Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Sound of "Mamma Mia"

In a recent review of ACT’s “Mamma Mia,” (see below) I commented on the sound, which was nothing less than, at times, assaulting, especially given the size of the new Ridgefield theater. After a repeat visit to the production, I’m happy to report that the production team at ACT seems to have worked out the problem. “Mamma Mia” is, by no means, a “quiet” musical – many of the ABBA songs are meant to pulse and pound in the ears and get the body up and moving. There’s nothing very subtle about the show, which ACT has boarded in all its gaudiness and over-the top staging – it’s what the material calls for and, by and large, what the audience craves. The production is flashy and frothy, but now it doesn’t require a visit to the ENT doctor for treatment after viewing. 

Saturday, June 16, 2018


In The Heights -- Playhouse on Park -- Thru July 29

The cast of "In The Heights" Photo by Curt Henderson

Playhouse on Park has never shied away from tackling the “Big” musicals, and by and large the creative team of Tracy Flater, Sean Harris and Darlene Zoller have been successful. This time around, they've opted to produce Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony-winning In the Heights, and I'm happy to report that it is a rousing success, as was evident by the response of the packed house on opening night. From casting to direction and choreography, Playhouse's production captures the zest, sass and underlying message – a message that seems to have been forgotten in this age of cries for walls being built and families being separated – that desperately needs to be delivered.

Set in one block of Washington Heights in Manhattan, and covering a span of only several days leading up to the Fourth of July holiday (kudos to Aaron Hochheiser for the fireworks lighting effects), the book by Quiara Allegra Hughes deals with the lives of some of the area's residents, which means that it deals with dreams (some apparently dashed, others deferred), desires and the fears of people who have, many first-generation Hispanics, arrived on these shores to create new lives. This home-grown musical, originally written by Miranda while he was attending Wesleyan University and then, after rewrites, produced at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT, went on to enjoy over 1,000 performances on Broadway, winning three Drama Desk awards and four Tony awards.

The show, backed by nine musicians, is essentially narrated by Usnavi (Niko Touros), whose parents named him after a ship they saw as they came to this country (it was a U. S. Navy ship). In the opening number, “In the Heights,” he introduces the audience to many of the pivotal characters. There's Graffiti Pete (Paul Edme), an artist with a spray can, Abuela Claudia (Amy Jo Phillips), a matriarchal figure, and Sonny (Nick Palazzo), Usnavi's somewhat lazy cousin who helps him run the bodega. Then there's Daniela (Sandra Marante) and Carla (Paige Buade), who run a beauty salon, and their assistant, Vanessa (Sophie Introna), and finally Kevin (JL Rey) and Camila (Stephanie Pope) Rosario, who own a car service, and their employee, Benny (Leyland Patrick), and the “Piragua Guy” (Willie Marte), a push-cart salesman of frozen ice treats.

Into this multi-ethnic community arrives Nina (Analise Rios), Kevin and Camila's daughter. She is the one who has “gotten out,” who has been an “A student” and has been studying at Stanford University in California. Alas, she has left school, for the burden of holding down two jobs while attending classes has affected her grades and she is, for the moment, broken-spirited.

Obviously, in such a tight-knit community there are multiple relationships, and many of the musical numbers (the show is essentially a sung-through musical) detail and develop these relationships via musical styles that embrace Rap, Salsa and standard ballads. Along the way, many of these actors shine brilliantly, perhaps none more than Pope, who in the second act's “Enough” simply stuns the audience with her intensity. It's a theatrical moment you will long remember after the lights go down and evokes the “And I Am Telling You” number from Dreamgirls.

Then there's Marante, who gets the eleven o'clock number slot with “Carnaval Del Barrio” – her voice soars. And there's Introna in an amazing debut performance (she just graduated from Rider University in December) as she creates an engaging blend of sass, style and sensuality. As the two star-crossed lovers, Nina and Benny follow the arc of Romeo and Juliet (without the tragedy), leading to a touching balcony scene that appears to be about learning Spanish but is really about the fight for acceptance (and against prejudice)

There's really not a false note, so to speak, in the entire production. One of the things that is so engaging about this production is the proximity of the audience – which means that the heat and intensity generated by the cast (with much credit going to Zoller's choreography and those in the ensemble) can't help but waft over and embrace the entire house. Kudos must also go to set designer Emily Nichols who manages, given the relatively restricted thrust-stage venue, to create distinct areas for the action to unfold. There's never really any doubt as to “where you are.”

For those not familiar with the plot, such as it is, of In the Heights, their first viewing may be spent, partially, in grasping who everyone is and their relationships to each other. This may distract a bit from attending to the excellent, nuanced performances, so, even though it may be a tough ticket, I'd recommend a second viewing, one in which you can sit back, comfortable in knowing who is whom, and just revel in this outstanding production that will make your blood flow just a bit faster.

In the Heights runs through July 29. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to 

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Winners

‘The Age of Innocence,’ “Rags’ Tops Connecticut Critics Awards

Ceremony reception at Westport Country Playhouse
The world premiere of Hartford Stage’s “The Age of Innocence” and a revised version of the musical “Rags” from Goodspeed Musicals took top honors at the Connecticut Critics Circle Awards Monday.

The event, which celebrated the work from the state’s professional theaters during the ’17-’18 season, was held at Westport Country Playhouse.
The cast of "In The Heights, currently playing at Playhouse on Park,
performs at the ceremony

Awards for outstanding actors in a musical went to Samantha Massell in Goodspeed’s “Rags” and Jamie LaVerdiere in  Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s production of “1776." 

Awards for outstanding actors in a play went to Reg Rogers in Yale Repertory Theatre’s production of “An Enemy of the People” and Isabelle Barbier in Playhouse on Park’s production of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
Isabel Barbier

Top directing awards went to Terrence Mann for CRT’s “1776” and Ezra Barnes for Playhouse on Park’s “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
The cast of "The Wolves" receives awards

Outstanding ensemble award went to TheaterWorks’ production of “The Wolves;”  The debut award went to Megan O’Callaghan  for “The Bridges of Madison County” and "Fun Home,” both at Music Theatre of Connecticut.
Jenn Harris and Megan O'Callaghan
The outstanding solo honor was awarded to Elizabeth Stahlmann for Westport Country Playhouse's “Grounded.” Kelli Barclay won for her choreography for Goodspeed Musicals’ “The Will Rogers Follies.”

Michael O’Flaherty, longtime music director for Goodspeed Musicals, received the Tom Killen Award for lifetime service to the theater from Donna Lynn Cooper Hilton, a producer at Goodspeed.

Receiving special awards were New London’s Flock Theatre for its production of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” at the Monte Cristo Cottage; the Broadway Method Academy of Fairfield; and Billy Bivona, who composed and performed original music for TheaterWork’s production of “Constellations.
Jodi Stevens accepts her award

The outstanding featured actress award in a musical award went to Jodi Stevens for Summer Theatre of New Canaan’s “Singin’ in the Rain.” There was a tie for outstanding featured actor in a musical, with honors going to Matt Faucher for Goodspeed Musicals’ “Oklahoma!” and to Cory Candelet for Ivoryton Playhouse’s “The Fantasticks.”

The award for outstanding featured actors in a play went to Peter Francis James for Westport Country Playhouse’s production of “Romeo and Juliet,” and to Judith Ivey for Long Wharf Theatre’s world premiere of “Fireflies.”

Design awards went to Fitz Patton for sound and Matthew Richards for lighting for Westport Country Playhouse’s “Appropriate;” Linda Cho for costumes for Hartford Stage’s “The Age of Innocence;” Yana Birykova for projections for Westport Country Playhouse’s “Grounded” and David Lewis, for set design for Playhouse on Park’s “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas, stars of TheaterWorks’ “Christmas on the Rocks,” presided over the event.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Oh, Momma!

Mamma Mia! -- ACT -- Thru July 1

            There’s a new kid on the block – ACT (A Contemporary Theatre) of CT – and it bears watching. The creation of Broadway veterans Daniel Levine and Katie Diamond, the Equity production company is nested in a thoroughly renovated building (complete with a stage turntable) on what is known as the Schlumberger property in Ridgefield, Ct. It’s certainly not located on the main drag – you travel up hill and down dale before you get to the yet-to-be fully paved road that leads to the venue, but it’s worth the trek, especially since the company’s inaugural production is Mamma Mia!, a guaranteed crowd-pleaser with over 5,000 Broadway performances to its credit.

            There’s probably little need to provide more than a brief synopsis of the musical’s book, written by Catherine Johnson. It’s really a jukebox musical created by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus that showcases many of the hit tunes of ABBA, a Swedish pop group that dominated the hit charts from the mid-70s to the early 80s. Thus, the book is slight. Basically, Sophie Sheridan (an engaging Emily Rogers) is getting married to Sky (Paul Schwensen). She wants her father at the ceremony, but she doesn’t know who her father is, since her mother, Donna (the always riveting Juliet Lambert Pratt), had three contiguous affairs some 20 years ago with Harry (Victor Hernandez), Bill (Craig Ramsay) and Sam (Michael Hunsaker). The solution? Invite all three. They accept and arrive on the small Greek island, as do Donna’s old friends and fellow performers, Tanya (Jodi Stevens) and Rosie (Sheri Sanders), a threesome once known as Donna and the Dynamos. Of course, confusion ensues, but it all works out in the end.

            As directed by Levine and choreographed by Jason Wise, this is a high-energy show (some may find it, at moments, just a bit too overwhelming…and a bit too long) that offers hit tune after hit tune with brief forays into exposition. There’s no denying the cast’s enthusiasm to entertain. Rogers is the perfect ingĂ©nue – a young girl on the brink of adulthood, both fierce and fragile. Her voice is clear and pure, and she creates a quite believable Sophie. As her mother, Pratt delivers whenever she’s on stage, especially with Donna’s signature song, “The Winner Takes it All.” Many are probably familiar with Meryl Streep’s take on this song in the filmed version of the musical – it was driven by underlying anger and thus carried with it a lot of dramatic, accusatory gestures. Pratt’s take on the number is more subdued and plaintive – a soul expressing its pain. You can’t help but be moved.

             Donna’s sidekicks – Tanya and Rosie – are essentially stereotypes: Tanya the vamp and Rosie the buffoon, and Stevens and Sanders are just fine in delivering what needs to be delivered. Stevens does a sexy turn with “Does Your Mother Know?” and Sanders nails it with “Take a Chance on Me.” In fact, everyone delivers, from the leads to the ensemble. If there is any complaint to be registered about the production it rests with sound designer Daniel Lundberg’s work.

            From the opening notes of the overture, the sound simply assaults. It would work, perhaps, in a 500-seat venue, but the ACT theater is quite a bit more intimate, and the house seems to be constructed to be acoustically sensitive. Thus, the sound created by the eight musicians located behind an up-stage scrim seems to blare and the actors are over-miked, creating a feeling that everyone is belting out the songs even when belting is not called for. There also seems to be some unnecessary echo and reverb effects. The show would certainly benefit from a decrease in decibel level (perhaps even a consideration that the actors really don’t need to be miked at all?)

            The sound notwithstanding, there’s no denying that it’s difficult not to be swept up in the enthusiasm and talent up there on the stage, especially evident in “Voulez Vous,” the first act’s closing number, and the encore numbers ending with the exuberant “Waterloo,” when the stage seems to erupt with dancing bodies, creatures resurrected from decades ago that evoke a somewhat psychedelic era that often made little sense but was a hell of a lot of fun…and fraught with funkiness.

            This is an abbreviated season for ACT. Next year the company plans to offer Evita, as well as Working, a lesser-known musical by Ridgefield resident Stephen Schwartz (he of Pippin and Wicked fame) and the quirky 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. It will be interesting to see how this production company, with its stated goal of bringing Broadway to Ridgefield, matures and refines its personality and creative cachet.

            Mamma Mia! runs through July 1. For tickets or more information, go to      

Saturday, June 2, 2018

A Blast From the Past

A Night with Janis Joplin -- Ivoryton Playhouse -- Thru June 24

Paige McNamara as Janis Joplin

She was born on January 19, 1943 and died on October 4, 1970. Do the math – her life spanned a mere 28 years, yet she is a Rock and Roll and Blues icon whose albums have sold over 15 million copies. Her name is Janis Joplin, and she has come back to life at the Ivoryton Playhouse in an evening of sheer electricity.
Given the vocal requirements of the performance, the role of Joplin is shared on alternate nights by Francesca Ferrari and Paige McNamara. On opening night, it was McNamara who took the stage. McNamara brilliantly captures Joplin’s hyperkinetic stage presence, which was fueled by drugs and alcohol. Her legs can’t stop jerking; her arms shoot up as exclamation points; her body channels the rhythm and beat of the music. There are moments when you think she might just explode out of her skin, that what she is experiencing on stage is sheer synesthesia, a mesh and merger of sight and sound that enflames her mind.
Backed by eight highly talented musicians who make the rafters of the venue shake, rattle and roll, McNamara offers up bits of Joplin biography with numerous references to those artists who influenced her: Bessie Smith and Odetta (Aurianna Angelique), Etta James (Tawny Dolley), Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone (Amma Osei) and the lead Chantel, also billed as the Blues Singer (Jennifer Leigh Warren). Thus, this walk down memory lane captures much of an entire era that embraced Soul, R & B and Rock. Often, as with the number “Summertime,” we are offered the traditional version (compliments, in this case, of Osei) and then Joplin’s more kinetic cover of the number.
A lot of the production has been imported – it’s a co-production – but Ivoryton has adapted what was brought in – essentially sets, blocking and lighting plot – brilliantly. This is especially true of the lighting, which was originally created by Ryan O’Gara. There are numerous cues and effects, and on opening night they seem to have come off without a hitch. Although the show was originally created, written and directed by Randy Johnson, Tyler Rhodes deserves a lot of credit for making the show “fit” the Ivoryton stage.
Joplin was a unique performer, and her brash, sometimes over-the-top presentation, with a voice that often sounded like gravel being dumped from a truck, is there for all to see and hear in McNamara’s performance, including the occasional slugs from bottles of Southern Comfort (one assumes they are props). Although the evening is essentially a juke-box musical, there is a build of sorts, for the second act encompasses the haunting “Stay With Me,” as well as the iconic “Me and Bobby Mcgee” and, finally, “Mercedes Benz,” with the audience chiming in and chanting.
This is somewhat unusual fare for the Playhouse, but the scheduling, based on the opening night audience, seems to have worked, for there was a cross-section of generations in the audience, all of whom responded with stand-up enthusiasm. Think of it this way: your grandfather, who has always been into music, sits you down and gives you a crash course on the music that filled his younger years, putting on LPs (that’s long-playing records, for those of you who are from the “download” generation) and playing cuts and then reminiscing. He plays “My Baby” and “Turtle Blues,” “Spirit in the Dark” and “Kozmic Blues,” and as he does you are transported back to a time when he was young and just a bit wild, and you see him in a different light, a golden (or neon) glow, if you will, that evokes a time and a place (or multiple places) when Janis Joplin was one of the voices that defined an era…and moved multitudes.
A Night With Janis Joplin” runs through June 24. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to