Category Archives: Reviews

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

 

Fun Home

Kate Shindell and Robert Petkoff. Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

 

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

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

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

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

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Kate Shindel. Photo by Joan Marcus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fun Home

Photo by Joan Marcus

“Noises Off” at the Connecticut Rep Is a Laughfest

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Photo by Gerry Goodstein

By Karen Isaacs

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

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

The show moves quickly and the laughter keeps on coming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo by Gerry Goodstein

“Fade” at TheaterWorks Changes Themes at End

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Eddie Martinez and Elizabeth Ramos. Photo by Lanny Nagler

By Karen Isaacs

 When we think about stereotyping people by gender, age, ethnicity, we usually assume that it members of outside groups who do that to people unlike themeslves. Men stereotype women, whites stereoptype Africian-Americans and more.

The new play at TheaterWorks in Hartford, Fade by Tanya Saracho makes us aware of how within a group, the stereotyping can occur. Women stereotype other women, Asians stereotype other Asians and Hispanics stereotype other Hispanics.

In this case, it is two Latinos who stereotype each other including jumping to conlusions about their histories and futures.

Lucia is a newly hired writer on a popular TV show; a novelist (one book), she views this job in LA as a way to pay the bills so that she can return to her serious writing. On her first day on the job, she meets Abel, a janitor. The assumptions begin. She speaks to him in Spanish though she has never met him before; she assumes that all janitors in LA are Mexican. Abel responds in English and soon points out that while he is of Mexican heritage, his parents and he were all born and raised in the U.S.

Abel assumes she is from the Mexican elite, and to some extent he is correct. While she claims not to be by pointing out that she worked her way through college, she also lets drop that she and all her friends had maids and other household help. But they bond over some things as well.

The play is about their interactions and relationship which develops as she complains about the entire male group of writers. She is horrified by the stereotypical Latina characters on the TV and the patronizing ways of her fellow writes, all white males. It is perhaps symbolic of her outsider status that her office is a floor below all the others. One even told her she was the token minority female.

Lucia and Abel talk to each other constantly until you wonder how either gets any work done. They complain that most people mispronounce their names. She begins speaking up more in the writers’ meetings and gains some praise from her boss. She is becoming a solid member of the team. Slowly her attitude that this is just a job to pay the bills changes to one of more ambition to succeed at the studio.

During this period, you think that a romance might develop between the two. Abel is well spoken and obviously educated. In fact, he reveals that he had been a firefighter until he was arrested and jailed on a violence issue. He tells Lucia about his past and the incident that involved his daughter’s mother and sister; he is devoted to his daughter.

At one point, Lucia is working on a script and asks Abel for permission to use the reference to his tattoo – “Semper Fi” and his former firefighter status as part of the plot line. He agrees.

It is here that this play about stereotypes and connections dramatically changes course. In the last 10-15 minutes, it seems as though Lucia has been infected not only with the desire to succeed on her job but that whatever ethical standards she has have been pushed aside.

Abel happens to see the episode in which the “Semper Fi” is to be used; to his horror it includes not just that but ALL the details of the violence episode, even using his exact words that he had told Lucia.

He is angry but Lucia seems oblivious to the problem and believes he had given her blanket permission to use his life. The final scene shows Lucia in NYC as an executive at the network, callously agreeing to firesome, and Abel still a janitor.

The issue of authors using the reality of their lives and the lives of friends in their works is both common in literature (the play Collected Stories deals with it) and it is an interesting issue. What are the ethical dimensions of taking people’s stories and retelling or fictionalizing them? Must permission be granted? Do writers (and artists) necessarily betray their confidants?

But this issue enters Fade much too late in the play. It is not developed in any way. It almost seems like a way to break up the relationship and come to a conclusion. So it certainly left me unsatisfied.

Jerry Ruiz has done a fine job directing the two person cast. Eddie Martinez is a standout as Abel, giving us a multi-dimensional character. Every part of his performance rings true, and you see the conflicting emotions when he realizes that Lucia has betrayed him.

As Lucia, Elizabeth Ramos does not bring the same depth to the role; she seems more superficial but perhaps that is because author reveals less about her.

Mariana Sanchez has created an appropriate office set with a window that lets us see out to the corridor where Eddie works. That may not be realistic but it adds to the action.

Fade is one of those plays that seems to be more meaningful than it actual is and the introduction of a new topic in the last 15 minutes contributes to my leaving the performance dissatisfied.

It is at TheaterWork, 233 Pearl St., Hartford through June 30. For tickets visit TheaterWorks or call 860-527-7838.

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Elizabeth Ramos and Eddie Martinez. Photo by Lanny Nagler

Million Dollar Quartet at Ivoryton Has Them Dancing in the Aisles

Million Dollar

Photo by Anne Hudson

By Karen Isaacs

 Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins are rocking the stage at Ivoryton Playhouse through Sunday, June 25 in the musical Million Dollar Quartet.

It is about the night (Dec. 4, 1956) when these four legends had a jam session at Sun Records in Memphis. Sun’s owner Sam Phillips had discovered each of these.

When word leaked out about the session, a local newsman said the quartet could sell a million dollars’ worth of records; hence Million Dollar Quartet.

The show is more jam session of the hits of these four than a really fully developed musical. The plot is pretty basic. Phillips had sold Elvis’ contract to RCA Victor records in order to keep his studio going; Carl Perkins hasn’t had a hit in a year, Johnny Cash’s contract is up for renewal and Jerry Lee Lewis is the brash new kid on the block. Plus Phillips is being courted by RCA to close the studio, move to NYC and work with Elvis.

Tension also exist among the four. After all, Perkins had to cancel a TV appearance due to illness; just weeks later Elvis performed “Blue Suede Shoes” – which was Perkins’ hit – on The Ed Sullivan Show.” Perkins also feels he has been provided less attention and marketing support than the others.  The three more established performers all chafe at Lewis’ brashness. Presley has already made the jump to a major record label while Cash is about to go with Columbia Records.

Just to give the show a little more pizzazz, Elvis has brought his current girlfriend, Dyanne to the session.

The show lives and dies on the quality of the performers and here Ivoryton Playhouse and executive director Jacqui Hubbard have hit the jackpot. All six of the major performers are experienced and the four “legends” have all played their roles before.

Each has a resemblance to the singer they play both physically and vocally but these are not “impersonators.” They use the resemblance to suggest the performer; each succeeds well though some better than others.

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Joe Callahan and Luke Darnell. Photo by Anne Hudson

The standouts in this cast are Luke Darnell as Carl Perkins and Joe Callahan as Jerry Lee Lewis. Each seemed to capture the essence of the character better and to sound more like the original. Callahan has the showiest role; Jerry Lee Lewis was brash, over-the-top and a superb showman on the piano. Callahan captures all of that from his brashness to his body language when Phillips reins him in.

Perkins is perhaps the toughest role since he seem quieter and more controlled. But when Darnell picks up the guitar (all these performers are terrific musicians), it is a wonder. Plus he manages to create a fully developed character; we see and sense his frustrations and envy at the success of the others and his struggles.

Jeremy Sevelovitz creates the vocal sound of Johnny Cash and the imposing presence of the performer. Sevelovitz, a graduate of the University of Hartford’s Hartt School, could give us a more nuanced performance; we don’t really get below the surface of the character.

John Rochette has to overcome several hurdles in playing Elvis. First of these is our familiarity with not only Elvis himself but with all the Elvis impersonators out there. Rochette isn’t doing an impersonation but a suggestion of the performer; he succeeds, yet the charisma of the performer is diminished.

Presley’s girl friend, Dyanne is Emily Mattheson who has a fine voice. The role is definitely secondary and seems to be there primarily to allow for exposition. But, she certainly scores with her two songs, “Fever” and “I Hear You Knockin’.”

As Sam Phillips, Ben Hope creates an understanding of the man and sympathy for his plight. Like a minor league team, he must constantly find new talent and build them into stars, then lose them to the “major leagues.”

But this show is all about the music. Here director and choreographer Sherry Lutken has done a fine job. The pace is brisk but not hurried and the musical numbers are terrific.

You’ll hear many of the great songs of these four from “Blue Suede Shoes” to “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Memories Are Made of This,” “Sixteen Tons,” “My Babe” right on to “Great Balls of Fire,” “Hound Dog” and more. Folks were literally dancing in the aisle.

Act One ends with the five doing a moving “Walk That Lonesome Valley”/”I Shall Not Be Moved.”

The show ends with each doing a solo; while the music is great it seems as though it is extraneous. The plot has been wrapped up, they have left the studio but each comes back for a solo.

Martin Scott Marchitto has created an effective set of the Sun Studios (which was a converted garage).

Million  Dollar Quartet is a show that every fan of rock ‘n roll, rockabilly and pop music will love. It is at Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., through Sunday June 25.  For tickets call 860-767-7318 orIvoryton Playhouse.

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John Rochette and Jeremy Sevelovitzer. Photo by Anne Hudson 

Eccentrics Unite: Westport’s “Lettice & Lovage” Features Fine Performances

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Paxton Whitehead, Mia Dillon and Kandis Chappell. Photo by Carol Rosegg

By Karen Isaacs

 Lettice & Lovage is a play with a “cute” and confusing title that somehow reflects the play itself. Its current production at Westport Country Playhouse (through June 17) shows what is best in the play and also its weaknesses.

The original production of the play by Peter Shaffer (Amadeus, Equus and more) starred two of the great actresses of the British stage: the better known Dame Maggie Smith (as Lettice) and Margaret Tyzack. It was a tour de force for Maggie Smith.

Lettice Duffet is an eccentric older woman of limited means. The play opens with her giving a tour of one England’s National Trust properties, the very dull Fustian Manor House. Not much happened there except that Queen Elizabeth I almost fell down the stairs. The house itself is not very interesting either. The tourists are bored. But in a series of brief scenes, we see Lettice slowly expand on the facts about the house until they are scarcely recognizable. Each time we see the stories become more dramatic (to the point of impossibility) and additional stories appear. Of course, some tourists find her loose regard for the facts disturbing.

The personnel officer of the Trust visits and observes one of the more dramatic tellings of the house’s stories. Lettice is called on the carpet. But she doesn’t arrive in Charlotte Schoen’s office (another older, single woman) chastened or apologetic. Lettice is her own flamboyant self. She continually derails the conversation with stories of her mother, an actress who translated Shakespeare into French and toured the French countryside with a troupe of all women.

Nevertheless she is fired.

After the intermission (Acts 2 and 3 are combined), Lotte shows up at Lettice’s basement flat (equally flamboyant). Something Lettice had said about older women, has struck a chord with Lotte. She comes to offer the possibility of a job as a tour guide on one of London’s tourist boats. Lettice insists they toast with a liquor she has made from lovage (an edible member of the parsley family used in Elizabethan times.)  The two women drink quite a bit and each reveals something about her life. Lotte had studied architecture and had been in love with an engineering student; they had planned on blowing up one of the examples of 1950s architecture which they viewed as particularly horrendous. They even called themselves the E.N.D. (Eyesore Negation Detachment). But she backed out and the romance ended. She was so upset, she failed her exams and instead became a personnel officer.

By the time we get to the third act, it is months later and Lotte and Lettice have become fast friends; except Lettice is charged with trying to murder Lotte. I’ll not spoil the scene with giving you the details of what happened, why or how.

It ends with the two of them going into the tour business: conducting tours of the most hideous examples of modern architecture.

Even with a last minute illness that forced a change in the central role, Mark Lamos has cast this excellently and directed deftly. But even he can’t overcome some of the problems.

First is that the play seems just too long and with too much talk. It is under two and half hours but it seems longer. The night I saw it, the production started late and the intermission seemed overly long. Still we were out of the theater by 10:20 (for an 8 pm show).

Why does it seem long?  It’s just that each scene and each idea is over-talked.

So let us turn to the plusses of this production. Certainly some of the idea that Shaffer focuses on are still very current. Older women (and men) often have difficulty finding employment. Older women’s economic circumstances are more limited and precarious than men’s. Must of the architecture of the last 70 years is particularly graceless: huge concrete squares and rectangles often replacing much interesting older buildings. Prince Charles made a controversial speech in which referred to some of the post-WW II buildings as monstrous carbuncles.

But these ideas get lost in the extraneous activities of the eccentric Lettice and soon, Lotte.

Kandi Chappell stepped into the daunting role of Lettice late in the rehearsals after medical issue cause the original actress to withdraw; she will be fine. She has done a splendid job with a very long part that requires panache. She has it.  Mia Dillon gives one of her regularly fine performances as Lotte. You see her liberate herself in so many ways.

Paxton Whitehead almost steals the entire show with a brief appearance as Lettice’s lawyer who must defend her on the attempted murder charge. It is hilarious, as you see him try to understand what went on and what is going on.

John Arnone has given us set that conveys the inner character of Lotte, Lettice and Faustian House. Jane Greenwood must have had a great time designing Lettice’s eccentric costumes.

Overall, Lettice and Lovage gives you fine performances in a play that you may find very enjoyable or a little long, depending on your mood.

It is at the Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport. For tickets call 203-227-4177 or visit Westport Country Playhouse.

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Mia Dillon and Kandis Chappell. Photo by Carol Rosegg

“Oslo” Gives Us a Compelling Look at the Arab-Israeli Peace Accords — It’s Worth Seeing Twice

 

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 In September 1993, an event occurred in the White House Rose Garden that gave the world hope for a Middle East peace: it was the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and the PLO. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Chairman Yasser Arafat were photographed shaking hands and later the two shared the Nobel Peace Prize. President Clinton looked on.

The back story that led to that historic occasion is the subject of the new play Oslo at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater.

Playwright J. T. Rogers makes it very clear in his notes that this is not intended to be an absolutely accurate portrayal of the “back channel” negotiations that occurred in Oslo. He admits that locations and chronology has been changed and compressed. He has removed some characters and as he says “some of those who remain have been assigned different roles than their actual counterparts…the words they say are mine.”

But accepting that this is not a documentary, it is still a compelling though long (about three hours) drama. At times it reminded me of Lee Blessing’s A Walk in the Woods, another play about unconventional diplomatic negotiations.  I saw the play first last August when it was produced at Lincoln Center’s smaller theater. The response was so enthusiastic it reopened this March in the larger Beaumont Theater. I was eager to see this play again.

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Jennifer Ehle and Jeffrey Mays. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

For while the signing of the accords was at the White House, the US had very little to do with the entire process. That was the doing of Norwegian diplomats and Terje Rod-Larsen, director of the Fafo Institute and the husband of an official in the foreign ministry. It was his theory that for negotiations to be successful, rather than put everything on the table at once, the two parties should start with one issue and when that is resolved, go on to the next. He also believed that personal relationships are a necessity for success.

Some research assured me that Larsen, was indeed head of the Institute which focused on Labour and Social Research as well as Applied International Studies. He had a PhD in sociology.

At the end of 1992, two unofficial representatives of the Israeli government met with Ahmed Quiri, finance minister of the PLO and Hassan Asfour at a manor house outside of Oslo. Larsen insisted that the four men meet and talk alone; in the evenings he expected them to join him and his wife, Mona, over food, drink and non-business talk of families and backgrounds mixed with humor.

It was an auspicious start. The two Israelis, economists, had no authority but were reporting to the deputy foreign minister who had sent them on his own imitative. The PLO delegates had more authority and standing, but were angry and skeptical.

Over the course of months and months of meetings, the four men began not only to establish personal relationships but to hammer out an initial draft of an understanding that dealt with such issues as Jericho and the Gaza Strip.

As Mona states early in the play, it took nine months. The movement was in fits and starts. The issues were enormous. The PLO representatives wanted the Israeli negotiators to be government officials; finally that happened when Uri Savir, director-general of the foreign ministry joined the talks.

In the play, senior Norwegian officials were also in the dark about this effort for months; when the foreign minister Johan Jorgen Holst learns of the act ivies of Larsen and Mona, he is not necessarily thrilled. It is dangerous effort and could alienate the US.

Praises to director Bartlett Sher and the entire cast. Sher and his cast not only keep the pace moving and the tension building – even though you know from the outset that the agreement was reached – but they mine the humor that is necessary to keep this from being dull. His entire production team has worked in concert to fulfill his vision.

The cast returned to this play after a hiatus; their performances have deepened and sharpened. If each was good the when I saw last August, they are even better now. Director Bartlett Sher has also adjusted his staging to the larger playing space without losing either intimacy or pace.

Particular praise must be given to dialect coach Elizabeth Smith – she and the cast maintain a variety of accents – primarily Norwegian, Arab and Israeli – while remaining understandable at all times. The accents never become stereotypical but always sound authentic.

Let us heap praises on the cast. Jefferson Mays is one of my favorite actors and again as Larsen he turns in marvelous performance. Not only with the accent but the depths of the character from his certainties to his ego to his doubt.  Jennifer Ehle matches his as his wife, Mona. She is steady, calming and truly diplomatic.  Michael Aronov is fantastic as the Uri Savir who takes over the negotiations for the Israeli government. Dariush Kashani as Hassam and AnthonyAzizi Quiri are also outstanding.  In fact, there is no one in the cast that can be faulted. Each actor whether playing one role or more, creates fully rounded characters that you know and relate to.

Oslo is a play that is well worth seeing.  In fact, it is worth seeing twice.

For tickets visit Lincoln Center.

Shaw’s Heartbreak House at Hartford Stage Combines Wit with Ideas on War, Love and Business

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 George Bernard Shaw’s masterpiece, Heartbreak House is getting a fine production at Hartford Stage through Sunday, June 11.

While many people equate Shaw with Pygmalion or its musical version, My Fair Lady, Shaw was at heart a political philosopher.  You see that even in My Fair Lady with Professor Higgins’ determination to treat everyone alike, to preach how language was used to separate the classes, and more.

Shaw was also an ardent member of the social –democratic Fabian Society which questioned not only capitalism, religion and the idea of morality. His best plays raise serious ideas about these while at the same time providing audiences with interesting characters and witty dialogue. In his lesser works, it can become overlong and preachy.

Heartbreak House is one of his great plays, so it entertains you with eccentric characters while also challenging you to consider numerous ideas. It was finished in 1919, just following World War I which was devastating to Britain but was begun while the war was going on. It’s set in 1914, just before the outbreak of the war. As often happens at the beginning of wars, people are enthusiastic and almost exhilarated by the prospect.

The setting is the home of Captain Shotover, an aging, retired sea captain and inventor. He still uses nautical terms and blows a nautical whistle. In fact his home looks like a ship complete with the helm. Overseeing his house is his daughter Hesione who lives there with her husband, Hector Hushabye.

The household is disorderly in many ways. While it may look relatively grand, there isn’t a lot of money; income is dependent on Captain Shotover selling his various inventions. Hesione is not the organized lady of the house, nor her husband typical either. The house is totally disorganized. Occasionally Hector suggests he could work to help support the household, but his wife doesn’t want him to; she would not see him enough.

If the household is unconventional, so is their marriage, as we learn throughout the play.

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Dani de Waal. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

The play opens with a young woman, Ellie Dunn, sitting reading a book and dozing off in the living room or poop deck as the Captain calls it. When the Captain discovers her, it turns out she had been invited to visit by Hesione but no one was there to greet her. It seems typical.

Why was she invited? Hesione is determined to dissuade her from marrying Boss Mangan, a much older tycoon. Ellie feels indebted to him for heling her father when his business went bankrupt. Hesione is horrified that the attractive young woman would yoke herself to this older, unattractive man.

Soon others have appear. Ariadne, the Captain’s younger daughter arrives. She is very proper having married a man her father calls a “numbskull” (Hastings Utterword) who has served around the Empire in high ranking government positions for the last 21 years. The Captain refuses to recognize to her.

Also arriving are Ellie’s father, Mazzini Dunn, who the Captain insists on confusing with a member of his crew who was a criminal. Mazzini is actually a mild-mannered man who made a mess of a business and now works for Boss Mangan, Mangan also arrives along with Randall Utterwood, Ariadne’s brother-in-law who is obviously smitten with her.

Mangan, Ellie and Mazzini have all been invited by Hesione in an effort to dissuade Ellie from marrying Boss Mangan.  But while Ellie doesn’t love the Boss, she is a practical “modern woman” who views marriage much like a business deal – rich is better than poor. But she has become enamored of a gentleman she met at the National Gallery who seemed to have an adventuresome life. She is shocked to discover that he is, in fact, Hesione’s husband.

The drawing room comedy of the plot is fortunately overshadowed by the dialogue that covers everything from male-female relationships, to the way the world operates.  Captain Shotover’s inventions of war and destruction earn him and the family much more than his inventions which help people.

Shaw is making many points here including that no-one is exactly what he or she seems. Ariadne seems the perfectly controlled lady but apparently has learned that if you act ladylike you can get away with almost any behavior.  Hesione may seem the bohemian but is really in many ways conventional and Ellie may seem like a naïve young woman but is practical to the extreme. Even Boss Mangan and Mazzini are almost the opposites of what they appear to be.

Shaw subtitled this play “A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes” and there is certainly shadows of Chekhov in it. But while Chekhov’s characters seem more remote from the world – lost in their own illusions, Shaw’s characters are more obviously political.

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Miles Anderson. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Darko Tresnjak, who directed the play, said in his notes that the last lines of the play (said by Hesione and Ellie) still haunt him. The lines, which you will need to see the play to understand to what they refer are: “But what a glorious expiereince1 I hope they’ll come again tomorrow night.” and “Oh, I hope so.”

Overall Tresnjak has directed this with a sure hand except for one decision. I did not mind that a very minor character, simply called the Burglar has been removed. (This character has been omitted in other productions.)  The real error is how Tresnjak has decided to portray Boss Mangan. Mangan is a capitalist, not a member of the upper classes but a man who has made a reputation of ruthlessness and the accumulation of money. He expects to run government department. He has managed to appear generous while actually manipulating people to his own advantage.  The error is that Andrew Long who plays the role has been directed to play him as a caricature of President Trump. His costume including an exaggerated blond “comb over” as well as facial expressions are those of the President. This creates a shock value of laughter at the beginning and some laughs at how well Long imitates the President. But it does a disservice to the play by deflecting our attention from Mangan’s lines.

It is as if Tresjnak underestimated the ability of the audience to see the connections between Mangan and Trump or Mangan and any ruthless industrialist. A more subtle approach would have worked better.

But that is the only misstep. From the casting to the magnificent scenic design by Colin McGurk to the period costumes of Ilona Somogyi, to Matthew Richard’s lighting design that effectively directs are attention to various aspects of the play to the sound design by Jane Shaw, each and everything contributes to our understanding and appreciation of this play.

The three main characters (Captain Shotover, Hesione and Ellie) are all excellent. Miles Anderson may not seem as physically imposing as some Shotovers, but he projects the authority and the conviction needed. Charlotte Parry’s Hesione combines Bohemianism with some very conventional ideas about love and marriage. She is flighty but both warm and thoughtful. Dani De Waal as Ellie may seem compliant but reveals a spine of steel. The entire cast is excellent including Tessa Auberjonois as the ladylike and somewhat rigid Lady Utterwood.  Keith Reddin was excellent as Mazzini Dunn and Stephen Barker Turner gave us a Hector who was by turns romantic but almost pathetic.

Shaw has effectively used symbolism throughout this work from the names of the characters (Captain Shotover, Hushabye, etc) to metaphors of Heartbreak House as England and the ship motif as the ship of state. It subtly raises of issue of who will be at the helm of the ship of state? The old-time ruling elites or the modern industrial/capitalist elites? What will happen to the ship? It hints at the end of the British Empire.

As with many Shaw plays, you will the theater after seeing Heartbreak House with much to think about – not only ideas but also Shaw’s razor sharp wit.

It is at Hartford Stage, 50 Church Street, Harford, through Sunday, June 11. For tickets visit Hartford Stage or call 860-527-5151.

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Charlotte Perry and Stephen Barker Turner. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

“The King and I” at the Bushnell Transports You to Another World

Jose Llana and Laura Michelle Kelly in Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I. Photo by Matthew Murphy_0_edited

Jose Llana and Laura Michelle Kelly. Photo by Matthew Murphy

By Karen Isaacs

When a spectacular Broadway revival goes on tour, the concern is always that the necessary adjustments in both cast size and staging to fit a variety of venues will diminish its effectiveness. Luckily the national tour of of Lincoln Center’s revival of The King and I Has been adapted brilliantly.

Yes, the opening scene is quite as specular on a proscenium stage, but it is effective. After listening to the lush overture played by a large orchestra — a rarity in today’s Broadway environment, a ship makes its way slowly onto the stage.  From the ship emerges the captain, Louis and Anna Leonowens (Laura Michelle Kelly). It is all there — the sunset lighting, the Siam (Thai) inspired wall hangings on each side of the stage — we are being transported.

What follows feels at times like total immersion in this culture.  We feel as confused as Anna does with the traditions, attitudes and beliefs of the country.

For those who have forgotten the plot of this Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, it centers around the experiences of Anna, a young English widow with a son, who is hired to teach the children of the King of Siam, a man who is seeking to be a “modern” king. Though she has lived in the Far East for a long time, she still finds the court of Siam very different and there are no other English to help make the transition.

She meets the King’s powerful advisor Kralahome, and learns that although the King agreed to give her a house outside the palace gates no such home is ready for her and she is warned not to press the King on this matter.  After meeting Lady Thiang, the King’s head wife and the King, she meets the other wives and the children — the King has over 60 children but Anna will only be teaching those whose mothers are favored.

Two subplots figure prominently in the show.  The first involves Tuptin and Lun Tha. Tuptin is “given” to the King by the King of Burma and is delivered to him by Lun Tha. Unfortunately they love each other.

The second subplot involves the concern that Siam may be taken over by one of the European powers — the French had just made moves on another Indochina country and the British also were looking to expand their empire.  The King is concerned that if he is viewed as a “barbarian” it will provide the western countries with the rationalization they are looking to find.

Both Anna and the King are fascinating, complex characters.  Anna is a rarity for the 1860s; an independent woman making her way in the world when she could have retreated to a more secluded life.  She also is willing, despite misgivings, to speak her mind and demand that she be taken seriously.

The King is equally complex.  He is an absolute ruler who senses his mortality and the need to “modernize” his thinking.  But he finds it difficult and confusing to do so; he understand the need to interact with the western world though he finds their ways “a puzzlement.”

This is a musical with a bittersweet ending; two love stories — one that is forbidden and one that is barely acknowledged ; both end with the death of the man.

Bartlett Sher has once again proven his expertise with Rodgers & Hammerstein.  His direction has produced many fine moments. I particularly liked his handling of the introduction of the children to Anna.  Each child had a unique personality that made them endearing in the way they interacted with their father and Miss Anna. With the help of his fine cast, these are not characters in a musical comedy but real people who just happen to occasional burst out into song.

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Manna Nichols and Kavin Panmeechao. Photo by Michael Murphy

Of course, Rodgers and Hammerstein gives them some marvelous songs from the opening “I Whistle a Happy Tune” right through to “Shall We Dance?”  In between there are the soaring love songs — though often with a bittersweet tone — such as “We Kiss in a Shadow,” “I Have Dreamed,” and “Hello, Young Lovers” as well as songs with a comic touch including “A Puzzlement” and “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?”  This is a varied and complete score that under the music direction of Ted Sperling reaches its full potential.

It is surprising how the changes in the cast have affected the production. In the revival at Lincoln Center, Kelli O’Hara as Anna and Ruthie Ann Miles as Lady Thiang dominated the stage. They overshadowed .Ken Wantanbe, as the King.

In this production, it is the reverse. Jose Llana – who took over the role of the King on Broadway dominates the stage. His King is still autocratic, mercurial, demanding and sometimes menacing but yet he seems less like an actor and more like a person.  He shows more of the King’s anxieties about the future, ruling and his own mortality.  The one criticsm is that perhaps he overplays some of the humor in the role, appearing at times like a schoolboy pleased with his own jokes.

The other standout is Manna Nichols as Tuptin. When she is on stage, it is difficult to take your eyes off of her. Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna is good – she has a nice voice and inhabits the role, but she doesn’t bring it totally to live. You don’t feel the emotions. This is especially obvious at the ending which lacks the emotional punch it needs.

Joan Almedilla as Lady Thiang has a somewhat similar problem. Professional and very good, but lacking one thing.

For a national tour, the entire production is lush — from the costumes by Catherine Zuber, the sets by Michael Yeargan, the lighting by Donald Holder and the sound by Scott Lehrer.

Choreographer Christopher Gatelli has adapted and modified the original choreography by Jerome Robbins.

The orchestra is larger than normal on tour and while the cast is reduced in size, only occasionally is it noticeable.

It you love The King and I or if you have never seen it, you should see this production at the Bushnell through June 4. Tickets are available at Bushnell..

King and I. Photo by Matthew Murphy_edited

Photo by Michael Murphy

“A Doll’s House Part II’ – 15 Years After the Famous Door Slam

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Laurie Metcalf and Jayne Houdyshell. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

By Karen Isaacs

Authors have, for decades, attempted to write sequels to classic works. It’s tricky business with many questions that need answering. Should a sequel be done? After all, if the original author wanted to do one, he or she would have. Do you try to emulate the original author’s voice? How do you determine what does happen?  Should it be what seems most logical for the feel and the period of the original work? The period when the sequel is written?

A Doll’s House – Part 2 by Lucas Hnath has attempted to tell us what has happened to Nora, Torvald and the other characters in Ibsen’s classic play. It is set 15 years after the famous door slam.

If you don’t recall the original play, it is a multi-layered play about Nora and Helmar Torvald over the Christmas holiday in 1879, Norway.  A secret that Nora has been concealing from Helmar comes to light which causes her to look at herself and her marriage in a new light. This results in her leaving both her husband and her three young children with the famous door slam that is said to have reverberated throughout the world.

Scholars have debated Nora’s action and the reasons behind it. In the course of the play, Ibsen raises a number of issues that go well beyond those of the rights of women and married women in particular.  Depending on which of these multiple issues you focus on, your view of Nora’s choices will vary and so will your sense of what might have happened to her and those she left behind.

Hnath focuses on just four characters: Nora; her husband, Torvald; the nurse-maid Anne Marie; and the daughter she left behind, Emmy.

Nora returns to the same apartment that she had left after having contacted Anne Marie. No one is home except Anne Marie. It seems that Nora has a problem. She has assumed that Torvald divorced her after she left. Therefore she has lived and acted as a single woman, signing contracts and having relationships, all of which would be possible illegal for a married woman to do without her husband’s permission.

She has also become a writer whose works argue that marriage is oppressive to women; she has become a feminist whose works are both well-known and generate angry reactions. Apparently, a local judge has been looking into Nora’s past after his wife took her message to heart and left him. Thus, the reason for the visit.

During the course of the play all four of the characters get their say. The family had presumed Nora dead; after all they had neither heard from or of her in the years since. Each harbors resentments – to her and she to them. She doesn’t understand why Helmar never got the divorce which was much, much easier for a husband to attain. Anne Marie spent years picking up the pieces Nora left behind – caring and raising her three children. The two boys are out of the house, but Emmy the youngest is still at home and resents missing out on a mother. Torvald resents that Nora never allowed him and them as a couple to work through the problems she saw in the marriage.

Hnath and director Sam Gold has combined 19th century sets (though very bare) and costumes, with 21st century language (the F-bomb and others go off from all the characters) as well as interesting body language choices for Nora. The frankness of the discussions seems inappropriate for the late 19th century.

No matter how you react to the play and Hnath’s view of Nora – and I will discuss my reactions – you will be thrilled by the performances, even if you disagree with how the characters are written. Laurie Metcalf as Nora, Jane Hoydyshell as Anne Marie, Chris Cooper as Torvald and Condola Rashad as Emmy are all magnificent.

But, despite how good they are, for me Hnath took the wrong track with his play. First of all it is too comedic in both writing and direction. He has created a Nora that is totally self-centered which is how many students view her when they first read the play. But if you explore Ibsen’s themes more thoroughly, I don’t think you can see her in that one-dimensional light. Nora is a more complex person that just a self-centered, self-involved individual.  Leaving her family was for multiple reasons.

By going for the laughs – a gentleman sitting next to me was loudly guffawing through much of the play – he has detracted from what might have been a very interesting discussion of how a woman, relatively sheltered and unaware of how society worked, survived and prospered. How did others react to her?  What stumbles occurred along the way? Did she have any regrets or was she totally unintrospective.

None of these are answered and while A Doll’s House, Part II is an enjoyable evening particularly because of the fine acting, it could have been so much more. Hnath seems to rely too much on our knowledge of the play and our viewpoint of it.

A Doll’s House – Part II is at the Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th Street through July 23.  For tickets, contact Telecharge.

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Laurie Metcalf, Jane Houdyshell, Condola Rashad, Chris Cooper. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe.

Goodspeed’s “Millie” Is Fun But Not Fantastic

thoroughly Millie by Diane Sobolewski

Taylor Quick.  Photo by Diane Sobolewski

By Karen Isaacs

 Thoroughly Modern Millie is a lightweight, fun musical that is getting a very good production at Goodspeed Theater in East Haddam, through July 2.

The show may seem like it was written in the 1920s when it set, but in reality, the show hit Broadway in 2002. The plot is based on the 1967 movie musical that starred Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Channing and Beatrice Lillie. For the movie, original music was written by Jimmy Van Huesen with lyrics by Sammy Cahn as well as others; popular music of the 1920s was also an integral part of the score. The show, part camp satire of the period and part serious, was a success and earned a number of Oscar nominations.

The stage version of the show began in 1999 but did not hit Broadway until 2002. The music of the ‘20s was discarded as were most of the songs written specifically for the movie.  Jeanine Tesori wrote new songs for the show with lyrics by Dick Scanlan who took over the role of book writer after Dick Morris passed away.

The plot is fairly typical for 1920s shows.  A young woman, Millie, arrives in New York City from Kansas, eager to break out of the confines of her small town existence and to enjoy the big city. She is ready for the new haircuts, short skirts, and the freer behaviors that were beginning to sweep the country. She is also determined to find a job as a secretary (or “typewriter” as the women were often called) and to marry her boss.

The secondary plots involve Miss Dorothy Brown, another single young lady but seemingly more shy. She too arrives at the same hotel for young women as Millie. But there is a secret at the Hotel Priscilla presided over Mrs. Meers. It seems that young women who have no family mysteriously and suddenly “check out” never to be heard of again. We quickly discover they have been drugged, abducted and sent to the Far East for the white slave trade.

Millie gets a job working for Trevor Graydon, a handsome (and single) executive, but she also meets Jimmy, a young man who seems less motivated. Of course, we can anticipate what will happen. While Millie has her eye set on Graydon, she unwillingly becomes increasingly attracted to Jimmy. Graydon, meanwhile, meets Miss Dorothy and is immediately smitten. Once Mrs. Meers learns that Miss Dorothy is an orphan, she sets in motion the plot to kidnap and sell Miss Dorothy.

Of course, all ends happily. Neither Jimmy nor Miss Dorothy are exactly what they seem. Mrs. Meers is defeated.

There’s also Muzzy Can Hossmere, a wealthy, older nightclub performer who was married to a very wealthy man. She tries to convince Millie that love is most important and helps Millie, Jimmy and Trevor save Miss Dorothy.  Two Chinese brothers work as hotel employees for Mrs. Meers; they are forced to assist her in her evil ways because she has promised to bring their mother to NYC.

Even in 2002, the portrayal of the two Chinese brothers was problematic. While the authors tried to make them less stereotypical “Asian” characters, some elements of that remained. But they did have them speak Chinese, with English translations projected for the audience, and gave one of the brothers a rebellious streak. Ching Ho falls for Miss Dorothy and does everything he can to save her.

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Dan DeLuca and Taylor Quick. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

The Goodspeed production has a lot going for it. As usual, the production values are terrific. Scenic designer Paul Tate dePoo III has created a wonderful art deco backdrop and an elevator for the hotel. Between him and the lighting design by Rob Denton, you are convinced the elevator is moving. Gregory Dale’s costumes bring you back to the 1920s and the Jazz Age. Jay Hilton’s sound design adds to the overall affect and keeps the sound from blaring.

Denis Jones, a Tony nominee this year, has returned to Goodspeed to direct and choreograph. Once again he has used the small stage adeptly and his tap numbers are terrific.

That brings us to the hard-working cast. The ensemble of dancers and singers, who often play multiple roles is excellent. And certainly the cast all sing and dance very well. But at times, something seems missing.

Taylor Quick, who has her on “new girl in town story,” is Millie. While technically fine, in such a slight musical, the role requires star power; the ability to focus our attention on her and to project a joie de vivre. Unfortunately Quick lacks, at least at this point in her career, those abilities. She just seems like a nice average girl, trying hard. When the show opened on Broadway, Sutton Foster who had been in the ensemble but had taken over the lead during the tryout period, radiated that charisma.

In fact the only performer who made you focus was Edward Watts as Trevor Grayden and that be in part due to his ruggedly handsome looks. Technically Dan DeLuca as Jimmy, Samantha Sturm as Miss Dorothy, Ramona Keller as Muzzy and James Seol as Ching Ho were all good.  Loretta Ables Sayre was a rather tame Mrs. Meers; some of the evil intent seemed lacking.

If you want an enjoyable evening of nice tunes, terrific dancing and good performances, you will enjoy Thoroughly Modern Millie. Just don’t expect insightful drama. It is just good, clean fun.

It is at Goodspeed Musical Theatre in East Haddam through July 2. For tickets, visit Goodspeed or call 860-873-8668.

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Samatha Sturm, Taylor Quick and Edward Watts. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

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