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