Saturday, January 21, 2017

Comedy Tonight

The Comedy of Errors -- Hartford Stage -- Thru Feb. 12

Louis Tucci, Paula Leggett Chase and
Alexander Sovronsky

What does “Never on Sunday” (the song and the film) have to do with Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors? Well, not much, one would think. Why would the citizens of Ephesus break out into an extended Bollywood dance sequence? Well, for no particular reason. Is it true that it ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings? Apparently. The Hartford Stage’s production of one of Shakespeare’s early comedies is an exercise in indulgence, specifically director Darko Tresnjak’s delight in such films as Never on Sunday, Zorba the Greek, various Bollywood musicals and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. I might add Beach Blanket Bingo, though it’s not mentioned in an interview with Tresnjak printed in the show’s program. The question is, should a playgoer indulge Tresnjak? The answer is “Yes,” for The Comedy of Errors is 90 or so minutes of controlled insanity and mayhem that cries out: “Damn the logic, let’s go with it!” This over-the-top production vibrates with the excitement of never knowing exactly what Tresnjak and cast will do next.

If there’s one drawback to the production it’s that many of the lines are delivered in such a rapid-fire, frenetic manner that you might find yourself saying “Say what?” However, that doesn’t mean you won’t know what’s going on, for the acting is emotive in the extreme (something farce requires) and the body language of all concerned is sufficient to convey meaning when the dialogue sometimes becomes merely a stream of sounds, often in iambic pentameter.

As with previous Stage productions, director Tresnjak is also the scenic designer, and he has given the audience a pastel paradise that seems more Middle-Eastern (Istanbul?) than specifically Greek. In fact, it’s a Disney World environment that embraces the look and feel of the films mentioned in the program and allows for the various anachronisms that proliferate.
 
Jolly Abraham and Tyler Lansing Weaks
 

If you refer to Shakespeare’s text, here’s how the play opens:

SCENE I. A hall in DUKE SOLINUS'S palace.
(Enter DUKE SOLINUS, AEGEON, Gaoler, Officers, and other Attendants).
AEGEON: Proceed, Solinus, to procure my fall / And by the doom of death end woes and all.

Well, that’s not good enough for Tresnjak. Instead, we get a Courtesan (Paula Leggett Chase) enticing the audience with a sultry version of “Never on Sunday,” accompanied by two Musicians (Louis Tucci and Alexander Sovronsky). Then there’s some background exposition that sets out the basic premise: Two twin brothers, along with their twin servants, were separated as children by a storm; one set, Antipholus of Syracuse (Tyler Lansing Weaks) and his servant, Dromio of Syracuse (Alan Schmuckler) end up in, of course, Syracuse, and the other set, also named Antipholus (Ryan-James Hatanaka) and Dromio (Matthew Macca) land in Ephesus. The former set, now adults, arrives in Ephesus where Aegeon (the two Antipholuses’s – or is it Antipholi’s – father has been arrested because a Syracuse merchant ain’t supposed to be in Ephesus).
 
The cast
 
The boys from Syracuse are footloose and fancy free, but Antipholus of Ephesus is married to Adriana (a marvelously bitchy and inebriated Jolly Abraham) and his Dromio is attached to the rather rotund serving maid Nell (the athletic Tara Heal). To add to the mix, Adriana has a sister, the prim and proper Luciana (Mahira Kakkar) who will eventually let down her hair (literally and figuratively), as well as various policemen, prostitutes, fun-loving tourists, waiters and Ephesians.

Well, you know what happens. The Syracuse duo is mistaken for their Ephesian twins. Oh, the confusion – consider the possibilities (Shakespeare did). Who is married to whom? Who owes whom what? To who or to whom, that is the question. Does it all matter? Not really. In Tresnjak’s hands the basic play is like pizza dough – it all depends on what you put on top -- and Tresnjak has decided to use unexpected ingredients. You may not have tasted them before in concert, but after the initial “Does that go with that?” you realize that it all works and is altogether pleasing to the play-going palate.
 
Matthew Macca and Ryan-James Hatanaka
 
Take your pick as to what pleases your palate the most, but for my money the extended Bollywood dance scene (choreography by Peggy Hickey) near the end of the show is something I’d order up on a regular basis (and it would bring me back to the theater for a second serving). First, it is totally unexpected. Second, it’s extravagantly exuberant. And third, it’s just sheer fun, and the cast (it’s an ensemble dance number) just seems to have been waiting for this moment to let it all hang out. For those not familiar with this type of production dance number, you might want to check out Bride and Prejudice on You Tube.

On opening night the theater was packed, and it probably will be for the show’s run. We all go to the theater for different reasons, and one of them is just to have a hell of a good time, to not brood, despair or ponder but simply to revel in excess, to set aside our political-correctness for a moment and unabashedly laugh at the fat lady’s pratfalls. We may feel a bit guilty in the morning, but what the hell.

The Comedy of Errors runs through February 12. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to www.hartfordtsage.org.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Playing the Game to the Bitter End

Endgame -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru Feb. 5

Brian Dennehy and Reg E. Cathey. Photos by T. Charles Erickson

The detritus of life – chairs piled atop chairs, torn and dusty books, various small appliances – are what set designer Eugene Lee has chosen to frame the otherwise empty room where life is coming to an end or, horrors of horrors, never-ending. Such is the setting for Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, currently on the boards at Long Wharf Theatre. If you are in any way bedeviled by depression, this is perhaps not the play to see, for although there’s humor, it is mere punctuation to the despair that comes when life, at its end, gradually becomes meaningless and the stories you tell trail off into silence.

Originally written in French and translated into English by the playwright, Endgame, at least in its English title (the original title was Fin de partie), refers to the final moves in the game of chess when the outcome is all but apparent, as is the eventual outcome for all those alive is also apparent. As directed by Gordon Edelstein, this bleak look at the end of existence is both riveting and enigmatic. As a playgoer, if you demand meaning and message writ large you will be sorely disappointed.

This four-character, one-act play defies easy interpretation. There is a symbiotic relationship at its core, for Hamm (Brian Dennehy) is blind and confined to his wheelchair, while his servant (Slave? Ward?), Clov (Reg E. Cathey) cannot sit down. Hamm demands and Clov complies, but the relationship keeps both men alive. Then there are Hamm’s parents, Nagg (Joe Grifasi) and Nell (Lynn Cohen), both of whom live, if you can call it that, in what look like large laundry baskets, or perhaps dustbins. Then there’s a stuffed, three-legged dog, a flea and a rat. The stuffed dog, created by Clov, has yet to have its genitals added, but the flea and the rat are fully capable of rampant procreation, much to the distaste of both Hamm and Clov, for procreation means continuation, perhaps of hell on earth.
 
Lynn Cohen and Joe Grifasi
 

Many critics have taken a shot at interpreting what Beckett wrote. Some have suggested that the two small windows set high in the room are eyes and hence the set is really a cranium and what we are experiencing are the random, frightened, disconnected thoughts of a human slowly descending into oblivion, complete with rambling diatribes that are often little more than fractured bits of biography. Perhaps. And yet there is also an underlying aching need for human contact that runs through the play – Nagg wishes Nann to scratch an itch, down low, and they attempt, unsuccessfully, to kiss; near the end of the play, Clov, who swore that he could not touch Hamm, leans his head down on Hamm’s shoulder in a tentative embrace.

Whatever you think might be going on up on the stage, and whatever you suppose it might mean, is secondary to the delight to be found in watching and hearing these four fine actors ply their trade. Grifasi and Cohen, as the aged parents, are pitch-perfect, and even though you only see the top halves of their bodies their body language is wonderfully evocative. Cathey does wonders with a step-ladder and captures the frustrated need of a man who is both enslaved and in need, and Dennehy, without moving from his perch, creates a man who is in conflict with himself, eager for death yet clinging to life, his shield, his means of denial of the inevitable, an overt verbosity…and a whistle that, when blown, signifies his need for attention, for contact.

The program notes, written by dramaturg Christine Scarfuto, point out that during World War II Beckett did volunteer work in a hospital in Saint-Lo, a town that was essentially leveled during the Allied invasion of Normandy. She writes that there were “only a few shells of bombed out buildings left standing.” Perhaps that is what Clov is seeing when, at Hamm’s command, he looks out the two small windows in the room – nothing is moving, the sea is dead, a gray pall hangs over everything, the sun has been obliterated. Faced with such devastation, faced with the inevitability of demise, this dark, devilish play suggests that “And yet we go on” – to our credit or to our despair.

Endgame runs through Feb. 5. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.

Monday, January 16, 2017

[headline of review]

[title of show] -- Playhouse on Park -- thru Jan.29

Peej Mele, Miles Jacoby, Amanda Forker, Ashley Brooke,
Austin Cook. Photo by Photo by Meredith Atkinson

I am sitting at my desk at 6:54 a.m. writing a review of [title of show], which I saw on Sunday at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford. I am drinking a cup of coffee and weighing whether I should call the musical a meta-musical, because it’s a musical about itself, about the writing of a musical. An image comes to mind – [title of show] is akin to an embryo writing about its own gestation, so maybe it’s an embryonic musical. That image is supplanted by the word “solipsistic,” because [title of show] is absorbed with itself. Right now I’m not sure what tag I will use.

It’s now 7:03 a.m. The elements of a review require that I now give a hint about what I think about the production being reviewed. That’s because most people don’t read beyond the first or second paragraph of a review. I want to do this, but what I really want to write about at this point is a lady with a walker who sat in the first row house left (there were many people with walkers at this matinee performance – as they gathered to enter the house it reminded me of that scene from The Producers when all the potential backers of Springtime for Hitler [all ladies of a certain age] do a chorus line number). In any event, about 30 minutes into the show this lady stood up and, hands on her walker, toddled to her left, then she turned and walked to her right, then turned and again walked to her left, then right, then left. Given that the Playhouse is configured as a thrust stage, the five actors, Miles Jacoby as Jeff, Peej Mele as Hunter, Ashley Brooke as Susan, Amanda Forker as Heidi and Austin Cook as the pianist, Larry, must have seen her and wondered, “What the hell is she doing?”

Well, 14 minutes have elapsed and I still haven’t given that hint. My bad. Okay, the production is enjoyable but the performances are a bit uneven and the last 10 or 15 minutes of this one-act show seem to go on forever. There, that’s done. Now, what’s next. Oh, yes, a little bit of exposition, background, etc.

Well – wait, I have to get a coffee refill ------------------- Hi, back again. Okay, so back in 2004 Hunter Bell learns that the New York Musical Theater Festival is seeking submissions. The only problem is, the deadline is three weeks away. Undaunted, Bell, with his friend Jeff Bowen, a composer and lyricist, proceed to create a musical about, well, doing what they’re doing: creating a musical. They enlist the help of two actresses, Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff, and the effort becomes a chronicle of their efforts. The musical gets six performances at the festival (lots of revisions), is work-shopped at the Eugene O’Neil Theater Center (lots of revisions), finally makes it to Off-Broadway (Obie awards! Lots of revisions) and then – Broadway! Okay, enough of that.

What’s next? Well, I haven’t yet told you who directed this production. That would be David Edwards, a theater pro who is very familiar to Ivoryton Playhouse patrons, having starred in the Playhouse’s production of La Cage aux Folles and directed the outstanding staging of South Pacific. The challenge for Edwards is that [title of show] seems to cry out for presentation in a proscenium format, i.e., the audience members all staring in one direction at what is going on up on the stage. In blocking this production, Edwards had to take into account that the patrons are viewing the goings-on from three different directions. He succeeds up to a point, but there are moments – chief among them when Heidi does a quasi-nudity reveal and must turn so that the entire audience gets to see her juggling her brassiered breasts – that draw attention to themselves. Thus, the energy of the musical, which should be thrust forward out at the audience, is, by necessity, somewhat diffused.

Okay, another cup of coffee and a quick check of emails – just received my electricity bill and two people want to be Friends on Facebook (don’t know either one of them). Oh, look, a new version of Adobe Acrobat is available. Sorry. Back to the review. What’s up next? Oh, yes, the acting. Well, let’s just say it’s early days for this ensemble – the show runs through January 29 – and the disparate performances may very well find a common ground. Right now, these “friends” simply don’t seem to mesh in terms of energy levels. Mele, as the overtly gay book writer, seems to own the stage, challenged only by Brooke’s barefoot portrayal of Susan, who uses excellent body language to punctuate her lines and does a knock-out rendition of “Die, Vampire. Die!” Jacoby and Forker, at least at this point in production run, have yet to “find” their characters. They deliver their lines well but there’s yet no sense of who these characters are – in essence they’ve yet to find the “juice” that will allow Jeff and Heidi to come alive, though Forker does shine when she and Brooke have their moment alone onstage in “Secondary Characters.”

Now, what’s required is a wrap-up, and given the nature of a review I must return to how I opened and determine what as yet hasn’t been explained. Oops – a phone call – at 8:14 no less! – from a company that wants me to consider my electricity-supplier options. Okay, so what about the last 10 or 15 minutes of the show? Well, I search for an image or metaphor. None comes to mind (bad writer – bad writer). What am I trying to convey? At the end of the (heavily revised) show there’s just a lot a yackety-yack when there should be a “rush” towards a conclusion. It’s not the time for exposition – a litany of then this happened and then this happened. You know there’s something wrong when the audience has to be told that this is the final line of the show – that should be inherent in the line itself and the emotions that have led up to it.

[title of show], a meta-embryonic-solipsistic musical, runs through January 29. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to www.playhouseonpark.org

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Alter Egos Meet and Mingle

Meteor Shower -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru Oct. 23

Arden Myrin and Patrick Breen. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Deep inside, does the lamb shelter a tiger, does the hummingbird repress an eagle? What might happen if, one day, the lamb and the hummingbird were confronted by their inner tiger and eagle, forced to deal with their alter egos? Such is the premise of Steve Martin’s new comedy, Meteor Shower, which is having its world premiere at Long Wharf Theatre under the direction of the theater’s artistic director Gordon Edelstein. This light comedy, heavy on word play and sexual innuendo, is a diverting parlor game that works its premise for all it’s worth, generating a lot of laughs but somehow leaving one wanting just a bit more, a final moment, perhaps, that comments on the human condition as the century turned rather than relying on a sight gag.

As the lights go up we are introduced to a couple that has “worked out” their marriage by learning to express their feelings and thanking each other for doing so in a hand-holding ritual that is scripted by all of the “How to Save Your Marriage” manuals. There’s Corky (the delightful Arden Myrin), whose head occasionally “explodes,” but otherwise sincerely…oh so sincerely…appreciates her husband’s willingness to express his feelings and admit, contritely, when he has said something that might shatter her tender ego. Then there’s Norm (Patrick Breen), who is, well, “normal,” a true marital mensch who has learned to confess his sins instantaneously. They live in a neat, stylishly appointed home in Ojai, California, compliments of scenic designer Michael Yeargan, that will revolve to allow the couple and their alter egos to alternately spar in the living room and stand out on the patio to observe a meteor shower, a cascade of flaming interstellar visitors that will disrupt Corky and Norm’s “happy” home.

The doorbell rings, and the contented couple welcome Gerald (Josh Stamberg) and Laura (Sophina Brown) into their home – of course, Gerald and Laura have always been lurking in the home, for they are the tiger and the eagle that Norm and Corky have repressed, but now here they are, in the flesh, the exact opposites of the happy couple. Whatever Norm has chosen to bury deep in his psyche Gerald wears as a badge of honor; whatever Corky has hidden from herself Laura flaunts. The dichotomy is enhanced by Jess Goldstein’s costumes: Norm is dressed in what might be called country casual and Corky has apparently taken her couture clues from The Donna Reed Show. Gerald is dressed all in black, all muscle and motor-cycle toughness, and Laura is the ultimate femme fatale, wearing a red dress that makes love to her body. As an aside, it’s seldom that a costume change (perhaps “enhancement” might be the better word) elicits one of the biggest laughs in a show, but Norm’s entrance in the second act required the entire cast to hold on line delivery until the audience members ceased their chuckles and guffaws. Remembering that entrance now, a day later, still engenders laughter.  

 So, the confrontation, which is the sum and substance of the play. Gerald and Laura flaunt their carnal desires in language that Norm and Corky would not think of using. While Norm and Corky speak to each other with controlled politeness, Gerald and Laura tell each other to…well…fuck off! The tame couple is nonplussed by the heat, passion and vulgarity of the man and woman they have invited into their home but, then there’s the meteor shower, which will allow the gods to intervene. A meteor – okay, well a meteorite – lands on the patio and in the resultant smoke and fire eyes are opened and personas are shed, leading to a delightful second act in which the tables are turned and the lamb accepts his inner tiger and the hummingbird embraces the eagle lurking within.

All four actors work wonderfully to bring this transformation to life, chief among them Myrin, whose hummingbird-to-eagle conversion is a joy to watch, especially once her character realizes that the meteorite has opened up a new world for her. Equally engaging is Breen’s seduction of his alter ego as he unmans the man’s man.

Playing characters that are dominant and dominating in the first act, Stamberg and Brown deftly pull in their horns in the second act as Gerald and Laura become somewhat nonplussed by what the meteor shower has wrought. Oddly enough, although set in 1993, there is a strong element of 30s madcap comedy in Meteor Shower -- the classic battle of the sexes complete with zingers and double entendres, albeit the battle is an internal one as repressed psyches come to the fore.

If one were to chart the transformation that occurs during the play, there might be some quibbles with regards to logic, but Edelstein has wisely opted for a fast-paced delivery that does not allow for reflection – you just go with the flow, sit back and enjoy.

Meteor Shower runs through Oct. 23. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Rocky Road to Oz

Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz -- Goodspeed Musicals -- Thru Nov. 27

Ruby Rakos as Judy Garland. All photos by Diane Sobolewski


One can become a bit conflicted watching Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz, a new musical that recently opened at Goodspeed Musicals. This amalgam of songs from the 30’s, many made famous by Judy Garland, interspersed with original music by David Libby and Tina Marie Casamento Libby (who also “conceived” the show), with a book by Marc Acito, is often tremendously engaging and, at other times, just a bit of a snore.

There are echoes here of other “stage-struck” musicals and films, chief among them “Gypsy, with just a touch of “Little Voice,” for Chasing Rainbows tells the story of Francis Gumm, a little girl with a big voice who would become Judy Garland, a story that picks up when she is little more than a toddler (the “Baby” in the family), then fast-forwards to her at 13 years old and ends with her landing the lead role in MGM’s The Wizard of Oz. There’s a stage mother (though not exactly the Mama Rose dragon), and a doting father who fills young Francis’s days with songs and dreams of glory. And then there’s Francis herself, a conflicted teenager who has some self-confidence issues (many of them dealing with her physical appearance – Louis B. Mayer will refer to her as “the fat one”), yet feels she needs to carry the needs of her entire family on her shoulders.

Thus, we have the evolving story of the Gumm family, and then we have “Judy” evolving. The family story line is, though based on fact, the stuff of soap operas, with a wandering wife and a husband who is a closeted homosexual, and the period songs that Libby has selected to accompany this dramatization aren’t, with some exceptions, exactly toe-tappers. Thankfully, such is not the case with the “Judy” evolution, for here the audience is treated to “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart,” a riotous rendition of “All Ma’s Children,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, “Swing, Mr. Mendelssohn,” “You Made Me Love You” and, of course, “Over the Rainbow.”

The “Gumm” story provides the frame – and justification – for the “Judy” story and, of course, it’s Judy the audience has come to see, and the audience won’t be disappointed, for Ruby Rakos, who plays the more mature Judy (starting at 13 years old) does a marvelous job in capturing the “star quality” the propelled Garland to show business fame. Rakos bears a more than passing resemblance to Garland, and her voice, well, it’s “big,” capable of knocking out the hottest swing number, but also subtle enough to capture the essence of the more intimate ballads. Yet Garland was beset throughout her career (which was altogether too brief – she died at age 47) by a haunting insecurity, and this Rakos is also able to portray with an understanding tenderness that, for those who watched Garland go through her many transitions (and battle with, among other things, weight – do you remember her in Judgment at Nuremberg?) certainly evokes some bittersweet memories.
 
Michael Wartella and Ruby Rakos
 

As is to be expected from Goodspeed, the supporting cast is excellent, chief among them Michael Wartella, who transforms the wise-cracking Joe Yule into the irrepressible Mickey Rooney, and in the process dances up a storm. Then there’s Sally Wilfert as Judy’s mother, Ethel Gumm, and Kevin Earley as her conflicted father Frank. Yes, they both play second fiddle to Rakos’s Judy (as was true in real life), and are deeply involved in the soap opera goings-on, but they both manage to create believable characters, with Earley most effective as he attempts to both shield and yet prepare his youngest daughter for stardom, and his “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” is haunting on multiple levels.
 
Karen Mason and Michael McCormick
 

Kudos also to Michael McCormick as the studio boss L. B. Mayer (just the right amount of bullying bluster) and the lithe Karen Mason as Mayer’s secretary, Kay Koverman and the acting teacher, Ma Lawlor. She’s an actor who proves that you can take supporting roles and turn them into audience-pleasing star turns. Also worthy of mention are Andrea Laxton and Lucy Horton, who play Judy’s older sisters, and, along with Wilfert and Earley, end the first act with an engaging “Everybody Sing.” Finally, there’s little Ella Briggs, who plays the very young Frances. She’s a pro when it comes to stealing scenes (and belting out songs), which reinforces W. C. Fields’ dictum: "Never work with children or animals."
 
Ella Briggs and Kevin Earley
 

Though Chasing Rainbows’ book is a bit scatter-shot, there’s no denying that when “Judy” is on stage the audience is riveted. One might have asked for a bit more spectacle and “screen magic” in the closing number (video projections now being commonplace in productions – look what Hartford Stage did last year with Anastasia), there’s no denying that the magic that was Judy Garland still captivates, and it’s to Rakos’ credit that the magic lives on.

Chasing Rainbows runs through Nov. 27. For tickets or more information call 860.873.8668 or visit: www.goodspeed.org.

Monday, September 19, 2016

An Intimate, Intense "Gypsy"

Gypsy -- Music Theatre of Connecticut -- Thru Sept. 25

Kirsti Carnahan and Kate Simone. All photos by Joe Landry


Kevin Connors, Music Theatre of Connecticut’s co-founder and executive artistic director, has proven time and again that big is not always better. Several years ago, when MTC was still in its old (and more restricted) digs, he staged a gripping Cabaret just mere feet from the audience. Now relocated in Norwalk with a bit more space to work with, Connors again reveals that size, at least in the case of stage space, does not matter, for he has turned Gypsy into an intense character study, albeit with music, that heightens the conflict inherent in the show and showcases some pretty impressive performances.

Anyone familiar with American musical theater knows the Gypsy story-line. Suffice it to say that it’s the ultimate stage-mother show, a fable about a mother driven to have her children succeed in show business (all the while repressing her own desire to be a star). Bridging several decades, the show also chronicles the decline of vaudeville, a fate that Mama Rose eventually accepts, but it does not staunch her passions and drive. Eventually, her two daughters would succeed, with Baby June becoming an actress (June Havoc) and Louise the queen of burlesque (Gypsy Rose Lee).

Of course, any theatrical production is a collaborative effort, and although Connors is to be applauded for his staging and directing, as is Becky Timms for her choreography, neither one could have done it alone – and they are not alone in this enterprise, for Connors has been blessed with an exceedingly talented group of performers.

Although the show’s title is Gypsy, this is really Mama Rose’s story, and you couldn’t ask for a more visceral, multi-layered performance of the driven matron than what Kirsti Carnahan provides. No, she’s not a “belter” a la Ethel Merman, who originated the role, but given the confines of MTC, “belting” out a song is not necessary. Rather, she, under Connor’s guidance, gives a gripping performance as a woman driven, and since the audience is so close she doesn’t have to telegraph her character’s emotions – and there are emotions aplenty. It’s a complete performance, so much so that Rose’s signature songs are, if not superfluous, at least secondary to the marvelous character Carnahan creates. This is no more in evidence than in the show’s finale, “Rose’s Turn.” It is haunting, frightening, tender and totally gripping. I’ve seen many Gypsy productions, but I don’t think I’ve ever been as riveted as I was when Carnahan revealed a soul in dire distress, questioning all Mama Rose had done and all she had forsaken, giving us a woman on the brink of despair. Her double-take, hands fluttering, as she comes out of her fantasy to realize Gypsy has been watching her is a little piece of acting perfection.

Carnahan’s performance is enough to carry the show, but she doesn’t have to, for she is surrounded by some equally talented actors. Chief among them is Kate Simone as Louise, the second-fiddle to her younger sister who morphs into a burlesque star. The role requires that Louise, initially shy and, as she believes, under-talented, rise to confront her mother and demand that Mama Rose take a hard look at herself. Simone hits all the right notes, and her confrontation with Rose late in the second act is pitch-perfect, and she is exceptionally engaging (watch her eyes!) during the rehearsal of “Madame Rose’s Toreadobales,” a lame rehash of the same routine Rose has been pushing for years.
 
Joe Grandy, Carissa Massaro and Chris McNiff
 

Equally on the mark is Carissa Massaro’s Baby June, for Massaro must play the part of a winsome, overly-cute child while she is actually a young woman who loathes what she is being forced to do at the behest of her mother. Her duet with Simone, “If Momma Was Married,” lets her convey all of this revulsion through song, something she does quite well.

Then there’s the much-put-upon Herbie, Mama Rose’s love interest, played by Paul Binotto (who does double-duty as “Uncle Jocko” early in the show). He must be the hand that attempts to gentle Rose’s raging ambition, and he does so with a great deal of panache, absorbing the energy that surges from Carnahan’s Mama Rose until his character has had enough and he breaks with Rose in a touching scene. His last line is filled with pain and loss.

As anyone familiar with Gypsy knows, Tulsa, here played by Joe Grandy, has a signature scene with Louise as he tells her, through dance, of his dreams for a dance routine that will allow him to break away from Mama Rose’s control. His “All I Need is the Girl” number covers MTC’s entire stage as he tap-dances his hopes and desires.
 
Marca Leigh, Jodi Stevens, Jeri Kansas and
Kate Simone.
 

What is most revealing in this scaled-down production is the iconic scene near the end of the second act when the three strippers, Tessie Tura (Jeri Kansas), Electra (Marca Leigh) and Mazeppa (Jodi Stevens) give Louise some advice about the fine art of stripping. Again, having seen quite a few productions of this show, I was amazed at the finely honed, comedic turns each of these actors gives to her role. What could have been a “Yeah, yeah, seen that before” moment seemed fresh and vibrantly alive – and totally enjoyable.

MTC’s production is truly a Gypsy re-envisioned, downscaled to fit the confines of the stage but still larger than life. If there is one misstep, and this is a very minor quibble, it is during Rose’s final number when she fantasizes about what she might have accomplished on her own. As she wraps up her number the curtains part to reveal a drop-down sign that is supposed to emblazon Rose’s name – instead, you have to look close to figure out what the hell that thing is hanging above Rose’s head. Surely something could have been done to “glitz it up” a bit.

Even for those who think they “know” Gypsy, MTC’s production is well worth a look-see, if for no other reason than to shiver and shake as Rose’s single-minded ambition and almost maniacal determination washes over you. It’s an intense theatrical experience that you don’t want to miss.

Gypsy runs through September 25. For further information or ticket reservations call the box office at 203.454.3883 or visit: www.musictheatreofct.com.





Saturday, September 17, 2016

A Heavenly "Shop of Horrors"

Little Shop of Horrors -- Playhouse on Park -- Thru Oct. 16

Steven Mooney and Audrey II. All photos by
Meredith Atkinson save where noted


There’s nothing horrible about the “Little Shop of Horrors” up at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford. In fact, it’s a delight from start to finish, a sprightly musical comedy (albeit dark comedy) with a terrific cast that generates enough energy to light up most of Park Road.

Directed and choreographed by Susan Haefner with a deft touch for timing and creative blocking, the show moves along at a quick pace, the tone for which is set before the curtain as the three waifs, Crystal (Cherise Clarke), Chiffon (Brandi Porter) and Ronette (Famecia Ward) work the audience, introducing their characters and giving out hugs. Their activity seamlessly segues into the opening number, “Little Shop of Horrors,” and the following “Skid Row,” which introduces Mr. Mushnik (Damian Buzzerio), owner of the Skid Row Florist Shop, and his two employees, the nerdish Seymour (Steven Mooney) and the much-abused Audrey (the delightful Emily Kron).
          Cherise Clarke as Crystal, Famecia Ward as
          Ronnette, Brandi Porter as Chiffon, and
Emily Kron as Audrey.
 
With zero sales, Mushnik decides to close the shop’s doors, only to have Seymour reveal that he has been nurturing a rather strange plant that he has named Audrey II (voiced by Rasheem Ford and manipulated by Susan Slotoroff). Immediately, things take a turn for the better, once Seymour realizes that what Audrey II craves is human blood (“Grow for Me”). However, the plant’s hunger soon becomes insatiable as it cries out to be fed. What is Seymour to do? Well, Audrey is currently dating a “pseudo-sadist,” a dentist named Orin Scrivello (Aidan Eastwood -- DDS!!!). Orin manages to asphyxiate himself in a delightfully dark comic scene and is promptly turned into plant food. As things get better for the florist shop and for Seymour, the plant’s needs grow and grow until it is finally revealed the vegetation’s goal is total world domination. The ultimate lesson is offered in the final number: “Don’t Feed the Plants.”
  Famecia Ward as Ronnette, Rasheem Ford as Audrey I
          (voice), Steven Mooney as Seymour, Emily Kron as Audrey,
       and Aidan Eastwood as Orin Scrivello, DDS (photo: Rich Wagner)
 

You can’t help but smile as this tale of faux-menace unfolds, for the entire cast has bought into the absurd premise and knows how to play up the weird humor that suffuses the book and lyrics penned by Howard Ashman, and it doesn’t hurt that the music was composed by Alan Menken. Clarke, Porter and Ward are sassy and sharp, and their voices mesh beautifully as they strut, pose and preen, creating a Skid Row Greek chorus. There are also entertaining set pieces and signature numbers, all of which are brought off with aplomb and a great deal of style. Buzzerio brings a touch of Fagin (a la the musical “Oliver”) to his portrayal of the florist shop’s owner, and his duet with Mooney, “Mushnik and Son,” deftly choreographed by Haefner, was totally engaging.
Damian Buzzerio
 

Mooney gives the audience just the right touch of the bedraggled soul who grasps at his one chance for success, an opportunity that merely requires that he feed the plant. As his character “blossoms,” Mooney shows he has a strong bent for physical comedy and knows how to deliver a song.

Eastwood has, perhaps, the greatest challenge, for not only must he portray the sadistic dentist, he must also take on several additional roles, including that of a female rep for Life Magazine and, as the program indicates, “Everyone Else.” He pulls all of this off with costume quick-changes and variations in swagger and delivery that nicely delineate each of the characters.

And then there’s Kron, who is faced with making the role that has the strongest “copyright,” since it was created by Ellen Green in the original production and the subsequent film, her own. This she does with a great deal of comic flair and sensitivity, and her rendition of “Somewhere That’s Green,” a classic “I Want” number, is heartbreakingly poignant, as is her cri de coeur in the “Suddenly, Seymour” duet with Mooney.   

Given the relative intimacy of the Playhouse on Park thrust stage configuration, much of what happens is mere feet from the front row of the audience, which Haefner takes advantage of, often bringing her actors forward so that the emotions their characters are feeling and expressing wash over the audience and the kinetic energy generated by this talented cast, enhanced by an emotive lighting scheme by Christopher Bell, crackles, snaps and reaches the last seat in the farthest row undiminished and undiluted.

Playhouse on Park’s production of “Little Shop of Horrors” is what I might term “happy theater,” for you can sense that the cast is happy to be doing what they are doing and you can’t deny that the audience left the theater humming a tune and, well, happy – a win-win proposition.

“Little Shop of Horrors” runs through Oct. 16. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to www.playhouseonpark.org