By Karen Isaacs
In the Height by Lin-Manuel Miranda (music and lyrics) and Quiara Alegría Hudes (book) made Broadway sit up and take notice.
Now Playhouse on Park is producing this breakthrough show through July 29. Go see it!
Miranda has acquired more awards quicker than almost any composer/lyricist – and he’s a talented performer as well: the Pulitzer Prize, a Grammy, multiple Tony Awards AND a MacArthur Foundation Grant (often referred to as the Genius Award).
In case you don’t know, the “Heights” referred to in the title are NYC’s Washington Heights, the area of Manhattan (north of Harlem) that has become well known for a large Dominican population.
Like many such neighborhoods, gentrification is creeping in, displacing the longtime residents.
The musical introduces us to just such a block. The hair salon is moving to the Bronx due to rising rents; the car service is getting offers from real estate people to sell out so that gentrification can occur. The bodega is hanging on. But they are a community that knows each other and takes care of each other.
We meet a group of hard-working people. Usnavi who seems almost like the “mayor” of the block, owns the bodega that employs his cousin; both are young. His Abuela Claudia (grandmother) is there to lend support. The girl he wants to court, Vanessa, dreams of moving into her own apartment downtown. She works in Daniela’s salon along with Carla. The Rosario family owns the car service; Nina, their daughter had been given a scholarship to Stanford, but as she finally admits when she returns after the spring semester, there have been difficulties. Despite scholarships the cost of books and incidentals caused her to work two jobs, fall behind on her course work and ultimately drop out. She hasn’t found the courage to tell her proud parents.
Miranda created a unique musical style which he carried over into Hamilton; it is a mixture of rap and more typical ballads, though you may not leave the theater humming any of the tunes.
In the Heights is a complex musical for smaller theaters. Not only does it have a relatively large cast, but it requires careful casting or the theater may be criticized. Only one character in the work is not from a Dominican background and that character (Benny) is African-American. It is clear that many in this cast are from Hispanic backgrounds.
Scenic designer Emily Nichols has done a fine job in recreating the street scene that encompasses the work: the bodega, car service office, the stoop in front of Abuela Claudia’s house and more.
The show opens with the rousing “In the Heights” which sets both the location and the mood. But it is also this number which reveals one of the problems in this production: the sound design/system. It wasn’t too loud, which can often be the case. Instead, it sounded blurry; the words were difficult to understand. In a show where rap is a major element and conveys a great deal of information, this is a problem. It was particularly evident in group numbers but even in individual songs it was present. Many audience members were talking about not being able to hear at intermission, despite the small theater size: it wasn’t that so much as not being able to hear the sounds but to understand what was being said or sung.
Niko Touros, a relative newcomer, is excellent as Usnavi our hero and narrator. He brings confidence and assurance to the role. Also excellent were Sophia Introna as Vanessa, Amy Jo Phillips as Abuela Claudia and JL Rey and Stephanie Pope as Kevin and Camila Rosario. While Analise Rios sang beautifully as Nina, she never projected enough of her feelings of failure and despair.
In fact, often it seemed too much like the cast was “acting” rather than inhabiting the characters.
Sean Harris’ direction needed a little more zip; at times the show dragged with the first act 95 minutes and feeling longer. Darlene Zoller made good use of the stage with the choreography which the cast performed well.
If you have never seen In the Heights, this production is well worth seeing. It is also a show that we will study to see the early stages of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s development as a theater artist.
For tickets visit Playhouse on Park or call 860-523-5900.
The world premiere of Hartford Stage’s The Age of Innocence and a revised version of the musical Rags from Goodspeed Musicals took top honors at the Connecticut Critics Circle Awards Monday, June 11. (Complete list of nominees and winners).
The event, which celebrated the work from the state’s professional theaters during the 2017-18 season, was held at Westport Country Playhouse.
Among area theaters, Ivoryton received nine nominations for five different productions (West Side Story, Million Dollar Quartet, Saturday Night Fever, The Game’s Afoot and The Fantasticks).Connecticut native, Cory Candelet tied for outstanding featured actor in a musical for his performance as the Mute in The Fantasticks. He shared the award with Matt Faucher for his performance as Jud in Goodspeed’s Oklahoma!
Goodspeed received 14 nominations and four awards including Faucher, outstanding production of a musical, Samantha Massell for her leading role in Rags and Kelli Barclay for choreography in Will Rogers’ Follies.
Awards for outstanding actors in a musical went to Samantha Massell in Goodspeed’s Rags and Jamie LaVerdiere in the Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s production of 1776.
Awards for outstanding actors in a play went to Reg Rogers in Yale Repertory Theatre’s production of An Enemy of the People and Isabelle Barbier in Playhouse on Park’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank.
Top directing awards went to Terrence Mann for CRT’s 1776 and Ezra Barnes for Playhouse on Park’s The Diary of Anne Frank.
Outstanding ensemble award went to TheaterWorks’ production of The Wolves; the debut award went to Megan O’Callaghan for The Bridges of Madison County and Fun Home, both at Music Theatre of Connecticut. The outstanding solo honor was awarded to Elizabeth Stahlmann for Westport Country Playhouse’s Grounded.
Michael O’Flaherty, longtime music director for Goodspeed Musicals, received the Tom Killen Award for lifetime service to the theater from Donna Lynn Cooper Hilton, a producer at Goodspeed.
Receiving special awards were New London’s Flock Theatre for its production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night at the Monte Cristo Cottage (O’Neill’s childhood home); the Broadway Method Academy of Fairfield; and Billy Bivona, who composed and performed original music for TheaterWork’s production of Constellations.
The outstanding featured actress award in a musical award went to Jodi Stevens for Summer Theatre of New Canaan’s Singin’ in the Rain. The award for outstanding featured actors in a play went to Peter Francis James for Westport Country Playhouse’s production of Romeo and Juliet, and to Judith Ivey for Long Wharf Theatre’s world premiere of Fireflies.
Design awards went to Fitz Patton for sound and Matthew Richards for lighting for Westport Country Playhouse’s Appropriate; Linda Cho for costumes for Hartford Stage’s The Age of Innocence; Yana Birykova for projections for Westport Country Playhouse’s Grounded and David Lewis, for set design for Playhouse on Park’s The Diary of Anne Frank.
Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas, stars of TheaterWorks’ Christmas on the Rocks, presided over the event.
Shore Publication writers Amy Barry and Frank Rizzo co-chaired the event.
This content courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.
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
The Revisionist by Jesse Eisenberg is a frustrating play though Playhouse on Park is giving us a good production of this puzzling work through April 29.
It seems so promising; a young writer in the midst of a writer’s block and deadline pressure visits an elderly cousin in Poland whom he has never really met and knows little about. How will they change? What will the young man learn?
That wee leave with almost same the questions, is the frustrating part.
The play opens with Maria (played beautifully by Cecelia Riddett) watching CNN on her television in her apartment in Poland. The doorbells rings, and standing there is David, an American cousin in his late 20s. The relationship does not start smoothly; she seems upset he is late (his plane was delayed), he is annoyed that she keeps talking while he wants to put down his bags (why doesn’t he), and when she offers him the food she kept warm, he declares he doesn’t eat chicken, that he is a vegetarian.
Once we see him in the room, we can deduce that he has some sort of drugs (crack?) in his luggage hidden in a sock and that he is opening the window to be able to smoke it. He immediately comes across as both immature and somewhat of a jerk.
The play continues through the next 5 days or so; however, the relationship does not seem to improve. Maria wants to show him around the city (Szczecin) and spend time with him. He pleads deadline pressure; his book was due six weeks ago and his publisher wants revisions. But in reality, he appears to spend most the time sleeping, playing computer games and getting high.
Maria is amazed he doesn’t know all about his extended family; she does and has photos of them all throughout the apartment. She tries tell him about them, names, ages, professions, children and more. He is amazed that his grandfather calls her most Sundays.
When he initially does as a question about her experiences in WWII (the family is Jewish), she is very flustered but later on tells the story.
In a sense, this is a story of people revising their lives. David does it initially when he projects himself as a successful author of a young adult novel, but the truth is that he is not that good and is having a major writing block/crisis.
Maria is more substantially revising the story of life in ways that become clear as the play progresses. A widow who has no children, she lives vicariously through the lives of these American relatives, almost all of whom she has never met.
Even, Zenon the fortyish taxi driver who does errands for Maria is revising his life. His mother died and he has transferred one of their rituals to Maria. It is unclear why this particular ritual was created; it is just odd enough that you keep expecting it to have meaning.
The telephone keeps ringing in the apartment, and Maria always answers, speaks for a minute or so in Polish and then hangs up. She says these are solicitors for phony charities for blind people, but you begin to wonder if that is so. It infuriates David because it often interrupts conversations or disturbs him. He keeps urging her not to answer. Yet there is no real resolution to this. Are they really solicitations? Or is the whole routine, just a ploy to set up the ending?
What could have been an interesting intergenerational story and a probing of how people survived WWII becomes instead just another superficial story.
Emily Nichols has created a set that includes all the rooms in the apartment – the kitchen, living room, David’s bedroom and the hallway. It allows you to see everything that is going on.
This plays lives and dies on the performances – off-Broadway it was Vanessa Redgrave as Maria and the author (who is a well-known actor) as David. Here the actors may be less well known but they bring commitment to their characters. Cecelia Riddett brings a dignity to Maria that, despite some of her more annoying characteristics, lets you understand her and empathize. She also maintains an accent that to my untutored ear, seems authentic as does her Polish. Carl Howell has the difficult task of trying to help us understand David as more than just a free-loading, self-absorbed jerk. That he succeeds as much as he does, is a credit to his performance. Sebastian Buczyk plays Zenon, the taxi driver/friend. This is a less developed role that Buczyk does as much with as he can.
Director Sasha Bratt has done a good job in both keeping the playing moving, getting the laughs (there are some) and helping the performers find nuggets of truth in their characters.
For tickets to The Revisionist, call 860-523-5900 or visit Playhouse on Park.
By Karen Isaacs
Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel is making another appearance in Connecticut thanks to the lovely production at Playhouse on Park through March 4.
Nottage, whose most recent play Sweat won the Pulitzer Prize, is a keen observer of how women navigate life and the challenges they face.
In Intimate Apparel we see four women, three of whom have learned to abandon their fantasies and make choices based on the reality of the world. Each has made a “bargain” and each longs for what she has sacrificed.
The central character, Esther, touchingly played by Darlene Hope is a seamstress who has been in New York City for 17 years, having come from South Carolina. It’s 1905 and Esther, like many of the characters is an African-American. At 35 she is afraid love has passed her by, but she will not settle for practical over romantic; when her landlady in the boarding house encourages her to consider the rotund hotel bellman (at a fancy hotel), she rejects considering the idea. She wants romance.
The other three women have settled. Mrs. Dickson the landlady, had at 37 married an older man who has since died and left her the boarding house. Mayme has become a prostitute giving up dreams of playing the piano, for the money and independence her life affords her.
Even Mrs. VanBuren the white society woman for whom Esther creates lacy undergarments, has settled. She married for status and money and now, unable to bear children, watches as her husband berates her and philanders.
It looks as though Esther may get her wish of romance. In fact, there are two possibilities but one is not likely: that is Mr. Marx the orthodox Jewish man who sells her fabric. His intended whom he has never met is still in Europe; they develop feelings for each other but though both are outsiders, it cannot be.
Her second possibility arrives in a letter from the Panama Canal Zone. It’s written by George, a Barbadian working on digging the canal. A church member has suggest he write. Esther is flustered and wonders if a “proper woman” would respond, but she does. The letters continue and grow increasingly intimate. George writes poetically and soon Esther is in love. In true Cyrano De Bergerac style, both are illiterate and their letters are written by others – in Esther case, Mayme and Mrs. Van Buren.
All this takes place in act one which ends with the wedding of Esther and George.
In act two, Esther’s dreams of a “happily ever after” life which includes using her savings to purchase a beauty salon, are not coming true. George is not the man she thought he was. Though she gives him everything he wants, he wants more and different things. He can’t or won’t find a job or accept the jobs available, instead wanting to purchase a stable with 12 horses. He wears the finest clothes, which Esther has made for him, gambles and philanders.
Esther is too proud to truly reveal what is going on to the others, but the cold reality is hitting her.
Playhouse on Park has a large stage area, surrounded by the audience on three sides; it can be difficult for a smaller play to be effective in the space. Marcus Abbott who is responsible for both the scenic and lighting design has solved the problem. He designed four distinct areas: one is Esther’s rooming house (and later her apartment), another the bedroom of Mrs. VanBuren, a third the bawdy house where Mayme works, and lastly, the tenement house where Mr. Marx sells fabric. As Esther moves between the locations, the lighting highlights the area.
Director Dawn Loveland Navarro keeps the pace of the show moving, but she can’t overcome some of its flaws: both acts are too long and repetitious. We see what is coming in each act and keep waiting and waiting for it to occur. In act one, even though I’ve seen the play before, there were at least three places where I was sure the “curtain” would go down.
Costume designer Kate Bunce does a good job with the turn of the century costumes and sound designer Joel Abbott makes effective use of ragtime.
Darlene Hope’s Esther fully realizes the determination, dreams and disillusionment of the character while also showing us her strength. It is a strong performance.
Overall the acting is very good. Ben MacLaughlin starts slowly as Mr. Marx but by the end of act one you know so much about his hopes and dreams, not through dialogue but his performance. Xenia Gray has a more one dimensional role as the landlady – the voice of practicality and reason.
Beethovan Oden has the challenging role of George; challenging because while Esther believes in him, the audience is suspicious almost from the start of the correspondence. Certainly, he is the villain in the play and he does convey a menacing nature and a calculating personality.
The other two women, Anna Laura Strider as Mrs. Van Buren and Zuri Eshun as Mayme are good as the counterpoints to Esther. With each, we do understand not only their hopes, but their compromises.
Intimate Apparel is a good, though not a great, play. You will find it engaging. For tickets, call 860-523-5900 or visit PlayouseOnPark.org.
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 Isaacs
Even if you have seen it before, Playhouse on Park’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank through Nov. 19 is worth getting tickets for. It is that good.
The intimate setting – you are never more than four rows from the stage – adds to the emotional impact. You can see every nuance of expression and gesture. Even the large stage itself is a benefit, permitting scenic designer David Lewis to create a realistic apartment where the Franks and others hide for two plus years. While it seems small for eight people, I’ve been told the actually space was even smaller.
Director Ezra Barnes has assembled a fine ensemble cast which works seamlessly together. Anne is the central character but in this production you are allowed to think about and feel for the other characters.
Barnes is using the adaptation by Wendy Kesselman, which was done a number of years ago. The original play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett was written in the 1950s; Otto Frank, Anne’s father on only survivor of the family, oversaw and controlled not only the play but also the editing of the diary.
Between the period, and a father’s protectiveness, certain aspects of Anne’s diary were played down or omitted. Kesselman has added these elements back in which gives us a more real Anne. After all, when the family goes into hiding, she is just 13 and when they are captured over two years later she is nearly 16. In addition the experiences of war time, she has gone from a child to a young woman going through puberty and discovering an interest in boys, fellow hider, Peter Van Daan.
For those who have forgotten the details of the story, Otto Frank, a successful business owner, with his partner Mr. Van Daan go into hiding above the offices as the Nazis increase their round up of Jews in Amsterdam in 1942. They are aided by two people in the business, Miep Gies who handles all the daily logistics including finding ration books to provide food and other necessary items and Mr. Kraler who also assists and runs the business. Seven people are crammed into the space: the four Franks, Otto and his wife Edith, their older daughter Margot and Anne. The Von Dann’s include the husband and wife and their son, Peter who arrives with his cat.
A year later, Mr. Dussel, a dentist also is taken in.
Not only is the space crowded, and food becomes both limited and scarce, but they must live with many restrictions because of the workers below: no talking and limited movement during the days among others.
Of course, tensions arise – between Margot and Anne, the Franks and the Von Daans, and the spouses of each family.
Anne, played by Isabelle Barbier, has a startling resemblance to pictures of the real Anne. Though she is the title character and sometimes the narrator, she does not overshadow the other characters.
Barbier creates a realistic adolescent girl, in voice, gestures and tone. But she is not alone in her skill. Each member of the cast does the same. Lisa Bostnar is excellent as the more high-strung and terrified Mrs. Van Daan. Alex Rafala is right on as the teenage boy, Peter, who is shy and only seems to respond to Anne. And this is not to imply that any of the other actors aren’t excellent as well. It is truly an ensemble cast.
Yet, some of the biggest praise must go to set designer Lewis, He has used every inch of the big square stage to create the apartment. As you look at the beds – Anne and Margot initially share one small room that includes a bed and a cot, the Van Daan’s sleep in the living area, and Peter has another small room, you can feel how on-top of each other they are. You also can see the attic where Peter and Anne sometimes go to escape the prying eyes of adults. It is amazing that there aren’t more tension in the space.
Director Barnes has kept the cast on stage during the intermission which increases the feeling of being trapped.
Overall this is an excellent production. Of course, Otto Frank’s narration at the end reminds of just how close they all came to being saved. Unfortunately, he was the only survivor.
For tickets visit Playhouse on Parkor call 860-523-5900. It is located at 244 Park Road, West Harford.
By Karen Isaacs
Avenue Q was a surprise Broadway hit and Tony winner for Best Musical. Why? This small show had originated off-Broadway and featured actors holding puppets who were many of the show’s characters.
While it tells a universal story about young adults struggling to get started in careers in the Big Apple, it also had a modern 21st century attitude.
Part romance, there is a heavy dose of satire and humor in the show, now at Playhouse on Park in West Harford, through Oct. 8.
While not my favorite show, director/choreographer Kyle Brand and a talented cast are presenting a very good rendition of the show.
It is set on Avenue Q in New York City, which its residents describe as the place where those who cannot afford living on Avenue A, B, C or D (all streets on lower east side of the city) go.
Into the neighborhood wonders Princeton a recent college graduate wondering what he can do with his BA in English. He quickly meets the other residents – all of whom seem to feel as though their lives are less than perfect. Kate Monster is a kindergarten teaching assistant, Brian aspires to be a comic, his girlfriend Christmas Eve is a therapist without clients and the buildings are presided over by Gary Coleman, the former child star.
It’s a diverse group and each has his or her problems. During the course of the two hour show, the characters discover things about themselves and form a variety of relationships. Princeton and Kate fall in love, break up and get back together again, Brian and Christmas Eve marry, Rod, the most successful of the group, acknowledges his sexuality. Nothing all that unusual.
But the music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, who originally conceived the piece as a TV series, veer from the expected to more social commentary.
Many young adults – and some older ones – have thought what the songs express. Princeton wonders “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English) while the entire cast tries to on-up each other in “It Sucks to Be Me.”
Weston Chandler Long, Peej Mele and Ashley Brooke are the three cast members who manipulate and voice the puppets; each plays at least two roles. They are all so skillful that you believe the puppets are actually talking and emoting. Yet if you look at the performers, you see that they are truly acting with their faces and gestures matching what the puppets are saying.
All three of these young performers deserve to get their Equity cards (membership).
James Fairchild, EJ Zimmerman and Abena Mensah-Bonsu are the three characters who are NOT puppets. Fairchild is Brian, who wants to be a comedian; Zimmerman is Christmas Eve, his girlfriend and a therapist; while Mensah-Bonsu plays Gary Coleman. Each is very good.
The entire cast is backed by a 5-piece band.
I was initially concerned how director/choreographer Kyle Brand would use the large, thrust stage which has the audience on three sides. But he is extremely effective in his staging. The performers move deftly so that all the audience can see and hear. Yet the pacing seems a bit slow; my attention began to wander.
Anyone who is just starting his or her career, or remembers what it was like will enjoy this production of Avenue Q.
It runs through Oct. 8 at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Rd., West Hartford. For tickets visit PlayhouseOnPark.org or call 860-523-5900 ext. 10.
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!