BWW Review: Boston Theater Top to Bottom

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Top Girls and Snow White and the 7 Bottoms

Caryl Churchill's Top Girls performances through April 27 by Bad Habit Productions at Deane Hall, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or Director, Liz Fenstermaker; Stage Manager, Ally Hasselback; Costume Designer, Bridgette Hayes; Lighting Designer, PJ Strachman; Props Designer, Helena Mestenhauser; Scenic Designer, Shelley Barish; Sound Designer, Deirdre Benson; Dialect Coach, Crystal Lisbon CAST: Shanae Burch, Catherine Buxton, Maria Carreon, Courtland Jones, Gillian Mackay-Smith, Janelle Mills, Caroline Price, Emma Walker

Bad Habit Productions titled this season "Ambition & Sacrifice," and Caryl Churchill's Top Girls fits the bill with a cast of female characters who have made a litany of sacrifices on the altar of their ambitions. Marlene is an executive who has just earned a big promotion in a London employment agency and has a celebratory dinner at a restaurant with five noteworthy women from history. Some were real and some imagined in art or letters, but all shared the challenges of being "top girls" in a man's world. Their stories foreshadow Marlene's career path and the tricky track of generations of women who seek to break through the glass ceiling.

Liz Fenstermaker directs an all-female cast who all take on dual roles, with the exception of Courtland Jones who is most impressive as the protagonist Marlene. As the hostess at the dinner party, she makes sure that the wine keeps flowing and listens to the experiences of the others. Isabella Bird (Caroline Price) from Edinburgh travelled the world between the ages of 40 and 70; Lady Nijo (Maria Carreon) was a 13th century Buddhist nun and former Japanese Emperor's courtesan; Dull Gret (Catherine Buxton) is the subject of a Brueghel painting who leads a charge through hell to fight the devil; Pope Joan (Gillian Mackay-Smith) disguised herself as a man in order to serve as Pope between 854 and 856; and Patient Griselda (Janelle Mills) is an obedient wife whose story was told by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales.

It helps to know something about these women to sort through the cacophony of their dialogue (they often speak over each other or have competing conversations); ­­in my ignorance, I had empathy for the eye-rolling young waitress (Emma Walker) who had to run back and forth to fetch their food and libations while they basically ignored her. Kudos to the director and the actresses for getting the timing and accents right, but the opening scene was not my favorite. The pace picks up and the events and the characters are more accessible when the action shifts to the employment agency and Marlene's sister Joyce's back yard and kitchen. In these settings, Jones displays the full effect of Marlene's sacrifices. She has to be the tough cookie in the office, but finds it hard to let her guard down in her dysfunctional family life unless large amounts of alcohol are involved. Her face shows the questions that seem to be on her mind, wondering if she can have it all or if her job is sufficient reward.

Mills inhabits the worn out body and soul of Joyce, abandoned by her husband, stuck at home with a developmentally disabled teenage daughter, and resentful of her sister's choices and opportunities. Buxton is spot on as the fifteen-year old Angie who has a younger, smarter friend (Shanae Burch), hates her mother, and hero-worships her absent aunt. Her poignant, nuanced performance evokes a child whose body is more mature than her mind, and cries out to be either spanked or hugged. Burch has a lot more going on upstairs and is adorable with pigtails and her faltering balance on roller skates.

IRNE-nominated actress/director Price gives another strong performance, nailing Isabella's Scottish brogue before becoming the epitome of the office professional as one of the employment counselors. Mackay-Smith has a twinkle in her eye regaling her dinner companions with her tales of life as Pope. She shifts gears to become an anxious job seeker whose personal perfectionism makes her an undesirable commodity, and her counselor Win (Carreon) is less than sympathetic.

The two-tiered set is designed by Shelley Barish and lighting designer PJ Strachman expands the possibilities. The actors rearrange the furnishings between scenes, with recorded musical accompaniment (sound designer Deirdre Benson), and costume designer Bridgette Hayes provides fine period fashions for the restaurant scene, as well as hip attire for the women at the agency.

Snow White and the 7 Bottoms performances through May 18 by the Gold Dust Orphans at Machine Nightclub, 1254 Boylston Street, Boston, MA; Tickets: Ryan Landry, Producer; James P. Byrne, Director/Lighting Design; Scott Martino, Costume Design; Windsor Newton, Scenic Design; Olive A. Nother, Properties Master; Matthew Thomas Lazure, Scenic Artist; Timothy Lawton, Music Director; Meredith Langton, Choreographer; Roger Moore, Soundscapes; Samantha MacArthur, Light and Sound Board Operator; Jennifer Provoost, Spot Light Operator/House Manager CAST: Ryan Landry, Jessica Barstis, Paul Vincent Melendy, Scott Martino, Olive A. Nother, Qya Cristál, Liza Lott, Robyn Banks, Tad McKitterick, Timothy Lawton, William York, Gary Croteau, Chris McVein, Meredith Langton, Briana Scafidi, Lex Rich-Shea, Libbie Pilsch, Rhoda the Dog, Gene Dante (understudy)

I'm going to shake things up a little and start by raving about Scott Martino's costume designs which bring the Gold Dust Orphans' Snow White and the 7 Bottoms to life in Technicolor. First and foremost, the featured players wear eye-popping attire, but the array on display for the human and animal characters in the ensemble is pretty impressive, too. Ryan Landry has rarely looked so well-tailored and regal as The Evil Queen, swirling his rich, purple velvet cape with satin lining and gold trim. His rival Prince Charming (Paul Vincent Melendy) is also royally draped in gold and bedecked with a jeweled crown, while The Magic Mirror (Olive A. Nother) is tightly wrapped in gold fabric topped off by a frame of gilded scrollwork around her face. Snow White (Jessica Barstis) wears the familiar two tone dress with a blue bodice above a yellow skirt, and we know The Footman (Martino) by the giant F on his tunic. Even the Avenue Q-style puppets representing six of the seven bottoms are wearing little costumes and hairdos evocative of their well-known namesakes (Ethel, Liza, Bette, Carol, Cher, and Charo).

Based on the beloved Walt Disney cartoon (but light years removed), this brand new musical comedy from Landry's pen reunites Barstis and Melendy, the stars of the Orphans' 2013 Christmas hit, It's a Horrible Life. She is picture and pitch perfect for the role of Snow White with dimples a mile deep and a voice that soars like the bluebirds who surround her. Melendy captures the Prince's vanity and dimwittedness with a lot of tongue-in-cheek and cheeky behavior, but he also gets to show his singing and dancing chops. As a matter of fact, this cast excels in the vocal department across the board, with strong contributions from GDO regulars Olive A. Nother, Timothy Lawton (Ethel), and Liza Lott (Liza). The musical selections, borrowed as they are from a range of genres, have Landry's trademark clever lyrics and either advance the story or develop a character. In addition to channeling Ethel Merman, Lawton is the Music Director.

James P. Byrne is on hand to direct the controlled madness once again and takes full advantage of every corner of the space, thanks to Windsor Newton's scenic design and the imaginative use of miniatures. Choreographer Meredith Langton comes through big on the small stage with production numbers that include dancing by knights, anatomically-correct male flowers, rapping bunnies, and bluebirds, to mention a few. Langton is also featured with Briana Scafidi in several specialty dances, as well as being part of the ensemble.

Snow White and the 7 Bottoms seems to have a slightly higher quotient of songs, which is all to the good because the story is a little light with a contrived ending that seems to say they didn't know what else to do. However, consider this the slightest criticism because the parody, the laughs, and the requisite gasps are all there. It is also a great showcase for Qya Cristál (Butch, The Huntsman), Robyn Banks (Fag Hag, the 7th Bottom), and the puppet operators - Lawton, Lott, William York (Bette), Chris McVein (Carol), Gary Croteau (Cher), and Tad McKitterick (Charo).

Landry is just about perfect, trading one-liners with audience favorite Nother, and morphing into the ugly Hag who tempts Snow White with the poison apple. Not that she needs it, but the Queen is introduced by dark, creepy music and eerie sound effects which sometimes drown Landry out. Other than that, with the lead vocalists using hand held microphones and the music being sufficiently amplified, Roger Moore's sound is very effective. All but one of the actors can project their voices to the back row, but Rhoda the dog doesn't have to say a word and she steals the show.

Photo credits: Paul Cantillon, Lidec Photo (Top Girls: Courtland Jones, Catherine Buxton, Janelle Mills); Michael von Redlich (Snow White and the 7 Bottoms: front - Paul Vincent Melendy, Jessica Barstis; rear - Olive A. Nother, Ryan Landry, Qya Cristál, Scott Martino)

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From This Author Nancy Grossman