Saturday, March 31, 2018

I Enjoy Being a ...?

The Legend of Georgia McBride -- TheaterWorks Hartford -- Thru April 22

Jamison Stern as Miss Tracy Mills

            What will you do to make a buck, especially when your wife is expecting your first child? Would you consider putting on a dress, a wig and vamping it up in front of an audience? Well, that’s the decision Casey has to make in the delightful “Legend of Georgia McBride” now playing at TheaterWorks under the wise direction of Rob Ruggiero. The show, written by Matthew Lopez, is definitely a crowd-pleaser – there was laughter throughout and by the end of the evening members of the audience had their arms in the air and were swaying back and forth in their seats.

            Casey (Austin Thomas) doesn’t have many options. Besides his wife, Jo (Samaria Nixon-Fleming), being pregnant, his Elvis impersonation at a local bar is not bringing in a lot of money, which means there are multiple wolves at the door. Looking to boost patronage, the bar owner, Eddie (J. Tucker Smith) books a drag queen act consisting of Miss Tracy Mills (Jamison Stern) and Rexy (Nik Alexander). The only problem is, Rexy has a slight (!) drinking problem. With her all but comatose, Tracy turns to Casey to fill out the act. Reluctant and totally unaware of the nuances of the drag scene, Casey agrees, and thus begins the legend of how Casey becomes “Georgia McBride”. What follows is a lip-syncing, camp festival accentuated by some bravura performances.

            Central to the evening’ enjoyment is the relationship between Miss Tracy, the somewhat world-weary yet wise drag queen, and Casey, who is initially clueless, as is evident in his first appearance on stage in drag doing an Edith Piaf number with all the skill and panache of an eight-year-old in a grade-school performance. Totally self-conscious, Casey, under Miss Tracy’s tutelage, starts to get with the drag program, and part of the evening’s entertainment is watching this transformation as Casey finds and accepts his “inner woman.” So successful is he at this that, when Jo finally learns what he is doing and confronts him, one of her major complaints is “You’re prettier than I am.”

            As enjoyable as Casey’s transformation is, it’s Miss Tracy who owns this show, not only for the character’s zingers and often arched eyebrows, but Stern does several marvelous turns, one of them as Liza Minelli/Judy Garland (it’s touching and also a bit bittersweet – and snarky) and then, in the “I Enjoy Being a Girl” number, there are multiple – well, what might you call them? Inserts? Freeze-frames? – when he delivers classic “bitch woman” lines from such films as “All About Eve.”  This number alone is worth the price of admission.

            Lopez doesn’t give the actress playing Jo much to work with – she’s basically the bedeviled wife along for the ride – and the Rexy character (Alexander also plays, convincingly, the next-door neighbor Jason) is something of a stereotype until he/she gets to lace into Casey near the end of the show, challenging him to, oddly enough, “man-up” if he is going to embrace drag. However, most of the writing is witty and dead-on, and a confrontation between Miss Tracy and Casey, set against just a motel room’s door (wise choice on the part scenic designer Paul Tate dePoo III) gives a certain gravitas to the characters’ relationship.

            “Georgia McBride” has the feel of ABBA’s “Momma Mia” and Stephen Elliot’s “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” though it’s set in Florida rather than Greece or Australia. There’s also more than a touch of “La Cage aux Folles,” here, but that’s not a bad thing. In all, “Georgia McBride” is a delightful romp, a gender-bending exercise in shtick and camp that touches the heart. Those of a younger generation (and there were quite a few in the audience the night I saw the show) may not get all of the allusions but there’s enough there for everyone to enjoy.

            “The Legend of Georgia McBride” runs through April 22. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to

Monday, March 26, 2018


The Fantasticks -- Ivoryton Playhouse -- Thru April 8

            If musicals are the pastries of the American theater, then “The Fantasticks,” with book and lyrics by Tom Jones and music by Harvey Schmit, is up there on the shelf with the napoleons and cream puffs. This lighthearted quasi-fairy tale, which opened Off-Broadway in 1960 and ran for 42 years, tells a simple tale of boy meets girls, they fall in love, their love is apparently thwarted (not really), they part, but life intervenes to teach them both lessons that bring them back together. In its current iteration at the Ivoryton Playhouse, the pastry has been prepared with exquisite taste and style and should please diverse palates.

            There’s been a slight (well, maybe not so slight) change in the casting. In the original production, the two lovers are kept apart (by plan) by their fathers. In the Ivoryton version, it’s the mothers, Hucklebee (Patricia Schuman) and Bellomy (Carly Callahan) who build a wall (Cory Candelet, playing The Mute) to ostensibly keep the young lovers apart, the point being that all you have to do to get a child to do something is to say “No” to them, a form of reverse psychology that all parents come to understand. Thus, the two young people, Matt (Ryan Bloomquist) and Luisa (the enchanting Kimberly Immanuel), pine, ache, moan and dream of their eventual union.

            Said union is to be finally brought about by a faux abduction paid for by the mothers and crafted by El Gallo (David Pittsinger), a suave bandit, and two second-rate thespians who were, or are, literally born in a trunk: Mortimer (Will Clark), whose main claim to fame is his ability to die, and Henry (R. Bruce Connelly), who handles quotes from Shakespeare as if he is concocting trail mix. They will abduct the fair Luisa but allow Matt to save her…and thus the couple will live happily ever after.

Thus ends the first act, with a tableau that also opens the second act, the idea being that the actors have held their poses throughout the intermission. Of course, things quickly fall apart, for puppy love and fairy tales must inevitably rub up against harsh reality. Matt, sensing flaws in Luisa (“freckles!”), decides instead to experience the world, and Luisa, under El Gallo’s tutelage, just wants to be “bad.” They each go through their own dark nights of the soul and eventually realize what they really want is each other.

Most of the evening is totally engaging, thanks to the stellar cast that artistic director Jacqueline Hubbard has put together and the deft direction and choreography by Brian Feehan. The show I saw was early on in the run, but what was noticeable was how comfortable the actors seemed to be on the set created by Martin Scott Marchitto and how well Marcus Abbott’s lighting cues worked. Why surprising? Well, actors in theaters like Ivoryton often don’t get the opportunity to actually rehearse on the stage where they will be performing until shortly before the play opens. It takes a while to adjust, but apparently the adjustment was seamless.

As noted, the cast is excellent, but if standouts are necessary to mention, then I would point to Pittsinger, who has a phenomenal stage presence as El Gallo (and, given his operatic background, turns “Try to Remember” into a haunting hymn), and Immanuel, who glitters and glows and, in the first act, faints delightfully (and often). Kudos also to Clark for his extended death scene (I’m surprised the actors were able to suppress laughter) and Schuman and Callahan for the sprightly and engaging delivery of “Plant a Radish.”

It’s easy to see why “The Fantasticks” had such a long run. It’s a simple, touching story graced by some lovely songs, including the aforementioned “Try to Remember” and “Soon it’s Gonna Rain,” and in the case of the Ivoryton production, made memorable by a cast that is just about flawless. The Sunday matinee I attended was a packed house, and I would imagine that word-of-mouth will continue to fill the seats, for this production is a lovely way for Ivoryton to open its 2018 season.
“The Fantasticks” runs through April 8. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Dancing Feet

15 -- Playhouse on Park -- Through March 25

            “Gotta dance! Gotta dance!”

            So sings Gene Kelly in the “Broadway Rhythm Ballet” sequence in “Singin’ in the Rain.” The phrase could just as easily be the mantra of the members of Stop/Time Dance Theater, which is celebrating its 15th year up at Playhouse on Park with its production of, appropriately, “15.”

            The show was conceived, directed and choreographed by Darlene Zoller, who is also co-founder and co-artistic director of the Playhouse. As with previous productions, the story-line is paper-thin, created, as Zoller explained after the opening-night performance, to just provide a reason for the cast to, well…dance, and dance they do, creating moments of exuberance  heightened by the proximity of the audience to what is occurring on the thrust stage. The intimacy demands that no one phones in a performance, and nobody does.

            If it matters, the show focuses on a young woman, Victoria (Victoria Mooney) who, beset by the demands of social media, is, akin to Alice in her trip to Wonderland, swept up into a strange world ruled by Eon (Rick Fountain) and Millenia (Amanda Forker), a world that apparently controls the use, or abuse, of time. Victoria first appears searching for clues…to what is not exactly clear but, again, it really doesn’t matter, for the opening number, “Another Stop/Time Show,” brings the entire cast on stage for a robust dance number that sets the tone for the entire evening.
The cast of "15." Photo by Curt Henderson

            Many of the numbers borrow from other musicals – “West Side Story” (“Something’s Coming”), “Damn Yankees (“Two Lost Souls”), and “Wicked” (“Dancing Through Life”), to name just three, plus a witty re-working of “I Can’t Say No” from “Oklahoma (in this case, Victoria can’t say no to responding to text messages).  The use of these familiar songs provides a certain comfort level to the evening, anchoring the production within the well-established American musical theater gestalt.

            However, it’s dance that drives the evening, and one might think that over the course of the almost two-hour show the hoofing might become a bit tedious. Such is not the case, for Zoller’s choreography, supported by evocative lighting by Aaron Hochheiser and a multitude of costumes by Lisa Steier, is inventive and diverse, incorporating tap, modern dance and ballet in a constant whirl that utilizes every inch of the stage (and a bit of the aisles as well).

            What really shines forth is the unbridled enthusiasm the cast exhibits. They – many of whom have apparently been dancing before they learned to walk – may have day jobs, and quotidian concerns may sometimes conflict with rehearsals, but their commitment to the production is patently obvious. Seldom do you have the opportunity to see, close-up, passion personified, and these dancers are passionate about what they are doing. Electricity sparks throughout the evening, no more so than in the final number from “Hairspray,” “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”  It’s a fitting comment on the commitment these fine dancers have to an art form they obviously love.

            “15” runs through March 25. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Setting the Season

The Upcoming Season at Ivoryton Playhouse

            It takes a lot of time, talent and perseverance to put on a show (and a sense of humor doesn’t hurt), but what if the onerous task of producing not just one but seven shows in a single season falls on your shoulders? Would you, like Ayn Rand’s Atlas, shrug, let the weight fall from those shoulders? Well, Jacqueline Hubbard is not one to shrug, and she hasn’t for close to two decades as she has boarded plays and musicals at the historic Ivoryton Playhouse, where, as the Playhouse’s executive/artistic director, she is hip-deep in the details of creating the venue’s 2018 season.
Jacqueline Hubbard. Photo by Peter M. Weber
            I met with Hubbard at the Playhouse’s offices, which thankfully had power – the theater itself, down the road, was still dark after a Nor’easter had recently blown through the town. As I walked into her office she was fielding a phone call and giving directions to an assistant – something about the code for the alarm at the theater. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she was also juggling three multi-colored balls in the air and tap dancing.

            In a British accent shaded and softened by her years in the States, Hubbard explained the process of bringing seven shows to Ivoryton.

            “As soon as the last season is finalized,” she said, “I set up a big board for the next season and I start moving different plays around. We have plays that plop in different slots over the course of the year. We know that we’re going to put musicals in the two big summer slots and we know where we’re going to try a comedy or a drama.”

            The Ivoryton Playhouse has a supportive board of directors, but over the years Hubbard has earned the board’s trust, so what goes where in the season and what finally occurs when the curtain rises is really her call – and she agonizes over the selection, and it’s not just a simple matter of material to produce.

            “I really wanted to do a new play – we ended up going for two new plays, both by women, which is kind of nice. It never really settles until November – there might be five or six shows that I’m definite about but there’s always one or two that I go backwards and forwards on until something pushes it over the edge.”

            What gives the push? Well, consider the last show slated for the 2018 season, the world premiere of “Queens of the Golden Mask.” The play was originally submitted for consideration for Ivoryton’s Women’s Play Festival, but it was two acts and the festival limited the submissions to one act. Hubbard called the playwright, Carole Lockwood, complimented her on the play, explained why it couldn’t be considered for the festival but suggested that it might make a wonderful movie. Lockwood told her a deal might be in the works. Fast forward two or three months – the deal had fallen through over script changes the playwright didn’t want to make.

            What’s the play about? Well, it’s set in the early Sixties and deals with women involved in the Ku Klux Klan. Current events – specifically the Charlottesville protest and its aftermath – brought the play back to Hubbard’s mind. “I re-read it and I met with the writer,” Hubbard recalled, “and I said to her that I was going to do a special reading of the play during the festival. She was very excited. That was in September, and in October I woke up one morning and said to myself: ‘What am I doing? This play should be produced.’ And that was it.”

            Hubbard is an actor, a director and a producer. She has been involved, one way or another, with theater since she was a young girl and, given her years at Ivoryton, she is painfully aware of the economics that often determine what is and is not produced, and yet the theatrical seasons she creates are by and large also determined by her gut instincts. These instincts are extremely important when selecting the two musicals that will run at Ivoryton over the summer.

            “Often with the big musicals it’s availability,” Hubbard explained. “We are a small theater. People who hold the rights to plays want to make the most money that they can. So, when I apply for the rights to a play, and I have 280 seats, and another theater applies and they have a thousand seats, and it’s at the same time and we’re within a hundred miles of each other, I will lose.”

            It often all comes down to money as to whether or not Hubbard can “lock something down.” It all depends on what’s in the Ivoryton coffers at the moment. “Rights to do a big musical,” she pointed out, “usually run around $30,000, and they usually want $5,000 or $10,000 up front, which is a lot of money for us. If we’re doing well at the start of the year, with subscriptions and whatever, then I can lock down some of the bigger musicals.” However, “lock down” isn’t an absolute – sometimes it’s a “Yes” followed by a “No, sorry.” Those who hold the rights to the plays giveth and taketh away on a regular basis, especially when there’s a national tour in the offing.

            Although she may not want to admit it, Hubbard has a certain “nanny” mentality when it comes to scheduling some of the shows for the season. By that I mean she senses what her audience – and not just her subscribers – might be needing, that spoon full of sugar that might help the medicine of current events go down just a bit easier. Hence, the decision to schedule “The Fantasticks” as the opening production of the season.

            “I thought… feeling extremely…weighed down by the complete mess the world is in,” Hubbard said, shaking her head, “and feeling that we had to open the season after months of hibernation and overdosing on CNN with something that had a bit of a fairytale quality but  also a touch of realism…’Fantasticks’ has that.” It also doesn’t hurt that David Pittsinger, who will play El Gallo (and, yes, sing “Try to remember”) and his wife, Patricia Schuman, were available for the show. Over the past few years, Pittsinger, a world-renowned bass-baritone, and Schuman, a diva known for her stunning portrayals of operatic heroines, have graced the Ivoryton stage.
David Pittsinger
           Pittsinger and Schuman, along with R. Bruce Connelly, who will play Henry, have become Ivoryton favorites, but Hubbard understands that Ivoryton’s future must rest with expanding the venue’s audience, even at the risk of possibly alienating some of the “old-timers” who still help fill the house.

            “I think that, twelve or fifteen years ago when we were still in the process of building a subscriber base our demographics heavily influenced what we put on. Less so today. Of course, I have to think about them, but I also know that we have to attract a new audience, so we try to let them know,” meaning the old guard, if you will, “that that is our plan, that we want to produce theater that they will enjoy but also we are going to produce things that may not be their first choice…but please come, and let me know…and they let me know!”

            Hubbard has received letters from subscribers suggesting that what the Playhouse is producing doesn’t appeal to them. She responds to them, politely, but points out that the times they are a’changing.

            As a nod to the Playhouse’s demographics, Hubbard has scheduled “Love Quest,” by Mary Maguire and Steven McGraw, to follow “The Fantasticks,” with Hubbard directing and starring Linda Purl. It focuses on two women, one in her 60s, the other in her 30s, who are both, well, questing for love in the strange new world of Face Book, speed dating and cybersex. “It’s a new play,” Hubbard said, “and [the playwrights] are open to working on it.” As to why she has chosen this particular vehicle: “I have to find something to connect with in a play. It’s always been to the detriment of the piece if I haven’t.” Hubbard has worked with the writers and she believes that Ivoryton can make the play fun, funnier “and have a few more layers.”

            And what if it isn’t fun? Well, that’s always a possibility, especially with a new play. You just never know until it’s on its legs and all you can do is hope that it doesn’t stumble. “I will know,” Hubbard said, “by the Thursday evening of the run, because I will have had my complete audience demographic by then for those three performances.” And if the show isn’t working? “My instinct is to run away,” Hubbard admitted, “but I rarely get farther than the tavern across the street.”

            Hubbard explained that minor adjustments can be made during the run of a show, but if major surgery is required the patient is left to gasp out its last stertorous breaths and then is silently put to rest. “We simply don’t have a long enough run to make major changes,” Hubbard said, then added: “I try to get directors I trust. There have been times…well…I won’t dwell on the past.”

            Following “Love Quest” on the schedule is “A Night with Janis Joplin,” a show that, after previews, ran for 141 performances on Broadway in 2013-14. Again, it’s a show that was lodged somewhere in Hubbard’s mind and she associated it, and the demographic that the show might appeal to, with the same demographic that had made “Million Dollar Quartet” such a hit at Ivoryton.
Janis Joplin
She wondered what had ever happened to the Janis Joplin musical and so she did a bit of research, sent an email, and then “my phone rings and it’s the guy who owns the show and he starts talking to me about the show, saying he’s putting together a tour.” Hubbard’s response: “Well, keep us in mind.” It turned out that the show ended up being staged by North Carolina Theatre in May, and so Hubbard opted to “piggy-back” the production with the North Carolina venue. “We cast it together,” Hubbard said, “and we’re bringing in the whole production – sets, costumes, everything. It’s not a little show – it’s got an eight-piece band! In costumes…and wigs.” Hubbard smiled waggishly: “I just love that music, so that’s going to be fun.”

            For the summer, undoubtedly the most important part of Ivoryton’s season, the venue will be boarding “Grease,” immediately followed by “A Chorus Line,” both to be directed by Todd Underwood, who has become the go-to man for staging many of Ivoryton’s musicals. To say that the run of these two shows will be make-or-break time for Ivoryton is an understatement.

            “These two productions represent the bulk of our revenue,” Hubbard explained, but then added a BUT: “”They cost us almost what we spend on them. They are our anchor shows – they bring people in and if somebody comes to one of them and says, “Hey, I’ll buy a three-play subscription,’ well…in some ways these shows are ‘lost-leaders,’ we sell out but they’re so expensive for us to produce – expensive for housing, for everything else that goes along with a big musical.” Hubbard paused, then shrugged. “Nobody will come out for small shows in the summer,” she said, “so we have no choice, but they give us the freedom to do, well, the other stuff.”

            The nanny in Hubbard influenced her choice for Ivoryton’s penultimate show, “Once.” Again, she’s offering that spoon full of sugar for a world she sees as somewhat weary and woebegone. “I saw it several times on Broadway,” Hubbard said, “and I thought it was a little gem but…well, nobody has heard of it,” the “nobody” meaning the folks who normally patronize Ivoryton. She sees “Once,” as she does “The Fantasticks,” as a bit of a fairytale, something that just might lighten the hearts, if only for a moment, of those who attend.

            As experienced as Hubbard is, she knows that she can be wrong and is willing to learn from her mistakes. She referenced the recent women’s play festival and, well, here’s how she explains it: “One of the writers came in with a piece and it ended with four minutes of silence, a couple just looking into each other’s eyes. That’s it. I said to the author, ‘You can’t do that. That’s death on stage,’ and she said, ‘I’d really like to try it.’ Well, this is the reason we bring these writers up here, to try these things. So the play was about a couple who was separated and the husband is trying to get the wife back, to get her to stay, and throughout the whole play, well, you just want her to stay, and he asks her to sit, just for four minutes, that’s all he’s asking for. And…you know…the audience held its breath for four minutes and at the end of it, when the lights went out, they were all on their feet and I thought, well, I’m happy to say I was wrong. I thought it would be disastrous. but it worked, so there are things we can do that I didn’t think were possible…and there you go.”

            Yes, it worked, and much of what Hubbard does at Ivoryton “works.” The lady doesn’t wear rose-colored glasses, but she, nested in the Connecticut hinterlands, does love theater, and loves what she does, and that is evident, and perhaps it all works so well because, quite simply, she cares…and can smile even when the power goes out.