Monday, April 28, 2014

A Haunting "House"

"The House That Will Not Stand" -- Yale Repertory Theatre -- Thru May 11

                                          Harriett D. Foy and Joniece Abbott-Pratt.
                                          Photos by Carol Roseg

Most of the time, theater-goers browse through the program merely to fill time before the performance and during intermission, but in the case of Marcus Gardley’s “The House That Will Not Stand,” which is receiving its world premiere at the Yale Repertory Theatre, it is almost mandatory to read the background information written by Madeleine Oldham if you wish to understand fully what is going on in the first 10 or 15 minutes of this intriguing, beautifully staged play.

The necessity to read the program notes is the result of two factors. First, the subject matter will be alien to most in attendance, for Gardley has chosen to focus on a peculiar aspect of what was once termed “our peculiar institution,” the system of placage endemic to ante-bellum New Orleans that, de facto if not de jure, allowed for formal relationships between white men and free women of color, most of whom were quadroons, relationships that were arranged by the woman’s mother (who received money in return) and often had the man purchase a house for the woman and bear certain responsibilities, including a bequeathal of money at his passing. I would venture to guess that not 1 in 100 of the audience members were aware of this formalized nod to the reality that sex has always won out over race.

The second reason why program perusal is necessary is that director Patricia McGregor has put a very stylized, at moments almost surreal, spin on the production, opting to have her actors portray their characters as slightly larger than life, which means that gestures are often operatic and the dialogue is delivered with a rapidity and volume and a pseudo-Creole accent that, at least for the first five or 10 minutes of the play, may be a bit challenging to the ear.

                                    Tiffany Rachelle Stewart, Joniece Abbott-Pratt,
                                    and Flor De Liz Perez

However, once you settle in, you will be thoroughly engrossed in this magical-realistic tale of Beatrice (Lizan Mitchell), the head of a household consisting of her three daughters, Odette (Joniece Abbott-Pratt), Maude Lynn (Flor De Liz Perez), and Agnes (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart), the maid, Makeda (Harriette D. Foy), who is a slave yearning to purchase her freedom, Beatrice’s slightly crazed sister, Marie Josephine (Petronia Paley) and the “spirit” of the man, Lazare (Ray Reinhardt), who fathered Beatrice’s children and, at the start of the play, has died just hours ago (his body is set out on the dining room table for viewing). Hovering over the house like an evil spirit is Beatrice’s venomous enemy, La Veuve (also Paley), who believes Beatrice has, for the second time, poisoned a man she has been living with.

                                  Lizan Mitchell (foreground) with Harriett D. Foy

Beatrice hopes, based on the proceeds from Lazare’s will, to take her three daughters to Paris, where color is not such an issue, but her oldest daughter, Agnes, has other plans. She wishes to attend the annual quadroon ball (think slave market with dancing and polite conversation) to be “placed,” something her mother is totally against. Agnes enlists the aid of her sister Odette, asking her to masquerade as Beatrice so that the “mother” can strike a deal with an eligible white man, all while Maude Lynn, who is hyper-religious, protests, to no avail.

Details of all the sub-plots that Gardley has woven into this tale would turn this review into a mini-War and Peace, for there is betrayal and voodoo, a recipe for gumbo and the dead coming back to life. Suffice it to say that they all, in one way or another, serve Gardley’s purpose, which is to dramatize the various faces of subjugation and slavery and the somewhat bizarre methods Southern society used to deal with the fact that men and women, regardless of color, will always be attracted to each other. At the same time, he also takes on the nature of prejudice, which extends even into the black community in the form of an informal caste system based on the fairness or darkness of people’s skin.

                                                        Petronia Paley

Playing against an almost regal backdrop crafted by scenic designer Antje Ellermann and wearing costumes, designed by Katherine O’Neill, as big and bold as the characters themselves, and moving to the haunting music by sound designer Keith Townsend Obadike, this cast of excellent actors creates a foreign world that the audience quickly gets drawn into, a world alien to ours but, beneath the surface, speaks to the problems of prejudice that still simmer in our country.

The evening runs to well over two hours (with one intermission), but once you enter the house ruled by Beatrice you will be so entranced that you will be unaware of time passing. It is like a spell has been cast, a spell artfully crafted by Gardley that will, once you leave the theater, haunt you.

“The House That Will Not Stand” runs through May 10. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to 

Sunday, April 27, 2014

"Legally Blonde" a Guilty Pleasure

"Legally Blonde" -- Connecticut Repertory Theatre -- Thru May 4

                     Coles Prince, Briana Maia, Andrianna Prast, Courtney Hammond 
                    (Elle Woods) and Khetanya Henderson. Photos by Gerry Goodstein.

We go to different restaurants for different experiences. The local bar and grill may not offer haute cuisine but it provides atmosphere and, often, camaraderie and characters. If we want to put on the dog, we go to a four-star restaurant and have our palate (and our wallet) challenged. And then there are the “theme” restaurants that we dine at not so much for the exquisite cuisine as for the often funky fun of it all, the glitz and the in-your-face style, and damn the calories.

So it is with musicals – some offer comfort food, some are exercises in theatrical existentialism (think the current “If/Then”), and some…well, they glitter, they shine, they add a couple of inches to your mental waistline and…well…you just don’t give a damn because you have such a good time. Such is the case with “Legally Blonde,” which recently opened at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre up in Storrs. It’s a visual and audile high-caloric repast that does what it sets out to do, which is entertain. Perhaps it’s a guilty pleasure, but every once in a while you’re allowed.

The musical, with book by Heather Hach and music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin, is based on a novel by Amanda Brown and a 2001 movie of the same name. In all cases, the focus is Elle Woods (Courtney Hammond), an apparently ditzy blonde, the ultimate “Oh My God!” California sorority girl (she’s president of UCLA’s local chapter of Delta NU) who is majoring in design and believes shopping, especially for a man (it’s a god-like, transformative experience), is an ethereal event. She also believes she is about to become engaged to Warner Harrington III (Will Graziano), but he dumps her for a more “serious” young lady, Vivienne (Whitney Andrews), who will aid him in his career path to the U.S. Senate. Initially, Elle sulks but then decides to pursue her one true love to Harvard Law School, proving to him that she can be as serious as the next business-suited legal-beaverette.

Once at Harvard (her entry essay is, if nothing else, unique, since it involves cheerleaders), she initially gets kicked out of class by Professor Callahan (David Adkins), but a recent graduate and teaching assistant, Emmet (Colby Lewis), takes her under his wing. She buckles down to work and soon lands an internship in Callahan’s firm, which is handling the murder trial of fitness queen Brooke Wyndham (Khetanya Henderson), accused of murdering her husband. Given moral support by Paulette (Nicole Lewis), a hairdresser, Elle helps win the case, finds self-esteem in her “pink” approach to life and ends up valedictorian of her graduating class.

Hokum? Of course it is, but if you want angst and intensity go find where “The Three-Penny Opera” is currently playing and enjoy. If you opt for CRT and are seeking intensity and angst you’ve obviously come to the wrong restaurant, ah, theater…don’t blame the theater. CRT’s production doesn’t shy away from the fact that “Legally Blonde” is, basically, eye and ear candy. In fact, the lighting design by Sean Nicholl, the sets by Matthew Iacozza and the projections created by Iacozza and Erika Johnson, emphasize the fact – they’re glitzy, stylish, often somewhat over-the-top, but that’s the gestalt of the musical.

                                         Courtney Hammond as Elle Woods

As Elle, Hammond is perkiness personified. She’s bouncy, bright and owns the stage whenever she dances or strides across it…and it doesn’t hurt that pink becomes her. Her fine performance is matched by Lewis’s, who milks the role of Paulette for all of it’s comedic worth.

                                                            Nicole Lewis

There’s a lot of fine work done by the actors in supporting roles, many of them students at UCONN. Proving the point that there are no small roles for the dedicated actor, Saul Alvarez as Nikos and Chester Allan Martin as Carlos do some nice work in the trial scene near the end of the second act. They’re not on for long, but you remember them, as you will the two dogs created by Carianne Hoff – they’re puppets!

                                          Saul Alvarez and Chester Allen Martin

As spring finally sets in, I can’t think of a better way to lighten spirits dampened and chilled by winter than an evening at CRT watching “Legally Blonde.” No, there are no heavy messages or lessons to be learned (contrary to director Gerry McIntyre’s suggestion in the program notes), just a lot of light-hearted fun that is announced by the show’s opening number: “Omigod You Guys.” Just be careful. When you leave the theater you may experience an uncontrollable urge to go out and shop.

“Legally Blonde” runs through May 4. For tickets or more information call (860) 486-2113 or go to

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Poppas and Pictures

I Ought to Be in Pictures -- Ivoryton Playhouse -- Thru May 11

                                       Mike Boland and Siobhan Fitzgerald.
                                      All photos by Anne Hudson

In ancient Greek theater the actors wore masks, a tradition that has come down to us in the form of the familiar “sad” and “happy” masks so often used on the front covers of books about playwriting, in regional theater logos and the ads seen in theater programs. The two masks denote tragedy and comedy, and they are shown together for a good reason, for scratch the surface of a good comedy and you will find beneath it a tragedy neatly averted. The prolific playwright Neil Simon understands this well, for many of his comedies tremble on the brink of tragedy – one false step by one or more of his characters and we no longer have “The Odd Couple” but “Of Mice and Men.” Such is the case with “I Ought to Be in Pictures,” which recently opened at the Ivoryton Playhouse. Simon’s 1980 play, which was subsequently filmed in 1982, is a somewhat bittersweet take on love, family, commitment and parenting given a warm, engaging treatment that, over its run, should mature into a totally satisfying evening of theater.

The premise of this three-character play is relatively simple. Herb (a solid Mike Boland), is a Hollywood screenwriter suffering a writer’s block of glacial proportions who gets an unexpected guest in the form of his 19-year-old daughter Libby (Siobhan Fitzgerald), who has traversed westward from the Bronx to confront the man who left his family 16 years ago. She hopes that he can, among other things, give her an intro into the world of acting. Her appearance on his doorstep disturbs the comfortable relationship he has with Steffy (Jeanie Rapp), a movie studio make-up artist with whom he has had an on-again-off-again “understanding” for the past two years. Libby, after some cajoling, moves in, and the rest of the play deals with the sometimes fractious maturing of the father-daughter relationship which, as a by-blow, also throws light on Herb’s relationship with Steffy.

                                                Jeanie Rapp and Mike Boland

Under the direction of R. Bruce Connelly, with a period-perfect, down-at-the-heels set by Bill Stark and a subtle, emotive lighting design by Marcus Abbot (several fade-outs are quite notable), the play pleases on many levels and you can’t help but leave the theater with a warm glow. Yet, some directorial decisions (or, perhaps, lack of decisions) form a slight cloud over the production, a cloud that might be easily dissipated.

Boland’s performance is rock solid, conveying both the frustration of a writer who has lost his confidence and, once Libby moves in, a man slowly coming to realize what it means to be a father. However, the cloud, or clouds, as diaphanous as they might be, hang over the two female characters.

                                                          Siobhan Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald is a delight to watch, but there is a problem with how she delivers, or has been allowed or directed, to deliver her lines. Early in the first act Herb complains that he has suddenly been confronted with and invaded by a daughter who sounds like Marlon Brando. Either Fitzgerald or Connelly, or both, have apparently fixated on that line of dialogue as a cue as to how Fitzgerald should speak and move. The result is Brando channeled through The Fonz via Marisa Tomei in “My Cousin Vinny.” It seems forced. stagey, even distracting, and the proof that it can be otherwise comes late in the second act when Libby has a highly emotional scene with Herb. Fitzgerald’s delivery speeds up and, although the Bronx accent is still evident, it does not dominate and therefore seems natural. Perhaps, over the course of the play’s run, if Fitzgerald takes most of the air out of her lines – “You know…what I…mean…dontcha?” – her Bronx background will be just that, a background to a character she appears to be more than capable of bringing to full life.

If Fitzgerald is, at this point early in the run, a bit too over the top, Rapp is just a bit too subdued. Again, a subtle change is all that’s necessary. Right now her character often seems to be on a low dose of Librium (the drug of choice back then). All she needs to do is add a bit of bite to her delivery and her Steffy will come to the fore.

Again, these are early days for “I Ought to Be in Pictures.” Actors settle into roles often only after performing in front of an audience, sensing what does and doesn’t work, and doing a bit of self-evaluation. If Boland holds what he is doing, Fitzgerald brings it down a notch and Rapp ramps it up a bit, then Ivoryton will have a fine, crowd-pleasing production on its hands.

“I Ought to Be in Pictures” runs through May 11. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to   

Friday, April 18, 2014

It Seems We've Sat and Seen This Before

Somewhere -- Hartford Stage Company -- Thru May 4

                         Foreground: Jessica Naimy, Zachary Infante. Background:
                         Priscilla Lopez, Michael Rosen. All photos by T. Charles Erickson

So, we have a mother who would rather believe in a dream than reality – a father who is absent, though his picture is prominent in the living room – a son who yearns to break free yet is weighed down by family responsibilities – and it’s all told as a memory. Sound familiar? No, it’s not Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” it’s Matthew Lopez’s “Somewhere,” currently enjoying its East Coast premiere at The Hartford Stage Company.

The show, directed by Giovanna Sardelli, is somewhat uneven. There are moments when the dialogue seems drawn from a Dale Carnegie course and is delivered in a rather painful, “You can do it kid” manner, and yet there are other moments when the characters come alive, the tension and conflict is real, and you almost believe in the dream…and then there are the dance numbers. Dance numbers? Yes, for “Somewhere” is a hybrid of sorts, a play whose parentage includes not only Lopez and Williams, but Neil Simon (think “Brighton Beach Memoirs”) and the good old Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland (may they both rest in peace) “Let’s put on a show” films.

In fact, the show seems filled with echoes from familiar dramas, films and TV shows, so much so that although this is a regional premiere you can’t help but think as the two acts unfold: “Gee, I’ve seen this before.”

The twist Lopez gives to this much worked-over material is that the family is Latino. The Candelarias live in Manhattan circa 1959. Broadway, where Inez (Priscilla Lopez) works as an usher, is booming and the musical the family has fixated on is “West Side Story” – hence the play’s title (although it can also refer to the absent father who is, well, somewhere – or to the dreams of going “somewhere” other than where they are that most of the characters embrace). Unfortunately, the Canderlarias also live on West 66th Street, in the heart of the 14 blocks slated for destruction to make way for, among other things, Lincoln Center. Using the Federal Housing Act of 1949 as a club, Robert Moses, the Big Apple’s “master builder” (his biographer, Robert Caro, titled his book “The Power Broker”) designates the entire area a slum and eviction notices are promptly issued, forcing the Candelarias to move from their apartment – it and the family’s subsequent digs deftly designed by Donyale Werle – the whole set disappears for the final fantasy dance scene.

                                    Jessica Naimy, Cary Tedder, Priscilla Lopez, 
                                    Michael Rosen and Zachary Infante

Inez is in denial, much to the frustration of her eldest son, Alejandro (Michael Rosen), who was once a child actor in “The King and I” but has since given up his dreams of Broadway. Not so his younger brother, Francisco (Zachary Infante), who is currently taking acting lessons in hopes of becoming the new Marlon Brando, that is when Francisco isn’t being mugged or attacked by gangs. Their sister, Rebecca (the ebullient Jessica Naimy), dreams of becoming a professional dancer. The possibility that these aspirations may not be pipe dreams comes in the form of Jamie (Cary Tedder) who, although his heritage is German-Irish, is a Candelaria by semi-adoption, having been, as a child, given shelter in the Candelaria’s home after fleeing his abusive, alcoholic father. He is now an assistant to Jerome Robbins, the producer, director and choreographer known for his creativity and tyrannical ways who will direct the film version of “West Side Story” – until he is fired and replaced by Robert Wise.

                                              Michael Rosen and Priscilla Lopez

Though the play lacks the underlying tensions and haunting quality of “The Glass Menagerie,” it does have its dramatic moments, chief among them a soliloquy delivered by Lopez in which she details how she met her husband, and a confrontation between Alejandro and Jamie that deals with familial responsibility – both occurring in the second act. If the dance numbers, choreographed by Kurt Crowley, seem somewhat forced, they are yet quite entertaining, none more so than in the play’s final moments when the set recedes, spotlights illuminate a ballroom floor, and the entire family performs dance routines that culminate with Alejandro ascending a staircase towards, one must assume, his future.

                                   Zachary Infante, Jessica Naimy and Cary Tedder

The performances are influenced by the neither-fish-nor-fowl nature of the play – they are, at times, broad and comedic (sometimes to the point of farce), and at others intense and dramatic. Infante seems most beset by this contradiction, for his tone and manner of delivery often seem out of sync with the production, yet if the script had been nudged just a bit further to the comedic right his performance would have been dead-on. The other actors fare better, though the constant shift in tone leaves one often unsure how to respond to what is occurring on stage. Focusing on individual scenes makes one feel a bit schizophrenic, and yet…the overall feeling generated by “Somewhere” is positive, for who doesn’t like a Broadway fantasy in which hard work, pluck and luck lead to success and a role in a major production…oh, you mean like in “42nd Street”? Yes, just another ghost haunting “Somewhere.”

“Somewhere runs through May 4. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to

Sunday, April 13, 2014

An Appealing "Fantasticks"

"The Fantasticks" -- MTC MainStage -- Thru May 4

                     Shanna Ossi. Jack Doyle, Carissa Massaro, Jacob Heimer, Lou Ursone 
                     and Tony Lawson. All photos by Joe Landry

Over five decades ago, a musical with a limited number of characters and a minimal set opened off-Broadway at the tiny Sullivan Street Playhouse. It ran for 17,162 performances, becoming the longest-running musical in American theater history. The show was “The Fantasticks,” with music by Harvey Schmidt and book and lyrics by Tom Jones, and it now can be seen in a touching, oh-so-intimate production at Westport’s MTC MainStage. It is the venue’s last production before MTC moves to a more commodious location minutes away.

The musical’s draw is its allegorical simplicity: a boy, Matt (Jacob Helmer), lives next door to a girl, Luisa (Carissa Massaro). Their fathers, Bellomy (Jack Doyle) and Hucklebee (Lou Ursone), feign a feud, complete with a wall between their properties, in a bit of reverse psychology, seeking to foster an alliance between their children by seeming to frustrate it. As the musical opens, the children are ripe for romance, at least the story-book version, and so the fathers contrive an abduction of Luisa so that Matt can save her and thus bring their courtship to fruition. They enlist a bandit, El Gallo (Tony Lawson) to orchestrate the abduction, and he, in turn, calls upon an aging, line-challenged actor, Henry (John Flaherty) and a faux-Indian, Mortimer (Jim Schilling), who specializes in artless death scenes, to pull off the staged abduction and rescue. The first act ends beneath a cardboard moon with love triumphant.

The moon sets, the sun rises, and with it comes harsh reality and doubts. The romance is off. Matt sets out to see the world while Luisa becomes enamored of El Gallo. Life must teach the two young people some harsh lessons before they again find each other and, sadder but wiser, realize where their hearts belong.

The musical is loosely based on Edmond Rostand’s “Les Romanesques,” but it also harkens back to medieval drama, when troupes of traveling actors went from town to town putting on plays initially based on liturgical themes -- the mystery, miracle and morality plays – and then broadening the topics to embrace local folklore in the form of Morris dances. Various productions of “The Fantasticks” emphasize – or de-emphasize – the traveling show aspect of the musical – Long Wharf’s staging of the show several years ago was heavy on magic and the sense of carnival. MTC’s offering, under the direction of its executive artistic director, Kevin Connors, gives a nod to the musical’s roots, with the Mute (Shanna Ossi) dressed in a quasi-Harlequin costume and the players posing and miming at the show’s opening, but this aspect of the show – a sense of magic and mystery – is minimal, perhaps because of the proximity of audience to cast.

Although there is a difference between physical and aesthetic distance, the former cannot help but influence the latter, and in the case of MTC, distance, or lack of same, between actors and playgoers makes it difficult to create an illusory landscape – what’s there is, well, right there in front of you, sometimes mere inches away.

                                                          Carissa Massaro

That being said, there’s a lot to like about MTC’s “Fantasticks,” starting with Massaro’s Luisa. She gives, as one of my students suggested after the show, an Alice-in-Wonderland quality to the role, a subtle performance that displays the full range of her character’s emotions using deft gestures and well-controlled body language. It is here that MTC’s limited space works to its benefit, allowing actors to convey emotions as if they were being filmed (in constant close-ups) rather than having to play to the balcony. Massaro’s dulcet voice and engaging personality gives Luisa a truly girlish glee that is worth the price of admission, especially since, unlike some actors who find MTC’s limited space daunting and thus focus on anything other than the audience, Massaro, whether she is singing or delivering lines, looks her audience in the eyes. The effect is often riveting.

As the two fathers, Doyle and Ursone work well together, especially in the comic number, “Plant a Radish,” which is artfully choreographed by Kathy Callahan, who does a wonderful job with the space she’s given to work with (especially since the small set is ringed with blue footlights). Doyle and Ursone both walk the thin line between straight performance and farce, offering the audience both realistic moments of care and concern for their children and subtle buffoonery.

                                                            Tony Lawson

Lawson’s El Gallo is both suave and world-weary, a nice mix that the actor conveys with restraint, and again, Callahan’s choreography serves the cast well in the “’Round and ‘Round” number in which Lawson and Massaro whirl about, using the entire stage.

                                                Shanna Ossi and Jacob Heimer

As the love interest, Heimer gives a workmanlike performance, although you never sense he is truly smitten with the girl next door: his passion is a bit restrained – the “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” number is thus vanilla rather than strawberry parfait -- and his suffering in the second act is just a bit too low-key. Low-key, however, cannot be said of Schilling and Flaherty, who ride their characters for all they are worth. Special kudos to Flaherty, who stepped into the role of Henry with just a day’s notice.

And then there’s The Mute, also known as “the wall,” the character who speaks nary a line throughout the entire performance. One might think this a thankless role, but Ossi is an enchanting presence on stage, often speaking volumes with her eyes. Using body language, Ossi’s mute speaks quite clearly – and endearingly.

MTC’s “The Fantasticks” is a smile-filled two hours of theater. Though the material is closing in on being eligible for Social Security, it is actually timeless, for children will always rebel, parents will always meddle, and the young will always have to pass through the alembic of life to learn what…and who…really matters.

“The Fantasticks” runs through May 4. For tickets or more information call 203-454-3883 or go to 

Friday, April 11, 2014

Dancing Up a Storm

I'd Rather Be Dancing -- Playhouse on Park -- Thru April 13

                      Beckie LaBombard, Victoria Mooney, Hillary Ekwall 
                      and Rick Fountain. Photo by Rich Wagner

Do you have a little toe-tapper or ballerina in the house, or do you secretly dream of being in “A Chorus Line,” dancing around the kitchen as you dry the dishes humming “I Can Do That,” or does your heart beat just a little faster every time you hear the opening of  “River Dance” or the signature dance number from “42nd Street”? Or maybe you just enjoy being entertained for a couple of hours by a group of extremely talented singers and dancers? If you answered “Yes” to any of these questions, then you should make your way up to Playhouse on Park in West Hartford to take in “I’d Rather be Dancing.” Before the evening is over you might very well be dancing yourself, for the production is, if nothing else, infectious.
            There’s a lot going on up at Playhouse on Park, from Comedy Nights to its “…on the Edge Series” and its “Main Stage Series,” and then there’s it’s resident dance company, stop/time dance theater, founded by Darlene Zoller, who directed and choreographed (with a little help from the spirit of Bob Fosse,  and flesh-and-blood Mike Barker and Spencer Pond) “…Dancing.” Zoller, who, among other things, teaches at the Hartt School in Hartford, is also a co-artistic director and founder of Playhouse on Park. As the show program notes, stop/time was created to “give an outlet to talented adult dancers who have not chosen dance as their career.” No, dance is not their career – many are teachers in local schools or pursuing degrees – but it is evident that dancing is their passion.
            “I’d Rather be Dancing” has a frame, of sorts: a man dies before his time and finds himself before the Pearly Gates. St. Peter is on an extended coffee break and thus the gates are being guarded by two angels-in-training yearning for their wings, so it falls to the head honcho to judge whether or not the man should gain admittance or take the down escalator. That’s about it – yes, it’s a little hokey, but it’s really all that’s needed to hold together a series of songs and dance numbers that embrace ballet, tap and interpretive dance a la Isadora Duncan.
            There’s something in the show for just about everyone as the 17 dancers and four singers and actors present number after number, from “A Wild, Wild Party” (which is, in fact, a bit wild) to the final disco sequence. In between, there’s some nifty tap dancing – and a bravura “Tap Jam” – more gentle, balletic moments, and some ensemble work that could most likely (and does) raise the dead.
            Some of the songs are less than memorable, but others are either pop standards or take-offs on familiar songs that are a lot of fun – try “Bye, Bye Life,” sung to the “Bye, Bye Love” melody, or the very witty “If I Only Had My Wings,” a play on the classic “…Had a Brain” from “The Wizard of Oz” film.
              If you thrill to the rhythmic pounding of dancing feet, or if you have tiny dancers dreaming, then “I’d Rather be Dancing” is for you. Make the trip to West Hartford and bring along your nascent tap dancers and ballerinas – they will be transfixed and you, well, you will simply enjoy yourself (and perhaps spin around the bedroom or tap across the kitchen floor when you get home).

            “I’d Rather be Dancing” runs through April 13. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to

Thursday, April 3, 2014

By Shadows We Shall Be Taught

"The Shadow of the Hummingbird" -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru April 27

                                 Athol Fugard. All photos by T. Charles Erickson

An old, somewhat cantankerous man wanders about a room beset by shadows from the past. He thumbs through journals he has kept for decades. Nothing but shadows. The one bright light in his rather drear days is his grandson, who visits him on a regular basis. The grandfather imparts wisdom, the grandson struggles to understand. Finally it is a shadow, “The Shadow of a Hummingbird,” that unites them. Such is the plot of Athol Fugard’s somewhat lightweight play receiving its world premiere at Long Wharf Theatre.

Directed by Gordon Edelstein, the theater’s artistic director, and starring the playwright himself, “Hummingbird” has the feel of a short story. It runs slightly under an hour, and a good chunk of that is taken up by Fugard’s character, Oupa, reading from said journals, this material written by Paula Fourie using extracts from Fugard’s unpublished journals. This padding – for that is what it is – seems to go on for just a bit too long, primarily because there doesn’t seem to be a connection between what Oupa reads as he samples jottings made over the decades. The play’s first five or 10 minutes has more the feel of a reading by an author dipping into his selected works, the tone being set by the first “reading,” which consists primarily of a very long list of birds – 29 to be exact – that Oupa sighted over two summers some 25 years ago. The point? Not sure.

                                            Athol Fugard and Aidan McMillan.

Whatever dramatic tension the play contains is generated by the relationship between Oupa and his 10-year-old grandson, Boba, played alternately by Aidan and Dermot McMillan. The boy visits his grandfather despite the wishes of Boba’s father (Oupa’s son who, Oupa firmly believes, is an idiot). It is during one of these visits that the grandfather attempts to instruct his grandson about illusion and reality through use of Plato’s allegory of the cave. The boy doesn’t think much of the story and after a bit of a sulk, Oupa grudgingly agrees with him. However, the lesson is not over, for Oupa shifts gears and turns to William Blake, quoting the first four lines of the poet’s “To See Wonder…” to hopefully enlighten the boy (and remind himself) about the nature of innocence and the price one pays when it is lost.

The lessons taught, and the interaction between the generations, is pleasant enough to watch, though it all leads to a somewhat inevitable conclusion. Fugard gives the audience an engaging, somewhat Brechtian, Oupa, a proud man battling against the ravages of time, and interacts well with McMillan. However, one can’t help but wonder why Long Wharf, which admittedly has a long relationship with Fugard, decided to produce this rather slight effort by a playwright who has given the world such multi-dimensional, emotionally charged dramas as “Sizwe Bansi is Dead” and “’Master Harold’…and the Boys.” “Hummingbird” is pleasant enough, but there’s not much there to chew on and what there is seems, at moments, a bit didactic.

The primary point of interest in this production of “Hummingbird” is the opportunity to see a playwright bring his own words to life. The old legal warning – “Never try to be your own lawyer” – does not here apply. Fugard ably proves that you can be the star of your own play.

“The Shadow of the Hummingbird” runs through April 27. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to