REVIEW:  ‘Christmas Revels In Celebration of Winter Solstice’ a clever and inviting return to the stage

Performing for a full and enthusiastic crowd and dedicating the performance to Revels friend Julie Smith, this year’s Christmas Revels offers a lot to its audience, but most importantly, it ushers in the excitement and gratefulness of being together again with a sing-along as well as emphasizing helping those in need.   

Christmas Revels’ audience sang live in Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts and now until January 9, you are invited to sing along virtually from your own living room.  Be sure to download the program first and follow along to songs from the middle ages to classic Christmas carols to contemporary classic songs.   Directed cleverly by Patrick Swanson, The Christmas Revels in Celebration of Winter Solstice is approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.  Click here for more information and how to see this year’s show.

Scene from the Mummers Play (William Forchion as The Dragon, Regie Gibson as the MC/referee, and Mark Jaster as Saint George) Photo courtesy of Shep Ferguson

From last year’s selection of new songs mixed in with some of their greatest performances over Christmas Revels’ 50-year run, Christmas Revels is back to a bit of storytelling and theatrics while still tying in the past with the present day – pandemic times, masks, and all.  An unconventional battle with a dragon is only portion of this wild and peculiar tale where traditions are challenged and life today takes an unexpected turn for this lively cast during a caroling and Christmas party. 

It also weighs in the vintage with the contemporary while infusing its own share of lighthearted humor and enough fantastical elements to create a concise and innovative story.  Acknowledging our present woes, Christmas Revels offers insight and hope into how to best help each other through these difficult times. 

Christmas Revels boasts a large, collaborative cast which includes the lighthearted return of Paula Plum and Richard Snee’s quick-witted observational skills.  With dynamic chorography by Kelli Edwards, Tony Tucker, and Gillian Stewart, charismatic David Coffin returns as Master of the Revels leading an uplifting rendition of Lord of the Dance and beautiful a cappella harmonies for Donna Nobis Pacem.  Alex Cumming and the Revels Morris dancers also impress with the traditional and eclectic Pudding Jig.

The Elizabethan’s arrive! (William Forchion, Regie Gibson, Mark Jaster) Photo courtesy of Shep Ferguson

William Forchion portrays pub owner Joe with Carolyn Saxon as his wife.  Forchion is affable and charismatic keeping a cool head as the pub experiences some unexpected surprises.  He shows off some fancy footwork in a drum-infused sword dance and his smooth vocals are also put to the test in a dual role that is anything but cool.  Regie Gibson portrays sophisticated and no nonsense Reginald while Sabrina Selma Mandell amusingly delivered cheerful comedic nonsense as Flunky, a seemingly dimwitted jester. 

Carolyn Saxon bringing the house down at the George and Dragon’s annual carol party Photo courtesy of Shep Ferguson

Carolyn Saxon gives an amazing performance every time she lifts her voice.  Her vibrant vocals shine in her warm delivery of Oh Happy Day, her heartfelt rendition of Lean on Me, and inspiring Someday at Christmas accompanied by the entire cast.

The Ha’Penny Wassail Children also do a splendid job as they join together for a festive “zoom” to We Wish You a Merry Christmas, their own sweet rendition of Someday at Christmas with harp accompaniment, and leading off a glorious Wassail medley while decorating a tree.

Elizabethan’s strut their stuff (dancing) Photo courtesy of Shep Ferguson

Heidi Hermiller’s colorful costumes varies from humorous ugly Christmas sweaters to festive pub wear to resplendent, gold embroidered and delicately laced gowns.  Jeremy Barnett’s hospitable and festive pub setting includes subtle sparks of hope and encouragement weaved into the surroundings such as a ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ sign by the bar.  With a glowing fireplace in the background, the warm atmosphere boasts a festively decorated room enhanced with lit evergreen trim wrapped around the entire theatre as Jeff Adelberg innovative lighting flashes to the beat as the live onstage Pickled Eggs House Band showcase a variety of music styles led by Music Director George Emlen and Associate Music Director Edmar Colon.

The Christmas Revels in Celebration of Winter Solstice continues its virtual run through January 9.  Click here for more information and how to see 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:  Greater Boston Stage Company’s ‘All is Calm:  The Christmas Truce of 1914’ moving and miraculous

Witnessing a phenomenon is a rare and precious thing.  It was nothing short of miraculous watching Greater Boston Company’s All is Calm:  The Christmas Truce of 1914 which details that short period in history where enemies united briefly during the depths of War War I on Christmas Eve 1914.  Disillusioned and missing their loved ones, soldiers demonstrated compassion and the mercy of the human spirit as both sides sang carols, exchanged goods, and mutually wished for the war to end.

In the Greater Boston Stage Company’s lobby. Authentic combat uniform and gear from the Veteran Association of the First Corps of Cadets and Museum Photo courtesy of Greater Boston Stage Company

Directed poignantly by Ilyse Robbins and compellingly written by Peter Rothstein, Greater Boston Stage Company presents the award-winning documentary musical,  All is Calm:  The Christmas Truce of 1914 through December 23 as a digital performance and live in person at Greater Boston Stage Company, 395 Main Street in Stoneham, Massachusetts.  The show is approximately 70 minutes with no intermission.  Click here for more information and tickets.

It is surprising that The Christmas Truce of 1914 is not more widely known.  Joyeux Noel, The Christmas Truce, various documentaries, and this show are a few of the ways that this short historical period is recorded.  It should be an annual tradition like How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Frosty, Rudolph or A Charlie Brown Christmas.  It stands as a significant reminder of a Christmas Eve miracle that occurred only once during War World I’s long and grueling four year time span.  Most soldiers first joined thinking the war would end by Christmas. 

The cast of ‘All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914’ Photo credit to Nile Scott Studios/Greater Boston Stage Company

A dimly lit, bare stage is all that is revealed at the start of All is Calm, but what transpires as the show progresses is a rich landscape of moonlight, song, and memories.  Though this show features musical interludes, it is not a traditional musical.  It is more like a documentary that features stunning music and carols inviting the audience into the warmth, spirit, sacrifice, and the true meaning of the season.

Comprised of ten cast members who take on several identities during the production as they recollect that time period, All is Calm boasts powerful and silvery harmonies chiming into the wintry night sung a cappella without a band.  Music Director Matthew Stern does a sensational job with Erick Lichte and Timothy Takach’s vocal arrangements which includes popular carols such as Silent Night, O Holy Night, We Wish You a Merry Christmas, Angels We Have Heard on High, and Auld Lang Syne.

Michael Jennings Mahoney and the cast of ‘All is Calm’ Photo credit to Nile Scott Studios/Greater Boston Stage Company

 All is Calm is a beautiful ensemble piece and each cast member rises to the occasion, but when a renowned German tenor leads a stirring rendition of Franz Gruber’s Stille Nacht in No Man’s Land, it is difficult to pinpoint a more memorable moment. 

Dressed in muted military uniforms and kilts faithful to the era’s period and culture by Bethany Mullins, the collaborative cast demonstrates heartwarming chemistry and yet simultaneously depicts each soldier’s growing isolation in sorrow, fear, turmoil, and anguish as they progressively experience war’s cruel reality.  Integrating direct quotes from soldiers, narration, and uplifting carols such as Wassail as well as exceptional and heartrending songs such as I Want to Go Home, many times moved me beyond words. 

Though the extraordinary harmonies are a large part of the production, the production’s real mastery also resides in its stillness.  That brief interlude during a harrowing time where friendships were forged and sweet peace was nestled in the silence of enemies who joined together in the joy of the season and the sadness in their hearts for what was in store.

Greater Boston Stage Company presents the award-winning documentary musical, All is Calm:  The Truce of 1914 through December 23 as a digital performance and live in person at Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham, Massachusetts.  The show is approximately 70 minutes with no intermission.  Click here for more information, tickets, and a look at their upcoming events.

REVIEW:  Lyric Stage Company’s ‘The Last Five Years’ a shrewd and beguiling look at love

Start from the beginning.  No, start from the end. 

Not certain which way is best to tell a love story, but Jason Robert Brown certainly makes a powerful argument by the innovative way this story is told as Lyric Stage Company ’s musical The Last Five Years continues through December 12 at the Lyric Stage Company, 140 Clarendon Street in Boston, Massachusetts.  The show is 90 minutes with no intermission.

Directed intuitively by Leigh Barrett with eloquent musical direction by Dan Rodriguez, The Last Five Years describes an ardent romance between a promising writer and an up and coming actress.  It’s blissful love at first sight when suddenly, life goes into overdrive.

Jared Troilo as Jamie and Kira Troilo as Cathy Photo by Mark S Howard/Lyric Stage Company

Having seen the 2014 film adaptation of the same name starring Broadway dynamos Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick, I had high hopes for this production and like Jamie Wellerstein and Cathy Hiatt, fell for both immediately.  The Last Five Years is a compelling, poignant and multi-dimensional journey of love’s elation, humor, compromise, and struggle as life veers into unexpected directions.  The Last Five Years doesn’t hold back in revealing the complex nature of this blossoming relationship, showing its vibrancy and its cracks in equal measure.  How do two people stay afloat when life is throwing so many things at them in completely different ways?

Intimately performed in theatre-in-the-round with a seamless six piece band, the beauty in Lyric Stage Company’s The Last Five Years is not only in its wonderful lead casting with married couple Jared Troilo as Jamie and Kira Troilo as Cathy, but in its unique depiction of time and place through a cosmic and multi-functional rotating stage and the engaging way it consistently involves the audience. 

Jamie and Cathy are earnest and likable and their faults are seen and met with sympathy, heartache, and a degree of discernment when they don’t perceive their own shortcomings.  It’s an intriguing and thought-provoking piece as it explores a kaleidoscope of emotions with intensity and realism and perhaps recognizing yourself in their shoes for a moment or two.

Having witnessed amazing Jeremy Jordan as Jamie in the film adaptation, Jared had a lot to live up to, but he captures the essence of Jamie’s endless humor, charm, and determination while adding his own contagious enthusiasm and captivating vocals.  He is a gleeful and conspiring storyteller for The Schmuel Song and displays ego and earnest sincerity in If I Didn’t Believe in You.  Kira’s soaring vocals depict Cathy’s fragility, sheer determination, and playful optimism in I Can Do Better Than That.  Another highlight involves Kira reflecting on A Summer in Ohio, portraying Cathy’s dry sense of humor and insecurity.  However, she is the most enchanting in Goodbye until Tomorrow.   

Kira Troilo as Cathy Photo by Mark S Howard/Lyric Stage Company

Jenna McFarland-Lord’s enthralling set design and Karen Perlow’s mood-induced lighting reflects two sides of love through its multi-color backdrops such as violet, teal, and purple as well as floating gold rings that shine alone and in pairs.

Jason Robert Brown’s music ebbs and flows much like love from bright to poignant, confident to humbling, and from rueful to triumphant.  No matter how love changes, it is always a memorable journey.

Lyric Stage Company presents Jason Robert Brown’s musical The Last Five Years through December 12 at Lyric Stage Company in Boston, Massachusetts. Click here more information and tickets.

REVIEW:  Boasting two stellar leads, Central’s Square’s ‘The Half Life of Marie Curie’ full of inspiration and crackling chemistry

For revolutionary physicist and chemist Marie Curie, not everything can be solved through a calculation.

On the verge of her second Noble Prize for Chemistry, anxious and introspective Marie Curie finds herself embroiled in a scandal and at one of the lowest points of her life.  Quite literally bursting onto the scene is brilliant and charismatic electromechanical engineer and suffragette Hertha Ayrton ready to bring humor and optimism to what seems like a bleak situation.

Lee Mikeska Gardner as Marie Curie Debra Wise as Hertha Ayrton Photo courtesy of Nile Scott Studios

Brimming with crackling chemistry between Lee Mikeska Gardner as Marie Curie and Debra Wise as Herthe Ayrton, Central Square Theater opened their fall season with Lauren Gunderson’s The Half Life of Marie Curie continuing through December 12 at the Central Square Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  The show is 85 minutes with no intermission.  Click here for more information and tickets.

The stage is deceptively serene for Lauren Gunderson’s The Half Life of Marie Curie. Lindsay Genevieve Fuori’s colorful, innovative, and functional scenic design comes to life as stirring sound effects and a mysterious and foreboding piano score by sound designer Elizabeth Cahill make an intriguing combination fused with Whitney Brady-Guzman’s dynamic and surreal lighting.

A production that picks up from the very start, these two driven pillars of science with contrasting personalities are a fascinating pair to watch and listen to their musings.  Gunderson’s sharp script strikes a delicate balance between intellectual prowess and absorbing dramedy.  They share their views on life, family, and work with wit, humor and candor, yet instinctually encourage each other forward with respect and admiration.  Both are widows and mothers who struggle with how women were perceived in the early 20th century, but their sheer determination and passion for science ultimately make an indelible mark on the world.

Lee Mikeska Gardner as Marie Curie and Debra Wise as Hertha Ayrton in 1910s swimwear Photo courtesy of Nile Scott Studios

Adorned in a lovely feathered black hat and flowing emerald green dress, Debra Wise brings gravitas, confidence, ego, and clever charm as Hertha Ayrton.  From the moment Ayrton bursts onto the stage with a confident cock of her head, gleam in her eye, and cheerful intonation, a lightheartedness sets in to her passionate and outspoken persona as opposed to Curie’s darker sensibilities.  Dressed demurely in a rich purple dress, Gardner skillfully embodies tense Curie in her careful and calculated movements.  You can practically see the wheels turning in Curie’s constantly analyzing mind and consider the lengths she would go for the sake of her work.

Lee Mikeska Gardner as Marie Curie Debra Wise as Hertha Ayrton Photo courtesy of Nile Scott Studios

Marie Curie and Hertha Ayron’s exchanges are no ordinary gabfests.  From sexual politics to love to family and everything in between, Wise and Gardner, as different in their approaches are and as opposite their personalities, they understand each other as equals, colleagues, and kindred spirits. Celebrating each other’s triumphs and supportive in hardship, theirs is a true testament to unyielding and enduring friendship and it stands at the center of this auspicious and biographical story.

Directed astutely by Bryn Boice, Central Square Theater presents Lauren Gunderson’s The Half Life of Marie Curie through December 12 at the Central Square Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  The show is 85 minutes with no intermission.  Click here for more information and tickets.

REVIEW: SpeakEasy Stage Company’s comedy-drama ‘BLKS’

A glow in the dark graffiti soaked Brooklyn apartment and street set the stage for SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of BLKS continuing through Saturday, November 20 live and in person at Calderwood Pavilion at Boston Center for the Arts in Boston, Massachusetts.  Raw, raunchy, and at times more shocking than funny, BLKS delves into one long and hazy 24-hour period for a group of 20-something city singles.  Infidelity, danger, and sex are just a few of the issues addressed in this one hour and 45 minute comedy-drama by Aziza Barnes.  This show has no intermission and contains mature themes, adult content and language.  Click here for more information and tickets.

Shanelle Chloe Villegas, Kelsey Fonise, and Thomika Marie Bridwell in SpeakEasy Stage’s production of ‘BLKS’ Photo by Nile Scott Studios

On the surface, BLKS tackles the life of a group of strong Brooklyn 20-something singles living together.  After they all endure a tough day, they decide to party and forget their troubles.  However, as the night wears on with plenty of pitfalls in the way from a broken heel to a broken heart, getting what they hope for will be far more difficult than they ever expected.  Each individual faces their own insecurities and long for belonging, whether it comes to love, commitment, career, or identity.  They all want to fit in where they are and yet, each person can’t shake what is missing.

Struggling comedian Imani, portrayed by Kelsey Fonise, longs to be like comedy legend Eddie Murphy and like Murphy’s standup comedy, much of the humor in BLKS is fierce, aggressive, and pulls no punches.  It runs the gamut of relatable to squeamish to unabashedly funny.  Thomika Marie Bridwell as level headed June seems to be climbing the corporate ladder, but is perpetually stuck in love while filmmakers Sandra Seoane-Seri as forthright Ry and Shanelle Chloe Villegas as flighty Octavia clash as they attempt to label their relationship.  Bridwell has a gift for the one liner while Villegas as Octavia displays a knack for physical humor. 

Sharmarke Yusuf portrays a number of dynamic characters including seemingly sweet Justin.  A climatic scene between Yusef and Villegas in an apartment display the daring lengths these two will go for a laugh.  Bridwell as June and Yusef as Justin also share some charming moments.

Roommates Octavia, June, and Imani have a moment on the street and one in the apartment when they reflect on the struggles they deal with on a daily basis and this is where the production shows such potential and solid relevance.  With the exception of Justin who reveals an immediate emotional center, it is a chance to get to know these characters on a deeper level, but these moments pass by too soon.  It gets weighed down at times by the need for shock and comedy over substance rather than delving into these characters more closely.

BLKS is primarily a comedy and these roommates also share their fill of junk food, gossip, and partying in their quest to find love, success, and contentment in which they all share good chemistry.  Like many 20-something singles, they find comfort facing the struggle together.

Directed by Tonasia Jones, SpeakEasy Stage Company’s continues Aziza Barnes’s production of BLKS through Saturday, November 20 at Calderwood Pavilion at Boston Center for the Arts in Boston, Massachusetts.  Click here for more information and tickets.

REVIEW:  Company Theatre’s ‘Jordie:  A Celebration of Life and Concert’

In her good works, her loving and encouraging persona, and perhaps in a misbehaving microphone, Company Theatre’s beloved co-founder Jordie Saucerman’s presence was unmistakably felt in Jordie A Celebration of Life and Concert continuing through Saturday, November 6 at 7:30 PM.  This dynamic tribute is held live onstage with no intermission at the Company Theatre, 30 Accord Park Drive in Norwell, Massachusetts. Click here for more information.

Courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

Though there are moments of tearful recollections, this thoughtful, Mardi Gras-inspired tribute brought more joy than sadness not unlike Jordie herself.  She made an indelible mark not only in theatre and film, but her humor, drive, and generous nature made her an unforgettable presence in the lives she encountered, especially in children that often felt alone and misunderstood.  Her discernment, treatment of others, and her endless bowls of chicken soup and treats allowed them to shine.

Young Jordie Saucerman Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

A large cast that included Academy of the Company Theatre (ACT) students paid warmhearted tribute to Jordie with hit Broadway tunes, pop and uplifting gospel songs, captivating dance numbers, and personal stories.  Composed of present and former students that she fondly referred to as family and those whose lives she touched over her 49 years in the arts, needless to say the stage was full.

Some highlights included a poignant montage of film clips capturing Jordie’s wonderful life, including her telling first and final reflections.  A stirring homily from Cathy Torrey and insightful, ballet-inspired choreography created by Jordie’s wife and Company Theatre choreographer Sally Forrest led in song by Paula Markowitz depict how beautiful she was inside and out.

Ballet-inspired tribute Photo courtesy of Michael Hammond/Company Theatre

The Company Theatre presents Jordie A Celebration of Life and Concert for one more show on Saturday, November 6 at 7:30 p.m.  Click here for more information.

In Jordie’s memory, The Company Theatre has created The Jordie Saucerman Forever Fund.  Click here to contribute to her legacy.

REVIEW:  Academy of the Company Theatre’s parody ‘Puffs’ full of lively, enchanted fun

Those first few chords seem familiar, but no, this is not quite the John Williams classic score about THAT wizard, but another earnest group of wizard hopefuls.  Not quite ‘saint-like,’ but fun loving and enthusiastic underachievers nonetheless.  Some legendary faces appear and make quite an impression, but the Puffs are the real stars.

Full of inside and self aware jokes, 90s pop culture references, chocolate frogs, almost every flavored bean, and not nearly as long as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts 1 and 2 comes Puffs, a spot on parody that tells the epic tale of the seven years Harry Potter attended Hogwarts from the viewpoint of some of the lesser known wizard students that aimed for first, but would also settle for third.  It is a hilarious exploration that is best appreciated by Harry Potter fans due to its share of spoilers, but anyone would enjoy a wealth of improvisational fun and physical humor as well as Dean Palmer Junior’s impressive lighting and special effects.  The introduction of hilarious dragons and haunting dementors are just some of the show’s highlights.

Bath scene. Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

Directed cleverly by Corey Cadigan, Academy of the Company Theatre (ACT) presents Matt Cox’s Puffs for one exclusive weekend from October 22 through October 24 at Company Theatre in Norwell, Massachusetts.  Click here for all of Company Theatre’s upcoming events including a tribute to Jordie Saucerman, Company Theatre’s late co-founder.

The timing is perfect for Puffs as next year marks 25 years since JK’s Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone hit bookshelves in 1997, making the author one of the richest people in the world.  With Harry Potter and the Cursed Child back on Broadway and around the world and Fantastic Beasts 3: The Secrets of Dumbledore slated for next year, Harry Potter remains a phenomenon.

Annie Dunn as Sally Perks and others and Marissa Tolini as Susie Bones and others Photo courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

This is absolutely not a retread of Harry Potter though, but tells a slightly different and more humorous tale along Harry Potter’s timeline.  It is difficult to choose which characters makes the biggest impression because each cast member collaborate so well together and as a big Harry Potter fan, I found myself laughing right through my mask which is required within Company Theatre’s comfortable theatre space.

Brianna Casey as Narrator Courtesy of Zoe Bradford/Company Theatre

Many cast members transfigure into multiple roles as Brianna Casey serves as Puffs scholarly narrator.  Casey’s benevolent and dignified delivery adds gravitas to an often whimsical role, keeping the tale focused as some of the more spontaneous characters could have led the story astray.  Will Moon epitomizes Cedric’s rock star persona and charismatic scene stealer in a dual role and Alex Norton’s Wayne Hopkins is talkative and charming as the tale’s ‘would be’ hero.  Morgan Hurley offers a memorable portrayal of conflicted Megan Jones, a rebel with a chip on her shoulder.  She shares endearing chemistry with Sean Lally as Wayne’s nerdy best friend, Oliver Rogers.

Anastasia Ferrera is bubbly and delightful as Leanne among others and James Keyes as goofy J. Finch as well as other roles is often the life of the party.  One of the many collaborative scenes and highlights of the show involve a party with too much butter beer and a familiar sounding 90s dance song.   Some scenes seem a random addition, but are always smartly done.

With intricate, multi-functional sets and props (those wands and that sorting hat!) by Ryan Barrow and colorful, distinctive, and humorously outlandish costumes by John Crampton, Puffs is a lighthearted and wonderful journey while still delivering important life lessons so prevalent in the books such as valuing the power of friendship, dreaming big, and being true to oneself.  It’s a shame the show is only presented for one weekend with a cast that is having so much fun.

Brianna Casey as Narrator and Max Ripley as Ernie Mac and others

Academy of the Company Theatre (ACT) performs parody Puffs through October 24.  Click here for more information and for all of the Company Theatre’s upcoming events.

REVIEW:  Theatre Kapow’s timely and resonating ‘The Boyg’ makes a connection

Comic great Robin Williams once said, “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone.  It’s not.  The worst thing in life is to end up with people that make you feel all alone.”  Williams suffered from depression, but his ability to feel the lows and to make people laugh perhaps contributed to his gift on a deeper level.  Getting the laugh is greater when the pain in which it is earned is also felt, achieving connection.  Perhaps this is why there is also an in-house psychiatrist at The Laugh Factory in Los Angeles, California.

Theatre Kapow captured isolation and resilience in a play centered around a group of people clinging for hope in A.J. Ditty’s resonating play, The Boyg based partially on the life of Per Krohg.  Art and isolation are key elements and are heavily weighed as each character attempts to connect with each other in their own distinct way.

Celebrating its first indoor production in over a year, Theatre Kapow presented A.J. Ditty’s The Boyg in Derry, New Hampshire in September, toured in Charlestown, Massachusetts as October started, and the show is now available online through October 10.  Click here for tickets and more information.

Before continuing, it is important to note that A.J. Ditty’s The Boyg, named after Ibsen’s classic play Peer Gynt’s groundbreaking literary monster, does not make the play a prerequisite to appreciate this production, but a companion piece.  The show is part play within a play and for those who know Peer Gynt, having read Ibsen’s work may promote a richer understanding, but does not affect the universal appeal of this show.

There is a phantom presence lingering over The Boyg, a sense of tension and dread that builds throughout the production and is rarely addressed until it is unavoidable.  It hides in games, questions, plays, and pleasant conversation and perhaps glimpsed in a pause or a worried glance.  Enhanced by Tayva Young’s mood-induced lighting and versatile sound designed by Jake Hudgins, it is an element as real as any of the characters in this production.

Sabrina Schlegel-Mejia as Mikhail and Rebecca Tucker as Per in ‘The Boyg’ Photo credit Matt Lomanno Photography

Set inside a Norwegian concentration camp during World War II, each character has every reason to try to forget their present circumstances, but struggle within the inevitability of their situation.  Duty, work which is often self defeating, and art seem only to hold more than a moment’s distraction.

R to L: Lisa Boyett as Old Man and Sabrina Schlegel-Mejia as Mikhail Photo credit Matt Lomanno Photography

The cast displays good timing and chemistry even as characters who often struggle to understand each other in their mutual pain.  As barracks leader Odd Nansen, portrayed ardently by Carey Cahoon, Odd seems the most willing to give into whatever is necessary to keep up morale while Professor Francis Bull depicted by Molly Kane Parker, prefers to escape into literature and theatre to cope with the present.   

Rebecca Tucker delivers an intriguing and heartfelt performance as secretive, complex, and anguished Per Krohg who struggles with what it takes to survive.  Tucker’s cat-and-mouse conversations with Nicholas Wilder as harsh and manipulative Captain Denzer and Sabrina Sehlegel-Megia’s earnest portrayal of rebellious and mysterious Mikhail Hjorthson’s haunting recollections of past experiences are particular highlights.

R to Left: Rachael Chapin Longo as Robert and Rebecca Tucker as Per Photo courtesy of Matt Lomanno Photography

What does it take to peel back life’s meaning where there is no other choice?  Reflecting on art and culture while staring into the face of mortality, isn’t life better with connection over dread? 

Directed contemplatively by Matt Cahoon, Theatre Kapow timely production of A.J. Ditty’s The Boyg streaming through October 10.  Click here for more on The Boyg and Theatre Kapow’s new season, Return.

REVIEW: SpeakEasy Stage Company reveals Adam Rapp’s raw, gripping, and gritty ‘The Sound Inside’

Two peculiar overachievers meet.  One is a precocious, well-read, well versed and outspoken college student and another a well versed, well-read and well-spoken middle-aged Yale professor.  It is a meeting of the minds as they surprisingly challenge each other when seemingly the only thing that challenges each of them comes in literary form.

Jennifer Rohn in SpeakEasy Stage’s production of ‘The Sound Inside.’ Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

Immediately engaging, shrewdly written, and oftentimes bleak, The Sound Inside is quite capable of rendering the audience speechless.  It is jarring, reflective, and moving and from what is learned about these characters, one cannot help but hope for the well being of these two lost souls.

Directed by Bryn Boice, SpeakEasy Stage Company opened their new season with Adam Rapp’s Tony-nominated play The Sound Inside continuing at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts in Boston through Saturday, October 16.  Presented for the first time in Boston, The Sound Inside contains mature themes and some difficult topics.  It is 90 minutes without an intermission.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

Jennifer Rohn and Nathan Malin in SpeakEasy Stage’s production of ‘The Sound Inside.’ Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

Much of The Sound Inside is about hope.  It’s about looking for hope when the light is dim and the quest for finding hope is rarely a comfortable journey. 

Cristina Todesco’s minimal set does well creating depth and dimension, but does not take away from the primary focus of this character driven study.  Devorah Kengmana’s lighting lends to each character’s loneliness as shadows are created at pivotal moments.

Jennifer Rohn as prominent Yale professor Bella Baird unleashes a no holds barred look into her psyche.  She is an avid reader which seems to help her escape past trauma and the crisis she is currently facing.  Her keen intellect is immediately obvious and she is unfiltered, blatantly unfettered, and undeterred as she shares her life up to this point.  Rohn is as captivating a storyteller as she is in exhibiting Baird’s loneliness.

Jennifer Rohn and Nathan Malin in SpeakEasy Stage’s production of ‘The Sound Inside.’ Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

Set in the fall in New Haven, Connecticut, Baird has a surprising encounter with Christopher Dunn, portrayed with a mix of arrogance, intuitiveness, and inquisitiveness by Nathan Malin, and they share a distinct, intangible connection.  With similar dry senses of humor, a shared love of the written word, and a mutual social awkwardness, they understand and encourage each other to live life boldly. However, Rapp’s script is full of detours and twists that don’t always land perfectly, but lead to a tense and incalculable ending. Just when the show seems to tow the line, the tables turn.

Jennifer Rohn in SpeakEasy Stage’s production of ‘The Sound Inside.’ Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

SpeakEasy Stage Company presents The Sound Inside at the Calderwood Pavilion in Boston through Sunday, October 16.  Click here for more information and tickets.  Click here for upcoming events and more at the SpeakEasy Stage Company.