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.