Category Archives: 2018-19 Connecticut Theater Season

Ivoryton’s World Premiere Drama Has Promise

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Photo by Jonathan Steele

By Karen Isaacs

Bravo Ivoryton Playhouse! Brava Artistic Director Jacqueline Hubbard! It is a big risk to produce a new play about a subject many don’t really want to think about written by a playwright who is not widely known.

Yet that is what the Playhouse and Hubbard have done with the current world premiere of Queens of the Gold Mask now through Sunday, Nov. 18.

Playwright Carole Lockwood’s play while set in the past resonates much too much in today’s world.

When most of us think of the Klu Klux Klan, we picture the white robes and hoods, the burning crosses and the resulting violence. While the hoods don’t allow us to the see faces, we think of them as men. But anyone who has seen the footage of the Charlottesville demonstration last year, or other similar but smaller gatherings, must acknowledge that some of the attendees are women. Women who might be our neighbors.

Lockwood’s play is set in Celestial, Alabama in 1961 (act 1) and 1963 (act 2). Is the town’s name an ironic joke? It seems like it. This is small town Alabama not too far from Birmingham, and the Klan has never died. The resurgent civil rights movement is leading to a resurgence in Klan activities; everyone seems to belong.

Queens focuses on the women in this small town, particular a matriarch, Ida Sage or Moma as she is called by most, her daughter-in-law, and four other women. Each is married and each husband is involved in Klan activities though details are hidden from the women.

When writing about such emotional and explosive subjects, any playwright walks a fine line between drama and melodrama, which is usually defined as type of drama that exaggerates emotion, emphasizes plot or action over characterization and often does not observe the laws of cause and effect.

This play falls well over the line into melodrama.

Every melodrama needs a villain with no redeeming qualities and that role is Moma played very well by Ellen Barry. You do not have one iota of sympathy for this manipulative, determined, evil woman. She dominates everyone.

The first act of the play is about Moma’s desire to regain the charter for the “women’s auxiliary” chapter of the Klan in Celestial that was lost when membership fell below seven. So she is determined to recruit two new members and regain the charter. One candidate is easy: Kathy (Two) Boggs is a young woman married to the mayor’s son. Moma would have considered “trash” except for the marriage. Kathy is eager to join.

But the other possible candidate is more problematic. One of the local men has recently brought home his bride, a school teacher from Ohio, after a six month courtship. So could Rose be brought into the fold?

That is left to the local Avon lady, Faith, who talks to Rose about sisterhood, fitting in, making friends. She portrays this as just a group that talks and bakes cookies but does nothing more. She even implies that the men do little. Rose is uncertain; she says she had hoped to not have a conversation about race as Faith questions her about teaching black children and her home town. Her dad was prejudiced, and she and her new husband Buddy had never discussed the issue. But she is bored and lonely and is persuaded to join.

Act two, set in 1963 shows Rose as a contented member of the group; she has adjusted to the way of small town life. She’s also befriended Martha Nell, Moma’s daughter-in-law who she treats like a servant and even physically abuses. Martha played touchingly by Sarah Jo Provost is the most sympathetic character. It seems that in the last two years, a little spark of determination and spunk has developed.

Moma has become even more hateful, if that is possible. But while all the women give lip service to “the cause,” we learn that two have courageously been giving information to the FBI who are investigating Klan activities in the area. In fact, a bug has been planted in Moma’s house. Perhaps the FBI is closing in on her involvement in the bombing of a church in the black quarter and of the high school that was about to be integrated. We see her, make a phone call and then sit waiting until she hears sirens; her look changes to one of contentment and pleasure. One of the suspected informants has been killed.

When Rose finally confronts Moma and says she is leaving the chapter (and her marriage) to return to Ohio, Moma gloats that Ohio has one of the bigger Klan memberships, that the “kiss of death” and oath of secrecy will follow her and that the Klan will continue to grow even in thirty years.

Director Jacqueline Hubbard has handled the cast and show deftly; keeping it moving as much as possible, and the melodramatic moments (and there are many) as realistic as possible. She is aided by the scenic design, a kitchen, dining room and front door of a clean but shabby house; the lighting by Marcus Abbott; and the sound design by Tate R. Burmeister that includes traditional hymns such as “Shall We Gather by the River.”

Overall the cast is excellent, creating multi-dimensional characters even where the playwright didn’t. It is hard to pick just one or two out for praise but certainly Ellen Barry totally immerses herself in the unrelenting force that is Moma, and Sarah Jo Provost is also excellent as the downtrodden Martha Nell. Anna Fagan must make the cheerful and naïve Rose believable and for the most part she succeeds.

This play has promise and certainly the subject matter, the active role of women in the Klan is one that is rarely discussed. But the work needs trimming substantially and many of the characters need to be more developed rather than recognizable stereotypes.

Go see Queens of the Golden Mask. It is well worth your time.

It is at Ivoryton Playhouse through Sunday, Nov. 18. For tickets visit Ivoryton Playhouse or call 860-767-7318.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com

Fascinating Look at How We Grieve and Recover

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Andrew Veenstra, Kelly McAndrew, Katie Ailion. Photo by Carol Rosegg

By Karen Isaacs

 I can’t stop thinking about and praising the world premiere play, Thousand Pines, at Westport Country Playhouse through Saturday, Nov. 17.

Playwright Matthew Greene and director Austin Pendleton have taken a subject that can be emotionally devastating and created a thoughtful and insightful study of how individuals and communities cope with unimaginable tragedy.

The play consists of three scenes with three different families in the same town and all on the same Thanksgiving Day. Six fine actors work as a well-oiled ensemble to create a variety of individuals so well that sometimes it takes a minute to realize who they played in an earlier scene.

This is first Thanksgiving following a shooting six months earlier at a middle school in town. Each of the scenes focuses on a different family who lost a son in the shooting.

You might think that this would be a tear-jerker. Greene and Pendleton haven’t minimized the horror but have kept the emotions under control.

It is an examination of how individuals grieve and how it affects family and community relationships. Research has shown that many couples whose child dies will divorce; the still living siblings are apt to suffer from a variety of psychological issues from guilt of survival to resentment of the family’s concentration on the dead child.

In the three scenes, each about 25 minutes in length, we see the entire range of options and of families.

In the first scene the mother is preparing to host Thanksgiving dinner, having invited her sister and husband, her late husband’s brother and her older son’s fiancée. When the son (Justin) arrives, he is angry that things are happening as usual; he thought he and his mother had agreed to “keep it simple” this year. Yet underneath the perky mother (played by Kelly McAndrew), is someone unable to truly accept the tragedy. Andrew Veenstra is excellent as Justin.

We move to another family; in this case the father sits passively in a chair wanting to eat, while the child’s stepmother (Sophie) is fixated on a law suit that they and some other parents have filed because “someone must be held responsible.” She is determined that other parents who are neighbors will give dispositions as will Deborah, a school teacher at the school, who is also a guest for dinner. An added guest is Oliver, Sophie’s ex-husband and the lead lawyer on the case. Even he is astonished at Sophie’s single-mindedness. Their daughter, Gretchen is also present, hoping for a traditional family meal only to find it so focused on the lawsuit that the meal becomes a minor distraction. She also resents Sophie’s late blooming maternal instincts that she never saw while growing up.

The third scene involves a single mom (Rita) who has invited her brother (Kyle) to dinner but he shows up in handcuffs with a police officer having punched a man at the grocery store. Also flitting around are two women (Evelyn and Tori) who volunteered to help her; though she really doesn’t want the help which she recognizes as survivor guilt. Later in the scene, a young man, perhaps a college student arrives bringing food and he and Kyle discuss the tragedy.

Each of the actors does a terrific job. Kelly McAndrews plays all three moms but they are so different and Andrew Veenstra is moving as the young men who are in the first and third scenes. This isn’t to slight William Ragsdale (Martin, Oliver and Frank) or Joby Earle (Charlie, Warren and Kyle) nor Anne Bates (Beth, Debbie and Evelyn) and Kate Ailion (Ashley, Gretchen, Tori).

Walt Spangler has created an upper middle class dining room which contains both elements of colonial style and more contemporary design. Ryan Rumery handled both the sound design and composed music for the show.

I found this moving and fascinating. As the playwright said, “to be honest, I’d love for this play to stop being ‘relevant.’”

Yes, it is a difficult subject but it is handled with such care by all involved that it is well worth seeing.

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

“The Roommate” at Long Wharf Is Hard to Define

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Tasha Lawrence and Linda Powell. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 I wish I knew what playwright Jen Silverman intended with her new play, The Roommate now at Long Wharf through Sunday, Nov. 4.

It seems to follow somewhat in the footsteps of her earlier play The Moors which I thoroughly enjoyed at Yale Rep. That play was a mashup/satire of the novels of the Bröntes and other gothic romance writers of the period.

But this piece is harder to define. Yes, it descends into absurdity and seems to be somewhat a parody of the usual sit com set up: two people basically strangers living together. But is it meant to be more? Is something else intended?

It’s hard to describe the plot without giving too much away, since the success of the piece depends on the surprises and unexpected twists.

In Iowa City (there are several jokes about Iowa), Sharon has taken in a new roommate (Robyn) who has just arrived from New York City. Sharon is naïve – or perhaps clueless – to an extreme. When asked if she works, she replies, “I’m retired from my marriage.” She calls her adult son who lives in NYC constantly though he seldom picks up; she has never considered the idea that he may be gay, after all when she visited he introduced her to a “date” who was a lesbian. She has apparently no friends, no hobbies, no real life. Why she is willing to share her house and why she selected Robyn to be the roommate is a mystery.

Robyn is also a mystery; why is she moving to a small town in the mid-West? But we quickly sense that Robyn and Sharon are like oil and water. Robyn is amazed by Sharon’s naiveté; she seems to want privacy- not the companion that Sharon was perhaps looking for. She smokes – not just cigarettes but marijuana! In fact, she even brought her own plants.

After a revelation – and later others – the two seem almost to swap roles. Sharon becomes adventurous and daring; Robyn seems more conventional.

But the transformation of Sharon is carried to such an extreme that all plausibility is lost. It may be funny to see Sharon react to her first inhalation of marijuana, but like much in this play, it goes too far, for too long.

Silverman also relies too much on the telephone to convey messages. Every time Sharon calls her son, she leaves a long message that is obviously intended as much for the audience as for him. Silverman and the director both have taken the easy way out. When Robyn moves in, boxes are piled by the door. Though they live together weeks or more, those boxes are never moved until they suddenly disappear, announcing Robyn’s departure.

Director Mike Donahue has helped the two performers get all the laughs that are in the piece, usually about Sharon’s lack of worldliness or her misconceptions about NYC and other things.

Tasha Lawrence as Robyn and Linda Powell as Sharon are both very good, working as hard as possible to make the implausible seem possible. Yet, in the end one wonders if the audience ever truly cares about either of these middle-aged women whose lives are being turned upside down.

Silverman seems to focus her works on women and she could bring a unique perspective to their lives; in this piece her mixture of absurdity and reality don’t blend well.

For tickets visit  Long Wharf or call 800-782-8497.

This content courtesy of Shore Publications and zipo6.com.

Directorial Choices Lead to Disappointing “Henry V” at Hartford Stage

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Stephen Louis Grush as Henry V. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

y Karen Isaacs

 Where is Darko Tresnjak when we need him? Tresnjak, artistic director of Hartford Stage has, during his tenure consistently directed fine productions of Shakespeare. These have been imaginative and creative while illuminating the plays and helping a 21st century audience to appreciate them.

Even before he came to Hartford, the previous artistic directors, Mark Lamos and Michael Wilson had established the theater as a bastion of good Shakespeare productions.

Unfortunately this production of Henry V directed by Elizabeth Williamson breaks that string of successes. It is a production that neither engaged me nor interested me. A number of audience members obviously agreed; lots of seats that had been filled were empty after intermission.

Henry V follows the new king, who in Henry IV parts I and 2 had gone from a carousing, over-drinking rascal to a man slowly accepting his destiny and his responsibilities.

He is now the king of England in 1415, and he has embraced that role of leadership. He is also about to take the country to war with France over his claim to the French throne. (Remember that the English crown had a strong French ancestry after William the Conquer; not only did some of the kings speak French better than English, England had held territory in France.)  So in the midst of the 100 years’ war, he is once again about to send the men of England into battle.

If we accept that Shakespeare was also a playwright who introduced contemporary themes into all of his plays, not matter when they were set, England was facing some adversaries. The succession to the throne was in doubt since Elizabeth I was aging with no heirs; Spain was dangerous, the defeat of the Spanish Armada happened only a few years before; and Ireland was in turmoil.

In the prologue Chorus (a fine performance by Peter Francis James) invites the audience to imagine the various scenes that are to come – the court, the fields of France, the court of France, the battles. It is a famous speech that should set the mood for what is to come.

We begin in the English court where Henry is being urged to go to war; when the Dauphin (think Crown Prince) sends an insulting message, the die is cast. After overcoming a plot by three nobles to overthrow him, he and his army leave for France. In France, the army lays siege to the coastal town of Harfleur which eventual surrenders. After a march to Calais, the English and French prepare for battle; the English are weakened by illness and diminishing supplies; the French vastly outnumber them. But on the eve of the battle of Agincourt, Henry rallies the troops. It is an amazing victory as the outnumbered English destroy the French army, while losing very few men. Peace negotiations ensue; Henry doesn’t get the throne of France but he does get the Princess Katherine as a wife.

Now of course, Shakespeare always included subplots and usually one or more of these involve some lower class drunks and thieves. In this case it is Pistol, Bardolph and Nym who anticipate reaping profits from the war by joining the army. Pistol’s braggadocio adds a comic touch with his attempts to avoid battle at all costs while still insulting others.

Henry V has had two outstanding film versions with varied interpretations. During WWII, Lawrence Olivier directed and starred in version that emphasized the staunchness of the British and patriotism. Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film focused more on the dirt, grime and horror of war. In the 1970s, director Michael Kahn produced a controversial anti-war Henry V at the American Shakespeare Theater in Stratford.

Among the many problems with this production is that Williamson’s point of view does not come across to the audience. It seems that many of the decisions she made did not result in an enlightening or effective production.

She sets the play in the round which means that at times, courtiers must turn their backs to the king in order to address all members of the audience; that would never be acceptable. Last year, New York Theater Works did a fine production of Othello that was almost in the round that was very effective; it also was a modern dress production,

A second choice was to minimize lighting effects. For most of the time, the lights are bright and sometimes even the house lights come up. While Shakespeare gives us many clues as to whether it is day or night, it is still disconcerting. Even more so, while the scene with the French on the night before battle is brightly lit and the scene with Henry visiting his men at night is more appropriately lit.

It is modern dress with occasional touches to differentiate characters; since many of the performers play multiple roles on both sides of the conflict, these help only some. It is easy to be confused seeing an actor who just a few minutes ago was a military leader for Henry, suddenly show up as a courtier to the French.

She also cast women in male roles and a man in one of the few women’s roles. While this type of casting can be effective, in this case it really did not work. Perhaps because the play is about rallying troops, the lighter timbre of the female voice makes it harder to accept.

The standout member of the cast is Peter Francis James who does justice to the well-known speeches of Chorus. Baron Vaughn who played multiple roles including Captain Fluellen of Wales and Mistress Quickly also was very good.

The major disappointment is Stephen Louis Grush as Henry. He has excellent credits but Williamson has not made it easy for him. In some of the most important speeches, sound effects or other actors make the first lines almost impossible to understand, even if you know they are coming. His Henry does not seem to have the charisma that would cause these men to win against over-whelming odds.

Even in the scene with Katherine (played by Evelyn Shahr) he misses the lightness and charm of  this famous scene.

In the program notes, Tresnjak makes a case for the play being relevant to our times; Williamson does not achieve that.

It is unfortunate when a production of Shakespeare, particularly a lesser known and produced play is botched; too many people already avoid the Bard and this production will not change their minds.

Henry V runs through Sunday, Nov. 11. For tickets visit Hartford Stage or call 860-527-5151.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com.

 

“The River” at TheaterWorks is a Puzzle You May Find Interesting Solving

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 Jez Butterworth, whose play The River is at TheaterWorks through Sunday, Nov. 11, is one of the “hot” British playwrights and screenwriters.  Jerusalem won plaudits on Broadway, winning multiple awards; Broadway is now awaiting the opening of The Ferryman which won acclaim (and awards) in London last season.

Sometimes I wonder if the emperor is wearing any clothes. I saw The River when it had a limited engagement run on Broadway a few years ago, starring Hugh Jackman. At the time, I felt Jackman’s box office appeal was the reason for its success. It did not get critical acclaim.

But apparently Rob Ruggiero who directed this production loved the ambiguity of it and has now brought it to Hartford. It’s a fine production with very good actors. Ruggiero and the actors make the most of the material in this 70-75 minute play.

Certainly there is ambiguity about almost everything in the play and enough possible symbols and metaphors to keep you puzzling over it for hours. The question remains, is it worth the intellectual effort?

Once again, we have nameless characters – The Woman, The Man, The Other Woman. The play is set in a well-designed (by Brian Prather) cabin that The Man’s family has used as a fishing cabin for years. It’s all wood and natural. The cabin – which shows the back room (probably the bedroom) takes the center of the stage, with tall trees on each side.

It’s clear that The Man has brought The Woman here for a special few days. It is August, there is no moon and it seems that at this time of year the sea trout return to breed. It is the best time to capture them. So we learn that The Man has spent the afternoon teaching The Woman to cast; now she doesn’t want to go to the fishing spot.

We see him return to the cabin and frantically call for help – she is missing! But the woman who returns to the cabin – with a fish is not The Woman but The Other Woman, an earlier woman he had brought to the cabin.

Every time one of the women leaves the stage you can be sure that the other will be the woman to return.

So the questions begin to pile up. Are these the only two women he’s brought there? Why does he bring them there? It seems like well-rehearsed scene with both he and the women repeating the same lines. He tells each there is a box under the bed and something is in it he want to give to each; something he has never shared with anyone. The Woman seems alarmed because she thinks it is a ring – it is obvious that she isn’t that interested in him.

The mood gets eerie when The Woman finds a drawing of a woman in a red dress in the room: her face is scratched out and a red dress is hanging in the closet. The scene is repeated with the earlier Other Woman. So what is going on?

In Ruggiero’s notes in the program, he certainly points out many of the possible meanings and symbols in this play. The metaphor of fly fishing – baiting, hooking, capturing, releasing. The idea of the sea trout (which apparently evolved from river trout) returning each year but instead of dying after procreating, returning to the sea stronger. The ephemeral nature of love which can come and go in an instant.

In fact the characters say lines like “you can’t go back,” “I’m not entirely sure what love is” and more.

You can also wonder if The Other Woman actually exists – is she real, a memory/flashback, a ghost? Is either woman real or figments of his imagination?

In one section, The Man guts a sea trout and cooks it for The Woman. It is a quiet scene with no dialogue just some background music. But why? Is it also a symbol?

Billy Carter plays The Man as more dangerous than Jackman did. You keep wondering what his game is and what he will do next. He may not have Jackman’s charisma (who does?) but his performance is nuanced and solid.

The Woman is played by Andrea Goss. At times she came across as what could be called “a spoiled brat” – you don’t really see why they are attracted and you don’t feel much chemistry between them.

That’s not the case with Jasmine Batchelor as The Other Woman. She seems to have created a fuller character and some real chemistry with The Man.

One of the better parts of the production is the music by Frederick Kennedy which emphasizes both woodlands and the eerie qualities of the play.

How you will rate The River will be a factor of how you interpret the piece and how much you enjoy solving the mysteries.

Winston Churchill once described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Many may feel the same about The River. I was not intrigued enough to try to untangle it all. You may be.

The River is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford through Sunday, Nov. 11. For tickets visit TheaterWorks or call 860-527-7838.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com

Goodspeed’s “The Drowsy Chaperone” Is a Frothy Delight

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The entire cast. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

By Karen Isaacs

 Sometimes you just want to have good time and The Drowsy Chaperone at Goodspeed through Sunday, Nov. 25 is providing that and more.

You may not recognize the title or know much about the show; it arrived quietly on Broadway in April 2006 and immediately captured multiple Tony award nominations. It won for best book and best score but was beat out for Outstanding Musical by Jersey Boys. Beth Leavel won the best supporting Tony. Chaperone had a substantial run but never toured in Connecticut. (The Connecticut Repertory Theatre Summer Series mounted a production a few years ago.)

Hunter Foster has ably directed this production which features a show-within-a-show. Most of his choices are excellent.

It starts in an apartment – not a luxurious or stylish apartment – just rooms with a worn chair and end table and a small basic kitchen. Out comes Man in Chair – who serves as narrator and more. He’ll speak to us directly throughout the show, but now he tells us that he loves musicals and is, as he describes, a little “blue.” When that occurs he likes to play one of his many LPs of old musicals. He tells us he has a two-LP set of the complete Drowsy Chaperone, a little known  1928 musical; it even includes dialogue.

As the overture starts, he gives us some background on the composers of the show and some gossip about some of the cast. He’ll tell us more as the show moves along.

Suddenly the characters in the show are in his living room, introducing themselves to us; each is a typical musical comedy stereotype of the period. There’s the Broadway leading lady who is giving up the stage for love (and money), her fiancé, a producer who wants to stop the wedding, his ditsy girlfriend with aspirations of stardom, two gangsters representing the “boss” to whom the producer owes money, and a Latin lothario (Aldolpho). If that isn’t enough, there is the slightly bewildered older woman who owns the mansion and her butler as well as an aviatrix who just happens to drop in. According to the Man, the star of the show was beloved leading lady who plays the chaperone, gets drowsy when she drinks, which is often. Hence the title of the show.

The plot features the usual complications – the gangsters threaten the producer, the producer urges Aldolpho to seduce the bride, but instead he seduces the chaperone. The bride meets the groom who is blindfolded and on roller skates (don’t ask why) and pretends to be a French girl. When he briefly kisses her, the wedding is off. As this is all occurring, the apartment becomes mostly the set of the musical.

What elevates this are the comments and obvious enthusiasm (perhaps too much in this production) of the Man.  He sets the stage, he tells us bits about the performers. The gangsters were the dancing stereotype frequently in shows of the period. The star, the drowsy chaperone had to have a big rousing number in each show. Aldolpho was played by an over-the-hill actor who liked to drink. Even the lady of the manor, Mrs. Totterdale and Underling (her butler) were a vaudeville team that might be reminiscent of Burns and Allen.

He gets so excited that occasionally he actually joins the cast in humming a few bars or doing a few dance steps; sometimes he even lifts the needle the record (the performers freeze) to give us more info.

 Yet, he is more than just a narrator – we also learn more him, he’s a lonely middle-aged man who finds solace in his LPs.

John Scherer turns the Man into the leading role of the piece. He projects warmth and pain, and makes it seem like he is truly having a conversation with us. His performance is much more animated than some I’ve seen; you may love it or you may find it way too much. I’m somewhere in the middle, I liked it a lot but wished it was toned down just a tad. By the way, on Broadway, Bob Martin, the co-book writer played the part.

Scherer’s performance results in attention being diverted from the characters in the musical. Each is good and each creates his or her own take on the characters. It is very hard to single one or two out – this is truly an ensemble. Stephanie Rothenberg as the bride (actress Janet Van de Graff) had the most difficult job: I’d seen Sutton Foster in the role who just glowed on stage. Rothenberg doesn’t have the same star power, but her Janet is touching and funny.

Robert Alves plays the fiancé, Robert as the superficial character he is with gleaming teeth. He, George (Tim Falter) the best man and of course the two gangsters have terrific tap numbers choreographed by Chris Bailey. James Judy plays the producer Feldzieg (a play on Ziegfeld) as a typical producer and Ruth Pferdehirt has Kitty, his ditzy chorine girlfriend down pat.

Jennifer Allen is excellent in the role of the Drowsy Chaperone, not over playing the inebriation.

As usual the Goodspeed production qualities are excellent. The scenic design by Howard Jones captures both the apartment and the multiple sets of the original musical.  Gregg Barnes has overseen the costumes which include many from the Broadway production. He won a Tony for them and you can see why; they are glamorous and over the top. (Goodspeed had acquired the costumes for its collection when the Broadway show closed).

Perhaps one of the goofiest and yet most fun moments, comes at the beginning of the second act. Suddenly we are seeing a number from musical set in the Far East. I won’t spoil the surprise of why that occurs.

For tickets visit Goodspeed or call 860-873-8668.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com.

“Evita” in Ridgefield Overwhelms You with Effects

evita_editedBy Karen Isaacs

 I wasn’t deaf when I walked into the sparkling new theater for ACT (A Contemporary Theatre) –Connecticut in Ridgefield to see Evita. But with the over amplification, I was nearly deaf when I left this up and down production.

One can’t help thinking that artistic director (and director) Daniel C. Levine has become so enamored with all the newest equipment that he is determined to use it all. The result is that some very good elements of this production that runs through Nov. 11 are over shadowed by gimmicks.

In the program notes, Levine wrote that he felt the show was so good that there was “no need to completely reinvent Evita by cleverly finding new and interesting slants to the story.” But it seemed as though he disregarded his own statements.

This is the story of Evita Péron, who began as a lower class girl in a small Argentinian town and who climbs the ladder of success using a variety of men as stepping stones. When she finally captures Colonel Juan Péron she helps him become Argentina’s dictator while gaining a fanatical following by the lower classes who viewed her as a saint.

But Andrew Lloyd Webber who wrote the music and Tim Rice who wrote the book and lyrics (there is little dialogue) decided to use a character based on the revolutionary Ché Guevera as the narrator/commentator on Evita’s rise to power. This added a note of cynicism and anti-establishment aura to the story.

The show starts promisingly enough with the small cast (12 ensemble plus some children) sitting in a movie theater watching a film when they learn of Evita’s death. (She died at 36 of cancer). After the funeral, we go back to the beginning of her story in the small town.

So we see Evita transform herself and help propel Péron to the Presidency where they both capitalize on the money available to them.

Most everyone knows at least “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” whose melody is used multiple times in the show. But you may also recognize, “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You,” and “Another Suitcase in Another Hall.”

The show depends on top notch performers as both Evita and Ché. It helps if the actor portraying Péron is also good. In this production, only Péron truly measures up.  Julia Estrada as Evita is not helped by the over amplification; the part has many sustained high notes, and she sounded very shrill on many of them. She also wasn’t helped by lighting that in some of the most important scenes put her face in shadows. Her Evita did not project the steely iron butterfly and overwhelming ambition the real woman had.

Angel Lozada also missed the boat Ché. He wasn’t the cynical, questioning revolutionary but almost an admirer of Evita. It is he that should give the show its moral compass, but this performance was too bland and too nice. There was no edge to it

As Péron, Ryan K. Bailer fared better. It is the tertiary role in the show, but he managed to bring a depth to the portrayal.

Both Julian Alvarez and Marlene Lopez Hilderley were good as Magaldi (the tango singer who helped Evita get to Buenos Aires) and The Mistress of Péron whom Evita replaces or “unemploys” her as she says.

The remaining ensemble play a variety of roles, from lower class workers, to military officers, society women, and more.

In a production that isn’t bad, there are so many little faults – an ensemble member who plays a military officer multiple times with a busy ponytail, to society women whose costumes don’t really look elegant enough.

And then there are the bigger failings. I’ve mentioned the over amplification and shrill sound but at times the backstage orchestra overwhelmed the singers. For a live production, too many special audio affects were used, perhaps to make the ensemble sound larger. In addition while there were some interesting lighting effects by Jack Mehler, too often they called attention to themselves and several times made it difficult to see the faces of leading performers.

Charlie Sutton did the choreography; he created several effects that were excellent. For example as the funeral ends, couples begin dancing which leads into the café in Evita’s home town where she meets Magaldi. But other times, the dancing seemed excessive, not reflective of the period, or inappropriate.

Overall, if you love Evita you will enjoy this; if you have never seen the show, it is a good introduction to it. But be warned that it you won’t need hearing aids.

For tickets, visit ACT-CT or call 475-215-5433. The theater is located at 34 Old Quarry Rd, Ridgefield.

 

Westport Playhouse and Mark Lamos Gives Us a Moving “Man of La Mancha”

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Phillip Hernadez as the Man of La Mancha. Photo by Carol Rosegg

By Karen Isaacs

The stage set by Wilson Chin immediately catches your eye when you enter Westport Country Playhouse to see Man of La Mancha running through Oct. 14.

Iron bars separate the audience from the stage and through them you can see the medieval dungeon.

Soon director Mark Lamos has actors beginning to populate the space as the overture commences. Then there is the dreaded knock from the door up high on stage left, a long steep staircase comes down from above and the Spanish guards enter with the newest prisoners awaiting judgment: Cervantes and his servant Sancho. They’re proceeded and followed by guards who take the opportunity to rough up some prisoners while the prisoners do the same to Cervantes and Sancho.

It is then you realize that this won’t be a sugar-coated, “lets-minimize-the-violence” production. Lamos doesn’t cover up that the prison is cruel, violent and dangerous. It sets the tone for a production that is refreshingly honest.

Doesn’t everyone know the story? Cervantes the famous Spanish author of the 16th century has been arrested and held for possible heresy, to be questioned by the Grand Inquisitor. But before he is called to answer, the prisoners will hold their own trial; a guilty verdict (which is expected) will result in the forfeiture of Cervantes’ goods.

He defends himself by enacting a story using the prisoners for the characters. It is the story of the great novel, Don Quixote about an aging country squire who, upset with the way the world is going, imagines himself a knight errant and goes off on adventures in the countryside. In the story he tells, Don Quixote, as the man calls himself, sees a windmill as an enemy, a rough Inn as a castle and the innkeeper as a lord of the manner who can official dub him a knight. He also sees the scullery maid, Aldonza as the fair and virtuous lady Dulcinea whom he is to protect.

Back at his home, his niece, her fiancée, the housekeeper and the local padre plot to make him confront reality.

A successful production requires an excellent Cervantes/Don Quixote and Phillip Hernandez meets the challenge. His voice is expressive and powerful, he bring a sense of age to the part, and his acting totally encompasses the character.

Gisela Adisa is a heartbreaking Aldonza/Dulcinea reflecting the confusion of this scullery maid who is used to being abused by men when she sees herself reflected in Don Quixote’s eyes as something else. She too has a terrific voice for the demanding score.

In the major supporting role, Tony Manna is excellent as Sancho (who is also Panza, Quixote’s squire). The role can devolve into a stereotype comic character. Manna keeps him more real while still finding the humor.

A number of other cast members – all who play both prisoners and the characters in the novel – are very good.  I would mention Carlos Encinias as the Padres, Michael Mendez as the innkeeper, and Paola Hernandez as Antonia, the niece.

But a few of the supporting cast don’t quite measure up – they either seem too young or don’t have the authority needed. This was particularly apparent in Clay Singer’s performance as Carrasco, the fiance who is most determined to force Quixote back to reality and who also is most against Cervantes as well.

Lamos has assembled a superb production team. The lighting design by Alan C. Edwards is spectacular – it reminds us we are in Spain and in a dungeon. Fabian Fidel Aguilar has created costumes that seem so right: costumes that have been worn over and over. The costumes for the characters in the play are the make-shift, adaptable, easy to put on attire a traveling troupe would use. They could fit in a trunk.

The choreography by Marcos Santana hits the mark. I always judge the choreography on how the “abduction” scene is handled. This is the scene where the muleteers abduct Aldonza and rape her; it is a delicate balance to make it graphic and upsetting but not x-rated. The trend has been to make the scene more dance than rape; Santana balances it just right. It is obvious what is happening but not too graphic.

The scene at the end when Don Quixote tilts with his arch enemy, the Enchanter or the Knight of the Mirrors was staged beautifully and the Knight was imaginatively designed.

This is a production that truly creates the emotion of the piece even for those of us who have seen it enough that we have become immune to it. This time, the first in many years, I was overcome with the message of hope and sadness.

I also noted lines that sometimes have slipped past, the padre saying “facts are the enemy of truth” and Cervantes’ line that Don Quixote has looked at the world and made it the world as it should be, creating his own reality.

If you see only a few productions a year, this production at Westport Country Playhouse is one you should not miss.

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

It’s Irish, It’s a Love Story – “Once” at Ivoryton Is Joyful and Sad

once 3 Ivoryton photo by Jonathan Steele

Photo by Jonathan Steele

By Karen Isaacs

 Once, the Tony-winning best musical now at Ivoryton Playhouse through Sunday, Oct. 14, is a quirky, unpredictable piece that defies many of the expectations of conventional musicals.

It is based on a low-budget 2007 Irish film of the same name which not only did good business in the U.S. but received a number of awards. “Falling Slowly,” one of the songs in this drama with music won the Oscar for best original song.

The plot is both conventional and unexpected. The two main characters are called Guy and Girl; he is an aspiring musician in Dublin who is seriously considering abandoning music. He’s in his 20s, recently broken up with a girlfriend (she moved to London) and lives with his Dad above the Dad’s shop which repairs vacuum cleaners.

Girl, is a Czech immigrant, who lives with her mother, three Czech friends and her daughter in an apartment.

So we can expect the two to meet which they do. She has a determination that Guy lacks; she hears his songs and realizes his talent. She convinces him that they must make a demo record of his music.

But the show includes much more than that.

First of all, as you enter the theater, you will hear the Irish music (folk contemporary) coming from the stage. Most of the cast is up there, playing instruments and singing songs. You are already in the mood even before the lights dim and the show begins. The cast sits on stage when they aren’t playing a part and sometimes they produce, almost as by magic, a prop that is needed.

When Guy and Girl are first talking and he tells her that he repairs vacuums (or Hoovers as they called), she says she has one in need of repair and it immediately appears beside her.

Once may start as a typical boy meets girl plot, but it soon becomes original. Guy takes her to meet his Dad and while he tries to get her to visit his bedroom upstairs, she doesn’t. She takes him to her apartment where he learns about her daughter and meets the others.

The song “Falling Slowly” acknowledges what happens to the two of them; each is slowly and reluctantly falling in love but refusing to own up to it.

Over five days, the two of them convince a bank manager to lend them money for the demo, make the demo and resolve their relationship. I won’t spoil it by telling you how it is wrapped up.

What makes Once so special is the unexpected parts of it and the pure joy of music making that it conveys. The book of Edna Walsh stays quite faithful to the movie that was written and directed by John Carney. The movie’s songs are all in the musical; they were written by musicians Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, established Irish musicians who also starred in the film.

At Ivoryton, Katie Barton is wonderful as Girl; she captures the determination and literalness of the character. She says things that are funny in a completely earnest manner. Sam Sherwood is also excellent as Guy and there is chemistry between them.

Most of the cast play both ensemble and specific characters. Jonathan Brown and Morgan Morse play two other Czech immigrants; they contribute mightily to both the humor and some of the pathos of the piece. Margaret Dudasik as Reza, is less restrained in her behaviors than the Girl.

Perhaps my favorite performances were Don Noble as the father and Andreina Kasper as the Bank Manager who, it turns out, has always wanted to be a musician.

Glenn Bassett has created a set that consists mainly of doors which are often used to make the various props magically appear. The doors seem so consistent with the meaning of the show. Tate R. Burmeister has done a good job balancing the sound from the on stage instruments, the voices and the dialogue.

Director Ben Hope, who played the role of Guy both on Broadway and on tour, certainly knows this piece well. He uses the two sides of Ivoryton’s wide stage creatively. On the night I saw it, it seemed as though the pacing was a bit slow; as the cast continues to work together, I’m sure it will pick up. Eric Anthony as music director worked with the cast and the variety of instruments they played – mandolin, cello, guitar, fiddle, drums and more. The music is folk-contemporary and for me at least, it is hard to differentiate among the numbers; they all sound similar.

Once is a beloved show and Ivoryton is giving it a very good production. For tickets call 860-767-7318 or visit Ivoryton Playhouse.

This content courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com.

 

 

A Peter Pan Prequel That Doesn’t Enchant at Playhouse on Park

Peter and the Starcatcher-414 curt henderson

Photo by Curt Henderson

By Karen Isaacs

 Peter Pan has become an obsession with playwrights and filmmakers in the last 20 years or so. Movies, plays and musicals attempt to tell the story of how J. M. Barrie wrote the novel and play as well as prequels and sequels. From the film Hook to the more recent musical Finding Neverland is seems as we cannot escape the story.

Peter and the Starcatcher is another of these, but one that was conceived with great imagination. It originated off-Broadway before moving to Broadway for a good run and then a national tour.

It too is a prequel to the Barrie original. It purports to tell the story of Molly, a young English girl and her encounter with some orphan boys while on a ship sailing to Rundoon, a fictional Far East country.

What makes it an enjoyable evening entertainment is the concept of the piece – a small ensemble of performers easily shifting parts with makeshift costumes and props. You can almost imagine children putting on the play in an attic or playroom. It even has the bad jokes and awful puns that children love.

Another element is that the story is told like one those old-time movie serials. It’s an adventure story with more twists and turns than a roller coaster. Keeping track of them all could be arduous but you quickly realize that the details don’t really matter.

As you are watching, you will see all of the elements of the Peter Pan we know, pop up – from Captain Hook, to the crocodile and even the ticking clock. But the author Rick Elice, based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, have tossed in even more adventures. Plus, there are songs – most of which have no relevance to what is going on in the show.

This Playhouse on Park production, through Oct. 14 has its flaws. Is the play longer than necessary or did the pace of this production make it seem so? It just seemed either too long or lacking the evanescence needed to keep it and two ships afloat.

To fully enjoy this play you need to think about the movie serials that were staples of children’s matinees in old-fashioned movie theaters. Each brief episode ended with some sort of cliffhanger with one or more characters in danger. So we meet three orphan boys who are being sold into slavery in the Far East; then we meet Molly and her father; he is envoy of Queen Elizabeth carrying out an important mission (and a trunk) to The Wasp, the fast sailing vessel captained by Robert Falcon Scott. Molly is to go on the other slower ship, which is definitely second, or third class.

Let’s not get into all the details – let’s just say that Molly, the boys, her father and Captain Scott have much happen to them. And by the end we know how Peter Pan got his name.

Scenic designer David Lewis has made effective use of the large playing area. The minimalist set adapts to the multiple locations, ships and more. Kate Bunce, costume designer, did a great job with the mermaids for the act two opening number, “Memaid Outta Me.”  The number is part burlesque and very funny but simply holds up the show.

The direction by Sean Harris sometimes overly lengthens moments – for example when Molly crawls through the ship to find the boys – so that they lose their punch. During the run, I’m sure the cast will become more of an ensemble and less individual performers.

Overall the casting is good. Matthew Quinn as the pirate “Black Stache” has few Cyril Richard moments – he was the definitive Captain Hook in the original musical. Quinn manages get the humor out of the part without becoming hammy.

The stand out performer for me was Natalie Sannes, who plays Molly. She is not a child actor but does capture the character totally. The rest of the cast does a fine job with the multiple roles.

Since this show was so successful on Broadway and on tour, I have to wonder what happened. Based on this production, Peter and the Starcatcher has some enjoyable moments but they don’t add up to entire evening’s fun.

For tickets, visit Playhouse on Park..

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