Tag Archives: Hartford Stage

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

absolute brightness by matthew murphy

Photo by Matthew Murphy

By Karen Isaacs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo by Matthew Murphy

 

Sentimental, Classical, Cynical – Connecticut Offers Holiday Performances and Concerts for All Ages and Tastes

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It’s Bill Raymond’s last year as Scrooge at Hartford Stage.  Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

By Karen Isaacs

 How do you like your holiday entertainment?  Sentimental? Serious? Classical?  Popular? Young child-friendly?  Cynical?

You can find performances that will entertain you no matter how you answered the questions. Connecticut’s varied theater and musical venues are offering a wide variety of events suitable for all ages and tastes.

The Classics

Just as A Christmas Story and White Christmas are among the classic holiday films, you are bound to see on TV, A Christmas Carol, The Nutcracker and The Messiah are classics of theater and music.

The most famous production of A Christmas Carol is the one that has been enchanting audiences at Hartford Stage for 19 years. It runs Friday, Nov. 25 through Friday, Dec. 30. This production which breaks box office records every year was adapted and originally directed by then Artistic Director Michael Wilson. He brought it from Fort Worth/Dallas when he arrived in Hartford and it has been a smash ever since. This production is official called – A Christmas Carol—A Ghost Story of Christmas. It features lots of ghosts – not just Marley – and they fly around the stage. It also features music of the period, but this is NOT a musical. Many of the cast members have returned year after year.

Bill Raymond has announced that this is his last year as Scrooge. As Michael Wilson has said, “Bill Raymond and I created Hartford Stage’s A Christmas Carol together 19 years ago.  He has, for 17 of the last 19 years, put his inimitable, distinctive mark on one of the greatest characters of English literature.  He joins actors such as Lionel Barrymore, Alistair Sims, Albert Finney and George C. Scott in an elite club of extraordinary actors who have left their indelible mark on Dickens’ classic story of redemption and grace.”

Each year the cast is joined by area children and students from the University of Hartford’s Hartt School. The show is recommended for children eight and older, though my granddaughters were about six when they started seeing it. The ghosts can be scary, so use your own judgement.

As part of the production, Holiday Market Days are held before specific Saturday and Sunday matinees. Local artisans offer unique gift items for sale in the lobby between 12:30 and 2 p.m.

For information contact Hartford Stage or call 860-527-5151.

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Elm City Girls Choir

Handel’s The Messiah is the most famous piece of classical holiday music. While many groups perform it during the holiday season, the New Haven Symphony together with the Christ Church Choir will offer four performances conducted by Maestro William Boughton.  The performances kick off on Thursday, Dec. 15 at Woolsey Hall in New Haven. At that performance there will concession sales and other features that raise money for the New Haven Community Soup Kitchen. Additional performances are Friday, Dec. 16 at Sacred Heart University Chapel, Fairfield; Saturday, Dec. 17 at the First Congregational Church, Madison; and Sunday, Dec. 18 at the Performing Arts Center at Middletown High School. Tickets and information are available New Haven Symphony or 203-865-0831.

The Kate in Old Saybrook will present the Annual Handel “Messiah” Sing (or Listen!) on Sunday, Dec. 18. The professional soloists and the chorus of talented singers conduct a sing-a-long for everyone. Or you can just listen. Contact The Kate or 877-503-1286 for information and tickets.

The Nutcracker is the classic holiday ballet and many dance groups offer their versions of it. New Haven Ballet presents its production of the Tchaikovsky classic at the Shubert Theater from Friday, Dec. 9 to Sunday, Dec. 11. It features students from the Ballet and live music by the Ballet Orchestra. Guest artists from major ballet companies dance as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier.

If those dates or location aren’t convenient, the Nutmeg Ballet will present its production at the Bushnell Theater in Hartford on Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 17 and 18. The cast includes professional trainees from the Nutmeg Conservatory of the Arts. Visit The Bushnell.

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The Hip Hop Nutcracker

Would you like to see a more irreverent take on The Nutcracker? The Bushnell is presenting The Hip-Hop Nutcracker which is described as a holiday mash-up of the classic. There’s a DJ, a violinist, dancers and Kurtis Blow as the special guest MC. It’s on Sunday, Dec. 4. Visit The Bushnell.

The Kate is also presenting the Bolshoi Ballet’s Nutcracker on its HD screen on Sunday, Dec. 17.

For Younger Children

 Younger children (from 3 to 8 or 9) may get restless at a full-length production that is 2 hours or more even if it has an intermission. But rest assured, Connecticut’s performing venues have not forgotten them during the holidays. And while these may be ideal for children, they often pleasures for the adults accompanying them.

downtown-cabaret-frostyBridgeport’s Downtown Cabaret Theater has had a well-respected children’s theater that runs year around for decades. It is geared to children below pre-teen age and has the added benefit that it is set up as a cabaret: round tables and you can either purchase or bring food and drink that will help keep younger kids occupied. For the holiday season the theater will offer its take on Frosty, the Snowman which runs through Thursday, Dec. 29. Tickets are quite reasonable but many weekend dates sell out early. For tickets visit Downtown Cabaret or call 203-576-1636.

A little farther afield, Westport Country Playhouse is presenting A Very Electric Christmas produced by the Lightwire Theatre on Sunday, Dec. 18. As the press materials the show includes “timeless holiday hit tunes by Nat King Cole, Mariah Carey, Tchaikovsky, and more.  Santa’s helpers are putting the final touches on presents as a young bird finds himself lost at the North Pole.  As he makes his way home, he meets dancing poinsettias, Nutcracker soldiers, and other festive characters. Recommended for ages 5 and up. For tickets visit Westport Country Playhouse or call 888-927-7529.

The Bushnell is once again presenting Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: the Musical which is based on the classic TV show. It’s the third year that Rudolph, Santa and the other reindeers will delight the entire family. It runs Friday and Saturday, Dec. 9 and 10. Visit The Bushnell.

Another Frosty is at The Kate on Sunday, Dec. 11. The Theatreworks USA production features original music. The plot has been changed from the popular TV version. In this version, “A young orphan named Billy discovers magic in a stolen hat. When he places the hat on a snowman’s head, the snowman comes to life! But can Frosty the Snowman help Billy find his real family in time for Christmas?” It’s recommended for K-5. Visit The Kate.

Celtic Holidays

 I don’t know when it happened, but concerts on the theme of Celtic Christmas have become very popular; it probably traces back to the very popular Irish Tenors and their concerts and TV shows. So for lovers of all things Celtic, there are many choices.

The Kate has too such shows. On Saturday, Dec. 3 the Tartan Terrors performs Christmas Celtic Style which includes comedy, music and dance. On Thursday, Dec. 22, Cherish the Ladies, a Celtic Christmas features five talented women. According the press materials, the evening includes “a blend of virtuoso instrumental talents, beautiful vocals, captivating arrangements, and stunning step dancing. “ Visit The Kate.

Lyman Center at Southern Connecticut State University presents Christmas with the Celtic Tenors on Sunday, Dec. 18. Matthew Gilsenan, James Nelson and Daryl Simpson preform music from classical to folk to Irish and pop. Recently they have added a more contemporary edge. For tickets, visit Lyman Auditorium.

More Music

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James Sinclair of Orchestra New England.

Orchestra New England gets the holiday season off with its  37th annual Colonial Concert on Saturday, Nov. 26 at United Church on the Green, New Haven. Under the direction of James Sinclair, the concert takes us back to the music and atmosphere of the Colonial Era with a mixture of familiar classical music, holiday music and some long forgotten music. Wigs, candles and waistcoats as Thomas Jefferson, minister to France, visits New Haven. For tickets, call 203-776-4690 or visit Orchestra New England

The Elm City Girls’ Choir will join the New Haven Symphony Orchestra’s Pops Concert, Holiday Extravaganza. The two shows, Saturday, Dec. 10 (at Hamden Middle School) and Sunday, Dec. 11 (Shelton High School) almost always sell out early. It features a mixture of light classics as well as popular holiday music and carols. Santa often appears and there is a sing-along. Tickets and information are available New Haven Symphony or 203-865-0831.

The Hartford Symphony annually presents its Holiday Cirque Spectacular under conductor Carolyn Kuan at The Bushnell. While the Symphony plays various holiday inspired music, the Cirque de la Sumphonie which includes aerialists, contortionists and jugglers perform. Visit The Bushnell..

The Hartford Gay Men’s Chorus and the Connecticut Gay Men’s Chorus both have holiday concerts. These are talented musicians and their shows feature great arrangements and often some humor. The HGMC performs A Wish Come True! Friday to Sunday, Dec. 2-4 at the Aetna Theater at The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. For tickets. Tickets are available at HGMC.

CTGMC performs its holiday show Christmas Stories Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 17 and 18 at the theater at the Co-op High School for the Arts on College Street, New Haven. For information and tickets visit CTGMC

Trinity Church on the Green in New Haven has had a men and boys choir since the 1880s and added a Girls and Men Choir in 2003. The two choirs have toured and performed throughout the US, Canada and England. This year’s concert includes Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols and carols from The Alfred Burt Carol Collection. These were written by Burt, a well-known American composer and sent as annual Christmas cards. The annual Christmas Concert is on Friday, Dec. 16. A donation is requested; for information visit: Trinity Chruch on the Green or 203-776-2616.

The Humorous and Cynical

 twSometimes we need some spice mixed with our holiday good feelings. TheaterWorks in Hartford is bringing back its very successful Christmas on the Rocks from Tuesday, Nov. 29 to Friday, Dec. 23. It’s accurately described as “an offbeat collection of twisted holiday tales”. A number of current playwrights have contributed scenes that show how the children from famous Christmas tales – from Ralphie and Tiny Tim to Charlie Brown and Clara from The Nutcracker turned out as adults. This year, a new scene has been added. Last year’s cast — Ronn Carroll as the bartender, Jenn Harris as the female characters and Matthew Wilkas as the male return. Tickets are on sale at TheaterWorks or 860-527-7838.

The Kate presents Will & Anthony’s Broadway Holiday on Friday, Dec. 2. Will and Anthony Nunziata are a singing and comedy duo (they are brothers).  It’s billed as  reminiscent of the classic Christmas specials of Bing Crosby with a contemporary flair and celebrates the joys of life, music and family. The concert includes fresh takes on classic Christmas songs along with Broadway hits and Italian music. Expect to hear such songs as “Joy to the World,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” ”Silent Night,” “The Christmas Song,” “Lullaby of Broadway,” “O Sole Mio” and more. Tickets are at The Kate.

The Santaland Diaries, based on David Sedaris’ book takes the stage at the Shubert in New Haven, Friday, Nov. 25 to Sunday, Nov. 27. The one man show recounts the adventures of an out-of-work actor who becomes one of Santa’s elves at the Macy’s on 34th Street. It’s a behind-the-scenes look. Call the box office at 203-562-5666 or visit Shubert.

playhouse-on-park-mama-dWest Hartford’s Playhouse on Park is presenting a “strictly adult” show, Mama D’s Chirstimas Stocking, described as a celebration of all things sexy and bawdy in an evening of music, dance and comedy. Shows begin December 9 and run on selected dates to December 30. Plus there is a special New Year’s Eve show with lots of extras. For tickets, please call our box office at 860-523-5900 x10 or visit Playhouse on Park.

More Classics

mtc Connecticut’s Joe Landry adapted the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life  into an unique stage presentation. The holiday classic is brought to live as a live 1940s radio broadcast complete with microphones and the sound effects man. This show has been performed throughout the country. You can see it this year at MTC (Music Theater of Connecticut) in Norwalk weekends, Friday Dec. 9 to Sunday, Dec. 18. For tickets call 203-454-3883 or visit MTC.

shubert-elfElf became a new classic almost from the time the film starring Will Ferrell and old time stars was released in 2003. In 2010 Elf – the Musical hit Broadway earning several Tony nominations. Each year since then, there’s been a tour of the show. This year, Elf – the Musical at the Shubert in New Haven from Tuesday, Dec. 20 to Saturday, Dec. 24. I enjoyed the show and the CD; it is a tuneful delight. Call the box office at 203-562-5666 or visit Shubert.

Ivoryton Playhouse is continuing its multi-part Christmas story, The Bells of Dublin with Part III: A New York Fairytale. Once again it is written and directed by artistic director Jacqueline Hubbard. This year, Paddy brings his whole family to NYC for the holidays where on Christmas Eve at O’Lunney’s Pub, Maggie the bag lady settles in to weave a story of the holidays. The Christmas carols, Irish songs and a little vaudeville.  R. Bruce Connelly heads the cast of audience favorites. It runs Wednesday, Dec. 7 to Sunday, Dec. 18. For tickets visit Ivoryton Playhouse or call 860-767-7318.

This content courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.

 

If Queens for a Year Doesn’t Anger You, You Weren’t Listening

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

By Karen Isaacs

After seeing the world premiere of the disturbing new play, Queens for a Year, at Hartford Stage (through Sunday, Oct. 2), I thought of the country-western song, “Mama, Don’t Let Your Sons Grow Up to Be Cowboys” except I was changing the lyrics to “Mama, Don’t Let Your Daughters Grow Up to Be Soldiers.”

This is a play about the sexualizing of women soldiers in today’s military. We have all read about the horrendous numbers of sexual assaults, rapes and harassment incidents our women in the military continue to face and the inadequacy of any safeguards or punishments. It is similar to what it was for all women 50 years ago who dared to report a rape or assault – intimidation, blame, punishment and scrutiny of their personal lives.

If it is really as bad as playwright T. D. Mitchell shows – and unfortunately simple research shows that it is — all citizens, not just women, should be marching and demanding change. Mitchell (a woman) is best known as a writer and script editor on the TV series Army Wives, but she has written other works with a military theme.

The play is about a military family but in this case it has been the women who have served. Told in flashback fashion, often fragmentary flashbacks, it is the story of 2nd Lt. Molly Solinas, a career Marine with deployments to Iraq under her belt.  We see her in Iraq, in a classroom for officers and at her Grandmother’s house in Virginia.

The Lieutenant has returned to the house with PFC Amanda Lewis to escape what has happened to them both. The house is run by her grandmother Gunny Molly Walker (Charlotte Maier) who was a gunnery mate in the Marines during the Vietnam War. She runs the house with military precision maintaining the same routines and terminology that she learned in the service. Solinas’ great grandmother Lucy MacGregor also lives there; she served in WWII at a time when Marine women were taught how to apply make-up during basic training and were required to use a particular shade of red lipstick that matched the red on their uniforms. She too is not only proud but gung-ho though she is slowing losing her grip. Solinas’s aunt, Lucy Walker also resides in the house; she served in Desert Storm but received a dishonorable discharge because she was gay.

The only family member who escaped the military mentality is Solinas’ mother, Mae Walker, who is peace activist and midwife living separately. Solinas’ is the result of a relationship Mae had while in the Peace Corps in Central America. It is Mae who opens and closes the show.

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Why have Solinas and Lewis left camp? In flashbacks and in conversations we see what happens to Lewis. A good Marine with a future in the military, she is young (just 20) and has been deployed. Something happens – we aren’t sure what but assume it is sexual in nature – and when she seeks medical assistance, the staff puts in a request for her transfer. Her Staff Sergeant is NOT happy and berates her; it is obvious that he doesn’t like women in the military. He suggests that she can become a PFC if she “improves his morale” – this has only one meaning.

The title, Queens for a Year, is defined in the program as a “derogatory term for a female soldier or Marine serving her overseas tour of duty year, implying that even an ‘ugly’ female gets away with slacking off and being unduly treated as a queen, due to the stark lack of available women in a culture and profession of heterosexual males.”

As Lewis explains to one of the older women, all women in the military are categorized as “sluts, bitches or dykes.”  She goes on to say that one sexual encounter leads to the “slut” label and if the woman does not continue in that behavior, she is considered a “bitch.” She concludes that it better to adopt the “bitch” label from the very beginning.

Lewis turned to Solinas for support and advice, but a female Captain tells Solinas to stay out of it for the good of her career. When Lewis goes forward, a female officer cross examines her in a degrading way – asking questions about when she lost her virginity, if the Staff Sergeant was circumcised and when she doesn’t remember, implies she is lying.

Solinas has obviously testified for Lewis; the result was the Staff Sergeant has left her a graphic picture of what he will do to them both. That is why they have fled.

In the later parts of the second act, Solinas has lured the Staff Sergeant to find them; does

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

she hope for a reconciliation or something more? Unfortunately, her family who was not supposed to be home, comes back early so all are in the house when the unseen Sergeant drives up to the house, apparently drunk. I won’t spoil the ending of this confrontation.

The problem the play showcases is real.  A Rand Corporation report in 2014, cited the Marines has having the highest percentage of reported sexual assaults of any branch of the service (over 8%). Even the military itself reported 8.4% of Marine women reported “unwanted sexual contact” which is how they term it.

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson

This year, Time magazine reported on what happens to women – including officers – who do report sexual assaults. Medical documentation and other reports and paperwork often goes missing. The women are questioned about their sexual histories and are accused of having engaged in consensual sex and then changing their minds, of “acting inappropriately” and other offenses. They are often given general discharges which hinder them in civilian life. Even the appeal process of those discharges is Kafkaesque – the Navy, for example, assumes the discharge is correct unless the person can present “clear and substantial evidence” that the Navy was wrong. Few of the discharges are changed.

Senator Kirstin Gillibrand of New York has led the fight to force the military to be more accurate in their reporting, to improve the military justice system and to consider moving these cases from the military justice system into civilian courts. Her efforts and those of other senators and representatives have gone nowhere.

Director Lucie Tieberghien has assembled a fine production team and cast that completly inhabits the characters and situations. Daniel Conway’s two level scenic design moves us from barracks to Iraq to courtroom to Gunny’s Virginia home.  Beth Goldenberg’s costumes are mostly military garb but she helps develop the characters of Solinas’ family through the costumes for Mae, Gunny, Lucy and Grandma Lu. The lighting by Robert Perry combined with the sound design by Victoria Deiorio sets us in the various place realistically, particularly in the climatic last scene.

The cast is excellent. Jamie Rezanour and Mat Hostetler play a variety of roles – the Captain, the prosecutor, the Staff Sergeant and more.

Each of the leading and supporting cast is excellent. Vanessa R. Butler as Solinas embodies

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

the professional soldier who has not totally lost her conscience but who thinks in terms of military strategy and solutions. You wonder what she could have been had she not been encultured into the military life by her grandmother, aunt and great-grandmother.

Sarah Nicole Deaver is PFC Amanda Lewis; her gestures, tones and expression range from the girl from the dysfunctional background trying to escape to the emerging strong woman. She shows you her vulnerability, uncertainty and the admiration she has for Salinas.

Charlotte Maier as Gunny gives us a woman who has been so consumed by her military experience that she cannot be a civilian. Mary Bacon is the softer, more loving and warm as Solinas’ mother. Both Heidi Armbruster as the aunt and Alice Cannon as the great grandmother also create real characters.

It is to the credit of the author, the director and the actors that we become emotionally connected to these characters.

Perhaps the most disturbing elements of the play are the military cadences that members of the cast chant. Throughout the play, these call and response “songs” become more and more graphic and misogynistic. According to a program note, these are actual cadences though not all are “officially sanctioned.”

After seeing this play, if you don’t want to demand that the military truly solve the problem of sexual assault and harassment which affects not just military women but military men and civilian women and men as well, you should examine your conscience.

Queens for a Year is at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford through Sunday, Oct. 2. For tickets visit Hartford Stage  or call 860-527-5151.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publishing and zip06.com.

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Casting, Controversy, Season Schedules

By Karen Isaacs

Bierko Comes to Long Wharf: Craig Bierko, who was nominated for a Tony for his performance as Harold Hill in the Broadway revival of The Music Man and is now on UnREAL on Lifetime, has joined the cast of Meteor Shower by Steve Martin which opens the Long Wharf season. The show runs Wednesday, Sept. 28 to Sunday, Oct. 23. For tickets visit Long Wharf or call 203-787-4282

Auditions for Kids: Hartford Stage will be auditioning children 5-13 for its annual production of A Christmas Carol – A Ghost Story of Christmas from Tuesday, Sept. 20 to Thursday, Sept. 22. Auditions are by appointment only.  For information about preparation and requirements or appointments email Auditions.

This Year in Waterbury: The season at Seven Angels Theatre has been finalized. It opens with A Room of My Own, a semi-autobiographical comedy about a writer in a wacky family; it runs Thursday, Sept. 22 to Sunday, Oct. 16. Next is the return of Jon Peterson with a one man show about Anthony Newley: He Wrote Good Songs from Nov. 3 to 27. From Feb. 9 to March 3 is George and Gracie: The Early Years about the early life of George Burns and Gracie Allen. R. Bruce Connelly and Semina De Laurentis star. Jesus Christ Superstar, the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical runs from March 23 to April 23. The season concludes with Trav’lin –The 1930s Harlem Musical which recalls the period and features the music and lyrics of Harlem Renaissance composer J. C. Johnson. It runs May 11 to June 11. Tickets are available at 203-757-4676.

King Arthur:  Robert Sean Leonard will be King Arthur in Westport Country Playhouse’s production of Camelot which runs Tuesday, Oct. 4 to Sunday, Oct. 30. It is billed as a “reimagined” production directed by Mark Lamos. While Leonard may be known for his work in the TV series House, he has numerous Broadway credits and received a Tony Award and another Tony nomination. For tickets – which are going fast – visit Westport or call 888-927-7529.

Chasing Rainbows:  Goodspeed’s new musical, Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz which is how Judy Garland became a young star, is in rehearsals preparing for its opening Friday, Sept. 16. Of course, the show features many of the songs she made famous and also includes the making of The Wizard of Oz film which was supposed to star Shirley Temple. Goodspeed has a number of special evenings scheduled including a Saturday wine tasting (Sept. 17), teen nights, meet the cast, and others. For information and tickets visit Goodspeed or call 860-873-8668.

 Classic to Contemporary:  Westport Country Playhouse has announced its 2017 season, its 87th.  It opens (May 30 to June 17) with the British comedy Lettice and Lovage which was a 1990 Tony nominee. Following is the 2014-15 Obie (off—Broadway) Award winner for Best New American Play, Appropriate which runs July 11 to 29.  Grounded, a solo production that won the 2016 Lucille Lortel Award in that category and an award at the Edinburg Fringe Festival runs Aug. 15 to Sept. 2. Sex with Strangers, which runs Sept. 26 to Oct. 14 is about a modern relationship in the digital age. The season concludes with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (Oct. 31 to Nov. 19), directed by Mark Lamos, who is well known for his fine Shakespeare production. I still remember his production at Hartford Stage starring a young Calista Flockhart. For information and tickets contact Westport or call 888-927-7529.

Curtain Up: MTC (Music Theatre of Connecticut) in Norwalk opens its season with Gypsy from Friday, Sept. 9 to Sunday, Sept. 25. The iconic show features a cast of solid Broadway professionals. For tickets visit MTC or call 203-454-3883.

Investors Hard to Find: Even Barbra Streisand has problems finding investors. The most recent rumor is that the planned film version of Gypsy that has been talked about for years, is now in doubt again due to the withdrawal of an investor and distributor.

Controversy: Bay Street Theater on Long Island, had planned a concert reading of the new Stephen Schwartz and Phillip LaZenik musical Prince of Egypt, which is based on a film about an Egyptian prince who learns his true identity. Schwartz’ song for the film,“When You Believe” won an Oscar. That was the plan and the concert was cast with some high powered Broadway veterans. But the concert was cancelled after complaints that the cast was not diverse. Apparently there were not just complaints but comments on social media and online which the director termed “harassment” and “bullying.”  This is not the first time recently that a controversy has erupted over casting.

New York Notes:  The Berkshire Theatre Group is transferring its well-received production of Fiorello! to Off-Broadway this fall. It begins previews Sun., Sept. 4 at the East 13th Street Theater. For tickets visit Fiorello or call 800-833-3006. The Pearl Theatre is reviving A Taste of Honey, last seen 35 years ago. Austin Pendleton directs. It runs Tues., Sept 6 to Sun., Oct. 16q. For tickets visit pearltheatre.org or call 212-563-9261. Another off-Broadway Theater – Primary Stages is opening its season with Horton Foote’s The Roads to Home directed by Michael Wilson, former artistic director of Hartford Stage. The production stars Harriet Harris, Devon Abner and Haille Foot. It begins performances Tues., Sept. 13. For tickets visit Primary Stages or call 212-352-3101

New York Notes: Tickets are now on sale for Heisenberg which stars Mary Louis Parker at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater. It begins previews on Tuesday, Sept. 20. Tickets are available through Telecharge.  Jenn Gambatese who starred at Goodspeed in Annie Get Your Gun and has numerous Broadway credits is replacing Sierra Boggess in School of Rock on Broadway. Tickets are also on sale for the revival of Falsettos starring Christian Borle, Andrew Rannells and Stephanie J. Block. The William Finn/James Lapine musical begins previews Thursday, Sept. 29 for a limited run. Ticketmaster is handling tickets.

CRT Season:  The Connecticut Repertory Theater which performs on the UConn campus in Storrs is the last of the Connecticut theaters to announce its 2016-17 schedule. It begins with an ambitious play: Shakespeare’s King Lear from Thurs., Oct. 6 to Sun., Oct. 16. This coincides with the exhibition of a rare Shakespeare first folio to the campus (Thur., Sept 1 to Sun., Sept. 25) via the Folger Shakespeare Library’s tour.  Changing gears, the second show if a translation of the Feydeau farce Le Dindon, called An Absolute Turkey, from Dec. 1 to 10. In 2017, Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty will play Feb. 23 to March 5 followed by Shrek: The Musical from April 20 to 30. Please call 860-486-2113 for information and subscriptions. Tickets for individual performances go on sale Sept. 1. Information is available at CRT.

Broadway People: He’s hot! Lin-Manuel Miranda has left his show Hamilton but he won’t be resting anytime soon. He’s working on the film version of his first hit, In the Heights, which is now a “go” because of the Hamilton success. He’s also signed to co-star in the 2018 Disney film that will be a sequel, Mary Poppins Returns. Emily Blunt will play Poppins. It’s a new story (set in London in the 1930s) and a new score. Angela Lansbury is not retiring; she’s returning to Broadway in 2017-18 in a revival of The Chalk Garden. She’ll be over 90 when it opens. Joe Mantello has been directing more than acting recently; he had two well received shows on Broadway last season. But he’s pulling out his acting talents to co-star with Sally Fields in a revival of The Glass Menagerie that begins previews next February. Sam Gold will direct.

On the Road to Broadway: Lots of shows have Broadway aspirations, but few make it and even fewer succeed. Among the shows that are supposedly enroute is Josephine, about the legendary American performer Josephine Baker who was a major star in Paris. It just played in Florida and producers say the next stop in Broadway.  Grammy nominee Deborah Cox starred. The musical version of From Here to Eternity with lyrics by Tim Rice has played London, but made its US debut at the Finger Lakes Musical Theater Festival this summer. Who knows if it makes it to Broadway; if you’re interested, there is a London cast album. Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty will have Anastasia on Broadway next spring and their other new musical, The Little Dancer is also continuing development. After a production at the Kennedy Center in 2014, extensive revisions were done on the book. It’s inspired by a sculpture by Edgar Degas.

From East Haddam to Broadway:  A musical that began life at the Goodspeed Festival of New Musicals in 2013 will make it to Broadway. Come From Away tells the inspiring story of the residents in the Gander, Newfoundland area who hosted thousands of stranded air travelers when their flights were diverted to Gander on Sept. 11, 2001. From Goodspeed’s Festival, the show has more recently had successful runs at the La Jolla Playhouse, the Seattle Repertory Theater and will soon open at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC before going on to Toronto and then Broadway. It’s scheduled to open in February.

 

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

 

“Anastasia” New Musical Has Gorgeous Production Values But Needs Work

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Escaping Russia. Photo by Joan Marcus

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Ghosts of the Past. Photo by Joan Marcus.

By Karen Isaacs

 The last time I saw a world premiere musical at Hartford Stage, I left absolutely entranced. The show was A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which became a surprise hit on Broadway and won the Tony for best musical and the direction Tony for Darko Tresnjak.

Another world premiere musical is now at Hartford Stage and its Broadway transfer is already announced. Yet I left Anastasia with more doubts than the last time.

The production is opulent; every aspect of the production will take your breath away. Let’s start with the set by Alexander Dodge. He creates the court of Imperial Russia, Paris, and a wide variety of places in between. Particularly ingenious is his handling of the train on which Anya and her companions ride to escape Communist Russia.

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Mary Beth Peil. Photo by Joan Marcus

Then we can praise the costumes by Linda Cho – the gowns of Imperial Russia and later the gown for the Dowager Empress — are elegant and opulent. But she goes beyond that to create authentic 1920s costumes as well. Her costumes are supplemented by the wig and hair design by Charles G. LaPointe.

Let’s praise the sound design by Peter Hylenski and the lighting by Donald Holder. I marveled at some of the lighting effects Holder achieved including one scene where only Anya is in color.

But the highest praise must go to the video and projection design by Aaron Rhyne. His designs create three-dimensional images of St. Petersburg – the winter palace, the cathedral and so much more – Paris and the various scenes in-between.

Anastasia is billed as “inspired by the 20th Century Fox animated film” from 1997. Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) and Steven Flaherty (music) who wrote the score for that film are still involved and Terrence McNally has written a new book.

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Derek Klena, Christy Altomare, John Bolton. Photo by Joan Marcus

The basic story of Anastasia, the thought that the Tsar’s youngest daughter escaped execution, has been the basis of plays, films and even a musical (Anya) in 1965 for years.  Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar for the role in 1956. It is based on a kernel of truth: there was a search for Anastasia and a number of imposters tried to claim the money. In the 1920’s Anna Anderson, who claimed to be an amnesiac gained notoriety for her claim to be Anastasia. Most of the versions take some elements from her story and the 1952 French play by Marcelle Maurette.

I have never seen the 1997 animated film, but some cursory research reveals that McNally has substantially changed the plot to make it more probable. The basic outline remains the same: we see the royal family before the revolution when the Dowager Empress gives her youngest granddaughter a music box before she leaves for Paris where she lives. The revolution arrives and the royal family is captured and later killed.

Soon we are in the midst of the Communist regime of the mid-1920s. A young woman is sweeping the streets; she has no memory of her past. Two men (Dmitry and Vlad) – both of whom live by their wits — know that the Dowager Empress has offered a reward for finding Anastasia; they decide to look for someone to impersonate the Princess and find the young woman.  In a My Fair Lady like story, they tutor her and groom her so she can pass; occasionally she recounts a memory that surprises them.

They escape Communist Russia and travel to Paris – after some narrow escapes – where they manage to arrange a meeting with the Dowager Empresses’ companion and then the Dowager herself, who has become weary of the parade of imposters. Do you really need for anyone to tell you the ending? It is predictable.

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Christy Altomare. Photo by Joan Marcus.

McNally has added in Gleb, a Soviet bureaucrat whose father was apparently at the execution of the royal family and who is now charged by his bosses with tracking these Anastasia pretenders. That he seems somewhat smitten with Anya/Anastasia adds a dimension to the story.

Only a few of the songs from the film remain in the new musical: the Oscar winning “Journey to the Past,”  “Once Upon a December,” “A Rumor in St. Petersburg,” “Paris Holds the Key” and a couple of others.

The show is packed with songs, many of which are lovely. In addition to the songs from the film, I particularly liked “My Petersburg,” “I Never Should Have Let Them Dance,” “We’ll Go from There,” among others.

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Photo by Joan Marcus

Certainly Darko Tresnjak’s direction and concept is brilliant. He has his production team create wonderful effects, he transitions the multiple scenes and locations splendidly, gives us ghost-like flashbacks, plus he draws the best from his performers. He is aided by choreographer Peggy Hickey who creates everything from court quadrilles to folk dances and even a ballet.

Most of the performers are also terrific. Mary Beth Peil plays the Dowager Empress with both elegance and touching emotion. Derek Klena is fine as Dmitry but doesn’t really create a three dimensional character until the second act. John Bolton is Vlad, who is part comic figure and part somewhat tragic one. He really scores with the lovely song, “I Never Should Have Let Them Dance.” Manoel Felciano is the villain-like character Gleb. Felciano makes him more than just a villain; there is undercurrent of conflict between his commitment to the Party and his attraction to Anya. Caroline O’Connor plays Lily the Dowager Empress’ companion. She is excellent and brings both pathos and comedy to the part.

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Manoel Fleciano and Christy Altomare. Photo by Joan Marcus

Christy Altomare has the difficult job of transforming a somewhat typical “Disney princess” into a real woman. She succeed partly, yet I never quite believed in her or even cared about her. She is very effective in her songs, particularly the act one closer “Journey to the Past.”

If so much was right with Anastasia, why wasn’t I totally enchanted? First, the show needs cutting – act one is too long, the comic number “Land of Yesterday” goes on much too long, etc. The humor of that number seems to break the mood of the piece. But the real problem for me was that I never became emotionally involved in the show; I can see My Fair Lady multiple times and always root for Eliza and even the semi-romance with Higgins. Here I wasn’t invested in the show or the characters. They seemed more two-dimensional. Pleasant but not emotionally engaging.

The audience certainly loved it and I oohed and aahed at the costumes, set and projections with the rest of the audience.

My theater companion said the show made her “feel like a princess.”  Right, but more like a Disney princess than a real live person.

I’m sure that before Anastasia opens on Broadway next season, it will be changed and tightened. I’ll even bet that no matter what the critics say, it will attract a delighted audience of women and girls of all ages.

Anastasua is at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford through June 12. For tickets visit hartfordstage.org or call 860-527-5151.

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Photo by Joan Marcus

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Derek Klena and Christy Altomare. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Yale’s Music Institute, “Roar of the Greasepaint” and more news

Inside notes and comments about Connecticut and New York Professional TheaterBy Karen Isaacs

Music Theater Institute:  In conjunction with the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, the Yale Institute for Music Theater will present two new musicals for development. The Festival culminates in open-to-the public rehearsal readings on Friday, June 24 and Saturday, June 25. The musicals are Blessings which takes place during Spirit Week in Blessing, Alabama, and The White City that takes place around the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbia Exposition. For tickets visit artidea.org/tickets or call 203-498-3772.

 Revised Musical: Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theater at Chester will present what it calls a “bold reimagining” of the Anthony Newley, Leslie Bricusse musical The Roar of the Greasepaint-The Smell of the Crowd from Friday, May 20 to Sunday, June 26.  Tony Sheldon, who was Horace VanderGelder in the Goodspeed production of Hello, Dolly! leads the cast as Sir. Among the familiar songs from this 1960s musical are “Who Can I Turn To?” “Feeling Good,” “A Wonderful Day Like Today” and “The Joker.”  For tickets visit goodspeed.org or call 860-873-8668.

Tony Nominations:  Tony award nominations were announced May3; it was no surprise that Hamilton the show everyone wants to see but can’t get tickets, received a whopping 18 nominations — a record. You can expect that it will haul home a load of awards at the Sunday, June 12 ceremony.  Also Audra McDonald will not be racking up her seventh Tony award; she was not nominated for her role in the new musical Shuffle Along…. Multiple major nominations went to the revivals of Arthur Miller’s The View from the Bridge and The Crucible, new plays Eclipsed (which began at Yale Rep), The Humans, King Charles III, Blackbird, and the revival of Long Day’s Journey into Night. Besides Hamilton, multiple major nominations went to the new musicals Shuffle Along…,Waitress, Bright Star, and School of Rock as well as the revivals of The Color Purple, She Loves Me, Spring Awakening and Fiddler on the Roof. The new musicals Tuck Everlasting, American Psycho, Disaster! and On Your Feet! were pretty much shut out.

 Collaborations on the Schedule: Long Wharf has announced its 2016-17 season and it includes some familiar names working with the theater.  Steve Martins newest play, Meteor Shower, opens the season (Sept. 28 – Oct. 23). Then comes the 1980s comedy about corporate takeovers, Other People’s Money (Nov. 23 to Dec. 18).  Brian Dennehy and John Douglas Thompson return to the Long Wharf stage with Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, Jan. 4 to Feb. 5. The world premiere of Napoli, Brooklyn (Feb. 15-March 12) will be produced in collaboration with NY’s Roundabout Theater.  The last two shows are Smart Money (March 15 – April 9), a recent off-Broadway production and the season closes with a new musical Table (May 3-28).  For information and subscriptions visit longwharf.org or call 203-787-4282

Hartford Next Year: Hartford Stage has announced four productions for next year though with no specific dates, plus two more to be announced soon.  The season will open with a world premiere of Queens for a Year; also on the schedule in the fall is August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize drama, The Piano Lesson. The new year begins with Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors directed by Darko Tresnjak, and The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkev. As usual, the holiday season will feature its outstanding production of A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story. For information or subscriptions call 860-527-5151 or visit hartfordstage.org.

News from Connecticut Theaters and NYC

Inside notes and comments about Connecticut and New York Professional Theater

By Karen Isaacs

King Arthur and the Holy Grail: Monty Python’s famous movie about this was turned into a terrific musical, Spamalot that won numerous awards. Now the Connecticut Rep on the UConn campus is presenting it from Thursday, April 21 to Sunday, May 1.  Rickard Kline will play King Arthur; he was at CRT in The Sunshine Boys and played the Wizard in the national tour of Wicked.  He will be joined by Mariand Torres as the Lady of the Lake. She has played Elphaba in the same tour of Wicked.  For tickets, visit crt.uconn.edu or call 860-486-2113.

World Premiere: Long Wharf is presenting the world premiere of Lewiston through Sunday, May 1, directed by former associate artistic director Eric Ting.  According to the press materials, Lewiston is about “Alice and Connor [who] sit by their roadside stand selling cheap fireworks while developers swallow the land around them. Promised a condo in the new development, their future is secure. Enter Marnie, Alice’s long lost granddaughter, proposing to buy the land to save her family legacy. Marnie and Alice will become reacquainted with each other’s deeply held secrets, uncertain pasts, and hopeful futures.”  For tickets visit www.longwharf.org or call 203-787- 4282.

Favorite Songs: If “Take Me Home, Country Roads” or “Rocky Mountain High” are among your favorite songs, you will want to see the east coast premiere of the new musical Back Home Again: On the Road with John Denver at Ivoryton Playhouse. It runs through Sunday, April 24.

David M. Lufken and Katie Deal star; they have been with the show since its original production at the Milwaukee Rep. Lufken created the show Woody Sez about Woody Guthrie which had a successful run at TheaterWorks.  You can expect to learn lots about Denver as well as to hear many of his songs. For tickets visit ivorytonplayhouse.org or call 860-767-7318.

 News from the Shubert: New Haven’s Shubert Theater will host a return engagement of Jersey Boys, Tuesday, May 3 to Sunday, May 8.  For tickets to Jersey Boys or information on subscriptions to the Broadway series visit Shubert.com or call 203-562-5666.

Matilda: Hartford’s Bushnell Theater is hosting the national touring production of the musical Matilda, based on the Roald Dahl book and the film. It runs Tuesday, April 26 to Sunday, May 1.  For tickets visit bushnell.org.

New Haven in New York: In the last weeks, several shows that New Haven area audiences saw have opened on and off-Broadway. Eclipsed by Daniel Gurira has opened on Broadway starring Lupita Nyongo’o, who was a Yale Drama student and understudy when it had its premiere at the Yale Rep. She has since won an Oscar.  Guiria’s Familiar¸ which opened at the Yale Rep in February 2015 has opened off-Broadway.  Opening soon is Indecent by Paula Vogel. It ran last fall at the Yale Rep and will feature the Yale cast.

The Last Five Years:  MTC (Music Theater of Connecticut) is closing its season with the award winning musical The Last Five Years which features book, music and lyrics by the Tony winning Jason Robert Brown. The show tells the story of a relationship; but the man tells the story from beginning to end while the woman tells the story from the end back to the first meeting. Nicolas Dromard who has appeared on Broadway in Jersey Boys and Jennifer Malenk who has appeared in Into the Woods star.  The show runs to Sunday, April 24. For tickets call 203-454-3883 or visit musictheatreofct.com.                                                      

Anastasia: Excitement is building about the world premiere of Anastasia at Hartford Stage beginning Thursday, May 12.  The last musical to premiere there, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, went on to win the Tony for best musical and a Tony for the director Darko Tresnjak, Hartford’s artistic director.  Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty who wrote the music for the animated film, are writing new music for the show.  In an interview with the Manchester (CT) Journal Inquirer, Tresnjak said that 16 new numbers have been written for the show; only six from the original film are in the score. For tickets visit hartfordstage.org.

This Summer: Sharon Playhouse, in the northwest corner of Connecticut is presenting five shows this summer.  The season begins with Gypsy from June 16-July 3, followed by the Tony-winning musical Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from July 21-31. Then is Quartet, a play about elderly opera-singers from Aug. 18 to 28. On stage two, the Playhouse will present a new musical Judge Jackie: Disorder in the Court from July 7-17 and the long-running off-Broadway hit, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change from Aug. 4-14.  For information or tickets visit sharonplayhouse.org. The box office, 860-364-7469 x100 opens Friday, April 15.

New Plays: Westport Country Playhouse has launched an initiative to develop new plays and musicals through workshops and readings. Two works will be receiving a workshop and later a staged reading before an audience. The two works are a new play, Out of the Mouths of Babes by Israel Horovitz (in partnership with New York’s Cherry Lane Theatre) and a new musical The Rivals based on the classic comedy by Sheridan.

 New York Notes: The musical comedy The Robber Bridegroom is being revived by Roundabout Theater at its off-Broadway Laura Pels theater. Steven Pasquale is starring.  It is billed as a “raucous, hilarious, sexy theatrical gem with an irresistibly catch bluegrass score.” It runs through Sunday, May 29. For tickets visit roundaboutTheatre.org. Marin Mazzie will take over the role of Anna in the Lincoln Center revival of The King and I. She succeeds Kelli O’Hara. Side Show, a musical Stephen Sondheim has been working on for years under various titles is getting a production the Signature Theater in Arlington, Virginia.  It often present new works that eventually make it to New York. Last summer a new musical about James Cagney got a brief run off-Broadway.  Most people don’t know that Cagney started as a song and dance man. Now Cagney is getting a full off-Broadway production with an opening set for Sunday, April 3.For tickets visit Telechaerge.com.

New York Plans for Next Season: A musical version of Sponge Bob is aiming for Broadway next season. It will preview in Chicago beginning June 7. Derek Hough of Dancing with the Stars will star on Broadway next season in Singin’ in the Rain. He will, of course, play the Gene Kelly role. The show will begin in Paris as the successful An American in Paris musical did. Also next season is a revival of William Finn and James Lapine’s musical Falsettos. It will begin previews on Sept. 29.

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