Footloose Flies Fancy-Free at Theatre By The Sea

Candace Haynes (Rusty) and the cast of FOOTLOOSE at Theatre By The Sea thru July 16. Photo by Mark Turek.

Footloose is loosely based on events that took place in the small, rural and fanatically religious farming town of Elmore City, OK in 1978. Dances had been banned by an ordinance from the late 1800s until a group of teens challenged it. In the 1984 movie, as well as in this musical stage adaptation by Dean Pitchford and Walter Bobbie (Artistic Director Kevin P. Hill), the town of Beaumont is hurting over the loss of four youths in a fatal car crash. It took a teen transplant from Chicago, also suffering the pain of loss from his father’s abandonment, to turn the town around and bring back the joy they so vehemently need.

The dancing starts right out the gate– as soon as the curtain rises— but it’s not until the second half that the momentum really picks up. It’s when we learn that one of the teens who’d perished was the son of the local clergyman, Rev. Shaw Moore, that we start to feel the hurt and loss suffered by all. Artfully portrayed by Matthew J. Taylor, the man of religion sets the sullen pace of the town due to his own grieving. His daughter Ariel, skillfully portrayed by Emma Wilcox, seeks attention in sultry ways, and wife Vi (Aimee Doherty) shows she misses him as well. Once Rev. Moore has a heart-to-heart with Ren McCormack, our pioneering and pirouetting lead character portrayed by JP Qualters, he puts his self-centered ego aside and free will is restored; the town once again laughs and dances in joy. Nothing heals the morose heart like a good boot-scootin’ boogie!

Standout performances by certain other veteran actors steal the show, including James Oblak as Chuck Cranston, the perfect bad boy. Melanie Souza provides comic relief as Betty Blast, the witty diner owner with a flair all her own (not to mention her country line dancing, as many actors played dual roles). Kristen Gehling portrays Ethel McCormack, Ren’s mother, in a performance that tugs on our heartstrings. Ren’s Geeky friend, Hewitt Willard, portrayed by Ethan James Lynch, is a total show-stealer, especially with his surprisingly awesome vocals. Equally impressive is the attractive scenic design by Kyle Dixon. Large, easily moved pieces without the use of smaller props make the settings as eye-catching as they are time-saving.

You’ll be tapping your feet to the ol’ familiar Oscar-winning (Best Original Score for Maurice Jarre) and Tony-nominated top 40 score from the early ‘80s. Take a twirl down memory lane as this production celebrates the wisdom of not only listening to our youth, but guiding them with a warm heart and open mind.

Footloose runs through July 16. For more info, visit www.theatrebythesea.com or call the box office at 782-TKTS (8587).

Hip Hop Shakespeare: Jay Are Adams breathes modern life into old prose

When Lin-Manuel Miranda initially suggested the founding fathers and hip hop go hand in hand, he was laughed at. Of course, several Tonys, a Pulitzer and a skyrocketing career later, we all know who got the last laugh. So if you feel inclined to laugh at the notion of marrying hip hop and Shakespeare, maybe think twice.

I’m At Your Window is the creation of absurdly multi-talented musician, educator and comedian Jay Are Adams. It is a hip hop/R&B/gospel adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

“This was brought on through a class that I had at Emerson College… and one of the final projects was, we had to [put on] a theoretical performance of a musical,” Adams recalls. “I didn’t grow up in the theater world, so I didn’t have any musicals that resonated with me… so I asked if I could just create my own musical. This was right after I had watched Hamilton on Disney+. I’m not saying that Hamilton gave me the inspiration, but it definitely let me know that it could be done.”

I’m At Your Window had its first workshop back in January, around Martin Luther King Day, presented at Alchemy in PVD as a staged reading with the performers at music stands. Along with a small ensemble of performers, Adams set his work in front of the audience for the first time with a selection of five songs performed non-sequentially. With the feedback from that initial workshop, a second one hit the stage of the Barker Playhouse June 12 with, save one performer (Jacob Scott), a new cast (Alessandra Grima, Jennifer Rodriguez, Micaela Chile and Marsha Czepyha, plus ASL interpreters Noemi Saafyr Paz and Victoria Pfanstiehl) and two never-before-seen songs. The cast rotated character assignments between songs, a decision Adams made to keep the interpretations of the songs fresh.

While the hip hop aspect of the project is certainly a novelty, it was not the starting point for Adams. Rather than linking Shakespeare and hip hop, the original aim was to link Shakespeare and social justice. Shakespeare, after all, was a writer for the people. It is easy to lose sight of it, especially judging by today’s standards, but writing for audiences of all social statuses was something revolutionary at the time.

Once fully staged, I’m At Your Window will be set in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, with the Montagues representing Black Lives Matter and the Capulets as their opposition. The duel (400-year-old spoiler alert) that set the bulk of the conflict and action into motion will be set at a riot.

“When George Floyd happened… I was sort of figuring out where my place was in the movement,” Adams said. “I’m not a marcher, but I can use my art.”

Adams is furthering his goal of putting Shakespeare in a social justice framework by founding What Fray Was Here?: Social Justice Shakespeare. The vision of the company is twofold: first, creating new works like I’m At Your Window; and second, bringing social justice Shakespeare into the classroom and encouraging students to engage with Shakespeare’s works in a way that makes them more accessible. As an educator himself, Adams will be holding a summer program for high school students and teaching an undergraduate class at Emerson College, his alma mater, in the fall.

In the existing songs, Adams and co-writer Dan Pomfret have seamlessly woven actual text, including much of the famous balcony scene in the title song “I’m At Your Window,” with some modern updates. Among these updates is a song from the perspective of Lady Capulet when she believes Juliet to be dead. In the original play, the Nurse serves as the primary maternal figure in Juliet’s life, while Lady Capulet was rather distanced from her, as was common of families in the upper echelons of society at the time. Here, however, she’s given a voice and a chance to expand upon her relationship with her daughter, whom she calls, “My Best Friend.”

As for the next steps, audiences can look forward to another workshop next January. In the meantime, Adams will continue writing, rewriting and further developing this promising project.

Teens and a Ouija board – what can go wrong?: Our Dear Dead Drug Lord is a wild look at teenage life 

In an intriguing mash of coming-of-age adventures and the supernatural – with a smattering of gore – Our Dear Dead Drug Lord proves one of the most provocative pieces on RI stages this season.

Making its premiere in the state at Burbage Theatre, the show runs an intense 80 minutes without intermission as a group of four Catholic school girls in 2008 Miami turn a history project into a quest to raise the spirit of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.

If there seems little comedic about the image of the girls clustered around a Ouija board, kissing a Ken doll and snorting cocaine, fear not. Playwright Alexis Scheer appeals to audiences who like to strap in for a careening ride, this time through adolescence as the girls prank each other, share stories of sexual exploration and offer glimpses into their private lives. Still sound serious? The ride is lightened by writing that is biting and funny despite the topics for a combination that truly mimics teenage life.

Co-directed by Catia and Madison Cook-Hines, this production grips the viewer from the first few moments and doesn’t let go until the smoke literally clears and Escobar maybe – or maybe not – saunters off.

One girl, Kit, explains the angst that caused her to cut long scars onto her abdomen. Pipe, who hosts the meetings in her treehouse, longs to reunite with the younger sister who drowned in the family pool on her watch. Zoom worries about a pregnancy while yearning to appear older. And Squeeze misses the father who killed himself after losing his job.

Casting such a small cast is key and the directors have succeeded in assembling a quartet with rich chemistry who believably squabble, talk over each other and provide sweet support when needed. In one scene, Ari Kassabian as Zoom tries to help Squeeze, played by Marina Tejada, prepare to break up with her boyfriend. The feisty back and forth exchange is passionate and genuine.

At another moment, Sofia DaSilva, who plays the Cuban Pipe, erupts at Squeeze for comparing the school’s ban of their Dead Leaders Club, which she calls freedom of speech infringement, with the dismantling of Confederate statues. They are angry with each other, but in a way friends squabble but always return to each other for comfort.

All the actresses are passionate and entertaining. Just one habit should be addressed – Ayrin Ramirez, who plays Kit, seems unable to control her smile at points when her character should be sad, mad or frightened. It proves somewhat distracting. 

Scheer’s writing gets wild at points. Animal – and maybe human – sacrifices?  Yup. Death day? Wear your black. Escobar delivering a diatribe in Spanish? Again, strap in. But, the undercurrent of this show is friendship and survival against familiar obstacles in adolescence. That is definitely worth any dizziness caused by plot twists.

Our Dear Dead Drug Lord runs through June 26 at Burbage, 59 Blackstone Ave, Pawtucket. Go to www.burbagetheatre.org for details.

Curtains Up: A RI summer theatre guide

This summer, between beating the heat with trips to the beach and Del’s lemonades, consider adding a play or two to your summer bucket list. Among the offerings from local theaters, there’s a little something for everyone, from our Shakespeare scholars to our musical theater aficionados.

First and foremost, nothing screams summer theater quite like Theatre by the Sea in Wakefield, and this season is particularly noteworthy, given it will be their first full season post-COVID-19 shutdowns. Kicking things off, Million Dollar Quartet, runs through June 18. Set on Dec 4, 1956, it portrays the true story of a pivotal moment in music history when fortuitous circumstances led Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley to join forces at Sun Records in Memphis for what would become known as one of the most legendary jam sessions of all time. Next up, get ready to kick off your Sunday shoes and cut loose with Footloose, a story of teenage rebellion and, of course, dancing, that runs (or dances) from June 22 to July 16. Speaking of losing shoes, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella takes the stage July 20 and runs through Aug 13. Last but not least, and still continuing on the shoe theme, Kinky Boots, the dazzling and uplifting story of acceptance and fabulous footwear, finishes off the summer beginning Aug 17.

Rest assured, the musical fun does not end there! The RISE playhouse in Woonsocket will be presenting Seussical the Musical June 3 – 12. A whimsical weaving of Dr. Seuss’s greatest hits, Seussical is sure to be fun for the whole family. On the subject of family-friendly, Shrek the Musical runs at Granite Theatre in Westerly July 7 – 24, the ever-memed story of an ogre to whom there is more than meets the eye. Not quite as family-friendly but also borrowing from beloved children’s stories, Swamp Meadow will be putting Into the Woods at the The Assembly Theater in Harrisville, a “careful what you wish for” tale that draws from popular fairy tales, and was composed by the late, great Stephen Sondheim, running June 3 – 5.

If Shrek and Seuss fail to hold appeal for the entire family, there are two particular crowd-pleasers for teens and young adults coming to the local theater scene. First up, Academy Players will be putting on the beloved RENT, Jonathan Larson’s iconic rock musical about a group of friends living in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, running June 9 – 19. Next is Freaky Friday, adapted from the movie starring Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis, about the shenanigans and empathizing that ensue when an angsty teenage girl and her overworked mother swap bodies. Catch it at the Stadium Theatre in Woonsocket July 15 – 17.

If you’re looking for something a little less toe-tapping and a little more brain-stimulating, summer is the perfect time for Shakespeare. CCRI Summer Rep has two of the bard’s plays in store this summer, with Taming of the Shrew, Jul 21 – 24 and Othello, Aug 25 – 28: one comedy and one tragedy, just to ensure a well-balanced Shakespeare diet. For some Shakespeare under the stars, check out What Cheer’s Something’s Rotten in the State of Denmark, a one-act farcical take on Hamlet (admittedly, more Shakespeare-adjacent than actually penned by the bard himself), at Sprague Mansions the last two weekends of July, and Contemporary Theater’s As You Like It, to be performed on their new patio. Contemporary Theater will also be presenting a stage adaptation of The Neverending Story, based on the novel by Michael Ende about an epic adventure with all kinds of creatures, characters and puppets, from June 24 to July 30, and Men on Boats, a true(ish) story of an 1869 expedition to chart the Colorado River, beginning its run Aug 12. 

If the classics are your jam but you’ve had enough of the bard, Head Trick Theatre will be presenting Aristophanes’s The Assemblywoman, a chaotic farce about a group of women who seize control of the government and turn the city on its head (which is sounding like a really good plan right about now), at various locations around PVD July 15 – 31 for their first in-person show post-COVID-19 shutdowns.

Among the many theatrical productions concentrated around the end of July, don’t miss out on FringePVD, PVD’s iteration of the world-renowned Fringe Festival, established in Edinburgh back in 1947. Sponsored by The Wilbury Group, Fringe features new and experimental works from local, national and international artists in various locations around the city. It’s the perfect opportunity to get out of your theatrical comfort zone and experience something a little different from your standard theatrical fare.

Out of This World: Comet is an artsy and unorthodox portrayal of Russian society

Rodney Witherspoon II as Pierre. Photo by Erin X. Smithers

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 hit Broadway in the wake of Hamilton, and it was unlike anything else the Great White Way had ever seen. It completely transformed the Imperial Theater where it took up residency for just shy of a year from your standard-faire proscenium stage into a cabaret with onstage seating and an open bar; the audience truly becomes an integral part of the show.

Few shows out there are quite as perfectly suited for The Wilbury Theatre Group as Great Comet. While such an immersive, interactive theatre experience may be a rare sight on Broadway, this isn’t Wilbury’s first foray into a show like this, and their relatively new blackbox space in the WaterFire Arts Center is well suited to adapt to such a unique undertaking – especially with the clever use of space employed by scene designers Keri King, Max Ponticelli and Monica Shinn

Even before the proverbial curtain rises, it’s clear the fourth wall, the typically expected invisible barrier between the audience and the action on stage, will not be so strictly upheld, as members of the cast are free to mill about and mingle with the audience—a decision by Director Josh Short that would have any theatre traditionalist clutching their pearls. Then again, Wilbury has never been one to cater to theatre traditionalists. The limited seating contributes to this, creating an intimate feel. On the subject of seating, the action truly happens all over the space, which means the choice of where to sit must take into account sightlines. Generally, higher up seems to be better for a little less neck-straining: a few rows up in the section next to the band served quite well in terms of seeing everything.

Adapted by Dave Malloy from a slice of the classic Russian novel War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, it might seem like a boring basis for a musical, but this particular part of War and Peace is filled with scandalous happenings in Russia’s high society. There are affairs, raves, plenty of drinking and accordion-playing.

The opening number “Prologue” even acknowledges the unapproachable (at least to those who are not students of Russian literature) premise of the show, providing a meta breakdown of the characters by giving each one a one-word epithet (“Anatole is hot, Helene is a slut” etc). It serves as a cheeky musical-equivalent of the phrase “let me Google that for you,” informing the audience they are “Gonna have to study up a little bit if you want to keep with the plot/’Cause it’s a complicated Russian novel, everyone’s got nine different names/So look it up in your program/We appreciate it, thanks a lot.” Despite these warnings, the plot is fairly easy to follow, and the characters are distinct enough to keep straight.

At the center of the action is Natasha (Kayla Shimizu), an incredibly naive young woman who anxiously awaits the return of her fiancé Andrei (Dylan Michael Bowden) from the “war” half of War and Peace. Along with her cousin and closest friend Sonya (Madeleine Barker), she ventures from the country to the big city of Moscow to live with her godmother Marya (Charlotte Kinder) to win the approval of Andrei’s “totally messed-up” family (Wilbury favorites Jason Quinn as the crazy Old Prince Bolkonsky and Jennifer Mischley as the plain and lonely Mary) and enter into Moscow society. As Natasha, Shimizu comes across like a Disney princess, albeit with more adultery, portraying her naivete so genuinely. Of all the excellent vocals in the company, her lovely, crystalline voice is the standout.

Enter Anatole (Gunnar Manchester), a hedonistic hottie who is smitten with Natasha as soon as he lays eyes on her and pursues her despite secretly being married. Although Anatole is a Mr. Wickham (of Pride and Prejudice fame) variety of villain who ends up destroying Natasha’s reputation, Manchester is so likable in the role, you almost want to root for him. It’s not a stretch to believe Natasha could fall for his charm.

The other titular character, Pierre (Rodney Witherspoon II), takes on more of an observer’s role for most of the show. He is sort of on the sidelines of the action, trying to find meaning among the frivolity of the upper echelons of society while trapped in a loveless marriage. However, the moments where he takes center stage are some of the most affecting. His soliloquy, “Dust and Ash,” a song added for the Broadway production once Josh Groban was cast in the role, is simply gorgeous, with such impactful lyrics as “They say we are asleep until we fall in love/And I’m so ready/To wake up now.” The song comes after a duel with the sharpshooting Dolokhov (Anna Basile) who is openly involved with Pierre’s wife, the lascivious Helene (Anna Slate). When he finally beholds that third title character, the Great Comet itself, his look of awe is enough to make that lone lightbulb feel like an astronomical wonder, forming a gorgeous stage picture to end on (kudos to lighting and sound designer Andy Russ, for both the simplistic beauty of this moment and the literally flashier moments of the club scenes).

Another standout in the cast is Barker as Sonya, who is so expressive, it gives a whole new dimension to her love for her cousin; when Natasha is in pain, it is easy to see how much it tears Sonya apart.

Rounding out the cast are Teddy Lytle as Balaga the driver, who has a whole fun and insanely catchy number devoted to his exploits, and Ian Doran, Sophie Jackson and Christine Treglia making up the ensemble, taking on roles such as opera performers and servants, as well as understudying for a few major roles each.

Many of the cast prove themselves to be not just triple threats but quadruple threats, as many of them wield instruments throughout the performance as well.

Meg Donnelly’s costume design, while not quite as fancy and flashy as previous productions (the fur coat referenced in one number is not even a fur coat), serves to highlight the blend of modern and period-appropriate, pairing sneakers with waistcoats, not to mention those quirky race car socks worn by Balaga, along with the tone of Malloy’s lyrics and electropop score.

Great Comet is probably not a show for everyone. It is innovative and unlike anything else that’s ever hit a Broadway stage. More than anything, it is a spectacle and an experience. It’s not a feel good story, but it still manages to be fun. While the characters could easily become tropey caricatures, especially since what’s on display is only a thin slice of a whole story, in the hands of this cast and Short’s direction, they feel dynamic, and in this particular production, the novelty of the staging does not overpower their talent. 

The Wilbury Theatre Group’s production of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 runs at the WaterFire Arts Center through June 19. For tickets, visit thewilburygroup.org. Masks and proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test are required.

Four Legends, One Night: Million Dollar Quartet impresses and charms

“Once in a lifetime” is how Nashville music producer Sam Phillips described the December night in 1956 when music legends Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley gathered in his Sun Records studio and jammed.

The play capturing that session, Million Dollar Quartet, helps Theatre by the Sea relaunch production after a two-year COVID-19 hiatus, bringing classic songs and the enthusiasm of young, brash musicians into a two-hour experience like no other.

Now onstage at the Wakefield theatre, Million Dollar Quartet is rich with the songs that made the four famous – Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line,” Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” Presley’s “That’s All Right” and “Hound Dog” and Perkins’ “Who Do You Love?” and “Party.”

The actors bringing the legends to life are more than impersonators. Each offers a realistic and charming portrayal of the stars, from Sky Seals jutting the guitar neck and left arm out like an arrow as Cash was known to do to the twerking gyrations Alessandro Viviano masters for Elvis the Pelvis. Taylor Isaac Gray infuses just the right amount of jitters and jumpiness into Lewis which contrasts beautifully with the coolness Colin Summers lends to Perkins.

The play is, of course, about more than the music, although the audience seemingly would have been just fine with a full-on concert of their favorites. Phillips, played strongly by Michael Santora, gathered three of his biggest musical finds – Perkins, Cash and Presley, who left the Sun Records label but remained loyal to the man who discovered him – to celebrate Cash singing a contract extension. Lewis crashed the party as the eager newcomer, razzed by the veterans but determined to be noticed.

The contract signing doesn’t go as planned, yet Phillips regroups, announcing he’ll focus on his newest find, Roy Orbison. Along the way, flashbacks show how the producer coaxed tones out of a naïve Elvis saying, “Sing to me the way you’d sing to Jesus,” or grappled with Cash’s reluctance to cross over into the new sound of rock and roll.

This production of Million Dollar Quartet is upbeat and energized, getting the audience tapping their toes and bobbing their heads along with the sound from the very beginning. The best moments belong to Seals whose voice coats Cash’s words with gravelly goodness, dipping down deep for notes in “Sixteen Tons.” Staging moments both inside and outside the windows of the storefront studio lend a sense of voyeurism that is incredibly effective.

On stage through June 18, Million Dollar Quartet is a sizzling homage to the birth of a musical genre that many predicted would never last. For tickets, go to theatrebythesea.com

A Dream Come True: A Midsummer Night’s Dream is fantasy come alive

Shakespeare wove wisps of fanciful fairies, enchanted forests and dreams of love throughout A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but Director Fred Sullivan Jr. and The Gamm Theatre pushed the fantasy world into overdrive for a production that teleports the audience to a land of sweetness, laughter and passion.

Gamm ends its 37th season with its first-ever production of the Bard’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, a playful poke at human nature and the transformative, if angst-riddled, nature of love and desire. Set in ancient Greece, the storyline centers on four young adults caught in the constraints of tradition and the practice of arranged marriages. One such proposal is unwanted by the daughter, Hermia, who loves another man, Lysander. It also makes Demetrius, the man chosen for Hermia, unavailable for a swooning Helena.

Taking matters into their own hands, the four flee to the forest and stumble into a magical world in which the fairy king and queen are fighting, a bumbling troupe of actors is honing the next performance and the whimsical sprite Puck flits in between it all, causing a ruckus and obstructing the natural progression of love.

What seems like a children’s tale springs to glistening life on a wonderfully simple Gamm stage as an animated cast zips from one end to the other, up ramps, onto spiraling platforms and under scaffolding. The basic set helps Sullivan coach the antics of his ensemble, keeping them moving freely and seemingly descending from the air on wings. On either side of the stage, a backdrop of paper lanterns of differing sizes brighten, dim and change colors with the daylight and collective mood of each scene. The effect centers the audience’s attention right where it belongs: on the magical story.

The actors delightfully ply Shakespeare’s words for maximum effect as spells turn the lovers’ affections to other people, a changeling is nurtured by the forest sprites and trickery abounds. At various points, several are tapped for powerful soliloquies that create hysterical or moving moments. At one point, Gamm Artistic Director Tony Estrella, as a pompous member of the acting troupe, dons a donkey head for his play and manically disembowels himself while braying. The symbolism comes to life brilliantly.

One of Sullivan’s best moves with his cast was to have Deb Martin portray the fairy king Oberon and Michael Liebhauser – complete with beard – assume the role of fairy queen Titania. Martin is outstanding as she slinks around the stage, observing the humans and ruling her kingdom. Her diction – in act two, she draws out the four-word question “What hast thou done?” twice as long as needed – highlights the power of delivery in setting a mood. At another point, she is invisible to the lovers yet peers right into their faces and stalks behind them onstage. The audience watches rapt, as if seeing special effects in a movie.

Perfectly executed delivery is a lesson Mark Pierre has also mastered. As Puck, Pierre is perfectly impish, attacking his lines with a childishness that adds depth to his performance. He sasses Oberon, whines and gleefully casts spells with the spirit of a Disney character.

Only a few moments – do the forest sprites really need to rock out at the end of act one? – and a few acting mannerisms – Angelique C’Dina as Mermia and Nora Eschenheimer as Helena are occasionally too overly dramatic in their flouncing and chest-beating – are less than perfect in this production. But even those cannot disrupt a magical night at the theater.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is on stage through May 29. For more information, go to www.gammtheatre.org.  

My Fair Lady Has Us Singing!

Leslie Alexander as Mrs. Higgins, Shereen Ahmed as Eliza Doolittle and Kevin Pariseau as Colonel Pickering in The Lincoln Center Theater Production of Lerner & Loewe’s MY FAIR LADY. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Thursday was opening night of the North American Tour of Lincoln Center Theater’s critically acclaimed production of My Fair Lady, a musical based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion. This being a Broadway production at PPAC, directed by Bartlett Sher, you surely don’t want to miss it! Disregard Hepburn’s classic movie and prepare yourself for a truly new and memorable theatrical experience.
The main character, Eliza Doolittle, is a low-born flower seller who accidentally crosses paths with the brattish aristocrat, Professor Henry Higgins. Shereen Ahmed expertly delivers her rendition with perfect pitch, comedic timing and eventual elegance. It’s a pleasure watching Ahmed as she whirls through the amazing revolving sets by Michael Yeargan. Being annoying is her job, and she executes that all too well, yet Eliza never looked so alive!

The part of Higgins is cast to Laird Mackintosh, and it was Colin Anderson who portrayed him this night. Anderson had us laughing as he hurled the crass insults at Eliza (because it’s all true!) with the precision of a pro ball player. You feel sorry for the poor girl, yet Anderson’s delivery won’t allow for the withholding of laughter. It would seem the story revolves around Higgins, as this is a love story at the core. A confirmed bachelor, Higgins sings of never letting a woman into his life, however, Eliza worms her way into his heart and he does eventually grow accustomed to her face.

Kevin Pariseau, a native Rhode Islander hailing from East Providence and a Brown alumnus, portrays Colonel Pickering, the phonetic expert compadre of Higgins. His rich voice is mesmerizing as he adds a soothing touch to Higgins’ constant badgering of Eliza. This gentleman adds balance between the bickering couple with style and grace.

Times are changing, and keeping up with them can be challenging for some. “I think it is a show that people need to see now,” said Ahmed. “There’s joy, there’s humor and some very deep conversations underneath it all.” Ahmed is likely referring to the modern changes within the production, such as gender and race-blind casting, and the party scene the night before Eliza’s father’s wedding in which gender norms are challenged by attendees. These are adaptations the more conservative theater attendees may not have been expecting, but nobody was bolting for the doors. The entire production was fun from beginning to end.

Period costumes were absolutely stunning. True to the era, the ladies wore gala-ready, oversized hats adorned with feathers and other ornamentation. One scene in particular had all twirling cast members adorned in shades of gray. It’s hard to know where to look next as you take it all in. Of course, Ahmed is absolutely breathtaking as she enters the king’s ball in shiny beading, rhinestone-studded jewelry and tiara. Hats off to Catherine Zuba for her vision here.

Music was spot on. The orchestra didn’t miss a beat under John Bell’s direction, as well as Ted Sperling’s supervision. Kudos to cast members who effortlessly dance throughout with Christopher Gattelli’s choreography. Arrive 30 minutes early and you’ll be treated to a Mighty Wurlitzer pre-show concert by house organist Peter Edwin Krasinski (except the Saturday matinee).

Performances run through Sunday. For more info, visit ppacri.org

Don’t Sleep On Sueño: Nontraditional? Yes. Entertaining? Also yes.

The cast of Sueño. Photo by Mark Turek

Some plays are difficult to understand or follow, and don’t adhere to the basics of plot development with protagonists and antagonists facing off before jaunting happily off into the sunset.

Sueño, now on stage at Trinity Repertory Company, is just such a piece, seemingly airy and darkly comedic on some levels yet complex and multi-layered on others. There are a lot of unanswered questions, artistically psychological demands of the audience and nebulous, dream-like moments in which reality becomes what each viewer imagines it to be.

The production might make some uncomfortable with its time-shifting and uncertainty, prompt inquisitive conversations at intermission about what happened or evolve understandings of the themes portrayed in the piece, adapted by José Rivera from the play by Pedro Calderón de la Barca.

Others will embrace the free-flowing concept – how a Spanish prince, Segismundo, hidden away in a remote tower when astrological predictions for the nation under his future rule are dire, is brought back by a guilt-ridden father, King Basilio, and begins to agonizingly question the meaning of life. These viewers will enjoy the layered approach of Director Tatyana-Marie Carlo, who sets the 17th-century piece as a modern-day telenovela, or Spanish soap opera.

On a cleverly-designed stage that shifts from dungeon to castle with a spin of three walls and rotation of stage skirting, Carlo employs believable swordplay and dramatic, soap opera-style dialogue to frame poignant and humorous moments as the prince makes a short-lived yet bloody return to the castle. On his side are the cross-dressing woman, Rosaura, and her servant Clarin, who discover the prince’s prison and want justice for him.

Opposing the prince’s return are the king’s niece and nephew, Astolfo and Estrella, who are next in line to the throne. Caught in the middle is the king’s long-time advisor, Clotaldo, who tutored Segismundo in his prison.

Verbal and physical battles play out Rivera’s impactful words, many of which have lingering effects – lines like “The stars only point the way to the future. They can’t create it.”

There are definitely moments in Sueño that prove tedious and unnecessary. To cement the telenovela concept, Carlo has the story’s cast introduced at the beginning as if they were stars walking into an awards show, complete with wind machine blowing their hair and overly dramatized stances. Other moments teeter on the absurd, like displaying a chart of the royal family tree with a branch labeled “sperm donor.”

Even with such misses, Sueño proves engaging for most of its two-and-a-half hours, largely due to the engaging force of the cast itself. From a delightfully sassy Anne Scurria as King Basilio to the powerful emoting of Daniel Duque-Estrada as Prince Segismundo, and from the wonderfully comic antics of Andrew Gombas as Clarin to Jihan Haddad’s exquisite portrayal the snooty Estrella, the cast is steeped in talent.

Sueño is an experience that requires attention and commitment, but that comes with the reward of entertainment. It is on stage through May 8. For more information, go to www.trinityrep.org.  

Hope resonates in Dear Evan Hansen

Stephen Christopher Anthony as ‘Evan Hansen’ and the North American touring company of DEAR EVAN HANSEN. Photo by Matthew Murphy, 2019

Teen angst – heck, angst in general – has never felt as raw and overwhelming as in the first act of the Tony Award-winning musical Dear Evan Hansen.

On stage at the Providence Performing Arts Center – two years after it was rescheduled due to the pandemic – the production is a magical blend of the pain of being sidelined by life, the fear of being rejected yet again and the power and infectiousness of hope.

After a slow start as a pair of mothers muse about the frustrations of raising teenagers, Dear Evan Hansen takes off when the focus shifts to the teens themselves. Evan is something of a social misfit whose counselor suggests he take control of his fears by writing empowering letters to himself each day.

“Dear Evan Hansen,” the letters begin, “this is going to be a good day and this is why…”

Connor, a troubled classmate, reads one of the letters and misconstrues parts about his sister, Zoe. After Connor commits suicide, his parents find the letter folded in his pocket and assume he was writing it to his “friend” Evan Hansen. They contact Evan, who tries to explain the origin of the letter, but eventually gives in to the deception. He grows close with the family, Zoe and other classmates who work with him to establish The Connor Project to rebuild an orchard where he said he and Connor would hang out.

While this could be one extended version of a Disney Channel or Nickelodeon tween movie, Dear Evan Hansen is heart-wrenching and heart-warming for all ages. Sure, it’s easy to identify with as a struggling, insecure teen, but it’s equally easy to feel the pain of the parent of a teen who questions every decision and worries about expressions, comments and arguments.

Everything supports that rush of emotions – the poignant lyrics that unfold like letters read aloud, the stage with towering screens featuring rolling social media feeds, and the sparseness of the staging which drives the entire focus of the audience onto the cast.

That focus is well rewarded with outstanding performances. Stephen Christopher Anthony as Evan is a treat from beginning to end. He delivers his first monologue rapid-fire as the character’s teen brain teems with anxiety and rushing thoughts. Later in songs like “Waving Through a Window” and “You Will Be Found,” he has incredible control over his voice, sweeping from falsetto words to power choruses smoothly.

Equally powerful is the voice of Nikhil Saboo as Connor, especially in dream scenes when the character returns to chat with Evan. Together – while the dance moves are somewhat goofy – Saboo and Anthony’s voices find this sweet harmony that is lush and comforting. Dear Evan Hansen is a contemporary look at the schism that often occurs between what we hope for and what we get, and how “You Will Be Found” in the end. The show runs through April 10 at PPAC, 220 Weybosset St., Providence. For ticket information, go to www.ppacri.org.