Saturday, September 30, 2017

After the Quake

I Hate Musicals: The Musical -- Ivoryton Playhouse -- Thru October 15

Will Clark, Stephen Wallem, Amanda Huxtable. Photo by Anne Hudson

So you’re a joke-meister who wrote for some of the best comedy shows on television only to wash up on the shores of middle-age and find yourself no longer relevant – ergo: unemployed. You go East to write serious drama for the theater, but you’re no O’Neill or Miller, so back you go to Hollywood, hat in hand, in a desperate attempt to pitch a sitcom based on the pope’s rapscallion brother (It’ll be a laugh-riot!).

In the midst of your pitch there’s an earthquake and a goodly portion of the building falls on you. What happens next? Well, what happens next is I Hate Musicals: The Musical, which is receiving its world premiere at the Ivoryton Playhouse. The show is an irreverent satire that takes on Hollywood executives, talent agents, inane TV shows and Broadway musicals while giving a few pokes in the eyes to such icons as Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary and Sigmund Freud.

Who would come up with such a premise? Well, the show is written by Mike Reiss, who has been writing for The Simpsons for almost three decades, and if you know anything about this ground-breaking animated show, you know that nothing is sacred. Thus, in I Hate Musicals, the satire is broad, the humor often hits below the belt and the show’s musicality is essentially derivative – original music is credited to Walter Murphy but there aren’t many tunes that won’t elicit a: “Wait a minute, isn’t that melody from…?”

Under the direction of James Valletti, the six actors, almost all of whom play multiple roles, cavort and camp it up, much to the delight of the opening night audience, many of whom might associate the goings on with Marx Brothers’ films as much as with the antics of Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa. As for the plot, well, after the seismic disruption there isn’t much that is logically connected, for what we are seeing is a coma-induced phantasmagoria of characters that rise and fall (often to taunt, tease and/or terrorize) in the mind of the comedy writer. As Dorothy, in the Wizard of Oz, entered a world of magical make-believe after the tornado, so Alvin (Stephen Wallem) enters the world of his somewhat warped mind after the earthquake, complete with a pair of ruby slippers and a dead witch, or is that bitch?

There are some slow moments in this one-act romp when Reiss gets “serious,” or beats the dead horse about how Hollywood turns brilliant writing into crap, but for most of the evening it’s just plain silliness. To get a feel for where Alvin’s mind wanders while in coma-mode we have the multi-talented Amanda Huxtable first playing a bitchy TV executive wearing a nifty pair of red shoes (you just know she’s doomed). After the fall of the building, she reappears as Brie, Alvin’s ex-wife, a somewhat ditzy blonde a la Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls and then, near the end of the show, when Alvin is being judged as to whether he’s worthy of entering heaven (consumption of a Big Mac hamburger is key to the decision – don’t ask), she reappears as the Blessed Virgin Mary, which she plays with a Bronx accent, and then, to top it off, she morphs into Alvin’s mother (Freudian symbolism anyone?).

The rest of the cast, accompanied by Michael Morris working the electronic keyboard, is equally appealing and eagerly willing to sell the lunacy Reiss has given them to work with. Sam Given first appears as a security guard but soon shows his true talent as Jerome, who is so GAY (here Reiss, in typical Simpsons fashion, takes a stereotype and blows it up in your face), and then reappears as a hyperactive Sigmund Freud. Not to be outdone, Ryan Knowles enters as Alvin’s purported father, a pompous English Lit professor who scorns his son’s profession, only to work a quick costume change (of which there are many) and become Natasmi (Who? Not sure? Well, spell it backwards and all will become clear). Will Clark plays Alvin’s actual dad, a real mensch, as well as Jesus (also a real mensch) – it’s with these two characters that Reiss works in some Borscht Belt Jewish jokes. Finally, there’s the ever-reliable R. Bruce Connelly who plays Lee, Alvin’s agent who is currently in Florida with his grandchildren (He’d rather be in LA in an earthquake) but maintains contact with Alvin via phone (“So, how did the meeting go?”) and is finally asked to negotiate with the BVM over Alvin’s eternal destination.

Does most of the evening make any sense? Well, no and yes. If you’re looking for standard dramatic development you’ll be sorely disappointed, but that’s not really the point, because Alvin’s delirium is the frame that allows all of these somewhat bizarre characters to enter and do their “thing.” It’s Saturday Night Live on steroids, a theatrical tradition that harkens back to Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin’. You get the set-up, then the earthquake, and then comedic chaos. It has the feel of something Beckett might have written if he had had a sense of humor.

I Hate Musicals: The Musical runs through October 15. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to

Saturday, September 16, 2017

On the "Avenue"

Avenue Q -- Playhouse on Park -- Thru October 8

E J Zimmerman, James Fairchild, Weston Chandler Long,
Colleen Welsh, Peej Mele, Ashley Brooke and
Abena Mensah-Bonsu. All Photos by Curt Henderson

Some people don’t like the musical Avenue Q. These are probably the same people who don’t like hot fudge sundaes, puppies and beach volleyball. Okay, that may be a little unfair (they probably abide puppies), but what’s not to like about a tongue-in-cheek musical with puppets that takes on racism, homelessness and homosexuality, amongst other topics, and keeps you smiling from start to finish? Done right, Avenue Q is a hoot, and it is being done very right up at Playhouse on Park under the capable direction (and choreography) of Kyle Brand.

So, what is this Tony-winning musical that had its gestation (2002) at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, all about? Well, it takes the PBS children’s show, Sesame Street, and turns it on its head – focusing on a group of primarily twenty-something losers and misfits who reside on an avenue of stifled or shattered dreams (apartments on Avenues A through P were too expensive). Written by Jeff Whitty, with music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (who came up with the concept), the two-act show’s major premise is that most of the characters are puppets manipulated by actors who mirror the puppets’ actions and emotions. It’s a delightful symbiotic relationship.

Ruling the run-down roost is Gary Coleman (Abena Mensah-Bonsu) – yes, the Gary Coleman best known for his role as Arnold Jackson in TV’s Diff'rent Strokes. Fallen on hard times, he is the superintendent of the apartment building where all of the other characters live. Seeking low-cost shelter, Princeton (Weston Chandler Long), a frustrated college grad with a “useless” degree in English, is soon introduced to the building’s other residents. There’s Kate Monster (Ashley Brooke), a kindergarten teacher who dreams of opening a school for little “monsters,” and the roommates Rod (also Long), an uptight banker, and Nicky (the versatile Peej Mele), a layabout. Then there’s Brian (James Fairchild), a stand-up comic with no sense of humor, and his Japanese fiancĂ©e, Christmas Eve (E J Zimmerman), a true tiger lady. Finally, there’s Trekkie Monster (Mele), a creature with an inordinate interest in Internet porn and the Bad Idea Bears (again Mele and Colleen Welsh).
Colleen Welsh, Weston Chandler Long (standing)
Ashley Brooke and Peej Mele

I can’t think of another musical that so brazenly takes the frustrations and despair of the downtrodden and turns it all into delightful comedy. The tone is set immediately as Princeton laments the uselessness of his degree (“What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?’), which segues into “It Sucks to  Be Me,” in which the characters argue about who has the worst life. The audience has to quickly buy into the puppets-as-people-and-people-as-puppets premise, but it’s not hard to do, for this skilled ensemble of actors ably crafts the illusion (or delusion) with insouciant style and elegant flair.

I’ve seen several productions of this musical and am familiar with all the musical  numbers, but the Playhouse’s production, with its fine cast, made the musical offerings seem fresh and new. Each number offers some standout performances. To single out a few, there’s “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” with Zimmerman nailing the faux-Japanese delivery of her lyrics (those of an extreme PC bent might squirm a bit). Zimmerman also soars with “The More You Ruv Someone” number – I’ve never seen it performed with such panache.

The multi-talented Long continuously delivers, no more so than, as Rod, he desperately tries to deny his homosexuality in “My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada.” It’s a wonderful moment, with Long whirling and leaping about the stage as he attempts to sell his friends on the existence of this fictitious friend named Alberta…from Vancouver, no less.

Citing the “The Internet is for Porn” number allows me to heap praise on two other actors: Mele and Brooke. Mele is able to embody the perverse weirdness of Trekkie Monster, the devious, manipulative nature of one of the Bad Idea Bears, and the needful nature of Nicky with wondrous ease. Then there’s Brooke, who effortlessly owns the stage whenever she is called upon to portray Kate Monster or the teacher’s alter-ego, Lucy T. Slut (often at the same time). It’s a treat to watch her “merge,” if you will, with the two puppet personas (personae??) – tentative and a bit shy when she’s Kate, slinky and seductive when she’s Lucy.

As an audience member, one often never really knows who is responsible for what in a production. So, who was responsible for training these actors in the manipulation of their puppets? Perhaps it was the director, or maybe it was a collective effort, but if you read carefully through the Production Staff listings you will come across the name of Susan Slotoroff, credited as the “Puppetry Coach.” Well, she should get star billing, for the result of her coaching is well nigh perfect. From opening scene to the closing number, the puppets are “real,” with the actors giving these furry creatures believable body language (just watch Kate Monster and Princeton go at it as they consummate their relationship, or Princeton [the puppet] flat on his back enduring deep despair). It’s an exercise in stage magic that makes Avenue Q somewhat unique.

Now in its ninth season, Playhouse on Park continues to offer productions that often delight and sometimes even surprise. With Avenue Q, which runs through October 8, the Playhouse shows that you don’t need a huge stage to deliver big entertainment. You just need to pick the right property, cast wisely and then allow all involved to do what they do best.

For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to