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

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Not So Smart People

Smart People -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru April 9

Peter O'Connor, Sullivan Jones, Ka-Ling Cheung, Tiffany Nichole Greene
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Theories and research are not the stuff of great plays. That’s not to say that a playwright shouldn’t deal with theories and shouldn’t do research, but the material needs to be distilled and infused into characters rather than draped over their shoulders like a multi-colored serape, there for the world to see…and supposedly admire. Unfortunately, there are a lot of serapes in evidence currently at Long Wharf Theatre, which is presenting Lydia Diamond’s Smart People. When the four outstanding actors don said serapes didacticism seems to be a fifth character in the play; when they are allowed to shrug off the cloaks, especially in the second act, the stage lights up, sparks fly, and the audience gets to engage with people rather than ideas that walk and talk.

The premise of the play is, as noted, based on research, said research done by Susan T. Fiske on what has been termed “implicit bias.” What, pray tell, is implicit bias? Well, put simply, it suggests that our prejudices are in our DNA – it’s not so much cultural or generational as it is genetic. Hence, white people, no matter how liberal they believe themselves to be, how non-racist their actions may appear, are inherently prejudiced against those who are “different” (They can’t help but view black dolls as “ugly,” for example.) Put another way, scrape a liberal down to his or her core and you will find a racist.

It’s an interesting hypothesis, but it lies heavily on much of the evening. Diamond brings us four characters, under the direction of Desdemona Chiang, to illuminate and test the hypothesis: Ginny Yang (Ka-Ling Cheung), an Asian-American psychologist and something of a shopaholic and control freak; Valerie (Tiffany Nichole Greene), a young black actress who cleans houses to make the rent; Jackson Moore (Sullivan Jones), a surgical intern who also happens to be black and has some authority issues; and Brian White (Peter O’Connor), a Harvard professor, an angry middle-aged man who has done the research that can prove that whites are inherently prejudiced – they just can’t help themselves. His premise is bound to stir up the cultured folks, especially those deans and professors at Harvard who pride themselves on their liberal pedigrees.

It’s often difficult to distinguish when these characters represent stereotypes and when they actually become living, breathing “people,” for much of their dialogue, especially in the first act, carries the weight of the research Diamond relies on. Thus, one might often ask, are we listening to the character or the playwright as she checked off items on her note pad?

There are also some off-putting moments that might make the audience wonder what the playwright is trying to say. Two of these deal with sexual encounters – a Valerie and Jackson quick roll on the couch and a Ginny and Brian exercise in what…sexual exploitation?…ethnically driven sexual fantasies? It’s not that the depiction of the sex acts is off-putting -- both are actually quite demure -- it’s that they do not seem to have any relevance to the play’s themes or to the characters – especially the female characters. In other words, unless I’ve missed some inner meaning, the sex scenes seem gratuitous.

As is often the case with plays that deal with social issues via the interaction of couples, the second act features a meal during which all four characters are brought together to bring everything to a head. It’s at this meal that the serapes are dropped and the characters truly come to life. However, this is followed by a conclusion that is both enigmatic and an easy out, an imperator ex machina if you will. The play ends with – and this is not a spoiler – the inauguration of President Obama. Revealing this is not a spoiler because the final scene has little to do with the ideas being dealt with, unless it’s a statement that all of that white DNA has somehow passed through an alembic that purified it, alchemically converting the dross of implicit bias into the gold of…what?

Punctuated by many humorous lines and some very interesting vignettes (chief among them Valerie auditioning for a role that requires her to do a verbal Stepin Fetchit), Smart People ends up being part doctoral thesis and part play.

Smart People runs through April 9. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to

Friday, March 3, 2017

Tea and Sympathy for Two

Chapatti -- Square One Theatre Company -- Thru March 19

Al Kulcsar and Lucy Babbitt

Tom Holehan, artistic director at Square One Theatre Company in Stratford, has over the theater’s 27 seasons had the knack for often selecting what might be called “actor plays,” by which I mean that many of the theater’s productions allow the actors to simply show their stuff, to create engaging, believable characters without the assistance of all the bells and whistles that Broadway playgoers seem to demand these days. Such is the case with Chapatti, a tender two-hander by Christian O’Reilly and directed by Holehan that runs through March 19. With little more than some tables, chairs and a coat rack, Holehan’s cast brings to life a play that ever so slowly embraces you until, in the final moment before the blackout, a moment sans dialogue, all you can do is smile.

Set in modern Dublin, Chapatti tells the story of two essentially lost souls who might just find solace in each other’s arms. Yes, it sounds like “chick-flick” fodder, but playwright O’Reilly seems attuned to the spirit of the short story, a genre that focuses on character development and revelation more than plot development and conflict, although there is certainly a plot and conflict in the play, but it is secondary to learning about the two people up on the stage.

Dan (Al Kulcsar) is a dog person, for he is the owner of Chapatti, a canine of indeterminate breed who is his soul mate. Betty (Lucy Babbitt) is a cat person, tending to a host of kittens and a dementia-challenged elderly lady. Their worlds, framed by past relationships, do not so much collide as stumble into each other when a cat is run over by a car. Dan sets out to seek its owner and knocks on Betty’s door.

As Dan and Betty begin to interact there are revelations, the nature of which needn’t be discussed lest I be labeled a spoiler. Suffice it to say that Dan, after loving for so long but never having the comfort of his true love as his own, is ready to say goodbye to the cold, cruel world he now inhabits. Betty, no longer a maiden but still thirsting for love, sublimates her passions through her devotion to her cats.

The plot points in the play are important, but that’s not what’s enjoyable about or central to Chapatti. For anyone who likes to see two actors “do their stuff,” this is your ticket. Kulcsar gives us a man defeated by desires deferred, whose only wish now, after making sure Chapatti, the dog, has a new, good owner, is to, through suicide, perhaps gain total attachment to the woman he has loved for over 30 years. He gives us a man who wants to live but believes that he can only find meaning in death. He has some heavy “message” lines to deliver near the end of this one-act play, and he handles them as best as they can be handled, but for the bulk of the evening he offers us a tormented, tender soul that we can easily embrace.

As for Babbitt as Betty, all you can really say is “Wow!” She is dead-on perfect as an insecure yet perceptive woman who accepts what her life has become but senses that there just might be an alternative. Her Betty is edgy, flighty, given to outbursts of riotous, nervous laughter and a windmill of fluttering arms and hands as she tries to contain her growing excitement that she may have found…someone. Near the end of the play, Betty has invited Dan over for dinner and there is an extended scene that involves preparation and a red dress, a scene that Babbitt pulls off with exquisite aplomb, heightened by the actual dinner when she must seem to accept Dan’s decision to kill himself while fighting for his life. It’s a petite tour de force.

When watching a play you can never be totally sure who is responsible for what in terms of interpretation and stage business. To do that you would have had to be privy to the possible table talks and rehearsals. Thus, it’s difficult to determine where the touch of director Holihan’s hand influenced what the audience sees, but what is obvious is that, whoever suggested what to whom, Holehan has created an atmosphere that allows his actors to shine, and shine they do.

Chapatti runs through March 19. For tickets or more information call 203-375-8778 or go to    

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