“Evita” in Ridgefield Overwhelms You with Effects

evita_editedBy Karen Isaacs

 I wasn’t deaf when I walked into the sparkling new theater for ACT (A Contemporary Theatre) –Connecticut in Ridgefield to see Evita. But with the over amplification, I was nearly deaf when I left this up and down production.

One can’t help thinking that artistic director (and director) Daniel C. Levine has become so enamored with all the newest equipment that he is determined to use it all. The result is that some very good elements of this production that runs through Nov. 11 are over shadowed by gimmicks.

In the program notes, Levine wrote that he felt the show was so good that there was “no need to completely reinvent Evita by cleverly finding new and interesting slants to the story.” But it seemed as though he disregarded his own statements.

This is the story of Evita Péron, who began as a lower class girl in a small Argentinian town and who climbs the ladder of success using a variety of men as stepping stones. When she finally captures Colonel Juan Péron she helps him become Argentina’s dictator while gaining a fanatical following by the lower classes who viewed her as a saint.

But Andrew Lloyd Webber who wrote the music and Tim Rice who wrote the book and lyrics (there is little dialogue) decided to use a character based on the revolutionary Ché Guevera as the narrator/commentator on Evita’s rise to power. This added a note of cynicism and anti-establishment aura to the story.

The show starts promisingly enough with the small cast (12 ensemble plus some children) sitting in a movie theater watching a film when they learn of Evita’s death. (She died at 36 of cancer). After the funeral, we go back to the beginning of her story in the small town.

So we see Evita transform herself and help propel Péron to the Presidency where they both capitalize on the money available to them.

Most everyone knows at least “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” whose melody is used multiple times in the show. But you may also recognize, “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You,” and “Another Suitcase in Another Hall.”

The show depends on top notch performers as both Evita and Ché. It helps if the actor portraying Péron is also good. In this production, only Péron truly measures up.  Julia Estrada as Evita is not helped by the over amplification; the part has many sustained high notes, and she sounded very shrill on many of them. She also wasn’t helped by lighting that in some of the most important scenes put her face in shadows. Her Evita did not project the steely iron butterfly and overwhelming ambition the real woman had.

Angel Lozada also missed the boat Ché. He wasn’t the cynical, questioning revolutionary but almost an admirer of Evita. It is he that should give the show its moral compass, but this performance was too bland and too nice. There was no edge to it

As Péron, Ryan K. Bailer fared better. It is the tertiary role in the show, but he managed to bring a depth to the portrayal.

Both Julian Alvarez and Marlene Lopez Hilderley were good as Magaldi (the tango singer who helped Evita get to Buenos Aires) and The Mistress of Péron whom Evita replaces or “unemploys” her as she says.

The remaining ensemble play a variety of roles, from lower class workers, to military officers, society women, and more.

In a production that isn’t bad, there are so many little faults – an ensemble member who plays a military officer multiple times with a busy ponytail, to society women whose costumes don’t really look elegant enough.

And then there are the bigger failings. I’ve mentioned the over amplification and shrill sound but at times the backstage orchestra overwhelmed the singers. For a live production, too many special audio affects were used, perhaps to make the ensemble sound larger. In addition while there were some interesting lighting effects by Jack Mehler, too often they called attention to themselves and several times made it difficult to see the faces of leading performers.

Charlie Sutton did the choreography; he created several effects that were excellent. For example as the funeral ends, couples begin dancing which leads into the café in Evita’s home town where she meets Magaldi. But other times, the dancing seemed excessive, not reflective of the period, or inappropriate.

Overall, if you love Evita you will enjoy this; if you have never seen the show, it is a good introduction to it. But be warned that it you won’t need hearing aids.

For tickets, visit ACT-CT or call 475-215-5433. The theater is located at 34 Old Quarry Rd, Ridgefield.

 

Westport Playhouse and Mark Lamos Gives Us a Moving “Man of La Mancha”

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Phillip Hernadez as the Man of La Mancha. Photo by Carol Rosegg

By Karen Isaacs

The stage set by Wilson Chin immediately catches your eye when you enter Westport Country Playhouse to see Man of La Mancha running through Oct. 14.

Iron bars separate the audience from the stage and through them you can see the medieval dungeon.

Soon director Mark Lamos has actors beginning to populate the space as the overture commences. Then there is the dreaded knock from the door up high on stage left, a long steep staircase comes down from above and the Spanish guards enter with the newest prisoners awaiting judgment: Cervantes and his servant Sancho. They’re proceeded and followed by guards who take the opportunity to rough up some prisoners while the prisoners do the same to Cervantes and Sancho.

It is then you realize that this won’t be a sugar-coated, “lets-minimize-the-violence” production. Lamos doesn’t cover up that the prison is cruel, violent and dangerous. It sets the tone for a production that is refreshingly honest.

Doesn’t everyone know the story? Cervantes the famous Spanish author of the 16th century has been arrested and held for possible heresy, to be questioned by the Grand Inquisitor. But before he is called to answer, the prisoners will hold their own trial; a guilty verdict (which is expected) will result in the forfeiture of Cervantes’ goods.

He defends himself by enacting a story using the prisoners for the characters. It is the story of the great novel, Don Quixote about an aging country squire who, upset with the way the world is going, imagines himself a knight errant and goes off on adventures in the countryside. In the story he tells, Don Quixote, as the man calls himself, sees a windmill as an enemy, a rough Inn as a castle and the innkeeper as a lord of the manner who can official dub him a knight. He also sees the scullery maid, Aldonza as the fair and virtuous lady Dulcinea whom he is to protect.

Back at his home, his niece, her fiancée, the housekeeper and the local padre plot to make him confront reality.

A successful production requires an excellent Cervantes/Don Quixote and Phillip Hernandez meets the challenge. His voice is expressive and powerful, he bring a sense of age to the part, and his acting totally encompasses the character.

Gisela Adisa is a heartbreaking Aldonza/Dulcinea reflecting the confusion of this scullery maid who is used to being abused by men when she sees herself reflected in Don Quixote’s eyes as something else. She too has a terrific voice for the demanding score.

In the major supporting role, Tony Manna is excellent as Sancho (who is also Panza, Quixote’s squire). The role can devolve into a stereotype comic character. Manna keeps him more real while still finding the humor.

A number of other cast members – all who play both prisoners and the characters in the novel – are very good.  I would mention Carlos Encinias as the Padres, Michael Mendez as the innkeeper, and Paola Hernandez as Antonia, the niece.

But a few of the supporting cast don’t quite measure up – they either seem too young or don’t have the authority needed. This was particularly apparent in Clay Singer’s performance as Carrasco, the fiance who is most determined to force Quixote back to reality and who also is most against Cervantes as well.

Lamos has assembled a superb production team. The lighting design by Alan C. Edwards is spectacular – it reminds us we are in Spain and in a dungeon. Fabian Fidel Aguilar has created costumes that seem so right: costumes that have been worn over and over. The costumes for the characters in the play are the make-shift, adaptable, easy to put on attire a traveling troupe would use. They could fit in a trunk.

The choreography by Marcos Santana hits the mark. I always judge the choreography on how the “abduction” scene is handled. This is the scene where the muleteers abduct Aldonza and rape her; it is a delicate balance to make it graphic and upsetting but not x-rated. The trend has been to make the scene more dance than rape; Santana balances it just right. It is obvious what is happening but not too graphic.

The scene at the end when Don Quixote tilts with his arch enemy, the Enchanter or the Knight of the Mirrors was staged beautifully and the Knight was imaginatively designed.

This is a production that truly creates the emotion of the piece even for those of us who have seen it enough that we have become immune to it. This time, the first in many years, I was overcome with the message of hope and sadness.

I also noted lines that sometimes have slipped past, the padre saying “facts are the enemy of truth” and Cervantes’ line that Don Quixote has looked at the world and made it the world as it should be, creating his own reality.

If you see only a few productions a year, this production at Westport Country Playhouse is one you should not miss.

For tickets, call 203-227-4177 or visit Westport Playhouse..

It’s Irish, It’s a Love Story – “Once” at Ivoryton Is Joyful and Sad

once 3 Ivoryton photo by Jonathan Steele

Photo by Jonathan Steele

By Karen Isaacs

 Once, the Tony-winning best musical now at Ivoryton Playhouse through Sunday, Oct. 14, is a quirky, unpredictable piece that defies many of the expectations of conventional musicals.

It is based on a low-budget 2007 Irish film of the same name which not only did good business in the U.S. but received a number of awards. “Falling Slowly,” one of the songs in this drama with music won the Oscar for best original song.

The plot is both conventional and unexpected. The two main characters are called Guy and Girl; he is an aspiring musician in Dublin who is seriously considering abandoning music. He’s in his 20s, recently broken up with a girlfriend (she moved to London) and lives with his Dad above the Dad’s shop which repairs vacuum cleaners.

Girl, is a Czech immigrant, who lives with her mother, three Czech friends and her daughter in an apartment.

So we can expect the two to meet which they do. She has a determination that Guy lacks; she hears his songs and realizes his talent. She convinces him that they must make a demo record of his music.

But the show includes much more than that.

First of all, as you enter the theater, you will hear the Irish music (folk contemporary) coming from the stage. Most of the cast is up there, playing instruments and singing songs. You are already in the mood even before the lights dim and the show begins. The cast sits on stage when they aren’t playing a part and sometimes they produce, almost as by magic, a prop that is needed.

When Guy and Girl are first talking and he tells her that he repairs vacuums (or Hoovers as they called), she says she has one in need of repair and it immediately appears beside her.

Once may start as a typical boy meets girl plot, but it soon becomes original. Guy takes her to meet his Dad and while he tries to get her to visit his bedroom upstairs, she doesn’t. She takes him to her apartment where he learns about her daughter and meets the others.

The song “Falling Slowly” acknowledges what happens to the two of them; each is slowly and reluctantly falling in love but refusing to own up to it.

Over five days, the two of them convince a bank manager to lend them money for the demo, make the demo and resolve their relationship. I won’t spoil it by telling you how it is wrapped up.

What makes Once so special is the unexpected parts of it and the pure joy of music making that it conveys. The book of Edna Walsh stays quite faithful to the movie that was written and directed by John Carney. The movie’s songs are all in the musical; they were written by musicians Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, established Irish musicians who also starred in the film.

At Ivoryton, Katie Barton is wonderful as Girl; she captures the determination and literalness of the character. She says things that are funny in a completely earnest manner. Sam Sherwood is also excellent as Guy and there is chemistry between them.

Most of the cast play both ensemble and specific characters. Jonathan Brown and Morgan Morse play two other Czech immigrants; they contribute mightily to both the humor and some of the pathos of the piece. Margaret Dudasik as Reza, is less restrained in her behaviors than the Girl.

Perhaps my favorite performances were Don Noble as the father and Andreina Kasper as the Bank Manager who, it turns out, has always wanted to be a musician.

Glenn Bassett has created a set that consists mainly of doors which are often used to make the various props magically appear. The doors seem so consistent with the meaning of the show. Tate R. Burmeister has done a good job balancing the sound from the on stage instruments, the voices and the dialogue.

Director Ben Hope, who played the role of Guy both on Broadway and on tour, certainly knows this piece well. He uses the two sides of Ivoryton’s wide stage creatively. On the night I saw it, it seemed as though the pacing was a bit slow; as the cast continues to work together, I’m sure it will pick up. Eric Anthony as music director worked with the cast and the variety of instruments they played – mandolin, cello, guitar, fiddle, drums and more. The music is folk-contemporary and for me at least, it is hard to differentiate among the numbers; they all sound similar.

Once is a beloved show and Ivoryton is giving it a very good production. For tickets call 860-767-7318 or visit Ivoryton Playhouse.

This content courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com.

 

 

A Peter Pan Prequel That Doesn’t Enchant at Playhouse on Park

Peter and the Starcatcher-414 curt henderson

Photo by Curt Henderson

By Karen Isaacs

 Peter Pan has become an obsession with playwrights and filmmakers in the last 20 years or so. Movies, plays and musicals attempt to tell the story of how J. M. Barrie wrote the novel and play as well as prequels and sequels. From the film Hook to the more recent musical Finding Neverland is seems as we cannot escape the story.

Peter and the Starcatcher is another of these, but one that was conceived with great imagination. It originated off-Broadway before moving to Broadway for a good run and then a national tour.

It too is a prequel to the Barrie original. It purports to tell the story of Molly, a young English girl and her encounter with some orphan boys while on a ship sailing to Rundoon, a fictional Far East country.

What makes it an enjoyable evening entertainment is the concept of the piece – a small ensemble of performers easily shifting parts with makeshift costumes and props. You can almost imagine children putting on the play in an attic or playroom. It even has the bad jokes and awful puns that children love.

Another element is that the story is told like one those old-time movie serials. It’s an adventure story with more twists and turns than a roller coaster. Keeping track of them all could be arduous but you quickly realize that the details don’t really matter.

As you are watching, you will see all of the elements of the Peter Pan we know, pop up – from Captain Hook, to the crocodile and even the ticking clock. But the author Rick Elice, based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, have tossed in even more adventures. Plus, there are songs – most of which have no relevance to what is going on in the show.

This Playhouse on Park production, through Oct. 14 has its flaws. Is the play longer than necessary or did the pace of this production make it seem so? It just seemed either too long or lacking the evanescence needed to keep it and two ships afloat.

To fully enjoy this play you need to think about the movie serials that were staples of children’s matinees in old-fashioned movie theaters. Each brief episode ended with some sort of cliffhanger with one or more characters in danger. So we meet three orphan boys who are being sold into slavery in the Far East; then we meet Molly and her father; he is envoy of Queen Elizabeth carrying out an important mission (and a trunk) to The Wasp, the fast sailing vessel captained by Robert Falcon Scott. Molly is to go on the other slower ship, which is definitely second, or third class.

Let’s not get into all the details – let’s just say that Molly, the boys, her father and Captain Scott have much happen to them. And by the end we know how Peter Pan got his name.

Scenic designer David Lewis has made effective use of the large playing area. The minimalist set adapts to the multiple locations, ships and more. Kate Bunce, costume designer, did a great job with the mermaids for the act two opening number, “Memaid Outta Me.”  The number is part burlesque and very funny but simply holds up the show.

The direction by Sean Harris sometimes overly lengthens moments – for example when Molly crawls through the ship to find the boys – so that they lose their punch. During the run, I’m sure the cast will become more of an ensemble and less individual performers.

Overall the casting is good. Matthew Quinn as the pirate “Black Stache” has few Cyril Richard moments – he was the definitive Captain Hook in the original musical. Quinn manages get the humor out of the part without becoming hammy.

The stand out performer for me was Natalie Sannes, who plays Molly. She is not a child actor but does capture the character totally. The rest of the cast does a fine job with the multiple roles.

Since this show was so successful on Broadway and on tour, I have to wonder what happened. Based on this production, Peter and the Starcatcher has some enjoyable moments but they don’t add up to entire evening’s fun.

For tickets, visit Playhouse on Park..

“Make Believe” at Hartford Stage Tries to Explore Imagination as a Way to Healing

Make Believe HSC 9-18 092

L-R: Sloane Wolfe, RJ Vercellone, Alexa Skye Swinton, Roman Malenda. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 Parents tend to delude themselves that children are not aware of the reality beneath the exterior of the family. That’s the premise of Bess Wohl’s new play, Make Believe getting its world premiere at Hartford Stage through Sunday, Sept. 30.

The idea seems fascinating – looking at a family of four children growing up in the ‘80s during a family crisis. On the surface, you would think they are a typical suburban family – affluent and loving. But one afternoon, as the children arrive home from school there is no one to greet them. They retreat to their playroom where they act in typical sibling fashion interspersed with play-acting as “the family.”  Through a series of phone messages left on the machine – the children have been taught to never answer the phone – we learn that mom is nowhere to be found. The reliance on the phone messages is an easy but unsatisfying way to convey information to the audience.

In their play-acting, we find the children – who appear to range in age from 11 to 3 or 4, have picked up on not only the roles the adults play at, but the tensions that are in the marriage: alcohol, infidelity, some anger and lack of connection.

This part is one half of the 90+ intermissionless play. How you react to it may depend on how you feel about child actors and typical sibling behavior. Chris is the eldest and plays “dad” in the games. He torments his younger sister, Addie; the eldest, he also can become very angry. The elder sister, Kate is “mother” and acts that role in their normal interactions. She seems studious and tries to protect her sister from Chris. The youngest, Carl appears to be quite young and pretends to be a dog most of the time.

For some audience members, seeing the children using multiple swear words, talking about and carrying various alcoholic beverages and at the end, lighting up cigarettes, will be more than disconcerting.

The second part of the play which is set in the present, features three of the siblings, again in the playroom, escaping the reception going on downstairs following the funeral of their brother Chris.

The premise is to show how this traumatic early experience has impacted all of them. But it doesn’t really work. We learn that their mother had disappeared that day to create a new life and that Dad remarried and had a second family whom they all condescendingly refer to as “the Scandinavians.” But the connection between their childhood and who they became is tenuous, at best.

Now played by adult actors, Kate has long lost the “motherly” persona; she is a successful physician but is angry, cold and at times, nasty. Addie is a mother but one that seems more interested in the young man she has latched onto at the funeral than her young daughter; she’s a television actress of limited celebrity. Karl, who arrives late having missed the opportunity to give a speech at the funeral, is still the quirkiest of them. He may be on the spectrum, but he is apparently a very successful and laser-focused entrepreneur.

One of the more confusing decisions Wohl made is in the naming of the young man whom Addie has a fling with in the playroom. He is also named Chris. It can momentarily confuse you and then make you waste time trying to figure out why the duplication of names. He knew their brother and there are strong hints that the two were lovers. It is also clear that he knows more about Chris and his childhood than his siblings.

So what should we take from this piece? The obvious that children know more than we think they do? That they may not understand it but they pick up on the emotions? That childhood influences adult behavior?

Wohl says that she wanted to explore whether make believe as a way of healing is something that adults must let go of and confront the truth. Certainly, that aspect is not clear because it does not indicate any of the siblings as adults have confronted truths about their family and childhood.

Jackson Gay has directed this piece – she has been involved from early on – with a sure hand. The four child actors are all very good; it is just the characters and situation begins to grate on you and seems unrealistic.

The adults bear resemblance to the children so that it is easy for the audience to make the transition. Both Kates have red hair, both Addies are brunettes, and so on. But each of the characters seem both one dimensional and lacking in maturity. Megan Byrne as Kate has morphed from motherly to angry and judgmental. Molly Ward plays Addie as a self-absorbed, spoiled woman. Brad Haberlee as Carl hints more than the other siblings at some hidden pain. Chris Ghaffari as Chris, the very good looking, younger man has a thankless role. I’m not sure that Wohl ever determined what his function is in the play: boy toy for Addie, truth teller about Chris, comic punching bag for all of them?

Antje Ellermann has created a playroom that any child would love – spacious with everything a child would want including a tent. The lighting by Paul Whitaker and original music and sound design by Broken Chord are all good.

But at the end, like many world premieres, Make Believe has potential but it isn’t ready for primetime. When people start taking peeks at their watches during a 90 minute play, it’s a clear sign that something isn’t working.

For tickets visit Hartford Stage or call 860-527-5151.

This content courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com

Make Believe HSC 9-18 185

L-R: Molly Ward, Megan Bryne, Brad Heberlee. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

“Pretty Woman – the Musical” Will Only Excite Fans of the Movie

PRETTY WOMAN THE MUSICAL Pictured (L to R) Andy Karl and Samantha Barks, Photo by Andrew Eccles, 2018 5_edited

Andy Karl and Samantha Banks. Photo by Andrew Eccles

By Karen Isaacs

 For a brief while, it seemed like a sure fire formula for Broadway musical success. Take a popular movie, perhaps one that appealed to women, add music and voila!  Sold out houses.

The formula has worked in the past. Think of Hairspray and The Producers. But more often than not it hasn’t worked; recently such well-loved films as Rocky and Groundhog Day couldn’t make it. Even Bronx Tale wasn’t a smash. The verdict is still out on Mean Girls.

The producers of Pretty Woman probably thought they had a sure fire hit. After all, the 1990 movie made Julia Roberts a major star and Richard Gere more of a star. It combines familiar elements: the hooker with a heart of gold, a Cinderella story, and the redemption of a man consumed by greed (think Scrooge).

But they forgot that there is a lot more to creating a hit musical: outstanding music and lyrics, a book that includes major elements of the movie but also does something more. The creative team must walk a fine line between giving audiences who loved the film what they expect and creating something unique and different.

It’s those things that are missing in the new musical which opened at the Nederlander Theatre recently.

The producers tried hard. Andy Karl looks a great deal like Richard Gere.  Samantha Banks is Julia Roberts down to the smile and the hair. Why must she be a brunette like Roberts? But though Karl is very talented and Banks tries hard, they are weak versions of the original.

So the result is a pale imitation of the film. If you loved, loved, loved the film you will enjoy the musical. If you found the movie entertaining once, or if your views have evolved to a more realistic view of streetwalkers and their lives, you will find much of this show problematic.

The role of Vivian’s friend, Kit – the older hooker who got her in the business and advises her seems to have been beefed up. The role, played by Orfeh has most of the rousing songs in the show.  Eric Anderson plays a narrator like character – at first call Happy Man, a sort of street person a la Hair style and later some other minor characters.

But when a supporting character seems the most interesting, as Anderson is, it reflects the problems in the show.

Jason Danieley is under used as the “heavy” in the show, playing Edward’s lawyer who is not happy with his change of heart and business practices. Danieley is a fine musical performer who has no songs except one ensemble number. He does a good job with the villain’s role, but it is a major waste of talent.

The production elements, set, costumes, lighting, sound design are professional but not exciting. At least one time the women in the ensemble, portraying sophisticated society types at a polo match look more like hookers than the streetwalkers do.

Director Jerry Mitchell, who also choreographed doesn’t do anything exciting.

The basic problem with this show falls on book writers Garry Marshall (who directed the film) and J. F. Lawson (who wrote the film) for giving us a weak version of the film, rather than exploring the story more. The music and lyrics by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance are not memorable either.

So it all comes down to how much did you love the film Petty Woman? That will determine how you feel about the musical.

Pretty Woman is at the Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.

Pretty Woman , Eric Anderson, OrfehPhoto by Matthew Murphy, 2018_edited

Eric Anderson and Orfeh. Photo by Matthew Murphy

2018-19 Connecticut Theater Season Looks Interesting. “Hamilton” Is Coming!

By Karen Isaacs

 It’s the year of Hamilton arriving in Connecticut. That’s the big news.

As ever year, certain productions planned for Connecticut theaters pique my interest. I circle their dates on my calendar in anticipation. Here’s my list for this year.

Connecticut is blessed with an abundance of fine professional theaters – from the major regional companies (Yale Rep, Long Wharf, Hartford Stage, Goodspeed, TheaterWorks, Westport Playhouse) to more locally oriented theaters (Ivoryton Playhouse, Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, Connecticut Repertory Theater at UConn, Sharon Playhouse, Seven Angels in Waterbury, MTC in Norwalk and ACT-CT in Ridgefield). Plus there are the major presenting house that bring in national tours – the Bushnell in Hartford, Shubert in New Haven and the Palace in Waterbury.

One thing I have noticed in the last few years: more and more new plays are being produced while fewer classic works are done. Why?  Sometimes it’s easier to get financial support or new works. New works allow theaters to reach out to more diverse audiences and present works by diverse playwrights. Even length may play a role; classic plays tend to be full-length (two plus hours) while modern audiences seems to prefer the 90+ minute play.

So what have I circled for this up-coming year?

(One caveat: Goodspeed, Ivoryton and Westport have not announced their productions for the first half of 2019. I’m sure some of those would have made my list).

Yet, looking back over a similar list I made last summer, some of them did not live up to my expectations and some that I had not circled, were outstanding.

Now Here Are My Most Anticipated Shows

The Musicals:

A Chorus Line at Ivoryton closed Sept 2. It is a great show and I hoped they would do it well. They did.

Drowsy Chaperone at Goodspeed (Sept. 21-Nov. 25). This is just a delightful show; it won’t go down in the history of musicals as one of the best, but it is so much fun.

Man of La Mancha at Westport Country Playhouse (Sept. 25 –Oct. 13). It’s not my favorite musical (in fact it wouldn’t make my top 25), BUT Marco Lamos is directing and so that puts it on my list.

The Flamingo Kid at Hartford Stage (May 9 –June 2). This is the last show Darko Tresnjak will direct as artistic director. The brand new musical is aiming for Broadway just as A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder and Anastasia.

The Classics:

Henry V at Hartford Stage (Oct. 11 – Nov. 4). Hartford Stage has a track record of excellent Shakespeare and the play can be interpreted in so many ways. Plus, I like Shakespeare.

Flea in Her Ear at Westport (closed July 28) – I’m a sucker for Feydeau; I knew Mark Lamos would do a bang-up job directing it and I was right on all counts. This was overall a fabulous production.

Dramas & Comedies (New, Familiar & Rare)

Hand to God at TheaterWorks (closed Aug. 26). It was on my list out of curiosity. I didn’t see the show on Broadway and wanted to see why so many critics raved about it. I am not sure I would have.

The Prisoner at Yale Rep (Nov. 2-17). Why? It’s a US Premiere and it’s directed by Peter Brook. Need I say more?

Ripcord at Seven Angels (Nov. 8 – Dec. 2). This comedy about elderly roommates is on my list primarily because playwright David Lindsay-Abaire has written such interesting plays including Rabbit Hole which I loved.

Good Faith at Yale Rep (Feb. 1-23). I’m ambivalent about this world premiere which is based on the case some New Haven firefighters brought claiming civil rights violations. It could be just talking heads, but I hope playwright Karen Hartman can make it much more.

 The Touring Shows

Hamilton at the Bushnell (Dec. 11-30). Who wouldn’t circle this show in RED???

Come from Away at the Bushnell (April 30-May 5). It would have won the Tony except for Dear Evan Hansen, it began at the Goodspeed Festival of New Musicals and it is well done. I enjoy the music and the story.

Lion King at the Bushnell (closed Aug. 16) – Amazingly I had never seen it. The concept and execution was terrific, but once is enough.

 

These selections are just the tip of the iceberg. Many of the other scheduled productions, sound very interesting. So check them all out. Connecticut has amazing theater!

 

Ivoryton’s “A Chorus Line” Dazzles and Touches Your Heart

Chorus-line-crop-768x356 Jonathan Steele

Photo by Jonathan Steele

By Karen Isaacs

 A Chorus Line now at Ivoryton Playhouse through Sunday, Sept. 2 is a “singular sensation” as one of its most well-known songs says. The show has everything and this production has almost everything right.

It’s hard to think some are not familiar with this ground-breaking, Pulitzer Prize winning musical that opened in 1975 and is still a favorite. A new tour is on the horizons.

It opens with a bare stage with the “ghost light” – the light that is always on- as dancers arrive in various dress carrying their bags of shoes and more. They are at an audition conducted by a well- known director/choreographer, Zach. With his assistant teaching them steps, he puts them through their paces until he winnows the group down. Some are dismissed, but that doesn’t mean the others are hired. All of them, as the opening says, are hoping to get this job because they need it. The life of the dancers in shows (until recently referred to as “gypsies”) is a hard one. Dancing wears on the body, aging happens fast, and there is always a bright-eyed younger dancer arriving in New York.

Zach has planned a different kind of audition; he wants to get to know them, not just see them dance. So he asks that each talk and tell stories of their lives. He doesn’t want them to “perform” or try to “act” but to talk about their experiences. For some, this is a frightening request and many of them reveal the issues that propelled them to dance.

We get to know them through their stories and the songs composed by Marvin Hamlisch with lyrics by Edward Kleban. The book is by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante based on sessions that Michael Bennett (the conceiver, director and choreographer of the piece) held over a period of months with actual dancers.

Under the sure handed direction and choreography by Todd L. Underwood and the musical direction of Michael Morris, the cast excels.

At times, I had never been so moved by some of the stories these dancers tell about their lives during this very non-traditional audition for a show.

How do you pick a favorite song or story? Mike (Dakota Hoar) explains how he realized at a young age that “I can do that” and soon took over his sister’s dance lessons. He was a natural. Then there are Sheila (Lili Thomas) the older more cynical dancer, Bebe (Kayla Starr Bryan) and Maggie (Liv Kurtz) share the stories of their unhappy family lives in “At the Ballet.” It’s a poignant number about how each of them found the love and ideal world at the ballet which was lacking in family life that featured unhappy marriages and unloving parents.

But all is not gloom and doom. Kristine (Amanda Lupacchino) with the help of her husband explains that she really cannot “Sing.” And then most of the company has a great time with “Hello Twelve” about the experiences of puberty.

Some of the male dancers talk about realizing their homosexuality, trying to hide it, or the rejection they faced.

Diana, in a very good performance by Natalie Madlon, talks about her high school acting class, where she could feel “nothing” when trying to be a table or riding a bobsled. And Val, in a very funny and slightly over the top performance by Alexa Racioppi, describes how she never got cast until she had plastic surgery for some “tits and ass.”

But one of the over-arching stories is Cassie, played touchingly by Stephanie Genito, who had a brief moment of almost-stardom but has learned that she isn’t a star and only wants to dance. The problem is that she and Zach were a couple and it hurts his ego to see her back in the line. She shares her new found understanding of her limitations and of her need to dance as she begs him to cast her. “The Music and the Mirror” is her expression of her love for dancing.

The standout performance for me was Joey Lucherini as Paul. He doesn’t want to tell it, but alone with Zach he reveals his life story. It’s too poignant to spoil for you; you just have to see him.

At the end of the audition, Zach asks them all one more question: What will they do when they can no longer dance. It leads into the well-known song, “What I Did for Love” – which isn’t about romance but about dedication.

At the end, Zach selects four men and four women for the cast.

The finale is a full-staging of the number they have used during the audition, “One” better recognized as “one, singular sensation” in which they back up the leading lady. Only this time, it is they who get the applause, even though there is no traditional curtain calls.

This production has an intermission; the original and some productions do not. The intermission releases some of the tension but it is quickly recovered since some of the bigger numbers are in the second half.

Almost all the cast excels; the exceptions are few and even their weaknesses are minimal. I would have liked Zach (Edward Stanley) to project more assertiveness and charisma. Yet his performance isn’t deficient; it just could be better. Sheila (Lili Thomas), the older dancer is not quite as cynical as often portrayed. While I liked the interpretation, it changed the balance of the show which has so much youthful enthusiasm.

By the end of the evening, you care about almost all of these characters and you want them all to be cast. You feel the disappointment of those who will have to go to another audition and another hope of a job.

The setting is plain – a blank stage but designer Martin Scott Marchitto has added some pillars to define the front of house. The costumes by Kate Bunce reflect the eclectic tastes of the dancers. Laura Lynne Knowles has done a fine job with the sound, particularly since Zach is often talking from the back of the house.

The choreography of the show is iconic and included in some of the script since the dancers are taught the choreography of “One” as part of the audition process. Underwood kept that but did a fine job with the new work for some many numbers: “I Can Do That,” “Dance Ten, Looks Three,” and of course, “The Music and the Mirror.” Underwood also has fluidly integrated the dance with the overall direction so it never seems as though the scene stops and the dance begins; they flow from dialogue, song into dance.

Go see A Chorus Line at Ivoryton Playhouse. It’s there through Sunday, Sept. 2. For tickets, call 860-767-7318 or Ivoryton Playhouse

This content is courtesy of Shore Publishing and zip06.

Westport’s “The Understudy” Shows How Casting and Direction Can Change Focus

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Brett Dalton, Andrea Syglowski, Eric Bryant. Photo by Carol Rosegg

By Karen Isaacs

 The Understudy by Theresa Rebeck, the current production at Westport Country Playhouse, is a good example of how the balance in a play can shift based on the cast and director.

David Kennedy had directed this three person, 90+ minute backstage comedy which runs through Sept. 1 with a sure hand.

The play opens with Harry, a 30ish journeyman actor arriving at a theater; no one is there. So he addresses the audience in a humorous rant about the acting profession, the frustrations of the movie star salaries and, in his view, the stars’ limited abilities, all the while proclaiming that he “isn’t bitter.”

Soon Jake arrives; he’s a mid-level movie action star who is now on Broadway in a Kafka play. His co-star (whom we never see) is Bruce, a much older and much bigger action star.

Harry is there for an understudy rehearsal. The plan is that if Bruce misses a performance, than Jake will take his role and Harry will take Jake’s.

The last to arrive is Roxanne, the stage manager who will be overseeing the rehearsal. The kicker is that six years ago, Harry walked out on Roxanne two weeks before the wedding.

As the rehearsal begins and progresses, Harry wants to do more than just duplicate Jake’s performance; at first Jake is defensive but begins to see that some of Harry’s comments and suggestions are on target. Jake is also up for a major film role that he really wants and so is constantly checking with his agent about any news.

Roxanne is, naturally, still furious with Harry which makes it difficult for her to manage the situation – massaging Jake’s ego, getting Harry to just duplicate the existing performance, and dealing with an unseen production person who brings on the wrong sets, disappears, and calls the wrong lighting cues.

But if the theater is the creation of an “unreal” reality then Kafka also did that in many of his works. The actors in the theater have a role in the real world and the “unreal.”

An added source of humor (or maybe it is just too much coincidence) is the fact that even in the dressing rooms, the speakers are on so that anyone off-stage can hear anything that on stage discuss.

In previous productions I’ve seen, Roxanne seemed the center of the show while Harry, the struggling “serious” actor had my sympathy.

But with this cast, the center has changed to Jake. Brett Dalton has done a fine job in creating a character who is much more than the ego driven movie star. He seems genuinely though naively enthusiastic about the play which appears to be a mashup for Kafka’s other works. His Jake slowly reveals his insecurities, his jealousy of Bruce, and later his disappointment. This Jake is less macho star and more a little boy playing at confidence.

Eric Bryant gives us a less sympathetic Harry. This Harry is more obtuse and unaware of his affect on those around him, more eager to show off his knowledge than work as a team member. It’s clear that this Harry resents having to be an understudy and probably never go on in the part.

If in other productions, Roxanne seems the center, in this production Andrea Syglowski doesn’t grab the spotlight. Her Roxanne is too one-note and too shrill. It’s like she started at level 9 and had no really room to go up. How Roxanne feels about Harry after six years of silence is unclear.

Kennedy has used the aisle and the space just in front to the stage to good effect. When Jake gets an important phone call, he goes into the audience stage right to have some privacy. It allows us to see Dalton’s reactions which are superb. The scenic design by Andrew Boyce includes several sets for the show. Lighting designer Matthew Richards also creates interesting “in show” lighting.

The Understudy is an enjoyable comedy that even those not knowledgeable about theater will find funny.

For tickets contact Westport Country Playhouse or call 888-927-7529.

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Brett Dalton and Eric Bryant. Photo by Carol Rosegg

A Possessed Puppet Takes Over “Hand to God” at TheaterWorks

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Photo by Larry Nagler

By Karen Isaacs

 Theater goers have learned that a show featuring puppets, isn’t necessarily aimed at children or even appropriate for them. Certainly Avenue Q drove that home, and it is reinforced in Hand to God, the comedy now at TheaterWorks through Sunday, August 26.

The promotional material says that “you’ve been warned – This play is rated R for rude, raunchy, and riotously funny!” Certainly it is both of the first two; how funny you find it will depend on your sense of humor and your view about religious jokes.

The premise is not new but playwright Robert Askins has used the underlying premise in a unique way: How do others react when an individual lets down the barriers of civility and civilization and says or does exactly what he or she wants to do or is thinking? Or as Freud would have said, what happens when the id (the part of the personality that contains the aggressive and sexual drives and is impulsive) takes over from the superego (which reflects the values and morals of society and whose job is to control the id)? This is, of course, a simplistic explanation of Freud’s theory.

Authors have been using this technique for generations. Sometimes it is when a character is drunk or under hypnosis that his or her real thoughts come forth, other times a second personality takes over, and occasionally an outside force is the cause for the truth telling. (In the film comedy Liar, Liar it is the son’s wish that his Dad tell the truth). In each case the effects of this truth telling or revealing of desires and thoughts causes consternation, discomfort and unforeseen consequences. In most of these, the truth telling is liberating and the endings are usually happy.

Such is the case in Hand to God. Jason is a teenager in a small Texas town, whose father has recently died. Jason seems like your typical kid that could be bullied. His mother (Jessica) has thrown herself into creating a puppet ministry at their local church, but all is not going great. Though Jason is attached to his puppet Tyrone, and Margery, another teen, is also committed to it, Timmy is the bad boy who belittles and seems to say whatever he wishes. The set-up is that Pastor Greg tells Jessica that in two weeks she must put on a puppet sermon/drama during services.

That same night, Tyrone seems to take over Jason, expressing all of his pent up anger, his distress plus his sexual desires towards Margery. Tyrone’s language is definitely not that used in church and he seems to have little respect for anyone. In a sense, he is becoming like Timmy. But Jessica also undergoes a transformation. Without the benefit of the puppet she too reveals a personality totally at odds with her image as a God-fearing widow and mother. I don’t want to give too much away but she responds to the attentions of Timmy and the Pastor in unexpected ways. There’s a “bad girl” lurking underneath.

Jessica and Pastor Greg respond to Tyrone’s takeover of Jason by considering a puppet exorcism, but no one know how to do it. In the second act, Askins has provided two very funny scenes. One involves two puppets and the other the destruction of the church school room. It would spoil the jokes to give more explanation.

The language includes a number of four-letter (or equivalent) words from Tyrone, Timmy and even Jessica. Plus Tyrone attacks religion and God numerous times. This may impact your reaction and enjoyment of this piece.

Hand to God is really a satire on some of the current trends in organized religion.

Tracy Brigden has expertly directed this piece, keeping the pace moving. The piece is about 100 minutes including intermission. She has mined all the laughs.

Certainly the cast is excellent. Nick LaMedica as Jason/Tyrone is outstanding. He manipulates the hand puppet so you truly think it is another character and that it is permanently attached to him. You are not confused when he switches between the two; his voice, tone, mood and body language changes. You know when Tyrone is dominant.

As the bad boy Timmy, Miles G. Jackson does an excellent job. While you may know there is a sad, frightened teen underneath, he doesn’t let us in on that until the end. Lisa Velten Smith creates the perky Margery who tries to keep the peace between Timmy and Jason.

The adult characters are more difficult because they seem less developed. Pastor Greg (played very well by Peter Benson) is too like a caricature of the smarmy preacher who doesn’t obey the rules he sermonizes about. It is to Benson’s credit that he lets us see a very lonely man underneath it all.

Jessica is the most puzzling character. You can understand that her conventional appearance and actions may hide a more unconventional side, but how and when it comes out is problematic. With little preparation she seems to go from zero to ninety without any rationalization. It’s like she just “goes crazy.”  Maggie Carr does an excellent job with this transformation, but it is hard to totally believe; perhaps it was overdone.

As usual at TheaterWorks the set and projections by Luke Cantarella, costumes by Tracy Christensen, lighting by Matthew Richards and sound design by Elizabeth Atkinson are all excellent. The puppet created by Stephanie Shaw is appropriately demonic.

Hand to God had a successful Broadway run, and several Tony award nominations. Even so, if you believe that religion should be treated respectfully or you dislike foul mouth puppets, this might not be the show for you. But for the rest of us, the imaginative jokes and wonderful direction will make for an enjoyable evening.

For tickets, visit TheaterWorks or call 860-527-7838.

This content courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.

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