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CurtainUp in the Berkshires
The Berkshire Theatre Festival's Summer 2009 Season By Elyse Sommer
Main Stage Show Reviews: Ghosts |The Prisoner of Second Avenue | The Einstein Project | Broadway by the Year
Unicorn Theater Show Reviews:Sick | Candide
| About this All-In-One Format: These omnibus pages for individual theater organizations include facts about the entire schedule even though other commitments and our limited human resources may not make it possible to review all the shows. However, every show reviewed will be added on this page. If you're looking for something seen in past seasons, click on our Berkshires archives . See our news page for schedules of theaters we cover only occasionally—Berkshire news page.
Berkshire Theatre Festival Main Stage performances are Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings at 8pm, Wednesdays at 7pm, with 2pm matinees on Thursdays and Saturdays. Tickets from $19.28 to $68 -- Saturday night opening dates also press dates. Unicorn Theatre Perfomances Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings at 8pm; Wednesday evening at 7pm; and Saturday afternoons at 2pm (for Faith Healer and Red Remembers. The opening and closing productions have slightly different schedules per details below). Prices range from $19.50 to $44.
Broadway by the Year
The performers too have become something of a BBTY family, many appearing often but with enough new talent coming aboard to keep the series fresh. What never varies is the unassuming Siegel in his hallmark black suit, bow tie and matching cummerbund at the side of the stage to intersperse his introductions with always apt anecdotes about the year being celebrated.
Now, Siegel has for the very first time taken his show North of Manhattan to launch the Berkshire Theatre Festival's Main Stage season. And so, welcome Berkshirites to the BBTY fan club!
Logistics and budget considerations required Ross Patterson to leave his "big little big band" behind, and do all the heavy lifting with his piano playing. Superb pianist that he is, this is not a problem. In fact, if some of the intermission comments I overheard are an indication, Patterson's ivory tickling was a star attraction. The cast too had to be scaled down (the Town Hall concerts tend to boast a dozen singers) and, since BTF isn't particularly dance-friendly, this BBTY also arrived without the choreography that has become a popular element at Town Hall. However, the old saw about good things coming in small packages certainly applies to the quality of the performers who have journeyed to the Berkshires: Golden-voiced Broadway divas Christiane Noll and Kerry O'Malley, and star or the cabaret scene, Scott Coulter. All are favorites with BBTY audiences in New York.
Individually and in some especially lovely ensemble numbers, Noll, O'Malley and Coulter make the beautiful songs part of this Berkshire Theatre Festival debut soar. And what songs!
To compensate for the smaller than usual cast, Mr. Siegel is introducing Berkshire audiences to the series by covering two years, 1930 and 1964. The years he's chosen for his two-for-the-price-of-one presentation are aburst with terrific show tunes. And, while the focus is on memorable hits, just enough less well known numbers given fresh new life by the splendid singing and Siegel's amusing and informative commentary; for example, the second act included a number from Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray's musicalized version of Blithe Spirit, a show which, incidentally was revived at the BTF Main stage eleven years ago (Curtainup's Review). The year 1964 was such a hit factory, that it seeded two BBTY shows at Town Hall. No wonder, with shows like Hello Dolly!, Fiddler on the Roof, Funny Girl and Anyone Can Whistle to choose from. Following the series' tradition of giving listeners a chance to hear a song without the now prevalent body mikes or "unplugged," Mr. Siegel turns of the overhead amplification for the ensemble's finale.
Unlike the New York Broadway by the Year productions, the one at Berkshire Theatre Festival is not a one-night stand but plays for eleven performances, as Siegel puts it, his first experience of putting on a show that doesn't close on opening night.
Broadway by the Year--1930 and 1964
Created/Written/Hosted by Scott Siegel
Directed by Scott Coulter
Musical Director/Pianist: Ross Patterson
Cast: Christiane Noll and Kerry O’Malley, Scott Coulter
Lighting Designer: Matthew E. Adelson
Sound Designer: Janie Bullard
Stage Manager: Thomas A. Kelly
BTF Main Stage from 6/18/09 to 6/27/09
For schedule details see berktheatre.org By special arrangement with The Town Hall in New York City.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 6/20/09 opening night performance
Previews: June 19, 20. Opening Night/Press Night: June 20. Closes: June 27. For an idea of what to expect, see my omnibus page on this series that I've been covering at Town Hall for years--here
The Einstein Project
Paul D'Andrea and Jon Klein studded their 1987 take on Einstein's relationship to his brilliant German colleagues, to Germany and to a higher deity with lots of scientific dialogue. However, this isn't a physics lesson so don't expect to come away understanding "E=mc2," the theory with which Einstein posited that everything is moving relative to everything and put an end to the notion of absolutes.
The problem is that the physics talk is often too obviously there to lend authenticity rather than to deepen our understanding of and interest in the play's characters. That's not to say that it's short of interesting characters besides Einstein. Some have, in fact, figured as key figures in other plays — Werner Heisenberg was crucial in Michael Frayn's award-winning Copenhagen. Fritz Haber, the inventor of mustard gas used in World War I and his scientist wife Clara Immerwahr, were the key characters in Vern Thiessen's Einstein's Gift. However, with the exception of Heisenberg, the physicist famously associated with the "uncertainty principle," none of these people are likely to mean much to present day audiences, especially those for whom World War I and II represent long ago history.
Given the cross-cutting between different places (Switzerland, England Germany and America) and periods in time (1907 to 1945), this is a play that demands close attention to avoid some confusion. As support players for this particular Einstein story, all these unfamiliar characters have their front and center moments but it's not enough to make them all that much more memorable than the ensemble actors whose Suzuki style choreographed scenes are used by director Eric Hill to untether this drama from strict adherence to historic facts and details.
The above caveats aside, Hill's dedication to Tadashi Suzuki's highly stylized use of movement does make for some stunning visual effects and lends a good deal of emotional vitality to the overall. The openings for each act are especially arresting and the periodically interspersed Pathé Newsreels go far towards establishing the context of what has or will happen. One particularly effective such scene moves from an announcement in 1922 about Einstein collecting his Nobel Prize to one about Germany's youth making themselves physically strong to rebuild their defeated country. The accompanying image of several ensemble actors doing heavy duty calisthenics segues into the lone figure of Werner Heisenberg sweating away as Einstein watches and comments that it tires him to watch his friend always being in perpetual motion. This, in turn, leads to a discussion that ends with a declaration underscoring Einstein's never wavering Pacifism.
There are some notable difference between this re-staging of the play's run at BTF's smaller Unicorn theater during the summer 2000 season. For starters, there's Joseph Varga's grander scenic design that looks like a huge factory with doors that slide open for some jaw dropping visual effects as well as to bring on and take away props. In addition to adapting the physical look of the play to the larger stage, the action now stretches over two acts for a total of two hours (the Unicorn production ran just 80 minutes without an intermission--perhaps a length that should have been retained). But the major change is that Tommy Schrider and James Barry, who were students when they first took on the roles of Einstein and Heisenberg, are returning to these roles after nine years of professional acting which includes their brilliant performances in BTF's terrific revival of Harold Pinter's The Caretaker last summer.
Schrider has the difficult task of portraying two quite different Einstein personas: He's the quotable wit, the lovable and often droll genius who made everybody familiar with the term "theory of relativity" even if they didn't grasp the theory's meaning. That charsimatic public figure is shown here via the Pathé newsreels as a somewhat Chaplinesque figure. But he must also portray the Einstein who dominates this play— the still charismatic but much more intense man behind those newsreels who was not very loving or lovable.
Einstein's contradictory personality is most clearly evident in his relationship with his sensitive (in fact, later institutionalized) son Edward (Miranda Hope Shear). It's too bad that BTF seems to have abandoned past seasons' practice of including background notes in its programs which, in this case, would fill audiences in on omitted biographical details like his other children, two wives, along with a chronology of the high points of his life (the latter is included in the published script). At any rate Schrider is terrific as both the charming and more distant Einstein— and, of course, the pacifist whose letter to President Roosevelt ignited the development and use of the Atom Bomb.
James Barry is equally persuasive in portraying Werner Heisenberg, Einstein's protege who taught his friend and teacher's theories even as he became more and more of an anethema to the Nazis. While Frayn's Copenhagen left Heisenberg's role during World War II an open question, The Einstein Project, is much more supportive of Heisenberg as the good guy who prevented the Germans from developing the atom bomb. Jesse Hinson deftly handles the multiple roles of the Eighth Man, which include the Pathé broadcaster.
Ultimately, Einstein's frequent references to God don't really send you out of the theater with new revelations about him as a religious man. His idea of religion was that there must be an order but in a lecture he declares that "A God who rewards and punishes is inconceivable to the scientist, for the simple reason that all scientific endeavor is based upon freedom." Well said. New? No. For that we'd like to see BTF track down and present a new science based play rather than just a newly staged one.
The Einstein Project by Paul D'Andrea and Jon Klein.
Directed by Eric Hill
Cast: James Barry (Werner Heisenberg), Brandy Caldwell (Clara Immerwahr/Japanese Woman), David Chandler (Fritz Haber), Kyle Fabel (Max Von Laue), Jesse Hinson - (Eighth Man), Walter Hudson (Otto Hahn), Tommy Schrider (Albert Einstein), Miranda Hope Shea (Edward Einstein), C.J. Wilson (Walter Gerlach), Members of the Ensemble: Megan R. Carr, Emily Grove, Cameron Harms, Betsy Lippitt, Tony Rios, John St. Croix. Stage Manager: Jessica Kovell
Scenic Designer: Joseph Varga
Costume Designer: Charles Schoonmaker
Lighting Designer: Matthew E. Adelson
Composer/Sound Designer: J. Hagenbuckle
Movement: Isadora Wolfe
Assistant to the Director/Composer of Original Song: Dawn Loveland
. From June 30-July 18, 2009
Running time: Approx. two hours includingtone fifteen minute intermission
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer on July 7th.
The Prisoner of Second Avenue
But Mel is not just kvetching about the frustrations of life in this upscale section of Second Avenue. It's 1971 and not the best of times in New York City. The stock market is down. Crime is up. Flourishing businesses are failing or downsizing. Mel is worried about keeping his job as an advertising account executive (sound familiar?). In fact, on the summer night when we first meet him, his wife Edna is right to assume that there's more to his sleeplessness than meets the eye. Turns out that he's already been fired, along with forty-three other people. No wonder he counters Edna's suggestion that he go back into therapy with "I don't know where or who I am any more. I don't need analysts, I need Lost and Found." That desperate but laugh inducing response puts us smack into Neil Simon country: a dramatic landscape with more dark clouds than sunshine, but that nevertheless has the audience in stitches even as their hearts break for the characters who populate Simon's plays.
It is Neil Simon's knack for mixing heartbreak with hilarity that accounts his being a virtual hit factory, with his characters often continuing to live on the revival circuit as well as in films and on television. The Prisoner of Second Avenue, joined the Simon hit parade ten years into his long career. Peter Falk and Lee Grant created the roles of the couple Simon envisioned as a modern day version of Grant Wood's famous "American Gothic." It enjoyed a 799 performance run at the O'Neill Theater, won Tonys for Best Play, Best Direction and Best Featured Actor, and became a successful film starring Jack Lemmon and Ann Bancroft. If you're locked into images of these best known Mel and Ednas, forget about them and get yourself a ticket for BTF's invigoratingly fresh revival— expertly helmed by Warner Shook and with Stephen DeRosa and Veanne Cox putting their own indelible stamp on the play's main characters.
Unlike Candide at BTF's smaller theater which gains altitude from the energy of a fledgling cast and the simple charms of a let's put on a show spirit, this is as polished and professional a production as you're likely to see on any Broadway stage. DeRosa's Mel is a stunning mix of hyper-ventilating rage and melancholy, his body language as revealing as his zinger-infused rants. Though the play's time frame dates back thirty-nine years, DeRosa embodies a timeless Everyman, especially given that so many mid-level, middle-aged managers are currently experiencing the pain of being forced into the jobless ranks even though they probably share the feeling Mel explains with "I'm not through with life yet. . .I still have value. . ." Cox who has a special flair for over the top neurotics, here starts out as the calming voice of reason in the Edison household. However, she works herself gradually and utterly believably into the more intense Edna who's as ready to crack as her husband. The chemistry between these two is also quite wonderful.
Because it's almost embarrassing to laugh at a man having a nervous breakdown and a family faced with the collapse of their whole way of life, the playwright introduced a quartet of other characters to add a much-needed lighter scene when Mel's distress turns from dark gray to pitch black. That scene, which comes at the top of the second act, brings on Mel's older siblings. They've come from their New Jersey and other non-Manhattan homes to see how they can help their troubled baby brother get through this crisis. No matter that it's never quite clear why Edna, who seems to be the cause of their not seeing much of each other, has notified them about Mel's breakdown. It's enough that they're there and ready to do their bit. The conference to hammer out their helping hand strategy is led by stable (or so he seems), take-charge businessman brother Harry (the excellent Julian Gamble). It's hilariously punctuated with characterizing memories of how the siblings see and feel about Mel. While the sisters could be posing for a group portrait of a family bonded by common traits, the actors playing them (Denny Dillon as Jessie, Jeanne Paulsen as Pauline and Alice Playten as Pearl) ably and amusingly bring out what differentiate s them from one another.
Director Shook's has guided the production with a genuine affection and respect for Simon's intentions, so that the setting is true to the period even as the audience is likely to make automatic mental updates vis-a-vis specifics such as $80,000 salaries for top-earning executives and a radio newscast instead of Fox News or CNN's Situation Room. He's smartly ignored a script note that would have Mel smoking (I've long felt that the cigarette is one prop that could be retired in the interest of public health and without an appreciable loss of period authenticity).
Shook is well served by the designers in creating an authentic look. Scott Bradley's set gives us just enough of a glimpse of the cityscape outside the typical over-priced Manhattan apartment in which Mel's " imprisonment" plays out. Laurie Churba Kohn's costumes are right on the mark (I'm almost sure I once owned a gray one-button suit and several white blouses with tie necklines).
BTF's inclusion of this entertaining and touching play in its summer '09 lineup is timely on two counts: First, the recession that caused so much suffering to average Americans like Mel and Edna has been supplanted by an even deeper and far reaching one. Therefore, even though love and resilience are key ingredients for weathering financial storms, were Mel and Edna alive and comfortably retired in a place like Kimball Farms in Lenox, they'd be likely to see the same thing (or worse) happening to their children and grandchildren. Secondly, if you enjoy this fine revival as much as I think you will, you'll have a chance to see two of Neil Simon's touching and funny Eugene Jerome plays — Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound— this fall, playing in repertory at Broadway's recently restored Nederlander Theatre on Broadway.
Production Notes (including a chronology of Neil Simon's plays
The Prisoner of Second Avenue by Neil Simon.
Directed by Warner Shook
Cast: Stephen DeRosa as (Mel Edison), Veanne Cox (Edna Edison), Denny Dillon (Jessie), Jeanne Paulsen (Pauline), Alice Playten (Pearl), Julian Gamble (Harry Edison).
Sets: Scott Bradley
Costumes: Laurie Churba Kohn
Mary Louise Geiger: Lighting
Scott Killian: Resident composer/sound designer
Stage Manager: Stephen Horton
Previews: July 21 to August 8
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, including one intermission
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at July 25th press opening A chronology of Neil Simon's Plays
* Come Blow Your Horn (1961)
* Little Me (1962)
* Barefoot in the Park (1963)
* The Odd Couple (1965)
* Sweet Charity (1966)
* The Star-Spangled Girl (1966)
* Plaza Suite (1968)
* Promises, Promises (1968)
* The Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1969)
* The Gingerbread Lady (1970)
* The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1971)
* The Sunshine Boys (1972)
* The Good Doctor (1973)
* God's Favorite (1974)
* California Suite (1976)
* Chapter Two (1977)
* They're Playing Our Song (1979)
* I Ought to Be in Pictures (1980)
* Fools (1981)
* Brighton Beach Memoirs (1983)
* Biloxi Blues (1985)
* The Odd Couple (Female version, 1986)
* Broadway Bound (1986)
* Rumors (1988)
* Lost in Yonkers (1991)
* Jake's Women (1992)
* The Goodbye Girl (1993)
* Laughter on the 23rd Floor (1993) * London Suite (1995)
* Proposals (1997)
* The Dinner Party (2000)
* 45 Seconds from Broadway (2001)
* Rose's Dilemma (2003)
Though this production ratchets up the audience's amused awareness of the truth beneath what's said (especially by the persistently unaware and self-righteous Manders), this latest (of many) adaptation doesn't involve any drastic tinkering in order to make it alive and relevant. Anders Cato's and James Leverett's easy going adaptation is accessible with none of the grating colloquialisms found in some translations . Most importantly, rather than try to overcome the fact that the play no longer sends shockwaves through audiences as it did when it premiered in 1882, Cato and Leverett clearly recognize that the characters represent ever timely human frailties and that no major diddling is needed. The more pronounced laughter from the BTF audience is thus attributable to the actors' bringing nuance to their non-verbal interpretations of their characters. Happily, David Adkins as Manders and Jonathan Epstein as Engstrand are up to this challenge. In fact, the cast overall succeeds admirably in letting us see Ibsen's dour, issue packed play in a less stuffy mode and yet retain its identity as a Greek Tragedy.
For anyone unfamiliar with the play, Ghosts is Ibsen's response to criticsm of A Doll's House. It confirmed the decision of Nora Helmer to take her chances an uncertain future rather than remain in a marriage that, though once happy, had turned into a sham. In Ghosts, instead of slamming the door on a marriage that was a disaster from the start, Helene Alving (an outstanding Mia Dillon), instead of just taking off as Nora did, sought the help of her friend and spiritual adviser. Rigidly fixated on a morality that brooked no bending of societal rules, Manders turned his back on the attraction simmering beneath the surface of their friendship and persuaded Helene to re-open that slammed door, thus condemning her to cover up her dissolute husband's sins and send her beloved young son Osvald to grow up far away from her. The play's action post-dates that meeting between the desperate wife and the man she mistakenly trusts and loves, so we can only assume that Manders suppressed his attraction to Helene by forcing her to return to her husband and then absenting himself from her life. As the play opens, however, he's returned, having been put in charge on the final details for the next day's official opening of an Orphanage bullt on the Alving estate. A brief scene between Manders and young Regine Engstand (a wonderfully feisty Tara Franklin) who has been under Mrs. Alving's care all her life and now serves as a maid illustrates the use acaddition of non-verbal nuance (n this case the buried lust inside the very proper man ot the cloth accompanies his comment about how she's grown up and "filled out.").
The play is essentially a long night's journey into the souls of people haunted by the ghosts of the past. During the meeting to go over details for the Orphanage's opening, bad decisions are rehashed and their awful consequences laid bare and made concrete. First there's a fire that destroys the orphanage which, though purported to commemorate the memory of the undeserving Captain Alving, is really his wife's way of giving away the money he left to her in order to free herself from any connection to him. Worse still, the sin that dare not speak its name that's the son's tragic inheritance is fully realized, forcing Mrs. Alving to once again choose between what society deems the right thing and the dictates of her heart.
Ms. Dillon handles the complexities of Mrs. Alving's painful past and future without bathos. Except for the finale which makes over-emoting almost unavoidable, she is mostly an ahead of her time smart woman making foolish choices. She conveys just the right note of irony to parts of her conversation with Manders yet manages to hint at her frustrated feelings for him. First and foremost however, Dillon's Mrs. Alving is a mother. As for the son who's the victim of the unhappily undivorced Alvings, Randy Harrison, a BTF favorite, conveys a nice brittle, somewhat ironic sophistication, when talking to Manders. He moves convincingly from stoicism to his anguished final plea to see the sun.
The role of Engstrand, the venal workman for whom Regine (rightly so) has zero daughterly feelings is. like Franklin's, secondary to that of Mrs. Alving, Osvald and Manders, but as played by Jonathan Epstein its a vital ingredient for this production's success. Whether playing a Shakespearian clown, a devious homeless man in a Pinter play, or a soul deadened teacher Epstein never disappoints. It's nice to see him and Tara Franklin together again (She was the student of the aforementioned teacher in Educating Rita ).
Lee Savage's set is simplicity itself. Except for a few pieces of furniture the most dramatic scenic element is a glass door with a seemingly unending downpour of rain which seems to foreshadow that we're about to meet characters who are trapped as much by the memories trapped inside the walls of the Alving home as by the weather. My one complaint about the staging is really a directing flaw: Charming as this venue is, the fact that the seats aren't staggered or raked as in the company's second stage, even prime seats in the center section tend to present sightline problems if props are positioned too far apart. This is the case in this production whenever one of the actors sits at a table at the far right of the stage. Maybe that's why Mr. Cato has the actors standing around quite a bit for much of the time which makes it easier to see their facial expressions, but at the expense of some stasis.
The above quibble aside, as Mrs. Alving can't free herself from the ghosts of her ill-conceived marriage, this production is haunting, but in a good way. Strange as a laughter rich Ibsen play may sound, the adapters, director and actors have remained faithful to Ibsen's ghost.
Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen
Adapted by Anders Cato and James Leverett, directed by Cato.
Cast: David Adkins (Pastor Manders, Mia Dillon (Helene Alving), Jonathan Epstein (Engstrand), Tara Franklin (Regine Engstrand), Randy Harrison (Osvald Alving)
Sets: Lee Savage
Costumes: Olivera Gajic
Lighting: Tyler Micoleau
Sound Design: Scott Killian
Dramaturg: James Leverett
Stage Manager: Kyle Gates
Running Time: August 11 to August 29
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer August 15
Faith Healer by Brian Friel. Directed by Eric Hill. With David Adkins, Colin Lane, and Keira Naughton Previews: May 21, 22 Opening Night/Press Night: May 23 Closes: July 4
Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes; one intermission
Playing Thursday through Saturday at 8pm, Saturday and Sunday at 2pm through June 20. From June 20-July 4 performances will return to the normal weekly schedule as listed above. The three inter-connected monologues have been often revived, a draw for many top actors.
This is a long, dark, and demanding play with which to open the season. As he did in Molly Sweeney, Friel refuses to give audiences the chance to see these closely interwined characters to interact at least once. You thus have three monologues by people whose lives are closely interconnected, each giving his/her version shades of Rashomon. Eric Hill, who's staged this play previously, has assembled a fine cast, up to memorizing these huge chunks of text and delivering the nuances that make their characters rewarding enough to stay with those not fazed by the inevitable repetition and length. If you go, you may want to check out my review of this play's last production on Broadway with a high profile cast--The Faith Healer on Broadway.
As the naive Candide's adventures had their ups along with the downs, the show named for him did have a best of all possible worlds turnaround when Harold Prince refurbished it with a new book by Hugh Wheeler, lyrics by Richard Wilbur and additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and John LaTouche (748 performances). However, the improved book never altered the fact that the adventures— or to be more precise, misadventures— of Voltaire's hero were primarily a hook on which to hang the delicious lyrics and Bernstein's indestructibly glorious songs. Despite a lavish production and stellar cast, that hook wasn't strong enough to sustain the 1997 Broadway revival for more than a disappointing 103-performance run. As a fan of the show, I liked it better than many critics, though I too had some quibbles. I was therefore much intrigued when I heard that Berkshire Theatre Festival was doing Candide at its small second stage, without any well-known performers and --gulp, gulp-- even without an orchestra to play the rousing overture. Could a small production, without too many bells and whistles, be the key to a flawless Candide?
Okay, so it's not flawless. But for starters the chance to see any version of this operetta so close to Tanglewood which nurtured Leonard Bernstein's musical career is irresistible. As for the two piano accompaniment. . .it works surprisingly well even though the few recorded strains of a full orchestra playing at the beginning and end make it impossible not to miss the more richly orchestrated score. That said, no complaints about Jae Han's expert piano playing, supported by music director Matthew Stern who leaves the keyboards long enough to play the part of The Governor.
The young performers from Eric Hill's Brandeis University drama program and the season's crop of BTF apprentices are so exuberant and super-energetic that you tend to forgive director Ralph Petillo for allowing them to ramp up the burlesque elements of the philosophy tinged mix of star crossed lovers and adventure story. Given the frequent moves into the aisles of this intimate jewel box theater, the shticky and often politically incorrect humor seems almost as much fun as flaw.
Though Erin Kiernan's Playskool-like jungle gym set initially smacks of a Micky and Judy "let's put on a show" amateur production, that impression gives way to admiration once you hear the excellent voices of the the lost boy hero (Julian Whitley) and virginal but repeatedly violated heroine (McCaela Donovan). If I had to give just one reason to embrace this lively and streamlined Candide, it would be to hear Donovan, who's as pretty a Cunegonde as you could wish for and who acts as well as she sings, deliver "Glitter and Be Gay." But with so many other hummable hits, that list grows like the garden of the company finale, "Make My Garden Grow." There's the stick-to-the-ears "I Am Easily Assimilated " sung Julia Broder who gives an uproarious performance as The Old Woman with the single buttock, and the company's delightful "Auto Da Fe."
Julian Whitley's opera training serves him well as this production has him taking on the lion's share of solos as well as participating in ensemble numbers. As for the ensemble. . . my only quibble here is that the presentation/Suzuki style poses that are so much a part of BTF's and director-teacher Eric Hill's training seem an unnecessary theatrical fillip.
As is typical of most musical revivals, Ralph Petillo has rearranged and re-assigned some of the songs to accommodate the fast paced production and this particular cast. In case you need a plot summary: Candide, a bastard, and high-born Cunegonde fall in love. Her brother exiles him from Westphalia. He leaves with his mentor, Dr. Pangloss, assuring him that this is nevertheless the best of all possible worlds. Both lovers (as well as other Wesphalians) experience years of death-defying experiences that challenge the optimistic Panglossian mantra. They're reunited, no longer young, but once again ready to renew their love in a best of all possible worlds.
To conclude, yes, I would have liked a bit less shtick and the music would be even more glorious with an orchestra. But when you ride home hmming "What a day, what a day/ for an auto da Fe" and with bits of "Glitter and be Gay," "I Am Easily Assimilated" and "Make Our Garden Grow" ringing in your ears, best to heed The Old Lady when she addresses the issues raised in "What's the Use?" with "Stop complaining. "
For a capsule history of Candide's evolution from page to stage, see the production notes in my review of Candide on Broadway.
Berkshire Theatre Festival Production Notes
Candide Music by Leonard Bernstein
Book adapted from Voltaire novella by Hugh Wheeler
Lyrics by Richard Wilbur, with additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and John LaTouche
Directed by Ralph Petillo. Cast: Julian W)hitley (Candide), McCaela Donovan (Cunegunde),Ben Rosenblatt (Dr. Pangloss), Julia Broder (The Old Woman), Kyle Schaefer (Maximillian), Becky Webber (Paquette), Michael Brahce Man #1, Robert McFadyen (Man #2), Samantha Richert (Woman #1), Matthew Stern (Governor, also Musical Director).
Ensemble: Elizabeth Ard, Rachel Copel, Devin Doyle, Melissa Dvozenja, Arne Gjelten, Anna Koehler, Miles Rice, Stephen Rowland, Maximilian Schadler, Melanie Siegel and Jaclyn Walsh.
Scenic Design: Erin Kiernan
Costume Design: Jessica Risser-Milne
Lighting Design: Jaime Davidson
Sound Design:Janie Bullard
Dance Consultant: Rachael Plaine
Accompanyist: Jae Han
Stage Manager: Sarah Garrett
Running time: Approx 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission
From July 7 through Aug. 15; opening 8/11/09
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer 8/11/09
With a history like that it's easy to see parallells between Dohrn's own youth and his play Sick, in which a surreal safe haven existence is forced on 19-year-old Sarah and 16-year-old Davey Krebs by their mother Maxine. Presumably, Maxine's war on even the tiniest dirt particles that has caused her to imprison herself and her children in the family's rent-controlled Manhattan duplex is waged out of love — but even more as a result of her own acutely neurotic reaction to 9/11. (The fact that the apartment is rent-controlled makes it a prison shared by even less angst-ridden New Yorkers blessed with this very special kind of New York good fortune).
Dohrn obviously survived sharing his parents' life in exile. In fact, the whole family re-entered the social mainstream, the parents as academics and their son as a Julliard graduate and produced playwright. After seeing Sick one can only hope that the one member of the Krebs family who at one point slams the door on the family's antiseptic home will also succeed at having a normal life. If you think this sounds a bit like A Doll's House, you're right. According to an interview Dohrn did with blogger Adam Szymkowicz, that play was just one well-known work that influenced him to write Sick. As he put it, the play was his attempt "to do A Doll's House meets Safe (A 1995 movie in which (great Todd Haynes/Julianne Moore movie from the mid-90's) with a little Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Glass Menagerie thrown in."
The connection to Glass Menagerie is likely to be especially meaningful to Berkshire Theatre Festival audiences who saw a production of that play at this very theater two seasons ago (review). That's because Greg Keller, who played Jim, the Gentleman Caller now plays Jim Sick's visiting outsider who triggers an explosion in the Krebs family's dysfunctional routine. Actually, dysfunctional doesn't begin to describe these people's surreal life style. Indeed Dohrn might have added Jules Feiffer's Little Murders and Rod Serling's Twilight Zone series. Ah, but there's the rub!
Sick, for all its intriguing derivative roots, is a long remove from warranting a place in the pantheon of such enduringly riveting titles. It lacks the soul and poetry of Menagerie, Its slamming door doesn't bang resonately enough to embed itself in your theatrical memory book as Nora Helmer's door did; not, do we experience the satiric bite of Little Murders or the suspense or surprises of the Twilight Zone brand of surrealism.
Plays often go through editing as other stage opportunities come along, and different directors and casts can at time make what didn't work in an early production more effective. With that in mind, I went to the opening of this New England premiere at Berkshire Theatre Festival hoping that the New Jersey production that my colleague Simon Saltzman found disappointing would turn into a he said-she said situation, with me adding a thumbs up review to his thumbs down one. With David Auburn, himself a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright (Proof), at the helm and a cast featuring three (out of four) actors whose work I've found most impressive more than once, my hopes for BTF's Sick weren't pie in the sky.
Unfortunately, the most noticeable alteration the script seems to have undergone since Simon saw it was changing the name of the sickest of the hyper-allergic Krebs siblings from Davy to Davey. Despite Auburn's lively direction, solid stagecraft and the actors' obvious commitment to their parts, Sick remains a socio-political comedy that only occasionally manages to be funny or persuade us to believe in what is happening even in its less over-the-top abstract mode. Oh, there may well have been a tweak here and there, but the story, as outlined originally seems generally intact.
Maxine Krebs (Lisa Emery) has turned the spacious duplex apartment into a colorless, germ-free environment, its major "decorating" touches, two huge air filters and plastic-sealed windows. The occupants are dressed in keeping with this hospital-like setting, in gowns and pajamas, with their faces most of the time covered by surgical masks, with Davey additionally equipped with an oxygen tank. The only relatively free member of this hermetic household is Sidney Krebs (Michael Gill) who leaves the apartment regularly to buy food and other necessities, and also to earn the money to support the family as a poetry professor (the mutty sonnets he loves are yet another type of dirt his wife would like to keep from her children). Sidney also manages to get in an occasional game of squash and it is his bringing his squash partner and star student Jim (Greg Keller) home that sets off the stranger-in-our-midst plot complications.
While it doesn't take Jim long to wish he'd never entered the un-homey Krebs home, he wants Sidney to sign a PhD letter of recommendation and so stays around. No sooner has he gotten his first taste of Maxine's obsessive-compulsive lunacy than he meets the shy, home-schooled Sarah ((Rebecca Brooksher) and Davey (Ryan Spahn). Sarah, is not as highly allergic as her brother and Dohrn has made her a combination of Glass Menagerie's sensitive, fragile Laura Wingfield and her torn between family loyalty and a yearning to get away brother Tom. She's thrilled at having been accepted into a college scholarship program (the applications secretly filled out with dad's help) and, much as she loves her mother and brother, she yearns for the experiences outside the confines of her strange home.
It is the sensitively portrayed scenes between Brooksher and Keller that come closest to emotionally realizing this multi-derivative play's potential. The Virginia Woolf aspects of the Maxine-Sidney relationship, are too underdeveloped to make us understand what made them get married to start with.
While Emery does Maxine's compulsiveness well she is so consistently rational in her irrationality that it's impossible to either warm up to her— or, to get some laughs from her more extreme actions. A comment she makes after dinner never materializes ("I have a pathological Jewish mother nightmare that people will starve to death in my house." ) seems to be added out of left field. Unless it's an ironic take on this home without a smidgen of Jewish hospitality that, simply fails to come off. Gill is almost too vivid and charismatic to make it believable that he would allow himself to be so long browbeaten into abetting his family's bunker existence.
Ryan Spahn's Davey also has some time alone with Jim but Davey's gasping for air punctuated inquiries about sex push too hard for laughs. At any rate, Adept as Davey is with his magic card tricks, Mr. Dohrn isn't quite as deft at tapping into all those other writers' characters to make theatrical magic out of our troubled environment.
Sick by Zayd Dohrn
Directed by David Auburn
Cast: Rebecca Brooksher (Sarah), Lisa Emery (Maxine), Michel Gill (Sidney), Greg Keller (Jim), Ryan Spahn (Davey)
Sets: R. Michael Miller
Costumes: Wade Laboissonniere
Lights: Dan Kotlowitz
Composer/sound designer: J Hagenbuckle
Stage Manager: Jess Kovell
Autust 18 to Sept. 6
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer August 22
Red Remembers, a world premiere by Andrew Guerdat. Directed by John Rando. With David Garrison as Red Barber. Previews: September 11, 12 Opening Night/Press Night: September 12 Closes: November 1. Playing Thursday through Saturday at 8pm, Saturday and Sunday at 2pm.