Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Giddy "Chaperone"

The Drowsy Chaperone -- Goodspeed Musicals -- Through November 25

John Scherer as "Man in Chair." All photos by Diane Sobolewski

                Sometimes being silly serves a therapeutic purpose. If nothing else, while in the whirl of silliness you’re released from the burdens of everyday life, and everything that makes you frown or etches those stress lines on your face is chased away. So, if you feel you need a dose of silliness, make your way out to Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, take in two acts of “The Drowsy Chaperone” and call me in the morning. Billed as a “musical within a comedy,” this Tony award-winning, light-as-air exercise in frivolity and campiness (and intentional over-the-top performances) will, if only for a few hours, chase away the dreaded Blue Meanies.

                Directed with tongue-in-cheek by Hunter Foster, this puff-pastry production, with music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, and a book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar, introduces a “Man in Chair” (John Scherer). One wonders why the writers couldn’t give him a name, like Bruce or Boris (well, maybe not Boris). In any event, I guess he’s supposed to be Everyman, but he isn’t, for he is an agoraphobic who loves musical comedies, especially those boarded in the 20s and 30s, and has a collection of original cast albums (LPs, no less) that he treasures. He is familiar with the biographies of many of the now faded or forgotten stars of the shows and, when feeling a bit low, which apparently is often, he will put on a record and stage a musical comedy in his mind.

                The “Man in Chair” is a frame for the musical that will unfold, for “Man” will give a running commentary on, among other things, the structure of musicals, the strengths and weaknesses of those who played in them, historical musical theater tidbits and some insights into audience decorum and response to what occurs on a stage. He will also suggest, in passing, why he is smitten by these theatrical heirlooms and how they essentially assuage his loneliness as well as fulfill the dreams and desires that haunt his life. Playing the role with something of a limp-wristed nervousness, Scherer as “Man” is a tremendously engaging docent who, over the course of the evening, guides the audience through the musical comedy “museum” that is “The Drowsy Chaperone.” At the onset, he asks if the audience wishes to hear the original cast album. The audience responds in the affirmative. He lovingly wipes dust from an LP and places it on the turntable, drops the needle, and off we go.
Tim Falter and Clyde Alves
               The musical itself is filled with stereotypes: there’s the rich lady, Mrs. Tottendale (Ruth Gottschall) and her faithful if somewhat sarcastic servant, Underling (Jay Aubrey Jones). The lady plans to host a wedding. Robert (Clyde Alves) will be the groom, and George (Tim Falter) his best man, but this isn’t your normal society wedding because Robert is marrying Janet Van de Graaff (Stephanie Rothenberg), who has decided to forsake the stage to marry Robert, much to the consternation of Mr. Feldzieg (James Judy), who was planning to produce Janet’s next show.

Equally displeased with Janet’s nuptial intentions are two gangsters (Blakely and Parker Slaybaugh) who represent the “money” backing the show – if Janet weds, the show nosedives and the angel’s money is as good as gone. If that’s not enough, there’s the eponymous chaperone (Jennifer Allen), charged with keeping Janet on the straight and narrow (if the chaperone can stay sober), a European lounge lizard, Aldopho (John Rapson), a world-famous aviatrix, Trix (Danielle Le Greaves) and Feldzieg’s “lady friend,” Kitty (Ruth Pferdehirt), who aspires to play Janet’s role in the show. Got all that? So, will true love triumph or will fame, fortune and show biz glitz keep the lovers apart? It’s a no-brainer.
           So, “Man in Chair” drops the needle onto the LP and the show comes to life, which leads to a number of delightful production numbers done in the always superlative Goodspeed style. The actors may be playing in a clunky 1920s musical, but their performances are anything but clunky – they shine.     
     
            Many of the numbers evoke characters and staging from well-known, successful musicals. There’s the first-act “Cold Feets” number in which Alves and Falter, via tap dance, make you think of the Gene Kelly-Donald O’Connor pairing in “Singing in the Rain.” The second act opener, “Message From a Nightingale” is a Flo Ziegfield salute and the routines and patter of the two gangsters are right out of “Kiss Me, Kate!,” while Pferdehirt’s take on Kitty is pure Miss Adelaide ("Guys and Dolls"); there’s also more than a single nod to Busby Berkeley’s over-the-top staging style.

Stephanie Rothenberg and John Scherer
               As explained by “Man,” if a “big” star (read a female lead who could belt out a number) was cast in a musical, then there had to be an “anthem” number that allowed her to, well…belt it out (think Ethel Merman). Thus, Allen gets to belt out “As We Stumble Alone,” which becomes not only a production number but is reprised as the cast of the “show’ finally acknowledges the “Man’s” presence and devotion and includes him in the finale.
           If there’s a signature song in the show, it’s “Show Off,” in which Janet swears off show business and the attendant desire to draw attention to herself – of course, in the process, she does, in fact, draw attention to herself with multiple costume changes and a sword-swallowing moment at the end of the number. Rothenberg pulls all of this off with aplomb, as she also does in the “Bride’s Lament,” which is about her lover as a lovey-dovey monkey (the “Man” warns the audience that the song’s lyrics are ridiculous – which they intentionally are). This set-up features a statue of a monkey that visually refers to Rodin’s statue, “The Thinker” – its appearance evoked laughter before the number even got under way.

The cast of "The Drowsy Chaperone"
            The neat thing about Goodspeed’s “Drowsy Chaperone” is that there are multiple ways to enjoy the show. You can just sit back and revel in the production numbers, or you can catch all of the musical theater allusions, or you can follow the patter delivered by “Man in Chair,” catch some of the innuendo, and wiggle a bit at how “naughty” we’re all being. It’s up to you, but no matter what your “take” is on the show you’re sure to be entertained.

                “The Naughty Chaperone” runs through November 25. For tickets or more information call 860.873.8668 or visit: www.goodspeed.org.

Friday, October 12, 2018

A Shaggy Trout Story

The River -- TheaterWorks -- Through November 11

Billy Carter as The Man (the fish is uncredited)

                Okay, so a “shaggy dog story.” Definition: a very long story or anecdote with lots of narrative (and often pointless) asides that eventually leads to a punchline that evokes, at best, a shrug. If you don’t wish to memorize the definition and prefer a visual reference, all you need do is get yourself up to TheaterWorks in Hartford and sit through “The River,” a tedious, slumber-fest of a play that may very well be chock-full of meaning and heavy with symbolism, but if so, the deep messages and trenchant metaphors escaped at least one theatergoer.

                Yes, yes, I understand that we often “bait our hooks” to catch someone we might be interested in, and once they’re hooked we gently (or sometimes violently) reel them in and “land them,” and I’m familiar with the “Golden Apples of the Sun” and the lines: “…caught a little silver trout / And when I laid it on the ground / And gone to blow the fire aflame / Then something rustled on the floor / And someone called me by my name / It had become a glimmering girl / With apple blossoms in her hair / Who called me by my name and ran / And vanished in the brightening air.” Yup, yup got all that, but neither the fishing trope nor the poetic/folk-song allusion is sufficient, in and of themselves, to construct a play that might hold one’s interest.

                Okay, so what, pray tell, is “The River,” written by Jez Butterworth and directed by Rob Ruggiero, actually about? Well, it’s about…it’s about…let me see, let me think. Okay, it’s about this Man (Billy Carter) who owns a cabin nestled in the woods near a river. This man likes to fish and he asks women to join him in pursuit of his passion – it is, in effect, his come-on line: “Wanna come up to my cabin and watch me fish?” Yes, I know, he says it more poetically, but when you boil it down (or pan-fry it) that’s his pick-up line, and it’s apparently successful (maybe) because, as the play opens, he has lured (no pun intended) The Woman (Andrea Goss) to join him for a finny weekend of frolic and fly-fishing. Ah, but he has done this before, for there’s The Other Woman (Jasmine Batchelor) who has also been at the cabin, and apparently he has used the same lines (once again, no pun intended) on her as he uses on the new woman. Okay, so what happens? Well, essentially nothing – actually there may be quite a lot going on, but to grasp it you must maintain consciousness.

                To give you an idea of what the high point of the play might be, about half-way through the single act our stalwart fisherman turns on some music and takes a trout that the Woman has caught and prepares it for dinner. Okay, are you ready for this dramatic rise in tension? Here goes: he guts the fish and pulls out the bloody innards, rinses the fish to get out all of the blood, then cuts some slices into the fish, sprinkles on some olive oil, adds some salt and pepper (the tension mounts!), cuts a lemon and shoves the slices into the fish, then adds some herbs and…voila! It’s ready for the oven (by now you’re probably at the edge of your seat!). Oh, yes, then he washes his hands and towels them off (Are you still awake, still with me?). How long does this take? I didn’t time it, but it seemed an eternity. Again, rampant symbolism? Your guess is as good as (or probably better) than mine.

                Besides the lesson in fish preparation, the audience is treated to several extended monologues delivered by Man, Woman and Other Woman. They would be fine for use if one was going to audition, but as integral elements in a play they lay as flat as that dead fish on the table. Why? Because there’s no emotional investment, there’s nothing up for grabs, nothing to win or lose for Man, Woman and Other Woman – it just seems like they're up there on the stage to deliver lines – yes, they are often very well-written lines but, so what, it’s supposed to be a play not a poetry reading.

                Goss, Carter and Batchelor do their level best to bring some life into this essentially lifeless script. Goss is delightfully animated, Carter does know how to work a monologue to capture all of its nuances, and Batchelor gives the Other Woman one part sweet and one part saucy, but, alas, it’s all for naught, for I can’t envision anyone in the audience caring about these characters, caring about what happens to them…because, quite honestly, nothing really happens to them.

                Going back to the “Golden Apples,” some of the poem’s closing lines are: “I will find out where she has gone / And know her mouth and take her hands.” Well, that’s what Man seems to be doing, searching for this woman…or searching for the moment when, as a 7-year-old boy, he held a quivering trout in his hands and it leapt back into the river. The poem, the moment (which Man relates in one of his monologues) and the search for one’s soul-mate are all interesting elements, but they need to be hung on a dramatic framework – they could be considered to be the ornaments one places on a Christmas tree, but without the tree, its limbs, its structure, they’re just baubles.
                “The River” runs through November 11. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to www.theaterworkshartford.org

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

A Whole Lot of Star Quality

Evita -- ACT (Ridgefield) -- Extended Through November 11



                I ask, have you seen “Evita,” the Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber musical?

                You smile knowingly, as if to say, “Who hasn’t?” After all, you’re a theater-going pro – you’ve even seen “Xanadu.” You say: “I saw it on Broadway, I saw the movie, and I saw a road company production. I even saw a high school version – it wasn’t bad.” So, when you catch sight of a billboard on I-95 advertising a production of “Evita” at ACT (A Contemporary Theatre of Connecticut) in Ridgefield, you just shrug, take a sip of your salted caramel mocha frappuccino and continue on your way, little knowing that you’re making a big mistake, because no matter how many times you’ve seen “Evita,” this ACT production under the direction of Daniel Levine will open your eyes to just how good this musical can be.

                There’s a lot to praise about ACT’s staging – and I’ll get to it – but first I want to comment on several aspects of this production that might normally be buried deep in a review: the choreography and the orchestra. First, the choreography, created by Charlie Sutton. It’s simply dead-on, punctuating the lyrics and the emotions they evoke. Performed primarily by 13 of the 18 cast members, listed in the program as “The Men and Women of Argentina,” and heavily influenced by the sensuality and physicality of the tango, Sutton’s choreography seems innately aware of how men and women use their bodies to convey emotions and messages, as well as the primary tensions inherent in the show itself. The men often aggressively stomp their feet to accentuate their supposed dominance; the women’s movements are lithe and fluid, suggestive yet, in their own way, expressing a different kind of dominance. Then there are the moments when the men and women come together, weave their body languages to create a synthesis of the male/female dynamic…and the movement is almost non-stop. There just doesn’t seem to be a single static moment in the entire production.

                Then there’s the 10-member orchestra sequestered on a platform up-stage and conducted by Evan Roider. These musicians create a sound that is worthy of that of any pit orchestra on Broadway. From the show’s opening notes, the music seems to speak not just to the ear but to the entire body, filling the house and propelling the performances, wrapping the actors in a web of sound that is, at times, aggressive and propulsive and at other times seductive.

                So, what about the actors? Well, from its inception, one of ACT’s stated commitments has been to bring “Broadway” to Ridgefield and, by extension, greater Fairfield County. Based on the casting for “Evita,” ACT is meeting its commitment. First, there’s Julia Estrada as Eva. From her first appearance as an on-the-make teenager to Eva’s death scene, Estrada commands the stage. She is, quite simply, everything you could ask for in an Evita – conniving, calculating, sensual and, at the right moments, vulnerable. It’s not just that she easily nails Eva’s signature song, “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina,” she delivers a complete performance that makes you believe you are watching the evolution of “Santa Evita.”

                Supporting Estrada is Angel Lozada as Che, Ryan K. Bailer as Peron, Julian Alvarez as Magaldi and Mariana Lopez Hilderley as The Mistress. Although one might ask for just a bit more heat/chemistry between Lozada and Estrada (especially in the “Waltz” scene), Lozada, as the troubled revolutionary, turns in an admirable performance, putting sufficient bite into his renditions of “Oh What a Circus” and “The Money Kept Rolling In.”  Bailer gives us the essence of the suave, calculating politician and Alvarez is unmistakable as the lounge-lizard par excellence. Finally, in her one featured moment, Hilderley, as Peron’s young mistress, offers the audience a heartfelt, touching “Another Suitcase” – it’s possibly the best performance of this song I’ve seen or heard.

                What makes this production of “Evita” so impressive is that the actors playing multiple roles as the “Men and Women” seem to be performing as if their very lives depended on the outcome, by that I mean there’s an abundance of energy up there as they sing, chant, clap and whirl about the stage, which is to the credit of director Levine and choreographer Sutton. What most impressed me was how the two-plus hours, even with an intermission, seemed to fly by, something that, unfortunately, often doesn’t happen when you’ve seen a show multiple times. Thanks to the scenic design by Jack Mehler (and a turntable stage), transitions between scenes are seamless and one musical number (the show is basically sung-through) flows into another so that the audience barely has time to catch its breath.

                So, if you’re a semi-jaded theater-goer who shrugs at the idea of seeing “Evita” one more time, shed your façade of Webber-weariness and wend your way up to Ridgefield. You won’t be disappointed. ACT has boarded a first-class production that intrigues and entrances, thanks to a first-rate cast that perform just about every number as if it is opening night on Broadway.
                “Evita” has been extended through November 11. For tickets or more information, go to www.actofct.org.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

The beast within

Jekyll & Hyde -- Music Theatre of Connecticut -- Through October 14

Andrew Foote as Jekyll/Hyde

                There’s nothing like a Manichaean musical to brighten up your day…or more likely your evening. You can ponder the eternal battle between the light and the dark, compare the body count to that in “Sweeney Todd,” all the while enjoying some rather fetching melodies. This opportunity is being offered by Norwalk’s Music Theatre of Connecticut as it opens its 37th season with “Jekyll & Hyde,” a loose reworking of the 1886 novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, the show under the direction of Kevin Connors. This exercise in the dissection of the human psyche and soul is often quite entertaining, but its inevitable conclusion (and the time it takes to get there) may have audience members leaving the theater in search of a good stiff drink.

                Many who attend the show may not have read the original novella, but odds are they are familiar with the book’s main plot point: good doctor Henry Jekyll, seeking to understand the workings of the human mind, experiments on himself with a potion of his own creation. Instead of scientific revelation there is the emergence of Jekyll’s darker side in the form of the murderous, maniacal Edward Hyde. What follows is Jekyll battling for his soul against his alter-ego. It remains to be seen who actually wins the battle.

                After a long period of development, regional productions and a national tour, the musical, originally conceived for the stage by Frank Wildhorn and Steve Cuden, with music by Wildhorn, a book by Leslie Bricusse and lyrics by Wildhorn, Bricusse and Cuden, opened on Broadway in 1997 and enjoyed a four-year run. It has been described aptly as a “musical horror-drama,” a phrase that might seem a bit oxymoronic if not for the success of its kissing cousin, “Sweeney Todd,” which opened on Broadway several decades before.

                The MTC production captures the dark nature of the musical and visually reinforces, especially in the final Jekyll-Hyde conflict (compliments of lighting director Michael Blagys) the metaphoric battle between the light and dark aspects of humanity. Central to the success of any production of “Jekyll & Hyde” is the casting of the male lead, and Connors wisely chose Andrew Foote to take on the task. Foote is, as the need arises, suave and sophisticated and, at other times, essentially demonic, and he delivers several of the show’s signature songs, chief among them “This is the Moment,” with almost overwhelming energy.

It’s always interesting to see how a production of the musical handles the Jekyll-Hyde transformation. In the case of MTC, it’s done simply by an unraveling of Jekyll’s hair queue to create a wild mane that almost covers Hyde’s face, as well as a demonstrative change in body language (Jekyll stands upright; Hyde often crouches). Do we, the audience, believe in the transformation? Absolutely, much to Foote’s credit.

For those familiar with MTC, the idea of a “big production” doesn’t immediately come to mind, but given the theater’s confines, Connors, casting 13 actors, often fills the stage, making the ensemble numbers – “Façade,” and “Murder, Murder” – very satisfying, and the five musicians situated up-stage often give the impression that there’s a full orchestra hidden somewhere.
Carissa Massaro
Supporting Foote in his dynamic take on the Jekyll-Hyde character are Carissa Massaro as Emma, Jekyll’s intended bride, and Elissa DeMaria as Lucy, the prostitute whom Jekyll befriends and Hyde, well, uses and abuses. Although one might quibble about the vocal range of these two ladies, Massaro and Foote offer a lovely duet with “Take Me as I Am” and Massaro touches the heart with “Once Upon a Dream.”
Elissa DeMaria
 
       It’s DeMaria who has the bigger shoes to fill, for the role of Lucy was created by the incomparable Linda Eder, for which she won a Theatre World award and a Drama Desk nomination for best actress in a musical. Comparison is often a fool’s game, so we’ll take DeMaria’s performance on its own merits, which are substantial. However, there seems to be just a touch of stridency in her renditions of “Someone Like You” and “A New Life.” Perhaps just bringing down the emotional level just a notch might round out the performance.

     If there’s any problem with “Jekyll & Hyde” it has nothing to do with MTC’s staging of the musical, but rather with the book itself, which has been fiddled with numerous times. Quite simply, it’s too long and suffers from redundancy. As for length, the set-up leading to the Jekyll-Hyde transformation is over-stated – we get the premise early on (in fact, most come into the theater already understanding the premise), and so several of the songs (it’s essentially a sung-through musical) that reinforce Jekyll’s desire to plumb the depths of the human psyche seem superfluous. Then there’s the transformation, which everyone in the audience is waiting for. Late into the first act a thought arises: when the hell is Jekyll going to become Hyde? That’s what we’ve all come to see so let’s get on with it.

     Thinking about the musical and its emotional trajectory, it might be better if it was re-thought as a one-act production, with a lot of the ‘fat’ cut away. After all, the source was a novella, not a novel. However, Connors and company must deal with what they’ve been given, and the effort is often quite pleasing. There’s a sense that, walking out of the theater, you’ve seen a “big” musical on a relatively small stage, which is one of MTC’s fortes.
“Jekyll & Hyde” runs through October 14. For further information or ticket reservations call the box office at: 203.454.3883 or visit: www.musictheatreofct.com.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Tempest-tossed

el Huracán -- Yale Repertory Theatre -- Through October 20


Irene Sofia Lucio and Arturo Soria. All Photos by T. Charles Erickson
Habla español? No? Well then, you may have some difficulty embracing all of the nuances of Charise Castro Smith’s “el Huracán,” which is currently being premiered by Yale Repertory Theatre. However, is the possible language barrier a problem? No, not really, for even when you may not know exactly what is being said, this fine cast of six actors ably conveys the emotions implicit in the dialogue…and non-bi-linguists can rest easy – most of the dialogue is, in fact, in English. After all, you may not understand specifically what a hurricane might be trying to “say” to you, but you get the message: there’s a storm brewing and you’d best prepare for the worst and take cover, and in the play many emotional (and several meteorological) storms assault the lives of the Cuban immigrants and their descendants who have sought, in one way or another, to find shelter on the “high ground.” Save for the conclusion of the play, where there’s an odd musical choice and a somewhat emotionally manipulative tableau vivant, “el Huracán,” is intriguing theater that is quite satisfying on multiple levels.
                The play, directed by Laurie Woolery, opens with an elderly woman, Valeria (Adriana Sevahn Nichols), tottering onto the stage. She seems confused, unfocused, but suddenly a wand appears in her hand and its appearance evokes a memory which, with a wave of the wand, she brings to life. What follows is a magic act performed by a younger Valeria (Irene Sofia Lucio) and her partner, a young Alonso (Arturo Soria), a man whom she will marry and who will abandon her, forcing her and her daughter, Ximena (Maria-Christina Oliveras) to leave Cuba to find a new home in Miami, where the real-time elements of the play occur. This opening sequence (supported by a Sinatra vocal) establishes the concept that throughout the play we will be asked to slide back and forth in time, for the older Valeria is battling dementia, and much of what is revealed is presented via her somewhat disjointed “hurricane” of memories.
                What Smith is primarily dealing with here is the idea that the sins of the mothers are visited on their daughters, and that those who commit these sins must repent and seek redemption. Thus, in the present day of the play, we are offered a multi-generational saga that includes a memory-challenged grandmother (the older Valeria), the now adult Ximena, her daughter, Miranda (played by Lucio) and, late in the play, Val (Jennifer Parides), Miranda’s daughter, with the ghost of Alonso (Jonathan Nichols) haunting the grandmother’s mind.
Irene Sofia Lucio and Adriana Sevahn Nichols
 
                The sins? Well, they are, in essence, the stuff that troubles life: the shirking of responsibilities, the harboring of grievances, shielding the young from uncomfortable truths and the inability to get beyond the grief that comes with loss. These themes are presented in a free-floating, at times stream-of-consciousness, structure that demands the audience’s non-stop attention because plot points are not always presented in a linear fashion.
                The play is also about the disruptions that often arise to disturb the smooth flow of life, said disruptions taking the form of two hurricanes – Andrew in 1992 and the imagined Penelope in 2019 – that pound Florida. These hurricanes, strikingly captured by scenic designer Gerardo Diaz Sánchez, lighting designer Nic Vincent, sound designer Megumi Katayama and projection designer Yaara Bar, serve metaphorically to punctuate the upheavals in the characters’ lives.
                Given that the play covers multiple decades, several of the actors must “age” over the course of the evening, and kudos are due Lucio and Oliveras for accomplishing this “aging” with style, grace and keen perception of how we, over time, often become – or at least evince many of the traits of – our parents. This aging leads to an absolutely wonderful theatrical moment mid-way through the play when Miranda and Ximena, by simply changing costumes and donning wigs, transform themselves (while never leaving the stage) from young daughter and middle-aged mother to a mature woman and a bitter, elderly grandmother who is, herself, starting to lose her mental faculties. But it’s not just the costumes that create the transformation. The two actors modify their body language and their vocal patterns (the tone and timbre of their voices) to enhance and support the transformation and make it all believable. It is, quite simply, worth the price of admission to be able to view this inspired moment.
Jennifer Parades and Maria-Christina Oiveras
 
Keep that moment, and many other fine moments in this memory play, in your mind as you watch the play’s closing scene, because it might engender a few “Say what?” thoughts that shouldn’t darken your overall response to this production. The first “Say what?” thought is brought about when, as the generations gather, we suddenly hear Gene Kelly crooning “Singing in the Rain.” Up until this point, it’s been Sinatra songs, moody and expressive, that have underpinned many of the scenes. To be blunt, to have Kelly’s up-beat embrace of his character’s delight in love and life (after all, he’s got a “smile on his face for the whole human race”) at the end of the show is simply wrong.
This musical misstep is, at the curtain, exacerbated by the creation of the aforementioned tableau vivant, with the characters gathering together as if they are posing for a family portrait, eyes uplifted towards a heaven where all has been resolved and forgiven. It’s emotionally contrary to what has preceded it and, even more egregious, is an obvious attempt to send the audience members off with a song in their hearts and a smile on their lips. In other words, it’s false and just a tad manipulative.
Although we often have a tendency to remember best the last things we see and hear, the play’s final, wrong-headed moments shouldn’t taint what has come before, for the first 120 minutes or so (there’s no intermission) are often enthralling, made so by some very fine acting, perceptive direction, sensitive writing and very effective special effects. So, have a senior moment – erase Kelly’s “glorious feeling” and the final Norman Rockwell staged portrait from your memory and recall all of the good things that came before.
“el Huracán” runs through October 20. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to www.yalerep.org

Monday, October 1, 2018

Beware the Knight of the Mirrors

Man of La Mancha -- Westport Country Playhouse -- Through October 13

Philip Hernandez as Don Quixote, Photo by Carol Rosegg

                Sometimes, just because you can do something doesn’t mean it should be done. Take the case of “Man of La Mancha,” Westport Country Playhouse’s current production under the direction of Mark Lamos. The musical, with a book by Dale Wasserman, lyrics by Joe Darion, and music by Mitch Leigh, garnered five Tony awards when it opened on Broadway in 1965, after a premiere run at the Goodspeed Opera House. It was based on Wasserman’s 1959 teleplay, “I, Don Quixote,” which, in turn, was loosely based on the 17th-century novel, “Don Quixote,” written by Miguel de Cervantes. The original Broadway production (it’s been revived four times) ran for over 2,300 performances, was made into a film in 1972 starring Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren, and has been produced by theaters around the world. In other words, it’s an American musical icon, and as such, it’s always a bit of a challenge to stage material that is etched into the minds of much of the theater-going public. This Lamos does quite successfully, with some minor lighting quibbles, until we get late into the second act, when technology takes over and the musical suddenly seems to become a trailer for the next “Transformers” movie. Why is this more than a quibble? I’ll attempt to explain later.

                Part of the musical’s appeal, in addition to the score, is that, at its heart, it’s both a bromance and a romance. The bromance is the relationship between Alonso Quijano (Philip Hernandez), who, succumbing to the delusional world of the knight errant mythology, renames himself Don Quixote de La Mancha, and his faithful servant, Sancho Panza (Tony Manna), with whom he sets out on a quest. When asked why Sancho stays with the addled knight, Sancho answers with a song: “I Really Like Him.”

The romance deals with Quixote’s fixation on a serving wench (she who was “born on a dung heap” and offers herself to whoever drops money into her hand) named Aldonza (Gisela Adisa), whom Quixote rechristens “Dulcinea,” for every knight must have a lady in whose name he performs valorous deeds. Thus, it’s a story about people’s evolving relationships, the emotions these relationships engender, and the delusions that often fuel these emotions.

The play-within-a-play format begins with Cervantes and his servant imprisoned for “questioning” by the Spanish Inquisition. His fellow inmates decide to put the author on trial and, in his defense, Cervantes suggest that, using the prisoners as actors, he present a play – the story of a knight errant. What follows is the unfolding of the Quixote legend replete with windmill-tilting and the knight’s commitment to “the quest,” with story-line and character development fostered by such songs as the signature “Impossible Dream” as well as “Dulcinea,” “What Does He Want of Me, “Little Bird” and “I, Don Quixote.”

The cast is quite admirable, led by Hernandez, who gives the Cervantes character the necessary air of nobility while shifting gears as Quixote to show a man captured by the mania of a myth. Hernadez’s deep, resonant voice seems to fill the house, and his rendition of the “Impossible Dream” subtly provides the sense of the futile nature of the quest beneath what is often delivered merely as an anthem. As Quixote’s “love interest,” Adisa gives us an Aldonza whose vocal abilities and take on some of the songs seem a bit too “modern” for her character – by that I mean there are some jazz riffs and “Dream Girls” moments that sneak in, but there’s no denying that she nails the second act’s “Aldonza” and “Dulcinea.”

Manna’s first few moments on stage as Sancho might portend that he will deliver a “wink-wink” take on Quixote’s sidekick as he plays to the audience, but he quickly settle into the character and allows the comedy inherent in the role to speak for itself. In supporting roles, the Padre (Carlos Encinias) offers the audience a lovely, touching “To Each His Dulcinea,” and works well with Carrasco (Clay Singer), Antonia (Paola Hernandez) and the Housekeeper (Lulu Picart) in the paean to hypocrisy, “We’re Only Thinking of Him.”

In fact, things go swimmingly as the audience is drawn into the lives of these characters until late in the second act when Carrasco, Antonia’s intended husband, believes he must, for the sake of the good family name, “cure” the crazy old man, Antonia’s uncle, of his illness. Thus, he presents himself to Quixote as another knight, “The Enchanter,” who claims he is the “Knight of the Mirrors” who will force Quixote to look at himself to see the truly pitiful, delusional figure he has become. Here is where we go into “Transformer” land, for this “knight” appears as disparate parts that reach from the stage almost up to the fly space – it’s all a visual jumble that takes away from the intimacy of the conflict and draws the audience’s attention away from Quixote’s agony as it demands focus on the “really cool,” humongous figure that visually screams “Look what we can do in this theater!” Who’s responsible for this decision? Lamos? Scenic designer Wilson Chin? Costume designer Fabian Fidel Aguilar? Who knows, but it’s a technical “stunt” that is totally unnecessary and dramatically off-putting.

Putting aside this “big” moment late in the second act, the Playhouse’s production of “La Mancha” is an enjoyable re-telling of the Quixote tale that offers the audience some very fine performances and some sensitive, perceptive staging on Lamos’s part that includes some chess-piece blocking using, “knight,” “queen,” “bishop” and “castle.” Hopefully, as the audience members depart they will remember all that was artistically rendered in the production and forget about the hulking, lumbering “Knight of the Mirrors.”
“Man of La Mancha” runs through October 13. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org

Monday, September 24, 2018

"Once" Shines at Ivoryton

Once -- The Ivoryton Playhouse -- Through October 14
Katie Barton and Sam Sherwood.
Photos by Jonathan Steele

                In the opening week of a live-theater production it’s normal to see some rough edges, minor problems with blocking or line delivery that the director, via notes or additional rehearsals, seeks to smooth out. Well, Ben Hope, the director of the delightful “Once” currently playing at the Ivoryton Playhouse, can put his feet up and relax, for this highly polished production is just about near-perfect. From the opening musical numbers that greet the audience as it enters the house to the final, heart-touching reprise of “Falling Slowly,” just about everything works, and works to perfection. This modern-day, somewhat bittersweet fairy tale (Yes, it’s “Once upon a time…” with a modern twist) is a show that simply embraces the audience from curtain to curtain.

            The fairy-tale quality of the show is established immediately, for the cast (save for the leads) is out front for all to see and performs several musical numbers that are either vivacious or contemplative. This approach is appropriate, for the show is as much about the joy of creating music as it is about boy meets girl. We then have the appearance of the characters who will be swept up in the fairy tale: the Guy (Sam Sherwood) and the Girl (Katie Barton). That’s how they are named – just a guy and a girl who happen, serendipitously, to meet on a street in Dublin, he a somewhat despairing musician who’s doing some corner-singing for small change and she a Czech émigré with a dysfunctional Hoover vacuum cleaner. This meeting occurs while the rest of the cast, all who play instruments, are sitting stage right and left and who will, at various moments, facilitate the growing relationship between the guy and the girl.

            Okay, so I’ve held off as long as possible (two paragraphs worth), but here comes the fulsome praise: Katie Barton as the Girl is, well, mesmerizing. Whether she’s playing the piano, singing, or creating a character, complete with a Czech accent that has her bite into her dialogue, Girl appears to be as tough as nails but hides a heart that aches, and in doing so Barton simply owns the stage. In the fairy-tale world of the show within a show, she is the driving force, compelling the Guy, ably acted by Sherwood, to ditch his despair and again begin to dream.

            As Barton glistens, there are numerous standout moments. In a scene in which the Girl forces the Guy to perform on a stage, the other cast members (the audience for the open mike show) slowly stand and begin, one after another, to respond to his song, playing instruments and then dancing in unison (compliments of Hope, who also choreographed the show). It’s a giddy moment, a delightful visual response to a performance that, I would think, tempted the audience to also rise and gambol.

            In another scene, Girl wants Guy to record his music, but renting a studio costs money, so they go to a bank to get a loan. They meet with a bank manager (Andreina Kasper) who is at first skeptical. After Guy sings for her she hauls out a cello, reveals that she, herself, is a songwriter, and proceeds to murder her own composition, “Abandoned in Bandon.” When she finishes, all Guy and Girl can do is stare at her in amazement. Finally, Girl gives her a terse piece of advice.

The supporting cast of "Once"
            The fairy-tale, quasi-romance of Guy and Girl is framed by the musicians – the rest of the cast – and they are supremely accomplished and, well, appear to take great joy in creating music. Since the show is based on a film written and directed by John Carney, there’s a certain filmic quality to this framing, not the least of which is that there is a “film score” that permeates the show. In several numbers that feature Guy and Girl singing, violins softly rise, percussion provides a back-beat, and guitars and a cello add their “voices.” Never once (at least for one audience member) does the question arise: “Where is this music coming from?” It’s all of a piece and integrated so artistically that it enhances the overall “Once upon a time…” trope, giving the audience the feel that they are watching events unfold in a musical Wonderland.

            A confession. At intermission I pondered whether this was a true Ivoryton production or whether it was a co-production with another company – that the cast might have been imported and been together for months. Such is not the case…and all I can say is “Wow!” Here we are in the hinterlands of Connecticut seeing a production that is worthy of a Broadway stage, a production that boasts talent galore and seems to take delight in its very being. What is more intriguing, and impressive, is that this is Hope’s directorial debut. Yes, he played the role of Guy on Broadway, but that’s not always a guarantee that an actor can make the transition to the responsibilities of director, that he can envision the production not from his own character’s point of view but from a very different perspective – the whole rather than the part, if you will. That “Once” is so polished is a testament that Hope is fully capable of making the actor-director transition.

            A final accolade. What Ivoryton has boarded makes me, a critic who got a free ticket to see the show, want to spend my hard-earned money to see the show again, if only to bask in the show’s exuberance and to once again watch Barton work her magic. There was a packed house at the matinee I attended and I only hope that the seats will continue to be filled throughout the show’s run, for it’s one of the best shows – and that’s saying a lot – that this venerable theater has ever produced.
            “Once” runs through October 14. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.