David Ellenstein is determined. After stints running The Los Angeles Repertory Company and The Arizona Jewish Theatre, he took over the Artistic Directorship of North Coast Rep in 2003. Since then, he has directed numerous productions, while always having a desire to revisit a piece he helmed over thirty years ago: Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.
The tone of the piece has been debated since its debut. Chekhov himself declared the play a comedy, while Konstantin Stanislavski, Chekhov’s longtime collaborator, saw it as a drama. North Coast Rep’s production—which opens March 8th—promises, according to Ellenstein, to bring the laughs and the tears.
“Some good plays are of the moment and of their time,” he says. “Some good plays are timeless and ring true no matter when they are performed. The Cherry Orchard is the latter.”
Written in 1903, the play chronicles a summer spent by a group of aristocrats, servants, and intellectuals, all bracing for the impending sale of a landmark Russian estate. In short, it’s a cacophony of love triangles, guilt, grudges, and aspirations for a better tomorrow. At once raucously funny and heartbreakingly tragic, the play was Chekhov’s last before his untimely death—mere months after the play’s January 1904 premiere.
You’ve directed this play before. How has that experience impacted your approach this time around?
DAVID ELLENSTEIN: I had such a great experience delving into this great play the first time around, my memories and some of the choices that we ended up with then, certainly live in my mind as we create a new production. I also am keenly aware of the things in the first production that were not what I hoped they would be. But that production was 32 years ago—so time has a way of adjusting what we remember to suit our needs, so I am trying as much as possible to approach the play with a fresh outlook and remain open to new ways of illuminating the story. I am very fortunate to have an excellent cast of creative actors and designers this time around to make that happen.
What drew you to Jean-Claude van Itallie’s version of the script?
DE: I read numerous versions and translations and they vary so much. Some feel stuffy and old-fashioned. Some feel too modern and audacious. I found that the Van Itallie walked the line of keeping enough of the poetic sense of the play while allowing for an accessible and conversational vernacular that wasn’t off-putting or strange. I find this version allows the audience to experience the characters as fellow human beings without being alienated by the fact that the setting is another time and culture—yet it preserves the specifics and history of the moment that Chekhov wrote the play in a way that feels universal.
Chekhov and Stanislavski famously debated whether The Cherry Orchard is a comedy or a tragedy. What do you think it is?
DE: To me, The Cherry Orchard is a “human comedy”. Falling too far to the farcical element that certainly exists in the play, or giving over to the dark and more tragic qualities would be equally harmful to the play’s success. The genius to me is the ability of the play to find the truth in both. Chekhov’s understanding of the dichotomy that exists in all of us—how we each possess the ridiculous and the profound in our lives and in our character and his ability to weave the two together is why this play will continue to endure. It rings true.
How important is the historical context of the play to you? How much of that do you want the audience to absorb?
DE: As in any play, the more specific the context, the more universal the lives of the people feel. Understanding what the specifics of 1903 Russia were; the pressures and changes that are occurring in the society the characters exist in is extremely important for the actors to incorporate into their performances to fully embody the people. For the audience, a knowledge of the time and history might illuminate the play in a certain way, but is not essential to understand the story or the journey of the characters. Chekhov’s characters are complete people that audiences respond to regardless of their historical understanding of the specific time. Human struggles are timeless.
What do you want the audience to take away from this production?
DE: A few laughs and a few tears. An evening in the theatre where we are reminded of our human foibles and attributes. People are flawed and amazing at the same time, and we all share so much of this mixed bag we call life. I hope the audiences leave the theatre with a greater appreciation and respect for one another.
How do you characterize the director’s job?
DE: Understand the play. See a path in which it can be illuminated. Communicate that vision for the work. Empower and inspire all involved to bring their best and most creative talents to bear. Synthesize and curate the production so that the story can be received by the audience as intended.
What do you ideally want from an actor?
DE: ”You should feel a flow of joy because you are alive. Your body will feel full of life. That is what you must give from the stage. Your life. No less. That is art: to give all you have.” -Michael Chekhov. Who am I to argue with a Chekhov?
Are there any plays you haven’t directed yet that you’re champing at the bit to do?
DE: I am fortunate in that I mostly get to choose the plays that I direct. I’d like to do more Shakespeare. I am attracted to classics—but it is the variety and unexpected new challenges that surprise me that end up turning me on the most.
To find out more about North Coast Rep’s production of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, visit northcoastrep.org
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Boop! Leaps To Life In Chicago
Boop! the new musical officially opened its pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago last night. This is a delightful entertainment. Tony winning director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell has assembled a terrific cast, stunning visuals, strong movement and a heartfelt score into a seamless production that keeps the audience smiling at her antics.
Betty Boop was first introduced to the world by the Fleisher Studios in 1930. As a comedic representation of the free spirit of jazz age women. Betty has entertained and inspired audiences for over ninety years, even after being sanitized by the Hayes Code. Betty also has some real historical precedents, which are ignored by this creative team. As such, the character of Betty herself remains no more than a cute cartoon in the end.
Betty is introduced in a brilliant montage of projections and cardboard cut outs, as if we are seeing her perform in a series of her black and white, 1930s cartoons. She recaps the scenarios in which she got to save the day with her song, “A Little Versatility”. Jasmine Amy Rogers, as Betty is a sexy, cuddly, and touching musical theater dynamo, who adds her own considerable personal warmth to the character.
When the song ends, we are in the monochromatic world of the Max Fleischer cartoon movie studio. Betty complains to her director (Aubie Merrylees) and his megaphone-toting assistant (Ricky Schroeder) that she is suddenly feeling the pressures of cartoon stardom. She says she needs a vacation from herself. She also says she needs to find out who she really is, although nothing in particular has happened to incite that decision.
Actor Stephen DeRosa, in a deliberately cartoony depiction of Betty’s grandfather character, Grampy, who introduces Betty to a time and space machine, which is a Rube Goldberg contraption wedded to an overstuffed armchair. In an instant, Betty is transported from the world of black and white cartoons to the real world. She appears magically at the New York City Comicon 2023, which pulsates with Mr. Mitchell’s energetic choreography. There, Betty discovers the joys of life in living color.
At Comicon, Betty is befriended by a preteen girl, Trisha. This character is given a theater-shaking performance by petite sixteen year old Angelica Hale, who wowed the world on America’s Got Talent. Whenever she opens her mouth to sing, she literally brings the house down. If you are the parent of an aspiring young performer, you must bring your child to see this amazing young role model.
The problem is the story puts baby, or Betty, in the corner. Betty tells Trisha that she doesn’t want to be recognized as famous, she just wants to be normal. Betty asks Trisha to help her remove her signature makeup and make her look like a real girl, so we expect to see that happen. But it never does. Betty continues throughout the show looking and acting just as cartoony as she does from the beginning.
Also at Comicon, Betty meets Dwayne, an aspiring jazz trumpeter played with unforced charm and appeal by Ainsley Anthony Melham. Dwayne turns out to also be Trisha’s baby sitter, who comes over when her Aunt Carol (Anastacia McClesky) has to go to work as campaign manager for Raymond Demarest, a former city sanitation superintendent now running for mayor. Erich Bergen as Demarest is very funny and perfectly sleazy as this shady character, whose excremental campaign slogan is to “Doo doo” what needs to be done.
Dwayne invites Betty to join him at a jazz club where he sits in as a trumpeter. After saying she doesn’t want to be recognized, Betty inexplicably outs herself, belting the joyous song, “Where I Want to Be.” As the first act closes, our expectation is that Betty will be pursuing a career as a performer in modern times. That doesn’t happen either. Instead, the second act opens with Dwayne doing another jazz number on the stairs in Times Square for Betty’s benefit. Betty just sits on the sidelines, watching passively. Then, Demarest enlists Betty to be his assistant mayor, and help generate publicity for his campaign. In her innocence, she allows Demarest to exploit her fame as a cartoon character because she hopes to help women’s causes. Demarest does not allow Betty to speak or express an opinion. This again makes Betty just a passive observer of the story she should be driving.
Young Trisha supposedly admires Betty for the various roles she was given to play in her cartoons, however Betty shows none of the initiative and accomplishment in New York which inspired her young fan from watching her cartoons. That’s a story shortcoming which could have been turned into a positive, if it elicited disappointment on Trisha’s part, and created a crisis between her and Betty in the second act, but the book skips over this issue, and misses a great opportunity to raise the emotional stakes in its story.
Grampy is given an old flame to fan, in the form of Tony winning Broadway legend Faith Prince, as a once young scientist, Valentina. She is reunited with Grampy after a supposed forty year absence (an inexplicable timeline, given that the play takes place ninety years after the cartoons). They rekindle their romance with a charm song,“Together, You and Me”, and a little suggested senior sex. But Ms. Prince’s considerable comedic talents are vastly underutilized here.
Finally, Chicago puppeteer Phillip Huber of The Huber Marrionettes brilliantly and unobtrusively manipulates his marionette puppet of Betty’s dog, Pudgy. He delights us all with this fluffy white creature.
Apart from the wonderful cast, the real star and saving grace of this show is lyricist Susan Birkenhead (Jelly’s Last Jam, Working). Literally all the emotion and character development in this show are in her outstanding lyrics. Ms. Birkenhead says everything in song that the show’s book writer, Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaparone, The Prom), should have said in his libretto. Together with Grammy winner David Foster’s excellent music. This fine score is the beating heart of this musical, as it should be.
Mr. Martin’s book makes a joke or two about Betty’s cartoon origin as a dog character. But the glaring omission here is the lack of any reference to her real life origin story.
Betty Boop was a parody created by animator Max Fleisher of a white performer named Helen Kane. Unknown to Fleisher at the time, Ms. Kane had stolen the act of a very real black performer, 1920’s jazz singer Esther Jones, known as “Baby Esther,” who first popularized the phrase, “Boo boop a doop”. Ms. Kane had seen Ms. Jones in performance in 1928, and copied her signature expression. A lawsuit brought by Ms. Kane against Mr. Fleisher finally brought out the truth. Casting Ms. Rogers, a black performer, as a character who was initially a white misappropriation of another black performer’s identity, and give her no awareness of it, skirts the most sociologically and dramatically important story opportunities in the show. What if Trisha were to tell Betty that she is really based on a black singer who received no credit from history? What if Betty doesn’t know what color she really is? What if she feels white on the outside and black inside? So many interesting possibilities. Sadly, there is no consideration of any of them here. Even the program note, “About Betty Boop and Fleischer Studios,” blithely whitewashes her history and makes no mention of this.
In the beginning, Betty says she wants to take this journey to learn who she really is and yet, the creative team fails to let her explore the real answer to her question. Color is used in the end only to illustrate romantic passion. The story Bob Martin has crafted is cute, but insignificant.
The show ends with squeaky-voiced Betty inexplicably delivering a throaty power ballad, which states “I know I want something …but I don’t know what I want”. That might have made sense for Betty to sing at the end of the first act, but it’s ridiculously out of place at the end of her story. Yes, Ms. Rogers stops the show with that song, just because she can, but they should cut the song, or move it to the first act, and give Betty a final number where she gets to really express what she has learned.
Chicago audiences are not easily manipulated by flash over substance. We’ve seen too much smart work. We demand depth, even from our cartoon characters.
There is much to appreciate in the fine sets by David Rockwell, delicious costumes for Betty by Gregg Barnes, flashy lighting by Philip S. Rosenberg, clever projection design by Finn Ross, hair and wig design by Sabana Majeed, makeup design by Michael Clifton, and musical supervision by Daryl Walters. The performances are all great, the songs are fun, and Mr. Mitchell makes everyone’s work look its best.
If Mr. Mitchell came to Chicago, as he has done in six previous productions, he would have learn something which only this city can teach him about Boop!, and that would be that Betty’s own story still needs a lot more fleshing out.
Boop! continues through December 24 at the CIBC Theater, 18 West Monroe Street, in Chicago. For tickets visit ticketmaster.com.
Unpacking Frontmezzjunkies’s London Theatrical Trip 0f 2023
It was one of those spontaneous but well-planned cross-Atlantic journeys, fueled by a one-show idea that blossomed into something bigger. Antonio and I (two theatre junkies of the highest order) typically would find ourselves traveling to London, meeting there for about five nights, give or take. That is after I spent one evening with a good old friend and his longtime husband. Which was a personal requirement, and then, Antonio and I would dutifully schedule one theatrical event after the other, building a theatrical plan that would make others weak in the knees. But for the two of us, a London trip was exactly that. As much theater as we could fit in, with a few museums mixed in with at least one tourist attraction that was new to at least one of us. And a lot of great breakfasts made up of coffee and baked goods, as well as dinners with friends or just the two of us. Close to the theatre that was housing that night’s show. That was also a requirement. Born out of one too many breathless runs through Times Square trying to get to that scheduled curtain on time.
This year’s trip started with a casual statement about Andrew Scott doing a one-man Vanya in the West End. And the rest, as they say, is history. What soon followed was a Mark Rylance-starring play, Dr. Semmelweis, courtesy of a long-waiting National Theatre credit from March 2020. Then an immersive Guys and Dolls, and a quick grab at some standing-room-only tickets for a sold-out Next to Normal that we thought we had missed out on until we got that early morning email announcement. An Ian McKellen-starring Frank and Percy soon followed, as did the play Hamnet, based on a book I’ve never really heard of (but it seems many others had, including Antonio).
That was the plan. But I decided to stay even longer than normal. Surprising even myself. Usually, I would EasyJet myself off to some locale in Europe that I’ve never been to before, or to someplace I wanted to revisit after a far too long absence. But this time I just wanted to stay put a wee bit longer. And to give myself some time to see others that I might not have had the chance to see or spend time with. And of course, some more shows followed. The British farce Noises Off and a new musical The Time Traveler’s Wife with friends that weren’t Antonio. A matinee at the National Theatre on the day Antonio would fly home. And a last-minute day-of TKTS purchase in Leicester Square for a musical about an old English woman going to Paris to buy a dress from Dior. I probably wouldn’t have gone to see that one. Maybe I would have seen the Stephen Sondheim songbook show Old Friends starring Bernadette Peters and Lea Salonga, or the recently transferred National Theatresoccer play, Dear England, starring Joseph Fiennes. But the new musical, Flowers for Mrs. Harris starred Jenna Russell, one of my all-time favorites, and that was just too good to resist. So why would I?
So ten shows. In about ten days. Not a record mind you. But a pretty satisfying theatrical and social undertaking. And here are a few words about each of the shows. If you’ve managed to get through this long-winded introduction. So here it is: My London theatre trip of 2023.
London Theatrical Trip 2023
SHOW #1: DONMAR WAREHOUSE’S NEXT TO NORMAL
SHOW #2: WEST END’S DR. SEMMELWEIS
SHOW #3: WEST END’S VANYA
SHOW #4: THE OTHER PLACE’S FRANK AND PERCY
SHOW #5: BRIDGE THEATRE’S GUYS AND DOLLS
SHOW #6: WEST END’S HAMNET
SHOW #7: NATIONAL THEATRE’S THE FATHER AND THE ASSASSIN
SHOW #8: WEST END’S NOISES OFF
SHOW #9: RIVERSIDE STUDIO’S FLOWERS FOR MRS. HARRIS
SHOW #10: WEST END’S THE TIME TRAVELLER’S WIFE
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Can’t Wait For Boop To Come To Broadway
At the CIBC Theatre in Chicago, BOOP! The Musical, the new Broadway-bound musical extravaganza is making its debut . Actress Jasmine Amy Rogers is currently bringing her to life in Chicago, as she proves in this exciting song “Where I Wanna Be”.
The show is created by Tony Award®–winning director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots, La Cage aux Folles, Hairspray) who brings the Queen of the Animated Screen to the theater with celebrated multiple-time Grammy®-winning composer David Foster (“I Have Nothing,” “After the Love Is Gone,” “The Prayer”), Tony-nominated lyricist Susan Birkenhead (Working, Jelly’s Last Jam), and Tony-winning bookwriter Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone, The Prom).
I am obsessed with the songs already. First was “Something To Shout About” and now “Where I Wanna Be”.
For almost a century, Betty Boop has won hearts and inspired fans around the world with her trademark looks, voice, and style. Now, in BOOP!, Betty’s dream of an ordinary day off from the super-celebrity in her black-and-white world leads to an extraordinary adventure of color, music, and love in New York City—one that reminds her and the world, “You are capable of amazing things.” Boop-oop-a-doop!
“The Father and the Assassin” Enlightens and Questions at the National Theatre, London
Weaving together a memory play with a psychological study of epic historical proportions, the National Theatre delivers a mystery revolving most dynamically around a murder up close and personal. Three bullets fired, we are told by our engaging narrator, Godse, portrayed most cleverly by Hiran Abeysekera (RSC’s Hamlet), all by him, but he says it almost triumphantly. “Even you could turn into me,” he also explains, and in that moment I realized that I knew so little about that sad chapter in India’s political history. Other than the headlines, I might add, but more so that there had to be another side to the assassination story of one of the greatest and most well-known Indians who ever lived, Mahatma Gandhi, and I couldn’t stop myself from leaning in to see and understand just what playwright Anupama Chandrasekhar (When The Crows Visit; The Snow Queen) has in store for us.
“Let’s not exaggerate,” but those three bullets changed history and shocked the whole world, mainly because of the confusion it elicited. Set against the backdrop of the tumultuous conflict between India and its colonizing oppressors, the British Empire, The Father and the Assassin attempts to both outline the political journey towards Indian independence and give us a closer more intimate look at the man who fired those shots. Chandrasekhar has noted that thousands of books have been written about Gandhi in an attempt to understand and know every aspect of this famed philosopher and political public speaker and writer, yet very little about his assassin, particularly his upbringing and what would bring a man like him to this violent moment. This was the play’s intent.
“Any dramatization of history requires a degree of imaginative license,” she tells us in her notes, and here on the grand Olivier Stage of the National Theatre, this epic tale revolves forward revealing an upbringing of disorder and subtle discourse. To understand, or at least attempt to understand the central figure and our narrator, we have to peer back into Godse’s upbringing when his parents, and try to look beyond the act itself. You see, after losing three other boys in their infancy, Godse’s parents sought a somewhat odd religious solution to their situation and his birth. They decided, in order to sidestep what they thought was a curse on their family, to raise their boy as a girl. They would pierce his nose and deliver him into the world as a daughter, forever setting up a conflict that may have caused Godse to be quite lost in his own personal identity, possibly making him far more susceptible to father figures who might give him a structural meaning of self and acceptance.
This is Godse’s conflict story, of inner and outer divisions and betrayal of the father, played out in identity politics of a different order, resulting in some trauma and childish animosities that have their roots in personal relationships as well as, metaphorically speaking, political colonialism. At least, this is what Chandrasekhar tries to deliver forth in this psychological study alongside a complex paradigm for Hindu nationalism, all located in the central figure’s cracked psyche, which, in essence, may have resulted in the 1948 assassination of Gandhi.
It’s an exhilarating explorative adventure, laid out majestically (and somewhat typically) on a set on that grand Olivier stage. Rust-colored and ramped in the round, designed well by set and costume designer Rajha Shakiry (NT’s Trouble In Mind) with grand lighting by Oliver Fenwick (Audible’s Girls and Boys) and a solid sound design by Alexander Caplen (Royal Court’s Over There), The Father and the Assassin unpacks the complicated quest of a young boy to find purpose and an identity that would bring him, first to Gandhi (Paul Bazely) and his unifying movement of peaceful resistance. This dynamic laid out a fatherly framework that would be their undoing, as that relationship was followed by the divisive politics of Vinayak Savarkar (Tony Jayawardena), who built the foundations of the Hindu Mahasabha party pushing a strongly formatted idea of Hindu nationalism as a political ideology, all while serving out a life sentence in the Cellular Jail as a prisoner. It was a switch that changed the world, but one that seems to have been drawn from paternal inclinations and rejection, rather than political identifications.
The large cast of twenty does the piece grand service, as we play along with Godse as he, as a child, supports his family by channeling the goddess as a village fortune teller. It’s a captivating first engagement, as it weaves and rotates into view a childhood filled with obedience, and respect, followed directly by rebellion and political and personal debate.
“Hope smells a lot like sandalwood,” we are told, and the play unfolds with precise non-linear structuring that digs us deeper inside this fractured mindset. As directed with clarity and vision by Indhu Rubasingham (59E59/Round House’s Handbagged), the story sings on a whole other range, playing with our sensibilities and understanding of an event that shook the foundations of our world. With a staging that conjures up multitudes of complex psychological images, as well as dialectic themes of political style and belief structures, Godse becomes something of a childlike shell, trying desperately to control his narrative while batting away childhood trauma, embodied well, in contrast, with the peaceful qualities of his open-hearted childhood friend Vimala (Dinita Gohil) and the games they once played.
The play lives and breathes through the essential performance of Abeysekera as Nathuram Godse. The way he moves about is both delicate and angry; aggressive and casual, allowing playfulness to be weaved within the construct of empowerment and weakness of character. His desperation for fatherly and an authentic understanding of his own identity is at the center of this dynamic new play. His put-upon strut of childish resentment and ultimate vindictiveness delivers in the end, with the pulling of the trigger. The Father and the Assassin ends on a note of complications, energizing the room to seek for more clarity and understanding. It’s a complicated ending, leaving you questioning its stance, and making us want to know more. Which I think is precisely the point.
For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com
A Tap Happy White Christmas
Running now through December 31st at the Bucks County Playhouse is a new version of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas – The Musical. Based on the 1954 American musical film directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen, the original stage adaptation of White Christmas opened on Broadway at the Marquis Theatre in 2008 after several successful engagements throughout the United States.
Following a stint in the army, song-and-dance men, Bob Wallace and Phil Davis become one the hottest duos in show business. After a chance meeting, they follow The Haynes Sisters to Vermont where they discover a nearly bankrupt inn run by their former Army commander. With no snow in the forecast, and no tourists in sight, can Wallace, Davis and the Haynes Sisters pull off a yuletide miracle?
A very clever book by David Ives and Paul Blake makes this rather sentimentalized story not seem so sappy. And the addition of some of Irving Berlin’s greatest songs, such as “I Love a Piano”, “Blue Skies”, “Let Yourself Go” and “How Deep is the Ocean?” makes for an evening of humable, memorable tunes. But the most entertaining parts of the show are the dazzling tap numbers choreographed with creative exuberance by Richard Riaz Yoder which keep the leads and the entire ensemble tapping their veritable toes off.
Jeremiah James as Bob Wallace possesses a most mellifluous voice and puts it to good use in “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep”. He also manages to make his curmudgeon of a character appealing. Ashley Blanchet is terrific as Betty Haynes and is exceptional on “Love You Didn’t Do Right By Me/How Deep is the Ocean”. Jarran Muse as Phil Davis, the wolf, is funny and charming and shines in “I Love a Piano” along with Kaitlyn Frank as Judy. Ruth Gottschall is a stand out on “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy”, and is the young Mackenzie Reff who sings the reprise as Susan Waverly. (This role is shared by Tara Rajan who alternates with her.)
Kudos to the small orchestra of seven musicians who under the direction of Jeffrey Campos (who re-orchestrated the score) sound like a full Broadway pit band.
And kudos to the Bucks County Playhouse for having live music in this age of pre-recorded tracks.
Most notably, Hunter Foster must be commended for making this big, behemoth of a show move along at a speedy clip.
For tickets please visit buckscountyplayhouse.org, call 215-862-2121, or visit the box office at 70 South Main Street, New Hope, PA.
Irving Berlin’s White Christmas – The Musical: Running now through December 31st at the Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hopes, PA 18938
Book by David Ives and Paul Blake
Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin
Choreographed by Richard Riaz Yoder
Directed by Hunter Foster
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