Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Review of "The Revisionist"

The essential question of The Revisionist, the fitfully compelling drama at Playhouse on Park, is how does one define family and the desire for connection—with the world today and between generations?  Playwright Jesse Eisenberg’s work also explores the power of personal stories and experiences.  He mostly succeeds in a story that can be thought-provoking, enthralling, and heartrending.
Cecelia Riddett and Carl Howell in "The Revisionist."
The plot centers on David, a young writer searching for solace and a creative spark in order to finish his science fiction epic.  Seeking a total change of scenery, he travels to Szczecin in Poland to stay with Maria, an older, second cousin he hardly knows.   At first, the self-absorbed and arrogant novelist resists the overtures of the inquisitive and gregarious relative, wanting to be left alone to work.  They banter and squabble over the mundane and routine.  His curiosity, though, about her life as a Jew during the Holocaust she sporadically hints at, starts to pique his interest and begins to draw them closer until a long-kept secret drives a decisive wedge in their developing relationship.

Cecelia Riddett is impressive as the elderly Maria.  She skillfully and persuasively conveys the swirling emotions and excitement of someone coming face-to-face with a long unseen relative and her own personal demons.  The actress, initially, may come across as a fool set in her provincial ways, but she is more intelligent and sharp-witted then first impressions may suggest.  Carl Howell imbues David with an air of superiority and smugness that plays well against the more down-to-earth spirit of Maria.  There is, however, a uniform temperament and disposition to his role which, with more subtlety and variation, would have better displayed his more complex character. Sebastian Buczyk, a Polish native, is perfectly cast as Zenon, a burly taxi driver who, among other things, helps Maria with her weekly errands.
Cecelia Riddett and Carl Howell in "The Revisionist."
The production starts off sluggishly under Sasha Bratt’s staging.  Yet, the 100-minute, intermission-less play very quickly builds to an engrossing intensity only occasionally veering into tedious territory.  The director establishes an ambiguous, slightly unsettling tone that permeates the show including its surprise, somewhat inconclusive, nonetheless satisfying, ending.  Mr. Bratt is at his best with the scenes where the two main protagonists are holding honest conversations or bickering over unimportant minutiae. 

Emily Nichols’ Scenic Design of Maria’s apartment is functional and utilitarian, a domicile appropriate for someone on a very fixed income.  Joel Abbott’s Sound Design is unobtrusively effective with, for example, the jarring, ringing from the old-time rotary phone becoming almost like another character in the show.

The Revisionist, a worthy production at Playhouse on Park through April 29th.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Review of "Second Chance"

Jack, a senior citizen seemingly uninterested in much, lives alone in a small apartment, content to watch his beloved Yankees on television and live out his years.  His son, a well-to-do lawyer, convinces him to move to an assisted living facility.  Resistant at first, Jack quickly learns to love his new surroundings, thanks to the 4 to 1 ratio of women to men.  He becomes more active, especially with the lady folk, is less a curmudgeon, and develops a whole new outlook on life.  So, begins Mike Vogel’s uneven, somewhat humorous outlook on growing old.  All is not great, though, as Jack’s relationship with his only child is strained and his libido, while still active – at one point asking his son if he thinks Medicare covers the cost of Viagra – is not what it used to be.  Still, even with his bouts of forgetfulness, the arthritic pain in his shoulder, and his difficulties to commitment Jack is able to amicably resolve his problems and pursue life with vim and vigor.

Playwright Mike Vogel has crafted a diverting story that will have aged theater-goers and their children nodding in understanding.  These are significant and timely issues being portrayed and even though the overall thrust of the play is more genteel and limited there is food for thought within the text.  The characters the playwright has created are, for the most part, interesting, but they lack depth, are one-dimensional, and don’t necessarily mesh as a cohesive whole. 

The cast, in general, is adept and comfortable in their roles.  Paul D’Amato, as Jack, demonstrates older Americans don’t need to disassociate themselves from the world, no matter what their age.  He is sufficiently crusty and undergoes a convincing transformation from apathetic curmudgeon to the darling of the ball.  Marina Re, who portrays Jack’s love interest, Violet Amanda, adds a bit of zing to the production with her flamboyant outbursts and predatory motives.  Amanda Kristin Nichols as Malka, a young, single mother from Russia, who is one of the facility’s helpful aides, gives the most well-rounded, balanced performance.  The actress is expressive, hot-headed, and caring as she interacts with the residents.  Warren Kelly as Chet, the uber male of the complex until Jack shows up, delivers true comic moments that produce the most laughs during the show.  Jack Lafferty, who plays the son, Larry, needs to invigorate his role with more nuance and commitment.  His exhortations of fatherly compassion and love just don’t ring true.

There is a meandering flow to Director Russell Treyz’s pacing of the show, which can come across as somewhat choppy.  A more tightly structured staging would have given the production a better rhythm.   There is a noticeable lack of chemistry between Jack and Larry and their age difference just doesn’t add up and comes across as awkward. The requisite shouting showdowns between father and son, girlfriend and beau towards the end of the play come across as hollow and forced.  There are some enjoyable and finely tuned moments by the assorted characters, most notably the comic embellishments offered by Warren Kelly as Chet.

Second Chance, a mildly entertaining work that, nonetheless, illustrates a critical concern for our aging population.  Playing through April 29th.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Review of "Admissions"

The question of white privilege and its collision with the college admission system is haphazardly examined in Joshua Harmon’s unfulfilling play Admissions.

The story revolves around Charlie Mason, a senior at an elite New England Preparatory School where his mother is the Director of Admissions and his father is the Dean of the institution.  He and his best friend, the offspring of a mixed marriage, have both applied to Yale University.  The friend gets in and Charlie does not.  This sets off a chain of events that only skims the surface of the agonizing admissions process and heartbreaking aftermath once decision letters arrive in the mail.  Friendships are also recalibrated and views on diversity and privilege are debated.

The concluding scenes, where the son makes a bold gesture, naïve and reactionary as it appears, nonetheless exposes the hypocrisy of his parents and their sorrowful view of higher education in this country.

Mr. Harmon has attempted to tackle a highly volatile issue.  As someone that has spent over 35 years in higher education, including Admissions, I know this process still continues to confound and anger applicants and parents today.  There is plenty of moralizing and soul-searching in the production, but the problem is many of the specifics fixated on by the characters are not significant.  For example, there is a long diatribe about how being passed over for Editor of the school newspaper was critical for Charlie’s admission chances.  When, in today’s world, many, many applicants to the Ivy League have incredibly high SAT scores, a better then 4.0 high school grade point average and eye-opening extra-curricular activities not making Editor-in-Chief is trivial.  Whether a student checking the “Black” box under ethnicity gives them a huge advantage is also very overplayed.

During the show, Charlie’s parents fret about their son’s future and what they can do to help him be admitted to any upper tier school.  You wonder how much or how little his parents, who know the in’s and outs of the admissions process, prepared him for this journey.  Also, wouldn’t the Director of Admissions and the Dean at an elite Prep School know people at said schools?  Couldn’t they call in a favor, especially for their son?

For audience members, unfamiliar with higher education practices the situations and dialogue may seem jarring and provocative.  But the circumstances addressed mask what could have been a more honest exploration of important issues only touched upon in this production.

The cast is fine, but the way their characters are written and directed produce mixed results.  Jessica Hecht’s Admissions Director, Sherri Rosen-Mason, is hard to read.  She is a strong, task oriented professional with little affect at her office, but her persona at home is a cloying, worrisome housewife.  Andrew Garman, her husband Bill, comes across as a stereotypical head of a tweedy New England Preparatory School who, at home, has little patience for what he sees as a whiny, self-righteous son.  Ben Edelman, as Charlie Luther Mason, is highly animated and captures the anger of a high school senior facing significant rejection, probably for the first time.  His performance would have been more effective with less histrionics, but the raw emotions are there.  Ann McDonough, as Roberta, the nearly retired Office of Development employee, is the most fully realized character.  She is earnest and forthright as she tries to satisfy Sherri’s ambiguous instructions for a more diversified student presence in the school catalog.  The actress exudes honesty and genuineness over her confusion and inquisitiveness.  She is exasperated, combative, and yearning to understand the changing world around her.  Sally Murphy as Sherri’s friend Ginnie Peters is not as fully rounded as the other characters.  She also appears younger then her dear friend as opposed to coming across as a peer.  Ms. Murphy gives a carefree gloss to her role until an impactful scene late in the show.

For the most part, Director Daniel Aukin utilizes too much yelling and volatility as a way for characters to get their points across.   The message of the show and their underlying themes might have been more compelling with a greater degree of contemplation.  However, the long monologue delivered by Charlie when he learns about his admissions decision, while over-the-top, is an appropriate, soulful yowl from an angst-ridden 18-year-old.  The best scenes in the play occur between Sherri and Roberta where they thrust and parry over diversity and strong-held beliefs.  They demonstrate the ambiguity, misinterpretation and the falsehood of admissions practices.  They are taut, and well-paced.

Admissions, a disappointing perspective on the higher education admissions process, playing at Lincoln Center through May 6th.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Review of "Harry Clarke"

Who is Harry Clarke?  That is the intriguing question playwright David Cale has posed in the captivating and provocative, and very entertaining, one-man show Harry Clarke.  Starring Billy Crudup in a tour de force performance, the show examines how one man reinvents himself and through good fortune, lies and bravado changes his destiny.

There’s not much more I would want to say about the plot because, as Harry rants to a friend (paraphrasing here): “Why do people read reviews?  They’re just going to spoil the plot.”
Billy Crudup as "Harry Clarke."
Mr. Cale has created a show with enough twists and turns to keep the audience alert and focused.  After leaving the production, two disparate references popped into my head--Seven Degrees of Separation and the movie Down and Out in Beverly Hills.  That’s all I want to say as not to reveal too much.  The playwright has crafted over half a dozen roles that Mr. Crudup fleshes out into full-bodied characters, the central one being Harry Clarke who is a charmer, risk taker and charlatan. The contemporary persona of Harry Clarke is skillfully augmented with enough backstory to present a fully rounded individual that began toying with his sense of self and worthiness at a very young age.

None of the layered complexities and engrossment of the play would be realized without a performer who possesses the intelligence, adroitness, and stage presence as the actor Billy Crudup.  He totally embodies the main character, capturing his every nuance, frailties, and bluster.  One minute he is a shy, almost stuttering boy in the Indiana heartland.  The next he is a self-confident, boastful, English-accented young man cruising the byways of Manhattan.  He subtly infuses each of the other characters with just the right amount of inflection in his voice and body language to convey their essence and individuality.

Director Leigh Silverman brings tension and humor to the production with a tempo that is fast-paced and assured.  She has an outstanding partner in Billy Crudup who makes her job look easy and effortless.

Harry Clarke, a show not to be missed.  Playing in the Village at the Minetta Lane Theatre through May 13th.

Review of "Lobby Hero"

Poor Jeff (Michael Cera).  He works the graveyard shift managing the front desk of a nondescript hotel, lives with his brother, has no love life, and has a lousy sense of humor.  He also can’t keep his mouth shut, which causes more trouble than not.  He is the central character in Lobby Hero, playwright Kenneth Lonergan’s affecting, often times, tense drama.

The plot slowly develops from a routine, nightly check-in between security supervisor William (Brian Tyree Henry) and his subordinate Jeff and then casually, almost off-handedly begins to escalate into what could be a murder investigation.  Enter Bill (Chris Evans), a brawny, domineering police officer, who has no qualms bending and even breaking department rules and Dawn (Bel Powley), his dutiful, reticent female partner.  Through repeated visits to the featureless lobby the audience learns more about each character, their desires, shortcomings, and their ethical rectitude and moral integrity.  All of this is framed within the intensifying inquiry into a brutal killing.

Mr. Lonergan has crafted a taut melodrama that primarily explores truthfulness and the decisions people make when confronted with the notion of what is right versus personal choice.  He has layered his work with enough humor to keep the play from becoming overwrought. Setting the action within the small confines of a hotel lobby heightens the tension, which culminates with an electrifying climax.

The cast is solid.  Michael Cera exudes banality and smallness as a young man attempting to ascertain his place within society.  The actor conveys honesty and conflicted emotions on the question of right and wrong; loyalty and personal integrity.  Brian Tyree Henry imbues his character with a straightforward directness and outward fortitude that belies his insecurities and the mounting family crisis that envelopes him.  Chris Evans makes an auspicious Broadway debut as the ego-centric, tough-minded, yet flawed police officer.  He effortlessly oozes insincerity and arrogance, often in a chilling, piercing manner.  His partner, played by Bel Powley, at first, comes across as a fish out of water with the other three performers.  But her character’s outward reserve and naiveté mask a steeliness and inner strength which propels the forcefulness of the production through its searing conclusion.

Director Trip Cullum skillfully guides the performers through a bumpy emotional landscape.  He illuminates each character with individualized mannerisms and traits.  There is apprehension and a jumpiness that he adeptly sets off with the mundane and humorous.  His execution of the show’s payoff is chest-pounding and wholly satisfying.

David Rockwell’s Scenic Design is uncomplicated and modest—a rotating stage with an unadorned lobby, plate glass front doors, and a centrally placed elevator, which stands like a warning beacon over the action.  One of the most nerve-wracking parts of the production occurs when the elevator descends, its lighted floor numbers unhurriedly count down to the ground floor below. 

Lobby Hero, at the newly renovated Hayes Theater through May 13th.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Review of "The Fantasticks"

It’s not often that a musical is impeccably cast and exquisitely staged, but when it occurs it can be a moving and enchanting experience. The Fantasticks, playing at the Ivoryton Playhouse through April 8th, falls into this category.  A simple tale with a superb score and an innocent charm, the production is well-worth seeing.
Members of the cast of "The Fantasticks" at the Ivoryton Playhouse.

The book by Tom Jones plays on the classic boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back.  Matt (Ryan Bloomquist) and Luisa (Kimberly Immanuel), two young lovers living next door to each other, are the embodiment of impulsive exuberance.  Their mothers, Hucklebee (Patricia Schuman) and Bellomy (Carly Callahan) outwardly disapprove of the relationship and each other, but secretly are strong friends and want marriage for their offspring.  They employ a bandit, El Gallo (David Pittsinger), who brings along two accomplices, Henry (R. Bruce Connelly) and Mortimer (Will Clark) to help fake an abduction that makes Matt look like a hero.  Throughout the show a character known as The Mute (Cory Candelet) acts as a one-man Greek chorus providing assistance to others as well as delivering comedic interludes.  The plot by the women succeeds and at the end of Act I, everything is rosy.  However, Act II brings a darker tone to the story where self-discovery and introspection by the youthful pair, now branching out separately to the world outside their secure and sheltered world, becomes central to the narrative.  In the end, life lessons strengthen their bond as they resolve to forge ahead together.

The score by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt is one for the ages.  It includes such timeless classics as “Try to Remember,” “Soon It’s Gonna Rain,” and “Round and Round.”  The songs, accompanied simply by piano and harp, are charming and melodic, gorgeously rendered by the performers.

The cast is superb, led by David Pittsinger as El Gallo.  The bass-baritone has been a fixture the past few years at Ivoryton.  I was not totally enthralled with his Emile de Becque in South Pacific, but I thought he was outstanding as Don Quixote in last season’s Man of La Mancha.  Here, he is fittingly roguish with a twinkle in his eye and a lighthearted bounce in his step as the lead actor.  His rendition of the musical’s signature song, “Try to Remember,” is one of the highlights of the production. 
Kimberly Immanuel and David Pittsinger from "The Fantasticks" at the Ivoryton Playhouse.
The young couple, Ryan Bloomquist and Kimberly Immanuel, have a wonderful chemistry as they burst forth with potential and possibilities.  Naïve at first, by the final curtain they show a more knowing view of themselves and the world around them.  Ms. Immanuel is luminescent, exuding an effervescent quality that brightens the show.  Mr. Bloomquist projects a youthful bravado that matches the cheerfulness and vitality of his love interest.  In the supporting role of the two mothers, Patricia Schuman and Carly Callahan are suitably protective, nurturing, and befittingly display motherly concern and angst.  R. Bruce Connelly, as the old-time actor and hired hand, demonstrates his vibrancy and comic talents.  His partner in crime, Will Clark, proves an affable, equally comic, foil.  One of the most engaging performances is by Cory Candelet as The Mute.  Sometimes lurking in the background or off to the side, at other times more center stage, his clownish antics and silent screen-like histrionics add a giddy embellishment that enlivens the musical.

Brian Feehan’s direction is beautifully staged, combining subtle flourishes with explicit and straightforward guidance.  There is a polished sheen to the production that, nonetheless, does not overwhelm the unfussiness and forthrightness of the show.  He has a confident hand with the acting troupe that gives the production an engaging and assured flow. Interestingly, traditional presentations of the musical have two fathers, as opposed to female characters, cast in the show.  There is no mention in the program whether this was Mr. Feehan’s decision or otherwise but, either way, it has no effect on the quality or thrust of the show.

The scenic design by Martin Scott Marchitto uses a classical colonnade motif, which goes hand-in-hand with the archetype naturalness of the show.  The set is uncluttered, allowing for our imagination to reflect and ponder.

The Fantasticks, currently the best musical playing in Connecticut.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Review of "The Legend of Georgia McBride"

Poor Casey, a so-so Elvis impersonator plying his trade at a rundown bar on the Florida panhandle.  The audience is sparse, the money negligible, and the sudden need to support a growing family is a pressing concern.  His luck suddenly changes when, due to unforeseen circumstances, he is literally thrust on stage in a drag show revue with a new guise and attitude.

Thus begins The Legend of Georgia McBride, an entertaining, but slender offering from playwright Matthew Lopez.  There are themes of sexual identity and self-acceptance, but the material covered in the play offers only a smattering of dramatic substance that never really explores these issues in depth.  There are numerous musical, lip-syncing performances—a tad too many—that are enjoyable and comical, but after a while seem redundant.

Jamison Stern and Austin Thomas in "The Legend of Georgia Brown."
Casey (Austin Thomas) is at the center of the show.  His character, however, is hard to decipher.  Initially, he comes across as a very immature man-child, but in no time at all transforms into a more thoughtful, serious-minded individual.  The effect is somewhat jarring.  He is married to an understanding, but rather exasperated wife (Samaria Nixon-Fleming).  Their neighbor/landlord Jason (Nik Alexander), a childhood friend, drops in every so often about the overdue rent and provides sagely banter.  Eddie (J. Tucker Smith), the owner of the dive, looking to drum up business, brings in his cousin and his friend, drag performers Miss Tracy (Jamison Stern) and Rexy (Nik Alexander).  The interaction between the three performers, focusing on Casey’s slow-forming transformation, shapes the basis and modest dramatic arc of the show.

One of the central questions brought up in the play, but never fully resolved, is the motivation of Casey to continue with his new persona.  The uncertainty and muted approach lessens the impact of the production.  Is he truly confronting his beliefs about himself, his sexuality, and how he defines his uniqueness as an individual or is his performance simply a way of expressing his desire to entertain and earn enough money to pay the bills? 
J. Tucker Smith, Nik Aleander, Austin Thomas and Jamison Stern in "The Legend of Georgia Brown."
The cast is fine, as they provide enough definition and substance to convey a genuineness and conviction to their roles.   There are some issues with continuity—Rexy has a seemingly severe alcohol problem, which all but vanishes; Casey’s on again, off again flights into adulthood.  But, for the most part, we know the characters and their driving force.

Rob Ruggiero’s direction is very episodic that comes across more as a series of indistinct, dissatisfactory scenes.  This prevents an agreeable rhythm to develop throughout the length of the production.

Paul Tate dePoo’s set design is playful and campy for its transition from a sleazy backstage storage area to a more professional looking dressing room.  It’s tacky, but tasteful.

The Legend of Georgia Brown, a feathery, yet sprightly production, playing through April 22nd.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Review of "Amy and the Orphans"

The play, Amy and the Orphans, can be a painfully realistic examination of how society looks at and treats individuals with developmental disabilities.  To her credit, playwright Lindsey Ferrentino has managed to make powerful statements—both overt and subtly—that is tinged with humor and poignancy.

The plot toggles between a twenty-something couple coming to grips with their troublesome relationship and, years later, scenes with their grown-up children--Maggie (Debra Monk) and Jacob (Mark Blum)—both in their late 50’s, early 60’s, and their younger sister Amy (Jamie Brewer), a younger woman with Down’s Syndrome living in a Group Home.  We quickly learn their father has recently passed (their mother died years earlier) and Maggie and Jacob have flown into New York City to pick up Amy, gently break the word to her, and head to his home to settle his affairs.  Along for the ride is Kathy (Vanessa Aspillaga), Amy’s no-nonsense aid.

From their very first interaction with Amy, the two siblings are not only over-productive of their sister, but treat her almost as if she was still a child, not a grown, semi-independent living adult.  Sadly, within the context of Amy’s life these condescending attitudes began at an early age with the way the entire family approached their “different” sister, rarely visiting her or realizing her vast potential.   Maggie and Jacob don’t even know she has a day job, a relationship, and understands the world and its surroundings.  She knows about her father’s death thanks to Kathy, who gives a puzzling look when informed the woman was never informed.

As the play progresses, the audience learns more about the family dynamics, both when Amy was very young and today.  It is important to note that the portion of the show given over to the young parents and their heart-wrenching discussions and decisions takes place in the 1960’s when children with developmental disabilities were, more often than not, shunted to state-run facilities.  At one climatic point the name Willowbrook is spewed from Kathy’s lips.  You could fill the recoil from the mostly older audience members who remembered the scandal and horrors of the former Staten Island facility.

As the play concludes, after a chilling and climatic scene, there is a better understanding and a new awareness between the three remaining family members.  We can only hope that is the direction all the characters take.

Ms. Ferrentino has painted an honest, at times playful and bittersweet, portrayal of a family coming to terms with its past and present.  She balances the reality of views towards individuals with disabilities with a theatricality that makes the production entertaining and enriching.  Her inclusion of scenes when the parents were young assists in providing needed background information and helps enhance the overall presentation.

The acting troupe is up to the challenge of handling the material with deft and aplomb.  Jamie Brewer, as Amy, an actress with Down’s Syndrome, gives a vigorous, persuasive performance.  She’s a wisecracking and confident woman forcefully declaring her independence.  Debra Monk gives Maggie a layered vulnerability and excitable personality.  She is not only coming to terms with her life, her father’s passing, but also with her mercurial relationship with her sister.   Mark Blum, as Jacob, is more reserved and a perfect counterpoint to Ms. Monk’s character.  Vanessa Aspillaga is direct and protective as Kathy.  For any family with a loved one in a Group Home setting, a person like Kathy is someone you would want in your child’s life.  Diane Davis, who plays the young mother, Sarah, is a bundle of mixed emotions as she grapples with her own self-worth and the life determining decision she felt compelled to make.  Josh McDermitt’s Bobby, the patriarch of the group, gives a believable performance as a man who doesn’t fully understand the magnitude and ramifications of what is happening around him. 

Director Scott Ellis brings a skillful hand to a sensitive storyline.  He allows the material to develop naturally, slowly unfolding to present a genuine, gratifying production.  There is a good pacing to the show as he adeptly switches between the past and present.

Amy and the Orphans, a provocative and worthwhile production that is authentic and moving.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Review of "Baskerville - A Sherlock Holmes Mystery"

The playwright Ken Ludwig is having a banner year for productions of his works in Connecticut, with decidedly mixed results.  Last November The Game’s Foot had an underwhelming presentation at the Ivoryton Playhouse.  The adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is currently receiving a sleek and stylish production at Hartford Stage (through March 25th).  That brings us to Baskerville – a Sherlock Holmes Mystery playing until March 25th at Long Wharf Theatre.  The show, a dramatization of the Arthur Conan Doyle mystery, “The Hounds of the Baskervilles,” is a straightforward and sometimes amusing telling of the classic tale.  The play is staged with only five actors.  Think of The 39 Steps (playing at Music Theatre of Connecticut through March 18th), but with less inventiveness and adrenaline.

Brian Owen, Daniel Pearce, Alex Moggridge and Christopher Livingston in "Baskerville."

The plot of the show is simple enough.  Sherlock Holmes and his faithful companion Dr. Watson are asked to investigate the menacing, maybe otherworldly, events on the English Moors by Baskerville estate.  The previous occupant has been suspiciously and horribly murdered by, what seems, a ferocious beast.  The duo race up to investigate as well as protect the new Lord of the manor, a wide-eyed Texan, who might be the latest victim of a supposed family curse.  There are disguises, red-herrings, clues to be deciphered, deceit and a love story thrown in for good measure.
Daniel Pearce, Brian Owen, and Christopher Livingston in "Baskerville."
The playwright has been quite faithful to the original story so audience members, not familiar with the mystery, will not be lost.  Ludwig has embellished the tale with humorous trimmings and a frantic sensibility.  Still, while the overall production is entertaining, there is too little of a comic temperament.  I smiled more then I laughed.

The five actors play 40 different, sometimes eccentric, characters.  The acting team is led by Alex Moggridge as the intrepid detective Sherlock Holmes.  He is suitably erudite, aloof, and without peer.  His portrayal is assured and less comical then the other performers, which helps anchor the show.  Daniel Pearce, as Dr. Watson, is less the inept sidekick so famously portrayed by Nigel Bruce in the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies from the 1940’s.  Here, the actor is less a bungler and more Holmes’ partner-in-crime.  The actor has bounding enthusiasm for the role that helps propel his scenes forward.  The three other performers—Kelly Hutchinson, Christopher Livingston, and Brian Owen—seem to be having the most fun as they flit in and out of dozens of quirky, idiosyncratic characters.  While all fine actors, Brian Owen needs to be singled out for his more daft, off-the-wall portrayals.
Daniel Pearce, Kelly Hutchinson, Brian Owen and Christopher Livingston in "Baskerville."
Director Brendan Fox keeps the game afoot with quick costume and set changes synchronized at a dazzling pace.  His work with Lighting Designer Robert Wierzel helps push forward scene changes with modest, yet effective lighting techniques.  The director is at his best, as is the play itself, when the action and hijinks are ratcheted up a notch or two. 

Tim Mackabee’s minimal scenic design gives just enough visual cues to
define set locales.  Victoria Deiorio’s Sound Design and original music add a sinister and melodramatic underpinning to the production.  Lex Liang’s Costume Designs deserve special notice for their spot-on Victorian accoutrements as well as permitting lightning quick costume changes, a must for this type of show.
Alex Moggridge as Sherlock Holmes in "Baskerville."
Baskerville – a Sherlock Holmes Mystery, a droll and diverting piece of entertainment, playing at Long Wharf Theatre through March 25th.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Support the 27th Annual CT Critics Circle Awards

Christy Altomare receiving her award for outstanding actress in a musical for Hartford Stage's production of "Anastasia."
The Connecticut Critics Circle Awards will hold its 27th annual free event Monday, June 11 at the Westport Country Playhouse -- but we need your help.

The not-for-profit organization wants to keep the the show, that celebrates the best of the state's professional theaters, a free and open-to-the-public event but costs have increased over the years.

On Thursday, March 1 is Fairfield County Foundation Giving Day and money to the CCC through this fundraising template will go directly for awards to give out to theater artists and for expenses incurred in the ceremony.  The link to the form, which goes live on March 1st is: 


Please circle the day and give as generously as you can. Over the last few years, the event has become a terrific event for theater lovers to gather, celebrate the season and applaud the wonderful work that occurs on the state's many stages.

Please help us reward the many great regional theater artists who have given their lives to the theater. In many cases, this is their only venue to take such an honored bow. 

Reprinted with permission from https://showriz.com

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Review of "Red Hot Mama"

Sophie Tucker, the songstress and performer who was a mainstay of American entertainment during the first half of the 20th century, is being celebrated in a charming and appealing one-woman show, Red Hot Mama, at Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury, CT.

The actress and cabaret singer Sharon McNight stars as the brassy, powerhouse songbird who was a mainstay of burlesque, vaudeville and all other forms of entertainment for 60 years.  Ms. McNight also wrote the book of the musical and directed the production. 

The focus of the show is the music that made Ms. Tucker a star.  There are over two dozen songs and ditties that she made famous, many with risqué lyrics (for that time-period) and most dealing with men and relationships.  In between the musical numbers Ms. McNight has sketched out bare-bones biographical information—from her start in rundown, forgettable theaters to her numerous failed marriages (three) to her life in the big time.  While the snippets and vignettes give structure to the show, it is the songs of years ago that resonate and pulsate with emotion and titillation.

The patter she has with her three-person band, most notably Brent C. Mauldin as her accompanist and musical director Ted Shapiro, are good-humored and naughtily nice.

Sharon McNight beautifully embodies the soul and dynamism of the tireless trouper.  You can tell the actress is giving it her all, looking to please every last person watching the show.  On the night I saw the production the theater was, due to inclement weather, not very crowded.  Ms. McNight could easily haved dialed in her performance, but just like her alter ego she worked unremittingly to beguile and captivate the audience.  

While on-stage the performer is sassy, full of swagger, and brimming with bluster.  Her portrayal of Ms. Tucker away from the bright lights and cheering audiences is more reflective and melancholy.

As director, Ms. McKnight, gives the show a breezy and lighthearted gloss.  However, a different set of eyes might have been able to tighten up the production, giving it a better flow.

Red Hot Mama, a worthwhile trip down memory lane from one of the great performers of the last century.  Playing at Seven Angels Theater through March 11th.

Review of "Murder on the Orient Express"

The Agatha Christie mystery, “Murder on the Orient Express,” is one of the author’s best known and most intriguing.  It features the dapper Belgian detective Hercule Poirot at its center and a baffling murder on the celebrated train at its core.  The prolific playwright Ken Ludwig (this is the second of three shows he is having produced in Connecticut this year) has transformed the novel into a taut and dashing stage show, receiving a glimmering production at Hartford Stage.

The story is both simple and surprising.  Who stabbed to death the contemptible, secretive businessman during the early morning hours as the train hurtled through the Yugoslavian countryside?  Poirot who, by happenstance, is traveling on the train is called in to investigate.  With a bevy of international suspects to investigate and a multitude of inscrutable clues to sift through the famed sleuth needs all his “little grey cells” to solve one of his most puzzling cases.

Ken Ludwig has compressed the British author’s work, providing the essential plot lines and twists without sacrificing a well-played and gripping adventure.  He skillfully fashions a multitude of characters that are distinct and fully rendered. There is more humor then you would expect from a Christie yarn, but the mix of comedic moments and furtive machinations provide an intoxicating cocktail of excitement and danger.

The acting company is first-rate, filled out with many Broadway veterans.  While the entire troupe deserves recognition, there are two performers that need singling out.  At the top of the list is David Pittu, who brings a knowing perception and intelligence to the role of Hercule Poirot.  It is a masterful performance that binds the show together.  The actor puts his own unique spin on the renowned detective with highly satisfying results.  He is fussy, observant, and has a dynamic presence. 

The second performer of note is the actress Julie Halston, whose comedic talents and over-the-top histrionics are second to none.  Out of all the characters slinking around the first-class berth, Ms. Halston, as the loud-mouthed, outrageous American divorcee Helen Hubbard, shines brightest.  Be forewarned--as with many Agatha Christie novels what you see is not always what you get.

Director Emily Mann, who helmed an earlier version of the show at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, keeps the scenes lively and the production well paced, especially when factoring in the large moveable sets.  She deftly maneuvers the actors through the narrow train corridors and rooms with fluidity and flair.  Her staging of the climatic “who done it” scene is creatively and dramatically executed.

One of the other stars of the play are Beowulf Boritt’s sets, most notably the sleek, skeletal richness of the Orient Express.  The exactitude and detail of the train sections add a wow factor to an already entertaining production.

Darron L. West’s Sound Design adds an element of menace and foreboding with his musical interludes.  The other sounds, most notably those emanating from the train, add a degree of realism.

William Ivey Long’s period costumes are on-the-mark and help define each character’s persona and status in life.

Murder on the Orient Express, a thrilling and captivating whodunit, not just for Agatha Christie fans.  Playing at Hartford Stage through March 25th.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Review of "Intimate Apparel"

Life can be like the patchwork quilt that Esther, the main character in Lynn Nottage’s play, Intimate Apparel, receiving a highly satisfying production at Playhouse on Park, has so lovingly created.  The shapes and various sizes of the cloth, the patterns within the design, and the threads weaving their way in different directions can be random or in an orderly fashion just like capricious and helter-skelter life she leads.

The play begins in the year 1905 and focuses on Esther (Darlene Hope), an African-American woman from the south who migrated to New York City in the late 1800’s.  Reserved and, at 35 years of age, she worries about becoming a spinster.  Staying at a rooming house run by a boisterous, prying widow, Mrs. Dickson (Xenia Gray), Esther ekes out an existence as a talented seamstress.  She buys beautiful fabric from a Jewish salesman, Mr. Marks (Ben MacLaughlin), crafts exquisite fashions for a bored, Upper Eastside matron, Mrs. Van Buren (Anna Laura Strider); and frequents the salon of a friend, Mayme (Zuri Eshun), a striking call girl.

Darlene Hope as Esther and Beethoven Oden as George in "Intimate Apparel."

Esther’s life is, one day, suddenly changed when she receives a letter from a George Armstrong (Beethoven Odan) working on the construction of the Panama Canal.  Timidly, he asks to begin a correspondence with the woman.  At first, flummoxed, she reluctantly agrees and an atypical courtship begins, that by the show’s end, significantly affects Esther’s trajectory as well as the other characters in the show.

Playwright Lynn Nottage has crafted a play that brings forth several issues akin to the times.  They are unobtrusively woven into the fabric of the show and include the plight of African-Americans in New York City, religious traditions and taboos, and social mores and restrictions.  Ms. Nottage’s writing is laced with beautiful prose and dialogue.  The show’s strength is centered on the well-drawn character portraits and overlapping storylines and multifaceted structure, which adds a fulfilling, unsettled intricacy to the production.
Darlene Hope as Esther and Ben McLaughlin as Mr. Marks in "Intimate Apparel."
The six-person cast is well-balanced and skillful.  They are led by Darlene Hope as Esther.  The actress has sorrowful eyes that are expressive and revealing.  She brings an understated dignity to the role which, by the end of the production, has grown in confidence and desire.  Her character is a fighter and survivor and Ms. Hope convincingly displays the emotions and adversity she encounters.  Beethovan Odan’s George Armstrong has roguish good looks and a mellifluous voice.  The recitation of his letters from afar are communicated with a vibrancy and passion that are earnest and pulse with the everyday hardships he faces.  In Act II, now ensconced in New York, the actor effortlessly conveys a number of contradictory qualities that keeps his women in the show, as well as the audience, guessing his real intentions.  The other group of actors are purposeful in their roles, but their performances are not as layered as the two principals.  The subtlety and variations in their character’s personas are faintly missing.
Darlene Hope as Esther and Zuri Eshun as Mayme in "Intimate Apparel."
Director Dawn Loveland Navarro has segmented the stage into four, modestly designed, performance spaces, each the setting for Esther’s interactions with characters from the worlds she habituates.  They are conventional, but effectively rendered by Scenic Designer Marcus Abbott. The technique allows the audience to more focus on the character’s relationships within the confines of the small Playhouse on Park boards. The staging of the letter readings in Act I are kept as simple orations and are smartly inserted at different spots on the stage, which adds an understated flow and rhythm.  There is a smooth transition between scenes, which keeps the action flowing unimpeded as the play builds to its melancholy climax.  One of the problems directors at the Playhouse face is its three-sided layout.  This can cause some sightline and hearing issues, which have not been totally solved with this production. 

Intimate Apparel, an engrossing and entertaining production for all audiences, playing through March 4th.