Monday, July 31, 2017

Review of "The Government Inspector"

Fans of the Marx Brothers and Keystone Kops, rejoice, for the inspired lunacy and theatrics in Nikolai Gogol’s classic comedy, The Government Inspector.  The Red Bull Theater’s production, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher, is nonstop laughter provided by a seasoned group of comedic actors.  The show is playing at New World Stages Off-Broadway at 50th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues.

The premise of the 1836 Russian play is simple.  The corrupt mayor of a small-town, along with the equally corrupt and morally bankrupt school principal, judge, hospital director, and others panic when word filters in that a government inspector is in the vicinity to check the goings on in town.  They mistakenly believe a young, self-absorbed, womanizing, and carousing bon vivant from St. Petersburg, staying at the local inn, is the man.  Immediately, a delegation of the unscrupulous bureaucrats and businessmen seek him out, lavishing praise and money upon him in the hope of keeping him quiet.  When the mayor invites him to stay at his palatial home he cheerfully accepts.  The outcome is semi-controlled inanity and a denouncement that surprises all.

Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation is brisk and full of hilarity.  In the program booklet, he states he did not update the essence of the script because the portrayals are so recognizable, even in today’s topsy turvey world.  By stretching the scheming and shenanigans to absurd levels he brings out the stupidity of the characters.  The byproduct is a sprightly hoopla, which is consistently frisky and buoyant.

The cast is a treasure trove of top-notch funnymen and women.  I could spend much of this review rhapsodizing about each cast member, but let me, instead, highlight just a few.  Michael Urie is glorious as the egotistical swaggerer, Ivan Alexandreyevich Hlestakov.  He is so good as a pompous ass taking advantage of the imbecilic officials.  The actor is also a superb physical comedian, which adds a layer of looniness to his performance.   Michael McGrath smartly plays it straight as Mayor Antonovich, a man so full of greed and hubris.  The result magnifies his shallowness and idiocy.  Arnie Burton, doubling as Hlestakov’s sarcastic, uppity servant Osip and the buffoonish Postmaster, is outrageously funny.  He adds an extra zing to the production whenever he is on stage.  Mary Testa as Anna Andreyevna, the Mayor’s wife, is cheeky, loud-mouthed and brings a tactless brashness to her role. 

Director Jesse Berger smartly lets the skirmishes and conflicts of the banal, crooked town administrators dictate the sweep of the production.  He doesn’t go looking for laughs unnecessarily, but let’s the action, humor and absurdity come out naturally.  Berger skillfully maneuvers the large cast with deft and precision, integrating physical comedy into the uproariousness of the script.

The two-tiered set by Alexis Distler divides the performing space into three distinct areas.  The two lower level sections, cramped and utilitarian, amplify the comedic action as the group of actors uneasily maneuver about the rooms.  The single upper level allows for broader clowning and farcical elements.  Tilly Grimes’ Costume Design can be whimsical, seemingly plucked from a Marx Brothers release as well as grandly ceremonious.  Greg Pliska’s Sound Design and original music add an element of audio lunacy to the production.

The Government Inspector, highly entertaining and full of laughs by an outstanding, riotous cast.  

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Review of "Money Talks"

The new musical romp, Money Talks, has a fun premise as we follow a $100 bill, the one with Ben Franklin’s face front and center, and see its impact on individuals as it is passed from person to person.  But the piece of currency that is continually forked over is not just a C-Note, but Ben Franklin himself.  In the guise of actor Ralph Byers, dressed regally in a monetary suit, Mr. Franklin gives the audience a running commentary on his journeys in addition to an endless stream of his witty, humorous maxims.   
The cast of "Money Talks" at the Davenport Theater Off-Broadway.

After a jaunty opening number by the four-person cast, each wardrobed as a different denomination of legal tender, the trek begins when a hedge fund manager passes the $100 bill to a stripper, which her slacker husband then “borrows” for a poker tournament in Las Vegas and so on and so on.  The 90 minute odyssey ends at the beginning as loose ends from some of the more charming and absorbing stories are neatly brought to a close.

The book by Peter Kellogg, who also contributed lyrics to the score, is a sometimes serious, more lighthearted meditation on the meaning of money.  The show has numerous scenes, some better conceived and more engaging than others.  They are broken up with tuneful songs by composer David Friedman and Mr. Kellogg.  They encompass amusing compositions, pleasing ballads, a gospel tune, and even a rollicking hoedown.
The cast of "Money Talks" at the Davenport Theater Off-Broadway.

The cast, led by Ralph Byers as a befuddled, still wise Benjamin Franklin, is a likeable, seasoned group of professionals.  The other three members of the troupe--Sandra DeNise, Brennan Caldwell, and George Merrick—take on numerous roles throughout the musical demonstrating their comedic abilities as well as a more penetrating presence.

Director/Choreographer Michael Chase Gosselin keeps the pacing brisk, skillfully incorporating the sage Ben Franklin without weighing down the storyline.  He has the quartet of actors working together nimbly as a well-oiled ensemble and smoothly breaks up the show with the occasional small-scale production number. 

Ann Beyersdorfer’s Scenic Design, while minimally conceived for the pocket-sized Davenport Theatre stage, feels full and robust.  She is amply assisted by Ido Levran’s whimsical Projections, which add a highly satisfying component to the show.  They help establish the setting for each vignette and adroitly move the action from scene to scene.

Money Talks, a bouncy, entertaining piece of merriment.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Review of "Raging Skillet"

[Note:  For translation of the Yiddish words used in this review (in bold), go to The Yiddish Handbook.]

Oy vey!  What mishegas is cooking up at Theaterworks where Jacque Lamarre’s newest creation, Raging Skillet, has settled in through August 27th.  The show is equal parts cooking demonstration and combative mother-daughter relationship, with a heaping tablespoon of Jewish guilt. 
George Salazar and Dana Smith-Croll from "Raging Skillet."
The play, based on the true story of Rossi, a self-proclaimed lesbian, punk rocking chef, opens with the chef and partner in crime DJ Skillit, about to begin a book signing event and cooking demonstration in her kitchen.  Before she can start her mother strolls onto the stage to kvell over her daughter’s success.  The chutzpah of mom!  The problem is mom has been deceased for quite a few years.  Still, she is now part of the setting and for the next 90 minutes the late Mrs. Ross and her daughter dredge up old wounds, bicker, and relive the good times and bad.  The two kvetch, they plotz as the third member of the triumvirate, DJ Skillet, comforts, humors, and obliges his boss.

Playwright Jacuqes Lamarre mixes a number of themes and storylines together without settling on one constant direction.  It is an inconsistent concoction with the constant interweaving of the chef’s backstory and her stormy relationship with her mother.  The concept he has presented is fun and interactive, sometimes a bit schmaltzy.  Several appetizers and drinks—anyone for a Manischewitz Spritzer--is prepared and served to the audience throughout the production.  But the essence of the show, the dramatic arc of Chef Rossi’s life, is only somewhat realized.  There is an over reliance on Yiddish words and terms that will leave some audience members not getting the jokes. 
George Salazar and Marilyn Sokol from "Raging Skillet."
The three performers work well together, effectively playing off each other’s strengths and rhythms.  Dana Smith-Croll gives Rossi an irascible, fiery spirit, which could have been even edgier.  The actress is at ease playing with and connecting with the audience.  George Salazar as DJ Skillet comes across as a believable sidekick who is more technician—mixing music with his handheld device and pumping up the audience with his ever-present wireless microphone.  Marilyn Sokol is wonderful as Mrs. Ross, the over wrought mother and yenta. She can be a bit over-the-top with her portrayal, but adds humor leavened with sentiment.
Marilyn Sokol and Dana Smith-Croll from "Raging Skillet."
Director John Simpkins relies on a lot of shtick to keep the performers busy and the play moving forward.  They hustle and bustle around Michael Schweikardt’s finely detailed kitchen set.  The food preparation and serving works well, but there is a lot of lag time when the characters break the fourth wall and pass out the treats.  This disrupts the tempo of the production and requires a constant restart of the play’s momentum.  Working with Sound Designer Julian Evans and Lighting Designer John Lasiter, Simpkins has Integrated snippets of loud, contemporary music and a variety of lighting to pump up the crowd and showcase the fitfulness and punk roots of the main character.

Raging Skillet, playing at Theaterworks in Hartford through August 27th.   For information, go to or call 860.527.7838.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Review of "Grounded"

Elizabeth Stahlmann as The Pilot in "Grounded."
The art of war has grown more sophisticated and lethal with the advent of technological advances.  In 2002 weaponry took a quantum leap forward when a drone was used for the first time in combat.  These small, pilotless aircraft had enough firepower to level a fortified bunker as well as the precision to target an individual enemy combatant.  Since the early part of the 20th century drone usage has risen dramatically.  The increase in this new breed of military hardware has also necessitated a different type of aviator or, as The Pilot in George Brant’s provocative, ripped-from-the-headlines one-person show states, The Chair-Force.

At the center of the play is the nameless female pilot who lives for soaring through the heavens in F-16 fighters.  After an inadvertent pregnancy grounds her she is eventually shifted to a desk job guiding drones on their silent missions.  At first rebellious over the assignment, she eventually settles into the routine of long, tedious hours watching a monitor in a small cubicle, hoping for some action that would take place thousands of miles away.  While not glamorous, the position affords her a 9:00-5:00PM job and time with her daughter and husband.  Slowly, though, the physical and psychological demand from the tedium and stress begins to take its toll on her personal life as well as her career, resulting in unforeseen results.

Playwright George Brant has crafted a mostly engrossing story that is at times riveting, humorous, and shattering.  He has taken an aspect of modern day warfare that most of us know little about and illuminated it with both dramatic flair and subtlety.  The language can be coarse and penetrating.  Together they give an air of authenticity to the to the story.

Actress Elizabeth Stahlmann delivers a gripping and captivating performance as The Pilot.  Her every emotion, every nuance is openly on display.  This total embodiment of the character by the actress, whether sky high with exhilaration or distressed over her disquieting circumstances, draws the audience deeper into the recesses of her soul.  Her mannerisms, overt and slight, add a richer dimension to the role.

Managing the performance of a one-person show can be difficult.  But Director Liz Diamond has done a laudable job in making the play interesting and compelling.  She has skillfully taken Ms. Stahlmann and molded her into a believable character, celebrating her joys and exposing her anguish.  Ms. Diamond has reduced the performing space to a minimum, giving the audience a feel for the confined and sequestered space of The Pilot.  She has also judiciously integrated projections into the production.

Yana Birykova’s projection designs, emblazoned across the back of the stage, allows the audience to surreptitiously view what The Pilot is seeing in her viewfinder.  Their prudent use, along with Kate Marvin’s sound design and Solomon Weisbard’s lighting design it gives an added dimension of urgency and reality to the show.   

Grounded, playing at the Westport Country Playhouse through July 29th.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Review of "West Side Story"

The street gangs, the Jets and Sharks, are battling anew in the problematic production of the Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim/Arthur Laurents classic, West Side Story, playing at the Ivoryton Playhouse through July 30th.  The musical can be utterly captivating, primarily when actress Mia Pinero, who plays the innocent, love struck Maria, is on stage.  The actress has a golden, powerful voice that radiates sonorously throughout the historic theater.  However, the elevated moments are tempered by a mostly young cast whose exuberance comes across as somewhat headstrong and unruly.

For patrons unfamiliar with the musical, the story parallels Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  Tony (Stephen Mir) and Maria (Mia Pinero) are the two star-crossed lovers from different worlds and ethnicities.  Their deeply felt romance, nonetheless, leads to tragedy even though, ultimately, there is reconciliation between the two gangs.  

Book writer Arthur Laurents brings an urgency to the story that can still crackle today.  When the show opened in 1957 the raw emotions of the characters, the urban setting, and unforgiving street life were jarring to audiences.  The uncompromising race relations between the Puerto Rican youths and their white counterparts were powerful images that, while not as impactful today, sixty years later still resonate loudly.

The score, with music by Leonard Bernstein, who was at the height of his composing skills; and lyrics by an unseasoned Stephen Sondheim, still endures to this day.  Every song seems like a timeless classic from the rousing opening “Jet Song” to the lovely, haunting duets of “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart” to the comedic “I Feel Pretty” and “Gee, Officer Krupke.”  I only wish the pit band could have been located somewhere on the staging area, as opposed to underneath, to avoid a slight muffling of the sound.  

The cast, a mix of professionals, recent college graduates and current higher education students, is full of vitality and abandon.  The fervor most of them bring to the musical energizes the production, but also leads to uneven performances.   Stephen Mir, as Tony, has a strong voice and boy-next-door quality, but lacks the commanding presence required by the former leader of the Jets.  Conor Robert Fallon’s Riff has the passion necessary for the role of second-in-command of the street gang, but needs a more nuanced approach to the role.  Likewise, Victor Borjas’ portrayal of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, could have used more shading to bring out his outrage and contempt.  The other male characters, again, have an impassioned zeal, but could have displayed more subtlety and restraint.  The two key women, on the other hand, have a confident stage presence that invigorates the production.  Mia Pinero’s Maria is sweet, naïve, and bursting with love.  She has a stunning voice that make her duets with Stephen Mir one of the main highlights of the show.  Natalie Madlon’s Anita is sexy, self-assured, yet vulnerable.  She is so well poised on stage that she demands your attention.  Hillary Ekwalls shows a cageyness and adroitness in the minor role of Anybodys.

Director/Choreographer Todd L. Underwood has helmed a production which can soar, yet also swoop.   The pacing of the show comes fast and furious, with echoes of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography.  But the task of harnessing the sometimes unbounded enthusiasm of his actors in group settings proves daunting.  He Is more successful in the intimate scenes and the musical’s comedic turns.  The dream sequence in Act II, for those not familiar with the storyline, came across as perplexing.

The Set Design by Daniel Nischan, with its hinged scenery opening and closing to create distinct locales, is judicious in its use of space to create minimal, yet different settings.  The Lighting Design by Marcus Abbott helps augment the tensions in the show.  His use of shadows heightens the drama and ferment of the production.

West Side Story, playing at the Ivoryton Placehouse through July 30th.  For tickets go to the Ivoryton website.

Review of "Singin in the Rain"

Tucked away in a small tent off the New Canaan High School parking lot is one of the most entertaining musicals of the summer season. There, the Summer Theatre of New Canaan is presenting a highly gratifying and dazzling production of Singin’ in the Rain. Based on the 1952 film classic of the same name, the stage version is just as lively and humorous as its celluloid counterpart. Coupled with an ageless score, this ode to the beginnings of movie talkies is a feast for eyes and ears alike.
The ensemble from Singin' in the Rain.

The plot, frothy and vapid, is a variation of the ageless storyline of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and, finally, boy wins girl.   It focuses on silent movie idols Don Lockwood (Matthew Tiberi) and Lina Lamont (Jodi Stevens). In public, they are the blissful couple, but in private they mesh like oil and vinegar. Their careers face upheaval with the advent of sound that, overnight, begins sweeping through the motion picture industry.  The problem-- Lina Lamont’s speaking and singing voice are dreadful.  However, Don’s best friend and studio gopher, Cosmo Brown (David Rossetti), comes up with the novel idea of having the fresh-faced young actress Kathy Selden (Annabelle Fox) dub Lamont’s voice.  She, of course, is the woman Lockwood has previously met and really loves.   Through mishaps and missteps, the plan works as love prevails over adversity and the mean machinations of Lina Lamont.

The book of the show, adapted by Betty Comden and Adolph Green from their original screenplay, is light, breezy, and silly, but works wonderfully as a perfect summer tonic for musical theater fans. 

The score by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed is chock full of memorable songs, including “Make ‘Em Laugh,” “Moses Supposes,” “Good Morning,” and, of course, the title tune “Singin’ in the Rain.”  They are all gorgeously sung by the cast and delivered with vitality and good old-fashioned razz-ma-tazz.
Matt Tiberi (Don Lockwood) and Annabelle Fox (Kathy Selden) in Singin' in the Rain.
The cast is outstanding.  Matthew Tiberi is admirable as filmdom’s heartthrob, Don Lockwood.  He is charismatic, with a pleasing voice, and smoothly anchors the quartet of fine performers in the production.  David Rossetti as Cosmo Brown is the perfect sidekick.  The actor is a bundle of nervous energy who can dance up a storm, sing with a humorous twinkle, and deliver a bad pun without breaking a sweat.  He never fails to inject a dose of comedic flair into the production.  Annabelle Fox’s Kathy Selden is a triple threat.  She has a gorgeous voice, is a spirited hoofer and a convincing actress.  Her ever-present smile and cheerful persona light up the stage.  Jodi Stevens, who has performed brilliantly throughout Connecticut in the past year (as Sue Mengers in I’ll Eat You Last and Mazeppa in Gypsy, both at the Musical Theater of Connecticut), delivers another stellar portrayal as the self-absorbed, barely talented movie queen with the screechy voice, Lina Lamont.   
Annabelle Fox (Kathy Selden) and members of the ensemble from Singin' in the Rain.
Doug Shankman demonstrates why he was honored last year with the Best Choreographer award from the Connecticut Critics Circle.  The productions numbers, heavy on tap, are lavishly staged and performed with polish and sparkle by the leads and ensemble members. 

Director Melody Meitrott Libonati keeps the pacing fast, but with a light-handed touch.  The essence of Singin’ in the Rain is effervescent entertainment with a generous dollop of humor.  Ms. Libonati ensures these qualities are omnipresent throughout the production.  This is not to say her helming of the musical is capricious or casual.  On the contrary, she guides the show with professionalism and steadiness.
Matt Tiberi (Don Lockwood) Singin' in the Rain.
The Scenic Design by Charles Pavarini III captures the era with a combination of well-designed, brightly colored sets as well as utilizing minimal staging and props. His silent screen projections are quite funny parodies of silent movie artifice and add a playful element to the production.  And he puts on a convincing rain shower for the show’s signature dance number.

Robert Fletcher’s costumes creations are sumptuous and varied.  Devon Allen’s lighting design beautifully adds a layered ambiance to many scenes.

Singin’ in the Rain, a buoyant and highly entertaining production through July 30th.  Ticket information is at or (203) 966 – 4634.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Review of "Newsies"

This review incorporates elements from my original Broadway review.

The final production of the Connecticut Repertory Theater’s summer series is a scaled down version of the musical Newsies.  The show is based on a 1992 Disney movie that tells the story of an 1899 successful strike by the newsies (the orphans and street urchins that sold the daily newspapers on the streets of New York) against the powerful Joseph Pulitzer and his publication, The World.

The musical begins with the introductions of two of the main newsies--Jack Kelly, portrayed with a spunky, charismatic, self-confidence by Jim Schubin; and his disabled pal, Crutchie, played with determination and grit by Tyler Jones. Soon the other boys, a ragamuffin group, enter the scene and, from there, the storyline quickly develops as the young men decide to strike over an increase in their upfront costs (newsies needed to buy their newspapers and resell them at a slightly higher price). Fortifying the assemblage’s mettle are two fresh recruits to the newsie ranks—Davey, played with an initial immaturity and then a swaggering steadfastness by Noah Kieserman; and his younger brother, Les (Atticus L. Burello).  The balance of the show chronicles how these juveniles successfully bring their cause to the hearts and minds of both regular New Yorkers and the political elite.

The book by Harvey Fierstein is serviceable and sometimes a bit hokey, but it works in moving the action to its inevitable conclusion.

The score, by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, consists mostly of compositions from the movie version (which they also wrote), with a few new songs augmenting their earlier efforts. The score works best during the more up-tempo numbers—“The World Will Know,” “Seize the Day,” and the rousing Act II opener “King of New York.”  The songs are sung with a vitality, especially in the large ensemble numbers, and tenderness by the young cast members.

The cast, led by Jim Schubin, is combative, suave, and vulnerable as the head newsie, Jack Kelly. His performance is critical to the success of the production and the actor delivers with an appealing and captivating portrayal.  Noah Kieserman gives his character, Davey, a bit more shading then the other newsies as he grows from an innocent outsider of the group to a more resolute, strong-willed instigator.  He is the perfect ying to Schubin’s yang.  The role of Cruthie is the soul of the show and the actor Tyler Jones effectively conveys the emotion and toughness necessary for the character.  He brings a purposeful resolve to the part.   Paige Smith is spunky and full of determination as the girl reporter and love interest of Jack Kelly, but the actress needed more maturation to make the role complete.  The other young men in the production, well, strong acting is not really required for their parts. Delivering a smart aleck remark and palling around is pretty much what is required.  Richard R. Henry is feisty and bellicose as Joseph Pulitzer.  The other adult actors, while competent and professional, serve more as his foils to keep the storyline flowing.

The musical sometimes restlessly fits into the small space at the Nutmeg Series theater.  Director/Choreographer Christopher d’Amboise is able to bring cohesion to the group of performers, conveying both a sense of pathos, hardship, and comradeship of the street-wise youths.  He brings an urgency when the boys are on stage.   He is less successful in the scenes, few as they are, with the adult performers.  This is more to do with the nature of Fierstein’s book for the show.

The strength of Newsies has always been the full-throttled production numbers incorporated into the musical.  However, in this version, while the cast is athletic and lively, the dance routines are not as vibrant and spirited as they could be.  The “Wow” factor was missing.

Scenic designer Tim Brown has been able to construct a highly functional, yet not imposing set that finely hints at the claustrophobic nature of the late 19th and early 20th century tenements of New York City.

Newsies, an entertaining, family-friendly production, through July 16th.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Review of "The complete works of William Shakespeare (abridged)"

Wackiness is abounding at Playhouse on Park with their summer production of The complete works of William Shakespeare (abridged).  The show is two hours of amusing diversion with elements of farce, vaudeville and, especially, bad puns.  Audience members do not need to be Shakespearean scholars to enjoy the production, but it helps immensely to have at least a passing knowledge of two of The Bard’s greatest works—Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet.  All his plays are skewered, dissected, and minimalized at a sometimes breakneck speed.  There is not much in a chronological presentation of the works.  Basically, the flow is an abbreviated Romeo and Juliet, 34 other works, and then ending with a revved-up, if somewhat unnecessarily elongated, version of Hamlet.
Hanna Cheek, Rich Hollman, and Sean Harris from The complete works of William Shakespeare (unabridged) at Playhouse on Park, through July 30th.  Photo:  Curt Henderson.

Playwrights Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield have mined the Bard’s plays to produce a creative, inventive, and raucous piece of theater. Their one musical interlude, an Othello folk song, is one of the highlights of the show.  Viewers, however, with no familiarity of any of Shakespeare’s output will be somewhat befuddled by the antics on and off-stage.   The authors, according to the program notes, have made “the piece adaptable—to locale, the latest news or gossip, and most of all the personalities of the actors.”  There are many social media references, next door’s restaurant A.C. Petersen is mentioned prominently, and the current political climate doesn’t escape being zinged.  Some of the home-grown references could have been excised such as hawking subscriptions for the theater’s upcoming 9th season.  In fact, the entire production could have been trimmed to a mere streamlined 90-minute show as opposed to two hours with an intermission.
Rich Hollman and Hanna Cheek from The complete works of William Shakespeare (abridged) at Playhouse on Park through June 30th.  Photo:  Curt Henderson.

The actors--Hanna Cheek, Rich Hollman, and Sean Harris—playing thespians playing themselves have an infectious chemistry, which provides merriment for themselves and audience alike.  They literally attack their roles with aplomb and a joyful passion.  With the lightning speed of the production, however, it is sometimes hard to understand the verbal articulations on the compact stage. 

Director Tom Ridgely literally runs the cast ragged as the troupe bounds from one end of the theater—and I mean theater—to the other.  He has them rolling on the floor, locked in spirited combat, and interacting with the audience.  Costume changes are lightning quick as Mr. Ridgely pulls out all the stops to entertain. One of the challenges of the Playhouse theater is its three-sided configuration, which requires the cast occasionally speaking with their backs to the audience.  Minimizing this necessity would allow for more harmonious inclusion of the audience.

The complete works of William Shakespeare (abridged), a merry time with The Bard, through July 30th.