Sunday, January 31, 2016

Review of "The Chosen"

Playhouse on Park scores another winning production with the powerful and poignant stage adaptation of the Chaim Potok coming-of-age novel, The Chosen.  The play delves into such themes as friendship, father-son relationships, developing identity and purpose, and religious adherence and tolerance.    The show runs at the West Hartford theater through February 14th.

Set in the 1940’s, near the end of World War II, we are introduced to two young Jewish teens, Reuven Malter (Jordan Wolfe), a Conservative adherent and Daniel Saunders (Joshua Whitson), a follower of Hasidism.  Living only five blocks apart in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York their spheres--primed by their religious faiths--are light years apart.  In the aftermath of a baseball accident the two boys become acquainted and quickly become fast friends.  Soon, the pair is introduced to each other’s world--a strict, solitary life for Daniel, overseen by his distant, scholarly father, the rabbi Reb Saunders (Damian Buzzerio); and a more nurturing, loving household for Reuven, who lives alone with his father, David Malter (Dan Shor), a modern day intellectual, writer and champion of Jewish causes.  Through their interactions, and as the years pass, the two young men begin to assert themselves, both personally and academically, as they forge new and unfamiliar terrain.  They also learn the truth behind sometimes difficult life lessons their father’s taught, both overtly and furtively.  Unifying the production is the role of the narrator (David Gautschy), in the guise of an older, wiser Reuben Malter. 

A central question for non-Jewish theater-goers might be is The Chosen too much of a Jewish show.  While individuals with a Jewish background may find more meaning and identification with the characters, setting, and events of the show, the themes it addresses are so universal as to, fortunately, make the inquiry almost irrelevant.

The adaptation by Aaron Posner, who has also successfully transformed Potok’s book, My Name is Asher Levs, for the stage, hits upon the major junctures and stirring moments of the book.  He has crafted a drama that is at times compelling and heartrending.

All the actors are well-cast and impressive.  Jordan Wolfe as the young Reuven Malter is boyish, inquisitive and determined.  He ably straddles the world of the secular and religious.  Joshua Whitson as Daniel Saunders, with his stilted speech and cumbersome affect, radiates an inner torment as he tries to balance duty, honor, and the realities of a new age.  Damian Buzzerio as Reb Saunders is stoic, contemplative, and a man with the weight of multitudes seemingly on his shoulders.  Dan Shor, as David Malter, provides the most nuanced performance of the play, exuding optimism, compassion as well as a degree of thoughtful studiousness.  David Gautschy, narrating a significant portion of the production as the older Reuben, in addition to playing other characters, effectively connects scenes with humor, passion, and a skillful manner.

Director Dawn Loveland strategically moves the actors around the small performing space like chess pieces in a tension-filled game.  She nimbly guides the five performers through the ebb and flow of the production and seamlessly integrates the role of the narrator into the rhythm of the show.  While her guidance keeps the audience thoroughly involved with the story, the veteran director should have mixed the positioning of the actors better so the audience seated on the sides of the theater would not have prolonged looks at the actor’s backs.  The dramatic reveal near the end of the production could also have been teased out for a more emotional moment. 

The Chosen, a dynamic and crowd-pleasing drama at Playhouse on Park through February 14th.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Review of "Buyer and Cellar"

What would it be like to work in the underground shopping mall below Barbra Streisand's Malibu estate? (Yes, she really does have one.)  That's the premise for the witty, playful and entertaining one-man show, Buyer and Cellar, at Theaterworks in Hartford through February 14th. 

The play, written by Jonathan Tolins, takes this statement of fact and imagines a scenario where an out of work actor who, by pure luck, lands a job as the sole employee in the cellar retail shops.  Tom Lenk plays Alex More, the down and out thespian who gets the break of his life.  Lenk also inhabits a number of other characters including his boyfriend Barry, Ms. Streisand, and James Brolin. 

Down in the mall there is a doll shop, a gift ship and dress store.  There is even a soft serve yogurt bar.  Alex dusts and arranges and busies himself hoping that you-know-who may enter his new domain.  She soon does and their interactions are spirited, flirtatious, mischievous, and sassy.  Tolins intersperses these scenes with biting commentary and sarcastic quips by Alex’s boyfriend Barry as a way to keep Alex’s sensibilities grounded in reality.

The playwright does an excellent job creating a believable, entrancing story out of pure fantasy.  It is an impressive and hilarious piece of stagecraft.  Yet Tolins’ work is also moving and poignant, a meditation on relationships, the drawbacks of stardom and the cloistered environment it can produce.

Tom Lenk comes across as an impish pixie, sashaying around the small stage.  The actor brings a distinctive twist to each of the characters he portrays, whether it is the slight hunch of the estate manager or the gentle stroking of Streisand’s hair.  He is convincing in his depictions and a good enough raconteur to keep our interest focused throughout the 108 minute intermissionless production.

Director Rob Ruggiero gives the show a frisky and devilish lacquer.  He smartly zeroes in on the importance of Tom Lenk’s storytelling abilities, which keeps the audience enthralled and bewitched.  Ruggiero’s incorporation of Rob Benton’s simple video projections within Luke Hegel-Cantarella’s minimal scenic design adds an understated charm to the show.  

Buyer and Cellar, a comic delight, at Theaterworks until February 14th.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Review of "School of Rock"

Alex Brightman, the star of the new Broadway musical, School of Rock, is like the Tasmanian Devil from the Warner Brothers cartoon stable.  He is a whirling dervish of kinetic energy, bounding from one end of the stage to the other.  It is his performance that anchors the wholly satisfying production, based on the movie of the same name.

Like the film, the story, here written by Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes, focuses on Dewey Finn (Alex Brightman), a young man still fantasizing himself to be a rock ‘n roll star waiting to be discovered.  He is obnoxious, lazy, a complete boor who can’t hold a job.  Living at the home of his best friend Ned Schneebly (Spencer Moses) and badgered by Ned’s girlfriend Patty (Mamie Parris) Dewey is a manchild looking for his purpose in life.  He’s been kicked out of his band and fired from his job.  By happenstance he answers a phone call from the principal (Sierra Borgess) of the Horace Green school, an elite prep institution, who is inquiring if Ned, a certified instructor, would be able to come to substitute teach.  With his friend not home Dewey responds in the affirmative, posing as Ned.  He needs the money to pay the rent.  At the school Dewey continues his slobberly ways in the class, telling the highly motivated adolescents to, basically, do what they want while he chills.  It isn’t until he accidently hears them at their music lessons, producing harmonious classical melodies, that he becomes a motivated man of action, a man with a plan—teach the kids rock ‘n roll, put together a band, and enter them in the upcoming Battle of the Bands.  What ensues is a fun and entertaining series of scenes as the students clandestinely learn, rehearse and create rock ‘n roll according to the Zen Master Dewey Finn.  While initially disinterested and detached with the students, Dewey eventually become smitten with his charges as he helps them to find their inner creativity and self-worth.  All of this leads up to the boisterous, feel good finale at the band competition.

Book writer Julian Fellowes smartly keeps the focus on Dewey and the children.  The scenes with Ned and his girlfriend are kept to a minimum as are those involving the kid’s parents, the teachers at Horace Green and with the principal.  Their involvement is really to help move the storyline along and provide some back story, primarily about the students’ distressed home life of unloving and pushy parents. 

The music and lyrics by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Glenn Slater can be raucous and tuneful with a dash of traditional Broadway songs to help diversify the score.  At its best, with numbers such as “You’re in the Band” and “Stick It to the Man,” the songs celebrate the youthful exuberance of rock ‘n roll.

The acting plaudits are reserved for Alex Brightman and an extremely talented pool of young child performers.  Brightman, who’s Dewey Finn may be off-putting and lacking even the basic social graces, nonetheless goes full throttle into his character, never slowing down for the entire production.  There is not much shading or pathos into his portrayal, but that’s not part of his DNA.  The children in the cast are cheerful, sprightly and show incredible talent.  While they all deserve praise let me spotlight just a few.  They include Brandon Niederauer as Zack, lead guitarist of the band; Evie Dolan as Katie, who plucks out a mean riff on her bass guitar; Dante Melucci as Freddy, the wild drummer of the group; Isabelle Russo as the prim and proper Summer; Bobbi Mackenzie as the golden throated Tomika; and Luca Padovan as Billy, a Project Runway Junior wannabe.  The other adult worth noting, Sierra Boggess, as Principal Rosalie Mullins, is given little chance to display her talents except for a few brief moments.

Director Laurence Connor does an admirable job pacing the show.  While keeping his pedal to the metal for a good part of the production, he knows when to ease up, let everyone catch their breath before reapplying the high spirits and liveliness to the musical.  Connor knows the audience wants plenty of Dewey Finn and the children and he makes sure their scenes are full of enthusiasm and playfulness.

School of Rock, a rollicking good time for kids of all ages.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Review of "The Body of an American"

What is it like to be a photojournalist, recording atrocities and mayhem at hot spots around the globe?  What type of person would subject themselves to the strain and rigors of traveling and working in such far off places?  What about their psychological make-up?  These are some of the questions playwright Dan O’Brien explores in his, at times, riveting but uneven two-person play, The Body of an American.  The production, playing at Hartford Stage until January 31st, covers the real life relationship of O’Brien (Michael Crane) and photojournalist Paul Watson (Michael Cumpsty).

The show unfolds in an explosive, rat-a-tat manner.  In quick succession, during the opening segment, actor Michael Crane portrays numerous characters that augment Michael Cumpsty’s character as he recounts one of his most sensational and graphic photos, which resulted in him winning a Pulitzer Prize.  A judicious use of rear screen projections heightens the harrowing narrative.  The two performers are almost in constant motion on the small raised platform, supplemented only by two chairs.  From this absorbing beginning the play turns to documenting the growing fellowship between the men.  Initially, Watson is cool to O’Brien’s pursuit.  Email is the communication of choice.  Eventually, the two do meet—and rendezvous near an Arctic outpost.  In between the back and forth we hear personal ruminations and soul searching by each person, as well as more of Watson’s compelling and incisive stories. 

At this point playwright O’Brien veers the content of the show towards the psychological as both men, in sometimes haunting soliloquies, bring up the demons that haunt them.  This part of the production is less captivating then the earlier half of the play.  There is a lot of introspection and long monologues, which gives the audience a somewhat clearer picture of the two character’s motivations and self-analysis, but doesn’t always make for engrossing theater. 

Both actors, seasoned professionals, give solid performances.  Michael Crane, who was gripping in last season’s Off-Broadway drama, Gloria, is equally intense and impassioned as Dan O’Brien.  He brings a tenacious determination to his role as the playwright.  He is equally adept at playing many other roles, including Terry Gross, host of NPR’s “Fresh Air;” and a Somalia translator.  Michael Cumpsty is all-consuming as the tormented photojournalist Paul Watson.  The actor brings a world-weariness and heartache to the character.  He is also skillful, when called upon, to play other secondary roles.

Director Jo Bonney shows a deft hand while guiding the performers through the fast paced introductory part of the play.  He has little room to embellish as every movement and gesture seems methodically thought out and executed on the small performing area.  His incorporation of Alex Basco Koch’s highly effective Projection Design brings a powerful dimension to the production.  Only towards the end, when both characters are in a reflective and summation mode, does the pulsating rhythm of the show sag.

The Body of an American, playing at Hartford Stage through January 31st.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Review of "Born Fat"

The true story of Waterbury native Elizabeth Petruccione, who battled weight problems and survived personal traumas to become a renowned inspirational speaker, is the basis for playwright Jacques Lamarre’s one-woman show, Born Fat.  The setting is the basement of a church.  Elizabeth (April Woodall), energetic and good-natured, prowls the stage throwing out humorous one-liners and bon mots of advice as a prelude to her self-defined mission of empowering individuals to take hold of their lives in regards to body image.

The 80 minute play is a hybrid of self-confessional personal life stories and religious revival meeting.  Lamarre alternates between vignettes of family heartbreak and anguish and uplifting boosterism to convey Petruccione’s journey to self-salvation.  The tricky part of crafting a one-person show is there needs to be enough of an emotional connection and story telling to spellbind and draw in the audience.  Born Fat is somewhat successful in meeting this objective, but not enough of the source material is tapped into to totally satisfy this goal. 

April Woodall as the scarred, yet successfully perseverant Elizabeth Petruccione, is a bundle of energy.  Her ebullience and never wavering spirits are matched by a wholehearted sincerity.  The actress is a worthy guide as she relates the suffering, humiliation and, finally, the triumphs of her character.

Director Steve Raider-Ginsburg struggles with keeping a consistent dramatic arc throughout the production.  He busies Ms. Woodall with rearranging furniture and bounding about the stage in between her monologues.  But the stagecraft’s fussiness and impact does not always keep the audience’s attention.  The musical interludes and grainy projections, while keeping with the informal nature of the play, come across as awkward.

Born Fat, playing at Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury through January 31st.