‘White Christmas’ at Wang a Good Old-Fashioned Holiday Entertainment

by Shelley A. Sackett

 

From before the curtain rises until well after it has fallen, the live orchestra of ‘Irving Berlin’s White Christmas: The Musical,’ infuses the stage and the audience at Boston’s magnificent Boch Center Wang Theatre with wholesome, happy, good vibrations. This is a grandly old-fashioned and thoroughly enjoyable theatrical experience, with tap dancing, fabulous costumes, stunning sets and, most importantly, an incomparable score by the equally incomparable Irving Berlin.

The plot is straight forward. Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, two World War II vets, have become partners in a song-and-dance act after the war. Looking for love, they follow Betty and Judy Haynes, a duo of beautiful singing sisters, to a gig at a Vermont lodge. By coincidence, the lodge happens to be owned by their former army commander, General Waverly, who is facing bankruptcy and loss of his property. The “boys” rally their fellow vets, and together the troops help save the General and his legacy. Along the way, of course, everyone pairs up (including the General, with his manager, Martha Watson) and the three couples seem destined to live happily ever after.

The cast is full of stand out performances, especially Lorna Luft (yes, THAT Lorna Luft, as in Judy Garland’s daughter by producer Sid Luft) as Martha. She looks like a cross between Bette Midler and Madge (the manicurist in the Palmolive dish-washing commercials who soaked her clients’ hands in the detergent) and belts out her songs like Ethel Merman. She steals every scene she is in.

David Elder (Bob) and Jeremy Benton (Phil) are splendid as the two vets as are Kelly Sheehan (Judy) and Kerry Conte (Betty) as the sisters. All four have the acting, singing and dancing chops their roles call for. As General Waverly, Conrad John Schuck brings particular sensitivity and a terrific baritone to the role.

The real stars of the show, however, are the songs, dances and ever-changing sets and costumes. The tap-dancing numbers are spectacularly entertaining, the dancers like gifts, their outfits like wrapping paper. No detail is overlooked; the lining of the men’s jackets even coordinates with their partners’ skirts, and creative lighting adds dimension and excitement.

The blockbuster numbers — “Blue Skies,” “Happy Holiday/Let Yourself Go,” and “White Christmas” — are pure fun to watch, and the simple spotlights, white smoke and dancing stars in “Dancing Cheek to Cheek” create homespun magic. “I Love A Piano,” which opens Act II, is magnificent.

The entire production feels like a magic carpet ride to a carefree, innocent bygone era of Hollywood glamor and diversion. The icing on the cake is the full company curtain call of “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” complete with snow, trees, tuxedos and glamorous gowns. A sugar plum of a show, ‘White Christmas’ is guaranteed to delight the young and give their parents a vacation from the news.

‘Irving Berlin’s White Christmas: The Musical’ – Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin; Book by David Ives and Paul Blake; Based on the Paramount Pictures film written for the screen by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank; Directed and Choreographed by Randy Skinner; Musical Direction by Michael Horsley; Scenic Design by Anna Louizos; Scenic Adaptation by Kenneth Foy; Costume Design by Carrie Robbins; Lighting Design by Ken Billington; Sound Design by Keith Caggiano; Orchestrations by Larry Blank; Vocal and Dance Arrangements by Bruce Pomahac. Presented by Work Light Productions at the Boch Center Wang Theatre, 270 Tremont St., through Dec. 29.

For tickets and information, go to: https://www.bochcenter.org/buy/show-listing/white-christmas-2019

Trinity Rep’s ‘Fade’ – American Dream or American Betrayal?

Lucia (Elia Saldana) and Abel (Daniel Duque-Estrada) in ‘Fade.’

 

by Shelley A. Sackett

Fade, a two-person play in production on Trinity Rep’s smaller downstairs stage through January 5, is a welcome respite from the same-oldness of the usual holiday theatrical suspects. Although a bit uneven and in need of serious editing (trimming 10-15 minutes from the 100-minute intermission-less production could do wonders for its pacing), Tanya Saracho’s script is a witty and perceptive antidote to sugar plum fairies and ghosts of Christmases past, present and future.

Our two characters – Lucia (Elia Saldana) and Abel (Daniel Duque-Estrada) – both work in a Hollywood television studio. When we meet Lucia, all frenetic energy and stiletto prancing, she is setting up her office, unpacking her personal effects and placing them on a bookshelf. As soon as she places the last item on the shelf, it collapses as if on cue. The first time this happens, it’s mildly amusing, if trite and predictable. The third time, however, raises red flags that the next 99 minutes may be tedious indeed.

Enter Abel, a baseball-hatted office cleaner, to everyone’s rescue. He proceeds to fix the bookcase, in a matter-of-fact and business-like manner. His laid back, laconic style makes Lucia’s staccato mannerisms seem downright manic. Lucia takes one look at him and breaks into rapid-fire Spanish, eventually punctuating her monologue with enough English for a non-Spanish speaking audience member to glean her story. She tells the mute Abel that she is a novelist from Mexico who, after waiting for the idea for her second novel to germinate, realized she needed a steadier income. Although she has no previous experience, she nonetheless landed her first job as a television writer. She worries that she is a diversity hire, questioning her abilities, and also worries about the lack of light in her dingy little office.

When Abel is unable to ignore Lucia any longer and finally speaks, he turns to her and asks a question that goes straight to the heart of the play’s message. “Why are you speaking to me in Spanish?” he inquires. “We have to be militants about speaking our mother tongue. Why don’t you speak Spanish at work?” she counters. “Because I’m American. Because this is America,” he says.

Lucia, who grew up with a maid among Mexico’s wealthy, upper echelons, assumes that Abel, a lowly janitor pushing a vacuum cleaner, must be a Latino who speaks little or no English. She sidles up to him, purring about their common roots while intoning the beginnings of an “us vs them” refrain. When it turns out Abel was born and raised in Southern California, Lucia doesn’t miss a beat. “Do you know what’s the hardest thing about being brown and being from the barrio like I am?” she asks Abel. “It’s knowing I can never be one of them.” Eventually, Lucia manages to break down Abel’s defenses by preying on this sense of their shared “otherness,” and Abel begins to relax. He tells her of his stint as a firefighter as well as his time with the Marines. He talks about his six-old-daughter and her mother. He confides his darkest and deepest secrets, unleashing years of pent-up secrecy and shame. He is grateful for her company, grateful to trust. He is a simple man, but one of true substance.

Daniel Duque-Estrada, as Abel, is economical and precise, revealing his character’s complexity through a simple gesture, a small facial expression or a perfectly placed pause. He is a member of the Trinity Rep Resident Acting Company, and his experience and talent are as obvious as they are welcome.

Lucia, on the other hand, is a fascinating study in self-absorption, cluelessness and blind ambition. Saracho has given her some of the play’s funniest lines, but also some of the most clichéd. Elia Saldana plays her at a single volume (high) and almost as a caricature of a young Latina. Think Charo, Rosie Perez and a yippy chihuahua all rolled into one and you get the idea. It’s a shame that Saldana doesn’t seem to trust her own talent. A little subtlety and nuance could go a long way in fleshing out this woman who is simultaneously humorous, manipulative, charming, mean, erotic and unfair.

Saracho raises some interesting questions and one can only hope she will go back to the drawing room one more time and trim some of the script’s detracting fat. Much of the dialogue sparkles with biting humor and insight. (The scene about Lucia’s boss asking her to talk to his maid and translate his complaint is among the play’s best). Saracho deftly tackles universal ideas about human dignity, class and life itself through the lens of two people who are the “other” both to everyone else in their office and to each other. Most importantly, she leaves the audience to ponder several thought-provoking points. Are people who share cultural backgrounds obligated to stick together? What happens when one chooses to get ahead and join the ranks of “the other,” leaving their minority brethren to fend for themselves? Is this not, after all, the quintessential American dream? Or is it rather, Saracho suggests, the quintessential American betrayal?

‘Fade’- Written by Tanya Saracho. Directed by Tatyana-Marie Carlo; Set Design by Efren Delgadillo, Jr.; Costume Design by Amanda Downing Carney; Co-Lighting Design by Pablo Santiago and Ginevra Lombardo; Sound Design by David R. Molina. Presented by Trinity Repertory Company, 201 Washington Street, Providence, R.I through January 5.For tickets and information, go to: https://www.trinityrep.com/

Israeli researchers offer new hope for cancer survivors suffering from side effects of treatment

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

When Emil and Lili Berkovits moved to Boynton Beach, Florida, from Salem, Massachusetts, in 2014, they were excited to start their retirement after Emil’s long career as a cantor.

A fifth-generation hazzan who had emigrated from Czechoslovakia as a young child following World War II and grown up in Montreal, Berkovits spent most of his professional career in the United States.

He was a well-built, physically active man who played baseball professionally, but after an injury he gave it up for a career in musical and communal leadership. Berkovits helped bring generations of boys and girls to their bar and bat mitzvahs and made music that stirred the souls of many a congregant.

Decades later, after retiring to Florida, Berkovits, then 78, developed a persistent sore throat and noticed a lump on his neck. He soon was diagnosed with cancer of the oropharynx, near the back of his throat. Oropharyngeal cancer can be slow growing and, like many cancers, often spreads before any symptoms appear. By the time the cancer is detected it can be quite advanced.

The treatment was grueling. Over seven weeks, Berkovits received 35 radiation and seven chemotherapy treatments. He developed a heart infection and his throat became so inflamed that he couldn’t eat — both results of the radiation, doctors told him.

But the treatment was effective: For five years, well into his 80s, Berkovits lived cancer-free.

Yet he suffered dearly from the consequences of the treatment. He no longer could produce saliva, leaving his mouth permanently dry. He lost most of his ability to taste. He went on an exclusively liquid diet because regular food could cause him to choke. He lost 25 pounds, leaving him physically weak.

“Because he can’t eat normal food, he has no energy,” his wife, Lili, said earlier this year, shortly before Berkovits’ death over the summer. “Nothing can help these eating and swallowing issues.”

Berkovits’ experience was not unusual. Many cancer survivors find themselves struggling with health issues related to their treatment for years after they are declared cancer-free. Problems may include pain, fertility issues, infections, memory problems, sexual health issues, cognitive impairments and more, including increased risk of secondary cancers. For many, the health problems last a lifetime.

In Israel, a growing cadre of cancer researchers is focusing not just on cancer treatments but on improving life for cancer survivors by trying to mitigate treatment side effects.

“Quality of life is a subject of utmost importance as cancer patients go through therapy, and even once they complete their treatment,” said Dr. Mark Israel, national executive director of the Israel Cancer Research Fund, or ICRF. “It is not enough to cure cancer. We must also address the patients themselves and their experience.”

ICRF is now investing in research that aims to offset the debilitating side effects of cancer treatments that linger even after the disease is eradicated.

At the Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa, its director of oncology, Dr. Irit Ben-Aharon, is studying how chemotherapy damages blood vessels, which can lead to vascular disease and fertility problems. By helping cancer patients avoid these toxic effects of their treatment, doctors can reduce their risk of developing cardiovascular disease or infertility in the future.

Ben-Aharon is hopeful her work will be of special benefit to younger cancer survivors.

“As the incidence of cancer in younger individuals is increasing, survivors with very long life expectancy are emerging as a group with significant challenges related to treatment,” she said.

Ben-Aharon’s work is one of four research projects currently funded by ICRF focused on improving the lives of cancer survivors. Two of the projects are being supported by grants provided through the Brause Family Initiative for Quality of Life at ICRF.

Since its founding in 1975, ICRF has raised more than $72 million for Israeli cancer research, including groundbreaking work that has led to both treatment breakthroughs and improved treatment outcomes.

While cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy to the brain and immunotherapy are crucial for curing cancer, they may leave the patient with cognitive deficits. Up to 75 percent of cancer survivors suffer cognitive impairments, including problems with attention, memory and learning.

Dr. Yafit Gilboa, an occupational therapist at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Department of Medicine, is using her ICRF grant funded by the Brause Family Initiative to explore a novel approach to ameliorating that cognitive decline. This new approach, tele-rehabilitation, provides for the remote delivery of courses designed to diminish the cognitive effects of cancer therapy.

Gilboa’s strategy for treating patients with cancer-related cognitive impairment is comprised of 30-minute cognitive trainings several times a week using their home computer, supplemented by a weekly videoconference session with an occupational therapist.

Gilboa credits the Israel Cancer Research Fund for supporting not just research for cancer treatments, but also for treatment of side effects.

“This research makes a valuable difference in the quality of life for cancer survivors,” Gilboa said.

She and her team at The Hebrew University already have recruited patients from Hadassah Medical Center and completed a pilot study that showed encouraging results in cognitive and occupational performance. Patients also reported decreased depression and anxiety and an increased sense of well-being.

“One patient reported that since starting this therapy, he was striving to live the way he did before he got sick. Another said she felt more self-confident,” Gilboa reported.

Dr. Jacob Hanna of the Department of Molecular Genetics at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot is focused on pluripotent stem cells, which are like the cells from which babies are formed in that they have the ability to become any type of organ or tissue. Hanna and his team are studying how cells with the properties of embryonic stem cells can be generated from a patient’s skin or hair follicles and then used to create an array of cell types for transplantation into cancer patients. This could be instrumental in helping cancer survivors whose treatment regimen destroyed tissue or damaged organs.

Dr. Avi Priel of The Hebrew University’s School of Pharmacy is working on the problem of chronic pain among cancer survivors. While opioids are the most powerful tools for managing pain, they can have debilitating side effects and may be addictive for those requiring chronic relief.

“In the last two decades, the misuse of opioids — powerful but problematic drugs — has shed light on the need for new, less addictive painkillers with fewer side effects,” Priel said. “This is precisely my lab’s research goal.”

Priel’s research team, another recipient of a grant provided through the Brause Family Initiative, is working to develop novel analgesics — painkillers — that will have a potency similar to opioids but with minimal side effects. The team is also investigating drugs that can be combined with opioids to reduce the frequency and amount of opioid required to achieve good pain control.

“We believe these will enable patients who suffer from cancer pain to enjoy a better quality of life,” Priel said.