Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Review of "Kinky Boots"

[Adapted from my review of the Broadway production.]

The national tour of the Broadway musical Kinky Boots opened tonight at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts and it is a show that I wholeheartedly recommend.  It has a first-rate score, top-notch acting and outstanding dance numbers.

Based on the 2005 movie, Kinky Boots tells the story of young Charlie Price, next in line to inherit his family’s venerable shoe factory.  Being of the modern generation the twenty-something wants nothing to do with the family business and, instead, heads to London with his fiancée to start a life in the world of marketing.  Before they can set-up house Charlie’s dad passes away and the young man is back in Northampton, England as head of Price & Sons.  Unfortunately, he quickly realizes the firm is going broke, losing out to cheap, foreign shoe imports.  A chance encounter with Lola, a drag queen, inspires Charlie to ditch the stuffy men’s footwear and to manufacture wildly flamboyant boots for the niche market of drag queens, cross dressers, and others.  He recruits Lola to design glitzy, high-heeled boots as they scurry to save Price & Sons from oblivion.  Along the way Lola deals with his own self-worth and the backlash and narrow-mindedness from the more provincial employees.  At the same time he subtly and craftily inspires the staff, including Charlie, to face their own prejudices and preconceived notions. 

There are a number of reasons that make Kinky Boots work.  First, there is the score by 80’s pop icon, Cyndi Lauper.  Making her Broadway debut as a composer, Lauper ‘s songs are buoyant, feisty, yet have a real Broadway traditional feel to them.  While there are heartfelt ballads, Lauper doesn’t neglect her rock roots, serving up a healthy dose of high-energy numbers.

Playwright Harvey Fierstein won a Tony Award for writing the libretto for another cross-dressing musical, La Cage Aux Folles (which, incidentally is the next show at the Goodspeed Opera Houses’s season).  In 1983, when that show opened, drag queens prancing on the stage and the backstage love story was considered a bit risqué and daring.  Fast forward thirty years and with the advent of reality television and changing social norms Kinky Boots is now more a La Cage Aux Folles lite.  While mirroring the film’s premise, Fierstein slowly and effectively paints a portrait of two individuals—Lola and Charlie--on the surface so different, but in reality so much the same.  The book writer also knows how to pull our heartstrings and by the time the first set of kinky boots rolls off the assembly line the audience is cheering. 

The acting corps is led by Kyle Taylor Parker as the gutsy, lust for life drag queen, Lola.  Parker embodies his over-the-top being, but also effectively shows the pain and anguish he has dealt with all his life.  When he begins work at the shoe factory he nimbly transforms himself into his more “true-to-form,” sedate self as he seeks to balance both sides of his persona.

While Parker can be seen as the driving force of the production Steven Booth as Charlie provides a more contemplative, matter-of-fact counterpoint to Parker’s colorful Lola.  In a sense, the ying and yang of the two give Kinky Boots a satisfying symmetry.  Booth creditably portrays Charlie as a confused young man searching for his identity and place in the world to a more take charge, knowing individual by the musical’s finale.  Other notables in the cast include Lindsay Nicole Chambers as the lovelorn Lauren who delivers a comic gem in “The History of Wrong Guys;” and Joe Coots as Don, a big lug of a man who eventually overcomes his boorish mindset.

Director-Choreographer Jerry Mitchell keeps the story flowing without too many wayward passages.  The sexual nature of the musical’s premise, while a central part of the show, is presented in a more family friendly matter.  He adroitly balances the more rousing nightclub numbers with Lola and his back-up performers, The Angels, as well as the Act I closing song, “Everybody Say Yeah,” with more intimate moments such as Charlie and Lola’s plaintive “I’m Not My Father’s Son.”

Kinky Boots, a winning musical to celebrate and applaud.  Playing at The Bushnell through Sunday, June 28th.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Review of "Hair"

Staging a production of the musical Hair can be problematic.  The show, which premiered in New York almost 50 years ago, can be seen as timeworn and anachronistic.  Images and songs concerning such topics as recreational drug use, sexual freedom and racial harmony don’t resonate with as much urgency and passion as they did in the late 1960’s.  With that said, the Playhouse on Park presentation of Broadway’s first rock musical is mostly engrossing, entertaining and, at times, a powerful piece of theater.

Hair follows The Tribe, a bohemian collection of young people living in New York City.  The central characters in the group are Berger, Claude and Sheila.  Through action and song they comment on the aforementioned hot button issues of the period as well as riffing on politics and religion.  Lurking just beneath the surface, though, is the all-too-real Vietnam War.  Anti-war protests and burning of draft cards cannot neutralize its life-changing impact on The Tribe, primarily on Claude who decides to answer the call to duty with tragic results.

The central reason for Hair’s success is the shows large troupe of actors and actresses.  Most have nominal experience, which gives the production less of a sheen and more of an uncultivated and raffish texture.  The costumes by DeMara Cabrera, simple, carefree and psychedelic expressions of peace and love, add to the buoyant, laid back nature of the show.

The score by Galt MacDermot, James Rado and Gerome Ragni is a classic that integrates elements of rock, blues, pop and folk into the performed numbers.  Such well known songs as “Aquarius,” “Hair,” “Good Morning Starshine,” and “Let the Sun Shine In” are part of the show.  The onstage musicians are under the solid leadership of Music Directors Emmett Drake and Colin Britt.  Their professionalism, along with the members of the small combo, provide an outstanding accompaniment to the diverse score.  A problem, however, comes in the presentation of the songs.  The Playhouse sound system was either not working well or properly aligned.  A number of times the lyrics were incomprehensible.  Also, some of the singers lacked the vocal power to carry a song.

Director Sean Harris and choreographer Darlene Zoller have teamed to create organized anarchy on the small performing area.  The Tribe moves as one organic being.  They sway in a rhythmically synchronized array, but the overall effect the two have imposed on the production is a calculated casualness and unruliness.  The Trip sequence, towards the end of Act II, where Claude smokes a hallucinogen coated joint, is artfully rendered.  For an older generation the tableau of actors silently recreating the famous Kent State shooting photograph of a college co-ed screaming over dead classmates or of a self-immolating Buddhist monk are compelling images.  Aaron Hochheiser’s deft and vivid lighting accentuates the mood and emotions Harris and Zoller successfully reach for throughout the show. 

My one criticism is how the Act I nudity scene is reached.  Author Scott Miller writes:

nudity was a big part of the hippie culture, both as a rejection of the sexual repression of their parents and also as a statement about naturalism, spirituality, honesty, openness, and freedom. The naked body was beautiful, something to be celebrated and appreciated, not scorned and hidden.
However, most audiences would not necessarily make this connection, leaving people to scratch their heads as to the meaning of why the actors suddenly disrobe.  Also, parents be forewarned—there is full frontal nudity, which might be disquieting for young children.

Hair, an earthy festival of the cultural and political upheavals during the 60’s revolution.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Review of "Good People"

Margaret, the central character in David Lindsay-Abaire’s riveting drama, Good People, now at TheaterWorks in Hartford, is a very unlucky person.  She has just lost another job and is facing eviction from the apartment she shares with her developmentally disabled daughter.  The single, middle-aged woman, a lifelong Southie resident (the nickname for the South Boston locale), cannot catch a break until she discovers an old flame from the neighborhood is back in Boston.  A high-powered doctor, she hopes he can help her find work.  Instead, their interactions prove toxic, as distant relationships are reexamined and long forgotten memories unearthed.

Lindsay-Abaire has written a well-crafted play that uses his own Southie upbringing as a backdrop.  Issues of class, loyalty, friendship and morality are explored by the playwright.  He brings out the emotional torment and individual frailties of the characters.  At the same time, however, there is a lot of laughter in the show, which gives the audience a respite from the mostly heartbreaking action on stage.

The cast is impressive, led by Erika Rolfsrud, who gave such an outstanding performance in the TheaterWorks production of Time Stands Still two years ago.  She totally embodies the complexities of Margaret, showing us, at turns, her pain, desperateness, wit and humor.   R. Ward Duffy, who plays Mike, the prodigal son returning to his roots, is enmeshed between his hardscrabble past and comforts of his current life.  He sometimes comes off as too hotheaded and thin skinned, but that has more to do with the way his character is written.  Megan Byrne as Margaret’s friend, Jean, is a pistol with a sharp tongue and no-nonsense attitude.  Audrie Neenan’s character of Dottie, an older so-called friend of the two women, unreliable sitter and Margaret’s landlord, gives a rough edged texture to her role.  Chandra Thomas as Mike’s wife, Kate, is the least defined character in the play.  Clues to her background and beliefs are hinted at during her scenes.  However, Thomas, both subtly and forcefully, demonstrates she is not someone to take lightly or mess around with.   Buddy Haardt is splendid in the supporting role of Stevie, another neighborhood lifer looking to fit in and survive.

Director Rob Ruggiero fully fleshes out each character and enlivens each scene with the appropriate level of passion necessary.  Even parts of the show that have the performers simply sitting side-by-side, complaining, dreaming and gossiping show a focused purpose.  He gives the play an intensity and nervousness, which can be, at times, uncomfortable, for the audience. 

Luke Hegel-Cantarella’s video projections are smartly done and provide a gritty realism of the South Boston area during the scene changeovers.  They truly add to the theatrical dynamics of the production.

Good People, a soul-searching drama, playing through June 28th.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Review of "Calendar Girls"

Taking a popular movie and reconfiguring it for the stage can be a tricky endeavor.  Case in point is the Ivoryton Playhouse’s American premiere of the British show Calendar Girls, based on the motion picture of the same name.  The play can be disjointed in its presentation and the dramatic moments have too much ebb and flow. 

The production follows a group of women involved with the W.I., the Women’s Institute, the largest women’s voluntary organization in the United Kingdom.  After the husband of one member succumbs to cancer they decide to raise money to buy a settee for the local hospital in his memory.  Their unique method proves to be a sensation in the country and throughout the world.  As their notoriety spreads issues of friendship, self-worth and the seduction of money become more prominent before everything is resolved at the show’s close.

Tim Wirth, who adapted his screenplay (co-written by Juliette Towhidi) for the stage, has given the play an uneven flow.   There are funny moments, scenes that tug at your emotional heart strings and confrontations, yet they don’t all integrate to form a satisfying whole.  The part of the show that focuses on the photos for the creation of the calendar are well-written and entertaining, but cannot make up for the looseness from the rest of the production.

The cast is uneven in their performances.  Hopefully, they will become more comfortable as the show progresses through its run.  In order for the production to succeed they group of six women need to coalesce more as a single acting unit and better play off one another’s eccentricities and foibles.  There are a few standouts including Beverly J. Taylor as Chris, the carefree organizer and promoter of the fundraiser; Jacqueline Hubbard as Annie, the easygoing, yet more grounded member of the association; and R. Bruce Connelly as John, Annie’s cheerful, yet ill-fated, soul mate.

The pacing of the show is a problem.  Jacqueline Hubbard, doing double duty as director, is able to mine the tender and poignant moments of the production, but the comedic scenes don’t always deliver.  They should be crackling with sparkling repartee, which often does not happen.  She does an outstanding job staging the calendar shooting sequence.  Instead of being a risqué and possibly uncomfortable moment in the show it is done with fun, good taste and aplomb.

Calendar Girls, occasionally amusing, through June 21st.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Review of "An Act of God"

Jim Parsons fans rejoice!  Sing a refrain of the “Hallelujah chorus!”  The actor, best known for his role as Sheldon Cooper in the television program, The Big Bang Theory, stars as The Lord in the new Broadway show, An Act of God.  He is ably assisted by Tim Kazurinksy as archangel Gabriel and Christopher Fitzgerald as the archangel Michael. 

In the beginning of the production God, in the guise of Parsons, takes center stage and informs the audience that instead of speaking to us in his ethereal, rapturous form he decided to take human shape, choosing the actor Jim Parsons to present his heavenly message.  In the next 90 minutes God, a.k.a. Parsons, lectures on a variety of subjects, focusing on a new Ten Commandments.  He compares this greatest of achievements to Don McLean’s song, “American Pie.”  God grumbles that, like the singer with his iconic classic, he has been defined by the Ten Commandments.  This, he announces, is about to change and, with the help of his two assistants, presents the newly created Decalogue one at a time.

Parsons, clad in a white frock, lounges in a chair at the base of Scott Pask’s enveloping vortex of a set, which is enhanced by Hugh Vanstone’s awe-inspiring and beatific lighting and Fitz Patton’s all-powerful and celestial sound design.  He has a folksy patter which gives his almost stream of consciousness musings a disarming and mischievous quality.  He is the center of the universe and commands our undivided attention.  His comedic timing is impeccable as he plays off the audience and his supporting players.  Tim Kazurinksy’s Gabriel is more the straight man in the show while the multi-talented Christopher Fitzgerald as Michael is on the receiving end of some great visual jokes, roams the audience for “questions” to God and adds a bit of sacrilegious drama as he constantly badgers The Lord with piercing inquiries.

Playwright David Javerbaum, a longtime writer for The Daily Show, has based the show on the tweets from his very popular Twitter account, @TheTweetofGod.  The play is hip, topical and comically moralizing.  Sitting in the audience you marvel at where he comes up with the mostly amusing, sometimes wickedly funny, revisionist views on biblical stories, of being omniscience, dealing with celebrities and much more.

Director Joe Mantello manages to walk a fine tightrope by giving Jim Parsons just enough room to maneuver without reining him in too much or allowing the show to spiral out of control.  He successfully integrates the other two actors and the creative staff’s expertise into Parson’s non-stop monologue when a break from all the talk is needed. 

An Act of God, not just for the Big Bang Theory zealots.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Review of "Les Miserables"

The score to Les Miserables contains soaring anthems, heart-wrenching ballads and rousing group numbers.  The songs, with words and music by Herbert Kretzmer and Claude-Michel Schonberg, are receiving a glorious rendition in the Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s concert format of the beloved classic.  In this version, the actors and actresses step up to the microphone lined edge of the stage to sing their songs.  There are almost no dramatic interactions by the acting troupe.  Sung by a superbly blended cast of theater veterans and, mostly, recent college graduates, this production of Les Miserables can still pack an emotional wallop.

The cast is led by David Harris as Jean Valjean.  A seasoned professional in Australia, now making his home in the United States, Harris commands the stage as the former convict that changes his life around.  He possesses a rich, strong voice that resonates throughout the small theater.   Terrence Mann, who also directed the show, recreates the role of Inspector Javert that he originated on Broadway when the show opened in 1987.  He still maintains a menace and swagger as the obsessively minded police officer. 

Alex Zeto’s Fantine is sorrowful with an angelic voice; Joe Callahan gives Marius a hint of naiveté and the outspokenness of a student caught up in the tumult of France’s revolutionary period; Chandler Lovelle as the older Cosette is radiant as she experiences true love for the first time; Will Bryant as Enjoiras has leading man good looks and authority in his character.  He is someone to keep an eye on in the musical theater world; Ariana DeBose is pure heartache and melancholy as the ill-fated Eponine; Liz Larson, taking a short break from the Broadway musical Beautiful and Philip Hoffman give the roles of Madame Thenardier and husband Thenardier a comedic touch.  But beware.  They are more threatening and intimidating then amusing. 

As Director Terrence Mann’s biggest responsibility is to make sure each actor hits his or her mark in front of the correct microphone.  The large group scenes are well-orchestrated and lively.  His handling of Javert’s suicide is simple, but effectively rendered. 

The one misstep in this thoroughly satisfying production is the lack of a synopsis in the program.  For audience members not familiar with the multi-layered story the omission can limit the overall enjoyment of the piece.  A quick trip to Wikipedia’s Les Miserables page before attending a performance will provide a good overview.

Les Miserables, at the Connecticut Repertory Theater in Storrs through June 7th.