Sunday, May 5, 2013

One Night In Cambridge Makes A Great Night of Theatre: The Longwood Players Present: "Chess"

Music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeu
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Book by Richard Nelson

Directed by Kaitlyn Chantry
Music Directed by Stephen Peters

"Chess" is an incredibly well-know show in the musical theatre arena, with its setting, overall tone and musicality. Developed by lyricist Tim Rice, ABBA band members Benny Andersson and Bj√∂rn Ulvaeu, it was initially created as a concept album. Rice had done the same with his previous works "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" and "Jesus Christ Superstar". Later, the show premiered in the mid 80s with the book written by Richard Nelson.  Now a full-fledged production, many theatre companies acorss the world have produced this famed show.  More recently, The Longwood Players in Cambridge opened their production so it was definitely worth checking out.

Taking place during the Cold War Era, "Chess" examines the story of the character simply know as the "The American" defending his championship world Chess title against another, known as "The Russian". The American brings his number 2, Florence, with him to his match, but along the way, certain events occur and like pieces on a Chess board, moves and machinations are made that culminate in an unexpected turn of events, where love, anger and pride come to a head.

The score by Andersson and Ulvaeu is strong, as it contains the tone and feel of their past work in ABBA. However, it's more over-the-top and powerful, specifically in the opening number "Merano". Despite its power in some parts, its uneven and inconsistent. As the music was initially part of a concept album, it truly feels disjointed and lacks cohesion in certain areas. Despite a few missteps, the score is astounding and powerful.  The lyrics and book are on the weaker side, as the dialogue could have easily replaced the singing exposition. The story is difficult to follow and to have the subject material examining Chess, it's hard to stay with the show.  The story seems very much like a "paint by numbers" plot, and feels like it goes through the motions of a generic story. Even though the music and plot had some questionable moments, Longwood does manage to make the most of it and put on a great production and kept it engaging.

The performances across the board were incredibly strong. Kevin Hanley's American is full of wonderful swagger and carries himself with such astounding confidence. His pipes dominate and his charisma is astounding, specifically in "Pity the Child 2", he simply owns it, bringing new levels to the character. Rachel Savage is wonderfully strong and powerful as Florence. She rocks her song "Nobody's Side" as her voice carries through the space.  She brings wonderfully tender yet deep moments to the show. Athan Mantalos' Russian is excellent as well. With such a strong voice, specifically in "Where I Want To Be", he not only has a wonderful grasp on the character, but moments of quiet vulnerability shine through, giving some great depth to his journey. The ensemble, as well as the other characters embroiled in the story, give solid performances. With a choral and epic feel, they are simply wonderous in their moments, continuously bringing the production to new heights. "One Night in Bangkok" is of course a winner for all as well, enabling a rocking good time.

The technical aspects of the production were good in some moments, but it never really added or took away from everything. It didn't hurt the show, but it did contribute all that much. The set was black and white, as it should be, but there were pieces that never really functioned beyond assisting in lighting and setting a few places throughout the show. The lighting was the same, but in some scenes it did have great tones and warm colors that made many things pop. Kaitlyn Chantry's direction was executed well enough, having the orchestra lifted above as well as some strong movements that really gave the production some unique flavor.  Like the set, however, some sections did not necessarily hurt anything, but was difficult to get on board with. Having the Conductor towards upstage was distracting sometimes, especially during deeper moments in scenes. However, the placement was a strong choice, as orchestra and music direction were great, and didn't overpower anyone.   In staging, some minor issues were scattered throughout, but one moment, "Embassy Lament", gave off a Monty Python-esque feel, thus bringing forth a marvelous display of humor and character.  Again, nothing hurt the show, and overall, everything worked well. It was cohesive and it was an incredibly well-put together show.

"Chess" is quite the musical, as it deals with interesting subject material, which is fairly poignant.  Its score and book were uneven, but it still offers the opportunity to put on a great show. The Longwood Players did a fantastic job in performances and with the overall production.  There a few minor issues, but it did not dim the wonderful work and display of great theatre.  Kudos to cast and crew for an excellent show. It is definitely worth checking out.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Unsure And Aching To Be More: Wakefield Repertory Theatre Presents: Lucky Stiff

Lucky Stiff

Director: Samantha Gambaccini
Music Director: Shawn Gelzleichter
Choreographer: Marissa Geller

Music: Stephen Flaherty
Book and Lyrics: Lynn Ahrens

"Lucky Stiff", based on the book "The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo" by Michael Butterworth, is the first musical coming from lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty.   Both have collaborated on a array of shows since this one, each more different then the last. "Ragtime", "Seussical" and "A Man of No Importance" are just a few of the shows they have cranked out.  Wakefield Repertory Theatre recently opened their production of "Lucky Stiff", so a night of theatre was in order to experience the show that started it all.

The show follows the journey of the meek Harry Witherspoon, an English shoe salesman, as he gets wrapped in an unexpected series of events. His long-lost Uncle Anthony's will dictates that Harry will inherit 6 million dollars if he takes the corpse in a wheelchair of said relative to Monte Carlo to experience the sights and sounds in this post-mortem state.  As if this premise is not enough, Uncle Anthony's jilted nearsighted lover Rita, who he abandoned before he died, hears of the inheritance and convinces her optometrist brother Vinnie to accompany her to Monte Carlo to steal back the money. As another piece to this crazy adventure, Ms. Annabel Glick, a representative of a home for dogs, follows him to make sure he meets the demands of the will or the money will be donated to her cause. Along the way, a cast of zany characters are thrown in, thus culminating in twists and turns in this ridiculous plot.

The score is by no means spectacular but it is solid.  As the show is meant to take place in the 80s, Ahrens and Flaherty don't go for the cheap, synthy pop music, but rather present a tamer and rather catchy alternative.  The music is good and creates a nice atmosphere.

Performance wise, not a lot of the actors really stood out. Whether it was a combination of the lack of energy, or the material itself, it felt that much of the cast was going through the motions.  Adam Shuler's Witherspoon had a few fun comedic moments, but it didn't seem as though he could carry the show and his character arc as well as he could have.  Annabell Glick, played by AnneMarie Alvarez was a little more engaging, but her performance at times felt flat and one dimensional. Granted, much of the book could contribute to that, but their interaction with each other was thin and not very exciting. On the flip side, Greg Cushing's Vinne and Susan Austin's Rita had many more strong comedic bits that worked very well. Their chemistry and onstage relationship was good and it was nice to see them have a little fun in their roles. Austin does a great job with the song "Fancy Meeting You Hear", hamming it up a bit, giving a nice high point to the show. Combined with a few bold and funny bits with the ensemble, performances were quite uneven. It is also possible the actors desired to do more on stage as well, as it felt that they could have pushed some performances a bit further.

Samantha Gambaccini's direction was a bit underwhelming.  There was a severe lack of decent blocking during the production.  In several moments, perhaps mostly in the first act, there was not a lot happening on stage. There were awkward moments as the actors could have been doing more.  The choreography by Marissa Geller fell short as well, as there was no real stand out moments. Granted, the show probably doesn't need a lot of choreography, but the movement was lacking in real imagination. The space the production was in was small, so in the respect of using it well, both Gambacini and Geller deserve strong marks.  Music Director Shawn Gelzleichter and his pit sounded strong, though, peeking through as a good moment for the show.  Despite a few sound issues, they sounded clean and in tandem. There was a fairly straight forward set, lighting and costume design, therefore technically it was good in some parts and uneven in others. Some moments it was unclear where people were in different scenes, but with others, whether in an apartment or on a subway, it worked well. Creatively and technically, it was hit and miss.

The show was on the brink of being a bit more, especially with a few performances and direction. There was a great deal of weaker moments that plagued the production, but a few smaller bits that managed to help the show move along. Wakefield Repertory Theatre's production of "Lucky Stiff" had some heart, but it could have easily been pushed futher.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Aching and Dreaming to be More: Next Door Theater Presents: Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard

Book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber

Directed by James Tallach
Designed by Brian Milauskas
Music Directed by Maria Duaime

Andrew Lloyd Webber strikes again with a massive musical, this time taking on Hollywood during the 40s and 50s. Based on the film "Sunset Boulevard", the story focuses Norma Desmond, a faded star of the silent film era living in her decaying mansion where in Hollywood, "talkies" are gaining traction. She accidentally crosses paths with Joe Gillis, a young screenwriter whose career is nearly on the rocks as well. She seizes an opportunity to use him to bring her screenplay based on the story of Salome to the screen, marking her great return. Along the way, twists, turns, tragedy and of course, unexpected events result in this culmination of colliding characters. Next Door presented their production on a much smaller scale, when the show usually is done in a larger capacity.  It would be interesting and worthwhile to see a new and ambitious choice.

Webber's score is a memorable one, and with many of his shows, most of it is sung through with very little dialogue.  It has strong notes throughout and still maintains a seedy and complicated view into this world.  However, as it is sung through, many of the lines sung could have easily been spoken. The lines that were spoken were far and few in between, therefore the strong difference was noticeable.  Though noticing the potential of the massive scale of the music, as it seems in this production, a larger orchestra and an especially larger space could have been better. The story and music ached for a larger outing. As for the story itself, despite its presence in the space, is tragic, terrifying, chock full of plot twist and unexpectedly beautiful.

The show is presented in a smaller space that took away from the overall feel of the show sometimes.  The grandeur of Hollywood was begging to come out.  The show didn't necessarily work for the space, but a strong effort was made, which was commendable. James Tallach's direction was a tad on the muddled side.  Granted, he used the space as best as he could, but keeping the actors at bay and not allowing them to explore the space as much as they could weakened the production.  The quintessential "park and bark" technique was used constantly, perhaps too much, causing the some performances to fall short.   Even the musical direction could have been stronger. Aside from the lack of real meat behind the orchestra pit, severe sound issues plagued the production.  Again, the size space and lack of grandeur contributed of the majority of issues.

The performances in the show were somewhat uneven.  Kevin Cirone's Joe Gillis, the screenwriter thrown into Shana Dirik's Norma Desmond's world, acted and sung the part well enough, but did not have the charisma to carry his arc as the character.  He did not have the qualities of the leading man and lacked the muddled and subconscious desperation that plagued Joe.  Shonna Cirone's Betty had the pipes to carry the role, but whether it be due to poor writing on the book's part, she was by no means as engaging as she could be. Moments between her and Joe lacked real chemistry and when they performed "Too Much in Love to Care", they appeared to be incredibly disinterested in each other.  They did have cute moments earlier in the show with "Girl Meets Boy", but their eventual union was disappointing. The ensemble did not bring nearly as much as they could to the production. Individually, none of them necessarily stood out, but as a whole they all seemed like they were going through the motions. However, when the men performed "The Lady's Paying" they were having fun with it and really showed off a great combined talent. The women also go to show off in "Eternal Youth Is Worth a Little Suffering", they all carried the number together incredibly well. The winners of the evening were Shana Dirik's Norma and Pete Adams' Max. Shana gives an astounding performance as the fading starlet, giving true moments as "tragically beautiful".  She not only channeled the grandeur of the character, but sang everything beautifully, especially during "New Ways to Dream".  Adams carries his role equally well, with subtle love and dedication to his Norma.  His moment with "The Greatest Star of All" is heartbreaking and wonderful at the same time. They each carried the show strongly.

Technically, the show had a nice feel. Brian Milauskas' design gave a great sense of the degradation and lost relic feel that mirrored Norma's current state.  However, some tinges of the old days of Hollywood, i.e. bits of Art Deco could have been splashed in.  However, the look worked in the space.  Even the lighting design was strong, with great colors and tones that gave a nice look to the overall production.  One issue was the use of strobe light.  The thought to use it for transitional pieces to emulate an old projector was a good one, but it did not necessarily work.  It was distracting and felt more like a party than a theatrical production. The costumes were quite impressive, though specifically Norma seemed that she received the bulk of the attention. Her impressive gowns and furs were the centerpiece, but as she is the star, it makes sense to have her appear that grand.

Lacking the potential size and feel of what the show could be really effected this particular production.  Choosing such a naturally large and grand show for a smaller space was a questionable choice.  Granted, it was a strong and incredibly ambitious choice for Next Door to make, which they deserve full marks for. But again, a handful of great performances and uneven moments make this a weak and somewhat disappointing version of the show.