Author Archive: Two on the Aisle

“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

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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

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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.

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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

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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

 

Raging Skillet at TheaterWorks Is Problematic Play about a Chef

By Karen Isaacs

Will you like Raging Skillet, the world premiere play by Jacques Lamarre now at TheaterWorks in Hartford through Sunday, Aug. 27?

Just answer these simple questions:

Does loud rock music split your eardrums?

Does lots of gratuitous four letter words bother you?

Do you think stereotypical, guilt inducing mothers inherently funny?

Does insulting your mother seem acceptable?

If you answered no to the first two and yes to the last two, you should rush out a get tickets to this show about a “celebrity” food writer/caterer who goes by the name of Rossi. Apparently she is well known, though as a dedicated Food Network viewer, I had never heard of her.

The play – with three characters – is based on her “humorous” memoir of the same name, which is also the name of her catering company. The premise is that this is her book launch party and the ghost of her mother shows up.  The book is hawked endlessly and, yes, you can buy it on stage after the show.

Chef Rossi, played excellently by Dana Smith-Croll, describes herself as a Jewish, Lesbian, punk rock woman and chef.

She tells stories of her up-bringing in New Jersey where Mom killed food in the microwave. Rossi (her father changed his name from Rosenthal to Ross; she changed it to Rossi, for no stated reason) started cooking what she called Jewish white trash food.  What was offered to the audience did not seem particularly interesting though I did not taste it.

She was every parents’ nightmare as a teenager, using various drugs, disobeying rules and eventually running away from home. After being arrested for selling drugs, her parents packed her off to Brooklyn and a home run by a Hasidic Jew for problem causing Jewish teenagers.

Her interest in food continued and when she can she escapes to Manhattan where she becomes first a bartender and then works her way through the various jobs in the kitchen. Obviously, she earned her stripes and has talent because she has received numerous accolades from The New York Times, Zagat, and was named one of The Knot’s best wedding caterers multiple times.

Marilyn Sokol has the unenviable job of playing her mother. She’s been dead for years but returns for the book launch. She combines all the stereotypes of both the Jewish mother – Yiddish flows abundantly – but also of any guilt-inducing ethnic mother. She is the target for her daughter’s humor and anger. Only at the end of the play, when Rossi reads her mother’s “book” does she acknowledge that her mother was an accomplished woman who earned a master’s in mathematics and played violin in a symphony.

The third character is DJ Skillit, Rossi’s sous-chef who plays a number of roles and supposedly controls the often blaring music.

Audience reaction on the official opening night was mixed. Some found the show great fun and hilarious, others said they smiled at some of the jokes while others were pretty much stony faced throughout.

The pluses to this production are the skillful direction by John Simpkins, the set by Michael Schweikardt and the performances.

Smith-Croll has the difficult job of making Rossi likeable but a rebel and, for the most part, she succeeds. At the end, you see some warmth in her and realize that the persona she creates is just that. Marilyn Sokol has a difficult with task playing Mom: she is both passive-aggressive and a stereotype. That Sokol carries it off without the least bit of embarrassment is commendable. At times the role is cringe-inducing. DJ Skillit is less a character than a device, George Salazar does a good job with this amorphous role.

It’s hard to identify the basic problem with this piece. Is it the adaptation by Jacques Lamarre? Or is it the source material? How do you convey Rossi’s image and yet make the audience both like her and identify with her? While Lamarre may be true to Rossi’s “brand” and personality, that doesn’t necessarily create a satisfying work of theater.

The press materials for this production talks about the play as an “compelling story about a mother and a daughter and the commitment to family.”  Somehow that does not come through strongly enough.

Raging Skillet, may be a play that younger audiences may be more receptive to and enjoy both her and her story more.

Given the language used, this is not a piece for children, nor those with sensitive ears. Older people may find the Rossi’s comments to and attitude towards her mother distressing.

Yet, it has fine performances.  I did not love this work, but you might.  Perhaps a glass or two of wine before the show would increase the enjoyment factor.

Raging Skillet is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl Street, Harford, through Sunday, Aug. 27.  For tickets. Call 860-527-7838.

Content courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com.

raging skillit 2 by lanny nagler

Photo by Lanny Nagler

“Singin’ in the Rain” at Summer Theater of New Canaan Is Pleasant Summer Fun

Singin jpg_edited_editedBy Karen Isaacs

 Singin’ in the Rain is a classic movie musical – most critics put it in the top five film musicals – that was converted to the stage in the 1980s and ran for approximately a year on Broadway.

Like other musical films made into stage shows – Gigi and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers come to mind – the stage productions usually come up short in comparison with the classic films. The range of settings, costumes and special effects are hard to duplicate on stage. The iconic film performances force stage directors to either try to duplicate them or go in totally new directions. Either is a minefield.

The Summer Theater of New Canaan (STONC) which performs in a tent in Waverly Park has taken a mixed approach. In some cases, it seems as though the show has been cast to resemble the film performances and in other places, to vary widely from them.

Overall this production, which runs through July 30 is enjoyable summer entertainment. It’s a good effort, but you won’t recall either the performances or the production when autumn arrives.

For those who don’t remember the film, the story is about the motion picture industry in the late 1920s as talking movies sweep the country. The two silent stars, Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont, have made a series of smash swashbuckling romances, all very similar. They’ve been built as a romantic screen couple which Lena assumes carries over into real life; Don has other ideas. In fact, he meets a plucky newcomer (Kathy Selden) and is smitten.

With the talkies now all the rage, the duos latest film is a bust even with talking in part because Lena’s voice does not match the sophisticated, romantic role she is playing. So the decision is made to turn it into a singing/dancing film since Lockwood (and his buddy Cosmo) had been in vaudeville. But Lena can’t sing. What to do? The idea is for Cathy to dub Lena’s speaking and singing voice.

All is well until with the new musical film a smash,  Lena demands that Cathy continue to do that, thus giving up any career on her own. But Don, Cosmo and even the studio head come to the rescue, totally humiliating Lena.

The most famous song/number from the movie was Gene Kelly dancing in the street and splashing in puddles while it rains heavily.

Yes, STONC has rain on the stage.

Director Melody Meitrott Libonati has done a good job with a cast that includes a number of Broadway veterans and a 10 piece orchestra under the direction of Kenneth Gartman.

The difficulty is in either reproducing or recreating the iconic performances (Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor and Jean Hagan as Lena).

David Rossetti is probably the most successful as Cosmo, the role played by Donald O’Connor. He doesn’t look or sound like O’Connor. Yet that is an advantage; he seems like a cross of O’Connor and Oscar Levant. His big number, “Make ‘Em Laugh” isn’t as athletic as O’Connor’s but still gets the point across.

Jody Stevens gets to play the villain, Lena Lamont. The role calls for the character to look like a ditzy platinum blonde, with the voice of a Brooklynite. Stevens carries it off well. In addition, she lets us know that underneath the “dumb blonde” routine lurks a conniving mind and steel will.

As Don Lockwood, Matthew Tiberi dances up a storm and has a good singing voice. Yet, somehow I did not feel the charisma needed for a character who is a movie star. He just seems like a pleasant, talented average guy.

With the role of Cathy Selden, too many directors cast the role in ways that will recall Debbie Reynolds – smaller stature and then compound it with hair that resembles her as well. Annabelle Fox is given the unenviable job of trying to create a Kathy that doesn’t seem like an imitation of Reynolds. She is only partly successful.

This isn’t entirely her fault. She sings and dances well, but too often line readings and gestures recall the film.

Doug Shankman has done a good job with the choreography – recalling some of the original dances but also creating new ones as well.

Overall, this Singin’ in the Rain is worth seeing as long as you understand that it isn’t going to be the classic film.

For tickets visit STONC.

Westport’s “Grounded” Is Chilling and Thought-Provoking Drama

grounded 3 by carol rosegg.jpg

Elizabeth Stahlmann. Photo by Carol Rosegg

By Karen Isaacs

 War is getting both more remote and more personal. In the last century, we have moved from being able to see the faces of those a soldier is about to kill to them becoming simply “targets” for long-distance equipment. But with drones, we are moving back to being able to see and identify who is about to be killed.

That is at the root of the play Grounded which is now at Westport Country Playhouse through July 29.

The 100 minute, one woman show introduces us to “the pilot” – a female major who flies F-16s on bombing missions in the Middle East.  She is confident, sassy and at home in the male-dominant culture. She loves flying and has a deep connection to “her” plane. Home on leave, she has some drinks one night and is impressed with the civilian (Eric) who makes his way through the group of pilots to talk to her. One thing leads to another and they spend several days together.  Back on duty, she realizes she is pregnant.

Flying would be dangerous and she is transferred home.

She marries the man and they have a daughter. Now what was confusing, is it seems that several years pass, but there is no mention of her military assignment or duties during that period. It seems that after three years, her commander tells her she will be flying again. She is ecstatic until she learns that she won’t be flying a plane but will be sitting at a desk stateside (in Nevada) manipulating or “flying” a drone. She will be, in military slang, part of the “chair force.”

So, the pilot, her husband and her daughter, Samantha, pack up and move to Nevada. She works 12 hour shifts, 7 days a week. That also seemed a bit much – no time off at all!

Her days are spent looking at grey bits on a screen with “her team” that includes a young man next to her and others who communicate through her headset. They tells her what to follow, when to zoom in, and when to release the bombs. At the beginning she is following convoys looking for individuals who might be planting mines or bombs in the road. When she finds one, the voices in her ear tell her if they have determined the people to be “guilty” which usually means they are male of military age. She then destroys them.

After a time, she and the others on the team (which operates 24 hours a day) are following a car supposedly carrying the number 2 man. He is a prime target. And it seems as though they track him for days or weeks, yet he never exits the vehicle. He needs to do that so they can be sure of their identification – he limps.

As these days stretch on, The Pilot becomes more and more vested in “getting him” and not wanting the other pilot to do so. But she also finds it harder and harder to block out the blips on the grey screen that she watches daily. The transition from work to home becomes more and more difficult.

I don’t want to reveal what occurs except to say that the remote control war takes a very heavy toll on her. It’s not clear what the results totally are or why, which is a failing of playwright George Brant.

Grounded is not a new play; it was written in 2013 and has received numerous productions all over the world including an off-Broadway production starring Anne Hathaway. It has also won numerous awards.

But I am hard pressed to think any of these 100+ productions could have a better performance as The Pilot than that given by Elizabeth Stahlmann. She brings to the role all that you would expect from the character. Even though there is little movement and no props, your eyes and ears are riveted on her. She shows us the conflicts, the emotions and the enthusiasms of this woman.

Liz Diamond has directed this play with a sure hand. The set is simple, what appears to be a wall and an office chair. The lighting by Solomon Weisbard is interesting but at times distracting since it lights the far sides of the theater. It is the projections of those blips by Yana Birÿkova and the sound design by Kate Marvin that really takes you into The Pilot’s world.

This is not what typical summer theater is: light, frothy and meaningless. This play and production makes you confront and experience something that most of us either would prefer not to confront, or will never experience.

It is well worth seeing.

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

grounded 1 by carol rosegg

Elizabeth Stahlmann. Photo by Carol Rosegg

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