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

How does one find faith when everything falls apart?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crystin Gilmore as Shug Avery and cast Photo by Jim Sabitus

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

Kai Clifton as Sofia and cast Photo by Jim Sabitus

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

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

REVIEW:  Theater Uncorked’s ‘Sideman’ grapples with a dream

Nothing comes between a man and his music, but maybe something should.

Directed with a stirring cadence by Russell R. Greene, Theater Uncorked presented Warren Leight’s Sideman for a limited engagement from May 3-7 live and in person at Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre in Boston, Massachusetts.  The show was two hours with one 15 minute intermission and is not for children.  Click here for more information and what is next for Theater Uncorked.

Phil Thompson as Jonsey Leonard Chasse as Al and James Hunt as Ziggy Photo credit to Gary Ng

A ‘sideman’ in jazz terms refers to a member of a jazz or swing orchestra.  The term not only applies to Brad Michael Pickett as trumpet player Gene, but his loyal sidemen which include Leonard Chasse as Al, James Hunt as Ziggy, and an impressive Phil Thompson as troubled Jonesy.  Gene’s band mates demonstrate an easy rapport and an unshakable and stalwart camaraderie as they bond into the wee hours over music, love, and the unstable life of the musician.  Accompanied by Jennifer Shotkin in an invigorating performance as warm and wisecracking waitress Patsy, they seem far more like family to the dismay of the rest of Gene’s actual family.

Jennifer Shotkin as Patsy Photo credit to Gary Ng

From the viewpoint of Ben Gold as Gene’s son Clifford, Sideman is a unique memoir about Clifford’s dysfunctional family that matured him far too early.  It delves into the excitement, seeming glamour, and the alarming upheaval in the pursuit of music that can leave madness for many in its wake.

Sideman offers dark and humorous moments in a jazz style storyline that culminates in intensity as quickly as it mellows.  Delivered with dry wit, some notable deadpan expressions, and occasional despondence by Ben Gold, this ambitious show covers a lot of territory during an over 30 year timeline that rides the height of NYC jazz to its gradual decline.  Short sided and neglectful Gene is more impressed by an unemployment check than an actual job while Clifford’s fast talking, hotheaded, and unraveling mother Terry, a rich and scathing performance by Shana Dirik, would rather let her ambitions and heartaches override her responsibilities.  Brad Michael Pickett as Gene and Shana Dirik as Terry deliver some stunning scenes together that zip between star struck and fed up.   All Clifford wants is a sense of normalcy, but that might be a tall order.

Shana Dirik as Terry and Brad Michael Pickett as Gene Photo credit to Gary Ng

From a distinct black and white Marilyn Monroe poster, neon lights, wood paneled walls, afghan quilts, and authentic vintage furniture, Shana Dirik with lighting designer Erik Fox steeps the viewer into multiple eras with a wealth of retro charm.  Warren Leight’s script delves into the jazz era harkening to epic musical heights from Sinatra at the Copa to Neon Leon to Elvis’s performance on the Ed Sullivan Show driven by Tim Rose’s lively and reflective sound design.

Ben Gold as Clifford Shana Dirik as Terry and Brad Michael Pickett as Gene Photo credit to Gary Ng

Sideman is in many ways a toast to jazz, but is also about family.   To become great requires sacrifice and yet there is something amiss about this band’s journey.  Warren Leight’s characters accomplish a great feat in that most of his characters are still likable even through their selfish and undeniable blind ambition.  Sympathetic and compassionate, Gold’s Clifford is a character worth rooting for as he navigates through this musical journey full of wild predicaments.

Theater Uncorked presented Warren Leight’s Sideman for a limited engagement from May 3-7 live and in person at Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre in Boston, Massachusetts.  Click here for more information and what is next for Theater Uncorked.

REVIEW: Gloucester Stage’s ‘Paradise Blue’ a savvy and intriguing noir experience

Paradise, a longtime 40s Detroit Jazz Club, holds many secrets.  As those secrets gradually unfold, nothing is as it seems.

With multi-faceted direction by Elise Joyner and Logan Pitts, Gloucester Stage Company presents Dominique Morisseau’s noir drama Paradise Blue through Sunday, September 18 live and in person at Gloucester Stage, 267 E Main Street on Cape Ann in Gloucester, MA.  The show has some adult language.  The half moon stage and intimate venue does not have a bad seat in the house.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

Gloucester Stage’s ‘Paradise Blue’ Darian Michael Garey as P-Sam, Destiny Deshuan Washington as Pumpkin, and Dereks Thomas as Corn Photo Credit to Jason Grow

Though the show’s main focus didn’t seem immediately clear, many revelations piece the production together for its stunning conclusion that may leave you thinking about it long after the show is over. 

Paradise Blue focuses on a group of people tied in one way or another to a jazz club/boarding house called Paradise, run exclusively by no-nonsense Blue, portrayed with guarded complexity by horn player Durrell Lyons.  Now in danger of closing, the club has its own mysterious roots in Detroit and everyone in Blue’s world has a stake in the club’s future.

Gloucester Stage’s ‘Paradise Blue’ Darian Michael Garey as P-Sam and Dereks Thomas as Corn Photo Credit to Jason Grow

Paradise Blue taps into the cast’s multilayered personas as each character makes surprising choices as the show progresses.  This complex and unpredictable production boasts strong performances with particular standouts from Destiny Deschaun Washington as Pumpkin and Alexandria Danielle King as Silver. Destiny Deschaun Washington infuses Pumpkin with warmth, humbleness and compassion towards everyone while consistently putting others first at times to her own detriment.  Pumpkin’s maternal nature endears her to each cast member as she shares bittersweet and complicated moments with Blue and a natural camaraderie with James Ricardo Milord who only recently joined the cast, but kept up with the best of them as trusting and steadfast piano player Corn. 

Gloucester Stage’s ‘Paradise Blue’ Alexandria Danielle King as Silver, Durrell Lyons as Blue, Darian Michael Garey as P-Sam, and Dereks Thomas as Corn, Photo credit to Jason Grow

Chatty, curious, and hardworking, Pumpkin is the seeming antithesis to new tenant Silver, portrayed with blunt and worldly shrewdness by Alexandria Danielle King.  Both Silver and P-Sam, depicted with agitated energy by Darian Michael Garey, possess a learned tenacity and restlessness from bitter past experiences.  Darian Michael Garey exudes palpable energy while King simmers.  Seeing these characters face conflict in their own unique way is a fascinating character study, but due to vastly differing perspectives, Pumpkin and Silver are particularly intriguing with each interaction.

Gloucester Stage ‘Paradise Blue’ Destiny Deshuan Washington as Pumpkin and Alexandria Danielle King as Silver Photo Credit_Jason to Grow

Paradise Blue itself exudes its own restlessness in the Black Bottom neighborhood of Detroit which society considers the club a ‘blight.’  Word travels fast and gossip carries its own weight in this enigmatic neighborhood.  Paradise Blue succinctly carries the tense and rueful undertones through Toni Sterling’s stirring lighting and Aubrey Dube’s soulful and bluesy sound design.  Nia Safarr Banks’s sharp vintage suits and distinctive and colorful dresses pop against Janie Howland’s modest and earthy-colored set.

‘Paradise Blue’ Stage set Photo Credit to Jason Grow

Paradise Blue is a powerful drama with grit and gall as each character pours their hopes into Paradise for a brighter future unsuspecting of what lies ahead.

Gloucester Stage Company presents Dominique Morisseau’s noir drama Paradise Blue through Sunday, September 18 live and in person at Gloucester Stage, 267 E Main Street on Cape Ann in Gloucester, MA.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

REVIEW: ‘Who Killed Jazz’ and ‘Deadguy: Killing Music’ an unusual combination at the New York City Indie Film Festival

What does an angry, vaguely defined metal band and classic jazz have in common? 

Though there doesn’t seem to be much, one thing is certain…both move to beats all their own.  At one time, live music was the way of the world, but with the impact of surging technology, the expansion of creativity and simultaneously the lack of original ideas, the use of sampled music and a vast array of music influences, music is a constant evolution.

Photo credit to Ben Makinen

What hasn’t changed is the effect is has on its listener.  Who Killed Jazz explores the art of jazz, a respected, quintessential genre defined by its clever improvisation, and how it fits into the contemporary world.  Deadguy Killing Music is a peculiar authorized documentary on Deadguy, a band that hinges on chaotic improvisation.  Both were featured in the documentary 13 series at the recent New York City Indie Film Festival at New York City’s Producers Club.

The New York City Indie Film Festival featured a variety of films from shorts to narratives to documentaries curated with common themes.  Sleepless Critic had the opportunity to review screenings on music, small businesses, love, connection and much more. 

Co-founded by Executive Director Dennis Cieri and Director Bonnie Rush, this renowned festival has screened thousands of films since it was first launched in 2010.  Click here for more information, film submissions for next year, and click here to see what we had to say about NYC Indie Film Festival’s Narrative 14 series,  here for film reviews in the Documentary 12 series, and here for a film review of 34 Carmine Street, part of the Documentary 14 series.

Skillfully written, directed, and produced by Ben Makinen and inspired by Makinen’s Jazztown documentary on Vimeo, on iTunes/Apple TV and Google Play Christmas Day, and soon on Amazon and Vudu, Who Killed Jazz is a comprehensive and fascinating analysis of jazz’s exciting history and how the value of it has changed over the years through the eyes of musicians who have lived and are living through it.  Becoming a jazz musician is more of a risk than it has ever been before as television, disc jockeys, and pre-recorded music take over the clubs and today’s club owners are paying musicians less.  Jazz is an extraordinary and complex genre as well as a standard in music education and yet, it struggles.

Filmed in Colorado and Indonesia with eye-catching cinematography that delivers vintage flair, Who Killed Jazz captures fascinating perspectives, memorable stories, and concert footage from renowned musicians such as Dianne Reeves and various insights from contemporary musicians like Esperanza Spaulding.  It takes a hard look at the industry and how jazz and jazz culture has changed to fit in, but in the process, is it losing what made jazz great in the first place?

Photo credit to the NYC Indie Film Festival

Foo Fighters front man David Grohl once advised wannabe musicians to go a yard sale, buy an old drum set, get in a garage, and just suck.  Deadguy is a 90s New Jersey metal band that started in a basement who claimed they didn’t care how they sounded and to some, that was part of the appeal.

After all, they had just about given up before they really got started.  Before selling some albums, performing with the Misfits or even before the release of their debut album, they had split up.  It was a band that almost lived up to their name.

Written, directed, and produced by William Saunders with mature themes, Deadguy: Killing Music is a unconventional, authorized, and fan-focused documentary about Deadguy, a self-proclaimed anti-establishment band with punk influences that seemed to self-destruct before their music raged on.  It is a by-the-numbers 90-minute documentary that could have easily gotten away with being a tighter 60 minutes if not for its occasional meanderings and side stories.

If you were a fan of this group, you’ll be satisfied by never-before-seen footage, the band’s self destructive and wildly absurd antics, songwriting, storytelling and just how they created their debut album, Fixation on a Coworker.  However, the sheer chaos of the band’s sound as well as their impulsive and rage-fueled delivery can be off putting even if the lyrics have some substance.  Having reunited in 2021, it is ironic that they have returned to sing anti-establishment songs while living the suburban life they so rallied against in a house with a mortgage, jobs, kids, and all. Maybe this time they really have something to be frustrated about.

Who Killed Jazz and Deadguy: Killing Music were both featured in the Documentary 13 series at the recent New York City Indie Film Festival which took place live and in person at the Producers Club in New York City.  Click here for more information about this annual event, film submissions, and more.

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:  Whimsical and festive, Celebrity Series of Boston at Home extends the holiday season with Jason Palmer Quintet’s distinct and upbeat free digital concert

We all just wanted the holiday season to last just a bit longer.

With the uncertainty and bitter temperatures in this New Year just weeks into 2022, it is difficult to part from the bustling excitement of last year’s holiday season.  Musicals, plays, concerts, and more burst onto the stage cautiously but assuredly to deliver holiday cheer, some escapism, and to offer new and hopeful insight into what we have all been going through.

Trumpeter Jason Palmer, tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger, pianist Kevin Harris, bassist Max Ridley and drummer Lee Fish continues digital stream for two more months. Photo courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston

In December, The Jason Palmer Quintet lit up the Arlington Street Church in Boston live and in person amid festively adorned green and gold wreaths while sharing some new music twists to a few beloved Christmas carols.  Don’t expect to hear these traditional Christmas carols without some clever and spirited flair.

Celebrity Series of Boston at Home is extending the spirit of the season with their free pre-recorded digital concert, part of the Neighborhood Arts, Jazz and Contemporary Music Series, The Jason Palmer Quintet.  This warmhearted concert is accessible for two more months and runs under 90 minutes with no intermission.  Click here for more information and additional selections from Jason Palmer and his quintet.

Trumpeter Jason Palmer, tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger, bassist Max Ridley and drummer Lee Fish Photo courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston

Infusing music dynamos Duke Ellington and brothers Elvin and Thad Jones into eloquent compositions, The Jason Palmer Quintet arranges what trumpeter Jason Palmer affectionately calls ‘derangements.’ These derangements weave unique and lighthearted spins into traditional carols while each performer has their own chance to shine. 

Bassist Max Ridley and drummer Lee Fish caught on camera! Photo courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston

Some of the concert highlights include an extended and impressive trumpet solo to open the show in the smooth and mid-tempo Sunset and Mockingbird/Christmas Song and Lee Fish’s playful drum solo during Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer as the drum beat imitates hooves on a rooftop.  It’s a sweeping, quiet build to Rudolph’s catchy chorus.  Trumpeter Jason Palmer, tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger, pianist Kevin Harris, bassist Max Ridley and drummer Lee Fish are all so well in sync and it is fascinating to watch them pair off as the instruments ‘chat,’ jam, and gradually build before circling back to that familiar tune with an unexpected flair and flourish.

ChristmasTime is Here is an expressive, rumbling, and fast-paced imagining of Vince Guaraldi’s easygoing classic number.  With more hustle, the musicians glide and veer into their own peaks and valleys highlighted by dynamic pianist Kevin Harris tickling the keys under a church sign that reads ‘To the Glory of God.’

Pianist Kevin Harris in action Photo courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston

What is certain about this quintet is if the viewer listens carefully to their clever compositions, one may detect an extra carol or two within their potent rhythms.  For example, stray lyrics to Sleigh Ride can be heard within an eclectic medley of Silver Bells/A Child is Born and Santa Claus in Coming to Town emerges from a rolling and upbeat Greensleeves medley.  They certainly kept this enthusiastic audience on their toes.

Celebrity Series at Home is extending the mistletoe and holly with free digital concert, The Jason Palmer Quintet for two more months.  Click here to view the concert, more information, and additional selections from Jason Palmer and his quintet.

REVIEW:  Boston Ballet’s virtual ‘The Gift’ spins retro Nutcracker gold

If there wasn’t enough time to see The Nutcracker over the holidays or even if you have and would like to see more, the Boston Ballet is offering a spin on The Nutcracker Duke Ellington-style choreographed by Boston Ballet dancers right from your home.

With special commentary by jazz-enthusiast Eric Jackson nicknamed the ‘Dean of Boston Jazz Radio’ and host of GBH’s Eric in the Evening who rewinds the clock to take a peek at the inspiration behind Ellington’s timeless, progressive Nutcracker Suite, Boston Ballet along with Boston Ballet II and Boston Ballet School post graduates choreograph a lively program from 2020 that highlights and spins some of the Nutcracker’s best moments with their own vibe.

Viktorina Kapitonova and Tigran Mkrtchyan in The Gift; photo by Brooke Trisolini; courtesy of Boston Ballet

The Gift is a dynamic program where each dancer seems they are being moved by the music more than moving to the music.  As much as I am a fan of Boston Ballet’s classic works, there is something even more thrilling when it is infused with upbeat and contemporary flavor. 

From sleek and sophisticated flair to casual and carefree fun, Boston Ballet presents this virtual holiday treat The Gift through January 9 which includes behind the scenes footage and runs approximately 50 minutes.  Click here for more information and access to the show.

The exuberance and sparkling elegance of Viktorina Kapitonova and Tigran Mktrchyan accompanied by pianist Alex Foaksman bring to life the Snow Queen and King’s triumphant Pas de Deux.  All in sepia and crème, they move with a dreamlike sway culminating in a joyful and fanciful reunion.  Some other highlights within the striking variety of dances from Duke Ellington’s upbeat and catchy Nutcracker suite include Overture with choreography by Chyrstyn Fentroy as the number explores the mystery behind The Gift as a package hangs overhead and the dancers gradually get swept away by the song.  Toot Tootie Toot or Dance of the Reed Pipes with choreography by Gabriel Lorena is a brief sashaying escapade as dancers in flowing skirts strut and prance to Ellington’s light and airy rhythms enhanced by an intricate and memorable collective pose.  Peanut Brittle Brigade with chorography by Haley Schwan infuses swing and other dance styles to the beat of Ellington’s bluesy composition.

Boston Ballet in The Gift; photo by Brooke Trisolini; courtesy of Boston Ballet

Arabesque cookie or Arabian Dance with chorography by Haley Schwan, John Lam, Chyrstyn Fentroy, Paul Craig, and My’Kal Stromile, has a bustling rhythm and a retro feel as the number opens with a soloist’s fancy footwork.  It has urgency, poise, and athleticism as each soloist slides in shadow to a transforming color backdrop.  The Voga Vouty or Russian dance with choreography by John Lam showcases savvy and sophistication steeped in black and white as they perform a striking sequence in a spotlight. Chinoserie or Chinese Dance with choreography by Arianna Hughlett is full of mischievous and lighthearted fun as dancers creep and freestyle to the rhythm of Ellington’s chiming beat parting and uniting in shadow.

The finale culminates in a beloved Boston Ballet location worth waiting for.

The Boston Ballet’s virtual holiday treat The Gift continues through January 9 which includes behind the scenes footage.  Click here for more information and access to the show.

REVIEW: Tony Williams’ ‘Urban Nutcracker’ makes a vivid and engaging return to the stage for its 20th anniversary

The thrill is back. 

For an interactive and engaging show like Urban Nutcracker, experiencing it online last year on its 19th anniversary offered a glimpse into its dazzling style, multi-genre music, and the unique perspective within a classic tale. 

However, sitting in the Boch Center’s Shubert Theatre as Urban Nutcracker’s dynamic orchestra traveled down the aisles performing their horn-infused, big band sound on instruments stringed in colorful lights created an authentically immersive experience.  This year marks Urban Nutcracker’s 20th anniversary live onstage, an innovative show that not only pays tribute to Tchaikovsky’s classic holiday tale, but to the beauty and spirit of Boston.

Featuring the City Ballet of Boston, The Brooklyn Ballet, Phunk Phenomenon Dance Complex, the Northeast School of Ballet, and Revels, Tony Williams Dance Center’s Urban Nutcracker is available for a limited engagement continuing through December 22 at the Boch Center Shubert Theatre in Boston, Massachusetts.  The show is approximately 2 hours with one 15 minute intermission. Click here to for more information and for further details about the Tony Williams Dance Center

Click here for an interview with Tony Williams about his dance center and how the Urban Nutcracker began.

Prefaced by festive carols from the likes of Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Nat King Cole, the enthusiastic crowd was more than ready to experience The Urban Nutcracker live and in person again and from the spontaneous cheers from the crowd, showed no sign of disappointment. 

As the band settles inside a replica of the Hatch Shell above the stage amid Janie Howland’s amazing scenic design, identifiable landmarks such as the CITGO signMassachusetts State House, Green Monster, and Downtown Boston’s Custom House Clock Tower  (which comes alive upon closer examination) are set strategically on Boston’s city skyline.  The orchestra plays above the performers, delivering rich and funky rhythms inspired by a variety of music styles that match the vast array of festive, eye-popping costumes by Dustin Todd Rennels as cultures from around the world take the stage once more.

Ruth Whitney and Ronnie Thomas Photo credit to Peter Paradise

When TchaikovskyDuke Ellington, and David Berger come together for this eclectic score musically directed by Bill Whitney, it takes this timeless tale to the next level.  Urban Nutcracker delivers a modern, sparkling, family-friendly vibe which is depicted in the show’s rich colors as a chic and contemporary apartment with a distinctive tree, glimmering cushions, and large and festive bulbs covering the windows is revealed.

What is particularly noticeable this year is the gathering.  The variety of children and adults dancing and playing with their new toys as a group come together for an amazing photo with a lengthy selfie stick.  The sheer joy of a houseful of children and adults enjoying each other’s company has been something dearly missed.

Selfie stick Photo credit to Peter Paradise

Horn infused jazz, hip hop, and the blues are just a few of the genres explored in this tradition meets contemporary Urban Nutcracker.  It was amazing to watch the adults dance with elements of swing and ballet integrated into their steps.

Urban Nutcracker depicts all the classic scenes from Tchikovsky’s production with an inviting twist featuring a diverse, multi-talented cast.  In a magnificent coat and top hat, Gianni Di Marco has more than one trick up his sleeve as captivating Drosselmeyer.  He not only wows adults and children alike with tricks and presents, but his sweet interactions with Ruby including one point as the duo watch from the balcony provide some of Urban Nutcracker’s most memorable moments.

Drosselmeyer does his magic as children look on. Photo credit to Peter Paradise

Khalid Hill returns and again masters multiple roles including a catchy break dancing, tap and toe tapping routine on the city streets as dancers synchronize beats on trash cans.  Ronnie Thomas is excellent as a wiry soldier doll in bright orange and purple as he bends in incredible shapes around the stage as well in an exciting rat battle as the Nutcracker Prince.

The Snow Queen and King, portrayed by Ruth Bronwen-Whitney and Ronnie Thomas, are sophisticated and elegant gliding in a snow-covered landscape of the Boston Common surrounded by luminous snowflake dancers.  Thomas also delivers a visually-rich and memorable performance in a duet with Ruth Bronwen-Whitney as Arabian dancers.  Spain’s spectacular costumes glitter in a flowing flamenco dance as a bull rider dominates the background while China’s dancers are bursting with color in a spinning fan dance.

Kirsten Glaser leads Spain dance Photo cred to Peter Paradise Michaels.

The Sugar Plum Fairy, performed by Kseniya Melyukhina and Ruth Bronwen-Whitney, has a more traditional look in lilac this year, but nonetheless stands out for a beautiful, upbeat solo and a later performance with Gianni Di Marco during a jazz-infused Nutcracker Suite. 

Kseniya Melyukhina in Urban Nutcracker Photo credit Peter Paradise

Several lighthearted performances return to the stage including the athletic hula hoop dancers in Revere Beach with back flips included, a lively and humorous performance featuring skilled, tap-dancing workmen in hardhats and paint-splotched overalls, but a favorite performance of Urban Nutcracker’s answer to Make Way for Ducklings is endearing and heartwarming featuring Michael Oliver Slayton as a tap dancing cop and an adorable, yellow feathered troupe of ducklings led by Simone Wolfhorst.

Urban Nutcracker still offers something for everyone with a unique twist on a classic while still reminding audiences what is truly important this time of year.  It is a unique and exciting Boston tribute with surprises along the way.

Tony Williams Dance Center’s Urban Nutcracker continues through December 22. Click here for more information, tickets, and how to support this organization.

REVIEW:  Boston Ballet off to a brilliant ‘reSTART’

Boston, it’s time to reSTART.

Embarking on a journey from beloved local landmarks to overseas to inside the Boston Ballet studios, Boston Ballet’s reSTART amps up the excitement of their highly-anticipated return live onstage in time for the holidays.

With a versatile lineup that includes recently filmed jazz-infused contemporary dance, classic tales, traditional dance, and a season preview as well as a full range of costumes including street wear by Yin Yue and Jens Jacob Worsaae and Judanna Lynn’s spectacular royal fashion, Boston Ballet’s virtual reSTART, available through November 7, delivers an elegant and dynamic show for dance lovers everywhere.  Click here for more information and for Boston Ballet’s full season.

Boston Ballet in Yin Yue’s A Common Movement, photo by Brooke Trisolini; courtesy of Boston Ballet

Over the past year and a half, the renowned Boston Ballet has become much more than a force onstage.  It has been inspiring to see this sophisticated and athletic company in various settings, using creative and unconventional methods to evoke their passion for their extraordinary work.  Lighthearted, romantic, and refreshing, Boston Ballet’s season premiere reSTART demonstrates a brilliant new season to come.

It all starts right in the city of Boston.  Renowned contemporary choreographer Yin Yue delivers jazz-infused spirit into the Boston Common as fifty dancers brighten this beloved October landscape in A Common Movement.  In comfortable and modest attire, the dancers come together in a joyful and sweeping dance as horns blare creating a vintage vibe under a peerless sun.  With catchy tunes performed by Quincy Jones and Alice Coltrane, these charismatic dancers take over the Common with a swift beat in a smooth, mischievous, and calibrated performance enhanced by a slick dance by Maria Alvarez, Louise Hautefeuille, Lauren Herfindahl, Sangmin Lee, Ao Wang, and Patrick Yocum on the Boston Public Garden Foot Bridge.

Haley Schwan and My’Kal Stromile in Yin Yue’s A Common Movement, photo by Brooke Trisolini; courtesy of Boston Ballet

Clever choreography and digital technology bring together pairs Ji Young Chae and Tyson Clark and Haley Schwan and My’kal Stromile in an unexpected way for a fascinating performance in the Public Garden.

Boston Ballet delves into a classic tale with fantasy flair featuring Soo-bin Lee and SeokJoo Kim, a stunning duo as they perform a deeply romantic Pas de Deux in an excerpt from Romeo and Juliet.   Angelically adorned in a halo of ribbons and flowing gown by Song Bohwa and Hanna Kim, Lee is a vision in an idealistic dark forest.  Despite a hint of foreboding, Prokofiev’s score is uplifting and glorious as Lee and Kim enchant each other building into bursts of joy, seeming to move as one into an embrace.

Addie Tapp and Lasha Khozashvili in Jorma Elo’s Ruth’s Dance, photo by Brooke Trisolini; courtesy of Boston Ballet

From classic tale to classic dance, another highlight of reSTART features Bach’s soothing, piano-driven rhythms as Addie Tapp and Lasha Khozahvili perform a tender and delicate dance as Khozahvili quite literally sweeps Tapp off her feet.  

Muses take on full form as Paul Arrais beguiles inspiration as bold and fresh faced Apollo in a pivotal classic work which first brought choreographer Balanchine and composer Stravinsky together.  What is particularly captivating about Balanchine’s choreography is the mechanical synchronization between muses Lia Cirio as majestic Terpsichore, Viktorina Kapitonova as mysterious and foreboding Calliope, and Chryrstyn Fentroy as jubilant and charismatic Polyhymnia.  Their dance is meticulously precise as they rhythmically pivot in unison, at one point forming a beautiful silhouette until each have a chance to portray their own distinct chemistry with Arrais’s mesmerizing Apollo.  They join together, hinging onto each other and one might wonder who is in control.

The Boston Ballet kicks off their new season with virtual reSTART continuing through Sunday, November 7.  Click here for more information and a closer look at Boston Ballet’s new season.