Friday, December 23, 2022

Review of "Come From Away" - Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts

The musical Come From Away, playing at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts through December 24, is one of my all-time favorite productions.  It is an emotional rollercoaster that is sorrowful, uplifting and, yet, full of humor.  Using the backdrop of 9/11, the musical celebrates the immeasurable capacity of individuals from different backgrounds to come together in dire times.


Come From Away begins in the small town of Gander, in the Province of Newfoundland.  A normal day quickly turns topsy-turvy as dozens of flights from around the world are suddenly diverted to their semi-used airfield when the United States airspace is closed after the 9/11 attacks (Before the jet age, Gander was the central refueling depot for planes crossing the Atlantic).  Overnight the population of the quaint Canadian town grew from 9,000 to 16,000 people.


The musical relates how the townspeople and “plane people” reacted, adapted, and came together over a five-day period before they could fly back home.  We become swept up by the personal stories of the passengers and the incredible acts of kindness and sacrifices by our northern neighbors.


Librettist Irene Sankoff and David Hein have crafted a well-structured narrative where each cast member portrays a multitude of roles.  The book writers focus on the determination of everyone to make an unthinkable and untenable situation work.  The optimistic attitude is a central theme of the show.  The show is heartening and inspirational, never maudlin or depressing.  Yes, there are tears, but tears of joy as well as of pain and anguish.


The score. also by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, is a mix of haunting and soul-searching compositions and exuberant melodies that elatedly reverberate throughout the theater.  Tinged with the Irish roots prevalent in the northern Canadian province, they are almost all ensemble pieces.  The songs are performed by a tight knit, boisterous band that would be welcome at any Emerald Isle drinking establishment.


The ensemble cast blends so well together.  They are full of individuals you would find at any main street diner.  They exude their own can-do spirit as they forcefully take hold of the material with a dynamism and drive that is heartfelt and genuine.  If there was a Tony Award for Best Ensemble, Come From Away would have been the hands down winner.


Director Christopher Ashley does a superb job staging the show.  He has taken the spare Scenic Design by Beowulf Boritt, which utilizes just tables and chairs, to serve a variety of functions.  A smart choice.  Anything more elaborate would have lessened the pace of the show and tethered our imagination.


Ashley keeps the pacing quick without rushing the storyline. Under his guidance, the transformation of the actors and actresses from one character to another is skillfully executed.  Gratifyingly, the overall effect allows the audience to slowly absorb the impact of what is happening without a preachy or moralistic tone.  The integration of the musical numbers, under the musical staging of Kelly Devine, is organic, developing naturally and mirroring the action on stage.  The dancing is buoyant and lively and reflects the down-to-earth nature of the townsfolk.


Come From Away, an absorbing and moving musical not to be missed.  Click here for dates, times, and ticket information.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Review of "Christmas on the Rocks" - Theaterworks Hartford

It’s been a few years since I ventured out to Theaterworks Hartford’s annual December production, Christmas on the Rocks.  I’m happy to report that it is still a comedic delight.  For the uninitiated, the 100 minute, intermissionless show consists of eight short playlets by seven writers.  Each vignette takes a decidedly off-beat riff on such holiday classics as the movies “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Story” and the cartoons “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”  The Elf on the Shelf makes an appearance as does an older, world-weary Charlie Brown.  The whimsical tales take place at a corner bar that has seen better days.  The proprietor, Isaac, gamely interacts with each of the characters that invade his pub on a quiet Christmas Eve.


Each scene, which sometimes borders on bawdy, raunchy humor, has its moments of amusement, with many triggering howls of laughter.  The first four of the storylines were entertaining and brought smiles to my face:  “A Miserable Life,” by Jacques Lamarre, focuses on an adult ZuZu Bailey who is freaked out by the sound of bells. “All Grown Up,” written by John Cariani, introduces us to Ralphie and his peculiar attraction to pink fluffy objects. “My Name Is KAREN!,” by Jenn Harris & Matthew Wilkas, spotlights an older, semi-psychotic Karen and her unhealthy relationship with Frosty. “Say It Glows,” by Jeffrey Hatcher, merrily flips through the gay elf Hermey’s frosty relationship with Rudolph. 


However, the latter half of the show is the production’s strength.  “Snitch,” by Jenn Harris, is a hilarious homage to every child’s fear - the all-knowing Elf on a Shelf.  “Drumsticks and Chill,” penned by Judy Gold and Jacques Lamarre, successfully combines the telling of the Hanukah story by a half-baked Little Drummer Boy with a serious note on anti-semitism.  The hilarity of “Still Nuts About Him,” by Edwin Sánchez, is courtesy of the actress Jen Cody who’s comedic nuttiness and acrobatics as Clara from The Nutcracker, brings down the house.  “Merry Christmas, Blockhead,” by Jacques Lamarre, has always been my favorite.  An older, seemingly defeated Charlie Brown comes into the bar to bare his soul. What begins as a very humorous scene turns poignant and hopeful.  


Christmas on the Rocks is powered by three very talented performers.  Ted Lange, known for his long time role on TV’s The Love Boat, plays the unwitting bartender. The actor, with his laid back manner and impish grin, is the perfect straight man who welcomes the assorted characters into his modest establishment.  Harry Bouvy and Jen Cody, rotate through every scene, playing all the zany roles.  They are both superb performers.  Bouvey is wonderfully adept playing multiple types of characters - a down-on-his luck former child movie star, a stoner musician, an over-the-top very merry elf, and the epitome of woefulness, Charlie Brown himself.  Jen Cody brings a unique physicality to all her roles.  She is a fearless performer and gifted comedic talent whose antics cascade into waves of laughter from the audience.   


Director Rob Ruggiero assuredly guides the show he conceived and has staged for the past ten years.  One scene flows comfortably into the next on the quaint, richly detailed set designed by Michael Schweikardt.  Since I last saw the play, Ruggiero has expanded the use of technology, incorporating video projections, which enhance some of the scenes.  He has also added simple, but highly effective sight gags such as the cartoonish gait of Charlie Brown.  John Lasiter’s clever Lighting Design bolsters a number of the stories.  Alejo Vietti’s Costume Design and J. Jared Janas’s Wig Design provide splendid visual cues. 


Christmas on the Rocks, a worthy, different kind of holiday treasure, playing at Theaterworks Hartford through December 23.  Click here for information on tickets, dates and times.

Monday, December 5, 2022

Review of "Kimberly Akimbo"

The musical Kimberly Akimbo can be described as quirky.  Quirky in a good way.  The show, a big hit Off-Broadway last season, has made a successful transfer to Broadway without losing its more intimate quality and eccentric feel.  Based on David Linday-Abaire’s 2001 play of the same name, the story revolves around Kimberly, a high school teenager suffering from a rare disorder that causes her to age four times faster than normal.  Looking more like a senior citizen, the actress Victoria Clark gives a bravo performance as the young adult.  After just a few minutes on stage you wholeheartedly believe her portrayal of Kimberly.


The story takes place in the North Jersey suburbs.  Kimberly, a smart 16 year old, lives with her slacker, undependable parents, Buddy (Steven Boyer) and Patti (Alli Mauzey).  At times, she seems to be parenting them.  Kimberly is not part of a group or clique until she falls in with a band of fellow outsiders, most notably Seth (a winning Broadway debut by Justin Cooley), who manages the local ice rink, plays the tuba and has his own dysfunctional home life to contend with.  Life is looking up for Kimberly and her friendship with Seth until the appearance of her aunt Debra (Bonnie Milligan) turns everything topsy-turvy.  She is a hopeless schemer and crooked individual always in the thick of chaos.  While creating upheaval at her sister Pattie’s and brother-in-law Buddy’s home, she recruits Kimberly and her pals for a sure-fire scam to enrich herself and the teens.  In the end, everyone, well, mostly everyone gets a big payoff.


What makes Kimberly Akimbo work is its skillful mix of goofiness, heartache and poignancy.   Director Jessica Stone guides the show with an assured hand and clever decisions, allowing the musical’s humor and honesty to shine brightly.  David Zinn’s multiple sets bolster the quality of the show without overpowering the production. Choreographer Danny Mefford sprinkles some sprightly dance numbers throughout the production only when they make sense for the show.  The ice skating number is a considerable standout.  Librettist David Lindsay-Abaire celebrates uniqueness and unconventionality with a playful joyfulness.  There is a serious undertone to the show as characters make decisions about the direction of their lives.  What could have been a real downer of a show ends on an uplifting high note.


The composing team of Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lindsay-Abaire (lyrics), whose previous collaboration was Shrek - the Musical, have crafted a score that fetes individualness and fun.  The songs, tuneful and jubilant, cleverly help further the plot and character development.  Standouts include the tenderly amusing “Anagram,” the self-revelatory belter “Better,” and the rejoicing Act I closer “This Time.” 


The entire cast, a carryover from the Off-Broadway run, fits smoothly and comfortably into their roles for the Broadway run.  Victoria Clark’s portrayal of Kimberly is so beautiful and touching, adding a splash of spunk.  Look for her at Tony time.  The young actor, Justin Cooley, gleefully infuses Seth with a hopefulness that is at times heart-rending and empowering.  Bonnie Milligan’s Debra gives new meaning to crass and endearment, with a screwball twist.  Her delightfully inept shenanigans power the show forward.   Steven Boyer’s Buddy and Alli Mauzey’s Patti give daffy performances that are tinged with unfulfillment and regret.   The gaggle of high school students - Olivia Elease Hardy, Fernell Hogan, Michael Iskander, and Nina White - are a fine group of up-and-coming actors, unflinchingly proud of themselves and their abilities.


Kimberly Akimbo may lack the firepower and pizazz of large-scale Broadway productions but is, nonetheless, a wholly satisfying musical theater experience.


Sunday, December 4, 2022

Review of "The Brightest Light in the World" - Yale Repertory

Relationships can be joyful.  They can be tough.  And messy.  In playwright Leah Nanako Winkler’s sufficing world premiere, The Brightest Light in the World, we are introduced to two women in their early 30’s.  Lane (Katherine Romans), outgoing and inquisitive, runs a bakery in Lexington, KY.  Steph (Michele Selene Ang), more reserved, is a daily customer.  In a series of quick scene resets, playfully staged by Director Margot Bordelon, the women strike up a friendship that develops into a tentative, then all-in romantic connection.  After their first blissful night, entrenched and difficult revelations are disclosed, with the thrust being Lane’s battle with drug addiction.


Through their trials and tribulations, they manage to forge ahead with their relationship.  Lane’s sister, Della (Megan Hill) - motivator, friend, big sister, mother figure - is always around as she deals with her own life issues.  Ultimately, the pull of addiction proves, maddeningly, too much for all involved, leading to anguish, bitterness and pain.


Ms. Winkler has penned a show that mixes humorous bantering with poignant heartache.  Her characters are slightly askew, lost, trying to find their purpose and place in society.  The playwright’s portrayal of drug addiction is multi-faceted and not, as she states in the program notes, “like the typical awards-bait portrayals of ‘addicts’ we have all seen in film, tv and theater.”


There is a lot of talk as the 100 minute, intermission-less show moves forward.  Director Bordelon, looking to vary the dramatic arc of the story, incorporates such devices as wild dancing, to minimal effect. The considerable amount of speechifying and at times spirited, but more often, conventional interplay between the characters doesn’t always provide dynamic theater.


The three actors - Katherine Romans (Lane), Michele Selene Ang (Steph), Megan Hill (Della) - have a solid, believable chemistry.  Sometimes they are overly expressive and loud, but these are sensitive, somewhat damaged individuals.  Ms. Bordelon, rightfully so, occasionally steers the portrayals in an over-the-top manner as a statement of the character’s exultations to the heavens that they are vibrantly alive.


Scenic Designer Cat Raynor’s sets of the bakery and Della’s living room are handsomely detailed.  Lighting Designer Graham Zellers’ twinkling skyscape adds a meditative quality to the production. 


The Brightest Thing in the World, playing at the Yale Repertory Theatre through December 17.  Click here for dates, times and ticket information.


Thursday, December 1, 2022

Review of "Almost Famous"

Successfully transforming a film into a rewarding Broadway musical is no guarantee.  For every Waitress, The Producers, and Spamalot the landscape is littered with such miscalculations as Rocky, Groundhog Day, and Catch Me If You Can.  The latest entry into this ever growing field is Almost Famous and, unfortunately, the show comes under the disappointment category.


The main problem is the book, written by the movie’s screenwriter and director, Cameron Crowe.  The film received the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, but the stage production follows the storyline of the motion picture too closely.  What worked on screen doesn’t fully translate to the stage.  Director Jeremy Herrin’s perfunctory staging produces a choppy presentation with the main action continuously being sidetracked by annoying subplots.


The musical’s scenario, a semi-autobiographical look at Crowe’s early life, revolves around teenager William Miller, a would-be rock ‘n roll writer whose work catches the eye of influential rock journalist and critic Lester Bangs.  Assigned to cover a Black Sabbath concert he, instead, manages to befriend the band Stillwater, primarily lead guitarist Russell Hammond, and their flock of groupies, headed by Penny Lane.  Through his connection with the up-and-coming band, he manages to get an assignment to write a cover story on them for Rolling Stone magazine.  From that point, the show follows the young man’s journey and interactions with the rockers and groupies, a bygone era of innocence and carefree revelry. As the show moves on, we witness Miller’s growth from a naive youth, who just wants to fit in and belong, to a more slightly worldly young man who learns some important life lessons such as trust and being true to yourself.


The production features a score with music by Broadway veteran Tom Kitt (Next to Normal and If/Then) and lyrics by Cameron Crowe.  It’s a mixed bag of satisfactory original compositions layered with songs from such artists as the Allman Brothers, Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder and Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” one of the most iconic moments in the movie, which proves not to have the same dramatic effect on stage.


A few of the numbers written for the musical standout.  They include “No Friends,” a haunting ballad sung by the teen; the raucous “Everybody’s Coming Together,” with its folk-rock, sing-song quality; and the boisterous curtain opener, “1973.”  


The cast is uniformly fine.  Casey Likes gives a wide-eyed, boyish and heartfelt performance as the young William Miller.  His portrayal anchors the production.  Chris Wood’s Russell Hammond has the positive vibe of a laid back Southern California rocker.  Drew Gehling, as fellow band member, Jeff Bebe, comes across a tad too much like a stereotypical party hardy, vainglorious head banger.  Sola Pfeiffer’s Penny Lane has an earthy aura and free spirit attitude.  Her portrayal of the lead band groupie - part fan, lover, and philosopher - rings true for the character.  Rob Colletti’s performance as Lester Bangs is bombastic and a little preachy as he serves up platitudes and sagely advice to the newbie rock journalist.


Almost Famous, a mostly unsatisfying film to stage metamorphosis.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Review of "& Juliet"

What would happen if Juliet (of Romeo & Juliet fame) didn’t take her own life at the end of Shakespeare’s classic play but, instead, resolved to see the world and live life to the fullest?  That’s the general plot of the exuberant new jukebox musical, & Juliet.  The show takes its songs from the portfolio of songwriter/producer Max Martin who, over the years, has crafted more number one hits on the Billboard charts than anyone in history.  The score includes such million sellers as “Baby One More Time” (Britney Spears), “Roar” (Katy Perry), “As Long as You Love Me” (Backstreet Boys), “Since You Been Gone” (Kelly Clarkson) and dozens more.  The selected songs fit perfectly within the story, helping to clarify the plot and illustrate the characters.

The book by David West Read, an Emmy Award winning writer for TV’s Schitt’s Creek, is consistently funny, inventive and, with the skillful direction of Luke Sheppard, keeps the pacing brisk and entertaining.  The librettist, while keeping the tone light and daff, is able to riff on same sex relationships, commitment and personal self-discovery.

Lorna Courtney delivers a star-making performance as the intrepid heroine.  Her Juliet, bathed in female empowerment, is an amalgam of emotions - self-assured, anxious, and wishful.

The musical begins with Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, bemoaning the downer ending of his new work-in-progress, Romeo & Juliet.  She proposes a more ambiguous conclusion of letting Juliet live on to explore the world and seek enlightenment.  The Bard reluctantly agrees and so the star-crossed lover heads to Paris with her best friend, May, and nurse in waiting.  In the City of Lights, the threesome find new loves and contentment.  There are amusing twists cheekily inserted into the plot that keeps the action lively.  Shakespeare and his wife are part of the action, but also jump out of the story as they constantly produce rewrites.  The married couple’s interactions, the only “serious” moments of the show, provide a parallel to the journey of fulfillment and dedication the other characters seek.  In the end, surprise, surprise, happiness abounds with one unexpected curveball from Juliet thrown in for good measure.

The cast is superb, led by Lorna Courtney as Juliet. She is resolute with a frisky, playful presence as well as an endearing vulnerability.  The actress has a powerful belting voice and is one helluva dancer.

Stark Sands (Shakespeare) and Betsy Wolfe (Anne Hathaway) display great chemistry and merrymaking.  Their lighthearted sparring, witty quips and bon mots are a source of continuous comedic pleasures.  Justin David Sullivan makes a splashy Broadway debut as Juliet’s best pal, May.  The performer adds heart and soul to the production.  Ben Jackson Walker gives Romeo a beguiling swagger and sensitivity that creates a fully realized character.  Other notable cast members are Paulo Szot as the stern, but compassionate Lance; Philippe Arroyo as Lance’s diffident son Francois; and Melanie La Barrie as the doting nurse, Angelique.

Jennifer Weber’s choreography is wildly energetic and highly charged.  The dance moves blend effortlessly and distinctively within the pop songs of the score.

The other creative elements that go into constructing a large-scale Broadway musical are marvelously in sync.  They include Soutra Gilmour’s flashy and glittering Scenic Design; the trendy, Renaissance chic costumes designed by Paloma Young; Howard Hudson’s dazzling Lighting Design; and Andrzej Goulding’s pictorially tinged Video & Projections.  All mesh so well together, creating a sparkling stage production.

& Juliet, an electrifying and delicious jukebox musical confection.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Review of "Fences" - Playhouse on Park

For August Wilson’s Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning drama, Fences, to work, the two lead characters need to be dynamic performers.  In the Playhouse on Park staging, running through November 20, the actor Jamil A.C. Mangan, as the volatile, resentful Troy Maxson and Yvette Monette Clark as his loyal, abiding wife, are superb.  There are some aspects of the play that undermine the show, primarily the portrayal of the small, but pivotal role of the youngest son, Cory.  Overall, however, if you have not attended one of the playwright’s ten-part "Pittsburgh Cycle" plays, this production is worth seeing.

August Wilson has crafted a very accessible, in some ways, straightforward story that examines race relations and racial discrimination.  It is also a somber meditation on lost dreams and hopes. The playwright, while incorporating extended orations, relies more on indirect threadlines to bring home his points on injustice, desperation and aspirations curtailed.

The plot revolves around Troy Maxson, a Pittsburgh garbage hauler.  He and his best friend Jim Bono (Eric Carter) have the same routine day in and day out.  He is frustrated at work because the Black employees do the heavy lifting while the White workers get to drive the trucks.  Home life is also routine - returning each night to his loving, supportive wife Rose - but feeling trapped by a life going nowhere and facing a house in need of constant repair. 

His two sons provide little help.  Lyons (Jerry Hamilton), married and a struggling musician, lives out of the home, but always seems to show up on Troy’s payday.  Cory (Khalfani Louis) a standout high school football player, is more concerned with impressing a college recruiter than his responsibilities at home.  In addition, there is Troy’s impaired brother Gabriel (Daniel Danielson), severely wounded in WWII, who roams the city seeing “hellhounds.”

Underlying Troy’s life is his intense resentment about not making it as a major league baseballer.  A star in the Negro League, by the time baseball integrated, he was past his prime, even though he believes he can still play.  His bitterness and agitation lead to family upheaval and turmoil that forever changes the fortunes and lives of each character.

Troy Maxson is a complex individual and the actor Jamil A.C. Mangan gives a soulful performance full of cynicism, angst, and heartache.  We all can relate, to some degree, to his reflections of “What If?”  Yvette Monette Clark’s portrayal of Rose is more measured.  The Ying to her husband’s Yang.  The actress is stoic and resolute, but shows her range when, at the end of Act I, she erupts with outrage and suffering.

A few of the featured players give highly satisfactory performances.  Their roles add more depth to the storyline in subtle, less overt ways.  Among them are Eric Carter as Jim Bono, Troy’s longtime friend and Daniel Danielson as Gabriel, Troy’s psychologically damaged brother.  The night I saw the production, the actor slated to portray Lyons, the eldest son, suddenly called out ill.  Jerry Hamilton, went into the role with little rehearsal, script in hand.  Under the circumstances, he gave a fine portrayal.  Khalfani Louis is disappointing in the small, but important, role as the young son Cory.  He brings too little shading or nuance to the performance.

Director Kenney M. Green smartly keeps the character of Troy Maxson center stage with the other cast members orbiting his sizable sphere.  There is a lot of speechifying, in Fences, but the Director deftly guides his cast, bringing passion, anguish and heartbreak to their monologues.  Working with Scenic Designer Baron E. Pugh, he convincingly creates the back of what appears to be a dwelling in a gritty neighborhood.

Fences, playing through November 20 at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford.  Click here for dates and ticket information.

Monday, November 7, 2022

Review of "Guys and Dolls" - ACT of CT

 I always judge a production of Guys and Dolls by the quality of the big 11:00 o’clock number, “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.”  On this point, the staging of the Frank Loesser classic is a rousing success.  Not only does the character of Nicely Nicely Johnson (Izzy Figueroa), give a spirited rendition of the showstopper, but what elevates the scene is the synchronous movement of the cast along with Lighting Designer Chris Chambers’ atmospheric effects.  The cast members pulsate and sway to Sara Brians’ superb choreography, appearing as one amorphous legion of sinners wailing to the heavens.  

The musical, with a libretto by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, is based on a number of short stories from the writer Damon Runyon.  His tales are populated by such colorful characters as gamblers, nightclub performers, society folk and the regular people found in the environs of Broadway.

In Guys and Dolls there are two stories running side by side.  The primary thrust of the book is on Nathan Detroit and his associates who are frantically seeking a secure location for their floating crap game.  Complicating matters is his longtime girlfriend, cabaret star Miss Adelaide, who has been patiently waiting 14 years to get married to the man.  The other plot line is of big-time gambler, Sky Masterson and his pursuit of Save-A-Soul Mission member Sarah Brown.  

The show is enlivened by one of the great scores in musical theater history.  [An historical side note — the music and lyrics did not win the Tony Award that year, which went to Irving Berlin for Call Me Madam].  The songs in Guys and Dolls include such gems as the buoyant "A Bushel and a Peck," the delectable dizziness of "Adelaide's Lament," the lovable comedic duet of "Sue Me;" the lively "Guys and Dolls" and "Luck Be a Lady," and my personal favorite, the irresistible "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat."  The 11-person pit band, led by Music Director Nick Wilders, delivers each number with gusto and a glossy sheen.

Director Daniel C. Levine and Choreographer Brians have teamed up to produce an energetic and wholly entertaining show.  Scene changes are fluidly executed, helped enormously by Set Designer Jack Mehler’s sliding paneled backdrops.  The non-musical segments lag somewhat, with jokes not always landing, but Mr. Levine still manages to attach a feisty and playful aura to the musical.  I do wish, however, he would have started the production directly with the traditional “Runyonland” opening as opposed to the meditative beginning he inserted.

The outstanding dance numbers make up for any sluggishness of the show.  The Havana outdoor cafe sequence is bold and sexy.  “The Crapshooters Dance,” which takes place at the underground gambling den, is vibrant and muscular.  The two nightclub routines - “A Bushel and a Peck” and “Take Back Your Mink” are charming, amusing, and totally captivating.  Both production numbers are highlighted by Costume Designer Claudia Stefany’s whimsical, brightly-colored and a tad risqué outfits.  

The four stars of the show are first rate.  As Sky Masterson, Matt Faucher is the essence of coolness.  The actor brings a confident, self-assured awareness to the role.  He can be tough as well as vulnerable.  Katherine Riddle is a bit too staid as Times Square missionary Sarah Brown, but she possesses one of the best singing voices I’ve heard on a Connecticut stage in some time.  Her rendition of “If I Were a Bell” is breathtaking.  Overall, Phil Sloves is fine as Nathan Detroit even though his rambunctious shenanigans could have benefitted with a more nuanced portrayal.  Donna Vivino, a veteran of many Broadway musicals, is pure joy as the hopelessly in love Miss Adelaide.  She sings beautifully, can stay step-to-step with her Hot Box dancers, and exhibits a vivacious comic flair.  The three sidekicks of Nathan Detroit - Nicely Nicely Johnson (Izzy Figueroa), Rusty Charlie (Herrera), and Benny Southstreet (Michael McGuirk) - provide humorous schtick throughout the show.

Guys and Dolls, well-worth catching at ACT of CT in Ridgefield, through November 20.  Click here for ticket information, dates and times.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Review of "From the Mississippi Delta" - Westport Country Playhouse

From the Mississippi Delta is an autobiographical play by Dr. Endesha Ida Mae Holland.  As stated in the program notes, “it is a story of one woman’s triumphant journey…a gripping tale depicting the resilience of the human spirit.”

It recounts her life growing up in the south.  Her stories are filled with poverty, racial injustice, and horrors.  “Cat,” as she was known, lived a life that was spiraling nowhere until the civil rights movement came to her town.  The demonstrations, rallies and her devotion to the cause changed her destiny.  She eventually moved to Minnesota and, after successfully passing her high school equivalency exam, went on to the University there to earn a B.A., M.A, and finally her doctorate.

Three actresses play multiple roles of the people in this remarkable woman’s life, most notably her mother, known as Aint Baby. a guiding force in the young girl’s upbringing.  They effectively bring out the angst, hardship, but also humor, in the production.  The most compelling of the trio is Erin Margaret Pettigrew (Woman 3).  Her portrayal, primarily of Aint Baby, is moving and inspirational.  Claudia Logan’s (Woman 1) main focus is on the high-spirited, always inquisitive Cat.  The actress gives a lively performance that can be raucously funny as well as heartfelt. Tameishia Peterson (Woman 2) is more the swing of the three actresses, tackling a variety of roles that could have used more distinction in their portrayals.

Dr. Holland’s play is structured as short vignettes in a non-linear format, which can sometimes be hard to follow.  The depictions, however, are enhanced with passionate spirituals, which bring strength to the characters and the action on stage.

Jason Ardizzone-West’s Scenic Design, with its multi-level, slatted wood set aptly portrays the dilapidated shotgun house the woman grew up in as well as the seedy town environs.  The problem for the show is the sheer size of the set.  It mostly overwhelms the actresses and intimate stories they are enacting.  This puts Director Goldie E. Patrick in a difficult position of balancing the relationships and characters within the play and the dominant set design.

From the Mississippi Delta, playing at Westport Country Playhouse through October 30.  Click here for ticket information.

Monday, October 24, 2022

Review of "The Mousetrap" - Hartford Stage

I’m a huge mystery fan and Agatha Christie is one of my favorite authors of the genre.  In her best novels, she weaves together elaborately laden plots with a host of eccentric characters.  Her 1952 play, The Mousetrap, is the longest running show in theater history, still being performed today in London’s West End.  

Hartford Stage has chosen this venerable war horse to kick off their 2022 - 2023 season in what proves to be an unsatisfying and, in some ways, mystifying production.

The plot has a classic Christie setting.  Four guests and a stranger arrive in a blizzard to the guest house of Mollie and Giles Ralston.  We quickly learn a London murder is connected to their aged country establishment, Monkswell Manor.  Soon, the local constabulatory is on the scene and murder is afoot.  Let me stop here as not to inadvertently disclose any of the whodunnit’s clues and revelations..

The cast of The Mousetrap. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The main problem with
The Mousetrap is the play itself.  This is second tier Agatha Christie with almost no twists and turns..  She employs a nursery rhyme - Three Blind Mice - as a device to add a color to the story.  Christie is noted for incorporating children’s tunes in her novels.  The best known is Ten Little Indians (known also as And Then There Were None).  But, here, the introduction and usage of the sing-song refrain is rather pedestrian. 

The characters, for the most part, are uninteresting and many of them are perplexingly portrayed.  There has always been humor in Christie’s books, but Director Jackson Gay goes for broad laughs and elevated idiosyncrasies, making the young Christopher Wren (Christopher Geary) an overwrought twit and the mysterious Mr. Paravicini (Jason O’Connell) an inflated clown. The two female guests, Mrs. Boyle (Yvette Ganier) and Miss Casewell (Ali Skamangas) are bland and tiresome.  Major Metcalf (Greg Stuhr) is the archetype British army officer, which means he huffs and puffs and pontificates about nothing.  Detective Sergeant Trotter (Brendan Dalton) seems to be yelling all his lines.  Only the young couple, Mollie (Sam Morales) and Giles Ralston (Tobias Segal), come across as attractive and engaging portrayals.

Christoper Geary and Sam Morales (front) and Tobias Segal (back).  Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The use of incidental music is not really required and proves to be more of a distraction.  Director Jackson Gay does a skillful utilizing the whole theater for the cast’s entrances of exits.  It opens up the production and, at times, feels like the cast is in the middle of a game of Clue - Mrs. Boyle in the Drawing Room, Major Metcalf in the library and such.

The real star of the show is Riw Rakkulchon’s Scenic Design.  Coupled with Krista Smith’s atmospheric lighting, they have gorgeously recreated an estate’s spacious Great Hall, The richly detailed interior includes a wall of animal skulls and another boasting an impressive array of large knives and swords.  Floor to ceiling windows at the back of the set, situated behind heavy drapery, opens to a view of a snowy landscape.  The peis de resistance is a large chandelier hovering ominously above the stage.

Sam Morales.  Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The Mousetrap
, playing at Hartford Stage through November 6.  Click here for dates, times, and ticket information.

Sunday, October 16, 2022

Review of "Fun Home" - TheaterWorks Hartford

Fun Home, the award-winning Broadway musical, is receiving an impressive rendering at TheaterWorks Hartford.  The drama is full of disquietude, joy, and heartfelt emotion.  The show has been extended until November 6.

The musical is based on the 2006 graphic memoir by cartoonist Alison Bechdel.  It is a coming of age story, centering on the author’s childhood years through her college days.  The show focuses on her sexual awakening as a gay young woman and her complicated relationship with her closeted gay father and repressed mother.
Sarah Beth Pfeifer - Photo by Mike Marques

The Bechdel family is a quirky group.  Dad (Aaron Lazar) is opinionated and hot-tempered.  In the small Pennsylvania town where the family resides, he runs the area funeral home, restores old houses, and is a high school English teacher.  Mom (Christiane Noll) is quiet, thoughtful and undemonstrative.  She is involved in community theater, taking care of the family of five, and living a lie.  The couple’s three children, two boys, Christian (Myles Low) and John (Sam Duncan), and a girl, Alison (played at times by Skylar Lynn Matthews, Julia Nightingale, and Sarah Beth Pfeifer), grow up within this idiosyncratic world.  

The focus is on Alison as she maneuvers through the touchpoints of her life.  She is played by three very talented actresses, at pivotal times in her life—as a young tween, an Oberlin College undergraduate, and as a 43 year old woman. 

The book by Lisa Kron, an award-winning playwright, is tightly structured with well-defined characters lifted from the graphic novel.  The dialogue is expressive and never compromising.  Having the role of Alison played by three different actresses, enables a non-linear approach to the storytelling, which allows for a more expansive and satisfying drama.

The music by Jeanine Tesori and lyrics by Lisa Kron is full of passion, poignancy, and playfulness.  Ms. Tesori has done masterful work over the years with contributions to such divergent musicals as Violet; Caroline, or Change; Thoroughly Modern Millie; and Shrek – the Musical.  With Fun Home, the songs form a cohesive whole.  They are melodic and often introspective as they speak to the family’s life, the anguish Alison faces, and even the fun that can permeate the household.  The musical selections are splendidly wrought under Musical Director Jeff Cox.
Aaron Lazar & Skylar Lynn Matthews - Photo by Mike Marques

The cast of Fun Home sparkles.  Aaron Lazar gives a convincing portrayal of a proud man, nonetheless troubled and conflicted.  The actor handily shifts moods from caring father to belligerent parent to a narcissistic lothario.  He is a living and breathing conundrum.  Christiane Noll, who was cited by the Connecticut Critics Circle for her performance in TheaterWorks Hartford’s 2017 production of Next to Normal, once again demonstrates her acting prowess.  This time, she is more in the background, a woman who’s bottled up frustrations and distress finally explode with the unwavering, angst filled “Days and Days” near the show’s end.

The three actresses that combine to tell the tale of Alison are perfectly cast and furnish standout performances.  Their portrayals are crucial for the musical’s success.  Skylar Lynn Matthews, as the Young Alison, delivers a stunning performance well beyond her years.  She is at times impish, childlike, with a streak of independence and attitude.  Her rendition of “Ring of Keys” is mesmerizing.  Julia Nightingale, the Middle Alison, is the most complex of the trio.  The actress gives an assured and deft portrayal of a young woman whose initial ambivalence and awkwardness blossoms into maturity and self-assuredness.  Sarah Beth Pfeifer, as the older Alison, is an observer and commentator of the tableau being presented in front of her.  The actress is less demonstrative than the other two young women playing Alison.  Ms. Pfeifer’s portrayal finely balances the Alison character within the overall production.
Skylar Lynn Matthews - Photo by Mike Marques

Director Rob Ruggiero has crafted a polished production that is passionate, energized and sensitively mines the emotional depths of the musical.  He skillfully utilizes the small performance space to produce an intimate, yet impactful production.  He intelligently teases out the subtleties and complexities of the show.  The Director is aided by Luke Cantarella’s Scenic Design and Rob Denton’s Lighting.  The scenes, which consist of swiftly changing sets incorporating just one or two pieces of furniture, accentuate the minimalist feel of the production.  The slatted back of the stage referencing the older home where the family resides.  His use of Camilla Tassi’s Projection Design, though, is distracting as scenes are augmented by drawings and snippets of dialogue appearing on the stage walls.  In this case, less would have been better.

Fun Home, a musical well-worth catching, at TheaterWorks Hartford through November 6.  Click here for dates, times and ticket information.

Saturday, October 15, 2022

Review of "42nd Street" - Goodspeed Opera House

Those marvelous dancing feet!  The timeless songs!  Sumptuous costumes!  Superb cast!  Do you get the hint? I thoroughly enjoyed the Goodspeed Opera House’s production of 42nd Street?

From the opening dance extravaganza, the musical is non-stop entertainment.  The story is simple and straightforward.  Small town girl, Peggy Sawyer, arrives in New York with the goal to star on Broadway.  She is cast as a chorus girl in legendary producer Julian Marsh’s latest show, Pretty Lady, which stars aging diva, Dorothy Brock.  The young performer overcomes a number of hurdles, including nerves, inexperience and, most noticeably, Brock’s dislike for Peggy.  Everything is set for a Broadway success until disaster strikes and the show has to close.  That is unless some talented actress can step in to save the day.  Calling Peggy Sawyer!

The libretto by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, based on the 1933 film of the same name, is uncomplicated.  An airy confection.  However, looks can be deceiving. There is an orderly structure to the book that propels the story forward.  There is also more depth to the character than you would think.  Much of that is due to the marvelous cast and skillful direction of Randy Skinner.

In some respects, 42nd Street

is a jukebox musical with compositions from the veterans Al Dubin and Johnny Mercer and music by Harry Warren.  They are presented with style and verve by Musical Director Adam Souza. The songs, culled from the 1930’s movie, along with other film scores of the era, include such classics as "Go into Your Dance," "You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me," "I Only Have Eyes for You," "We're in the Money," "Sunny Side to Every Situation," "Lullaby of Broadway," "Shuffle Off to Buffalo." and "42nd Street."  In short, you will be humming (just not too loudly) throughout this joyous production.

The cast is an outstanding mix of experienced Broadway performers, stars-in-the-making, and a bevy of tireless dancers.  Kate Baldwin’s Dorothy Brock is imperious and demanding, leading to the audience’s initial dislike of her character.  But the actress provides a more layered performance to stroke our compassions and, ultimately, our admiration.  Ms. Baldwin has numerous opportunities throughout the production to display her beautiful voice.  She’s also not a bad hoofer. Max von Essen brings a quiet intensity to the role of Julian Marsh.  The more understated characterization balances out some of the more (appropriate) over-the-top performances in the musical.   Carina-Kay Louchiey is an effervescent presence on the Goodspeed stage as the starry-eyed Peggy Sawyer.  She is a true triple threat - Ms. Louchiey can dance up a storm, has a gorgeous singing voice and is a talented actress.  Blake Stadnik is a boundless source of energy and radiance as Billy Lawlor, love interest of Peggy Sawyer.  He is a keen dancer and dynamic singer that jumpstarts the show whenever he is on stage.   Lisa Howard, another Broadway stalwart, gives the production a jolt of comic relief as producer Maggie Jones.

Director/Choreographer Randy Skinner has helmed many productions of 42nd Street and was an assistant to Director/Choreographer Gower Champion in the original 1980 Broadway production of the show.  As choreographer, Mr. Skinner has crafted an outlandish number of virtuoso dance routines, primarily tap, but also featuring an array of other dance styles.  In his Directorial role, he keeps the show fast-paced, creating grand moments that shine over and over.  He effortlessly blends in his choreographic numbers and skillfully melds in all the design elements to form a seamless production.  

The Scenic Design by Michael Carnahan is one of the strengths of the musical.  He incorporates traditional sets along with a well-integrated and executed Projection Design by Shawn Duan.  Along with Cory Pattak’s Lighting Design, the various creative components are in perfect visual harmony. The projections, in particular, open up the production allowing, for example, striking street scenes of New York City and a train terminus.  

Kara Harmon’s Costume Designs are elegant, sassy, and gloriously enhance the numerous large scale production numbers with a dazzling array of outfits.

42nd Street, a classic musical playing at the Goodspeed Opera House through November 6.  Click here for dates, times, and ticket information.

Friday, October 14, 2022

Review of "1776" - Broadway

At the beginning of the Broadway revival of 1776, the multi-racial, female, transgender, and non-binary cast members literally step into the shoes of our forefathers.  The thrust of the production is to visually represent those individuals ignored during the crafting of the Declaration of Independence.  But presenting these performers on stage without significantly changing the message of the show creates a somewhat toothless production.

The musical chronicles the birthing of America by delegates from the 13 colonies.  The decision is whether to break free from the tyranny of England or not.  The representatives “piddle, twiddle and resolve” during the many hot months in Philadelphia to resolve this question.

The pro forces are led by John Adams, a boisterous, but not very nuanced performance by Crystal Lucas-Perry; the droll and witty Ben Franklin, played with comic aplomb by Patrena Murray; and the crafter of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson, a very muted portrayal by Elizabeth A. Davis.   Those members loyal to the king include the fiery John Dickinson, a superb performance by Carolee Carmello; and Edward Rutledge, a representative from South Carolina, played with smooth-talking sharpness by Sara Porkalob. 

What comes across more loudly than the casting choices is how Peter Stone’s brilliant book - who thought U.S. history could be so entertaining and funny - relates to current events.  Example #1 - Throughout 1776, a limping messenger delivers short dispatches from General George Washington.  The contents are always grim.  When, and I paraphrase here, one of these missives states that the ragtag Continental Army of 5,000 troops is about to face the well-trained, well-armed British contingent of 25,000 forces all I could think about was the undermanned Ukrainian army facing off against the huge, well-equipped Russians. Yet, like the American soldiers of years past, the Ukrainian army has been successful in repelling the foreign incursion.  

Example #2 - The members of the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia are a divided group as they debate a Declaration of Independence.  For all the shouting, rhetoric and deal-making, they eventually work out a bitterly contested compromise, and vote to unanimously move forward for independence.  John Dickinson declines to sign the document and begins to walk off stage.  Her chief antagonist, John Adams, stands and asks the attendees to recognize the Pennsylvania delegate for a well fought fight.  I’m sitting there thinking would that ever happen in the U.S. Congress?  After a hard fought battle on the Senate or House floor, would the winning party rise to graciously acknowledge their opponents?  In today’s world, the answer is a resounding no.

The score by Sherman Edwards is one of the best in musical theater history.  Every number is a gem.  There is the comedic “Sit Down, John” and the humorous wordplay of “The Lees of Old Virginia;” the tender interplay between John and Abigail Adams in “Yours, Yours, Yours;” the sexually tinged “He Plays the Violin;” and the politically charged “Molasses to Rum.”  The latter song is given a large-scale rendition, emphasizing the issue of slavery within the show.  Other songs have interesting, not always successful, orchestrations.  

Co-Directors Diane Paulus and Jeffrey L. Page are at their best during the full congressional debates on independence as they insert players into the raucous proceedings.  The scenes with just a few of the characters lack importance and drive.  Page, who also serves as choreographer, adds some appealing flourishes to several of the production numbers.

1776, at the Roundabout Theatre through January 8, 2923.  Click here for dates, times, and ticket information.

Monday, October 10, 2022

Review of "Lady Day in Emerson’s Bar & Grill"

The best part of Lady Day in Emerson’s Bar & Grill, the play with music at Playhouse on Park, are the extended stories the actress Danielle Herbert, as Billie Holiday, relates to the audience.  They are bawdy, full of humor, and provide a window into the troubled personal life of the legendary singer.


The setting for the two-character drama is a rundown bar in Philadelphia, a city we learn she has a love/hate relationship with.  The Scenic and Lighting Design by Johann Fitzpatrick brings out the plainness and shabby nature of the establishment.

Billie Holiday is at the tail end of her storied career and this is one of her last performances before her death at 44.  Throughout the 90-minute, intermission-less performance, she sings over a dozen songs accompanied by piano player/companion Jimmy Powers ( Nygel D Robinson).  Mr. Robinson, who also does a very good job as Musical Director, is a superb pianist and not always accommodating foil for the singer.  In between the musical selections, there is a continuous stream of off-color, funny, but also, sad banter centering on the relationships with her husbands and mother.  Ms. Holiday smokes and consumes glass after glass of alcohol.  By the end of the show she can barely stand, an intoxicated shell of a once proud and influential jazz singer.


Playwright Lanie Robertson smartly centers his work around the songs associated and beloved by the Billie Holiday.  Most of the dialogue before and after the songs are mere snippets of her pioneering career and rollercoaster life.  The show would have benefitted from more of the lively tales raucously and entertainingly recounted by the performer, such as her story of searching for a women’s bathroom at an all-white, posh restaurant the Artie Shaw band ate at.


The actress Danielle Herbert is first-rate in her characterization of Billie Holiday.  She possesses a marvelous singing voice that conveys Ms. Holiday’s sheer joy for singing as well as the pain she experienced throughout her short life.  The actress’s mannerisms and body language add detail and nuance to the role.


Director Stephanie Pope Lofgren, along with her supporting creative colleagues, has successfully crafted an intimate night-spot, which includes some cabaret seating.  She continuously positions Ms. Holiday around the small staging area, giving the production an openness to what could have been a very static show.  The Director also skillfully injects a balance between the playfulness of the character and her slow disintegration.


Lady Day in Emerson’s Bar & Grill, playing at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford through October 16.  Click here for dates and times of performances.