Thursday, April 28, 2022

Review of "Lost in Yonkers"

The production of Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers, at Hartford Stage through May 1, is probably the best play of the Connecticut theater season.  The Tony and Pulitzer prize winning show was written towards the end of the playwright’s 40 year career in the theater.  The play is more poignant, stirring, and emotionally layered than his earlier all-out comedic works such as Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple.  There are the hallmark laugh-out-loud moments found in any Neil Simon show, but they are deftly structured within the overall constructs of the play.


The multi-generational saga revolves around the home of family matriarch, Grandma Kurnitz, played with an iron-willed feistiness by Marsha Mason, during the time of WWII.  Her son, Eddie (Jeff Skowron), needs to leave his two young sons, Arty (Gabriel Amoroso) and Jay (Hayden Bercy), to be cared for by his mother so he can travel the country to earn an income.   Resisting at first, she finally agrees, much to the great displeasure of the boys, to mind her grandsons during their father’s months long sojourn.  Adding to the picture are the kid’s Aunt Bella, (Andrea Syglowski), a somewhat simple-minded woman who lives with her mother; the slick and mysterious Uncle Louie (Michael Nathanson), who suddenly appears for an extended visit; and Aunt Gert (Liba Vaynberg), vocally challenged and living on her own.


The character’s lives during the show’s time frame are full of comedic episodes, angry outbursts, and heartfelt moments.  Family is family, no matter what the circumstances.  Neil Simon teases out this notion to create a show rich in characterizations


Marsha Mason heads a strong cast.  The actress, walking with a pronounced limb and clipped German accent, enters scenes with a commanding presence that sets fear and trepidation among her extended family.  With little dialog and time on stage she, nonetheless, leaves an indelible impression..


The other adult performers bring a richness and fullness to their characters, quirks, foibles and all. You end up caring for each of them and hope they succeed in bettering their lives.  Andrea Syglowski beautifully portrays Bella, giving her the exuberance of a little girl with undertones of a woman marginalized all her adult life.  Michael Nathanson imparts the role of Uncle Louie with a shifty slickness and worldly manner that belies his need for acceptance.  Jeff Skowron’s Eddie convincingly portrays a loving father who sacrifices family and personal health for the betterment of his sons.  In the small role of Aunt Gert, Liba Vaynberg is absolutely hysterical.


The two young boys, Gabriel Amoroso (Arty) and Hayden Bercy (Jay), hold their own with their more experienced cast members.  They know how to set-up jokes and humorous situations.  The two also show pathos and empathy when called upon. 


Directors Marsha Mason and Rachel Alderman winningly bring Neil Simon’s classic work to life, giving the production a freshness and realism that will strike true to audience members.  They skillfully move from comedic highs to touching and impassioned moments.  Lost in Yonkers is not a full-throttled show.  Patience and pacing are critically important and the two woman superbly guide the show to this end.

Scenic Designer Lauren Helpern’s one set piece lovingly creates the interior of a 1940’s apartment sitting room.  An-lin Dauber’s Costume Designs are faithful to the period and add to the authenticity of the play.


Lost in Yonkers, a show not to miss, at Hartford Stage through May 1.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Review of "Star of Freedom"


Star of Freedom, the musical receiving its world premiere at the Ivoryton Playhouse, is neither a sophisticated, nor complex living diorama of a slice of American and Irish history.  The show covers a lot of territory, from the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-1800’s through the end of the American Civil War.  This is the main problem with the production.  Librettist Lawrence Thelen tries to squeeze in so much material within a very short timeframe (the musical is less than two hours, which includes an Intermission) that scenarios and characters are presented in broad strokes, with little depth.


The Star of the title refers to the North Star and figures prominently throughout the show.  Two distinct stories - one of an Irish lad, Sean, who survives the Famine and immigrates to America and the other, a young female slave, Chloe, who after years of slavery becomes a free woman - eventual meld into one unified plot line.  The two, after a tentative encounter, seek to start life anew in the Western frontier.


The story between Chloe and Sean is interesting and full of possibilities. The show’s creative team could focus less about plantation life - the ground that’s covered is nothing new or insightful - and Sean’s life in Ireland.  This would allow time to more richly develop the two central characters, their struggles and hardships as well as their happier moments.


The score by Ben Hope is jaunty, hopeful and somber.  It is heavily influenced by the folk tradition and American roots music styles.  The six-person cast doubles as the on-stage band and their instrumentation - guitar, mandolin, bass, banjo and accordion - gives the production an authentic flavor.


The cast is led by Danny Adams as Sean and Ayla Stackhouse as Chloe.  Mr. Adams gives his portrayal a perseverance and strength that buttresses his character’s setbacks.  He radiates a continual optimism that would be more genuine if tempered with the realities he faces.  Ms. Stackhouse imbues Chloe with a hardness, yet resolve to overcome all obstacles.  The actress manages to tease out her role to something beyond its perfunctory limits.


The other cast members, Brian Russell, Luke Darnell, Ben Hope and Richard E. Waits are agreeable in their multiple featured parts.  Mr. Waits also brings dignity and circumspection to the role of Chole’s Uncle Lewis.


Director Jacqui Hubbard diligently keeps the action moving from one scene to the next.  With few props and changeless staging, she sufficiently creates the illusion of a full range of settings, which include a ship’s journey to the New World, a mountainous cabin, and plantation dwellings. Ms. Hubbard seamlessly moves the performers from their roles within the work to musicians performing the songs on stage.


Scenic Designer Marcus Abbott’s minimal set of slated wood platforms and boxes, along with the occasional projection, provides a multi-functional backdrop for the various scenarios of the show.


Star of Freedom, playing at the Ivoryton Playhouse through May 1, 2022.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Review of "Next to Normal"


Next to Normal, the Pulitzer Prize winning musical, is receiving a powerful and emotionally compelling production at the Westport Country Playhouse through April 24.


The subject matter, atypical for a musical, revolves around Diana Goodman, a woman suffering from Bi-Polar Disorder brought on by the death of her infant son years earlier.  Trying to help her cope and seek medical and therapeutic treatment is her understanding, yet somewhat aloof husband Dan. Their 16 year-old overachieving daughter, Natalie, wrestles with her own personal issues, which includes a new relationship with a stoner, yet compassionate classmate (Henry), while trying to comprehend her mother’s illness.  Shadowing the interplay between the characters is the spectral presence of the now teenage, deceased son, Gabe, only seen by Diana.  Trying to help the family is a pragmatic and direct therapist, Dr. Madden.


The book by Brian Yorkey doesn’t pull any punches or sugar coat the family’s tension and dysfunction.  There are no easy answers or solutions to Diana’s condition.  Progress is made and setbacks occur.  The characters are well-drawn, full of life, but constantly buffeted by the swirling chaos of their lives.  We come to care for the characters and hope they succeed in overcoming their individual struggles.


The mostly rock score by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt contains over 36 songs, sung forcefully and with conviction by the cast.  The numbers amplify the outward feelings of the characters as well as delve into their inner thoughts and frame of mind.


The cast is led by Dar.Lee.See.Ah as Diana.  She gives a gripping performance of a woman in a perpetual state of flux, trying to understand her circumstances and free herself of her pain and suffering.  Wilson Jermaine Heredia’s Dan is a mix of emotions.  The actor poignantly portrays a husband desperately trying to assert control and harmony into a disquieting household. As Natalie, Ashley LaLonde effectively balances the anger and love of a daughter torn in many directions.  The most glowing performance is by Daniel J. Maldonado as the imaginary son Gabe.  He brings an intensity and plaintiveness to the role.  He can be menacing, but also playful as he fights for his memory to stay alive. Gian Perez provides some stability to the other characters as Natalie’s boyfriend Henry.  Katie Thompson is suitably practical and exacting as Diana’s therapist.


Director/Choreographer Marcos Santana adeptly starts the show off tentatively, slowly while skillfully building the family strain and adversity to a heightened level.  He teases out the struggles experienced by each character at a satisfying pace.  This is especially true with the character of Gabe, as he adroitly manages to instill a degree of danger and pathos into the role.


The first level of Scenic Designer Adam Koch’s multi-level set encompasses the heart of the Goodman living area, with the upper level somewhat obscured in its configuration.  Cory Pattak’s lighting design, at its best, mimics the feelings of each character. 


Music Director Emily Croome leads a spirited band that is almost constantly playing through the rock infused score, which also includes a handful of heartrending ballads.  Sometimes Domonic Sack’s sound design overwhelms the performers, but for most of the show the balance is first-rate.


Next to Normal, a thoughtful and captivating musical, playing at the Westport Country Playhouse through April 24.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Review of "Jesus Christ Superstar"

The musical Jesus Christ Superstar always seems ripe for a reconceptualization by directors who want to move it out of its biblical setting.  The current production at A Contemporary Theatre of CT (ACT) is no exception.  In his program note, Director Daniel C. Levine talks of his obsession with Margaret Atwood’s book, The Handmaiden’s Tale, and its subsequent HBO series.  There are parallels between the novel’s dystopian and totalitarian society and the Roman occupation of Jerusalem.  However, Atwood’s work is not finely ingrained in popular culture.  References to the book, primarily in the differently colored outfits worn by some ensemble members, and the symbolism they denote, can be confusing to audience members unfamiliar with the novel.


Still, even with this hurdle, the ACT staging of Jesus Christ Superstar is mostly an enjoyable and entertaining production.


The book by Tim Rice focuses on the last days of Jesus.  The story explores the personal relationships and struggles between Jesus, Judas, Mary Magdalene, his disciples, his followers and the Roman Empire.  As with most Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice collaborations, there is no dialog.  The songs move the show forward, delineate characters and provide the backdrop for some of the highly charged stagings of the musical.


The score by the duo was their first for the Broadway stage (the pre-Broadway concept album was the top selling album of 1971, more popular than Carole King’s Tapestry).  It is my personal favorite from all the musicals composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber.  The cast members deliver each of the celebrated songs, which include “Heaven on Their Minds,” “What’s the Buzz,” “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” and “Superstar” with power and brilliance, Sometimes, during the performance, I just closed my eyes and let the songs and the music from the dynamic pit band just wash over me.


Brett Stoelker, as Jesus, comes across as rather tame, with little affect for someone who is supposed to be a charismatic leader.  Likewise, Caitlin Kinnunen’s Mary is almost invisible outside her musical solos.  Avionce Hoyles gives a complex and angst ridden performance as Judas.  The real treat are the scenes with the triumvirate of Ben Cherington, as The Priest; Katie LaMark, as Annas; and Isaac Ryckeghem, as Caiaphas.  They skulk around the stage as one, ready to unleash their diabolically calculating plans on Jesus and his followers. Their voices blend and complement each other beautifully.


Director Daniel C. Levine keeps the show lively and engrossing.  The musical is at its strongest when he focuses on the central thrust of the story.  In addition to positioning the show as a parallel to The Handmaiden’s Tale, some of his other choices are, well, a bit strange.  In “King Herod's Song,” Herod is portrayed as a Las Vegas lounge singer with four sidekicks all dressed in head to toe leather body suits.  In “Superstar,” Judas comes out dressed as a hipster lounge crooner.


Sara Brians provides timely, though limited, choreography that strengthens the production with urgency and spirited movement.


Scenic Designer Jack Mehler has created a bleak landscape of despair that is augmented by Lighting Designer Penny Jacobus, Costume Designer Claudia Stefany faithfully recreates Handmaiden garb to go along with an assortment of other interesting and provocative designs. 

Sound Designer Nathan Rubio blends music and voice together that is thrilling to listen to.  Only occasionally does the band overwhelm the performers.


Jesus Christ Superstar, a production, with all its imperfections, is still worth catching, playing at ACT through April 17.

Friday, April 8, 2022

Review of "The Buddy Holly Story"


There are two reasons to see The Buddy Holly Story, playing until April 10, at the Music Theatre of CT in Norwalk.  First, is the dynamic performance of the actor/musician Spiff Wiegand in the lead role of Buddy Holly.  Wiegand is a bundle of kinetic energy as he plunges into one Holly classic after another.  Second, is the over two dozen songs, delivered with drive and vitality, mostly from the Buddy Holly catalog.


The overall production, however, is hurt by Alan Janes’ pedantic book that provides no real dramatic arc as it skims through Holly’s early years until his untimely death. Most of the featured characters are loosely drawn with little shading.  They just aren’t that interesting.


Whenever a scene becomes bogged down with light-hearted banter or corny sentimentality, the band – Buddy Holly and the Crickets – surges into such classics as “That’ll Be The Day,” “Maybe Baby,” “It’s So Easy To Fall In Love,” and “Peggy Sue Got Married.”


Kevin Connors uses all his directorial wiles as he attempts to propel the show forward outside the musical selections.  There are occasional glimmers of note but, for the most part, the audience only becomes animated once the trio of musicians makes harmonious magic.