Saturday, July 27, 2019

Review of "Birds of North America"

A father and daughter trying to connect, to communicate is the subject of Anna Moench’s meditative drama, Birds of North America.  From the onset of the two-character play, the audience feels the divide between John (J.R. Sullivan) and Caitlin (Melisa Breiner-Sanders), which is only temporarily improved while both are birding, a lifelong hobby of dad’s.  During these moments of identifying the sounds and plumage of the feathered animals there is a gentle, heartfelt rapport between the two protagonists.  However, the détente doesn’t usually last long as father and daughter end up arguing, disagreeing, and quarrelling over relationships, job prospects, and politics.

Time passes – the action takes place over a 12-year period - and father and daughter continue to meet.  Major changes occur in both their personal and professional lives until, in the end, there is just one person remaining, reminiscing.

Anna Moench’s play doesn’t uncover any new ground when examining a father/daughter relationship.  The potency in her writing is how skillfully she has crafted the two characters and their interactions, which feels real, not contrived.  What is left unsaid is the motivation for the pair getting together?  Do they realize the chasm in their relationship and is birding the only way for them to come together? 

The cast is finely tuned to the rhythms of the work.  J.R. Sullivan gives a superb performance by firmly staying in character—a highly opinionated individual with entrenched views who really doesn’t want to or just cannot listen to what is his daughter is saying.  Melisa Breiner-Sanders delivers a more animated portrayal as she relates the trials and tribulations of her young life, squabbles with her father, and constantly clashes with him.  The pain and sadness this produces is sorrowfully etched across her face.

The strength of Jason Peck’s direction is how he keeps the characters speaking and interacting, but almost never at close quarters.  There always seems to be a physical distance between father and daughter, which is not easy to accomplish over a 90-minute period.  At one point, towards the end of the production, John, standing behind Caitlin gently and, almost in passing, puts his hand on her should for a brief instant.  The moment was electric as the gesture and smile on his face truly encapsulated all he could not say face-to-face.

Fufan Zhang’s minimal Scenic Design, a backyard area of grass with a large tree decorated in small bird feeders looming over the performance space, effectively conveys an outdoor setting.  Lydia Strong’s Lighting Design, notably the passage of time signaled by shadows sweeping across the small, semi-darkened stage, is artfully rendered. 

Birds of North America, playing at the Thrown Stone theater company in Ridgefield through August 3rd.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Review of "Cry It Out"

Raising a newborn can make for unlikely friendships and interpersonal interactions. In playwright Molly Smith Metzler’s thought-provoking comedy-drama Cry It Out, two women, neighbors from different socio-economic worlds, nonetheless begin to bond as they navigate the intimidating, sometimes unnerving responsibility of caring for a nursing child.  Added to their anxiety, and producing a bit of drama on its own, is the sudden appearance of another neighbor looking to have his wife included in the duo’s daily get-togethers.  

Jessie (Clare Parme), a high-powered lawyer on leave from her New York City firm, lives in an apartment with her financier husband on Long Island’s North Shore.  Lina (Maria McConville), residing next door with her husband in her mother-in-law’s home, is an entry level hospital worker originally from the South Shore with a brash demeanor and bearing. On the surface, they are as dissimilar as two people could possibly be, but when it comes to caring, fretting, and loving a newborn child differences quickly evaporate. At first, Jessie invites Lina over for coffee. Their initial encounter is awkward and forced, but as their backyard meetings continue their tentative relationship grows into a real friendship.  Enter Mitchell, a well-to-do entrepreneur who lives on a ridge overlooking Jessie’s yard.  He asks the women if his wife, who recently gave birth, could become part of their soirees.  Reluctantly, Jessie and Lina agree, but the arranged tryst with his wife Adrienne (Wynter Kullman) does not go so well.  Soon, challenging changes take place, altering each person’s familial dynamics.

Playwright Metzler deftly brings out many issues women face after childbirth—emotional bearing, marital relationships, and the question of staying home or returning to work.  The conversations appear real and heartfelt.  The title of her work pertains to the impassioned outbursts each woman makes towards the latter part of the 90-minute production.  While a resolution is not necessarily needed for the show, a more layered conclusion would have been less abrupt than what is presented.
The cast is uniformly fine with Maria McConville, as Lina, having the juiciest, in-your-face role.  The actress consistently has the best comedic lines.  While, initially, appearing like a complete fool, she turns in a more nuanced, warmhearted performance.  Clare Parme gives her character Jessie a multifaceted look.  You can feel her inner turmoil as she debates what is best for her and her young family. Wynter Kullman’s first appearance on stage as Adrienne comes across as a stereotypically rich, unfeeling member of society, but demonstrates you can’t judge a book by its cover.  Jonathan Winn is somewhat formal in his characterization of Mitchell.  More subtlety or shading to the role would have added to his scenes. 

Director Gina Piulice eases out genuine sounding conversations amongst the cast and effectively sets up the laugh lines for maximum effect.  However the placement and movement of the actors comes across as artificial.  Whereas most individuals would be close together when conversing, she continually places them at one of the four corners of the small performance space, constantly moving them around instead of having them seated for their heart-to-hearts.

Cry It Out, playing at the Thrown Stone theater company in Ridgefield through July 21st.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Review of "Pippin"

The strength of the musical Pippin is the score by Stephen Schwartz.  He has infused the show with a 1970’s pop music sensibility.  The songs are enchanting, playful, and full of feeling.

The production at the Summer Theatre of New Caanan (STONC), playing through July 28th, is a mostly joyous spectacle.  The limitations have more to do with the book of the show by Roger O. Hirson, which has a troupe of actors presenting a play within a play concept.  The scenes within the musical are not always well-defined and can be somewhat overwhelmed by the histrionics and choreographed movements of the actors.

 STONC’s staging is more in line with the original 1972 Broadway show as opposed to the 2013 revival that was full of acrobatics and Cirque du Soleil elements.  However, there is a feistiness and festive atmosphere to the musical as it is presented under a large tent in a mirthful, sprightly theater-in-the-round setting.

The show revolves around a young man, Pippin, son of Charlemagne, Emperor during the Early Middle Ages.  While the musical centers on these real-life historical figures, the plot is not based on actual fact.   

A character known as The Leading Player narrates and directs the group of performers telling the audience they have “Magic To Do” in their telling of this tale.  Pippin has just graduated from University and returns to the royal household full of confusion and doubt as he searches for his purpose in life.  In quick succession he samples gainful employment, exercises duty and honor to his father, experiments with sexual promiscuity, and attempts to settle down with Catherine, a widow, and her son on her country homestead.  Still not satisfied with where his life is leading him Pippin, at the end of the show, is goaded by The Leading Player and the other actors to come to terms with his lack of direction by committing one final act.  Rebelling, Pippin has an epiphany about his life’s purpose as he realizes his life with Catherine was where he was most content.  Furious, The Leading Player cancels the performance having the actors strip the stage of sets and lights and commands the band to stop playing.  As the space becomes bare the young Theo remains with The Leading Player beckoning him to restart the search for purpose now shunned by Pippin.

While the musical can appear disjointed, with wildly masked and costumed performers cavorting around the performance area, the central theme of an individual seeking fulfillment and purpose in life is universal.  In today’s world of Millennials searching for their place in the world, moving about frequently, and not being easily satisfied Pippin can appear to be a shining beacon of hope, but also caution.

The cast is satisfying with Zach Schanne’s portrayal of the title character nimbly combining wonder and determination.  Frank Mastrone, a seasoned professional, gives Charlemagne a weathered deportment as he rules his lands, keeps his young wife happy, and tends to the whims and follies of his son.  The Leading Player should have a commanding presence, becoming the center of the audience’s attention when onstage, but Melissa Victor is less a compelling focal point of the show than a benevolent guide to the actions of the acting troupe.  Ella Raymont’s Catherine is the strongest performer in the production.  At first appearing merrily blissful she convincingly transforms into a serious and disquieted figure at the show’s conclusion.

Directors Allegra and Christian Libonati keep the momentum of the show constantly on the move, helped by the theater-in-the-round setting and Doug Shankman’s bustling and animated choreography.  Sometimes the actors become mired in cryptic body movements but, for the most part, their actions on stage are alluring and captivating.

Brad Caleb Lee’s minimal sets under the circus-like tent structure is sublime.  Orli Nativ’s costume designs are whimsical, outlandish, and sometimes naughty.

Pippin, playing at the Summer Theatre of New Caanan through July 28th.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Review of "Cabaret"

Cabaret, the landmark 1968 musical with a score by John Kander and Fred Ebb, and a book by Joe Masteroff needs to exude a decadent immorality. This is Berlin in pre-War Nazi Germany where a looseness and anything goes depravity in the city’s nightclubs is the norm. Without this backdrop, Cabaret loses its power of seduction and socio-political commentary. In the production at the Summer Nutmeg series in Storrs, CT through July 21st, there is an underlying sheen of vulgarity and sin, but it is muted.  In addition, under Scott LaFeber’s direction, the key performances of the Emcee and Sally Bowles are not as strong which, unfortunately, tilts the focus of the show to the two secondary characters, Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. 

The story of Cabaret revolves around American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Rob Barnes), who arrives in Berlin as the Nazis are coming to power in Germany.  On the train, he befriends Ernst Ludwig (Aidan Marchetti), a shadowy, politically connected, figure, who recommends a rooming house, run by the aged Fraulein Schneider (Dee Hoty) for him to reside during his stay in the German capitol.  That night he and Ernst take in the Kit Kat Klub, a seamy, nightclub, overseen by a sinister, scowling Master of Ceremonies (Forrest McClendon), where Cliff becomes enthralled with the headline performer, Sally Bowles (Laura Michelle Kelly).  The two quickly become an item and move in together.  A parallel plotline concerns Fraulein Schneider’s ill-fated romance with Jewish grocer Herr Schultz (Jonathn Brody).  Both relationships eventually fray and dissolve just as Nazism becomes a more ominous and deadly force within everyone’s lives.

Throughout the production, the sense of menace and hedonism within the Kit Kat Klub is subdued.  The musical numbers, choreographed by Christopher d’Amboise, are entertaining, but do not convey a sense of naughtiness and eroticism one would expect in such a setting.

The cast, the usual mix at the Summer Nutmeg series of Equity and student performers, is a decidedly mixed bag.  Forrest McClendon, who received a 2011 Tony nomination for his performance in The Scottsboro Boys, portrays the Emcee as a large, caged cat, with shoulders pumping up and down.  He prowls the stage showing both contempt and a restrained appreciation for the audience.  The actor’s approach to the character, however, is more low-wattage.  It is not very risqué and the sexual ambiguity, so key to the role, is lacking.  Laura Michelle Kelly, who has appeared on Broadway and the London stage (she was the original Mary Poppins in the West End) is also less impactful as Sally Bowles.  The actress possesses a powerful singing voice that she showcases in such numbers as “Maybe This Time” and “Cabaret.” But the allure, the mischievousness, the mystery of the character is missing in the performance.  Her relationship with Cliff lacks chemistry and comes across as more perfunctory.  The character of Cliff Bradshaw has always been less captivating compared to the other roles in the musical.  While Rob Barnes, a third-year MFA student at the University of Connecticut, has done splendid work in previous productions he comes across as too young and not as nuanced in this portrayal.

The real stars of Cabaret are Dee Hoty as Fraulein Schneider and Jonathan Brody as Herr Schultz.  Ms. Hoty gives a master class in acting.  Her performance is so heartfelt and strong, her songs so affecting, you yearn for her appearance on stage. Brody’s depiction of the Jewish grocer is equally earnest and impassioned.

The score by the legendary composing team of John Kander and Fred Ebb is arguably their best work.  There are so many iconic numbers in the show, most performed with pathos and urgency that captivate the audience.  From the exuberant “Don’t Tell Mama” and “Two Ladies” to the bittersweet ballads of “So What?” and “What Would You Do?” the score is an artistic triumph.  Music Director Ken Clifton leads a dynamic onstage band that gives a richness and vitality to the songs.

Director Scott LaFeber has toned down the decadence of the production.  While a sense of urgency is in the air, the ruination within the German city and populace is not front and center.  He has assembled a large ensemble of spirited Kit Kat Klub performers that create a fullness to the production.  The finale of the Cabaret, what should be the emotional zenith of the show is, instead, a puzzlement which required a quick reference check on Wikipedia when I returned home from the performance.

Cabaret, playing through July 21st in Storrs, CT.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Review of "The Scottsboro Boys"

One of the most abhorrent episodes of injustice during the 20th century was the arrest, subsequent trials, and imprisonment of nine black youths, falsely accused of raping two white women in 1930’s Alabama. Their story is the basis for the musical, The Scottsboro Boys, playing at Playhouse on Park through August 4th. 

The cast of "The Scottsboro Boys."  Photo:  Meredith Longo
The production employs the construct of the minstrel show as a method to tell this contemptible story. When the show was set to open on Broadway in 2011, much was written about the controversial use of the minstrel show in the production. Minstrel shows, a mainstay of popular entertainment in the latter half of the 19th century as well as the early part of the 20th century, promoted racial stereotypes of African-Americans and is now seen as an offensive and repugnant art form. However, by utilizing such a highly charged and contentious vehicle to relate this woeful tale the creators of the musical--the composing team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, along with librettist David Thompson—have been able to focus a searing spotlight on this tragic episode of racial injustice that helped to spark the civil rights movement in the United States.

The staging by Director Sean Harris is simple, yet powerful with just a few chairs and some wooden planks for sets. This allows the plot to unfold without any unnecessary distractions.  The Scottsboro Boys is entertaining, with pulsating choreography by Darlene Zoller that conveys the urgency and tension the nine youths are experiencing.  The show, however, is also troubling as audiences are confronted with such blatant disregard for humanity based on one’s skin color.  Yet while this incident happened over 80 years ago, examples of outrage and racism at this level still permeate society today.  Just watch the harrowing events in the current Netflix documentary on the Central Park Five.

Torrey Linder as Mr. Tambo and the cast of "The Scottsboro Boys."  Photo:  Meredith Longo
The storyline follows the nine young men and boys as they are wrongly implicated, convicted and imprisoned.  Their so-called trial and verdict is an affront to the legal system, but the impending death sentences are overturned, which leads to numerous retrials, representation by a high-profile New York lawyer and even the recanting of the original charges by one of the victims.  Still, the nine remain jailed and, in the end, tragedy befalls each of them.

The songs are a mixture of haunting ballads with rousing ensemble numbers.  The score is one of the last for the long-time team of John Kander and Freb Ebb and reveals them at the top of their game.  As they have demonstrated in such musicals as Cabaret and Chicago, they are unafraid to tackle provocative topics.

Ivory McKay as Mr. Bones, left, and Torrey Linder as Mr. Tambo, right from "The Scottsboro Boys."                     Photo:  Meredith Longo
The cast is a mix of professional and non-union actors.  In most Playhouse of Park productions over the years, this blending of performers has not affected the thrust of the show.  However, in The Scottsboro Boys, the separation of talent is more noticeable, which lessens the dramatic impact of the musical at critical points.  For a small theater company the expenses for mounting this type of production are considerable.  However, the caliber of the show would have been elevated with a more seasoned cast.  With that said, Ivory McKay, who plays many roles, but mainly the minstrel show stalwart Mr. Bones, is superb.  His partner, Mr. Tambo, played by Torrey Linder, is up to the task of matching McKay’s cynicism and spot on portrayals.  Their roles serve to both accentuate and mock the miscarriage of justice.  Troy Valjean Rucker gives a powerful and moving performance as the principled Haywood Patterson.  As the Interlocutor, Dennis Holland is detached and properly condescending as the Master of Ceremonies.

Director Harris does an admirable job trying to mold the group of actors into a well-tuned ensemble.  He skillfully works through great moments of joy and sadness that keeps the audience on a rollercoaster of emotions.  The insertion of a mysterious lady throughout the production (her identity is revealed at the end of the show) is somewhat overplayed, which sometimes takes away the central focus of the show.

The Scottsboro Boys will challenge you and make you uncomfortable at times, but its message and inspired presentation make it a worthwhile and rewarding theatrical event. Kudos to Playhouse on Park.