“Quietly” at the Irish Rep Explores the Aftermath of Violence

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Declan Conlon, Robert Zawadzki, Patrick O’Kane. Photo by James Higgins

 Dublin’s famous Abbey Theatre is making an appearance in New York under the auspices of The Irish Repertory Theatre and the Public Theater with their production of Quietly is running through Sept. 25. This contemporary play by Owen McCafferty, a fine playwright who deserves more productions in the U.S.

It is Belfast, Ireland – a city where “the troubles” exploded in the ‘70s and ’80 as Catholics and Protestants faced constant fights, bombings and mayhem. Young people, particularly young men, were caught up in the religious hatred; many innocent people died. In 1984 Sinn Fein and the British government under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher forged a “sort of” solution and truce.  While it did not totally end the problems, it greatly reduced them. But it left a residue of ill will and regrets. In 1998 the Good Friday Agreement brought even more peace, though not necessarily reconciliation.

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Patrick O’Kane. Photo by James Higgins

Quietly is set in a pub in Belfast in the present time. The owner and bar keep is Robert, a Polish émigré who had been a bartender back in his native land. The pub is empty with a soccer match on the telly, but soon a regular, Jimmy, arrives. He’s in his early 50s and is the type of man you instinctively feel you do not want to anger or meet in a dark alley.  Bald, somewhat beefy, there is a smoldering rage in him that seems ready to explode at any moment.  He tells Robert that he is waiting for someone and he warns him that it might get angry, possibly violent and to stay out of the way.

So we are set up to expect an explosion. But when Ian enters quietly, casually but well dressed, we may feel that violence will be avoided.

Ian is the same age as Jimmy and on a fateful day in 1974, in this very area, their lives intertwined; both were 16 and on different sides of “the troubles.” Each had been brought up to hate the other’s religion and therefore the people who practice it. In this very pub something happened (I won’t reveal the details) that turned both of them into victims.  Each bears scars from that day; it is safe to say neither life was every the same again.

Ian wants to get the past behind him and feels the need to meet Jimmy and possibly explain and ask forgiveness. In today’s psychobabble, we would say he wants “closure.”

But is closure possible? Can forgiveness be granted? Can such ingrained hatreds ever be extinguished?

Even as the two meet, shout, talk and listen, there are roving bands of teenagers – like they were long ago – doing violence.

The tension in this play comes from their stories as well as Jimmy’s temper which you feel may snap at any second. Each has pent up emotions.

Ian has perhaps processed the experiences better than Jimmy.  He has come to realize that it was the adults who recruited and indoctrinated the boys at a young age, and who often gave them the nastiest jobs. They were like the child soldiers we hear about in foreign countries. How could they really understand the issues, the hatreds or the consequences of what they were asked to do?

This is a taut, 75 minute play that leaves you drained. Certainly in our present environment, it causes you to think about how young people are recruited and used by adults for a variety of political and even terrorist purposes; how hatred continues for generations; and that the victims are often the very young men who were left with deep wounds.

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Declan Conlon. Photo by James Higgins

The ending is realistic – no a “feel good” everyone will love each other and be best buds, but at least a little more understanding of the other’s point of view. Conversation has begun, and just as in another play I recently saw, Oslo, conversation and personal relationships are a key to resolving these long standing hostilities.

The acting is superb. Robert Zawadzki plays Robert. While he mostly listens and watches the two his story enhances the play. Since coming to Belfast his life hasn’t gone as he would have wished: he is still bartender though now apparently an owner and his wife seems to want to return to Poland. Plus, with the occasional violence occurring he and his pub are convenient targets.

Patrick O’Kane gives us a menacing Jimmy. I instinctively wanted to back away from him. Yet in the concluding minutes, you also see the pain that the event in 1974 caused him; he has not been able to move beyond that event which is clear as he graphically describes it.

Declan Conlon is the quieter Ian. He too is scared but his anger has receded and he has gained insight into himself and the situations.

This is a forceful and moving play that thoroughly engaged me. Certainly director Jimmy Fay must be congratulated for the taut and fine direction.

As too often happens nowadays in the theater, during the last climatic ten minutes, the cell phone of the woman in front of me rang and she fumbled for it before turning it off, but added insult to injury by then whispering to neighbor. I lost a minute or two of Jimmy’s final speech much to my annoyance.

Go see Quietly at the Irish Rep, 132 West 22nd St., New York City. For tickets call 212-727-2737 or visit irishrep.org.

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Photo by James Higgins

 

Ivoryton’s “Rent” Can Appeal to All Ages

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Photo by Anne Hudson

By Karen Isaacs

Rent has become an iconic musical for a number of reasons. After all it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1996. Second it is roughly based on Puccini’s La Bohème and opened 100 years after the original. Also, it deals with current issues and features rock music and a young cast. But what is always mentioned is a “no one would believe it if it were in a novel” moment – the night before the opening, the composer/lyricist/book writer Jonathan Larson died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm. He never lived to see the acclaim the musical received.

Admittedly, the music of Rent may not be a favorite genre for many of Ivoryton’s older audience, a fact that Artistic Director Jaqueline Hubbard (and director) acknowledged in her opening comments to the audience. She urged them to “give it a chance.” But the show also appeals to younger audiences, and many young people were in the theater the night I saw it.  Ivoryton, following the tradition of the Broadway production, has set aside a block of front row tickets that go on sale at 6 p.m. for just $20.

Larson (and his earlier collaborator Billy Aronson) kept the basic outline of the La Bohème story line – struggling artists in an urban environment and their struggles with poverty, illness and artistic success.  Puccini’s opera was set in the 1880s and tuberculous was the disease endemic to the poor and the struggling artist.

Rent is set in New York City’s east village (what is sometimes called Alphabet City), where many artists settled in illegal lofts. The medical endemic of that period was AIDS – not only due to homosexual transmission but also due to transmission via drug addiction and shared hypodermic needles.

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Maritza Bostic as Joanne and Tim Russell as Mark. Photo by Anne Hudson

If you’ve never seen Rent – and I may be one of the few Americans who hasn’t – you may find the first act confusing. We are introduced to so many characters that it is hard to keep them all straight. There’s Mark, a documentary filmmaker, who is sometimes our narrator; his roommate Roger who is a songwriter and HIV positive. Tom Collins (referred to as Collins) is their friend who is an MIT grad and occasionally teaches computer part-time; why he is there is not really clear. Finally there is Benjamin Coffin III, another friend who has, in the minds of his friends, “sold out” – marrying up and now owning the building they all live in.

Within the group are some women; Mimi Marquez is an exotic dancer and also HIV positive. Maureen is Mark’s ex-girlfriend with whom he is still somewhat involved and her new girlfriend Joanne. In addition there is Angel, a transvestite who falls for Collins.

The musical begins on Christmas Eve and concludes the following Christmas. During that time the artists continue to struggle to live and work. AIDS takes its inevitable, at that time, toll on the friends, but there are successes as well.

The first act was confusing, not only because of all the characters but the sound system, the sound design and/or the articulation of the performers made it difficult to understand the lyrics.  The lyrics, in a basically sung-through musical, are vitally important to convey plot.

Since it’s opening, it ran on Broadway for 12 years, closing in 2008. A successful movie version was made in 2005. A “high school friendly” version of the show has encountered controversy, but has had hundreds if not thousands of productions.

Several actors give standout performances. Jonny Cortes is terrific as Angel; I will quibble that the name is a little too obviously symbolic. He moves from comedy to sensitivity effortlessly. Tim Russell as Mark gives us a quieter member of the group; he seems more “normal” than many of his friends.  Alyssa V. Gomez gives us a flamboyant and vital Mimi – but she is less successful in some of the transitions as Mimi moves from determined to capture Roger to “victim” in her relationship with Collins. Unfortunately she and Johnny Newcomb (Roger) develop little chemistry – you don’t believe their love. Since that is the dramatic climax of the musical (and opera), it leaves less than fulfilled. They are the Mimi and Rodolpho of the original; you should be crying at her death of these star-crossed lovers.

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Johnny Newcomb as Roger and Alyssa V . Gomez as Mimi. Photo by Anne Hudson.

I also thought that Maritz Bostic as Joanne and Patrick Clanton as Collins were excellent.; and Clanton created authentic chemistry with Cortes; you did believe the relationship between Collins and Angel. The ensemble play a variety of roles and are very good.

Director Hubbard has done a very nice job with the show with strong assistance from music director Michael Morris and choreography Todd Underwood. The set by Martin Scott Marchitto gives us a typical artist’s loft and Lisa Bebey gives us a variety of ‘90s bohemian costumes.

Hubbard was right when she asked the older members of the audience to “give the show a chance.” It appeared that very few left at intermission and from the standing ovation at the end, they seemed to have enjoyed it. Perhaps the fact that music is more in the soft rock genre helps. But the cast and story also obviously helped keep them in their seats.

Rent is at Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., Ivoryton, through Sunday, August 28. For tickets visit ivortyonplayhouse.org or call 860-767-7318.

“Oslo” Gives Us a Compelling Look at the Arab-Israeli Peace Accords

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 In September 1993, an event occurred in the White House Rose Garden that gave the world hope for a Middle East peace: it was the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and the PLO. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Chairman Yasser Arafat were photographed shaking hands and later the two shared the Nobel Peace Prize.

The back story that led to that historic occasion is the subject of the new play Oslo at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.

Playwright J. R. Rogers makes it very clear in his notes that this is not intended to be an absolutely accurate portrayal of the “back channel” negotiations that occurred in Oslo. He admits that locations and chronology has been changed and compressed. He has removed some characters and as he says “some of those who remain have been assigned different roles than their actual counterparts…the words they say are mine.”

But accepting that this is not a documentary, it is still a compelling though long (about three hours) drama. At times it reminded me of Lee Blessing’s A Walk in the Woods, another play about unconventional diplomatic negotiations.

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Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

For while the signing of the accords was at the White House, the US had very little to do with the entire process. That was the doing of Norwegian diplomats and Terje Rod-Larsen, director of the Fafo Institute and the husband of an official in the foreign ministry. It was his theory that for negotiations to be successful, rather than put everything on the table at once, the two parties should start with one issue and when that is resolved, go on to the next. He also believed that personal relationships are a necessity for success. Yet neither Larsen not the Norwegians got very much public acknowledgement of their efforts.

Some research assured me that Larsen, was indeed head of the Institute which focused on Labour and Social Research as well as Applied International Studies. He had a PhD in sociology.

At the end of 1992, two unofficial representatives of the Israeli government met with Ahmed Quiri, finance minister of the PLO and Hassan Asfour at a manor house outside of Oslo. Larsen insisted that the four men meet and talk alone; in the evenings he expected them to join him and his wife, Mona, over food, drink and non-business talk of families and backgrounds mixed with humor.

It was an auspicious start. The two Israelis, economists, had no authority but were reporting to the deputy foreign minister who had sent them on his own imitative. The PLO delegates had more authority and standing, but were angry and skeptical.

Over the course of months and months of meetings, the four men began not only to establish personal relationships but to hammer out an initial draft of an understanding that dealt with such issues as Jericho and the Gaza Strip.

As Mona states early in the play, it took nine months. The movement was in fits and starts. The issues were enormous. The PLO representatives wanted the Israeli negotiators to be government officials; finally that happened when Uri Savir, director-general of the foreign ministry joined the talks.

In the play, senior Norwegian officials were also in the dark about this effort for months; when the foreign minister Johan Jorgen Holst learns of the act ivies of Larsen and Mona, he is not necessarily thrilled. It is dangerous effort and could alienate the US.

So much of the play is compelling that it seems peevish to complain about the length. With two intermissions, is runs nearly three hours and by the end you are glad it is over. It needs some judicious cutting.

Praises to director Bartlett Sher and the entire cast. Sher and his cast not only keep the pace moving and the tension building – even though you know from the outset that the agreement was reached – but they mine the humor that is necessary to keep this from being dull. His entire production team has worked in concert to fulfill his vision.

Particular praise must be given to dialect coach Ben Furey – he and the cast maintain a variety of accents – primarily Norwegian, Arab and Israeli – while remaining understandable at all times. The accents never become stereotypical but always sound authentic.

Let us heap praises on the cast. Jefferson Mays is one of my favorite actors and again as Larsen he turns in marvelous performance. Not only with the accent but the depths of the character from his certainties to his ego to his doubt.  Jennifer Ehle matches his as his wife, Mona. She is steady, calming and truly diplomatic.  Dariush Kashani as Hassam and Anthony Asisi as Quiri are aslo outstanding.  In fact, there is no one in the cast that can be faulted. Each actor whether playing one role or more, creates fully rounded characters that you know and relate to.

Oslo is a play that is well worth seeing. It runs through Aug. 28 at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. BUT plans have already been announced to move it to the larger Vivian Beaumont Theater in March for an extended “Broadway” run. The delay is caused by commitments that the cast members – including Mays – have. At the Beaumont it will be eligible for Tony award nominations.

For tickets visit lct.org.

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The handshake between the Israeli and Arab negotiators. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

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The negotiations. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The Musical “If/Then” Doesn’t Improve on Second Viewing

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Elizabeth (Jackie Burns) between her two lives. Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

 If/Then, the musical now at the Bushnell through Aug. 7, has a good pedigree. It was written for Idina Menzel by Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (/book and lyrics), the team that won the Pulitzer for their show Next to Normal. Both also have lots of other credits. It was directed by Michael Greif who also directed Nest to Normal, Rent and Grey Gardens.

 Yet the show had a relatively brief run on Broadway in 2014 and given the people involved only a few award nominations. It was somewhat surprising that show launched a national tour.

The idea is clever.  We make decisions every day and we recognize that each decision influences what happens next.  English playwright Alan Ayckbourn has been exploring the consequences of even minor decisions for years, most notably in his play series Intimate Exchanges.

 But to get back to If/Then. Elizabeth is starting a new life in New York City following a divorce after 12 years of marriage. She is a PhD in urban planning. The play begins when she makes a decision: to stay with a new friend who calls her Liz and listen to a guitar player in the park OR to go to a protest meeting with an old college friend who calls her Beth.

During the course of the evening, we see what might happen as each decision is played out.  She ends up leading two very different lives.

The two lives Elizabeth leads as well as those of her friends have enough plot twists and turns to keep any self-respecting soap opera busy for at least a year.

One of the basic problems with the show is that it is often hard to know in which life the events are occurring. We are supposed know by whether Elizabeth is wearing glasses, but often it takes seconds or a minute before you can orient yourself as to which life you are seeing or when the events occurring. Lighting designer Kenneth Posner tries to help but the indicators are too subtle.

In one life, Beth (as she is called) takes a job for the city of New York, achieves great success but finds herself at 39 basically alone. She is estranged from her one of her college friends, Lucas (a terrific Anthony Rapp who originated the role) and may have had an affair with another, Stephen (Jacques C. Smith). But even this life has it drama: a pregnancy and abortion, an airplane accident and more.

In the other life, Liz ends up teaching urban planning, meets, gets pregnant by a ER doctor (Josh, played by Matthew Hydzik) who is also a reservist in the Army and has served two deployments; his third deployment, delayed by Liz’s second pregnancy (the show covers 4+ years) does not end well. Her friend Lucas ends up with David, a friend of Josh’s, but they debate having a family. Her other friends, Kate (Tamyra Gray) and her partner Anne (Janine DiVita) in one story marry and stay married and in the other marry and divorce. I can’t remember which is which.

Overall the music is written for Menzel’s “belter” style and with the loudness of the orchestra and the less than stellar Bushnell system, many lyrics and even some dialogue is totally lost, even though I was close to the stage. The opening song “What If?” which sets up the entire show was just sounds, the lyrics were totally lost. This musical is LOUD.

Much of the music is generic but there are a few softer and more interesting songs: Lucas’s “You Don’t Need to Love Me” as well as Josh’s “You Never Know” and Beth/Liz’s “You Learn to Live Without.”

Jackie Burns plays Elizabeth; she has the requisite belter style and tries to bring warmth into the role with some success.

The cast is quite good though they all look like clones of the original casts. They do as much as they can with the material.

The rather small (eight) member ensemble fill a multitude of roles.

Some of the problems with the show must be laid at the feet of director Michael Greif who should have done more to differentiate between the two lives and the various time periods. The dances by choreographer Larry Keigwin are generic current Broadway choreography.

I did like the set by Mark Wendland and the projections by Peter Nigrini and Dan Scully.

If/Then is one of the few totally new musicals (no previous book, movie or song) to appear on Broadway in the last four years. It’s a valiant effort that doesn’t totally succeed.

If/Then is at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford.  For tickets visit bushnell.org or call 860-987-5900.

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Elizabeth (Jackie Burns) between her two friends Kate (Tamyra Gray) and Lucas (Anthony Rapp). Photo by Joan Marcus 

“Midsummer” – Excellent Performers, But I Just Didn’t Care

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Photo by Lanny Nagler

By Karen Isaacs

 Midsummer (a play with songs) is getting a very nice production at TheaterWorks in Hartford through Aug. 21. But I have a problem: Why didn’t I enjoy this show more?

It was not the two person cast; both Rebecca Hart and M. Scott McLean are talented and develop their characters. They not only act but sing and play the guitar. It wasn’t the direction by Tracy Brigden which was fine.

But when I secretly look at my watch several times during a 95+ minute show, it is a clear signal that I am not engrossed.

The show was created by two Scottish artists: Gordon McIntyre, an indie rocker associated with ballboy and playwright David Greig. My knowledge of indie rock is very limited so I had never heard of McIntyre. Greig wrote The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart which was at the International Festival of Arts and Ideas several years ago before making a return engagement to New Haven last Spring. I have to admit, I never saw the charm of that play either.

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Photo by Lanny Nagler

The play is set in Edinburgh where Helena, a high powered divorce lawyer is stood up, once again, by her married lover. It is Friday of the midsummer weekend marking the longest days of the year. She picks up Bob, a small-time crook who is waiting at the wine bar for his contact to arrive with his next assignment. The pick-up starts amusingly enough with Helena apparently  saying to Bob what she may have been thinking and then telling us that wasn’t what she said. This device is used multiple times during the play.

So the boy and girl have met. What happens next? They get drunk, go to bed, have so-so sex and leave each other in the morning. The sex scene is staged inventively even if the joke goes on too long.  Helena must attend her sister’s wedding – but her car is in a car park far away and Bob is to sell a “hot” car and deposit the money in the bank by noon.

The story is thus familiar – a totally incompatible couple with little in common but their age meet and somehow we are to believe they stay together. During the course of the weekend, Bob never makes it to the bank with the fifteen thousand pounds, Helena is late for the wedding and Bob suggests they blow all the money. They do – on champagne, food, hotel rooms and assorted other things, picking up a variety of unseen hangers on in the process. By Monday morning, Bob departs with his guitar for Belgium to earn a living “busking” or singing on the streets and Helena decides to accompany him.

I’ve always wondered what separates a “play with music” which is how this is described with a “musical.”  My best guess is that in a “play with music” the songs are less integral to the plot and do less to advance plot or characterizations.

While I was not enchanted with this show, I must applaud to the two performers and the dialect coach – Gilllian Lane-Plescia. The two performers maintain a Scottish burr but are still totally understandable. When I was in Edinburgh, I found the accent very difficult to understand.

Both Rebecca Hart and M. Scott McLean do their best to show us the charm of these

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Photo by Lanny Nagler

characters. Bob is the guy who peaked at 17 and has been wasting his life since – married, divorced, no direction – making his living doing assignments for the leader of a group of crooks. Helena is equally stuck. As a divorce lawyer she must have the seen the worst of marriage; she is stuck in the relationship with a married man and is afraid she is pregnant. Neither of them seem to be going anywhere. Each actor gives us the uncertainties, dissatisfactions and charm of their characters. It is just that I did not care very much about Helena and Bob.

So is the madness of the midsummer weekend that leads them to their reckless acts? In northern countries, the longest days of the year are often said to create a kind of madness and recklessness.

The music is well performed and falls into the folk-rock genre. Parts of this show reminded me of Once.

 Midsummer (a play with music) may entrance you. I found it a moderately enjoyable evening, but nothing I would rush to see again.

Midsummer (a play with songs) is at TheaterWorks Hartford, 233 Pearl St. in downtown Hartford, through Aug. 21. For tickets and information call 860-527-7838 or online at theaterworkshartford.org.

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Photo by Lanny Nalger

“Bye, Bye Birdie” – Goodspeed’s Production is Superb

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Rhett Guter as Biride and the teenagers. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

By Karen Isaacs

Goodspeed is taking us back to 1960s with a terrific production of Bye, Bye Birdie which has been extended to Sept. 8.

Now this show by Charles Strouse (music), Lee Adams (lyrics) and Michael Stewart (book) will not make anyone’s list of the top ten musicals of all times, but it would make a list of the top 100 shows. It doesn’t break any new ground – except maybe for being one of the first shows to include some soft rock-style music – but it is fun and totally enjoyable. It was Strouse and Adams first Broadway show; they later wrote Applause and Golden Boy among others and Strouse also wrote Annie.

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Rhett Guter as Biride  Photo by Diane Sobolewski

When the show opened in 1960, the plot may have seemed “ripped from the headlines.”  Just two years earlier, Elvis Presley had been drafted into the US Army, leaving millions of teenage girls heartbroken.

The show focuses on Albert Peterson, a Milquetoast like character who manages (and occasionally composes songs) for the latest teen idol, Conrad Birdie, a Presley like figure. Birdie has been drafted and Peterson comes up with a way to capitalize on the event: Birdie will debut a new song just as he leaves to be inducted. Not only will he debut the song “One Last Kiss” but actually kiss the president of his fan club in a small Ohio town. Of course, complications and subplots emerge. One is Rosie, Peterson’s longstanding girlfriend (and secretary) who is tired of waiting for him to sever the apron strings from his manipulative mother and marry her. Plus there are the residents of Sweet Apple, Ohio: Kim the president of the fan club, her boyfriend Hugo, plus her exasperated father and the other parents and teenagers in the town.

Much of the show is conventional, from the exasperated father to the stereotypical smothering mother. Yet so much is fresh with this show plus director Jenn Thompson has given it such energy and an outstanding cast, that you overlook the lamer jokes, predictable plot turns and extraneous moments.

A strength of this show is the songs – even if you haven’t seen a production, and I was surprised to realize that I never had – you will recognize many of the songs including “Put on a Happy Face,” “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” as well as the title song and the humorous “Kids”.

This production has so many plusses, that it’s difficult to know where to start.

I’ve already mentioned the excellent direction by Jenn Thompson. Thompson is familiar

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George Merrick as Albert and Kristine Zbornik has his mother. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

with Connecticut; she performed at Ivoryton Playhouse as a member of The River Rep for many years. But now she is an accomplished director. She exhibits a sure hand here; she understands the material and allows it to be done seriously though with an occasional wink. Both acts open with a series of projections – in the form of various typical TV screens – of familiar things of the period – Ed Sullivan, JFK, cars, kids, and more. It immediately sets the time and mood. In addition, she made use of the aisles which totally involved the audience.

Patricia Wilcox provides excellent choreography. This is a Goodspeed show that does not feature tap dancing. Instead we have lots of dances playing off the later ‘50s rock and roll idiom.

Adding to the effects are the scenic design b Tobin Ost, sound by Jay Hilton and lighting by Philip S, Rosenberg.

Costume designer David Toser not only captured the period for both the teens and the adults but also had the challenging task of making adult performers looks like 14 to 16 year-olds.

The fine production elements are matched by a fine cast.

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Janet Dacal as Rosie. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

The two standouts for me were Janet Dacal as Rosie and Rhett Guter as Birdie. I really can’t say enough about either. Dacal sings and dances up a storm as well as imbuing Rosie with a range of emotions from frustration to love to compassion. Her renditions of “An English Teacher” and “Spanish Rose” are great. Guter plays the Elvis-like Birdie without being a copy of Elvis. He projects a self-awareness and humor of his situation and the reaction people have of him. He plays with the audience deliciously. Albert Peterson is a difficult role, since he can be both weak and bland; George Merrick grows into the role. At first he blends in but you find yourself looking at him more and more. He does a terrific job with “Put on a Happy Face.”

It was terrific to see Warren Kelly (another member of The River Rep) back in Connecticut as the exasperated father played originally by Paul Lynde. He doesn’t mimic the distinctive Lynde but gives us a typical 1960s sitcom father. Donna English has the less

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Janet Dacal as Rosie and George Merrick as Albert. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

satisfying role of Kim’s mother. Kristine Zbornick makes Albert’s smothering mother both funny and annoying. It is a stereotype but she gives the role as much individuality as she can.

Overall the cast playing the teenagers are excellent. While not in their teens many are quite young. I especially liked Alex Walton as Hugo, Kim’s boyfriend. He projected that gawkiness and uncertainty of the age.

Tristen Buettel as Kim sings and dances well, but she is given a basic problem. She and most of the teen girls are supposed to be 14 or 15; she just doesn’t look it. If they had been slightly older – may be 16 or 17 – she would have fit the role better.

Overall it was interesting that many of the cast playing the teenager girls had difficulty passing as a young teen; the young men in the cast seemed to more realistically look their parts.

You will have a good time at Bye, Bye Birdie — I certainly did – and it is a great show for young people.

Bye, Bye Birdie is at Goodspeed in East Haddam through Sept. 8.   For tickets contact goodspeed.org or call 860-873-8668.

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Tristen Buettel as Kim and Rhett Guter as Birdie. Photo by Diane Soboleski.

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Jane Dacal as Rosie. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

“Invisible Hand” at Westport Is Engrossing Political/Financial Thriller

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Rahesh Bose, Fajer Kaisi, Eric Bryant and Jameal Ali. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

By Karen Isaacs

 Money is the subject of many adages – from “money is the root of all evil” to “money makes the world go round” to the biblical lines about the difficulty the rich have in entering heaven. In the 1980’s the motto seemed to be that “greed is good.”

The very talented playwright Ayad Akhtar has combined all of these viewpoints with a political thriller to create the compelling The Invisible Hand now getting an excellent production at Westport Country Playhouse through Aug. 6.

The play opens with Nick Bright (is the name a little too symbolic?) handcuffed in a small room with an obviously Muslim guard, Dar. During the exposition we learn that Nick works for Citibank in Pakistan and has been kidnapped partly by mistake; the group wanted his boss. They have demanded a $10 million ransom but nothing is happening. The group led by Imam Saleem; wants to use the ransom to fund economic and health projects to help the country. Saleem’s lieutenant is Bashir, whose parents left Pakistan for England years ago.

Nick is a brilliant trader in all sorts of financial instruments, able to determine how to make money in almost any situation and to find “the edge.” He is also very knowledgeable about Pakistani politics. In fact he has advised Dar how to make money on the potato crop.

As the rather long first act unfolds – it is over an hour – we see the gratuitous cruelty (Bashir kicks Dar in the groin), the despair of Nick and the intricacies of the relationship between Bashir and Saleem.

Since the bank seems in no hurry to pay the ransom, Nick and Saleem negotiate a deal. If Nick can make his ransom within one year, using as a starter money he has stashed in a Cayman Island account, he will be released. Bakshir will be his assistant and Nick is charged with teaching him how the markets operate.

Thus the title: The Invisible Hand. The termed is by the early economist Adam Smith to describe the unintended social benefits that arise from individuals pursuing their self-interests; that they balance out each other for the good of the whole.

Nick and Bakshir set to work; soon Bakshir gains some knowledge of an impending political assassination by another group and Nick parlays that into a $700,000 gain. But fissures start to appear. Barkshir feels he is being used as an errand boy, not a student and the Iman takes $400,000 from the working capital account to purchase vaccines. Nick suspects a large part of that went into the Iman’s pockets.

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Eric Bryant and Rajesh Bose. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The three men clash with Nick often forgetting that he is their captive and at their mercy. He believes they need him for his ability to “create” money. The Iman, while autocratic and ruthless, seems more practical than the younger Bakshir who is filled with resentment for the Western world and its values. He remembers the numerous slights and insults he endured in England.

At times the dialogue seems like a class in economics from the Bretton Woods agreement after WWII that made the American dollar the de facto monetary standard for the world, to the meanings of stock market terminology such as “put” and “calls.”

Yet, it never becomes dry or boring. We are caught up in the suspense. Will Nick succeed in raising his ransom?  Will his captors actually release him? As Bakshir gains knowledge will he challenge either Nick or the Iman?

In keeping with the political thriller genre, I won’t tell the answers to any of this. Let’s say some of it was predictable and some was not.

Playwright Akhtar, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning Disgraced has again created a play that will have you leaving the theater thinking. While American born and raised, Akhtar has an almost innate understanding of the perceptions and philosophy of the Islamic world. He is able to let us into a world that to Americans seems strange and perhaps “wrong.” He also articulates how the third world sees the dominant political and economic powers, of which the US is the most powerful.

Associate Artistic Director David Kennedy has kept the pacing tight and helped the actors delineate their very different characters. His direction helps us look at the various viewpoints presented.  The structure of the playing space, designed by Adam Rigg assists. The “curtain” – it isn’t really that – triangulates into the audience. In addition, Fitz Patton has created a sound design that lets the outside world infiltrate into Nick’s prison. Special mention must be given to Louis Colainni, who as the dialect coach, helps all of the actors to be both understandable and “in character.”

Rajesh Bose, who played the lead in Akhtar’s Disgraced at Long Wharf last year (and won awards) plays the Iman. He has to convince us that this pragmatic man who will let Nick manipulate money so that the Iman can use it, is also naïve enough to misjudge the results. The playwright has given him a difficult task. Fajer Kaisi is very effective as Bashir, the younger and both angrier and more idealistic follower of the Iman. It is he who carries the burden of presenting the third world view of America.  Eric Bryant is outstanding as Nick. His posture and gestures show us what may have happened (abuse?) before the play opens, but also his confidence as he gets into job. This is a multi-dimensional, layered performance that encourages us to be protective of him while also at times amazed at his sometimes dangerous outbursts.

The Invisible Hand through Aug. 6 will both have you on the edge of your seat and questioning some of your assumptions. It is at Westport Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport. For tickets visit wwestportplayhouse.org.

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Rajesh Bose, Eric Bryant, Fajer Kaisi. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

CRT’s ”West Side Story” Soars

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Photo by Gerry Goodstein

By Karen Isaacs

Something must be in the Connecticut air. Hartford Stage presented Romeo & Juliet this spring and this summer two theaters at opposite ends of the state are presenting West Side Story.

 The Connecticut Repertory Theater’s production in Storrs runs through July 17.

Overall this is a very good production. It is blessed with excellent production values and many fine performances.

I’m sure that everyone knows the basic outline of the plot: it is NYC in the 1950s and on the west side (think about where Lincoln Center is now), gangs patrol the streets. The division is not so much race as ethnicity: the recently arrived Puerto Ricans verssus the Italians, Polish and other who were born in the US though their parents immigrated. Into this mix, Leonard Bernstein (composer), Stephen Sondheim (lyricst) and Arthur Laurents (book) with the help of director Jerome Robbins created a compelling story.

Tony helped found the Jets but he is beginning to pull away; he is maturing but his best friend, Riff, and the others call on his loyalty for one last “rumble” against the Sharks, led by Bernardo. The complication is that at a dance designed to bring the warring groups together, Tony sees Bernardo’s sister, Maria, who has just arrived and the two fall instantly in love. Despite peace-making efforts, the road to tragedy cannot be detoured.

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Photo by Gerry Goodstein

Bernstein and Sondheim created a glorious jazz inspired score with haunting melodies from “Tonight” and “Maria” to “One Hand, One Heart,” ‘Somewhere,” and “I Have a Love.” They have also created some humorous numbers.  Robbins created dance that mixed ballet with modern dance and jazz to make the hatred and fights almost beautiful.

With what has been going on in the last months, some dialogue made me very uncomfortable. The police Lieutenant openly expresses his dislike (bordering on hatred) for the Puerto Ricans and encourages the Jets to “get rid of them” even offering to help. Yet at the same time, “Doc” the owner of the corner drugstore  tries to talk sense into the groups.

Kudos should go to scenic designer Tim Brown, and music direct N David Williams and the 12-piece orchestra.  Michael Vincent Skinner, the sound designer let the sound go a little too loud; when that happens soprano voices often sound screetchy.

But lighting designer Michael Chubowki created some terrific lighting effects particularly at the finale.

Christina Lorraine Bullard, the costume designer did a good job recreating the late ‘50s look, though she did better with the girls than the men. At times the men looked too much like Pat Boone to be believable as Jets.

Cassie Abate, a regular at CRT, has both directed and choreographed. She has channeled the Robbins choreography but added her own touches.

As the doomed lovers, Julia Estrada and Luke Hamilton make an attractive pair. Estrada has a lovely voice and shows us Maria’s vulnerability but also her strength. While Hamilton’s voice is also good, he needed more personality in the role; he looked and acted like any fresh faced kid.

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Anita and Bernardo. Photo by Gerry Goodstein

Yuriel Echezarreta as Bernardo and Cassidy Stoner as Anita both give strong performances. Echezarreta may look a little old for the role, but the book can justify that Bernardo is older than the teenage Jets. He projects confidence and sexuality; no wonder the boyish Jets want him out. Stoner really delivers as Anita, particularly in “A Boy like That” and in the simulated rape scene.

The three adults have stereotypical roles: the cynical police officer (John Bixler), the ineffective beat cop (Nick Lawson) and the shop owner (Dale AJ Rose). Each makes the most of his role, but all are unable to get through to the young men.

Since the cast is uniformly good, it is hard to pick out other very good performances, but I did like both Bentley Black as Riff and TJ Newton as Chino.

Go see this production; it will entertain you but it may unsettle you. Are we still repeating the past?

West Side Story is at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theater on the UConn campus in Storrs through July 17. For tickets call 860-486-2113 or crt.uconn.edu.

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Photo by Gerry Goodstein

 

Ivoryton’s “Chicago” Almost Meets Their High Standards

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“We Both Reached for the Gun” with Lyn Philistine and Christopher Sutton. Photo by Anne Hudson

By Karen Isaacs

 Last summer, Ivoryton Playhouse gave us terrific productions of two musicals – South Pacific and Memphis, plus a very good production of Little Shop of Horrors. So they have set the bar very high for this summer’s series of three musicals.

The first of them, Chicago, which runs through July 24 is a very good production that made me wish it were better. You will enjoy it; the night I saw it, the audience certainly did. Yet for me, it had enough minor flaws – and a few not so minor – that I couldn’t share totally the enthusiasm of the audience.

By now, it is hard to believe that there is anyone who hasn’t either seen a production of Chicago or seen the movie or at least recognizes some of the songs. The movie was hit, and the show is still running on Broadway – it is the longest running American musical in history – and there have been numerous touring productions.

This Kander & Ebb show which is actually based on a very old play that became the 1930s film Roxie Hart  is about the celebrity culture of the 1920s.  Roxie Hart kills her lover and becomes a celebrity; it is assumed that she will be acquitted and become a “star” on the vaudeville circuit. In the same position is Velma Kelly, who killed both her husband and her sister. Add in a celebrity lawyer, a sob-sister columnist and a very helpful matron at the jail and you have the makings of a terrific plot.

Kander & Ebb (and Bob Fosse the original director/choreographer) set it as a series of vaudeville routines introduced by various characters. Thus, Velma sings “An Act of Desperation”.

But Chicago presents challenges to any production; the Fosse choreography which is very stylized must be hinted at but cannot be copied; and it has stay true to the 1920s period. The actors playing Roxie, Velma and Billy Flynn, the lawyer need to have style and charisma.

Let me start by saying many things are good in this production. The nine piece orchestra is led by music director Paul Feyer. At the back of the stage behind what seems like prison bars, it is excellent and large enough to do justice to the music. The sound designer Tate R. Burmeister has also done an excellent job. You never are blasted out of your seats by the volume; you can hear the lyrics. Occasionally some of the singers were almost too quiet, but I was sitting in the back of the balcony.

Set designer Martin Scott Marchitto also handled the awkward Ivoryton stage cleverly. Most of the costumes by Elizabeth Cipollina were good, though a few seemed more 1930s than 1920s.

Todd L. Underwood both directed and choreographed. Again, he did a good job. I did find some of the choreography repetitious and not always in the 1920s mood.

The cast, which features seven performers with Equity cards, overall are good. Ian Greer Shain, who does not yet have his card, was a terrific as Amos, Roxie’s easily manipulated husband. He managed to make the character both sympathetic and pathetic and really put over the song, “Mr. Cellophane.” Z. Spiegel who plays Mary Sunshine, the columnist is also very, very good. Spiegel has done the role before.

Lyn Phillastine as Roxie both sings and dances well. Her gestures and facial expressions let us see Roxie’s cycles of confidence and fear, strength and weakness. Stacy Harris as Velma also delivers a fully developed characterization. Yet, with of each of them, there was something – hard to identify – missing. Just a little touch that would have made these performances truly outstanding.

Christopher Sutton plays the smooth talking, star lawyer who knows how to manipulate not only the press, but the jury and everyone else. While he may proclaim that ”All I Care About (Is You)”, he is clearly in it for the money and his own celebrity status. He views the law cynically, which he makes clear in the production number, “Razzle Dazzle.” Sutton again his good, but there is more lacking in his performance; he did not seem to project the magnetic qualities of Billy, and in the “Razzle Dazzle” number his costume makes him look like a circus ringmaster.

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Sheniqua Denise Trotman. Photo by Anne Hudson.

Unfortunately the weakest link in the show is Sheniqua Denise Trotman as Mama Morton, the prison Matron. I loved Trotman as Effie in Ivoryton’s Dream Girls. Here her voice is still terrific but she says many of her lines with minimal characterization or emotion. She doesn’t get across the innuendo in the role.

All in all, Ivoryton’s Chicago is a production that most of you will enjoy very much. While this show has a message – about cynicism and celebrity culture – it is presented in such an enjoyable way that you will be delighted.

Chicago is at Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., Ivoryton, through Sunday, July 24. For tickets visit ivortyonplayhouse.org or call 860-767-7318.

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Stacey Harris as Velma Kelly. Photo by Anne Hudson.

“Chicago,” Two “West Side Stories,” and Closings on Broadway

Inside notes and comments about Connecticut and New York Professional Theater

By Karen Isaacs

 “All that Jazz”: The long-running musical Chicago by Kander and Ebb hits the Ivoryton Playhouse stage, Sun. July 24. Todd Underwood is directing and choreographing the musical which features several performers familiar to Ivoryton audiences: Christopher Sutton as Billy Flynn, Lynn Philistine as Roxie Hart and Sheniqua Trotman as Mama Morton.  For tickets visit ivorytonplayhouse.org or call 860-767-7318 for tickets.

On Sale Now: Tickets are now sale for the Palace Theater, Waterbury’s presentation of Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage scheduled for Oct. 7-9. For tickets call 203-346-2000 or visit palacetheaterct.org.

 Nostalgic Music at Long Wharf: If you are looking for a light-weight but enjoyable entertainment on a hot summer night, Long Wharf is bringing back the production of The Bikinis from Wed., July 13 to Sun., July 31. The excuse for stringing together lots of great songs from the ‘60s and beyond is the story of a hit girls group from the Jersey shore who, 20 years later are trying to raise money to preserve the Sandy Shores Mobile Home Beach Resorts. For tickets visit longwharf.org or call 203-787-4282.

Seven for Next Season: Playhouse on Park in West Harford is planning seven productions for its 2016-17 season. Three musicals are included: Little Shop of Horrors (Sept.14-Oct. 16), [title of show] from Jan. 11 to 29, and Rockin’ the Forest (March 29–April 9)) by stop/time dance theater. The Playhouse will also present: Unnecessary Farce (Nov. 2-20), Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (Feb. 15 –March 5), Last Train to Nibroc (April 26-May 14); and concludes with The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) – Revised Edition, June 28-July 30. For subscriptions or information contact playhouseonpark.org or call 860-523-5900 ext. 10. Tickets for individual productions go on sale Aug. 1.

Midsummer (a play with songs) in Hartford: TheaterWorks is presenting an aptly titled play, Thursday, July 14 to Sunday, Aug. 21. According to the press materials, “It’s a midsummer weekend in Edinburgh and it’s raining. Bob’s a failing car salesman on the fringes of the city’s underworld. Helena’s a high-powered divorce lawyer with a taste for other people’s husbands. She’s totally out of his league; he’s not her type at all. They absolutely should not sleep together. Which is, of course, why they do. Midsummer is the story of a great-lost weekend of bridge-burning, car chases, wedding bust-ups, bondage miscalculations, midnight trysts and self-loathing hangovers.” It was written by Scottish articsts indie rocker Gordon McIntyre and playwright David Gried. For tickets, call 860-527-7838 or visit theaterworkshartford.org.

One Musical, Two Productions: West Side Story will be at opposite ends of the state this summer. The Connecticut Repertory Theater at UConn in Storrs production runs through Sunday, July 17. Several Broadway performers are starring in the production directed and choreographed by Cassie Abate: Yurel Echezarreta (whose credits include Broadway’s Matilda, Aladdin, La Cage aux Folles and the 2009 West Side Story revival) plays Bernardo.  Jose Lucas of (A Christmas Story) plays Indio; Luke Hamilton plays Tony and Julia Estrada is Maria. For tickets call 860-486-2113 or visit crt.uconn.edu.

The second production, at Summer Theater of New Canaan, runs through Sunday, July 31. Casting was not available at press time; STONC performs at Waverly Park under an all-weather, open-air tent theater. Seating is provided. For tickets or information call 203-966-4634 or visit stonc.org.

New Artistic Director: With the departure to the University of Michigan of Vincent J. Cardinal who has served as artistic director for many years, The Connecticut Repertory Theater which is part of the UConn’s theater program has named Michael Bradford as its new artistic director. Bradford has been at UConn since 2001 and is an accomplished playwright. Congratulations; I look forward to seeing in what direction he will take CRT in the coming years.

New York Notes: Tickets are now on sale for the Broadway run of Dear Evan Hansen, the off-Broadway musical that garnered many awards this past year. It opens Oct. 3 at the Belasco Theater with Ben Platt of Pitch Perfect starring as the teen struggling for identity amidst chaos. Tickets are available at telecharge.com. Telecharge is also now selling tickets for the revival of Les Liasions Dangereuses starring Janet Mcteer and Liev Shreiber. It begins previews on Oct. 8 and runs through Jan. 22. The all-star revival of the antic comedy Front Page begins previews Sept. 20 with a cast that includes Nathan Lane, John Goodman, Jefferson Mays, Rosemary Harris, Sherie Rene Scott and Robert Morse. Tickets are at Telecharge.

Did you know that CBS censored the signing in the performance of Spring Awakening broadcast on the Tonys? Some of the American Sign Language was changed; the last time the show was on the Tonys for the original production, CBS had them change some lyrics; this time the lyrics were OK but the signing wasn’t!

 What Will Be Open? If you are planning Broadway theater-going in August or early September, it may easier to figure what IS playing rather than what has closed. Lots of theaters will be available for fall productions.  Already closed are shows that won Tony awards for acting:  Eclipsed, The Father, Long Day’s Journey into Night; all were limited runs. Also closed are the long-running revival of The King and I as well as the new musical Bright Star.  In July the revivals of She Loves Me, The Crucible and Fully Committed will close. In a surprise, the producers of the new musical Shuffle Along, or… will close when Audra MacDonald goes on maternity leave. Late August and early September mark the closings of Finding Neverland, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Les Miserables, Fun Home and An Act of God. Plus, earlier closings included American Psycho, Disaster, Tuck Everlasting, and the limited run of Blackbird. The only shows opening during the summer are the revival of Cats and the limited run return of Motown: the Musical.

 

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