Monday, August 19, 2019

Review of "Spamilton"

Fans of the musical Hamilton as well as the long-running Off-Broadway series, Forbidden Broadway, will be amusingly satisfied with the national tour of Spamilton, playing at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford through September 8th.  The production is a mighty coup for the small, Equity theater, which is staging the show in conjunction with the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts.

Spamilton aims to skewer and lampoon its source material.  It is constructed as a series of loosely connected vignettes where Lin-Manuel Miranda (superbly portrayed by Adrian Lopez) wants to save Broadway.  He is aided by a multitude of characters from Hamilton and the actors that play the historical figures from the show.  Just to spice up the production Creator, Writer, and Director Gerard Alessandrini has included additional skits that send up Broadway musicals in general as well as some of his favorite Forbidden Broadway targets, which include Liza Minnelli, Disney musicals, and Stephen Sondheim. 

There is a light touch to the parodies.  The goal is to entertain, not be snarky.  The format works, for the most part, even though the quickly recited rapping in the Hamilton portions can be hard to understand.

A central question theater-goers might ask is What if?  What if I have not seen the mega-hit that Alessandrini is poking fun at?  While having seen the blockbuster would definitely enhance one’s enjoyment, it is not necessary in appreciating and savoring the production, which also includes references to dozens of iconic musicals such as The Music Man, Annie, Sweeney Todd, and Phantom of the Opera. 

The main reason the 80-minute show is successful is due to its exuberant cast.  These six performers run full throttle, singing, dancing, and undergoing numerous costume changes.  This talented ensemble makes you greatly appreciate the skill and dedication of professional actors.  Besides the aforementioned Adrian Lopez, the cast includes Chuckie Benson, who portrays Ben Franklin, George Washington and many others; Dominic Pecikonis, as the actor Daveed Diggs, among others; Datus Puryear as Aaron Burr and Leslie Odom, Jr.; Paloma D’Auria, who gives wicked impressions of Bernadette Peters, Liza, Barbara Streisand, and the women of Hamilton; and Brandon Kinley, who is only on stage for a few minutes as King George III. 

Director Gerard Alessandrini keeps the pacing quick, even if some of the jokes fall flat.  He fully utilizes the small Playhouse stage and adeptly integrates Dustin Cross’s Costume Designs into the flow of the musical.  Musical Director Curtis Reynolds is a wonder on the piano accompanying all the shenanigans on stage.

Spamilton, a perfect antidote for those end-of-summer blues.  At Playhouse on Park through September 8th.  For information, go to

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Review of "Moulin Rouge"

The glitz and unabashed spectacle of a big budget Broadway musical is in full display at Moulin Rouge.  The show, based on the movie of the same name, is a feast for the eyes, an aural sensation that, when pulsating on all cylinders, is an astounding piece of theater. 

Like the film, Moulin Rouge takes place in the Montmarte section of Paris where an American, Christian (Aaron Tveit) meets Toulouse-Lautrec (Sahr Ngaujah) and his artistic pal Santiago (Ricky Rojas).  The three become fast friends as they decide to collaborate on creative pursuits.  Christian reveals his adoration for the singer Santine (Karen Olivo), the headliner at the Moulin Rouge, overseen by the bombastic owner/emcee, Harold Zidler (Danny Burstein).  The three compatriots decide to sneak into the luminous nightclub to set-up a clandestine meeting with the performer.  After her breath-taking performance, through mistaken identity, Santine nestles up to the penniless artist, thinking he is the rich Duke (Tam Mutu) who has lascivious eyes for the entertainer and money in his pocket to save the cash-strapped club.  A love triangle is thus formed with Santine and Christian attempting to hide their feelings for each other from The Duke.  All the skullduggery, with the backdrop of rehearsals for a glittering production at the Moulin Rouge, ends with a show-stopping success and tragedy.

The book of the show by John Logan mirrors its source material in most of the crucial scenes.  The story, as presented on stage, primarily the love affair between Santine and Christian, produces very few sparks as does the jealous rages of the Duke.  The moralizing and sermonizing about the power of art, freedom, and truth also ring hollow.  However, these non-musical, dance-free scenes do carry the narrative forward quickly enough until the next gorgeously impressive production number.  

What sets Moulin Rouge apart from recent Broadway extravaganzas is the sheer showmanship, energy, and visual pyrotechnics that flood the stage.  Scenic Designer Derek McLane has created a mesmerizing set that had audience members elbowing their way down the aisles snapping photos and selfies even before the start of the show.  Restraint is not the word to be used in this production, but the embellishments and aggrandizements fully serve the needs of the musical.  Lighting Designer Justin Townsend skillfully blankets scenes with a multitude of dynamic and vibrant colors that heighten the emotional impact and vivacity of the show. Peter Hylenski’s Sound Design envelopes every corner of the Al Hirschfield Theatre with an explosion of auditory delights. Catherine Zuber’s Costume Designs, especially within the Moulin Rouge setting, can be radiant.

As with the movie, the score is a hodgepodge of musical styles and genres - Pop, Broadway, New Wave, R & B -  that encompass 70 songs, mostly snippets fused together to form highly enjoyable and entertaining mash-ups.  Santine’s entrance on a lowering trapeze is a perfect example.  She starts with Shirley Bassey’s “Diamonds Are Forever” from the James Bond movie of the same name.  That morphs into “Diamonds” (Rihanna) and, finally, “Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend” from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Choregorapher Sonya Tayeh has produced an impressive array of vigorous dance routines – starting off with the opening high-octane booging to “Lady Marmalade” -  that are full of sexual tension and a captivating sizzle.  The choreography combines modern day, full-bodied high-spiritedness with robust period pieces such as the classic cancan.

The cast is stocked with seasoned Broadway actors and actresses who deliver flawless performances.  Karen Olivo is feisty, independent, and vulnerable as the headliner Santine.  She is an absolute dynamo in her production numbers.  Aaron Tveit is more low-key in his portrayal as the somber, determined and infatuated Christian.  Danny Burstein provides the most satisfying performance of the production.  He is suitably over-the-top as the Emcee of the Moulin Rouge stage show, but also tough and compassionate in his role as the owner of the fabled nightclub.  Tam Mutu is fittingly callous and despicable as The Duke, but not as ruthless or psychotic as portrayed in the film.  Sahr Ngaujah (Toulouse-Lautrec) and Ricky Rojas (Santiago) handle their roles with confidence and passion even though their characterizations are not fully refined.

Director Alex Timbers has fashioned a crowd-pleasing spectacle full of pageantry and exhilaration.  While the scenes heavy with backstory and exposition don’t always resonate with sincerity and vigor, the riveting theatrics and grandeur make up for these soft spots of the musical.

Moulin Rouge, a dazzling, lavish production that starts off the new Broadway season with unabashed radiance and brilliance.

Review of "Fully Committed"*

Poor Sam.  An actor waiting for his big break, he spends his down time slaving over the telephone reservation line in the basement of one of the most exclusive restaurants in New York City.  The dour and melancholy employee is constantly barraged by big shots and everyday people with feeble appeals, bullying threats, and cajoling pleas for a prized lunch or dinner reservation.  In addition, his co-worker is missing in action, the upstairs staff is uncaring to his needs, and the chef is a scolding, unsympathetic and disinterested dolt. 

So, sets the table for the comical, somewhat poignant, one-man show, Fully Committed.  Starring Jamison Stern as the harried gatekeeper to a gastronomic nirvana, this light weight, 80 minute one act is humorous and entertaining, nothing more, nothing less.  Stern is a man constantly in motion as he flits from telephone to desk to pacing around his cramped subterranean headquarters.  Along the way, he portrays numerous characters—from persons desperately trying to make a reservation, to family members, to the employees of the unnamed dining spot.  The actor clearly is enjoying himself as he immerses his own persona into the jumble of characters he impersonates.  He is mostly even-tempered, yet a bundle of kinetic energy.

Playwright Becky Mode gives a knowing nod to the frenetic world of restaurant reservations.  She packs the show with amusing quips and incidents.  One ongoing scenario has the assistant to actress Gwyneth Paltrow continually call with one more outrageous request after another including bringing her own lightbulb to the restaurant to make sure she is not bathed in a harsh glow.  Mode gives the play an easygoing, plausible narrative structure, which by its conclusion sees Sam move from a woeful nobody to a more assertive somebody.

Director Bill Fennelly skillfully guides Stern through his chaotic paces.  He has conspired with the actor to incorporate a multitude of nuanced gestures, facial ticks, and vocal somersaults to the bevy of characters portrayed.  All of this takes place in a highly detailed, meticulously jam-packed set by Scenic Designer Brian Prather.  The result is an engaging and enjoyable piece of theater.

Fully Committed, a diverting and pleasing production playing through September 1st at Theaterwork’s temporary home at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum in downtown Hartford.

*Portions of this review were previously published.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Review of "Because of Winn Dixie"

The last time the Goodspeed Opera House produced a musical with a little girl and her lovable dog was a show called Annie.  The production moved to Broadway, won a slew of Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and is still one of the longest running musicals in Broadway history.  While the theater’s current production, Because of Winn Dixie, is not of the same caliber as Annie, it does share one essential trait of being a wholesome and entertaining family musical.
Bowdie and Josie Todd in Because of Winn Dixie.  Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski

Based on the award-winning young adult book, the show centers on Opal (Josie Todd), a 12-year-old girl and her preacher father (J. Robert Spencer), who have moved to a small town to start their lives anew.  Her mother has left her father, she is lonely and the motel they moved into is in total disarray.  By sheer happenstance she befriends a very large dog while shopping at the local Winn Dixie grocery store (hence, the pooch’s name).  The two become inseparable and fast friends as they create havoc in town but, more importantly, through their machinations help disparate towns folk come together, confront their personal demons and heal.

The book of the show by Nell Benjamin is warm-hearted and mostly enchanting primarily because of the appeal of Opal and Winn Dixie.  The strength of the libretto centers on providing depth to the secondary characters, giving a fullness to the production.  The loose ends and dramatic arcs do come to a quick and gratifying conclusion, which for a family show isn’t necessarily bad.  Adult members of the audience might roll their eyes with the overly feel good ending, but is walking out of a theater smiling such a bad thing?
The cast of Because of Winn Dixie.  Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
The score by Duncan Sheik and Nell Benjamin is tuneful and encompasses a number of various genres and styles.  They resonate with an emotional core that enlivens the production while, at the same time, effectively bringing out the back story of each character.

The star of the musical is Bowdie, a dog described in the program as a “cross between a poodle and something large.”  This sizeable canine is an integral part of the cast, never misses a cue and is absolutely adorable.  Sometimes you sit in amazement at what the dog does on stage.  Kudos to long-time trainer Bill Berloni who, incidentally, got his start by training the original Sandy the dog in Goodspeed’s Annie.   
The kids in the cast of Because of Winn DixiePhoto Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Josie Todd is an engaging young performer who brings enthusiasm and pluck to the role of Opal.  J. Robert Spencer delivers a winning portrayal of a father torn between his preaching duties and the emotional fortitude needed in bringing up his young daughter.  Roz Ryan gives an honest and lively performance as the town pariah, Gloria Dump.   David Poe as the eccentric, troubled pet center proprietor, Otis, is satisfying in a one-dimensional role, but he possesses a haunting troubadour delivery in his solo numbers.  The other children in the musical – Chloe Cheers (Amanda), Jamie Mann (Dunlap Dewberry), Jay Hendrix (Stevie Dewberry), and Sophia Massa (Sweetie Pie Thomas) - are charming and spunky. 
The cast of Because of Winn Dixie. Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Director John Rando successfully builds a musical on the back of a very large dog and his young owner.  It is a very fine line to tread—creating an affectionate and feel good story that is not overly sentimental and schmaltzy.  He keeps the pacing of the show brisk, even when interludes of reflection and song momentarily slow down the action.  Rando strategically utilizes choreographer Chris Bailey’s dance numbers to provide a more well-rounded musical experience.

The minimal scenic design and set pieces by Donyale Werle are sufficient to help carry the story forward.  Jeff Croiter’s lighting design helps add an affecting depth to the show.

Because of Winn Dixie, a perfect family musical for these last days of summer.  Playing at the Goodspeed Opera House through September 5th.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Review of "Birds of North America"

A father and daughter trying to connect, to communicate is the subject of Anna Moench’s meditative drama, Birds of North America.  From the onset of the two-character play, the audience feels the divide between John (J.R. Sullivan) and Caitlin (Melisa Breiner-Sanders), which is only temporarily improved while both are birding, a lifelong hobby of dad’s.  During these moments of identifying the sounds and plumage of the feathered animals there is a gentle, heartfelt rapport between the two protagonists.  However, the détente doesn’t usually last long as father and daughter end up arguing, disagreeing, and quarrelling over relationships, job prospects, and politics.

Time passes – the action takes place over a 12-year period - and father and daughter continue to meet.  Major changes occur in both their personal and professional lives until, in the end, there is just one person remaining, reminiscing.

Anna Moench’s play doesn’t uncover any new ground when examining a father/daughter relationship.  The potency in her writing is how skillfully she has crafted the two characters and their interactions, which feels real, not contrived.  What is left unsaid is the motivation for the pair getting together?  Do they realize the chasm in their relationship and is birding the only way for them to come together? 

The cast is finely tuned to the rhythms of the work.  J.R. Sullivan gives a superb performance by firmly staying in character—a highly opinionated individual with entrenched views who really doesn’t want to or just cannot listen to what is his daughter is saying.  Melisa Breiner-Sanders delivers a more animated portrayal as she relates the trials and tribulations of her young life, squabbles with her father, and constantly clashes with him.  The pain and sadness this produces is sorrowfully etched across her face.

The strength of Jason Peck’s direction is how he keeps the characters speaking and interacting, but almost never at close quarters.  There always seems to be a physical distance between father and daughter, which is not easy to accomplish over a 90-minute period.  At one point, towards the end of the production, John, standing behind Caitlin gently and, almost in passing, puts his hand on her should for a brief instant.  The moment was electric as the gesture and smile on his face truly encapsulated all he could not say face-to-face.

Fufan Zhang’s minimal Scenic Design, a backyard area of grass with a large tree decorated in small bird feeders looming over the performance space, effectively conveys an outdoor setting.  Lydia Strong’s Lighting Design, notably the passage of time signaled by shadows sweeping across the small, semi-darkened stage, is artfully rendered. 

Birds of North America, playing at the Thrown Stone theater company in Ridgefield through August 3rd.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Review of "Cry It Out"

Raising a newborn can make for unlikely friendships and interpersonal interactions. In playwright Molly Smith Metzler’s thought-provoking 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 a nursing child.  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 (Clare Parme), 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 (Maria McConville), 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 bearing. 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, 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 (Wynter Kullman) 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.  The title of her work pertains to the impassioned outbursts each woman makes towards the latter part of the 90-minute production.  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 uniformly fine with Maria McConville, 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 nuanced, warmhearted performance.  Clare Parme gives her character Jessie a multifaceted look.  You can feel her inner turmoil as she debates what is best for her and her young family. Wynter Kullman’s first appearance on stage as Adrienne comes across as a stereotypically rich, unfeeling member of society, but demonstrates you can’t judge a book by its cover.  Jonathan Winn is somewhat formal in his characterization of Mitchell.  More subtlety or shading to the role would have added to his scenes. 

Director Gina Piulice eases out genuine sounding conversations amongst the cast and effectively sets up the laugh lines for maximum effect.  However the placement and movement of the actors comes across as artificial.  Whereas most individuals would be close together when conversing, she continually places them at one of the four corners of the small performance space, constantly moving them around instead of having them seated for their heart-to-hearts.

Cry It Out, playing at the Thrown Stone theater company in Ridgefield through July 21st.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Review of "Pippin"

The strength of the musical Pippin is the score by Stephen Schwartz.  He has infused the show with a 1970’s pop music sensibility.  The songs are enchanting, playful, and full of feeling.

The production at the Summer Theatre of New Caanan (STONC), playing through July 28th, is a mostly joyous spectacle.  The limitations have more to do with the book of the show by Roger O. Hirson, which has a troupe of actors presenting a play within a play concept.  The scenes within the musical are not always well-defined and can be somewhat overwhelmed by the histrionics and choreographed movements of the actors.

 STONC’s staging is more in line with the original 1972 Broadway show as opposed to the 2013 revival that was full of acrobatics and Cirque du Soleil elements.  However, there is a feistiness and festive atmosphere to the musical as it is presented under a large tent in a mirthful, sprightly theater-in-the-round setting.

The show revolves around a young man, Pippin, son of Charlemagne, Emperor during the Early Middle Ages.  While the musical centers on these real-life historical figures, the plot is not based on actual fact.   

A character known as The Leading Player narrates and directs the group of performers telling the audience they have “Magic To Do” in their telling of this tale.  Pippin has just graduated from University and returns to the royal household full of confusion and doubt as he searches for his purpose in life.  In quick succession he samples gainful employment, exercises duty and honor to his father, experiments with sexual promiscuity, and attempts to settle down with Catherine, a widow, and her son on her country homestead.  Still not satisfied with where his life is leading him Pippin, at the end of the show, is goaded by The Leading Player and the other actors to come to terms with his lack of direction by committing one final act.  Rebelling, Pippin has an epiphany about his life’s purpose as he realizes his life with Catherine was where he was most content.  Furious, The Leading Player cancels the performance having the actors strip the stage of sets and lights and commands the band to stop playing.  As the space becomes bare the young Theo remains with The Leading Player beckoning him to restart the search for purpose now shunned by Pippin.

While the musical can appear disjointed, with wildly masked and costumed performers cavorting around the performance area, the central theme of an individual seeking fulfillment and purpose in life is universal.  In today’s world of Millennials searching for their place in the world, moving about frequently, and not being easily satisfied Pippin can appear to be a shining beacon of hope, but also caution.

The cast is satisfying with Zach Schanne’s portrayal of the title character nimbly combining wonder and determination.  Frank Mastrone, a seasoned professional, gives Charlemagne a weathered deportment as he rules his lands, keeps his young wife happy, and tends to the whims and follies of his son.  The Leading Player should have a commanding presence, becoming the center of the audience’s attention when onstage, but Melissa Victor is less a compelling focal point of the show than a benevolent guide to the actions of the acting troupe.  Ella Raymont’s Catherine is the strongest performer in the production.  At first appearing merrily blissful she convincingly transforms into a serious and disquieted figure at the show’s conclusion.

Directors Allegra and Christian Libonati keep the momentum of the show constantly on the move, helped by the theater-in-the-round setting and Doug Shankman’s bustling and animated choreography.  Sometimes the actors become mired in cryptic body movements but, for the most part, their actions on stage are alluring and captivating.

Brad Caleb Lee’s minimal sets under the circus-like tent structure is sublime.  Orli Nativ’s costume designs are whimsical, outlandish, and sometimes naughty.

Pippin, playing at the Summer Theatre of New Caanan through July 28th.