Friday, November 15, 2019

Review of "Tina - The Tina Turner Musical"


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of "Hello, Dolly"


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portions of this review were previously published.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Review of "A Shayna Madel"


Katharina Schmidt, Laura Sudduth, and Mitch Greenberg in A Shayna Madel at Playhouse on Park thru Nov. 17th.
The play, A Shayna Madel, is a powerful story of survival and hope that, over 35 years after it was first produced, is still a compelling and relevant show. 

The setting is the Upper West Side of New York City soon after World War II has ended.  Rose Weiss (Laura Sudduth), a young woman living on her own, is startled to learn from her father, Mordechai Weiss (Mitch Greenberg), that her older sister Lusia (Katharina Schmidt) has survived the devastation of the Holocaust, has been located in Europe, and is soon to arrive in the States.  The initial meeting of the two women is fraught with anxiety and tension as they begin to reconnect and learn to share their lives together in the small one-bedroom apartment.  Complicating their growing rapport is their impassive, stolid father and his personal agenda.

In flashbacks and dreamy imagery, the audience learns the backstory of Lusia, her closeness with her childhood friend Hanna (Julia Tolchin), the relationship with her now departed mother (Krista Lucas), and the shocking reason one part of the family made it to safety.  Underlying the story is the recent immigrant’s search for her missing husband Duvid (Alex Rafala) who she believes has also entered the country.  In the end, the surviving members of the extended Weiss family come together as they build new lives in an unfamiliar, but embracing country.

Playwright Barbara Lebow’s work examines the resilience of individuals in time of upheaval and life-altering change and how the bonds of family, while stretched and imperiled, are strong and long-lasting.  The play also explores the assimilation and generational shift of people and their culture to a new land, the joys, the promises, and the challenges it presents.  

The cast members feel genuine as they embrace their roles with exhilaration and solemnness. Laura Sudduth imbues the role of Rose Weiss with the joy of newfound freedom and boundless opportunity.  The actress also tempers her performance with empathy and compassion.  Katharina Schmidt’s Luisa is most convincing when portraying her somber side in Rose’s apartment.  Her languid movements and speech speak volumes for what she experienced overseas.  Mitch  Greenberg gives a nuanced performance as the father.  Outwardly, he is stoic and strict as he pushes forward in a new world.  But, underneath, the actor conveys an inner pain and emotional emptiness.  Julia Tolchin’s Hannah is full of girlish exuberance and optimism.  Alex Rafala displays kindness and devotion as Duvid, a man who shows sincere love and concern for his young bride Luisa.  In her brief moments on stage, Krista Lucas delivers a poignant portrayal of a mother lost to the ravages of the Holocaust. 

Director Dawn Loveland Navarro has a tender, but forthright hand in shepherding this work through its paces.  She nimbly guides the two actresses from nervous apprehension to a comfortable, loving sisterly relationship.  Ms. Navarro skillfully integrates the dream sequences and flashbacks into a multi-layered production.  At times, the reality segments and illusionary aspects of the play can be somewhat unclear but, with the adept assistance of Lighting Designer Marcus Abbott, the grasp of the flow and action of the play are more easily understood.

David Lewis’ Scenic Design is apt for a 1946 Brooklyn apartment.  The set is utilitarian and functional, with few frills.

A Shayna Madel, playing at Playhouse on Park through November 17th.  Information is at http://www.playhouseonpark.org/.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Review of "Cry It Out"


Rachel Spencer Hewitt and Evelyn Spahr from Cry It Out, playing at Hartford Stage thru Nov. 17th.

Raising a newborn can make for unlikely friendships and interpersonal interactions. In playwright Molly Smith Metzler’s often rib-tickling and heart rendering comedy-drama Cry It Out, two women, neighbors from different socio-economic worlds, nonetheless begin to bond as they navigate the intimidating, sometimes unnerving responsibility of caring for an infant.  Added to their anxiety, and producing a bit of drama on its own, is the sudden appearance of another neighbor looking to have his wife included in the duo’s daily get-togethers. 

Jessie (Rachel Spencer Hewitt), a high-powered lawyer on leave from her New York City firm, lives in an apartment with her financier husband on Long Island’s North Shore.  Lina (Evelyn Spahr), residing next door with her husband in her mother-in-law’s home, is an entry level hospital worker originally from the South Shore with a brash demeanor and attitude. On the surface, they are as dissimilar as two people could possibly be, but when it comes to caring, fretting, and loving a newborn child differences quickly evaporate. At first, Jessie invites Lina over for coffee. Their initial encounter is awkward and forced, but as their backyard meetings continue their tentative relationship grows into a real friendship.  Enter Mitchell (Erin Gann), a well-to-do entrepreneur who lives on a ridge overlooking Jessie’s yard.  He asks the women if his wife, who recently gave birth, could become part of their soirees.  Reluctantly, Jessie and Lina agree, but the arranged tryst with his wife Adrienne (Caroline Kinsolving) does not go so well.  Soon, challenging changes take place, altering each person’s familial dynamics.

Playwright Metzler deftly brings out many issues women face after childbirth—emotional bearing, marital relationships, and the question of staying home or returning to work.  The conversations appear real and heartfelt.  What is less successful is when the characters Mitchell and Adrienne are inserted into the flow of the production.  Their entrances disrupt the seamless nature of the play Metzler has constructed.  While a resolution is not necessarily needed for the show, a more layered conclusion would have been less abrupt than what is presented. 


The cast is assured and sharp with Evelyn Spahr, as Lina, having the juiciest, in-your-face role.  The actress consistently has the best comedic lines.  While, initially, appearing like a complete fool, she turns in a more measured, warmhearted performance.  Rachel Spencer Hewitt gives her character Jessie a multifaceted look.  You can feel her inner turmoil as she debates what is best for herself and her young family.  In two short scenes, Caroline Kinsolving has the difficult task of making her character Adrienne both bitchy and sympathetic.  She does so with sophistication and aplomb and demonstrates you can’t always judge a book by its cover.  Erin Gann is a bit manic as Mitchell.  More restraint and nuance would have enhanced his characterization.

Director Rachel Alderman builds a believable relationship between Jessie and Lina.  Their scenes come across as genuine, playful, and full of humor.  She adorns the show with lighthearted embellishments such as the “Tick Tock” bedtime song the two friends enact and the slight histrionics exhibited by Lina.  There are some miscues, such as an egging sequence but, overall, the direction is strong and convincing.

Scenic Designer Kristen Robinson’s slightly elevated circular set, covered in grass and leaves, has a fishbowl effect with the audience observing, admiring and judging what is presented on stage.

Cry It Out, playing at Hartford Stage through November 17th.  Information is at https://www.hartfordstage.org/.

Portions of this review have been previously published.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Review of "American Son"


The storyline of the play American Son, receiving a riveting production at Theaterworks in Hartford, feels like it has been ripped from the headlines of the nightly news.  An African-American woman, Kendra Ellis-Connor, is anxiously seated in the waiting room of a Miami Beach police station in the early morning hours, awaiting word about her missing son.  A young white police officer attempts to placate her continuous entreaties while peppering her with racially inappropriate questions.  Soon, the mother’s estranged white husband, Scott Connor, enters the scene demanding, with somewhat better success, information about the whereabouts of his 18-year-old son Jamal.  Each time the policeman exits the room the husband and wife quarrel over such hot button issues as poor child rearing practices, lack of parental responsibility, and the role of privilege in a multi-racial family.  A police lieutenant’s entry into the fray only serves to complicate matters.  Tempers flare up on all sides as the investigation into Jamal’s disappearance reaches its uncompromising conclusion.

Playwright Christopher Demos-Brown has crafted a work that, sadly, remains real and to-the-moment.  He adeptly weaves in such issues as racial profiling, establishing Black identity, and the problems interracial couples face.  In a small sense, the play is a character study of a Black and White married couple, now estranged, who are coping with intimate and significant details of their lives.  On a larger scale, the play is about the still considerable racial divide in our country.  The dialogue and scenarios are strong and compelling. 

The cast is led by Ami Brabson as the mother of the missing boy.  She brings a strong-willed determination to the role, but also confusion and impertinence as her character desperately seeks answers from the police and her estranged husband.  J. Anthony Crane, who plays husband Scott Connors, exudes an air of arrogance and self-assurance that impedes his judgement and actions with his wife, son, and the police.  Michael Genest, in his short time on stage as the African-American Police Lieutenant John Stokes, displays forcefulness and compassion along with a no-nonsense manner.  John Ford-Dunker, is convincingly bland as Office Paul Larkin, a young man who is woefully ignorant of his racial insensitivity.

Rob Ruggiero’s taut direction keeps the audience entranced with the clashes on stage.    His assured hand deftly manages the various conflicts and overarching themes presented in the production.  He skillfully allows the suspense to build to its startling climax.

Brian Prather’s Scenic Design of a small, sterile waiting room brings the encounters into sharp focus.  The Sound Design by Frederick Kennedy, primarily of the threatening thunderstorm brewing outside, helps provide an ominous tone to the production.  Lighting Designer Matthew Richards utilizes harsh glowing fluorescent lights that flood the stage, leaving no place for the characters to hide.

American Son, a captivating and challenging production to start Theaterworks 34th season in their newly renovated facilities.  Information and tickets are at http://www.theaterworkshartford.org/

Monday, October 28, 2019

Review of "The Wolves"



The ensemble of “The Wolves” by Sarah DeLappe onstage through Nov 3 in Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Studio Theatre.  Tickets and info at crt.uconn.edu or 860-486-2113.  Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
The Wolves, is a unique drama that uses the backdrop of an indoor girl’s soccer team to probe the multi-faceted relationship female teenagers have amongst themselves.  The plot follows nine teens, aged 16-17 years old, that gather on a weekly basis to drill and prepare for matches over the course of an unspecified time-period.  The group has grown up together, playing at various town and travel team levels.  During their time on stage they workout, banter about silly matters, world politics, sex, friendship and more.  As the show progresses the audience slowly becomes more engrossed in their lives and their unique bond.  We become aware of more serious concerns that are just bubbling under the surface of their small talk and carefree attitude.   Issues such as sexual self-identity, individualism, and adolescent anxiety become apparent.  Death also knocks at their door.

Playwright Sarah DeLappe takes the dynamics that surround the soccer team and has crafted a play full of realism and brio.  At times, raw and full of emotion, the interchanges feel fresh, true, and not forced.  She incorporates overlapping dialogue that adds to the authenticity of the action.  The young woman can be playful, callous, and impudent.   They can shift from being bosom buddies one moment and snapping antagonists the next.  There is a reason the show is named for a predatory animal.

Like a well-trained sports team, the troupe of nine actresses—all undergraduate BFA students at the University of Connecticut--work seamlessly together.  There was a tentativeness by the performers at the start of the 90-minute, intermission-less show, but that gradually faded as the play progressed.  Each member of the acting troupe is integral for the success and betterment of the whole.  Throughout the show, particular characters took the spotlight, but then faded back within the assemblage.  The performers had no problem wearing their emotions on their sleeves, which gives the production a realistic feel to it.  There is one adult role in the show, who appears briefly at the play’s end.  She delivers a heartfelt and penetrating monologue.  The young actresses (with their team numbers) are Alexandra Brokowski (#25), Megan O'Connor (#11), Eliza Carson (#8), Maddy Tamms (#2), Nicolle Cooper (#14), Jamie Feidner (#7), Betty Smith (#13), Elizabeth Jebran (#46),  Eilis Garcia (#00), and April Lichtman as the Soccer Mom.

Director Julie Foh has molded the collection of young actresses into a first-rate ensemble.  They don’t come across as a well-toned, high caliber group of soccer players, but the performers do effortlessly kick the balls to each other, run wind sprints, and talk the talk.  She has forged a group esprit de corps while, at the same time, keeping each member’s individual personality and temperament intact.  The director assiduously ensures the dramatic arc of the production remains genuine, slowly ratcheting up the tension as the show nears its end.

Scenic designer Kristen P.E. Zarabozo has created a simple, artificial turf set with plastic sheets of curtain hanging from the rafters, which gives the stage the realistic feel of an indoor soccer facility.

The Wolves, an engaging and winning production, playing at the intimate Studio Theater at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre in Storrs through November 3rd.  Information and tickets are at https://crt.uconn.edu/Online/default.asp.

Portions of this review have been previously published.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Review of "Billy Elliot"


Billy Elliot, playing at the Goodspeed Opera House through November 24th, is one of the best productions I have seen at the venerable theater in many years.  Director Gabriel Barre has masterfully reconfigured this large-scale musical for the smaller confines of the Goodspeed stage without sacrificing the show’s emotional core or beautifully realized dance numbers. 
 
Liam Vincent Hutt as Billy with the cast of Billy Elliot, playing through November 24th. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.


The show, with a score by Elton John and Lee Hall, tells the story of 13-year-old Billy Elliott (at this performance played by Liam Vincent Hutt) who, through inadvertent circumstances, becomes enrolled in an afterschool ballet class.  His talent soon becomes apparent to his tough-minded instructor, Mrs. Wilkinson (Michelle Aravena), who begins to groom him for a tryout with the Royal Ballet unbeknownst to his widowed, disapproving father (Sean Hayden) and older brother.   The story is played out against the political backdrop of the 1984-85 miner’s strike in northern England, which left villages like this one in County Durham, impoverished and in dire straits. 

Lee Hall, who wrote the book of the show, lyrics and the original screenplay for the 2000 movie the musical is based on, has created a story that is full of passion, emotional highs and lows, and adversity.  He has fashioned full-bodied characters that can pull at our heartstrings.  The social forces within the country at the time are fully realized and add a hard-edged and cynical layer to the show. 
 
The cast of Billy Elliot, playing through November 24th. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.
The songs by Elton John and Lee Hall can be intoxicating, uplifting, and bring a tear to the eye.  Standouts include the political-laden “Solidarity,” the high-spirited “Expressing Yourself,” and the boundless exuberance of “Electricity.”

The choreography by Marc Kimelman can be fun-loving (“Shine”), rambunctious (“Expressing Yourself”), breathtaking and captivating (“Dream Sequence”).  The “Dream Sequence” is a stunning piece of work that left me numb with exhilaration.  There are some miscues in the choreography, as in the disjointed “Angry Dance,” but, overall, the jazz, tap, and ballet numbers are at an exceptional level that elevates the production to dizzying heights.
 
Jan Martens and Liam Vincent Hutt in Billy Elliot, playing through November 24th. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.
The cast is led by Liam Vincent Hutt as Billy.  He has a youthful vitality and brings a sustained energy to the role.  His dancing ability is exceptional.  The young actor needs to be the focus of the musical and he does not disappoint.  Michelle Aravena delivers a world-weariness to the role of Mrs. Wilkinson, but also imbues in her a degree of strength and resilence. Sean Hayden is persuasive and compelling as Billy’s father, a man trying to provide for his family and hold it together during trying times.  Jon Martens, who plays Billy’s best friend, Michael, injects humor and an endearing goofiness into his portrayal.  He too is no slouch on the dance floor.  Nick Silverio deserves special mention as the older Billy.  His duet with Liam Vincent Hutt in the “Dream Ballet” was awe-inspiring.

In the program notes, Director Gabriel Barre states the show is about “finding your purpose and summoning the courage necessary to follow your dreams and create your own destiny.”  This distillation of the plot is fully realized by Barre as he skillfully guides the sizeable cast on the small Goodspeed stage.  An impressive example is rendered during “Solidarity,” when the miners, police, Billy and the girls in his ballet class weave in and out from each other, confront, and dance.  The director keeps the emotional impact high and has added some well-placed flourishes that greatly enhance scenes such as adding a chorus of dancing girls in a dreamlike sequence to “Expressing Yourself.” 
 
The cast of Billy Elliot, playing through November 24th. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.
Walt Spangler’s Scenic Design are impressive for their variety and size, which includes a very convincing miner’s elevator, a ramshackle dance studio, and even a giant Margaret Thatcher puppet.  Jen Shapiro’s Costume Designs are fittingly apropos for the environs.

Billy Elliot, a dazzling production, playing at the Goodspeed Opera House through November 24th.  Information and tickets are at https://www.goodspeed.org/