Friday, November 15, 2019

Review of "Tina - The Tina Turner Musical"


Adrienne Warren as Tina Turner in Tina - The Tina Turner Musical
In the past few seasons there have been a slew of biographical shows on Broadway – Summer, The Cher Show, and Ain’t Too Proud - The Life and Times of the Temptations.  Tina – the Tina Turner Musical is more gratifying and well-defined than those previous entries.  It is a dazzling jukebox production with a scintillating and career-defining performance by Adrienne Warren in the title role. 

Like musicals of this genre, the book begins when the featured artist is very young and weaves its way through adulthood and a demarcating and triumphant moment in the person(s) life.  What separates Tina is the story, written by Katori Hall, Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins, for the musical is intelligible and less episodic.  There is a good rhythm and fluidity to the production.  Sure, there are gaps and unexplained leaps, but those are the pitfalls when attempting to cram decades of someone’s career into a 2 ½+ show.

In Tina, the focus centers, at first, on her personal and professional relationship with Ike Turner, played with a devilish mixture of zeal, passion, carnal desires and inner rage by Daniel J. Watts.  Their 16-year pairing ultimately fails from too much spousal abuse—both physical and psychological.  On her own, Tina Turner seeks to rebuild her career as she arises, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of her once glamorous and successful vocal career to become, in mid-life, a bona fide superstar.

The musical numbers span her 60’s hits like “River Deep—Mountain High” and “Proud Mary” as well her multi-platinum selling songs from the 1980’s that include “Private Dancer,” “We Don’t Need a Hero,” and “What’s Love Got to Do with It.”  The earlier songs are performed with a controlled frenzy, led by the incomparable Adrienne Warren, who gyrates and dances up a storm, along with the Ikettes, to the polished and stylized choreography devised by Anthony Van Laast.

While the supporting cast is superb, especially the young actress Skye Turner who possesses a powerhouse set of vocal chords, there would be no Tina without Adrienne Warren.  I sat there marveling at the power of her voice, her boundless energy and command of the stage.  The final production number, “(Simply) The Best” encapsulates the best of Ms. Warren’s performance and the overall vitality of the musical.
                                                                                                                 
Director Phyllida Lloyd keeps the pacing brisk, not allowing the show to drag or lose its √©lan.  Act I is more tension-filled and animated since Ms. Lloyd has the character of Ike, cruel and unapologetic, to play off the trusting, inexperienced Tina.  In Act II, the director maneuvers the production through a tonal change that is less combative and more reflective and celebratory.

The creative team significantly shapes the look and feel of the show. They include Lighting Designer Bruno Poet, Sound Designer Nevin Steinberg, the psychedelic and hip projections by Jeff Sugg, and the sometimes stunning set pieces and period specific costumes by Mark Thompson.  The fight sequences under the direction of Sordelet, Inc. are realistic and can be heart-pounding.  Musical Supervisor Nicholas Skilbeck has the off-stage and on-stage band in perfect sync during the pulsating rhythm and blues numbers as well as the power ballads in the latter part of the show.

Tina – The Tina Turner Musical, a jubilant, entertaining musical with a not-to-be-missed performance by the actress Adrienne Warren.
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Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Review of "Hello, Dolly"


The national tour of Hello, Dolly!, which opened at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford last night, is full of glamour, razz-ma-tazz, a classic Jerry Herman score, and buoyant and thoroughly engaging performances.

This decidedly old-school musical comedy was given new life on Broadway two seasons back in a staging that starred The Divine Miss M, Bette Midler.  The iridescent sheen from that production radiates throughout the current tour with Broadway veteran Carolee Carmello sparkling in the role of Dolly Levi.

Hello, Dolly! tells the story of a brash yenta type character, Dolly Levi, who has been hired by the gruff, cantankerous half-millionaire Horace Vandergelder to match him up with a suitable bride.  Dolly, though, has other plans.  Instead of the intended young, pretty Irene Molloy, she has her own eyes set on the businessman.  Meanwhile, as the irascible Yonkers entrepreneur heads to New York City to meet his prearranged wife, his two clerks, Barnaby and Cornelius, decide the time is ripe for their own excitement and head off to the big city for adventure and, possibly, romance.  By the end of the musical cupid’s arrow has targeted all for the proverbial happy ending.

The celebrated score by the acclaimed composer Jerry Herman overflows with one memorable song after another.  Just a handful would satiate an audience’s eagerness for tuneful, hummable compositions.  But here, every song, even the lesser-known numbers, are a pure listening and toe-tapping delight.  The many gems include “It Takes a Woman,” “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” ‘Before the Parade Passes By,” and the title number, “Hello, Dolly!”

The cast is first-rate, led by the spirited performance of Carolee Carmello.  Any production of Hello, Dolly! is totally dependent on the actress playing Dolly Levi.  Ms. Carmello, a seasoned professional of over a dozen Broadway musicals, possesses the flair and panache to more than carry the show.  She is charismatic and wily as she commands the stage, clearly enjoying her moment in the spotlight.  John Bolton’s Horace Vandergelder, with longish hair and bushy moustache, more than holds his own in scenes with Ms. Carmello.  The actor, another veteran of the Broadway musical stage, is appropriately boorish and ego-centric.  He also demonstrates keen comic timing that enlivens every occasion he is on stage.  The golden voiced Analisa Leaming as Irene Malloy endows her character with an independent minded attitude mixed with a wistful, loving glint.  Daniel Beeman is an exuberant Cornelius Hackl, fumbling and bumbling on the road to romance.  Sean Burns as Barnaby Tucker and Chelsea Cree Groen as the smitten millinery employee Minnie Fay are high-spirited with a youthful enthusiasm and ardor. 

Jerry Zaks, a multiple Tony Award winning director, has taken the war horse of a musical and injected an invigorating twinkle into the show.  The storyline is old-fashioned, at best, but he breathes new life into the musical by keeping the pacing brisk and refreshing.  Having an outstanding troupe of actors and actresses doesn’t hurt. 

Warren Caryle puts his own mark on the original Gower Champion choreography.  The production numbers are vigorously executed with an almost fearless audaciousness.  The dancers soar and strut through high-stepping routines mixed in with lively promenades.  The Act II showstopper, “The Waiters’ Gallop,” at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant, with waiters hustling and bustling on and off-stage with an energetic and athletic prowess, is a sight to behold.

Santo Loquasto’s costume design, in bold colors as well as vibrant pastels, add an exclamation point to the production.  His set design does not overpower the show, allowing the audience to focus on the very talented cast.  However, when a signature piece is called on Loquasto doesn’t scrimp.  This includes a life-size train chugging on and off the stage and the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant scene with the iconic staircase, which Dolly Levi uses to make her grand entrance to the tune of “Hello, Dolly!”

Hello, Dolly!, a sumptuous revival, playing at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts thru November 17th.  Information and tickets are at:  https://bushnell.org/

Portions of this review were previously published.

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.