Monday, August 19, 2019

Review of "Spamilton"

Fans of the musical Hamilton as well as the long-running Off-Broadway series, Forbidden Broadway, will be amusingly satisfied with the national tour of Spamilton, playing at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford through September 8th.  The production is a mighty coup for the small, Equity theater, which is staging the show in conjunction with the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts.

Spamilton aims to skewer and lampoon its source material.  It is constructed as a series of loosely connected vignettes where Lin-Manuel Miranda (superbly portrayed by Adrian Lopez) wants to save Broadway.  He is aided by a multitude of characters from Hamilton and the actors that play the historical figures from the show.  Just to spice up the production Creator, Writer, and Director Gerard Alessandrini has included additional skits that send up Broadway musicals in general as well as some of his favorite Forbidden Broadway targets, which include Liza Minnelli, Disney musicals, and Stephen Sondheim. 

There is a light touch to the parodies.  The goal is to entertain, not be snarky.  The format works, for the most part, even though the quickly recited rapping in the Hamilton portions can be hard to understand.

A central question theater-goers might ask is What if?  What if I have not seen the mega-hit that Alessandrini is poking fun at?  While having seen the blockbuster would definitely enhance one’s enjoyment, it is not necessary in appreciating and savoring the production, which also includes references to dozens of iconic musicals such as The Music Man, Annie, Sweeney Todd, and Phantom of the Opera. 

The main reason the 80-minute show is successful is due to its exuberant cast.  These six performers run full throttle, singing, dancing, and undergoing numerous costume changes.  This talented ensemble makes you greatly appreciate the skill and dedication of professional actors.  Besides the aforementioned Adrian Lopez, the cast includes Chuckie Benson, who portrays Ben Franklin, George Washington and many others; Dominic Pecikonis, as the actor Daveed Diggs, among others; Datus Puryear as Aaron Burr and Leslie Odom, Jr.; Paloma D’Auria, who gives wicked impressions of Bernadette Peters, Liza, Barbara Streisand, and the women of Hamilton; and Brandon Kinley, who is only on stage for a few minutes as King George III. 

Director Gerard Alessandrini keeps the pacing quick, even if some of the jokes fall flat.  He fully utilizes the small Playhouse stage and adeptly integrates Dustin Cross’s Costume Designs into the flow of the musical.  Musical Director Curtis Reynolds is a wonder on the piano accompanying all the shenanigans on stage.

Spamilton, a perfect antidote for those end-of-summer blues.  At Playhouse on Park through September 8th.  For information, go to http://www.playhouseonpark.org/
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Saturday, August 10, 2019

Review of "Moulin Rouge"


The glitz and unabashed spectacle of a big budget Broadway musical is in full display at Moulin Rouge.  The show, based on the movie of the same name, is a feast for the eyes, an aural sensation that, when pulsating on all cylinders, is an astounding piece of theater. 

Like the film, Moulin Rouge takes place in the Montmarte section of Paris where an American, Christian (Aaron Tveit) meets Toulouse-Lautrec (Sahr Ngaujah) and his artistic pal Santiago (Ricky Rojas).  The three become fast friends as they decide to collaborate on creative pursuits.  Christian reveals his adoration for the singer Santine (Karen Olivo), the headliner at the Moulin Rouge, overseen by the bombastic owner/emcee, Harold Zidler (Danny Burstein).  The three compatriots decide to sneak into the luminous nightclub to set-up a clandestine meeting with the performer.  After her breath-taking performance, through mistaken identity, Santine nestles up to the penniless artist, thinking he is the rich Duke (Tam Mutu) who has lascivious eyes for the entertainer and money in his pocket to save the cash-strapped club.  A love triangle is thus formed with Santine and Christian attempting to hide their feelings for each other from The Duke.  All the skullduggery, with the backdrop of rehearsals for a glittering production at the Moulin Rouge, ends with a show-stopping success and tragedy.

The book of the show by John Logan mirrors its source material in most of the crucial scenes.  The story, as presented on stage, primarily the love affair between Santine and Christian, produces very few sparks as does the jealous rages of the Duke.  The moralizing and sermonizing about the power of art, freedom, and truth also ring hollow.  However, these non-musical, dance-free scenes do carry the narrative forward quickly enough until the next gorgeously impressive production number.  

What sets Moulin Rouge apart from recent Broadway extravaganzas is the sheer showmanship, energy, and visual pyrotechnics that flood the stage.  Scenic Designer Derek McLane has created a mesmerizing set that had audience members elbowing their way down the aisles snapping photos and selfies even before the start of the show.  Restraint is not the word to be used in this production, but the embellishments and aggrandizements fully serve the needs of the musical.  Lighting Designer Justin Townsend skillfully blankets scenes with a multitude of dynamic and vibrant colors that heighten the emotional impact and vivacity of the show. Peter Hylenski’s Sound Design envelopes every corner of the Al Hirschfield Theatre with an explosion of auditory delights. Catherine Zuber’s Costume Designs, especially within the Moulin Rouge setting, can be radiant.

As with the movie, the score is a hodgepodge of musical styles and genres - Pop, Broadway, New Wave, R & B -  that encompass 70 songs, mostly snippets fused together to form highly enjoyable and entertaining mash-ups.  Santine’s entrance on a lowering trapeze is a perfect example.  She starts with Shirley Bassey’s “Diamonds Are Forever” from the James Bond movie of the same name.  That morphs into “Diamonds” (Rihanna) and, finally, “Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend” from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Choregorapher Sonya Tayeh has produced an impressive array of vigorous dance routines – starting off with the opening high-octane booging to “Lady Marmalade” -  that are full of sexual tension and a captivating sizzle.  The choreography combines modern day, full-bodied high-spiritedness with robust period pieces such as the classic cancan.

The cast is stocked with seasoned Broadway actors and actresses who deliver flawless performances.  Karen Olivo is feisty, independent, and vulnerable as the headliner Santine.  She is an absolute dynamo in her production numbers.  Aaron Tveit is more low-key in his portrayal as the somber, determined and infatuated Christian.  Danny Burstein provides the most satisfying performance of the production.  He is suitably over-the-top as the Emcee of the Moulin Rouge stage show, but also tough and compassionate in his role as the owner of the fabled nightclub.  Tam Mutu is fittingly callous and despicable as The Duke, but not as ruthless or psychotic as portrayed in the film.  Sahr Ngaujah (Toulouse-Lautrec) and Ricky Rojas (Santiago) handle their roles with confidence and passion even though their characterizations are not fully refined.

Director Alex Timbers has fashioned a crowd-pleasing spectacle full of pageantry and exhilaration.  While the scenes heavy with backstory and exposition don’t always resonate with sincerity and vigor, the riveting theatrics and grandeur make up for these soft spots of the musical.

Moulin Rouge, a dazzling, lavish production that starts off the new Broadway season with unabashed radiance and brilliance.

Review of "Fully Committed"*


Poor Sam.  An actor waiting for his big break, he spends his down time slaving over the telephone reservation line in the basement of one of the most exclusive restaurants in New York City.  The dour and melancholy employee is constantly barraged by big shots and everyday people with feeble appeals, bullying threats, and cajoling pleas for a prized lunch or dinner reservation.  In addition, his co-worker is missing in action, the upstairs staff is uncaring to his needs, and the chef is a scolding, unsympathetic and disinterested dolt. 

So, sets the table for the comical, somewhat poignant, one-man show, Fully Committed.  Starring Jamison Stern as the harried gatekeeper to a gastronomic nirvana, this light weight, 80 minute one act is humorous and entertaining, nothing more, nothing less.  Stern is a man constantly in motion as he flits from telephone to desk to pacing around his cramped subterranean headquarters.  Along the way, he portrays numerous characters—from persons desperately trying to make a reservation, to family members, to the employees of the unnamed dining spot.  The actor clearly is enjoying himself as he immerses his own persona into the jumble of characters he impersonates.  He is mostly even-tempered, yet a bundle of kinetic energy.

Playwright Becky Mode gives a knowing nod to the frenetic world of restaurant reservations.  She packs the show with amusing quips and incidents.  One ongoing scenario has the assistant to actress Gwyneth Paltrow continually call with one more outrageous request after another including bringing her own lightbulb to the restaurant to make sure she is not bathed in a harsh glow.  Mode gives the play an easygoing, plausible narrative structure, which by its conclusion sees Sam move from a woeful nobody to a more assertive somebody.

Director Bill Fennelly skillfully guides Stern through his chaotic paces.  He has conspired with the actor to incorporate a multitude of nuanced gestures, facial ticks, and vocal somersaults to the bevy of characters portrayed.  All of this takes place in a highly detailed, meticulously jam-packed set by Scenic Designer Brian Prather.  The result is an engaging and enjoyable piece of theater.

Fully Committed, a diverting and pleasing production playing through September 1st at Theaterwork’s temporary home at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum in downtown Hartford.

*Portions of this review were previously published.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Review of "Because of Winn Dixie"


The last time the Goodspeed Opera House produced a musical with a little girl and her lovable dog was a show called Annie.  The production moved to Broadway, won a slew of Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and is still one of the longest running musicals in Broadway history.  While the theater’s current production, Because of Winn Dixie, is not of the same caliber as Annie, it does share one essential trait of being a wholesome and entertaining family musical.
 
Bowdie and Josie Todd in Because of Winn Dixie.  Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski


Based on the award-winning young adult book, the show centers on Opal (Josie Todd), a 12-year-old girl and her preacher father (J. Robert Spencer), who have moved to a small town to start their lives anew.  Her mother has left her father, she is lonely and the motel they moved into is in total disarray.  By sheer happenstance she befriends a very large dog while shopping at the local Winn Dixie grocery store (hence, the pooch’s name).  The two become inseparable and fast friends as they create havoc in town but, more importantly, through their machinations help disparate towns folk come together, confront their personal demons and heal.

The book of the show by Nell Benjamin is warm-hearted and mostly enchanting primarily because of the appeal of Opal and Winn Dixie.  The strength of the libretto centers on providing depth to the secondary characters, giving a fullness to the production.  The loose ends and dramatic arcs do come to a quick and gratifying conclusion, which for a family show isn’t necessarily bad.  Adult members of the audience might roll their eyes with the overly feel good ending, but is walking out of a theater smiling such a bad thing?
 
The cast of Because of Winn Dixie.  Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
The score by Duncan Sheik and Nell Benjamin is tuneful and encompasses a number of various genres and styles.  They resonate with an emotional core that enlivens the production while, at the same time, effectively bringing out the back story of each character.

The star of the musical is Bowdie, a dog described in the program as a “cross between a poodle and something large.”  This sizeable canine is an integral part of the cast, never misses a cue and is absolutely adorable.  Sometimes you sit in amazement at what the dog does on stage.  Kudos to long-time trainer Bill Berloni who, incidentally, got his start by training the original Sandy the dog in Goodspeed’s Annie.   
 
The kids in the cast of Because of Winn DixiePhoto Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Josie Todd is an engaging young performer who brings enthusiasm and pluck to the role of Opal.  J. Robert Spencer delivers a winning portrayal of a father torn between his preaching duties and the emotional fortitude needed in bringing up his young daughter.  Roz Ryan gives an honest and lively performance as the town pariah, Gloria Dump.   David Poe as the eccentric, troubled pet center proprietor, Otis, is satisfying in a one-dimensional role, but he possesses a haunting troubadour delivery in his solo numbers.  The other children in the musical – Chloe Cheers (Amanda), Jamie Mann (Dunlap Dewberry), Jay Hendrix (Stevie Dewberry), and Sophia Massa (Sweetie Pie Thomas) - are charming and spunky. 
 
The cast of Because of Winn Dixie. Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Director John Rando successfully builds a musical on the back of a very large dog and his young owner.  It is a very fine line to tread—creating an affectionate and feel good story that is not overly sentimental and schmaltzy.  He keeps the pacing of the show brisk, even when interludes of reflection and song momentarily slow down the action.  Rando strategically utilizes choreographer Chris Bailey’s dance numbers to provide a more well-rounded musical experience.

The minimal scenic design and set pieces by Donyale Werle are sufficient to help carry the story forward.  Jeff Croiter’s lighting design helps add an affecting depth to the show.

Because of Winn Dixie, a perfect family musical for these last days of summer.  Playing at the Goodspeed Opera House through September 5th.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Review of "Birds of North America"


A father and daughter trying to connect, to communicate is the subject of Anna Moench’s meditative drama, Birds of North America.  From the onset of the two-character play, the audience feels the divide between John (J.R. Sullivan) and Caitlin (Melisa Breiner-Sanders), which is only temporarily improved while both are birding, a lifelong hobby of dad’s.  During these moments of identifying the sounds and plumage of the feathered animals there is a gentle, heartfelt rapport between the two protagonists.  However, the détente doesn’t usually last long as father and daughter end up arguing, disagreeing, and quarrelling over relationships, job prospects, and politics.

Time passes – the action takes place over a 12-year period - and father and daughter continue to meet.  Major changes occur in both their personal and professional lives until, in the end, there is just one person remaining, reminiscing.

Anna Moench’s play doesn’t uncover any new ground when examining a father/daughter relationship.  The potency in her writing is how skillfully she has crafted the two characters and their interactions, which feels real, not contrived.  What is left unsaid is the motivation for the pair getting together?  Do they realize the chasm in their relationship and is birding the only way for them to come together? 

The cast is finely tuned to the rhythms of the work.  J.R. Sullivan gives a superb performance by firmly staying in character—a highly opinionated individual with entrenched views who really doesn’t want to or just cannot listen to what is his daughter is saying.  Melisa Breiner-Sanders delivers a more animated portrayal as she relates the trials and tribulations of her young life, squabbles with her father, and constantly clashes with him.  The pain and sadness this produces is sorrowfully etched across her face.

The strength of Jason Peck’s direction is how he keeps the characters speaking and interacting, but almost never at close quarters.  There always seems to be a physical distance between father and daughter, which is not easy to accomplish over a 90-minute period.  At one point, towards the end of the production, John, standing behind Caitlin gently and, almost in passing, puts his hand on her should for a brief instant.  The moment was electric as the gesture and smile on his face truly encapsulated all he could not say face-to-face.

Fufan Zhang’s minimal Scenic Design, a backyard area of grass with a large tree decorated in small bird feeders looming over the performance space, effectively conveys an outdoor setting.  Lydia Strong’s Lighting Design, notably the passage of time signaled by shadows sweeping across the small, semi-darkened stage, is artfully rendered. 

Birds of North America, playing at the Thrown Stone theater company in Ridgefield through August 3rd.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Review of "Cry It Out"

Raising a newborn can make for unlikely friendships and interpersonal interactions. In playwright Molly Smith Metzler’s thought-provoking comedy-drama Cry It Out, two women, neighbors from different socio-economic worlds, nonetheless begin to bond as they navigate the intimidating, sometimes unnerving responsibility of caring for a nursing child.  Added to their anxiety, and producing a bit of drama on its own, is the sudden appearance of another neighbor looking to have his wife included in the duo’s daily get-togethers.  

Jessie (Clare Parme), a high-powered lawyer on leave from her New York City firm, lives in an apartment with her financier husband on Long Island’s North Shore.  Lina (Maria McConville), residing next door with her husband in her mother-in-law’s home, is an entry level hospital worker originally from the South Shore with a brash demeanor and bearing. On the surface, they are as dissimilar as two people could possibly be, but when it comes to caring, fretting, and loving a newborn child differences quickly evaporate. At first, Jessie invites Lina over for coffee. Their initial encounter is awkward and forced, but as their backyard meetings continue their tentative relationship grows into a real friendship.  Enter Mitchell, a well-to-do entrepreneur who lives on a ridge overlooking Jessie’s yard.  He asks the women if his wife, who recently gave birth, could become part of their soirees.  Reluctantly, Jessie and Lina agree, but the arranged tryst with his wife Adrienne (Wynter Kullman) does not go so well.  Soon, challenging changes take place, altering each person’s familial dynamics.

Playwright Metzler deftly brings out many issues women face after childbirth—emotional bearing, marital relationships, and the question of staying home or returning to work.  The conversations appear real and heartfelt.  The title of her work pertains to the impassioned outbursts each woman makes towards the latter part of the 90-minute production.  While a resolution is not necessarily needed for the show, a more layered conclusion would have been less abrupt than what is presented.
The cast is uniformly fine with Maria McConville, as Lina, having the juiciest, in-your-face role.  The actress consistently has the best comedic lines.  While, initially, appearing like a complete fool, she turns in a more nuanced, warmhearted performance.  Clare Parme gives her character Jessie a multifaceted look.  You can feel her inner turmoil as she debates what is best for her and her young family. Wynter Kullman’s first appearance on stage as Adrienne comes across as a stereotypically rich, unfeeling member of society, but demonstrates you can’t judge a book by its cover.  Jonathan Winn is somewhat formal in his characterization of Mitchell.  More subtlety or shading to the role would have added to his scenes. 

Director Gina Piulice eases out genuine sounding conversations amongst the cast and effectively sets up the laugh lines for maximum effect.  However the placement and movement of the actors comes across as artificial.  Whereas most individuals would be close together when conversing, she continually places them at one of the four corners of the small performance space, constantly moving them around instead of having them seated for their heart-to-hearts.

Cry It Out, playing at the Thrown Stone theater company in Ridgefield through July 21st.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Review of "Pippin"



The strength of the musical Pippin is the score by Stephen Schwartz.  He has infused the show with a 1970’s pop music sensibility.  The songs are enchanting, playful, and full of feeling.

The production at the Summer Theatre of New Caanan (STONC), playing through July 28th, is a mostly joyous spectacle.  The limitations have more to do with the book of the show by Roger O. Hirson, which has a troupe of actors presenting a play within a play concept.  The scenes within the musical are not always well-defined and can be somewhat overwhelmed by the histrionics and choreographed movements of the actors.

 STONC’s staging is more in line with the original 1972 Broadway show as opposed to the 2013 revival that was full of acrobatics and Cirque du Soleil elements.  However, there is a feistiness and festive atmosphere to the musical as it is presented under a large tent in a mirthful, sprightly theater-in-the-round setting.

The show revolves around a young man, Pippin, son of Charlemagne, Emperor during the Early Middle Ages.  While the musical centers on these real-life historical figures, the plot is not based on actual fact.   

A character known as The Leading Player narrates and directs the group of performers telling the audience they have “Magic To Do” in their telling of this tale.  Pippin has just graduated from University and returns to the royal household full of confusion and doubt as he searches for his purpose in life.  In quick succession he samples gainful employment, exercises duty and honor to his father, experiments with sexual promiscuity, and attempts to settle down with Catherine, a widow, and her son on her country homestead.  Still not satisfied with where his life is leading him Pippin, at the end of the show, is goaded by The Leading Player and the other actors to come to terms with his lack of direction by committing one final act.  Rebelling, Pippin has an epiphany about his life’s purpose as he realizes his life with Catherine was where he was most content.  Furious, The Leading Player cancels the performance having the actors strip the stage of sets and lights and commands the band to stop playing.  As the space becomes bare the young Theo remains with The Leading Player beckoning him to restart the search for purpose now shunned by Pippin.

While the musical can appear disjointed, with wildly masked and costumed performers cavorting around the performance area, the central theme of an individual seeking fulfillment and purpose in life is universal.  In today’s world of Millennials searching for their place in the world, moving about frequently, and not being easily satisfied Pippin can appear to be a shining beacon of hope, but also caution.

The cast is satisfying with Zach Schanne’s portrayal of the title character nimbly combining wonder and determination.  Frank Mastrone, a seasoned professional, gives Charlemagne a weathered deportment as he rules his lands, keeps his young wife happy, and tends to the whims and follies of his son.  The Leading Player should have a commanding presence, becoming the center of the audience’s attention when onstage, but Melissa Victor is less a compelling focal point of the show than a benevolent guide to the actions of the acting troupe.  Ella Raymont’s Catherine is the strongest performer in the production.  At first appearing merrily blissful she convincingly transforms into a serious and disquieted figure at the show’s conclusion.

Directors Allegra and Christian Libonati keep the momentum of the show constantly on the move, helped by the theater-in-the-round setting and Doug Shankman’s bustling and animated choreography.  Sometimes the actors become mired in cryptic body movements but, for the most part, their actions on stage are alluring and captivating.

Brad Caleb Lee’s minimal sets under the circus-like tent structure is sublime.  Orli Nativ’s costume designs are whimsical, outlandish, and sometimes naughty.

Pippin, playing at the Summer Theatre of New Caanan through July 28th.


Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Review of "Cabaret"


Cabaret, the landmark 1968 musical with a score by John Kander and Fred Ebb, and a book by Joe Masteroff needs to exude a decadent immorality. This is Berlin in pre-War Nazi Germany where a looseness and anything goes depravity in the city’s nightclubs is the norm. Without this backdrop, Cabaret loses its power of seduction and socio-political commentary. In the production at the Summer Nutmeg series in Storrs, CT through July 21st, there is an underlying sheen of vulgarity and sin, but it is muted.  In addition, under Scott LaFeber’s direction, the key performances of the Emcee and Sally Bowles are not as strong which, unfortunately, tilts the focus of the show to the two secondary characters, Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. 

The story of Cabaret revolves around American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Rob Barnes), who arrives in Berlin as the Nazis are coming to power in Germany.  On the train, he befriends Ernst Ludwig (Aidan Marchetti), a shadowy, politically connected, figure, who recommends a rooming house, run by the aged Fraulein Schneider (Dee Hoty) for him to reside during his stay in the German capitol.  That night he and Ernst take in the Kit Kat Klub, a seamy, nightclub, overseen by a sinister, scowling Master of Ceremonies (Forrest McClendon), where Cliff becomes enthralled with the headline performer, Sally Bowles (Laura Michelle Kelly).  The two quickly become an item and move in together.  A parallel plotline concerns Fraulein Schneider’s ill-fated romance with Jewish grocer Herr Schultz (Jonathn Brody).  Both relationships eventually fray and dissolve just as Nazism becomes a more ominous and deadly force within everyone’s lives.

Throughout the production, the sense of menace and hedonism within the Kit Kat Klub is subdued.  The musical numbers, choreographed by Christopher d’Amboise, are entertaining, but do not convey a sense of naughtiness and eroticism one would expect in such a setting.

The cast, the usual mix at the Summer Nutmeg series of Equity and student performers, is a decidedly mixed bag.  Forrest McClendon, who received a 2011 Tony nomination for his performance in The Scottsboro Boys, portrays the Emcee as a large, caged cat, with shoulders pumping up and down.  He prowls the stage showing both contempt and a restrained appreciation for the audience.  The actor’s approach to the character, however, is more low-wattage.  It is not very risqué and the sexual ambiguity, so key to the role, is lacking.  Laura Michelle Kelly, who has appeared on Broadway and the London stage (she was the original Mary Poppins in the West End) is also less impactful as Sally Bowles.  The actress possesses a powerful singing voice that she showcases in such numbers as “Maybe This Time” and “Cabaret.” But the allure, the mischievousness, the mystery of the character is missing in the performance.  Her relationship with Cliff lacks chemistry and comes across as more perfunctory.  The character of Cliff Bradshaw has always been less captivating compared to the other roles in the musical.  While Rob Barnes, a third-year MFA student at the University of Connecticut, has done splendid work in previous productions he comes across as too young and not as nuanced in this portrayal.

The real stars of Cabaret are Dee Hoty as Fraulein Schneider and Jonathan Brody as Herr Schultz.  Ms. Hoty gives a master class in acting.  Her performance is so heartfelt and strong, her songs so affecting, you yearn for her appearance on stage. Brody’s depiction of the Jewish grocer is equally earnest and impassioned.

The score by the legendary composing team of John Kander and Fred Ebb is arguably their best work.  There are so many iconic numbers in the show, most performed with pathos and urgency that captivate the audience.  From the exuberant “Don’t Tell Mama” and “Two Ladies” to the bittersweet ballads of “So What?” and “What Would You Do?” the score is an artistic triumph.  Music Director Ken Clifton leads a dynamic onstage band that gives a richness and vitality to the songs.

Director Scott LaFeber has toned down the decadence of the production.  While a sense of urgency is in the air, the ruination within the German city and populace is not front and center.  He has assembled a large ensemble of spirited Kit Kat Klub performers that create a fullness to the production.  The finale of the Cabaret, what should be the emotional zenith of the show is, instead, a puzzlement which required a quick reference check on Wikipedia when I returned home from the performance.

Cabaret, playing through July 21st in Storrs, CT.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Review of "The Scottsboro Boys"

One of the most abhorrent episodes of injustice during the 20th century was the arrest, subsequent trials, and imprisonment of nine black youths, falsely accused of raping two white women in 1930’s Alabama. Their story is the basis for the musical, The Scottsboro Boys, playing at Playhouse on Park through August 4th. 

The cast of "The Scottsboro Boys."  Photo:  Meredith Longo
The production employs the construct of the minstrel show as a method to tell this contemptible story. When the show was set to open on Broadway in 2011, much was written about the controversial use of the minstrel show in the production. Minstrel shows, a mainstay of popular entertainment in the latter half of the 19th century as well as the early part of the 20th century, promoted racial stereotypes of African-Americans and is now seen as an offensive and repugnant art form. However, by utilizing such a highly charged and contentious vehicle to relate this woeful tale the creators of the musical--the composing team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, along with librettist David Thompson—have been able to focus a searing spotlight on this tragic episode of racial injustice that helped to spark the civil rights movement in the United States.

The staging by Director Sean Harris is simple, yet powerful with just a few chairs and some wooden planks for sets. This allows the plot to unfold without any unnecessary distractions.  The Scottsboro Boys is entertaining, with pulsating choreography by Darlene Zoller that conveys the urgency and tension the nine youths are experiencing.  The show, however, is also troubling as audiences are confronted with such blatant disregard for humanity based on one’s skin color.  Yet while this incident happened over 80 years ago, examples of outrage and racism at this level still permeate society today.  Just watch the harrowing events in the current Netflix documentary on the Central Park Five.

Torrey Linder as Mr. Tambo and the cast of "The Scottsboro Boys."  Photo:  Meredith Longo
The storyline follows the nine young men and boys as they are wrongly implicated, convicted and imprisoned.  Their so-called trial and verdict is an affront to the legal system, but the impending death sentences are overturned, which leads to numerous retrials, representation by a high-profile New York lawyer and even the recanting of the original charges by one of the victims.  Still, the nine remain jailed and, in the end, tragedy befalls each of them.

The songs are a mixture of haunting ballads with rousing ensemble numbers.  The score is one of the last for the long-time team of John Kander and Freb Ebb and reveals them at the top of their game.  As they have demonstrated in such musicals as Cabaret and Chicago, they are unafraid to tackle provocative topics.

Ivory McKay as Mr. Bones, left, and Torrey Linder as Mr. Tambo, right from "The Scottsboro Boys."                     Photo:  Meredith Longo
The cast is a mix of professional and non-union actors.  In most Playhouse of Park productions over the years, this blending of performers has not affected the thrust of the show.  However, in The Scottsboro Boys, the separation of talent is more noticeable, which lessens the dramatic impact of the musical at critical points.  For a small theater company the expenses for mounting this type of production are considerable.  However, the caliber of the show would have been elevated with a more seasoned cast.  With that said, Ivory McKay, who plays many roles, but mainly the minstrel show stalwart Mr. Bones, is superb.  His partner, Mr. Tambo, played by Torrey Linder, is up to the task of matching McKay’s cynicism and spot on portrayals.  Their roles serve to both accentuate and mock the miscarriage of justice.  Troy Valjean Rucker gives a powerful and moving performance as the principled Haywood Patterson.  As the Interlocutor, Dennis Holland is detached and properly condescending as the Master of Ceremonies.

Director Harris does an admirable job trying to mold the group of actors into a well-tuned ensemble.  He skillfully works through great moments of joy and sadness that keeps the audience on a rollercoaster of emotions.  The insertion of a mysterious lady throughout the production (her identity is revealed at the end of the show) is somewhat overplayed, which sometimes takes away the central focus of the show.

The Scottsboro Boys will challenge you and make you uncomfortable at times, but its message and inspired presentation make it a worthwhile and rewarding theatrical event. Kudos to Playhouse on Park.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Review of "Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin"

NOTE:  The Irving Berlin show is now playing at the Westport Country Playhouse through August 3rd.  This is the same production that was at Hartford Stage earlier this summer.

The performer/pianist Hershey Felder has been captivating Hartford audiences for years with his one man shows of famous composers.  Previous embodiments have included George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Leopold Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven.  His latest personification is of songsmith Irving Berlin, who’s career as a writer of iconic popular songs, movie scores, and Broadway musicals, spanned over five decades. 

Felder’s concept for the show is similar in approach to his previous incarnations.  There is an abundance of historical and biographical recitations mixed in with a generous helping of dazzling musical performances.  The formula can be a little schmaltzy, but Felder, in his earnestness and showmanship, makes the production thoroughly engaging.

The show leans heavily of Berlin’s life and music before World War II.  After quickly setting the scene—Berlin and his Jewish family emigrating to the United States from Russia—and whisking through his teenage years, Felder introduces the composer’s first huge hit in “Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1911).”  From there, a succession of recognizable treasures is presented, including "Always" (1925), "Blue Skies" (1926), "Puttin' On the Ritz" (1928), “Easter Parade” (1933), “God Bless America” (1938), and “White Christmas” (1942).  No wonder when the composer Jerome Kern was asked, "What is Irving Berlin's place in American music,” the response was “Irving Berlin has no place in American music -- he is American music.”

The almost two-hour, intermission-less production packs in a great deal of musical gems and stories.  The problem for Felder, who also wrote the show, and Director Trevor Hay is deciding what to include, what to gloss over, and what to leave out in the composer’s illustrious career.  Scenes about Berlin’s army service and deep-felt patriotism are given ample attention, but his well-established movie composing career is relegated to a video montage of Fred Astaire singing/dancing to some of his best-known film songs.  More disappointing was Felder’s brief review of Berlin’s Broadway musicals.  While not every show was a hit - Annie Get Your Gun and Call Me Madam - these musicals and the less successful ones, which include Miss Liberty and Mr. President, produced a cornucopia of riches.

Director Trevor Hay gives the production an easy-going flow, seamlessly blending Felder’s masterful piano work with his biographical snippets.  He incorporates an audience sing-a-long a few times during the show, which is heartily welcomed by those in attendance.

Stacey Nezda’s scenic design is warm and cozy, with a holiday feel to it. Christopher Ash and Lawrence Siefert’s projection work is finely integrated into the production without being a distraction.

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, an exceedingly captivating show, playing at Hartford Stage through June 30th.

-->he performer/pianist Hershey Felder has been captivating Hartford audiences for years with his one man shows of famous composers.  Previous embodiments have included George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Leopold Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven.  His latest personification is of songsmith Irving Berlin, who’s career as a writer of iconic popular songs, movie scores, and Broadway musicals, spanned over five decades. 

Felder’s concept for the show is similar in approach to his previous incarnations.  There is an abundance of historical and biographical recitations mixed in with a generous helping of dazzling musical performances.  The formula can be a little schmaltzy, but Felder, in his earnestness and showmanship, makes the production thoroughly engaging.

The show leans heavily of Berlin’s life and music before World War II.  After quickly setting the scene—Berlin and his Jewish family emigrating to the United States from Russia—and whisking through his teenage years, Felder introduces the composer’s first huge hit in “Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1911).”  From there, a succession of recognizable treasures is presented, including "Always" (1925), "Blue Skies" (1926), "Puttin' On the Ritz" (1928), “Easter Parade” (1933), “God Bless America” (1938), and “White Christmas” (1942).  No wonder when the composer Jerome Kern was asked, "What is Irving Berlin's place in American music,” the response was “Irving Berlin has no place in American music -- he is American music.”

The almost two-hour, intermission-less production packs in a great deal of musical gems and stories.  The problem for Felder, who also wrote the show, and Director Trevor Hay is deciding what to include, what to gloss over, and what to leave out in the composer’s illustrious career.  Scenes about Berlin’s army service and deep-felt patriotism are given ample attention, but his well-established movie composing career is relegated to a video montage of Fred Astaire singing/dancing to some of his best-known film songs.  More disappointing was Felder’s brief review of Berlin’s Broadway musicals.  While not every show was a hit - Annie Get Your Gun and Call Me Madam - these musicals and the less successful ones, which include Miss Liberty and Mr. President, produced a cornucopia of riches.

Director Trevor Hay gives the production an easy-going flow, seamlessly blending Felder’s masterful piano work with his biographical snippets.  He incorporates an audience sing-a-long a few times during the show, which is heartily welcomed by those in attendance.

Stacey Nezda’s scenic design is warm and cozy, with a holiday feel to it. Christopher Ash and Lawrence Siefert’s projection work is finely integrated into the production without being a distraction.

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, an exceedingly captivating show, playing at Hartford Stage through June 30th.

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Monday, June 17, 2019

Review of "Mamma Mia!"

Mamma Mia!, the jukebox musical, wrapped around the songs of the 70’s pop super group, ABBA, is the perfect summer tonic for musical theater aficionados.  The production, playing at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre in Storrs through June 22, is breezy, effervescent, and entertaining.

Unlike many concoctions of this genre, Mamma Mia! doesn’t take itself seriously, with a lightweight and playful, yet well-crafted story by Catherine Johnson.  An incomprehensible story line was the downfall of the Go Go’s musical Head Over Heels from the 2018 - 2019 Broadway season and a confusing libretto plagued the recent Summer – the Donna Summer Musical.  There are no such knotty issues with Mamma Mia! 

The plot revolves around soon-to-be married 20 year-old Sophie, who lives on a Greek island with her single mother, Donna.  Guests start to arrive, including Tanya and Rosie, Donna’s former back-up singers from their days in the 70’s group, “Donna and the Dynamos.”  Unbeknownst to her mother, Sophie has also invited three men – Sam Carmichael, Bill Austin and Harry Bright – because one of them is her father (Donna had an affair with each of them year’s ago).  The daughter hopes before the ceremony begins she will discover his identity.

The score incorporates many of ABBA’s Top 40 hits including “Honey, Honey,” “Mamma Mia,” “Super Trouper,” “Voulez Vous,” “S.O.S.,” and “Knowing Me, Knowing You.”  The songs – ballads and upbeat compositions--are cleverly integrated into the production.

The cast is led by Jessica Hendy as Donna.  She is cynical, vulnerable, and resilient as the mother of the bride and convincingly flummoxed over her tricky situation.  Lauren Blackman (Tanya) – the tall one – and Jennifer Cody (Rosie) - the short one – form a rollicking trio of friends reuniting for the big event.  Ms. Blackman is decidedly feisty with skewering bon mots and a deadpan delivery.  Ms. Cody is more overt in her comic histrionics and physical humor.  Kelly McCarty’s Sophie is charismatic and engaging.   The actress doesn’t have to stretch her acting muscles as she emotes, broods, and celebrates her upcoming nuptials.  Mason Reeves, as Sky (he’s the groom), is enthusiastic and has the prerequisite boyish charm and good looks.

The men, who play Donna’s loves from 20 years earlier – Bradley Dean as Sam Carmichael, Jamie Colburn as Bill Austin, and Rob Barnes as Harry Bright - perform their roles with a mixture of earnestness and honesty sincerity.

Director Terrence Mann keeps a light touch on the material but, smartly, keeps the pacing nimble, high-spirited, and fast-moving.  The large group scenes are controlled horseplay and hijinks, while the more intimate settings are handled with ease and confidence.  The scene changes are seamless as players and crew members pirouette and gyrate on and off the stage positioning set pieces.

Mary Ann Lamb, fresh from her stint as a principle choreographer for the F/X mini-series Fosse/Verdon, along with Jessica Walker, energizes the musical with period inflected dance routines and vigorous production numbers.  They liven up such Act I songs as the Dynamo’s rendition of “Dancing Queen” and group of young wedding guests in scuba fins tap dancing to “Lay All Your Love On Me.”

Scenic Designer Tim Brown has crafted large, easily mobile sections of scenery, which are quickly moved into position to form multiple set pieces.  He has also created a magical miniature that gives a panoramic view of the coastline of the Greek island of Santorini as soothing visual for audience members.

Mamma Mia!, a frothy concoction sure to captivate, charm, and thoroughly entertain.