Thursday, March 28, 2019

Review of "Burt & Me"

Andy Christopher and Lauren Gire in "Burt & Me."  Photo by Jonathan Steele.
The downfall for most jukebox musicals is the show’s book.  A production cannot just recreate the sounds of an artist or group.  Their music must be wrapped around a well-thought out storyline and characters that are interesting and compelling.  The primary issue with Burt & Me, playing through April 7th at the Ivoryton Playhouse, is its run-of-the-mill plot and its unassuming characters.  Yes, the Burt Bacharach/Hal David songs are highly enjoyable and one does not attend a show like this for the narrative, but Larry McKenna’s book could have been a tad more dynamic.  Curiously, lyricist Hal David, who co-wrote the songs in the show, is only mentioned once in, in a quick reference to the musical Promises, Promises, the duo’s solo Broadway collaboration.  But, then, Burt, Dave & Me doesn’t have the same snap as the Burt & Me.

The story is the age-old boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back years later.  We meet the boy, Joe, when he is young and meets the girl, Lacey, in high school.  They become inseparable throughout the four years, but their relationship wanes as both enroll at different colleges.  Along their journey we meet the twosome’s best friends, Jerry, a goofy would-be Casanova, and Sally, the aim of Jerry’s overtures.  Joe’s father, Alex, provides insight and parental guidance to his son.  In the end, no surprise, Joe and Lacey reunite to a romantic Bacharach/David love song.

The material chosen from the vast Burt Bacharach/Hal David catalog form the strength of the revue.  Every number is a toe-tapping hit.  They include such standards as “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” “What the World Needs Now,” “The Look of Love,” and “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.”  There is also a generous helping of songs from Promises, Promises. 

Andy Christopher’s Joe has a pleasant, if languid singing voice and a laid-back stage presence, which parallels the smooth, sometimes jazzy riffs of the music. A little more charisma and emotional bearing would have added a lot to his portrayal.  Josh Powell sometimes overplays the, at times, man-child Neal.  His antics at the latter half of the show are more palatable.  Neal Mayer, who plays a number of roles, primarily as Joe’s father, Alex, and a with-it priestly choir director, is comfortable and sagely as he pops up when fatherly advice when needed.  The two central women provide a welcome spark to the production.  Each has a luminous singing voice that vibrantly captures the essence of the musical selections.   Lauren Gire’s Lacey is no-nonsense and spirited.  Adrianne Hick’s Sally is the perfect counterbalance to her best friend.  She is full of spunk with a touch of vulnerability.  Katie Luke’s Rebecca, along with Nathan Richardson’s Nick, amply add support to the main cast members.

Director/Choreographer Brian Feehan seamlessly, if rather methodically, segues in full or partial Burt Bacharach/Hal David compositions.  The pacing is easy-going and unhurried. Occasionally, a jolt of energy would have helped propel the production forward.  There are the intermittent dance numbers, especially “Turkey Lurkey Time,” which do add some vigor to the show.  Expanding the two-person ensemble, maybe doubling the number of actors, would have given the musical a fuller look and feel.

Emily Nichols set design of two large, intersecting circular platforms, is reminiscent of the 1960’s – 1970’s TV variety shows where entertainers sit to the side of center stage, casually talking and swirling their drinks until it’s their time to perform.  Keeping with the television theme, the four-piece band is in full view, located in the back of the stage.

Burt & Me, diverting, relaxing and tuneful, playing at the Ivoryton Playhouse through April 7th.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Review of "First Date"

The angst, the anticipation of a first date is laid bare in the comic musical First Date, receiving a sparkling production at the Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury.  The 90 minute, intermission-less show plays through April 7th.

The production can be quite funny even though it mines typical first date embarrassments and mortifying moments. 
First Date 3- Front Row L to Right- Nikko Youros, Constantine  Pappas (seated),  Anna Laura Strider.  Second row L to R,  Carly Valancy, Jimmy Donohue and Ethan Kirschbaum. In back...Christina Carlucci.  Photo credit Paul Roth

We are introduced to Aaron, uptight and painfully uncomfortable; and Casey, cool, calm, and collected with a decidedly downtown, indie aura.  The mismatched duo, played winningly by Constantine Pappas and Christine Carlucci, painfully, yet humorously, portray the missteps and blunders associated with these virgin rendezvouses.  The laughs and awkward situations are amplified and embellished by a talented four-person ensemble playing a number of different roles.

When the show debuted on the New York stage it didn’t quite work as a fully sustainable musical.  The production almost became lost within its the large Broadway venue.  At the much smaller Seven Angels, the intimacy and charm can be more fully realized.  The audience feels as if it is a part of what’s taking place on stage rather then simply observing.

The book by Austin Winsberg is perky, perceptive, and slyly observant.  There is a slight dramatic arc to the story—will these two unlikeliest of characters hook up in the end—but, for the most part, the librettist seems to be having fun crafting good-natured scenes that gently poke fun rather than aim for biting, cynical cleverness. 

The score by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner is bouncy, somewhat tuneful, and full of Borscht Belt schtick.  The musical interludes almost have a revue quality to them with titles such as “First Impressions,” “The Awkward Pause,” and “The Check!” 

Constantine Pappas’s Aaron has fine comic timing and an appealing singing voice.  He manages to add a layered nuance to the role that distinctively rounds out his character from just a one-trick sad sack.  Christine Carlucci’s Casey, edgier, exuding both self-confidence as well as a certain vulnerability, is the Ying to Pappas’ Yang.  Or maybe the oil to his vinegar.  Both performers, unsure and uneasy at first, develop an appealing chemistry by the show’s end.  The rest of the engaging cast deserves recognition—Anna Laura Strider, Ethan Kirschbaum, Carly Valancy, and Niko Touros.  They come to life singing and donning various guises throughout the show, performing their varied roles with professionalism and aplomb.  Special mention goes to James Donohue who, primarily, portrays an effervescent and jovial waiter to nonstop comic relief.

Director Sasha Bratt skillfully pulls all the elements of the production together to create a highly satisfying whole, which is difficult since the basic plot simply centers around two people sitting in a bar trying to get to know each other.  He enlivens this matter-of-fact scenario by continuously and seamlessly integrating the four ensemble cast members into the production without halting the flow of the musical.  Bratt smartly gives the actor James Donohue room to display his comic talents.  The Director also infuses subtle, somber mood shifts within the show which gives the production more balance.

Emily Nichols has created a stylish set piece that would be the envy of any New York City bar.

First Date, lighthearted and entertaining, playing at Seven Angels Theatre through April 7th.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Review of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood"

Charles Dickens’ last, unfinished, novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, seems like unlikely fodder for a musical, but in 1985 Rupert (“Pina Colada Song”) Holmes created such a theatrical piece that won multiple Tony Awards, including Best Musical. 

Instead of a straightforward murder mystery, with Holmes creating his own ending, the playwright (as well as composer) came up with the fun-filled idea of letting the audience decide the culprit.  So, Act I is the set-up, following the pages of the half-completed book and then the majority of Act II is a rowdy romp as suspects are identified, several key points are determined, and then the audience votes to unmask the scoundrel.  Adding more fuel to the boisterous proceedings is the backdrop for the production.  Again, with Rupert Holmes’ creative juices in high gear, he set the tale within the confines of a Victorian English Music Hall, sort of a play-within-a-play motif.   Performers step in and out of character as the musical moves forward in all its bawdy glory.

The story has all the ingredients of a classic murder mystery and is overseen by the Chairman of the Music Hall, one William Cartwright.  He serves as narrator, chief punster, and one of the players.  The plot begins with the protagonist, young Edwin Drood, who is betrothed to the beautiful Rosa Bud.  Drood’s somewhat demented, opium addicted uncle and choirmaster is in love with Edwin’s bride-to-be, who happens to also be his pupil.  A recent arrival from Ceylon, the petulant Neville Landless, also has his sights on the appealing Ms. Bud, much to the displeasure of her fiancĂ©.  Other characters that potentially fall under suspicion are Helena Landless, the protective sister of Neville; the gentile Reverend Crisparkle; the mysterious Princess Puffer; Durdles, the perpetually inebriated cemetery worker; and even the lovely Rosa Bud.  All fall under suspicion after the youthful Drood doesn’t return home from an evening walk with Neville Landless on a stormy Christmas Eve night.

Rupert Holmes’ score is melodic and tuneful, full of robust compositions, charming ballads, and finely-crafted music hall ditties.  The lyrics are witty and full of amusing and entertaining word play.

The cast, a mix of experienced actors and students in the University of Connecticut’s acting program, is full of first-rate performers, all with handsome singing voices.  They are led by Emily Ferranti as the adventurous Edwin Drood.  She exudes a spirited confidence and possesses a powerful singing voice that gorgeously resonates throughout the Jorgensen auditorium.  Kurt Zischke is marvelous as the mischievous, impetuous, and off-color Chairman.  He needs to subversively insert himself into the production without causing the show’s tempo to slow or go off course.  The actor carries out this task with virtuosity and aplomb.  Bryan Mittelstadt is convincingly menacing as the lustful, slightly off-kilter John Jasper.  Graceann Brooks is alluring and refined as the much sought after Rosa Bud.  Mauricio Miranda gives Neville Landless an enigmatic air.  He is suitably combative as well as passionate, an excellent counterpoint to the other characters.  Kelly Lester brings a seasoned professionalism to the role of Princess Puffer, offering a perfect balance to the younger cast members.

Director Paul Mullins corrals an energetic cast that is clearly having a good time both on and off stage.  He keeps the dynamics flowing and seamlessly transitions the musical through a multitude of scenes.  Mullins also skillfully orchestrates the audience participation portion of the show, keeping this segment from teetering out of control.

Scenic Designer Alexander Woodward has fashioned over half a dozen sets that are modest in execution, but perfectly rendered for the music hall environs.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a crowd-pleasing musical, at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre through March 10th.

Review of "Detroit '67"

Music, specifically the driving rhythms and soulful sounds of Detroit’s own Motown records, is a constant connector in the slice of life drama, Detroit ’67, at Hartford Stage.  Playwright Dominique Morisseau states, “music…lets characters relate to one another through the music.  I wanted these characters to listen to music that had a particular message or point of view that spoke to where they were or what they were going through…”  Throughout the moderately engaging production, the songs that were embraced by the Black community are utilized to express joy, the flirtatious spirit, and sorrow.  The devices that play the latest hits—a semi-functioning record player and a newfangled 8-track machine serve as a metaphor for two of the character’s outlooks on life.  For Chelle, the dilapidated player is in tune with her view of staying the path that worked for her parents.  Her brother Lank, looking for new opportunities to deliver him from his purposeless direction, invests in the latest technology of the 8-track player.

The title of the show gives audience members an idea of what will eventually transpire within the storyline—the 1967 Detroit riots, also known as The Great Rebellion.  This racially charged event serves as the backdrop in the latter part of the show.  Beforehand, life is rather mundane.  We see Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler), her brother Lank (Johnny Ramey), and friends Bunny (Nyahale Allie), and Sly (Will Cobbs) prepare for the next night’s after hours house party as a way to make money for the siblings.  But the commonplace soon turns upside down with the arrival of a mysterious white woman (Caroline), beaten and bloodied, the questionable use of inheritance money, and the fateful week in the summer of ‘67.

Dominique Morisseau has stitched together a somewhat compelling drama that can be thought provoking and engrossing as it tackles race relations in a city soon to be, literally, under the gun.  For audience members not well schooled in the underlying causes of the Detroit Rebellion, the play presents a perspective not popularly conveyed.  The difficulty for the playwright is articulating a vision, which is both dramatically absorbing and historically on point.

The cast is relaxed in their roles, having already portrayed their characters in a production at New Jersey’s McCarter Theater in October 2018.  The actress Myxolydia Tyler imbues Chelle with compassion and purpose.  She is a strong individual trying to keep her world in check as it suddenly and tragically changes.  Nyahale Allie’s Bunny adds a degree of levity to the production, but the actress’ performance is more nuanced as she provides comfort and compassion to her friends in need.  Johnny Ramey’s Lank is a man hungry for change, seeking a new direction in life and love.  While the character can be rash and sometimes self-effacing, the actor gives him a sympathetic rendering.  Will Cobbs’ initial portrayal of Sly is of a smooth-talking rascal, but as the play progresses we realize there is more substance and subtlety to his performance.  Ginna Le Vine instills both a vulnerability and inner strength in her role of Caroline.

Director Jade King Carroll’s strength is keeping the story telling moving forward with blips of impelling action.  She works well in teasing out developing relationships among the characters and within the slowly simmering milieu.  What the director cannot do is consistently pump up the dramatic arc due to the playwright’s episodic nature of the production.

Scenic Designer Riccardo Hernandez has created a utilitarian looking, refurbished basement area where the show takes place.  Working with Lighting Designer Nicole Pearce and Sound Designer Karin Graybash, the set takes on a more ominous tone towards the latter half of the play as the dangers evolving outside become more perilous.

Detroit ’67, at Hartford Stage through March 10th.