Skilled Dancers Perform Up Close on Hope

Festival Ballet Providence kicked off the first installment of their popular Up Close On Hope dance series with a very playful and energetic program highlighting their strengths as a company. But there are also several individual noteworthy performances.

The always enchanting Vilia Putrius mesmerizes with flawless pointe work; FBP’s newest company member Boyko Dossev, formerly of Boston Ballet, is simply delightful, displaying remarkable grace and control; Ty Parmenter shines in a twist on an iconic classic; and Tegan Rich leaves the audience wanting more following an extremely animated performance.

The program opens with legendary choreographer George Balanchine’s “Allegro Brillante,” an extremely demanding piece challenging both the dancers’ technical skills and stamina. During breaks in the music, you can hear them breathing and see sweat rolling down their cheeks. This is what makes UCOH so appealing; it gives audiences a unique, “up close” look at dance.

Of the piece, Balanchine famously confessed, “It contains everything I know about the classical ballet in 13 minutes.” And, after watching FBP’s dancers navigate their way through this number, one truly appreciates Balanchine’s admission and the dancers’ efforts.

With a total of five couples, with one serving as the primary couple, the dancers first appear as a synchronized group perfectly executing Balanchine’s intricate and detailed movements. Then the couples separate with the males performing a series of jumps concluding with several big cabrioles. The females then take center stage with some impressive pointe work before circling the stage tirelessly in pirouette.

As the leading couple, Putirus and Alan Alberto are wonderful. Their long bodies and sharp lines perfectly complement one another. The pas de deux projects both beauty and strength. With him on one knee, she spins toward him and stops, softy pressing her hand against his while lifting her back leg into arabesque. Alberto also expertly guides his partner in a series of supported pirouettes punctuated by her whipping around countless times at a dizzying speed before calmly settling into the final pose.

“Niris,” choreographed by retired Boston Ballet principal dancer Yury Yanowsky, marked the perfect debut for Dossev, highlighting his remarkable grace, making even the most frantic and truncated movements look serene, and control. Accompanied by the always beautiful Kirsten Evans, this ballet starts with them mirroring each other’s movements while Lucas Vidal’s score builds.

Then the music slows and violins fill the air as the two dancers meet for a tender duet. Dossev slowly turns Evans while she reaches back and places a hand behind his head. Yanowsky populates the piece with a series of fresh and clever lifts, with the two dancers deftly moving from one into the next. “Niris” concludes in a flurry with Dossev holding Evan’s foot and spinning her around in a manner much like figure skating’s hair raising “death spiral.”

Resident choreographer Viktor Pltonikov’s “Swan” is a moving reimaging of the iconic “Dying Swan.” Made famous by prima ballerina Anna Pavlova, the original version featured a single dancer performing almost entirely en pointe. Plotnikov reinterprets the piece for two dancers who both represent the body and soul of the dying swan.

What emerges is an extremely fluid pas de deux featuring Brenna DiFrancesco and Parmenter with them striking a series of picturesque poses. He affectionately cradles her while she kneels on his outstretched arms. Later, she lay on his back before slowly melting to the floor. With Plotnikov’s creative twist on the original, Parmenter once again takes an unorthodox role and makes it his own. His portrayal of the dying swan strikes a poetic note; slowly he flaps his wings before surrendering to death.

Parmenter’s “How We Got the Stars” emerges as the program’s most curious piece. Set to the spoken word of story teller Valerie Tutson, some of the company’s younger dancers (“Stars” in the making?) ably present the dancer/choreographer’s “grounded style” focusing on control and expression.

Yanowsky’s second offering, “Finale,” is a poignant look at relationships set to the emotional vocals of Wilsen. In a wonderfully lyrical number, Marissa Parmenter and Jordan Nelson, another new addition to FBP, nicely depict the ups and downs experienced by most couples. In one instance, he supports her with his head as she leans back into him. Later, she sits on his hip while he slowly sways from side to side. Suddenly the music picks up and the movements become more tumultuous.  Then the music softens and the two dancers meet in the center before walking off together.

The final piece marks a departure of sorts for Plotnikov from his more serious works. “Sharps and Flats” is a slapstick look at classical music, classical musicians, a scatter-brained composer and an over-bearing conductor.

With their bodies serving as a variety of musical instruments, dancers, utilizing Plotnikov’s familiar quirky style, present a wonderfully bizarre yet visually pleasing look at disharmony. Tegan Rich, wildly waving her baton, attempts to corral the egocentric musicians. In addition to some priceless facial expressions, Rich also manages to squeeze in some pretty nifty dancing.

As the crazy and intrusive composer, Alberto is also very funny pushing his big orange box across the stage, literally trying to impose his will. Such a fun and self-effacing look at art is a reminder to us all that sometimes we just need to take a step back and not take things too seriously.

FBP’s first installment of Up Close On Hope runs through November 12 in the company’s intimate Black Box Theatre. For tickets or more information visit festivalballetprovidence.org.

Billy Elliot Showcases Talented Dancers

billyelliotBilly Elliot: The Musical makes its professional RI debut kicking-off Ocean State Theatre Company’s fifth season. Winner of 10 Tony Awards, this production, under OSTC’s artistic director Amiee Turner, shows some flashes of the brilliance that has earned it so much critical acclaim, but ultimately falls short of delivering a knock-out punch.

During its final preview performance (the last chance to work out the kinks before opening night) the show clocked in at about 3 hours, including intermission; hopefully it will tighten up a bit before opening night. While Act I does breeze along, Act II gets bogged down and seems fragmented with some clumsy transitions from one scene to the next.

There are also several lengthy dance sequences featuring strobe lights and blaring music that seem misplaced and out of context. But, if the intent was simply to showcase 12-year-old Matthew Dean (Billy Elliot), then these numbers were a rousing success.

Dean first started dancing in his mother’s dance studio when he was just 2 years old. At age 9, he became a competitive gymnast. But he is just getting started in theater. He first appeared in a children’s theater version of Billy Elliot and began singing 6 months ago. But, according to OSTC’s director of marketing and public relations Karen Gail Kessler, “he is definitely hooked,” and, if this production is any indication, not only is Dean a quick study, he is going to be a star.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it takes place during the British coal miner’s strike of 1984-85; a strike that created tremendous civil unrest and lead to a severe decline in the coaling industry resulting in the loss of about 20,000 jobs. Meanwhile, while his brother and father are out walking the picket line, a young Billy Elliot decides to trade in his boxing gloves for a pair of ballet slippers. With the absence of a mother and growing up in the testosterone filled home of coal miners, Billy’s decision leads to some pretty heated exchanges, all fearing he would be considered a “puff.”

OSTC’s production of Billy Elliot is at its best when contrasting the miner’s life with Billy’s efforts to learn how to dance. There are several numbers, highlighted by a very well done “Solidarity,” where the violence of the strike is juxtaposed with the innocence of dance:  strikers fight off police batons while girls in pink tutus chennai turn their way through the chaos.

Much of what propels the musical forward is mistrust and ignorance. When Billy’s dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson takes an interest in him, his first instinct is to that think that she “fancies” him, a concern later echoed by his brother and father. When Billy’s flamboyant friend Michael, who likes to cross-dress — “My dad does it all the time,” he explains — learns of Billy’s desire to dance, he warns, “People will think you’re mental.”

But it is during the extremely charming duet “Expressing Yourself,” with Billy and Michael taking turns trying on dresses, that Billy begins to see there is nothing wrong with him wanting to dance: “If you want to be a dancer, dance. If you want to be a miner, mine.”

Returning to the dance studio and intent on learning how to dance, Billy joins Mrs. Wilkinson and dance class pianist Mr. Braithwaite in a wonderfully entertaining “Born to Boogie” culminating in Billy and Mr. Braithwaite (Greg LoBuono) doing the worm across the stage to thunderous applause.

But the highlight of the performance is clearly Dean. During the lengthy and curiously placed “Angry Dance” and “Electricity,” he dances his way into the audience’s heart displaying remarkable calm and control. His turns are crisp and his leaps are big; it is easy to forget that this kid is only 12! During a heart wrenching “The Letter,” he also displays some pretty good pipes.

Shannon Lee Jones as the fiery dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson proves a worthy adversary to Billy’s headstrong father. Though her choreography comes off as a bit basic, she emerges as the evening’s best singer, shining during “Shine” and “The Letter.” But it is her fierce exchanges with Mr. Elliot and Billy’s brother where she truly impresses.

Local favorite Christopher Swan (Mr. Elliot) also has many fine moments commanding the stage with a domineering performance while softening in a very believable and fatherly manner after seeing Billy dance. He too holds his own vocally with a very tender and emotional “Deep in the Ground.”

Zaven Ovian (Tony, Billy’s brother) nicely encapsulates much of the show’s grit and anger, caught between his loyalty for his union brothers, his father and his brother. His struggle feels real and palpable.

Sarah Polen as the wacky and irreverent “Grandma” is great fun during “Grandma’s Song,” recounting her abusive and alcoholic husband while also describing his affinity for dancing, showing Billy that love of dance actually runs in the family.

OSTC’s production of Billy Elliot: The Musical runs through October 23 at their Jefferson Boulevard theater. For tickets or more information visit: oceanstatetheatre.org.





Fall Dance Is En Pointe

While August gives way to September, area dance companies are busy preparing for their 2016/2017 season. Leading the way is Providence’s resident professional ballet company Festival Ballet Providence.

Their season gets underway Halloween weekend with the popular “chatterBOXtheatre,” a dance series geared toward children, with an encore presentation of the “spooky Hansel and Gretel.” This will be followed by the first installment of audience favorite “Up Close on Hope,” a mixed repertoire of dance featuring world and company premieres. Both performances take place in the company’s intimate Black Box Theatre located in their Hope Street studio. Then the troupe moves into PPAC for their annual presentation of the holiday classic The Nutcracker.

After a brief winter break, they return with a world premiere of Shakespeare’s tragic story of the star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet. It has been over 10 years since the company last staged this ballet and artistic director Mihailo Djuric promises to present a cutting-edge vision of this iconic classic. Gamm Theatre artistic director Tony Estrella and choreography Ilya Kozadayev collaborate to create a multidisciplinary production weaving together theater and dance. Djuric observes, “I’m thrilled to bring together Tony and Ilya, and cannot wait to see how they will draw on their combined talents and experiences to create a fresh and new retelling of this famous story.”

The second installment of “Up Close on Hope” features Viktor Plotnikov’s feisty and provocative Carmen. As a relative unknown, Plotnikov first staged this ballet for FBP in 2003. Since then, he has gone onto receive national and international critical acclaim for many original productions. Djuric gushes, “Viktor came out of the gate with a bold and unique choreographic style [audiences] immediately embraced.”

Frequent FBP contributor Boyko Dossev will then create the newest premiere for “chatterBOXtheatre,” a charming adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s children’s story The Little Prince. Dossev, a former dancer with Boston Ballet, will also be joining FBP as a dancer, a very welcome addition to the company following Mindaugas Bauzys’ retirement; for eight seasons he thrilled audiences with his technical virtuosity and athletism.

FBP’s season concludes with Cinderella, featuring the choreography of FBP co-founder and long-time artistic director Wintrop Corey. “It’s 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,” notes Djuric. Corey, who is currently the artistic director at Mobile Ballet, adds, “It’s always a joy to return to FBP and set my ballets on the company. The quality and the work ethic of the company is always a pleasure to work with. Cinderella will really show off the company and their skills.”

For tickets or additional information visit: festivalballetprovidence.org.

Newport’s Island Moving Company will continue presenting exciting, one-of-a-kind onsite productions starting with Second Star to the Right: A Tale of Hook and Pan. This premiere will feature dancers performing on the docks at Fort Adams and aboard the Oliver Hazard Perry accompanied by live music and an original score by Tobias Andrews.

They will then take up residence at Rosecliff Mansion for their annual holiday treat The Newport Nutcracker at Rosecliff. This magical production allows audience members to move from room to room throughout the mansion, getting so close to the action that you almost feel as if you are part of the performance; these shows sell-out quickly!

For tickets or additional information visit: islandmovingco.org.

Further north, The State Ballet of Rhode Island is preparing for their remarkable 57th season, but they do so with mixed emotions. Due to renovations, the will bid what they hope is a temporary adieu to Robert’s Hall on the RIC campus; it has been their home base for decades. But they are excited to be moving into one of the state’s newest theaters, Park Theatre in Cranston. This exciting venue also features several bars and restaurants all under one roof. SBRI will debut there with their annual holiday production of Coppelia. Featuring colorful costumes, Delibes’ festive score and dozens of talented young dancers, this enchanting ballet is great fun for all ages.

Be sure to check the company’s website for exciting in-studio events including Project Coffee Hour, a series of discussions/performances detailing how a ballet goes from studio to stage. Refreshments are served.

For tickets or additional information visit stateballet.com.

Other performances of note:

Heritage Ballet: The Nutcracker, December 18-20; Cinderella, March 19 & 20. Both performances at the Stadium Theatre. heritageballet.com.

FirstWorks: Paul Taylor Dance Company, February 3. Rennie Harris Puremovement: Living Legacy Tour, February 24. Both performances at The Vets. first-work.org.

Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker: December 5 & 6. Park Theatre. parktheatreri.com.

Fusionworks: Fusion Fest 2016, September 25 at Burr’s Hill Park. NECF Performance, November 5 at McVinney Auditorium. fusionworksdance.org.

Providence Ballet Theatre: “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” providenceballet.com.

Rhode Island Ballet Theatre:  Holiday Show, December 18. CasinoTheatre. riballet.org.

Anything Goes on the SS America

anything“Bon voyage, bon voyage,” sing the excited travelers preparing to embark on a transatlantic journey aboard the SS America. The is just one of many terrific ensemble numbers in Ocean State Theatre Company’s production of Cole Porter’s Tony Award-Winning Musical Anything Goes. And, for those who ventured out to the opening night performance, it certainly was a “good trip.”

The musical tells the familiar boy meets girl story, but things quickly become complicated when the assortment of unusual shipmates begin to mingle, amongst them: a gangster and his “moll,” a wealthy debutante, her fiancé and her mother, a nightclub singing evangelist, a wealthy businessman and his stowaway assistant, sexy showgirls and plenty of sailors.

Director Amiee Turner keeps the pace quick and the laughs come early and often. With a paper-thin plot and sometimes sophomoric humor, this zany musical may not be for those who prefer their theater to be a bit headier and more topical, but if you’re looking for some wonderful individual performances and some refreshingly crisp choreography, then this show is for you.

Many of the show’s early laughs belong to Jason Loete. He is a hoot as the overzealous “Yale man” Elisha Whitney. With a martini in one hand and his stuffed Yale bulldog in the other, his idea of courtship features gems like: “I think of you and time stands still. Your face could stop a clock.”

Nate Suggs also has many fine moments portraying the love struck Billy Crocker with an infectious charm and enthusiasm. He possesses a pleasant singing voice and proves to be a pretty good hoofer with an effortless way of moving. Both were on full display during a spirited duet with Jessica Wagner (Reno Sweeney) in “You’re the Top.”

But Wagner is the star of this show displaying a tremendous singing voice while belting out many of the musical’s iconic numbers: “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” and a most impressive “Anything Goes” just before intermission. She has an easy and silky way about her, the chemistry between Reno and Billy appears far more genuine than that of Billy and his actual love interest the debutante Hope Harcourt.

While Jade Genga certainly looks the part of the pampered Harcourt, her voice, though pretty, is underwhelming and her interactions with Billy look stiff and awkward.

The musical is also filled with many of the usual minor characters that contribute mightily. Dennis Setteducati makes for a fabulously bumbling Moonface Martin, a petty criminal with an inferiority complex about his ranking as “public enemy #13.” His sidekick Erma continually chides him at one point telling him that he has been passed by tooth decay on the public enemies list.

Kate Howe, as Moonface’s “moll,” shows well throughout, but really delivers the goods during a sultry “Buddie, Beware.”

Andrew Boza draws his share of laughs as Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, always the unwitting butt of the joke thanks to some nicely timed self-effacing humor. He is especially charming during “The Gypsy in Me.” The orchestra also sounds particularly good here playing with a bit of an Egyptian flair. Directed by Esther Zabinski, they are impressive all evening, often sounding bigger than just six instruments.

The set designers, under Bert Scott, once again do their part creating an authentic looking ship deck with a platform that rolls in and out of the ship’s interior. It is here where much of the action occurs, making for some remarkably seamless scene changes.

Though this musical is extremely dated, Turner’s dizzying pace, some fantastic individual performances and some sharp, original dance numbers, will certainly keep you engaged. Choreographer Gerrianne Genga also deserves some praise for keeping the choreography fresh and entertaining, particularly during a breathless “Anything Goes.”

OSTC’s presentation of “Anything Goes” runs through May 22 at the company’s Jefferson Boulevard theatre. For tickets or more information, visit oceanstatetheatre.org.



The Miracle Worker Works Miracles

Miracle Worker 1With the recent passing of Patty Duke, Ocean State Theatre Company’s current production of The Miracle Worker seems fitting, for she and Anne Bancroft immortalized the Tony Award-winning play both on stage and screen.

Dramatizing the volatile relationship between teacher Annie Sullivan and her student, the blind and deaf Helen Keller, OSTC artistic director Amiee Turner wonderfully captures their torturous struggle, keeping things tight and crisp and culminating in a powerful, tear-jerker of a finish.

The play’s title actually originated from Mark Twain’s description of Sullivan as a “miracle worker.” The famed humorist was an admirer of both women and even helped secure funding for Keller’s Radcliffe College education. While Sullivan’s miraculous work goes without question, one also can’t help but contemplate Keller’s role in helping Sullivan exorcise her own ghosts and bringing the somewhat dysfunctional Keller family closer together. As her father later observed, “We don’t just help our children, they help us.” Playwright William Gibson certainly seems to suggest this throughout the play, and OSTC nicely threads the concept throughout its production.

The set designers also do their part creating a comfortable set without much need for manipulation: a loft style bedroom, a dining area and a comfortable sitting room that later converts into a garden house. Off to both sides, lattice work covered with flowers make for a serene outdoor escape complete with a working water pump. Changes in lighting mark changes in location.

Much of the play revolves around the tempestuous relationship between Sullivan and Keller, though Sullivan must also combat Keller’s headstrong father Captain Keller and her extremely skeptical half-brother Jimmy, who believes his sister interferes with his ability to connect with his father. Sullivan does, however, find an ally in Mrs. Keller who remains hopeful and optimistic.

One of the most powerful components of OSTC’s Worker is how Turner poignantly juxtaposes Keller’s obvious physical limitations against her family and Sullivan’s emotional limitations; in a way, they are all handicapped.

Unable to handle Keller’s violent outbursts, her family treats her in a cold and almost non-human manner. Consequently, many of their issues with one another arise from their inability to control her. Whereas Sullivan, a recent graduate from the Perkins School for the Blind, brings her own emotional baggage stemming from her guilt in not being able to save her crippled brother, with his voice haunting her nightly. But it is Sullivan who ultimately realizes that there is indeed a spirit hiding deep within Keller waiting to be rescued.

This realization leads to some very spirited exchanges between she and the Captain. Not only does he doubt she can help, he is also put-off by her northeastern directness: “If you are to stay, there must be a radical change in manners!” he shouts. “By whom?” she asks.

Later, after tricking the Captain into giving her more time with Keller, she declares, “All is fair in love and war.” To which he sharply replies, “This is not war!” But, counters Sullivan, “It is not love.” It is only after securing time alone with Keller without family intervention that she finally succeeds in breaking the child’s tortured silence.

Interestingly, the play concludes pretty much where Keller’s life truly begins. She was the first deafblind person to receive a bachelor of arts degree. She would go on to become a prolific author, political activist and lecturer. She was also posthumously inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 1971 and the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame in 2015.

Youngster Laurel McMahon (Helen Keller) admirably tackles the very difficult task of portraying a handicapped person. Groping her way around the stage and wearing an expressionless stare, one feels Keller’s isolation and frustration.

Brittany Rolfs (Annie Sullivan) handles much of the play’s heavy lifting. With a quick wit and sharp tongue, she presents a very likeable character despite her bullishness.

While much of the interaction between Rolfs and McMahon is central to the play, they do also engage in some pretty intense physical confrontations, but they often come off as a bit too rehearsed, lacking raw intensity.

Kevin B McMahon (Captain Keller) serves as a worthy adversary for Rolfs with his southern stubbornness and booming voice. Kristin Wetherington (Kate Keller) makes for a wonderfully sympathetic and conflicted Mrs. Keller, juggling her maternal love for Helen while trying to remain loyal to her headstrong husband.

Joseph DiPietro (James Keller) is perfectly detestable as the sniveling and jealous half-son undermining everybody’s efforts to help his sister.

OSTC’s production of The Miracle Worker runs through April 17 at the company’s Jefferson Boulevard theater. For more information, visit: oceanstatetheatre.org.


Up Close on Hope Is Must-See Entertainment

UCOHFestival Ballet Providence’s season finale of their popular Up Close On Hope is an evening of remarkably vivid storytelling. With heavy doses of gut-wrenching drama, this program is not for the faint of heart, for indeed when the final piece reaches its tragic conclusion, gasps are heard throughout FBP’s intimate Black Box Theatre followed by stunned silence when the lights are raised.

While past productions feature nearly a dozen vignettes with a mix of contemporary and classical dance — some fun, some serious — the current offering presents only two pieces, both world premieres, with each running a little over 30 minutes.

The program opens with frequent UCOH contributor Gianni Di Marco’s “Lady of the Camellias,” the emotionally charged story of Marguerite Gautier, a French courtesan and socialite who begins an illicit affair with a wealthy young man, Armand Duval. But, shortly after ending their affair at the insistence of Duval’s father, she succumbs to an illness, begging the question of whether or not a broken heart accelerated her demise.

Displaying Di Marco’s romantic flair, the piece unfolds like a series of colorful slides quickly moving from one scene to the next with the women in spring-like purplish gowns and the men in tights, dress shirts and vests. The choreography smartly and economically lays out the story, intensifying its dramatic impact: A simple cough and a hand to the stomach informs the audience that Marguerite is not well.

Jennifer Ricci delivers a stirring performance as the heartbroken socialite; she is one with the rare ability to tell an entire story via her facial expressions. I also could not help but consider the metaphorical implications of this story and Ricci’s dancing career. She has been a member of FBP for nearly three decades, but over the last couple of seasons she has been limited due to injuries. So while we all cherish her moments on stage, we can only wonder how much longer can she continue.

Courting two suitors at once, Duval and Baron de Varville, Ricci has a way of making partnering look fun and easy. Mindaugas Bauzys (Duval) and David DuBois (Varville) take turns gently handing her off to one another. Later, Ricci and Bauzys meet for a remarkably tender pas de deux highlighted by delicious promenades and effortless overhead lifts.

As Flora, Marguerite’s friend, young dancer Eugenia Zinovieva continues to impress, dancing a charming duet and holding her own alongside the veteran Ricci. Alex Lantz (Armand’s father) also has some fine moments highlighted by in incredibly cold pas de deux where he throws Ricci aside and tosses money at her.

But it is Ricci’s efforts both physically and emotionally that propel this piece. The final duet between her and Bauzys is heartbreaking with his lifting her limp body, desperately trying to give it life. Yet Ricci keeps turning the screws, with each lift and turn, her body becomes more and more lifeless until the final moment when she falls to the floor and Bauzys can only watch as her hand slips from his.

After intermission, the program turns dark with Plotnikov’s visually stunning The House of Bernarda Alba. Utilizing his familiar but unconventional style, the piece further breaks from tradition with some brief dialogue. Composer Sonya Belousova’s original score adds to the drama, giving it an eerie and haunting quality.

Bassed on Federico Garcia Lorca’s stage-play, Djuric claims “many choreographers in Europe take on the challenge of telling this gripping story as a ballet. In fact, I think it is more powerful as a ballet than a stage play.” Based on Plotnikov’s latest creation, it may be difficult to find fault in his conclusion.

The story depicts a domineering mother who, after the death of her second husband, orders an eight-year mourning period for her five daughters, isolating them from the outside world. Her relentless control over them descends into an explosion of tension, violence and sexual rage when two of her daughters become attracted to the same man, Pepe, whom they observe from a window in their home.

With a large screen covering half the stage, the production, in effect, becomes two stories being told simultaneously. Pre-recorded images of the dancers are projected onto the screen telling one story, while they dance in front of the screen, sometimes telling a separate story, other times reacting to what appears on the screen.

In person, the dancers wear black, ankle-length dresses with their faces painted white, suggesting an anonymity or lack of self. On the screen, their faces are not painted, suggesting a more concrete reality, an interesting dichotomy when contemplating that much of the tragedy occurs on the screen, not presented live by the dancers.

The choreography itself assumes a militant and regimented quality, enhanced by the dancers all wearing the same dark clothing. But it also features Plotnikov’s trademark frantic hand, arm and head movements, suggesting a sense of desperation and a yearning to be free. When one of the sisters defies her mother’s orders, putting on a green dress and attempting to run to her male lover, she is beaten down by her sisters.

As the overbearing matriarch, Marisa Gomer makes for a striking presence. The piece opens with her physically restraining her five daughters, pressing down on their heads while they lay stacked atop one another. The image of her continually projected onto the screen shaking her fist in a threatening manner serves as a chilling reminder of her dominance.

Zinovieva and Jaime DeRocker deliver powerful performances as the two daughters competing for Pepe’s (Alex Lantz) affection. Lantz and Zinovieva also dance a wonderfully provocative pas de deux with her cleverly climbing into his shirt.

Plotnikov’s House will leave audiences stunned, mesmerized and, perhaps, a bit disturbed. But it is another visual masterpiece from the choreographer’s gifted but somewhat twisted mind, a must-see!

FBP’s final installment of Up Close On Hope runs through March 13. For tickets or additional information, visit festivalballetprovidence.org.

1776: You’ll Laugh, You’ll Cry, You’ll Learn Something

1776With the presidential race heating up, the rhetoric and insults are reaching a fever pitch. But, Ocean State Theatre Company’s current offering, the musical 1776, charmingly shows that such bickering and heated exchanges are nothing new to American politics.

Detailing our founding fathers’ efforts to achieve independence from the British crown, OSTC, under the direction of managing producer Joel Kipper, presents a smart, clever and laugh-out-loud look at one of the seminal events in American history. And, despite its comedic overtones, the production is also very informative and educational, a must-see for history buffs or theater lovers.

With a cast of 21 men, two women and three teens, Kipper maintains a nice pace, with characters always coming and going, but the quick and witty dialogue keeps the audience engaged. On several occasions, audience members call out their own responses to the back-and-forth occurring on stage. They also clap enthusiastically when members of the Continental Congress come to an agreement on some hotly contested issues.

While the musical relies on none of the sappy patriotism and patriotic music one might expect, it does surprisingly feature quite a bit of sexual innuendo and double-entendres, but it is delivered in a very tasteful and clever manner, often serving as a precursor to compromise.

Early in the production, Abigail Adams, proving once again that behind every great man is a great woman, expertly threatens to deny her husband John of his manly needs unless he sees to her womanly needs – sewing needles for all the ladies! John ultimately relents and thus the art of striking the right deal through compromise highlights the true genius of our founding fathers. There were several RI politicians in attendance on opening night, most notably Lt. Governor McKee — let’s hope they were taking notes!

The performances from top to bottom are fabulous, not an easy task with such a large cast, but the musical pretty much revolves around John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Dickinson, Edward Rutledge and Richard Henry Lee, who debate some of those most contentious issues. It is fascinating to watch the divide between the north and south regarding the country’s quest for independence.

The south, led by Dickinson from Pennsylvania, fears the American army cannot defeat the British army, and seeking independence will be their death warrant. Whereas the north, dogmatically represented by Franklin and Adams, makes passionate pleas for sovereignty, though Adams is continually reminded by other members of congress that he is “obnoxious” and disliked. In fact, the musical opens with the funny number, “For God’s Sake, John, Sit Down,” a request repeated throughout the show.

Rutledge, from South Carolina, also opposes independence due to the north’s insistence on abolishing slavery in the Declaration of Independence. Played by Joe Depietro, he delivers a deliciously chilling “Molasses To Rum” pointing out the north’s hypocritical views on slavery. Depietro shines in several pivotal scenes that help pave the way for the Declaration’s signing.

As Adams and Franklin, Lou Ursone and Marc S. Cartier serve as congress’s Abott and Costello. But the two are perfectly suited for another, using humor and intelligence to propel their agenda. There are many priceless exchanges between them. While trying to persuade Thomas Jefferson to author the Declaration, Jefferson abruptly leaves to be with his wife to which a shocked Adams asks, “They’re going to [do it] in the middle of the afternoon?” Franklin dryly replies, “Not everybody is from Boston!” a nod toward the city’s puritanical nature.

OSTC favorite Christopher Swan presents a very convincing Dickinson as part of Pennsylvania’s fractured delegation (with Franklin and James Wilson in favor of independence). He certainly has the best singing voice among the men, leading a very cool and calculated “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men.” This being one of two very impressive ensemble musical numbers. Later, Cartier, Ursone and Roger Reed (Jefferson) combine for a delightful “The Egg,” arguing over whether the dove, eagle or turkey should be the national bird.

One of the musical’s most stirring moments occurs just before intermission when teen actor Grant Whitney delivers a haunting “Momma Lock Sharp,” a piece recalling the horrors of war. There were very few dry eyes in the near capacity house when the lights came up.

But Alison Mahoney (Abigail Adams) far away possesses the show’s most alluring singing voice displaying remarkable range and control in “Yours, Yours, Yours,” with Ursone struggling to keep pace, and again in a fine solo number, “Compliments.”

Ethan Paulini provides much of the early comedy as a somewhat flamboyant Richard Henry Lee in “The Lees of Old Virginia,” a funny romp where he continually emphasizes the -ly (pronouncing it “leeeee”) at the end of every word. He is also pretty nifty with a hand whip.

As the congressional secretary, Andrew McNair, Patrick Mark Saunders has many fine moments delivering some of the musical’s funniest lines in a dry, deadpan manner.

And, do not fear, for RI is well represented in the Continental Congress by Stephen Hopkins, played hilariously by Tom Gleadow. While other congressional members debate the heady issue of independence, Hopkins appears far more concerned with where his next cup of rum is coming from!

OSTC’s production of 1776 runs through March 13 at their Jefferson Boulevard theater. For tickets or additional information, visit oceanstatetheatre.org.

Spring Dancers Are Light on Their Feet

With March comes the promise of spring and warmer weather. But for area dance fans, it also looks to be a month chock full of performances.

Festival Ballet Providence gets things started Friday, March 4, with the second installment of their popular Up Close On Hope, a dance series presented in the company’s intimate Black Box Theatre.

Featuring back-to-back world premieres, this program offers rich and passionate storytelling utilizing two distinct styles. The House of Bernarda Alba, the newest creation from internationally acclaimed FBP resident choreographer Viktor Plotnikov, “tells the story of a domineering matriarch whose relentless control over her mother and five daughters descends into an explosion of tension, violence and sexual rage.” With an original score commissioned by composer Sonya Belousova coupled with Plotnikov’s unique choreography, this piece will surely leave audiences mesmerized.

Generally presented as a play, FBP artistic director Mihailo Djuric states, “Many choreographers in Europe take on the challenge of telling this gripping story as a ballet. In fact, I think it is more powerful as a ballet than a stage play. But it is not often seen in the United States in this form, which is why I’m thrilled to see it come to life on our stage.” In addition to music and dance, this adaptation will also incorporate film with visual images projected onto a backdrop during the performance.

Completing the twin-bill will be frequent UCOH contributor Gianni de Marco​’s Lady of the Camellias, an emotionally charged number retelling “the story of Marguerite Gautier, a French courtesan and socialite whose illicit romance with Armand Duval spirals into betrayal.” Such a piece perfectly suits de Marco’s fiery and charismatic style of dance. “It’s the kind of drama that audiences crave and I promise it will have you on the edge of your seat,” claims Djuric.

The curtain closes on FBP’s season the weekend of April 29 – May 1, with Swan Lake at The Vets. This performance also marks the “swan song” for beloved principal dancer Mindaugas Bauzys. For years he has been thrilling audiences with his power, grace and technical virtuosity; his departure will leave the spotlight straining for a suitable replacement. For tickets or additional information, visit festivalballet.com.    

In March, audiences will get to meet RI’s newest dance company, Doppelganger Dance Collective, the brainchild of dancers and co-artistic directors Danielle Davidson and Shura Baryshnikov (yes, she is Mikhail’s daughter!). This collaboration features only the two dancers working with other artists, choreographers, dancers and composers. Their inaugural performance – The First Four — takes place on March 11 and 12 at the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts at Brown University.

Davidson and Baryshnikov first met while taking a Saturday morning technique class. They continued taking classes together, pushing one another to perfect each movement. Possessing similar “fierce physicality and versatile technique,” the duo felt they could offer an evening of bold and fresh dance. Baryshnikov explains, “Because of our self-same personalities and the fact that we were already calling one another ‘twinsie’ on the dance floor … [we felt] this [was] an incredibly exciting collaboration. Everyone who sees us dance seems to quickly recognize that we are meant to share the stage.”

The company’s debut performance actually encompasses a weekend of dance and enrichment with a symposium prior to the dance concert focusing on choreography, the creative process and collaborative partnerships. There will also be a free master class open to the public. As noted in a recent press release, “It is essential that the symposium provide community access to the participating choreographers, as well as offering community benefit through discussion of creative partnerships.”

With all that is happening during DDC’s opening weekend, the highlight will certainly be Davidson and Baryshnikov. They have commissioned four choreographers to create four original duets. They will also be accompanied by a string quartet led by cellist Adrienne Taylor, a member of Community Music Works and the musical director for this production. For tickets or additional information, visit doppelgangerdancecollective.com.     

For the better part of a remarkable 56 seasons, The State Ballet of Rhode Island has been performing the timeless classic Giselle every couple of years and on certain anniversaries, making it the company’s signature ballet. Luckily for ballet aficionados, this is an “on” year with the company presenting the ballet March 18 and 19 at Robert’s Hall on the RIC campus.

There are few productions that better tell this heartbreaking story of love, betrayal and forgiveness better than SBRI artistic director Herci Marsden’s. Once again, audiences can expect to see Ms. Marsden’s well-drilled corps de ballet; her willis will give you the willies!

According to executive director Ana Marsden Fox, “What makes SBRI’s Giselle unique is that they are welcoming alumni dancers to perform the acting roles in the ballet. Working alongside alumni dancers, the ballet company is forming a strong sense of community in the dance world and keeping people connected to the arts.” In many SBRI productions, it is not uncommon for mothers and grandmothers to share the stage with daughters and granddaughters! For tickets or additional information, visit stateballet.com.

Island Moving Company, April 23 at The Vets. The Newport based company visits the city for the first time with a program of premieres. Pieces by California’s Colin Connor and New York’s John Mark Owen join a premiere by legendary dance great Bill Evans and works by Mark Harootian and IMC artistic director Miki Ohlsen. This milestone performance will also feature live music. Then, after touring Kazashstan, the company will move into the Great Friends Meeting House in Newport for their annual production of the Great Friends Dance Festival. For tickets or additional information, visit islandmovingco.org.

Fusionworks Dance Company, Unwrapped – Unlocking the Mystery of Making Dances, March 4 at Movement Exchange. Narrated by artistic director Deb Meunier, audiences go behind the scenes to see how dances are created from choreographer to dancer to musical selections. “Locally Grown Concert Series,” April 2 and 3 at Forman Theatre on the RIC campus. For tickets or additional information, visit: www.fusionworksdance.org.

Decadancetheatre, 4, Rhode Island College Performing Arts Series, April 21 at Robert’s Hall on the RIC campus. Led by artistic director Jennifer Weber, this international hip-hop company fuses authentic New York hip-hop style with classical music in their critically acclaimed version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, featuring dancers from Nigeria, Norway, France, Japan and the UK. For tickets or additional information, visit ric.edu/pfa.

Moscow Festival Ballet: Cinderella, May 6 at the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center, New Bedford. Moscow Festival Ballet brings Cinderella, one of ballet’s most cherished story ballets, to The Z stage. Internationally acclaimed dancers, brilliant choreography, magnificent score and stunning costumes bring this timeless rags-to-riches fairy tale to life. For tickets or additional information, visit zeiterion.org.

Providence Ballet Theatre, Hansel and Gretel, April 8 and 9 at Sapinsley Hall on the RIC campus. This dramatic ballet features collaborations between choreographer, composer and designers, with the talents of local and professional dancers to create an all-new experience for all ages. For tickets or additional information, visit providenceballet.org.

Heritage Ballet, Cinderella, March 19 and 20 at Stadium Theatre in Woonsocket. For tickets or additional information, visit heritageballet.com.

Ocean State Theatre Company Is Breaking Legs

breaking“Break a leg” is a phrase actors use to wish each other luck before taking the stage. But, in Ocean State Theatre Company’s production of Tom Dulack’s dark comedy Breaking Legs, it takes on a whole new meaning when a playwright turns to members of organized crime to fund his new play.

Directed by RI favorite Fred Sullivan, his OSTC directorial debut, the play falls short of its “hilarious” billing.  Though the pace and laughs increase markedly in Act II, it is not enough to make up for Act I where the laughs are few and far between. The problem is that this genre represents some very well-traversed terrain, both dramatically and comically, making it difficult to present something original.

Much of the humor comes across as predictable and cliché: course language, Italians shouting at each other rather than talking and a table always covered in food. Dulack has not given us anything new to sink our funny bone into. Consequently, the cast is tasked with making the material seem fresh and funny, which they achieve with varying degrees of success.

All the action occurs in an Italian restaurant owned by Lou Graziano and managed by his single and very available daughter Angie. Once again, OSTC’s set designers have done a fantastic job perfectly replicating a private dining area in an Italian restaurant featuring four tables covered with red and white tablecloths, a jukebox that plays nothing but Italian music, a fully stocked bar (courtesy of the Greenwood Inn) and pictures of Italian maps covering the back wall.

Anxious to find his daughter a husband, Lou excitedly awaits the arrival of playwright Terence O’Keefe, one of Angie’s former college professors. In addition to hearing about his new play, he hopes the 40-something and married professor will become a love interest for his head strong daughter who just happens to have “a hard-on” for him.

Upon meeting with his potential investors, O’Keefe quickly realizes the Graziano family “uncles” are perhaps a bit more “family” than he has bargained for. But the lure of quick, easy cash — “Two hundred thousand doesn’t sound like much,” concludes Lou. “It doesn’t?” asks a shocked O’Keefe — stops him from aborting his plans. Things become even more complicated after he witnesses the murder of the debt-ridden “uncle” Frankie.

Then there is also the competing story-line of the budding romance between Angie and O’Keefe, with his arrival dredging up all sorts of repressed emotions. He whimsically recalls one of her first writing samples: “Oh that story about when I first did it,” she interjects. “Did that turn you on?” After several aggressive advances from Angie, and a near orgasmic foot massage, we learn the professor is actually separated from his wife and not very happy with his lot in life. In one of the play’s funnier scenes, he crawls across the floor lamenting how awful his life is crying, “I have been an English teacher for a quarter century!”

Angie and O’Keefe ultimately consummate their relationship on a bed in Angie’s office that she assures him is only “slightly used.” Then, in a highly implausible twist, he bullies the uncles into lending him the money to produce his play; though he is slightly put off-guard when Lou hands him $90,000 cash.

Despite the play’s challenges regarding its well-worn material, there are some fine moments, most notably the performance of Lincoln native Chris Perrotti (Tino De Felice). As mob boss Mike Francisco’s muscle and consigliere, Perrotti serves up many funny one-liners and often helps Francisco complete a sentence. His entrance wearing a velour sweatsuit, gold chain and white sneakers is probably a familiar sight for many Rhode Islanders!

Brandon Whitehead’s (Mike Francisco) performance is loud and sometimes over-the-top, but it grows on you. His inability to open his lips when laughing becomes on ongoing gag that actually gets funnier throughout the play.

OSTC veteran Chris Swan ably portrays the professor-turned-playwright Terence O’Keefe. But his role suffers the most from the script; he comes off as far too skittish, making his tough guy conversion a bit far-fetched. There are often several lengthy stretches in Act I where just sits without talking or interacting with anybody.

Providence native Sophia Blum does wonders for leopard print and a collection of tacky skintight dresses as the sex-starved Angie. She does an okay job of balancing Angie’s strong-will with her desperate need for love. As her father Lou, Cleo Zani nicely combines his overly protective love and desire for what’s best for his daughter with his dark side.

Mark S. Cartier appears briefly delivering one of the most convincing performance as the pathetic uncle Frankie begging for “a couple more weeks” to pay off his debt.

OSTC’s production of Breaking Legs runs through February 14 at the company’s Jefferson Boulevard theater. For tickets or more information, visit oceanstatetheatre.org.

OSTC Proves It’s a Wonderful Life

ostc‘Tis the season when many turn to theater for a little Christmas cheer. Locally, we are fortunate to have several wonderful options; Trinity’s A Christmas Carol, Festival Ballet’s The Nutcracker, and, this year, add Ocean State Theatre’s It’s a Wonderful Life to your Christmas “must see” list.

Based on the beloved 1946 film starring Jimmy Stewart, this holiday musical tells the familiar story of George Bailey looking back over his life with a growing sense of regret. It seems all his good deeds, while enriching the lives of many, have left him and his family in a very precarious position. Wishing he had never been born and contemplating a Christmas Eve suicide, his guardian angel Clarence suddenly appears and shows him what life in his hometown of Bedford Falls would have been like without him.

Like the movie, the musical does not really indulge in all that Christmassy cheer until the very end, with George’s selfless generosity representing the true spirit of Christmas. And, while OSTC’s production starts slowly, it does grow on you. Act I runs long, over an hour, and seems to be missing something — energy, color? But things do pick-up in Act II, especially during the final scenes with several extremely powerful and wonderfully sang musical numbers.

Much of Act I occurs in the streets of Bedford Falls and the Bailey Building and Loan offices. The set is very minimal and stark, opting for darker color schemes with painted scrims and silhouettes of houses. During a park scene, only a bench and two street lamps sit in the middle of the stage (perhaps I have become spoiled by OSTC’s usually elaborate sets?). Though the set designers do rise to the occasion cleverly converting a bridge into a riverside shack.

In addition to lacking color, Act I feels slow at times. The scenes with Clarence speaking to Joseph, the head of guardian angels, bring things to a halt. Though Joseph serves as a narrator of sorts, his exchanges with Clarence and the subplot of Clarence attempting to get his angel wings seem to compete against George’s story, though Clarence works much better when interacting with George in Act II.

There is a nice burst of energy during the Bedford Falls High School reunion dance featuring a wonderful Charleston highlighted by Taylor Elise Rector as Violet displaying a nice voice along with some nifty dance moves. “Bless You, George Bailey” is also a hoot, hilariously spoofing the famous Italian opera song “O Sole Mio,” performed nicely by Stefani Wood and Rudy Sanda as the Italian couple, the Martinis.

Act II opens several years later with George married to early love interest Mary; the two also have four children. Things appear to be going well. The Bailey Building and Loan is prospering; Bailey park is sprawling with development; and, George’s brother Harry is returning from war as a hero, just recently being award the Congressional Medal of Honor. But things are not what they seem, as Potter, George’s nemesis, reminds him, “Being kind hasn’t gotten you very far.” Thus setting the stage for George’s prophetic meeting with Clarence.

Act II also features another impressive dance sequence “Pottersville,” a fictionalized representation of Bedford Fall’s underbelly. The choreography, while understated, effectively depicts the seediness of a red light district without being overly gratuitous (this is a family show!)

Peter Tedeschi is deliciously evil as Potter, out-Scrooging even Scrooge, rubbing his hands in a chilling manner while teasingly singing “Tell Me What You Want” and later in “Go Ahead and Run.” These are two of the show’s finer musical numbers, both accompanied by the same ominous sounding score.

Jeff Canter (Clarence) comes off initially as being a bit too animated. But, his character is described as having the “IQ of a rabbit and the faith of a child,” in which case he performs admirably. He is also able to show-off some pretty good pipes late in the show during “Second Class Angel” and the reprise of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” one of the musical’s moving closing scenes.

As George Bailey, Kevin Cirone does a fine job. His manner throughout is even and tempered, until he eventually loses it, doing so in a very convincing manner. He too has a very pleasant singing voice, on full display during “My Life,” another of the musical’s powerful final scenes. It is off-putting, though, at times when he seems to be struggling with either trying to sound like Jimmy Stewart or not to sound like him.

Melissa McKamie is illuminating as Mary. In addition to having a terrific singing voice, she projects a natural charm and ease. She shows wonderful range in “My George Bailey” and delivers a heartfelt “My Future.” She also shines in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a touching duet with Cirone, capping off a truly wonderful performance.
OSTC’s production of It’s a Wonderful Life runs through December 27 at their Jefferson Street theater. For tickets or more information visit oceanstatetheatre.org.