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
Christmas on the Rocks has become a holiday staple at TheaterWorks. This year it runs through Saturday, December 23; additional performances already have been added.
Why the appeal? At first glance it simply seems like a clever twist that adds a bit of cynicism to the usual holiday fare. But after seeing it several times, I’ve realized that there are hidden depths in these delightful pieces.
Artistic Director Rob Ruggiero called upon a number of playwrights with whom he had worked and gave them a challenge. To write a short scene about whatever happened to some of the classic children characters from various Christmas movies, TV shows and literature. Most of these works ended on an up-beat note. But what really happened afterwards?
The playwrights created a series of short scenes – many of them mainly monologues. And along the way they added in not only humor but lessons of how we go on and how we can always recapture the optimism of youth.
It is set in what is described as “a local bar in a lonely corner of the cosmos, Christmas Eve.” This is your typical run-down neighborhood bar, worn and out of date. The bartender is switching between Christmas films on TV as the bar is empty.
In seven scenes, two talented actors become some of the very well-known children from these stories and occasionally a lesser known character. In the last two years, two of the stories have changed. One original piece, based on The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and about Cindy Lou Who, was turned into a longer piece by its playwright Matthew Lombardo and is now playing off-Broadway. It’s been replaced by piece written by Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas.
That piece, “My Name is KAREN!” is about the girl who created Frosty and saved him. She’s now a self-involved, angry young woman with her own live internet show. She resents all the attention that Frosty has gotten and her own obscurity. Even on her show, her followers mostly ask questions about Frosty and not her. She has taken her revenge.
New this year is a scene by Connecticut’s own Jacques Lamarre called “A Miserable Life”. You can guess that it is about one of the Bailey children, in this case ZuZu Bailey. It seems that she has been traumatized by the notion that “every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.”
John Cariani has written an ironic piece about Ralphie from A Christmas Story while Jeffrey Hatcher has a hysterically funny piece about Hermie, the elf who wanted to be a dentist in the TV version of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
In a piece by Theresa Rebeck, we see a cynical Tiny Tim who believes that Scrooge had a mental breakdown; Tim also seems to have adopted some of Scrooge’s miserly attitudes. Then there’s the piece about Clara, from The Nutcracker. She is now an aging beauty still in love with the ageless Nutcracker. And the show ends with a tender piece by Lamarre about Charlie Brown. His revelations are surprising, but the ending is sweet.
Ruggiero has directed this with a sure hand. Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkes are returning for the third or fourth year playing all of the famous characters. It is remarkable how they use voices and gestures to create totally different characters. Harris goes from the self-involved Karen, to the neurotic Zuzu and ends as the tender “Little Red-Haired Girl.
Wilkes is funny and over the top as Hermie. After that, you almost don’t recognize him when he is Tiny Tim or later as Charlie Brown.
Tom Bloom has joined the cast this year as the bartender. Like any good bartender, he listens, he reacts and occasionally he adds a succinct comment or suggestion. He is part therapist and part grandfather. It is this character that often helps the others to leave more optimistic than when they came in.
As you leave Christmas on the Rocks, you may ponder the ideas that what we assume will happen often doesn’t, but that other possibilities open to us, if only we will take advantage of them.
This show is geared to adults or near adults.
Christmas on the Rocks is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford. For tickets visit TheaterWorks or call 860-527-7838.
This content courtesy of Shore Publications Weeklies and zip06.com.
By Karen Isaacs
Einstein was a genius; everyone agrees. But Relativity the new play by Mark St. Germain now at TheaterWorks through Nov. 23, explores Einstein the husband, father and man.
In particular, the play deals with Einstein’s daughter Liserl who has been a mystery to Einstein biographers. Liserl was born before he and his first wife, Mileva Maric married. No definite proof seems to exist as to what happened to her; some believe she was raised by Maric’s relatives and others believe she was adopted.
Relativity – an obvious play on Einstein’s famous theory as well as the idea of relatives – opens in Princeton in the late ‘40s or early ’50. Einstein is now elderly though still working at the Institute while the FBI snoops around. Apparently J. Edgar Hoover was convinced Einstein was a security risk, possibly because he became active in anti-war and anti-bomb causes. His housekeeper/mistress Helen looks after him and regards most visitors with suspicion.
The play begins with Einstein meeting Margaret Harding who says she is a new reporter for a Jewish newspaper and wants to interview him. He finds the woman attractive and invites her home; Helen is immediately on guard.
What starts as a relatively normal interview soon veers off. It seems that Helen has done her homework and has talked with Einstein’s sons who don’t view him as “warm and fuzzy.” When he wants to cut short the interview she whips out a form that promises to let him review and reject anything she writes.
If you are convinced she isn’t who she seems to be, you are right. Her questions become more and more pointed; she seems to have lots of questions about Einstein’s parenting and marriage. The implication is that while Einstein may have been a genius, he was not a very nice man – an uninvolved father who wanted quiet and ignored his sons, and a philandering husband who demanded that the household revolve around his needs and desires.
It may not be a surprise that Margaret Harding is Liserl, the daughter who was given up for adoption. Though she claims her adoptive family was terrific and her father “a great man” who sacrificed a potentially life-changing commission as an artist to care for his wife – she seems intent on trying to get some acknowledgement from Einstein of his paternity and his failings. He admits the paternity.
St. Germain, whose plays often deal with historical characters, is attempting to raise a bigger issue here, which can be phrased in two ways. One, why do we assume that geniuses should also have sterling characters and moral compasses? The other question is related: do character flaws diminish the accomplishments of genius? After all Mozart wrote sublime music that can lift our spirits and thoughts yet he was a drunk, selfish, promiscuous man. Does the latter diminish or negate the former?
Richard Dreyfuss is Albert Einstein. Dreyfus know his way around a stage and it shows. But
this Einstein at times seems more like a cherub that the genius. He is by turns flirtatious, defensive, charming and remote. His moods swing and he can make an easy joke or give a cold stare. At times he reminds me of an almost Santa-like figure. He is both naïve and very aware; gullible and guarded.
If Dreyfuss gives us an Einstein who is less scientific genius and more playful old man, Christa Scott-Reed gives us a Margaret who seems both cruel and needy. She often plays the role as a prosecuting attorney. You can’t always buy her story of a happy adoptive family; the axe she has to grind is too huge.
Lori Wilner is Helen, whose role is to be both protective and at times the humorous foil for all that is going on around her.
The cast works superbly together. It is a minuet that is skillfully danced, thanks in large part to director Rob Ruggiero.
Brian Prather has created a wonderful set that shows Einstein’s office in his home with windows that look out onto snow-covered tree limbs. It feels warm and cozy. Alejo Vietti’s costume design are perfect for the period and remind us of how much more formal that period was.
In truth, Relativity is really a family drama about a daughter who feels deprived of her father’s love. What makes it unusual is that this father was Einstein.
While St. Germain toys with the larger issues, too often these are sacrificed for the domestic drama and the consoling ending. It seems that Einstein has a heart after all.
Relativity is an enjoyable 90 minutes in the theater in part due to the fine direction and acting. Yet, it could have been more.
It is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford through Nov. 23. For tickets, call 860-527-7838.
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
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.
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
By Karen Isaacs
Watching Sex with Strangers, now at TheaterWorks in Harford through Sunday, April 17, I suddenly felt very old. This play written by Laura Eason, has had seven productions throughout the country this year, making it one of the ten most produced plays. Eason in addition to having written 20 plays, is a writer and producer on the acclaimed TV series House of Cards.
The appeal of this relationship comedy-drama is clear. It speaks to the generation now in their 20s and 30s, and every theater is trying to attract them. Whether it also will appeal to an older audience is somewhat questionable.
So what is this play about? We have Olivia (Courtney Rackley) a writer/teacher in her late 30s at a remote inn or B&B. It is snowing outside and she is editing a manuscript; her second novel we learn later. It is evening and when the bell rings, she is startled. At the door is Ethan (Patrick Ball) who was expected earlier in the day and was assumed not to be coming. He too is a writer, but he is about 25 and full of the arrogance and cockiness of youth. He is also a “hunk.”
As all good relationship plays start, the two are not compatible. Ethan is brash, insensitive, and very taken with himself. He reveals to Laura that he has had two books on the best seller list; each semi-true accounts of his efforts to have sex with strangers (thus the title) and write about them. So he picked up various girls in bars and other places, charmed them, bedded them, and then wrote about them – often nastily—in his blog which led to the books. He is at the cabin to work on the screenplay which was due last week.
Olivia is more serious and insecure. Her first novel was published a number of years ago, did not do well and she has decided to write only for herself. The thought of negative reviews and disappointments are too much for her to contemplate.
The first act details their three days at the house. Yes, Ethan kisses Olivia and though she initially rejects it, she is soon in his arms. She becomes another of his “sex with strangers” conquests. In the next two days, they have sex and talk of books and goals. Ethan pushes her for information and pushes to read her new book; he had actually read and liked her first novel because a mutual friend who had really liked the book, had given him a copy. She does not want to let him read it, but while she is sleeping he takes it and reads it.
He convinces her – or semi-bullies her – into allowing him to post on an “app” that he has created her first novel under a nom de plume. He tells her this a way to get the book “out there” without the personal vulnerability.
Act two takes place in the following weeks in Olivia’s Chicago apartment. The relationship is continuing but cracks are beginning to appear. Ethan has introduced Olivia to his agent who loves the new book, and a big deal is in process. But it is as though Ethan seems a little jealous of Olivia’s pending success. He tries to convince her to let him publish the book on line, not using the prominent publisher who is interested, is offering a major advance, and will market the novel aggressively.
After a fight about Ethan’s probable infidelity, he storms out and when he returns the next day, he reveals he has once again broken Olivia’s trust. The play ends 18 months later with Olivia having moved on.
It is surprising that a woman would create a character such as Olivia. She too easily succumbs to the “body beautiful” of Ethan and ignores all the signs that he is a self-obsessed man used to getting his own way. She deludes herself that the man who wrote “sex with strangers” is not the Ethan she knows. She ignores warning sign after warning sign. Was the sex that good?
Courtney Rackley creates a believable Olivia – vulnerable and somewhat unsure of herself. She is afraid of being hurt yet puts herself into harm’s way. When the warning signs appear, she ignores them or only weakly protests.
Patrick Ball totally captures the self-assurance, ego and at times, the anger of Ethan. He is one of those twenty-somethings – who becomes jittery at the thought of not having cell phone service or wifi.
Eason makes some clear points about the willingness of Ethan’s generation to live their lives on social media, telling anyone and everyone personal details of their lives. All is available for consumption. Ethan is proud that some of the women he bedded have written about their encounters with him in their own blogs and other social media outlets. Details that most of us might want kept hidden because we might feel embarrassed or ashamed are broadcast and become fodder for making money.
Certainly the actors spend a lot of time taking off and putting on clothes. Almost half of the scenes end with the two undressing for sex, or dressing after it. The play also features quite a bit of language that one expects in a David Mamet play. From Ethan’s self-description as an a**hole, to terms for sex, swear words, etc. are frequent. In fact if the sex scenes and language were toned down, the play would run at least 15 minutes shorter than its two plus hour length.
Rob Ruggiero has done a good job both with casting and direction. The play moves – though it might move faster – and each actor develops the characters fully.
Brian Prather has created two realistic sets for the cabin and the apartment with a wall of books. The efforts of sound designer Fitz Patton and lighting designer John Lasiter are particularly effective in the first act.
Sex with Strangers is not for everyone. Certainly it is not for anyone under 18. How you feel about the play may be a reflection of how you feel about the characters. I kept wanting to tell Olivia to develop some backbone and not be taken in by the immature Ethan.
Sex with Strangers is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford, through Sunday April 17. For tickets. For information visit theaterworkshartford.org or call 860-527-7838.
This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and http://www.zip06.
By Karen Isaacs
Three years ago, Rob Ruggiero, artistic director of TheaterWorks in Hartford, had a brilliant idea for an adult holiday show: a series of sketches featuring the adult versions of those kids that won our hearts in holiday stories and movies. This year it is returning through Wednesday, Dec. 23.
So he enlisted seven contemporary playwrights with connections to the theater, to write the sketches. The setting? “A local bar in a lonely corner of the cosmos, Christmas Eve” the program tells us.
We have the requisite elderly bartender who listens carefully and occasionally responds.
Who wanders into this bar? The characters that “became real” because we have loved them so. Each is now an adult and each life has taken some unexpected turns. The pieces themselves range from heartfelt to farcical but each is in keeping with the original work for which it is a sequel.
Some of the characters are less easily recognizable. I heard some audience members checking with neighbors about the second playlet: this one features Susan, the daughter in the movie Miracle on 34th Street. Those who know the film will recognize the subtle references to the film that Jonathan Tolins incorporated including the house on Primrose Street, but Susan is perhaps the least familiar character. Yet, this one is touching as Susan reveals to the bartender, played by Ronn Carroll in his third year in the role, how she has become almost a replica of her mother – guarded, untrusting, demanding.
The show opens with “All Grown Up” which gives us one of the most iconic holiday characters: Ralphie from A Christmas Story. Here the adult Ralph reveals not only what happen to the Old Man and his mother but also to him.
The third and fourth playlets are more broadly comical: “Say It Glows” features an obviously gay Herbie the Elf from the TV animated Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Herbie dishes the dirt about Rudolph and how Herbie got some revenge but also suffered.
Following Herbie is “Going Green” featuring Cindy Lou Who from How the Grinch Stole Christmas which Matthew Lombard has written in Seussical rhyme. Cindy Lou is disheveled and possibly alcoholic. Her life is a mess.
Tiny Tim appears – does anyone need to be reminded of the work he appeared in? – looking like a Victorian London street person. He has become cynical, and talks of Scrooge’s “psychotic break.”
Maria from The Nutcracker arrives next in a scene by Edwin Sánchez. Her life is also a mess. She is attempting to stay young for her never aging, handsome nutcracker prince who seems attracted to her brother. She projects a desperateness as she sits at the bar, drinking vodka and crushing peanuts with nutcrackers.
The evening ends with a sweet piece by Jacques Lamarre (of Hartford) about Charlie Brown and the little red-haired girl. It is the only piece where all three cast members are together on stage. This has always been my favorite piece, striking just the right combination of humor and pathos that was so much a part of Peanuts.
I was particularly impressed this year with Ronn Carroll as the bartender. Each year he has deepened his performance. As he listens to these stories, his reactions fit perfectly – uncomfortable as Herbie makes a move on him, irritation as Clara keeps making jokes about his age. He delivers his comments and often sage advice with warmth and gentleness. He cares!
Matthew Wilkas is new to the male roles, yet he bring his own style to each character. I found his Herbie more physical than last year but my memory may be faulty. I enjoyed his physicality as he jumps on bar stools and the bar itself and strokes the bartender, to his obvious discomfort.
Jenn Harris is returning as the women in the piece. Two of these women – Cindy Lou Who and Clara – are broader characters and more obviously dysfunctional than the male characters. She is comfortable with the broader comedy and makes Cindy Lou Who really slutty. But I was most taken with her performance as the red-haired girl in the last scene.
Rob Ruggiero has directed this with great talent – each scene moves and none go on too long.
A quick warning: This is not for children or perhaps even younger teens. The humor sometimes involves sexual references and the idea that even some of these iconic families end with divorce and unhappiness might be disturbing. Last year, though, my 13-year-old granddaughter did enjoy it.
What is particularly nice about these playlet is that while each of the characters has problems and may be cynical about the holiday season, each leaves the bar with renewed hope thanks to the bartender.
So if you’ve ever wondered what happened to Cindy Lou Who, or did the fairy tale of Maria and the Nutcracker end happily or even if you wondered about Ralphie, his BB gun and his family, you will find Christmas on the Rocks an enjoyable 90 minutes.
Christmas on the Rocks is at TheaterWorks Hartford, 233 Pearl St. in downtown Hartford, through Wednesday, Dec. 23. For tickets and information call 860-527-7838 or online at theaterworkshartford.org.
This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and Zip06.com.
By Karen Isaacs
The holiday theatrical and musical mice are scurrying all over Connecticut to bring us wonderful gifts of performances that will delight children of all ages as well as those who prefer a little cynicism or humor in their holiday diets.
Hartford Stage’s classic production of A Christmas Carol-A Ghost Story of Christmas makes its 18th annual appearance through Sunday, Dec. 27. The production, which was brought by former artistic director Michael Wilson from Texas when he came to Hartford, has become a Connecticut tradition. The production is completing a three-year refurbishing project
with new costumes, more flying, and a larger cast among other enhancements. Once again Bill Raymond returns as Scrooge as well as local area children, acting students from the Hartt School at the University of Hartford, and a slew of professional actors, many of whom have played their roles for multiple years. In addition, the ghosts soar through the air. This production may not be appropriate for younger children. For tickets, visit hartfordstage.org/christmas-carol or call 860-527-5151.
Goodspeed is still running the musical version of one of the classic holiday films, It’s a Wonderful Life. This story of a honorable man who despairs, but learns how much he has contributed and meant to everyone in his small town, seems to embody so much of what the holiday means. The production, which has music and lyrics by Joe Reposo and Sheldon Harnick, runs through Sunday, Dec. 6. There are two performances on Wednesday, Dec. 2 and Saturday, Dec. 5. I love the gentle holiday song, “Christmas Gifts.” This is a show that will make you feel hopeful. For tickets, visit goodspeed.org or call 860-873-8668.
Each holiday season the Ivoryton Playhouse and its executive director Jacqui Hubbard put together an original holiday production. This year, it’s I’ll Be Home for Christmas, which runs from Thursday, Dec. 10 to Sunday, Dec. 20. It is described as a “holiday potpourri of songs and carols and Christmas fun.” It’s centered on the Evans family as it prepares for the holiday season and needs to find time to remember the meaning of the season while doing the multiple tasks that seem to be required. It’s billed as family friendly. For tickets, call 860-767-7318 or visit ivorytonplayhouse.org.
Shakespeare wrote one play whose title, Twelfth Night, refers to the elaborate Elizabethan celebrations that occurred between Christmas and Epiphany. The Connecticut Repertory Theatre, which performs at the Nafe Katter Theatre on the UConn campus in Storrs, has decided to infuse its production of the comedy with holiday seasoning. They promise carols and mistletoe in the comedy that as the press materials says “is a paean to the restorative power of love and the uproarious joy of the holidays. The plot revolves around a shipwrecked young woman who pretends to be a man working for a handsome nobleman who is in love with the Lady Olivia who scorns him. Both the nobleman and the Lady find the young page very attractive.” It runs Thursday, Dec. 3 to Sunday, Dec. 13. This is a good show to introduce teens to Shakespeare. For tickets, call 860-486-2113 or visit crt.uconn.edu.
For the Music-Minded
The New Haven Symphony performs two different holiday programs in locations throughout the area. Holiday Extravaganza features the entire symphony under the direction of Chelsea Tipton, who conducts the Pops concerts. The program includes classics from The Nutcracker, The Messiah, and excerpts from classical favorites as well as such popular hits as “Sleigh Ride,” “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas,” and others. Joshua Jeremiah is the baritone soloist. The concerts are on Saturday, Dec. 12 at Hamden Middle School; Sunday, Dec. 13 at Shelton Intermediate School; Thursday, Dec. 17 at Woolsey Hall in New Haven; and Sunday, Dec. 20 at Middletown High School.
The symphony’s Brass Quintet is combining with organ for its holiday concerts of favorites. The concerts are Saturday, Dec. 5 at Elim Park in Cheshire; Friday, Dec. 18 at Sacred Heart University; and Saturday, Dec. 19 at the First Congregational Church, Madison. For tickets, visit newhavensymphony.org or call 203-865-0831 x20.
Ho- Ho- Holiday Entertainment
For those who appreciate humor or cynicism as part of their holiday festivities, Connecticut theaters are offering some excellent choices.
The Palace in Waterbury is presenting ‘Twas a Girls Night Before Christmas: The Musical on Thursday, Dec. 10. It is about five women gathering for a night of laughs, tears, and gossip during the holiday season complete with both traditional and contemporary holiday songs. For tickets, visit palacetheaterct.org or call 203-346-2000.
TheaterWorks is bringing backs its popular Christmas on the Rocks, which features a parade of now-adult characters who were kids in popular holiday books, films, and TV shows. Among the characters we get to see in a rundown local bar on Christmas Eve are Charlie Brown, Cindy Lou Who, Tiny Tim, and others. Each skit is written by a different popular playwright. There are laughs and more; it runs through Wednesday, Dec. 23. This is best for older teens who will appreciate the twisted tales. For tickets, call 860-527-7838; for information, visit theaterworkshartford.org.
If you’ve ever wondered what it is like to be an elf in a Santaland, David Sedaris’s The Santaland Diaries lets you in on the experience of one such elf, an aspiring writer working at the Macy’s Santaland in New York City. MTC (Music Theater of Connecticut) presents the one person show from Friday, Dec. 11 to Sunday, Dec. 20. For tickets, visit musictheatreofct.com or call 203-454-3883. Again this is great for teens who will appreciate the humor.
Long Wharf is bringing back Sister’s Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of the Magi’s Gold, on Stage II from Tuesday, Dec. 8 through Sunday, Dec. 20. As the press materials says, “In this holiday mystery extravaganza, Sister takes on the mystery that has intrigued historians throughout the ages—whatever happened to the Magi’s gold? Employing her own scientific tools and assisted by local choirs as well as a gaggle of audience members, Sister creates a living nativity unlike any ever seen.” For tickets, visit longwharf.org or call 203-787-4282.
Looking for something for younger children? The Bushnell is hosting a return visit of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical, which is faithful to the classic animated TV show that runs every year. All the characters from the show—Hermey the elf, Yukon Cornelius, and the Abominable Snow Monster are on stage. It runs Friday, Dec. 11 to Monday, Dec 14 for five performances. For tickets, visit bushnell.org or call 860-987-5900.
And winding up the holiday shows is Westport Country Playhouse’s Fancy Nancy Splendiferous Christmas for two performances on Sunday, Dec. 20. This is geared to very young audiences, ages 2 to 7. For tickets or information, visit westportplayhouse.org or call 203-227-4177.
So this holiday season, take some time away from the chores to enjoy a theatrical or musical experience with family and friends.
This content courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com.
By Karen Isaacs
Wendy Wasserstein wrote plays about strong women — women who were intelligent and challenged prevailing “wisdom” – from Heidi Holland, the art professor in The Heidi Chronicles, to The Sisters Rosenweig to Laurie Jameson in Wasserstein’s last play Third, now at TheaterWorks through Nov. 8
At times her plays mirrored periods in Wasserstein’s own life. The Heidi Chronicles takes its main character from adolescence to the early thirties, the sisters in The Sisters Rosensweig are in their forties and this play, written within two years of her death at 55, features a woman in mid-life.
Laurie Jameson is an academic star – she is an intellectual who teaches literature at a prestigious, small New England college. She writes scholarly books on the hot buttons of literary interpretation – all of which attack the standard interpretations as dominated with the white, male perspective. She not only was one of the first women on the faculty – the school at one time had been all male, but she has paved the way for others.
In the opening scene, she tells her students on what is apparently the first day of class, that Goneril and Regan, two of Lear’s daughters are the heroes of King Lear because they out manipulate him and that Cordelia, who is often viewed as the most sympathetic character, succumbs to the male fantasy of girlishness.
But she is under stress. Her best friend and fellow faculty member, Nancy Gordon, has suffered a reoccurrence of cancer. Her younger daughter, Emily, has entered college, leaving an empty nest. Her husband is remote and a disappointment. She has moved her father to the college town as he is slowly descending into dementia. And she has hot flashes.
But that is not all; she is obsessed by the news or the latest Iraq War that started in 2002.
Unfortunately for him, a male student – Woodson Bull, III – or Third as he likes to be called – becomes the focal point of Laurie’s anger. He is – or she thinks he is – all that she despises: a white student athlete (a wrestler), who went to a noted prep school, who has never had to struggle and will achieve without trying because of the establishment. Even the fact that he wants to be a sports agent and that his grandfather and father both are alums reaffirms her opinion.
Early on, she tells him that he doesn’t belong at the school; he’d be better off at a state university, a not-so-subtle jab at his intellectual capabilities.
So when he turns in a brilliant and original paper on Lear, she accuses him of plagiarizing and brings him up on charges to the campus committee.
By the end of the first act, it is hard to like Laurie: you may understand her pressures, but she is SO sure of herself and her views of the world, shaped in part by her 1970s coming of age, that you want to shake her. Your sympathy is totally with Third.
You realize that she has allowed her anger and her stereotyping to overlook Third’s real intellectual abilities and interest.
So Wasserstein has stacked the deck. But she has also not prepared us, at all, for act two.
Laurie is still angry and stressed – her dad is getting worse. Emily is dating someone Laurie views as inferior and is thinking about dropping out of college. Her husband has his own mid-life crisis and is hanging out with the local motorcycle club. And her best friend, not only votes to exonerate Third, but is happily dating a rabbi as she recovers from a bone marrow transplant.
In a rather contrived scene, Emily meets Third as an empty bar where he is bartending. After she convinces him to have a vodka with her, he tells her about the “bitch professor” who has nearly ruined his life: his father has sunk back into depression, he lost his scholarship, and the coach is no longer interested in his athletic abilities.
What follows are scenes where it seems that the world unloads on Laurie: first her daughter tells her what has happened to Third as well as other truths about her attitudes towards her husband and daughters. Then Nancy unleashes some truths of her own.
The finale includes another somewhat contrived scene with Third which wraps up the plot; I’ll not reveal the details here.
Rob Ruggiero has done an excellent job directing this play – which is an imperfect one. Perhaps if Wasserstein had lived, she might have revised it. (At the time she was writing the play, she was being diagnosed and treated for cancer which killed her in January 2006 just after Third closed at Lincoln Center).
But Ruggiero overstressed Laurie’s anger and almost manic energy in the first act. Kate Levy plays Laurie as so angry and passionate that she seems to have no real empathy or understanding for anyone else. When her daughter accuses her of preferring her older daughter because she is a lesbian and in a relationship with a Guggenheim poet, it perfectly characterizes her values. She can’t turn off the news to listen to her daughter.
Conor M. Hamill plays Third as the student who becomes the focal point of Laurie’s anger. This young actor who is a recent graduate of the University of Hartford’s Hartt School, makes you see Third’s incredulity at the charges. While he appears self-confident and assured, Hamill shows us the uncertain young student who wants intellectual challenges. He lets us see the vulnerability beneath the “golden boy” exterior.
Andrea Gallo as Laurie’s fellow faculty member and friend, Nancy Gordon, brings some needed humor to the play with a warm and almost motherly characterization. Olivia Hoffman as Emily shows us the daughter who because she is living a life that is more “normal” is overlooked by Laurie and her feminist political viewpoint. Edmond Genest is Laurie’s father; it is a thankless role – to bring some humanity to Laurie and to show another of the pressures she is under.
Third is, in some ways, a maddening play – it raises interesting issues but creates a character that seems one-dimensional and totally unsympathetic and gives us a second act that seems lacking in real motivation.
Yet, it will cause to think about how we all stereotype people and often act upon our stereotypes to the detriment of the actual people involved.
Third is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl Street, Hartford, through Nov. 8. For tickets call 860-527-7838.
This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com
By Karen Isaacs
Bravo Goodspeed Musicals! Bravo Rob Ruggiero! Bravo Jamison Stern (who plays Albin/ZaZa)!
Before you read further, stop, visit goodspeed.org and order tickets to see this fabulous production.
Goodspeed’s production of La Cage aux Folles which runs through September 10, is the type of production that has critics thumbing their thesauruses for synonyms for magnificent, fabulous, wonderful and more.
I’ve seen the three Broadway productions plus others and this rivals the original production in 1983 that starred George Hearn and Gene Barry.
If you do not know this show, it is based on a French play and later very popular French film of the same name, though technically the show is based only on the play. (The original producers could not get the rights to the film which included a character – Jean-Michel’s mother – that was not in the play and is not in the musical.)
Many people will remember the American movie version of the play – The Birdcage which starred Nathan Lane and Robin Williams and was set in South Beach. The film was made in 1996, thirteen years after the musical.
Georges and Albin are a well established (20 years) gay couple living in Saint Tropez on the French Riviera. They live about their nightclub, La Cage aux Folles which features a drag show with Albin as the star ZaZa. They have raised Georges’ son, Jean-Michel, the result of a brief fling when Georges was very young.
Jean-Michel wants to marry Anne, but there is a major stumbling block: Her father is a prominent and ambitious politician whose platform is pro-family/anti-gay and who wants to shut down “sin palaces” like La Cage. Jean-Michel has invited the parents and Anne to meet his parents – but by this he means his father and birth mother, who has never really been a part of his life. She is what might be called a “party girl” who has failed to turn up for important events multiple times. He also wants Albin NOT to be present.
It is easy to understand that this causes a dilemma for Georges who reluctantly goes along and must tell Albin the news. The second act focuses on the visit – from removing décor from the apartment, to teaching Albin how to act like “Uncle Al,” to the actual visit. The visit is initially a disaster as once again Jean-Michel’s mother backs out of attending; Albin steps into the role of mother but at one point reveals that he is a man. Anne’s politician father is outraged. Unfortunately the press has arrived and so Georges and Albin help sneak the parents out of the area as part of the drag show. Thus all ends happily.
Just think: at the time of this musical (1983) gay marriage or marriage equality was not even thought about and the AIDS epidemic was just beginning.
So a musical about a happily “married” gay couple and their son – and where one partner was a “drag queen” was a huge risk. Harvey Fierstein wrote the book with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. Arthur Laurents directed.
Together they created a piece about a stable though unconventional family where the parents had a deep love for each other. It was about that love, the selfishness of youth (and how the eyes are opened), and the desire to be accepted for who you really are.
So let’s turn to the Goodspeed production. Here go the superlatives.
The set by Michael Schweikardt recreates the French Riviera and also creates the multiple settings necessary –the nightclub, the apartment, a café and a restaurant. It all seems real. The lighting by John Lasiter is effective as is the sound design by Jay Hilton.
Michael McDonald’s costumes are magnificent. He has created a variety of glamorous and sexy costumes for the la Cagelles (the drag chorus) as well as for ZaZa. The Chanel-like suit for ZaZa as “mother” is something any woman would love to wear. There are enough bugle beads and sparkle dust to transport you to the nightclub.
Both Rob Ruggiero as director and Ralph Perkins as choreographer have not only gotten the most out of the small stage, but emphasized the French feel and the emotional warmth and depth of the piece. The entire cast dances up a storm from the gentle soft shoe of Georges and Albin’s “With You on My Arm” to the exuberant can-can-esque dances of the La Cagelles. Ruggiero is a master at using the small playing space to his advantage and bringing out the humanity and personal relationships that get the audience totally involved.
Now to the performers. All are excellent both in their acting and their singing. James Lloyd Reynolds as Georges has the least showy role though he is the hub around which the entire show revolves. He is the emcee, the concerned and loving father and also the devoted spouse. He has to balance the feeling of both his son and Albin. He doesn’t want to hurt either yet it will happen. Reynolds lets you see the man – as the suave emcee inviting us to the club, and the human being who is uncomfortable with the position in which he is placed by his son yet unable to truly say no.
Conor Ryan as Jean-Michel conveys the self-absorption and lack of insight of youth yet he too evolves during the show. You may be annoyed with him, but Ryan never lets you really dislike the character.
The other supporting characters are very good: Kristen Martin has the most underwritten role as Anne but she plays her as the ingénue she is. Sue Mathys makes Jacqueline – the owner of a nearby restaurant and friend of Georges and Albin’s – the self-promoting persona necessary.
Cedric Leiba, Jr. is terrific as Jacob, the butler/maid . Leiba and Ruggiero has made him utterly outrageous without letting him go so far over the top that he becomes annoying. It is controlled excellence.
That brings me to Jamison Stern as Albin/ZaZa. Words almost fail me. During the performance , I could not keep my eyes off his face. He was always reacting to what was going on and being said. The reactions were subtle and absolutely right.
In addition he captured both Albin and ZaZa in both his movements and his songs. The act one close, “I Am What I Am” had an emotional jolt that I’ve seldom experienced.
Praise could also be heaped on other members of the supporting cast –each was very, very good.
La Cage aux Folles at Goodspeed is one production this summer you should not miss. It runs through Sept. 10. For tickets contact goodspeed.org.
By Karen Isaacs
In an evening filled with heartfelt moments, the Connecticut Critics Circle presented it 25th annual awards for outstanding theatrical achievements at Connecticut’s theaters during the 2014-15 season.
For those keeping score, the production of Hamlet at Hartford Stage won the most awards, picking up accolades for sound, as well as featured actor in a play, lead actor in a play, outstanding direction and best production of a play. The musical awards were split with Fiddler on the Roof which was produced at Goodspeed, winning awards for lead actor and director, but Holiday Inn also from Goodspeed winning for outstanding production.
The awards were presented at the Yale’s Iseman Theater in New Haven with an audience of almost 200 looking on. The awards were considered a special event in connection with the International Festival of Arts & Ideas.
Several of Connecticut’s smaller theaters also had impressive wins with Playhouse on Park in West Hartford winning best ensemble in their first year of eligibility. Ivoryton Playhouse scored with the outstanding leading actress in a musical. Both has multiple nominations.
Long Wharf, Yale Rep and Westport had nominations for multiple shows and scored victories. Long Wharf won for best ensemble for Picasso at Lapin Agile (it was tie vote),lead actress in a play for Bad Jews; Westport won for featured actor in a musical for Sing for Your Shakespeare and Yale won several awards for Elevada and featured actress in a play for Arcadia.
The Killen Award for outstanding contribution to Connecticut theater was presented by James Bundy, dean of the Yale Drama School and artistic director of Yale Rep, to Carmen de Lavallade. Included in his remarks was a note from one of the Drama School’s most illustrious graduates Meryl Streep who wrote about the impact de Lavallade had on her as a student. An internationally acclaimed dancer, de Lavallade was on the faculty of the Drama School as well turning in memorable performances in both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest.
De Lavallade seemed overwhelmed by the award as she expressed her thanks. Talking about her experiences at Yale, she called it both “magical” and “a turnaround” and said it was an important “growing period for me.” She ended by saying she is still learning and will continue to learn.
Adam Heller who won for his portrayal of Tevya in Goodspeed’s Fiddler on the Roof recalled director Rob Ruggiero — who also was honored — calling him and asking “Do you think you have Tevya in you?” When Heller said yes, Ruggiero told him to audition because, “that’s the way it works at Goodspeed.”
Zach Appelman who won for the leading role in Hamlet, was not present but in his note thanked not only Hartford Stage and director Darko Tresnjak but also James Bundy and Yale Drama School for all they taught him.
Rebekah Brockman who won featured actress in Arcadia, also was working elsewhere but thanked her director James Bundy for as she putting “letting me explore my voice within the text and guiding me when I was lost.” Brockman received a second nomination in that category for her work in The Liar at Westport.
More than a few audience members had damp eyes when a special award was presented to the Summer Theater of New Canaan for its DramaRama program. This program now in its 5th year, pairs theater interns and professionals with children with an assortment of disabilities and helps them put on a show in front of a live audience.
In accepting the award, Executive Producer Ed Libonati told of the positive outcomes — the young person who never spoke but did so on stage and the others who have participated in school and community productions.
Another special award went to Shawn Boyle for his projections in the Yale Rep production of Elevada.
New Haven’s A Broken Umbrella Theater — recipients of a special award last year — presented a special award to The Split Knuckle Theater and its production last June of Endurance.
Keilly McQuail who received the outstanding leading actress in a play award for Bad Jews at Long Wharf, told of growing up in Newtown and attending the Arts High School on Audubon Street in New Haven.
Perhaps the funniest line was from Steven DeRosa who won for his featured role in the musical revue Sing for Your Shakespeare at Westport Country Playhouse, when he said that if his mother were alive, she would say that the critics “had excellent taste.” He also recalled his first professional production which was at Hartford Stage and his training at Yale Drama School.
The evening closed with the presentation of the best directors and outstanding production awards. Holiday Inn won best musical and Gordon Greenburg its director and co-writer told the audience that it will have a national tour next year. Rob Ruggiero was named outstanding director for Fiddler on the Roof and mentioned the contrast between that show and his current project, La Cage aux Folles at Goodspeed which begins performances this week.
Darko Tresnjak won for best director of a play (Hamlet.) Tresnjak sent a note since he was visiting with his very ill mother before going to San Diego’s Globe Theater where his production of Kiss Me, Kate will open soon.
But after thanking Zach Appelman and all the teachers who trained him, Tresnjak recounted that his mother had recently told him, “you must, you must, you must, you must make art with the people you love.”
Already the Connecticut critics are reviewing shows and making notes of outstanding productions, technical achievements and acting for next year’s awards.
This content courtesy of Shore Publishing and Zip06.com