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 http://theatreworks.us/tickets.php

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.”


Monday, July 17, 2017

The West Side of Ivoryton

West Side Story -- Ivoryton Playhouse -- Thru July 30

Mia Pinero and Stephen Mir. Photo by Anne Hudson

There must be something in the Connecticut water or air that has recently fascinated local theaters with Sharks and Jets. First, Connecticut Repertory took a shot, which was followed by the Summer Theatre of New Canaan’s admirable efforts, and now it’s the Ivoryton Playhouse’s turn to stage the classic 1957 musical West Side Story. Given Ivoryton’s core audience it’s easy to see why the decision was made to produce the show, and based on a recent matinee I attended it was a smart decision because the house was packed, and not just with aging Boomers.

Based on a concept by Jerome Robbins (he initially wanted to focus on conflict between an Irish family and a Jewish family living on the Lower East Side), with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein (with many echoes of Aaron Copland’s compositions) and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the musical is an updating of the Romeo and Juliet story with the conflict now between an “all-American” gang, the Jets, and its Puerto Rican counterpart, the Sharks. As directed and choreographed by Todd Underwood, Ivoryton’s offering is pleasing on many levels limited only by the theater’s configuration which required a certain amount of down-sizing and somewhat restricted dance movements.

Backed by a 10-member orchestra which is sequestered beneath the stage, the young cast delivers such familiar numbers as “Something’s Coming,” “Tonight” “America,” “I Feel Pretty” and “Gee, Officer Krupke” with verve and style. There’s certainly no absence of energy on the stage, and although some of the “big” production numbers seem somewhat “squashed,” there’s no getting around the fact that the iconic score and tragic love story subtly work their way into your heart.

As for the performances, anyone with eyes and ears would have to lead off with Mia Pinero playing Maria. She is luminous from start to finish and her dulcet voice enraptures. Whether commenting on how she looks (“I Feel Pretty”) or forcing Anita (a saucy Natalie Madion) to remember what it is like to be in love (“A Boy Like That” – “I Have a Love”), Pinero shines, and the final moments of the musical, which demand that she confront all of those who are responsible for the tragedy, are dramatically satisfying.

Maria’s “Romeo,” Tony, is played by Stephen Mir, who has a strong voice but seems just a bit reserved in the role, and there seems to be a lack of passion infused into such numbers as “Maria.” He sings it as if he’s recording a cover of the song for an album rather than as a young man overwhelmed by emotions he has never experienced before, yet he is visibly (and satisfyingly) ardent in the “One Hand, One Heart” duet with Pinero.

The afore-mentioned Madion nails the world-wise Anita, especially in the “America” number, though her paramour, Bernardo (Victor Borjas) seems not to project the passion and suavity the role calls for. Of special note is Hillary Ekwall in the tomboy role of Anybodys – she’s brash and spunky, but then delivers a touching scene with Anita in the “Somewhere” number (nicely choreographed by Underwood).

As anyone who is familiar with the Ivoryton theater knows, the stage is not very deep, has limited wings and no real fly space. Scenic designer Daniel Nischan deserves a great deal of credit for creating a flexible set that allows for scenes on the street, in a candy store, a dress shop, a playground and Maria’s bedroom (plus the obligatory fire-escape “balcony”). However, he’s used up a lot of limited space, which must have presented certain problems for Underwood as choreographer. He basically had stage right and left to work with and almost no room upstage. Thus, with 10 or 12 dancers on stage, much of their movement is, perforce, lateral. The problems Underwood faced are most evident in the staging of the “Cool” number, which requires that the members of the Jets “explode.” They do, but the constrictions are obvious. However, Underwood deserves a lot of credit for capturing the flavor of the original Jerome Robbins’ choreography without producing a carbon copy, and his work with the four Jets in “Gee, Officer Krupke” is quite imaginative.

Any quibbles aside, Ivoryton’s West Side Story essentially delivers the goods and should keep packing them in. The emotional pull of the musical is so strong and the music so familiar that you can’t help but be drawn into the story, and whenever Pinero is on stage you can’t help but, well, melt. It’s easy to see why Tony is smitten.

West Side Story runs through July 30. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Deadly Eye in the Sky

Grounded -- Westport Country Playhouse -- Thru July 29

Elizabeth Stahlmann. Photo by Carol Rosegg

War was once a matter of two armed forces rushing at each other across a field. The person you fought against – the person you perhaps killed – was there in front of you, flesh and blood. The invention of gunpowder, and then the rifle and the cannon, began the process of distancing combatants, yet it was still combat with all of its inherent risks. Yes, with the coming of air warfare those in the planes did not see those they killed on the ground, but the risk factor was still there, the possibility of being shot down by flak or another plane. But what if you could fight a war from thousands of miles away, safely away from the battlefield; what if you could rain down death and destruction with the click of a button and then go home, pop open a cold one and throw some steaks on the barbecue?

Such are the questions asked by George Brant in “Grounded,” which recently opened at the Westport Country Playhouse under the sensitive direction of Liz Diamond. This visceral, one-woman show begins with an almost jubilant paean to the joys of being a fighter pilot, to soar into the blue sky in the cockpit of an F-17, and concludes in a gray, apocalyptic vision of a world where no one is safe and everyone is being watched. It ends not with T. S. Eliot’s “whimper” but with a whispered “boom” that will haunt you long after you leave the theater.

The journey is guided by The Pilot, played by the exquisite Elizabeth Stahlmann. A macho jet jockey who revels in the freedom of flight, the pilot is also a woman, and on leave she manages to get pregnant. This condition forces her to be “grounded,” and after marrying and giving birth, she reports back for duty only to find that her assignment has changed – she will now be a member of the “Chair Force,” piloting a drone from a trailer located on an Air Force base in Nevada an hour away from Las Vegas. At first disdainful of the assignment, the pilot, given the surreal nature of this form of “combat,” soon begins to suffer both physically and psychologically until, on a final “mission,” the dichotomy of “fighting” a war while living a “normal” suburban life forces her to crash and burn.

In a bravura performance, Stahlmann, dressed in a flight suit, creates a multi-faceted character who thrives on the Top Gun mentality and yet is forced to confront the aberrations of a war fought by proxy. Her slow descent from gung-ho jet jockey to a haunted shadow beset by delusions of a god-like power and a final break-down, in which the horrors of the brave new world we and technology have created have led to a paranoid existence, is emotionally captivating and ultimately disturbing. Her final moments, when she confronts the audience members with the fact that they have been “watching” her all along as proof of the intrusive society we live in are chilling; she becomes a Jeremiah who prophesizes the doom that awaits us all.

Stahlmann has nothing to work with but a single chair. The stage is basically blocked and truncated by an aluminum frame that suggests the side of an airplane hangar, a wall that is used to project images, created by Yana Birykova, that, among other things, a drone pilot might see on a screen. However, as stark as the “set” is, it does not lack for emotional content, thanks to the lighting design created by Solomon Weisbard. As good lighting should, it does not call attention to itself but enhances and frames the emotional roller coaster that the pilot will travel on.

“Grounded” is a brave choice for the Playhouse to open its 2017 season with. There are no bells and whistles, just a provocative play that asks many questions and an actress who is capable of holding the audience in the palm of her hand for the better part of 90 minutes. One might suggest that is what theater, worthwhile theater, is all about.

“Grounded” runs through July 29. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.

Friday, July 14, 2017

What Nurtures Us

Milk -- Thrown Stone Theatre Company (Ridgefield) -- Thru July 30



You never know where in Connecticut you will find intriguing theater. Of course, there are the well-established venues such as Long Wharf in New Haven and TheaterWorks up in Hartford, to name just two, but how many theatergoers have heard of the Thrown Stone Theatre Company? Nested in the Ridgefield Conservatory of Dance on Main Street in Ridgefield, this young company is currently premiering “Milk,” a play by Ross Dunsmore that was first presented at the Traverse Theatre in Scotland in 2016. Essentially presented in a black box format with very few props, this triple slice-of-life drama directed by Jason Peck allows actors to do what they do best: bring characters to vivid life.

The play revolves around three “couples.” First there are two teenagers, Ash (Aidan Meacham), intent on “bulking up” to entice the girls by devouring one chicken per day, and Steph (a mesmerizing Alexandra Perlwitz), a 14-year-old schoolgirl who is, well in heat. Then there’s schoolteacher Danny (Jonathan Winn) and his oh-so pregnant wife Nicole (Alana Arco), consumed by the pending arrival of their child. Finally, there’s Cyril (Cyrus Newitt), a WWII veteran, and his wife May (Melody James), who have fallen on hard times and appear to be living hand-to-mouth in abandoned digs with no gas or electricity.

What Dunsmore has created are three stages of human relationships: the opening moves as two young people, driven by surging hormones, ineptly grope towards each other, the middlegame, when a relationship develops in often surprising ways, and the endgame, in which the conclusion is all but inevitable.

In the theater’s intimate setting it’s easy to be drawn into the quest each character is on in an attempt to define himself or herself in terms of a relationship. Perlwitz creates a young girl desperate to be loved, who taunts and teases yet, at the same time, has self-image problems. Her character’s primary focus is on Meacham’s Ash, who is all but overwhelmed by her aggressiveness, but she also seeks affirmation from her teacher, Danny, and goes to lengths that will have dire consequences.

Arco’s Nicole, defined by her pregnancy, gives birth, only to realize that she has problems nursing her infant son and sees in this a rejection of her value, compounded by the revelation of Danny and Steph’s “relationship.”

The most poignant of the couples is Cyril and May, who evoke memories of some of Dickens’ most vivid “ancient” characters. Clinging to memories of a time when the world seemed to be theirs, they must deal with “checkmate” as best they can, May imagining meals they can no longer provide for themselves while Cyiril, who once rode into Berlin on a tank, now fearing the children and dogs that lurk outside.

The play is episodic, with the couples entering and exiting and often rearranging the two tables and chairs that serve as the set (sometimes, it would seem, to little or no purpose). The scene-setting can seem, at times, a bit tiresome, but given the size and configuration of the stage there was, perhaps, no alternative. The fact remains that once the scenes are set the six actors create memorable, believable characters, all of whom we care about, so much so that when one of them is about to act in a way we, the audience, know will lead to heartache the thought, “Don’t do it,” easily arises.

“Milk” runs through July 30. For tickets or more information go to www.thrownstone.org.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Restaging a Classic

Singin' in the Rain -- Summer Theatre of New Canaan -- Thru July 30

Matthew Tiberi as Don Lockwood


Over the past few decades there’s been a lot of cross-pollination between films and live-theater musicals (Disney thrives on that). Some have worked and some haven’t. It doesn’t take a genius to know that the two – film and theater – work with a different set of standards and requirements. What works on the screen might not work on the stage, and vice versa. The film version of Rent was a bomb and The Phantom of the Opera was often painful to watch.

So, what do you do if you decide to bring what has been called the best movie musical of the twentieth century onto the stage? Well, you don’t try to beat the film at its own game, and that’s just what the Summer Theatre of New Canaan has done in staging Singin’ in the Rain. Unlike Goodspeed’s effort of several years ago, which attempted to recreate the filmic experience, STONC has accepted that this is a stage production and, by and large, given the confines of the venue, it works.

What becomes apparent early on is that the book, based on the screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, is slight and not designed to capture attention. If you haven’t seen the film (is there anyone who hasn’t?), you may not know – or care – about what is happening up on the stage for the first ten or 15 minutes, primarily because there’s no real sense that what you’re seeing is occurring in a Hollywood film studio or its environs. It also doesn’t help that a lot of the exposition, such as it is, occurs extreme stage right – it’s like a visual after-thought. However, once the main characters – Don Lockwood (Matthew Tiberi), Cosmo Brown (David Rossetti), Lina Lamont (Jodi Stevens) and Kathy Selden (Annabelle Fox) – are established, the book really doesn’t matter because the musical numbers and choreography take center stage (figuratively and literally), and the rest of the evening is simply a lot of fun.

What – or who – drives the show? Well, that’s an easy question to answer. It’s Jodi Stevens playing the part of the bitchy, vocally challenged, clueless actress Lina Lamont. Stevens, who was recently seen in MTC’s production of the one-woman show, I’ll Eat You Last, shines and glitters in her character’s sheer acting ineptitude, and her solo song late in the second act, “What’s Wrong With Me?” (not in the film as released but in the London revival), is a surprising delight.

The other three leads, supported by a substantial cast, seem to come alive only in the production numbers, although many of these numbers are not framed as well as they could be, so all you can do is enjoy the music and dancing and not worry too much about logic (or, otherwise, draw on your memory of the film to answer the question: “Where are we?”). This is true of “Beautiful Girl” and “The Broadway Melody,” both big numbers that please on a very basic level.

Actually, this production, under the direction of Melody Libonati, with choreography by Doug Shankman, feels more like a revue, and as such it is very enjoyable. There’s a musical number, then a bit of yadda-yadda, then another musical number. The numbers, backed by a 10-piece orchestra, are staged with style and grace, and kudos should go to Shankman for not slavishly following the original film choreography (although the obligatory sofa, again set stage right, in the “Good Morning” number, is, well, obligatory rather than integral to the number) . Kudos should also go to Kelly Loughran (her role was danced in the film by Cyd Charisse). Her femme fatale routine in “Broadway Melody” is one of the high points of the show. Finally, the filmed portions of the show – both silent and ineptly miked – are dead-on and ably capture the style of the 1920s (again, kudos to Stevens).

You may not care much about what happens to the characters in Singin’ in the Rain (save for what Lena experiences – and remember, she’s not stupid!), but you will enjoy the songs they sing and the dance numbers they perform, and that’s enough to provide a lovely summer evening of theater in Connecticut -- and, yes, there’s rain and a lot of umbrellas and yellow rain slickers.

“Singin’ in the Rain” runs through July 30. For tickets or more information call 203-966-4634 or go to www.stonc.org

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Bill the Bard…Forsooth and all that Jazz

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) (revised) -- Playhouse on Park -- Thru 7/30



If silliness be the food of great evenings, play on.

Shakespeare! Oy! All that iambic pentameter stuff. And the words! “Bastinado.” “Beadsman.” “Chapless.” And what are we, citizens of the twenty-first century, to make of: "Touch you the sourest points with sweetest terms, / Nor curstness grow to the matter"? Say what?

Well, shed your Shakespearean fears, my friends, for Playhouse on Park has opted to stage “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) [Revised],” a romp through the Bard’s works that takes no prisoners as it cuts, slices, dices and otherwise dismembers the texts that have weighed heavily on the minds of high school students for decades. The satire by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield first saw the light of day at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1987 and has since been produced numerous times around the world. In Hartford, as directed by Tom Ridgely, it’s a fast-paced (one might even say “manic”) take-down of the pretentious approach to Shakespeare’s plays and the attendant scholarship.

The cast? Well, Shakespeare didn’t have any problem with SAG contracts, so he filled the stage (albeit with males). So, too, does Playhouse on Park, but with only three actors: Hanna Cheek, Rich Hollman and Sean Harris, who play the roles of, well, Hanna, Rich and Sean. You see, the evening is something of a post-grad seminar delivered by a professor on Angel Dust, with the three actors attempting to explain and elucidate the plays. It’s lunacy from start to finish, and a hell of a lot of fun.

It all begins with the actors bemoaning the audience’s lack of knowledge and appreciation for Shakespeare’s plays, followed by a biography of the Bard that somehow segues into Adolf Hitler’s life story. That sets the tone for the rest of the evening as the three actors attempt to present all of Shakespeare’s works on a bare, thrust stage, using whatever props are at hand.

The jokes come fast and furious, and there’s a lot of improv on the cast’s part depending on how the audience is reacting. Most of the Bard’s plays are taken care of in the first act, including a “Folk Othello” song written by Rich Hollman that evokes the 60s era of Peter, Paul and Mary. But the evening’s not over because, alas (and alack?), “Hamlet” has not been dealt with. Hence, the second act, which takes on the famous play both forwards (plus fast-forward) and, yes, backwards – and Harris’s inability to deliver the iconic “To be or not to be” soliloquy is priceless…and humorously mirrors most of the audience’s familiarity with the text – we can get to “that is the question” and then, well, it’s yadda yadda and mumble mumble.

Hanna Cheek, Rich Hollman, Sean Harris. Photo by Curt Henderson
 
All three actors are literally on the run from start to finish, and they don’t seem to miss a beat or a cue, regardless of where they have to exit (wearing a wig or a garbage bag) or enter (wearing a crown or water buckets), and they effortlessly beguile audience members to take part (screaming, running or chanting) in the farcical staging of “Hamlet.”

As good as Hollman and Harris are, and they are very good, when Cheek is on stage, which is often, she simply exudes her own spotlight. She’s blessed with an innate (okay, perhaps learned) sense of comic timing, has a wonderful projection of dramatic (and comedic) body language and, well, simply knows how to engage an audience, which is no more evident than in the “song-and-dance” routine she goes through to kill time until the two other actors make it back to the theater – apparently they’ve gone next door to A. C. Petersen’s for some ice cream. Hopefully, Playhouse on Park will invite her back, for she lights up the stage.

“The Complete Works…” runs through July 30. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to www.playhouseonpark.org

For aspiring thespians, the Playhouse is offering several programs: “Kids on Stage” (grades K- 5) covering music and drama (July 24 – 28); a “Jazz Boot Camp” (ages 16+) for those who “gotta dance” (August 7 – 11); and two summer workshops: “Theatre Confidence” (July 10) and “Acting a Song” (July 17). For more information go to the theater’s website.