Category Archives: 2016-17 Connecticut Theater Season

World Premiere at Yale Rep May Puzzle You

Mary Jane

Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

 Amy Herzog’s new play, Mary Jane, is an interesting new drama that will leave you puzzled by its abrupt ending. The play is getting its world premiere at the Yale Rep through Saturday, May 20.

The title character is the mother of a severely handicapped two-and-a-half year old son, Alex. She is a single mom trying to juggle a job, a plethora of care-givers, doctors and social services while maintaining her sanity.  Over the course of several months, Alex faces several crises with the last one most likely leading to his death.

In the first act which is set in Mary Jane’s apartment, we meet the superintendent of her apartment building (Ruthie), one of the nurses that stay overnight (Sherry), and another mother (Brianne) who is just beginning this journey. Mary Jane is sharing important information about how to negotiate the system with her.

The act ends with Alex suffering a crises (a seizure) and 9-11 is called.

Act two is in the hospital where Alex has been for many weeks going through a series of setbacks. Mary Jane is constantly at his bedside which leads her to losing her job. Again, she is surrounded by women: Dr. Toros who tries make her realize the likely outcome; Chaya, a mother keeping a vigil for her daughter; Tenkei, a Buddhist chaplain; and Kat, the music therapist.

The play ends abruptly when Mary Jane, who suffers from migraines and feels one is coming on is talking with Tenkei. The chaplain dims the lights until there is just a spotlight on Mary Jane’s face, she gets up and walks towards the light. The last line is “God. What a strange…”

That may be the words that playgoers are thinking as they exit the theater. As in most world premieres, this is a play that needs work.

From the playwright’s notes in the program, it seems as though she is trying to emphasize the support that women give each other. Yet she is only partially successful in that. It seems more that Mary Jane – who retains an almost impossibly optimistic point of view and sense of humor – is constantly negotiating with these other women. It begins with the Super of the building who while fixing a stopped up drain, notices that the window bars (required by law for child safety) have been removed. Mary Jane removed them so that Alex would have a clearer view; yet she must cajole the super into either not forcing her to reinstall them or reporting the removal. Next is the nurse Sherry who want to report another of the nurses for falling asleep on the job. Mary Jane knows how hard it is to get all of the shifts covered; even a lax nurse is better than having no one there. And so it goes.

In act two, the negotiations continue, although to a lesser extent.  Here it is the doctor who must negotiate the system to get the music therapist to visit.

One of the concerns with this play is that it switches gears so often; no wonder the audience is puzzled. Act one seems like a traditional TV drama about a single mother (the husband left almost immediately after Alex’s birth), and the problems of raising a severely disabled child. Alex suffers from generalized seizure disorder and lung disease. The result is that he is dependent on breathing assistance, has almost no mobility and cannot really hold his head up. This may be the result of his being very premature.

So act one has some laughs as Mary Jane optimism and good humor makes her seem like a “little Miss Sunshine.”  Does she every break down? How does she manage on so little sleep? With so much responsibility? Has she walled off the likely prognosis from her consciousness? How does she go on?

Act two becomes both more symbolic and more surreal. One of the mechanisms that Herzog uses is Mary Jane’s migraines.  Migraines – a very severe headache with a variety of causes that are still not totally understood or controllable — often start off with visual auras which can affect vision and hearing as the headache progresses. The onset of one of Mary Jane’s headaches is the rationale for some of the surreal aspects. In the throes of a migraine, a sufferer may be unsure of what is real.

Mary Jane’s difficulties multiple in act two.  Alex is in the hospital for weeks and seems to move from one crises to another; at the end of the play he is in surgery. She loses her job because she has taken seven weeks off to be at the hospital, and her migraines are back. (Stress can be a trigger for them).

Herzog has made some interesting choices, but also some puzzling ones. One choice is that except for Mary Jane, all the actors play two roles – one in the first act and one in the second. Those roles in the second act seem to be variations of the roles they play in the first act.

Thus Katherine Chalfant plays the building super in act one, talks about the mind-body connection and that Mary Jane seems to have stress in her body. In act two, she in Tenkei, the Buddhist chaplain at the hospital.

And so it goes. Ruthie, the nurse in act one becomes Dr. Toros  in act two; Amelia (Ruthie’s teenage niece) who visits in act one becomes the music therapist who visits Alex; and Brianne (the mother) who is beginning the journey of parenting a disabled child becomes Chaya in act two. Chaya, who is an orthodox Jew, has seven children including her frequently hospitalized daughter.

Anne Kauffman has directed the play with finesse, keeping the various parts moving and helping us to understand much of the play, though she does not totally succeed. She is aided by the lighting created by Elizabeth Green and the sounds designed by Ian Scot. The sound in particular sets the two location – a busy city with subway and traffic noises, and a hospital. Laura Jellinek has created the two setting – the apartment where Mary Jane seemingly sleeps in what should be the living room and the hospital – its waiting room, snack room and patient bedside.

Emily Donahoe is very good as Mary Jane. She brings to the role a down-to-earth quality that combines humor and resilience. She creates a woman who keeps going because she must and the only way to retain her sanity is with a positive outlook.

The other performers are equally adept at creating characters that are for the most part more sketched in than fully developed.

As I was watching this play, I had to wonder about the title character’s name: Mary Jane. We all know that it is often a reference to marijuana. Was this intentional? If so, why and what does it mean?

Mary Jane is a play that may be depressing for many people, especially those who have experienced or dealt with disabled children and their families.

It is at the Yale Rep, 1120 Chapel Street, New Haven through Saturday, May 20. For tickets visit yalerep.org or call 203-432-1234.

Content courtesy of Shore Publishing and ziip06.c0m

Mary Jane

Photo by Joan Marcus

 

Seven Angels Theatre Delights with “Trav’ling – the 1930s Harlem Musical”

traveling 1 Gary Rosengrant

Photo by Gary Rosengrand

By Karen Isaacs

 Discovering a little known composer – at least to me – and finding his works delightful and well-presented is one of the joys of being a theater critic.

That’s what happened when I saw Trav’ling – the 1930s Harlem Musical now at Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury through June 11.

The music for this production – which is more revue than true musical – is by J. C. Johnson. Don’t recognize the name? We’ve all heard his songs. He wrote “This Joint Is Jumpin’” with Fats Waller with whom he collaborated for many years. But he also wrote with Andy Razaf.  The Ink Spots, Billy Eckstine, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald and Connie Boswell ( and the Boswell Sisters) were among the artists who performed and recorded his music.

The plot is slim but the emphasis is on the talented performers presenting these songs that will have your feet tapping.

It’s about three couples in Harlem in the 1930s. There’s Deacon George who sort of overseas the Harlem bloc and his niece Cherry recently arrived from Chicago to go to nursing school. Then there’s Nelson, a young man who sells Bibles but is still naïve, inexperienced and awkward with women. You can bet that Nelson and Cherry will hit it off but there will be some complications.

We have the neighborhood beautician Roz who is older and wiser, but still in love with Archie Stone, a smooth talking, womanizing traveling salesman. She thinks they have an agreement that he will not mess around in NYC.

And then there’s Billie. Billie is older and arrives in the neighborhood from New Orleans; she has mission to put to rest a romantic ghost from her past, so for a while at least she is Ethel from Mississippi.

You don’t have think much about the plot – in fact, some of it doesn’t withstand logical scrutiny. Let’s just say these three couples – yes, Billie and George become a couple – each have minor bumps on the way to a happy ending.

But if the plot is miniscule, the performances aren’t. This is a top-notch cast of experienced actors who can sing and dance and even make the story seem logical. They are backed up by a four piece orchestra, ably conducted by musical director/pianist John DiPinto.

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Jacobi Hall and Cherry Torres. Photo by Gary Rosengrant

You may not recognize the songs, but quite a few caught my attention. I’m going to be seeking out recordings to hear them again. The opening number, “Somebody Loses, Somebody Wins” is terrific as performed by Lothair Eaton as George. But there is the “Empty Bed Blues,” the jazzy “Believe It Beloved,” the danceable “Hold My Hand,” and the terrific “When You Fall in Love.” And I forgot to mention “Dancin’ with My Love.”

Each of the performers knows how to put over a song, from Teren Carter as the jivin’ and smooth talking Archie to Yewande Odetoyinbo as the long-suffering Roz. Jacobi Hall conveys the uncertainty of the young Nelson and Cherry Torres projects the innocence and joy of Ella. But I can’t leave out Miche Braden as Billie and Lothair Eaton as George; he reminds you a bit of Waller.

Paul Stancato has directed and choreographed the show with finesse. He keeps the pace moving and the tone is just about perfect – respectful of the characters but with a hint of a wink behind it all. His choreography is also good and in Hall and Torres he has talented dancers.

Stephen Dobay has created a clever set that provides an interesting backdrop for the projections by Christopher Ash. Kudos also to costume designer Janell Berte and lighting designer Keith A. Truax.

Treat yourself to this enjoyable show.

Tickets are available to Trav’ling – the 1930s Harlem Musical ­ by calling 203-757-4676 or online at Seven Angels Theatre

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Miche Braden, Cherry Torres, Yewande Odetoyinbo. Photo by Gary Rosengrant.

Ivoryton’s “Biloxi Blues” Downplays the Comedy

By Karen Isaacs

 A word association: Neil Simon.  Many people will think of The Odd Couple and then associate Simon with lots of laughs and one-liners. A good comedy.

If that’s your view of Simon, Biloxi Blues now at Ivoryton Playhouse through May 14 will surprise you.

Yes, there are some humorous situations and some one-liners, but the tone of this play is more serious. It’s part of the Eugene Trilogy that Simon wrote based loosely on his early life. Brighton Beach Memoirs told a family drama of growing up in Brighton Beach in the pre-WWII era. The third play, Broadway Bound tells of his attempts to work in comedy on TV. This middle play, is about his experiences in 1943 in basic training in Biloxi, Mississippi.

Eugene Jerome, the Simon character, is a big city young man who aspires to being a writer; he is keeping a journal. But he is also naïve; he has little experience outside his neighborhood and family; he’s still a virgin and seems to have lived a sheltered life.

The play begins with Eugene and four others traveling by train to basic training in Biloxi. These are all East coast guys. Soon they arrive and quickly meet Sargent Toomey – a longtime army noncom with battle scars to prove it. He is loud, profane and hard driving. He quickly sizes them up as out of shape. They need to be “broken” and put together as a unit that will die for each other. While the others immediately accept that Toomey is to be obeyed, one of them, Arnold Epstein seems unaware. He is the “Jewish intellectual” from Queens, who has decided that he will refuse to allow Toomey and the Army to make him conform. Of course, he is the one that is most attacked by Toomey.

As basic training progresses, another GI, Hennessey joins the group. They finally get a weekend pass and Eugene visits the local prostitute to lose his virginity. He is nervous and anxious and still naïve. He is amazed that she is married (to an Army man) and does this on the weekends; he is astounded that when he visits her again, she doesn’t remember him.

Among the other things that happen is the discovery that one recruit is homosexual, Eugene falls in love for the first time at a USO dance; the young lady is Catholic.

The play ends with them going off in different direction; Eugene tells us what happens to each of them. As to be expected, there is some tragedy and some heroism.

The characters are stereotypical. Wykowski is a not-very-bright, tough guy from Bridgeport; Arnold Epstein is the intellectual and the non-conformist; Carney is an aspiring singer; Selridge is the jokester; and Hennesey is the quiet one.

It is interesting in researching this play to see how it was viewed when it was first produced (there was also a film version).  The emphasis was on the laughs. Eugene though the narrator (and played by Matthew Broderick) was not considered the central character; that was Arnold Epstein, who constantly challenges the system and has the lines that most question how Eugene reacts.

The Ivoryton production seems to shift the focus to Eugene, played by Zal Owen. He projects the correct nerdy, naïve attitude for the 19-year-old Eugene. Conor M. Hamill has the muscular, “dumb jock” look and persona as Wykowski. Alex Silberblatt as Epstein at times fades into the background. We can admire him and his ethical/moral stances, but our eyes don’t gravitate to him. The two women – Andee Buccheri as the sweet Daisy and Mora O’Sullivan as the prostitute Rowena – project their contrasting roles in the play: the experienced “older” woman and the naïve young girl.

Director Sasha Brätt has done a good job with keeping the pace moving. The humor has been subjugated to the more serious elements of the play. Glenn David Bassett’s set emulates Quonset buildings, the barracks and the other locations.

In the how times have changed category, it is interesting to note that Ivoryton felt it necessary to include in the program the following: “Offensive language, including racial and ethnic insults, is used in the play.”  It refers to the use of swear words as well as insults referring to various ethnicities.

For tickets visit Ivoryton Playhouse or call 860-767-7318.

TheaterWorks’ Production of Next to Normal Shatters Your Heart

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J. D. Daw, John Cardoza and Christiane Noll. Photo by Lonny Nagler

By Karen Isaacs

 Bravo – Rob Ruggiero! Bravo to the outstanding cast of Next to Normal now at TheaterWorks in Hartford through Sunday, May 14.

This is a fabulous production of a musical that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. The more intimate TheaterWorks venue increases our involvement in the story and our emotional attachment to the characters.

Next to Normal tells the story of Diana, a wife and mother who has battled bipolar disorder and depression for years. Her illness has impacted both her teenage daughter, Natalie, and her husband, Dan. She’s tried multiple therapies, physicians and medications; some of them work, some of them cause serious side effects and most of them cease to be helpful over time.

Her illness is characterized by seeing visions of Gabe – their son who died at 8 months of age, nearly 18 years ago. He seems to constantly be around her and he comments on the action.

This is, as one audience member said at intermission “not ‘My Fair Lady.’”

But in the capable hands of the cast and Ruggiero it is a show that will tug at your emotions. No one is the “bad guy” – not the doctors, not Diana, not Dan and not Gabe. Each is trapped in his or her own world.

Tom Kitt (composer) and Brian Yorkey (libretto and lyrics) have crafted a tight story that propels us along. In the beginning it takes time for us to realize that Gabe is his mother’s vision and not a real character and longer for us to learn what had happened.

As with any serious and chronic illness, the entire family feels the impact. Natalie feels overlooked and ignored because so much of the attention is on her mother and the mother’s mental state. She feels unloved by her mother who, perhaps as a defense mechanism after her son’s death, was reluctant to form an attachment with the baby. Diana has missed multiple events in Natalie’s life.

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Christiane Noll and David Harris. Photo by Lonny Nagler

Dan has tried to compensate to Natalie, but his energy is also focused on helping his wife get well, accompanying her to various doctor’s appointments and trying to balance job, marriage and family.

Natalie does develop a healthy relationship with Henry, a teenage boy who provides some of the support and attention she obviously needs. But she is fearful that she may follow her mother’s path.

The story of Diana’s struggle with mental health leads to her trying ECT, what is often called electro-shock therapy which seems to help some. But who know what the long term prognosis will be. The doctors say her condition is chronic and can only be managed, not cured.

What makes this production so outstanding is the cast and the atmosphere developed by Ruggiero. He has used the aisles of the theater to bring us closer to the action. We see characters standing in the aisle observing the action just as we are.

The only time I have seen the show was the touring production that played the Bushnell several years ago. While well done, the huge theater and the huge stage created a gulf between the characters and the audience that diminished the emotional impact. That and the amplification of the sound made everything feel disembodied.

Here, we are close to the stage. We can see the expressions on the faces of the characters, we do not need blaring amplification to catch every word of both dialogue and songs. While the show is often described as a “rock” show, here much of the music seems gentler and softer.

Christane Noll who has received Tony nominations gives a subtle performance as Diana and makes the most of every song from the humorous “My Psychopharmacologist and I” to the touching “You Don’t Know” and “I Dreamed a Dance”.

Her performance is matched by David Harris as Dan, her husband. You may remember him as Billy Crocker in Goodspeed’s Anything Goes or Valjean in the Connecticut Rep’s Les Mis. Here he is tender and caring yet weary of the burdens. He and Noll are terrific in the duet “A Light in the Dark”

Maya Keleher who plays Natalie is making her professional debut. Based on this

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Maya Keleher, John Cardoza, Nick Sacks. Photo by Lonny Nagler

performance of the often uncertain teenager, you can predict a successful career for her. She shows us all sides of Natalie and handles the songs well. Nick Sacks who plays Henry is also a relative newcomer (a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon) and also displays great talent. He makes Henry both gawky and touching. You believe their young love. The duet between Sacks and Keleher, “Perfect for You” and his with Harris “A Promise” are terrific.

John Cardoza has the difficult role as Gabe, Diana’s vision. It would be too easy for Gabe to become “creepy” with his often silent, hovering presence, but Cardoza doesn’t let it happen. He is a benign memory or “ghost”. J. D. Daw plays two of the medical people that Diana sees.

Wilson Chin has created one of TheaterWorks’ most elaborate sets with a turntable that allows the scenes to flow smoothly. The set features many household items including multiple table lamps, perhaps signifying the need to bring into the light the issues involving mental illness. He is aided by the lighting design of John Lasiter.

Tribute must be given to musical director Adam Souza who has helped the singers make the most of the songs as well as conducting the six piece orchestra that is hidden back stage. Ed Chapman has balanced the sound system beautifully.

Next to Normal may not be the show for everyone due to its subject matter, but it is a show for anyone who wants to see an outstanding production of a touching and moving theatrical work.

Next to Normal is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl Street, Hartford through Sunday, May 14.  For tickets visit TheaterWorks or call 860-527-7838.

This material is courtesy of Shore Publishing and zip06.

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David Harris, Christiane Noll, Maya Keleher. Photo by Lonny Nagler

“The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” Is Moving, Terrific One-Man Show

absolute brightness by matthew murphy

Photo by Matthew Murphy

By Karen Isaacs

Please get to Hartford Stage to see T”he Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” which is running through April 23.

It is an absorbing and touching play that will leave you shaken at the wasted lives. But it will also make you appreciate others more.

It is a one man show, but you will think the stage is populated by many people. That’s due to the brilliance of James Lecesne who both developed this play and performs it.

He frames this story as an old-fashioned detective story which helps to keep you totally engaged. He plays Chuck DeSantis, a detective in a quiet southern Jersey shore town. One day, a local hairdresser and her teenage daughter show up to report that Leonard Pelkey, the teenage nephew of the woman, has been missing for almost 24 hours.

In the next taut 70 minutes, the detective pursues first the missing person case and later, unfortunately, the murder case; the boy is found dead in a lake. During the process of investigating the case, he meets and interviews a number of people; the widow of a local mobster, the British man who with his wife runs a local drama school, some teenagers, and of course the aunt and her daughter.

Each time, Lscesne with just a change in voice, posture, accent and a few gestures, turns himself into each character. And we learn more and more about this boy, who was too “out there” for his own safety. He not only was gay but embraced a flamboyant lifestyle.

What we also learn is how Leonard touched the lives of all of the people interviewed. Yes, he was outrageous, but he also was himself.  He wasn’t going to tone down or hide who he was. He was comfortable with himself and he wanted others to be also.

It is not that he radiated goodness, but that he had, as Lecesne says “an absolute brightness.” He helped people be more comfortable with whom they were; they received a measure of courage from his willingness to be so true to himself.

It wasn’t that his life was perfect. As an outsider, he was bullied and made fun of, yet he did not return it in kind; instead he helped others be there better selves.

All too often, one person plays are static. One character talks to the audience with the occasional artificial interruption of a telephone call or doorbell. Yet, the best one-person plays, have multiple characters and dialogue that makes us believe two or more people are conversing.

This is what Lecesne gives us. In the program notes, Lescene explains that in the young adult novel of the same name which was published in 2008, the story was told by Phoebe, Leonard’s cousin. When he wrote the play, he decided to make the detective the story teller. It gives the show the added bonus of seemingly being like one of the great Hollywood film noir stores; the experienced detective, who can tell us his impressions of the people he meets. Plus we get some great lines reminiscent of any Phillip Marlowe novel.

Lecesne explains that the title refers first to the astronomical term defined as “the total amount of light produced by a star irrespective of its distance from an observer.” But here, he is using it a metaphor for how each of us “brings a particular brightness to every situation, and regardless of whether other people notice it or not, it’s still there.”

In this production is not only the absolute brightness of Leonard Pelkey that shines; it is the absolute brightness of James Lecesne that also shines.

You leave the play emotionally moved by the story and excited by the outstanding production.

It runs through April 23 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. For tickets visit Hartford Stage.

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Photo by Matthew Murphy

 

Great Music and Good Performances Highlight Ivoryton’s My Way

My Way

Photo by Ann Hudson

By Karen Isaacs

 Combine four talented singers/performers, a terrific musical trio backing them up and a truckload of classic American popular songs, and you have the formula for a very enjoyable evening in the theater.

My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra, now at Ivoryton Playhouse through Sunday, April 9, is exactly that. Practically all music.

So why quibble that most of the songs could be in a review honoring Peggy Lee, Fred Astaire or Judy Garland? They are great songs.

First of all you will find all the Sinatra standards from the ‘50s on up: “Strangers in the Night,” “Love and Marriage,” “All the Way,” “That’s Life,” “New York, New York” and more. Even some of the less worthy numbers are included. So the Capital and Reprise years are well represented.

Since Sinatra recorded over 1300 songs, not all are identified solely or mainly with Sinatra. The classic songs of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Jerome Kern may remind you of other performers.

But that doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the show.  My one quibble is that very few of Sinatra’s early hits – those that came during his stint with the Big Bands, Tommy Dorsey and Harry James – are included. These songs such as “Oh Look at Me Now,” “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” “Everything Happens to Me,” could have replaced some of the songs less specifically identified with Sinatra. Also missing are some of the big hits from early in his solo career – “Saturday Night Is the Loneliest Night of the Week,” “I Couldn’t Sleep a Wink Last Night” and many others.

But the songs included are worth it.

The show was created by David Grapes and Todd Olson, who wrote the minimal dialogue that ties the various song segments together. Sometimes it seems forced with attempts at humor and other times it simply drops interesting factoids about Sinatra.

The songs are grouped in various categories – from Broadway, to a city medley, a young love medley, a moon medley and others, ending, appropriately enough, with a “Survivor’s Medley,”

The four performers do not attempt to imitate Sinatra, though the two men do adopt a few of his more famous gestures, including how he wore his hat.

Instead each segment allows each performer a solo number plus an occasional duet or quartet. Each segment also includes a dance interlude of some sort. The performers do attempt to create characters for their songs, but they are necessarily limited.

The success of this show depends on the performers, director/choreographer and musical director. Here Ivoryton has found talented people.

The show is directed and choreographed by Joyce Chittick and Rick Faugno, who appeared at Ivoryton in Fingers and Toes. Faugno is a talented dancer who, with Vanessa Sonon, does most of the dances.

Lauren Gire and Sonon are the two women in the cast. Gire plays a slightly older, more sophisticated person with a ladylike demeanor. Her voice has a richness that is welcome in her songs. Sonon, projects a livelier demeanor and a more humorous manner.

Faugno has a light baritone/tenor voice that works well with the variety of music and contrasts nicely to Josh Powell’s richer, deeper baritone.

The four change off into various combinations: Powell, Faugno and Gire are terrific in “Here’s to the Losers” and Powell and Sonon are great in “You Make Me Feel So Young.”

I particularly liked the quartet in “Indian Summer” and “Dream” – one of the few songs from the big band era.

The set by William Russell Stark gives a cocktail lounge/bar to the left leaving much of the stage available for both singing and dancing. The costumes recall the 1950s; white dinner jackets for the men in the first act and tuxes in the second. The women wear short cocktail dresses – one very bouffant—in the first act and long gowns in the second. I only wished the white dinner jacket that Powell wore, fitted him better. Christopher Hoyt handled the lighting, creating various moods and sound designer Tate R. Burmeister did a good job balancing the combo the rear of the stage with the singers.

Special praise must be given to musical director Andy Hudson and his fellow combo members — Matt McCauley on bass and Gary Ribchinsky on drums.

My Way is tuneful evening of theater well performed by this talented group. You will enjoy it.

It is at Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main Street, Ivoryton, through Sunday, April 9. For tickets call 860-767-7318 or visit ivorytonplayhouse.org.

This content is courtesy Shore Publications and ziip06.com

Assassins at Yale Rep – A Musical that’s both Chilling and Entertaining

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Photo by Carol Rosegg

By Karen Isaacs

 The Yale Rep is producing the musical that Steven Sondheim considers one of his best – Assassins through April 8.

Sondheim and book writer John Weidman have interwoven the stories and motivations of eight individuals who either attempted to or succeeded in assassinating the President of the U.S.

Through this, they explore both our national inclination to violence, our celebrity culture and the alienation of these individual to our society.

Some of these people you will know but others have become mere footnotes in history books or totally forgotten.

The show is set in an arcade with a shooting gallery like those that give out stuffed animals and other cheap prizes at carnivals. But here the gallery says “Shoot a President” and the prize is fame or infamy. The assassins all have a grudge of some sort and lashing out at the office of President is one way they think that they can assuage it. For some, the grudge is more a result of mental illness or delusions than any reality. The reasons often have nothing to do with politics or policies.

The musical – which is one act, approximately 100 minutes long – opens and closes with the two most famous assassins – John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald. In “The Ballad of Booth” we envision his last moments before he is shot and killed. His rationale is very clear: to him, Lincoln destroyed the South and became both a dictator and traitor.  Booth famously said, “Sic semper tyrannis” (Latin for “Thus always to tyrants,”) after shooting Lincoln.  But the Balladeer (a folk singer character who comments on much of the action) wonders if Booth didn’t do it because he was losing his acting talent and was envious of his brother, Edgar who was the first great American actor.

It seems as though Booth is often on the scene either commenting on the action of the others or egging them on.

As the musical progresses, the lives and actions of the other assassins intertwine. We meet Giuseppe Zangara who attempted to kill President-elect Franklin Roosevelt in Miami and did kill the mayor. We meet Charles Guiteau who killed President Garfield; he wanted to be ambassador to France and to sell his book.  Then there is Leon Czolgosz who killed McKinley. His motives seem to concern the plight of the working man of the period.

Of course, there are the more recent assassination attempts: these are represented by four deluded individuals. Samuel Byck planned to kill Nixon by high jacking a plane and crashing it into the White House. Both Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore tried to kill Ford, in almost laughable attempts and John Hinckley did shoot, but not kill Reagan out of love for the actress Jodi Foster.

The final episode is Booth and the others urging Lee Harvey Oswald to shoot Kennedy. Booth tells him it is the only way he will be famous and the others believe his act will revive their fame.

Sondheim’s music often reflects the popular music of the period, with Booth getting a ballad and Guiteau a cakewalk. The songs reflect the attitudes – Booth and the others sing at the end “everybody’s got the right to be happy.”  Hickley and Fromme sing of their love for Jodi Foster and Charles Manson, respectively.

 

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Dylan Frederick as the Balladeer. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Despite the dark subject matter there is humor. Sara Jane Moore seems to constantly be either losing her gun in her voluminous purse or shooting it off accidently, frightening all around her. Guiteau swings between religiosity (“I am going to the Lordy”) to desire to promote his book. Samuel Byck carries on long imaginary conversations with Lenny Bernstein and other celebrities of the late ‘60s.

A group of bystanders comment on the action and at times play the various victims.

James Bundy, the director has used a variety of visual effects to create the scenes. On the sides of the University Theater, are projections often of the targets of the assassins. The shooting gallery is dark – no flashing neon lights drawing people in.

Casting is crucial for this piece, and Yale has assembled a fine cast of actor/singers. Robert

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Austin Durant as teh Proprietor and Robert Lenzi as John Willes Booth. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

 

Lenzi has the good looks of an actor for Booth as well as a fine voice; Stephen DeRosa overplays the humor as Guiteau but P. J. Griffith gives a touching portrait of the immigrant working man, Leon Czolgosz. As the two women, Lauren Molina creates a fanatical “Squeaky” Fromme and Julia Murney is convincing as the more maternal but equally scattered Sara Jane Moore. Lucas Dixon shows us a bland John Hickley, while Stanley Bahorek presents Zanagara as a man who attempted to kill FDR because he had a constant stomach ache.  Richard R. Henry is talkative Samuel Byck.

All of them sing well. Credit should go to the lighting by Yi Zhao and sound by Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts and the projections by Michael Commendatore. David Dorman did the choreography; I would have liked more references to the dances of the period in which the assassinations occurred.

Assassins is both entertaining and chilling. It should encourage all of us to consider what the American dream is and how those who cannot achieve it react.

For tickets, visit Yale Rep  or call 203-432-1234.

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Lauren Molina as “Squeaky” Fromme and Julia Murney as Sara Jane Moore. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

“Smart People” at Long Wharf Will Cause Mixed Reactions.

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 Lydia R. Diamond’s play “Smart People” now at Long Wharf Theater through April 9 is a two hour discussion or race and gender: it is sometimes funny, sometimes thought-provoking and sometime pedantic.

How you will react to the play will depend on how insightful you feel the points made are.

It is set in Cambridge, between 2007-2009 which coincides with the candidacy and election of Barack Obama and the run of Hillary Clinton for the nomination.

A little quibble, early in the play a character refers to “he” and who will vote for “him”. If you haven’t read the program notes, you may think it is referring to our current President.

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Peter O’Connor. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

We meet four people — all well-educated, three of them and possibly the fourth, have a connection to Harvard.  We have Brian White (yes, he is Caucasian), who is neuroscientist. He is aiming for tenure but his research is ruffling feathers exacerbated by his outspokenness in the media. His research is attempting to prove that a racism is inherent in the brains of people.

Ginny Yang is a brilliant psychologist who received tenure at an amazingly young age. Part Chinese and part Japanese, her research and clinical practice revolve around the problems of Asian-American women in the U.S.

We also meet two African-Americans. Valerie Johnston is an aspiring actress with an MFA.  Jackson Moore is a physician who is in a neurosurgery residency program.

We meet each of these characters in brief scenes that establish them. We see White teaching a freshman level course which he views as “punishment.”  He feels most of the students are stupid. We see Yang in a therapy session with a Chinese woman who keeps reverting to Chinese.

Moore is responding to being questioned by an older physician about a toe amputation he did; he responds angrily. And Johnston is in rehearsal of “Julius Caesar” and finding the director overly controlling.

Soon White and Yang are interacting and Moore and Johnston are interacting. At times it takes on the feeling of a romantic comedy. Johnston and White also interact.

We learn how each views the world through the prism of their race, gender and experiences. We see Yang encountering sales clerks who she views as not taking her serious as a customer.  Even when Johnston first meets Moore (she is in the ER for a cut on her forehead that requires stitches), she asks if she will merit seeing a doctor.

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Peter O’Connor and Ka-Ling Cheung. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

What is most interesting about the characters is that they often conform to the stereotypes: Moore gets angry and often seems to lose control; it is clear that he sees a racial undertone to the criticism he receives. Johnston decides to clean houses to pay her rent while waiting for her acting break. Yang is an overachiever who admits she doesn’t “do nurturing” well, and White, despite his views and research on racism, blunders around often inadvertently sounding very racist or condescending.

While very well acted, the play does not really shed any new ideas to the discussion. Even Yang’s comment during a dinner party where White and Johnston and Moore are discussing race is obvious. She draws attention to the fact that while those three are arguing/discussing they are ignoring not only her as an Asian -American but also the realities of other minorities in the US — Native Americans, Latinos and other.

It is true that in America, most discussions about race are centered on the two.

My concern is that people will leave this play feeling that they have had a meaningful discussion of these issues. The issue of what is called “implicit bias” based on subtle cognitive processes below the conscious level is an interesting field of discovery; though it does seem to offer an “easy answer” to bias – we can’t do much about it because it is inborn and unconscious.

The cast four are excellent and work well together. Ka-Ling Cheung is Ginny Yang whose Chinese patient views as “white”. Tiffany Nichole Greene is Valerie Johnson while Sullivan Jones gives us the combative Jackson Moore and Peter O’Connor is the sometimes fumbling Brian White. Director Desdemona Chiang has kept the scene shifts, storylines and combinations of characters moving cinemagraphically.

You will either the find this play, disturbing and thought provoking, or you may, like me, view it as pretending to be more meaningful than it actually is.

Smart People is at Long Wharf Theater, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, through April 9. For tickets visit Long Wharf or call 800-782-8497.

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Tiffany Nichole Greene and Sullivan Jones. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

NH Symphony’s “My Fair Lady” Was Mostly Loverly

By Karen Isaacs

 A concert version of “My Fair Lady” was the New Haven Symphony’s Pops concert this past weekend in Hamden and Shelton.

It’s a first for the Symphony.

The results were quite good, but there is room for improvement.  I hope the misses can be taken care before next October: The Pops will present a concert version of “Guys and Dolls.”

The positives: It was well-sung and well played. The musical direction was by the Pops conductor Chelsea Tipton and the staging, etc by Wendy Morgan-Hunter.

As would be expected, the orchestra sounded great and Tipton set the appropriate tempi.

The singing was also excellent. Gary Harger was Professor Higgins; he not only did NOT imitate Rex Harrison but he sang more of the role; Frederick Loewe actually had written music for many of the songs that Harrison performed as singspiel (talking/singing). It was nice to hear the music.  He also gave us a well-rounded characterization of Higgins. George McTyre played both Colonel Pickering and Alfred Doolittle and did well in both parts. His Pickering perhaps could have been more dithering but his Doolittle was great; and he kept a somewhat Cockney accent.

Freddy Eynsfordd-Hill was sung by Charlie Widmer who tenor voice scored with his one big number, “On the Street Where You Lived.”

Lisa Williamson was Eliza. She had a soaring soprano and did a fine job with the acting part of the role.

The last member of the cast was Michael Constantino who did the narration and sang some harmony and smaller bits. His narration was enthusiastic.

Now to some of the things that need improving. The first was the narration – not Constantino who was good, but the actual script. While none of it was wrong at times it left out too much and emphasized things that weren’t important.

The orchestra was, as I said, excellent but it seemed that it was smaller than usual.

Overall Morgan-Hunter’s direction was fine; it was limited because the performers were sitting between their numbers. My one objection was how she staged the ending. George Bernard Shaw on whose play “My Fair Lady” is based, was adamant that this was not a romance or a happy ending. Lerner and Loewe fudged it a bit, having the curtain come down with Eliza returning to Higgins. In fact the stage directions say that Higgins is slouched in a chair with his hat over his eyes and he stays that way. When he realizes that Eliza has returned, he says, “Eliza, where the devil are my slippers.” Curtain. She has Higgins and Eliza holding hands and looking in each other’s eyes.

Some other quibbles. I missed a chorus — Loewe had written some lovely counter melodies for Mrs. Pearce (the housekeeper) and the maids to sing.  They add much to the score as well as the chorus in the Ascot Gavotte.

Charlie Widmer as Freddy sang the part well, but his acting was lacking. Perhaps a singer with more musical experience as opposed to more classical music would have been able to round out the character.

But probably my biggest complaint was with Lisa Williamson as Eliza. She sang beautifully thought at times with too much vibrato, and did well enough in the acting. But to sing “Just You Wait” –which comes while Eliza is still speaking with a Cockney accent and then not to use it in the song – is just plain wrong.

Kudos to the Symphony for this first show. I look forward to more of them.

“Assassins” at Yale Rep – Is it Sondheim’s Best Musical?

Assassins_600x600 By Karen Isaacs

Assassins, the Stephen Sondheim & John Weidman musical that opens at the Yale Rep on Friday, March 17, may not be familiar to the casual theater goer. But for director James Bundy, it is a show that he has wanted to direct for many years.

One reason, Bundy said, is that he felt it would resonate with the audience.

Assassins is staged as a revue; the characters are the men and women who made successful and unsuccessful attempts on the lives of US Presidents.

“I was particularly drawn to it when we were planning this season because of the tenor of national politics, which are driven in part by the kind of anger and resentment, as well as the pursuit of fame and celebrity, that is so prevalent in our contemporary political culture,” Bundy explained. He added that when he scheduled the piece last spring, he had no idea who would be the Presidential nominees or who would be the winner of the election, but he felt the idea of the show would still be relevant.

The show itself was written in the late 1980s and was based on an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr., an aspiring writer of musicals. Sondheim has said he read Gilbert’s script of a show about presidential assassin as a panelist for the Musical Theater Lab. Later, he asked and gained permission to use the basic idea though in a very different form. The original script had a typical plot about a fictional character.

The musical that Sondheim and Weidman developed is more of a revue, set in a carnival arcade shooting gallery where the different assassins interact despite wide variations in their historical time period. They added three non-historical characters: the Proprietor who owns the shooting gallery and provides the guns; the Balladeer who serves as the narrator; and Billy, Sara Jane Moore’s son, the son was real but the name was changed.

The show brings together the well-known assassins – Lee Harvey Oswald and John Wilkes Booth – with those that have been lost to history such as Charles Guiteau (President Garfield’s assassin) as well as some who made attempts on the lives of Presidents, and in one case, a President-elect.

In explaining his reasons for doing the show, Bundy said, “our job as artists is to notice what is going on around us.”

He describes Assassins as a “classic” and said that as such “it connects vividly to the preoccupations of any period. Although there are ways in which the specifics of the show are fixed in time, and the history is unknown to some of us, the fixations of the characters are utterly current.”

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James Bundy. Photo by Joan Marcus

Bundy said the Yale production includes a 13-piece orchestra playing the original Broadway orchestrations. But he also said the production which is about the American Dream invites “a theatrical interpretation that combines our national iconography with originality and contemporary perspective.” These include digital design with contemporary and folk art.

Whether it be Oswald, Booth or Byck (attempted assassin of Richard Nixon), what the show points to, Bundy said, is that “political violence has been part of American culture for more than 150 years – as have the strains of entitlement, misguided rage, and gun culture that fueled the phenomenon.”

The press release on the show points out, Assassins is about nine people who, “united in disillusionment and alienation, take what they believe is their best – and only – shot at the American Dream.”

Bundy agrees with Sondheim, who has often stated that he viewed Assassins as his most “perfect” musical.  In an interview with the Globe (London) in 2014, Sondheim said “John Weidman [the librettist] and I knew what we wanted to do, and we did it.” He added it that it fulfilled his expectations.

Explaining what he finds so intriguing and perfect about the show, Bundy said, “The creators were able to write in different genres and create a prismatic view of our nation’s history and character. In less than two hours, they raise gripping questions about who we are and what we tried to do.”

They were, he said, able to create a range of audience reactions from laughter to horror to sadness.

He also liked that Sondheim and Weidman took risks in combining the surreal and the documentary, the comic and the tragic.

The music embraces all American musical genre that reflect the periods of the assassins. Thus the shows as songs that sound like folk and revivalist numbers as well as those that reflect the ’60, ‘70s and ’80.

The show opened off-Broadway for a limited run at Playwrights’ Horizons in 1990 but did not get a Broadway production until 2004, again a limited run this time at Roundabout Theatre. A production scheduled for after 9-11 was shelved. In the Broadway production, a relatively unknown Neil Patrick Harris played both the balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald.

Initially, while many critics liked the show and admired Sondheim and Weidman’s brilliance, a number were put off by the subject matter and unsure whether the authors were condemning or glorifying the assassins. Some missed the obvious satire in the piece.

In the Globe interview in 2014, Sondheim said, ““Nobody at the end of the show should feel that we have been excusing or sentimentalizing these people. We’re examining the system that causes these horrors. The US Constitution guarantees the pursuit of happiness. It doesn’t guarantee the happiness. That’s the difference. These are people who feel they’ve been cheated of their happiness, each one in a different way.”

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Rehearsal

The Yale production which runs through Saturday, April 8 has assembled a cast that includes Broadway veterans Stanley Bahorek as Guiseppe Zangaria who appeared in a number of Broadway musicals, Stephen DaRosa as Charles Guiteau who received a Connecticut Critics Circle award for his performance in These Paper Bullets!,  Austin Durant as the Proprietor and P.J. Griffith as Leon Czolgosz. Robert Lenzi who was in Tuck Everlasting and South Pacific on Broadway plays John Wilkes Booth.

Other cast members include Dylan Frederick as the Balladeer who is a 3rd year student at the Drama school

Assisting in the production are Andrea Grody as music director. She is fresh from the off-Broadway debut of the musical The Band’s Visit which received rave notices. David Dorfman is doing the musical staging.

The production team includes Riccardo Hernandez who has created the sets, Ilona Somogyi the costumes, Yi Zhao the lighting.  Nathan A. Roberts and Charles Coes are the sound designers and Michael Commendatore is the projection designer.

Assassins runs Friday, March 17 to Saturday, April 8 at the University Theater, 222 York St., New Haven. For tickets, visit Yale Repor call 203-432-1234.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publishing and zip06.

 

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