Category Archives: 2017-18 Connecticut Theatre

“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.

Goodspeed Musicals - Oklahoma

Rhett Guter & Samantha Bruce. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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

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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.

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Elizabeth Stahlmann. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Ivoryton’s “West Side Story” Is Fine Production

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Photo by Anne Hudson

By Karen Isaacs

 If you have never seen the classic musical, West Side Story, then hurry off to Ivoryton Playhouse through July 30 to see its fine production.

Is it perfect?  No, but very few productions are. This production has many more plusses than minuses. It illustrates how far this small theater has come over the years that they can pull off this type of show.

In case you don’t know the show – is there anyone who hasn’t seen a production or the movie? – it is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet set in New York City in the mid-50s. Two teenage gangs are battling for turf — the Jets represent those who have been in the city for a generation – Italians, Polish and other eastern Europeans. The Sharks who are increasing in numbers are newcomers from Puerto Rico.

The two gangs can’t co-exist in the tenement neighborhoods on NY’s west side, many of which will be torn down to make way for the Lincoln Center complex.  But just as in Romeo & Juliet, two young people from opposite sides fall in love with tragic results. Tony (a Jet) falls in love with Maria (whose brother leads the Sharks).

What is striking in the show (and discomforting) is the obvious racism of the police, particularly Lt.  Schrank who not only uses racial slurs to refer to the Puerto Ricans but who actively encourages the Jets to “force them out.”

The show was created by Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Arthur Laurents (book) and Jerome Robins (director/choreographer). The show brought a jazzy urban score to Broadway as well as extensive use of dance that incorporated ballet and modern dance.

Ivoryton has assembled a fine cast with Todd L. Underwood as director/choreographer and Michael Morris as musical director.

Mia Pinero is luminous as Maria, a young woman who has recently arrived in the city and is experiencing her first love. She has a lovely voice that can be tremulous when necessary and full of determination at other times. You don’t want to take your eyes off of her.

Stephen Mir as Tony is more problematic. His voice is excellent, yet he sometimes seems to lack the passion called for. Another problem is that he looks very young – I would peg him for 16 or 17 at the oldest. Yet he is supposedly one of the founders (with Rif) of the Jets; he is no longer in school but works fulltime in Doc’s drugstore. As one of the leaders – although he is distancing himself from the gang – he is presumably one of its best fighters. Mir just doesn’t look the role.  Conor Robert Fallon as Rif has a more appropriate look.

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Mia Pinero and Stephen Mir. Photo by Anne Hudson

The two other main roles are Anita and Bernardo. Bernardo is Maria’s older brother and leader of the Sharks and Anita is his girlfriend and thus the leader of the girls. Natalie Madion as Anita is beautiful and dances very well. She projects the self-confidence that Maria is just gaining. Victor Borjas is smooth as Bernardo, but he frankly looks much too old for the part. Bernardo is older than the others but Borjas could pass for early 30s which seems inappropriate for the role. Yet he too carries the singing and dancing well.

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Victor Borjas and Natalie Madion. Photo by Jonanthan Steele

The rest of the company is excellent, though sometimes it is hard to differentiate the characters.

Underwood has managed the small Ivoryton stage very well and created dances that draw on Robbins’ choreography while being original. The cast works hard and achieves a lot.

My one quibble is his handling of the song “Somewhere” – it has been staged many different ways and sung by different characters, though most of us remember the film where it was a duet for Tony and Maria. Here the initial chorus is sung by Anita and Anybodys (the young girl who wants desperately be a Jet), with the ensemble joining in before it becomes Tony and Maria’s duet. Many of the ensemble are dressed in white (but not all) so you can wonder if they are angels, ghosts, or what. It was the most distracting part of the show.

Credit must be given to the 10-piece orchestra that is hidden away under the direction of Michael Morris.

Daniel Nischan has created a concrete jungle that can be transformed from a school playground, to the dress shop and drug store where Maria and Tony work and other locations.

Overall the costumes by Elizabeth Cipollina are 50ish. But the men’s hairstyles are not really correct for the period. They need the Elvis look – pompadours, Brill cream, etc. and they don’t have them.

Sound Designer Tate R. Burmeister and lighting designer Marcus Abbott do excellent work. The sound never blares and you can hear the lyrics. The lighting, particularly in the scene under the bridge is exquisite.

West Side Story runs through July 30. Get tickets at Ivoryton Playhouse or call 860-767-7318.

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Photo by Jonanthan Steele

“Newsies” at CRT Is All Energy But Little Else

 

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Photo by Gerry Goodstein

By Karen Isaacs

 

 The Connecticut Repertory Theater’s Summer Season is ending with a rousing production of Disney’s Newsies- the MusicalI through July 16.

The energetic cast — they work really hard – are led by director/choreographer Christopher D’Amboise.  The young men who comprise most of the cast dance up a storm almost non-stop. Unfortunately, while energetic, much of the choreography seems either routine or not particularly geared to the situation or plot.

While it is impressive, one could paraphrase a line from Shakespeare because unfortunately it all signifies nothing.

Newsies which opened on Broadway in 2012 closing after 1004 performances is based on the Disney film of the same name that was released in 1992.  Both tell – with some dramatic license –the story of the 1899 strike by newsboys in New York City against Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst (the two most prominent newspaper publishers in the city) over an increase in the price charged by the papers to the boys.  In reality it wasn’t the first such strike but the boys – and they really were young boys – did win some concessions.

For the Broadway production Harvey Fierstein rewrote the book and Alan Menkin and Jack Feldman added songs while also deleting some that had been in the original film.

The premise is still about the strike but as in the movie, these are not young boys but older adolescents – looking at them you would guess they were at least 16 or several years older.  This dilutes one of the elements in the show which is about the treatment of orphaned and poor children and child labor in general.

The strike is led by Jack Kelly (Jim Schubin) who wants to escape to Santa Fe but he rallies the group to protest the price rise from 50 cents for 100 papers to 60 cents.  The boys sell the papers for one or two cents.  Pulitzer wants to raise the price because following the Spanish-American War, circulation and therefore profits have declined.

The show – like an older Annie – has the requisite types among the boys – Crutchy (Tyler Jones) who limps and whom Kelly protects, the kid from Brooklyn, and of course the slightly more affluent new boy Davey (Noah Kieserman) whose father was let go from a factory because he had been injured on the job.  Plus we have Davey’s younger brother, Les (Aticus L. Burello) – cute and sassy.

Also, there has to be a romance – and Fierstein clarified and combined characters.  In a truly ironic turn, the romantic interest (Katherine played by Paige Smith) is an aspiring female reporter who it turns out to be Pultizer’s daughter. Later on the sons of Hearst and another publisher help the boys. The only other significant female role is that of Medda Larkin (Tina Fabrique) who owns and stars at a theater in the Bowery; she is the requisite motherly figure.

In this production, while Schubin is very good, I was much more drawn to the performance of Kieserman as Davey. I also wished that both Fabrique and Richard R. Henry (recently outstanding in Yale’s Assassins) who plays William Randolph Hearst had more to do. Their two big numbers “The Bottom Line” and “That’s Rich” were terrific.

This is a testosterone heavy show and perhaps because of that the music all sounds pretty much the same. There seems to be one semi-rousing ballad after another – even the titles tell you that (“Carrying the Banner,” “Seize the Day,” “Watch What Happens,” “The World Will Know”).

I came away from the show — I must admit the audience was cheering – feeling that it was all of one note;  it needed variation in tone, in voices and in choreography.  It is too formulaic.

Yet the performances all hard working, earnest and professional.  If it is hard to really differentiate the boys except for Jack, Crutchy, Davey, it is not the fault of the performers but of the script.  They are interchangeable.

Smith tries to project the young woman rebelling against her famous father and her privileged up-bringing.  She does a good job, but this role also is seriously underwritten.

The scenic design by Tim Brown reflects the urban environment with moving structures that reminded.  Fan Zhang did the period costumes and made the boys look probably cleaner and better dressed than they really were.

Many people will enjoy Newsies, if only for the energy.  But this is only a moderately successful musical which was reflected in New York by the limited awards (and even nominations) the show received.

For tickets visit Connecticut Repertory Theater.

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Tina Fabrique. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

 

Complete Shakespeare (Abridged) Will Have You Laughing

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Hanna Cheek, Sean Harris, Rich Hollman. Photo by Curt Henderson

By Karen Isaacs

 If you view Shakespeare as tough sledding, you will find your opinions turned upside down at Playhouse on Park’s production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) running through July 30.

 While this work has been around for many years, it has been revised for the 21st century and director Tom Ridgely says it took elements from two different versions. But that’s OK since this is really a vaudevillian piece.

It is a comic romp through most of Shakespeare’s plays performed by a zany three member cast: Hanna Cheek, Rich Hollman and Sean Harris, all talented clowns.

What you get in the 2-hour show is wonderful burlesques of three of Shakespeare’s most well-known works, plus romps through the others.

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Rich Hollman and Hanna Cheek. Photo by Curt Henderson

The play opens – after a hilarious introduction with a retelling of Romeo & Juliet. Not only do the three members play all the main parts, but Romeo is played by Hanna and Juliet by Rich Hollman. It’s abbreviated but amazingly all the most important elements are there.

From there they give us snippets of Shakespeare’s most gruesome play, Titus Andronicus, plus bits of Anthony and Cleopatra, as well as MacBeth performed partly as a folk song sung by a Peter, Paul and Mary clone. Even here they hit the main points of the plot.

The act ends with a compilation of the comedies – it is amazing how many of them feature similar elements – girls disguising themselves as men, separated twins, fairies and other spirits and more.

It is then that the trio realize that while they thought they had covered all of the plays, they had omitted one: Hamlet.

 So act two is all about Hamlet. They do it not only in an abbreviated version (again, Ophelia is played by Hollman), but in increasingly shortened versions, the last taking less than two minutes. They conclude with that version done backwards.

You don’t have to be an expert in Shakespeare to enjoy this though most of us have experienced at least one or two of the plays in school. My granddaughter – a soon-to-be high school junior who will be reading Hamlet next year – thoroughly enjoyed it. She had previously read and seen Romeo & Juliet and found their rendition hilarious.

It takes great talent to pull this off. While I did not feel the antic energy from them that I did the first time I saw this show – at Long Wharf Theater years ago, perhaps in the 1980s.

It might surprise you to know that this show, as well as an abridged history of America, and of sports, was developed by three American’s who called themselves The Reduced Shakespeare Company.

Director Ridgely as made fine use of the somewhat awkwardly large stage at Playhouse on Park. In keeping with the tone of the piece, costume designer Kate Bunce has made use of a variety of household items – including mops in various bright colors for wigs.

The cleverest part of the show, is when the three company members involve the audience in Ophelia’s state of mind and the conflicts she faces. While two audience members are brought on stage, the entire audience represents her id, ego and superego. Fun and enlightening.

This is perfect entertainment for anyone who thinks that Shakespeare has to be dull and difficult to understand. My granddaughter thoroughly enjoyed it and I’m sure that she gained some insights that will be useful to her study of Hamlet this fall.

For tickets, call 860-523-5900 ext. 10 or visit Playhouse on Park..complete shakespeare

“Fun Home” at the Bushnell Is Moving Look at a Modern Family

 

Fun Home

Kate Shindell and Robert Petkoff. Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

 

When Fun Home won the 2015 Tony award for best musical, it was a first: The entire creative team was female. Now the national tour of this show is at the Bushnell through June 25. It’s a show that will move you though at times it may also confuse you.

It’s based on the graphic novel of the same name by Alison Bechdel about her discovery of both her sexuality and a number of family secrets.

The musical features a book and lyrics by Lisa Kron with music by Jeanine Tesori (she wrote the musical for Goodspeed’s Thoroughly Modern Millie).

What makes the musical sometimes confusing is that Alison, the central character is shown at three ages – about 10, 18 and then the adult author in her early forties. Plus the show jumps time. Even the fact that all three Alison’s are often on stage at the same time can make you unsure when something is happening.

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Kate Shindel. Photo by Joan Marcus

Alison – the adult Alison – is working on her memoir, a graphic novel about her growing up in Pennsylvania. She remembers the good times when she was young with her two brothers (they appear rather sporadically) and her Mom and Dad. Dad (Bruce) is a central figure – a high school English teacher, he also has restored their home to historic house perfection plus he has taken over the family business – a funeral home. The title of the show comes from the fact that within the family it is referred to as the “fun home.”

But you can sense that all is not perfection, even if the adult Alison hasn’t told us as much. Dad strives for perfection and can be both loving and demanding of his children; plus he and Mom’s relationship seems somewhat distant. Because the story is told out of order, we learn that Dad has a secret life; he is attracted to men and periodically acts on it.

He is also insistent that he is always right, demeaning the drawings that the young Alison makes, the literary opinions of his teenage daughter and even views the adult Alison’s graphic novels as nothing more than comic books.

It is when Alison is in college that the proverbial shit hits the fan. Alison, 18 and away from home for the first time, begins to realize that she is a lesbian. She remembers as the 8 year old being fascinated and attracted to the “butch” truck driver she saw in a diner. As she is coming to terms with this – she is comically awkward – her dad’s life is unraveling. He his past is catching up with him and his marriage is in deep trouble. He ends his life by walking in front of a truck.

That’s the story, but because it is told in a non-chronological manner, it is often difficult to know when something happened.  When did Dad get first caught and sentenced to see a psychiatrist? How old was Alison during the bicentennial trip to NYC when he leaves the three children asleep to go cruising?

Yet, while at times Fun Home can be confusing, it is also moving. Bechdel and Kron have created characters that you care about and that you can recognize.

The three actors playing Alison at different ages are all terrific: Carly Gold as “Small Alison,” Abby Corrigan as “Medium Alison” and Kate Shindel as Alison, who also serves as the narrator.

Broadway veteran Robert Petkoff shows us all of the dimension of Bruce, the father. Susan Monz has a more difficult time with the role of the mother, Helen. The role is less central to the story and depends more on non-verbal than lines.

All three Alisons and Petkoff have excellent voices and they put over all the songs.

The program does not list the individual songs. Several stand out despite that. The young Alison and her brothers do a terrific mock TV commercial for the funeral home, “Come to the Fun Home.” Bruce’s final song, “Edges of the World” is also moving.

This short (about 95 minutes) production has more than 25 songs. They often seem to blend into each other, so looking at a list of the songs, it is hard to recall specific songs.

The touring production features an excellent set (by David Zinn) and lighting (by Ben Stanton). The sound design by Kai Harada masters the tendency at the Bushnell for the sound to blast and be mushy. But there were still lyrics that were difficult to understand.

Fun Home is an example of modern musicals that address current contemporary issues. It will appeal to those who want their musicals “real.”  A friend who had seen the show in NYC said that a second viewing made it more understandable. I found it touching, in part due to the cating of Shindel and Petkoff.

Tickets are available at the Bushnell or 860-987-5900.

Fun Home

Photo by Joan Marcus

“Noises Off” at the Connecticut Rep Is a Laughfest

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Photo by Gerry Goodstein

By Karen Isaacs

 Timing is everything with farce and the cast of Noises Off now at the Connecticut Repertory Theater in Storrs through June 26 has it down pat.

Credit must be given to director Vincent J. Cardinal who has molded his cast of seasoned professionals and aspiring ones into a well-oiled machine. He has also added some creative directorial touches.

The show moves quickly and the laughter keeps on coming.

Noises Off is a backstage farce written by Michael Frayn. A group of actors are rehearsing “Nothing On” a typical British farce that involves many doors (8), props (particularly a plate of sardines) and too many people coming and going and trying not to be seen by others. The show is to tour for a few months.

Dotty Otley is the actress behind the tour; she hopes makes some money and cash in on some measure of fame. Act one takes place at the final rehearsal before the opening. The actors

So let’s see what is going on.  Lloyd, the director, is apparently having affairs with both the assistant stage manager, Poppy, and Brooke Ashton, a very voluptuous young actress, though her acting skills are negligible.  Dotty, the leading lady, is having an affair with Garry Lejune, an actor in the company who is substantially younger than Dotty.  Then there is Selsdon Mowbray, an elderly actor known to drink who has a minor role and appears to be hard of hearing.  Dotty has encouraged Lloyd to give Selsdon a role. Rounding out the group is Belinda, an actress who seems to know all about the various relationships among the cast, Tim Allgood, the stage manager, and Frederick Fellowes, an actor whose wife has just left him.

Act one sets this all up; we see parts of the first act of the play which is not going at all smoothly in the technical rehearsal (the rehearsal aimed at smoothing out entrances, exits, lights, the set, props, etc.)  Doors don’t open or shut properly, Dotty has trouble remembering which props to enter or exit with, etc. Tim has been awake for 48 hours putting up the set and is dead on his feet. Adding to Lloyd’s exasperation is that Garry starts questioning the motivation for carrying a box off-stage in an extremely inarticulate way, Brooke stops the action frequently when she loses a contact lens, and Frederick also stops the rehearsal for inane reasons, but always apologetically

Act two shows us backstage during a performance a month later.  Lloyd is making a surprise visit to see Brooke who is threatening to leave the cast, Poppy has some important news to share with Lloyd, and Dotty is locked in her dressing room because Garry thinks she is cheating on him when in reality she had been trying to cheer up Frederick. Plus they all think Selsden is drinking again.  Due to all of this, various sabotages occur that make the on-stage performances (which we don’t see) even less comprehensible.

The shorter third act, shows the closing performance, where all pretense of doing the play seems to have disappeared.  The cast and plot are in shambles.

First of all, Tim Brown has created a terrific set of both the stage and the backstage.  It has the English country house look and feel.

Then we can look at the cast. While initially I had a few negative thoughts – that Jennifer Cody looked too young for Dotty Otley as did Gavin McNicholl as Frederick Fellowes, the actor whose wife has just left him, and I was unsure about the long hair of Curtis Longfellow as Garry, within minutes my uncertainties evaporated.

This troupe of actors were all terrific. Each one creates a real person both as the actor and as the character the actor is playing on stage.  The four Equity performers – John Bixler as the director Lloyd, Jennifer Cody as Dotty, Steve Hayes as Selsdon and Michael Doherty as the stage manager, Tim are great. Each achieves every laugh that is built into the script. But the others – all young aspiring performers are also good. It’s hard to single out just one.  Curtis Longfellow plays the inarticulate and jealous Garry to perfection. Jayne Ng is terrific as the dim Brooke while Gavin McNicholl is a slightly woe-begone Frederck. Arlen Bozich brings out the motherly aspects of Belinda and Grace Allyn is down-to-earth as Poppy. She clearly lets you see her infatuation with Lloyd.

Cardinal has directed most of the second act – the backstage part – as mime. The actors mouth words but don’t speak loudly which is necessary backstage; plus you can clearly hear the play going on out front. He is assisted in making this work by a window in the set which allows us to see the actors (and the lighting) of parts of the actual performance.

If you enjoy farce, and want to see it well done, make the trip to the Connecticut Repertory Theater. For tickets call 860-486-2113 or visit crt.uconn.edu.

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Photo by Gerry Goodstein

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