Tag Archives: TheaterWorks

“Christmas on the Rocks” Is a Comic Look at “What Ever Happened to?”

 

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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 This is your typical run-down neighborhood bar, worn and out of date.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  It’s been replaced by piece written by Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas.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.

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A New Christmas Musical Offers a Local Take on “A Christmas Carol”

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By Karen Isaacs

 Two new Scrooges are gracing Connecticut stages this holiday season. Each will bring takes on the classic character and story of A Christmas Carol.

 A new musical version of the story is at Goodspeed Musicals through Sunday, Dec. 24. A Connecticut Christmas Carol is the brainchild of LJ Fecho and Michael O’Flaherty, Goodspeed’s longtime music director.

“We had the idea about two years ago,” O’Flaherty said. “We had done a very silly and fun Pennsylvania Dutch version a few years ago. Larry (the book is written by him) suggested setting it in Connecticut”.

The setting is the Goodspeed Opera House around 1925 and where William Gillette, the famous actor who lived up the river from the Opera House, planning a production of the story.

The unique part of this production – besides a totally original score that O’Flaherty characterizes as “pure musical” – is that the various ghosts are famous Connecticut residents – from Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe and P. T. Barnum. These three play the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas yet-to-be.

This Scrooge, played by Lenny Volpe (he was Cap’n Andy in Goodspeed’s production of Show Boat) is not an ogre, O’Flaherty said. “We needed someone with strong comedic chops who could pull off the lightness of the ending.”

The show is being presented at Goodspeed’s Terris Theatre in Chester. There’s a number of special events and promotions during the run. For information and tickets, visit Goodspeed.org or call 860-873-8668.

While the production is a favorite of theater goers throughout the state, a new Scrooge is taking over at Hartford Stage. The annual presentation of A Christmas Carol – A Ghost Story of Christmas which runs through Saturday, Dec. 30.

It’s the 20th year for this adaptation by former Artistic Director Michael Wilson; each year it sells out, despite many performances. For most of these twenty years, Scrooge was played by Bill Raymond. But last year, he announced his retirement.

Michael Preston, who had played Mr. Marvel has taken over the part.  It’s being staged by Artistic Associate Rachel Alderman. Alderman says this year’s production features some new costumes and new designs. While admitting to some hesitation at taking over from Raymond, Preston said he is looking forward to creating his own interpretation of the classic character.

In addition to all the usual performances, for the fourth year, a sensory-friendly performance is scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 2. Ticket prices are reduced by 50 percent to make the show more accessible for families with autism or other sensory sensitivities. Changes in the production include reductions in jarring Moises or strobe lights and startling effects. In addition house lights are only dimmed, audience members can move about and there is trained staff, volunteers and designated quiet areas and stress relievers available. For information about this performance visit hartfordstage.org/sensory-friendly.

A Christmas Story

One of the first holiday shows is a return visit of the Broadway musical, A Christmas Story, at the Bushnell in Hartford, Friday, Nov. 24 to Sunday, Nov. 26. The musical that had numerous Tony nominations is based on the Jean Shepherd essay which became a classic film. The creative  team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Tony Award for Dear Evan Hansen, Academy Award for La La Land), did the music and lyrics. It’s about Ralphie, his desire for a Red Ryder air rifle, and his family in an Indiana town in the 1940s. Though it is a short run, the show is terrific and it will get the holiday season off in a heart-warming but comic way. For tickets visit bushnell.org or call 860-987-5900.

Radio Plays

Very few people remember the days when radio aired plays with live studio audiences watching as the actors played multiple parts, carried scripts and presented well works and created reality with the aid of sound effects.

Connecticut resident has adapted two famous Christmas stories into the radio play format. Each has become a holiday tradition, not just in Connecticut but throughout the country.

Ivoryton Playhouse is giving us It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play from Thursday, December 7 to Sunday, Dec. 17.  Inspired by the classic American film, five actors, directed by Sasha Bratt, perform the dozens of characters in the radio play as well as produce the sound effects. For tickets visit IvorytonPlayhouse.org or call 860-767-7318.

While you are attending the Playhouse you can also see the Ivoryton Illuminations which runs to Friday, Jan. 5. More than 350,000 lights are throughout the village and on Connecticut’s tallest Christmas tree.

MTC (Music Theatre of Connecticut) gives us the radio play version of A Christmas Carol from Friday, Dec. 1 to Sunday, Dec. 17. Again, you are the studio audience as actors play multiple roles and handle sound effects to create the perfect illusion for the radio audience who would be listening at home. For tickets, contact musictheatreofct.com or call 203-454-3883 MTC is located at 509 Westport Avenue (behind Nine West) in Norwalk.

Charlie Brown

We all love the cartoon of A Charlie Brown Christmas, but now you can see a live production on stage at the Bushnell. All the favorite Peanuts characters come to life in this all-new touring stage adaptation of Charles M. Schulz’s classic Emmy and Peabody Award-winning animated television special – all set to Vince Guaraldi’s unforgettable music. It runs Friday, Dec. 1 to Sunday, Dec. 3. For tickets visit bushnell.org or call 860-987-5900.

Another well-loved TV cartoon, Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, makes a stop at New Haven’s Shubert Theatre. The show is new to the city though it played in Hartford for two years. It runs Friday, Dec. 8 to Sunday, Dec. 10. For tickets visit Shubert.com or call 203-562-5666

The Nutcracker

The holiday season would not be the same without productions of Tchaikovsky’s famed ballet, The Nutcracker.

A very original take on the classic, returns to the Bushnell in Hartford where it wowed audiences last year. That’s The Hip Hop Nutcracker, an evening-length production performed by a supercharged cast of a dozen all-star dancers, DJ and violinist. The press materials says, “Through the spells cast by the mysterious Drosselmeyer, Maria-Clara and her prince, Myron, travel back in time to the moment when her parents first meet in a nightclub. Digital scenery transforms E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story of a palace of sugarplums into a romance set in 1980s Brooklyn. The dance work celebrates love, community and the magic of New Year’s Eve.” It’s at the Bushnell on Sunday, Dec. 17.  For tickets contact bushnell.org.

You have your choice of more traditional takes on the classic. The Connecticut Ballet’s production, Saturday, Dec. 16 and Sunday, Dec. 17 is in Stamford and features guest arts from the New York City Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre. For tickets visit palacestamford.org. The Bushnell has the Nutmeg Ballet’s production also on Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 15 and 16. For tickets visit burshnell.org. The New Haven Ballet at the Shubert Theatre features guest artists from major ballet companies. It’s Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 16 and 17. For tickets visit the203-562-5666 or at www.shubert.com.

In addition, The Kate is broadcasting the Bolshoi Ballet’s Nutcracker in high definition on Tuesday, Dec. 19. Toyota Oakdale Theater is presenting The Great Russian Nutcracker on Saturday, Dec. 2. For tickets, call 800-745-3000.

More Adult-Oriented

If you are looking for something a little more cynical or adult, you have several choices.  The Shubert Theater is presenting The Santaland Diaries based on the essay by David Sedaris. This one person play is about the fictionalized experiences of Sedaris when he worked one Christmas season as an elf at Macy’s – 34th Street Santaland. It runs Friday, Nov. 24 to Sunday, Nov. 26.

TheaterWorks in Hartford is bringing back Christmas on the Rocks for the fifth year. This series of short one-act plays, shows us what all of those famous children from various holidays stories became when they grew up. So we see an adult Ralphie (A Christmas Story), Tim (A Christmas Carol), Clara (The Nutcracker), Charlie Brown (A Charlie Brown Christmas) and more. A new episode this year is based on the children from It’s a Wonderful Life. It runs Tuesday, Nov. 28 through Saturday, Dec. 23. For tickets visit theaterworksHartford.org or call 860-527-7838.

Sister’s Christmas Catechism is also returning to Connecticut stages this year. It’s at Long Wharf Theatre from Tuesday, Dec. 5 to Sunday, Dec. 17. It’s subtitled The Mystery of the Magi’s Gold and Sister uses science, local choirs and some audience members to find out what happened to the gold. There’s lots of audience interaction. For tickets visit longwharf.org or call 203-787-4282.

Playhouse on Park is again presenting what is billed as a “Burlesque Extravaganza,” Mama D’s Christmas Stocking: Where’s Santa?  What is it? The press material says it’s a celebration of “all things sexy in an evening of music, dance and comedy.” The material admits “We’re rude, we’re crude and we’re partially nude.” The event is scheduled the weekends of Dec.15-16, 22-23, 29-30 and a special New Year’s Eve show.  For tickets or information, visit playhouseonpark.org or call 800-523-5900.

With so many offerings, you are bound to find something that will fit your schedule and your taste.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publication Weeklies and zip06.com

TheaterWork’s The Wolves Shows a Society of Teen Girls

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Photo by Lanny Nagler

By Karen Isaacs

 Teenagers are a gold mine for authors – they combine such conflicting elements in their personalities. Half adult and half child. They can be inquiring and well-informed while at the same time woeful ignorant. Emotionally they can leap from joy to despair in a second. The same teen can be kind and generous and in an instant become cruel.

It’s no wonder that playwright Sarah DeLappe looked to a group of teen girls playing soccer for the play The Wolves. The title comes from the team name. Just as William Golding and others have done, adults are missing from this society that the girls have created within their team.

These are very good players. They are playing indoors on a club team and are looking forward to their travel team come spring. For those not involved in youth sports and soccer in particular, this means that college scouts are looking at them as they play various tournaments and college “clinics.” (I have learned a great deal about this process with four granddaughters all of whom were recruited athletes and including two soccer players.)

This group of girls play in the Under 17 classification which means they are 16 or just turning 17. Most are high school juniors which is the year when the recruiting is in earnest and colleges can, under NCAA rules, sign players.

We see the girls before several games. As they warm up and do various drills, competing conversations take place. We only know the girls by their numbers, which can at times be confusing.

During the opening conversations, we learn that #7 is both the loudest, most self-assured and the most “advanced” as she swears often and talks about celebrating her up-coming 17th birthday by going away for the weekend to her dad’s ski lodge where her college-age boyfriend will meet her.  Then there is the “new” girl, #8 who has just joined the team. No one knows much about her, but she seems years younger than #7. The same is true for #46 who is trying desperately to fit in but has a tendency to make comments that don’t quite follow the conversational leads. In addition there is #11 who is the de facto leader of the group and runs the drills and #00, the goalie who is driven to seek perfection.

At times the conversations seem random. They talk about school work, particularly about a course some of them are taking on genocide. It’s interesting to hear them talk about the Khmer Rouge (one can’t pronounce it) and the Armenian genocide (#14 is of Armenian descent). But just as you are thinking how adult they are, the conversation will switch to menstruation and feminine hygiene products, boys and other things.

They are by turns kind to each other and cruel. Secrets emerge during the 90 minute play. One girl has had an abortion, another’s mother has breast cancer, a third girl is embarrassed that her mom is considered “hot”. There’s also talk of the stoner brother of one, and the fact that #00 vomits before every game.

Of course, they talk about the coach is who is apparently off on the sidelines. They view this coach as a “loser” and claim he is often inebriated or hung over; they long for their former coach, Patrick, who left the team to move  back with his mother who is battling cancer.

It all builds to a game at which a college scout (from Texas A&M) is there to scout a girl on the opposing team. But three of the Wolves are called over to speak with him; the others are crushed to be excluded and not considered “good enough”.

The climax of the play is the injury to #7 during a game; she blames the captain for not having them stretch before but it turns out that although her ankle was injured she went skiing during her birthday weekend. Now her ACL is torn, she will need surgery and could easily miss the up-coming season. And, perhaps predictably, there has to be a tragedy that is revealed in the last scene.

Although some of the conversations may be off-putting to some of the audience, you do develop a liking for these girls. You care about them.

Overall the cast is excellent. These young actresses do a terrific job, though a few of them look older than 16. In the case of Olivia Hoffman who plays brassy #7, that’s ok. She does an excellent job with this girl who is obviously rebelling. But Emily Murphy who plays the captain (#25) also seems older than her years in both appearance and manner. She is a “take charge” woman; her new haircut at the end of the play may be a form of “coming out.”

Rachael Caplan is excellent as #14 – she is shy and trying to fit in, but finally is willing to speak up for herself.  She is #7’s willing sidekick.  Karla Gallegos who plays the driven #00 is more off by herself than part of the total group. After all, the goalie does stand alone.  But each of the performers is excellent and it is hard to mention just one or two.

Eric Ort has directed this with a sure hand. The girls perform drills, stretch and job while talking. Mariana Sanchez has created a turf soccer field that slopes up in the back. It is the perfect backdrop for this play.

Overall The Wolves is a fascinating look at teenage girls and sports. Because of the language and some of the subject matter, the play may not be suitable for younger audiences; it is recommended for 14 and up though they may be somewhat embarrassed at times.

The Wolves is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl Street, Hartford through Nov. 10. For tickets visit TheaterWorks or call 860-527-7838.

This content courtesy of Shore Publishing Weeklies and zip06.com

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Photo by Lanny Nagler

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!

Raging Skillet at TheaterWorks Is Problematic Play about a Chef

By Karen Isaacs

Will you like Raging Skillet, the world premiere play by Jacques Lamarre now at TheaterWorks in Hartford through Sunday, Aug. 27?

Just answer these simple questions:

Does loud rock music split your eardrums?

Does lots of gratuitous four letter words bother you?

Do you think stereotypical, guilt inducing mothers inherently funny?

Does insulting your mother seem acceptable?

If you answered no to the first two and yes to the last two, you should rush out a get tickets to this show about a “celebrity” food writer/caterer who goes by the name of Rossi. Apparently she is well known, though as a dedicated Food Network viewer, I had never heard of her.

The play – with three characters – is based on her “humorous” memoir of the same name, which is also the name of her catering company. The premise is that this is her book launch party and the ghost of her mother shows up.  The book is hawked endlessly and, yes, you can buy it on stage after the show.

Chef Rossi, played excellently by Dana Smith-Croll, describes herself as a Jewish, Lesbian, punk rock woman and chef.

She tells stories of her up-bringing in New Jersey where Mom killed food in the microwave. Rossi (her father changed his name from Rosenthal to Ross; she changed it to Rossi, for no stated reason) started cooking what she called Jewish white trash food.  What was offered to the audience did not seem particularly interesting though I did not taste it.

She was every parents’ nightmare as a teenager, using various drugs, disobeying rules and eventually running away from home. After being arrested for selling drugs, her parents packed her off to Brooklyn and a home run by a Hasidic Jew for problem causing Jewish teenagers.

Her interest in food continued and when she can she escapes to Manhattan where she becomes first a bartender and then works her way through the various jobs in the kitchen. Obviously, she earned her stripes and has talent because she has received numerous accolades from The New York Times, Zagat, and was named one of The Knot’s best wedding caterers multiple times.

Marilyn Sokol has the unenviable job of playing her mother. She’s been dead for years but returns for the book launch. She combines all the stereotypes of both the Jewish mother – Yiddish flows abundantly – but also of any guilt-inducing ethnic mother. She is the target for her daughter’s humor and anger. Only at the end of the play, when Rossi reads her mother’s “book” does she acknowledge that her mother was an accomplished woman who earned a master’s in mathematics and played violin in a symphony.

The third character is DJ Skillit, Rossi’s sous-chef who plays a number of roles and supposedly controls the often blaring music.

Audience reaction on the official opening night was mixed. Some found the show great fun and hilarious, others said they smiled at some of the jokes while others were pretty much stony faced throughout.

The pluses to this production are the skillful direction by John Simpkins, the set by Michael Schweikardt and the performances.

Smith-Croll has the difficult job of making Rossi likeable but a rebel and, for the most part, she succeeds. At the end, you see some warmth in her and realize that the persona she creates is just that. Marilyn Sokol has a difficult with task playing Mom: she is both passive-aggressive and a stereotype. That Sokol carries it off without the least bit of embarrassment is commendable. At times the role is cringe-inducing. DJ Skillit is less a character than a device, George Salazar does a good job with this amorphous role.

It’s hard to identify the basic problem with this piece. Is it the adaptation by Jacques Lamarre? Or is it the source material? How do you convey Rossi’s image and yet make the audience both like her and identify with her? While Lamarre may be true to Rossi’s “brand” and personality, that doesn’t necessarily create a satisfying work of theater.

The press materials for this production talks about the play as an “compelling story about a mother and a daughter and the commitment to family.”  Somehow that does not come through strongly enough.

Raging Skillet, may be a play that younger audiences may be more receptive to and enjoy both her and her story more.

Given the language used, this is not a piece for children, nor those with sensitive ears. Older people may find the Rossi’s comments to and attitude towards her mother distressing.

Yet, it has fine performances.  I did not love this work, but you might.  Perhaps a glass or two of wine before the show would increase the enjoyment factor.

Raging Skillet is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl Street, Harford, through Sunday, Aug. 27.  For tickets. Call 860-527-7838.

Content courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com.

raging skillit 2 by lanny nagler

Photo by Lanny Nagler

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.

The Hits & Misses of the 2016-17 Connecticut Theater Season

By Karen Isaacs

 Connecticut’s professional theaters produced over 40 shows from June 2016 to the end of May 2017; plus various national tours played the major producing houses. Connecticut theatergoers had over 60 productions to choose from. I saw nearly 90 percent of the shows at the professional theaters and some of the national tours.

So how did the season measure up?

My top plays:

The Invisible Hand at Westport Country Playhouse

Queens for a Year at Hartford Stage

Scenes of Court Life at Yale Rep

A Comedy of Errors at Hartford Stage

The Piano Lesson at Hartford Stage

Meteor Shower at Long Wharf

Endgame at Long Wharf

Heartbreak House at Hartford Stage

My top musicals:

Next to Normal at TheaterWorks

Bye, Bye Birdie at Goodspeed

Gypsy at MTC

He Wrote Good Songs at Seven Angels

The top touring shows:

 The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelsky at Hartford Stage

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Marriage at the Bushnell

The King & I at the Bushnell

An American in Paris at the Bushnell

A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime at the Bushnell

Shows that pleasantly surprised me:

Absolute Turkey at CRT

Bilox Blues at Ivoryton

Trav’ling – the Harlem Musical at Seven Angels

Interesting Observations

Half of my top plays were new – often world premieres..

Many musical productions were fine overall productions, but either not exciting shows or not exciting productions.

The Bushnell had a stellar season of national tours including the rarity of a play.

Darko Tresjnak continue to prove he is also a terrific scenic designer with Italian setting for A Comedy of Errors.

Among the Disappointments.

Unfortunately some shows that I had looked forward to disappointed me. Mostly they were well directed and well- acted, but they just did not maximize their possibilities.  Sometimes it is new play which is still being developed or trying to do or say too much.

Assassins at Yale Rep.  I’ve seen and liked the show in the past, but this production just missed, at least for me.

The Most Beautiful Room in New York at Long Wharf. What can I say? It didn’t live up to my expectations.

Napoli, Brooklyn at Long Wharf.  More soap opera than compelling drama.

Camelot at Westport. This minimalist version was just too minimal though the performances were fine.

 But even these productions had elements that were enjoyable and were well worth seeing.

 

“Fade” at TheaterWorks Changes Themes at End

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Eddie Martinez and Elizabeth Ramos. Photo by Lanny Nagler

By Karen Isaacs

 When we think about stereotyping people by gender, age, ethnicity, we usually assume that it members of outside groups who do that to people unlike themeslves. Men stereotype women, whites stereoptype Africian-Americans and more.

The new play at TheaterWorks in Hartford, Fade by Tanya Saracho makes us aware of how within a group, the stereotyping can occur. Women stereotype other women, Asians stereotype other Asians and Hispanics stereotype other Hispanics.

In this case, it is two Latinos who stereotype each other including jumping to conlusions about their histories and futures.

Lucia is a newly hired writer on a popular TV show; a novelist (one book), she views this job in LA as a way to pay the bills so that she can return to her serious writing. On her first day on the job, she meets Abel, a janitor. The assumptions begin. She speaks to him in Spanish though she has never met him before; she assumes that all janitors in LA are Mexican. Abel responds in English and soon points out that while he is of Mexican heritage, his parents and he were all born and raised in the U.S.

Abel assumes she is from the Mexican elite, and to some extent he is correct. While she claims not to be by pointing out that she worked her way through college, she also lets drop that she and all her friends had maids and other household help. But they bond over some things as well.

The play is about their interactions and relationship which develops as she complains about the entire male group of writers. She is horrified by the stereotypical Latina characters on the TV and the patronizing ways of her fellow writes, all white males. It is perhaps symbolic of her outsider status that her office is a floor below all the others. One even told her she was the token minority female.

Lucia and Abel talk to each other constantly until you wonder how either gets any work done. They complain that most people mispronounce their names. She begins speaking up more in the writers’ meetings and gains some praise from her boss. She is becoming a solid member of the team. Slowly her attitude that this is just a job to pay the bills changes to one of more ambition to succeed at the studio.

During this period, you think that a romance might develop between the two. Abel is well spoken and obviously educated. In fact, he reveals that he had been a firefighter until he was arrested and jailed on a violence issue. He tells Lucia about his past and the incident that involved his daughter’s mother and sister; he is devoted to his daughter.

At one point, Lucia is working on a script and asks Abel for permission to use the reference to his tattoo – “Semper Fi” and his former firefighter status as part of the plot line. He agrees.

It is here that this play about stereotypes and connections dramatically changes course. In the last 10-15 minutes, it seems as though Lucia has been infected not only with the desire to succeed on her job but that whatever ethical standards she has have been pushed aside.

Abel happens to see the episode in which the “Semper Fi” is to be used; to his horror it includes not just that but ALL the details of the violence episode, even using his exact words that he had told Lucia.

He is angry but Lucia seems oblivious to the problem and believes he had given her blanket permission to use his life. The final scene shows Lucia in NYC as an executive at the network, callously agreeing to firesome, and Abel still a janitor.

The issue of authors using the reality of their lives and the lives of friends in their works is both common in literature (the play Collected Stories deals with it) and it is an interesting issue. What are the ethical dimensions of taking people’s stories and retelling or fictionalizing them? Must permission be granted? Do writers (and artists) necessarily betray their confidants?

But this issue enters Fade much too late in the play. It is not developed in any way. It almost seems like a way to break up the relationship and come to a conclusion. So it certainly left me unsatisfied.

Jerry Ruiz has done a fine job directing the two person cast. Eddie Martinez is a standout as Abel, giving us a multi-dimensional character. Every part of his performance rings true, and you see the conflicting emotions when he realizes that Lucia has betrayed him.

As Lucia, Elizabeth Ramos does not bring the same depth to the role; she seems more superficial but perhaps that is because author reveals less about her.

Mariana Sanchez has created an appropriate office set with a window that lets us see out to the corridor where Eddie works. That may not be realistic but it adds to the action.

Fade is one of those plays that seems to be more meaningful than it actual is and the introduction of a new topic in the last 15 minutes contributes to my leaving the performance dissatisfied.

It is at TheaterWork, 233 Pearl St., Hartford through June 30. For tickets visit TheaterWorks or call 860-527-7838.

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Elizabeth Ramos and Eddie Martinez. Photo by Lanny Nagler

“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

Some May Find “Sunset Baby” Depressing

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Tony Todd and Brittany Bellizeare. Photo by Lonny Nalger

By Karen Isaacs

 Sunset Baby now at TheaterWorks in Hartford through Feb. 19 may shock you, upset you or leave you with mixed emotions.

At the heart of this play is a father-daughter relationship that has been fractured, probably beyond repair. But it also about how some people survive by hardening their hearts and abandoning the better side of themselves. In the program notes, the playwright asks “how can my generation be so brilliant and so self-destructive at the same time?”

The play opens with the father, Kenyatta, who serves occasionally as a narrator or commentator. But soon we are in the small apartment that Nina and Damon share. It is definitely in the low rent district, apparently in Brooklyn but it could be any large city. We see her getting dressed and from her apparel – short, short skirt, thigh-high boots, we can assume that she is a prostitute. Kenyatta rings the bell and she lets him in.

It is clear that they have not seen each other for many, many years and that they have practically no relationship. In fact, she is quite angry with him. Where has he been all these years? For some of the time he was in jail. It’s not clear exactly why he was in jail, but there are hints that he was imprisoned for some sort of black radical or revolutionary actions. Nina’s mother (and his wife) has recently died and Nina has inherited some letter that her mother had written him while he was imprisoned. He wants to read them.

Unanswered are why the mother had the letters – were they never mailed? Returned by prison authorities? What is also unclear is why these letters apparently are worth a good deal of money. Was Kenyatta well known for his actions? Was his wife also an activist and well known?  But apparently publishers are making Nina various offers for thousands of dollars.

The apartment buzzer keeps ringing as Damon, her current boyfriend, is waiting for her. Eventually she goes down to meet him. As the play progresses we learn more, but not enough to make this play totally successful. Nina and Damon are hustlers who rob men who think she is a prostitute. But they have a dream of getting enough money to leave and perhaps settle in a foreign country. Nina, however, keeps changing where she would like to live based on the Travel Channel, and the stash never seems sufficient.

The two don’t totally trust each other either. Damon doesn’t understand about the letters and their supposed value; he is shocked to find that Nina has appropriated some of their savings. But they do have a true relationship; Damon was with her as she took care of her mother – who had become a crack addict – as she was dying.

Kenyatta appeals to Damon to try to talk Nina into letting him read the letters. In the climactic scene Nina and Kenyatta meet yet again. Adhering to Chekhov’s purported statement that if a gun appears in act one it must be used; she robs him instead.

So much is left unanswered in this play. From why Kenyatta was jailed, to why the letters are valuable and to what the letters contain. This missing information makes Sunset Baby less satisfying.

Yet playwright Dominique Morisseau has some nice touches. Nina either doesn’t remember or has blocked various memories of her and her father. Late in this one-act play, Kenyatta recounts some of these including taking her to see sunsets in San Francisco. Earlier, Nina has claimed to never have seen a sunset.

Nina is fueled by anger at her father for everything from not being there to not providing child support. It’s clear she blames him for her mother’s descent into addiction.

Another problem is that this play tries to touch on so many issues. One is guilt; Kenyatta seems to feel guilty about what has happened. Another is dreams – are they possible to have when you are in difficult circumstances or do they hurt you too much?  A third issue is fatherhood and fatherly love. What does it mean and how do you make up for a lack of it?

Director Reginald L. Douglas and his talented cast have compensated for the many unanswered questions by giving us a taut and dynamic production. The set design by Alexander Woodward puts us immediately in the run down, small walk up apartment. I also liked the sound design by Julian Evans and the selection of recorded music – most sung by Nina Simone – that he and the director used.

Tony Todd as Kenyatta shows us a man who is aging, trying to atone for past actions and is surprisingly unguarded. Brittany Bellizeare as Nina combines the hardened woman trying to survive with the child wishing that things had been different. Carlton Byrd’s Damon is part street hustler and part caring friend and lover.

Morisseau has created complex characters – all three of them are intelligent and well read, yet Nina and Damon have selected a life that preys on others. At one point she juxtaposes two terms: ‘social junk” and “social dynamite;” it brought to mind the Langston Hughes poem, “Harlem” that opens with “what happens to a dream deferred.”

Some will find the language raw – the “N” word is used frequently as well as multiple swear words. Others will find the play depressing; after all it does not seem that the dreams of any of the characters will come true.

Yet, Sunset Baby, despite the language and the unanswered questions, is a play that you will think about after you leave the theater.

Sunset Baby is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford through February 19. For tickets call 860-527-7838 or visit TheaterWorks.

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Carlton Byrd and Brittany Bellizeare. Photo by Lonny Nagler.

 

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