Posts Tagged ‘musicals’

Theater Review (Boston): Adding Machine: A Musical at Speakeasy Stage

Friday, March 26th, 2010

My sojourn in Boston has given me, not for the first time, the opportunity to see a show that was well-received in a major New York production that I missed. So, while I can't compare Speakeasy's production of Adding Machine: A Musical to the multi-award-winning New York version, I can say that it's a demanding, rewarding, complex, beautiful piece of work. It's graced with a marvelous cast and a rich depth of talent, from the musicians and costumes to the lighting and sound and everything in between.

Basing their work on Elmer Rice's Expressionist play from 1923, creators Joshua Schmidt and Jason Loewith have accomplished a number of things with Adding Machine: A Musical. One is solving the puzzle of how to put numbers into song with style. Schmidt, a skilled sound designer as well as a composer, sets the tone with the prologue and its precision timing. The cast hammers through a day in the life of a retailer's accounting department circa 1923 with robotic determination but all-too-human frustration.

"In numbers," goes the message, "the mystery of life can be revealed." Full of difficult intervals and polyrhythms, the music crescendos to a nightmarish peak; then, suddenly, all the noise drops away and the focus comes down to two people, a bean-counter and sagging Everyman named Zero (Brendan McNab), and his assistant, the comely but slightly blowsy Daisy.

And then Mr. Zero comes home, where he silently endures the chatter and criticism of his frustrated wife, whose plaint, "I want to go downtown," epitomizes her clotted dissatisfaction with her constricted middle-class life. Amelia Broome delivers the intricately metered quasi-operatic number in spectacular fashion. This is difficult music but she, along with the rest of the cast, makes it look easy throughout. Away from the wife, Zero is relieved: "I dream in figures/They don't ask questions of me." It doesn't hurt that Schmidt and Loewith have crafted Rice's original words into melodies and meters that seem to pulse and rise and fall with the rhythm of thought, even when those thoughts are about the comfort of numbers.

The music doesn't always follow the rhythms of natural speech, however, and that too is fitting. In an Expressionist piece, traditional plot and naturalistic dialogue are often sacrificed so that the characters may express their psychologies more directly, closer to the heart, if less "realistically." And the psychologies of these people are frightfully disturbed. Everything about the production mirrors the psychosocial difficulties of the times, so much like ours, in which "profit is the ultimate goal." New ways of thinking and measuring were replacing the old – symbolized by the adding machine of the title, which, as it happens, is putting Mr. Zero out of a job.

I looked back into history and was surprised to realize that Rice's original play predates both Fritz Lang's classic Expressionist film Metropolis and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, not to mention Sartre's No Exit. Unlike some machine age classics, The Adding Machine has humor, preserved here in a number of scenes, easing the grimness of the tale. But like them, it's no walk in the park. In fact there's not a touch of green anywhere (and no sign of the existence of any children). From the ghastly red and white stripes of the cold opening to the featureless white of the afterlife, nothing has warmth and true meaning, except numbers, which can't love you back. Only in Daisy's blooming name – Daisy Dorothea Devore, in full – is there any promise of life.

But a name isn't enough; brazen violence is the only way Zero can escape his soul-numbing predicament. Two of the other main characters also use extreme measures to break free, including Shrdlu (the intense and golden-voiced John Bambery), a passionate young man Zero meets in prison. A suffocating piety was Shrdlu's own pre-prison prison, and he has thought long and hard about right and wrong, but nothing gets decided here.

On trial for his own crime, Zero cries out in stark melody, "I'm like anyone else/What would you do?" There's no adequate answer, and he gets none. Yet when confronted with something that looks like salvation, and even love, he's overcome by disgust and rejects the existential "freedom" on offer and its embodiment in love in the person of Daisy (the wonderful Liz Hayes, who, incidentally, does a fabulous working-class Barbra Streisand).

In 1984, Orwell's lovers Winston and Julia are doomed by the police state; but Rice's Zero and Daisy get clobbered by Zero's own misguided conscience. In a way it's even more sad. Frustration seems to await no matter what, and in the powerful climactic scene, a lurid assembly line of souls offers, again, no way out.

Somehow, through the magic of theater, this bleak and barren story becomes an astonishingly refreshing and rewarding experience. Beautifully acted and sung, and sensitively directed by Paul Melone, with music brilliantly performed by a band of three led by pianist Steven Bergman, it's a triumph. Don't miss it. It runs through April 10 at the Boston Center for the Arts. Visit the Speakeasy Stage website for tickets, or call the box office at 617-933-8600.

Photos by Mark L. Saperstein.

Theater Review (Boston): [title of show]

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

[title of show], the little musical that referenced itself all the way to a 2008 Broadway run, is enjoying a solid New England premiere in a SpeakEasy Stage production at the Boston Center for the Arts.

Originally, Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics) and Hunter Bell (book) played themselves in the process of creating, revising, expanding, and taking to ever-greater heights the show itself, with the help of two actress friends. The self-referentiality is constant and provides much of the meat of the show: ("Susan, you're quiet." "Well, I didn't have a line until now"…"It's OK, Larry, we worked it out with the union so you can talk.") Cute, clever, and different, the show also boasted some of the best theatrical lyric writing that's come along in a while, along with much comedy, many (perhaps a couple too many) in-jokes, and, mercifully, almost no schmaltz.

Does the show work outside the city of its birth? This production proves that it can. The struggle to create something new, to express oneself, and to touch people is universal; New York just happens to be a place with an unusually large concentration of people with an inexplicable desire to do so through theater.

Happily, the Boston version has two gifted musical comedy performers at its center. Jordan Ahnquist and Joe Lanza furrow and shimmy their way through a lighthearted yet soulful dramatization of friendship and the creative process, with agility, panache, and musicality. Both have the ability to command the stage without hamming (though Mr. Lanza is a more than credible ham when he wants to be).

Val Sullivan and Amy Barker as Susan and Heidi give the boys a run for their money in grace and charm (and acting chops). Their voices, though, especially Ms. Barker's, were on the weak side; perhaps it was an amplification or monitoring issue, but there were also some intonation problems during four-part harmony sections. These flaws marred a few of the musical numbers a bit. However, Ms. Sullivan milked the wackiness of her role to very funny effect, and Ms. Barker sparkled in her more straightforward part. And the sterling, deadpan work of music director Will McGarragan, behind the piano as Larry, shouldn't go unmentioned either.

It's not an especially long show, but it feels a little pudgy around the middle to me. I found myself growing a little impatient with how quotidian it gets at times. The whole concept is that it's a show about the trials, tribulations, and details of producing a show, right down to the filling out of forms; but these bouts of musicalized realism now and then interrupted the dramatic arc of the story, such as it is, and grew a tiny bit tiresome.

Nonetheless, overall it's a delightful evening of theater, with loads of energy, sprightly staging by director Paul Daigneault, smart and boisterous choreography by David Connolly, and very well-executed technicals, including impressive sound (Aaron Mack) and lighting (Jeff Adelberg) and Seághan McKay's perfectly timed projections. Most of all, the whole cast, and especially the two brilliant leads, take us on a joyful, funny, and refreshing ride.

[title of show] runs through Feb. 13 at the Boston Center for the Arts. Ticket prices vary; visit the website or call 617-933-8600.

Photo: Todd H. Page

Cabaret Review: The Truth About Love…and the Usual Lies with Jessica Medoff and Michael Bunchman

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

Like the prose poem, the art song can seem a neglected foster child. A song but not a pop song, it typically has the musical sophistication and seriousness we associate with the great traditions of classical and romantic music, but its subject matter can be frothy as well as fiery, humorous as easily as heavy. But American composers like Aaron Copland and Charles Ives are generally better known for instrumental or choral works than for their art songs, while even many classical music lovers may not know Franz Schubert's stunning song cycle Winterreisse, an important progenitor of the genre.

Soprano Jessica Medoff, the fabulous Sorceress in Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas a year ago, showcased another side of her ability in The Truth About Love…and the Usual Lies. Weaving art songs and show tunes together, she and her husband, the very talented pianist Michael Bunchman, presented a song cycle of their own on the inexhaustible subject of love. While I know a bit about art songs, something about musical theater, and even some Schubert, I cheerfully admit I didn't recognize many of the selections. Cheerfully because it made the show edifying as well as enjoyable. I wasn't familiar with Copland's settings of poems by Emily Dickinson, and here was the lovely "Heart we will forget him." I didn't know the American composer William Bolcom's witty ditty "Toothbrush Time" – here it was. Another revelation: Jason Robert Brown's "Stars and the Moon."

A highlight for me was Kurt Weill's "Surabaya Johnny," a hyper-passionate wail that can really take the measure of a singer; Ms. Medoff was all over that thing like a hungry lioness. "I Don't Care Much" from Cabaret was equally intense in a quieter way. To lighten the mood we had the very funny "Taylor the Latte Boy" together with its answer, "Taylor's Response" (sung artfully by Mr. Bunchman from the piano). The overrated Avenue Q has given us one lasting tune, the plaintively sweet "There's a Fine, Fine Line," sung by Ms. Medoff with understated sensitivity.

One remarkable thing about the show is the two performers' seamless connection; it's as if they can read each others' minds, piano and voice flowing together in perfect sympathy. This makes just about any song they perform something more than the sum of its parts. It reminded me of seeing a longstanding piano trio or string quartet, or a singing group consisting of siblings – a conductorless ensemble breathing together as if one creature. During the quietest passages the piano occasionally drowned out the voice, but this was not the performers' fault. The operatically-trained Ms. Medoff has a finely calibrated control, equally steady from pianissimo to fortissimo, and the program showed off her range without going overboard. The purpose wasn't to impress (or didn't come across that way), but to amuse and delight, and maybe introduce us to some unfamiliar but very worthwhile material. And that it did.

The duo has put together a few such cabaret cycles. If you have an opportunity to see this one, or anything else they do, grab it!