Monday, October 24, 2016

Review of "Chasing Rainbows"

In 1976 a little girl named Andrea McArdle, full of spunk and gusto, wowed audiences at the Goodspeed Opera House with her powerful vocals as Little Orphan Annie in the original production of Annie.  Forty years later another young lady, albeit somewhat older, is again making a lasting impression on Goodspeed crowds as a teenage Judy Garland in the musical Chasing Rainbows.  The actress is Ruby Rakos and her rich, dynamic soprano and spot on portrayal of the well-known, famous star elevates this production to a wholly satisfying theatrical experience.
On the MGM backlot with Ruby Rakos as Judy Garland. Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
The storyline follows Ms. Garland, who’s original name was Frances Gumm, and her family of two sisters, mother and father, from a cute-as-can-be youngster through her mid-teen years.  The show concludes as she begins to film her classic role of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.  Librettist Marc Acito covers a lot of ground during this timeframe, but even as the years breezily pass, the musical does not come across as episodic, which has torpedoed many a biographic endeavor.  We witness young Judy’s trials and tribulations with her dysfunctional home life and trying to gain a foothold in Hollywood.  It was interesting to watch an overly self-important Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM Studios, continually ignore the teenager’s impressive talents.

The score of the show is comprised of songs from the American songbook from the 1920’s and 1930’s.  They include “I Can’t Get You Anything But Love,” “Broadway Rhythm,” “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart,” “Bill,” and, of course, “Over the Rainbow.”  Be forewarned:  toe-tapping-itis has been reported during performances.
Members of the cast of Chasing Rainbows. Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Overall, the cast is first-rate.  Notables include, first and foremost, Ruby Rakos as the teenage Judy Garland.  The actress is enthusiastic, earnest, impassioned and exudes a down home charm.  And she can sing, whether it’s belting out one of the show’s spirited numbers or caressing a tender ballad.  Ella Briggs as Baby Frances is a conundrum.  You sit there wondering how can a seven year old—yes, seven years old—have such a powerful voice and fearless attitude, whether singing, dancing or acting.  Micahel Wartella as Mickey Rooney provides a spark plug to the production whenever it begins to sag.  He is carefree, energetic, and fun to watch.  Gary Milner brings a sanguine as well as world-weary disposition to the role of Roger Edens, a composer and arranger at the studio and mentor to the actress.  Karen Mason is marvelous as the business like, serious minded Kay Koverman, Mayer’s secretary and guardian angel to Garland.  Lastly, Michael McCormick is pugnacious and a real SOB as Louis B. Mayer.

The strength of choreographer Chris Bailey’s dance routines are how they begin very innocuously and naturally, slowly building in intensity, many times to a feverish pitch.  He creates controlled mayhem and frenetic production numbers with this group of exuberant, tireless young performers.
Judy (Ruby Rakos) and Mickey (Michael Wartella) are having a "Hollywood Party" with the cast of Chasing Rainbows. Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Director Tyne Rafaeli smartly keeps Ms. Rakos center stage with her full-throttled voice.  She adroitly and smoothly moves the show through its numerous scenes without losing a beat or having the production appear too disjointed.  Working with minimal sets and props allows her to keep the focus on the characters, which are well-drawn and more three-dimensional then one might expect.

Chasing Rainbows, an entertaining and, at times, rousing look at the life of the young Judy Garland with a star turn by the young actress Ruby Rakos.  The musicals continues at the Goodspeed Opera House through November 27th.

Review of "The Piano Lesson"

The Piano Lesson, one of the ten plays August Wilson wrote that chronicles African-American life in the twentieth century, is receiving an impressive production at Hartford Stage.  Set in Pittsburgh in the 1930’s, the story can be seen as a straightforward domestic drama about a brother and sister arguing over the fate of a prized heirloom piano.  But Wilson paints in broad strokes so the sibling struggle is more the catalyst for an examination of life during this timeframe.  He touches on The Great Migration north by African-Americans, their struggles in Pittsburgh, the lack of acceptance between northern and southern brethren, racial intolerance and despair.  For this rendering, composer Baikida Carroll has added music and songs that evoke the mood and times, incorporating gospel, blues, and work songs into the fabric of the play.

Clifton Duncan as Boy Willie.  Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The basic thrust of the story involves the desire of Boy Willie (Clifton Duncan), a young man from the south, who comes up north with the goal of selling his sister Berniece’s (Christina Acosta Robinson) prized, family piano.  This set-up unleashes an abundance of conflicting emotions within the extended family that includes Lymon (Galen Ryan Kane), Boy Willie’s friend; Doaker (Roscoe Orman), the uncle who’s house Berniece and her daughter Maretha (Elise Taylor) live in; Doaker’s brother Wining Boy (Cleavant Derricks) an over-the-hill entertainer and boozer in from Kansas City; and Avery (Daniel Morgan Shelley), a would-be preacher who has been persistently wooing Berniece to become his wife.  The household conflict serves as a springboard for issues confronting African-Americans during this period. 

The multi-level saga pulsates with anger, determination, and wistfulness.  Wilson has developed richly defined characters, all striving for a better existence.  They are in flux and undergoing seismic changes.  He subtly, but pointedly, contrasts the northern and southern African-American lifestyles and desires.  The playwright’s use of ghostly imagery is an effective mechanism in exploring and exorcising age-old beliefs and memories.
Christina Acosta Robinson and Cleavant Derricks.  Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
The first-rate cast is led by Clifton Duncan as Willie Boy.  He is boisterous, obstinate, and single-minded in the pursuit of his dream of owning his own farm.  He is the nexus in which all the other characters revolve around.  Christina Acosta Robinson as Berniece is stoic and resolute in her desire to better the lives of herself and daughter.  On the surface she appears unfeeling and stringent, but underneath churns a woman seeking real love and passion.    Galen Ryan Kane, as Willie Boy’s friend Lymon, yearns to break from his southern heritage to begin anew up north.  The actor brings a laid back and pensive quality to his role, which finely balances with the more strongly expressive characters.  Roscoe Orman’s Doaker is the most sensible member of the household.  He is contemplative and mannered, but not so detached to back down from a good time.  Cleavant Derricks’ Wining Boy provides good-natured comic relief flecked with regret and unrealized ambitions.  Rounding out the splendid cast is Daniel Morgan Shelley as Avery, Elise Taylor as the young daughter Maretha, and Toccarra Cash as Grace. 
Galen Ryan Kane in August Wilson's The Piano Lesson. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Director Jade King Carroll skillfully creates an environment that comes across as natural and unforced.  Scenes seamlessly flow together.  She injects intelligent and compelling flourishes into scenes such as the floor stomping railroad work song.  While heartache and humor are at the play’s core she also demonstrates a deft touch with tender moments as with the intimate scene between Berniece and Lymon.  The director artfully controls the tempo of the show, building the tension of the production to a feverish pitch.  The play’s resolution, however, does come a bit too quickly and seems rushed. 

The scenic design, a simple, unadorned ground floor living room and second floor landing, by Alexis Distler quietly and modestly evokes the Pittsburgh Hill District where the action of the play takes place.

The Piano Lesson, a winning and absorbing drama, playing at Hartford Stage through November 13th.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Review of "Camelot"

A scaled down musical can be a problematic endeavor.  Stripped of embellishments and large-scale production values a show, to be successful, needs to have a strong libretto, a first-rate score, and a creative and original concept.  One of the best examples was a pocket-sized production of Sweeney Todd on the small Goodspeed Opera House stage a number of years ago.  Now, with mostly disappointing results, comes a pared down version of the musical Camelot at the Westport Country Playhouse.

The main problem is the weak book by Alan Jay Lerner.  There is little dramatic tension between the four main characters of King Arthur (Robert Sean Leonard), Guenevere (Britney Coleman), Lancelot (Stephen Mark Lukas), and Mordred (Patrick Andrews).  The plot itself, primarily the love triangle between the king, his wife and leading knight, is uninspiring.  In a full-sized mounting of the show its innate grandeur and majesty masks these shortcomings.  But, laid bare, the failings of the book are more obvious.  Not even the adaptation of the original by David Lee, an award winning television writer and director, solves the drawbacks.
Britney Coleman and Stephen Mark Lukas in Lerner & Loewe’s “Camelot.” Photo by Carol Rosegg

The essence of the story is still the same, which, as stated, revolves around the love triangle between Arthur, Guenevere, and Lancelot as well as the insidious conspiracies of Mordred.  The presentation of the material, with little in scenery and props, is depicted by a masked group of revelers who, in turn, play various roles within the musical.  It comes across as a theatrical staging by a traveling band of actors for a king’s court or other confined setting.  It can, at times, be an entertaining concept, but overall fails in its realization to become an absorbing and captivating production.

The songs are by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, the team behind Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon, and My Fair Lady.  Camelot, which opened in 1960, would prove to be their last score for a Broadway musical.  While not their best it does include such notable numbers as “I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight?,” “Simple Joys of Maidenhood,” “Camelot,” and “What Do the Simple Folk Do.”  The songs are mostly forthright and uncomplicated odes to everyday life, but do include two enchanting, powerful ballads in “If Ever I Would Leave You” and “I Loved You in Silence.”
Britney Coleman, Sana Sarr, Robert Sean Leonard, Stephen Mark Lukas, Patrick Andrews, and Michael De Souza in Lerner & Loewe’s “Camelot.” Photo by Carol Rosegg

The cast, led by Robert Sean Leonard’s King Arthur, is a fine troupe of actors but they don’t gel as a cohesive ensemble.  Robert Sean Leonard is portrayed as an aloof ruler with too much on his mind.  He comes across as being too preoccupied when the very existence of his kingdom begins to crumble.  As with many actors that have played Arthur his musical numbers can be defined as soothing speak-sing.  Britney Coleman’s Guenevere, however, has a gorgeous voice, that fills the historic theater whenever she sings, which is quite often.  She is straightforward in her approach to the character with little shading to the role.  There is not much chemistry between her and King Arthur or her lover, Sir Lancelot, played by Stephen Mark Lukas.  The actor is brooding, loyal to a fault, but not showing much nuance with his portrayal.  He does possess a rich, robust voice that resonates beautifully in the musical’s signature number, “If Ever I Would Leave You.”

Director Mark Lamos does what he can with the material and slimmed down version of the show.  But the rhythm and tonal quality of the concept doesn’t lend itself to a satisfying dramatic whole.  There is a lot of standing around and talking between the characters, but little besides the eloquent prose and pronouncements.   Choreographer Connor Gallagher adds a smattering of dance routines that keep with the minimal concept of the show.

Camelot, playing at the Westport Country Playhouse through November 5th.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Review of "Holiday Inn"

When’s the last time you left a Broadway musical smiling from ear-to-ear and humming songs from a tuneful score?  If you can’t remember when, then head over to Studio 54 for the old-fashioned, thoroughly enjoyable production of Holiday Inn.  Based on the movie of the same name, the show has endearing characters, memorable songs from the Irving Berlin songbook, and enough high-stepping dance numbers to satisfy even the most cantankerous audience member.

The book by Gordon Greenburg and Chad Hodge spruces up and modernizes the movie screenplay without disrupting the essence of the story.   It tightens up slow spots to create a smooth, streamlined version of the original.  It still revolves around three nightclub performers seeking fame and fortune.  Jim Hardy (Bryce Pinkham) wants to leave the act and move to the countryside of Connecticut.  His new fiancée, Lila Dixon (Megan Sikora), another member of the trio, would prefer to stay on the road with the final member of the troupe, Ted Hanover (Cordon Bleu).  They go their separate ways—Lila and Ted hitting the big time while Jim settles into the quieter life of farming.  Along the way he falls for the local schoolteacher, Linda Mason (Lora Lee Gayer), who’s family happened to own the manor and land he now owns.  Also helping out is the wisecracking, live-in handy-woman, Louise (Megan Lawrence).  Unfortunately, for Jim, the farm is pretty much a bust.  But, by happenstance, he comes up with the idea of staging show biz extravaganzas during every holiday (Christmas, Valentine’s Day. 4th of July, etc.) as a way to pay the bills.  The plan works, Jim and Linda are falling in love, and everything seems right.  Until…Ted shows up unexpectantly, causing havoc at the Inn and Jim’s love life.  Turmoil ensues but, readers do not despair, a happy ending does come to pass.

Bryce Pinkham, Megan Lawrence and members of the cast.
The score is comprised of songs from the Broadway shows and movie soundtracks of legendary composer Irving Berlin. They include “Heat Wave” and “Easter Parade” from the Broadway revue As Thousands Cheer; “It’s a Lovely Day Today” from the Broadway musical Call Me Madam and “Let’s Take an Old-Fashioned Walk” from Broadway’s Miss Liberty. There is also “Cheek to Cheek” from the film Top Hat; and “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” from the movie Easter Parade.  For good measure there’s also “Blue Skies” and “White Christmas.”  They are all seamlessly integrated into the plot and provide over two hours of toe-tapping bliss.

Cordin Bleu, Lora Lee Gayer and Bryce Pinkham.
The cast is led by Bryce Pinkham, former entertainer and gentleman farmer Jim Hardy.  The actor, welcoming and winsome, fits easily into both roles—song and dance man and would-be man of the earth.  His love interest, Linda Mason, played by Lora Lee Gayer comes across as down home and American as apple pie but, she too, is no slouch when it’s time to sing or put on the dancing shoes.  She and Pinkham have a real aw shucks chemistry together.  Corbin Bleu is Jim Hardy’s former partner Ted Hanover, a suave, high-spirited rogue.  While radiating a bubbly personality the actor’s performance is more unabashedly effervescent and less nuanced.  However, the former High School Musical star is a very impressive dancer, especially in his second act “Let’s Say It With Firecrackers” solo.  Megan Sikora is daft and determined as Lila Dixon, while Megan Lawrence just about steals the show as the lovable, sharp-tongued Louise.

Corbin Bleu and members of the chorus.
Choreographer Denis Jones has pulled out all the stops for the production.  This is exemplified by the two ebullient and dazzling Farmhouse numbers sung to “Blue Skies” and “Shaking the Blues Away.”  These dance routines are energetic, playful, and full of tap dancing razz-ma-tazz.  With scenes set in nightclubs and during the Holiday Inn festivities Jones makes the most of showcasing his choreographic talents.

Doubling as director, Gordon Greenburg, who has been at the helm of the show since its Fall 2014 debut at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT, has the musical humming on all the right cylinders.  This is a highly polished show, from the frenetic high jinks to the production’s tender moments.  He skillfully meshes the musical numbers with the dialogue driven scenes.  All facets of the show come together perfectly. 

Acknowledgement also needs to be given to Anna Louizos for the wonderfully rendered sets and Alejo Vietti for the multitudinous and sometimes whimsical costumes.

Holiday Inn, an irresistible, crowd-pleasing musical.

Review of "Heisenberg"

Unfortunately, I need to preface my review by stating, for a moment, forget the Presidential campaign firestorm over unwanted and inappropriate sexual advances and behavior.  

What would you do if you were an older gentleman, just sitting in a train station, and were suddenly kissed on the back of the neck by a younger lady?  Would you be outraged?  Perplexed?  This is how the Broadway play, Heisenberg, a modest, but captivating production, begins.  Mary Louise-Parker is Georgie Burns, an American transplant, in her mid-40’s, living in London.  Her target, Alex Priest, a 75-year-old butcher, played by Denis Arndt, is flummoxed and bewildered.  Georgie, a determined woman who comes across as rather eccentric and kooky, blathers on about her life as well as grilling Alex about his world.  Thus begins an oft-kilter connection where unknown truths and motives are revealed, lives are changed and invigorated, and a relationship blossoms. 

Playwright Simon Stephens, the author of the immensely popular and stunning adaptation of The Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, has based the show on physicist Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.  This states, “there is a fundamental limit to what we can know about the behaviour of quantum particles.“  ( In this case, it is the uncertainty of the behavior of two very different individuals.  Stephens has created two interesting, unique characters.  Their idiosyncrasies and traits are strikingly rendered with both performers giving skillful, nuanced portrayals.  However, the overall thrust of the production, while bewitching and absorbing, is modest at best.

Mary Louise-Parker and Denis Ardnt deliver two outstanding performances.  They are appealing, melancholy, and authentic.  In their own way, they both teeter towards a slow revelation of self-discovery and affection.  Louise-Parker’s Georgie Burns is an original.  An almost non-stop talker with an uncensored palate, the actress breathes genuineness into her unconventional, wounded, and passionate character.  Ardnt, for much of the play, is more reactive to his colleague’s prattle.  But as he comes out of his self-imposed shell the actor slowly comes alive and more animated.  You feel the extreme joy and sometimes pain that he is experiencing.

Director Mark Brokaw, utilizing a set comprised merely of two chairs and two tables, focuses on movement and dialogue.  Movement as in little mobility, with each character standing their ground during their verbal confrontations and impasses.  This forces the audience to focus on the words tumbling from Georgie’s lips and the staccato responses emanating from Alex.  Brokaw has also imbued the actors with polar opposite mannerisms – the more overt gestures and facial expressions of Georgie and the nuanced, stone-like intimations of Alex.

Heisenberg, playing at the Manhattan Theatre Club through December 11th.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Review of "Meteor Shower"

In the program booklet for the new Steve Martin comedy, Meteor Shower, playing at Long Wharf through October 23rd, Director Gordon Edelstein ponders:  “How much of what we think about and desire do we repress?”  The question provides the audience with just enough of a clue in understanding this very funny and amusing production.

Corky (Arden Myrin) and Norm (Patrick Breen) are a content, married couple, probably in their late 30’s, living in the hills outside Los Angeles.  They are readying themselves to entertain a couple Norm has just met.  When they arrive, Gerald (Josh Stamberg) and Laura (Sophina Brown) come across as bold, brash, and inappropriate.  But are these two guests inconsiderate and imprudent strangers or a facet of Corky and Norm’s repressed life?  This is the scenario that playwright Steve Martin has conjured up as he explores this line of thought in terms of sex, marriage and relationships from two different angles in Acts I and II. 
Patrick Breen and Arden Myrin in "Meteor Shower."

Martin utilizes the element of time – forward and backward – to show different sides of a conversation or how various scenes could be reworked.  In fact, Michael Yeargan’s compact and sleek set design amplifies the notion of time with a rotating stage.  The production can sometimes be slightly hard to follow, with all the back and forth and shifts in style, but that is a minor lament.  Steve Martin, who has been a comedy writer since the late 1960’s with television’s The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, knows how to craft comedic moments and there are many in Meteor Shower.  His lampooning of couple’s counseling methodology and a cannibalization tale are irreverent and hilarious.  He has also created four fully developed, outlandish characters that do an outstanding job in breathing life into his whimsical and dizzying writing.

The first-rate cast functions seamlessly together.  They are seasoned professionals with a no-holds barred attitude in their portrayals.  Ardin Myrin, as Corky, gives the most satisfying comedic performance, whether it’s the simple recitation of some unvarnished dialogue, her deadpan delivery, or the overt physicality of her performance.  Patrick Breen’s Norm comes across as humdrum and like your friendly next door neighbor.  However, his matter-of-fact delivery and perplexed looks fuel the interplay between all the characters.  Josh Stamberg, as Gerald, is loud, foul-mouthed, and reckless.  He perfectly personifies the polar opposite of the more staid, phlegmatic Norm. Sophina Brown, as Laura, is sexy and seductive and knows it.  She is more understated then the rest of the actors, but beautifully aligns with her more audacious partner-in-crime.
Patrick Breen and Sophina Brown in "Meteor Shower."

Gordon Edelstein, who has helmed a number of Steve Martin’s forays into the theater, shows a deft comic touch in handling the material.  He keeps the pacing agile and quick and nimbly orchestrates scene changes, especially those that redirect the focus in a non-linear fashion.  Edelstein skillfully infuses each performer with their own idiosyncratic gestures and vocal intonations that enriches the characterizations.  The director also does a superb job handling the demands of Act II, which, in a sense, is like a new play. 

Meteor Shower, an absurdist and entertaining piece of theater at Long Wharf through October 23rd.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Review of "Small Mouth Sounds"

Can a playwright create an engaging and dramatically effective show where dialogue is at a minimum?  In the case of Small Mouth Sounds, Bess Wohl has mostly succeeded.

The plot centers on six disparate individuals who have all registered for a weeklong retreat of meditation and reflection.  Very soon, under the direction of the facility’s spiritual leader, the participants are instructed not to speak during their time at the center.  This begins an odyssey, often funny, sometimes poignant, of self-discovery punctuated by self-important, vacuous lectures from the disembodied voice of the guru.

The entertaining and fascinating aspect of the play is watching how the players interact and function, mostly without mouthing any words, within the theater’s unique configuration—a rectangular facility with rows of seating along both lengths.  A small stage, along the width, with six folding chairs for the group of actors completes the setting.  The expanded performance space opens up the production.  The actors can spread on the floor in their sleeping bags.  We see them connect (or not), cooperate, and learn to communicate silently as they seek answers to their own series of questions and problems.

Bess Wohl has crafted an original take on the tried and true formula of observing a group of unrelated characters come together and bond.  Small Mouth Sounds can be seen as a statement on human nature, our need for companionship, and the ability to take risks.  The show is moving, playful, humorous and, for the most part, captivating.  The production is more successful during the muted portions of the play as opposed to the occasional monologues.  Towards the end, the uniqueness and diverting nature of the show begins to lose some steam but, overall, this is a satisfying and worthwhile play to see.

The ensemble cast is a crazy quilt of characters.  Marcia DeBonis as Joan, is an oversized woman approaching mid-age, who approaches the week with an apprentice’s zeal.  The actress has a nice comic touch, but also a believable empathy for her partner, Judy, portrayed by Quincy Tyer Bernstine.  Judy, unhappy to leave the comforts of home and the use of her electronic devices, is the more aggrieved of the twosome.  Ms. Bernstine, with more restrained grimaces and pained looks, that are not all related to her self-imprisonment at the retreat, is the ying to Joan’s yang.  Rodney, tall, bearded and handsome, is played superbly by Babak Tafti.  He is the true believer, at least for the weekend, of everything healthy for both mind and body.  The actor deserves kudos for putting his modesty on hold for a very funny scene midway through the show.  Brad Heberlee, as Ned, is the most frenzied performer, both in his character portrayal and actions.  His troubles, laid out in an over long monologue, are both funny and heartbreaking.  Zoe Winters, as Alicia, a harried blonde is more detached from the others and her motives for attending somewhat of a mystery.  The actress does well more in tandem with one of the other characters.  Finally, Max Baker, as Jan, the oldest member of the six person group, is, well, a conundrum.  We know and learn very little about him until the very final scene.  Baker utters the fewest words in the production, but the veteran actor conveys an impressive number of emotions and feelings from just a stare or simple hand movement.  Jojo Gonzalez is the teacher whose voice is occasionally heard lecturing the participants.  He convincingly displays a world-weariness as he spouts sanctimonious platitudes that he doesn’t seem to believe himself.

Director Rachel Chavkin needs to call on all her skill and experience to helm the show since dialogue is at a premium.  She, instead, focuses on facial expressions, manic gestures, and a bevy of non-verbals to build and carry along the plot.  She effectively juxtaposes the action between the performers seated on stage with their sullen, perplexing, and scornful looks and the action that takes place on the floor in front of the audience.  She handles a very, shall we say, raucous situation with aplomb and comic gusto.

Small Mouth Sounds, an absorbing and winning production, through October 9th.