Category Archives: 2018-19 Connecticut Theater Season

“The Pianist of Williseden Lane” at Hartford Stage Is Heartfelt & Engrossing

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Photo courtesy of Mona Golabek

By Karen Isaacs

 When I first saw The Pianist of Willesden Lane at Hartford Stage in 2016, I was touched and totally immersed in this one-woman play. Seeing it again, I not only felt the same, but I felt the story of a young girl’s survival during WWII even more deeply.

Why?  Perhaps it is the times we are currently living in – more incivility to each other, more hatred of those who are different from us, more turning away from those in need. Also the performance by Mona Golabek, the author, has deepened and become more alive.

For this is a story of a talented pianist, a teenage Jewish girl, who is one of the lucky ones to get out of Austria in 1938, who manages to survive in London and who becomes a concert pianist. It is reminder of how the arts – too often considered “frivolous expenditures” by schools and government, help the soul to survive.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane is a one-person play. Too often such shows rely on contrivance – a phone rings, someone is at an unseen door — to try to bring other people into what is basically someone telling us a story. In this case, the play was based on a book by the performer, who is not a professional actress. She is a concert pianist though she has been the subject of several documentaries and has hosted a radio program.

Yet both this story and this performance — which includes classical music — is compelling.

The story is based on the book The Children of Willesden Lane that was co-authored by Mona Golabek.  Her mother, Lisa Jura was a 14 year-old Viennese piano student in 1938 as the Nazis were tightening the restrictions on Jews in Austria. She has dreamed of making her concert debut playing the Grieg piano concerto, but her teacher is prohibited from teaching Jewish students. Lisa’s father has secured one ticket for the Kindertransport — the train that took Jewish children out of Nazi territory often to England and the parents select her — rather than her two sisters — to escape. At the train station, her mother tells her to “hold onto her music.”

We hear about Lisa’s journey to London — her cousin who was supposed to take her in but cannot — and her stay as a seamstress at a fine house outside of London. When she is told that no-one is allowed to play the piano, she packs and leaves arriving in London with no place to stay and no money.  The Jewish Refugee Office places her in a youth home/hostel for young refugees on Willesden Lane. There she meets other teenage girls and boys who have also escaped.  She works in a sewing factory but manages to play the piano, teaching herself. Her letters to her parents and sisters return marked as undeliverable. It is 1944.

And soon the implausible happens.  The house mother sees a notice announcing auditions for the Royal Academy of Music.  Lisa is urged to apply and her friends at the house help her prepare.  The miracle is that she is accepted!  While at the Academy she plays piano in a hotel where servicemen relax.

After the war, she is reunited with her two sisters.  She goes to America, marries the French resistance fighter she had met while at the Academy, and later teaches her daughter, Mona, to play the piano.

As the play opens, Mona addresses the audience and tells us she will be telling her mother’s story.  But from there on, she IS her mother.  She manages a touch of a German accent, she transforms herself into a teenage girl, and she also becomes some of the other characters in her story.  She intersperses the story with excerpts of the music that kept Lisa’s soul alive during the dark years — Beethoven, Chopin, the Grieg piano concerto and more.  They remind us of the power of music for the soul.

Hershey Felder adapted the book and has directed this piece. Felder has previously performed at Hartford Stage in his one man show George Gershwin Alone and has also written one-person shows about other composers as well as composed classical music. He obviously has worked with Mona — and sent her to a fine acting coach — on her performance and it shows. As director and adaptor he has kept the story focused and touching, helping it to build to the climax of V-E Day.

He is ably assisted by a fine scenic design (Trevor Hay and Felder) which features several areas for performing as well as three large gold frames.  Those are filled with photos and film by projection designers Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal.  Jason Bieber has lit the piece well. Kudos to sound designer Erik Carstensen for his fine sound design; the piano is sufficiently loud and he has add appropriate sound effects that help us visualize the events we are hearing about.

You are bound to be touched by the last minutes of the 90-minute, intermissionless play. It reinforces the resiliency of the human spirit and the will to survive.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane is at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford through July 22. For tickets visit Hartford Stage or call 860-527-5151.

 

Not Really a Concert But Very Good: “Sweeney Todd” at CRT at UConn

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Terrence Mann and Liz Larsen. Photo by Gerry Goodstein

By Karen Isaacs

 Have you seen Sweeney Todd?

Do you love Sweeney Todd?

Do you have some free time?

If the answer is “Yes”—then make plans to see the production of this classic musical at the Nutmeg Summer Series of the Connecticut Repertory Theater on the UConn campus in Storrs.

It only runs through July 1.

This production is billed as “a musical thriller in concert” but it really is a small scale production. When I think of concert versions of musicals, I think of little staging, sets or costumes and minimal movement.

This concert version features scenic design by Tim Brown, lighting by Alan C. Edwards, sound by Michael Vincent Skinner – all excellent. Plus great costumes by Christina Lorraine Bullard. Even the make up is terrific.

When you enter the theater you see a row of microphones on stands; what you might expect from a concert version. But after the opening, the microphones disappear.

Kudos must go to director Peter Flynn for his handling of the staging – the orchestra is on stage – and integrating students into a production that features many award winning professionals. It seems like Artistic Director Terrence Mann (a well-known Broadway performer) may have called in some chits.

Mann plays Sweeney, the barber who returns after 15 years and seeks revenge first on Judge Turpin and then on everyone for the injustice done to him, his wife and daughter. He is excellent. He handles the difficult score smoothly; perhaps a little overly emotional.

But he is abetted by Tony nominee Liz Larsen as Mrs. Lovett who becomes his comrade in arms. She won’t make you forget Angela Lansbury, but she is very good.

Ed Dixon, who just won awards for his solo show about actor George Rose, plays the villain of the piece, Judge Turpin.

But the four students who play major roles are all excellent. I particularly liked Lu DeJesus who plays the Beadle, Turpin’s henchman. Vocally he is very strong. But his overall performance is also very good. The same can be said for Hugh Entrekin as Anthony Hope (his singing, tops his acting), Kenneth Galm as Tobias, Nicholas Gonzalez as Pirelli and Emilie Kouatchou as Emilie.

Get to see Sweeney Todd before it closes. For tickets visit Connecticut Rep or call 860-486-2113.

“In the Heights” at Playhouse on Park Well Worth Seeing

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Photo by Kurt Henderson

By Karen Isaacs

 In the Height by Lin-Manuel Miranda (music and lyrics) and Quiara Alegría Hudes (book) made Broadway sit up and take notice.

Now Playhouse on Park is producing this breakthrough show through July 29. Go see it!

Miranda has acquired more awards quicker than almost any composer/lyricist – and he’s a talented performer as well: the Pulitzer Prize, a Grammy, multiple Tony Awards AND a MacArthur Foundation Grant (often referred to as the Genius Award).

In case you don’t know, the “Heights” referred to in the title are NYC’s Washington Heights, the area of Manhattan (north of Harlem) that has become well known for a large Dominican population.

Like many such neighborhoods, gentrification is creeping in, displacing the longtime residents.

The musical introduces us to just such a block. The hair salon is moving to the Bronx due to rising rents; the car service is getting offers from real estate people to sell out so that gentrification can occur. The bodega is hanging on. But they are a community that knows each other and takes care of each other.

We meet a group of hard-working people. Usnavi who seems almost like the “mayor” of the block, owns the bodega that employs his cousin; both are young. His Abuela Claudia (grandmother) is there to lend support. The girl he wants to court, Vanessa, dreams of moving into her own apartment downtown. She works in Daniela’s salon along with Carla. The Rosario family owns the car service; Nina, their daughter had been given a scholarship to Stanford, but as she finally admits when she returns after the spring semester, there have been difficulties. Despite scholarships the cost of books and incidentals caused her to work two jobs, fall behind on her course work and ultimately drop out. She hasn’t found the courage to tell her proud parents.

Miranda created a unique musical style which he carried over into Hamilton; it is a mixture of rap and more typical ballads, though you may not leave the theater humming any of the tunes.

In the Heights is a complex musical for smaller theaters. Not only does it have a relatively large cast, but it requires careful casting or the theater may be criticized. Only one character in the work is not from a Dominican background and that character (Benny) is African-American. It is clear that many in this cast are from Hispanic backgrounds.

Scenic designer Emily Nichols has done a fine job in recreating the street scene that encompasses the work: the bodega, car service office, the stoop in front of Abuela Claudia’s house and more.

The show opens with the rousing “In the Heights” which sets both the location and the mood. But it is also this number which reveals one of the problems in this production: the sound design/system. It wasn’t too loud, which can often be the case. Instead, it sounded blurry; the words were difficult to understand. In a show where rap is a major element and conveys a great deal of information, this is a problem. It was particularly evident in group numbers but even in individual songs it was present. Many audience members were talking about not being able to hear at intermission, despite the small theater size: it wasn’t that so much as not being able to hear the sounds but to understand what was being said or sung.

Niko Touros, a relative newcomer, is excellent as Usnavi our hero and narrator. He brings confidence and assurance to the role.  Also excellent were Sophia Introna as Vanessa, Amy Jo Phillips as Abuela Claudia and JL Rey and Stephanie Pope as Kevin and Camila Rosario. While Analise Rios sang beautifully as Nina, she never projected enough of her feelings of failure and despair.

In fact, often it seemed too much like the cast was “acting” rather than inhabiting the characters.

Sean Harris’ direction needed a little more zip; at times the show dragged with the first act 95 minutes and feeling longer. Darlene Zoller made good use of the stage with the choreography which the cast performed well.

If you have never seen In the Heights, this production is well worth seeing. It is also a show that we will study to see the early stages of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s development as a theater artist.

For tickets visit Playhouse on Park or call 860-523-5900.

“Invisible Hand” at TheaterWorks Is Engrossing Political/Financial Thriller

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Anand Bhatt, Eric Bryant, Fajer Kaisi. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 Money is the subject of many adages – from “money is the root of all evil” to “money makes the world go round” to the biblical lines about the difficulty the rich have in entering heaven. In the 1980’s the motto seemed to be that “greed is good.”

The very talented playwright Ayad Akhtar has combined all of these viewpoints with a political thriller to create the compelling The Invisible Hand now getting an excellent production at TheaterWorks through Sunday, June 24.

The play opens with Nick Bright (is the name a little too symbolic?) handcuffed in a small room with an obviously Muslim guard, Dar. During the exposition we learn that Nick works for Citibank in Pakistan and has been kidnapped partly by mistake; the group wanted his boss. They have demanded a $10 million ransom but nothing is happening. The group led by Imam Saleem; wants to use the ransom to fund economic and health projects to help the country. Saleem’s lieutenant is Bashir, whose parents left Pakistan for England years ago.

Nick is a brilliant trader in all sorts of financial instruments, able to determine how to make money in almost any situation and to find “the edge.” He is also very knowledgeable about Pakistani politics, in fact he has advised the minister of water.

As the first act unfolds we see the gratuitous cruelty (Bashir kicks Dar in the groin), the despair of Nick and the intricacies of the relationship between Bashir and Saleem.

Since the bank seems in no hurry to pay the ransom, Nick and Saleem negotiate a deal. If Nick can make his ransom within one year, using money he has stashed in a Cayman Island account to start, he will be released. Bakshir will be his assistant and Nick is charged with teaching him how the markets operate.

Thus the title: The Invisible Hand. The term was coined by the Scottish economist Adam Smith to describe the unintended social benefits that arise from individuals pursuing their self-interests; that they balance out each other for the good of the whole.

Nick and Bakshir set to work; soon Bakshir gains some knowledge of an impending political assassination by another group and Nick parlays that into a $700,000 gain. But fissures start to appear. Barkshir feels he is being used as an errand boy, not a student and the Iman takes $400,000 from the working capital account to purchase vaccines. Nick suspects a large part of that went into the Iman’s pockets.

The three men clash with Nick often forgetting that he is their captive and at their mercy. He believes they need him for his ability to “create” money. The Iman, while autocratic and ruthless, seems more practical than the younger Bakshir who is filled with resentment for the Western world and its values. He remembers the numerous slights and insults he endured in England.

At times the dialogue may seem like a class in economics with the discussion of the Bretton Woods agreement after WWII that made the American dollar the de facto monetary standard for the world, to the meanings of stock market terminology such as “put” and “calls.” Yet it is clear and helpful to understand the types of financials deals that Bright is doing.

Yet, it never becomes dry or boring. We are caught up in the suspense. Will Nick succeed in raising his ransom?  Will his captors actually release him? As Bakshir gains knowledge will he challenge either Nick or the Iman?

In keeping with the political thriller genre, I won’t tell the answers to any of this. Let’s say some of it was predictable and some was not.

Playwright Akhtar, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning Disgraced has again created a play that will have you leaving the theater thinking. While American born and raised, Akhtar has an almost innate understanding of the perceptions and philosophy of the Islamic world. He is able to let us into a world that to Americans seems strange and perhaps “wrong.” He also articulates how the third world sees the dominant political and economic powers, of which the US is the most powerful.

The production at TheaterWorks is a revision of the award winning production presented at Westport Country Playhouse in 2016. The director and most of the cast have returned. That production was honored as the outstanding production of a play in Connecticut, as well as outstanding direction and outstanding leading actor from the Connecticut Critics Circle.

Director David Kennedy has kept the pacing tight and helped the actors delineate their very different characters. Working in the more intimate TheaterWorks space, Kennedy has made the work seem even more intense and suspenseful.

His direction helps us look at the various viewpoints presented. The set by Kristen Robinsen gives us the confined, concrete cell that is Nick’s world. In addition, Fitz Patton has created a sound design that lets the outside world infiltrate into Nick’s prison. Special mention must be given to Louis Colainni, who as the dialect coach, helps all of the actors to be both understandable and “in character.”

Rajesh Bose, who played the lead in Akhtar’s Disgraced at Long Wharf (and won awards) plays the Iman. He has to convince us that this pragmatic man who will let Nick manipulate money so that the Iman can use it, is also naïve enough to misjudge the results. The playwright has given him a difficult task. Fajer Kaisi is very effective as Bashir, the younger and both angrier and more idealistic follower of the Iman. It is he who carries the burden of presenting the third world view of America. The performances of both of these men has deepened since the last production.  Anand Bhatt plays Dar, the subservient member of the group. Bhatt conveys the careful waiting and watching the Dar does so that he survives in an ever-changing political and power landscape.

Eric Bryant is even more outstanding as Nick. His posture and gestures show us what may have happened (abuse?) before the play opens, but also his confidence as he gets into job. This is a multi-dimensional, layered performance that encourages us to be protective of him while also at times amazed at his sometimes dangerous outbursts. Being closer to the action, you see more of his eyes conveying a range of emotions from alertness to fear to despair.

The Invisible Hand through Sunday, June 23 will both have you on the edge of your seat and questioning some of your assumptions. It is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford. For tickets visit TheaterWorks or call 860-527-7838

This content is courtesy fo Shore Publications and zip06.

This is a revision of the review of the Westport production in 2016 that was posted on 2ontheaisle.wordpress.com.

“Disaster!” Spoofs All Those –‘70s Films,Disco Music & Polyester at the Connecticut Rep

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By Karen Isaacs

 Even if you don’t remember all those disaster movies from the 1970s, you will find the musical spoof “Disaster!” now at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre through Sunday, June 16 very good fun.

Creators Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick have taken the disaster film formula and combined it with pop music from the period.

It’s set at the opening of Casino 54 in NYC, built next to a pier to get around limitations on gambling. But the owner (Tony) has cut every corner imaginable. Attending this grand opening are the usual cast of characters: a once famous Disco diva; a middle-aged, middle-class husband and wife; the person dying of a rare disease with weird symptoms; a waiter trying to get a date; a man crashing the party to meet girls; the girl friend who is being strung along by the proprietor; a nun handing out leaflets on the evils of gambling and more.

Of course, there is an intrepid reporter who know about the various safety violations AND the “voice of doom” in this case a geology professor who is trying to warn everyone of a coming earthquake.

So like all disaster films, act one is spent setting up the characters and getting them to interact. The act ends with the earthquake. Act two is about the escalating disasters occurring and the efforts of the group to get out alive.

It isn’t meant to be taken seriously.

For a show like Disaster! to succeed, the cast must play it seriously. They have to create believable characters and make the absurd situations seem real.

This cast, led by several Broadway veterans, absolutely does it. Rudetsky himself is here playing “the professor” – a part he played both off and on Broadway. He is the typical serious, determined academic who also has the optimism of a Pollyanna.

Anne L Nathan who plays Shirley, the wife in the long married couple, was offered the part for the other productions but always had a scheduling conflict. Now she gets the chance to play this woman with the strange and fatal disease.

The comic highlight among the characters is Sister Mary, the gambling addicted nun. Maggie McDowell who was in the Broadway cast, is a delight. She never loses a sense of realism in the role. Angie Schworer is excellent as Jackie, the chanteuse at the disco who keeps waiting for Tony to “pop the question.”

But the students who round out the cast are also excellent. Nick Nudler plays Tony as a John Travolta look-alike right down to the “Saturday Night Fever” moves.

Tim Brown has done an excellent job creating the set that goes from glamorous to destroyed in just moments. He’s aided by the very good work by sound designer Michael Vincent Skinner and light designer Alan C. Edwards.

Fan Zhang has perfectly captured the 1970s disco look in the costumes. You know they are polyester.

The music – everything from “Hot Stuff,” “Torn Between Two Lovers,” “Three Times a Lady,” “Nadia’s Theme,” “Reunited,” “I Will Survive,” and even “I Am Woman” and “Feelings” is used to good advantage. Those of us who lived through the period will remember it and the younger members of the audience will find the beat infectious.

Disaster! is a really fun and funny production. My teenage granddaughter – while not being familiar with the films or the music — had a great time.

For tickets, call 860-486-2113 or visit Connecticut Rep

“Flyin’ West” at Westport Is Too Much Melodrama

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Photo by Carol Rosegg

By Karen Isaacs

 “Flyin’ West” which is now at Westport Country Playhouse through June 16, is a play you want to like. After all playwright Pearl Cleage is telling an inspiring story of Nicodemus, Kansas a town established by African-Americans following the Civil War – many were slaves who traveled west and became homesteaders, finally able to own their land.

Even more inspiring is that some of these people were women who came alone or with other women and succeeded in taming the prairie.

In the play, we have four women and two men. Miss Leah is a former slave who after her husband died, was an early settler. She survived and now is staying for a while with two other women. Miss Leah is the voice of remembrance; she talks of the multiple children she had as a slave that were sold within days of birth and the children she later had that all died.

She is staying with two sisters: Sophie is the older and in charge. She is a no-nonsense woman who is proud to own her land and manage the property. At the beginning (1898), she is upset because while speculators have arrived and are making offers to buy the land from the settlers. She wants to keep Nicodemus a black community.

Fanny, her younger sister, is gentler and sweeter. She is being quietly courted by Wil Parish.

Into this mix arrives the youngest sister, Minnie who had married and has been living in London. Her husband, Frank Charles, is from New Orleans and is of mixed race; he is light enough to pass as white. His self-hatred is palable.

While the speculators are important to the plot, they are not the central conflict of the play. It is Frank who provides the conflict; he needs money and when the two older sisters give Minnie a deed to one-third of the land on her 21st birthday, he sees his chance.

Cleage has written a play that verges on melodrama, right down to the curtain line ending the first act. Director Seret Scott has intensified the melodramatic elements of the play rather than down-playing them.

Frank, played by Michael Chenevert is the villain of the piece. As written, he has few redeeming qualities though it is possible to understand his anger and even his disdain for blacks. But as directed by Scott, he is the typical melodrama villain. It is easy to picture him with a top hat and cape and mustache that all the silent film villains had. He is just evil. This in many ways unbalances the play though you are hoping that he does not succeed. It would be better if it were easier to comprehend his feelings.

In the same way, the other characters become two rather than three dimensional. Fanny, played by Brittany Bradford seems to be much too sweet and naïve for a woman in her 20s who has been mainly raised on the prairie. It is as though she is the author’s way of presenting the “traditional” view of women and marriage.

The other characters are the same – more stereotype and less developed as fully rounded people. In no case do you see complexity and this is a failing of the play intensified by the direction.

Brenda Pressley does the best job as Miss Leah; she does seem to present various aspects of the woman.  Nikiya Matthis is able to bring out some of Sophie’s personality but again, the playwright hasn’t given her a real person to portray.

Marjorie Bradley Kellogg has created a wonderful set of the house and surrounding land and Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting sets the mood and time.

The story of Nicodemus, Kansas is an aspiring one that is too little known. I just wish that “Flyin’ West” told that story better.

For tickets visit Westport Playhouseor call 888-927-7529.

 

 

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