Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Review of "Falsettoland"

The Music Theatre of Connecticut (MTC) has been uncannily prescient with their superb production of the William Finn/James Lapine musical Falsettoland.  It was rather eerie sitting in the audience, wearing a mask, watching a musical that takes place at the dawn of the AIDS crisis as the current COVID pandemic rages on.

 

The show is the third in the “Marvin” trilogy by composer Finn and librettist Lapine, coming after In Trousers and March of the Falsettos.  The focus is on Marvin, who has left his wife, Trina, for his gay lover, Whizzer.  Trina has, in turn, married her former psychiatrist, Mendel.  Both live with Marvin and Trina’s son, Jason, who is preparing for his Bar Mitzvah.  Rounding out the eclectic group are the lesbian couple – one a doctor, the other a would-be caterer – that live next door to Marvin.  Even with all the nuttiness and suffering, everyone has remained on friendly terms and are important in each other’s lives.

 

There is a lot of Jewish angst surrounding the assorted relationships and the on and off again Bar Mitzvah.  Complicating the whole megillah is the mysterious illness Whizzer is suffering from (interestingly, AIDS is never mentioned) that forms the climatic ending of the show.

 

The characters in the James Lapine and William Finn book are neurotic, apprehensive, and full of anxiety that could only be generated by living in New York City.  The roles are well-drawn and complex, but the plot itself feels less full, more a series of intermingling vignettes.  This becomes especially pronounced when compared to Falsettos, the later, more developed, wholly satisfying combination of March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland.

 

William Finn’s songs are spirited, at times nutty, and wonderfully capture the consternation, pangs of guilty, agitation, and poignancy within each character.

 

The seasoned seven-person ensemble is enthusiastic and energetic.  Each of the performers are perfectly cast in their roles and, literally, bound into the audience.  The magnificent seven are Dan Sklar as the self-centered Marvin, Corrine Broadbent as the long-suffering Trina, Jeff Gurner as the even-tempered Mendel, Max Meyers as the free-loving Whizzer, Jessie Janet Richards as the level-headed Dr. Charlotte, Elissa DeMaria as the hopeless chef Cordelia, and Ari Sklar as Jason, the seemingly only sane one in the group.

 

Director Kevin Connors has created a tight knit cadre of actors and actresses that work as a well-oiled machine, each part supporting the other.  There is a good amount of schtick and slight, but vigorous choreography.  Connors has done away with sets, which allows the audience to focus on the performers on the small MTC stage.  He incorporates a lone hospital bed which as the show progresses, becomes the focal point of the action.

 

This glorious production of Falsettoland is outstanding and not to be missed.  MTC also deserves praise for making the bold decision to present a sizeable cast in a musical not often seen in the state.  Many Connecticut theaters have played it safe during the past few months, with small, intimate productions.  Give the Music Theatre of Connecticut credit for this robust offering. 

 

Falsettoland, playing at MTC through November 21.

 

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Review of "Doubt"

The matter of sexual abuse in the Church is a volatile and hot-button issue.  However, as demonstrated in John Patrick Shanley’s Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning drama, Doubt, the explosive circumstances surrounding this serious subject is not always clear cut.

 

In Doubt, we are presented with a simple, yet complicated question – Who do you believe?  Is it Father Flynn, the charismatic priest of St. Nicholas parish or the rigid, upright St. Nicholas Church School principal Sister Aloysius?

 

The plot is straightforward – Sister Aloysius (Betsy Aidem) has strong suspicions of Father Flynn’s (Eric Bryant) inappropriate behavior towards a student.  She confides in the pupil’s teacher, Sister James (Kerstin Anderson), asking her to report any dubious conduct.  The principal also calls in the student’s mother (Sharina Martin), seeking whatever possible incriminating information she can provide.  In the end, a confrontation between the two protagonists provides closure…to a degree.

 

Shanley has skillfully crafted a drama that starts off slow and deliberate as characters are introduced and subtleties grow into outright accusations.  Hard fast evidence is in short supply.  Feelings and undocumented judgements are substituted for facts.  This is a cat and mouse game that produces constantly shifting allegiances leaving audience members persistently in doubt about guilt and innocence.  Injecting race into the scenario adds a layer of complication that only heightens the stakes at hand.

 

The uniformly fine cast is led by Betsy Aidem as the highly judgmental, take-no-prisoners Sister Aloysius.  The actress comes across as someone not to be taken lightly or to cross.  Yet, she lets seep into her portrayal a level of uncertainty that puts her actions and motivations up for question too.  Eric Bryant, is playful and gregarious as the fresh-faced priest, Father Flynn.  However, he also shows glimpses of anger and a possible dark side to his character.

 

The two other performers in the show are critical to the production’s dramatic tension.  Kerstin Anderson’s Sister James is well-meaning, na├»ve, an innocent vessel, and unwitting pawn in the struggle for the soul of St. Nicholas’ parish.  As she is swayed back and forth in her allegiance, she becomes the moral compass of the play.

 

Sharina Martin, the mother of the pupil in question, deftly portrays a parent in crisis.  She is a jumble of mixed emotions and attitudes - conciliatory, protective, and combative. 

 

Director David Kennedy helms this taut, 75-minute production with an experienced hand.  He allows the action to unfold at a measured pace, meticulously building up to the clash of wills and righteousness.  He has utilized Charlie Corcoran’s minimal set design – a desk and chair – which constantly shifts around the almost barren stage, as a way to compel the audience to see this unfolding drama at various angles.

 

Doubt, a thought-provoking production, playing at the Westport Country Playhouse through November 21.

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Review of Say Goodnight, Gracie

 I’m a big fan of the old Burns and Allen programs on satellite radio.   The comedic duo started out on the lower tier of the vaudeville circuit before climbing to the upper echelon of the entertainment industry.  Their story is lovingly presented at the Ivoryton Playhouse’s production of Say Goodnight, Gracie, running through November 21.

 

The one-man show stars Connecticut stalwart R. Bruce Connelly as the ageless George Burns.  With the aid of audio and video clips and a healthy offering of humorous asides, Connelly presents the life story of the comedic icon and his equally talented wife. 

 

The play, penned by Rupert Holmes, has as its premise George Burns at the pearly gates auditioning for entry in front of God (Spoiler Alert – he does get in).   Connelly, providing a solid Impersonation of the comedian, then launches into a quick-paced, highlight filled review of his life, beginning with Burns’ humble beginnings on New York’s Lower East Side.  He regales the audience with tales of his start in show business, the happenstance pairing with Gracie Allen, their lives and career together and, finally, the latter part of his life where, at aged 79, he won an Academy Award for The Sunshine Boys.

 

R. Bruce Connelly is the ideal George Burns.  He displays just the right degree of warmth and conviviality to charm audience members.  He delivers jokes with aplomb and in an easy-going manner reminiscent of the famed comedian.  The play is not just a series of one-liners and funny schtick.  There are a number of poignant moments, delivered by Connelly with a beguiling appeal.

 

Playwright Rupert Holmes, a man of many talents – he wrote the score to The Mystery of Edwin Drood and had a #1 hit with “The Pina Colada Song” – has crafted a show that is full of emotion, magic and laughter. He skillfully embraces the central points of the pair’s lives that come across in an entertaining manner as opposed to a staid historical recitation.

 

Director Jacqueline Hubbard has populated the Ivoryton stage with an assortment of  props – an armchair here, a table and chair there, a movie screen center stage – to keep the performance on stage from becoming tiresome or tedious.  She keeps the tempo relaxed, yet lively.

 

Say Goodnight, Gracie, a treat for fans of Burns and Allen and a wonderful introduction for individuals unfamiliar with the team’s brilliance.  Running through November 21 at the Ivoryton Playhouse.

 

Monday, November 1, 2021

Review - The Lehman Trilogy

The Lehman Trilogy is a play not to be missed, wth an epic quality that is captivating in scope and artistry.  Throughout the 3+ hour production, the history of the Lehman empire unfolds in a series of short scenes that rapidly chronicles the company’s humble beginnings in 1834 Montgomery, Alabama to its eventual demise in 2008.

The show is not merely a highlight reel of connected vignettes.  The play is an intricately woven story that is thoroughly engrossing, performed by only three distinguished actors - Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Adrian Lester - portraying multiple characters within and outside the Lehman family.

The timeline of the play follows Henry Lehman, a recent immigrant from Bavaria in 1844, settling in the Alabama capital.  Soon joined by brothers Mayer and Emmanuel, the trio start off selling fabrics, moving to dry goods and then hitting it rich as the middle men between plantation owners looking to sell their cotton and industrialists seeking the raw material.

We follow their eventual move to New York City, the financial center of the fast-growing economy and their shift to banking.  Throughout the company’s continual growth and prosperity they are able to constantly evolve and transform the business when necessary, always seeming to succeed and survive even during such major upheavals as the Civil War and the Great Depression.

As the decades unfold, the founding brothers pass and younger members of the Lehman family take charge of what becomes an investment house juggernaut, expanding and merging until the company’s collapse in 2008.

Playwright Stefano Massini and, in turn, adapter Ben Powers, has synthesized the essence of the Lehman’s sprawling story to construct a theatrical production that is never ponderous, full of emotional highs and lows and rich in details.  Massini is able to intelligibly break down the machinations of a constantly morphing business and expose the arrogance and vanity that drives men in power to unthinkable heights.  Acts I and II are riveting, but the playwright falters slightly in Act III, which becomes burdened with business related jargon and less dramatic momentum.

The three seasoned actors, to put it bluntly, are mesmerizing.  Simon Russell Beale as Henry; Adam Godley as Mayer; and Adrian Lester as Emanuel provide an acting clinic whether they are swiftly narrating segments of the show, embodying the play’s central roles, or breathing life into a disparate number of male and female characters, young and old. They have a driven, devil-may-care manner, which excites and entertains.

Director Sam Mendes takes the multi-generational exploration of the Lehman dynasty and shapes it into a compelling theatrical presentation.  The pacing is brisk, but not tiresomely.  He pushes his actors into giving first-rate, inspired performances.  Act I and II are brilliantly executed.  Only in Act III does Mendes slightly falter as there is a less cohesive and coherent structure to the show’s conclusion.  Still, the director deserves kudos for guiding what could have been a staggering behemoth of a play into probably the dramatic event of the season.

Scenic designer Es Devlin has constructed an enormous glass and metal enclosed office suite (probably corner office) separated into a number of multi-functioning rooms that are sparingly adorned. A table, a chair, cardboard boxes and other minimal set pieces are enough to spur the audience’s imagination.  The spinning set rotates into a new position when a scene changes or a significant life event occurs.

In a sense, The Lehman Trilogy has a cinematic scope.  Composer Nick Powell has crafted a vibrant musical soundtrack to accompany the performance, which is superbly rendered by Music Director Candida Caldicot on an upright piano, down front in the orchestra section of the theater.

The Lehman Trilogy, on Broadway only through January 2, 2022.  Don’t miss it.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Review - The Chinese Lady

 

The Chinese Lady, playing at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT through October 31, is a fascinating blend of historical drama and inspired imagination.

 

The two-person show is based on the true story of 14 year-old Afong Moy (Shannon Tyo), who is brought to the United States from mainland China in 1834, thereby becoming the first Chinese woman to enter this country.  The purpose for her sojourn is to be exhibited to the American public.  She demonstrates how the Chinese eat, drink tea, wear exotic garbs, and how women walk with bound feet.  She is attended to by a translator, Atung (John Norman Schneider), who becomes her surrogate parent, confidante, and guide to the new world.

 


What, at first, is a two-year commitment for her services becomes years, then decades of servitude.  Throughout the years, she provides running commentary about America in the early and latter part of the 19th century as well as attitudes and actions against Chinese immigrants.  We hear about the Civil War and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which imposed a 10-year moratorium on Chinese labor immigration.  Attracted by the western Gold Rush more Chinese seek their fortune in the United States, but are subject to harassment, beatings, and even lynchings.  Within this context, Afong continues to be put on display around the country, growing older, more dispirited and aggrieved.

 

Playwright Lloyd Suh has crafted a world using primary sources, and a theatrical presentation to dramatize the story.  He deftly uses the concept of this sideshow type act (in her later years Afong becomes part of P.T. Barnum’s group of human oddities) to educate as well as entertain audiences. I, for one, was totally unfamiliar with the Chinese Exclusion Act or such horrific acts of cruelty and death.  Suh also explores the issues of identity and self-worth.  Afong never returns to her homeland or has contact with her parents or family members.  She is alone, unsure how she fits into American society; a commodity to be used and discarded.

 

The parallels in today’s world of attitudes toward Asian-Americans are alarmingly similar, where news accounts of hate crimes are all too prevalent.

 

While there is much pain and sadness in The Chinese Lady, there is also humor and whimsy to balance the play.

 

Shannon Tyo is superb as Afong Moy.  She impressively appears, at first, as a shy, wide-eyed, though exuberant teenager, full of wonderment and self-importance. As the years progress, the actress develops into a fully mature woman, one who strikingly brings out the world-weariness and mental and physical exhaustion of the character.  John Norman Schneider gives a subdued, nuanced performance, layered with disillusionment and mystery. 

 


Director Ralph B. Pena successfully creates a miniature world - the small performance area - where Afong Moya holds court.  He skillfully builds the dramatic tension from the awe and wonderment of a child to a resigned, disenchanted woman. The 90-minute, intermission-less play, flows smoothly through the repetitive scenes of Afong Moy and Atung coming out to surprise and enchant.

 

Scenic designer Junghyun Georgia Lee Cargo has strikingly taken part of a metal cargo container which, when opened, becomes a small thrust stage where Afong Moy presents her daily instruction and reflections.

 

The Chinese Lady, an entertaining and enlightening work, playing at Long Wharf Theatre through October 31.

 

 

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Review - A Grand Night for Singing

The theatrical universe has taken a giant step towards normalcy with the reopening of in-person productions at the venerable Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT.  


The production they have selected - the Rodgers and Hammerstein jukebox musical A Grand Night for Singing, is an ideal choice.  The music of the composing team has a universal appeal.  The show has a small cast performing selections - both well-known and obscure - from the duo’s songbook.  They include songs from their decades long partnership including selections from Oklahoma!, South Pacific, The King and I, Carousel, and Me and Juliet.  Think of the show as comfort food for the theatrical soul or a soothing breeze coming off the adjacent Connecticut River.


The overall tone is low-key, with a few flourishes by the talented five-person cast, performing on a bare stage, with minimal props, a few costume changes, and backed by a superb seven member onstage orchestra.  


Songs are not necessarily delivered the way audience members might remember from spinning their 33 ⅓ LPs.  Director Ron Ruggiero, a frequent collaborator at the Goodspeed, states in the program notes that his goals for the productions was:

  • To revisit the music with a contemporary lens so the songs remain fresh and relevant

  • A commitment to making sure the company of actors reflect the world we live in today

  • To represent an authentic celebration of diversity onstage


He has scored on all three. The artistry of Rodgers and Hammerstein is that many of their works are wonderfully crafted into mini stories, radiating with emotion, that are open to new interpretations and creativeness.   In A Grand Night for Singing some of the song’s usual gender roles have been reversed, producing a whole new meaning to the selections. Other songs, such as “Honey Bun” from South Pacific, have been jazzed up.  There are dozens of musical numbers in the show including The Surrey with the Fringe On Top (Oklahoma!), Hello, Young Lovers (The King and I), If I Loved You (Carousel), Shall We Dance? (The King and I), It Might As Well Be Spring (State Fair), Maria (The Sound of Music), and Some Enchanted Evening (South Pacific)


The five actors/actresses - Jasmine Forsberg, Maurico Martinez, Jesse Nager, Mamie Parris, and Diane Phelan - have solid musical theater credentials and perform each piece with flair and gusto.  Their acting prowess comes into play throughout the production, which only heightens the selections presented on stage.


Rob Ruggiero’s guidance is more subtle and understated.  However, there is a confident and assured intention to his direction.  He allows the songs to speak for themselves without adding distractions or fluff.


Choreographer Lainie Sakakura enlivens the show with choice dance routines, most notably in “Honey Bun,” “Kansas City,” and “Shall We Dance.”  They are compact, with bursts of joyfulness and whimsy.


A Grand Night for Singing, an entertaining tonic for theater-goers of all ages.  Playing at the Goodspeed Opera House through November 28.


Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Review of Smokey Joe's Cafe

A Contemporary Theatre of Connecticut’s decision to open their in-person season with Smokey Joe’s Cafe is a smart move.  The show is a buoyant and effervescent jukebox musical, filled with familiar and hummable tunes, highlighting the hits composed by songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.  They include such standards as “Jailhouse Rock,” “Stand By Me,” “Yakety Yak,” “Hound Dog,” and “On Broadway.”  

The production features eight smooth, highly skilled, and vocally adept performers who take the stage with a spirited assurance and sparkling agility.

The thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining musical, encompassing over 30 songs from the Leiber and Stoller catalog, is presented as a series of well-crafted mini-vignettes.  They feature soaring solo performances as well as a combination of any number of the actors and actresses.  All of these artists - Albert Guerzon, Arnold Harper II, Avionce Hoyles, Jordan Fife Hunt, Keyonna Knight, Courtney Long, Kelly MacMillan, and Judson Williams - showcase their varied range during individual numbers or in combination with others, whether it’s emoting tenderness or showcasing an energetic flair.

While all of the performers exude a polished confidence and professionalism, two members of the ensemble standout.  Courtney Long has a brashness and self-assured attitude, along with a soaring and powerful vocal range, that had the audience cheering.  Albert Guerzon is engaging, high powered, athletic, and radiates a contagious charisma

First time Director Stephanie Pope Lofgren, who also doubles as choreographer, does an impressive job providing a captivating narrative structure for each song, no small feat when you have so many scenes to create.  She shows creativity and an inventive deftness that never becomes tiresome or repetitious.  As choreographer, Ms. Lofgren augments most songs with pizazz and highly synchronized movements.  She has superbly incorporated Jack Mehler’s lighting design into the production, which adds a stylistic flourish that doesn’t overwhelm any of the musical numbers and helps punctuate the energy and rhythmic flow of the show. 

Mehler’s scenic design, a simple set with a stoop on one side, a bar on the right and a moveable staircase center stage, provides enough variety for the multiple scenarios.

One of the great pleasures of Smokey Joe’s Cafe is John Salutz’s excellent sound design.  Vocals are clear and dynamic, never overwhelming the band or blasting the audience.  Likewise, the seven-person combo never drowns out the singers.

The band is positioned at the back of the stage, some members on an elevated platform in view of the audience, giving the impression of a recording session taking place.  A joy to hear, they are a precision unit, pumping out the music in classic renditions as well as unique arrangements.

Smokey Joe’s Cafe, a first-class production, playing at A Contemporary Theatre of Connecticut in Ridgefield, CT through October 24. Information on tickets as well as theater entry policies are at https://www.actofct.org/.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Review - Two Jews Walk into a War...

Theatrical productions riffing on the classic Samuel Beckett play Waiting for Godot seem to be the in thing on stages both regionally and in New York. Currently, on Broadway, you have playwright Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s undertaking, Pass Over.

 

At Playhouse on Park in West Hartford you have Seth Rozin's Two Jews Walk into a War... While not an outright homage to Beckett’s seminal work, the production at Playhouse on Park does share many of the attributes of Waiting for Godot, what author J. Knowlson refers to as “religious, philosophical, psychoanalytical and biographical references.” Like Godot, there are elements of comedy, vaudeville, and pathos embedded in Rozin’s play.

 

The result is a meandering, sometimes humorous, mildly diverting play that often veers to the sophomoric.

 

In Two Jews Walk into a War…, we find Zeblyan (Bob Ari) and Ishaq (Mitch Greenberg), two elderly men who happen to be the last two Jews in Kabul. Afghanistan, about to bury their recently departed compatriot and somewhat leader, Yakob, (an almost reverse Godot type character).  Within their damaged synagogue the two individuals bicker and hurl insults at one another as they avoid the ever present and threatening Taliban.  We soon learn they just can’t stand each other.  However, slowly, and with many bumps in the road, they learn to work together for their grand scheme of repopulating the Jewish community of the Afghan capital. 

 

In between implementing their plan are explorations of existential questions, analysis of Biblical passages, and a continuous barrage of blame towards each other for a variety of problems and predicaments.  

 

Rozin’s play can at times be compelling with thought-provoking ruminations and compelling scenarios.  Yet, many of the big issues and introspections presented in the 90 minute, intermission-less show, fail to generate much sustained dramatic tension.  The idle chatter and invectives become more matter-of-fact, leading to uninteresting and questionable scenes.  

 

The actors Bob Ari and Mitch Greenberg could easily be slotted into the two central roles in Waiting for Godot.  Greenberg’s Ishaq comes across like Beckett’s Vladimir, the more introspective and pseudo-intellectual of the pair.  Ari’s Zeblyan, like Godot’s Estragon, is more of a follower, who walks with a heavy step.  His ideas and intentions are less grandiose and well-formulated.  Both performers attack the material with a liveliness and passion, forcefully justifying their character’s almost absurd contrivances.

 

David Hammond’s direction keeps the pacing brisk, using the small Playhouse staging area to give movement and an openness to the production.  He skillfully keeps the multiple scenes running at variable tempos, helping to keep the play from teetering into a mundane series of uninteresting musings.  The director incorporates Bill Clarke’s minimalistic set design, Johann Fitzpatrick’s highly effective lighting design (especially his use of strobes demarcating the passage of time) and Jacob Montogmery’s limited, but efficacious sound design, to effectively open up this two-person show.

 

Two Jews Walk into a War...occasionally brings up issues and topics worth meditating on but, overall, the show’s content drifts too far afield from successfully answering the big questions it seeks to address.

 

Two Jews Walk into a War...playing at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford through October 10.  Information at https://www.playhouseonpark.org/