Ivoryton’s “West Side Story” Is Fine Production

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Photo by Anne Hudson

By Karen Isaacs

 If you have never seen the classic musical, West Side Story, then hurry off to Ivoryton Playhouse through July 30 to see its fine production.

Is it perfect?  No, but very few productions are. This production has many more plusses than minuses. It illustrates how far this small theater has come over the years that they can pull off this type of show.

In case you don’t know the show – is there anyone who hasn’t seen a production or the movie? – it is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet set in New York City in the mid-50s. Two teenage gangs are battling for turf — the Jets represent those who have been in the city for a generation – Italians, Polish and other eastern Europeans. The Sharks who are increasing in numbers are newcomers from Puerto Rico.

The two gangs can’t co-exist in the tenement neighborhoods on NY’s west side, many of which will be torn down to make way for the Lincoln Center complex.  But just as in Romeo & Juliet, two young people from opposite sides fall in love with tragic results. Tony (a Jet) falls in love with Maria (whose brother leads the Sharks).

What is striking in the show (and discomforting) is the obvious racism of the police, particularly Lt.  Schrank who not only uses racial slurs to refer to the Puerto Ricans but who actively encourages the Jets to “force them out.”

The show was created by Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Arthur Laurents (book) and Jerome Robins (director/choreographer). The show brought a jazzy urban score to Broadway as well as extensive use of dance that incorporated ballet and modern dance.

Ivoryton has assembled a fine cast with Todd L. Underwood as director/choreographer and Michael Morris as musical director.

Mia Pinero is luminous as Maria, a young woman who has recently arrived in the city and is experiencing her first love. She has a lovely voice that can be tremulous when necessary and full of determination at other times. You don’t want to take your eyes off of her.

Stephen Mir as Tony is more problematic. His voice is excellent, yet he sometimes seems to lack the passion called for. Another problem is that he looks very young – I would peg him for 16 or 17 at the oldest. Yet he is supposedly one of the founders (with Rif) of the Jets; he is no longer in school but works fulltime in Doc’s drugstore. As one of the leaders – although he is distancing himself from the gang – he is presumably one of its best fighters. Mir just doesn’t look the role.  Conor Robert Fallon as Rif has a more appropriate look.

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Mia Pinero and Stephen Mir. Photo by Anne Hudson

The two other main roles are Anita and Bernardo. Bernardo is Maria’s older brother and leader of the Sharks and Anita is his girlfriend and thus the leader of the girls. Natalie Madion as Anita is beautiful and dances very well. She projects the self-confidence that Maria is just gaining. Victor Borjas is smooth as Bernardo, but he frankly looks much too old for the part. Bernardo is older than the others but Borjas could pass for early 30s which seems inappropriate for the role. Yet he too carries the singing and dancing well.

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Victor Borjas and Natalie Madion. Photo by Jonanthan Steele

The rest of the company is excellent, though sometimes it is hard to differentiate the characters.

Underwood has managed the small Ivoryton stage very well and created dances that draw on Robbins’ choreography while being original. The cast works hard and achieves a lot.

My one quibble is his handling of the song “Somewhere” – it has been staged many different ways and sung by different characters, though most of us remember the film where it was a duet for Tony and Maria. Here the initial chorus is sung by Anita and Anybodys (the young girl who wants desperately be a Jet), with the ensemble joining in before it becomes Tony and Maria’s duet. Many of the ensemble are dressed in white (but not all) so you can wonder if they are angels, ghosts, or what. It was the most distracting part of the show.

Credit must be given to the 10-piece orchestra that is hidden away under the direction of Michael Morris.

Daniel Nischan has created a concrete jungle that can be transformed from a school playground, to the dress shop and drug store where Maria and Tony work and other locations.

Overall the costumes by Elizabeth Cipollina are 50ish. But the men’s hairstyles are not really correct for the period. They need the Elvis look – pompadours, Brill cream, etc. and they don’t have them.

Sound Designer Tate R. Burmeister and lighting designer Marcus Abbott do excellent work. The sound never blares and you can hear the lyrics. The lighting, particularly in the scene under the bridge is exquisite.

West Side Story runs through July 30. Get tickets at Ivoryton Playhouse or call 860-767-7318.

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Photo by Jonanthan Steele

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“Newsies” at CRT Is All Energy But Little Else

 

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Photo by Gerry Goodstein

By Karen Isaacs

 

 The Connecticut Repertory Theater’s Summer Season is ending with a rousing production of Disney’s Newsies- the MusicalI through July 16.

The energetic cast — they work really hard – are led by director/choreographer Christopher D’Amboise.  The young men who comprise most of the cast dance up a storm almost non-stop. Unfortunately, while energetic, much of the choreography seems either routine or not particularly geared to the situation or plot.

While it is impressive, one could paraphrase a line from Shakespeare because unfortunately it all signifies nothing.

Newsies which opened on Broadway in 2012 closing after 1004 performances is based on the Disney film of the same name that was released in 1992.  Both tell – with some dramatic license –the story of the 1899 strike by newsboys in New York City against Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst (the two most prominent newspaper publishers in the city) over an increase in the price charged by the papers to the boys.  In reality it wasn’t the first such strike but the boys – and they really were young boys – did win some concessions.

For the Broadway production Harvey Fierstein rewrote the book and Alan Menkin and Jack Feldman added songs while also deleting some that had been in the original film.

The premise is still about the strike but as in the movie, these are not young boys but older adolescents – looking at them you would guess they were at least 16 or several years older.  This dilutes one of the elements in the show which is about the treatment of orphaned and poor children and child labor in general.

The strike is led by Jack Kelly (Jim Schubin) who wants to escape to Santa Fe but he rallies the group to protest the price rise from 50 cents for 100 papers to 60 cents.  The boys sell the papers for one or two cents.  Pulitzer wants to raise the price because following the Spanish-American War, circulation and therefore profits have declined.

The show – like an older Annie – has the requisite types among the boys – Crutchy (Tyler Jones) who limps and whom Kelly protects, the kid from Brooklyn, and of course the slightly more affluent new boy Davey (Noah Kieserman) whose father was let go from a factory because he had been injured on the job.  Plus we have Davey’s younger brother, Les (Aticus L. Burello) – cute and sassy.

Also, there has to be a romance – and Fierstein clarified and combined characters.  In a truly ironic turn, the romantic interest (Katherine played by Paige Smith) is an aspiring female reporter who it turns out to be Pultizer’s daughter. Later on the sons of Hearst and another publisher help the boys. The only other significant female role is that of Medda Larkin (Tina Fabrique) who owns and stars at a theater in the Bowery; she is the requisite motherly figure.

In this production, while Schubin is very good, I was much more drawn to the performance of Kieserman as Davey. I also wished that both Fabrique and Richard R. Henry (recently outstanding in Yale’s Assassins) who plays William Randolph Hearst had more to do. Their two big numbers “The Bottom Line” and “That’s Rich” were terrific.

This is a testosterone heavy show and perhaps because of that the music all sounds pretty much the same. There seems to be one semi-rousing ballad after another – even the titles tell you that (“Carrying the Banner,” “Seize the Day,” “Watch What Happens,” “The World Will Know”).

I came away from the show — I must admit the audience was cheering – feeling that it was all of one note;  it needed variation in tone, in voices and in choreography.  It is too formulaic.

Yet the performances all hard working, earnest and professional.  If it is hard to really differentiate the boys except for Jack, Crutchy, Davey, it is not the fault of the performers but of the script.  They are interchangeable.

Smith tries to project the young woman rebelling against her famous father and her privileged up-bringing.  She does a good job, but this role also is seriously underwritten.

The scenic design by Tim Brown reflects the urban environment with moving structures that reminded.  Fan Zhang did the period costumes and made the boys look probably cleaner and better dressed than they really were.

Many people will enjoy Newsies, if only for the energy.  But this is only a moderately successful musical which was reflected in New York by the limited awards (and even nominations) the show received.

For tickets visit Connecticut Repertory Theater.

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Tina Fabrique. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

 

Complete Shakespeare (Abridged) Will Have You Laughing

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Hanna Cheek, Sean Harris, Rich Hollman. Photo by Curt Henderson

By Karen Isaacs

 If you view Shakespeare as tough sledding, you will find your opinions turned upside down at Playhouse on Park’s production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) running through July 30.

 While this work has been around for many years, it has been revised for the 21st century and director Tom Ridgely says it took elements from two different versions. But that’s OK since this is really a vaudevillian piece.

It is a comic romp through most of Shakespeare’s plays performed by a zany three member cast: Hanna Cheek, Rich Hollman and Sean Harris, all talented clowns.

What you get in the 2-hour show is wonderful burlesques of three of Shakespeare’s most well-known works, plus romps through the others.

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Rich Hollman and Hanna Cheek. Photo by Curt Henderson

The play opens – after a hilarious introduction with a retelling of Romeo & Juliet. Not only do the three members play all the main parts, but Romeo is played by Hanna and Juliet by Rich Hollman. It’s abbreviated but amazingly all the most important elements are there.

From there they give us snippets of Shakespeare’s most gruesome play, Titus Andronicus, plus bits of Anthony and Cleopatra, as well as MacBeth performed partly as a folk song sung by a Peter, Paul and Mary clone. Even here they hit the main points of the plot.

The act ends with a compilation of the comedies – it is amazing how many of them feature similar elements – girls disguising themselves as men, separated twins, fairies and other spirits and more.

It is then that the trio realize that while they thought they had covered all of the plays, they had omitted one: Hamlet.

 So act two is all about Hamlet. They do it not only in an abbreviated version (again, Ophelia is played by Hollman), but in increasingly shortened versions, the last taking less than two minutes. They conclude with that version done backwards.

You don’t have to be an expert in Shakespeare to enjoy this though most of us have experienced at least one or two of the plays in school. My granddaughter – a soon-to-be high school junior who will be reading Hamlet next year – thoroughly enjoyed it. She had previously read and seen Romeo & Juliet and found their rendition hilarious.

It takes great talent to pull this off. While I did not feel the antic energy from them that I did the first time I saw this show – at Long Wharf Theater years ago, perhaps in the 1980s.

It might surprise you to know that this show, as well as an abridged history of America, and of sports, was developed by three American’s who called themselves The Reduced Shakespeare Company.

Director Ridgely as made fine use of the somewhat awkwardly large stage at Playhouse on Park. In keeping with the tone of the piece, costume designer Kate Bunce has made use of a variety of household items – including mops in various bright colors for wigs.

The cleverest part of the show, is when the three company members involve the audience in Ophelia’s state of mind and the conflicts she faces. While two audience members are brought on stage, the entire audience represents her id, ego and superego. Fun and enlightening.

This is perfect entertainment for anyone who thinks that Shakespeare has to be dull and difficult to understand. My granddaughter thoroughly enjoyed it and I’m sure that she gained some insights that will be useful to her study of Hamlet this fall.

For tickets, call 860-523-5900 ext. 10 or visit Playhouse on Park..complete shakespeare

“Ragtime” at Barrington Stage Reminds of Us of Another Tumultuous Time in America

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Photo by Daniel Rader

By Karen Isaacs

 Ragtime is a big show, full of music and requiring a large cast. It takes vision to see how to effectively do a show this size on a summer theater budget with a smaller stage. Director Joe Calarco and the Barrington Stage Company have succeed beyond all expectations.

He and his talented company have created an emotionally moving production of this sprawling story.

Based on the E. L. Doctorow novel (which later was an excellent film), Ragtime interweaves three stories showing different aspects of a changing America at the turn of the 20th century.

We have the story of a upper middle class, white family living in New Rochelle: Father, Mother, Son, as well as Mother’s father (a retired professor) and her brother (who is seeking something to give meaning to his life.) Father is a businessman who owns a factory that makes firecrackers and other patriotic paraphernalia.  Mother runs the house and defers to Father. But times are a changing and when Father goes off for a year’s journey to the North Pole with Admiral Perry, Mother begins to not only gain independence but decides she likes it.

Then there are the African Americans who are more and more moving out of the South. They are exemplified by Booker T. Washington, but also by Coalhouse Walker, a young ragtime pianist in Harlem who wants respect and freedom. It is his story that spurs much of the plot. He falls in love with Sarah, a servant in New Rochelle, they have a child and it is of his revenge when his Model T is vandalized there that propels the story.

The third strand is the mass of immigrants from Eastern Europe (many Jewish) flooding into the factories and tenements of the city. Here it is Tateh who has arrived from Latvia with his young daughter. He wants a better and safer life but soon finds that the sweatshops and housing are worse than what he left behind.

Doctorow in his novel and Terrence McNally who wrote the book for this musical interwove into the story historic figures from Henry Ford, J. P. Morgan and Booker T. Washington, to political activist Emma Goldman and celebrities Harry Houdini and Evelyn Nesbit.

Calcara and his production team have cleverly used just one set – an attic – that suggest the many scenes in the show – from Harlem, to the tenements, to Union Square, J.M. Morgan’s library and more. The show opens with Mother, Father and the rest of the family climbing up into the attic in modern dress and transforming themselves into the period clothing. A small, replica of the house stands on a pedestal. He uses chairs to create cars, podiums for various speeches and a rocking horse for Nesbitt’s velvet swing.

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Photo by Daniel Rader

Ragtime depends on the cast, particularly the roles of Mother, Coalhouse, Sarah and Tateh. Here Calcara has casted the show beautifully, particularly Coalhouse (Darnall Abraham) and Sarah (Zurin Villanueva). After all the original production gave Audra MacDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell their first big roles, and first awards.

Abraham has a wonderful baritone voice and projects Coalhouse’s dignity and determination as well as his love for Sarah. Villanueva’s Sarah begins as a shy young woman but she grows in strength and uses her supple soprano to break our hearts.

Elizabeth Stanley’s Mother goes from compliant wife to determined woman who stands up to her husband. She does an excellent job with some of the most delightful music of the show – “Goodbye, My Love” and “Back to Before.”

Praise must also be given to J. Anthony Crane as the immigrant Tateh and David Harris as Father who does not understand or approve of the many changes occurring. The actors who play historic characters are good but don’t quite live up to the performances of the others. Lawrence E. Street is overly stiff as Booker T. Washington, Anne L. Nathan’s Emma Goldman needs more stridency and more of an accent and Leanne A. Smith seems overly girlish as Evelyn Nesbit.

But despite these minor complaints, this production is well worth seeing.

Calcara has assembled a versatile cast of 22; most of the ensemble double as one of the minor characters in the play and the ten piece orchestra does full justice to the music by Stephen Flaherty. Lynn Ahrens wrote the music; this team (including McNally) are responsible for the current Broadway show Anastasia.  He is aided by the period choreography of Shea Sullivan

In addition, Sara Jean Tosetti has created costumes suggestive of the period. Particular praise should be given to lighting designer Chris Lee and the scenic designer Brian Pather.

At times, words were muddled or too soft both in spoken dialogue and songs; but it did not detract from the overall effectiveness of the production.

Ragtime, which deals with an America that was changing drastically – with all the stresses that such a change engenders – is worthwhile seeing as America appears to be going through another major change in our society.

It’s at the Barrington Stage Company Mainstage, 40 Union St., Pittsfield, Mass. For tickets visit Barrington Stage Company.

Connecticut’s Smaller Theater Well Represented at Awards Ceremony

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Rob Ruggierio and the cast of Next to Normal. Photo by Mara Lavitt

By Karen Isaacs

 The gala celebration of Connecticut’s professional theater, co-chaired by Shore Publishing’s own Amy Barry, produced winners from both the largest professional theaters in the state and some of the smaller.

The big winners were The Invisible Hand produced by Westport Country Playhouse and Next to Normal produced by TheaterWorks.

Invisible Hand by Ayah Akhtar won outstanding drama, outstanding director (David Kennedy) and outstanding actor (Eric Bryant). The play is about an American banker who is held hostage in Parkistan; it deals with economics, terrorism and religious fundamentalism.

Next to Normal, the musical about a family dealing with the mother’s bipolar condition received awards as outstanding musical, outstanding director (Rob Ruggiero), outstanding actress (Christiann Noll), outstanding lighting (John Lasiter).  Maya Keleher who played the daughter received the debut award.

Special awards were presented to actor Paxton Whitehead for his body of work; he has appeared frequently at Westport Country Playhouse in productions of works by Joe Orton and Alan Ayckbourn. The presentation was made by noted director John Tillinger.

Tillinger also made a brief tribute to playwright A. R. Gurney who died in June. Not only did Gurney live in Connecticut, but many of his works were produced here. Tillinger directed a number of them at Long Wharf and Hartford Stage.

James Lecesne, actor, playwright, novelist and activist was honored for his outreach activities while performing his play The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey at Hartford Stage this year. Lecense talked about the impact theater can have on audiences and spoke of how it had “saved” him as a gay teenager. Many winners made similar comments on the importance and impact of theater.

The Tom Killen Award for contributions to Connecticut theater (and theater in general) was given to Paulette Haupt who has served as the artistic director of the National Musical Theatre Conference at the O’Neill Center in Waterford since 1978. Among the 120 new musicals she has selected and helped include In the Heights, Nine, Avenue Q and many more. She’s been instrumental in the careers of Lin Manuel Miranda, Maury Yeston, Tom Kitt and others.

Three of Connecticut’s smaller professional theaters – the Summer Theater of New Canaan (STONC), Music Theater of Connecticut (MTC) and Seven Angels Theater in Waterbury were honored. Jon Petersen received the award for outstanding solo performance at Seven Angels as Anthony Newley in He Wrote Good Songs. Peterson was unable to attend because he is starring as the Emcee in the national tour of Cabaret which was in Portland, Oregon.

West Side Story at STONC received awards for outstanding choreography (Doug Shankman) and outstanding actor in a musical (Zach Schanne)

Kate Simone received outstanding featured actor in a musical for her performance as Louise in Gypsy at MTC.

Hartford Stage took home awards for outstanding actress in a play (Vanessa R. Butler) in Queens for a Year, outstanding featured actress in a play (Connecticut resident Mia Dillon) in Cloud 9 and featured actor in a play (Cleavant Derricks) for The Piano Lesson.  The theater also received three awards for A Comedy of Errors) – outstanding set design (Darko Tresjnak), outstanding sound design (Jane Shaw) and outstanding costume design (Fabio Toblini).

Rhett Guter who is now in rehearsal as Curly in Goodspeed’s Oklahoma! won outstanding featured actor in a musical for last year’s Bye, Bye Birdie at Goodspeed. He played Birdie.

Long Wharf’s production of Steve Martin’s Meteor Shower received the award for outstanding ensemble.

Among the presenters were Sirius-XM radio’s Broadway channel program director Julie James, producer Patricia Flicker Addiss, Tony-winning set designer Michael Yeargen and two former artistic directors of Connecticut theaters: Michael Wilson of Hartford Stage and Michael Price of Goodspeed Musicals.

Terrence Mann, three time Tony nominee, and artistic director of Connecticut Repertory Theater’s Summer Stage hosted the evening.  Bobby Conte Thornton, star of Broadway’s A Bronx Tale provided two terrific songs.

But perhaps the stars of the evening were sisters Ella and Riley Briggs, two adorable young girls with bright futures ahead them. Ella played the young Frances Gumm in Chasing Rainbows last year at Goodspeed and she and Riley were both in Godspeed’s It’s a Wonderful Life.

This content courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com.

Complete list of nominees and winners.

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Karen Ziemba, Andre de Shields and me.

Connecticut Critics Circle 2016-17 Winners and Nominees

Winner in boldface

Outstanding Solo Performance

Jodi Stevens                I’ll Eat You Last                     MTC

Jon Peterson                He Wrote Good Songs           7 Angels

 

Outstanding Debut

Maya Kelcher (Natalie)           Next to Normal           TheaterWorks

Dylan Frederick                      Assassins                     Yale Rep

Nick Sacks                              Next to Normal           TheaterWorks

 

Outstanding Ensemble

Cast of…                                Smart People                           Long Wharf

Cast of…                                Trav’lin                                    7 Angels

Cast of…                                Meteor Shower                       Long Wharf

Cast of…                                Assassins                                 Yale

Cast of…                                The 39 Steps                           Ivoryton

 

Outstanding Sound

Jane Shaw                               Comedy of Errors                   Hartford Stage

Fan Zhang                               Seven Guitars                          Yale

Shane Retig                             Scenes From Court Life          Yale

Karin Graybash                       Piano Lesson                           Hartford Stage

Fitz Patton                              Invisible Hand                        Westport

 

Outstanding Costume Design

Ilona Somogyi                         Heartbreak House                   Hartford Stage

Marina Draghici                      Scenes from Court Life          Yale

Lisa Steier                               Rockin’ the Forest                  Playhouse on Park

Fabio Toblini                           Comedy of Errors                   Hartford Stage

Gregory Gale                          Modern Millie                         Goodspeed

 

Outstanding Lighting

Matthew Richards                  Invisible Hand                        Westport

Yi Zhao                                   Assassins                                 Yale

John Lasiter                             Next to Normal                       TheaterWorks

Matthew Richards                  Comedy of Errors                   Hartford Stage

Christopher Bell                      A Moon for the Misbegotten  Playhouse on Park

 

Outstanding Set Design

Colin McGurk                         Heartbreak House                   Hartford Stage
Michael Yeargan                     Most Beautiful Room…         Long Wharf

Wilson Chin                            Next to Normal                       TheaterWorks

Adam Rigg                             The Invisible Hand                 Westport

Darko Tresnjak                        The Comedy of Errors            Hartford Stage

 

Outstanding Choreography

Denis Jones                             Modern Millie                         Goodspeed

Chris Bailey                            Chasing Rainbows                  Goodspeed

Doug Shankman                     West Side Story                      STONC

Patricia Wilcox                        Bye Bye Birdie                       Goodspeed

Darlene Zoller                         Rockin’ the Forest                  Playhouse on Park

 

Outstanding Featured Actor – Musical

Mark Nelson (Carlo)               Most Beautiful Room….        Long Wharf

Edward Watts (Trevor)           Modern Millie                         Goodspeed

John Cardoza (Gabe)              Next to Normal                       TheaterWorks

Jonny Wexler (Action)            West Side Story                      STONC

Rhett Guter (Birdie)               Bye Bye Birdie                       Goodspeed

Michael Wartella                     Chasing Rainbows                  Goodspeed

 

Outstanding Featured Actress – Musical

Maya Keleher (Natalie)           Next to Normal                       TheaterWorks

Jodi Stevens (Secretary/Mazeppa)      Gypsy                          MTC

Katie Stewart (Anita)             West Side Story                      STONC

Kristine Zbornik (Mother)      Bye, Bye Birdie                      Goodspeed

Kate Simone (Louise)             Gypsy                                      MTC

 

Outstanding Featured Actress – Play

Miriam Silverman (Brianne/Chaya)    Mary Jane                    Yale

Rachel Leslie (Vera)               Seven Guitars                          Yale

Antoinette Crowe-Legacy (Ruby) Seven Guitars                  Yale

Mia Dillon                               Cloud 9                                   Hartford Stage

Christina Pumariega (Tina)     Napoli, Brooklyn                    Long Wharf

 

Outstanding Featured Actor – Play

Jameal Ali (Dar)                      The Invisible Hand                 Westport

Andre De Shields Headley)    Seven Guitars                          Yale

Cleavant Derricks                   Piano Lesson                            Hartford Stage

Steve Routman (Coles)           Other People’s Money            Long Wharf

Paxton Whitehead (Dr. Rance)  What the Butler Saw           Westport

 

 Outstanding Director – Musical

Rob Ruggiero                          Next to Normal                       TheaterWorks

David Edwards                       Man of La Mancha                 Ivoryton

Melody Libonati                     West Side Story                      STONC

Jenn Thompson                       Bye Bye Birdie                       Goodspeed

Kevin Connors                        Gypsy                                      MTC

 

Outstanding Director – Play

Darko Tresnjak                        The Comedy of Errors            Hartford Stage

David Kennedy                      The Invisible Hand                 Westport

Marc Bruni                              Other People’s Money            Long Wharf

Tracy Brigden                         Midsummer                             TheaterWorks

Gordon Edelstein                    Meteor Shower                       Long Wharf

 

Outstanding Actor – Musical

Robert Sean Leonard (Arthur)  Camelot                                Westport

Riley Costello (Finch)             How to Succeed…                 CRT

David Harris (Dan)                 Next to Normal                       TheaterWorks

David Pittsinger (Don Q)       Man of La Mancha                 Ivoryton

Zach Schanne (Tony)              West Side Story                      STONC

 

Outstanding Actress – Musical

Ruby Rakos (Judy)                 Chasing Rainbows                  Goodspeed

Christiane Noll (Diana)           Next to Normal                       TheaterWorks

Julia Paladino (Maria)             West Side Story                      STONC

Karen Ziemba (Rose)              Gypsy                                      Sharon Playhouse

Talia Thiesfield (Aldonza)      Man of La Mancha                 Ivoryton

 

Outstanding Actor – Play

Tom Pecinka (Betty/Edward) Cloud 9                                   Hartford Stage

Michael Doherty (Black Stache) Peter and the…                  CRT

Eric Bryant (prisoner) Invisible Hand                        Westport

Jordan Lage (Garfinkle)          Other People’s Money            Long Wharf

Scott McLean (Bob) Midsummer… TheaterWorks

 

Outstanding Actress – Play

Emily Donohoe                         Mary Jane                                Yale

Semina DeLaurentis (Gracie)  George & Gracie                     7 Angels

Ashlie Atkinson (Imogen)      Imogen Says Nothing             Yale

Vanessa R. Butler (Solinas)    Queens for a Year                   Hartford Stage

Rebecca Hart (Helena)            Midsummer                             TheaterWorks

 

Outstanding Production – Musical

Assassins                                 Yale

Next to Normal                       TheaterWorks

Man of La Mancha                 Ivoryton

West Side Story                      STONC

Bye, Bye Birdie                       Goodspeed

 

Outstanding Production – Play

The Comedy of Errors            Hartford Stage

Midsummer (a play with songs) TheaterWorks

Scenes From Court Life          Yale

The Invisible Hand                 Westport

Mary Jane                                Yale

 

The Hits & Misses of the 2016-17 Connecticut Theater Season

By Karen Isaacs

 Connecticut’s professional theaters produced over 40 shows from June 2016 to the end of May 2017; plus various national tours played the major producing houses. Connecticut theatergoers had over 60 productions to choose from. I saw nearly 90 percent of the shows at the professional theaters and some of the national tours.

So how did the season measure up?

My top plays:

The Invisible Hand at Westport Country Playhouse

Queens for a Year at Hartford Stage

Scenes of Court Life at Yale Rep

A Comedy of Errors at Hartford Stage

The Piano Lesson at Hartford Stage

Meteor Shower at Long Wharf

Endgame at Long Wharf

Heartbreak House at Hartford Stage

My top musicals:

Next to Normal at TheaterWorks

Bye, Bye Birdie at Goodspeed

Gypsy at MTC

He Wrote Good Songs at Seven Angels

The top touring shows:

 The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelsky at Hartford Stage

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Marriage at the Bushnell

The King & I at the Bushnell

An American in Paris at the Bushnell

A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime at the Bushnell

Shows that pleasantly surprised me:

Absolute Turkey at CRT

Bilox Blues at Ivoryton

Trav’ling – the Harlem Musical at Seven Angels

Interesting Observations

Half of my top plays were new – often world premieres..

Many musical productions were fine overall productions, but either not exciting shows or not exciting productions.

The Bushnell had a stellar season of national tours including the rarity of a play.

Darko Tresjnak continue to prove he is also a terrific scenic designer with Italian setting for A Comedy of Errors.

Among the Disappointments.

Unfortunately some shows that I had looked forward to disappointed me. Mostly they were well directed and well- acted, but they just did not maximize their possibilities.  Sometimes it is new play which is still being developed or trying to do or say too much.

Assassins at Yale Rep.  I’ve seen and liked the show in the past, but this production just missed, at least for me.

The Most Beautiful Room in New York at Long Wharf. What can I say? It didn’t live up to my expectations.

Napoli, Brooklyn at Long Wharf.  More soap opera than compelling drama.

Camelot at Westport. This minimalist version was just too minimal though the performances were fine.

 But even these productions had elements that were enjoyable and were well worth seeing.

 

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

 

Fun Home

Kate Shindell and Robert Petkoff. Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

 

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

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

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

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

Fun Home

Kate Shindel. Photo by Joan Marcus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fun Home

Photo by Joan Marcus

You’re Invited to the Connecticut Critics Circle Awards

Everyone is invited to attend this FREE event celebrating Connecticut’s professional theaters.  Among the presentes are Julie James (of Sirius XM’s Broadway channel), Patricia Flicker Addiss (producer of 39 Steps, Passiing Strange, and  Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike, plus last year’s winners Teren Carter and Erika Rolfsrud.

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“Noises Off” at the Connecticut Rep Is a Laughfest

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Photo by Gerry Goodstein

By Karen Isaacs

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

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

The show moves quickly and the laughter keeps on coming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo by Gerry Goodstein

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