musical

DramaWatch: In the wake of words with Will Eno

"Wakey, Wakey" at Portland Playhouse finds humor in matters of life and death; "The Color Purple" keeps it simple; and the new Summit Theatre starts its climb

“People talk about matters of Life and Death. But it’s really just Life, isn’t it. When you think about it.”

So says Guy, the main character in the Will Eno play Wakey, Wakey, which on Saturday opens the 2018-’19 Portland Playhouse season. Guy might or might not be meant as a name, and in any case the fellow is — much like the one referred to only as “Man” in the script of Eno’s Title and Deed, which Imago staged in August — a stand-in for any or all of us. An Everyguy.

Hello/goodbye: Michael O’Connell as Guy in Will Eno’s “Wakey, Wakey” at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Brud Giles.

Like most of Eno’s Everyguys, who speak their fractured piece directly in monologues such as Title and Deed and Thom Pain (based on nothing), or serve as the bemused center of ensemble pieces such as Middletown, Guy talks about life from a lot of different angles. More than the rest, though, this guy gives the sense that he’s approaching that final, most blunt angle. And still, this being Eno, that angle, too, bends around, again and again, to unexpectedly beautiful glimmers of life.

As he puts it early on, “We’re here to say goodbye and maybe hopefully also get better at saying hello.”

This should be a terrific way for the Playhouse to say hello to its season, what with Michael O’Connell (who has assayed Eno before to fine effect, in Middletown and The Realistic Joneses, both for Third Rail Rep) starring, joined by Nikki Weaver and directed by Gretchen Corbett. That team is a good bet to find the varied, mingled tones of piercing humor and wry pathos in what is Eno’s gentlest, most warm-hearted script yet.

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Purple is the color of hard-won joy

Portland Center Stage delivers a jubilant production of "The Color Purple," the musical adapted from Alice Walker's famed novel of struggle and transformation.

The Color Purple looms large in America’s literary (and cinematic) canon. Beloved and controversial, Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about an African American woman living in the early 1900’s has touched millions. Unsurprisingly, it’s not an easy story. The hardships that the women in the story endure are appalling and it wouldn’t seem like material prime for a musical adaptation. But Marsha Norman did it, staying true to the source material while using the medium to bring the joy and hope of the story to the forefront. Portland Center Stage opens its season with this jubilant experience.

For those unfamiliar with The Color Purple: 14-year-old Celie (Felicia Boswell) lives with her much-loved sister and monstrous father in rural Georgia. Abused and neglected Celie is separated from her sister and given to Mister (Chaz Lamar Shepherd), an abusive widower, to raise his unruly children. As she grows up Celie begins to draw inspiration and strength from other women in her life, especially Mister’s lover Shug (Lana Gordon) a fiercely independent jazz singer.

Drawing on gospel, ragtime, jazz, and blues, the score grounds the musical in its time period and creates an emotional counterpoint to the seriousness of the story. Where there is hardship there is hope. Where there is oppression there is defiance. Celie’s first lesson in independence comes from her daughter-in-law Sofia (Maiesha McQueen), who implores her to stand up for herself in the explosive blues number “Hell No!” This is a high-energy production, but McQueen’s commanding performance takes it to a new level, earning whooping applause from the audience.

Make ya wanna holla!: Isaiah Tyrelle Boyd as Harpo and Maiesha McQueen as Sofia in “The Color Purple.” Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

While The Color Purple centers the lives of African American women and the strength they draw from each other, it’s impossible to ignore the abuse they suffer. Consideration is given to Mister, but only as to how he’s internalized toxic masculinity and his own realization around that. Walker’s novel is unsparing in how it critiqued patriarchy and racism and though this adaptation is pared down Norman keeps this idea at the forefront of the script.

The current national dialogue about racism and sexual assault, cracked open by movements such as Black Lives Matter and Me Too, make this show feel all too timely.

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‘Civil War Christmas’: many moving parts

Artists Rep's holiday show brings American history to life and brings a fresh approach to classic carols

Why, when we think of “classics,” and especially “Christmas classics,” do we gravitate toward Great Britain? Of course that region’s written history extends further into the past, and their Pagan traditions have seeded many of our modern holiday expressions, from mistletoe to the Christmas tree. Of course most of our best-known carols hail from Britain—and one in particular, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, rules the winter theater. All of these yuletide flourishes are a tough act to follow, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Surely there are other stories, American stories, that can offer moral authority and spiritual enlightenment at Christmas time.

Vin Shambry, with Crystal Ann Muñoz in background. Photo: Owen Carey

Vin Shambry, with Crystal Ann Muñoz in background. Photo: Owen Carey

A Civil War Christmas, Artists Rep’s holiday offering, is many degrees removed from Scrooge, skipping across the pond to the banks of the Potomac River in 1864, near the end of the Civil War. As historical fiction, the play certainly passes muster, proving (as Hamilton has) that American history runs Britain plenty of competition when it comes to inspirational characters, interesting dialects and fluffy blouses.

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Film Review: “Sing Street” Hits All the Right Notes

The new music-driven nostalgia piece from the director of "Once" tells a tale of teen temerity in 1980s Dublin.

Boy meets girl; boy likes girl; boy starts band to impress girl. It’s a story as old as time, and “Sing Street”an exuberant musical from “Once” writer-director John Carney—tells it gracefully, with warm humor and a touch of bittersweet nostalgia. Music makes life better, the movie says. And if it doesn’t, it at least makes life seem better, and maybe that’s good enough.

In Dublin in 1985 there is an apple-cheeked 15-year-old boy, Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), whose life is being disrupted. His parents (Aidan Gillen, Maria Doyle Kennedy) are on the verge of splitting up, and money problems have forced them to move Conor from a posh Jesuit school to the working-class Synge Street school (a real place) run by the Christian Brothers. Here Conor is hassled by a bully (Ian Kenny) and an officious priest (Don Wycherley) before being taken in by Darren (Ben Carolan), an entrepreneurial red-headed weakling who knows how to operate at the low end of the totem pole. (Darren passes out business cards that don’t have a phone number because his family doesn’t have a phone.)

The cast of "Sing Street."

The cast of “Sing Street.”

At home, Conor dabbles on the guitar and eagerly watches “Top of the Pops” every week, absorbing his college-dropout brother Brendan’s (Jack Reynor) opinions on Duran Duran, Joe Jackson, and the like. This comes in handy when Conor notices Raphina (Lucy Boynton), a cool 16-year-old who lives in a girls’ home near the school and says she’s a model. Conor invites her to be in his band’s new music video. Then he tells Darren, “We need to form a band!”

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