Massachusetts Theatre

While I was in Massachusetts, I had the good fortune to see two theatrical productions, which were both of a very high calibre. Given that Massachusetts is the birthplace of summer stock theatre, perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised by how excellent both pieces were.

The first show I saw was The Sound Of Music starring Sarah Pfisterer and Patrick Cassidy. This was a production put on by the Reagle Music Theatre, which is an impressive and long-standing company that takes up permanent status in a high school auditorium in Waltham. Hardly a place that I'd go searching for top-notch theatre, even if the high school auditorium was a fantastic facility. But, the show had been recommended, so we came for the 2:00 matinee on August 13.

It was a positively gorgeous and incredible production. For one thing, it wasn't so saccharine that my teeth started to rot, so already it was doing better than the original cast album with Mary Martin.

Let's start with the cast. Sarah Pfisterer as Maria Rainer was absolutely incredible. She was a semi-finalist in the Metropolitan Opera's competition for new singers, and it shows. Vocally, she was on a completely different level than the typical Maria. I doubt she really needed the now-and-again spotty sound system that the auditorium had. And she could act! Really, this so rarely happens when I see a musical that the leading lady can both act and sing, and sometimes at the same time.

Patrick Cassidy as Georg von Trapp at first struck me as a bit of a mixed bag. For one thing, he is clearly a tenor, and they had set the key for von Trapp's reprises in his first few songs in a baritonish range, so he was audibly straining. However, as the show progressed and as his songs got more tenor-like in bent, he got much better. He acted very well, or as well as he could given that this character is bullet-riddled with character inconsistency. More on that later.

Jenny Lynn Stewart as the Mother Abbess was a stand-out. She had a very understated performance, or as understated as one can possibly get playing this particular role, right until the end of act one, where she sang the anthemic 'Climb Ev'ry Mountain' with a voice that filled the auditorium. Even when she was singing the Latin devotionals with other nuns, you could clearly hear her over everyone else. Such a voice.

The biggest thing I was worried about when I went in the theatre was the fact that children are inevitably a huge role in this show. I can't say that I enjoy watching a show that has so many children in it, and I've always avoided shows like Annie, Oliver!, The King And I, and others because they tend to be either overly cutesy or even exploitative of the young talent involved. However, in this production the children were absolutely marvelous, adorable without being artificial or forced. And they sang exceedingly well. I forgot how difficult some of the music is for the kids. Their interaction with the adults, as well as with each other, was convincing and pleasant.

I cannot say enough about the design of this production. Everything from the costumes to the lighting to the sets was brilliant, but the sets especially stood out in terms of opulence and effectiveness. My only real complaint was that Maria's attic room seemed bizarre and abstract compared to the other, more literal sets.

The costumes were (mostly) historically accurate, and if one was looking ou tfor them there were a couple of clever sight gags involving clothes. The lighting was very well-done and didn't detract from the rest of the production. It's amazing how easily a few coloured lenses can evoke a church or an outdoor setting.

The music is almost constantly centre-stage in this show that is almost entirely about and driven by music. An orchestra with too much brass can be disastrous in a show that is inspired by the culture that bought us oom-pah-pah. Luckily, the orchestra in this performance was large lush and balanced. There was nothing totally ground-breaking in terms of orchestration, but I loved how the counter-melodies and harmonies were given special treatment to freshen things up a bit. And, once again, apart from a few key issues on Mr Cassidy's part, it was appealingly sung by everyone involved.

I guess the only faults that I could find with this production was that it seemed to illuminate the piece's faults with its excellence. For one thing, this production refuses to address some of the more outstanding inconsistencies involving Captain von Trapp's character. Beyond his music-induced revelation in the middle of act one, which is unavoidable and quite touching anyhow, there is the fact that he is in an active participant in two of the numbers that illustrate the impending Anschluss with a glee that is actually quite disturbing.

Now, the fact that von Trapp sings in the latter number is also unavoidable, but it can be played around with. I recall a performance where he was being sarcastic, and strumming along with the song on his guitar to show his disagreement with the viewpoints illustrated in 'No Way To Stop It'. In this production, he smiled and laughed and sang along with them, which just made his rejection of Frau Schroeder five minutes later even more abrupt and unconvincing.

In 'How Can Love Survive', the case is made that love is not viable when both parties are well-off financially. Given that Capt. von Trapp is a widower with seven children and clearly misses his wife, who is implied to have been of the same social standing, the fact that he is laughing and singing in this one is just completely wrong. The movie cut these two songs, which aren't even of the greatest quality anyhow; Indeed, they rather remind me of songs that sought to illustrate the political climate just as clumsily from Kander and Ebb's Cabaret (particularly 'It'll All Blow Ever'), the ones that were cut even before the first production. I feel that this production should have done the same, if they weren't going to use them to illuminate von Trapp rather than obscure his motives even further.

The other problem that I have with the show, and not with the production, was the pacing. Act two lacks unity. It is a very fractured denouement that seeks to tie up too many loose ends with very little music. It is also substantially shorter than act one, even shorter than is usual. I thought of a solution that I'm surprised nobody has even tried yet.

It would be more beneficial to close act one with 'So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen', rather than 'Climb Ev'ry Mountain'. For one thing, 'So Long, Farewell' is a rousing and memorable number that has an orchestral interlude afterwards in which Maria leaves, convinced that she is ruining her charges' chances at happiness. This introduces suspense during intermission, and even better, 'Climb Ev'ry Mountain' opens and introduces foreshadowing and melodic unity to act two, which of course ends with a reprise of 'Climb Ev'ry Mountain' in a more relevant situation.

But apart from these fundamental problems that I had with the book, the production of Sound Of Music that I saw at the Reagle Music Theatre in Waltham was glorious, melodic, and simply magical. It ranks almost as high as Stratford's production of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris from last year. I should also mention that I saw this one with my family, including my little brother who'd never seen a live stage show before. He loved it, which is the very best compliment that can be paid to any theatrical experience.

The second show that I saw was All's Well That Ends Well in the Boston Common, that is to say, a park. The Commonwealth Shakespeare Company has been doing single productions of Shakespeare in the park for 16 seasons, and are the third highest-grossing theatre company in Boston area. This is remarkable, given that they only do one play every season and that they do this play for free.

This season's play was All's Well That Ends Well, a comedy that I suspect may be more famous for its title than anything else. It has the distinction of being Shakespeare's only non-historical play that is unambiguously populated by French characters, and it also has a completely unsympathetic hero in the philandering and hotheaded Bertram, who seems completely unworthy of the girl who crushes on him, the resourceful and determined Helena. She follows her runaway groom to the wars in Florence, and conspires to make him hers and hers alone. Along the way we meet many colourful characters who weave in and out with their own subplots and conspiracies.

This production utilized only one set, which consisted of iceberg-like layers in the background from which the characters entered and exited, and a revolving stage that was not cliched and hackneyed for once. Given the fact that the production was outside, I thought for sure that the sound system would be compromised, but there was only a little bit of feedback and reverb that was forgotten once I was completely immersed in the production.

The cast was pitch-perfect. There was not a single weak link in the cast, though at first I was not fond of Kersti Bryan's Helena, mostly because of her line delivery. There is far too much of that posturing when it comes to young Shakespearean actresses. They deepen their voices and sound dramatic and on the verge of tears, which effectively flattens their character (seriously, am I the only one who gets bothered with this?). The difference is Ms Bryan grew into the role and outgrew the posturing. One could believe that she was the slef-efficient if insecure woman that Shakespeare wrote so brilliantly.

Nick Dillenberg as Bertram managed to navigate a character who in the wrong hands can just seem like a straight up douchy jock. Sure, there was some of that in Mr Dillenberg's interpretation, but I actually got a Dorian Gray vibe from him (and not just because he was gorgeous). I felt that his callowness was a result of the war-hungry society that has corrupted him and the sinister and cowardly clown Parolles, played excellently by Fred Sullivan Jr.

Other actors that I was particularly fond of were McCaela Donovan as Diana, a girl that Bertram pursues in Florence, Will LeBow as the King of France, and (surprisingly) Jeremy R. Browne as the Interpreter (which is just a spicy role, am I right?)

I have no complaints about this production. None. It was fantastic, at least better than about forty percent of what I see at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

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