Saturday, May 20, 2017

The House That Shaw Built

 
 
Heartbreak House -- Hartford Stage -- Thru June 11

The cast of Heartbreak House. All photos by T. Charles Erickson

Well now, what do we have here: a ship of state or a ship of fools? Perhaps both, for George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House, which premiered in 1920, allows for either interpretation, and perhaps several more, for the ship of state might already have foundered on the rocks of the grim reality of the inherent insanity of WWI, and the ship of fools might just be an asylum in which the deluded inmates, wearing masks, run the institution. Add in a 21st-century running joke and you have Hartford Stage’s stylish yet somewhat enigmatic production of one of Shaw’s least-produced plays. Often humorous, the play ends with a disturbing yet elegantly lit portrait that suggests modern ennui can only be overcome by a yearning for destruction and obliteration.

The Chekhovian overtones in the play are no secret, since Shaw’s script bears the subtitle: “A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes.” What this means, amongst other things, is that we have a house that is basically a pressure cooker, the confines forcing those who enter to interact, or to act out, with each other and, in the process, reveal the mores of the society they have constructed or to which they are enslaved.

The first resident (or inmate) to be seen is Ellie Dunn (Dani De Waal) who, as the audience seats itself, is seen sitting on a love seat reading a book (it turns out to be Shakespeare’s Othello – significant if only for the misguided passions that play limns). She is discovered by Nurse Guiness (Mary VanArsdel), who doesn’t know who Ellie is. It’s quickly explained that Ellie has been invited to the house by one of its residents, Hesione Hushabye (Charlotte Parry), daughter of the “captain of the ship,” Captain Shotover (Miles Anderson). Soon others make their appearance: there’s Lady
Utterword (Tessa Auberjonois), Captain Shotover’s other daughter whom he feigns not to recognize, Hector Hushabye (Stephen Barker Turner), Hesione’s husband, Mazzini Dunn (Keith Reddin), Ellie’s father, Randall Utterword (Grant Goodman), Lady Utterword’s brother-in-law, and finally Boss Mangan (Andrew Long), whose entrance evokes peals of audience laughter (it should be noted that Connecticut’s seven Electoral College votes went to Hillary).

So the cast (passengers? inmates?), under the direction of Darko Tresnjak, has been gathered. What follows, after the necessary exposition, is a Shavian exercise in delving into various themes: a suggestion that British society, post WWI, is both effete and enervated; appearance vs. reality, for over the course of the evening just about every character is revealed not to be whom he or she purports to be; fate – do we steer our own craft through life or are we merely passengers?; the battle of the sexes (and nascent feminism) -- exactly which sex is dominant -- and the concomitant possibility that the war’s toll has left British society (and its females) with men in name only, for the best died in the trenches. That’s a lot to deal with (a sub-plot dealing with a burglar has blessedly been edited out of this production), which is why the show runs close to three hours with one intermission.

Miles Anderson
The justification for all of these characters appearing at the house is contrived at best, and the themes suggested are never truly brought to any conclusion, which means the production rises or falls on the actors’ interpretation of the characters and the director’s hand in both guiding them and moving them about, and here is where Heartbreak House succeeds.

First, the movement, which is facilitated by scenic designer Colin McGurk’s multi-level set, a evocation of a ship complete with a circular-railed prow at the front of the thrust stage that allows Tresnjak to emphasize the idea that these characters are chasing each other, with the roles of predator and prey shifting. What might have been a static placement of characters within a drawing room becomes a delightful dance with an occasional pause to allow for dramatic set-pieces.

Then, the guidance. The characters, as written, could be construed to be mere “types,” various representatives of a post-war British society that had been bled dry, but they all come to life, especially the oh-so-modern and somewhat world-weary Hesione, the apparently naïve Ellie, who is determined to be a “modern woman” and thus marry for money, the somewhat deranged (read wise fool) Captain Shotover, Hector, an artist manqué cum lounge lizard who seems to exist at his wife’s whim, and Lady Utterword who, true to her name, rules with an acerbic tongue.

The guidance can only be questioned re. Boss Mangan. A decision has been made, abetted by Jason Allen’s wig design, that dictates how Long will act the part -- for some in the audience it may be a delightful comment on current events (and some of Shaw’s dialogue seems to be painfully prescient) while for others it may be an anachronistic distraction. It certainly draws attention to itself – whether that’s good or bad is perhaps in the eye (and the mind) of the beholder. However, there’s no doubt that Long, charged with evoking a man currently in the news on an hourly basis, nails it…and it allows for a brief bit of stage business between Hesione and Mangan involving a wig that is an uproarious sight gag.

That Shaw may have been attempting to juggle a few too many themes does not take away from the stylish interpretation Hartford Stage has given to Heartbreak House. You may not always understand exactly what point is being made (I certainly didn’t -- I’m still trying to parse Captain Shotover’s final “sermon” to his gathered guests), but there’s no denying evocative acting and directorial flourishes can often trump critical analysis.
Heartbreak House runs through June 11. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to www.hartfordtsage.org.

 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Trav'lin Back to the Past

Trav'lin: The 1930s Harlem Musical -- Seven Angels Theatre -- Thru June 11

Cherry Torres, Teren Carter, Miche Braden, Lothair
Eaton, Yewande O. Odetoyinbo and Jacobi Hall.
Photo by Gary Rosengrand

J. C. Johnson.

Don’t know the name? Well, that’s probably because you’re not a student of jazz and the blues, but if you are you know that Jay Cee Johnson (1896 -- 1981) was something of a mini-legend, collaborating with the likes of Fats Waller, Chuck Webb and George Whiting and writing songs that were recorded by Ethel Waters, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine, Louis Armstrong, Fred Astaire, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Bette Midler. He even wrote Bessie Smith’s theme song: “Empty Bed Blues.”

Many of Johnson’s songs form the heart of Trav'lin: The 1930s Harlem Musical, which is having its Connecticut premiere at Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury. If you like songs that draw on jazz, the blues and just a touch of gospel, then the evening, despite the thin and sometimes painful storyline, will reward you. If, however, you’re thirsting for more traditional musical fare, complete with show-stoppers, you may find yourself twitching in your seat.

Written by Gary Holmes and Allan Shapiro, Trav'lin is basically a song-constructed musical, much like Mamma Mia -- select the songs and then figure out a storyline that will allow them, with minimal head-scratching as to song-plot relationship, to be performed. Of course, Mamma Mia was a success (despite critical grumblings) on both the stage and the screen. Even if you loathed ABBA, if you are of a certain age the group’s songs are lodged (some might say “fester”) in your sub-conscious. “Waterloo,” “Dancing Queen” and Super Trouper” (which one are you humming right now?) have had people dancing in the aisles in theaters across the country. Well, what about “Somebody Loses, Somebody Wins,” “Believe it Beloved” and “Basin Street Lover”? Go ahead, hum a few bars. Bet you can’t.

That’s the basic problem with Trav'lin. The songs are not familiar to the current general public and so they really can’t override the basically banal plot. With Mamma Mia, who really cares about the plot – just let yourself get swept away by “Voulez-Vous.” Unfortunately (for better or worse), “Get Up and Follow Your Feet” ain’t “Dancing Queen.”

The frame for presenting some 20 or so of Johnson’s songs in Trav'lin, directed and choreographed by Paul Stancato, consists of three oh-so-well-worn love stories: there’s George (Lothair Eaton) and Billie (Miche Braden), an item back in New Orleans some 40 years ago now sort-of reunited in Harlem. Then there’s the slick traveling salesman, Archie (Teren Carter), who has an eye for the ladies, much to the consternation of Roz (Yewande O. Oedetoyinbo), who patiently waits in her beauty parlor for Archie’s return. Finally, there’s the ingénue, Ella (Cherry Torres), George’s niece, who is smitten with Nelson (Jacobi Hall), an earnest bible salesman. Obviously, “The course of true love never did run smooth,” so all three couples have “problems,” and that basically drives the plot, such as it is. Will they, by the curtain, resolve said problems? (Well, duh!)

Trave'in is basically a juke-box musical without the juke box. Although many of the songs are well crafted, and the cast does its best to sell them, since the recognition factor is nil or absent, there’s no emotional connotation attached to them; the emotion has to be generated by the show itself, and since the characters are basically cardboard cutouts, it’s difficult to care about them. Thus, Archie and Roz’s “You Better Finish What You Started With Me,” is pointed and effective, but I doubt it raises many fond memories or stirs emotions. “Spinnin’ the Web,” “Get Up and Follow Your Feet” and “How Many Friends?” are a lot of fun (especially given Carter’s kinetic, slick-Sam take on Archie) and Torres sings the hell out of “You’ll Come Back to Me,” but, to switch metaphors, this is something of a bagpipe production -- the cast has to keep pumping air and energy into what is going on less the whole thing deflates. They try their damndest, but the effort can often be tiring for both the cast and the audience.

Trav'lin runs through June 11. For tickets or more information call 203-757-4676 or go to sevenangelstheatre.org.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

This Meal Could Use Some Spice

The Most Beautiful Room in New York -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru May 28

The cast. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

The Most Beautiful Room in New York, billed as “A new musical about food and family,” is in its premiere run at Long Wharf Theatre. Blessed with a stellar cast, the show itself is something less than a gourmet meal. In fact, what’s served up, under the direction of Gordon Edelstein, seems to have been concocted from recipes that go back to Grandma’s day, bland fare that has a bit of salt and pepper in it (and some sugar) but nothing that would spark your palate or make you call out for a second serving.

With music by David Shire and book and lyrics by Adam Gopnik, Room is set primarily in a Manhattan that is undergoing profound changes that include rapacious real estate deals, soaring rents and the razing of old neighborhoods to make way for the new. Many established businesses are being squeezed out, including Table (once called La Table, but the L and the A mysteriously disappeared – don’t worry, all will be revealed), a cozy Union Square restaurant owned by David (Matt Bogart), the chef, and his wife Claire (Anastasia Barzee), the manager. As the musical opens, the two are faced with a rent increase they cannot afford. Pushed to the wall, David comes up with a “plan” – he will reach out to Sergio (Constantine Maroulis), a one-time friend who has made it big in the “Foodie” world with his trendy restaurants, TV shows and books. Claire is not so enthusiastic about the “plan” because she and Sergio have a “history.”

What is cloyingly established in the opening number, “Something’s Growing,” is that the proprietors of Table and their friends who run an outdoor farmers’ market are salt-of-the-earth folks. They care (achingly so) about the neighborhood and the environment and the Green movement and, well, whatever is trendy to care about. There’s not a bad apple in the barrel. Into this Edenic setting Sergio will slither, along with Irwin (Allan K. Washington), a slick suit.

When we’re not in Union Square we’re in Bensonhurst. What’s the connection, other than the Brooklyn Bridge? Well, after one of the early farmers’ market love-fests, Bix (Tyler Jones), son of David and Claire, is handed a bag of mozzarella cheese (all-natural of course) to deliver to a pizzeria in Brooklyn (there being no mozzarella available in that particular borough). Thus, Bix is introduced to Carlo (Mark Nelson), the pizzeria’s owner, a pontificating, paper-tiger anarchist. (Yes, the plot thickens, and a revelation near the end of the evening will make this happenstance meeting even more contrived). More to the point, he also meets Anna (Krystina Alabado), Carlo’s daughter, and it’s puppy-love at first sight.

It’s no spoiler that David has made a Mephistophelean deal with Sergio, for that’s telegraphed early on. Over the course of Room’s two-plus hours (it seems longer), David’s marriage and ideals, and Claire’s fidelity to her marriage vows, will be challenged. The question arises: will anyone in the audience care? That remains to be seen.

Okay, this is a musical after all, so what about the songs? Well, they are banal at best, with many of them seeming to sound the same. Delivered by some fine voices, the numbers seldom rise above delivery of plot points, and the emotions they attempt to convey seem to float on the surface of the lyrics. None of them cut to the quick, as they do in, say, Next to Normal.

Referencing that musical spotlights the basic problem with Room: these aren’t real people, they’re basically cardboard characters that this fine cast labors to bring to life, but it’s an onerous task. There’s really no “life” in what is proffered as a slice-of-life look at the impact change has on a group of people, and thus there’s really no reason for the audience to connect with what’s occurring on the stage.

You know there’s an audience commitment problem when the various sets, designed by Michael Yeargan (restaurant and kitchen, farmers’ market and pizzeria), seem to create more attention and enthusiasm than what occurs in front of them. Gopnik’s recipe for this bland dish includes Kate (Sawyer Niehaus), David and Claire’s precocious tween daughter, Natasha (Anne Horak), Sergios current arm candy, and Phoebe (Darlesia Cearcy) and Gloria (Danielle Ferland), the lovers who run the farmers’ market and are often eager to give advice on life and love, as is Carlo who, in a rather painfully “touching” scene, counsels David, via song, about the value of family (see, he really isn’t such a crusty old anarchist after all). Equally painful is Sergio’s final scene with David and Claire in which he reveals that he’s really a snake with a heart of gold. None of this, unfortunately, is trenchant theater.

Room ends with a one-big-happy-family set-piece (“Our Table”) that seems to evoke 50s TV fare. There may be sharks in the water out there, but here at our table all’s right with the world. I guess it’s supposed to be life-affirming, so everyone just click their heels together and whisper, “There’s no place like our table.”

The Most Beautiful Room in New York runs through May 28. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Killen Award Recipient Announced


Paulette Haupt to Receive CT Critics Circle Tom Killen Award

 
Paulette Haupt

Paulette Haupt, founding artistic director of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Music Theater Conference in Waterford, will be honored with the Connecticut Critics Circle’s Tom Killen Award, given in recognition of her 40 years of extraordinary achievement and service to Connecticut theater.

Haupt will be presented with the award on June 26 at the 27th annual event celebrating the state’s outstanding professional theater, which will be held at the Edgerton Center for the Performing Arts at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield. The event, scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m., is free and open to the public. Three-time Tony Award-nominee Terrence Mann will be master of ceremonies.

Previous winners include Lloyd Richards, Michael Price, Gordon Edelstein, Michael Wilson, Lucille Lortel, and Carmen de Lavallade. Last year’s winner was Anne Keefe.

Since 1978, Haupt has served as artistic director of the National Music Theater Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. In that capacity, she has selected and guided the development of more than 120 new musicals including Nine, Avenue Q, Violet, The Wild Party, In The Heights, and Darling Grenadine, which will be performed at Goodspeed Musicals’ Norma Terris Theatre in Chester later this summer.

An associate producer for Polly Pen’s Goblin Market Off Broadway, Haupt has commissioned, developed, and produced new works for OPERA America, the National Alliance for Musical Theater, and Columbia Artists Management.

Following her San Francisco Opera debut in Carmen, for more than three decades Haupt was a music director and conductor of numerous operas and musicals in the U.S. and abroad.

As a pianist, Haupt has appeared worldwide in concerts with renowned musical theater and opera singers and was the only ‘Plaidette’ ever to perform in Stuart Ross’s Forever Plaid in New York.

Since 2001, Haupt has commissioned, developed, and produced new works with her New York Company Premieres, including several works by Richard Rodgers Award recipients, and a workshop of Lauren Robert’s .22 Caliber Mouth (New Millennium Theater Company, Chicago, 2004). She continues to develop Premieres and its very successful “Inner Voices” series.

Nominees for 2016-17 Connecticut Critics Circle Awards will be made public in early June. Winners in each category will be announced at the awards ceremony. Information: www.ctcritics.org.

DIRECTIONS: Edgerton Center for the Performing Arts, 5151 Park Ave., Fairfield -- Just off Exit 47 on the Merritt Parkway

Thursday, May 11, 2017

"Millie" Will Make You Smile

Thoroughly Modern Millie -- Goodspeed Musicals -- Thru July 2

Taylor Quick and cast. All photos by Diane Sobolewski

Thoroughly Modern Millie, which recently opened at the Goodpseed Opera House, is like a three-inch cupcake with six inches of icing piled atop. If you like icing, well then (to mix a metaphor), this is your cup of tea.

Based on the 1967 film of the same name, which starred Julie Andrews (which was based on the 1956 British musical Chrysanthemum), Millie tells the story of Millie Dillmount (the appealing Taylor Quick), who arrives in the Big Apple circa 1922 determined to be a “new woman,” part of which entails marrying for money, preferably to her boss (once she finds a job). Beneath all the frothy folderol of the show, with a book by Richard Morris and Dick Scanlon, music by Jeannie Tesori and lyrics by Scanlon, it’s basically a girl-meets-boy-(cute)-girl-loses-boy-girl-wins-boy story with some white slavery thrown in for good measure.

Since no one above the age of three can be in doubt as to the fate of Millie and Jimmy Smith (Dan DeLuca), the appeal of the show is its staging and the musical numbers, and director and choreographer Denis Jones delivers, as does the talented cast. From the opening number, which finds the naïve Millie arriving from Salinas, Kansas, to be transformed into a “thoroughly modern” flapper, there’s energy abounding. Since the story line is basically banal, you might find yourself zoning out a bit as the plot unfolds, thinking – “Okay, okay, let’s get to the next number.” Fortunately, the “next number” comes up quickly, and some of them are real show stoppers.

Highlights include “The Speed Test,” a witty, Gilbert and Sullivan take-off that has Millie’s boss, Trevor Graydon III (Edward Watts) give her a test in dictation that she passes with aplomb. The second act opens with “Forget About the Boy,” which has the secretaries at Sincere Trust, where Millie works, do a “wash that man outta my hair” number that ends with them leaving their typewriters to tap dance their determination to be done with love.
 
Samantha Sturm, Taylor Quick and Edward Watts
 
Then there’s the very funny “Muquin,” in which the proprietress of the Hotel Priscilla, the evil Mrs. Meers (Loretta Ables Sayre), and her two henchmen, Ching Ho (James Seol) and Bun Foo (Christopher Shin), do a Chinese version of “Mammy.” Equally entertaining is the tongue-in-cheek “I’m Falling in Love with Someone,” a duet between Graydon and Millie’s friend, Miss Dorothy (the beguiling Samantha Sturm) evoking the most cloying moments in many of the Nelson Eddy/Jeannette McDonald films. Finally, there’s the café number, “Long as I’m Here With You,” in which Jazz Age chanteuse Muzzy (Ramona Keller) evokes the spirit of the many black female singers who captivated lost generation audiences.

Taylor Quick
Frothy and weightless (but not witless), Millie succeeds simply by being itself with no “great theater” pretensions or deep-meaning determinations. You either buy it or you don’t, and if you do much of the credit will go to Quick, who can be a belter when she needs to be and is a lithe and lively dancer, but she also has a nice comedic sense that extends to expressive body language. Credit also to Watts, who knows how to go over the top with restraint (if that’s not a contradiction), with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

As can be expected from Goodspeed Musicals, the set, in this case by Paul Tate dePoo III, is amazingly functional, especially given the venue’s limited wing space and little or no fly space. Anyone familiar with the show might wonder how the elevator scenes (the lift must travel up and down 12 floors) might be handled. Well, lighting designer Rob Denton had the answer. Costumes by Gregory Gale are spot-on and the entire cast, compliments of casting directors Stewart/Whitley and Paul Hardt, is obviously committed to making sure that the audience has a good time. In all, Thoroughly Modern Millie won’t send you home pondering the meaning of life, but it will send you home with a smile on your face.

The show runs through July 2. For tickets or more information call 860.873.8668 or visit: www.goodspeed.org.  

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

All Alone on the Stage

Alice McMahon
Everyone knows that boarding a play is a cooperative effort, but once the lights go down and the curtain goes up, the audience doesn’t see the director or the playwright, the set designer, choreographer or the stage crew (except occasionally, dressed in black, scurrying around during scene changes). What the audience sees are the actors. Hundreds of pairs of eyes shift from actor to actor as lines are delivered, they note movement and stage business…but, what if there’s only one actor up on the stage? Those hundreds of eyes focus and remain focused; the intensity is palpable. The entire weight of the show is on one person’s shoulders.

Currently at Square One Theatre Company in Stratford, those shoulders belong to Alice McMahon, who stars in Becoming Dr. Ruth, a dramatized biography of the famed sex therapist written by Mark St. Germaine. For 90 or so minutes, McMahon relates the story of the diminutive German girl who, at 10 years old, escaped from Hitler’s Germany to Switzerland, then on to Israel, and then France, and finally the United States, where she eventually became a celebrity, all told in a polyglot accent.

In preparing for the role, McMahon just didn’t rely on St. Germain’s script. “I always do research, even if I only have four or five lines,” McMahon said in a recent interview after doing a 20-minute preview of the show at Watermark in Bridgeport. “Dr. Ruth is all over the Internet. Listening to her, watching her in interviews, gives you a lot of insight into the woman,” McMahon said. “It might tell you how to deliver a line in a certain way that you might not have done before. For example, a little tidbit. You remember she gives a little girl her doll on the Kindertransport to Switzerland. She met that girl later and asked her about the doll and the girl didn’t remember it. ‘Well,” Dr. Ruth said, ‘You think she could have told a little white lie.’”

McMahon was not unfamiliar with the play before she got the role. She had done a reading of it at the Stratford Library for Tom Holehan, the play’s director, two years ago. However, that didn’t mean she had the script down pat. Once she knew she was going to perform Dr. Ruth, she began memorizing her lines in December, 2016. “I counted the weeks until the rehearsals began and I did five pages a week.” However, she was not exactly off-book at the start of rehearsals. As she explained, “When you start adding movement you need the script. However, I’d say by the second week I was pretty much off-book. However, it was daunting – 38 pages or so.”

When you’re working with other actors on the stage they, in their dialogue, provide you with cues. If an actor says, “Darlene, where were you last night?” the actress playing Darlene uses that as a cue to deliver her appropriate line, unless she goes blank – but even then her fellow actors will cover for her, help her to get back on track. Such is not the case, or the relative comfort, in a one-woman show. However, there are ways to generate cues.

“The play is not really chronological,” McMahon said. “She jumps here and there in her story. I was pretty secure with the sections that hung all together, but then you think, ‘My God, am I supposed to be in Palestine now?’ But there are sound cues – a telephone ringing – and the music – ‘The Good Ship Lollipop’ reminds me that I’m supposed to be doing the Shirley Temple section, there’s the music box music, there’s violin music for the school and the Jewish music – all that’s very helpful.” Then there are the props – primarily photographs stored in a crate. “Tom said, ‘If you get confused, everything is in that box.’ It’s all in order – that’s also really helpful.” And finally there’s the blocking – the director suggesting (or dictating) the actor’s movements. “That’s also extremely helpful,” McMahon said. “You know, I’ve moved over here so I should he saying this, then I’m over there and that’s when I deliver these other lines.”

Then there’s the accent. Dr. Ruth’s voice is very distinctive, but McMahon said that she had little trouble coming up with and maintaining what is, obviously, not her normal speaking voice. “For some reason,” she explained, “it just seemed to come naturally. One of the things that helped me was – well, who can do this accent? It’s a combination of Israeli, German, French and American, so I didn’t have a feeling – I just didn’t think it was that important to exactly capture her accent. However, things that were hard were the German words. For example, I looked up ‘Lodz’ – my God, there were like five different pronunciations of the word. Then there was her doll’s name. At one performance there was a woman in the first row and when I said the doll’s name she started shaking her head. I wanted to catch her afterwards to ask her how it should be pronounced but she had gone.”

Finally, there’s the intimacy of the Square One venue, which is currently nested in the Stratford Academy, essentially a black box theater with perhaps 50 seats. From the stage you don’t just see the first or second row, you see the entire audience. “It is a little more difficult,” McMahon said. “It breaks your concentration a bit, especially if you see someone you know. I ask all my family not to tell me when they’re coming and not to sit where I can see them, because it takes you out of it. It shouldn’t – discipline – but it does.”

In researching the role and acting in the play, McMahon has come to truly respect Ruth Westheimer. “I just adore her,” McMahon said. “You know, going though what she went through and turning out to be what she’s become, she’s just so positive, and I really think it’s the love that she got as a little kid, she had that security and confidence that people really loved her. There’s that line from her grandmother: ‘Always smile. Be cheerful. You are loved.’ I think that helped her throughout her whole life.”

Becoming Dr. Ruth runs through May 21. For tickets or more information call 203-375-8778 or go to www.squareonetheatre.com    


Monday, May 8, 2017

Terrence Mann to Host CCC Awards Ceremony

Terrence Mann

Three-time Tony Award-nominee Terrence Mann will be master of ceremonies for the 27th annual Connecticut Critics Circle Awards on June 26 at 7:30 p.m. at Sacred Heart University’s Edgerton Center for the Performing Arts in Fairfield. A private reception will precede the awards show.

The Monday night awards presentation, which celebrates the best in professional theater in the state, is free and open to the public. At the ceremony, Paulette Haupt, founding artistic director of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Music Theater Conference in Waterford, will be honored with the Connecticut Critics Circle’s Tom Killen Award, given in recognition of her 40 years of extraordinary achievement and service to Connecticut theater.

Last year’s top honorees -- Yale Repertory Theatre’s “Indecent” and Hartford Stage’s “Anastasia” -- are currently on Broadway.

Mann joins the Connecticut theater community as artistic director of the Nutmeg Summer Series at the University of Connecticut at Storrs.

Mann received Tony nominations for his roles as Javert in “Les Miserables,” as the Beast in “Beauty and the Beast” and as King Charles in the revival of “Pippin.” He also originated the role of Rum Tum Tugger in the Broadway production of “Cats.”

His Broadway debut was in 1980 in “Barnum.” Other Broadway credits include “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” “Rags,” “Getting Away with Murder,” “Lennon,” “The Rocky Horror Show” “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway,” “The Addams Family,” “Finding Neverland” and last season’s “Tuck Everlasting.” He was in the original off-Broadway production of “Assassins.”

Mann also has a recurring role in TV’s “Sense8.” Other television roles include the role of Earl Boyd in “All My Children.”

In film, Mann played bounty hunter Ug in the four “Critters” films. Other movie roles include  “A Chorus Line” and “A Circle on the Cross.”

He has also acted and starred in productions at UConn, including “Les Miserables in Concert,” “Peter Pan,” “Man of La Mancha” and “My Fair Lady.” Mann will direct the first show of the Nutmeg season, “1776,” with performances starting June 1.

A graduate of North Carolina School of the Arts, he is a professor of musical theater at Western Carolina University in North Carolina. He is married to actress Charlotte D’Amboise.
 
DIRECTIONS: Edgerton Center for the Performing Arts
5151 Park Ave., Fairfield -- Just off Exit 47 on the Merritt Parkway

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Girl Who Became Dr. Ruth

Becoming Dr. Ruth -- Square One Theatre Company -- Thru May 21

Intimacy.

That’s the essence of just about every play that features a solo performance. Several come to mind: The Belle of Amherst, I’ll Eat You Last, Buyer and Cellar and Golda’s Balcony. The audience is invited in for a one-sided chat, a monologue offered by a person, famous, infamous or relatively unknown, who reveals what lies beneath the surface, the shared humanity – fears, hang-ups, obsessions and passions – that put flesh on the bare-boned, iconic image we may have of this person. Such is the case with Becoming Dr. Ruth, which recently opened at Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. It’s the tale of a young Jewish girl named Karola Ruth Siegel who became Dr. Ruth, the famous, diminutive sex therapist, and it is told in such an engaging manner that you feel you might, at any moment, be offered cookies and cocoa by your grandmother as she reminisces about her life.

Square One is a small theater that lends itself to generating such intimacy. Using a single set – Dr. Ruth’s Manhattan apartment as created by Greg Fairbend and Robert Mastroni – director Tom Holehan has guided Alice McMahon, who plays Dr. Ruth, to deliver a 90-minute reflection on a life that, given different circumstances, might have ended in one of the Nazi death camps, as did Anne Frank’s.

Becoming Dr. Ruth, written by Mark St. Germain, is history told from a personal point of view, for young Karola experienced the rise of Hitler and the attendant rabid anti-Semitism. She walked the streets of Wiesenfeld the day after Kristallnacht (Night of broken glass) and was in her family’s apartment when her father was taken away by some of Hitler’s minions. The civilized world’s response to what was happening in Germany was muted, but it did allow for the transport of a limited number of Jewish children to other countries in what became known as the Kindertransport. Thus, Karola found herself in Switzerland, separated from a family she would never see again. Her peripatetic life would lead her to Israel, where she was trained as a sniper by the Haganah and severely wounded by an explosion, then to Paris and finally to New York City and her evolution into Dr. Ruth.

The frame for the play is that Dr. Ruth is, after the death of her third husband, preparing to move from her apartment (yet another move in a migratory life). As she packs mementos – photos and books – they generate memories that she reveals, often with an implied sigh. In doing this, McMahon’s creation of the multi-faceted Dr. Ruth is superb, for you never for a moment disbelieve that this is a woman recounting what has happened to her. There are hesitations as McMahon searches for the right word, the correct fact, that give credence to the illusion being created. She often telegraphs what she really thinks about a phone conversation or a marriage by a shrug or a facial expression that speaks volumes. When she shows photographs of family, friends, husbands, children and grandchildren, you never doubt that they have meaning for her. She is not delivering lines, she is remembering.

Early on in the play Dr. Ruth leafs through a notebook she kept as a young girl and reveals her obsession with dates, for dates are anchors and the information written next to those dates tells you who you were, the minutia of a life. Playwright St. Germain returns to Dr. Ruth’s fixation on dates at the end of the play in a coda that can’t help but stir emotions, and as McMahon holds up a picture of Dr. Ruth’s grandchildren and delivers her final line, you sense the essence of Dr. Ruth’s life, its ultimate meaning. It is a life-affirming statement that lights a candle that defeats the darkness.

Becoming Dr. Ruth runs through May 21. For tickets or more information call 203-375-8778 or go to www.squareonetheatre.com

Saturday, May 6, 2017

You're in the Army Now

Biloxi Blues -- Ivoryton Playhouse -- Thru May 14

Zal Owen as Eugene. Photo by Anne Hudson


To say that Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues marches down familiar paths is an understatement. Anyone familiar with the plethora of novels and films about young men training to be soldiers in WWII, Korea or Viet Nam -- think Sands of Iwo Jima, Take the High Ground, or Full Metal Jacket, to name only three -- knows the drill. Men from different parts of the country and of disparate personalities and ethnicities are thrown together and through discipline and arduous training (sometimes harsh) shed their civilian individualities and become soldiers…and a unit. Given the number of men and women who have gone though the process, the formula, if nothing else, can’t help but evoke memories. Thus, Ivoryton Playhouse’s production, given the age skew of its audience, will inevitably please, especially since the ensemble is, by and large, spot on.

The middle offering of what came to be known as the Eugene Trilogy, Simon’s 1985 play was made into a movie in 1988 starring Matthew Broderick as Eugene. At Ivoryton, Zal Owen, under the steady direction of Sasha Bratt, takes on the role of the young recruit and aspiring writer, and does so with a great deal of style, including a Nu Yawk accent that is consistent throughout the evening.

The play opens in 1943 with five recruits riding on a train from Fort Dix, New Jersey, to a training camp in Biloxi, Mississippi. Wykowski (Conor M. Hamill), Carney (Ethan Kirschbaum), Hennesey (George Meyer), and Epstein (Alec Silberblatt), along with Eugene, grouse, brag and occasionally fart. They soon meet their drill sergeant, Toomey (Mike Mihm), a hard-as-nails vet who believes 200 push-ups can’t fail to turn civilians into soldiers. Thus, the process begins, most of it consisting of Toomey browbeating the recruits. Under the pressure, the young men reveal their insecurities and prejudices, many of which Eugene records in his “memoirs,” a notebook he keeps in his barracks trunk.

The play is a series of set-pieces including the men’s introduction to Army chow in the form of SOS (shit on a shingle), grueling marches and the concept that if one recruit screws up the entire unit has to pay the price, a theory that often leads to bullying amongst the recruits as they try to “shape up” the sad sack. In this case, it’s Epstein, a cerebral sort who happens to be Jewish (as is Eugene) and is inclined to view life through the lens of Talmudic argument. He and Toomey butt heads early on and the conflict between the two will fuel much of the evening and be the focus of the play’s climax.

Then there’s the inevitable “soldiers on a two-day pass” scenes, which feature Moira O’Sullivan as Rowena, a semi-pro (she only does it on weekends) who takes on the eager recruits one at a time, the last one being Eugene, who achieves one of his stated goals (“I did it!”). His second goal is to fall in love. Enter Andee Buccheri as Daisy, a Catholic school girl who meets Eugene at a USO dance. If there’s one false note in the production it’s here, for Miss Daisy just seems a bit too sweet-as-pie, demure to the point of often not being able to be heard clearly. My only other quibble is, having been under the tutelage of several drill sergeants and dealt with many NCOs, I question whether Toomey should (or would) consistently square his corners and do precise about faces on every exit. In any event, Eugene falls in love with Daisy and it is sealed with a bittersweet kiss.

Given the sub-genre, the play is filled with stereotypes, but this fine cast brings them to life, no more so than Silberblatt as Epstein. He creates a dweeb who is also a wise-ass and from his agonies over having to go to the bathroom (“It’s a latrine, dipshit!”) to his final confrontation with a somewhat inebriated Toomey, Silberblatt gives us a multi-faceted character that consistently holds the audience’s attention.

All of this is played out on a remarkably flexible single set created by Glenn David Bassett that allows for the train ride, the barracks confrontations, the trip to the bordello, the USO dance and the climactic scene in Toomey’s room with a minimum of effort, trusting the audience to fill in the blanks.

Clocking in at just over two hours, with a single intermission, Biloxi Blues is an entertaining stroll down memory lane, especially for those who have served in the armed forces. It gently deals with serious issues (homophobia and anti-Semitism, among others) while providing enough laughs to lighten the evening. The show runs through May 14. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Local Train to Nibroc

Last Train to Nibroc -- Playhouse on Park -- Thru May 14

Lilly Wilton and Joshua Willis.
Photo by Curt Henderson


We are so used to hyper-editing in films and television shows, those fast cuts that we often comprehend almost subliminally, as well as the rat-a-tat dialogue that many playwrights assault us with, that settling down to watch a play that unfolds in less than warp speed may at first be a bit discomforting. We want things to happen…now…and then other things to happen right on their heels. Our theater-going metabolism demands fast food, our mental clocks require we always ride the express. Well, if you want to enjoy Last Train to Nibroc, a two-hander by Arlene Hutton that recently opened at Playhouse on Park, you’re just going to have to cool your jets a bit and accept that a local train will eventually get to its destination.

Set initially on a train traveling from Los Angeles in 1940 and then in rural Kentucky in ’42 and ‘43, Nibroc chronicles the growing relationship between a somewhat uptight May (Lilly Wilton) and Raleigh (Joshua Willis). She is returning from California after an unsuccessful visit with her fiancé and he has just been discharged from the service for medical reasons. They strike up a tentative conversation that reveals, among other things, that two corpses are heading East with them, those of Nathaniel West and F. Scott Fitzgerald, both tucked away in their caskets in the baggage car, an interesting historical tidbit that Hutton really doesn’t do much with.

The three scenes that comprise the play (there is no intermission) can be viewed as a When Harry Met Sally in slow-motion. Thus, the heart of the play is the interaction between May and Raleigh and the conflict can be found in whether or not they will eventually realize that they are soul-mates and do something about it. It’s a tried and true formula that never ceases to please.

This is basic theater, as the sparse yet utilitarian set by Tina Louise Jones suggests, and your response will be dictated by whether or not you care about May and Raleigh and want them to be together, which means that it all hinges on the actors in these two roles. As directed by Sean Harris, Wilton and Willis deliver the needed chemistry, though there are moments when you sense that lines are being spoken rather than characters are interacting, but I sense this will disappear during the show’s run.

It takes awhile but, yes, you eventually get to care about May and Raleigh, and this culminates in the delightful third scene built around a misunderstanding on May’s part of Raleigh’s illness, a scene that Harris has blocked engagingly. It is also here that the actors seem to completely embrace their roles.

This production, which runs through May 14, will definitely mature in nuance and subtlety with each performance, and the classic formula of boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-wins-girl, is in our DNA. We’ve saw it – Oops, seen it -- a hundred times before and it still resonates. In essence, Last Train to Nibroc is a gentle unveiling of two hearts that eventually find that they beat as one. What’s not to like?
 
Last Train to Nibroc runs through May 14. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to www.playhouseonpark.org

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Pursuing the Rainbow

End of the Rainbow -- MTC Mainstage -- Thru April 23

Coleen Sexton as Judy Garland


There’s supposed to be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but for Judy Garland, born Frances Ethel Gumm on June 10, 1922, there was only debt, alcohol and pills. She died in 1969 of a barbiturate overdose. She was 47. Earlier this season, Goodspeed Musicals treated us to the start of Garland’s glorious yet troubled career in “Chasing Rainbows.” Now, at MTC Mainstage, we get to see the yellow brick road’s dark terminus in “End of the Rainbow,” billed as a play with music.

Created by Peter Quilter, and directed by MTC’s artistic director, Kevin Connors, “Rainbow” provides something of a schizophrenic experience for the audience, for there are many of the glorious songs Garland made famous to enjoy as, at the same time, we watch a woman falling apart. Thus there’s a mixture of delight and pain, all served up by the marvelous Coleen Sexton who has the Garland mannerisms down pat and offers a performance that it is at times riveting, at others poignant, and always compelling.

The play is set mainly in a London hotel room where Garland and her fiancé, Mickey Deans (Luke Dranell), are living while she performs at London’s Talk of the Town nightclub for a five-week run that will become her penultimate public appearance before her death. Garland, as deftly portrayed by Sexton, is haunted by the Garland persona, one colored by the “suffering diva” image that many of her ardent gay followers took a perhaps somewhat masochistic delight in embracing. This aspect of Garland’s life and later career is captured by Anthony (Thomas Conroy), her accompanist, who feels it’s an honor to serve “Miss Garland.” Jealous of her attachment to Deans and concerned that she is destroying herself (that very aspect of Garland’s personality that, ironically, drew many homosexuals to her), late in Act Two he “proposes” to her, a heart-wrenching scene that Sexton plays with subtle nuance, using body movement and facial expressions that convey her character’s great need to be taken care of, to be sheltered.

The Deans character is conflicted, for he too wishes to take care of Garland, who is deeply in debt, but he also perhaps sees her as his meal ticket. At first weaning her from pills and liquor, he fails her when she has a partial breakdown and refuses to continue her show at the Talk of the Town (escaping to her room in the hotel). He gives in to her addictive needs and offers her pills.

This scene is sandwiched between two that are perhaps Sexton’s finest moments, for Garland, before she escapes to her room, is somewhat addled on stage, fighting with the microphone cord, bumping into the microphone stand, and confused about the songs she is supposed to sing. After Deans offers her the pills, Garland returns to the stage to belt out a signature song – “Come Rain or Come Shine” -- with Sexton’s performance suggesting the source of many of Garland’s signature mannerisms: the clutching of the arms, the manic movement of her hands, the herky-jerky body movements, the almost perverse infusion of her very being into the delivery of a song. It suggests that what we are seeing is not so much a performance as a soul writhing in agony.

If one quibble might be registered about Sexton’s portrayal of the tortured artist it has nothing to do with Sexton’s talent but rather with a make-up decision. Early in Act Two Anthony helps her with her make-up, suggesting that she looks a mess. Fortunately for Sexton, she doesn’t, but unfortunately for the characterization, there is no visual sense that this is a woman who has been ravaged by booze and Ritalin. Some subtle but deft usage of make-up suggesting this deterioration would seem to be appropriate here.
 
 

Backed by a multi-talented, four-member orchestra (Thomas Conroy, Henry Lugo, Chris Johnson and Gary Ruggiero) and working with a very functional set created by Jordan Janota and some lovely, subtle (no more so than in the final scenes) lighting by Michael Blagys, Sexton consistently mesmerizes and fascinates as she creates a character who is at one moment a foul-mouthed bitch and the next a frightened, insecure child adrift on the sea of stardom, the talented Frances Gumm – the little girl with the big voice – at war with the Judy Garland who delighted millions with her performances yet could find no enduring delight in her life. In the intimate MTC setting you can’t escape the painful reality of a star becoming a nova that eventually explodes and consumes itself, and you will never respond to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” – the show’s final song -- in the same way after seeing this show.

“End of the Rainbow” runs through April 23. For further information or ticket reservations call the box office at 203.454.3883 or visit: www.musictheatreofct.com.     

Saturday, April 1, 2017

An Eye-Tickling, Ear-Pleasing Evening

"Rockin' the Forest" -- -- Playhouse on Park -- Thru April 9

Victoria Mooney and the stop/time dancers.
Photo by Curt Henderson

Sated (and perhaps a bit depressed) by the angst and anxiety in many current Connecticut theatrical productions? Yearning for a bit of escape? Well, you couldn’t do better than wend your way up to Playhouse on Park in West Hartford where “Rockin’ the Forest” is on the boards through April 9. This winsome, frolicsome exercise in song and dance won’t challenge your theater-going mentality, but it will satisfy on multiple levels, especially if you thrill to the sound of tapping feet.

“Rockin’ the Forest” is a stop/time Dance Theater production, which serendipitously found a home at Playhouse on Park over a decade ago. The “child” of choreographer Darlene Zoller (she is a co-founder of Playhouse on Park), stop/time features 15 dancers who by day are engaged in other pursuits but by night are consumed by the “Gotta dance!” mantra. In other words, they’re not necessarily pursuing a career or a paycheck via Terpsichore, they’re pursuing what they love to do…and it shows. In the program bios, one dancer has written that she “loves to dance – plain and simple.”

The book (such as it is) for the show finds Little Red Riding Hood (an engaging, multi-talented Victoria Mooney) lost in the proverbial woods. Soon she is confronted by the Wolf (Rick Fountain), who once was a star on Broadway but, alas, has been cursed (due to his philandering) to wander the forest in his present lupine form. She also encounters a Broadway producer (don’t demand logic – just accept it) who wishes to cast Miss Riding Hood in a show. Some may find it a silly premise, but these are the same people who won’t clap to bring Tinker Bell back to life.

Conceived, directed and choreographed by Zoller, with musical direction by Eric Larivee (who also tinkles the ivories in the six-piece orchestra), this exercise in song and dance draws on multiple references to Hollywood movies, Broadway shows and pop and Rock songs going back to the 60s, which is part of its charm. It also covers multiple dance forms, from interpretive and ballet to the tap-intensive, synchronous Broadway chorus line (the only thing missing is a dance-number allusion to “River Dance”). In other words, it’s an engaging mash-up.

Favorite numbers that tickled my fancy? Well, when the Wolf first meets Miss Hood he sings “L’il Red Riding Hood,” (do you remember Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs?). Then there’s “On Broadway” and a rewriting of “American Pie.” And how about the “Lip Sync Battle” between the three bears and the three little pigs? Mooney nails “Lotta Livin’ To Do” (from “Bye Bye Birdie”) and the First Act ends with a production number, “I Can’t Be Bothered Now,” that’s a tap extravaganza.

Special mention should be made of costumer Lisa Steier’s efforts. There are just about as many costume changes as there are musical numbers (the dressing room must be a scene of controlled chaos), and the costumes are dead-on to support said numbers, especially in the Second-Act opening number, “Some Day My Prince Will Come,” with Snow White (Meredith Atkinson) complete with a little bird on her wrist to gladden her heart. It’s an impressive effort.

There were a number of children in the audience on opening night (attendance only hampered by the threat of sleet, snow and the wrath of March), and this is appropriate, for if you have a budding dancer, singer or thespian in your house, then I urge you to bring them to Playhouse on Park (perhaps bribing them with the offer of an ice cream sundae at next door’s A. C Petersen Farms Restaurant). They will be entranced, as will you if you are young at heart. At intermission, a woman spoke to one of the ushers: “I use to tap dance…not well…when I was young. I’m impressed.” You will be too, and you’ll leave the theater with a smile on your face.

“Rockin’ the Forest” runs through April 9.  For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to www.playhouseonpark.org   

Bang! Bang! I Changed the World!

Assassins -- Yale Repertory Theatre -- Thru April 8

The cast of Assassins. Photo by Carol Rosegg 

Assassination.

Not exactly the subject matter you might choose for the basis of a musical. Then again, would you leap at the opportunity to write a musical about a barber who slits men’s throats and a lady who uses the “meat” to bake and sell pies? Probably not, but you’re not Stephen Sondheim, who has not, over his illustrious career, eschewed outré subject matter. Thus, with the assistance of John Weidman, who wrote the book, Sondheim penned “Assassins,” which opened on Broadway in 2004 and garnered fine Tony Awards. This analysis of nine assassins (both unsuccessful and successful), now on the boards at Yale Repertory Theatre under the direction of James Bundy, is something of a tight-wire act, for it deals with heinous crimes and aberrant personalities while seeking to entertain. That it by and large does is much to the credit of its creators.

The premise and frame for the show is a carnival shooting gallery whose Proprietor (Austine Durant) sells the opportunity to take a pot shot or two at a president. His spiel entices a handful to grab a gun and give it a whirl: Leon Czolgosz (P. J. Griffith), John Hinckley (Lucas Dixon), Charles Guiteau (Stephen DeRosa), Giuseppe Zangara (Stanley Bahorek), Samuel Byck (Richard R. Henry), Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Lauren Molina), Sara Jane Moore (Julia Murney), John Wilkes Booth (Robert Lenzi) and, finally, Lee Harvey Oswald (Dylan Frederick, who doubles as the Balladeer).

As Weidman and Sondheim would have it, it is Booth who is the father of them all, and his first appearance engenders obeisance from the collected assassins, as if he is a demigod. In an extended second scene, Booth, with the assistance of the Balladeer, gives vent to his rage and attempts to justify his killing of President Lincoln. This will, by and large, be the format that is followed throughout the show, with each gun wielder offering “reasons” for his or her rage or dementia. However, this is definitely not a one-note show, and, since it has to entertain, several of the assassins’ quirks are utilized for comic relief.

There’s Guiteau, an erstwhile author who wanted to be the US ambassador to France and made his bid by shooting James Garfield (not the most effective job interview technique). As created by Sondheim and Weidman, Guiteau is something of a loony gadfly, which DeRosa works to a fair-the-well, especially during the execution scene, “The Ballad of Guiteau,” when he dances up and down the gallows stairs. Then there are the two female assassins, Fromme and Moore. Molina and Murney have several scenes together, and the chemistry between the drug-addled young woman besotted by Charles Manson and the somewhat ditzy suburban housewife who can’t shoot straight is delightfully humorous, with a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken playing a central role in two of these encounters. One of the funniest moments is when the klutzy Moore drops her bullets and President Gerald Ford (Fred Inkley), after tripping and falling, helps her pick them up.

The weirdest and most engaging of the weirdos is Byck. Dressed in a shabby Santa Claus outfit, Henry delivers two working-man diatribes that are classic monologues, the first directed at Leonard Bernstein and the second at President Nixon, whom he plans to assassinate by crashing a plane into the White House (he never gets the hijacked plane off the runway). Drinking a Budweiser and chomping on a sandwich, or driving a car to the airport, Byck has his trusty cassette recorder dangling from his neck so he can vent his frustrations.

If there is one drawback to the musical it is the extended monologues given to Booth, both at the beginning of the show and at its conclusion. Although the former might be justified, the latter just seems to go on and on as Booth, with the other assassins present, attempts to cajole and motivate an unwilling Oswald into assassinating President Kennedy. Since so much is known (and, alas, still unknown) about that fateful day in Dallas, this exercise in “What if?” just doesn’t work. The premise is that this assassination, which struck at the bedrock of the nation as no other assassination had (save perhaps for Lincoln’s) will in some way justify, or at least make memorable, all previous efforts, at least in the minds of the assassins.

At the end of this sequence the Zapruder film of the actual assassination is screened behind the actors, and when it is you can feel the mood of the audience shift, for the “concept” of the show is suddenly overwhelmed by the reality of Oswald’s actions and somehow puts the lie to the comic antics of Guiteau, Byck, Fromme and Moore and makes the finale, “Everybody’s Got the Right,” (the self-serving anthem of the assassins) somewhat off-putting.

There’s no denying that the Rep’s production of “Assassins” is both stylish and engaging, and the cast is, across the board, superb, with Molina, Murney, DeRosa and Henry especially delivering some memorable moments. It’s just that you walk out and perhaps wonder, should I really have enjoyed this show as much as I did?

The image of Jackie Kennedy crawling across the trunk of the open car, reaching out to the Secret Service agent, cannot help but linger and put a different spin on what you have seen. These people, out of perverted rage and self-serving delusions, wanted to kill, and often succeeded. As they all raise their guns on high in the show’s finale, you can’t help but re-evaluate one of the show’s numbers, “The Gun Song.” Yes, all it takes is to tense the trigger finger and all of your problems will be solved. How sad and dispiriting, on reflection, that so many trigger fingers have been tensed, and that the triggers are so readily available.

“Assassins” runs through April 8. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to www.yalerep.org

Next to Perfect

"Next to Normal" -- TheaterWorks -- Thru May 7

Christiane Noll and David Harris.
Photo by Lanny Nagler


Let’s say it right up front -- if you are currently feeling down, depressed or generally out of psychic sorts, then you might want to put off seeing “Next to Normal” up at TheaterWorks in Hartford. Just wait until the clouds roll by and then pick up the phone and order tickets -- don’t worry, it’s been extended through May 7, so you’ve got time. Why put it off if the Blue Meanies are nipping at your heels? Well, this Pulitzer-winning musical ain’t “Mary Poppins,” and the angst and mental derangements suffered by Diana (the marvelous Christiane Noll) can’t be cured by a spoonful of sugar.

“Next to Normal,” with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, opened on Broadway in 2009, receiving three Tony awards. It’s a “tough” musical, for it deals with a disturbingly dysfunctional family: the aforementioned Diana has been in therapy, and consuming a potpourri of psychotropic medications, for close to two decades. She is manic, she is depressive, and she is haunted. Her much put upon husband, Dan (a sturdy David Harris) copes as best he can with a family life that is ruled more by fantasy than familiarity, much to the detriment of Diana and Dan’s daughter, Natalie (Maya Keleher, giving a stunning professional debut performance), who is, in the words of a First-Act song, the “invisible girl.”

Whirling around this tornado of delusions and frustrations directed by Rob Ruggiero are Henry (Nick Sacks), Natalie’s on-again-off-again boyfriend, and two of Diana’s therapists, Doctor Fine and Doctor Madden (both played by J. D. Daw). And then there is the son, Gabe, who in another First-Act song proclaims “I’m Alive.” That remains to be seen.

Backed by a six-member orchestra sequestered off-stage, and played out on an adaptive set by Wilson Chin with multiple bookcases boasting a host of lamps and knick-knacks, this two-act excursion into dementia and family heartbreak is not exactly sung-through, but the production consists of many songs – 38 to be exact – that seem to weave into and out of each other almost seamlessly.

At times bewildered, at other times wry and waspish, Noll’s Diana is a study of an intelligent woman bedeviled by her mind. It’s a bravura performance in a difficult role, for it demands a broad range of emotions to be displayed, some subtle, others over-the-top (we first see Diana making lunch for her two-member family by slamming together sandwiches using both the counter and the floor as workplaces). Noll is capable of saying volumes with her eyes, her shoulders and just a twist of her lips, and her vocal range allows her to handle such diverse songs as the manic “Didn’t I See This Movie,” the intimate duet, “Maybe,” with Keleher, and Diana’s touching farewell “So Anyway.”

Harris, as Dan, is the rock upon which Diana’s waves of dementia pound. His role is, obviously, less flamboyant than Noll’s, but he creates a character that is trembling on the brink of despair, and thus his performance if often haunting, no more so than in his rendition of “He’s Not Here.”

Cardoza and Sacks both give solid performances, though one might question the costumes Tricia Barsamian has created for Sacks, especially the brown suit he shows up in to take Natalie to a dance, making him look more like an émigré fresh off the boat than a suitor seeking his fair love’s hand. Daw is also solid, and his brief metamorphosis as the “rock star” doctor is dead on.

Then there is Keleher, who is making her professional debut, though you wouldn’t know it by her performance. This sweet-voiced graduate of The Boston Conservatory delivers a polished, nuanced portrait of a frustrated 17-year-old who dabbles in drugs in an attempt to handle the chaos of her home life.

Given the intimacy of the TheaterWorks venue, the emotions generated by “Next to Normal” wash over the audience in successive waves that evoke laughter, shivers, empathy…and, in the final number, “Light,” a measure of hope. There is a reason why this musical won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It is a gripping portrait of a family in crisis that can’t help but resonate with the audience.

“Next to Normal” has been extended through May 7. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to www.theaterworkshartford.org

Monday, March 27, 2017

His Way (Sort of)

"My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra" -- Ivoryton Playhouse -- Thru April 9

Lauren Gire. Photo by Anne Hudson


We’re talking a generational thing here, perhaps two generations. There are those who grew up with Old Blue Eyes as a classic crooner (derisively referred to as the “Skinny Ginney” by servicemen serving overseas during World War II while he made young women swoon at home), and those who perhaps know him more as a member of the Rat Pack or as an actor in such films as Von Ryan’s Express and The Manchurian Candidate. Then there are those who haven’t even considered the possibility of collecting Social Security (aren’t even sure what it is) who might just say, “Frank who?” Thus, you go to the Ivoryton Playhouse to see “My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra” trailing your own history. Your response may well be dictated by the memories evoked and the DOB on your driver’s license.

Given that this is a “tribute,” the patter that serves as thin thread used to sew together the song segments is light on introspection and analysis of Sinatra the man and his career. There’s mention of his womanizing (in a nudge-nudge manner) and his drinking (Hey, boys will be boys), but no mention of his connection to the Mob or his somewhat physical relationship with the press (or at least the paparazzi). There is, at the start of the second act (“Loser’s Medley), an allusion to the dark side of the Sinatra soul, but “My Way” is not meant to be a Pinter drama, so you have to take it for what it is, and what it is, basically, is an often adept staging of many of the songs Sinatra made famous.

The songs are presented by four very talented actors -- Rick Faugno, Lauren Gire, Josh Powell and Vanessa Sonon.  – who are charged with delivering over 60 songs in the two-hour run. There’s an attempt by director Joyce Chittick (wife of Faugano, who shares directing and choreographing credits) to imply some type of relationship between the actors as characters, but it goes no further than knowing nods and standard stage business interaction as songs are delivered. That’s to be expected in what is essentially a musical revue.

However, there are moments that break out of the mold, and oddly enough they have little to do with the Sinatra legend. The dance routines, performed mainly by Faugno and Sonon (who has a marvelous vocal range), are invigorating, and the interpretive dance done by Sonon as Powell sings “It Was a Very Good Year” is inspired. Which brings us to how Sonon is costumed as a Marilyn Monroe Kewpie Doll look-a-like through most of the show – all I can say is kill the wig and cut down on some of the make-up. Make-up and wig aside, Sonon sure can dance.

Given the number of songs in the show, the preponderance of which is presented in the first act, reaction may be dictated by which generation you fall into. For those who have been alive for the length of Sinatra’s career, it may be a pleasant stroll down Memory Lane, but for those who don’t have a visceral connection with the 40s, 50s or 60s, the 30-plus songs in the first act may seem a bit overwhelming. At one point early on in the show it is suggested that just about everyone can relate to one of the songs – but that’s what “My Way” is banking on, that there’s an inherent relation to “Summer Wind” or “One For My Baby” or “Somethin’ Stupid” or “That’s Life” or “All the Way.” In essence, what you come away with is dictated by what you went into the theater with. Know the songs, have the memories – well, then, “My Way” will please beyond expectations. If you weren’t there, or didn’t grapple and grope in the glow of the dashboard lights as Sinatra crooned, well, it’s a nice if undemanding evening that will not resonate beyond the pleasure of watching four talented actors sing lyrical songs (and occasionally dance up a storm).

My Way runs through April 9. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.