RI Ballet: Meeting Autumn with Grace

As the calendar turns from August to September, many area dancers will be returning to work. While the summer months allow them the opportunity to rest their tired bodies, the fall chill signals the start of a new season, with the next several months brimming with activity.

Leading the way is Providence’s resident professional ballet company Festival Ballet Providence. Entering their 40th season, artistic director Mihailo “Misha” Djuric is certainly hoping for a less “eventful” fall than last year. About one month prior to the opening of the company’s annual holiday production of The Nutcracker, Djuric discovered that most of their costumes had been stolen from the company’s warehouse. Fortunately, ballet companies from around the country donated some of their own costumes so that the show could go on!

FBP’s season opens with Pippi, the first of two productions from the company’s kid-friendly chatterBOXtheatre dance series. With humor and energy, this ballet wonderfully spins the tale of every child’s favorite freckled red-head. Performed in the company’s intimate Black Box Theatre, it also marks the return of one of the company’s most beloved choreographers, Colleen Cavanaugh.

Then, just in time for Halloween, Chris Van Allsburg’s haunting The Widow’s Broom sweeps into The Vets for a weekend of performances. When a witch’s worn-out broom suddenly ends up in a widow’s garden, deception and mistrust give way to burning passion. With sets from Eugene Lee, Viktor Plotnikov’s mesmerizing choreography works wonderfully with Aleksandra Vrebalov’s enchanting original score.

Just before Thanksgiving break, the popular Up Close, On Hope dance series returns highlighted by Djuric’s captivating Magnificat. Set to the music of JS Bach’s cantata, this visually stunning piece combines contemporary movements with Balkan folk dance. This exciting mixed repertoire program, also performed in the Black Box Theatre, will feature several world and RI premieres from a variety of choreographers.

08342_show_landscape_large_01FBP’s fall season concludes with the company’s annual “gift to the city of Providence” with their elegant production of The Nutcracker. With majestic sets, lavish costumes (many of the stolen costumes were returned!), Swarovski crystals and Tchaikovsky’s festive holiday score, this ballet serves as the perfect way to ring in the holidays.

For tickets or more information, visit festivalballetprovidence.org

Meanwhile, over in Newport, Island Moving Company is simply shifting gears as they prepare to enter the fall portion of their season; they are one of the few companies that performs year-round.

Next up for them is their biennial offering of Open for Dance. This five-day festival focuses on the importance of collaboration between artists and the community. Three choreographers will work with other artists such as chefs, poets and musicians to create site-specific works that will be performed six times during the festival. While the emphasis will be on the artists and Newport’s beauty, participation from others in the community is encouraged.

IMC will also present their stunning annual holiday production of The Newport Nutcracker at Rosecliff. This one-of-a-kind performance is set entirely within Newport’s historic Rosecliff Mansion. Dancers move from room to room, beginning on the iconic marble staircase and finishing in the grand ballroom, while audience members follow along, becoming part of the action! Filled with many surprises and special guests, this is truly a unique experience. These shows do sell out quickly!

For tickets of more information, visit islandmovingco.org

Nestled in the woods of Lincoln, The State Ballet of Rhode Island is busy preparing for its remarkable 58th season!

Expect more from their popular Coffee Hours: From Stage to Studio, a behind-the-scenes look at how a production goes from the studio to the stage. Hosted by artistic director Herci Marsden, this interactive event takes place in the company’s ballet studio. Ms. Marsden explains how music is selected and choreography is created, culminating in live performances by company dancers. Stay afterward for coffee and dessert.

They will also once again participate in the Gloria Gemma Flames of Hope: A Celebration of Life, the largest WaterFire of the summer and a weekend-long celebration embracing those touched by cancer, as well as anybody who has received news that a friend or loved one has cancer. Featuring a select group of company dancers, the State House steps, bathed in pink lights, becomes center stage as the dancers present their touching interpretation of the Illuminations of Life.

SBRI will also present their annual holiday production of Coppelia. This charming ballet features traditional folk dancing, colorful costumes and Delibes’ feisty score. Watch as an eccentric old doll maker falls in love with one of his life-sized dolls (who comes to life!). Throw in a jealous lover and a snowy happily-ever-after ending, and you have a touching holiday treat for the entire family.

For tickets or more information, visit stateballet.com.

Other fall productions of note:

Heritage Ballet, The Nutcracker, November 25 & 26 at The Stadium Theatre. For tickets or more information, visit heritageballet.com

Providence Ballet Theatre, Twas the Night Before Christmas, December 15. For tickets or more information, visit providenceballet.com

Moscow Ballet, Great Russian Nutcracker, December 4 at the Park Theatre. For tickets of more information, visit parktheatreri.com

OSTC’s Victor/Victoria Is Topsy-Turvy Fun

victorAs more and more words are deemed insensitive or offensive, musical theater remains one of the few places where politically incorrect language does not ignite one’s ire. Such is the case with Ocean State Theatre’s gender-bending musical comedy Victor/Victoria. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, the suggestion throughout is that being gay is not “normal.” But, by show’s end, the message is quite clear: It doesn’t matter what a couple’s sexual preference may be if they love one another.

Based on Blake Edwards’ 1982 hit film depicting Paris’s nightlife during the 1930s, the musical is a hilarious and heart-warming story of Victoria Grant, a down-on-her-luck British singer who can’t find work. Then she meets “Toddy” and the two hatch a scheme where Victoria will become Victor, a female impersonator impersonating a man impersonating a woman with the goal of her becoming the world’s most famous female impersonator.

Featuring legendary composer Henry Mancini’s wonderful score, OSTC’s production, under artistic director Aimee Turner, is refreshingly clean and crisp. While many slapstick comedies try too hard for the easy laughs, with mixed results, this performance delivers far more hits than misses. One of the many highlights being a perfectly executed Three Stooges-like skit where characters creep from room-to-room with doors opening and closing as they narrowly miss detection.

Kudos to the set designers as well. The show calls for frequent scene changes alternating between various nightclubs and luxury hotel suites. Yet the lush and smartly constructed sets allow for some remarkably seamless transitions.

While surprising revelations about several characters’ sexual preference add to the laughs, two dancers also surprise with some impressive vocal numbers. First, dance captain Taavon Gamble sizzles in “Le Jazz Hot,” displaying some pretty good chops to go along with some pretty smooth moves. Later, the alluring Alison Russo proves to be equally as seductive with her voice during a sultry “Paris by Night.”

Speaking of the dancing, choreographer Sebastian Goldberg keeps things sharp and understated. Much of the movements are sensual and flirtatious – a slow shoulder roll or a smoldering stare – nicely capturing the sexuality of Paris’ nightlife.

But the highlight of the opening night performance is Kristin Wetherington as Norma Cassidy, the ditzy-blond and trophy girlfriend of gangster King Marchan. With an ear-piercing voice and overly active sex-drive, Wetherington steals the show. She is priceless during a raunchy “Paris Makes Me Horny,” singing “When I see the Eifel Tower, I need to take a shower.” She alone is worth the price of admission.

Eden Casteel’s far more guarded Victoria Grant serves as a nice counter-balance to Wetherington’s over-the-top Norma. Yearning for true love, Casteel mesmerizes King Marchan – and the audience – with her flawless singing voice. Marchan becomes so smitten by “Victor,” that he does not care if he is a man or a woman, wondering during “King’s Dilemma” if “the girl I’m in love with is a guy?”

Casteel shines throughout the performance displaying remarkable range and clarity, effortlessly slipping in and out of various octaves, which makes OSTC audience favorite Christopher Swan’s King Marchan even more impressive. He beautifully matches Casteel during a very charming “Almost A Love Song.” With a convincing swagger, the ever-reliable Swan shines as the conflicted alpha-male, standing up to his mobster pals while planting a kiss on “Victor’s” lips.

Bill Whitehead, Jr., returning to stage after a 30-year absence, wonderfully propels the plot forward as the scheming Carroll ‘Toddy’ Todd. With an infectious charm and flamboyance, Whitehead flippantly tosses out hilarious one-liners: “You can’t fire me. I can’t afford it!” Later, when learning a potential lover was also college football all-American lineman, he gasps, “Be still my beating heart, a center!” This, like many of his lines, draws hearty laughter.

Ben Salus, as the aforementioned lineman “Squash” Bernstein, doesn’t have many lines, but when he does, he makes them count, drawing some of the loudest applause when it is discovered that he can also sing.

And, what would a play about Paris be without the stereotypical snooty Frenchman? David Groccia is great fun as Henri Labisse, a cynical Parisian nightclub owner who literally just keeps popping up. With a clumsy charm, Groccia delights with a timely self-effacing humor.

OSTC’s Victor/Victoria runs through May 21 at their Jefferson Boulevard theater. For tickets or more information, visit: oceanstatetheatre.org.


Little Women: The Musical Charms Audiences

Little Women 1
(sitting from left) Abigail McMahon, Amiee Turner, (standing from left) Bryn Martin, Alison Novelli and Tess Jonas star as Amy, Marmee, Beth, Meg and Jo.

Ocean State Theatre Company’s opening night performance of Little Women: The Musical, provoked both laughter and tears. Director Ethan Paulini has crafted a funny, powerful and moving production of Louisa May Alcott’s semi-autobiographical novel.

He wonderfully captures the highs and lows of the March sisters during the Civil War while their father is away serving as a chaplain for the Union Army. The four girls navigate their way through disappointment, heartache and loss on the road to personal growth and discovery, all while trying to remain faithful to their motto: “The four March sisters forever.”

When unexpected tragedy challenges their bond, the family grows stronger. The musical beautifully illustrates why these girls remain some of literature’s most endearing characters: the opinionated and aspiring writer Jo, the pragmatic and romantic Meg, the kind-hearted and generous Beth, and the pretentious and insecure Amy. Each of these conflicting personality traits contribute nicely to the richness of these individuals.

Though things start slowly — it takes the orchestra a couple of numbers to really tighten-up and not much really happens until just before intermission — things do get ratcheted up significantly in Act II. The songs, lyrically and musically, are far more fetching and the orchestra sounds terrific. But, more importantly, the actors deliver some remarkable performances.

The set can best be described as minimalist: a cube sits atop a set of stairs and serves as a stage entrance. Interestingly, during some of the musical’s more poignant moments, the actors stand in the center of cube as if framed in a picture. Costume designer Emily Taradash’s wardrobe magnificently replicates the period with ensembles and colors that also help establish mood.

Much of the plot revolves around Jo, either with her desperately trying to sell her stories or with others attempting to win her affection or approval. But things begin to unravel for Jo and her sisters following a series of events. Their mother departs for Washington, Amy moves in with their aunt, Jo’s childhood friend and crush Laurie moves to Boston and Meg announces her engagement. “What about our promise to be forever?” asks Jo. As change forces the girls to ponder the reality of their childhood treaty, loss will ultimately force them to ponder the reality of their own individuality.

Though Paulini is also credited as the show’s choreographer, there is very little dancing in this production. The one big ensemble piece, “The Weekly Volcano Press,” actually appears to be poking fun at big, musical dance numbers. However, this reenactment of Jo’s “operatic tragedy” is such a hoot, I doubt many in attendance minded that there were no hoofers.

Initially, Tess Jonas (Jo) comes off as an overly caffeinated Starbucks barista. But she settles nicely into the role projecting a genuine sensitivity from beneath her tom-boyish veneer. Her coyness emerges as her most charming asset with the audience becoming completely invested in her happiness. With a nice, measured voice, she also belts out many of the show’s tunes reaching an impassioned crescendo during “The Fire Within Me.”

Tommy Labanaris (Professor Bhaer) proves the perfect counter to Jo, deflecting her condescension with a restrained pompousness. He wonderfully combines the professor’s haughty intellectual manner with a simmering desire that proves to be the winning formula in securing one of the most unlikely – but most believable – partnerships. His charming duet with Jo, “Small Umbrella in the Rain,” beautifully punctuates his courtship.

With an infectious boyish charm, Michael Luongo (Laurie) instantly wins over the hearts of all — except Jo! “What is it with you and that smile?” she barks. “You make me beam,” he replies, flashing that winning grin. Despite some mic issues early, Luongo impresses with both his voice in a touching “Take a Chance on Me” and his feet, with him being the only performer charged with any real dancing.

OSTC’s artistic director Amiee Turner, as the girl’s mother Marmee, provides a very steadying presence with a calm, motherly demeanor. She also displays some pretty good chops in the emotionally charged “Here Alone” and “Days of Plenty” where her voice soars.

The evening’s prettiest voice belongs to Bryn Martin (Beth). She is absolutely delightful in the catchy “Off to Massachusetts” and simply angelic in “Some Things Are Meant to Be.” Alison Novelli (Meg) rounds out the sisterly quartet with some nice pipes of her own, showing great range in “More Than I Am.”

OSTC’s production of Little Women: The Musical runs through March 19 in the company’s state-of-the-art theater located on Jefferson Boulevard. For tickets or more information visit: oceanstatetheatre.org.

Leap Into Spring with Ballet

With many anxiously awaiting the spring thaw, area ballet companies are gearing up for the home stretch before closing their curtains for a well-deserved summer break.

Leading the way, following a critically acclaimed and groundbreaking world premiere of Romeo and Juliet that combined dance with the spoken word, is Festival Ballet Providence. They get things started Friday, March 24 with their final installment of Up Close On Hope. Past offerings have featured 10 to 12 short, unrelated pieces — many company and world premieres – but this program will showcase only Viktor Plotnikov’s full-length production of Carmen.

Plotnikov first set this ballet for FBP in 2003. As a relatively unknown choreographer, it served as a launching point for the former dancer who would go on to receive global praise and recognition for his engaging and quirky style. Though he now works with dance companies from all around the country, he continues to create original works for the dancers at FBP, serving as the company’s resident choreographer.

Artistic director Mihailo Djuric is thrilled to re-introduce Plotnikov’s Providence debut. He recalls how “Viktor came out of the gate with a bold and unique choreographic style that our audience immediately embraced. Transposing [Carmen] to the Black Box will give everyone a new and profound appreciation for his work.” This bold adaptation of the Bizet opera will feature plenty of seduction and passion with a surprising twist; brace yourself for something very different!

FBP will also close out their popular children’s dance series, chatterBOXtheatre, with newest company member Boyko Dossev’s The Little Prince. Based on the charming story by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, it is one of best-selling books ever published.

The timeless classic Cinderella will mark the end of FBP’s 2016/2017 season. Based on the choreography of company co-founder and longtime artistic director Winthrop Corey, Djuric promises that audiences will be swept away, adding “it is an honor to bring back a towering figure in Rhode Island dance to set his magnificent ballet on the company he helped create and led for many years.”

FBP’s final performances will also afford audiences one last opportunity to see prima ballerina Vilia Purtius, who announced that she will be retiring at the end of the season. She has been a fan favorite for the past 11 years. The spotlight will certainly grow dim in her absence.

For tickets or more information, visit festivalballet.com.

Across the bridge in Newport, Island Moving Company (IMC) is just getting ready to start the busy portion of their season. They are one of the few companies that perform year-round. Next up for them is Opening Weekend: A Collection of Attitudes 2017, a program covering two evenings of dance. It will debut a new work from Rodney Rivera, artistic director of Ballet Brio in Puerto Rico. IMC artistic director Miki Ohlsen will also stage her There’s a Party in My Mind and company oldie and original Psalms. Company members Spencer Gavin Hering and Shane Farrell, and former company member Danielle Genest, will also be presenting some new pieces.

In addition, IMC is excited to announce the return of Mother Goose at Rosecliff, a delightful recreation of the fairytale where children can pose for pictures with the characters/dancers and even get a chance to dance! The company will also once again host various dance companies from abroad for their popular Great Friends Dance Festival in July in Newport’s Great Friends Meeting House. This is a remarkable program that invites other companies to take up residency and perform alongside IMC in exchange for reciprocal performances on their home stage. Last year, the dancers experienced their first international exchange and traveled to Kazakhstan.

For tickets and an updated list of performances and events, visit islandmovingco.org.

Meanwhile, back on the mainland in Lincoln, The State Ballet of Rhode Island is busy preparing for their final performance, Phantomgreen Ballet Suite. Based on Hans Christian Anderson’s story The Princess & the Pea, it debuted in 1990 featuring world premiere music from composer Margaret Buechner and original choreography from SBRI artistic director Herci Marsden.

This charming production has been enchanting young and old alike. It derives its name from the nightmarish images of the dancing green peas that prevent the sensitive Princess Leonora from sleeping, thus confirming her identity as a true princess.

This ballet will run in Cranston’s historic and beautifully restored Park Theatre from March 31 through April 1. In addition to Phantomgreen, audiences will be treated to several classical and contemporary pieces from various choreographers set to an eclectic blend of music.

For tickets or more information, visit stateballet.com.

Providence Ballet Theatre is excited to announce Dance on Main St at The Greenwich Odeum in East Greenwich on March 18 and 19. This will be an evening of original works “that explore physicality, musicality and poetry in motion.” Junior company members will also perform alongside professional company members as they present a wide range of movements and techniques combining contemporary and modern dance.

For tickets or more information, visit providenceballet.com.

Woonsocket’s Heritage Ballet will close their season with the iconic classic Sleeping Beauty at the Stadium Theatre on April 1 and 2.

For tickets or more information, visit heritageballet.com.

OSTC’s Born Yesterday Soothes Troubled Spirits

bornyesterdayWith all the angst and distress the recent presidential election has caused some, perhaps a good political comedy is in order. Ocean State Theatre Company’s current production, Born Yesterday, may be just enough to, at least temporarily, ease the suffering.

Playwright, musician, comedian, actor, writer, raconteur and all-around renaissance man Garson Kanin’s witty look at politics and corruption, written during the height of World War II, seems perfectly suited for the modern day; it would not be a stretch to envision those monopolizing today’s political headlines as characters in the play.

Yet Kanin tries too hard, laying it on a bit too thick. The final two-thirds of the play come off as preachy, bogged down by trite idealism. And, while many of those protesting in the streets today may cheer Kanin’s efforts, the final result comes off as far too contrived and far-fetched. Some of the comic bits also have a tendency of dragging on, particularly the card playing gag in Act I.

Coincidentally, many of the play’s best moments involve the frequent, quick-hitting alcohol induced one-liners. Kanin would have been better served to be a bit more economical in his delivery throughout the play. Director Amiee Turner also could have imposed a bit more directorial discretion. Fortunately, some fine performances make the play’s shortcomings more palatable.

All the play’s action occurs in a luxurious penthouse suite in Washington, DC. And, once again, OSTC’s set designers, thanks in part to Ethan Allen – their “Partner in Design” – deserve a big hand. With two large, lush chairs and a comfortable looking crème colored couch at center stage, accent pieces fill each nook and cranny. Wall sconces, table lamps and a hanging globe light perfectly illuminate the burgundy painted walls. Two curtained French doors serve as the perfect entryway into this lavish pad.

When a maid busily preparing the suite for its guests scoffs at the idea of anybody paying $235 a night, laughter fills the audience. Of course, back then, such a fee was considered excessive, but it is well within scrap metal dealer and junkman Harry Brock’s budget. Later, when asked by a reporter just how much he is worth, the braggadocious NJ gangster fumbles for an answer.

But Harry’s trappings and wealth are but mere fodder as he and his lawyer, Ed Devery, descend on the nation’s capital with money to burn and a senator to bribe. Yet, he becomes increasingly concerned about his girlfriend, fearing the dim-witted, former chorus girl Billie Dawn may blow his chances with Washington’s elite. So, he enlists the aid of the book-smart journalist Paul Verrall to help educate her.

Yet things go terribly awry when Billie becomes too smart and suddenly decides that Harry is “too dumb” for her! This, of course, sets her mobster beau off into a violent rage. But his anger is quickly diffused when Billie and Paul threaten to expose his and the senator’s corrupt dealings.

Ultimately, Billie ends up inheriting all of Harry’s scrap yards; he and his lawyer foolheartedly put them all in her name to limit his exposure. In a very telling moment early in the play, his lawyer jokes, “She owns more of you than you do.” In the end, the “dumb broad” beats Harry at his own game proving, in fact, that she was not “born yesterday.”

With bouncing, golden locks, NY actor Lara Hayhurst is wonderful as the ditzy Billie Dawn. Though a bit over-the-top at times, she makes it work with a simple tilt of her head or a blank quizzical stare. Quite the looker, she even makes Billie’s drunk-like slurred speech sound endearing.

Wearing a permanent scowl, Robert Ierardi proves to be Hayhurst’s menacing equal. As wise guy Harry Brock, he perfectly balances a frighteningly quick temper with an ambivalent ignorance, often making him the butt of the joke.

Michael Jennings Mahoney nicely tackles the role of Paul Verrall with an impassioned but not over-the-top idealism. But his morphing from bookish nerd into Elliot Ness during the play’s final scene seems a stretch.

As Harry’s perpetually intoxicated lawyer Ed Devery, Sean McGuirk delivers a remarkably crisp and spot-on performance. Torn by his ethics and his loyalty toward Harry, the only way he can cope is by drinking – and he drinks a lot! With his stern “Harvard look,” McGuirk’s drunken barbs are priceless. When Harry angrily asks “are you wasted again?” He calmly replies, “Still.”

OSTC’s production of “Born Yesterday” runs through February 12 at their Jefferson Boulevard theater. For tickets or more information, visit oceanstatetheatre.org.

Romeo and Juliet: A Gift to the City

Festival Ballet Providence artistic director MIhailo Djuric is very excited about the company’s upcoming world premiere of Romeo and Juliet. Debuting February 10 – 12 at The Vets in Providence, he calls it his “Valentine’s Day gift to the city.” Recently, I had a chance to speak with Djuric and others involved in the production during a rehearsal break.

“So many Romeo and Juliets have been done with musicians, dancers, actors, so many experiments, I wanted something different,” explains Djuric. In order to create “something different,” he commissioned friend and choreographer Ilya Kozadayev. He also enlisted Gamm Theatre artistic director Tony Estrella to help complete his vision.

Djuric knew Kozadayev from his days as a dancer with Boston Ballet. He first worked with FBP staging his version of Hansel and Gretel for the company’s chatterBOXtheatre children’s dance series. “Ilya really wanted to choreograph a full-length ballet, but the time needed to be right,” recalls Djuric, who originally wanted to present Romeo and Juliet this past fall to coincide with the festivities commemorating the 400 years since Shakespeare’s death. “But Ilya’s schedule just wouldn’t allow that to happen.”

For Estrella’s part, he will be aiding in the most unique aspect of this ballet, combining Shakespeare’s text – spoken live on-stage – with the dancing and Prokofiev’s powerful score. He will be joined by actors Jeanine Kane and Richard Noble, two names very familiar to many RI theatregoers; they will be reciting the dialogue. It is when speaking about this collaboration that Djuric becomes especially animated.

He considers the state’s small but thriving arts community: “[We are all] very isolated, we live in a cocoon. We all need to inspire each other and work together. We all share the same audience.” Djuric certainly has done his bit, working in the past with photographers from RISD, as well as members of the school’s Cut and Sew Costume Studio. He also has commissioned local musicians to create original scores for many original FBP works.

Djuric believes it is his job as artistic director to expose his audience to different types of artists: “I am like a chemist, bringing things together to see if they work,” he says with a smile. He continues, “The spoken word adds another sense of drama,” explaining the actors will be serving as narrators who are also involved in the scenes. “I wanted something more than dancing and Prokofiev,” he concludes.

Estrella shares Djuric’s excitement, “Every time we are able to bring Shakespeare’s words to life on the stage is a treat. What makes this production especially exciting is that we are able to express the Bard’s poetic verse with both speech and movement.”

Kozadayev, the man charged with making it all work, heralds the seamless nature of this collaboration, “[The actors] help to propel the story forward. The choreographic language is classical – including the intense sword fighting scenes — but we have a modernized take on the ballet in the fact that we are incorporating the actors. You really can’t go wrong with Shakespeare.”

He also emphasizes the importance of the spoken words being “musical and appearing as a natural progression of the story. We wanted the words to make strong points.” As for the FBP dancers, Kozadayev offers nothing but praise: “They are great, open-minded, focused and motivated. It is obvious that they are a group accustomed to being created upon rather than always working with pre-existing choreography.”

Long-time company member Jennifer Ricci, now in her amazing 27th season, will be dancing the role of Juliet for the first time as a full-length ballet; up until now, she has only performed the balcony scene for Up Close On Hope. With her remarkably expressive face and body, this seems the perfect role for Ms. Ricci.

She will be sharing the spotlight during alternating performances with Vilia Putrius. Company newcomer, Boyko Dossev, formerly of Boston Ballet, will be Ricci’s Romeo; he too presents a very expressive and fluid style. Alan Alberto will be dancing opposite Putrius.

Thus far, Ms. Ricci is very impressed with Kozadayev’s interpretation: “I get goosebumps watching it. Especially the sword fights. It is all very dramatic.” When asked how it has been working with him, she gushes, “I love working with him. He is super creative and innovative. He makes everything work and everything just flows so easily.”

She has, however, encountered some difficulty in following some of his direction. “He didn’t want us watching any other versions of the ballet,” she explains. “He wanted our interpretation to be fresh.” She recounts the challenges in his wanting the girls “to act young, rather than emotional. Something that is pretty tough to do when you wake up in a tomb full of dead people,” quips the ballerina.

When speaking about Dossev, her eyes sparkle, “He is Romeo, with his charm and style of dance. He has truly been a blessing to work with. I have worked with him before on pieces that he has choreographed, so we know each other well and he has helped me through some tough times.” Her sister, with whom she was incredibly close, passed away unexpectedly several years ago. More recently, she has had to overcome a series of surgeries to repair a chronic foot injury.

And while Ms. Ricci’s focus is on dance, she enjoys the complementary effect of the spoken word: “It cuts scenes that would have made the ballet very long, making the transition from one scene to the next much smoother. As a scene comes to an end, the actors help break up what is going on. It also makes the ballet very powerful.”

Festival Ballet Providence’s world premiere of Romeo and Juliet runs February 10 – 12 at The Vets in Providence. For tickets or more information visit thevetsri.com.

The Grinch Who Stole The Nutcracker

For the dancers at Festival Ballet Providence, the year’s production of The Nutcracker will be remembered as the year “The Grinch Tried to Steal Misha’s Nutcracker.” For nearly 20 years, the company has been staging artistic director Mihailo “Misha” Dujric’s version of this holiday classic.

About one week before Thanksgiving, Djuric and his assistant went to the company’s storage facility in Pawtucket to pick up some costumes so they could begin fitting them for several upcoming promotional appearances. Although Djuric observed some of the crates were “in a little bit different order,” he wasn’t overly alarmed. It wasn’t until he returned to the studio and opened the crates that his worst fears were realized — many of the costumes were missing.

All told, 52 items worth an estimated $30,000 were gone. Djuric figures the rental costs to replace the stolen items will be about $60,000. A partial inventory of the stolen items includes one of the three tutus for the Sugar Plum Fairy (the ballet’s principal female lead), the Mouse Queen costume, dozens of Swarovski crystal-studded hand-made tutus (valued at about $600 each), and the large, iconic Nutcracker headpiece – worth $2,000 alone!

But, in the true Christmas spirit, once news of the theft broke, dozens of ballet companies from around the country offered to lend them costumes. Among them, Rochester City Ballet, the Kansas City Ballet, Southern New Hampshire Dance Theater and Youth Ballet, Connecticut Ballet, Neglia Conservatory of Ballet, Commonwealth Ballet and Mobile (Ala.) Ballet.

With opening night just days away, costumes have started to arrive. Djuric is simply overwhelmed by the number of “individuals and companies who expressed their support and wanted to help. And it’s so, how do you say, so nice. It’s like It’s a Wonderful Life,” he proclaims. And, in addition to the donations, company spokesperson Ruth Davis notes “dozens of skilled costume and apparel sewers will work together with designer Freda Bromberg and FBP Artistic Director Mihailo Djuric to sew new pieces from scratch and make alterations to costumes.”

So while many have certainly earned their angel’s wings this Christmas, FBP dancers are most thankful that the show will go on. And, if they could, I am sure they would collectively echo the memorable words of Albert Finney’s Scrooge: “Thank you very much, that’s the nicest thing that anybody’s ever done for me.”

FBP’s “The Nutcracker” will run from December 16 – 18 at PPAC. For tickets or more information visit: ppacri.org.

Dreaming of a White Christmas?

ostcIn a recent Twitter poll conducted by the National Weather Service, 70% of respondents voted they would welcome a Christmas Eve snowstorm if it meant a white Christmas. But, if you are truly “dreaming of a white Christmas,” Ocean State Theatre Company’s production of Irving Berlin’s holiday classic White Christmas just might have to do.

Making her OSTC directorial debut, Paula Hammons Sloan presents a charming but very dated musical depicting a far simpler time when people actually cared about the true meaning of Christmas! She also takes charge of the choreography, which is understated and not very complex.

Featuring a steady, but unspectacular cast, this holiday production doesn’t really delve into all that Christmassy cheer and sappiness until the final scene. But, if you are looking for some warm wholesome fun this holiday season, Berlin’s score alone will suffice.

Based on the beloved 1954 Bing Crosby movie, the musical follows the successful song-and-dance act of veterans Bob Wallace and Phil Davis following World War II. Starring as regulars on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the two have gone on to achieve Hollywood fame. But they become smitten by a sister act, Judy and Betty Haynes, and end up following the pair to Vermont for their gig at a country inn.

Shortly after arriving at the Columbia Inn, Wallace and Davis learn that it  is owned by their former Army Commander General Henry Waverly. They also discover that their old friend has run up quite a bit of debt, and the inn is in serious financial trouble.

They enlist the aid of the Haynes sisters and plan a huge Christmas Eve concert to help raise money to save the inn. But, after a series of mishaps and miscommunication, the event looks doubtful, leaving the future of the inn in jeopardy. But, since this is based on a Hollywood script, all works out and the inn is saved and love is in the air – as well as falling snow during the Christmas eve concert!

With Berlin’s magical score serving as the highlight of this musical, the five-piece orchestra, led by John Jay Espino, is certainly up to the task, sounding clean and crisp throughout the opening night performance.

The set designers also rise to the task creating a wonderful barn, with weathered wooden boards and two large sliding barn doors. They also beautifully capture the charm a of rustic, wintery inn. The outside view, with stacks of wood and candles in the windows, looks like a postcard.

The production features several ensemble pieces, with lots of tap dancing, that never really deliver a knock-out punch. “Let Yourself Go,” the first big group number, is fun and energetic, but falls a bit short. The next number, “Love and the Weather,” presents some fine vocals by Nate Suggs (Bob Wallace) and Stefani Wood (Betty Haynes). Here we quickly figure out who will end up with whom: the pessimists, Betty and Bob, will inevitability fall for one another; and the optimists, Phil and Judy, both schemers who hit it off instantly.

In a clever twist, during many of the song-and-dance numbers, the audience become part of the show, serving as spectators at The Ed Sullivan Show and at the Christmas Eve concert. This leads to a couple of delightful sing-a-longs with audience participation.

As the lead in the male duo, Suggs has a nice, measured voice that comes up big during “Blue Skies” and a cozy “White Christmas.” Opposite him, Wood possesses the show’s finest pipes; she really shines in “Count Your Blessings” and “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me/How Deep Is the Ocean?”.

OSTC co-founder, Joel Kipper (Phil Davis) is great fun to watch with some nicely timed physical comedy. His singing voice is just OK and, the longer a dance number proceeds, the more rigid he becomes. As his female counter-part, Maria Logan (Judy Haynes) is pleasant enough, and certainly much lighter on her feet.

Susan Fletcher as one-time starlet “Megaphone” Martha Watson, has some great scene-stealing moments as the inn keeper trying to finagle her way into the Christmas Eve show. The former, and aging, star is wonderful during “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy,” punctuated by some impressive Rockettes-like leg kicks.

As General Henry Waverly, Mark S. Cartier — OSTC’s resident curmudgeon — comes off as too one dimensional, never really allowing the audience to become invested in him.

OCTSC’s production of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas runs through December 24, For tickets or more information visit: oceanstatetheatre.org.




The Holiday Dances into Hearts

With Christmas right around the corner, area dance companies are offering up a full menu of tasty options to help get you into the holiday spirit.

Leading the way is Festival Ballet Providence preparing what artistic director Mihailo Djuric refers to as the company’s annual “gift to the city of Providence.” With majestic sets, stunning costumes, dozens of Swarovski snow-flakes and Djuric’s original choreography, FBP’s Nutcracker is a Christmas treat not to be missed.

For a second year, students from the company’s official school and Adaptive Dance program, a specialized program introducing children with Down syndrome to dance, will join company members on stage during the Act I Party Scene. Their beaming with joy alongside the professional dancers perfectly captures the true holiday spirit.

Djuric is also pleased to announce that many of the principal and soloist roles will feature dancers and couples performing these roles for the first time. One cast will feature the company’s newest member Boyko Dossev, who spent the last 10 years with Boston Ballet, dancing the role of Cavalier. Opposite him will be rising star Kirsten Evans as his Sugar Plum Fairy.

The always lovely Vilia Putrius and Alan Alberto will share the leading roles with Dossez and Evans during alternating performances. For the last eight seasons, Putrius danced this role with her husband and audience favorite MIindaugus Bauzys; he retired after last season. Though Putrius and Alberto have partnered together many times, this will mark their debut together in The Nutcracker.

And, for a remarkable 17th season, Archie the Nutcracker Dog, will make his mad dash across the stage during the ballet’s opening scene. The Yorkshire Terrier has performed in over 120 Nutcrackers. Covered in a red Santa suit and bells, he always draws loud applause. With his advancing age, though, Archie’s gait has slowed a bit, but one can’t help but ponder whether this is because he is getting old or because he is just soaking in all the adoration.

FBP will move into PPAC from December 16 – 18. For more information visit festivalballet.com. For tickets visit ppacri.org or call 401-421-ARTS.

If you are looking for something a little different, then head to Newport and check out Island Moving Company’s The Newport Nutcracker at Rosecliff. Now in their 15th season, IMC’s production will feature company dancers, guest artists and children from dance studios throughout RI. Swarovski will also be contributing some bling for a special Nutcracker display to commemorate the company’s Crystal anniversary.

Under artistic director Miki Ohlsen’s watchful eyes, this unique production set in Newport’s historic Rosecliff mansion takes audience members from one room to the next as the action unfolds. The mice and soldiers battle it out on the foyer’s grand marble staircase. Later, in the elegant dining room, the Cavalier and Sugar Plum Fairy entertain all as if they are invited guests to a family Christmas party.

IMC’s Nutcracker runs November 25 – December 2. For tickets or more information visit islandmovingco.org. These shows usually sell out, so act quickly!

Meanwhile, in Cranston’s newly restored Park Avenue Theatre, the state’s oldest ballet company, The State Ballet of Rhode Island (now in their 57th season!) will present their annual holiday production of Coppelia. SBRI had been performing in Rhode Island College’s Robert’s Hall for decades, but they are thrilled to be moving into Cranston’s new state-of-the-art theater.

SBRI co-founder and artistic director Herci Marsden’s comedic ballet follows the exploits of a naïve young villager, engaged to be wed, who falls in love with a doll. Meanwhile, his fiancée watches his impassioned pleas to try and get the doll to dance with him. Intent on teaching him a lesson, she enlists the help of her friends. Things, however, take an unexpected turn when they enter the eccentric doll maker’s “magic” workshop.

Set to Leo Delibes festive score, Coppelia is a classic story about love and forgiveness. Older audience members can take a trip down memory lane and reminisce about first love while children can watch in amazement as wooden dolls suddenly spring to life. With colorful costumes and traditional folk dances, the snowy happily-ever-after ending will fill all with Christmas cheer.

SBRI’s Coppelia runs from December 2 -3 with a “Pay What You Can Event” matinee on Friday, December 2 at 10am. For tickets or more information, visit stateballet.com or parktheatreri.com.

Providence Ballet Theatre adds to the merriment with artistic director Eva Marie Pacheco’s original adaption of Clement C. Moore’s classic holiday story Twas the Night Before Christmas. And, once again, local personality Bruce Newbury will be returning to narrate.

With vivid choreography, moving sets and dancing reindeer, this charming ballet tells Moore’s familiar story in a way never imagined. This year, PBT will also be moving into a new venue, McVinney Auditorium, which, Ms. Pacheco explains, allows for the addition of “magic snow” that will make audiences feel as if they are part of the show.

PBT’s Twas the Night Before Christmas runs December 15 – 16 at McVinney Auditorium. They will also be performing at The Prout School on December 18. For tickets or more information visit providenceballet.com.

Doubt Is Compelling and Thought-Provoking

If you are one who prefers your shows have a neat and tidy ending with no loose ends, Ocean State Theatre’s current offering, Doubt: A Parable, may not be for you. But if you are a fan of compelling, thought-provoking drama, then this show is definitely for you.

Set during the 1960s, at the height of the civil rights movement and with President Kennedy’s assassination in the backdrop, John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play explores allegations of an inappropriate relationship between a priest/basketball coach at a Catholic school in the Bronx and the school’s first black student.

Much of the action centers around the school’s stern principal Sister Aloysius and her suspicions of the parish’s charismatic and progressive thinking priest Father Flynn; the two engage in several epic battles with the Truth remaining forever in Doubt.

The play opens with Father Flynn delivering another one of his “poetic” sermons with the subject being, “What do you do when you’re not sure?” With the assassination of President Kennedy still fresh on the minds of his parishioners, the priest refers to this as a time when they all need to come together. And while recent events may cause them to feel some doubt, they need not worry because “doubt can be a bond.” Yet, this sermon, as do others, parallels events throughout the play. Is this sermon an inspired message to churchgoers, or is it a plea for help from Father Flynn regarding his own failings?

Sister Aloysius’ motives also remain unclear, as evidenced by her exchanges with the young and enthusiastic Sister James regarding her teaching techniques. Her position is established early in the play when referring to students taking art class as a “waste of time.” She then goes on to berate those who use ball point pens, instead of the traditional fountain pens, as having the penmanship of monkeys. All of which begs the question, does Sister Aloysius really believe that Father Flynn is involved in an inappropriate relationship or does she view his progressivism as a threat to her way of running the school?

As suspicion grows, Sister James and Father Flynn form a bond based on similar progressive ideas about education. She later confesses to him that Sister Aloysius has “taken away my love of teaching.” During this same conversation in the school’s garden, Father Flynn convinces her of his innocence, just as a crow, a bird often associated with trickery and mistrust, can be heard cawing in the distance: “Oh be quiet,” he shouts.

Later, in another emotional sermon, Father Flynn asks “Is gossip a sin?” a powerful moment in the play with the priest directly challenging the principal’s morality and motives. Father Flynn has many Othello-like “Reputation, Reputation, Reputation,” moments throughout the play. Just as Iago’s accusations threatened the reputation of King Othello and his order, Sister Aloysius’ charges similarly challenge Father Flynn’s good name and the church’s patriarchal hierarchy: “You answer to us,” he reminds her during a very heated exchange.

Sister Aloysius’ efforts to remove Father Flynn are complicated further following a stunning exchange between her and the alleged victim’s mother who seems willing to overlook the suspected abuse. She believes the school, and Father Flynn, offer her son the best chance of graduating and attending a good high school. She also suspects that her son is “that way” and appreciates that Father Flynn is “nice to my son.” She later admonishes Sister Aloysius, “You’ve got some kind of righteous cause with this priest, but don’t drag my son into it.”

The deal is ultimately sealed – or is it – after Father Flynn agrees to transfer to another parish. Yet, Sister Aloysius’ apparent victory will forever be shrouded in doubt following a shocking confession of her own.

Donna Sorbello (Sister Aloysius) does a fine job as the dogmatic principal. Her cold stares (a look I remember well from my days of attending Catholic schools) are enough to send chills up your spine.

Though it took Greg London (Father Flynn) a while to amp his anger (I am not sure others would have been as cool as he was initially), he is at his best when backed into corner, projecting a very real sense of anger and desperation.

Lovely Hoffman, as the mother of the suspected abuse victim, also injects a compelling human element by not overdoing it. One is simultaneously stunned by her indifference and understanding of her dilemma.

Caitlin Davies (Sister James) delivers the most refreshing performance as the enthusiastic and idealistic young teacher. She brings an infectious optimism to the play. While the play revolves around the epic battles between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn, Davies gives the audience a truly redeeming character to cheer for.

OSTC set designers also deserve a hand for transforming the stage into a beautiful church/school. Sitting beneath cathedral ceilings, an elevated pulpit stands before a stained-glass window.  Large non-descript period pieces – an oversized wooden desk and large wooden chairs – make up Sister Aloysius’ office, furnishings that match her icy demeanor. Opposite the pulpit, a garden serves as a symbolic refuge of sorts where the characters seem to drop their defenses.

OSTC’s “Doubt: A Parable,” runs through November 20 in the company’s state-of-the-art theater located on Jefferson Boulevard. For tickets or more information visit: oceanstatetheatre.org.