Cymbeline – FREE in NYC

For its 23rd season, New York Classical Theatre has chosen Shakespeare’s Cymbeline.  This inventive, lively company is the perfect troupe to take on a work that even Will’s Mum likely thought a headache.  Equal parts comedy, tragedy, romance, and fairytale, the work has a cast of nearly 40 and spans multiple locations.  With a wink and a smile, NY Classical’s jovial band of seven actors skillfully tackles the Everest-high pile of coincidences and present an evening of pure enjoyment. 

The group’s signature style includes traditional staging from the 19th century and the use of New York City parks as a natural backdrop.  In years past, viewers would physically move with the actors as the scene changed.  This year, the city has requested that a single area be used in each location, but the action is staged so that the audience remains the focus of attention. Costumes are minimal with a simple hat or cloak often distinguishing between multiple characters.  (Thanks to designer Sabrinna Fabi, Queen looks as if she shaved the neighbor’s cat to trim her dress, which befits her character.)  Lighting is provided by stagehands holding common flashlights; all the better to focus on engagement and storytelling.

I will not recount the sprawling tale of Cymbeline, which isn’t even about that king so much as his feisty daughter, Imogen.  A read through the dramaturgical notes provided on the website and via email is highly recommended for your enhanced enjoyment of the production.   Even if you do not heed this advice, the cast will give you a helping hand in their concise introduction to the evening, which also sets proper expectations and tone.

Artistic Director/Director Stephen Burdman has wonderfully edited the dialogue and uses each space to full advantage.  Fight scenes are amusingly choreographed by Sean Michael Chin and punctuated with Batman-like sound effects.  Oft-tangled pun-filled lines are delivered with clarity and wit.  Moments that could have been groan-inducing are transformed into delightful farce, as if we and the actors are together chuckling behind Shakespeare’s back.  Evan Moore-Coll is a standout in his four roles including the juicy part of Cloten the clod.  Also pivotal to success is Terrell Wheeler, who undergoes several hot changes between a kindly servant (Pisanio) and a powerful warrior (Caius Lucius).  He makes an imposing contrast to the slight Nick Salamone as the easily manipulated Cymbeline.  Holding the heart of the story as Imogen is an elegant and fiery Aziza Gharib, who also appears as Jupiter in one of the plot’s more outrageous moments.  Brandon Burk, Christian Ryan, and Jenny Strassburg complete the strong company.

Attendance on the Circle Lawn in Carl Schurz (enter at 87th and East End Avenue) is limited to 200 people.  Reservations are recommended in large part so you will receive helpful information including notice of a rain cancelation.  If you do not regularly attend a yoga class, I recommend bringing a short beach chair.  (Taller chairs are permitted, but you will be seated to the side.)  The logistics are described well on the company’s website.  

Above all, this entrance into N Y Classical’s line-up reminds us that sometimes Shakespeare can be FUN!  The strangled twists of Cymbeline are in support of an all-is-well ending that is sorely needed at this time.  Performances continue in Carl Schurz Park in Manhattan through Sunday, July 3, and then move to Brooklyn Commons Park at MetroTech from July 5 through 10.  Tickets are FREE to encourage every theater goer with a pulse to come out and enjoy the show.  Donations to support the professional actors are highly encouraged.  Visit https://nyclassical.org/cymbeline for further information.

The Orchard – NYC and Live Stream

Long before Joni Mitchell decried the paving of paradise to put up a parking lot, Anton Chekhov’s emotionally paralyzed Ranevskaya family auctioned off their cherished cherry orchard to make way for summer homes. His last play, The Cherry Orchard, centers on Madame Lyubov who is hopelessly in debt after years of living in Paris.  She and her daughters have returned to their estate for one last party and it is only then that they reflect on the once-prized fruit trees that will be chopped down to make way for modernization.  Like many of Chekhov’s works, there is a sense that happier alternatives have simply slipped out of reach.  

In Arlekin’s (zero-G) imaginative retelling, The Orchard, the work is simultaneously performed live and streamed to a global audience.  Typically, live streams have been made available because there was no audience permitted at the theater or it was presented in a way meant to simulate as closely as possible the live experience.  This is the first theatrical piece I’ve seen that deliberately gives those watching from home a different experience from those seated at the venue. 

While it is simply wonderful to make this production available worldwide and Ukrainian director Igor Golyak has unique experience using virtual reality to enhance traditional theater, it seems unnecessary to have augmented this particular work with an interactive component. The video-game-like curtain-raiser features various rooms of the house containing Mikhail Baryshnikov as Chekhov reading some the author’s more personal words in the original Russian.  Much of the interaction during the play involves being able to select something other than the main camera, though the few times I switched to another unit, it wasn’t revealing so much as disorienting.  And it was impossible to avoid FOMO when just before the auction of the property — during which the audience makes non-binding bids with proceeds going to support the company — the home audience was addressed directly by matriarch Lyubov Ranevskaya while a completely different scene was taking place on stage.

Furthermore, the production is straight-up terrific and needs no embellishment.  Golyak, whose homeland is currently undergoing life changing destruction and loss, has harnessed those feelings of disconnection and grief and made additions to the work that are engaging and meaningful.  The elegant script was translated by Carol Rocamora, who preserves the poetry while tightening the storyline and punching up the more farcical elements.  On scenic designer  Anna Fedorova’s all-blue stage, blossoms litter the floor and even the nursery room teddy bear and hobby horse appear melancholy.  The backdrop envelops the players in dramatic projections by Alex Basco Koch, including lines of dialogue, stars and planets, and the faces of the enraptured audience. The onstage robotics by Tom Sepe lend an eery futuristic and fatalistic feel to the tale.  

Denisova, Hecht, Brett and Nelson in The Orchard; photo by Maria Baranova

The cast is led by the sublime Jessica Hecht, who gives Ranevskaya’s delicacy meaning and tenderness.  Baryshnikov appears again as Firs, the faithful older servant.  His interpretation of an aging, submissive body practically collapses in on itself and he never stops being fully present, even providing a warm interaction with a mechanical dog.  The clowning of Arlekin Players regular Darya Denisova as Charlotta  the soon-to-be-displaced governess, adds appropriately discordant levity.  While Nael Nacer’s booming voice is just perfect for sounding the alarm as Lopakhin, the man best positioned to win the orchard his ancestors tended to as slaves.  John McGinty has been cast as Trofimov, though it’s unclear whether making the perpetual student deaf is a comment on communication between characters or Golyak just appreciates McGinty’s talent.  Juliet Brett, Elise Kibler, Mark Nelson, and Ilia Volok round out the company.

As a fresh take on a classic, The Orchard blossoms under Golyak’s knowing hand.  The themes of class division, misplaced materialism, and cultural loss are sadly timely and touching.  A quick read of The Cherry Orchard will only deepen your understanding of events.  Live performances run through Sunday, July 3, and take place at the Baryshnikov Arts Center at 450 West 37th Street (between 9th and 10th Avenues) .  Showtimes are Tuesday – Thursday at 7PM, Friday – Saturday at 8PM, with matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2PM.  Proof of vaccination is required for entry and face masks must be worn throughout the two hour runtime.  Prices for the intimate live show run from $39 to $125.  The virtual experience — which requires a plugged-in laptop or desktop — is $29.  There are bundles to purchase both live and streaming together.  For tickets and additional information, visit www.TheOrchardOffBroadway.com.  

Manifesting Mrs. Marx

Though you have no doubt heard of economist/revolutionary Karl Marx, his gifted and loyal wife has been all but erased from history.  Encyclopedic entries of her life are usually reduced to her lineage, marriage, and the early death of her children.  You will learn something more of Johanna “Jenny” Von Westphalen Marx by watching Manifesting Mrs. Marx, but that is not its ultimate goal.  Still evolving three years after it was performed at the famous Edinburgh Fringe, the piece is the brainchild of actress/musician/producer Clara Francesca who employs a wide range of techniques to shape the story.  In less than an hour, she puddle jumps from Von Westphalen’s biography to the constrictions of the patriarchy to the struggles of creative process itself. 

Jenny had her own distinct views of social revolution and the suppression of the working class.  But she was also a writer of criticism which makes it particularly fitting to have her character critique parts of her own performance.  The work is unconventional in that Ms. Francesca plays not only herself, Mrs. Marx, and characters in Marx’s world, but also against herself as the unseen writer who is heard over the theater’s speakers creating the script in real time.  This allows the actress to simultaneously narrate and comment on the story.  She is both the center of the work and being controlled by it, an apt metaphor for the constrictions faced by early feminists like Jenny Von Westphalen that continue into present day. 

Laurence Olivier Award winning director Guy Masterson wisely keeps the focus on his talent, placing her in drab shapeless clothing against a dark backdrop.  Ms. Francesca is given only a chair, a microphone and a “bag of tricks,” which suits an actress this playful, expressive, and bright.  Her physical comedy is likely to make you think of another Marx — Harpo — especially in a segment where she brattishly defies her writer who is giving her too many instructions.   She also uses her well-tuned voice to manipulate her audience, poking fun at “the pace of perfection” in measured dulcet tones and then rapidly firing off some of Jenny’s pent up frustrations.

Manifesting Mrs. Marx is a broad rather than deep experience.  But while it’s hard to retain much of the detail, the impact of the performer’s energy and passion lingers.  It is making its New York City debut as part of the The New York Theater Festival at the Teatro Latea at 107 Suffolk Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Three performances have been scheduled: Wednesday, May 18, at 4PM; Friday, May 20, at 6:30 PM; and Sunday, May 22, at 1PM.  It will be paired with a second short play to create an 85 minute event.  Tickets are $25 for advanced purchase general admission, $30 at the door, and $45 for VIP seating (https://innovationtickets.com/product/manifesting-mrs-marx/).   

Our Daughters, Like Pillars – Boston and Streaming

Playwright Kirsten Greenidge understands the impact of order: birth order, marriage order, and trying to keep order.  In her family drama Our Daughters, Like Pillars, she explores the significance of order in three full acts, allowing her characters to leisurely reveal their affecting histories and conflicting hopes for the future.  

This was my third viewing of a Huntington Theater play made possible by their digital insurance policy.  These offerings are not films, but rather live capture of a singular experience using 10-12 cameras.  While nothing can replicate the energy of sharing a performance with an in-person audience, The Huntington’s digital works offer quality productions to those who remain unable to sit in a venue with strangers.  All three had exceptionally clear audio. My first of these was the darkly funny Teenage Dick, energetically directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel with a first rate cast.  This stream was later shared with the Pasadena Playhouse for an extended run.  Next was Toni Morrison’s devastating The Bluest Eye gorgeously adapted by Lydia R. Diamond.  Director Awoye Timpo’s swirling camerawork allowed home audiences to better view the characters’ movements around a stage poignantly shaped like a chopped tree stump.  With Kimberly Senior’s traditional proscenium staging, Our Daughters, Like Pillars uses more expressive close-ups than shifting angles, but it never loses pacing. 

The story revolves around the three Shaw sisters who are vacationing in a house rented by oldest sister Lavinia (Seldes-Kanin fellowship winner Nikkole Salter) and her husband.  What should be a celebratory time of togetherness turns increasingly tension-filled as Vinny becomes progressively more controlling of her siblings and their mother.  Having felt isolated during the first year of COVID, Vinny’s vision is to have the entire family under one roof on a permanent basis.  But though she tries tactical cajoling, needling guilt, and outright manipulation, that goal is not shared either by people-pleasing middle sister Octavia (Arie Thompson) or youngest Zelda (Lyndsay Allyn Cox) who has only just taken her first steps towards independence.  We gain a deeper understanding of the siblings through their mother Yvonne (Lizan Mitchell) and their stepmother Missy (Cheryl D. Singleton) who are each given profound fourth-wall breaking monologues.  Race and class play important but smaller roles in the script.

Lyndsay Allyn Cox, Arie Thompson and Nikkole Salter; Photo by T Charles Erickson

While the spotlight is clearly on the women — by turns strong and brittle — it is the two men who supply the softness.  Genuine light shines from Julian Parker’s Paul King, Zelda’s casual conquest living by his wits who gets caught up in the whirl of family conflict. And Postell Pringle portrays Vinny’s husband Morris with intensity as he tries to rein in his wife’s darker, more destructive instincts.  The set by Marion Williams includes several levels which provides a feeling of movement to the dialogue-heavy drama.  The family is tightly contained, with the outside world intruding only through the ringing of a telephone.  Costumes by Sarita Fellows add essential color and flow while Jane Shaw’s sound incorporates music from Prince to Sam Cooke.

At 3 ½ hours including two 15 minute intermissions, Our Daughters, Like Pillars, indulges in the kind of rolling storytelling rarely seen since March 2020.  It is playing at the Huntington’s Wimberly Theatre in Boston through May 8 and On Demand through May 22.  Prices range from $25 – $99.  For tickets and information visit https://www.huntingtontheatre.org/plays-and-events/.

Tiger Style – Arkansas and Streaming

In Mike Lew’s Tiger Style, Albert Chen is the congenial, underperforming younger brother of Jenny, a first rate doctor with a third rate love life.  The 30-something Chinese Americans share the burden of navigating the chasm between being born in Southern California yet being viewed as exotic in the case of Jenny or muted as Albert is. They vow to get out of their boxes even though they have no experience in out-of-the box thinking.  What they lack in rebellious nature, they make up for in their bond to one another.  But is “you and me against the world” enough of a force to create change? Certainly the characters swing for the fences, going all the way to another country in search of the right tools.  Act II takes place primarily in Shenzhen, China where they have familial roots.  While the tone expectantly shifts, the direction of that shift is surprising and the work veers towards farce.  

Director Chongren Fan expertly steers the action through the varying beats.  The stage is triangular, with two sides often hosting different scenes.  The set by Chika Shimizu incorporates multiple doors and revolving walls that help us move quickly to each location.  These pieces take on a mood elevating function in the more physical Act II.  Simple elements define each location: a Beyoncé quotation over Jennifer’s couch, a chaise in the therapist’s office, and a wooden bar and chairs in the parents’ home. Costume design by YuanYuan Liang is similarly stripped down, with an Oscar the Grouch T-shirt and matching plaid jackets helping to define characters.  Sparkling fabrics make their arrival in the second half of the play when the siblings’ outfits also undergo subtle changes.  While these likely began as budgetary requirements, the effect helps to draw parallels between Jenny’s and Albert’s American lives and their experiences in China.  They are essentially living in the same apartment with the same “baggage.”  Yi-Chung Chen’s light design includes chase lights around the floor tiles which cleverly add definition and sense of place.

Brandon Ruiter, Brian Kim McCormick, and Eileen Rivera perform well in multiple roles, but with little differentiation.  The impact of this creative decision puts the weight of success squarely on the shoulders of the two central characters.  The appealing Hyunmin Rhee plays Albert with warmth and charming bewilderment while the sharp Stephanie Shum finds heart at the center of the frustrated Jenny.  The dynamic between them has the perfect balance of friction and affection.  Making the most of Lew’s nicely crafted banter, the two actors bounce off each other in genuine rhythm that functions as a metronome holding the disparate tones of the work together.  

Stephanie Shum and Hyunmin Rhee in Tiger Style at TheatreSquared; Photo by Wesley Hitt

Tiger Style begins boldly as an exploration of cultural inheritance and racial profiling.  It’s a heavy lift for a generally light script that concludes with physical comedy and word play.  The experience is certainly enjoyable, but lacks some of the lasting impact of Lew’s Teenage Dick.  Performances run through April 10 in the West Theatre at TheatreSquared, 477 W. Spring Street in downtown Fayetteville, Arkansas.  Tickets range from $20-$54 and can be purchased at  theatre2.org.  As an alternative, a 24 hour digital pass starts at noon on your chosen day which is how I was able to enjoy the work all the way in New York City.  Live runtime is 2 hours and 15 minutes (1:54 when streamed without intermission.)

Petunia’s Big Day – Streaming On Demand

Children experiencing everyday anxiety and stress have a fluffy new role model.  With her fuchsia skin and sky blue ponytail, Petunia (creator Laura Kay Clark) is a sweet relatable “Everychild.” Chatting with her friend Pumpkin Duck (puppeteer John Pickup; voice T.J. Bolden) she is excitedly picking out a jacket for her first day of school.  But before she can eat her chocolate chip pancakes, the Anxiety Monster (Christopher Isolano) arrives with his alluring backup troupe.  He conjures images of mean teachers and unfriendly classmates until all she wants to do is get back into bed.  Fortunately Mom (Renee Titus), who has regular doubts of her own, comes to the rescue with a series of mindfulness exercises. Petunia is only too grateful to learn new skills and even experiences the joy of passing them on to a new friend (Amanda Spencer). 

Petunia (Laura Kay Clark) confronts the Anxiety Monster (Christopher Isolano); photo provided by Party Claw Productions

After regrettably having to cancel in-person performances for safety reasons, New Ohio Theatre has made Petunia’s Big Day available On Demand.  The Party Claw co-production is warm from the first note, with the cast greeting us at the door and leading us through the auditorium accompanied by upbeat piano.  The book by Laura Kay Clark is based on her own Petunia’s Playhouse, an award-winning web series she created to give young children tools to better cope with the stress brought on by the COVID pandemic.  With the shift to an online format, this lively show can now be experienced by families around the country.

On Safari, the video streaming was very stable and the audio well mixed with just a slightly muted mic on Petunia.  While some of the opportunities for interactivity with younger audience members has been lost, the ability to see the details of the puppets (designed by Puppet Kitchen artist Eric Wright with additional puppets by designer Myra G. Reavis) and the fabulous touches in Petunia’s bedroom are improved from the cameras’ vantage points.  As directed by Christina Rose Ashby, Petunia is in a window above the tiled stage so that she and her human cast-mates can see eye to eye.  The brightly colored bedroom set designed by Reavis with its drawn-on doors and bed frame build on the musical’s storybook feel.  The company of six (Puppeteer Julia Fein also lends a hand… BOTH) ably delivers the serviceable songs by Billy Recce.  And there are still moments when a child at home can breathe along with the heroine or warn her of approaching Tummy Butterflies.  

Aimed at theater-goers aged 6-12, Petunia’s Big Day is childlike, but not childish. The demonstrated tools are practical and easy to apply.  It contains an important reminder that the practice of self-care isn’t only essential when there’s a virus circling. The common events depicted may even stimulate conversation about how to manage other uncomfortable emotions. 

Running less than half an hour, the production is streaming On Demand through February 6.  Tickets are $25 per household and can be purchased at https://watch.eventive.org/newohiotheatre/play/61d8bc1cc9d1230044fa7ff2.  You’ll have 7 days from the time of purchase to start watching, and 24 hours to complete your viewing.

Witness – Live Stream

Streaming multi-media production Witness arrives on our screens at a time when anti-semitism is on the rise in our country.  Incorporating material from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and employing live actors in a virtual space, the docudrama uses the journey of the MS St. Louis to explore the history of persecution of the Jews.  In May of 1939, the cruise ship filled with Jews escaping the Nazis was on its way to Havana.  According to museum records, of the 937 onboard, only 18 were granted visas.  The rest were turned away from both Cuba and the United States and sent back to Western Europe.  Conceived and directed by Igor Golyak, the work threads together the lives of those ill-fated passengers with stories of more recent Russian Jewish immigrants like Golyak himself as well as contemporary headline-making hate crimes.

Audience members are requested to arrive at the site ten minutes early dressed in period costume with drink in hand.  “Joining” the crowd on the ship is easy and a quick sound check ensures that you will get the full audio experience (or take a moment to reload the page.)  Dialogue is spoken in multiple languages and subtitled in English.

The first act uses as a framework the talent show that was an actual shipboard activity.  Against a beautifully rendered virtual environment created by Daniel Cormino, the production pulls us into the main room of the ship for a performance which blends vaudevillian entertainment with experiences of the real passengers.  Director Golyak allows the camera to wander as our eyes might.  Two women cleverly “figure skate” using their fingers in sand while recounting the Kristallnacht.  A man builds a house of cards while vividly describing the displacement of families.  After each one, the audience is asked to award one to four stars.  Throughout, the Emcee (Gene Ravvin) — seemingly the only character who knows he is in a green screen studio — uses slapstick humor to keep the energy flowing.  And Lady Liberty (Darya Denisova) selects the lottery numbers which summon the next participant to the stage.  It is an uneasy blend that is quite effective at times, particularly when the ghostly shipboard audience is in view. 

Gene Ravvin in Witness; Photo provided by The Arlekin Players

An audio-only second act crafted by Viktor Semenov is the most impactful, with members of the cast reading correspondence from the museum archive.  Audience members are encouraged to wear high quality headphones in order to experience the pull of the Binaural audio, designed to create a sense of 3D sound.  Studies have shown that people believe what they see over what they hear.  Deprived of visuals we have no option but to focus on the words of the people involved.

Staged primarily in the hallway of the ship, Act III takes place in the present.  The conversation is dominated by Leah (Lauren Elias) who is incensed about the growing calls for Jews to assimilate.  As someone who can’t be bothered to distinguish between a woman of Puerto Rican decent, a Somali immigrant, a first generation Palestinian American, and the first Black woman to represent Massachusetts in the House— the state in which all the characters reside — and who also discusses the current political backdrop while leaving out our historically significant Jewish Second Husband, she is a flawed spokesperson for her viewpoint.  A counterposition that the Oslo Accords were a lost opportunity is dispatched in a few sentences delivered by Joseph (Nathan Malin) without sufficient context to enlighten anyone who isn’t familiar with that 1993 event.  The most emotionally charged outlook is expressed by the Emcee who is trying to reconcile the view he has of himself as a true American with the ways in which he and his family are perceived by others.

An artful entry into the developing world of online theater, Witness hints at the future of the form.  It has important information to share, though the jarring shifts in tone of Nana Grinstein’s script result in a lack of cohesion.  It’s technically ambitious and unsurprisingly I encountered video glitches and broken links.  Those did not mar a generally involving experience.  What is truly disappointing is to be invited to join a conversation and find instead that one is attending a lecture, even if it is a well researched and reasoned one.  

Presented by Zero Gravity (zero-G) Virtual Theater Lab and Boston’s Arlekin Players Theatre, performances are scheduled through next weekend, January 21-23. Though played out in real time, the web-based show can be accessed from anywhere with a good internet connection.  Tickets are $25.  Running time is approximately 90 minutes with an additional 30 minute talk-back.  Visit https://www.zerogravity.art for more details.

Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas – NYC and On Demand

In 1977, Jim Henson showed the world how expansive his unique puppets’ universe could be by developing a charming television special based on the book Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas by Russell and Lillian Hoban.  Well-meaning Emmet and his devoted and somewhat naive Ma are scraping by: taking in laundry and doing odd jobs around their town of Frogtown Hollow.  When they hear about a Christmas Eve talent contest, they each take a risk in order to try to win the $50 grand prize and buy a special present for the other.  

31 years later, the Jim Henson Company expanded Emmet’s world again by creating a live adaptation with iTheatrics.  Henson’s wondrous Creature Shop creatures performed alongside humans outfitted in imaginative woodland costumes.  With folksy songs by Paul Williams and a straightforward book by Timothy Allen McDonald and Christopher Gattelli, this musical production is currently playing for a reduced capacity audience at the New Victory Theater on famed 42nd Street.

Under Gattelli’s direction, the work makes full use of the New Victory’s space.  The beloved Henson Creatures add humor, with bits that also serve to break the story into bite-sized chunks easily digested by younger audience members.  The characters are all appropriately sweet including puppeteer Anney Ozar’s crusty old Mrs. Possum who shows a caring side while at her piano.  Even the members of the Riverbottom Nightmare Band are more mild bad boys than genuine hoodlums.  Likewise, the actors are warm and low key.  While newcomer Colin Trudell’s Emmet and Cass Morgan’s Ma ground the center of the story, it is LaVon Fisher-Wilson who kicks up the energy singing “Born In a Trunk” as Mrs. Mink, the Ma Rainey of Waterville. (She also takes on the role of Mrs. Squirrel whose puppet children perform the other show stopper, “Trust That Branch.”) 

Jiffy Squirrel, Skippy Squirrel, Nutella Squirrel, and Tiny Squirrel (Anney Ozar, James Wilson, Jordan Brownlee and Matthew Furtado) join Emmet (Colin Trudell) Photo Credit: Richard Termine

The entire look and feel of the show is in Jim Henson’s Creature Shop’s trademark style.  Anna Louizos’s set of dusky sky over rippling water, Matt Kraus’s soundscape of whispering winds, Gregg Barnes’s whimsical wardrobe and Melissa Munn’s clever make up design all work together to bring Emmet’s world to colorful life.

Like cocoa topped with marshmallows, Jim Henson’s Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas will warm up a wintery afternoon.  It is recommended for family members age 5 and older.  Tickets start at $25 and there are no bad seats in the house.  Proof of full vaccination is required for everyone over 12 (one dose for children 5-11) and face masks must be worn at all times.  A 72 hour On-Demand pass is also available for $25.  Although you may miss the electric charge of sharing the experience with strangers, with the four camera streaming version you get close-ups of those delightful puppets and sign interpretation and audio description are easily accessed.  Running time is 75 minutes live and 80 minutes on demand with a brief introduction and outro.  The production runs through January 2, 2022.  For more information and to purchase tickets visit https://newvictory.org/tickets-and-events/2122-live-performance-emmet-otters-jugband-christmas/.

Estella Scrooge – Streaming on Demand

A sophisticated entry in the field of holiday offerings, Estella Scrooge: A Christmas Carol With A Twist is a Christmastime musical with plenty of Easter eggs for Dickens fans.  The production was meticulously shot using green screen and video effects to blend a seasoned cast with eye-popping images.  The result combines the best elements of a Broadway show with a movie spectacular.

The story hits all the well-known beats of the classic about a miser who learns a lesson, but frames them in a way that is fresh and original.  In this reimagining, Scrooge is the CEO of Bleak House, a predatory financial company.  Their health insurance policies never pay out and their mortgages are designed for easy foreclosure.  The overworked and underpaid Cratchet makes an appearance in the form of Scrooge’s devoted assistant, Betty, mother to the sickly Tammy.  But in this instance, Estella’s journey to enlightenment begins when she returns to her childhood home of Pickwick.  She arrives unannounced on Christmas Eve in order to foreclose on a hotel that has been serving as housing for those in need.  The current owner is her old flame Philip “Pip” Nickleby.  When a snow storm strands Ms. Scrooge at his establishment, Philip and the other residents — who include the usual ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future — seize their opportunity to change “Esty’s” hardened heart.

Lauren Patton as Dawkins in Estella Scrooge

John Caird  and Paul Gordon flesh out the book to reflect the current socio-economic challenges that sadly echo those of Dickens’ time. Rising well above many modern musicals, Gordon’s score contains a wide variety of song styles, each well suited to the person who performs it.  The recurring ballad “Almost a Family” is a captivating earworm that eloquently describes the bonds that can form between people who are not necessarily blood relatives.  In “Trickle Down,” economics are showcased in a jazzy number.  And the Ghost of Christmas Past uses hard rock to hammer home her point.  Many of the lyrics are calls to other Dickens’ classics including Hard Times, Great Expectations, and A Tale of Two Cities

The production’s look has been skillfully retooled for the online world.  Caird’s careful direction helps mimic the sense of connection and of space you would get at a live performance.  Fanciful costumes provided by Somie Pak cleverly combine period with high fashion.  Hair and makeup make use of Dena Olivieri’s experience with SFX.  Production design by Zach Wilson fittingly fuses elements of realism and fantasy.  The green screen is high quality and the actors do appear as if on the set.  Some of the special effects add zest, though the work in the ghostly scenes is inferior and distracting. The sound is too low for a laptop and the work as a whole is probably better enjoyed cast onto a larger screen.

The sprawling cast is uniformly terrific.  Betsy Wolfe’s Estella softens in both look and tone as she is confronted with the impact of the life she has chosen.  There is a sweet relationship displayed between Clifton Duncan’s caring Nickleby and his vulnerable residents, including Em Grosland’s delicate Smike and Lauren Patten’s punkish and very artful Dawkins.  The rest of the stand-out line-up includes Patrick Page, Carolee Carmello, Megan McGinnis, Adam Halpin , Sarah Litzsinger, Tom Nelis , Phoenix Best , David Bryant , Gabrielle Reid , Samuel Lee Roberts, Michael Francis McBride , Michele Lee, Kristen Faith Oei , Meg Gibson, William Youmans, Kevyn Morrow, Joziyah Jean-Felix , Brooklyn Shuck, Willow McCarthy and  2020 Tony Award Winner Danny Burstein as Estella’s great great great great grandfather Ebenezer.

The irresistible work of Charles Dickens has long made a good springboard, but not every iteration flies this high.  Estella Scrooge is a captivating family entertainment that couldn’t have returned at a better time. It is available to stream on Broadway on Demand (www.BroadwayOnDemand.com and Streaming Musicals (www.StreamingMusicals.com). A 48 hour rental is $14.99 (a more sensible price than the original $29.99).  The 2 hour runtime flies, though may make it unsuitable for very young children.

The Elephant in the Room

Some people who have suffered trauma shut themselves away to deal with their pain.  Melanie Greenberg chose to turn her experiences into a one-woman show featuring original lyrics and humorous storytelling.  Her solo piece, The Elephant in the Room, covers her very personal journey in search of her “tribe.”  Her twisted and often tortured path from severely depressed childhood to performance-oriented adulthood took her to a family of well-meaning Texan Christians, a sadistic psychiatric center, a rotation of therapists and medications, and a ceremony featuring Ayahuasca, a drink made from a psychoactive plant.  Though her story contains some chilling chapters, she delivers it very matter-of-factly.  Balanced with genuine warmth and uplifting song snippets, what could be deeply disquieting becomes quite entertaining.

Greenberg sings her well-crafted lyrics with precision.  The music is based on the Broadway shows that helped preserve her sanity and sense of humor over the years.  Knowledge of Chicago, Little Shop of Horrors, Grease and Little Mermaid would add to your appreciation of the work, but that is not essential for enjoying the tunes.  The actress/singer is to be admired for how well she organizes her reflections on an injurious childhood, the many appalling attempts at treatment, and a psychedelic trip gone wrong.  Though she returns to her memory of a captive elephant who was brought to a child’s birthday party as entertainment (the animal for whom the work is titled), she is really more like the proverbial fish out of water: perpetually treated as unsuited to traditional society.

Greenberg is joined onstage by her charming musical director and occasional contributor Bill Zeffiro, the winner of several cabaret awards.  Her director Joanie Schultz is also a close friend and may have consequently used too gentle a hand.  Greenberg’s stories are vivid and filled with distinct details, but many are told at the same energy level rather than given variation.  Sadly, no explanation is provided for Greenberg’s fanciful satin dress with a huge black sequence snake wrapping itself around her body.  The recorded performance was done with a single camera at an unusual angle and it could have used some more balanced sound mixing.  Even so, it was obvious that the show has promise.

Melanie Greenberg is a gifted storyteller with a great deal to say.  She is worthy of attention, with infectious vivacity and a genuine sense of compassion for her struggling younger self.  Despite her casual manner, it seems likely that a certain amount of personal distancing is required to actually enjoy hearing the darker aspects of The Elephant in the Room.  The piece debuted at United Solo Fest at Theatre Row and is now traveling to other intimate venues.  The next performances are December 3, 10, and 17 at The Apple Tree Inn in the Berkshires, all the better to hunker down and continue the conversation with fellow audience members.  Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at https://www.sevenrooms.com/experiences/appletreeinn/the-elephant-in-the-room-7597649199.  Runtime is approximately 80 minutes.