REVIEW:  SpeakEasy Stage Company offers a shrewd and exceptional ‘Fairview’

Mama is about to have a birthday bash no one will soon forget.

Prepared by Yewande Odetoyinbo as Beverly and Dominic Carter as Dayton who delivered playful and endearing chemistry previously seen in Lyric Stage Company’s production The Light, SpeakEasy Stage Company’s brilliant production of Fairview is an impactful and evolving show that has so much to say, but yet so little should be said before witnessing it.  Its humor ranges from conventional to absurd to acerbic and should be watched, understood, and thought over.

Yewande Odetoyinbo and Dom Carter. Nile Scott Studios

SpeakEasy Stage Company presents Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Pulitzer prize-winning Fairview live and in person at Calderwood Pavilion in Boston, Massachusetts through Saturday, March 11.  Powerfully directed by Pascale Florestal, Fairview boasts an excellent and dynamic cast.  Fairview runs one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission and contains adult themes.  Click here for more information and tickets.

Lyndsay Allyn Cox, Yewande Odetoyinbo, and Victoria Omoregie. Nile Scott Studios

Amid an Obama family portrait on the left and a Langston Hughes poem on the right with upscale furniture and a dangling crystal chandelier overhead by Erik D Diaz, the production opens to an inviting and seemingly affluent household as Beverly, attempting to quell her nerves, begins to dance while peeling a carrot for Mama’s birthday dinner.  Soon joined by Dayton, Lyndsay Allyn Cox as Beverly’s sister Jasmine and Victoria Omoregie as Beverly and Dayton’s daughter Keisha, Fairview reveals a dysfunctional family gearing up for a big night for Mama.  Beverly’s only wish is for everything to be perfect.

Fairview addresses the nature of observing and perspective in a unique, palpable and unpredictable manner and it is quite a wild ride to its astonishing conclusion, so be still and observe.  This may be unlike anything witnessed before onstage and most assuredly worth the journey.

SpeakEasy Stage Company presents Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Pulitzer prize-winning Fairview live and in person at Calderwood Pavilion in Boston, Massachusetts through Saturday, March 11.  Fairview runs one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission and has adult themes.  Click here for more information and tickets.

REVIEW: Dating just got complicated for Dating Drama shorts at New Ohio Theatre’s New York City’s Indie Theatre Film Festival

The New Ohio Theatre presented its 7th annual NYC Indie Theatre Film Festival live and in person at New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher Street in NYC from February 16-19 and then virtually from February 20-26.  The New York City Indie Film Theatre Festival presented a variety of films from short films to features on a variety of topics and some films contain mature themes.   Click here for more information and to learn more about New Ohio Theatre.

Photo credit to New Ohio Theatre

The Sleepless Critic was knee deep in short films and tackled the Dating Drama and the Friendship Bonds shorts which focused on a variety of perspectives on relationships.  Click here for the Friendship Bonds short film review.

New Ohio Shorts ‘Full Disclosure’ Photo credit New Ohio Theatre

Dating is not for the faint of heart.  Sharply written and directed by Mia Rovegno, Full Disclosure opens up the rapid fire, neurotic world of dating in a part confessional stream of consciousness romantic comedy that will keep the viewer guessing till its twisty conclusion.  Charise Greene as Darleen and Ryan Pater as Trent display cute chemistry that swings from obscure to anxious to downright impressive in a sequence of traditional dating scenarios as Zera Bloom’s cheerful, low key instrumental score keeps this lighthearted rom com quite the charmer.

New Ohio Theatre Dating Drama Shorts ‘eXcape’ Photo credit New Ohio Theatre

Two exes face the end of their relationship.  One is about to move out, but soon realize they are trapped inside their apartment.  Lindsley Howard as Jess and Mariah Naomi Sanchez as Marianna attempt to navigate their rocky relationship on a riddle-filled quest for answers in eXcape. Boosted by Kate Eberstadt’s tense soundtrack, eXcape is a somewhat predictable scenario, but boasts some adventurous and bittersweet moments during this down-to-the-wire mystery.

New Ohio Dating Drama Shorts ‘Jules and Dee’ Photo credit New Ohio Theatre

Featuring a retro punk soundtrack by Jim McCarthy, written and directed by Juliet Perrell and co-directed by Edna Luise Biesold, Jules and Dee take a wild, comedic, and modern twist on Shakespeare in a play within a play showcasing the awkward mayhem that takes place behind the scenes at the Cherry Lane Theatre.  Though it loses its way a bit at times, a spicy Jules by Julie Perrell and Delia Bannon as Dee make a fun pair and it features a refreshing twist ending.

New Ohio Dating Drama Shorts ‘Made in Heaven’ Photo credit New Ohio Theatre

Directed by Yiqing Zhao, Made in Heaven explores the mother daughter relationship and those relationships that are kept hidden from the world.  Named after a café, Made in Heaven is a story about matchmaking, cupcakes and an undercover plot to unlock those secrets.  Yiqing Zhao aptly portrays Serena’s firm and discerning mother Jo and delivers some intriguing scenes with Regina Ohashi as poker faced Ivy.  Elizabeth Chang is likable as conflicted Serena, but this story leaves more questions than answers and would benefit from an extended version to get to know the characters better. 

New Ohio Dating Drama Shorts ‘Me Myself vs I’ Photo credit New Ohio Theatre

 Capturing a whirlwind of emotions including excitement, nervousness and anxiety especially exemplified in the landscape of today’s social media world, Uzunma Udeh as Zoom shows off comedic chops and charisma in Me, Myself vs I.  Created auspiciously by Uzunma Udeh and Tamera Vogl, Me Myself vs I is a well done narrative within a zippy timeframe.

New Ohio Dating Drama Shorts ‘Red’ Photo credit New Ohio Theatre

Directed by Katia Koziara and written by Phoebe Dunn with Ben Brown, Red swiftly turns up the heat as Phoebe Dunn and Ben Brown embark on what becomes an unorthodox date.  Though the two develop some tension as the film progresses and boasts a clever title, knowing the characters better would have made the film a bigger thrill.

New Ohio Dating Drama Shorts ‘You Can Kiss Me’ Photo credit New Ohio Theatre

Two unhappily married people think they have found hope in something new in You Can Kiss Me, a film by Jan Jalenak.  Penelope, portrayed sympathetically by Brandi Nicole Wilson, thinks she has led a predictable life and longs to be adventurous and enigmatic Meg, portrayed by Ylfa Edelstein, tends to keep her personal life close to the hip.  Though the film leads to some implausible scenarios, Brandi Nicole Wilson delivers stirring scenes with both Edelstein and Andrew Elvis Miller as Paul.  The film’s intensity is enhanced by music composed by Jay Purdy including Jensen Smith’s Cello Kiss.

New Ohio Dating Drama Shorts ‘Intimacy Workshop’ Photo credit New Ohio Theatre

What starts out as an absorbing comedy takes an unexpected turn in Intimacy Workshop, written and directed by Eddie Prunoske.  To the soothing sounds of Clair De Lune, a dynamic assortment of men takes on awkward encounters in a workshop about the bonding experience.  Intimacy Workshop has some light, comedic dialogue but could have done without a gory, embarrassing and over the top twist that veers the film off course.

The New Ohio Theatre presented its 7th annual NYC Indie Theatre Film Festival live and in person at New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher Street in NYC from February 16-19 and then virtually from February 20-26.  Click here for more information and to learn more about New Ohio Theatre.

REVIEW:  Vocals soar as Academy of the Company Theatre presents Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Phantom of the Opera’

It may seem like a small detail, but The Phantom of the Opera’s iconic chandelier plays a pivotal role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera.  It opens the show in its sheer majesty and the Phantom is actually found hiding in the glittering and monstrous powerhouse of a special effect at one point during the Broadway production.  In fact, it is what fascinates the audience at the beginning of the musical in glorious rhythm with the thunderous and foreboding sound of a pipe organ blaring in the distance and what later crashes to makes the cast run in terror.

Directed insightfully by Sally Ashton Forrest with powerful music directed by Melissa Carubia, Academy of the Company Theatre’s Phantom of the Opera gets so many things right from Vickie Gerard-Culligan’s ornate costumes, the pitch perfect casting, its sinister lighting by Dean Palmer Jr., and its smaller scale replications of Phantom’s famous sets by Ryan Barrow, but the production’s chandelier may not quite meet some lofty expectations.

Academy of the Company Theatre (A.C.T.) presents Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera live and in person at The Company Theatre, 130 Accord Park Drive in Norwell, Massachusetts through February 19.  The musical is sold out.  Click here for more information on the Company Theatre and its upcoming events.

Alexa Cohen as Madame Giry (right) with cast in ACT’s ‘Phantom of the Opera’ Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

Set in the 1700’s, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera focuses on a mysterious presence that haunts the famous Palais Garnier Opera House in Paris, France.  New opera house co-owners Ben Cavallo-Smith as Monsieur Richard Firmin and Weston Hammond as Monsieur Giles Andre make a distinguished and at times humorous pair in vintage suits with tails as they start to realize things are not what they seem.

‘Masquerade’ ACT’s ‘Phantom of the Opera’ Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

Phantom of the Opera boasts some enduring yet challenging music numbers and the cast may feature students up to 18 years of age, but their vocals are well beyond their years.  Jillian Pongonis as Christine and Catrina Riker as Carlotta hit some extraordinary notes for being so young and it was a joy to hear Riker’s Think of Me and Prima Donna as she prances around the stage in signature diva fashion, bold and comical as she shouts her demands.  Carlotta’s sophisticated gowns become more extravagant as the musical progresses and the cast hits its outrageous stylish stride for Masquerade.  Salvator Guillermo Garcia, whose past performances with ACT include Jean Val Jean in Les Miserables, has a supporting and memorable role as Ubaldo Piangi.  Garcia not only does a wonderful job vocally in Hannibal and Notes with the cast, but his occasional tenuous smirks and smiles enhance the musical’s humorous moments.  

Gilbert Dabady as The Phantom and Jillian Pongonis as Christine Daae Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

Pongonis may be slight in stature, but her powerful vocals exceed her years as does Gilbert Dabady as The Phantom.  Dabady and Pongonis’s duet of The Point of No Return may seem a bit mature for their ages, but Angel of Music and  Music of the Night are beautifully performed and Pongonis’s stirring rendition of Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again is a must see.  Dabady is mysterious and threatening as the Phantom, his deep and resounding vocals all the more menacing offstage. Dabady and Pongonis are a complex and charismatic pair while Charlie Flaherty is well suited for the daring and charming Raoul.  Amid a pale blue rooftop, Christine and Raoul perform a sweet rendition of All I Ask of You

Charlie Flaherty as Raoul and Jillian Pongonis as Christine Daae in ACT’s ‘Phantom of the Opera’ Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

Clever blocking and reigned in sets aptly accommodate the Company Theatre stage. Tints of haunting purple, vintage marble columns, nostalgic lighting, eerie skulls, an angelic stone statue, onstage gold lined opera box seats, a brass organ, monkey music box, and a candelabra lit lair on a misty lake help recreate iconic scenes and special effects that bring this somewhat opera within an opera to life.  As a big Phantom of the Opera fan, Academy of the Company Theatre’s Phantom of the Opera captures this moving and mystical musical best known for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic soundtrack and makes the magic of the longest running show on Broadway last a little longer in Norwell. 

Academy of the Company Theatre (A.C.T) presents Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera live and in person at the Company Theatre, 130 Accord Park Drive in Norwell, Massachusetts through February 19.  The musical is sold out.  Click here for more information on the Company Theatre and its upcoming events.

REVIEW:  Accompanied by A Far Cry, NPR’s Rob Kapilow made an enthusiastic return to Boston with an American classic for Celebrity Series of Boston’s ‘What Makes it Great’ series

Though NPR’s famous composer, conductor, author, and music commentator Rob Kapilow has unveiled quite a few eye catching music details over the years with Celebrity Series of Boston from Swing to Broadway to carols and much more, perhaps the most interesting takeaway from Aaron Copland’s classical music composition Appalachian Spring is that it is not about Appalachia nor is it about spring. 

Making his return to NEC’s golden and gleaming Jordan Hall in person for the first time in front of an audience since the pandemic, NPR’s Rob Kapilow covered some fascinating music territory in What Makes it Great? with Rob Kapilow and a Far Cry Inventing America Part 2 Copland’s Appalachian Spring: An American Voice for Classical Music on Sunday, February 5 at Jordan Hall in Boston, Massachusetts. The show ran for 120 minutes with a 15 minute intermission. Click here for more information on Rob, here for more on A Far Cry, and here for more information about Celebrity Series of Boston.

Rob Kapilow Photo Credit: John Johansen

Kapilow guided the audience through Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring with greater technical zeal and an interactive approach than he has in some of his past performances.  Part teacher, humorist, and historian, Rob Kapilow has been performing the What Makes It Great series for approximately 15 years, expertly uncovering a new way to connect to a vast array of music and encouraging the listener to experience this music in an entirely new way from technical composition to its emotional impact.

As beautiful and fanciful as Appalachian Spring sounds, it is neither about Appalachia nor spring and was entirely imagined by Copland who was a Jewish immigrant from Brooklyn.  What is so wondrous about this 40s piece is how Copland creates this imaginary and extraordinary world, a piece which was originally called House of Victory, and how it has been historically associated with America over the years.  Kapilow uses a bit of a different approach for this particular work by expounding on  the technical  and mechanical side of the piece and inviting the audience to actively participate in the song’s musical patterns and rhythms.  Appalachian Spring is also associated with lyrics and it is a based on the Shaker melody, Simple Gifts, and Rob spends a wealth of time on the mechanics of the piece and how it ties together.  It is a method that would thrill classical music fans, music enthusiasts, and musicians alike.  He even exposes the subtle intricacies of Copland’s inherent confidence, style, and how to identify it in Copland’s other works.

Grammy-nominated Chamber Orchestra A Far Cry Photo courtesy of A Far Cry

Adorned in suits, ties, and gowns, Grammy nominated and self-conducted chamber orchestra A Far Cry worked seamlessly with Kapilow as he broke down each aspect of the piece, a feat not easy to do with Kapilow’s specific stops and starts.  A Far Cry has made its way around the world since they started in 2007 and what sets this orchestra apart from others is the open communication between each musician. A Far Cry reflected just how important it is to remain in sync with the group, especially since they must connect without a conductor.  Their camaraderie and chemistry as they play is compelling to witness as they direct each other with each note.

Copland’s Appalachian Spring has a unique zest, playfulness and peppy thrill of nature through harp and chime as well as calm with a western tinge as Rob explains its historical significance and just why the piece is so enjoyable through each note’s placement, rest, and orchestration. 

Appalachian Spring was a childhood favorite for Kapilow’s which was perfectly clear through his personal and humorous anecdotes and the natural and engaging enthusiasm he exhibited throughout the production.  Rob is always teaching something new to even some of the most trained and learned music enthusiasts.  It was easy to see he has missed the live audience and judging from the audience’s resounding applause and standing ovation, they have missed him too. 

Celebrity Series of Boston continues its digital and in person season which includes Jason Moran and the Big Bandwagon on February 17, Dreamers Circus on February 24, Aoife Donovan on March 17, and David Sedaris on April 2, and the return of Alvin Ailey on May 4. Click here to see Sleepless Critic’s past review of Dreamers Circus.  Click here to see the full list of Celebrity Series of Boston’s upcoming events.

REVIEW:  Lyric Stage Company delves into musical genius Rachmaninoff’s chaotic mind in mesmerizing ‘Preludes’

Ever wondered if legendary musicians would still be who they are if they lacked any vices or instabilities?  Would they still achieve that same level of success or become even greater?

Some of the most extraordinary musicians also endured turmoil in their lives whether through external circumstances or within the depths of their very being.  Most come to the general consensus that the artist simply wouldn’t have that level of genius without everything that came with it.  For Russian composer, pianist, and conductor Sergei Rachmanioff, he endured quite a battle on his journey to greatness and his music continues to live on.

Dan Prior and Aimee Doherty in ‘Preludes’ Photo by Mark S. Howard

Directed profoundly by Courtney O’Connor, Lyric Stage Company presents Dan Malloy’s musical Preludes through Sunday, February 5 live and in person at Lyric Stage Company in Boston, Massachusetts.  The production is approximately 2 hours with a 15 min intermission.  Click here for more information and tickets.

Preludes references Rachmaninoff’s classic works, but the word itself describes what happens before an important event. It delves head first into Rachmanioff’s massive struggle to create which included fear of failure, Marfan syndrome, and mental instabilities that led to his historical writer’s block. Dan Rodriguez’s music direction combined with Andrew Dunkan Will’s complicated, vivid, and occasionally manic sound design illustrates the turmoil and genius of a musician on the brink of something bigger, but struggling to pull through.

Preludes boasts a fascinating cast including Will McGarrahan taking on multiple roles during the production.  Wringing his hands, frustrated, and utterly exhausted, Dan Prior embodies frazzled and despondent ‘Rach,’ his world seized by hesitation and regret delivered cleverly in the opening number Your Day.  Rachmaninoff battled life through music, but both can become blaringly stringent.  Battling all these limiting factors, Rach freezes.  Music Director Dan Rodriguez performs double duty depicting the mood setting musical side of pianist Rachmanioff with earnestness and peaks of humor and charm. Keyboardists Bethany Aiken and Mindy Cimini enhance this complex score that keeps up with the chaos of Rach’s mind and the reality surrounding it.

Prior’s subtle yet searing performance delves into a defeated man reaching for a lifeline through therapist Dahl, depicted skillfully by Aimee Doherty with a contemporary vibe in a Pink Floyd T-shirt, black glasses and edgy depth.  Doherty’s inquisitive and unorthodox methods may be the calm in the storm.  Kayla Shimizu is relatable as steadfast, optimistic, and maybe in over her head Natalya.  Shimizu brings a smooth and natural ease to the number Vocalize as well as a powerful and painfully honest rendition of Natalya as she struggles in her limited understanding of Rach’s condition.  Shimizu and Prior bring compelling chemistry and connection in their moving rendition of Not Alone

Dan Prior, Aimee Doherty, Dan Rodriguez and Anthony Pires Jr in ‘Preludes’ Photo by Mark S. Howard

Enhanced by Karen Perlow’s mind bending lighting, Preludes is at times trippy and often teetering between daydream and reality.  Highlighted by amazing and intricate choreography, Anthony Pires Jr as Chaliapin slides into an entrancing and catchy Loop with finesse and charisma while blending elegant vocals between jarring beats. It is a standout number that may ruminate long after the show is over. Taking on multiple roles and delivering inspiring and thought provoking pearls of wisdom is Will McGarrahan who portrays a number of dynamic historical figures. McGarrahan’s commanding voice, distinct characterizations, and dark comedic timing make him a treat to watch each time he appears onstage.

Kayla Shimizu, Anthony Pires Jr, Dan Prior, Will McGarrahan, and Dan Rodriguez in ‘Preludes’ Photo by Mark S. Howard

Scenic Designer Shelley Barish’s insightful circular staging moves fluidly with the performers with a piano set perfectly at center stage accented by lilacs, ordered blocks of vibrant colors, and an ever changing, mood-induced colored backdrop. The scalloped trim and soft lighting from various hung fixtures add an eclectic elegance as does the eye popping vintage couch and ottoman.

In some ways, Rachmaninoff’s struggles also made him distinctive. He had Marfan Syndrome which is a genetic disorder that affects the connective tissue of the body and organs. It is a very difficult way of life, but also gave him unusually long fingers. Much of his work is difficult to play because he could reach the piano keys more easily than the average person. This weakness was also a strength and part of what made him seem destined for greatness.

Lyric Stage Company presents Dan Malloy’s musical Preludes through Sunday, February 5 live and in person at Lyric Stage Company in Boston, Massachusetts.  The production is approximately 2 hours with a 15 min intermission.  Click here for more information and tickets.

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.


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.


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.