Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Another Opening, Another Show

"Bedtime Stories" at The Windham Theatre Guild

The Windham Theatre Guild kicks off its fall 2012 season with "Bedtime Stories," written by Norm Foster and directed by Michele Abbazia Gagne. The play, which opens Sept 14 at the Burton Leavitt Theater, consists of six vignettes -- all connected by time, place, and an unusual radio broadcast -- dealing with people trying to find the meaning of love, which means the show is for mature audiences ( kids already know the real meaning of love).

The show runs through Sept. 24. For tickets or more information call 860-423-2245 or go to www.windhamtheatreguild.org.

Playhouse on Park's 4th Season

The intimate theater in West Hartford opens its fourth season with "Of Mice and Men," by John Steinbeck, which details the struggles of two drifters during the Great Depression The show runs from Oct 10 through the 28th.

"Driving Miss Daisy" follows. An intimate portrait of an aging Sourhtern Jewish lady and the black man who is hired as her chauffeur, the play is a gentle, humorous, insighful study on againg and the nature of friendship. The play runs Dec. 5 through Dec. 23.

Staying Down South, sort of, PoP's third offering is "Moonlight and Magnolias," which opens Jan. 23 and runs through Feb. 10. The farcical show details the efforts of three Hollywood big-wigs, each sporting an enormous ego, trying to bring "Gone With the Wind" to the silver screen.

Staying with Hollywood, sort of, PoP turns to a Woody Allen classic, "Play It Again, Sam," which has a recently divorced nebbish trying to fall in love again, with the help of Bogie. The show runs March 6 thru 24 (probably worth the price of admission just to see who PoP casts as Bogart).

Rounding out the season, from June 12 through July 21, PoP will stage "Cabaret," which they sincerely wish you will come to. Based on stories by Christopher Isherwood, the musical focuses on the Berlin demi-monde of the inter-war years and a particular chanteuse named Sally Bowles. MTC Mainstage created a marvellous "Cabaret" several years ago in an even more intimate setting -- it will be interesting to see what PoP does with the material.

For tickets call 860-523-5900 x10 or go to www.playhouseonpark.org.

It's the Goshen Players 65th Season


The Ivoryton Playhouse just turned 100, and now the Goshen Players are celebrating their 65th season. To kick off the anniversary year, they are offering a delighful, door-slamming farce: "Lend me a Tenor," which runs Oct. 5 - 20. The play focuses on a Cleveland Opera Company fund-raiser that goes comically awry when the lead in "Otello," self-described as "Il Stupendo," gets slipped a mickey and his assistant is coerced into taking on the role...but Il Stupendo wakes up...and enters stage right. Desdemona is, if nothing else, nonplussed -- will she have to be killed twice?

The farce is followed by an allegory -- George Orwell's "Animal Farm," in which idealism soon turns into despotism -- a biting commentary on a theory that, when turned into reality, destroys the lives of millions...because all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. Nov. 16 - 18

To take the edge off, the sesaon follows with "Much Ado About Love," Feb 8 - 9, a musical Valentine to those who are in love and those who want to be in love -- candle-lit tables and cabaret seating.

Providing something for the kids, the Goshen Players next offers "Rumple Who?" a skewed take on the classic fairy tale that has Rumple...well, you know...offering to teach a Queen how to dance. But what is he really up to, and will the royal family learn his name in time to avert disaster? Two performances daily, 1 p.m. and 4 p.m., March 2 - 10.

Wrapping up the season, we have a plant that demands to be fed, in no uncertain terms. It's "Little Shop of Horrors," which runs April 19 - May 4. Suddenly Seymour is in possession of a weird plant, a plant that craves blood and is willing to fulfill all of Seymour's wishes if only...well, the blood has to be fresh...and the search is on for who might be the most approrpiate plant food.

For tickets call 860-491-9988 or go to www.goshenplayers.org.


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Host of Openings

"Harbor" Premiere's at Playhouse
                                         Mark Lamos is at the helm of "Harbor"


"Harbor," a new comedy by Chad Beguelin, will premiere at the Westport Country Playhouse on Aug. 28 and will run through Sept. 15.

The play, directed by Mark Lamos, the Playhouse's artistic direcotr, stars Bobby Steggert (Tony Award nominee) and Paul Anthony Stewart (Emmy Award nominee), Kate Nowlin and Alexis Molnar.

Ted and Kevin have been together for 10 years, living in unwedded bliss in their house in Sag Harbor. Their idyllic life is challenged when Kevin's sister, Donna, and her daughter, arrive unexpectedly. What follows is a humorous study of the bonds between kith and kin and the ever-shifting definition of 'family."

For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportcountryplayhouse.org.

"The Retreat from Moscow" at Town Players of Newton
                               Rob Pawlikowski, Ward Whipple and Laurel Lettieri


"The Retreat From Moscow," written by William Nichols, opens Sept. 7 at Town Players of Newtown.

The play deals with the end of a three-decade marriage and the emotional fallout that changes the lives of everyone touched by it. Rob Pawlikowski plays the emotionally repressed Edward, a husband more interested in Napoleon's retrest from Moscow and crossword puzzles than in his wife, Alice (Laurel Lettieri), who collects love poems. Their son, Jamie (Ward Whipple) is caught in the middle of his parent's dysfunctional marriage. The show runs through Sept. 29.

For tickets or more infomration call 203-270-9144 or go to www.newtownplayers.org.

CRT Announces its 2012 - 2013 Season
                                               Playwright Theresa Rebeck


Connecticut Repertory Theatre's upcoming season will open with "O Beautiful," by playwright Theresa Rebeck. The play deals with the lives of high school students, teachers and their families as they cope in a world of real personal problems and extremist ideological rhetoric that gets so heated that Jesus, St. Paul, Joan of Arc, John Adams, Patrick Henry and Benjamin Franklin, among others, show up to weigh in and mix it up. The show runs from Oct 4 to Oct 14.

Next up is Shakespeare's "Romeo & Juliet," which will run from Nov. 30 through Dec. 9. On the heels of the star-crossed lovers is another pair of lovers, more aptly described as sword-crossed. "His Girl Friday," adapted by John Guare from "The Front Page," is the story of ace reporter Hildy Johnson trying to say adieu to the cronies who cover Chicago's Criminal Courts Building and her Ex, Walter Burns, doing everything in his power to stop her. The show runs from Feb. 28 - March 10.

Spring brings "Hairspray" to the boards at CRT. The story of size-challenged Tracy Turnblad's quest to get a spot on the Corny Collins Show and along the way integrate Baltimore television. The show runs April 25 through May 5.

For tickets or more information call 860-486-2113 or go to www.crt.uconn.edu

"Drood" at the Broad Brook Opera House


"The Mystery of Edwin Drood," which features the audience helping to solve the crime (and thereby influencing the ending of the musical) will open at the Broad Brook Opera House on Sept. 7 and run through Sept. 23.

The musical is a tongue-in-cheek take on the unfinished Dickens' novel with a musical troupe deciding to reenact the novel and play it for laughs. How does it all end? Only the audience knows.

For tickets or more information call 860-292-6068 or go to www.operahouseplayers.org.

The Sherman Playhouse Offers Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men"


"Of Mice and Men" will open on Sept. 14 at The Sherman Playhouse and run trhough Oct. 6. The play follows the adventures of George and Lennie, two itinerant farm hands who dream of one day owning a small farm of their own. They travel the Depression-plagued landscape looking for work and trying to stay ahead of the law, for Lennie is mentally challenged and doesn't know his own strength. George protects him, until he is faced with an awful choice.

For tickets or more information call 860-354-3622 or go to www.shermanplayers.org

[title of show] To Open at Spirit of Broadway

[title of show], with music and lyrics by Jeff Bowen and book by Hunter Bell, will open at The Spirit of Boradway in Norwich on Aug. 29 and run through Sept. 30. The musical deals with two struggling writers who have three weeks to come up with a musical for a musical theater festival. Along with several friends, the duo proceed to work their way through the creative process. The show is a love letter to American musical theater. For tickets or more information call 860-886-2378.

"Hedda Gabler" Opens Hartford Stage's 49th Season


Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler" has been chosen to open Hartford Stage's 49th season. The play, about an uncompromising woman trapped in a compromised world, opens Aug. 30 and runs through Sept.23

Gabler will be played by Roxanne Hope, who starred in Broadwqay's "Frost/Nixon." John Patrick Hayden will play George and Sam Redford will take on the role of Eilert Lovborg. Jennifer Tarver directs.

For tickets or more information about special events call 860-527-5151 or go to www.hartfordstage.org.





Saturday, August 18, 2012

Frog Into Princess: An Actor's Journey

                     Andrea Maulella as Adelaide Pinchin. Photo by Lanny Nagler.

Any interview is, for most actors, an opportunity to both audition and perform. Those actors who do not audition/perform during an interview are either making millions of dollars by simply showing up on the set or stage, or are fools. Andrea Maulella isn’t making millions of dollars, and she isn’t a fool, so when I met with her in the Hartford TheaterWorks gallery, she both auditioned and performed…and thoroughly engaged…right from the moment she entered stage right.

Maulella, who loves stormy weather, is a slight, dark-haired lady with angular features and an embracing personality. She showed up wearing a short gray skirt, a simple, white peasant blouse, and dealing with a slight case of bronchitis that, she believes, has hampered, to a certain extent, her performance in “Tryst,” the play by Karoline Leach she is currently co-starring in with Mark Shanahan at Hartford TheaterWorks. It was six days since opening night, which I attended. If she was bronchitis-bitten then it certainly wasn’t apparent, but she urged me to come see it again, because, “Last night, I finally got it, I got the second act,” she said. When urged to explain about finally understanding an act she and Shanahan have played at numerous venues over the past four or five years she initially shrugged, then said, “I know what Adelaide (her character) is doing, what she’s driven by. I can’t wait to try it out tonight.”

Maulella, who was born in Maryland while her father was serving in Viet Nam, was quickly brought to New York – Queens – Long Island – the boroughs. She’s a quintessential New York girl, sassy and sharp, the total reverse of the role she is currently playing -- a very proper, frustrated London shop girl circa 1910 -- and as the interview extended the LonGiland accent manifested itself, especially when she became excited about something she was explaining, explanations she would punctuate with expletives that an Edwardian shop girl would blush to hear. 

People attending a play may think they are seeing a finished product, but a production, any production, is a protean thing – it changes over time…or dies, and each performance is unique unto itself. Maulella, Shanahan and director Joe Brancato have been tinkering with “Tryst” for years – if “Tryst” were a hand-copied manuscript the palimpsests would be inches thick – and that’s one of the things Maulella loves about being an actor, the opportunity to try new things, to shake up the old wine in the old bottles, to listen to both her mind and her heart…and to go places beyond the strictures of the role as written. However, the fact that she’s an actor, and a very accomplished one, is a constant surprise to her.

“I wanted to be a chef and I wanted to be a fashion designer,” Maulella said. “My father found himself a single parent and, well, it was cheaper for him to send us to a theater school than it was to get a baby sitter. I was 13 and I just hated him for it.” At the time, she had one sister – she ended up with three – and this sister was “gorgeous and precious. Everyone just wanted to squeeze her and hug her,” Maulella said. “Why would I ever want to compete with that? So, in my first play she was Snow White and I was a dwarf, then she was a princess, I was a frog. It was unnerving. So, I really just came to this by accident because my father was cheap.”

Things slowly changed, because if a young girl was going to do this, well, why not be more than a dwarf or a frog? But, how do you get to be a princess? The answer to that question, asked so long ago, might be the source for Maulella’s interpretation of the character she is currently playing, for Adelaide Pinchin wishes to be a princess saved by a dashing prince, or does she? Maulella’s frog into princess journey has marked her, right from the moment she decided that she wanted this, whatever this was.

“It’s probably the most competitive and ambitious I’ve ever been in my life,” Maulella said.  “I would always have a rash from spirit gum,” she said, quickly rubbing her forehead and upper lip, “because I would have to wear moustaches and fake eyebrows, so I went to the family that ran the children’s theater and I said, ‘What do I have to do to wear a dress?’ and they said, ‘You have to practice,’ because they knew I didn’t care and I didn’t practice anything. So I practiced and I got to wear a dress. Then I asked, ‘What do I have to do to get a line?’ ‘Practice.’ Then I got a line.” She then asked about getting a solo and received the same answer. Slowly but surely, Maulella said, she became “wickedly competitive,” going home every day, putting on a record and singing “There are Worse Things I Could Do” along with Stockard Channing. “That became my big audition song,” Maulella explained, “and I was going to do it perfectly.”

The game was afoot, but for all of her competitiveness, there were inner doubts. “I felt I wasn’t pretty enough,” Maulella said. “I felt I could never be good enough to complete with the likes of them,” referring to the young female competition at the school. “They became my arch nemeses; they were the bane of my existence. And thank God, because I started applying myself. Then the people who ran the theater asked me to play Peter Pan.”

During the run, the family that owned the theater was out of town for a weekend and, Maulella said, “I was thinking to myself, nobody is going to be around; I can do what I want, which was very exciting to me.”

Manning the concession stand before the show, Maulella, now sixteen, saw a group of senior citizens troop in and thought, “Oh my God, we have to do it for old people. They’re going to fall asleep.” So, after serving coffee to an elderly man, she went backstage committed to doing whatever she wanted because, after all, the audience was going to be nodding. And that’s exactly what she did.

“We went off stage and people started saying, ‘Boy, you were really good today. That was really good.’ I went down the steep stairs, trying to get past the elderly people who were leaving, and this women stopped me at the first level and said, ‘Oh, you were as good as you were in the movie’ – I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about -- and then I got to the next landing and someone said, ‘Oh, it’s you!’ and I started feeling uncomfortable. I got to the bottom of the stairs and there was this very heavy door which I decided to hold open for the old people – I’m Catholic and those are the kind of things you were supposed to do. I had my head down because I didn’t want anyone else to talk to me and this man I had served coffee to before the show – he was one of those people I had thought would sleep through the show – stopped and looked at me and then said, ‘Thank you for taking me to Never-Never Land.’ I still get chills when I think of it. That moment, that man, changed everything for me because, I thought, I could see in his eyes that he wasn’t the same man I’d given the coffee to, and even if it had been for just a few moments, he had gone somewhere, I was able to help him go somewhere else. That was the most amazing thing ever.”

Maulella went on to study at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in Manhattan for two years, a time during which she had “the most amazing teachers,” including Elizabeth Browning and Karen Gustafson, among others, most of whom were working professional who, Maulella said, “were more than generous.”

After her stay at AMDA, Maulella turned away from acting for awhile. “I had some challenges to face just growing up,” she explained. However, the profession’s draw on her was such that, after a few years she began taking acting classes, until one day she asked herself: “What am I doing? I’m paying to act. I’ve got to shit or get off the pot. Either I’m going to do this or I’m not. So, let’s see, I graduated from AMDA in ’87 and in ’92 I finally said, ‘Okay, I’m going to be an actor.’”

Maulella has come a long way from the young girl with a rash on her face from over-application of spirit gum, and the journey has included, as she described it, “a lot of blood and guts.” Her experiences have led her to approaching a role in her own unique manner.

“When push comes to shove, you do what it takes,” she said. “I’ve been found on the floor praying; I’ve been found in the wing banging my head against the floor, because, I thought, there’s gotta be something in there but I’ve got nothing left.”

Maulella paused, sat back in her chair, then jerked forward, hands extended. “Characters come to me asking the same questions I ask myself. I am my own barometer of truth, so I need to know, where does this sit with me? Am I in the basic ballpark of telling my truth? Another actor might have a whole other take and a whole other ‘truth’ for the same material, but where is it in me? And from there…I think it was James Cagney who said, ‘Just know your lines and tell the truth,’ and that can often be challenge enough.”

Maulella is well aware there are many actors who develop notebooks full of information on the characters they will be playing, back stories and family histories and details on the historic time and place, but that approach has never helped her. For her, “The better I know the words, the easier I can say them, the better I can get out of the way. It’s the words that are the things that lead me, the questions and the words. I also try to look at what isn’t said, because what isn’t said is as interesting as what is said. It’s almost more interesting. For instance, in ‘Tryst,’ all the things that aren’t said…it’s so compelling.”

In addition to acting in “Tryst” several years ago at the Westport Country Playhouse and now at TheaterWorks, Maulella has appeared in several productions in Connecticut, including two at the Ivoryton Playhouse: “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Miracle Worker.”

                     Andrea Maulella as Nurse Rached in the Ivoryton Playhouse's 
                                  production of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
In “Cuckoo’s Nest” she played Nurse Rached, the tyrannical head nurse who battles Randall Patrick McMurphy for the souls of his fellow patients. “We had a great director,” Maulella said, referring to Peter Lockyer, “but I struggled quite a bit with the character. She’s definitely out of my realm. I did feel they trusted me with something that was…precious…a character that is almost more pop culture than a literary figure. I wanted so much to bring out the humanity in her, and I don’t know whether the text of the play could withstand that journey, and maybe because of that I couldn’t honor what was written. I wish I could go back…I think I took a running leap into the pool every night and I enjoyed being hissed; I don’t know if I’ll ever be hissed at again. The entire process, from auditioning for ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ to the final performance, was all about giving up, about being willing to fail.”

Maulella may not be totally satisfied with her work as Nurse Rached, but what she did as Anne Sullivan in “The Miracle Worker” more than makes up for any doubts. At the time, reviewing the play, I wrote: “I defy anyone to enter the Keller household and watch Annie Sullivan (Andrea Maulella) fight for the mind and soul of Helen Keller (Jenilee Simons Marques) and not come away emotionally shriven.”

                       Andrea Maulella and Jenilee Simons Marques in the Ivoryton 
                               Playhouse's production of "The Miracle Worker"
“It’s because of the Connecticut Critic’s Circle that I got the opportunity to meet Jacqui Hubbard,” Maulella said, referring to Ivoryton’s artistic director. “You folks were kind enough to acknowledge my work in ‘Tryst” at Westport and I met Jacqui at the awards get-together at Roz Friedman’s house. I’d been reading about ‘The Miracle Worker,’ I wanted to audition and then at the ceremony they said Jacqui Hubbard and I said, ‘Oh my God, she’s here. I wonder…could I…I can’t…it’s ridiculous…they would never…. I feel if I hadn’t been there, if I hadn’t been recognized, she probably wouldn’t have given me a shot. It was divine intervention.”

Maulella got her shot at auditioning and, she remembers, Hubbard’s reaction consisted of one word: “Lovely.” Maulella was satisfied – she had, for a few moments at least, gotten to play Anne Sullivan. It was her role and she had done what she wanted to do with it. “I almost fell off my chair when she told me I had gotten the part,” Maulella said.

Having the opportunity to work with Jenilee Marques, a young lady deaf from birth, was a thrilling and humbling experience for Maulella. “You wouldn’t believe what she taught me about having trust and faith on stage.”

Obviously, co-starring with someone who cannot hear presents certain challenges, especially since you never know from night to night what is going to happen onstage. Maulella remembers two incidents that required she ‘communicate’ with Marques lest something dire happen. The first involved a plate that shattered during the breakfast scene. Marques was unaware of what had happened and was moving towards where the shards were.

“For a moment, I thought,” Maulella said, “didn’t she hear it? Of course she didn’t. So I grabbed her by the waist and she fought me, she fought me so hard, that girl was incredible. I was pulling at her, tugging at her – I didn’t want her to hurt herself -- and I couldn’t say anything. How do you communicate that there’s danger without saying something? Afterwards she said to me, ‘I thought you were old and you had forgotten what you were doing.’

The second incident had to do with the dog in the show that belonged to the Keller family. Near the end of the second act it was sitting on Helen’s bed when, for no apparent reason, Maulella said, the dog started to growl and show its fangs.

“I could see the dog’s teeth and it goes, ‘Grrrrrr,’ and there’s Jenilee playing Helen and her hands are flailing and I wanted to stop her from making any sudden movement because I didn’t know what this growling dog was going to do. Jenilee put her hand down near the dog and I grabbed it. She pulled it away and she went to do it again and I grabbed her hand again and I put it on the dog’s back. I could see her hand ‘sensing’ the dog’s emotions. Afterward, Jenilee said, ‘Oh, yeah, thanks, I felt the vibration. That’s why I backed off.’ I’ve taken all of that with me everywhere I’ve gone since. I’ve become more sensitive to who I’m working with. I worked with an actress recently and I could see every time she was going to go off…her eye would start to twitch…and I’d go over to her and…” (Maulella started patting her own hand)  “…and she’d come back, and those were the greatest performances because something unexpected happened, something real.”

It seems that “something real” happens every night in “Tryst,” which runs through Sept. 9, and perhaps that’s because the three primary members of the creative team, Maulella, Shanahan and director Joe Brancato, are willing to take chances and try new things, so much so that those who saw the production at Westport will see a substantially different show at TheaterWorks.
                             Mark Shanahan as George Love. Photo by Lanny Nagler
Adelaide continues to evolve,” Maulella said of the woman she is playing. “She has changed, I guess most notably for people who have had the opportunity to see it more than once, quite subtly. I’ll say, ‘Let me try this,’ and Joe and Mark will say ‘Yeah, yeah, go,’ and I’ll do it and then ask, ‘What do you think?’ and Joe will say, ‘It looked exactly the same, Andrea,’ but it didn’t feel the same.”
                                                      Director Joe Brancato
Probably the most dramatic change, Maulella explained, has to do with what the actor referred to as a “dilemma.” To wit: exactly how intelligent is Adelaide Pinchin? For a while, Maulella said, she felt that she was sidestepping Adelaide’s sense of fantasy, her sense of joy.

“We sacrificed it for this vision of the ghost story of it all, but I felt dealing with that sense of joy and fantasy was one of my challenges coming into the production this time around, and it’s enhanced by being at TheaterWorks because it’s the most intimate space we’ve been in. The acoustics are intimate and I feel it’s allowed me to really enjoy Adelaide’s words in a different way and really savor things that are just for her. For me, this time around, that’s been a huge change.”

Another change is the sheer physicality Maulella has brought to the role this time. Maulella explained that a lot of the physical self-abuse that Adelaide undergoes comes from what the actor herself has experienced.

“The last couple of years of my life,” Maulella said, then paused. “I’m sorry, I have to take a deep breath.” Her head turned aside as her chest rose and fell several times. “Well, the last few years of my life were filled with a lot of challenges and…it’s very hard when you come to familiar ground with familiar people …we all want to reinvent the wheel…but for the three of us, we all end up where we started. Last year, just because of where I stood in my life, Adelaide’s increased physical abuse seemed to come quite naturally…giving up a little bit more of the period behavior for a woman of her stature and class. We abandoned some of the boundaries that previously existed. The increased self-abuse showed up last year and Joe said, ‘Why didn’t we ever do this before?’”

Maulella stopped abruptly, leaned over and pulled a cell phone from her purse. “I have to show you this,” she said as she sorted through pictures stored on the phone. She turned the screen towards me and there was a close-up of her hand with the area around her thumb and wrist bone red and swollen.

“During rehearsal at TheaterWorks,” Maulella said, “I kind of lost the hitting myself and I asked Joe if he was missing it and he said, “I thought you were gonna do it, pepper it in somehow.’ Well, last year it hadn’t been a problem, it had seemed natural, but now I didn’t know if I could hit myself, but I went for it and this is what happened. I have to tell you, this finger…I bruised my head so badly, and my knuckle, well my hand swelled up. And it was the sound designer who said, ‘Andrea, you’re not doing it like you did last year,’ and she was right because last year it was very easy for me. Here, let me give you a little demonstration.”

With that, Maulella, careful to remove her thumb ring first, smacked her forehead with her fist…hard. “I think the first four shows I just kept punching myself. My head hurt…I hurt myself because it just wasn’t innate any longer, it wasn’t relevant to my journey with this character. Over this run, the hits and slaps have become a little bit more strategically placed and I can make the sound,” she said, again audibly smacking her forehead, “without hurting myself, and we’ve compromised now so that it’s no longer necessary that she actually hit herself…just the suggestion she is going to is enough.”

We talked about the end of the play…now the bathtub scene…which has also evolved: whether Adelaide would be dressed or undressed, whether George, the character Shanahan plays, would undress her or not, whether Adelaide should wear the white nightgown…all of which has been tried by the trio. What they have come to in the TheaterWorks production, without wishing to spoil anything for those who have not seen the play, is certainly more graphic and shocking than it was in Westport.

“If I can backtrack,” Maulella said, “because it pertains to the ending, I don’t always know if Adelaide is a victim. This time around I’m still playing with the idea that she’s getting into the tub thinking she’s going to take a bath. How does that change everything? I think that the audience…its reaction…does feed off that energy and I have noticed people’s reactions when I’m playing it that Adelaide is not a willing participant in what is going on. The other night I heard a woman in the audience scream, ‘Oh my god. Oh my God.’ She must have said it six times. I’m glad my head was in the tub because I thought to myself, I’m going to start laughing. The best reaction we ever got was in Lowell, Massachusetts. This one voice called out, ‘This is bullshit!’ It was a matinee and she’d obviously had a couple of Mimosas. She was not buying it.”

Maulella explained that her attitude about her character’s motivation in getting into the tub clearly affects the audience’s response to what follows, and that attitude changes performance to performance. It’s a very subtle thing. If you listen to the words George speaks at the end of the tub scene, Maulella said, you have to ask yourself, what do they mean, how do we interpret them? She also noted that the splash she makes, very intentionally, affects the audience’s response: the bigger the splash the bigger the reaction. And for those wondering what she’s doing in the tub while Shanahan is doing his thing, her answer was: “Abs of steel.” She keeps her upper body tense, hands pressed against the side of the tub, while she allows her legs to go limp. And then there’s the quick change behind the scenes, which takes well under a minute before Maulella appears, fully clothed, for the play’s final visual vignette, a change that Maulella credits the theater’s interns for, including their sang-froid while rapidly clothing a naked lady.

As for the future, Maulella fully admits that she doesn’t know what will happen next. “That’s the fun, the excitement, the angst of being an actor,” she said, although she indicated she’d love to come back to TheaterWorks because “I just love the space, the atmosphere. But I’ll do anything. I don’t know what will happen next but I’ve never been bored.”

                                                        Andrea Maulella

And as for where she will go immediately after “Tryst” closes?

“I’m going down to Florida to visit my dad,” Maulella said, then threw up her arms, signaling a touchdown. “I’m going to Disneyland!”

An appropriate destination for the little frog who practiced and practiced and eventually became a princess.

Friday, August 17, 2012

A Less Than Artful "Oliver"

"Oliver" -- The Ivoryton Playhouse -- Thru Sept. 2

                                     Tyler Felson as Oliver. Photo by Anne Hudson
On Broadway, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Millions of dollars can be invested on a lavish, multi-set musical with a cast of apparent thousands, professionals all, only to have it come and go quicker than yesterday’s AOL headline story. If that’s true of Broadway, then it’s even more so for regional theater, where the budgets are smaller, the time to rehearse constrained and the talent pool somewhat limited. Thus, the decision to stage a major musical in such a theater is a roll of the dice: sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

The last time the Ivoryton Playhouse rolled the dice with “Hairspray,” it by and large worked, delivering a musical comedy with a lot of sass and period style. Unfortunately, Ivoryton picked up the dice again and this time, well, it’s not snake-eyes, but “Oliver” has major problems with pacing, blocking, choreography and, well, basic storytelling, as well as some over-the-top performances that would have made even Dickens, an author not averse to pulling all the emotional stops, blush. As erstwhile as the effort is, it comes off as being stitched together from random pieces: some conjoin, others disjoin.

The conjoining comes from several sources. Michael Cartwright as Mr. Bumble and Maureen Pollard as his inamorata, the Widow Corney, are pleasingly hypocritical – their “I Shall Scream” is quite delightful – and Kimberly Morgan’s Nancy is almost always endearing, although a less-then-London accent sneaks out occasionally. It is Neal Mayer, as Fagin, who consistently keeps the show above water. His oleaginous Fagin is sly, conniving and yet, beneath it all, quite lovable, and his “Reviewing the Situation” is the high point of the evening.

One of the primary challenges of staging “Oliver” is that, to a certain extent, it is child-actor driven. After all, there’s Oliver himself (Tyler Felson) and the Artful Dodger (Nathan J. Russo), as well as all of the boys in the orphanage who reappear as pickpockets under the guidance of Fagin. On Broadway or in London, these roles would be filled by boys who turned pro in the womb. In Ivoryton, local talent, by and large, has been drawn upon, and although the lads give us some good moments – Felson is cherubic and a quite capable actor, Russo has some “artful” bits and Fagin’s gang shines in “I’d do Anything” -- they simply aren’t disciplined enough to sell their numbers. Okay, at this point most of you are saying, “Wait a minute, these are kids. Matter of fact, one of them’s my son! Give them some slack!”

Slack I would give them if this was a middle or high school production. As a matter of fact, I would stand and applaud them, but this is professional theater, and all of the plucking at sleeves, wandering eyes, awkward movements, bumping into each other and being a half-beat off affects the overall quality of the show. Even their curtain call appearance is a bit disorganized. However, it’s not all their fault, if fault is the right word, because I do not wish to fault any young person who has the courage and self-confidence to get up on a stage and perform. Many an adult would shy from the challenge.

Director R. Bruce Connelly and choreographer Kelly Shook seem to have lost sight of the fact that every number in a musical, be it a solo, a duet, or an ensemble piece, must be both visually and musically satisfying. The musicality of many of the numbers in Ivoryton’s “Oliver,” although supported by a somewhat limp sounding orchestra sequestered in the Green Room, is pleasing, but the “pictures” are anything but – there are simply bodies in position or in motion with no nod towards aesthetics. Thus, the audience’s eye doesn’t know where to focus, or doesn’t care to focus. This is brought home by the fact that the opening number of the second act, “Oom Pah Pah,” works on all levels, including the visual. You want more of this, but it just isn’t in the offing.

“Oliver” is, on one level, pure, naked melodrama – Dickens knew how to make his readers grab for their hankies -- and as such, care must be taken that actors don’t over-caricaturize the characters Dickens created as caricatures. In this production, some actors skate on very thin ice and others simply crash through into the murky deep. Sam Schrader as the obsequious Noah Claypole teeters but saves himself, and T. J. Mannix as Bill Sykes, the man everyone loves to hate, is the epitome of danger and brute force without ever getting close to the “Do Not Skate” area. However, Robert Boardman and Tara Michelle Gesling, playing the undertaker, Mr. Sowerberry, and his wife, apparently don’t see the sign or simply disregard it – in scenes together the eat up the scenery with abandon, something that director Connelly apparently approves of, since he gives them one more shot at it in the curtain call.

All in all, Ivoryton’s “Oliver” is a pleasant enough way to while away several hours of a summer’s evening. It’s not the best the venerable theater has offered its audiences, but if you are of a forgiving nature, you should enjoy yourself.

“Oliver” runs through Sept. 2. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.
           
For CT Theater News and Reviews.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

A Taut, Tense "Tryst"

"Tryst" -- Hartford TheaterWorks -- Thru Sept. 9
                          Andrea Maulella and Mark Shanahan. Photo by Lanny Nagler

Can lightening strike thrice? Well, in the case of Andrea Maulella in the role of the very aptly named Adelaide Pinchin, yes it can. Several years ago, Maulella won a Connecticut Critics Circle award for her portrayal of the spinster shop girl who is wooed and won by a con man in the Westport Country Playhouse production of “Tryst,” which also starred Mark Shanahan as the rouĂ© who wins Adelaide’s heart. The two reprised their roles Off-Broadway in an Irish Repertory Theatre production under the direction of Joe Brancato, and now they are back, again under Brancato’s direction, this time at TheatreWorks in Hartford. The play, by Karoline Leach, is still stunning, and the acting…well, practice makes perfect. It is, quite simply, two hours of gripping theater.

The play takes place in Edwardian England, and Michael Schweikardt’s set deftly evokes both the “Jack the Ripper” grim, ill-lit streets of London of the time and the somewhat threadbare hotel room the couple ends up in on their wedding night. The opening sequences, played against flats depicting London by-ways, moodily lit by Martin Vreeland, is a pas de deux deftly staged by Brancato that has the characters establishing themselves as they stride and whirl about the stage, their movements hinting at their eventual meeting and the physical tension that meeting will evoke.
                                          Mark Shanahan. Photo by Lanny Nagler
Shanahan plays George Love, an amoral man who lives off the funds he can purloin from ladies he charms into marrying him. He weds them, beds them (to their great satisfaction, he claims), then absconds with their funds, which never last him long. As the play begins, Love is on the lookout for his next victim and he soon catches sight of Pinchin, who is placing a hat in the window of the shop where she works in the back room. She has all the attributes Love is looking for: she is plain, obviously lonely, with just a touch of style that hints at a reserve of cash. He proceeds to court her and, by the end of the first act, marries her and takes her away for their wedding night, the last night she will see him.

However, all is not as it seems, for these two characters are not mere cardboard cutouts, and it is the primary strength of Leach’s writing and Brancato’s direction that what seems at first to be a simple boy cons girl story turns out to be a study in repressed desires and egos conflicted, and tortured, by parental abuse and neglect. As the two characters reluctantly reveal what has made them the way they are, they are drawn towards each other. Love begins to have second thoughts, and Pinchin slowly gains strength and belief in herself as a person of worth. The stormy, revelatory second act draws towards a hopeful conclusion as the odd couple conjures possible salvation, a merging of lost souls. In the final moments, as Love pours water into a tin tub so his wife can take a bath, there is a glimmer of light, a possibility that scorpions can repress their urge to strike, leopards can, in fact, change their spots, and wallflowers can actually blossom.

Shanahan gives us a Love who seems to be sly and implacable, a force of nature who takes what he wants and lets the Devil take the hindmost. However, there’s a back-story, a reason why his character is the way he is, and Shanahan, with emotive eyes and a strong physical presence, slowly reveals the tortured soul that lies beneath the conniving surface of his character. It’s a strong performance, but a performance that is inevitably overshadowed by Maulella’s, for she presents us with such a multi-faceted picture of a tormented woman that, at times, you ache to rise out of your seat, descend to the stage and just hold her in your arms and comfort her.
                                         Andrea Maulella. Photo by Lanny Nagler
Perhaps under Bracato’s direction, Maulella’s Adelaide has become more physical since her appearance on the Country Playhouse stage, more visceral, or physically self-abusive. From the opening scenes, Maulella establishes a body language that hints at the abuse her character will eventually reveal…the language is at first subtle, then less so as she strikes her temple or grips her abdomen. Her agony, her need, and her strength are now more apparent, and it all adds up to a stunning portrayal of a woman who is on the edge, rolling the dice, making a bid for freedom, fragile in the extreme yet determined. It’s a bravura performance from an actress who, in her portrayal of Anne Sullivan in “The Miracle Worker” out at the Ivoryton Playhouse (another very physical role), brought tears to my eyes.

For those of you who saw the Westport Playhouse production of the same play, make the journey up to Hartford to see how an actress can evolve, strengthen and expand a character over time; for those of you who have never seen the play, make the journey up to Hartford to be overwhelmed. I guarantee you will walk out of the theater not only emotionally shriven but with a greater understanding of the power of live theater.

“Tryst” runs through Sept. 9. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to www.theaterworkshartford.com 

Friday, August 3, 2012

A Moving "Carousel"

"Carousel" -- Goodspeed Opera House -- Extended thru Sept. 29
                   Jeff Kready and Jenn Gambatese. Photo by Diane Sobolewski
There’s a telling bit of blocking in the first scene of the second act of “Carousel,” which recently opened at Goodspeed Opera House. It’s in the “Real Nice Clambake” number, and director Rob Ruggiero has the cast spread out across the stage in post-prandial lethargy. What’s significant is that sitting upright, stage center, are Nettie and Mr. Snow, and in the center of them, the focus of attention in this set-piece, is Carrie Pipperidge, while Julie and her husband, Billy Bigelow, the ostensible principals, are extreme stage right in a supine position – you actually have to hunt for them.


Why, you may ask, are Julie and Billy in such a secondary position in the scene? The answer is quite simple: Carrie is played by the marvelously talented Jenn Gambatese who, surrounded by an extremely strong cast, still steals the show.
                           James Snyder and Teal Wicks. Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Yes, we tend to the story of Julie (Teal Wicks) and Billy (James Snyder) as they fall in love, marry, only to have it all end in tragedy, with Billy redeeming himself on his one-day trip back to earth, but any time Gambatese, who several years ago won the Connecticut Critics Circle award for best actress in a musical for her portrayal of Annie Oakley in “Annie Get Your Gun,” is on stage she commands attention with her strong voice, deft acting ability and great comedic timing (plus a lovely, emotive face and evocative body language).

Early in the first act a thought arose that she should be playing the part of Julie, but no, she has been wisely cast as Julie’s best friend and the musical is all the better for it.

And what a musical. Sometimes you can tell from the opening moments of a production whether it is going to soar or crash, and Ruggiero, along with scenic designer Michael Schweikardt and chorographer Parker Esse, have put together a “Prologue” that simply dazzles. Given the Opera House’s diminutive stage, you can’t expect to see an entire carousel up there and you don’t, but the trio has placed trust in the audience’s imagination, and it works.

Before the lights come up, sound designer Jay Hilton gives us what sounds like rockers creaking on a wooden porch and you ask yourself, what the hell is that? Well, it’s a group of young women arranged in tableau working in synchronized movements at imaginary looms – it’s a beautiful, engaging image that dissolves as the workday ends and the girls travels to an amusement park where Billy mans the carousel, which is represented first by whirling silhouettes of the horses, then a single horse designed by Brent White, and then, flats are turned and there are four young woman riding imaginary horses – they slowly spin as the single real horse rises and falls, all to the tuneful music of Richard Rodgers “Prologue.” It’s magical, and lets the audience know that its members are in very capable hands, and those hands never, not for a moment, miss a beat throughout the entire evening. The artistry is such that, for someone who has seen this musical on Broadway, in regional theater, and in London, it was surprisingly fresh and new and, in the final scene so touching that jaded eyes were a bit misty.

As already mentioned, the fact that Gambatese steals the show is a minor miracle given the strength of the rest of the cast. Wicks (who will be replaced in the role on Aug. 8 by Erin Davie – Wicks is moving on to a national tour of “Jekyll & Hyde”) is a strong-willed yet innocent Julie who interacts extremely well with Snyder – their opening number, “If I Loved You,” is as poignant as you can ask for, and a wonderful confirmation of how Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, who wrote the book and lyrics, revolutionized American musical theater. It is a marvelous merger of song and dialogue that establishes character, creates conflict and satisfies on multiple levels.

Snyder is a commanding figure on the stage, playing the Bigelow role with just the right blend of bravado, injured male pride and underlying insecurity, and his signature number, the “Soliloquy,” is staged by Ruggiero to heighten Snyder’s physical presence – during the final moments of the song, which Snyder delivers very effectively as part dialogue and part sung cri de coeur, Ruggiero has Snyder stride forward onto a small thrust stage. As he does so, lighting designer John Lasiter back-lights the actor. The overall effect is gripping – Billy Bigelow, swearing that he will find some way to earn money in a big voice that reaches to the farthest corners of the theater, looms over the audience as an aching, impassioned presence.
                 Anne Kanengeiser and the cast of "Carousel." Photo by Diane Sobolewski
And there are other stand-out performances. Deanne Lorette, as Mrs. Mullin, the owner of the carousel, is the woman of a certain age who is smitten by Billy, and she creates a sensitive portrait of a woman trying to hold onto her man and her dignity. Equally impressive is Anne Kanengeiser as Nettie, the boardinghouse lady who comforts Julie by telling her she will “Never Walk Alone.” Then there’s the villain of the piece, Jigger Craigin (note how “hard” the name sounds – amazing what a little alliteration can convey), portrayed by Tally Sessions. Sessions takes a one-dimensional character and turns him into a multi-faceted rogue who gives us a lively “Stonecutters” and, acting in concert with Gambatese (yes, there she is again), provides a set-piece that is the comic high-point of the evening.
     Tally Sessions (foot on barrell) and the cast of "Carousel." Photo by Diane Sobolewski 
Finally, there’s Eloise Kropp as Louise, Julie and Billy’s daughter. She gives us the requisite angry, head-strong fifteen-year-old, but in the “Ballet” sequence, loosely based on the original Agnes de Mille choreography, we see character and emotions translated into movement, with the help of Sam Rogers, who plays the dream-sequence barker. I’ve never been a big fan of the ballet sequence in “Carousel,” but, perhaps given the tight quarters, there’s an energy here that I’ve never seen before. Heretofore I’ve sat through the sequence; this time, I lived through it.

All in all, this is perhaps one of the strongest, most cohesive…and thoroughly entertaining productions I’ve seen at Goodspeed, which always sets the bar high. In this case, the bar is very high, and everyone involved leaps over it with ease. If you only have time to see one show this summer in Connecticut, go see “Carousel.” You won’t regret it.

The “Carousel” run has been extended through Sept. 29. For tickets or more information call 860-873-8668 or go to www.goodspeed.org.

For Ct Theater News and Reviews. To see what other critics have to say about this show go to www.ctcritics.org