Category Archives: 2018-19 Connecticut Theater Season

2018-19 Connecticut Theater Season Looks Interesting. “Hamilton” Is Coming!

By Karen Isaacs

 It’s the year of Hamilton arriving in Connecticut. That’s the big news.

As ever year, certain productions planned for Connecticut theaters pique my interest. I circle their dates on my calendar in anticipation. Here’s my list for this year.

Connecticut is blessed with an abundance of fine professional theaters – from the major regional companies (Yale Rep, Long Wharf, Hartford Stage, Goodspeed, TheaterWorks, Westport Playhouse) to more locally oriented theaters (Ivoryton Playhouse, Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, Connecticut Repertory Theater at UConn, Sharon Playhouse, Seven Angels in Waterbury, MTC in Norwalk and ACT-CT in Ridgefield). Plus there are the major presenting house that bring in national tours – the Bushnell in Hartford, Shubert in New Haven and the Palace in Waterbury.

One thing I have noticed in the last few years: more and more new plays are being produced while fewer classic works are done. Why?  Sometimes it’s easier to get financial support or new works. New works allow theaters to reach out to more diverse audiences and present works by diverse playwrights. Even length may play a role; classic plays tend to be full-length (two plus hours) while modern audiences seems to prefer the 90+ minute play.

So what have I circled for this up-coming year?

(One caveat: Goodspeed, Ivoryton and Westport have not announced their productions for the first half of 2019. I’m sure some of those would have made my list).

Yet, looking back over a similar list I made last summer, some of them did not live up to my expectations and some that I had not circled, were outstanding.

Now Here Are My Most Anticipated Shows

The Musicals:

A Chorus Line at Ivoryton closed Sept 2. It is a great show and I hoped they would do it well. They did.

Drowsy Chaperone at Goodspeed (Sept. 21-Nov. 25). This is just a delightful show; it won’t go down in the history of musicals as one of the best, but it is so much fun.

Man of La Mancha at Westport Country Playhouse (Sept. 25 –Oct. 13). It’s not my favorite musical (in fact it wouldn’t make my top 25), BUT Marco Lamos is directing and so that puts it on my list.

The Flamingo Kid at Hartford Stage (May 9 –June 2). This is the last show Darko Tresnjak will direct as artistic director. The brand new musical is aiming for Broadway just as A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder and Anastasia.

The Classics:

Henry V at Hartford Stage (Oct. 11 – Nov. 4). Hartford Stage has a track record of excellent Shakespeare and the play can be interpreted in so many ways. Plus, I like Shakespeare.

Flea in Her Ear at Westport (closed July 28) – I’m a sucker for Feydeau; I knew Mark Lamos would do a bang-up job directing it and I was right on all counts. This was overall a fabulous production.

Dramas & Comedies (New, Familiar & Rare)

Hand to God at TheaterWorks (closed Aug. 26). It was on my list out of curiosity. I didn’t see the show on Broadway and wanted to see why so many critics raved about it. I am not sure I would have.

The Prisoner at Yale Rep (Nov. 2-17). Why? It’s a US Premiere and it’s directed by Peter Brook. Need I say more?

Ripcord at Seven Angels (Nov. 8 – Dec. 2). This comedy about elderly roommates is on my list primarily because playwright David Lindsay-Abaire has written such interesting plays including Rabbit Hole which I loved.

Good Faith at Yale Rep (Feb. 1-23). I’m ambivalent about this world premiere which is based on the case some New Haven firefighters brought claiming civil rights violations. It could be just talking heads, but I hope playwright Karen Hartman can make it much more.

 The Touring Shows

Hamilton at the Bushnell (Dec. 11-30). Who wouldn’t circle this show in RED???

Come from Away at the Bushnell (April 30-May 5). It would have won the Tony except for Dear Evan Hansen, it began at the Goodspeed Festival of New Musicals and it is well done. I enjoy the music and the story.

Lion King at the Bushnell (closed Aug. 16) – Amazingly I had never seen it. The concept and execution was terrific, but once is enough.

 

These selections are just the tip of the iceberg. Many of the other scheduled productions, sound very interesting. So check them all out. Connecticut has amazing theater!

 

Ivoryton’s “A Chorus Line” Dazzles and Touches Your Heart

Chorus-line-crop-768x356 Jonathan Steele

Photo by Jonathan Steele

By Karen Isaacs

 A Chorus Line now at Ivoryton Playhouse through Sunday, Sept. 2 is a “singular sensation” as one of its most well-known songs says. The show has everything and this production has almost everything right.

It’s hard to think some are not familiar with this ground-breaking, Pulitzer Prize winning musical that opened in 1975 and is still a favorite. A new tour is on the horizons.

It opens with a bare stage with the “ghost light” – the light that is always on- as dancers arrive in various dress carrying their bags of shoes and more. They are at an audition conducted by a well- known director/choreographer, Zach. With his assistant teaching them steps, he puts them through their paces until he winnows the group down. Some are dismissed, but that doesn’t mean the others are hired. All of them, as the opening says, are hoping to get this job because they need it. The life of the dancers in shows (until recently referred to as “gypsies”) is a hard one. Dancing wears on the body, aging happens fast, and there is always a bright-eyed younger dancer arriving in New York.

Zach has planned a different kind of audition; he wants to get to know them, not just see them dance. So he asks that each talk and tell stories of their lives. He doesn’t want them to “perform” or try to “act” but to talk about their experiences. For some, this is a frightening request and many of them reveal the issues that propelled them to dance.

We get to know them through their stories and the songs composed by Marvin Hamlisch with lyrics by Edward Kleban. The book is by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante based on sessions that Michael Bennett (the conceiver, director and choreographer of the piece) held over a period of months with actual dancers.

Under the sure handed direction and choreography by Todd L. Underwood and the musical direction of Michael Morris, the cast excels.

At times, I had never been so moved by some of the stories these dancers tell about their lives during this very non-traditional audition for a show.

How do you pick a favorite song or story? Mike (Dakota Hoar) explains how he realized at a young age that “I can do that” and soon took over his sister’s dance lessons. He was a natural. Then there are Sheila (Lili Thomas) the older more cynical dancer, Bebe (Kayla Starr Bryan) and Maggie (Liv Kurtz) share the stories of their unhappy family lives in “At the Ballet.” It’s a poignant number about how each of them found the love and ideal world at the ballet which was lacking in family life that featured unhappy marriages and unloving parents.

But all is not gloom and doom. Kristine (Amanda Lupacchino) with the help of her husband explains that she really cannot “Sing.” And then most of the company has a great time with “Hello Twelve” about the experiences of puberty.

Some of the male dancers talk about realizing their homosexuality, trying to hide it, or the rejection they faced.

Diana, in a very good performance by Natalie Madlon, talks about her high school acting class, where she could feel “nothing” when trying to be a table or riding a bobsled. And Val, in a very funny and slightly over the top performance by Alexa Racioppi, describes how she never got cast until she had plastic surgery for some “tits and ass.”

But one of the over-arching stories is Cassie, played touchingly by Stephanie Genito, who had a brief moment of almost-stardom but has learned that she isn’t a star and only wants to dance. The problem is that she and Zach were a couple and it hurts his ego to see her back in the line. She shares her new found understanding of her limitations and of her need to dance as she begs him to cast her. “The Music and the Mirror” is her expression of her love for dancing.

The standout performance for me was Joey Lucherini as Paul. He doesn’t want to tell it, but alone with Zach he reveals his life story. It’s too poignant to spoil for you; you just have to see him.

At the end of the audition, Zach asks them all one more question: What will they do when they can no longer dance. It leads into the well-known song, “What I Did for Love” – which isn’t about romance but about dedication.

At the end, Zach selects four men and four women for the cast.

The finale is a full-staging of the number they have used during the audition, “One” better recognized as “one, singular sensation” in which they back up the leading lady. Only this time, it is they who get the applause, even though there is no traditional curtain calls.

This production has an intermission; the original and some productions do not. The intermission releases some of the tension but it is quickly recovered since some of the bigger numbers are in the second half.

Almost all the cast excels; the exceptions are few and even their weaknesses are minimal. I would have liked Zach (Edward Stanley) to project more assertiveness and charisma. Yet his performance isn’t deficient; it just could be better. Sheila (Lili Thomas), the older dancer is not quite as cynical as often portrayed. While I liked the interpretation, it changed the balance of the show which has so much youthful enthusiasm.

By the end of the evening, you care about almost all of these characters and you want them all to be cast. You feel the disappointment of those who will have to go to another audition and another hope of a job.

The setting is plain – a blank stage but designer Martin Scott Marchitto has added some pillars to define the front of house. The costumes by Kate Bunce reflect the eclectic tastes of the dancers. Laura Lynne Knowles has done a fine job with the sound, particularly since Zach is often talking from the back of the house.

The choreography of the show is iconic and included in some of the script since the dancers are taught the choreography of “One” as part of the audition process. Underwood kept that but did a fine job with the new work for some many numbers: “I Can Do That,” “Dance Ten, Looks Three,” and of course, “The Music and the Mirror.” Underwood also has fluidly integrated the dance with the overall direction so it never seems as though the scene stops and the dance begins; they flow from dialogue, song into dance.

Go see A Chorus Line at Ivoryton Playhouse. It’s there through Sunday, Sept. 2. For tickets, call 860-767-7318 or Ivoryton Playhouse

This content is courtesy of Shore Publishing and zip06.

Westport’s “The Understudy” Shows How Casting and Direction Can Change Focus

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Brett Dalton, Andrea Syglowski, Eric Bryant. Photo by Carol Rosegg

By Karen Isaacs

 The Understudy by Theresa Rebeck, the current production at Westport Country Playhouse, is a good example of how the balance in a play can shift based on the cast and director.

David Kennedy had directed this three person, 90+ minute backstage comedy which runs through Sept. 1 with a sure hand.

The play opens with Harry, a 30ish journeyman actor arriving at a theater; no one is there. So he addresses the audience in a humorous rant about the acting profession, the frustrations of the movie star salaries and, in his view, the stars’ limited abilities, all the while proclaiming that he “isn’t bitter.”

Soon Jake arrives; he’s a mid-level movie action star who is now on Broadway in a Kafka play. His co-star (whom we never see) is Bruce, a much older and much bigger action star.

Harry is there for an understudy rehearsal. The plan is that if Bruce misses a performance, than Jake will take his role and Harry will take Jake’s.

The last to arrive is Roxanne, the stage manager who will be overseeing the rehearsal. The kicker is that six years ago, Harry walked out on Roxanne two weeks before the wedding.

As the rehearsal begins and progresses, Harry wants to do more than just duplicate Jake’s performance; at first Jake is defensive but begins to see that some of Harry’s comments and suggestions are on target. Jake is also up for a major film role that he really wants and so is constantly checking with his agent about any news.

Roxanne is, naturally, still furious with Harry which makes it difficult for her to manage the situation – massaging Jake’s ego, getting Harry to just duplicate the existing performance, and dealing with an unseen production person who brings on the wrong sets, disappears, and calls the wrong lighting cues.

But if the theater is the creation of an “unreal” reality then Kafka also did that in many of his works. The actors in the theater have a role in the real world and the “unreal.”

An added source of humor (or maybe it is just too much coincidence) is the fact that even in the dressing rooms, the speakers are on so that anyone off-stage can hear anything that on stage discuss.

In previous productions I’ve seen, Roxanne seemed the center of the show while Harry, the struggling “serious” actor had my sympathy.

But with this cast, the center has changed to Jake. Brett Dalton has done a fine job in creating a character who is much more than the ego driven movie star. He seems genuinely though naively enthusiastic about the play which appears to be a mashup for Kafka’s other works. His Jake slowly reveals his insecurities, his jealousy of Bruce, and later his disappointment. This Jake is less macho star and more a little boy playing at confidence.

Eric Bryant gives us a less sympathetic Harry. This Harry is more obtuse and unaware of his affect on those around him, more eager to show off his knowledge than work as a team member. It’s clear that this Harry resents having to be an understudy and probably never go on in the part.

If in other productions, Roxanne seems the center, in this production Andrea Syglowski doesn’t grab the spotlight. Her Roxanne is too one-note and too shrill. It’s like she started at level 9 and had no really room to go up. How Roxanne feels about Harry after six years of silence is unclear.

Kennedy has used the aisle and the space just in front to the stage to good effect. When Jake gets an important phone call, he goes into the audience stage right to have some privacy. It allows us to see Dalton’s reactions which are superb. The scenic design by Andrew Boyce includes several sets for the show. Lighting designer Matthew Richards also creates interesting “in show” lighting.

The Understudy is an enjoyable comedy that even those not knowledgeable about theater will find funny.

For tickets contact Westport Country Playhouse or call 888-927-7529.

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Brett Dalton and Eric Bryant. Photo by Carol Rosegg

A Possessed Puppet Takes Over “Hand to God” at TheaterWorks

Hand-to-God-prod-415

Photo by Larry Nagler

By Karen Isaacs

 Theater goers have learned that a show featuring puppets, isn’t necessarily aimed at children or even appropriate for them. Certainly Avenue Q drove that home, and it is reinforced in Hand to God, the comedy now at TheaterWorks through Sunday, August 26.

The promotional material says that “you’ve been warned – This play is rated R for rude, raunchy, and riotously funny!” Certainly it is both of the first two; how funny you find it will depend on your sense of humor and your view about religious jokes.

The premise is not new but playwright Robert Askins has used the underlying premise in a unique way: How do others react when an individual lets down the barriers of civility and civilization and says or does exactly what he or she wants to do or is thinking? Or as Freud would have said, what happens when the id (the part of the personality that contains the aggressive and sexual drives and is impulsive) takes over from the superego (which reflects the values and morals of society and whose job is to control the id)? This is, of course, a simplistic explanation of Freud’s theory.

Authors have been using this technique for generations. Sometimes it is when a character is drunk or under hypnosis that his or her real thoughts come forth, other times a second personality takes over, and occasionally an outside force is the cause for the truth telling. (In the film comedy Liar, Liar it is the son’s wish that his Dad tell the truth). In each case the effects of this truth telling or revealing of desires and thoughts causes consternation, discomfort and unforeseen consequences. In most of these, the truth telling is liberating and the endings are usually happy.

Such is the case in Hand to God. Jason is a teenager in a small Texas town, whose father has recently died. Jason seems like your typical kid that could be bullied. His mother (Jessica) has thrown herself into creating a puppet ministry at their local church, but all is not going great. Though Jason is attached to his puppet Tyrone, and Margery, another teen, is also committed to it, Timmy is the bad boy who belittles and seems to say whatever he wishes. The set-up is that Pastor Greg tells Jessica that in two weeks she must put on a puppet sermon/drama during services.

That same night, Tyrone seems to take over Jason, expressing all of his pent up anger, his distress plus his sexual desires towards Margery. Tyrone’s language is definitely not that used in church and he seems to have little respect for anyone. In a sense, he is becoming like Timmy. But Jessica also undergoes a transformation. Without the benefit of the puppet she too reveals a personality totally at odds with her image as a God-fearing widow and mother. I don’t want to give too much away but she responds to the attentions of Timmy and the Pastor in unexpected ways. There’s a “bad girl” lurking underneath.

Jessica and Pastor Greg respond to Tyrone’s takeover of Jason by considering a puppet exorcism, but no one know how to do it. In the second act, Askins has provided two very funny scenes. One involves two puppets and the other the destruction of the church school room. It would spoil the jokes to give more explanation.

The language includes a number of four-letter (or equivalent) words from Tyrone, Timmy and even Jessica. Plus Tyrone attacks religion and God numerous times. This may impact your reaction and enjoyment of this piece.

Hand to God is really a satire on some of the current trends in organized religion.

Tracy Brigden has expertly directed this piece, keeping the pace moving. The piece is about 100 minutes including intermission. She has mined all the laughs.

Certainly the cast is excellent. Nick LaMedica as Jason/Tyrone is outstanding. He manipulates the hand puppet so you truly think it is another character and that it is permanently attached to him. You are not confused when he switches between the two; his voice, tone, mood and body language changes. You know when Tyrone is dominant.

As the bad boy Timmy, Miles G. Jackson does an excellent job. While you may know there is a sad, frightened teen underneath, he doesn’t let us in on that until the end. Lisa Velten Smith creates the perky Margery who tries to keep the peace between Timmy and Jason.

The adult characters are more difficult because they seem less developed. Pastor Greg (played very well by Peter Benson) is too like a caricature of the smarmy preacher who doesn’t obey the rules he sermonizes about. It is to Benson’s credit that he lets us see a very lonely man underneath it all.

Jessica is the most puzzling character. You can understand that her conventional appearance and actions may hide a more unconventional side, but how and when it comes out is problematic. With little preparation she seems to go from zero to ninety without any rationalization. It’s like she just “goes crazy.”  Maggie Carr does an excellent job with this transformation, but it is hard to totally believe; perhaps it was overdone.

As usual at TheaterWorks the set and projections by Luke Cantarella, costumes by Tracy Christensen, lighting by Matthew Richards and sound design by Elizabeth Atkinson are all excellent. The puppet created by Stephanie Shaw is appropriately demonic.

Hand to God had a successful Broadway run, and several Tony award nominations. Even so, if you believe that religion should be treated respectfully or you dislike foul mouth puppets, this might not be the show for you. But for the rest of us, the imaginative jokes and wonderful direction will make for an enjoyable evening.

For tickets, visit TheaterWorks or call 860-527-7838.

This content courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.

“The Lion King” at the Bushnell – the Concept Stuns You

By Karen Isaacs

 Almost the entire world has seen The Lion King either the film/dvd or the musical. Those with young children have probably seen the dvd multiple times. The 1994 movie and the 1997 Tony award winning musical are favorites, though admittedly I had seen neither.

The touring production is at the Bushnell in Hartford through August 19.

Foremost is the overall production concept and execution. Director Julie Taymor had a concept for how to portray the animals on stage that was creative and inventive. Her concept was spectacularly executed by the various craftsman involved. Taymor was also designer of the costumes and masks. Richard Hudson did the costumes and Donald Holder the lighting.

The animals are all actors. In some cases (such as the giraffes and elephants) you do not see them for they are encased in the costumes which are life size. This is where pictures can better describe than words. In other cases the actors are part of the costume which sometimes is almost puppet like. Actors make the bird swirl. It is not a case of the actors manipulating puppets but seemingly becoming the animals.

The costumes again suggest the animals while not trying to make them realistic. Imagination – by the audience is at work here. Yet you almost believe these are real animals.

Taymor also had a choreographer (Garth Fagan) who carried the vision forth with dances that are compelling.

But what of the rest of the show?

The performances are overall very good. You can’t help but enjoy Nick Cordileone as Timon and Greg Jackson as Zazu, two of the more comic characters. But you will applaud the entire company who work very hard. Jared Dixon is the older Simba (the young Simba rotates between Joziyah Jean-Felix and Salahedin Safi, who I saw), Nia Holloway as Nala, Mark Campbell as the villain Scar and Gerald Ramsey as Mufasa.

But, you have to remember that this was a movie and book (some changes have been made) geared for children. The plot is rather simple with some references to Hamlet: a father (the King) is murdered by his brother (Scar) who takes over and ruins the country before the son (Simba) returns.

The plot itself could be told in a short paragraph; it is the presentation of that plot – the songs, dances and concepts that turn it into a delightful production that will entrance children of all ages, as they say.

The music combines the songs from the film by Elton John and Tim Rice with additional songs by them and others.

One complaint. I missed a good two-thirds of the dialogue and lyrics. It wasn’t that the sound system was too loud or soft, it was more that it was muddied. At first, I simple thought that one of the performers wasn’t enunciating properly, but I soon realized that it was impacting almost everyone.

For tickets visit Bushnell or call 860-987-5900.

“Oliver!” at Goodspeed Features a Fine Cast and Terrific Direction

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Fagin (Donald Corren) and his gang. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

By Karen Isaacs

 When Oliver! was first produced as a musical, in 1963, it must have seemed paradoxical. The Charles Dickens novel, Oliver Twist is a typically dark portrait of the conditions in England for the poor, compounded by the impact on small children.

Lionel Bart, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, found a way to combine the tawdry and dispiriting world of the poor in London in the 1830s with enough hope and goodness to have theatergoers leave feeling uplifted.

Director Rob Ruggiero has done the same thing with this production of Oliver! now at Goodspeed Musicals through Sept. 13.

Perhaps you have forgotten or never knew the basic plot of the show. Oliver Twist is a young orphan who escapes from a workhouse where food was scarce and love non-existent, into an underworld of pickpockets and worse. But he finds a kind of acceptance from the other boys, the leader, Fagin, and the “head boy,” the artful dodger. He also finds a mother substitute in Nancy, who loves the ruthless Bill Sikes. Oliver’s first attempt at crime goes all wrong yet Mr. Brownlow, a well-to-do gentleman, takes him home. But he is not yet destined for a happy ending. With Fagin and Bill Sikes afraid that Oliver will reveal too much about their activities, they kidnap him and bring back to the group. Yet all ends well, or almost so. Oliver is reunited with Brownlow to anticipate a much happier life.

The novel, which as many Dickens novels were, was actually a newspaper serial, has multiple complications to keep buyers anxiously awaiting the next installment. The musical’s book has been streamlined, removing many of the harrowing events that befall Oliver.

A good production of the show requires that the boy playing Oliver must seem pure of heart and winsome. He must project an inner goodness that will bring out the best and the worst in people. Elijah Raymond almost succeeds in all of this; but somehow his Oliver doesn’t really grab the stage. As too often happens with young singers nowadays, he goes for belting sounds where a softer, gentler tone would make the songs more effective and in character. This was particularly true in the haunting “Where Is Love.”

Also needed are excellent actors in the roles of Fagin, Dodger, Nancy and Bill Sikes. Again, this production mostly succeeds. Donald Corren absolutely rules the stage as Fagin in all of his numbers but particularly in “Reviewing the Situation.” He is truly the star of the show.

Gavin Swartz displays really talent and charm as Dodger, the leader of the gang of pickpockets and a sort of protector of Oliver.

The villain of the play, besides the officials who enforce the horrendous laws governing poor orphans and other poverty people, is Bill Sikes. He is a cruel, almost sadistic killer who has no sympathy or love for anyone, including Nancy. Brandon Andrus doesn’t try to humanize him; he is the epitome of pure evil. He also doesn’t try to make him so over-the-top that he is a caricature; instead he exudes evil through every pore. He may only have one song, “My Name” but his deep baritone makes the most of it.

EJ Zimmerman is less successful as Nancy. She is a complex figure: she is a  “graduate” of Fagin’s “school,” she still leads a criminal life, she loves (and fears) the abusive Sikes, but Oliver brings out her maternal instincts. Zimmerman is very good, but misses excellence. She’s great in the ensemble numbers – “It’s a Fine Life,” “I’d Do Anything,” and the music hall “Oom-Pah-Pah.”  Where she comes up short for me is her first rendition of “As Long as He Needs Me,” the torch song that explains her feelings for Sikes. In that first rendition, she sounds more angry than regretful. In the second act reprise, she conveys the emotions more effectively.

Ruggiero has gathered a talented cast of actors for the smaller roles and directed them so effectively that each creates a wonderful moment or two. James Young as Mr. Brownlow shows us the caring and forgiving side of the world. He is almost the only one. Young creates a character that is both reserved but loving; he too recognizes Oliver’s goodness.

Richard R. Henry and Joy Hermalyn are both funny and disgusting as Mr. Bumble the beadle of the work house and the widow of the workhouse, who has her eyes on him. Jamie LaVerdiere is terrific as Mr. Sowerberry, the owner of the funeral home who “buys” Oliver to serve as a mute mourner at the funeral of children.

As usual with Goodspeed productions, all of the production elements are top notch from the scenic design by Michael Schweikardt, the lighting by John Lasiter, sound by Jay Hilton and the costumers bv Alejo Vietti though those may seem a bit too nice for the level of poverty.

James Gray has infused the show with expressive choreography that makes the most of the small stage.

Ruggiero, who once again, does a terrific job directing this piece and the numerous children in it, has said the show is “about a desire for family, community, class, oppression, facing adversity, change – but at the center of all these things is one little boy, whose innocence and pure soul alters the lives of the many people he encounters.”

Certainly, Ruggiero has brought out all of these elements in his vision of the show especially the desire for community, home and a sense of belonging.

I had just one quibble with his direction. Fagin, the paterfamilias of the gang of pickpockets, has always been controversial. In the original novel, he is Jewish at a time when anti-Semitism was prevalent. While on stage, this Fagin does nothing to promote that idea, Ruggiero does have him at times followed upstage by a violinist, recalling the violinist in Fiddler on the Roof. I’m not sure why made this choice but I found it both puzzling and at times distracting. Why in the middle of the slums is the fiddler suddenly appearing?

Both you and children (probably eight or older) will have a very good time at Oliver!.

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

Oliver!

EJ Zimmerman as Nancy. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

“Grease” at Ivoryton Is a Hot, Summer Night Entertainment

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Photo by Jonanthan Steele

By Karen Isaacs

 The musical Grease has always seemed a quintessential “summer” show even though it really takes place during the school year. But something about the boys and girls at Rydell High in the late 1950s reminds me of beaches, drive-in and car hops. (You have to be 50+ to recall these).

The production at Ivoryton Playhouse, through Sunday, July 29 is a pleasant summer entertainment. It may not be the best musical production Ivoryton has done in recent years, but it will provide a very enjoyable night of entertainment.

So while I will find faults in both this production and in the show itself, if you just relax and “go with the flow” you’ll have a good time.

It’s hard to believe than anyone doesn’t recall at least the basic elements of the plot. We have the students that many of us considered during high school years as “losers” – the girls and boys who broke all the rules of the period – smoked, drank, had sex, dressed in tight clothes and had little ambition. Into this mix comes the “new girl” – Sandy Dumbrowski who the others view as a “goody two shoes”  because he doesn’t do any of these things. She’s had a summer romance with one of the guys, Danny Zuko ;they each were less than truthful with each other and now, of course, the truth comes out.

The guys led (sort of) by Danny call themselves the Burger Palace Boys – Kenickie, Doody, Roger and others. Most of their girl friends are the Pink Ladies led by the cynical Rizzo and including Frenchy, Sandy and Marty.

Of course, there must be the “objects of fun” and these are Patty and Eugene, both awkward socially but high achievers.

The romance between Sandy Dumbrowski (not to confuse her with the other Sandy) and Danny doesn’t run smooth; his friends make fun of her, he tries to push too fast and too hard and more. It finally works out when she becomes the “uber” Pink Lady.

Let’s admit that this show seems to glamorize those who look down on others who want to achieve.  Only when Sandy becomes super tough is she accepted and liked. You may also notice that there is a great deal of sexual innuendo (and some more blatant) that considers girls as just objects to the guys.

But perhaps I am trying to make this show more than it is meant to be. Yet, I’m not sure I would encourage young teens to see it: the message seems all wrong.

But leaving that aside, the Ivoryton production directed and choreographed by Todd L. Underwood has many good moments.

Musically, it is quite strong. The score contains many well-known songs, some incorporated from the hit film that starred Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta including “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and “You’re the One I Want.” But the audience obviously knew and responded to many of the other songs – “Summer Nights,”  “Freddy, My Love,” “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” “We Go Together,” “Beauty School Drop Out” and others.

The ensemble offers many of the highlights of the show. The group numbers from “Summer Nights” to “Greased Lightnin’” to the finale are energetic, well sung and well danced.

Johnny Newcomb seems almost too clean cut and nice as Danny. He handles the songs very well, but he doesn’t project the charisma and toughness that Danny usually does. He seems more like a nice kid, who has gone a little bit astray but will be all right in the end.

As Sandy, Kimberly Immanuel also handles the music well; especially the two big numbers – “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” and “It’s Raining on Prom Night.” But she needs to project more strength – her attitude and appearance when she adopts her Pink Lady persona comes out of left field.

The surrounding cast is strong. Alyssa V. Gomez has the tough, cynical Rizzo down to a tee but also manages to project the other side of her: vulnerable and uncertain. Taylor Lloyd makes Marty almost too mature for the others, but handles “Freddie, My Love” well giving the song even more cynicism. The other Pink Ladies, Audrey Wilson as Jan (the always hungry teen) and Katelyn Bowman as Frenchie are very good. Each shows the uncertainties of being a teen with Frenchie creating a hard shell for protection.

Equally good are the members of the Burger Palace Boys – Luke Linsteadt as Doody, Taylor Lloyd as Roger (best known for mooning) and Natale Pirrotta as Kenicke. Lloyd makes the most of “Mooning” including several moons.

Lawrence Cummings handles the big number “Beauty School Drop Out” well; he totally captures the doo-wop sound, but it is lacking some attitude. It needs a little more “I told you so.”

As the director, Todd L. Underwood has made some choices that are problematic in a number of areas of the production. The choreography is energetic and good, but doesn’t always seem to reflect the ‘50s rock ‘n roll. Eugene, the requisite nerd played by Cory Candelet (who was terrific as the Mute in The Fantasticks) becomes a physical comedy role with lots of tripping, falling down and a very stooped posture. It makes this character even more of a caricature. Even in the costume department you may quibble with some of the choices. Would Marty really wear what seems like a string of pearls? Why do the girls seldom where their Pink Lady jackets and why are the jackets pale pink?

Yet, despite these complaints, overall this production of Grease will bring back memories and get you moving to the beats of that period.

It is at Ivoryton Playhouse through Sunday, July 29. For tickets, visit Ivoryton Playhouse or call 860-767-7318.

This material is courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com

Mark Lamos Has Westport’s “A Flea in Her Ear” Running with Split-Second Timing

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Antoinette Robinson as Lucienne and Michael Gotch as Don Carlos. Photo by Carol Rosegg

By Karen Isaacs

 A Flea in Her Ear is a title that may have you scratching your head. What does it mean? The phrase has been around for centuries though it seems out of fashion in English today. It has had multiple meanings, but as used in the play, it is a French idiom meaning to put suspicion in your head. Playwright David Ives has written the adaptation of this Georges Feydou farce.

Mark Lamos has done a terrific job directing this farce with the help of a stellar cast. Now at Westport Country Playhouse through July 28, this co-production with the Resident Ensemble Company at the University of Delaware runs like a well-oiled machine. Certainly the fact that the play has already had a sold out run in Delaware earlier this year, means cast members have their timing down perfectly.

As in typical French farce fashion there are misunderstandings, sexual innuendo, doors which lead to near collisions and misidentifications.

The play is set in the late 1800s during what is called “La Belle Epoque.” It involves upper middle class people; infidelity or the appearance of it plays a major role.

Act one sets up the situation. Raymonde Chandebise is convinced her husband is having affair because that morning, she found a pair of suspenders returned to him from the Frisky Puss Hotel. She and her friend, Lucienne plot a way to find out for sure: Lucienne will write an anonymous love letter to him, setting up a rendezvous that afternoon at the hotel. But all is not as it seems; Camille, the nephew of Chandebise, is having an affair with the cook, Antoinette, at the urging of M. Chandebise’s doctor Dr. Finache. He also has a speech defect that means he can only say vowels – no consonants. Most have difficulty understanding him.

As M. Chandebise reads the letter, he is delighted that someone finds him attractive but he is sure the writer is mistaken, it must be his handsome friend, Romain who is the object of affection, so he tells Romain to keep the appointment. Then, Lucienne’s jealous husband, Don Carlos arrives; when M. Chandebise shares the letter, Don Carlos recognizes his wife’s handwriting and draws all the wrong conclusion.

We move to the hotel in Act 2 where the proprietor (a former Army man) abuses his new bellman (Poche) who was a soldier under him. Poche is the spitting image of M. Chandebise leading to multiple complications. Of course, all the characters show up at the hotel: Camille for his rendezvous with Annette; Raymonde to catch her husband; Romain to meet his adorer; Dr. Finache for his usual tryst. Of course, M. Chandebise also turns up (and is mistaken for Poche as Poche has been mistaken for him by almost everyone) to warn Romain that Don Carlos is coming to kill him. Even the butler arrives and discovers his wife there.

But as in most farces, no real sexual activity takes place. A mix up in the rooms occur so innocent strangers are caught up in the confusion, with lots of doors opening and closing, near misses and mistaken identities.

The play concludes in Act 3 in M. Chandebise’s apartment where all gets straightened out and the spouses forgive each other. Everyone is happy.

To carry this off requires absolute precision, speed and almost choreography so that the characters enter, leave, reenter, react with split-second timing. These performers carry it off perfectly.

You wonder how Lee E. Ernst who plays both M. Chandebise and Poche, can change costumes so quickly and reenter the set as the other almost simultaneously with the other leaving it. He also manages to change his total look, voice and attitude.

The entire ensemble captures the French flair. It is hard to single performers out because you could praise each and every one. But Elizabeth Heflin as Raymonde and Antoinette Robinson as Lucienne are both delightful. Michael Gotch is hilarious as the jealous Don Carlos as is Mic Matarrese as Camille. Robert Adelman Hancock makes the most of the small role of Rugby, a rather dense Englishman who is at the hotel awaiting a visitor.

All elements of the show are excellent: the scenic design by Kristen Robinson, costumes by Sara Jean Tosetti, lighting by Matthew Richards and sound by Fitz Patton.

But in the end it was director Mark Lamos who made it all work so well.

A Flea in Her Ear is at Westport Country Playhouse through July 28. For tickets visit Westport Playhouse or call 888-927-7529.

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Photo by Carol Rosegg

 

“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.

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