Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Year in Theater

Looking Back
                         David Christopher Wells and Liv Rooth. Photo by Lanny Nagler

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, as it is most years with Connecticut theater, although the good did outweigh the mediocre and the bad. Some chances were taken that succeeded beyond expectations, while others sent me out of the theater shaking my head and looking for the closest watering hole.

                                  Maureen Anderman. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” was, indeed magical. The Westport Country Playhouse production, starring Maureen Anderman and directed by Nicholas Martin, was gripping from start to finish, all the more so since Anderman was able to milk some humor out of what is, in essence, an exercise in death and denial. 

                              Alexis Molnar, Bobby Steggert, Kate Nowlin and Paul Anthony 
                              Stewart. Photo by T. Charles Ericksom.

The Playhouse’s “Harbor” was a bit uneven, but it gave Connecticut audiences the opportunity to see the debut of Alexis Molnar as Lottie – those who saw her performance will, in years to come, be able to say that they were there when a star was born.

                           Charise Castro Smith and Jeanine Serralles in "Tartuffe."
                           Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Then there was “Tartuffe.” Purists quibbled, but under the direction of David Kennedy it was of a piece and enjoyable, especially given Jeanine Serralles’ performance as the saucy maid Dorine. Some found her performance a bit over the top, but I reveled in it. The Playhouse’s season ended with “A Raisin in the Sun,” which, quite honestly, left me flat. As directed by Phylicia Rashad, the production seemed captured in a time warp, striving to be more relevant than it was. Again, others found it moving, but I was never engaged.

Engagement was never a problem with Hartford Stage’s “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.”  What a musical romp! Murder and revenge wrapped up in a frothy confection that was a treat to the eye and ear, especially given Jefferson Mays’ stellar performance as nine different characters (Mays reappeared on the Yale Rep’s stage late in the season in “Dear Elizabeth.”)

              Erin Scanlon, Liliane Klein and Virginia Bartholomew. Photo by Judy Barbosa.

There was some doubling-up this year, as there always is given how far in advance theaters have to plan their seasons. There were two productions of “Romeo and Juliet” that I saw: Shakespeare on the Sound opted to produce it as a play within a play. The frame didn’t work, but once we got to the Bard, things took a turn for the better. However, Connecticut Free Shakespeare’s production was something to wrap yourself up in: fast-moving and ribald, the tragedy came alive at the Beardsley Zoo, the play no longer a centuries-old tragedy but something vibrant, alive and of the moment.

                                            Kate Alexander as Golda Meir

I also saw two productions of “Golda’s Balcony,” William Gibson’s play about Golda Meir. TheatreWorks New Milford’s production was enjoyable, but lacked the spark and intensity of the production at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, where Kate Alexander, broken foot and all, gave a multi-dimensional performance that held the audience spellbound. If I might, a word about Playhouse on Park. It’s a little jewel of a theater that deserves a larger patronage. I saw two other productions there – “Of Mice and Men” and “Driving Miss Daisy” – and both were strong, creative and theatrically sound.

                                  Antoinette LaVecchia. Photo by Lanny Negler

Staying in Hartford for a moment, I have to say the three plays I enjoyed most this season were all staged at Hartford TheaterWorks. First, there was the one-woman show, “I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti,” in which Antoinette LaVecchia played a love-challenged woman who, while detailing the few ups and many downs of her love life makes a three-course dinner from scratch on stage and served it to audience members. You don’t see that every day.

                      Andrea Maulella and Mark Shanahan in Tryst. Photo by Lanny Nagler

Then there was Mark Shanahan and Andrea Maulella reprising their roles as a womanizer and a hat store worker in “Tryst.” Those who saw these two fine actors in the same play at the Westport Country Playhouse several years ago were in for several surprises, for the two actors, under the direction of Rob Ruggiero, re-imagined their characters as well as the staging of several key scenes that made this production not only riveting but shocking (there were screams from the audience the night I was in attendance, and Maulella, in a subsequent interview I had with her, said the screams continued night after night.)

Finally, my favorite, “Venus in Fur” the David Ives exploration of a casting call that goes horribly wrong, or right, depending on your point of view. David Christopher Wells gave a strong, multi-dimensional performance as Thomas, but all the lines are in Vanda’s corner, and Liv Rooth was absolutely amazing as the foul-mouthed actress who transmogrifies into…well, why spoil the play for those who haven’t seen it yet?

                                Juliet Lambert Pratt. Photo by Kerry Long

Ending on a musical note, Goodspeed’s “Carousel” was creative and engaging, and “The Pirates of Penzance,” as produced by the Connecticut Repertory Theatre, was, to say the least, vigorous. Equally engaging was Summer Theatre of New Canaan’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” (saw it twice – once as a reviewer and once escorting my daughter). However, for sheer intensity, I’d have to go with Westport’s MTC Mainstage’s production of “Next to Normal!” Given the venue’s intimacy, Juliet Lambert Pratt’s Diana was searing – she was never more than three or four feet away from the audience the entire night, so her every gesture, every facial expression, registered. It was a bravura, visceral performance that left the audience (or at least one member of it) drained.

And so it goes. Long Wharf gave us an intimate look at the iconic Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong in “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” then followed up with “The Killing of Sister George,” with Kathleen Turner directing and starring. A study in contrasts, the good versus the bad and the ugly, but that’s what theater is all about, taking chances, interpreting, attempting to find the soul of characters, using sound and motion, sets and lighting, and sheer human presence to create a moment that will, hopefully, speak to both body and soul. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but I wouldn’t have it any other way, because theater is a human endeavor, and we humans fail as often as we succeed, nowhere more than up there on the stage. 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Holiday Treats and a New Season

TriArts Announces 2013 Season

TriArts Sharon Playhouse has just announced its 2013 season. Leading off will be "Spamalot," the musical take-off on "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," with flying cows, killer rabbits and a lot of nasty French people. The show will run June 26 - July 7.

"They're Playing Our Song," the Marvin Hamlisch-penned musical, follows. It's a lighthearted look at an established composer's relationship with an aspiring female lyricist. July 19 - 28. Another Broadway classic, "Damn Yankees," is next up. Running Aug. 14 - 25, the musical tells the tale of a man who sells his soul to the Devil just so he can win the pennant against the Yankees.

Along with its three mainstage musicals, TriArts will offer two plays presented in the Bok Gallery: "Doubt" and "Next Thing You Know." Finally, TriArts popular musical revue, "The Way You Wear Your Hat: The Music of George Gershwin" will grace the mainstage in June.

Goodspeed's 8th Annual Festival of New Artists

Goodspeed's 8th annual Festival of New Artists kicks off its three-day program on Friday, Jan. 18, at the Goodspeed Opera House with a staged reading of "Nine Wives." On Saturday, Jan. 19, the rocking new musical "Come From Away" debuts. On the final day, the unconventional tale "Princesses: a new rock musical" will be presented.

"Nine Wives" tells the tale of Henry, a bachelor who has been invited to the wedding of the woman he loves. Can he find a date to show the world that he has moved on?

"Come From Away" has 38 planes diverted to a small Canadian community on 9/11. As the world reels from the tragedy in New York, the Canadian community opens its arms and its heart to people from far away.

"Princess: a new rock musical" has four princesses escape their castle only to shock the fairy tale world with their unconventionality.

There are various special events in addition to the three main presentations, and various packages. For tickets or more information call 860-873-8668 or go to

"Beauty and the Beast" at DCT Children's Theatre

                                                  Lance Gray and Maria Vee

Downtown Cabaret Children's Theatre is offering a modern, hilarious and touching adaptation of the classic "Beauty and the Beast," written and directed by Cabaret veteran Maria Vee. It's the standard story, with some twists -- Beauty -- call her "B" -- doesn't read, she rents DVDs from Redbox, and when, to save her father, she enters the beast's castle, it's like entering some sci-fi or animated movie. The disparate pair bond over their favorite movies...but, will love triumph?

The show runs weekends from Jan. 12 thru Feb. 17. For tickets call 203-576-1636 or go to

"Dixie's Tupperware Party" at the Palace

                                                              "Dixie Longate"

Dixie Longate is a fast-talking, Southern Tupperware Lady who packed up her catalogues, left her three children in an Alabama trailer park, and set out across the country to sell her wonderful plastic products. You can come to one of her parties at The Plaace in Waterbury from Jan 15 - 20 to enjoy some funny tales, free giveaways, audience participation and a fabulous assortment of Tupperware, put to standard and non-standard uses.

For tickets to "Dixie's Tupperware Party" call 203-346-2000 or go to

"Cinderella" Panto at the Sherman Playhouse

                    Christine Amorin as The Fairy Godmother and Sophie Rundhaug 
                                   as Cinderella. Photo: Josh Siegel

For its holiday offering, the Sherman Playhouse is presenting "Cinderella," in a Panto (British Pantomime), a delightful blend of the fairy-tale classic mixed with vauldeville and slapstick, with contemporary references and lots of audience participation -- it's raucous, noisy and totally fun.

"Cinderella" runs from Nov. 30 through Dec. 30 on weekends, with 8 p.m. performances on Fridays and 2 p.m. performances on Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets: 860-354-3622 or go to

Rudolph and Santa at DCT Children's Theatre

                         Photo courtesy of Downtown Cabaret Children's Theatre

Just in time for the holidays, Bridgeport's Downtown Cabaret Children's Theatre is offering "Rudolph and the Reindeer Games" on weekends from Nov. 10 through Dec. 30.

In the 73rd annual Reindeer Games, Santa's team includes a new contestant, Rudy, who must vie for the championship with Donner while trying to win the heart of Dancer. Complications arise when a pending blizzard poses the threat of Santa having to cancel Christmas. Can Rudy find the courage to win the games and Dancer's heart plus save Christmas?

Tickets: 203-576-1636 or go to

Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Lovely Drive

"Driving Miss Daisy"  -- Playhouse on Park -- Thru Dec. 23

                                             Waltrudis Buck as Daisy Werthan

Having recently been assaulted, in more ways than one, by “The Killing of Sister George” at Long Wharf, it was a true relief to sit in the dark at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford and watch three accomplished actors weave their magic as they slowly yet surely created characters that resonated and touched both the heart and the soul. I’m talking about the indomitable Daisy Wertham, the wise, down-to-earth Hoke Colbum, and the much put upon Boolie Werthan, three people who, over a span of 25 years, come to learn much about each other, themselves and the ways of the heart. I’m talking about Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer Prize winner, “Driving Miss Daisy.”

Set in Atlanta, the story is a simple one. Miss Daisy (Waltrudis Buck), a well-off Jewish widow, is getting on in years and, though she vociferously says nay, has become a road menace. Her latest accident prompts her doting son, Boolie (Bristol Pomeroy) to seek a driver for his cantankerous mother. He interviews and hires Hoke (Marvin Bell), but Miss Daisy will have none of it, so for the first five days of his employ, Hoke sits in the kitchen with the cook. But on the sixth day (the same number of days, Hoke points out in a phone call to Boolie, God took to create all that is), her cajoles her into letting him drive her to the local Piggly-Wiggly. On the way they have their first of many arguments about driving, appropriate routes and who’s actually in charge.

What unfolds from these opening scenes is a graceful, gentle examination of the ways of the heart. As time passes, Miss Daisy and Hoke grow closer as the world they live in begins to radically change. They grow older and the world turns harsher and more violent, forcing them to create a bond that will shield them from the vagaries and vicissitudes of life. In the end, all they have is each other…and it is enough. In a touching moment, Miss Daisy reaches out to Hoke and says, “You are my best friend.”

Under the direction of Stevie Zimmerman, this strong cast draws the audience into their characters’ world, framed by a bare-bones, turn-table set by Tina-Louise Jones that trusts the audience to fill in the blanks. At the center of it all is Miss Daisy, and Buck is, to put it simply, luminous. Beneath Marcus Abbot’s subtle yet effective lighting, Buck shimmers and glows, up-tight and upright yet creating an aura that hints at the girl that still lurks beneath the iron-willed façade. She deftly handles Daisy’s gradual change of heart about Hoke, and about the life that swirls about her, facial expressions and body language often conveying more than the lines she speaks. It’s a warm, wise performance.

                                                  Marvin Bell as Hoke Colbum

Equally nuanced is Bell’s Hoke. He, even more than Buck, relies on body language to convey undertones. Respectful yet never subservient, his Hoke effectively conveys the wisdom gleaned from living in a society where “truth” is a matter of who is speaking and the color of the speaker’s skin. Bell’s eyes, especially in the driving scenes -- acted out on two plain, rectangular boxes -- speak volumes.

                                            Bristol Pomeroy as Boolie Werthan

Buck’s and Bell’s performances are underpinned by the steady, sure Pomeroy, who is, by and large, charged with reacting to the two other characters. This he does with a great deal of style, creating a sounding board for Miss Daisy and Hoke while, at the same time, filling out his own conflicted character, that of a good man of business who must deal with the realities of segregation and religious prejudice.

Having seen this play several times, I am still moved by its final scenes, for these are perhaps some of the most moving scenes in modern American theater. The eating of the pie (I won’t explain, for those who haven’t seen the play) is a physical moment that is riveting and, as handled by Buck and Bell, cannot help but bring tears to the eyes, tears of joy, for there is a marvelous affirmation of humanity in the closing scene of “Miss Daisy,” and all involved – especially lighting director Abbott – understand this. In a world beset by strife, two people caring for each other, in such an intimate way, makes the heart glow.

There are many holiday productions currently running, but if you want to be embraced by the spirit of giving, and loving, then between “The Nutcracker” and “A Christmas Carol,” go see “Driving Miss Daisy,” for the play captures the essence of the season, which is, after all, all about what we give to each other out of love.

“Driving Miss Daisy” runs through Dec, 23. For tickets or more information go to

Thursday, December 6, 2012

"Sister George" -- Better Off Dead

"The Killing of Sister George" -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru Dec. 23

                     Clea Alsip and Kathleen Turner. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

What an odd and offensive little play we have here in “The Killing of Sister George,” which recently opened at the renovated Long Wharf Theatre under the direction of its star, Kathleen Turner. Written in 1964 by Frank Marcus, and adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher, it is a tip-toe-through-the-tulips take on a lesbian relationship written at a time when the “L” word could not be spoken on the legitimate stage, as well as a dissection of politics at the BBC as one of its popular radio soap operas starts to suffer a ratings loss. Thus, it is of two minds, or, to put it another way, it is schizophrenic. When it focuses on the BBC politics it by and large works, but when it focuses on the homosexual relationship between the two women it stumbles badly, and that’s not because of the restrictions under which it was written. To imply that domination and cruelty is at the heart of a lesbian relationship rankles. Program notes indicate that an effort was made to take into account 21st-century sensibilities. I beg to differ.

The soap opera is called “Applehurst,” the name of the town where the characters, chief among them the beloved nurse Sister George (Turner), interact. On the show she is an earth mother, but in reality, June Buckridge is an earthy, gin-swilling pain in the ass who just happens to have inveigled Alice “Childie” McNaught (Clea Alsip) to be her flat-mate (and implied lover). Buckridge is also a dominatrix, which means she threatens Alice’s doll collection with dismemberment, forces “Childie” to eat her cigar butts while on her knees, and kiss the hem of her dress while begging forgiveness. Yup, that’s lesbianism for you (there’s also implied beatings and other physical and psychological tortures). And, mind you, the script has been “updated.”

Again, the program notes – this time written by Turner – suggest that the rewrite has given everyone a chance to “truly explore the complexities of these characters and their relationships…” Well, that may be so, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Ellen DeGeneres decided to picket the remaining performances.

And so, to the performances. Turner seemed a bit studied – in both her movements and delivery of her lines -- in her opening moments, and throughout the evening her accent suggests she had been coached by Winston Churchill: the lines are broken and often guttural, if not slurred (appropriate only when she is portraying the character as being three sheets to the wind). Her character comes alive in the second act, especially when Sister George has finally been killed, but you never sense the core of this character, what she really wants, what she really fears, what drives her to persecute her presumptive lover. Given that the play is set (and was written) in the 60's, when “polite” society condemned same-sex relationships, Sister George’s sadism begs for exploration. It’s not there.

In the final moment of the play -- a nod to the closing scene in the iconic Marlene Dietrich/Emil Jannings film, “The Blue Angel” -- Sister George moans or, more appropriately, “Moos,” but what are we to make of this? I’m not sure. And do we really care? Certainly not for Sister George.

As the much put-upon roommate, Alsip has a tough job selling that she would allow herself to be so demeaned by Sister George. By and large, she pulls it off, but her moments of feistiness lower the believability quotient re. the six-year relationship: why would she stay? There’s a confrontational scene late in the second act that is supposed to explain it all, but it just makes the Sister George character out to be more of a manipulative succubus.

As the BBC’s ax-woman, Mrs. Mercy Croft, Betsy Aidem gives us a buttoned-up exec who may also have lesbian inclinations, or may just be motherly. In any event, she is all business, and is the only actor who consistently articulates all of her lines so that they may be heard and understood. As for the lines, many of them (often those meant to elicit laughs) are filled with references to period British culture or slang and so went over the heads of most of the opening night audience.

Finally, there’s the odd-woman-out, in that Madame Xenia (Olga Merediz), the downstairs neighbor who tells fortunes, doesn’t seem to have any “L” leanings. She’s the comic-relief character, and by and large fulfills her role with style and humor.

Though “The Killing of Sister George” has been re-worked, the primary relationship between Sister George and “Childie” – the heart of the play -- not only doesn’t ring true, it’s offensive. The talents of all concerned, especially Turnerr’s, would have been put to better use in reviving a more cogent and unified play.

“The Killing of Sister George” runs through Dec. 23. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to

Monday, December 3, 2012

Not an Ebenezer for the Ages

A Christmas Carol -- Hartford Stage -- Thru Dec. 29

                                            Bill Raymond as Ebenezer Scrooge

Since it’s appearance over a century and a half ago, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” has been riced, diced and carmelized for stage, radio and the silver screen. There have been numerous iterations of the tale of the cold-hearted man of business who eventually comes to appreciate the true meaning of Christmas, and just about every male actor of a certain age, save Johnny Depp and Tom Cruise, has taken a shot at the role. At Hartford Stage, Bill Raymond has been playing the role for 13 of the 15 years the venue has been presenting the tale as its holiday offering, which means he owns the role, which means, apparently, he can do whatever he wants with it, which means director Maxwell Williams has allowed Williams to make Ebenezer Scrooge into a dithering, scene-stealing, schtick-meister who is not above milking a dead cow for all it’s worth.

Whatever Raymond’s Scrooge was when he first played the role, the iconic character has, in Raymond’s hands, become a vaudevillian stereotype living from one piece of stage business to another. Here’s Scrooge locking and then unlocking his desk so he can pay Bob Cratchit (Robert Hanlon Davis) his wages. Of course, there are multiple keys and multiple locks, and the bit goes on forever, with Raymond doing a lot of Three-Stooges mugging. Then there’s Raymond sword-fighting one of the imaginary spirits that his deceased partner, Jacob Marley (Noble Shropshire), will send to redeem him. It, too, goes on forever – Raymond even gives us a moment from Star Wars in the process. Then there’s Raymond eavesdropping on his nephew Fred (Curtis Billings) as he hosts a Christmas dinner and orchestrates parlor games. Raymond’s Scooge is so entranced by the games that he becomes delirious, babbling to the Spirit of Christmas Present (Alan Rust), becoming little more than a hyperactive child. Enthusiasm devolves, blathering prevails.

And what’s wrong with all of this? Well, two things. First, Raymond consistently draws attention to himself as the actor rather than the character he’s portraying. Second, if we are to be moved by Scrooge’s epiphany, then we have to believe that he really is this cold-hearted skinflint who would send urchins to the poor house. Just about everything Raymond does is done with an implied wink, as if to say, yes, I seem to be this nasty, cold-hearted creature but, wait a bit and you’ll see there’s a heart of gold beneath this flinty exterior.

However, most of the opening night audience didn’t seem to mind the mugging, and the production does have its moments. The interaction between a younger Scrooge (again, Curtis Billings) and his fiancé, Belle (Gillian Williams) is touching, and Scrooge’s maid (again, Nobel Shropshire) selling her master’s clothing is a nice little set-piece, and Fred’s party, until Scrooge dissolves into inanity, is engaging. In fact, whenever Scrooge is not stage center the production evinces comfortable warmth and moving pathos evocative of the original story.

As with most Hartford Stage offerings, the production values for “A Christmas Carol” are solid. How can you go wrong with flying ghosts, ornamented sleighs, a Christmas tree festooned with lights and ornaments, thunder, lightning, clock faces whirling on the stage floor, Hell’s door opening, a very large rubber goose, a bicycle-riding winged demon and enough golden glitter and plastic snow to fill a hundred garbage bags? Yet it all seems beside the point, for without the heart of the story everything else is just out there for show, for the “Ooh!” and “Aah!” value, making this iteration of “A Christmas Carol” a zombie. It walks and it talks, but there’s no heart beating beneath the surface.

The show runs through Dec.29. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to

For CT Theater News and Reviews and Artes Magazine

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Timon, Toulouse, Some Witches...and more

Bated Breath Presents a Site-Specific Event at the Wadsworth Atheneum

                    "Jane Avril Leaving the Moulin Rouge" by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Travel back in time to 19th-century France with a new theatrical performance created by Bated Breath Theatre Company. In conjunction with the Wadsworth Athenuem's current exhibition, "Medieval to Monet: French Paintings in the Wadsworth Athenuem," Bated Breath offers a site-specific production using the museum's halls and staircases

                                           Missy Burmeister and Greg Ludovici

The production will be presented on two nights: Nov. 1 at 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. ($5 general admission; free for museum members) and Nov 2 at 7 p.m., before the screening of the French film, "Children of Paradise" ($5 admission for all attendees).

"Timon of Athens" in HD at Quick Center
                       Simon Russell Beale and Hilton McRae. Photo by Johan Persson

The National Theatre of London's acclaimed contemporary staging of Shakespeare's "Timon of Athens" will be shown in a National Theatre Live in HD presentation at 3 p.m. (live) and 7 p.m. (encore) on Thursday, Nov. 1, at Fairfield University's Quick Center for the Performing Arts.

The play: Wealthy friend to the rich, powerful patron of the arts and ostentatious host, Timon of Athens (Simon Russell Beale) is surrounded by free-loaders and sycophants. Outspending his resources, Timon calls upon his associates for help only to be rebuffed. After hosting a vengeful banquet, Timon withdraws into his own misanthropic world.

Tickets: 203-254-4010 or go to

National Circus of the People's Republic of China -- at the Quick Center

One of the most distinguished circus troupes in China, The National Circus of the People's Republic of China, performs at 8 p.m., Nov. 2, at Fairfield University's Quick Center.

Founded in 1953 and acclaimed throughout the world, the Circus hearkens back to acrobatic, dance and circus acts performed 3,000 years ago, with Circus members joining the troupe at an early age and training for years to hone talents and techniques before they can appear on stage. With such a heritage and intensive training, the performers' execution of many classic acts, which have been incorporated into Cirque de Soliel performances, is precise and exquisite.

Tickets: 203-254-4010 or go to

Drat and Egad -- Charlie Brown Comes to Broad Brook

"You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," the Peanuts musical, will run at the Broad Brook Opera House from Nov. 9 to Nov. 25.

The musical follows Charlie through a typical day, with all of its highs and lows, as he interacts with all of the Peanuts characters. "Good grief!" -- could anything be more traumatic -- or delightful?

Tickets: 860-292-6068 or go to

It's the Musical of Musicals (i.e., The Musical!) -- TheatreWorks New Milford

"Oh what a beautiful rainbow in Fleet Street, on a Sunday in the park with Mame and Evita, and all that jazz."

Opening Dec. 7, and running through Jan. 5 at TheaaterWorks New Milford, "The Musical of Musicals" is a Broadway baby must-see, for it's a hilarious musical tribute to Broadway musical genres -- from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Kander and Ebb, "Musical of Musicals" embraces the quintessential American theatrical genre with humor and respect as June, who can't pay her rent, must face her evil landlord.

Tickets ($28): 860-350-6863 or go to

Musical Revue Premieres at Curtain Call

Life's ups and downs, highs and lows, are often bittersweet, and when set to music, you get "Bittersuite: Songs of Experience," which opens Nov. 8 at Stamford's Curtain Call.

Created by Stamford residents Elliot Weiss and Mike Champagne, the show explores the trials and tribulations of the aging middle class (if it still exists) as it collectively ponders how it has changed and what it has learned, sometimes with a sigh and sometimes with a laugh.

Tickets: 203-461-6358 x 13 or go to

"Wings" Wraps Spirit's 15th Season

The Spirit of Broadway in Norwich concludes its15th season with the musical "Wings" with music by Jeffrey Lunden and book and lyrics by Arthur Periman, from the play "Wings" by Arthus Kopit, directed by Brett Bernardini.

The musical focuses on Emily who in her early years was a daredevil aviatrix but now, after a stroke, is fighting the chaos in her mind to reach some state of normalcy. However, the musical is nort a clinical presentation of stroke and its effects but rather the courage and compassion that, gives our lives flight. The show opens Oct. 24 and runs through Nov. 25.

Tickets: 860-886-2378 or go to

Cindy Williams Stars in "Nunsense Boulevard" at The Palace
                                                           Cindy Williams

The Little Sisters of Hoboken have gone Hollywood in the latest installment of the Nunsense franchise: "Nunsense Boulevard:The Nunsense Hollywood Bowl Show," which will have one showing at 7:30 p.m. on Nov.8.

The show stars Cindy Williams (Shirley of "Laverne and Shirley") as Mother Superior, leader of the hapless nuns who travel to Hollywood in the belief that they've been asked to perform at the famed Hollywood Bowl, only to find that they've been booked into a bowling alley. However, the show must go on, along with some side-trips as the good sisters audition for a movie.

Tickets: 203-346-2000 or go to

"Kitchen Witches" Ride Into Ivoryton

Ivoryton Playhouse hosts a clash of kitchen divas as it presents Caroline Smith's "The Kitchen Witches," which opens Oct. 31 and runs through Nov. 18

Isobel Lomax and Dolly Biddle are two rival cable-access cooking show hostesses who have hated each other for 30 years, ever since Larry Biddle dated one and married the other. When circumstances put them together on a TV show called "The Kitchen Witches," the insults are flung faster than the food. Dolly's long-suffering TV-producer son Stephen tries to keep them apart but to no avail, and as the zingers fly the ratings soar.

For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to

"Always, Patsy Cline" at Windham

The Windham Theatre Guild a country musical, "Always, Patsy Cline," at the Burton Leavitt Theatre opening Nov. 2. The show stars Laura LaCour and is based on the true story of Cline's friendship with Houston housewife Louise Seger, played by Robin Rice. Seger befriended the singer in a honky-tonk in 1961 and continued a correspondence with her for the rest of Cline's life. The show includes some of Cline's greatest hits: "I Fall to Pieces," "Sweet Dreams" and "Walkin' After Midnight.

Tickets: 860-423-2245 or go to

Sunday, October 21, 2012

"Next to Normal" -- Gripping and Visceral

"Next to Normal" -- MTC Mainstage, Westport -- Weekends Thru Nov. 4

            Juliet Lambert Pratt in the MTC MainStage production of "Next to Normal." 
                                          Photo by Kerry Long

A dysfunctional family has almost become a cliché in novels, short stories and plays, so much so that we may have become jaded when confronted with yet another fictional family falling apart. If so, then “Next to Normal,” which recently opened at MTC Mainstage in Westport, is a sure cure for our ennui, for it is one thing to read about a family clinging to normalcy by its fingernails and quite another to actually experience the desperation, confusion and fear inherent, and that’s exactly what happens in MTC’s intimate quarters.

The rock musical, with music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, was nominated for 11 Tony awards in 2009 and, an even more impressive feat, won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize Award for Drama, and it’s easy to see why in MTC’s production, incisively directed by MainStage executive artistic director Kevin Connors, for the audience is slowly yet surely drawn into the lives of the Goodman family – via both dialogue and lyrics – as the impact of Diana Goodman’s bi-polar disorder on her family is painfully and poignantly revealed.

The responsibility for making this musical “work” falls heavily on the shoulders of the actress playing Diana, and though Juliet Lambert Pratt’s shoulders look too fragile to bear the burden, it only takes her delivery of the opening number, “Just Another Day,” to prove that her shoulders are herculean. Pratt is absolutely mesmerizing as she creates a highly nuanced picture of a woman fighting for her soul; her voice resonates and penetrates, and given her proximity to the audience, her every gesture adds color and depth to the portrait. As Diana, she is at times manic and at other times nearly comatose, and in between she attempts to deal with the family turmoil that her condition creates. It is a gripping, stunning performance.

The rest of the admirable cast creates characters that swirl around Diana’s emotional whirlpool that is stirred by the ghost of Gabe (an impressive Logan Hart), a son who died as a baby but has grown in Diana’s mind into a hale and hardy teenager who, we soon learn, harrowingly haunts his mother’s reality. Diana’s husband, Dan (Will Erat), clings to the fanciful hope that a cure can be found for his wife’s illness, and in so doing, clings to a denial that Natalie (Elissa DeMaria), their daughter, rails against while fearing that she herself might succumb to her mother’s illness. As Dan attempts to comfort his wife, Henry (Jacob Heimer), Natalie’s boyfriend, attempts to comfort the teenage girl – both men are less than successful in their efforts.

Hope for Diana is held out by the doctors who treat her (both played by Tommy Foster): Doctor Madden, her “psychopharmacologist,” has her on just about every pill available, pills Diana eventually dumps into the garbage as she sings “I Miss the Mountains”; Doctor Fine agrees to try talk therapy but eventually resorts to electro-shock and in so doing erases most of Diana’s memories, making the woman something of an emotional zombie whom the family attempts to bring back to life in a hauntingly beautiful yet painful scene that involves a box filled with family memorabilia.

The evening’s resolution is, at best, bitter-sweet, for Kitt and Yorkey do not take the easy way out. Yes, there may be “Light” at the end of the tunnel the Goodman family has traveled down, but this hope is tempered by the ghost who refuses to be exorcised from the family’s psyche. Be prepared to walk away from the theater emotionally drained yet thoroughly satisfied, for as Connors noted in his curtain talk, when he saw “Next to Normal” in workshop he knew that it was perfect for MTC. He was right – it is.

The production runs weekends through Nov. 4. For tickets, call 203-454-3883 or go to

Saturday, October 20, 2012

A Witty "Gentleman's Guide"

"A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" -- The Hartford Stage -- Thru Nov. 11
                 Heather Ayers, Ken Barnett and Jefferson Mays. Photo by Joan Marcus

There’s murder afoot up at Hartford Stage, murder motivated by revenge, revenge for a family wronged. And it’s in a musical. No, it’s not “Sweeney Todd,” Stephen Sondheim’s dark and brooding tale of the demon barber of Fleet Street, for Sweeney wouldn’t be caught dead in this musical. Given the barber’s dyspeptic nature, I doubt he would enjoy a moment of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” but that’s Sweeney’s problem, for the opening night audience absolutely adored this light, frothy, witty tale of a young man’s rise to titled wealth over the bodies of his murdered relatives.

Originally developed at the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab, “A Gentleman’s Guide,” with book by Robert Freedman, music by Steven Lutvak and lyrics by both, (with more than a nod to the 1949 film, “Kind Hearts and Coronets”) tells the tale of one Monty Navarro (an engaging Ken Barnett), a young man who, on the death of his mother in 1909, learns to his surprise that he is ninth in line to the title of Earl of Highhurst, a title that has been in the D’Ysquith family for centuries. Brought up in impoverished conditions by his mother (his father dying when he was 7), he was unaware of his mother’s banishment from the D’Ysquith family for marrying beneath herself – Monty’s father was a Castilian and a musician to boot.

Monty rushes to tell his paramour, Sibella Hayward (the exquisite Lisa O’Hare) of his heritage only to have her disbelieve him and flaunt that she is being courted by a rich man. Distraught and, after reading his mother’s letters to her family – all returned unopened – and rebuffed by the D’Ysquith’s, he determines that the elimination of those who stand in front of him for the earldom will serve two purposes: revenge for the family’s treatment of his mother and a way to win Sibella’s somewhat mercenary heart. The only problem is: how to kill his victims without incriminating himself?

What follows is merry murder and mayhem, all done to lively, witty tunes that are filled with double-entendres. Perhaps one or two too many tunes, but when the production seems threatened to drag (some of the melodies sound repetitive), there’s a production number to save the moment, sung and danced by a stellar cast.

The show’s main drawing point, however, is that all of the D’Ysquith’s, save for young Phoebe D’Ysquith (the enchanting Chilina Kennedy) and Lady Eugenia (Heather Ayers), are played by the same man, Jefferson Mays, who should have negotiated his salary on a per-costume-change basis. Mays is, at one time or another, lord of the manor, a simpering prelate, an over-muscled army major, a somewhat fey bee keeper, a dowager desperate for a cause (starving Egyptians, lepers, African cannibals – any needy group will do), a bad actress murdering the role of Hedda Gabler (her demise is especially explosive), and the head of a stock trading company and his overbearing, philandering son, and each is a distinct character rife with idiosyncrasies. It would be an understatement to say that this is a bravura performance. Watching Mays create character after character in broad, music-hall strokes is, in itself, worth the price of admission.

As noted, there are moments during the evening that seem to work against the on-rush of murderous events. The Monty/Sibella duets seem repetitive and Mays’ “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun” is over-long and overwrought, but these moments are more than balanced by numbers so delightfully staged by director Darko Tresnjak and choreographer Peggy Hickey that you wish they would not end.

Though this is not “Sweeney Tood,” it’s obvious that Freedman and Lutvak have studied the master’s work. There’s a witty “Warning to the Audience” at the start of the show, urging those with weak stomachs or hearts to leave while they still have the chance, the delightful “Better With a Man,” the first act’s closer, “The Last One You’d Expect,” and perhaps the most visually and musically satisfying number of all, “I’ve Decided to Marry You,” which features Barnett, O’Hare and Kennedy, with Sibella in Monty’s bedroom, Phoebe in his front parlor, and Monty between the two women who are separated by a pair of doors. It’s a delicious, extended moment. In fact, any time the two female leads get to share the stage there’s a vocal frisson that never ceases to please.

The production team seems to have had as much fun in the staging of the show as the cast, for the work of scenic designer Alexander Dodge, costume designer Linda Cho, lighting designer Philip Rosenberg, sound designer Dan Moses Schreier and projection designer Aaron Rhyne is absolutely stellar. The group has collectively created a surprise-laden feast for the audience’s eyes and ears replete with dancing suits of armor, eye-blinking lightning and sets that run from a Gorey-esque cemetery to a flower-laden bower and a regal dining room, all framed by a candy-box stage with a proscenium that bears the D’Ysquith family name.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Hartford Stage decides to extend the run of “Gentleman’s Guide.” Based on comments I overheard made by mingling audience members, the show will enjoy strong word-of-mouth.

The show runs through Nov. 11. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to

Friday, October 19, 2012

A Moving "Mice and Men"

"Of Mice and Men" -- Playhouse on Park -- Thru Oct. 28

                    Shannon Michael Wamser and Jed Aicher. Photo by Rich Wagner

There are some moments in literature that, having experienced them, stay with you forever. One such moment is the close of John Steinbeck’s Depression Era novel (or novella or play-novelette – take your pick), “Of Mice and Men,” published in 1937, the title taken from Robert Burns poem “To a Mouse.” The line reads: "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft agley." The novel is on the American Library Association's list of the Most Challenged Books of 21st Century for its supposed vulgarity and racist language (right up there with Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” for much the same reasons).

Steinbeck adapted the novel for the stage, and the play opened on Broadway in November of 1937. Subsequently, there have been two film versions, two TV productions, one radio play (2010 – the BBC), an opera, a 1974 Broadway revival, and numerous productions in regional and local theaters, including the current production at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford that, though slow to get off the ground and a bit flawed, eventually soars in the final act, so much so that there were audible gasps from the audience several times during the production’s final 20 minutes.

The story focuses on two itinerant field laborers, George Milton (Shannon Michael Wamser) and Lennie Small (an admirable Jed Aicher), who have been wandering the dusty roads of America together for many years. Chased out of one town because Lennie couldn’t control himself -- he is a large man with limited intellect, explosive strength, and urges he finds difficult to control -- at the opening of the play they are heading for a ranch where they will once again do hard labor for weekly pay, taking one step forward as they take two steps back. But they have a plan, a scheme – they will scrape together enough money to buy a small farm of their own, a mini-Eden where Lennie will get to tend the rabbits, for he loves to stroke and cuddle soft, living creatures. It is a myth that George weaves over and over again for Lennie, so much so that it takes on a bardic nature, with Lennie demanding that George recite the exact words that describe the farm, his tending of the rabbits, and the ultimate goal of “living off the fat of the land.”

Yet such schemes oft go astray, as they do soon after George and Lennie arrive at the ranch, for there is an Eve waiting for them on their road to their mini-Eden in the form of the wife of the ranch manager’s son, Curly (Tony Knotts), a height-challenged young man handy with his dukes. Curly’s wife (Kimberley Shoniker) – for so she is referred to in both the novel and the play – is lonely – for conversation, she claims -- and visits the bunk house all to often, driving Curly mad with jealousy. The ranch workers – Slim (Dustin Fontaine), Candy (Robert Britton), Carlson (Ted D’Agostino), and Whit (Harrison Greene) – think Curly’s wife is a tart, and on his arrival George immediately senses danger, for Curly has problems with “big” men and Lennie has problems with soft, oh-so-touchable women.

Yet the dream, the scheme, initially seems to be close to becoming a reality, for Candy has saved some money, and once he hears of the dream he buys in. The mini-Eden is so seductive to these men who toil mightily only to spend their meager salaries on weekend whores and whiskey that Crooks (Clark Beasley Jr.), a black worker whose back was hurt while working on the ranch, says he will work for free if only he can go to this promised land of orchards and fields of alfalfa. Hopes quiver and rise, only to be dashed as tragic flaws destroy the dream.

The major problem with this production is the lack of emotional intensity Wamser brings to the pivotal role of George. Although he often raises his voice and strides about the stage with abandon (much too many motivation-less crosses apparently dictated by director Sean Harris), the emotions don’t seem to be coming from his character’s core. This is especially apparent in a pivotal scene dealing with Curley’s wife late in the third act (George’s world has just collapsed and yet, there’s not a tremor in his voice) and the final scene, where there is no sense of inner-conflict…and there damn well should be.

The same cannot be said for Aicher, who gives us a frightened, desperate, yet ever-hopeful and trusting Lennie, a man challenged by reality who tries ever so hard to get it right and remember George’s instructions. His performance drives the show and makes the final moments achingly sad. There are other worthy efforts, chief among them Shonkiker’s and Britton’s, for both of their characters are fully realized, and Beasley gives us a Crooks whose dignity and loneliness ennoble the man.

Since there is no credit for fight scenes, major kudos have to go to director Harris for the visceral staging of Curley’s brutal beating of Lennie and the deadly pas-de-deux Lennie and Curly’s wife’s perform in act three. Both are visually gripping theatrical moments – you won’t forget them.

Tina Louise Jones’ set design takes ample advantage of the Playhouse’s somewhat limited space, and Marcus Abbott’s lighting is effective. My only quibble with the creative team’s visible efforts is with Erin Kacmarcik’s costumes – clothing and shoes seem too fresh and new to be the garb worn by hard working, poorly paid men. This is especially true for the garb worn by George and Lennie – although Lennie’s does look a bit time-worn and travel-tested, George’s clothing simply doesn’t look like it’s been slept in.

“Of Mice and Men” is a tragedy of the inevitable, and in the end all you can ask of a production of this play is that it grippingly conveys the tragic downward spiral of two men who cling to a dream that cannot be. In this, Playhouse on Park’s production succeeds.

“Of Mice and Men” runs through Oct. 28. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900 X 10 or go to 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Dance, Murder, Giggles and Ghoulies...and Abagail Adams

"Meditations from a Garden Seat" at Charter Oak Cultural Center

Dance-theater artist Judy Dworkin presents her new work, "Meditations from a Garden Seat," at the Charter Oak Cultural Center, Hartford, on Nov. 1 - 3. This multi-media work, which draws upon a letter penned by Harriet Beecher Stowe and narratives, songs and dnaces by contemporary women who are in or out of prison, is intended to challenge common perceptions of the incarcerated by depicting their questing spirits, permanent sorrows and joyous transformations within the barren confines of prison.

The garden of the work's title refers to the prison garden at the York Correctional Institute in Niantic, which became a source of healing, regeneration and inspiration for some 30 women incarcerated in the institution.

For tickets or more information call 860-249-1207 or go to

The Legacy Theatre Premieres"Affectionately, Abigail"

The Legacy Theatre is staging a premiere of "Affectionately, Abigail," starring Keely Baisden Knudsen. The musical focuses on the life of Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, the second president of the United States. There will be three performances: Nov. 9 and 10 at the Nathaniel B. Greene Community Center in Guilford and Nov. 17 at the James Blackstone Memorial Library in Branford. Admissions is free; donations accepted. For reservations call 203-457-0138 or go to

Staged Reading of "Animal Farm" at Goshen

The Goshen Players will present a staged reading of George Orwell's "Animal Farm" Nov. 16 - 18. Reservations are recommended. Tickets ($15): 860-491-9988

More Sips and Giggles! Set to Sparkle
                                              The cast of Sips and Giggles!

An evening of Sips and Giggles!, the perfect pairing of plays with complimentary wines and light bites, is set for Saturday, October 20 at the intimate Lyric Hall in the Westville section of New Haven, at 827 Whaley Avenue. The first event this summer sold out.

Thanks to actress and entrepreneur Joanna Keylock, the night promises to sparkle, with amuse-bouches, little tastes that explode in the mouth, combined with appropriately refreshing and unusual wines and a selection of delightful one-act plays that fit the spirit. The delicious nibbles are courtesy of Stacey Ference of Savour Catering LLC (203-906-7144) or and the distinctive wines are thanks to The Wine Thief, located at 101 Crown Street and 370 Whitney Avenue, New Haven.

The plays, all comic brain children of area playwright Frederick Stroppel, will include “Mulberries,” about neighbors who get to know each other too well, “Coelacanth,” about a sister and her mentally challenged brother who are caught in the past as they try to plan for the future, and “Harvest Time,” about a man who needs a kidney transplant and the brother who may or may not provide it. As if that weren’t enough, Jim Noble will read "Testament," an unusual last will that is bitingly funny.

For tickets ($40), call 203-298-0730. Non-alcoholic beverages are available for those under 21.

"The Groovy Ghoulies" Haunts New Haven

"The Groovy Ghoulies," Pantonchino Productions new family-friendly musical, will open on Oct. 26 for five performances at Arts Hall, 55 Audubon St., in New Haven

With book and lyrics by Bert Bernardi and music by Justin Rigg, the show follows a rock and roll band of monsters -- Wolfgang, Swankenstein, D-Rac and Bones -- as they try to get their new song to the top of the charts in the face of determined resistance by upstanding citizen Rosalind Stark.

Tickets ($16):

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A Too Reverent "Raisin"

"Raisin in the Sun" -- Westport Country Playhouse -- Thru Nov. 3

                           Luka Kain, Lynda Gravatt and Susan Kelechi Watson in 
                              "Raisin in the Sun." Photo by T. Charles Erickson

It’s been 53 years since Lorraine Hansberry’s “Raisin in the Sun” opened on Broadway, and a lot has changed in this country since then and, unfortunately, a lot has not. One thing that has changed is that the assumption that a black family is somehow “different” than a white family has been, by and large (except for hardcore bigots) laid to rest. One need only think of TV’s Huxtables and Jeffersons to realize that the black family is today well established in mainstream American culture, although some may carp that the Huxtabales and Jeffersons were nothing more than white families in blackface. I won’t enter that argument, for I can point to August Wilson’s successful 10-play cycle, especially “Fences,” (1987) to suggest that there has been a balance. My point is the Huxtables, the Jeffersons and Wilson’s Maxsons all owe a profound debt of gratitude to Hansberry’s theatrical family, the Youngers, for America in 1959 was a world of de jure and de facto segregation, and Hansberry’s play was a gamble, a gamble that succeeded and, in the process, helped to bring about change.
            That being said, given that the landscape has changed, how does one evaluate the current production of Hansberry’s play, directed by Phylicia Rashad, now on the boards at the Westport Country Playhouse? Well, I would be less than honest if I didn’t say that the first act, at 85 minutes, is at times like watching grass grow, and that’s because one of Hansberry’s stated intents in writing the play was to present details of black family life to a white audience. Well, that’s been done since 1959, again and again, so a lot of these details, epiphanic when first presented, now seem, if not beside the point, not the stuff of dramatic tension.
            The Youngers – the mother, Lena (Lynda Gravatt), her children, Walter (Billy Eugene Jones) and Beneatha (Edena Hines), Walter’s wife, Ruth (Susan Kelechi Watson), and Walter and Ruth’s son, Travis (Luka Kain), live in a run-down flat in Washington Park, a subdivision of Chicago’s Woodlawn. However, they are expecting a $10,000 insurance check in the mail, death benefits from the demise of Lena’s husband, and this opens up the possibility for change. Lena wants to use the money to buy a house; Walter wants to buy into a liquor store; Beneatha wants to finish medical school but is also a nascent radical. In other words, there’s familial tension over money, but it’s flavored by the specter of slavery in the lineage, religious belief and the function of the male in the black family
            These are all themes – slave lineage; black capitalism; black fathers; the African mystique – that, subsequent to “Raisin in the Sun,” have been dealt with in plays, poems and novels thanks, in large measure, to Hansberry. But this production is not helped by the fact that the actors, all accomplished, often seem to be delivering their lines as if they have been written from on high; i.e., the production often reverences the text rather than realizes it. Hence, there’s a lot of half-beats that telegraph that an actor is about to say something important. Watson escapes this syndrome, as do the other actors…at times…but the tensions in the play often seem manufactured, and that’s because the text, a half-century old, is message-laden, and a play suffers when the primary intent is to deliver a message rather than create dynamic, interactive characters, and the actors are determined to deliver said messages.
            The second act resolves a lot of the conflicts but, again, is message-laden, and Walter’s final rejection of the opportunity to make money off segregation – and degradation – and Beneatha’s confrontation with Joseph (Hubert Point-Du Jour), a Nigerian student who wants to marry her and return to his homeland, are “get the point?” set-pieces.
            As ground-breaking as “Raisin in the Sun” was in 1959, this current production is more a lesson in civics, capitalism and race relations than a fully realized dramatic production. As flawed and dysfunctional as August Wilson’s Maxson family is, we care about them; I can’t say the same for the Youngers.
            “A Raisin in the Sun” runs through Nov. 3. For tickets, call 203-227-4177 or go to

A Vibrant, Vivacious "Venus"

"Venus in Fur" -- Hartford TheaterWorks -- Thru Nov. 11

David Christopher Wells and Liv Rooth. Photo by Lanny Nagler

In 1697, William Congreve penned these lines: "Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned/Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned." Seems like nothing has changed in over three centuries, at least based on what is going on up at Hartford TheaterWorks, where a Woman (yes, it’s capitalized) takes a young playwright in hand and teaches him some lessons about the proper way to write a role for a woman and cast an actress in a play.

It’s TheaterWorks 27th year, and its opening offering is a production of David Ives’ “Venus in Fur,” which garnered rave reviews from critics during its Broadway run. Nina Arianda won a Tony in 2011 for her portrayal of Vanda; her understudy was Liv Rooth, who has taken on the Vanda role for the TheaterWorks production. No-brainer casting, for from the moment she “Knock-Knock-Knocks” on the door of the rather low-rent room where Thomas (David Christopher Wells) has been casting actresses for the role of Vanda, she transfixes the audience.

Thomas has adapted Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella, “Venus in Furs,” for the stage, in the process capturing what he believes is a true love story about two people who have transformed themselves to better allow them to embrace true passion, which can be found only through domination. He’s also directing the play, since other directors he’s worked with just haven’t “gotten” what he’s written, but he has a problem: all of the actresses he’s seen so far have been woefully inadequate because, as he tells his fiancée over the phone at the start of the play, women today are, themselves, inadequate; they whimper, they whine, they say “like” a lot and are simply incapable of being feminine.

                   Liv Rooth and David Christopher Wells. Photo by Lanny Nagler

Enter Vanda, whose real name, she tells Thomas, is Wanda, but her parents, for some reason, called her Vanda. So, she believes, she’s perfect for the role, but she is everything Thomas has just described to his fiancée, plus. She’s profane, she’s brash, she’s prone to violent fits of temper, she’s decked herself out in dominatrix attire, and she seems to be the dumbest blond on the block. In essence, she’s Thomas’s worst female nightmare, so he tells her the casting call is over and attempts to send her on her way, but Wanda/Vanda isn’t having any of it. She’s determined to read for Thomas, and after telling him various tales of woe, giving him some tears and donning a dress she’s bought for the occasion, he reluctantly acquiesces and gives her a shot -- and in a wonderful, theatrical moment, Wanda/Vanda gives a reading of the first three pages of the play that are dead on. Suddenly, Thomas senses that, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, he may just have found his Wanda. Little does he know just how right he is.

Throughout the rest of this one-act play, Rooth easily, and delightfully, shifts back and forth between the brash, trash-talking Wanda and the cerebral, cultured Vanda of Thomas’s play, with a side trip as the goddess Venus channeled through Marlene Dietrich via Madeline Kahn, until the final moments of the play, when she becomes something totally different, a transformation accented by explosive lightning  (also used in the opening scenes as a bit of foreshadowing) compliments of lighting designer John Lasiter and sound designers Vincent Olivieri and Beth Lake.

Director Rob Ruggiero obviously understands both the playfulness and seriousness inherent in the play, as well as the need to keep things moving, for Vanda and Thomas engage in a fast-paced verbal and physical pas de deux with initial comic overtones that, ever so slowly, turns into something else entirely. Save for the opening moments, when Wells’ phone conversation is just a bit too studied, there’s not a false note as tables are turned, roles are reversed, and the ever fascinating male-female dynamic is placed under the microscope.

Wells has a tough task, given that Rooth has most of the best lines and, as Wanda, is a manic presence, but attention must be paid to his character’s transformation as well, for he must underpin Rooth’s more dynamic turns; he is the ice upon which Rooth does her arabesques, axels, spins and crossovers and without the ice the skater cannot skate. To shift metaphors, Rooth gets to be the fire, but Wells must be the containing, defining fireplace, for without his framing, his reactions, his character’s slow yet inevitable metamorphosis, Rooth’s character has nothing to play off of. Throughout most of the evening, playgoers’ eyes are on Rooth – how can they help but not be – but it is Wells’ solid performance that – let’s shift metaphors again -- is the stand that allows Rooth’s decorated Christmas tree to dazzle.

Marketing and advertising for “Venus in Fur” emphasizes the sado-masochistic aspects of the play – the under-18 crowd is shut out -- but they are, in reality, minimal, not offensive, and are certainly not the play’s main thrust (no pun intended). Anyone considering not attending because he or she is just “not into that stuff” should reconsider, for the play is really about human relationships, play writing, directing, and the roles enforced on us based on society’s gender-definitions.

So, if you go, (and you should, if you’re interested in engaging, witty, thought-provoking theater) revel in Rooth’s marvelous performance, but as you do, take note of how Wells’ “yang” makes Rooth’s “yin” shine.

“Venus in Fur” runs through Nov. 11. For tickets or more information, call 860-527-7838.

Friday, October 12, 2012

"Satchmo" Beguiles and Engages

"Satchmo at the Waldorf"  -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru Nov. 4

                            John Douglas Thompson. Photo: T Charles Erickson

So Santa Claus is standing there, going “Ho, ho, ho,” a big smile on his face, hands patting his round, red belly, and then all of a sudden he lets loose with a string of expletives that would make a sailor blush. Your eyes widen, your jaw drops. After you recover from the shock, the first thing that comes to mind is, what the hell, this ain’t the Santa you know. Could it be Santa isn’t the saint you thought him to be?

That’s the initial effect John Douglas Thompson has on the audience at Long Wharf as he, portraying Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, cuts loose. This ain’t the Satchmo we remember, the smiling, laughing icon, sweat rolling down his forehead as he sings and plays his way into our hearts, rasping a “Hello, Dolly” greeting. This is Satchmo the man, a man who sleeps with whores, a man who has a long standing relationship with Mary Jane, a man who curses his manager, Joe Glaser, for having screwed him, a man who once worked for Al Capone, a man who, as the child of a whore, delivered coal to the New Orleans whorehouses to put bread on the table, a man who, at the top of his career, lovingly known as “Pops,” is bedeviled by slurs from members of his own race. He is called a “clown,” an Uncle Tom.

“Satchmo at the Waldorf,” by Terry Teachout, directed by Long Wharf’s artistic director, Gordon Edelstein, is a no-holds-barred look at a man whose stage persona belied the reality of his life, and is a tour-de-force for Thompson, who brings not only “Satchmo” to life at the end of the star’s career in 1971, but also creates his manager, Glaser, in one of those great stage transformations that requires an actor, using only body language and voice, to create an entirely different persona, in this case that of a hard-nosed Jewish businessman with mob connections. Assisted by lighting designer Stephen Strawbridge, Thompson does this so flawlessly that, the first time it occurs on stage it almost takes your breath away.

In chronicling Satchmo’s life, the play also chronicles the life of our country during most of the 20th century, for Armstrong was born into an era when segregation, both de facto and de jure, was a fact of life -- for much of his early career Armstrong couldn’t stay at most of the hotels where he played. It also captures the complicated relationships imposed on whites and blacks by society, a relationship that would have a race in general held in contempt but have a specific member of that race looked kindly upon.

This conundrum is at the heart of the connection between Glaser and Armstrong, and Teachout relies on dramatic irony to limn the nature of the relationship and its misunderstandings, for Glaser, whose company Armstrong was pivotal in building, dies without leaving Satchmo a share. Hence the curses Satchmo calls down upon the dead man’s head, but there’s more to the story, and in a pivotal scene near the end of this one-act play, Thompson rapidly switches back and forth between the two characters to reveal the disconnect and, in the process, capture the essence of the two men and their long-standing yet troubled relationship.

Was Satchmo’s stage persona totally fabricated? The play would say no, for Teachout returns again and again to Armstrong’s innocence and good heart, and Thompson is such a nuanced actor that even when Satchmo is in full-curse mode, calling down fire and brimstone on Glaser, there is a sense that there’s a part of Armstrong whose heart is not really in it, that no matter what he thinks Glaser did to him, he still loves the man.

And then there’s the music, Satchmo’s music, or storytelling, as Pops would have it. Here the playwright, who is the theater critic for the “Wall Street Journal” and the author of “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong,” is at his best, allowing Satchmo to describe, in vivid, loving prose, what music means to him, what the sounds he has created over the years evoke, and how his heart soars when the trumpet’s mouthpiece touches his lips.

That the play is set in the last years of Armstrong’s life (he comes off stage and immediately goes to an oxygen mask), and that as the trumpet player looks out at the Waldorf audience during one of his his final appearance and sees not a black face in the crowd (the audience looks like a carton of eggs), makes for a bittersweet mood, for Satchmo lived in the times that were given to him and when the younger generation of black jazz musicians turned against him -- Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis (another persona Thompson artfully, if somewhat chillingly, creates) are two who demeaned Satchmo -- Pops was hurt, confused, and just a bit bitter.

Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong lived his life in troubled times, and perhaps, confronted by “how things were,” went along to get along, but that judgment is hindsight, for the man worked with what he was given, played the cards dealt him at the table he was told to sit at, and in the process made millions of people happy, something he cherished…and was condemned for by those who followed in his footsteps and vilified him for selling out. This conflict Thompson captures in his rendering of Armstrong’s delight in moving an audience with his music and Davis’s wish that, should he have but one hour left to live, he would spend it strangling a white man...slowly. You believe Satchmo, and you believe Davis, and that’s because Thompson makes you believe.

“Satchmo at the Waldorf” runs through Nov. 4. For tickets call 203-787-4282 or go to

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Talking Yield Sign, Dung Beetles, a Morose Bartender and…It’s TAW’s Annual Playwright’s Festival

            Julie O'Neill, Joe Rinaldi and Carolyn Marble in "An Other Engagement"

Norwalk’s Theatre Artists Workshop is entering its 30th year, and part of the reason for the group’s longevity is the festival of one-act plays it has been producing for over two decades. The Annual Playwright’s Festival, which this year runs Oct 19 – 21, is avidly looked forward to by many playgoers who appreciate both the quality and diversity of the work presented, and this year, although the quality is a given, the diversity may very well be at an all-time high.

TAW’s membership is composed of both writers and actors (with many also having directorial credentials), which allows for a certain symbiosis in the writing and staging of new plays. The process that eventually leads to a play being selected for the festival is a somewhat arduous one, beginning with a reading of a submitted play (often a cold reading) by one or more of the actors, followed by comments and critiques by the members, with the playwright sitting silently (unless asked a question), taking it all in.

“You don’t always hear what you want to hear,” said Darien resident Kathy Rinaldi, TAW’s president, whose “Happy” was selected for this year’s festival, “but you hear what you need.”

After the first reading, the playwright takes the critiques and suggestions under consideration and makes alterations, both large and small, to his or her work. Two weeks later, the playwright is back for another reading and more comments and critiques. Finally, the manuscript is submitted to the board, which makes the final decision on what will be produced. This year, of the thirty or so submissions, seven have been selected and, if nothing else, they are eclectic.

“We look for the best quality,” said Barbara Rhodes, this year’s festival producer, “but time is also a consideration. We want to present an entertaining evening but not too long. Sometimes a play has some additional weight depending on the actors who are in it. It’s the playwright’s discretion as to how the play is cast. Often the actors who are used in the readings, when the plays are being developed, are the ones used in the actual production.”

Rosemary Foley, a Pelham, NY, resident, is one of the playwrights fortunate enough to have had her work, “An Other Engagement,” given the nod. In a recent phone interview, Foley described the gestation of the play and her association with TAW.

“The play was inspired by an article I read years ago about a very wealthy woman, a Protestant woman who became a nun and she did something very inspiring for other women with her money,” Foley said. However, that was just the jumping off point – there’s no nun in the play, but there is a family that gathers for an engagement party only to be confronted with the possibility that there might just be another engagement no one ever knew about.

“Writing plays is a strange business,” Foley said. “You read one line in a newspaper article and it inspires something, or you overhear a conversation. Things start from some strange places and sometimes the play starts at the end.”

Foley related a story about her brother, “a very emotional guy,” who urged the family to be in control when the father passed away. Foley, quoting her brother: “’We all cannot fall apart; we must be steadfast.’” Out of this, since she knew very well that her brother was, inevitably, going to fall apart, she wrote a play, “a comedy about a father who, even in death, can’t escape his family.” Foley is often accused by her family members of “using them” in her work. Her stock response is: “Do you think you’re that interesting?”

Given her close association with TAW’s membership, Foley admits that she often writes with certain TAW actors or actresses in mind. “I can hear the voice of one of the actresses; when I’m writing I can really hear her, so the tempo and the choice of words – what the character is going to say -- can be prompted by what I’m hearing.”

Foley also commented on the nature of the one-act plays she and others have written for the festival. The basic structure of a play, whether it’s a full two- or three-act play or a shorter one-act play – the rise, the climax, the falling away -- must remain, but with only 10 or 12 minutes to tell a story, the playwright “cannot waste anything,” Foley said. “In a one-act play you have to be tight, everything has to lean towards the action of the play. You can’t mess around.”

Jim Gordon, another of TAW’s playwrights and a Norwalk resident, knows full well you can’t mess around when crafting a one-act play. Gordon has two entries in this year’s festival, “A Stranger Calls” and “Joe & Eddy’s,” both of which are distinctly Gordon-esque in that they focus on people living on the fringe of life, the semi-losers and small-time grifters, the shut-ins seemingly shut out of life.

In a phone interview, Gordon talked about his own two plays, which he is directing, as well as a play by Vanessa David that he is also helming. Like Foley, Gordon often gets his ideas from articles he reads in the paper, though he also draws on a childhood spent in Mt. Vernon, NY.

In “A Stranger Calls,” a con-man thinks he’s hit on the score of a lifetime, only to have the tables turned on him. “You know, we get these phones calls,” Gordon said, “people wanting to sell us things or scams, and this elderly guy…I’m using an actor, Herb Duncan, who has a lot of TV experience, but he’s blind, so I changed the play – originally it was about a woman – so it works for him. So this guy gets a phone call from someone who wants to get into his checking account. The guy’s immediately wise to what’s going on, but he’s going to have some fun with this. He leads the con man on and slowly drives him absolutely bonkers.”

“Joe & Eddy’s” is quintessential Gordon, since it is based on the people he knew when he was growing up, a time when he admittedly spent more time around bars than was probably good for him. “A lot of my stories harken back to the people I knew at the time, the wise old bartenders who probably were not all that wise and the people down on their luck. So, in the play, this young woman walks into a bar and this bartender…” Gordon went on to describe the plot in detail, offering “spoiler” after “spoiler.” Suffice it to say, there’s a certain melancholic hope to the story about the past haunting the present.

Like Foley, Gordon often writes his dialogue based on the actors he’s familiar with at TAW. “I lock onto certain players because they know my characters,” he said. “I seem to end up with a lot of the same character types, kinda hard-edged, you know, people you’d meet in bars, and there are some actors and actresses at TAW, well, for example, there’s this one actress, a very good actress, and to me she seems like someone I’d order a beer from.”

There are some playwrights who feel that writing is writing and directing is directing and never the twain should meet, but Gordon isn’t bothered by that. Not only is he directing his own work, he’s directing David’s “The Tale of Yield and Tire.”

“It’s about a yield sign,” Gordon said, laughing, “and another person plays a tire. It’s about an accident that takes place in Westport and the tire rolls up – the tire’s played by Joe Rinaldi – and he lands at the base of this yield sign and they have this conversation about life and irresponsible drivers.”

As for directing his own plays, early on – not necessarily at TAW – he had the experience of turning over his work to directors and then experiencing a lack of collaboration. “They would take the piece” he said, “and they would just lock into a certain idea; they were not listening. Look, if I’m gonna go down with a play I’m gonna go down with my own play and my own direction. Should everyone direct his own play? Probably not.”

Rhodes, who is also an actress, is of two minds about a playwright directing his or her own work. “A playwright already knows what he wants to hear,” she said in a phone interview, “it’s already set in his mind, and as an actress that keeps me from doing things, from trying things out. That’s my job as an actress. However,” she added, “in a situation like this – we have time constraints – I guess it’s okay. We haven’t had any problems.”

Kathy Rinaldi, a Darien resident, is another playwright who also enjoys directing, but given the demands on her time right now as president of TAW she has ceded staging responsibilities for “Happy” to Jo Anne Parady of Norwalk, a director in whom Rinaldi has total confidence.

“Happy” is about a woman of a certain age who falls in love with a much younger man, much to the consternation of her friends. “It’s probably the most ‘absurd’ play of the bunch,” Rinaldi said, referring to the Theater of the Absurd genre. “It’s a little less linear than the others. You’re really not sure whether you’re seeing and hearing the woman’s friends or are they just voices in her mind. We’re also using drums – you know, a heart beat, beating fast at the start of the relationship and then slowing down as things start to cool off.” Whether Rinaldi’s play wins the “absurd” award remains to be seen, since Steve Bellwood’s offering is titled “Dung Beetles” and, yes, features two of the insects dealing with hard times, and, of course, there’s the talking yield sign and tire.

As mentioned, Rinaldi trusts Parady implicitly to stage the work as the playwright envisioned it. “She really knows how to put on a woman’s play,” Rinaldi said. “She understands the nuances of women’s emotions.”

When asked about the range of the plays being presented, and the possibility that the audience might become a bit confused as it is asked to shift gears from play to play, Rinaldi said, “Our belief is that we’re not going to play to the lowest common denominator. If the audience can put its trust in what we are doing, is willing to go along for the ride, then it really doesn’t matter what kind of play we present as long as we show we know what we are doing. What I love about the plays this year,” she added, “is that every one is individually strong. If anything, people will want more, they won’t want them to end. We trust our instincts and we believe people are really going to enjoy the journey we will take them on.”

Rhodes was asked the same question and responded in kind. “They’re not alike at all,” she said. “They’re the oddest little collection of plays I’ve ever seen.” However, she has confidence that TAW’s audience will respond. “We have a very faithful audience that has been coming to us for years,” she said. “They know what to expect.” She paused a moment and then added. “I’m always impressed with how knowledgeable our audience is.”

For tickets ($20) or more information call 203-854-6830 or go to