Thursday, June 21, 2018

Review of "In the Heights"


Before Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the book, music and lyrics to Hamilton he crafted the musical In the Heights.  The show won numerous Tony Awards when it premiered in 2008, including Best Musical and Best Score.  The show is now receiving a stirring production at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford.

The action centers on a few days in the area of upper Manhattan, above the George Washington Bridge, known as The Heights.  A mixed, primarily Latino district, we meet the czst in the opening number, “In the Heights.”  There is Usnavi and his cousin Sonny, who run a local bodega, the women who run the neighborhood beauty salon, the husband (Kevin) and wife (Camilla), who operate a local car service, their high-spirited employee, Benny; Abuela, the grandmotherly soul of the neighborhood; and others.  Problems arise—Nina, the scholarship daughter of Kevin and Camilla, has dropped out of Stanford University; the hair dresser shop is closing, relationships are starting and ending, a lottery ticket changes lives; and there’s a city-wide blackout for good measure.
 
Cast members of "In the Heights."  Photo courtesy of Curt Henderson.
The book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, with a simple, playful narrative, artfully weaves the various storylines together, creating an organic earthiness and intuitive ebb and flow to the action.  The focus, and strength of the show, is on the relationships of the close-knit neighborhood.  The characters are well-drawn and resolute.

Like his score for Hamilton, the songs within the musical are a fusion of rap and hip-hop and standard theatrical melodies that include soaring, heartfelt ballads, character driven numbers, and uptempo fare that seethe with urgency and vitality.  They are backed by an impressive pit band, which includes 2018 Connecticut Critics Circle honoree, Billy Bivona, who was recognized for his musical composition for last years production of Constellations at Theaterworks. The one drawback on opening night was the sound mix, which made it difficult to understand some of the song lyrics, especially the fast-paced rhymes.  Hopefully, that issue has been corrected.
 
Nick Pallazo as Sonny, Sophia Introna as Vanessa, and Niko Touros as Usnavi from "In the Heights."  Photo courtesy of Curt Henderson.
The direction by Sean Harris is assured and brings out the joy and ebullience of the production.  He skillfully utilizes the unique performance space of the Playhouse’s stage to thoroughly incorporate all the musical’s elements into a gratifying whole.  Some of the directorial flourishes, however, are not totally necessary, such as members of the ensemble dancing in the aisles.  Less can be more.

Choreographer Darlene Zoller has mixed street-wise routines with more traditional Broadway dance numbers.  There is an exuberance and energy from the young cast members that is infectious and gives the audience a feel for the Latino culture.
 
Analise Rios as Nina, Leyland Patrick as Benny, JL Rey as Kevin Rosario, and Stephanie Pope as Camila Rosario from "In the Heights."  Photo courtesy of Curt Henderson.
The cast, for the most part, delivers finely tuned performances.  Niko Touros’ Usnavi is animated and assured with an optimism and exuberance that is infectious.   He is the center of the musical and captures the charisma of the role and the admiration and respect from the other characters.  Nick Palazzo, playing Usnavi’s cousin, Sonny, is a cut-up with the denizens of the street.  He is thoroughly loyal and a good friend.  The two have a genuine bond and love for each other.  Sophia Introna is determined and self-confident as Vanessa, Usnav’s love interest and one of the three beauty salon ladies.  Along with the other two, Carla (Paige Buade) and Daniela (Sandra Marante), they form a feisty, caring triumvirate.  While impassioned and zestful in their roles, they could have been more impassioned and zestful in their scenes together.  Ms. Marante, nevertheless, stands out with a lively, fervent performance.  She also possesses a powerful singing voice.  Leyland Patrick (Benny) and Analise Rios (Nina) are satisfying as the young lovers, even though the chemistry between them is muted. JL Rey (Kevin) and Stephanie Pope (Camila) add an assured, supportive, and multi-layered parental presence to the show.  Amy Jo Phiilips is laudable as Abuela, the elder stateswoman of the block who provides knowing guidance, stability, and comfort to the residents.

Aaron Hochheiser’s Lighting Design adds emphasis and a visual articulation to the musical.  His creation of fireworks are unpretentious, yet highly effective.

In the Heights, a worthwhile summer show, playing at Playhouse on Park through July 29th.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Review of "Disaster!"

Portions of this critique were used in a previous review of the show.

For audiences of a certain age, 1970’s disaster movies are remembered for their overblown silliness and ‘A’ list casts.  These films are lovingly satirized in the musical Disaster!, the first offering of the summer Connecticut Repertory Theatre in Storrs, CT.  The show is a mash-up of such classics of the genre as Earthquake, The Towering Inferno, and The Poseidon Adventure.  As with their celluloid brethren the production is over-the-top, self-conscious, and schmaltzy.
 
Seth Rudetsky as Dr. Ted Scheiderman in DISASTER! onstage at Connecticut Repertory Theatre thru June 16, 2018.  Info at crt.uconn.edu.  Photo by Gerry Goodstein.


Book writers Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick have stitched together a smattering of plot lines from disaster movies.  They involve an overly floating casino, shoddily constructed; an earthquake; tidal wave; and absurd mayhem.  They have also added a bevy of featherbrained characters.  There are many sight gags and inventive devices integrated into the libretto.  However, by the beginning of Act II the set-up begins to get a little thin and tiresome.  There’s just so much a spoof of this nature can achieve.  Then, again, you don’t attend this show for its dramatic merit. 

The score is comprised entirely of hits songs from the era, including such personal favorites as the “Hawaii 5-0” theme song; “Saturday Night,” from the Bay City Rollers; and “Hooked on a Feeling,” by Blue Suede.  They are creatively and mirthfully integrated into the storyline.  For example, two trapped passengers sing “Knock Three Times” as they try to signal the other survivors about their worsening plight.
 
Seth Rudetsky as Dr. Ted Scheiderman and Angie Schworer as Jackie in DISASTER! onstage at Connecticut Repertory Theatre thru June 16, 2018.  Info at crt.uconn.edu.  Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
The cast plays it straight, which adds to the over-the-top humor of the production.  Notables include co-writer, Sirius/XM Broadway radio host Seth Rudetsky as the disaster expert Ted Scheider; Nick Nudler as Tony, the crass, sleazebag owner of the high seas gambling establishment at the epicenter of the show; Ben Jackson Walker as the damaged heartthrob Chad; Alyah Scott as Marianne, the crusading reporter; Anne L. Nathan and Griffin Binnicker as Shirley and Chad, grating, but kind-hearted retirees; and Angie Schworer as Jackie, the harried, scantily talented songstress.  Special mention goes to Sana Sarr, playing the twins Ben and Lisa.  The young actor is a very talented performer in a somewhat demanding role.  So, too, is Maggie McDowell who portrays Sister Mary, a cynical nun with a past.  She consistently enlivens the production every time her black patent leather shoes set foot on stage.
 
Maggie McDowell as Sister Mary Downy in DISASTER! onstage at Connecticut Repertory Theatre thru June 16, 2018.  Info at crt.uconn.edu.  Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

Choreographer Mary Ann Lamb has mined the pulsating beat of the disco era for inspiration in her highly energetic, thumping dance numbers.
 
The point of Disaster! is for the audience and actors to have a shipshape, top notch experience and Plotnick, doing double duty as director, makes this the priority.  On opening night both groups were successfully having a rollicking good time.  The director helms the show with a breezy, carefree, and somewhat slapdash style.  Sometimes it appears like a good-natured college production.

Disaster!, fun, entertaining, and not to be taken too seriously.

Review of "Flyin' West"

 
Female Black empowerment is front and center in Flyin’ West, playing at the Westport Country Playhouse through June 16th. 

The historical drama takes place in Nicodemus, Kansas, circa 1898, an all-black town that was settled by African Americans after the Civil War.  Two sisters and their elderly friend are homesteaders battling the elements and themselves as they strive for a fulfilled life.  Enter sister number three and her husband, direct from London.  She would love to return to the small-town existence.  He, a smartly dressed, light skinned African American, who is having deep financial issues, wants nothing to do with the town and its residents.  This friction and rancor among the women and husband set off a chain of events, which changes everyone’s lives forever.
 
L-R:  Keona Welch, Michael Chenevert, Brenda Pressley, Brittany Bradford, and Nikiya Mathis in “Flyin’ West,” by Pearl Cleage, directed by Seret Scott, at Westport Country Playhouse, now playing through June 16. (203) 227-4177.  www.westportplayhouse.org   
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Playwright Pearl Cleage has taken a little-known aspect of the African American migration and population of the Western United States and created an interesting, somewhat overly drawn-out tale of survival and women’s self-determination.  There is a significant amount of exposition and plot set-up in Act I.  The payoff is an enthralling, wholly satisfying Act II.  Her main characters are compelling and well-defined as we become engrossed in their daily activities and their ultimate deed.

The cast is uniformly fine.  The three sisters—Brittany Bradford (Fannie), Nikiya Mathis (Sophie), and Keona Welch (Minnie) as well as Minnie’s husband, Frank (Michael Chenevert)—are standouts.  Nikiya Mathis, playing the oldest sister, gives her character a well-worn edge and plain-spoken approach to matters.  As a shotgun toting, no-nonsense woman she is not someone to mess with.  Brittany Bradford is more the ying to her older sister’s yang.  Full of life and spirit she displays an outward radiance and optimistic demeanor that, nevertheless, masks a burdensome past.   Keona Welch, the baby sister, portrays Minnie as carefree and happy, but layers her performance with hurt and trepidation.  Michael Chenevert is alternatingly charismatic and chilling as Minnie’s self-loathing Mulatto husband.
 
L-R:  Keona Welch, Brittany Bradford, and Nikiya Mathis in “Flyin’ West,” by Pearl Cleage, directed by Seret Scott, at Westport Country Playhouse, now playing through June 16. (203) 227-4177.  www.westportplayhouse.org   
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Director Seret Scott’s staging of the various vignettes in Act I are a mixed bag.  Some are more absorbing then others, which can give the production a meandering feel.  However, in Act II, when the whirlwind of events leads to a gripping and powerful conclusion Ms. Scott demonstrates an assured control of the play and its characters.  

The interior log cabin Set Design by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg is spacious and functional, giving audience members a glimpse to life and hardship on the Kansas plains.

Flyin’ West, an admirable start to Westport Country Playhouse’s new season.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Review of "The Invisible Hand"


Hartford Theaterworks has done a huge favor for Connecticut theater-goers by restaging last season’s Westport Country Playhouse’s production of The Invisible Hand, winner of the 2017 Best Play award from the Connecticut Critics Circle..  This is a thoughtful and powerfully themed show that encompasses geopolitics, religious extremism, capitalist principles, and old-fashioned greed.
 
Anand Bhatt, Eric Bryant, and Fajer Kaisi in "The Invisible Hand."
The show centers around Nick Bright (Eric Bryant), a banking executive mistakenly kidnapped in Pakistan by the followers of Iman Saleem (Rajesh Bose).  He is housed in a small, dingy room guarded by Dar (Anand Bhatt), one of the leader’s disciples.  But it is Bashir (Fajer Kaisi), a fervent believer in the teachings and convictions of the Iman, that is the one to fear.  Passionate, disparaging, and suspicious of the American, he is charged to oversee and partner with Nick to raise his ransom of $10 million dollars through manipulating Pakistani financial markets.  A vacililating détente is forged as their work progresses until the entire enterprise is chaotically upended with unforeseen results.

Playwright Ayad Akhtar has crafted a play that offers complex characters and scenarios rich with multifaceted implications.  One of its strengths is the absence of moralizing or sermonizing, which allows for a more intricate synergy.  Deception and self-interest are also effectively incorporated into the work. There is much discussion of monetary trends and economics, but the material is presented in easily digestible nuggets that even audience members not well-versed in high finance will understand.
 
Rajesh Bose and Eric Bryant in "The Invisible Hand."
The cast is outstanding.  The three holdovers from last year’s Westport production – Eric Bryant, Fajer Kaisi, and Rajesh Bose - have become more accomplished and dynamic in their characterizations, finding a deeper resonance and the inner turmoil within their roles.  Eric Bryant, who received the Connecticut Critics Circle 2017 Best Actor award for his portrayal of Nick Bright, conveys a multitude of emotions as he seeks to survive his ordeal.  Rajesh Bose is chilling. with a laser focus in action and words.  Fajer Kaisi provides a finely layered performance.  At times cold-hearted and calculating, he also displays empathy and understanding of the bigger picture at hand. Anand Bhatt’s Dar, a secondary role, nonetheless gives a solid performance as the dutiful, unquestioning follower of the Iman.

Director David Kennedy utilizes the small Theaterworks stage as a way to ratchet up the show’s intensity and nightmarish quality.  He elicits compelling and weighty performances that are nuanced and bold.  The result is a taut and explosive production.

Kristen Robinson’s set design of the confined enclosure where Nick is imprisoned is tortuously realistic and claustrophobic in nature.  You can feel his anguish and desperation provoked by the gritty, deplorable chamber.

Fitz Patton’s sound design and Matthew Richards’ lighting lend an ominous and almost surreal aura to the play.  Harry Nadal’s costume designs may appear drab and functionary, but they stealthily convey status and the changing of the guard.

The Invisible Hand, a taut, chilling drama that produces no easy answers, playing at Theaterworks through June 23rd.

Review of "A Lesson From Aloes"


There are a number of important themes revolving around apartheid in South Africa during the early 1960’s in Athol Fugard’s  A Lesson From Aloes, playing at Hartford Stage through June 10th.  While the production can, at times, be provocative and intriguing, most scenes seem overlong when trying to make their central points.
 
Randall Newsome and Andrus Nichols in "A Lesson From Aloes."
The plot revolves around Piet (Randall Newsome) and his seemingly ailing wife Gladys (Andrus Nichols).  We slowly learn the husband has been heavily associated with the anti-government resistance movement, which seeks rights for Black South Africans.  His involvement has caused discord and consternation between him and Gladys.  This friction is only heightened as they await the arrival of Steve (Ariyon Bakare), the leader of the resistance, and his family for a reunion/reconciliation dinner.  His arrival sparks simmering hostilities, unspoken allegations and truths about their relationship and motives behind their protracted, deep-rooted crusade.

Playwright Athol Fugard has explored the state of apartheid in his native country in numerous plays.   Here, he takes an inordinate amount of time teasing out his ideas.  This has the effect of diluting the messages he is striving to make which, overall, are potent and unsettling.  He uses the metaphor of the aloe plant as a way to convey survival in the harsh environment of South Africa in the early 1960’s.  While apt, the imagery is somewhat overplayed.
 
Randall Newsome, Andrus Nichols, and Ariyon Bakare  in "A Lesson From Aloes."
The three-person cast brings different styles and strengths to the show.  Randall Newsome, with an authentic sounding Afrikaner accent, is introspective with a quiet resolve that belies powerful convictions.    Andrus Nichols’ Gladys is a complex and mysterious individual.  The actress conveys a painful and tormented life that adds unexpected contours to the landscape of the show.  Ariyon Bakare’s Steve is a mix of passions and emotions.  He is the heart and soul of the play, joyous one moment, rebellious and angry the next.  His skepticism and cynicism speak volumes about the plight of South Africans during this time period.
 
Randall Newsome, Ariyon Bakare, and Andrus Nichols in "A Lesson From Aloes."   
Director Darko Tresnjak has imposed a naturalistic feel to the production that is at times stark and welcoming. He utilizes subtlety and introspection for his staging of the play, which requires attentiveness and patience from the audience.  He adroitly and sporadically interjects controlled outbursts from the quietude and meanderings of the actors that enhance the dramatic impact of the show.    

A Lesson From Aloes, a haunting and earnest production, at Hartford Stage through June 10th.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Review of "The Will Rogers Follies"


The Will Rogers Follies is a bit too homey and down-to-earth for its own good. While the musical, a biography of the famed humorist, a vaudeville, movie, and radio star, has moments of energetic exuberance it is weighed down by Peter Stone’s muted book for the show. 
 
“Give A Man Enough Rope” David M. Lutken (Will Rogers) with Michael Biren, Borris York, Brad Frenette and Aaron Burr in Goodspeed Musicals’ The Will Rogers Follies, playing now through June 21 at The Goodspeed.  Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
The premise of The Will Rogers Follies is simple.  The entertainer, played with an easy going and affable charm by David Lutkin, reviews his life story through the lens of a Ziegfield Follies show (he appeared in such extravaganzas throughout his storied career).  He combines a survey of his past—how he broke into show business, his relationships, family and professional life--with folksy asides to the audience, disarming witticisms, incisive social commentary and the occasional rope trick performed with unexpected skill.  The yarns he spins, leading up to his untimely death, are buttressed with elaborately staged production numbers, a la the Ziegfield Follies, of eye-catchingly clad showgirls and athletically bounding male dancers.

The musical can be entertaining and often quite funny, yet the libretto by Peter Stone is not always vibrant and compelling.  Often, you just wait for the next razzmatazz production number to pick up the pace.
 
“Will-a-Mania” with the cast of Goodspeed Musicals’ The Will Rogers Follies, playing now through June 21 at The Goodspeed.  Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
The score by Broadway luminaries Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green is enjoyable, but without any memorable tunes.  The songs are more serviceable within the structure of the show, but less enduring once leaving the theater. 

The cast is led by David Lutkin as Will Rogers.  The actor also played the role on Broadway.  He has an unhurried, laid-back approach, which warmly connects with the audience.  In some respects, his performance of Rogers echoes the role of Woody Guthrie he has played many times in Connecticut theaters and elsewhere in the show Woody Sez.  Lutkin has a pleasant singing voice and seems to really be enjoying himself, especially when he successfully executes one of his varied rope tricks.  Catherine Walker, playing Rogers’ long-suffering, but unflappable wife, Betty Blake, gives an assured and steady performance.   David Garrison is an adroit scene stealer as the lead’s father, Clem Rogers.
 
The cast of Goodspeed Musicals’ The Will Rogers Follies, playing now through June 21 at The Goodspeed.  Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Director Don Stephenson has a steady command of the production.  He is at his best when corralling David Lutkin to interact with audience members, either through thought-provoking observations on the news of the day or humorous asides. However, the disparate segments of the musical—expository scenes and musical numbers—do not always flow as seamlessly as they could, which gives the show an irregular flow.

Choreographer Kelli Barclay, no stranger to the Goodspeed, adds a needed dash of pizazz and high-stepping flourishes just when the production begins to sag from too much storytelling.

Ilona Somogyi’s costume designs, primarily for the lush and lively dance routines are whimsical, glitzy and brash.  They add color and sparkle to the show.

The Will Rogers Follies, a mostly entertaining production, playing through June 21st at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT.

Review of "Puffs"

Puffs, the Off-Broadway parody of the Harry Potter canon, is often quite funny and bewitching.  While entertaining in its own right, it is an excellent diversion for:
1.    Harry Potter fans that can’t afford tickets to The Curse of the Starving Child.
2.    Harry Potter fans that can’t wait until Spring 2019 for tickets to The Curse of the Starving Child.
3.    Harry Potter fans that just can’t get enough of the boy who lived.

The play condenses all seven Harry Potter novels into an energetic, amusing 100 intermission-less minutes.  The focus is not on the young wizard, even though he periodically pops up during the show.  Instead, there is Wayne, a hapless loser who arrives at a “Certain School of Magic and Magic” and is sorted into the Puffs, the house full of perpetual failures and disappointments.  He, along, with newfound friends Oliver and Megan, and under the guidance of the charismatic and heroic Cedric Diggerly, persevere to prove their powerful potential and battle the dark forces surrounding them.

Playwright Matt Cox has created a rollicking adventure that overflows with goofiness and inspired hijinks.  He liberally mines the Potter books with staccato-like flourishes while at the same time inventing a wholly satisfying parallel story.  As with its Broadway brethren, Puffs is strictly for those Muggles that are familiar with the source material.  Other, unenlightened, audience members will feel as confused as if they were hexed by the Confundus charm.

The young, energetic performers play their roles with a restrained abandonment.  They seem to be having as much fun as those seated in the small, cozy Off-Broadway theater.  The entire troupe is superb.  Leading the cast is Zac Moon as Wayne.  He brings a slovenly appeal to the role.  He’s whiny and pathetic, an outsider trying to be part of the in-crowd, but he is a loveable lug that demonstrates grit and perseverance can lead to acceptance and success..sort of.  Jake Keefe, who stepped into the role of Oliver the night I attended, is a goofy sidekick and a certified nerd.  He, too, grows into a more confident, self-assured young wizard that even gets the girl.  Julie Ann Earls brings a touch of danger and bravado to the role of Megan, the daughter of a dark magic witch.  A Puff in spirit and designation, eventually she forges a lasting bond with her two male cohorts and finds friendship and acceptance.  James Fouhey seems to be having the most fun as the handsome and poised leader of the Puffs, Cedric.  He has a swashbuckling swagger and oversized personality that enlivens the production.

Director Kristin McCarthy Parker helms the shenanigans with a controlled chaos that is both invigorating and imaginative.  She brings a welcoming dash of farcial brio with slamming doors and characters popping in and out of here and there. 

Madeline Bundy does a splendiferous job, doing triple duty with sets, costumes, and props.  They are whimsical and ingenious and add an exuberant playfulness to the show.

Puffs, a magical treat of theatrical merriment and fantasy.