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Arts & Entertainment

Bogart’s Abstract Exploration of the Human Variant

ArtsEmerson Cafe VariationsAnne Bogart’s Café Variations plays much like a jazz jam session; you’re familiar with most of what you hear, but there are always a handful of unexpected gems.

The frantic, strung-out performance by Ellen Lauren was among one of those worthwhile pieces. The scene was everything you could want from a play: funny, raunchy, engaging and unsettlingly poignant. The high-heeled Lauren even waded into the crowd, batting a few audience members with her purse in an exacerbated escape from the theatre.

From set design to the flirtatious characters, SITI Company and ArtsEmerson transport the Cutler Majestic and its audience to the glorious era of the Golden Age. Set in a café with a backdrop of the beautiful melodies of Gershwin, Bogart explores the “notion that we become who we are through our relationships to other people and to the environment.” Each scene in the musical is a brief exploration into human courage, cowardice and frustration, all tied together by the theme of love.

In that hour and forty minutes, there are some really spectacular moments. After a few scenes, the audience soon realizes that scenes are vignettes tied together by the exploratory theme. The musical number “Do it Again” sent chills down my spine with how captivatingly it was sung. And choreography for many of the numbers, especially the finale, jumped with vibrance and color, emulating the Roaring Twenties.

There were, however, aspects of the show that were less than perfect. Since the scenes follow a loose plot, they did not seem to flow logically. Besides seeing the “relationship” thread in each story, it was hard to follow or make sense of each character’s motives. Each scene was strong on its own, but fell apart when all sewn together.

Besides the occasional voice getting lost under the overpowering music, the music was fantastic. The orchestra synced well with the singers and played Gershwin with vigor and coolness. I was a bit upset when they decided to add bongo drums to a portion of Prelude II, but overall, I was really impressed with their interpretation and execution of the music.

Café Variations is a mix of roughly 20 plays by Charles L. Mee, Jr., the sole playwright for the SITI Company, which Bogart co-founded in 1992. Fenway residents may see familiar faces on stage, since Bogart and SITI Company have been working with Emerson since March. The cast is a fresh mix of Emerson “pre-professionals,” led by strong performances by a handful of SITI veterans.

While Gershwin die-hards might not agree with the musical arrangements in Café Variations, solid performances by cast members like Ellen Lauren, Tom Nelis and others, careful set design and the Gershwin canon make this show a worthwhile watch.

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