Monday, May 28, 2018

Review of "The Will Rogers Follies"

The Will Rogers Follies is a bit too homey and down-to-earth for its own good. While the musical, a biography of the famed humorist, a vaudeville, movie, and radio star, has moments of energetic exuberance it is weighed down by Peter Stone’s muted book for the show. 
“Give A Man Enough Rope” David M. Lutken (Will Rogers) with Michael Biren, Borris York, Brad Frenette and Aaron Burr in Goodspeed Musicals’ The Will Rogers Follies, playing now through June 21 at The Goodspeed.  Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
The premise of The Will Rogers Follies is simple.  The entertainer, played with an easy going and affable charm by David Lutkin, reviews his life story through the lens of a Ziegfield Follies show (he appeared in such extravaganzas throughout his storied career).  He combines a survey of his past—how he broke into show business, his relationships, family and professional life--with folksy asides to the audience, disarming witticisms, incisive social commentary and the occasional rope trick performed with unexpected skill.  The yarns he spins, leading up to his untimely death, are buttressed with elaborately staged production numbers, a la the Ziegfield Follies, of eye-catchingly clad showgirls and athletically bounding male dancers.

The musical can be entertaining and often quite funny, yet the libretto by Peter Stone is not always vibrant and compelling.  Often, you just wait for the next razzmatazz production number to pick up the pace.
“Will-a-Mania” with the cast of Goodspeed Musicals’ The Will Rogers Follies, playing now through June 21 at The Goodspeed.  Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
The score by Broadway luminaries Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green is enjoyable, but without any memorable tunes.  The songs are more serviceable within the structure of the show, but less enduring once leaving the theater. 

The cast is led by David Lutkin as Will Rogers.  The actor also played the role on Broadway.  He has an unhurried, laid-back approach, which warmly connects with the audience.  In some respects, his performance of Rogers echoes the role of Woody Guthrie he has played many times in Connecticut theaters and elsewhere in the show Woody Sez.  Lutkin has a pleasant singing voice and seems to really be enjoying himself, especially when he successfully executes one of his varied rope tricks.  Catherine Walker, playing Rogers’ long-suffering, but unflappable wife, Betty Blake, gives an assured and steady performance.   David Garrison is an adroit scene stealer as the lead’s father, Clem Rogers.
The cast of Goodspeed Musicals’ The Will Rogers Follies, playing now through June 21 at The Goodspeed.  Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Director Don Stephenson has a steady command of the production.  He is at his best when corralling David Lutkin to interact with audience members, either through thought-provoking observations on the news of the day or humorous asides. However, the disparate segments of the musical—expository scenes and musical numbers—do not always flow as seamlessly as they could, which gives the show an irregular flow.

Choreographer Kelli Barclay, no stranger to the Goodspeed, adds a needed dash of pizazz and high-stepping flourishes just when the production begins to sag from too much storytelling.

Ilona Somogyi’s costume designs, primarily for the lush and lively dance routines are whimsical, glitzy and brash.  They add color and sparkle to the show.

The Will Rogers Follies, a mostly entertaining production, playing through June 21st at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT.

Review of "Puffs"

Puffs, the Off-Broadway parody of the Harry Potter canon, is often quite funny and bewitching.  While entertaining in its own right, it is an excellent diversion for:
1.    Harry Potter fans that can’t afford tickets to The Curse of the Starving Child.
2.    Harry Potter fans that can’t wait until Spring 2019 for tickets to The Curse of the Starving Child.
3.    Harry Potter fans that just can’t get enough of the boy who lived.

The play condenses all seven Harry Potter novels into an energetic, amusing 100 intermission-less minutes.  The focus is not on the young wizard, even though he periodically pops up during the show.  Instead, there is Wayne, a hapless loser who arrives at a “Certain School of Magic and Magic” and is sorted into the Puffs, the house full of perpetual failures and disappointments.  He, along, with newfound friends Oliver and Megan, and under the guidance of the charismatic and heroic Cedric Diggerly, persevere to prove their powerful potential and battle the dark forces surrounding them.

Playwright Matt Cox has created a rollicking adventure that overflows with goofiness and inspired hijinks.  He liberally mines the Potter books with staccato-like flourishes while at the same time inventing a wholly satisfying parallel story.  As with its Broadway brethren, Puffs is strictly for those Muggles that are familiar with the source material.  Other, unenlightened, audience members will feel as confused as if they were hexed by the Confundus charm.

The young, energetic performers play their roles with a restrained abandonment.  They seem to be having as much fun as those seated in the small, cozy Off-Broadway theater.  The entire troupe is superb.  Leading the cast is Zac Moon as Wayne.  He brings a slovenly appeal to the role.  He’s whiny and pathetic, an outsider trying to be part of the in-crowd, but he is a loveable lug that demonstrates grit and perseverance can lead to acceptance and success..sort of.  Jake Keefe, who stepped into the role of Oliver the night I attended, is a goofy sidekick and a certified nerd.  He, too, grows into a more confident, self-assured young wizard that even gets the girl.  Julie Ann Earls brings a touch of danger and bravado to the role of Megan, the daughter of a dark magic witch.  A Puff in spirit and designation, eventually she forges a lasting bond with her two male cohorts and finds friendship and acceptance.  James Fouhey seems to be having the most fun as the handsome and poised leader of the Puffs, Cedric.  He has a swashbuckling swagger and oversized personality that enlivens the production.

Director Kristin McCarthy Parker helms the shenanigans with a controlled chaos that is both invigorating and imaginative.  She brings a welcoming dash of farcial brio with slamming doors and characters popping in and out of here and there. 

Madeline Bundy does a splendiferous job, doing triple duty with sets, costumes, and props.  They are whimsical and ingenious and add an exuberant playfulness to the show.

Puffs, a magical treat of theatrical merriment and fantasy.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Westport Country Playhouse Hosts 28th Annual CT Critics Awards on June 11th

Save the date.

Westport Country Playhouse will host the 27th annual Connecticut Critics Circle Awards on Monday, June 11, 2018.

The free and open-to-the-public event is the only annual gathering of the state’s professional theaters that celebrates artists and their work. 

The ceremony begins at 7:30 p.m.  Nominees will be announced in early June.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

2018 CT Critics Circle Awards

Save the date.
Westport Country Playhouse will host the 27th annual Connecticut Critics Circle Awards on Monday, June 11, 2018.

The free and open-to-the-public event is the only annual gathering of the state’s professional theaters that celebrates artists and their work. There will be a 6 p.m. private reception before the awards show which begins at 7:30 p.m.

The master of ceremonies and the recipient of the Tom Killen Award for outstanding achievement in the theater will be announced at a later date. Last year three-time Tony Award-nominee Terrence Mann was master of ceremonies of the event. Nominees will be announced in early June.

Review of "The Age of Innocence"

The stage adaptation of Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Age of Innocence, is receiving a sumptuous, thoroughly entertaining production at Hartford Stage. 

The story focuses on Newland Archer, a young up-and-coming lawyer who is set to wed the charming and attractive May Welland.  All is well until Newland becomes infatuated with his bride-to-be’s cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, a beautiful and alluring woman, nonetheless, caught up in scandal.  The infatuation, played out amongst the rituals and social mores of New York’s wealthy families, jeopardizes his marriage and overall happiness.

Helen Cespedes and Andrew Veenstra in "The Age of Innocence."

Playwright Douglas McGrath has been faithful to the book that chronicles the upper crust of New York society in the 1870’s.  He homes in on the essential themes of the book such as family honor, the harshness and strictness of high society’s social code, the self-perpetuating traditions of the rich and privileged.

The superb cast, led by Broadway and Off-Broadway veterans, handsomely portray their characters with sophistication and grandeur.  While all members of the acting troupe are outstanding, a few are worth singling out.  Boyd Gaines, a multi-Tony Award winning actor, portrays The Old Gentlemen with a world-weary melancholiness.  He anchors the production with pithy narration and humorous asides.  Helen Cespedes comes across as somewhat vapid and simple as May Welland, but cunningly disguises a scheming no nonsense persona. Sierra Boggess, gorgeous as Countess Ellen Olenska, exudes elegance and charisma, which mixes with a wounded veneer.  Andrew Veenstra, dapper and smooth as Newland Archer, gives a worthy performance as a young man confronting the choice between a loveless marriage and his yearning for a more provocative and captivating woman.
Sierra  Boggess, Andrew Veenstra, and Boyd Gaines in "The Age of Innocence."
Director Doug Hughes guides the production with a skill and flair that emphasizes the refinement of the times as well as the hollowness and social contradictions during the late 19th century.  The pacing of the show is brisk and intelligent.  While the assorted featured roles can sometimes be hard to distinguish they, nonetheless, are positioned nicely in an upper-class minuet.

Scenic Designer John Lee Beatty has crafted a soaring, lattice work structure that reflects the grandiose majesty of high-minded society types and their opulent residences.
The cast in "The Age of Innocence."
Linda Cho’s costumes are evocative of the era, showing the glamour and stylishness of the very rich.

Yan Li, an accomplished pianist, on-stage throughout the play, provides expressively tinged and resplendent mood music that adds a luxurious opulence to the production.

The Age of Innocence, playing at Hartford Stage through May 6th.