Tag Archives: Goodspeed

Goodspeed’s “Oklahoma!” Is Worth Seeing Despite Flaws

Goodspeed Musicals - Oklahoma!

Photo by Diane Sobolewski

By Karen Isaacs

 Goodspeed Musicals is presenting, for the first time, the classic musical Oklahoma! through Sept. 27.

As usual with Goodspeed, this production of Oklahoma! is good, perhaps even very good, but it has some major flaws..

Oklahoma! was the first Rodgers & Hammerstein musical and has been acknowledged as beginning the new “golden age” of musicals that led to Carousel, King & I, South Pacific, My Fair Lady and so many more.

It takes place at the turn of the 20th century, as Oklahoma is moving from territory status to statehood. (It became a state in 1907). We have the farmers and the ranchers in a precarious truce; farmers fence land the ranchers want to use and roaming herds destroy crops.

This is exemplified in the stories: we have cowboy Curley wooing Laurey, a young woman who owns a farmer. (It is never explained how a young woman came to own the land). Even the secondary plot about Ado Annie and Will has the same situation.

Goodspeed Musicals - Oklahoma

Rhett Guter & Samantha Bruce. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

Curly and Laurey’s romance is somewhat typical: boy and girl spar, she is sought by another man, and eventually they marry before the final curtain.  Ado Annie and Will are the comic counterparts. She is a little “loose” with her attentions and Will seems to not always use common sense. There’s even a third man, the traveling salesman Hakim.

What made Oklahoma! different from musicals that came before it, is the darker element that is developed through the character of Jud, the farmhand. He is bitter and dangerous, and fixated on Laurey.

Rodgers & Hammerstein wrote glorious melodies for the show, from the opening number (“Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’”) to “People Will Say We’re in Love,”  “Out of My Dreams” plus the humorous “Kansas City,” “I Cain’t Say No” and the rousing title tune. In addition, Agnes de Mille created a dream/nightmare ballet to end the first act.

Every director will have his or her own approach to classic musicals. Jenn Thompson obviously has a point of view about this show which has influenced her casting and her handling of the material. Unfortunately, her point of view is not that clear; I suspect I know what she was going for, but I’m far from sure.

No matter what her point of view, she made a major casting error with Rhett Guter as Curly.  He was terrific in the Goodspeed production of Bye, Bye Birdie directed by Thompson last year, but I doubt anyone, looking at him, would identify him as a cowboy. He doesn’t have the rugged, masculine look that the role requires.

It is not just his looks that aren’t quite right. His voice lacks the heft the role requires. He uses a light baritone most of the time, only showing some force with the title number. He both looks, sounds and acts like a freshman in college.

This is magnified by the excellence of Samantha Bruce as Laurey. Not only does she sing magnificently with a soprano that soars when needed, but her acting illustrates the complexities of Laurey – a young, still maturing girl in love for the first time, but one who also is managing a farm successfully. It’s clear who should be the decision maker in this relationship.

Gizel Jiménez as Ado Annie has the opposite problem from Guter: she looks and acts way

Goodspeed Musicals - Oklahoma

Jake Swain & Gizel Jimenez. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

 

more mature than the 17-year-old she is supposed to be. Annie, having grown up on a farm, knows about the birds and the bees and sees no reason to inhibit herself; but she should not be brazen. Instead, she needs to be a little naïve and a little dumb. As she played here, she seems more like a “brazen hussy.”

As Ado Annie’s beau, Jake Swain endows Will Parker with a goofy charm that makes you like him. He shows off his fine voice in “Kansas City” and “All Er Nuthin.’”

Jud Fry, the villain of the piece must create a sense of evil or strangeness without overdoing it. He is the “loner” who is keeping tally of the slights and hurts that have accumulated over the years.  Matt Faucher does an excellent job with the role; plus, his deep baritone is terrific.

The dream ballet can be problematic. It is rare that the actors/singers for Curley and Laurey can do the dance moves necessary, and it drains their energy. I’ve  een productions where there is “Dream Laurey” and a “Dream Curley” and ones where Laurey dances the role. In this production, Madison Turner is the talented dancer who is the “Dream Laurey” and she is excellent. Rhettt Guter does his own dancing as Curley. He was quite good.

Choreographer Katie Spelman has created not only the ballet, but production numbers that draw on the athleticism of the cowboys and the western dance traditions.

The scenic design by Wilson Chin and the costume design by Tracy Christensen are very good. At times the lighting design by Philip S. Rosenberg is obvious.  When the lyric is “many a red sun” the lights goes pinkish.

Director Jenn Thompson did many things right in this production including making extensive use of the aisle. But she also at times went for the gratuitous, easy laugh.

If you’ve never seen this classic and even if you have, I still recommend you getting tickets. It may not be the definite, perfect production, but it is a very good one.

For tickets, visit Goodspeed.

Goodspeed Musicals - Oklahoma!

Finale. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

 

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From Behind-the Scenes to the Business Side of Musicals

book-coverBy Karen Isaacs

 One of the highlights of the symposiums on Saturday, Jan. 14, presented as part of the Goodspeed Festival of New Musicals will be the conversation by Jack Viertel with theater writer and critic Frank Rizzo.

Viertel’s book, The Secret Life of the American Musical is a must read for musical theater fans. In it, he draws on his years of experience as a critic, producer and teacher at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, to dissect what makes the some musicals great and others also-rans.

jack-vierte“I wrote the book because whenever I gave a talk to lay people about musical theater, they would also ask when would I write a book. So, six or seven years ago, I started writing,” Viertel said. It is based on the teaching he did at NYU for theater professionals who wanted to become writers of musicals –lyricists, composers or book writers.

He has developed a series of what he calls “patterns” that are present in all outstanding musicals. He said that these patterns are still necessary if today’s shows. “They aren’t being broken,” he said. “They’re being up-dated and rethought for a different world.”

“We’re in a period of tremendous vitality for musicals,” Viertel said and pointed to Hamilton, the recently opened Dear Evan Hansen and the off-Broadway The Band’s Visit as three examples. “The new writers have different approaches to telling a story.”

When a musical fails there can be a number of reason, Viertel said. “It isn’t engaging enough, maybe the story doesn’t need to be musicalized, the writers haven’t found the key to tell the story or musicalizing it, or sometimes all the elements just aren’t good enough.”

Viertel is the artistic director of the Encore! series at City Center and senior vice president of Jujamcyn Theaters.

But the conversation with Viertel is just one of many symposiums that day.  For those interested in the backstage life of a musical, Chris Zaccardi will share stories on a stage manager’s life. He will be the stage manager for the revival of Hello, Dolly! this spring. Gillian Lane-Plescia will demonstrate the techniques she uses to help actors with accents and dialects. Tony winning lighting designer Ken Billington will also be featured.

Jayna Neagle and Elizabeth Shumate will share experiences in bringing Cirque Soleil’s first musical Paramour to Broadway. Michael Rubinoff, one of the producers of Come from Away which began life at the Festival and opens on Broadway this spring, talks about the journey that show has taken.

Sean Cercone will share insights about the process of acquiring performance rights and licensing of material including bring stories from the big screen to the stage. He is senior vice president of new musical development for Theatrical Rights Worldwide.

The symposiums are open to Festival gold package ticket holders. For information, contact goodspeed.org or call 860-873-8668.

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.

Chasing Rainbows

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.

Chasing Rainbows

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

Chasing Rainbows

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.

Chasing Rainbows

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

Looking at the 2016-17 Connecticut Theater Season – My Top 10 Plus More

By Karen Isaacs

 Each year as I start to think about the upcoming theater season in Connecticut, certain productions jump out at me. Some revivals, new plays or cast/production teams seem to guarantee an exciting evening in the theater.

So, let me tell you about the productions that most excite me, listed by dates.

This summer has already given us some productions that I was anticipating with pleasure – most of them delivered including Bye, Bye Birdie at Goodspeed, The Invisible Hand at Westport, and Rent at Ivoryton though that might have been better.

Joe Orton’s comedies may be not for everyone, but they definitely are for me and Westport Country Playhouse has proved it knows how to do them – particularly when John Tillinger is directing. Add in Paxton Whitehead and What the Butler Saw (Aug. 23-Sept. 10) should be a laugh fest.

 Man of La Mancha has had only an occasional production in the last few years. While it is not one of my top ten favorite musicals, I am looking forward to the Ivoryton production (Sept. 7 – Oct. 2) in part because David Pittsinger has a magnificent voice for the part.

Goodspeed is presenting another new musical in its third slot this year. Chasing Rainbows (Sept. 16-Nov. 27) has potential, so I’m interested. It combines the making of The Wizard of Oz and the early life of Judy Garland.

Steve Martin writes quirky, humorous plays: I’m looking forward to the world premiere of his latest, Meteor Shower at Long Wharf, Sept. 28-Oct. 23.

I’m also anticipating Yale’s opening production; a new play by Sarah Ruhl’s Scenes from Court Life or the whipping boy and his prince (Sept. 30 –Oct. 22) about Charles I and II of England AND Jeb and George W. Bush.

Mark Lamos directing a musical is a formula for success. Plus, I have fond memories of Camelot since I saw the original production. So I’m looking forward to Lamos’ reimagined production at Westport (Oct. 4 -30).

I see potential in Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Story also at Ivoryton (Oct. 26 – Nov. 13). It’s billed as not just a juke-box musical; its success will depend on the quality of the book based on Clooney’s life.

I’ve seen Hartford Stage’s production of A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas multiple times; but I will see it again this year, Nov. 26 – Dec. 31.

Brien Dennehy and John Douglas Thompson – two fine actors are bringing Samuel Beckett’s existential classic Endgame to Long Wharf, Jan. 4 – Feb. 5. This will be a must see.

Combine Shakespeare, in this case the raucous A Comedy of Errors and director Darko Tresnjak and I will definitely want to attend. It’s at Hartford Stage, Jan. 12 –Feb. 12.

Another world premiere that sounds interesting is at Long Wharf, Feb. 15-March 12.  Napoli Brooklyn is a co-production with NYC’s Roundabout Theater.

Yale always has an interesting season. This year I’ve circled the Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman Assassins, March 17-April 8; it is a fascinating musical that I’ve seen several times and want to see again.

End of the Rainbow. Judy Garland is a beloved performer whose life was marred by drugs, alcohol and tragedy. This play looks at her later years; it won acclaim in London and Broadway; if a terrific actress plays Judy, this should be compelling. (MTC – April 7-23).

Broadway saw Shufflin’ Along the story of a 1920’s African American musical last season; now Seven Angels is bringing Trav’lin – the 1930s Harlem Musical to Connecticut, May 11-June 11. It features music and lyrics by Harlem Renaissance composer J. C. Johnson; I know little about him but he wrote “The Joint Is Jumpin’” among his works recorded by Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, the Boswell Sisters and others.

I love George Bernard Shaw and his plays have recently not been done enough in Connecticut. So I’m delighted that Darko Tresnjak is directing Shaw’s Saint Joan, May 11 – June 11, at Hartford..

Connecticut theater goers will be blessed with productions of two of August Wilson’s plays. The Piano Lesson which premiered at Yale will be at Hartford Stage, Oct. 13-Nov. 13.  Yale Rep will present Seven Guitars, Nov. 25 –Dec. 17.

But just about every play on Yale’s and Hartford Stage’s schedule sounds interesting.

Touring productions are in a different category. A number of award winning productions will play Connecticut this year, including:

Tony winning A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is at the Bushnell, Oct. 25-30. If you didn’t see its birth at Hartford Stage, and I did as well as on Broadway, see it again.

In fact the entire Bushnell season looks great – I loved An American in Paris, Nov. 15-20; The King and I, May 30-June 4, won the Tony for best revival and the play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Dec. 27-Jan. 1 is magnificent.

I’m also looking forward to Elf the Musical at the Shubert, Dec. 20 -24. This stage version of the classic movie has a delightful score.

I’m sure that other productions will pleasantly surprise me. I’m constantly amazed at how excellent theater in Connecticut is. And unfortunately some of the things I am most looking forward to will disappoint me.

A Glittery Night for Connecticut Theater

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By Karen Isaacs

 The night after the Tony Awards, Monday, June 13, Connecticut theater celebrated its best and brightest achievements at the Connecticut Critics Circle Awards program at Hartford Stage. Indecent which had its world premiere at Yale Rep last fall was named Outstanding Production of a Play and Anastasia which has just concluded its world premiere at Hartford Stage was named Outstanding Production of a Musical. Indecent is currently playing off-Broadway where it has received rave reviews.

the audience

Photo by Mara Lavitt.

While there was no red carpet – maybe next year – the 26th annual awards program sponsored by the organization that represents many of Connecticut’s print, radio, and other media theater critics – was an exciting event.

Hartford Stage and TheaterWorks co-hosted the event on the Hartford Stage with the set of Anasatsia as background. Tina Fabrique, who has performed throughout the state and just completed a run at Connecticut Repertory Theater, served as emcee.

Throughout the evening, many presenters and winners referred to the shooting in Orlando that had occurred just two days before. All stressed how inclusive, welcoming and supportive the arts and theater are and hoped that they could serve as a model for all the world.

While some winners were working away from Connecticut and could not attend (Darko

Bill Bertone by Mara Lavitt

 Presenter and legendary theatrical animal trainer Bill Berloni with two of his current animal actors Frankie, left, and Trixie, right. Photo by Mara Lavitt.

Tresnjak was in Los Angeles directing an opera), those present not only expressed their gratitude for the awards but also for the supportive environment that Connecticut’s theaters provide and the responsive and welcoming nature of the audiences.

Teren Carter who received the award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical for Memphis at Ivoryton deeply moved the audience as he dedicated the award to a young relative who had just recently been shot and killed in Baltimore. He said that his involvement with theater beginning at 13 may have saved him from a similar end.

In his opening remarks, TheaterWorks Producing Artistic Director Rob Ruggiero, said that while the Tonys were all about Hamilton – the Broadway smash, the evening was going to be all about Anastasia, the Broadway-bound musical that just premiered at Hartford Stage. But while he was correct, if you count the number of nominations and awards it won, many awards and nominations went to other theaters both large and small.

Mohit Gautam debut award by Mara Lavitt

Mohit Gautam – Debut Award.Photo by Mara Lavitt .

In fact, Ivoryton Playhouse was nominated was for 10 awards split between two shows: South Pacific and Memphis. The small Playhouse on Park in West Hartford received five nominations, for Hair and Wit. Music Theater of Connecticut in Norwalk was nominated for Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike and Evita. Co-host TheaterWorks was nominated five times for three different productions: Good People, Third, and The Call.

Yet the “major” theaters were also well-represented.  Goodspeed received five nominations for Anything Goes and La Cage aux Folles. It should also have “reflected glory” for the nominations Long Wharf received for My Paris, which had its first major workshop at the Norma Terris Theater last summer.  Westport Country Playhouse received 10 nominations: Red (5), And a Nightingale Sang (2), Broken Glass (1), Art (1).

But Yale Rep, Long Wharf and Hartford Stage led the way in both nominations and awards.

Benim Foster  by Mara Lavitt

Rajesh Bose – Outstanding Actor in a Play. Photo by Mara Lavitt.

Yale had 15 nominations for Indecent (7), The Moors (5), Happy Days (2) and Cymbeline (1). Long Wharf garnered 17 nominations; the most for My Paris (11), with Disgraced (5) and Measure for Measure (1). Eighteen nominations went to Hartford Stage productions: Anastasia (11), Rear Window (4), Body of an American (2), and Romeo & Juliet (2).

The Tom Killen Award for outstanding contribution to Connecticut Theater was presented to Annie O’Keefe.  During her long career she has served as Long Wharf and Westport Country Playhouse, as stage manager, production manager, Artistic Director and more. During the presentation letters were read from actor John Lithgow, former Long Wharf Artistic Director Arvin Brown and Darko Tresjnak,

Anne Keefe by Mara Lavitt

 The 2016 Connecticut Critics Circle Awards. Tom Killen Award recipient Anne Keefe. Photo by Mara Lavitt.

Hartford Stage’s artistic director.

Other award recipients are:

Outstanding director of a play: Rebecca Taichman for Indecent.

Outstanding director of a musical: Darko Tresnjak for Anastasia.

Outstanding actor in a play: Rajesh Bose for Disgraced at Long Wharf Theatre

Outstanding actor in a musical: Bobby Steggert for My Paris at Long Wharf Theatre. Steggert has received several Tony nominations.

Outstanding actress in a play: Erika Rolfsrud for Good People at Hartford’s TheaterWorks.

Outstanding actress in a musical: Christy Altomare for Anastasia.

Outstanding choreography: Peggy Hickey for Anastasia.”

Outstanding ensemble: Indecent.

Outstanding featured actor in a play: Charles Janasz for Romeo and Juliet at Hartford Stage.

Outstanding featured actress in a play: Birgit Huppuch for The Moors at Yale Repertory Theatre.

Teren Carter by Mara Lavitt

Teren Carter, Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical.Photo by Mara Lavitt.

Outstanding featured actor in a musical: Teren Carter for Memphis at Ivoryton Playhouse.

Outstanding featured actress in a musical: Mara Davi for My Paris.

Outstanding debut: Mohit Gautman for Disgraced” at Long Wharf Theatre

Outsanding set design: Alexander Dodge for Rear Window at Hartford Stage.

Oustanding costume design: (a tie) Linda Cho for Anastasia and Paul Tazewell for My Paris at Long Wharf Theatre. Tazwell had won a Tony Award for his costumes for Hamilton the previous evening.

Outstanding lighting design:  Donald Holder for Anastasia.

alexander Dodge  by Mara Lavitt

 Outstanding Set Design winner Alexander Dodge. Photo by Mara Lavitt.

Outstanding sound design: Darron L. West for Body of an American for Hartford Stage.

Outstanding projection design: Aaron Rhyne for Anastasia. at Hartford Stage

Special awards were presented to Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva, co-composers and co-music directors who created the Klezmer music for Yale Rep’s world premiere of Indecent. A special “Shout Out” was given to Vincent Cardinal who has been artistic director of the Connecticut Rep and department chair at UConn. He is leaving to go to University of Michigan where he will head the Department of Musical Theater.

Among the award presenters were Gov. Dannel F. Malloy and Cathy Malloy, CEO of the Greater Hartford Arts Council, O’Neill Theater Center founder George White, animal trainer Bill Berloni and Tony Award nominee (and Connecticut Critics Circle Award winner) Tony Sheldon, just completing a run at Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theater in The Roar of the Geasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd.

Musical selections were performed by Tina Fabrique and nominee for South Pacific at Ivoryton (and Connecticut resident and opera star) David Pittsinger. He will be starring in Man of La Mancha at Ivoryton later this summer.

All Connecticut theaters with contracts with Equity, the major stage acting union, are eligible, over 14 theaters from Norwalk New Canaan to Storrs, and East Haddam.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com

CT Critics Announce Award Nominations

By Karen Isaacs

Anastasia (Hartford Stage), My Paris (Long Wharf), La Cage aux Folles (Goodspeed Musicals), Hair (Playhouse on Park), South Pacific and Memphis (Ivoryton Playhouse) were among the top nominees in the musical and production categories for the Connecticut Critics Circles.

The plays receiving multiple nominations included Disgraced (Long Wharf), Good People (TheaterWorks), Indecent (Yale Rep), Red (Westport Country Playhouse), Happy Days (Yale Rep), The Moors (Yale Rep) and Broken Glass (Westport Country Playhouse.

The award recipients will be announced at the ceremony at Hartford Stage on Monday, June 13 at 7:30 p.m. The ceremony is free and open to the public; the general public can RSVP at hartfordstage.org. For information on the Connecticut Critics Circle Awards, visit ctcritics.org.

The awards recognize outstanding achievements from the state’s 2015-’16 professional theater season by the group comprised of theater critics and writers from the state’s print, radio and on-line media.

Connecticut Critics Circle Awards Nominations 2015-16 Season

Outstanding Production of a Play
Disgraced – Long Wharf Theatre
Good People – TheaterWorks
Happy Days – Yale Rep
Indecent – Yale Rep
Red – Westport Country Playhouse
Outstanding Production of a Musical
Anastasia – Hartford Stage
Hair – Playhouse of Park
La Cage aux Folles – Goodspeed Musicals
My Paris – Long Wharf Theatre
South Pacific – Ivoryton Playhouse
Outstanding Ensemble
Cast of Art – Westport Country Playhouse
Cast of Hair – Playhouse on Park
Cast of Indecent – Yale Repertory Theatre
Cast of Measure for Measure – Long Wharf Theater
Cast of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike – Music Theatre of Connecticut
Outstanding Director of a Play
Gordon Edelstein – Disgraced – Long Wharf Theatre
Jackson Gay – The Moors – Yale Repertory Theatre
Mark Lamos – Red – Westport Country Playhouse
Rob Ruggiero – Good People – TheaterWorks
Rebecca Taichman – Indecent – Yale Repertory Theatre
Outstanding Director of a Musical
David Edwards – South Pacific – Ivoryton Playhouse
Sean Harris – Hair – Playhouse on Park
Kathleen Marshall – My Paris – Long Wharf Theatre
Rob Ruggiero – La Cage aux Folles – Goodspeed Musicals
Darko Tresnjak – Anastasia – Hartford Stage

Outstanding Actor in a Play
Rajesh Bose – Disgraced – Long Wharf Theatre
Ward Duffy – Good People – TheaterWorks
Conor Hamill – Third – TheaterWorks
Stephen Rowe – Red – Westport Country Playhouse
Steven Skybell – Broken Glass – Westport Country Playhouse

Outstanding Actress in a Play
Felicity Jones – Broken Glass – Westport Country Playhouse
Brenda Meaney – And a Nightingale Sang – Westport Country Playhouse
Elizabeth Lande – Wit – Playhouse on Park
Erika Rolfsrud – Good People – TheaterWorks
Dianne Wiest – Happy Days – Yale Repertory Theatre.
Outstanding Actor in a Musical
Riley Costello – Peter Pan – Connecticut Repertory Theater
Carson Higgins – Memphis – Ivoryton Playhouse
David Pittsinger – South Pacific – Ivoryton Playhouse
Bobby Steggert – My Paris – Long Wharf Theatre
Jamieson Stern – La Cage aux Folles – Goodspeed Musicals

Outstanding Actress in a Musical
Christy Altomare – Anastasia – Hartford Stage
Adrianne Hicks – South Pacific – Ivoryton Playhouse
Renee Jackson – Memphis – Ivoryton Playhouse
Katerina Papacostas – Evita – Music Theatre of Connecticut
Rashidra Scott – Anything Goes – Goodspeed Musicals
Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play
Benim Foster – Disgraced – Long Wharf Theatre
Charles Janasz – Romeo & Juliet – Hartford Stage
Richard Kline – And a Nightingale Sang – Westport Country Playhouse
Michael Rogers – The Call — TheaterWorks
Richard Topol – Indecent – Yale Repertory Theatre
Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play
Shirine Babb – Disgraced – Long Wharf Theatre
Megan Byrne – Good People – TheaterWorks
Kandis Chappell – Romeo & Juliet – Hartford Stage
Birgit Huppuch – The Moors – Yale Repertory Theatre
Jodi Stevens – Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike – Music Theater of Connecticut
Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical
John Bolton – Anastasia – Hartford Stage
Teren Carter – Memphis – Ivoryton Playhouse
Christopher DeRosa – Evita  – Music Theater of Connecticut
Tom Hewitt – My Paris – Long Wharf Theatre
William Selby – South Pacific – Ivoryton Playhouse

Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical
Mara Davi – My Paris – Long Wharf Theatre
Caroline O’Connor – Anastasia – Hartford Stage
Mary Beth Peil – Anastasia – Hartford Stage
Patricia Schumann – South Pacific – Ivoryton Playhouse
Jodi Stevens – Legally Blonde – Summer Theatre of New Canaan.
Outstanding Choreography
David Dorfman – Indecent
Peggy Hickey – Anastasia
Kathleen Marshall – My Paris
Todd Underwood – Memphis
Darlene Zoller – Hair
Outstanding Scenic Design
Alexander Dodge – Rear Window
Alexander Dodge – Anastasia
Derek McLane – My Paris
Allen Moyer – Red
Alexander Woodward – The Moors
Outstanding Costume Design
Fabian Fidel Aguilar – The Moors
Linda Cho – Anastasia
Michael McDonald – La Cage aux Folles
Paul Tazewell – My Paris
Outstanding Light Design
Christopher Akerlind – Indecent
Andrew F. Griffin – The Moors
Donald Holder – My Paris
Donald Holder – Anastasia
York Kennedy – Rear Window
Outstanding Sound Design
David Budries – Red
Peter Hylenski – Anastasia
Brian Ronan – My Paris
Jane Shaw – Rear Window
Darron L. West – Body of an American
Outstanding Projection Design
Rasean Davonte Johnson – Cymbeline
Alex Basco Koch – The Body of an American
Sean Nieuwenhuis – Rear Window
Aaron Rhyne – Anastasia
Olivia Sebesky – My Paris

 

“Anything Goes” at Goodspeed Not Quite the Top

Anything Goes

Rashidra Scott as Reno Sweeney and the ensemble. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

By Karen Isaacs

 Cole Porter’s classic Anything Goes, now at Goodspeed in East Haddam through June 16, even in its original version featured so many classic songs and so much fun that it has been revived numerous times.  That it had never made it to Goodspeed is somewhat surprising.

A 1962 off-Broadway revival of the show brought attention once again to it; that production started the trend of interpolating classic Porter songs from other musicals. It was the 1987 revival at Lincoln Center that put the show on the theatrical map.  It featured a revised book, re-ordered songs and starred Patti LuPone and Howard McGillan. From then on, it has had multiple worldwide productions.  In 2011, Sutton Foster won a Tony for starring in the most recent revival that also featured Joel Grey.

All of these outstanding productions, and the memories from either seeing them live (as I saw the 2011 revival) or hearing them on CD, sets a very high standard for any production. Goodspeed also has reputation for producing excellent work, so it too causes an audience to expect an almost perfect production.

I wish I could say that this production meets these expectations.  It is professional, overall well sung, danced, acted, and yet, it falls short.

It is the type of production that audiences will enjoy, but those more knowledgeable will find numerous flaws with it; not enough to spoil the experience, but to leave them wishing it were better.

Anything Goes

Hannah Florence and David Harris. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

The story is a typical silly plot of the 1930s.  Aboard a ship sailing to England are a variety of passengers:  Reno Sweeney, a nightclub evangelist; Billy Crocker a young Wall Street assistant; Elisha J. Whitney – an aging Yale alumni and millionaire who employs Billy; a debutante – Hope Harcourt; her mother; her fiancé, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh; and for the comedy an on-the-lam criminal (Public Enemy #13) Moonface Martin and man-loving Erma, the girlfriend of Snake Eyes Johnson, Public Enemy #1 who has gotten left ashore.

The complications include  Billy stowing away and masquerading as Snake Eyes and is arrested:; ruses to keep Elisha from knowing Billy is on board (he was supposed to go to Wall Street and sell some shares); Billy pursuing Hope who is only marrying Evelyn because her mother insists they need the money; Reno attracted to first Billy and then Evelyn. In fact, the complications are on-going.

But in reality the plot is there for humor, exposition and to keep the songs coming.  From the original show these include the title song, “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and “All Through the Night.”  The current production has added (as did the most recent revivals) such Porter classics as “You’re the Top,” “Easy to Love,” “Friendship,”  “It’s De-Lovely,” and “Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye.”

Rashidra Scott is a terrific Reno Sweeney. She sings, dances and carries the comedy well.  This is a show that demands a dynamite leading lady and Scott delivers. David Harris plays Billy with the right amount of brash youth, mooning young love and cunning.  Hannah Florence is the debutante who loves Billy but is following her mother’s insistence of the marriage to the English lord due to diminishing family wealth.  Again, she sings nicely but the chemistry between the two is lacking.  Are these characters truly attracted to each other? I didn’t believe it.

While individual performances are good, the balance of the show seems off and chemistry among the cast members is also missing.

The balance issue is most obvious with Stephen DeRosa as Moonface Martin.  DeRosa is a

Anything Goes

Stephen DeRosa and David Harris. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

gifted comic actor but here he hijacks the show.  Too often, when your attention should be on another major character, he has a bit of business that diverts your eyes. Often the bits aren’t that funny, as in a couple references to Connecticut towns in the duet “Friendship” with Reno.  Director Daniel Goldstein needed to rein him in.  Yet he scores with his one solo number “Be Like the Bluebird”.

No other supporting cast member overdoes it to the extent DeRosa does. The other major comic role is that of the English Lord, Sir Evelyn Oakleigh. Benjamin Howes is fine and handles his one song, “The Gypsy in Me” effectively.

With the more minor characters I have some quibbles in the casting or interpretation. Why is it necessary for the purser to be played as such a gay stereotype?  Why is Elisha J. Whitney, the alcoholic, Yale grad played with a southern drawl?  I have to admit that the outstanding performance by John McMartin as Whitney in the last revival has set a high standard.

Anything Goes

Rashidra Scott as Reno Sweeney and the ensemble. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

Even the scenic design – the deck of a ship – by Wilson Chin – seemed to cause problems. First,  though it may be an optical illusion, that the small Goodspeed playing area was even less deep than usual. The placement of the orchestra on the top deck  limited the area up there that could be used.

The costumes by Ilona Somogyi were terrific. The lighting by Brian Tovar and the sound by Jay Hilton were also excellent.

Kelli Barclay choreographed the show which always features terrific tap numbers in the title tune and “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.”  I do wish there had been one or two more women in the chorus.

Director Daniel Goldstein does a good job yet some of his decisions kept this from being the “top” show you would like it to be.

Anything Goes is at Goodspeed in East Haddam through June 16. For tickets contact goodspeed.org or call 860-873-8668.

Anything Goes

Desiree Davar as Erma and the sailors. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

Holiday Season Delights Are on Stages throughout the State

A Wonderful Life

It’s a Wonderful Life at Goodspeed.

By Karen Isaacs
The holiday theatrical and musical mice are scurrying all over Connecticut to bring us wonderful gifts of performances that will delight children of all ages as well as those who prefer a little cynicism or humor in their holiday diets.

The Classics

Hartford Stage’s classic production of A Christmas Carol-A Ghost Story of Christmas makes its 18th annual appearance through Sunday, Dec. 27. The production, which was brought by former artistic director Michael Wilson from Texas when he came to Hartford, has become a Connecticut tradition. The production is completing a three-year refurbishing project

christmas carol hartford stage

This classic production always sells out.

with new costumes, more flying, and a larger cast among other enhancements. Once again Bill Raymond returns as Scrooge as well as local area children, acting students from the Hartt School at the University of Hartford, and a slew of professional actors, many of whom have played their roles for multiple years. In addition, the ghosts soar through the air. This production may not be appropriate for younger children. For tickets, visit hartfordstage.org/christmas-carol or call 860-527-5151.

Goodspeed is still running the musical version of one of the classic holiday films, It’s a Wonderful Life. This story of a honorable man who despairs, but learns how much he has contributed and meant to everyone in his small town, seems to embody so much of what the holiday means. The production, which has music and lyrics by Joe Reposo and Sheldon Harnick, runs through Sunday, Dec. 6. There are two performances on Wednesday, Dec. 2 and Saturday, Dec. 5. I love the gentle holiday song, “Christmas Gifts.” This is a show that will make you feel hopeful. For tickets, visit goodspeed.org or call 860-873-8668.

Each holiday season the Ivoryton Playhouse and its executive director Jacqui Hubbard put together an original holiday production. This year, it’s I’ll Be Home for Christmas, which runs from Thursday, Dec. 10 to Sunday, Dec. 20. It is described as a “holiday potpourri of songs and carols and Christmas fun.” It’s centered on the Evans family as it prepares for the holiday season and needs to find time to remember the meaning of the season while doing the multiple tasks that seem to be required. It’s billed as family friendly. For tickets, call 860-767-7318 or visit ivorytonplayhouse.org.

Shakespeare wrote one play whose title, Twelfth Night, refers to the elaborate Elizabethan celebrations that occurred between Christmas and Epiphany. The Connecticut Repertory Theatre, which performs at the Nafe Katter Theatre on the UConn campus in Storrs, has decided to infuse its 12th Night PR_editedproduction of the comedy with holiday seasoning. They promise carols and mistletoe in the comedy that as the press materials says “is a paean to the restorative power of love and the uproarious joy of the holidays. The plot revolves around a shipwrecked young woman who pretends to be a man working for a handsome nobleman who is in love with the Lady Olivia who scorns him. Both the nobleman and the Lady find the young page very attractive.” It runs Thursday, Dec. 3 to Sunday, Dec. 13. This is a good show to introduce teens to Shakespeare. For tickets, call 860-486-2113 or visit crt.uconn.edu.

For the Music-Minded

The New Haven Symphony performs two different holiday programs in locations throughout the area. Holiday Extravaganza features the entire symphony under the direction of Chelsea Tipton, who conducts the Pops concerts. The program includes classics from The NutcrackerThe Messiah, and excerpts from classical favorites as well as such popular hits as “Sleigh Ride,” “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas,” and others. Joshua Jeremiah is the baritone soloist. The concerts are on Saturday, Dec. 12 at Hamden Middle School; Sunday, Dec. 13 at Shelton Intermediate School; Thursday, Dec. 17 at Woolsey Hall in New Haven; and Sunday, Dec. 20 at Middletown High School.

The symphony’s Brass Quintet is combining with organ for its holiday concerts of favorites. The concerts are Saturday, Dec. 5 at Elim Park in Cheshire; Friday, Dec. 18 at Sacred Heart University; and Saturday, Dec. 19 at the First Congregational Church, Madison. For tickets, visit newhavensymphony.org or call 203-865-0831 x20.

Ho- Ho- Holiday Entertainment

For those who appreciate humor or cynicism as part of their holiday festivities, Connecticut theaters are offering some excellent choices.

The Palace in Waterbury is presenting ‘Twas a Girls Night Before Christmas: The Musical on Thursday, Dec. 10. It is about five women gathering for a night of laughs, tears, and gossip during the holiday season complete with both traditional and contemporary holiday songs. For tickets, visit palacetheaterct.org or call 203-346-2000.

christmas on the rocks 2TheaterWorks is bringing backs its popular Christmas on the Rocks, which features a parade of now-adult characters who were kids in popular holiday books, films, and TV shows. Among the characters we get to see in a rundown local bar on Christmas Eve are Charlie Brown, Cindy Lou Who, Tiny Tim, and others. Each skit is written by a different popular playwright. There are laughs and more; it runs through Wednesday, Dec. 23. This is best for older teens who will appreciate the twisted tales. For tickets, call 860-527-7838; for information, visit theaterworkshartford.org.

If you’ve ever wondered what it is like to be an elf in a Santaland, David santaland8x10hires_editedSedaris’s The Santaland Diaries lets you in on the experience of one such elf, an aspiring writer working at the Macy’s Santaland in New York City. MTC (Music Theater of Connecticut) presents the one person show from Friday, Dec. 11 to Sunday, Dec. 20. For tickets, visit musictheatreofct.com or call 203-454-3883. Again this is great for teens who will appreciate the humor.

Long Wharf is bringing back Sister’s Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of the Magi’s Gold, on Stage II from Tuesday, Dec. 8 through Sunday, Dec. 20. As the press materials says, “In this holiday mystery extravaganza, Sister takes on the mystery that has Sisters christmas catch long wharfintrigued historians throughout the ages—whatever happened to the Magi’s gold? Employing her own scientific tools and assisted by local choirs as well as a gaggle of audience members, Sister creates a living nativity unlike any ever seen.” For tickets, visit longwharf.org or call 203-787-4282.

Looking for something for younger children? The Bushnell is hosting a return visit of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical, which is faithful to the classic animated TV show that runs every year. All RUDOLPH_Rudolph_and_Clarice_The_cast_of_Rudolph_The_Red-Nosed_Reindeer_The_Musicalthe characters from the show—Hermey the elf, Yukon Cornelius, and the Abominable Snow Monster are on stage. It runs Friday, Dec. 11 to Monday, Dec 14 for five performances. For tickets, visit bushnell.org or call 860-987-5900.

And winding up the holiday shows is Westport Country Playhouse’s Fancy Nancy Splendiferous Christmas for two performances on Sunday, Dec. 20. This is geared to very young audiences, ages 2 to 7. For tickets or information, visit westportplayhouse.org or call 203-227-4177.

So this holiday season, take some time away from the chores to enjoy a theatrical or musical experience with family and friends.

This content courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com.

Next Year at Goodspeed, What’s New in NYC, Coming to 7 Angels and More News

Inside notes and comments about Connecticut and New York Professional Theater

By Karen Isaacs

New Musical at Chester: Goodspeed is concluding its season of new musicals at the Norma Terris Theater in Chester with Indian Joe to, Nov. 15.  The musical, inspired by true events, tells the story of a Texas beauty queen, a homeless Native American, and their blossoming friendship. Elizabeth A. Davis, who received a Tony nomination for Once, plays the beauty queen and Gary Farmer, an actor, musician and cultural activist plays Joe.  Davis wrote the book with Chris Henry and the music with Luke Holloway and the Jason Michael Webb and the lyrics. For tickets call 860-873-8668 or visit goodspeed.org.

Next Year at Goodspeed: The 2016 season at Goodspeed is the first one planned with the new executive director Michael Gennaro’s input.  The season will feature two revivals plus a new musical.  The Cole Porter show, Anything Goes, opens the season running from April 8 to June 16.  Following will be what is billed as a fresh-take on the 1960 musical, Bye, Bye Birdie from June 24 to Sept. 4.  The Goodspeed Opera House season concludes with Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz, a new musical inspired by the making of the classic film, The Wizard of Oz, from Sept. 16 to Nov. 27.  At the Norma Terris Theater in Chester, Goodspeed will present two new musicals.  Actually the first production is brand new version of the 1960s show The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd from May 19 to June 26. The original show introduced the song “Who Can I Turn To?”  Next up is a musical set in 1965 and using the songs of Petula Clark and others from the period, A Sign of the Times from July 28 to Sept. 4.  Season ticket packages are now on sale at 860-873-8668. For more information visit goodspeed.org.

An Opera Diva and Her Husband: When an opera diva nearing the end of her career suspects her husband, a prominent conductor, is enamored of the young woman hired to ghost-write his biography, you can expect a lot of drama and maybe some revenge in the form of an attractive male ghostwriter for her memoirs. That is the basis of the rather 1950s style drawing comedy, Living on Love which is next up at Seven Angels Theater in Waterbury. The play by Joe DiPietro will star Stephanie Zymbalist as the aging diva. The show originated at Williamstown Theater Festival in 2014 and had a brief run on Broadway last spring with Renee Fleming – a real opera star – in the lead. It runs Nov. 12 to, Dec. 6. For tickets call 203-757-7676 or visit sevenangelstheatre.org.

The Pearly Whites: For those who grew up in the 1950s, you may remember Liberace and his amazingly pearly white smile.  The pianist had his own popular TV show and was known for his flamboyance at the keyboard and in his many sequined costumes.  For those who are younger, Liberace may be best known for the made-for-TV movie a few years ago that starred Michael Douglas as Liberace.  Ivoryton Playhouse is presenting Liberace! to, Nov. 15. The play is billed as loving tribute to the classically trained pianist. Just like the Liberace, it features music from classical to popular.  Daryl Wagner plays Liberace; he’s played the man for more 20 years in a variety of shows.  For tickets call 860-767-7318 or visit ivorytonplayhouse.org.

A Refuge Throughout Time: Anon(ymous) is being staged by the Connecticut Repertory Theater on the UConn campus in Storrs, to  , Nov. 8.  The play by Naomi Izuka is part of the theater’s Studio Series. An adaptation of Homer’s classic Odyssey, it tells the story of a young refugee (Anon) who travels throughout the history of the US meeting a wide variety of people. For tickets call 860-486-2113 or visit crt.uconn.edu.

An Early Christmas:  The Shubert Theater in New Haven is not the only theater in Connecticut that is serving as a rehearsal and first performance venue for theatrical tours.  The Palace in Waterbury has also served that function.  This year, it will debut the 2015 tour of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, the stage musical version of the classic holiday film favorite. The show runs, Nov. 6 to, Nov. 8 before heading out to various locales. For tickets, call 203-346-2000 or visit placetheaterct.org.

 New York Notes: Fiddler on the Roof will now begin previews on, Nov. 20 and open officially on, Dec. 20. Tickets are available at telecharge.com.  You can get tickets through telecharge.com for the British play, King Charles III which opens officially on Nov. 19.  Yes, it imagines the reign of the current Prince of Wales.

While the national tour has just begun, the Broadway run of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which began life at Hartford Stage, will end Jan. 17.

Kathleen Chalfant, who is well known to Connecticut theater goers (she starred in the original production of Wit at Long Wharf among other appearances), will play Rose Kennedy in Rose, off-Broadway beginning, Nov. 21.

September 12 marked the 5773rd and last Broadway performance of Mamma Mia!

Richard Thomas, who also has performed frequently in Connecticut, will head the cast of Incident in Vichy, the Arthur Miller play about the Nazi occupation of France. It’s at the Signature Theater and begun previews.  Former Hartford Stage artistic director Michael Wilson directs. Tickets are available at signaturetheatre.org

A Chorus Line opened on Broadway 40 years ago, and it has a re-release of the original cast album with bonus tracks: two never-before-heard songs and alternate versions of some of the well-known songs. It is on the Sony label. Some of the bonus tracks are from the workshops that developed the show.  It also features expanded liner notes.

Telecharge now has tickets for the revival of The Color Purple starring Jennifer Hudson that begins previews, Nov. 10 and opens officially, Dec. 10.

Dear Elizabeth, which was produced at Yale Rep in 2012 will be staged off-Broadway by the Women’s Project Theater through, Dec. 5. The play by Sarah Ruhl is constructed from the letters that poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell exchanged. It will feature a rotating cast beginning with Kathleen Chalfant and Harris Yulin followed by J. Smith-Cameron and John Douglas Thompson, then Cherry Jones and David Aaron Baker. Information and tickets are available at wpt.org or 212-765-1706.

“Wonderful Life” at Goodspeed Has Flaws

The finale. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

The finale. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

By Karen Isaacs

 Turning an iconic movie into a stage musical often has built in problems. Such is the case with A Wonderful Life – The Musical now at Goodspeed through November 29.

It is based on the now classic film that starred James Stewart, Donna Reed, Henry Travers, Lionel Barrymore and Thomas Mitchell that was first released in December 1946.  Though it was not a huge box office hit, it received a number of Oscar nominations. Years later, the film did achieved its classic status.  Now it is among the top ranked American films ever made.

Kristen Scott as Mary and Duke Lafoon as George. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

Kristen Scott as Mary and Duke Lafoon as George. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

The Goodspeed production was actually created in the 1980s by Sheldon Harnick (book and lyrics) and Joe Raposo. Harnick has written many shows including Fiorello!, Fiddler on the Roof, She Loves Me and others. Raposo (music) is best known for contributing numerous songs to Sesame Street.  At its inception, the show was plagued with problems over the rights to the material, but it has had productions at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. (1991), a staged concert version on Broadway in 2005, followed by a full production at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey in 2007, among others.

But this production is not identical to any of those.  Director Michael Perlman has been consulting with Harnick, Raposo died in 1989, on modifications to the show.  Between the beginning of performances and the “official” opening, some material has been moved or eliminated.

One of the challenges of this material is that the leading man, George Bailey, is a “good guy” but can seem lacking in spirit or charisma.  He goes along with what is expected of him, despite his desires for something different.

I’m going to assume that almost everyone knows the plot: George Bailey stays in his small town and takes over running the local building society (like a bank) when his father unexpectedly dies despite wanting to go to Cornell to study architecture and to travel. He waits until his younger brother graduates to finally achieve his dreams, but his brother accepts a job out of town.  So he continues being the faithful steward of his father’s business and an irritant to the local millionaire who would like to take over and then shut down the building society.  As the years go by, George never forgets his dreams but also never can achieve them.  When it appears that money is missing from the bank and that he will be blamed, he contemplates suicide.

Frank Vlastnik as Clarence. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

Frank Vlastnik as Clarence. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

How do we know all of this?  It is actually told in flashback as the angel Matthew is showing an inept angel, Clarence, the turning points of George’s life.  Clarence is being charged with saving George and thereby earning his angel wings. He saves George’s life and reenergizes him by showing him how the town and its people would be so much worse off if he had never lived.  All ends happily.

Michael Perlman, who is new to Goodspeed, directs.  Based on this production, I would not be excited to see another musical directed by him.

The problems begin with some of the casting and obviously with direction. Duke Lafoon plays George Bailey; while he both sings and acquits himself well, he lacks a spark that the role needs. Too often, he blends into the background.  Yes, George is the quintessential “good guy” who sacrifices for others, but you don’t feel his passion or his disappointments. The entire characterization seems too muted.  He is easily overshadowed by many of the cast.

Almost emphasizing that, his wife Mary (Kristen Scott) is portrayed as a blond – which immediately draws your eye away from George. As an audience member said, “They don’t seem to go together.”

The supporting cast is good with many playing multiple roles. I do question that George McDaniel – who was very good – played not only Matthew but also George’s father in the beginning of the show, and later a town police officer. Since his appearance doesn’t change much, you wonder if this meant to imply that Matthew was always keeping an eye on George or if there is supposed to be other significance.  That you have time to think about this while watching the show, indicates another problem.

Ed Dixon as Mr. Potter and Duke Lafoon as George. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

Ed Dixon as Mr. Potter and Duke Lafoon as George. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

In flashier roles – that overshadow George – Logan James Hall is very good as his brother, Harry, and Michael Medieros is his uncle Billy who contributes to the problems.  In addition, Ed Dixon makes a convincing villain as Mr. Potter.

That brings us to Clarence – the angel trying to earn his wings.  Frank Vlastnik gives us an idiosyncratic performance, which you will either find charming, as I did, or annoying. Clarence is meant to be inept – nowadays we might think he has attention deficit order – so he is constantly being reminded to “focus” – but I found him appealing.

So that leads us to the music.  Somehow it doesn’t always seem to fit the period or spirit of the show.  Some numbers are good, but Raposo often seems in some ways too “modern” or “jazz” to fit the small town atmosphere.  For a show that is a tradition of the Christmas season, due to its message and that the ending occurs at the holiday time, the one Christmas song – “Christmas Gifts” gets lost in the shuffle.  We hear a snippet of it and then immediately George is singing a song to his daughter. When it gets a reprise, it is at the finale.  This song needs more attention.

Other aspects of the production live up to Goodspeed’s reputation. The choreography by Parker Esse, though limited it good.  There is only one really major dance number.  Costumes by Jennifer Caprio, scenic design by Brian Prather and lighting by Scott Bolman all do what they can to set the time – the ‘30s and ‘40s, small town feel of the show.

I just wish that George had more spark.

A Wonderful Life is at Goodspeed in East Haddam through November 29.  It’s pleasant but you wanted it to be so much more.  For tickets contact goodspeed.org or call 860-873-8668.

Photo by Diane Sobolewski

Photo by Diane Sobolewski

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