Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Review of "Flidder on the Roof"

Another New York City production of Fiddler on the Roof so soon after the 2015 Broadway revival?  Yes, and this version, done entirely in Yiddish, demands to be seen.  The language, which could be a barrier for many, is a non-issue (there are brief translations in English and Russian projected off to each side of the stage) for a musical so ingrained in our culture. For theater-goers all too familiar with the timeless Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock score and Joseph Stein book, the Yiddish dialogue and lyrics add to the naturalistic setting and earthiness of the production. 

The story, that addresses such timely issues as anti-Semitism, religious freedom, traditional norms, and forced immigrant migration, revolves around Teyve, a poor milkman, his wife Golde, and their five daughters.  Life in the old-world Russian town of Anetevka is simple and, mostly, uncomplicated until, one-by-one, Teyve’s three eldest daughters become engaged and wed in ways that up-end and challenge family and religious values and customs.  At the same time the Russian authorities in the small village, who have let the Jewish community go about their daily lives with little interference, becomes more aggressive, finally forcing the townspeople to leave their beloved way of life.

The score by Bock and Harnick is one of the greatest in Broadway musical history.  Every song is a gem beginning with the spirited and vibrant opening number “Tradition” (Traditsye).  Other classics include the comedic, “The Dream,” the heart rendering ballad “Anetevka,” and the joyous “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” and “If I Were a Rich Man.” Again, because the musical numbers are so well-known the necessity for understanding the Yiddish lyrics is minor.

The cast is superb, led by Steven Skybell as Teyve.  His portrayal is that of an everyman trying to eke out a living and understand the fast-changing world.  He is not the larger-than-life character as embodied by such notable predecessors as Zero Mostel, Topol, and even Harvey Fierstein.  We feel and believe his trials and tribulations.  Jennifer Babiak’s Golde is firm, understanding, and both flustered and content with her troublesome husband.  Jackie Hoffman, always a solid comic performer, is no less so here.  Her Yente injects a degree of humor and unabashed gusto into the musical.  Rachel Zatcoff (Tzeitel), Stephanie Lynne Mason (Hodl), and Rosie Jo Neddby (Khave), the young women who play the three older daughters show a wide-range of emotions and independence as each breaks free from family and tradition.

Director Joel Grey has kept the setting and production values to a minimum.  This allows the audience to focus more directly on the characters and story.  When necessary, he does add embellishments to a scene, such as the dream sequence, only when it will better serve the show.  The Tony Award winning actor knows how to bring both elation and pathos to a scene.  More intimate scenes are handled with aplomb, while larger settings, such as the wedding sequence, in conjunction with Stas Kmiec’s new, spirited choreography, are delivered with a joyous rapture

Fiddler on the Roof, worth seeing again.  Playing Off-Broadway through September 1st. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Review of "Oklahoma!"

Director Daniel Fish’s revisionist take on the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, Oklahoma!, is a vibrant, more modern rendering of the ground-breaking musical.  Not everything the production has to offer works effectively, but there is enough on stage to reinvigorate and propel the show to satisfying heights.

Even before the first strands of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” echo throughout the intimate Circle in the Square Theater, the look and feel of the performance space signals this version of Oklahoma! will be different. There is an onstage country band within the minimal set design.  Six foot tables surround the floor and crockpots, cooking vegetarian chili (to be served at intermission), sit atop each table.  The house lights stay on, in a way signaling to the audience that they will be a part of the show.

When Curly enters, he doesn’t lazily warble the opening number, but almost assaults the verse as he playfully sings and flirts with Aunt Eller.  Intermittently strumming the guitar, the character, with unkempt, straggly black hair, and a slight beard and moustache, begins his unorthodox wooing of Laurey, the unimpressed niece who resides with Aunt Eller.  On the surface, the plot is relatively simple.  Who will take Laurey to the box social that night—Curly or the somewhat menacing, socially awkward farm hand Judd Fry.  The conflict and enmity between the two men is palpable, which leads to, in this production, an unsatisfying ending.  As with most Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, the secondary leads provide comic distraction.  Here, Ado Annie, a woman who can’t say no to a pretty face and Will Parker, who comes across as a cornball simpleton, fills the bill.  There is also the exotic peddler, Ali Hakim, adding a degree of distraction to the relationship. 

The Rodgers and Hammerstein score, which contains so many noteworthy and recognizable songs, has been beautifully and vigorously orchestrated by Daniel Kluger.  Purists may gripe, but the cobwebs from such memorable numbers as "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin',” "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” "I Cain't Say No,” "People Will Say We're in Love,” and the title number are reinvigorated and given a new, contemporary sheen.  I can’t wait for the cast album to be released.

The cast is led by Damon Daunno as Curly McLain.  He is lanky, self-assured, and irascible.  The actor conveys a down home charm, but also a smothering passion.  His contempt of Jud is more overt and odious.  Rebecca Naomi Jones is more straightforward in her interpretation of Laurey Williams, not as layered as the other primary characters.  Patrick Vaill’s Jud Fry is disturbing and creepy.  Usually played by burly types, the actor is slight of build and a brooding jumble of suppressed emotions.  Ali Stoker’s Ado Annie is more a woman of today who knows what she desires and makes no bones about getting it.  Her rendition of “I Cain’t Say No” is more an anthem of female empowerment then an apologetic lament.  James Davis plays Will Parker as too much the fool and Will Brill makes a colorful, beguiling and knavish Ali Hakim.  Mary Testa is a more direct, in-your-face Aunt Eller. 

Director Fish has conceived a production which is entertaining, artsy, and also challenging.  What is interesting is the original book and lyrics have not been altered.  The emphasis, pacing, and delivery of the text is seen through a different light, one that is darker and more sexually charged.  Some aspects of his vision work exquisitely such as employing a country band to reinterpret the score and making some unconventional, but successful, casting choices.  Some of the directorial decisions are perplexing such as the two blackout moments during the production.  The end of the musical will be the source of much debate and questioning. The dream sequence that starts Act II is a pulsating, wildly choreographed modern dance number by John Heginbotham.  Audience members not familiar with the famous Agnes de Mille dream sequence and how it fits into and expands upon the plot, will be somewhat bewildered no matter what one thinks of Gabrielle Hamilton’s athletically charged performance.

Oklahoma!, flawed, but well-worth seeing.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Review of "Girlfriend"

The musical Girlfriend, playing at Theaterworks through April 28th, is a playful, sweet, and satisfying coming-of-age show.  The songs in the work are taken from the 1991 rock album, “Girlfriend,” by Matthew Sweet.  Playwright Todd Almond has crafted an effective storyline around the musical compositions, placing the action in Nebraska during the early part of the 20th century.  The two-person, 85-minute production focuses on Will (David Merino) and Mike (CJ Pawlikowski), two recent high school graduates.  Will, who is gay, seems to have no close friends.  Mike is an all-around athlete, member of the high school Prom Court, and has a steady girlfriend.  The two are polar opposites...maybe.  Right after graduation Mike, who has never said a word to Will, hands him a mix-tape (a cassette tape of assorted songs) and invites him to the drive-in movies.  Perplexed, and seemingly intrigued, Will accompanies Mike to the movies and, soon, a friendship, unexpectantly, begins to blossom.  Or is the developing relationship becoming something more?

Todd Almond has fashioned a plot that is honest and reflective of the attitudes and behaviors of the time-period.   In today’s world, the simplicity and straightforwardness of two young men exploring their sexuality comes across as unremarkable.  However, in 1991, especially in middle American, the prejudice, fear, and isolation such a relationship would trigger were very real.  Almond gingerly, but with forthrightness, presents the twosome’s budding rapport with sensitivity and candor.

The musical compositions by Matthew Sweet fit perfectly into the dramatic arc of the story.  Many of the song title’s—“Reaching Out,” “We’re the Same,” “Your Sweet Voice,” and “I Wanted to Tell You”—just about outline the main plot points of the show.  Most of the numbers are full of energy and passion.  They are performed by a tight, rollicking five-person on-stage band under the superb direction of musical director Evan Zavada.

David Merino and CJ Pawlikowski are talented young actors that intelligently and deftly convey the rollercoaster emotions, confusion, and awkwardness the characters feel.  The two work well together as they move from uncertainty and ambiguity to more sure-footed ground.

Director Rob Ruggiero, using very little in the way of scenery and props, manages to bring an exuberance and radiance to the production. By placing much of the action at the foot of the stage, the audience feels more connected to the characters and the show itself.  Ruggiero lets the plot unfold without any unnecessary flourishes or embellishments.  At times, he lets the score’s pulsating beats express the joys and heartaches felt on-stage.  At other points, unspoken silences between the two actors communicate more than pages of dialogue could convey.
Girlfriend, taking place in Theaterwork’s temporary quarters of the Wadsworth Antheneum during the company’s renovation of its home theater.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Review of "Cabaret"

If you take the essence of the musical Cabaret, it is a show that focuses on relationships during a harrowing time in history.  This perspective allows the show to be reconfigured into a smaller, but no less vibrant, production, which is what the Music Theatre of Connecticut’s (MTC) staging has accomplished on their small performance space.  Their rendering is powerful, well-acted, and musically strong.

The book by Joe Masteroff is based on John Van Druten’s play, I Am a Camera (which was based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel, Goodbye to Berlin).  The story revolves around American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Nicholas Dromard), who arrives in Berlin as the Nazis are coming to power in Germany.  On the train, he befriends Ernst Ludwig (Andrew Foote), a shadowy, politically connected, figure, who recommends a rooming house, run by the aged Fraulein Schneider (Anne Kanengeiser) for him to reside during his stay in the German capitol.  That night he and Ernst take in the Kit Kat Klub, a seamy, decadent nightclub, overseen by a hedonistic, no-holds barred Master of Ceremonies (Eric Scott Kincaid), where Cliff becomes enthralled with the headline performer, Sally Bowles (Desiree Dovar).  The two quickly become an item and move in together.  A parallel plotline concerns Frualein Schneider’s ill-fated romance with Jewish grocer Herr Schultz (Jim Schilling).  The relationships eventually fray and dissolve just as Nazism becomes a more ominous and deadly force within everyone’s lives.

The structure of Cabaret is its strength, where the lives of the central characters and the musical numbers of the Kit Kat Klub both parallel each other and are interwoven.  On the surface, the performances within the Klub come across as campy and erotic entertainment, but they also provide a chilling metaphor and social commentary for the rapidly changing shift to a more intolerant political scene.

The score by John Kander and Fred Ebb, the team behind Chicago, is one of the long-time duo’s most iconic and well-known.  The songs range from bittersweet ballads to flamboyant and sexually charged numbers. 

The cast is led by real-life couple Desiree Dovar as Sally Bowles and Nicholas Dromard as Cliff Bradshaw.  They give honest portrayals of their characters who meet in desperate times.  Dovar’s Sally is all about the moment, whether on stage or in bed.  Dromard’s Cliff, is serious-minded, forthright, and a bit naive.  More a supporting player, the role of the Emcee, played by Eric Scott Kincaid, is critical to any production of Cabaret.  He seems to be a cross between Joel Grey’s original Broadway portrayal and Alan Cummings’ more recent, sexually charged character.  The result is a splashy, debauched performance that anchors the musical as it marches to its sorrowful ending.  Andrew Foote, who was so outwardly sinister in MTC’s Jekyll and Hyde, is no less malevolent and threatening here.  In some ways, he is more dangerous as Ernst is so ingrained within the changing environs.  Anne Kanengeiser gives Fraulein Schneider a certain dignity and strength even as she withers under the onrush of Anti-Semitism. Jim Schilling imbues Herr Schultz with a gentleman’s decorum even as his optimistic state eventually leads him to a tragic destiny.  Hilllary Ekwall’s Fraulein Kost is a sneering, immoral tramp seeking pleasure and survival.  Alex Drost and Tony Conaty, playing a number or roles, provide ample support throughout the show.

Director, and MTC co-Artistic, Kevin Connors is very comfortable and skilled reconfiguring large-scale musicals for the intimate staging area.  For this production, he has scaled back the personnel and gaudiness of the nightclub setting, but the emotional impact of the story is still intact.  The attention is more focused on how relationships are shaped by the larger events swirling around the characters.

The creative team of Scenic Designer Kelly Burr Nelsen, Lighting Designer RJ Romero, and Sound Designer Will Atkin have produced a simple, but effective set for the production.

Musical Director Tom Conroy leads a tight, spirited pit band off to the side of the stage.

Cabaret, a compelling musical drama even in the small MTC performance space.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Review of "Burt & Me"

Andy Christopher and Lauren Gire in "Burt & Me."  Photo by Jonathan Steele.
The downfall for most jukebox musicals is the show’s book.  A production cannot just recreate the sounds of an artist or group.  Their music must be wrapped around a well-thought out storyline and characters that are interesting and compelling.  The primary issue with Burt & Me, playing through April 7th at the Ivoryton Playhouse, is its run-of-the-mill plot and its unassuming characters.  Yes, the Burt Bacharach/Hal David songs are highly enjoyable and one does not attend a show like this for the narrative, but Larry McKenna’s book could have been a tad more dynamic.  Curiously, lyricist Hal David, who co-wrote the songs in the show, is only mentioned once in, in a quick reference to the musical Promises, Promises, the duo’s solo Broadway collaboration.  But, then, Burt, Dave & Me doesn’t have the same snap as the Burt & Me.

The story is the age-old boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back years later.  We meet the boy, Joe, when he is young and meets the girl, Lacey, in high school.  They become inseparable throughout the four years, but their relationship wanes as both enroll at different colleges.  Along their journey we meet the twosome’s best friends, Jerry, a goofy would-be Casanova, and Sally, the aim of Jerry’s overtures.  Joe’s father, Alex, provides insight and parental guidance to his son.  In the end, no surprise, Joe and Lacey reunite to a romantic Bacharach/David love song.

The material chosen from the vast Burt Bacharach/Hal David catalog form the strength of the revue.  Every number is a toe-tapping hit.  They include such standards as “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” “What the World Needs Now,” “The Look of Love,” and “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.”  There is also a generous helping of songs from Promises, Promises. 

Andy Christopher’s Joe has a pleasant, if languid singing voice and a laid-back stage presence, which parallels the smooth, sometimes jazzy riffs of the music. A little more charisma and emotional bearing would have added a lot to his portrayal.  Josh Powell sometimes overplays the, at times, man-child Neal.  His antics at the latter half of the show are more palatable.  Neal Mayer, who plays a number of roles, primarily as Joe’s father, Alex, and a with-it priestly choir director, is comfortable and sagely as he pops up when fatherly advice when needed.  The two central women provide a welcome spark to the production.  Each has a luminous singing voice that vibrantly captures the essence of the musical selections.   Lauren Gire’s Lacey is no-nonsense and spirited.  Adrianne Hick’s Sally is the perfect counterbalance to her best friend.  She is full of spunk with a touch of vulnerability.  Katie Luke’s Rebecca, along with Nathan Richardson’s Nick, amply add support to the main cast members.

Director/Choreographer Brian Feehan seamlessly, if rather methodically, segues in full or partial Burt Bacharach/Hal David compositions.  The pacing is easy-going and unhurried. Occasionally, a jolt of energy would have helped propel the production forward.  There are the intermittent dance numbers, especially “Turkey Lurkey Time,” which do add some vigor to the show.  Expanding the two-person ensemble, maybe doubling the number of actors, would have given the musical a fuller look and feel.

Emily Nichols set design of two large, intersecting circular platforms, is reminiscent of the 1960’s – 1970’s TV variety shows where entertainers sit to the side of center stage, casually talking and swirling their drinks until it’s their time to perform.  Keeping with the television theme, the four-piece band is in full view, located in the back of the stage.

Burt & Me, diverting, relaxing and tuneful, playing at the Ivoryton Playhouse through April 7th.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Review of "First Date"

The angst, the anticipation of a first date is laid bare in the comic musical First Date, receiving a sparkling production at the Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury.  The 90 minute, intermission-less show plays through April 7th.

The production can be quite funny even though it mines typical first date embarrassments and mortifying moments. 
First Date 3- Front Row L to Right- Nikko Youros, Constantine  Pappas (seated),  Anna Laura Strider.  Second row L to R,  Carly Valancy, Jimmy Donohue and Ethan Kirschbaum. In back...Christina Carlucci.  Photo credit Paul Roth

We are introduced to Aaron, uptight and painfully uncomfortable; and Casey, cool, calm, and collected with a decidedly downtown, indie aura.  The mismatched duo, played winningly by Constantine Pappas and Christine Carlucci, painfully, yet humorously, portray the missteps and blunders associated with these virgin rendezvouses.  The laughs and awkward situations are amplified and embellished by a talented four-person ensemble playing a number of different roles.

When the show debuted on the New York stage it didn’t quite work as a fully sustainable musical.  The production almost became lost within its the large Broadway venue.  At the much smaller Seven Angels, the intimacy and charm can be more fully realized.  The audience feels as if it is a part of what’s taking place on stage rather then simply observing.

The book by Austin Winsberg is perky, perceptive, and slyly observant.  There is a slight dramatic arc to the story—will these two unlikeliest of characters hook up in the end—but, for the most part, the librettist seems to be having fun crafting good-natured scenes that gently poke fun rather than aim for biting, cynical cleverness. 

The score by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner is bouncy, somewhat tuneful, and full of Borscht Belt schtick.  The musical interludes almost have a revue quality to them with titles such as “First Impressions,” “The Awkward Pause,” and “The Check!” 

Constantine Pappas’s Aaron has fine comic timing and an appealing singing voice.  He manages to add a layered nuance to the role that distinctively rounds out his character from just a one-trick sad sack.  Christine Carlucci’s Casey, edgier, exuding both self-confidence as well as a certain vulnerability, is the Ying to Pappas’ Yang.  Or maybe the oil to his vinegar.  Both performers, unsure and uneasy at first, develop an appealing chemistry by the show’s end.  The rest of the engaging cast deserves recognition—Anna Laura Strider, Ethan Kirschbaum, Carly Valancy, and Niko Touros.  They come to life singing and donning various guises throughout the show, performing their varied roles with professionalism and aplomb.  Special mention goes to James Donohue who, primarily, portrays an effervescent and jovial waiter to nonstop comic relief.

Director Sasha Bratt skillfully pulls all the elements of the production together to create a highly satisfying whole, which is difficult since the basic plot simply centers around two people sitting in a bar trying to get to know each other.  He enlivens this matter-of-fact scenario by continuously and seamlessly integrating the four ensemble cast members into the production without halting the flow of the musical.  Bratt smartly gives the actor James Donohue room to display his comic talents.  The Director also infuses subtle, somber mood shifts within the show which gives the production more balance.

Emily Nichols has created a stylish set piece that would be the envy of any New York City bar.

First Date, lighthearted and entertaining, playing at Seven Angels Theatre through April 7th.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Review of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood"

Charles Dickens’ last, unfinished, novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, seems like unlikely fodder for a musical, but in 1985 Rupert (“Pina Colada Song”) Holmes created such a theatrical piece that won multiple Tony Awards, including Best Musical. 

Instead of a straightforward murder mystery, with Holmes creating his own ending, the playwright (as well as composer) came up with the fun-filled idea of letting the audience decide the culprit.  So, Act I is the set-up, following the pages of the half-completed book and then the majority of Act II is a rowdy romp as suspects are identified, several key points are determined, and then the audience votes to unmask the scoundrel.  Adding more fuel to the boisterous proceedings is the backdrop for the production.  Again, with Rupert Holmes’ creative juices in high gear, he set the tale within the confines of a Victorian English Music Hall, sort of a play-within-a-play motif.   Performers step in and out of character as the musical moves forward in all its bawdy glory.

The story has all the ingredients of a classic murder mystery and is overseen by the Chairman of the Music Hall, one William Cartwright.  He serves as narrator, chief punster, and one of the players.  The plot begins with the protagonist, young Edwin Drood, who is betrothed to the beautiful Rosa Bud.  Drood’s somewhat demented, opium addicted uncle and choirmaster is in love with Edwin’s bride-to-be, who happens to also be his pupil.  A recent arrival from Ceylon, the petulant Neville Landless, also has his sights on the appealing Ms. Bud, much to the displeasure of her fiancĂ©.  Other characters that potentially fall under suspicion are Helena Landless, the protective sister of Neville; the gentile Reverend Crisparkle; the mysterious Princess Puffer; Durdles, the perpetually inebriated cemetery worker; and even the lovely Rosa Bud.  All fall under suspicion after the youthful Drood doesn’t return home from an evening walk with Neville Landless on a stormy Christmas Eve night.

Rupert Holmes’ score is melodic and tuneful, full of robust compositions, charming ballads, and finely-crafted music hall ditties.  The lyrics are witty and full of amusing and entertaining word play.

The cast, a mix of experienced actors and students in the University of Connecticut’s acting program, is full of first-rate performers, all with handsome singing voices.  They are led by Emily Ferranti as the adventurous Edwin Drood.  She exudes a spirited confidence and possesses a powerful singing voice that gorgeously resonates throughout the Jorgensen auditorium.  Kurt Zischke is marvelous as the mischievous, impetuous, and off-color Chairman.  He needs to subversively insert himself into the production without causing the show’s tempo to slow or go off course.  The actor carries out this task with virtuosity and aplomb.  Bryan Mittelstadt is convincingly menacing as the lustful, slightly off-kilter John Jasper.  Graceann Brooks is alluring and refined as the much sought after Rosa Bud.  Mauricio Miranda gives Neville Landless an enigmatic air.  He is suitably combative as well as passionate, an excellent counterpoint to the other characters.  Kelly Lester brings a seasoned professionalism to the role of Princess Puffer, offering a perfect balance to the younger cast members.

Director Paul Mullins corrals an energetic cast that is clearly having a good time both on and off stage.  He keeps the dynamics flowing and seamlessly transitions the musical through a multitude of scenes.  Mullins also skillfully orchestrates the audience participation portion of the show, keeping this segment from teetering out of control.

Scenic Designer Alexander Woodward has fashioned over half a dozen sets that are modest in execution, but perfectly rendered for the music hall environs.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a crowd-pleasing musical, at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre through March 10th.