Some Enchanted Evening: Providence Singers will perform Broadway hits at the Biltmore

On March 28, the Biltmore Ballroom of the Graduate Providence Hotel will be the most swankified place in town for any Broadway geek to hear the people sing, as the Providence Singers will give their regards to Broadway in Broadway at the Biltmore, a gala of musical theater favorites of the 20th century, from George and Ira Gershwin to Andrew Lloyd Webber.

In creating the setlist for this showtune-packed evening, not just anything goes. Artistic director Christine Noel began with a song from a musical revue that served as her first experience with musical theater as a teenager, “Ol’ Man River,” the classic, soulful bass solo from Jerome Kern’s 1927 musical Showboat

“[Ol’Man River] was a piece that really moved me as a teenager and it really stayed with me over the last 30 years. It’s one of my very favorite pieces of music in this genre,” Noel says. “The Providence Singers do not typically program musical theater repertoire — we perform classical works — so this was a unique opportunity for us, and when I began to think about what kind of music we would perform, that piece from 30 years ago was the first one on my list.”

With such an iconic song headlining the music of the night, the challenge then became finding a singer who could do it justice. Luckily, internationally renowned bass soloist Kevin Deas came on board. Deas has a history with the Singers, having appeared with them at the Newport Jazz Festival in 2004 and at the Lincoln Center in 2005. His resume also includes portraying the title role in Porgy and Bess with orchestras all over the country. In addition to “Ol’ Man River,” Deas will perform solos from Ragtime and Les Miserables.

“When Kevin Deas confirmed his availability, I knew that this would be a very very special performance,” says Noel.

The rest of the setlist includes some of the most beloved musical theater hits from the early years of Broadway (including selections from the likes of Anything Goes and a few Gershwin musicals), the Golden Age (including selections from Guys and Dolls and the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein) and comparatively recent mega musical hits (Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables).

Additional soloists from the Providence Singers include tenors Justin Kisch, Brad Kleyla and Ted Doran; sopranos Cat Monfette and Olivia Black; baritone Josh Krugman; bass Mike Zarzycki; and mezzo-soprano Alyssa LaMothe.

The gala will serve as the Providence Singers’ major fundraising event of the season. In addition to the concert, there will be a tapas buffet reception and a silent auction. Proceeds will go to support the Singers’ artistic and educational endeavors. Other ways to support their efforts include purchasing program advertisements, donating items or experiences for the silent auction, or becoming a gala sponsor.

The Providence Singers have been singing since 1971. Its nearly 100 members perform both traditional and new choral pieces throughout the season, often accompanied by the RI Philharmonic Orchestra. After this event, they will close out the season in May with a performance of Verdi Requiem, for which Kevin Deas will join them once again.

For tickets, visit providencesingers.com. General admission includes concert seats, the silent auction and tapas buffet reception. Patron admission includes preferred seating and a pre-concert reception with the artistic director and soloists.




Sunflower Years: Calendar Girls celebrates friendship and female empowerment

(Sunflower Ladies) from left: Sylvia A. Bagaglio as Cora, Susan Martin as Ruth, Karen Gail Kessler as Chris, Heather Carey as Annie, Prreeti Tiwari as Celia and Lynn Price as Jessie star in The Community Players’ production of Calendar Girls

They’re not the pin-ups you’d expect to see adorning the pages of a calendar, but the women of Yorkshire’s Women’s Institute bare all for a worthy cause. Calendar Girls, currently being performed by Pawtucket’s Community Players under the direction of Pamela Jackson, is the stage adaptation of the 2003 film starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters, based on actual events.

Calendar Girls gets off to a rather slow start, as the six women of the WI, under the stuffy and oft-questioned leadership of Marie (Annette LaBonte), go about their various seasonal activities: baking, flower-arranging, attending boring lectures, caroling and playing golf. The de facto leaders of the group are Chris and Annie (Karen Gail Kessler and Heather Carey), best friends and partners in mischief. The mischief, however, quickly takes a backseat, as Annie’s kindhearted husband, John (David Mann) is diagnosed with leukemia. Over the course of the year, his condition worsens, though the only evidence of this is his sudden reliance on a wheelchair in his final scene, when, mid-sentence, he abruptly rises from the chair and shuffles off this mortal coil — and the stage — in a blue light (the blue spotlights seem to be the weapon of choice for lighting designer Christopher Simpkins, who employs them in the second act as the women read excerpts of their fan mail in an effect that in theory is cool, but ends up making the sequence a bit choppy). Annie and then Chris take over for him, finishing the metaphor that sets the stage for the rest of the play: that women, like sunflowers (his favorite kind of flower), are at their most beautiful later in life.

Wanting to do something to commemorate John, inspired by his interrupted monologue, Chris and Annie come up with the idea to raise money for the hospital at which John was treated through the sales of their annual calendar. But instead of Yorkshire churchyards or bridges, the lackluster themes Marie has chosen, this calendar will feature the WI members posing nude — nude, mind you, not naked. The idea is met with mixed reactions. Trophy-wife Celia (Prreeti Tiwari) embraces the chance to strut her stuff and schoolteacher Jessie (Lynn Price) sees it as an opportunity to promote body-positivity in older women, while passive goody two-shoes Ruth (Susan Martin) declines to participate, only to show up at the last minute. They then get hospital porter and professional photographer Lawrence (Jacob David Santos) involved. 

The photoshoot itself, which closes out the first act, is probably the highpoint of the play, as each woman, after imbibing their share of liquid courage, disrobes and cleverly covers up their more sensitive areas with teapots or pastries. What makes this scene stand out, though, is the camaraderie between the women. The amount of trust and support in this cast is palpable, and it makes this scene feel all the more authentic.

The second act deals with the fallout of the calendar. Under Marie’s disapproving gaze, the calendar is a massive success and a media sensation. Their newfound fame causes a rift among the women: Chris, who has always craved the spotlight, gladly receives the attention at the expense of her personal responsibilities, including the flower shop she runs with her husband, Rod (Richard Griffin). Annie believes she has lost sight of what they set out to accomplish. Ruth, meanwhile, has the most evocative transformation over the course of the play, as she finds her voice and gains the courage to confront the woman with whom her husband is having an affair (Kiki Maples).

Calendar Girls is a refreshing tale of female friendship and body positivity for older women, the likes of which are rare in the entertainment industry. It shows that women are at their best when supporting each other rather than tearing each other down, a notion Celia expresses when comparing the WI to the higher-society golfing community where women talk behind each other’s backs. Though it may be easy to pass up Calendar Girls upon hearing its questionable premise, as director Pamela Jackson admits to having done initially, what lies beyond the nudity is female empowerment and a reminder that being past one’s prime is only a state of mind.

The Community Players’ production of Calendar Girls runs through Mar 1 at Jenks Auditorium located on Division St in Pawtucket across from McCoy Stadium. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 2pm. For tickets, visit the communityplayers.org or call 401-726-6860.




People Are Strange: Wilbury’s Prudencia Hart is wonderfully eccentric

There’s Scottish music, wild drunken karaoke antics and Hell. If there was a word to describe Prudencia Hart’s undoing, “strange” is it. After years of waiting for the performance rights, Wilbury Theatre Group is finally bringing this wild ride, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart (directed by Brien Lang), to the stage (and a few local bars) for its Rhode Island debut.

First impressions make Prudencia seem a lot like the musical Once. Wilbury’s space is set up like a cozy pub. Before the show begins, as the drinks flow, so too does the music, as the ensemble, who double as instrumentalists, play a set of Scottish tunes, from the traditional (including a song in Gaelic) to the Proclaimers (music direction by Jeff Kerr, applying his expertise in Scottish music). If you have ever wanted the craic of live music in a Scottish pub, be sure to arrive early. This, however, is where the similarities with Once end. Once the story starts, the two have little in common.

Prudencia Hart (Meg Sullivan) is an academic collector of traditional Scottish ballads attending a conference on the subject in the bordertown of Kelso. Between a blizzard that leaves her stranded, a rather embarrassing incident at a panel discussion and the presence of her ideological antithesis, Colin Syme (Dan Ruppel), things could hardly get any worse. A truly heinous karaoke night at a bar sends her out into the night to find her bed and breakfast, despite the warnings of the locals about midwinter’s eve: a night upon which “the past and present kiss,” the devil may take souls into Hell before their time. But why should Prudencia care? This isn’t a ballad, after all.

Well, the rhyming couplets in which the story is told beg to differ.

Sullivan’s Prudencia comes across as soft-spoken and mild-mannered, but passionate about the ballads she has devoted her life to and endlessly frustrated at her colleagues’ lack of appreciation for their beauty. Of course, it takes the most impressive library in any realm to ensnare her in the devil’s grasp. The devil here (in a riveting performance by Marcel Mascaro) is a bit of an edgelord who genuinely seems to take interest in Prudencia’s work and is eventually ensnared in turn by her charms. The two have a rather Beauty and the Beast-type of relationship, what with the impressive library and Stockholm Syndrome. Ruppel’s motorcycle-riding, latest technology-wielding Colin exists as her foil, the present to Prudencia’s past and her unlikely hero in a climactic scene of drunken staggering and steadfast devotion even in the face of evil.

Rounding out the cast is the ensemble (Jason Quinn, Clare Blackmer, Shannon Hartman and Ava Mascena), who function as narrators, stuffy academics and Kelso locals having a wild night. Hartman, in particular, gives a hauntingly beautiful performance as a ghostly figure singing a Scottish folk song acapella, illuminated by a head lamp worn by Prudencia (lighting design by Devin Mooney).

Part-ballad, part-romantic comedy, part-Faustian tale, Prudencia cannot be pinned down. It’s a marriage of past and present, with modern day references delivered in cheeky rhymes (written by David Greig). This is a strange one, as the title suggests, which is probably not for everyone, but if you can get past the rhyming and weirdness, Prudencia is a celebration of where tradition meets modern culture, with a smattering of comedy and music.

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart runs through Feb 2 at Wilbury Theatre Group, with performances at local bars TROOP, Riffraff and The Wild Colonial on select dates. For tickets and more information, visit thewilburygroup.org




Powerful and Thought-Provoking Parade Is Must-See Theater

Photo credit: Frank O’Donnell

Parade is an ironically cheery title for a musical that is unapologetically dark. Based on a true and pivotal event in American legal, social and political history, Parade dramatizes the 1913 trial of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory superintendent accused of murdering a factory worker under his employ. The events surrounding the trial lead to both the revival of the KKK and the inception of The Anti-Defamation League, the internationally known Jewish civil rights organization.

With this production, the Academy Players mark the third season in a row in which they have mounted a musical composed by Jason Robert Brown (the previous shows including 13 and Bridges of Madison County). Their apparent love for his work is no wonder; Brown’s scores are gorgeous. Parade was the first of his shows to hit Broadway, but already his skill was evident, the score spanning genres from rags and blues to hymns and the sweeping melodies Brown is perhaps best known for. As such, it won the Tony for Best Score, along with a Tony for Alfred Uhry’s book (Uhry is actually descended from the owner of the factory where the murder took place). Despite these wins, Parade was not a commercial success, playing only 84 performances on Broadway.

The show opens with a young soldier (Ian Pedroza) about to go off to fight in the Civil War, 50 years before the events of the rest of the story, singing of his love for his dear Lila and “the old red hills of home.” We see the same soldier as an older, battle-scarred man (Michael Carnevale) reminiscing on the good ol’ days of the south. The purpose of this is clear: It sets up the world Leo Frank reluctantly enters into as an outsider that he so reviles and cannot understand. It’s a world that’s stuck in its past — not ashamed of its defeat, mind you, but proud of what it once was. In retrospect, it makes sense, it feels like a bit of a slow start, and it was not until the full cast joined in for the end of the number that I was swayed. This is a fairly large cast, and as such, they pack a powerful punch when they all sing together.

We then meet Leo and Lucille Frank (Kyle Buonfiglio and Lauren Vine), a married couple who could probably benefit from some couple’s therapy. Leo, a college-educated Jew from Brooklyn, feels uncomfortable with southern culture, especially because it’s Confederate Memorial Day. Uninterested in celebrating such a misguided holiday, he opts to go into work instead of having a picnic with his wife. Meanwhile, Frankie asks Mary Phagan to the picture show in a number of playful flirtation. Mary, played by Haley Bourne, is adorable in this scene, so of course, her fate is sealed as she goes to receive her pay from Leo at the factory.

And that’s when it happens: the murder that sets the plot in motion.

Leo is arrested as the interrogation of the night watchman who found the body casts suspicion upon him. The need to deliver justice pushes prosecutor Hugh Dorsey (Zach Searle) to get Leo convicted by any means necessary — including blackmailing and coaching witnesses. His ruthless campaign against Leo is aided by reporter Britt Craig (Ray Fournier) and publisher Tom Watson (RJ Lima), who do their best to turn the mournful laments over Mary’s death into vicious cries for Leo’s blood. This especially takes root in Frankie, in a dynamic performance by Matthew Lavigne in the funeral sequence.

As Craig spreads rumors degrading Leo’s character in the number “Real Big News” (performed with ferocious exuberance by Ray Fournier), Lucille becomes uncomfortable with all of the attention on her, to the point where she considers leaving town for the trial. Though in “You Don’t Know This Man,” she seeks to set the record straight, she stops short of swearing by her husband’s innocence.

The trial presents a series of witnesses coached into making Leo sound like a predator. In haunting and discordant harmonies, Mary’s co-workers (Hope Bourne, Gia Antonelli and Alyssa Germaine) share identical stories of Leo making advances on them; Frankie claims that Mary told him that Leo made her uncomfortable; the Franks’ maid, Minnie, claims Leo behaved strangely that night; and perhaps most damningly, the factory’s sweeper, Jim Conley, claims to have been an accessory in the murder in order to gain immunity for a previous crime. With this damning evidence and Mrs. Phagan’s (Michelle Schmitt) heartfelt diatribe where she prays her daughter will forgive her for failing to prevent this tragedy and she extends forgiveness to Leo — a sentiment counteracted by her spitting the word “Jew” with more impact than a slap in the face — Leo is sentenced to death over a jubilant, albeit discordant, cakewalk.

And that’s just Act One.

Act Two is where the heart of the musical becomes clear: the relationship between Leo and Lucille. As Lucille finds the strength to raise her voice and advocate for her husband, Leo realizes he underestimated his wife. She convinces Governor John Slaton (W. Richard Johnson) to reopen Leo’s case, and the two go around to each of the witnesses and unravel their stories. From “Do It Alone,” in which Lucille is frustrated that Leo won’t let her help him, to “This Is Not Over Yet,” where her efforts come to light, to “All the Wasted Time,” which happens during a prison cell picnic, the development of their relationship is gorgeous and affecting. Never have I been quite so moved by an onstage couple as I have by this one (especially in “All the Wasted Time”) and full credit goes to the brilliant acting of Buofiglio and Vine and the direction of Chelsea and Adam Morgan (and, of course, Brown’s music).

One of the highlights is “A Rumblin’ and A Rollin’” in which the African American characters wonder if people would be quite so up in arms over this case if the victim or the accused had been black (“There’s a black man swingin’ in ev’ry tree, but they don’t never pay attention… but if a Yankee boy flies, surprise! They gonna pay attention, they gonna yell ‘Set that man free!’”). It’s a necessary addition lest racism be the elephant in the room, and man, there are no holds barred. Markia Fortado-Rahill and Dana Reid deliver a fantastic and scathing performance in this number.

This show is unbelievably heavy, and it gives audiences a lot to think about. At a time when anti-Semitism is so pervasive, as well as the notion of division in this country, this show is teeming with relevance and nuance. Parade is not for the faint of heart or for someone looking to sit back and be passively entertained, but it is absolutely for those looking for a powerful and thought-provoking night of theatre.

Parade runs at Academy Players through Jan 19. For tickets and more information, visit www.academyplayersri.org




Wilbury’s You Got Older Deals with Life’s Curve Balls

Photo credit: Erin X. Smithers

Dysfunctional families are pretty much a dime-a-dozen on stage. In Clare Barron’s You Got Older, however, the dysfunction is not attributed to family, but to life in its many ups and downs and unexpected turns. While my first thought was to compare this play to other shows that revolve around family — Fun Home, a part of The Wilbury Group’s previous season, came to mind – this one avoided most of the familiar family conflict tropes. Currently running in repertory with Dance Nation at Wilbury, You Got Older, directed by Wendy Overly, takes a different approach to painting a portrait of womanhood. Though the two plays were written by the same playwright, they are tonally quite different; while Dance Nation is satirical and pretty wild, You Got Older is more grounded and realistic — it is, after all, semi-autobiographical.

At perhaps the lowest point of her life, having just lost her boyfriend and her job, Mae (Rachel Dulude) returns home to care for her father (Jim O’Brien) who is undergoing cancer treatment. As her life hits a standstill, she is filled with frustration — sexual and otherwise. She escapes from her anxieties through vivid fantasies starring a cowboy (Teddy Lytle), as well as bluntly oversharing with her sister’s childhood friend in a bar (Dave Rabinow as the weird, but sincere Mac), which is later followed up by a failed attempt at a hookup.

Dulude’s Mae is teetering on the edge of breaking down. At one point, she discusses how funny it is that her life fell apart as her father embarked on treatment, and she’s somewhere between laughing and crying.

Along with her awkward encounters with her paramours, both real and imagined, levity comes in the form of her siblings, Hannah (Beth Alieniello), Jenny (Rachel Tondreault) and Matthew (Zachary Gibb), who attend their father’s final treatment session. To pass the time, they discuss their distinct family smell, the sweater-knitting curse that dooms relationships, and an analogy between avocado pits and penises. Their banter feels natural and familiar, like any sibling reunion. However, within the levity, there are melancholy moments sprinkled in, such as Hannah revealing that an ex-boyfriend of hers died and questions Mae faces about her future plans.

The sprinkling in of joy among sadness — and, for that matter, sadness among joy — is central to the play. Near the end, Mae, for the first time in a long time, has a moment of happiness over her new winter boots — not any major life event, just something simple and sweet — but her joy comes to an abrupt halt upon receiving some news from her father in a beautifully acted phone call (the way O’Brien’s face crumbles alone makes this scene heartbreaking to watch). Yet, before the play ends, another moment of happiness comes in the form of Jenny’s wedding, as the four siblings have that dance party they had always talked about. It’s not entirely clear how far in the future this is, or whether their father is still with them, but regardless, it leaves the audience on a joyful note even after the previous scene.

Though on the surface, You Got Older has little to do with its partner show other than sharing the same playwright, it does tack on to the statements about girlhood Dance Nation puts forth, as Mae struggles with balancing the needs of others with her own needs — being a caretaker and also taking care of herself.

You Got Older runs in repertory with Dance Nation at the Wilbury Theatre Group through Dec. 22. For tickets, visit thewilburygroup.org.




American Girlhood on Stage: Dance Nation powerfully portrays what it means to be a girl

Competition, jealousy and uncertainty plague all pre-teen girls, but in few places are they more pronounced than on a competitive dance team. Playwright Clare Barron exploits the tensions teeming within both to craft a visceral and explosive exploration of adolescence in Dance Nation, which the Wilbury Theatre Group is presenting (directed by Angela Brazil) in rep with another Barron play, You Got Older, to create “a wholly beautiful and brutal portrait of American girlhood.”

If you took the likes of “Bring It On,” “Dance Moms” and The Vagina Monologues and put them in a blender, you would probably get something along the lines of Dance Nation. A weirdly cultish dance team of six pre-teen girls and one somewhat out-of-place pre-teen boy (Victor Neto as Luke) are fighting tooth and nail to claim victory in a national competition — and not just against other teams, but against each other and the impossibly high expectations placed on them by Dance Teacher Pat (never just Pat, always Dance Teacher Pat, played by the sassy and intense Joe Wilson Jr.) and overzealous parents. Along with the title, they stand to win a place in their Liverpool, Ohio, dance studio’s history, alongside the likes of alumna Sabina, whose name is spoken in a reverential whisper, for she is the one who “made it” and became a professional dancer on Broadway.

In the style of 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the young characters are played by adult actors, save for one in this case who is played by an actual 13-year-old: Sophie Ruth Appel, as the sweet, wolf-loving Maeve. But don’t be fooled: Though the characters are young, this one is unbelievably not suitable for young audiences.

With the possibility of catching the notice of talent scouts at nationals, each of the girls are vying for the spotlight through the solo part in the Gandhi-themed number (though none of them actually know who Gandhi was). Everyone is shocked when Zuzu (Alison Russo) lands the solo instead of Amina (Catia), the most talented dancer in the class. Though the two are friends, even wearing matching outfits to practice, things are tense between them, since Zuzu is jealous of Amina’s talent. By her own admission in an affecting monologue, she is a good but not good enough dancer; her dancing can’t make people cry or cure her mother’s cancer. While the solo is her chance to prove herself to be Amina’s equal, the pressure to succeed, especially from her mother, who is clearly living vicariously through her, takes its toll on her. In one scene, she takes a bite out of her own arm and returns to rehearsal with blood on her arms and mouth. Russo is both fragile and feral in the role, plagued by her own uncertainty. She spends a scene or two just lying face-down on the ground after a fall, unmoving, but she manages to convey so much even in that position. As her — and everyone else’s — mother, Jennifer Mischley perfectly runs the gamut from supportive and proud to overbearing and pressuring.

Blood ends up being a common sight in this show, which stands to reason, given the changes the girls are going through. Poor Sofia (Tanya Anderson) gets her period and bleeds through her tights right before the team performs, but her shame subsides as the team declares their intention to brutally destroy the other teams, even though they have (gasp) boys, and she smears the blood on her face like war paint. Though this may make many audience members uncomfortable, it serves as a strong and, if nothing else, memorable statement against the stigma assigned to periods — and perhaps by extension, the stigma assigned just to being a girl. This is where Barron’s work is at its boldest and most original.

Perhaps the most memorable monologue comes from Michelle L. Walker as Ashlee, who sings her own praises as a beautiful and brilliant young woman with a kind of confidence most pre-teen girls only dream of, but expresses frustration at her habit of denying compliments, a habit any girl knows all too well. In this moment, she is unapologetic and fierce in her profanity-laden self-affirmations.

There is a lot of discussion of genitalia, sex and masturbation as well — such is this age group, just beginning to discover such things — which, among other elements of the play, may be uncomfortable for some audiences. But through these elements, the play is a powerful declaration of what girlhood means. These girls have lofty dreams: They aspire to be surgeons and astrophysicists and enchantress queens. They hope to find love and friendship. But it is an uphill battle to get there, as they face impossible expectations, self-doubt and other oppressive forces. It is through banding together, believing in each other and themselves, and allowing themselves to unleash their inner power that they will achieve their dreams and make the world take notice.

Dance Nation runs in repertory with You Got Older at the Wilbury Theatre Group, 40 Sonoma Ct, PVD, through Dec. 22. For tickets and more info, visit thewilburygroup.org or call 401-400-7100.




RISE’s Hill House Keeps Audiences on Edge

Shirley Jackson’s gothic horror novel, The Haunting of Hill House, is considered one of the best ghost stories published in the 20th century. Jackson was inspired after reading the reports of a group of psychic researchers’ study of a supposedly haunted house. It was not, however, the paranormal happenings the researchers described, but the researchers themselves and their differing backgrounds and motivations. This is what sets Hill House apart. The terror does not come from the house; it comes from the characters’ psyches. In fact, it is not always clear whether phenomena is actually happening or is all in the characters’ heads. This ingenuity may be why it has been adapted into two films, two plays and, most recently, a Netflix series.

For
this Halloween season, RISE is keeping audiences on edge with its production of
F. Andrew Leslie’s 1964 stage adaptation of The
Haunting of Hill House
, directed by Emily Tallman (who, incidentally,
writes horror novels herself).

The
first thing the audience will notice is the abundance of doors, and not just on
the stage, but in rows on either side of the audience as well, as though we are
in a large corridor of Hill House. These doors prove instrumental in creating
the paranormal effects (along with the lighting design by Gordon Dell),
insinuating the sound of mysterious knocking approaching our terrified
protagonists, until the ghosts are banging on their bedroom door hard enough to
shake the entire room. Central to the set (designed and constructed by Derek
Laurendeau, Lenny Schwartz, Pat Ferron and Emily Tallman) is the parlor, where
the investigators most often parlay. It’s pretty much Haunted House 101, with
old books, a chess set, a bearskin rug and unsettling portraits (though only
one is visible, with the rest implied to be on the imagined fourth wall). Off
to one side is a mysterious locked door, leading to a stone tower that looks
like something out of Hogwarts.

We first meet Eleanor Vance (Erica Strickland), a timid young woman who has spent her entire adult life taking care of her ailing mother up until her death three months ago. She is ushered into the parlor by the house’s comically stern and solemn caretaker, Mrs. Dudley (Constance Almonte). She repeatedly reminds the new tenants that she is not there to wait on them and that she does not stay the night, so with no town for six miles, no one will hear them scream. Probably great fun at parties, that one. The characters’ main source of amusement is imitating her oft-repeated phrases.

Eleanor is soon joined by Theodora (Samantha Acampora), her sarcastic and bolder foil. The two hit it off, declaring themselves “long-lost cousins.” It turns out both were summoned to the house because both have experiences with the paranormal; Eleanor survived a poltergeist attack as a child and Theodora has extra-sensory perception. They are to assist Dr. Montague (Tom Morey) in studying the alleged paranormal forces within the house. Accompanying them is Luke Sanderson (Nicholas Tvaroha), the young nephew of the house’s present owner, who has a very aloof attitude toward the spirit world.

They
are later joined by comic relief in the form of Dr. Montague’s zany wife (Mary
Case), whose approach to the spirit world is more mystic than her husband’s
scientific methods. She is accompanied by her paramour, Arthur Parker (Tom
Rimer), a gun-toting school headmaster, ever at her beck and call.

The
play gets off to a slow start as the characters are introduced and Dr. Montague
reluctantly relays the dark history of Hill House. The first taste of
spookiness only comes at the tail end of the first act. Things don’t get really
creepy until the second act, as it becomes clear the house is targeting
Eleanor’s psyche and she slowly begins to become unhinged. Her transformation
is the backbone of the story, and Strickland portrays this strikingly well.

There are two brief intermissions, but lest you think these are respites for you to enjoy your ghost cookies in peace, rest assured, this is not the case. When the house lights come up, grim grinning ghosts come out to socialize. While this does somewhat take away from what makes this story so unique in the horror genre by shoving ghosts in your face rather than leaving the source of the haunting ambiguous, if you’re looking for a haunted house experience, this is where you’ll get that. The character work here is pretty good (despite not having a lot to go on given that they are not fleshed out in the script), from the little girl trying to play peek-a-boo and duck-duck-goose with the audience to a handyman carrying around some sort of tool. The ghostly ensemble consists of Steven Ferron, Brittney Simard, Bethany Whitehead, Michelle Savoie and Lauren Ferreira. During the show itself, for the most part, they stay behind their doors, creating the haunting sound effects.

If
you’re looking for a scare this spooky season, The Haunting of Hill House may scratch that itch. Just watch out
for those pesky ghosts!

The Haunting of Hill House runs through Oct 20 at The RISE Playhouse,142 Clinton St, Woonsocket. For tickets, visit ristage.org.




Academy’s Imaginary Explores the Wonder of Childhood

If you’ve never heard of the Academy Players’ latest production, Imaginary, you’re not alone. A venture commissioned and produced by National Youth Music Theatre, the musical first made its debut in London in 2017. Its history is not a long one — short enough that posters still declare it “a new musical” – and it is mostly confined to school productions and youth theater groups; it’s certainly never had its day on Broadway. With no warning of what to expect save for a synopsis describing it as “an exciting, funny and inspiring musical about the wonder of childhood, the power of the imagination and what it means to grow up,” I feared I was in for something hokey and campy.

To my pleasant surprise, Imaginary thoroughly charmed me.

As you might expect of a show about
childhood, a good portion of the cast are children, including the two main
characters, Sam and Milo. The two are best friends who go on all kinds of
adventures together. As Sam starts school, his mother (Hailey Deltano) worries
that Milo is a bad influence on him, keeping his head in the clouds when he
needs to start becoming more grounded. It’s no easy feat for a child to carry a
show, but Olivia Dufresne manages it beautifully. Both she and Mia Daley as
Milo deliver some impressive vocals, and the two have fantastic chemistry.
Daley in particular has some impressively sophisticated acting chops, bringing
to life Milo’s free-spirited and fun-loving nature, but not at the expense of
his more somber moments.

When Sam gets to school, it turns out his
adventures are not over. It turns out the school is run by the evil Headmaster,
who employs mind control to turn students into imagination-less test-taking
robots (I think I went to this school). He is aided in his efforts by a staff
of equally evil teachers, including a seductive I.T. teacher, a
punishment-happy mathematics teacher, a German business teacher and a P.E.
teacher who speaks exclusively in grunts (I definitely went to this school). As
in any children’s story, the antagonists are villainous to an absurd degree,
but also goofily quirky. They have a bit of a Lemony Snicket vibe to them.
Michael Carnevale is deliciously evil as the Headmaster, as are Alex Rothstein,
Allii Fontaine, Hailey Deltano and Marc Cesana Jr. as teachers-turned-henchpeople.
They are particularly hilarious in the number “Those Were the Days” in which
they reminisce about the days of corporal punishment.

To face these horrors, Sam makes a new
friend, Alice (Megan Pinto). Alice knows the truth about the Headmaster’s evil
deeds, as her older sister, Jess (Avieana Rivera) has already fallen victim.
They sing a lovely duet as Alice longs for their relationship pre-mind control
in “She Played Guitar.” Together, Alice and Sam scheme to restore the
imaginations of their peers without meeting the same fate.

Another standout includes Makenna Beaudoin, as Big Brenda, whose looks are as wild as her presence is commanding (think Matron Mama Morton from Chicago in her experimental makeup phase). She rules over Imaginary Land, a sort of Island of Misfit Toys where imaginary friends go once their imaginer has grown up. Imaginary Land is any costumer’s dream; there’s room to really go wild with all manners of sparkly, colorful garb (I wasn’t surprised to learn many of the costumes came from dancers’ closets). Another resident of Imaginary Land is the endearing Oogie (Orlando Montalvo), who waits in vain by the phone for his human friend to summon him back.

The music (Stuart Matthew Price) is
whimsical and runs the gamut from sweet and sentimental (“She Played Guitar”
and “All the Fun You Had”) to soulful (“It’s Your Time”) to big energetic dance
numbers (“Imaginary Land” and “Oogie Woogie Boogie”) with standard-fare
choreography by Brianna Geyer. One standout number is “The Best,” a montage of
various parents getting their kids ready for their first day of school. In
addition to being funny, it also highlights the fantastic supporting cast and
ensemble. Musical and vocal directors (E. Justin Simone and Lauren Vine,
respectively) did a brilliant job coaching this talented cast of kids and
adults alike. The book and lyrics by children’s author Timothy Knapman are
charming and filled with emotional ups and downs and even a few plot twists,
though the resolution felt a bit rushed.

Alexander Sprague’s lighting design particularly stands out toward the end as it’s used to represent kids’ imaginations. As is often my complaint with Academy, there were sound issues, including balance problems between lead vocals, backup vocals and the band. There were also issues with some mics going in and out, which lead to some important lines being lost in the fray.

Imaginary
is Pixar-like in that it is clearly made with young audiences in mind, but it
also has something for adult audiences, too. It fuels the child in us all and
reminds us that growing up does not mean leaving imagination behind.

New, original musicals often have an uphill battle: case in point, my own reservations coming into this show. Audiences like shows they have some familiarity with — why do you think Broadway is currently filled with movies-turned-musicals? But lest such shows take over the theater world, it’s worth taking a chance on new, unknown shows. Every so often, there will be a gem like this one.

Academy
Players’ Imaginary runs at the James and Gloria Maron Cultural Arts Center
through Sept 29. For tickets, visit brownpapertickets.com/event/4283216




Epic’s Fires in the Mirror Proves the Truth Can Be Complicated

In 1991, tensions between the African-American and Hasidic Jewish populations of Crown Heights, Brooklyn erupted into riots following the death of a 7-year-old Caribbean-American boy when a car driven by a Jewish man veered onto the sidewalk and the subsequent stabbing of a young Jewish scholar. Enter Anna Deavere Smith — playwright, author, actress and professor — in the wake of the chaos. Smith interviewed people directly and indirectly connected to the riots about the incident as well as asking questions about identity. The result is a gripping and intense play, Fires in the Mirror, that forces audiences to contend with difficult questions about truth, race and identity. The play won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-Person Show and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, ultimately losing out to Angels in America.

Photo credit: Dave Cantelli

Fires in the Mirror is considered the pioneer of Verbatim Theatre, which is to say all of the text comes, verbatim, from the interviews Smith conducted — fillers, self-interruptions and all. The result is a kind of honesty and authenticity that you would not get from more polished speech. It becomes more like hearing straight from the interviewees than hearing an accomplished playwright’s interpretation.

Photo credit: Dave Cantelli

While
the play was originally done as a one-person show, starring Smith herself,
embodying 26 different characters, Smith does encourage ensembles to tackle the
piece, and this is the route director Kevin Broccoli chose for Epic Theatre’s
production. The advantage of this is that the audience gets to see the
characters come face to face and listen and react to what others are saying. It
is a series of separate monologues, yes, but presented this way, it simulates a
conversation – one that did not happen, but probably should have. One place where
this is most apparent and striking is the back-to-back monologues of Minister
Conrad Mohammed (Rudy Ru) discussing why slavery was a worse offense to God
than the Holocaust and feminist author Letty Cottin Pogrebin (Nancy Winokoor) who
recounts her uncle Isaac’s heartbreaking tale of surviving the Holocaust.

Photo credit: Dave Cantelli

Most of the performers tackle multiple roles, each taking on different mannerisms and different ways of speaking (several different accents are represented, for instance) for each different character. The roles range from rappers (Krystal Hall) to rabbis (Jeffrey Ouellette and Justin Pimental), from family members of the victims (Jackie Aguirre and Rebecca Maxfield) to feminist writers (Alexis Ingram and Nancy Winokoor). The cast is rounded out by Javier Aybar, Angelique Dina, Wendall McMillan House, Ian Hudgins, Jomo Peters, Korey Pimental and Kathleen Povar.

Photo credit: Dave Cantelli

The
29 monologues are grouped together by theme, starting with personal identity,
then physical appearance, race and finally, reactions to the riot. Each
grouping is separated by thematically appropriate music; within the themes, it
moves along quickly from monologue to monologue, and each character’s name is
spoken by another performer on stage, so you always know who is speaking. In
this production, they are split into two acts, where act two contains all of
the monologues directly concerning the riot, and act one is more generally
about identity and race.

Photo credit: Dave Cantelli

This production opens Epic’s eighth full season, themed “The Power of the Truth,” concluding a three-year examination of the political and the personal. It is precisely the kind of show Epic is most known for – one that does indeed require the audience to “#BuckleUp.” There is a lot to unpack with this one. Fires in the Mirror is a play that provides no easy answers, only difficult questions and each individual’s truth. As to what really happened the night that started the incident – was the driver drunk or was it just an accident? Did he try to help the child or was he too busy griping about his own shallow injuries? – all the audience is presented with are differing perspectives. Perhaps therein lies the greatest principle of this work: the truth can be a complicated thing, fraught with differing perspectives informed by differing personal identities and experiences. Likewise, different audience members may come out of this play with conflicting viewpoints. The point is not to tell the audience to think one thing or another; rather, the point is for the audience to simply think.

Epic Theatre’s Fires in the Mirror runs through Sep 28. For tickets and more information, visit epictheatreri.org




Spectrum’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Takes the Stage Amid National Conversations on Mental Illness

On the very same day the Spectrum Theatre Ensemble opened its production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at the Wilbury Theatre, in the kind of irony the poets dream of, the president expressed a desire to reopen mental institutions in order to combat mass shootings – the likes of which were largely shut down in the wake of the 1962 novel upon which the play and later the renowned film were based. While Cuckoo’s Nest is something of an historic piece at this point – patients with mental illnesses now have more rights, and treatments are generally less barbaric (not to mention the rampant misogyny within the story) – it also remains shockingly (no pun intended) relevant in the wake of this scapegoating by the president and many others. Placing the blame on the mentally ill for the now commonplace mass shootings further stigmatizes an already stigmatized population; people with mental illnesses are more often victims of violence than perpetrators thereof.

Which is to say that Cuckoo’s Nest is a relevant choice right now, and STE may be the perfect choice to put it on. For the uninitiated, STE is a theater group that brings together neurotypical and neurodivergent performers – those on and off the autism spectrum. What better group to tackle a production that examines how society views and treats people considered to defy its norms?

STE makes the audience, as well as the stage, an accessible place for its neurodivergent members by making its shows sensory friendly. This involves providing audience members with a list of sensory intense moments, involving loud sounds or lighting changes. For neurotypical audience members, on the flipside of this list is a terminology breakdown so as to better understand what it means for a performance to be sensory friendly and why it is needed, as well as coping mechanisms others may engage in.

Many will come into this show familiar with the story, having seen the film, or maybe even read Ken Kesey’s book. The play aligns itself more closely with the novel, particularly in having Chief Bromden act as the narrator. The monologues of the presumed deaf and dumb son of a Native American chief provide a frame for the action of the play. These monologues make the role perfect for a poet, and who better to deliver them than newly minted Motif winner for Best Spoken Word Artist, Jay Walker? In addition to his gorgeous delivery of these poignant passages, Walker brilliantly inhabits the role of a large man who feels small; though impassive at first, he warms up to a friendship with McMurphy, and reveals himself to be a gentle giant. 

McMurphy is the new patient on the ward. There mostly to avoid a sentence of hard labor and not because he actually suffers from a mental illness, McMurphy is a short fuse with a penchant for gambling. Teddy Lytle is dynamic in this role, agitatedly pacing the stage like a tiger in a cage. He encourages his fellow patients, including their leader, Dale Harding (Daniel Boyle), hallucination-prone Martini (Daniel Perkins), stuttering virgin Billy Bibbit (Geoffrey Besser), bomb-happy Scanlon (Adam D. Bram), timid Cheswick (David Adams Murphy) and the vegetative Ruckly (Adam Almeida), to stand up to the oppression they face on the ward.

Oppression here goes by the name of Nurse Ratched. She runs the ward with an iron fist. Madison Weinhoffer is terrifying, with her steely gaze and plastered-on smile barely containing her sinister, twisted nature. McMurphy declares war on her from the moment he enters the ward, but little does he know that picking a fight with Ratched means punishment in the form of electroshock therapy or worse, a lobotomy.

The costumes, designed by Kat Fortner, feature a lot of grey, with McMurphy being the only one with any color in his wardrobe. Though it might not seem like there is a lot of room for creativity with costumes for nurses and patients, this production proves that wrong by adding robot-like accessories in order to illustrate one of Bromden’s monologues that compares the asylum to a machine built to control its inhabitants: “They got wires runnin’ to each man and units planted in our heads… We got cog-wheels in our bellies and a welded grin.” Gears also feature prominently in the set, designed by Max Ponticelli. In the center of it all is the nurses’ station on a raised platform, imposing and formidable, from which the nurses see all.

This production’s run has gotten off to an excellent start, packing a full house on opening night. In fact, due to their success thus far, they have already extended the run for an additional weekend. This warm reception is well-deserved, due in no small part to director Clay Martin’s fantastic work with this talented cast. It is heartening to see the support this show is getting, especially with STE’s mission of making the theater a more inclusive space and their choice of a show that aligns well with this mission. Perhaps if the president were to see this show, he might think twice about his recent statement on mental illness and bringing back the institutions of yore. At least for the rest of us, we have this exquisite and intense piece of theater to remind us of the horrors of how people with mental illnesses were once treated, the dangers of othering people who deviate from the norm and the importance of standing up to oppression.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, hosted by Spectrum Theatre Ensemble and The Wilbury Theatre Group, runs through Aug 31 at the Wilbury Theatre Group, 40 Sonoma Court, PVD. For tickets and more information, visit stensemble.org.