Tag Archives: Playhouse on Park

“The Diary of Anne Frank” Is Getting Moving Production at Playhouse on Park

Anne frank 1By 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.

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Isabelle Barbier

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.

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Frank van Putten

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.

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Isabella Barbier, Jonathan Mesisca, Allen Lewis Rickman

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“Avenue Q” at Playhouse on Park Reminds Us of Starting Out

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The cast of Avenue Q

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.

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Weston Chandler Long, Peej Mele and Colleen Welsh

 

Lots to Anticipate with Pleasure in Connecticut’s Up-Coming Theater Season

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).

The Musicals:

RAGS poster 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.

bridges of madison - imageThe 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.

The Classics:

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.

midsummerMidsummer 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 posterFireflies (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!

Complete Shakespeare (Abridged) Will Have You Laughing

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Hanna Cheek, Sean Harris, Rich Hollman. Photo by Curt Henderson

By Karen Isaacs

 If you view Shakespeare as tough sledding, you will find your opinions turned upside down at Playhouse on Park’s production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) running through July 30.

 While this work has been around for many years, it has been revised for the 21st century and director Tom Ridgely says it took elements from two different versions. But that’s OK since this is really a vaudevillian piece.

It is a comic romp through most of Shakespeare’s plays performed by a zany three member cast: Hanna Cheek, Rich Hollman and Sean Harris, all talented clowns.

What you get in the 2-hour show is wonderful burlesques of three of Shakespeare’s most well-known works, plus romps through the others.

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Rich Hollman and Hanna Cheek. Photo by Curt Henderson

The play opens – after a hilarious introduction with a retelling of Romeo & Juliet. Not only do the three members play all the main parts, but Romeo is played by Hanna and Juliet by Rich Hollman. It’s abbreviated but amazingly all the most important elements are there.

From there they give us snippets of Shakespeare’s most gruesome play, Titus Andronicus, plus bits of Anthony and Cleopatra, as well as MacBeth performed partly as a folk song sung by a Peter, Paul and Mary clone. Even here they hit the main points of the plot.

The act ends with a compilation of the comedies – it is amazing how many of them feature similar elements – girls disguising themselves as men, separated twins, fairies and other spirits and more.

It is then that the trio realize that while they thought they had covered all of the plays, they had omitted one: Hamlet.

 So act two is all about Hamlet. They do it not only in an abbreviated version (again, Ophelia is played by Hollman), but in increasingly shortened versions, the last taking less than two minutes. They conclude with that version done backwards.

You don’t have to be an expert in Shakespeare to enjoy this though most of us have experienced at least one or two of the plays in school. My granddaughter – a soon-to-be high school junior who will be reading Hamlet next year – thoroughly enjoyed it. She had previously read and seen Romeo & Juliet and found their rendition hilarious.

It takes great talent to pull this off. While I did not feel the antic energy from them that I did the first time I saw this show – at Long Wharf Theater years ago, perhaps in the 1980s.

It might surprise you to know that this show, as well as an abridged history of America, and of sports, was developed by three American’s who called themselves The Reduced Shakespeare Company.

Director Ridgely as made fine use of the somewhat awkwardly large stage at Playhouse on Park. In keeping with the tone of the piece, costume designer Kate Bunce has made use of a variety of household items – including mops in various bright colors for wigs.

The cleverest part of the show, is when the three company members involve the audience in Ophelia’s state of mind and the conflicts she faces. While two audience members are brought on stage, the entire audience represents her id, ego and superego. Fun and enlightening.

This is perfect entertainment for anyone who thinks that Shakespeare has to be dull and difficult to understand. My granddaughter thoroughly enjoyed it and I’m sure that she gained some insights that will be useful to her study of Hamlet this fall.

For tickets, call 860-523-5900 ext. 10 or visit Playhouse on Park..complete shakespeare

Connecticut’s Smaller Theater Well Represented at Awards Ceremony

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Rob Ruggierio and the cast of Next to Normal. Photo by Mara Lavitt

By Karen Isaacs

 The gala celebration of Connecticut’s professional theater, co-chaired by Shore Publishing’s own Amy Barry, produced winners from both the largest professional theaters in the state and some of the smaller.

The big winners were The Invisible Hand produced by Westport Country Playhouse and Next to Normal produced by TheaterWorks.

Invisible Hand by Ayah Akhtar won outstanding drama, outstanding director (David Kennedy) and outstanding actor (Eric Bryant). The play is about an American banker who is held hostage in Parkistan; it deals with economics, terrorism and religious fundamentalism.

Next to Normal, the musical about a family dealing with the mother’s bipolar condition received awards as outstanding musical, outstanding director (Rob Ruggiero), outstanding actress (Christiann Noll), outstanding lighting (John Lasiter).  Maya Keleher who played the daughter received the debut award.

Special awards were presented to actor Paxton Whitehead for his body of work; he has appeared frequently at Westport Country Playhouse in productions of works by Joe Orton and Alan Ayckbourn. The presentation was made by noted director John Tillinger.

Tillinger also made a brief tribute to playwright A. R. Gurney who died in June. Not only did Gurney live in Connecticut, but many of his works were produced here. Tillinger directed a number of them at Long Wharf and Hartford Stage.

James Lecesne, actor, playwright, novelist and activist was honored for his outreach activities while performing his play The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey at Hartford Stage this year. Lecense talked about the impact theater can have on audiences and spoke of how it had “saved” him as a gay teenager. Many winners made similar comments on the importance and impact of theater.

The Tom Killen Award for contributions to Connecticut theater (and theater in general) was given to Paulette Haupt who has served as the artistic director of the National Musical Theatre Conference at the O’Neill Center in Waterford since 1978. Among the 120 new musicals she has selected and helped include In the Heights, Nine, Avenue Q and many more. She’s been instrumental in the careers of Lin Manuel Miranda, Maury Yeston, Tom Kitt and others.

Three of Connecticut’s smaller professional theaters – the Summer Theater of New Canaan (STONC), Music Theater of Connecticut (MTC) and Seven Angels Theater in Waterbury were honored. Jon Petersen received the award for outstanding solo performance at Seven Angels as Anthony Newley in He Wrote Good Songs. Peterson was unable to attend because he is starring as the Emcee in the national tour of Cabaret which was in Portland, Oregon.

West Side Story at STONC received awards for outstanding choreography (Doug Shankman) and outstanding actor in a musical (Zach Schanne)

Kate Simone received outstanding featured actor in a musical for her performance as Louise in Gypsy at MTC.

Hartford Stage took home awards for outstanding actress in a play (Vanessa R. Butler) in Queens for a Year, outstanding featured actress in a play (Connecticut resident Mia Dillon) in Cloud 9 and featured actor in a play (Cleavant Derricks) for The Piano Lesson.  The theater also received three awards for A Comedy of Errors) – outstanding set design (Darko Tresjnak), outstanding sound design (Jane Shaw) and outstanding costume design (Fabio Toblini).

Rhett Guter who is now in rehearsal as Curly in Goodspeed’s Oklahoma! won outstanding featured actor in a musical for last year’s Bye, Bye Birdie at Goodspeed. He played Birdie.

Long Wharf’s production of Steve Martin’s Meteor Shower received the award for outstanding ensemble.

Among the presenters were Sirius-XM radio’s Broadway channel program director Julie James, producer Patricia Flicker Addiss, Tony-winning set designer Michael Yeargen and two former artistic directors of Connecticut theaters: Michael Wilson of Hartford Stage and Michael Price of Goodspeed Musicals.

Terrence Mann, three time Tony nominee, and artistic director of Connecticut Repertory Theater’s Summer Stage hosted the evening.  Bobby Conte Thornton, star of Broadway’s A Bronx Tale provided two terrific songs.

But perhaps the stars of the evening were sisters Ella and Riley Briggs, two adorable young girls with bright futures ahead them. Ella played the young Frances Gumm in Chasing Rainbows last year at Goodspeed and she and Riley were both in Godspeed’s It’s a Wonderful Life.

This content courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com.

Complete list of nominees and winners.

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Karen Ziemba, Andre de Shields and me.

“Next To Normal,” “The Invisible Hand” Tops Connecticut Theater Critics Nominations

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Next to Normal. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

TheaterWork’s production of the musical “Next to Normal” led the nominations for the 27th annual Connecticut Critics Circle Awards event to be held Monday, June 26 at 7:30 p.m. at Sacred Heart University’s Edgerton Center for the Performing Arts in Fairfield.

The show received a total of 10 nominations, including best musical. Westport Country Playhouse’s production of Ayad Akhtar’s play “The Invisible Hand” led the non-musicals, receiving seven nominations, including outstanding play.

Other outstanding play nominees are: “The Comedy of Errors” at Hartford Stage; “Mary Jane” at Yale Repertory Theatre; “Scenes From Court Life” at Yale Repertory Theatre and “Midsummer” at TheaterWorks.

Also nominated for outstanding musical are: “Assassins” at Yale Repertory Theatre; “Bye Bye Birdie” at Goodspeed Opera House, “Man of La Mancha” at Ivoryton Playhouse and “West Side Story” at Summer Theatre of New Canaan.

The awards show, which celebrates the best in professional theater in the state, is free and open to the public.

Three-time Tony Award-nominee Terrence Mann will be the master of ceremonies for the event. Mann joined the Connecticut theater community this year as artistic director of Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nutmeg Summer Series at the University of Connecticut at Storrs.

Last year’s top honorees — Yale Repertory Theatre’s play “Indecent” and Hartford Stage’s musical “Anastasia” — are currently on Broadway.

Also receiving special awards this year are James Lecesne for his work using theater as a way to connect with LGBT youths in works such as his solo show “The Absolute Brightness off Leonard Pelkey,” which was presented this spring at Hartford Stage, and Paxton Whitehead, for his longtime career in theater, especially in Connecticut

Receiving the Tom Killen Award for lifetime achievement is Paulette Haupt, who is stepping down after 40 years from her position as founding artistic director of the National Music Theater Conference at Waterford’s Eugene O’Neill Theater Center

Other nominees are:

Actor in a play: Jordan Lage, “Other People’s Money,” Long Wharf Theatre; Tom Pecinka, “Cloud Nine,” Hartford Stage; Michael Doherty, “Peter and the Starcatcher,” Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nutmeg Summer Series; Eric Bryant, “The Invisible Hand,” Westport Country Playhouse; M. Scott McLean, “Midsummer,” TheaterWorks.

Actress in a play: Semina DeLaurentis, “George & Gracie,” Seven Angels Theatre; Emily Donahoe, “Mary Jane,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Ashlie Atkinson, “Imogen Says Nothing,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Vanessa R. Butler, “Queens for a Year,” Hartford Stage; Rebecca Hart, “Midsummer,” TheaterWorks

Actor in a musical: Robert Sean Leonard, “Camelot,” Westport Playhouse; Riley Costello, “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying,” Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nutmeg Summer Series; David Harris, “Next To Normal,” TheaterWorks; David Pittsinger, “Man of La Mancha,” Ivoryton Playhouse; Zach Schanne, “West Side Story,” Summer Theatre of New Canaan.

Actress in a musical: Ruby Rakos, “Chasing Rainbows,” Goodspeed Opera House; Christiane Noll, “Next to Normal,” TheaterWorks; Julia Paladino, “West Side Story.” Karen Ziemba, “Gypsy, Sharon Playhouse; Talia Thiesfield, “Man of La Mancha,” Ivoryton Playhouse.

Director of a play: Darko Tresnjak, “The Comedy of Errors,” Hartford Stage; David Kennedy, “The Invisible Hand,” Westport Country Playhouse; Marc Bruni, “Other People’s Money,” Long Wharf Theatre; Tracy Brigden, “Midsummer,” TheaterWorks; Gordon Edelstein, “Meteor Shower,” Long Wharf Theatre.

Director of a musical: Rob Ruggiero, “Next to Normal,” TheaterWorks; David Edwards, “Man of La Mancha,” Ivoryton Playhouse; Melody Meitrott Libonati, “West Side Story,” Summer Theatre of New Canaan; Jenn Thompson, “Bye Bye Birdie,” Goodspeed Opera House; Kevin Connors, “Gypsy,” Music Theater of Connecticut in Norwalk.

Choreography:  Denis Jones, “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” Goodspeed Opera House; Chris Bailey, “Chasing Rainbows,” Goodspeed Opera House; Doug Shankman, West Side Story,” Summer Theatre of New Canaan; Patricia Wilcox, “Bye Bye Birdie,” Goodspeed Opera House; Darlene Zoller, “Rockin’ the Forest,” Playhouse on Park.

Ensemble: Cast of “Smart People,” Long Wharf Theatre; Cast of “Trav’lin’ ” at Seven Angels Theatre; cast of “Meteor Shower,” Long Wharf Theatre; cast of “Assassins,” Yale Repertory Theatre; cast of “The 39 Steps” at Ivoryton Playhouse.

Debut performance: Maya Keleher, “Next to Normal,” TheaterWorks; Dylan Frederick, “Assassins,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Nick Sacks, “Next to Normal, TheaterWorks.

Solo Performance: Jodi Stevens, “I’ll Eat You Last,” Music Theater of Connecticut; Jon Peterson, “He Wrote Good Songs,” Seven Angels Theatre.

Featured actor in a play: Jameal Ali, “The Invisible Hand,” Westport Country Playhouse; Andre De Shields, “Seven Guitars,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Cleavant Derricks, “The Piano Lesson,” Hartford Stage; Steve Routman, “Other People’s Money,” Long Wharf Theatre; Paxton Whitehead, “What the Butler Saw,” Westport Country Playhouse

Featured actress in a play: Miriam Silverman, “Mary Jane,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Rachel Leslie, “Seven Guitars,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, “Seven Guitars,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Mia Dillon, “Cloud Nine,” Hartford Stage; Christina Pumariega, “Napoli, Brooklyn,” Long Wharf Theatre

Featured actor in a musical: Mark Nelson, “The Most Beautiful Room in New York,” Long Wharf Theatre; Edward Watts, “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” Goodspeed Opera House; John Cardoza, “Next to Normal,” TheaterWorks; Jonny Wexler, “West Side Story,” Summer Theater of New Canaan; Rhett Guter, “Bye Bye Birdie,” Goodspeed Opera House; Michael Wartella, “Chasing Rainbows,” Goodspeed Opera House

Featured actress in a musical: Maya Keleher, “Next to Normal,” TheaterWorks; Jodi Stevens, “Gypsy,” “Music Theater of Connecticut; Katie Stewart, “West Side Story,” Summer Theater of New Canaan; Kristine Zbornik, “Bye Bye Birdie,” Goodspeed Opera House; Kate Simone, “Gypsy,” Music Theater of Connecticut.

Set design: Colin McGurk, “Heartbreak House,” Hartford Stage; Michael Yeargan, “The Most Beautiful Room in New York,” Long Wharf Theater; Wilson Chin, “Next to Normal,” TheaterWorks; Adam Rigg, “The Invisible Hand,” “Westport Country Playhouse; Darko Tresnjak, “The Comedy of Errors,” Hartford Stage.

Costume design: Ilona Somogyi, “Heartbreak House,” Hartford Stage; Marina Draghici, “Scenes from Court Life,” Yale Repertory Theater; Fabio Toblini, “The Comedy of Errors,” Hartford Stage; Gregory Gale, “Thorough Modern Millie,” Goodspeed Opera House; Lisa Steier, “Rockin’ the Forest,” Playhouse on Park.

Lighting design: Matthew Richards, “The Invisible Hand,” Westport Country Playhouse; Yi Zhao, “Assassins,” Yale Repertory Theatre; John Lasiter, “Next to Normal,” TheaterWorks; Matthew Richards, “Comedy of Errors,” Hartford Stage; Christopher Bell, “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” Playhouse on Park, Hartford.

Sound design: Jane Shaw, “The Comedy of Errors,” Hartford Stage; Fan Zhang, “Seven Guitars,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Shane Rettig, “Scenes from Court Life,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Karen Graybash, “The Piano Lesson,” Hartford Stage; Fitz Patton, “The Invisible Hand,” Westport Country Playhouse.

2017 Nominations List

 

Outstanding Solo Performance

Jodi Stevens                I’ll Eat You Last                     MTC

Jon Peterson                He Wrote Good Songs           7 Angels

Outstanding Debut

Maya Kelcher (Natalie)           Next to Normal           TheaterWorks

Dylan Frederick                      Assassins                     Yale Rep

Nick Sacks                              Next to Normal           TheaterWorks

Outstanding Ensemble

Cast of…                                Smart People                           Long Wharf

Cast of…                                Trav’lin                                    7 Angels

Cast of…                                Meteor Shower                       Long Wharf

Cast of…                                Assassins                                 Yale

Cast of…                                The 39 Steps                           Ivoryton

Outstanding Projections

 Michael Commendatore          Assassins                                 Yale

Outstanding Sound

Jane Shaw                               Comedy of Errors                   Hartford Stage

Fan Zhang                               Seven Guitars                          Yale

Shane Retig                             Scenes From Court Life          Yale

Karin Graybash                       Piano Lesson                           Hartford Stage

Fitz Patton                              Invisible Hand                        Westport

Outstanding Costume Design

Ilona Somogyi                         Heartbreak House                   Hartford Stage

Marina Draghici                      Scenes from Court Life          Yale

Lisa Steier                               Rockin’ the Forest                  Playhouse on Park

Fabio Toblini                           Comedy of Errors                   Hartford Stage

Gregory Gale                          Modern Millie                         Goodspeed

Outstanding Lighting

Matthew Richards                  Invisible Hand                        Westport

Yi Zhao                                   Assassins                                 Yale

John Lasiter                             Next to Normal                       TheaterWorks

Matthew Richards                  Comedy of Errors                   Hartford Stage

Christopher Bell                      A Moon for the Misbegotten  Playhouse on Park

Outstanding Set Design

Colin McGurk                         Heartbreak House                   Hartford Stage
Michael Yeargan                     Most Beautiful Room…         Long Wharf

Wilson Chin                            Next to Normal                       TheaterWorks

Adam Rigg                             The Invisible Hand                 Westport

Darko Tresnjak                        The Comedy of Errors            Hartford Stage

Outstanding Choreography

Denis Jones                             Modern Millie                         Goodspeed

Chris Bailey                            Chasing Rainbows                  Goodspeed

Doug Shankman                     West Side Story                      STONC

Patricia Wilcox                        Bye Bye Birdie                       Goodspeed

Darlene Zoller                         Rockin’ the Forest                  Playhouse on Park

Outstanding Featured Actor – Musical

Mark Nelson (Carlo)               Most Beautiful Room….        Long Wharf

Edward Watts (Trevor)           Modern Millie                         Goodspeed

John Cardoza (Gabe)              Next to Normal                       TheaterWorks

Jonny Wexler (Action)            West Side Story                      STONC

Rhett Guter (Birdie)               Bye Bye Birdie                       Goodspeed

Michael Wartella                     Chasing Rainbows                  Goodspeed

Outstanding Featured Actress – Musical

Maya Keleher (Natalie)           Next to Normal                       TheaterWorks

Jodi Stevens (Secretary/Mazeppa)      Gypsy                          MTC

Katie Stewart (Anita)             West Side Story                      STONC

Kristine Zbornik (Mother)      Bye, Bye Birdie                      Goodspeed

Kate Simone (Louise)             Gypsy                                      MTC

Outstanding Featured Actress – Play

Miriam Silverman (Brianne/Chaya)    Mary Jane                    Yale

Rachel Leslie (Vera)               Seven Guitars                          Yale

Antoinette Crowe-Legacy (Ruby) Seven Guitars                  Yale

Mia Dillon                               Cloud 9                                   Hartford Stage

Christina Pumariega (Tina)     Napoli, Brooklyn                    Long Wharf

Outstanding Featured Actor – Play

Jameal Ali (Dar)                      The Invisible Hand                 Westport

Andre De Shields Headley)    Seven Guitars                          Yale

Cleavant Derricks                   Piano lesson                            Hartford Stage

Steve Routman (Coles)           Other People’s Money            Long Wharf

Paxton Whitehead (Dr. Rance)  What the Butler Saw           Westport

 Outstanding Director – Musical

Rob Ruggiero                          Next to Normal                       TheaterWorks

David Edwards                       Man of La Mancha                 Ivoryton

Melody Libonati                     West Side Story                      STONC

Jenn Thompson                       Bye Bye Birdie                       Goodspeed

Kevin Connors                        Gypsy                                      MTC

Outstanding Director – Play

Darko Tresnjak                        The Comedy of Errors            Hartford Stage

David Kennedy                      The Invisible Hand                 Westport

Marc Bruni                              Other People’s Money            Long Wharf

Tracy Brigden                         Midsummer                             TheaterWorks

Gordon Edelstein                    Meteor Shower                       Long Wharf

Outstanding Actor – Musical

Robert Sean Leonard (Arthur)  Camelot                                Westport

Riley Costello (Finch)             How to Succeed…                 CRT

David Harris (Dan)                 Next to Normal                       TheaterWorks

David Pittsinger (Don Q)       Man of La Mancha                 Ivoryton

Zach Schanne (Tony)              West Side Story                      STONC

Outstanding Actress – Musical

Ruby Rakos (Judy)                 Chasing Rainbows                  Goodspeed

Christiane Noll (Diana)           Next to Normal                       TheaterWorks

Julia Paladino (Maria)             West Side Story                      STONC

Karen Ziemba (Rose)              Gypsy                                      Sharon Playhouse

Talia Thiesfield (Aldonza)      Man of La Mancha                 Ivoryton

Outstanding Actor – Play

Tom Pecinka (Betty/Edward) Cloud 9                                   Hartford Stage

Michael Doherty (Black Stache) Peter and the…                  CRT

Eric Bryant (prisoner) Invisible Hand                        Westport

Jordan Lage (Garfinkle)          Other People’s Money            Long Wharf

Scott McLean (Bob) Midsummer… TheaterWorks

Outstanding Actress – Play

Emily Donohe                         Mary Jane                                Yale

Semina DeLaurentis (Gracie)  George & Gracie                     7 Angels

Ashlie Atkinson (Imogen)      Imogen Says Nothing             Yale

Vanessa R. Butler (Solinas)    Queens for a Year                   Hartford Stage

Rebecca Hart (Helena)            Midsummer                             TheaterWorks

Outstanding Production – Musical

Assassins                                 Yale

Next to Normal                       TheaterWorks

Man of La Mancha                 Ivoryton

West Side Story                      STONC

Bye Bye Birdie                       Goodspeed

Outstanding Production – Play

The Comedy of Errors            Hartford Stage

Midsummer (a play with songs) TheaterWorks

Scenes From Court Life          Yale

The Invisible Hand                 Westport

Mary Jane                                Yale

“Chicago,” Two “West Side Stories,” and Closings on Broadway

Inside notes and comments about Connecticut and New York Professional Theater

By Karen Isaacs

 “All that Jazz”: The long-running musical Chicago by Kander and Ebb hits the Ivoryton Playhouse stage, Sun. July 24. Todd Underwood is directing and choreographing the musical which features several performers familiar to Ivoryton audiences: Christopher Sutton as Billy Flynn, Lynn Philistine as Roxie Hart and Sheniqua Trotman as Mama Morton.  For tickets visit ivorytonplayhouse.org or call 860-767-7318 for tickets.

On Sale Now: Tickets are now sale for the Palace Theater, Waterbury’s presentation of Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage scheduled for Oct. 7-9. For tickets call 203-346-2000 or visit palacetheaterct.org.

 Nostalgic Music at Long Wharf: If you are looking for a light-weight but enjoyable entertainment on a hot summer night, Long Wharf is bringing back the production of The Bikinis from Wed., July 13 to Sun., July 31. The excuse for stringing together lots of great songs from the ‘60s and beyond is the story of a hit girls group from the Jersey shore who, 20 years later are trying to raise money to preserve the Sandy Shores Mobile Home Beach Resorts. For tickets visit longwharf.org or call 203-787-4282.

Seven for Next Season: Playhouse on Park in West Harford is planning seven productions for its 2016-17 season. Three musicals are included: Little Shop of Horrors (Sept.14-Oct. 16), [title of show] from Jan. 11 to 29, and Rockin’ the Forest (March 29–April 9)) by stop/time dance theater. The Playhouse will also present: Unnecessary Farce (Nov. 2-20), Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (Feb. 15 –March 5), Last Train to Nibroc (April 26-May 14); and concludes with The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) – Revised Edition, June 28-July 30. For subscriptions or information contact playhouseonpark.org or call 860-523-5900 ext. 10. Tickets for individual productions go on sale Aug. 1.

Midsummer (a play with songs) in Hartford: TheaterWorks is presenting an aptly titled play, Thursday, July 14 to Sunday, Aug. 21. According to the press materials, “It’s a midsummer weekend in Edinburgh and it’s raining. Bob’s a failing car salesman on the fringes of the city’s underworld. Helena’s a high-powered divorce lawyer with a taste for other people’s husbands. She’s totally out of his league; he’s not her type at all. They absolutely should not sleep together. Which is, of course, why they do. Midsummer is the story of a great-lost weekend of bridge-burning, car chases, wedding bust-ups, bondage miscalculations, midnight trysts and self-loathing hangovers.” It was written by Scottish articsts indie rocker Gordon McIntyre and playwright David Gried. For tickets, call 860-527-7838 or visit theaterworkshartford.org.

One Musical, Two Productions: West Side Story will be at opposite ends of the state this summer. The Connecticut Repertory Theater at UConn in Storrs production runs through Sunday, July 17. Several Broadway performers are starring in the production directed and choreographed by Cassie Abate: Yurel Echezarreta (whose credits include Broadway’s Matilda, Aladdin, La Cage aux Folles and the 2009 West Side Story revival) plays Bernardo.  Jose Lucas of (A Christmas Story) plays Indio; Luke Hamilton plays Tony and Julia Estrada is Maria. For tickets call 860-486-2113 or visit crt.uconn.edu.

The second production, at Summer Theater of New Canaan, runs through Sunday, July 31. Casting was not available at press time; STONC performs at Waverly Park under an all-weather, open-air tent theater. Seating is provided. For tickets or information call 203-966-4634 or visit stonc.org.

New Artistic Director: With the departure to the University of Michigan of Vincent J. Cardinal who has served as artistic director for many years, The Connecticut Repertory Theater which is part of the UConn’s theater program has named Michael Bradford as its new artistic director. Bradford has been at UConn since 2001 and is an accomplished playwright. Congratulations; I look forward to seeing in what direction he will take CRT in the coming years.

New York Notes: Tickets are now on sale for the Broadway run of Dear Evan Hansen, the off-Broadway musical that garnered many awards this past year. It opens Oct. 3 at the Belasco Theater with Ben Platt of Pitch Perfect starring as the teen struggling for identity amidst chaos. Tickets are available at telecharge.com. Telecharge is also now selling tickets for the revival of Les Liasions Dangereuses starring Janet Mcteer and Liev Shreiber. It begins previews on Oct. 8 and runs through Jan. 22. The all-star revival of the antic comedy Front Page begins previews Sept. 20 with a cast that includes Nathan Lane, John Goodman, Jefferson Mays, Rosemary Harris, Sherie Rene Scott and Robert Morse. Tickets are at Telecharge.

Did you know that CBS censored the signing in the performance of Spring Awakening broadcast on the Tonys? Some of the American Sign Language was changed; the last time the show was on the Tonys for the original production, CBS had them change some lyrics; this time the lyrics were OK but the signing wasn’t!

 What Will Be Open? If you are planning Broadway theater-going in August or early September, it may easier to figure what IS playing rather than what has closed. Lots of theaters will be available for fall productions.  Already closed are shows that won Tony awards for acting:  Eclipsed, The Father, Long Day’s Journey into Night; all were limited runs. Also closed are the long-running revival of The King and I as well as the new musical Bright Star.  In July the revivals of She Loves Me, The Crucible and Fully Committed will close. In a surprise, the producers of the new musical Shuffle Along, or… will close when Audra MacDonald goes on maternity leave. Late August and early September mark the closings of Finding Neverland, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Les Miserables, Fun Home and An Act of God. Plus, earlier closings included American Psycho, Disaster, Tuck Everlasting, and the limited run of Blackbird. The only shows opening during the summer are the revival of Cats and the limited run return of Motown: the Musical.

 

Enjoyable “Chorus Line” at Playhouse on Park

chorus line play june 4

Photo by Meredith Atkinson

By Karen Isaacs

 A Chorus Line is a classic ensemble musical that benefits with a young cast. It is getting a fine production at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford through July 31.

The show centers on a group of “gypsies,” the term for Broadway dancers who go from show to show, seldom having speaking parts. Yet they are expected to be able to sing and to dance spectacularly.

The show opens with a group of such dancers learning a dance routine as part of the audition process. A disembodied voice – the director/choreographer – then asks them to go through the routine in various groups. The dancers all want and need this job. Soon though, some are cut and the remaining 16 (eight men, eight women) are left to continue the audition; only eight will be hired.

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Eric S.Robinson and Spencer Pond. Photo by Meredith Atkinson

But this director wants something more. He doesn’t just want to see them dance or sing; he wants them to talk about themselves: how they came dancing, why they dance, what they will do when they can no longer dance. It’s an uncomfortable experience for most of them and they are reluctant to comply. It means revealing a part of themselves that may have been hidden for years.

Slowly, over the course of the two hour, intermissionless show, they do reveal the details of their lives. Some may try to “act” or create what they think he wants, but most come to tells us what appears to be the truth.

We hear from the women (Sheila, Bebe, Maggie) who were drawn to dance because of the unhappy marriages of their parents and the lack of love they felt from their fathers. Mike tells us how while watching his older sister’s dance class, he realized “I Can Do That.” Then there are the men who knew they were gay but struggled with acceptance.

The Pulitzer Prize winning musical, was conceived and originally directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett. During an extended workshop period, gypsies sat around and talked about their lives both on the stage and off. From that material James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante fashioned the book and Marvin Hamlisch (music) and Edward Kleban (lyrics) wrote the score.

Several emotional stories emerge. Paul (played touchingly by Tino Ardiente) is a young Puerto Rican dancer who is on the verge of succeeding. He story about working in a drag show and how his parents reacted, will surely lead to a few damp eyes.

Then there is Cassie, the role originally played (and most say based on Donna Mckechnie).

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Michelle Pruiett. Photo by Rich Wagner

Cassie and the director, Zach, have had a romantic relationship. She tried to move on from being a gypsy to more substantial roles, but she failed and now she is both desperate for a job and comfortable with the idea that this is the most she can do. Zach has difficulty accepting both her failure and her desire to be cast as a back-up dancer to a star.

Directors Sean Harris and Darlene Zoller did outstanding work with this cast which includes many college students with limited experience. But they have most of the cast working as a seamless unit. Each of the final sixteen dancers create specific characters at all times.

Credit must also be given to music directors Emmett Drake and Michael Morris for the presentation of the many musical numbers. The voices sound good and the diction is also excellent; you can hear the lyrics.

Darlene Zoller choreographed the show with assistance from Spencer Pond. They have taken inspiration from the Bennett choreography and created their own numbers. Of course, they had to keep the basic look of the finale, “One,” It is just too iconic to be changed; the audience would feel cheated.

chorus line play june 2

Photo by Rich Wagner

For once, the large square playing space with the two pillars at the front corners is actually totally appropriate for the show. It looks like any dance rehearsal room. Scenic designer Christopher Hoyt cleverly added narrow mirrors on each the three sides so that audience members sitting on the sides could look at those.

Lisa Steir, the costume designer provided the rehearsal selection of leotards and other dance gear. The costumes for the finale unfortunately looked cheap. Particularly for the men, I’ve seen similar outfits at the multiple dance recitals I’ve attended for grandchildren. It took away from the wow factor.

In this show in particular, the role of Zach and Cassie are important; theirs is the story that drives the show.  Eric S. Robertson gives us a Zach who is tough but also concerned about his dancers. His reaction to Cassie reflects a multitude of emotions.

Michelle Pruiett is excellent as Cassie. She shows her strength and self-knowledge that has been hard-earned yet she is not bitter, but accepting. She is survivor.

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Mallory Cunningtham. Photo by Meredith Atkinson.

Many others in the cast deserve praise: Tracey Mellon as Sheila, Alex Polzun as Mike, Ronnie Bowman, Jr. as Richie, Mark Jacob Weinstein as Greg, and Spencer Pond as Larry, Zach’s assistant.

This is a production of A Chorus Line that you should go see.  It is at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Rd, West Harford, through July 31. For tickets visit PlayhouseonPark.org.

 

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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

 

“Wit” Doesn’t Sugar Coat the Issues

WIT 5 (4)_edited

Elizabeth Lande as Dr. Vivian Bearing. Photo by Richard Wagner

By Karen Isaacs

The 1999 Pulitzer Prize winner, Wit, is getting a fine production at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford through May 8. But those who think of the word “wit” as meaning clever or funny, will be in for a shock, though there are some humorous moments.

This play by Margaret Edison does not pull its punches about cancer, experimental treatments and death.  If you have had personal experiences with these issues, the play can be emotionally draining.

Wit had an early production at Long Wharf, starring Kathleen Chalfant in the leading role, which transferred off-Broadway and had a long run.  It was revived on Broadway with Cynthia Nixon in 2012.

The title of the play, Wit, refers to the literary wit of the metaphysical poets, particularly John Donne and the sonnet “Death Be Not Proud.” In this context, wit refers to relating disparate elements so as to enlightenment, astuteness and reasoning power.  Donne is often considered a “difficult” poet for his metaphysical discussions, namely for his exploration of faith, religion and the spiritual world.

Dr. Vivian Bearing, a professor, is the narrator of the play.  We first see her in a hospital gown and hospital setting where we learn she has been undergoing treatment for cancer.  She is thin and wears a baseball cap to conceal her hair loss. Soon we realize that she is dying.  In a variety of flashbacks, we see both incidents from her life – with her mentor, her father, her students as well as her days since the diagnosis.

We see the young Vivian, a promising scholar of literature, with her mentor, Professor E. M. Ashford.  Ashford considers Vivian’s paper to be sentimental and superficial. She instructs her in how the selection of the text (and its punctuation) that Vivian used for the paper on “Death Be Not Proud” has misled her. The use of a semicolon and explanation point rather than a comma and period have changed the meaning dramatically.

Vivian takes the lesson to heart and has become a leading scholar on Donne and his “wit” as well as a demanding professor. She is viewed as one of the toughest at the university where she teaches. But Vivian, who has never married, is tough in other ways as well.

She is confronting advanced ovarian cancer (stage four) and is undergoing experimental chemotherapy. Not only has she agreed to the experimental treatment but she has been determined to take the maximum dosage in the study.

The first time I saw this play, I viewed it as too much a lecture on Donne, but now I see the many connections Margaret Edison makes between Vivian, the literary scholar, and the researcher in charge of the study, Dr. Harvey Kelekian, and the graduate fellow, Dr. Jason Posner, handling the day-to-day treatment.  Each of them is rigorously intellectual, not allowing emotion to enter the equation in the relationships. Each is seeking for knowledge and each wears blinders that doesn’t let him see the fuller picture.

Vivian takes pride that her course – which Dr. Posner took om a dare – is so tough and she is so demanding and strict with her students, not giving any thought to them as individuals. The two physicians are equally strict and equally unable to put aside their desires – for maximum useable data – to consider the human cost of getting that data.

Edison raises also the issue of the ethical conundrum in medical research.  Often it does not benefit the patient but may provide important knowledge that will help future patients.  In fact, it often harms the patient or at least makes the waning days of life physically more difficult.  Yet the researcher often does not know when to stop and let nature takes it course since stopping treatment or not resuscitating might jeopardize the data already collected.

This is played out at the end of Vivian’s life between Dr. Posner and Nurse Susan Monahan who, unlike the two researchers, has developed a real relationship with Vivian.  It is she that talks her about a DNR (do not resuscitate) order and she that battles Dr. Posner when, despite the order, he tries to resuscitate Vivian to protect that data.

Elizabeth Lande is excellent as Vivian. She gives us a woman, who while in the classroom was unsentimental and tough, does in fact have feelings not just for the literature but also for life. At times she paints a picture of a woman who is still trying to please like the little girl who tried to please her father and later her mentor.

Tim Hackney as Dr. Posner, the graduate fellow, has the most difficult role and only partially succeeds at creating this young researcher.  He must blend the confidence of youth with the callousness of someone who is aiming big.  His comments about the waste of time in medical school for a researcher to take a course on dealing with patients, may make you want to scream at him. He views this study as just a way station to getting his own lab.

Chuja Sea endows Nurse Monahan with the humanity and warmth that most of the other characters, including Vivian, lack.  She manages to keep the character from being only the “good cop” to Posner’s “bad cop.”  David Gutschy allows Kelekian to be the breezy supervisor who stops in occasionally.

Director Stevie Zimmerman has handled the awkwardly large playing space well, creating separate areas for the various earlier memories.

Wit is the only play Edison has ever written. For a first play, it is certainly a good one and, I suspect, she wrote from the heart.

It is at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Rd, West Hartford through May 8.  For tickets visit playhouseonpark.org or call 860-523-5900.

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Photo by Meredith Anderson

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