What did our reviewers think of shows new to or still on Cape Cod stages this week?
Here's a look at productions of "Piano Men II" at Cotuit Center for the Arts; "Murder on the Orient Express" at Cape Playhouse; "From the Heart of the Wreck" at Cape Rep Theatre in Brewster; "Frozen" at Harbor Stage Company in Wellfleet; the "School of Rock" musical at Cape Cod Theatre Company/Harwich Junior Theatre; "Jerker" at Provincetown Theater; "Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus" at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater; and "Mame" at Chatham Drama Guild.
“Piano Men II: A Musical Tribute to Billy Joel and Elton John”
By Jay Pateakos
Conceived and directed by: Michael Dunford; presented by Cotuit Center for the Arts
What it’s about: This concert-style tribute spans the music and careers of Billy Joel and Elton John, adding to what was performed for last year’s initial “Piano Men” show. The singers and band are all home-grown and ultra-talented.
See it or not? See it without hesitation. I am the biggest fan of both Billy Joel and Elton Johnand this performance, combining great singing with a top-shelf band, rocks the house. Having this group be all local talent makes it that much more special. You won’t forget this one for quite some time, if ever. Get to this show, stand up and dance.
Highlight of the show: Singers Anthony Teixeira, who handled the lead vocals for the bulk of the Billy Joel songs, and John Connelly, who belted out the Elton John songs, are phenomenal. Each singer had a particular song that was hauntingly similar to the original artist’s rendition: “Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel)” for Teixeira and “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” for Connelly. Singer Emma Fitzpatrick, seen last year in the Cotuit center’s “Elf: The Musical” show complements both Connelly and Teixeira well, putting her own wonderful stamp on “Daniel” and clearly enjoying the ride. The band is exemplary, especially pianist Misao Koyama and lead guitarist Gregg Sullivan.
Fun fact: Standout drummer Michael Dunford not only conceived the show, but also produced and directed it as well. Trumpet player Joe Mongelli did the arrangements. Also, look for Cotuit’s executive director David Kuehn to put in a special performance on vocals and piano that is worth the price of admission!
Worth noting: This is not just a performance of hit songs. The group digs deep into rarely played gems like Joel’s “I Loved These Days” and my favorite of the night, “Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)” by Elton John, his tribute to friend John Lennon.
One more thing: Only a few of the songs from last year were repeated, including “Piano Man” and “Bennie and the Jets.” Most of the set list is new songs, ones we fans love so much and know the words to (or think we do).
If you go: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 4 at Cotuit Center for the Arts, 4404 Falmouth Road (Route 28); the center will also offer a live-streaming performance at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 1 to see the performance in the comfort of your own home. Tickets and information: https://artsonthecape.org/
“Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express”
By Barbara Clark
Adapted for the stage by: Ken Ludwig; directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge; presented by Cape Playhouse
What it’s about: The legendary Orient Express becomes an exotic backdrop for Agatha Christie’s famous 1930s puzzler, as a gathering of unique and eccentric characters runs amok in the corridors and first-class compartments of the famous luxury train. The suspects run the gamut from army colonels to nervous secretaries to countesses, American gangsters and Swedish missionaries, all bound for a snowstorm, cold revenge ... and murder. A snowdrift brings the train to a halt — and the killer is aboard.
Alibis galore at first seem to stump Hercule Poirot, but Dame Agatha’s iconic detective keeps his cool and his famous intellect, so will not be stymied for long.
See it or not: This delightful and engrossing entertainment begs to be seen for its memorable 1930s setting and décor, and for the professionalism of the multi-talented cast and director Dodge, who pulled off this streamlined team effort after only a few days’ rehearsal.
The cast of 11, including eight multifarious suspects, comes adorned with a host of Broadway and regional theater credits. Each character is integral to the puzzle, and each actor adds a unique spot of humor or drama to the murderous events as the train hurtles into the night.
Highlights: Reg Rogers as Poirot is a treasure to watch. Rogers never over-dandifies his interpretation of the famed fictional character, and he avoids caricature. His Poirot makes clear his own self-regard, but is just nutty enough to often seem to be channeling Inspector Clouseau from the old “Pink Panther” movies, right down to the one-of-a-kind accent.
Watch for gorgeous finery, such as a white, fur-trimmed outfit and golden high heels modeled by Countess Andrenyi (Emma Stratton), as well as a glittering, multi-colored head wrap worn by fellow suspect Helen Hubbard (Cady Huffman). These delectables add to many other furs and flourishes from the hand of costume designer Gail Baldoni.
Scenic designer Chen-Wei Liao and lighting designer Matthew Richards bring the audience straight to the scene, as the train’s giant headlight cuts through the darkness and fog. Once we’re aboard, the stage set revolves periodically to highlight different cars on the train in all their glowing wood and velvet-upholstered finery. Crucial sound effects by Jacob Levitin evoke eerie moments on the journey and connect the action sequences.
Intriguing fact: Christie’s 1934 novel is based on a real historical event, that of the 1932 kidnapping of the Charles Lindbergh baby, which made worldwide headlines. Ludwig opens the play in total darkness, with eerie voiceover narration that evokes a similar, fictional crime.
Worth noting: Ludwig’s adaptation was undertaken expressly at the request of the Agatha Christie Estate, which invited him to choose a Christie novel he wanted to adapt. Ludwig’s version of the famed Orient Express thriller premiered at New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre Center in early 2017.
One more thing: In his adaptation, Ludwig reduced the number of suspects included in the original Christie novel from 12 to a manageable eight, to suit the stage production, opening up the stage for more interplay among the characters and allowing the audience to linger on each suspect’s character and motives.
If you go: 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday through Aug. 27, with matinees 4 p.m. Aug. 20 and 2 p.m. Aug. 24-25, at Cape Playhouse, 820 Main St. (Route 6A), Dennis Village; $45-$80; 508-385-3911 or http://www.capeplayhouse.com/
‘From the Heart of the Wreck'
By Jay Pateakos
Written by: Kirsten Peacock and Nick Nudler; presented by Cape Rep Theatre
What it’s about: This world-premiere play follows three storytellers enacting — through humor and swashbuckling escapades — the journey of the famous pirate Samuel Bellamy and his mysterious love, known as the Witch of Wellfleet, and the events leading to the wreck of his ship Whydah off the coast of Cape Cod.
See it or not? See it. This is a 65-minute show filled with a ton of humor, some great history and superior acting.
Highlight of the show: Nudler as Bellamy and Peacock as Goody Hallett, considered in local folklore as the “Witch of Wellfleet,” are phenomenal in their truly haunting roles.
Fun fact: Peacock and Nudler, who had previously acted and written short pieces for Cape Rep, created and wrote the show with the rest of the cast’s help after Cape Rep leaders suggested the Bellamy-Hallett romance as a possibility for storytelling. It’s rare to see a show’s creators and writers in such pivotal roles, but we are all the better for it.
The story behind the play: New play explores love between a Whydah pirate and Wellfleet 'witch' + 6 more shows at Cape Cod theaters
Worth noting: The supporting performances by Cape Rep favorite Ari Lew and Cape Rep newcomers BT Hayes and Coleman Churchill were beyond a treat. I was not expecting to laugh this hard at a pirate story.
One more thing: Pay attention to the acting, especially that of Peacock, whose stellar performance made you believe she was the “Witch of Wellfleet,” whose actions didn't fit in with the Puritan rules of the time.
If you go: 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 10 at Cape Rep Theatre, 3299 Route 6A, Brewster; https://caperep.org/
By Paul Babin
Written by: Bryony Lavery; directed by Jonathan Fielding; presented by Harbor Stage Company
What it’s about: Rhona Shirley, age 10, was walking to her grandma’s house when the killer approached her. She was unconscious when he sexually assaulted her and then suffocated her with polythene sheeting. Her mother, Nancy, holds out hope that Rhona is alive; that is, until her remains are discovered in a nearby shed alongside those of other murdered children.
Lavery’s play is less about Rhona’s murder, though, than the struggles of the people left to survive in the wake of tragedy. Can Nancy learn to forgive her daughter’s killer, a psychopath named Ralph Wantage, who has since been convicted and sentenced to life in prison? Will Ralph ever feel remorse for committing such evil acts, and can he summon the courage to apologize to Nancy? Will Dr. Agnetha Gottmundsdottir, a psychiatrist from the New York School of Medicine, arrive at new insights about Ralph’s crimes by studying his brain?
See it or not: You cannot afford to miss these performances.
Highlights of the show: Robert Kropf is eerily convincing as Ralph, particularly in the mesmerizing scene where he attempts to draft an apology letter to Nancy. Rather than overplay the killer’s emotions, Kropf portrays Ralph as an insecure, psychologically damaged man-child. Plagued by memories of his abusive father, Ralph’s monstrous behavior is oddly understandable given his horrific upbringing. And Stacy Fischer is equally impressive as Agnetha, the play’s most complex character. Fischer plays Agnetha as a fundamentally decent young professional who’s willing to accept the notion that Ralph’s psychopathy may be the result of brain damage he suffered as a child.
D’Arcy Dersham delivers a beautifully restrained performance as Nancy, the play’s most profound sufferer. Dersham’s vacant stares speak volumes about Nancy’s precarious emotional state.
Fun fact: Lavery’s writing credits extend beyond the stage. In addition to writing for television and radio, she has penned several non-fiction books including a biography of actress Tallulah Bankhead.
Worth noting: In 2004, New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell accused Lavery of plagiarizing portions of the play from a 1997 profile he wrote about psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis. After interviewing Lavery and reading the script, Gladwell changed his tune. As he would later write: “Instead of feeling that my words had been taken from me, I felt that they had become part of some grander cause.”
One more thing: The show begins as a series of monologues. Each character bares their soul to the audience, but it’s not immediately clear that they will ever speak to one another. As the traumatic events unfold, their lives slowly begin to intersect until, finally, they address each other on stage.
If you go: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 5 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 4 at Harbor Stage Company, 15 Kendrick Ave., Wellfleet; $25; 508-514-1763, http://www.harborstage.org/
‘School of Rock’
By Jay Pateakos
Written by: Julian Fellowes with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Glenn Slater; directed by Tristan DiVincenzo, with musical direction by Bob Wilder and choreography by Suzette Hutchinson; presented by Cape Cod Theatre Company/Harwich Junior Theatre
What it’s about: Down-on-his-luck musician Dewey Finn (Michael Patrick Ryan) finds himself axed from his local band and in a desperate attempt to find work, poses as his friend to be a substitute teacher at a prestigious prep school. He ends up helping stiff, spoiled kids to find their inner rock and roll.
See it or not? DiVincenzo and his team have created one of the best productions I have seen on the Cape in years, a must-see for families and theater-goers of all ages. It’s a tremendously funny musical with a great message for kids and adults of all ages and offers an entertainment level you’d find hard to beat. Look for songs including “Stick it to the Man” and “Time to Play” to get you out of your seat.
Highlight of the show: New York’s Michael Patrick Ryan is magnificent as Dewey Finn. New producing artistic director Kate Pazakis noted on opening night how much Ryan reminds her of Jack Black, who was critically acclaimed in the 2003 movie that was the source for the musical. Ryan starred in last year’s “Rock the Bard” at Cape Rep Theatre, and was perfect casting for “School of Rock.”
Fun fact: Pazakis, who took over for her mentor Nina Schuessler at CCTC/HJT, performed her first show for the theater at age 6, and eventually worked on Broadway and Off-Broadway, regional theaters including in Los Angeles and was even a guest star on “South Park.”
Worth noting: The young actors in “School of Rock” made this musical, a number of them playing instruments on stage and many making their theater debuts. While the 21 young cast members are too many to mention by name, a few of the top performances include Maureen O’Neil as lead guitarist Zack, Beckham Peterson as drummer Freddy and Grace Olah as band manager Summer.
One more thing: Paige Neal, who has an incredible singing voice as Principal Rosalie Mullins, also offers a rare treat.
If you go: Through Aug. 28, at 7 p.m. Wednesdays to Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays at CCTC/HJT, 105 Division St., West Harwich; https://capecodtheatrecompany.org/.
By Shannon Goheen
Written by: Robert Chesley; directed by David Drake; presented by The Provincetown Theater
What it’s about: Two gay men living in San Francisco in the 1980s have repeated phone sex and fall in love, though they never meet. It’s a fascinating and poignant pornographic elegy to the men who went through the tragedy of AIDS before the medical world was prepared to handle it. Joe MacDougall as JR initiates late-night phone calls to Bert, played by Stephen Walker. There are 20 phone calls, to be precise, some sweet but most of them dirty.
See it or not: Don’t see this for-mature-audiences-only show with parents, children, or anyone with whom you would avoid having a hard-core sex talk. Otherwise, it’s a riveting, eye-opening, 90-minute drama with full-frontal nudity that’s never gratuitous or salacious. The only voyeurism that happens here is observing the growing love and impending doom between the two characters. The theater is set up as a “theater in the round” that offers a ring-side view of the two men engaging in intimate acts, unseen by each other but convincingly visible to the audience.
Highlight of the show: To comfort the ailing Bert, JR tells him a non-sexual, fantasy bedtime story. MacDougall leaves his bed for the first time in the telling of it and makes his way around the room. The best of humanity is on display in this intimate soliloquy and because of it, the audience is emotionally bolstered for the remainder of the unfolding drama.
Interesting fact: The timing of this production is either masterful, or just lucky. The Provincetown Theater had intended to produce “Jerker” sooner, but had to cancel because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The new timing adds another perspective: Although the AIDS epidemic took a heavy toll on the gay community, COVID-19 — another virus to which the human body has no resistance — has been making the rounds through the entire human population.
Worth noting: “Jerker” could be written off by prudes, used to denigrate the gay culture, or — as really did happen — prompt government officials to impose repression of sexual art. Judgmental dismissal of the behavior that made AIDS so devastating, though, ignores the fact that human behavior is rarely rational, but instead more responsive to feelings, attention and touch. The current pandemic is proof positive that risky behavior often takes precedence over caution.
One more thing: MacDougall and Walker play their roles so well that caring deeply for the success of their characters’ relationship and respecting their personal vulnerability is unavoidable. Watching “Jerker” is as intimate an experience as the viewer will ever get short of having the experience themselves.
If you go: 7 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays through Sept. 1, except Aug. 18, with an extra performance at 7 p.m. Aug. 19 at The Provincetown Theater, 234 Bradford St.; $40; provincetowntheater.org, Boxoffice@provincetowntheater.org, 508-487-7487. Proof of COVID-19 vaccination and masks are required.
‘Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus’
By Paul Babin
Written by: Taylor Mac; directed by RJ Tolan; presented by Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater
What it's about: The curtain rises on a lavish banquet room strewn with corpses. The bodies are still warm, as the bloody events that conclude Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” have only just played out. Gary, a clown, and Janice, a maid, have been tasked with cleaning up the mess, which mostly consists of bleeding the corpses and then pressing on what’s left of their stomachs so the farts fly out. The problem for Janice, who just wants to finish the job, is that Gary is more of a philosopher than a clown. His aim is to one day shed his clown costume and become a fool, for while clowns encourage idiots, fools “tease out our stupidity with brain.” Eventually joined by a midwife named Carol, who emerges from beneath the mound of corpses, the trio banter about numerous subjects, including Titus’s tragic end and the dream of a better tomorrow.
See it or not: It’s brilliant! Mac draws upon the raw materials of Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedy to create an uproarious, sophisticated comedy. Who knew that scenes set in a room littered with bloody carcasses would have tickled my funny bone? Much of the credit goes to the performers, who deliver Mac’s hilarious dialogue with just the right comic touch. As Janice, AJ Clauss got a huge laugh at Friday’s performance when he facetiously asked Gary, “Ya think this is my first massacre?”
Highlights: Layla Khoshnoudi delivers a wickedly funny performance as the eponymous clown. Her performance is so affecting because she never condescends to the character. Despite the situation Gary finds himself in, I never pitied him, mostly because his optimism is so inspiring. While Janice can’t envision a better future for herself, Gary dreams of becoming a great fool who will slyly speak truth to power.
Fun fact: The play premiered on Broadway in 2019, starring Nathan Lane, Kristine Nielson and Julie White. It earned seven Tony Award nominations, including for Best Play.
Worth noting: The prologue is bloody hilarious … literally. It starts with Carol championing the virtues of violence: “So double up on savagery and war: To satisfy you multiply the gore.” Then, seemingly out of nowhere, blood squirts out of her neck. Despite her apparent attempts to control the hemorrhaging, streams of blood have stained the stage by the time Carol’s finished her soliloquy.
One more thing: You don’t have to have seen “Titus Andronicus” to enjoy “Gary,” but it helps. If you decide to revisit Shakespeare’s classic, I recommend “Titus,” Julie Taymor’s deliciously over-the-top 1999 film starring Anthony Hopkins as the ill-fated general and Jessica Lange as the scheming Tamora. Taymour takes liberties with the play while still capturing its inimitable tone and tenor.
If you go: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays through Aug. 19 at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, Outermost Performing Arts Center, 2357 State Highway Route 6; $25-$40 with discounts for seniors; students $15; 508-349-9428, http://www.what.org/.
By Sue Mellen
Written by: Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman; presented by the Chatham Drama Guild
What it's about: This musical tells the story of the irrepressible, irresistible, always brash and boisterous Mame Dennis (Bridget Williams), whose party-filled existence is upended by the arrival of nephew Patrick (Toby Goers), who is quite suddenly in her care. To make matters more complicated, it’s 1929 — and you know what that means: The stock market is about to sink to the bottom of the sea, taking Mame’s little nest egg with it. She tries her hand at a number of money-making gigs — all with disastrous results. In one cute vignette, she takes a bit part in actress and best friend Vera Charles’ (Deb Mahaney) Broadway show, only to fall off a crescent moon on the set. But there is possible romance in the offing, thanks to the appearance of wealthy southern gentlemen Beauregard Jacket Pickett Burnside (Glenn Starner-Tate).
See it or not: Go for the Jerry Herman music and the fun of seeing one more version of the character Rosalind Russell and Angela Lansbury made famous. As Pam Banas — who is director, choreographer and also takes on two roles — notes before curtain, it’s no small task for a community theater like the guild, working with all volunteers, to take on such a full-bodied show. (There are 22 characters and 14 musical numbers.) As a result, though, delivery of lines and lyrics is uneven, with projection through the theater sometimes suffering. Exceptions are the strong voices and bold deliveries of Williams’ Mame and Devin Massarsky as a grown-up Patrick.
Highlights of the show: Jerry Herman’s compositions are front-and-center, with Geraldine Boles as accompanist and musical director. Familiar tunes include “We Need a Little Christmas,” “Mame” and “Open a New Window,” with other parts of the score including “Moon Song” and “The Fox Hunt.” There is also a cute bit where Mame and Vera display their somewhat tattered affection for one another in the number “Bosom Buddies.”
Fun fact: The Auntie Mame character is based on the real-life aunt — Marion Tanner — of Edward Everett Tanner III. Author Tanner also wrote under the pseudonym Patrick Tanner, and his book “Auntie Mame: An irreverent escape” was one of the best-selling books of the 20th century.
Worth noting: Costumes (also thanks to Banas) are authentic and sometimes really fun, including a bright red, Asian-style, tunic-like top that Williams sports in one scene.
One more thing: The growing relationship between Patrick and Mame is central to this story: Hence the name of the non-musical version, “Auntie Mame,” and the song “My Best Girl” that Patrick sings to his auntie in this musical version. Other people whose lives Mame continues to mold and manage include housekeeper Agnes Gooch (Amy Jane Kneppers), who finds herself pregnant and unwed (a big deal in 1929).
If you go: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays through Aug. 20 at Chatham Drama Guild, 134 Crowell Road; $25 general seating, $28 cabaret seating; 508-945-0510 or http://www.chatdramaguild.org/.
This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: Cape Cod theater: Reviews about murder, pirates, rock band, phone sex