REVIEW:  NPR storyteller Kevin Kling reflects on the wonders of childhood in Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s lively and humorous ‘Best Summer Ever’

How can a childhood fib possibly be part of the best summer ever?

Amid Carter Miller’s vivid and dynamic lighting against a cloud covered sky as multi-instrumentalist and sound effect aficionado Robertson Witmer stands over a grill in an apron and sunny yellow sneakers ready to serve a hot dog, Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s Best Summer Ever might give you the urge for summer to arrive a little sooner.  Rowan Doyle’s breezy set design is not the alone in setting up the carefree days of summer.  In a button down shirt, dark pants and striking red and white sneakers relaxed in a lawn chair, popular storyteller and NPR contributor Kevin Kling is an open book ready to share an engaging, wild, and moving account of incredible hijinks during the life changing and unforgettable summer he experienced at 9 years old.

Kevin Kling and Multi-instrumentalist Roberson Witmer in Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s ‘Best Summer Ever’ Photo by Megpix/Meghan Moore.jpg

With compelling direction by Steven Dietz, Merrimack Repertory Theatre presents the east coast premiere of Best Summer Ever through Sunday, May 22 live and in person at Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, MA.  There will be no virtual show available and the show runs 70 minutes with no intermission.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

Kevin Kling knows how to tell a great story.  Full of liveliness and spontaneity, what sets Best Summer Ever apart from other productions is Kling’s unique and distinctive touch.  He shares personal anecdotes with plenty of asides, quirky details, and having experienced the show on Mother Day, it is easy to tell each tailored performance is fueled by the interaction and enthusiasm in the audience.  He has a great rapport with Rob who dives head first into some of the production’s sillier moments of Vikings, a purple snow cone gone awry, and chilling ghost stories.  Both seem a kid at heart and they work succinctly as Rob provides the soundtrack and dynamic mood-setting sound effects at a sometimes thrilling pace. 

MRT’s Best Summer Ever – Kevin Kling Photo by Megpix/Meghan Moore

Kling strikes a clever balance of adult reflection and falling right back into his childhood mindset of growing up in Minnesota.  He uses the phrase, ‘unstructured time’ and equating that with ‘boredom’ or in speaking about his farming grandparents, Kling exclaims, “If Grandpa could cut it off, Grandma could pickle it.”

The show also has its share of heartwarming family moments and explores the wonder and imagination of childhood that just might take you back too.

Silly moments with Kevin Kling and Roberson Witmer in MRT’s ‘Best Summer-Ever’ Photos by Megpix/Meghan Moore

Merrimack Repertory Theatre presents the east coast premiere of Best Summer Ever through Sunday, May 22 live and in person at Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, MA.  There will be no virtual show available and the show runs 70 minutes with no intermission.  Thursday, May 19 will be a Q and A Ask the Artists night.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

REVIEW: Fueled by a nostalgic rock soundtrack and a charismatic storyteller, Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s ‘Wild Horses’ a lively and momentous tale

Nothing brings back memories quite like a song.

The power of music is in full force in Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s (MRT) production of Alison Gregory’s Wild Horses streaming on demand through Sunday, October 17.  Merrimack Repertory Theatre previously offered the production in person from September 15 through October 3 at Western Avenue Studios in Lowell, Massachusetts.  The show contains mature language and some adult themes. Click here for more information and tickets to this virtual performance.

Directed with heart and humor by Courtney Sale, Wild Horses delves into the life of the mother of a teenage daughter, portrayed with a blend of lively charm and excitable nervousness by Leenya Rideout, as she gets wrapped up recalling her story of a special California summer during her 13th year in the 70s while onstage at an open mic night.  Rideout evokes a sense of adventure during this musically-fueled Moth Radio Hour featuring lyrics from 70s greats Rolling Stones, Heart, Van Morrison, America, and more.

Having delivered a likable performance in the 2020 indie film, Love, Repeat, Rideout further showcases her dynamic range in this meatier Wild Horses role with a humorous, heartfelt and sometimes raunchy performance.  See what Sleepless Critic had to say about Rideout in Love, Repeat here

With a love for music almost as much as horses, Rideout sings, strums an acoustic guitar, and proves an energetic and engaging storyteller sharing her experiences from a studious perfectionist to a teenager not afraid to break a few rules with the encouragement from her daring friends.   With no shortage of excitement, scandal, humor, and heartache, Rideout’s onstage demeanor switches from responsible mother in need of a night out to wide eyed, youthful innocent with all the angst that goes with it.  She blends what she remembers with her current wisdom, dwelling in the sacredness of youth. Ranging from teenage pranks to rites of passage, Rideout recalls these stories with wistfulness and passion, interacting with the audience like old friends.

Costume designer A. Lee Viliesis has Rideout ready to rock in an animal print scarf, Fender T Shirt, and ripped jeans and accompanied by guitarist Rafael Molina, she slips right into this adolescent spirit longing to be wild and free.  All that is necessary is a little courage.

Here’s to the ‘freedom takers’ with Merrimack Repertory’s production of Wild Horses continues streaming through Sunday, October 17.  Click here for more information and to get a closer look on MRT’s new season.

REVIEW: Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s quintessentially local ‘A Woman of the World’ fascinating and full of surprises

Scandalous secrets unfold and things are not what they seem in Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s  (MRT) quintessentially local and fascinating production of A Woman of the World by Rebecca Gilman streaming on demand through Sunday, May 30.  Partnering with the Emily Dickinson Museum and directed cleverly by Courtney Sale, this one-woman show led by Massachusetts native Denise Cormier lights up the stage with natural charisma as enigmatic lecturer and historical figure Mabel Loomis Todd. She claims to bring insight into the real life of the late, renowned poet Emily Dickinson, but what she unveils is so much more. 

It was wonderful to see another production from MRT filmed onstage.  A Woman of the World also offers plenty of local references such as Harvard, MIT, the New England Conservatory, Boston, Amherst and the surrounding areas.  The show contains some hinted adult themes.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

Denise Cormier in MRT’s ‘A Woman of the World.’ Photo: Kathy Wittman/Merrimack Repertory Theatre

Scenic designer Bill Clarke and Original Music/Sound Designer David Remedios seamlessly combine the inviting comforts of home with the sights and sounds of a serene Maine setting.  However, don’t let the serenity of this island home fool you.   Mabel gears up for a quiet storm as the sound of the wind and crickets fill the air.

From welcoming to haunting, Carolina Ortiz Herrera’s soft, dynamic lighting not only transforms each mood in an instant, but does more so with Cormier.  At first Denise Cormier as Mabel seems a lively, well-to-do speaker with well coiffed blond hair, but as the show progresses, the subtle lighting reveal tinges of gray. 

Denise Cormier in MRT’s ‘A Woman of the World’. Photo: Kathy Wittman/Merrimack Repertory Theatre

Though it is a one-woman show, other “cast members” such as Mabel’s daughter Millicent is addressed offstage.  Delivering a multi-layered performance, Mabel’s charm to win over her audience first comes off as egotistical, but gradually becomes earnestness and she soon seems like an old friend.  Nothing short of a captivating showman, a warm and inviting presence, but the guarded moments intertwined in her storytelling is the stuff that keeps you hooked and her drifting reflections are when the show truly hits its stride.  Having had a stroke, Mabel is also somewhat an unreliable narrator in more ways than one. 

Denise Cormier in MRT’s ‘A Woman of the World’. Photo: Kathy Wittman/Merrimack Repertory Theatre

The show tackles relatable issues on feminism and Cormier as Mabel may make you root for her one moment and against her the next.   However, she’s a survivor and an enigma ahead of her time. 

Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s production of A Woman of the World by Rebecca Gilman is streaming on demand through Sunday, May 30.  Following the production is a short interview between director Courtney Sale and Denise Cormier on the inspiration behind the show.  Click here for more information, tickets, and for more about the Merrimack’s Repertory Theatre’s season.

REVIEW: Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s ‘Until the Flood’ a raw, complex, and gripping docu-drama

Until the Flood begs the question, “How do you want to be remembered?”

Director Timothy Douglas frames a poignant, moving portrait of a community in pain with Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s virtual docu-drama Until the Flood continuing through Wednesday, May 5. The content of this program is not recommended for youth under age 16.  This program was originally commissioned by The Repertory Theatre of Saint Louis.  Click here for more information on Merrimack Repertory Theatre and how to stream the show.

Based on real life accounts gathered in 2014 by Pulitzer prize-winning finalist Dael Orlandersmith, Until the Flood delves deep into the emotional and complicated perspectives and recollections of this community and how it affected each person following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. 

Maiesha McQueen in one person show ‘Until the Flood’ Photo courtesy of Kathy Wittman/MRT

A colorful, makeshift memorial is strewn on a chain link fence shrouded in a blue, haunting darkness.  Sirens ring out in the distance amid tingling and powerful music.  Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s Until the Flood sets a foreboding undertone through Lindsay Jones’s chilling sound design and Bill Clarke’s haunting and true-to-life set pieces.

Encapsulating all the anguish, uncertainty, doubt, fears, and hope is Maiesha McQueen in a tour-de-force performance onstage as she takes on eight individual composites drawn from real life interviews in this one person show.  From a 17 year-old teenager to a 75 year-old retired police officer, McQueen digs into the heart of each individual and delivers the kind of multi-layered performance that flows with each individual.  From a subtle head tilt and a tumult of emotion brewing in her eyes to the careful movements and creaking in her bones as she takes on the persona of an ailing senior to the confident swagger of a teenager that feels like he can take on the world, McQueen writhes and broods with each character.  Dressed in colorful and consistent street clothes by Yao Chen, each perspective and recollection made by each individual is fleshed out and brought together by McQueen as she pours herself into each character and makes each stand on their own.  Her pliability transforms her stature, stance, rage, compassion, sadness, and anger “like the flood” over the state of the world. 

Until the Flood provides not only each individual account of what they heard, saw, or experienced of the Michael Brown shooting, but a deeper look into how each person lived their life before and after this harrowing incident within this community.  It is a raw, gripping look at how ugly and how beautiful a society can be and how easily friendships can change when people do not see eye-to-eye.  It delves into anger that can be unleashed too easily, anguish, sadness, harrowing fear, and unbridled hope in fellow human beings in spite of life’s sorrowful circumstances.  Most of all, it presents a fairly even handed, but complex account of what truly motivates human nature and how fear and hope takes shape.

Merrimack Repertory Theatre, located in Lowell, Massachusetts continues streaming Until the Flood through Wednesday, May 5.  Click here for more information and tickets.

REVIEW: Nothing small about Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s riveting ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’

Advice can be taken with a grain of salt (or sugar in this case), or it can change your entire life.  Open a window into the increasingly complex life of a busy advice columnist in Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s (MRT) ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame.  Based on the book by Cheryl Strayed, tactfully directed by Jen Wineman, and sponsored in part by WBUR, Merrimack Repertory Theatre continues ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, Massachusetts through Sunday, October 6.

Click here for more information and tickets.  ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ has adult content.

Tiny Beautiful Things cast

Shravan Amin as Letter Writer #3, Caroling Strang as Letter Writer #2, Lori Prince as Sugar, and Nael Nacer as Letter Writer #1 Photo credit to Merrimack Repertory Theatre

It is no revelation that everyone has their problems.  How they are handled makes all the difference. Sugar, portrayed with equal parts compassion and candor by Lori Prince, proves to be an insightful listener as she offers advice to captivating questions from the humorous to the harrowing.  Every issue presented is from real life letters from literary website, The Rumpus’s Dear Sugar and the Dear Sugars podcast exists on WBUR.

A captivating show from the start, ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ maintains its quick-witted pace as Sugar’s life unfolds while she offers advice according to her own life experiences.  Packing an emotional punch, Sugar jumps smoothly from topic to topic while handling issues from infidelity to abortion to suicide.  It is not without its uncomfortable and intense moments which widely contributes to this impressive play’s innate realism.

It is amazing the profound advice that occurs over laundry.  From an island kitchen to an outdoor barbecue, ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ features a layered, cheerful set by Tim Mackabee and Marie Yokoyama’s lighting provides a natural flow and warm atmosphere.  Combined with upbeat music between scenes, this production keeps the mood light despite some of its heavier, more thought-provoking content.

This tiny, stellar cast will reel you in and never let go, taking on a variety of roles with gusto and grace. Nael Nacer, Caroline Strang, and Shravan Amin all deliver mesmerizing, emotionally-charged moments.   The only identity that never changes is Sugar, portrayed with toughness and warmth by Lori Prince.  A woman who has a habit of accepting strange offers, Prince as Sugar is a discerning, yet mysterious soul.  Her gripping portrayal mixes lightheartedness, anguish, and humor into her raw, cynical, but nevertheless hopeful outlook at life.  Prince’s particular strength is her seamless ability to evoke a number of emotions in one line and her sound advice are words to live by.

MRT's 'Tiny Beautiful Things cast photo 2

From Left to Right on phones: Nael Nacer as Letter Writer #1, Caroline Strang as Letter Writer #2, Shravan Amin as Letter Writer #3 and Lori Prince on laptop Photo courtesy of Merrimack Repertory Theatre

Life is full of complicated dysfunction.  Let Sugar’s advice be yours.

Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ continues at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre at 50 East Merrimack Street in Lowell, Massachusetts through Sunday, October 6.  Click here for more information and tickets.  Follow MRT on Facebook for updates and more.