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 www.longwharf.org or call 203-787-4282. 

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Review of "Prince of Broadway"

There have been few musicals that have celebrated Broadway’s greatest hits.  The last show to be produced was the 1989 Tony Award winning Jerome Robbins Broadway.  While spotlighting the innovative and creative output of the renowned choreographer there was also a cavalcade of songs from such musicals as The King and I, On the Town, High Button Shoes, and Peter Pan.

This past week another greatest hit package opened on The Great White Way.  The Prince of Broadway, a marvelously entertaining musical, featuring a very talented musical theater cast, presents moments from shows produced or directed by the legendary Hal Prince. [Trivia Question answer—Mr. Prince has won the most Tony Awards in history at 21]. 


With dozens of productions to his credit—beginning with Damn Yankees in 1955 through Lovemusik in 2007, there were many selections to choose from for the show.  The show is highly represented by the works of Stephen Sondheim (six) and includes such crowd-pleasing numbers as “Heart” from Damn Yankees, “Tonight” from West Side Story, “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music, and “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” from Evita.

There is a very loose chronological order to the scenes.  Almost all of them are introduced with factoids written by librettist David Thompson.  The songs can be rousing (“If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof), heartfelt (“Ol’ Man River” from Show Boat), comedic (“You’ve Got Possibilities” from It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman), and dramatic (“Music of the Night” from Phantom of the Opera).


While there is no question about the entertainment value of this thoroughly enjoyable show, it does suffer, slightly, from the lack of a compelling storyline to help keep the audience’s attention continuously focused at a heightened level. 

My one quibble with the show is the song selection.  It’s a pointless discussion to have since everyone will have their favorites but, with that said, I would have preferred more variety, less Sondheim.  Maybe something from Baker Street or On the Twentieth Century or Flora, the Red Menace could have been included.


The cast, filled with Broadway musical veterans and some newcomers, is superb.  Their level of artistry and professionalism is outstanding.  If I had to choose a few standouts—and this in no way minimizes any of the other actors and actresses—I would single out three.  First, Karen Ziemba, who so beautifully performs one of my favorite songs from Cabaret with the wistful “So What” and gives a winning comic turn with “The Worst Pies in London” from Sweeney Todd.  Second, is Tony Yazbeck who has the lone dance number of the show, delivering a blistering routine to “The Right Girl” from Follies.  Lastly, is Bryonha Marie Parham whose powerhouse vocals in songs from Cabaret and Show Boat resonate powerfully throughout the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.


Directors Susan Stroman and Hal Prince have rendered beautifully conceived vignettes that showcase the vocal talents of the performers.  They skillfully and adroitly keep the flow of the show constant, crafting a well-paced rhythm to the work.  The scenes are handsomely dressed up with unpretentious, but effective scenic designs by Beowulf Boritt that convey the settings without being intrusive or overwrought.

As choreographer, Stroman shines with the tour de force number from Follies.  Disappointingly, there are no other songs with captivating dance routines.  A few more would have added variety and zip to the overall production.

The Prince of Broadway, an engaging and finely-tuned tribute to one of the legendary showman of Broadway.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Review of "Appropriate"


I saw the original production of Appropriate, which is playing at the Westport Country Playhouse through September 2nd, when it debuted Off-Broadway a few years ago. At that time I described it as a poor man’s version of the play August: Osage County. I wasn’t looking to compare the two dramas, but more as a point of reference. Both revolve around a gathering of dysfunctional family members, the divulging of household secrets, and a lot of shouting and screaming between siblings.
 
L-R: Betsy Aidem and David Aaron Baker in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Appropriate,” directed by David Kennedy, at Westport Country Playhouse, now playing through September 2.      (203) 227-4177.  www.westportplayhouse.org  Photo by Carol Rosegg
However, with the explosive demonstrations between white nationalists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, VA earlier this month and the debate over racism and “very fine people” the play takes on a more ominous undertone. I still wouldn’t classify the show as a fully gripping production, but the work does provoke more introspection and reflection by audience members due to the significant “reveal,” its consequences, and controversy.

In brief, the plot centers on two brothers, a sister, their significant others and family members, who have converged at the rundown, ancestral home of their recently deceased father. Their goal is to sort through the mountains of refuse and clutter he left behind in preparation for selling the house and its contents. Toni (Betsy Aidem), the manic, self-pitying sister, has taken charge of the purging process, which has, temporarily, led to a cessation of long time tensions and simmering hostilities with her brother, Bo (David Aaron Baker), and his wife, Rachel (Diane Davis). With the unexpected arrival of the black sheep of the clan, Franz (Shawn Fagan) and his girlfriend, River (Anna Crivelli), and the discovery of a mysterious and deeply disturbing photo album the tentative détente among the group very quickly disintegrates as in-fighting and accusations punctuate the stage. There is no comfortable ending or reconciliation between the family members as each person heads back to their lives, slightly battered and disconsolate.

Playwright Branden Jacob-Jenkins has taken well-established themes of family strife and friction to create a play that seethes with age-old slights and discord. In Act I, the volatility of the players, the interplay between the individuals, and the jarring disclosures that unfold provide engrossing drama. However, the remaining two Acts lose steam and momentum.   Too much of the action and dialogue seems empty, without meaningful and engrossing substance. The soliloquies and confessions come up somewhat hollow. Add to that characters that are not very likeable and the result is a production that is loud, but bereft of a satisfying conclusion. In fact, I thought it was rather a disappointing end.
 
L-R: Shawn Fagan, Diane Davis, Nick Selting, Betsy Aidem, and David Aaron Baker in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Appropriate,” directed by David Kennedy, at Westport Country Playhouse, now playing through September 2. (203) 227-4177.  www.westportplayhouse.org   Photo by Carol Rosegg
The cast is uniformly fine, with well-defined roles. On the one hand, they can be seen as one-note characters—this one is the resentful one, that one self-absorbed, this person with a martyr complex--but the actors do give some depth and shading to their portrayals. Betsy Aidem as the tortured, self-righteous, and self-appointed head of the Lafayette clan plays the part to the hilt. She can come across as too shrill and whiny, but this is a woman that has had many personal and professional setbacks so, while she is not a pleasant person, her temperament is understandable. David Aaron Baker as brother Bo, is a volcano ready to erupt with pent-up emotions and incredulity. The actor deftly, yet vainly, straddles the line between mediation and chaos. Diane Davis as Bo’s wife Rachel gives a rewarding performance, showing equal parts conciliation, indignation, and pure disdain for her bossy sister-in-law as well as her position within the family. Shawn Fagan as brother Franz, with his hidden and erratic past, comes across as both thick-headed and vulnerable, with his true motives never fully revealed. Anna Crivelli as Franz’s girlfriend, River, is suitably wide-eyed and outwardly naïve, but has an undercurrent of steeliness and savviness. The children of the two families, Rhys (Nick Selting), Cassie (Allison Winn), and Ainsley (Christian Michael Camporin) are serviceable in their roles with Selting having more substance to his character as a somewhat misunderstood and troubled teen.
 
L-R: Betsy Aidem and Nick Selting in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Appropriate,” directed by David Kennedy, at Westport Country Playhouse, now playing through September 2.  (203) 227-4177.  www.westportplayhouse.org  Photo by Carol Rosegg

Director David Kennedy skillfully builds up the pulse of the production to a sustained and cacophonous crescendo by the end of Act I. He adroitly positions the performers to create a smooth and methodical flow as the actors and actresses enter and exit the stage. Acts II and III are more problematic. There are less group scenes and more individual pontifications and self-serving soliloquies that are more difficult to wring dramatic tensions from. Even with the shortcomings of the play he draws out a sufficient amount of tension to keep the audience intrigued most of the time.

Scenic Designer Andrew Boyce has crafted a realistic deteriorated plantation home. There is enough bric-a-brac and heaps of useless items strewn around and piled high around the set to gladden any hoarder. Matthew Richards’ Lighting Design provides ghostly, moonlit effects, especially at the conclusion of the production (Note: don’t leave until the final curtain comes down). Fitz Patton’s Sound Design succeeds at two levels. First, is the almost suffocating noise of cicadas used throughout the play, which help define the uncomfortable, smothering environment inside the household. Second, are the eerie, other-worldly sounds used during the final minutes of the show.

Appropriate, a flawed, occasionally arresting drama, playing at the Westport Country Playhouse through September 2nd. For tickets, go to: http://www.westportplayhouse.org or call (888) 927-7529.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Review of "Our Great Tchaikovsky"


We know the music, but how many of us know the background of Russian composer Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky? In his one-man show, Our Great Tchaikovsky, the actor/playwright/designer/concert pianist Hershey Felder brings to life the personal history of this enigmatic figure in an engaging and artistically pleasing production. The show, playing at Hartford Stage, runs through August 27th.


On a minimally outfitted set, designed to resemble the interior and exterior of a country dacha, Felder delves into the musician’s legacy, both in character and through straightforward stories. For most of the performance he is seated behind a baby grand piano. In between his recitations, Felder pounces on the keyboard with enthusiasm and vitality on numerous compositions—from the little known to such heralded works as the “1812 Overture,” “Swan Lake,” and “The Nutcracker.”

Tchaikovsky’s entire life, according to the playwright/actor, was difficult and full of mistrust, heartbreak and social insecurity due, primarily, to is secretive homosexual yearnings and lifestyle. For every one of his triumphs there seemed to be an equally deflating personal note.


As playwright, Felder brings forth a highly satisfying depiction of the composer’s life, chronicling from the time he was a very young boy through his untimely and mysterious death. The actor portrays the tormented artist, along with a number of other individuals that crossed paths with him. These dramatics are interspersed with a healthy amount of virtuoso piano playing that amplifies and enlivens the action on stage. The only criticism of the show is Felder’s excursion into current Russian politics and attitudes towards the gay community. There is a slight reason for his discourse, within the context of the production, but the short digression could have easily been removed without undermining the overall thrust of the play. Likewise, the ending “shot” was confusing and, again, unnecessary.

Director Trevor Hay has the luxury of featuring the musical prowess of Hershey Felder whenever the narrative bogs down. He smartly never lets the story telling impede on the rhapsodic Tchaikovsky melodies. Hay also has a good read on the dynamic between the narrative and music, interspersing the two to create a compelling and appealing whole.


As Scenic Designer, Felder has kept the set simple, but elegant; full without being busy. Lighting and Projection Associate Brian McMullen has created beautifully appropriate projections that add a significant amount of realism, sparkle and enrichment to the show.

Our Great Tchaikovsky, well-acted, engrossing, and full of the glorious music of the Russian composer, playing at Hartford Stage through August 27th.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Review of "Saturday Night Fever"


The 70’s are alive in the mostly entertaining, slightly sluggish PG-rated stage version of the hit movie Saturday Night Fever. 

The musical closely follows the story of the film, but with more subdued sequences.  Remember, when originally released, the motion picture was R-rated.   In the show, there is only a hint of racial tensions and a key sexual assault scene has been discreetly removed.  Also, the disquietude of teenage life is gently glossed over.  The book writers have, instead, smartly focused on the central character of Tony Manero, his key female relationships, and a great deal of dancing.  When Saturday Night Fever laces up its party shoes the musical is alive and dynamic.  Otherwise, it’s a more pedestrian urban melodrama.
 
Michael Notradonato as Tony Manero and members of his crew.
The plot focuses on Tony, who finds solace from his dysfunctional family and dead-end job at the 2001 Odyssey disco, where he hangs out with his neighborhood friends.  He is the king of the dance floor.  The man with all the right moves.  When a dance contest worth $1,000 is announced, he enters with his former dance partner, Annette, who yearns for his affection, but is constantly spurned.  Soon after, Tony spies a gorgeous blonde, Stephanie, on the dance floor and sets his sights on her.  At first, his advances are rebuffed, but that quickly changes as she soon becomes his new dance partner, leaving Annette on the outs.  As their relationship develops and the big night approaches, Tony must contend with other events in his life.  These include his unsupportive mother and father, a brother who suddenly leaves the priesthood, ethnic discord in his neighborhood, a close friend’s death, and his own self-doubts and self-worth.  In the end, the dance competition arrives and ends with a surprising twist.

The book by Sean Cercone and David Abbinanti is the primary problem with the musical.  The over two dozen scenes require too much time to make the necessary set changes.  The myriad transitions afford little opportunity to flesh out the supporting characters in the show.  They become one-dimensional, lacking sufficient backstories and depth.
 
Michael Notardonato as Tony Manero and Caroline Lellouche as Stephanie Mangano
The score pulsates with the disco beat of the late 1970’s.  Seven songs from the show, most written by the Bee Gees, climbed to the top of the Billboard singles chart when they were originally released from the movie soundtrack.  They include such classics as "Jive Talkin,” "You Should Be Dancing," "How Deep Is Your Love," "Night Fever,” and "Stayin' Alive."  They will leave even the most listless audience member tapping their feet.

There are three members of the cast worth noting.  Foremost, is Michael Notardonato as Tony Manero.  The actor is a natural for the Brooklyn teenager with all the right moves.  He is an athletic dancer and smooth operator.  He fully develops the character, infusing the role with passion and zeal.  He has a sizzling chemistry with the character of Stephanie Mangano (Caroline Lellouche).  Ms. Lellouche imbues her role with a sheen of glamour and confidence, but layers her portrayal with a hint of insecurity and bravado.  Nora Fox’s Annette shows spunk and determination as she pursues acceptance among Tony and his inner circle of friends.  The hurt and rejection she experiences feels genuine and heartfelt.
 
Dance sequence in the 2001 Odyssey disco.
The strength of the musical is the lavish, all-out production numbers choreographed by Director/Choreographer Todd L. Underwood, especially those in the 2001 Odyssey nightclub.  He does an outstanding job conceiving both large-scale and intimate dance routines in the style of the era.  Anyone care to do the bump or shake your groove thing?

Mr. Underwood is less successful as Director due, mostly, to the unwieldly nature of how the musical is structured.  With so many scenes it is difficult to create a vibrant and compelling flow to the production.  It’s almost as if his main assignment is trying to smoothly and quickly segue from one scene to another, which is not always successful.  The cumbersome nature of the show also gives him less time to work on developing viable secondary characters.

Scenic Designer Martin Scott Marchitto has managed to create simple set pieces, except for the bulky Verrazano-Narrows Bridge backdrop, that quickly and simply defines each scene.  Lighting Designer Marcus Abbott is at his best with the dazzling disco light displays and Costume Designer Lisa Bebey hits the mark with spot on 1970’s fashions, from leisure wear to partying threads.

Saturday Night Fever, playing at the Ivoryton Placehouse through September 3rd. Ticket information is at http://www.ivorytonplayhouse.org  or by calling 860-767-7318.


Sunday, August 13, 2017

Review of "The Music Man"


The Music Man – the Meredith Wilson show that took Broadway by storm in the late 1950’s – has been reimagined for the small stage in a disconsonant and cross-purposeful production at the Sharon Playhouse.  The decisions by director Morgan Green are at times intriguing but, in the end, the overall presentation is just too incongruous to produce a satisfactory musical.

The storyline of the show remains the same, but has been updated from the early part of the 20th century to 2017.  There is still Harold Hill, the slick talking con man looking to swindle the good folks of River City, Iowa by selling them band instruments, costumes and music lessons.  His main obstacle is the no-nonsense, unattached librarian Marian, the suspicious piano teacher who doesn’t believe his verbal double-talk or, at first, fall for his persistent wooing.  In the end, Hill’s roguery and dalliances win over the girl and show the townsfolk how to overcome their partisan, quarrelsome views while also instilling confidence in the denizens, both young and old.

The book, written by Wilson, is an ode to small town life, which is immediately incongruent with the thrust of this production as a number of decisions create unworkable and confusing scenarios.  This is immediately exemplified in the opening sequence, where traveling salesmen are aligned on stage singing “Rock Island.”  The song, through the cadence and lyrics, is supposed to mimic an old steam train traversing the plains, but the staging doesn’t imply motion or even the suggestion they are navigating the tracks.

The score, also by Meredith Wilson, is awash in timeless classics such as “Ya Got Trouble,” “Seventy-Six Trombones,” and “Till There Was You.”  They evoke a simpler, bygone time.  Most are presented in a straightforward manner, while others are given an unexpected twist that come across as more gimmicky.  “Marian the Librarian” is sung to a Latin beat.  The show-stopping “Shipoopi” is an exercise video/disco infused number, disco ball and all.

The cast is led by Robert M. Johanson as Professor Harold Hill.  He is a cagey, calculating huckster who comes across more as the razzle dazzle Billy Flynn character from the musical Chicago then a wily, homespun rascal.  In fact, the way “Seventy-Six Trombones” is staged could fit perfectly into that long-running show.  Elizabeth Thomas’ Marian Paroo has a lovely voice with an appealing stage presence.  Larry Owens, Harold Hill’s partner in crime, Marcellus, is suitably boisterous in a limited role.  Vin Knight could have leavened his role as Mayor Shin somewhat so as not to appear too much as a befuddled country bumpkin.  The bickering school board members—Matthew Krob, Robert Bannon, Daniel Walstad, and Jacob Pressley—unite delightfully to provide sweet-sounding barbershop quartet harmonies, exemplified in such songs as “It’s You” and “Lida Rose.”  Myles Crain is endearing and winsome as Marian’s little brother Winthrop, who overcomes his silence and reticence caused by his lisp.

Choreographer Chris DeVita’s production numbers are successful as audience-pleasing dance routines that fit within the scope of this reimagined version of the show.  They can be energetic and playful.

Director Morgan Green’s vision for the musical has flair and provocative choices, but do not, altogether, work for a musical that is so time and locale specific.  For example, the way Harold Hill ingratiates himself to the residents of River City is by extolling the harmful effect the newly installed pool table will have on the young ‘uns.  In 1912, this could cause considerable consternation, but in 2017?  Likewise, in the ebullient “The Wells Fargo Wagon” number the folks sing with joyful excitement about the impending arrival of the turn-of-the-century delivery vehicle.  But, nowadays, packages just appear at our doorsteps.  Some other choices were deemed too troubling to the licensing company.  Originally, cell phones were incorporated into the production, but these were ordered removed.  Additionally, two songs the director had displaced from the musical--"The Sadder-But-Wiser Girl" and "My White Knight"—were instructed to be put back into the show.

The creative team delivers mixed results.  Carolyn Mraz’s Scenic Design of a spare red and white bleacher setting does evoke a small-town vibe as well as sneakily showcasing itself as an American flag.  Alice Travener’s Costume Design keeps in line with the modern flavor of the show with more leisure wear and summery outfits.  The Video Projections by Jessica Medenbach, utilized throughout the show, come across as more of a distraction that does little to enhance the production. 

The Music Man, different, but disappointing, playing at the Sharon Playhouse through August 20th.  Information and tickets are at https://www.sharonplayhouse.org/buy-tickets or 860-364-7469 ext. 200 & 201.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Review of "1984"


Taking a classic work of fiction and transforming it into an absorbing, dramatic piece of theater is a difficult assignment.  This is the case with 1984, the stage adaption of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, now appearing on Broadway.  The play is a series of staccato-like scenes from the book which, unless one has recently read the work, comes across as jumbled, incomplete, and hard to follow.

For a novel that was written in 1948, the book is frighteningly and eerily prescient of today’s political times.  The terminology created by Orwell, such as Big Brother, Fake News, and Thought Police, have become part of our common vernacular.  The lack of individual privacy, as exhibited by the omnipresent telescreens, is almost clairvoyant.  Yet, the terror and grimness from the book has not fully translated into the play, adapted and directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan.  The latter half of the production, when the two lovers have been captured and brought to the terrifying torture space, Room 101, is more gruesome and unnerving rather than bleak and foreboding.

The stage production is structured, initially and then periodically, as a series of flashbacks from the future.  The individuals (scientists? ordinary citizens?) hypothesize about the entries in a diary that the protagonist Winston Smith has penned.  However, the main thrust of the story focuses on Smith, a member of the Party who day-in and day-out rewrites Party history.  He secretly despises the Party, pretending among his colleagues and acquaintances that he is a loyalist.  He soon becomes involved with Julia, a young Party woman who also loathes the central leadership.  They secretly meet for passionate rendezvouses, while at work remaining stoic and impassive towards each other.  Life trudges along until both are suddenly rounded up in a thought-to-be secluded apartment by the Thought Police.  They are brutalized mercilessly, even though we just witness what happens to Winston.  The interrogations are led by the ministry official O’Brien, who Winston and Julia thought were part of the conspiracy against the Party.  O’Brien wants to “cure” the low-level bureaucrat of his “misguided” hatred of the Party.  In the end, even as he tries to hold on to his humanity and love for Julia, Winston is broken, returning to society successfully re-educated, a shell of his former self, his love for Julia obliterated.

While not looking for a page by page retelling of the novel, the show seems like a Sparks Note recitation.  The plot and characters are sketchy and fragmentary, which robs the viewer of the complexity and power of what Orwell authored.  The intensity is ratcheted up during the rehabilitation (torture) segment.  Portions of it can be extreme and hard to witness as demonstrated by some audience members leaving their seats.

As directors, Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan convey the blandness of the lives of the denizens of Oceania, one of the three superstates that rule the world.  This banality, coupled with a strict adherence to Party values, effectively communicates a depressing and cheerless existence.  Their significant use of television monitors, or telescreens, in the production strongly transmits the notion of zero privacy, no matter where or when the setting.  The point of the show where Winston and Julia are captured and Winston is continually punished and tormented is harrowing, but the scenes do channel the essence of the novel.

The creative team of Scenic Designer Chloe Lamford, Lighting Designer Natasha Chivers, Video Designer Tim Reid and, especially, Sound Designer Tom Gibbons add a sonic, other worldly element that enhance the production.

The three main cast members—Tom Sturridge as Winston, Olivia Wilde as Julia, and Reed Birney as O’Brien—give absorbing and penetrating performances.  Sturridge embues his character with a lackluster sheen, but also with an undercurrent of rage and, towards the end, an inner strength that is ultimately wiped clean.  Ms. Wilde is animated and purposeful.  Her defiance comes across as less muted then her companion.  Mr. Birney is chilling as the reserved, smooth-talking, and matter-of-fact Party VIP.  He is downright terrifying with his doublethink and fanatical obedience to Party doctrine.  

1984, an overall disappointing production of the Orwellian classic at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Review of "Oklahoma!"


The first collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II was the musical Oklahoma!  The show is recognized as the first to integrate book, score, and choreographed numbers seamlessly into a musical.  A spirited revival of the ground-breaking production opened last week at the Goodspeed Opera House, playing now through September 27th.

The book by Oscar Hammerstein II, based on the 1931 play, Green Grow the Lilacs, emphasizes the simpler, less complicated time around the turn of the 20th Century in the Oklahoma Territory.  It can appear hokey and sometimes too straightforward, but the naturalness and ease does belie an ominous undercurrent.
“Let people say we’re in love!” Laurey (Samantha Bruce) and Curly (Rhett Guter) in Goodspeed Musicals’ Oklahoma!, now playing at The Goodspeed through September 27.
Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
The focus is on cowboy Curly McLain and his awkward, apprehensive pursuit of Laurey Williams.  Complicating matters is the unsettling farm hand Jud Fry’s interest in Curly’s would-be beau.  A secondary storyline is the relationship of the flirtatious Ado Annie and suitor Will Parker and Annie’s dalliances with peddler Ali Hakim.  Overseeing all that transpires to the satisfying ending is the matriarch Aunt Eller.

The score of the show?  What can you say?  Every song by Rodgers and Hammerstein is a tuneful gem.  There are simple bouquets to everyday life as in “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” and “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.”  The romantic rumblings of young love are expressed in “People Will Say We’re in Love,” and there are full-throttled comedic numbers, such as “I Cain’t Say No!” and “Kansas City.” 
“You're doin' fine, Oklahoma! Oklahoma O.K.!” The cast of Goodspeed Musicals’ Oklahoma!, now playing at The Goodspeed through September 27.
Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
The cast features Rhett Guter as Curly McLain.  Winner of last year’s Best Featured Actor in a Musical by the Connecticut Critics Circle, Guter is engaging, reserved, but also shows his determination and fight in an all-round winning performance.  Samantha Bruce’s Laurey Williams is more than a match for her cowpoke admirer.  She gives a tough, no-nonsense portrayal of the farm girl, who is also seeking love and romance.  Gizel Jimenez as Ado Annie and Jake Swain as Will Parker provide ample comedic interludes as does Matthew Curiano in his role as Middle Eastern peddler Ali Hakim.  Matt Faucher shows anguish and a elicits a modicum of pity as the quarrelsome, ill-fated Jud Fry.  Terry Burrell’s Aunt Eller is probably the key role of the musical.  She is the overseer and the one everyone gravitates to for advice and solace.  Ms. Burrell brings a knowingness and common sense and inner strength to the role.
“I don't say I'm no better than anybody else. But I'll be damned if I ain't jist as good!” The cast of Goodspeed Musicals’ Oklahoma!, now playing at The Goodspeed through September 27.
Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
In any production of Oklahoma! the Ballet Scene dream sequence at the end of Act I is a key barometer of the show’s quality and success.  Choreographer Katie Spelman carries out this critical assignment with confidence and style.  The number effectively explores the darker side of Laurey’s feelings which, in turn, adds depth to the character as well as the show.  Ms. Spelman is equally adept at the more rambunctious and festive dance sequences.  They are playful and, most of the time, appear organically within the action.

Director Jenn Thompson adroitly expands the confines of the production into the audience.  This opens-up the show beyond the boundaries of the small Goodspeed stage.  She demonstrates a deft hand helming the different tonal qualities and settings of the musical—from the friskiness of the young lovers to the humorous and mischievousness of Ado Annie and Will Parker to the ominous, menacing rumblings surrounding Jud Fry.  Her incorporation of the dance segments into the overall storyline is seamless and harmonious.
“Ev'rythin's up to date in Kansas City.” Will Parker (Jake Swain) and cowboys (Alex Ringler, Mark Deler, Tripp Hampton and Marco Antonio Santiago) in Goodspeed Musicals’ Oklahoma!, now playing at The Goodspeed through September 27.
Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Wilson Chin’s Scenic Design captures the airiness and sunshine of a summer’s eve to the foreboding setting of the rundown smoke house.  Philip B. Rosenberg’s Lighting Design is skillful in its efficacy, especially when the daylight filters hauntingly through the planks of Jud Fry’s living space.   Also, a special nod to Unkledave’s Fight-House for their staging of the realistic fight sequences.

Oklahoma!, a feisty classic at the Goodspeed Opera House through September 27th.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Review of "Finding Neverland"


Rarely does the national tour of a Broadway musical surpass its New York original. Such is the case with Finding Neverland that has alit on the Bushnell stage through Sunday, August 6th. The show, which tells the back story of how playwright J.M. Barrie conceived his classic tale, Peter Pan, is enchanting and captivating and well-worth the price of admission.

Audiences are most likely familiar with the many iterations of Peter Pan, from the 1950’s musical starring Mary Martin to the Disney classic and so many others. Before all of these versions there was simply the 1904 play, with no music, that charmed the world.  

Finding Neverland tells the story of how the beloved play, Peter Pan, came into existence.  Barrie, a highly successful London playwright at the turn of the twentieth century, is searching for inspiration for a new show to write.  Pressured by his longtime producer; beautiful, but dispirited wife; and others the writer’s creative spark is ignited by a chance meeting in the park with four boys and their sickly, widowed mother, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies.  The boys are rambunctious, full of energy and imagination.  Barrie, whose life is anything but exciting, immediately takes to Ms. Davies and the children.  Their frequent rendezvous leads the author to his breakthrough play even though it takes a toll on his marriage and the health of the woman he now admires and respects. 
Playwright James Graham has crafted a well-structured, surprisingly emotionally laden story inspired by Barrie’s creation and the events and personalities that played a part in its genesis.  He has skillfully constructed cheerfully buoyant scenarios while also exploring the darker side of the turn-of-the-century writer’s life. 

The music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy satisfactorily work in advancing the plot and enriching character development.  The score is uncommon in today’s world of musical theater since there are actually songs you leave the Bushnell Center humming!  They include such spirited numbers such as “Believe” and “Play” and moving ballads as with “When Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground” and “All That Matters.”

The entire cast is first-rate, led by Billy Harrigan Tighe as J.M. Barrie.  The actor brings an element of fun and playfulness to the role of the man who won’t grow up.  At the same time, he layers his performance with an earnestness and steadfastness, which rounds out his character.  Christine Dwyer as the widow Sylvia LLewelyn Davies is cheeky and effervescent.  She has a beautiful voice, which is highlighted in the song “All That Matters.”  John Davidson, yes the John Davidson who was ever-present on 1970’s variety and talk shows and the host of one of the first reality shows—remember “That’s Incredible”—is superb in the dual role of producer Charles Frohman and Captain Hook.  Even with his fifty plus years in show business, there is still a youthfulness and bounce in his step.  He is also more worldly wise and this comes across winningly as he plunges into his portrayals of the gruff, yet kindhearted man of the theater as well as the slyly menacing Hook.  Broadway veteran Karen Murphy is suitable haughty and protective as Mrs. Davies’ imposing grandmother, Mrs. D Maurier.

The four children are endearing and enchanting.  They are a talented, cohesive group, especially the oldest lad, Colin Wheeler as Jack, who plays a mean ukulele in the song “We’re All Made of Stars.” 

Director Diane Paulus, who helmed the original Broadway production, has tightened up the story, making the show more fluid and compelling then the New York version.  She has created a believable chemistry and esprit de corps among the acting troupe, which translates well whether in the surreal numbers such as “Circus of the Mind” and “Hook” or the more carefree moments as in “The World is Upside Down.”

Scott Pask’s minimal Scenic Design is enhanced by Kenneth Posner’s Lighting Design, Jonathan Deans’ Sound Design and, especially, Jon Driscoll’s Projection.  They beautifully augment the production without calling undue attention to their use.

Finding Neverland, a magical, dazzling theatrical experience, playing at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts through Sunday, August 6th.  Ticket information is at https://bushnell.org/ or 860.987.5900.