Friday, July 19, 2019

A Personable Pooch

Because of Winn Dixie -- Goodspeed Musicals -- Extended thru Sept. 5

Bowdie and Josie Todd. Photo by Diane Soboleweski

                What is “Because of Winn Dixie,” a new musical at Goodspeed Musicals, made of? Well, sugar and spice and everything nice.  This affable yet overly-sentimental piece of theatrical fluff, based on the novel by Kate DiCamillo (it won a Newbury honor – yes, it’s a children’s book), with book and lyrics by Nell Benjamin and music by Duncan Sheik, is easy on the eye and ear but places little or no demands on the brain. It’s basically the story of a motherless girl and the dog that she befriends -- or, perhaps, it’s the other way around – when they “meet cute” at a Winn Dixie supermarket. Hence, the dog’s name. Over the course of a summer, led by the perceptive pooch, the young girl finds friends and manages to bring several characters who have been ostracized by the town into the fold. All ends happily – was there ever any doubt – and closes with a rousing “What I Got is You” sung by the whole company. The dog may well have been part of the chorus.

                As directed by John Rando, this piece of eye candy labors hard to make the audience love it – I guess your reaction all depends on your feelings about children and dogs. What can’t be argued is William Berloni’s work as the animal trainer. Winn Dixie, the dog, (played on opening night by Bowdie) appears in many scenes and must interact with a host of characters, plus carry some scenes all on his own – the most entrancing is when he has run away during a thunderstorm – here the stage is backlit and we see the dog rushing through the night (on a treadmill). Give that dog an extra can of Alpo.

                The girl who befriends Winn Dixie is 13-year-old Opal (Josie Todd), the daughter of a less-than successful minister (J. Robert Spencer) whose wife left the two of them when Opal was three. They have just moved to Naomi, Florida, where the preacher has a new congregation. Opal is not happy with the move or with their new residence, and has a lot of questions about why she is motherless. Her personality is a bit spikey, so she doesn’t make friends easily, but Winn Dixie will take care of that. The two opening numbers, “Strays” and “Offer it Up” are essentially exposition, letting the audience know what’s what. Then the musical starts rolling on its affable way when Opal and Winn Dixie meet. The dog likes to wander, and Opal goes along for the ride and, in the process, is introduced to some of the town’s less than reputable characters (all of whom, of course, have hearts of gold beneath crusty or suspicious exteriors).

                The first “suspicious” character the dog introduces Opal to is the ex-con, Otis (David Poe), who owns a pet store. Two brothers, Stevie (Jay Hendrix) and Dunlap (Jamie Mann) warn Opal about not going into the store, but Winn Dixie doesn’t give a hoot (or a woof), and so Opal follows the dog into the store, ostensibly to buy the dog a collar. To pass the time, Otis writes songs – when Opal enters he’s trying to work out some lyrics. The girl helps him and they strike up a relationship, which includes the girl working for the ex-con to pay for the dog collar.

                The peripatetic pooch also leads Opal to the local witch, Gloria (Roz Ryan), whom Opal is also warned against associating with. It turns out that Gloria is not a witch but an ex-alcoholic who hangs empty bottles from a tree to remind her of the mistakes she has made in her life (“Bottle Tree Blues”).

                The final “odd” character Winn Dixie introduces Opal to is the town librarian, Miss Franny (Isabel Keating), stern guardian of her library who has “rules.” As with Otis and Gloria, Franny is eventually brought out of her protective shell by the dog.

                All of this can’t be considered gripping theater, and as for the music, well it’s as bland as the plot. However, the first act does move along, whereas the second act. besides a lot of lamenting on the part of the characters, seems to drag because, besides the “woe are we” scenes, there really isn’t much for the characters to do until near the end when Winn Dixie runs away (it’s that storm that frightens him) and the whole town sets out to find him in a rather chaotic set piece that seems a bit farcical, with characters rushing in and out and flashing lights. Of course, the dog eventually reappears and the entire cast celebrates.

                Spencer gives a strong, controlled performance as the somewhat put-upon preacher, especially in the second act’s opening number when he and fellow parents perform “Sulking,” brought about by the recalcitrance of their children. As Opel, Todd has a good comedic sense and, especially in her scenes with Otis, is quite engaging. However, her voice is just a bit too high-pitched so, when she is singing or is angry the words seem to pierce you rather enter gently into your ears.

                As for the laments, well Chloe Cheers does a nice job as Amanda with “No One Watching,” which is about her younger brother drowning in a pool when she was supposed to be watching him, and in a duet with the preacher, Kacie Sheik as Jean commiserates in “I Know Lonely” about their respective loss of spouses. If there’s a stand-out performance it’s delivered by Ryan as Gloria, who absolutely nails “Bottle Tree Blues.” Special mention should also be made of the youngest member of the cast, the precocious Sophia Massa as Sweetie Pie Thomas. She’s able to more than hold her own with the more senior actors and knows exactly what her character’s function in the musical should be. It’s a nice piece of acting, especially for one so young.

                Some might say that finding fault with “Winn Dixie” is like kicking a dog when it’s lazing in the sun – it’s just mean-spirited. Well, the musical is what it is, and though it is heartfelt (just like a Hallmark card is heartfelt), it’s blatantly manipulative with regards to the emotions – I mean, we’re dealing with a kid and a dog here (W. C. Fields would have disdained working in the show). When you leave the theater about all you can say is, “Well, that was nice, that was sweet.” Yes, it’s nice and it’s sweet, but it’s also pulp fluff, a story that a 4th-grader might find compelling but one that probably leaves a portion of the older audience seeking the nearest watering hole for a good, stiff drink. There’s no denying that the scenes with Winn Dixie (the dog) are endearing, and the damn dog is superbly trained, but to buy into the idea that the dog is, to a certain extent, the town’s savior is a purchase that’s hard to make, unless you wear your heart on your sleeve.
                “Because of Winn Dixie” runs through Sept. 5, with six performances added. For tickets or more information call 860.873.8668 or visit:

Sunday, July 14, 2019

A Touch of Chekhov

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike -- New Milford TheatreWorks -- Through August 3

Nick Raines, Ali Bernhardt, Sumiah Gay,
Maya Jennings Daley, Lana Peck, David Fritsch
Photo by Richard Pettibone

                You don’t have to be a Chekhov aficionado to enjoy Christopher’s Durang’s dark comedy, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” which recently opened at TheatreWorks New Milford under the capable direction of Jocelyn Beard. However, if you have at least a passing familiarity with Chekhov’s plays, then the names of three of the main characters will ring a bell, as will some of the plot points in Durang’s play, which is set in Bucks County, PA. You will also register the emotional travails that haunt Vanya, Sonia and Masha as they constantly analyze their lives and bemoan their fates. However, this is a comedy, and the cast, by and large, delivers the goods along with several standout performances. All in all, this production is proof that “small” theatrical venues can offer professional, intriguing – and often entrancing – theater.

                So, the set-up and the plot: we have a brother and a sister, Vanya (David Fritsch) and Sonia (Lana Peck), who have lived together since childhood in a house now owned by their sister Masha (Ali Bernhardt), a fading movie actress who pays all the household bills and gives her siblings a monthly stipend. Vanya and Sonia, whose lives have settled into a bickering routine, have never worked, have no manifest skills, and their one claim to fame is that they took care of their aging parents into their dotage. One of their primary topics of conversation is about a blue heron who occasionally visits the pond in front of their house. The oft-spoken question of the day: will the bird return?

                After Vanya and Sonia’s relationship is established, enter Masha, who has come home to attend a costume party hosted by an influential neighbor who lives in a house once owned by Dorothy Parker. In tow is Spike (Nick Raines), Masha’s current boy-toy, whom she uses to dissipate the pain of her five failed marriages. They are greeted by Vanya and Sonia’s cleaning lady, Cassandra (Sumiah Gay) who, true to her name, is inclined to prophesy, utterances that no one takes seriously. They are soon visited by Nina (Maya Jennings Daley), a neighbor and aspiring actress who desperately wants to meet Masha. There you have it. Most of the rest of the first act, and well into the second act, involves preparations for the costume party, to which all of the characters are invited, and the party’s aftermath.

                The play, which won both a Tony and a Drama Desk award for Best Play, references Chekhov’s dramas but is not slavishly adherent to the characters that Chekhov created. In fact, the siblings were named by their professorial parents because the parents admired Chekhov. Yes, there’s a cherry orchard, although the characters argue over whether nine or ten trees constitute an “orchard,” and there is a lot of sibling arguments, plus the possibility that Vanya and Sonia might lose their ancestral home and the fact that Vanya has secretly written a play inspired by a character in “The Seagull,” Konstantin, who wrote a symbolist drama.

                What about the production itself? Well, it runs smoothly although some of the performances are a bit uneven. Bernhardt, as Masha, is at moments just a tad too strident. Yes, she’s supposed to be manipulative, high-strung and self-absorbed, but she often delivers her lines as if she is Bette Davis on uppers. A bit of modulation might be in order. The other performance that might create a bit of a frown is Daley’s as the somewhat naïve Nina (also a name from a Chekhov play). It’s the ingénue role, and Daley “ingenues” it to the hilt. A little less sugar and just a bit more spice might enhance the performance. I mean, how “nice” can you be when you want to go to a costume party as a princess but are forced to go as Dopey the Dwarf (great costume by designer Sue Haneman) to satisfy someone else’s ego?

                As for the other four actors, they all provide solid performances. Raines’ Spike is dead-on as the mindless, unsuccessful actor obsessed with his body, so much so that he strips whenever the opportunity arises, much to the consternation of Vanya, a homosexual for whom the closet-door is only half-way open. Spike is of the species that used to be called a lounge lizard, and Raines plays the role so well that you can almost imagine seeing some scales on his back. In true lizard fashion, he speaks with forked tongue with regards to Masha, who, in the final moments of the play, dumps him and sends him packing.

                Then there’s Gay, the prophetess Cassandra. Her role is a bit constrained, since she has one primary characteristic: her ability to foresee the future, but she deftly switches from Greek oracle to her other role as cleaning lady, including a marked change in body language. Her best moments are in the second act when, with the help of a voodoo doll and a pin, she tries to punish Masha for contemplating selling the house.

Finally, there’s Fritsch and Peck, who work together seamlessly as two siblings who have come to adjust to each other’s quirks and needs. You truly believe that they have been together forever. In the second act, each character has her or his moment to shine. First, there’s Peck, who receives a phone call from a man whom she met at the previous night’s party who found her “charming” and wishes to take her out to dinner. Of course, we only hear one side of the conversation, so it falls on Peck to make us understand what is being said to her, which she does with great aplomb while conveying her character’s ambivalence about going out on a date. Her exit after this soliloquy received a well-deserved round of applause, for it was softly yet compellingly mesmerizing.

Fritsch, as Vanya, must assume many roles as he tries to live with Sonia and arbitrate the arguments and lessen the occasional near-psychotic hysteria of the two women. He also has his moment in the spotlight near the end of act two. Nina has agreed to perform his play (she plays a molecule set free after the destruction of Earth) for the rest of the family and Spike. As might be expected, the play is a bit inane, which allows Spike to open his cell phone and start texting. Vanya sees this and it triggers a four- or five-minute diatribe about what has changed in our society. For an audience of a certain age (the opening night audience would certainly qualify, as do I), Vanya’s rant takes us down Memory Lane to a time when people wrote letters and licked stamps, watched “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” and kids, mostly boys, wore coonskin hats in emulation of Davy Crockett and were transfixed by the pubescent sexual allure of Annette Funicello on the Mickey Mouse Club. The specific references might be lost on younger generations, but Vanya’s sense of loss and feelings that he is now a stranger in a strange land are palpable and can be understood by anyone regardless of age, and Fritsch delivers this diatribe with a rising sense of loss and remorse for the irretrievable.

Yes, in the end, the siblings are united, but you sense that the bickering will never stop – it’s in their blood. The last we see of them they are arranged in family-photograph order with the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” playing in the background and the blue heron (compliments of projection designer Philip Lamb) returning to the pond. Is this a happy ending? Well, if you know your Chekhov, you suspect not.
“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” runs through August 3. For tickets or more information go to or call 860-350-6863.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Finding the Meaning of Your Life

Pippin -- Summer Theatre of New Canaan -- Through July 28

Janelle Robinson as Berthe

                What do you do when you are the son of an emperor but you wish to find your own way in the world, your own “corner of the sky”? Well, you go on a quest and, as with any quest, regardless of the stated goals, the real resolution of a quest is always self-knowledge. Such is the case with the eponymous Pippin, son of Charlemagne, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, in this vigorous production of the musical that bears the young man’s name. Written by Roger O. Hirson, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, the musical is currently on the boards at the relocated Summer Theatre of New Canaan, and it is a superb way to spend a summer’s evening.

                Directed by the brother-sister team of Christian and Allegra Libonati, this is a reimagined version of the musical that eschews all of the circus aspects of the Broadway revival as well as the Bob Fosse choreography (Doug Shankman does the honors here). It’s fresh and entrancing and, save for some final moments in the finale, essentially without flaws, thanks to the production’s superb cast.

                The frame for the show is that we have a troupe of traveling actors/dancers who, to entertain us, seek to tell us the story of Pippin. Whatever fourth wall that could have been conceived (STONC is now a theater-in-the-round) is broken almost immediately by the opening number. “Magic To Do,” which introduces the troupe and its Leading Player, the vivacious Melissa Victor The song suggests that what we are about to see is manufactured reality, a whimsical journey that will often transcend theatrical norms in the pursuit of entertainment.

                Following the opening number, Pippin (the talented Zach Schanne – he won the Ct Critics Circle award for best actor in  musical for his role as Tony is STONC’s “West Side Story) proclaims his desire to find his true purpose in life (“Corner of the Sky), which begins when his half-brother, Lewis (Omen Sade) and the emperor proclaim that “War is a Science,” and thus Pippin’s first step towards self-awareness is to participate in a battle, with the chorus and the Leading Player ironically singing about the “Glory” to be obtained on the battlefield. Alas, all Pippin eventually sees is the dead and dying.

                So, if warfare is not to be the goal of Pippin’s quest, then what is? Well, he is heir to the throne, but there is quite a lot of court intrigue, most of it revolving around Louis and his mother, Fastrada (the enticing Jodi Stevens – she won a CCC award for her role in “Singin’ in the Rain”). This will lead to regicide on Pippin’s part, which he will soon come to regret (ruling an empire is not an easy thing), as well as Pippin turning to unbridled hedonism as the answer to his concerns. Neither foray into emperorship or licentiousness satisfies.

                In one of the show’s high points, Pippin seeks solace and guidance from his grandmother, Berthe (the perky Janelle Robinson, another recipient of a CCC award for her supporting role as Bloody Mary in STONC's production of "South Pacific"). He bemoans his plight, but she, being of a certain age, isn’t buying any of it. This leads to “No Time at All,” a bouncy, saucy tune that turns into an audience sing-along.

                Though Pippin may seem lost, he might just be on “The Right Track,” for at the start of the second act he meets the lithesome Catherine (the winning Ella Raymont), who proclaims in a delightful solo that she is the right “Kind of Woman.” Catherine is a widow living on an estate with her young daughter, Theo (Julia Desai). At first, Pippin is reluctant to be tied down to the estate and to Catherine, but slowly she wins him over (a little sex never hurts) so that, when it comes time for the promised grand finale, in which Pippin is supposed to immolate himself in a fire pit for the gratification of the audience, he pulls back, realizing that what he has found in Catherine and Theo is what he has been always searching for.

                If there is a misstep in the production, it occurs in this scene, for the “pit” has been rigged with a stage smoke machine that belches forth waves of smoke that, well, don’t look very threatening and essentially mask many of the actors until the fog dissipates. There could have been another way – perhaps with lighting – that would have conveyed the pit’s scorching fire – right now it seems that the fire is simply smoldering, as if water has been poured on a campfire.

                That being said, there’s not much else to complain about in this production. The ensemble, consisting of Matthew Aaron-Liotine, Erica Perez-Barton, Kelcey Matheny, Donovan Medelovitz, Graham Mortier and Samantha Sayah, perform their dance numbers with exuberance and fill STONC’s tent with their superb voices. As for the leads, all of whom are members of the Actors’ Equity Association, well, there’s not much more that you could ask for. In all, it’s a well-staged, deftly choreographed, enticing show that will only get better as the cast gets more performances under its collective belts and it should draw in the crowds throughout its run.

                As an aside, when Ed Libonati, STONC’s executive directive, was asked prior to the curtain about the reason for moving the venue to 56 South Street, his succinct answer was, “Why not?” As he explained, it puts the theater closer to the center of New Canaan and allows patrons to dine at the various restaurants in New Canaan and then simply walk to the theater – which many did on opening night. All in all, it would seem to be a smart move.
                Pippin runs through July 28. For tickets or more information call 203-966-4634 or go to

Sunday, June 30, 2019

A Dark Musical Journey

The Scottsboro Boys -- Playhouse on Park -- Through August 4

The full cast. Photo by Meredith Longo

                What do we do with a drama that wants to be a musical and a musical that wants to be a drama?  That’s a question that John Kander and Fred Ebb, who were charged with writing the music and lyrics for “The Scottsboro Boys,” along with David Thompson, who had to write the book, probably asked themselves more than once, and it’s a tough question to answer. Did they resolve the difficulties? Well, that’s for you to judge if you travel up to West Hartford to Playhouse on Park, which is currently staging this hybrid musical under the direction of Sean Harris. Your response may well be a qualified one, for there are shining moments in this musical that, at the same time, also feels a heavy need to make a statement. Thus, your impressions may shift as you delight in some of the sprightlier numbers or feel depression set in as the statements become somewhat didactic.

                Who were the Scottsboro Boys? They were nine teenage black men who were arrested on spurious charges of the rape of two white women on a train in 1931. This was in Alabama, so the charges were, well, charged with racism and there were calls for the nine to be lynched. Instead, they went on trial and were found guilty by an all-white male jury. There was an immediate outcry of injustice, especially from elements of the American Communist Party. There were numerous other trials, with one of the women, Ruby Bates, recanting her accusations, but that was not enough to change the verdict of “Guilty” in the ensuing trials. The trials and incarceration of the nine went on for years, with the Supreme Court having to overturn the guilty verdicts twice. It is reported that Harper Lee drew on the trials of the nine young men when she came to write To Kill a Mockingbird.

                This is heavy stuff, so one can easily imagine what Kander, Ebb and Thompson were faced with when they decided to create the musical, which opened in 2010 on Broadway but ran for less than two months; it found greater success in London. One of the decisions the creative team made was to frame much of the musical as a minstrel show, with the underlying conceit that these nine young men were dancing to the white man’s tune. This works, up to a point, but the irony is that the black actors are, in fact, dancing to the white man’s tunes, and much of the entertainment to be derived from the show is in watching these minstrel numbers, creatively choreographed by Darlene Zoller. Thus, audience members may be of two minds about what they are watching: on the one hand they are enjoying the musical numbers but, on the other, they understand that this is all meant to be a critique of racism. What’s an audience to do?

                There’s no doubt that the cast that Harris et al. has assembled is outstanding, with many of the cast members doing double- and triple-duty when they are playing the accused young men as well as members of the minstrel show, with Dennis Holland as the Interlocutor (think emcee) and Ivory McKay as Mr. Bones and Torrey Linder as Mr. Tambo. Near the end of the show, after Bates has recanted her accusations, there is an especially chilling number, “Financial Advice,” superbly performed by Ivory McKay as Alabama’s attorney general. In the song, the attorney general suggests that Bates changed her testimony because she was bought off…by Jewish money, given that the defense attorney, Samuel Leibowitz, is a New York Jew. The song combines racism with anti-Semitism and can’t help but make audience members shift in their seats a bit.

                As one is watching the production, attention is drawn to a woman, book in hand, wandering around the fringe of the thrust stage. Who is she? What is her function? Although the audience may have suspicions, her function is revealed only in the last moment of the play. Although it’s meant to be trenchant, the reveal seems a bit superfluous. If the audience hasn’t gotten the message already, then the reveal is supposed to be an “Aha!” moment – “Now I see what all of this was leading to.” If it takes this reveal to make the point, then people weren’t listening and watching for the two-hour run of the show.

                It’s interesting, and somewhat daring, that the Playhouse decided to schedule this rather dark show at the end of the season. Often, theaters want their last production of the season to “leave ‘em laughin’ and singin’,” which this show definitely doesn’t do. Kudos to the Playhouse’s management for taking the risk. Hopefully, the enthusiastic opening-night audience will translate into good word-of-mouth to fill the theater through the end of the run. The performances alone are worth the price of admission, and if you don’t mind being challenge a bit and, at moments, made to feel a tad uncomfortable, then an evening with the nine Scottsboro Boys will, in the end, be rewarding.
                “The Scottsboro Boys” runs through August 4. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Four Characters in Seach of a Plot

Skeleton Crew -- Westport Country Playhouse -- Through June 22

Perri Gaffney as Faye. Photo by Carol Rosegg


                To paraphrase Chekhov, if you show a gun in the first act of the play, it damn well better go off later on in the play. This is much akin to Hitchcock’s oft-quoted comment about a bomb underneath the table that eventually must go off. Well, playwright Dominique Morisseau shows us a gun early on in Skeleton Crew, which recently opened at Westport Country Playhouse, but, unfortunately, the gun never gets fired, and that somehow sums up the play, for although there’s a lot of development and implied relationships, the ‘big bang’ one might hope for never occurs, and thus the final scene has one of the main characters standing on stage, silent except for a sigh. He, perhaps along with the audience, might have been hoping for a more dramatic closure.

                The play, under the direction of La Williams, takes place in Detroit circa 2008. The country’s rust belt has already oxidized, and the play’s four characters work at a stamping plant that, it is rumored, will soon close. Morrisseau uses this backdrop to deal with, or at least touch upon, many issues, including corporate greed, the implosion of inner cities, racism, street violence and feminism – a heady brew that one might think will lead to some startling “bangs” but, alas, there are just whimpers. All of the action, such as it is, takes place in one of the plant’s break rooms, designed by Caite Hevner. The single-set creates constraints that the actors must overcome if they are to convey the conflict necessary for any drama to succeed and the necessity to convey the larger issues outside the confines of this small room. Many things are alluded to, but none of them are fully realized.

                What does come to life, engagingly so, is the character of Faye, portrayed by Perri Gaffney. She, a somewhat world-weary lesbian, has been working at this plant for 29 years and has become a mother-figure, of sorts, for the pregnant Shanita (Toni Martin), the street-smart Dez (Leland Fowler) and their supervisor, Reggie (Sean Nelson). Thanks to Gaffney, the interaction among these four characters is quite engaging – would that it was leading to some kind of conclusion. There seems to be as many plot lines as threads in a sweater, but Morriseau never really knits them together. It seems, at moments, as if we have four characters in search of reasons for being on stage.

                There’s Dez, the angry young man – he’s the one carrying the gun in his backpack. He fulminates and protests the unfairness of the system, but in the end his personality seems to fizzle out. Then there’s Shanita, a rather aimless young lady who, for whatever reason, sounds like she’s from the South and gives the impression she’s a sharecropper’s daughter – her character’s function seems, for the most part, to convey the idea that pregnant women need to eat a lot of stuff that probably isn’t good for them. Finally, there’s Reggie, who came up from the labor ranks and is now a manager who, well, doesn’t seem to know how to manage. Relational ties are hinted at but never really brought to light, and character flaws, like Faye’s gambling problem, are introduced so late in the play that they have little bearing on the proceedings.

                  So, what we have in Skeleton Crew is a grouping of character studies, interesting to a certain degree in and of themselves, but with no overarching dramatic sense of rising action, climax and denouement. The characters evoke our interest…as characters…but do we really care about them? I would suggest not.

                Skeleton Crew runs through June 22. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to

Monday, April 1, 2019

Come to the Cabaret

Cabaret -- Music Theatre of Connecticut -- Through April 14

Eric Scott Kincaid as the Emcee

                What images come to mind when someone mentions the musical Cabaret? Well, most people are familiar with the 1972 film directed by Bob Fosse that starred Liza Minelli, Michael York and Joel Grey. It was big, it was flashy, especially given the distinctive Fosse choreography, and it certainly “opened up” the 1966 Broadway show. In a way, it had an epic quality to it, but somehow something got lost in the translation from stage to screen, a sense of what the musical was really about. Yes, it captured the milieu of Weimar Berlin’s decadence but what you probably remember most are the Fosse production numbers. Well, if you travel to Music Theatre of Connecticut in Norwalk you’ll experience a different Cabaret, a more intimate two hours that focuses on the two “love” stories, if you can call them that, and the darkness that descended on the world as the Nazis took power in Germany.

                As directed by Kevin Connors, MTC’s executive artistic director and its co-founder, this is, given the size of the venue, a scaled-down version of the musical (for example, there are only two Kit Kat Klub girls), but that allows the audience to focus on what is most important, which is the emotional relationships of the show’s primary characters: Sally Bowles (Desiree Davar) and Cliff Bradshaw (Nicolas Dromard), and Fraulein Schneider (Anne Kanengeiser) and Herr Shultz (Jim Schilling). The musical numbers written by John Kander and Fred Webb, take on deeper meanings, especially so for the show’s signature song, “Cabaret,” sung by Sally.

                Set in Berlin in the 1930s, and based on Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, it begins with Bradshaw’s arrival in Berlin after meeting the somewhat mysterious Ernst Ludwig (Andrew Foote) on a train. Bradshaw is quickly introduced to Berlin’s demi monde as represented by the Kit Kat Klub, with its gender-challenging Emcee (Eric Scott Kincaid) and “the toast of Mayfair,” Sally Bowes.

Desiree Davar as Sally Bowles
                The inherent decadence of the era (and the denial of what is occurring in Germany as the Nazis rise to power), is captured in the opening number, “Willkommen,” sung in a suggestive, sensuous manner by Kincaid. The song suggests that the Klub’s patrons can disregard the growing ugliness of the real world because everything is “beautiful” inside the confines of the Klub.

                Sally is quickly drawn to Cliff, and in a song that borders on despair mixed with hope (“Maybe this Time”, a song Davar delivers with a great deal of controlled emotion), her character is established: she is a tarnished dreamer, a romantic in a world ruled by harsh reality, because “everybody loves a winner, so nobody loves me.”

Nicolas Dromard as Cliff Bradshaw
                Cliff finds lodgings in a boardinghouse run by Fraulein Schneider, and this allows for the introduction of the second plot line, for Herr Shultz also rooms there, and he, though shy, is smitten with his landlady. Since he is an importer and seller of fruit, Shultz, who is Jewish, woos Schneider with fruit, and eventually proposes via a pineapple, leading to Kanengeiser and Schilling creating a moving moment as they sing the tender ballad, “Married.”
Anne Kanengeiser and Jim Schilling

                Many familiar with the various iterations of the musical may be disappointed that songs they expect to hear have been excised from this production. Missing, for example, are “Mein Herr” and “Money,” but this production can be viewed as a drama with music, with the emphasis on drama. As such, the focus on denial becomes crystal-clear: Fraulein Schneider turns away from her intended husband because of the growing anti-Semitism in Germany; Herr Shultz denies the danger he is in by claiming that nothing bad can happen to him because he is, after all, German; Sally opts to reject Cliff’s offer to go with him to America because she cannot embrace happiness and, instead, clings to the false world that is the cabaret. The only character who seems to accept the inherent tawdriness of Weimar Berlin is Fraulein Kost (the frisky Hillary Ekwall), the other Kit Kat Klub girl. She services sailors to pay her rent, with an attitude that this is just the way of the world – people use each other just to get by.

                   MTC’s production of Cabaret may not be what many patrons had been anticipating, but to truly enjoy and understand what Connors has crafted it’s necessary to set aside preconceived notions, for it is essentially a perceptive character study of four people caught up in a world that is becoming darker by the moment. Hence, when Sally sings “Cabaret” near the end of the show it is not a glowing tribute to a certain lifestyle but rather a desperate attempt to justify that lifestyle, to justify denial. After all, “Life is a cabaret,” isn’t it?

                This is, in essence, a dark story, emphasized by RJ Romeo’s lighting scheme. Carousel had its dark moments, but they were balanced against the show’s closing number, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Such is not the case with Cabaret, for several of the main characters do, in fact, in the end walk alone to their doom. Kudos to Connors and the cast for bringing to life a disturbing, moving tale of lost souls in a world verging on madness, a story that suggests that you can’t stay in the cabaret forever.

                Cabaret runs through April 14. For tickets or more information go to or call 203-454-3883.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Dancing Like the Stars

Reel to Real -- Playhouse on Park -- Through April 7

All photos by Rich Wagner

The choreographer Merce Cunningham once said, “You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.” The truth of that statement, especially the feeling “alive” part, can be confirmed by traveling to West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park to view its current production of Reel to Real, an offering by stop/time Dance Theater, PoP’s resident dance company, that captures visually the definition of “exuberance.” If you’re feeling a bit down or out of sorts I suggest you hasten up to PoP, buy a ticket and feel your spirits rise and the “Blue Meanies” run for cover (or perhaps start dancing)

So, who will you see on the stage? Well, there’s a speech-language pathologist, several teachers, an administrative assistant at a plastics company, a medical assistant, a volunteer for Dog Star Rescue, a project manager for The Hartford, a physical therapist, a director at an IT consulting company and a dentist (really!). What do they all have in common? Well, obviously, a passion for dance as well as the fact that most of them have been dancing since they were tykes.

As directed and choreographed by Darlene Zoller, who is also the co-founder and co-artistic director at the Playhouse, Reel to Real’s premise is that a man gets locked in a movie theater and, a la Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, screen characters come to life. That’s about it in terms of plot, but plot is not really that important, it’s just the premise that allows Zoller to create some wonderful moments on PoP’s intimate thrust stage.

The show opens with a number from Chicago – “Mr. Cellophane” – that Rick Fountain nails. The musical will be revisited later on during the evening with an entrancing performance of the “Cell Block Tango” and, much to Zoller’s credit, this is not a slavish rehash of Bob Fosse’s choreography. As she commented after the show: “We did our own thing.”

This tour of music and dance numbers from the silver screen gets one’s mind a-working, and if you don’t peek at the program you start thinking: “I wonder if they’ll do…” Well, they can’t do everything (alas, there’s no Fred and Ginger dancing in the dark), but they do hit a lot of high spots, including “When You’re Good to Mamma,” from the aforementioned Chicago, which the talented Amanda Forker belts out with appropriate brio.

Then, from Singin’ in the Rain, there’s the witty “Moses Supposes,” featuring Fountain, Forker and Meredith Longo. Six dancers do a rendition of “Somewhere in the Night” from La La Land, there’s a nod to Mary Poppins (“Step in Time”), and the whole shebang wraps up with two numbers from The Greatest Showman, although I must admit that I wished they had taken on “Come Alive” from that film, but no one asked for my opinion when the show was being put together.

If there’s one false note in the show, it’s the closing number for the first act, which is a “Disco Star Wars” piece that seems to go on forever and not have a clear, conceptual focus. However, one quickly gets over this, for the evening is filled with number and after number that seems to shimmer and shine, no more so than when the entire ensemble is on stage. Whether it’s “Good Morning Baltimore” from Hairspray, “Rhythm of the Night,” featured in Moulin Rouge, or a sensuous take on the “Bohemian Dance” from Funny Face (during which, thanks to the number's principal dancer Alicia Voukides, you’d swear Audrey Hepburn has come back to life), there will be moments that evoke some very fond movie-going memories, and even if you’re not familiar with all of the films referenced, you can’t help but be swept up by the cast’s enthusiasm and talent. By day, they may be teachers, admin and medical assistants, a dentist and an IT consultant, but by night they are dancers, and although it may not pay the rent, it’s obvious that dancing and performing brings joy and passion to their lives, and that joy and passion is lovingly offered to the audience.

This is a show that can’t help but make you smile and perhaps tap your toes, one that might even evoke the thought: “You know, I’d like to see that again.” It runs through April 7. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Lies? Maybe

"Clever Little Lies" -- Square One Theatre Company -- Through March 17

Peter Wood and Paulo Araujo

                In the theater, size really doesn’t matter. You can have the biggest, most lavish venue and a budget that Croesus would envy and still board a clunker (certain recent productions come to mind, but I shan’t mention them). Then you can have a tight budget and a playing space in which you aren’t sure you can safely swing a cat and still produce an engaging, delightful (and thoughtful) evening of theater that satisfies on multiple levels. Such is the case with Square One’s production of Joe DiPietro’s “Clever Little Lies,” directed by Tom Holehan. Nested in the Stratford Academy, this black box theater, if nothing else, points out how nuance and small gestures, easily seen and appreciated by an audience that is just feet away from the performers, allow actors to ply their craft without having to play to the back row.

                The play is essentially a domestic comedy that is driven by infidelity, real or possibly imagined. It all begins when Bill, Sr. (Peter Wood) has just bested his son, Billy (Paulo Araujo) in a tennis game and they are cooling off and changing their clothes in the locker room. Bill senses that something is bothering his son, so he presses and Billy finally breaks down and says he is having an affair with Jasmine, a 20-year-old trainer at his gym. She is, despite the fact Billy is married to Jane (Josie Kulp) and they have a three-month-old daughter, the light of his life, especially when it comes to sex. Bill is, quietly, nonplussed, but he promises he will not mention any of this to Alice (the marvelous Peggy Nelson), Bill’s wife and Billy’s mother. Well, that doesn’t work out very well because in DiPietro’s world. women just know.
Josie Kulp and Peggy Nelson

                What follows is a delightful cat and mouse game that involves Billy and Jane being invited over by Alice for some cheese cake and talk about “this and that.” Here witty dialogue and some superb acting take over as the two couples deal with innuendo and, perhaps, an affair that Alice had decades ago.

                One of the things that is so enjoyable about this production, as alluded to above, is that the actors can telegraph emotions, often quite humorously, without having to beat drums or prance and pander to the audience. Cases in point: Kulp expresses volumes just by widening her eyes, tensing her shoulders and pursing her lips; Wood uses silence and a thousand-yard stare to emphasize his confliction; Araujo seems to bulk-up as he tries to defend his affair (after all, Jasmine is a trainer) and Nelson, well, she just owns the stage as she confesses (is it a confession?) to an affair.  I’d be happy to bring undergraduate drama students to this production just to have them take note of how Nelson uses her hands.

                I’ve been bored, often yawning and contemplating sneaking out at intermission, while attending some recent “big theater” productions, but there was never a moment when I wanted to leave the confines of Square One. Holehan seems to have a knack for selecting plays that focus on the nature of intimacy, the little things that, in the end, mean so much. He also has the luxury of drawing on a talent pool (Araujo and Kulp are new to Square One) that is professionally outstanding.

                Yes, Square One has, at times, stumbled a bit over its 29 years – what theater company hasn’t? Yet, since I’ve been attending the performances for over ten years, I have been consistently impressed by the quality of the acting and the sensitivity of the direction. This is a small theater with a big heart, and ”Clever Little Lies” will make you smile, at times guffaw, and as you’re driving home, make you think…and ponder the possibilities. You can’t ask more of theater than that.

                “Clever Little Lies” runs through March 17. For tickets or more information call 203-375-8778 or go to


Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Detroit '67...and so?

Detroit '67 -- Hartford Stage -- Through March 10

                Sometimes you can try too hard to make people care, to tell them “This is important – this is vital.” Such is the case with Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit ’67, which recently opened at Hartford Stage. The play focuses on a black family living in Detroit during the 1967 race riots, and it should be compelling, but it isn’t. The playwright works very hard to draw in the audience, to make those staring up at Riccardo Hernandez’s single set care about the characters, but, by and large, given the structure of the play, the audience remains aloof. Quite simply, you want to care, to be involved, but there’s not that much to care about.

                If you ever took Drama 101 in college, one of the first things you learned was that, for a play to work, there has to be conflict. That is, one character wants something and another character is set on thwarting him or her from achieving the goal. So, is there such conflict in Detroit ’67? Yes, of a sort, for you see, Lank (Johnny Ramey) wants to use inherited money to buy a bar, while his sister, Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler), opposes the idea. She wants to keep things safe, the way they have always been – hence her use of a phonograph to play scratched 45 rpm records. Lank wants to move forward, which is why he and his friend, Sly (Will Cobbs) bring a rather bulky 8-track tape player into the house. It takes a good deal of time to establish this (the production runs over two hours) and, to be honest, it really doesn’t generate much tension. Morisseau, perhaps realizing this, introduces a new character, and it is here that the play goes slightly off the rails.

                Mid-way through the first act, the door to the cellar opens and down the steps come Sly and Lank carrying a body. It’s Caroline (Ginna Le Vine), a white woman. They place the comatose body on the couch. Soon Chelle appears and asks the rather obvious question: “What the hell is she doing here?” The audience might well ask the same question. We learn, eventually, that Caroline, a “waitress” at a strip club, had been assaulted by her boyfriend, a cop, and wandering on the street in a daze, she was seen by Lank and Sly, and Lank, being the good Samaritan that he is, bundled her into their truck and brought her home. Really?

                So, Caroline eventually regains consciousness and reveals that she has no place to go, so Lank, obviously smitten by this white woman, suggests that she stay with his family for a while. Chelle initially objects, but finally suggests that if Caroline is to stay she needs to work, for the brother and sister run a sort-of after-hours club in their basement. Caroline agrees (Really??) and is thus charged with putting potato chips into bowls and doing other menial tasks (there’s a message here, but I’m not sure what it is).

                Le Vine’s character is initially dazed by her boyfriend’s assault. The daze wears off, but not the sense of “What the hell am I doing here in this play?” Le Vine, given the character she is asked to portray, seems at sea most of the time, dutifully delivering her lines but unsure of what her character is contributing to the thrust of the play. Not her fault. The fault lies in the fact that, I suspect, Morriseau is also unsure why she has created this character, or what Bunny (Nyahale Allie), a family friend, is also supposed to be contributing to the play.

                Then there are the race riots, which brought Federal troops and tanks to the city, their presence captured by Nicole Pearce’s lighting and Karin Graybash’s sound. Buildings are being burned, people are being shot and, yes, it affects the family we have been with, but it, oddly enough, seems somewhat beside the point. It’s not that these were not horrific times and that racial tensions didn’t came to a boil, but it all seems unrelated to what we’ve been asked to pay attention to, the disconnect being exacerbated by Caroline’s running in and out – a comely white woman can go wherever she wants in a black neighborhood during a race riot? I mean, again, really?

                The problem with the play is best captured in its final moments, for there has been a loss, a death, that directly affects Chelle, and she grieves, but she is not allowed to grieve alone, for the lighting shifts and there is gunfire and the sound of growling tanks to accentuate her grief. We are asked to understand that the thin stitches that hold our society together are being torn apart but, it’s a theatrical, over-kill moment, manipulative in a most obvious way. Again, we are being instructed to care when the play has done little to make us want relate to these characters. Yes, there’s sound and fury, but what, in the end, does it signify? When, at the end of Driving Miss Daisy, Hoke feeds Daisy a piece of pie, our heart breaks and what the play has been about is confirmed. When Chelle grieves, we’re not sure what we should feel except, perhaps, relief that the play is finally over.
                Detroit ’67 runs through March 10. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Present at the Revolution

The Revolutionists -- Playhouse on Park -- Through March 10

Olivia Jampol, Rebecca Hart and Erin Roche
Photos by Meredith Longo

“What’s playing at Hartford Stage?’
“(Insert here the name of a favorite play or musical you’ve probably seen more than once.)”
“Great, I’ll get tickets. How about at Playhouse on Park?”
“Something called ‘The Revolutionists.’”
“Never heard of it.”
“Neither have I.”
“I think we’ll pass.”

This conversation is not surprising, given the need to wisely use limited entertainment dollars. We have a tendency to go with the familiar rather than the unfamiliar, to bet on the tried-and-true rather than the untested. However, in the case of “The Revolutionists,” written by Lauren Gunderson, your decision to eschew an evening at Playhouse because you are unfamiliar with the play would be a big mistake, because “The Revolutionists” is a witty, engaging romp, an exercise into “what if?” history that satisfies on multiple levels and is more than worth the price of admission.

The play takes us to Paris during the height of the Reign of Terror and introduces us to four characters who, in real life, probably never met. First, we meet Olympe De Gouges (Rebecca Hart, who is blessed with a great sense of comedic timing), a frustrated female playwright whose theme song might well be “I Can’t Get Started.” Her only distinction is that she is probably the only female playwright in Paris, and it is for this reason that her door opens and in marches Charlotte Corday (the magnetic Olivia Jampol, who plays Corday as if she is a member of a female rock band and has time-traveled from the 1970s to the late 1700s).

Why has Corday come to see De Gouges? Well, she plans to assassinate Jean-Paul Marat, a man who has sent hundreds of people to meet Madame Guillotine. Corday flashes a knife and demands that De Gouges write an appropriate final line for her, something memorable she can exclaim as she cuts the tyrant’s throat. As would be expected, De Gouges is a bit flummoxed. Her confusion, however, will not end here, for she is about to receive two more visitors.

Jennifer Holcombe and Erin Roche

Marianne Angelle (the steady, engaging Erin Roche) is a Caribbean revolutionist who wishes to throw off the yoke of French rule and wants De Gouges to write pamphlets and broadsides in support of her cause. For a writer who is suffering from severe writer’s block, this is becoming a bit more than demanding, but there’s one more person who seeks out De Gouges for her writing ability, and that is, yes, Marie-Antoinette (the marvelous Jennifer Holcombe who, for most of the evening, plays the queen as if she’s just come from playing Miss Adelaide in “Guys and Dolls.”). The queen believes that she has been misunderstood and wishes De Gouges to set the record straight (you see, she never actually said “Let them eat cake,” she was just ordering lunch and, after all, what’s lunch without a piece of cake?)

Thus the stage is set for 90 minutes of rapid-fire dialogue dealing with, among other things, feminism, misogyny, revolutionary zealotry, the theater and the dynamics of play writing. If all of this sounds like heavy baggage, it isn’t, for Gunderson has a marvelous sense of humor and is deft at writing witty repartee while sliding in multiple allusions to contemporary history and theater, all of which director Sarah Hartman is keenly attuned to.

Perhaps you’re thinking, well, this is a period piece so the dialogue will probably be littered with archaic words and made difficult to understand because of out-of-date syntax. Here, again, you would be wrong, for though these are characters who lived in the late 18th century, their vocabulary and style of conversation is definitely modern, which, in itself, creates much of the humor, for one would not expect, for example, Marie-Antoinette to speak about certain topics in the manner she does.

Gunderson has written what might well be called a verbal carnival that offers something for everyone, and the four superb actors seem determined that you not miss anything. Hart’s portrayal of the somewhat neurotic De Gouges, the first character we meet, establishes the slightly zany, verbal pyrotechnics that will fill the evening. If you weren’t sure that you had entered a Wonderland version of the French Revolution, Corday’s entrance will confirm that we’ve gone down the rabbit hole. With untamed golden locks, Jampol is a self-proclaimed assassin who seems to be on Speed, a whirlwind of emotions whose only wish is become immortal by insuring her place in history.

Of the four characters, Roche’s Marianne Angell seems to be the most stable as she works to help De Gouges overcome her inability to set pen to paper. Yet Roche instills in her character a dignity and dedication to “the cause” that is a nice counterpoint to Corday’s more histrionic approach to combatting tyranny.

Finally, there’s Holcombe’s Marie-Antoinette. The challenge of creating a “ditzy blond (or bewigged)” character is much akin to that of creating a “bad actor” character – there’s always the temptation to take the portrayal just a bit too far, but Holcombe, thanks to the dialogue she’s been given by Gunderson, while prancing and often babbling, allows her character’s innate intelligence to peek through.

To get the full benefit of attending and enjoying “The Revolutionists,” you have to pay close attention, for many of the best lines are, well, one-liners, such as Du Gouges comment to Marianne (who is black) that Thomas Jefferson would appreciate her, or when, near the end of the play, De Gouges envisions writing a musical about the Revolution, she asks, “Do you hear the people sing?” Her idea is rejected out of hand.

So, if you’re deciding how to budget your entertainment funds, give “The Revolutionists” a shot. You won’t begrudge the money spent, because the play is chock-full of verbal goodies and is brought to life by four actors who, each in her own way, beguiles and entrances. Quite simply, this is theater worth seeing.

“The Revolutionists” runs through March 10. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to

Monday, February 18, 2019

On the Job

Working -- ACT of Connecticut -- Through March 10

The cast of "Working." Photo by Jeff Butcher

In 1974, Studs Terkel published Working, an oral history of working folks talking about their jobs and how they felt about them. In 1977, Stephen Schwartz, he of Pippin and Wicked fame, created a musical loosely based on the book, with four other composers also supplying music and four writers besides Schwartz penning lyrics. The show previewed in Chicago and then opened on Broadway in 1978, running for 24 performances. Since then, the show has been tinkered with and massaged several times, and its latest iteration is now up at ACT of Connecticut in Ridgefield, with director Daniel C. Levine doing additional massaging and tinkering, with songs now coming from six composers including Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The result? Well, if you’re looking for a strong plot-line you’ll be disappointed, for the show is essentially a series of vignettes (most centered on songs, but there are several monologues), but if you just want to be entertained by a stellar cast backed by a four-man orchestra that jumps, jives and pulsates, then Working is the show for you. It is, at moments, bright and bubbly, emotionally moving, and highly perceptive about the working folks who construct buildings, fight fires, serve food, clean homes and offices and tend to the aged, often going about their jobs without really being noticed.

Levine approached Schwartz, who is a Ridgefield resident, with suggestions about how the show might be modified. Schwartz gave the nod, and Levine proceeded to create his own version of Working, primarily by inclusion of video clips and projections – a lot of videos and projections. Some might complain that, in sum, it creates a certain visual overload, but, oddly enough, the effect is that you have been immersed in the Terkel book and in the lives of the people the actors represent, but it also gives the show a very distinct 21st-century feel, for we have (like it or not) become used to images flashing before our eyes and multiple screens streaming information. Levine has also given a local spin to the production, for as he notes in the Playbill, the show offers insights into “what the waitress at Dimitri’s Diner thinks about,” as well as how the man who trims tree branches away from Main Street’s power lines came to his job or “what the owner of Tony’s Deli dreams about.”

There’s also the fact that the visuals are simply icing on the cake, for the focus remains on the six actors who create multiple characters during the 80-minute run of the show, and they do a hell of a job. You have whores and a grade school teacher, a fireman, a cleaning lady, a waitress, a somewhat addled retired gentleman, a player in the financial market, a housewife and several health care workers. And it all works, primarily because these are not cardboard characters – as the actors appear in different guises their voices change, their body language changes, and the whore magically becomes the cleaning lady.

This is definitely an ensemble effort, but there are moments that seem to glitter more than just shine, and two of them are created by Laura Woyasz, first as the grade school teacher who is bedeviled and confused about how the classroom and the students have changed over the four decades she has been teaching (“Nobody Tells Me How”), and then she reappears as a waitress in “It’s an Art,” in which she leaps, glides and whirls as she serves food and makes nice with customers. Her performances as these two characters, in themselves, are worth the price of admission.

Then there’s Cooper Grodin who plays the nasty finance whiz but reappears later on as the retired man who can barely walk. With a wig (compliments of Liz Printz) and appropriate body language, he becomes a shattered man who struggles to continue to give meaning to his life.

Then there’s Zuri Washington’s turn in “Just a Housewife,” a set-piece that must have resonated with more than a few in the audience. She deftly captures the drudgery and moments of despair that many women – just housewives! – must deal with.

Pointing out these specific performances does not in any way lessen the work of the other actors: Brad Greer, Andre Jordan and Monica Ramirez. Under the deft, creative direction of Levine, they all contribute to what is a tremendously enjoyable evening of musical theater, capped by the show’s final two songs, “If I Could’ve Been,” a heartfelt consideration of what might have been if “life” hadn’t stepped in and demanded that rent be paid and children be fed, and the show’s finale, “Something to Point to,” which emphasizes that people, in their jobs, need to be able to claim that they made a difference, that they helped create something, that they were not just drones eking out a 9-to-5 existence.

The show is a visual whirligig, for the actors are almost in constant motion, the set spins, and the various characters appear and disappear in kaleidoscopic fashion, all of this while projections and video clips (the work of Caite Hevner) propel and punctuate the action. Levine has taken full advantage of the technical resources available to him in this state-of-the-art theater and the result is a carnival of sight and sound, a stroll down a midway where every booth is staffed by working folks offering something intriguing, entertaining, touching and, at moments, entrancing.

Working runs through March 10. For tickets go to