World Premiere “I Hate Musicals –The Musical” –Combines Satire with Burlesque

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Stephen Wallem. Photo by Anne Hudson

By Karen Isaacs

 A 50-ish comedy writer, old by TV standards, returns to Hollywood to resurrect his career. He had been fired due to anger issues, particularly towards the woman executive, and had found writing “serious” plays not financially viable. So he’s back – groveling or almost groveling to the same executive– to get a job writing a TV sitcom, in an industry that views him as a dinosaur.

That’s the set-up for the world premiere musical, I Hate Musicals – the Musical, now at Ivoryton Playhouse through Oct. 15.

But though that is the set-up for the show, the show is really about what happens when the writer, Alvin, gets trapped in concrete in the executive’s office after a major earthquake. His life doesn’t quite flash before his eyes, but he does encounter a number of hallucinations or ghosts from his past including both his “fictional” father and his real father, Jesus Christ and Freud.

It’s written by Mike Reiss, who wrote scripts for The Simpsons for 21 years, collecting four Emmys and a Peabody Award. Recently he has turned to playwriting – presumably not because he needs the money. His comedies – which are somewhat reminiscent of Neil Simon’s early works — include I’m  Connecticut which premiere at the Connecticut Repertory Theater and then at Ivoryton, as well Comedy Is Hard, which also was produced at Ivoryton. In a program note, Reiss says the play was originally a non-musical but since no producer would invest the money in a full-scale production; he decided that the best chance was to turn it into a musical.

I Hate Musicals – the Musical is a show that puzzled me. It is part burlesque of many musicals, part satire of Hollywood, television and writing, and occasionally part college show.

Yes, there are some very clever and funny things. At one point Alvin is visited by his father (“Professor”), a pompous man who is a professor of theatrical history at Yale. Professor is constantly critical and cold. But later we meet Alvin’s “real father” who is warm and supportive. When “Professor” questions why he was created, Alvin replies “for dramatic tension.”

He’s also included some funny comments about television’s ability to take a creative idea and convert it to a “knock off” of many shows.

But for every funny and insightful comment there are those that are much less sophisticated. Much of that is in the music. While Walter Murphy composed most of the original music (there’s not that much), most of the actual music in the show – which isn’t listed in the program – are snippets of well-known songs with parody lyrics. Thus we get “I Hate Hollywood” to the tune of “Hooray for Hollywood,” “I Hate LA” to “YMCA,”Garfinkle” to “Goldfinger.” You get the picture.

Most of the cast plays multiple roles. They handle them mostly successfully, particularly since some of the characters are very broadly written. Will Clark plays both “real dad” and Jesus – both with awful wigs. Amanda Huxtable plays all the women – the executive, Alvin’s ex-wife, Mary (yes, the mother of Jesus) and Mom. She manages to inhabit all of them successfully Ryan Knowles is excellent as the Professor. Sam Given plays both a security guard – who keeps finding Alvin stuck in the rubble but letting him know that other, more important people, must be rescued first, as well as Sigmund Freud.

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R. Bruce Connelly. Photo by Anne Hudson

Bruce Connelly has a field day playing Alvin’s agent, Lee, who Alvin keeps calling. Lee is in Hawaii on vacation and keeps forgetting who Alvin is and to call 9-11 so that someone will rescue him.

Stephen Wallem is excellent as Alvin, delivering the lines with assurance and getting all the humor out of them. You actually are convinced he is that beleaguered writer.

I don’t know whether to blame the script or the director (James Valletti) for the numerous extremely flamboyant gay stereotypes that might be funny in small doses but becomes borderline objectionable. A little of that goes a long way.

Special praise to Daniel Nischan as the scenic designer, Marcus Abbott (lighting designer) and Tate R. Burmeister (sound designer). They create a realistic earth quake – actually two; you almost feel the ground shake.

If you really love The Simpsons and that type of humor, you will find I Hate Musicals – the Musical great fun. Even if that is not your favorite of humor, you will find some very funny moments.

It’s at Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main Street, Ivoryton through Sunday, Oct.15. Call 860-767-7318 or visit Ivoryton Playhouse

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Will Clark, Stephen Wallem, Amanda Huxtable. Photo by Anne Hudson

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“Avenue Q” at Playhouse on Park Reminds Us of Starting Out

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The cast of Avenue Q

By Karen Isaacs

 Avenue Q was a surprise Broadway hit and Tony winner for Best Musical. Why? This small show had originated off-Broadway and featured actors holding puppets who were many of the show’s characters.

While it tells a universal story about young adults struggling to get started in careers in the Big Apple, it also had a modern 21st century attitude.

Part romance, there is a heavy dose of satire and humor in the show, now at Playhouse on Park in West Harford, through Oct. 8.

While not my favorite show, director/choreographer Kyle Brand and a talented cast are presenting a very good rendition of the show.

It is set on Avenue Q in New York City, which its residents describe as the place where those who cannot afford living on Avenue A, B, C or D (all streets on lower east side of the city) go.

Into the neighborhood wonders Princeton a recent college graduate wondering what he can do with his BA in English. He quickly meets the other residents – all of whom seem to feel as though their lives are less than perfect. Kate Monster is a kindergarten teaching assistant, Brian aspires to be a comic, his girlfriend Christmas Eve is a therapist without clients and the buildings are presided over by Gary Coleman, the former child star.

It’s a diverse group and each has his or her problems. During the course of the two hour show, the characters discover things about themselves and form a variety of relationships. Princeton and Kate fall in love, break up and get back together again, Brian and Christmas Eve marry, Rod, the most successful of the group, acknowledges his sexuality. Nothing all that unusual.

But the music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, who originally conceived the piece as a TV series, veer from the expected to more social commentary.

Many young adults – and some older ones – have thought what the songs express. Princeton wonders “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English) while the entire cast tries to on-up each other in “It Sucks to Be Me.”

Weston Chandler Long, Peej Mele and Ashley Brooke are the three cast members who manipulate and voice the puppets; each plays at least two roles. They are all so skillful that you believe the puppets are actually talking and emoting. Yet if you look at the performers, you see that they are truly acting with their faces and gestures matching what the puppets are saying.

All three of these young performers deserve to get their Equity cards (membership).

James Fairchild, EJ Zimmerman and Abena Mensah-Bonsu are the three characters who are NOT puppets. Fairchild is Brian, who wants to be a comedian; Zimmerman is Christmas Eve, his girlfriend and a therapist; while Mensah-Bonsu plays Gary Coleman. Each is very good.

The entire cast is backed by a 5-piece band.

I was initially concerned how director/choreographer Kyle Brand would use the large, thrust stage which has the audience on three sides. But he is extremely effective in his staging. The performers move deftly so that all the audience can see and hear. Yet the pacing seems a bit slow; my attention began to wander.

Anyone who is just starting his or her career, or remembers what it was like will enjoy this production of Avenue Q.

 It runs through Oct. 8 at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Rd., West Hartford. For tickets visit PlayhouseOnPark.org or call 860-523-5900 ext. 10.

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Weston Chandler Long, Peej Mele and Colleen Welsh

 

A Magical, Almost Perfect Production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Hartford Stage

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 You may feel that another production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream would be a bore; after all it is produced all the time.

But you would be mistaken. Darko Tresnjak, Hartford Stage’s artistic director has given us a magnificent production which mines all the humor and romance of this comedy. Make sure you see it before it closes on Sunday, Oct. 8.

Though A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play almost everyone seems to know, it is not an easy play to produce. It combines a variety of worlds and attitudes from the emotionally high strung love of young people, to a fairy kingdom which shows us a marriage that has lasted centuries, plus an adult “political” marriage. It combines the monarchs with the lesser nobility and the working men of the kingdom.

Too often, these disparate elements can be unbalanced with either the young love, the slapstick or the fairy kingdom taking over the play.

Not so in this production. Each element is given its appropriate weight and attention.

If you have forgotten this play, it features two sets of young lovers: Hermia who loves Lysander despite her father’s disapproval plus Demetrius who the father has said should marry Hermia and Helena who desperately loves Demetrius. The first and last acts are set in the kingdom of Duke Theseus who is about to marry Queen Hippolyta, a warrior queen whom he bested in battle.

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Jenny Leoona Photo by T. Charles Erickson

The middle part of the play is set during one night in a forest which is overseen by Oberon and Titania, the King and Queen of the fairies and their courts including Oberon’s ‘right hand person” Puck. But this old married couple is having a fight and Oberon want to embarrass Titania. Into these woods stray the four young lovers and through a mistake by Puck, soon find their infatuations all changed around. Also coming into the wood is a group of “mechanicals,” working men who are rehearsing a play to be presented in honor of the Duke’s wedding. Oberon uses one of these to trick Titania.

Of course, all is straightened out by the end of the play and all the lovers are happy.

As a theatergoer, you will also be happy from the moment you walk into the theater and see the beautifully stylized poster and program cover of an attractive woman in a 1930’s glamourous gown standing on a crescent moon.

Entering the theater you behold Alexander Dodge’s magnificent set: a European style Middle Ages gate house that would protect the city and the city skyline in the background. That gatehouse rotates and the other side, covered in foliage, makes a wonderful forest.

The costume design by Joshua Pearson continues this sense of the early 20th century, with servants in black dresses with white aprons and caps, and women in mid-calf length dresses. To stress the youth of the young lovers, the four are dressed as students with Lysander and Demetrius in short pants and blazers and the Helena and Hermia in skirts, blouses and blazers. Each carries a different piece of sports equipement.

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Photo by T> Charles Erickson

Add to the production the effective lighting by York Kennedy, the sound by Broken Chord and projections by Lucas Clopton & Darron Alley and you are transported into this magical world.

It’s interesting that Tresjnak has made no attempt to have the fairies soar around the stage or for the court of Titania and Oberon to be played by children. Instead he lets us use our imagination. We can easily recognize that Titania and Oberon are, in fact, Theseus and Hippolyta; that Puck is Theseus’ servant, Philostrate and that the fairies surrounding Titania are servants from the manor.

The entire cast is excellent.  Esau Pritchett and Scarlett Strallen are the adults in this play as both Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania. Though they play two pairs of “royals,” the characters are very different in both appearance and attitude. Just to see Hippolyta’s reaction to Theseus’ lack of sympathy for the young lovers is clear, understated and funny.  When the fairy king and queen they are more direct and sensual.

As the four young lovers, Tom Pecinka as Lysander stands out though all of them are excellent. Each Jenny Leona (Hermia), Damian Jermaine Thompson (Lysander) and Fedna Laure Jacquet (Helena) may be adult performers, but they totally captured the impulsiveness of teenagers.

Puck is an essential role in the fairy kingdom; he is part servant and part knave enjoying the havoc he creates. Will Apicella may not be the best Puck I’ve seen, but he captures effectively the duality of the character: good servant and mischievous goof-up.

The third major element in this play are the mechanicals. Here, both the casting and the direction is outstanding. Each of the men creates a recognizable character with just enough humor, never becoming so broad as to draw attention away from the larger play. John Lavelle has the meaty role of Bottom, the one used by Oberon to embarrass Titania. Lavelle gives him the ego that is required but also a humanity that is also necessary.

In the last part of the play, the mechanicals put on their play of Pyramus and Thisbe that bears a resemblance to Romeo and Juliet. Sometimes this is drawn out too long or is played too broadly. This scene which can seem to go endlessly has been directed to perfection by Tresnjak. I can’t remember seeing it done any better in any of the many productions I’ve attended.

Shakespeare gave us some lines that reinforce the point of the play –“the course of true love never did run smooth” and Puck’s line “what fools these mortals be.”

Yes, but in this production the mortals may be fools, but they are also delightful.

For tickets visit hartfordstage.org or call 860-527-5151. Hartford Stage is at 50 Church Street, Hartford.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publishing Weeklies and zip06.com

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Scarlett Strallen. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

“Small Mouth Sounds” Shows that Words Aren’t Always Necessary

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Ben Beckley and Edward Chin-Lyn. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 Take a diverse group of people with some secrets and bring them together; it is a classic pattern for fiction and drama. Think about Grand Hotel, any ship or disaster film, even many war movies.

Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds now at Long Wharf adds a unique twist to this story. Yes, she brings together six people only two of whom know each other. Each has a distinct backstory including some problems and some secrets. She puts them in a closed environment, in this case a week long “retreat”.

The twist is that this environment asks them to observe silence.

Can you have a play with very little dialogue?

The answer is definitely yes, but it did, at the end, leave me unsatisfied.

The plays starts with six of the attendees arriving one by one (except for the two women who know each other), and taking their chairs waiting for the retreat to start. Then comes the disembodied voice of the leader, who sets down the rules which includes no cell phones, outside food. and silence. Plus also a clothing option lake for swimming. One attendee arrives late disturbing the others.

We skip through the week – from the first night as the uncoupled attendees are paired off for sleeping, to surreptitious use of cell phones, snacks and some nude swims.

Most of the communication is through gestures and facial expressions; periodically attendees speak and the teacher offers instruction and guidance.

It becomes the task of the audience to interpret the various interactions and the clues to flesh out who these people are and why they are attending.

It’s not a totally successful process since you often only get a general idea of this. For example, Jan (played by Connor Barrett) who is the first attendee, does not speak. The only hint he really provides is a photo (which I could not see clearly) that he carries with him and puts by his sleeping area. Who is the person? Where is the person? You never know.

Others provide more guidance, we can figure out that Joan and Judy are a couple and that Judy is battling cancer while Joan is the caregiver, with all that entails. Actually we get that from some of the minimal dialogue.

We can recognize that Rodney is confident; when he enters, he selects a space to do some yoga exercises that is almost directly in front of Jan. He is also the one who encourages the nude swimming.

But for some of the others, all we get are generalizations and stereotypes. What dialogue there is, provides most of the plot.

Nothing tremendous happens during the week long retreat. The six participants do seem to bond in some way, some people are hurt and some are granted forgiveness.

At almost two hours, Small Mouth Sounds sometimes seems long and other times it moves quickly.

You may be surprised at how much empathy you develop for many of the characters, particularly Ned who has had a run of Job-like disasters, annoyed at Rodney and confused by the teacher’s disembodied voice. For we even learn somethings about him.

Playwright Bess Wohl has given the actors a difficult task which they handle beautifully with the help of director Rachel Chavkin.

You will come away from Small Mouth Sounds further convinced that people, no matter where they are or who they are, are more alike than different. And that we can understand each other no matter what language we speak.

To be reminded of that at a time when so much of our words lack civility is uplifting.

Tickets are available at Long Wharf.

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Ben Beckley, Brenna Palughi, Edward Chin-Lyn. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Prince of Broadway –Looking Back at a Long, Successful Career

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Karen Ziemba, Emily Skinner, Chuck Cooper, Tony Yazbeck. Photo by Matthew Murphy

By Karen Isaacs

Follies, Evita, Sweeney Todd, Phantom of the Opera, West Side Story, Cabaret – the list is endless of shows that Hal Prince either directed or produced or both.

So a Broadway show that includes scenes from all these should be terrific. Right? Unfortunately, while Prince of Broadway has many delightful moments, the sum of its parts doesn’t add up to a hit show.

Why is hard to determine. Certainly the cast of the Manhattan Theater Club production (now at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through Oct 22) includes top notch musical theater talent – Tony Yazbeck, Brandon Uranowitz, Emily Skinner, Karen Ziemba and more.

Yet this evening that uses Prince’s biography to string together scenes from both hit and flop shows, only sometimes catches fire.

The show gets off to a slow start. The overture, arranged by composer Jason Robert Brown lists 17 songs as being included, yet somehow it was hard to identify many of them. It seemed as only phrase or two was included.

Throughout the show, various cast members, each speaking as if he or she were Hal Prince, detail parts of his biography. It opens with some bio and then just a snitch of the first show he was involved in – The Pajama Game.  We hear a few bars of “Hey, There” but we see no-one. From there were are on to a well sung, but somehow lifeless rendition of “Heart” from Damn Yankees.

 The show begins to gather some momentum with West Side Story, the first show Prince produced; at that point chronology goes out the window. Why the remainder of the show is organized the way it is, is a mystery. It seems relatively random.

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Janet Dacal Photo by Matthew Murphy

So what are the highlights?  Each member of the nine person cast has moments that are terrific.  Kaley Ann Voorhees is a luminous Maria in “Tonight” from West Side Story and Janet Dacal is hilarious doing “You’ve Got Possibilities “ from It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman. She’s also a very good Eva Peron and Aurora (Kiss of the Spider Woman). Byronha Marie Parkham does her best work as Amalia in She Loves Me with “Will He Like Me?”

 Tony Yazbeck once again demonstrates not only his exceptional dance talent, but also his strong voice. He’s Tony in West Side Story, Che in Evita, and with a nod to Jason Robert Brown, Leo in Parade. Since I had never seen nor heard the entire show, his rendition of “It’s Not Over Yet” was a highlight for me. It is an exceptionally moving song. But the extended dance number in Follies, while well executed doesn’t seem to have a purpose beyond showing off his skills.

Once again, I was delighted with the performance of Brandon Uranowitz,as the Emcee in Cabaret, George in She Loves Me and Molina in Kiss of the Spider Woman. Chuck Cooper scored with songs from Showboat and as Sweeny Todd, though his Tevye was not as good.

Michael Xavier has followed up his performance as Joe in the recent Sunset Boulevard with some excellent work as the Phantom, Bobby in Company and Fredrik in A Little Night Music.

 The first act closing number, a series of songs from Cabaret was terrific. Not only was Brandon Uranowitz is excellent as the Emcee but Karen Ziemba gave us two characters – the gorilla in “If You Could See Her” and a touching Fraulien Schneider is “So What?” Her performance as Mrs. Lovett in “The Worst Pies in London” was a highlight of the second act. These are two roles I hope some director casts Ziemba in very soon.

Emily Skinner’s best number is“The Ladies Who Lunch” from Company; her rendition of “Send in the Clowns” is very good but not outstanding.

Certainly the production values are excellent. Beowulf Boritt (scenic and production

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Emily Skinner. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

design) and William Ivey Long (costume design) have handled the huge task for recreating moods for these diverse shows in different periods and location with finesse. As has Howell Binnkley with the lighting design.

Susan Stroman is credited as both choreographer and co-director with Prince himself.

Although I just wish that Prince of Broadway had somehow caught fire more than did, it is still a very enjoyable evening in the theater – revisiting favorite musicals or discovering some new ones.

It is at the Manhattan Theater Club, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th Street. Tickets are available through Telecharge.

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Tony Yazbeck, Kaley Ann Voorhees. Photo by Matthew Murphy

 

Lots to Anticipate with Pleasure in Connecticut’s Up-Coming Theater Season

By Karen Isaacs

 Every year as theaters announce their up-coming seasons, certain productions pique my interest. I circle their dates on my calendar in anticipation.

So what have I circled for this up-coming year? Connecticut theaters offer a good mixture of the new, the classics, the familiar, and the rare. I have circled some of each.

(One caveat: Goodspeed, Ivoryton and Westport have not announced their productions for the first half of 2018. I’m sure some of those would have made my list).

The Musicals:

RAGS poster Rags at Goodspeed Musicals (Oct. 6 –Dec. 10). This isn’t a new musical, but one of those shows that “failed” on Broadway but has developed a devoted following. Its authors, Charles Strouse (Bye, Bye Birdie,) and Stephen Schwartz (Pippin), have worked on the show extensively with a new book writer (David Thompson) and the revised version has been performed to good reviews. This show about turn-of-the-20th century Jewish immigrants seems timely; the score is excellent.

Red Hot Mama: The Sophie Tucker Story at Seven Angels Theater, (Feb. 15 – March 11). I’m not sure if this is a one-woman show or not, but it focuses on the life and career of vaudeville star Sophie Tucker.

bridges of madison - imageThe Bridges of Madison County at MTC (Nov. 3-19). I love Jason Robert Brown’s score for this adaptation of the novel. I’ll be interested in how director Kevin Connors handles it on the smaller stage. I suspect it will increase the intimacy and emotional impact.

Oklahoma at Goodspeed (through Sept. 27). I’ve already seen this production and while it is quite good, it disappointed me. It didn’t live up to all I had hoped it would be.

The Classics:

I like Shakespeare and Connecticut is blessed with two directors who have a track record of outstanding productions of Shakespeare. Each is directing a work this fall.

Romeo & Juliet at Westport Country Playhouse (Oct. 31 to Nov. 19).  Artistic Director Mark Lamos directed one of the best productions of this tragedy at Hartford Stage years ago. I still remember it and hope this production will live up to his earlier one.

midsummerMidsummer Night’s Dream at Hartford Stage (Sept. 7 to Oct. 8). Artistic Director Darko Tresjnak has given Connecticut an almost annual Shakespeare production including terrific productions of MacBeth, The Tempest, Hamlet, Twelfth Night and a riotous A Comedy of Errors. Now he is turning his hand to this classic comedy. It’s bound to be good.

It seems as though Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People is having a resurgence; there were two productions in New York last season and now it is opening Yale Rep’s season (Oct 6 -28). This play is about individual responsibility, courage, economics, and environmental health, yet it was written almost 140 years ago.

Dramas & Comedies (New, Familiar & Rare)

 Matthew Lopez is a fine younger playwright, whose works I’ve enjoyed (The Whipping Man, Reverberation), so I’m looking forward to The Legend of Georgia McBride at TheaterWorks (March 15 – April 22). It’s about a young man, a former Elvis impersonator who becomes a successful drag queen.

fireflies posterFireflies (Oct. 11 – Nov. 5) at Long Wharf is featuring an outstanding cast including Jane Alexander. For that reason alone, it’s on my list.

The Connecticut Rep is doing Our Country’s Good (Nov.  30 – Dec. 9). It premiered at Hartford Stage many years ago and is a fascinating look at the founding of Australia and the power of theater to transform people.

 Almost all of Hartford Stage’s productions sound interesting, but if I am to pick just one it would be Athol Fugard’s Statements After an Arrest Under the Immortality Act, (May 10- June 3). Why?  Athol Fugard is one of the great playwrights and this is an earlier work, plus it reveals more about life under apartheid in South Africa.

It’s also hard to pick which Yale Rep play will astound me: I am unfamiliar with many of them. But if forced to circle just one on my calendar, it would be Kiss, (April 27-May) by Guillermo Calederón. Why? The description sounds interesting: about people surviving in Damascus.

I did not get to see Jesse Eisenberg’s The Revisionist off-Broadway, so I’m looking forward to the Playhouse on Park production, April 11-29. It’s about a young man who visits an elderly cousin in Warsaw who is a Holocaust survivor.

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

“Saturday Night Fever” at Ivoryton Brings Back the Disco Era

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Photo by Jonathan Steele

By Karen Isaacs

Disco is alive and well on the stage of Ivoryton Playhouse with its energetic production of Saturday Night Fever through Sunday, Sept. 3.

If you loved the movie, you will enjoy elements of the musical; but be aware that it is much more up-beat than the film and the music has changed significantly.

The 1977 film detailed a sub-culture in Brooklyn of late teens who are caught in dead-end jobs, few prospects and stifling Italian-American and Catholic traditions. They find their release in horsing around, drinking, sex and dancing. Tony, the lead, works in a hardware store as a clerk, lives at home with parents who not only bicker but make him feel as the lesser of their two sons (the other is a priest), and has few opportunities for a better life. But on the weekend he goes to the local disco club where he is king of the dance hall.

While the movie is centered on a dance competition with a $1,000 prize, it also touches on the ethnic/racial unrest, abortion, rape and suicide.

When the movie was rewritten for the stage, it became much less dark. Many of these elements were either removed or softened. It was transformed into a romantic show, about teenage love with a tragic twist for one of the supporting characters.

Since its 1999 debut in London, the show’s score has undergone many revisions and reordering of songs. Most were not in the film.

Director/choreographer Todd L. Underwood has assembled a large cast of mostly younger performers who dance up a storm. He draws on all variations of disco dancing and the hustle. The result is a veritable treasure chest of late ‘70s and ‘80s music.

Most of the music is from the BeeGees library – either written by the Gibbs brothers or from their repertory. It may not go down as classics, but as someone said, it is nostalgic for those who lived through the period.  Even if you were listening to variations of hardcore rock, you were aware of these tunes, though you may have made fun of them.

What makes this production so enjoyable is the cast. The three main characters, Tony, Stephanie and Annette are all excellent. Michael Notardonato as Tony has played the role before; he is totally comfortable in the part yet does not give us an imitation of John Travolta’s performance. His walk, talk and dancing convey Tony’s confidence but also hints at his dissatisfaction and ambitions.

Caroline Lellouche plays the blonde Stephanie who Tony is attracted to both for her dancing and her attitude. Lellouche is a terrific dancer and she projects Stephanie’s veneer of sophistication. Yet, I wish there was more hint that some of what she says is not the absolute truth. Stephanie is a girl desperately trying to get out and stay out.

As Annette, the neighborhood girl who so wants Tony to like her, Nora Fox, truly gets underneath this character and shows us all of her contradictions and her desperation.

In the secondary plot, Sarah Mae Banning gives us a sweet and gentle Pauline and Pierre Marals shows us all sides of the confused and trapped Bobby C.

Set designer Martin Scott Machitto has created a backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge with the bridge supports as a repeated theme. The two sides of Ivoryton’s stage are turned into Tony’s bedroom and the disco’s MC booth. Together with the lighting by Marcus Abbott, it really suggests the urban area.

It may have been where I was sitting, in the balcony, but at times I found it difficult to hear/understand the dialogue, particularly Tony. Was it that the sound was too soft? Was it that he was giving us a Brando-ish mumble? Or was the accent interfering with his ability to project. But it was annoying to not always catch the lines.

This may have been a problem with either the sound design or equipment. Yet for the most part of the lyrics were understandable and the sound did not blast your eardrums.

For the most part the costumes by Lisa Bebey were appropriately disco era, and of course, we had to have Tony’s iconic white suit.

Saturday Night Fever is not a great musical. In toning down some of the harsher elements of the film, it becomes less realistic. Yet for those who recall the film or remember the era, it is an enjoyable evening in the theater.

It runs through Sunday, Sept. 3. For tickets visit ivorytonplayhouse.org or call 860-767-7318.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and Zip06.

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Photo by Jonathan Steele

Great Music, Fascinating Performance Combined in “Our Great Tchaikovsky” at Hartford Stage

By Karen Isaacs

 Hershey Felder has combined his considerable piano skills, with acting, writing and directing, to create a series of theater pieces on the lives of great composers.

In each piece, he becomes the composer and helps to put the music into context of the lives and times of these men.  Hartford Stage audiences have seen him as George Gershwin in George Gershwin Alone and Frederic Chopin in Monsieur Chopin.

 Now he is returning to Hartford Stage through Aug. 27 in Our Great Tchaikovsky. It is an enchanting evening of music, biography and commentary on the life of the man who gave us not only symphonies and concerti but also ballets. Felder said after the show in a talk back, that Tchaikovsky is said to be the most played classical composer annually.

Surrounded by a scenic design  suggestive of a Russian living room (designer by Felder) and wonderful lighting and projections by Christopher Ash, you are transported to 19th century Russia.

Felder has the ability to tell the biographical details of Tchaikovsky’s life and comment upon them. He becomes not only him but a few other characters in his life.

Often he is playing Tchaikovsky’s compositions while telling the story of Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky who was, at the age of 10, left at boarding school in St. Petersburg, hundreds of miles from home to train to become a civil servant. Already he had shown great musical talent, but his parents did not view that as an appropriate career choice. His mother died four years later.

If there is a central focus to Felder’s presentation, it is twofold: that for most of his career he was more recognized and admired outside of Russia than within it. The musical establishment, including his contemporaries, consistently found little talent in his works. It wasn’t just at the beginning when his teacher and noted pianist Nicholai Rubenstein declared that the now famous first piano concerto needed to be totally rewritten, but it continued throughout his life even with critics seeing little of value in “The Nutcracker.”

The other focus is the impact of his sexuality on his life and music. He was homosexual (though the current Russian government has declared otherwise) and may have had pedophiliac tendencies. Felder hints at this obliquely. Much of his life was spent worrying about being “outed” to authorities and the larger world.  His patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, cut off support as a condition so that her family would not reveal the information. Though he married, in part to tamp down the rumors, they separated almost immediately. Later in life, his still-wife (who had born three children by lovers) blackmailed him for money.

Tchaikovsky was criticized in Europe for being “too Russian” in his compositions, but in Russia, he was accused of being “too Western.”

Felder’s performance includes a convincing accent and a conversational manner with the audience, as well as brilliant piano playing. He includes an excerpt from his arrangement for the piano of the famous Piano Concerto No. 1.  You would like to hear more.

If there a quibble to this very enjoyable and enlightening evening, it is his connection of Tchaikovsky’s sexuality and fears of revelation with current Russian governmental policies regarding homosexuals. While the point is well taken, it pops up too often.

If you love music, this is a show you should definitely see. Tickets are available through Hartford Stage

“Appropriate” – a Dysfunctional Family Drama Now at Westport

appropriate 3

Betsy Aiden and Nick Selting. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

By Karen Isaacs

 Writers, including playwrights, love dysfunctional families. From Oedipus to August, Osage County and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? dysfunctional families have populated the stage.

For any family, the death of the last parent and the dismantling of the home and possessions of the parents are times of stress, bringing up emotions, resentments and memories. For a family that is fractured in some way, these events can trigger Armageddon.

This is the basis of the story of Appropriate by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins now at Westport Country Playhouse through Sept. 2.

The play opens with what seems an eternity of blackness and loud whirring sounds that could be traffic, machinery, or as we learn actually are cicadas, those insects that emerge from the ground every 13 years to mate, bury the eggs and then die.

Into a darkened overly cluttered house, a man enters through a window followed by a younger woman. It is Frank and his fiancée, River, entering his father home in rural Arkansas. He has returned because the house will be auctioned within days. Frank, who now calls himself, Franz, is, we learn, the “wayward” son – the last to leave the family home, the one who has battled addictions, who committed a terrible act, and who has been out of touch for ten or so years.

Why has he come?

We soon meet Toni, the eldest sibling who is tactless, aggressive and angry. During the course of the play, we learn her backstory. She mothered her two younger brothers when their mother died, she has spent time looking after their ailing father, and she not only recently was divorced but she has lost her job and her son is estranged from her. She feels put upon, unappreciated and overwhelmed.

By morning we have met Bo, the middle child and his wife, Rachel, and their two children – the younger Ainsley and the 13-year-old Cassie. Bo, too has resentments and pressures on him: he has supported his father and the house during the final years and resents that Toni was named the executor; he is also under job pressure, plus his wife harbors resentment towards the father.

I can’t tell you about all the resentments and family skeletons that emerge during the course of this rather lengthy (2 hours 45 minute) play. Let’s just say that at the heart of the revelations and fights are how each sibling views the father and how each feels he or she was treated. Each believes he or she was short-changed in some way.

Jacobs-Jenkins has added in a large degree of mysticism or spirits: is the house haunted?

But one of the primary conflicts, besides the age old question of who did dad love best, is how each of the siblings and Bo’s wife, view the father. Toni has idealized the man, while Bo and Franz have varying degrees of realistic understanding.

Yet all of them, seem blindsided when one aspect of their father’s history (and beliefs) is discovered:  a photo album that contains horrifying images. Toni resists accepting that her father, a Harvard educated lawyer who was talked about as a possible Supreme Court candidate, could have harbored such beliefs.

As with any young playwright, Jacobs-Jenkins has tried to cram too much into this work. He is very talented, but in his program interview he talks about family dramas and that they are all about race or ethnicity or identity. In some ways it is easy to see the sources of his inspiration.

Adding to all of that, is very heavy and sometime obvious symbolism. He has titled the three acts of the play: The Book of Revelations, Walpurgisnacht (or witches’ night) and The Book of Genesis. Then there is the supernatural element to the play.  River, Franz’s fiancée, believes she detects ghostly vibes in the house, and this is carried through to the rather bizarre and overly long ending. Let’s just say that it doesn’t end when you think it does.

Even the title of the play, Appropriate, has multiple meanings and pronunciations.  It can be suitable or to take without permission.  Both seem operable in this play.

Director David Kennedy has done an excellent job with his cast to keep the play moving and to illuminate, at least some of the issues.  He is aided by the various sound, lighting and set affects the play requires. So kudos to the production team: Andrew Boyce (scenic design), Matthew Richards (lighting) and Fitz Patton (sound).

It is a compliment to Betsy Aiden who plays Toni, that by the end of the first act, you want to strangle her. She makes no attempt to soften the character, but goes full throttle with her resentments, anger and sense of victimization.  Shawn Fagan plays the damaged Franz for just that, a man trying hard to reconnect and gain acceptance from a family that only remembers his problems. David Aaron Baker has a difficult job with Bo, the middle sibling, partly because the character seems rather passive. He does not seem to react to what is going on around him, but fades into the woodwork even during the angry scene between his wife and Toni.

Perhaps the clearest voice of sanity is Anna Crivelli, as River. She may be young and be a little too “new age” but as played she also seems to have the ability to remain clear-eyed. This undoubtedly is due to having no history with anyone in the family.

Diane Davis is good as Bo’s wife, Rachel. She has felt estranged from the family for years. The two teens are played by Nick Selting as Rhys, Toni’s almost adult son, and Allison Winn as Bo’s early teen daughter.

How you react to Appropriate may reveal your own family problems or lack thereof and your tolerance for watching people try to avoid hurtful truths.

It is at Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport. For tickets call 888-927-7529 or visit wWestport Country Playhouse.

Goodspeed’s “Oklahoma!” Is Worth Seeing Despite Flaws

Goodspeed Musicals - Oklahoma!

Photo by Diane Sobolewski

By Karen Isaacs

 Goodspeed Musicals is presenting, for the first time, the classic musical Oklahoma! through Sept. 27.

As usual with Goodspeed, this production of Oklahoma! is good, perhaps even very good, but it has some major flaws..

Oklahoma! was the first Rodgers & Hammerstein musical and has been acknowledged as beginning the new “golden age” of musicals that led to Carousel, King & I, South Pacific, My Fair Lady and so many more.

It takes place at the turn of the 20th century, as Oklahoma is moving from territory status to statehood. (It became a state in 1907). We have the farmers and the ranchers in a precarious truce; farmers fence land the ranchers want to use and roaming herds destroy crops.

This is exemplified in the stories: we have cowboy Curley wooing Laurey, a young woman who owns a farmer. (It is never explained how a young woman came to own the land). Even the secondary plot about Ado Annie and Will has the same situation.

Goodspeed Musicals - Oklahoma

Rhett Guter & Samantha Bruce. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

Curly and Laurey’s romance is somewhat typical: boy and girl spar, she is sought by another man, and eventually they marry before the final curtain.  Ado Annie and Will are the comic counterparts. She is a little “loose” with her attentions and Will seems to not always use common sense. There’s even a third man, the traveling salesman Hakim.

What made Oklahoma! different from musicals that came before it, is the darker element that is developed through the character of Jud, the farmhand. He is bitter and dangerous, and fixated on Laurey.

Rodgers & Hammerstein wrote glorious melodies for the show, from the opening number (“Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’”) to “People Will Say We’re in Love,”  “Out of My Dreams” plus the humorous “Kansas City,” “I Cain’t Say No” and the rousing title tune. In addition, Agnes de Mille created a dream/nightmare ballet to end the first act.

Every director will have his or her own approach to classic musicals. Jenn Thompson obviously has a point of view about this show which has influenced her casting and her handling of the material. Unfortunately, her point of view is not that clear; I suspect I know what she was going for, but I’m far from sure.

No matter what her point of view, she made a major casting error with Rhett Guter as Curly.  He was terrific in the Goodspeed production of Bye, Bye Birdie directed by Thompson last year, but I doubt anyone, looking at him, would identify him as a cowboy. He doesn’t have the rugged, masculine look that the role requires.

It is not just his looks that aren’t quite right. His voice lacks the heft the role requires. He uses a light baritone most of the time, only showing some force with the title number. He both looks, sounds and acts like a freshman in college.

This is magnified by the excellence of Samantha Bruce as Laurey. Not only does she sing magnificently with a soprano that soars when needed, but her acting illustrates the complexities of Laurey – a young, still maturing girl in love for the first time, but one who also is managing a farm successfully. It’s clear who should be the decision maker in this relationship.

Gizel Jiménez as Ado Annie has the opposite problem from Guter: she looks and acts way

Goodspeed Musicals - Oklahoma

Jake Swain & Gizel Jimenez. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

 

more mature than the 17-year-old she is supposed to be. Annie, having grown up on a farm, knows about the birds and the bees and sees no reason to inhibit herself; but she should not be brazen. Instead, she needs to be a little naïve and a little dumb. As she played here, she seems more like a “brazen hussy.”

As Ado Annie’s beau, Jake Swain endows Will Parker with a goofy charm that makes you like him. He shows off his fine voice in “Kansas City” and “All Er Nuthin.’”

Jud Fry, the villain of the piece must create a sense of evil or strangeness without overdoing it. He is the “loner” who is keeping tally of the slights and hurts that have accumulated over the years.  Matt Faucher does an excellent job with the role; plus, his deep baritone is terrific.

The dream ballet can be problematic. It is rare that the actors/singers for Curley and Laurey can do the dance moves necessary, and it drains their energy. I’ve  een productions where there is “Dream Laurey” and a “Dream Curley” and ones where Laurey dances the role. In this production, Madison Turner is the talented dancer who is the “Dream Laurey” and she is excellent. Rhettt Guter does his own dancing as Curley. He was quite good.

Choreographer Katie Spelman has created not only the ballet, but production numbers that draw on the athleticism of the cowboys and the western dance traditions.

The scenic design by Wilson Chin and the costume design by Tracy Christensen are very good. At times the lighting design by Philip S. Rosenberg is obvious.  When the lyric is “many a red sun” the lights goes pinkish.

Director Jenn Thompson did many things right in this production including making extensive use of the aisle. But she also at times went for the gratuitous, easy laugh.

If you’ve never seen this classic and even if you have, I still recommend you getting tickets. It may not be the definite, perfect production, but it is a very good one.

For tickets, visit Goodspeed.

Goodspeed Musicals - Oklahoma!

Finale. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

 

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