Saturday, March 31, 2018

Review of "The Fantasticks"

It’s not often that a musical is impeccably cast and exquisitely staged, but when it occurs it can be a moving and enchanting experience. The Fantasticks, playing at the Ivoryton Playhouse through April 8th, falls into this category.  A simple tale with a superb score and an innocent charm, the production is well-worth seeing.
Members of the cast of "The Fantasticks" at the Ivoryton Playhouse.

The book by Tom Jones plays on the classic boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back.  Matt (Ryan Bloomquist) and Luisa (Kimberly Immanuel), two young lovers living next door to each other, are the embodiment of impulsive exuberance.  Their mothers, Hucklebee (Patricia Schuman) and Bellomy (Carly Callahan) outwardly disapprove of the relationship and each other, but secretly are strong friends and want marriage for their offspring.  They employ a bandit, El Gallo (David Pittsinger), who brings along two accomplices, Henry (R. Bruce Connelly) and Mortimer (Will Clark) to help fake an abduction that makes Matt look like a hero.  Throughout the show a character known as The Mute (Cory Candelet) acts as a one-man Greek chorus providing assistance to others as well as delivering comedic interludes.  The plot by the women succeeds and at the end of Act I, everything is rosy.  However, Act II brings a darker tone to the story where self-discovery and introspection by the youthful pair, now branching out separately to the world outside their secure and sheltered world, becomes central to the narrative.  In the end, life lessons strengthen their bond as they resolve to forge ahead together.

The score by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt is one for the ages.  It includes such timeless classics as “Try to Remember,” “Soon It’s Gonna Rain,” and “Round and Round.”  The songs, accompanied simply by piano and harp, are charming and melodic, gorgeously rendered by the performers.

The cast is superb, led by David Pittsinger as El Gallo.  The bass-baritone has been a fixture the past few years at Ivoryton.  I was not totally enthralled with his Emile de Becque in South Pacific, but I thought he was outstanding as Don Quixote in last season’s Man of La Mancha.  Here, he is fittingly roguish with a twinkle in his eye and a lighthearted bounce in his step as the lead actor.  His rendition of the musical’s signature song, “Try to Remember,” is one of the highlights of the production. 
Kimberly Immanuel and David Pittsinger from "The Fantasticks" at the Ivoryton Playhouse.
The young couple, Ryan Bloomquist and Kimberly Immanuel, have a wonderful chemistry as they burst forth with potential and possibilities.  Na├»ve at first, by the final curtain they show a more knowing view of themselves and the world around them.  Ms. Immanuel is luminescent, exuding an effervescent quality that brightens the show.  Mr. Bloomquist projects a youthful bravado that matches the cheerfulness and vitality of his love interest.  In the supporting role of the two mothers, Patricia Schuman and Carly Callahan are suitably protective, nurturing, and befittingly display motherly concern and angst.  R. Bruce Connelly, as the old-time actor and hired hand, demonstrates his vibrancy and comic talents.  His partner in crime, Will Clark, proves an affable, equally comic, foil.  One of the most engaging performances is by Cory Candelet as The Mute.  Sometimes lurking in the background or off to the side, at other times more center stage, his clownish antics and silent screen-like histrionics add a giddy embellishment that enlivens the musical.

Brian Feehan’s direction is beautifully staged, combining subtle flourishes with explicit and straightforward guidance.  There is a polished sheen to the production that, nonetheless, does not overwhelm the unfussiness and forthrightness of the show.  He has a confident hand with the acting troupe that gives the production an engaging and assured flow. Interestingly, traditional presentations of the musical have two fathers, as opposed to female characters, cast in the show.  There is no mention in the program whether this was Mr. Feehan’s decision or otherwise but, either way, it has no effect on the quality or thrust of the show.

The scenic design by Martin Scott Marchitto uses a classical colonnade motif, which goes hand-in-hand with the archetype naturalness of the show.  The set is uncluttered, allowing for our imagination to reflect and ponder.

The Fantasticks, currently the best musical playing in Connecticut.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Review of "The Legend of Georgia McBride"

Poor Casey, a so-so Elvis impersonator plying his trade at a rundown bar on the Florida panhandle.  The audience is sparse, the money negligible, and the sudden need to support a growing family is a pressing concern.  His luck suddenly changes when, due to unforeseen circumstances, he is literally thrust on stage in a drag show revue with a new guise and attitude.

Thus begins The Legend of Georgia McBride, an entertaining, but slender offering from playwright Matthew Lopez.  There are themes of sexual identity and self-acceptance, but the material covered in the play offers only a smattering of dramatic substance that never really explores these issues in depth.  There are numerous musical, lip-syncing performances—a tad too many—that are enjoyable and comical, but after a while seem redundant.

Jamison Stern and Austin Thomas in "The Legend of Georgia Brown."
Casey (Austin Thomas) is at the center of the show.  His character, however, is hard to decipher.  Initially, he comes across as a very immature man-child, but in no time at all transforms into a more thoughtful, serious-minded individual.  The effect is somewhat jarring.  He is married to an understanding, but rather exasperated wife (Samaria Nixon-Fleming).  Their neighbor/landlord Jason (Nik Alexander), a childhood friend, drops in every so often about the overdue rent and provides sagely banter.  Eddie (J. Tucker Smith), the owner of the dive, looking to drum up business, brings in his cousin and his friend, drag performers Miss Tracy (Jamison Stern) and Rexy (Nik Alexander).  The interaction between the three performers, focusing on Casey’s slow-forming transformation, shapes the basis and modest dramatic arc of the show.

One of the central questions brought up in the play, but never fully resolved, is the motivation of Casey to continue with his new persona.  The uncertainty and muted approach lessens the impact of the production.  Is he truly confronting his beliefs about himself, his sexuality, and how he defines his uniqueness as an individual or is his performance simply a way of expressing his desire to entertain and earn enough money to pay the bills? 
J. Tucker Smith, Nik Aleander, Austin Thomas and Jamison Stern in "The Legend of Georgia Brown."
The cast is fine, as they provide enough definition and substance to convey a genuineness and conviction to their roles.   There are some issues with continuity—Rexy has a seemingly severe alcohol problem, which all but vanishes; Casey’s on again, off again flights into adulthood.  But, for the most part, we know the characters and their driving force.

Rob Ruggiero’s direction is very episodic that comes across more as a series of indistinct, dissatisfactory scenes.  This prevents an agreeable rhythm to develop throughout the length of the production.

Paul Tate dePoo’s set design is playful and campy for its transition from a sleazy backstage storage area to a more professional looking dressing room.  It’s tacky, but tasteful.

The Legend of Georgia Brown, a feathery, yet sprightly production, playing through April 22nd.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Review of "Amy and the Orphans"

The play, Amy and the Orphans, can be a painfully realistic examination of how society looks at and treats individuals with developmental disabilities.  To her credit, playwright Lindsey Ferrentino has managed to make powerful statements—both overt and subtly—that is tinged with humor and poignancy.

The plot toggles between a twenty-something couple coming to grips with their troublesome relationship and, years later, scenes with their grown-up children--Maggie (Debra Monk) and Jacob (Mark Blum)—both in their late 50’s, early 60’s, and their younger sister Amy (Jamie Brewer), a younger woman with Down’s Syndrome living in a Group Home.  We quickly learn their father has recently passed (their mother died years earlier) and Maggie and Jacob have flown into New York City to pick up Amy, gently break the word to her, and head to his home to settle his affairs.  Along for the ride is Kathy (Vanessa Aspillaga), Amy’s no-nonsense aid.

From their very first interaction with Amy, the two siblings are not only over-productive of their sister, but treat her almost as if she was still a child, not a grown, semi-independent living adult.  Sadly, within the context of Amy’s life these condescending attitudes began at an early age with the way the entire family approached their “different” sister, rarely visiting her or realizing her vast potential.   Maggie and Jacob don’t even know she has a day job, a relationship, and understands the world and its surroundings.  She knows about her father’s death thanks to Kathy, who gives a puzzling look when informed the woman was never informed.

As the play progresses, the audience learns more about the family dynamics, both when Amy was very young and today.  It is important to note that the portion of the show given over to the young parents and their heart-wrenching discussions and decisions takes place in the 1960’s when children with developmental disabilities were, more often than not, shunted to state-run facilities.  At one climatic point the name Willowbrook is spewed from Kathy’s lips.  You could fill the recoil from the mostly older audience members who remembered the scandal and horrors of the former Staten Island facility.

As the play concludes, after a chilling and climatic scene, there is a better understanding and a new awareness between the three remaining family members.  We can only hope that is the direction all the characters take.

Ms. Ferrentino has painted an honest, at times playful and bittersweet, portrayal of a family coming to terms with its past and present.  She balances the reality of views towards individuals with disabilities with a theatricality that makes the production entertaining and enriching.  Her inclusion of scenes when the parents were young assists in providing needed background information and helps enhance the overall presentation.

The acting troupe is up to the challenge of handling the material with deft and aplomb.  Jamie Brewer, as Amy, an actress with Down’s Syndrome, gives a vigorous, persuasive performance.  She’s a wisecracking and confident woman forcefully declaring her independence.  Debra Monk gives Maggie a layered vulnerability and excitable personality.  She is not only coming to terms with her life, her father’s passing, but also with her mercurial relationship with her sister.   Mark Blum, as Jacob, is more reserved and a perfect counterpoint to Ms. Monk’s character.  Vanessa Aspillaga is direct and protective as Kathy.  For any family with a loved one in a Group Home setting, a person like Kathy is someone you would want in your child’s life.  Diane Davis, who plays the young mother, Sarah, is a bundle of mixed emotions as she grapples with her own self-worth and the life determining decision she felt compelled to make.  Josh McDermitt’s Bobby, the patriarch of the group, gives a believable performance as a man who doesn’t fully understand the magnitude and ramifications of what is happening around him. 

Director Scott Ellis brings a skillful hand to a sensitive storyline.  He allows the material to develop naturally, slowly unfolding to present a genuine, gratifying production.  There is a good pacing to the show as he adeptly switches between the past and present.

Amy and the Orphans, a provocative and worthwhile production that is authentic and moving.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Review of "Baskerville - A Sherlock Holmes Mystery"

The playwright Ken Ludwig is having a banner year for productions of his works in Connecticut, with decidedly mixed results.  Last November The Game’s Foot had an underwhelming presentation at the Ivoryton Playhouse.  The adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is currently receiving a sleek and stylish production at Hartford Stage (through March 25th).  That brings us to Baskerville – a Sherlock Holmes Mystery playing until March 25th at Long Wharf Theatre.  The show, a dramatization of the Arthur Conan Doyle mystery, “The Hounds of the Baskervilles,” is a straightforward and sometimes amusing telling of the classic tale.  The play is staged with only five actors.  Think of The 39 Steps (playing at Music Theatre of Connecticut through March 18th), but with less inventiveness and adrenaline.

Brian Owen, Daniel Pearce, Alex Moggridge and Christopher Livingston in "Baskerville."

The plot of the show is simple enough.  Sherlock Holmes and his faithful companion Dr. Watson are asked to investigate the menacing, maybe otherworldly, events on the English Moors by Baskerville estate.  The previous occupant has been suspiciously and horribly murdered by, what seems, a ferocious beast.  The duo race up to investigate as well as protect the new Lord of the manor, a wide-eyed Texan, who might be the latest victim of a supposed family curse.  There are disguises, red-herrings, clues to be deciphered, deceit and a love story thrown in for good measure.
Daniel Pearce, Brian Owen, and Christopher Livingston in "Baskerville."
The playwright has been quite faithful to the original story so audience members, not familiar with the mystery, will not be lost.  Ludwig has embellished the tale with humorous trimmings and a frantic sensibility.  Still, while the overall production is entertaining, there is too little of a comic temperament.  I smiled more then I laughed.

The five actors play 40 different, sometimes eccentric, characters.  The acting team is led by Alex Moggridge as the intrepid detective Sherlock Holmes.  He is suitably erudite, aloof, and without peer.  His portrayal is assured and less comical then the other performers, which helps anchor the show.  Daniel Pearce, as Dr. Watson, is less the inept sidekick so famously portrayed by Nigel Bruce in the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies from the 1940’s.  Here, the actor is less a bungler and more Holmes’ partner-in-crime.  The actor has bounding enthusiasm for the role that helps propel his scenes forward.  The three other performers—Kelly Hutchinson, Christopher Livingston, and Brian Owen—seem to be having the most fun as they flit in and out of dozens of quirky, idiosyncratic characters.  While all fine actors, Brian Owen needs to be singled out for his more daft, off-the-wall portrayals.
Daniel Pearce, Kelly Hutchinson, Brian Owen and Christopher Livingston in "Baskerville."
Director Brendan Fox keeps the game afoot with quick costume and set changes synchronized at a dazzling pace.  His work with Lighting Designer Robert Wierzel helps push forward scene changes with modest, yet effective lighting techniques.  The director is at his best, as is the play itself, when the action and hijinks are ratcheted up a notch or two. 

Tim Mackabee’s minimal scenic design gives just enough visual cues to
define set locales.  Victoria Deiorio’s Sound Design and original music add a sinister and melodramatic underpinning to the production.  Lex Liang’s Costume Designs deserve special notice for their spot-on Victorian accoutrements as well as permitting lightning quick costume changes, a must for this type of show.
Alex Moggridge as Sherlock Holmes in "Baskerville."
Baskerville – a Sherlock Holmes Mystery, a droll and diverting piece of entertainment, playing at Long Wharf Theatre through March 25th.