Tuesday, July 30, 2013

"Grease" Rocks the House (or Tent)

"Grease" -- Summer Theatre of New Canaan -- Thru Aug. 11

                                                        The cast of "Grease"

Looking for something to do of a summer evening? Well, you might want to consider taking the whole family over to Waveny Park in New Canaan for an evening of rock-and-roll as served up by Summer Theatre of New Canaan’s production of the classic “Grease.” You might even have the opportunity to show your stuff with a hula hoop (for those of you who don’t know what a hula hoop is, simply understand that your elders were once as crazy as you are), or dance with the cast onstage. In essence, this “Grease” is a bright, breezy trip down Memory Lane that has been crafted by director Melody Meltrott Libonati to please just about every age group.

“Grease,” set in the 1950s at Rydell High School, opened on Broadway in 1971 and held the record for most performances until “A Chorus Line” came along several years later. The basic plot deals with the summer romance between Sandy Dumbrowski (Sharon Malane) and Danny Zuko (Christian Libonati) that founders on the rocks of a new school year and the roles the students are forced to play as members of various cliques within the school. Swirling around their on- and off-again relationship are such themes as gang violence, teen pregnancy and the ubiquitous teen angst and rebellion, but at STONC the harsher elements inherent in the original version have been, if not sanitized, at least toned down a bit. Though there’s still a touch of raunch, certainly not enough to bother the many “tweens’ who were in the audience the night I attended.

Setting the tone for the evening, before the  curtain Vince Fontaine (Jason Law), the oleaginous local dejay, entertains with patter and the aforementioned hula hoop contest, and then it’s off to the Rydell class reunion, which is almost immediately parodied as we go back in time and the Pink Ladies and Burger Palace boys introduce themselves, letting everyone know exactly how they feel about good old Rydell.

From that point on, you just hold on as director Libonati puts the talented cast members through their paces, performing with brio such numbers as “Summer Nights,” “Greased Lightnin’,” “We Go Together,” and the over-the-top “Born to Hand Jive.”  Choreographer Doug Chapman has done a fine job with this young cast, utilizing whatever room there is on the relatively restricted stage to full effect as the well-drilled cast shucks and jives.

As effective as the “big’ numbers are, it’s the softer ballads that seem to stand out the most. This is especially so for Malane’s “It’s Raining on Prom Night,” a heartfelt teen lament, and Cristina Farruggia as Rizzo is saucy and sarcastic as she delivers “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” and absolutely nails “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” – in fact, it’s the stand-out number of the evening. Running a close second is Adam Hill’s version of “Beauty School Dorpout,” as Teen Angel counsels Frenchy (Sarah Mullis) to give up her dreams about becoming a hair stylist.

The main focus, of course, is on the budding romance between Sandy and Danny, and Malane and Christian Libonati work up a nice chemistry as they find their way to true romance. Libonati’s Danny preens and cock-walks when appropriate, then turns affectionately boyish when alone with Sandy, save for his aborted attempt at making out at the drive-in, when Sandy unintentionally punishes him for his raging hormones.

The audience-embracing feel that director Libonati has created extends beyond the reprise of “We Go Together,” as the cast members come down into the audience and invite both young and old to join them back up on the stage for an impromptu high school hop. All in all, a great way to spend a soft summer evening.

“Grease” runs through Aug. 11. For tickets or more information call 203-966-4634 or go to www.stonc.org

Sunday, July 21, 2013

"Dolly" a Delight

"Hello, Dolly!" -- Goodspeed Opera House -- Extended thru Sept.14

      Klea Blackhurst and the cast of "Hello, Dolly!" Photo by Diane Sobolewski

Goodspeed Opera House is known internationally for its ability to produce “big” shows in a relatively confined space, and this skill is manifest in its current production of “Hello, Dolly!” a rollicking, fast-paced presentation of one of America’s classic musical comedies. As my play-going partner put it after seeing the show on Saturday, “The audience walked out of ‘Hello, Dolly!’ with a skip in their step.”

Much of that “skip” is there because director Daniel Goldstein is obviously intent on “working” the audience whenever he can, hence, in the opening number, Dolly Gallagher Levi (Klea Blackhurst) makes her first appearance not on stage but in one of the aisles, handing out business cards. The space is also used late in the first act to make the “Parade Passes By” number seem bigger than it really is.

“Bigger than it really is” might be the operative phrase for the entire production, for, along with Goldstein, scenic designer Adrian W. Jones, lighting designer Jason Lyons and choreographer Kelli Barclay have accepted the stage’s limitations and done everything possible to overcome them.

                                    Ashley Brown. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

One of the biggest challenges in producing “Hello, Dolly!” is the “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” number, which starts in a feed and grain store in Yonkers and ends up, via a train ride, in New York City. As the number began, I was wondering just how they were going to pull it off. Well, I needn’t have worried, for Jones turns the store’s shelving into railroad car seats, Lyons gives us running lights projected onto a rear scrim and Barclay has the cast members swaying and bouncing. In essence, it works beautifully.

Then there’s the “Waiters’ Galop” number, which is a lead-in to the show’s signature “Hello, Dolly,” when the meddling matchmaker makes her triumphant return to the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant. Again, the question arose in my mind – how are they going to give this number the “bigness” it requires? Once again, no worries. Using every foot of stage available and a stairway set stage center, Barclay works some magic, making you believe that the dancers are moving through space twice as large as they really are. Trays, food and dishes fly and napkins and aprons wave and flutter in a bravura sequence worthy of comparison to that of any of the show’s Broadway productions.

                      Tony Sheldon and Klea Blackhurst. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

Goldstein, Jones and Barclay were also obviously committed to keeping this show moving, and it does. Scene changes take mere moments and the cast members seem to appear here, there and everywhere, often in different costumes, as if they have been transported, which means that backstage, where space is also limited, there has to be a feeling of controlled chaos.

As for the performances themselves, there’s little more you can ask for. Blackhurst creates a Dolly that’s all her own, yet with just than a touch of Merman and a pinch of Middler thrown in for good measure. That Dolly is as delightfully manipulative as she is owes a lot to the show’s Horace Vandergelder, Tony Sheldon (on his first appearance you quickly check your program to see if, perhaps, Goodspeed has somehow gotten Christopher Plummer to play the role). Sheldon is a master of the slow burn, the double-take and the startled shuffle, all of which he employs to great effect.

In support, there’s Ashley Brown as Irene Murphy, an actress who lights up the stage with her eyes and her smile, and Vandergelder’s two clerks, Spencer Moses as Cornelius Hackl and Jeremy Moss as Barnaby Tucker, who are both engagingly naïve.

However, the show is Blackhurst’s to own, and she does, no more so than in the lead-in to the courtroom scene when she is able to get extended laughs by disregarding all others on stage as she blithely devours an ear of corn…and then some dumplings. The moment is priceless.

Goodspeed’s “Hello, Dolly!” is the perfect show to make you forget about the oppressive heat and humidity. It’s light, frothy and a whole lot of fun.

“Hello, Dolly!” runs through Sept. 8. For tickets or more information call 860-873-8668 or go to www.goodspeed.org

Humor? Yes. Biting? No

"Loot" -- Westport Country Playhouse -- Thru Aug. 3

                    Liv Rooth, Zach Wegner, and Devin Norik in Joe Orton’s “Loot."                             Photo by Carol Rosegg 

By Geary Danihy

There will be mixed reactions to playwright Joe Orton’s “Loot,” which recently opened at the Westport Country Playhouse, as there were in its first and second iterations in London almost half a century ago. It was panned when it was first produced in 1965, Orton did substantial revisions, and it was praised the following year. Reasons for both the panning and the praising are evident in this production directed by David Kennedy, which is an amalgam of slapstick farce, black comedy, anti-Catholicism, thinly veiled social protest and less thinly veiled misogyny.

Orton’s penchant for black comedy led to the coining of “Ortonesque” to describe works of this ilk, but in “Loot” a more familiar term might also apply -- “Kafkaesque” – for as the play unfolds one can’t help but hear echoes of “The Trial” and “In the Penal Colony,” for behind the humor there is substantial existential angst born of the human need to make sense of what is, ultimately, senseless, that and  a great deal of suppressed anger.

It all starts with a coffin and the body inside, the wife of Mr. McLeavy (John Horton). Mr. McLeavy’s grief at the passing of his wife is quickly challenged by Fay (Liv Rooth), the young nurse hired to tend to the wife in her last days, for she suggests the cure for his grief is to marry quickly – and marry her. But there is more afoot, for McLeavy’s son, Hal (Devin Norik), along with Dennis (Zach Wagner), have just dug through the walls of the funeral parlor handling Mrs. McLeavy’s funeral to rob a bank. The money is now stashed in a wardrobe standing behind the casket in what is apparently the front parlor of the McLeavy home, but soon the mother’s body is in the wardrobe and the cash is in the coffin.

                Devin Norik, David Manis, and Liv Rooth. Photo by Carol Rosegg 

Orton’s real intent with all of this doesn’t come into clear focus until the appearance of Truscott (David Manis), who claims to be an inspector from the local Water Board but acts like a detective. Whatever his authority, he is a representative of the State, the mindless bureaucracy that creates conflicting regulations and operates outside of the confines of logic. Truscott’s method of “investigating” is to ask a series of non sequitur questions, create confusion, and then draw inane conclusions that have little to do with reality. And yet, he bears the power of the State – the power to have someone incarcerated for no reason, the power to have someone brutally interrogated -- in essence, the power to destroy lives.

                             John Horton and Liv Rooth. Photo by Carol Rosegg 

But that’s not all that’s going on here, for Orton is also sending up the clichés of mystery fiction: the deductive reasoning of a Sherlock Holmes; the “little detail” analysis of everyday minutia of a Miss Marple.

Does it work? Well, yes and no. There are some very humorous moments as Mrs. McLeavy’s body is carted about and Truscott bandies words with possible suspects of ill-defined crimes. In fact, much of the humor involves the simple shtick of “follow-the-bouncing-body.” Yet, since director Kennedy has opted to play it for laughs (allowing his actors occasionally to do some heavy emoting), rather than play it serious, or for real, and let the laughs come as they may, you get the feeling that this production is trying too hard to be too many things to too many people.

And then there is the misogyny. There are two women in the play – one fully seen and the other seen in only body parts. The one fully seen, Fay, has had seven husbands in 10 years, all of them dying under suspicious circumstances. She is basically a succubus, a Lilith, i.e., a female demon. The other woman – the deceased Mrs. McLeavy – has her body tossed about like a bag of Fritos at a frat party, and although her husband is supposed to be grieving over her demise, he bursts out at one point that even from the grave her viperfish tongue is doing him harm, and then there’s a line Truscott delivers late in the second act about women and intelligence that evoked more groans than laughter from the audience.

There are those who have suggested that comedy is nothing more than pain wrapped up with a bright red bow. There are a lot of “funny” lines and smile-inducing moments in “Loot,” but lurking beneath is pain, and it’s the pain that this production hasn’t confronted. Everyone seems to be playing it for laughs, but Orton dealt with the abyss that lurks beneath the laughter, and it’s the abyss that’s missing, the tender terror the playwright was trying to express that is not captured.

When something strikes us as really funny, when we roll back and roar, tears come to our eyes. Those tears speak to the essence of humor. You slip on a banana peel and it’s funny, until you have to go through physical therapy. This production of “Loot” goes for the laughs and misses the tears…and the depth of Orton’s anger, frustration, fears and hang-ups.

“Loot” runs through August 3. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org

Monday, July 15, 2013

Gotta Dance!

"Footloose" -- Ivoryton Playhouse -- Thru July 28

                                                    The cast of "Footloose"

Some musicals translate well from the screen to the stage and some don’t, and vice versa. “Rent” soared on Broadway and bombed in the multiplexes; “Mamma Mia” and “Hairspray” were hits in both mediums, and then there’s “Footloose,” the 1984 film starring Kevin Bacon that reappeared as a musical on Broadway in 1998 to mixed reviews. This surface treatment of teenage angst and small-town repression is now on the boards at the Ivorytown Playhouse and though it pleases on several levels the material itself limits the degree to which the audience can be drawn into the story.

For those who are separated by more than six degrees from Kevin Bacon, “Footloose” deals with a teenage boy, Ren McCormack (Cody Ryan) who, after his father abandons him and his mother, Ethel (Elise Arsenault), is forced to move to a Midwestern town called Bomont where, five years ago, because of a tragic car accident, the town council, at the urgings of Rev. Shaw Moore (Edward Juvier), passed numerous ordinances including one disallowing any dancing within the city limits. Ren, however, is something of a dancing fool, and soon he and the good Reverend come into conflict. Rev. Shaw also has other problems – his righteousness has alienated him from both his wife, Vi (Traci Blair) and his teenage daughter, Ariel (Zoe Kassay), who, in full rebellion, is dating Chuck Cranston (Michael Wright), one of the town’s low-lives. Thus the stage is set for a lot of parent-child confrontations, pious pronouncements and pompous sermonizing that eventually lead to reconciliation, remorse and redemption.

Oddly enough, in a show whose focus is the sturm und drang of teenagedom, it’s the adults who come off the best, for under Richard Amelius’s direction (he also choreographed the show) we have two approaches to acting: the adults, by and large, play it straight, and are effective, while the younger members of the cast are allowed to swing for the stands, and, save for Patrick H. Dunn as Willard Hewitt, hit few home runs.

It’s billed as a rock-and-roll musical, but it’s the more quiet numbers that work the best, especially “Learning to be Silent,” sung by the two mothers, Ethel and Vi, and Vi’s “Can You Find It in Your Heart,” and although Juvier lays it on a bit thick in his opening sermon as he demonizes rock-and-roll, he settles nicely into his role and, at the end of the show gives a moving performance with “I Confess.”

But it’s the kids, gull-dang-it, who present problems (ain’t that just like kids?). By and large, they are just too conscious of having to act like rebellious teenagers to be believable as rebellious teenagers. The lead in this area is Wright, who seems to be channeling Snidely Whiplash as he sneers and takes just a bit too much delight in being nasty.  Admittedly, there’s a lot of energy up there on the stage but it often seems just a bit uncoordinated. However, when it does come together, as in “Holding Out for a Hero, “Let’s Hear it for the Boy” and “Mama Says” toes start to tap and heads nod with the beat.

All in all, “Footloose” is a pleasant enough way to spend a summer afternoon or evening. You won’t come away overwhelmed, but there will be one or more tunes that you’ll find yourself humming the next day.

“Footloose” runs through July 28. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.