Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Lackluster "Last Romance"

"The Last Romance" -- The Ivoryton Playhouse -- Thru May 10

Two people meet cute, or kind of cute, start talking, and before you know it romance is blooming. That’s nice. We like to read stories and see films and plays about people falling in love. However, we also like to see some complications along the way (“The course of true love never did run smooth”), but until the last several minutes of Joe DiPietro’s “The Last Romance,” which recently opened at the Ivoryton Playhouse, it’s rather smooth sailing for the two aged love birds, which is nice for them but it doesn’t make for very arresting theater.

As directed by Maggie McGlone Jennings, this exercise in love among the elder class generates little more than a gentle smile mixed with an occasional grimace. Why? Well, the pace is somewhat plodding, the jokes are few and far between, and the two central characters are just not that interesting. When there’s not much going on up on the stage the mind has a tendency to wander.

Set primarily in a dog-walking park (compliments of scenic designer William Russell Stark), with small side sets extreme stage right and left depicting a parlor and…well…I’m not exactly sure what – the foyer of an apartment building? – the play opens with octogenarian Ralph Bellini (Chet Carlin) changing his normal walking routine and plopping himself down on a bench in the dog park, but he has an ulterior motive: he’s got his eye out for a lady he saw walking her dog there yesterday. Before said lady appears, Rose Tagliatelle (Kate Konigisor) tracks him down and berates him – he didn’t tell her he was going out; he’s going to be late for supper; he could have another black-out episode (which she alludes to by the date of the incident, as if it is the Ides of March). Is this his wife? No, we will soon learn this is his sister, an eternally self-effacing Italian stereotype.

Ralph shoos her away just as a lady appears carrying a chihuahua named Peaches. This is Carol (Rochelle Slovin), the lady who has caught Ralph’s eye. Their initial conversation is strained, but Ralph is persistent and over the course of the first act he wins her over. The greatest dramatic tension in all of this is whether or not little Peaches will find the hole in the fence and make a break for it. He finally does, which throws Carol into Ralph’s arms in great distress. So the audience is sent out for a 15-minute intermission to wonder and worry if the dog will be found. I didn’t see many concerned faces.

Things become a little more interesting in the second act, when, yes, Peaches is found (thank God!), Rose reveals a bit more of her history (she’s been denying her husband a divorce for 22 years because she’s a good Catholic), Carol comes clean about her husband (he’s alive but no longer kicking) and Ralph fesses up about his blackout experience. The problem is, it takes a whole lot of empathy to care about any of these characters, mainly because the characters themselves don’t really seem to truly care about their problems. It’s all surface sturm und drang, manufactured manipulation that just doesn’t work.

A case in point. There’s a sub-plot. Ralph once dreamed of becoming an opera singer and, when he was 20 years old, he auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera. His younger self, affably played by Stephen Mir, appears now and again to sing snippets from various operas and to make manifest the dream denied (one wishes DiPietro had given us more interaction between the aged Ralph and his “memory”).

Ralph got a call back, but he never received the message, so his dream died aborning. A dream dashed can eat at the soul, but though Ralph tells his story you just don’t get the feeling he really cares all that much that he was denied his chance to fulfill his dream. The final revelation of the missed call-back is handled as a throw-away – no build, no tension, no release. “You basically ruined my life but, don’t worry, no problem.”

The same lack of emotion suffuses this production’s final scenes, which are meant to be bittersweet but, if you don’t much care about the characters, the closing moments are neither bitter nor sweet, but they could have been.

Playwrights write lines for the characters they create, but it’s the job of the actors, guided by the director, to bring these characters to life and give “meaning” to these lines. Admittedly, this is not DiPietro’s best work – the writing seems formulaic at best – but there’s still enough in the script to engage the audience. Carlin does his best to bring Ralph to life, but these efforts are dampened by Slovin’s rather stilted, one-dimensional portrayal of Carol. His lines seem to bounce off her rather than engender responses. There are moments when you might ask yourself, are these two characters in the same play, on the same planet? More important, do these characters really carry the burdens they say they carry? Their back stories are filled with disappointment, loss and the emotional grinding down that is the stuff of life. The characters eventually tell you all of this, but the actors don’t make you feel it in your gut.

“Last Romance” runs through May 10. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

"Little Shop" Satisfies, But...

"Little Shop of Horrors" -- MTC Mainstage -- Thru May 3

                                           Anthony DiCostanzo and Elissa DeMaria
                                          All photos by Joe Landry

Audrey II is making a big comeback in Connecticut this season. The carnivorous plant will be showing up later this season in Ivoryton and is currently growing in leaps and bounds at MTC Mainstage in Norwalk. Of course, Audrey II is the plant that, fed properly, draws customers to Skid Row’s Mushnik’s Florist, more famously known as the “Little Shop of Horrors.”

Those familiar with MTC’s new venue may wonder whether a show like “Little Shop” is a “fit.” Well, the answer is yes…and no, but not for the reasons one might suspect. As directed by Kevin Connors, MTC’s executive artistic director, the show has some glowing moments, but Connors and his production team are still getting the “feel” for their new location – what works and what doesn’t. Thus, there are some staging problems (a door that leads to the florist shop being one of them) and some questionable technical calls that distract rather than enhance. Thus, though “Little Shop” is entertaining, it is less than totally satisfying.

For those not familiar with the show’s book (written by Howard Ashman, who also wrote the lyrics), it is based on the low-budget 1960 Roger Corman film of the same name and deals with a nebbish named Seymour (Anthony DiCostanzo) who works (slaves) for Mr. Mushnik (Lou Ursone) in the florist shop along with the much-abused Audrey (a delightful Elissa DeMaria), who is currently dating a demented dentist named Orin Scrivello (Tony Lawson).

                                Kristian Espiritu, Inuka Ivaska and Gabrielle Lee

Seymour is into plants, so, immediately after an unexpected total eclipse of the sun, he spies a strange plant amidst the normal flowers a Chinese vendor has to offer. He buys it and brings it back to Mushnik’s. He tenderly cares for it to no avail – the damn thing just won’t grow, until Seymour pricks his finger on a rose thorn and the plant opens its maw. It craves blood. It grows, the florist shop thrives, but at what cost? Audrey II’s hunger becomes insatiable and poor Seymour descends into a Grand Guignol world from which he cannot escape.

Not, one might think, the stuff of musical theater, but who thought the story of a blood-thirsty barber bent on revenge and cutting his patrons’ throats would ever play? In “Little Shop,” the gore is minimal and the show floats on the delightful score written by Alan Menken (who also wrote the scores the Disney films “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast”). The opening number, “Little Shop of Horrors,” introduces the musical’s Greek chorus, which consists of three street urchins named Chiffon (Inuka Ivaska), Crystal (Kristian Espiritu) and Ronette (Gabrielle Lee). The trio, though lively, seems somehow slightly ill-matched, perhaps because their dance movements (choreography by Steven Midura) seem just a tad out of sync, and costume designer Diane Vanderkroef might have given them just a few more wardrobe changes – until late in the second act we see them in the same garb, and when they finally do appear in matching outfits they still seem somehow not to match.

                                                             Elissa DeMaria

However, there’s some fine work being done here. DiCostanzo is effectively nerdy, and DeMaria gives her Audrey the essential Betty Boop persona that is expected. Ursone is believable as the harried Jewish florist, and Lawson is delightfully despicable as the demented dentist (and handles his many other roles with aplomb). As for Audrey II, Peter McClung gives the plant an appropriately demonic and sarcastic voice (He’s dead-on with his “Feed me!” plaint).

So, why carp? Well the complaints deal mainly with the set by David Heuvelman and the sound. First, the set, and the door to the florist shop. Said door is positioned extreme stage right, which means that if the florist shop is to be entered, everyone must make an full cross, but the shop is open for everyone to see, it is essentially the set, so why force the actors to deal with the door (sometimes they don’t). It’s simply a visual impediment. And then there’s the curtain (not sure what the design on the curtain is supposed to represent – it’s muddied and mottled) that is pulled back and forth, basically to allow the different Audrey IIs to be positioned. It’s something a high school production might have turned to for lack of any other solution.

                                                         Tony Lawson

The biggest problem, however, is that given the size of MTC’s theater, should the actors be wearing body mikes, and if they do, should they be over-miked? Many of the song’s lyrics simply become mush and dialogue sometimes dissolves into mere throbbing mumbles. This is still an intimate venue – does the sound really need to be pumped?

“Little Shop” has its moments, and nothing can take away from the enjoyment of “Suddenly, Seymour,” “I Am a Dentist” and, as rendered by DeMaria, the poignant “Somewhere That’s Green.” However, as a piece, the production seems somehow unfinished, somewhat tentative. It’s as if the creative and production teams weren’t exactly sure how to stage this show. In the end, it looks like truly creative, innovative decisions couldn’t be arrived at, so everyone just settled for the less than satisfactory.

“Little Shop of Horrors” runs through May 3. For further information or ticket reservations call the box office at: 203.454.3883 or visit:  

Saturday, April 18, 2015

An Earnest "Earnest"

"The Importance of Being Earnest" -- Playhouse on Park -- Thru May 3

                         Jane Bardley, Michael Raver. Laura Hankin, Katrina Ferguson
                         and James Parenti. All photos by Rich Wagner.

By Geary Danihy

In 1895, Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” opened at the St. James’s Theatre in London. Though an immediate success, it ran for only 86 performances, for the production could not survive its playwright’s charging the Marquess of Queensberry with libel, a not altogether wise move, since the ensuing trial brought to light Wilde’s homosexuality, which was a criminal offense euphemistically called “gross indecency.” The playwright himself was subsequently tried, imprisoned, and would live for only five more years. The play, however, has lived on, has been revived many times and filmed three times. Wilde’s most popular play is now on the boards at Playhouse on Park, and although it creaks a bit with age, and stutter-steps a bit in the ensemble scenes, it still has enough of the original Wildean wit and sufficient farcical moments to make for an enjoyable evening of theater.

The basic plot is that two gentlemen, Jack (a very effective Michael Raver) and Algernon (James Parenti) have contrived to create false identities to allow them to escape the countryside (Jack) and the city (Algernon). Jack’s reason to be in the city so often is to get his “brother” Ernest, out of trouble; Algernon’s release from the city takes the form of visiting a perpetually ill friend named “Bunbury.” Neither Ernest nor Bunbury exist. However, problems arise when Jack’s inamorata, Gwendolen (Jane Bradley) declares that she could never love a man who was not named Ernest (the name Jack has assumed while in the city). The problems are compounded when Algernon visits Jack’s country estate (in the guise of Jack’s brother, “Ernest”) and falls in love with Jack’s ward, Cecily (Laura Hankin), a young lady who is also smitten with the name of Ernest. There are more plot points (many), but suffice it to say that confusion is the order of the day and is resolved only when Miss Prism (Donna Schlke), Cecily’s tutor, reveals the provenance of a certain black handbag (complete with handles).

                                                     Katrina Ferguson

Under the direction of Jerry Winters, this production has the feel of an ocean tide: things both flow and ebb. Most of the flow occurs in many of the two-character scenes, those between Jack and Algernon and, in the second act, the sparring between Gwendolyn and Cecily. The pacing is often dead on to support the farcical nature of the play and the banter is lively, though one might ask that some of Wilde’s witty one-liners were not telegraphed as being just that – the best way to kill a bon mot is to deliver it with verbal italics.

Problems arise when more than two characters are on stage. The pace of the production seems to slow and the farce becomes somewhat ponderous. This often occurs when Lady Bracknell (Katrina Ferguson), Gwendolen’s mother, sails into view. She is supposed to be formidable, and she is, but one might wish her to be a bit more biting and a tad less studied in delivering her pronouncements.

                     Michael Raver, Jane Bradley, Laura Hankin and James Parenti

Given the configuration of the Playhouse’s stage, blocking is always a challenge. Winters has opted to use every available inch of space and address the audience members regardless of where they are sitting, and while this often sets up some interesting visual dynamics it also leads to crosses without motivation – often, watching the actors move from one position to another you can almost hear the director’s voice shifting them as if they are chess pieces. This occurs when more than two characters are on stage – the blocking for the two-character set-pieces is, on the other hand, very effective.

The pace of farce should be that of an on-rushing train, for much of the audience’s pleasure is to be derived from not being able to catch its collective breath from one scene to the next (necessary often because the plots in farce often border on the barely believable – hence you can’t give anyone watching the opportunity to pause and ponder). This production of “Earnest” allows for too many stops at local stations. Perhaps, as the actors begin to own the play, the train will gather speed and what is currently enjoyable will become delightful.

“The Importance of Being Earnest” runs through May 3. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Something's coming, something good

Sacred Heart University to Offer a BA in Theater Arts

By Geary Danihy

Are actors born…or created? The answer is “Yes” and “No.”

Someone may be born with inherent acting talent, a unique way of capturing and holding people’s attention, but that talent is raw, and it must pass through an alembic to be refined. For some, that fire is the school of hard knocks, an on-the-job training that allows them to mold their skills in the bruised-ego and often judgmentally harsh “business” of acting. Others seek a more formal training, guidance that allows them to hone their craft in a supportive and nurturing (if still judgmental) environment. Thus, the existence of schools of drama, many of which are departments at colleges and universities. To the extant list of such programs has been added the opportunity to receive a Bachelor of Arts in Theater Arts at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, a double-major option that becomes available with the start of the fall 2015 semester.

                                                     Jerry Goehring

The driving force behind the creation of this new program is Jerry Goehring, Director of Performing Arts at Sacred Heart. However, Goehring is not an ivory tower theorist. He has been intimately involved with theater for over 25 years and, as a producer, has been nominated for both Tony and Grammy awards. He was lead producer for the box-office smash, “A Christmas Story, the Musical,” and has overseen such productions as the off-Broadway “Frankenstein” and national tours of “Raisin’ Cane,” “Oh, Figaro” and “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” He also served for four years as the executive director and CEO of the National Theatre of the Deaf, located in West Hartford.

In a recent interview in Goehring’s office at SHU, he explained the gestation of the program, its scope, and the unique qualities of the program that will, over time, draw students who are interested in theater arts to the SHU campus.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Goehring said of the program. “It’s really been driven by the number of students now involved in our current program,” referring to those students active in one way or another in the performing arts on campus. “We started about six years ago – there was a little club and they asked me to start a theater department. There were, maybe, 12 kids in the club. Now we have a total involvement of 160 kids and 130 of them have participation grants, which is part of their financial aid package.”

As the number of students increased, the quality of the productions they were involved in improved, partly due to the status and talent of the theater people Goehring has brought in to teach and do practicums and mentoring.

“All of a sudden, the students started asking, ‘Well, when do we get more classes?’ It kind of grew organically and the plan became that the performing arts department, in total, was growing so fast that we would turn the academic corner very quickly.”

                              Audrey in the grasp of Audrey II, in an SHU production

The curriculum for the Bachelor of Arts in Theater Arts will offer core credits in such subjects as the history of theater, scene study and script analysis. There will also be courses that allow students to follow areas of concentration. A concentration in acting will offer courses in, naturally, acting, as well as directing and playwriting, while a concentration in musical theater will have courses in dance, voice and acting for musical theater.

There will also be a host of electives, covering everything from choreography and black box production (basically, productions in an unadorned performance space, usually with black walls) to acting for the camera, the business of theater and summer stock.

“It’s a combination,” Goehring said, “of a major in theater with two tracks, musical theater and acting. We’ll grow from there; we’ll add technical tracks and design tracks depending on demand.”

                                     A scene from SHU's production of "Rent"

The program will be staffed by SHU professors currently teaching theater and related courses (such as English and media studies), with plans to bring in additional talent as the program evolves. The department Goehring chairs is currently “housed” under the larger Communications and Media Department, which allows the students to take advantage of all the technical “toys” available in that department, broadening their range of experience.

“We have this ‘performance motion lab,” Goehring said. “It’s an amazing thing. They (the Communications Department) have two TV studios that are fully functional, and they have another film studio, but then they have – well, you know how they filmed Avatar?,” referring to “motion capture,” or stereoscopic filming techniques. “Well, the next generation of ‘motion capture’ is without all of the dots,” the “dots” being the points created by sensors imbedded in the leotards that actors wear that allow computers to capture the actors’ motions. “The next generation of this technology,” Goehring said, “is without all of the dots. The computers are now sophisticated enough – you go into a room and all of these cameras are on you and you move and then you look at the monitor and you’re a stick or an elephant – it’s amazing.”

                                The cast of SHU's production of "Spring Awakening"

Touching on this new technology, and all that it offers, led Goehring to comment on what might be called the “return on investment” aspect of the new degree program. “All of this, if I want to go into my ‘convincing’ speech, that the program is a good thing,” Goehring said, “leads to the question: ‘Where are the jobs?’ We’ve gone through the stats at the Department of Labor in Washington and we found that there’s a four percent growth in performance jobs right now and I would attribute that to really what is happening on-line. There aren’t a lot of stages being created around the country – everyone is still struggling to maintain what they have -- but with all of the content that is needed with the streaming that’s happening with Netflix and Apple, and then in video games – we have classes here on how to perform in video games – there are all of these opportunities that exist that weren’t there when I was in college.”

In essence, the answer to the question of “Why do theater” in college is that, for those students so inclined to pursue a career in theater arts, the opportunities for employment are growing because, as Groehling explained, “it crosses over into so many areas that we once didn’t even dream of. Of course, the students find that a little more exciting and the parents a little more comforting.”

The program at SHU has never been just about classroom instruction and theory. The campus has two theaters that are in constant use, either showcasing student productions or hosting road shows or individual performances.

“We do six major productions a year,” Groehing said. “We do more undergraduate productions than most universities in this state without even having a major in theater arts. Is it possible that we will do more? Yes. We’re now considering a summer theater program. There’s not a lot of summer stock left in the world and we thought that would be a good thing, bring in some pros to work with the students. You know, old fashioned summer stock.”

Goehring is also contemplating more productions during the year, but they will probably be centered more on the creative process, such as the current Theater Fest program, which is student-centered.

“They create their own plays,” Goehring explained. “I give them a little sample of what it is like out in the real world. We condense it into one year. It starts with ‘Show me your scripts.’ Last year I got 18 scripts and I chose 12 for a table read with audience talk-back, then I chose six of those and they got staged in black box style, with more audience talk-backs. Then I chose two to get fully produced in the little theater.” For an additional touch of the “real world,” the Theater Arts degree program will also deal with the reality of building a career in theater arts, the nuts and bolts of earning a living.

Goehring is being very conservative in his estimate of how many students will initially opt for the program. He expects, at most, 10 to 12 students to declare for the fall semester, but he’s honest in saying that he really doesn’t know what is going to happen. He believes, however, that once the quality of the program becomes common knowledge, a growing number of students will be attracted.

“The thing we offer,” Goehring explained, “is very hard for any institution out of the tri-state area to offer, especially a Catholic university, and that is the access to the artists we bring in not only to teach but the guest artists from the Broadway world. A lot of my friends come. For example, Craig Shulman, who’s an actor and teaches as well. He played Jean Valjean on Broadway for over 2,000 performances, more than anyone else in the world. He was the phantom in ‘Phantom.’ It’s that kind of caliber.”

Goehring, given his contacts and experience, has the ability to bring in professional talent – people who know how to do it in the real world – to talk about real life with the students. “Okay,” Groehing said, “you audition, that’s great, but now what do you do? How do you make a living, how do you pay rent, how do you build a career when you leave this sanctuary? It sounds so simple but a lot of places just don’t teach that, but when you have real-world people here teaching it’s a golden opportunity for these kids.”

Although Groehing has been extremely successful in what he calls the “real world,” he’s found a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction in his tenure at Sacred Heart, and that’s mainly due to the students who have opted to become involved in the theater program.

“It’s really amazing,” Groehing said. “It’s amazing to see, up until now without a full academic program, how good these kids are. High schools are really turning out some wonderful students. It’s fun to see who Sacred Heart attracts. Not just the performance quality, because it’s absolutely there, but the type of kids who come here. They have a good compass in their lives, they know what it’s like to work with people, and, you know, this is the most collaborative of art forms. I find the students who come here are just the most accepting group of people. They’re big hearts, but so smart. I can’t keep up sometimes. It’s just a real pleasure to be here.”

Hopefully, that pleasure will grow as Sacred Heart attracts more students with stars in their eyes and a love of theater. Even for those students who eventually do not opt to pursue a career in the theater, the experience that Sacred Heart now offers will influence their lives in ways they cannot imagine. Yes, there’s ‘no business like show business.’ It has its heartbreaks and its pitfalls, but there is something about participating in a theatrical production that speaks, somehow, to the core of what it means to be a human being, and perhaps that is, in the end, what education is all about.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

A "Song" in a Minor Key

brownsville song (b-side for tray) -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru April 19

                                          Kaatje Walsh and Catrina Ganey.
                                          Photo by T. Charles Erickson

“Show, don’t tell!”

Yes, it’s a cliche, something every neophyte writer hears as he or she is learning the trade. It basically applies to prose writing, but it is equally applicable to the writing of drama, which may sound strange – of course drama “shows” things. After all, it’s being enacted on stage, right? Well, yes, but, the playwright has to decide what is shown, and that often determines the emotional arc of the play. These thoughts were precipitated after seeing “brownsville song (b-side for tray),” which is currently on the boards at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre under he direction of Eric Ting. Playwright Kimber Lee has made some obvious choices about what to show and what to tell, and in so doing she has, perhaps unintentionally, lessened the dramatic impact of a story that should leave the audience both shaken and pensive.

The play is set in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, N.Y., and focuses on one black family: the grandmother, Lena (Catrina Ganey), her grandson Tray (Curtiss Cook Jr.) and her granddaughter Devine (Kaatje Welsh). It opens with Lena challenging the audience, saying that the story shouldn’t start with her, that it shouldn’t start where it does. How true. For the story is about (there’s no spoiler in this) the senseless murder of her grandson. Thus, the play opens after he has been murdered and consists of a series of flashbacks interspersed with present-time moments that essentially seek to reinforce the senselessness of the 18-year-old’s death.

The decision to start at the end, as it were, is not new. Just think of William Holden floating face-down in a swimming pool at the start of “Sunset Boulevard.” However, the difference is that that film is not, centrally, about the death of Joe Gillis, Holden’s character, but rather about the deadly fantasy world that is Hollywood. “Brownsville,” however, is about Tray’s death and the environment and culture that shrugs off the loss of young black men as an everyday occurrence. As such, it has to make the audience feel the pain of that loss, and to do so it has to use dramatic tension.

Yes, it’s true that Greek tragedy, by and large, kept the death scenes off-stage, with some servant or messenger delivering the graphic details, but once again, plays such as “Antigone” are not, per se, about the death of the protagonists but rather about the decisions they make – and their fatal flaws – that lead to their demise. Such is not the case with the story Lee wants to tell, for Tray, a hard-working high school student and Golden Gloves boxer who is seeking scholarships to allow him to go to college, does not do anything to cause the violent confrontation (which is not seen but told) that leads to his death. Thus, the audience is distanced, is in fact sheltered from the brutal reality of the environment that Troy fights to escape.

That reality – gang violence, drug wars, the despair that forces young men, and women, onto the streets to carve out lives for themselves that offers few options – is only alluded to, often via Russell H. Champa’s lighting design and the sound design of Ryan Rumery, and, again, in a scene that tells rather than shows – Junior (Anthony Martinez-Briggs), Tray’s friend, meets Lena on a street and simply relates how Troy was killed.

What we are given, instead, is a strange sidebar story that deals with Merrell (Sung Yun Cho), Devine’s mother, who married Tray’s father (what happened to Tray’s mother we do not learn) and, when the father becomes another casualty of the violence that permeates the neighborhood, deserts her daughter and sinks into an addictive fog. After several re-habs, she reappears as – get this – Tray’s tutor, helping him to write essays to secure scholarships. If that plot twist is not enough to make one squirm, then she also appears at the Starbucks where Tray works to apply for a job, and Tray is charged with interviewing her, which leads to an extended scene in which Tray helps her learn the ropes of the coffee-vending business. It’s meant to show Tray’s humanity and capacity for forgiveness, but it goes on for too long and essentially leads nowhere. It also allows Lee to throw in some thoughts about mixed-race marriages, to what purpose is not apparent.

Returning to Lena’s monologue at the start of the show, it deals, in part, with how the general public shrugs off the senseless murders of young black men – the slayings are just another news item, fifteen seconds, with film, that’s been heard and seen before. Lena’s point is that the young men who die on the streets are not, to their families, merely names, they are people. Her plaint is that we should care about these young men, about the tragic loss, but Lee’s play seems to do everything in its power to make us not care, to divert our attention from the reality of the mean streets that took Tray’s life, and our responsibility for those mean streets. The play should have delivered a punch to the gut.  Rather, it gives the audience a pat on the shoulder for being attentive for longer than 15 seconds.

brownsville song runs through April 16. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Passion of Lisa Jura

"The Pianist of Willesden Lane" -- Hartford Stage -- Thru April 26

                                                          Mona Golabek

What if Anne Frank had lived, if she had had a daughter, and that daughter decided to tell her mother’s story -- the story of a young girl’s life torn apart by war, a story of tragedy and eventual triumph – and tell it on the stage? The imagined emotional impact of that staging is akin to moments felt while watching “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” which recently opened at Hartford Stage under the direction of Hershey Felder.

The play – part reminiscence, part delightful recital, acted out on a simple multi-tiered set (Trevor Hay and Hershey Felder) dominated by a dramatically lit Steinway piano – is the story of Lisa Jura, told by her daughter, Mona Golabek. It’s a reminiscence based on Jura’s family in Vienna, the Anschluss that disrupted and eventually destroyed the lives of many Jewish families and, central to the play, halted Jura’s piano lessons (for suddenly it was a crime to teach Jewish children). It is also the story of the Kindertransport that brought the 13-year-old, and thousands of other Jewish children, to England. At this point in the play there is an echo of the pivotal moment in William Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice,” for Jura’s father has been able to obtain only one pass for the train – so only one child can go. It’s a haunting moment.

Once in England, working first as a maid and then in a factory sewing army uniforms, Jura, a child prodigy and piano virtuoso, never lost sight of her dream of becoming a concert pianist and playing Grieg’s Piano Concerto at her debut. This dream she eventually realized after receiving a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London. Thus, there is a happy, if bittersweet, ending to the tale, for although Jura eventually immigrated to America and married the French resistance fighter who saw her playing piano at the Howard Hotel in London, there are many who are forever left behind in the darkness that was the Holocaust.

But the evening is also a recital of sorts, for Jura taught her daughters, Mona and Renee, to play the piano, and Mona Golabek became a renowned pianist in her own right and has enjoyed a lengthy solo career. Thus, there is Grieg and Chopin, Scriabin and Beethoven to be heard and enjoyed, the works interwoven – emotionally and intelligently – into the story that Golabek tells.

Part of the fascination of the evening is that Golabek is not a trained actress, but you’d never know that from the 90-minute performance she gives, seamlessly morphing from her own self into the persona of her 13-year-old mother and, along the way, giving us a German music teacher, stuffy British bureaucrats and landed gentry, and a woman, “more German than Jewish,” who runs a London hostel for child refugees, where Jura finds shelter and friendship, until a German bomb all but destroys the building.

The storytelling is intimate and obviously heartfelt, and is enhanced as Golabek plays, for she just doesn’t play but continues the story paced to the tempo of the music, which has been selected to enhance and reflect the tone and temper of the spoken word.

The evening’s final moments, enhanced by Jason Bieber’s subtle yet effective lighting design, end, or apparently so, on a quiet note as the images of many of those who have figured in the story (projections by Andrew W. Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal) are projected onto large, gilt-framed ‘mirrors” and Golabek says “good bye.” The lights go down, there is applause, and then the lights come back up to the strains of the final movement of Grieg’s Piano Concerto, which Golabek plays with such emotion and fervor that you can feel the hairs on your arms rise with the electricity. It’s a stunning coda to an entrancing evening.

“The Pianist of Willesden Lane” runs through April 26. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to