By Karen Isaacs
Good intentions are not always enough. An Opening in Time the new play by Christopher Shinn which is getting its world premiere at Hartford Stage through Oct. 11 is a perfect example of this. Possibly the play will change, but based on this production, much work needs to be done.
Shinn, a talented younger playwright, has good intentions. In the playbill he talks about a fellowship with the American Psychoanalytic Association and his fascination with psychoanalytic writers: the question, as he puts, is of “human motivation – especially hidden or disavowed motivation.” He talks of learning about the human suffering hidden from society.
He talks about other lofty goals – to help the audience see the “tragic areas of the human psyche” and let the audience “connect with these characters, see them not as unique outliers but as everyday people.”
With goals like that, Shinn set himself up for a difficult task.
Unfortunately he has not been able to fulfill it in a dramatically satisfactory way.
An Opening in Time is set in his home town of Wethersfield though it is described as “a suburban town in central Connecticut.” The play opens with Anne entering a neat colonial style house with a similar, but larger home, close by.
Anne is a recently retired English teacher. We learn that she was widowed a year ago and has moved back to the town where she seemed happiest. She and her husband and son had moved away many years before when her husband bought a large farm in a more isolated area.
Complications quickly arise. So many in fact, that they could keep any self-respecting soap opera in business for a year or more.
To name a few: her door is marred when a ball thrown by a teenager hits it. The boy, George, shows up followed soon by his mother. But this is not a typical neighbor. The mother, Kim, explains that the boy is a foster son whose older brother has left her house and has drug and other problems.
As the first act continues, the scene switches frequently — to the local restaurant where Frank and Ron eat many meals at the counter; Ron is a partly retired teacher and the honcho of the high school’s annual musical production. Frank eats most meals there while reading his tablet even though he is married. Ron is divorced.
Of course, Anne shows up at the restaurant and Ron’s reaction is strange – he quickly leaves. During a return visit, Anne talks with him and it becomes clear they knew each other many years ago – while both were married – and had frequent lunches together. Anne also tells him that she is estranged from her adult son, Sam, ever since her husband’s funeral. Apparently, shaken by his sudden death, she had asked Sam to take the car to the carwash and he had responded with an outburst of anger. But there is a twist. Several years ago, Sam – a music teacher – had been arrested for an inappropriate, though possibly consensual, relationship, with a 17-year-old girl.
Wait – there is more. Anne’s kitchen windows are broken and the police arrive. Of course, the obvious suspect is George but she suspects Sam.
The first act curtain adds another complication: George shows Anne a photo of himself, but as a girl!
So many things go on in the second act that the audience’s heads may be spinning. We learn more about Ron and Anne’s relationship: they almost left their spouses for each other; Sam has another run in with the law when he responds to a text from the girl, and finally Anne and he reconnect briefly. Kim seems odder and odder. Anne’s window is broken another time. Ron is no longer doing the annual musical – he insulted the principal when she selected Rent as the show. Of course, George gets a role in the show and Kim is refusing to sign the permission slip: is it because the show is considered controversial in many school districts because of its characters that are gay, have AIDs, etc.?
You should get the picture.
Unfortunately it is not just the convoluted plot that doesn’t really work. So many scenes are set in either the local dinner or a pizza place or Denny’s that you begin to think that no one cooks at home.
For example the set by Anjte Ellermann generated some laughs from the audience as tables or diner counters kept rising and descending from the stage. The lighting by Russell H. Champa is also confusing. At the opening of the play, the cool lighting made it seem fall or wintery, yet we learn from the dialogue that it is summer. There is never any warmth in the lighting nor any differentiation of playing spaces, day/night etc.
In reality the faults of this production must be laid at the feet of director Oliver Butler and the playwright. The performers are given complex characters to work with but are never able to provide the audience with the needed clues about why they behave the way they do.
Kim may have been envisioned as a smug, self-congratulatory suburban resident, but she comes across as puzzling and somewhat menacing.
Both Anne, played by Deborah Hedwall and Ron, played by Patrick Clear, are so pedestrian that they blend into the scenery. They each have hidden angst but it is almost impossible to feel it.
Will An Opening in Time ever realize the ambitions of Shinn? I hope so, but it needs a great deal of work to accomplish his lofty goals. It will need to be streamlined – does George need to be a teen who is not only part of the foster system, but is recognizing that he is transgendered? Does Anne’s son need to have had a second criminal problem?
If this work is done, it possible that this could become a moving play about people’s regrets, second chances and ability to examine their lives.
An Opening in Time is at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford, through Oct. 11. For tickets contact hartfordstage.org or call 860-527-5151.
This content is courtesy of Shore Publishing and zip06.
Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theater in Chester is a place where musicals are given early workshop productions – professional casts, directors, sets, costumes, etc. – to let the creative team – book writer, composer and lyricist see how it all works in front of an audience. It is a beginning.
Some shows never go much further, others have numerous productions around the country and a few, a very few, go on to Broadway. Amazing Grace which began at Chester has just opened on the Great White Way.
My Paris, the current production on the Norma Terris stage through Aug. 16, is a new musical but one with a long history.
Alfred Uhry, the book writer, explained some of this history during a talk at R. J. Julia’s in Madison.
The music is written by Charles Aznavour – a world famous French performer who is sometimes referred to as the “French Frank Sinatra.” Aznavour, who is still performing into his 90s, over the years wrote more than 30 songs for a musical about Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, an aristocrat who became famous for his drawings, posters and art of Paris’ seamier side – the music halls, the streetwalkers, and the can-can dancers in the late 1800s.
Uhry pointed out that Lautrec was not a midget as some may think from various movie representations; he suffered from a congenital defect of weak bones that resulted not only in multiple fractures but also caused his legs to stop growing while he was still a child.
Director Kathleen Marshall became interested in the project several years ago and asked Uhry who in addition to writing Driving Miss Daisy has also written the book for various musicals (Parade, LoveMusik), if he would be interested in writing the book for this show.
“I said ‘sure’,” Uhry said. He soon received a package of tapes from Aznavour of the songs all in French. “I didn’t have a clue about what they were about.”
In fact, there had been a British production using some of the songs – Aznavour continued to write additional music – in 2000 called Lautrec. It had a brief run and Aznavour reported “hated it.” [After looking at some of the reviews of that short-lived production it seems it was fatally hampered by a tedious biographical book and what once critic described as “tin-eared” lyrics.]
My Paris is a new show – it focuses on reproducing some of Lautrec’s most famous works on stage as well as the relationships he had with three women important in his life: his mother, the performer Jane Avril, and his mistress and muse Suzanne Valadon. An artist in her own right, she was also the mother of the artist Maurice Utrillo.
As Uhry explains, the 90-minute show attempts to let us see what Lautrec saw; it was a sordid world he lived in yet he saw beauty in it.
Though he died young (at 36) and lived a life of excess, the show, Uhry said is full of joy.
In Uhry’s view, he was not writing a biography. “My role is to tell the story and set up the songs. Songs don’t tell stories, they illustrate.”
Since literal translations of lyrics from other languages usually do not work well. Kathleen Marshall convinced Tony winning composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown to rewrite the lyrics. In some cases, Uhry said, they express the same point or emotion as the original French lyrics but other cases they are totally different from the meaning of the French lyric.
“We are creating a new musical based on what Aznavour has indicated he would like,” Uhry said.
As part of the talk, Donna English who is playing Lautrec’s Maman (mother), Adele, introduced the audience to the song “Where Are We Going.” As his prime caregiver, English said Mamon both recognized that Lautrec had to break away from her as he grew older but because of his delicate health, was concerned for his well-being.
Mara Davi who plays Suzanne in the show sang “What I Meant to Say.” She’s done extensive research on Valadon who died in the 1930 and had her art works exhibited throughout the world.
Bobby Steggart who has starred in Big Fish and Ragtime plays Lautrec.
No one know what will happen to My Paris after it leaves the Norma Terris – undoubtedly a lot a more work and then, perhaps onto Broadway.
For tickets contact goodspeed.org.
By Karen Isaacs
In an evening filled with heartfelt moments, the Connecticut Critics Circle presented it 25th annual awards for outstanding theatrical achievements at Connecticut’s theaters during the 2014-15 season.
For those keeping score, the production of Hamlet at Hartford Stage won the most awards, picking up accolades for sound, as well as featured actor in a play, lead actor in a play, outstanding direction and best production of a play. The musical awards were split with Fiddler on the Roof which was produced at Goodspeed, winning awards for lead actor and director, but Holiday Inn also from Goodspeed winning for outstanding production.
The awards were presented at the Yale’s Iseman Theater in New Haven with an audience of almost 200 looking on. The awards were considered a special event in connection with the International Festival of Arts & Ideas.
Several of Connecticut’s smaller theaters also had impressive wins with Playhouse on Park in West Hartford winning best ensemble in their first year of eligibility. Ivoryton Playhouse scored with the outstanding leading actress in a musical. Both has multiple nominations.
Long Wharf, Yale Rep and Westport had nominations for multiple shows and scored victories. Long Wharf won for best ensemble for Picasso at Lapin Agile (it was tie vote),lead actress in a play for Bad Jews; Westport won for featured actor in a musical for Sing for Your Shakespeare and Yale won several awards for Elevada and featured actress in a play for Arcadia.
The Killen Award for outstanding contribution to Connecticut theater was presented by James Bundy, dean of the Yale Drama School and artistic director of Yale Rep, to Carmen de Lavallade. Included in his remarks was a note from one of the Drama School’s most illustrious graduates Meryl Streep who wrote about the impact de Lavallade had on her as a student. An internationally acclaimed dancer, de Lavallade was on the faculty of the Drama School as well turning in memorable performances in both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest.
De Lavallade seemed overwhelmed by the award as she expressed her thanks. Talking about her experiences at Yale, she called it both “magical” and “a turnaround” and said it was an important “growing period for me.” She ended by saying she is still learning and will continue to learn.
Adam Heller who won for his portrayal of Tevya in Goodspeed’s Fiddler on the Roof recalled director Rob Ruggiero — who also was honored — calling him and asking “Do you think you have Tevya in you?” When Heller said yes, Ruggiero told him to audition because, “that’s the way it works at Goodspeed.”
Zach Appelman who won for the leading role in Hamlet, was not present but in his note thanked not only Hartford Stage and director Darko Tresnjak but also James Bundy and Yale Drama School for all they taught him.
Rebekah Brockman who won featured actress in Arcadia, also was working elsewhere but thanked her director James Bundy for as she putting “letting me explore my voice within the text and guiding me when I was lost.” Brockman received a second nomination in that category for her work in The Liar at Westport.
More than a few audience members had damp eyes when a special award was presented to the Summer Theater of New Canaan for its DramaRama program. This program now in its 5th year, pairs theater interns and professionals with children with an assortment of disabilities and helps them put on a show in front of a live audience.
In accepting the award, Executive Producer Ed Libonati told of the positive outcomes — the young person who never spoke but did so on stage and the others who have participated in school and community productions.
Another special award went to Shawn Boyle for his projections in the Yale Rep production of Elevada.
New Haven’s A Broken Umbrella Theater — recipients of a special award last year — presented a special award to The Split Knuckle Theater and its production last June of Endurance.
Keilly McQuail who received the outstanding leading actress in a play award for Bad Jews at Long Wharf, told of growing up in Newtown and attending the Arts High School on Audubon Street in New Haven.
Perhaps the funniest line was from Steven DeRosa who won for his featured role in the musical revue Sing for Your Shakespeare at Westport Country Playhouse, when he said that if his mother were alive, she would say that the critics “had excellent taste.” He also recalled his first professional production which was at Hartford Stage and his training at Yale Drama School.
The evening closed with the presentation of the best directors and outstanding production awards. Holiday Inn won best musical and Gordon Greenburg its director and co-writer told the audience that it will have a national tour next year. Rob Ruggiero was named outstanding director for Fiddler on the Roof and mentioned the contrast between that show and his current project, La Cage aux Folles at Goodspeed which begins performances this week.
Darko Tresnjak won for best director of a play (Hamlet.) Tresnjak sent a note since he was visiting with his very ill mother before going to San Diego’s Globe Theater where his production of Kiss Me, Kate will open soon.
But after thanking Zach Appelman and all the teachers who trained him, Tresnjak recounted that his mother had recently told him, “you must, you must, you must, you must make art with the people you love.”
Already the Connecticut critics are reviewing shows and making notes of outstanding productions, technical achievements and acting for next year’s awards.
This content courtesy of Shore Publishing and Zip06.com
By Karen Isaacs
Here’s my list of the top shows in Connecticut this past season.
- Hamlet – Hartford Stage
I’ve seen many Hamlets in my theater-going life on both stage and screen. Olivier used an Oedipal interpretation, Paul Giamatti was an older Hamlet. The Hamlet at Hartford Stage directed by Darko Tresnjak had all the elements. A clear concept, brilliant sets, costumes, lighting, and a fine cast led by Zach Appelman as Hamlet. He made all the well known speeches seem fresh and new.
- Fiddler on the Roof — Goodspeed
Fiddler has been done so often that it is hard to make it seem different. Director Rob Ruggiero and his team gave us a well cast production that evoked Russia while focusing on the individuals. I had never seen some of the supporting roles — Lazar Wolf and the future sons-in-law played so well.
- Arcadia – Yale Rep
James Bundy gave us an almost perfect production of one of my favorite Tom Stoppard plays. Yes,, there are long speeches about math, but I find the combination of the two stories, the intertwining of time, and the sheer intellectualism of it to be thrilling. The casting was terrific and it reminded me how funny the play actually is.
- The Liar – Westport
A hero who lies but is also charming, rhymed couplets and madcap fun all made this a laugh riot with great acting and great costumes.
- Reverberation – Hartford Stage
This new play by Matthew Lopez showed his progression as a playwright. Was it perfect? No, the ending did not feel right. But it was blessed with an outstanding cast, fine direction by Maxwell Williams, and terrific production values. It is THE play that I have thought about the most since I’ve seen it.
- Endurance – Split Knuckle Theater
A new theater company wowed me with their physicality and the juxtaposition of two stories — the amazing survival of the Antarctic expedition of Shackleton and a modern day executive. Creative and beautifully performed.
- Kiss Me, Kate – Hartford Stage
It is a classic of the Broadway musical stage and Darko Tresnjak did a fine job with setting it specifically in the 1940s. The costumes, set, lighting and voices were great — I quibbled with a few of the casting choices but Megan Sikora as Lois/Bianca was great. The choreography by Peggy Hickey was terrific.
- Caucasian Chalk Circle – Yale Rep
Bertol Brecht evokes strong feelings. His epic and political drama can seem preachy but in this fine Yale Rep production directed by Liz Diamond, it totally captured me.
- Woody Sez – TheaterWorks
- Holiday Inn – Goodspeed
Transferring a movie musical to the stage is a challenge that has only successfully been done a very few times. This world premier was aided by a very good cast and the addition of some of Irving Berlin’s most famous shows. It was a delight and will have a future.
Honorable Mentions: All Shook Up – Ivoryton, Dancing Lessons – TheaterWorks, Elevada -Yale Rep, Nice Work If You Can Get It – Bushnell, Picasso at Lapin Agile – Long Wharf, Pippin – Bushnell, Seen Change – The Broken Umbrella Theater, Things We Do for Love – Westport.
CT Critics Circle Give Multiple Award Nominations to Hamlet, Fiddler on the Roof, Arcadia, Kiss Me Kate and The Liar
By Karen Isaacs
The Connecticut Critics Circle has announced nominations for its annual awards which honor outstanding productions, performances and creative work at Connecticut’s professional theaters.
The winners will be honored at an award ceremony, Monday, June 22 at 7 p.m. at the Iseman Theater on Chapel Street in New Haven. The event is open to the public but seating is limited.
In the major categories — outstanding production and directing — multiple nominations went to Yale Rep, Hartford Stage, Goodspeed, Ivoryton Playhouse and Playhouse on Park. The productions represented were Arcadia, Elevada (Yale Rep), Hamlet, Reverberation, Kiss Me, Kate (Hartford Stage), The Liar (Westport Country Playhouse), All Shook Up (Ivoryton), Fiddler on the Roof, Holiday Inn (Goodspeed) and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Playhouse on Park).
Most of these shows also received nominations for acting and for various features of the productions including sets, costumes, lighting, sound and choreography.
Connecticut Critics Circle Awards – 2014-2015 Nominations
Outstanding Production of a Play
Arcadia, Yale Rep
Elevada, Yale Rep
Hamlet , Hartford Stage
Reverberation, Hartford Stage
The Liar, Westport Country Playhouse
Outstanding Production of a Musical
All Shook Up, Ivoryton
Fiddler on the Roof, Goodspeed
Holiday Inn, Goodspeed
Kiss Me, Kate, Hartford Stage
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Playhouse on Park
Outstanding Actress in a Play
Laurel Casillo — Elevada, Yale Rep
Margaret Colin — Second Mrs. Wilson, Long Wharf
Keilly MacQuail — Bad Jews, Long Wharf
Nikki Walker — Intimate Apparel, Westport Country Playhouse
Shaunette Renée Wilson — The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Yale Rep
Outstanding Actor in a Play
Zach Appelman — Hamlet, Hartford Stage
Aaron Krohn — The Liar, Westport Country Playhouse
Luke Macfarlane — Reverberation, Hartford Stage
Tom Pecinka — Arcadia, Yale Rep
Steven Skybell — The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Yale Rep
Outstanding Actress in a Musical
Nancy Anderson – Guys and Dolls, Goodspeed
Danielle Bowen – All Shook Up, Ivoryton
Elissa DeMaria – Little Shop of Horrors, MTC Mainstage
Patti Murin – Holiday Inn, Goodspeed
Rebecca Spigelman – Hairspray, STONC
Outstanding Actor in a Musical
David Edwards – La Cage Aux Folles, Ivoryton
Preston Ellis – All Shook Up, Ivoryton
Michael Damian Fasano – Footloose, Seven Angels
Adam Heller – Fiddler on the Roof, Goodspeed
Noah Racey – Holiday Inn, Goodspeed
Outstanding Director of a Play
James Bundy – Arcadia, Yale Rep
Jackson Gay – Elevada, Yale Rep
Penny Metropulos – The Liar, Westport Country Playhouse
Darko Tresnjak – Hamlet, Hartford Stage
Maxwell Williams – Reverberation, Hartford Stage
Outstanding Director of a Musical
Richard Amelius – All Shook Up, Ivoryton
Gordon Greenberg – Holiday Inn, Goodpseed
Susan Haefner – The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Playhouse on Park
Rob Ruggiero – Fiddler on the Roof, Goodpseed
Darko Tresnjak – Kiss Me, Kate, Hartford Stage
Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play
Edward James Hyland – Hamlet, Hartford Stage
Greg Keller – Elevada, Yale Rep
Andrew Long – Hamlet, Hartford Stage
Carl Lundstedt – Reverberation, Hartford Stage
Max Gordon Moore – Arcadia, Yale Rep
Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play
Rebekah Brockman – Arcadia, Yale Rep
Rebekah Brockman – The Liar, Westport Country Playhouse
Kate Forbes – Hamlet, Hartford Stage
Kristin Harlow – Angels in America, Playhouse on Park
Tonya Pinkins – War, Yale Rep
Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical
Elizabeth DeRosa – Fiddler on the Roof, Goodspeed
Barrie Kreinik – Fiddler on the Roof, Goodspeed
Sharon Malone – Hairspray, STONC
Susan Mosher – Holiday Inn, Goodspeed
Megan Sikora – Kiss Me, Kate, Hartford Stage
Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical
Scott Cote – Guys and Dolls, Goodspeed
Stephen DeRosa – Sing For Your Shakespeare, Westport Country Playhouse
Noah Marlowe – Holiday Inn, Goodspeed
John Payonk – Fiddler on the Roof, Goodspeed
Nick Reynolds – Hairspray, STONC
Richard Amelius – All Shook Up, Ivoryton
Peggy Hickey – Kiss Me, Kate, Hartford Stage
Denis Jones – Holiday Inn, Goodspeed
Alex Sanchez – Guys and Dolls, Goodspeed
David Wanstreet – Fingers and Toes, Ivoryton
Outstanding Set Design
Andromache Chalfant – Reverberation, Hartford Stage
Alexander Dodge – Kiss Me, Kate, Hartford Stage
Alexander Dodge – Private Lives, Hartford Stage
Chika Shimizu – The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Yale Rep
James Youmans – Ether Dome, Hartford Stage
Outstanding Lighting Design
David Lander – Ether Dome, Hartford Stage
John Lassiter – Fiddler on the Roof, Goodspeed
Tyler Micoleau – Elevada, Yale Rep
Matthew Richards – Hamlet, Hartford Stage
Matthew Richards – Reverberation, Hartford Stage
Outstanding Costume Design
Tracy Christensen – Guys & Dolls, Goodspeed
Jessica Ford – The Liar, Westport Country Playhouse
Fabio Toblini – Hamlet, Hartford Stage
Fabio Toblini – Kiss Me, Kate, Hartford Stage
Alejo Vietti – Holiday Inn, Goodspeed
Outstanding Sound Design
David Budries – Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Long Wharf
Kate Marvin – Elevada, Yale Rep
Adam Phalen – Forever, Long Wharf
Jane Shaw – Hamlet, Hartford Stage
Matt Tierney – The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Yale Rep
Cast of Altar Boyz – Playhouse on Park
Brandon Beaver, Nick Bernardi, Adam Cassel, Greg Laucella. Mark G. Merritt, Brock Putnam
Cast of Picasso at the Lapin Agile – Long Wharf
Penny Balfour, Grayson DeJesus, Tom Riis Farrell, Ronald Guttman, David Margulies, Dina Shihabi, Jake Silberman, Jonathan Spivey, Robbie Tann
Cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee –Playhouse on Park
Kevin Barlowski, Hillary Ekwall, Emily Kron, Steven Mooney, Maya Naff, Joel Newsome, Norman Payne, Natalie Sannes, Scott Scaffidi
Cast of Woody Sez – TheaterWorks
David Finch, David M. Lutken, Leenya Rideout, Helen J. Russell
Curtis J. Cook – Brownsville Song, Long Wharf
Carl Lundstedt – Reverberation, Hartford Stage
Dina Shihabi – Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Long Wharf
Brittany Vicars – Hamlet, Hartford Stage
By Karen Isaacs
Combine one of the classic musicals of all times — Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate — and a Tony-winning director — Darko Tresnjak — and you can expect a wonderful evening at the theater. Your expectations are not misplaced in this Hartford Stage production that runs through June 14.
Now, I did have a few quibbles, more in the vocal area than any other, but overall I was delighted.
When Cole Porter wrote the music and lyrics for this piece in 1948, many considered him “washed up” and unable to adapt to the new world of musicals heralded by Rodgers and Hammerstein. His earlier shows had been light on plot and often more like revues than the new “integrated” musicals.
In Kiss Me, Kate he showed the naysayers how wrong they were. Not only are the songs fully integrated into the plot but they display a variety of approaches for operetta-ish to comic to jazzy. Of course, we should also give credit to Bella and Samuel Spewack who wrote the book or libretto.
The show combines backstage shenanigans with a production of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, the problematic comedy about a shrewish woman subdued by her husband.
The show opens backstage as the company prepares for opening night in Baltimore where we soon meet the principal performers: Fred Graham who is attempting a comeback playing Petruchio, his ex-wife, the movie star Lilli Vanessi who will play Kate, as well as Bill Calhoun and Lois Lane, a nightclub team picked to play Lucentio and Bianca.
Soon the complications begin. Bill is a gambler who has forged Fred’s name on an IOU; Lilli and Fred reminisce and spar though she is involved with a mysterious man; Lois seems to be having a fling with Fred. So we are set for intrigue and jealousies.
Interspersed with the backstage events are scenes from the Shakespeare play which involves a father who will not let his younger daughter (Bianca) wed until his older daughter (Kate) does so. Unfortunately, Kate views most men as fools and is willing to control everyone with her bad temper. Among Bianca’s suitors is Lucentio whose friend Petruchio arrives from Padua with the goal of obtaining a wealthy wife. Who better than Kate which would free Bianca to wed? The unwilling Kate is wed and Petruchio plots a way to “tame her.”
Backstage, Lilli’s jealousy over Fred’s attentions to Lois causes her to quit the production, but she is prevented by two gangsters who have arrived to collect on the IOU. Though Fred initially denies it is his, he soon realizes they will help him keep Lilli in the show at least through the week.
The two settings — Italy centuries ago and 1940s United States — permitted Porter a wide range of musical choices of which he takes full advantage.
In the backstage numbers we have Broadway jazz and nightclub style songs — from “Why Can’t You Behave?” to “Another Openin’, Another Show” and the classic “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” During the Taming of the Shrew portions of the show, the songs are more classic from “I’ve Come to Wife it Wealthily in Padua” to “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?” but even here he throws in some more modern numbers — “Tom, Dick or Harry,” and “Bianca.” And Porter does not leave all the romantic ballads on stage — backstage we have “Wunderbar” and “So in Love.”
Tresjnak has taken a fresh approach to the show. In the “Shrew” portions of the show, he has played up many of the Shakespearean double entendres and emphasized the Elizabethan and commedia dell’arte sexual innuendo of the dialogue and lyrics. Even the setting by Alexander Dodge features a large nude male statue holding a triton that at certain angles is very suggestive.
Tresjnak with musical director Kris Kukul has adjusted some of the tempos of the numbers and varied from the standard interpretations.
The opening — “Another Openin’ Another Show” — does not start out as a up tempo number but begins more slowly as various cast and crew members assemble and greet each other on the bare stage. It slowly builds to the upbeat theater hymn that most of us remember. He does this with other numbers as well: Kate’s “I Hate Men” has an element of humor in that makes us realize she is not totally against the masculine sex.
It is this creativity that gives this Kiss Me, Kate a flair and a originality. Even the vision of Lilli’s suitor adds a touch of humor: General Harrison Howell definitely references General Douglas MacArthur.
Choreographer Peggy Hickey has combined elements of Broadway dance from the period and beyond including suggestions from the work of Michael Kidd and Bob Fosse. The latter actually appeared in the MGM film version of the show.
Overall the cast is excellent. Megan Sikora as Lois Lane/Bianca stole the show. She brought energy, humor and terrific singing and dancing to the part. Her counterpart — Bill Calhoun/Lucentio, played by Tyler Hanes has less to do and seemed at times to fade into the background. Sometimes I confused him with Bianca’s other two suitors.
The two leads — Anastasia Barzee as Lillie Vanessi/Kate and Mike McGowan as Fred Graham/Petruchio had strengths and weaknesses. Barzee’s voice tended to more vibrato than was necessary which made it feel as though she was straining to sound “operatic”. McGowan has a large voice but it seemed to lack the romantic tone that the part at times requires. He was also cursed with a hairstyle that was not particularly attractive. But aside from those quibbles they did develop chemistry — you felt the push-pull of a divorced couple who still cared for each other but perhaps cannot live with each other.
Charity Angel Dawson was excellent as Hattie — Lilli’s dresser and Joel Blum and Brendan Averett are hilarious as the two gangsters.
Alexander Dodge has created an authentic backstage area and made the “Shrew” set reflective of a 1940s production. Fabio Toblini’s costumes again bridge the gap.
This may not be the greatest production of Kiss Me, Kate but with its creative touches it is one that is thoroughly enjoyable. It is at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford through June 14. For tickets contact Hartford Stage
By Karen Isaacs
Edith Galt Wilson has sometimes been termed “the first female President” for how she shielded her husband Woodrow Wilson from his advisors and the world in 1919 after he suffered a stroke. Historians have painted a picture of a woman who during that period made important policy decisions in her husband’s name and signed his name to documents. Some have said, she was partly to blame that the US Senate refused to approve the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I and established the League of Nations. (The US never did join the League and never did sign the Treaty; Congress finally passed a separate resolution ending the hostilities).
So in our modern time when the idea of an elected woman president seems a real possibility — and with the partisan gridlock in Washington between Republicans and Democrats, the President and the Congress — looking at that period and those characters — Edith Wilson, Woodrow Wilson and the Senate leader Henry Cabot Lodge (a Republican) certainly could make interesting and thought-provoking theater.
This was long before the 25th amendment to the Constitution (ratified in 1967) which dealt with the difficult issues of presidential physical or mental incapacity and succession.
The Second Mrs. Wilson which is getting its world premier at Long Wharf attempts to explore this subject.
The play by Joe DiPietro is told in chronological order. It opens in 1915, when Wilson — a widower for less than a year — falls in love with Edith Galt, whose husband had left her a jewelry shop which she has successfully run. His close aides including Colonel House who had been with him for many, many years and his press secretary, Tumulty are less than enthusiastic. Wilson is facing a tough re-election campaign and the aides are concerned how the public will react to the romance; they obviously also had deep affection for Ellen Wilson, the former First Lady. We are also introduced to the animosity between Wilson and Sen. Lodge. Remember this is during WWI and Lodge publically castigates Wilson for not getting the US into the war even as German ships sink British boats (including the Lusitania) and kill American citizens.
At times, act one seems like a pleasant romantic comedy about a middle-aged couple finding a second chance at romance. The president is positively giddy with delight and desire. But DiPietro never really makes clear what the attraction — except perhaps physical — exists between the couple. In reality they did share interests in automobiles (still new fangled inventions) and golf. We do get a touch of some of Wilson ‘s medical problems: blinding headings, nervous strain and more. We also see his moral certitude: the war is wrong and he will not send American boys to die on foreign battlefields.
But it is also hard to swallow that Wilson would be seriously interested in Edith. He had a PhD in history and had served as president of Princeton University before becoming governor of New Jersey. Edith, in one of the early scenes, is totally oblivious to what is going in Europe (the war broke out in 1914) except that it will prevent her from going to Paris to buy couture gowns at the House of Worth. She is equally uninformed about the Constitution and the political system among other things.
But she is shown to be determined: she immediately decides she doesn’t like Colonel House and undermines him in Wilson’s eyes quickly and deftly. The woman had political skills. By the time the act ends they are married before the election, to the consternation of his advisors.
Act II finds us in early 1919. America did get into the war in 1917and American soldiers did die on foreign battlefields. Wilson now has another moral certitude: he has a plan to “end all wars” and 14 points that he wants in the peace treaty. So he and Edith are off to Paris where they are hailed and mobbed as heroes and he helps negotiate the Treaty of Versailles. Included in that Treaty is the outline for the League of Nations, Wilson’s plan for eliminating war. Historians will later point out that many of the punitive clauses of the Treaty were important factors in the rise of Hitler and subsequently, World War II.
As he and Edith return to the US, the real issue is Senate opposition — led by Lodge but not confined to either him or the Republicans — to the League. The argument was really one of sovereignty. One of the premises of the Covenant, as it was called, would require all nations to attack any nation that went to war. As Lodge and others pointed out, that is power granted by the US Constitution to Congress.
With Edith by his side, Wilson undertakes a grueling whistle stop campaign of speeches to drum up support for the war. It is during one of these that he suffers the stroke from which he never fully recovers.
Edith totally takes over. She allows no-one — not even Wilson’s closest advisors to see him; all official papers must go through her and she decides which she will discuss with him during his “good moments”. The stroke partially paralyzed him, and while did not necessarily severely affect his reasoning ability did both limit his speech and contributed to emotional outbursts. As his aides struggle to shield the press, the public and Congress from his condition, they are also attempting to find some compromise that would garner the necessary two-thirds majority to pass the treaty. Neither Edith nor Wilson are willing to move one inch.
The play ends with the Senate defeat of the Treaty. By the way, Wilson never fully recovered and died in 1921; Edith lived on in Washington until 1961.
If the first act plays like romantic comedy, act two cannot decide what its focus is: Edith and her bullying of everyone to protect and hide Wilson’s condition, or the fight to save the Treaty. It appears that DiPietro went for the first option. While one can understand Edith’s wifely devotion to Wilson and his dreams of the League, it is also appalling to modern audiences — her cavalier disregard for the spirit of the Constitution and her usurpation of the authority of the President. For that is exactly what she did: she made major policy decisions on her own authority and she forged Wilson’s signature on others.
Unfortunately in this play, the balance is off. The aides and even Senator Lodge are minimized as characters in the second half so that the issues are never really illuminated. Probably Edith did not allow a discussion but the audience doesn’t even really see the others discussing among themselves the realities of the situation.
With any creative work based on history, the author is allowed to some degree veer away from total historical accuracy. Though DiPietro does this in some significant ways, it is not egregious and does not substantially alter what went on.
The Long Wharf production, directed by Gordon Edelstein, features a lush set by Alexander Dodge that in the rear looks likes a gentleman’s club of the period replete with pool table. Linda Cho’s costumes are accurate for the period and the lighting by Christopher Akerlind creates the mood effectively.
Margaret Colin as Edith gives us a woman who knows how to use her Southern charm but is also a steel butterfly. In the early scenes you almost see her calculating her feelings for Wilson (which were more hesitant than his) with the prestige and status that would accrue. This woman is determined. Later on you feel her affection for Wilson and her influence on him. She begins to control him more and more and undermine his aides. It is clear she is enjoying the power and wants to use it fully.
John Glover gives us a Wilson that is focused on only two aspects of the man: his delight in his later-age romance and his moral certainty about his decisions leading to an unwillingness to compromise because God had ordained it. As he says to Lodge in the play, “how could any good Christian reject this covenant?” In the last half of act two, Glover is really limited to some childishly emotional outbursts as the stricken Wilson.
Harry Groener as Colonel House essentially disappears in act two; he could have been a foil to Edith and also helped illuminate the issue. Fred Applegate plays Joe Tumulty. The biggest disappointment is Nick Wyman as Senator Henry Cabot Lodge — he neither has the carriage nor the sound of a Boston Brahmin and he certainly does not convey the power of this man who in many ways was a certain of his “rightness” as Wilson was. Stephen Barker Turner is Dr. Cary Grayson, who is complicit with Edith in hiding the President’s condition.
Unfortunately, rather than give us a more substantive discussion of this relationship and its effect on the world, author Joe DiPietro has elected to make this a rather lightweight comedy. Too bad.
So if you want a romantic comedy dressed up as history, you may enjoy The Second Mrs. Wilson. If you would like a more substantive approach to the subject see if you can a copy of the book, When the Cheering Stopped OR a copy of the play, Edith by Kelly Masterson which covers much the same territory in a more thoughtful way.
The Second Mrs. Wilson is at Long Wharf through May 31. For tickets go to Long Wharf.
By Karen Isaacs
When Goodspeed Musicals announced they were producing Guys and Dolls as their opening show for the 2015 season, I was delighted.
Guys and Dolls is on my list of the best musicals ever — it ranks somewhere in the top ten — with terrific music and delicious story. And Goodspeed has an excellent reputation for taking these classics and making them more personal and touching — just remember what they have done with Carousel, Fiddler on the Roof, ShowBoat and others.
But I was disappointed. It is not the cast — though I have some reservations about some performers; no, my disappointment is more with the directorial concept by director Don Stephenson.
Guys and Dolls can be a comic strip — after all, the story is about the raffish gamblers and show girls that inhabit Times Square in some bygone era. Nathan Detroit, who runs a “floating” crap game is looking for a location for a game because some big rollers are in town. At the same time, he is trying to avoid the pressure of his fiancée, Miss Adelaide, to finally marry her after a 14 year engagement. When the very big roller Sky Masterson comes into town, Nathan hits about a scheme to get the needed funds to guarantee the game: he will bet that Sky cannot take the head of the local mission, Sarah Brown, to Havana.
This introduces us to the second plot — Sarah who is young and earnest but failing at attracting people to the “Save-a-Soul” mission. The mission is threatened with closing, but Sky offers to guarantee “one dozen sinners”. The offer is too good to pass up specially since Sarah is attracted to the good-looking gambler.
As the two plots intertwine, lots of great songs and some dances help propel to the two romances. Will Miss Adelaide finally get Nathan Detroit to the altar? Will Sky and Sarah overcome their differences? Everyone can predict the answers to both of these.
Frank Loesser who wrote the music and lyrics to this masterpiece, sprinkled the score with so many classics: from Miss Adelaide’s humorous songs (“Adelaide’s Lament,” “Marry the Man Today,” “Sue Me”) to Sky’s (“My Time of Day,” “Luck Be a Lady”), Miss Sarah and Sky’s duets (“I’ll Know,” “I’ve Never Been in Love Before”) to Miss Sarah’s solo (“If I Were a Bell.”) AND you then include the wonderful opening number “Fugue for Tinhorns,” the title song, and “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat.”
So what isn’t quite right about this production? First of all, the audience doesn’t get to see most of these characters as “people” — they are simple caricatures. You don’t sense that Nathan really loves Miss Adelaide. Even Miss Adelaide seems to be playing at love more than really in it. Her great number, “Adelaide’s Lament” seemed more shtick than real. Even Sarah seems all surface. The surface-only performances also goes to the supporting roles. Big Jule never seems really menacing, and even Nicely-Nicely is one dimensional.
The other problem is that there is no real chemistry developed between Sky and Sarah Brown. They are playing at romance and love; you don’t really believe it.
So director Stephenson has given us a surface production that while competent and enjoyable, does not let the audience really into the characters.
Scenic designer Paul Tate dePoo II has worked miracles at recreating the multiple locations of the story including the sewer where the big crap game ends up on the limited Goodspeed space. With lighting designer Stephen Terry, you do get the sense of Times Square at night.
Choreographer Alex Sanchez does a good job with Goodspeed’s small stage, even if the big dance number –“The Crapshooter’s Dance” doesn’t set the world on fire.
Of the cast members, Nancy Anderson was the obvious standout as Miss Adelaide. She came closest to creating a complete character. Mark Price as Nathan just did not fit my idea of either Nathan’s look or sound though in some ways he resembled Sam Levene who originated the role. Manna Nichols has a lovely voice as Sarah and Tony Roach has both handsome looks and a great voice as Sky; too bad they just didn’t seem to “click on stage.”
Guys and Dolls is a great musical that is getting a good but not great production at Goodspeed Musical Theater in East Haddam through June 20. You will enjoy the show even if you wish it were better.
For tickets visit Goodspeed or call 860-873-8668.
By Karen Isaacs
Little Shop of Horrors is a popular show for smaller theaters to produce. It doesn’t need a lot of sets and the small cast (6 on stage members plus the voice of Audrey II) makes it cost effective.
The production of the show at MTC (Music Theatre of Connecticut) through May 3 may not win any awards but it is a enjoyable time in the theater. It is particularly good for young people — five of the cast members are young adults, the music is a soft-rock and the story appeals to comedy and horror film fans.
If you don’t remember the musical or the film on which it was based, it tells the story of Seymour, a gawky clerk in a flower shop on skid row who is fascinated with exotic plants. One plant which he has named Audrey II begins to attract attention; it is some sort of Venus flytrap but he is not sure of what kind. He soon finds out.
Also working at the shop is Audrey, a young lady with low self-esteem and a tendency to date abusive guys; her current squeeze is a sadistic dentist.
The plot revolves learning what type of food the plant wants, watching it grow, and the budding success of the store due to the plant. Of course, the romance buds and grows also.
Probably the best known songs from the show which has book and lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken are “Somewhere That’s Green” and “Suddenly Seymour.”
This production, directed by artistic director Kevin Connors, presents the story clearly and pleasantly. The set by David Heuvelman uses a curtain that is pulled and opened — almost like a shower curtain — to reveal the inside of the shop. The costumes by Diane Vanderkroef captures the ’70s mood as well as the skid row setting — their taste level is “slightly tacky.” A three piece band led by Thomas Martin Conroy provides the accompaniment.
The cast is more than up to the requirements of the show. Inuka Ivaska, Kristian Espiritu and Gabrielle Lee play “The Supremes” like chorus that provides commentary, settings and the neighborhood girls. They do it with style.
Lou Ursone is Mushnik, the owner of the shop. I would have liked a little bit more energy in his performance. Peter McClung provides the sonorous voice of Audrey II and makes the plant sound truly terrifying.
Tony Lawson gets to ham it up in multiple roles including that of Audrey’s sadistic dentist, a reporter, an agent and everyone else. Sometimes they seem too similar.
As Audrey, Elissa DeMaria emphasizes the “ditzy” qualities of the young woman while also hinting at the loneliness she feels. As Seymour Anthony DiCostanzo turns from a gawky, clumsy geek to a young man.
However, what seems to be lacking in this production is real chemistry between Seymour and Audrey. You just don’t quite believe they are attracted to each other.
In fact, that is the general problem with this production — they sing the songs, they dance, they say the lines but you feel it is all surface. It is acting, not creating a reality.
But for a pleasant experience at an affordable price, Little Shop of Horrows can be a fun. It is MTC, 509 Westport Ave,, Norwalk, CT. For tickets visistMusicTheatreOfCt.com or call 203-454-3883.
The Bikinis, which is now at Long Wharf Theater through July 27, began life at Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theater in Chester. From there it has played around the country.
Yes, this is a jukebox show and no, it won’t push Jersey Boys off the charts. The Bikinis are a fictional Jersey girl group of the 1960s that had very limited and very local success. They made, according the story, exactly ONE record.
The conceit for this show is that they have come together after 20+ years to perform at a New Year’s Eve (the millennium, no less which allows for some Y2K jokes that are very dated) at the clubhouse of the Sandy Shores Mobile Home Beach Resort. Developers have offered a huge buyouts to the residents but the owners are split almost evenly about whether to take the money. A running gag — indicative of the level of humor — is the calling Sandy Shores a “trailer park” rather than a “mobile home resort.”
The four girls include Jodi ,a lawyer ,and her sister Annie who lives in the park — sorry, beach resort — and their friends Karla and Barbara from Staten Island. The first half of the show is about how the group got together and started performing in the mid 1960s.
This leads us to a variety of songs from the period including “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” “Be My Baby,” “Where the Boys Are,” “Under the Boardwalk,” up to their original song, “In My Bikinis.”
After intermission the group talks about how they grew apart as some went to college and some stayed in Jersey, and the changes in the era of flower children and hippies and the Vietnam War. From this period, the group performs a variety of hits including “Incense and Peppermints,” “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma,’ “Lay Down Candles in the Rain,” “Simple Song of Freedom,” “Last Dance,” and more.
The set (no designer is credited) is simple — two cabanas and a fence on which various props are hung. James Roderick does a good job with the relatively simple lighting. The piece is nicely directed and choreographed by Ray Roderick – who has directed at Goodspeed (Mame, My One and Only and others) — and who is also the co-creator and writer of the show with James Hindman. Both have extensive and excellent credits.
But what makes this show enjoyable are the talented performers, two of whom were in the original production.
Each of the performers score big with some solo numbers. Karyn Quakenbush who plays Karla does a terrific job with “Remember, Walking in the Sand,” and “Midnight Blue,” Regina Levert as the Staten Island Barbara scores big with “Heat Wave” and “Last Dance.” Lori Hammel (Jodi) gets to sing the beautiful “Goodbye to You,” while Valerie Fagan as her stage sister, Annie does “Lay Down Candles in the Rain.”
In addition, the harmonies of the group numbers are terrific.
Unfortunately there are some less than stellar parts of the show — the impersonation of Elvis and Nancy Sinatra don’t work, and the ending of the debate over the buyout over at the resort seemed forced. Was that whole “plot” really necessary?
But for those of us who grew up in the period or who have fond memories of the music, this is an enjoyable way to reminisce. Certainly the night I saw it, the mostly female audience was totally into it, often mouthing the lyrics or waving their arms in the air to the music.
The Bikinis is just right for a hot summer night.
The Bikinis is at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater through July 27. For tickets and information call the box office at 203-787-4282 or online.