Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Boston's Summer Musicals

As the weather has finally melted into sultry days and snowless nights, theatres around Boston conclude their seasons with lighter fare. What is it about summer that makes people crave musicals? Perhaps warm temperatures goad us into craving mindless frivolity, a cognitive shedding of the heavy winter layers. An analogic test might conclude: February is to Chekhov as June is to Rogers and Hammerstein. Whatever the reason, three theatres around town are producing New England premieres of musicals that range from completely frivolous to moderately moribund with equally diverse success.

Let's start with the bad news first. In the program notes to Speakeasy Stage Company's Jerry Springer: The Opera, director Paul Daigneault pontificates as to why this work has not been produced more widely on American stages. A hit in London and at international Fringe Festivals, Jerry Springer: The Opera has been one of those rare gems that does not translate well into regional or community theatre fare. My personal opinion is that the work is far too satirical of American culture to truly resonate with American audiences, except for the most self-deprecating. Although the show has been selling well - no doubt promulgated by the crazy Catholic's protest of the opening weekend's performance - this production is one of the most amateurish and ill-directed works I have seen on Speakeasy's Stage.

The chorus of Jerry Springer: The Opera is the studio audience, but in this production the chorus mills about on stage dressed as trailer-trashy as the talk show guests. Add into this the (assumedly) Brechtian device of having the actual audience sit on-stage and you have the uncomfortable position of where to focus and what is appropriate audience/actor interaction. The only reason this is mentioned is because there seemed to be only two professional actors in the entire company who could command the stage over the audience presence on-stage or the masturbatory performances of the ensemble. The two shining moments of professionalism were Kerry Dowling and Amelia Broome whose performance salvaged an otherwise chaotic and misdirected evening of theatre. Some of the performers delivered vocally adept performances such as Luke Grooms and Joelle Lurie who obviously have operatic training, but lacked direction and an actor's command of the stage. To answer Mr. Daigneault's query as to why Jerry Spring: The Opera isn't more widely produced, one need not look further than this production. It is simply too large for most theatres to cast and too complex for many directors too handle.

The response to [Boston Globe reviewer] Louise Kennedy's review of the Huntington Theatre's Pirates has been far more controversial than the show itself. The gulf between the ecstatic audience reception and Ms. Kennedy's frigid review (not to mention Managing Director Michael Maso's public response) has been the stuff that backstage musicals are made of. My personal opinion falls somewhere in the middle finding Pirates both a delightful take on Gilbert and Sullivan's classic Pirates of Penzance and a cheap, bawdy vaudeville where anything goes for a laugh. I do, however, countermine the argument that the show is mere frivolity with little to no thought. The idea to combine the narratives of Pirates of the Carribean with Gilbert and Sullivan's classic is nothing short of inspired even though the execution may at times condescend to the lowest common denominator. The fact that G&S's work is outside the domain of copyright laws allows the creative team to contemporize the humor by changing dialogue and lyrics. This is what makes living theatre such a delight and I only wish that contemporary writers understood the necessity to up-date theatrical work in order to prevent it from becoming a museum piece.

I can gladly say that this is one of the few Huntington shows where I don't leave praising the set over the performance. Director Gordon Greenberg has put together a stellar cast using national and local talent and paces the show at 20 knots. All the beloved characters from Gilbert and Sullivan's original are in place with jokes and bits that make them more of-the-moment and more self-aware. Indeed, the self-awareness of the show - actors breaking the fourth wall to milk the audience - is one of the most refreshing aspects of the production and revive this standard to contemporary, professional standards. The show made me giggle with such abandon as Spamalot while allowing me to rediscover the great melodies invented by the genius Arthur S. Sullivan. I felt like I was rediscovering Pirates all over again sans boring recitative and laborious plot.

The performances are, across the board, of Huntington standards - which, I was shocked to learn include many students from area schools. The pirate ensemble of chorus boys falls a little too quickly into mugging, but their athleticism makes up for this fault. Farah Alvin's Mabel is perfectly executed in voice and acting. Her performance is so spot-on that one cannot imagine a more perfectly suitable star. Anderson Davis as Frederic plays a believably dense blond and deservedly brings down the house with his America Idol rendition of "Oh, Is There Not One Maiden?" Yet the true star of any Pirates of Penzance is the Modern Major General and Ed Dixon does not disappoint. His performance has the ability to single-handedly argue for a revival of vaudeville.

The last summer musical - and one to most tug at my heartstrings - is the Lyric Stage's glorious production of Grey Gardens. I saw the original Broadway production of this show and I wondered how the Lyric would pull it off. But, pull it off they did with uniquely original staging by Spiro Veloudos and a star-studded cast of local Boston actors. The music, which is difficult to say the least, was perfectly executed by Musical Director Scott Goldberg and talent. The thrust staging of the production was so well executed by Mr. Veloudos and scenic designer Cristina Todesco that one realizes the show does not need all the bells and whistles (and fly systems and million dollar budgets) employed in the original production. Instead, Lyric Stage committed to the beautiful music and heartfelt story and delivered a great performance.

One criticism is that the direction felt a little too directed toward "a musical" whereas this is a dramatic story told through music. In Act I Leigh Barret, as the matriarch Edith Bouvier Beale was allowed to fall into her barren-eyed auto-actor that so often accompanies her vocally bravura performances. In Act II, however, as the mentally haunted Little Edie, she delivers a performance that is both emotionally charged and completely unbelievably believable. The other true star of the show was Aimee Dougherty as the young Little Edie in Act I. Ms. Dougherty maybe overcast in Boston area theatres, but in this production, she found her niche and shined with all the star quality that she truly possesses. Sarah deLima as the elder Edith Bouvier Beale also shone with a delectable voice and the perfect physical representation of the character. I also must praise Miranda Gelch whose young Jacqueline Bouvier was the splitting image of her namesake.

It has been an exciting season in Boston this year with much more excitement to come as Diane Paulus assumes the ranks of Artistic Director at A.R.T. However, each theatre sent us off to our summers on the Cape (or stuck in the sultry city) with a little musical verite and much enjoyment to ponder as we sip cape cods on the shore.

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