Monday, May 16, 2011

Nearly There: Hotel Cassiopeia presented by Fort Point Theatre Channel

Hotel Cassiopeia
By Charles Mee

Production Design/Concept by Sylvie Agudelo
Stage Direction by Marc S. Miller
Assistant Director, Christie Lee Gibson
Stage Manager, Aaron Cohen
John Crowley: Set construction
Jennifer Hardy: choreographer
Tanya Kutasz, stage manager
Andrew Neumann: composer
Robin Reilly: costume consultant, set construction
Todd Sargent: lighting design
Nick Thorkelson: set design collaborator, graphic design
Douglas Urbank: film design
Daniel J. van Ackere: set construction, photography
Mark Warhol: sound design

The ensemble
Robert Murphy (appearing courtesy of Actors Equity Association)
Jake Berger
Mary Driscoll
Silvia Graziano
Meredith Stypinski
Allison Vanouse
Rick Winterson

There are many places that I find myself venturing to all over Boston in order to catch a show. I think that’s probably one of my favorite things about doing these reviews. Specifically, I found myself in South Boston at the Channel Center, a small office/restaurant park checking out the Fort Point Theatre Channel's production of Hotel Cassopeia.  The play was written by Charles Mee, a writer best known for his collage like work in his text for the stage. He is inspired by other works and existing texts to create his own interpretations. The story takes a look into the life of artist Joseph Campbell and his relationships with the various people in his life, including famous celebrities of the time and his family members.  Campbell was known for his assemblage type pieces that were essentially interactive wooden boxes or frames that had bits and pieces of found objects, from a time piece, paper, seashells, etc. Whatever he could use was placed in his art. Not having seen anything like it in person, I was going off on what I had read and seen pictures of. It was very fascinating to see what exactly he was trying accomplish. Mee's play is appropriate to tackle Joseph Cornell's life and relationships, as they both share the common ground of assemblage.

The space where the production was presented laid out a lot of different challenges at first glance. Placed in a art gallery type area, it was clear that trying to put on a show in that space was most likely difficult to stage effectively. The obvious issue was the fact that huge pillars obstructed the views of various set pieces. Though the design was a good one and a great idea, specifically a large city skyline, a giant pillar was standing in the way, preventing a much desired view to see more. Again, this is the space the show was in. As for some other pieces of the set, it seemed it was trying to integrate an Art Deco feel, but never going on to expand on it. It was simple enough with chairs, tables and the like, but to see more would’ve created a stronger world. There pieces that were put in that almost felt out a place but would’ve been other complimented if more was added.  Pieces or actual examples of Cornell's work would've added a nice touch as well. Nothing substantial is needed, but enough to give a sense of his mind. It was nice to see some of it included, like papers and a seashell here and there, but again, it couldve have been pushed further. As for the lighting, I appreciated the use of strong colors lighting various walls of the stage. I enjoyed seeing such a nice blue, pink and turquoise, but there were some black spots that were obvious and often when an actor couldn't find their light, it ended up being distracting. Even at certain times, either of emotion or isolation, it would’ve been good to see more specials or a few other colors thrown in. The designs had started a good foundation but more could've been built upon it. As for the costumes, I appreciated the simplicity and the period appropriate feel of the attire.  The red ballerina dresses stood out for obvious reasons, but they were not only well crafted but worked for the show.

As for the direction, I felt the world that was created was almost an assemblage, much like Cornell's work. I appreciated this choice, especially since the text lends itself to so much interpretation.  However, there were times where I felt the blocking ideas were very strong, but there was almost a lack of intention with certain moments.  I wanted to see Cornell showcased more downstage and often felt he wasn't utilized as much as he could’ve been.  Also, there were few moments where various clips of black and white movies that were highlighted.  As I appreciated the usage of film in a stage production, it felt sometimes shoehorned into this production and out of place. As for the sound design, the classical music was an incredibly nice touch and played well to the more emotional moments throughout. The harsher sounds and tones used were a bit too much at times, though and felt anachronistic, not necessarily fitting in. This doesn't take away from the fact that there so many great ideas integrated into the show, but it didn’t seem like they would’ve worked for this one in particular.

The ensemble pulls of some good performances. Robert Murphy's Joseph Cornell is believable enough as an unsure, quiet, soft-spoken kind individual. He carries the show well and he displays a soft demeanor incredibly well. However, with Mees' text, he doesn't expand and build upon what he speaks about and what he’s passionate about. The relationships he has with others, including his ill brother could’ve been a bit deeper, knowing that he had given up so much in order to take care of him. He does it without thinking, knowing he would never regret the decision. As for the rest of the ensemble, everyone else does a great job in establishing various characters. It was very noticeable that even with different characters; each actor interacts with Murphy's Cornell carefully and are aware of their world. Again, the text creates a wonderful opportunity to take characters and moments to varying levels. I felt everyone did a great job in really taking their time with and understanding the words.  In one moment, the roles of the ballerinas are done beautifully and Silvia Graziano, Meredith Stypinski, and Allison Vanouse create three very lighthearted and sweet characters and are a joy to watch on stage. Everyone does a strong job in creating believable and engaging characters.

Again, this particular production presents a very strong foundation. The envelope could've been a pushed more here and there, but the show stands alone on its own two feet incredibly well. The ART has always been known to do these kinds of shows and Fort Point Theatre Channel creates a staged performance art piece that isn’t necessarily in your face about it. I appreciated that their attempt to create this world was filled with so many great ideas. Even though some worked and others didn't work as well, there was an enjoyable night of theatre displayed, filled with strong moments and performances.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Garden of Worlds: Secret Garden

The Secret Garden

Book and Lyrics by Marsha Norman
Music by Lucy Simon

Directed by Kaitlyn Chantry
Music Directed by Jason Luciana

Ben Weatherstaff
Lewis Blair

Madeleine Carbonneau

Lieutenant Wright
Michael Chateauneuf

Neville Craven
Kevin Cirone

Mary Lennox
Lucy Gladstone, Allsun O'Malley

Mrs. Medlock
Jocelyn Hesse

Susan Johnston

Claire Holmes
Heather Karwowski

Lieutenant Shaw
Sam Lathrop

Taylor Lawton

Martha Sowerby
Shonna McEachern

Major Holmes
Aaron Moronez

Colin Craven
Joseph Nedder

Albert Lennox
James Neufeld

Dickon Sowerby
Stephen Piergrossi, Jr.

Pavithra Rajagopalan

Lily Craven
Renee Saindon

Alice / Mrs. Winthrop
Michelle Vachon

Rose Lennox
Eliza Xenakis

Archibald Craven
Matthew Zahnzinger

I managed to catch the opening performance of The Secret Garden presented by The Longwood Players the other night at the Cambridge YMCA. Needless to say, I have never been a huge fan of this particular space because of the ability to actually use the space effectively. Also, the last time I was there, I didn’t recall it being the prettiest of spaces either. However, the night I came to see the show, it looks like the space was recarpeted and repainted giving it a bit more character and it became a hundred times more presentable. I was very impressed.

The musical is based on the famed novel of the same name. The story tells of a young girl named Mary who moves in with her reclusive uncle Archibald Craven in Yorkshire, England. She moves from India since being orphaned after parents were taken during cholera epidemic. She realizes she has to do her best to make do. However, she soon discovers a garden hidden away that only requires some attention to bring it back to its once-thriving self. She quickly befriends her sickly cousin and also enlists help from the various grounds keeping staff to help bring the garden alive. Along the way she learns a great deal about her new world and about herself. As the book focuses more on the children of the story, the musical focuses on the adults, including Archibald and his relationships with others, specifically having a hard time with moving on after losing his wife. The show moves back and forth between the present and past and we learn more about Archibald's state and eventual acceptance of the circumstances placed upon him. We also see Mary grow over the course of the show as well, accepting her new calling. People from the past make their way into their story, giving us a better sense of the world where this takes place.

The score for the show is beautiful. Written by Lucy Simon, it definitely has a very powerful and swelling sound. I appreciate how much of it felt right for the particular era the show fit in. Marsha Norman wrote the book and lyrics and knowing that the basis was the novel, it was obvious that certain liberties were taken, specifically adding or amplifying certain moments. Young Mary had lived in India and it was clear that there was a presence of it throughout the show and it almost felt shoehorned into the actual story itself. It felt tacked on and at times confusing almost changing important moments. Also, the writing also presents a challenge by having the dead from the past be a part of the story. This creates a major issue for costuming and staging, considering its up to audience to figure out who is dead and who is alive out of the ensemble. However, as the overall story is still there and there were some moments, specifically seeing more of Archibald's struggle, were particularly interesting to watch.

Kaitlyn Chantry's direction is unique and well executed. In this production, she knows that YMCA is a small space and does her best to use every bit of it. She creates a community-like world and has all ensemble members present on stage. When a scene comes about where the ensemble must come forth, like the soldiers from India who knew Mary's father, they slip into the scene, and then quickly out. There were some moments it felt, however, that it was sometimes distracting to have everyone on stage when certain action was going on, but not enough to create complete congestion. Various moments with Mary trying to make her way through the rest of the cast worked, as it created a sense of alarm and confusion, which heightened the emotion very well. Music Director Jason Luciana does a great job of keeping the orchestra in tandem with each other. He brings together incredibly talented musicians to create a strong sound. They are neither to quiet nor overwhelming and they bring a subtle feel to the overall score. They are just right in order to help us lose ourselves in the story on stage. They play the softer moments especially beautifully, including "Race You to the Top of the Morning".

As for the cast of the production, everyone did a marvelous job. As a unit, the ensemble sounds wonderful and each player holds their own. Some strong performances included Shonna McEachern, who plays Martha Sowerby the maid, who is a joy to watch. Not only does she play it with a wee bit of sass and the right amount of kindness, she has the pipes to boot. Her song "If I Had A Fine White Horse" is beautifully sung and her Yorkshire accent is done well for the piece. Matthew Zahnzinger plays the brooding and quietly reserved Archibald Craven incredibly well. You see the guilt and sorrow he carries and brings such intensity to his moments. His song "A Bit of Earth" was a highlight of his performance and he plays it simply and you start to see a new side of him. Mary is played by up and coming Allsun O'Malley. She does a great job of carrying the show on her shoulders. She not only has a great interaction with the rest of the cast, but you genuinely see her grow throughout the show. With talent like that at such a young age, she will be one to look out for in future theatre productions around Boston. Each actor in the cast goes to great lengths to create a unique and interesting character. They succeed and bring a noticeably strong chemistry to the stage. When "There's a Girl" swells, the ensembles voices carry through the theatre wonderfully. Many kudos to the cast.

The lighting design uses so many different warm colors and tones that help create this world. One minute there are beautiful reds and oranges that really bring out the feeling of sunlight. The next, each actor has a small candle on a darkened stage during the Storm moments. It was a strong and effective lighting choice that helped convey the story. There is such variation that it brings such a great flavor to the production. The set is a hodgepodge of various items and I appreciated the detail that was implemented. Portraits and other items from the time period are displayed on the walls created an almost pack-rat feel that gave a sense of the disorder Archibald's world was in. Bits of the neglected garden sneaks its way through as well, bringing these worlds together. The costumes fit beautifully as well with the show and are a perfect reflection of the time period. Again, the details are amplified in the show from the soldier’s time period appropriate hats to the earthy tones for various members of the cast. It was a strong choice that not only makes sense for this show, but also blended well with the vision.

The Secret Garden is a classic story of growth, love and family. The Longwood Players create a beautiful production with a strong cast of talented actors. The emphasis of such powerful themes is present and each piece of the production contributes a great deal creating a wonderful visual for the stage. The importance of family is ever present throughout this show and teaches us the lesson that the future can be bright for everyone,  even if we can't see it right away. There is hope. Everything comes together nicely and intertwined in a very unique way, creating a very enjoyable night of theatre.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Decently Done: MIT's 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Producer Jackie Simpson '14
Director Dawn Erickson '07
Music Director Matthew Putnam '09
Vocal Director Danbee Kim '09
Choreographer Dawn Erickson '07
Technical Director Edmund Golaski '99
Stage Manager Christiana Toomey
Set Designer Kelsey Brigance '12
Publicity Manager Kaitlin Burroughs
Publicity Designer Helen O'Keefe '09
Program Designer Daniel Sngiem '12
Lighting Designer Sophie Lee '12
Master Electrician Becky Bianco '12

Chip Zach Barryte '13
Olive Betsy Flowers
Rona Krista Sergi
Marcy Amanda Lazaro
Leaf Rachel Bowens-Rubin 11
Barfee Christopher Puchi
Logainne Jasmine Florentine '11
Mitch Carlos Cardenas '09
Panch Jeffrey "Q" Quinlan

Yet another production has cropped up of "25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" in Massachusetts, specifically with MIT's Musical Theatre Guild. I had seen the show done before, but didn't review it. This was a chance to see a new interpretation and go through my thoughts. The music and Lyrics were by William Finn, best known for his work on "A New Brain" and "Falsettos". The book was written by Rachel Sheinkin. Before I saw the show, I was very familiar with the music and really enjoyed the concept. This was a college production so I wanted to see what direction they took.

The story takes place in the gynamsium of the local middle school where 6 youngsters, played by adults, compete in the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. The characters included William Barfee, or rather BarFAY, who spells out his words first with his foot, Olive, a neglected child whose best friend is the dictionary, Leaf Coneybear, a child of hippies who is easily distracted, Marcy Park, a studious child prodigy, Chip Tolentino, last years straight laced champion, and lastly Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, the youngest and most politically concious speller. To moderate is Putnam County's number one realtor and former champion, Lisa Rona Peretti and Vice Principal Douglas Panch. To help counsel the ones who don't make it through, is ex-con Mitch Mahoney, doing his community service. Guest spellers are invited on the stage and interact with the cast members. The show requires a great deal of improvisation and creative words and spelling.

When I saw the stage, I felt the set was a bit of a let down. Kelsey Brigance's created a simple enough set with bleachers and a table, but that was about it. It never went beyond this concept, as I wouldv'e liked to see more of a dressed set, giving the feel of being in an actual gynamsium. Perhaps a banner or two would've given it a bit more flavor, creating a world to get in to. Sophie Lee's lighting design was at times a bit confusing. I felt at times that colors that were used througout various numbers were thrown in just to give color to a moment, with no real intention behind it. However, it worked for some scenes, though, including the rousing "Pandemonium" where hightened craziness was present, but it lacked consistently throughout the rest of the show. Also, there were several black spots in the lighting which was very distracting. Between that and actors putting themselves in black spots, it took away a great deal from the show.

The performances in the show didn't mesh as well as they could've. Even though everyone is hamming it up and having a good time, one of the more noticable things was the fact the break down's of the vocal parts were poorly assigned. Some people were given parts they couldn't sing as strongly and others were given songs that were challenging due to their ranges. The actors were also given fairly simple choreography but they never really committed to a lot of it at some points, and it felt like they were going through the motions. They did however have a chance to be a little erratic during bigger group numbers, which in some cases worked. Rachel Bowens-Rubin, who was cross cast as Leaf Coneybear plays the role a bit too distracting and erratic. She at least she looks like shes commited to having fun, but she never really establishes a consistent character. Zach Barryte plays Chip Tolentino, who like everyone else, has fun with the role, but brings a tad too much intensity to the character. In his number "My Unfortunate Erection" he is near to the point of yelling, causing the audience to become a little uncomfortable not because of the song itself, but his interpretation of it. Amanda Lazaro's Marcy Park is strongly established and she seems calm but with a underlying frustration, creating a good character choice. However, her number "I Speak Six Languages" lacks a bit of commitment to the movement and vocal strength to carry it throughout. Betsy Flowers' Olive is good as well and she manages to pull off a nice sweet individual who you feel for lack of parent attention. During her number "The I Love You Song" she in her own touching way, loses herself with the vision of her parents, desiring only to be united with them. Jeffrey "Q" Quinlan plays a simple enough Panch, but doesn't really tell us what kind of character he is. Though he has good comedic timing, he is a bit repetitive in his on stage choices. Jasmine Florentine's Logainne gives a decent performance as a politically concious child who struggles with her own overbearing two dads. She sings it well and gives us a solid journey. Krista Sergi's Rona Lisa Peretti is played sweetly and you feel that she is truely a caring and loving individual. She is assertive in her attitude. Carlos Cardenas plays the silent and intimidating Mitch Mahoney extremely well, who deep down is a bit of a softie. He carries his own number "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor" with killer pipes, utter confidence and joy. Christopher Puchi pulls off a triple threat that is Barfee. He is clearly comfortable in the role, full of confidence and silliness and is fearless showing off his crisp dancing and singing in "Magic Foot". Even though there was a split between stronger and softer singers, evert actor clearly had fun with their characters as it showed throughout.

Dawn Erickson's direction at times made sense, specifically bringing characters throughout the audience as well as having the guest spellers be pulled into various dance numbers. However, there should have been a bit more work with character development, as it felt some actors were given free range and not being pulled back. She does a good job of bringing it all together but at many times the attention was pulled away because of sudden choices by the actors during pivotal scenes. At several points, the production lacked the strength and potential to amplify simpler moments and often had too much for the moments that were meant to be savored. As far as the music, Music Director Matt Putnam chose to rewrite a lot of the score which seemed odd at the time, but he and his orchestra manage to pull off a strong sound. As they were loud even behind a curtain, they often overwhelmed the actors. There were also sound issues with the speller's microphone, which was somewhat distracting as well.

Despite the shows weaker moments, the production is decently done. The cast and crew clearly had a great time pulling it all together. MIT's production was full of heart and a lot of effort was put in to create a fun evening for the audience.