Wednesday, March 22, 2023

The Rocky Horror Show - Music Theatre of CT

I was introduced to The Rocky Horror Show as a Freshman at Rutgers University in the Fall of 1975.  Some friends and I ventured to the downtown Art Cinema movie house in New Brunswick, NJ to catch a midnight showing of the soon-to-be cult classic.  The film was strange, sexually charged, and tuneful, with some very good performances by Tim Curry, Barry Botswick and Susan Saradon.  The real entertainment, however, was the audience participation.  It seemed everyone in the theater knew when it was the proper time to yell bon mots at the screen.  For example, whenever the narrator appeared, people would yell out “No neck.”  The actor playing the part did not have much of a neck.  Watching the movie was also an interactive experience.  At the beginning, when Brad and Janet are lost in a rainstorm seeking shelter, the audience would break out their flashlights to shine around the theater.  At the wedding scene…you guessed it - people threw rice.

I preface my review with these remembrances from almost 50 years ago as a way to illustrate how theatrical productions nowadays - Rocky Horror did begin as a stage musical - are rather tame in comparison to when it had a mystique and cultish glow to it.  The show eventually came to network TV, then cable, VHS, DVD, streaming, etc.  The film and stage show are now commonplace.  The shock value is gone.  You see worse escapades on family-oriented television shows.   The interactive nature of the show?  The current production at the Music Theatre of Connecticut states on their website - "For the safety of the live actors and other audience members, bringing or throwing props is NOT permitted."  The audience participation factor, which can be the most fun?  At the press night performance, one young, brave woman gamely chimed in, at least through Act I, and then gave up probably since she was the only one letting fly the humorous call outs. 

Director Kevin Connors states in his program notes - "Rocky Horror is Rocky Horror, and we have framed our production with a collective love of this classic cult Icon."  The result is a mostly entertaining musical that neither offends or shocks.

The plot centers on chaste Brad and Janet, newly engaged, but stranded in the middle of nowhere when their car breaks down.  They stumble through a rainstorm to the castle of Dr. Frank ‘N’ Furter, an alien transvestite from the planet Transsexual in the galaxy of Transylvania.  Seeking to call for roadside assistance, the lovers, instead become unwilling witnesses to the Dr.’s experiment to create an Adonis-like humanoid to satiate his sexual desires. Abetted by a motley group of henchmen and women, Dr. Furter achieves his goal, which sets off a unique number of sexual pairings with the various principles.  And this is only Act I.  Act II…I have always believed the librettist, Richard O’Brien, who also wrote the score, didn’t really know how to end the show, which makes the second half a bit muddled.  Suffice it to say, there is death.  There is destruction.  And Brad and Janet do escape, a little more worldly than when they entered the realm of Dr. Frank ‘N’ Furter.

The songs by Mr. O’Brien, primarily in the beginning of the show, are well-crafted gems.  Director O’Connor puts an amusing spin on the opening, “Science Fiction Double Feature.”  The other notable songs in Act I include the silly “Damn It Janet;” the crowd pleasing, “The Time Warp;” and the energetic rock ‘n roller, “Hot Patootie.”  As with the book, the songs in Act II are more middling than memorable.  All of the numbers receive spirited backing by the six-piece band, which can occasionally overpower the singers.

The cast, guided with a tongue-in-cheek quality by Mr. O’Connor, is game for the shenanigans required for the show to succeed.  Justin Johnston gives the requisite Frank ‘N’ Furter sneer and sexual bravado to the role. Michael Luongo is agreeably annoying as the straight-laced Brad.  While radiating a degree of innocence and wholesomeness, Skye Gillespie’s Janet also has a mischievous streak that finely rounds out her character. Longtime MTC performer John Treacy Egan contributes two fine performances, as rocker Eddie, and the righteous scientist Dr. Scott.  Domenic Servidio would make Charles Atlas proud, delivering a muscular portrayal of the brawny Rocky.

Director Kevin O’Connor provides the musical with naughtiness and good-natured charm.  He incorporates a few choreographed flourishes by Chris McNiff, most noticeably in “The Time Warp.”  The costumes, designed by Diane Vanderkroef, are suitably risque, with fishnet stockings being the article of choice.  Sean Sanford’s Scenic Design is lo-tech and comes across as makeshift, which adds to the weird, wacky and far-out nature of the show.

The Rocky Horror Show, playing at The Music Theater of Connecticut through April 8.  Click here for dates, times, and ticket information.

Monday, March 13, 2023

The Art of Burning - Hartford Stage

Relationships can be difficult.  Divorces are messy, especially when the custody over a teenage daughter is concerned.  That’s the basic message of playwright Kate Snodgrass’s matter-of-fact work, The Art of Burning.  Inexplicably described as a comedy, this straightforward production treads on familiar, well-worn ground.

 

Patricia (Adrianne Krstansky) is meeting with her ex-husband Jason (Rom Barkhordar) to sign a mediated divorce settlement worked out by their lawyer friend Mark (Michael Kaye).  However, after Patricia sees a production of Medea and starts internalizing the themes of the ancient Greek tragedy, she demands new language that includes sole custody of their teenage daughter Beth (Clio Contogenis), who, as a fifteen year old, is going through her own identity and developmental issues.  Jason, who is now involved with a new woman, Katya (Vivia Font), is flummoxed as he has been plotting with Mark to do the same.  Complicating the picture is the relationship of Mark and his wife Charlene (Laura Latreille). Has it become too staid?  Is she cheating?  And does she really not like musicals? 

 

The story moves forward and utilizes flashbacks to help fill in the limited backstory of the characters and their motivations.  The action takes place on Scenic Designer Luciana Stecconi’s minimal set that incorporates Aja M. Jackson’s lighted grid system within the floor that, during the course of the show, sections off the stage to designate locale and time.  Director Melia Bensussen uses the set almost as a chessboard, moving pieces (characters) about the stage in simple, measured steps.  At the show’s conclusion, it is left for the audience to decide whether it’s checkmate or a draw.

 

Ms. Snodgrass has looked to add a new twist to the serviceable plot by interjecting themes of Medea.  In that work, Medea becomes enraged over his husband’s infidelity and kills her children.  Is this an act of revenge? Or, in a sense, can this be seen as a deed of kindness?  Could Patricia, who is constantly worrying about the safety and future of her daughter, feel ending Beth’s life is a positive stroke?  It is this question which provides the faintest amount of intrigue and drama to the production.

 

The six person cast is uniformly fine.  They are emotional and bedeviling when appropriate and calm and rational at other points.  Nothing unexpected in the production occurs to elevate their assured portrayals. 

 

The Art of Burning, playing at Hartford Stage through March 26, 2023.  Click here for dates, times and ticket information.

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Rock of Ages - ACT of CT

For all you head bangers out there, the jukebox musical, Rock of Ages, has alit in Ridgefield, CT, where it is receiving a raucous, if somewhat carefree production at ACT of CT.  The show which, unbelievably, ran for 2,328 performances on Broadway, incorporates classic 80’s rock songs from such artists as Styx, Journey, Bon Jovi, Pat Benatar, Twisted Sister, and Poison.

 

You don’t attend a performance of Rock of Ages for some deep meaning or exalted enlightenment.  As ACT Artistic Director states in the program notes, this is a show with an “over-the-top love story, racy jokes, tight pants, big hair, and shameless camp.”

 

The musical is boisterous, energetic and chaotically entertaining, but Director Igor Goldin’s overall presentation is more slipshod even for a loosey-goosey show like Rock of Ages.  The production is invigorated by a number of spirited dance routines from choreographer Sara Brians.

 

Kyle Dixon’s minimal Scenic Design continues the practice of positioning the band at the back of the performing area, where they can be easily viewed by the audience and interact with the cast.  They fill the breadth of the ACT stage with just a small bar to one side of the space completing the set.  The Director has smartly continued this practice, which provides some humorous moments in the show. The five member group is a tight ensemble under the skillful guidance of Music Director Jeff Cox. 

 

The book of the show by Chris D’Arienzo is as simple-minded as the two dimensional characters within the musical.  It’s full of silly and preposterous plot points, and lovable characters.  Yes, at times, it’s juvenile, obvious and obnoxious, but somehow it mostly works.

 

Essentially, Rock of Ages is the aged old story of boy (Dale Obermark as Drew) meeting girl (Abigail Sparrow as Sherrie), boy stupidly loses girl and - spoiler alert - boy wins back girl.  Obermark gives an exuberant, genuine performance as the good-looking, wholesome would-be rocker working in the Sunset Strip watering hole, the Bourbon Room.  By chance he meets the soon-to-be love of his life, Sherrie, fresh off the bus from Kansas.  He finagles her a waitress job at the bar where the sparks begin to fly. Ms. Sparrow, an attractive and charming actress, proves she is not just another pretty face.  She is the one character that shows some emotional depth and shading to her role.  We suffer through her ups and downs before she finds happiness.  The two performers also have great chemistry and sparkle when together on stage.

 

Complicating matters for the couple is the imminent demolishing of the beloved Bourbon Room by a German father and son, who have convinced the mayor that their redevelopment of The Strip will transform the locale for the betterment of the community.  Then there’s sexually charged rocker Stacee Jaxx (think Bret Michaels of Poison) who just seems to gum up the works.

 

The rest of the cast can be flamboyant, overwrought, and bombastic.  Liam Fennecken who, playing Lonny, serves as the show’s narrator and bar gadfly. The actor seems like he escaped from the national tour of Beetlejuice.  I say this in a positive vein.  Justin Michael Duval gives a great stoner performance as bar owner Dennis.  Kevin Dennis is stern and loving as Hertz, the German parent while Sean Widener is simply outrageous and endearing as his son Franz.  Rounding out the main group of performers is Shaylen Harger, unfortunately saddled with the one-dimensional character of Regina who pops up throughout the show protesting the destruction of the Bourbon Room and the gentrification of The Strip.

 

Rock of Ages, playing at ACT of CT in Ridgefield, CT through March 19, 2023.  Click here for dates, times, and ticket information.

Friday, March 10, 2023

Roe - CT Repetory Theater

The play Roe, a production comprised, primarily, of BFA and MFA students at the University of Connecticut, examines the before and after events of the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in the United States.

 

The show is informative and revealing about the debates and repercussions that preceded and followed the groundbreaking decision.  While displaying a layered, and sometimes disturbing historical picture, Roe can be occasionally didatic and ineffectual in its presentation.

 

In Act I, we are introduced to the main players - Sarah Weddington (Annie Tolls), the young, inexperienced attorney who would end up successfully arguing the case before the Court; and Norma McCorvey (Audrey Latino), the anonymous woman recruited by Weddington and her partner to become Jane Roe.  Both actresses give forthright performances, but they lacked nuance and refinement in their portrayals.  There are other minor characters in the large cast, taking on multiple roles as the show marches on to its part one resolution.  Tony King, as Actor 3, stood out among the performers in his various roles.

 

Act II brings us to the years following the Supreme Court ruling.  Lives are forever changed, for good or for worse.  What I found most interesting was the continual metamorphosis of Norma McCorvey as she morphs from a staunch advocate for a women’s right to choose to a born again Christian who becomes an ardent anti-abortion advocate.

 

The playwright, Lisa Loomer, has done her homework, unearthing facts and circumstances that provide heft to the production.  This includes her discourse on the inequitable access to abortions by women of color and the poor.  She gives all sides to the abortion issue their due, leaving it up to audience members to decide where they personally stand.  However, there is also not always time to construct fully-fledged characters.  Sometimes, they come across as merely mouthing information.

 

With so much material presented, there are numerous scenes, not all of them well-developed by Director Taneisha Duggan.  When the play has a chance to settle in for extended moments - Norma McCorvey’s interactions with Operation Rescue’s Flip Benham or Actress 8’s (Casey Wortham) powerful, absorbing monologue on the helplessness of finding a willing abortion clinic - Ms. Duggan adeptly provides emotional and thoughtful vitality to the production.  

 

The two Equity Actors in the show - Lori Vega and Andrew Rein - each brought out a more textured and nuanced performance.  Ms. Vega (Actress 3), playing the girlfriend of Norma McCorvey, was reserved and circumspect, speaking volumes through her expressions and body language.  Mr. Rein, mostly with his role as Flip Benham, gave a well-rounded depiction of the minister - soft-spoken, genial, but cagey and calculating.

 

One constant issue was the far too rapid pacing of dialogue by the young cast members.  It was not always easy to understand and tempered subtleties of the performer’s portrayals.  Likewise, incorporating genuine audio segments from the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court hearing was a misstep, producing a muddled, difficult to hear sound quality.  

 

Roe, playing at the Nafe Katter Theatre, 820 Bolton Road in Storrs through March 11.  Click here for dates and times.

Monday, February 13, 2023

Queen of Basel - TheaterWorks Hartford

The play, Queen of Basel, running at Theaterworks Hartford through February 26, is a modern day incarnation of playwright August Strindberg’s 1888 naturalistic work, Miss Julie.  The Swedish writer wove in many themes into his play such as class, gender and the idealization and degradation of women. In playwright Hillary Bettis’ retelling, these issues come to the fore, but not always successfully.  The production would be more rewarding by narrowing of the ideas and questions posed in Miss Julie and more of Ms. Bettis’ own voice.

 

The Queen of Basel, which features a richly detailed set by Rodrigo Escalante, takes place in a basement storage area.  Upstairs, a ritzy soiree is happening.  Sound Designer German Martinez provides subtle, pulsating dance music from above.  Julie, daughter of an uncaring and unresponsive real estate baron, is ushered into the lower level space by a waitress, Christine, who accidentally spills a tray of drinks on the heiress’ party gown.  She is there to hide from possible paparazzi and dry out.  Apologizing profusely, they are interrupted by the young woman’s fiancee, an Uber driver, John, who has been called by Christine to take Julie home.  Exit the hostess.  Cue the banter and inevitable sparks between Julie and John, which cascades into a distressful and disconsolate series of events for all parties. 

 

The strength of Queen of Basel is the repartee between Julie and John on the erroneous assumptions made by each other based on class, race, and ethnicity.  In her notes, Director Cristina Angeles adds that the show gives us the opportunity “not to define what it means to be Latina, but to shed light on the multitudes we contain as a people.”  If the playwright kept the focus on these topics, Queen of Basel would have been a more purposeful production. 

 

Developing an entertaining and meaningful play within a confined space for, primarily, two performers is very difficult to favorably pull off.  Ms. Bettis has created dialogue and scenarios that only sometimes succeed.

 

Ms. Angeles attempts, in her staging, to ratchet up the tension and revelations between Julie and John to keep the production briskly flowing.  Some of the theatricality - the ransacking of the storage room, the boozing, and canoodling - are diverting.  However, some aspects of the show, which runs 90 minutes with no intermission, stretch the imagination.  Additionally, a 10-12 minute monologue towards the end of the show, while delivered mightily by the character of Christine, comes across as an unfulfilling and ineffective performance piece.

 

Julie, played with erratic gusto by Christine Spang, comes across as unlikable and volatile.  In Miss Julie, the male character, Jean, comments on Julie’s “crazy behavior.”  Ms. Spang takes this to heart, but excessively so.  Director Cristina Angeles could have injected some nuance to the performance to make it more believable and less strained.

 

Kelvin Grullon delivers a mostly accomplished performance as John.  His portrayal provides a ying to Ms. Spangs yang.  The actor’s easy, no-nonsense, and honest approach to the role is layered with an explosiveness, then sullenness at the play’s conclusion.  Silvia Dionicio is highly satisfying as Christine, a woman sacrificing her dignity and battling personal demons to achieve her ultimate goals.  She deftly imbues the character with a stoicism that masks personal pain and humiliation.

 

Queen of Basel, playing at Theaterworks Hartford through February 26.  Click here for information on dates, times, and tickets.

Friday, February 10, 2023

I Hate Hamlet - Music Theatre of CT

The comedy, I Hate Hamlet, playing at the Music Theatre of Connecticut through February 19, has a fun concept.  The ghost of legendary thespian John Barrymore, famous for his portrayal of Shakespeare’s brooding Danish prince, is summoned via a seance to mentor a self-doubting TV actor scheduled to star in the play.  Playwright Paul Rudnick’s script is intermittently funny, producing more smiles and chuckles than outright laughter.

 

Under the direction of Kevin Connors, the show is sprightly, but rather uneven.  In Act I, the unseen kitchen seems to be upstairs, but is ground level later in the show.  Likewise, the bedroom of the apartment is constantly referred to, but where exactly is it?

 

The acting of the production is also at cross purposes.  Constantine Pappas, freshly scrubbed and earnest as the television performer Andrew, comes across as too reluctant and disconcerting.  Yes, performing live theater-in-the-park might not be his usual arena, but after a while his indecisiveness and hesitancy gets a tad wearying.  Only in his more combative scenes with Barrymore does his character have more zing in his step.  

 

His fiancee Deidre (Elena Ramos Pascullo) is conventional and unpassioned, while Jo Anne Parady gives a modest portrayal of Andrew’s agent Lillian. At the other end of the spectrum, the two featured players, Liliane Klein as Felicia, a boisterous real estate agent and Robert Anthony Jones as Gary, an in-your-face Hollywood producer, are too over-the-top and give the play an unbalanced feel.  Only Dan O’Driscoll as the laid-back, introspective John Barrymore captures the essence of his character.  He has a deft comedic delivery, a jaunty bounce to his step, and is one believable sword fighter (he is also the production’s Fight Director and his duels with Andrew are spirited and convincing).

 

Sean Sanford’s Scenic Design is utilitarian at first - Andrew’s New York City apartment is drab and sparse - but has more of an old-world charm in Act II.  The stage exit by the apartment door, however, did need to be wider for the entering and exiting actors.  RJ Romeo’s Lighting Design adds some spookiness to the show.  

 

I Hate Hamlet - a diverting, somewhat humorous production.  Click here for dates, times and ticket information.

Monday, January 30, 2023

Indecent - Playhouse on Park

 

The play Indecent, receiving a riveting production at Playhouse on Park, is inspired by the 1906 Yiddish play, The God of Vengeance, written by the Polish-Jewish playwright Sholem Asch.  The work was highly controversial at the time.  It showed the love of two women on stage, took place in a brothel, and characterized Jews as less than heroic figures.  Still, the production toured Europe and Off-Broadway to great acclaim in the early part of the 20th Century.  Its transfer to Broadway, however, was interrupted by the police who arrested the cast and producer for obscenity, for which they were found guilty.  The acting troupe, despondent, returned to their Polish homeland.  Desolate, with almost no money and food, the performers still managed to stage their show in an attic space with just a handful of people in attendance just as the Nazis moved in and, we assume, forcibly took them away.

 

It’s very easy to characterize Indecent as a Holocaust play.  However, the show is so much more.  Playwright Paula Vogel explores the question of what is art?  What is its purpose?  Sholem Asch sought to depict the Jewish people as real individuals, with moral and ethical dilemmas as opposed to the thrust of most writers of the day that only wrote more positive portrayals.  Ms. Vogel delves into the transformative power of the theater and the passion it produces among artists and the audience.  This zeal is fervidly embodied by the character of Lemml, a poor tailor who’s life is forever changed by his introduction and continued involvement with productions of the play.

 

Ms. Vogel, a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright (How I Learned to Drive), adeptly breathes life into each character in the show.  She also effectively weaves into the framework of the play such of-the-moment issues as  Anti-semitism and censorship

 

The cast of Indecent is superb.  Playhouse on Park needs to be applauded for assembling such an outstanding group of actors.  Each of them perform multiple roles as they imbue their characters with sensitivity, pathos, and a joy for life and their art.  While the entire ensemble is notable, two members of the troupe deserve special praise.  Dan Zimberg plays Lemml, the tailor (and sometimes narrator), who’s devotion and adoration to The God of Vengence is boundless.  He is the heart and soul of the play.  Bart Shatto is impressive with the range of characters - primarily the older gentlemen - he depicts.  He infuses his portrayals with an emotional depth, dynamism and comic flair.

 

Director Kelly O'Donnell brings an assured hand to the staging of the show.  Scenes and characters flawlessly meld together, making the intermission-less production move forward with swiftness and aplomb.  She seamlessly incorporates Katie Stevinson-Nollet’s vibrant bursts of  choreography as well as the musical numbers under the Direction of Alexander Sovronsky and Jeffrey Salerno’s Sound Design.  Her use of Supertitles are easy to read and provide just the right amount of assistance in telegraphing scenes.

 

Johann Fitzpatrick’s Scenic Design is simple, yet fluid, helped immensely with Joe Beumer’s varied Lighting schemes.  Izzy Fields’ Costume Design is at its best when evoking the garb of Eastern Europe at the turn of the century.

 

Indecent, another bravo production from Playhouse at Park in West Hartford, running through February 26.  Click here for dates, times, and ticket information.