Thursday, August 18, 2011

Quick takes: The T Plays and The Sound of Music

You never know who you'll meet on the T - or in "The T Plays."
The Mill 6 Collaborative's "T Plays" have become, as fellow blogger Art Hennessey has noted, one of our small theatre scene's few traditions. A tradition I have subscribed to from the very beginning, btw, and I admit I respond to the announcement of the T plays' annual return in much the same way I do to those "Attention Passengers . . " announcements that let you know a train is imminent when you're waiting on the platform of the T itself.

But sometimes the ensuing ride isn't as smooth as it might be, and I'm afraid this year's T plays offered more than their usual share of bumps, starts and stops.  Or maybe the trouble is that I've just seen too many of them by now!  So I come to the party burdened with memories of past successes, and rarely feel that pleasant surprise many first-timers experience at the fact that such a project could be brought off at all - much less in a generally entertaining fashion.

Still - that's what you get when you invite a critic: the burden of past experience!  So I have to note that the tropes of T Plays past - rabid Red Sox fans, gay people, and aquatic escapees from the Aquarium - were resurrected somewhat predictably in this year's models, and to somewhat diminishing comic returns, it seemed to me.  But then what are you going to write about when you need to finish your T play in a single weekend, if not the weirdos you encountered on your ride?  (Btw, this time Mormons made their first appearance, I think - but something tells me they'll be back.)

But it wasn't just the slightly pre-fab "outrageousness" of the characters that worked against these skits - it was also a choppy, time-warpy, are-they-crazy-or-are-YOU-crazy "aesthetic" that doomed a few to near-incoherence.  Too many playwrights in this town have been watching too much Sarah Ruhl, it seemed to me - and as usual, the more traditionally-structured sketches came off best.  These included John Greiner-Ferris's Striking Out the Peanut Man, Rick Park's Stolen Breath, and Kristin Baker and Dan Milstein's 88 is the 88th Loneliest Number.  Luckily all the actors proved game and talented, although a few performances stood out on the platform, particularly those from Luise Hamill, Mal Malme, Brian Bernhard and Lindsay Eagle (above left), and newcomer Kelley Estes.  You still have time to catch the "T Plays," btw, through this Saturday at the Factory Theatre.

Meanwhile I wanted to offer a quick post-mortem on the Reagle Music Theatre's production of The Sound of Music, which closed last weekend to little press attention, even though it was quite a solid production of this perennial crowd-pleaser. I have to admit I didn't feel I really needed to see The Sound of Music again - although apparently a lot of people felt differently; the gigantic auditorium at Waltham High School, where Reagle stages its productions, was packed to the rafters. And you could certainly feel the love in the house; every song was greeted with rapturous applause, and the two little girls behind me sang along softly with most of the numbers.

Of course the large crowd meant that the air-conditioning was on full blast, which in turn meant that the vent above the critics' seats was dripping, as it often does. I admit I enjoy this wry little convention of Reagle's in a meta-way; "We think you're a drip!" the vent above keeps telling you. This time I actually had an umbrella in my bag, though, and I was sorely tempted to use it. Maybe next time I will!

But back to the production. As usual, Reagle offered an intriguing look at its chosen show in something like its original form - that is, prior to its brilliant streamlining (by screenwriter Ernest Lehman and director Robert Wise, among others) into the famous movie which is undeniably awesome in his white-bread perfection. The stage version, by way of contrast, is a little lumpy (songs aren't always where they are in the movie) and very slightly "racier" - there are knowing little in-jokes and wise-cracks here and there, and the Baroness and the Captain trade a few more barbed political quips.  Director Larry Sousa kept everything bustling (on Richard E. Schreiber's brightly colored, self-consciously artificial sets), and to my surprise, gave it all a slightly ironic sheen. Again, slightly ironic -  but nothing serious enough to undermine the show's calculated innocence; and the crowd ate it all up anyway.

The show's great strength was Sarah Pfisterer's Maria; Pfisterer is a Reagle stalwart, has the pipes for the part, and basically beamed her way through it - but there was also a powerful vocal performance from Jenny Lynn Stewart as the Mother Abbess, and all the kids were adorable, led by the talented Troy Costa, whom we remember well from his poised turn a year or two ago in Mame. I also got a kick out of Susan Scannell's drily conniving Countess, and Rick Sherburne's surprisingly heterosexual Uncle Max.  Down in the pit, the orchestra sounded polished and tight - the instrumental musicianship at Reagle has improved quite a bit of late, I'd say.  But  I'm afraid I have to report there was one real gap in the show - its putative star: as Captain Von Trapp, Patrick Cassidy had to coast on his good looks, because he's a stiff actor and a weak singer - indeed, he even wobbled a bit in "Do-Re-Mi."  Alas, at such moments, the tone of this generally enjoyable show suddenly became very ironic indeed.

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