Friday, December 23, 2022

Review of "Come From Away" - Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts

The musical Come From Away, playing at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts through December 24, is one of my all-time favorite productions.  It is an emotional rollercoaster that is sorrowful, uplifting and, yet, full of humor.  Using the backdrop of 9/11, the musical celebrates the immeasurable capacity of individuals from different backgrounds to come together in dire times.

 

Come From Away begins in the small town of Gander, in the Province of Newfoundland.  A normal day quickly turns topsy-turvy as dozens of flights from around the world are suddenly diverted to their semi-used airfield when the United States airspace is closed after the 9/11 attacks (Before the jet age, Gander was the central refueling depot for planes crossing the Atlantic).  Overnight the population of the quaint Canadian town grew from 9,000 to 16,000 people.

 

The musical relates how the townspeople and “plane people” reacted, adapted, and came together over a five-day period before they could fly back home.  We become swept up by the personal stories of the passengers and the incredible acts of kindness and sacrifices by our northern neighbors.

 

Librettist Irene Sankoff and David Hein have crafted a well-structured narrative where each cast member portrays a multitude of roles.  The book writers focus on the determination of everyone to make an unthinkable and untenable situation work.  The optimistic attitude is a central theme of the show.  The show is heartening and inspirational, never maudlin or depressing.  Yes, there are tears, but tears of joy as well as of pain and anguish.

 

The score. also by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, is a mix of haunting and soul-searching compositions and exuberant melodies that elatedly reverberate throughout the theater.  Tinged with the Irish roots prevalent in the northern Canadian province, they are almost all ensemble pieces.  The songs are performed by a tight knit, boisterous band that would be welcome at any Emerald Isle drinking establishment.

 

The ensemble cast blends so well together.  They are full of individuals you would find at any main street diner.  They exude their own can-do spirit as they forcefully take hold of the material with a dynamism and drive that is heartfelt and genuine.  If there was a Tony Award for Best Ensemble, Come From Away would have been the hands down winner.

 

Director Christopher Ashley does a superb job staging the show.  He has taken the spare Scenic Design by Beowulf Boritt, which utilizes just tables and chairs, to serve a variety of functions.  A smart choice.  Anything more elaborate would have lessened the pace of the show and tethered our imagination.

 

Ashley keeps the pacing quick without rushing the storyline. Under his guidance, the transformation of the actors and actresses from one character to another is skillfully executed.  Gratifyingly, the overall effect allows the audience to slowly absorb the impact of what is happening without a preachy or moralistic tone.  The integration of the musical numbers, under the musical staging of Kelly Devine, is organic, developing naturally and mirroring the action on stage.  The dancing is buoyant and lively and reflects the down-to-earth nature of the townsfolk.

 

Come From Away, an absorbing and moving musical not to be missed.  Click here for dates, times, and ticket information.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Review of "Christmas on the Rocks" - Theaterworks Hartford

It’s been a few years since I ventured out to Theaterworks Hartford’s annual December production, Christmas on the Rocks.  I’m happy to report that it is still a comedic delight.  For the uninitiated, the 100 minute, intermissionless show consists of eight short playlets by seven writers.  Each vignette takes a decidedly off-beat riff on such holiday classics as the movies “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Story” and the cartoons “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”  The Elf on the Shelf makes an appearance as does an older, world-weary Charlie Brown.  The whimsical tales take place at a corner bar that has seen better days.  The proprietor, Isaac, gamely interacts with each of the characters that invade his pub on a quiet Christmas Eve.

 

Each scene, which sometimes borders on bawdy, raunchy humor, has its moments of amusement, with many triggering howls of laughter.  The first four of the storylines were entertaining and brought smiles to my face:  “A Miserable Life,” by Jacques Lamarre, focuses on an adult ZuZu Bailey who is freaked out by the sound of bells. “All Grown Up,” written by John Cariani, introduces us to Ralphie and his peculiar attraction to pink fluffy objects. “My Name Is KAREN!,” by Jenn Harris & Matthew Wilkas, spotlights an older, semi-psychotic Karen and her unhealthy relationship with Frosty. “Say It Glows,” by Jeffrey Hatcher, merrily flips through the gay elf Hermey’s frosty relationship with Rudolph. 

 

However, the latter half of the show is the production’s strength.  “Snitch,” by Jenn Harris, is a hilarious homage to every child’s fear - the all-knowing Elf on a Shelf.  “Drumsticks and Chill,” penned by Judy Gold and Jacques Lamarre, successfully combines the telling of the Hanukah story by a half-baked Little Drummer Boy with a serious note on anti-semitism.  The hilarity of “Still Nuts About Him,” by Edwin S├ínchez, is courtesy of the actress Jen Cody who’s comedic nuttiness and acrobatics as Clara from The Nutcracker, brings down the house.  “Merry Christmas, Blockhead,” by Jacques Lamarre, has always been my favorite.  An older, seemingly defeated Charlie Brown comes into the bar to bare his soul. What begins as a very humorous scene turns poignant and hopeful.  

 

Christmas on the Rocks is powered by three very talented performers.  Ted Lange, known for his long time role on TV’s The Love Boat, plays the unwitting bartender. The actor, with his laid back manner and impish grin, is the perfect straight man who welcomes the assorted characters into his modest establishment.  Harry Bouvy and Jen Cody, rotate through every scene, playing all the zany roles.  They are both superb performers.  Bouvey is wonderfully adept playing multiple types of characters - a down-on-his luck former child movie star, a stoner musician, an over-the-top very merry elf, and the epitome of woefulness, Charlie Brown himself.  Jen Cody brings a unique physicality to all her roles.  She is a fearless performer and gifted comedic talent whose antics cascade into waves of laughter from the audience.   

 

Director Rob Ruggiero assuredly guides the show he conceived and has staged for the past ten years.  One scene flows comfortably into the next on the quaint, richly detailed set designed by Michael Schweikardt.  Since I last saw the play, Ruggiero has expanded the use of technology, incorporating video projections, which enhance some of the scenes.  He has also added simple, but highly effective sight gags such as the cartoonish gait of Charlie Brown.  John Lasiter’s clever Lighting Design bolsters a number of the stories.  Alejo Vietti’s Costume Design and J. Jared Janas’s Wig Design provide splendid visual cues. 

 

Christmas on the Rocks, a worthy, different kind of holiday treasure, playing at Theaterworks Hartford through December 23.  Click here for information on tickets, dates and times.

Monday, December 5, 2022

Review of "Kimberly Akimbo"

The musical Kimberly Akimbo can be described as quirky.  Quirky in a good way.  The show, a big hit Off-Broadway last season, has made a successful transfer to Broadway without losing its more intimate quality and eccentric feel.  Based on David Linday-Abaire’s 2001 play of the same name, the story revolves around Kimberly, a high school teenager suffering from a rare disorder that causes her to age four times faster than normal.  Looking more like a senior citizen, the actress Victoria Clark gives a bravo performance as the young adult.  After just a few minutes on stage you wholeheartedly believe her portrayal of Kimberly.

 

The story takes place in the North Jersey suburbs.  Kimberly, a smart 16 year old, lives with her slacker, undependable parents, Buddy (Steven Boyer) and Patti (Alli Mauzey).  At times, she seems to be parenting them.  Kimberly is not part of a group or clique until she falls in with a band of fellow outsiders, most notably Seth (a winning Broadway debut by Justin Cooley), who manages the local ice rink, plays the tuba and has his own dysfunctional home life to contend with.  Life is looking up for Kimberly and her friendship with Seth until the appearance of her aunt Debra (Bonnie Milligan) turns everything topsy-turvy.  She is a hopeless schemer and crooked individual always in the thick of chaos.  While creating upheaval at her sister Pattie’s and brother-in-law Buddy’s home, she recruits Kimberly and her pals for a sure-fire scam to enrich herself and the teens.  In the end, everyone, well, mostly everyone gets a big payoff.

 

What makes Kimberly Akimbo work is its skillful mix of goofiness, heartache and poignancy.   Director Jessica Stone guides the show with an assured hand and clever decisions, allowing the musical’s humor and honesty to shine brightly.  David Zinn’s multiple sets bolster the quality of the show without overpowering the production. Choreographer Danny Mefford sprinkles some sprightly dance numbers throughout the production only when they make sense for the show.  The ice skating number is a considerable standout.  Librettist David Lindsay-Abaire celebrates uniqueness and unconventionality with a playful joyfulness.  There is a serious undertone to the show as characters make decisions about the direction of their lives.  What could have been a real downer of a show ends on an uplifting high note.

 

The composing team of Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lindsay-Abaire (lyrics), whose previous collaboration was Shrek - the Musical, have crafted a score that fetes individualness and fun.  The songs, tuneful and jubilant, cleverly help further the plot and character development.  Standouts include the tenderly amusing “Anagram,” the self-revelatory belter “Better,” and the rejoicing Act I closer “This Time.” 

 

The entire cast, a carryover from the Off-Broadway run, fits smoothly and comfortably into their roles for the Broadway run.  Victoria Clark’s portrayal of Kimberly is so beautiful and touching, adding a splash of spunk.  Look for her at Tony time.  The young actor, Justin Cooley, gleefully infuses Seth with a hopefulness that is at times heart-rending and empowering.  Bonnie Milligan’s Debra gives new meaning to crass and endearment, with a screwball twist.  Her delightfully inept shenanigans power the show forward.   Steven Boyer’s Buddy and Alli Mauzey’s Patti give daffy performances that are tinged with unfulfillment and regret.   The gaggle of high school students - Olivia Elease Hardy, Fernell Hogan, Michael Iskander, and Nina White - are a fine group of up-and-coming actors, unflinchingly proud of themselves and their abilities.

 

Kimberly Akimbo may lack the firepower and pizazz of large-scale Broadway productions but is, nonetheless, a wholly satisfying musical theater experience.

 

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Review of "The Brightest Light in the World" - Yale Repertory

Relationships can be joyful.  They can be tough.  And messy.  In playwright Leah Nanako Winkler’s sufficing world premiere, The Brightest Light in the World, we are introduced to two women in their early 30’s.  Lane (Katherine Romans), outgoing and inquisitive, runs a bakery in Lexington, KY.  Steph (Michele Selene Ang), more reserved, is a daily customer.  In a series of quick scene resets, playfully staged by Director Margot Bordelon, the women strike up a friendship that develops into a tentative, then all-in romantic connection.  After their first blissful night, entrenched and difficult revelations are disclosed, with the thrust being Lane’s battle with drug addiction.

 

Through their trials and tribulations, they manage to forge ahead with their relationship.  Lane’s sister, Della (Megan Hill) - motivator, friend, big sister, mother figure - is always around as she deals with her own life issues.  Ultimately, the pull of addiction proves, maddeningly, too much for all involved, leading to anguish, bitterness and pain.

 

Ms. Winkler has penned a show that mixes humorous bantering with poignant heartache.  Her characters are slightly askew, lost, trying to find their purpose and place in society.  The playwright’s portrayal of drug addiction is multi-faceted and not, as she states in the program notes, “like the typical awards-bait portrayals of ‘addicts’ we have all seen in film, tv and theater.”

 

There is a lot of talk as the 100 minute, intermission-less show moves forward.  Director Bordelon, looking to vary the dramatic arc of the story, incorporates such devices as wild dancing, to minimal effect. The considerable amount of speechifying and at times spirited, but more often, conventional interplay between the characters doesn’t always provide dynamic theater.

 

The three actors - Katherine Romans (Lane), Michele Selene Ang (Steph), Megan Hill (Della) - have a solid, believable chemistry.  Sometimes they are overly expressive and loud, but these are sensitive, somewhat damaged individuals.  Ms. Bordelon, rightfully so, occasionally steers the portrayals in an over-the-top manner as a statement of the character’s exultations to the heavens that they are vibrantly alive.

 

Scenic Designer Cat Raynor’s sets of the bakery and Della’s living room are handsomely detailed.  Lighting Designer Graham Zellers’ twinkling skyscape adds a meditative quality to the production. 

 

The Brightest Thing in the World, playing at the Yale Repertory Theatre through December 17.  Click here for dates, times and ticket information.

 

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Review of "Almost Famous"

Successfully transforming a film into a rewarding Broadway musical is no guarantee.  For every Waitress, The Producers, and Spamalot the landscape is littered with such miscalculations as Rocky, Groundhog Day, and Catch Me If You Can.  The latest entry into this ever growing field is Almost Famous and, unfortunately, the show comes under the disappointment category.

 

The main problem is the book, written by the movie’s screenwriter and director, Cameron Crowe.  The film received the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, but the stage production follows the storyline of the motion picture too closely.  What worked on screen doesn’t fully translate to the stage.  Director Jeremy Herrin’s perfunctory staging produces a choppy presentation with the main action continuously being sidetracked by annoying subplots.

 

The musical’s scenario, a semi-autobiographical look at Crowe’s early life, revolves around teenager William Miller, a would-be rock ‘n roll writer whose work catches the eye of influential rock journalist and critic Lester Bangs.  Assigned to cover a Black Sabbath concert he, instead, manages to befriend the band Stillwater, primarily lead guitarist Russell Hammond, and their flock of groupies, headed by Penny Lane.  Through his connection with the up-and-coming band, he manages to get an assignment to write a cover story on them for Rolling Stone magazine.  From that point, the show follows the young man’s journey and interactions with the rockers and groupies, a bygone era of innocence and carefree revelry. As the show moves on, we witness Miller’s growth from a naive youth, who just wants to fit in and belong, to a more slightly worldly young man who learns some important life lessons such as trust and being true to yourself.

 

The production features a score with music by Broadway veteran Tom Kitt (Next to Normal and If/Then) and lyrics by Cameron Crowe.  It’s a mixed bag of satisfactory original compositions layered with songs from such artists as the Allman Brothers, Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder and Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” one of the most iconic moments in the movie, which proves not to have the same dramatic effect on stage.

 

A few of the numbers written for the musical standout.  They include “No Friends,” a haunting ballad sung by the teen; the raucous “Everybody’s Coming Together,” with its folk-rock, sing-song quality; and the boisterous curtain opener, “1973.”  

 

The cast is uniformly fine.  Casey Likes gives a wide-eyed, boyish and heartfelt performance as the young William Miller.  His portrayal anchors the production.  Chris Wood’s Russell Hammond has the positive vibe of a laid back Southern California rocker.  Drew Gehling, as fellow band member, Jeff Bebe, comes across a tad too much like a stereotypical party hardy, vainglorious head banger.  Sola Pfeiffer’s Penny Lane has an earthy aura and free spirit attitude.  Her portrayal of the lead band groupie - part fan, lover, and philosopher - rings true for the character.  Rob Colletti’s performance as Lester Bangs is bombastic and a little preachy as he serves up platitudes and sagely advice to the newbie rock journalist.

 

Almost Famous, a mostly unsatisfying film to stage metamorphosis.