Friday, August 26, 2022

Review of "Ring of Fire"

Jukebox musicals come in all forms.  There are shows, like Smokey Joe’s Cafe, which string hit tunes of a composer/composing team together in vignettes structured around a song.  You have musicals with a true-to-life storyline - Jersey Boys and Beautiful being two of the most well-known.  Finally, there are hybrid shows of the aforementioned types - part book musical, part song cavalcade.  Ring of Fire, the Johnny Cash show, falls into the latter category.  The production is rock and rolling the Ivoryton Playhouse through September 11.


The seven very talented actors/musicians, under the sure-handed direction of Musical Director David M. Lutken -  bring the country legend to life - from his humble beginnings in rural Arkansas through his marriages, triumphs, setbacks and final redemption.  There are dozens of songs presented from his wide-ranging catalog.  There are hymnals and inspirationals, country tunes, rollicking rockabilly numbers, and the hits that crossed over to the pop charts such as  "Folsom Prison Blues", "I Walk the Line", "Ring of Fire", and "A Boy Named Sue."  Audience members, like myself, unfamiliar with many of the country legend’s vast repertoire of music will, nonetheless, be charmed by the energetic, joyful presentations of the songs.


The first part of the musical  begins with the childhood of Johnny Cash and moves through his young adult life.  It was a hardscrabble existence for him and his family.  There was sorrow and tragedy but, throughout, song and their religious convictions helped pull them through.  We witness the singer’s rise to fame - on radio, at the Grand Ole Opry and on his television variety show - as the production pulsates into Act II.  His continued success, though, is belied by drug addiction, depression and eventual incarceration before he gets his life back on track.


The book of the show, created by Richard Maltby, Jr., runs swiftly through Act I, only getting bogged down when too much exposition takes center stage.  Act II, while retaining the high dynamism of Act I, has more somber moments as Cash’s life becomes increasingly complex and troubled.


Johnny Cash is portrayed by two adult actors - Sam Sherwood and David M. Lutken.  Each presents different perspectives and viewpoints of the singer.  They, along with the other five accomplished performers - Brittany Brook, Morgan Morse, Leenya Rideout, Nygel D. Robinson, and Spiff Wiegand - portray multiple characters with a noteworthy level of skill and deftness.  The actors/actresses are also quite proficient on a variety of instruments as they accompany themselves during all the musical numbers. There is a true chemistry between the cast members, which translates to high-spirited enjoyment for the audience.


Director Sherry Lutken keeps the pacing brisk with scene changes transitioning smoothly.  She nimbly melds together the numerous songs and players into a seamless whole. As choreographer, Ms. Lutken adds a quick step here, a promenade there only when it decidedly enhances the moment on stage.


Scenic Designer Cully Long’s set conjures up Cash’s early life - a weathered front porch is off to one side - yet is versatile enough to aptly parallel other significant events of his life.


Ring of Fire - well-worth a trip to the historic Ivoryton Playhouse - through September 11.  Click here for dates, times and ticket information.

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Review of "Secondo"

Secondo - 2nd course - is the sequel to the one-woman play, I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti, which is based on the best-selling book of the same name by Giulia Melucci.  Theaterworks Hartford had a hit with their production of the latter show ten years ago.  

In the current show, actress Antoinette LaVecchia revisits the role of Giulia.  She is now married and awaiting her husband’s return from the Cannes Film Festival.  In the interlude, she is prepping an anniversary dinner.  While she cooks and fusses, she regales the audience with stories about  their courtship and also her previous beaus.  Everything seems just perfect.  Or is it?

Ms. LaVecchia is a natural raconteur.  The performer is inviting and quite at ease in her delivery and command of the stage.  Her comedic anecdotes bring continuous smiles and knowing nods from those in attendance.  Her culinary talents and comfort level in the kitchen come across as genuine.

Playwright Jacques Lamarre has fashioned a modest, sugary confection with humor and just enough drama to keep the show percolating.  Divided into two, short Acts, the production could have easily been combined without an intermission.  The breezy pace is frequently interrupted by calls on the character’s cell phone from her mom, best friend, husband and a former boyfriend.  After a while, they do prove somewhat distracting.  I would have liked to have seen less reliance on the phone and more conversation and cooking from Giulia.

Director Rob Ruggiero oversees the play with a light touch.  He must know his way around a kitchen because the character’s movements and meal preparatory skills come across as natural and well-honed.  

Scenic Designer Brian Prather has created, along with Lighting Designer Carter Miller, a well-appointed city apartment kitchen that would be the envy of any urban dweller.

Secondo, an airy, cheerful frolic.  What might the next installment hold for Giulia?  Playing at Theaterworks Hartford through August 28.  Click here for times, dates and ticket information.

Friday, August 12, 2022

Review of "Anne of Green Gables"

Can lightning strike twice?  Almost 50 years ago, a spunky, redheaded orphan named Annie made her debut at the Goodspeed Opera House before moving to Broadway to become one of the longest running musicals in the history of The Great White Way.  Fast-forward to today and Goodspeed is producing another musical starring a high-spirited, redheaded orphan in their world premiere of Anne of Green Gables.


The show has issues which need to be addressed (more below) before a move to New York can be considered but, overall, it is an entertaining musical that will not disappoint fans of the 1908 novel.  My friend, who accompanied me to opening night, is a lifelong admirer of the source material and she was captivated by the show.  The production has been crafted for today’s sensibilities.  It has the look, feel, and vibe of the musical Spring Awakening, a hit “coming of age rock musical” from 2006.  Unlike that show, Anne of Green Gables is appropriate for children, say 10 and up, but also satisfying for adults. 


The musical follows the young Anne Shirley as she arrives at the home of brother and sister, Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert.  As they are getting along in years, they had requested a boy from the orphanage be sent to them to help with running their farm.  Their initial displeasure turns to acceptance and eventually an embracement of the vivacious girl.  Anne is smart, feisty and speaks her mind, not always to her advantage.  Following the storyline of the book, the show traces her life from an inauspicious beginning to her eventual graduation from college.  Along the way, we witness her clashes and struggles with the Cuthberts and the folks of Avonlea on Prince Edward Island.  There are the friendships she makes; her rivalry with the charming, good-looking star student, Gilbert Blythe; and, finally, her growth into a confident and assured young woman.


Book writer Matte O’Brien quickly and effectively sets the tone and direction of the show during Act I.  He handily develops the central characters and the core storyline.  It is fast-paced, coherent, and absorbing.  Act II, however, comes across more of a series of stitched together vignettes.  Scenes can seem confusing, shift hurriedly and are less focused.  There is a more somber tone that overtakes the production as the time frame of Anne’s life becomes more drawn out, characters grow, lives change.  Does this undermine the show?  No, but a reevaluation by Mr. O’Brien and Director Jenn Thompson would help the show find a consistent tenor.


The central characters are fully realized.  We care about their well-being and future. 


The cast is led by Juliette Redden as Anne Shirley.  She imbues the lass with strength, fortitude, and a never say never attitude.  She is funny, rude, and a pleasure to watch.  The actress truly embodies the character at all stages of her young life.


As Gilbert Blythe, the actor Pierre Marais is full of self-importance and swagger.  He also deftly brings out a vulnerability and intelligence that presents a more fully developed character seeking his place in life.  As Anne’s best friend, Diana Barry, the lithe Michelle Veintimilla gives a solid performance.  She is lovely, confused, and gracious.  Her character, however, needs better definition.  Initially, she comes across as a simpleton, which is how she is referred to by the townspeople and students at her school.  Yet, by the show’s conclusion she is portrayed as smart and self-assertive.  Which one is it?


Sharon Catherine Brown instills Marilla Cuthbert with a no-nonsense outlook that is layered with regret and love.  D.C. Anderson, as her brother Matthew, may be soft-spoken and a man of little words, but I found him to be the heart of the musical.  I’d like to see his character expanded.  Conversely, even though Aurelia Williams delivers one comedic moment after another as the gossipy, sour puss neighbor, Rachel Lynde, I felt her role could have been reduced.  She gives a marvelous performance, but at the expense of rounding out the characters of Mirella or Matthew.


The music by Matt Vinson and lyrics by Matte O’Brien is one of the strongest attributes of the production.  I haven’t heard such a satisfying score from a new musical in a long time.  The mostly rock-infused score, which also includes influences of folk and country, is tuneful and strongly sung by all the performers.  The songs embody the emotions and dreams of the characters. 


The choreography by Jennifer Jancuska is a mixed bag.  When dancing is suitably entwined into a scene, the kinetic movements of the ensemble players are a joy to watch.  Yet, too often, the choreography comes across as separate from the action on stage.  Instead of enhancing, it proves distracting.


Director Jenn Thompson, a well-respected presence on Connecticut stages, has skillfully guided the production to its satisfying end.  She effectively integrates the ensemble into the show, using them to capably inject needed exposition.  Ms. Thompson nimbly teases out the humor and pathos of the work.  As stated earlier, she needs to reexamine the efficacy of the choreography.  Work also needs to be done in Act II to better define some of the intent of certain scenes and the overall flow of the production.


Wilson Chin’s Set Design is minimal, with a revolving platform, center stage, simulating the ebb and flow of the story.  The focus is on the back wall with weathered, floor-to-ceiling wooden planks denoting the barn at the Cuthbert’s farm.  In keeping with the ambiance of the show, Tracy Christensen’s Costume Design incorporates a fine mix of early 20th century sensibilities along with modern garb.  Philip S. Rosenberg’s Lighting Design, while occasionally overstated, breathes life and radiance into the musical.


Anne of Green Gables, an enchanting new musical, well worth a trip to the Goodspeed Opera House.  Playing through September 4, 2022.  Click here for dates, times, and ticket information.



Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Review of "Guys and Dolls"

 Shows from the 1940’s and 1950’s - the Golden Age of Broadway musicals - are not often present on Connecticut stages.  When they are produced, and done well, the results can be a highly entertaining night (or day) at the theater.  Case in point is the raucous, tuneful, crowd-pleasing production of Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls at the Sharon Playhouse.  The show runs through August 14.


How wonderful it is to sit back and hear all those classic songs live, sung by a superb cast with beautiful and powerful voices.  I even moved my seat from 6th row center in Act I  to the last row in the compact theater for Act II just to see how good the performer’s voices were.  I was not disappointed. 


The songs in Guys and Dolls include such gems as "A Bushel and a Peck," "Adelaide's Lament," "Guys and Dolls," "Luck Be a Lady," "Sue Me," and my personal favorite, "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat."


The book of the musical, by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, is based on a number of short stories from the writer Damon Runyon.  His often humorous tales are full of colorful characters of Broadway, which include gamblers, nightclub performers, and denizens of the street.  


In Guys and Dolls, the focus is on Nathan Detroit and his men who are desperately trying to find a locale for his floating crap game.  Complicating matters is his longtime girlfriend, Adelaide, who has been patiently waiting 14 years to get married to the man.  Add in the presence of big-time gambler, Sky Masterson and his pursuit of the Salvation Army’s Sarah Brown, and you have a rollicking show, full of humor and well-paced action.


The cast is marvelous, with all the leads played by Equity actors.  Their professionalism, charisma, and hijinks is what makes the musical so enjoyable.  Robert Anthony Jones, as Nathan Detroit, is a lovable schlemiel with superb comic timing and delivery.  Lauralyn McClelland imbues the character of Miss Adelaide with a winsome appeal.  She is also a terrific dancer and accomplished vocalist.  Amanda Lea LaVergne provides the heart and soul of the production as the by-the-book Times Square missionary, Sarah Brown. She convincingly moves the character from having a single-minded, dispassionate outlook on life to a more open-minded, fully empowered woman.  C.K. Edwards is a handsome and solid Sky Masterson.  Mention also needs to be given to the two partners-in-crime of Nathan, Benny Southstreet, portrayed by Dom Giovanni, and Nicely Nicely Johnson (Joshua Spencer).  Like the two gangsters in Kiss, Me Kate and The Drowsy Chaperone, they provide continuous comic relief throughout the production.  Joshua Spencer is also outstanding, singing and hoofing through the big Act II number, "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat."


Speaking of the choreography, Choreographer Justin Boccitto delivers one fabulous dance sequence after another.  For audience members that savor tap dancing spectacle, the show will not disappoint.  You could argue there is not much variety in the big production numbers but, as a tap aficionado, I’m not complaining.


Doubling as Director, Mr. Boccitto skillfully guides the production through its numerous set changes and seamlessly integrates the dance sequences throughout the show.  He has a light, but assured touch, which adds to the feistiness and playfulness of the musical.  The opening sequence, which depicts the hustle and bustle of New York City life, is presented in shadow behind a curtain pulled across the stage.  It doesn’t really work.  Fortunately, once the sheet is pulled down and the performers come to life, the musical begins to shine.


Daryl Bornstein’s Scenic Design evokes the New York City of yesteryear with logos of many forgotten establishments and businesses plastered above and to the side of the stage.  The movable set pieces add a rewarding variety, which is enhanced by Jamie Rodriguez’s Lighting Design.


The costumes by Michael Bottari and Ronald Case are a dazzling assortment of bold colored suits and splashy night club outfits.  The duo have pulled out all the stops to add authenticity and glamour to the show.


Guys and Dolls, a big, flashy musical that is sure to entertain.  Playing at the Sharon Playhouse through August 14.  Performances are Thursday, August 11th at 2pm & 8pm; Friday, August 12th at 8pm; Saturday, August 13th at 2pm & 8pm; and Sunday, August 14th at 3pm.  Tickets are $20 - $45.  Click here for information.