Saturday, September 16, 2017

On the "Avenue"

Avenue Q -- Playhouse on Park -- Thru October 8

E J Zimmerman, James Fairchild, Weston Chandler Long,
Colleen Welsh, Peej Mele, Ashley Brooke and
Abena Mensah-Bonsu. All Photos by Curt Henderson

Some people don’t like the musical Avenue Q. These are probably the same people who don’t like hot fudge sundaes, puppies and beach volleyball. Okay, that may be a little unfair (they probably abide puppies), but what’s not to like about a tongue-in-cheek musical with puppets that takes on racism, homelessness and homosexuality, amongst other topics, and keeps you smiling from start to finish? Done right, Avenue Q is a hoot, and it is being done very right up at Playhouse on Park under the capable direction (and choreography) of Kyle Brand.

So, what is this Tony-winning musical that had its gestation (2002) at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, all about? Well, it takes the PBS children’s show, Sesame Street, and turns it on its head – focusing on a group of primarily twenty-something losers and misfits who reside on an avenue of stifled or shattered dreams (apartments on Avenues A through P were too expensive). Written by Jeff Whitty, with music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (who came up with the concept), the two-act show’s major premise is that most of the characters are puppets manipulated by actors who mirror the puppets’ actions and emotions. It’s a delightful symbiotic relationship.

Ruling the run-down roost is Gary Coleman (Abena Mensah-Bonsu) – yes, the Gary Coleman best known for his role as Arnold Jackson in TV’s Diff'rent Strokes. Fallen on hard times, he is the superintendent of the apartment building where all of the other characters live. Seeking low-cost shelter, Princeton (Weston Chandler Long), a frustrated college grad with a “useless” degree in English, is soon introduced to the building’s other residents. There’s Kate Monster (Ashley Brooke), a kindergarten teacher who dreams of opening a school for little “monsters,” and the roommates Rod (also Long), an uptight banker, and Nicky (the versatile Peej Mele), a layabout. Then there’s Brian (James Fairchild), a stand-up comic with no sense of humor, and his Japanese fiancée, Christmas Eve (E J Zimmerman), a true tiger lady. Finally, there’s Trekkie Monster (Mele), a creature with an inordinate interest in Internet porn and the Bad Idea Bears (again Mele and Colleen Welsh).
Colleen Welsh, Weston Chandler Long (standing)
Ashley Brooke and Peej Mele

I can’t think of another musical that so brazenly takes the frustrations and despair of the downtrodden and turns it all into delightful comedy. The tone is set immediately as Princeton laments the uselessness of his degree (“What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?’), which segues into “It Sucks to  Be Me,” in which the characters argue about who has the worst life. The audience has to quickly buy into the puppets-as-people-and-people-as-puppets premise, but it’s not hard to do, for this skilled ensemble of actors ably crafts the illusion (or delusion) with insouciant style and elegant flair.

I’ve seen several productions of this musical and am familiar with all the musical  numbers, but the Playhouse’s production, with its fine cast, made the musical offerings seem fresh and new. Each number offers some standout performances. To single out a few, there’s “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” with Zimmerman nailing the faux-Japanese delivery of her lyrics (those of an extreme PC bent might squirm a bit). Zimmerman also soars with “The More You Ruv Someone” number – I’ve never seen it performed with such panache.

The multi-talented Long continuously delivers, no more so than, as Rod, he desperately tries to deny his homosexuality in “My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada.” It’s a wonderful moment, with Long whirling and leaping about the stage as he attempts to sell his friends on the existence of this fictitious friend named Alberta…from Vancouver, no less.

Citing the “The Internet is for Porn” number allows me to heap praise on two other actors: Mele and Brooke. Mele is able to embody the perverse weirdness of Trekkie Monster, the devious, manipulative nature of one of the Bad Idea Bears, and the needful nature of Nicky with wondrous ease. Then there’s Brooke, who effortlessly owns the stage whenever she is called upon to portray Kate Monster or the teacher’s alter-ego, Lucy T. Slut (often at the same time). It’s a treat to watch her “merge,” if you will, with the two puppet personas (personae??) – tentative and a bit shy when she’s Kate, slinky and seductive when she’s Lucy.

As an audience member, one often never really knows who is responsible for what in a production. So, who was responsible for training these actors in the manipulation of their puppets? Perhaps it was the director, or maybe it was a collective effort, but if you read carefully through the Production Staff listings you will come across the name of Susan Slotoroff, credited as the “Puppetry Coach.” Well, she should get star billing, for the result of her coaching is well nigh perfect. From opening scene to the closing number, the puppets are “real,” with the actors giving these furry creatures believable body language (just watch Kate Monster and Princeton go at it as they consummate their relationship, or Princeton [the puppet] flat on his back enduring deep despair). It’s an exercise in stage magic that makes Avenue Q somewhat unique.

Now in its ninth season, Playhouse on Park continues to offer productions that often delight and sometimes even surprise. With Avenue Q, which runs through October 8, the Playhouse shows that you don’t need a huge stage to deliver big entertainment. You just need to pick the right property, cast wisely and then allow all involved to do what they do best.

For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Appropriating the Past

Appropriate -- Westport Country Playhouse -- Through September 2

    Shawn Fagan, Diane Davis, Nick Selting, Betsy Aidem,
and David Aaron Baker. Photo by Carol Rosegg

There are some who say the most difficult thing about writing a play is knowing how to end it. In the case of Appropriate, which recently opened at the Westport Country Playhouse, the problems also encompass how to start the play. So what we have is some head scratching during the first moments of the play, followed by some truly engaging theater and some fine acting, until we get to the closing moments when, once again, the dandruff starts to fall as you scratch away and say, “Well, okay…so what?”

Deftly directed by David Kennedy (save for the opening and closing moments – and it’s up for grabs as to who is responsible for these moments), this excursion into family history written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is tinged with just a touch of gothic overtones and includes some skeletons in the closet (or photo album or graveyard – take your pick) as a somewhat dysfunctional family (is there any other kind?) gathers at the decrepit family mansion to prepare it to be sold and its contents auctioned off.

The pater familias has recently died, leaving the mansion, a decrepit hulk bulging with junk (the whole scene nicely created by scenic designer Andrew Boyce) weighed down by debt. The family gathers to deal with what has been left behind: embittered sister, Toni (a gripping Betsy Aidem), a brother, Bo (David Aaron Baker), a corporate executive worried about downsizing, and the black-sheep brother, Franz (aka Frank – Shawn Fagan). In tow are various children and significant others: there’s Toni’s recalcitrant son Rhys (Nick Selting), Bo’s wife, Rachel (Diane Davis) and their two children, Ainsley (Christian Michael Camporin) and Cassie (Allison Winn), and finally River (an engaging Anna Crivelli), Franz’s earth-mother girl friend.

Once the clan is gathered there is initial friction dealing with who actually gave up the most in caring for dear old Dad in his declining years, but the arguments soon escalate with the discovery of a photo album that apparently contains pictures of lynchings. Was Dad a racist? Rachel reveals a telephone conversation she overheard, with her father-in-law referring to her as the “Jew wife.” Was Dad an anti-Semite?

There’s more kindling thrown on the fire to bring the pot to a boil, mainly dealing with Franz’s addictions and child molestation (I told you the family was dysfunctional). Denials, accusations and recriminations tumble over each other in crisp, acerbic dialogue that Kennedy allows to be bitten into by the actors, giving the confrontations a realistic rhythm – after all, when you’re arguing do you really let the other person finish what they have to say before attacking?

A nice touch of irony is added by Jacobs-Jenkins when the bickering family learns that the lynching photographs may have significant historical (or collectors) value. In other words, they can make a lot of money off pictures of black men who have been lynched. This leads to a battle-royal (deftly set up by fight director Michael Rossmy) that is ended in a dramatic appearance that drew appreciative gasps from the opening night audience. Sometimes (cliché warning!), a picture is worth a thousand words (of dialogue), and in this case it might just have made a provocative ending to the play.

The major questions about Dad are left for the audience to decide, but there’s no doubt that this family has, by the final curtain, been deconstructed. There are moments over the course of the two-plus hours that are painful, others that are revelatory, and the actors allow their characters to dig, slice and dice each other with abandon.

So, the problems with the opening and closing moments? Well, there’s an operative audio metaphor that is established when the lights first go down: it’s the irritating rasping (desperate mating calls) of cicadas. We, the audience, hear them, and get the message, but the lights don’t go up. The cicadas continue to rasp and twitter – the volume rises and falls and then rises again, evoking some chuckles from the audience in the darkened theater. We will again hear the offending mating calls every time there’s a scene change (consider it a scene-in-one delivered by insects).

Okay, so a little too much chirping before the play gets started, but what’s wrong with the final moments? More cicadas going berserk? No. It’s now the moment for Boyce, as well as lighting designer Matthew Richards, sound designer Fitz Patton and props master Alison Mantilla to take center stage for a series of quick vignettes that depict the physical dissolution of the mansion (of the family??) The effects are impressive, but they seem extremely beside the point – it’s a series of, well, okay, here’s what we can do with the set – like that? (blackout) – this is also what we can do (blackout) – okay, we can also do this. Has the destruction been caused by ghosts or Mother Nature? Your guess is as good as mine.

In the final moments of dialogue the actors have deftly established disruption, dissolution and, in the end, despair. What follows visually is simply overkill.

Appropriate, though it runs a bit long, is often gripping, intense theater marred by production values that call too much attention to themselves. The show runs through September 2. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to

Saturday, August 12, 2017

A Little Feverish on Saturday Night

Saturday Night Fever -- Ivoryton Playhouse -- Through September 3

Michael Notardonato and Caroline Lellouche
All photos by Jonathan Steele

On paper, it would seem that turning the 1977 John Badham film Saturday Night Fever into a musical would be a no-brainer, given that the film is rife with disco numbers by the Bee Gees and a whole lot of dancing. Unfortunately, what can be done on film sometimes simply has problems translating well to the stage, and such is the case with the musical version of the film that recently opened at the Ivoryton Playhouse, a tuneful, often energetic piece of theater that, unfortunately, often seems to drag itself across the stage.

One of the basic problems is that while editing films you can effortlessly cut from one scene to another -- at one moment you’re on a bridge and the next you’re in a subway car, no problem -- such is not the case with live theater. Scene changes often take time, a lot of time when the scene requires a totally different “look” (hence the scene-in-one, where actors perform in front of the closed curtain while the set is being changed). This is one of the downfalls of this musical, for there are a plethora of scene changes, with some scenes, as my play-going partner commented, not lasting as long as it takes for the stagehands to re-set the stage (you might call them scene-lets). Thus, the emotional drive (and sometimes the coherence) of the musical is often stymied as the audience waits in the dark for the next scene to be established.

This stagger-step approach to staging is perhaps caused because the musical’s book has many fathers (or cooks, if you will): The film was adapted for the stage by Robert Stigwood collaborating with Bill Oakes, but the North American version is credited to Sean Cercone and David Abbinanti. Hence, this is a book created by committee, and we all know what committee’s create.

The basic set, designed by Martin Scott Marchitto, focuses on the disco that the lead, Tony Manero (Michael Notardonato) frequents on weekends. It’s realized fairly well, with balconies stage left and right and something of a catwalk upstage, behind which is a visual of the iconic Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. The balcony stage left also serves as Tony’s bedroom. All well and good, but then Marchitto has to provide a kitchen in the Maneros’ house, a paint store, a hospital room (probably the most unnecessary piece of staging), a bench in a park and, most ponderous of all, ascending cables that support the Verrazano bridge. I didn’t have a stopwatch, but the time required to set and re-set the stage probably ran close to 10 minutes in sum. That’s a lot of dead time.

When plays are made into films it requires a certain opening up (often to an extreme – think Phantom of the Opera), but when films are turned into theater pieces they need to be tightened, trusting that the audience will be able to fill in the blanks. Saturday Night Fever needs a whole heck of a lot of tightening.

That being the case, for those not familiar with the film, we have the aforementioned Tony who lives an aimless existence in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn. During the week he’s a drudge at a paint store and constantly being put down by his parents, but on weekends he’s king of the dance floor at 2001 Odyssey. He wants to break out but doesn’t know how. Then, a dance contest is to be held at Odyssy, with a $1,000 prize. Could this be his ticket? His erstwhile girlfriend, Annette (a lithe and vivacious Nora Fox) wishes to be his partner, but Tony catches sight of the alluring Stephanie (Caroline Lellouche), a Manhattan secretary who dreams of bigger things (read Working Girl). So Tony ditches Annette and pursues Stephanie, eventually winning the contest with her (followed by a noble action on Tony’s part that proves his heart is in the right place).

Nora Fox
Several sub-plots serve often to muddy the waters a bit (only because most of them are not fully realized). We have one of Tony’s friends, Booby C. (Pierre Marais), getting good-Catholic-girl Pauline (Sarah Mae Banning) preggers (he will pay for that mortal sin in true cinematic fashion); we have another friend, Gus (Colin Lee), attacked by a gang, for which Tony’s group takes misguided (perhaps) revenge; we have Tony’s older brother, Frank Jr. (Alec Bandzes), opting to leave the priesthood – it’s never exactly made clear why – perhaps just another crisis of conscience.

There’s not much Todd Underwood, director and choreographer, can do with this somewhat disjointed material but move it along as best he can, waiting patiently for the sets to be changed. However, such is not the case with the musical numbers which, fortunately, are numerous. There is, of course, a lot of disco dancing – flashy and dramatic, culminating in the dance contest -- but there are also some moving set pieces, chief among them when Fox, as Annette, renders the lovely “If I Can’t Have You,” when she, along with Lellouche and Notardonato, do an engaging fantasy dance sequence, and the moving “What Kind of Fool,” tenderly rendered by Lellouche.

At upwards of two-and-a-half hours (with one intermission), Saturday Night Fever might easily seem like it has dragged on into a bleary-eyed Sunday morning. There’s a sharp, crisp, engaging musical hiding in all of this material that just requires a scalpel and a bit of creative thinking to bring it to life.

Saturday Night Fever runs through September 3. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to

Thursday, August 3, 2017

A Bright Golden Haze at Goodspeed

Oklahoma! -- Goodspeed Musicals -- Extended Thru Sept. 27

Rhett Gutter and Samantha Bruce. All Photos by Diane Sobolewski

It’s March 31, 1943. The lights dim in the St. James Theatre, there’s a melodious overture, and then…a big production number to get the audience’s juices flowing? Nope. Instead, a lone cowboy appears on stage and sings about how lovely the morning is and how everything’s going his way. Over the course of the two-plus hours of the premiere of “Oklahoma!” American musical theater was changed forever. The musical, the first collaboration of Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics), cemented the dominance of the “book” musical as the predominant format for what followed, termed the “Golden Age” of American musicals.

Flash forward seven-plus decades and that same cowboy walks up one of the aisles at Goodspeed Opera House, once again proclaiming that it’s a beautiful morning. What follows, directed by Jenn Thompson, is a faithful, delightful recreation of the 1943 classic, providing ample evidence why the initial production was so ground-breaking.

Based on the play “Green Grow the Lilacs” by Lynn Riggs, a less than successful effort about settlers in the Indian (read Oklahoma) Territory circa 1906, the plot of “Oklahoma!” is simplicity itself. Cowboy Curly (a confident Rhett Gutter) is in love with farm-girl Laurey (an engaging Samantha Bruce), but she’s playing hard to get. Lurking on the farm run by Laurey’s Aunt Eller (Terry Burrell) is farmhand Jud Fry (a sufficiently menacing Matt Faucher), who covets Laurey when he’s not sifting through his “French” postcards.

There’s another romance going on, actually a love triangle of sorts, with Ado Annie (a pert and vivacious Gizel Jimenez) at the top and cowboy Will Parker (Jake Swain) and peddler Ali Hakim (a dead-on Matthew Curiano) vying for her affections. That, in essence, is about it, save for a bit of contention between ranchers and farmers. We’re not talking Ibsen of Chekhov here – it’s basic soap opera stuff dealing with the burning questions: Will Curly eventually win Laurey’s hand or will Jud have his evil way with her? Will Ado opt for Will or Ali?
Gizel Jimenez and Matthew Curiano
So, why was “Oklahoma!” so ground-breaking? Well, that goes back to the idea of the “book” musical, which basically refers to a musical in which almost all of the songs either comment on what has happened or move the plot forward rather than being musical interludes that often have nothing to do with the plot.

Rhett Gutter and Matt Faucher lamenting that "Pore Jud is Daid"

Take, for example, the scene between Curly and Jud late in the first act. Laurey, playing her coy hand a bit too far, has announced that she has agreed to go with Jud to the box social, which motivates Curly to confront Jud in the farmhand’s hovel. What follows is Curly’s witty put-down of Jud in the form of a dirge, “Pore Jud is Daid,” which envisions Jud hanging himself (Curly has conveniently strung up a noose) and the grief of the mourners, all of whom, so Curly suggests, never truly understood Jud. Curly’s effort is so effective that Jud joins Curly in lamenting his own passing. A song like this would never have appeared in the bright and breezy musical comedies of the 20s and 30s.

As is almost expected of Goodspeed Musicals productions, the ensemble work is just about superb, much of it choreographed by Katie Spelman. Three numbers stand out: the “Kansas City” sequence in which Will let’s people know that everything’s up-to-date in that city and then introduces dances that are all the rage in that metropolis with a seven-story skyscraper; “The Farmer and The Cowman” number, which opens the second act. Here, Thompson and Spelman have just about the entire, substantial cast up on the somewhat constricted stage, all whirling and twirling (I heard one exiting audience member comment: “It’s a wonder someone didn’t fall off the stage.”)
Cowboys dance with the farmers' daughters,
farmers dance with the cowboys' gals
Finally, there’s the beautiful “Ballet” (often referred to as the “dream sequence”) that closes the first act. Laurey sniffs a potion she has bought from Ali which is supposed to make her see “clearer.” What it does is bring on a hallucination in which the struggle between Jud and Curly, and what the two men represent, is dramatized through dance (originally choreographed by Agnes DeMille, her first foray into Broadway choreography). It’s evocative and captures Laurey’s doubts and fears.

The leads and supporting actors in the cast are all excellent, but special mention should be made of Jimenez’s performance as Ado Annie and Curiano as Ali. Jimenez ably captures Ado’s somewhat unbridled libido (“I Cain’t Say No!”) while, at the same time, displays her character’s inherent innocence, not to mention that she’s called upon to do some almost death-defying flips as Ali and Will show how Persians say goodbye and cowboys say hello.

Curiano, as Ali, provides much of the comic relief, and he does so with a droll, world-weariness that is delightful. Yes, Ali is a lothario, but he has trouble skipping town before an irate father pulls a shotgun on him. With great timing and emotive body language he ably conveys the plight of a ladies man not slick enough to skedaddle while the getting’s good.

Jake Swain and Gizel Jimenez discuss whether it's "all or nothin'"
Before “Oklahoma!’ opened at the St James it had tryouts as the Shubert Theater in New Haven. The reviews were mixed for a show that was then called “Away We Go.” Obviously, there were some changes made, including the addition of the show’s anthem, “Oklahoma!” Oddly enough, although Goodspeed’s forte is the showcasing of classic musicals, this is the first time “Oklahoma!” has been produced on its stage. The wait has been well worth while, for this is a sparkling, engaging piece of American musical history ably brought to life by the cast and crew at Goodspeed.

Oklahoma!” runs through September 27 in an extended run. For tickets or more information call 860.873.8668 or visit:

Friday, July 28, 2017

Angst and Appetizers

Raging Skillet -- TheaterWorks -- Thru August 27

Dana Smith-Croll, George Salazar and Marilyn Sokol. Photo by Lanny Nagler

What’s a Jewish girls to do when she lives in a kosher environment, has a mother who kvetches at the drop of a yamaka, and a father who communicates via grunts? Why she rebels, of course, slides down into a world of booze, drugs and disreputable friends and then claws her way back up via the commercial kitchen, eventually becoming a caterer of renown. Such is the story of Rossi as dramatized by Jacques Lamarre in Raging Skillet, which recently opened at TheaterWorks under the direction of John Simpkins. This memoir as play offers an evening as light as a soufflé though not as satisfying.

As he did with his I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti, Lamarre has drawn from a book written by a chef, but unlike I Loved, a one-character play, this time we not only have the chef but her ever-faithful sous chef and the chef’s mother. The only problem is, the mother has been dead for some 20 years and has come back to haunt her daughter during a book signing event, but death hasn’t changed Mom (Marilyn Sokol) – she’s still a pain in the tukus.

As with I Loved, the play is set in a kitchen (designed by Michael Schweikardt), but this one is equipped with strobe lights and speakers that can knock  your socks off, speakers that throb with the music programmed by the sous chef, DJ Skillit (George Salazaar), who doubles as a, yes, DJ, as well as takes on such roles as Rossi’s inarticulate father, a Rasta chef who won’t take orders from a female and a short Russian oligarch who funds a West Side restaurant.

When Mom isn’t butting in, the play focuses on Rossi (Dana Smith-Croll), who relates her rise to culinary fame through a series of vignettes and anecdotes. Smith-Croll is quite engaging as the lesbian rebel with a whisk, but she is never really allowed to get up to full speed, for Mom is there to carp and comment. As written by Lamarre, Mom is the quintessential Jewish Mother, a one-dimensional character who finds fault with just about everything her daughter does, wields guilt like a rusty razor and is obsessed with saving money by using coupons and patronizing establishments that offer senior discounts. If there is such a thing as the Association of Jewish Mothers I wouldn’t be surprised if it picketed the theater.

Smith-Croll’s development of her character is also impeded by the numerous times the audience is served, either by her or DJ, with appetizers or “Jewish Sangria.” Both individually walk the aisles with trays, offering little goodies – the first time it’s cute, but after awhile it become repetitive and boringly time-consuming. Often, as DJ is serving, Smith-Croll is consigned to a darkened stage, just watching. Whatever momentum she might have developed as she tells Rossi’s story is broken time and again.

Then there’s the tug-at-the-heartstrings finale when Mom reappears and slams down a photo album, proclaiming that she, too, has written a book. As Rossi thumbs through the album images are projected stage left and right, images of Mom as a girl and young woman, and it is only now that the audience learns that this was a multi-talented, well-educated woman who lived a fulfilling life, not the caricature the audience has been treated to. Unfortunately, it’s too little too late, and the moment, such as it is, is tainted with Mom’s reappearance to give final words of advice about complaining – no one remembers a compliment but if complain you just might get a discount or, even better, something free.

There’s a compelling, multi-layered story in Rossi’s life, one that, if nothing else, deals with competing loyalties and a young woman’s attempt to define herself. Her book may very well capture this, but the play is mostly surface and schmaltz.

Raging Skillet runs through August 27. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to

Monday, July 24, 2017

Dance of the Dead

Zombie Prom -- TheatreWorks New Milford -- Thru August 5

The cast of "Zombie Prom"
Oh, the plight of a young zombie who wants to hold onto his girlfriend and go back to high school so he can graduate. Yes, he’s different, basically due to decomposition, but in the grand scope of things does that really matter? After all, zombies are people too, aren’t they?

Such is the premise of “Zombie Prom,” a lighthearted take on teenage angst and prejudice and, of course, the living dead, that recently opened at TheatreWorks New Milford. Based on a 1950s comic book, it was transformed into a musical that had a brief run Off-Broadway in 1996 and was made into a short film (36 minutes) released in 2006. It’s basically a send-up of two genres: the “teen” films of the 60s (think “Beach Blanket Bingo” and “Gidget”) and 50s horror films (think “The Blob” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”), with a nod towards such musicals as “Grease,” “The Rocky Horror Show,” “Footloose” and “Hairspray,” with just a touch of “Rebel Without a Cause” and the song, “Leader of the Pack,” thrown in for good measure.

With a book and lyrics by John Dempsey and music by Dana P. Rowe, this pastiche of campy themes, under the direction of Matt Austin, is not meant to be taken seriously. You just sit back and enjoy the foolishness and, if you are of a certain age, play a game of catching allusions.

The story is linear and familiar: the new boy in town is a rebel. How can you tell? Well, he wears a black leather jacket with the collar turned up and has his name, Jonny, emblazoned on the back. Note that he’s dropped the “h” in Jonny – another sign of his rebelliousness. This “bad boy, effectively portrayed by Tommy Ovitt (he knows how to do the zombie walk), is immediately drawn to Toffee (Lexi Tobin), the Sandra Dee character, and immediately despised by school principal Delilah Strict (Jody Bayer). Their budding romance is squashed by disapproving parents and when Toffee rejects him, Jonny does the expected thing: he jumps on his motorcycle and smashes into the local nuclear reactor, killing himself and releasing a lot of radioactive bad stuff. His body is dumped into the ocean.

Toffee is bereft, but as her girlfriends, Candy (Sydney Coelho), Coco (Dana Wilton) and Ginger (Erin Shaughnessy) point out, life must go on. After all, the senior prom is on the horizon. Somehow, Toffee must find a way to snag a date, but she starts hearing someone call her name. Oh, who could it be that is haunting her?

The placid, regimented life at Enrico Fermi High School is turned upside down when, yes, Jonny, clothing in shreds and with the skin hue of the Jolly Green Giant, returns from the dead, seeking his girlfriend and a diploma. Principal Strict will have none of it, and as the students start to support Jonny in his efforts she threatens all sorts of dire consequences, including cancelling the prom. Exacerbating the situation, scandal sheet journalist Eddie Flagrante (Stephen DiRocco) hears of the story and starts making radioactive hay out of it.

The resolution of all of this is worthy of a second-rate Victorian novel, with revelations galore. Suffice it to say there’s a happy ending, although, as Jonny points out, “I’m still dead.”

The high school debs have their swains: Joey (Richard Frey), Josh (Karl Hinger) and Jake (Dominick Ventrella). This trio performs manfully, but it’s difficult to distinguish between them. It’s the ladies who drive this show. Tobin, as Toffee, is as sweet as her character’s name implies, and delightfully captures the essence of the Sandra Dee/Olivia Newton-John type that is called for. The three other actors – Coelho, Wilton and Shaughnessy – all perform with brio and when they are on stage, mostly performing song and dance numbers, they are a pleasure to watch, especially Wilton, who late in the show (as Ramona Merengue) does a gasoline/cigarette commercial that is hilariously enticing.

If there’s a problem with the show it rests with Bayer, and it’s more a matter of direction. She enters “big,” carrying a bullhorn, no less, and stays “big” throughout most of the show. Perhaps Austin could have pulled her back a bit at the start so the actor had someplace to go with her character’s frustration and annoyance. However, all is not lost, for Bayer has a really nice sense of physical comedy – her attempts to get down off a table bring extended, well-deserved laughter, and her dance with DiRocco near the end of the show is delightful physical comedy.

This 90-minute excursion into silliness and nostalgia is painless to watch. The musical numbers, although not offering tunes you will hum as you leave the theater, are well-staged with choreography by Jenny Schuck and backed by a four-piece band that rocks. No, it’s not “Oklahoma” or “Evita,” but it’s not meant to be. It’s as light and mindless as the films it spoofs…and, for parents, it poses the ultimate question: what would you do if your daughter fell in love with a zombie?

Ad for the "Zombie Prom" film
“Zombie Prom” runs through August 5. For tickets or more information call 860-350-6863 or go to

Saturday, July 22, 2017

An Equity Theater Grows in Ridgefield

By my count there are 15 Equity theaters in Connecticut, that is, theaters operating under some form of an Equity contract, plus over 60 other theater companies of various sizes. One would think that, theatrically speaking, Connecticut is pretty well covered, but Daniel Levine doesn’t think so. The Ridgefield resident had a dream, but unlike most dreams, this one is actually coming true. Soon there will be an Equity theater in Ridgefield, operating under the name of A Contemporary Theatre of Connecticut, or ACT of CT (not to be confused with the 4-hour test Connecticut high school students might take). The gestation of the company, and the creation of the theater that will house it, is just as serendipitous as how Levine first got involved in theater.

I met with Levine at a Ridgefield coffee house recently to talk about the birth pangs of ACT. As he sipped an iced coffee, he reminisced about the rather circuitous route he took that eventually led him to Broadway, and finally to ACT.
Daniel Levine
“I’ve been a Broadway actor since the 90s,” he said, but that hadn’t been in his life plan, although there were hints. “I grew up in Boston and I was at Brandeis, studying theater arts and pre-med.” (Go figure.) “So I graduated and there was this decision I had to make: I loved theater so much but I was also excellent in pre-med so, do I move to New York, try to be an actor and see what happens or should I go to medical school? I just didn’t know what to do. I’d never been to New York – I didn’t know if I could be competitive. So, in my sort of juvenile mind I said, you know what I’ll do, I’ll be a dentist.”

That’s right, a dentist. So Levine enrolled in Tufts University’s school of dental medicine. It was during his second year of study in oral surgery that he went to New York and saw “Les Miz.”

“I said to myself, I want to be in that show. So, I saw they were having auditions, big open calls to cast the next Marius for “Les Miserables” and I said I’m going to go – it would be my first professional audition – let me see if I can do this…and, well, I got the role. So I dropped out of Tufts and joined the cast of ‘Les Miz’ for three years.”

Obviously, that opened the door and erased all interest in bicuspids. Not only did his stint in “Les Miz” earn him his Equity card it led to roles in “Chicago,” “Mamma Mia!,” the revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar” on Broadway, “The Rocky Horror Show,” “Tommy,” and, oddly enough, “Little Shop of Horrors,” in which he played…you guessed it…the sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello. “That was a full circle moment,” Levine said, “because I finally got to live out my parents’ dream of me becoming a dentist.” Locally and more recently, he played Che in MTC’s production of “Evita.”

Levine, obviously, is an established Broadway actor with a lot of credits. So, what led him to Ridgefield? His brother and family live around Ridgefield, so about six years ago he was visiting them, fell in love with the town and bought a weekend house there. Although he was still working on Broadway he eventually was introduced to the Ridgefield Playhouse and he was asked to curate the Broadway and Cabaret series at the theater. “So I came on as artistic director of the series,” he said. The goal, he explained, was to bring more “Broadway” to Ridgefield. The Playhouse, which offers approximately 250 shows a year – singers, rock groups, comedians, etc., -- is what is called a presenting theater. In other words, it doesn’t produce shows but rather books them and provides the wherewithal for the performances.

“I thought there was an audience for theater,” Levine said, “so I created this great series, not only bringing Broadway stars to Ridgefield – last year I had Betty Buckley, I had Lea Salonga, Stephen Schwartz, Joel Grey – but I had the idea to present full-length Broadway shows in concert with an all-star Broadway cast using some of the original stars of the shows. So, three years ago we did ‘Tommy.’ It was such a huge hit – I mean people went absolutely crazy. It was sold out immediately.”

Last year Levine directed “Jesus Christ Superstar” with an all-star cast and again it sold out. This year he'll be directing “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” although it is yet to be cast. During this process, Levine’s sense that there was a market for legitimate theater in Ridgefield grew. “What I’ve realized and what I’ve learned, living in Ridgefield and working at the Playhouse,” he said, “is that there is a desire for more Broadway and more musicals in this community, and there’s not a ton of Equity theaters in the area.” So, the seeds were sown and now all that was needed was a little rain and some fertilizer.

Kate Diamond

“So, I have a friend who also lives here,” Levine said. “Her name is Katie Diamond – she was in ‘Jersey Boys’ and ‘The Pirate Queen’ – and we sat here one day and were talking about theater and how great this community is and we thought, what if we can figure out how to open our own small professional Equity theater here in Ridgefield? We started asking around and people – there’s a lot of money in Ridgefield – they said, ‘Oh, my God, I’d invest in that.’”

There is such a thing as timing – as a matter of fact, some believe that timing is everything. As Levine and Diamond were starting to float the idea of creating an Equity theater in Ridgefield they learned there was a property in Ridgefield called the Schlumberger property, located about a mile from the coffee shop where Levine and I met. The property, between Old Quarry Road and Sunset Lane, had been the research facility for an oil corporation, and the corporate digs had been designed by Philip Johnson, so the complex of buildings had historical importance, but it had been vacant for over seven years after the corporation moved to Cambridge, MA.

The town, not wanting to destroy the buildings because of their architectural importance, held onto them, but there was no idea about what to do with them. Some of the property was sold off for construction of condominiums and some of the buildings were finally razed, but the auditorium and an adjacent building still stood.
The Schlumberger property
The town started polling the residents to find out what they wanted to do with the property: A park? A baseball field? A library? Many of the residents responded that they would like to see it become an arts complex.

So Levine and Diamond were sitting in a coffee shop dreaming about opening an Equity theater and the town was wondering what to do with the remaining Schlumberger property. Gee, an auditorium designed by Philip Johnson. What if…?

Levine and Diamond met with the town’s First Selectman, who told them if they could figure out how to pull this off he would present it to the town’s “Schlumberger committee.” However, there were problems with the auditorium. Five years ago there had been a severe internal flood – pipes had burst because the building hadn’t been heated. The inside of the auditorium had been destroyed, it was just a shell. Undaunted, Levine and Diamond went forward, meeting with the committee and forming a board for the project. Eventually it went to a town vote, and no one objected at the meeting, so it was a go, save for the fact that it was going to cost a hell of a lot of money to bring the 180-seat auditorium back to life, the responsibility for which fell on ACT’s shoulders. Eventually, it was estimated that the entire renovation would run close to $1,500,000, half of which has now already been raised.

Construction has begun. Necessary demolitions occurred in early July and the renovations begin in August. The auditorium is now gutted and ACT is working with architects that specialize in theater design to make sure that what rises out of the rubble is a state-of-the-art theater.

One problem that immediately became apparent was that the theater would have limited wing space (i.e., space to the left and right of the stage proper) and absolutely no fly space (space above the proscenium where scenery can be stored and lowered). What to do? The problem was discussed at a board meeting. Somebody said, “The best way to solve this problem is to install a turntable, like the one used in ‘Les Miz” and ‘Hamilton.’” Right. A turntable, a massive piece of equipment, very expensive, probably close to $350,000.

Levine smiled. “One of our board members said, ‘You know, I really like this idea,’ and she wrote a check for the turntable.” Ah, there’s nothing like living in Ridgefield.

Plans are to have a gala opening of the facility in May of 2018 and stage their first show in June. They have options for two blockbusters but Levine didn’t want to say which they’ve committed to. The announcement should come in several weeks.

“The plans are to do a four-show season,” Levine said. “Three musicals and one play. The season will run from September to June, all of them under Equity contracts. Our goal is to cast most of the principals as Equity. The model will be somewhat similar to that at Westport Country Playhouse.”

There are some heavy guns behind the planned productions. Levine will be the artistic director and Diamond will serve as executive director. Bryan Perry, Levine’s husband, who is currently the music director and conductor for “Wicked” on Broadway, will be the music supervisor, and then there’s Stephen Schwartz, a Ridgefield resident and the man responsible for such musicals as “Pippin,” “Godspell” and “Wicked.”
Stephen Schwartz
“Stephen is a friend of mine,” Levine said. “I’ve worked with Stephen on a lot of projects and when I pitched him the idea he said: ‘I love this. I would love to have an Equity theater here. How can I be involved?’”

Levine had several suggestions. First, he offered Schwartz the opportunity to become an artistic advisor, and the icing on the cake: he suggested that ACT produce a “Stephen Schwartz series,” so that for the first four seasons there would be three Stephen Schwartz musicals boarded. Schwartz, apparently, was pleased with the idea.

Levine believes that “the more arts in a community the better for everyone.” Thus, beyond the four-show season, there are plans for a number of programs to make the venue a “true arts destination.”  Levine and Diamond hope that the venue will workshop new musicals as well as create a young adult (basically high school students) theater conservatory. He also wants to hold a Master-Class series, bringing in theater professionals to teach classes on music theater auditioning and theater dancing, among other topics. “Because we’re so close to New York,” Levine said, “we can do that.”

Levine’s career path has veered in the direction of producing and directing and he doesn’t see himself going back to a Broadway show schedule, although he’s open to doing local runs as he did at MTC.

As a producer and director he has several shows currently touring the country and Schwartz got him involved in producing shows for the Princess Cruise Lines, shows that wouldn’t be seen anywhere else. Of that experience Levine says: “I learned so much about the technical aspects of theater. As an actor you’re sitting at a tech (a rehearsal devoted to checking sound, lighting and all the other things that can go bump in the theater) but you don’t really understand about the creation of a set, or being asked by the scenic designer, ‘What are your feelings about how “Hairspray” needs to feel, how is it different from how it was done on Broadway?’ I learned so much and I don’t think I would have been comfortable being the artistic director of this new theater if it weren’t for the Princess experience. It was like theater undergraduate school, and then graduate school.”

Dreams often die aborning, but it sounds like the dream of opening an Equity theater in Ridgefield is well on its way to becoming a reality. Levine realizes that there will be obstacles to overcome, surprises not envisioned, but he and Diamond have the community behind them, and their deep connections with Broadway can’t hurt. If all goes well, in about a year the curtain will rise on ACT’s first production, and after that, well: “We’ve got magic to do…Just for you / We've got miracle plays to play / We've got parts to perform....Hearts to warm / Kings and things to take by storm / As we go along our way.”