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.
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.
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.
By Karen Isaacs
When we think about stereotyping people by gender, age, ethnicity, we usually assume that it members of outside groups who do that to people unlike themeslves. Men stereotype women, whites stereoptype Africian-Americans and more.
The new play at TheaterWorks in Hartford, Fade by Tanya Saracho makes us aware of how within a group, the stereotyping can occur. Women stereotype other women, Asians stereotype other Asians and Hispanics stereotype other Hispanics.
In this case, it is two Latinos who stereotype each other including jumping to conlusions about their histories and futures.
Lucia is a newly hired writer on a popular TV show; a novelist (one book), she views this job in LA as a way to pay the bills so that she can return to her serious writing. On her first day on the job, she meets Abel, a janitor. The assumptions begin. She speaks to him in Spanish though she has never met him before; she assumes that all janitors in LA are Mexican. Abel responds in English and soon points out that while he is of Mexican heritage, his parents and he were all born and raised in the U.S.
Abel assumes she is from the Mexican elite, and to some extent he is correct. While she claims not to be by pointing out that she worked her way through college, she also lets drop that she and all her friends had maids and other household help. But they bond over some things as well.
The play is about their interactions and relationship which develops as she complains about the entire male group of writers. She is horrified by the stereotypical Latina characters on the TV and the patronizing ways of her fellow writes, all white males. It is perhaps symbolic of her outsider status that her office is a floor below all the others. One even told her she was the token minority female.
Lucia and Abel talk to each other constantly until you wonder how either gets any work done. They complain that most people mispronounce their names. She begins speaking up more in the writers’ meetings and gains some praise from her boss. She is becoming a solid member of the team. Slowly her attitude that this is just a job to pay the bills changes to one of more ambition to succeed at the studio.
During this period, you think that a romance might develop between the two. Abel is well spoken and obviously educated. In fact, he reveals that he had been a firefighter until he was arrested and jailed on a violence issue. He tells Lucia about his past and the incident that involved his daughter’s mother and sister; he is devoted to his daughter.
At one point, Lucia is working on a script and asks Abel for permission to use the reference to his tattoo – “Semper Fi” and his former firefighter status as part of the plot line. He agrees.
It is here that this play about stereotypes and connections dramatically changes course. In the last 10-15 minutes, it seems as though Lucia has been infected not only with the desire to succeed on her job but that whatever ethical standards she has have been pushed aside.
Abel happens to see the episode in which the “Semper Fi” is to be used; to his horror it includes not just that but ALL the details of the violence episode, even using his exact words that he had told Lucia.
He is angry but Lucia seems oblivious to the problem and believes he had given her blanket permission to use his life. The final scene shows Lucia in NYC as an executive at the network, callously agreeing to firesome, and Abel still a janitor.
The issue of authors using the reality of their lives and the lives of friends in their works is both common in literature (the play Collected Stories deals with it) and it is an interesting issue. What are the ethical dimensions of taking people’s stories and retelling or fictionalizing them? Must permission be granted? Do writers (and artists) necessarily betray their confidants?
But this issue enters Fade much too late in the play. It is not developed in any way. It almost seems like a way to break up the relationship and come to a conclusion. So it certainly left me unsatisfied.
Jerry Ruiz has done a fine job directing the two person cast. Eddie Martinez is a standout as Abel, giving us a multi-dimensional character. Every part of his performance rings true, and you see the conflicting emotions when he realizes that Lucia has betrayed him.
As Lucia, Elizabeth Ramos does not bring the same depth to the role; she seems more superficial but perhaps that is because author reveals less about her.
Mariana Sanchez has created an appropriate office set with a window that lets us see out to the corridor where Eddie works. That may not be realistic but it adds to the action.
Fade is one of those plays that seems to be more meaningful than it actual is and the introduction of a new topic in the last 15 minutes contributes to my leaving the performance dissatisfied.
It is at TheaterWork, 233 Pearl St., Hartford through June 30. For tickets visit TheaterWorks or call 860-527-7838.
By Karen Isaacs
Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins are rocking the stage at Ivoryton Playhouse through Sunday, June 25 in the musical Million Dollar Quartet.
It is about the night (Dec. 4, 1956) when these four legends had a jam session at Sun Records in Memphis. Sun’s owner Sam Phillips had discovered each of these.
When word leaked out about the session, a local newsman said the quartet could sell a million dollars’ worth of records; hence Million Dollar Quartet.
The show is more jam session of the hits of these four than a really fully developed musical. The plot is pretty basic. Phillips had sold Elvis’ contract to RCA Victor records in order to keep his studio going; Carl Perkins hasn’t had a hit in a year, Johnny Cash’s contract is up for renewal and Jerry Lee Lewis is the brash new kid on the block. Plus Phillips is being courted by RCA to close the studio, move to NYC and work with Elvis.
Tension also exist among the four. After all, Perkins had to cancel a TV appearance due to illness; just weeks later Elvis performed “Blue Suede Shoes” – which was Perkins’ hit – on The Ed Sullivan Show.” Perkins also feels he has been provided less attention and marketing support than the others. The three more established performers all chafe at Lewis’ brashness. Presley has already made the jump to a major record label while Cash is about to go with Columbia Records.
Just to give the show a little more pizzazz, Elvis has brought his current girlfriend, Dyanne to the session.
The show lives and dies on the quality of the performers and here Ivoryton Playhouse and executive director Jacqui Hubbard have hit the jackpot. All six of the major performers are experienced and the four “legends” have all played their roles before.
Each has a resemblance to the singer they play both physically and vocally but these are not “impersonators.” They use the resemblance to suggest the performer; each succeeds well though some better than others.
The standouts in this cast are Luke Darnell as Carl Perkins and Joe Callahan as Jerry Lee Lewis. Each seemed to capture the essence of the character better and to sound more like the original. Callahan has the showiest role; Jerry Lee Lewis was brash, over-the-top and a superb showman on the piano. Callahan captures all of that from his brashness to his body language when Phillips reins him in.
Perkins is perhaps the toughest role since he seem quieter and more controlled. But when Darnell picks up the guitar (all these performers are terrific musicians), it is a wonder. Plus he manages to create a fully developed character; we see and sense his frustrations and envy at the success of the others and his struggles.
Jeremy Sevelovitz creates the vocal sound of Johnny Cash and the imposing presence of the performer. Sevelovitz, a graduate of the University of Hartford’s Hartt School, could give us a more nuanced performance; we don’t really get below the surface of the character.
John Rochette has to overcome several hurdles in playing Elvis. First of these is our familiarity with not only Elvis himself but with all the Elvis impersonators out there. Rochette isn’t doing an impersonation but a suggestion of the performer; he succeeds, yet the charisma of the performer is diminished.
Presley’s girl friend, Dyanne is Emily Mattheson who has a fine voice. The role is definitely secondary and seems to be there primarily to allow for exposition. But, she certainly scores with her two songs, “Fever” and “I Hear You Knockin’.”
As Sam Phillips, Ben Hope creates an understanding of the man and sympathy for his plight. Like a minor league team, he must constantly find new talent and build them into stars, then lose them to the “major leagues.”
But this show is all about the music. Here director and choreographer Sherry Lutken has done a fine job. The pace is brisk but not hurried and the musical numbers are terrific.
You’ll hear many of the great songs of these four from “Blue Suede Shoes” to “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Memories Are Made of This,” “Sixteen Tons,” “My Babe” right on to “Great Balls of Fire,” “Hound Dog” and more. Folks were literally dancing in the aisle.
Act One ends with the five doing a moving “Walk That Lonesome Valley”/”I Shall Not Be Moved.”
The show ends with each doing a solo; while the music is great it seems as though it is extraneous. The plot has been wrapped up, they have left the studio but each comes back for a solo.
Martin Scott Marchitto has created an effective set of the Sun Studios (which was a converted garage).
Million Dollar Quartet is a show that every fan of rock ‘n roll, rockabilly and pop music will love. It is at Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., through Sunday June 25. For tickets call 860-767-7318 orIvoryton Playhouse.
By Karen Isaacs
Lettice & Lovage is a play with a “cute” and confusing title that somehow reflects the play itself. Its current production at Westport Country Playhouse (through June 17) shows what is best in the play and also its weaknesses.
The original production of the play by Peter Shaffer (Amadeus, Equus and more) starred two of the great actresses of the British stage: the better known Dame Maggie Smith (as Lettice) and Margaret Tyzack. It was a tour de force for Maggie Smith.
Lettice Duffet is an eccentric older woman of limited means. The play opens with her giving a tour of one England’s National Trust properties, the very dull Fustian Manor House. Not much happened there except that Queen Elizabeth I almost fell down the stairs. The house itself is not very interesting either. The tourists are bored. But in a series of brief scenes, we see Lettice slowly expand on the facts about the house until they are scarcely recognizable. Each time we see the stories become more dramatic (to the point of impossibility) and additional stories appear. Of course, some tourists find her loose regard for the facts disturbing.
The personnel officer of the Trust visits and observes one of the more dramatic tellings of the house’s stories. Lettice is called on the carpet. But she doesn’t arrive in Charlotte Schoen’s office (another older, single woman) chastened or apologetic. Lettice is her own flamboyant self. She continually derails the conversation with stories of her mother, an actress who translated Shakespeare into French and toured the French countryside with a troupe of all women.
Nevertheless she is fired.
After the intermission (Acts 2 and 3 are combined), Lotte shows up at Lettice’s basement flat (equally flamboyant). Something Lettice had said about older women, has struck a chord with Lotte. She comes to offer the possibility of a job as a tour guide on one of London’s tourist boats. Lettice insists they toast with a liquor she has made from lovage (an edible member of the parsley family used in Elizabethan times.) The two women drink quite a bit and each reveals something about her life. Lotte had studied architecture and had been in love with an engineering student; they had planned on blowing up one of the examples of 1950s architecture which they viewed as particularly horrendous. They even called themselves the E.N.D. (Eyesore Negation Detachment). But she backed out and the romance ended. She was so upset, she failed her exams and instead became a personnel officer.
By the time we get to the third act, it is months later and Lotte and Lettice have become fast friends; except Lettice is charged with trying to murder Lotte. I’ll not spoil the scene with giving you the details of what happened, why or how.
It ends with the two of them going into the tour business: conducting tours of the most hideous examples of modern architecture.
Even with a last minute illness that forced a change in the central role, Mark Lamos has cast this excellently and directed deftly. But even he can’t overcome some of the problems.
First is that the play seems just too long and with too much talk. It is under two and half hours but it seems longer. The night I saw it, the production started late and the intermission seemed overly long. Still we were out of the theater by 10:20 (for an 8 pm show).
Why does it seem long? It’s just that each scene and each idea is over-talked.
So let us turn to the plusses of this production. Certainly some of the idea that Shaffer focuses on are still very current. Older women (and men) often have difficulty finding employment. Older women’s economic circumstances are more limited and precarious than men’s. Must of the architecture of the last 70 years is particularly graceless: huge concrete squares and rectangles often replacing much interesting older buildings. Prince Charles made a controversial speech in which referred to some of the post-WW II buildings as monstrous carbuncles.
But these ideas get lost in the extraneous activities of the eccentric Lettice and soon, Lotte.
Kandi Chappell stepped into the daunting role of Lettice late in the rehearsals after medical issue cause the original actress to withdraw; she will be fine. She has done a splendid job with a very long part that requires panache. She has it. Mia Dillon gives one of her regularly fine performances as Lotte. You see her liberate herself in so many ways.
Paxton Whitehead almost steals the entire show with a brief appearance as Lettice’s lawyer who must defend her on the attempted murder charge. It is hilarious, as you see him try to understand what went on and what is going on.
John Arnone has given us set that conveys the inner character of Lotte, Lettice and Faustian House. Jane Greenwood must have had a great time designing Lettice’s eccentric costumes.
Overall, Lettice and Lovage gives you fine performances in a play that you may find very enjoyable or a little long, depending on your mood.
It is at the Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport. For tickets call 203-227-4177 or visit Westport Country Playhouse.
By Karen Isaacs
When a spectacular Broadway revival goes on tour, the concern is always that the necessary adjustments in both cast size and staging to fit a variety of venues will diminish its effectiveness. Luckily the national tour of of Lincoln Center’s revival of The King and I Has been adapted brilliantly.
Yes, the opening scene is quite as specular on a proscenium stage, but it is effective. After listening to the lush overture played by a large orchestra — a rarity in today’s Broadway environment, a ship makes its way slowly onto the stage. From the ship emerges the captain, Louis and Anna Leonowens (Laura Michelle Kelly). It is all there — the sunset lighting, the Siam (Thai) inspired wall hangings on each side of the stage — we are being transported.
What follows feels at times like total immersion in this culture. We feel as confused as Anna does with the traditions, attitudes and beliefs of the country.
For those who have forgotten the plot of this Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, it centers around the experiences of Anna, a young English widow with a son, who is hired to teach the children of the King of Siam, a man who is seeking to be a “modern” king. Though she has lived in the Far East for a long time, she still finds the court of Siam very different and there are no other English to help make the transition.
She meets the King’s powerful advisor Kralahome, and learns that although the King agreed to give her a house outside the palace gates no such home is ready for her and she is warned not to press the King on this matter. After meeting Lady Thiang, the King’s head wife and the King, she meets the other wives and the children — the King has over 60 children but Anna will only be teaching those whose mothers are favored.
Two subplots figure prominently in the show. The first involves Tuptin and Lun Tha. Tuptin is “given” to the King by the King of Burma and is delivered to him by Lun Tha. Unfortunately they love each other.
The second subplot involves the concern that Siam may be taken over by one of the European powers — the French had just made moves on another Indochina country and the British also were looking to expand their empire. The King is concerned that if he is viewed as a “barbarian” it will provide the western countries with the rationalization they are looking to find.
Both Anna and the King are fascinating, complex characters. Anna is a rarity for the 1860s; an independent woman making her way in the world when she could have retreated to a more secluded life. She also is willing, despite misgivings, to speak her mind and demand that she be taken seriously.
The King is equally complex. He is an absolute ruler who senses his mortality and the need to “modernize” his thinking. But he finds it difficult and confusing to do so; he understand the need to interact with the western world though he finds their ways “a puzzlement.”
This is a musical with a bittersweet ending; two love stories — one that is forbidden and one that is barely acknowledged ; both end with the death of the man.
Bartlett Sher has once again proven his expertise with Rodgers & Hammerstein. His direction has produced many fine moments. I particularly liked his handling of the introduction of the children to Anna. Each child had a unique personality that made them endearing in the way they interacted with their father and Miss Anna. With the help of his fine cast, these are not characters in a musical comedy but real people who just happen to occasional burst out into song.
Of course, Rodgers and Hammerstein gives them some marvelous songs from the opening “I Whistle a Happy Tune” right through to “Shall We Dance?” In between there are the soaring love songs — though often with a bittersweet tone — such as “We Kiss in a Shadow,” “I Have Dreamed,” and “Hello, Young Lovers” as well as songs with a comic touch including “A Puzzlement” and “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” This is a varied and complete score that under the music direction of Ted Sperling reaches its full potential.
It is surprising how the changes in the cast have affected the production. In the revival at Lincoln Center, Kelli O’Hara as Anna and Ruthie Ann Miles as Lady Thiang dominated the stage. They overshadowed .Ken Wantanbe, as the King.
In this production, it is the reverse. Jose Llana – who took over the role of the King on Broadway dominates the stage. His King is still autocratic, mercurial, demanding and sometimes menacing but yet he seems less like an actor and more like a person. He shows more of the King’s anxieties about the future, ruling and his own mortality. The one criticsm is that perhaps he overplays some of the humor in the role, appearing at times like a schoolboy pleased with his own jokes.
The other standout is Manna Nichols as Tuptin. When she is on stage, it is difficult to take your eyes off of her. Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna is good – she has a nice voice and inhabits the role, but she doesn’t bring it totally to live. You don’t feel the emotions. This is especially obvious at the ending which lacks the emotional punch it needs.
Joan Almedilla as Lady Thiang has a somewhat similar problem. Professional and very good, but lacking one thing.
For a national tour, the entire production is lush — from the costumes by Catherine Zuber, the sets by Michael Yeargan, the lighting by Donald Holder and the sound by Scott Lehrer.
Choreographer Christopher Gatelli has adapted and modified the original choreography by Jerome Robbins.
The orchestra is larger than normal on tour and while the cast is reduced in size, only occasionally is it noticeable.
It you love The King and I or if you have never seen it, you should see this production at the Bushnell through June 4. Tickets are available at Bushnell..