REVIEW:  Company Theatre’s rock musical ‘Hair’ a meaningful trip

Before cell phones, the internet, and alternate forms of digital communication invited people to text and talk on a computer screen as an alternative to seeing someone in person, Hair highlights the value of in person camaraderie, especially when things seem to be falling apart.  Set in war torn 1968 and focusing on a tribe of hippies that could possibly be drafted, emotionally and physically holding onto each other helps them cope in a world gone mad.

Company Theatre’s ‘Hair’ Shane Cunniff-of Quincy and Gilbert Dabaddy of Rockland Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

Directed astutely by Zoe Bradford with bold musical direction by Robert McDonough, Company Theatre continues the 1960’s rock musical Hair through August 21 live and in person at the Company Theatre, 130 Accord Park Drive in Norwell, Massachusetts.  This show has mature themes and not appropriate for children.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

What is so prevalent in Company Theatre’s production of Hair is the natural camaraderie between cast members tackling a work that requires the cast to engage so closely and without reservations.  Hair is at times an immersive experience with some interaction with the audience and cast members occasionally marching down the aisles.   An entire cast warmly together onstage is uplifting albeit still a tad bit strange to witness.  It provides an escape from the world today with social distancing still not quite a thing of the past.

Company Theatre’s ‘Hair’ Julia Violet of Hanover Janaysia Gethers of Weymouth Elizabeth Nunnery of Hanover Shane Cunniff of Quincy and Tim Bevens of Hingham Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre.jpeg

Though the musical took place almost 55 years ago, there are clearly some parallels with contemporary society.  In a world with increasing protests, questions on gender, environmental concerns, women’s lib, the realities of war, racism, social injustice and societal division, Hair addresses many of these issues through song, humor, activism, and somberness.  It also features some silly and sometimes unnecessary content, but the intrinsic nature of its most popular songs give it a poignancy and relevance that the musical isn’t always given enough credit for.

Hair takes place, as the famous song proclaims, in the Age of Aquarius where one is destined for either greatness or madness.  With all the turmoil in the world, Hair seems to be embracing a bit of both. From Aquarius to Easy to Be Hard to Good Morning Starshine to Let the Sunshine In to its memorable title track, Hair delivers an energetic and steady stream of versatile music almost from beginning to end. 

Company-Theatre-Hair-Peter-Kirby-of-Norwell portrays Claude and Julia Violet of Norwell as Sheila the protest leader Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

Not only does this young cast have strong vocals, but they also fit naturally into this era having done meticulous research with Bradford on the time period.  Some historical footage is sporadically shared during the production.  Charismatic Nolan Donato as Berger, the Tribe’s outspoken leader, is an engaging storyteller for the catchy song Donna.  Fun-loving Peter Kirby as mysterious Claude delivers a humorous rendition of Manchester, England, but Claude’s inner turmoil is what truly brings out Kirby’s dynamic performance.  Kirby also shines with the Tribe for I’ve Got Life.  Julia Violet is wonderful as the free spirited Sheila and offers a moving rendition of Easy to Be Hard.  Wearing slick 60s sunglasses, Jeff John-Phillipe as Hud candidly leads the Tribe in an affecting Colored Spade and later alone for Abie, Baby.  Shawn Verrier gets a lot of laughs as historical and controversial Margaret Mead.

The-Company-Theatre’s ‘Hair’ Jeff Jean Phillipe as Hud Peter Kirby as Claude and Shawn Verrier as Margaret Mead Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

Love triangles are rampant and depicted quite humorously featuring Julia Violet as Sheila, Olivia Valianti, Emma Bergman, Amelia Kirshon, and Cate Healey in I Believe Love.  He’s in love with her and she’s in love with him and he’s in love with someone else.  Sally Aston Forrest’s funky and flowing choreography is at its best for the psychedelic Walking in Space enhanced by Dean Palmer Jr’s florescent lighting.

From beads to fringe to bell bottoms to slick 60s sunglasses to multi-pattered and flowing garments, costume designer Hannah Schuurman with set designer Ryan Barrow creates that groovy 60’s vibe featuring an embellished 60s theme truck, beaded passageways, and oriental rugs lining the stage.

Company Theatre’s rock musical Hair shows an era where people are anxious about the future and wondering where their destiny lies.  It does not stray too far from today’s struggles, but peace, love, and happiness are not a thing of the past.  Depicted by this young cast in a powerful, emotionally-charged rendition of Let the Sunshine In, perhaps the most important thing is holding onto each other.

Company Theatre’s ‘Hair’ Berger leader of the Tribe portrayed by Nolan Donato of Scituate and Sheila the protest leader portrayed by Julia Violet of Norwell Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre.jpeg

Company Theatre continues the 1960’s rock musical Hair through August 21 live and in person at the Company Theatre, 130 Accord Park Drive in Norwell, Massachusetts.  This show has mature themes and not appropriate for children.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

REVIEW:  Spectacular and uplifting, the world premiere of ‘The Neil Diamond Musical:  A Beautiful Noise’ is anything but a song sung blue

After watching The Neil Diamond Musical:  A Beautiful Noise, one thing is clear.  Every story should be told with brilliant swing backup dancers.

Directed shrewdly by Michael Mayer, The world premiere of The Neil Diamond Musical:  A Beautiful Noise continues its pre-Broadway run at Emerson Colonial Theatre in Boston, MA live and in person through August 7.  The show is two hours and 30 minutes including an intermission.  Click here for more information and tickets.

Tony Award® nominee Will Swenson as Neil Diamond – Then and the Swings Photo credit to DCM O & M/Emerson Colonial Theatre

Kicking off with surprising, self-deprecating humor, A Beautiful Noise might have been just what one would expect from a musical biopic, but Neil Diamond takes it to the next level.  Diamond’s music beginnings are a bit reminiscent of Carole King’s journey from creative songwriter delivering hits such as I’m a Believer to songwriter solo act. Part riveting, sing-along concert within a musical, part dive into Diamond’s past, but yet there is so much more to this solitary man.  Even if Neil Diamond’s songs aren’t at the top of your playlist, this wonderful musical helmed by Will Swenson’s stellar performance as then Neil Diamond just might end up being music to your ears.

Tony Award® nominee Will Swenson as Neil Diamond – Then Photo credit to DKC O & M/Emerson Colonial Theatre

One of the best selling musicians of all time and yet Neil Diamond is not what one might expect.  Now Diamond, portrayed with pensive fortitude by Mark Jacoby, is a rather gruff and unassuming man who does not like to talk about himself.  Many deep thinking individuals steeped in the pressures for success seem to also have what Neil Diamond calls ‘clouds’ and the show does not shy away from that, but this musical is much more of a celebration. 

Neil Diamond’s hit songs are explored, but on a more comprehensive and personal level.  Much of the production is a luminous foray into how songs like catchy Cherry, Cherry, Song Sung Blue, America which delves into Diamond’s Polish heritage, traditional Boston Red Sox song Sweet Caroline met with rousing applause and many others factor into this revered songwriter’s remarkable journey. 

Tony Award® nominee Will Swenson as Neil Diamond – Then and Tony award nominee Robyn Hurder as Marcia Photo credit to DKC O & M/Emerson Colonial Theatre

Charismatic and charming, it is difficult to imagine a better Then Diamond than Will Swenson.  A compelling singer with a dry sense of humor, Swenson has an indelible stage presence from the moment he first appears with his guitar.  He and Jessie Fisher as optimistic and sympathetic Jayne Posner have endearing chemistry and deliver a powerful and tense duet for Love on the RocksRobyn Hurder gives an electrifying performance of Forever in Blue Jeans as charming and soulful Marcia Murphey.  Bri Sudia in a dual role is comic gold as outspoken and caring record producer Ellie Greenwich from her very first line with Swenson as Then Diamond. Their snappy chemistry creates some of the production’s funniest and most inspiring moments.

Tony Award® nominee Will Swenson as Neil Diamond – Then with Swings Photo credit to DKC O & M/Emerson Colonial Theatre

Whether soaked in beautiful shadows or in a multi-colored glow on a concert stage, lighting designer Kevin Adams exacts each mood-induced scene masterfully.  Emilio Sosa’s lively and glittering costumes have a retro feel delving into the wild, vibrant patterns of the late 60’s and onward while Diamond’s progressive stage presence flaunt his signature fringe, suede, leather, and glittering sequins.  David Rockwell’s inviting and eye-catching set design enhances this dazzling musical experience which includes dynamic hanging light fixtures and a stunning, innovative multi-tiered, spot-lit band richly conducted by Sonny Paladino and Sinai Tabak.

Tony Award nominee Mark Jacoby as Neil Diamond – Now, Linda Powell as Doctor, and the Swings Photo credit to DCM O & M/Emerson Colonial Theatre

A Beautiful Noise is a clever, eloquent, and illuminating look at Diamond without taking itself too seriously.  Now to those incredible swing dancers that accompany Diamond on his journey.  Fueled by Steven Hoggett’s upbeat, athletic, and era-driven choreography, the Swings brightened each scene even its darker moments to make this effervescent musical journey feel so good.

The world premiere of The Neil Diamond Musical:  A Beautiful Noise continues at Emerson Colonial Theatre in Boston, MA live and in person through August 7.  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: ‘Dancing is an Old Friend,’ ‘Hilary,’ ‘Inventory,’ ‘Looking for Jack’ and ‘The Green Line’ explore isolation and more at the New York City Indie Film Festival

What is it like to feel stuck due to circumstances beyond your control? 

Curated by Gerard van den Broek, each film in the Documentary 12 series including Dancing is an Old Friend, Hilary, Inventory, Looking for Jack, and The Green Line at the New York City Indie Film Festival through June 19 featured people who faced unforeseen obstacles in an attempt to find peace within. 

Whether facing trauma, isolation in a pandemic, family brokenness or being caught between one nation and another, these themes invite a feeling of powerlessness until hope is found.  This particular collection of documentaries delivered some surprising twists and turns in some profound situations in an attempt to discover where one belongs in the world.

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 and 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.

Directed by Marta Renzi, Dancing is an Old Friend is written by and stars Leah Barsky and Jennifer Tortorello Walker.  It is a relatable account of an amateur ballroom dancer and professional ballet dancer brought together by dance who must find new ways to connect after the pandemic put the world in isolation.  They both struggle with this new way of life but are determined to forge ahead together.

During the pandemic, the arts were hit hard.  Many professional dancers had to find alternate ways to demonstrate their art and remain in top form until the time came for them to once again take the stage.  Dancing is an Old Friend explores the momentum of their daily lives during the pandemic and a chance to examine why they live their lives the way they do and where dance factors into it now and in the future.

‘Dancing is an Old Friend’ Photo credit to New York City Indie Film Festival

What made this film fascinating is not only the captivating athleticism and style of the dancers in action, but comparing each perspective on dance itself and how it demonstrates the bonds of this friendship.  This is not a tragic account of being lost during the pandemic, but an intimate and sincere documentary that explores the good and bad in equal measure and the hope that springs forth during this life altering period of time.

What may or may not have happened is a mystery in Hilary

Hilary Porter, through her own drawings, illustrates a repeated and menacing alien encounter that has left her haunted.  Hilary’s harrowing recollection unfolds through her graphic narration and unusual drawings as she shares that she was always thought she was different.  Director and producer Mariana Zarpellon offers some insight into who Hilary is and how she has been affected by these encounters and though I was initially intrigued by this film, I was left with more concern for Hilary’s well being than the rationality and content of Hilary’s recollections.

‘Hilary’ Photo credit to New York City Indie Film Festival

Resourcefulness is a defining quality in any artist and nothing less than resourcefulness and love defines the story of Inventory, a documentary directed and produced by Daniella Gitlin, the daughter of sculptor, Michael Gitlin.  The film is designed not only to share her father’s relatable journey as a struggling artist, but the unconventional manner in which Michael Gitlin’s legacy is being preserved.

Interwoven into the film are classic American standards such as Someone to Watch over Me, beloved songs from Gitlin’s heritage, and past family photos to create a vintage ambiance and to smoothly rewind the clock to a time before her father’s inventory had accumulated.  It is a unique and personal story about how love and family transcends obstacles even under unusual circumstances and how the film’s most extraordinary “inventory” is not just confined to Gitlin’s art.

‘Inventory’ Photo credit to the New York City Indie Film Festival

For anyone who is searching or has searched for a family member, the idea of finding them is met with a plethora of emotions.  Sara Zeppilli Freeman captures just that and more in her deeply personal documentary, Looking for Jack.  Part of Looking for Jack’s endearing strength is it is shot much like a home movie where it is easy to put oneself in Sara’s shoes.  As Sara talks to the camera with a jittery glow, her excitement is palpable at the promise that her life is about to change.

On this special day with Sara wearing a broad smile, one can picture themselves in Sara as she excitedly waits in anticipation and trepidation to meet her father for the first time in 21 years having traveled from Boston to Portugal.  No matter the outcome, that moment of time is a monumental experience to be treasured and hopefully not regretted.  The pinnacle of the film is that building tension as Sara waits, the camera panning carefully through Sara’s surroundings for that moment of relief.

‘Looking for Jack’ Photo credit to New York City Indie Film Festival

In a land fraught with uncertainty, Yehudit Kahana is no stranger to anxiety and strife for most of her life.  Co-written with Sharon Yaish, directed, and produced by Yehudit Kahana herself and set from the early 2000s to today, illuminating documentary The Green Line focuses on Yehudit’s coming of age as she resides in Elon Moreh, a land near the Green Line which borders the Palestine territories and Israel.  Since a life changing incident occurred resulting from an innocent child’s game, Yehudit has struggled with the threat of sudden violence, terrorist attacks, and chaos in a place where she doesn’t feel she entirely belongs. 

‘The Green Line’ Photo credit to New York City Indie Film Festival

The Green Line delivers a wealth of information on certain incidents in Israel, Palestine, and the Green Line which can be confusing at times, but what is clear was how Yehudit felt in circumstances beyond her control in a harsh and threatening land determined to break free.  The Green Line has some lighter and amusing moments with family that not only shed light on Yehudit’s understandably frustrating, strict, and expected traditional place as a female in the world and in the path of the Torah, but also explores how valuable the road less taken can be.

Dancing is an Old FriendHilaryInventory, Looking for Jack and The Green Line were all part of Documentary 12 at the New York City Indie Film Festival which continued through June 19.  Click here for more information on this annual festival and its winners.

REVIEW:  Mikko Nissinen’s ‘Swan Lake’ returns in riveting and enchanting splendor

Mikko Nissinen’s Swan Lake will enchant you from the start.

Swan Lake has stood the test of time for generations and it is no mystery why.  Seeped in regal splendor, Swan Lake is a visually-striking portrait of elegance and grandiosity similar to another one of Tchaikovsky’s classics, The Nutcracker. Both known for their iconic scores, mystical elements, and magnificent presentation, but Swan Lake’s sophisticated splendor, dark charm, intricate choreography and mirror image story of true love sets it apart from the rest.  Like The Nutcracker, Swan Lake has a universal appeal and memorable qualities that even those who don’t care for ballet will still enjoy Swan Lake.

Boston Ballet in Mikko Nissinen’s Swan Lake; photo by Rosalie O’Connor, courtesy of Boston Ballet

With seamless musical-direction by Mischa Santora, Tchaikovsky’s majestic score navigates a classic tale of love, torment, betrayal, magic, and unbridled joy as Boston Ballet rises out of Mikko Nissinen’s Swan Lake continuing live and in person at the Citizens Bank Opera House in Boston, Massachusetts through Sunday, June 5. Swan Lake will then stream from the comfort of your home from June 9 through June 19.  Performed in memory of John W. Humphrey, Swan Lake has returned to the Boston Opera House for the first time since Mikko Nissinen re-imagined the ballet in 2016.  This four-act performance has one intermission.  Click here for more information and tickets.

Taking a mysterious and thrilling tone from the start, Swan Lake is a fanciful tale involving sought-after Prince Siegfried, portrayed with zest and charm by Patrick Yocum, who sets his sights on a flock of swans drifting over a misty and enchanted lake.  Swan Queen Odette, portrayed with graceful fragility by Lia Cirio, catches his eye and it is love at first sight.  It soon becomes clear that the swans were once women cursed by sorcerer Von Rothbart, depicted menacingly by Tyson Clark.  Tyson Clark as Rothbart is an incredible and unpredictable force as he athletically and perilously tears through the mist as Prince Siegfried vows to set Odette free.

Golden-braided, ornate headpieces, flowing pastel garments, parasols, garlands, exquisitely feathered tutus and pristine crowns are just a glimpse into Robert Perdziola’s opulent and meticulously-detailed, handmade costumes that enrich the lush and picturesque royal garden setting as well as the haunting mirror image and mystical lake bathed in luminous blue moonlight by lighting designer Mark Stanley.

Marked by such precision, Mikko Nissinen’s choreography is ballet at its finest.   Emily Entingh and Sage Humphries are visually-stunning rising gracefully and beautifully fluttering out of the mist.  A gathering of cygnets demonstrate perfect synchronicity as they glide in lithe, delicate strokes.  The swans are ethereal and immaculate as they simultaneously rise exquisitely out of a swallowing mist.  It still stands as one of the beautiful displays of ballet I have ever seen.

Boston Ballet in Mikko Nissinen’s Swan Lake; photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy of Boston Ballet

In the castle gardens, dancers whimsically join together in a feast dance with goblets and joyfully present the prince with rich garlands.  While the castle garden depicts almost a dreamlike setting, an equally opulent ballroom with vast ceilings lit in red later depict a livelier setting as a  grand and dynamic lineup of guests gather to charm the kingdom including princesses, czardas, and Neapolitans.

Patrick Yocum is impressive as Prince Siegfried as he evokes loneliness and melancholy in an emotive and carefully-executed variation and then later in a flawless and joyful dance as if floating across the stage.  Light and dark in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake is demonstrated impeccably in Lia Cirio in a complex, dual role.  As guarded Odette, her every move diligent and yet her statuesque beauty and downcast demeanor enrich her mysterious and powerful presence.  Tingling violin resonates in Tchaikovsky’s emotive score as Cirio and Yocum share a hesitant and sweet encounter.  He tenderly lifts and comforts her at every turn.  Cirio can craftily engage an audience and masters her dual role as mysterious and confident Odile.  That striking look she gives reminded me of the fire she brought to her 2020 performance in Boston Ballet’s Carmen.  Cirio’s cunning smile and playful charisma gleam as Yocum takes her hand playfully and yet, almost possessively in a spellbinding and exhilarating dance.    

Boston Ballet in Mikko Nissinen’s Swan Lake; photo by Rosalie O’Connor, courtesy of Boston Ballet

Swan Lake is such a haunting and beloved tale of tender grace and arduous passion that, like The Nutcracker, it has been adapted in various forms for stage and screen over the years including Darren Aronofsky’s Academy award-winning Black Swan.  Mikko Nissinen has adjusted a few scenarios in Swan Lake since its re-imagining in 2016, but only for its betterment to create an even more thrilling, illuminative and memorable experience.    

Mikko Nissenen’s Swan Lake continues live and in person at the Citizens Bank Opera House in Boston, Massachusetts through Sunday, June 5. Swan Lake will then stream from the comfort of your home from June 9 through June 19. Click here for more information and tickets.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brian Major as Emile Griffith Photo by David Angus/BLO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Central Square Theater and The Front Porch Arts Collective continues sensational Ain’t Misbehavin’  The Fats Waller Musical‘ live and in person at Central Square Theater in Cambridge, MA through Sunday, May 29 before moving to the Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham, MA from June 9 to June 26.  Click here for more information and tickets.

REVIEW:  Go see Academy of the Company Theatre’s heartwarming, moving, and family-friendly ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’

The one thing more magnificent then Joseph’s dream coat is the tale behind it.  An interactive, endearing, and humorous production, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat has been entertaining audiences for over 50 years with its exuberant story and its versatile and brilliant music by the Academy Award-winning team of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.  Joseph’s music offers a wide spectrum of music genres for any taste from calypso to rock and roll which accompanies the unique retelling of a sacred tale of treachery and unceasing hope.

Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

A tale so wonderful that it needs three narrators, Academy of the Company Theatre (ACT) presents Andrew Lloyd Webber’s wondrous and family-friendly musical comedy Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat continuing at the Company Theatre in Norwell, MA through Sunday, May 1.  The production is almost sold out.  Click here for more information, tickets, and for classes that ACT has to offer.

Cate Healey, Gilbert Dabady, and Elizabeth Nunnery as Narrators with Tim Bevens as Joseph Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

Based on the Book of Genesis and set in the land of Canaan and Egypt, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat explores the incredible journey of Joseph and his brothers as Joseph struggles to discover his destiny.  It is very much a collaborative, ensemble piece featuring three engaging narrators portrayed by Gilbert Dabady last seen in ACT’s Les Miserables, Cate Healey, and Elizabeth Nunnery as they share Joseph’s tale not only with the audience, but with the surrounding and energetic young cast gathered onstage.  Dabady, Healey, and Nunnery all have powerful and very different voices that complement each other throughout the performance.

Brothers – Corin O’Neill – Abington, Jay Feeney- Hansen, Henry Jacobs – Norwell, Colin SanGiacomo – Norwood, Roland Schulze – Hingham, Matthew Porro – Hanover, Tim Bevens (Joseph) – Hingham, Ben Cavallo Smith-Hingham and cast Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

With a sweet smile and unassuming demeanor, Tim Bevens portrays humble, yet forthright dreamer Joseph with instant likability from his first opening number, a warm and melodious rendition of Any Dream Will Do.  Bevens delivers a compelling performance as a naïve outsider, his versatile vocal range effortless for the soothing Any Dream Will Do to stirring Close Every Door, his tone heart rendering and sympathetic.

Wearing a white beard, Jacob Yates takes on the mostly silent role of Jacob, Joseph’s devoted father.  Yates makes the most out of this role with an amusing walk and some physical humor.  Led by Charlie Flaherty’s standout portrayal as Joseph’s smirking and sneaky brother Reuben, One More Angel in Heaven depicts the united camaraderie not only by Joseph’s eleven brothers, but from the cast, all in on a little secret.  Another excellent number that depicts the brothers’ united front is delivered by Ben Cavallo-Smith as Judah and his brothers for Roland Schulz as Benjamin, a catchy, amusing song called Benjamin Calypso.

Combining blue, glitter, and gold into dazzling Egyptian attire, Sal Garcia, who was last seen as Jean Val Jean in ACT’s Les Miserables, makes a grand entrance in suave sunglasses and a bouffant hairstyle as Pharaoh, complete with shimmering gold sneakers.  Garcia shows off his comedic talent and charisma in the show stopping number Song of the King, combining the essence and high energy of a certain king not to be revealed here and Jack Black.  It is fun to watch Garcia in a role where he can let loose.

Sal Garcia as Pharaoh Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

The transformative lighting by Dean Palmer Jr. ranges from a lone spotlight to doubling for the hot, desert sun to flashing, multicolored spotlights for Go Go Go Joseph to the warm candlelight and modest staging of Close Every Door.  Though most of the sets are colorful and fun, there is something special about the translucent, simple staging for Close every Door by candlelight, letting Tim Bevens’s poignant rendition speak for itself without distractions. 

Elsa Hancock-Happ – Rockland, Calvin Jacobs – Norwell, Reese Warshaw – Hingham, Izzie Donnelly – Hingham, Nora Joyce – Weymouth, Silvia Thompson – Hingham, Tim Bevens – Joseph – Hingham, Laird Lacoste and cast Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

Among the vibrant and bold costumes by John Crampton and Alison Gordon is the famous coat in yellow and green and ochre… Joseph’s magnificent, flowing, and sparkling coat is a head turner decked out in multi-colored stars on the back.  The cast wearing sunglasses, an unusual camel, and cute Egyptian “beetles” among the crowd on a unconventional journey to Egypt are just a few of the subtle, cheerful touches added to this lighthearted production that certainly has its share of stirring and difficult moments, but with far more uplifting and spirited ones, it’s difficult to feel down for long.

Tim Bevens (Joseph) and cast Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

Directed by Zoe Bradford with lively choreography by Sally Ashton Forrest and musically directed by Melissa Carubia, Academy of the Company Theatre (ACT) presents Andrew Lloyd Webber’s wondrous and family-friendly musical comedy Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat continuing at the Company Theatre in Norwell, MA through Sunday, May 1.  The production is almost sold out.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

REVIEW:  Lexus Broadway in Boston’s ‘Ain’t too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations’ powerhouse vocals as compelling as their back story

Get ready for a whirlwind concert experience fueled by vocal powerhouses.  Having been familiar with the award-winning 1998 The Temptations miniseries produced by Temptations founder Otis Williams and based on the book featuring a special appearance by Smokey Robinson, it is no secret just how much material this musical had to cover and does so with finesse and upbeat pacing.

The Temptations Marcus Paul James as Otis Williams, James T. Lane as Paul Williams, Jalen Harris as Eddie Kendricks, Harrell Holmes Jr as Melvin Franklin and Elijah Ahmed Lewis as David Ruffin Photo credit to Lexus Broadway in Boston

Directed slickly by Des McAnuff and produced by Otis Williams and Shelly Berger, Lexus Broadway in Boston presents Tony award-winning jukebox musical Ain’t Too Proud:  The Life and Times of the Temptations at Citizens Bank Opera House in Boston, MA through Sunday, May 1.  The show is 2 hours and 30 minutes including an intermission.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

Behind every monumental group is a colossal tale.  The story behind the Temptations spans decades encapsulating wild drama (some of which seems too incredible to be true) while members of the Temptations changed like a revolving door.  Some of these legendary performers haunted by the past wrestled with inner turmoil and demons that indelibly impacted their own lives and with timeless and groundbreaking music comes sacrifice.

Marcus Paul James as Otis Williams (center) Photo credit to Lexus Broadway in Boston

Based on the Otis Williams and Patricia Romanowski’s The Temptations autobiography, the journey began in Detroit.  Marcus Paul James is part preacher, part storyteller, and all heart as Temptations founder Otis Williams recalls admiring groups like The Cadillacs in his hometown when he wasn’t getting into trouble.  Finding his calling to sing was like ‘the heavens opening up.’  Immediately engaging, James guides the audience through decades of the Temptations musical journey through the losses, the humor, dedication, arrogance, passion, tragedy, and fleeting success to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Most importantly though, it is a rich voyage through the classic Motown tunes that have stood the test of time not just by The Temptations, but the Supremes and other famous Motown classics of that time.

Jalen Harris as Eddie Kendricks with the Temptations and The Supremes together. Photo credit to Lexus Broadway in Boston

Decked out in suave matching gray suits and ties and launching into The Way You Do the Things You Do featuring the five original members composed of James T. Lane as Paul Williams, Harrell Holmes Jr as Melvin Franklin, Elijah Ahmad Lewis as David Ruffin, Jalen Harris as Eddie Kendricks, and Marcus Paul James as Otis Williams, Ain’t too Proud is an interactive, energetic, concert-driven locomotive as sliding vintage black and white photos and film depict the fans, the touring, the injustices, and the milestones through the years.  The frequently moving, multilayered set by Robert Brill combined with Howell Binkley’s impressive lighting gives the slick illusion of the quick pace of their lives and the audience riding along for each transforming scene.

The Supremes – Traci Elaine Lee as Mary Wilson Deri’Andra Tucker as Diana Ross and Shayla Brielle G. as Florence Ballard Photo credit to Lexus Broadway in Boston

Not only does Ain’t too Proud feature Tony award-winning choreography, but some dynamite vocals from start to finish.  Traci Elaine Lee delivers a dual role first with brief, but memorable impromptu vocals as fast-talking Johnnie Mae in a spectacular onstage Cadillac as as Mary Wilson of The Supremes.  The Supremes, adorned in dazzling gowns by costume designer Paul Tazewell, make brief but memorable appearances with seamless vocals for classic numbers such as You Can’t Hurry Love and I’m Gonna Make You Love Me led by Deri’Andra Tucker as the luminous Diana Ross. 

Though each member of the Temptations have good chemistry, baritone Marcus Paul James as Otis and Harrell Holmes Jr as dedicated and forthright bass singer Melvin, have an exceptional brotherly connection. Jalen Harris as falsetto Eddie Kendricks performed a memorable Just My Imagination to an enthusiastic crowd. Elijah Ahmad Lewis portrays complex and sensational tenor David Ruffin with charisma, arrogance, and affliction from the sweet first notes of My Girl to I Wish it Would Rain.  The stirring I Wish it Would Rain symbolizes much more than love lost in this particular production.

Harris Matthew as Dennis Edwards (center) Marcus Paul James as Otis Williams, James T. Lane as Paul Williams, Harrell Holmes Jr as Melvin Franklin, and Jalen Harris as Eddie Kendricks Photo credit to Lexus Broadway in Boston

Ain’t too Proud delves into the lives of the Temptations, the classic tunes, what tears them apart, and what ultimately makes them the greatest Rhythm and Blues group in music history.  With a total of 24 Temptations over the years, it is quite the tale to tell. 

Lexus Broadway in Boston presents jukebox musical Ain’t too Proud:  The Life and Times of the Temptations at Citizens Bank Opera House in Boston, MA through Sunday, May 1.  Click here for more information and for 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.