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.

Saturday, October 8, 2022

Review of "My Children! My Africa" in Hartford

One of the most exciting works of theater to be appearing on a Connecticut stage is at the intimate HartBeat Ensemble in Hartford.  Their production of Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa! is passionately acted and resonates with themes and subject matter that, sadly, is still relevant today.  Performances for this must-see show end Sunday, October 9.

The play was first produced in 1989 while South Africa was still under apartheid rule, where the all-white government enforced policies of racial segregation. This led to separate public facilities, housing, and education.  It is under this backdrop that My Children! My Africa! begins.

We are introduced to three characters in the midst of closing arguments in a high school debate.  Thami Mbikwan (Jelani Pitcher) is a Black student attending Zolile High School and Isabel Dyson (Brianna Joy Ford) is at Camdeboo High School, an all-white girls’ school. The referee is a disciplined, caring Camdeboo teacher known as Mr. M (Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr.).

After the debate, the two begin a tentative friendship.  Isabel is outgoing and incessantly inquisitive.  She is unthinkingly unaware of the world outside her privileged white environment and her understanding of the plight of Black South Africans.  Thami, a star pupil who lives in The Location, a segregated area, is much more reserved in his feelings and with the information he chooses to share.  He has also become less inclined towards school and more interested in the struggle of his people for racial equality.

The association between Isabel and Thami becomes more pronounced after Mr. M convinces the two to enter an inter-school English literature competition.  Their interactions and training suddenly collapse as rebellious rumblings among the Black high school students take center stage.  Quickly, and decisively, each character’s world, as they know it, changes forever.

The playwright Athol Fugard has eloquently and convulsively portrayed a time in South African history when apartheid still reigned throughout the land.  He brings in themes of racial inequality, the limitation of educational opportunities and, most emphatically, the debate of violence vs. non-violence as a force for change.

He deftly dramatizes these topics without being didactic or preachy.  Mr. Fugard also astutely furnishes each character with an expansive soliloquy that augments their background, motives, and helps push the plot forward. 

The cast is superb.  One of the best ensembles I have seen in years.  The trio of performers are convincing in their roles as they modulate between introspection and outrage.  Brianna Joy Ford imbues Isabel Dyson with a thirst for knowledge.  She finely transitions from a somewhat dispassionate white South African, not really comprehending the upheaval beginning around her, to someone awakening to the plight of her Black countrymen.  Jelani Pitcher’s portrayal of Thami Mbikwan, a young man racked with conflicting allegiances and sentiments, is assured and thought-provoking.  He brings an intense quietude to the role as well as a forcefulness bubbling just under the surface.  Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr. 's Mr. M, dutiful, proud of his calling to teach, and insistent on respect from his students, is a lightning rod for the dramatic underpinnings of the show.  The actor provokes and regales as he infuses his character with a fervor and earnestness that is honorable.  His enthusiasm for his craft is highly contagious.  In the end, though, his dedication and old school approach prove disastrous.

Director Melanie Dreyer has powerfully and ardently brought the characters and story to life.  There is a naturalism to the show that heightens the action on stage.  In such a small performance space, movement and flow is important and the Director smoothly keeps the play from becoming too much of a static production.  At some points, she skillfully maneuvers the actors around the environs like caged animals, waiting to pounce or seek flight from their untenable situation.  Sometime iit can seem like the three performers emote too much, but Ms. Dreyer nimbly balances the need for highly expressive displays with more nuanced affectations.

The simple Scenic Design by Norm Johnson, Jr. and Lighting Design by Jon Paul-LaRocco is emblematic of the basic, no frills classroom of Camdeboo High School.  The Sound Design by Ritz is limited, but effective when applied.

My Children! My Africa!, a show not to be missed.  Playing through Sunday, October 9 at 2PM.  Ticket information is at  Masks required.