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November 19, 2009

Avenue Q: It’s an Impudent Day in the Neighborhood

Return engagement of the national tour of the smash hit “Avenue Q” is as sweet, sassy, and sensational as ever, bringing its adult-themed spin on puppets and children’s shows back to Boston for one week only

Puppets and porn may be strange bedfellows, but in the delightfully irreverent Tony Award-winning musical Avenue Q, now at Boston’s Colonial Theatre for one week through November 22, this naughtily clever clash of childhood and the terrible twenties comes across as a perfect match. It’s the raucous intersection of Sesame Street and Hell’s Kitchen, where Gary Coleman is Mr. Rogers and the neighborhood bullies are the Bad Idea Bears.

In this deliciously saucy tale of sweet but as yet unsuccessful misfits, the newest arrival to Avenue Q is Princeton, a fresh-faced college grad searching for a job, a purpose, and perhaps a girlfriend.Kate Monster and Princeton He is welcomed by Kate Monster, the lovelorn assistant kindergarten teacher longing to open her own school. Neighbors Nicky, a well-meaning slacker, and Rod, an uptight Republican investment banker, share an apartment and a secret that is as obvious to everyone as the 1940s musicals that Rod adores. Trekkie is a grouch of a Monster who seldom leaves his apartment because he’s addicted to internet porn. Human neighbors are Brian, an unemployed comic, and Christmas Eve, a Japanese-born social worker with no clients but two much touted advanced degrees. As a couple they somehow manage to keep love alive despite their very different levels of ambition.

In this NYC low-rent district where the local bar’s main attraction is a lounge singer named Lucy T. Slut, puppets and people learn life’s difficult lessons as if they were residents on some kind of perversely funny children’s TV show. Whimsical instructional songs like “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “The More You Ruv Someone” mix infectious simple-sounding melodies with cynical or sexually charged lyrics. Television screens drop down at opportune moments to teach hilariously twisted meanings to serious words like purpose and commitment. Bawdiness co-exists comfortably with innocence, tantalizing and charming at the same time. One minute R-rated puppet love causes howls of laughter during “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want” and the next minute the yearning, dream-like “Fantasies Come True” elicits sighs and moistens the eyes.

The actor/puppeteers are uniformly skilled and disarming doing double and sometimes triple duty animating their sewn together selves while singing in cartoon-like styles.They Live on Avenue Q They alternate between multiple characters rapidly, often within the same scene, effectively giving voice and life to their puppets while conveying quicksilver human emotions of their own. After a while it becomes hard to know where the person ends and the terry cloth facsimile begins. Puppets and personalities are that well defined.

Especially affecting are Brent Michael DiRoma as Princeton/Rod and Jacqueline Grabois as Kate Monster/Lucy. DiRoma switches effortlessly between the impatient young dreamer that is Princeton and the lonely nervous wreck that is Rod. Grabois, whose heart is worn palpably on her sleeve as Kate but somewhere more closely to her cleavage as Lucy, delivers two of the best “straight” numbers in the show. As Kate she conveys all the bitter sadness of one who is jilted in “A Fine, Fine Line” while as Lucy she turns the tables and vamps jazzily during “Special.” Her slouched posture and lack of confidence as the Monster contrast sharply with the erect shoulders and swiveling hips of the wanton beauty.

Jason Heymann is alternately endearing, gruff, and devilish as Nicky, Trekkie Monster, and the instigating Bad Idea Bear. Ensemble member Keri Brackin shows her versatility as the second Bear, Trekkie’s demonstrative right arm, Cast Members of Avenue Qand “stand-in” for either Lucy or Kate whenever both are on stage. Tim Kornblum is a lovable lug as the not-at-all-hard-working Brian, and Lisa Helmi Johanson is alternately sweet and shrewish as the too helpful therapist Christmas Eve.

As former child star Gary Coleman, Nigel Jamaal Clark finds the sharp-tongued wit and hard-won wisdom of someone who has fallen publicly from grace. He lends a knowing calm to the insecure tenants around him, guiding them to accept the fact that their problems are only “For Now.”

Avenue Q is a deceptively touching musical about life, love and humanity packaged in a hilarious adult homage to children’s television. The overall effect may seem deliberately simple, but behind the scenes cast and crew are operating on all cylinders. Hard work and split-second timing make a visit to this neighborhood a beautiful experience. Won’t you be their friends?

PHOTOS BY JOHN DAUGHTRY: Kate Monster/Jacqueline Grabois and Princeton/Brent Michael DiRoma; the cast of Avenue Q: Tim Kornblum as Brian, Nigel Jamaal Clark as Gary Coleman, Nicky/Jason Heymann, Princeton/Brent Michael DiRoma, Keri Brackin, Kate Moster/Jacqueline Grabois, Rod (in back), and Lisa Helmi Johanson as Christmas Eve; Keri Brackin/Nicky/Jason Heymann and Nigel Jamaal Clark


November 11, 2009

A Road Weary “Fiddler on the Roof”

A grandfatherly Topol is a kinder, gentler Tevye in this “farewell tour” of Stein, Bock and Harnick’s enduring musical masterpiece about the delicate balance of tradition and change.

Acclaimed international actor Topol may not be as robust a Tevye as he once was when he starred in the movie version of Fiddler on the Roof some 37 years ago. Topol in Fiddler on the RoofBut that didn’t stop an adoring audience from leaping to its feet and cheering when the 74-year-old legend took his solo bow on opening night at the Opera House in Boston last week. Starring in a “farewell tour” of the beloved musical that made the Golden Globe Award winner and Academy Award nominee famous, Topol has replaced his former peacock swagger with rueful winks and gestures, his younger irreverent bluster with reluctantly accepting sighs. But what he may lack in vigor he now makes up for with hard-won wisdom. Less clownish and more deeply feeling than in his earlier days, Topol’s current Tevye exudes a palpable world-weary humanity. Visibly tired and deliberately slow moving, he now seems to be carrying the weight of Anatevka on his shoulders.

For the most part this sadder, more somber Fiddler makes Joseph Stein’s book, based on the stories of Sholom Aleichem, even more touching and timeless than ever. We feel and see the effects of the crushing oppression of Tsarist Russia in the hunched backs and fretted brows of work-a-day turn-of-the-20th-century Jews whose faith keeps them optimistic as they scratch out a living in their little village on the edge of extinction. We ache for both the elders and the youths as they each struggle to balance the onslaught of change with the importance of tradition. We also marvel at the power of love as it flourishes amidst war, poverty and revolution, bridging generations, politics, and even steadfast religious beliefs.

The glorious score by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock is as always irresistible, expressing the hopes and fears of a steadfast people in clever and evocative words and music. From Tevye’s rousing opening prologue “Tradition” to the company’s dirge-like farewell “Anetevka,” Fiddler is as musically and ethnically rich as it ever was. Winsome daughters Hodel (Jamie Davis), Chava (Deborah Grausman) and Tzeitel (Rena Strober) give a spirited and delightfully fresh shine to “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” turning danced with string mops into dreaded fantasy husbands hand picked by the intrusive Yente (a happily overbearing Mary Stout). The tailor Motel (Erik Liberman) is exuberantly heroic in the celebratory “Miracle of Miracles.” Susan Cella and TopolAnd a wonderfully tender Tevye and equally abashed Golde (Susan Cella) turn “Do You Love Me?” into a tremendously heartfelt discovery of the love they have developed for one another after living in an arranged marriage for 25 years.

Where the more solemn tone of this Fiddler disappoints is in the climactic dream sequence that Tevye concocts to convince his wife that their first-born Tzeitel is destined to marry the tailor Motel Kamzoil and not the widowed butcher Lazar Wulf as previously agreed. Here both Topol and Cella underplay their terror, making his feigned fright and her real panic too mild to create the necessary hilarious pandemonium. In addition, the bizarre casting of the young male Sean Patrick Doyle as the ghost of Lazar Wulf’s deceased wife Fruma-Sarah turns what should be a terrifyingly funny specter into an innocuously angry drag queen. Note to director Sammy Dallas Bayles and casting director Dave Clemmons. Rethink this choice. Now. Doyle’s gender is an obvious distraction.

While the older members of this touring cast seem burdened by their characters’ hardships, the younger actors Erik Van Tielen and Alison Wallabring much needed vitality to counterbalance the occasional lethargy. Tevye’s daughters and their respective beaus – Motel (Liberman), Perchik (Colby Foytik) and Fyedka (Erik Van Tielen) – are all quite fresh-faced and winning. Their singing is sprightly and pleasant and they act with impassioned sincerity. Their innocent determination is a refreshing contrast to the more seasoned and jaded outlooks of their elders.

The overall pace of Fiddler, however, hinges on Tevye’s energy, and Topol’s muted vocals and sluggish delivery seem to infect the rest of the performances. While his voice is still rich and resonant and his warmth undeniably endearing, his too prominent vulnerability strips away an essential element of Tevye’s character. He’s no longer larger than life. As a mere mortal it’s hard to believe he’s the stalwart backbone of the community who commands respect from both the Rabbi and the Constable. And while his private talks with God are still delightful, even they are now more conciliatory than confrontational.

As a bear Topol’s grandfatherly Tevye is no longer a grizzly but a teddy. But as Boston’s opening night audience demonstrated long and loud, teddies are very easy to love.

PHOTOS BY JOAN MARCUS: Topol as Tevye; Susan Cella as Golde and Topol; Eric Van Tielen as Fyedka and Alison Walla as Chava (now played by Deborah Grausman)

November 04, 2009

A Long and Winding but Satisfying Show

Maureen McGovern’s one-woman retrospective meanders through her life and times but ultimately enthralls with glorious song

At 60 years of age, enduring songstress Maureen McGovern has a voice every bit as smooth, rich and powerful as the one that catapulted her to fame in the 1970s. Maureen McGovernKnown for turning the Oscar-winning disaster movie themes from The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno into pop music classics, McGovern is currently using that golden voice to reminisce about her career and the historic events that influenced her in a one-woman show titled A Long and Winding Road.

Now through November 15 at the Huntington Theatre Company’s Wimberly Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, McGovern is sharing a generation of stories and song that have every Baby Boomer in the room nodding vigorously in recognition. Tunes by Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Carly Simon, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Carole King, Joan Baez, The Eurythmics and The Beatles all punctuate her very personal memories of life, love, and the turbulent times that turned a “good Irish Catholic girl” from Ohio into a resilient and resourceful voice of inspiration and hope.

While aiming to tie together her own tumultuous journey to the events of the decades that have shaped her, McGovern at times lets her narrative bounce back and forth incoherently from her childhood to the present to the protest era. She often skims the surface of painful memories and makes light of major milestones and moments. However, once she settles more solidly into the decades of JFK, Vietnam, and the AIDS epidemic, her folk music persona takes over and delivers penetrating renditions of iconic songs.

A loving tribute to her father, a veteran of WWII and the Korean Conflict, begins an extended set of poignant time-spanning ballads including “The White Cliffs of Dover,” “Carry It On” and “Let It Be.” In each McGovern reinterprets the material to express her own unique connections. A particularly moving segment introduces us to one of the Kent State Four, a former classmate of McGovern’s whose youthful innocence contrasts sharply with her tragic end.

McGovern also lets her humorous side break loose from time to time, and when it does she becomes relaxed and quite delightful. She has an easy, self-deprecating wit that is sparked by an exuberant twinkle. Maureen McGovern Lets LooseIn two surprising numbers she combines her remarkable vocal dexterity with an understated impish grin. She first frolics through a manic medley of the greatest Doo Wop hits of the 1960s, and later she enjoys a very funny riff on Tom Lehrer’s satirical “The Vatican Rag.” She caps off her comedic showcase with a devastating story about a blind date that goes very, very wrong.

All in all there are many worthwhile stops along McGovern’s Long and Winding Road: the nostalgic chords struck in songs like “The Circle Game,” “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” and her three mega-hits, “Can You Read My Mind?” “We May Never Love like This Again,” and “The Morning After;” the sadness and determination of Stephen Schwartz’s “Life Goes On” when contemplating the devastating effects of AIDS; and the heartbreaking irony of the usually joyous old Irish hymn “How Can I Keep from Singing?” when juxtaposed against the terrifying story of a ruptured vocal chord.

But there are bumps along this convoluted road, as well. McGovern’s script seems to meander aimlessly at times, and in an effort to touch on every landmark in her life, she gives many important events and relationships short shrift. She also sometimes presents mere snippets of songs, teasing us with the promise of fond memories but failing to satisfy fully.

Judicious editing of her narrative and a stronger framework for her songs could turn A Long and Winding Road into a powerful reminder of the force that music has played, and can continue to play, in our nation’s and our personal histories. As currently conceived, McGovern’s solo retrospective is not much more than a pleasant trip down memory lane.


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