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