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, na├»ve, 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.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Review of "Hello, Dolly!" at Goodspeed Opera House

Leave it to the Goodspeed Opera House to take the warhorse of a show, Hello, Dolly!, and transform it into a lively and highly enjoyable summertime production.  Every aspect of the musical is right on target--the superb casting, spirited choreography, imaginative sets, fanciful outfits and, especially, the sumptuous Jerry Herman score. 

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

So, where do I begin in praising this production of Hello, Dolly!?  Let’s start with the casting.  Klea Blackhurt, as Dolly, is mischievous, boisterous, and meddlesome; yet possess a heart of gold as she weaves her matrimonial spells.   She is more Ethel Merman then Carol Channing.   Composer Jerry Herman originally wrote the part for Merman, who turned it down, tired of the theatrical life.  It wasn’t until the end of the show’s original seven year Broadway run that Merman entered the role, the last of the six women to play the part.  Blackhurst, who has played Ethel Merman in an acclaimed one-woman show, has a booming voice that resonates throughout the Goodspeed theater. 

She is paired with Ashley Brown as the lovely widow, Irene Malloy.  Brown, the original Mary Poppins on Broadway, has a beautiful soprano that captivates the audience.  Her presence balances perfectly with Blackhurst so one doesn’t overshadow the other.  Tony Sheldon as the overbearing Horace Vandergelder also holds his own with his formidable co-stars.  Spencer Moses, as Cornelius, provides a delightful comic flair as he and sidekick Barnaby, played with wholesome juvenile pluck by Jeremy Morse, search for romance and adventure in New York City.

What separates Hello, Dolly! from many musicals is the tuneful, highly satisfying Jerry Herman score.  Every song, even the lesser-known numbers, are a pure listening and toe-tapping delight delivered, as described above, by a first rate group of actors.  The many gems include “It Takes a Woman,” “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” ‘Before the Parade Passes By,” and the title number, “Hello, Dolly.”

Speaking of toe-tapping, choreographer Kelli Barclay deserves kudos for enlivening the Goodspeed stage with such energetic and athletic dance routines.  The prolonged sequence at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant, with waiters bounding about, is pure precision and the highlight of the musical.  When Dolly descends the illustrious grand staircase of the eating establishment, garbed in a fabulously sequined gown, belting the show’s signature song, with the ensemble singing and dancing around her, you realize what theatrical magic is all about.

Director Daniel Goldstein, working in concert with the creative team, artfully guides the production, fully invigorating the show with zest and inspiration.  In lesser hands this Hello, Dolly! could have been tired and hackneyed.  Goldstein, on the other hand, has steered the show to a deserved standing ovation at the musical's finale.

The sets by Adrian Jones are diverse and multi-faceted, adding to the grandeur and imaginativeness of the musical.  Wade Laboissonniere’s costumes, especially for the women, are exquisite, elegantly evoking latter 19th century New York society.

Hello, Dolly!—“You're looking swell…you're still glowin', you're still crowin'.”  Now playing at the Goodspeed Opera House through September 14th.