Sunday, November 10, 2019

Review of "A Shayna Madel"


Katharina Schmidt, Laura Sudduth, and Mitch Greenberg in A Shayna Madel at Playhouse on Park thru Nov. 17th.
The play, A Shayna Madel, is a powerful story of survival and hope that, over 35 years after it was first produced, is still a compelling and relevant show. 

The setting is the Upper West Side of New York City soon after World War II has ended.  Rose Weiss (Laura Sudduth), a young woman living on her own, is startled to learn from her father, Mordechai Weiss (Mitch Greenberg), that her older sister Lusia (Katharina Schmidt) has survived the devastation of the Holocaust, has been located in Europe, and is soon to arrive in the States.  The initial meeting of the two women is fraught with anxiety and tension as they begin to reconnect and learn to share their lives together in the small one-bedroom apartment.  Complicating their growing rapport is their impassive, stolid father and his personal agenda.

In flashbacks and dreamy imagery, the audience learns the backstory of Lusia, her closeness with her childhood friend Hanna (Julia Tolchin), the relationship with her now departed mother (Krista Lucas), and the shocking reason one part of the family made it to safety.  Underlying the story is the recent immigrant’s search for her missing husband Duvid (Alex Rafala) who she believes has also entered the country.  In the end, the surviving members of the extended Weiss family come together as they build new lives in an unfamiliar, but embracing country.

Playwright Barbara Lebow’s work examines the resilience of individuals in time of upheaval and life-altering change and how the bonds of family, while stretched and imperiled, are strong and long-lasting.  The play also explores the assimilation and generational shift of people and their culture to a new land, the joys, the promises, and the challenges it presents.  

The cast members feel genuine as they embrace their roles with exhilaration and solemnness. Laura Sudduth imbues the role of Rose Weiss with the joy of newfound freedom and boundless opportunity.  The actress also tempers her performance with empathy and compassion.  Katharina Schmidt’s Luisa is most convincing when portraying her somber side in Rose’s apartment.  Her languid movements and speech speak volumes for what she experienced overseas.  Mitch  Greenberg gives a nuanced performance as the father.  Outwardly, he is stoic and strict as he pushes forward in a new world.  But, underneath, the actor conveys an inner pain and emotional emptiness.  Julia Tolchin’s Hannah is full of girlish exuberance and optimism.  Alex Rafala displays kindness and devotion as Duvid, a man who shows sincere love and concern for his young bride Luisa.  In her brief moments on stage, Krista Lucas delivers a poignant portrayal of a mother lost to the ravages of the Holocaust. 

Director Dawn Loveland Navarro has a tender, but forthright hand in shepherding this work through its paces.  She nimbly guides the two actresses from nervous apprehension to a comfortable, loving sisterly relationship.  Ms. Navarro skillfully integrates the dream sequences and flashbacks into a multi-layered production.  At times, the reality segments and illusionary aspects of the play can be somewhat unclear but, with the adept assistance of Lighting Designer Marcus Abbott, the grasp of the flow and action of the play are more easily understood.

David Lewis’ Scenic Design is apt for a 1946 Brooklyn apartment.  The set is utilitarian and functional, with few frills.

A Shayna Madel, playing at Playhouse on Park through November 17th.  Information is at http://www.playhouseonpark.org/.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Review of "Cry It Out"


Rachel Spencer Hewitt and Evelyn Spahr from Cry It Out, playing at Hartford Stage thru Nov. 17th.

Raising a newborn can make for unlikely friendships and interpersonal interactions. In playwright Molly Smith Metzler’s often rib-tickling and heart rendering comedy-drama Cry It Out, two women, neighbors from different socio-economic worlds, nonetheless begin to bond as they navigate the intimidating, sometimes unnerving responsibility of caring for an infant.  Added to their anxiety, and producing a bit of drama on its own, is the sudden appearance of another neighbor looking to have his wife included in the duo’s daily get-togethers. 

Jessie (Rachel Spencer Hewitt), a high-powered lawyer on leave from her New York City firm, lives in an apartment with her financier husband on Long Island’s North Shore.  Lina (Evelyn Spahr), residing next door with her husband in her mother-in-law’s home, is an entry level hospital worker originally from the South Shore with a brash demeanor and attitude. On the surface, they are as dissimilar as two people could possibly be, but when it comes to caring, fretting, and loving a newborn child differences quickly evaporate. At first, Jessie invites Lina over for coffee. Their initial encounter is awkward and forced, but as their backyard meetings continue their tentative relationship grows into a real friendship.  Enter Mitchell (Erin Gann), a well-to-do entrepreneur who lives on a ridge overlooking Jessie’s yard.  He asks the women if his wife, who recently gave birth, could become part of their soirees.  Reluctantly, Jessie and Lina agree, but the arranged tryst with his wife Adrienne (Caroline Kinsolving) does not go so well.  Soon, challenging changes take place, altering each person’s familial dynamics.

Playwright Metzler deftly brings out many issues women face after childbirth—emotional bearing, marital relationships, and the question of staying home or returning to work.  The conversations appear real and heartfelt.  What is less successful is when the characters Mitchell and Adrienne are inserted into the flow of the production.  Their entrances disrupt the seamless nature of the play Metzler has constructed.  While a resolution is not necessarily needed for the show, a more layered conclusion would have been less abrupt than what is presented. 


The cast is assured and sharp with Evelyn Spahr, as Lina, having the juiciest, in-your-face role.  The actress consistently has the best comedic lines.  While, initially, appearing like a complete fool, she turns in a more measured, warmhearted performance.  Rachel Spencer Hewitt gives her character Jessie a multifaceted look.  You can feel her inner turmoil as she debates what is best for herself and her young family.  In two short scenes, Caroline Kinsolving has the difficult task of making her character Adrienne both bitchy and sympathetic.  She does so with sophistication and aplomb and demonstrates you can’t always judge a book by its cover.  Erin Gann is a bit manic as Mitchell.  More restraint and nuance would have enhanced his characterization.

Director Rachel Alderman builds a believable relationship between Jessie and Lina.  Their scenes come across as genuine, playful, and full of humor.  She adorns the show with lighthearted embellishments such as the “Tick Tock” bedtime song the two friends enact and the slight histrionics exhibited by Lina.  There are some miscues, such as an egging sequence but, overall, the direction is strong and convincing.

Scenic Designer Kristen Robinson’s slightly elevated circular set, covered in grass and leaves, has a fishbowl effect with the audience observing, admiring and judging what is presented on stage.

Cry It Out, playing at Hartford Stage through November 17th.  Information is at https://www.hartfordstage.org/.

Portions of this review have been previously published.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Review of "American Son"


The storyline of the play American Son, receiving a riveting production at Theaterworks in Hartford, feels like it has been ripped from the headlines of the nightly news.  An African-American woman, Kendra Ellis-Connor, is anxiously seated in the waiting room of a Miami Beach police station in the early morning hours, awaiting word about her missing son.  A young white police officer attempts to placate her continuous entreaties while peppering her with racially inappropriate questions.  Soon, the mother’s estranged white husband, Scott Connor, enters the scene demanding, with somewhat better success, information about the whereabouts of his 18-year-old son Jamal.  Each time the policeman exits the room the husband and wife quarrel over such hot button issues as poor child rearing practices, lack of parental responsibility, and the role of privilege in a multi-racial family.  A police lieutenant’s entry into the fray only serves to complicate matters.  Tempers flare up on all sides as the investigation into Jamal’s disappearance reaches its uncompromising conclusion.

Playwright Christopher Demos-Brown has crafted a work that, sadly, remains real and to-the-moment.  He adeptly weaves in such issues as racial profiling, establishing Black identity, and the problems interracial couples face.  In a small sense, the play is a character study of a Black and White married couple, now estranged, who are coping with intimate and significant details of their lives.  On a larger scale, the play is about the still considerable racial divide in our country.  The dialogue and scenarios are strong and compelling. 

The cast is led by Ami Brabson as the mother of the missing boy.  She brings a strong-willed determination to the role, but also confusion and impertinence as her character desperately seeks answers from the police and her estranged husband.  J. Anthony Crane, who plays husband Scott Connors, exudes an air of arrogance and self-assurance that impedes his judgement and actions with his wife, son, and the police.  Michael Genest, in his short time on stage as the African-American Police Lieutenant John Stokes, displays forcefulness and compassion along with a no-nonsense manner.  John Ford-Dunker, is convincingly bland as Office Paul Larkin, a young man who is woefully ignorant of his racial insensitivity.

Rob Ruggiero’s taut direction keeps the audience entranced with the clashes on stage.    His assured hand deftly manages the various conflicts and overarching themes presented in the production.  He skillfully allows the suspense to build to its startling climax.

Brian Prather’s Scenic Design of a small, sterile waiting room brings the encounters into sharp focus.  The Sound Design by Frederick Kennedy, primarily of the threatening thunderstorm brewing outside, helps provide an ominous tone to the production.  Lighting Designer Matthew Richards utilizes harsh glowing fluorescent lights that flood the stage, leaving no place for the characters to hide.

American Son, a captivating and challenging production to start Theaterworks 34th season in their newly renovated facilities.  Information and tickets are at http://www.theaterworkshartford.org/

Monday, October 28, 2019

Review of "The Wolves"



The ensemble of “The Wolves” by Sarah DeLappe onstage through Nov 3 in Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Studio Theatre.  Tickets and info at crt.uconn.edu or 860-486-2113.  Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
The Wolves, is a unique drama that uses the backdrop of an indoor girl’s soccer team to probe the multi-faceted relationship female teenagers have amongst themselves.  The plot follows nine teens, aged 16-17 years old, that gather on a weekly basis to drill and prepare for matches over the course of an unspecified time-period.  The group has grown up together, playing at various town and travel team levels.  During their time on stage they workout, banter about silly matters, world politics, sex, friendship and more.  As the show progresses the audience slowly becomes more engrossed in their lives and their unique bond.  We become aware of more serious concerns that are just bubbling under the surface of their small talk and carefree attitude.   Issues such as sexual self-identity, individualism, and adolescent anxiety become apparent.  Death also knocks at their door.

Playwright Sarah DeLappe takes the dynamics that surround the soccer team and has crafted a play full of realism and brio.  At times, raw and full of emotion, the interchanges feel fresh, true, and not forced.  She incorporates overlapping dialogue that adds to the authenticity of the action.  The young woman can be playful, callous, and impudent.   They can shift from being bosom buddies one moment and snapping antagonists the next.  There is a reason the show is named for a predatory animal.

Like a well-trained sports team, the troupe of nine actresses—all undergraduate BFA students at the University of Connecticut--work seamlessly together.  There was a tentativeness by the performers at the start of the 90-minute, intermission-less show, but that gradually faded as the play progressed.  Each member of the acting troupe is integral for the success and betterment of the whole.  Throughout the show, particular characters took the spotlight, but then faded back within the assemblage.  The performers had no problem wearing their emotions on their sleeves, which gives the production a realistic feel to it.  There is one adult role in the show, who appears briefly at the play’s end.  She delivers a heartfelt and penetrating monologue.  The young actresses (with their team numbers) are Alexandra Brokowski (#25), Megan O'Connor (#11), Eliza Carson (#8), Maddy Tamms (#2), Nicolle Cooper (#14), Jamie Feidner (#7), Betty Smith (#13), Elizabeth Jebran (#46),  Eilis Garcia (#00), and April Lichtman as the Soccer Mom.

Director Julie Foh has molded the collection of young actresses into a first-rate ensemble.  They don’t come across as a well-toned, high caliber group of soccer players, but the performers do effortlessly kick the balls to each other, run wind sprints, and talk the talk.  She has forged a group esprit de corps while, at the same time, keeping each member’s individual personality and temperament intact.  The director assiduously ensures the dramatic arc of the production remains genuine, slowly ratcheting up the tension as the show nears its end.

Scenic designer Kristen P.E. Zarabozo has created a simple, artificial turf set with plastic sheets of curtain hanging from the rafters, which gives the stage the realistic feel of an indoor soccer facility.

The Wolves, an engaging and winning production, playing at the intimate Studio Theater at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre in Storrs through November 3rd.  Information and tickets are at https://crt.uconn.edu/Online/default.asp.

Portions of this review have been previously published.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Review of "Billy Elliot"


Billy Elliot, playing at the Goodspeed Opera House through November 24th, is one of the best productions I have seen at the venerable theater in many years.  Director Gabriel Barre has masterfully reconfigured this large-scale musical for the smaller confines of the Goodspeed stage without sacrificing the show’s emotional core or beautifully realized dance numbers. 
 
Liam Vincent Hutt as Billy with the cast of Billy Elliot, playing through November 24th. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.


The show, with a score by Elton John and Lee Hall, tells the story of 13-year-old Billy Elliott (at this performance played by Liam Vincent Hutt) who, through inadvertent circumstances, becomes enrolled in an afterschool ballet class.  His talent soon becomes apparent to his tough-minded instructor, Mrs. Wilkinson (Michelle Aravena), who begins to groom him for a tryout with the Royal Ballet unbeknownst to his widowed, disapproving father (Sean Hayden) and older brother.   The story is played out against the political backdrop of the 1984-85 miner’s strike in northern England, which left villages like this one in County Durham, impoverished and in dire straits. 

Lee Hall, who wrote the book of the show, lyrics and the original screenplay for the 2000 movie the musical is based on, has created a story that is full of passion, emotional highs and lows, and adversity.  He has fashioned full-bodied characters that can pull at our heartstrings.  The social forces within the country at the time are fully realized and add a hard-edged and cynical layer to the show. 
 
The cast of Billy Elliot, playing through November 24th. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.
The songs by Elton John and Lee Hall can be intoxicating, uplifting, and bring a tear to the eye.  Standouts include the political-laden “Solidarity,” the high-spirited “Expressing Yourself,” and the boundless exuberance of “Electricity.”

The choreography by Marc Kimelman can be fun-loving (“Shine”), rambunctious (“Expressing Yourself”), breathtaking and captivating (“Dream Sequence”).  The “Dream Sequence” is a stunning piece of work that left me numb with exhilaration.  There are some miscues in the choreography, as in the disjointed “Angry Dance,” but, overall, the jazz, tap, and ballet numbers are at an exceptional level that elevates the production to dizzying heights.
 
Jan Martens and Liam Vincent Hutt in Billy Elliot, playing through November 24th. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.
The cast is led by Liam Vincent Hutt as Billy.  He has a youthful vitality and brings a sustained energy to the role.  His dancing ability is exceptional.  The young actor needs to be the focus of the musical and he does not disappoint.  Michelle Aravena delivers a world-weariness to the role of Mrs. Wilkinson, but also imbues in her a degree of strength and resilence. Sean Hayden is persuasive and compelling as Billy’s father, a man trying to provide for his family and hold it together during trying times.  Jon Martens, who plays Billy’s best friend, Michael, injects humor and an endearing goofiness into his portrayal.  He too is no slouch on the dance floor.  Nick Silverio deserves special mention as the older Billy.  His duet with Liam Vincent Hutt in the “Dream Ballet” was awe-inspiring.

In the program notes, Director Gabriel Barre states the show is about “finding your purpose and summoning the courage necessary to follow your dreams and create your own destiny.”  This distillation of the plot is fully realized by Barre as he skillfully guides the sizeable cast on the small Goodspeed stage.  An impressive example is rendered during “Solidarity,” when the miners, police, Billy and the girls in his ballet class weave in and out from each other, confront, and dance.  The director keeps the emotional impact high and has added some well-placed flourishes that greatly enhance scenes such as adding a chorus of dancing girls in a dreamlike sequence to “Expressing Yourself.” 
 
The cast of Billy Elliot, playing through November 24th. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.
Walt Spangler’s Scenic Design are impressive for their variety and size, which includes a very convincing miner’s elevator, a ramshackle dance studio, and even a giant Margaret Thatcher puppet.  Jen Shapiro’s Costume Designs are fittingly apropos for the environs.

Billy Elliot, a dazzling production, playing at the Goodspeed Opera House through November 24th.  Information and tickets are at https://www.goodspeed.org/

Review of "Little Shop of Horrors"


One of the great strengths of the Off-Broadway revival of Little Shop of Horrors is its location at the Westside Arts Theatre on 43rd Street and 9th Avenue.  The well-worn venue, with a capacity of just 270 seats, is the perfect setting for this off-beat, sci-fi musical about a man-eating plant that takes over a florist shop on New York City’s Skid Row.  The timeworn nature and size of the theater adds a degree of seediness that effectively sets the proper mood for the production.

Based on the 1960 Roger Corman cult classic film, Little Shop of Horrors tells the tale of Seymour Krelborn, a nebbish young man, played with geeky charm by Jonathan Groff, who is a clerk at a rundown flower shop presided over by the crotchety Mr. Muskin (Tom Alan Robbins).  Their dispirited, but hopeful co-worker Audrey (Tammy Blanchard), is in a very unhealthy relationship with her boyfriend dentist, Orin Scrivello (Christian Borle).  The fortunes of Seymour and company quickly change upon his discovery of a very mysterious and menacing venus flytrap looking plant that he names the Audrey II.  As news of the young clerk’s find begins to spread, the prosperity of the floral shop grows…as does the plant, which prefers juicy, blood-red nourishment.  Mayhem and an expanding body count ensue until a chilling climax.

The book by Howard Ashman is a highly rewarding mash-up of many genres—science fiction, comedy, and murder mystery.  The storyline, that centers on Seymour’s Faustian Bargain, is brisk and clever.  The inclusion of three women—Ronnette (Ari Groover), Crystal (Salome Smith), and Chiffon (Joy Woods)—to the mix allows a type of Greek Chorus to deliver exposition, expand musical numbers, and provide entertaining scene changes.

The wonderfully cast group of actors is led by Jonathan Groff as Seymour.  While he imbues the role with buoyant optimism and charm, he also displays a hardened determination as the musical progresses, which shows a rather disturbing side to the character.  Tammy Blanchard comes across as a tougher, more knocked around Audrey than the usual ditzy portrayal of the character.  Her performance is one of world-weariness and resignation, which gives her a more well-rounded persona. Christian Borle, playing multiple characters, but primarily the sadistic, demented dentist Orin Scrivello, is a comic dynamo who embellishes every scene he’s in with hilarity and sidesplitting antics.  Tom Alan Robbins is suitably gruff as Mr. Mushnik and the three-member female ensemble are spunky, smooth, and quite fun.

The score by Alan Mencken and Howard Ashman is high-spirited, tuneful and hip.  They incorporate a number of song styles to great effect.  They include Doo Wop (“Da-Doo”), tender ballads (“Somewhere That’s Green”), and comedic gems (“Dentist!”).

Director Michael Mayer keeps the two-hour musical running at a brisk pace.  He skillfully maneuvers his troupe of actors around the small Westside Arts stage with poise and aplomb.  Mayer has inserted a number of small, but humorous embellishments to add spice to a show that is a mainstay of regional and community productions around the country. Choreographer Ellenore Scott contributes a series of stylish, finely synchronized dance routines, primarily for the trio of Chiffon, Crystal, and Ronnette.

Puppet Designer Nicholas Mahon’s creation of the Audrey II, based on the original design by Martin P. Robinson, is masterful. The plant, voiced by the deep throated and sinister sounding Kingsley Leggs, becomes almost life-like in the closing scenes.

Julian Crouch’s Scenic Design of a grungy florist shop and the Skid Row environs are perfectly shabby and dilapidated.  Jessica Paz’s Sound Design and Bradley King’s Lighting Design provide just the right amount of scariness and ominous foreboding to the production.

Little Shop of Horrors, a creepy, exuberant musical, playing at the Westide Arts Theatre through January 19th.
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Saturday, October 26, 2019

Halloween Themed Broadway Music on the Radio

Halloween themed music from the Off-Broadway and Broadway stage take over the airwaves of Sounds of Broadway (SoundsofBroadway.com) – the 24/7 online Broadway music radio station – from Monday, October 28th thru Thursday, October 31st.  Beginning at 10:00am EST, over ten hours a day will be devoted to scary and spine-tingling songs from the musical theater.

“There will be the well-known shows such as The Addams Family, Damn Yankees, Little Shop of Horrors, The Phantom of the Opera, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Young Frankenstein,” said Stuart Brown, who launched the radio station last April.  “But there will also be a number of little-known musicals I’ll be playing selections from such as Bunnicula, The Brain from Planet X, Death Takes a Holiday, Faust, and Zombie Prom.  In all, there will be almost three dozen shows that will be included in the programming.”
“These types of shows are very popular,” said Brown, who is a member of the Outer Critics Circle and President of the Connecticut Critics Circle.  “Running on Broadway right now is Beetlejuice, Hadestown, and Phantom and the just opened Off-Broadway revival of Little Shop of Horrors.  There’s even a touch of Halloween in Mean Girls where the first line of the song “Sexy” is “If I could change the world, I’d make it Halloween.”

Sounds of Broadway offers the most wide-ranging listing of music from the Off-Broadway, Broadway, and London stages. Thousands of songs from hundreds of cast recordings are in rotation, with new shows added weekly.  “My last count was 4,300 songs from over 540 musicals,” he said. “I feature popular and classic shows like Wicked, My Fair Lady, and Hamilton,” stated the Connecticut resident. “But, unlike other online radio stations, I’ve included selections from more obscure or little heard of shows.  I want the station to entertain, but I also want to teach people about musical theater history.”

Sounds of Broadway can be reached at the website www.SoundsofBroadway.com. Brown can be reached at Stuart@SoundsofBroadway.com.