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 TeĆ” 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/

Friday, October 11, 2019

Review of "Ragtime"


The musical Ragtime, when first presented on the Broadway stage, was a heavily layered show, boasting a large cast and production values to match.  What the marvelous staging of the show at the modest Music Theatre of Connecticut (MTC) confines demonstrates is that creativity can overcome potentially insurmountable odds in producing the musical in a very small performing space.

Ragtime is based on the bestseller by E.L. Doctorow.  Set at the dawn of the 1900’s, the show focuses on three groups making their way through this era.  There is the high society family, the Jewish immigrants, and an assemblage of African-Americans.  Their stories intersect and collide with far-reaching ramifications, providing tragic, but also hopeful, results.  Included within the plot are such notable historic personalities of the time as Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, and Evelyn Nesbitt.

The score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (Once on this Island, Seussical, Lucky Stiff) is their finest and most fulfilling.  There are soaring ballads, fiery anthems, and a number of comedic tunes.  They beautifully evoke the times of the early 20th century.  Two outstanding pianists, David Wolfson and Mark Ceppetelli, provide all the musical accompaniment, giving the production a Scott Joplin type feel.

Director Kevin Connors has adroitly woven together the respective plot lines to form a well-crafted, at times, emotionally, highly charged production.  He skillfully guides the large cast around the small stage.  Occasionally, the sizeable group of actors can overwhelm the MTC space but, for the most part, Connors steers the performers through seamless scene changes that propels the story forward to its gripping conclusion.

The acting troupe is superb, with many performers playing multiple roles.  Four standouts are Juliet Lambert Pratt as Mother, the matriarch of the New Rochelle high society family.  She is prim and proper and, initially, stoic in her interactions with her husband and child.  However, the actress imbues her performance with astute, almost subtle, growth throughout the production so by the end of the show she has transformed into a very different woman.  Ezekiel Andrew is impressive as the embattled, principled Coalhouse Walker, Jr.  The actor has a noble presence and powerful singing voice that captures his dreams and anguish.  Frank Mastrone, as the immigrant father, Tateh, deftly brings the sorrow, struggle, and ultimate joy to his character.  Mia Scarpa, in her limited time on stage as the political activist Emma Goldman, gives an intense, passionate performance.

Jessie Lizotte’s multi-platformed set helps with the stratification and societal barriers of the three groups portrayed in the musical.  Diane Vanderkroef’s costumes are indicative of the time period.  They cover a diverse range of characters from the thread bare schmattas of the Jewish immigrants to the more regal dress of the upper-class family to the fastidiously outfitted garments of the African-American citizens.

Ragtime, playing at the Music Theatre of Connecticut through October 13th.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Review of "Quixote Nuevo"

When most people attuned to the theater think of the Miguel de Cervantes novel, Don Quixote, the musical Man of La Mancha comes to mind.  However, this could soon change as the new work by playwright Octavio Solis, Quixote Nuevo, also based on the classic Spanish novel, becomes more widely seen around the country.  This reimagining of the befuddled knight-errant and his loyal squire is a hallucinatory roller coaster of dreamscapes and powerful metaphors.  The work can be very funny, seductively moving, and highly engaging.  The play is at Hartford Stage through October 13th.

Solis has relocated the setting to the desert outside El Paso, Texas where we find Jose Quijano, a.k.a. Don Quixote, a former University professor of literature, now grasping with reality.  His family and friends, unable to care for his needs, look to settle him in a 24-hour care facility.  Before they can follow through with their relocation efforts, the aged faculty member slips out of the household to seek adventure and reunite with his lost love, Dulcinea.  He recruits a local paletas (ice pops) vendor, Manny Diaz, a.k.a. Sancho Panchez, to assist him as he roams the nearby landscape battling real impediments and imagined demons, all the while searching for his long-ago love.  In the end, battered and on his death bed, with his family now at his side, Don Quixote is able to make peace with his life and departed inamorata.

The strength of Quixote Nuevo is the inventiveness of the playwright, the metaphoric language and symbols he has assembled, and the assured direction and resourcefulness of Director KJ Sanchez.  One example employed is the cacophony of nightmarish and comical characters, sometimes breaking out in folklore tinged song and dance, that follow and mock Quixote.

One of the central images conveyed throughout the play is “The Wall.”  An easy interpretation of this emblem would touch on political turmoil and immigration unrest at the borders.  However, while these attributes are on full display in the show, “The Wall” means so much more.  According to Solis this includes “the barrier between reality and fantasy…love and fear…and life and death.”

The first-rate cast, with many of the performers playing multiple roles, is led by Emilio Delgado as Jose Quijano/Don Quixote.  The actor, lapsing in and out of reality throughout the show, is superb as the sometimes helpless, but consistently determined academician.  He has a world-weariness coupled with an innocence as he carries out his quest.  Juan Manuel Amador as Manny Diaz/Sancho Pancho gives a noteworthy comedic performance throughout the production.  He delves into physical humor, verbal assaults, and slapstick clowning.  But his portrayal of Sancho is more layered than just a joking sidekick.  He comes to believe and cherish the resolve of Quixote, moving from protecting the old man from himself to helping shepherd him on his quest.

Takeshi Kata’s Scenic Design conjures up the simple, sometimes unforgiving landscape of the Southwestern United States.  Rachel Healy’s Costume Designs are whimsical, wild, and wholly original.  David Molina and Eduardo Robledo’s musical compositions add a more authentic Latino flavor to the show.

Quixote Nuevo, thought-provoking and entertaining.  Playing at Hartford Stage through October 13th.





Monday, October 7, 2019

Review of "Nunsense"


The nuns at the Sisters of Hoboken are back in the Playhouse on Park staging of Nunsense.  This ever popular musical – the original Off-Broadway show ran for 3,672 performances, the second-longest running Off-Broadway show in history, after The Fantasticks - is a rollicking and high-spirited production.

The five sisters in the show need to raise money to bury their brethren.  It seems Sister Julia, Child of God, accidentally poisoned 52 of the flock and there is no money in the kitty to pay for the last four burials. They decide to hold a variety show to bring in the required funds.  They are led by the Mother Superior, Sister Mary Regina (Amanda Forker).  Her right-hand woman, Sister Mary Hubert (Brandi Porter), the no-nonsense Mistress of the Novices; Sister Mary Amnesia (Hillary Ekwall), a nun who can’t remember much after a crucifix fell on her head; Sister Robert Anne (Lily Dickinson), a smart-alecky nun from the streets of Brooklyn; and Sister Mary Leo (Rachel Oremland), the youngest of the group who dreams of becoming the first ballerina nun.

They sing, they dance, tell jokes, and do everything in their power, and that of the Lord’s, to provide a lively, entertaining show.  And the quintet succeeds.  The five women work exceptionally well together, playing off each other’s strengths with skill and wit.  Each actress also makes the most of their individual moments under the spotlight of the small Playhouse space.

Dan Goggin, who wrote the book, music and lyrics of the show, layers the musical with a bounty of jokes and comical moments.  He has crafted a deceptively simple show that is, nonetheless, charming and clever.  The songs, which include “Nunsense is Habit-Forming,” “Playing Second Fiddle,” “Clean Out the Freezer,” and “I Just Want to be a Star,” are good-humored and tuneful.

The performers are a pure delight, perfectly cast for their roles, a well-heeled acting unit.  Each actress delivers a unique quality to their portrayal.  Amanda Forker brings an oversized personality to the role of the Mother Superior, the ring master of the group.  Her Act II meltdown of a nun who accidentally gets high is a comic gem.  Brandi Porter is resolute and demanding as the frustrated second-in-command.  She possesses a powerful singing voice and shows off some mean dance steps.  Lily Dickinson, the tough nun with a heart of gold from Canarsie, Brooklyn is hilarious as she continually attempts to muscle her way into the limelight.  Hillary Ekwall is appropriately befuddled as Sister Amnesia and is also one talented puppet master.  Rachel Oremland’s Sister Robert Anne adds a softer, more innocent edge to her soulmates.

Director/Choreographer Darlene Zoller guides the show with a lighthearted, but assured staging, with never a dull moment.  She has the women performing as a first-rate ensemble.  The dance numbers, deftly inserted into the flow of the show, are sprightly and inventive.

Nunsense, a fun-filled, rib-tickling musical, playing at Playhouse on Park through October 13th.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Review of "Honky Tonk Laundromat"


If you’re looking for a care-free, innocuous time at the theater, humming along to country tunes, then Honky Tonk Laundry, playing at Seven Angels Theatre through October 20th, is the show for you.

This two-person jukebox musical follows Lana Mae Hopkins (Caryln Connolly), proprietress of the Wishy Washy Washateria, and her new hire, Katie Lane Murphy (Laura Hodos) a slightly ditzy employee, as they chit chat about cheating husbands and boyfriends, their lives, and dreams.  Their feelings are expressed through almost two dozen country hits from such artists as Patsy Cline, Reba McEntire, Dolly Parton, Carrie Underwood.   

Lana Mae, earlier in her life, had aspirations of becoming a country singing star, but those ambitions were dashed, until Katie Lane comes up with the idea of transforming the Washateria into a one-night only honky tonk nightclub.  This gives the two women, primarily Lana Mae, the venue to sing their hearts out while relating personal and heartfelt stories during Act II of the production.

The book by Roger Bean, creator of the long-running Off-Broadway musical The Marvelous Marvelettes and other modest songfest-filled productions, brings an easy-going feel and breezy quality to the story.  There’s not much substance, but that’s not the point of the show. 

Caryln Connolly possesses a striking stage presence and powerhouse vocals.  She brings an assured attitude to the role with fringes of vulnerability.  Laura Hodos is pleasing as the comedic foil with a donut eating habit and vengeful streak that would make any cheating fool quake in their boots.

Director Russell Garrett delivers a laid back production that moves along steadily from song to biographical nugget to the next musical interlude. 

Carl Tallent’s set is wonderfully well-worn with weathered checkered linoleum floors, fading wallpaper and a small town, local feel.

The small pit band, under the direction of Brent Maudlin, is a tight knit unit thumping out upbeat tunes as well as he-done-me-wrong ballads.

Honky Tonk Laundry, a country and western jukebox musical with a heart.

Review of "Shear Madness"

Almost 40 years ago, Marilyn Abrams and Bruce Jordan came up with the idea for a theatrical experience wrapped around an interactive murder-mystery comedy.  The show, Shear Madness, has been playing ever since in Boston and elsewhere around the world, making it one of the longest running non-musicals in history.

A production of this entertaining, somewhat daffy show has alighted at the Ivoryton Playhouse through October 6th. 

The plot takes place in a hair salon run by Tony Whitcomb (Jordan Ahnquist), the outwardly gay proprietor and his bosomy, flighty assistant, Barbara DeMarco (Siobhan Fitzgerald).  The landlady, a reclusive, world-class concert pianist, is murdered and the two hairdressers, along with an aged, prim and proper socialite, Mrs. Shubert (Lisa McMillan), and a local antiques dealer, Eddie Lawrence (Bill Mootos), all who were within the confines of the business at the time of the deed, are the main suspects.  Two local detectives – Mikey Thomas (Lev Harvey) and Nick O’Brien (Patrick Noonan) - take charge of the case.

After the murder has been revealed the lights go up in the theater and Lieutenant Lawrence turns to the audience for help in solving the mystery and reconstructing the crime.  At the play’s conclusion, the audience votes for their choice of whodunit, which could change at every performance, and then the guilty party is led off in handcuffs.   

Shear Madness is enjoyable and diverting as long as you are in the spirit for audience interaction.  Unlike, say The Mystery of Edwin Drood, where the audience participation comes at the end of the show in a vote for the killer, in Shear Madness the more engaging the crowd – yelling out questions, interjecting their thoughts, or catching an inconsistent plot twist – the more winning the experience.

Paul Portner, listed as the writer of the play, has localized the setting to Essex, CT.  He also incorporates numerous cultural and political references as well as mentioning local landmarks and businesses.  Some of these citations are so current you wonder if the writer is sitting off-stage constantly sending in rewrites.

All six actors are game for the shenanigans and slightly improvisational nature of the show.  They are led by Patrick Noonan’s Lieutenant O’Brien, the ringleader of the cast.  He barks out orders to the performers on-stage and is, in a sense, the Master of Ceremonies, as he cajoles, questions, and charms the audience to help solve the mystery.  Jordan Ahnquist is suitably over-the-top as the campy hairdresser and the other cast members are equally appealing.

Director Bob Lohrmann, a veteran of the long-running Washington, D.C. production of the show (30+ years), keeps the play light and breezy.  The pacing is non-stop amusement whether the rapid-fire jokes make their mark or not. 

Set Designer Daniel Nischan has suitably created the interior of a well-appointed salon.

Shear Madness, droll at best, playing at the Ivoryton Theater through October 6th.