All Things Entertaining and Cultural
April 2016 proved a cruel month in terms of time demands, so I am in a position of having to catch up with commenting a number of productions by screwing my courage to the sticking place and really writing telling capsules. (Hah! Let’s see how long that lasts.) Some reviews will be longer than others. Some will be replaced full reviews — The recent pieces on “1776,” “Always…Patsy Cline,” and “Doctor Faustus” started as capsules — but the exercise is to take all shows seen in the last couple of weeks and give each some mention.
The shows will be written about alphabetically. Shows with asterisks before their titles are scheduled for more complete review.
*THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN, Curio Theatre, 48th and Baltimore, Philadelphia, through Saturday, May 21 — The great virtue of Joshua Browns’s production is it retains the dark, offhand, playful humor of Martin McDonagh while allowing itself some sentimentality as it places character and situation ahead of the merrily jaundiced, cruel point of view with which McDonagh presents life, and particularly life in rural Ireland. McDonagh is the flip side of Brian Friel. He writes several plays set in a specific region of Ireland, but he focuses for reality on the fetishes, pettiness, repetitiveness, meanness, and human comedy of routine small-town existence while Friel concentrates on hardship and romance. Browns and his cast are adept at bringing forth the outstanding traits in McDonagh’s characters. Their personalities dominate in a way that keeps them from being mere human cogs in a comic, unaffectionate display of selfish or thoughtless ignorance on the hoof. The people Browns shows us have hearts and can think beyond their own needs. Only the brother and sister played with respective naivety and mischief by Andrew Carroll and Colleen Hughes, remain on the level of type or cipher, and Hughes’s Slippy Helen establishes herself as one who can be cantankerously evil in myriad ways (and delusional in others). Browns can keep his characters or an human scale, one that allows us to get to know them more than most productions of McDonagh do, while reveling in McDonagh’s outrageously savage but hilarious barrage of jokes, insults, and truth-telling that would make the fragile among the politically correct seek out a dean’s office for a safe place (the feckin’ babbies). By concentrating on story, Browns makes “The Cripple of Inishmaan” more realistic and more absorbing. You see you can take matters seriously while basking in McDonagh’s send-up. Browns’s simplicity in storytelling adds perspective and texture to a play that centers around a Hollywood movie company shooting a film (Robert Flaherty’s”The Man of Aran”) near enough to Inishmaan to excite some of the townsfolk into going to the production site to vie for parts. Among wonderful choices is to have Peter Danelski’s beautifully played Billy Claven, known to all as Crippled Billy — “Well, ya are crippled, so why do you want to be called just Billy?” — show the piercing intelligence and cautious sensitivity that prove his physical handicaps do not affect his mentality or ability to be curious about more than the gossip Johnny Pateen brings to the townsfolk as news by way of making his living. Danielski makes Billy sympathetic instead of pathetic. You respect his interest in the world, even when it involves staring at cows, as you feel for and root for this Billy to fulfill the dreams, romantic and unrealistic are they are, of a better life and even affection. Danelski never wavers in showing Billy’s braininess and resolve. His portrayal makes a scene in which Billy is suffering in illness more profound and poignant. Every one of the actors in Browns’s production gives his or her character texture. Steve Carpenter shows the soft side Billy notices, and gives signs of a man in deep mourning, as the independent, no-nonsense Babby Bobby. Paul Kuhn makes Johnny Pateen more complete than a man who uses news to cadge eggs and lamb shanks from people as poor as he is and who plots unsuccessfully to kill his 90-year-old mother from drink. Robert Ian Cutler brings weight and common sense to the play as a doctor. Peggy Smith comically shows how little Johnny’s mother cares about dying if it means she can get all the beer and whisky she wants. Andrew Carroll is effusively dense as the clueless Bartley McCormick, who has the mean humor of Inishmaan but is an overgrown boy in spirit who thinks more about sweeties (candy) than any other phase of life. Colleen Hughes is Carroll’s opposite as his sister, Helen, who will purposefully seize any opportunity to tease, punch, insult, or ruin any person or event. Trice Browns is aces as Eileen, the wiser, more motherly, and stricter of two sisters who keep a shop in Inishmaan. Aetna Gallagher is also excellent as Kate, the sister who frets more and who talks to a stone when she’s upset. Danelski is the true star, his Billy being a young man on a brink his physical challenges and Inishmaan roots may not let him broach, even though he, brought to Hollywood at one point to audition for a movie, has the best chance of all of leaving Inishmaan and its stifling, parochial ways behind him. The ensemble keeps McDonagh’s Irish tale involving and entertaining. This may be a tamer than usual “Cripple of Inishmaan” but it more fulfilling and more admirable for breaking a mold and doing it in the direction of more authentic humanity. Grade: A-
*THE ELIXIR OF LOVE, Opera Philadelphia at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets, Philadelphia, through Sunday, May 8 — Director Stephen Lawless and a uniformly wonderful cast, led by a spiritedly comic Dimitri Pittas, provide bright, sunshiny fun in this lively, fast-moving, exuberant staging of Gaetano Donizetti’s romantic comedy for Opera Philadelphia. Set in a busy vineyard that could as easily be in California as in Italy — An alphabet lesson defines place. — this “Elixir” puts its characters through everyday paces, Nemorino as mechanic restoring a classic sports car, Adina as teacher drilling vineyard children through their lessons, that set up a simple story that sustains itself by being sprightly amusing and giving Pittas a number of ways to entertain. “The Elixir of Love” is as straightforward as opera gets. A young man, Nemorino, is in love with a village woman, Adina, but stands little chance to win her because he is a simple laborer with ordinary looks and cannot compete with the handsomer, better-paid soldiers garrisoned in the town, particularly the unit sergeant, Belcore. Despite the unlikelihood of Adina agreeing to date him, Nemorino tells her of his attraction several times every day. Adina not only rebuffs him, laughing away his overtures and telling him to stop frustrating himself with his suit, but makes fun of Nemorino behind his back as well as to his face. He tells her friend, Giannetta, how much she relishes torturing Nemorino with her rejections and how entertained she is by his continued pronouncements of love and her dismissal of them. Adina says she is not ready to marry anyone and prefers to be independent. Although she thinks of marriage as a lark, she agrees to be the bride of Belcore and plans to wed him the day of his proposal, especially as he, an occupying American non-com in this production, has orders to leave Adina’s village the next morning. Adina doesn’t love or care for Belcore, who has enough conceit to need no other’s attention. She consents to marry him to further aggrieve Nemorino, who is so lovelorn Lawless wittily has him put an “and” sign and draw a heart around an “n” and “a” that happen to be adjacent in a word of Adina’s blackboard. All kinds of plotting ensue, as jealousy, disappointment, desperation, and strategic maneuvering come to the fore. Librettist Felice Romani may not have developed a complicated story, but he peppers its smoothness with enough clever obstacles to keep the characters hopping, and Lawless adds to the carnival by shrewd use of a bucket, a billboard, a blackboard, a priest’s Vespa, and Nemorino’s classic car. Hijinks keeps Lawless’s “Elixir” funny, but splendor comes from the singing and acting in the production. Pittas, Craig Verm as Belcore, and Keith Burdette as an hilarious mountebank named Dulcamara, are as agile as they are in command of Romani’s words and Donizetti’s music. Pittas is especially spry, whether he’s playing a cat-and-mouse game with Verm around his car, bouncing a tire on the ground and catching it, or going at a run to various positions where he can spy on Adina. He finds all the “funny” in Nemorino, even when he’s achingly complaining about Adina’s disdain or getting drunk on wine Dulcamara sold him as an “elixir of love” that will make not only Adina, but all women, madly in love with him by the day after its consumption. He establishes his character immediately, and his arias about unrequited love and vocal exchanges with Adina, Dulcamara, and Belcore are robust and beartfelt while being squarely within Nemorino’s character. Pittas seemed distant and out of place as last year’s Don Carlo. In “Elixir,” he’s the master of the revels and so adeptly amusing in that role. He can make you nod in sympathy when he’s pathetic and celebrate with him as he comes up with ways to foil Belcore and woo Adina. He is well matched by Burdette’s constantly wary Dulcamara, who is so aware of his swindling ways, he raises his hands in submission and waits to be arrested every time someone, usually Nemorino, calls his name from behind. Burdette has a marvelous time with Dulcamara’s shameless villainy and makes a particular delight on the song in which Dulcamara tells all of the uses of his elixir, everything from stripping paint to healing boils. If Pittas is always in a love-crazed dither, and Burdette is finding new ways to gull his customers, Verm is entertaining with Belcore’s overweening pomposity. Though a sergeant, he is the highest ranked soldier in the village and he struts his command as if he was a peacock, full plumage exposed. Verm’s Belcore is as filled with self-love and self-confidence as Pittas’s Nemorino is riddled with self-consciousness and self-doubt. The three men make Lawless’s production glow with human comedy. They find a good partner in Sarah Shafer, who has displayed her talent in featured roles and aces her first opportunity in a lead. Shafer exudes authority as she teaches her pupils at the vineyard, merriment in flirting with Belcore when the soldiers make their initial entrance, and kicky satisfaction in bedeviling Nemorino’s advances (even at instances when she kindly and sincerely tells him to stop wasting his affection on her). Shafer sings beautifully and expressively. She might want to work on volume. On several occasions, she could not be heard, mid-parquet, over Corrado Rovaris’s musicians. Various things go wrong with everyone’s plans, but since “Elixir” is a comedy, much goes right in the most unexpected of ways, especially when a circumstance beyond Dulcamara’s purloined wine conspires to make Nemorino desired by many women at once. Lawless fills his production with cunning touches, such as the way he has Adina and Giannetta recline alluringly and cross their legs as they loll about as Belcore and his troops make their entrance. He also makes good use of the bounce and fogged windows of Nemorino’s precious car and of a blackboard on which an extra fancifully writes a wedding bill of fare with an abundance of chicken in it. Katrina Thurman joins her castmates in giving a large, vibrant performance that still defines Giannetta’s character. Corrado Rovaris’s orchestra maintains the bright tone Lawless emphasizes on stage. Ashley Martin-Davis’s set, dominated by a changing billboard, is colorful and purposeful. His costumes are right for the period, post-World War II, and add to the brightness and wit of the production. His workman’s coveralls for Nemorino and tight suit that screams ‘charlatan” for Dulcamara are especially good. Pat Collins’s lighting keeps most scenes sun-drenched and festive. Grade A
FOREVER PLAID, Montgomery Theatre, 124 N. Main Street, Souderton, Pa. through Sunday, May 8 — Of all the variety pieces that have become ensemble favorites — “Nunsense,” “Altar Boyz,” “The Calamari Sisters” — Stuart Ross’s “Forever Plaid” is the most durable because its music supersedes any gimmickry a director feels compelled to build into it. You like the story, about four young man performing the concert they were rehearsing when they were killed in an accident between their Mercury convertible and a school bus in 1964, and the characters, but it is the combination of standards, rock and roll hits, calypso numbers, and specialty material that keeps you interested and waiting eagerly to hear the next song. Stephen Casey’s production of “Plaid” for Souderton’s Montgomery Theatre, has shtick galore, most of it well thought-out and well-played, but it attains and maintains its luster via the gorgeously tight harmonies of Carl Nathaniel Smith, Mike Dorsey, Connor McAndrews, and Craig O’Brien. You would never know this quartet was formed by audition and rehearsal. They sound so perfect together, you’d think they’d been doing doo-wopp on street corners and high school bathrooms for years. Their lush, elegant tone turns everything from ballads like “Love is a Many Splendored Thing” and “Moments to Remember” to novelty pieces like Perry Como’s 50s hits and pop songs like “Sha Boom” or “Matilda” into the proverbial wonderful wall of sound. The guys are also deft as comedians, and Casey keeps the hijinks in better and more careful check than many directors, Some moves may be excessive, such as one in which Smith bends to ties his shoes,” but most are more built into character traits such as O’Brien’s Smudge never knowing left from right in dance and other moves or Dorsey’s Jinx constantly tending to a nose that bleeds when he’s nervous. In general, the Montgomery cast keep all things light and efficient. Their calypso sequence and one centered on activities at a catered wedding are fun, and the troupe makes an hilarious romp of the various acts that compose the typical “Ed Sullivan Show.” Dorsey, in addition to having an angelic first tenor voice, plays “Lady of Spain” on the accordion while Smith, O’Brien, and McAndrews breeze through a panoply of dance steps — ballet, Latin, tap — while crooning, singing opera, mimicking Señor Wences and Topo Gigio, and spinning plates on sticks as “The Saber Dance” plays in the background. Smith has built a reputation for ability in all phases of performance. He proves to be a great dancer and physical comedian while keeping his part as the second tenor in the lovely harmonies. O’Brien handles moments when Smudge is anxious about solo moments with comic aplomb. Dorsey, whether in ensemble or singing solo, impresses with one of the purest and most beautiful voices you’ll ever hear. He gives songs extra feeling because of his sincerity and ability to just croon enchantingly. McAndrews is a good foil to the others. He is the most serious of the Plaids and tries to keep the others in order. Ross has given a lot of plot details, most of which are jokes even if lines and stories are not delivered for laughs. Much of the comedy comes from the Plaids being a musically talented but theatrically inexperienced local group that primarily plays bowling alleys, sock hops, and hotel lounges. Some of the ideas the guys think are clever and some of the byplay within songs would not cut muster. Casey and company fortunately never get too carried away on side shtick. And then there are moments or two that are inspired, such as Dorsey and McAndrews playing slapping spoons in rhythm to get the clink of convict’s chains in the “Chain Gang” number. The comedy is good, the cast is bright, but the singing is glorious. Hearing it, you’d put with any gimmick to see a Plaid show. Heck, if Smith, Dorsey, McAndrews, and O’Brien formed their own quartet, I go to see it with the eagerness with which I await Jeff Coon, Fran Prisco, and J.P. Dunphy’s “Cape May Summer Club.” Stuart Ross knew what he was doing, even with the kitschy comedy, when he put “Forever Plaid” together. Smith, Dorsey, McAndrews, and O’Brien showcase the cleverness and musical acuity of his work. Grade: B+
Shows to come: I Will Not Go Gently, Macbeth, Machinal, My Name is Asher Lev, and Translations.