Sunday, August 20, 2017

Appropriating the Past

Appropriate -- Westport Country Playhouse -- Through September 2

    Shawn Fagan, Diane Davis, Nick Selting, Betsy Aidem,
and David Aaron Baker. Photo by Carol Rosegg

There are some who say the most difficult thing about writing a play is knowing how to end it. In the case of Appropriate, which recently opened at the Westport Country Playhouse, the problems also encompass how to start the play. So what we have is some head scratching during the first moments of the play, followed by some truly engaging theater and some fine acting, until we get to the closing moments when, once again, the dandruff starts to fall as you scratch away and say, “Well, okay…so what?”

Deftly directed by David Kennedy (save for the opening and closing moments – and it’s up for grabs as to who is responsible for these moments), this excursion into family history written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is tinged with just a touch of gothic overtones and includes some skeletons in the closet (or photo album or graveyard – take your pick) as a somewhat dysfunctional family (is there any other kind?) gathers at the decrepit family mansion to prepare it to be sold and its contents auctioned off.

The pater familias has recently died, leaving the mansion, a decrepit hulk bulging with junk (the whole scene nicely created by scenic designer Andrew Boyce) weighed down by debt. The family gathers to deal with what has been left behind: embittered sister, Toni (a gripping Betsy Aidem), a brother, Bo (David Aaron Baker), a corporate executive worried about downsizing, and the black-sheep brother, Franz (aka Frank – Shawn Fagan). In tow are various children and significant others: there’s Toni’s recalcitrant son Rhys (Nick Selting), Bo’s wife, Rachel (Diane Davis) and their two children, Ainsley (Christian Michael Camporin) and Cassie (Allison Winn), and finally River (an engaging Anna Crivelli), Franz’s earth-mother girl friend.

Once the clan is gathered there is initial friction dealing with who actually gave up the most in caring for dear old Dad in his declining years, but the arguments soon escalate with the discovery of a photo album that apparently contains pictures of lynchings. Was Dad a racist? Rachel reveals a telephone conversation she overheard, with her father-in-law referring to her as the “Jew wife.” Was Dad an anti-Semite?

There’s more kindling thrown on the fire to bring the pot to a boil, mainly dealing with Franz’s addictions and child molestation (I told you the family was dysfunctional). Denials, accusations and recriminations tumble over each other in crisp, acerbic dialogue that Kennedy allows to be bitten into by the actors, giving the confrontations a realistic rhythm – after all, when you’re arguing do you really let the other person finish what they have to say before attacking?

A nice touch of irony is added by Jacobs-Jenkins when the bickering family learns that the lynching photographs may have significant historical (or collectors) value. In other words, they can make a lot of money off pictures of black men who have been lynched. This leads to a battle-royal (deftly set up by fight director Michael Rossmy) that is ended in a dramatic appearance that drew appreciative gasps from the opening night audience. Sometimes (cliché warning!), a picture is worth a thousand words (of dialogue), and in this case it might just have made a provocative ending to the play.

The major questions about Dad are left for the audience to decide, but there’s no doubt that this family has, by the final curtain, been deconstructed. There are moments over the course of the two-plus hours that are painful, others that are revelatory, and the actors allow their characters to dig, slice and dice each other with abandon.

So, the problems with the opening and closing moments? Well, there’s an operative audio metaphor that is established when the lights first go down: it’s the irritating rasping (desperate mating calls) of cicadas. We, the audience, hear them, and get the message, but the lights don’t go up. The cicadas continue to rasp and twitter – the volume rises and falls and then rises again, evoking some chuckles from the audience in the darkened theater. We will again hear the offending mating calls every time there’s a scene change (consider it a scene-in-one delivered by insects).

Okay, so a little too much chirping before the play gets started, but what’s wrong with the final moments? More cicadas going berserk? No. It’s now the moment for Boyce, as well as lighting designer Matthew Richards, sound designer Fitz Patton and props master Alison Mantilla to take center stage for a series of quick vignettes that depict the physical dissolution of the mansion (of the family??) The effects are impressive, but they seem extremely beside the point – it’s a series of, well, okay, here’s what we can do with the set – like that? (blackout) – this is also what we can do (blackout) – okay, we can also do this. Has the destruction been caused by ghosts or Mother Nature? Your guess is as good as mine.

In the final moments of dialogue the actors have deftly established disruption, dissolution and, in the end, despair. What follows visually is simply overkill.

Appropriate, though it runs a bit long, is often gripping, intense theater marred by production values that call too much attention to themselves. The show runs through September 2. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to

Saturday, August 12, 2017

A Little Feverish on Saturday Night

Saturday Night Fever -- Ivoryton Playhouse -- Through September 3

Michael Notardonato and Caroline Lellouche
All photos by Jonathan Steele

On paper, it would seem that turning the 1977 John Badham film Saturday Night Fever into a musical would be a no-brainer, given that the film is rife with disco numbers by the Bee Gees and a whole lot of dancing. Unfortunately, what can be done on film sometimes simply has problems translating well to the stage, and such is the case with the musical version of the film that recently opened at the Ivoryton Playhouse, a tuneful, often energetic piece of theater that, unfortunately, often seems to drag itself across the stage.

One of the basic problems is that while editing films you can effortlessly cut from one scene to another -- at one moment you’re on a bridge and the next you’re in a subway car, no problem -- such is not the case with live theater. Scene changes often take time, a lot of time when the scene requires a totally different “look” (hence the scene-in-one, where actors perform in front of the closed curtain while the set is being changed). This is one of the downfalls of this musical, for there are a plethora of scene changes, with some scenes, as my play-going partner commented, not lasting as long as it takes for the stagehands to re-set the stage (you might call them scene-lets). Thus, the emotional drive (and sometimes the coherence) of the musical is often stymied as the audience waits in the dark for the next scene to be established.

This stagger-step approach to staging is perhaps caused because the musical’s book has many fathers (or cooks, if you will): The film was adapted for the stage by Robert Stigwood collaborating with Bill Oakes, but the North American version is credited to Sean Cercone and David Abbinanti. Hence, this is a book created by committee, and we all know what committee’s create.

The basic set, designed by Martin Scott Marchitto, focuses on the disco that the lead, Tony Manero (Michael Notardonato) frequents on weekends. It’s realized fairly well, with balconies stage left and right and something of a catwalk upstage, behind which is a visual of the iconic Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. The balcony stage left also serves as Tony’s bedroom. All well and good, but then Marchitto has to provide a kitchen in the Maneros’ house, a paint store, a hospital room (probably the most unnecessary piece of staging), a bench in a park and, most ponderous of all, ascending cables that support the Verrazano bridge. I didn’t have a stopwatch, but the time required to set and re-set the stage probably ran close to 10 minutes in sum. That’s a lot of dead time.

When plays are made into films it requires a certain opening up (often to an extreme – think Phantom of the Opera), but when films are turned into theater pieces they need to be tightened, trusting that the audience will be able to fill in the blanks. Saturday Night Fever needs a whole heck of a lot of tightening.

That being the case, for those not familiar with the film, we have the aforementioned Tony who lives an aimless existence in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn. During the week he’s a drudge at a paint store and constantly being put down by his parents, but on weekends he’s king of the dance floor at 2001 Odyssey. He wants to break out but doesn’t know how. Then, a dance contest is to be held at Odyssy, with a $1,000 prize. Could this be his ticket? His erstwhile girlfriend, Annette (a lithe and vivacious Nora Fox) wishes to be his partner, but Tony catches sight of the alluring Stephanie (Caroline Lellouche), a Manhattan secretary who dreams of bigger things (read Working Girl). So Tony ditches Annette and pursues Stephanie, eventually winning the contest with her (followed by a noble action on Tony’s part that proves his heart is in the right place).

Nora Fox
Several sub-plots serve often to muddy the waters a bit (only because most of them are not fully realized). We have one of Tony’s friends, Booby C. (Pierre Marais), getting good-Catholic-girl Pauline (Sarah Mae Banning) preggers (he will pay for that mortal sin in true cinematic fashion); we have another friend, Gus (Colin Lee), attacked by a gang, for which Tony’s group takes misguided (perhaps) revenge; we have Tony’s older brother, Frank Jr. (Alec Bandzes), opting to leave the priesthood – it’s never exactly made clear why – perhaps just another crisis of conscience.

There’s not much Todd Underwood, director and choreographer, can do with this somewhat disjointed material but move it along as best he can, waiting patiently for the sets to be changed. However, such is not the case with the musical numbers which, fortunately, are numerous. There is, of course, a lot of disco dancing – flashy and dramatic, culminating in the dance contest -- but there are also some moving set pieces, chief among them when Fox, as Annette, renders the lovely “If I Can’t Have You,” when she, along with Lellouche and Notardonato, do an engaging fantasy dance sequence, and the moving “What Kind of Fool,” tenderly rendered by Lellouche.

At upwards of two-and-a-half hours (with one intermission), Saturday Night Fever might easily seem like it has dragged on into a bleary-eyed Sunday morning. There’s a sharp, crisp, engaging musical hiding in all of this material that just requires a scalpel and a bit of creative thinking to bring it to life.

Saturday Night Fever runs through September 3. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to

Thursday, August 3, 2017

A Bright Golden Haze at Goodspeed

Oklahoma! -- Goodspeed Musicals -- Extended Thru Sept. 27

Rhett Gutter and Samantha Bruce. All Photos by Diane Sobolewski

It’s March 31, 1943. The lights dim in the St. James Theatre, there’s a melodious overture, and then…a big production number to get the audience’s juices flowing? Nope. Instead, a lone cowboy appears on stage and sings about how lovely the morning is and how everything’s going his way. Over the course of the two-plus hours of the premiere of “Oklahoma!” American musical theater was changed forever. The musical, the first collaboration of Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics), cemented the dominance of the “book” musical as the predominant format for what followed, termed the “Golden Age” of American musicals.

Flash forward seven-plus decades and that same cowboy walks up one of the aisles at Goodspeed Opera House, once again proclaiming that it’s a beautiful morning. What follows, directed by Jenn Thompson, is a faithful, delightful recreation of the 1943 classic, providing ample evidence why the initial production was so ground-breaking.

Based on the play “Green Grow the Lilacs” by Lynn Riggs, a less than successful effort about settlers in the Indian (read Oklahoma) Territory circa 1906, the plot of “Oklahoma!” is simplicity itself. Cowboy Curly (a confident Rhett Gutter) is in love with farm-girl Laurey (an engaging Samantha Bruce), but she’s playing hard to get. Lurking on the farm run by Laurey’s Aunt Eller (Terry Burrell) is farmhand Jud Fry (a sufficiently menacing Matt Faucher), who covets Laurey when he’s not sifting through his “French” postcards.

There’s another romance going on, actually a love triangle of sorts, with Ado Annie (a pert and vivacious Gizel Jimenez) at the top and cowboy Will Parker (Jake Swain) and peddler Ali Hakim (a dead-on Matthew Curiano) vying for her affections. That, in essence, is about it, save for a bit of contention between ranchers and farmers. We’re not talking Ibsen of Chekhov here – it’s basic soap opera stuff dealing with the burning questions: Will Curly eventually win Laurey’s hand or will Jud have his evil way with her? Will Ado opt for Will or Ali?
Gizel Jimenez and Matthew Curiano
So, why was “Oklahoma!” so ground-breaking? Well, that goes back to the idea of the “book” musical, which basically refers to a musical in which almost all of the songs either comment on what has happened or move the plot forward rather than being musical interludes that often have nothing to do with the plot.

Rhett Gutter and Matt Faucher lamenting that "Pore Jud is Daid"

Take, for example, the scene between Curly and Jud late in the first act. Laurey, playing her coy hand a bit too far, has announced that she has agreed to go with Jud to the box social, which motivates Curly to confront Jud in the farmhand’s hovel. What follows is Curly’s witty put-down of Jud in the form of a dirge, “Pore Jud is Daid,” which envisions Jud hanging himself (Curly has conveniently strung up a noose) and the grief of the mourners, all of whom, so Curly suggests, never truly understood Jud. Curly’s effort is so effective that Jud joins Curly in lamenting his own passing. A song like this would never have appeared in the bright and breezy musical comedies of the 20s and 30s.

As is almost expected of Goodspeed Musicals productions, the ensemble work is just about superb, much of it choreographed by Katie Spelman. Three numbers stand out: the “Kansas City” sequence in which Will let’s people know that everything’s up-to-date in that city and then introduces dances that are all the rage in that metropolis with a seven-story skyscraper; “The Farmer and The Cowman” number, which opens the second act. Here, Thompson and Spelman have just about the entire, substantial cast up on the somewhat constricted stage, all whirling and twirling (I heard one exiting audience member comment: “It’s a wonder someone didn’t fall off the stage.”)
Cowboys dance with the farmers' daughters,
farmers dance with the cowboys' gals
Finally, there’s the beautiful “Ballet” (often referred to as the “dream sequence”) that closes the first act. Laurey sniffs a potion she has bought from Ali which is supposed to make her see “clearer.” What it does is bring on a hallucination in which the struggle between Jud and Curly, and what the two men represent, is dramatized through dance (originally choreographed by Agnes DeMille, her first foray into Broadway choreography). It’s evocative and captures Laurey’s doubts and fears.

The leads and supporting actors in the cast are all excellent, but special mention should be made of Jimenez’s performance as Ado Annie and Curiano as Ali. Jimenez ably captures Ado’s somewhat unbridled libido (“I Cain’t Say No!”) while, at the same time, displays her character’s inherent innocence, not to mention that she’s called upon to do some almost death-defying flips as Ali and Will show how Persians say goodbye and cowboys say hello.

Curiano, as Ali, provides much of the comic relief, and he does so with a droll, world-weariness that is delightful. Yes, Ali is a lothario, but he has trouble skipping town before an irate father pulls a shotgun on him. With great timing and emotive body language he ably conveys the plight of a ladies man not slick enough to skedaddle while the getting’s good.

Jake Swain and Gizel Jimenez discuss whether it's "all or nothin'"
Before “Oklahoma!’ opened at the St James it had tryouts as the Shubert Theater in New Haven. The reviews were mixed for a show that was then called “Away We Go.” Obviously, there were some changes made, including the addition of the show’s anthem, “Oklahoma!” Oddly enough, although Goodspeed’s forte is the showcasing of classic musicals, this is the first time “Oklahoma!” has been produced on its stage. The wait has been well worth while, for this is a sparkling, engaging piece of American musical history ably brought to life by the cast and crew at Goodspeed.

Oklahoma!” runs through September 27 in an extended run. For tickets or more information call 860.873.8668 or visit: