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The Performing Artists' AIDS Coalition produced Parents, Lovers, and Other Problems: the Music and Lyrics of Stephen Sondheim as a benefit for Deaconess Hospital AIDS Patient Care, but this sparkling show is a benefit to audiences as well as patients.
The production is a spectacular, stylish revue of the works of the famous Broadway composer, and the musical numbers are naturally appealing. But what increases their appeal is the remarkably successful delivery on the part of the four enchanting performers, and very clever staging by producer Abigail A. Kohn.
Parents, Lovers, and Other Problems unfolds in the Dunster House Dining Hall, decorated with enough panache to help you forget the the real setting. The place is transformed into a cabaret--small, candlelit tables dot the floor, and drinks and snacks are served to the audience.
The performers, two men and two women, are as appealing as any cabaret performers. The men wear tuxedos, and the women evening gowns. They strut their stuff on a stage devoid of almost all props--it is bare except for the stools brought on for the occasional duets. The simplicity of it prevents the audience from being distracted from the fantastic singing and choreography.
The show opens with two strong, bright numbers. The performers have an energy that audience cannot help but catch. Pier Carlo Talenti, Linda Doctoroff and Greg Schaeffer are obviously having a lot of fun with the first number, "Me and My Town." Doctoroff is sultry as she belts outs the lyrics and engages the audience by bantering with the other performers. Talenti and Schaeffer remain onstage ending the number with an up-tempo duet. Jenny Giering follows them, singing "The Glamorous Life."
Succinctly put, Giering's voice is beautiful. She displays amazing range and feeling, perfectly conveying the emotional distress of the troubling lyrics. But the piano accompaniment in this piece is too heavy, at times nearly burying Giering's voice. The piano is chronic fault in Parents, Lovers, and Other Problems, though in some sequences it is a less major distraction.
The first act progresses through poignant songs that explore the confusion, pain, and excitement inherent in love. But the numbers are each delightfully varied--there are duets between two men, duets between two women, duets between a man and woman, and several three-person numbers as well.
Doctoroff continues to dazzle in all her appearances, especially the more risque numbers. She is wonderful as the tease in "Ah, But Underneath"; she slowly strips off her jewelry, gloves, stockings, etc., until she stands in only a silk camisole.
The second act, which opens with the cast among the audience, makes a deft transition with "Night Waltz" to the more somber songs that comprise most of the remaining numbers.
Doctoroff and Giering move the audience as their characters contemplate their prospects for the future in the wistful song, "If Mamma Was Married." The song has a hopeful note until the singers come to the brutal realization that "Mamma nevers stays married for long."
Doctoroff, and then Talenti, are each showcased nicely in numbers like "Goodbye for Now," and "Losing My Mind." They each handle the grandiose, sweeping ballads well, but Talenti deserves special recognition. His rendering of "Losing my Mind" is a delicate and effective outpour of angst.
The the emotional level is well-sustained throughout this act by stunning performances by Giering in "In Buddy's Eyes" and by Schaeffer in "The Road You Didn't Take". But the lighter "Agony II" is a welcome break--it allows the audience a needed breather between powerful ballads. It is a funny male duet about fairy-tale romantic difficulties or the lack thereof. As one of the men notes, Snow White always had six other dwarves to choose from.
The stormy "A Boy Like That" allows Giering to shine yet again. She plays a woman berated by Doctoroff's character for falling in love with a seemingly unsavory character. Giering displays a fine dramatic touch as she turns the tables, and beautifully expresses her unswerving love for the man. The hurt to conveys at others' rejecting her relationship is compelling as well.
"A Boy Like That" also leads well into Talenti's introspective number, "We Are Not Alone." Talenti nicely avoids being overly precious as he pours out his heart to a stuffed Bugs Bunny. He is joined later in the number by the other three performers, until there are four singing in medley. The cast then segues into "Our Time", a big-as-life finale.
The close of Parents, Lovers, and Other Problems, uplifts, and makes the show one that leaves you feeling good about everything in life. It is not surprising that a benefit to help AIDS survivors celebrates life, but it is surprising that it succeeds on so many levels. But Parents, Lovers, and Other Problems is more than just a good idea. It is first-rate entertainment.
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