Sunday, October 9, 2016

Alter Egos Meet and Mingle

Meteor Shower -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru Oct. 23

Arden Myrin and Patrick Breen. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Deep inside, does the lamb shelter a tiger, does the hummingbird repress an eagle? What might happen if, one day, the lamb and the hummingbird were confronted by their inner tiger and eagle, forced to deal with their alter egos? Such is the premise of Steve Martin’s new comedy, Meteor Shower, which is having its world premiere at Long Wharf Theatre under the direction of the theater’s artistic director Gordon Edelstein. This light comedy, heavy on word play and sexual innuendo, is a diverting parlor game that works its premise for all it’s worth, generating a lot of laughs but somehow leaving one wanting just a bit more, a final moment, perhaps, that comments on the human condition as the century turned rather than relying on a sight gag.

As the lights go up we are introduced to a couple that has “worked out” their marriage by learning to express their feelings and thanking each other for doing so in a hand-holding ritual that is scripted by all of the “How to Save Your Marriage” manuals. There’s Corky (the delightful Arden Myrin), whose head occasionally “explodes,” but otherwise sincerely…oh so sincerely…appreciates her husband’s willingness to express his feelings and admit, contritely, when he has said something that might shatter her tender ego. Then there’s Norm (Patrick Breen), who is, well, “normal,” a true marital mensch who has learned to confess his sins instantaneously. They live in a neat, stylishly appointed home in Ojai, California, compliments of scenic designer Michael Yeargan, that will revolve to allow the couple and their alter egos to alternately spar in the living room and stand out on the patio to observe a meteor shower, a cascade of flaming interstellar visitors that will disrupt Corky and Norm’s “happy” home.

The doorbell rings, and the contented couple welcome Gerald (Josh Stamberg) and Laura (Sophina Brown) into their home – of course, Gerald and Laura have always been lurking in the home, for they are the tiger and the eagle that Norm and Corky have repressed, but now here they are, in the flesh, the exact opposites of the happy couple. Whatever Norm has chosen to bury deep in his psyche Gerald wears as a badge of honor; whatever Corky has hidden from herself Laura flaunts. The dichotomy is enhanced by Jess Goldstein’s costumes: Norm is dressed in what might be called country casual and Corky has apparently taken her couture clues from The Donna Reed Show. Gerald is dressed all in black, all muscle and motor-cycle toughness, and Laura is the ultimate femme fatale, wearing a red dress that makes love to her body. As an aside, it’s seldom that a costume change (perhaps “enhancement” might be the better word) elicits one of the biggest laughs in a show, but Norm’s entrance in the second act required the entire cast to hold on line delivery until the audience members ceased their chuckles and guffaws. Remembering that entrance now, a day later, still engenders laughter.  

 So, the confrontation, which is the sum and substance of the play. Gerald and Laura flaunt their carnal desires in language that Norm and Corky would not think of using. While Norm and Corky speak to each other with controlled politeness, Gerald and Laura tell each other to…well…fuck off! The tame couple is nonplussed by the heat, passion and vulgarity of the man and woman they have invited into their home but, then there’s the meteor shower, which will allow the gods to intervene. A meteor – okay, well a meteorite – lands on the patio and in the resultant smoke and fire eyes are opened and personas are shed, leading to a delightful second act in which the tables are turned and the lamb accepts his inner tiger and the hummingbird embraces the eagle lurking within.

All four actors work wonderfully to bring this transformation to life, chief among them Myrin, whose hummingbird-to-eagle conversion is a joy to watch, especially once her character realizes that the meteorite has opened up a new world for her. Equally engaging is Breen’s seduction of his alter ego as he unmans the man’s man.

Playing characters that are dominant and dominating in the first act, Stamberg and Brown deftly pull in their horns in the second act as Gerald and Laura become somewhat nonplussed by what the meteor shower has wrought. Oddly enough, although set in 1993, there is a strong element of 30s madcap comedy in Meteor Shower -- the classic battle of the sexes complete with zingers and double entendres, albeit the battle is an internal one as repressed psyches come to the fore.

If one were to chart the transformation that occurs during the play, there might be some quibbles with regards to logic, but Edelstein has wisely opted for a fast-paced delivery that does not allow for reflection – you just go with the flow, sit back and enjoy.

Meteor Shower runs through Oct. 23. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Rocky Road to Oz

Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz -- Goodspeed Musicals -- Thru Nov. 27

Ruby Rakos as Judy Garland. All photos by Diane Sobolewski

One can become a bit conflicted watching Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz, a new musical that recently opened at Goodspeed Musicals. This amalgam of songs from the 30’s, many made famous by Judy Garland, interspersed with original music by David Libby and Tina Marie Casamento Libby (who also “conceived” the show), with a book by Marc Acito, is often tremendously engaging and, at other times, just a bit of a snore.

There are echoes here of other “stage-struck” musicals and films, chief among them “Gypsy, with just a touch of “Little Voice,” for Chasing Rainbows tells the story of Francis Gumm, a little girl with a big voice who would become Judy Garland, a story that picks up when she is little more than a toddler (the “Baby” in the family), then fast-forwards to her at 13 years old and ends with her landing the lead role in MGM’s The Wizard of Oz. There’s a stage mother (though not exactly the Mama Rose dragon), and a doting father who fills young Francis’s days with songs and dreams of glory. And then there’s Francis herself, a conflicted teenager who has some self-confidence issues (many of them dealing with her physical appearance – Louis B. Mayer will refer to her as “the fat one”), yet feels she needs to carry the needs of her entire family on her shoulders.

Thus, we have the evolving story of the Gumm family, and then we have “Judy” evolving. The family story line is, though based on fact, the stuff of soap operas, with a wandering wife and a husband who is a closeted homosexual, and the period songs that Libby has selected to accompany this dramatization aren’t, with some exceptions, exactly toe-tappers. Thankfully, such is not the case with the “Judy” evolution, for here the audience is treated to “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart,” a riotous rendition of “All Ma’s Children,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, “Swing, Mr. Mendelssohn,” “You Made Me Love You” and, of course, “Over the Rainbow.”

The “Gumm” story provides the frame – and justification – for the “Judy” story and, of course, it’s Judy the audience has come to see, and the audience won’t be disappointed, for Ruby Rakos, who plays the more mature Judy (starting at 13 years old) does a marvelous job in capturing the “star quality” the propelled Garland to show business fame. Rakos bears a more than passing resemblance to Garland, and her voice, well, it’s “big,” capable of knocking out the hottest swing number, but also subtle enough to capture the essence of the more intimate ballads. Yet Garland was beset throughout her career (which was altogether too brief – she died at age 47) by a haunting insecurity, and this Rakos is also able to portray with an understanding tenderness that, for those who watched Garland go through her many transitions (and battle with, among other things, weight – do you remember her in Judgment at Nuremberg?) certainly evokes some bittersweet memories.
Michael Wartella and Ruby Rakos

As is to be expected from Goodspeed, the supporting cast is excellent, chief among them Michael Wartella, who transforms the wise-cracking Joe Yule into the irrepressible Mickey Rooney, and in the process dances up a storm. Then there’s Sally Wilfert as Judy’s mother, Ethel Gumm, and Kevin Earley as her conflicted father Frank. Yes, they both play second fiddle to Rakos’s Judy (as was true in real life), and are deeply involved in the soap opera goings-on, but they both manage to create believable characters, with Earley most effective as he attempts to both shield and yet prepare his youngest daughter for stardom, and his “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” is haunting on multiple levels.
Karen Mason and Michael McCormick

Kudos also to Michael McCormick as the studio boss L. B. Mayer (just the right amount of bullying bluster) and the lithe Karen Mason as Mayer’s secretary, Kay Koverman and the acting teacher, Ma Lawlor. She’s an actor who proves that you can take supporting roles and turn them into audience-pleasing star turns. Also worthy of mention are Andrea Laxton and Lucy Horton, who play Judy’s older sisters, and, along with Wilfert and Earley, end the first act with an engaging “Everybody Sing.” Finally, there’s little Ella Briggs, who plays the very young Frances. She’s a pro when it comes to stealing scenes (and belting out songs), which reinforces W. C. Fields’ dictum: "Never work with children or animals."
Ella Briggs and Kevin Earley

Though Chasing Rainbows’ book is a bit scatter-shot, there’s no denying that when “Judy” is on stage the audience is riveted. One might have asked for a bit more spectacle and “screen magic” in the closing number (video projections now being commonplace in productions – look what Hartford Stage did last year with Anastasia), there’s no denying that the magic that was Judy Garland still captivates, and it’s to Rakos’ credit that the magic lives on.

Chasing Rainbows runs through Nov. 27. For tickets or more information call 860.873.8668 or visit: