Tuesday, October 3, 2023

The 12 - A Different Goodspeed Musical

The musical The 12, currently playing at the Goodspeed Opera House through October 29, is a very different show that audience members have come to expect from the venerable regional theater.  The show, a new production, is not a comedy, but a serious, dramatic musical presentation that centers around the 12 Apostles of Christ and their reactions and actions after his death.  “There is part of our audience that wants serious, more in-depth material,” according to Dan McMahon, Director of Marketing at the theater.  “This is a show that addresses that segment while at the same time helping us appeal to new audiences.”
The cast of Goodspeed's THE 12. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

The musical had a previous incarnation in Spring 2015 at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, where the emphasis was more as a song cycle as opposed to a book musical.  The libretto, by Robert Schenkkan, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1992 for his play The Kentucky Cycle and the 2014 Tony Award for Best Play with All the Way, has been reshaped to an 85-minute, intermission-less production as opposed to a two-act piece.  A few songs by the composer/lyricist Neil Berg and Robert Schenkkan (lyricist) have been retained from Denver, but the majority of the eclectic score, with elements of rock, folk, gospel and traditional Broadway melodies, is new.  “There has been a great deal of changes, additions, and editing of the material,” stated McMahon.  

Wesley Taylor, Rema Webb and the cast of THE 12. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

A significant adjustment has been the inclusion of Director John Doyle, a Tony Award winner for the 2005 revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, to the creative team.  Doyle’s background and experiences helped further shape The 12 into its current form.  The longtime director brings the perspective of mystery plays to the production. These dramas, produced primarily in Europe, usually represent biblical subjects.  In addition, Doyle, before turning his energies to the theater, was planning to go into the priesthood.  According to Berg and Schenkkan, this made him “intimately familiar with miracles, religious and secular.”  McMahon added that “it has given him a deeper understanding of the material in the show.”
The cast of Goodspeed's THE 12. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

While there are significant religious overtones to The 12 – the musical begins with a group of followers reciting the Jewish Mourner’s Kaddish and the show itself is from a part of the Passion Play – both Neal Berg and Robert Schenkkah state they are focusing on the human story.  “Imagine if you were one of these ordinary people,” they said.  “And this charismatic individual came to you and said, ‘Follow me.’  And for reasons that are still not clear, you put down what you’re doing, and you follow.”  In addition, they both said they wanted to get at the “fundamental question of Belief and a commitment to something which cannot be proved in rational, scientific terms.”

The musical The 12 is playing through October 29 at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT.  Click here for dates, times and ticket information.

Sunday, October 1, 2023

The Complete Works of Jane Austen (Abridged) - Playhouse on Park

The Complete Works of Jane Austen (Abridged), receiving its New England premiere at Playhouse on Park, is a gleefully merry romp through the author’s numerous works.  Fans of Ms. Austen’s novels will enjoy the show more than individuals, like myself, that have only a passing knowledge and appreciation for her writings.  Still, this 100-minute, intermission-less show glides along smoothly with boundless energy and creative verve.


The three-person show acknowledges the audience’s presence and consistently and playfully breaks the fourth wall between performers and those in attendance.  The premise of The Complete Works of Jane Austen (Abridged), is simple.  Two actresses, steeped in everything Jane Austen, are preparing to stage their show.  Unfortunately, the lone male actor has jumped ship for a Broadway gig.  Enter Mike (Shannon Michael Wamser) who, by happenstance, understands their plight and pleads to be included in their production.  Even though his knowledge of Ms. Austen’s work is suspect, the two relent.  What else are they going to do?  From there, the threesome breezily highlight the author’s six novels and some of her other writings.


The playwrights – Jessica Bedford, Kathryn MacMillan (who also directs), Charlotte Northeast (one of the three performers) and Meghan Winch – know their source material well.  While their show-within-a-show concept works most of the time, there are issues.  Specifically, in some scenes, the translation of their knowledge to a theatrical stage is cumbersome and overly burdened.  Austen’s books are full of memorable characters and plot twists, which are not always easy to convey in a quick fashion.


The strength of the show is the rapid repartee of the performers and their engaging personas, and zest the for their varied roles.  Director MacMillan has a lot to cram into the production.  She comes up with a bevy of inspired bits to keep the action fresh and appealing.   Her constant use of various hats to transform the actors into the Austen characters is gimmicky, but works.   The incorporation of Christopher Chambers’ intermittent Lighting Design and Kirk Ruby’s well-timed Sound Design are integral to the comedy’s success.  Scenic Designer Johann Fitzpatrick’s simple, but proper manor house drawing room provides the perfect backdrop to the performer’s abridgement and shenanigans.


The three actors are clearly having fun on stage as they attack their roles with gusto and delight.  Their chemistry is solid and enthusiasm infectious. Charlotte Northeast, the figurative leader of the troupe, brings passion and cleverness to her role.  Shannon Michael Wamser nimbly switches from worried thespian to assured professional during the show.  Brittany Onukwugha rounds out the trio with an unbridled zeal with her portrayals.


The Complete Works of Jane Austen (Abridged), an amusing literary frolic running through October 22 at Playhouse on Park.  Click here for dates, times, and ticket information.

Monday, September 25, 2023

The Play That Goes Wrong - Legacy Theatre

The star of The Play That Goes Wrong needs to be the set of a creaky old mansion where murder is afoot.  It is essential that, by the show’s end, the set literally implodes. Fortunately, for the Legacy Theatre’s production of this silly, yet satisfying comedy, Jamie Burnett’s Scenic Designer fractures and collapses with precision.  While not party to the structure’s demise, his Lighting Design and Adam Jackson’s Sound Engineering add to the gaiety of the show.


The production, running through October 1, has its strengths, but suffers from consistent pacing issues.  The play requires both a steady, quick-paced tempo and deftly handled pauses to succeed, which Director Keely Basiden Knudsen does not always deliver.  The outcome can, at times, deflate the show’s momentum and hijinks. 


The plot centers on opening night for the Cornly University Drama Society’s production of The Murder at Haversham Manor.  From the onset, the members of the school’s decidedly amateur cast is undermined in their efforts to entertain by uncooperative scenery, misplaced props, and a corpse that won’t stay dead.  As the play progresses all manner of mayhem erupts.  Just as you think the turmoil couldn’t get worse it does, again and again.


The playwrights Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sawyer, and Henry Shields must have had a grand time coming up with the situations and anarchy portrayed on stage.  They have written a stage comedy in the tradition of such other British shows like Noises Off and One Man, Two Guvnors.  This show is full of vaudevillian antics, slapstick and a great deal of physical humor.


The engaging cast successfully portrays a troupe of bumbling, provincial actors and actresses.  I thought Chris Lemieux, as the victim’s best friend Robert; and Mary Mannix as his now ex-fiancee Florence, were the two standouts among the admirable troupe.  Their portrayals were spot-on and their timing impeccable.  Isaac Kueber, who played Cecil, the brother of the deceased, was a crowd favorite.  However, I thought he could have done more with his character, who is self-important and smug within his role.  There needed to be even broader gestures and more generous facial expressions to truly capture his cheeky character.  I could have also done without the occasional crotch grabs.


Even with the flaws in the production - the fight scenes, choreographed by Emmett Cassidy, could have been a trifle more convincing - Ms. Knudsen is able to weave into the show the recalcitrant set, flinging bodies and even an invisible dog.   It can’t be easy guiding the actors and actresses to be…awful.


The Play That Goes Wrong, playing at the Legacy Theatre through October 1.  The remainder of the performances are sold out, but to inquire about possible availability, click here.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

The Shark is Broken - Broadway

I am a huge fan of Jaws.  I devoured the 1974 novel (which spent 44 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list).  In the summer of 1975 I was one of hundreds of screaming movie goers that jammed a theater in East Brunswick, NJ to watch the movie (to this day, almost 50 years later, I am still leery of swimming in the ocean).

All of this is to say I was excited and intrigued about the three-person play, The Shark is Broken, written and starring Ian Shaw (along with Joseph Nixon), son of Jaws star Robert Shaw, who so memorably portrayed Quint in the film.  The show imagines the interactions, tensions and musings of the movie’s three stars - Richard Dreyfuss (Alex Brightman), Roy Scheider (Colin Donnell) and Robert Shaw.  They emote, yell and reflect on a number of topics but, primarily, how much they hate the constant waiting and boredom for either favorable weather conditions or repairs to the constantly malfunctioning mechanical shark.

The 90 minute, intermission-less, production is basically a constant gabfest – three characters aboard a cramped, floating fishing boat, meticulously rendered by Scenic Designer Duncan Henderson and aided by John Clark’s muted Lighting Design and Nina Dunn’s reflective projections.  Director Guy Masterson varies the action on stage to keep the encounters and skirmishes fresh and varied.  He has the three clambering onto the board to start scenes, which are staged in partial blackout.  At one point the hard-drinking Shaw climbs atop the Orca (the vessel’s name), face to the wind, almost challenging the elements to a fight.  In another scene, a very buff Colin Donnell strips down to his skivvies for a quick bit of sunbathing.  All these maneuverings are diverting, at best, but still don’t mask the fact that The Shark is Broken, even for diehard fans like myself, can feel tedious and strained.

Each of the three cast members has brought their true-life characters to believable life.  Alex Brightman, known more for his off-beat musical theater roles (School of Rock, Beetlejuice), truly embodies the actor Richard Dreyfuss with his nervous energy, self-doubts and vainness.  Playwright Ian Shaw is the spitting image of his father and delivers a crusty, hardscrabble performance.  Colin Donnell’s Roy Scheider rests somewhere between the other two performers.  He brings a mellowness and low key portrayal that helps balance the production.

The Shark is Broken, a beguiling idea that, in the end, is rather long in the [shark] tooth.

Friday, September 8, 2023

The Da Vinci Code - Ogunquit Playhouse

You have to give playwrights Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel a tip of the hat for taking author Dan Brown’s best-selling thriller, The Da Vinci Code, and crafting a streamlined, mostly fast-paced stage adaptation.  Obviously, taking a 680 page, all-time classic and paring it down to a satisfying 2.5 hour play requires sacrifices to the plot and fleshing out of characters.  Lengthy descriptive passages and inner monologues also need to be removed.


Hannah Cruz and Michael Urie in The Da Vinci Code.

From the very beginning, Director Leigh Toney has the show at breakneck speed.  She is more successful with the ramped up action than in the few meditative moments of the play.  Her collaboration with the creative team, most notably Andrzej Goulding’s stunning visual projections, David Woodhead’s striking Scenic Design, and Kevin Heard’s accomplished Sound Design, provides a polished and technically adroit production that is highly effective.  They allow for a tremendous amount of information to be quickly conveyed visually as opposed to through oral exposition.  Their creativity and imagination gives the production a rapid, but not hurried, tempo.  There is still a lot of material that is presented to the audience, which requires attentiveness and focus.  Having read the book may make the plot easier to follow, but is not a necessary prerequisite to enjoy the play.


The cast of The Da Vinci Code.

A summary of the storyline would take up too much space and possibly spoil some of the twists and turns of the show.  Suffice it to say there is a murder in the Louvre.  Robert Langdon, a Harvard University professor of the history of art and religious symbology, is giving a lecture in Paris.  He is urgently called in by the Paris police to assist with the investigation due the nature of the crime and writings discovered in one of the galleries.  Also on the scene is Sophie Neveu, a cryptologist with the police force. Langdon and Neveu quickly realize the writings are clues to a possibly cataclysmic discovery that could alter long held beliefs.  With ominous religious forces on their tale, as well as the police, the two head from Paris to Versailles and finally London to solve the murder mystery and prevent a reckoning that would shock the world.


Hannah Cruz, Michael Urie and Charles Shaughnessy in The Da Vinci Code.

The principle cast members - all veterans of the New York stage, bring a high level of professionalism and nuance to their roles.  Michael Urie, known more for his comedic roles, demonstrates his acting prowess with an intense, credible portrayal of the Ivy League professor.  He is able to impart a dizzying array of exposition without sounding contrived or dry.  Mr. Urie gesticulates a bit too much but, overall, makes a convincing Robert Langdon.  Hannah Cruz brings fervor and emotion to the role of Sophie Neveu.  Together with Mr. Urie, they make a winning pair.  Charles Shaughnessy, a skilled and talented actor, brings a gung-ho spirit to the role of Sir Leigh Teabing, a Holy Grail expert.  He is fun to watch as he clashes with his dear friend, Robert Langdon, pontificates about the Grail, and takes charge in the hunt.  He brings a playfulness to the role, providing a balance with the intensity of the other two stars.   David T. Patterson’s portrayal of the brooding, and self-flagellating character Silas is menacing and sorrowful.  His musclebound frame accentuates his inner strength and struggles.

David T. Patterson in The Da Vinci Code.


The Da Vinci Code, a spirited, entertaining theatrical experience.  Playing at the Ogunquit Playhouse through September 23.  Click here for dates, times, and ticket information.





Jersey Boys - Ivoryton Playhouse

Jersey Boys is the gold standard for jukebox musicals.  A critical and commercial success when it opened on Broadway on November 6, 2005, the show ran for 4,093 performances, making it the 11th-longest-running musical in Broadway history. It also won the 2006 Tony Award for Best Musical.

It’s no wonder that once the rights became available for regional theaters they would pounce on staging a production.  The Ivoryton Playhouse is the first non-touring theater to offer the show.  As with the Broadway production, it has proven to be a critical success and crowd favorite.  Originally slated to close on September 10, the run has been extended to the 17th of the month.


The two strengths of Jersey Boys are, first, the music of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons.  The show is littered with their chart topping hits such as "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Sherry," "My Eyes Adored You," “Can't Take My Eyes Off You," "Walk Like A Man," and many others.  They are performed by a talented group of actors, especially Sean Burns as Frankie Valli.  He possesses a powerful falsetto voice that resonates throughout the theater.  The second notable aspect of the show is the book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice.  They have crafted an interesting, fact-based story, that nimbly lays out the story of the band - from their formation as hungry musicians in the 1960’s, to their rise to fame, and their eventual breakup.  The libretto shows the highs and lows of their careers, warts and all.


Director/Choreographer Todd L. Underwood guides the musical with a steady hand, keeping it breezy and fast-paced on Scenic Designer Cully Long’s conventional, platformed set.  He elicits real emotions from the cast that gives the production a weightier quality.  The musical segments, with a Sound Design by Jacob Fisch, are crisp and crackling.  They are the high point of the show and Mr. Underwood stages them with vigor and assurance.  As choreographer, he has devised some well-syncopated dance moves while the group performs their hits.


The other cast members fit together flawlessly to form a highly satisfying unit.  Michael Notardonato brings a smooth level of professionalism to the role of Bob Gaudio.  It is one of the marquee roles and Mr. Notardonato carries off the portrayal with skillfulness and aplomb. Evan Ross Brody’s Tommy DeVito is the ying to Bob Gaudio’s yang.  The actor might come across as a tad too crude, but he effectively presents a musician mired in his self-importance, weaknesses and failings. Brendan McGrady’s portrayal of Nick Massi is understated with a humorous self-deprecating attitude.  Ryan Knowles’ depiction of songwriter/producer Bob Crewe is, at first, a bit too effeminate, but effectively evolves to a more fully-realized character as the show progresses.


Jersey Boys, a rollicking, crowd-pleasing favorite, playing at the Ivoryton Playhouse through September 17.  Click here for dates, times and ticket information.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Here Lies Love - Broadway

You’ve probably never seen a musical on Broadway like Here Lies Love.  With a score by David Burns (of The Talking Heads) and Fat Boy Slim, this immersive, disco-pop biography of Imelda Marcos, former first lady of the Philippines, is a wildly entertaining production.  You know you’re in for something different when you have to weave through passageways to your seats (there is a seating option and dance floor option.  I chose the former).  The interior of the Broadway Theatre has been reconfigured as a huge dance floor.  Most of the orchestra seats have been removed.  The atmosphere, with Justin Townsend’s vibrant, criss-crossing, and multi-colored lighting; M.L. Dogg and Cody Spencer’s blaring sound work; and Peter Nigrini’s pulsating video projections, is reminiscent of Studio 54 where Ms. Marcos spent many a night dancing to the disco beat. 


The 90 minute, intermission-less production, with its catchy songs and Annie-B Parson’s energetic and bustling choreography, keeps the show at a frenetic pace.  Director Alex Timbers masterfully stages the musical, utilizing every space of Scenic Designer David Korins’ refitted theater - from the moveable platforms on the dance floor, within the aisles of the mezzanine, and on the shrunken Broadway Theatre stage itself.  There is never a dull moment in Here Lies Love.  Throughout the show a DJ shouts to the audience to stand and show their stuff.  Even if you stay put in your chair, your feet can’t help but boogie.


The story begins with Imelda Marcos, a poor, country girl, whose beauty pageant win propels her to the capitol, Manila.  From there, in quick succession, she meets and marries Ferdinand Marcos who, after a stint as a State Senator, becomes President.  Their rule is harsh, riddled with corruption.  While the country suffers poverty and hardships they are spending state money on a lavish lifestyle.  The pleas of Ninoy Aquino, a critic of the Marcos regime (and former love of Imelda) play out at certain points of the show.  Eventually, President Marcos declares martial law to stamp down dissent and after the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, Imelda and Ferdinand leave a disenchanted country for exile in the United States. 


The songs by David Burns and Fat Boy Slim, encapsulated, for the most part, within surging disco rhythms, propel the story forward and add shading to the main characters.  When combined with Mr. Nigrini’s grainy newsreel footage and stark captions projected around the theater, audience members come away with an understanding  of the historical era dramatized in the show.


The all-Filipino cast is superb, led by Arielle Jacobs as Ms. Marcos.  This is a star-making role and Ms. Jacobs is up to the challenge.  She superbly moves from shy, country lass to a confident, arrogant world leader.  The actress brings a great deal of nuance to her role, providing a well-rounded character study of the former first lady.  Jose LLana’s Ferdinand Marcos, more a secondary character in the production, nonetheless, manages to imbue within his portrayal a brashness and charisma that is at times hypnotic and chilling.   Conrad Ricamora’s portrayal of Ninoy Aquino, the doomed opposition leader, is virtuous and impassioned, a fitting counterpoint to the Marcos rule.  Tony Award winner Lea Salonga, in the small role of Aurora Aquino, delivers a quietly intense performance.

Here Lies Love, dancing the night away at The Broadway Theatre.