Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Bad Cinderella - Broadway

The new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, Bad Cinderella is, unfortunately, not a very good musical.  The show had a fitful run on the London stage before being reworked and renamed for Broadway.  The central problem is the book by Alexis Scheer.  It lacks an abundance of humor and wit.  Most of the characters are two-dimensional and unlikeable.  There are some puzzling plot points, especially with the Fairy Godmother, if that’s what she is.  Cinderella’s transformation into a stunning woman is, it seems, through invasive cosmetic surgery.  Her Godmother warns her to be back by midnight, but why?  There’s no magical ramification for the deadline.  At the end of the show, Cinderella seeks to stop her Prince from marrying.  She complains to one of her evil stepsisters that she can’t make it in time because the church is miles away.  “Well, you better start running.”  And, poof, off Cinderella heads off-stage on her 5K run.  

The story unfolds in the town of Belleville where the women are beautiful and the men self-glorious hunks - as told in the song “Buns ‘n’ Roses/Beauty is Our Duty.”  Bad Cinderella is not like the rest of the townsfolk.  She has a streetwise fashion sense and is B-A-D, even though besides defacing a statue of the missing Prince Charming (he has been AWOL for a long time, presumably killed while battling a dragon) she doesn’t seem that bad or rebellious.  A more apt description is misunderstood and abused by her Evil Stepmother and Stepsisters.  The bubbleheaded Queen wants to ensure a smooth succession to the throne so decides her other son, Prince Sebastian, needs to find a bride pronto and hastily organizes a ball so he can choose from all the women in the land.  Will it be one of Cinderella’s evil stepsisters?  Did I mention that Cinderella and Sebastian were childhood friends?  Not sure how that could have happened.  He’s a prince.  She’s a commoner.  It’s never explained.

Leading up to the high-flying gala there is angst.  There are trials and tribulations by the central characters.  There is underhanded scheming, heartache and misery.  Surprises abound.  [Spoiler Alert - Prince Charming is not really dead]. Did I say this was a musical comedy?  In the end, everything gets sorted…kinda.

The score by Andrew Lloyd Webber and David Zippel, while unremarkable at best, does include a few notable songs.  There are a couple of beautiful power ballads sung by Bad Cinderella (Linedy Genao) - “Easy to Be Me,” “I Know I Have a Heart (Because You Broke It)” and the title number.  Prince Sebastian’s (Jordan Dobson) melancholy number - “Only You, Lonely You” is a lovely tune. There is also a quite amusing comedic duet between the Queen (Grace McLean) and the Evil Stepmother (Carolee Carmello) - “I Know You.”  One additional note - while the performers are properly miked, the orchestra’s music blares.  In fact, in all my years of attending musicals, I have never heard a louder sound emanating from the pit.

The two leads – Linedy Genao as Bad Cindrella and Jordan Dobson as Prince Sebastian – still early in their Broadway careers, are likable in an undynamic way.  The chemistry between them is more playful, then romantic.  The veteran musical theater performer Carolee Carmello steals the show as the Evil Stepmother.  She can be over-the-top in her histrionics, but also coy and coquettish.  Like her turn in this season’s revival of 1776, she is the best part of the show.

Director Laurence Connor brings an uptempo pacing to the production.  A few of the more populated scenes come across as somewhat overstuffed with schtick that provides more groans than humor.  Conversely, the intimate parts of the show, where a performer is emoting on stage, seem empty.  He finely incorporates Gabriela Tylesova’s fanciful scenic designs - her large scale, forested set pieces are haunting and impressive.  Ms. Tylesova, who doubles as costume designer, provides a variety of looks - from valley girl chic to frilly ball gowns to leather clad machismo.  JoAnn M. Hunter’s choreography is vigorous, but at times curiously obtrusive.

Bad Cinderella, a misfire, playing at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway.

Mojada - A Medea in Los Angeles - Yale Repertory Theatre

 The play, Mojada - A Medea in Los Angeles, is a riveting and intense drama that cleverly and skillfully wraps the themes of the ancient Greek drama, Medea, into the contemporary world of illegal Mexican immigration.  Playwright Luis Alfaro intelligently utilizes the source material to expound on such of-the-moment issues as assimilation, classism, economic power, and cultural identity. 

The setting is the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles, a lower socio-economic area inhabited, primarily, by individuals from the Mexican state of Michoacan.  In the back of the stage is a huge, ramshackled house looming over a small backyard. Scenic Designer Marcelo Martinez Garcia’s set has a haunting, foreboding feel to it.

The focus of the play is on a young family, who we learn midway through the production, has fled their homeland due to violence and family complications. There is the young mother, Medea (Camila Moreno), a seamstress who is content to do piecemeal work from home and is uninterested in the ways of her new environment.  She is naive and oblivious to forces about to change her life.  Her husband Hason (Alejandro Hernadez), seeking a better life for the family, has slowly worked his way up to a full-time job in construction.  He is employed by Armida (Monica Sanchez), a wealthy, scheming former Mexican immigrant who has big plans for the strapping young man.  Acan (Romar Fernandez), their son, straddles his yearnings to assimilate and honor his heritage.  Tita (Alma Martinez), a prideful, elderly servant, is fervent on keeping the ways of the ancestors at the fore.  Both Tita and Medea are befriended by a local food vendor, Josefina (Nancy Rodriguez), who looks to climb the economic ladder to improve her existence.

The show centers on the clash between the world Medea and Hason left behind and the potential new opportunities offered in the United States.  It is this conflict which sets into motion a series of events that leads to a powerful and harrowing conclusion.  The catalyst is the growing interest and influence of Armida on each family member, especially Hason and his son Acan.

Luis Alfaro portrays the family’s struggles with realism and honesty.  There is a great deal of pain, but the playwright also adds a generous helping of humor to leaven out the production, primarily through the recitations of Tita and orations of Josefina.  

The cast is superb, led by Camila Moreno as Medea.  The actress convincingly morphs from a devoted, unsophisticated wife, not truly understanding the ominous currents swirling about her, to a vengeful, unhinged woman.  Alejandro Hernadez creditably imbues the character of Hason with optimism and cunning, leaving the audience to decide his true feelings and motives.  Monica Sanchez succeeds in portraying the rough and tumble, no-nonsense Armida as both a sympathetic and an abhorrent character.  Alma Martinez’s Tita is the heart and soul of the play.  She brings an abundance of humor and provides a narration of sorts throughout the production.  Nancy Rodriguez’s role of Josefina provides mostly comic respites, but the actress also brings heartache and tenderness to the role.  I was also impressed with Romar Fernandez’s Acan.  The young actor, seen sparingly, demonstrated a fine presence on stage.

Director Laurie Woolery’s pacing of the show is the key to the production’s success.  Characters and plot points are slowly introduced.  Gradually, the tone changes.  Fear and uncertainty become more pronounced.  The tempo becomes more frenzied, up to the final curtain.  The Director also effectively incorporates a flashback segment, which is both frightening and artfully constructed.  She adroitly integrates Stephen Strawbridge’s Lighting Design and Bryn Scharenberg’s Sound Design to create a chilling sequence of escape and danger.

Mojada - A Medea in Los Angeles, a show not to be missed.  One of the best dramas to be presented during the 2022 - 2023 season.  Click here for dates, times, and ticket information.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

The Rocky Horror Show - Music Theatre of CT

I was introduced to The Rocky Horror Show as a Freshman at Rutgers University in the Fall of 1975.  Some friends and I ventured to the downtown Art Cinema movie house in New Brunswick, NJ to catch a midnight showing of the soon-to-be cult classic.  The film was strange, sexually charged, and tuneful, with some very good performances by Tim Curry, Barry Botswick and Susan Saradon.  The real entertainment, however, was the audience participation.  It seemed everyone in the theater knew when it was the proper time to yell bon mots at the screen.  For example, whenever the narrator appeared, people would yell out “No neck.”  The actor playing the part did not have much of a neck.  Watching the movie was also an interactive experience.  At the beginning, when Brad and Janet are lost in a rainstorm seeking shelter, the audience would break out their flashlights to shine around the theater.  At the wedding scene…you guessed it - people threw rice.

I preface my review with these remembrances from almost 50 years ago as a way to illustrate how theatrical productions nowadays - Rocky Horror did begin as a stage musical - are rather tame in comparison to when it had a mystique and cultish glow to it.  The show eventually came to network TV, then cable, VHS, DVD, streaming, etc.  The film and stage show are now commonplace.  The shock value is gone.  You see worse escapades on family-oriented television shows.   The interactive nature of the show?  The current production at the Music Theatre of Connecticut states on their website - "For the safety of the live actors and other audience members, bringing or throwing props is NOT permitted."  The audience participation factor, which can be the most fun?  At the press night performance, one young, brave woman gamely chimed in, at least through Act I, and then gave up probably since she was the only one letting fly the humorous call outs. 

Director Kevin Connors states in his program notes - "Rocky Horror is Rocky Horror, and we have framed our production with a collective love of this classic cult Icon."  The result is a mostly entertaining musical that neither offends or shocks.

The plot centers on chaste Brad and Janet, newly engaged, but stranded in the middle of nowhere when their car breaks down.  They stumble through a rainstorm to the castle of Dr. Frank ‘N’ Furter, an alien transvestite from the planet Transsexual in the galaxy of Transylvania.  Seeking to call for roadside assistance, the lovers, instead become unwilling witnesses to the Dr.’s experiment to create an Adonis-like humanoid to satiate his sexual desires. Abetted by a motley group of henchmen and women, Dr. Furter achieves his goal, which sets off a unique number of sexual pairings with the various principles.  And this is only Act I.  Act II…I have always believed the librettist, Richard O’Brien, who also wrote the score, didn’t really know how to end the show, which makes the second half a bit muddled.  Suffice it to say, there is death.  There is destruction.  And Brad and Janet do escape, a little more worldly than when they entered the realm of Dr. Frank ‘N’ Furter.

The songs by Mr. O’Brien, primarily in the beginning of the show, are well-crafted gems.  Director O’Connor puts an amusing spin on the opening, “Science Fiction Double Feature.”  The other notable songs in Act I include the silly “Damn It Janet;” the crowd pleasing, “The Time Warp;” and the energetic rock ‘n roller, “Hot Patootie.”  As with the book, the songs in Act II are more middling than memorable.  All of the numbers receive spirited backing by the six-piece band, which can occasionally overpower the singers.

The cast, guided with a tongue-in-cheek quality by Mr. O’Connor, is game for the shenanigans required for the show to succeed.  Justin Johnston gives the requisite Frank ‘N’ Furter sneer and sexual bravado to the role. Michael Luongo is agreeably annoying as the straight-laced Brad.  While radiating a degree of innocence and wholesomeness, Skye Gillespie’s Janet also has a mischievous streak that finely rounds out her character. Longtime MTC performer John Treacy Egan contributes two fine performances, as rocker Eddie, and the righteous scientist Dr. Scott.  Domenic Servidio would make Charles Atlas proud, delivering a muscular portrayal of the brawny Rocky.

Director Kevin O’Connor provides the musical with naughtiness and good-natured charm.  He incorporates a few choreographed flourishes by Chris McNiff, most noticeably in “The Time Warp.”  The costumes, designed by Diane Vanderkroef, are suitably risque, with fishnet stockings being the article of choice.  Sean Sanford’s Scenic Design is lo-tech and comes across as makeshift, which adds to the weird, wacky and far-out nature of the show.

The Rocky Horror Show, playing at The Music Theater of Connecticut through April 8.  Click here for dates, times, and ticket information.

Monday, March 13, 2023

The Art of Burning - Hartford Stage

Relationships can be difficult.  Divorces are messy, especially when the custody over a teenage daughter is concerned.  That’s the basic message of playwright Kate Snodgrass’s matter-of-fact work, The Art of Burning.  Inexplicably described as a comedy, this straightforward production treads on familiar, well-worn ground.


Patricia (Adrianne Krstansky) is meeting with her ex-husband Jason (Rom Barkhordar) to sign a mediated divorce settlement worked out by their lawyer friend Mark (Michael Kaye).  However, after Patricia sees a production of Medea and starts internalizing the themes of the ancient Greek tragedy, she demands new language that includes sole custody of their teenage daughter Beth (Clio Contogenis), who, as a fifteen year old, is going through her own identity and developmental issues.  Jason, who is now involved with a new woman, Katya (Vivia Font), is flummoxed as he has been plotting with Mark to do the same.  Complicating the picture is the relationship of Mark and his wife Charlene (Laura Latreille). Has it become too staid?  Is she cheating?  And does she really not like musicals? 


The story moves forward and utilizes flashbacks to help fill in the limited backstory of the characters and their motivations.  The action takes place on Scenic Designer Luciana Stecconi’s minimal set that incorporates Aja M. Jackson’s lighted grid system within the floor that, during the course of the show, sections off the stage to designate locale and time.  Director Melia Bensussen uses the set almost as a chessboard, moving pieces (characters) about the stage in simple, measured steps.  At the show’s conclusion, it is left for the audience to decide whether it’s checkmate or a draw.


Ms. Snodgrass has looked to add a new twist to the serviceable plot by interjecting themes of Medea.  In that work, Medea becomes enraged over his husband’s infidelity and kills her children.  Is this an act of revenge? Or, in a sense, can this be seen as a deed of kindness?  Could Patricia, who is constantly worrying about the safety and future of her daughter, feel ending Beth’s life is a positive stroke?  It is this question which provides the faintest amount of intrigue and drama to the production.


The six person cast is uniformly fine.  They are emotional and bedeviling when appropriate and calm and rational at other points.  Nothing unexpected in the production occurs to elevate their assured portrayals. 


The Art of Burning, playing at Hartford Stage through March 26, 2023.  Click here for dates, times and ticket information.

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Rock of Ages - ACT of CT

For all you head bangers out there, the jukebox musical, Rock of Ages, has alit in Ridgefield, CT, where it is receiving a raucous, if somewhat carefree production at ACT of CT.  The show which, unbelievably, ran for 2,328 performances on Broadway, incorporates classic 80’s rock songs from such artists as Styx, Journey, Bon Jovi, Pat Benatar, Twisted Sister, and Poison.


You don’t attend a performance of Rock of Ages for some deep meaning or exalted enlightenment.  As ACT Artistic Director states in the program notes, this is a show with an “over-the-top love story, racy jokes, tight pants, big hair, and shameless camp.”


The musical is boisterous, energetic and chaotically entertaining, but Director Igor Goldin’s overall presentation is more slipshod even for a loosey-goosey show like Rock of Ages.  The production is invigorated by a number of spirited dance routines from choreographer Sara Brians.


Kyle Dixon’s minimal Scenic Design continues the practice of positioning the band at the back of the performing area, where they can be easily viewed by the audience and interact with the cast.  They fill the breadth of the ACT stage with just a small bar to one side of the space completing the set.  The Director has smartly continued this practice, which provides some humorous moments in the show. The five member group is a tight ensemble under the skillful guidance of Music Director Jeff Cox. 


The book of the show by Chris D’Arienzo is as simple-minded as the two dimensional characters within the musical.  It’s full of silly and preposterous plot points, and lovable characters.  Yes, at times, it’s juvenile, obvious and obnoxious, but somehow it mostly works.


Essentially, Rock of Ages is the aged old story of boy (Dale Obermark as Drew) meeting girl (Abigail Sparrow as Sherrie), boy stupidly loses girl and - spoiler alert - boy wins back girl.  Obermark gives an exuberant, genuine performance as the good-looking, wholesome would-be rocker working in the Sunset Strip watering hole, the Bourbon Room.  By chance he meets the soon-to-be love of his life, Sherrie, fresh off the bus from Kansas.  He finagles her a waitress job at the bar where the sparks begin to fly. Ms. Sparrow, an attractive and charming actress, proves she is not just another pretty face.  She is the one character that shows some emotional depth and shading to her role.  We suffer through her ups and downs before she finds happiness.  The two performers also have great chemistry and sparkle when together on stage.


Complicating matters for the couple is the imminent demolishing of the beloved Bourbon Room by a German father and son, who have convinced the mayor that their redevelopment of The Strip will transform the locale for the betterment of the community.  Then there’s sexually charged rocker Stacee Jaxx (think Bret Michaels of Poison) who just seems to gum up the works.


The rest of the cast can be flamboyant, overwrought, and bombastic.  Liam Fennecken who, playing Lonny, serves as the show’s narrator and bar gadfly. The actor seems like he escaped from the national tour of Beetlejuice.  I say this in a positive vein.  Justin Michael Duval gives a great stoner performance as bar owner Dennis.  Kevin Dennis is stern and loving as Hertz, the German parent while Sean Widener is simply outrageous and endearing as his son Franz.  Rounding out the main group of performers is Shaylen Harger, unfortunately saddled with the one-dimensional character of Regina who pops up throughout the show protesting the destruction of the Bourbon Room and the gentrification of The Strip.


Rock of Ages, playing at ACT of CT in Ridgefield, CT through March 19, 2023.  Click here for dates, times, and ticket information.

Friday, March 10, 2023

Roe - CT Repetory Theater

The play Roe, a production comprised, primarily, of BFA and MFA students at the University of Connecticut, examines the before and after events of the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in the United States.


The show is informative and revealing about the debates and repercussions that preceded and followed the groundbreaking decision.  While displaying a layered, and sometimes disturbing historical picture, Roe can be occasionally didatic and ineffectual in its presentation.


In Act I, we are introduced to the main players - Sarah Weddington (Annie Tolls), the young, inexperienced attorney who would end up successfully arguing the case before the Court; and Norma McCorvey (Audrey Latino), the anonymous woman recruited by Weddington and her partner to become Jane Roe.  Both actresses give forthright performances, but they lacked nuance and refinement in their portrayals.  There are other minor characters in the large cast, taking on multiple roles as the show marches on to its part one resolution.  Tony King, as Actor 3, stood out among the performers in his various roles.


Act II brings us to the years following the Supreme Court ruling.  Lives are forever changed, for good or for worse.  What I found most interesting was the continual metamorphosis of Norma McCorvey as she morphs from a staunch advocate for a women’s right to choose to a born again Christian who becomes an ardent anti-abortion advocate.


The playwright, Lisa Loomer, has done her homework, unearthing facts and circumstances that provide heft to the production.  This includes her discourse on the inequitable access to abortions by women of color and the poor.  She gives all sides to the abortion issue their due, leaving it up to audience members to decide where they personally stand.  However, there is also not always time to construct fully-fledged characters.  Sometimes, they come across as merely mouthing information.


With so much material presented, there are numerous scenes, not all of them well-developed by Director Taneisha Duggan.  When the play has a chance to settle in for extended moments - Norma McCorvey’s interactions with Operation Rescue’s Flip Benham or Actress 8’s (Casey Wortham) powerful, absorbing monologue on the helplessness of finding a willing abortion clinic - Ms. Duggan adeptly provides emotional and thoughtful vitality to the production.  


The two Equity Actors in the show - Lori Vega and Andrew Rein - each brought out a more textured and nuanced performance.  Ms. Vega (Actress 3), playing the girlfriend of Norma McCorvey, was reserved and circumspect, speaking volumes through her expressions and body language.  Mr. Rein, mostly with his role as Flip Benham, gave a well-rounded depiction of the minister - soft-spoken, genial, but cagey and calculating.


One constant issue was the far too rapid pacing of dialogue by the young cast members.  It was not always easy to understand and tempered subtleties of the performer’s portrayals.  Likewise, incorporating genuine audio segments from the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court hearing was a misstep, producing a muddled, difficult to hear sound quality.  


Roe, playing at the Nafe Katter Theatre, 820 Bolton Road in Storrs through March 11.  Click here for dates and times.