Friday, September 30, 2016

Review of "Small Mouth Sounds"

Can a playwright create an engaging and dramatically effective show where dialogue is at a minimum?  In the case of Small Mouth Sounds, Bess Wohl has mostly succeeded.

The plot centers on six disparate individuals who have all registered for a weeklong retreat of meditation and reflection.  Very soon, under the direction of the facility’s spiritual leader, the participants are instructed not to speak during their time at the center.  This begins an odyssey, often funny, sometimes poignant, of self-discovery punctuated by self-important, vacuous lectures from the disembodied voice of the guru.

The entertaining and fascinating aspect of the play is watching how the players interact and function, mostly without mouthing any words, within the theater’s unique configuration—a rectangular facility with rows of seating along both lengths.  A small stage, along the width, with six folding chairs for the group of actors completes the setting.  The expanded performance space opens up the production.  The actors can spread on the floor in their sleeping bags.  We see them connect (or not), cooperate, and learn to communicate silently as they seek answers to their own series of questions and problems.

Bess Wohl has crafted an original take on the tried and true formula of observing a group of unrelated characters come together and bond.  Small Mouth Sounds can be seen as a statement on human nature, our need for companionship, and the ability to take risks.  The show is moving, playful, humorous and, for the most part, captivating.  The production is more successful during the muted portions of the play as opposed to the occasional monologues.  Towards the end, the uniqueness and diverting nature of the show begins to lose some steam but, overall, this is a satisfying and worthwhile play to see.

The ensemble cast is a crazy quilt of characters.  Marcia DeBonis as Joan, is an oversized woman approaching mid-age, who approaches the week with an apprentice’s zeal.  The actress has a nice comic touch, but also a believable empathy for her partner, Judy, portrayed by Quincy Tyer Bernstine.  Judy, unhappy to leave the comforts of home and the use of her electronic devices, is the more aggrieved of the twosome.  Ms. Bernstine, with more restrained grimaces and pained looks, that are not all related to her self-imprisonment at the retreat, is the ying to Joan’s yang.  Rodney, tall, bearded and handsome, is played superbly by Babak Tafti.  He is the true believer, at least for the weekend, of everything healthy for both mind and body.  The actor deserves kudos for putting his modesty on hold for a very funny scene midway through the show.  Brad Heberlee, as Ned, is the most frenzied performer, both in his character portrayal and actions.  His troubles, laid out in an over long monologue, are both funny and heartbreaking.  Zoe Winters, as Alicia, a harried blonde is more detached from the others and her motives for attending somewhat of a mystery.  The actress does well more in tandem with one of the other characters.  Finally, Max Baker, as Jan, the oldest member of the six person group, is, well, a conundrum.  We know and learn very little about him until the very final scene.  Baker utters the fewest words in the production, but the veteran actor conveys an impressive number of emotions and feelings from just a stare or simple hand movement.  Jojo Gonzalez is the teacher whose voice is occasionally heard lecturing the participants.  He convincingly displays a world-weariness as he spouts sanctimonious platitudes that he doesn’t seem to believe himself.

Director Rachel Chavkin needs to call on all her skill and experience to helm the show since dialogue is at a premium.  She, instead, focuses on facial expressions, manic gestures, and a bevy of non-verbals to build and carry along the plot.  She effectively juxtaposes the action between the performers seated on stage with their sullen, perplexing, and scornful looks and the action that takes place on the floor in front of the audience.  She handles a very, shall we say, raucous situation with aplomb and comic gusto.

Small Mouth Sounds, an absorbing and winning production, through October 9th.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Review of "Fiorello!"

The production of the rarely revived Fiorello! by the Berkshire Theatre Group, playing at the Classic Stage Company in New York, features a young, energetic, and fresh scrubbed group of performers, many making their Off-Broadway and even New York stage debut.  They bring a get-up-and-go earnestness to the Pulitzer Prize winning musical.  The show reviews the life of Fiorello H. LaGuardia from his days as a lawyer aiding the downtrodden in the West Village of NYC up to what would be his first victorious New York City mayoral campaign. 

Anytime a book musical about a historical personality is produced it can prove to be problematic.   What do you cover in a person’s multi-faceted life?  What should be left out?  Book writers Jerome Weidman and George Abbott have opted for the more colorful and defining moments in LaGuardia’s life including his election to the U.S. House of Representatives, army service, and political battles in New York City.  The overall feel can sometimes be less then substantial but, taken in its entirety, the plot line does produce a satisfactory whole.

The actors’ youthful exuberance is both an asset and disadvantage for this determined production.  It is a plus for the vitality and spiritedness of the show.  The performers tackle the material head on.  However, at its heart, Fiorello! lampoons the backroom political wheelings and dealings of cigar chomping, time-worn party bosses.  This makes for a disconnect when you have a stage full of millennials.

The score by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, the duo behind such musicals as She Loves Me, The Rothchilds, and Fiddler on the Roof, is one of their finest. The songs are melodic and show wit in their lyrics. They skewer politics and politicians as with “Politics and Poker” and “Little Tin Box.” They also include celebratory songs like “The Name’s LaGuardia” and “I Love a Cop” and comprise tender ballads such as “Til Tomorrow” and “When Did I Fall in Love?”

The cast is led by Austin Scott Lombardi as the beloved New York mayor.  He is all-consuming and impassioned in the role, but I was hoping he would be more animated.  LaGuardia was larger then life, but I didn’t get the feel of that from Lombardi.  Matt McLean is wonderful as Morris, the harried legal assistant to the future mayor.  Rylan Morsbach’s performance as Ben, political boss and ally to Fiorello, is somewhat confusing as if he is trying to present a more mature aura to the character.  Katie Birenbolm as Marie, LaGuardia’s longtime aide, demonstrates a fierce loyalty even as she longs for love. Marie Rebecca Brudner as Thea, Fiorello’s first true amore, shows a forceful independence and free-spirited sensibility. Chelsea Cree Groen as Dora and Dan Cassin as Floyd add some spunk to the production as the secondary comic couple. 

Director Bob Moss adroitly orchestrates a large cast in a very small performing space.  He keeps the pacing quick as the early career of LaGuardia is depicted. The relationships between Fiorello and his colleagues, friends, and politicos are central to the production and the director smartly focuses on them.  He also crafts scenes that swing from intimate to boisterous.  Working in concert with choreographer Michael Callahan, there are finely honed, playful dances that liven up the musical.

Fiorello!, playing through October 7th.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Review of "Man of La Mancha"

When one hears of a new mounting of Man of La Mancha there is usually an audible groan.  “Not that old warhorse of a musical, again.”  However, as with the current production at the Ivoryton Playhouse, when the show is staged with an absorbing and exhilarating professionalism it is not to be missed. 

The musical is a show within a show.  It centers on Miguel de Cervantes (David Pittsinger), along with his manservant (Brian Michael Hoffman), who have been thrown into a dungeon during the Spanish Inquisition.  They are put on “trial” by the other prisoners and, as his defense, Cervantes weaves a tale of adventure and righteousness aided by the other prisoners awaiting their fate.

He now becomes Alonso Quijana, a learned man who has read too many books on chivalry and injustice that he has lost his mind.  Renaming himself Don Quixote he and his manservant/squire, Sancho Panza, set out to combat oppression.  His tale includes, among others, an irascible barmaid, Aldonza (Talia Thiesfield), now named The Lady Dulcinea; an innkeeper; Don Quixote’s niece; her fiancée, played by one of the prisoners known as “The Duke” (David Edwards); and padre (Matthew Krob).

Librettist Dale Wasserman adapted the musical from his play, “I, Don Quixote” which, in turn, is based on the 17th century novel, Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes.   The device of a play being enacted within the show works well.  It can sometimes become a bit convoluted and hard to explain, but it allows the production to open up and portray many characters and sets that would, otherwise, be unworkable.  The themes brought out in the show, such as being true to your beliefs, standing up to your ideals and passions, and facing our fears, are universal.  They are, in part, what make Man of La Mancha such a perennial favorite among theater companies.

Composer Mitch Leigh and lyricist Joe Darion have crafted one of the finest scores to come from a Broadway musical.  Almost every song is memorable and range from rousing anthems, comedic gems, and plaintive ballads.  They include the title song, “Dulcinea,” “I’m Only Thinking of Him,” “It’s All the Same,” and “The Impossible Dream.”  The very talented cast has rich and powerful voices that melodically resonate throughout the venerable playhouse.

The cast is led by David Pittsinger as Cervantes/Don Quixote.  He perfectly embodies both characters.  He has a commanding presence on stage whether playing the somber, matter-of-fact Cervantes waiting for his time before the inquisition or as Don Quixote, the slightly mad, righteous knight.  His impressive voice brings depth and brilliance to each of his songs.  Brian Michael Hoffman as his manservant/Sancho Panza while, at first, coming across as more a fool, quickly demonstrates he is a man not to be trifled with.  His love, admiration, and genuine caring for his master rings true. Talia Thiesfield’s take charge, independent-minded Aldonza/Dulcinea can be as cantankerous as an aggrieved hornet or as disconsolate as a discarded child.  She displays strength and vulnerability in her role.  James Van Treuren is a demanding, forceful overseer of the prison cells as their Governor and is a touch more magnanimous as the Innkeeper.  David Edwards, with a leer and a self-important gait, gives his characters “The Duke,” a prison rapscallion, and Dr. Sanson Carrasco, fiancée of Quixote’s niece, a pompous, haughty air.

David Edwards, doubling as director, takes a firm rein to the production, keeping its pacing brisk.  He assuredly handles the back and forth between reality and make believe.  Two central scenes—where Aldonza is brutally attacked and carried away by the denizens of the inn and the Knight of the Mirrors, where Don Quixote is, literally, faced with his demons, are handled with confidence and aplomb.

Scenic Designer Daniel Nischan has constructed a simple set of connecting platforms, but they serve their purpose well, both as hiding places for the prisoners and as basic building blocks for the tale Cervantes tells.  Along with Lighting Designer Marcus Abbott they have created a space that is confining as well as liberating.

Man of La Mancha, a production to be savored and applauded, through October 2nd.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Review of "Little Shop of Horrors"

The musical Little Shop of Horrors is a perennial favorite among Connecticut regional theaters.  The sci-fi spoof, centering on a rather large man-eating plant, is based on Roger Corman’s 1960 cult film classic.  Done right, it is an entertaining and amusing show as demonstrated by the current production at Playhouse-on-Park in West Hartford.

The plot of the musical is simple.  Seymour (Steven Mooney), a nebbish of sorts, works at a flower shop on New York’s Skid Row.  His co-worker Audrey (Emily Kron) is a beauty with low self-esteem and a sadistic boyfriend (Aidan Eastwood) employed as a dentist.  The two toil away at Mushnik’s (Damian Buzzerio) storefront awaiting any type of customer.  One day Seymour unveils a plant purchased under mysterious circumstances that soon attracts shoppers because of its uniqueness.  The trouble is regular plant food won’t suffice and as its true diet is revealed the lives of everyone in the Skid Row shop become topsy-turvy with unsettling consequences.

Steven Mooney as Seymour, Rasheem Ford as Audrey II (voice), and Susan Slotoroff as Audrey II (manipulator) (photo: Meredith Atkinson)
The strength of the show is the casting.  All the principle actors smoothly fit into their roles delivering two hours of merriment, mayhem and tunefulness.  West Hartford native Steven Mooney as Seymour is nerdy and consistently in the dumps.  But his energetic performance helps transform the character into someone a bit less pathetic and more believing in himself.  Emily Kron is at times disconsolate and somewhat meek, but can also show some spunk as the wistful, heart-of-gold Audrey.  Damian Buzzerio could show a little more compassion as the  hard-bitten, downtrodden Mr. Mushnik.  Aidan Eastwood infuses Orin the dentist with just the amount of degenerate fiendishness without being too over-the-top.   The threesome of Brandi Porter (Chiffon), Cherise Clarke (Crystal), and Famecia Ward (Ronnette) form a winning mini Greek chorus along with their supporting roles.  They give the production a continuous amount of zip.  Even with a superior acting group Little Shop of Horrors would not work without a colorful, boisterous Audrey II.  Thankfully, the team of Rasheem Ford and puppeteer Susan Slotoroff form a dynamic union that gives the growing plant a believability that is both engaging and somewhat scary.

The score by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken is witty, playful, and melodic and can be very funny.  These are the two men behind such Disney animated classics at The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.  The songs include do-wop, yearning ballads, comedic gems, and unusual duets.  You can see why Disney plucked them from the theatrical ranks to reinvigorate their moribund animated film division.

Famecia Ward as Ronnette, Rasheem Ford as Audrey II (voice), Steven Mooney as Seymour, Emily Kron as Audrey, and Aidan Eastwood as Orin Scrivello, DDS (photo: Rich Wagner)
Director Susan Haefner adroitly exploits the theater’s limited space to the production’s advantage.  The closeness of the performers to each other and to the audience gives the musical a vibrancy and immediacy.  She successfully incorporates the Audrey II into the mix as it slowly grows and literally takes over the stage.  Haefner also adds some inventive flourishes as with the utilization of rotary telephones during the opening scene of Act II.  Doubling as choreographer, she adds some splendid, incidental dance routines.

Scenic Designer Brian Dudkiewicz has creatively utilized the small Playhouse stage.  His multi-functioning set pieces add variety to the production, which gives an overall vibe of a seedy, decrepit, broken-down area of New York City. 

The onstage, four-piece band, under musical director Penny Brandt, is a tight unit that provides enthusiastic accompaniment to the show.

Little Shop of Horrors, a lighthearted and spirited good time at Playhouse-on-Park.  It’s also a good show to introduce tweens and teens to musical theater.  Now through October 16th.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Review of "What the Butler Saw"

Playwright Joe Orton, in his short life, created a number of shocking, almost surreal theatrical productions in the mid-1960’s.  These scandalous black comedies were ahead of their time and can still titillate today. What the Butler Saw, playing at the Westport Country Playhouse through September 10th, is an outrageous example of his work.  The laughs come in fits and starts in this bawdy, lascivious farce that skewers blundering bureaucrats, puffed-up psychiatrists, and sexual peccadilloes. 

The show opens as Dr. Prentice, a lecherous fool, is interviewing for a new secretary.  He convinces the naïve young female applicant to undress behind a curtain in his examining room.  That straightforward request sets off a chain reaction of events that slowly spiral out of control, creating one screwball scenario after another for the assorted eccentrics and misfits.  Part of the fun of the show is how the playwright takes a simple premise and through misdirection, misinterpretation and misinformation creates a madcap world.

L-R:  Robert Stanton, Sarah Manton, and Paxton Whitehead in “What the Butler Saw,” at Westport Country Playhouse.   Photo by Carol Rosegg
The acting corps is first-rate.  Robert Stanton is sterling as the debauched psychiatrist Dr. Prentice.  He enriches his character with a dash of daftness, a dollop of prissiness, and an overwhelming sense of grandeur.  Paxton Whitehead, a familiar face at Westport and a seasoned veteran, is marvelous as the pompous, overeager Dr. Rance.  His wild psychological theories and self-aggrandized actions help ratchet up the absurdity of the play.  Patricia Kalember is deliciously lusty as the somewhat over-the-hill, sexpot wife of Dr. Prentice.  She is both vulnerable and scrappy with her husband and the other characters.  Julian Gamble is wonderfully befuddled as the Sergeant on the beat.  Sarah Manton as Geraldine Barclay, a secretarial applicant who inadvertently sets the whole story in motion, is suitably perplexed as she too is caught in the show’s absurd vortex.  Chris Ghaffari is naughtily cocksure as Nicholas Beckett, a brash, overly confident, sex-driven bellhop.
L-R:   Robert Stanton, Julian Gamble, and Chris Ghaffari in “What the Butler Saw,” at Westport Country Playhouse.  Photo by Carol Rosegg
Director John Tillinger, who has helmed many of Joe Orton’s plays, keeps a self-assured hand on the production.  There are four entranceways onto the stage and the director uses the comings and goings of the actors to great comic effect.  Tillinger allows scenes to slowly build to their essential hilarity.  He has the trust of the performers as many of them parade out in various stages of dress, undress and cross-dressing.

What the Butler Saw, a rarely produced theatrical gem worth a visit at the Westport Country Playhouse through September 10th.