Sunday, December 15, 2013

Review of "The Hound of the Baskervilles" at Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT

Shows with just a few characters playing a variety of roles need to be concerned about timing, pacing, and inventiveness.  The gold standard is the original 1984 production of The Mystery of Irma Vep with creator Charles Ludlam and Everett Quinton.  More recently, there has been the Hitchcock send-up, The 39 Steps, and currently, Off-Broadway, the hilarious, Murder for Two.  Locally, Playhouse on Park has undertaken the three-person retelling of the Sherlock Holmes mystery, The Hounds of the Baskervilles.  While there are some humorous and creative moments the production suffers from a sluggish tempo and slapdash characterizations.

The Arthur Conan Doyle story, one of the best known in the Holmes canon, concerns a spectral hound that has, supposedly, roamed the Scottish moors for generations, targeting the Baskerville clan.  When the last surviving family member, Sir Henry, arrives from Canada to claim his family’s property Holmes and Watson are on the case to protect the new squire and solve the perplexing puzzle.

The three actors in the show are very good in their primary roles.  Rich Hollman is slightly bland, but not as pompous or grating as other portrayers of the world’s greatest detective or, as stated in the show, the second best sleuth.   Sean Harris is more a bumbling, confused Nigel Bruce type in his depiction of Dr. Watson.  Brennan Caldwell has a deft comic touch as Henry Baskerville.  All the actors are game for the physicality called upon for the show.  However, the other characters they inhabit show little imagination.  Witness Jeff Blumenkrantz in Off-Broadway’s Murder for Two who morphs into over a half dozen characters by simply altering his voice or facial expressions.  That sort of dexterity would have been more captivating then throwing scraggly on a black beard or white dress, as done in this production.

Scenes in The Hound of the Baskervilles seemed to languish much too often.  The overall tone needed more of a madcap flavor.  Director Tom Ridgely should have had the actors gone more over-the-top as displayed in the first part of Act II.  The show was not fast-paced enough to keep it from becoming wearisome instead of what could have been an outrageous, off-the-wall affair.

Thought should also have been given to trim the two hour running time (including intermission).  The show would have been more robust and entertaining at a compact 90 minutes of straight lunacy.

The Hound of the Baskervilles, playing through December 22nd.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Review of "A Christmas Carol" - Hartford Stage

Hartford Stage’s annual production of A Christmas Carol, is a wholly satisfying, slightly busy, celebration.  The holiday tradition is a feast of sight and sound with wondrous special effects, flying and dancing ghosts, sumptuous costumes and, of course, a heart-warming tale of atonement and rebirth. 

The large cast, augmented by undergraduates from The Hartt School as well as a gaggle of young children, provides a wondrous and magical spectacle that can be enjoyed by all ages.  One reason the show is so rewarding is how in sync the creative team is in fostering a totally connected vision.  Scenic Designer, Tony Straiges; Lighting Designer, Robert Wierzel; and Sound Designer, John Gromada (who also provides original incidental music) have fabricated a unique pageant with the sum greater then each part, allowing each component to build upon the other.  Each of their contributions would be diminished without the other.

The cast is uniformly first-rate led by an irascible Bill Raymond as Ebenezer Scrooge.  Raymond knows the role well as he has played it hundreds of times.  As well-versed as he is, occasionally he becomes somewhat cloying when he should remain more Bah! Humbug! -ish.  Robert Hannon Davis is a nice counterbalance as the humble and dignified Bob Cratchit.  Noble Shropshire almost steals the show as both Scrooge’s housekeeper, Mrs. Dilber, and the ghostly Jacob Marley.

Director Maxwell Williams delivers the frights as well as setting an atmospheric tone of Victorian England.  There are many flourishes he incorporates into the production that heighten the show’s dramatic and comedic sweep.  He is equally adept at staging scenes with the sizeable cast or when there are just a few actors on stage.  Sometimes the production felt rather cluttered and too bustling.  The more poignant, less embellished parts of the show, such as the Cratchit family at home, truly grasped the essence of what A Christmas Carol is all about.

A Christmas Carol, a seasonal stalwart, updated and joyous, playing at Hartford Stage through December 28th.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Review of "Christmas on the Rocks" - Theaterworks, Hartford, CT

My first reaction upon leaving Theaterworks’ highly entertaining world premiere production, Christmas on the Rocks, was why hadn’t someone thought of this idea before now?  Director Rob Ruggiero asked seven playwrights—John Cariani, Jeffrey Hatcher, Jacques Lamarre, Matthew Lombardo, Theresa Rebeck, Edwin Sanchez, and Jonathan Tolin--to take iconic Christmas characters from holiday themed movies and television classics and reimagine them as older, more disenchanted and indifferent individuals.  The result—seven very short playlets (no more then 12 minutes each) that are at times funny, poignant, joyful, and touching. 

Each scene takes place in a seedy bar overseen by an aged bartender, played with a convincing worldweariness by Ronn Carroll.  The other two cast members, the talented Harry Bouvy and Christine Pedi, portraying a variety of characters, rotate scenes until they unite in the finale.  Which portions of the linked plays did I like the most?  What about those I found only mildly amusing?  I’d rather not say, leaving the decision to each audience member.  Each of the seven had their own charm and wit.  Some I preferred might not have registered with other theater-goers and vice versa.  The plots?  Again, mum’s the word.  Half of the fun of Christmas on the Rocks is discovering who the character is when they walk through the bar’s front door.  However, be forewarned--brush up on your holiday films and TV shows before attending a performance.  This will maximize your viewing pleasure and understanding of the inside jokes.

All three actors were marvelous, displaying subtle, humorous or over-the-top portrayals, depending on the their particular scene.  With a different wig and change of clothing both Bouvy and Pedi were able to become a multitude of completely different, totally convincing characters.  Bravo.

Michael Schweikardt’s set design of the run-down pub was so authentic looking.  His attention to detail was superb.  Look for Kris Kringle’s cane and Tiny Tim’s walking stick to the side of the bar and the dollar bills taped to the mirror.  A lit chihuahua’s head at the top of the liquor cabinet was an offbeat touch.

Director Rob Ruggiero effortlessly connects each of the seven plays to form a seamless whole. He skillfully guides each performer to bring out the essence of their role whether it is the comic, the inspirational, or the nuttiness or all three.  Ruggiero perfectly paces each scene to elicit just the right blend of emotion and entertainment.

Christmas on the Rocks, hopefully a new holiday tradition in the Hartford area, playing now through December 22nd.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Review of "Murder for Two" - Off-Broadway

My favorite theater genres are:
1.    Musicals
2.    Comedies
3.    Murder Mysteries

Happily, all three are embodied in the very funny, ingeniously written, and energetically performed two person show, Murder for Two, playing Off-Broadway at New World Stages.

All the action takes place on a small stage with the only accoutrements being a baby grand piano, a few props, and one’s imagination.  As with many whodunits the story begins in a large, hilltop mansion where the wife of author Arthur Whitney is throwing him a surprise birthday party.  Unfortunately for the book writer when he arrives inside the darkened structure a gun is fired, fatally killing him.  Who fired the fateful shot?  There is a house full of suspects—each one nimbly and uproariously portrayed by Jeff Blumenkrantz—everyone one of them with solid motives.  Enter would-be detective Marcus Moscowicz, played with equal comic dexterity by Brett Ryback, who methodically, or maybe more accidentally, happens upon the multitude of clues and red herrings to eventually solve the case. 

The two actors have a finely honed chemistry that translates into unbridled zaniness and semi-controlled madness.  Jeff Blumenkrantz sometimes seems possessed as he ricochets from one character to another making each one as believable as the next.  Brett Ryback has only one character to focus on but, nonetheless, needs all his comedic acting prowess to stay in sync with his tall, lanky partner.  

The score, by Joe Kinosian, who also wrote the amusing and clever book of the show, and Kellen Blair, is quick-witted and tuneful.  It would be interesting to hear fully orchestrated versions of each tune.  All the songs are performed by Blumenkrantz and Ryback, who also demonstrate their considerable musicianship by accompanying each other on the on-stage piano.

Director Scott Schwartz expertly guides the two thespians through the fast-paced production, coming up with enough schtick and side-splitting shenanigans for two shows.

Murder for Two, knocking ‘em dead eight performances a week.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Review of "A Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder" on Broadway

This review is adapted from my critique during the show’s premiere at Hartford Stage in October 2012.

Pity the D’Ysquith family.  One by one they are being, unceremoniously, knocked off during the thoroughly enjoyable new musical, A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder.  Transferring to Broadway after its world premiere engagement at the Hartford Stage last year, the musical is smart, funny, and entertaining.  There are many aspects of the production to praise with primary honors going to the tour de force performance of actor Jefferson Mays.  He inhabits all eight members of the D’Ysquith family who are creatively and precipitously disposed of throughout the show.

The production itself, housed in what could be viewed as an elegant Victorian dollhouse of a set, lovingly designed by Alexander Dodge, is not the big razzmatazz musical typically inhabiting the Broadway stage.  A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder is more understated, smaller in scale, but nonetheless wholly satisfying.

The plot of the musical is based on a 1907 book by Roy Horniman and was the source material for the 1949 British black comedy, Kind Hearts and Coronets, where Alec Guinness famously played eight members of the D’Ascoyne family.  In A Gentlemen’s Guide the story unfolds as we are introduced to Monty Navarro, a handsomely charming young man awaiting a verdict in his sensational murder trial.  How did he end up in such a predicament?  We begin to find out why as the action adeptly switches to the beginning of Navarro’s tale. 

Slightly downtrodden and impoverished, he discovers his recently deceased mother was a disinherited member of the D’Ysquith family.  Joyful, yet reserved, he contacts his newfound relatives about his current familial status seeking acceptance, but finding nothing but rejection.  Learning, off-handedly, that he is now eighth in line to become the head of the family Navarro, quite innocently at first, begins to ingeniously find ways to bump off the relationships in front of him for succession.  Driving him onward is his need for retribution, greed, and the desire to impress the love of his life Sibella who, while loving the beguiling Navarro, desires someone more monied to settle down with. 

Enter Jeffrey Mays in the guise of all the soon-to-be fallen D’Ysquith members.   He is variously pompous, arrogant, highfaluting, overbearing, and self-centered in his various portrayals.  All of them are very funny.  When he is onstage, A Gentlemen’s Guide shines and bubbles over with merriment.  This is the one slight problem I have with the show.  Mays is so masterful in his performances that in Act II, when almost all the D’Ysquith clan had by then met their untimely demise, the production focuses mostly on the loves of Navarro’s life, a slight letdown from the over-the-top shenanigans of Act I.  But this is a small complaint of the book by Robert L. Freedman and doesn’t detract from the overall enjoyment of the musical.

In addition to Jeffrey Mays, Bryce Pinkham is wonderful as Monty Navarro.  At first soft-spoken and unassuming he slowly blossoms into a determined and devious gentleman of the world perfectly complementing Mays’ more over-the-top characterizations.  Lisa O’Hare, as Sibella Hallward, is sexy, alluring, and more than a bit of a tease as the love of Navarro’s life.  She, along with the two male leads, provide a rollicking good time throughout A Gentlemen’s Guide.

The score by Freedman and Steven Lutvak actually provide tuneful, witty songs, which seems such a rarity these days with new musicals.  The well-crafted ballads are beautifully sung and the comic numbers perfectly executed.  Jeffrey Mays, while not the keenest vocalist as his co-stars, nonetheless, knows how to deliver a song with aplomb as he does with the comic numbers “I Don’t Understand the Poor” and “Better With a Man.”

Having directed the show in Hartford, Director Darko Tresnjak, in his first Broadway outing, assuredly guides the musical through its paces.   He knows the musical well, adding a number of creative flourishes throughout the production, primarily surrounding the deaths of the D’Ysquith family (which I won’t spoil).   Tresnjak keeps the show lighthearted and sprightly.

A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder, delivering hilarity and mayhem at the Walter Kerr Theatre.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Review "Fix Me, Jesus" - Off-Broadway

A Neiman Marcus department store dressing room is an unusual spot to set the action for a play, but that is the locale for Fix Me, Jesus, playwright Helen Sneed’s  rambling, yet appealing, self-examination by a young woman seeking her path in life. 

Annabell Armstrong (Polly Lee) is an up-and-coming Democratic Party stalwart in Texas, following in the footsteps of her politically powerful father.  Unfortunately, this is the Reagan era and her liberal leanings find little affinity among voters.  That is just one problem in her life, which is one big mess.  The trials and tribulations—in her personal and professional life--spew forth as she searches for just the right dress for a wedding that very night, a potentially very special wedding.  The longtime clerk, Mrs. Craig (Lee Roy Rogers), helping her in the quest as she has done for many years, listens, offers sagely advice, and acts as a sounding board to the excitable woman.  In addition, throughout the production, the small dressing area becomes alive with visitors from her past and present, including her younger, reticent self (Kate Froemmling); her overbearing mother (Lori Gardner); her boorish and rough hewn grandmother (Lisa McMillan), and present-day psychiatrist (Mitch Tebo).  All these characters provide a back story, which centers on her self-emancipation from her parents and the pains and adversity this causes her.

Ms. Sneed has sought to exam and chronicle the central character through her past and present, mostly familial, associations.   She is partially successful.  The show would have been more robust if scenes and characters were expanded, giving the audience a better framework for Annabell’s later years. Still, having the action take place within the confines of a Nieman Marcus dressing room, with characters popping in and out, keeps the audience engaged.

Polly Lee as the present-day Annabell Armstrong can come across as self-assured and directed, but for a successful woman she often appears too manic, indecisive, and fragile.  Maybe as a male I can’t totally appreciate her situation in life.  The rest of the cast is uniformily good even though some of the characters are rather one-dimensional.  Lori Gardner as Annabell’s mother would have been stronger if her character was inbued with more shading to present a better developed persona.  The same could be said with Lee Roy Rogers as the harried store clerk, Mrs. Craig.  She gives a solid performance as she tries to keep her charge grounded and focused, but there is resentment and a yearning boiling underneath, which could have been more fully exploited by the playwright.  Mitch Tebo is rather bland as a disaffected New York City psychiatrist.

Lisa McMillan as Annabell’s grandmother is opinionated, prejudiced, and sure of her convictions.  The actress, with a full-throttled delivery, makes the most of her time on the small stage.  Likewise, newcomer Kate Froemmling, as the adolescent Annabell, is enchanting and able to instill a certain level of intelligence and precociousness to her role.

Director Sam Pinkleton is at his best when shuttling characters in and out of the dress-laden changing room.  Scenes in the dressing room between the actresses Polly Lee and Lee Roy Rogers are more straightforward.

Fix Me, Jesus, a mostly entertaining show, at the Abington Theatre Company through November 24th.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Review of "The Jacksonian" - Off-Broadway

A slow, painful and tragic descent into hell takes place at The Jacksonian, Beth Henley’s wholly satisfying new work playing at The Acorn Theatre Off-Broadway on Theatre Row.   The show is a meditation on the seedy side of a small southern town, Jackson, Mississippi circa 1964, where racism and the Klan still prevail.

We are introduced to five characters, who inhabit the hotel of the play’s title—Bill Perch (Ed Harris), a local dentist taking refuge in the tattered establishment after beating his possibly unbalanced wife, Susan (Amy Madigan).  Though estranged, she visits, along with their daughter, Rosy (Juliet Brett), as he holds out hope for reconciliation.  Within the hotel is a ditzy waitress, Eva White (Glenne Headly), who just wants a man to marry and Fred Weber (Bill Pullman) a repulsive and menacing bartender.

As the action progresses, a murder investigation unfolds in the background adding an ominous ambience to the production.  Gradually the family dynamics spiral downward, secrets are revealed, and lives are forever changed.

Henley’s tale, full of color and detail, grows slowly until the cataclysmic end.  While the story keeps our interest, the strength of the play are the characters she has created and the dynamic performances, primarily by three of the lead actors.  Bill Pullman is almost unrecognizable coiffed in an exaggerated pompadour.  With deliberate movements and tight-lipped speech he exudes a subdued, but frightening and disturbing sleaze.  Glenne Headly is as alluring as she is off-putting in her embodiment of Ms. White—an attractive, calculating, and obtuse woman stuck in a town with no escape and no future.  Ed Harris’ depiction of the strait-laced dentist, Bill Perch, who eventually loses everything he holds near and dear is a sight to behold.  No one does controlled craziness better then Harris and his performance here is nothing short of brilliant.

Director Robert Falls does a superb job of pacing the show as the production builds to its crescendo.  He works so well with the actors, helping them shape their parts into characters we believe in, are repulsed by, and pray for.  In lesser hands the roles could have become more cartoonish or southern caricatures.

The Jacksonian, filled with unforgettable performances, playing through November 30th.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Review of "Mrs. Mannerly" - Theaterworks, Hartford, CT

Mrs. Mannerly, the title character of playwright Jeffrey Hatcher’s somewhat amusing show, playing at Theaterworks in Hartford through November 17th, is a formidable woman.  Her no nonsense approach to teaching the young of Steubenville, Ohio has been a rite of passage for generations.  Learning how to properly speak, glide around the dance floor, and knowing the differences between the European and American place setting are just some of the competences acquired by the sessions’ end.  Enter young Jeffrey, an intelligent young boy, not athletically inclined, who sets his sights on mastering the intricacies of the course as a way to prove to himself and others that he can succeed in something.  Thus the stage is readied for a battle between the two protagonists. 

The two-character play by Jeffrey Hatcher, taking place in the mid-1960’s, is to some extent remindful of the movie Harold and Maude as the relationship of the two main players is fleshed out and deepens.  The show is full of jokes, hitting the mark about 40% of the time.  There are many cultural references to the era, especially to old-time television detective series, which might leave younger audience members scratching their heads for lack of understanding.  Within the humor there is also the heartache as we slowly realize Mrs. Mannerly is alone and probably an alcoholic.  Fortunately, Hatcher doesn’t dwell on her misfortunes or depressing life for very long as he continually launches one-liners, wisecracks, and rib-ticklers, hoping some of them will stick.   In the end, after a rather contrived final scene where Jeffrey must perform in front of a luncheon of the local chapter of the Daughter’s of the American Revolution, while at the same time protecting a dark secret from Mrs. Mannerly’s past, the two come to a mutual detente and understanding.

Raymond McAnally, who portrays Jeffrey, as well as a number of other adolescent boys and girls in the class, is impish, reserved, and determined.  He also plays the grown-up playwright, who narrates the story, providing his recollections and reminiscents, both good and bad, of his experiences in the course.  The actor seamlessly alternates between the adult Jeffrey and the assorted youngsters.

Dale Hodges, as Mrs. Mannerly, is an imposing, spinster-type drill sergeant.  You would snap to attention if in attendance at one of her sessions.  Ms. Hodges shades her character with world-weariness and resolve.  She has poured just one too many cups of tea over her 36 years of manners classes.

Director Ed Stern, who has helmed the production at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, keeps the pacing brisk on the small stage and allows the actors to fully develop their characters. 

Mrs. Mannerly, a mild diversion of a show, at Theaterworks through November 17th.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Review of "A Night with Janis Joplin" - Broadway

If you are a big Janis Joplin fan you will probably enjoy the new Broadway show, A Night with Janis Joplin.  Mary Bridget Davies, who plays the iconic 1960’s rocker, can be quite impressive as she sings and wails through the Joplin catalogue in what is essentially a two-hour concert.

For the rest of us seeking more substance, the production is a huge disappointment.  There is no significant book, no conflict, and no drama, which is such a shame since Joplin’s life and career, her struggles and pain, are an ideal subject for an intelligent and penetrating Broadway musical a la Jersey Boys.

The show starts with Joplin at center stage, framed by a huge light tower, fronting an excellent eight-person band.  She belts out a few songs and then comes to the front of the stage and, speaking into a microphone, enlightens the audience with information about growing up in Texas.  She sings some more then moves over to a comfy chair, microphone in hand, and provides more about her life and how the blues were such a huge influence.  Some of those singers—Odetta, Etta James, and Bessie Smith—come to life throughout the production so we really know what the blues sound like.

That’s A Night with Janis Joplin in a nutshell.  Songs, some with a full-throttled, no holds barred rendition by Ms. Davies, a bit of narration here and there, and performances by artists who had a profound affect on Joplin’s musical career.  Interestingly, younger audience members, maybe not that familiar with Joplin’s short life, would never know about her alcohol usage (I counted two swigs from a bottle during the show), substance abuse, or even her untimely death! 

Mary Bridget Davies gives a solid portrayal of the revered singer.  She can be coy, introspective, joyful, and self-assured..  But, as I stated at the onset, unless you just can’t get enough of Joplin’s voice the musical begins to wear thin very fast.

Book writer and director Randy Johnson embraces a minimalist approach in both capacities.  His direction is pure simplicity--Janis move center stage, now sing, now move stage right, sit, get up, sing, band move up to frame her, band move to the back of the stage.  Back-up singers stand there, dead singers drift in from the wings here, etc. etc. 

The accompanying band, which includes three guitars, a three-piece horn section, drums and piano, is onstage for the whole show.  They are outstanding.  Any rocker or performer would be sincerely blessed by their presence and musical showmanship.

A Night with Janis Joplin, a jukebox musical that totally misses the mark.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Review of "Room Service" - Westport County Playhouse

Room Service, currently running at the Westport Country Playhouse, bills itself as a madcap farce, but the comedy falls way short of zaniness and is more flat than farce.

The plot is simple enough.  Down-on-his-luck Broadway producer, Gordon Miller, is desperately trying to land a backer for what he feels will be the next big show on The Great White Way.  While the search goes on he, along with his cast and cronies, are living in the hotel managed by his brother-in-law, running up a huge bill.  Enter the corporate accountant who wants to evict the whole crew for their unpaid largess.  Add in a dim-witted playwright and other assorted characters and the stage is set for the play’s shenanigans and foolishness as it becomes a race in time to sign a money man before the best laid plans unravel. 

In the production of Room Service there are the requisite slamming doors, raised voices, and silly set-ups, but they are never elevated to true high jinks.  Slamming doors for slamming doors sake doesn’t equate to inspired monkey business.  The cast performs well, but they are more acting the parts as opposed to embodying their roles.  There’s the occasional laugh or chortle, but they are few and far between. 

Ben Steinfeld, as the fast-talking boss-in-chief, has the necessary self-aggrandizing arrogance, but he doesn’t go far enough with the role.  The same problem can be said with Richard Ruiz, as the producer’s right hand man, Faker England; Jim Bracchitta as the come-as-it-may director, Harry Binion; and Eric Bryant as the naïve, first time playwright, Leo Davis.  Only David Beach, as the neurotic hotel manager, Joseph Gribble; and Michael McCormick as the boisterous, single-minded accountant, Gregory Wagner reach the levels of insanity and silliness that, with the rest of the cast in sync, could produce a truly comical production.

Director Mark Lamos, while doing a good job setting up the various screwball scenes doesn’t ramp up the action enough on stage to bring the comedy to what should be its delirious heights.  Keeping two intermissions for a two-hour show is also problematic as it deflated whatever energy the play generated.

Room Service, playing at the Westport County Playhouse through October 27th—a chuckle here, a laugh there.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Review of "The Most Happy Fella" at Goodspeed Opera House

The Most Happy Fella is not your typical big, splashy Goodspeed Opera House production.  The musical with a book and score by Frank Loesser is also unlike his better known shows such as Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.  Nonetheless, the show, smaller in scope, is engaging, big-hearted, and wholly satisfying, well-worth the drive to the East Haddam playhouse.

The story, crafted by Loesser from the play They Knew What They Wanted, is simple enough.  Tony, a successful Napa Valley grape grower, an Italian immigrant, portly, not very handsome, who speaks in broken English, is smitten by a lovely waitress he has only glimpsed.  Through a months long letter writing courtship, and a bit of deception by the vineyard owner Rosabella, the object of his affection, agrees to travel to his sumptuous farm to become his bride.  This sets in motion a series of events that encompass love, relationships, heartbreak, trust, and, finally, redemption.

The strength of the Goodspeed’s production is the casting.  Every performer perfectly embodies their character.  I cannot remember a show that was so successful in this regard.  Standouts include Tony, played by Bill Nolte, who is the anchor of the show.  He successfully imbues the role with a wide range of emotions and traits.  We feel his pains and joys.  Mamie Parris as Rosabella, the love of Tony’s life, is sweet, radiant and determined with a delicate, but strong voice.  Natalie Hill as her best friend Cleo, is vivacious, impetuous, and passionate.  Men beware! Doug Carpenter as the farm’s foreman, Joe, is a brooding, wayward soul.  Think James Dean or a young Steve McQueen.  Last, the three Italian cooks, portrayed by Greg Roderick, Daniel Berryman, and Michael Deleget, provide great comedic moments in their two first act songs.

The score by Frank Loesser, not as rollicking and brash as his more well-known shows, is, nonetheless a musical feast.  It features many musical styles including heartfelt ballads (“Somebody, Somewhere”), barbershop quartet (“Standing on the Corner”), the humorous (“Happy to Make Your Acquaintance”), and the lively (“Big D”).  Different from his other works, The Most Happy Fella is mostly sung through.  However, there is a considerable amount of dialogue that effectively bridges the songs unlike, for example, an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.

Parker Esse provides more incidental choreographic flourishes to the show.  However, when called upon, as with the rousing “Big D,” he guides the cast through an energetic and spirited production number.

Rob Ruggiero, who has successfully directed numerous Goodspeed musicals, skillfully balances the various tonal moods of the show.  In addition to the large-scale scenes, he demonstrates his sure-handedness and aplomb with the material through the more intimate and reserved moments of the musical.

The Most Happy Fella, a triumphant success to round out the Goodspeed Opera House’s 50th Anniversary season, now through December 1st.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Review of "Big Fish"

Rejoice, Broadway audiences!  Norbert Leo Butz is back on the musical stage in the imaginative and fanciful show, Big Fish.  Leo Butz is not the sole motivation for seeing the show, but he is the main reason.  His singing voice is first-rate, his dancing superb, and acting sublime.  When he helms the stage, theater magic. 

Big Fish is based on the novel and movie of the same name.  It tells the story of Edward Bloom, a traveling salesman who, throughout the years, has regaled his son, Will, with tales of derring-do, the improbable, and the romantic.  During his formative years, young Will had rejected his father’s stories as nothing more then figments of his rather large imagination, a poor substitute for a boy growing up most of the time without a father around.  Now grown, about to be married and a child on the way, Will finally looks to exorcise and confront his parent’s legacy just as one final chapter is about to be written.

One of the strengths of Big Fish is the fantastic and diverting tales told by Edward (Norbert Leo Butz).  They are strikingly brought to life with imaginative story-telling, playful and dreamlike sets, rear screen projections, and costumes.  There’s the time Edward encountered a witch in the swamps, befriended a giant, wrangled with an assassin during a World War II USO show, two-stepped a school of fish right out of the water, and was shot out of a canon hundreds of miles.  The stories, Will (played by Bobby Steggert) eventually learns, were not some aimless meanderings, but purposeful chronicles meant to inspire a doubting, questioning young man.

Norbert Leo Butz is the focus of Big Fish, playing Edward Bloom through many stages of his life.  His character, a dreamer and romanticist, leads us through a giddy ride until the melancholy finale.  Leo Butz’s energy and passion easily give him the moniker of hardest working actor on Broadway.  Kate Baldwin, as his wife, Sandra, is captivating and beautiful with an enchanting voice.  Her role may not be as well-developed as her co-star, but her matter-of-fact demeanor perfectly balances his more rambunctious predilections.  Bobby Seggert’s Will is serious and overly rational, a more one-dimensional character, who’s presence and earnestness adroitly balances his more capricious father. Others deserving mention are Ryan Andes as the giant, Karl; and Brad Oscar as the ringmaster, Amos Calloway.

The score by Andrew Lippa is solid without any memorable numbers.  Still, the songs can be touching, boisterous, full of heart and, more importantly, help to move the storyline along.

The costumes by William Ivey Long, primarily in Act I, are playful as well as otherworldly and further the overall whimsical nature of the production. 

For the sets, Scenic Designer Julian Crouch and Projection Designer Benjamin Pearcy have collaborated to conceive wondrous creations that fully complement each other.  I am not a fan of projection systems.  Too often they call undue attention to themselves, but with Big Fish the synergy is perfectly matched.

Director/choreographer Susan Stroman provides a sure hand in guiding the musical through its paces.  Whether in large scale production numbers or in tender moments she carefully paces the show up to its emotional finale.  As with other shows she has worked on, a touch of whimsy pops up.  This time with an elephant dance routine.

Big Fish—a big hit, now playing at the Neil Simon Theatre.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Review of "A Streetcar Named Desire" at Yale Rep

For a stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire to work, the character of Stanley Kowalski needs to be parts menacing; brutish, yet sensual; with a commanding, physical presence.  Joe Manganiello has the requisite strapping, hulking appearance, but his Stanley comes across more as an occasionally unhappy husband.  His threatening nature is faint, the aura of intimidation and danger muted.  Add to the mix a more beleaguered, less reserved and self-conscious Stella Kowalski and the careful balance constructed by playwright Tennessee Williams tilts too heavily towards the third member of the central triumvirate, Blance DuBois, Stella’s troubled sister.  The result is a ponderous production with very little emotional impact.

Streetcar begins with the unexpected arrival of Blanche DuBois to the small New Orleans apartment of her sister, Stella.  We quickly learn of Blanche’s weak nerves, closet alcoholism, and sway over her sibling.  She is a fading beauty constantly worrying about her looks and appearance.  Stanley Kowalski, unsympathetic to Blanche’s plight tolerates her presence even as it upsets his balance of power and influence within the tiny household.  As Blanche becomes more entwined in their lives a would-be suitor, Stanley’s friend Mitch, enters the picture.  The tension and fragile détente between the four primary characters begins to disintegrate, as Blanche’s seamy, not-to-distant past becomes known.  This sets up a dramatic break-up between the now overly distraught Blanche and Mitch as well as Stanley’s final confrontation with his sister-in-law.  In the end, Blanche, an emotional and physical train wreck, suffers a full mental breakdown and is led off-stage by a kindly and benevolent doctor. 

The central problem with the Yale Rep’s production is the portrayal of the main characters, something Director Mark Rucker should have addressed.  Joe Manganiello’s Stanley Kowalski, as stated previously, does not appear to be so threatening or dangerous.  Sarah Sokolovic, as Stella, seems far too domesticated.  Rene Augesen’s Blanche can be pitying, bullying, and self-centered, but there is no underlying fraility that allows for a more penetrating and nuanced performance.  Only Adam O’Bryne’s Mitch, a lamentable lug, longing for female companionship to offset his sorrowful life, gives a fulfilling interpretation. 

Director Mark Rucker also misses the mark for the overall tone of the production, setting up an unsatisfying and laborious denouement.

Steven Brush’s soulful and haunting jazz inflected musical interludes deserve mentioning.  They were the one component of the show that moodily suggested the urban despair of 1940’s New Orleans.

A Streetcar Named Desire, now playing at Yale Rep in New Haven through Saturday, October 12th.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

"The Life & Sort of Death of Eric Argyle" - Off-Bway

Poor Eric Argyle.  He was just killed by a car as he crossed the street.  Now he is in a holding area for the recently departed, grilled by a tough-minded inquisitor, as key points in his life are reenacted and examined.  Why is Eric Argyle’s life being analyzed and appraised?  This is the central question in the Irish theatrical company, 15th Oak’s somewhat whimsical, slightly melancholy and, overall, finely acted production of The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle, playing through September 29th at the 59E59 Theater.

There were a number of key moments, pinpoints in time that affected the course of significant decisions Argyle made during his lifetime.  At first, it is rather confusing what these scenes have in common or why they are so important.  It is a question Eric Argyle asks throughout the show.  Only towards the end of the 90 minute, intermission-less production do we have an idea of the reason behind the probing inquiries and dissection around portions of his former life.  We also have the answer to why an apparently innocuous cellist, suddenly inundated with a delivery of 5,307 letters in the middle of the night, is a crucial part of the story.  Incorporating music and narrated prose, the vignettes of Eric Argyle’s past, utilizing few props and costumes, are portrayed by an engaging and talented ensemble cast of eight, many playing multiple parts.  Their seamlessness from one scene to another as well as their total immersion in their roles is a real hallmark of the production.

Playwright Ross Dungan has written a show that artfully veers from reality to the imagined.  He has deftly conjured up a troupe of characters that, by play’s end, we comfortably know and care about.  Dialogue is mixed with quick bursts of narration to good effect.

Director Dan Herd has transformed Dungan’s script into a well-paced production.  He has taken, what could be described as a difficult concept, and transformed the playwright’s words into an accomplished, thought-provoking piece of work.  On the small 59E59 stage, the eight cast members effortlessly and, just as importantly, comfortably glide from one role to the next.  There doesn’t seem like a wasted motion or gesture for what could be described as a true ensemble effort.

The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle, an absorbing and captivating theatrical experience, playing through September 29th at the 59E59 Theater.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Review of "Time Stands Still" - Theaterworks, Hartford, CT

On the surface, Time Stands Still, the powerful and compelling, Tony nominated drama playing through Sept. 15th at Theaterworks in Hartford, focuses on Sarah, a photojournalist arriving home from overseas to recover from severe wounds caused by a roadside bomb.  She is maimed, both physically and mentally.  At home, her partner, James, gingerly begins to nurse her back to health.  Yet her slow and steady recovery only serves as the backdrop to the show, which is primarily about the changing nature of relationships.  We not only witness the evolving relationship of Sarah and James, a foreign correspondent fed up with the twosome’s often perilous globetrotting assignments, but also of their good friend, Richard, and his new, quite young, female companion, Mandy.

Time Stands Still slowly, but deftly examines the very nature of how lives can grow together and also pull suddenly apart, how one person’s dreams and desires don’t always match up with one’s partner’s trajectory.  A subtext of the play concerns journalistic ethics and responsibilities.  More questions are asked then answered, which provides the audience with much to contemplate.  Playwright Donald Margulies, a Pulitzer Prize winner in 2000 for Dinner with Friends, has crafted a sometimes funny, often moving and thoughtful yet, ultimately, heartbreaking story.  He has created four richly textured, highly opinionated characters that can lovingly embrace each other one moment and forcefully lash out the next. 

The four cast members—Tim Altmeyer as the caring, yet conflicted, James; Erika Rolfsrud as the strong-willed and resolute, Sarah; Matthew Boston as Richard, good friend pursuing his own amorous agenda; and Liz Holtan as Mandy, sweet, naïve, but straight-shooting--is superb.  They have fully embodied their roles making for a well-acted, taut production.

Rob Ruggiero directs with a purposeful and controlled feel, allowing the nuances and subtleties to take center stage.   He allows the tension in the show to slowly simmer until the climatic, melancholy end.  Ruggiero trusts Margulies’ work, recognizing the pauses.  The breaks in the dialouge can speak just as loud as when the cast is verbally confronting each other. 

Time Stands Still—drama at its best, now at Theaterworks in downtown Hartford through September 15th.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Review of "Dreamgirls" - Ivoryton Playhouse

by Beth Settje, Staff Writer
 The musical, Dreamgirls, now playing at the Ivoryton Playhouse in Ivoryton, CT through September 1st, is a solid and entertaining production. The show manages to create an environment where we are transported back in time to the late 1960’s/early 1970’s.  There, we are introduced to three young women, Deena, Effie, and Lorrell, singers who have dreams of success as they try to find their way in the entertainment industry.  They meet a car salesman looking to back an act and he is impressed by their performance. With some shady maneuvering, he takes over their management and the three women are on their way to stardom. Along the way, they have various trials and tribulations, some which make them stronger and others that crush them. The musical documents the successes and failures of the aptly named Dreams, as well as the men in their lives, who include their manager Curtis, Effie’s brother/songwriter CC, another singer and Lorrell’s love interest Jimmy.
The set is sparse, so the focus is truly on the performers and the music.  Standouts include Ashley Jeudy’s Lorrell, Caliaf St. Aubyn’s Jimmy, and Sheniqua Denise Trotman’s Effie. Each manages to dig deep and project major emotion and sincerity in their portrayals. Though Trotman is the lead, and she carries it well, Aubyn steals the show, transforming himself from a caricature into a solid character, with depth and tragedy. Damian Norfleet as Curtis was difficult to understand when speaking, but his singing was solid. He did however manage to clearly sell his character very well as the master manipulator, setting up the cast to do his bidding while he achieved his plans. Like others who have fallen, Curtis did not see his end coming and his demise was perhaps the most satisfying.
The big numbers which, left the audience clamoring for more, included, “Steppin’ To The Bad Side,” “It’s All Over,” and “(And I’m Telling you) I’m Not Going” in act one; “I am Changing” and “I Meant You No Harm” were highlights of the second act.  The music was flawless, if a bit loud at times, which occasionally overpowered the singers.
Playing only through this weekend, ending on September 1st, Dreamgirls is a welcome respite for these last days of summer.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Review of "First Date"

First Date, the new 90 minute, intermission-less Broadway musical, has a simple premise—what could possibly go right but, more often then not, what could go wrong with that initial meeting?  The show, at first, is quite funny even though it mines typical first date embarrassing and mortifying moments for quick laughs.  However, as the musical, the first book show of the new Broadway season, progresses the production becomes more like a bad, real-life first date—when will it end?

We are introduced to Aaron, uptight and painfully uncomfortable; and Casey, cool, calm, and collected with a decidedly downtown aura.  The mismatched duo, played winningly by Zachary Levi and Krysta Rodriguez, painfully portray the missteps and blunders associated with these virgin rendezvous.  Unfortunately, the laughs and awkward situations, enlivened by a four-person ensemble playing a number of different roles, cannot be sustained for a full hour and one-half.  The show veers into serious, semi-confessional tones that put a damper on the would-be couple’s potentially blooming relationship as well as the production itself. 

Zachary Levi, making his Broadway debut, has a solid stage presence, great comic timing, and a good theatrical singing voice.  It would be interesting to see what he could do with a more substantial role.  Krysta Rodriguez, more edgier, exuding both self-confidence as well as a certain vulnerability, is the Ying to Levi’s Yang.  Or maybe the oil to his vinegar.  While both performers do their best with the material written for them the interactions, most of the time, seemed forced rather than natural.

The book by Austin Winsberg has its moments, but the scenes, while springing from personal experiences, lacks a cohesive and consistent view, which ultimately provides an unfulfilling storyline.  I also wish Winsberg would have trusted his plotline and ended the show with more subtlety instead of the “big” finale.  The same could be said for the score by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner.  The songs, peppy with the occasional ballad, are serviceable without much wit and creativity. 

Director Bill Berry is somewhat stymied by the set-up—two people mostly sitting in a bar trying to make small talk.  The action is broken up, primarily, by the supporting cast, nondescript patrons of the bar, who come to life singing and donning various guises throughout the show.  Otherwise, Berry pushes along the production without much shape and character.

First Date, not the worst initial encounter with a Broadway musical, but certainly not the best.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Review of Off-Broadway's "Buyer And Cellar"

by Arlene Jaffe, Staff Writer

From Judy Garland, Peter Allen and Charlie Chaplin to Eva Peron, Coco Chanel and Marilyn Monroe…larger-than-life celebrities have been the subject of dramas and musicals produced both on and off Broadway.

Judging by the decibel level and anticipatory excitement pulsing through The Barrow Street Theater, much of the audience was expecting the same iconic adulation from Buyer And Cellar. Barbra Streisand, after all, was the subject here. Wasn’t she?
For a play about an icon so obsessed with detail, the set by Andrew Boyce was surprisingly Spartan, albeit in purplelavendargreyishpetalpink custom paint contrasted by hand-hewn molding and a classic Louis XVI dining chair brought up-to-date with a paperwhite eggshell finish.
In fact, when the marvelously-gifted Michael Urie entered in front of the stage as Michael Urie, he informed the audience that there would be no over-the-top impressions or movie clips or costume changes because Buyer And Cellar was a total work of fiction.

Urie explained that the writer, Jonathan Tolin,  wanted the play to be less about Barbra and more about the relationship that forms between two people in vastly different stations in life. (Perhaps a nod to people who need people.)  Mr. Tolin, a seasoned playwright, television producer and writer for the Academy Awards, Tony Awards and Bette Midler actually did experience a close encounter of the Barbra kind, when she offered him a piece of her Kit Kat bar.

Then, Urie displayed a coffee-table book entitled:
My Passion for Design published by Penguin in 20120, which was written and photographed by Barbra Streisand about her “house” in Malibu.

When the applause subsided, Urie explained that one paragraph in the book was Tolin’s inspiration for writing Buyer And Cellar.
Streisand had a street of shops built in her basement to showcase her various collections and memorabilia. It was her own personal shopping mall: cobblestone-paved, antique-lantern-lit. A Sweet Shop with whirring frozen yogurt and popcorn machines. A Gift Shoppe with wrapping station. Along with an Antique Shop, Antique Clothes Shop (for all her costumes) and Bee's Doll Shop.

Tolin thought it would be funny if someone had to work down there and “greet the customer" whenever she came down.
Now, Urie becomes the out-of-work actor, Alex More, stepping onstage into a fictional world dominated by the “cellar” where he’s been hired to do a little dusting while impatiently waiting for the “buyer”. Urie would, eventually, play four other distinctive roles in this rollicking, riotous and thought-provoking one-man show. Barry, his boyfriend, who is a jaded and long-suffering screenwriter in the biz. Sharon, the weary and wise major domo of the Streisand compound. James Brolin, the husband. And Barbra herself.

The moment when Alex-as-shopkeeper finally meets Barbra-the-customer was the first inkling that Buyer and Cellar would be the rara avis that flies into the life of the most fortunate theater-goer. The back and forth that develops between them is the stuff of writing and acting genius. Not only the haggle between a have and have not…but also the demarcation between fame and obscurity, power and weakness, confidence and insecurity, the perfectionist and the flawed. (So not to be a spoiler, their first confrontation happened over a doll which Barbra “hondles” with Alex to buy for a better price…even though she already owns it.)

Over the next ninety-or-so minutes, the dramatic arc continued strong and steady. The audience grew more rapt and responsive with every Brooklyn story, every Hollywood nugget, every nail and nose reference, every nod to Yentl.

The more interaction between Alex and Barbra, the more he believed they were becoming friends. The more the audience learned about Barbra, the more chinks in her Donna Karan armor would be revealed: worries about her weight, her looks, her age, her son, her waning interest in shopping, even her legacy. Human frailties all.

When Alex suggested that Streisand direct or maybe even star in a movie remake of Gypsy, she becomes that funny girl the audience had been hoping for …only to have Barry burst their bubble with what could be the most scathing line of the entire show. “Who’s she gonna play. Granmama Rose?

Artfully, the most poignant moment came toward the end of Buyer And Cellar, when James Brolin enters the scene like Dr. Steven Kiley straight out of
Marcus Welby, M.D. Urie not only captured his mannerisms, body language and tone of voice, he physically morphed from his lithe, lanky self into a towering, swaggering movie star of a man. Hello, gorgeous.

Brolin tells Alex that he’s come down to the Sweet Shop for some coffee yogurt with extra sprinkles. The audience knows that the yogurt wasn’t for Brolin, even though he tries to convince Alex it is. This is a brilliant interpretation of the unsung husband who would do anything to keep his wife happy. Considering the wife, Brolin must be Saint James.

No wonder the accolades for Buyer And Cellar keep pouring in: for the actor, the playwright, the director and the entire production team. Ultimately, this is a tough love letter to a global supernova who faces the realization that perfection might not be attainable.

Unless, of course, Streisand sneaks into the theater and sees this play.