Category Archives: Connecticut Theater – Current

TheaterWorks’ Production of Next to Normal Shatters Your Heart

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J. D. Daw, John Cardoza and Christiane Noll. Photo by Lonny Nagler

By Karen Isaacs

 Bravo – Rob Ruggiero! Bravo to the outstanding cast of Next to Normal now at TheaterWorks in Hartford through Sunday, May 14.

This is a fabulous production of a musical that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. The more intimate TheaterWorks venue increases our involvement in the story and our emotional attachment to the characters.

Next to Normal tells the story of Diana, a wife and mother who has battled bipolar disorder and depression for years. Her illness has impacted both her teenage daughter, Natalie, and her husband, Dan. She’s tried multiple therapies, physicians and medications; some of them work, some of them cause serious side effects and most of them cease to be helpful over time.

Her illness is characterized by seeing visions of Gabe – their son who died at 8 months of age, nearly 18 years ago. He seems to constantly be around her and he comments on the action.

This is, as one audience member said at intermission “not ‘My Fair Lady.’”

But in the capable hands of the cast and Ruggiero it is a show that will tug at your emotions. No one is the “bad guy” – not the doctors, not Diana, not Dan and not Gabe. Each is trapped in his or her own world.

Tom Kitt (composer) and Brian Yorkey (libretto and lyrics) have crafted a tight story that propels us along. In the beginning it takes time for us to realize that Gabe is his mother’s vision and not a real character and longer for us to learn what had happened.

As with any serious and chronic illness, the entire family feels the impact. Natalie feels overlooked and ignored because so much of the attention is on her mother and the mother’s mental state. She feels unloved by her mother who, perhaps as a defense mechanism after her son’s death, was reluctant to form an attachment with the baby. Diana has missed multiple events in Natalie’s life.

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Christiane Noll and David Harris. Photo by Lonny Nagler

Dan has tried to compensate to Natalie, but his energy is also focused on helping his wife get well, accompanying her to various doctor’s appointments and trying to balance job, marriage and family.

Natalie does develop a healthy relationship with Henry, a teenage boy who provides some of the support and attention she obviously needs. But she is fearful that she may follow her mother’s path.

The story of Diana’s struggle with mental health leads to her trying ECT, what is often called electro-shock therapy which seems to help some. But who know what the long term prognosis will be. The doctors say her condition is chronic and can only be managed, not cured.

What makes this production so outstanding is the cast and the atmosphere developed by Ruggiero. He has used the aisles of the theater to bring us closer to the action. We see characters standing in the aisle observing the action just as we are.

The only time I have seen the show was the touring production that played the Bushnell several years ago. While well done, the huge theater and the huge stage created a gulf between the characters and the audience that diminished the emotional impact. That and the amplification of the sound made everything feel disembodied.

Here, we are close to the stage. We can see the expressions on the faces of the characters, we do not need blaring amplification to catch every word of both dialogue and songs. While the show is often described as a “rock” show, here much of the music seems gentler and softer.

Christane Noll who has received Tony nominations gives a subtle performance as Diana and makes the most of every song from the humorous “My Psychopharmacologist and I” to the touching “You Don’t Know” and “I Dreamed a Dance”.

Her performance is matched by David Harris as Dan, her husband. You may remember him as Billy Crocker in Goodspeed’s Anything Goes or Valjean in the Connecticut Rep’s Les Mis. Here he is tender and caring yet weary of the burdens. He and Noll are terrific in the duet “A Light in the Dark”

Maya Keleher who plays Natalie is making her professional debut. Based on this

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Maya Keleher, John Cardoza, Nick Sacks. Photo by Lonny Nagler

performance of the often uncertain teenager, you can predict a successful career for her. She shows us all sides of Natalie and handles the songs well. Nick Sacks who plays Henry is also a relative newcomer (a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon) and also displays great talent. He makes Henry both gawky and touching. You believe their young love. The duet between Sacks and Keleher, “Perfect for You” and his with Harris “A Promise” are terrific.

John Cardoza has the difficult role as Gabe, Diana’s vision. It would be too easy for Gabe to become “creepy” with his often silent, hovering presence, but Cardoza doesn’t let it happen. He is a benign memory or “ghost”. J. D. Daw plays two of the medical people that Diana sees.

Wilson Chin has created one of TheaterWorks’ most elaborate sets with a turntable that allows the scenes to flow smoothly. The set features many household items including multiple table lamps, perhaps signifying the need to bring into the light the issues involving mental illness. He is aided by the lighting design of John Lasiter.

Tribute must be given to musical director Adam Souza who has helped the singers make the most of the songs as well as conducting the six piece orchestra that is hidden back stage. Ed Chapman has balanced the sound system beautifully.

Next to Normal may not be the show for everyone due to its subject matter, but it is a show for anyone who wants to see an outstanding production of a touching and moving theatrical work.

Next to Normal is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl Street, Hartford through Sunday, May 14.  For tickets visit TheaterWorks or call 860-527-7838.

This material is courtesy of Shore Publishing and zip06.

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David Harris, Christiane Noll, Maya Keleher. Photo by Lonny Nagler

“The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” Is Moving, Terrific One-Man Show

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Photo by Matthew Murphy

By Karen Isaacs

Please get to Hartford Stage to see T”he Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” which is running through April 23.

It is an absorbing and touching play that will leave you shaken at the wasted lives. But it will also make you appreciate others more.

It is a one man show, but you will think the stage is populated by many people. That’s due to the brilliance of James Lecesne who both developed this play and performs it.

He frames this story as an old-fashioned detective story which helps to keep you totally engaged. He plays Chuck DeSantis, a detective in a quiet southern Jersey shore town. One day, a local hairdresser and her teenage daughter show up to report that Leonard Pelkey, the teenage nephew of the woman, has been missing for almost 24 hours.

In the next taut 70 minutes, the detective pursues first the missing person case and later, unfortunately, the murder case; the boy is found dead in a lake. During the process of investigating the case, he meets and interviews a number of people; the widow of a local mobster, the British man who with his wife runs a local drama school, some teenagers, and of course the aunt and her daughter.

Each time, Lscesne with just a change in voice, posture, accent and a few gestures, turns himself into each character. And we learn more and more about this boy, who was too “out there” for his own safety. He not only was gay but embraced a flamboyant lifestyle.

What we also learn is how Leonard touched the lives of all of the people interviewed. Yes, he was outrageous, but he also was himself.  He wasn’t going to tone down or hide who he was. He was comfortable with himself and he wanted others to be also.

It is not that he radiated goodness, but that he had, as Lecesne says “an absolute brightness.” He helped people be more comfortable with whom they were; they received a measure of courage from his willingness to be so true to himself.

It wasn’t that his life was perfect. As an outsider, he was bullied and made fun of, yet he did not return it in kind; instead he helped others be there better selves.

All too often, one person plays are static. One character talks to the audience with the occasional artificial interruption of a telephone call or doorbell. Yet, the best one-person plays, have multiple characters and dialogue that makes us believe two or more people are conversing.

This is what Lecesne gives us. In the program notes, Lescene explains that in the young adult novel of the same name which was published in 2008, the story was told by Phoebe, Leonard’s cousin. When he wrote the play, he decided to make the detective the story teller. It gives the show the added bonus of seemingly being like one of the great Hollywood film noir stores; the experienced detective, who can tell us his impressions of the people he meets. Plus we get some great lines reminiscent of any Phillip Marlowe novel.

Lecesne explains that the title refers first to the astronomical term defined as “the total amount of light produced by a star irrespective of its distance from an observer.” But here, he is using it a metaphor for how each of us “brings a particular brightness to every situation, and regardless of whether other people notice it or not, it’s still there.”

In this production is not only the absolute brightness of Leonard Pelkey that shines; it is the absolute brightness of James Lecesne that also shines.

You leave the play emotionally moved by the story and excited by the outstanding production.

It runs through April 23 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. For tickets visit Hartford Stage.

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Photo by Matthew Murphy

 

“Smart People” at Long Wharf Will Cause Mixed Reactions.

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 Lydia R. Diamond’s play “Smart People” now at Long Wharf Theater through April 9 is a two hour discussion or race and gender: it is sometimes funny, sometimes thought-provoking and sometime pedantic.

How you will react to the play will depend on how insightful you feel the points made are.

It is set in Cambridge, between 2007-2009 which coincides with the candidacy and election of Barack Obama and the run of Hillary Clinton for the nomination.

A little quibble, early in the play a character refers to “he” and who will vote for “him”. If you haven’t read the program notes, you may think it is referring to our current President.

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Peter O’Connor. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

We meet four people — all well-educated, three of them and possibly the fourth, have a connection to Harvard.  We have Brian White (yes, he is Caucasian), who is neuroscientist. He is aiming for tenure but his research is ruffling feathers exacerbated by his outspokenness in the media. His research is attempting to prove that a racism is inherent in the brains of people.

Ginny Yang is a brilliant psychologist who received tenure at an amazingly young age. Part Chinese and part Japanese, her research and clinical practice revolve around the problems of Asian-American women in the U.S.

We also meet two African-Americans. Valerie Johnston is an aspiring actress with an MFA.  Jackson Moore is a physician who is in a neurosurgery residency program.

We meet each of these characters in brief scenes that establish them. We see White teaching a freshman level course which he views as “punishment.”  He feels most of the students are stupid. We see Yang in a therapy session with a Chinese woman who keeps reverting to Chinese.

Moore is responding to being questioned by an older physician about a toe amputation he did; he responds angrily. And Johnston is in rehearsal of “Julius Caesar” and finding the director overly controlling.

Soon White and Yang are interacting and Moore and Johnston are interacting. At times it takes on the feeling of a romantic comedy. Johnston and White also interact.

We learn how each views the world through the prism of their race, gender and experiences. We see Yang encountering sales clerks who she views as not taking her serious as a customer.  Even when Johnston first meets Moore (she is in the ER for a cut on her forehead that requires stitches), she asks if she will merit seeing a doctor.

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Peter O’Connor and Ka-Ling Cheung. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

What is most interesting about the characters is that they often conform to the stereotypes: Moore gets angry and often seems to lose control; it is clear that he sees a racial undertone to the criticism he receives. Johnston decides to clean houses to pay her rent while waiting for her acting break. Yang is an overachiever who admits she doesn’t “do nurturing” well, and White, despite his views and research on racism, blunders around often inadvertently sounding very racist or condescending.

While very well acted, the play does not really shed any new ideas to the discussion. Even Yang’s comment during a dinner party where White and Johnston and Moore are discussing race is obvious. She draws attention to the fact that while those three are arguing/discussing they are ignoring not only her as an Asian -American but also the realities of other minorities in the US — Native Americans, Latinos and other.

It is true that in America, most discussions about race are centered on the two.

My concern is that people will leave this play feeling that they have had a meaningful discussion of these issues. The issue of what is called “implicit bias” based on subtle cognitive processes below the conscious level is an interesting field of discovery; though it does seem to offer an “easy answer” to bias – we can’t do much about it because it is inborn and unconscious.

The cast four are excellent and work well together. Ka-Ling Cheung is Ginny Yang whose Chinese patient views as “white”. Tiffany Nichole Greene is Valerie Johnson while Sullivan Jones gives us the combative Jackson Moore and Peter O’Connor is the sometimes fumbling Brian White. Director Desdemona Chiang has kept the scene shifts, storylines and combinations of characters moving cinemagraphically.

You will either the find this play, disturbing and thought provoking, or you may, like me, view it as pretending to be more meaningful than it actually is.

Smart People is at Long Wharf Theater, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, through April 9. For tickets visit Long Wharf or call 800-782-8497.

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Tiffany Nichole Greene and Sullivan Jones. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

“Napoli, Brooklyn” – Attempts More than It Achieves

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 Napoli, Brooklyn is getting its world premiere on Long Wharf’s main stage through March 12 in a co-production with New York’s Roundabout Theatre. It will open at its Laura Pels Theater in May.

The play is set in Brooklyn in the fall of 1960. It centers on the three daughters of Luda and Nic Muscolino, both immigrants from Italy. The daughters range from 16 to early 20s and each is not only very different but “a type.”  Vita is the eldest daughter with a strong independent streak who is willing to speak her mind without regard for the consequences.  Tina is the middle girl who dropped out of school and works in a box factory. Francesca is the youngest; still a teenager she already knows she is a lesbian.

Nic, their father, is a violent and angry man who lashes out and resorts to attacks against his wife and his daughters. His abuse is not just verbal but also physical. Luda, his wife, is worn down but resigned to the situation. Their Catholic faith plays a major role in their lives.

While playwright Meghan Kennedy talks a great deal in the program notes about multiple ideas, none of these really resonate in this play which could be any made-for-TV movie. She tries to bring in the civil rights movement (Tina is friends with a black woman at work), the women’s liberation movement (The Feminine Mystique) wasn’t published until 1962), and the current debate over immigration.

She has set the play around the mid-air collision of a United Airways and a TWA jet; the United plane crashed in Park Slope killing all 128 on board and six people on the ground; the resulting fire destroyed 10 apartment buildings. It happened just nine days before Christmas.

The only apparent reason for bring the crash into the play is to have a spectacular first act curtain, and to supposedly motivate some changes in Nic and Connie, Francesca’s friend.

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Alyssa Bresnaha. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Early in the play, Luda, again for reasons that never become clear, is both angry with God and also upset because she can no longer cry when she cuts into an onion. We learn about some of the recent events in the family: Francesca and Connie are planning on running away (to France) by stowing away on a boat; they seem physically attracted to each other. Vita is in a convent, but she is not planning on being a nun; Luda sent her there to be “safe.” Tina, who appears stoic and placid is making a friend at work with Celia, the married African-American woman. There’s even a hint that Luda enjoys flirting with Albert Duffy, the butcher who is Connie’s father and is apparently widowed.

We also learn that Nic’s reaction when Francesca cut her long hair was so violent that Vita stepped in between, threatened her father and was beaten by him resulting in severe injuries. That’s why Luda has sent her away – to be safe from her father.

After the crash, Nic has apparently totally changed – rather than angry and violent, he appears placid and easy-going. Connie has changed her mind about leaving with Francesca because her brother was killed in the crash, and Celia is bunking on the couch since her husband was killed also. It seems too coincidental that though only six people on the ground were killed, two were intertwined with the family.

It is these odd events that keep you guessing and finally leave you dissatisfied. Because, though it is all neatly wrapped up at the end; you don’t necessarily believe any of it.

The cast, under the direction of Gordon Edelstein, does its best to make these characters believable and their actions motivated.  Alyssa Bresnahan does yeoman’s work as the mother, keeping a slight accent. She does her best to help us see why this woman stays and protects her daughters.  Jason Kolotouros gives us a Nic that is a stereotype of the violent, angry man. He reminds us of Stanley Kowalski but without the redeeming features that Stanley can have. His final decision seems totally out of character.

Local resident Jordyn DiNatale is the teenage Francesca. She captures the gawkiness, the certainty and the neediness of the character. She tries so hard to make her father like her; even hinting at her lesbianism as though that would make him view her as the son he always wanted.

Christina Pumariega is the stoic Tina who slowly begins to assert herself. Of the three daughters she seems the most passive; yet, she too begins to reveal an independent streak.

As Vita, Carolyn Braver plays the character as the emerging feminist, though that term was not particularly used.

Graham Winton, Ryann Shane and Shirine Babb play the three other characters: the butcher Albert Duffy, his daughter Connie; and Tina’s work friend, Celia. They do the best they can with roles that are only minimally developed and whose actions seem unmotivated.

Lighting designer Ben Stanton did an excellent job including putting Christmas lights all around the theater; as well as the lighting effects for the plane crash. In addition, the lighting helps define and identify the various locations in the play. Fitz Patton, the sound designer contributes to the effect.  Eugene Lee’s set shows us a typical apartment that also can turn into the factory, the butcher shop, the convent and more.

Napoli, Brooklyn is a play that attempts to do a lot more than it succeeds in doing. It creates some characters that you can care about, but then leaves too many questions dangling. It is at Long Wharf Theatre through March 12. For tickets visit Long Wharf.

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Some May Find “Sunset Baby” Depressing

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Tony Todd and Brittany Bellizeare. Photo by Lonny Nalger

By Karen Isaacs

 Sunset Baby now at TheaterWorks in Hartford through Feb. 19 may shock you, upset you or leave you with mixed emotions.

At the heart of this play is a father-daughter relationship that has been fractured, probably beyond repair. But it also about how some people survive by hardening their hearts and abandoning the better side of themselves. In the program notes, the playwright asks “how can my generation be so brilliant and so self-destructive at the same time?”

The play opens with the father, Kenyatta, who serves occasionally as a narrator or commentator. But soon we are in the small apartment that Nina and Damon share. It is definitely in the low rent district, apparently in Brooklyn but it could be any large city. We see her getting dressed and from her apparel – short, short skirt, thigh-high boots, we can assume that she is a prostitute. Kenyatta rings the bell and she lets him in.

It is clear that they have not seen each other for many, many years and that they have practically no relationship. In fact, she is quite angry with him. Where has he been all these years? For some of the time he was in jail. It’s not clear exactly why he was in jail, but there are hints that he was imprisoned for some sort of black radical or revolutionary actions. Nina’s mother (and his wife) has recently died and Nina has inherited some letter that her mother had written him while he was imprisoned. He wants to read them.

Unanswered are why the mother had the letters – were they never mailed? Returned by prison authorities? What is also unclear is why these letters apparently are worth a good deal of money. Was Kenyatta well known for his actions? Was his wife also an activist and well known?  But apparently publishers are making Nina various offers for thousands of dollars.

The apartment buzzer keeps ringing as Damon, her current boyfriend, is waiting for her. Eventually she goes down to meet him. As the play progresses we learn more, but not enough to make this play totally successful. Nina and Damon are hustlers who rob men who think she is a prostitute. But they have a dream of getting enough money to leave and perhaps settle in a foreign country. Nina, however, keeps changing where she would like to live based on the Travel Channel, and the stash never seems sufficient.

The two don’t totally trust each other either. Damon doesn’t understand about the letters and their supposed value; he is shocked to find that Nina has appropriated some of their savings. But they do have a true relationship; Damon was with her as she took care of her mother – who had become a crack addict – as she was dying.

Kenyatta appeals to Damon to try to talk Nina into letting him read the letters. In the climactic scene Nina and Kenyatta meet yet again. Adhering to Chekhov’s purported statement that if a gun appears in act one it must be used; she robs him instead.

So much is left unanswered in this play. From why Kenyatta was jailed, to why the letters are valuable and to what the letters contain. This missing information makes Sunset Baby less satisfying.

Yet playwright Dominique Morisseau has some nice touches. Nina either doesn’t remember or has blocked various memories of her and her father. Late in this one-act play, Kenyatta recounts some of these including taking her to see sunsets in San Francisco. Earlier, Nina has claimed to never have seen a sunset.

Nina is fueled by anger at her father for everything from not being there to not providing child support. It’s clear she blames him for her mother’s descent into addiction.

Another problem is that this play tries to touch on so many issues. One is guilt; Kenyatta seems to feel guilty about what has happened. Another is dreams – are they possible to have when you are in difficult circumstances or do they hurt you too much?  A third issue is fatherhood and fatherly love. What does it mean and how do you make up for a lack of it?

Director Reginald L. Douglas and his talented cast have compensated for the many unanswered questions by giving us a taut and dynamic production. The set design by Alexander Woodward puts us immediately in the run down, small walk up apartment. I also liked the sound design by Julian Evans and the selection of recorded music – most sung by Nina Simone – that he and the director used.

Tony Todd as Kenyatta shows us a man who is aging, trying to atone for past actions and is surprisingly unguarded. Brittany Bellizeare as Nina combines the hardened woman trying to survive with the child wishing that things had been different. Carlton Byrd’s Damon is part street hustler and part caring friend and lover.

Morisseau has created complex characters – all three of them are intelligent and well read, yet Nina and Damon have selected a life that preys on others. At one point she juxtaposes two terms: ‘social junk” and “social dynamite;” it brought to mind the Langston Hughes poem, “Harlem” that opens with “what happens to a dream deferred.”

Some will find the language raw – the “N” word is used frequently as well as multiple swear words. Others will find the play depressing; after all it does not seem that the dreams of any of the characters will come true.

Yet, Sunset Baby, despite the language and the unanswered questions, is a play that you will think about after you leave the theater.

Sunset Baby is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford through February 19. For tickets call 860-527-7838 or visit TheaterWorks.

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Carlton Byrd and Brittany Bellizeare. Photo by Lonny Nagler.

 

Judy Garland and Dorothy: the making of a star -“Chasing Rainbows” at Goodspeed

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Ruby Rakos as Judy Garland. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

By Karen Isaacs

 Chasing Rianbows the Road to Oz is a rare thing for Goodspeed – a new musical.

Recently the new musicals on the main stage have been adaptations of well-known films — It’s a Wonderful Life and last year Holiday Inn which is now on Broadway. It did not even have a workshop at their Terris Theater in Chester though some of its development was at the Johnny Mercer Writing Colony at Goodspeed.

Chasing Rainbows, running through Nov. 27, is a must for all Judy Garland and Wizard of Oz fans. It tells the story of Judy’s rise from her beginnings in Minnesota with her mother, father and two older sisters who all perform (the three sisters were known as The Gumm Sisters), to her early struggles in Hollywood and finally her casting as Dorothy.

It is poignant not just because Judy’s childhood was not ideal — though not unloving or abusive — but because we all know the later part of her life. So we cringe when her mother and others tell her she isn’t pretty, or when the studio offers pills to help her lose weight.  We know what is to come.

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The three young Gumm Sisters with father Frank. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

The show opens with the family performing in Grand Rapids, Minnesota in 1928 where the family owns a movie theater with vaudeville acts; soon the “young” Judy — who looks about 5– and her sisters morph into their older selves. They leave Minnesota for Hollywood under mysterious circumstances that later become clear. From the presence of the town folk and police as they leave, it seems as though they are being run out of town. But why?

They settle in eastern California where Judy’s father, Frank has purchased a rundown movie theater. We are now in the early ‘30s — the depression is raging and soon Mom feels stifled in the small town so she takes the girls and heads to Hollywood. The plan is for Judy to get a movie contract and help support the family.

Somehow Judy ends up in a studio school where she meets the teenage boy who will be renamed Mickey Rooney and others. Competition is rampant; Judy hasn’t succeeded at getting anywhere so Mom finds an engagement at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933. The engagement is a bust BUT they get booked at the Oriental Theater where headliner George Jessel “discovers” Judy — still at this point Frances Gumm – and gives her the last name of Garland.

Back in Hollywood, Judy gets to sing at a black tie party thanks to Mickey where she catches the attention of a composer/pianist and L.G. Mayer’s powerful secretary. It leads to a contract.

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Michael Wartella as Mickey Rooney and Ruby Rakos as Judy. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

Act 2 finds Judy under contract but not being used except to sing on the radio. L. B. Mayer didn’t like her looks – not glamorous or conventionally beautiful – and her adult sounding voice. She was barely in her early teens; too old for the cure kids roles and not ready for romantic lead roles. She was the “girl next door,” but the thought was that movie audiences didn’t want the girl-next-door, they wanted unobtainable girls.

Her big break comes when she sings at a studio bash to celebrate Clark Gable’s birthday; Judy sings the special arrangement and lyrics for “You Made Me Love You”. Soon there is talk of using her in The Wizard of Oz. The rest is history, though the show concludes with Judy convincing Mayer that the blonde wig and glamourous clothes that were planned for Dorothy were all wrong. During this time, her father move in with the family – the movie theater was a bust and there was another incident due to the father’s attraction to men. He dies while Judy is performing on the radio.

Music for the show comes from the MGM catalogue and of course, includes iconic songs from The Wizard of Oz. But not all the songs are familiar; many are more obscure songs that were used in various movies by the studio. The range of composers and lyricists is a “Who’s Who” of Hollywood talent – Arthur Freed, Walter Donaldson, Jimmy McHugh, Dorothy Fields, Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, Rodgers and Hart – as well as lesser knowns. The music has been adapted and arranged by David Libby.

The show was conceived by Tina Marie Casamento Libby, a Garland and Hollywood musical aficionado who worked with book writer Marc Acito with help from John Fricke, who is billed as creative consultant/historian; he has authored a number of books and articles about Garland. As with any fictionalized work, some events have been changed and some characters changed.

Any show about Judy Garland, lives and dies with the actress playing the role. It is a

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Ruby Rakos as Judy Garland. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

difficult task because she was an iconic, larger-than-life performer who is etched in almost everyone’s memory. Ruby Rakos has that nearly impossible job and in many ways she succeeds admirably. She captures a great deal of the qualities that made Garland’s voice unique without giving us an imitation of her. Rakos’ real problem is more about size. Garland was petit in height, barely 5 feet tall. Rakos is taller. So though in much of the show she is supposed to be preteen or early teens, she appears much older. When at one point, her mother mentions Judy is just 13, it was a surprise; she looked mid to late teens.

Rakos is surrounded by a talented cast, many of whom play multiple roles. Kevin Earley plays Garland’s father with a hint of the conflicted man who struggles to succeed and to be himself. It is he who first sings “I’m Always Chasing Rainbow” in the first act and he scores with his rendition. Later he and Rakos get “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love.” He has a clear light baritone voice.

Sally Wilfert plays Garland’s mother, Ethel. Ethel can remind you of Mama Rose with her determination and bluntness; she is determined but you also see her love for her husband, despite his troubles.

Michael Wartella is Mickey Rooney and is certainly captures Rooney’s brashness and talent – Wartella sings and dances very well; but again he is too tall for the role. Many members of the cast play multiple roles such as Gary Milner who plays both Jessel but the composer/pianist who takes Judy under his wing at MGM. I must also mention Karen Mason who is Mayer’s starchy secretary who convinces him to give a Judy a contract and then plots to get her roles. Michael McCormick brings humor role to Mayer who was, as many Hollywood studio heads were, for his non-sequitors.

As with any jukebox musical, and this is basically what Chasing Rainbows is, in the mode of Jersey Boys and Mama Mia!, sometimes the songs feel forced into the plot – either the lyrics or the emotion don’t quite fit the characters or plot. Many of the lesser known songs selected are not well known for a reason – they are not just that interesting or memorable.

As is usual with Goodspeed productions, all elements from the orchestra to the set design which has to suggest numerous locations, lighting, costumes and sound are top notch. Also excellent is the choreography by Chris Bailey and the direction by Tyne Rafaeli.

Chasing Rainbows is not yet a finished product and it is hard to guess what its future will be. From the program insert, changes have already been made during its run and Goodspeed and more will continue to be. It is a must show for all Garland fans; for others it may depend on your interest in obscure movie musical songs and the “becoming a star” format.

It is a Goodspeed through Nov. 27. For tickets visit goodspeed.org or call 860-873-8668.

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The cast of  Chasing Rainbows – The Road to Oz.  Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

Long Wharf’s Artistic Directors Look Back on 50 Years

Arvin Brown, Jon Jory, Gordon Edelstein, Doug Hughes

Arvin Brown, Jon Jory, Gordon Edelstein, Doug Hughes

By Karen Isaacs

 The four artistic directors who have helped Long Wharf Theater win acclaim during its 50 years history, looked back on that history on June 7 with moderator Colin McEnroe of WNPR.

Jon Jory(1965-67) founded the theater with Harlan  Kleiman. After leaving Long Wharf, he went on to become the producing director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville and served as artistic director of the Humana Festival of New American Plays.

Arvin Brown (1967-1998) was hired by Jory while still a student at Yale Drama School to work with the apprentice program and children’s theater but was soon directing plays.  When Jory left, Brown took over as Artistic Director and worked closely with Managing Director  Edgar Rosenblum to establish Long Wharf’s national and international reputation. Under their guidance, Long Wharf won a Tony for best regional theater. Now Brown directs a variety of television projects  and series episodes.

Doug Hughes (1997-2001) had a comparatively short tenure at Long Wharf leaving after some disagreements with the board.  He has gone on to a successful career directing on Broadway and off-Broadway including winning a Tony award for Doubt and he currently works with the Manhattan Theater Club.

Gordon Edelstein (2002 to present) has seen several productions move to off-Broadway (My Name is Asher Lev, Satchmo at the Waldorf) and other theaters (The Glass Menagerie); he has also worked extensively with Athol Fugard.

Some highlights of the panel:

 The beginnings:

Jon Jory

Jon Jory

ory and Kleiman combed the pages of the New Haven Register and developed a list of people who attended benefits for arts organizations. They then “cold” called them to raise the initial $125,000 needed to renovate the space and start the theater.  When they had raised $85k they decided to go ahead, hoping that the donors would not let the venture fail.

            The Crucible was the first play produced by the new Long Wharf Theater in 1965.  There was no theatrical lighting for that initial production.  It was summer production.

Arvin Brown had never directed a full-length play when Jon Jory asked him to direct A Long Day’s Journey into Night with Mildred Dunnock and he worried that she and the rest of the cast would guess his inexperience.  When years later she learned about it, she was shocked.

Jory recounted that it wasn’t until he was in rehearsal for Moliere’s A Doctor in Spite of Himself that he learned from someone that he was using a translation geared for high school students.

The role of the artistic director and director:

“I think of myself as a placeholder for the audience,” Hughes said. As a director, he becomes obsolete once the audience is there. In shaping a season, Hughes said his aim was to make my enthusiasms contagious.”

“My job is to create an atmosphere where the actor’s artistry can flower,” Brown said.

Jory who feels that the audience was most important in a comedy, also believes that directors work on “infinitesimal” moments in a play. “You are at your peril if you become the audience.”

“You and the cast must have an original agreement on what you are trying to accomplish,”  Jory said.

What Long Wharf audiences expect and complain about:

Gordon Edelstein

Gordon Edelstein

Seasons that are literate, open, honest — Edelstein.  “You get complaints about everything” and referred to the scene between the puppets in The Long Xmas Ride Home and the urination in The Curse of the Starving Class.

Brown mentioned audience consternation at the ritual killing in Afore Night Comes as something that upset audiences.

Audiences at theaters like Long Wharf, Jory said have a different relationship with material because of their relationship with the theater itself. It is often almost proprietary.

Edelstein also mentioned the strong response to 16 Wounded which dealt with the Palestinian -Israeli conflict. The audience was so divided that one night two people almost came to blows in the lobby.

There is always an underground river in a play, Hughes said, and Long Wharf audiences accept that and are engaged by it.

Role of theater in society

Doug Hughes

Doug Hughes

“People are awakened to how they actually feel,” Hughes said.  “The stage is a microscope which gives audiences the gift of focus.  It awakens them to how they really feel.”

Violence on stage “is visceral in a way we’ve lost in other media,” Brown said. He referenced the  production of Streamers which actually saw people “pass out” in the theater due to the immediacy of the violence.

Memorable moments:

Stage II opened with the world premier of Wit which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, during Hughes’ tenure.

The production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? starring Mike Nichols (who had directed the Oscar winning film) and Elaine May, his former comedy partner.  Arvin Brown directed. He recounted that the initial reading was terrific but that Nichols announced that his theory of directing was to work on Act One until it was perfect, and then the other acts “would fall into place.”  So that was what they did. The result was that the last act was not performed until one of the final rehearsals.

Arvin Brown

Arvin Brown

An additional moment from that production — Edward Albee saw the final run through. Afterwards, he said to Nichols, “When you were doing the film you said you had insight into the play. [pause]  I’m still waiting.”

For Hughes it was The Importance of Being Ernest with Christopher Evan Welch, Tony winner Jefferson Mays as Jack and Edward Hibbard as Lady Bracknell.

American Buffalo with Al Pacino was the moment for Brown.

Doug Hughes first saw a play at Long Wharf when he drove down from Harvard to see Lillian Hellman’s Autumn Gardens.  Brown added that when Hellman came to see the show, he took her the old Leon’s; when she complained to a waitress about the preparation of a dish and told the waitress to “go back and tell the chef,”  the waitress replied, “Honey, you go back and tell him.”

Jory said it was the first show, The Crucible.

            For Edelstein it was getting new plays from Athol Fugard.

Although the forum lasted just 90 plus minutes, you had the feeling that the four could have gone on telling stories and discussing their views of theater for so much longer.  You wanted to hear them.

LW AD on stage

CT Critics Circle Give Multiple Award Nominations to Hamlet, Fiddler on the Roof, Arcadia, Kiss Me Kate and The Liar

Thomasina and Septimus Hodge in "Arcadia" at Yale Rep. Photo by Joan Marcus

Thomasina and Septimus Hodge in “Arcadia” at Yale Rep. Photo by Joan Marcus

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

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.

Holiday Inn. Linda (Patti Murin) and Ted (Noah Racey). Photo by Diane Sobolewski

Holiday Inn. Linda (Patti Murin) and Ted (Noah Racey). Photo by Diane Sobolewski

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

Reverberation. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Reverberation. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

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

The Second Mrs. Wilson. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The Second Mrs. Wilson. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

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

The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Photo by Carol Rosegg

The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Photo by Carol Rosegg

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

Guys and Dolls. Miss Adelaide and Nathan Detroit. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

Guys and Dolls. Miss Adelaide and Nathan Detroit. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

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

Kiss Me, Kate

Kiss Me, Kate

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

Fiddler on the Roof. Photos by Diane Sobolewski

Fiddler on the Roof. Photos by Diane Sobolewski

Noah Marlowe – Holiday Inn, Goodspeed

John Payonk – Fiddler on the Roof, Goodspeed

Nick Reynolds – Hairspray, STONC

 Outstanding  Choreographer

Richard Amelius – All Shook Up, Ivoryton

All Shook Up

All Shook Up

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

Kiss Me, Kate. Photos by T. Charles Erickson

Kiss Me, Kate. Photos by T. Charles Erickson

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

 Outstanding  Ensemble

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

Outstanding  Debut

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

“Woody Sez”, “Newsies” in Connecticut and Broadway Readings

Inside notes and comments about Connecticut and New York Professional Theater

By Karen Isaacs

Newsies on Tour:  The first Connecticut appearance of the national tour of Newsies which is closing on Broadway this August, isn’t at the Bushnell or the Shubert.  The honor goes to Waterbury’s Palace Theater where the tour will play Oct. 23 to 25, just four performances.  Tickets are now on sale. For tickets, visit http://www.palacetherct.org or call 203-646-2000.  The Broadway series will continue with Jekyll & Hyde (Dec. 6-7), The Buddy Holly Story (Jan. 23-24), Sister Act (March 6-7) and I Love Lucy Live on Stage (May 30-31).

A Folk Legend: Woody Guthrie is sometimes referred to as the father of American folk revival: he influenced Peter Seeger, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and generations of performers and composers.  TheaterWorks is presenting Woody Sez which is billed as a musical event that, as the press materials say, “uses Woody’s words and songs to transport the audience through his fascinating and sometimes tragic life.”  The show runs Aug. 8 to Sept. 14. For tickets call 860-527-7838 or visit http://www.theaterworkshartford.org.

Ambitious Production: Ivoryton always produces one really big musical during the summer. This year it is Jerry Herman’s classic La Cage aux Folles which runs through Aug. 31. The musical was based on a French movie about a long established gay couple one of whom is a drag star on the Rivera and what happens when their son becomes engaged to the daughter of a very conservative politician.  You may recall the American film The Birdcage which set the movie in New Orleans.  Among the hit songs are “I Am Who I Am,” “The Best of Times Is Now,”  and “Look Over There” as well as others.  For tickets call 860-767-7318 or visit http://www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.

 New Blog: If you’d like to check out my reviews of both Connecticut and New York, visit my new blog: http://www.2ontheaisle.wordpress.com.

 Broadway News: Two musicals that were expected to be big hits — Rocky the Musical (because of name recognition) and Bullets Over Broadway (because of the source material and the pedigrees of those involved) are accepting defeat and closing this month.  Both shows got mediocre reviews and few awards.  Both will lose mega-millions.  While I had no great expectations for Rocky, Bullets Over Broadway disappointed me.  It was one of the shows I was really looking forward to.

Michelle Williams has extended her contract to play Sally Bowles in the revival of Cabaret through Nov. 9.  The show itself is selling tickets through Jan 4.  Personally, I though Williams was the weakest member of the cast, but I still highly recommend the revival at Studio 54. Tickets are available at http://www.RoundaboutTheatre.org or 202-719-1300.

In the Works:  Development time for Broadway musicals can easily be 5 years or more and many projects disappear along the way.  But summer is the time when shows-in-the-works do New York readings to gauge reaction and interest of producers and investors. Some are revised versions of existing works, some are based on popular plays, films and TV shows, and others are totally new.  Among those getting industry readings — often with well-known talent — this summer are: Gigi with a new book. This movie musical has already had  a Broadway version in the 1970s. It will get a staged production at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. in January.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil  — the reading including Leslie Uggams with a book by Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy). The score will not be original but include Southern rock, blues, gospel and songs from the American songbook.

A musical Hew-Haw, yes, it is based on the TV show, will get a workshop in September. A musical version of Bull Durham will get a production at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta this September with Will Swenson as “Crash” Davis and Melissa Errico as Annie Savoy.

Nine Wives which had a reading at Goodspeed’s Festival of New Musicals several Januarys ago got what was billed as a “developmental production” at the Sharon Playhouse in Sharon, Connecticut.

The York Theater Company in New York included a new musical about Rodgers and Hart — Falling for Make Believe– in its summer series.

A new political musical — A Woman on Top got an industry reading. It’s about a woman senator who seeks the Presidential nomination while her ex-husband seeks the same for the opposition.

Lillas White and others did a reading of a new musical Harriet based on Harriet Tubman’s life. Richard Chamberlain was part of a benefit reading at the Berkshire Theater Group of a new musical Sometimes Love about a group of contemporary New Yorkers.

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