Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Pride and Prejudice - Hartford Stage

Playwright Kate Hamill’s rom-com version of the Jane Austen novel Pride and Prejudice has been one of the most produced plays in the country over the last few years.  It has been an area favorite too, receiving stagings at the Long Wharf Theatre in Fall 2019 and Playhouse on Park in Spring 2020. 


The cast of Pride and PrejudicePhoto by T. Charles Erickson.

The latest incarnation runs through November 5 at Hartford Stage.  The show is a screwball mash-up that includes gender swapping roles and many of the performers playing multiple characters.  It’s understandable why this version of Pride and Prejudice has been so popular.  Hamill satisfies ardent fans by staying faithful to the book. In addition, she also delivers a spirited work with a mischievous streak to entertain audience members not familiar with the source material and who may want a bit more zing in their theater.


Renata Eastlick, Carman Lacivita and Anne Scurria in Pride and Prejudice. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

As with the book, the play revolves around the Bennet family—mother, father and their four daughters--Jane, the family beauty; Mary, the plain, perpetually gloomy sister; Lizzy, independent-minded and strong-willed; and Lydia, young and impetuous.  Mrs. Bennet’s sole purpose in life is to find her daughters suitable husbands, both to aid the family’s fortunes as well as ensure happiness for each young woman.  A succession of men enters their lives to varying degrees of success, but the focus centers on Lizzy and the enigmatic Mr. Darcy.  Their initial encounter, reserved and cool, with ups and downs that confound and embarrass, develops into a relationship that becomes rooted in mutual admiration and, dare I say, love.


Zoë Kim, Madeleine Barker.Lana Young and Renata Eastlick in Pride and Prejudice. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Through comedic renderings and irreverent charm, Ms. Hamill preserves the essence of the novel - the pride individuals foster upon themselves and the prejudices people in 19th century England had towards those deemed at a lower social and economic standing.  Director Tatyana-Marie Carlo keeps the pacing up tempo and the character transitions quick.  She adds a number of enjoyable flourishes.  One is the use of a mannequin, dressed as a servant, announcing the entrances of characters.  Another, in homage to the Mel Brooks film, Young Frankenstein, is a foghorn blaring anytime the name Lady Catherine is announced (think Frau Blucher from the movie).

Ms. Carlo properly steers the show to a more poignant, romantic direction at the play’s conclusion.  No gimmicks.  No goofiness.  Just the final adoration between two lovers.


María Gabriela González and Zoë Kim in Pride and Prejudice. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The acting troupe, playing on Sara Brown’s minimal, yet sumptuous set, is more then up to the challenge in presenting the characters in an over-the-top manner.  Interestingly, the two leads, Renata Eastlick as Lizzy and Carman Lacivita as Mr. Darcy, play their roles straight, with only the occasional embellishment.  Ms. Eastlick is splendid as the principled, outspoken Lizzy Bennet who, as the story progresses, becomes more mellow and understanding to others and to her own feelings.  Anne Scurria is marvelous in the dual roles of the reserved, practical Mr. Bennet and the misunderstood Charlotte Lucas.  Lana Young is a dynamo as Mrs. Bennet.  Her pleadings, whimpering, and fatalistic mindset can be hilarious, but sometimes overwhelm the other actors in her vicinity. 

Carman Lacivita’s Mr. Darcy is properly aloof, proud, and awkward among the ladies. Madeleine Barker’s Mary is somewhat overly strange with her glowering expressions and guttural utterances.  Zoё Kim imbues Lydia with a devil-may-care view of life and spunkiness. Sergio Mauritz Ang is fine in his multiple roles and María Gabriela González is satisfying as Jane and a real spectral presence as Miss de Bourgh.

Carman Lacivita and Renata Eastlick in Pride and Prejudice. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Haydee Zelideth has created an array of diverse period costumes that take in the spirit of the production.  Aja M. Jackson provides a festive Lighting Design.  Shura Baryshnikov incorporates bursts of choreographic merriment and Daniel Baker & Co. has fashioned some good-humored original music for the production.


Pride and Prejudice, playing at Hartford Stage through November 5.  Click here for dates, times and ticket information.

Saturday, October 21, 2023

Gutenberg - the Musical -- Broadway

Every Broadway season should feature the lively comedic talents of Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells.  The two, who first lit-up the stage as the original stars of The Book of Mormon, display great chemistry together and are a joy to behold.  While they are saddled with lightweight material for their latest Broadway outing - Gutenberg! The Musical - Gad and Rannells still manage enough schtick and nuttiness to provide a humorous and entertaining show that generates more chuckles than outright laughter. 


The musical, which debuted Off-Broadway in 2006, tells the story of Bud Davenport and Doug Simon, two nursing home employees who decide one day to pen a Broadway musical.  They sink their life savings into writing and producing a one-shot production, minimally staged and with few props, to impress a big-time producer.  They come up with the idea of the life of Johannes Gutenberg, the creator of the printing press.  When they conduct research - via Google - they discover scant information about the German inventor, which allows them to create a piece of historical fiction - emphasis on the fiction.


The plot follows Gutenberg as he transforms his wine press to the haloed printing press.  Complications, of course, ensue.  Added to the mix are assorted townsfolk; Helvetica, the women who loves him; and, to add a dash of menace and intrigue, a Mad Monk.  Gad and Rannells portray all the varied roles as they don yellow visored baseball caps, with a character’s name emblazoned on front.  The gimmick works as Director Alex Timbers weaves in quick changes and even a chorus line of hats during one number.  In between scenes, Bud and Doug provide commentary on the show, reveal secrets of stagecraft, and disclose aspects of their personal lives.  These asides, including the introduction to the musical, are some of the funniest moments of the show

Scott Brown and Anthony King, who collaborated on the book, music, and lyrics bring a jocular wit and kookiness to the story.  Even with the talents of Gad and Rannells, the concept begins to run out of steam by its conclusion.  Their score, which includes such ditties as "I Can't Read," "Biscuits," "Stop The Press," and "Monk With Me" works well within the confines of the musical itself, but you won’t be humming any of the tunes as you leave the beautifully renovated James Earl Jones Theater (formerly the Cort Theater).


Josh Gad and Alex Rannells are inspired schlemiels.  Their tomfoolery and antics constantly light up the stage.  The two actors are clearly enjoying themselves and play wonderfully off the audience’s reactions.  What impressed me most about their performances was how diligently they were working to make the show succeed. 


Director Alex Timbers, who also guided the original Off-Broadway production, inserts enough gags and silliness to keep the production humming smoothly. His inclusion of the three-person band on-stage - the Middlesex Six (yes, there are only three of them), the best wedding band in New Jersey - furthers the illusion of a low-cost, threads-bare production.  Even with the constant barrage of shenanigans, there is a purposeful manner to the musical, which keeps it from spiraling out of control.


Gutenberg! The Musical, a beguiling and mirthful diversion, playing a limited run through January 28, 2024.



Friday, October 20, 2023

Lizzie - Theaterworks Hartford

The story of Lizzie Borden has transfixed artists for 100 years.  One of the latest entries into this abundant mix is the musical Lizzie, the first production of Theaterworks Hartfords’s 2023 – 2024 season.  The show has the look and feel of an Off-Broadway (even Off-Off-Broadway) production with an indie-laced rock score, an on-stage band, and abstract videos projected continuously on the side panels of the small performance space.


The cast of Lizzie - Nora Schell, Sydney Shepherd, Courtney Basset and Kim Onah. 
Photo by Mike Marques.

The show, which runs a scant 95 minutes (this includes a brief intermission), is an eclectic examination of the possible root causes for Ms. Borden’s 40 whacks to her stepmother and father.  Entertaining in a raucous, sometimes concert-like fashion, Lizzie is peformed by four dynamic actresses.  There is Sydney Shepherd, a waif-like, troubled young woman at the center of the fray.  Courtney Bassett, her practical, yet off-center sister Emma; Kim Onah, Lizzie’s friend, maybe lover, Alice Russell; and Nora Schell, the household maid Bridget Sullivan.


The book by Tim Maner supposes a number of possibilities for Lizzie’s unlady-like behavior:  sexual abuse, disinheritance, dislike for her stepmother, and simple madness.  They are presented as short scenes, alternating between quick bursts of dialogue and full-throttled songs under Erika R. Gamez’s tight musical direction and Megan Culley’s piercing Sound Design.  The score by Steven Cheslik-Demeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt and Tim Maner reminded me of the songs I’d hear in my youth at the clubs in New York City’s East Village.  Loud, sometimes indiscernible but, more often than not, somehow melodic.


Sydney Shepherd in Lizzie.  Photo by Mike Marques.

Brian Prather’s Scenic Design - a wall of doors – appears to represent vistas into the characters’ soul or psyche. The center doorway, suddenly opening and closing throughout Act I, seems like the gates of hell itself.


The first part of the show’s garb, from Costume Designer Saawan Tiwari, and lighting, from Rob Denton, are done with greys, blacks, with a splash of red.  This helps give the audience a feel for the repressed, controlled environs of the characters.  It fits into what Director Lainie Sakakura states in the program notes about Lizzie – it gives “a voice for the marginalized, the furious, oppressed and ignored. “


In the second half of the show – the trial and its aftermath – the drab puritanical appearance of the musical is wildly transformed to a more empowered, feminist-centric celebration.  The band rolls on to the stage, the women appear freer and the outfits lean towards pop singer Madonna, circa late 70’s, early 80’s.


Kim Noah and Sydney Shepherd in Lizzie.  Photo by Mike Marques.

Ms. Sakakura effectively incorporates Camilla Tassi’s conceptual projections to give the production an eerie, menacing aura.  The director weaves all of this into a compact, entertaining musical.  It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the engaging cast and sheer exuberance of the show make Lizzie a theatrical experience well-worth taking.


Lizzie, playing at Theaterworks Hartford through October 29.  Click here for dates, times, and ticket information.

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Wish You Were Here - Yale Repertory Theatre

In the Yale Repertory Theatre’s bittersweet, sometimes humorous, and deeply moving play, Wish Your Were Here, we view the lives of five young, vivacious university women in Iran.  Their friendship, their bonding radiates from the stage with realism and joy. 

The cast of Wish You Were Here.  Photo by Joan Marcus.

The play takes place over a 12-year time frame, beginning in 1978 when the Shah still ruled the country, through the Islamic Revolution, the Iran/Iraq war and then peace time.  During this period, we witness their good times together, the strains in their relationship and, finally, how each woman has been defined. Playwright Sanaz Toossi, a 2023 Pulitzer Prize winner, deftly blends in the politics and religious upheaval occurring at the time, without being preachy or didactic. 


The 100 minute, intermission-less show, opens with the women preening over Salme (Bahar Beihaghi) as she prepares for her wedding.  Her friends – Nazanin (Anita Abdinezhad), Rana (Vaneh Assadourian), Zari (Ava Lalezarzadeh), and Shideh (Shadee Vossoughi) - are boisterous and full of life, joking about sex and their future aspirations.  However, change is in the air.  Soon, the normalcy they revel in begins to transform, altering their closely intertwined lives forever.


Ava Lalezarzadeh and Shadee Vossoughi from Wish You Were Here. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Ms. Toossi has structured the show with 10 scenes depicting various groupings of the women.  It is notable that they only share the opening scene together.  Her portrayal of each of the friends is well-rounded and distinct.  The inclusion of a sixth women near the end of the play, referred to as “New Friend,” is somewhat awkward and disrupts the flow of her work.


Director Sivan Battat powerfully packs each vignette with highly-charged emotions and winsome musings. She efficiently incorporates Scenic Designer Omid Akbari’s movable set to suggest different apartment drawing rooms.  Sam Skynner’s Projections, seen on the side panels of the stage between scene changes, show nostalgic and affecting videos of a peaceful, playful time for the five friends.


The five main characters, previously mentioned, are a well-synchronized group that blend beautifully together.  Each, with her own well-defined personality, is given moments to shine.  In the role of Nazanin, Ms. Abdinezhad is the one constant throughout the show and, therefore, her growth and disillusionment is more fully realized.


Wish You Were Here, playing at the Yale Repertory Theatre through October 28.  Click here for dates, times, and ticket information.

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Joan Joyce! - Seven Angels Theatre

The new musical Joan Joyce!, playing at the Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury, is the second iteration of the show.  It had its world-premiere at the Legacy Theatre in Branford, CT in 2021.


Joan Joyce was a sports phenomenon, who grew up in Waterbury.  She has been described as the greatest female athlete in history, surpassing even Babe Didrikson.  Her main sport was softball and the records she holds as a pitcher are too numerous to list.  However, Ms. Joyce also excelled in other sports arenas such as basketball and the LPGA tour.  Her 17 putts in one round of golf is the lowest ever on the men or women’s professional circuit.  Did I mention she struck out both Ted Williams and Hank Aaron in an exhibition event?

The cast of Joan Joyce!


The musical, rendered by just an off-stage piano, contains a serviceable score with music by Brad Ross, Matthew Harrison and David Bell; lyrics by Keely Baisden Knudsen (who also co-wrote the book, directs and stars in the show) and Lauren Salatto-Rosenay).  There is rudimentary choreography by Jennifer A. Buonfiglio and an engaging cast.  However, as crafted by book writers Keely Baisden-Knudson and Lauren Salatto-Rosenay, Joan Joyce! comes across more as an episode of “This is Your Life,” then a full-fledged musical.  The facts and anecdotes they present in short vignettes are attention-grabbing, but not necessarily structured for a book musical.


At one side of the stage is the character of the author (Al Bundonis), based on writer Tony Renzoni who wrote the book, “Connecticut Softball Legend Joan Joyce.”  On the other side of the stage is Ms. Joyce (Keely Baisden-Knudson).  The author heartily asks questions and Joan Joyce responds in a languid, matter-of-fact manner.  Helping move the production along is a large movie screen, hanging center stage, which projects vintage photos of Joan Joyce, newsreels and newspaper headlines.  While somewhat distracting, they are interesting to watch this legend in action.


Kiersten Bjork as a young Joan Joyce in the musical Joan Joyce!

Underneath the screen and in between the straightforward questions, a group of performers present moments from her life and her sporting accomplishments.  The Director settles for a relaxed, unhurried approach to the material.  The incorporation of the Q & A session with the musical interludes and dramatic pieces is not always crisp enough to allow for a good pacing of the show.  Ms. Knudson does allow for an ample number of projections, marvelously rendered by Lauren Salatto-Rosenay, to amplify this wondrous story.


The troupe of actors and actresses are charming and likeable.  Most of the featured cast members play multiple roles as the show meanders to its finale.  Kiersten Bjork, who plays the teenage Joan Joyce, stands out among the performers.  She radiates a warmth and enthusiasm that, overall, is lacking in the production.  Ms. Bjork also has a wonderful singing voice.


Joan Joyce!, playing at the Seven Angels Theater in Waterbury, CT through October 22.  Click here for dates, times, and ticket information.

Monday, October 9, 2023

A Hundred Words for Snow - CT Repertory Theatre

A journey through grief and self-discovery is at the heart of the one-woman show, A Hundred Words for Snow, playing at the CT Repertory Theatre in Storrs until October 15.  This is the company’s first production of the 2023 – 2024 season and marks the beginning of their first full Equity season since the pandemic. 


Tea Guarino in A Hundred Words of Snow.  Photo by Mattias Lundblad.

The actress Tea Guarino, in a superb performance, plays Rory, a teenager who has just lost her father, a geography teacher at her school, in a car accident. The two were very close and shared a sense of adventure together.  As she tries to process her loss, she rummages around her dad’s now empty home office, an urn with his cremated remains in hand.  Rory discovers his personal journey about a planned trip to The North Pole.  In fact, an itinerary has already been mapped out.  In a flash, the young woman decides to travel from England to the top of the world to scatter his ashes.  From there, as Sherlock Holmes would state, “the game is afoot.”


Playwright Tatty Hennessy has crafted an exciting adventure yarn leavened with a story that handles the loss of a loved one and the emergence of a teen’s sexual awakening.  The almost two-hour, intermission-less, show could be pared down, but the work does captivate as the epic expedition hurtles towards its heartfelt conclusion.  Ms. Hennessy has drawn a fully-fledged character in Rory.  We feel her pain and quietly cheer her triumphs.


Tea Guarino in A Hundred Words for Snow. Photo by Mattias Lundblad.

The actress Tea Guarino, slight in build, with expressive features and a bubbly personality, beautifully and exuberantly embodies the adventurous teenager.  She conveys a toughness and resolve, but also an emotional depth that broadens her portrayal.  Ms. Guarino is a compelling storyteller, a necessary attribute for a one-woman show.


Brendon Fox’s direction has a quickened pace, which briskly moves the action from a comfortable British home to the wilds of Norway and beyond.  He adeptly incorporates moments of reflection with scenes of urgency and determination.  The Director effectively integrates Christina J. Garner’s Scenic Design of a simple, painterly backdrop resembling snow and ice.  There is one movable set piece, resembling a broken piece of ice floe, but also serves a variety of purposes during the show.  Hannah Corbett’s Lighting and Dennis Dowding’s Sound Design provide nuance and subtlety to the play.


A Hundred Words for Snow, a striking production with a bravo performance by Tea Guarino.  Click here for dates, times and ticket information.

Friday, October 6, 2023

The 12 - Goodspeed Opera House

In the musical Hamilton, Aaron Burr sings about “The Room Where It Happens.”  The song postulates what occurred out of earshot of history – the secret deal Alexander Hamilton made with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison on the Compromise of 1790.


In the new musical The 12, playing at the Goodspeed Opera House through October 29, the Pulitzer and Tony Award winning playwright Robert Schenkkah assumes and hypothesizes the actions of the 12 Apostles of Christ immediately after his death.  Dramatizing conjecture in a five-minute song, as in Hamilton, is easier and more sustainable than, like The 12, an 85-minute, intermission-less show.  This is the crux of the challenge for the creative team – crafting a viable show within the limitations of the material.  They succeed to a degree but, overall, the musical becomes repetitive and is just a satisfactory theatrical experience.


The cast of Goodspeed's THE 12. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

The premise of the musical, as stated above, is straightforward.  The group has taken refuge in a deserted a graffiti -laden warehouse crafted by Scenic Designer/Director John Doyle.  There, the Apostles through oration and song, begin to question themselves and each other:  Why are we here?  What shall we do?  Why did he choose us?  Their plight is amplified by Japhy Weidman’s intermittent, yet prominent lighting and the thunderous sound design by Jay Hilton.


There is a great deal of angst, self-doubt, and shouting as The 12 seek to sort out their sudden, imperiling situation and move forward.


Wesley Taylor, Rema Webb and the cast of THE 12. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

The score by Neil Berg and Robert Schenkkah is a powerful, mostly rock-infused work, but there are also folk, gospel and traditional Broadway melodies.  Listening to the songs reminded me of the original concept album for Jesus Christ Superstar.  The songs in the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice compositions are also dynamic and cover a number of genres.  With Superstar, however, I have never been wholly satisfied with a stage production based on the LP.  Likewise, with The 12, I am more impressed with the score as a distinct entity.  A few of the songs are more notable.  “Rain,” a plaintive tune sung with intensity and conviction by Rema Webb (Mother Mary) and the vigorous ensemble number “Rise Up.”


Tony Award winning Director John Doyle brings a unique perspective to the show.  Before turning his energies to the theater, he was planning to go into the priesthood which, according to Berg and Schenkkan, makes him “intimately familiar with miracles, religious and secular.”  Still, even his creative talents cannot keep up the dramatic tension necessary for the show to truly succeed.  There just seems to be too much busy work for the actors – moving steel drums, climbing ladders, sidling from one side of the stage to the other.

The cast of Goodspeed's THE 12. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

The acting troupe is earnest and committed to their roles.  A sense of seriousness pervades their portrayals.  While The 12 is more of an ensemble piece, a few cast members stand out.  Wesley Taylor is striking as “Doubting” Tom adding a level of unease and conflict as he barrages his fellow followers with questions of faith and intention.  Adrienne Walker gives a winning performance as Mary Magdalene.  The actress is forceful, direct, and a calming influence on her co-conspirators.  Rema Webb brings a serene intensity to the role of Mother Mary.  She also possesses a beautiful and haunting voice which, disappointingly, is spotlighted just once during the show.


The 12, a different Goodspeed musical, playing through October 29.  Click here for dates, times and ticket information.

The Color Purple - Ivoryton Playhouse

The production of The Color Purple at the Ivoryton Playhouse is a highly satisfying piece of musical theater.  The reason is the marvelous casting of three women in significant roles.  Andrea Fleming is magnificent as Celie, whose difficult and hardscrabble life is at the center of the show.  She has a steely determination and focus.  You can feel her intensity as she continually triumphs over adversity.  Renee Jackson’s Shug Avery, a world-weary singer with a devil-may-care attitude, sashays across the stage exuding a sexual brashness.  She is not introduced until the latter part of Act 1, but when she finally appears, she commands our attention.  Sheniqua Trotman, a Connecticut Critics Circle award winner for the 2014 staging of Ivoryton’s Dreamgirls, is outstanding as the fiery, non-nonsense, comical Sofia.  Other notable actors include Christian McQueen as the gruff, boorish, and menacing yet, ultimately, sympathetic Mister; Cedrick Ekra as the good-time, weak-willed Harpo; and Mairya Joaquin as the pure, self-sacrificing Nettie.


Andrea Fleming as Celie.


The story revolves around Celie, a poor African-American woman in the Deep South and her arduous.  She is married off to the uncaring, belligerent Mister, who sees her as someone to cook, clean, and take care of him and his household.  Her beloved sister, Nettie, once set to go off to college to become a teacher, has mysteriously vanished.  Other people that intersect her life include her stepson, Harpo, and his overbearing wife, Sofia; and the femme fatale, Shug Avery.  During the ensuing years Celie’s faith, inner strength and resolve keep her head high and moving forward as she is confronted with racism and sexism and a life that continually beats her down.  In the end, though, there is liberation from her struggles, independence in life, and a long coming reunion with loved ones.


The score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray combines gospel-tinged songs, heartfelt ballads, raucous honky tonk, and African melodies.  It has two luscious signature songs—“Too Beautiful for Words” and “What About Love?”  They, along with the other numbers from the show, are sung with a powerful passion that fills the venerable theater.


Members of the cast of The Color Purple.

Book writer Marsha Norman has taken Alice Walker’s acclaimed Pulitzer Prize winning novel and pared it down to its essence.  She gives breath to the assorted characters and successfully brings out such universal themes as love, loss, family and female empowerment.


Director/Choreographer Todd L. Underwood provides a sure hand in staging the show.  He has carved out a straightforward, spare, and self-contained musical.  He concentrates on the characters, their interactions, and the score, which heightens the drama and focuses our attention on the foremost components of the musical.  The Scenic Design by Cully Long, an inverted pyramid of stacked chairs, center stage, is somewhat of a distraction and its meaning confusing.  Elizabeth A. Saylor’s costume designs cover three distinct time frames.  The African garb, with ther unique patterns and bright colors, are especially pleasing.


The Color Purple, worth a trip to the Ivoryton Theatre.  Click here for dates, times, and ticket information.

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

The 12 - A Different Goodspeed Musical

The musical The 12, currently playing at the Goodspeed Opera House through October 29, is a very different show that audience members have come to expect from the venerable regional theater.  The show, a new production, is not a comedy, but a serious, dramatic musical presentation that centers around the 12 Apostles of Christ and their reactions and actions after his death.  “There is part of our audience that wants serious, more in-depth material,” according to Dan McMahon, Director of Marketing at the theater.  “This is a show that addresses that segment while at the same time helping us appeal to new audiences.”
The cast of Goodspeed's THE 12. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

The musical had a previous incarnation in Spring 2015 at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, where the emphasis was more as a song cycle as opposed to a book musical.  The libretto, by Robert Schenkkan, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1992 for his play The Kentucky Cycle and the 2014 Tony Award for Best Play with All the Way, has been reshaped to an 85-minute, intermission-less production as opposed to a two-act piece.  A few songs by the composer/lyricist Neil Berg and Robert Schenkkan (lyricist) have been retained from Denver, but the majority of the eclectic score, with elements of rock, folk, gospel and traditional Broadway melodies, is new.  “There has been a great deal of changes, additions, and editing of the material,” stated McMahon.  

Wesley Taylor, Rema Webb and the cast of THE 12. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

A significant adjustment has been the inclusion of Director John Doyle, a Tony Award winner for the 2005 revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, to the creative team.  Doyle’s background and experiences helped further shape The 12 into its current form.  The longtime director brings the perspective of mystery plays to the production. These dramas, produced primarily in Europe, usually represent biblical subjects.  In addition, Doyle, before turning his energies to the theater, was planning to go into the priesthood.  According to Berg and Schenkkan, this made him “intimately familiar with miracles, religious and secular.”  McMahon added that “it has given him a deeper understanding of the material in the show.”
The cast of Goodspeed's THE 12. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

While there are significant religious overtones to The 12 – the musical begins with a group of followers reciting the Jewish Mourner’s Kaddish and the show itself is from a part of the Passion Play – both Neal Berg and Robert Schenkkah state they are focusing on the human story.  “Imagine if you were one of these ordinary people,” they said.  “And this charismatic individual came to you and said, ‘Follow me.’  And for reasons that are still not clear, you put down what you’re doing, and you follow.”  In addition, they both said they wanted to get at the “fundamental question of Belief and a commitment to something which cannot be proved in rational, scientific terms.”

The musical The 12 is playing through October 29 at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT.  Click here for dates, times and ticket information.

Sunday, October 1, 2023

The Complete Works of Jane Austen (Abridged) - Playhouse on Park

The Complete Works of Jane Austen (Abridged), receiving its New England premiere at Playhouse on Park, is a gleefully merry romp through the author’s numerous works.  Fans of Ms. Austen’s novels will enjoy the show more than individuals, like myself, that have only a passing knowledge and appreciation for her writings.  Still, this 100-minute, intermission-less show glides along smoothly with boundless energy and creative verve.


The three-person show acknowledges the audience’s presence and consistently and playfully breaks the fourth wall between performers and those in attendance.  The premise of The Complete Works of Jane Austen (Abridged), is simple.  Two actresses, steeped in everything Jane Austen, are preparing to stage their show.  Unfortunately, the lone male actor has jumped ship for a Broadway gig.  Enter Mike (Shannon Michael Wamser) who, by happenstance, understands their plight and pleads to be included in their production.  Even though his knowledge of Ms. Austen’s work is suspect, the two relent.  What else are they going to do?  From there, the threesome breezily highlight the author’s six novels and some of her other writings.


The playwrights – Jessica Bedford, Kathryn MacMillan (who also directs), Charlotte Northeast (one of the three performers) and Meghan Winch – know their source material well.  While their show-within-a-show concept works most of the time, there are issues.  Specifically, in some scenes, the translation of their knowledge to a theatrical stage is cumbersome and overly burdened.  Austen’s books are full of memorable characters and plot twists, which are not always easy to convey in a quick fashion.


The strength of the show is the rapid repartee of the performers and their engaging personas, and zest the for their varied roles.  Director MacMillan has a lot to cram into the production.  She comes up with a bevy of inspired bits to keep the action fresh and appealing.   Her constant use of various hats to transform the actors into the Austen characters is gimmicky, but works.   The incorporation of Christopher Chambers’ intermittent Lighting Design and Kirk Ruby’s well-timed Sound Design are integral to the comedy’s success.  Scenic Designer Johann Fitzpatrick’s simple, but proper manor house drawing room provides the perfect backdrop to the performer’s abridgement and shenanigans.


The three actors are clearly having fun on stage as they attack their roles with gusto and delight.  Their chemistry is solid and enthusiasm infectious. Charlotte Northeast, the figurative leader of the troupe, brings passion and cleverness to her role.  Shannon Michael Wamser nimbly switches from worried thespian to assured professional during the show.  Brittany Onukwugha rounds out the trio with an unbridled zeal with her portrayals.


The Complete Works of Jane Austen (Abridged), an amusing literary frolic running through October 22 at Playhouse on Park.  Click here for dates, times, and ticket information.