Thursday, November 24, 2022

Review of "& Juliet"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

& Juliet, an electrifying and delicious jukebox musical confection.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Review of "Fences" - Playhouse on Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 7, 2022

Review of "Guys and Dolls" - ACT of CT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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