Sunday, November 8, 2015

An Almost Wonderful Life

A Wonderful Life -- Goodspeed Opera House -- Thru Dec. 6

The finale. All photos by Diane Sobolewski
Have you ever seen Frank Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life? I guess that’s like asking, are you breathing? For most, if not all of us, the film is implanted in our minds, so what would you do if someone pitched the idea of turning the iconic film into a musical? Well, if you’re Sheldon Harnick (book and lyrics) and Joe Raposo (music), you say, “Great idea. Let’s do it.” And the result is what’s currently playing at Goodspeed Musicals. The run has been extended through December 6, so the ticket-buying public is happy, and there’s really no reason not to be happy, save that A Wonderful Life, as directed by Michael Perlman, simply is not up to Goodspeed’s standards. It induces smiles and generates a warm if somewhat dim glow, but as musicals go, it’s somewhat lackluster.

Okay, we all know about good-hearted George Bailey (Duke Lafoon), the man who sets aside his dreams to save the Building and Loan Association in Bedford Falls, and Mary (Kirsten Hatch), the girl he falls in love with, and Clarence (Frank Vlastnik), the angel second-class who is assigned to show George just how important his life has been and, in the process, hopefully win his wings. And we all know…well, we all know -- so much so that when Harnick deviates from the original story for dramatic or staging reasons there’s a little bell that goes off in our minds and we say, “Wait a minute, didn’t George…?”

But let’s start with the set, designed by Brian Prather. Yes, Goodspeed has limited fly and wing space, but that has never stopped the venerable venue from coming up with some interesting and creative solutions to set design. This time around, we have a single set (with some stage pieces rolled in and out as necessary) that reminded at least one audience member of a depressed New England mill town. It’s dark, dingy, drab and sad, as is the poor Christmas tree that Mary decorates near the end of the second act. Misshapen and under-decorated, it looks like something Scrooge might have settled for before his epiphany. Bah! Humbug!

Frank Vlastnik as Clarence
Then there’s Raposo’s music, which seems to have been composed when he was in his “blue” period. Serviceable at best, the songs don’t linger in your mind for a moment longer than it takes for their last notes to fade away. You certainly don’t leave the theater humming a happy tune. As for the choreography, which has always been a hallmark of a Goodspeed production, Parker Esse seems to have taken his cue from Prather, for the less than dynamic dance numbers are in sync with the drab set. Yes, there’s coordinated movement, but only the Charleston scene (“In a State”) generates any energy or excitement.

The "In a State" number
Is this sour grapes because the musical is not the movie? No, not really. I was more than willing to accept and embrace the production on its own terms. It’s just that this time around Goodspeed seems to have missed the mark, though the somewhat flat effort cannot be laid at the feet of the superb cast. Lafoon, to his credit, doesn’t try to fend himself off as Jimmy Stewart – he is his own George Bailey, and is quite believable as the idealistic young man who reluctantly falls in love – it’s a touching scene, helped by the pert Scott, who easily gives us the essence of the wholesome young woman who deserves George’s love.

Ed Dixon and Duke Lafoon
What about the man everyone loves to hate? That’s Henry Potter, and Ed Dixon is the epitome of the grasping, conniving businessman, weaving a Mephistophlean web in “First Class All the Way.” And our angel second-class? Vlastnik is as meek, mild and earnest as you might wish him to be. And the somewhat forgetful Uncle Billy? Michael Medeiros is dead-on as the somewhat whiskey-challenged relative who somehow manages to lose the bank deposit (we all know who’s behind that – Potter! – Hiss! Hiss!) that puts dear George in jeopardy and leads to the heartfelt conclusion.

Back to the set. When George decides it would have been better if he had never been born and Clarence sets about to show him the world as it might have been without his presence, the soul-deadening nature of “Potterville” has little impact, primarily because Bedford Falls was pretty drab and depressing to begin with. Thus, the dark night of the soul scenes just don’t seem very dark – heck, we’ve been there almost from the start.

There are flickers of what might have been (i.e., Wonderful Life fully re-imagined), especially in the “Wings” scene that opens the second act. It’s a Busby Berkley-style number that captures Clarence’s desire to soar amongst the angels. It’s a bright moment in an otherwise dark production that quite often trades on the audience’s memory of the emotions generated by the Capra film to legitimize itself.   

I come back, finally, to the Christmas tree. In the final crowd-gathered scene when goodness is celebrated in an ensemble number (“Christmas Gifts”), one might expect the sad little tree to get into the spirit of the moment and turn itself into something Rockefeller Center might be proud of. Alas, the fake fir just doesn’t seem to understand the theatricality of the moment. There it stands in all of its slumped shabbiness. A missed moment, as is much of A Wonderful Life.

A Wonderful Life runs through December 6. For tickets or more information call 860.873.8668 or visit:   

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Liberace Lives

Liberace! -- Ivoryton Playhouse -- Thru Nov. 14

Daryl Wagner

For a certain generation – or several generations, for that matter – say the word “candelabra” and an image immediately arises: that of a handsome, dark-haired man with an infectious grin sitting at a piano. The man was Liberace. The entertainer who became synonymous with Las Vegas long before Wayne Newton appeared on the scene died in 1987, but he is back on stage out at Ivoryton Playhouse in an uneven yet eventually enthralling one-man show that features some marvelous music that frames the details of the man’s rise to fame and fortune, his fall and resurrection.

Liberace!, written by Brent Hazelton and directed by Jacqueline Hubbard, ably captures the over-the-top glitz and kitsch that was Liberace’s trademark. Daryl Wagner, who played Liberace for 20 years in the Vegas Legends in Concert, brings the master showman to vivid life, walking the audience through the man’s life and times while performing quite admirably on the piano.

Born Wladziu Valentino Liberace in 1919, the young man was destined by his father to become a world-renowned pianist playing only the classical repertoire, but as young Walter, as he was called by his family (his friends called him Lee), reached his majority the Great Depression had the country in its grips, so to make a buck Liberace began playing gigs wherever he could, including strip joints. His father, something of a martinet, was not pleased. Liberace tried to live up to his father’s expectations, eventually earning the right to play with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. However, it was in La Crosse, Wisconsin, in 1939, that Liberace found his muse and his true calling. After performing a series of classical pieces, he asked, on a whim, for requests from the audience, expecting them to stay in the classical mode. However, a man from the audience requested that he play “Three Little Fishies.” Liberace did, doing riffs on the song in the style of several classical composers. The audience loved it, and so did Liberace. That night, a star was born, a star who would eventually become the highest-paid performer in the world.

Yet there was a ghost in Liberace’s closet that would haunt him for his entire life and even beyond the grave, and that was the issue of his sexuality. The 1950s was, among other things, a somewhat sexually repressive era and the stigma of homosexuality could be a certain death-blow to any personality’s career. Liberace filed two different lawsuits against publications that had hinted (not so subtly) that the entertainer was gay. The Confidential ran a front cover picture of him with the headline: “Why Liberace’s Theme Song Should Be: ‘Mad About the Boy.” The same issue also ran a cover story with the headline: “Now – Surgery Cures Frigid Wives.”

Though he won the suits, his star seemed to be on the wane. Refusing to walk away from the career he had worked so hard to create, he decided to ride toward the cannons: he eschewed conservatism and opted for flamboyance. The rest is entertainment history.

Liberace!, as staged at Ivoryton, is actually two plays. The first, which deals with Liberace’s youth and rise to fame and ends with an intermission, seems somewhat protracted. Wagner is called upon to provide a lot of information, most of it not dramatized, and there are extensive piano numbers that are quite enjoyable but stretch the first act perhaps beyond where it should go. Hence, after Liberace suggests that everyone take a break, a question arises: are we going to see more of the same when the actor reappears for the second act. The answer is a definite “No!”

Once the lights come up for the second act it is as if the entire production has been energized. There’s audience interaction, there’s drama, there’s more than a touch of pathos, and the entertainer who mesmerized millions truly comes to life. It is in this act that Wagner really shines, not only as a pianist but as an actor. He creates a troubled, conflicted man who seeks the approval of the critics while finding love in all the wrong places. While the first act seems somewhat flat-line, the second arcs towards a wonderful climax and a revealing and emotionally moving denouement.

The single set by scenic designer Daniel Nischan, though festooned with various lighting fixtures, seems somewhat tame, given the entertainer’s proclivity for excess (perhaps a set change during intermission for the “Vegas” period might have been in order), but lighting designer Marcus Abbott makes up for that with some gaudy displays of flashing reds and blues, and Victoria Blake’s costumes are everything Lee might have wished for.

All in all, Liberace! is an interesting and often quite entertaining trip down memory lane for those who remember the man with the fourteen-carat smile and the intimate wink that ended each of his TV shows. For those not familiar with the entertainer, it is a portrait of an era and a study of an extremely talented man who battled all his life to be who he was while having to hide who he was.

Liberace! Runs through Nov. 14. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to