Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Review of "An Enemy of the People"

An Enemy of the People, playwright Henrik Ibsen’s powerful and absorbing drama, is one of the most relevant pieces of theater you will experience this season.  Playing at the Yale Repertory Theatre through October 28th, this 135-year-old play has frightening parallels to the polarizing political forces, both in Connecticut and in Washington, D.C.  It also foreshadows such pulled-from-the-headline catastrophes as the recent Flint, Michigan water crisis and the battle waged by Erin Brockovich over tainted water caused by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company in the early 1990’s.
Reg Rogers and Enrico Colantoni in An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen, new translation by Paul Walsh, directed by James Bundy.
Photo by Joan Marcus, 2017.
The plot centers around Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Reg Rogers), a civic-minded physician who discovers the water being piped into the recently completed health spa is toxic.  Thinking his brother (Enrico Colantoni), Mayor Peter Stockmann, will receive the news with gratitude and praise, he is stunned when the disclosure is received with contempt and harshness due, primarily, to the economic harm such a discovery would have on the resort and small Norwegian town.  Maddened by this reception, the physician enlists the support of the liberal-minded newspaper and homeowner’s association, who see this as a way to exploit their own self-serving agendas.  However, with shrewdness and subtle threats the Mayor manages to turn all party’s opinions against the doctor who refuses to put aside his convictions and, subsequently, becomes persona non-grata, an enemy of the people.

Ibsen brings eloquence and preternatural insight into this morality tale of self-righteousness, economic greed and survival.  The term “conjecture,” used time and time again to discredit the doctor’s scientific findings, eerily mirrors the false news claims over climate change within the Trump administration.  It might be stretching matters, but when the playwright speaks of the dangers of the solid majority I couldn’t help but think of the know-it-all Democratic majority within the Connecticut statehouse and their mishandling of the state budget crisis.  What happened in Flint, Michigan could have been a modern-day version of the play.  Paul Walsh’s translation has a contemporary feel full of wit, impassioned speeches and a modicum of comic moments.  Sometimes, passages and monologues can veer towards preachiness but, overall, not so much to adversely affect the brisk pace of the production.
Enrico Colantoni (foreground) and the cast of An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen, new translation by Paul Walsh, directed by James Bundy.
Photo by Joan Marcus, 2017.
The fine cast is led by Reg Rogers as Dr. Thomas Stockmann.  The actor throws himself into the role with an earnest intensity and oratory prowess.  He thoroughly encapsulates the everyday individual ready to do battle—no matter what the odds--with the forces of injustice and narrowmindedness.  Think Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  Enrico Colantoni, as the doctor’s politically entrenched brother, smolders with indignation over other’s slights and disrespect.  Yet he shows caginess and astuteness in his portrayal of the obfuscating official.

Director James Bundy has taken what could have been a tired and venerable play and infused it with a captivating freshness.  The large cast is lively and vigorous under his firm guidance.  The show crackles during many points, but none more than when the two brothers become confrontational.  You can sense both the love and loathing they have for each other.

An Enemy of the People, a timely and penetrating production, playing through October 28th.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Review of "I Hate Musicals - The Musical"

I was looking forward to the show I Hate Musicals – the Musical, receiving its world premiere at the Ivoryton Playhouse.  Musical comedies with a screwball premise and off-beat sense of humor are some of my favorite theatrical pleasures.  But  I Hate Musicals, penned by Michael L. Reiss, a veteran writer for television’s The Simpsons, is a disappointment.  The constant barrage of one-liners and extended jokes, more often than not, fall flat or miss their mark.  The overall show is not cohesive, relying too much on extended riffs on everything from the current cupcake craze to the unmelodic songs of Stephen Sondheim.

Stephen Wallem in "I Hate Musicals - The Musical"

The show opens with Alvin (Stephen Wallem), a formerly successful TV sitcom writer now dispirited and impoverished, having a meeting with Diane (Amanda Huxtable), the head of comedy development at Alvin’s old network.  She is his old nemesis but, desperate for work and his dignity abandoned, he pitches his idea for a new show, “My Brother, the Pope.”  To say the tete-a-tete goes badly is an understatement, with barbs and invectives flying every which way.  Just as the encounter ends, a horrific earthquake hits Los Angeles sending the stage into darkness.  When the lights go up the once uncluttered and tidy office is a shambles with debris scattered everywhere.  Diane is dead and Alvin is pinned down by a pile of rubble.  As he madly yells for help and dials 911, individuals from his current and past life start appearing, not to mention Jesus, the Devil, Moses, and Sigmund Freud.  Is he dead?  Hallucinating? 

Writer Michael  L. Reiss uses Alvin’s untenable predicament as a means to examine his character’s pathetic life.  Like the role of Winnie in playwright Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, Alvin is haltingly being engulfed in his own disappointing being.
R. Bruce Connelly in "I Hate Musicals - The Musical"
In between visits from those he knows (knew) such as his aged, forgetful agent Lee, (R. Bruce Connelly), he delivers a steady stream of monologues and commentary on such disparate topics as relationships, religion, McDonald’s Big Macs, and the quality of TV programming.  He also manages to skewer serious-minded New York City playwrights and those aspiring to be one.

While there are some humorous segments and situations, the overall production is too inconsistent and fragmented.   The stream of consciousness rants and harangues and skits built around the musical numbers would be more at home at an HBO comedy special rather than in this 90-minute, intermission-less show. 

The cast is led by Stephen Wallem as Alvin.  He is a large, affable performer that wears his angst on his sleeve.  We feel the disgust with himself and the world.  The actor possesses a deep sonorous singing voice, which he puts to good use throughout the musical.  R. Bruce Connelly, a Connecticut favorite, infuses the role of Lee, an old-school talent agent, with a drollness and world-weariness that serves up amusing retorts to Alvin’s kvetching.  Amanda Huxtable, playing multiple female parts, gets to create four distinct characters, each serving as a spirited counterpoint to Wallem’s unrestrained dramatics.  Ryan Knowles is enjoyable as an erudite, but thoroughly pompous Professor.  Will Clark puts a unique spin on Jesus and Sam Given, also playing  a variety of roles, seems to have been given the green light for a no-holds- barred performance.  Except for his banal security guard, every other character provides a wild uproarious spark to the show.
Sam Given, Amanda Huxtable, and Ryan Knowles in "I Hate Musicals - The Musical"
The score is comprised of numbers, primarily from well-known songs with rewritten lyrics.  The sole musician, Michael Morris, sits at his piano slightly off-stage (having burst through a wall during the earthquake) and provides skilled accompaniment throughout the production.  You’ll recognize the melodies from “YMCA,” “Hooray for Hollywood,” “I Love L.A.,” “I’m Flying (from Peter Pan), and “Goldfinger.”  There is an extended discourse on the compositions of Stephen Sondheim that would be at home in any of the Forbidden Broadway incarnations.  The songs are presented tongue firmly in cheek.  They provide the most consistently pleasing moments of the musical.

Director James Valletti has crafted some gleeful moments but, by and large, the rhythm of the show is slightly off, which hinders the comical set-ups and deliveries.  The witty and whacky premises are, more often than not, unfulfilled.

I Hate Musicals – The Musical, mildly diverting entertainment, playing at the Ivoryton Playhouse through October 15th.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Springsteen Off-Off-Broadway

Forty years ago Bruce Springsteen released "Born to Run" and almost overnight became a rock sensation.  When it was announced The Boss was coming to play a gig at Rutgers College in New Brunswick, NJ in the Fall of 1976 I had a hand in this landmark event.  

To celebrate Springsteen's sold-out run on Broadway, beginning next week, a remembrance of that day many, many years ago.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Review of "Small Mouth Sounds"

Can a playwright create an engaging and dramatically effective show where dialogue is at a minimum?  In the case of Small Mouth Sounds, Bess Wohl has mostly succeeded.

The plot centers on six disparate individuals who have all registered for a weeklong retreat of meditation and reflection.  Very soon, under the direction of the facility’s spiritual leader, the participants are instructed not to speak during their time at the center.  This begins an odyssey, often funny, sometimes poignant, of self-discovery and enlightenment punctuated by self-important, vacuous lectures from the disembodied voice of the guru.
The cast of "Small Mouth Sounds" at Long Wharf Theatre through September 24th.  Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
The entertaining and fascinating aspect of the play is watching how the players interact and function, mostly without mouthing any words.  We see them connect (or not), cooperate, and learn to communicate silently as they seek answers to their own series of questions and problems.

Bess Wohl has crafted an original take on the tried and true formula of observing a group of unrelated characters come together and bond.  Small Mouth Sounds can be seen as a statement on human nature, our need for companionship, and the ability to take risks.  The show is moving, playful, humorous and, for the most part, captivating.  The production is more successful during the muted portions of the play as opposed to the occasional monologues.  Towards the end, the uniqueness and diverting nature of the show begins to lose some steam but, overall, this is a satisfying and worthwhile play to see.

The ensemble cast is a crazy quilt of characters.  Socorro Santiago as Joan, a woman approaching mid-age, approaches the week with an apprentice’s zeal.  This initial earnestness becomes more tempered as the relationship with her partner, Judy, portrayed by Cherene Snow, becomes strained and uncomfortable.  Judy, unhappy to leave the comforts of home and the use of her electronic devices, is the more aggrieved of the twosome.  Ms. Snow, with more restrained grimaces and pained looks, that are not all related to her self-imprisonment at the retreat, is the ying to Joan’s yang. 
Ben Beckley and Edward Chin-Lyn in "Small Mouth Sounds" at Long Wharf Theatre through September 24th.              Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Rodney, tall and handsome, is played with a graceful ardor by Edward Chin-Lyn.  He is the true believer, at least for the weekend, of everything healthy for both mind and body.  The actor deserves kudos for putting his modesty on hold for a very funny scene midway through the show.  Ben Beckley, as Ned, is the most frenzied performer, both in his character portrayal and actions.  His troubles, laid out in an over long monologue, are both funny and heartbreaking.  Brenna Palughi, as Alicia, a harried blonde is more detached from the others and her motives for attending somewhat of a mystery.  The actress does well more in tandem when interacting with one of the other characters. Connor Barrett, as Jan is, well, a conundrum.  We know and learn very little about him until the very final scene, which in itself is not conclusive.  Barrett utters the fewest words in the production, but the actor conveys an impressive number of emotions and feelings from just a stare or simple hand movement.  Orville Mendoza is the teacher whose voice is occasionally heard lecturing the participants.  He convincingly displays a world-weariness as he spouts sanctimonious platitudes that he doesn’t always seem to believe himself.
Cherene Snow and Connor Barrett in "Small Mouth Sounds" at Long Wharf Theatre through September 24th.       Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Director Rachel Chavkin needs to call on all her skill and experience to helm the show since dialogue is at a premium.  She, instead, focuses on facial expressions, manic gestures, and a bevy of non-verbals to build and carry along the plot.  She handles a very, shall we say, raucous situation with aplomb and comic gusto.

Small Mouth Sounds, an absorbing and winning production, through September 24th at Long Wharf Theatre.  For tickets go to www.longwharf.org or call 203-787-4282. 

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Review of "Prince of Broadway"

There have been few musicals that have celebrated Broadway’s greatest hits.  The last show to be produced was the 1989 Tony Award winning Jerome Robbins Broadway.  While spotlighting the innovative and creative output of the renowned choreographer there was also a cavalcade of songs from such musicals as The King and I, On the Town, High Button Shoes, and Peter Pan.

This past week another greatest hit package opened on The Great White Way.  The Prince of Broadway, a marvelously entertaining musical, featuring a very talented musical theater cast, presents moments from shows produced or directed by the legendary Hal Prince. [Trivia Question answer—Mr. Prince has won the most Tony Awards in history at 21]. 

With dozens of productions to his credit—beginning with Damn Yankees in 1955 through Lovemusik in 2007, there were many selections to choose from for the show.  The show is highly represented by the works of Stephen Sondheim (six) and includes such crowd-pleasing numbers as “Heart” from Damn Yankees, “Tonight” from West Side Story, “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music, and “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” from Evita.

There is a very loose chronological order to the scenes.  Almost all of them are introduced with factoids written by librettist David Thompson.  The songs can be rousing (“If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof), heartfelt (“Ol’ Man River” from Show Boat), comedic (“You’ve Got Possibilities” from It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman), and dramatic (“Music of the Night” from Phantom of the Opera).

While there is no question about the entertainment value of this thoroughly enjoyable show, it does suffer, slightly, from the lack of a compelling storyline to help keep the audience’s attention continuously focused at a heightened level. 

My one quibble with the show is the song selection.  It’s a pointless discussion to have since everyone will have their favorites but, with that said, I would have preferred more variety, less Sondheim.  Maybe something from Baker Street or On the Twentieth Century or Flora, the Red Menace could have been included.

The cast, filled with Broadway musical veterans and some newcomers, is superb.  Their level of artistry and professionalism is outstanding.  If I had to choose a few standouts—and this in no way minimizes any of the other actors and actresses—I would single out three.  First, Karen Ziemba, who so beautifully performs one of my favorite songs from Cabaret with the wistful “So What” and gives a winning comic turn with “The Worst Pies in London” from Sweeney Todd.  Second, is Tony Yazbeck who has the lone dance number of the show, delivering a blistering routine to “The Right Girl” from Follies.  Lastly, is Bryonha Marie Parham whose powerhouse vocals in songs from Cabaret and Show Boat resonate powerfully throughout the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

Directors Susan Stroman and Hal Prince have rendered beautifully conceived vignettes that showcase the vocal talents of the performers.  They skillfully and adroitly keep the flow of the show constant, crafting a well-paced rhythm to the work.  The scenes are handsomely dressed up with unpretentious, but effective scenic designs by Beowulf Boritt that convey the settings without being intrusive or overwrought.

As choreographer, Stroman shines with the tour de force number from Follies.  Disappointingly, there are no other songs with captivating dance routines.  A few more would have added variety and zip to the overall production.

The Prince of Broadway, an engaging and finely-tuned tribute to one of the legendary showman of Broadway.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Review of "Appropriate"

I saw the original production of Appropriate, which is playing at the Westport Country Playhouse through September 2nd, when it debuted Off-Broadway a few years ago. At that time I described it as a poor man’s version of the play August: Osage County. I wasn’t looking to compare the two dramas, but more as a point of reference. Both revolve around a gathering of dysfunctional family members, the divulging of household secrets, and a lot of shouting and screaming between siblings.
L-R: Betsy Aidem and David Aaron Baker in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Appropriate,” directed by David Kennedy, at Westport Country Playhouse, now playing through September 2.      (203) 227-4177.  www.westportplayhouse.org  Photo by Carol Rosegg
However, with the explosive demonstrations between white nationalists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, VA earlier this month and the debate over racism and “very fine people” the play takes on a more ominous undertone. I still wouldn’t classify the show as a fully gripping production, but the work does provoke more introspection and reflection by audience members due to the significant “reveal,” its consequences, and controversy.

In brief, the plot centers on two brothers, a sister, their significant others and family members, who have converged at the rundown, ancestral home of their recently deceased father. Their goal is to sort through the mountains of refuse and clutter he left behind in preparation for selling the house and its contents. Toni (Betsy Aidem), the manic, self-pitying sister, has taken charge of the purging process, which has, temporarily, led to a cessation of long time tensions and simmering hostilities with her brother, Bo (David Aaron Baker), and his wife, Rachel (Diane Davis). With the unexpected arrival of the black sheep of the clan, Franz (Shawn Fagan) and his girlfriend, River (Anna Crivelli), and the discovery of a mysterious and deeply disturbing photo album the tentative détente among the group very quickly disintegrates as in-fighting and accusations punctuate the stage. There is no comfortable ending or reconciliation between the family members as each person heads back to their lives, slightly battered and disconsolate.

Playwright Branden Jacob-Jenkins has taken well-established themes of family strife and friction to create a play that seethes with age-old slights and discord. In Act I, the volatility of the players, the interplay between the individuals, and the jarring disclosures that unfold provide engrossing drama. However, the remaining two Acts lose steam and momentum.   Too much of the action and dialogue seems empty, without meaningful and engrossing substance. The soliloquies and confessions come up somewhat hollow. Add to that characters that are not very likeable and the result is a production that is loud, but bereft of a satisfying conclusion. In fact, I thought it was rather a disappointing end.
L-R: Shawn Fagan, Diane Davis, Nick Selting, Betsy Aidem, and David Aaron Baker in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Appropriate,” directed by David Kennedy, at Westport Country Playhouse, now playing through September 2. (203) 227-4177.  www.westportplayhouse.org   Photo by Carol Rosegg
The cast is uniformly fine, with well-defined roles. On the one hand, they can be seen as one-note characters—this one is the resentful one, that one self-absorbed, this person with a martyr complex--but the actors do give some depth and shading to their portrayals. Betsy Aidem as the tortured, self-righteous, and self-appointed head of the Lafayette clan plays the part to the hilt. She can come across as too shrill and whiny, but this is a woman that has had many personal and professional setbacks so, while she is not a pleasant person, her temperament is understandable. David Aaron Baker as brother Bo, is a volcano ready to erupt with pent-up emotions and incredulity. The actor deftly, yet vainly, straddles the line between mediation and chaos. Diane Davis as Bo’s wife Rachel gives a rewarding performance, showing equal parts conciliation, indignation, and pure disdain for her bossy sister-in-law as well as her position within the family. Shawn Fagan as brother Franz, with his hidden and erratic past, comes across as both thick-headed and vulnerable, with his true motives never fully revealed. Anna Crivelli as Franz’s girlfriend, River, is suitably wide-eyed and outwardly naïve, but has an undercurrent of steeliness and savviness. The children of the two families, Rhys (Nick Selting), Cassie (Allison Winn), and Ainsley (Christian Michael Camporin) are serviceable in their roles with Selting having more substance to his character as a somewhat misunderstood and troubled teen.
L-R: Betsy Aidem and Nick Selting in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Appropriate,” directed by David Kennedy, at Westport Country Playhouse, now playing through September 2.  (203) 227-4177.  www.westportplayhouse.org  Photo by Carol Rosegg

Director David Kennedy skillfully builds up the pulse of the production to a sustained and cacophonous crescendo by the end of Act I. He adroitly positions the performers to create a smooth and methodical flow as the actors and actresses enter and exit the stage. Acts II and III are more problematic. There are less group scenes and more individual pontifications and self-serving soliloquies that are more difficult to wring dramatic tensions from. Even with the shortcomings of the play he draws out a sufficient amount of tension to keep the audience intrigued most of the time.

Scenic Designer Andrew Boyce has crafted a realistic deteriorated plantation home. There is enough bric-a-brac and heaps of useless items strewn around and piled high around the set to gladden any hoarder. Matthew Richards’ Lighting Design provides ghostly, moonlit effects, especially at the conclusion of the production (Note: don’t leave until the final curtain comes down). Fitz Patton’s Sound Design succeeds at two levels. First, is the almost suffocating noise of cicadas used throughout the play, which help define the uncomfortable, smothering environment inside the household. Second, are the eerie, other-worldly sounds used during the final minutes of the show.

Appropriate, a flawed, occasionally arresting drama, playing at the Westport Country Playhouse through September 2nd. For tickets, go to: http://www.westportplayhouse.org or call (888) 927-7529.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Review of "Our Great Tchaikovsky"

We know the music, but how many of us know the background of Russian composer Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky? In his one-man show, Our Great Tchaikovsky, the actor/playwright/designer/concert pianist Hershey Felder brings to life the personal history of this enigmatic figure in an engaging and artistically pleasing production. The show, playing at Hartford Stage, runs through August 27th.

On a minimally outfitted set, designed to resemble the interior and exterior of a country dacha, Felder delves into the musician’s legacy, both in character and through straightforward stories. For most of the performance he is seated behind a baby grand piano. In between his recitations, Felder pounces on the keyboard with enthusiasm and vitality on numerous compositions—from the little known to such heralded works as the “1812 Overture,” “Swan Lake,” and “The Nutcracker.”

Tchaikovsky’s entire life, according to the playwright/actor, was difficult and full of mistrust, heartbreak and social insecurity due, primarily, to is secretive homosexual yearnings and lifestyle. For every one of his triumphs there seemed to be an equally deflating personal note.

As playwright, Felder brings forth a highly satisfying depiction of the composer’s life, chronicling from the time he was a very young boy through his untimely and mysterious death. The actor portrays the tormented artist, along with a number of other individuals that crossed paths with him. These dramatics are interspersed with a healthy amount of virtuoso piano playing that amplifies and enlivens the action on stage. The only criticism of the show is Felder’s excursion into current Russian politics and attitudes towards the gay community. There is a slight reason for his discourse, within the context of the production, but the short digression could have easily been removed without undermining the overall thrust of the play. Likewise, the ending “shot” was confusing and, again, unnecessary.

Director Trevor Hay has the luxury of featuring the musical prowess of Hershey Felder whenever the narrative bogs down. He smartly never lets the story telling impede on the rhapsodic Tchaikovsky melodies. Hay also has a good read on the dynamic between the narrative and music, interspersing the two to create a compelling and appealing whole.

As Scenic Designer, Felder has kept the set simple, but elegant; full without being busy. Lighting and Projection Associate Brian McMullen has created beautifully appropriate projections that add a significant amount of realism, sparkle and enrichment to the show.

Our Great Tchaikovsky, well-acted, engrossing, and full of the glorious music of the Russian composer, playing at Hartford Stage through August 27th.