By Karen Isaacs
Next to Normal at TheaterWorks.
You could criticize practically nothing in this production. Rob Ruggiero cast it brilliantly with Christiane Noll, David Harris, Maya Keleher (in her professional debut), Nick Sacks and John Cardoza. Ruggiero used the aisles to add to the intimacy; it was remarkable.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Hartford Stage
This Shakespeare play is done so often, it is easy to say “oh no, not again.” But Darko Tresjnak’s production was outstanding. He balanced all the elements and did not let any one of the multiple plots overtake others. His handling of the play put on by “the mechanicals” at the ends was terrific.
Fireflies at Long Wharf
Jane Alexander, Judith Ivy and Denis Ardnt gave touching performances, creating real people in this sweet romance about an older, retired school teacher, her nosy next store neighbor, a drifter. Gordon Edelstein kept it moving and preventedit from becoming saccharine.
Rags at Goodspeed
This story of Jewish immigrants on the lower east side of New York was completely revamped for this production: extensive revisions of the book, lyrics and songs. The result wasn’t perfect but with Rob Ruggiero’s sensitive direction, this show touched the heart.
The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Plekey at Hartford Stage
This may have been a touring show, but James Lecesne not only was brilliant in turning his novel into a one actor play but did so much outreach in the community on the issues of teens facing bullying due to sexual orientation.
Diary of Ann Frank at Playhouse on Park
David Lewis made full use of the large and sometimes awkward stage area to create the attic in which the Franks and others hid for many years. Director Ezra Barnes cast the show almost perfectly from Isabelle Barbier as Anne to the entire ensemble. It was touching and real.
A Comedy of Errors at Hartford Stage
It is perhaps Shakespeare’s silliest play and director Darko Tresnjak emphasizes it beginning with his own colorful Mediterranean village set, a canal with real water and more. Who cares if the lines sometimes gets lost in the process?
Seder at Hartford Stage
How do you survive in a repressive regime? How do you make others, who have not lived through it, understand your choices? That was at the heart of this new play which thoroughly engaged me. Plus it had Mia Dillion once again showing her skills.
Wolves at TheaterWork
Wolves was a sensitive and insightful look into both the world of girls’ sports (in this case a soccer team) but also into the society that teenagers create for themselves. Though a few of the young actresses looked a little too old, we become totally engaged in them and their lives.
The Games Afoot at Ivoryton
Sometimes just seeing actors have a great time with a so-so play is more than enough. That was the case in this comic thriller by Ken Ludwig. It succeeded because of director Jacqueline Hubbard, set designer Daniel Nischan and a cast that just had fun.
The runners up
“Trav’lin’ –the 1920s Harlem Musical at Seven Angels.
It may not be a great musical, but this show introduced me to a lesser known composer – J. C. Johnson who wrote “This Joint is Jumpin’” and many others. The plot is simplistic but the cast was wonderful.
Noises Off at Connecticut Repertory Theater
My favorite farce got a fine production this summer with some inventive touches by director Vincent J. Cardinal, terrific casting and timing that was just about perfect.
Million Dollar Quartet at Ivoryton
This show lives and dies on the quality of the performers and here Ivoryton Playhouse and executive director Jacqui Hubbard hit the jackpot. All six of the major performers are experienced and the four “legends” have all played their roles before.
The Bridges of Madison County at MTC
The music is glorious and Kevin Connors created a production that worked very well on his three sided stage. While the chemistry didn’t seem to be there, musically the cast was strong.
The Great Tchaikovsky at Hartford Stage
Hershey Felder combines his talents as pianist, actor and director to create shows about the lives for well-known popular and classical composers. This show about Tchaikovsky was a delight.
Heartbreak House at Hartford Stage
Darko Tresnjak directed this version of Shaw’s masterpiece. It might have made the top ten BUT for one decision that Tresnjak made: he decided to make Boss Mangan a Donald Trump look/act alike. The similarity would have been recognizable without it and it distracted from the play.
Endgame at Long Wharf
Samuel Beckett writes difficult plays requiring an audience to understand his pessimistic world view and his abstract characters and plots. Gordon Edelstein directed a production that may not have been definitive but gave us outstanding performances by Reg E. Cathey, Brian Dennehy and Joe Grifasi.
Biloxi Blues at Ivoryton
This Neil Simon play, part of the Eugene trilogy got a fine production directed by Sasha Bratt that focused less on the laughs and more on the situation.
Native Son at Yale Rep
This production boasted a terrific performance by Jerod Haynes as Bigger, an urbanset by Ryan Emens and jazzy sounds by Frederick Kennedy that produced a taut, film noir feel to this story about race and prejudice.
Romeo & Juliet at Westport Country Playhouse
Mark Lamos, who is a fine director of Shakespeare gave us a pared down version of this classic tragedy that featured some fine performances – including Nicole Rodenburg as Juliet, Felicity Jones Latta as the Nurse, and Peter Francis James as Friar Lawrence, plus a magical set by Michael Yeargan. Lamos emphasized the youth and energy.
West Side Story at Ivoryton
This production had many more plusses – Mia Pinero as Maria, Natalie Madion as Anita, good direction by Todd L. Underwood – than minuses.
By Karen K. Isaacs
Not many people remember when radio stations broadcast plays performed in front of live studio audiences. The listening audience had only their imaginations, the voices of the performers, the reactions of the live audience and the sound effects to recreate the play.
Joe Landry – who is the marketing/public relations director at Music Theater of Connecticut in Norwalk – a number of years ago imagined a radio production of the holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life. The first production was in 1996 and it has been performed throughout the country and world ever since.
It is returning to MTC through Dec. 18.
Not only does it recapture all the most important scenes of the classic movie, it also introduces many audiences to the concept of the radio play.
As you are waiting for the play to begin, we hear the “15 minutes to air” announcements to the cast. Then the MC Freddie Filmore (played by Allan Zeller) warms up the audience by encouraging applause – yes, there are applause lights that go on to encourage the audience’s participation – and introducing the actors.
Then the show begins. Just five talented performers play all the characters changing voices to fit the character. They hold scripts and add in gestures and facial expressions that help the live audience to understand the characters more.
Director Kevin Connors has assembled a talented cast to play the roles. Each creates both the personality of the radio actor AND the characters he or she plays.
Jon-Michael Miller plays the actor Jake Laurents who has only one role: George Bailey. He is earnest and yet at times discouraged and upset. Allan Zeller is the actor Freddie Filmore who not only serves as MC but also plays the villain of the piece, Henry F. Potter and others. Jim Schilling as the actor Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood also plays a multitude of roles including that of Clarence, the angel second class.
All the female roles are played by Elizabeth Donnell as Sally Applewhite who plays Mary and others; Elisa DeMaria is Lana Sherwood who plays Violet Bick among others.
It is delightful to see the performers switch roles and voices seemingly at the drop of hat. You are never confused by who they are at any given moment.
Diane Vanderkroef has given us authentic 1940s costumes. The set by Jordan Janota replicas a radio studio though I would have liked to see the sound effects area – which the various actors take turns using to create sounds – in a more prominent area. But it may have been where I was seated that obscured the workings. Part of the fun of this piece is to see how the various sounds – doors opening, etc – are created. I also would have liked to see more interaction among the various cast members.
All in all this is a delightful way to experience both the original film story and to see how people enjoyed plays in their homes, “back in the old days.”
It’s a Wonderful Life –A Life Radio Play is at MTC, 509 Westport Ave, Norwalk, through Dec. 18. For tickets visit musictheatreofct.com.
By Karen Isaacs
Gypsy is a classic musical that is not easy to pull off. It requires a terrific actress for Mama Rose, strong supporting performers, and an ensemble. It has multiple sets and covers many years. It’s also one of the shows that recently has been done multiple times in Connecticut. Earlier this summer Tony winner Karen Ziemba played Mama Rose at Sharon Playhouse.
A director attempting to produce this show at a small theater with a limited budget is
really creating some barriers to success. But just as director Kevin Connors did last fall with Evita, he overcomes the hurdles as though they weren’t there. This is overall a terrific production.
Seeing it at the intimate MTC (Music Theatre of Connecticut) space in Norwalk where it runs through Sept. 25 lends an extra dimension to the show.
Connors has a small cast to work with but he has selected them carefully. He uses just four children in the show; six women play all the roles besides Mama Rose and Gypsy, and three men play everyone except Herbie. Yet you never feel like show needs more performers.
In case you don’t recall the story, it based very loosely on the early years of the famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee whose stage door mother was determined in the 1920s to get Gypsy and her younger sister (who became the actress/director/playwright June Havoc) onto the famed Orpheum vaudeville circuit. The act that Mama devises stars “Baby June” and is weak to say the least. They stumble along because Mama does not give up and is sure she can make Baby June a star. Along the way, Herbie, a former agent, becomes enamored of Mama and serves as their agent.
The stage mother to end all stage mothers, Mama propels through sheer nerve, chutzpa and blindness the act to some limited success, but at a high price. As June hits the teenage years, she runs away to forge her own career. Mama then turns her effort to Louise (Gypsy) who has both less talent and less desire to perform. Plus, vaudeville is dying. Despite refurbishing the act – replacing young boys with young girls – Mama, Louise and Herbie struggle on until they are inadvertently booked into a burlesque house. When Mama encourages Louise to go on for the missing star stripper, Herbie leaves in disgust. Soon Gypsy (as she is now called) is a huge success and has cut the strings to Mama who wonders why she is always left alone at the end.
With a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the show is chocked full of terrific songs: from show biz anthems like “Everything’s Coming up Roses” to the tender “Little Lamb” and the terrific “All I Need Is the Girl,” “Some People,” and “You’ll Never Get Away from Me.” Of course, two highlights are “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” sung by three burlesque strippers and Mama’s ending soliloquy “Rose’s Turn.”
Kristi Carnahan is not a household name nor well known among Broadway aficionados. It was a wonderful surprise to see how she had both the acting and singing chops to bring this character life. While her Rose is totally oblivious to the wants and needs of her daughters, she is also blind to the true motivation behind her drive. She creates a Rose that emphasized the sadness and feelings of loss and disappointment within her. Kate Simone also brings out the pathos in Louise who really would prefer a live surrounded by a
“normal” family and lots of animals. More than in most productions, you see her disappointment when it is clear that Tulsa (the young dancer in the act) is in love with June. Yet she pulls off the transformation to star stripper with panache. Paul Binotto’s Herbie also emphasizes the longing of the character and also his awareness and anger at his own weakness.
Among the other cast members, Joe Grandy gives us a terrific Tulsa, and Jeri Kansas, Marca Leigh and Jodi Stevens are fine as the three strippers with gimmicks.
Becky Timms did a fine job with the choreography and Thomas Martin Conroy did the same with the musical direction. The four piece ensemble worked well and having
the Conroy at the piano stage was appropriate for the settings. The only disconcerting note was the very opening — the few bars from the seccond keyboard sounded like a full orchestra with violins which made me think that it was recorded. It wasn’t but the transition to the smaller and more real sounding combo was off-putting.
The set by Carl Tallent, costumes by Diane Vanderkroef and wigs by Peggi De La Cruz added to this production.
If you have never seen Gypsy or haven’t seen it in a while, please go see this production. It is fine.
Gypsy is at MTC, 509 Westport Ave., Norwalk through Sept. 25th. For tickets call 203-454-3883 or musictheatreofct.com.
By Karen Isaacs
MTC (the Music Theater of Connecticut) is closing its season with Jason Robert Brown’s off-Broadway musical, The Last Five Years through April 24.
The musical, asks an eternal question: What happens to cause a relationship to go sour? In this case it is the relationship (and marriage) of Cathy and Jamie. From meeting to divorce it lasts just five years. Not unusual nor even surprising. After all the two are young (early 20s) when they meet and both are trying to establish themselves in artistic careers. Jamie wants to write fiction and Cathy is trying to make it as an actress/singer/performer.
What is different about The Last Five Years, and works intermittently, is the way the story is told. Cathy tells the story of the relationship from finding Jamie’s letter announcing his intention of leaving her and goes backwards to when they first met and fell in love.
Jamie, on the other hand, tells the story chronologically from meeting Cathy to deciding to leave her and end the marriage. The two meet/cross only at the wedding.
Jason Robert Brown — the composer, lyricist and book writer for The Last Five Years is one of the most promising in the younger generation of Broadway writers. He regularly composes, writes the lyrics and does the arrangements for his shows which have included The Bridges of Madison County (he won the Tony for best score and orchestrations), Parade (the Tony for best score), Honeymoon in Vegas, 13, and Songs for a New World.
The Last Five Years opened off- Broadway in 2001 and was named as one of the best shows of the year, winning the Drama Desk award.
When the show begins, Cathy is reading the letter Jamie has left for explaining that he is leaving. In just minutes in this mostly sung musical, we see Jamie — but he is just meeting Cathy and falling in love with her.
The songs of each reflect where they are in the relationship and in their lives — from just meeting, to getting to know each other, an engagement, wedding, and then the difficulties of married life. The only time they are in the same place and time is at their wedding.
Their lives are equally different — Jamie finds success as novelist early on when his book is published to acclaim; Cathy struggles to make find jobs in the theater — auditioning numerous times, working in far off summer theater.
Jennifer Malenke and Nicolas Dromard are Cathy and Jamie. The roles are more difficult then they seem on the surface and each performer struggles at times. It is easy for Cathy to seem perpetually angry – at Jamie and at her lack of career success. Malenke’s performance is very one note — the tender moments are rare; also rare are reflective moments. It is no wonder that Jamie begins avoiding her. Dromard has an equal problem; Jamie can seem self-centered and selfish, if not handled carefully. As his career takes off, it is easy to understand why he may become self-absorbed with his success but you don’t see his frustration with Cathy’s lack of involvement with his career.
Unfortunately director Kevin Connors and particularly musical director Nolan Bonvouloir have not helped the two performers. MTC is a very small theater, seating under 150 people in a thrust stage; so why must the performers use microphones? Can’t these two experienced musical performers project sufficiently in the small space (each area is just 4 rows deep) to be heard?
But the real problem is that the pianist, situated at the back of the stage, overwhelms everything else. It is just too loud. Not only does it force the performers to belt, but it drowns out the other instruments in the combo. Brown uses cello a great deal in his orchestrations but this cellist could not be heard. Right after seeing the show, I heard the original cast cd and realized how much the cello added to the mood of the show. It is missing in this production.
There are some other questionable decisions. Cathy’s costumes seem like a reprise of the 1970s, and for one part of the show, the staging blocked our view of Joe.
The lack of subtlety makes this production of The Last Five Years a less successful and enjoyable one than it should be. The show deserved better.
The Last Five Years is MTC, 509 Westport Ave., Norwalk through April 24. For tickets, visit musictheatreofct.com or call 203-454-3883.