Monday, September 19, 2016

An Intimate, Intense "Gypsy"

Gypsy -- Music Theatre of Connecticut -- Thru Sept. 25

Kirsti Carnahan and Kate Simone. All photos by Joe Landry

Kevin Connors, Music Theatre of Connecticut’s co-founder and executive artistic director, has proven time and again that big is not always better. Several years ago, when MTC was still in its old (and more restricted) digs, he staged a gripping Cabaret just mere feet from the audience. Now relocated in Norwalk with a bit more space to work with, Connors again reveals that size, at least in the case of stage space, does not matter, for he has turned Gypsy into an intense character study, albeit with music, that heightens the conflict inherent in the show and showcases some pretty impressive performances.

Anyone familiar with American musical theater knows the Gypsy story-line. Suffice it to say that it’s the ultimate stage-mother show, a fable about a mother driven to have her children succeed in show business (all the while repressing her own desire to be a star). Bridging several decades, the show also chronicles the decline of vaudeville, a fate that Mama Rose eventually accepts, but it does not staunch her passions and drive. Eventually, her two daughters would succeed, with Baby June becoming an actress (June Havoc) and Louise the queen of burlesque (Gypsy Rose Lee).

Of course, any theatrical production is a collaborative effort, and although Connors is to be applauded for his staging and directing, as is Becky Timms for her choreography, neither one could have done it alone – and they are not alone in this enterprise, for Connors has been blessed with an exceedingly talented group of performers.

Although the show’s title is Gypsy, this is really Mama Rose’s story, and you couldn’t ask for a more visceral, multi-layered performance of the driven matron than what Kirsti Carnahan provides. No, she’s not a “belter” a la Ethel Merman, who originated the role, but given the confines of MTC, “belting” out a song is not necessary. Rather, she, under Connor’s guidance, gives a gripping performance as a woman driven, and since the audience is so close she doesn’t have to telegraph her character’s emotions – and there are emotions aplenty. It’s a complete performance, so much so that Rose’s signature songs are, if not superfluous, at least secondary to the marvelous character Carnahan creates. This is no more in evidence than in the show’s finale, “Rose’s Turn.” It is haunting, frightening, tender and totally gripping. I’ve seen many Gypsy productions, but I don’t think I’ve ever been as riveted as I was when Carnahan revealed a soul in dire distress, questioning all Mama Rose had done and all she had forsaken, giving us a woman on the brink of despair. Her double-take, hands fluttering, as she comes out of her fantasy to realize Gypsy has been watching her is a little piece of acting perfection.

Carnahan’s performance is enough to carry the show, but she doesn’t have to, for she is surrounded by some equally talented actors. Chief among them is Kate Simone as Louise, the second-fiddle to her younger sister who morphs into a burlesque star. The role requires that Louise, initially shy and, as she believes, under-talented, rise to confront her mother and demand that Mama Rose take a hard look at herself. Simone hits all the right notes, and her confrontation with Rose late in the second act is pitch-perfect, and she is exceptionally engaging (watch her eyes!) during the rehearsal of “Madame Rose’s Toreadobales,” a lame rehash of the same routine Rose has been pushing for years.
Joe Grandy, Carissa Massaro and Chris McNiff

Equally on the mark is Carissa Massaro’s Baby June, for Massaro must play the part of a winsome, overly-cute child while she is actually a young woman who loathes what she is being forced to do at the behest of her mother. Her duet with Simone, “If Momma Was Married,” lets her convey all of this revulsion through song, something she does quite well.

Then there’s the much-put-upon Herbie, Mama Rose’s love interest, played by Paul Binotto (who does double-duty as “Uncle Jocko” early in the show). He must be the hand that attempts to gentle Rose’s raging ambition, and he does so with a great deal of panache, absorbing the energy that surges from Carnahan’s Mama Rose until his character has had enough and he breaks with Rose in a touching scene. His last line is filled with pain and loss.

As anyone familiar with Gypsy knows, Tulsa, here played by Joe Grandy, has a signature scene with Louise as he tells her, through dance, of his dreams for a dance routine that will allow him to break away from Mama Rose’s control. His “All I Need is the Girl” number covers MTC’s entire stage as he tap-dances his hopes and desires.
Marca Leigh, Jodi Stevens, Jeri Kansas and
Kate Simone.

What is most revealing in this scaled-down production is the iconic scene near the end of the second act when the three strippers, Tessie Tura (Jeri Kansas), Electra (Marca Leigh) and Mazeppa (Jodi Stevens) give Louise some advice about the fine art of stripping. Again, having seen quite a few productions of this show, I was amazed at the finely honed, comedic turns each of these actors gives to her role. What could have been a “Yeah, yeah, seen that before” moment seemed fresh and vibrantly alive – and totally enjoyable.

MTC’s production is truly a Gypsy re-envisioned, downscaled to fit the confines of the stage but still larger than life. If there is one misstep, and this is a very minor quibble, it is during Rose’s final number when she fantasizes about what she might have accomplished on her own. As she wraps up her number the curtains part to reveal a drop-down sign that is supposed to emblazon Rose’s name – instead, you have to look close to figure out what the hell that thing is hanging above Rose’s head. Surely something could have been done to “glitz it up” a bit.

Even for those who think they “know” Gypsy, MTC’s production is well worth a look-see, if for no other reason than to shiver and shake as Rose’s single-minded ambition and almost maniacal determination washes over you. It’s an intense theatrical experience that you don’t want to miss.

Gypsy runs through September 25. For further information or ticket reservations call the box office at 203.454.3883 or visit:

Saturday, September 17, 2016

A Heavenly "Shop of Horrors"

Little Shop of Horrors -- Playhouse on Park -- Thru Oct. 16

Steven Mooney and Audrey II. All photos by
Meredith Atkinson save where noted

There’s nothing horrible about the “Little Shop of Horrors” up at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford. In fact, it’s a delight from start to finish, a sprightly musical comedy (albeit dark comedy) with a terrific cast that generates enough energy to light up most of Park Road.

Directed and choreographed by Susan Haefner with a deft touch for timing and creative blocking, the show moves along at a quick pace, the tone for which is set before the curtain as the three waifs, Crystal (Cherise Clarke), Chiffon (Brandi Porter) and Ronette (Famecia Ward) work the audience, introducing their characters and giving out hugs. Their activity seamlessly segues into the opening number, “Little Shop of Horrors,” and the following “Skid Row,” which introduces Mr. Mushnik (Damian Buzzerio), owner of the Skid Row Florist Shop, and his two employees, the nerdish Seymour (Steven Mooney) and the much-abused Audrey (the delightful Emily Kron).
          Cherise Clarke as Crystal, Famecia Ward as
          Ronnette, Brandi Porter as Chiffon, and
Emily Kron as Audrey.
With zero sales, Mushnik decides to close the shop’s doors, only to have Seymour reveal that he has been nurturing a rather strange plant that he has named Audrey II (voiced by Rasheem Ford and manipulated by Susan Slotoroff). Immediately, things take a turn for the better, once Seymour realizes that what Audrey II craves is human blood (“Grow for Me”). However, the plant’s hunger soon becomes insatiable as it cries out to be fed. What is Seymour to do? Well, Audrey is currently dating a “pseudo-sadist,” a dentist named Orin Scrivello (Aidan Eastwood -- DDS!!!). Orin manages to asphyxiate himself in a delightfully dark comic scene and is promptly turned into plant food. As things get better for the florist shop and for Seymour, the plant’s needs grow and grow until it is finally revealed the vegetation’s goal is total world domination. The ultimate lesson is offered in the final number: “Don’t Feed the Plants.”
  Famecia Ward as Ronnette, Rasheem Ford as Audrey I
          (voice), Steven Mooney as Seymour, Emily Kron as Audrey,
       and Aidan Eastwood as Orin Scrivello, DDS (photo: Rich Wagner)

You can’t help but smile as this tale of faux-menace unfolds, for the entire cast has bought into the absurd premise and knows how to play up the weird humor that suffuses the book and lyrics penned by Howard Ashman, and it doesn’t hurt that the music was composed by Alan Menken. Clarke, Porter and Ward are sassy and sharp, and their voices mesh beautifully as they strut, pose and preen, creating a Skid Row Greek chorus. There are also entertaining set pieces and signature numbers, all of which are brought off with aplomb and a great deal of style. Buzzerio brings a touch of Fagin (a la the musical “Oliver”) to his portrayal of the florist shop’s owner, and his duet with Mooney, “Mushnik and Son,” deftly choreographed by Haefner, was totally engaging.
Damian Buzzerio

Mooney gives the audience just the right touch of the bedraggled soul who grasps at his one chance for success, an opportunity that merely requires that he feed the plant. As his character “blossoms,” Mooney shows he has a strong bent for physical comedy and knows how to deliver a song.

Eastwood has, perhaps, the greatest challenge, for not only must he portray the sadistic dentist, he must also take on several additional roles, including that of a female rep for Life Magazine and, as the program indicates, “Everyone Else.” He pulls all of this off with costume quick-changes and variations in swagger and delivery that nicely delineate each of the characters.

And then there’s Kron, who is faced with making the role that has the strongest “copyright,” since it was created by Ellen Green in the original production and the subsequent film, her own. This she does with a great deal of comic flair and sensitivity, and her rendition of “Somewhere That’s Green,” a classic “I Want” number, is heartbreakingly poignant, as is her cri de coeur in the “Suddenly, Seymour” duet with Mooney.   

Given the relative intimacy of the Playhouse on Park thrust stage configuration, much of what happens is mere feet from the front row of the audience, which Haefner takes advantage of, often bringing her actors forward so that the emotions their characters are feeling and expressing wash over the audience and the kinetic energy generated by this talented cast, enhanced by an emotive lighting scheme by Christopher Bell, crackles, snaps and reaches the last seat in the farthest row undiminished and undiluted.

Playhouse on Park’s production of “Little Shop of Horrors” is what I might term “happy theater,” for you can sense that the cast is happy to be doing what they are doing and you can’t deny that the audience left the theater humming a tune and, well, happy – a win-win proposition.

“Little Shop of Horrors” runs through Oct. 16. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Storyteller's Art

If you think of an Irish storyteller, a seanchi, the first image that might come to mind is that of a grizzled man wearing a cloth cap sitting in a pub, a pipe in one hand and a pint in the other, regaling the lads with stories of banshees. What you probably wouldn’t imagine is a lithe and lovely, raven-haired lass with a pixie haircut and a twinkle in her blue eyes, but that is Helena Byrne and she is, indeed, a seanchi.
Helena Byrne

Byrne recently arrived in the States for a brief tour that brought her to Quinnipiac University at the behest of the university’s Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, which is currently closed for renovations. Thus, Byrne found herself facing an eager audience, many of them with Irish heritage, at the Rocky Top Student Center on the York Hill Campus.

Before her performance, Byrne sat down to talk about the road that has brought her to Quinnipiac as a seanchi and her love of Irish mythology and folktales. It seems Byrne was bitten early by the “performing bug,” for as she notes on her web site, she has been performing since she was “knee high to a guitar.” She laughed and explained: “As a child I used to put little shows together and force my parents and my brother and sisters to sit down and watch a whole rigmarole, an hour of ‘entertainment.’ I’ve just been performing for as long as I can remember, always singing.”

However, it would take a while for Byrne to become a professional performer. Although she was always active in community events and sang in church, she went off to university to study philosophy and theology, “finding herself,” as it were, while performing “on the side,” but when she graduated she realized where her true love and passion rested and she began to pursue it but, as is the case for most young artists, success was not instantaneous.

“As you know,” she said, “Ireland has plenty of castles, many of them on the West Coast, where I played the ‘Lady of the Castle’ dressed in full gear – dress and head piece and everything – and I and other girls there would serve food to the guests and sing songs and do little dances.”

She continued to develop as a singer and an actor, but she became a storyteller by accident. As she explained, “I got a job working for the National Leprechaun Museum in Dublin, which is not one of my proudest moments. My position was storyteller/tour guide – a little bit of everything, basically just a tour guide who would tell a few stories about leprechauns. I realized that I loved the storytelling element, I loved that I could perform but it wasn’t so much acting because you could look into people’s eyes and actually see their reactions.”

The realization that she loved storytelling motivated her to learn more stories and research Irish folklore, and then she landed a job as a resident storyteller at The Brazen Head, a Dublin pub. “That’s essentially where I’ve honed my practice as a storyteller,” she said.

Though she had found one of her true loves, that didn’t mean she had narrowed her horizons. She founded the Break-Away Performance Company, “a production and theater company” that organizes concerts and staged readings with Irish actors of new plays by American and Irish writers as well as “innovative projects that involve using Skype for people to collaborate,” helping to develop an artistic connection between people in Ireland and America.

She also uses Skype for her on-line “story-telling lessons.” This came about after people came up to her and told her that they would love to do what she was doing but they either didn’t know how to develop a story or they would never have the courage to perform. Thus, she created an on-line program that allows her to work individually with students, mostly Americans, forming the “curriculum” based on what the students wants to achieve, be it forming a story or developing a style of storytelling.

When asked what “makes” a good storyteller, Byrne eagerly responded: “First of all, finding a story that suits you, that suits your character and that you feel engaged in yourself. It’s very difficult to tell a story with any great passion if you’re really not connected to the story yourself. Find something that you really enjoy telling and that will come out in your eyes and your physicality. Just being able to create a picture in people’s imaginations, that’s what you’re really doing. You’re not re-enacting a story, you’re not acting out something, you’re the medium between the story and the audience’s imagination.”

Much to Byrne’s surprise, when she posted on Face Book that she was searching for stories, her cousin contacted her and suggested that she speak with her uncle, for it turns out that Byrne’s grandfather had been a storyteller, something she was unaware of. She met with her uncle and, over tea, heard many of the stories her grandfather had told, including one she would share with her audience at Quinnipiac about her grandfather experiencing the passing of a fairy death coach.

As Byrne explained, in Irish society in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the seanchi was more than just a storyteller. These people would travel from village to village and not only relate stories but also bring news of what was happening in other parts of the country – births and deaths, politics and perhaps a bit of gossip. They were as much oral journalists as storytellers, and the stories they told performed many functions, for the fairies they spoke about were not Disney-fied, fluttering creatures with magic wands in their hands but a race that was integral to life in Ireland, a real presence that was to be both feared and respected. One simply did not want to upset or insult the fairies, for if one did dire consequences would follow.

This would be one of the main points she would make to those at Quinnipiac who had come to hear her. After a brief overview of the Great Famine and the central position of the lowly potato in the diet of the common folk of Ireland, she segued into a discussion of the fairies and belief in the “Other World” that was common in Ireland (when the sun set in this world it would rise in the “other world”). She explained that there were (or perhaps still are) two types of fairies – the “trooping fairies” – those who looked essentially human and would, on Samhain (Halloween) move en masse from summer to winter quarters-- and the solitary fairies, including the leprechaun, the banshee and the pooka.
The banshee
Emphasizing that belief in these fairies was real, and that such belief gave a somewhat skewed yet psychologically comforting aspect to the life of those who did not feel they were in control of their lives, Byrne told several stories that dealt with one or another aspect of fairy-dom, but, as she had explained earlier in the interview, the true storyteller must find a story that resonates, and although her initial stories were engaging and her background information informative, it wasn’t until, near the end of her performance, that the audience became totally mesmerized, for the last, long story Byrne told was about two hunchbacks, Brian and Art, the former a good-hearted soul and the latter a mean and greedy man -- both would have an encounter with the trooping fairies on Samhain.

In the telling of this story, Byrne shifted into true storytelling mode, and the effect was impressive – it was as if she had become possessed by the story or, as she had explained earlier in the interview, become the medium between the story and the audience. As she wove her tale, you could sense many people of advanced years shedding their age and again becoming wide-eyed children as they listened to what happened to Brian and Art -- they were all there with these two hunchbacks, watching the fairies dance around the fairy tree or standing before the Fairy King as he rendered his judgment on Brian’s and Art’s actions, and issuing a collective sigh of relief and satisfaction as Byrne ended her story and they returned from that dark, fairy-filled night in Ireland to a meeting room in Quinnipiac.
Artistic imagining of the fairy tree
At the end of the evening, Byrne told a brief story about a modern female seanchi who was being interviewed for an article. The interviewer finally asked her if she truly believed in the tales she told, if she believed in the fairies. After considering her answer, the woman said: “I don’t – but they’re there anyway.” Byrne had been asked essentially the same question during the interview and she, too, had paused to consider her answer. Her response was to tell a story: “Irish people have a very funny relation with the fairies because today’s generation will start off being quite dismissive and say, ‘Ah, that’s in the past,’ but you start telling these stories and it reawakens their childhood, because they remember hearing these stories as children. A man in his 30s came up to me at the end of a show and said, ‘I know it’s all kind of rubbish but…my brother has heard the banshee three times.’ So, it’s a very peculiar relationship the Irish have with the fairies these days.”

And, of course, Byrne is Irish.               

Monday, September 12, 2016

A Luminous "La Mancha"

Man of La Mancha -- Ivoryton Playhouse -- Thru Oct. 2

Talia Thiesfield, David Pittsinger and Brian Michael Hoffman
All photos by Anne Hudson

Having been privileged to see the original production of “Man of La Mancha” starring Richard Kiley, it’s difficult to shake those fond memories when I see a revival of this iconic musical. I’m happy to report, however, that what I recently saw out at Ivoryton made me forget the Washington Square production, for the storied Playhouse has boarded a near perfect staging of Dale Wasserman’s musical, one that should please just about everyone and perhaps bring a tear or two to the eye.

Under the perceptive, sensitive direction of David Edwards, with efficient, effective choreography by Todd Underwood, music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, the story of the Knight of the Woeful Countenance comes gloriously to life with at least two star-turn performances.

For those who have been living in a cave for the last five decades, the show posits the Spanish author, Miguel de Cervantes, being thrown into jail to be held until the Inquisition can ask him some pointed questions. His fellow inmates, thieves and cutthroats, decide to put him on trial. To defend himself, Cervantes decides to tell the (abbreviated) story of Don Quixote de la Mancha, enlisting the inmates to play characters in the saga. Initially disdainful of Cervantes’ philosophy and of his character’s misguided nobility, by play’s end, as Cervantes is called to face the Inquisition, the inmates rise and salute the man and his “dream.”
David Pittsinger

Although the lead role in the musical was originated by Kiley, many an opera veteran has been called upon to portray the somewhat addled Don, often with less than satisfying results, mainly because of a deficiency in acting skills: big voice but awkward, stiff performance. “La Mancha” ain’t “Rigoletto.” Fortunately, Ivoryton tapped David Pittsinger to play the role, the same bass-baritone who played Emile de Becque in last year’s outstanding production of “South Pacific” at Ivoryton. Yes, Pittsinger has a big voice, but he can also act, very subtly at times. Thus, his performance as Quixote/Cervantes is both nuanced and moving, and he absolutely nails (spoiler alert!) the death scene. A formidable figure, Pittsinger ably morphs into a tottering, slightly addled old man who tilts at windmills, and he brings the house to its feet with Quixote’s two signature numbers: “Man of La Mancha” and, of course, “The Impossible Dream.”
Talia Thiesfield

However, Quixote is nothing without his Dulcinea, and here Ivoryton has struck absolute gold in casting Talia Thiesfield as the kitchen slut who becomes Quixote’s female ideal. Thiesfield gives the audience an earthy, fiery Aldonza who fights against Quixote’s idealization of her as Dulcinea. Captivating throughout the show, she rises to mesmerizing heights with her performance of “Aldonza” late in the second act – it ably stands against Pittsinger’s “Impossible Dream” as a candidate for the ultimate show-stopping moment.

Quixote also needs his Sancho Panza, and although Brian Michael Hoffman lays it on just a bit too thick in the opening moments of the production, he quickly eases into his character and delivers a delightful “A Little Gossip” to try and cheer up his companion.

The production is also graced with a strong supporting cast, with Edwards doing double duty as director and playing the haughty Dr. Sanson Carrasco, and a notable Amy Buckley as Antonia, a young woman who is “only thinking” of her uncle as she connives to have him declared insane.

Subtle lighting by Marcus Abbott and a sturdy, multi-purpose set by Daniel Nischen that utilizes every inch of Ivoryton’s stage add to the enjoyment of a production that absolutely glows from start to finish. Compliments galore to everyone involved, including the seven-person orchestra sequestered beneath the stage, in this wonderful production that packed the house the day I saw it.

“Man of La Mancha” plays through October 2. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to