The Gershwins and Oscar Wilde Live On Stage! What’s not to like…

As ‘S Wonderful as “Who Could Ask for Anything More? The Songs of George Gershwin” is as it stands, and it truly is, I would suggest one change: adding George’s principal lyricist, his brother Ira, to the (already long enough) title. In Barrington Stage Company’s exhilarating tribute to the Gershwins’ American Songbook, five exceptional singers honor George’s incandescent melodies with pitch-perfection while also using Ira’s sublime lyrics to elevate the concert into real Theatre. (The whole enterprise having been co-conceived and co-directed by BSC artistic director Julianne Boyd and musical director Darren R. Cohen undoubtedly contributed to that result.)

From left: Alan H.Green, Alysha Umphress, Jacob Tischler White, Allison Blackwell, Britney Coleman [Gershwin photos: Daniel Rader]

Staged outdoors in a spacious tent (a perfect setting, pandemic or not), the five performers, backed by five terrific musicians, explore twenty-five Gershwin compositions excerpted from ten different shows and movies. From the haunting opening strains of “Rhapsody in Blue” to the ensemble singing of “There’s a Boat That’s Leavin’ Soon (for New York),” an apt closing number (from “Porgy and Bess”), the eighty-minute avalanche of mostly-familiar classics is a delight.

Highlights tumble out one after the other, beginning with the apropos “Love Is Sweeping the Country” (from “Of Thee I Sing”): Britney Coleman vamps her way through “’S Wonderful” and later gets all racy on us with “Naughty Baby.” Alysha Umphress entices with “Embraceable You” (“Girl Crazy”) and finesses “Do It Again,” from the obscure “The French Doll,” by poking fun at its pre-#MeToo lyrics. (“I may say no, no, no; but do it again.” Sheesh. But it works.) Jacob Tischler teases the audience with “Somebody Loves Me” and builds a “Stairway to Paradise” with Ms. Coleman (both songs from “George White’s Scandals”).

Allison Blackwell and Alan H.Green

Allison Blackwell, whose Broadway debut was in the 2012 revival of “Porgy and Bess,” delivers a resonant “Summertime” from that show (with one sensitive lyric adjustment). Ms. Blackwell, who starred as Violetta in the “La Traviata” scene of the 2018 “Pretty Woman” musical, is a coloratura to reckon with. And Alan H. Green lucks out: not long after he’s “Bidin’ My Time,” “Love Walked In.”

“Slap That Bass”: Allison Blackwell, Alysha Umphress, Mitch Zimmer, Britney Coleman (Hi, Mitch.)

The smartly arranged ensemble numbers, notably “Fascinating Rhythm” and “I Got Rhythm,” are outstanding. Choreography (Jeffrey L. Page) is minimal, but the performers are all smooth afoot. Subtle pastel lighting (David Lander) is soothing, and Sara Jean Tosetti’s  costumes…well, check out the pics.

I missed Barrington’s Rodgers and Hammerstein mash-up last year, but based on George & Ira’s, count me in for whomever is next: Cole Porter?  Lerner and Loewe? Sondheim? Please.

Through July 10 at Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, Massachusetts. For schedule information and tickets: www.barringtonstageco.org

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In a modern play about 19th Century playwright Oscar Wilde, the character says “I have spent my life making language shimmer.” Nowhere do words shimmer more than in Wilde’s delicious comedy of manners, “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Perhaps the wittiest, and certainly one of the funniest plays in the English language since Shakespeare, “Earnest” was the ideal choice to open Berkshire Theatre Group’s 2021 season, now underway in those rolling Massachusetts hills.

Indoors and at full audience capacity (masked as per Actors Equity), the mood is upbeat even before lift-off. And lift off this buoyant “Trivial Comedy for Serious People” (Wilde’s own sub-title) does. Under the direction of David Auburn, himself a renowned playwright (Pulitzer-winning “Proof”), it does not miss a farcical beat or let slip the play’s flourishes of melodrama. “Earnest” is perfectly constructed. Built around false identities, chaste courtships, unexpected visitors and, oh yes, a foundling in a handbag, the action culminates in an outrageously improbable – and hilarious – resolution.

From left: Mitchell Winter, Rebecca Brooksher, Claire Saunders, Shawn Fagan   [“Earnest” photos: Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware]

Jack (Mitchell Winter) and Algernon (Shawn Fagan) both alternately known as Ernest (don’t ask), woo Gwendolyn (Rebecca Brooksher) and Cecily (Claire Saunders), while Gwendolyn’s mother and Algy’s Aunt Augusta, the imperious Lady Bracknell (Harriet Harris), oversees the couples’ courtships with formidable efficiency. David Adkins (Reverend Chausible), Corinna May (Miss Prism) and Matt Sullivan, who executes a transition in full view to play two different butlers, round out the top-notch cast.

Harriet Harris

While many Wilde aficionados likely consider Lady Bracknell the avatar, she is actually fifth in line-count to the four romantic leads, with fewer, in fact, than half the lines of either would-be Ernest.  This is not to disparage the role; witty as is the whole of “Earnest,” Wilde blessed Lady Bracknell with, line for line, more zingers than the others. (Upon learning that Jack is an orphan: “Losing one parent is unfortunate; losing both seems like carelessness.”)  There is a tendency to over-play her caustic quality, which gets laughs but skews the balance of her scenes. Here, accomplished comedic actress Harriet Harris is self-possessed, to be sure, but over-play she does not. A level or two less than the ‘gorgon’ that Jack describes, Ms. Harris is a generous Lady B. Not just to the other characters, who nonetheless dread her wrath, but to the other actors, who are more evenly matched and even funnier than I recall from other productions. The two suitor men, Winter and Fagan, play exceptionally well off each other.

In the play, a character comments on a line just spoken: “It is perfectly phrased,” he says. No assessment of Oscar Wilde’s 1895 masterpiece could be more accurate – or more descriptive of BTG’s elegant production. Their “Earnest” is consistently amusing, pictorially pleasing, and entertaining through-and-through.

Through July 10 at Berkshire Theatre Group, Pittsfield, Massachusetts. For schedule and ticket information: www.BerkshireTheatreGroup.org  

Blog, Professional, Regional

Dream Along With En Garde Arts

Considering, as Rehena Mirza’s disembodied voice intones in her segment of “A Dozen Dreams,” that nothing is more boring than hearing about someone else’s dream, you would think a gaggle of dreams, assembled into an “immersive theatrical installation” would be an endurance test. Not so.

What saves the unique En Garde Arts presentation from that destiny is its brevity and variety. Clocking in at just under sixty minutes, “A Dozen Dreams” delivers what it says: twelve of someone else’s dream, each one too brief to bore. (Do the math.)

Invited by En Garde Arts founder and artistic director Anne Hamburger to share their pandemic dreams, a daunting dozen playwrights (all women, hardly by chance) contributed pieces that range from airily poetic to sternly assertive, some more pandemic-related than others. (And, frankly, some more engaging than others.) Regardless, each is richly enhanced by four other women: co-conceiver Irina Kruzhilina’s evocative physical design, revelatory projections by Brittany Bland, mood-enhancing lighting (Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew), and multi-tone sound (Rena Anakwe). Thus enriched, “A Dozen Dreams” emerges as more than the sum of its parts.

[Photos, unless otherwise noted: Maria Baranova]

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

John Cullum at Ninety-one…and Counting.

What might you be doing one month past your ninety-first birthday? For John Cullum, who achieved that milestone in March, the answer was a sort of fallback plan: Two years earlier, the venerable two-time Tony Award Leading Actor in a Musical was preparing a retrospective of his storied six-decade stage career for a run at Feinstein’s/54Below. Titled “John Cullum: An Accidental Star,” his performance plan was derailed by a bout of pneumonia, an emergency heart surgery and, upon recovery, by the COVID shutdown.

Effectively turning a negative into a positive, Mr. Cullum instead filmed his erstwhile cabaret piece. Streaming online through April 22, it will be accessible to many more theater junkies than would have seen it in person. In this case, dare I say, the restriction on live performance might be a blessing. Intimately acted, directed and filmed, “Accidental Star” is an affecting pleasure; watching it at home is akin to having John over for tea. Abundantly comforting, it put me in a reverie.

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

When “Damn Yankees” became Dumb Yankees

The 1955 Broadway musical “Damn Yankees” was based on Douglass Wallop’s novel “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant” (to the lowly Washington Senators). A Broadway revival of “Damn Yankees” opened on March 3, 1994 at the (Marriott) Marquis Theatre. On August 12 of that year, Major League Baseball came to an abrupt halt when the Players went on strike against the Owners, cancelling remaining games and even the World Series.

1994 Revival Playbill

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Blog, Broadway, NY Theater, Sports

Short Attention Span? Barrington Stage Has Your Back

Anyone interested in learning how to turn a negative into a positive might want to contact the folks at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. For the past nine years, BSC’s “10X10 New Play Festival” has been part of Pittsfield’s winter arts festival, featuring ten new ten-minute plays performed live in their theater, which of course is off-limits now for in-person attendance.

What to do? How to continue the string and make up for the lost revenue? In a creative twist on a longstanding theatrical tradition, BSC has taken its tenth “10X10 Festival” on the road – accessible March 18-21 to anyone with an internet connection and thirty-five bucks. Believe it, you will not find a better thirty-five-cents-per-minute entertainment value anywhere. (Do the math.)

Socially-distant foxtrot: Doug Harris & Peggy Pharr Wilson in “Finding Help” [Photos: David Dashiell]

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Blog, Professional, Regional

The Seeing Place Theater Works Up a Virtual “Sweat”

A play-writing recipe: Stir together equal parts racial tension, economic uncertainty, labor-management unrest, and class distinction. Fold in a smattering of unprovoked violence. Bake under hot lights for two hours and you will have cooked up “Sweat,” a dish so well prepared and served by Lynn Nottage that it earned her the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Set in a blue-collar bar in Reading, Pennsylvania, “Sweat” follows a group of friends whose lives are upended when their common-employer factory is re-organized. The Seeing Place Theater Company, unable, of course, to perform conventionally during pandemic-mandated restrictions, adapted the play into a surprisingly effective remote production, which was live-Zoomed last weekend.

Top: Eileen Weisinger, David Nikolas, Juanes Montoya.  Middle: Joy Sudduth, Justin Phillips, Logan Keeler.
Bottom: Lori Kee

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway