Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Music of the Night

The Phantom of the Opera -- Palace Theater -- Thru November 26



A thought arose as I was driving up to Waterbury to attend a performance of The Phantom of the Opera at the Palace Theater. To wit: how do you review a show that has been running for almost 30 years? What can you possibly say that hasn’t been said before? Probably nothing. Then there was the fact that this was a road show production – surely corners had been cut, if only because of the needs and necessities of traveling from venue to venue. As I picked up my tickets another doubt arose: I was informed that, due to illness, the actress playing Christine Daae, Eva Tavares, had been replaced. Oh, well…it was Friday and I had nothing better to do. So, with a somewhat jaded attitude I took my seat…and became entranced minutes into the performance. Quite simply, this is a production you do not want to miss. It confirms, in spades, why this musical, ably directed by Laurence Connor, continues to entrance and, at moments, enthrall.
Major doubt: it’s a road show so you’ll see a discount version of the show. Wrong. There’s all the flash, bang and spectacle of the Broadway production, plus some, and given the marvelous acoustics of the venue, no matter where you sit you will be enveloped by the music. Major kudos to Paul Brown for the magnificent set design which, at one moment evokes a painting by Degas and at another, aided by the spot-on lighting by Paaule Constable, creates an eerie, threatening mood reminiscent of Murnau’s film Nosferatu – the first descent into the Phantom’s subterranean lair is visually stunning.



Second doubt: the lead has been replaced, so there will be a second-rate, tentative performance. Silly boy. Kaitlyn Davis as Christine is everything you could ask for. Blessed with a silver-toned voice and impressive emotive skills, she makes what could be a cardboard character into a flesh-and-blood woman fighting for her soul. Equally impressive are Derrick Davis as the tortured Phantom and Jordan Craig as Christine’s love interest, Raoul. In fact, the entire cast is first-rate – no one phones in a performance.

It’s probably almost impossible not to be familiar with many of the songs in the show, even if you’ve never seen a production. This might lead to a certain “tuning in” response – the song is being played on the radio or is a YouTube download you listen to while making a grilled-cheese sandwich. Background noise. Well, as familiar as I am with the score it seemed fresh and new…and vibrant…and the staging of the major set-pieces was more than could be asked for. After intermission, I eagerly awaited the second act’s opening number, “Masquerade,” and my eagerness was amply rewarded, thanks to the enthusiasm and artistry of the cast and Scott Ambler’s choreography. It was, quite simply, a wonderful theatrical moment.

As can probably be deduced, I had no great expectations for the evening. After a wearisome week I was not inclined even to be in the theater. This production – as all great productions should – made me forget my toils and troubles. Outside, after the final curtain, my play-going buddy said: “I could have stayed and watched it for another hour.” I agreed. So, if you are looking for something to do over this extended holiday weekend, if you have children or grandchildren who have never had the opportunity to be enraptured by live theater, consider wending your way to the marvelous Palace Theater for an evening that you will talk about for years to come. Come be embraced by the music of the night.
The Phantom of the Opera runs through November 26. For tickets or more information call 203-346-2000 or go to www.palacetheaterct.org 

Monday, November 13, 2017

Ah, the heartbreak!

The Bridges of Madison Country -- MTC Mainstage -- Through Nov. 19


“Weepies”
The term is used to categorize primarily films that deal with women who, in one way or another, give up what they most love, be it a man, a child, or the possibility of love itself. Perhaps the most successful “weepie” of late has been The Bridges of Madison County, the novel by Robert James Waller that was turned into a film starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. The book was a phenomenal success, the movie a blockbuster…and the 2014 musical? Well, it won some Tony and Drama Desk awards but it ran for only three months on Broadway. Now, under the direction of Kevin Connors, it’s at Music Theatre of Connecticut, and the musical’s flaws and strengths are there for all to see.
For those who adamantly refused to be moved to weep (i.e., those who did not read the book or see the film), the basic premise is that Francesca (Juliet Lambert Pratt) was a young girl living in Naples during World War II. She marries an American soldier, Bud (Greg Roderick), and after the war is transported to Iowa, where she proceeds to have two children, Carolyn (Megan O’Callaghan) and Michael (Matt Grasso). Life is pleasant if a bit banal (it’s Iowa after all), until Bud, Carolyn and Michael go off to a state fair and who should show up in Francesca’s driveway but Robert (Sean Hayden), a world-traveling photographer for National Geographic on assignment to photograph the covered bridges in the county. He asks for directions. She falls in love (again, it’s Iowa – corn and cows). He responds in kind. So, what will happen? Will Francesca leave her family (and the corn and the cows) to live a peripatetic, possibly romantic life with Robert or stay put? It’s a “weepie,” so you know what happens.
Okay, let’s deal with the flaws first. The musical’s book by Marsha Norman is padded; by that I mean that there are scenes inserted to justify the two-plus hours the show runs and to allow Jason Robert Brown (music and lyrics) to insert musical numbers that, as sweet as they often are, should be in another musical. There are also comic-relief set-pieces that are enjoyable – can’t not like the neighbors, Marge (Kirsti Carnahan) and Charlie (Frank Mastrone) as they argue about an imagined infidelity -- yet the moments are somewhat beside the point. And what is the point? Well, it’s Francesca and Robert’s relationship, and although there needs to be a certain amount of exposition to create an understanding of what is at stake, it often goes far beyond the necessary.
The strengths? Well, that’s easy. Chief among them is the mesmerizing performance by Pratt as Francesca. Talk about a woman torn! All you need do is watch her body language – it speaks more volumes than the Oxford English Dictionary offers -- and her delivery of her signature songs is impeccable. Playing against her, Hayden seems a bit less than charismatic in the first act, but shines as his character realizes that he must let the love of his life escape him, and his final soliloquy, “It All Fades Away,” wrenches the heart.
The rest of the cast does some fine work, some in multiple roles, but there’s a sense that they are not so much in supporting roles as peripheral to what everyone has come to see, which is the Francesca-Robert story. There’s also the somewhat distracting placement of the four-piece orchestra, which is essentially center-stage. As designed by Jordan Janota, the set seems to push much of the action to extreme stage-left or stage-right, with the visual focus on the musicians. Given the constraints of the MTC stage there perhaps was no other choice, but there are certain pivotal scenes – chief among them Francesca and Robert waking after their first night together – that occur extreme stage-left when they should be occurring center-stage. Often attention is as much on the musicians watching the actors interact as it is on the actors themselves -- a somewhat strange theatrical experience.
By and large, Bridges works and is engaging because of Pratt’s performance, which is well worth the price of admission. Given the reaction of the largely female audience present at the matinee performance I attended, the basic message of the musical was delivered loud and clear. In the parking lot after the performance, one woman turned to the others in her group and said, “And now we go home to Bud.” They all laughed.
The Bridges of Madison County runs through November 19. For tickets or more information call 203-454-3883 or go to www.musictheatreofct.com.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

A Tender Heart in the Belly of the Beast

The Diary of Anne Frank -- Playhouse on Park -- Through November 19

Isabelle Barbier as Anne Frank. Photo by Curt Henderson

You know the story. A young girl and her family, along with several acquaintances, hide from the Nazis in an attic in Amsterdam during World War II. The young girl keeps a diary. Those hiding are betrayed near the end of the war, arrested and shipped off to various concentration camps. The young girl will die four days before her camp is liberated. So, if you know the story, why bother going to Playhouse on Park to see The Diary of Anne Frank? Well, because the production is seamless, the cast is outstanding, the direction is perceptive and deft…and, well, the evening is riveting.

Given the dimensions of the Playhouse’s theater, the venue is tailor-made to present this story of human beings forced to live in a confined space, fearful of making too much noise lest they be discovered. Scenic designer David Lewis has made good use of every available inch of space, which means that the audience lives with the family throughout the evening, an impression augmented by director Ezra Barnes’ decision to hold most of the cast on stage during intermission, their characters going about their constrained lives as the audience members are free to go where they please. The effect is subtle yet telling – you come back into the house to find your seat and your first thought is: “They’re still here.” And that’s the point.

For the curtain call, Barnes decided to present the cast as an ensemble, and I can’t argue with the decision (well, I can, but I won’t). However, there’s absolutely no doubt who anchors this production: it’s Isabelle Barbier, who plays Anne. With just a touch of well-placed make-up and her hair cropped, the actress bears a striking, almost haunting resemblance to the real Anne Frank, but that isn’t why you can’t take your eyes off her. Barbier manages, effortlessly (right!) to capture the essence of the Anne Frank we know from the Diary, which was used as the basis for the play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and sensitively adapted by Wendy Kesselman. Barbier’s Anne is a girl on the cusp of becoming a woman, a perspicacious, verbose (those confined with her suggest she’s a bit too verbose) sometimes awkward gamine who can barely control the life that surges through her. The fact that the audience knows what awaits Anne does not, oddly enough, detract from the enjoyment of watching Barbier create an Anne Frank who, despite everything, embraces life.

Obviously, the Anne Frank character does not stand alone, and Barbier is surrounded by actors who, in their own right, give marvelous performances. Frank van Putten plays Anne’s father, Otto, and Joni Weisfeld her mother, Edith. Strong performances both. You can’t help but be moved by van Putten’s delivery of the father’s low-key soliloquy at the end of the show or by Weisfeld’s climbing onto a table to attack Mr. Van Daan (Allen Lewis Rickman) for eating a piece of bread. Her delivery captures the tension and border-line desperation all the characters are dealing with.

Equally impressive are Lisa Bostnar as Mrs. Van Daan, clutching her fur coat as a symbol of all that has been lost, Ruthy Froch as Anne’s sister, Margot, and Alex Rafala as the Van Daan’s son, Peter, who supplies the love interest (fantasy?) for Anne. Rounding out this exquisitely professional cast are Elizabeth Simmons as Miep Gies, Michael Enright as Mr. Kraler and Jonathan Mesisca as Mr. Dussel. They all work together on stage under Barnes’ direction as if they have been together for years and, of greater importance, that they really are the characters they are playing, confined in a small space and under constant threat of exposure and eventual death.

I return to the idea that the audience knows what will happen to the characters they are watching, but that does not diminish the life-affirming two hours that the audience shares with them. The unique aspect of Anne’s diary and the play that has been adapted from it is that the people we see are not super-heroes and the battles they must fight are not epic but rather those we all, in one way or another (although often without such dire consequences) must fight.

“It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” -- Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl...and that’s what this production is: “good at heart.”

The Diary of Anne Frank runs through November 19. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to www.playhouseonpark.org

"Rags," but Few Riches

 
Rags -- Goodspeed Musicals -- Through December 10

Samantha Massell and Christian Michael Camporin.
Photo by Diane Sobolewski
 

How do you respond to a musical that obviously has its heart in the right place, has a great cast and impressive production values? Perhaps not with the shrug I offered it as the rest of the opening night audience leapt to its feet in approbation. I stood also, if only to flex my knees. Obviously, there was a disconnect here, but as I watched Rags unfold at Goodspeed Musicals, I often found myself thinking I was being preached to rather than being entertained, and that Joseph Stein (book – revised by David Thompson) and Stephen Schwartz (lyrics) were trying just a bit too hard to strum the heart strings (i.e., manipulate), and that Charles Strouse’s music just sounded all of a piece. So, sue me.

There’s no denying that the staging of Rags, under the capable direction of Rob Ruggiero, is up to Goodspeed’s high standards, yet the material simply does not allow the Goodspeed folks to strut their stuff. By that I mean there are no big production numbers that blow you away, no pop and sizzle, and you certainly don’t come away whistling any tunes.

For my money (of course, I didn’t pay for the tickets), what we have in Rags is essentially Ragtime meets Fiddler on the Roof, although it has neither the depth nor the breadth of either show. What it does have is a marvelous cast, headed by the impressive, multi-talented Samantha Massell as Rebecca, supported by a sprightly and engaging Sara Kapner as Bella. Their two characters meet on a boat that is headed for New York harbor, for they are refugees fleeing the numerous pogroms that occurred in middle Europe in the early twentieth century.

When they arrive at Ellis Island, Rebecca doesn’t have the $20 to pay for entry into the country, but Bella urges her father, Avram (Adam Heller) to vouch for Rebecca and her son, David (Christian Michael Camporin). They all soon find themselves ensconced in the cramped rooms of a Lower East Side tenement building, sheltered by Anna (Emily Zacharias) and Jack Blumberg (Mitch Greenberg), who do garment piecework for Max Bronfman (David Harris), purveyor of dresses to the up-town crowd, personified by the snobbish Quintet (J. D. Shaw, Ellie Fishman, Danny Lindgren, Sarah Solie and Jeff Williams).

The show deals with the inherent dislike and fear of immigrants that seems to be woven into the American character (excuse me, but is that Donald Trump as Lady Liberty defying immigrant entry, compliments of projections by Luke Cantarella?). There’s also the never-ending class warfare pitting workers against the owners of the means and methods of production, flavored by a lot of scenes that evoke Jewish culture, with a bit of Catholicism thrown in for good measure via the Italians and Irish who got “here” first…and, of course, Rebecca must fall in love with someone not of her faith: Sal (Sean MacLaughlin), a rabble-rousing Italian.

It’s engaging material, and I wanted to care for the characters, but I just couldn’t, mainly because they mostly seem to be stereotypes and also because throughout the evening I kept on hearing and seeing echoes of other musicals. I know, they say there’s nothing new under the sun, but Rags wears its derivations on its ragged sleeve and for me that was off-putting.

Billed as “An American Musical” (vs. what – a Serbro-Croation musical?), Rags does have its moments. The “Shabbos / Latin Mass” scene (Jewish and Catholic rites counterbalanced) is very effective, the “Children of the Wind” theme blended with Cantarella’s projections is, yes, haunting, and as reprised by Massell at the end of the show, certainly rates show-stopper status, and “Three Sunny Rooms,” featuring a dual love interest is sweet and nicely staged. So why am I kvetching? Perhaps because Rags isn’t Fiddler on the Roof or Ragtime. Most will say “That’s not fair!” and perhaps it isn’t, but the echoes compel comparison.

Rags runs through December 10. For tickets or more information call 860.873.8668 or visit: www.goodspeed.org.     

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Amor Vincit Omnia

Fireflies -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Through November 5

Judith Ivey and Jane Alexander. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Sometimes you’re in the mood for a steak dinner with all the fixings and other times you crave a soufflé. If you’re in the mood for the latter, then Fireflies, a play by Matthew Barber, based on Annette Sanford’s novel Eleanor and Abel, receiving its world premiere at Long Wharf Theatre, will satisfy. This lightweight exercise in boy meets girl (both of a certain age), billed as a “Romance,” has all the dramatic impact of, well, a firefly landing on a leaf, but that’s not to say the experience is not eminently enjoyable thanks to a stellar cast. The fact that you know what will happen right from the set-up does not detract from the delight of watching seasoned pros doing their thing under the direction of Gordon Edelstein, and doing it with a lot of style, flair and grace.

We’re in southern Texas – Jackson County to be exact – in the kitchen, compliments of set designer Alexander Dodge, of Eleanor Bannister (Jane Alexander), a retired school teacher set in her ways, a classic old maid (if the term is still politically correct – if not, mea culpa!) who is also the owner of what is called the ‘honeymoon cottage,” an adjacent dwelling she has allowed to deteriorate. Living across the street from her, and keeping close tabs on her, is Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey), a lady prone to the “I don’t want to say anything, but…” mode of conversation. During one of her frequent visits, Grace informs Eleanor that there has been a man “lurking” around town asking about properties, especially those owned by women! This man turns out to be Abel Brown (Denis Arndt), who soon comes calling. Thus, the stage is set for Abel and Eleanor’s relationship to develop, albeit with the requisite bumps in the road (or fireflies in the ointment).

Will Eleanor and Abel finally find true love? Well, what do you think? The play’s resolution is never in doubt, but as some sage (Harpo Marx?) once said, it’s not the destination, it’s the journey that is to be enjoyed, and enjoyable it is. Alexander, Ivey and Arndt, with an assist from Christopher Michael McFarland as Eugene, a sheriff’s officer who once suffered under Eleanor’s tutelage, all give seamless performances, delivering their lines with an admirable pacing and rhythm and creating characters that, well, you simply enjoy being with for the two acts of the play, easily masking the fact that there are some plot points left unresolved.

Barber has given his characters some absolutely wonderful dialogue, often creating little set-pieces that reveal character as they also entertain. Alexander, using body language to great effect, and Ivey are yin and yang, the former clutching her life to her bosom to protect her privacy and the latter genetically inclined to intrude. Their friendship, developed over the years, is a graceful, grudging give-and-take. Their scenes together, as Grace banters and gossips and Eleanor reacts, are little treasures. Obviously, the appearance of Abel disrupts this comfortable, gently antagonistic relationship.

Arndt, playing the destabilizing force, gives a solid performance as a man with a somewhat troubled past who woos the reluctant Eleanor with patience and a lot of handyman expertise. He often lifts his baseball cap and scratches his head as he tries to figure out how best to deal with Eleanor’s prickly-pear personality. McFarland, on stage at the start of the second act, nicely portrays a grown man still under the sway of his former teacher’s stern persona, and his hesitant rendering of the opening lines of Coleridge’s “The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan” is his character’s touching acknowledgement that she has had a lasting effect on him (Eleanor’s response to the recitation is just one of the many one-liners Barber has given his characters that elicit laughter).

There’s a certain sitcom quality to the play – think Golden Girls – so nothing that occurs during the play’s two hours needs to be taken seriously, but that doesn’t mean the evening can’t be enjoyed for what it is, and for the skill the cast brings to making their characters welcome into our lives. It’s a gentle slice-of-life piece that generates a lot of laughter. There are no earth-shattering moments, no great truths to be told, save that on a daily basis little affairs of the heart are being enacted, that for every Romeo and Juliet or Tristan and Isolde there are countless Eleanors and Abels who somehow find their way into each other’s arms.

Fireflies runs through November 5. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

His Own Enemy

An Enemy of the People -- Yale Repertory Theatre -- Thru Oct. 28


Enrico Colantoni and Reg Rogers

So, the creative team at Yale Repertory Theatre is weighing whether to board a play in which you have a man, an upright soul, who discovers deception and duplicity in a civic project that will line the pockets of those in power and fill the tills of local businesses but possibly cause illness and suffering. He’s determined to be a whistle-blower but the forces of cupidity and ignorance conjoin and he is labeled an enemy of the status quo and all but hounded out of town. Should Yale Rep stage the play? It’s a no-brainer, for the material, as evidenced by the response of the opening night audience to Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, is tailor-made for those uncomfortable with the current political situation in the United States.

Give credit to director James Bundy, the Rep’s artistic director, for not allowing the staging of the play to become a mere polemic. What’s currently on stage at Yale’s University Theatre is a nicely nuanced study of the price one pays for going against the tide, defying the crowd, trying to maintain the moral high ground and realizing, perhaps too late, that it is often a slippery slope.

Much of the credit for the success of this production has to go to Reg Rogers, who portrays Dr. Thomas Stockman, the erstwhile whistle-blower. There’s a temptation when taking on this role to play it for all of the “holier-than-thou” the actor can get out of it, but Rogers gives us a hero with, if not feet of clay at least a bit of dust on his shoes. His take on the character is sophomoric, and by that I mean he plays Stockman as a wise fool, committed to seeing justice done but somewhat blind to the inevitable consequences. Thus, Stockman is a flesh-and-blood character, a principled man with flaws. It’s a thoroughly engaging performance, no more so than when, near the end of the second act, he confronts Hovstad (Bobby Roman), the editor of a local newspaper, and conveys via laughter the weakness of those who trim  their sails based on the direction the wind of public sentiment is blowing.

Impressive performances abound in this production. Joey Parsons, as the doctor’s wife, Catherine, skillfully let’s the audience see the price Stockman’s family will pay for his rectitude, and in a lovely moment of mime conveys her frustration with her husband for choosing to tilt at windmills. Equally engaging is Enrico Colantoni as the doctor’s brother, Peter, who is also the mayor of the small Norwegian town where the action is set. Venal and manipulative, Colantoni’s character is a wonderful foil to his brother’s perhaps slightly misguided nobility. And then there’s Jarlath Conroy as Morton Kill, Catherine’s adoptive father, who proves that there’s no such thing as a small role.

A note about the staging. There seems to be a conscious effort to emphasize that, well, “Hey, folks, we’re putting on a play.” The actors appear on stage before the opening curtain and mingle with the audience, and Emona Stoykova’s impressive set design leaves the wings entirely open so the audience can see the actors waiting to make their entrances and the stage hands doing their thing. I’m not exactly sure what the creative team’s motivation or intent was or how this toying with suspension of disbelief adds to the play – in fact, the open wings are often a bit distracting, pulling attention away from what is happening on stage. Then again, it’s Yale Rep, so you often have to expect the unexpected and off-beat, along with the head-scratching.

Distractions aside, this production of Ibsen’s take on bureaucracy, greed and thwarted idealism moves swiftly through it’s two acts. It obviously speaks to the Rep’s primary audience (there was applause when some lines were delivered) but doesn’t pander to liberal sensibilities. Yes, Dr. Stockman is fighting the good fight, but he does so with blinders on, and though there’s a heartwarming gathering of the Stockman family at the final curtain you get the feeling that there will be additional prices to be paid for defying the status quo.

An Enemy of the People runs through October 28. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to www.yalerep.org  

Monday, October 2, 2017

Publish or Passion

Sex With Strangers -- Westport Country Playhouse -- Thru Oct. 14

Jessica Love and Chris Ghaffari. Photo by Carol Rosegg

In 1956, Frankie Lyman & the Teenagers hit the Billboard charts with “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” Laura Eason presents the same question in Sex With Strangers, albeit she’s substituting writers for fools (or perhaps she isn’t). This two-hander that recently opened at the Westport Country Playhouse basically throws together two people of antithetical personalities and then observes what happens (well, you know what’s going to happen – it’s the bread and butter of many a romantic comedy). Toss in a lot of info about the publishing world and our modern, wired (perhaps over-wired and thus alienated) society, plus a critique of the Millennial dating scene, shake and bake, and what you still have is the story of a relationship, romantic and otherwise, which means if you are to be drawn in you have to care about this couple, care what happens to them and, by and large, you do.

Deftly directed by Katherine M. Carter, who has a superb eye for blocking that emphasizes and enhances what’s going on in the script, the success of Sex With Strangers rises or falls on its cast, for you’re going to spend close to two hours with the characters they bring to life, so there better be more than a bit of chemistry – and there is.

The first act finds Olivia (a superb Jessica Love) ensconced in a bed and breakfast in upstate Michigan in the midst of a snowstorm. She’s basically got the place to herself until headlights flash, a car grinds to a halt and Ethan (Chris Ghaffari – recently seen as Romeo in Hartford Stage’s Romeo and Juliet) bursts on the scene. She’s a teacher who’s come to this hideaway to work on her novel; he’s – well, a snowbound B & B is not exactly his scene, but we learn that he’s traveled north to meet her. Their initial confrontation has all the elements of a wolf stumbling upon a rabbit (kudos to Love for body language that conveys, more than the dialogue, exactly how uncomfortable her character is with Ethan’s encroachment), but given that there’s a blizzard they accept they are stuck with each other and must interact.

Ethan knows (through a mutual acquaintance) that Olivia is a writer; Olivia knows nothing about this brash young man but soon comes to learn that, under his nom de blog of Ethan Strange, he is the author of two best-sellers, the first being Sex With Strangers, an outgrowth of his blog that chronicles his multiple sexual exploits and gleeful denigration of women. She is not thrilled; he could care less.

What transpires is the expected emotional pas de deux plus a witty weighing of the values of the old versus new publishing world, with Ethan slowly enticing Olivia into considering a venture onto the Internet with her work. What also transpires, and here some audience members may have to suspend their disbelief a bit, is that Olivia and Ethan take more advantage of the bed than any possibility of breakfast. Given the “Ethan Strange” reputation, and his age, you might just wonder why Olivia so quickly falls into his arms. Yes, she’s had some wine, but…well, if you buy into this, then the rest of the play is engaging and, in the second act confrontation, even gripping.

There’s a certain echo of A Star is Born in the play, for Olivia’s rise will, to a certain extent, be contingent upon Ethan’s fall after he has taken her under his wing. There is also the intriguing question – left unanswered – of who has actually been using whom in this dance of authorial egos. What’s most intriguing about the play is the transformation (or the attempt at transformation) the two characters undergo as they interact with each other on two sets designed by Edward T. Morris that also go through a pronounced transformation.

Love deftly gives us an uptight Olivia, unwilling to roll the authorial dice and face criticism, who is transformed (accented by the costume given her by Caitlin Cisek in the final scene) into a mature, confident woman, albeit one who is unsure of the price she has paid for the transformation. Ghaffari’s Ethan, brash and confident at the start of the play, is on the cusp of change by its conclusion, though Cisek’s costuming for him suggests that the change may not be consummated. The actor does a nuanced job of portraying a man whose success has been contingent on the selling of his soul, a contract with the devil he tries to void.

As with all well-written plays, there’s a lot to mull over about Sex With Strangers once the curtain has fallen. Eason asks us to ponder the impact of the Internet on the lives of those who have known no other world and the attendant slow demise of privacy. What does it mean that we can learn “everything” about someone before we ever meet them and yet know really nothing about them? What consequences ensue when we all play roles on an electronic stage, roles that, unlike those of actors, we cannot walk away from?

Sex With Strangers runs through October 14. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

After the Quake

I Hate Musicals: The Musical -- Ivoryton Playhouse -- Thru October 15

Will Clark, Stephen Wallem, Amanda Huxtable. Photo by Anne Hudson

So you’re a joke-meister who wrote for some of the best comedy shows on television only to wash up on the shores of middle-age and find yourself no longer relevant – ergo: unemployed. You go East to write serious drama for the theater, but you’re no O’Neill or Miller, so back you go to Hollywood, hat in hand, in a desperate attempt to pitch a sitcom based on the pope’s rapscallion brother (It’ll be a laugh-riot!).

In the midst of your pitch there’s an earthquake and a goodly portion of the building falls on you. What happens next? Well, what happens next is I Hate Musicals: The Musical, which is receiving its world premiere at the Ivoryton Playhouse. The show is an irreverent satire that takes on Hollywood executives, talent agents, inane TV shows and Broadway musicals while giving a few pokes in the eyes to such icons as Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary and Sigmund Freud.

Who would come up with such a premise? Well, the show is written by Mike Reiss, who has been writing for The Simpsons for almost three decades, and if you know anything about this ground-breaking animated show, you know that nothing is sacred. Thus, in I Hate Musicals, the satire is broad, the humor often hits below the belt and the show’s musicality is essentially derivative – original music is credited to Walter Murphy but there aren’t many tunes that won’t elicit a: “Wait a minute, isn’t that melody from…?”

Under the direction of James Valletti, the six actors, almost all of whom play multiple roles, cavort and camp it up, much to the delight of the opening night audience, many of whom might associate the goings on with Marx Brothers’ films as much as with the antics of Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa. As for the plot, well, after the seismic disruption there isn’t much that is logically connected, for what we are seeing is a coma-induced phantasmagoria of characters that rise and fall (often to taunt, tease and/or terrorize) in the mind of the comedy writer. As Dorothy, in the Wizard of Oz, entered a world of magical make-believe after the tornado, so Alvin (Stephen Wallem) enters the world of his somewhat warped mind after the earthquake, complete with a pair of ruby slippers and a dead witch, or is that bitch?

There are some slow moments in this one-act romp when Reiss gets “serious,” or beats the dead horse about how Hollywood turns brilliant writing into crap, but for most of the evening it’s just plain silliness. To get a feel for where Alvin’s mind wanders while in coma-mode we have the multi-talented Amanda Huxtable first playing a bitchy TV executive wearing a nifty pair of red shoes (you just know she’s doomed). After the fall of the building, she reappears as Brie, Alvin’s ex-wife, a somewhat ditzy blonde a la Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls and then, near the end of the show, when Alvin is being judged as to whether he’s worthy of entering heaven (consumption of a Big Mac hamburger is key to the decision – don’t ask), she reappears as the Blessed Virgin Mary, which she plays with a Bronx accent, and then, to top it off, she morphs into Alvin’s mother (Freudian symbolism anyone?).

The rest of the cast, accompanied by Michael Morris working the electronic keyboard, is equally appealing and eagerly willing to sell the lunacy Reiss has given them to work with. Sam Given first appears as a security guard but soon shows his true talent as Jerome, who is so GAY (here Reiss, in typical Simpsons fashion, takes a stereotype and blows it up in your face), and then reappears as a hyperactive Sigmund Freud. Not to be outdone, Ryan Knowles enters as Alvin’s purported father, a pompous English Lit professor who scorns his son’s profession, only to work a quick costume change (of which there are many) and become Natasmi (Who? Not sure? Well, spell it backwards and all will become clear). Will Clark plays Alvin’s actual dad, a real mensch, as well as Jesus (also a real mensch) – it’s with these two characters that Reiss works in some Borscht Belt Jewish jokes. Finally, there’s the ever-reliable R. Bruce Connelly who plays Lee, Alvin’s agent who is currently in Florida with his grandchildren (He’d rather be in LA in an earthquake) but maintains contact with Alvin via phone (“So, how did the meeting go?”) and is finally asked to negotiate with the BVM over Alvin’s eternal destination.

Does most of the evening make any sense? Well, no and yes. If you’re looking for standard dramatic development you’ll be sorely disappointed, but that’s not really the point, because Alvin’s delirium is the frame that allows all of these somewhat bizarre characters to enter and do their “thing.” It’s Saturday Night Live on steroids, a theatrical tradition that harkens back to Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin’. You get the set-up, then the earthquake, and then comedic chaos. It has the feel of something Beckett might have written if he had had a sense of humor.

I Hate Musicals: The Musical runs through October 15. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

On the "Avenue"

Avenue Q -- Playhouse on Park -- Thru October 8

E J Zimmerman, James Fairchild, Weston Chandler Long,
Colleen Welsh, Peej Mele, Ashley Brooke and
Abena Mensah-Bonsu. All Photos by Curt Henderson

Some people don’t like the musical Avenue Q. These are probably the same people who don’t like hot fudge sundaes, puppies and beach volleyball. Okay, that may be a little unfair (they probably abide puppies), but what’s not to like about a tongue-in-cheek musical with puppets that takes on racism, homelessness and homosexuality, amongst other topics, and keeps you smiling from start to finish? Done right, Avenue Q is a hoot, and it is being done very right up at Playhouse on Park under the capable direction (and choreography) of Kyle Brand.

So, what is this Tony-winning musical that had its gestation (2002) at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, all about? Well, it takes the PBS children’s show, Sesame Street, and turns it on its head – focusing on a group of primarily twenty-something losers and misfits who reside on an avenue of stifled or shattered dreams (apartments on Avenues A through P were too expensive). Written by Jeff Whitty, with music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (who came up with the concept), the two-act show’s major premise is that most of the characters are puppets manipulated by actors who mirror the puppets’ actions and emotions. It’s a delightful symbiotic relationship.

Ruling the run-down roost is Gary Coleman (Abena Mensah-Bonsu) – yes, the Gary Coleman best known for his role as Arnold Jackson in TV’s Diff'rent Strokes. Fallen on hard times, he is the superintendent of the apartment building where all of the other characters live. Seeking low-cost shelter, Princeton (Weston Chandler Long), a frustrated college grad with a “useless” degree in English, is soon introduced to the building’s other residents. There’s Kate Monster (Ashley Brooke), a kindergarten teacher who dreams of opening a school for little “monsters,” and the roommates Rod (also Long), an uptight banker, and Nicky (the versatile Peej Mele), a layabout. Then there’s Brian (James Fairchild), a stand-up comic with no sense of humor, and his Japanese fiancée, Christmas Eve (E J Zimmerman), a true tiger lady. Finally, there’s Trekkie Monster (Mele), a creature with an inordinate interest in Internet porn and the Bad Idea Bears (again Mele and Colleen Welsh).
 
Colleen Welsh, Weston Chandler Long (standing)
Ashley Brooke and Peej Mele
 

I can’t think of another musical that so brazenly takes the frustrations and despair of the downtrodden and turns it all into delightful comedy. The tone is set immediately as Princeton laments the uselessness of his degree (“What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?’), which segues into “It Sucks to  Be Me,” in which the characters argue about who has the worst life. The audience has to quickly buy into the puppets-as-people-and-people-as-puppets premise, but it’s not hard to do, for this skilled ensemble of actors ably crafts the illusion (or delusion) with insouciant style and elegant flair.

I’ve seen several productions of this musical and am familiar with all the musical  numbers, but the Playhouse’s production, with its fine cast, made the musical offerings seem fresh and new. Each number offers some standout performances. To single out a few, there’s “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” with Zimmerman nailing the faux-Japanese delivery of her lyrics (those of an extreme PC bent might squirm a bit). Zimmerman also soars with “The More You Ruv Someone” number – I’ve never seen it performed with such panache.

The multi-talented Long continuously delivers, no more so than, as Rod, he desperately tries to deny his homosexuality in “My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada.” It’s a wonderful moment, with Long whirling and leaping about the stage as he attempts to sell his friends on the existence of this fictitious friend named Alberta…from Vancouver, no less.

Citing the “The Internet is for Porn” number allows me to heap praise on two other actors: Mele and Brooke. Mele is able to embody the perverse weirdness of Trekkie Monster, the devious, manipulative nature of one of the Bad Idea Bears, and the needful nature of Nicky with wondrous ease. Then there’s Brooke, who effortlessly owns the stage whenever she is called upon to portray Kate Monster or the teacher’s alter-ego, Lucy T. Slut (often at the same time). It’s a treat to watch her “merge,” if you will, with the two puppet personas (personae??) – tentative and a bit shy when she’s Kate, slinky and seductive when she’s Lucy.

As an audience member, one often never really knows who is responsible for what in a production. So, who was responsible for training these actors in the manipulation of their puppets? Perhaps it was the director, or maybe it was a collective effort, but if you read carefully through the Production Staff listings you will come across the name of Susan Slotoroff, credited as the “Puppetry Coach.” Well, she should get star billing, for the result of her coaching is well nigh perfect. From opening scene to the closing number, the puppets are “real,” with the actors giving these furry creatures believable body language (just watch Kate Monster and Princeton go at it as they consummate their relationship, or Princeton [the puppet] flat on his back enduring deep despair). It’s an exercise in stage magic that makes Avenue Q somewhat unique.

Now in its ninth season, Playhouse on Park continues to offer productions that often delight and sometimes even surprise. With Avenue Q, which runs through October 8, the Playhouse shows that you don’t need a huge stage to deliver big entertainment. You just need to pick the right property, cast wisely and then allow all involved to do what they do best.

For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to www.playhouseonpark.org

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Appropriating the Past

Appropriate -- Westport Country Playhouse -- Through September 2

    Shawn Fagan, Diane Davis, Nick Selting, Betsy Aidem,
and David Aaron Baker. Photo by Carol Rosegg

There are some who say the most difficult thing about writing a play is knowing how to end it. In the case of Appropriate, which recently opened at the Westport Country Playhouse, the problems also encompass how to start the play. So what we have is some head scratching during the first moments of the play, followed by some truly engaging theater and some fine acting, until we get to the closing moments when, once again, the dandruff starts to fall as you scratch away and say, “Well, okay…so what?”

Deftly directed by David Kennedy (save for the opening and closing moments – and it’s up for grabs as to who is responsible for these moments), this excursion into family history written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is tinged with just a touch of gothic overtones and includes some skeletons in the closet (or photo album or graveyard – take your pick) as a somewhat dysfunctional family (is there any other kind?) gathers at the decrepit family mansion to prepare it to be sold and its contents auctioned off.

The pater familias has recently died, leaving the mansion, a decrepit hulk bulging with junk (the whole scene nicely created by scenic designer Andrew Boyce) weighed down by debt. The family gathers to deal with what has been left behind: embittered sister, Toni (a gripping Betsy Aidem), a brother, Bo (David Aaron Baker), a corporate executive worried about downsizing, and the black-sheep brother, Franz (aka Frank – Shawn Fagan). In tow are various children and significant others: there’s Toni’s recalcitrant son Rhys (Nick Selting), Bo’s wife, Rachel (Diane Davis) and their two children, Ainsley (Christian Michael Camporin) and Cassie (Allison Winn), and finally River (an engaging Anna Crivelli), Franz’s earth-mother girl friend.

Once the clan is gathered there is initial friction dealing with who actually gave up the most in caring for dear old Dad in his declining years, but the arguments soon escalate with the discovery of a photo album that apparently contains pictures of lynchings. Was Dad a racist? Rachel reveals a telephone conversation she overheard, with her father-in-law referring to her as the “Jew wife.” Was Dad an anti-Semite?

There’s more kindling thrown on the fire to bring the pot to a boil, mainly dealing with Franz’s addictions and child molestation (I told you the family was dysfunctional). Denials, accusations and recriminations tumble over each other in crisp, acerbic dialogue that Kennedy allows to be bitten into by the actors, giving the confrontations a realistic rhythm – after all, when you’re arguing do you really let the other person finish what they have to say before attacking?

A nice touch of irony is added by Jacobs-Jenkins when the bickering family learns that the lynching photographs may have significant historical (or collectors) value. In other words, they can make a lot of money off pictures of black men who have been lynched. This leads to a battle-royal (deftly set up by fight director Michael Rossmy) that is ended in a dramatic appearance that drew appreciative gasps from the opening night audience. Sometimes (cliché warning!), a picture is worth a thousand words (of dialogue), and in this case it might just have made a provocative ending to the play.

The major questions about Dad are left for the audience to decide, but there’s no doubt that this family has, by the final curtain, been deconstructed. There are moments over the course of the two-plus hours that are painful, others that are revelatory, and the actors allow their characters to dig, slice and dice each other with abandon.

So, the problems with the opening and closing moments? Well, there’s an operative audio metaphor that is established when the lights first go down: it’s the irritating rasping (desperate mating calls) of cicadas. We, the audience, hear them, and get the message, but the lights don’t go up. The cicadas continue to rasp and twitter – the volume rises and falls and then rises again, evoking some chuckles from the audience in the darkened theater. We will again hear the offending mating calls every time there’s a scene change (consider it a scene-in-one delivered by insects).

Okay, so a little too much chirping before the play gets started, but what’s wrong with the final moments? More cicadas going berserk? No. It’s now the moment for Boyce, as well as lighting designer Matthew Richards, sound designer Fitz Patton and props master Alison Mantilla to take center stage for a series of quick vignettes that depict the physical dissolution of the mansion (of the family??) The effects are impressive, but they seem extremely beside the point – it’s a series of, well, okay, here’s what we can do with the set – like that? (blackout) – this is also what we can do (blackout) – okay, we can also do this. Has the destruction been caused by ghosts or Mother Nature? Your guess is as good as mine.

In the final moments of dialogue the actors have deftly established disruption, dissolution and, in the end, despair. What follows visually is simply overkill.

Appropriate, though it runs a bit long, is often gripping, intense theater marred by production values that call too much attention to themselves. The show runs through September 2. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org

Saturday, August 12, 2017

A Little Feverish on Saturday Night

Saturday Night Fever -- Ivoryton Playhouse -- Through September 3

Michael Notardonato and Caroline Lellouche
All photos by Jonathan Steele

On paper, it would seem that turning the 1977 John Badham film Saturday Night Fever into a musical would be a no-brainer, given that the film is rife with disco numbers by the Bee Gees and a whole lot of dancing. Unfortunately, what can be done on film sometimes simply has problems translating well to the stage, and such is the case with the musical version of the film that recently opened at the Ivoryton Playhouse, a tuneful, often energetic piece of theater that, unfortunately, often seems to drag itself across the stage.

One of the basic problems is that while editing films you can effortlessly cut from one scene to another -- at one moment you’re on a bridge and the next you’re in a subway car, no problem -- such is not the case with live theater. Scene changes often take time, a lot of time when the scene requires a totally different “look” (hence the scene-in-one, where actors perform in front of the closed curtain while the set is being changed). This is one of the downfalls of this musical, for there are a plethora of scene changes, with some scenes, as my play-going partner commented, not lasting as long as it takes for the stagehands to re-set the stage (you might call them scene-lets). Thus, the emotional drive (and sometimes the coherence) of the musical is often stymied as the audience waits in the dark for the next scene to be established.

This stagger-step approach to staging is perhaps caused because the musical’s book has many fathers (or cooks, if you will): The film was adapted for the stage by Robert Stigwood collaborating with Bill Oakes, but the North American version is credited to Sean Cercone and David Abbinanti. Hence, this is a book created by committee, and we all know what committee’s create.

The basic set, designed by Martin Scott Marchitto, focuses on the disco that the lead, Tony Manero (Michael Notardonato) frequents on weekends. It’s realized fairly well, with balconies stage left and right and something of a catwalk upstage, behind which is a visual of the iconic Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. The balcony stage left also serves as Tony’s bedroom. All well and good, but then Marchitto has to provide a kitchen in the Maneros’ house, a paint store, a hospital room (probably the most unnecessary piece of staging), a bench in a park and, most ponderous of all, ascending cables that support the Verrazano bridge. I didn’t have a stopwatch, but the time required to set and re-set the stage probably ran close to 10 minutes in sum. That’s a lot of dead time.

When plays are made into films it requires a certain opening up (often to an extreme – think Phantom of the Opera), but when films are turned into theater pieces they need to be tightened, trusting that the audience will be able to fill in the blanks. Saturday Night Fever needs a whole heck of a lot of tightening.

That being the case, for those not familiar with the film, we have the aforementioned Tony who lives an aimless existence in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn. During the week he’s a drudge at a paint store and constantly being put down by his parents, but on weekends he’s king of the dance floor at 2001 Odyssey. He wants to break out but doesn’t know how. Then, a dance contest is to be held at Odyssy, with a $1,000 prize. Could this be his ticket? His erstwhile girlfriend, Annette (a lithe and vivacious Nora Fox) wishes to be his partner, but Tony catches sight of the alluring Stephanie (Caroline Lellouche), a Manhattan secretary who dreams of bigger things (read Working Girl). So Tony ditches Annette and pursues Stephanie, eventually winning the contest with her (followed by a noble action on Tony’s part that proves his heart is in the right place).

Nora Fox
 
Several sub-plots serve often to muddy the waters a bit (only because most of them are not fully realized). We have one of Tony’s friends, Booby C. (Pierre Marais), getting good-Catholic-girl Pauline (Sarah Mae Banning) preggers (he will pay for that mortal sin in true cinematic fashion); we have another friend, Gus (Colin Lee), attacked by a gang, for which Tony’s group takes misguided (perhaps) revenge; we have Tony’s older brother, Frank Jr. (Alec Bandzes), opting to leave the priesthood – it’s never exactly made clear why – perhaps just another crisis of conscience.

There’s not much Todd Underwood, director and choreographer, can do with this somewhat disjointed material but move it along as best he can, waiting patiently for the sets to be changed. However, such is not the case with the musical numbers which, fortunately, are numerous. There is, of course, a lot of disco dancing – flashy and dramatic, culminating in the dance contest -- but there are also some moving set pieces, chief among them when Fox, as Annette, renders the lovely “If I Can’t Have You,” when she, along with Lellouche and Notardonato, do an engaging fantasy dance sequence, and the moving “What Kind of Fool,” tenderly rendered by Lellouche.

At upwards of two-and-a-half hours (with one intermission), Saturday Night Fever might easily seem like it has dragged on into a bleary-eyed Sunday morning. There’s a sharp, crisp, engaging musical hiding in all of this material that just requires a scalpel and a bit of creative thinking to bring it to life.

Saturday Night Fever runs through September 3. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

A Bright Golden Haze at Goodspeed

Oklahoma! -- Goodspeed Musicals -- Extended Thru Sept. 27

Rhett Gutter and Samantha Bruce. All Photos by Diane Sobolewski

It’s March 31, 1943. The lights dim in the St. James Theatre, there’s a melodious overture, and then…a big production number to get the audience’s juices flowing? Nope. Instead, a lone cowboy appears on stage and sings about how lovely the morning is and how everything’s going his way. Over the course of the two-plus hours of the premiere of “Oklahoma!” American musical theater was changed forever. The musical, the first collaboration of Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics), cemented the dominance of the “book” musical as the predominant format for what followed, termed the “Golden Age” of American musicals.

Flash forward seven-plus decades and that same cowboy walks up one of the aisles at Goodspeed Opera House, once again proclaiming that it’s a beautiful morning. What follows, directed by Jenn Thompson, is a faithful, delightful recreation of the 1943 classic, providing ample evidence why the initial production was so ground-breaking.

Based on the play “Green Grow the Lilacs” by Lynn Riggs, a less than successful effort about settlers in the Indian (read Oklahoma) Territory circa 1906, the plot of “Oklahoma!” is simplicity itself. Cowboy Curly (a confident Rhett Gutter) is in love with farm-girl Laurey (an engaging Samantha Bruce), but she’s playing hard to get. Lurking on the farm run by Laurey’s Aunt Eller (Terry Burrell) is farmhand Jud Fry (a sufficiently menacing Matt Faucher), who covets Laurey when he’s not sifting through his “French” postcards.

There’s another romance going on, actually a love triangle of sorts, with Ado Annie (a pert and vivacious Gizel Jimenez) at the top and cowboy Will Parker (Jake Swain) and peddler Ali Hakim (a dead-on Matthew Curiano) vying for her affections. That, in essence, is about it, save for a bit of contention between ranchers and farmers. We’re not talking Ibsen of Chekhov here – it’s basic soap opera stuff dealing with the burning questions: Will Curly eventually win Laurey’s hand or will Jud have his evil way with her? Will Ado opt for Will or Ali?
 
Gizel Jimenez and Matthew Curiano
 
So, why was “Oklahoma!” so ground-breaking? Well, that goes back to the idea of the “book” musical, which basically refers to a musical in which almost all of the songs either comment on what has happened or move the plot forward rather than being musical interludes that often have nothing to do with the plot.

Rhett Gutter and Matt Faucher lamenting that "Pore Jud is Daid"

Take, for example, the scene between Curly and Jud late in the first act. Laurey, playing her coy hand a bit too far, has announced that she has agreed to go with Jud to the box social, which motivates Curly to confront Jud in the farmhand’s hovel. What follows is Curly’s witty put-down of Jud in the form of a dirge, “Pore Jud is Daid,” which envisions Jud hanging himself (Curly has conveniently strung up a noose) and the grief of the mourners, all of whom, so Curly suggests, never truly understood Jud. Curly’s effort is so effective that Jud joins Curly in lamenting his own passing. A song like this would never have appeared in the bright and breezy musical comedies of the 20s and 30s.

As is almost expected of Goodspeed Musicals productions, the ensemble work is just about superb, much of it choreographed by Katie Spelman. Three numbers stand out: the “Kansas City” sequence in which Will let’s people know that everything’s up-to-date in that city and then introduces dances that are all the rage in that metropolis with a seven-story skyscraper; “The Farmer and The Cowman” number, which opens the second act. Here, Thompson and Spelman have just about the entire, substantial cast up on the somewhat constricted stage, all whirling and twirling (I heard one exiting audience member comment: “It’s a wonder someone didn’t fall off the stage.”)
 
Cowboys dance with the farmers' daughters,
farmers dance with the cowboys' gals
 
Finally, there’s the beautiful “Ballet” (often referred to as the “dream sequence”) that closes the first act. Laurey sniffs a potion she has bought from Ali which is supposed to make her see “clearer.” What it does is bring on a hallucination in which the struggle between Jud and Curly, and what the two men represent, is dramatized through dance (originally choreographed by Agnes DeMille, her first foray into Broadway choreography). It’s evocative and captures Laurey’s doubts and fears.

The leads and supporting actors in the cast are all excellent, but special mention should be made of Jimenez’s performance as Ado Annie and Curiano as Ali. Jimenez ably captures Ado’s somewhat unbridled libido (“I Cain’t Say No!”) while, at the same time, displays her character’s inherent innocence, not to mention that she’s called upon to do some almost death-defying flips as Ali and Will show how Persians say goodbye and cowboys say hello.

Curiano, as Ali, provides much of the comic relief, and he does so with a droll, world-weariness that is delightful. Yes, Ali is a lothario, but he has trouble skipping town before an irate father pulls a shotgun on him. With great timing and emotive body language he ably conveys the plight of a ladies man not slick enough to skedaddle while the getting’s good.
 


Jake Swain and Gizel Jimenez discuss whether it's "all or nothin'"
 
Before “Oklahoma!’ opened at the St James it had tryouts as the Shubert Theater in New Haven. The reviews were mixed for a show that was then called “Away We Go.” Obviously, there were some changes made, including the addition of the show’s anthem, “Oklahoma!” Oddly enough, although Goodspeed’s forte is the showcasing of classic musicals, this is the first time “Oklahoma!” has been produced on its stage. The wait has been well worth while, for this is a sparkling, engaging piece of American musical history ably brought to life by the cast and crew at Goodspeed.

Oklahoma!” runs through September 27 in an extended run. For tickets or more information call 860.873.8668 or visit: www.goodspeed.org.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Angst and Appetizers

Raging Skillet -- TheaterWorks -- Thru August 27

Dana Smith-Croll, George Salazar and Marilyn Sokol. Photo by Lanny Nagler

What’s a Jewish girls to do when she lives in a kosher environment, has a mother who kvetches at the drop of a yamaka, and a father who communicates via grunts? Why she rebels, of course, slides down into a world of booze, drugs and disreputable friends and then claws her way back up via the commercial kitchen, eventually becoming a caterer of renown. Such is the story of Rossi as dramatized by Jacques Lamarre in Raging Skillet, which recently opened at TheaterWorks under the direction of John Simpkins. This memoir as play offers an evening as light as a soufflé though not as satisfying.

As he did with his I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti, Lamarre has drawn from a book written by a chef, but unlike I Loved, a one-character play, this time we not only have the chef but her ever-faithful sous chef and the chef’s mother. The only problem is, the mother has been dead for some 20 years and has come back to haunt her daughter during a book signing event, but death hasn’t changed Mom (Marilyn Sokol) – she’s still a pain in the tukus.

As with I Loved, the play is set in a kitchen (designed by Michael Schweikardt), but this one is equipped with strobe lights and speakers that can knock  your socks off, speakers that throb with the music programmed by the sous chef, DJ Skillit (George Salazaar), who doubles as a, yes, DJ, as well as takes on such roles as Rossi’s inarticulate father, a Rasta chef who won’t take orders from a female and a short Russian oligarch who funds a West Side restaurant.

When Mom isn’t butting in, the play focuses on Rossi (Dana Smith-Croll), who relates her rise to culinary fame through a series of vignettes and anecdotes. Smith-Croll is quite engaging as the lesbian rebel with a whisk, but she is never really allowed to get up to full speed, for Mom is there to carp and comment. As written by Lamarre, Mom is the quintessential Jewish Mother, a one-dimensional character who finds fault with just about everything her daughter does, wields guilt like a rusty razor and is obsessed with saving money by using coupons and patronizing establishments that offer senior discounts. If there is such a thing as the Association of Jewish Mothers I wouldn’t be surprised if it picketed the theater.

Smith-Croll’s development of her character is also impeded by the numerous times the audience is served, either by her or DJ, with appetizers or “Jewish Sangria.” Both individually walk the aisles with trays, offering little goodies – the first time it’s cute, but after awhile it become repetitive and boringly time-consuming. Often, as DJ is serving, Smith-Croll is consigned to a darkened stage, just watching. Whatever momentum she might have developed as she tells Rossi’s story is broken time and again.

Then there’s the tug-at-the-heartstrings finale when Mom reappears and slams down a photo album, proclaiming that she, too, has written a book. As Rossi thumbs through the album images are projected stage left and right, images of Mom as a girl and young woman, and it is only now that the audience learns that this was a multi-talented, well-educated woman who lived a fulfilling life, not the caricature the audience has been treated to. Unfortunately, it’s too little too late, and the moment, such as it is, is tainted with Mom’s reappearance to give final words of advice about complaining – no one remembers a compliment but if complain you just might get a discount or, even better, something free.

There’s a compelling, multi-layered story in Rossi’s life, one that, if nothing else, deals with competing loyalties and a young woman’s attempt to define herself. Her book may very well capture this, but the play is mostly surface and schmaltz.

Raging Skillet runs through August 27. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to www.theaterworkshartford.org

Monday, July 24, 2017

Dance of the Dead

Zombie Prom -- TheatreWorks New Milford -- Thru August 5

The cast of "Zombie Prom"
Oh, the plight of a young zombie who wants to hold onto his girlfriend and go back to high school so he can graduate. Yes, he’s different, basically due to decomposition, but in the grand scope of things does that really matter? After all, zombies are people too, aren’t they?

Such is the premise of “Zombie Prom,” a lighthearted take on teenage angst and prejudice and, of course, the living dead, that recently opened at TheatreWorks New Milford. Based on a 1950s comic book, it was transformed into a musical that had a brief run Off-Broadway in 1996 and was made into a short film (36 minutes) released in 2006. It’s basically a send-up of two genres: the “teen” films of the 60s (think “Beach Blanket Bingo” and “Gidget”) and 50s horror films (think “The Blob” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”), with a nod towards such musicals as “Grease,” “The Rocky Horror Show,” “Footloose” and “Hairspray,” with just a touch of “Rebel Without a Cause” and the song, “Leader of the Pack,” thrown in for good measure.

With a book and lyrics by John Dempsey and music by Dana P. Rowe, this pastiche of campy themes, under the direction of Matt Austin, is not meant to be taken seriously. You just sit back and enjoy the foolishness and, if you are of a certain age, play a game of catching allusions.

The story is linear and familiar: the new boy in town is a rebel. How can you tell? Well, he wears a black leather jacket with the collar turned up and has his name, Jonny, emblazoned on the back. Note that he’s dropped the “h” in Jonny – another sign of his rebelliousness. This “bad boy, effectively portrayed by Tommy Ovitt (he knows how to do the zombie walk), is immediately drawn to Toffee (Lexi Tobin), the Sandra Dee character, and immediately despised by school principal Delilah Strict (Jody Bayer). Their budding romance is squashed by disapproving parents and when Toffee rejects him, Jonny does the expected thing: he jumps on his motorcycle and smashes into the local nuclear reactor, killing himself and releasing a lot of radioactive bad stuff. His body is dumped into the ocean.

Toffee is bereft, but as her girlfriends, Candy (Sydney Coelho), Coco (Dana Wilton) and Ginger (Erin Shaughnessy) point out, life must go on. After all, the senior prom is on the horizon. Somehow, Toffee must find a way to snag a date, but she starts hearing someone call her name. Oh, who could it be that is haunting her?

The placid, regimented life at Enrico Fermi High School is turned upside down when, yes, Jonny, clothing in shreds and with the skin hue of the Jolly Green Giant, returns from the dead, seeking his girlfriend and a diploma. Principal Strict will have none of it, and as the students start to support Jonny in his efforts she threatens all sorts of dire consequences, including cancelling the prom. Exacerbating the situation, scandal sheet journalist Eddie Flagrante (Stephen DiRocco) hears of the story and starts making radioactive hay out of it.

The resolution of all of this is worthy of a second-rate Victorian novel, with revelations galore. Suffice it to say there’s a happy ending, although, as Jonny points out, “I’m still dead.”

The high school debs have their swains: Joey (Richard Frey), Josh (Karl Hinger) and Jake (Dominick Ventrella). This trio performs manfully, but it’s difficult to distinguish between them. It’s the ladies who drive this show. Tobin, as Toffee, is as sweet as her character’s name implies, and delightfully captures the essence of the Sandra Dee/Olivia Newton-John type that is called for. The three other actors – Coelho, Wilton and Shaughnessy – all perform with brio and when they are on stage, mostly performing song and dance numbers, they are a pleasure to watch, especially Wilton, who late in the show (as Ramona Merengue) does a gasoline/cigarette commercial that is hilariously enticing.

If there’s a problem with the show it rests with Bayer, and it’s more a matter of direction. She enters “big,” carrying a bullhorn, no less, and stays “big” throughout most of the show. Perhaps Austin could have pulled her back a bit at the start so the actor had someplace to go with her character’s frustration and annoyance. However, all is not lost, for Bayer has a really nice sense of physical comedy – her attempts to get down off a table bring extended, well-deserved laughter, and her dance with DiRocco near the end of the show is delightful physical comedy.

This 90-minute excursion into silliness and nostalgia is painless to watch. The musical numbers, although not offering tunes you will hum as you leave the theater, are well-staged with choreography by Jenny Schuck and backed by a four-piece band that rocks. No, it’s not “Oklahoma” or “Evita,” but it’s not meant to be. It’s as light and mindless as the films it spoofs…and, for parents, it poses the ultimate question: what would you do if your daughter fell in love with a zombie?

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“Zombie Prom” runs through August 5. For tickets or more information call 860-350-6863 or go to http://theatreworks.us/tickets.php