Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Review of "Anastasia"

Anastasia, the new musical receiving its world premiere at Hartford Stage, is a first rate, crowd-pleasing production based on the 20th Century Fox animated film. 

The plot, part history lesson, part Pygmalion, and part fairy tale, centers on two self-confident rascals, Dmitry, a young lad and Vlad, an older gentlemen and former member of the royal court.  They are searching for a young woman to impersonate the Duchess Anastasia.  Rumors abound that she alone survived the murder of her father, Tsar Romanov of Russia, and the rest of her family at the onset of the Russian Revolution.  Her grandmother, living in Paris and believing she is still alive, has offered a handsome reward to anyone locating her lost granddaughter.  By sheer happenstance the pair discover a young lass, Anya, who has amnesia, but resembles Anastasia and curiously knows details of the Romanov household.  After some coaching the three succeed in their perilous journey to Paris to consummate their deceitful intentions.  But a blossoming romance between Dmitry and Anya, a cagey Russian assassin, and a disbelieving Dowager Empress conspire to thwart the well thought through plans.  In the end, a satisfying resolution is reached even as an air of mystery continues to surround the young woman.

Terence McNally’s libretto smartly puts Anya front and center.  She is strong, outspoken, and vulnerable—just what tween and teenage girls, a huge audience for Broadway musicals, want to see.  Act I is concise and flows effortlessly from scene to scene.  Character’s traits and motives are quickly developed, as is the overall arc of the show.  Act II is a bit choppier as scenes, while entertaining, seem somewhat horseshoed into the show as we wait for the two protagonists—Dmitry and Anya—to come together as well as see a verdict of Anya’s origins.  Is this a sizeable problem?  No, but if it can be addressed before the Broadway opening it would make for a stronger production.

The score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, the composing team behind such Broadway shows as Ragtime, Seussical, Once on This Island, and My Favorite Year, is one of the best the duo has written over the last several years.  The songs, augmented from the movie soundtrack, are rooted in a more classical Broadway vein and are tuneful, haunting, and high-spirited.  They are wonderfully sung by the superb group of performers.

The cast is led by Christy Altomare as Anya.  The actress is spunky, courageous, intelligent and beautiful.  She has a powerful voice that literally soars throughout the theater.  Derek Klena, with a self-confident swagger, is convincing as the scheming, big-hearted, and handsome Dmitry.  He and Ms. Altomare have a wonderful chemistry that lights up the stage.  Both John Bolton as Dmitry’s partner in crime, Vlad, and Caroline O’Connor, as Countess Lily, add a pleasing and lively comic touch to the musical.  Mary Beth Peil is snobbishly regal, showing pain and heartache, as the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna.

Darko Tresnjak’s sure-handed direction keeps the action fluid and focused.  The scene changes are quick and straightforward.  He adroitly balances the many tonal qualities of the show—its brashness, suspense, and comic sensibilities--to fashion a rewarding whole.  What is needed is a better integration of the disparate scenes in Act II to completely realize the production’s possibilities.

The choreography by Peggy Hickey is skillfully incorporated into the musical without being showy or overbearing.  The dances suitably fit within the framework of the time periods and include elegant promenades, jaunty swing steps and comic hoofing.

Aaron Rhyne’s video and projections are some of the finest I’ve seen on a Connecticut or New York stage.  They seamlessly blend into each scene eliciting murmured praise from the audience.  While reproducing lush forests or architectural wonders they never overpower the production or call undo attention to their wizardry.

Alexander Dodge’s scenic design is perfectly in sync with Rhyne’s video projections.  The two create a triumphant whole.  As with Hartford Stage’s Rear Window, this is a large-scale, multi-functional set that dazzles and delights.

The costumes by Linda Cho are sumptuous and cover a wide range of styles from aristocratic finery to peasant garbs.  This was a monumental feat to dress so many actors and actresses elegantly and precisely.  Kudos to Ms. Cho and her dedicated assistants.

Anastasia, a gorgeous and gratifying new musical, playing through June 19th at Hartford Stage.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Review of "The Call"

In The Call, the drama playing at Theaterworks through June 19th, a number of narratives are introduced that revolve around such issues as interracial adoption, gay marriage, AIDs, racism, and infertility.  The problem is none of these topics are fully fleshed out in this 90 minute production (which includes a 15 minute intermission).  This gives the show an unfulfilled, incomplete quality.

Playwright Tanya Barfield could have created a stronger, more fluid work if she jettisoned some of the subject areas, such as the plot line of AIDs, and focused on the central theme of the play—a couple’s emotional and personal struggles with the adoption process.  Character development is also compromised since there is so little time to fully establish each performer’s role and flesh out their motivations.

We are introduced to Annie (Mary Bacon) and Peter (Todd Gearhart), a white, married couple as they entertain their African-American friends Drea (Maechi Aharanwa) and Rebecca (Jasmin Walker) in their apartment.  Wine flows, food is eaten, and a major announcement is made that over the course of the play changes interpersonal dynamics and perceptions of others.  Annie and Peter’s inscrutable next door neighbor, Alemu (Michael Rogers), a native African, adds an air of mystery to the production.

The cast is uniformly fine.  However, because of the brevity of the play they do not have the opportunity to explore their role and make us feel for and truly understand their characters.  For example, we learn in staccato bursts that Annie has gone through much pain, heartache and adversity but, by the end of the show, she does not come off as a sympathetic person.  Yet this has more to do with not giving the audience enough time to process her plight so she appears sullen and not very likeable.

Director Jenn Thompson fills the initial part of the production with gaiety and celebration, which slowly turns into apprehension, disbelief, and distress.  Some of the scenes come across as slightly melodramatic and the finale is abrupt and unsatisfying.

The Call, a weaker then usual offering, playing at Theaterworks through June 19th.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Review of "Tuck Everlasting"

The new musical, Tuck Everlasting, is a pleasing production with a first-rate cast, engaging score, and whimsical story.  Based on the 1975 international best-selling children’s book, the show is one of the true family-oriented musicals currently on Broadway.  As with the book it tackles more mature and universal themes as mortality, family, and loyalty.  For the show to succeed on Broadway, however, it will have to tap into the family market.  Without that demographic, as well as those that treasure the book, Tuck Everlasting won’t last long in New York City.

What elevates the musical is the superb performance of the 11-year-old star Sarah Charles Lewis as Winnie, a girl seeking adventure from her constricting home life.  She is spunky, venturesome, and an enterprising lass that anchors the production.  While exploring the forest behind her home she discovers a young lad, part of a family of immortal beings.  They soon become friends and make a pact to stay together forever.  However, Winnie’s discovery of the clan’s history jeopardizes their lives and very existence as a traveling circus barker seeks to exploit their long held secret.  In the end, an imaginative resolution is reached, which includes a poignant and dreamy sequence that comes to terms with the fanciful plot.

The cast, as mentioned earlier, features a very poised Sarah Charles Lewis.  A fiery redhead, she is supremely confident with a self-assured stage presence and mature voice.  Andrew Keenan-Bolger as her teenage friend Jesse Tuck is impish and cocksure.  He brings friskiness to the production when it teeters towards seriousness.  Carolee Carmello brings a convincing world-weariness to her role and endows her character with familial compassion and protectiveness.  Michael Park is laid back and slightly goofy as her husband Angus.  As a devious carnival employee Terence Mann is wonderfully shifty and underhanded.  Fred Applegate and Michael Wartella as a father and son detective team add a winning comic touch whenever they enter a scene.

Book writers Claudia Shear and Tim Federle maintain a brisk pacing as the action shifts between the two main set pieces of the forest and the ramshackle Tuck household.  Their focus on the two central characters of Winnie and Jesse keeps the whole production at a spirited and mischievous level.  There is a degree of sophistication to the tale with an overall tinge of youthful innocence.  While appealing to tweens and teens adults will also find the show entertaining and charming,

The score by Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen splendidly mirrors the exuberance and somewhat edgy nature of the show.  There are soaring ballads and good-natured production numbers, which convey a mirthful vivaciousness. 

Director Casey Nicholaw, a busy director/choreographer with four musicals now playing on Broadway, gives the show a playfulness, albeit one with a consequential edge.  The youthful vigor of the book, along with its serious overtones, is agreeably brought forth throughout the production. Rousing, energetic dance numbers are mixed in with stylish pieces by the forest denizens and the show’s ensemble.  The beautifully rendered finale is one of the most graceful and wonderful scenes on a Broadway musical stage.

The set design by Walt Spangler, with an oversized, graceful tree as its centerpiece, parallels the beguiling tale.

Tuck Everlasting, one of the more refreshing musicals to open this Broadway season.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Review of "Waitress"

Tony Award winner Jessie Mueller makes a triumphant return to the Broadway stage in the new musical Waitress, based on the 2007 Indie film.  She plays Jenna, a down on her luck waitress in a southern diner.  She is in an abusive marriage, has no other job prospects, and is pregnant.  Her two co-workers, Dawn (Kimiko Glenn) and Becky (Keala Settle), provide moral support and help keep her on an even keel.  Jenna does have one special talent.  She bakes pies.  Scrumptious pies.  Delectable pies.  The process keeps her sane in her topsy turvey world.

Waitress shows us Jenna’s journey, which includes an intense affair with her married doctor, her relationship with the denizens of the eating establishment, a resolution of her marital discord and, finally, the beginnings of a new life.  Book writer Jessie Nelson keenly focuses on the camaraderie of the three waitresses at the diner.  Each has a compelling back-story that adds depth to their characters and the plot.  There are crackling one-liners, comedic subplots and emotional ups and downs.  The preparation and craftsmanship of the baked goods is one of the central foci of the production.  Nelson has incorporated generous helpings of the pie making process into the show, which gives a hominess and real world feel to the musical.

The score by Sara Bareilles is enlivened by her contemporary music sensibility.  There is a satisfying balance between her pop background and traditional Broadway melodies.  Unlike many novices to the stage her songs are character driven and advance the storyline.  Having the band onstage adds a vibrancy and playfulness to the production.

Jessie Muller is a likeable actress that you immediately want to root for in her role as Jenna.  She is strong-willed, impetuous, and vulnerable.  She also seems to know how to make a mean tasting pie.  Keala Settle as her large, boisterous colleague, Becky, is the perfect foil for Mueller’s more restrained character.  Settle’s trading of bon mots with cook and diner owner Cal (Eric Anderson) is comic joy.  Kimiko Glenn, as Dawn, adds an element of insecurity and ditziness as the final member of the waitressing triumvirate.  Her courtship with Ogie (Christopher Fitzgerald) provides a gratifying second tier plot line that embellishes the overall arc of the show without becoming a distraction.  Fitzgerald, as he has demonstrated throughout his musical comedy career, provides a consistent spark and crowd-pleasing humor to the show.  Drew Gehling as Dr. Pomatter comes across as sympathetic and charming, even though he is in an adulterous relationship with Jenna.  He is appealingly awkward and his chemistry with Jenna is believable and convincing.   Nick Codero has the thankless role of Jenna’s ornery, selfish husband Earl.  He does an admirable job trying to make the character less loathsome, but still manages to give the part a menacing edge.

Director Diane Paulus tightly structures the show, having pared each scene to its dramatic essentials.  She deftly keeps the focus on the three women, providing just the right amount of scenes with the male characters to push the story forward.  She artfully crafts each of the pie-making sequences with aplomb and loving care.  By intertwining the ensemble and other members of the cast, the baking process becomes a symphony of motion and culinary artistry.

Waitress, one of the more refreshing musicals to open this Broadway season.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Review of "Cagney"

Actor Robert Creighton, starring in the Off-Broadway musical Cagney, is the reincarnation of the multi-talented actor James Cagney.  He looks, sings, and dances life the legendary performer.  Creighton has the energy, charisma, and self-confidence to pull off what could be a daunting task.

Book writer Peter Colley has utilized the device of flashbacks to highlight the movie star’s career.  We meet Cagney and studio mogul Jack Warner waiting outside the auditorium of the 1978 Screen Actor’s Guild Awards.  The actor, aged, but still full of fire, is to receive a lifetime achievement honor and his old boss is to introduce him.  The two rivals, partners in movie making, recount their often contentious relationship of decades ago.  These brief encounters are the springboard for the relatively breezy and appealing storyline that traces the major moments in Cagney’s life.  We follow him from his beginnings on the streets of New York City, through his time criss-crossing the country on the vaudeville circuit to, finally, his arrival in Hollywood.  Along the way famous move scenes are recreated, he marries, and his support for the downtrodden, which get him in trouble with Congress’ investigation of Communist sympathizers, are portrayed.

We see Cagney as the tough guy hoodlum, the song and dance man and independent producer.  Creighton, in a career defining role, never lets up in his mission to captivate and dazzle the audience.  The other actors and actresses—Jeremy Benton, Josh Walden, Danette Holden, and Ellen Zolezzi—are impressive through their vocal numbers and high-spirited dancing.  Bruce Sabath as studio chief Jack Warner is deliciously combative with an ego the size of Los Angeles.

Choreographer Joshua Bergasse has created numerous crowd pleasing tap dance routines for the whole cast, Creighton and Benton, in the guise of Cagney’s longtime friend Bob Hope, and individual performers.  The Act II opener is full of bounce, muscle, and razz-ma-tazz.  Besides the now shuttered Dames at Sea there is no better tap On or Off-Broadway this season.

The score, primarily by Christopher McGovern, but also Robert Creighton as well as a few compositions by George M. Cohan, is more serviceable within the production.  This isn’t a criticism.  The songs, tuneful and lovingly and humorously presented, won’t have much of an afterlife, but work favorably within the activity on stage.

Director Bill Castellino keeps the action lively, loose, good-natured and engaging.  Scenes flow easily into one another to form a satisfying whole as opposed to a simple pageantry of events.  The spotlight is smartly kept on Creighton, but Castellino adroitly incorporates the ensemble, playing multiple roles throughout the show, to give the musical a heftier feel.

Cagney, a showcase for the talents of actor Robert Creighton as well as a thoroughly entertaining piece of musical theater.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

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 around.  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 Jesse Tyler Ferguson as the harried gatekeeper to a gastronomic nirvana, this light weight, 80 minute one act is humorous and entertaining, nothing more, nothing less.  Ferguson 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 Jason Moore skillfully guides Ferguson 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.  The result is an engaging and enjoyable piece of theater.

Fully Committed, a diverting and pleasing production playing through July 24th at the Lyceum Theatre.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Review of "W;t"

At the beginning of the powerful, unsettling production of W;t, running at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford through May 8th, the lead character announces she will die of cancer at the show’s conclusion.  This is not a spoiler, since the pronouncement comes within the first few minutes of the play and provides the audience with advance notice of what is in store.  What transpires is a somewhat bleak, occasionally humorous, clinical examination of a highly educated woman fighting a losing battle against Stage IV ovarian cancer.

Playwright Margaret Edson’s work, which won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for drama, introduces the audience to Dr. Vivian Bearing, a college professor and scholar of 17th century poet John Donne.  She is gaunt, dressed in a hospital smock and backwards turned baseball cap.  She is an intellectual with exacting standards who is in control of her classroom and life.  Unfortunately, her battle with cancer intervenes, upending the dispassionate academic career she so enjoys.  As she undergoes treatment her dignity is stripped away by the disease, standoffish doctors and technicians.  We are left with a woman who eventually welcomes death, a central theme in the work of Donne, which she dissects, like a class lecture, throughout the show.

Ms. Edson accurately portrays an individual, not only suffering from the debilitating effects of cancer, but someone who is frightened, in pain, and alone.  W;t can be uncomfortable for people that have/had a loved one go through chemotherapy and eventually pass away from the illness.  But the play also shows a person’s inner strength, fight, and resolve and, finally, their dignity in dying.

Elizabeth Lande as Dr. Bearing gives a strong and compelling performance that truly anchors the production.  Physically, she looks the part of a woman dying from cancer.  She is inquisitive, combative, and vulnerable.  David Gautschy in the small role of Dr. Kelekian and Tim Hackney as Dr. Jason Posner, doctors and researchers, come across as a bit too calculated and unfeeling towards their patient.  Hackney, especially, could have added more nuance to his portrayal of the young, hotshot fellow treating the fading academician.  Chuja Seo as Nurse Susie Monahan comes across as the most realistic character.  Her caring demeanor, protective quality, and humor ring true for anyone that has been hospitalized for cancer.

Director Stevie Zimmerman keeps the focus on the Dr. Bearing character.  She is the heart and soul of the play.  Her feelings, thoughts, and rollercoaster behaviors are exposed for all to see.  Zimmerman adeptly shifts the action through scenes of harried hospital personnel, classroom flashbacks, to an almost solitary abandonment.  The finale of the production, raw and unflinching, is skillfully and poignantly handled by the director.

Scenic Designer Emily Nichols’ set of simple opening and closing panels is highly effective in portraying a sterile, unadorned hospital room.  Marcus Abbott’s Lighting Design satisfyingly highlights and underscores important moments during the play.

W;t, an absorbing, gripping drama through May 8th at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Review of "Anything Goes"

Some aspects of this critique were used from a previous review.

The Goodspeed Opera House’s season opening production of Anything Goes can be delightful and delicious, but not always thoroughly de-lovely. 

The star of the show is the Cole Porter score which includes such classics as “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “Friendship,” “It’s De-Lovely,” and “Anything Goes.” And that’s just in Act One! Many of the songs are lovingly presented with just two performers singing and dancing in front of the handsomely fashioned cruise ship set, designed by Wilson Chin.  At times I hoped a chorus line would materialize onstage, but that would have been a distraction and taken away from the very essence of Porter’s ballads and comedic duets. At the end of Act One the musical finally does deliver a full-blown, intoxicating tap dancing extravaganza by the entire cast. I think, at its conclusion, the audience was just as wired at the actors on stage.

The second Act continues with a spirited production number of “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” and then, for the most part, settles down to sort out the silly plot lines of the book. The libretto by P.G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton, Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, with new material by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman, is typical of 1930’s musicals where the storyline is secondary and the jokes can make you wince. In Anything Goes, which takes place about a transatlantic cruise ship, there’s the requisite mistaken identities, seemingly unrequited love of the two young protagonists, and a happy ending where all loose ends are magically resolved and true love wins out for everyone.

Sporadically, but frequent enough, the show seems to just lumber along.  What is missing from the production is the madcap energy and over-the-top pizzazz that could consistently elevate the musical into nonstop merriment and jocularity.  There should be more revving of the engines instead of idling in neutral.

This is not to say all is amiss aboard the transatlantic ocean liner.  Anchoring the cast is the captivating Rashidra Scott as the swinging, sultry nightclub star, Reno Sweeney.  She is slinky smooth, sexy, and a bona fide triple threat with her self-assured singing voice, high wattage dancing, and disarming acting talent.  David Harris, who made a thrilling Connecticut debut in last summer’s Connecticut Repertory Theater production of Les Miserables, is a bit too composed as the love struck Billy Crocker.  I was waiting for him to show more of his comedic talent like his partner in crime, Stephen DeRosa as Public Enemy No. 2, Moonface Martin.  DeRosa, channeling his inner Groucho Marx, is absolutely hysterical as the stowaway gangster.  Every time he alit on stage hilarity was soon to follow.  Hannah Florence, as Hope Harcourt, while possessing a lovely singing voice, gets overshadowed by her more sparkling co-stars.  Benjamin Howes as Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, turns in a comic tour-de-force with his Act II number, “The Gypsy in Me.”

Choreographer Kelli Barclay is at her best when turning the small Goodspeed stage into pulsating, tap dancing extravaganzas as evidenced by the Act I closer, “Anything Goes” and the Act II opener, “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.”

Director Daniel Goldstein could have injected more vitality into the musical, which would have made it a truly dazzling piece of entertainment.   He does an admirable job maneuvering the large cast through its paces and routines.  The director also skillfully highlights the antics of feature players, Desiree Davar as Emma and Patrick Richwood as the Purser, giving them a chance to robustly illuminate the production.

Anything Goes, setting sail through June 16th at the Goodspeed Opera House.