Sunday, November 10, 2019

Review of "A Shayna Madel"


Katharina Schmidt, Laura Sudduth, and Mitch Greenberg in A Shayna Madel at Playhouse on Park thru Nov. 17th.
The play, A Shayna Madel, is a powerful story of survival and hope that, over 35 years after it was first produced, is still a compelling and relevant show. 

The setting is the Upper West Side of New York City soon after World War II has ended.  Rose Weiss (Laura Sudduth), a young woman living on her own, is startled to learn from her father, Mordechai Weiss (Mitch Greenberg), that her older sister Lusia (Katharina Schmidt) has survived the devastation of the Holocaust, has been located in Europe, and is soon to arrive in the States.  The initial meeting of the two women is fraught with anxiety and tension as they begin to reconnect and learn to share their lives together in the small one-bedroom apartment.  Complicating their growing rapport is their impassive, stolid father and his personal agenda.

In flashbacks and dreamy imagery, the audience learns the backstory of Lusia, her closeness with her childhood friend Hanna (Julia Tolchin), the relationship with her now departed mother (Krista Lucas), and the shocking reason one part of the family made it to safety.  Underlying the story is the recent immigrant’s search for her missing husband Duvid (Alex Rafala) who she believes has also entered the country.  In the end, the surviving members of the extended Weiss family come together as they build new lives in an unfamiliar, but embracing country.

Playwright Barbara Lebow’s work examines the resilience of individuals in time of upheaval and life-altering change and how the bonds of family, while stretched and imperiled, are strong and long-lasting.  The play also explores the assimilation and generational shift of people and their culture to a new land, the joys, the promises, and the challenges it presents.  

The cast members feel genuine as they embrace their roles with exhilaration and solemnness. Laura Sudduth imbues the role of Rose Weiss with the joy of newfound freedom and boundless opportunity.  The actress also tempers her performance with empathy and compassion.  Katharina Schmidt’s Luisa is most convincing when portraying her somber side in Rose’s apartment.  Her languid movements and speech speak volumes for what she experienced overseas.  Mitch  Greenberg gives a nuanced performance as the father.  Outwardly, he is stoic and strict as he pushes forward in a new world.  But, underneath, the actor conveys an inner pain and emotional emptiness.  Julia Tolchin’s Hannah is full of girlish exuberance and optimism.  Alex Rafala displays kindness and devotion as Duvid, a man who shows sincere love and concern for his young bride Luisa.  In her brief moments on stage, Krista Lucas delivers a poignant portrayal of a mother lost to the ravages of the Holocaust. 

Director Dawn Loveland Navarro has a tender, but forthright hand in shepherding this work through its paces.  She nimbly guides the two actresses from nervous apprehension to a comfortable, loving sisterly relationship.  Ms. Navarro skillfully integrates the dream sequences and flashbacks into a multi-layered production.  At times, the reality segments and illusionary aspects of the play can be somewhat unclear but, with the adept assistance of Lighting Designer Marcus Abbott, the grasp of the flow and action of the play are more easily understood.

David Lewis’ Scenic Design is apt for a 1946 Brooklyn apartment.  The set is utilitarian and functional, with few frills.

A Shayna Madel, playing at Playhouse on Park through November 17th.  Information is at http://www.playhouseonpark.org/.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Review of "Cry It Out"


Rachel Spencer Hewitt and Evelyn Spahr from Cry It Out, playing at Hartford Stage thru Nov. 17th.

Raising a newborn can make for unlikely friendships and interpersonal interactions. In playwright Molly Smith Metzler’s often rib-tickling and heart rendering 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 an infant.  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 (Rachel Spencer Hewitt), 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 (Evelyn Spahr), 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 attitude. 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 (Erin Gann), 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 (Caroline Kinsolving) 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.  What is less successful is when the characters Mitchell and Adrienne are inserted into the flow of the production.  Their entrances disrupt the seamless nature of the play Metzler has constructed.  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 assured and sharp with Evelyn Spahr, 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 measured, warmhearted performance.  Rachel Spencer Hewitt gives her character Jessie a multifaceted look.  You can feel her inner turmoil as she debates what is best for herself and her young family.  In two short scenes, Caroline Kinsolving has the difficult task of making her character Adrienne both bitchy and sympathetic.  She does so with sophistication and aplomb and demonstrates you can’t always judge a book by its cover.  Erin Gann is a bit manic as Mitchell.  More restraint and nuance would have enhanced his characterization.

Director Rachel Alderman builds a believable relationship between Jessie and Lina.  Their scenes come across as genuine, playful, and full of humor.  She adorns the show with lighthearted embellishments such as the “Tick Tock” bedtime song the two friends enact and the slight histrionics exhibited by Lina.  There are some miscues, such as an egging sequence but, overall, the direction is strong and convincing.

Scenic Designer Kristen Robinson’s slightly elevated circular set, covered in grass and leaves, has a fishbowl effect with the audience observing, admiring and judging what is presented on stage.

Cry It Out, playing at Hartford Stage through November 17th.  Information is at https://www.hartfordstage.org/.

Portions of this review have been previously published.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Review of "American Son"


The storyline of the play American Son, receiving a riveting production at Theaterworks in Hartford, feels like it has been ripped from the headlines of the nightly news.  An African-American woman, Kendra Ellis-Connor, is anxiously seated in the waiting room of a Miami Beach police station in the early morning hours, awaiting word about her missing son.  A young white police officer attempts to placate her continuous entreaties while peppering her with racially inappropriate questions.  Soon, the mother’s estranged white husband, Scott Connor, enters the scene demanding, with somewhat better success, information about the whereabouts of his 18-year-old son Jamal.  Each time the policeman exits the room the husband and wife quarrel over such hot button issues as poor child rearing practices, lack of parental responsibility, and the role of privilege in a multi-racial family.  A police lieutenant’s entry into the fray only serves to complicate matters.  Tempers flare up on all sides as the investigation into Jamal’s disappearance reaches its uncompromising conclusion.

Playwright Christopher Demos-Brown has crafted a work that, sadly, remains real and to-the-moment.  He adeptly weaves in such issues as racial profiling, establishing Black identity, and the problems interracial couples face.  In a small sense, the play is a character study of a Black and White married couple, now estranged, who are coping with intimate and significant details of their lives.  On a larger scale, the play is about the still considerable racial divide in our country.  The dialogue and scenarios are strong and compelling. 

The cast is led by Ami Brabson as the mother of the missing boy.  She brings a strong-willed determination to the role, but also confusion and impertinence as her character desperately seeks answers from the police and her estranged husband.  J. Anthony Crane, who plays husband Scott Connors, exudes an air of arrogance and self-assurance that impedes his judgement and actions with his wife, son, and the police.  Michael Genest, in his short time on stage as the African-American Police Lieutenant John Stokes, displays forcefulness and compassion along with a no-nonsense manner.  John Ford-Dunker, is convincingly bland as Office Paul Larkin, a young man who is woefully ignorant of his racial insensitivity.

Rob Ruggiero’s taut direction keeps the audience entranced with the clashes on stage.    His assured hand deftly manages the various conflicts and overarching themes presented in the production.  He skillfully allows the suspense to build to its startling climax.

Brian Prather’s Scenic Design of a small, sterile waiting room brings the encounters into sharp focus.  The Sound Design by Frederick Kennedy, primarily of the threatening thunderstorm brewing outside, helps provide an ominous tone to the production.  Lighting Designer Matthew Richards utilizes harsh glowing fluorescent lights that flood the stage, leaving no place for the characters to hide.

American Son, a captivating and challenging production to start Theaterworks 34th season in their newly renovated facilities.  Information and tickets are at http://www.theaterworkshartford.org/

Monday, October 28, 2019

Review of "The Wolves"



The ensemble of “The Wolves” by Sarah DeLappe onstage through Nov 3 in Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Studio Theatre.  Tickets and info at crt.uconn.edu or 860-486-2113.  Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
The Wolves, is a unique drama that uses the backdrop of an indoor girl’s soccer team to probe the multi-faceted relationship female teenagers have amongst themselves.  The plot follows nine teens, aged 16-17 years old, that gather on a weekly basis to drill and prepare for matches over the course of an unspecified time-period.  The group has grown up together, playing at various town and travel team levels.  During their time on stage they workout, banter about silly matters, world politics, sex, friendship and more.  As the show progresses the audience slowly becomes more engrossed in their lives and their unique bond.  We become aware of more serious concerns that are just bubbling under the surface of their small talk and carefree attitude.   Issues such as sexual self-identity, individualism, and adolescent anxiety become apparent.  Death also knocks at their door.

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

Like a well-trained sports team, the troupe of nine actresses—all undergraduate BFA students at the University of Connecticut--work seamlessly together.  There was a tentativeness by the performers at the start of the 90-minute, intermission-less show, but that gradually faded as the play progressed.  Each member of the acting troupe is integral for the success and betterment of the whole.  Throughout the show, particular characters took the spotlight, but then faded back within the assemblage.  The performers had no problem wearing their emotions on their sleeves, which gives the production a realistic feel to it.  There is one adult role in the show, who appears briefly at the play’s end.  She delivers a heartfelt and penetrating monologue.  The young actresses (with their team numbers) are Alexandra Brokowski (#25), Megan O'Connor (#11), Eliza Carson (#8), Maddy Tamms (#2), Nicolle Cooper (#14), Jamie Feidner (#7), Betty Smith (#13), Elizabeth Jebran (#46),  Eilis Garcia (#00), and April Lichtman as the Soccer Mom.

Director Julie Foh has molded the collection of young actresses into a first-rate ensemble.  They don’t come across as a well-toned, high caliber group of soccer players, but the performers do effortlessly kick the balls to each other, run wind sprints, and talk the talk.  She has forged a group esprit de corps while, at the same time, keeping each member’s individual personality and temperament intact.  The director assiduously ensures the dramatic arc of the production remains genuine, slowly ratcheting up the tension as the show nears its end.

Scenic designer Kristen P.E. Zarabozo has created a simple, artificial turf set with plastic sheets of curtain hanging from the rafters, which gives the stage the realistic feel of an indoor soccer facility.

The Wolves, an engaging and winning production, playing at the intimate Studio Theater at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre in Storrs through November 3rd.  Information and tickets are at https://crt.uconn.edu/Online/default.asp.

Portions of this review have been previously published.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Review of "Billy Elliot"


Billy Elliot, playing at the Goodspeed Opera House through November 24th, is one of the best productions I have seen at the venerable theater in many years.  Director Gabriel Barre has masterfully reconfigured this large-scale musical for the smaller confines of the Goodspeed stage without sacrificing the show’s emotional core or beautifully realized dance numbers. 
 
Liam Vincent Hutt as Billy with the cast of Billy Elliot, playing through November 24th. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.


The show, with a score by Elton John and Lee Hall, tells the story of 13-year-old Billy Elliott (at this performance played by Liam Vincent Hutt) who, through inadvertent circumstances, becomes enrolled in an afterschool ballet class.  His talent soon becomes apparent to his tough-minded instructor, Mrs. Wilkinson (Michelle Aravena), who begins to groom him for a tryout with the Royal Ballet unbeknownst to his widowed, disapproving father (Sean Hayden) and older brother.   The story is played out against the political backdrop of the 1984-85 miner’s strike in northern England, which left villages like this one in County Durham, impoverished and in dire straits. 

Lee Hall, who wrote the book of the show, lyrics and the original screenplay for the 2000 movie the musical is based on, has created a story that is full of passion, emotional highs and lows, and adversity.  He has fashioned full-bodied characters that can pull at our heartstrings.  The social forces within the country at the time are fully realized and add a hard-edged and cynical layer to the show. 
 
The cast of Billy Elliot, playing through November 24th. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.
The songs by Elton John and Lee Hall can be intoxicating, uplifting, and bring a tear to the eye.  Standouts include the political-laden “Solidarity,” the high-spirited “Expressing Yourself,” and the boundless exuberance of “Electricity.”

The choreography by Marc Kimelman can be fun-loving (“Shine”), rambunctious (“Expressing Yourself”), breathtaking and captivating (“Dream Sequence”).  The “Dream Sequence” is a stunning piece of work that left me numb with exhilaration.  There are some miscues in the choreography, as in the disjointed “Angry Dance,” but, overall, the jazz, tap, and ballet numbers are at an exceptional level that elevates the production to dizzying heights.
 
Jan Martens and Liam Vincent Hutt in Billy Elliot, playing through November 24th. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.
The cast is led by Liam Vincent Hutt as Billy.  He has a youthful vitality and brings a sustained energy to the role.  His dancing ability is exceptional.  The young actor needs to be the focus of the musical and he does not disappoint.  Michelle Aravena delivers a world-weariness to the role of Mrs. Wilkinson, but also imbues in her a degree of strength and resilence. Sean Hayden is persuasive and compelling as Billy’s father, a man trying to provide for his family and hold it together during trying times.  Jon Martens, who plays Billy’s best friend, Michael, injects humor and an endearing goofiness into his portrayal.  He too is no slouch on the dance floor.  Nick Silverio deserves special mention as the older Billy.  His duet with Liam Vincent Hutt in the “Dream Ballet” was awe-inspiring.

In the program notes, Director Gabriel Barre states the show is about “finding your purpose and summoning the courage necessary to follow your dreams and create your own destiny.”  This distillation of the plot is fully realized by Barre as he skillfully guides the sizeable cast on the small Goodspeed stage.  An impressive example is rendered during “Solidarity,” when the miners, police, Billy and the girls in his ballet class weave in and out from each other, confront, and dance.  The director keeps the emotional impact high and has added some well-placed flourishes that greatly enhance scenes such as adding a chorus of dancing girls in a dreamlike sequence to “Expressing Yourself.” 
 
The cast of Billy Elliot, playing through November 24th. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.
Walt Spangler’s Scenic Design are impressive for their variety and size, which includes a very convincing miner’s elevator, a ramshackle dance studio, and even a giant Margaret Thatcher puppet.  Jen Shapiro’s Costume Designs are fittingly apropos for the environs.

Billy Elliot, a dazzling production, playing at the Goodspeed Opera House through November 24th.  Information and tickets are at https://www.goodspeed.org/

Review of "Little Shop of Horrors"


One of the great strengths of the Off-Broadway revival of Little Shop of Horrors is its location at the Westside Arts Theatre on 43rd Street and 9th Avenue.  The well-worn venue, with a capacity of just 270 seats, is the perfect setting for this off-beat, sci-fi musical about a man-eating plant that takes over a florist shop on New York City’s Skid Row.  The timeworn nature and size of the theater adds a degree of seediness that effectively sets the proper mood for the production.

Based on the 1960 Roger Corman cult classic film, Little Shop of Horrors tells the tale of Seymour Krelborn, a nebbish young man, played with geeky charm by Jonathan Groff, who is a clerk at a rundown flower shop presided over by the crotchety Mr. Muskin (Tom Alan Robbins).  Their dispirited, but hopeful co-worker Audrey (Tammy Blanchard), is in a very unhealthy relationship with her boyfriend dentist, Orin Scrivello (Christian Borle).  The fortunes of Seymour and company quickly change upon his discovery of a very mysterious and menacing venus flytrap looking plant that he names the Audrey II.  As news of the young clerk’s find begins to spread, the prosperity of the floral shop grows…as does the plant, which prefers juicy, blood-red nourishment.  Mayhem and an expanding body count ensue until a chilling climax.

The book by Howard Ashman is a highly rewarding mash-up of many genres—science fiction, comedy, and murder mystery.  The storyline, that centers on Seymour’s Faustian Bargain, is brisk and clever.  The inclusion of three women—Ronnette (Ari Groover), Crystal (Salome Smith), and Chiffon (Joy Woods)—to the mix allows a type of Greek Chorus to deliver exposition, expand musical numbers, and provide entertaining scene changes.

The wonderfully cast group of actors is led by Jonathan Groff as Seymour.  While he imbues the role with buoyant optimism and charm, he also displays a hardened determination as the musical progresses, which shows a rather disturbing side to the character.  Tammy Blanchard comes across as a tougher, more knocked around Audrey than the usual ditzy portrayal of the character.  Her performance is one of world-weariness and resignation, which gives her a more well-rounded persona. Christian Borle, playing multiple characters, but primarily the sadistic, demented dentist Orin Scrivello, is a comic dynamo who embellishes every scene he’s in with hilarity and sidesplitting antics.  Tom Alan Robbins is suitably gruff as Mr. Mushnik and the three-member female ensemble are spunky, smooth, and quite fun.

The score by Alan Mencken and Howard Ashman is high-spirited, tuneful and hip.  They incorporate a number of song styles to great effect.  They include Doo Wop (“Da-Doo”), tender ballads (“Somewhere That’s Green”), and comedic gems (“Dentist!”).

Director Michael Mayer keeps the two-hour musical running at a brisk pace.  He skillfully maneuvers his troupe of actors around the small Westside Arts stage with poise and aplomb.  Mayer has inserted a number of small, but humorous embellishments to add spice to a show that is a mainstay of regional and community productions around the country. Choreographer Ellenore Scott contributes a series of stylish, finely synchronized dance routines, primarily for the trio of Chiffon, Crystal, and Ronnette.

Puppet Designer Nicholas Mahon’s creation of the Audrey II, based on the original design by Martin P. Robinson, is masterful. The plant, voiced by the deep throated and sinister sounding Kingsley Leggs, becomes almost life-like in the closing scenes.

Julian Crouch’s Scenic Design of a grungy florist shop and the Skid Row environs are perfectly shabby and dilapidated.  Jessica Paz’s Sound Design and Bradley King’s Lighting Design provide just the right amount of scariness and ominous foreboding to the production.

Little Shop of Horrors, a creepy, exuberant musical, playing at the Westide Arts Theatre through January 19th.
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Saturday, October 26, 2019

Halloween Themed Broadway Music on the Radio

Halloween themed music from the Off-Broadway and Broadway stage take over the airwaves of Sounds of Broadway (SoundsofBroadway.com) – the 24/7 online Broadway music radio station – from Monday, October 28th thru Thursday, October 31st.  Beginning at 10:00am EST, over ten hours a day will be devoted to scary and spine-tingling songs from the musical theater.

“There will be the well-known shows such as The Addams Family, Damn Yankees, Little Shop of Horrors, The Phantom of the Opera, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Young Frankenstein,” said Stuart Brown, who launched the radio station last April.  “But there will also be a number of little-known musicals I’ll be playing selections from such as Bunnicula, The Brain from Planet X, Death Takes a Holiday, Faust, and Zombie Prom.  In all, there will be almost three dozen shows that will be included in the programming.”
“These types of shows are very popular,” said Brown, who is a member of the Outer Critics Circle and President of the Connecticut Critics Circle.  “Running on Broadway right now is Beetlejuice, Hadestown, and Phantom and the just opened Off-Broadway revival of Little Shop of Horrors.  There’s even a touch of Halloween in Mean Girls where the first line of the song “Sexy” is “If I could change the world, I’d make it Halloween.”

Sounds of Broadway offers the most wide-ranging listing of music from the Off-Broadway, Broadway, and London stages. Thousands of songs from hundreds of cast recordings are in rotation, with new shows added weekly.  “My last count was 4,300 songs from over 540 musicals,” he said. “I feature popular and classic shows like Wicked, My Fair Lady, and Hamilton,” stated the Connecticut resident. “But, unlike other online radio stations, I’ve included selections from more obscure or little heard of shows.  I want the station to entertain, but I also want to teach people about musical theater history.”

Sounds of Broadway can be reached at the website www.SoundsofBroadway.com. Brown can be reached at Stuart@SoundsofBroadway.com.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Review of "On the Grounds of Belonging"


With the Connecticut theater season just about halfway over, the best drama to open in the state so far is the world premiere of On the Grounds of Belonging, playing at the Long Wharf Theatre through November 3rd.  This absorbing, emotionally impactful work of forbidden love will keep you breathlessly engrossed.

Playwright Ricardo Pérez González based the play on “the racially segregated gay bars in Houston,” [Texas] in the 1950’s when racial discrimination was commonplace.  At the time, there was the white bar, known as the Red Room and the black bar, the Gold Room, right across the street.

The action of the show takes place in the Gold Room, an accurately executed barroom setting by Scenic Designer Wilson Chin.  The inhabitants are Hugh Williams (Thomas Silcott), the proprietor of the establishment; Tanya Starr (Tracey Conyer Lee), a lounge singer; Henry Stanfield (Blake Anthony Morris) and Russell Montgomery (Calvin Leon Smith), two of the bar’s frequent patrons.  A recurrent presence from across the street is Mooney Fitzgerald (Craig Bockhorn), the burly owner of the Red Room.

One evening, a white woman enters the lounge to avoid a raid at the Red Room.  We soon learn she is a man, Tom, (Jeremiah Clapp), dressed in drag.  Playful banter between the out-of-place young man and the denizens of the bar leads to a tentative, but budding romance between Tom and Russell, which puts their lives in jeopardy and the rest of the characters in emotional turmoil and peril.

Ricardo Pérez González has crafted a play with people that draw the audience into their trajectory.  He pulls no punches with some of the sexually charged language and scenes.  The director has included just enough plot twists and surprises to keep viewers unbalanced.  The backdrop of the Jim Crow era provides a simmering tension not only between the characters, but also with the overall storyline. The backstories of the characters are minimal.  A more in-depth exploration might have provided a deeper understanding and motivation of each person.  Nonetheless, this is a show that keeps us consistently and highly engaged.

Director David Mendizábal brings sensitivity and passion to the production.  He doesn’t waiver, however, when he needs to be authentic and straightforward with the direction of the show.  Mendizábal provides a deftly paced production and handles scenes of rapture and conflict with honestly and aplomb.

The cast works well like a well-practiced ensemble.  Each performer brings a certain level of strength and vulnerability to the production

Thomas Silcott’s Hugh Williams is unflappable and the steadfast anchor to the volatility swirling around his bar and the lives of his friends.  Craig Bockhorn’s Mooney Fitzgerald provides the perfect counterpoint to the character of Williams.  The performer brings forth a subdued menace and threatening, low-key, manner to his role.  Blake Anthony Morris imbues his character of Henry Stanfield with an unabashed sexual thirst that sets into motion the show’s fateful denouement.  Calvin Leon Smith’s Russell Montgomery and Jeremiah Clapp’s Tom Aston are convincing as the star-crossed lovers, but their lack of a more satisfying backstory hinders their dramatic arc.   Tracey Conyer Lee, besides possessing a powerhouse voice, brings common sense and gumption to the role of Tanya Starr.

On the Grounds of Belonging, a crackling production, playing at the Long Wharf Theatre through November 3rd.  Information and tickets are at longwharf.org.

Review of "Girls"


Girls, receiving its world premiere at the Yale Repertory Theatre, is a very problematic production.  The play is based on the Greek work, The Bacchae, by Euripides.  It has been adapted and reconceptualized by playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.  As someone unfamiliar with this ancient piece of theater, I was gratified to for the extensive rehearsal notes and other helpful material in the program.  However, should a show need to rely on documentation to be understood?  Without the essays, I would have been mostly baffled by the overlong production.   

The focus of the work takes place in a wooded area, artfully rendered by Scenic Designer, Adam Rigg, where the woman of the land are carousing at a large dance festival organized by Deon (Nicholas L. Ashe), a lithe young man, who has come back to the land to avenge his mother’s death.

Another central character is Theo (Will Seefried), a gun toting, somewhat fanatical individual broadcasting a live feed over the Internet to his followers and is troubled by the hyperactivity he sees in the wooded area.  Deon seeks to punish Theo’s family for their involvement with his mother’s demise.  From here, the plot becomes a bit convoluted if you are not familiar with The Bacchae.  Suffice it to say it includes revenge, mistaken identities, and female empowerment.

While audience members can appreciate what the playwright has brought forth, the play becomes wearisome.  The merriment by the bacchants, which forms the foundation of the production, is unnecessarily drawn-out.  As with the shindig scenes from Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, the dancing periodically stops, a spotlight beams on a performer, who delivers a pithy bit of irrelevant dialogue, before the shimmying continues.  Unlike the landmark television show, the utterances lack humor or direction.

The choreography by Raja Feather Kelly reminded me of the 1960’s TV dance program Hullabaloo with a lot of self-expressive movement and frenzied gyrations.

There are three actors that make an impact on the play.  Nicholas L. Ashe, as Deon, brings an impish demeanor to his role.  His playfulness, however, masks a cool, cunning character seeking retribution over the loss of his mother.  Will Seefried is bombastic and somewhat over-the-top in his performance at Theo, but his portrayal fits in perfectly with this classic’s retelling.  Jeanine Serralles as Gaga, mother of Theo, adroitly shifts from a flustered and bewildered parent to a demented matriarch bent on killing.

Lileana Blain-Cruz’s direction can appear helter skelter and uneven, but there is a method to his process even if the results are patchy and produce a work that could easily have been shaved by 10-15 minutes.  He does skillfully blend in David Bengali’s larger-than-life projection system that ominously hovers over the forest dance party.  The director also deftly incorporates Yi Zhao’s Lighting Design and Palmer Hefferan’s Sound Design to help create a foreboding, atmospheric presence.

Girls, playing at the Yale Repertory Theatre through October 26th.  Information and tickets are at www.yalerep.org.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Review of "Slave Play"


Jeremy Harris’ provocative, sometimes funny, and challenging work, Slave Play, uses the sexual difficulties of mixed race couples to explore Black identity and empowerment.  The playwright roots his examination through the lens of slavery and its historic subjugation of African-Americans.

The play pulls no punches in its first extended scene (the show runs 2+ hours with no intermission).  A section of the mirrored set, which reflects a large, white plantation manor, opens to reveal a Black female slave (Joaquina Kalukango) and her White overseer (Paul Alexander Nolan).  Their interaction, tentative at first, grows more pained and, finally, sexually charged.  As they vanish behind the highly-polished set another doorway opens and a four-poster bed is pushed on stage.  This vignette reveals the mistress of the plantation (Annie McNamara) and her educated, properly uniformed Black manservant (Sullivan Jones).  Soon, their interaction devolves into a compromising position that includes a large black dildo.  The final set involves a Black supervisor (Ato Blankson-Wood) and the indentured servant (James Cusati-Moyer) he looms over.  They taunt each other until clothes are finally torn asunder and their carnal passions overtake them.

Just when you begin to scratch your head in clueless wonderment the second scene is introduced.

[Note: The following paragraph is a spoiler alert.  You can skip to the 3rd paragraph down.]

What is now presented to the audience are three couples, one African-American, the other White, lounging on folding chairs in, what we learn, is a room set up to process the role playing we have just witnessed.  Two therapists, one Black, Tea (Chalia La Tour), the other Latino, Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio), have developed, what they call, “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy” as a way for mixed couples to deal with their sexual dysfunction using the brutality of slavery as a release mechanism.  The two Yale University doctoral candidates (which they mention numerous times) excitedly explain how the processing of their role playing experience will help each partner move closer together as they confront and delve into their feelings from the simulation.

What transpires are high charged monologues, recriminations, and soulful introspections by the participants - Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango) and her husband Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan), Alana (Annie McNamara) and her spouse Phillip (Sullivan Jones), and Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood) and Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer).  The third, and final, scene takes place back home in the apartment of Kaneisha and Jim.  What begins as a potential reconciliation between the two quickly devolves into a delusional and abhorrent action by Jim, which leaves their marriage in total disrepair.

Harris is focusing on significant issues in Slave Play, while also taking time to poke fun at social scientists, by dreaming up an outlandish therapy regimen and masking their efforts in psychobabble and questionable results.  He questions what is the Black identity within a mixed relationship and, in order to provide harmony, is it necessary for African-Americans to subvert their identity as they did during slavery?  And how must their White partners reassess their role and actions?  The play, though, is too heavily layered and dense with messy and jumbled connections and overwrought statements.  Director Robert O’Hara provides strong, measured guidance of the material, but the production could have benefitted from the perspective of less is more.

The cast is fully committed to their roles, which brings on uncomforting reality to the production.  Each portrayal has its own strengths and merits.  Sullivan Jones brings a nonchalant air to the role of Phillip who, after detached bantering with his spouse and others, shockingly realizes his lack of racial identity and connection to his wife.  Annie McNamara gives a nuanced performance as Alana, Phillip’s married partner.  Her nervous tics and eagerness to please tell volumes about their fragile relationship.  Ato Blankson-Wood’s portrayal of Gary is, initially, more passive then the other characters, but when he finally confronts his partner and his idiosyncratic kvetching, the actor demonstrates a fierce acrimony that finally explodes over his White soulmate’s irrational fixation.  The actor James Cusati-Moyer, who portrays Gary’s self-centered, somewhat obnoxious partner, Dustin, is superb.  He is oblivious and shallow as he baits his partner, questioning who is more Black?   

Paul Alexander Nolan’s Jim is one of the more complex characters in the production.  Trying to put himself above the fray, he shows an unsteadiness on how to lovingly proceed with the African-American wife he adores.  His misguided resolution in scene three explodes in horror and pity.  Joaquina Kalukango’s Kaneisha, the spouse of Jim, comes across as the most affected of the six participants.  She silently smolders during the therapy processing before unleashing a tirade full of angst and realization.  The two Yale therapists, Chalia La Tour as Teá and Irene Sofia Lucio, a couple themselves, are less developed then the other characters.  They serve as provocateurs and guides as the group continually processes their feelings.  Their personas do, however, mask an undercurrent of uneasiness within their bubbly facades.

Slave Play, at Broadway’s Golden Theatre through January 19, 2020.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Review of "Mlima's Tale"


The illegal trade in African ivory is the central focus of Mlima’s Tale, a new play by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage.  The 80-minute show is receiving its first professional production since its 2018 world premiere at The Public Theater in New York City.  It plays at the Westport Country Playhouse through October 19th.

At the onset, the show opens with what appears to be an African native in ritualized dance, praying to the gods or maybe his deceased ancestors.  Soon, we realize, the actor is actually the representation of Mlima, the last of the bull elephants with tusks six-feet in length, who is being hunted by poachers for his prized ivory.  There is no escape for the animal, even after 40 days of trying to elude his human predators.  He is finally caught and butchered by the pursuing men.  This begins a chain of events, chronicling the illicit trafficking of the purloined ivory from the African plains to its final incarnation as a high-priced piece of artwork on display in the foyer of a Chinese mogul’s a high-rise penthouse apartment. 

The play is crafted as a series of self-contained vignettes detailing each step in which the tusks are ferreted from Kenya, their starting off point.  There is the set-up, confrontation, and resolution, usually involving corrupt officials.  The feel comes across as more of an academic presentation and less of an engaging story with a strong theatrical core.  Audience members are most likely going to be revolted and outraged by what they witness happening on stage, but there is not much of a dramatic arc to keep us emotionally connected.

The one thread that resonates throughout the production is the ghostly presence of the slain Mlima.  He hovers over the ending of each scene as an apparitional witness to the venal dealings being committed.  Unspoken and with minimal stirring, he lightly dusts the faces of each conspirator, silently marking their involvement in their connivance.

While the three performers – Jennean Farmer, Adit Dileep, and Carl Hendrick Louis – play each of their rotating roles with assurance and believability, it is the performance of Jermaine Rowe as the doomed pachyderm that anchors this production.  His muscular frame helps create the illusion of a large, once proud, elephant.  A noted performer with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the actor is agile and spare with his movements on stage, conveying an angst and sorrowfulness in both life and death.

Director Mark Lamos keeps the pacing brisk as the settings change from such varied locales as African, Vietnam and China.  There is almost a documentary feel to the scenes that accompany the sure-handed assertiveness to his direction.

Choreographer Jeffrey Page’s work with Jermaine Rowe is powerful and impassioned.

Yana Birykova’s minimalistic porjections can be haunting – a large moon hovering over a naked stage -  and overt as demonstrated by slides of the slaughtered Mlima projecting from the backdrop.  Composer Michael Keck’s musical interludes are affecting and help set the tone for the production.

Mlima’s Tale, playing at the Westport Country Playhouse through October 19th.  For information and tickets, go to https://www.westportplayhouse.org/MlimasTale

Review of "Little Shop of Horrors"


Just in time for the Halloween season, the musical Little Shop of Horrors is back with a highly enjoyable, thoroughly entertaining production at A Connecticut Theatre (ACT) in Ridgefield, CT.  The sci-fi spoof, centering on a rather large man-eating plant, is based on Roger Corman’s 1960 cult film classic. 

The plot centers on Seymour (Robb Sapp), an unassuming employee at a run down flower shop on New York’s Skid Row.  His co-worker Audrey (Laura Woyasz) is a beauty with low self-esteem and a sadistic boyfriend (Daniel C. Levine) employed as a dentist.  The two toil away at Mushnik’s (William Thomas Evans) shabby establishment awaiting any type of customer.  One day Seymour unveils a plant purchased under mysterious circumstances that soon attracts shoppers because of its uniqueness.  Business begins to boom and Seymour becomes more self-assured, but there is one small problem.  Regular plant food won’t suffice.  As its true diet is revealed, and its hunger and growth dramatically increase,  the lives of everyone in the Skid Row shop becomes topsy-turvy with unsettling consequences.

Little Shop of Horrors is a fun, tuneful show.  To be successful, flawless casting is essential and this production makes the mark.  All the principle actors take their roles to heart, delivering two hours of merriment, mayhem and songful pleasures.  Robb Sapp is appropriately nerdy and consistently in the dumps as Seymour.  But his energetic performance helps transform the character into someone a bit less pathetic and more believing in himself.  The actor’s scenes with the Audrey II are absurdly realistic.   Laura Woyasz imbues Audrey with a disconsolate and somewhat meek demeanor at first, but she also shows some spunk as the wistful, heart-of-gold co-worker and secret love of Seymour.  William Thomas Evans is sufficiently belligerent and demanding as the hard-bitten, downtrodden Mr. Mushnik.  Daniel C. Levine infuses Orin the dentist with just the amount of degenerate fiendishness without being too over-the-top.  Levine played the role in the 1987 Broadway national tour of the show and gleefully seems to relish his return to the debauched character.  The threesome of Kadrea Dawkins (Chiffon), Ashley Alexandra Seldon (Crystal), and Rachelle Legrand (Ronnette) form a winning mini Greek chorus.  Their full-throttled singing and overall presence give the production a continuous amount of zip and luster.  Even with a superior acting group Little Shop of Horrors would not work without a colorful, boisterous Audrey II.  Thankfully, the team of Kent Overshown (voice of AudredyII) and puppeteer Thomas Bergamo form a dynamic union that gives the growing plant a believability that is both engaging and somewhat scary.

The score by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken is witty, playful, and melodic and can be quite hilarious.  These are the two men behind such Disney animated classics at The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.  The songs in this show run the gamut of genres from do-wop, yearning ballads, comedic gems and, let’s just say, unusual duets.  You can see why Disney plucked them from the theatrical ranks to reinvigorate their once moribund animated film division.

Director/Choreographer Jason A. Sparks skillfully exploits the theater’s limited space to the production’s advantage.  The closeness of the performers to each other and to the audience gives the musical a vibrancy and immediacy.  He successfully incorporates the Audrey II into the mix as it slowly grows and literally takes over the stage. Mr. Sparks has a good command of the performers, knowing when to let them let loose or rein them in.  Doubling as choreographer, he adds an attractive array of dance routines, especially for the three-person chorus.

Scenic Designer Ryan Howell has effectively created a seedy, broken-down area of New York City.  Fading horror movie posters on a faux brick wall adds an amusing touch.  A rotating and breakaway set operates smoothly and unobtrusively, adding variety to the production.

Little Shop of Horrors, a lighthearted and spirited good time at ACT.  The ideal musical to introduce tweens and teens to musical theater.  Now through November 3rd.  Information and tickets are at https://www.actofct.org/