Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Fine "Fiddler"

"Fiddler on the Roof" -- Goodspeed Opera House -- Extended thru Sept. 12

                                     "To Life!" Cast members of "Fiddler"
                                      All photos by Diane Sobolewski

Goodspeed Opera House is once again doing what it does best: vividly brining to life an iconic American musical. In this case it’s “Fiddler on the Roof,” which opened on Broadway in 1964 and walked away with nine Tony awards. Under the sure-handed direction of Rob Ruggiero, who has recently become the Opera House’s master of musicals, this fine production makes you realize why “Fiddler” is so endearing and enduring – yes, there are the songs that have become a part of the American Songbook, but it’s the people originally created by Sholem Aleichem that make “Fiddler” shine and resonate, and it is to Ruggiero’s credit that he has used the House’s somewhat restrictive stage to focus on their humanity, transcending the idea that this is a “Jewish” musical to emphasize that this is a show about fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, regardless of their religious or ethnic backgrounds.

                           Jen Brissman, Barrie Kreinick and Elizabeth DeRosa

With music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and a book by Joseph Stein, “Fiddler” is set in the Pale of Imperial Russia circa 1905, specifically the tiny village of Anatevka, where Jews and ethnic Russians live together in uneasy peace. The focus is on Tevye (Adam Heller) a poor milkman saddled with a somewhat shrewish wife, Golde (Lori Wilner) and five daughters He is a humble (yet shrewd) man who suggests in the opening number that he, his family, and the entire Jewish community are like fiddlers on a roof, playing their individual parts while attempting to maintain their balance in an ever-changing, often threatening world. A nice touch here is that Ruggiero has brought the fiddler (Max Chucker) down from the roof and involved him in many of the scenes as a counterpoint to the gaiety or sadness and as a constant reminder to Tevye of the tenuousness of life.

Zero Mostel created the role of Tevye on Broadway, after which Chaim Topol claimed the part as his own, starring in the 1971 film adaptation. These are big shoes to fill, but Heller does so with ease. His all-suffering, pragmatic Tevye is a bit less demonstrative than Mostel’s and a bit less brooding than Topol’s, giving us a hard-working dairyman who appreciates irony, hopes for the best, expects the worst, and has a working yet argumentative relationship with his God, whom he talks to on a regular basis (and who doesn’t seem bothered by the fact that God never deigns to hold up His end of the conversation).

                                                        Adam Heller

Swirling around Tevye and his family are several circles: the Jewish community in which he lives and, beyond that, the Russian community that, at any moment, might choose to opt for brutal persecution rather than benign disdain. This is a rich if somewhat troubled tapestry filled with memorable characters, all created with a great deal of sincerity by the cast. Tevye’s relationship with his wife, Golde, is especially poignant, and Heller and Wilner create just the right sense of surface antagonism beneath which hides an abiding love captured in the second act’s “Do You Love Me?” -- perhaps the most moving moment in the show. I’ve seen this musical many times but I can’t remember being so touched by this scene.

                            Adam Heller (Tevye) and Max Chuker (the Fiddler)

The musical is also about the inevitability of change, and this is captured in three segments as each of Tevye’s three oldest daughters approaches marriage. The first to be wed is Tzeitel (Barrie Krenik), who is betrothed to the butcher, Lazar Wolf (John Payonk), a May-September marriage arranged by the local marriage broker Yente (Cheryl Stern). But Tzeitel loves the poor tailor Motel (David Perlman) and, in a touching scene, begs her father to let them wed. In the first of his “on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand” arguments with himself, Tevye finally agrees, though it goes against tradition, and this leads to a wonderfully staged scene in which Tevye must, by indirection, convince his wife that Tzeitel should marry Motel. He does so with the assistance of two spirits, Grandma Tzeitel (again, Stern) and the butcher’s dead wife, Fruma-Sarah (Joy Hermalyn). It’s a wild, audience-pleasing ride.

If there is any “problem” with “Fiddler” it is that the second act is markedly darker, for change brings pain. There may be light at the end of the tunnel down which the Jews are traveling as they leave Anatevka, but the audience is well aware of what that tunnel will wind through before any of these people reach that light. What saves the musical, and especially this production, from the darkness is Tevye’s humanity and spirit, qualities that Heller brings forth in all of their shining yet somewhat tarnished reality. As Tevye lifts his cart and begins to trudge off into the unknown we can’t help but wish him “God’s speed.”

“Fiddler on the Roof” has been extended through Sept. 12. For tickets or more information call 860.873.8668 or visit:   

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Play Adrift

"Nora" -- Westport Country Playhouse -- Thru Aug. 2

                                Liv Rooth and LeRoy McClain in “Nora."
                               All photos by by Carol Rosegg

 There are plays that deal with universal themes and thus can be staged in any number of ways. “Antigone” works whether it is staged in modern dress or Greek costuming; many of Shakespeare’s plays – “Hamlet,” “Julius Caesar,” “Richard III” -- are often presented in the context of eras other than those the playwright originally envisioned; “Death of a Salesman” is as relevant today as it was when it debuted (perhaps even more so); “The Glass Menagerie” speaks to eternal familial verities. And then there is Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” first written and produced in 1879 and now on stage at the Westport Country Playhouse as “Nora,” an adaptation by Ingmar Bergman with translation by Frederick J. Marker and Lise-Lone Marker.

Stripped by Bergman of minor characters and extensive exposition, “Nora” is still “A Doll’s House,” and as such it has at its core the plight of a woman in a male-dominated society. Yes, in 1898 Ibsen protested that he had written the play not to support women’s rights but rather to ponder the need for people, whether male or female, to find their core humanity, but you can’t get around the fact that this particular person’s search deals with a woman living in a repressive, patristic society that constrained women to restrictive roles. Thus, I would suggest, period is important, and it is period that director David Kennedy and scenic designer Kristen Robinson have striven to eradicate, and in so doing allowed the play to break away from its 19th-century moorings and float off into an undefined world, an “every-place” that the text simply cannot support.

                          Stephanie Janssen, LeRoy McClain, and Liv Rooth 

Nora (Liv Rooth) is married to Torvald (Lucas Hall), who has just been promoted to manager of a bank. This means more money for the family and greater security, but it also means that Nora will be able to pay off a loan she took out with Krogstad (Shawn Fagan) under false pretenses and without the knowledge of her husband (illegal at the time), a loan she sought so Torvald could recuperate in Italy from some sort of stress-related illness. Torvald despises debt – Nora is in debt, and in debt to Krogstad, whom Torvald is about to fire. Nora unburdens herself to her old friend, Kristine (Stephanie Janssen) and considers seeking help from a family friend, Dr. Rank (LeRoy McClain), who is both smitten with Nora and terminally ill. The driving force here is Nora’s need to conceal what she has done and Krogstad’s need to save his job…and Torvald’s sublime belief in his right, as a male, to dictate and dominate – in effect to define how Nora will live her life.

                                                Liv Rooth and Lucas Hall 

How this all plays out is dictated by time and place. Where are we? Robinson’s minimalistic set hints at the possibility that we are in the 1950s (all we have is a couch to go by), as do Katherine Roth’s costumes, but the production refuses to set the play in a specific time period so we are left to judge the actions of the characters based on dialogue that is at times modern and at other times Victorian, and this vagueness hampers the actors’ interpretations of their roles. This is most apparent in Rooth’s take on Nora. She is, at least through most of the play, a seemingly beguiling child-wife not above using her femininity to get what she wants (a character out of “Real Wives of…wherever”). What she seems troubled by is revelation of her “sins,” not that she is being forced to be someone she is not. She seems comfortable in her role as a married coquette, so much so that her “epiphany,” played out in the Torvalds’ bedroom at the play’s conclusion (now we’re into “Friends” territory) seems simply out of character. Where was the sense that this woman who suddenly demands to be taken seriously lurked beneath the simpering surface? The basic problem is that we never get the sense that Nora, against her better judgment, was being forced to act the part of the doll – she seems to be too comfortable in that role.

In fact, all of the actors seem just a tad unsure of whom they are supposed to be. Janssen as Kristine seems to be a product of the 60s, while McClain’s Dr. Rank is modish 80s with just a touch of Capote foppishness, while Hall’s Torvald could easily have been a character in “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” and Fagan’s Krogstad seems like a refugee from “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

The bipolarity of the production – lack of consistent vision -- is no more evident than in its final moments. There is no door-slamming by Nora. No, rather, there is a coup de theatre that suggests more than the play delivers, a visual metaphor that simply does not ring true, not if we have a Torvald of the 1870s or even the 1950s…or even the 80s. We are supposed to accept that Torvald has learned a lesson that strips away his masculine superiority and, by implication, a society’s paternalism is laid bare. But we don’t. We have a Torvald lost in space and time, as is this production.

“Nora” runs through August 2. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to

Monday, July 14, 2014

Ivoryton Shakes Up the Summer

"All Shook Up" -- Ivoryton Playhouse -- Thru 7/26

                                              The cast of "All Shook Up"

This seems to be the season for rock and roll nostalgia. There’s “Hairspray” at the Summer Theatre of New Canaan, “The Bikinis” playing at Long Wharf, and now “All Shook Up” out at the Ivoryton Playhouse. The good news is, you’ll have an enjoyable evening of theater no matter which of the three you attend, but if you opt for the Ivoryton show, you’re in for a special treat in the form of the two delightful leads, Danielle Bowen and Preston Ellis, two fine young actors whom you will have absolutely no trouble watching.

                                         Danielle Bowen and Preston Ellis

The musical, with book by Joe DiPietro, is a mash-up of “Footloose” and Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” channeled through Elvis Presley. Directed and choreographed by Richard Amelius, “All Shook Up” is a lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek romp through much of the Presley songbook that follows a young grease monkey named Natalie (Bowen) who falls for a motorcycling roustabout named Chad (Ellis) when he rolls into a town that is more straight-laced than your great-aunt Mabel’s corset. Chad, a fun-loving guy who has a way with women and juke boxes, feels it his mission to bring some life to the repressed citizenry. His charisma is such that soon many of the townsfolk start falling in love, with all of the wrong people, a game of amorous Twister that is, literally, spotlighted in the finale to the first act, a quite moving rendition of “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”

Complications abound, exacerbated by the obligatory disguise of a young lady posing as a young man named Ed who attempts to woo the sensuous Miss Sandra (a delightfully lustful Mara Jill Herman) for Chad. Miss Sandra is also being pursued by Natalie’s father, Jim (R. Bruce Connelly), while Dennis is pursuing Natalie, while Sylvia (Onyie) is pursuing Jim, while the taciturn Sherriff Earl (Larry Lewis) is silently pining for Mayor Matilda Hyde (Melissa McLean) and the mayor’s son, Dean (Logan Scott Mitchell) is tentatively making overture’s to Sylvia’s daughter, Lorraine (Danielle Famble). Well, you get the picture. Of course, it all works out in the end with multiple marriages and everyone proclaiming their “Burning Love” for their new mates.

                                                     Maria Jill Herman

Backed by seven musicians ensconced in a pit hidden below the stage, the entire cast, including the male and female ensembles, nails one Presley song after another, with “One Night With You” used as a recurring, comedic theme. However, as noted above, it’s the two leads that give the extra juice to this production.

Ellis, a seasoned pro, gives his character just the right mix of sneer, bravado and joie de vivre – think Marlon Brandon with manners. He also has great timing and a strong comedic sense about him. Playing against him is Bowen who, amazingly enough, is only a rising senior at Emerson College. Based on her performance you certainly couldn’t tell that she hasn’t yet graduated. Whether she is playing the grease monkey, or Ed with a two-day-old beard as a disguise or, finally, the lovely Natalie, she is a delight. She may not steal the show – that crown goes to Herman – but she doesn’t have to, because from the moment she walks on stage she steals the audience’s heart. One can only hope that once she graduates she will find her way back to Connecticut to grace one of its many stages…before Broadway grabs her up and doesn’t let her go.

                                                       Danielle Bowen

So, if you’re an Elvis fan, or just want to enjoy an all-smiles evening of summer theater, get yourself out to Ivoryton. Yes, you’ll be “All Shook Up,” and will sense “The Power of Love.” You’ll have to pledge to “Don’t Be Cruel” and be challenged to “Follow That Dream,” question why “Fools Fall in Love” and, once again, acknowledge that we all, at one time or another, “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” In other words, you’ll have a good time.

“All Shook Up” runs through July 27. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to

Sunday, July 13, 2014

“The Bikinis” Bring Back Memories

The Bikinis -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru July 27

                                                     The cast of "The Bikinis"

Although anyone can enjoy “The Bikinis,” the “musical beach party” revue currently on the boards at Long Wharf Theatre, if you are of a certain age – which means you grew up watching “Howdy Doody,” graduated to “The Mickey Mouse Club” and remember the Sunday evening when The Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show – then this light-as-air pastiche of songs from the 60s, 70s and early 80s is right up your alley.

The frame for the presentation of over 30 songs from the multi-decade era is mere froth: a one-hit girl group gathers on the Jersey shore 30 years after their 15 minutes of fame to save a seaside trailer park from the clutches of a developer by giving a benefit contest. Residents have been offered a tidy sum to sell out – should they cave or hold fast? None of this is taken very seriously until the show’s final moments when, suddenly, the audience is asked to care about the decision – which it obviously doesn’t. It’s there for the songs, not the soap-opera drama. This is the only false note in what is otherwise a highly enjoyable evening of summertime diversion.

Yes, it’s the songs that drive the show, and they are performed under Ray Roderick’s direction (he also choreographed) by a fine foursome of experienced, talented actresses: Valerie Fagan, Regina Levert, Karyn Quackenbush and Lori Hammel. The trip down Memory Lane begins with “It’s in His Kiss,” quickly followed by that “Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” The quartet has the style and tone of these songs down pat, and the banter between the four (until the finale) is frolicsome rather than intrusive. The first act covers what in retrospect seems the innocence of the pre-Nam era, including the hormonally-charge movies that pandered to teen lust, films such as “Beach Blanket Bingo” – introduction of the film allows for Annette and Tommy (if you don’t know, don’t ask), to make an appearance, as well as Nancy Sinatra in her boots and a campy “Secret Agent Man.”

The second act brings us forward to the late 60s and 70s, a time stained by the Viet Nam war and the protests it engendered. The mood turns reflective with the first song, a take on the Mommas and the Poppas’ “Time of the Season” accompanied by a montage of photos of young men serving in Viet Nam. It’s presented as a love song and a lament, and as the song unfolds and the images appear on the scrim above the singers you can feel the memories – often bittersweet, certainly conflicted – rising from the audience to fill the air. It is a palpably effective moment for those who lived through the era and either fought…or protested…or did both.

All things pass, all things change, and before you know it the conflict of the Viet Nam era is replaced by the hedonism of the days of Disco, and it is here that the quartet really comes into its own with a series of disco numbers that, you sense, get aged hearts beating just a bit faster and arthritic toes a-tapping. There’s a great build here, starting with the country and western “When Will I Be Loved” that segues into “Last Dance,” followed by “I’m Every Woman, “ “I Will Survive” and finally a no-holds-barred “It’s Raining Men.”

And then the show turns serious – or at least takes itself seriously – and the heat and electricity that has been building simply dissolves as time is wasted dealing with ownership of property and the responsibility to be true to your roots – it’s so counter-intuitive to what the evening is all about that the audience, that was moments ago revved up, slouches back into its seats. Strong recommendation: cut the melodrama and take advantage of where the audience wants to go. The second act builds and builds, and then spends all of its energy on something the audience could care squat about…and since it happens late in the show, well, no time to make up for mistakes.

The finale may leave the audience feeling a bit cheated, but on reflection, most of the evening is entertaining and just what is billed – a frolic and an exercise in “remember when.” If you are of a certain age, gather those of your friends who have survived the decades…and divorce…and downsizing…and empty-nesting…and both male and female menopause…and go out to dinner…have a couple of glasses of wine…and then go see “The Bikinis”…and let the memories flow.

“The Bikinis” plays through July 27. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to

Saturday, July 12, 2014

“Gypsy” – The Grit and the Glitter

"Gypsy: A Musical Fable" -- Connecticut Repertory Theatre -- Thru July 20

                     Scott Ripley (Herbie), Leslie Uggams (Rose), Alanna Saunders (June),
                     and Amandina Altomare (Louise). Photo: Gerry Goodstein.

It seems almost a prerequisite that an actress taking on the role of Mama Rose in “Gypsy” have an innate sense of the “business,” an understanding of the grit beneath the glitter that is show business. Ethel Merman, who created the role, certainly had that knowledge, as did Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters and Patti Lupone -- all have played the role. Now, at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre at UCONN, Leslie Uggams takes the stage as the iconic Ur-stage mother and proves without a doubt that she also has seen the grit. Her performance – and the entire production – is a quite satisfying evening of theater but, as the saga of Mama, Baby June, Louise and Herbie unfolds, you sense there is something missing.

What that “something” is is not readily apparent, for under the steady direction of Vincent J. Cardinal, with choreography by Cassie Abate, the production rolls along at a steady pace, with familiar number after familiar number performed with style, but as you watch Rose and Herbie interact it slowly dawns that what is missing is Rose’s underlying sensuality, a power as raw as is her drive to control, her lust for success and her desire to live life through her children. That power is what, in part, makes Rose so terrifying, and that soupcon of terror is not there. Rose is demanding, Rose is obnoxious, Rose is brash, Rose is bullying and insensitive to others’ needs…but she, at least in this incarnation, is not Lilith. Hence, the “You’ll Never Get Away From Me” number – Rose’s response to Herbie’s threat that he might just pack up and leave – seems all surface and no depth. Herbie can’t get away from Rose because that’s what the song’s lyrics say, not because of the hold you feel Rose really has on the man.

That being said, there’s quite a bit to like about this production, starting with Uggams’ performance itself. Setting aside the “seductive” issue, she creates a quite believable Rose with crisp, dead-on body language, exquisite timing and stares and glares that would stop a charging bull in its tracks. Her performance is matched by that of Amandina Altomare’s as the adult Louise – she simply glistens on stage, whether as naïf or seasoned ecdysiast (never a mere stripper!), and her interaction with Tulsa (Luke Hamilton) as he tries out a new dance routine (“All I Really Need is the Girl”) is simply charming. Equally supportive are Alanna Saunders as June and Scott Ripley as Herbie.

There are quite a few stand-out moments in the show, chief among them June and Louise’s duet – “If Momma Was Married” – and Louise’s education about the world of the stripper – “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” – performed by Tessa Tura (MacKenzie Leigh Friedman), Electra (Cassandra Dupler) and Mazeppa (Ariana Shore), with Shore setting the mood with a hilarious send-up of the quintessential, world-weary, gauche stripper.

Of course, anyone familiar with the show knows what all of this is leading to: “Rose’s Turn” – the show’s emotionally riveting finale. It is here, again, that Uggams succeeds in displaying all of her character’s quirks, foibles and fears save for her sensuality. The number stopped the show, as it should, but there was just that hint of unbridled passion bubbling to the surface that was missing.

CRT’s production of “Gypsy” runs through July 20. For tickets or more information call 860-486-2113 or go to

Friday, July 11, 2014

STONC Delivers the Beat That Can’t Be Stopped

Hairspray -- Summer Theatre of New Canaan -- Thru Aug.3

                                              Tracy Turnblad (Rebecca Spigelman) 
                                              Link Larkin (Nick Pankuch)

Tracy Turnblad is at it again, shaking her hips and shaking up the good folks of Baltimore as she posits the audacious concept that blacks and whites should be seen dancing together on the city’s favorite teen dance television show, The Corny Collins Show, which showcases “the nicest kids in town” (Not!) Yes, it’s “Hairspray,” that campy, “corny,” musical that defies you not to tap your toes or do a little in-seat bugaloo, and it’s currently delighting audiences at the Summer Theatre of New Canaan under the able direction of Allegra Libonati.

In past years, STONC has staged two major musicals during its season, so the decision to go with an extended run of just one show (“Hairspray” plays through Aug. 3) was a bit of a risk. If the show was a flop they had a dead season on their hands. The risk, however, seems to have paid off, for although this production of “Hairspray” is not without its flaws (most of them minor), the sheer exuberance of the cast and the energy that pulses from STONC’s expanded stage give the show whatever legs it needs to carry it through until closing. I got the feeling that by the finale a lot of the audience members had to restrain themselves from jumping to their feet to join the cast on-stage for just one more chorus of “You Can’t Stop the Beat” – the show is that infectious.

Based on the John Waters 1988 film of the same name, “Hairspray,” with music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman, and a book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, tells the story of one Tracy Turnblad (Rebecca Spigelman), a size-challenged young lady who dreams of being a regular on The Corny Collins Show and, just perhaps, winning the heart of the show’s main heart-throb, Link (Nick Pankuch). Standing in her way is Velma Von Tussle (a very effective Jodi Stevens) and her daughter, Amber (Caroline Lellouche), Link’s current main squeeze. Another naysayer is Tracy’s mom, Edna (traditionally played by a man – in this case Greg London), who has been defeated by her size and become a recluse.

                                           Velma Von Tussle  (Jodi Bryce Stevens)

However, Tracy does have a cheering section, albeit a small one, consisting of her best friend, Penny Pingleton (a vivacious Sharon Malane) and her dad, Wilbur (Nick Reynolds). When Tracy expands her goals to include racial integration she gains the support of Motormouth Maybelle (A’lisa Miles), the host of the once-a-month “Negro Day” on the Corny Collins Show, and the grudging respect of Corny (Andrew J, Mauney) himself.

Of course, none of this is trenchant drama, nor is it meant to be. If you seek a serious theatrical discussion of prejudice stemming from size, race or gender go elsewhere – and besides, who wants to get serious on a lovely summer’s evening? Instead, settle in beneath STONC’s new tent and enjoy some fine performances, starting with Spigelman’s Tracy. Sporting some outrageous hair-dos (compliments of Bobbie Clifton Zlotnik), Spigelman gives Tracy just the right balance of teen effervescence and dawning social conscience. Whether she’s wishing Baltimore a good morning, hearing bells or suggesting that it takes two to make life worthwhile, Spigelman is dead-on, and she has to be, for right behind her, and at moments almost stealing the show, is Malane as Penny, whose endearing, gum-chewing cluelessness is delightfully maintained until her transformation (the caterpillar-to-butterfly moment is always a crowd-pleaser).

                            Dynamites (Melissa Victor, Tatianna Mott, Darrilyn Castillo)

Equally satisfying are Stevens, who does a great turn with “Velma’s Revenge,” and London and Reynolds as the senior Turnblads – their rendition of “You’re Timeless to Me” is a show-stopper, not least because they have a certain freedom to ad-lib, much to the audience’s delight. In fact, just about everyone up on the stage delivers. One might quibble that the performances of Brian Sillman and KeLeen Snowgren (listed in the program as playing male and female authority figures) might be toned down a bit – they’re just a bit too campy, even for “Hairspray.” On the technical side, additional quibbles might extend to some rather loose work with follow-spots and staging, especially in some of the ensemble numbers, that could have been framed a bit better, with more perceptive use of dominant and subordinate stage positions.

Grumbles aside, this production of “Hairspray” is exactly what summer theatergoers are looking for: a toe-tappping, ear-pleasing musical with enough eye-candy to require going on a visual diet for at least a week after seeing the show. The audience the night I saw the show ranged from children not long out of diapers to senior citizens – and everyone seemed to have had a good time and, based upon reaction to the finale, agreed that you simply can’t (and don’t want to) stop the beat.

“Hairspray” runs through Aug. 3 at Waveny Park in New Canaan. For tickets or more information call 203-966-4634 or go to