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