REVIEW: Embrace SpeakEasy Stage Company’s illuminating ‘English’

Learning a new language brings all kinds of emotions to the surface.   One is swept out of one’s own element and that can be as exciting as it is daunting. It can also become a long and awkward struggle to capture the essence of a new culture while steeped in a new language. Though one is gaining something new, one might also be losing a bit of themselves.

Thoughtfully directed by Melory Mirashrafi, Speakeasy Stage Company continues Sanaz Toossi’s English at Calderwood Pavilion in Boston, Massachusetts live and in person through Saturday, November 19.  The performance reviewed was audio described and one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission. Click here for more information and tickets.

The company of English. From left: Deniz Khateri, Josephine Moshiri Elwood, Lily Gilan James, Zaven Ovian, and Leyla Modirzadeh. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

One of the most fascinating messages in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s English is the realization that one can learn many languages, but can only know one. That one native language is the foundation for all the rest.  In learning to speak a new language, it can reshape what comes naturally.

English delves into the lives of four students living in Iran who are learning the English language for TOEFL, a standardized test that stands for Test of English as a Foreign Language. The production is mostly in the English language with no subtitles.  It takes a moment to catch on, but Mirashrafi cleverly depicts when characters are speaking in their native tongue.

Leyla Modirzadeh as Roya in SpeakEasy’s production of English. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

This multi-generational cast has various and deep seated reasons for learning English and this production resonates universal truths of having to learn a new language whether by choice or necessity. English does explore the political climate of learning English in Iran, but what is most memorable are the hardships, victories, competitiveness, and the often flustered frustration of learning a peculiar new facet of life.  Each individual demonstrates a different degree of longing to belong. It is not difficult to relate to this small and dynamic cast in their obstacles, earnestness, but most importantly, in the strength in who they are.  Deniz Khateri depicts complicated Marjan, who seems to firmly place herself in the world of the language she teaches. In a multi-layered performance, Khateri as Marjan is engaging and encouraging, but also firm and mysteriously guarded.  She lends to the show’s tension and subtle humor and has unique chemistry with each student. Lily Gilan James portrays wide-
eyed and optimistic Goli with effervescent candor. She stands on her own mistakes while earnestly articulating the nature of her wishes. 

The company of English. From left: Deniz Khateri, Josephine Moshiri Elwood, Lily Gilan James, Zaven Ovian, and Leyla Modirzadeh. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

Leyla Modirzedeh as wise and headstrong Roya is strongly urged to learn English to communicate with new members of her long distance family.  A sympathetic character, Modirzedeh powerfully evokes Roya’s sincerity and her struggle between her heritage and this new way of communicating.   Zaven Ovian depicts Omid with easygoing charm and he shares some compelling scenes with Khateri as Marjan and with witty, outspoken and understandably frustrated Elham, a standout performance by Josephine Moshiri Elwood.  Elham is a complex individual who is as compassionate as she is bold and is often hardest on herself.

Josephine Moshiri Elwood as Elham in SpeakEasy’s production of English. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

Nina Vartanian’s culturally sound and vivid costumes pop in Janie E Howland’s realistic classroom staging and enhanced by an elegant, multicolored portrait in teal, orange, red, brown, and beige.   

English is an honest, straightforward, warmly funny, and universally relatable journey of discovering a new language and in all of its difficulties, deciding whether or how to embrace it.  See English and embrace its life lessons. 

Deniz Khateri (left) and Zaven Ovian in SpeakEasy’s production of English. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

SpeakEasy Stage Company presents Sanaz Toossi’s English live and in person at the Calderwood Pavilion in Boston, MA through Saturday, November 19.  Click here for more information and for 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: Singer-songwriters Natalie Price and Grace Pettis share resilience through struggle and the joy of performing live onstage again

It is no surprise that guitar strumming singer-songwriters Natalie Price and Grace Pettis recently brought a mix of emotional weight to the Club Passim stage in Cambridge, MA.  Not only in the great joy of performing for an audience again, but the heartache, loss, and reflection in their music as a result of these past couple of complicated years.  However, within this sadness lies resilience for thriving again.  

Grace Pettis and Natalie Price Photo credit to Natalie Price

Singer-songwriter Natalie Price debuted at Club Passim and opened for returning Club Passim favorite Grace Pettis on Thursday, April 14 in person and on live stream for one night only.  Click here to see where Pettis will perform next and here for more on Price.  Click here for more on Club Passim, their educational programs, upcoming events, and how to support local music.

A smattering of spotlights lit the Club Passim stage as Dallas-born Natalie Price delivered a mix of reflective, sorrowful, and playful love songs during her brief opening set.   Price’s sound has a tinge of Natalie Imbruglia or Lisa Loeb as she shares her experiences.

These Days is a clever track about the memory of escaping an unhealthy relationship and if the timing of that relationship were any different, Price might not have escaped.  Price sings, ‘I’m so glad I wasn’t younger when we met’ and ‘The heaviness, strangled me/A songbird in a cage.’  Its seemingly lighthearted chords contrast a returning and complex memory that changes over time.

Another highlight was The Island, a song performed entirely with a music box-sounding Kalimba instrument.  It is a melodious track about the euphoria of new love while Done is another clever piece that delves into the erratic and frantic feelings of unsteady love.  Price ends the set with a catchy and cheerful tune about devotion.

Natalie Price’s music can be found on Band Camp or on her website.

Grace Pettis Photo credit to Nicola Gell

Before taking the stage alone, Grace Pettis joined Price for an unconventional and sweet lullaby Pettis wrote and performs for a Ukrainian child living with Pettis and her family in Ireland called Sleepy Lobster.  Pettis had a table set up that evening to support Ukraine.

Florida-born Grace Pettis delves into a collection of powerful, somber, and soulful tunes, a reflection of some of the complex, life-changing experiences Pettis endured over the last two years.  In a burgundy shirt and black pants, Pettis is an unassuming presence with a certain personable charm and expressed her gratefulness to be back at Club Passim sharing her music with a crowd again.

Her passionate and powerful vocals in Pick me Up and Never Get it Back from her new album, Working Woman from MPress Records, has universal appeal with the latter a bittersweet message on the importance of living in the present and the former finding the strength to keep going in spite of life’s hardships.   Though Pick me Up could simply be interpreted as a love song, it could also apply to a larger message about faith and finding loyal support through life.

Pettis mused in Rain’s lyrics, ‘I don’t know how to be happy’ when she recalled being tasked with writing a song about sunshine.  The somber track was inspired by November rain in Ireland.

So many of Grace’s work addresses strength through struggle.  Mean Something also from Working Woman has a soothing quality about finding hope while Birthright, which is a Nobody’s Girl song, reveals the struggles of living with the pain of the past.  Pettis is an apt songwriter reflecting on the end of a life-changing relationship. She sings, ‘Brace myself for unwanted advice…I’m the box forgotten in the attic.’

However, one of my favorite tracks is Corner, a complex love song about unconditional loyalty, the pain thick in Grace’s voice.  Though the show had its share of solemn musings, Pettis ends the set with Working Woman’s fiery and meaningful title track, her powerful belt demonstrating though hardship, Grace Pettis has thicker skin than that.

Click here for more information on Grace Pettis and where she is touring next.  Learn more about Natalie Price here and click here for more on Club Passim, their music classes, upcoming concerts, and how to support local music.

REVIEW:  ‘Aimee Victoria’ love beyond boundaries

Since the pandemic started, loneliness has increased exponentially.  People have been scrambling to find a fulfilling form of communication since quarantine took effect in 2020 and any miscommunication or absence of a loved one quickly became fear and worry of their well being.  Even today, people are still struggling with how best to communicate and see each other in person without the fear of illness.  For Aimee and Victoria at the start of the pandemic, communication had to come more from the heart than from the head as they celebrate their anniversary apart.

Natasha Ofili as Aimee and Stephanie Noguras as Victoria Photo courtesy of Olivia Long/Aimee Victoria

Directed aptly by Chrystee Pharris and written by Hannah Harmison and Mikail Chowdhury, Aimee Victoria is a short film created entirely remotely during the pandemic in 2020.  The film is approximately 10 minutes long.  Click here for more information and how to view this film.

Aimee Victoria explores how Natasha Ofili as Aimee and Stephanie Nogueras as Victoria, a deaf couple, cope with being separated by the pandemic on their first anniversary.  As many have difficulty communicating their feelings under the best of circumstances, Aimee and Victoria tackle this obstacle in a sweet depiction of love beyond boundaries. 

Stephanie Nogueras as Victoria Photo courtesy of Olivia Long/Aimee Victoria

Through the film’s isolating setting and circumstances, Pharris navigates panic, depression, and struggle in these characters as they readjust to this new way of living.  For example, Aimee struggles just to get out of bed at a loss for what is next as so many have felt in the past couple of years.

Natasha Ofili as Aimee Photo courtesy of Olivia Long/Aimee Victoria

Aimee Victoria transcends not only the journey of these two people, but the significance of love beyond any obstacles and expressing to anyone, whether friend, family, or significant other, what is truly important.  Finding a way to carry that love with them no matter where they are.

Aimee Victoria is available now on streaming platforms and in theatres.  Click here for more information on how to view this short film.