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