Monday, December 5, 2022

Review of "Kimberly Akimbo"

The musical Kimberly Akimbo can be described as quirky.  Quirky in a good way.  The show, a big hit Off-Broadway last season, has made a successful transfer to Broadway without losing its more intimate quality and eccentric feel.  Based on David Linday-Abaire’s 2001 play of the same name, the story revolves around Kimberly, a high school teenager suffering from a rare disorder that causes her to age four times faster than normal.  Looking more like a senior citizen, the actress Victoria Clark gives a bravo performance as the young adult.  After just a few minutes on stage you wholeheartedly believe her portrayal of Kimberly.


The story takes place in the North Jersey suburbs.  Kimberly, a smart 16 year old, lives with her slacker, undependable parents, Buddy (Steven Boyer) and Patti (Alli Mauzey).  At times, she seems to be parenting them.  Kimberly is not part of a group or clique until she falls in with a band of fellow outsiders, most notably Seth (a winning Broadway debut by Justin Cooley), who manages the local ice rink, plays the tuba and has his own dysfunctional home life to contend with.  Life is looking up for Kimberly and her friendship with Seth until the appearance of her aunt Debra (Bonnie Milligan) turns everything topsy-turvy.  She is a hopeless schemer and crooked individual always in the thick of chaos.  While creating upheaval at her sister Pattie’s and brother-in-law Buddy’s home, she recruits Kimberly and her pals for a sure-fire scam to enrich herself and the teens.  In the end, everyone, well, mostly everyone gets a big payoff.


What makes Kimberly Akimbo work is its skillful mix of goofiness, heartache and poignancy.   Director Jessica Stone guides the show with an assured hand and clever decisions, allowing the musical’s humor and honesty to shine brightly.  David Zinn’s multiple sets bolster the quality of the show without overpowering the production. Choreographer Danny Mefford sprinkles some sprightly dance numbers throughout the production only when they make sense for the show.  The ice skating number is a considerable standout.  Librettist David Lindsay-Abaire celebrates uniqueness and unconventionality with a playful joyfulness.  There is a serious undertone to the show as characters make decisions about the direction of their lives.  What could have been a real downer of a show ends on an uplifting high note.


The composing team of Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lindsay-Abaire (lyrics), whose previous collaboration was Shrek - the Musical, have crafted a score that fetes individualness and fun.  The songs, tuneful and jubilant, cleverly help further the plot and character development.  Standouts include the tenderly amusing “Anagram,” the self-revelatory belter “Better,” and the rejoicing Act I closer “This Time.” 


The entire cast, a carryover from the Off-Broadway run, fits smoothly and comfortably into their roles for the Broadway run.  Victoria Clark’s portrayal of Kimberly is so beautiful and touching, adding a splash of spunk.  Look for her at Tony time.  The young actor, Justin Cooley, gleefully infuses Seth with a hopefulness that is at times heart-rending and empowering.  Bonnie Milligan’s Debra gives new meaning to crass and endearment, with a screwball twist.  Her delightfully inept shenanigans power the show forward.   Steven Boyer’s Buddy and Alli Mauzey’s Patti give daffy performances that are tinged with unfulfillment and regret.   The gaggle of high school students - Olivia Elease Hardy, Fernell Hogan, Michael Iskander, and Nina White - are a fine group of up-and-coming actors, unflinchingly proud of themselves and their abilities.


Kimberly Akimbo may lack the firepower and pizazz of large-scale Broadway productions but is, nonetheless, a wholly satisfying musical theater experience.


Sunday, December 4, 2022

Review of "The Brightest Light in the World" - Yale Repertory

Relationships can be joyful.  They can be tough.  And messy.  In playwright Leah Nanako Winkler’s sufficing world premiere, The Brightest Light in the World, we are introduced to two women in their early 30’s.  Lane (Katherine Romans), outgoing and inquisitive, runs a bakery in Lexington, KY.  Steph (Michele Selene Ang), more reserved, is a daily customer.  In a series of quick scene resets, playfully staged by Director Margot Bordelon, the women strike up a friendship that develops into a tentative, then all-in romantic connection.  After their first blissful night, entrenched and difficult revelations are disclosed, with the thrust being Lane’s battle with drug addiction.


Through their trials and tribulations, they manage to forge ahead with their relationship.  Lane’s sister, Della (Megan Hill) - motivator, friend, big sister, mother figure - is always around as she deals with her own life issues.  Ultimately, the pull of addiction proves, maddeningly, too much for all involved, leading to anguish, bitterness and pain.


Ms. Winkler has penned a show that mixes humorous bantering with poignant heartache.  Her characters are slightly askew, lost, trying to find their purpose and place in society.  The playwright’s portrayal of drug addiction is multi-faceted and not, as she states in the program notes, “like the typical awards-bait portrayals of ‘addicts’ we have all seen in film, tv and theater.”


There is a lot of talk as the 100 minute, intermission-less show moves forward.  Director Bordelon, looking to vary the dramatic arc of the story, incorporates such devices as wild dancing, to minimal effect. The considerable amount of speechifying and at times spirited, but more often, conventional interplay between the characters doesn’t always provide dynamic theater.


The three actors - Katherine Romans (Lane), Michele Selene Ang (Steph), Megan Hill (Della) - have a solid, believable chemistry.  Sometimes they are overly expressive and loud, but these are sensitive, somewhat damaged individuals.  Ms. Bordelon, rightfully so, occasionally steers the portrayals in an over-the-top manner as a statement of the character’s exultations to the heavens that they are vibrantly alive.


Scenic Designer Cat Raynor’s sets of the bakery and Della’s living room are handsomely detailed.  Lighting Designer Graham Zellers’ twinkling skyscape adds a meditative quality to the production. 


The Brightest Thing in the World, playing at the Yale Repertory Theatre through December 17.  Click here for dates, times and ticket information.


Thursday, December 1, 2022

Review of "Almost Famous"

Successfully transforming a film into a rewarding Broadway musical is no guarantee.  For every Waitress, The Producers, and Spamalot the landscape is littered with such miscalculations as Rocky, Groundhog Day, and Catch Me If You Can.  The latest entry into this ever growing field is Almost Famous and, unfortunately, the show comes under the disappointment category.


The main problem is the book, written by the movie’s screenwriter and director, Cameron Crowe.  The film received the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, but the stage production follows the storyline of the motion picture too closely.  What worked on screen doesn’t fully translate to the stage.  Director Jeremy Herrin’s perfunctory staging produces a choppy presentation with the main action continuously being sidetracked by annoying subplots.


The musical’s scenario, a semi-autobiographical look at Crowe’s early life, revolves around teenager William Miller, a would-be rock ‘n roll writer whose work catches the eye of influential rock journalist and critic Lester Bangs.  Assigned to cover a Black Sabbath concert he, instead, manages to befriend the band Stillwater, primarily lead guitarist Russell Hammond, and their flock of groupies, headed by Penny Lane.  Through his connection with the up-and-coming band, he manages to get an assignment to write a cover story on them for Rolling Stone magazine.  From that point, the show follows the young man’s journey and interactions with the rockers and groupies, a bygone era of innocence and carefree revelry. As the show moves on, we witness Miller’s growth from a naive youth, who just wants to fit in and belong, to a more slightly worldly young man who learns some important life lessons such as trust and being true to yourself.


The production features a score with music by Broadway veteran Tom Kitt (Next to Normal and If/Then) and lyrics by Cameron Crowe.  It’s a mixed bag of satisfactory original compositions layered with songs from such artists as the Allman Brothers, Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder and Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” one of the most iconic moments in the movie, which proves not to have the same dramatic effect on stage.


A few of the numbers written for the musical standout.  They include “No Friends,” a haunting ballad sung by the teen; the raucous “Everybody’s Coming Together,” with its folk-rock, sing-song quality; and the boisterous curtain opener, “1973.”  


The cast is uniformly fine.  Casey Likes gives a wide-eyed, boyish and heartfelt performance as the young William Miller.  His portrayal anchors the production.  Chris Wood’s Russell Hammond has the positive vibe of a laid back Southern California rocker.  Drew Gehling, as fellow band member, Jeff Bebe, comes across a tad too much like a stereotypical party hardy, vainglorious head banger.  Sola Pfeiffer’s Penny Lane has an earthy aura and free spirit attitude.  Her portrayal of the lead band groupie - part fan, lover, and philosopher - rings true for the character.  Rob Colletti’s performance as Lester Bangs is bombastic and a little preachy as he serves up platitudes and sagely advice to the newbie rock journalist.


Almost Famous, a mostly unsatisfying film to stage metamorphosis.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Review of "& Juliet"

What would happen if Juliet (of Romeo & Juliet fame) didn’t take her own life at the end of Shakespeare’s classic play but, instead, resolved to see the world and live life to the fullest?  That’s the general plot of the exuberant new jukebox musical, & Juliet.  The show takes its songs from the portfolio of songwriter/producer Max Martin who, over the years, has crafted more number one hits on the Billboard charts than anyone in history.  The score includes such million sellers as “Baby One More Time” (Britney Spears), “Roar” (Katy Perry), “As Long as You Love Me” (Backstreet Boys), “Since You Been Gone” (Kelly Clarkson) and dozens more.  The selected songs fit perfectly within the story, helping to clarify the plot and illustrate the characters.

The book by David West Read, an Emmy Award winning writer for TV’s Schitt’s Creek, is consistently funny, inventive and, with the skillful direction of Luke Sheppard, keeps the pacing brisk and entertaining.  The librettist, while keeping the tone light and daff, is able to riff on same sex relationships, commitment and personal self-discovery.

Lorna Courtney delivers a star-making performance as the intrepid heroine.  Her Juliet, bathed in female empowerment, is an amalgam of emotions - self-assured, anxious, and wishful.

The musical begins with Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, bemoaning the downer ending of his new work-in-progress, Romeo & Juliet.  She proposes a more ambiguous conclusion of letting Juliet live on to explore the world and seek enlightenment.  The Bard reluctantly agrees and so the star-crossed lover heads to Paris with her best friend, May, and nurse in waiting.  In the City of Lights, the threesome find new loves and contentment.  There are amusing twists cheekily inserted into the plot that keeps the action lively.  Shakespeare and his wife are part of the action, but also jump out of the story as they constantly produce rewrites.  The married couple’s interactions, the only “serious” moments of the show, provide a parallel to the journey of fulfillment and dedication the other characters seek.  In the end, surprise, surprise, happiness abounds with one unexpected curveball from Juliet thrown in for good measure.

The cast is superb, led by Lorna Courtney as Juliet. She is resolute with a frisky, playful presence as well as an endearing vulnerability.  The actress has a powerful belting voice and is one helluva dancer.

Stark Sands (Shakespeare) and Betsy Wolfe (Anne Hathaway) display great chemistry and merrymaking.  Their lighthearted sparring, witty quips and bon mots are a source of continuous comedic pleasures.  Justin David Sullivan makes a splashy Broadway debut as Juliet’s best pal, May.  The performer adds heart and soul to the production.  Ben Jackson Walker gives Romeo a beguiling swagger and sensitivity that creates a fully realized character.  Other notable cast members are Paulo Szot as the stern, but compassionate Lance; Philippe Arroyo as Lance’s diffident son Francois; and Melanie La Barrie as the doting nurse, Angelique.

Jennifer Weber’s choreography is wildly energetic and highly charged.  The dance moves blend effortlessly and distinctively within the pop songs of the score.

The other creative elements that go into constructing a large-scale Broadway musical are marvelously in sync.  They include Soutra Gilmour’s flashy and glittering Scenic Design; the trendy, Renaissance chic costumes designed by Paloma Young; Howard Hudson’s dazzling Lighting Design; and Andrzej Goulding’s pictorially tinged Video & Projections.  All mesh so well together, creating a sparkling stage production.

& Juliet, an electrifying and delicious jukebox musical confection.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Review of "Fences" - Playhouse on Park

For August Wilson’s Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning drama, Fences, to work, the two lead characters need to be dynamic performers.  In the Playhouse on Park staging, running through November 20, the actor Jamil A.C. Mangan, as the volatile, resentful Troy Maxson and Yvette Monette Clark as his loyal, abiding wife, are superb.  There are some aspects of the play that undermine the show, primarily the portrayal of the small, but pivotal role of the youngest son, Cory.  Overall, however, if you have not attended one of the playwright’s ten-part "Pittsburgh Cycle" plays, this production is worth seeing.

August Wilson has crafted a very accessible, in some ways, straightforward story that examines race relations and racial discrimination.  It is also a somber meditation on lost dreams and hopes. The playwright, while incorporating extended orations, relies more on indirect threadlines to bring home his points on injustice, desperation and aspirations curtailed.

The plot revolves around Troy Maxson, a Pittsburgh garbage hauler.  He and his best friend Jim Bono (Eric Carter) have the same routine day in and day out.  He is frustrated at work because the Black employees do the heavy lifting while the White workers get to drive the trucks.  Home life is also routine - returning each night to his loving, supportive wife Rose - but feeling trapped by a life going nowhere and facing a house in need of constant repair. 

His two sons provide little help.  Lyons (Jerry Hamilton), married and a struggling musician, lives out of the home, but always seems to show up on Troy’s payday.  Cory (Khalfani Louis) a standout high school football player, is more concerned with impressing a college recruiter than his responsibilities at home.  In addition, there is Troy’s impaired brother Gabriel (Daniel Danielson), severely wounded in WWII, who roams the city seeing “hellhounds.”

Underlying Troy’s life is his intense resentment about not making it as a major league baseballer.  A star in the Negro League, by the time baseball integrated, he was past his prime, even though he believes he can still play.  His bitterness and agitation lead to family upheaval and turmoil that forever changes the fortunes and lives of each character.

Troy Maxson is a complex individual and the actor Jamil A.C. Mangan gives a soulful performance full of cynicism, angst, and heartache.  We all can relate, to some degree, to his reflections of “What If?”  Yvette Monette Clark’s portrayal of Rose is more measured.  The Ying to her husband’s Yang.  The actress is stoic and resolute, but shows her range when, at the end of Act I, she erupts with outrage and suffering.

A few of the featured players give highly satisfactory performances.  Their roles add more depth to the storyline in subtle, less overt ways.  Among them are Eric Carter as Jim Bono, Troy’s longtime friend and Daniel Danielson as Gabriel, Troy’s psychologically damaged brother.  The night I saw the production, the actor slated to portray Lyons, the eldest son, suddenly called out ill.  Jerry Hamilton, went into the role with little rehearsal, script in hand.  Under the circumstances, he gave a fine portrayal.  Khalfani Louis is disappointing in the small, but important, role as the young son Cory.  He brings too little shading or nuance to the performance.

Director Kenney M. Green smartly keeps the character of Troy Maxson center stage with the other cast members orbiting his sizable sphere.  There is a lot of speechifying, in Fences, but the Director deftly guides his cast, bringing passion, anguish and heartbreak to their monologues.  Working with Scenic Designer Baron E. Pugh, he convincingly creates the back of what appears to be a dwelling in a gritty neighborhood.

Fences, playing through November 20 at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford.  Click here for dates and ticket information.

Monday, November 7, 2022

Review of "Guys and Dolls" - ACT of CT

 I always judge a production of Guys and Dolls by the quality of the big 11:00 o’clock number, “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.”  On this point, the staging of the Frank Loesser classic is a rousing success.  Not only does the character of Nicely Nicely Johnson (Izzy Figueroa), give a spirited rendition of the showstopper, but what elevates the scene is the synchronous movement of the cast along with Lighting Designer Chris Chambers’ atmospheric effects.  The cast members pulsate and sway to Sara Brians’ superb choreography, appearing as one amorphous legion of sinners wailing to the heavens.  

The musical, with a libretto by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, is based on a number of short stories from the writer Damon Runyon.  His tales are populated by such colorful characters as gamblers, nightclub performers, society folk and the regular people found in the environs of Broadway.

In Guys and Dolls there are two stories running side by side.  The primary thrust of the book is on Nathan Detroit and his associates who are frantically seeking a secure location for their floating crap game.  Complicating matters is his longtime girlfriend, cabaret star Miss Adelaide, who has been patiently waiting 14 years to get married to the man.  The other plot line is of big-time gambler, Sky Masterson and his pursuit of Save-A-Soul Mission member Sarah Brown.  

The show is enlivened by one of the great scores in musical theater history.  [An historical side note — the music and lyrics did not win the Tony Award that year, which went to Irving Berlin for Call Me Madam].  The songs in Guys and Dolls include such gems as the buoyant "A Bushel and a Peck," the delectable dizziness of "Adelaide's Lament," the lovable comedic duet of "Sue Me;" the lively "Guys and Dolls" and "Luck Be a Lady," and my personal favorite, the irresistible "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat."  The 11-person pit band, led by Music Director Nick Wilders, delivers each number with gusto and a glossy sheen.

Director Daniel C. Levine and Choreographer Brians have teamed up to produce an energetic and wholly entertaining show.  Scene changes are fluidly executed, helped enormously by Set Designer Jack Mehler’s sliding paneled backdrops.  The non-musical segments lag somewhat, with jokes not always landing, but Mr. Levine still manages to attach a feisty and playful aura to the musical.  I do wish, however, he would have started the production directly with the traditional “Runyonland” opening as opposed to the meditative beginning he inserted.

The outstanding dance numbers make up for any sluggishness of the show.  The Havana outdoor cafe sequence is bold and sexy.  “The Crapshooters Dance,” which takes place at the underground gambling den, is vibrant and muscular.  The two nightclub routines - “A Bushel and a Peck” and “Take Back Your Mink” are charming, amusing, and totally captivating.  Both production numbers are highlighted by Costume Designer Claudia Stefany’s whimsical, brightly-colored and a tad risqué outfits.  

The four stars of the show are first rate.  As Sky Masterson, Matt Faucher is the essence of coolness.  The actor brings a confident, self-assured awareness to the role.  He can be tough as well as vulnerable.  Katherine Riddle is a bit too staid as Times Square missionary Sarah Brown, but she possesses one of the best singing voices I’ve heard on a Connecticut stage in some time.  Her rendition of “If I Were a Bell” is breathtaking.  Overall, Phil Sloves is fine as Nathan Detroit even though his rambunctious shenanigans could have benefitted with a more nuanced portrayal.  Donna Vivino, a veteran of many Broadway musicals, is pure joy as the hopelessly in love Miss Adelaide.  She sings beautifully, can stay step-to-step with her Hot Box dancers, and exhibits a vivacious comic flair.  The three sidekicks of Nathan Detroit - Nicely Nicely Johnson (Izzy Figueroa), Rusty Charlie (Herrera), and Benny Southstreet (Michael McGuirk) - provide humorous schtick throughout the show.

Guys and Dolls, well-worth catching at ACT of CT in Ridgefield, through November 20.  Click here for ticket information, dates and times.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Review of "From the Mississippi Delta" - Westport Country Playhouse

From the Mississippi Delta is an autobiographical play by Dr. Endesha Ida Mae Holland.  As stated in the program notes, “it is a story of one woman’s triumphant journey…a gripping tale depicting the resilience of the human spirit.”

It recounts her life growing up in the south.  Her stories are filled with poverty, racial injustice, and horrors.  “Cat,” as she was known, lived a life that was spiraling nowhere until the civil rights movement came to her town.  The demonstrations, rallies and her devotion to the cause changed her destiny.  She eventually moved to Minnesota and, after successfully passing her high school equivalency exam, went on to the University there to earn a B.A., M.A, and finally her doctorate.

Three actresses play multiple roles of the people in this remarkable woman’s life, most notably her mother, known as Aint Baby. a guiding force in the young girl’s upbringing.  They effectively bring out the angst, hardship, but also humor, in the production.  The most compelling of the trio is Erin Margaret Pettigrew (Woman 3).  Her portrayal, primarily of Aint Baby, is moving and inspirational.  Claudia Logan’s (Woman 1) main focus is on the high-spirited, always inquisitive Cat.  The actress gives a lively performance that can be raucously funny as well as heartfelt. Tameishia Peterson (Woman 2) is more the swing of the three actresses, tackling a variety of roles that could have used more distinction in their portrayals.

Dr. Holland’s play is structured as short vignettes in a non-linear format, which can sometimes be hard to follow.  The depictions, however, are enhanced with passionate spirituals, which bring strength to the characters and the action on stage.

Jason Ardizzone-West’s Scenic Design, with its multi-level, slatted wood set aptly portrays the dilapidated shotgun house the woman grew up in as well as the seedy town environs.  The problem for the show is the sheer size of the set.  It mostly overwhelms the actresses and intimate stories they are enacting.  This puts Director Goldie E. Patrick in a difficult position of balancing the relationships and characters within the play and the dominant set design.

From the Mississippi Delta, playing at Westport Country Playhouse through October 30.  Click here for ticket information.