Friday, November 17, 2017

Review of "The Last Match"

A semi-final match of the United States Tennis Open is the unique setting for playwright Anna Ziegler’s drama The Last Match.  On one side is the American ace Tim Porter (Wilson Bethel), a seasoned veteran who has been at the top of the game for years.  His opponent, Sergei Sergeyev (Alex Mckiewicz), is a younger Russian upstart with a volatile temper and serve to match.  On the surface the two opponents talk trash, pound out winners, and try to psyche each other out.  But the show is more than just the two antagonists battling for a berth into the finals.  We learn about their backstory, their personal relationships, what drives them, their joys and personal demons.
The cast of "The Last Match."
Ziegler has crafted a drama that is absorbing and engaging.  She skillfully paints both a picture of the on-court intensity and gamesmanship as well as the behind-the-scene glamour and spotlight of big time sports.  By integrating Mallory, wife of Tim, and Galina, the girlfriend of Sergei, into the mix she humanizes the tennis stars and adds depth and complexity to the characters and story.  The playwright has a good, working knowledge of tennis vernacular and does a convincing job of incorporating appropriate banter into the production.
Alex Mickiewicz and Wilson Bethel from "The Lat Match."
The cast is outstanding.  Wilson Bethel is athletically built, self-assured, and introspective as Tim Porter, the long running number one player in the world.  He can also come across as vulnerable, self-doubting, and flawed.  Alex Mickiewicz gives the character of Sergei Sergeyev, a hot-blooded and impulsive player rapidly moving up the world rankings, an authentic sheen.  The actor, full of bravado, also convincingly shows his anguish and pain when out of the limelight.  Zoe Winters as Mallory has an endearing persona with a winning smile.  Playing a former member of the professional tennis circuit, she has a toughness and determination as she searches for her own identity within the glare of her husband’s brilliance.  Natalia Payne’s Galina is gruff, self-confident, and loud but, like her impassioned partner, tempers her performance with melancholy and insecurity.
Wilson Bethel and Mickiewicz from "The Last Match."
Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch deftly handles the tennis action on stage.  The combatants seem at home on the faux court, swinging and serving with authority and finesse.  She adroitly weaves in the side stories, primarily, with the players’ significant others.  The intimate interactions can be playful, honest, yet also full of tension and heartache.  During the continuous interplay between the on-court match and off-court activity Ms. Upchurch slowly and nimbly builds up the drama of, what turns out to be, a tightly, hotly contested tennis clash.

Scenic Designer Tim Mackabee is on-target with the dark, sky blue and green color scheme of a center court at Arthur Ashe Stadium, home of the U.S. Open.  The array of flood lights and life-sized score board off to the side of the stage add a touch of authenticity to the set.  Bradley King’s Lighting Design impressively changes the backdrop from a late summer sky to a warm twilight glow.  Bray Poor’s Sound Designer contributes well-timed, accurate sounding pings of tennis balls booming off tennis rackets.

The Last Match, an engrossing drama being played out at the Laura Pels Theatre Off-Broadway through December 24th.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Review of "What We’re Up Against"

Twenty-five years ago playwright Theresa Rebeck penned What We’re Up Against, a show that dealt with sexism in the workplace.  Unfortunately, the premise portrayed in the play is as true today as it was in 1992.  It is receiving a satisfying, well-expressed production at the WP Theater on the Upper West Side through December 3rd.

The cast of "What We're Up Against," (l - r) Damian Stuart, Marg Helgenberger, Skylar Astin, Krsta Rodriguez and Jim Parrack.

The storyline concerns Eliza (Krysta Rodriguez), a young, determined newcomer to a small architectural firm.  She is eager to show her skills to Stu (Damian Young), the boozing office manager who is not too keen to involve the strong-minded self-starter.  She doesn’t receive much support from Ben (Jim Parrack), another employee; Weber (Skylar Astin), an obtuse, talent-less, recent hire; or Janice (Marg Helgenberger), the only other female employee of the company.  The problem for the firm is how to solve a thorny renovation job for a local mall.  Eliza, supposedly, is the only person that has resolved the troublesome issue, but no one wants to listen to her solution.  At least not officially.  But, with a lot of squabbling, shouting and posturing by the characters, along with some savvy deviousness by Eliza, there is a gratifying conclusion to the show and, maybe, the beginnings of some sensible dialogue between the combatants.
Krysta Rodriguez and Skylar Astin in "What We're Up Against."
Rebeck’s play doesn’t come up with a complex or sophisticated scenario on sexism on the job.  However, its straightforwardness gets the point across and provides focus on this disconcerting issue.   The characters she has created lack a well-rounded persona, coming across as more one-dimensional.  But, nevertheless, they can be quite funny.  Maybe lamentable is a better description.

Every cast member offers a superb, well-hone portrayal of their character.  Krysta Rodriguez imbues Eliza with a fiery resolve.  She is patient, playing the game to a point, before literally screaming her frustrations to the world.  Damian Young’s Stu comes across as one of those beloved boozers that talks and talks, but who’s logic is suspect and slightly askew.  Jim Parrack’s Ben is an interesting character.  You can feel the actor having an internal debate on whether to buck the office trend to ignore Eliza’s ability and acumen or to embrace it.   Skylar Astin is hysterical as the dim-witted staff member Weber, who as Eliza states is great at “archi-talk,” but nothing else.  Marg Helgenberger’s Janice, at first, is more concerned about not upsetting the apple cart, but by the end of the show comes across as a touch more complicated and heartrending.
Marg Helgenberger and Krysta Rodriguez in "What We're Up Against."
Director Adrienne Campbell-Holt steers the focus of each scene to the characters, their dogmatic ramblings, and silly digressions.  Her main concern, it seems, is to position each actor appropriately on-stage and having them wander around the office every so often to break up the static activity.  This isn’t a negative observation on Ms. Campbell-Holt’s directorial prowess.  It’s more a critique based on what the playwright has presented.

Scenic Designer Narelle Sissons has crafted a two-level set that suitably represents two every day, functional offices.  Nothing special.  Uncomplicated, but effective.

What We’re Up Against, a humorous, thought-provoking primer on sexual discrimination in the workplace, playing through December 3rd.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Review of "Rags"

The immigrant experience comes forcefully alive the in the heavily reworked, mostly successful production of the musical Rags, playing at the Goodspeed Opera House through December 10th.  The original 1987 Broadway production is one of the biggest flops in musical theater history, closing after a mere four performances.  The main culprit was the book by Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof), which was hard to follow with too many subplots and a lack of a compelling dramatic arc.  In the Goodspeed version, the original narrative has been revamped to make it easier to follow.  While improved, with more balanced story telling, there is still a lot for the audience to digest.
It’s a “Brand New World” for Rebecca Hershkowitz (Samantha Massell) and her son David (Christian Michael Camporin) in Goodspeed Musicals’ Rags, now playing at The Goodspeed through December 10.
Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
The plot centers on Rebecca, her son David, and a friend Bella as they head to the new world.  Upon arriving at Ellis Island they are met by Bella’s father, Avram, and then taken to the cramped apartment of Anna and Jack Blumberg, Avram’s brother and sister-in-law.  Here, they eke out a living hand stitching dresses for the mogul Max Bronfman, who also has an eye for the captivating Rebecca.  Helping out the family is Ben, a young man trying to court Bella under her father’s disapproving eyes. Completing, and complicating, the picture is Sal, an Italian immigrant concerned with rallying the “Greenhorns” for better pay and working conditions.  The new arrivals begin to feel at home as dreams of a better life take hold, until a cataclysmic event changes lives forever.
“Meet an Italian” Sean MacLaughlin as Sal with Christian Michael Camporin and Mitch Greenberg (seated), Samantha Massell and Adam Heller in Goodspeed Musicals’ Rags, now playing at The Goodspeed through December 10.
Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
The revised book by David Thompson advances smoothly and naturally.  He has reworked plot lines, reconfigured some player’s roles, and added additional characters.  There are still too many plot lines but, overall, there is a pleasing, down-to-earth feel to the story.  The structure of the show also puts a spotlight on the plight of the recent arrivals, their struggle to assimilate, and the scorn and disdain they experience from the populace.  This aspect of the show, sadly, has a present-day feel to it.  

The songs, with music by Charles Strouse (Bye Bye Birdie, Applause, Annie) and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin, Wicked), is the strongest element of the show.  There are numerous musical styles incorporated into the beautiful and melodic score.  Many of the compositions are infused with undertones of Klezmeir music.  The numbers, which also includes Broadway styled standards, are impassioned and powerful and demonstrate what musical theater veterans can bring a production.
“And all who could not make this journey: we’re alive here…and we’ll thrive here” Samantha Massell in  Goodspeed Musicals’ Rags, now playing at The Goodspeed through December 10.
Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
The cast is led by Samantha Massell as Rebecca Hershowitz.  She exudes the fervor and excitement of entering immigrants.  The actress possesses an exquisite voice and brings a strong-minded independence, sobering genuineness, and courage to the role. Sean MacLaughlin’s Sal Russo is strong and passionate as he rallies for worker rights.  He brings a compassionate zeal to the role while, at the same time, attempts to woo Ms. Massell’s character. Sara Kapner as the fiery Bella Cohen and Nathan Salstone as Ben Levitowitz, an Irving Berlin styled songwriter, are delightful as the secondary comic, yet star-crossed couple.  David Harris, a frequent performer on Connecticut stages, gives an aristocratic affection to the character of Max Bronfman, a dress manufacturing mogul with salacious and dishonest intents.  Adam Heller, a past Connecticut Critic Circle winner for his role as Teyve in Goodspeed’s Fiddler on the Roof, once again shows his pious nature and comic gifts as the overly protective father, Avram.  His devastating silence near the musical’s end speaks volumes. Emily Zacharias is suitably mother as Anna Blumberg and Mitch Greenberg injects comedic bon mots as husband Jack Blumberg.  Lori Wilner is endearing as Rachel Brodsy, Avram’s soon-to-be love interest and Michael Camporin is effective as tween David Hershowitz.
“I want to be a Yankee Boy” Nathan Salstone (Ben) with Sara Kapner (Bella), Christian Michael Camporin (David) and the cast of Goodspeed Musicals’ Rags, now playing at The Goodspeed through December 10.
Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Director Rob Ruggiero, who has helmed many first-rate productions at Goodspeed over the years, once again shows his flair for the musical theater form.  The show pulsates with the rhythms of the New World.  There is an easy flow to the progression of scenes.  With multiple threads to the story, he provides the supporting characters enough time on stage to develop their portrayals. Ruggiero has not totally solved the problems inherent in the book of the show, but he has worked through the problem with skillful pacing and eliciting impressive performances from his acting troupe.

Scenic Designer Michael Schweikardt’s set keeps with the unpretentious and humble times of the era, including the confined tenement apartment and street life of Orchard Street. 
Jeff Williams, Sarah Solie, Danny Lindgren, Ellie Fishman and J.D. Daw play the Quintet in Goodspeed Musicals’ Rags, now playing at The Goodspeed through December 10.
Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Costume Designer Linda Cho has crafted a superb array of outfits.  They run the gamut from simple clothing one would see on the Lower Eastside of New York City during the early 20th Century to luscious high society gowns.

Rags, a rarely seen musical being given a gratifying and worthy production through December 10th.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Review of "Seder"

Seder, the uneven play that takes place during the Passover holiday meal, is anything but festive.  Simmering mother/daughter relationships explode, past wounds are ripped open, and questions of loyalties are torn asunder.

Playwright Sarah Gancher has drawn from the recent phenomenon of younger Jews, in such Eastern European cities as Prague, Krakow and Budapest, discovering their Jewish roots.  Parents and other relations discarded their heritage during and after World War II as a way to stay alive but now, as they have aged, these older adults have divulged their religious identities to their children and grandchildren. 

The Seder, at the heart of the show, has been organized by Magrit (Julia Sirna-Frest), the younger daughter of Erzsike (Mia Dillon), to observe her newfound ancestry.  Guests include her brother Laci (Dustin Ingram), older sister Judit (Birgit Huppuch) and an American, David (Steven Rattazzi), leading the meal time service.  What starts out as a hopeful celebration soon devolves into festering animosities, as unanswered question from the past, primarily stemming from the existence of a shadowy building at 60 Anrassy Street, come to light.  Current economic and political realities of Budapest society also bubble over.  Relations from the past—a notorious officer of the Hungarian Secret Police and Erzsike’s sorrowful and misunderstood, now deceased husband—appear in flashbacks and augment the back story behind the household drama.

Gancher effectively intertwines the Passover observance—the Jew’s exodus from Egypt—as a metaphor for individuals escaping the unsatisfying and difficult life in this East European capitol.  Weaving this image along with the discovery of Jewish identity makes for a thought-provoking dramatic presentation.  However, the admonishments and accusations that begin to fly across the stage eventually become hard to follow.  They lack a rhythm and flow.  Soon, the indictments and denunciations overwhelm the desired impact of the play.  Some of the characters, most notably Magrit and David, could have been more fleshed out.

As a whole, the cast does not coalesce into a satisfying whole.  Mia Dillon, as the mother with many repressed and dark secrets, is the most complete and absorbing character.  She delivers a multi-layered performance that is engrossing, pitiful and moving.  We might not always agree with her motives, but we leave the theater with, at least, an understanding of her heart rendering history.  Birgit Huppuch, who plays the well-heeled daughter with an age-old antipathy, comes across as a bit too shrill in her rants and rebukes, which lessens the impact of her portrayal.  Julia Sirna-Frest’s Magrit is meek and sub-serviant, becoming somewhat lost within the famial skirmishes.  Dustin Ingram’s Laci initially comes across as a whining lunkhead but, as the production progresses, he convincingly brings out the seething anger and bitterness felt by Budapest’s younger generation.  Steven Rattazzi’s David, provides the show’s comic relief even though you wonder how he became emeshed with this clan.  As the Hungarian KGB-styled agent, Steven Rattazzi is chillingly low-key and focused on his duties and ambitions.  Liam Craig as Erzsike’s husband Tamas, renders a melancholy portrait of a humble man seeking only love and acceptance.  In just a short time on stage he gives one of the play’s best performances.

Director Elizabeth Williamson is only partially successful with what is essentially a kitchen drama with interlaced flashbacks.  After a rather lackluster beginning, she skillfully begins to incorporate the present-day tensions with the historical underpinnings of the work.  However, the conflicts between the household members are sometimes too boisterous.  Character motivations and shifting allegiances are occasionally hard to follow. 

Seder, a meal time experience full of volatile family dynamics and long kept secrets, playing through November 12th.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Review of "The Diary of Anne Frank"

We know what happens.  Still, The Diary of Anne Frank at Playhouse on Park is a gripping and moving production.  With an outstanding cast and taut direction, this is one of the best dramas I’ve seen at the West Hartford theater in years.
"The Diary of Anne Frank" features Frank van Putten as Otto Frank, Joni Weisfeld as Edith, Alex Rafala as Peter Van Daan, Allen Lewis Rickman as Mr. Van Daan, Jonathan D. Mesisca as Mr. Dussel, Lisa Bostnar as Mrs. Van Daan, Isabelle Barbier as Anne, Ruthy Froch as Margot.  
Photo by Curt Henderson.

The play follows the four-person Frank household—Otto (Frank van Putten), Edith (Joni Weisfeld), Margo (Ruthy Froch) and Anne (Isabelle Barbier); three members of the Daan family—the mother (Lisa Bostnar), father (Allen Lewis Rickman), and their son (Alex Rafala); and a sardonic dentist (Jonathan Mesisca)—all Jews--as they live, secreted from the Nazis, in a hidden area in the Frank office building.  One employee, Mr. Kraler (Michael Enright) and a friend, Miep Gies (Elizabeth Simmons) are their only link to the outside world during Germany’s occupation of Holland.  In the small, cramped area they try to eke out some manner of normalcy during, what turns out to be, 1 ½ years of confinement.  At the center is Anne.  She is a precocious, inquisitive, and sometimes meddlesome teenager that is the spark that helps keep the group from becoming too despondent and hopeless during their time concealed from the world.  In her diary, she records the ebb and flow—the good and bad--of life within their undersized accommodations.  As time progresses, the hideaways settle into a routine, hoping to ride out the war safely.  Tragically, they are rooted out by a person unknown, and sent to concentration camps where all perish with only Otto surviving.
Isabelle Barbier as Anne in "The Diary of Anne Frank."  Photo by Curt Henderson.
Playwright Wendy Kesselman has incorporated new material from Frank’s diary as well as survivor accounts into the original work of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.  The writers have taken this slice of history and created a work that shows how individuals persevere in times of incredible hardship.  They demonstrate how faith, along with the human spirit, can carry us through such trying and difficult times.  The characters are well-drawn within the confines of their mundane, everyday existence.  By putting the figure of Anne Frank at the helm the audience has a guiding beacon to carry us through the darkness of this era.  They balance Anne’s optimism and spirit with the practicality and steadfastness of her father Otto.  Their ying and yang allow for a consistent and satisfying dramatic arc.

The ten performers, a large troupe for Playhouse on Park, is superb.  It is led by Isabelle Barbier as Anne Frank.  The actress has an eerie resemblance to the real-life teenager.  She is full of spunk layered with the emotions of a young woman discovering herself and those around her.  Without such a dynamic performance, the show would simply not work.  Equally as important is Frank van Putten as Otto Frank.  His quiet demeanor and thoughtfulness belies the authority and respect that is entrusted to him.  The actor has an unwavering presence that steadies the performers through despondency, anger and excitement. The other cast members are equally as good.  They present well-rounded portrayals of human beings in crisis.  They are all astute and discerning depictions.
Frank van Putten as Otto Frankin in "The Diary of Anne Frank."  Photo by Curt Henderson.
Director Ezra Barnes guides a production that is intelligent and sensitively helmed.  He shows restraint, focusing, primarily, on the normalcy of the group, but deftly intersperses occasional emotional and heartfelt outbursts to heighten a realistic portrayal of the oppressive conditions. The interactions of the characters are well-orchestrated and even though we know the heartbreaking ending there is still a sustained and palpable suspense within the production.

Scenic designer David Lewis has done a masterful job creating the living quarters for the sequestered families.  The large set fills every available space of the stage, giving it a three-dimensional look and feel.  He gives understated separation to the various living quarters that are distinct, but unified at the same time.

The Diary of Anne Frank, worth the trip to Playhouse on Park.  Now, through November 19th.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Review of "The Wolves"

The Wolves, is a unique drama that uses the backdrop of an indoor women’s soccer team to probe the multi-faceted relationships of female teenagers.  The premise is simple.  Nine teens gather to drill and prepare for matches over the course of an unspecified time-period.  The group has grown up together playing at various town and travel team levels.  During their time on stage they workout, banter about silly matters, world politics, sex, friendship and more.  As the show progresses the audience slowly becomes more engrossed in their lives and their unique bond.  We become aware of more serious concerns that are just bubbling under the surface of their small talk and carefree attitude.   Issues such as sexual self-identity, individualism, and adolescent anxiety become apparent.  Death also knocks at their door.

Playwright Sarah DeLappe takes the dynamics that surround the soccer team and has crafted a play full of realism and brio.  At times, raw and full of emotion, the interchanges feel fresh, true, and not forced.  She incorporates overlapping dialogue that adds to the authenticity of the action.  The young woman can be playful, callous, and impudent.   They can shift from being bosom buddies one moment and snapping antagonists the next.  There is a reason the show is named for a predatory animal. 

Like a well-trained sports team, the troupe of nine actresses work seamlessly together.  Each member is integral for the success and betterment of the whole.  Throughout the play particular characters will take the spotlight, but then fade back within the assemblage.  The performers have no problem wearing their emotions on their sleeves, which gives the production a realistic feel to it.  There is one adult in the show, Megan Byrne, who appears briefly at the play’s end.  She delivers a heartfelt and penetrating performance.

Director Eric Ort has molded the collection of young performers into a superb ensemble that is drilled and conditioned in soccer basics.  They effortlessly kick the balls to each other, run wind sprints, and talk the talk.  He has forged a group esprit de corps while, at the same time, keeping each member’s individual personality and temperament intact.  He assiduously ensures the dramatic arc of the production remains genuine, slowly ratcheting up the tension as the show nears its end.

Scenic designer Mariana Sanchez has created a simple, visually striking green artificial turf set that spans the width of the small Theaterworks stage.  Its minimalism and bareness is restrained, but highly effective.

The Wolves, clever and smart, playing through November 10th.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Review of "An Enemy of the People"

An Enemy of the People, playwright Henrik Ibsen’s powerful and absorbing drama, is one of the most relevant pieces of theater you will experience this season.  Playing at the Yale Repertory Theatre through October 28th, this 135-year-old play has frightening parallels to the polarizing political forces, both in Connecticut and in Washington, D.C.  It also foreshadows such pulled-from-the-headline catastrophes as the recent Flint, Michigan water crisis and the battle waged by Erin Brockovich over tainted water caused by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company in the early 1990’s.
Reg Rogers and Enrico Colantoni in An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen, new translation by Paul Walsh, directed by James Bundy.
Photo by Joan Marcus, 2017.
The plot centers around Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Reg Rogers), a civic-minded physician who discovers the water being piped into the recently completed health spa is toxic.  Thinking his brother (Enrico Colantoni), Mayor Peter Stockmann, will receive the news with gratitude and praise, he is stunned when the disclosure is received with contempt and harshness due, primarily, to the economic harm such a discovery would have on the resort and small Norwegian town.  Maddened by this reception, the physician enlists the support of the liberal-minded newspaper and homeowner’s association, who see this as a way to exploit their own self-serving agendas.  However, with shrewdness and subtle threats the Mayor manages to turn all party’s opinions against the doctor who refuses to put aside his convictions and, subsequently, becomes persona non-grata, an enemy of the people.

Ibsen brings eloquence and preternatural insight into this morality tale of self-righteousness, economic greed and survival.  The term “conjecture,” used time and time again to discredit the doctor’s scientific findings, eerily mirrors the false news claims over climate change within the Trump administration.  It might be stretching matters, but when the playwright speaks of the dangers of the solid majority I couldn’t help but think of the know-it-all Democratic majority within the Connecticut statehouse and their mishandling of the state budget crisis.  What happened in Flint, Michigan could have been a modern-day version of the play.  Paul Walsh’s translation has a contemporary feel full of wit, impassioned speeches and a modicum of comic moments.  Sometimes, passages and monologues can veer towards preachiness but, overall, not so much to adversely affect the brisk pace of the production.
Enrico Colantoni (foreground) and the cast of An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen, new translation by Paul Walsh, directed by James Bundy.
Photo by Joan Marcus, 2017.
The fine cast is led by Reg Rogers as Dr. Thomas Stockmann.  The actor throws himself into the role with an earnest intensity and oratory prowess.  He thoroughly encapsulates the everyday individual ready to do battle—no matter what the odds--with the forces of injustice and narrowmindedness.  Think Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  Enrico Colantoni, as the doctor’s politically entrenched brother, smolders with indignation over other’s slights and disrespect.  Yet he shows caginess and astuteness in his portrayal of the obfuscating official.

Director James Bundy has taken what could have been a tired and venerable play and infused it with a captivating freshness.  The large cast is lively and vigorous under his firm guidance.  The show crackles during many points, but none more than when the two brothers become confrontational.  You can sense both the love and loathing they have for each other.

An Enemy of the People, a timely and penetrating production, playing through October 28th.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Review of "I Hate Musicals - The Musical"

I was looking forward to the show I Hate Musicals – the Musical, receiving its world premiere at the Ivoryton Playhouse.  Musical comedies with a screwball premise and off-beat sense of humor are some of my favorite theatrical pleasures.  But  I Hate Musicals, penned by Michael L. Reiss, a veteran writer for television’s The Simpsons, is a disappointment.  The constant barrage of one-liners and extended jokes, more often than not, fall flat or miss their mark.  The overall show is not cohesive, relying too much on extended riffs on everything from the current cupcake craze to the unmelodic songs of Stephen Sondheim.

Stephen Wallem in "I Hate Musicals - The Musical"

The show opens with Alvin (Stephen Wallem), a formerly successful TV sitcom writer now dispirited and impoverished, having a meeting with Diane (Amanda Huxtable), the head of comedy development at Alvin’s old network.  She is his old nemesis but, desperate for work and his dignity abandoned, he pitches his idea for a new show, “My Brother, the Pope.”  To say the tete-a-tete goes badly is an understatement, with barbs and invectives flying every which way.  Just as the encounter ends, a horrific earthquake hits Los Angeles sending the stage into darkness.  When the lights go up the once uncluttered and tidy office is a shambles with debris scattered everywhere.  Diane is dead and Alvin is pinned down by a pile of rubble.  As he madly yells for help and dials 911, individuals from his current and past life start appearing, not to mention Jesus, the Devil, Moses, and Sigmund Freud.  Is he dead?  Hallucinating? 

Writer Michael  L. Reiss uses Alvin’s untenable predicament as a means to examine his character’s pathetic life.  Like the role of Winnie in playwright Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, Alvin is haltingly being engulfed in his own disappointing being.
R. Bruce Connelly in "I Hate Musicals - The Musical"
In between visits from those he knows (knew) such as his aged, forgetful agent Lee, (R. Bruce Connelly), he delivers a steady stream of monologues and commentary on such disparate topics as relationships, religion, McDonald’s Big Macs, and the quality of TV programming.  He also manages to skewer serious-minded New York City playwrights and those aspiring to be one.

While there are some humorous segments and situations, the overall production is too inconsistent and fragmented.   The stream of consciousness rants and harangues and skits built around the musical numbers would be more at home at an HBO comedy special rather than in this 90-minute, intermission-less show. 

The cast is led by Stephen Wallem as Alvin.  He is a large, affable performer that wears his angst on his sleeve.  We feel the disgust with himself and the world.  The actor possesses a deep sonorous singing voice, which he puts to good use throughout the musical.  R. Bruce Connelly, a Connecticut favorite, infuses the role of Lee, an old-school talent agent, with a drollness and world-weariness that serves up amusing retorts to Alvin’s kvetching.  Amanda Huxtable, playing multiple female parts, gets to create four distinct characters, each serving as a spirited counterpoint to Wallem’s unrestrained dramatics.  Ryan Knowles is enjoyable as an erudite, but thoroughly pompous Professor.  Will Clark puts a unique spin on Jesus and Sam Given, also playing  a variety of roles, seems to have been given the green light for a no-holds- barred performance.  Except for his banal security guard, every other character provides a wild uproarious spark to the show.
Sam Given, Amanda Huxtable, and Ryan Knowles in "I Hate Musicals - The Musical"
The score is comprised of numbers, primarily from well-known songs with rewritten lyrics.  The sole musician, Michael Morris, sits at his piano slightly off-stage (having burst through a wall during the earthquake) and provides skilled accompaniment throughout the production.  You’ll recognize the melodies from “YMCA,” “Hooray for Hollywood,” “I Love L.A.,” “I’m Flying (from Peter Pan), and “Goldfinger.”  There is an extended discourse on the compositions of Stephen Sondheim that would be at home in any of the Forbidden Broadway incarnations.  The songs are presented tongue firmly in cheek.  They provide the most consistently pleasing moments of the musical.

Director James Valletti has crafted some gleeful moments but, by and large, the rhythm of the show is slightly off, which hinders the comical set-ups and deliveries.  The witty and whacky premises are, more often than not, unfulfilled.

I Hate Musicals – The Musical, mildly diverting entertainment, playing at the Ivoryton Playhouse through October 15th.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Springsteen Off-Off-Broadway

Forty years ago Bruce Springsteen released "Born to Run" and almost overnight became a rock sensation.  When it was announced The Boss was coming to play a gig at Rutgers College in New Brunswick, NJ in the Fall of 1976 I had a hand in this landmark event.  

To celebrate Springsteen's sold-out run on Broadway, beginning next week, a remembrance of that day many, many years ago.

Friday, September 15, 2017

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 and enlightenment punctuated by self-important, vacuous lectures from the disembodied voice of the guru.
The cast of "Small Mouth Sounds" at Long Wharf Theatre through September 24th.  Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
The entertaining and fascinating aspect of the play is watching how the players interact and function, mostly without mouthing any words.  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.  Socorro Santiago as Joan, a woman approaching mid-age, approaches the week with an apprentice’s zeal.  This initial earnestness becomes more tempered as the relationship with her partner, Judy, portrayed by Cherene Snow, becomes strained and uncomfortable.  Judy, unhappy to leave the comforts of home and the use of her electronic devices, is the more aggrieved of the twosome.  Ms. Snow, 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. 
Ben Beckley and Edward Chin-Lyn in "Small Mouth Sounds" at Long Wharf Theatre through September 24th.              Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Rodney, tall and handsome, is played with a graceful ardor by Edward Chin-Lyn.  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.  Ben Beckley, 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.  Brenna Palughi, 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 when interacting with one of the other characters. Connor Barrett, as Jan is, well, a conundrum.  We know and learn very little about him until the very final scene, which in itself is not conclusive.  Barrett utters the fewest words in the production, but the actor conveys an impressive number of emotions and feelings from just a stare or simple hand movement.  Orville Mendoza 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 always seem to believe himself.
Cherene Snow and Connor Barrett in "Small Mouth Sounds" at Long Wharf Theatre through September 24th.       Photo by T. Charles Erickson
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 handles a very, shall we say, raucous situation with aplomb and comic gusto.

Small Mouth Sounds, an absorbing and winning production, through September 24th at Long Wharf Theatre.  For tickets go to or call 203-787-4282.