful performance by Victoria Bond.  Emotions run high with some typical family arguments and some not so typical, but the show shines a light on the hypocrisies (even the innocent ones) set by family that almost anyone can relate to.   

True Repertory Theatre’s ‘Ellen’s Boys’ logo Logo courtesy of Jim Sullivan/True Repertory Theatre

Partnering in part by GLSEN and directed insightfully by Donald Sheehan, True Repertory Theatre presented Jim Sullivan’s original dramedy, Ellen’s Boys, live and in person at the Beal House, 222 Main Street in Kingston, Massachusetts through March 27.  The show is approximately 2 hours with one intermission.  Click here for more information, upcoming auditions, and more. 

The ‘Ellen’s Boys’ set Photo courtesy of Jim Sullivan/True Repertory Theatre

The Ellen Boys’ set takes up a significant space at the Beal House so there’s not a bad seat for the audience.  As a photo of John F. Kennedy hangs on the wall, a tube television and vintage radio stand in the living room, and Andes mints sit in a crystal bowl on a doily, Ellen’s Boys successfully rewinds the clock back to December of 1965.  Based on playwright Jim Sullivan’s own vision of his grandmother’s house, the Beal House is home to a functional space with full kitchen off a retro-furnished living room as sacramental Catholic objects hang on the walls with framed portraits of family memories on a piano.  The show also sets a prominent Irish tone whether through the Celtic music between scenes, the Irish teapot on the dining room table, or through Flaherty sisters Ellen and Bridget’s rich Irish accents. 

Each character longs to break free in one’s own unique way and Ellen’s Boys has its share of heartwarming and heartrending moments within this animated family dynamic.  It seems the only one against evolution is Ellen Flaherty.   Victoria Bond could have easily depicted Ellen as a caricature of the classic pushy Irish mother in a house dress and apron who manipulates her way through grief and guilt, but as Bond breathes life into the character with finesse and humor, it is difficult to stay frustrated with Ellen for long. 

Lisa Caron Driscoll’s remarkable portrayal as Ellen’s fun loving, spontaneous and equally quick-tempered sister Bridget makes for some high drama between sisters displaying some tempestuous sibling rivalry.  They are alike in the ways that matter, though neither will admit it.

Donald Sheehan took both the director’s seat and a role as Ellen’s lonely and devoted son Gil.  Noonan strikes a delicate balance between sweet and exasperated as he holds onto the past in fear of the ramifications of his future.  Seemingly the opposite is Cammerron Baits as spontaneous and hard-partying Nathan.  In a multi-layered performance, Baits emotes fragility and earnestness under that impulsive façade.

Paul Noonan has a palpably eerie way of portraying the seemingly peaceful, helpful, yet enigmatic John Flaherty, Ellen’s son, while Oliver Henry Bellman is sweet and sympathetic as Patrick Walsh.  Noonan’s scenes with Julie Butler, in a bittersweet performance as dutiful and sensible sister Kathleen Doherty, made for some tough realizations as Kathleen pushes to break past John’s stoic nature.

Ellen’s Boys’ more lighthearted moments come in part from Sara McNulty as young and beautiful Tina Toccio whose self consciousness in front of Ellen and their various exchanges make for some dynamic comedy and also tense moments as they butt heads in their mutual stubbornness. With Cody Savoy as Ellen’s son, Michael, McNulty and Savoy also deliver some lighter moments and heartwarming chemistry together.

Though Ellen’s Boys runs a little long, through all of the drama, the complications, the heartache, and family outbursts because you simply can’t hold your tongue another second longer at the dinner table, what a relief to finally be understood.

REVIEW:  Boston Ballet’s elegant and edgy ‘DREAMstate’ a fascinating departure from reality

From classically fanciful to electrifying to distinctive, unconventional artistry, the Boston Ballet’s DREAMstate is an astute exploration of the delicate nature of dreams and a fascinating escape from reality.  Aside from Boston Ballet’s traditional Nutcracker in December, Mikko Nissinen’s DREAMstate is the first live and in person return to Boston Ballet’s regular season since the pandemic.  Excitement was in the air and the Boston Opera House was full.

Boston Ballet in George Balanchine’s Chaconne © The George Balanchine Trust; photo by Liza Voll; courtesy of Boston Balle

Boston Ballet’s DREAMstate continues through Sunday, March 27 at live and in person at the Citizen’s Bank Opera House in Boston, MA.  The show is approximately two hours with two intermissions and the final piece contains partial nudity.  Click here for more information and tickets.

Rolling Stones tribute DEVIL’s/eye Photo credit to Boston Ballet

Though all three Boston Ballet pieces had its highlights, the stellar world premiere of Boston Ballet’s tribute to the Rolling Stones, DEVIL’S/eye was the most uniquely compelling.  Weaving in live concert elements and classic hits such as Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, Paint it Black and much more, dancers take the stage in shadow bathed in purple, red, yellow, pink, and blue glimmering from an incredible, multi-functional sound system lit by Brandon Stirling Baker.  With exhilarating choreography and edgy and exotic costume design both by Stephen Galloway, lively dancers in silk, sequins, fishnets and windswept hair complete the full glamour of a rock and roll concert showing off thrilling, contemporary freestyle moves.  The entire performance is an electrifying spectacle as dancers let loose to the Stones concert footage with epic alicicone spins, but a brief pause in the guitar-tinged, horn-infused rhythms showing off each dancer’s glowing silhouette cannot be properly conveyed here and those sensational moments are best witnessed in person.

George Balanchine’s Chaconne brings to life a regal and fanciful daydream to the heavenly sounds of the Christoph Willibald von Gluck opera, Orfeo ed Euridice.  Elegantly adorned in a flowing and ethereal skirt and crown by Barbara Karinska in front of tranquil green blue backdrop, the always fresh-faced and charming Viktorina Kapitonova performed a beautiful and romantic pas de deux with Lasha Khozashvili, dressed in white.  Khozashvili lifts and leads Kapitonova delicately as they sporadically intertwine.  The piece is primarily playful as dancers bow and sway in gleaming, royal costumes as they float along this lighthearted daydream, the flutter of slippers sweeping across the stage.

Misa Kuranaga and Patrick Yocum in George Balanchine’s Chaconne © The George Balanchine Trust; photo by Liza Voll; courtesy of Boston Ballet

The final piece is probably one of the most unconventional performances the Sleepless Critic has ever witnessed with the Boston Ballet because after a brief intermission, the piece begins before the music starts and dancers are already in motion as the rehearsal blurs into the performance.

Altan Dugaraa, Sarah Wroth, Yury Yanowsky in Jiří Kylián’s Bella Figura; photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy of Boston Ballet

 Jiri Kylian’s Bella Figura, a fan favorite, often departs from reality and the structure of how a performance would normally flow.  In many ways, it bucks tradition as the dancers float and slide between closing curtains as Seo Hye Han, topless, wraps herself in only a black stage curtain.  Bella Figura has some captivating choreographed indignation and intensity as Ji Young Chae struggles not to be held or controlled by Paul Craig, shaking Craig away.  Bella Figura seems an abstract piece with haunting and mysterious elements as female dancers are manipulated in sharp, robotic movements.   It seems Bella Figura represents the vision of a perfect female specimen as women bend under the intensity and pressure to be perfect.  In gathering rich red skirts, men and women, all topless and all looking the same, glide along the stage.  It is a memorable, distinctive performance as the piece continues even as the music concludes.

 Boston Ballet’s DREAMstate continues through Sunday, March 27 at live and in person at the Citizen’s Bank Boston Opera House.  Click here for more information and tickets.

REVIEW:  ‘Freestyle Love Supreme’ an astounding good time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REVIEW:  Greater Boston Stage Company’s well-timed ‘Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help’ a comical trip down memory lane

Greater Boston Stage Company chose the perfect time to debut Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help.  Nestled right through St. Patrick’s Day during Lent (for Catholics), this engaging family comedy delves into the lives of the quirky lower middle class Irish-Catholic O’Shea family during a chaotic and pivotal week in their lives in the 1970s.  It’s a memory play…with a few amusing twists.

From L to R: Vin Vega as Becky, Maureen Keiller as Theresa “Terri” Carmichael, Amy Barker as Jo O’Shea, and Autumn Blazon-Brown as Linda O’Shea Photo courtesy of Greater Boston Stage Company

A semi-autobiographical play written by Katie Forgette and directed by Weylin Symes, Greater Boston Stage Company presents Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help virtually and at Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham, Massachusetts through March 20.  The show is 1 hour and 45 minutes with intermission and recommended for children ages 13 and up.  Click here for more information and tickets.

It is fascinating how memories work when they are retold, recalled, and recollected.  A fuzzy little detail here and a little change there may make a big difference.  Some of the production’s characters are a bit over the top, but so was the 70s.  Every detail of this show rewinds the clock to a simpler time before the internet, cell phones, and other technological distractions took over.  Deirdre Gerrard pulls together a wonderfully nostalgic and mismatched array of 70s attire from corduroy to bold patterns to star-studded bellbottoms. 

From L to R: Vin Vega as Becky, Autumn Blazon-Brown as Linda, Amy Barker as Jo O’Shea, and Maureen Keiller as Theresa “Terri” Carmichael Photo courtesy of Greater Boston Stage Company

Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help is full of candidness, warmth, and quick pacing much due to the cast’s authentic and believable chemistry as a relatable, flawed, and dysfunctional family.  Tempers flare, judgments are passed often, and the O’Shea family is set in their routines within a meticulously-detailed and functioning wood paneled kitchen plucked straight out of the 70s.  From an afghan blanket on a chair to knickknacks on shelves to photos and notes smattered on a corkboard to greenery gathering in a kitchen window, set designer Shelley Barish’s remarkable blast from the past kitchen lies in the details.

A bossy grandmother, a cheapskate father that works too hard, an exhausted but nurturing mother, a shoot-from-the-hip aunt, and an impressionable daughter all vie for the spotlight breaking the 4th wall and well aware they are in the play.  It flows more like a slice-of-life documentary with most characters eager to speak to the “camera.”

Vin Vega as Becky and Autumn Blazon-Brown as Linda O’Shea Photo courtesy of Greater Boston Stage Company

At the center of this play is somewhat reliable narrator Autumn Blazon-Brown as adorably spunky women’s-lib teenager Linda O’Shea.  Smart yet adventurous, Blazon-Brown shows charming charisma as Linda who, in a moment of frustration, is obnoxious to her impressionable sister Becky to the chagrin of those around her including intimidating Fr. Lovett portrayed with self-righteous glee by Barlow Adamson.  Chaos ensues.   

Amy Barker as Jo O’Shea and Autumn Blazon-Brown as Linda O’Shea Photo courtesy of Greater Boston Stage Company

Adamson is an apt comedian with a wealth of opportunities to show off his dynamic skills during this production.  Vin Vega portrays film-obsessed and imaginative Becky who seems the most sensible among this amiable cast and often along for the ride within the O’Shea high jinx.  Amy Barker portrays a relatable every mom as exhausted but nurturing matriarch Jo O’Shea, but Maureen Keiller, a familiar face having delivered solid past performances in Boston such as in Between Riverside and Crazy, Admissions and The Women, is a gem as Theresa “Terri” Carmichael.  Wisecracking, bold, and often blunt, Keiller shows under Terri’s complicated and tough façade is a loneliness and vulnerability with a fierce loyalty to her family.   A better aunt you will never find.

Greater Boston Stage Company presents Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help virtually and at Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham, Massachusetts through March 20.  The show is 1 hour and 45 minutes with intermission and recommended for children ages 13 and up.  Click here for more information and tickets.

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:  Lyric Stage Company’s heartfelt and semi-interactive ‘Mr. Parent’ a life changing journey

It is a production so engrossing that when it ends, you find yourself asking, “Then what happens?”

This is not to say that this insightful one man production, Mr. Parent is incomplete by any means, but the essence of this thought can be found in Maurice Emmanuel Parent‘s charismatic and absorbing storytelling.  This autobiographical and semi-interactive recollection of a life-changing period in Parent’s compelling history features amusing and captivating characters that will keep you invested in his journey, eager to find out what is next.

Seamlessly directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian, Lyric Stage Company continues the timely production Mr. Parent by Melinda Lopez through February 6 at Lyric Stage Company in Boston, Massachusetts. It will also be available for streaming from February 7 through February 20. This show runs 90 minutes with no intermission.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

Maurice Emmanuel Parent Photo by Mark S Howard

Within a colorful and empty classroom by Cristina Todesco, the aptly-named Mr. Parent manages to cover a great deal in its limited time frame from the state education system to struggling families to struggling teachers to desegregation during a pivotal time in Mr. Parent’s life approached with the kind of heart and humor that comes from experience.   Inspirational, educational, and complex, Mr. Parent also begs a significant question that many people face every day:  How do I pursue my passion while still making a decent living? 

Working in the arts, this quest is close to my heart.  In order to do what one loves, one may have to supplement that journey with additional job or jobs to make it all work.  It is a journey of sacrifice, more than likely a lack of sleep, and an overwhelming desire towards that dream goal, however means it may take to get there.  For some, taking this avenue may create another dream realized.

Maurice Immanuel Parent as himself is a struggling actor hoping to find success, but quickly realizes that doing so requires supplemental income.  He finds it in the form of teaching.  Having seen him perform as Cardinal Richelieu in Greater Boston Stage Company and Front Porch Arts Collective’s The Three Musketeers, Parent has a wealth of talent.  He is a charismatic presence onstage and it is easy to see the drive and heart he puts into his work.  Here, Maurice Emmanuel Parent’s personal account reflects that talent in spades.

Maurice Emmanuel Parent Photo courtesy of Mark S Howard

It has as much heart as adventure from hyena auditions to a sneaky hoodie to recollections of shows he encourages his parents not to see, Parent recounts the unsettled and unpredictable life of teaching and acting which includes plenty of realizations along the way with bite, humor, and in times of distress, unmitigated honesty.  For example, in two particularly moving moments, Mr. Parent describes in anguish what it is like to see his bright students from low income families struggle for their basic needs and enduring the scare of a lockdown.  He navigates scenario after scenario invoking an intensity and desperation to succeed in a job that he hopes will meet his needs, but wondering if he may be in over his head.   Seemingly sterling opportunities almost always have its challenges and Mr. Parent shows that we all have much to learn.

Maurice Emmanuel Parent Photo by Mark S Howard

Lyric Stage Company continues Mr. Parent through February 6 live and in person at Lyric Stage Company in Boston, Massachusetts. Click here for more information and for tickets.