Sunday, July 31, 2022

Review of "Hysterical!"

The onset of an unknown ailment or disease can cause confusion, concern and outright panic.  Witness the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s and today’s COVID pandemic.   In playwright Elenna Stauffer’s modest one-act, Hysterical!, a nameless malady - maybe real, maybe not - is the antecedent for a meditation on alienation, inclusion, relationships, and the pressures high school women face.


Meet The Bandits, a cheerleading squad led by the take charge Senior captain, Shannon (Olivia Billings).  There is fellow Senior, Madison (Kendyl Grace Davis), and captain-in-waiting, Charlotte (Julia Crowley), Mia (Isa MuiƱo), and Freshman, Maddie (Shannon Helene Barnes).  They are a well-oiled unit, even though their personalities don’t necessarily mesh.  When a mysterious illness sidelines Mia, it is just the start of a reckoning the teammates must face with each other and their future.


Ms. Stauffer’s structures the play, at first, as a comedic piece.  You can’t help but laugh at the appearance of Mia’s tics.  However, the smiles soon turn to unease as the depth of the spasmodic twitches take hold and the young woman’s life, as well as other members of The Bandits’, takes a darker turn.  The playwright has stated she based the work on a real-life event of mass hysteria among high school girls.  We never do find out the root cause of the problem.  But that’s not the point.  Ms. Stauffer wants to use the situations and conditions to ruminate about acceptance and understanding. 


The playwright incorporates humor into the show as a way to leaven the dramatic and emotional toll of the teenagers.  In a number of the staccato-like scenes in the production, she cleverly employs three of the cheerleaders as a type of Greek Chorus.  While running through precision routines, they comment on the events and feelings the students are going through. It adds needed exposition and provides a good dose of levity to the production.  Bianca Paolello, billed as the show’s Cheer Coach, does a marvelous job shaping the actresses into a accomplished crew.


While the five actresses tackle their roles with commitment and spunk, I never felt overly connected to their plight.  They did convey a disorientation and bitterness to their quandary but, on the whole, I felt their portrayals lacked nuance and relied too heavily on histrionics.


Director Tracy Brigden has formed a cohesive group of young actresses.  She skillfully integrates the cheerleading sequences with moments of personal reflection and confrontation.  Ms. Brigden adroitly balances the humor and seriousness of the work,


Scenic Designer Emmie Finckel has laid out a simple astroturf flooring, which easily covers the set of Athena (playing in repertory with Hysterical!).  Costume Designer Brenda Phelps has crafted distinctive cheerleading outfits.  Lighting Designer Adam Lobelson bathes the set with an intense quality and Sound Designer Jason Peck adds fitting background noises.


Hysterical!, playing through August 6 at Thrown Stone in Ridgefield.  Click here for information on dates, times and tickets.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Review of "The Kite Runner"

I attended a performance of The Kite Runner, based on Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling novel, with my millennial daughter.  While I had just finished the book, she had not read it.   Besides having one of our many theatrical father-daughter bonding experiences, I was interested in her thoughts as someone unfamiliar with the source material.  At the play’s conclusion, she was full of rapturous praise.  My reactions were more muted.


The production faithfully follows the plot of the book in a sometimes choppy fashion.  We are introduced to Amir (Amir Arison) and his playmate, confident, servant Hassan (Eric Sirakian).  The two actors convincingly play their characters as young boys through manhood.


The story begins in Kabul, Afghanistan.  Amir comes from a family of wealth and influence.  Their home is well-appointed with lush gardens and opulent interiors.  He lives with his father, Baba (his mother having died at childbirth).  Hassan and his father, Ali (Evan Zes), live in a mud hut on the grounds and are their faithful servants.


Amir’s relationship with Baba (Faran Tahir) is tentative and lacking in warmth and concern.  He hopes to change the absence of affection by winning the yearly kite flying contest, where boys compete to bring down each other’s soaring constructs, leaving only one towering in the skies.  As each defeated kite plummets to earth, the young lads compete to capture the fallen object.  They are the kite runners.  The aftermath of the contest sets into motion a series of events which cause Hassan and Amir’s relationship to deteriorate and the decision by Ali to leave their employment. 


Soon, the Russians invade the country and Baba and Amir flee to Pakistan and then the United States.  Their lives, now totally turned upside down, are not easy, but they begin to settle into their adopted country.  Marriage, a blossoming writing career and some degree of contentment settle in until Amir receives a phone call from his father’s old friend, Rahmin (Dariush Kashani) who has settled in Pakistan.  He begs Amir to come see him to “make things right.”  While visiting the now dying man, revelations are brought to light which, much to his distress, bring Amir back to Kabul where old demons and secrets are revisited, changing his life forever.  There is more, but I don’t want to spoil the last part of the show for audience members that have not read the novel.


Playwright Matthew Spangler’s adaptation is dutiful and effectively covers the major plot points, twists and turns to the story.  Understandably, choices need to be made as to what is included and excluded in the work.  I found some of the leaps in the story wanting.  My daughter wasn’t bothered by them. 


Most of the major characters lack depth and fullness.  Baba, for example, is a powerful, complex individual, but there are only glimpses in the play.  The utter devastation, hopelessness and despair in Afghanistan is presented matter-of-factly.


One of the strengths of the novel are the sights, sounds, rituals and the description of the foods of the country.  Mr. Spangler incorporates little of these features into the show.


The character of Amir provides an extended narration throughout the 2 ½ hour production.  These descriptive passages provide necessary exposition, but consistently stop the flow of the play.  


The impressive cast is led by Amir Arison as the character, Amir.  He is on stage for the full length of the play and is required to show a wide range of emotions and character shifts.  Amir is a person of slight convictions, is somewhat of a coward, and has self-loathing tendencies.  Mr. Arison adeptly incorporates these characteristics into the most fully developed performance in the show.


Faran Tahir’s gives Baba a forcefulness and integrity, which the character needs.  He provides a vivid portrayal which, if he had more time on stage, I’m sure would have been even more striking.  Amir Malaklou, in the role of Assef, the childhood and adult nemesis of the character Amir, comes across more as a regular bully as opposed to the devilish tormentor and monster the character needs.


The most satisfying performer is Eric Sirakian as Hassan.  He superbly embodies the humble, pleasing servant with honesty and integrity.  His facial expressions and body movements speak volumes about the character’s devotion and sorrow.


Director Giles Croft keeps the production at a brisk pace, moving the story along quickly, albeit, not always satisfyingly. He succeeds in bringing out the playfulness of the story and, to a degree, is successful at portraying the numerous relationships, which are so central to the novel. The reliance on extended narrations is problematic.  It’s necessary to convey large swaths of the action, but comes up short from a theatrical standpoint.  The director’s incorporation of sound, from the musician Salar Nader’s ethereal performance to the use of wind-making instruments to mimic the sound of the air currents in the sky, add to the drama and the emotional undertones of the play.


Composer and Music Director Jonathan Girling has provided the atmospheric sounds of Afghanistan, which Sound Designer Drew Baumohl has expertly wrought.  The compositions are beautifully rendered by musician Salar Nader, an almost constant presence off to the side of the stage.  Barney George’s Scenic Designer is more utilitarian with few props and set pieces.  His Costume Designs suitably mix western and Middle East styles, adding a splash of color where appropriate as in the celebratory wedding scene.


The Kite Runner, playing a limited engagement on Broadway through October 30, 2022.


Review of "Once on This Island"

Staging a full-fledged musical outdoors has a lot to offer audiences - the fresh air, the night time sky, a festive atmosphere.  It can also be fraught with production issues and creative choices that can limit a show.  This is what faces the Summer Theatre of New Canaan’s production of Once on This Island, running through July 31 in .

The 90 minute, intermission-less production tells the fable of Ti Moune, a young girl from the impoverished part of a Caribbean island, who falls in love with Daniel, a handsome aristocrat. The four island gods - Mother of the Earth, the god of Water, the goddess of Love, and Death -  have contrived a test for the spirited woman to see which is a more powerful force – love or death.  They cause the injury of the young man in a car accident as a way for Ti Moune to meet and nurse him back to health.   Before he is completely healed he is whisked away by family members to the luxury of the family compound.  Heartbroken, Ti Moune transverses the island to his parent’s opulent hotel to convince him of her love.  Enamored by her goodness and dedication, he becomes enraptured with her before the reality of their star-crossed lives moves him, and their ill-fated relationship, onto a divergent, sorrowful path.

The strength of the musical is the choreography by Tony Award winner George Faison.  The dances are evocative of the Caribbean isles and fill the small portable stage with gaiety and liveliness.  Ti Moune’s high-spirited strutting at a fancy ball is a highlight of the show.

Faison also serves as director and he is less successful in this role.  The production seemed a bit rushed and cluttered.  Granted, the performing space is small and there is a sizeable cast, but shaping the actors and actresses into a coherent group proved to be a challenge.  The conclusion of the musical, a mystical and magical moment, was, unfortunately, muddled.

The music by Lynn Ahrens and lyrics by Stephen Lafferty, their Broadway debut as a composing team, is their best score outside of Ragtime. The songs are  evocative of the sounds from the Caribbean and buoyantly sung by the performers.  There are soaring ballads, joyful anthems, and feisty musical numbers.  They are strongly sung by cast members, but the lyrics are not always easy to hear or understand.  

The cast is full of strong performers, even though they are not always given the opportunity to flesh out their characters.  The cast is anchored by Zurin Villanueva as Ti Moune.  She is full of life and exudes a frisky playfulness which is infectious.  Xavier McKinnon’s Daniel, handsome and beaming with self-confidence, shades his performance with poignancy and sadness.

The Scenic Design by William P. Mensching Jr. is serviceable; the Costume Design by Arthur Oliver are bright and carnivalesque.

Once on This Island holds performances on Thursday, July 28 - Sunday, July 31.  Click here for ticket information.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Review of "Athena" - Thrown Stone

The use of sports and athletic competition as a vehicle to address teenage relationships has been presented on the theatrical stage many times over.  Female protagonists have been portrayed in such works as The Wolves, which revolved around a girl’s high school soccer team.  In Gracie Gardner’s play, Athena, the sport is fencing.  

We are introduced to Athena and Mary Wallace, two high school juniors that practice at a New York City fencing facility.  Athena is brash, self-confident and an indifferent student with no real friends.  She lives with her aloof father in a city apartment.  Mary Wallace, a product of the New Jersey suburbs, resides with her supportive mother and father and is someone who takes her studies seriously.  They meet during an after school practice one day and agree to become sparring partners.  Over the course of the one-act, 90 minute show, we learn about their lives, their fears and hopes.  The goal for each is to get to nationals as, hopefully, a springboard to a college scholarship.

The playwright, Gracie Gardner, has written two fully developed characters that talk and act like young high school women.  The dialogue comes across as real and unforced.  Layering in the world of fencing, a sport many audience members may not be familiar with, elevates the production beyond just two girls hanging out, conversing and commiserating.  

Shannon Helene Barnes, as Athena, is assertive and headstrong.  She also gives the character a vulnerability as she conceals her dispiriting home life.  Olivia Billings, as Mary Wallace, initially comes across as someone who is the exact opposite of Athena in every way.  While she is tentative, overly pleasing and somewhat naive, Ms. Billings imbues her portrayal with determination and moxie.  Both actresses are also very convincing fencers. 

There is one other actress in the show.  Julia Crowley is in the last scene, which is somewhat unnecessary.  Not to give away any spoilers, but I think the play would have been more powerful and satisfying if the show ended in the blackout before her appearance.  

Director Tracey Brigden skillfully turns what could have been an insipid and thriling exercise in teenage angst into an engrossing, highly satisfying exploration into the lives of two young individuals.  She incorporates a few distinctive flourishes, such as slow motion, that amplify the action on stage.

Fencing coach Michael Martin has readily prepared the actresses for Mark Silence’s fencing sequences.  They are convincingly staged and provide a heightened sense of drama to the production.

Set Designer Emmie Finckel’s raised platform set with white painted fencing lanes, is simple, yet appropriate  Lighting Designer Adam Lobelson’s blackouts are well-timed and his disco lighting a lot of fun.  The Sound Design by Jason Peck is effective without being obtrusive.  

Athena, another quality production from Thrown Stone, playing through August 6.  For information on dates, times and tickets, go to:

Saturday, July 16, 2022

Review of "The Nutty Professor" - Olgunquit Playhouse

The Nutty Professor, a new musical based on the 1963 Jerry Lewis film comedy, playing at The Ogunquit Playhouse through August 6, is having a rebirth.  Ten years ago, the show, with music by Marvin Hamlisch, book and lyrics by Rupert Holmes, and direction by Jerry Lewis, opened to very positive reviews in its Nashville debut and was most likely headed to Broadway.  However, Mr. Hamlisch unexpectedly passed away just before the first performance.  Jerry Lewis died a few years later, which left the show in limbo.  In an interview with Tony Award winner Mr. Holmes, he stated it took all this time in order to sort through a number of “issues.”

The reworked production, still eyeing a move to The Great White Way, has a lot to offer.  First, is the performance of Dan De Luca, who plays the dual role of Professor Kelp/Buddy Love.  The actor is a lovable, ingratiating nerd as the klutzy faculty member and a smooth, urbane lothario as Buddy Love.  He brings a confident, Rat Pack swagger to the role.  Second, is Klea Blackhurst as the dowdy, fawning Registrar, Ms. Lemon.  A holdover from the Nashville production, she just about steals the show.  I’ve been told her role has been expanded since its early days, which is a huge plus for audiences.  Third, is the scintillating, playful and highly creative choreography by Joann M. Hunter.  She plays homage to those crazy dance moves of the 1960’s, while also keeping the big production numbers fresh and updated.

The musical is Jerry Lewis’ zany version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Dan De Luca plays Professor Kelp, a socially awkward Chemistry Professor who is unpopular with the school administration and the student body.  Enter a new part-time English instructor, Stella Purdy, portrayed by Elena Ricardo, a go-getter who wants to shake things up at the college.  Smitten, Professor Kelp perfects a potion, which transforms him, for short intervals, to the suave, self-confident crooner, Buddy Love.  Everyone falls under his bewitching spell - the Dean of the Campus, Ms. Lemon, the undergraduates - except Ms. Purdy.  By the show’s climatic pre-football pep rally, truths are revealed and, surprise, a happy ending for all parties.


The book by Rupert Holmes is fun, engaging and often quite humorous.  Bullying and self-empowerment, such important, hot topic subjects in today’s world, are central plot points to the libretto.  Act I lays the groundwork for the shenanigans and hilarity of Act II.  I felt the beginning scenes, while entertaining, were more of a set-up for the latter part of the musical and delivered less memorable moments.  The interactions with the school’s major donor and his son fall flat and should be rethought or just excised from the script.  I know the character of Ms. Lemon is a featured role, but she disappears mid-way through Act I, reappearing a few scenes into Act II.  A few more scenes with the actress Klea Blackhurst delivering those delicious comedic barbs and double entendres wouldn’t hurt.

The music by Marvin Hamlisch, his last for the musical theater, and lyrics by Rupert Holmes are tuneful and show a workmanship quality missing in many of today’s musical comedies.  The score is powered by heartfelt ballads, stirring anthems, and sparkling comedic numbers.  Musical Director Matt Deitchman leads the tightly honed group of musicians.  You may not be humming the tunes as you leave the Ogunquit Playhouse, but you won’t depart disappointed.

The other two cast members of note are Elena Ricardo as the unflappable Ms. Purdy.  She brings a confident, self-assured quality to the role.  Jeff McCarthy, a seasoned theater veteran, makes the most of his portrayal of the obtuse Dean Warfield.  He does show his musical comedy chops as with the “Take the Stage” production number.

The ensemble, filled with young, vivacious performers, is a well-synchronized group, especially in The Purple Pit scenes.

Director Marc Bruni keeps the show humming at a fast-paced clip.  He gives the performers plenty of room to stretch their comedic muscles.  Mr. Bruni generously gives a significant amount of stage time to the dazzling choreography of Ms. Hunter.  There are a few times in Act II when Ms. Lemon is just standing around watching as another character sings and dances.  Giving her more to do in those situations would strengthen those moments.

Scenic Designers Wilson Chin & Riw Rakkulchon have crafted a number of outstanding set pieces such as Professor Kelp’s beaker-filled laboratory and the student hangout, The Purple Pit.  Mara Blumenfeld’s Costume Designs bring out the collegiate spirit of the show and, especially in the Purple Pit scenes, brightly colored garments reminiscent of the free-flowing outfits of the 1960’s.

The Nutty Professor, a cheery, upbeat musical worth a trip to picturesque Maine. 

Show dates, 8:00PM, Tuesday through Saturday; 2:00PM on Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday.  Ticket information at  Box Office - 207-646-5511 or  Masking is encouraged, but optional.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Review of "Smokey Joe's Cafe" - Ivoryton Playhouse

For a jukebox musical to be entertaining, you need a catalog of memorable songs performed by a group of appealing actors and actresses.  The Ivoryton Playhouse’s presentation of Smokey Joe’s Cafe, the songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, succeeds in a low-key, unpretentious production.  The show plays through July 31.


The musical contains dozens of hits from the composing duo, which include “Jailhouse Rock,” “Stand By Me,” “Poison Ivy,” “Charlie Brown,” “Hound Dog,” and “On Broadway.”  They are presented by a well-polished, tightly formed ensemble.  There are notable solo turns as well as numerous permutations of performers belting out these well-known classics.


Each song is crafted as a mini-vignette that follows the thrust of the tune. The scenes can pull at your heartstrings or tickle your funny bone. 


The nine performers - Joseph Castro, Elvie Ellis, Debra Thais Evans, Tiffany Frances, Cameron Loyal, Sandra Marante, Gabriella Saramago, Warren Nolan, Jr. and Cartreze Tucker - have an easy going style that is occasionally enlivened by Todd Underwood’s more freestyle choreography.  The group of actors and actresses clearly enjoy their time on stage, adding value to their performances.


Two members of the ensemble deserve to be highlighted due to their dynamic voices and stage presence.  Sandra Marante is a belter, pure and simple.  Her range and power were a joy to hear.  Tiffany Frances, along with an impressive singing voice, brought a self-assured foxiness during her solo numbers.


At times, as I sat in the balcony, it was hard to make out the lyrics, mostly in the large group numbers, something that should be examined to make the audience experience better.


Director Todd Underwood has shaped the show with a less boisterous, synchronized style than what I have seen from other productions.  Yes, there are the intermittent full-throttled moments, but the musical is consistently more restrained in its musical presentations.  He has positioned the band behind the set for Act I and then, during Act II, the windows are open to reveal the musicians, which adds a winning element to the production.  Being able to view these highly-polished musicians from the onset would have been a more satisfying touch.


Cully Long’s Scenic Design consists of a brownstone’s stoop, where performers enter and exit from.  Elizabeth Saylor’s Costume Designs are simple, yet varied to match the type of song being presented.


Smokey Joe’s Cafe, playing through July 31.  Performance times are Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2:00 pm; evening performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 pm.  Tickets are $55 for adults, $50 for seniors, and $25 for students. Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at 860.767.7318. Masks are optional with proof of vaccination and required for those without a vaccination card.

Review of "Pippin" - Playhouse on Park


The Playhouse on Park production of the Stephen Schwartz musical, Pippin is a captivating gem.  Director/Choreographer Darlene Zoller has assembled a first-rate cast and creative team that delivers on all aspects of the production.

The Playhouse version harks back to the original 1972 Broadway show as opposed to the 2010 Broadway revival.  The latter production added Cirque du Soleil elements to the musical such as jugglers and acrobats, which I found distracting.  Here, the focus is on the characters and their stories.  Fans of the original cast recording will rejoice as the original orchestrations are employed throughout the score.

Pippin is crafted as a play within a play.  Our guide is the Leading Player who narrates the proceedings and interacts now and then with the actors and action on stage.  Both Ben Vereen, in the original Broadway production and Patina Miller in the revival, portrayed this character as an impish jester. Here, Thao Nguyen is a mischievous and seductive provocateur with a hint of menace.   

The broad outline of the show is of a young man coming of age and trying to find his place in the world during the time of Charlemange and the Holy Roman Empire.  The character of Pippin, the eldest son of the king,  attempts many pathways to fulfillment, primarily soldiering, to no avail.  While on his quest for self-actualization and happiness, he navigates through an array of family members, both helpful and not.  There is his war-mongering younger brother Lewis, his standoffish father, conspiring stepmother Fasttrada, and sagely grandmother, Berthe.

Through happenstance, Pippin begins a relationship with Catherine, a widow, with a large estate.  Content at first, he eventually leaves, thinking there is more to life than domesticity and routine.  In the end, however, as the Leading Player and cast members urge Pippin for a Final Step, he comes to the realization that, while not his dream, residing with Catherine and her son Theo would be a satisfying life.

Pippin’s pursuit of a quality and fulfilling existence should resonate with today’s audiences as so many people, especially those under 35, seem to be looking for something more with their  lives, their own “Corner of the Sky.”  While settling down, after an assortment of dalliances, is not everyone’s goal, the message of the musical is it’s okay to just be happy. 

The book of the show is somewhat disjointed and can lag at certain points.  This, however, affords a Director/Choreographer with a clear, well-orchestrated vision a great deal of latitude in shaping the show.  Darlene Zoller, serving both roles, has more than answered the challenge.  Known primarily for her choreography over the years, Ms Zoller has infused the show with a style and panache that is invigorating and highly entertaining.  She seamlessly blends all the musical’s elements into a cohesive whole.  Her dance numbers burst with creativity, energy and confidence.  Ms. Zoller even manages to bring a stylistic verve to the scenes of Pippin’s sexual exploits.

The music and lyrics  by Stephen Schwartz, his first Broadway score, are full of hope and glory.  The compositions are some of the most cherished and recognizable in theater history.  The songs are tuneful and full of richness and variety.  They are brought to their vibrant best by Music Director Colin Britt and his tightly grouped pit band.  The songs include such enchanting ballads as “Corner of the Sky” and “Love Song;” the comedic treasure “No Time at All;” and the classic opening number “Magic To Do.”

The entire cast is first-rate, with absolutely gorgeous singing voices that beautifully resonate throughout the theater.  They are lled by Thao Nguyen as the Leading Player and Shannon Cheong as Pippin.  Mr. Nguyen commands the stage as he dances, prances and prowls about the performing space, barking commands and providing discerning advice.  The twinkle in his eyes can be deceptively inviting and his mannerisms playful.  But he also infuses his character with a degree of danger that belies the merrymaking more associated with the character.

Shannon Cheong’s Pippin is boyishly handsome and charismatic. His portrayal of the young man has the requisite lack of direction and purpose inherent in the role.  Occasionally, his depiction veers towards a childish immaturity, but these intermittent moments do not undercut a noteworthy Playhouse on Park debut.

Each of the featured performers make the most of their moment in the spotlight.  Brad Weatheford, finely chiseled and self-gloriously vain, brings just the right mixture of arrogance and humorous pomposity to the role of  Pippin’s younger brother Lewis.  Kate Wesler’s Fastrada, Pippin’s scheming stepmother, is poised and graceful.  She is an exquisite and very flexible dancer.  This is aptly demonstrated by her pairing with Mr. Weatherford during her solo of “Spread a Little Sunshine.”  SuEllen Estey’s character Berthe, grandmother to Pippin, spends less time center stage than the character of King George in Hamilton, but her rendition of the sing along classic “No Time at All,” is just as memorable.  The seasoned professional knows how to work the audience in this crowd-pleasing favorite.  Juliana Lamia is entrancing as the fair Catherine.  Gene Choquette’s King Charlemagne is full of bluster and grandiosity, but also a weariness and melancholy, which provides for a more fully realized character

The Scenic Design by Johann Fitzpatrick is deceptively simple with a center stage elevated platform surrounded by a slightly raised wall.  The set artfully provides the suggestion of a walled castle.  Jackson Funke’s Lighting Design adroitly augments notable moments in the production through the use of colored spots, silhouettes, and strobe effects. Vilinda McGregor’s Costume Designs are suitably ragtag, racey, and period appropriate.

Pippin, an uproariously entering production, playing at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford through August 21.  Not to be missed.

Suggested for ages 13 and up.  Performances are Friday at 8:00pm, Saturday at 2:00pm and 8:00pm, Sunday at 2:00pm, Tuesday at 2:00pm, Wednesday at 7:30pm and Thursday at 7:30pm.  Tickets are from $37.50 - $50.00 and can be purchased on the Playhouse website -

Vaccination card checks and masks are not required. However, masks are strongly encouraged.

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Review of "Kim's Convenience " - Westport Country Playhouse

Kim’s Convenience, a one-act comedy-drama at the Westport Country Playhouse through July 17, is an affable, easily digestible play that comes across like a TV pilot.  In fact, after the show’s world premiere in Canada in 2011, a television series was produced based on the play (running on Netflix), from 2016 - 2021.

Why the comparison to a broadcasting series?  In Kim’s Convenience, by the time the 90-minute production concludes, there are many loose ends and plot points that need much further exploration.  Will Mr. Kim sell his convenience store to the high flying real estate developer?  Will daughter Janet’s new-found romance last?  What about the estranged son, Jung, now seemingly back in his father’s good graces?  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Kim’s Convenience is an age-old story of a young, immigrant couple coming to the United States to make a better life for their children.  There have been countless shows on this theme with every ethnicity you can name - Italian, Jewish, Indian, and so on.  In this case, the parents are of Korean descent and the proud owners of a store similar to a Cumberland Farms or 7-11.  Mr. Kim (Appa), who at the beginning of the play receives a very generous offer to buy him out, is conflicted.  While the money would allow him to retire, his whole identity is wrapped up with the convenience store.  Sell?  And then what?  His wife Umma urges him to accept the payout so they can have a normal life.  But he would like his 30-year old daughter, Janet, to take over the business.  She, though, has other plans especially now that she has rekindled a childhood romance.  Older brother Jung?  He left home years earlier after a heated argument with Appa.  Even though he surreptitiously still meets with Umma, he hasn’t seen or spoken to his father for a very long time.  By the play’s end, Jung has made amends with Appa and a new beginning is set into motion.

Playwright Ins Choi has crafted a show that, at times, is very funny, but also heartfelt.  His characters, flaws and all, come across as real people trying to find their purpose in life.  This can be especially difficult for children coming from first generation immigrant parents when there is so much pressure to succeed in high paying, greatly esteemed careers like medicine, law or engineering. Mr. Choi also factors in the question of high-promising children that don’t meet parental expectations later on in life.

The cast is uniformly solid - Cindy Im as the obedient, yet strong-willed daughter, Janet; Chuja Seo  as the selfless and dutiful wife, Umma; Eric R. Williams  as the head-over-heels in love, Officer Alex (along with some other minor portrayals); Hyunmin Rhee as the beleaguered son, Jung; and David Shih as the no-nonsense husband, Appa.

Two of the performers deserve special note.  David Shih’s Mr. Kim (Appa), the heart and soul of the production, is abrupt, politically incorrect, but shows deep concern and care for his family, even if he doesn’t show it outright.  Hyunmin Rhee imbues Jung with deep-rooted pain and sorrow that is heart wrenching to watch.

Director Nelson T. Eusebio III keeps the show at a quick pace.  No scene lingers too long as the various plot lines unfold and are relegated to, one assumes, some eventual closure outside the production.  He handles the more affecting parts of the show without sentimentality or sappiness.  My only complaint is the staging of the meeting between Jung and Umma in her church.  The two characters are far to one side of the theater, which made it hard to hear the dialogue.

Scenic designer You-Shin Chen has assembled a realistic convenience store interior, from the cold beverage refrigerators to the multitude of snack choices displayed on shelves to the curious knick-knacks hanging on walls.  Sound designer Twi McCallum has lovingly created the annoying chime when the front door opens and closes.  Lighting designer Marie Yokoyama has bathed the set with the strikingly bright fluorescent lighting found in such stores.

Kim’s Convenience, playing through Sunday, July 17 at the Westport Country Playhouse.

Thursday, July 7, 2022

Connecticut Critics Give ‘Walden,’ ‘Falsettoland’ Top Honors

NEW HAVEN — The U.S. premiere of “Walden” at TheaterWorks Hartford and an impactful, moving production of “Falsettoland” at the Music Theatre of Connecticut (MTC) took top honors at the Monday, June 27 Connecticut Critics Circle Awards (

The event, which celebrates the work from the state’s professional theaters during the 2021 – 2022 season, was held at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven.

This year the awards were spread out to many productions throughout the state, though TheaterWork Hartford’s “Walden” earned the most taking five for best play, outstanding director, sound, set and lighting.

Awards for outstanding actor and actress in a musical went to MTC for Dan Sklar in “Falsettoland” and Susan Haefner in “Tenderly.” Dan Sklar’s son, Ari, received the award for outstanding debut.

Awards for outstanding actor and actress in a play went to Damian Thompson for TheaterWork’s “This Bitter Earth” and Shannon Tyo in Long Wharf Theatre’s “The Chinese Lady.”

Top directing awards went to Mei Ann Teo for TheaterWork Hartford’s “Walden” and Kevin Connors for MTC’s “Falsettoland.” Connors was also honored with the Tom Killen Award for lifetime service to the theater.

Rob Ruggiero, Artistic Director of TheaterWorks Hartford, was presented with a special award for the outstanding, high quality streaming productions staged by the theater during the 2020-2021 season.

Outstanding ensemble award went to the cast of West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park’s “Five Guys Named Moe:” Marcus Canada, Arnold Harper, Jacquez Linder-Long, Darren Lorenzo, Devin Price, Josh Walker.

Outstanding solo honor was awarded to Alaudin Ullah in Hartford Stage’s ”Dishwasher Dreams.”

Brittney Griffin won for her choreography for Playhouse on Park’s “Five Guys Named Moe.”

The outstanding featured actress award in a musical ] went to Jennifer Smith in Goodspeed Opera House’s production of “Cabaret.” Outstanding featured actor in a musical honors went to Daniel J. Maldonado for Westport Country Playhouse’s “Next to Normal.”

The award for outstanding featured actors in a play went to Michael Nathanson for Hartford Stage’s “Lost in Yonkers” and to Sharina Martin for the Westport Country Playhouse’s production of “Doubt.”

Design awards went to Hao Bai for sound for TheaterWork Hartford’s “Walden;” Linda Cho for costumes for Long Wharf’s “The Chinese Lady;” Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew for lighting for TheaterWork Hartford’s “Walden;” Mark Holthusen for projections for Long Wharf’s “Dream Hou$e;” and both You-Shin Chen for TheaterWork Hartford’s “Walden” and Daniel Nischan for Ivoryton Playhouse’s “Native Gardens” for set design.

Helping to present the awards were Michael Preston, best-known for his portrayals of Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” and Harold Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Radio Drama” at Hartford Stage; and Malakhi Eason, Director of Programming & Community Impact of New Haven’s internationally renowned Festival of Arts and Ideas.

Kenneth Gartman, a singer and a pianist, who has toured with the Broadway national tour of “The Music Man,” internationally on the Live BBC Broadcast of “Simply Sondheim,” and throughout Ireland in “A New York Songbook: Way Off Broadway,” presided over the event.

[All photos by © Photo by Mara Lavitt - June 27, 2022 - Long Wharf Theater New Haven, CT]