Archive for May, 2017

At the 2017 IRNE Awards

May 21, 2017

Photo:

By Robert Israel

The Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE) held their 21st annual celebration of all that is praiseworthy in Boston’s theater community on April 24 at the Brookline Holiday Inn. An annual rite of spring, the event is noisy and raucous. The capacity crowd, fueled by toxic libations at two well-stocked bars, is unruly. Boisterous enthusiasts greet each of the winners – you can read the list of winners posted here — with huzzahs and catcalls as they sashay up to the podium to receive their awards.

I am a voting member of IRNE. Each spring the IRNE award night caps a year of reporting and reviewing the Boston area’s many offerings of theatrical brilliance. As such, I am only one voice among several critics who judge the productions we’ve seen in a search of that elusive blend of derring-do, talent, and stagecraft that goes into making each theatrical production – from large, well-financed companies to smaller, ragtag troupes — vibrant and memorable. The annual awards night is our collective way of applauding how proud we are to be living in such a lively, ever-changing, and growing artistic community.

IRNE critics argue among themselves regarding what we think are the best, the brightest, and the most award worthy of these dozens and dozens of productions. Given the plethora of troupes and performers, there is no way any one critic can see them all. The list of nominees, it seems, grows longer each year. This year we had to return to to the negotiating table to break several tie votes among the categories. And while some who attended the award ceremony criticized us (vocally!) for not seeing all the shows on the docket, there is no human way any of us can. We grapple with the difficulty of this issue each year as we hunker down to make our final selections.

Highlights of the award ceremony included presenting the Solo Award to the outstanding actor Eugene Lee for How I Learned What I Learned, August Wilson’s autobiographical ramble staged by the Huntington Theatre Company, and Milk Like Sugar, also staged at the Huntington. Local playwright Kirsten Greenidge’s script paid homage to August Wilson, capturing the confused lives of a group of Gloucester, Massachusetts teens who had joined together in a “pregnancy pact.” And SpeakEasy Stage Company’s riveting production of Scottsboro Boys was the big winner: the production walked away with the most awards including best set design, costume lighting, projection, sound, choreography…you get the idea: the whole shebang.

There was a special shout-out to the late Derek Wolcott, Nobel laureate, poet, dramatist, and Boston University professor who died last year, and a pause to remember the late playwright Edward Albee.

The evening would not have been complete without some lobbying by the publicists in attendance who greeted me in the reception area among the tipsy revelers, asking when I might attend their upcoming shows. Boston’s theatrical offerings are a Mobius strip: there is never an end, only new openings on the horizon, and it’s exhausting and exhilarating all at once, and it’s what we do — year after year.

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Review: “Bridges of Madison County”

May 21, 2017

The Bridges of Madison County, book by Marsha Norman, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Directed by M. Bevin O’Gara. Musical direction by Matthew Stern. Staged by SpeakEasy Stage Company, Boston Center for the Arts, Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA, through June 3.

Photo:

By Robert Israel

Bridges was first conceived as a novel (by Robert James Waller), next adapted into a  successful Hollywood film (starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep), and finally morphed into a Broadway musical (where it won two Tony Awards). Throughout all its various incarnations, this sexual soaper for the middle-aged set drew audiences to its oh-so-lovelorn bosom by dramatizing the struggle adults face when forced to decide between staid domesticity and raging passion.

And the best moments (and there are a number of them) in the SpeakEasy Stage production aptly huzzah the transcendent power of love, the company’s ensemble of twelve players generating considerable theatrical power out of the need for a deep emotional connection. But there are episodes,  well intentioned as they may be, that fail to rise about the musical’s stilted dialog and the staging’s smattering of wooden performances.

Francesca (Jennifer Ellis), an Italian WWII bride, settles for married life on an Iowa farm with husband Bud (Christopher Chew) and their two children, Michael (Nick Siccone) and Carolyn (Katie Elinoff). Life back in the urban crush of Naples wasn’t all that scintillating, but there was at least the possibility of amorous adventure. The wide-open flatlands of the American Midwest, with its spying neighbors and grain silos, is an emotional non-starter.

Along comes heartthrob Robert (Christiaan Smith), a weary National Geographic photographer who has been assigned the task of photographing all the covered bridges in the county where Francesca and her brood reside. The idea is that sparks fly when they meet; the pair generate a bonfire of desire. While her family is away at a state fair, they tumble abed. The trouble with the SpeakEasy Stage production is that the two lead actors can, only build up to a low simmer; their singing voices may be rapturous, but their onstage chemistry is severely lacking.

Adding buckets of cold water to the wet blanket is the book by veteran playwright Marsha Norman, whose lame dialog sometimes sounds as if it came out of the New England Primer. Yes, Robert is your standard issue repressed male. (Should we blame his dribble of monosyllables on overwork and/or the failure of his marriage?) But there is nothing here that gives us the feeling that underneath Robert’s unruffled surface writhes inflamed passione d’amore. When the adulterous couple finally do embrace — after agonizing scenes of petrified blather — their furtive groping comes off as forced. Later, as they lie together at center stage – in flagrante – and yank a blanket over their entwined torsos, they look like a pair of driftwood logs or lava rocks that cooled off eons ago.

By the second act, the encounters warm up a bit, and the theme of making the right choices – should a married woman abandon her family and run off with the worldly photographer? – is pushed front and center. It drums up some fantasy/ethical interest: Should we live a lie? Or run off with a heartthrob, leaving behind the life we have established in our adopted land? There are no easy answers, sacrifices must be made, and the musical goes to great lengths to successfully articulate this dilemma, if falling into a moralistic lockstep. We make compromises with the mate we choose — security means making due with the rewards at hand.

M. Bevin O’Gara’s direction is agreeably hands-off; she never judges the infidelities of the lovers, letting us draw our own ethical conclusions. The musical direction by Matthew Stern – with the musicians tucked away unobtrusively at stage left – works splendidly. There are wonderful comic turns by SpeakEasy Stage veterans Will McGarrahan (Charlie) and Kerry A. Dowling (Marge), who show us that a married life that endures over the decades need not be seen as deadening, when there’s plain speaking, humor, and extra slices of cake. When it comes down to it, The Bridges of Madison County insists that there is more than one way to seize the day.

So, while the material’s supposed steamy romance is a damp squib, the talented SpeakEasy Stage ensemble offers enough harmonious pizazz to make up for the erotic fizzle.