Monday, January 30, 2023

Indecent - Playhouse on Park


The play Indecent, receiving a riveting production at Playhouse on Park, is inspired by the 1906 Yiddish play, The God of Vengeance, written by the Polish-Jewish playwright Sholem Asch.  The work was highly controversial at the time.  It showed the love of two women on stage, took place in a brothel, and characterized Jews as less than heroic figures.  Still, the production toured Europe and Off-Broadway to great acclaim in the early part of the 20th Century.  Its transfer to Broadway, however, was interrupted by the police who arrested the cast and producer for obscenity, for which they were found guilty.  The acting troupe, despondent, returned to their Polish homeland.  Desolate, with almost no money and food, the performers still managed to stage their show in an attic space with just a handful of people in attendance just as the Nazis moved in and, we assume, forcibly took them away.


It’s very easy to characterize Indecent as a Holocaust play.  However, the show is so much more.  Playwright Paula Vogel explores the question of what is art?  What is its purpose?  Sholem Asch sought to depict the Jewish people as real individuals, with moral and ethical dilemmas as opposed to the thrust of most writers of the day that only wrote more positive portrayals.  Ms. Vogel delves into the transformative power of the theater and the passion it produces among artists and the audience.  This zeal is fervidly embodied by the character of Lemml, a poor tailor who’s life is forever changed by his introduction and continued involvement with productions of the play.


Ms. Vogel, a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright (How I Learned to Drive), adeptly breathes life into each character in the show.  She also effectively weaves into the framework of the play such of-the-moment issues as  Anti-semitism and censorship


The cast of Indecent is superb.  Playhouse on Park needs to be applauded for assembling such an outstanding group of actors.  Each of them perform multiple roles as they imbue their characters with sensitivity, pathos, and a joy for life and their art.  While the entire ensemble is notable, two members of the troupe deserve special praise.  Dan Zimberg plays Lemml, the tailor (and sometimes narrator), who’s devotion and adoration to The God of Vengence is boundless.  He is the heart and soul of the play.  Bart Shatto is impressive with the range of characters - primarily the older gentlemen - he depicts.  He infuses his portrayals with an emotional depth, dynamism and comic flair.


Director Kelly O'Donnell brings an assured hand to the staging of the show.  Scenes and characters flawlessly meld together, making the intermission-less production move forward with swiftness and aplomb.  She seamlessly incorporates Katie Stevinson-Nollet’s vibrant bursts of  choreography as well as the musical numbers under the Direction of Alexander Sovronsky and Jeffrey Salerno’s Sound Design.  Her use of Supertitles are easy to read and provide just the right amount of assistance in telegraphing scenes.


Johann Fitzpatrick’s Scenic Design is simple, yet fluid, helped immensely with Joe Beumer’s varied Lighting schemes.  Izzy Fields’ Costume Design is at its best when evoking the garb of Eastern Europe at the turn of the century.


Indecent, another bravo production from Playhouse at Park in West Hartford, running through February 26.  Click here for dates, times, and ticket information.



Thursday, January 26, 2023

A Beautiful Noise - Broadway

Creating an entertaining, captivating Broadway jukebox musical on the career of a single performer is a difficult proposition.  Successful productions have been Beautiful - the Carole King Musical and the current MJ (Michael Jackson) - the Musical.   Why?  They include full-fledged secondary characters that help augment and strengthen the storyline.  There are also compelling and dramatic moments in the life of the artist portrayed on stage that draw in the audience.  The absence of these two points is why the Neil Diamond musical, A Beautiful Noise, falls short.

The matter-of-fact story, penned by Anthony McCarten, begins with an empty stage.  A therapy session is about to begin between an aged Neil Diamond, played with a somber intensity by Broadway veteran Mark Jacoby, and a female psychologist.  At first resisting any inner reflections, the singer/songwriter finally relents.  From there, the musical opens up.  The older Neil and his therapist remain on stage for much of the show, periodically re-entering the production to comment and help connect scenes.

We follow the young, inexperienced musician looking to sell his songs as his supportive, pregnant wife cheers him on.  He eventually meets songwriter/producer Ellie Greenwich, who jumpstarts his writing and performing career.  We witness his production deal with a Mafia related record company. While performing at the Greenwich Village nightspot The Bitter End, he meets Marcia Murphy, who becomes his second wife and all-around cheerleader.  In the end, through marital troubles and inner doubts, Neil Diamond succeeds in climbing the ladder of fame and fortune.  He also has a satisfying epiphany from his counseling session.

There is very little drama from Neil Diamond’s career that librettist McCarten can exploit.  Besides the character of Marica Murphy, portrayed with vitality and dedication by Robyn Hurder, there are almost no interesting individuals that intersect with his life.  Instead, Director Michael Mayer has gussied up the story with an ensemble of dancers that look to enliven even the plainest of scenes.  Most times, the choreography by Steven Hoggett leaves you scratching your head.  Unfortunately, they serve more as a distraction rather than an attraction.  David Rockwell’s Scenic Design is more minimalistic with touches of grandeur as witnessed by the over-the-top rising platform that closes Act I.

The songs of Neil Diamond are the true gemstones of A Beautiful Noise.  Will Swenson gives a very credible performance as the pop/rock star.  The actor brings an innocence, yet fervor and dedication to the Rock ‘ Roll Hall of Famer.  He delivers dozens of the showman’s hits from the 1960’s through the 90’s with energy and passion.  I preferred the early hits highlighted in Act I.  They include “Cherry, Cherry,” “Solitary Man,” “Cracklin' Rosie,” “Song Sung Blue,” “I Am... I Said,” “Holly Holy,” “Kentucky Woman,” and, of course, the crowd-pleasing “Sweet Caroline.”

A Beautiful Noise, a disappointing entry into the crowded jukebox musical field.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Espejos: Clean - Hartford Stage

 The concept of the Hartford Stage play, Espejos: Clean, makes for intriguing, if not always compelling theater.  The two-character show employs Supertitles (translations displayed about the performance space) whenever one of the performers speak.  Adriana is the manager of a group of cleaning staff at a Mexican resort in Cancun.   Her dialogue is entirely in Spanish, with English Supertitles.  Sarah is a single white woman from Vancouver who is the Maid of Honor at her younger sister’s destination wedding.  Her inner thoughts and interactions with Adriana are in English with Spanish Supertitles.  While lending a degree of authenticity to the characters the Supertitles can be problematic as they necessitate quick reads in order to also appreciate the acting below on stage.

The two protagonists are usually on stage by themselves.  The plot focuses on Adriana, her humble backstory and struggles, primarily the death of her father and skirmishes at work.  Sarah, a party-hardy young woman, is not always reliable and more of a headache for her unseen mother and sister.  Eventually, their paths cross, sparking a series of revelations, truths and reckonings that, in the end, are reworkings of well-worn territory. 

Playwright Christine Quintana’s work, at its core, is of female empowerment.  The women are damaged individuals that, nonetheless, discover their strengths and passions during the week-long time frame.  Ms. Quintana utilizes inner monologues and dream sequences to help shape her characters and situations.  For myself, as someone who speaks English and only a little Spanish, the dual language approach works best in painting a vivid picture of Adriana.  Her character comes across as credible and substantial.

Emma Ramos gives her portrayal of Adrianna a richness and believability that anchors the production.  She is an emotional whirlwind as she juggles personal demons and professional demands.  Kate Abbruzzese imbues Sarah with a daftness and irksome manner that is both irritating and ingratiating.  The actress is convincingly volatile and demonstrative in her actions and demeanor.  There is also a solid on-stage chemistry between the two women.

Director Melissa Crespo seamlessly moves the performers on and off the stage.  Working with Lisa Renkel’s superb Projection Design, she beautifully creates different locales and scenarios.  The concern with two character plays is keeping the production vibrant and full of movement.  Ms. Crespo successfully overcomes these issues, ably assisted by Mariana Sanchez’s highly evocative two level Scenic Design, Colleen Doherty’s shimmering Lighting Design and the, at times, thunderous Sound Design by Daniela Hart & UptownWorks.  While there is no easy answer in solving the Supertitle problem, it is something that should be reviewed for future productions.

Espejos: Clean, playing at Hartford Stage through February 5.  Click here for ticket information, dates and times.