Thursday, November 30, 2017

A World of Difference

The Chosen -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Through December 17

Can two objects exist in the same space? Nature says no, and yet…? Can two opposing ideas both be true? Logic says no, and yet…? Can there be both this and that? We are uncomfortable with the possibility, and yet this is what “The Chosen,” a play by Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok, based on Potok’s novel of the same name, wrestles with in a very strong production currently on the boards at Long Wharf Theatre. This tightly written play, deftly directed by Gordon Edelstein, deals with multiple ideas but never loses sight that ideas are generated by human beings who, as they ideate, also feel, hurt and must confront the confusions that life presents.

Set in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, near the end of WW II and following, the play focuses on two families, both motherless. There’s the Malter family, David (Steven Skybell), a writer and Zionist and his son Reuven (Max Wolkowitz), hoping to become a college professor, and the Saunders family, Reb Saunders (George Guidall), a tzaddik, leader of a Hasidic sect, and his son, Danny (Ben Edelman), destined to take his father’s place within the tight-knit community. The families, though they live only five blocks apart, do not interact until there is a baseball game between a team of intense Hasidic young men and Reuven’s team of more casual Jews. Late in the game, Reuven is pitching and Danny is at bat. Danny hits a ball back at Reuven. The ball hits Reuven in the head, smashing his glasses and wounding one of his eyes. Following this, Danny visits Reuven in the hospital seeking a form of forgiveness and thus a tentative friendship begins between two young men who are complete opposites.

Beyond the religious differences between the two families, there is how Reuven and Danny have been raised. Reuven’s relationship with his father is warm and extremely verbal, while Danny lives essentially in a world of silence, his father speaking to him only when they are studying the Talmud. Danny tells his father that he has met Reuven and that they have become friends, and Reb Saunders allows the friendship, which will become the heart of the play as the two young men seek their place in life, Israel struggles to be born and two distinct and divergent views of Yiddishkeit confront each other.

“The Chosen” is a play of both ideas and emotions, and one of its primary strengths is that Posner and Potek have interwoven the two so that beliefs and emotions, often conflicting, must exist in the same space. It makes for often compelling moments.

With the aid of set designer Eugene Lee, and supported by subtle yet evocative lighting overseen by Mark Barton, Edelstein utilizes the Theatre’s thrust stage to great effect, often blocking his actors to emphasize the divide between the two families. His job is made all the easier by the strength of the four actors playing the primary roles.

Wolkowitz, who is charged with providing the narration that knits the scenes together, is entirely believable as a young man on the brink of adulthood who must find a moral center in a world that often seems to be composed of irreconcilable opposites. Equally engaging is Edelman as the alienated son, though one might have wished Edelstein had allowed the actor not to be locked into a submissive, Uriah Heep posture throughout the play – there were moments, especially in the plays denouement, when Danny should have stood a bit taller than he was allowed to.

Then there are the two fathers, and Skybell and Guidall create contrasting portraits of fatherhood that are, each in its own way, exceptionally effective, though it is Guidall who comes close to stealing the show, especially with his second-act monologue that evokes the tenderness he has hidden and the reason for his silence with the son. As Danny rushes into his father’s arms there was more than one hand in the audience raised to wipe away a tear.

“The Chosen” may be, at moments, a bit long on polemics, but it delivers a satisfying emotional arc, bolstered by dialogue that never fails to engage. One true benchmark of a play is whether or not you care about what happens to the characters, and this production of “The Chosen” allows you to develop emotional ties with all four primary characters, so much so that the two hours you are in the theater seem to fly by.

“The Chosen” runs through December 17. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Music of the Night

The Phantom of the Opera -- Palace Theater -- Thru November 26

A thought arose as I was driving up to Waterbury to attend a performance of The Phantom of the Opera at the Palace Theater. To wit: how do you review a show that has been running for almost 30 years? What can you possibly say that hasn’t been said before? Probably nothing. Then there was the fact that this was a road show production – surely corners had been cut, if only because of the needs and necessities of traveling from venue to venue. As I picked up my tickets another doubt arose: I was informed that, due to illness, the actress playing Christine Daae, Eva Tavares, had been replaced. Oh, well…it was Friday and I had nothing better to do. So, with a somewhat jaded attitude I took my seat…and became entranced minutes into the performance. Quite simply, this is a production you do not want to miss. It confirms, in spades, why this musical, ably directed by Laurence Connor, continues to entrance and, at moments, enthrall.
Major doubt: it’s a road show so you’ll see a discount version of the show. Wrong. There’s all the flash, bang and spectacle of the Broadway production, plus some, and given the marvelous acoustics of the venue, no matter where you sit you will be enveloped by the music. Major kudos to Paul Brown for the magnificent set design which, at one moment evokes a painting by Degas and at another, aided by the spot-on lighting by Paaule Constable, creates an eerie, threatening mood reminiscent of Murnau’s film Nosferatu – the first descent into the Phantom’s subterranean lair is visually stunning.

Second doubt: the lead has been replaced, so there will be a second-rate, tentative performance. Silly boy. Kaitlyn Davis as Christine is everything you could ask for. Blessed with a silver-toned voice and impressive emotive skills, she makes what could be a cardboard character into a flesh-and-blood woman fighting for her soul. Equally impressive are Derrick Davis as the tortured Phantom and Jordan Craig as Christine’s love interest, Raoul. In fact, the entire cast is first-rate – no one phones in a performance.

It’s probably almost impossible not to be familiar with many of the songs in the show, even if you’ve never seen a production. This might lead to a certain “tuning in” response – the song is being played on the radio or is a YouTube download you listen to while making a grilled-cheese sandwich. Background noise. Well, as familiar as I am with the score it seemed fresh and new…and vibrant…and the staging of the major set-pieces was more than could be asked for. After intermission, I eagerly awaited the second act’s opening number, “Masquerade,” and my eagerness was amply rewarded, thanks to the enthusiasm and artistry of the cast and Scott Ambler’s choreography. It was, quite simply, a wonderful theatrical moment.

As can probably be deduced, I had no great expectations for the evening. After a wearisome week I was not inclined even to be in the theater. This production – as all great productions should – made me forget my toils and troubles. Outside, after the final curtain, my play-going buddy said: “I could have stayed and watched it for another hour.” I agreed. So, if you are looking for something to do over this extended holiday weekend, if you have children or grandchildren who have never had the opportunity to be enraptured by live theater, consider wending your way to the marvelous Palace Theater for an evening that you will talk about for years to come. Come be embraced by the music of the night.
The Phantom of the Opera runs through November 26. For tickets or more information call 203-346-2000 or go to 

Monday, November 13, 2017

Ah, the heartbreak!

The Bridges of Madison Country -- MTC Mainstage -- Through Nov. 19

The term is used to categorize primarily films that deal with women who, in one way or another, give up what they most love, be it a man, a child, or the possibility of love itself. Perhaps the most successful “weepie” of late has been The Bridges of Madison County, the novel by Robert James Waller that was turned into a film starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. The book was a phenomenal success, the movie a blockbuster…and the 2014 musical? Well, it won some Tony and Drama Desk awards but it ran for only three months on Broadway. Now, under the direction of Kevin Connors, it’s at Music Theatre of Connecticut, and the musical’s flaws and strengths are there for all to see.
For those who adamantly refused to be moved to weep (i.e., those who did not read the book or see the film), the basic premise is that Francesca (Juliet Lambert Pratt) was a young girl living in Naples during World War II. She marries an American soldier, Bud (Greg Roderick), and after the war is transported to Iowa, where she proceeds to have two children, Carolyn (Megan O’Callaghan) and Michael (Matt Grasso). Life is pleasant if a bit banal (it’s Iowa after all), until Bud, Carolyn and Michael go off to a state fair and who should show up in Francesca’s driveway but Robert (Sean Hayden), a world-traveling photographer for National Geographic on assignment to photograph the covered bridges in the county. He asks for directions. She falls in love (again, it’s Iowa – corn and cows). He responds in kind. So, what will happen? Will Francesca leave her family (and the corn and the cows) to live a peripatetic, possibly romantic life with Robert or stay put? It’s a “weepie,” so you know what happens.
Okay, let’s deal with the flaws first. The musical’s book by Marsha Norman is padded; by that I mean that there are scenes inserted to justify the two-plus hours the show runs and to allow Jason Robert Brown (music and lyrics) to insert musical numbers that, as sweet as they often are, should be in another musical. There are also comic-relief set-pieces that are enjoyable – can’t not like the neighbors, Marge (Kirsti Carnahan) and Charlie (Frank Mastrone) as they argue about an imagined infidelity -- yet the moments are somewhat beside the point. And what is the point? Well, it’s Francesca and Robert’s relationship, and although there needs to be a certain amount of exposition to create an understanding of what is at stake, it often goes far beyond the necessary.
The strengths? Well, that’s easy. Chief among them is the mesmerizing performance by Pratt as Francesca. Talk about a woman torn! All you need do is watch her body language – it speaks more volumes than the Oxford English Dictionary offers -- and her delivery of her signature songs is impeccable. Playing against her, Hayden seems a bit less than charismatic in the first act, but shines as his character realizes that he must let the love of his life escape him, and his final soliloquy, “It All Fades Away,” wrenches the heart.
The rest of the cast does some fine work, some in multiple roles, but there’s a sense that they are not so much in supporting roles as peripheral to what everyone has come to see, which is the Francesca-Robert story. There’s also the somewhat distracting placement of the four-piece orchestra, which is essentially center-stage. As designed by Jordan Janota, the set seems to push much of the action to extreme stage-left or stage-right, with the visual focus on the musicians. Given the constraints of the MTC stage there perhaps was no other choice, but there are certain pivotal scenes – chief among them Francesca and Robert waking after their first night together – that occur extreme stage-left when they should be occurring center-stage. Often attention is as much on the musicians watching the actors interact as it is on the actors themselves -- a somewhat strange theatrical experience.
By and large, Bridges works and is engaging because of Pratt’s performance, which is well worth the price of admission. Given the reaction of the largely female audience present at the matinee performance I attended, the basic message of the musical was delivered loud and clear. In the parking lot after the performance, one woman turned to the others in her group and said, “And now we go home to Bud.” They all laughed.
The Bridges of Madison County runs through November 19. For tickets or more information call 203-454-3883 or go to