Friday, October 22, 2021

Review - The Chinese Lady

 

The Chinese Lady, playing at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT through October 31, is a fascinating blend of historical drama and inspired imagination.

 

The two-person show is based on the true story of 14 year-old Afong Moy (Shannon Tyo), who is brought to the United States from mainland China in 1834, thereby becoming the first Chinese woman to enter this country.  The purpose for her sojourn is to be exhibited to the American public.  She demonstrates how the Chinese eat, drink tea, wear exotic garbs, and how women walk with bound feet.  She is attended to by a translator, Atung (John Norman Schneider), who becomes her surrogate parent, confidante, and guide to the new world.

 


What, at first, is a two-year commitment for her services becomes years, then decades of servitude.  Throughout the years, she provides running commentary about America in the early and latter part of the 19th century as well as attitudes and actions against Chinese immigrants.  We hear about the Civil War and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which imposed a 10-year moratorium on Chinese labor immigration.  Attracted by the western Gold Rush more Chinese seek their fortune in the United States, but are subject to harassment, beatings, and even lynchings.  Within this context, Afong continues to be put on display around the country, growing older, more dispirited and aggrieved.

 

Playwright Lloyd Suh has crafted a world using primary sources, and a theatrical presentation to dramatize the story.  He deftly uses the concept of this sideshow type act (in her later years Afong becomes part of P.T. Barnum’s group of human oddities) to educate as well as entertain audiences. I, for one, was totally unfamiliar with the Chinese Exclusion Act or such horrific acts of cruelty and death.  Suh also explores the issues of identity and self-worth.  Afong never returns to her homeland or has contact with her parents or family members.  She is alone, unsure how she fits into American society; a commodity to be used and discarded.

 

The parallels in today’s world of attitudes toward Asian-Americans are alarmingly similar, where news accounts of hate crimes are all too prevalent.

 

While there is much pain and sadness in The Chinese Lady, there is also humor and whimsy to balance the play.

 

Shannon Tyo is superb as Afong Moy.  She impressively appears, at first, as a shy, wide-eyed, though exuberant teenager, full of wonderment and self-importance. As the years progress, the actress develops into a fully mature woman, one who strikingly brings out the world-weariness and mental and physical exhaustion of the character.  John Norman Schneider gives a subdued, nuanced performance, layered with disillusionment and mystery. 

 


Director Ralph B. Pena successfully creates a miniature world - the small performance area - where Afong Moya holds court.  He skillfully builds the dramatic tension from the awe and wonderment of a child to a resigned, disenchanted woman. The 90-minute, intermission-less play, flows smoothly through the repetitive scenes of Afong Moy and Atung coming out to surprise and enchant.

 

Scenic designer Junghyun Georgia Lee Cargo has strikingly taken part of a metal cargo container which, when opened, becomes a small thrust stage where Afong Moy presents her daily instruction and reflections.

 

The Chinese Lady, an entertaining and enlightening work, playing at Long Wharf Theatre through October 31.

 

 

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Review - A Grand Night for Singing

The theatrical universe has taken a giant step towards normalcy with the reopening of in-person productions at the venerable Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT.  


The production they have selected - the Rodgers and Hammerstein jukebox musical A Grand Night for Singing, is an ideal choice.  The music of the composing team has a universal appeal.  The show has a small cast performing selections - both well-known and obscure - from the duo’s songbook.  They include songs from their decades long partnership including selections from Oklahoma!, South Pacific, The King and I, Carousel, and Me and Juliet.  Think of the show as comfort food for the theatrical soul or a soothing breeze coming off the adjacent Connecticut River.


The overall tone is low-key, with a few flourishes by the talented five-person cast, performing on a bare stage, with minimal props, a few costume changes, and backed by a superb seven member onstage orchestra.  


Songs are not necessarily delivered the way audience members might remember from spinning their 33 ⅓ LPs.  Director Ron Ruggiero, a frequent collaborator at the Goodspeed, states in the program notes that his goals for the productions was:

  • To revisit the music with a contemporary lens so the songs remain fresh and relevant

  • A commitment to making sure the company of actors reflect the world we live in today

  • To represent an authentic celebration of diversity onstage


He has scored on all three. The artistry of Rodgers and Hammerstein is that many of their works are wonderfully crafted into mini stories, radiating with emotion, that are open to new interpretations and creativeness.   In A Grand Night for Singing some of the song’s usual gender roles have been reversed, producing a whole new meaning to the selections. Other songs, such as “Honey Bun” from South Pacific, have been jazzed up.  There are dozens of musical numbers in the show including The Surrey with the Fringe On Top (Oklahoma!), Hello, Young Lovers (The King and I), If I Loved You (Carousel), Shall We Dance? (The King and I), It Might As Well Be Spring (State Fair), Maria (The Sound of Music), and Some Enchanted Evening (South Pacific)


The five actors/actresses - Jasmine Forsberg, Maurico Martinez, Jesse Nager, Mamie Parris, and Diane Phelan - have solid musical theater credentials and perform each piece with flair and gusto.  Their acting prowess comes into play throughout the production, which only heightens the selections presented on stage.


Rob Ruggiero’s guidance is more subtle and understated.  However, there is a confident and assured intention to his direction.  He allows the songs to speak for themselves without adding distractions or fluff.


Choreographer Lainie Sakakura enlivens the show with choice dance routines, most notably in “Honey Bun,” “Kansas City,” and “Shall We Dance.”  They are compact, with bursts of joyfulness and whimsy.


A Grand Night for Singing, an entertaining tonic for theater-goers of all ages.  Playing at the Goodspeed Opera House through November 28.


Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Review of Smokey Joe's Cafe

A Contemporary Theatre of Connecticut’s decision to open their in-person season with Smokey Joe’s Cafe is a smart move.  The show is a buoyant and effervescent jukebox musical, filled with familiar and hummable tunes, highlighting the hits composed by songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.  They include such standards as “Jailhouse Rock,” “Stand By Me,” “Yakety Yak,” “Hound Dog,” and “On Broadway.”  

The production features eight smooth, highly skilled, and vocally adept performers who take the stage with a spirited assurance and sparkling agility.

The thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining musical, encompassing over 30 songs from the Leiber and Stoller catalog, is presented as a series of well-crafted mini-vignettes.  They feature soaring solo performances as well as a combination of any number of the actors and actresses.  All of these artists - Albert Guerzon, Arnold Harper II, Avionce Hoyles, Jordan Fife Hunt, Keyonna Knight, Courtney Long, Kelly MacMillan, and Judson Williams - showcase their varied range during individual numbers or in combination with others, whether it’s emoting tenderness or showcasing an energetic flair.

While all of the performers exude a polished confidence and professionalism, two members of the ensemble standout.  Courtney Long has a brashness and self-assured attitude, along with a soaring and powerful vocal range, that had the audience cheering.  Albert Guerzon is engaging, high powered, athletic, and radiates a contagious charisma

First time Director Stephanie Pope Lofgren, who also doubles as choreographer, does an impressive job providing a captivating narrative structure for each song, no small feat when you have so many scenes to create.  She shows creativity and an inventive deftness that never becomes tiresome or repetitious.  As choreographer, Ms. Lofgren augments most songs with pizazz and highly synchronized movements.  She has superbly incorporated Jack Mehler’s lighting design into the production, which adds a stylistic flourish that doesn’t overwhelm any of the musical numbers and helps punctuate the energy and rhythmic flow of the show. 

Mehler’s scenic design, a simple set with a stoop on one side, a bar on the right and a moveable staircase center stage, provides enough variety for the multiple scenarios.

One of the great pleasures of Smokey Joe’s Cafe is John Salutz’s excellent sound design.  Vocals are clear and dynamic, never overwhelming the band or blasting the audience.  Likewise, the seven-person combo never drowns out the singers.

The band is positioned at the back of the stage, some members on an elevated platform in view of the audience, giving the impression of a recording session taking place.  A joy to hear, they are a precision unit, pumping out the music in classic renditions as well as unique arrangements.

Smokey Joe’s Cafe, a first-class production, playing at A Contemporary Theatre of Connecticut in Ridgefield, CT through October 24. Information on tickets as well as theater entry policies are at https://www.actofct.org/.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Review - Two Jews Walk into a War...

Theatrical productions riffing on the classic Samuel Beckett play Waiting for Godot seem to be the in thing on stages both regionally and in New York. Currently, on Broadway, you have playwright Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s undertaking, Pass Over.

 

At Playhouse on Park in West Hartford you have Seth Rozin's Two Jews Walk into a War... While not an outright homage to Beckett’s seminal work, the production at Playhouse on Park does share many of the attributes of Waiting for Godot, what author J. Knowlson refers to as “religious, philosophical, psychoanalytical and biographical references.” Like Godot, there are elements of comedy, vaudeville, and pathos embedded in Rozin’s play.

 

The result is a meandering, sometimes humorous, mildly diverting play that often veers to the sophomoric.

 

In Two Jews Walk into a War…, we find Zeblyan (Bob Ari) and Ishaq (Mitch Greenberg), two elderly men who happen to be the last two Jews in Kabul. Afghanistan, about to bury their recently departed compatriot and somewhat leader, Yakob, (an almost reverse Godot type character).  Within their damaged synagogue the two individuals bicker and hurl insults at one another as they avoid the ever present and threatening Taliban.  We soon learn they just can’t stand each other.  However, slowly, and with many bumps in the road, they learn to work together for their grand scheme of repopulating the Jewish community of the Afghan capital. 

 

In between implementing their plan are explorations of existential questions, analysis of Biblical passages, and a continuous barrage of blame towards each other for a variety of problems and predicaments.  

 

Rozin’s play can at times be compelling with thought-provoking ruminations and compelling scenarios.  Yet, many of the big issues and introspections presented in the 90 minute, intermission-less show, fail to generate much sustained dramatic tension.  The idle chatter and invectives become more matter-of-fact, leading to uninteresting and questionable scenes.  

 

The actors Bob Ari and Mitch Greenberg could easily be slotted into the two central roles in Waiting for Godot.  Greenberg’s Ishaq comes across like Beckett’s Vladimir, the more introspective and pseudo-intellectual of the pair.  Ari’s Zeblyan, like Godot’s Estragon, is more of a follower, who walks with a heavy step.  His ideas and intentions are less grandiose and well-formulated.  Both performers attack the material with a liveliness and passion, forcefully justifying their character’s almost absurd contrivances.

 

David Hammond’s direction keeps the pacing brisk, using the small Playhouse staging area to give movement and an openness to the production.  He skillfully keeps the multiple scenes running at variable tempos, helping to keep the play from teetering into a mundane series of uninteresting musings.  The director incorporates Bill Clarke’s minimalistic set design, Johann Fitzpatrick’s highly effective lighting design (especially his use of strobes demarcating the passage of time) and Jacob Montogmery’s limited, but efficacious sound design, to effectively open up this two-person show.

 

Two Jews Walk into a War...occasionally brings up issues and topics worth meditating on but, overall, the show’s content drifts too far afield from successfully answering the big questions it seeks to address.

 

Two Jews Walk into a War...playing at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford through October 10.  Information at https://www.playhouseonpark.org/

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Review of "Fully Committed"

 Kudos to the Music Theatre of Connecticut (MTC) in Norwalk, CT to be one of only three Equity approved companies in the nation to be allowed to hold an in-person production.   The theater has chosen wisely by presenting the one-man comedy, Fully Committed.  This mitigates many issues that would be associated with the presentation of a socially distance show.

 

For this production, no more than 23 individuals are permitted in the audience of the 110 seat theater.  Most theatergoers will only be able to view a real-time stream from the comfort of their homes.

 

On opening night, I chose to watch via the live stream to see how a live theater-going experience may be different when watching on a good sized television screen. 

 

The MTC did a very good job with the streaming of the show, but with one character and a single, unchanging backdrop the set-up wasn’t too difficult, at least from my vantage point.  The real test, though, was viewing the production from afar and here the feel was not that stimulating.  Live, in-person, theater has an immediacy to it.  There is a shared group experience by the audience and a close connection to the action on stage.  Through the lens of the live stream the emotional relationship is dulled.

 

So, how did this affect my viewing of Fully Committed?  While the show had its humorous moments, for me, there was too much of a disconnect to thoroughly enjoy the production.  The sound quality was not always crisp and the lighting came across as somewhat muted, less vibrant.

 

Matt Densky, plays Sam, an actor waiting for his big break.  During his down time he slaves over the telephone reservation line in the basement of one of the most exclusive restaurants in New York City.  The dour and melancholy employee is constantly barraged by big shots and everyday people with feeble appeals, bullying threats, and cajoling pleas for a prized lunch or dinner reservation.  In addition, his co-worker is missing in action, the upstairs staff is uncaring to his needs, and the chef is a scolding, unsympathetic and disinterested dolt.

 

This light weight, 80 minute one act is fitfully funny, poignant and entertaining, nothing more, nothing less.  Densky is a man constantly in motion as he flits from telephone to desk to pacing around his cramped subterranean headquarters.  Along the way, he portrays numerous characters—from persons desperately trying to make a reservation, to family members, to the employees of the unnamed dining spot.  The actor continually immerses his own persona into the jumble of characters he impersonates.  He is mostly even-tempered, yet a bundle of kinetic energy.

 

Playwright Becky Mode gives a knowing nod to the frenetic world of restaurant reservations.  She packs the show with amusing quips and incidents.  One ongoing scenario has the assistant to actress Gwyneth Paltrow constantly calling with one more outrageous request after another including bringing her own lightbulb to the restaurant to make sure she is not bathed in a harsh glow.  Mode gives the play an easygoing, plausible narrative structure, which by its conclusion sees Sam move from a woeful nobody to a more assertive somebody.

 

Kevin Connors direction is effective as he guides Densky through his chaotic paces.  The actor incorporates a multitude of nuanced gestures, facial ticks, and vocal somersaults to the bevy of characters portrayed.  The result is a somewhat engaging piece of theater. 

 

Fully Committed runs through Sunday, September 27, 2020.  Performances are Friday at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm & 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm.  For In-person tickets call the Box Office at 203-454-3883.  Live stream tickets can be purchased online at https://www.musictheatreofct.com/fullycommitted

 

 

 

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Review of "West Side Story"


If you cannot wait for Steven Spielberg’s remake of the film version of West Side Story this fall, you can head to the Broadway Theater for the revisionist, highly unsatisfying stage show directed by Ivo Van Hove.  For what seems like a majority of the 100-minute, intermission-less production, audience members are viewing what is happening via real-time projections streaming onto the back of the stage.  By being forced to watch the two-dimensional action, the intimacy and dramatic engagement between the characters and audience is largely missing.  The two primary settings, where the projections are incorporated, are Doc’s store and the dress shop where Maria and Anita work.  They are tucked in the very back of the stage making them virtually unviewable unless via the projection.  Designed by Jan Versweyveld, these are superb recreations of an “In the Heights” bodega and a cramped, manufacturing sweat shop. The attention to detail is truly exceptional. 

For individuals not familiar with the plot of West Side Story, it is a contemporary take on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet written by librettist Arthur Laurents.  Unlike most revivals of the musical that hark back to the late 1950’s, this rendering of the show takes place in the present.  The multi-racial cast, most adorned with extensive tattoos, is divided into two street gangs—the Sharks (Puerto Rican) and Jets (more White)--that battle for control of their changing neighborhood.  Complicating the rivalry is the star-crossed love affair of Tony, the former leader of the Jets, and Maria, the sister of the Sharks’ leader, Bernardo.   In the end, their ill-fated romance leads to anguish and grief.

The score for West Side Story, by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, is one of the most iconic in Broadway musical history.  To name just a few of the well-known numbers - "Something's Coming", "Maria", "Tonight", "America", and "Somewhere."  The song “I Feel Pretty” and the “Somewhere” ballet sequence have been excised from the production, supposedly to save time since there is no intermission.  The score is full of energy, with songs full of hope, and desires.  The lone comedic number, “Gee, Officer Krupke,” is now effectively delivered with a note of cynicism and despair.

With many of the songs and production numbers, there is a ceaseless barrage of projections which made it hard to focus on the conflicts and encounters on stage.  For example, with the raucous “Dance at the Gym” sequence the streaming video was extremely distracting and diverted from enjoying Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s rambunctious, sexually charged choreography.  During the aftermath of “The Rumble,” both gangs are spread across the naked stage, slowly recovering from their wounds and realizing the deadly ramifications of what just transpired.  It is a solemn moment when, suddenly, the screen lights up with an aerial view of the setting, robbing the moment of its power and intensity.

Director Ivo Van Hove has come up with some interesting concepts for this production.  The latter half of the musical is set during a constant rain, which amplifies the bleakness and despair of all involved.  Cell phone videos are playfully employed, primarily, during the “Gee, Officer Krupke” number.

The acting troupe, while effortlessly portraying their respective roles, is hampered by the two-dimensionality of their characters playing just overhead.  It was difficult becoming enmeshed with the actors and actresses and feeling 100% connected to them. 

Isaac Powell’s Tony, intoxicated with his love for Maria, could be seen as overplaying the part, but his boyishness and euphoria come across as real and heartfelt.  The same could be said for Shereen Pimentel’s Maria who, also shot with cupid’s arrow, is exhilarated and rapturous in her newfound, yet forbidden, love.  Besides a withering sneer and absolute repudiation for members of the Jets, Amar Ramasar, does not show much range or nuance as Bernardo.  Dharon E. Jones as Riff and Yesenia Ayala as Anita provide assured, compelling performances.

West Side Story, an ineffectually conceived revival, at the Broadway Theatre.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Review of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time"

Creativity is center stage in the worthy production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, playing at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre in Storrs through March 8th.  Based on the best-selling novel of the same name, the show cleverly and imaginatively delves into the world of a 15-year old boy on the autism spectrum.

The story focuses on Christopher, a young lad with Aspergers, who lives with his father in Swindon, a small town in England.  As the play begins, Christopher discovers someone has killed his neighbor’s dog and, against his father’s orders, begins to investigate.  This child-like objective quickly tests his personal boundaries and fears as he begins a journey of self-discovery that reveals household secrets and lays bare family dynamics.

Playwright Simon Stephens has brilliantly adapted author Mark Haddon’s book to reflect the emotional awareness and day-to-day life of a teen on the autism spectrum.  Christopher is very smart, but the world outside his special needs school and home are a foreboding place full of obstacles and challenges.  What makes the play even more engrossing is how realistically parents of a boy with autism are portrayed, from the demands they face to the commitment they have for their child.

Audience members acquainted with individuals like Christopher will give knowing nods throughout the show.  For some individuals, the play can be hard to watch.  As a parent with a severely developmentally disabled son, I have shed a number of tears watching the drama.

For a production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time to be successful, the three main characters need to deliver precision, heartfelt portrayals.  Tyler Nowakowski, a 3rd year BFA student at the University of Connecticut is very good in the demanding role of Christopher.  He deftly embodies a teenage boy with Asperger’s.  His mannerisms—both overt and more subtle—are on target.  The actor shows the many facets a teenager on the spectrum faces each day of his life.

Joe Cassidy, who plays Christopher’s father Ed, gives a rewarding performance full of mixed emotions.  There is anguish, distress, but also the deep love he feels for his son.  You sense his inner turmoil and come to understand the sacrifices he has made.  Margot White’s portrayal of Judy, the boy’s mother, is heart rendering.  The actress gives a realistic performance of a mother in distress who wants balance in her life, but cannot cope with the ups and downs she is presented.  Thalia Eddy, a sophomore BFA student at the University, is caring, soft-spoken, but firm as Christopher’s teacher Siobhan.  She is a steady force in the lad’s life.  Her understanding and compassion are thoroughly convincing.  Maybe she should change her major to special education?

Director Kristin Wold utilizes the ensemble throughout the production, sometimes overusing them in scenes, which can prove distracting from the main focus of the play.  She is most effective with the more intimate scenes between Christopher and his father and mother.  Here, the story can speak for itself.

Set Designer Dennis Akpinar relies on a minimal design, relying on building blocks that are assembled for a variety of settings and functions.  Projections Designer Taylor Edelle Stuart builds in numerous backdrops whose images can broaden our perspective of Christopher’s inner world.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, a captivating and emotional-charged show, playing at the CT Repertory Theatre through March 8th.  Information and tickets are at:  https://crt.uconn.edu/Online/default.asp

NOTE - In the show, Christopher exhibits traits which are not fully explained. Why does he not want to be touched? What is the significance of his model train-building obsession? Why does he need to always tell the truth and be so literal?  I asked my wife, Jane Thierfeld Brown, a national authority on students with Aspergers, who has co-authored three books on the subject and presents on the topic at colleges and universities across the country, to help me write a column that would provide playgoers background information on general Asperger’s characteristics (Click here). Our goal is to help enrich the theatrical experience of those attending a performance of this production by exploring some of the behaviors in the show at a more rudimentary level.