Sunday, January 21, 2018

Review of "Feeding the Dragon"

Playwright and performer Sharon Washington spent part of her formative years living in the New York Public Library.  In her absorbing and entertaining one-woman show, Feeding the Dragon, she chronicles this magical experience as well as her family’s life within the confines of the repository.

In the early 1970’s she and her family lived in an apartment on the top floor of the St. Agnes branch of the library.  Heated by a coal furnace, the structure had to be maintained day and night.  A custodian was needed, such as her father, and given the spacious living quarters in exchange for stoking the fire and providing other routine work in the building.  When the library closed the young girl had free rein to roam the stacks, explore the interior’s nooks and crannies, and play atop the walled roof of the building.

The talented and ebullient actress does a laudable job connecting with the Hartford Stage patrons and enthralls the audience with her after hours adventures.  But her tale is not solely about her personal exploits and hijinks.  A good part of the show incorporates her no-nonsense mother, hard-working father and other family relations.  Their character’s interactions help round out the performance, providing background and depth to the story. 

While Ms. Washington’s portrayals are engaging and her autobiographic memories appealing, Feeding the Dragon lacks a definable dramatic arc that could have made her story more affecting.  There are junctures during the performance that could have been exploited for more theatrical moments.

Director Maria Mileaf skillfully paces the show.  She is at her best when guiding the performer through her impressions and derring-do.  She has the actress utilize all of the inventive set design by Tony Ferrieri, which has steps and risers, composed of colorful book binders, leading to a small stage.  Ann Wrightson’s lighting design and Lindsay Jones’ original music and sound design add texture and fullness to the production. 

Feeding the Dragon, an enjoyable and winning solo performance.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Review of "John Lithgow - Stories by Heart"

The multi-talented actor John Lithgow knows how to tell a story.  Actually, he recites two short works of fiction in his one-man show, Stories by Heart.   For almost two hours the award-winning thespian of stage, screen and television captivates and entertains the audience with a theatrical delivery of the stories.  Stories and their power are the central theme of the production. 

Lithgow starts the show talking about his upbringing and, particularly, how his father inspired him to become an actor through his creation and management of many Shakespearean theater companies and festivals—some successful and some not.  As a pre-teen boy, Lithgow became mesmerized by the dramatics he beheld.  These on-stage productions were supplemented by a nightly ritual of bedtime stories read and performed by their dad.  Each night, Lithgow and his two other siblings would select a passage from a 1,000+ page volume containing dozens of short works that would then be acted out. 

To recreate the wonder he felt as a young lad, the performer brings us “The Haircut,” by Ring Lardner, in Act I.  Act II’s spotlight is PG Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By.”  The actor bookends the show by describing his father’s ill-health year’s later and how the ability of a story invigorated and revitalized him.

At its best the show pulsates as when an animated Lithgow portrays multiple, rather eccentric characters from the PG Wodehouse tale.  But the emphasis on the two stories, which account for most of the two-hour production, can come across like a one-trick pony.  If the stories don’t resonate there’s not much else to grab onto.

Dan Sullivan demonstrates his prowess as director by deftly guiding the actor through his various portrayals during the pair of recitations.

Stories by Heart, a very personal, mostly entertaining memoir, from one of our finest actors. 

Review of "Steel Magnolias"

Midway through the first act of the resplendent production of Steel Magnolias, playing at Playhouse on Park, one of the ladies at Truvy’s Beauty Salon states, “This is woman’s territory.”  How true.  In Robert Harling’s genial and tenderhearted play, the six woman of Chinquapin, Louisiana rule the roost.   There lives, from the mundane and everyday, to life changing moments, are warmly and affectionately celebrated.
Dorothy Stanley as Clairee, Susan Slotoroff as Shelby (photo Meredith Atkinson)
All the action of the show takes place in the small southern town’s beauty parlor where, at first, the local matrons are gathering to fuss and chitchat about the upcoming wedding of hometown girl, Shelby.  The conversations and playful banter between the women, as the bride-to-be gets primped and styled, come off as natural and unforced.  We learn about each character—the high-spirited Shelby; her petit, but dynamic mother, M’Lynn; the perky salon owner, Truvy; her young and na├»ve assistant, Annelle; the deceased Mayor’s wife, Clairee; and the wise-cracklng resident, Ousier.  The dramatic highpoint of the production comes towards the end as tragedy strikes one of the central members of this tight-knit group.
Jill Taylor Anthony as Truvee, Peggy Osbourne as Ouiser, Susan Slotoroff as Shelby, Liza Couser as Anelle, Dorothy Stanley as Clairee (photo Curt Henderson)
Harling has written a play where not much really happens beyond idle chatter and juicy gossip.  There’s a lot of this and that.  Problems and scenarios are presented and easily resolved.  Still, even with the matter-of-fact slice-of-life plot lines, the characters resonate with the audience.  They are encouraging and affectionate of one another and we, in turn, grow to care and become supportive of them.  In a way, the show is like old-fashioned, satisfying comfort food.  It makes you feel good and leaves you blissfully content at the end.
Liza Couser as Anelle, Jill Taylor Anthony as Truvee (photo Curt Henderson)
The cast has an easy, unmistakable rapport with one another.  They are led by Susan Slotoroff as Shelby.  A Playhouse on Park regular, the actress does a fine job radiating optimism and a full-of-life bravado.  Jeannie Hines has the role of the overly protective, worrisome mother, M’Lynn, down pat.  Jill Taylor Anthony is buoyant, yet sensible as Truvy, the mostly unflappable ringmaster of the group.  Liza Couser’s Annelle shows growth and purpose, the one character that undergoes any transformation during the production.  Dorothy Stanley’s Clairee, widowed, but whole-heartedly alive, brings forth a vitality and intrepidness to her role.  Peggy Cosgrave’s Ousier is a pistol.  Audacious and disagreeable to a fault, she adds needed comic relief whenever the air gets too heavy.
Liza Couser as Anelle, Jill Taylor Anthony as Truvee, Peggy Osbourne as Ouiser, Susan Slotoroff as Shelby (photo Curt Henderson)
Susan Haefner has a laid back, easy-going manner with her direction.  She skillfully maneuvers the cast members around Set Designer David Lewis’ realistic, homespun beauty parlor without the actresses remaining too static and passive.  She produces a relaxed, almost informal mood on stage that is more deftly planned and executed rather then mere happenstance.  Occasionally, the characters are edged to the corners of the three-sided performing space, which impedes the audience’s sight lines, but this problem is a minor one.  Ms. Haefner adroitly handles the play’s climatic scene with tact and compassion.

Steel Magnolias, a breezy and engaging production, playing through January 28th.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Review of "Desperate Measures"

Desperate Measures, the small-scale Off-Broadway musical, is a charming rascal of a show full of wit and pluck.

The time is somewhere out West in the late 1800’s.  There, we meet Johnny Blood (Conor Ryan), a simple-minded gunslinger in jail awaiting the hangman’s noose.  His crime – shooting a rival while protecting the honor of his less-than-honorable dance hall girlfriend Bella Rose (Lauren Molina).  Only a pardon from the unscrupulous Governor (Nick Wyman) can save the prisoner, but his licentious terms present big problems for Johnny’s sister (Celia Hottenstein, who was in the cast for Emma Degerstedt), a nun about to take her final vows.  However, with the help of the honorable, straight shooting sheriff (Peter Saide), an inebriated priest (Gary Marachek), and the saloon hussy they foil his Honor’s dastardly deed and save the day.

Peter Saide, Emma Degerstedt, Conor Ryan and Gary Marachek from "Desperate Measures."

Peter Kellogg’s lively book, loosely based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, is boisterous and just plain fun, using inventive and sprightly rhymed couplets throughout the production.  Comical moments are bountiful and puns are aplenty.  The scenes are structured to allow the acting troupe an opportunity for maximum theatrics, gnashing the scenery and just plain hamming it up.

Like the songs from their previous Off-Broadway effort, Money Talks,  
the score for Desperate Measures by David Friedman and Mr. Kellogg is tuneful and engaging, incorporating a number of styles that include country and western hoedowns, comedic ballads, and Broadway standards.
Lauren Molina and Conor Ryan in "Desperate Measures."
The cast is superb with Nick Wyman as the despicably immoral Governor von Richterhenkenpflichtgetruber and Lauren Molina as the overly accommodating Bella Rose providing the two best performances of the show.  Wyman, a cagey stage veteran, seems to be having the time of his life as the shameless and debauched politician.  Ms. Molina’s portrayal of the tavern tart is a comic gem.  She possesses a riotous vocal delivery with exaggerated facial expressions to match.  Conor Ryan conveys a puppy dog lovability, as Johnny Blood, the wholly inept gunslinger.  Peter Saide does a highly satisfying job of having his character, Sheriff Martin Green, play the straight man to all the shenanigans swirling about him.  Celia Hottenstein’s Sister Mary Jo is suitably unblemished and prim and proper, even as she harbors a devlish sparkle in her eyes.  Gary Marachek is absolutely hilarious as the mostly intoxicated town clergyman, Father Morse.
Nicky Wyman and Emma Degerstedt in "Desperate Measures."
Director Bill Castellino does a cracker jack job keeping the actors from going over the edge with their histrionics and balderdash.  He keeps the fast-paced show merrily on its paces, effectively incorporating James Morgan’s simple, but savvy Scenic Design into the production.

Desperate Measures, a rollicking good time at the York Theatre through December 31st.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Review of "Once on This Island"

The jubilant revival of Once on the Island takes shape even before the musical begins.  The floor of the Circle-in-the-Square theatre has been transformed by Scenic Designer Dane Laffrey into a sandy, Caribbean island beach populated by local residents.  In one corner a woman is frying up some native delicacy, the aroma wafting through the lower rows of the theatre.  Live chickens are caged at another part of the performing area while a goat is led around by its owner.  Litter, brought ashore by the tides, is strewn about as the inhabitants mingle and socialize.

The 90 minute, intermission-less production tells the fable of Ti Moune, a young girl who falls in love with Daniel, a handsome aristocrat from the other side of the island.  The four island gods have devised a test for the blossoming woman to see which is a more powerful force – love or death.  They cause the injury of the young man in a car accident as a way for Ti Moune to meet and nurse him back to health.   Before he is completely healed he is whisked away by family members to the luxury of the family compound.  Crestfallen, she makes her way to his parent’s estate to convince him of her love.  Bewitched by her genuineness and devotion, he becomes captivated with her before the reality of their star-crossed lives moves him, and their ill-fated relationship, onto a divergent, disheartening path.
Stephen Flaherty’s book of the show is an imaginative tale of the celebration of life and the power of love no matter the pain and heartbreak one may experience.  His use of cast members to form a Greek-like chorus of storytellers enables a fluid narrative flow.  The addition of the four portrayed deities – of the Earth, Water, Love and Death – provide a hallucinatory quality to the story.

The score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Lafferty, their Broadway debut, is evocative of the sounds from the Caribbean and buoyantly sung by the performers.  They are enthusiastically rendered by a small off-stage band and supplemented by handmade instruments fabricated from items lying about the island’s beaches.

The cast is more of an ensemble effort with a few notable performances distinguishing themselves within the acting troupe.  Some of the standouts include Hailey Kilgore as the older Ti Moune.  She possesses boundless energy and conveys the mixed emotions of young love.  Her voice soars and her stage presence reminds me of a fresh-faced Melba Moore.  Philip Boykin as Tonton Julian, Ti Moune’s father and Kenita R. Miller as her mother, make an endearing, caring couple only wanting the best for their questioning child.  Playing the island god Asaka (Mother of the Earth), Alex Newell has a thunderous voice and a commanding stage presence.

Director Michael Arden has created an immersive theatrical environment that takes full advantage of the circular stage and its environs to vividly tell the story.  There is constant movement within the production and sights to behold at every corner.  The director forgoes unnecessary stagecraft, keeping sets and props to a minimum, which allows for more creative artistry and imagination. Working with Lighting Designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer and Sound Designer Peter Hylenski he has created a theatrical setting full of wonder and spectacle.

Choreographer Camille A. Brown has infused the show with vibrancy and exuberance.  You feel the vitality and rapture of the performers.  Some of the dances, especially Ti Moune’s high-spirited strutting at a fancy ball, come across as a joyous and infectious celebration.

Once on the Island, an enchanting and radiant production.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Review of "SpongeBob Squarepants - the Musical"

If you are even a casual fan of SpongeBob Squarepants then you will thoroughly enjoy the zany Broadway musical based on the cartoon character.  The wacky world of Bikini Bottom and its denizens of the deep are lovingly reimagined for the stage, producing a wildly entertaining, splendiferous production.

Kudos, first and foremost, must go to director Tina Landau and her creative team—emphasis on the word creative—for their splashy, colorful and dazzling designs.  They literally transform the interior and stage of the Palace Theatre into a vibrant and beauteous spectacle.  David Zinn’s Scenic Design is peacocky gorgeous and outrageously inventive.  The highlight is two towering Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions flanking the stage that, set into motion, deliver giddy results.  His Costume Designs are equally inspired and flashy.  Peter Nigrini’s Projection Design add a cartoony spirit to the production.  The talents of Kevin Adams (Lighting Design) and Walter Trarbach (Sound Design) are indispensable in establishing the imaginative underwater realm.  The sound effects produced by Mike Dobson (such as Sandy the Squirrel’s karate chops) add an idiosyncratic dimension to the show.

The cast of "SpongeBob Squarepants - the Musical."

The story by Kyle Jarrow captures the whimsy, silliness, and outright lunacy of the animated series.  He has incorporated a bevy of recognizable routines and characters to satisfy any fan.  The writer has crafted a narrative that centers on a cataclysmic volcanic eruption set to destroy the underwater community of Bikini Bottom.  Only one man, ah sponge, can come to the rescue and SpongeBob is up for the job as he recruits his friends to help save the day and gain a degree of respect at the same time.

The actors and actresses are so perfectly cast in their roles.  They are led by Ethan Slater as SpongeBob.  Squat, muscular and impossibly flexible, Slater has the look, goofiness and innocent laugh of the loveable TV creation.  He brings out the childlike qualities of the character without being insipid or tiresome.  His non-stop effervescence and sparkle anchors the musical.
Gavin Lee as Squidward in his big dance number "I'm Not a Loser."

Other standouts are Gavin Lee, woefully wonderful as Squidward.  He is marvelously miserable as he wallows in self-pity.  The performer supplies the most crowd-pleasing moment of the show with his high stepping tap number, “I’m Not a Loser.”  Danny Skinner perfectly portrays the lug of a Starfish, Patrick, a good-natured dimwit and BFF of SpongeBob.  Lilli Cooper is playfully appealing as Sandy, the no-nonsense squirrel living among the Bikini Bottom inhabitants.  Wesley Taylor is fiendishly inept as the diabolic Sheldon Plankton.

The score of the show is by a variety of well-known and indie recording artists.  They include original material from Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, The Flaming Lips, Lady Antebellum, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, and Panic! At the Disco.  The songs are bouncy, tuneful, and catchy and are sung with a buoyant and earnest enthusiasm.
Wesley Taylor as the one-eyed Plankton.

Tina Landau, who conceived and directed the production, has pulled out all the stops in fabricating a vision that is both artsy and commercial.  Her out-of-the-box thinking and guidance creates another world full of wonder and merriment.  She continuously fills the stage with all manner of underwater life that bounds from the performing area.  She also made a smart choice of not dressing the actors in phony looking costumes, but to allow them, through voice, facial expressions, body language, and subtle costuming to create more three-dimensional characters.

The choreography by Christopher Gattelli is creatively energetic.  The dance routines add even more fullness to a production that is overstuffed with innovation and schtick.

The one question yet to be answered is will audiences not familiar with SpongeBob and his mates flock to the musical?  Much of the enjoyment of the show is seeing gags and routines from the cartoon reenacted on stage.  Without a certain familiarity people could feel left out of the party-like atmosphere.

SpongeBob the Musical, an enchanting and loveable surprise this young Broadway season.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Review of "Nuncrackers"

It’s the holiday season and the nuns of Mount Saint Helen’s Convent are taping their first Christmas special in the cable access studio built by Reverend Mother.  Thus begins Nuncrackers, another Nunsense sequel from the fertile mind of writer and composer Dan Goggin.

The entertaining show, playing at Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury through December 17th, is a series of humorous skits and songs performed by the nuns—Reverend Mother, Sister Mary Hubert, Sister Robert Anne, and Sister Mary Paul (Amnesia)—from Hoboken, NJ.  They are joined by Father Virgil and a gaggle of young school kids.

Some of the vignettes can be quite funny as when Father Virgil and Reverend Mother spoof The Nutcracker as bumbling Sugar Plum Fairies and when the two hawk some rather unusual items on the Catholic Home Shopping Service.

The score by Dan Goggin, like with his other Nunsense efforts, are silly, lively, and jolly.  The song titles leave no room for doubt on the nature of the show.  There is the opening “Christmas Time is Nunsense Time,” “Santa Ain’t Comin’ to Our House,” “Jesus Was Born in Brooklyn,” and…well you get the idea.  They are accompanied by a marvelous three-piece band under the musical direction of JT Thompson.

The cast is a merry group, led by Michelle Goray as the businesslike, but affable Reverend Mother.  The actress has excellent comic timing and a droll sense of humor.  Cathy Wilcox-Sturmer is quite funny as Sister Robert Anne.  She is like the class clown, always going the extra mile to get a laugh or elicit a heavy groan.  Marcia Maslo as Sister Mary Paul (Amnesia) and Cat Heidel as Sister Mary Hubert round out the quartet of joking, good-natured nuns.  Mr. Waterbury himself, Tom Chute, is sufficiently daffy as Father Virgil.  He really knows how to wear a tutu and is quite extraordinary with his fruitcake recipe.  The young children in the cast add a down home flavor to the show.

Directors/Choreographers James Donohue and Semina De Laurentis keep the musical light and breezy, whether a scene is filled with song or a dialogue filled sketch.  They nimbly mix schtick-laden moments with poignancy and unabashed sentiment.

The Scenic Design by Daniel Husvar is suitably tacky, perfect for a local cable access production.

Nuncrackers, a different and diverting holiday show that, at the very least, will put a smile on your face and a twinkle in your heart.