Sunday, April 23, 2017

Review of "Come From Away"

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The events of 9/11 still strike a raw nerve within the national psyche.  The books, movies, and television programs that have been rolled out over the past 16 years have been graphic and numbing.  Their blunt, straightforward portrayal of that morning have been, for the most part, unvarnished and overpowering.  The unintended consequences has been a separation, a significant chasm that precludes our mind from fully processing that tragic episode in American history.

Come From Away, the new Broadway musical, approaches that Tuesday in September differently.  The show relates the true story of how an abandoned airfield in Gander, Newfoundland in Canada suddenly became the pit stop for dozens of commercial airlines when the United States airspace was closed because of the attacks.  In aviation history Gander was the central refueling depot for planes crossing the Atlantic.  With the advent of jet propulsion the Gander locale became an abandoned footnote, until that fateful day when the population of the small town grew overnight from 9,000 to 16,000 residents.  The musical relates how the townspeople and “plane people” reacted, adapted, and came together over a five day period of time.  It humanizes the events of 9/11 through personal stories, song and dance.   The result is a show that is uplifting, funny, and forlorn.  It is a joyous celebration of life and the human spirit even as the very fabric of our lives was upended.    
 
Members of the cast of "Come From Away."
Librettist Irene Sankoff and David Hein have crafted a well-structured narrative where the cast portrays a multitude of roles from stunned and shaken airline passengers to the average man and woman on the streets of Gander.  The husband and wife team focus on the determination of everyone to make an unthinkable and untenable situation work.  This optimistic attitude is carried throughout the show.  Some would-be audience members might think any art form with 9/11 as the backdrop would be maudlin and depressing.  But Sankoff and Hein’s book for the show is more heartening and inspirational.  Are there moments when the tissues come out?  Sure, yet they are offset by humorous and tender moments that make you want to stand and cheer.

The ensemble cast is full of individuals you would find at any main street diner.  They exude their own can do spirit as they forcefully take hold of the material with a dynamism and drive that is heartfelt and genuine.  Every one of the actors and actresses fit so well together.  If there was a Tony Award for Best Ensemble Come From Away would be the hands down winner.  Three of the group that do deserve mention are Jenn Colella, who primarily portrays the gritty pilot of one of the diverted planes; Joel Hatch, who’s main character is the unflappable mayor of Gander; and Astrid Van Wieren, who’s central role is as the levelheaded, problem-solving school administrator.
 
Members of the cast of "Come From Away."
The score by Irene Sankoff and David Hein is a mix of haunting and soul-searching compositions and exuberant melodies that joyfully reverberate throughout the theater.  Tinged with the Irish roots prevalent in this northern Canadian province, they are almost all ensemble pieces.  The songs are performed by a tight knit, boisterous band that would be welcome at any Emerald Isle drinking establishment.

Director Christopher Ashley does a superb job with the flow of the cast as they assemble from one scene to the next.  There is a good deal of logistics involved as chairs forming the interior of a jetliner may quickly become the setting for the neighborhood bar or coffee shop.  He keeps the pacing quick without rushing the storyline. Under Ashley’s guidance, the transformation of the actors and actresses from one character to another is skillfully executed.  Gratifyingly, the overall effect allows the audience to slowly absorb the impact of what is happening without a preachy or moralistic tone.  The integration of the musical numbers, under the musical staging of Kelly Devine, is organic, developing naturally and mirroring the action on stage.  The dancing is buoyant and lively and reflects the down-to-earth nature of the towns folk. 
 
Members of the cast of "Come From Away."
Beowulf Boritt’s Scenic Design is spare with, for the most part, tables and chairs, serving a variety of functions.  A smart choice.  Anything more elaborate would have lessened the pace of the show and tethered our imagination.

Come From Away, an absorbing and moving musical that will leave you searching for words of praise. 

Review of "War Paint"


The fierce rivalry between cosmetic titans Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden during the post-World War II era seems like an unlikely subject for a big Broadway musical.  But War Paint, with two certified stars in the leads—Patti Lupone (Ms. Rubenstein) and Christine Ebersole (Ms. Arden)—and the same creative team behind the Tony Award winning Grey Gardens, proves to be an engaging, captivating, and classy production.
 
Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole in "War Paint."
The show examines the competition between the two women who ruled corporate boardrooms when very few women were even in the upper echelons of the business world.  The musical also looks at their individual empires and the ups and downs of both their businesses and personal lives.  Librettist Doug Wright has fashioned a coherent narrative that, while not perfect, manages to include a good deal of information in a dramatic and entertaining manner.  He also succeeds in nimbly touching on a number of notable topics as sexism, classism, and anti-Semitism without appearing so obvious or deliberate.  By covering such a significant amount of historical terrain, character development has been somewhat compromised, more so with the men in the story then the two female protagonists, but not to the detriment of the overall production.
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The high voltage women in the cast—Ms. Lupone and Ms. Ebersole—are worth the price of admission.  Both are seasoned musical theater veterans that are able to embody the heart and soul of their characters.  They are iron-willed, classy, sophisticated, but also vulnerable and alone.  Ms. Lupone, who’s Russian √©migr√© accent sometimes gets the best of her, nonetheless is superb as Helena Rubenstein.  Her performance is bold, defiant, and self-assured.  Throughout the show, she delivers a number of very funny, sharp-witted bon mots.  Ms. Ebersole, as Elizabeth Arden, presents a less hyperbolic portrayal.  She is well-poised and assured in her demeanor and possesses a razor-like focus on her goals, no matter what the sacrifices and slights, both personal and business.  Douglas Sills (Harry Fleming) and John Dossett (Tommy Lewis), the two men in Arden and Rubenstein’s lives who serve as their creative directors, publicists and confidantes, give well-honed performances within the limitations of their roles.   The primary focus is on the female leads and their story, which doesn’t allow the necessary time for expanding and refining the Fleming and Lewis characters.
 
Douglas Sills and Patti Lupone in "War Paint."

Director Michael Greif once again succeeds in birthing a musical with two strong, independent-minded female leads just as he accomplished with Grey Gardens.  He has skillfully worked out a stage management schema for Ms. Lupone and Ms. Ebersole to shine individually and in tandem.  He deftly guides the production through its pace to create a series of tightly woven scenes that together form a persuasively structured, unified whole as opposed to a series of strung-together vignettes.  Mr. Greif also manages to successfully weave through the show feelings of sadness, humor, triumph and defeat.
 
Christine Ebersole and members of the cast of "War Paint."
The score by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie afford each star a chance to, literally, shine in the spotlight as well as together.  The songs are effective in providing shading and nuance to the characters and moving the plot along its many twists and turns.  While none of the numbers will be remembered once leaving the theater they are engaging, finely written compositions well-suited within the confines of the show.

David Korins’ scenic design, along with Kenneth Posner’s Lighting Design, has fittingly captured the essence of the two corporate cultures and the world the women inhabit.   They bring a stylish and polished look to the production.  The costumes by Catherine Zuber are elegant, chic, and smart.

War Paint, a well-crafted musical with two bona fide stars delivering tour de force performances.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Review of "The Play That Goes Wrong"


Take Murphy’s Law – whatever can go wrong, will go wrong – and amplify it’s outcome to the nth degree.  That is the quite amusing, sometimes hilarious premise behind the British comedy, The Play That Could Go Wrong.  It is opening night for the Cornly University Drama Society’s production of The Murder at Haversham Manor.  From the onset, the members of the school’s decidedly amateur cast is undermined in their efforts to entertain by uncooperative scenery, misplaced props, and a corpse that won’t stay dead.  As the play progresses all manner of mayhem giddily erupts.  Just as you think the turmoil couldn’t get worse it does, again and again.

The playwrights Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sawyer, and Henry Shields – all actors in the show – must have had a grand time coming up with the situations and anarchy portrayed on stage.  They have written a stage comedy in the tradition of such other London imports as Noises Off and One Man, Two Guvnors.  This show is full of vaudevillian antics, slapstick and a great deal of physical humor..  Question – why can’t American playwrights pen such consistently convulsing shows.  There are some very inspired moments that would spoil the fun and merriment if they were revealed.  Suffice it to say you will not leave the theater without a smile on your face.


The superb cast successfully portrays a troupe of bumbling, provincial actors and actresses.  They butcher the English language, miss their cues, and are literally battered into submission.  If I had to spotlight one actor it would be David Hearn.  His character Max is self-important and smug within his role.  Everytime the audience laughs or applauds he turns his head to the seats with a broad, appreciative smile.  At other times he gesticulates wildly, arms flailing about like a pathetic contestant in a game of charades.  He is so bad, he’s good.  The two women in the cast – Charile Russell as the woeful femme fatale Sandra and Bryony Corrigan (making a superlative Broadway debut) as the overworked stage hand Annie – deliver a master class in stage fighting and pummeling.  You feel their pain, albeit in your funny bone.

Mark Bell does a fabulous job directing his cast to be…awful.  It can’t be easy guiding the actors and actresses through a purposeful dreadful performance, but he does so with skill and aplomb.  In addition, he cleverly  weaves into the production a recalcitrant and disintegrating set, flinging bodies, and even an invisible dog.


You get the impression that Scenic Designer Nigel Hook was like a kid on a sugar high when he created the concept for the show.  He has gone hog wild in coming up with a set that, by play’s end, literally implodes.  On the way to the final destruction he, along with Andrew Johnson’s playful sound design, generate a cornucopia of pandemonium and madness. 

Special mention needs to go to the unnamed stage crew (who actually take a bow with the cast at the curtain call).  Not only must they stay on their toes throughout the entire two hours of the show, but they have to rebuild the set every day (twice on matinee days).  They are the unsung heroes of the production.

The Play That Goes Wrong, a diverting and wacky respite during our topsy-turvy times.


Monday, April 3, 2017

Review of "Assassins"


A musical about Presidential assassins and would-be assailants is the highly unusual, somewhat creepy, premise for a full-fledged musical.  Yet, in 1990 Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman created such a show called, aptly, Assassins, which is receiving a spirited and passionate production at Yale Rep through April 8th.
 
The cast of Assassins, book by John Weidman, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed by James Bundy.
Photo by Carol Rosegg, 2017.
The production features an impressive ensemble cast, who bring to life the irrationality and disturbed state of each person.  Librettist Weidman mashes up groups of characters as well as scrutinizing their individual foibles and beliefs.  He tries to get into the soul of each person through probing vignettes that examine their backstory.  He is successful in creating three-dimensional characters, most mentally ill, hold unfounded grudges or are deranged nationalists.  The rogue’s gallery includes John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln; Charles Guiteau, the assassin of President James Garfield; Lee Harvey Oswald, who shot John F. Kennedy; and John Hinckley, who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan.   

The score by Stephen Sondheim echoes the time-period reflected by each Presidential era.  The songs explore the human condition and failed dreams of the protagonists.  Passionately sung with urgent and probing lyrics and melodies this is the work of a mature artist at the peak of his craft.
 
P. J. Griffith, Julia Murney, Stephen DeRosa, and Robert Lenzi in Assassins, book by John Weidman, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed by James Bundy.
Photo by Carol Rosegg, 2017.
The acting troupe is outstanding.  Each person thoroughly embodies their character, mostly with chilling effectiveness.  While every member is superb, standouts include Stephen DeRosa as the delusional Charles Guiteau; Dylan Frederick as the Balladeer, who comments on the proceedings and as the languid and unsure assassin Lee Harvey Oswald; Richard R. Henry as the unbalanced Nixon hater Samuel Byck; Robert Lenzi as the self-important, courtly John Wilkes Booth; Lauren Molina as the Charles Manson loving Lynnete "Squeaky" Fromme; and Julia Murney as a pathetic and distressed Sara Jane Moore.

Director James Bundy plays on the theme of the carnival setting by injecting menace, the unknown and even humor into the production.  He is keenly attuned to the desperation and torment of the characters, weaving their stories together in a socio-pathetic interpretive dance.  The strength, however, of the show is when the focus is on the individual assailant and their inner turmoil. 

Assassins, a chance to see the rarely revived Weidman/Sondheim collaboration, playing at Yale Rep through April 8th.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Review of "The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey"


For a one-person show to be successful an actor needs to be a gifted raconteur with an interesting and engaging story to tell.  James Lecesne, the playwright and performer in the captivating and thoughtful Hartford Stage production of The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey meets these essential criteria.

Lecesne, who had a successful Off-Broadway run with the show, has crafted a tale that, on the surface, recounts a missing person investigation in a small, fictional New Jersey shore town.  However, the real importance of the play is more about differences and acceptance. 
 
James Lecesne as Detective Chuck DeSantis in "The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey."


The actor portrays Chuck DeSantis, a local detective, who begins to look into what happened to the individual, a 14-year-old named Leonard Pelkey.  Through interviews with many denizens of the town we learn about the fate of the young man, a gay teenager in a town that’s not very welcoming of such residents.  As the investigation progresses we begin to grasp the effect Pelkey, young and quirky, had on people and how his actions could inspire others in unknowing ways.  This, in essence, is the meaning of the show’s title as Lecesne states in the program:  “each of us brings a particular brightness to every situation, and regardless of whether other people notice it or not, it’s still there.  We shine no matter what.”

The 80 minute, intermission-less production, is told with humor and pathos.  Lecesne, the playwright, has created a multitude of colorful, well-etched characters, each with his or her own personality and idiosyncracies.  They include a 16-year-old high school girl, a madam of the local hair salon, a bird watching wife of a Mafioso boss, and an elderly Germanic clock repair man.  As an actor, Lecesne gives a multi-faceted, layered performance. 
 
James Lecesne, portraying one of the characters in "The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey."
Director Tony Speciale, who was also at the helm of the original Off-Broadway production of the show, lets the stories speak for themselves.  Many times Lecesne, in one of his guises, is simply sitting in a chair or standing erect giving us insight to the missing youth.  The director successfully manages the transformation between characters with a quick spin by the actor or change of facial expression and intonation of voice.  He also satisfactorily incorporates Designer Aaron Rhyne's projections to amplify the storyline of the production.  Sometime scenes extend a bit too long but, overall, the show keeps the audience in rapt attention.

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, entertaining and engrossing, playing at Hartford Stage through April 23rd.

Review of "Next to Normal"

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The best musical in Connecticut right now is playing at Theaterworks.  Next to Normal, the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning show, is receiving a spirited and impassioned production at their downtown Hartford venue.  The show centers on a mother with a bi-polar disorder triggered by the death of an infant son and how her family struggles with this paralyzing condition.

The portrayal of a household at the precipice and how each member copes with their inner tensions, angst, and personal crises is riveting theater. Brian Yorkey’s libretto draws you into their individual despair, their setbacks, and small victories. It is a musical where the audience is connected to the energy and emotionally involved with the characters portrayed on stage.

The raw energy and urgency of the rock-infused score by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey amplifies the edginess and distress on stage. The music and lyrics convey the hurt, desperation, and even hope by the characters. The songs are powered by a tight, six-piece band under the first-rate musical supervision of Adam Souza.

Each member of the six-person company brings a strong intelligence and sensitivity to their role.  Their individual singing voices steadily handle the varied score, whether powerful rockers or tender ballads.  Leading the cast is Broadway and musical theater veteran Christiane Noll.  Her performance as Diana, the troubled mother at the center of the story, is heartfelt and shattering. David Harris, who seems to have found a home within the Connecticut musical theater community the past few years (Les Miserables at CT Rep and Anything Goes at Goodspeed), does a superb job with his portrayal of Donna’s husband, Dan.  He imbues the role with an undercurrent of frustration and helplessness as he seeks to support his beleaguered wife.  John Carboza gives an anguished, mournful rendering to Gabe, the deceased son.  Maya Keleher, making her professional theater debut, comes off as a polished actress in the role of the daughter Natalie.  Nick Sacks is satisfying as Natalie’s funky boyfriend Henry and J.D. Daw delivers a solid performance playing two different psychologists,

Director Rob Ruggiero coaxes heart-wrenching performances from each actor as he slowly builds the emotional level of the show to its ultimate climax.
Working with set designer Wilson Chin and lighting designer John Lasiter, the scenes nimbly and seamlessly meld into each other without disrupting the flow of the story.  Sometimes, when all the characters are on stage, the production can appear crowded, which can be distracting to the audience, but this is a minor issue.  Overall, Ruggiero, one of the best musical theater directors in the state, has a firm and skillful handle on the show.

Wilson Chin’s set design, banks of shelving chock full of with lamps and household knick knacks, is somewhat busy.  However, it is an apt metaphor for the clutterness within Donna’s consciousness and the luminousity she is searching for within her life.  His placement of a center doorway provides an opening into her mind, which only the departed son can enter and leave.

John Lasiter’s lighting design is outstanding as it helps shape the many moods swirling around the show and also helps designate scene changes within the production.

Next to Normal, a compelling and absorbing musical drama, extended through May 7th.