By Karen Isaacs
Do you realize how many professional theatrical productions are seen in Connecticut each year? What would be your guess?
With the ending of the Connecticut theater season which runs from about June 1 to May 31, I attempted to count up the shows. I know I missed some. But including all the professional theaters (those that have some type of contract from Equity the actors’ union) plus the productions seen at the major “presenting” houses such as the Shubert, Bushnell and Palace in Waterbury – the total astounded me.
In all, you could see a professional production for 100+ nights a year. And that didn’t include the “workshop” performances at Goodspeed-Chester, the O’Neill Center and other places.
If you want to consider just the regional theaters – it numbers 70+ productions. (By the way, I saw about 75 percent of these, plus some others). So I was sitting in a theater in Connecticut at least 60+ evenings.
My favorites? Everyone’s list will be different. Mine includes plays that were thought-provoking or challenging. But my list also includes plays that were just pure fun. I’ve broken them down in to a list of my “best” plays and “musicals”. These aren’t in any particular order. Some are by playwrights that I am very familiar with and others by playwrights new to me.
My Favorite Productions of Plays
Hartford Stage gave me three productions that I thoroughly enjoyed and would gladly see again. A Lesson from Aloes by Athol Fugard is a play that I saw first at Yale and found it brilliant. This production directed by Darko Tresnjak was equally so – thought-provoking, beautifully designed and marvelously acted. For sheer fun, nothing could be better than Tresnjak’s direction of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which opened the season. The direction by the Mechanicals was the best I’ve ever seen. And in the middle was the McCarter Theatre’s production of Murder on the Orient Express. Stylish and delightful. Another production I would gladly see again was Grounded at Westport Country Playhouse last July. This one woman show is about a military pilot who is reassigned to operating drones over Iraq from the US. And Playhouse on Park gave Connecticut theater goers a magnificent production of The Diary of Anne Frank.
Some plays were very good, but for one reason or another had something missing. Fireflies at Long Wharf was a charming, sweet play that is blessed with an outstanding cast. I’m not convinced that it would as enjoyable in the ends of lesser actors. Jane Alexander, Judith Ivey and Dennis Ardnt made this work. I also thoroughly enjoyed Seder at Hartford Stage, though some of my critic friends hated it. The questions it raised were fascinating and Mia Dillon was fabulous.
Also in this group would be The Game’s Afoot at Ivoryton which was silly, light but just fun, Noises Off at the Summer Series at Connecticut Repertory Theatre, The Chosen at Long Wharf, Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 and 3 at Yale Rep and Age of Innocence at Hartford Stage. Boyd Gaines was magnificent.
Some productions miss the mark – it may be a great idea that isn’t quite developed completely, or it wanders off topic, or the director or actors make some erroneous decisions. Or the play may not be that good, but one or two performances make it enjoyable.
Luckily most of the time, even if that happens there are elements that still make the production worth seeing.
But sometimes, to me the production seems so misguided in so many ways, that it disappoints me. This season there were a few that fit that description. Often my fellow critics disagree with me. Yale’s production of Enemy of the People was just such a production. I felt that both the director (James Bundy) and the leading actor (Reg Rogers) were totally off the mark. Office Hours at Long Wharf was a play that I felt didn’t really work on many levels.
My Favorite Productions of Musicals
I didn’t think there were really any outstanding musical productions this season. By that I mean productions where the work itself and all elements of the production hit the mark. Most had flaws of some kind.
Many productions were very good. Ivoryton Playhouse has shown it is capable of presenting very good productions. This season I thought Saturday Night Fever, West Side Story and The Fantasticks were all very good.
MTC (Music Theater of Connecticut) has shown that a very small theater (under 120 seats) and an awkward playing area can be made to work for mid-sized musicals. Kevin Connor did a great job directing both The Bridges of Madison County and Fun Home. The Summer Series at Connecticut Rep did a very good Newsies.
Goodspeed is held to a very high standard – it has wowed us so many times, that we expect perfection in each production. This year, it may have not have been perfection, but it was very, very good.
Rags was a major project: Taking a musical that had failed and working together with the composer and lyricist and a new book writer, to completely reshape the show. Characters were deleted, others added, major plot points changed, new songs written and lyrics revised for other songs. Working with the team was director Rob Ruggiero. This story of turn of the 20th century Jewish immigrants on the lower east side of Manhattan, still isn’t perfect, but the show was done very well and was much improved.
Goodspeed also presented the classic Oklahoma! Again a very good production that I felt missed the mark in some ways.
The Big Theater Stories So Far This Year
Two major theatrical stories hit even the national press. The first was the firing of Long Wharf Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein after allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct.
Later this spring, Darko Tresnjak announced he will leave Hartford Stage at the conclusion of the 2018-19 season. This wasn’t a total surprise. While at Hartford, he had not only produced excellent theater but won a Tony award, directed two new Broadway musicals and was increasingly in demand.
Just as one theater season ends, another begins. I’m already marking my calendar for the shows that I’m most anticipating.
(Revised from a press release)
Hartford Stage’s world premiere of “The Age of Innocence” and Goodspeed’s “Oklahoma!” led the shows nominated for the 28th annual Connecticut Critics Circle Awards. Yale Rep’s production of “Native Son,” Goodspeed’s production of “Rags,” and “Diary of Anne Frank” at Playhouse on Park also received numerous nominations.
The awards event, which celebrates the best in professional theater in the state, will be held Monday, June 11 at 7:30 p.m. at the Westport Country Playhouse. Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas, stars of TheaterWorks holiday comedy perennial “Christmas on the Rocks,” will be masters of ceremony for the event which is free and open to the public.
“The Age of Innocence” earned eight nominations, including outstanding play, director and lead actor and three featured actresses, costumes and lighting while “Oklahoma!” received a total of seven nods, including best musical, director, lead actress and actor and featured actress and actor and choreography.
Other outstanding play nominees are: Yale Repertory Theater’s productions of “An Enemy of the People” and “Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2 and 3.” Other nominees included Long Wharf Theatre’s “The Chosen” and the world premiere of “Fireflies” and West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park production of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
Also earning outstanding musical nods are Goodspeed’s “Rags,” Connecticut Repertory Theater’s “1776,” Seven Angels Theatre’s “Million Dollar Quartet,” and “Fun Home,” Music Theater of Connecticut.
Receiving the annual Tom Killen Award for lifetime achievement in Connectiocut theater will be Michael O’Flaherty, longtime music director at Goodspeed Musicals.
Receiving special awards this year are New London’s Flock Theater for its production of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” at the Monte Cristo Cottage, the boyhood home of Eugene ONeill; the Broadway Method Academy of Fairfield; and Billy Bivona, who composed and performed original music for TheaterWork’s production of “Constellations.”
Receiving an award for solo performance will be Elizabeth Stahlmann who starred in Westport Country Playhouse’s “Grounded.”
Other nominees are:
Actor in a play: Reg Rogers, “An Enemy of the People,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Jerod Haynes, “Native Son,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Jamison Stern, “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” TheaterWorks; Boyd Gaines, “The Age of Innocence,” Hartford Stage; Daniel Chung, “Office Hour,” Long Wharf Theatre.
Actress in a play: Jackie Chung, “Office Hour,” Long Wharf Theatre; Isabelle Barbier, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” Playhouse on Park; Mia Dillon, “Seder,” Hartford Stage; Jane Alexander, “Fireflies,” Long Wharf Theatre; Cecelia Riddett, “The Revisionist,” Playhouse on Park.
Actor in a musical: Jamie LaVerdiere, “1776,” Connecticut Repertory Theatre; Rhett Guter, “Oklahoma!,” Goodspeed Musicals; Jim Schubin, “Newsies,” Connecticut Repertory Theatre; David Pittsinger, “The Fantasticks,” Ivoryton Playhouse; Michael Notardonato, “Saturday Night Fever,” Ivoryton Playhouse.
Actress in a musical: Samantha Massell, “Rags,” Goodspeed Musicals; Mia Pinero, “West Side Story,” Ivoryton Playhouse; Juliet Lambert Pratt, “The Bridges of Madison County,” Music Theatre of Connecticut; Samantha Bruce, “Oklahoma!,” Goodspeed Musicals; Annabelle Fox, “Singin’ in the Rain,” Summer Theatre of New Canaan.
Director of a play: James Bundy, “An Enemy of the People,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Seret Scott, “Native Son,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Ezra Barnes, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” Playhouse on Park; Eric Ort, “The Wolves,” TheaterWorks; Doug Hughes, “The Age of Innocence,” Hartford Stage.
Director of a musical: Terrence Mann, “1776,” Connecticut Repertory Theatre; Jenn Thompson, “Oklahoma!,” Goodspeed Musicals; Kevin Connors, “Fun Home,” Music Theatre of Connecticut; Rob Ruggiero, “Rags,” Goodspeed Musicals; Brian Feehan, “The Fantasticks,” Ivoryton Playhouse.
Choreography: Katie Spelman, “Oklahoma! ,” Goodspeed Musicals; Christopher d’Amboise, “Newsies,” Connecticut Repertory Theatre; Kelli Barclay, “The Will Rogers Follies,” Goodspeed Musicals; Todd L. Underwood, “Saturday Night Fever,” Ivoryton Playhouse
Ensemble: Cast of “Avenue Q” (Weston Chandler Long, James Fairchild, Ashley Brooke, Peej Mele, E J Zimmerman, Abena Mensah-Bonsu and Colleen Welsh ), Playhouse on Park; Cast of “The Wolves” (Shannon Keegan, Claire Saunders, Dea Julien, Carolyn Cutillo, Emily Murphy, Caitlin Zoz, Rachel Caplan, Olivia Hoffman, Karla Gallegos, Megan Byrne), TheaterWorks; Cast of “The Chosen” (Ben Edelman, George Guidall, Steven Skybell, Max Wolkowitz) Long Wharf Theatre; Cast of “The Game’s Afoot” (Erik Bloomquist, Victoria Bundonis, Molly Densmore, Katrina Ferguson, Michael Iannucci, Craig MacDonald, Maggie McGlone-Jennings, Beverly J. Taylor), Ivoryton Playhouse.
Featured actor in a play: James Cusati-Moyer, “Kiss,” Yale Repertory Theatre;
Peter Francis James, “Romeo and Juliet,” Westport Country Playhouse; Tom Pecinka, “Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Dan Hiatt, “Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Jason Bowen, “Native Son,” Yale Repertory Theatre
Featured actress in a play: Judith Ivy, “Fireflies,” Long Wharf Theatre; Darrie Lawrence, “The Age of Innocence,” Hartford Stage; Carly Polistina, “The Crucible,” Connecticut Repertory Theatre; Sierra Boggess, “The Age of Innocence,” Hartford Stage; Helen Cespedes, “The Age of Innocence,” Hartford Stage
Featured actor in a musical: Matt Faucher, “Oklahoma!,” Goodspeed Musicals; Joe Callahan, “Million Dollar Quartet,” Ivoryton Playhouse; Sean MacLaughlin, “Rags,” Goodspeed Musicals; David Garrison, “The Will Rogers Follies,” Goodspeed Musicals; Cory Candelet, “The Fantasticks,” Ivoryton Playhouse.
Features actress in a musical: Jodi Stevens, “Singin’ in the Rain,” Summer Theater of New Canaan; Gizel Jimenez, “Oklahoma!” Goodspeed Musicals; Nora Fox, “Saturday Night Fever,” Ivoryton Playhouse; Megan O’Callaghan, “Fun Home,” Music Theatre of Connecticut; Kimberly Immanuel, “The Fantasticks,” Ivoryton Playhouse.
Projection design: Yana Birykova, “Grounded,”Westport Country Playhouse; Luke Cantarella, “Rags,” Goodspeed Musicals; Lucas Clopton & Darron Alley, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Hartford Stage; Wladimiro A. Woyno R., “Kiss,” Yale Repertory Theatre.
Set design: Emona Stoykova, “An Enemy of the People,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Alexander Dodge, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Hartford Stage; Andrew Boyce, “Appropriate,” Westport Country Playhouse; David Lewis, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” Playhouse on Park; Martin Scott Marchitto, “The Fantasticks.” ,Ivoryton Playhouse
Costume design: Linda Cho, “Rags,” Goodspeed Musicals’ Linda Cho, “The Age of Innocence,” Hartford Stage; Joshua Pearson, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Hartford Stage; Fabian Fidel Aguilar, “Romeo & Juliet,” Westport Country Playhouse; Leon Dobkowski, “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” TheaterWorks.
Lighting design: Ben Stanton, “The Age of Innocence,” Hartford Stage; Michael Chybowski, “1776,” Connecticut Repertory Theatre; Stephen Strawbridge, “Native Son,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Matthew Richards, “Appropriate,” Westport Country Playhouse; Yi Zhao, “Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3,”Yale Repertory Theatre.
Sound design: Frederick Kennedy, “Native Son,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Kate Marvin, “Grounded,” Westport Country Playhouse; Fitz Patton; “Appropriate,” Westport Country Playhouse; Jane Shaw, “A Lesson from Aloes,” Hartford Stage; Robert Kaplowitz, “Office Hour,” Long Wharf Theatre.
Debut: Shannon Keegan, “The Wolves,” TheaterWorks; Megan O’Callaghan, “The Bridges of Madison County” and “Fun Home,” Music Theatre of Connecticut; Noah Kierserman, “Newsies,” Connecticut Repertory Theatre.
DIRECTIONS: Westport Country Playhouse is at 25 Powers Court in Westport, just off Route (Exits 17 or 18 off I-91 brings you to Rt. 1.) www.westportplayhouse.org.
By Karen Isaacs
Fun Home won the Tony for best musical in 2015. The Music Theater of Connecticut (MTC) is one of the first regional theaters to be given the rights to produce the show. The resulting production that runs through May 6 is excellent. Once again, artistic director Kevin Connor has done an excellent job both casting and directing this show.
In fact, the small stage with performers just feet from you, adds to the emotional impact of this show about a father, a daughter and family where secrets are often buried well below the surface.
The musical is based on a graphic novel of the same by Alison Bechdel that recounts stories from her childhood and her discovery of both herself and family secrets.
We see various episodes in the life of this typical American family – which was anything but typical. The adult Alison narrates and comments while we see “small Alison” as a child of about 8 or 10 and “Middle Alison” as a freshman in college.
The Dad, well played by Greg Roderick, is a high school English teacher who has restored their home to historic perfection and also runs the family business, a funeral home which in the family is referred to as “Fun Home.” But he is a demanding parent who seems to easily fly off the handle if things aren’t “perfect” or done his way. Quickly you sense that the relationship with his wife strained. So we see various episodes – the Dad (Bruce) showing the house proudly to a woman from the Historic Society, shaming “Small Alison” into wearing a dress to a party, berating “Middle Alison” for her literary opinions and more.
The story is told in a non-chronological fashion so we skip around in time; this sometimes makes it difficult to know exactly when something occurs. It seems to begin in 1975 or 76 and ends before 1990.
But though we know the ending at the start, we also begin to get many hints of how it all came about. Alison is writing the novel to try to understand both herself and her father.
In college “Middle Alison” realizes that she is a lesbian, and always has been. At the same time, Bruce’s life is unraveling; his is gay and has acted upon many times sometimes with boys under the age of consent.
Yet, while at times Fun Home can be confusing, it is also moving. Jeanine Tesorii who wrote the music and Lisa Kron who wrote the book and lyrics have created characters that you care about and that you can recognize.
The three actors playing Alison at different ages are all terrific: Caitlyn Kops as “Small Alison,” Megan O’Callaghan as “Medium Alison” and Amy Griffin as Alison, who also serves as the narrator.
Greg Roderick shows us all of the dimension of Bruce, the father. Raissa Katona Bennett has the less developed role of the mother, Helen. She handles the contradictions in the character well. The role is less central to the story and depends more on non-verbal than lines. Anthony Crouchelli plays a variety of young men who seem almost interchangeable. Abby Root plays “Middle Alison’s” girlfriend.
The program does not list the individual songs. Several stand out despite that. The young Alison and her brothers do a terrific mock TV commercial for the funeral home, “Come to the Fun Home.” Bruce’s final song, “Edges of the World” is also moving. “Ring of Keys” is also excellent—sung by both Alison and “Small Alison” it talks about seeing a female delivery driver at a diner and admiring her.
Director O’Connor has done an excellent job. While the small thrust stage bring intimacy, it also forces more than half the audience to crane their necks to see some of the playing areas. Alison’s drawing table is closest to the audience. But at the back of the stage the far right is the funeral home set and on the far left an area that represents several areas, including “Middle Alison’s” dorm room, a NYC hotel room and more. For those siting on the sides, these can be hard to always see and I’m sure that at times some of the people at the front of the stage may be blocked by Alison at her drawing table.
But that is small prices to pay for the emotional impact that the intimate theater gives to this space. Those who may be uncomfortable with this type of non-traditional family may be jarred by this story.
But the rest of us, will come away with a sense of loss. The price that many paid because our society could not accept the reality of sexuality.
For tickets visit MTC or call 203-454-3883.
By Karen Isaacs
Every year as theaters announce their up-coming seasons, certain productions pique my interest. I circle their dates on my calendar in anticipation.
So what have I circled for this up-coming year? Connecticut theaters offer a good mixture of the new, the classics, the familiar, and the rare. I have circled some of each.
(One caveat: Goodspeed, Ivoryton and Westport have not announced their productions for the first half of 2018. I’m sure some of those would have made my list).
Rags at Goodspeed Musicals (Oct. 6 –Dec. 10). This isn’t a new musical, but one of those shows that “failed” on Broadway but has developed a devoted following. Its authors, Charles Strouse (Bye, Bye Birdie,) and Stephen Schwartz (Pippin), have worked on the show extensively with a new book writer (David Thompson) and the revised version has been performed to good reviews. This show about turn-of-the-20th century Jewish immigrants seems timely; the score is excellent.
Red Hot Mama: The Sophie Tucker Story at Seven Angels Theater, (Feb. 15 – March 11). I’m not sure if this is a one-woman show or not, but it focuses on the life and career of vaudeville star Sophie Tucker.
The Bridges of Madison County at MTC (Nov. 3-19). I love Jason Robert Brown’s score for this adaptation of the novel. I’ll be interested in how director Kevin Connors handles it on the smaller stage. I suspect it will increase the intimacy and emotional impact.
Oklahoma at Goodspeed (through Sept. 27). I’ve already seen this production and while it is quite good, it disappointed me. It didn’t live up to all I had hoped it would be.
I like Shakespeare and Connecticut is blessed with two directors who have a track record of outstanding productions of Shakespeare. Each is directing a work this fall.
Romeo & Juliet at Westport Country Playhouse (Oct. 31 to Nov. 19). Artistic Director Mark Lamos directed one of the best productions of this tragedy at Hartford Stage years ago. I still remember it and hope this production will live up to his earlier one.
Midsummer Night’s Dream at Hartford Stage (Sept. 7 to Oct. 8). Artistic Director Darko Tresjnak has given Connecticut an almost annual Shakespeare production including terrific productions of MacBeth, The Tempest, Hamlet, Twelfth Night and a riotous A Comedy of Errors. Now he is turning his hand to this classic comedy. It’s bound to be good.
It seems as though Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People is having a resurgence; there were two productions in New York last season and now it is opening Yale Rep’s season (Oct 6 -28). This play is about individual responsibility, courage, economics, and environmental health, yet it was written almost 140 years ago.
Dramas & Comedies (New, Familiar & Rare)
Matthew Lopez is a fine younger playwright, whose works I’ve enjoyed (The Whipping Man, Reverberation), so I’m looking forward to The Legend of Georgia McBride at TheaterWorks (March 15 – April 22). It’s about a young man, a former Elvis impersonator who becomes a successful drag queen.
Fireflies (Oct. 11 – Nov. 5) at Long Wharf is featuring an outstanding cast including Jane Alexander. For that reason alone, it’s on my list.
The Connecticut Rep is doing Our Country’s Good (Nov. 30 – Dec. 9). It premiered at Hartford Stage many years ago and is a fascinating look at the founding of Australia and the power of theater to transform people.
Almost all of Hartford Stage’s productions sound interesting, but if I am to pick just one it would be Athol Fugard’s Statements After an Arrest Under the Immortality Act, (May 10- June 3). Why? Athol Fugard is one of the great playwrights and this is an earlier work, plus it reveals more about life under apartheid in South Africa.
It’s also hard to pick which Yale Rep play will astound me: I am unfamiliar with many of them. But if forced to circle just one on my calendar, it would be Kiss, (April 27-May) by Guillermo Calederón. Why? The description sounds interesting: about people surviving in Damascus.
I did not get to see Jesse Eisenberg’s The Revisionist off-Broadway, so I’m looking forward to the Playhouse on Park production, April 11-29. It’s about a young man who visits an elderly cousin in Warsaw who is a Holocaust survivor.
These twelve selections are just the tip of the iceberg. Many of the other scheduled productions, including those at the Bushnell, sound very interesting. So check them all out. Connecticut has amazing theater!