Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Review of "Something Rotten!"

Portions of this review are based on a previous production.

The Broadway musical Something Rotten!, a rollicking, no-holds barred extravaganza, is playing at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford, CT through February 4th.   The show is fun, clever, and full of merriment.

It is the end of the 16th century and William Shakespeare (Adam Pascal) has achieved rock star status as the playwright everyone loves and wants to emulate.  Enter the Bottom brothers, Nick (Rob McClure) and Nigel (Josh Grisetti), that write and produce their own plays in the shadow of The Bard.  Unfortunately, they are in desperate need of a hit to keep their merry band of actors together and placate their moneyed patron.   Complicating matters is Nick’s desire to make a better life for him and his wife Bea (Maggie Lakis) and Nigel’s love for Portia (Autumn Hurlbert) the daughter of the holier-than-thou Puritan, Brother Jeremiah (Scott Cote).  In desperation, Nick turns to a demented soothsayer (Blake Hammond) to help him divine the next big thing in the theater.  His simple response of musicals sets in motion the wild, wacky and hugely entertaining Something Rotten!

The book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell is very funny, poking fun at theater conventions and musicals of the past.  They have given their large and polished ensemble of performers robust characters, not an easy feat with so many actors and actresses requiring stage time.  While the defining premise of the show is rather offbeat, the two somehow make it work. 

The score by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick is a delight.  Tuneful, zany and frenzied the songs are delivered with a full-throttled gusto by the talented cast.  From the raucous opening number, “Welcome to the Renaissance,” to the bellyaching complaints of “God, I Hate Shakespeare,” to the madcap production numbers “A Musical” and “We See the Light,” the songs have a joyful assault on our auditory senses.

The cast is led by Rob McClure, a Broadway veteran (starring roles in Chaplin and Honeymoon in Vegas), as Nick Bottom.  He is uproariously funny, a superb dancer and singer.  The success of Something Rotten! depends on a superlative performance by the misguided, resolute Bottom brother and McClure delivers with energy to spare.  Josh Grisetti, as his brother Nigel, is hysterically excitable.  It’s great to see the triple threat actor in such a form-fitting role.  Now, if someone can just write him an original Broadway musical to star in.  Adam Pacal seems like he is having a lot of fun playing the boorish, calculating Shakespeare.  Maggie Lakis, popping up intermittently, provides humorous stability.  Autumn Hurlbert shows real comic skills and pairs up perfectly with Grisetti as the sweetest of sweethearts.  Blake Hammond is rib-tickling hilarious and is an audience favorite as he leads members cast in the Act I showstopper, “A Musical.”

Director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw takes full rein of the show, making it a tightly run piece of musical theater.  Nicholaw’s work is well-thought out bringing forth superb performances by the skillful group of thespians.  As choreographer his high-octane dance numbers bring down the house.

The scenic design by Scott Pask can be whimsical; the costumes by Gregg Barnes are colorful with a slightly off-kilter take on renaissance garb.

Something Rotten!, a boisterous and jaunty ride not to be missed, playing through February 4th.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Review of "Constellations"

The plot of Constellations is as old as the stars.  Boy and girl meet, break-up, reunite, and then, sadly, tragedy.  There’s a unique twist, however, to the story as it moves forward.  Instead of heading in a linear direction with one trajectory there are numerous threads to the narrative that are explored.  For instance, the opening scene between Marianne (Allison Pistorius), a cosmologist and Roland (M. Scott McLean), a beekeeper is portrayed multiple ways.  The actors start and then restart the action with slight variations before the next scene begins, reconfigured with alternative pathways.

The idea of a world with potentially limitless perspectives is teased out by playwright Nick Payne.  During the early days of their relationship Marianne attempts to explain her work as a physicist studying the origins of the universe, which could also include the notion of parallel universes.  The start and stop nature of the production, as the characters in this two-person show continue to move forward with their lives together, genuinely works.  At times, though, this 75-minute play becomes somewhat tedious with the back and forth but, overall, the imagination and originality of the show, coupled with the rapport between the characters, makes Constellations a winning production.

The two performers bring a simplicity and complexity to their roles.  M. Scott McLean, who was so good in Midsummer a few seasons back at Theaterworks, once again displays his prowess for playing quirky, appealing characters.  He finely displays a wide-range of personality traits, sometimes calling forth many within a very short time period as a scene is replayed a number of times.  Allison Pistorius is an engaging actress that can be affable one moment, sentimental the next, passionate or just a jerk. 

The difficulty for Rob Ruggiero, one of the most skilled and versatile directors in Connecticut, is how to take two people talking on a small circular stage and create an absorbing and intriguing production.  To complicate matters, the mini-scenes are constantly repeated so there needs to be the slightest nuance or twist at every variation to keep the audience involved and caring about the characters.  Fortunately, Ruggiero has enough savvy and artistry to forge a successful, enticing, and bittersweet comedy-drama come to life.

The set design by Jean Kim, a theater-in-the-round space that emulates a planetarium configuration, and Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting design, consisting of small bulbs twinkling above the stage and reacting to the emotions below, helps set the mood for the play.  Michael Miceli’s inventive sound design and Billy Bivona’s original music augment the atmospheric nature of the show.

Constellations, a beguiling and wily take on two people navigating the landscape of love.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Review of "Feeding the Dragon"

Playwright and performer Sharon Washington spent part of her formative years living in the New York Public Library.  In her absorbing and entertaining one-woman show, Feeding the Dragon, she chronicles this magical experience as well as her family’s life within the confines of the repository.

In the early 1970’s she and her family lived in an apartment on the top floor of the St. Agnes branch of the library.  Heated by a coal furnace, the structure had to be maintained day and night.  A custodian was needed, such as her father, and given the spacious living quarters in exchange for stoking the fire and providing other routine work in the building.  When the library closed the young girl had free rein to roam the stacks, explore the interior’s nooks and crannies, and play atop the walled roof of the building.

The talented and ebullient actress does a laudable job connecting with the Hartford Stage patrons and enthralls the audience with her after hours adventures.  But her tale is not solely about her personal exploits and hijinks.  A good part of the show incorporates her no-nonsense mother, hard-working father and other family relations.  Their character’s interactions help round out the performance, providing background and depth to the story. 

While Ms. Washington’s portrayals are engaging and her autobiographic memories appealing, Feeding the Dragon lacks a definable dramatic arc that could have made her story more affecting.  There are junctures during the performance that could have been exploited for more theatrical moments.

Director Maria Mileaf skillfully paces the show.  She is at her best when guiding the performer through her impressions and derring-do.  She has the actress utilize all of the inventive set design by Tony Ferrieri, which has steps and risers, composed of colorful book binders, leading to a small stage.  Ann Wrightson’s lighting design and Lindsay Jones’ original music and sound design add texture and fullness to the production. 

Feeding the Dragon, an enjoyable and winning solo performance.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Review of "John Lithgow - Stories by Heart"

The multi-talented actor John Lithgow knows how to tell a story.  Actually, he recites two short works of fiction in his one-man show, Stories by Heart.   For almost two hours the award-winning thespian of stage, screen and television captivates and entertains the audience with a theatrical delivery of the stories.  Stories and their power are the central theme of the production. 

Lithgow starts the show talking about his upbringing and, particularly, how his father inspired him to become an actor through his creation and management of many Shakespearean theater companies and festivals—some successful and some not.  As a pre-teen boy, Lithgow became mesmerized by the dramatics he beheld.  These on-stage productions were supplemented by a nightly ritual of bedtime stories read and performed by their dad.  Each night, Lithgow and his two other siblings would select a passage from a 1,000+ page volume containing dozens of short works that would then be acted out. 

To recreate the wonder he felt as a young lad, the performer brings us “The Haircut,” by Ring Lardner, in Act I.  Act II’s spotlight is PG Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By.”  The actor bookends the show by describing his father’s ill-health year’s later and how the ability of a story invigorated and revitalized him.

At its best the show pulsates as when an animated Lithgow portrays multiple, rather eccentric characters from the PG Wodehouse tale.  But the emphasis on the two stories, which account for most of the two-hour production, can come across like a one-trick pony.  If the stories don’t resonate there’s not much else to grab onto.

Dan Sullivan demonstrates his prowess as director by deftly guiding the actor through his various portrayals during the pair of recitations.

Stories by Heart, a very personal, mostly entertaining memoir, from one of our finest actors. 

Review of "Steel Magnolias"

Midway through the first act of the resplendent production of Steel Magnolias, playing at Playhouse on Park, one of the ladies at Truvy’s Beauty Salon states, “This is woman’s territory.”  How true.  In Robert Harling’s genial and tenderhearted play, the six woman of Chinquapin, Louisiana rule the roost.   There lives, from the mundane and everyday, to life changing moments, are warmly and affectionately celebrated.
Dorothy Stanley as Clairee, Susan Slotoroff as Shelby (photo Meredith Atkinson)
All the action of the show takes place in the small southern town’s beauty parlor where, at first, the local matrons are gathering to fuss and chitchat about the upcoming wedding of hometown girl, Shelby.  The conversations and playful banter between the women, as the bride-to-be gets primped and styled, come off as natural and unforced.  We learn about each character—the high-spirited Shelby; her petit, but dynamic mother, M’Lynn; the perky salon owner, Truvy; her young and na├»ve assistant, Annelle; the deceased Mayor’s wife, Clairee; and the wise-cracklng resident, Ousier.  The dramatic highpoint of the production comes towards the end as tragedy strikes one of the central members of this tight-knit group.
Jill Taylor Anthony as Truvee, Peggy Osbourne as Ouiser, Susan Slotoroff as Shelby, Liza Couser as Anelle, Dorothy Stanley as Clairee (photo Curt Henderson)
Harling has written a play where not much really happens beyond idle chatter and juicy gossip.  There’s a lot of this and that.  Problems and scenarios are presented and easily resolved.  Still, even with the matter-of-fact slice-of-life plot lines, the characters resonate with the audience.  They are encouraging and affectionate of one another and we, in turn, grow to care and become supportive of them.  In a way, the show is like old-fashioned, satisfying comfort food.  It makes you feel good and leaves you blissfully content at the end.
Liza Couser as Anelle, Jill Taylor Anthony as Truvee (photo Curt Henderson)
The cast has an easy, unmistakable rapport with one another.  They are led by Susan Slotoroff as Shelby.  A Playhouse on Park regular, the actress does a fine job radiating optimism and a full-of-life bravado.  Jeannie Hines has the role of the overly protective, worrisome mother, M’Lynn, down pat.  Jill Taylor Anthony is buoyant, yet sensible as Truvy, the mostly unflappable ringmaster of the group.  Liza Couser’s Annelle shows growth and purpose, the one character that undergoes any transformation during the production.  Dorothy Stanley’s Clairee, widowed, but whole-heartedly alive, brings forth a vitality and intrepidness to her role.  Peggy Cosgrave’s Ousier is a pistol.  Audacious and disagreeable to a fault, she adds needed comic relief whenever the air gets too heavy.
Liza Couser as Anelle, Jill Taylor Anthony as Truvee, Peggy Osbourne as Ouiser, Susan Slotoroff as Shelby (photo Curt Henderson)
Susan Haefner has a laid back, easy-going manner with her direction.  She skillfully maneuvers the cast members around Set Designer David Lewis’ realistic, homespun beauty parlor without the actresses remaining too static and passive.  She produces a relaxed, almost informal mood on stage that is more deftly planned and executed rather then mere happenstance.  Occasionally, the characters are edged to the corners of the three-sided performing space, which impedes the audience’s sight lines, but this problem is a minor one.  Ms. Haefner adroitly handles the play’s climatic scene with tact and compassion.

Steel Magnolias, a breezy and engaging production, playing through January 28th.