Sunday, May 31, 2015

Good People Ride an Emotional Roller Coaster

"Good People" -- TheaterWorks -- Thru June 28

                                       Erika Rolfsrud and R. Ward Duffy
                                       All photos by Lanny Nagler

The word can be defined in many ways, but for actors, it’s the two-way flow between them and the audience sitting out there in the dark. Anyone who has acted will tell you that when the flow isn’t there, when the collective wattage of the audience wouldn’t power a nightlight, it’s as if you’re working in a fog. Your fellow actors seem distant and lifeless, the character you are playing seems pointless, a sham, and you simply can’t wait for the curtain to fall so you can get the hell out of there to ponder your choice of professions.
Ah, but when the current is surging, you are transported. You’re on a high. Everything is in sharp focus and you are taken over by the character you are portraying. You feed on the energy. Time becomes relative and, when the curtain falls you find you have to decompress, somehow find a way to exorcise the character you were possessed by and enter back into your own body. The evening has been a collectively creative experience.
So, what does all of this have to do with “Good People,” David Lindsay-Abaire’s exercise in emotional manipulation, regret and sacrifice that recently opened at TheaterWorks? Well, if the performance I attended is any indication, the entire city of Hartford could be powered by the energy that flows between stage and house.
Set in South Boston – or “Southie” – and the posh suburb of Chestnut Hill, the play opens with Stevie (Buddy Haardt) taking Margaret (Erika Rolfsrud) out into an alley to fire her for consistent tardiness. Maggie tries to manipulate Stevie with references to their shared past (much of which has to do with his mother and a turkey) and the need to care for her daughter, but Stevie, pressured by management, sticks to his guns. In a tough job market, Maggie is once again out of a job with a mentally challenged daughter to care for. She soon finds herself at a bingo game (read metaphor for the vagaries of life – the role “luck” plays in whom we become), seated with her friend Jean (a delightfully acerbic Megan Byrne) and her landlady, Dottie (Audrie Neenan). As the numbers are called out, there is commiseration and counseling, and the announcement that Mike (R. Ward Duffy), an old (short-lived) beau of Maggie’s, is back in town, now a successful doctor. Perhaps, Jean suggests, Maggie can ask Mike for a job. She also suggests a ploy Maggie might use that will play a central role in the second act. Maggie goes to Mike’s office, and the emotional pas-de-deux between the two commences, a dance that will, eventually, become emotionally riveting.

                  Audrie Neenan, Erika Rolfsrud and Megan Byrne

The second act finds Maggie in Chestnut Hill. She essentially invades Mike’s home, where he and his wife, Kate (Chandra Thomas), are dealing with their own inter-personal problems, a simmering cauldron that Maggie will, motivated by her own needs and the true history of her relationship with Mike, bring to a boil. The conversation begins with superficial niceties. Wine and cheese are served…and then all hell breaks loose, leading to a decision Maggie must make about what it means to be a “good person,” followed by a coda that confirms suspicions and, with the simple announcement of a bingo number, suggests a ray of hope.
As directed by Rob Ruggiero, TheaterWorks producing artistic director, “Good People” is consummate theater, emotionally involving and ultimately satisfying on many levels. It doesn’t hurt that he has gathered together a group of excellent actors to work with him, starting with Rolfsrud, who has thrilled and chilled TheaterWorks’ audiences in the past in “Time Stands Still” and “Rabbit Hole” (another Lindsay-Abaire play). Rolfsrud owns the stage from the moment she is ushered out into that alley, creating a multi-faceted, emotionally conflicted character who both engages and enrages, for Maggie is needful, proud, conniving and a master of passive-aggressiveness. She is a survivor in a game that has apparently been rigged. Rolfsrud’s work in the second act, as her character tries to find a calm, moral center amidst a swirl of emotions, is priceless.

                              Buddy Haardt, Erika Rolfsrud,
                                         Megan Byrne and Audrie Neenan

The arc of Maggie’s emotions is matched by those of Mike, and as Rolfsrud’s Maggie keeps on raising the emotional ante, Duffy responds. From their characters’ first confrontation, it’s a yin-yang game of ping-pong that becomes increasingly revelatory and visceral. Both Rolfsrud and Duffy are well-versed in using both body language and eye contact to enhance the meaning of the dialogue – the locked gaze and emotionally electric silence between the two near the end of the second act convey a truth that can’t be captured in words.
In supporting roles, Haardt, Neenan, Byrne and Thomas are equally engaging. Byrne uses a female version of the slow-burn to great effect, certainly knows how to needle, and can say volumes with a simple stare. In opposition, Neenan gives her character an annoying “dottiness” that is consistently humorous. Although there are moments when Thomas, as Kate, seems a visitor in her own home, her character’s final confrontation with Maggie is effective, and Haardt provides a satisfying, low-key balance to Maggie’s flamboyantly needful persona.
Mention should be made of the scene changes, which are punctuated and accented by filmed tracking shots (designed by Luke Hegel-Cantarella) – all in suffused color reminiscent of early Technicolor films. The scenes range from close-ups of stocked shelves in a Dollar Store to urban street scenes and a manicured suburb. Projected against Hegel-Cantarella’s bare-bones, wood-paneled “Southie” set and corresponding well-appointed suburban living room, they create a sense of nostalgia and, in an odd way, the ghosts of the past that haunt the present.
These projections are evidence that cast and creative team had a vision, an agreement about how “Good People” should be presented and what the play is about. This vision permeates the performances and infuses the entire production. Not surprisingly, at the curtain the cast got a standing-O, but you got the feeling that those on stage were saying the same thing back to the audience: thanks for a wonderful evening of theater.

"Good People" runs through June 28. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to

Monday, May 25, 2015

Not Just "Another Op'inin''"

Kiss Me, Kate -- Hartford Stage -- Thru 14

                                         Megan Sikora, Barrett Martin, Giovanni 
                                         Bonaventura, Tyler Hanes.
                                         All photos by T. Charles Erickson

After the success of “A Gentleman’s Guide…,” first in Hartford and then on Broadway, one might think that Hartford Stage’s artistic director Darko Tresnjak – given the “That’s great, but what have you done for me today?” syndrome -- might take a musical comedy sabbatical. But no, Tresnjak has opted, in association with The Old Globe, to resurrect and re-stage Cole Porter’s 1948 come-back smash, “Kiss Me, Kate,” and he has done so with style, flair and inventiveness, albeit with major assistance from choreographer Peggy Hickey.

After a string of flops in the late 30s and early 40s, Porter was thought by many to be washed up, but in response to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma” (1943) and other musicals with integrated books (that is, those with songs that meshed with and advanced the musical’s plot), Porter hit on the idea of creating a musical about a group of actors preparing to present Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew.” The result was “Kiss Me, Kate,” with a book by Bella and Samuel Spewack, which in 1949 won the first Tony award presented for Best Musical.

                                                        Megan Sikora

The show-within-a-show format opens with “Taming’s” cast and crew gathering backstage to sing one of show businesses most famous paeans: “Another Op’nin’, Another Show.” The number, as staged by Tresnjak, begins almost as a dirge and then builds into the anthem that everyone is familiar with, accented by Hickey’s inventive, propulsive choreography. It’s in this first number that the show’s physicality is established, a physicality that is personified by Megan Sikora, who plays the actress Lois Lane who, in turn, plays the shrew’s sister, Bianca, in “Taming.” Over the course of the evening, Lane will not only deliver on “Tom Dick and Harry” and “Always True to You in My Fashion,” but she will be flipped, spun, whirled and cart-wheeled from one pair of strong arms to another so that at moments you worry for her safety. It’s a bravura performance, one that must find her drained after the curtain.

                                          Anastasia Barzee and Mike McGowan

“Taming” is being produced and directed by the egotistical Fred Graham (the strong-voiced Mike McGowan), who also plays Petruchio, one of the leads. Opposite him, as Kate (Anastasia Barzee – a veteran of Broadway’s “Urinetown” and “Jekyll & Hyde”) is his ex-wife, Lilli Vanessi, now a movie star and a bit of a shrew herself. The couple, after some verbal sparring, finds that they still have feelings for each other, first by reminiscing about a second-rate show they were in and singing “Wundebar,” one of the show’s numbers. Lilli then receives flowers – her wedding bouquet – from Mike, and realizes that she is still “So In Love.” Alas, the flowers have been mis-delivered – Mike meant them for Lois, whom he is currently romancing. The card accompanying the flowers is initially misplaced, but just before the opening of “Taming” it is found and Lilli vows to read it later. She will do so during the performance, which will set off pyrotechnics that will propel the show through the rest of the first act and well into the second.

                               Joel Blum, Mike McGowan and Brendan Averett

As a delightful sub-plot, Lois’s boyfriend, Bill (Tyler Hanes – the deft lead in the “Bianca” number), an inveterate gambler, has signed Mike’s name to a $10,000 IOU. Just before the curtain is to go up on “Taming,” two thugs (Brendan Averett and Joel Blum) arrive to collect. Mike protests that he has no memory of signing the chit, but the two aren’t buying – they will hang around until he “remembers” and pays up. Eventually, these two star-struck mugs will become involved in “Taming,” and will, in the scene-in-one number “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” basically stop the show. They will also, during a delightful rendition of “I Am Ashamed…,” shoot down an offending songbird.

As the leads, Barzee and McGowan (who has been given a rather interesting hairdo – think Caesar fresh from the baths) initially seem to be riding the surfaces of their characters. This awareness of playing a role soon dissipates when Lilli/Kate reads the note. After that, the sparks fly and any reservations one might have had are easily set aside. Barzee blossoms with “I Hate Men,” as her great sense of comic timing comes to the fore, and as she becomes more brash and brazen, McGowan responds. He gives as good as he gets and it becomes what it should be, a lot of rollicking fun.

                                                         James T. Lane

Of special note is the second act’s opening number, “Too Darn Hot.” Those familiar with only the movie version of the musical will remember that in the film this number was basically a showpiece for Ann Miller’s substantial talents. However, this is the opening number of the second act, and as such, it calls for a “cast call,” which Tresnjak and Hickey deliver, featuring the manifest talents of James T. Lane, who plays Paul and the Innkeeper. It’s an engaging ensemble number driven by Lane’s tapping feet and it does what a second-act opening number is supposed to do: it wakes up the audience and brings those fresh from the rest rooms back into the world of the show.

With great costumes by Fabio Toblini and a flexible set (Alexander Dodge) that seamlessly shifts from “backstage” and dressing rooms to Padua, this two-hour romp can’t help but please. The performances are consistently excellent, the energy level is high, and the staging and choreography both intelligent and captivating.

“Kiss Me, Kate” runs through June 14. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to

Sunday, May 17, 2015

A Somewhat Restrained "Winslow Boy"

"The Winslow Boy" -- Square One Theatre Company -- Thru May 30

                                             Tess Brown and Sam Noccioli

How do you dramatize a court case without ever showing a courtroom scene? Bit of a problem, eh? Well, that’s the challenge playwright Terence Rattigan took on with his play, “The Winslow Boy,” which premiered in 1946. Instead of courtroom dramatics (which were added in the 1948 film of the play), Rattigan chose to focus on what might be called the home front, that is, the drawing room of the Winslow family, a relatively prosperous Edwardian family whose younger son, Ronnie, has just been expelled from Osborn Naval College for supposedly stealing a five-shilling postal order (think Western Union wire transfer). The father’s decision to press for justice and vindication for his son, which will turn into a two-year ordeal, and the impact this quest has on the Winslow family, is what is currently being boarded at Square One Theatre Company in Stratford, and the result is, though at moments interesting, less than gripping.

As directed by Tom Holehan, Square One’s artistic director, the production often seems to be running on low-wattage. This lack of sizzle may have several causes, the first being the subject matter itself. The audience is many generations removed from this family, and the social mores and strictures of Edwardian England it has to confront are, if not totally alien, in need of greater explication than Rattigan provides – one gets the feeling the dramatist assumed knowledge that, seven decades later, is simply no longer there.

Thus, though Ronnie (Sam Noccioli) has been shamed, the social gravity of this ignominy is not immediately apparent, and its importance to the family’s honor and standing, which impels his father, Arthur (Bruce Murray) to seek formal redress, seems slight. This mountain-out-of-a-molehill concern is addressed by Arthur’s wife, Grace (Ann Kinner), in one of the play’s most moving scenes, but it comes too late to frame the primary action and provide dramatic tension.

                                     Lucy Babbitt, Bruce Murray and Tess Brown

There are other elements whose gravity and import suffer from the seven-decade remove: the somewhat idle lifestyle of the family’s older son, Dickie (Ryan Hendrickson), a lackadaisical Oxford student, the nascent feminism of the family’s daughter, Catherine (Tess Brown), and the formal attitude of her suitor, John (Jim Buffone), concerned as he is about “what people (especially his father) will say” about the family’s challenge to the government, and the family’s relationship to their maid, Violet (Lucy Babbitt).

The inherent drama in the play is that this family is under a siege that is, to a certain extent, self-created, but the stakes simply never seem that high or compelling. This is also, in part, due to the energy projected by the cast. Although there are moments in the play that command attention, as the lady who accompanied me pointed out during intermission, the actors often seem to be holding back (save for Babbitt), partly a function of a sound system that, at times, makes it difficult to hear what’s being said, and partly due to the actors’ lack of projection – seldom does anyone seem to be playing to the balcony, perhaps because too much thought is being given by the actors to maintaining the British accents that vary from stilted to all-to-plummy.

                                  Bruce Murray, Ann Kinner and Ryan Hendrickson

This “I’m aware I’m playing someone British” is most apparent in Joseph Maker’s take on Sir Robert Morton, the renowned barrister who takes on Ronnie’s case. Although quite effective in the “interrogation” scene (the closest the play comes to courtroom drama), he has a bit of difficulty pulling off the “to the manner born” attitude inherent in his character. Often, he just seems smug.

Perhaps these criticisms seem a bit heavy-handed – after all, this is community theater – but Holehan and company have, over the group’s 25-year history, shown themselves again and again to be capable of producing enthralling theater -- high standards that, in this case, are not met…and yet, you sense that if the actors had been urged to “go for it,” the evening would have been quite a different experience. Murray’s take on the father could have been more intense, and over the evening one got the sense that Brown was eager to give Catherine a more vivid presence.

Part of the tension that should exist in this play is the human passions that boil beneath the façade of Edwardian propriety. That passion gives meaning to Arthur’s decision to seek redress, Grace’s devotion to her family, Catherine’s commitment to female equality, and Morton’s devotion to seeking justice (and perhaps winning Catherine’s hand). To be effective, however, said passions cannot be implied, they must be dramatized, if not in words then in all of the other ways that actors have to create and project emotion. Perhaps, a few simple words to the cast might transform the production: “Yes, you’re British, but you’re also people.”

“The Winslow Boy” runs through May 30. For tickets, call Square One Theatre Company, 2422 Main Street, Stratford at 203-375-8778 or online at   

Thursday, May 14, 2015

History Overrules Drama

"The Second Mrs. Wilson" -- Long Wharf Theatre - Thru May 31

                                           Margaret Colin and John Glover
                                           All photos by T. Charles Erickson

Conflict. It’s the essence of drama. No conflict -- no drama. There simply has to be something up for grabs, and the degree and intensity of the grabbing quite often dictates the emotional involvement of the audience. So, how involved is the audience in “The Second Mrs. Wilson,” a new play by Joe DiPietro in its world premiere at Long Wharf Theatre? In one person’s opinion, less than it should be.

The premise is solid: President Woodrow Wilson (John Glover), a widower, is, circa 1915, trying to keep the United States out of the conflagration that is consuming Europe, but the war mongers are calling him coward and urging him to send “our boys” overseas to pay back the Huns for all of their dastardly doings on the high seas. As Wilson agonizes over his options, seeking advice from his long-time friend, Colonel Edward House (Harry Groener), a woman comes into his life – Edith Bolling Galt (Margaret Colin), a direct descendant of Pocahontas. The widow of Norman Galt, a jeweler, she is introduced to the president by his cousin. The president is smitten and a scant nine months later Edith and Woodrow are married.

America is eventually drawn into World War I in 1917 and, at its conclusion, Wilson is greeted by many in Europe as a savior. Driven by a quasi-messianic belief in the possibility of world peace, Wilson presses for the formation of the League of Nations as part of the Treaty of Versailles, but back home there are those, chief among them Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (Nick Wyman), who feel that the League infringes on the country’s ability to chart its own course, especially when and if it will ever again go to war.

                                                       Margaret Colin

The travel and strain take their toll on Wilson, who suffers a stroke in 1919. Given Wilson’s inability to function fully on a daily basis, Edith, believing she understands better than anyone else Wilson’s dreams and hopes,  takes over many of the president’s administrative duties, much to the consternation and frustration of Vice President Thomas Marshall (Steve Routman) and Secretary Joe Tumulty (Fred Appelgate). The Senate rejects the treaty, shattering Wilson’s dream.

This is heady stuff – the stuff of history and high drama, but the tensions, the stakes – the conflict – simply aren’t palpably there in the play. Yes, we have all of the “facts,” but the characters seldom come to life, turning the play into a dramatized history lesson.

What does work is the human relationship between Woodrow and Edith – his giddy delight in her and her growing devotion and dedication to him. In these intimate scenes, Glover and Colin bring their characters out of the dusty history books and show us a man and a woman who find, somewhat late in life, what they have been looking for. Colin is also extremely engaging in her extended scene with Groener, in which she puts Colonel House in his place, using sarcasm and innuendo.

                                                   John Glover and Nick Wyman

Alas, these sparkling moments fade as the “facts” overwhelm the essence of drama. The problem is that DiPietro, who penned “Memphis” and “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” seems to be handcuffed by history. Anyone familiar with this time period in America knows the story he is telling, although argument continues over the extent of Edith’s influence and her true intentions. DiPietro seems to want to “get it right,” which is good if you are writing a history book but may not serve if you are writing a drama. Lord knows, other playwrights have played fast and loose with “the facts” to serve the god (or goddess) of drama. Think of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” or Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee’s “Inherit the Wind.” Historians might carp, as they did and continue to do about these plays, but playwrights are charged with creating a different kind of “truth.”

One of the truths DiPietro seems to have been going for is the misogyny of the era. The play is set in the White House, but before the curtain the male characters, save for Wilson, have gathered to play pool in what appears to be an exclusive men’s club. The message is clear – this is a man’s world, complete with liquor and cigars. That this is also the White House, where Edith will eventually hold sway, visually presents what might have been DiPietro’s focus, but the focus is diffuse, even though the males “lurk” in the background throughout most of the play, lounging and watching. Is the play about the political in-fighting that led to the rejection of the Treaty of Versailles, is it about Wilson’s rigid Presbyterian moralism that perhaps stymied his attempt to create a just and equitable peace, or is it about Edith and what angels or devils compelled her to do what she did, or is it about the mind-set that eventually would be termed the “glass ceiling,” or is it about love and devotion? DiPietro touches on all of these themes, but without focus the inherent drama of each is underdeveloped. A lot happens in the two hours, but you come away not really sure about what, exactly, has happened or what you were supposed to care about.

“The Second Mrs. Wilson” runs through May 31. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to

Sunday, May 10, 2015

In Lies There's Truth. Of Course, Forsooth

"The Liar" -- Westport Country Playhouse -- Thru May 23

                                            Rusty Ross and Rebekah Brockman.
                                            All photos by Carol Rosegg

If you have the time, and don’t mind rhyme, that is, to verse you’re not averse, “The Liar” ‘tis, I’m sure you’ll find, a bit of show biz that’s rather fine.

The opening production of Westport Playhouse’s 86th season is an adaptation of Corneille’s comedy by David Ives, the author of “Lives of the Saints” and “Venus in Fur.” It’s a smart selection, for it is light, frolicsome and, as deftly directed by Penny Metropulos, a fast-moving romp that blends 17th-century French theater motifs with modern sensibilities, and it doesn’t hurt that the cast is, without exception, not only extremely talented but totally “into” the spirit of the evening.

As the play’s title suggests, the focus of the goings-on is an habitual liar by the name of Dorante (Aaron Krohn), recently arrived in Paris – or, has he been there for a year – or, has he been off fighting the Germans? Wherever he’s been, he is quickly accosted by Cliton (Rusty Ross), who urges the gentleman to hire him as his valet. The deal is made, and Dorante soon relates to Cliton his desire to find a maid to woo and win. No sooner said than Lucrece (Monique Barbee), Clarice (Kate MacCluggage) and Isabelle (Rebekah Brockman) appear on the scene. Dorante immediately falls in love with Clarice, but he is misinformed by Cliton that the lady’s name is Lucrece. Confusion immediately sets in, added to by the fact that Isabelle immediately falls for Cliton, but you see, while Isabelle is somewhat lusty, her twin sister Sabine (also played by Brockman) is somewhat stern and straight-laced. You sense the complications that will arise here.

                                               Rusty Ross and Aaron Krohn

To add to the confusion, Clarice has been engaged to Alcippe (Philippe Bowgen) for two years, and Alcippe happens to be Dorante’s dear friend. Oh, dear. More complications. Then there is Geronte (Brian Reddy), Dorante’s father, who desperately wishes his son to marry and father a child, and Alcippe’s confidante, Philiste (Jay Russell), who is secretly in love with Sabine. Egads and zounds! Even more complications.

Yes, the plot goes ‘round and ‘round like a whirligig, but you won’t need to overly worry about which way the wind is blowing, because the plot twists are secondary to the magnificent, multiple lies that Dorante weaves over the course of the evening, each one more fabulous than the last, and each adding impetus to the imbroglio.

                                       Kate MacCluggage and Monique Barbee

Krohn is superb as the mendacious Dorante. Yes, his character is a liar, but there’s a certain honesty to his marvelous confabulations that he conjures with a great deal of brio. The high point is his description of how he was forced to marry, an extended monologue that is an express train of storytelling. All you can do is watch in awe as he grasps at straws and somehow manages to construct a cathedral out of them.

                                              Kate MacCluggage, Monique Barbee, 
                                              Aaron Krohn and Brian Reddy

He is ably supported by Ross, whose character is the direct opposite of Dorante’s – Cliton cannot tell a lie. Ross plays the jester/dogsbody to a fault, making biting comments as appropriate while all the while in awe of his master’s audacity. As the two ladies being wooed, MacCluggage and Barbee work their banter well, with MacCluggage giving Clarice a suitable archness that plays off Barbee’s somewhat wistful and naïve Lucrece.

The supporting cast is equally adept. Brockman plays both of her roles to perfection, and has one of the best (theatrical) lines of the show – “I almost didn’t make it.” – at the play’s conclusion. As Alcippe, Bowgen has obviously looked up the word “popinjay” and has taken the definition to heart. His character is all pomposity and puffery, and he delights in another of the play’s set-pieces, the “finger” sword fight with Dorante.

                                     Philippe Bowgen, Jay Russell and Aaron Krohn

Reddy and Russell are equally comfortable in their characters, with Reddy giving us just a hint of Polonius and Russell a tinge of Malvolio (yes, Ives, while adapting Corneille, doesn’t forget the Bard).

                                                Brian Reddy and Jay Russell

Since this is an adaptation that blends conventions separated by almost five centuries, the set by Kristen Robinson is effectively minimalistic, consisting basically of four overarching “trees” under which chairs, several black and white barrels and a garden gate are maneuvered by the cast to suggest setting. It falls to costume designer Jessica Ford to establish the 17th-century feel of the production, and this she does with a great deal of style and invention.

All in all, “The Liar” is a classy, inventive, verbally entrancing hoot of a play. Yes, some of the rhyming may be a bit strained, but that just adds to the enjoyment. You will feel a smile blossom as you watch the play’s opening moments, and as the evening progresses the smile grows into a perpetual grin of delight and satisfaction.

“The Liar” runs through May 23. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to

Sunday, May 3, 2015

A Sprightly "Spamalot"

"Spamalot" -- Broad Brook Opera House -- Thru May 17

                                                Arthur and the knights. 
                                                All photos by Susan Choquette

Tucked up in the rolling hills of central Connecticut is the Broad Brook Opera House, home since 2003 to The Opera House Players, a group originally formed as the St. Martha Players in 1968. The group presents four musicals a year in space that was built in 1892 by the Broad Brook Woolen Company and over the years has housed an ice cream parlor and an insurance company. Currently running in the wooden-beamed theater is “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” based on the film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” This delightful, slightly irreverent musical, with book and lyrics by Eric Idle and music by John Du Prez and Eric Idle, is a witty send-up of the King Arthur legend and, at the same time, many of the traditions of the Broadway musical.

Under the capable direction of Sharon FitzHenry, the cast of 15 talented actors has one hell of a time camping it up, much to the delight of the audience. The mood for the evening is set when the Historian (Ryan Bird) provides a pretentious lecture on the history of the period in England. Confusion immediately reigns, for the opening number, “Fisch Schlapping Song,” is set in Finland. This is only the first of many misconstrued remarks that fuels much of the comedy.

                          Arthur (Gene Choquette) and Patsy (Luis J. Manzi) cavort

With a limited set – several rather stunted “trees,” two castle towers, some sliding curtains and several painted scrims – the cast is able to vividly create multiple, believable scenes in Arthur’s bumbling quest for the Holy Grail. “Spamalot” is basically farce, and for farce to work the cast can’t play it farcically – sounds like a contradiction, but for everything to work the characters must give the impression that what is going on up on the stage is the stuff of high drama, and this they do admirably.

Gene Choquette as King Arthur is capable of being commanding and befuddled at the same time, because it ain’t easy being king, especially when your subjects didn’t vote for you and don’t even realize they live in a kingdom. He takes comfort in his faithful servant Patsy (Luis J. Manzi), who carries their equipment and supplies the “clip-clop” for their “horses,” said sound leading to a delightful argument early in the first act between the king and several yeomen about the source of the coconut shells Patsy uses.

                                 Lancelot (Michael King) about to save a "maiden"

Scouring the countryside for able men to become the knights that will sit “at a very large round table,” Arthur recruits Dennis (Tim Reilly), a semi-cretin who, with the help of the Lady of the Lake (Erica Romeo), morphs into Sir Galahad, with the cheering support of the Laker Girls (Amy Rucci, Kaytlyn Vandeloecht, Liz Clayton, Mallory Wray and Aileen Merino Terzi). Also called to the king’s banner are Sir Belvedere (Rick Fountain), the overly-aggressive Sir Lancelot (Michael King) and the slightly-less-than-aggressive Sir Robin (Randy Davidson). Beyond serving as Arthur’s stalwart (?) knights, the four actors also ably play multiple roles.

The musical is basically a series of set-pieces framed by the quest story, with each piece offering its own very distinctive, and by now very well known, musical number. The problem with taking on such a production (those involved had to believe that much of the audience would be familiar with the original film and with the subsequent Broadway production) is that expectations are high. By and large, the expectations are met.

            The Black Knight (Tim Reilly) and Arthur consider the loss of an arm

Those familiar with the musical know full well that one of the central roles is that of the Lady of the Lake. She has several key numbers – among them a duet with Arthur (“The Song That Goes Like This”), and the show-stopping “The Diva’s Lament.” Happy to say that Romeo pulls both off with great aplomb. She’s a perfect Lady – arch, sarcastic and robust, with a true diva’s voice.

In fact, all of the lead roles are played with a great deal of sophistication and professionalism. They dance and sing, often at the same time. The “Knights of the Round Table,” is rousing, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” an eye- and ear-catching opening to the second act, and “Brave Sir Robin” slyly humorous.

There are two numbers, however, that stand out. The first is Sir Robin’s “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway.” Here Davidson truly shines – he’s entertaining from beginning to end. The second is the flamboyant “His Name is Lancelot,” when said knight slowly comes out of the closet to a disco beat. King’s body language here is priceless as he allows his character to slowly move to the beat. The final shining moment ostensibly belongs to Arthur who, late in the second act, laments that “I’m All Alone,” but the number wouldn’t work without Manzi’s subtle reactions to the fact that his very existence is being disregarded. To Choquette’s credit, he creates an obliviousness to the obvious that makes Manzi’s responses even funnier.

As good as these musical numbers are, the show would not work if the cast wasn’t able to capture the unique Pythonesque nature of the extended dialogue, which offers absurdity in the form of rational conversation. Credit to director FitzHenry for imbuing the cast with the sense that the silliness must be delivered in all seriousness. The aforementioned argument about the coconuts is one example; others include Arthur’s argument with Dennis and his mother about the proper type of government for the realm, the confrontation with the Knights who say Ni and the deliriously silly argument before the castle walls of a French nobleman. Add to all of this the Trojan rabbit, an evil, bloodthirsty rabbit and the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch and you’ve got a send-up of multiple myths, religion and more musicals than you can shake a lance at.

Yes, there are some minor problems, among them lighting that often throws some of the actors into shadow (a problem that could have been solved by several follow spots), a sound system that sometimes suffers from feedback, and some (occasional) rather discordant notes emanating from the quartet of accompanying musicians, but these minor glitches do not take away from the overall enjoyment of the evening. It may take a bit of travel time for many Connecticut theatergoers to make it up to Broad Brook, but they will find the quest well worth the effort.

By the way -- a nice touch -- the actors line up outside the theater to greet audience members as they depart.

“Spamalot” runs through May 17. For tickets call 860-292-6068.  

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Goodspeed's Got the Show Right Here

"Guys and Dolls" -- Goodspeed Opera House -- Thru June 20

                                       Mark Price (center) and the gamblers.
                                       All photos by Diane Sobolewski

Goodspeed Opera House starts its new season under the guidance of executive director Michael Gennaro with the same style, spirit and professionalism that marked the productions of the Michael Price era. Its first offering is Frank Loesser’s “Guys and Dolls,” one of the most successful of the Broadway musicals of the 1950s. It’s easy to see why the original show ran for 1,200 performances, and why this revival will please audiences throughout its two-month run. The show is well cast, artfully directed by Don Stephenson, and boasts an eye-catching set and period perfect costumes.

Based on several Damon Runyon short stories, with a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, the musical focuses on the Big Apple’s demi-monde, with a cast of characters that belie their low-life pursuits by speaking in heightened prose that attempts to mimic, they believe, the rather stilted palaver of the upper-class. It opens with a street scene that, though effectively choreographed by Alex Sanchez, seems to be just a bit too over-the-top in terms of entrances, exits and some exaggerated body language. Things quickly settle down as three gamblers, Nicely-Nicely (Scott Cote), Benny (Noah Plomgren) and Rusty (Jordan Grubb) sing of sure things and safe bets based on “reliable” tips from touts. The goings-on are interrupted by a Salvation Army-style band seeking to save any lost souls to be found on 42nd Street. As the band members sing “Follow the Fold,” Sarah Brown (Manna Nichols) hands out pamphlets to no effect, mainly because many of the street’s denizens have bigger things to worry about than their souls: they need to find a venue for their crap game.

                                               Tony Roach and Manna Nichols

Hosting and backing “The Oldest Established” crap game in New York is Nathan Detroit (Mark Price), who is currently without the funds to book the Biltmore Garage for the game. Detroit has another problem in the curvaceous form of Miss Adelaide (Nancy Anderson), his girl-friend of 14 years who yearns to be married. However, the crap game takes precedence, and the only way he can see clear to getting the funding is to bet the famous gambler and womanizer, Sky Masterson (Tony Roach) that Sky won’t be able to take the prim and proper Sarah on a one-day jaunt to Cuba.

Thus, the scene is set for some memorable numbers, including “I’ll Know,” “Guys and Dolls,” “If I Were a Bell” and “I’ve Never Been in Love Before.” A possible problem in staging such a well-known musical is that many of the numbers are so tightly attached to and associated with the characters who sing them that even the slightest miscue is noticeable. Fortunately, the miscues in this production are few and far between.

Although Price sometimes borders on eating the scenery, his character’s relationship with the much-put-upon Miss Adelaide is pitch-perfect, and his “Sue Me” a delight.  Nichols’ Sarah is suitably repressed as she disdains Sky’s overtures, so her “If I Were a Bell,” with her inhibitions loosened by liberal doses of Bacardi, can’t help but bring broad smiles to those watching. Equally effective is Cote in the role of Nicely-Nicely (it doesn’t hurt that Cole bears a passing resemblance to Stubby Kaye, who created the role on Broadway). He, along with Plomgren, sells the “Guys and Dolls” number and leads a rousing “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat” near the end of the second act.

                                                 Scott Cote and Noah Plomgren

If, at moments, Roach seems somewhat studied and a bit too controlled in the role of Sky – of all the Runyonesque characters he seems the least able to deliver the specialized argot --  he certainly exudes suavity, though there seems to be less than total chemistry between his character and that of Sarah’s. However, as lead male he has little trouble commanding the stage and delivers on “Luck Be a Lady.”

                                                            Nancy Anderson

As memorable as all of these characters are, “Guys and Dolls” is really Miss Adelaide’s show, and the actress selected for the role has to be capable of creating a rather mixed aura, a blend of naivete, world-weariness, and sexuality with just a touch of innocence. Anderson does all of this and more, creating a Miss Adelaide you wish had been given more scenes. Her “Lament” is priceless (watch her eyes as she attempts to figure out the true meaning of the psycho-babble she is reading – they move to the beat of the orchestration). Her rapid-fire rage at Nathan in “Sue Me” accents the comedy in musical comedy, and she is the energizing force in her character’s duet with Sarah, “Marry the Man Today.” Her performance will be the major factor in generating positive word-of-mouth about the production.

It’s good to know that Goodspeed remains on target. “Guys and Dolls” will please multiple generations: those familiar with the show and the era it depicts and those new to musical comedy. It’s bright, well-paced, and, as is true of most Goodspeed productions, exuberant. It’s a cliché, but you will leave the theater humming a favorite tune, and on the drive home consider going back for a second dose, perhaps inviting a friend with whom you’d like to share two hours of the type of escape for which American musical theater is justly famous.

“Guys and Dolls” runs through June 20. For tickets or more information call 860.873.8668 or visit:

Friday, May 1, 2015

A Tangled Tango of Relationships

"Elevada" -- Yale Repertory Theatre -- Thru May 16

                                       Laurel Casillo in Elevada. 
                                      All photos by Carol Rosegg

If you glance through the program for “Elevada,” a new play by Sheila Callaghan that is enjoying its premiere at the Yale Repertory Theatre, you might think you are in for an excursion into 21st-century urban techno-realism, or perhaps a ponderous, solipsistic, pseudo-agonizing reflection on the world of electronic alienation and self-absorbed slaves to the Internet. Then again, you might be worried that the evening will turn out to be an exercise in mixed-metaphor, sophomoric prose, for the program suggests that “Elevada makes the case for leaping, while refusing to assert that the world promises a landing spot any more comfortable outside the frying pan.” Fortunately, the program’s puffery and rush-gush, self-important prose in no way captures what is, regardless of the production’s “Oh-so-now” trappings, an old-fashioned boy-meets-girl love story, and a delightful and, at moments, quite touching one at that.

                                      Greg Keller and Alfredo Narciso 

We start with a blind date between Khalil (Alfredo Narcisco) and Ramona (Laurel Casillo), set up on-line (of course) by Khalil’s roommate, Owen (Greg Keller), a rehab veteran who’s sworn off drugs but clings to alcohol. Khalil’s current occupation (for which he is not paid) is to observe activity on various social web sites – the ebb and flow of “communication” -- so he can advise corporations about community-building. In person, Khalil is, as would be expected, socially inept. Thus, he is almost overwhelmed by the effervescent Ramona, a young lady who cannot help but send out sparks of delight at the simple possibility of ordering pheasant for dinner. Yet Ramona is also flawed – she is being treated for cancer, a dark angel that hovers beneath her bubbly consciousness and suggests that her worth can only be found in her illness. She is also being mothered by her sister, June (Keira Naughton), a shark-in-the-water real estate agent who’s not above “stalking” to secure relational happiness.

Yes, there’s a techno-coating to all of this, with cell phones beeping and the ubiquitous lap-tops, and a rather unbelievable business ploy by Kahlill to sell “himself” – that is, his very being (Mephistophelean overtones here) – to the highest corporate bidder (what a corporation might want to do with his persona is never made clear), but all of this is, in the long run, beside the point, for Callaghan, for all of her efforts to make her play au courant, is essentially a romantic at heart, and shriven of the techno-overlay, this is a play about four lonely, semi-dysfunctional people who may just find a modicum of happiness if they simply, though ineptly, reach out to each other and embrace.

                                       Keira Naughton and Greg Keller 

As effectively and, at moments, tenderly directed by Jackson Gay, with efficient, minimalistic scenic designs by Kurtis Boetcher and stunning lighting and projection designs by Tyler Micoleau and Shawn Boyle, “Elevada” overcomes whatever “message” Callaghan had in mind to simply please on a very basic level, and this is primarily due to the wonderful cast, led by the vivacious, engaging Casillo, who gives us a young woman who is both gamine and femme fatale, with a bit of waif thrown in for good measure. She is, quite simply, a joy to watch, whether she is doing a sensuous pole dance, climbing a garden fence, eagerly anticipating that pheasant dinner or simply standing to learn her medical fate. Her performance is quite easily worth the price of a ticket.

Not to be outdone, Naughton gives the audience a superbly up-tight yet needful lady who is all surface-ceramic (a nice bit of costuming by Steven M. Rotramel has Naughton always in heels while Casillo mostly wears flats or is barefoot). Naughton’s character is a brittle beauty teetering on the edge of breaking into pieces that may not be able to be put back together again. Her urban sophistication meets its match when she is confronted by Khalil’s roommate, Owen, a wobbly wordsmith who is well aware of his own failings yet can see truth when it stands before him, even though he may be seeing said truth through eyes slightly blurred, compliments of Stolichnaya.

                                        Laurel Casillo and Alfredo Narciso 

As the computer geek, Narciso must bring to life what is basically a wallpaper character. It’s a difficult job, given his character’s main quality is a desire to be non-existent. While the play’s three other main characters bristle with quirks, Khalil is self-effacing. Narciso manages to give his character a growing presence as, ironically, “Khalil” rushes towards non-existence, subsumed and consumed by the electronic media. Unfortunately, Khalil’s quest for obliteration is the play’s major flaw, for the message here is diffuse and thus unclear. Does the electronic media obliterate our real personalities or merely allow us to take on multiple, faux personalities? Are we all destined to become nothing more than an accumulation of bytes, an assemblage of ones and naughts that float in the electronic ether? The questions posed by the play are vague and the answers ambiguous.

Fortunately, the techno-terror frame really doesn’t impede enjoyment of the time-tested formula of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again as they come together to dance through life. The inherent irony in this play is that though it attempts to deal with the digital effacement of personality, the vibrant personalities on stage put the lie to the premise. The performances that Casillo, Narciso, Naughton and Keller deliver could never be digitized, and thank God for that.

“Elevada” runs through May 16. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to