Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Visible Hand

The Invisible Hand -- Westport Country Playhouse -- Thru August 6

Rajesh Bose, Fajer Kaisi, Eric Bryant and Jameal Ali
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Power corrupts. Money is the root of all evil. “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Alas, these are all too familiar concepts, trite but true. Oh, yes, there’s another concept one might want to consider: for a play to work you have to care about what happens to the characters, and although Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand, which recently opened at the Westport Country Playhouse, certainly deals with the first three concepts, it doesn’t embrace the fourth. Thus, at least one member of the audience was left with a “So what?” feeling at the final curtain.

Set in modern day Pakistan and directed by David Kennedy, this exercise in the plight of an American banker being held hostage offers few dramatic moments and a lot of mini-scenes punctuated by blackouts that become tiresome, if for no other reason than they create the feeling that you are watching snippets of film rather than a play.

Upon entering the theater you are confronted by a blue wall jutting out at an odd angle. What, pray tell, might that be, or signify? Perhaps it has some metaphoric meaning, much as the black monolith does in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Maybe, but what it appears to represent is the fourth wall, i.e., a physical manifestation of the invisible wall that allows the audience to look into the parlor or hotel room or…well, wherever the action of the play is occurring. In this case, it disappears to reveal the room in the building where Citibank executive Nick Bright (Eric Bryant) is being held for ransom, a cool ten million dollars. Actually, his boss was the one who was supposed to be abducted, but Bashir (Fajer Kaisi) made a slight mistake so, well, when handed lemons make lemonade. Imam Saleem (Rajesh Bose) believes that Nick can, in one way or another, come up with the money that will free him. After all, Nick gave Dar (Jameal Ali), his guard, some profitable guidance on how to corner the local market on potatoes.

Yes, Nick represents the great Satan, America, and as a banker he is at the root of most of the world’s problems, initiated, as Akhtar would have it, by the Breton Woods system that made the American dollar king of currency. Yet greed is not bound by race, color or creed, for “Money makes the world go around, the world go around.” So, when Nick, charged with coming up with his ransom, starts to tutor Bashir on the intricacies of banking, stock trading, futures and currency manipulation, and the money starts rolling in, the serpent slides easily into paradise and everyone becomes tainted. So what else is new?

Akhtar has a lot to say about economics, geo-political realities and the uses and abuses of power, but in this case it probably would have been better if he had chosen to write an essay or an Op-Ed piece rather than a play, for then he wouldn’t have been tasked with the pesky necessity of creating engaging, flesh-and-blood characters that generate an emotional response from the audience, something he is perfectly capable of doing given the gripping nature of his Disgraced, which won a Pulitzer Prize and was boarded last season at Long Wharf Theatre.

The Invisible Hand is a problem play, and as such the characters deal with social issues and enter into contentious debates with each other. All well and good, but you never lose sight of the fact that the characters are puppets and that Akhtar is the puppet-master, the all but visible hand in The Invisible Hand.

The Invisible Hand runs through August 6. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org. 

Saturday, July 23, 2016

A Delightful "Midsummer"

Midsummer -- Hartford Theaterworks -- Thru August 21

M. Scott McLean and Rebecca Hart

I didn’t want to leave the theater.

This review should probably end with its first sentence, but one is called upon to say more, so I shall. The subject is Midsummer, a marvelous two-hander that recently opened at Theaterworks up in Hartford, co-written by David Greig and Gordon McIntyre and directed with flair and humor by Tracy Brigden. Billed as “a play with songs,” this magical, quirky exploration of a mismatched couple’s weekend in Edinburgh offers just about everything a playgoer could ask for: humor, a bit of pathos, engaging interaction between its two stars…and a happy ending.

Those who were lucky enough to attend the recent production of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, part of this year’s International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, will be familiar with Greig’s work. He has a vivid imagination and relies on the actors who will portray his characters to not only set the scene but create entire worlds. Prudencia was a revelation, as is Midsummer. His writing is witty, urbane, yet tinged with romanticism.

So, what is Midsummer about? Well, Helena (Rebecca Hart), a lawyer, and Bob (M. Scott McLean) – that’s “Medium Bob,” for in the criminal netherworld he inhabits he has no prepossessing features – meet quasi-cute in a wine bar. He’s waiting to meet a contact; she’s waiting to meet a lover. Helena is jilted and looks across the room to see Bob, who’s reading Dostoevsky’s “Dead Souls” to make him feel better. She makes an overture. He responds. And so begins a weekend that will be filled with wonderful “adventures” that include bondage, a chase scene, an angst-filled first tryst, botched commitments, a lot of self-analysis and great swaths of glee for the audience as these two superb actors create multiple characters and work the “When Harry Met Sally” formula to perfection.

Midsummer is essentially meta-theater, for from the start there are comments and asides that draw attention to the play as play. Lines are delivered and then interpreted to reveal what is really being said (which allows for the smile-inducing last line of the play). The play wouldn’t work if there wasn’t chemistry between Hart and McLean, but that’s not a problem. These two actors engage each other from the moment they walk onto the stage and their characters’ week-end romance is totally believable.

Greig gives each of the actors several monologues that allow them to show their stuff, the most memorable one being Bob’s intensive discussion with…well, not his conscience. It’s a play on the idea of what, some say, men think with, and it’s hilarious.

Brigden, who directed the play previously at City Theatre in Pittsburgh, shows a deft directorial hand in multiple scenes that effortlessly flow into each other, and she, along with the two actors, shows a sensitive awareness of the importance of nuance and body language. This is enhanced by Andrew Ostrowski’s subtle yet very effective lighting and the eclectic set by Narelle Sissons that resembles the back of a barn where unwanted items have been stored, items that Hart and McLean pull out to create characters that demand the audience involve itself in theater of the mind. A tacky tiara becomes the prop that allows Helena to create the confusion of missing her sister’s wedding, and a single leather glove serves to manifest a criminal kingpin.

Midsummer is a delight from start to finish, a wonderful exercise in creative theater that demands a lot from its audience but, if the demands are met, the satisfaction is palpable. If you love theater, and if you enjoy watching two actors ply their craft with style, flair and depth, then you owe it to yourself to see Midsummer. The evening will stay with you long after the lights go down.

Midsummer runs through August 21. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to www.theaterworkshartford.org

Floating Down the "Big River"

Big River -- Sharon Playhouse -- Thru July 31

Joseph Allen and Nicholas Ward. Photo by Randy O'Rourke

How do you respond to an impressively talented cast charged with bringing to life a mediocre musical? Well, I guess you just sit back and enjoy what’s there to be enjoyed. Yes, Big River won numerous Tonys when it opened on Broadway in 1985 (the competition was Grind, Leader of the Pack and Quilters, so…) and has had many revivals, but that doesn’t preclude the fact that it is a patchwork piece with a book by William Hauptman that is mostly monologue, based on Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and songs by Roger Miller that often do little to move the plot forward and sometimes seem to be inserted just for the hell of it. Up at the Sharon Playhouse, director John Simpkins has done what he can to make this three-wheeled wagon roll along as entertainingly as possible. The audience was appreciative on opening night, the cast was superb, and the social issues were out there for all to see and ponder.

Okay, as you traveled through the American education system you were probably introduced to Twain’s novel, much esteemed and often vilified for, among other things, its use of the “N” word (whether you actually read the novel remains to be seen). So, you know about Huck, a barely “civilized” lad, and Jim, a runaway slave, and their trip down the Mississippi River on a raft (the river being a metaphor for being free from civilization, while what awaits on the shore is human perfidy, racism and skullduggery). It’s essentially a coming of age story, with Huck opting to defy social mores and “go to Hell” to help Jim.

The novel was written in the first person – hence the monologue form used by Hauptman. Yes, Huck tells his story, but often what might be dramatized is simply described, which leads to the musical often floating into some backwaters. Then there are the songs. The rousing “Do You Wanna Go to Heaven?” utilizes the entire cast in the opening number, and it’s a real foot-stomper, backed by a nine-piece orchestra that sounds bigger than it is. It frames Huck’s dilemma: does he accept being “civilized” or revolt? All well and good, as are the wonderful “Royal Nonesuch” number, the haunting “River in the Rain” and the risible “Guv-ment,” all of which develop character and move the plot along, but then there are the throw-aways: “Hand for the Hog,” “Arkansas,” and the totally show-stopping (the phrase used in the pejorative sense) “You Oughta Be Here with Me.”

So, the musical is flawed, but the cast is excellent. Joseph Allen, as Huck, is sprightly and ingenuous, and tells his story with just the right amount of pluck. Playing against him, Nicholas Ward, with his marvelous bass voice, is a sensitive, world-wise Jim. Yes, he plays a slave, but the essence of the musical, and the novel, is that Huck comes to realize that Jim is not property to be bought or sold but a human being, a man, and Ward ably allows for this transformation in Huck’s thinking.

Doing double duty, Travis Mitchell plays Pap, Huck’s father, with just the right amount of inebriated evil (the cabin scene is both disturbing and frightening) and the King, the purported lost son of Louis XIV, a huckster in cahoots with the Duke, Thomas Cannizzaro, who nails the fractured Hamlet soliloquy. The two cavorting in “The Royal Nonesuch” is a delight. The agile Alex Dorf creates a believable Tom Sawyer, though he might pull back a bit on the “corn-pone” delivery of lines, and Carrie Lyn Brandon is delightful as the grieving Mary Jane Wilkes. All are supported by a talented cast that brings to life the story of Huck and Jim and their journey towards friendship and understanding.

The staging, by and large, captures the feel of the period, as does the costuming by Michelle Eden Humphrey. There is, however, one head-scratcher, and that’s the use by scenic designer Josh Smith of trees (really branches) on rolling platforms to signify the land bordering the Mississippi. Each is rolled about by a cast member and is awkwardly worked into several scenes, more a distraction than anything else…and totally unnecessary. One might also have expected some projections to enhance the feel of the raft floating down the river, but perhaps it just wasn’t in the budget.

All in all, Big River is a case of a cast overcoming the limitations of the material it has to work with to deliver an enjoyable if not gripping evening of musical theater. If you don’t question some of the decisions made – like dance hall girls in full regalia suddenly appearing in a backwater Arkansas town -- and don’t mind that many of the songs, as tuneful as they are, simply don’t make much sense -- then you’ll have a good time in the lovely northwest corner of Connecticut.

Big River runs through July 31. For tickets call (860) 364-7469 (ext. 201 in the summer/ext. 100 in the winter) or go to http://sharonplayhouse.org/theatre/tickets/

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The No-Name Show

[title of show] -- TheatreWorks New Milford -- Weekends thru July 31

Ashley McLeod, Mike L'Altrella, Carey Van Hollen,
and Rob Bassett. All photos by Richard Pettibone


Over the years there have been a lot of shows about…well…putting on a show, perhaps the most famous being Forty-Second Street, but there’s Kiss Me, Kate, A Chorus Line, Babes in Arms, Summer Stock, and we can’t forget The Producers, Noises Off and Lend Me a Tenor. Broadway (and Hollywood) often likes to look at itself in the mirror and the audience likes the feel of being behind the scenes. Well, [title of show], which recently opened at TheatreWorks New Milford, takes the premise one step further, for the musical is a chronicle of its own gestation, with the character names -- Jeff, Hunter, Susan and Heidi – the first names of the people who originally created and starred in the show. Laden with show business inside jokes and references, it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, especially for those who stopped thinking about musicals about the time The King and I opened, but under the perceptive direction of Alicia Dempster, this is a delightful evening of musical theater with four talented actors who easily give the impression that it is they who are creating the show.

Why the odd name: [title of show]? Well, that refers to the line on the application for submission of an original musical to the New York Musical Theatre Festival, which authors Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell received three weeks before submission deadline. They couldn’t come up with a premise, so they decided to write a musical about writing a musical – they couldn’t come up with a title, so they just wrote in the words on the application’s line. Such is art imitating life, or vice-versa – it’s a fluid proposition.

So Jeff (Michael L’Altrella) and Hunter (Rob Bassett) set about chronicling their efforts to create a musical with the help of two actresses, Susan (Carey Van Hollen) and Heidi (Ashley McLeod). Somewhat at a loss, they appropriately title the first number in the show “Untitled Opening Number,” which details the standard requirements for an opening number in a Broadway musical. This having you cake and eating it to pervades the evening – many songs deal with accepted musical standards while, at the same time, capture the emotions of those who are creating the musical. It’s an intriguing conceit that works, and includes some Brechtian moments when the characters question whether they should be on stage since lines haven’t yet been written for them.

The musical also deals with the angst and anxiety inherent in the acting profession: the roles you accept just to get on stage, the endless casting calls, the self-doubts that haunt, the questioning of the ‘persona’ you are projecting, the envy and petty jealousies that arise when you are constantly being judged, often by standards that are, at best, arbitrary.

Set in what appears to be a rehearsal hall (set designed by Richard Pettibone), with musical director Steven Oliveri at the electronic keyboard (impassive throughout most of the evening until he questions why he isn’t being included in publicity photographs), the musical is dialogue-dense – you have to pay attention to the banter between the four actors to “get” what this is all about.

This is a show where there is no place for the actors to hide – they are out there in a minimal set with limited props – it’s all on them, and they deliver. Yes, timing of lines was, at certain moments, a bit questionable, but this was opening night – one can assume that it will become more fluid as the run progresses – but there’s no denying that these four actors know what they are doing, and do it quite well.

The bitchy chemistry between Jeff and Hunter is made manifest early on by L’Altrella and Bassett (Basset being the ‘bitchier’ of the two). Their interaction smartly captures the tensions and disagreements inherent in the joint creation of a work of art. The two actresses, each creating a distinct character, also function as something of a Greek chorus, commenting on the two men’s efforts. There are no “big” numbers in the show, but there are memorable musical moments, chief among them “Die Vampire, Die!” led by the luminous Van Hollen as she details the various ‘vampires’ that seek to suck away an artist’s creativity. Then there’s Heidi’s “A Way Back to Then,” which evokes the “At the Ballet” number from A Chorus Line, as it deals with young dreams and aspirations unfulfilled.

Carey Van Hollen explains about vampires

For those who occasionally drop by a theater to take in a road show of a mega-hit, the goings on in [title of show] may be a bit mystifying, but for those who are devotees of this uniquely American art form, [title of show] is a feast and an inventive, engaging evening of theater enhanced by four actors who create memorable characters. You either get the “Secondary Characters” song in the Montage medley, or you don’t. You may scratch your head at the “Monkeys and Playbills” number or revel in its absurdity (and the inherent rolling of the dice whenever a musical is boarded on Broadway). If you love musical theater then you will find that you are one of the nine people out of a hundred  who find [title of show] your “favorite thing.”

[title of show] runs weekends through July 31. For tickets or more information call 860-350-6863 or go online to theatreworks.us.

Next up at TheatreWorks is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. One can only wonder how the 1962 film starring John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart will be translated to the stage.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Hello Birdie

Bye Bye Birdie -- Goodspeed Musicals -- Thru Sept. 8

Rhett Guter and the cast of Bye Bye Birdie.
All photos by Diane Sobolewski

What was once meant to be a satire on American teen culture and the phenomenon of Rock & Roll has, over five decades, become a walk down Memory Lane, a delightful exercise in nostalgia that Goodspeed Musicals has staged with all of its professionalism and understanding of the nature of the property and its audience. Thus, Bye Bye Birdie, which recently opened at the East Haddam stage, begins with a series of TV clips from the 1950s and early 60s, which sets the proper tone for this light-hearted romp that can’t help but bring a smile to the faces of those who once swung hula-hoops around their waists or wore coonskin caps.

The premise is simple: teen idol Conrad Birdie (based on both Elvis and Conway Twitty – “twitty” – “birdie” – get it?) has been drafted (as Elvis once was), and to take advantage of the media hype his manager, Albert Peterson (George Merrick) and Peterson’s secretary, Rose Alvarez (Janet Dacal), come up with the idea that Conrad will give “one last kiss” to a member of Conrad’s fan club before departing. The name chosen is that of Kim MacAfee (Tristen Buettel), a fifteen-year-old resident of Sweet Apple, Ohio, who has just been “pinned” by Hugo Peabody (Alex Walton). What does “getting pinned” mean? Well, it doesn’t refer to wrestling (or maybe it does).
 
Janet Dacal and George Merrick
 

Rose, Albert and Birdie (Rhett Guter) travel to Sweet Apple, trailed by Albert’s mother, Mae (Kristine Zbornik), the ultimate doting mother who has thwarted Rose and Albert’s romance. Birdie’s arrival upsets the placid Sweet Apple lifestyle and the MacAfee household, headed by Harry MacAfee (Warren Kelley, who ably channels Paul Lynde): teens become defiant (well, they stay out late) and parents wonder what’s wrong with kids these days.

The original 1960 Broadway production garnered Tonys for Best Musical, Best Actor (Dick Van Dyke), and best direction and choreography (Gower Champion). What’s up on the stage at Goodspeed is a rethinking of the original show, with some songs dropped and others moved to different positions, plus the inclusion of “Bye Bye Birdie,” which was written for the 1963 film. Under the capable direction of Jenn Thompson, aided by choreographer Patricia Wilcox, this version of Birdie sails along with nary a hitch, with efficient scene changes and a cast that, true to Goodspeed’s heritage, leaves it all up there on the stage.
 
Warren Kelley, Ben Stone-Zelman, Donna English and Tristen Buettel
 

The person who accompanied me on opening night offered this criterion for whether or not a show “works”: do you think about it the next morning? Well, there are quite a few moments worthy of morning contemplation, chief among them the artfully staged “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” ensemble number, as well as Dacal’s Rose transformation into “Spanish Rose.” Then there’s Birdie’s first number, “Honestly Sincere,” which literally knocks the cast dead, and the opening “Telephone Number,” which introduces the use of the aisles as part of the stage (something Goodspeed often does). Finally, when Albert tells his mother that she can go home, that he doesn’t need her anymore, Zbornik delivers a hilarious “A Mother Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” in which she commits hara-kiri, then tosses the imaginary knife at her son’s feet. However, while munching on your omelet you might pause as you remember the lyrics to such songs as “How Lovely to Be a Woman” and “One Boy” – they’re enough to set a feminist’s teeth on edge, yet you can’t judge Birdie by today’s standards; it is of it’s time, as were Flower Drum Song (“I Enjoy Being a Girl”) and Carousel (“What’s the Use of Wond’rin’?”).
 
George Merrick and Kristine Zbornik
 

No, this is not Sweeney Todd or Spring Awakening. This is an old-fashioned musical that seeks to entertain from start to finish without any heavy message (other than that teens should stay away from “loop-the-loop.”) Yes, most of the characters are stereotypes and, yes, the mores, male-female relationships and assumptions about middle-America are dated, but if you suspend your disbelief or, if you lived through the era of Sputnik and “Blue Suede Shoes,” you’ll understand, and you will also get the logic of the paean to appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show. Who’s Ed Sullivan? If you don’t know, ask your grandparents.

Bye Bye Birdie has been extended through Sept. 8. For tickets or more information call 860.873.8668 or visit: www.goodspeed.org.   

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Toughen Up, Tony

West Side Story -- Connecticut Repertory Theatre -- Thru July 17

Here Come the Jets! Photo by Gerry Goodstein


The music fades, the lights dim, and from across the gym turned into a dance hall Tony and Maria see each other for the first time, and it’s love at first sight. The scene, as staged in the Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s production of “West Side Story,” is poignant but, alas, just a touch unbelievable, for we are asked to accept that there is instant chemistry between these two and, unfortunately, it’s just not there. The fault is in the casting, and since the couple’s rapturous engagement is the impetus for the musical’s development, it’s a detriment to an otherwise enjoyable production.

When it first appeared in 1957, “West Side Story” was an iffy proposition for its writer, Arthur Laurents, composer Elmer Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, given that it is based on a Shakespearean tragedy and that much of the story is told via dance, originally choreographed by Jerome Robbins. There’s also the ending, which left early audiences speechless – no big finale, just a body being carried off the stage and a forlorn young woman dealing with her loss. Of course, it eventually triumphed and went on to join the list of great American musicals.

CRT’s production, directed and choreographed by Cassie Abate, is sufficiently dark and gritty, staged against a background of metal bars, fences and drab colors (compliments of scenic designer Tim Brown) that capture the metropolitan jungle, the turf that the rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks (read Montagues and Capulets), fight over and seek to control. This internecine conflict, fueled by racism and poverty, is set against the dreams and desires of the two young lovers, Maria (Julia Estrada) and Tony (Luke Hamilton). Love is a powerful emotion, but in the world of “West Side Story” it cannot defeat anger, fear and hatred.

Estrada is a winsome, stars-in-her-eyes Maria. Initially girlishly giddy, she transforms into a mourning woman who forces the opposing gangs to come together. Blessed with a beautiful voice, she shines in “Tonight, “One Hand, One Heart” and her duet with Anita (Cassidy Stoner), “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love.” Hamilton is also well-voiced, but his take on Tony is that of a teenager awash in emotions of first love. He bounces up and down, as if envisioning a much-wanted birthday present, in “Something’s Coming” and simply does not convey the gravitas of a young man who has once been the leader of a gang.

Bentley Black, playing Riff, the current Jets leader, fares much better. He exudes authority, and in “Cool,” you accept that he has the ability to quell the emotions of the gang members eager to rumble. On the opposite side, Yurel Echezarreta, as Bernado, leader of the Sharks, is a dark force, a character that contains both anger and frustration behind a machismo fa├žade. As for his girl friend, Anita, although Stoner may sometimes push the sauciness a bit too far, she nails the lead in “America” with her tart taunting of Rosalia (Tori Gresham), who wishes to return to Puerto Rico.

There are some stand-out moments in this production, chief among them the penultimate number in the first act, the rousing, operatic reprise of “Tonight,” and “Gee, Officer Krupke,” the Jets humorous send-up of the societal forces they must contend with: the police, the judicial system and representatives of the various social services who see them as nothing more than “cases” to be labeled and dealt with appropriately. There’s also the wonderfully staged “Dance at the Gym” sequence, in which Abate’s chorography is the strongest. Less so is the dream-like “Somewhere” in the second act – for all of its movement, it seems somewhat static and contrived. As a comparison, see what choreographer Doug Shankman did with the same number in Summer Theatre of New Canaan’s production of “West Side Story” (running though July 31).

CRT’s production is definitely enjoyable, but its parts don’t seem to add up to a consistent whole, as if Abate was unable to settle on a complete vision of what the production should be. At times very professional, it all too often seems to slip into staging and tentativeness one might associate with a high school show.

“West Side Story” runs through July 17. For tickets or more information call 860-486-2113 or go to www.crt.uconn.edu. 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Show to See This Summer

West Side Story -- Summer Theatre of New Canaan -- Thru July 31

Julia Paladino and Zach Schanne. All photos by Keelin Daly

Recently there have been informal discussions amongst members of the Connecticut Critics Circle about viewing – and reviewing -- plays and musicals that have been seen many times before. One typical response has been: “Oh, not another production of (fill in the blank).” Yes, one has to labor against becoming jaded, and an antidote to the “Been there, done that” syndrome can be found in New Canaan at Waveny Park, where Summer Theatre of New Canaan’s “West Side Story” is running through July 31. From the first haunting whistle that calls the Jets together, this production sweeps you up and makes you forget you know the story, you know the score – you are once again a kid in a candy store reveling in all the delights being offered. Director Melody Meitrott Libonati and choreographer Doug Shankman have created a magical evening of musical theater that you simply don’t want to miss.

When it first opened on Broadway in 1957 (yes, almost 60 years ago) it received mixed critical response, but the musical, based on a concept by Jerome Robbins, with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, quickly captured the public’s imagination and became one of the most beloved musicals. Based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the story focuses on two rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, fighting for turf rights on the West Side of Manhattan (an area that would soon be leveled to make way for Lincoln Center). Against all odds, two “star-crossed lovers,” Maria (Julia Paladino) and Tony (Zach Schane) attempt to defy racial boundaries, believing that there is a place, “somewhere,” where their love for each other can flourish.

Under the protective tent at Waveny their tragic story unfolds, and it is just about everything you could ask for. Yes, the music and songs are familiar, but the energy and intensity generated by this fine cast makes you believe that this is the first time this story has been told, the first time these numbers have been performed.

Paladino is superb as the young girl on the brink of womanhood, flush with hopes and dreams, giddy with the dawning awareness that she is “so pretty.” Playing against her unbridled vibrancy, Schanne creates a Tony torn by loyalties and desires. I defy you not to wipe a tear or two away from your eyes while watching their “balcony” scene.

There’s just so much energy up there on the stage that you often wonder if the tent’s fabric isn’t pulsating. The “Dance at the Gym” sequence, when Tony and Maria first meet, is sheer magic, enhanced by some nice lighting effects compliments of Daniel B. Chapman, and the “America” number is sharp, intense and witty, enhanced by Katie Stewart’s performance as Anita, and the first act’s penultimate number, “Tonight,” can’t help but stir the soul.

The biggest revelation is the second act’s “Gee, Officer Krupke,” meant to lighten up the mood with a bit of pointed humor before the eventual dark close. It’s non-stop movement and unbridled energy, a show-stopper in every way that drew thunderous, well-deserved applause. This is immediately followed by the angry/tender duet between Anita and Maria (“A Boy Like That/I Have a Love”) as the two women mourn their losses and confront their helplessness when what the heart feels cannot be denied.

Much of the initial, muted critical response to “West Side Story” was based on the fact that it defied accepted musical theater standards. There’s no big, closing number. In its place is a body being carried off the stage and a distraught Maria standing alone, center stage, a shawl pulled up over her head. It’s been written that the opening night audience on Broadway simply didn’t know what to do when the lights went down – there was stunned silence. Such was not the case in New Canaan. The audience knew exactly what to do – get to its feet and applaud for a production that is just about near-perfect, thanks to a stellar cast and some very wise and deft direction and choreography.

If you see only one production this summer, make it STONC’s “West Side Story.” You won’t be disappointed.

For tickets or more information call 203-966-4634 or go to www.stonc.org


All That Jazz in Ivoryton

Chicago -- Ivoryton Playhouse -- Thru July 31

Stacey Harris. Photo by Anne Hudson


Seems to be something recently in the Connecticut water that, after several gulps, brings on a slight euphoria, a “Hey, we can do that” feeling that has led Playhouse on Park in West Hartford to stage A Chorus Line (running until July 31), Summer Theatre of New Canaan to board West Side Story (just opened – more about it in a separate review) and the folks at the Ivoryton Playhouse to take on Chicago. All three shows are what you might call “Big” musicals that thrived on Broadway stages. The task for these Connecticut theaters has been to downscale (given space and budgetary considerations) while still delivering what people expect. Playhouse on Park was, with some minor quibbles, successful, and so is Ivoryton. As directed and choreographed by Todd L. Underwood, Chicago is often sassy and sleek and offers some fine performances by actors in roles that have become musical theater icons.

Those who are only familiar with the movie version of the show, which was released in 2002, may find the staged version a bit skimpy with regards to the book, written by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse and based on a play by Maurine Dallas Watkins. The film, as films are wont to do, opened up the story and allowed for greater character definition and interaction. The biggest problem with the show’s book is that one of the major plot lines is that accused murderess Roxie Hart (Lyn Phillistine) must face trial, which happens late in the second act, and it’s a downer, for the show has been sailing along quite nicely until this drag anchor is thrown out. Fortunately, it’s followed by a spot-on finale that unites the two leads in a great song and dance number.

The basic premise of the show is that murder pays, at least in 1920s Chicago. The aforementioned Roxie kills her lover and ends up in the Cook County Jail awaiting trial. There she meets the nightclub singer, Velma Kelly (Stacey Harris), also awaiting trial for allegedly knocking off her husband and her sister. These two, along with five other women, are under the watchful eye of Matron “Mama” Morton (Shenique Denise Trotman), who believes that one hand washes the other, often with cash. Velma is being represented by the shyster lawyer Billy Flynn (Christopher Sutton), who transfers his loyalties to Roxie as her star rises while he squeezes money from Roxie’s husband, Amos (Ian Greer Shain), a man of “transparent” qualities.

The show has some fine moments, including the opening number, “And All That Jazz,” in which Harris shows that she has the Velma character well in hand. During the number, Roxie commits her act of murder, and it’s done using one of two undecorated metal scaffolds that set designer Martin Scott Marchitto has inexplicably incorporated into the somewhat sedate (given we’re talking about the Jazz Era) scenic design. The two metal towers stand stage left and right and are visual sore thumbs – they’re also too tall: in the courtroom scene the judge presides from atop the scaffold stage right. He’s basically lost (perhaps because he’s somewhat poorly lit).

The cast, under Underwood’s guidance, nails most of the important scenes: “Cell Block Tango,” and the wonderful “We Both Reach for the Gun.” There are also classy renditions of “Me and My Baby” and “When Velma Takes the Stand.” There are, however, some disappointments. Shain’s “Mr. Cellophane” never truly evokes its vaudeville heritage (and what’s with the quasi-magic act at the end of the number?), and Trotman, in “When You’re Good to Mama,” “Mama” Morton’s signature song, seems a bit retrained, losing the opportunity to milk the numerous double-entendres for all they are worth. And then there’s the aforementioned trial scene during which the Mary Sunshine (Z. Spiegel) reveal moment is all but lost.

All in all, Ivoryton’s “Chicago” is an enjoyable production that could have been just a bit more…well… “jazzier.”

Chicago” runs through July 24. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.