Thursday, January 29, 2015

Durang and Disney and Chekhov at the Huntington

The cast of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Photos: Jim Cox












Playwright Christopher Durang has protested that he didn't intend to write a commercial vehicle when he penned Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (at the Huntington through this weekend), but the cash registers have been ringing for him anyhow, now that the script has nabbed the Tony for best play, and productions have spread across the country. And it's easy to see why the show is popular, particularly in its polished production at the Huntington. Vanya and Sonia, etc. is highly crafted (if not at all structured), tags just about every accepted liberal totem there is, and best of all, delivers a steady stream of knowing bemusement - and even the occasional belly laugh.  The icing on the cake is that it's sprinkled with nods to works of art that only college graduates know about - so not only are its jokes often in-jokes, but it's also easy to pretend Durang's pastiche is somehow in the same league as its references.  Which isn't at all the case - although to be fair, the play does seem to be getting at something in its first act, even if that impression fades over the course of its second; you do leave Vanya and Sonia with a genial grin - just not much more.

Of course for many that's enough. By the time the curtain falls, I think most audiences members will have realized that Vanya and Sonia, like its title, is more a string of funny bits than an integrated statement.  But who cares, really?  Certainly not the critics (who have all loved it).  And maybe not even me; for at this point perhaps Christopher Durang has earned his payday. He has never actually penned a deeply imagined, fully crafted play, not in the classic sense; but his tone of self-conscious comic horror has been widely influential; in fact maybe half of television comedy is indebted to it (indeed, he might be the most imitated playwright alive). And after the misfire of the bravely pointed Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them, I can't really blame him for playing things safe this time around.

So just in case you haven't heard, Vanya and Sonia is a kind of mash-up of the comedies of Anton Chekhov, leavened with a saccharine shot of (yes) Walt Disney. Durang's conceit is that his central trio of middle-aged siblings were all named after Chekhov characters by their literary parents, and so, perhaps inevitably, are now wasting away on the family estate in Connecticut. Oh, except for Masha - who actually escaped to Moscow, in a way, by becoming a successful movie actress. She has since supported  Vanya and Sonia for years; but now that their parents are gone, and her asking price has begun to drop, Masha has decided to sell the estate out from under her sibs. Which she announces even as she is dressing them up to play the Seven Dwarves to her Snow White at a costume party (at top).

Tyler Lansing Weaks as Spike.
That's basically the whole plot. Of course that's "basically" all there is to The Cherry Orchard, too; but where Chekhov spins a web of subtle insights around the denizens of his drama, Durang mostly just spins references as one-liners.  He does borrow a few larger tropes from Uncle Anton (a big house party forms the crux of the second act, for instance) - but he also deviates from his template in one key respect: the wild inflation of The Cherry Orchard's Yasha into the eponymous Spike (the scrumptious Tyler Lansing Weaks, at left), a boy toy who's always stripping down for our delectation, and who is clearly only keeping Masha as his sugar mama until he gets his big break.

If Durang has anything to say, it's something to do with Spike, and the way the childishly polymorphous American pleasure principle that he represents (basically sex mixed with Disney) contradicts the Chekhovian pathos the people he seduces are hoping to conjure in their lives. But Durang somehow can't quite bring this conflict into deep dramatic focus. He does give Vanya a funny tirade over how pop culture used to be civilized - and even courted high-cult in its way. Which is true enough - and a nice rhetorical gesture (even if it amounts to little more than nostalgia).  But it ain't real drama.

Oh, well! I myself had a certain weakness for Mr. Weaks, and like Vanya forgot these quibbles whenever he came bounding onstage in a speedo. He proves a witty comedian, too, and neatly nails Spike's bone-headed audition for "Entourage II." But here the comedy laurels must go to Marcia DeBonis, who is fearlessly frumpy as Sonia, the second sister who is at first haplessly unhappy, then poignantly alive when she finds her own wit in a wacky impersonation of Dame Maggie Smith (trust me, it sounds weird, but it works). Meanwhile Martin Moran makes a subtle and level-headed Vanya, even as Haneefah Wood exuberantly chews the scenery as Cassandra, the clairvoyant household help who's prone to such opaquely passionate pronouncements as "Beware Hootie-Pie!" There's only one unsatisfying performance, in fact, and it's simply a case of an actor trying too hard: Candy Buckley is often appealing as the sweet, vain Masha, but pushes her character's tunnel vision so hard she sometimes seems out of breath.

Still, her performance is sketched with many witty touches, like the production itself (David Korin's set, for instance, ever-so-subtly references Snow White's cottage from the Disney cartoon). I did feel, however, that director Jessica Stone had sweetened the script with at least a spoonful more sugar than necessary. True, her version remained close in spirit to that of the Broadway premiere (directed by the dear, departed Nicky Martin, who was once the guiding light at the Huntington). But the rather more sarcastic Trinity Rep version last season I felt hewed closer to Durang's customary tone - which made the play seem a bit more bracing. So in the end, even though I'm glad Christopher Durang got his payday, I think I'll welcome the return of a bit more edge to his writing.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Short cuts: Midsummer and The Best Brothers

I'm late with comments on Apollinaire's Midsummer and Merrimack Rep's The Best Brothers - and alas, that's basically because I didn't have too much encouraging to say about either one.

Courtland Jones and Brookes Reeves.
Midsummer has already closed, so I'll be brief - this was a case of a talented cast being undone by a play so mediocre I struggled to stay awake through its short running time. In fact I'm not sure I succeeded, I may have missed a scene - which slightly surprised me, as at first I thought playwright David Grieg was toying with an interesting premise: his two leads described the madcap antics of the weekend they fell in love even as they acted them out. This promised a few intriguing conceptual wrinkles in what looked like (and eventually proved to be) a pretty standard version of the Britcom/gritcom/romcom template that has replaced the classic screwball comedy. 

But first a word about these new millennial vehicles; in the new screwball comedy, the beautiful-but-stuck-in-a-rut girlfriend generally plays the straight man (gone are the free spirits of yesteryear), and her immature swain induces all the comic complications; meanwhile the whimsical tropes of the tradition (road trips, disguises, pet leopards) are replaced by awkward sexual humiliations and brushes with various underworlds and sub-cults (from which usually, at the finish, someone is "redeemed").  In Midsummer, Grieg painted strictly, and rather mechanically, by these numbers, aside from his unusual framing device - which, alas, came to nothing. I kept expecting some competitive perspectives on his couple's shaggy-dog love story to emerge; I would have been happy if even a hint of How-I-Met-Your-Mother self-awareness kicked in.  But - zip.  Nada. Zero.

Still, the gorgeous Courtland Jones and the versatile Brooks Reeves were appealing enough to make the tedium go down easy; they even almost managed to sell Gordon MacIntyre's godawful songs. But I will say that even though I'm an admirer of director Danielle Fateux Jacques, the driving force behind the intrepid Apollinaire, I felt she didn't attend to the director's key job in any romcom, particularly one as weak as this: we never saw the precise moments at which Jones and Reeves fell genuinely in love.  Grieg was no help in this regard, it's true; but when it comes to romantic comedy, somehow love has to find a way.

Meanwhile, up at Merrimack, the talented Charles Towers was similarly trying to breathe life into another problematic new play, The Best Brothers by Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor.  To be honest, I think I dozed off in this one, too; sorry about that - I am getting older, and perhaps I'm slowly turning into a reincarnation of the late critic Caldwell Titcomb, who softly snored through everything he saw.

But in my own defense, I seem to still be able to stay awake and focused through real plays (like Vanya and Sonia, etc., at the Huntington, or A Future Perfect at SpeakEasy) - but I guess in my dotage I'm just likely to nod off through the sorts of gestures toward a real play that people like MacIvor (and Grieg) contrive.

Photo: Meghan Moore
For in The Best Brothers, much is hinted at, but little comes to real dramatic fruition. The action, such as it is, follows two secretly competitive siblings, Hamilton and Kyle, whose mother Bunny has just died beneath the crushing weight of a drag queen named Piña Colada, who fell on the poor woman from a passing Gay Pride float. Clearly from this unlikely, quasi-symbolic event the playwright hopes to spin a bemused take on accepting the surreal and humiliating vicissitudes of life - something that one brother, the straight-laced (and just plain straight) Hamilton obviously has trouble doing. Gay brother Kyle, of course, rolls more easily with such surreal punches; and as we watch, the underlying tensions between these two come to a slow boil through petty squabbles over things like the obituary and who-mom-loved-best - although predictably, Hamilton eventually learns to accept Kyle's oh-don't-sweat-the-small-stuff attitude (particularly when it comes to who deserves to be loved and who doesn't).

Now honestly, I long for the day when it's the hetero guy who's looser and more hip than the gay guy (something I've observed plenty of times in real life, I assure you) - but I guess that's still a few decades off when it comes to what audiences will accept on the stage. I should also mention, however, the "third" brother in the mix - Bunny's greyhound, Enzo, who represents all that's untrainable about life and love, or something like that. We quickly grasp that Bunny loved Enzo best, despite his many foibles - and this unspoken fact, along with the obstreperous dog's fate, becomes another bone of contention, if you will, between the sparring brothers.

But alas, we never see the mysteriously endearing Enzo, and MacIvor has trouble pinning down the source of his appeal.  Likewise the author's episodic structure keeps undermining the momentum of his script, and his tactic of having each brother impersonate Bunny in turn comes off as, well - just oddly opaque. Although to be fair, none of these gambits play to this particular director's strengths - Towers is better known for his handling of darker, more haunted drama than his light touch with comedy. Perhaps as a result, everything here plays as slightly subdued - although the subtle turns by stars Michael Canavan and Michael Kux (above) are certainly up to Merrimack's vaunted acting standards. The show was apparently a hit up in Canada - so perhaps this production simply counts as a misfire. I will say this much - Ivor does express what's it like to share (or be forced to share) the exasperating love of a dog; and lovers of any and all breeds are sure to warm to that.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Patriot act

Photo: Mark S. Howard

Karen MacDonald's evocation of celebrated Texas columnist Molly Ivins (in Red Hot Patriot, at the Lyric Stage through January 31) is so luminous and thoughtfully crafted that it almost disguises the fact that the theatrical setting of her star turn isn't quite as "kick-ass" as it would like to be. And the problem isn't just that the script (by former journalists Margaret and Allison Engel) occasionally plays as a patchwork of punchy quotes (although sometimes it does). No, the deeper, more poignant issue with Patriot is that the play feels far more like a requiem than a celebration; for the woes of the millennium have kicked the whole foundation out from under this late columnist's calculatedly charming act.

Which isn't to say that her sane, salty wit has gone missing from the piece. Quite the contrary - it's there in abundance; and MacDonald knows just how every line should land. What's more, with her newly auburn locks and spanking-fresh cowboy boots, MacDonald, if not quite a dead ringer for Ivins, still seems to be packing just about everything you'd want in a good-old-girl liberal firecracker.  (She even nails an upper-crust East Texas accent.)  But an autumnal tone still suffuses the piece; if Ivins first comes off as raising hell at a defiantly jubilant wake for Southern liberalism, by the end she seems to be lighting a candle for herself.

I admit I partly identified with Ivins' plight because I recognized in her the remnants of the lost liberal tradition of what I think of as my hometown - Houston, Texas (although I was born in New York City, I was raised on the Gulf coast). Of course I didn't move in the Ivins' social circle - Molly grew up in the ultra-moneyed River Oaks district (in fact her father was president of the company that employed my father), where she mixed with the Bushes and their ilk. And while this gave her nascent liberal leanings a definite focus and edge, it also bestowed on her a certain sense of decorum.  I know this sounds funny given that she named her dog "Sh*t," and was famous for her colorful invective; but beneath her exasperated barbs there was a generous poise to Ivins - a kind of faith in there being some civic and social space in which liberals and conservatives could come to terms, laugh at the failings of both parties, and maybe even work things out.

But I hardly need to tell you that all that is gone. Indeed, Ivins' political children - cable stars like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert - all operate on the unstated principle that our current situation is hopeless, that the benighted right can never see the light, and cannot be persuaded of anything. Melting glaciers cannot convince them of climate change; and gay marriage to them still looms like a threat. Thus satire has gone meta - perhaps even double meta, as its reformist raison d'être no longer has any culture purchase.

Although that doesn't mean it's no longer fun. Certainly Ivins was a hoot throughout her career, and most of her best bon mots are assembled here. She was, after all, the one who dubbed Dubya "Dubya" - and then nicknamed him "Shrub" to boot (having known him as far back as high school, she had an unshakable faith in his imbecility).  But probably her most pungent writing was devoted to the politics of her home state - as she once put it, when the legislature convenes in Texas, "every village loses its idiot." And it's not hard to understand why she got such a kick out of all those good old boys gone bad - there's something innocent about the cupidity of Texas politicians, something nearly exuberant about their stupidity.

This was the fuel that kept her Mark-Twain-like mojo going - until, of course, breast cancer took her from us all too soon. But perhaps Ivins understood herself that her time was passing. There's a touching moment toward the close of Red Hot when Ms. MacDonald ruefully acknowledges what anyone of a certain age knows to be true of American politics: that hate has taken over. And once that has happened, satire in effect becomes a mode of nostalgia. Which was what filled my heart as the curtain fell on Karen MacDonald's beguiling performance.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

How the MFA got this giant wrong

Seated Giant, 1818
If you haven't had a chance to check out the MFA's Goya show, this is your last chance, as it closes tomorrow - and you owe it to yourself to try to catch it.

But I only say this because it's an unusually broad survey; alas, the curation itself (by Stephanie Loeb and Frederick Ilchman) proves curiously unfocused - a problem which can bedevil many a large exhibit, it's true. More telling, perhaps, is the fact that what amounts to the central thesis of the show - that Goya's multiple identities as court painter, war correspondent, and connoisseur of human horror, existed in some sort of conscious balance - is ultimately unpersuasive. Indeed, the concept feels willfully pasted over the facts of the matter, or at least the far more likely conclusion that the court portraiture filling much of the MFA was merely the result of Goya's social ambition; it feels at best like a lace wrapper around the dark power of his meditations on cruelty, madness, and nightmare. 

Indeed, much of this portraiture plays unfortunately to the artist's relative lack of skill as a human anatomist. His nobles and lovers can sometimes look like dolls - with button eyes, flat faces, and puppet limbs - an effect which has often been read as satiric, but which also hints at underlying technical gaps. It's true that many great artists - even Rembrandt and Velázquez! - were sometimes clumsy portraitists, but crudeness seems a constant in Goya, and unfortunately only a handful of his best court paintings (like the glowing The Parasol, a charming Fragonard knock-off, detail below) have found their way into the MFA.

The best of Goya's court painting: detail from The Parasol, 1777

On the other hand, Goya's awkward anatomies are often set (oddly enough) in muscular graphic designs, especially in the samples of his "dark side" included here, which often smolder with his signature mix of bitter rage and fascinated horror. And no wonder the artist was horrified, as he not only endured premature deafness, but saw his native country repeatedly invaded and raped by the French (whose own culture was the source of many of his courtly tropes!) 

Old Man on a Swing, 1824-1828
These deprivations and depredations led to the blooming of a temperament both attracted and repelled by brutality - while the ironies of the quintessentially Spanish culture clash between reason and superstition conjured a fascination with secret lunacy. And strangely enough, it seems that in the process the artist found his true voice. For it's the later Goya, who both reflected the crack-up of the Enlightenment and prefigured the savage "reforms" of modernism, that the world has come to love.

And who can blame us? The portraits may count as satire, but they still look insipid - while even Goya's minor, tossed-off drawings, like Old Man on a Swing (at left) conceal a cleverly sardonic sting. Other paintings and prints push straight on into nightmare with the potency of a horror movie: bats and birds of prey attack a helpless victim in The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, while witches decorate the horns of Satan (in Witches' Sabbath) much as one of Fragonard's damsels might crown her lover. And the blind terror extends into the waking world: a blunt, almost toneless bewilderment likewise underpins Goya's paintings of war atrocities and mindless sadism.

So it's hard to honestly argue that there's some sort of "balance" between order and disorder here - because all the passion, all the artistic weight, lies on one side of the scale.  Occasionally, it's true, Goya steps back to contemplate the unknowability of man's true nature, as in the spooky Seated Giant (at top). And sometimes he even gestures toward the consolations of compassion and wisdom; he painted the doctor who ministered to him with sympathy, for instance, in Self-Portrait with Doctor Arrieta. But the picture is still suffused with foreboding; from the patient's expression we know at once that he is doomed. And so, quite probably, is humanity.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

More best of Boston, 2014

What makes a production one of the best of the year?  I imagine there are as many answers to that as there are theatre-goers.

But what makes a production one of the next best of the year is perhaps even a more vexing question. What about each of the worthy productions listed below led me to rate it an "Honorable Mention" rather than a win?  Read on as I ponder both what tempted me to count several shows among the best of the best - and what in the end held me back . . .

Sweeney Todd, New Rep
Sweeney Todd - Lyric Stage, Director Spiro Veloudos almost pulled off a triple hat trick this year, with this gripping version of Sondheim's most operatic effort (which immediately followed his dazzling productions of Into the Woods and Death of a Salesman). The show was studded with strong turns from Christopher Chew, Phil Tayler, Paul C. Soper, Sam Simahk, and Davron S. Monroe (among others); but in the end I just couldn't wrap my head around Veloudos' revision of the pivotal role of Mrs. Lovett.  Still, the production haunts, and I might change my mind about it tomorrow. 

Fences, Gloucester Stage
Fences - Gloucester Stage. Director Eric C. Engel did honorable battle with August Wilson's magnum opus, and drew a charismatic performance from lead Daver Morrison (at left) - although Morrison never quite tapped into the secret, self-destructive forces driving the tragic figure of Troy Maxson. Still, the supporting cast featured compelling character work from Jacqui Parker, Jared Michael Brown, and Warren Jackson, as well as a truly heartbreaking turn from Jermel Nakia as Troy's damaged brother Gabriel.

Translations - Bad Habit Productions. Once again Bad Habit brought off an ensemble drama with subtle skill, and local light M. Bevin O'Gara proved herself one of our most sensitive directors of actors. But she also reminded us that she's too timid to risk audience sympathy in the way most truly challenging texts often demand. Not that Translations is quite Marat/Sade - still, it should have something of an edge; yet O'Gara drained all the threat out of Brian Friel's popular (and poignant) romance - which straddles the treacherous gap between the Irish and the British on the verge of the Great Famine. Nevertheless, at the same time O'Gara coaxed several rising local actors - Greg Maraio, Patrick Varner, Gabriel Graetz, and Gillian Mackay-Smith among them - into their strongest performances yet.

Trip to Bountiful - Arts Emerson.  An almost perfect production of rather a minor play. Star Cicely Tyson proved luminous, but was nevertheless almost outshone by co-stars Blair Underwood and Vanessa Williams in this beautifully mounted rendition of Horton Foote's delicately sentimental television script. An attempt to add weight to the original by re-setting it across the color bar did add another dimension of poignancy - yet ultimately this proved tangential to the plot's trajectory. So in the end, Bountiful proved the kind of production that makes you wish there was a public willing to pay to see actors like these in plays of genuine depth.

Assassins, New Rep



Assassins - New Rep. This time the director wasn't at fault; the author was. The New Rep's Jim Petosa clearly knew his way around this Sondheim oddity - which, to be fair, seems more "relevant" than ever now that the nation has accustomed itself to almost weekly massacres, hostage-takings and stand-offs.  And Petosa pulled together a remarkable cast to put over the master's bleakly comic riffs on the inverted "American dream" of assassination. So many critics were willing to overlook the flaws in the jumbled concept to embrace the show. And I'll say this much - if this production (which included memorable performances from Evan Gambardella, Paula Langton, McCaela Donovan, and Brad Daniel Peloquin) couldn't convince me of the value of this Sondheim opus, I doubt any production could.

Still to come - my overdue edition of the Winter Hubbies.  

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The best of Boston theatre, 2014

Yes, it's that time of year again - although I'm actually a bit late with my annual look in the cultural rearview. And to tell true, 2014 was not the most spectacular of theatrical years; still, several productions held their heads well above the rest - so without further ado, here are a few final bouquets tossed to the shows that brought me the most pleasure over the past twelve months.

The Wheelock Family Theatre's Hairspray.


Hairspray - Wheelock Family Theatre. This slick, sweet production of the Broadway musical pushed at the PG envelope a bit, but never actually tore through it.  Bright design, bouncy dances, tight direction and an exuberant cast (led by local lights Robert Saoud, Aimee Doherty, Jenna Lea Scott, and Peter Carey) made this easily the breeziest show of the year.

Death of a Salesman - Lyric Stage. Artistic director Spiro Veloudos kicked off a remarkable year with this devastating revival of Arthur Miller's classic tragedy of fathers, sons, and mothers trapped in a toxic version of the American dream. No, the production wasn't flawless - but Veloudos communicated the greatness of the play itself, several performances were among the best of the year (particularly Paula Plum's and Kelby Akin's) and that's more than enough for me.

The talented cast of Into the Woods at the Lyric Stage.



Into the Woods - Lyric Stage. Veloudos produced a second memorable hit just a few months after Salesman with this assured version of the classic Sondheim musical (and his Sweeney Todd almost made this list as well). More startling still, he managed to re-invigorate a text that's on the edge of over-familiarity with a persuasive new viewpoint: this time the travails of parenthood became a key focus of these amusingly Grimm fairy tales. Imaginative design, talented actors, and pinpoint casting did the rest.

Krapp's Last Tape - Fort Point Theatre Channel.  Basement Beckett is often a risk - but under the   astute direction of Marc S. Miller, local light Steven Barkhimer proved remarkable in what amounts to almost a Beckett self-portrait.  Indeed, I wrote at the time that Barkhimer had perhaps achieved the most profound performance of the season.  And I haven't changed my mind.

The high style of Lovers' Quarrels at Imaginary Beasts



Lovers' Quarrels - Imaginary Beasts.  The Beasts were at their witty best in this little-known Molière (recently translated by the great Richard Wilbur). Although the script dates from the playwright's provincial period, Le Dépit Amoureux has passages that are worthy of his late masterpieces - and the Beasts carried the action off in high commedia style - not to mention high style, period.  Easily the most charming show of the year.

Bad Jews - SpeakEasy Stage. For once, SpeakEasy abandoned its customary victimology in this biting look at the internecine culture war being (quietly) waged among American Jews. It's perhaps worth noting that this season seemed to mark a general roiling in our Jewish culture: between Imagining Madoff, The Whipping Man, Bad Jews, Awake and Sing!, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, and Six Hotels, Jewish self-examination (and even recrimination) seemed a constant on the local boards. But SpeakEasy's customary slickness - and Rebecca Bradshaw's razor-sharp direction - gave Joshua Harmon's bitter comedy of identity a particularly ruthless edge, and showcased yet another best-of-year performance in Alison McCartan's leading turn as Daphna, Harmon's self-dramatizing "über-Jew."

The Old Man and the Old Moon

The Old Man and the Old Moon - PigPen Theatre Co. at ArtsEmerson.  This fetching valentine to the magic of storytelling was also the year's most epic piece of DYI theatre.  The set was merely sheets and lamps and spare lumber, but the lads of PigPen fashioned these simple means into a captivating fairy tale - one that followed the eponymous Old Man on a journey of self-discovery - which seemed to both tell and swallow itself simultaneously, in something like the style of Italo Calvino. You could argue that in the end The Old Man and the Old Moon lacked the deeper, darker shadows to be expected in a truly resonant folk tale; but the bewitching stagecraft, and the genially bemused camaraderie of the PigPen players themselves, more than made up for that.

Will Lebow exhorts the Huntington cast to Awake and Sing!


Awake and Sing! - Huntington Theatre. It's rare enough to spot Clifford Odets on our local boards at all; so to see him done well, in a major production at the Huntington, was quite a treat.  Not that I didn't have my arguments with director Melia Bensussen's interpretation - which to some degree gently undercut this author's bristling pugnacity. But several remarkable acting turns (from Will Lebow, Eric T. Miller, and Annie Purcell, among others) coupled with Bensussen's own subtle sense of how political circumstances shape character, still put over the essence of this forgotten playwright's song.

Well, that's a wrap of my "Best Of" list for 2014.  But I feel a few other productions (which nearly made the list) still deserve mention - so I will ponder them in a second installment of my look back at the year that was.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

A mixed Bach set from H&H

Scott Allen Jarrett, Sonja DuToit Tengblad, and the musicians of H&H. Photo: James Doyle

It's little known outside musical circles that Handel and Haydn offers a second Christmas concert every season, centered on the great J.S. Bach. And if the Society's annual Messiah remains something of a musical constant, their "Bach Christmas" is always a variation on a theme - not just because Bach wrote so very much sacred music to choose from, but also because other composers of his period often find their way onto the program.

Indeed this year we heard only the fourth (Fallt hit Danken, fallt hit Loben) of the six cantatas that together comprise the famous "Christmas Oratorio" of 1734.  Elsewhere guest conductor Scott Allen Jarrett (of Boston University and the Back Bay Chorale) programmed an earlier Bach effort from the Christmas season of 1723 (the composer's first year in Liepzig) as well as sacred and seasonal music from Victoria, Scarlatti, Corelli and others.

There was a loose sense of historical development to Jarrett's sequence, but also a lively and imaginative variety to his choices and staging: the concert featured a charming appearance by H&H's very youngest singers (from the Society's Vocal Program Youth Chorus) and the chorale was often deployed creatively across the stage and even the gallery. But alas, the performances themselves at times seemed to vary with the program. A few leading lights in both the chorus and orchestra were missing this time around, and their absence was sometimes missed by this reviewer.  The horn section, for instance, was composed almost entirely of fresh faces, who I'm afraid sometimes garbled what I admit are punishingly difficult parts (as Bach pushed the brass of his day toward something close to chromaticism). But the strings were also inconsistent, and the Concerto Grosso (Op. 6, No. 6) from Corelli disappointed; intonations slid slightly in sustained passages, tempi were uneven, and the performance felt unfocused.

Of course Jarrett is best known as a choral conductor - so perhaps it's no surprise that his work with the H&H chorus was stronger, and revealed both a truly lyrical sensibility and a welcome attention to detail (diction was clear throughout - even in the German). Indeed, you could argue that the concert peaked early, with a truly rapturous rendition of Tomas Luis de Victoria's Alma Redemptoris Mater. Here the soaring vocal lines were both plaintively sumptuous and precisely rendered, and thus the grand architecture of the piece rose before us like the vaults of a gothic cathedral. The luminous Sonja DuToit Tengblad (above), who by now has emerged as something of a local vocal star, likewise dazzled in a sweet (if not highly individualized) reading of Scarlatti's Christmas Cantata, and the chorus enchanted again in two settings of the text "Es its win Ros' entsprungen" ("A rose has sprung from a tender root") by Melchior Vulpius and Michael Praetorius.

But I can almost hear you asking - how was the Bach?  Well, by and large it was superb. Unfortunately, one soloist struggled, but others were in fine voice, and the chorus often captured that sense of genuine joy that is the buried essence of all Bach's Christmas writing. Bass Bradford Gleim excelled in the earlier of the two cantatas, Dazu its erschienen der Sonn Gottes ("For this reason the Son of God appeared"),  but was then perhaps eclipsed by fellow bass Donald Wilkinson, who, backed by buoyant playing from the oboes, brought an eloquent power to the recitatives of Fallt hit Danken, fallt hit Loben ("Fall with thanks, fall with praise"). Best of all were Jacquelyn Stucker and Brenna Wells, who brought ripe color, and an almost droll tone, to the the delightful duet Flösst mein Heiland ("My savior, does your name instill").  They insured that this particular musical Christmas pageant closed on a high note indeed.