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?

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

Saturday, July 22, 2017

An Equity Theater Grows in Ridgefield



By my count there are 15 Equity theaters in Connecticut, that is, theaters operating under some form of an Equity contract, plus over 60 other theater companies of various sizes. One would think that, theatrically speaking, Connecticut is pretty well covered, but Daniel Levine doesn’t think so. The Ridgefield resident had a dream, but unlike most dreams, this one is actually coming true. Soon there will be an Equity theater in Ridgefield, operating under the name of A Contemporary Theatre of Connecticut, or ACT of CT (not to be confused with the 4-hour test Connecticut high school students might take). The gestation of the company, and the creation of the theater that will house it, is just as serendipitous as how Levine first got involved in theater.

I met with Levine at a Ridgefield coffee house recently to talk about the birth pangs of ACT. As he sipped an iced coffee, he reminisced about the rather circuitous route he took that eventually led him to Broadway, and finally to ACT.
 
Daniel Levine
 
“I’ve been a Broadway actor since the 90s,” he said, but that hadn’t been in his life plan, although there were hints. “I grew up in Boston and I was at Brandeis, studying theater arts and pre-med.” (Go figure.) “So I graduated and there was this decision I had to make: I loved theater so much but I was also excellent in pre-med so, do I move to New York, try to be an actor and see what happens or should I go to medical school? I just didn’t know what to do. I’d never been to New York – I didn’t know if I could be competitive. So, in my sort of juvenile mind I said, you know what I’ll do, I’ll be a dentist.”

That’s right, a dentist. So Levine enrolled in Tufts University’s school of dental medicine. It was during his second year of study in oral surgery that he went to New York and saw “Les Miz.”

“I said to myself, I want to be in that show. So, I saw they were having auditions, big open calls to cast the next Marius for “Les Miserables” and I said I’m going to go – it would be my first professional audition – let me see if I can do this…and, well, I got the role. So I dropped out of Tufts and joined the cast of ‘Les Miz’ for three years.”

Obviously, that opened the door and erased all interest in bicuspids. Not only did his stint in “Les Miz” earn him his Equity card it led to roles in “Chicago,” “Mamma Mia!,” the revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar” on Broadway, “The Rocky Horror Show,” “Tommy,” and, oddly enough, “Little Shop of Horrors,” in which he played…you guessed it…the sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello. “That was a full circle moment,” Levine said, “because I finally got to live out my parents’ dream of me becoming a dentist.” Locally and more recently, he played Che in MTC’s production of “Evita.”

Levine, obviously, is an established Broadway actor with a lot of credits. So, what led him to Ridgefield? His brother and family live around Ridgefield, so about six years ago he was visiting them, fell in love with the town and bought a weekend house there. Although he was still working on Broadway he eventually was introduced to the Ridgefield Playhouse and he was asked to curate the Broadway and Cabaret series at the theater. “So I came on as artistic director of the series,” he said. The goal, he explained, was to bring more “Broadway” to Ridgefield. The Playhouse, which offers approximately 250 shows a year – singers, rock groups, comedians, etc., -- is what is called a presenting theater. In other words, it doesn’t produce shows but rather books them and provides the wherewithal for the performances.

“I thought there was an audience for theater,” Levine said, “so I created this great series, not only bringing Broadway stars to Ridgefield – last year I had Betty Buckley, I had Lea Salonga, Stephen Schwartz, Joel Grey – but I had the idea to present full-length Broadway shows in concert with an all-star Broadway cast using some of the original stars of the shows. So, three years ago we did ‘Tommy.’ It was such a huge hit – I mean people went absolutely crazy. It was sold out immediately.”

Last year Levine directed “Jesus Christ Superstar” with an all-star cast and again it sold out. This year he'll be directing “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” although it is yet to be cast. During this process, Levine’s sense that there was a market for legitimate theater in Ridgefield grew. “What I’ve realized and what I’ve learned, living in Ridgefield and working at the Playhouse,” he said, “is that there is a desire for more Broadway and more musicals in this community, and there’s not a ton of Equity theaters in the area.” So, the seeds were sown and now all that was needed was a little rain and some fertilizer.

Kate Diamond

“So, I have a friend who also lives here,” Levine said. “Her name is Katie Diamond – she was in ‘Jersey Boys’ and ‘The Pirate Queen’ – and we sat here one day and were talking about theater and how great this community is and we thought, what if we can figure out how to open our own small professional Equity theater here in Ridgefield? We started asking around and people – there’s a lot of money in Ridgefield – they said, ‘Oh, my God, I’d invest in that.’”

There is such a thing as timing – as a matter of fact, some believe that timing is everything. As Levine and Diamond were starting to float the idea of creating an Equity theater in Ridgefield they learned there was a property in Ridgefield called the Schlumberger property, located about a mile from the coffee shop where Levine and I met. The property, between Old Quarry Road and Sunset Lane, had been the research facility for an oil corporation, and the corporate digs had been designed by Philip Johnson, so the complex of buildings had historical importance, but it had been vacant for over seven years after the corporation moved to Cambridge, MA.

The town, not wanting to destroy the buildings because of their architectural importance, held onto them, but there was no idea about what to do with them. Some of the property was sold off for construction of condominiums and some of the buildings were finally razed, but the auditorium and an adjacent building still stood.
 
The Schlumberger property
 
The town started polling the residents to find out what they wanted to do with the property: A park? A baseball field? A library? Many of the residents responded that they would like to see it become an arts complex.

So Levine and Diamond were sitting in a coffee shop dreaming about opening an Equity theater and the town was wondering what to do with the remaining Schlumberger property. Gee, an auditorium designed by Philip Johnson. What if…?

Levine and Diamond met with the town’s First Selectman, who told them if they could figure out how to pull this off he would present it to the town’s “Schlumberger committee.” However, there were problems with the auditorium. Five years ago there had been a severe internal flood – pipes had burst because the building hadn’t been heated. The inside of the auditorium had been destroyed, it was just a shell. Undaunted, Levine and Diamond went forward, meeting with the committee and forming a board for the project. Eventually it went to a town vote, and no one objected at the meeting, so it was a go, save for the fact that it was going to cost a hell of a lot of money to bring the 180-seat auditorium back to life, the responsibility for which fell on ACT’s shoulders. Eventually, it was estimated that the entire renovation would run close to $1,500,000, half of which has now already been raised.

Construction has begun. Necessary demolitions occurred in early July and the renovations begin in August. The auditorium is now gutted and ACT is working with architects that specialize in theater design to make sure that what rises out of the rubble is a state-of-the-art theater.

One problem that immediately became apparent was that the theater would have limited wing space (i.e., space to the left and right of the stage proper) and absolutely no fly space (space above the proscenium where scenery can be stored and lowered). What to do? The problem was discussed at a board meeting. Somebody said, “The best way to solve this problem is to install a turntable, like the one used in ‘Les Miz” and ‘Hamilton.’” Right. A turntable, a massive piece of equipment, very expensive, probably close to $350,000.

Levine smiled. “One of our board members said, ‘You know, I really like this idea,’ and she wrote a check for the turntable.” Ah, there’s nothing like living in Ridgefield.

Plans are to have a gala opening of the facility in May of 2018 and stage their first show in June. They have options for two blockbusters but Levine didn’t want to say which they’ve committed to. The announcement should come in several weeks.

“The plans are to do a four-show season,” Levine said. “Three musicals and one play. The season will run from September to June, all of them under Equity contracts. Our goal is to cast most of the principals as Equity. The model will be somewhat similar to that at Westport Country Playhouse.”

There are some heavy guns behind the planned productions. Levine will be the artistic director and Diamond will serve as executive director. Bryan Perry, Levine’s husband, who is currently the music director and conductor for “Wicked” on Broadway, will be the music supervisor, and then there’s Stephen Schwartz, a Ridgefield resident and the man responsible for such musicals as “Pippin,” “Godspell” and “Wicked.”
 
Stephen Schwartz
 
“Stephen is a friend of mine,” Levine said. “I’ve worked with Stephen on a lot of projects and when I pitched him the idea he said: ‘I love this. I would love to have an Equity theater here. How can I be involved?’”

Levine had several suggestions. First, he offered Schwartz the opportunity to become an artistic advisor, and the icing on the cake: he suggested that ACT produce a “Stephen Schwartz series,” so that for the first four seasons there would be three Stephen Schwartz musicals boarded. Schwartz, apparently, was pleased with the idea.

Levine believes that “the more arts in a community the better for everyone.” Thus, beyond the four-show season, there are plans for a number of programs to make the venue a “true arts destination.”  Levine and Diamond hope that the venue will workshop new musicals as well as create a young adult (basically high school students) theater conservatory. He also wants to hold a Master-Class series, bringing in theater professionals to teach classes on music theater auditioning and theater dancing, among other topics. “Because we’re so close to New York,” Levine said, “we can do that.”

Levine’s career path has veered in the direction of producing and directing and he doesn’t see himself going back to a Broadway show schedule, although he’s open to doing local runs as he did at MTC.

As a producer and director he has several shows currently touring the country and Schwartz got him involved in producing shows for the Princess Cruise Lines, shows that wouldn’t be seen anywhere else. Of that experience Levine says: “I learned so much about the technical aspects of theater. As an actor you’re sitting at a tech (a rehearsal devoted to checking sound, lighting and all the other things that can go bump in the theater) but you don’t really understand about the creation of a set, or being asked by the scenic designer, ‘What are your feelings about how “Hairspray” needs to feel, how is it different from how it was done on Broadway?’ I learned so much and I don’t think I would have been comfortable being the artistic director of this new theater if it weren’t for the Princess experience. It was like theater undergraduate school, and then graduate school.”

Dreams often die aborning, but it sounds like the dream of opening an Equity theater in Ridgefield is well on its way to becoming a reality. Levine realizes that there will be obstacles to overcome, surprises not envisioned, but he and Diamond have the community behind them, and their deep connections with Broadway can’t hurt. If all goes well, in about a year the curtain will rise on ACT’s first production, and after that, well: “We’ve got magic to do…Just for you / We've got miracle plays to play / We've got parts to perform....Hearts to warm / Kings and things to take by storm / As we go along our way.”


Monday, July 17, 2017

The West Side of Ivoryton

West Side Story -- Ivoryton Playhouse -- Thru July 30

Mia Pinero and Stephen Mir. Photo by Anne Hudson

There must be something in the Connecticut water or air that has recently fascinated local theaters with Sharks and Jets. First, Connecticut Repertory took a shot, which was followed by the Summer Theatre of New Canaan’s admirable efforts, and now it’s the Ivoryton Playhouse’s turn to stage the classic 1957 musical West Side Story. Given Ivoryton’s core audience it’s easy to see why the decision was made to produce the show, and based on a recent matinee I attended it was a smart decision because the house was packed, and not just with aging Boomers.

Based on a concept by Jerome Robbins (he initially wanted to focus on conflict between an Irish family and a Jewish family living on the Lower East Side), with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein (with many echoes of Aaron Copland’s compositions) and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the musical is an updating of the Romeo and Juliet story with the conflict now between an “all-American” gang, the Jets, and its Puerto Rican counterpart, the Sharks. As directed and choreographed by Todd Underwood, Ivoryton’s offering is pleasing on many levels limited only by the theater’s configuration which required a certain amount of down-sizing and somewhat restricted dance movements.

Backed by a 10-member orchestra which is sequestered beneath the stage, the young cast delivers such familiar numbers as “Something’s Coming,” “Tonight” “America,” “I Feel Pretty” and “Gee, Officer Krupke” with verve and style. There’s certainly no absence of energy on the stage, and although some of the “big” production numbers seem somewhat “squashed,” there’s no getting around the fact that the iconic score and tragic love story subtly work their way into your heart.

As for the performances, anyone with eyes and ears would have to lead off with Mia Pinero playing Maria. She is luminous from start to finish and her dulcet voice enraptures. Whether commenting on how she looks (“I Feel Pretty”) or forcing Anita (a saucy Natalie Madion) to remember what it is like to be in love (“A Boy Like That” – “I Have a Love”), Pinero shines, and the final moments of the musical, which demand that she confront all of those who are responsible for the tragedy, are dramatically satisfying.

Maria’s “Romeo,” Tony, is played by Stephen Mir, who has a strong voice but seems just a bit reserved in the role, and there seems to be a lack of passion infused into such numbers as “Maria.” He sings it as if he’s recording a cover of the song for an album rather than as a young man overwhelmed by emotions he has never experienced before, yet he is visibly (and satisfyingly) ardent in the “One Hand, One Heart” duet with Pinero.

The afore-mentioned Madion nails the world-wise Anita, especially in the “America” number, though her paramour, Bernardo (Victor Borjas) seems not to project the passion and suavity the role calls for. Of special note is Hillary Ekwall in the tomboy role of Anybodys – she’s brash and spunky, but then delivers a touching scene with Anita in the “Somewhere” number (nicely choreographed by Underwood).

As anyone who is familiar with the Ivoryton theater knows, the stage is not very deep, has limited wings and no real fly space. Scenic designer Daniel Nischan deserves a great deal of credit for creating a flexible set that allows for scenes on the street, in a candy store, a dress shop, a playground and Maria’s bedroom (plus the obligatory fire-escape “balcony”). However, he’s used up a lot of limited space, which must have presented certain problems for Underwood as choreographer. He basically had stage right and left to work with and almost no room upstage. Thus, with 10 or 12 dancers on stage, much of their movement is, perforce, lateral. The problems Underwood faced are most evident in the staging of the “Cool” number, which requires that the members of the Jets “explode.” They do, but the constrictions are obvious. However, Underwood deserves a lot of credit for capturing the flavor of the original Jerome Robbins’ choreography without producing a carbon copy, and his work with the four Jets in “Gee, Officer Krupke” is quite imaginative.

Any quibbles aside, Ivoryton’s West Side Story essentially delivers the goods and should keep packing them in. The emotional pull of the musical is so strong and the music so familiar that you can’t help but be drawn into the story, and whenever Pinero is on stage you can’t help but, well, melt. It’s easy to see why Tony is smitten.

West Side Story runs through July 30. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Deadly Eye in the Sky

Grounded -- Westport Country Playhouse -- Thru July 29

Elizabeth Stahlmann. Photo by Carol Rosegg

War was once a matter of two armed forces rushing at each other across a field. The person you fought against – the person you perhaps killed – was there in front of you, flesh and blood. The invention of gunpowder, and then the rifle and the cannon, began the process of distancing combatants, yet it was still combat with all of its inherent risks. Yes, with the coming of air warfare those in the planes did not see those they killed on the ground, but the risk factor was still there, the possibility of being shot down by flak or another plane. But what if you could fight a war from thousands of miles away, safely away from the battlefield; what if you could rain down death and destruction with the click of a button and then go home, pop open a cold one and throw some steaks on the barbecue?

Such are the questions asked by George Brant in “Grounded,” which recently opened at the Westport Country Playhouse under the sensitive direction of Liz Diamond. This visceral, one-woman show begins with an almost jubilant paean to the joys of being a fighter pilot, to soar into the blue sky in the cockpit of an F-17, and concludes in a gray, apocalyptic vision of a world where no one is safe and everyone is being watched. It ends not with T. S. Eliot’s “whimper” but with a whispered “boom” that will haunt you long after you leave the theater.

The journey is guided by The Pilot, played by the exquisite Elizabeth Stahlmann. A macho jet jockey who revels in the freedom of flight, the pilot is also a woman, and on leave she manages to get pregnant. This condition forces her to be “grounded,” and after marrying and giving birth, she reports back for duty only to find that her assignment has changed – she will now be a member of the “Chair Force,” piloting a drone from a trailer located on an Air Force base in Nevada an hour away from Las Vegas. At first disdainful of the assignment, the pilot, given the surreal nature of this form of “combat,” soon begins to suffer both physically and psychologically until, on a final “mission,” the dichotomy of “fighting” a war while living a “normal” suburban life forces her to crash and burn.

In a bravura performance, Stahlmann, dressed in a flight suit, creates a multi-faceted character who thrives on the Top Gun mentality and yet is forced to confront the aberrations of a war fought by proxy. Her slow descent from gung-ho jet jockey to a haunted shadow beset by delusions of a god-like power and a final break-down, in which the horrors of the brave new world we and technology have created have led to a paranoid existence, is emotionally captivating and ultimately disturbing. Her final moments, when she confronts the audience members with the fact that they have been “watching” her all along as proof of the intrusive society we live in are chilling; she becomes a Jeremiah who prophesizes the doom that awaits us all.

Stahlmann has nothing to work with but a single chair. The stage is basically blocked and truncated by an aluminum frame that suggests the side of an airplane hangar, a wall that is used to project images, created by Yana Birykova, that, among other things, a drone pilot might see on a screen. However, as stark as the “set” is, it does not lack for emotional content, thanks to the lighting design created by Solomon Weisbard. As good lighting should, it does not call attention to itself but enhances and frames the emotional roller coaster that the pilot will travel on.

“Grounded” is a brave choice for the Playhouse to open its 2017 season with. There are no bells and whistles, just a provocative play that asks many questions and an actress who is capable of holding the audience in the palm of her hand for the better part of 90 minutes. One might suggest that is what theater, worthwhile theater, is all about.

“Grounded” runs through July 29. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.

Friday, July 14, 2017

What Nurtures Us

Milk -- Thrown Stone Theatre Company (Ridgefield) -- Thru July 30



You never know where in Connecticut you will find intriguing theater. Of course, there are the well-established venues such as Long Wharf in New Haven and TheaterWorks up in Hartford, to name just two, but how many theatergoers have heard of the Thrown Stone Theatre Company? Nested in the Ridgefield Conservatory of Dance on Main Street in Ridgefield, this young company is currently premiering “Milk,” a play by Ross Dunsmore that was first presented at the Traverse Theatre in Scotland in 2016. Essentially presented in a black box format with very few props, this triple slice-of-life drama directed by Jason Peck allows actors to do what they do best: bring characters to vivid life.

The play revolves around three “couples.” First there are two teenagers, Ash (Aidan Meacham), intent on “bulking up” to entice the girls by devouring one chicken per day, and Steph (a mesmerizing Alexandra Perlwitz), a 14-year-old schoolgirl who is, well in heat. Then there’s schoolteacher Danny (Jonathan Winn) and his oh-so pregnant wife Nicole (Alana Arco), consumed by the pending arrival of their child. Finally, there’s Cyril (Cyrus Newitt), a WWII veteran, and his wife May (Melody James), who have fallen on hard times and appear to be living hand-to-mouth in abandoned digs with no gas or electricity.

What Dunsmore has created are three stages of human relationships: the opening moves as two young people, driven by surging hormones, ineptly grope towards each other, the middlegame, when a relationship develops in often surprising ways, and the endgame, in which the conclusion is all but inevitable.

In the theater’s intimate setting it’s easy to be drawn into the quest each character is on in an attempt to define himself or herself in terms of a relationship. Perlwitz creates a young girl desperate to be loved, who taunts and teases yet, at the same time, has self-image problems. Her character’s primary focus is on Meacham’s Ash, who is all but overwhelmed by her aggressiveness, but she also seeks affirmation from her teacher, Danny, and goes to lengths that will have dire consequences.

Arco’s Nicole, defined by her pregnancy, gives birth, only to realize that she has problems nursing her infant son and sees in this a rejection of her value, compounded by the revelation of Danny and Steph’s “relationship.”

The most poignant of the couples is Cyril and May, who evoke memories of some of Dickens’ most vivid “ancient” characters. Clinging to memories of a time when the world seemed to be theirs, they must deal with “checkmate” as best they can, May imagining meals they can no longer provide for themselves while Cyiril, who once rode into Berlin on a tank, now fearing the children and dogs that lurk outside.

The play is episodic, with the couples entering and exiting and often rearranging the two tables and chairs that serve as the set (sometimes, it would seem, to little or no purpose). The scene-setting can seem, at times, a bit tiresome, but given the size and configuration of the stage there was, perhaps, no alternative. The fact remains that once the scenes are set the six actors create memorable, believable characters, all of whom we care about, so much so that when one of them is about to act in a way we, the audience, know will lead to heartache the thought, “Don’t do it,” easily arises.

“Milk” runs through July 30. For tickets or more information go to www.thrownstone.org.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Restaging a Classic

Singin' in the Rain -- Summer Theatre of New Canaan -- Thru July 30

Matthew Tiberi as Don Lockwood


Over the past few decades there’s been a lot of cross-pollination between films and live-theater musicals (Disney thrives on that). Some have worked and some haven’t. It doesn’t take a genius to know that the two – film and theater – work with a different set of standards and requirements. What works on the screen might not work on the stage, and vice versa. The film version of Rent was a bomb and The Phantom of the Opera was often painful to watch.

So, what do you do if you decide to bring what has been called the best movie musical of the twentieth century onto the stage? Well, you don’t try to beat the film at its own game, and that’s just what the Summer Theatre of New Canaan has done in staging Singin’ in the Rain. Unlike Goodspeed’s effort of several years ago, which attempted to recreate the filmic experience, STONC has accepted that this is a stage production and, by and large, given the confines of the venue, it works.

What becomes apparent early on is that the book, based on the screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, is slight and not designed to capture attention. If you haven’t seen the film (is there anyone who hasn’t?), you may not know – or care – about what is happening up on the stage for the first ten or 15 minutes, primarily because there’s no real sense that what you’re seeing is occurring in a Hollywood film studio or its environs. It also doesn’t help that a lot of the exposition, such as it is, occurs extreme stage right – it’s like a visual after-thought. However, once the main characters – Don Lockwood (Matthew Tiberi), Cosmo Brown (David Rossetti), Lina Lamont (Jodi Stevens) and Kathy Selden (Annabelle Fox) – are established, the book really doesn’t matter because the musical numbers and choreography take center stage (figuratively and literally), and the rest of the evening is simply a lot of fun.

What – or who – drives the show? Well, that’s an easy question to answer. It’s Jodi Stevens playing the part of the bitchy, vocally challenged, clueless actress Lina Lamont. Stevens, who was recently seen in MTC’s production of the one-woman show, I’ll Eat You Last, shines and glitters in her character’s sheer acting ineptitude, and her solo song late in the second act, “What’s Wrong With Me?” (not in the film as released but in the London revival), is a surprising delight.

The other three leads, supported by a substantial cast, seem to come alive only in the production numbers, although many of these numbers are not framed as well as they could be, so all you can do is enjoy the music and dancing and not worry too much about logic (or, otherwise, draw on your memory of the film to answer the question: “Where are we?”). This is true of “Beautiful Girl” and “The Broadway Melody,” both big numbers that please on a very basic level.

Actually, this production, under the direction of Melody Libonati, with choreography by Doug Shankman, feels more like a revue, and as such it is very enjoyable. There’s a musical number, then a bit of yadda-yadda, then another musical number. The numbers, backed by a 10-piece orchestra, are staged with style and grace, and kudos should go to Shankman for not slavishly following the original film choreography (although the obligatory sofa, again set stage right, in the “Good Morning” number, is, well, obligatory rather than integral to the number) . Kudos should also go to Kelly Loughran (her role was danced in the film by Cyd Charisse). Her femme fatale routine in “Broadway Melody” is one of the high points of the show. Finally, the filmed portions of the show – both silent and ineptly miked – are dead-on and ably capture the style of the 1920s (again, kudos to Stevens).

You may not care much about what happens to the characters in Singin’ in the Rain (save for what Lena experiences – and remember, she’s not stupid!), but you will enjoy the songs they sing and the dance numbers they perform, and that’s enough to provide a lovely summer evening of theater in Connecticut -- and, yes, there’s rain and a lot of umbrellas and yellow rain slickers.

“Singin’ in the Rain” runs through July 30. For tickets or more information call 203-966-4634 or go to www.stonc.org

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Bill the Bard…Forsooth and all that Jazz

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) (revised) -- Playhouse on Park -- Thru 7/30



If silliness be the food of great evenings, play on.

Shakespeare! Oy! All that iambic pentameter stuff. And the words! “Bastinado.” “Beadsman.” “Chapless.” And what are we, citizens of the twenty-first century, to make of: "Touch you the sourest points with sweetest terms, / Nor curstness grow to the matter"? Say what?

Well, shed your Shakespearean fears, my friends, for Playhouse on Park has opted to stage “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) [Revised],” a romp through the Bard’s works that takes no prisoners as it cuts, slices, dices and otherwise dismembers the texts that have weighed heavily on the minds of high school students for decades. The satire by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield first saw the light of day at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1987 and has since been produced numerous times around the world. In Hartford, as directed by Tom Ridgely, it’s a fast-paced (one might even say “manic”) take-down of the pretentious approach to Shakespeare’s plays and the attendant scholarship.

The cast? Well, Shakespeare didn’t have any problem with SAG contracts, so he filled the stage (albeit with males). So, too, does Playhouse on Park, but with only three actors: Hanna Cheek, Rich Hollman and Sean Harris, who play the roles of, well, Hanna, Rich and Sean. You see, the evening is something of a post-grad seminar delivered by a professor on Angel Dust, with the three actors attempting to explain and elucidate the plays. It’s lunacy from start to finish, and a hell of a lot of fun.

It all begins with the actors bemoaning the audience’s lack of knowledge and appreciation for Shakespeare’s plays, followed by a biography of the Bard that somehow segues into Adolf Hitler’s life story. That sets the tone for the rest of the evening as the three actors attempt to present all of Shakespeare’s works on a bare, thrust stage, using whatever props are at hand.

The jokes come fast and furious, and there’s a lot of improv on the cast’s part depending on how the audience is reacting. Most of the Bard’s plays are taken care of in the first act, including a “Folk Othello” song written by Rich Hollman that evokes the 60s era of Peter, Paul and Mary. But the evening’s not over because, alas (and alack?), “Hamlet” has not been dealt with. Hence, the second act, which takes on the famous play both forwards (plus fast-forward) and, yes, backwards – and Harris’s inability to deliver the iconic “To be or not to be” soliloquy is priceless…and humorously mirrors most of the audience’s familiarity with the text – we can get to “that is the question” and then, well, it’s yadda yadda and mumble mumble.

Hanna Cheek, Rich Hollman, Sean Harris. Photo by Curt Henderson
 
All three actors are literally on the run from start to finish, and they don’t seem to miss a beat or a cue, regardless of where they have to exit (wearing a wig or a garbage bag) or enter (wearing a crown or water buckets), and they effortlessly beguile audience members to take part (screaming, running or chanting) in the farcical staging of “Hamlet.”

As good as Hollman and Harris are, and they are very good, when Cheek is on stage, which is often, she simply exudes her own spotlight. She’s blessed with an innate (okay, perhaps learned) sense of comic timing, has a wonderful projection of dramatic (and comedic) body language and, well, simply knows how to engage an audience, which is no more evident than in the “song-and-dance” routine she goes through to kill time until the two other actors make it back to the theater – apparently they’ve gone next door to A. C. Petersen’s for some ice cream. Hopefully, Playhouse on Park will invite her back, for she lights up the stage.

“The Complete Works…” runs through July 30. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to www.playhouseonpark.org

For aspiring thespians, the Playhouse is offering several programs: “Kids on Stage” (grades K- 5) covering music and drama (July 24 – 28); a “Jazz Boot Camp” (ages 16+) for those who “gotta dance” (August 7 – 11); and two summer workshops: “Theatre Confidence” (July 10) and “Acting a Song” (July 17). For more information go to the theater’s website.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Connecticut Critics Circle Awards

'Next to Normal' and 'Invisible Hand' Take Home Top Honors

Riley and Ella Briggs present the award for
best choreography. All photos by Mara Lavitt

Westport Country Playhouse’s “The Invisible Hand” and TheaterWorks’ “Next to Normal” took top honors at the Connecticut Critics Circle Awards Monday night for best play and musical production of the 2016-17 season.

The event, which honors the work of the state’s professional theaters, was held at Sacred Heart University’s Edgerton Center for the Performing Arts. Three-time Tony Award-nominee Terrence Mann was master of ceremonies. Performing was Bobby Conte Thornton, star of Broadway’s “A Bronx Tale.”

Awards for outstanding actors in a musical went to Christiane Noll (“Next to Normal”) and Zach Schanne (“West Side Story,” Summer Theatre of New Canaan).

Awards for outstanding actors in a play went to Eric Bryant (“The Invisible Hand”) and Vanessa R. Butler (“Queens for a Year,” Hartford Stage).

Top directing awards went to Rob Ruggiero (“Next to Normal”) and David Kennedy (“The Invisible Hand”).

Outstanding ensemble award went to the cast of Long Wharf Theatre’s production of Steve Martin’s “Meteor Shower;” debut award, Maya Keleher (“Next to Normal”); solo award, Jon Peterson (“He Wrote Good Songs” at Seven Angels Theatre); and choreography, Doug Shankman (“West Side Story,” Summer Theatre of New Canaan).

Paulette Haupt, who is ending her 40-year run this summer as artistic director of the National Music Theater Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, received the Tom Killen Award for lifetime service to the theater.

Receiving special awards were actor Paxton Whitehead and actor-writer-gay youth advocate James Lecesne.

Outstanding featured actors in a musical went to Rhett Guter for Goodspeed Musicals’ “Bye Bye Birdie” and Kate Simone (“Gypsy,” Music Theatre of Connecticut.

Outstanding featured actors in a play honors went to Mia Dillon (“Cloud 9” at Hartford Stage) and Cleavant Derricks (“The Piano Lesson,” Hartford Stage).

 Design awards went to Jane Shaw for sound (“The Comedy of Errors,” Hartford Stage), Darko Tresnjak for sets (“The Comedy of Errors”), Fabio Toblini (costumes, “The Comedy of Errors”) and John Lasiter for lighting, (“Next to Normal”).

Among the presenters were Obie-winning composer Kirsten Childs, actor-director-producer Jerry Adler, O’Neill Theater Center founder George White, former Goodspeed Musicals exec Michael Price, broadway.com editor-in-chief Paul Wontorek, SiriusXM Broadway radio host Julie James and Tony Award-winning designer Michael Yeargan.

Photo Gallery
Paulette Haupt accepts the Tom Killen Award


Paxton Whitehead accepts a Special Award


Mara Keleher accepting the award for Outstanding Debut

Billy Bivona on guitar, Adam Souza on piano, and Broadway's
Bobby Conte Thornton

Kate Simone accepts the award for Outstanding
Featured Actress in a Musical

Erika Rolfsrud takes a selfie before announcing
the winners for Outstanding Actors in a Play

Zach Schanne accepts the award for Outstanding Actor in a Musical

Christiane Noll accepts the award for Outstanding Actress in a Musical

The cast of 'Next to Normal' and director Rob Ruggiero accept the award for Best Musical

Sunday, June 18, 2017

A Frantic Farce

"Noises Off" -- Connecticut Repertory Theatre -- Thru June 25

Steve Hayes, Jayne Ng, Arlene Bozich, Gavin McNicholl, Curtis Longfellow
and Jennifer Cody. All photos by Gerry Goodstein.

For those of you not familiar with the classic farce penned by Michael Frayn (1982), you might be a bit confused when you enter the Connecticut Repertory Theatre in Storrs, open your program and read that you are about to see a play entitled “Nothing On,” a sex comedy by someone named Robin Housemonger (a Dickensian name if there ever was one). You might even check your ticket – Nope, it says you’re supposed to be seeing “Noises Off.” A conundrum? Well, not really, for over the course of two hours you will, in fact, see both “Nothing On” and “Noises Off,” for the basic premise of Frayn’s play is that you are, at first, at the tech rehearsal for “Nothing On” hours before the show is to open. Housemonger’s play is not meant to be a farce, it’s just a very bad play with very bad actors; “Noises Off is farce par excellence, with some very fine actors and a lot of slamming doors.

As directed by Vincent J. Cardinal, “Noises Off” (the term refers to sounds coming from off-stage) catalogs just about everything that could possibly go wrong in a live production, from cast jealousies and love triangles (pentagons?) to missing props, doors that won’t open or shut, a phone that doesn’t ring when it’s supposed to and squished sardines making a slippery mess on the stage floor. Though “Nothing On,” the play-within-a-play, never gets beyond the first act, “Noises Off” takes the audience from the tech rehearsal to a back-stage view of a performance to the final, last gasp of the show’s disastrous tour, when “Noises Off” all comes together and “Nothing On” all falls apart.

So, we have characters in “Nothing On” (signified hereafter by italics) who are being played by actors who are, in fact, characters in “Noises Off” being played by, well, real actors. Got it? As for the “actors” in “Nothing On,” just read the tongue-in-cheek bios in the program to get a sense of their varied careers. Unfortunately, there are no bios for the numerous sardines that play a pivotal role. I guess they can be considered supernumeraries.

Okay, so what about the real actors? Well, heading the list is the superb Jennifer Cody, who plays Dotty Otley, who plays the maid, Mrs. Clackett. Cody sets the mood from the start by having her character being slightly befuddled by her lines, her blocking and her props (telephone, newspaper and, yes, a plate of sardines). It’s a wonderful comic turn as she interacts with the director of “Nothing On,” Lloyd Dallas (John Bixler), that just gets better as the evening progresses to the chaos of the sex comedy’s final show, when, with superb comic timing, Cody’s Otley tries to figure out what the hell is happening on stage.

If there’s a rising action and climax to “Noises Off” it’s to be found in the amount of slap-stick that is in each of the acts. Limited in the first act, it increases (often mimed) in the second act and reaches a crescendo in the chaotic third act. Creating much of the physical mayhem falls to three characters: Garry Lejeune, aka Roger Tramplemain (Curtis Longfellow), Brooke Ashton, aka Vicki (Jayne Ng) and Frederick Fellowes, aka Philip Brent (Gavin McNicholl). The three characters slip, fall, slither or tumble down stairs and receive blows to various body parts. The only thing missing are in-the-face cream pies, but that role is taken on by the ubiquitous sardines (which are dumped on heads and pushed down bodices).

Someone not familiar with “Noises Off” may, at moments during this production, be a bit confused by who is actually in love (or lust) with whom, and director Cardinal may have wanted to pull in the reins on Ng’s portrayal (and posturing) as Brooke/Vicki – a bit more restraint might also serve Michael Doherty as the stage manager Tim Allgood – for farce, oddly enough, can’t be forced, it’s a tricky genre to stage for it is inherently over-the-top but must, at the same time, appear not to be so. It calls for actors to play fools who are not aware they are foolish.
 
Michael Doherty and Jennifer Cody.
 
Quibbles aside, CRT’s “Noises Off” provides enough laughs and pratfalls (as well as a slow split performed by Cody that not only got laughter but applause) to lighten any humid summer day. There’s no great message here, save that putting on a live production is fraught with mini-disasters and unexpected problems.

One of the inherent delights in the play is what might be termed comedic irony, for the structure of “Noises Off” allows the audience to learn the actors’ lines in “Nothing On” in the first act so that, in the second act, they know what’s happening up-stage (where “Nothing On” is being performed) while they watch the back-stage chaos and then, in the final act, much of the laughs arise from the audience knowing what should happen but doesn’t. The set-ups in the first act lead to the punch lines (and sight gags) of the final act -- including a wandering telephone and…of course, the sardines.

“Noises Off” runs through June 25. For tickets or more information call 860-486-2113 or go to www.crt.uconn.edu.

Friday, June 9, 2017

A Murder In Mystic

Mystic -- Series Pilot


You order up Netflix or Amazon Prime, to name just two, and there are first-run films plus series that have been produced independently. You click on what entices you and binge, giving little thought to how these series – Bloodline, The Fall, War Machine, Stranger Things --  have gotten to see the light of day (or evening). However, getting a series produced is an arduous process, one without specific rules or guidelines. What’s common, however, is what’s called “The elevator pitch,” a terse encapsulation of the series’ essence as the clock is ticking: “You know, it’s enigmatic, like Twin Peaks, but it’s got funky Fargo characters and it’s Gilmore Girls hip.” In other words, the process is a roll of the dice.

Currently shaking the dice are Frank Durant, writer and director of Mystic, and John Logan, its producer, both of whom appear in the series’ pilot. Filmed digitally in and around Mystic, Connecticut, the pilot recently got a showing at The Jealous Monk, a “Social Hall and Beer Garden” nested in “Olde Mistick Village.” Before the pilot was screened, Durant and Logan, who have chosen the Jealous Monk as their watering hole (“We came here every night after filming,” Durant commented), sat down to talk about their hopes for the series and the process of bringing the concept to life.

The two met when they were both working at Shotgun Media (Logan as an intern), a production company that specializes in infomercials. Logan has just graduated from college – Bryant University – majoring in entrepreneurship, but he has been performing magic since he was 10 years old, and this got him the job of “team magician” for the New England Patriots (he had nothing to do with deflate-gate). Team magician? Yup. Just Google the New England Patriots – Magic Moments – and you’ll see segments like “Matt Lengel Eats Santa’s Cookies” (no kidding).

Durant, the senior of the two, is a veteran actor with a Blackstone Valley (Rhode Island) accent. In 2014 he was working on Woody Allen’s “Irrational Man” – “Three months of me hanging around the set, drinking coffee and being a good stand-in” – He explained that the film has to do with a Dostoevskian-style murder. Then Durant produced a documentary about Whodunnit, the TV Clue game, which was shot in Massachusetts. “So I had murder on my mind for the last few years,” Durant said.

 
So, why Mystic as a setting for skullduggery? Durant explained that he had been coming to Mystic since he was a child, and his wife’s family, Bostonians, have also frequently visited the historic town. “So I’ve always had a passion for doing something here because Mystic is a very special location.” He added: “There’s a mystery about this place.” So, the idea came to him, why not create a “Twin Peaks-style” murder mystery set in Mystic, perhaps not as idiosyncratic as the David Lynch televisions series but still enigmatic.

Durant began with characters. “You take a bunch of characters and put them in a room,” Durant said, “and the story will out.” So, he started with, among others, a sheriff, a priest, several hookers, a town councilman, a local fisherman and, of course, a murder victim, one Bridget Ashling, who leaves behind a sister and a daughter, the potpourri flavored by more than a touch of “Irish mafia” mindset. “The plot came out,” Durant said, “as the characters grew within the story.” Subsequently he wrote 30 episodes, 10 per season.

 

Durant had some contacts with the New York Pilot Festival. They advised him that scripts were all fine and good, but there are a ton of scripts floating around, so could he “get some money together and produce a pilot,” and that’s exactly what he did. It was shot in three days, low budget, with a lot of local talent, but Durant is proud that he wore multiple hats during the shoot and that it was professionally handled. There were glitches, but they were dealt with.

Durant is no artiste (although he may aspire to be) driven by art for art’s sake. He knows that “Mystic” has to be marketable, it has to hold an audience that, more and more, is distracted and surfeited. How you go about doing that is often a mystery in itself, for the viewing public is fickle and unpredictable. If anyone knew for sure what would always “work” they’d be a zillionaire.

One thing that will always keep people coming back is the “cliffhanger” close to an episode, creating an “I gotta know what’s going to happen next” need. That has to do with the writing. As Durant explained, often you have the episode’s ending before you have its beginning and the writer’s job is to fill in the blanks.

 

Logan commented: “People like to watch shows because of the good writing, everything’s all connected. In the pilot episode you have character A and character B, lots of characters, but when Frank told me how they all connected I thought, ‘How clever.’ When you finish watching the series you realize everything you’ve seen, everything that happened happened for a reason.”

Another aspect of the genre Durant and Logan are working in is that there have to be multiple suspects, and in the case of “Mystic,” just about everyone could have killed Bridget Ashling. In fact, there are only two people who, right now, know the identity of the murderer: Durant and Long. The cast of the pilot did not know.

Durant has nothing but praise and gratitude for the support he’s received from Mystic – from the civil authorities (especially the police and fire departments) to the local residents. If the show gets a “green light’ he will be back, perhaps with a different cast but shooting in the same locations.

Watching the pilot is like opening a jigsaw puzzle box and staring at all of the pieces. You know they must connect in some way and that they will eventually form a complete, picture. With the puzzle, you have the picture on the box cover to confirm that there is, in fact, a solution. Such is not the case with the “Mystic” pilot; you have to trust that the disparate pieces you see will eventually fit together to form a coherent whole, which is the essence of the mystery genre. In the meantime, if the show is well-written, you simply sit back and enjoy the characters.

"Fade" to What...?

Fade -- TheaterWorks -- Thru June 30

Elizabeth Ramos and Eddie Martinez. Photo: Lanny Nagler

So you walk into a bakery and you see a cake with a little card next to it that proclaims: “Death by Chocolate.” Sounds good to you, so you buy it, bring it home and cut a slice only to find what’s inside is white cake with vanilla frosting. You might just scratch your head and say “What the…?” This might also be your reaction as you sit watching “Fade” unfold up at TheaterWorks in Hartford. This two-hander by Tanya Saracho, directed by Jerry Ruiz, starts out by offering you one thing and then serves up quite another.

The play opens with Lucia (a demonstrative Elizabeth Ramos) entering her film studio office for the first time. She’s got one novel under her belt but has taken this job to pay the rent, although other staff writers hint that she got the job because she’s the token Hispanic. As she arranges her personal effects on bookshelves, Abel (Eddie Martinez), a janitor, is outside her office vacuuming (something he will do a lot of). The bookshelves collapse, Lucia calls for help, and thus the two “meet cute.”

Lucia immediately sizes up Abel (racially) and speaks Spanish to him. Although Abel initially doesn’t comment, they soon get into a discussion about Lucia’s perceptions and assumptions. Abel is of Mexican heritage (compliments of his grandfather), but he was born in America. He tags her as coming from an elite class in Mexican society, a charge that makes her bridle. So, it looks like we’re going to explore several themes, among them the Latino experience in America in the second decade of the 21st century (with the threat of expulsion for many) and an implied caste system amongst Latinos (“What kind of ‘Latino’ are you?”).

However, there’s a subtle shift as the relationship between Lucia and Abel matures (a romance that buds but never flowers), a shift away from ethnic questions to ones dealing with life within the corporate system and selling out. Without wishing to be a spoiler, suffice it to say that what Abel reveals to Lucia about his life she uses to enhance her position with her boss. The ethnicity issues disappear as the play morphs into a “What Makes Sammy Run?” wannabe.

So, what’s the problem, really? Well, the audience is asked to invest a good deal of time and attention to what Saracho develops in the first 30 or so minutes of her play, only to have her “say” forget about all that, here’s what the play is really dealing with – I asked you to buy “Death by Chocolate” but I’m giving you white cake and vanilla icing. The fact that Lucia and Abel are Hispanics becomes irrelevant – it turns out what we’re dealing with is how you, regardless of your ethnicity, step on people as you climb up the corporate ladder.

The play uses a single set designed by Mariana Sanchez. It’s Lucia’s office. Okay, any problems? Yes, and it’s not so much with the set design (it’s pretty much a mid-level corporate office) as it is with the play’s episodic development of scenes, almost all of which end with Lucia and Abel leaving the office for the evening (and Lucia changing tops to indicate it’s another day). Scene after scene ends the same way – they leave the office. You wait for some variation to be played out on this enter-and-exit theme, but it rarely happens, and after awhile it can become a bit mind-numbing.

Whatever faults “Fade” has can’t be placed on the shoulders of the two actors. Ramos, with great control of her body language, creates an intriguing, multi-layered character with just enough “heat” and passion to suggest the conflicted woman hidden beneath the driven scriptwriter, no more so than in the “kiss” scene late in the play.

Martinez gives Abel a droll sense of humor and works manfully to deliver a great deal of exposition late in the show, telling a story that simply runs on for too long (again, not his fault). His sangfroid plays well against Ramos’s more histrionic character.

Thus, the question comes back to what “story” Saracho wants to tell. Because she seems to lose sight of her initial premise, you’re left with a feeling that you’ve seen two different plays. No matter how you slice it, “Fade” really doesn’t satisfy, whether you like chocolate or vanilla.

“Fade” runs through June 30. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to www.theaterworkshartford.org

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On

Million Dollar Quartet -- Ivoryton Playhouse -- Thru June 25

The cast of Million Dollar Quartet

What we have out at the Ivoryton Playhouse right now is what might be called the mother of all juke box musicals (for those not familiar with the term, it means a musical with a thin book created to showcase musical numbers). Million Dollar Quartet, which is based on a true event, captures the music, and some of the tension, when four juke box idols – Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins – all found themselves at the studios of Sam Phillips’ Sun Records in Memphis, TN, in late December of 1956. Elvis had already left Phillips to sign with RCA and Cash and Perkins were about to break the news that they were moving to Columbia Records, while Lewis just wanted to become a star. Setting aside differences and egos, they play a lot of music – and there you have the story and the premise of the show.

As with all juke box musicals, much of your enjoyment will be determined by your association and familiarity with the era from which the music is drawn (and your response to it when it was current). Since we’re talking the 50s here, we’re talking Boomers, many of whom are now receiving Social Security checks. For some theater-goers, references may not register. For example, Elvis’s appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show – many of us saw that “historic” event while others may ask, “Who the hell is Ed Sullivan?” Then there’s Lewis’s references to his romantic proclivities – his career almost ended when he married his 13-year-old second cousin. So, what if you’re not tuned into the era of the rise of rockabilly? Is the show still worth the price of admission? Absolutely.

Million Dollar Quartet, which opened on Broadway in 2010 and ran for over 400 performances, is pure energy and captures the essence of an era, a seismic change from the staid (some might say self-satisfied) early 50s to a more troubled yet expressive society. The songs, over 20 of them, are driven by want, need, rebellion and, most of all, sexual desire (well, “Great Balls of Fire!”), with a little dose of religion (“Walk that Lonesome Valley/I Shall Not be Moved”) to provide a sanctified overlay and a sense of the tent revival ancestry of a lot of the music. As directed and choreographed by Sherry Lutken, with a book by Colin Scott and Floyd Mutrux, this two-hour show pulsates with essentially non-stop music.

Overseeing the proceedings is Phillips, played by Ben Hope. He sets the stage, provides back stories, and often introduces the musical numbers, many of which will be familiar, even if you’re not a Boomer, for they have entered the canon of American songdom. What is also familiar are the personas and voices – Cash, Lewis, Presley and (perhaps less so) Perkins. In staging a show like this, you have to take into account the inevitable audience question: “Does he sound like…?” Well, in this production the answer is yes…and no.

The most iconic of the quartet is, of course, Presley. John Rochette certainly has the moves, but there’s a certain animal growl missing from his voice, a low rumble that made female hearts tremble (and fathers fume). He sells the songs with style, but there’s just something missing.

As Perkins, Luke Darnell doesn’t have as much of an ingrained image to deal with. Hence, his performance is straightforward rockabilly – and the man sure can play the guitar. So, too, can Jeremy Sevelovitz as Johnny Cash, and he nicely captures the dark, gravelly voice of the country singer. Then there’s Joe Callahan as Jerry Lee Lewis, the class clown of the quartet. Callahan beats the hell out of the eighty-eights and gives us a manic Lewis that captures the essence of the man’s persona. Their efforts are backed by Brother Jay (Kroy Presley) on bass and Fluke (Jamie Pittle) on drums.

If there’s one quibble about the production (and it’s not the fault of Ivoryton), it’s that Emily Mattheson as Presley’s girlfriend Dyanne, gets only two numbers: “Fever” and “I Hear You Knockin’.” She nails both songs and I don’t think there was a person in the audience who would have objected to her taking center stage for several more. Perhaps the folks at Ivoryton will take note and work to bring her back in a role that showcases her talents.

All in all, Million Dollar Quartet is an enjoyable two hours of rock-and-roll nostalgia. For those of an age, it will bring back memories of a time when the world was changing (which it always does) and they were young…and often rebellious (yes your grandmother once swooned and screamed as Elvis gyrated and your grandfather was fixated on combing his hair so that a curl fell over his forehead).

Million Dollar Quartet runs through June 25. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.