Sunday, February 25, 2024

The Legend of Georgia McBride - Music Theater of CT

Poor Casey, a so-so Elvis impersonator plying his trade at a rundown bar on the Florida panhandle.  The audience is sparse, the money negligible, and the sudden need to support a growing family is a pressing concern.  His luck suddenly changes when, due to unforeseen circumstances, he is literally thrust on stage in a drag show revue with a new guise and attitude.

 

Thus begins The Legend of Georgia McBride, a diverting, slender offering from playwright Matthew Lopez.  The show runs through March 3 at the Music Theatre of Connecticut (MTC). 

 

There are moments of seriousness and poignancy and themes of sexual identity and self-acceptance are explored, but the material covered in the play offers only a smattering of dramatic substance that never really explores these issues in depth.  The highlight of the production is the lip-syncing performances that are enjoyable and comical.

 

Casey (Clint Hromsco) is at the center of the show.  His character, however, is hard to decipher.  Initially, he comes across as a very immature man-child, but in no time at all transforms into a more thoughtful, serious-minded individual.  He is married to an understanding, but rather exasperated wife (Teagan La’Shary).  Their neighbor/landlord Jason (Diva Lamarr), a childhood friend, drops in every so often about the overdue rent and provides sagely banter.  Eddie (Scott Mikita), the owner of the dive, looking to drum up business, brings in his cousin and friend, drag performers Miss Tracy (Russell Saylor) and Rexy (Diva Lamarr).  The interaction between the three performers, focusing on Casey’s slow-forming transformation, shapes the basis and modest dramatic arc of the show.

 

Any successful production of the show is based on the quality of the generous helpings of the drag performances.  For this staging, Director Kevin Connors has pulled out all the stops in delivering one outrageous, entertaining number after another.  Diane Vanderkroef’s inspired costumes, along with Jon Damast’s crisp sound design help the musical interludes completely shine.

 

While the scenes in the bar are mostly engaging, the at-home sequences are rather uninteresting and conventional.  The only truly emotional outburst comes late in the show when the character of Rexy delivers a fiery speech about the living the life of drag.

 

Overall, the cast is fine, as they provide enough definition and substance to convey a genuineness and conviction to their roles.   There are three notable performers.  Clint Hromsco as Casey in his guise as Georgia McBride, where his portrayal is more nuanced and appealing.  Russell Saylor, provides a world-weariness to Miss Tracy, and individual with sage advice and a heart of gold.  Scott Mikita’s Eddie, with his deadpan delivery and well-timed dance moves, was a crowd favorite.

 

Director Connors moves the play along at an agreeable pace, allowing the domestic scenes to provide information for the lackluster backstory.  He skillfully incorporates April M. Bartlett’s scenic design, which has adeptly sectioned the cramped stage into three distinct sets, not an easy feat of the small MTC performing space.

 

The Legend of Georgia McBride runs through March 2 at MTC.  Click here for date, time and ticket information.

A View From the Bridge - Long Wharf Theater

Gut-wrenching was my first thought as I walked from the Canal Dock Boathouse, the site-specific locale for Long Theater’s outstanding production of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, playing through March 10The play is brimming with emotional intricacies, cast with an impressive group of actors, and skillfully directed by James Dean Palmer.
 
The setting is the Brooklyn waterfront.  The indoor performance space Long Wharf has created is a small, raked theater that overlooks the New Haven harbor.  Floor-to-ceiling windows behind You-Shin Chen’s minimally designed, but highly effective set, provides a panoramic perspective of the waterway, with large boats moored on the far bank, smaller crafts sailing past, and seagulls darting in and out of sight.  The scenic design extends to an outdoor wraparound balcony, adorned with nautical detritus, where some scenes, including the show’s climatic finale, take place.
 
A View From the Bridge focuses on Eddie Carbone (Dominic Fumusa), a longshoreman; his wife, Beatrice (Annie Parisse) and their 18-year-old niece Catherine (Paten Hughes), who lives with the couple.  Their domestic life is humble and unassuming until the arrival of brothers, distant cousins, from Italy.  They have been smuggled into the country illegally so they can find work and better their lives.  Marco (Antonio Magro), older than his sibling with a family to support in his homeland and Rodolpho (Mark Junek) are all too eager to make their way.  However, when the younger brother and Catherine begin a romance, Eddie’s inward feelings towards his niece take an ominous turn, which becomes the catalyst to a sorrowful and heartbreaking conclusion.
 
Arthur Miller, one of the giants of the American Theater, has fashioned a captivating play full of conflicting emotions, deeply complicated and flawed characters.  He effectively injects age-old themes of family and honor into the show.  With the debate about illegal immigration in today’s world, his insertion of the topic into the storyline gives the plot a contemporary feel.  The overall structure of the work is deeply gratifying – a two-act show that slowly builds into a stunning crescendo.  It’s hard to find modern-day shows that are so well constructed and satisfying.
 
James Dean Palmer’s superior direction focuses on the characters and their actions.  He emphasizes small, yet important details such as facial ticks and body language to develop fully drawn portrayals.  There is a playfulness to the production, but he slowly teases out the underlining tension and threatening nature of the play.  He artfully incorporates both staging areas, producing a fully realized, out-of-the-box experience.
 
The cast is first-rate, led by Dominio Fumusa as Eddie, a man whose world slowly spins out of control.  He brings a complexity, honesty, and raw energy to the role.  You feel for him as well as fear him.  Annie Parisse is exquisite as Beatrice, a woman tightly wound with frustration and unhappiness with her life.  Paten Hughes gives a decidedly deceptive portrayal of Catherine.  At first na├»ve and unfulfilled, she blossoms into a young woman who knows who she is and what she wants from the world.  Mark Junek’s portrayal of the fun-loving Rodolpho adds a humorous respite from friction felt in the household.  Antonio Magro brings a more subdued presence to the role of Marco.  Patricia Black offers a muted performance as the lawyer and sometime narrator, Alfieri.
 
A View From the Bridge, one of the prominent productions of the current Connecticut theater season.  A show not to be missed.  Click here for dates, times and ticket information.
 

 

Sunday, February 18, 2024

The Garbologist - Theaterworks Hartford

Danny, a blue-collar, 9-year veteran of the New York sanitation department has just been paired with Marlowe, a female rookie with an Ivy League education.  The unlikely coupling provides a beguiling and playful premise for Lindsay Joelle’s comedy/drama, The Garbologists.  When the show delves into the machinations and terminology of these workers, the production is engaging and fun to watch.  However, once the narrative shifts to personal stories and their subsequent complications, the play’s appeal wanes.


Bebe Nicole Simpson and Jeff Brooks in The Garbologist.  Photo by Mike Marques.

We meet Danny (Jeff Brooks), a straightforward, down-to-earth “garbologist” as he greets his new partner, Marlowe (Bebe Nicole Simpson), a Columbia University graduate with two Master’s degrees.  It is a classic fish out-of-water beginning with Danny trying to show Marlowe the ropes.  Resistant to his help, at first, she finally succumbs to his persistence and their relationship begins, more or less, to develop.  As the 95-minute, intermission-less production progresses, the audience learns more of each protagonist’s backstory, which portions comes across as artificial and forced.  By the show’s conclusion, each has a better understanding and appreciation of the other’s circumstances.  Their initially tepid association has moved forward and matured.

 

The strength of The Garbologist is how playwright Lindsay Joelle incorporates genuine situations faced by sanitation workers and the generous use of authentic lingo sprinkled throughout the production.  It gives the play an entertaining trait and an air of truthfulness.  Ms. Joelle is able to humanize these “invisible” laborers, individuals that are critical to a habitable society.

 

Bebe Nicole Simpson and Jeff Brooks in The Garbologist.  Photo by Mike Marques.

An issue, though, with the play is the lack of a fuller backstory for Marlowe.  We are supplied snippets of her life and struggles, but not enough to create a fully developed character.  As an Ivy League educated woman, she secures a position as a sanitation worker.  Why?  What is her rationale?  Is it because of the “reveal” at the end of the play which, realistically, would not be too feasible?  

 

Jeff Brooks gives a confident, nuanced performance as Danny.  His character comes across as earthy, matter-of-fact, and believable.  Bebe Nicole Simpson’s Marlowe is more of a challenge.  She is damaged, we learn through the course of the production, which impedes her affect to the degree that her aloofness and subtlety are frustrating. 

 

Director Rob Ruggiero provides his usual solid guidance, smoothly segueing between each scene.  The aspects of the play centered around the hauling of garbage are effective and appealing.  The portions of the show that are intimate and reflective are more conventionally portrayed.  The interactions between the characters would have been more fluid if there was more shading with the character of Marlowe 

 

Marcelo Martinez Garcia’s Set Design deserves high praise.  The garbage bags strewn across the stage is just a prelude to the appearance of a life-size, realistic looking, and operating, garbage truck (the backside at least).  My only question with the set is the intended purpose of scaffolding at the back of the performance area.

 

The Garbologist, playing at Theaterworks Hartford through February 25.  Click here for dates, times, and ticket information.


Friday, February 2, 2024

Simona's Search - Hartford Stage

Simona’s Search, receiving its world premiere at Hartford Stage, is an engrossing drama that delves into the relationship between an immigrant father and his daughter and, as stated in the program notes, “the passing on of traumatic experiences to subsequent generations that is sometimes prevalent with immigrant families.”  

 

Alejandra Escalante in Simona's SearchPhoto by T. Charles Erickson

Director Melia Bensussen has staged a very theatrical presentation, utilizing timely and striking projections by Projection Designer Yana Biryukova to augment the story and enhance its power.  Aja M. Jackson’s Lighting Design and the Sound Design by Aubrey Dube are also noteworthy and add depth to the production.  Yu Shibagaki ‘s continuously reconfigured Scenic Design is straightforward – a table, chairs, slatted wood background – and works harmoniously with the other design elements, primarily the dramatic projections.

 

Simona’s Search is essentially a memory play with Simona (Alejandra Escalante) speaking to the audience for the majority of the show.  Her story begins when she is a young girl, constantly questioning her father, Papi (Al Rodrigo), about his life and their shared culture.  A political exile from an unnamed Latin American country, he has completely shunned his previous life and offers no information or clues to his daughter.  He won’t even teach or speak Spanish to her.  As she grows up, she realizes he has been suffering from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder and, more critically, wonders if she, too, might be developing signs of trauma.

 

Christopher Bannow and Alejandra Escalante in Simona's SearchPhoto by T. Charles Erickson

Nightmares, and a spectral figure, haunt her dreams, causing an acute lack of sleep.  Much doesn’t change in college.  A romantic relationship blossoms, but goes nowhere.  Her focus on neuroscience, both as an undergraduate and graduate student, produces no answers to understanding her father, his worsening medical condition, and her dispirited mindset and health.  By the show’s conclusion, however, there is a palpable, self-awareness that, while not answering all Simona’s questions and concerns, helps ease her to a more adjusted life.

 

Playwright Martin Zimmerman has constructed a play that almost seems torn from today’s headlines about the migrant crisis and heartbreaking reports of immigrant families ripped apart at the border.  Watching Simona’s Search, one can’t help but wonder about the mental health of the newcomer’s children later in life.  Zimmerman roots his work with a number of themes for audiences to reflect on – nature vs. nuture, the question of one’s identity, and the cause/effect of trauma.  He has crafted connections which come across as real and honest. This includes the sometimes contentious relationship between Simona and Papi and the young woman and her romantic interest Jake (Christopher Bannow).  He adorns the show with scenes of playful passion, mischievous wit, and hardened truths.  These include Jake’s wooing of Simona and her dreamy encounter with a lab rat.  For all its captivating power, I sometimes felt the pathway towards the show’s conclusion was uneven and portions were contrived to move the plot forward.  More specifically, the scene concerning her on and off travel plans due to her father’s mysterious ailment and her admission to a second graduate school program.  Still, these detours do not undercut the absorbing nature of the play, which is continuously augment by Director Bensussen’s flourishes of imagination, emotional highs and lows and charm.

Al Rodrigo and Alejandra Escalante in Simona's SearchPhoto by T. Charles Erickson

The cast, led by Alejandra Escalante as Simona, is superb.  Ms. Escalante brings self-assuredness, intensity, and a dash of whimsy to her portrayal as actress and narrator.  It is a demanding role, especially since she is onstage during the entire 90-minute, intermission-less show.  Al Rodrigo imbues Papi (and a few other characters) with a forceful passion that ebbs and flows between casual banter and angry ripostes.  He effectively portrays a character, proud, but shrouded in mystery.  Christopher Bannow, as Jake, provides a finely tuned performance of compassion and sensitivity, serving almost as a counterweight to the extremes of the other characters.  His rat impersonation, who’s accent is sometimes hard to understand, was a memorable part of the play.

 

Simona’ Search, a world premiere worth catching.  Playing at Hartford Stage through February 11, 2024.  Click here for dates, times, and ticket information.

 

 

Monday, January 29, 2024

Ms. Holmes and Ms. Watson – Apt. 2B - Playhouse on Park

There have been countless derivations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s masterful detective Sherlock Holmes and his partner Dr. Watson in film, television and the theater.  A new entry into this ever-expanding universe is Ms. Holmes and Ms. Watson – Apt. 2B.  The show is at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford through February 18.

 
As a long-time Sherlock Holmes fan, I welcome any addition to works about the iconic sleuth.  Unfortunately, playwright Kate Hamill’s contribution to the Holmes canon falls short with overstuffed intrigue, a lot of unnecessary schtick, and an unfocused plot that is hard to follow.  Ms. Hamill has had a great deal of success with her gender-bender take on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  For that work, she had the luxury of riffing on a classic piece of literature.  With Ms. Holmes and Ms. Watson – Apt. 2B, she needed to craft an original mystery with comic overtones.  Not an easy task.
Kelly Letourneau and Kirsten Peacock in Ms. Holmes and Ms. Watson - Apt. 2B

 
The time is the present and we are quickly introduced to Joan Watson, a spunky, though slightly introverted American seeking solace from her previous life (the first mystery!).  She lets a room, Apt. 2B (presumably at 221B Baker Street) from the daffy landlady Mrs. Hudson and is abruptly introduced to the eccentric, melancholy detective Sherlock (yes, it is also a woman’s name) Holmes.  They bicker and banter until the arrival of Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard who needs their help.  The game is suddenly afoot and for the next 2 ½ hours there is murder, mayhem, and surprises.  Familiar characters from the Holmes books – Irene Adler and Professor Moriarity – are woven into the production.  However, by the show’s conclusion, all the twists and turns appear disjointed and prove to be unsatisfying.
 
Director Kelly O’Donnell, who last year won a Connecticut Critics Circle Award as Best Director for Indecent at Playhouse on Park, keeps the tempo at a heightened speed.  Her staging around the few set pieces in Lindsay G. Fuori’s booklined Scenic Design are positioned around the stage with rapid-fire pacing.   The direction, utilizing Johann Fitzpatrick’s cagey Light Design and Rachel Landry’s jokey Sound Design, can be goofy, droll and sporadically entertaining.  There are intermittent laughs especially from the frequent cultural references (Star Wars, among others) scattered throughout the script.  Most zip by with fleeting acknowledgement.  The brief homage to the Batman TV series, however, does find its humorous mark.
 
Kelly Letourneau and Kirsten Peacock in Ms. Holmes and Ms. Watson - Apt. 2B

The cast is game for the mischievousness and roguishness unleashed by the playwright.  The four performers work hard to generate the irregular laughs.  While there is ample time to develop their respective characters, they still seem more two-dimensional than fully realized.  Kirsten Peacock’s portrayal of the world famous private investigator is somewhat staid, with only fleeting instances of playfulness.  Kelly Letourneau imbues Joan Watson with a spirited determination, but her characterization is undermined by a constant reference to her cagey past and anguish.  Megan McDermott, playing multiple roles, primarily Mrs. Hudson and arch nemesis Irene Adler, seems to be having a lot of fun with her portrayals, playing them broadly and slightly off-center.  Nick Nudler provides a number of satisfying looks, whether it is as the lumbering Inspector Lestrade; the wealthy Elliott Monk or the diabolical Professor Moriarity.
 
Ms. Holmes and Ms. Watson – Apt. 2B, running through February 18 at Playhouse on Park.  Click here for information on dates, times and tickets.