Monday, May 27, 2024

Kinky Boots - A Contemporary Theatre

Everybody “Say Yeah” for the exuberant production of Kinky Boots, playing at A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) through June 16.  The musical, based on a true story and the 2005 film of the same name, boasts a well-fashioned book by Harvey Fierstein and a bubbly, hook-laden score by pop star Cyndi Lauper.  While the show is steeped in the musical-comedy genre, it does address serious themes of acceptance, tolerance and choosing one’s path in life.


Charlie Price has reluctantly taken over the family shoe manufacturing business after the unexpected death of his father.  Unfortunately, cheap imports have been the death knell for the industry.  With the Northampton company on the brink of bankruptcy, Charlie has a chance meeting with Lola, a drag queen, while on a trip to London.  During their encounter he notices her high-heeled boots are not designed for a man’s weight.  Back at the factory, as he begins to lay off long-time employees, one of the female workers scolds him for giving up and not coming up with a different line of footwear that can address the needs of an underserved niche market.  Charlie thinks back to the boot problem and very quickly, and now with Lola’s help, the idea of a sturdier “Kinky Boot” is born.  The pathway to success, however, is not an easy or assured one.  There are bumps in the road to producing the new product as tempers flare, intolerance rears its ugly head, and relationships suffer.  In the end, however, all the kinks and seemingly insurmountable hurdles are overcome as kinky boots become a worldwide sensation.


Director Nathan Peck, working alongside Scenic Designer Daniel C. Levine’s detailed, versatile set, has crafted a show that is full of high-spirited, energetic moments.  Doubling as the show’s choreographer, Peck delivers dance routines that are dynamic and athletic – primarily for Lola’s backing group, The Angels.  He has also helmed production numbers, involving the entire cast, that are innovative and thrilling, such as the rousing Act I finale, “Everybody Say Yeah,” that incorporates a stage full of conveyor belts.   The Director effectively integrates the lively moments of the musical with scenes of heartfelt passion and introspection by the two central characters, Lola and Charlie.  The effect is a well-rounded, highly entertaining stage musical.


Harvey Fierstein’s libretto is breezy, with fully realized characters and well-developed plot points.  He punctuates the book with a non-preachy approach to themes of broadmindedness and strength. Cyndi Lauper’s score, her first Broadway effort, is a triumph.  There are numerous uplifting tunes and songs that define characters and their motivations.  Her composition “The History of Wrong Guys” is a comedic masterpiece, aptly delivered by actress Chelsea Zeno.


The show is ideally cast.  Topher J. Babb’s portrayal of Lola is perfectly balanced between over-the-top histrionics, a healthy dollop of sass, and, most importantly, a genuine sense of vulnerability.  Andrew Cekala’s boyish Charlie Price convincingly grows from a wide-eyed business neophyte to self-assured, take charge company director. 


The featured performers significantly elevate the production.  Most notable are Chelsea Zeno as Lauren, a Price & Sons employee who vacillates between self-confidence and indecision; and Nickolaus Colon, who imbues the oafish Don with a roguish sensibility and a persona up for the changes and challenges Lola and company bring to the firm.  I was very impressed with the actors comprising The Angels.  The performers – Gregory Carl Banks Jr., Tyler Keller, Ty Koeller, Kaimana Neil, Pablo Pernia, and Joey Socci – were delightfully engaging, full of humorous antics, and commanded the stage whenever they were present.  Their vigorous dance moves were a consistent high point of the show.  They were also the beneficiaries of Kurt Alger’s outlandish, yet wholly appropriate Costume and Wig Designs.


Kinky Boots, a winning production to end ACT’s 6th season.  Click here for information on dates, times, and ticket information.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

All My Sons - Hartford Stage

Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, receiving a striking production at Hartford Stage, is a work that still resonates today, even though it was written over 75 years ago.  The play succeeds on multiple levels.  There are thorny family dynamics that are examined.  Questions of truth, greed and loyalty are raised.  All of this is wrapped around characters reaching for the American Dream.

Michael Gaston and Marsha Mason in All My Sons.  Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Elevating the staging are two consummate performances – Marsha Mason as the family matriarch, Kate Keller and Michael Gaston as her husband, Joe Keller.  Their interplay, both tumultuous and tender, forms the backbone of the show.


The play unfolds on the Keller’s backyard.  Kate is in denial of her son Larry’s assumed death, when his plane disappeared during WWII.  Both Joe and their other son, Chris, believe otherwise.  Entering this scenario is Ann Deever, a childhood friend of Chris who was engaged to Larry before he went off to war.  Now, two years after his brother’s disappearance, Chris wishes to marry her, much to the chagrin of his parents.  During Ann’s visit, it is revealed that her father, Steve, and Joe were in business together manufacturing cylinder heads for jet planes.  When a defective set caused the crash of 21 planes, both Joe and Steve were investigated.  Joe was exonerated, even though neighbors may quietly think otherwise.  Ann’s father was convicted and still sits in prison.  At the end of Act I, Joe receives a call from Ann’s brother George, who has just visited their father in prison.  He is now coming to the Keller’s residence to set the record straight.  Upon his arrival he accuses Joe of being complicit in covering up the defective parts.  Joe maintains his innocence, but at this point in the play long-told stories and excuses begin to unravel, loyalties shift, hidden secrets are exposed, and the relationships between family members begin to crumble.

Michael Gaston and Fiona Robberson in All My Sons.  Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

In All My Sons, Arthur Miller has crafted a well-constructed work with a highly satisfying beginning, middle and end.  Sounds simple, but many new playwrights being produced today fall far short of this goal.  In addition to a plot that flows without unnecessary contrivances, Miller skillfully builds into the play a shattering climax.  Characters in All My Sons are fully established.  They are engaging with traits, foibles and strengths audiences can embrace.  The aforementioned issues and themes provide for much after show debate and conversation.


Director Maria Bensussen keeps the pacing brisque while, at the same time, allowing the performers space to develop their portrayals.  She effectively imbues the play with moments of reflection and keenly handles the more tumultuous scenes with a deft hand.  


Riw Rakkulchonbelie’s Scenic Design of an imposing white house and grassy backyard on a raked stage has the effect of bringing the action closer to the audience, making the production more intimate and inviting.  Mary Louise Geiger’s Lighting Design provides apt tonal variations to the show.

Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr. and Marsha Mason in All My Sons.  Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Marsha Mason’s portrayal of Kate Keller is key to the production.  While, initially, coming across as scattered and slightly out-of-touch, the actress, almost inperceptually at first, proves there is more to her character than meets the eye.  Ms. Mason is flawless as she delivers a meticulously modulated, superlative performance.  Joe Keller is a man of many dimensions – combative, affable, delusional, and misguided.  Michael Gaston is superb in the role, bringing forth a skillful, nuanced portrayal of a man full of contradictions.


Fiona Robberson gives a gripping, heartrending performance as the lovelorn Ann Deever.  Ben Katz was fine as Chris Keller, but his portrayal could have been been enhanced with more subtlety.  Reece Dos Santos’ George Deever, who is loud, confused, and looking for a fight, could have brought more shading to the role. The rest of the cast - Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr. as Dr. Jim Bayliss, Yadira Correa as Sue Bayliss, Dan Whelton as Frank Lubey, and Caitlin Zoz as Lydia Lubey – provided admirable performances that supplied necessary exposition and a fullness to the production.


All My Sons, playing at Hartford Stage through May 5.  Click here for dates, times and ticket information.