Saturday, June 21, 2014

Review of "25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" - Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT

Theater companies across the country should pause and give thanks to William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin for creating the musical, The 25th Annual Putman County Spelling Bee.  With a modest cast; small, onstage pit band; and simple set design the musical is easily mounted and, when done right, as with the current production at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, is a sure crowd pleaser that produces waves of laughter throughout the show.

Spelling Bee revolves around six elementary school students, misfits and outsiders, competing in the town’s annual Bee.  Sitting on bleachers in a school auditorium they take turns spelling, at times, incredibly difficult words.  Sound boring?  Not at all.  Librettist Sheinkin has created rich characters with lovable eccentricities.  The interplay between contestants and judges, as the students ask for word definitions or use in a sentence, can be absolutely hilarious.  In Act II there is an underlying theme of melancholy as we learn more about each character, but never do these reflective moments take away from the lighthearted nature of the musical.

Sheinkin has also added a touch of audience participation where individuals from the audience are seamlessly added to the performance.  They interact with the cast members, dance and are called upon to spell words, often with uproarious results.  Eventually, the “guests” are weeded out and the actors get down to business.

The charming, perfectly cast group of performers, defines an ensemble effort.  They thoroughly blend together where the sum of the parts create a greater whole.  Steven Mooney as William Barfee, he’s the nebbish with the magic foot, is the nominal star, but his fellow performers are all endearing with well-defined quirks and back stories.  They include Scott Scaffidi as the eager-to-please, Chip Tolentino; Hillary Ekwall, as the resolute Logainne Schwarzand Grubeniere; Kevin Barlowski as the ingratiating, definitely off center, Leif Coneybear; Maya Naff as the intensely focused, serious minded, Marcy Park; and Natalie Sannes as the sweetly winsome, Olive Ostrovsky.  The supporting characters are equally well cast and provide, for the most part, a stabilizing effect for their charges.  They are Emily Kron as the perky host of the spelling bee, Rona Lisa Perretti; Joel Newsome as the harried, slightly agitated Vice Principal, Douglas Panch; and Norman Payne as tough-minded street kid, Mitch Mahoney, serving out his community service mandate as the comfort coach for losing contestants.

William Finn’s score is tuneful, poignant, and full of humor.  He has also crafted songs that fully encapsulate each character’s unique background.  The musical accompaniment, provided by just five skilled musicians is tight and never overpowers the singers.  The group’s onstage presence cheerfully adds to the spare ambiance of the no frills spelling bee.

The strength of Susan Haefner’s direction and choreography is how effortless it unfolds on the small Playhouse stage.  Every actor, whether alone or in the full cast production numbers, hits their mark with precision.  She gives them leeway in improvising, but never to the detriment of her finely laid out agenda.  While the best number of the musical, “Pandemonium,” conveys bedlam or tumult, Ms. Haefner’s guidance is a well-controlled commotion.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a winning production for audiences of all ages, playing through July 20th.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Review of "Vanya, Sonia, Masha, & Spike" - Hartford Stage

In the end, after all the unresolved slights, childish arguments, and envy-spawned fights, there is always the bedrock of one’s family to provide support and solace.  That’s the real message from Christopher Durang’s wildly entertaining, Chekhovian inflected play, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, playing at Hartford Stage through June 22nd.

Vanya and Sonia, brother and sister with a love-hate relationship, reside in their deceased parents’ Bucks County, PA home.  With no visible means of income they exist, relying on their wealthy movie star sister, Masha, for support and the home’s upkeep.  As the two suffer and bicker, and their housekeeper, Cassandra, prophesizes great tragedy, they are descended upon by Masha and her boy-toy, Spike.  Seeking temporary respite from her glamorous world, the aging actress’ arrival puts into motion a comic tour-de-force during Act I that subsides slightly during the play’s latter half.

The success of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is audiences do not need even a passing understanding of the works of Anton Chekhov to enjoy the show and be entertained.  Most theatergoers probably have some insight or cursory knowledge of the Russian playwright’s works, but a familiarity with his classics is not necessary.  For individuals more attuned to his plays, the rewards are more icing on the cake.  During Act I, when characters and plotlines are being introduced the laughs come fast and furious.  I found Act II less riotous and more chuckles as Christopher Durang’s machinations and maneuverings become neatly tied up.  However, I don’t think my play going partner would agree as she continued to howl until the final curtain.

The cast is outstanding.  In lesser hands, the show would just not work.  Leslie Hendrix, well-known as the somber, matter-of-fact medical examiner Elizabeth Rodgers on the television series, Law and Order, is so luxuriously over-the-top as the aging, ego-starved Masha.  Her unrestrained, yet sometimes vulnerable portrayal is the highlight of the play.  What makes the character so fabulously funny is the juxtaposition of her TV role with her stage persona.  Caryn West, initially one-dimensional as the whining, self-effacing sister, Sonia, becomes more layered and sympathetic as the play progresses.  She also delivers an impeccable Maggie Smith imitation to glorious effect.  Mark Nelson as the patriarch Vanya is a little too stoic in the role.  While his Act II rant of a monologue brought down the house, Nelson’s comic sensibilities were not as acute as those of his fellow actors.    David Gregory, as the finely chiseled Spike, spends half the production in states of undress (I’m sure to the duress of all the ladies in the house).  His Spike is so clueless, but can be simply outrageous as with his reverse striptease routine.  Stacey Sargeant, as Cassandra, the housekeeper, is consistently laugh out loud hysterical with her dire predictions, voodoo misdeeds, and comedic comebacks.  Andrea Lynn Green, is fine with the small role of the young next-door neighbor, Nina.  She is probably the only sane one onstage. 

Director Maxwell Williams guides the troupe with sureness and intelligence.  He allows each actor to shine in his or her spotlight moments, but at the same time forges a unity, which gives the production more of an ensemble feel to it.  The director devises some wickedly side-splitting scenes that the actors carry out with finesse and aplomb.

Crafting a well-constructed comedy that resonates with a majority of the audience is extremely difficult.  Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike meets the challenge with rib-tickling results.  Playing at Hartford Stage through June 22nd.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

LIVE!! Tony Award Ceremony Musings

Interesting opening, but could have done without all the hopping.

Straight to the musical numbers.  How many are they going to try to cram in tonight?  Besides Fantasia falling out of her gown, nothing to crow about for Gladys, Patti, and Fantasia singing.  Now the dance number is my type of show stopper.  Look for Warren Carlyle to win for Best Choreography for the show, "After Midnight."

Ah, the perfunctory quips/monologue about shows and actors by Hugh Jackman but, wait, the first award for Featured Actor in a Play.  And winner...Mark Rylance for "Twelfth Night."  Now, he could make Tony history by winning the Best Actor in a play award on the same night.  Stay tuned.

The next musical number--"Les Miserables" lives onstage once more!   Good use of camera angles to heightened the drama of "One Day More."  Score one for the staging to draw in the summer tourists.


Best Featured Actress in a Musical.  My choice is Linda Emond from "Cabaret," but Lena Hall starts the "Hedwig" bandwagon.  Congratulations!  Good career choice to move over from "Kinky Boots" to "Hedwig."

FANTASTIC  choice to show the "Friends Like Me" number from "Aladdin."  Now let's see if it can generate the energy it does on stage every night.  So far a bit lame.Thank goodness the big number got better.  This will surely draw in the families for years to come.  The genie, James Monroe Iglehart, is my choice for Best Featured Actor in a Musical.

I find it interesting that the bulk of the presenters so far are "Hollywood" types, the very people that Broadway loves to pooh pooh during the season.  Clint Eastwood?  Oh, yeah.  Must be the "Bridges of Madison Country" connection.


Upcoming, the "Rocky" segment.  Just like movie coming attractions it is scheduled to show the two best parts of the musical--the training sequence and the fight finale.  If they do it right it could mean an extended life for the show.

Smart choice for the "If/Then" segment to focus solely on Indina Menzel.  A solid power ballad.  Think of all those girls out there telling their parents they want to see the show, appropriate or not, so they can see their idol LIVE.

Clint Eastwood, sticking to the script, with Best Musical Director.  I picked Darko Tresnjak and he WON!  Good job Tony voters.  Heartfelt acceptance speech.  For Best Director of a Play, c'mon Clint, you can do it.  And the winner is...Kenny Leon for "A Raisin in the Sun."  Quite an upset, IMHO, over "Twelfth Night" and "Glass Menagerie."

Okay, now "Rocky." Obviously, both parts presented had much longer time on stage so while the training sequence and fight scene give you an idea of what appears on stage it did fall a bit flat.  Sorry "Rocky," but you may be down for the count.


Best Featured Actor in a Musical.  All nominees were outstanding and my pick wins again--James Monroe Iglehart.  Believe me, he is much more animated in the extended "Friends Like Me" version on stage.  He must have lost 20-30 pounds since I originally saw the musical.  So much energy emanates from him.  

Moving on to "Cabaret."  It just seems to be getting more tired this time around.  Isn't it interesting that the show, not really nominated for anything, gets a prime spot.  Oh, I forgot.  As Alan Cummings sings, "Money, money, money makes the world go round."  Gotta draw in the touristos.


So far I will give Hugh Jackman a B+ as host.  The job, thankless as it is, is meant to keep the show going with the occasional song and dance.

Best Featured Actress in a Play.  No thoughts.  Didn't see any of the shows.  But how come the Brits always have such great acceptance speeches.

Fun way to introduce "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder," having Jefferson Mays do the intro while changing into three of his eight characters.  However, the choice of musical number to highlight itself was poor.  Where was fiendishness?  You want to show the Love and Murder, not a love triangle song.  That's not going to bring in the public.  There should have been something utilizing the talents of Mays.  Bad decision.


Kudos to Hugh Jackman for a very witty and entertaining way to introduce Best Actress in a Play.  And the winner, making Broadway history for winning the acting award in all four acting categories, six in all, is Audra McDonald.  And only at 43!  I have been privileged to see Ms. McDonald in a number of shows.  She is the real thing.

Bradley Cooper, coming in "The Elephant Man" next season, as one of the presenters.  Can you say one of the hottest tickets in town?  Best Actor in a Play...Bryan Cranston in "All the Way."  My choice, but he was so good.  Some people said he was too hammy, but I think he nailed it.  If you love politics this is your type of show.

Great choice to introduce the "Hedwig" segment--RuPaul.  Let the coronation of "Hedwig" commence! I actually saw the original at the Jane Street Theater.  Way Off-Broadway in a rundown theater.  That's the way I remember "Hedwig."


Best Play.  I like "All the Way."  Rather pedestrian way to introduce the nominees even though having the playwright introduce their show was a nice touch, giving those individuals which are always behind the spotlight a chance to shine.  Winner--"All the Way."  Hey, so far I'm doing well.  I forgot that for the Best Play and Musical anyone that has invested gets to come down stage.  They have NOTHING to do with the creative process, but they give money.  Read the producer list at the back of the Playbill.  They own write-ups are self-gratifying and ego-stroking.

 The "Violet" musical segment didn't give viewers a real sense of the show.  The focus, as with "If/Then" should have been on Sutton Foster.  Why didn't they keep with "All to Pieces" that they started with?  The gospel ending to the number makes it seem that's the main thrust of the musical.  It ain't.  This should have had Sutton out front and center.

After the commercial it was announced that "A Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder" won for Best Book.  A no-brainer.  Jason Robert Brown's music and lyrics for "The Bridges of Madison County" won for Best Score of a Musical.  Shame.  "A Gentlemen's Guide was witty, literate, and well-integrated into the whole show.  I did love"Bridges," but the wrong choice was made.

Great way to plug your own upcoming musical.  Introduce a new musical for next season.  Gloria Estafan introducing Sting.  His show, "The Last Ship," seems a somber affair from the song he performed.

Thank God Rosie O'Donnell's special award was taped so we didn't have to listen to her drone on.

Revival of a Play--didn't see them, but "A Raisin in the Sun" is becoming the unsung winner of the 2014 Tony Awards.

Let's throw in a song from "Wicked" because it needs to much help at the box office.  "For Good" is such a great song from the show.  My daughter and her friend sang it at my mother-in-law's funeral with much more emotion then what was presented tonight.

You have to give it to Hugh Jackman.  He is in his element.  Cute story on how he did "The Music Man" in high school and then morphing into a rap song of the title number.  A little innocuous rap never hurt anyone.
Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.  Is this going to be a surprise?  Nope.  C'mon down Neil Patrick Harris.  Everyone loves Neil even though Jefferson Mays' performance was better.  Doesn't it seem like Harris rehearsed his acceptance speech many times over?  It was so fluid and flawless.

Carole King live on stage!  What a great way to introduce the "Beautiful" segment.  Okay, I'm getting chills watching this.  Jessie Mueller is just so good, but it would have been so much better to keep the focus on her.  Too bad.  At least they ended with her and then Ms. King comes out.  Great moment.

Best Musical Revival.  Hmmm.  Wait.  Don't tell me.  Could it be "Hedwig?"  C'mon down all you non-producers so you can stand on stage.  Poke your faces over everyone.

How come I'm bored by the "Bullets Over Broadway" segment?  I love tap, but this isn't doing it for me.  Maybe I'm getting worn down by the whole ceremony.  Only 15 minutes left, if they stay on time.

Hugh Jackman introducing the Best Actress in a Musical nominees in song and dance.  Again, nice touch.  Adding a bit of class and elegance.  I don't think the ladies minded.  And the winner, in the most competitive category, is Jessie Mueller.  I thought Kelli O'Hara would win, but I am not unhappy with the choice.  She is THAT good. 

So now the Tony Awards is going to be spotlighting shows that are on course to arrive the following season.  Maybe there can be an award for Best Upcoming Broadway Musical Award?


Best Musical for the 2014 Tony Award goes DESERVEDLY to "A Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder."  Well done.  You voters got this one right.  Hartford Stage keep producing new musicals.  Job well done.

Closing thoughts--

I'll give Hugh Jackman an A- as host.  He was entertaining when he had to be and moved the show along so it was just a few minutes over.  Not bad.  The telecast itself?  Since I'm grading on a curve, a solid B.

With musicals, "Hedwig" and "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder," are the big winners.

Remember only a few years ago that only the nominated musicals got a shot at appearing on the telecast.  Now, if you are still playing, whamoo, you can appear on the Tony Awards.  And, if all you have done is JUST announced a Fall or Spring opening, zingo, you also can appear on TV.

Musical Numbers--BEST:
After Midnigh--After a slow start with Gladys Knight, Fantasia, and Patti LaBelle, the segment wisely went to the dance numbers.  Having Hugh Jackman join at the end was a good touch.
Beautiful - The Carole King Musical--Almost didn't make the list when The Shirelles showed up.  The emphasis should have stayed on Jessie Mueller, which it did at the beginnng and end.
IF/Then--Smart, smart, smart to just put the spotlight on Idina Menzel.  That's what people want to see and she delivered.
Les Miserables--In their short timespan they sold the show.  Great camera angles, highlight all the important characters and the cast.  A little too much emoting, but that's the show.

Musical Numbers--WORST:
A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder--I thought the number they chose was not indicative of the show itself.  If you are trying to sell yourself to the populace a love triangle song wasn't the best choice.  At least they had Jefferson Mays introducing the segment as he changed characters three times.
Bullets Over Broadway & Cabaret--just plain boring.
The Last Ship--I hope the rest of the show is not so somber.  The song didn't make me jump out of my chair.

Congrats to all the winners and good night.