Friday, August 18, 2017

Review of "Saturday Night Fever"


The 70’s are alive in the mostly entertaining, slightly sluggish PG-rated stage version of the hit movie Saturday Night Fever. 

The musical closely follows the story of the film, but with more subdued sequences.  Remember, when originally released, the motion picture was R-rated.   In the show, there is only a hint of racial tensions and a key sexual assault scene has been discreetly removed.  Also, the disquietude of teenage life is gently glossed over.  The book writers have, instead, smartly focused on the central character of Tony Manero, his key female relationships, and a great deal of dancing.  When Saturday Night Fever laces up its party shoes the musical is alive and dynamic.  Otherwise, it’s a more pedestrian urban melodrama.
 
Michael Notradonato as Tony Manero and members of his crew.
The plot focuses on Tony, who finds solace from his dysfunctional family and dead-end job at the 2001 Odyssey disco, where he hangs out with his neighborhood friends.  He is the king of the dance floor.  The man with all the right moves.  When a dance contest worth $1,000 is announced, he enters with his former dance partner, Annette, who yearns for his affection, but is constantly spurned.  Soon after, Tony spies a gorgeous blonde, Stephanie, on the dance floor and sets his sights on her.  At first, his advances are rebuffed, but that quickly changes as she soon becomes his new dance partner, leaving Annette on the outs.  As their relationship develops and the big night approaches, Tony must contend with other events in his life.  These include his unsupportive mother and father, a brother who suddenly leaves the priesthood, ethnic discord in his neighborhood, a close friend’s death, and his own self-doubts and self-worth.  In the end, the dance competition arrives and ends with a surprising twist.

The book by Sean Cercone and David Abbinanti is the primary problem with the musical.  The over two dozen scenes require too much time to make the necessary set changes.  The myriad transitions afford little opportunity to flesh out the supporting characters in the show.  They become one-dimensional, lacking sufficient backstories and depth.
 
Michael Notardonato as Tony Manero and Caroline Lellouche as Stephanie Mangano
The score pulsates with the disco beat of the late 1970’s.  Seven songs from the show, most written by the Bee Gees, climbed to the top of the Billboard singles chart when they were originally released from the movie soundtrack.  They include such classics as "Jive Talkin,” "You Should Be Dancing," "How Deep Is Your Love," "Night Fever,” and "Stayin' Alive."  They will leave even the most listless audience member tapping their feet.

There are three members of the cast worth noting.  Foremost, is Michael Notardonato as Tony Manero.  The actor is a natural for the Brooklyn teenager with all the right moves.  He is an athletic dancer and smooth operator.  He fully develops the character, infusing the role with passion and zeal.  He has a sizzling chemistry with the character of Stephanie Mangano (Caroline Lellouche).  Ms. Lellouche imbues her role with a sheen of glamour and confidence, but layers her portrayal with a hint of insecurity and bravado.  Nora Fox’s Annette shows spunk and determination as she pursues acceptance among Tony and his inner circle of friends.  The hurt and rejection she experiences feels genuine and heartfelt.
 
Dance sequence in the 2001 Odyssey disco.
The strength of the musical is the lavish, all-out production numbers choreographed by Director/Choreographer Todd L. Underwood, especially those in the 2001 Odyssey nightclub.  He does an outstanding job conceiving both large-scale and intimate dance routines in the style of the era.  Anyone care to do the bump or shake your groove thing?

Mr. Underwood is less successful as Director due, mostly, to the unwieldly nature of how the musical is structured.  With so many scenes it is difficult to create a vibrant and compelling flow to the production.  It’s almost as if his main assignment is trying to smoothly and quickly segue from one scene to another, which is not always successful.  The cumbersome nature of the show also gives him less time to work on developing viable secondary characters.

Scenic Designer Martin Scott Marchitto has managed to create simple set pieces, except for the bulky Verrazano-Narrows Bridge backdrop, that quickly and simply defines each scene.  Lighting Designer Marcus Abbott is at his best with the dazzling disco light displays and Costume Designer Lisa Bebey hits the mark with spot on 1970’s fashions, from leisure wear to partying threads.

Saturday Night Fever, playing at the Ivoryton Placehouse through September 3rd. Ticket information is at http://www.ivorytonplayhouse.org  or by calling 860-767-7318.


Sunday, August 13, 2017

Review of "The Music Man"


The Music Man – the Meredith Wilson show that took Broadway by storm in the late 1950’s – has been reimagined for the small stage in a disconsonant and cross-purposeful production at the Sharon Playhouse.  The decisions by director Morgan Green are at times intriguing but, in the end, the overall presentation is just too incongruous to produce a satisfactory musical.

The storyline of the show remains the same, but has been updated from the early part of the 20th century to 2017.  There is still Harold Hill, the slick talking con man looking to swindle the good folks of River City, Iowa by selling them band instruments, costumes and music lessons.  His main obstacle is the no-nonsense, unattached librarian Marian, the suspicious piano teacher who doesn’t believe his verbal double-talk or, at first, fall for his persistent wooing.  In the end, Hill’s roguery and dalliances win over the girl and show the townsfolk how to overcome their partisan, quarrelsome views while also instilling confidence in the denizens, both young and old.

The book, written by Wilson, is an ode to small town life, which is immediately incongruent with the thrust of this production as a number of decisions create unworkable and confusing scenarios.  This is immediately exemplified in the opening sequence, where traveling salesmen are aligned on stage singing “Rock Island.”  The song, through the cadence and lyrics, is supposed to mimic an old steam train traversing the plains, but the staging doesn’t imply motion or even the suggestion they are navigating the tracks.

The score, also by Meredith Wilson, is awash in timeless classics such as “Ya Got Trouble,” “Seventy-Six Trombones,” and “Till There Was You.”  They evoke a simpler, bygone time.  Most are presented in a straightforward manner, while others are given an unexpected twist that come across as more gimmicky.  “Marian the Librarian” is sung to a Latin beat.  The show-stopping “Shipoopi” is an exercise video/disco infused number, disco ball and all.

The cast is led by Robert M. Johanson as Professor Harold Hill.  He is a cagey, calculating huckster who comes across more as the razzle dazzle Billy Flynn character from the musical Chicago then a wily, homespun rascal.  In fact, the way “Seventy-Six Trombones” is staged could fit perfectly into that long-running show.  Elizabeth Thomas’ Marian Paroo has a lovely voice with an appealing stage presence.  Larry Owens, Harold Hill’s partner in crime, Marcellus, is suitably boisterous in a limited role.  Vin Knight could have leavened his role as Mayor Shin somewhat so as not to appear too much as a befuddled country bumpkin.  The bickering school board members—Matthew Krob, Robert Bannon, Daniel Walstad, and Jacob Pressley—unite delightfully to provide sweet-sounding barbershop quartet harmonies, exemplified in such songs as “It’s You” and “Lida Rose.”  Myles Crain is endearing and winsome as Marian’s little brother Winthrop, who overcomes his silence and reticence caused by his lisp.

Choreographer Chris DeVita’s production numbers are successful as audience-pleasing dance routines that fit within the scope of this reimagined version of the show.  They can be energetic and playful.

Director Morgan Green’s vision for the musical has flair and provocative choices, but do not, altogether, work for a musical that is so time and locale specific.  For example, the way Harold Hill ingratiates himself to the residents of River City is by extolling the harmful effect the newly installed pool table will have on the young ‘uns.  In 1912, this could cause considerable consternation, but in 2017?  Likewise, in the ebullient “The Wells Fargo Wagon” number the folks sing with joyful excitement about the impending arrival of the turn-of-the-century delivery vehicle.  But, nowadays, packages just appear at our doorsteps.  Some other choices were deemed too troubling to the licensing company.  Originally, cell phones were incorporated into the production, but these were ordered removed.  Additionally, two songs the director had displaced from the musical--"The Sadder-But-Wiser Girl" and "My White Knight"—were instructed to be put back into the show.

The creative team delivers mixed results.  Carolyn Mraz’s Scenic Design of a spare red and white bleacher setting does evoke a small-town vibe as well as sneakily showcasing itself as an American flag.  Alice Travener’s Costume Design keeps in line with the modern flavor of the show with more leisure wear and summery outfits.  The Video Projections by Jessica Medenbach, utilized throughout the show, come across as more of a distraction that does little to enhance the production. 

The Music Man, different, but disappointing, playing at the Sharon Playhouse through August 20th.  Information and tickets are at https://www.sharonplayhouse.org/buy-tickets or 860-364-7469 ext. 200 & 201.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Review of "1984"


Taking a classic work of fiction and transforming it into an absorbing, dramatic piece of theater is a difficult assignment.  This is the case with 1984, the stage adaption of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, now appearing on Broadway.  The play is a series of staccato-like scenes from the book which, unless one has recently read the work, comes across as jumbled, incomplete, and hard to follow.

For a novel that was written in 1948, the book is frighteningly and eerily prescient of today’s political times.  The terminology created by Orwell, such as Big Brother, Fake News, and Thought Police, have become part of our common vernacular.  The lack of individual privacy, as exhibited by the omnipresent telescreens, is almost clairvoyant.  Yet, the terror and grimness from the book has not fully translated into the play, adapted and directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan.  The latter half of the production, when the two lovers have been captured and brought to the terrifying torture space, Room 101, is more gruesome and unnerving rather than bleak and foreboding.

The stage production is structured, initially and then periodically, as a series of flashbacks from the future.  The individuals (scientists? ordinary citizens?) hypothesize about the entries in a diary that the protagonist Winston Smith has penned.  However, the main thrust of the story focuses on Smith, a member of the Party who day-in and day-out rewrites Party history.  He secretly despises the Party, pretending among his colleagues and acquaintances that he is a loyalist.  He soon becomes involved with Julia, a young Party woman who also loathes the central leadership.  They secretly meet for passionate rendezvouses, while at work remaining stoic and impassive towards each other.  Life trudges along until both are suddenly rounded up in a thought-to-be secluded apartment by the Thought Police.  They are brutalized mercilessly, even though we just witness what happens to Winston.  The interrogations are led by the ministry official O’Brien, who Winston and Julia thought were part of the conspiracy against the Party.  O’Brien wants to “cure” the low-level bureaucrat of his “misguided” hatred of the Party.  In the end, even as he tries to hold on to his humanity and love for Julia, Winston is broken, returning to society successfully re-educated, a shell of his former self, his love for Julia obliterated.

While not looking for a page by page retelling of the novel, the show seems like a Sparks Note recitation.  The plot and characters are sketchy and fragmentary, which robs the viewer of the complexity and power of what Orwell authored.  The intensity is ratcheted up during the rehabilitation (torture) segment.  Portions of it can be extreme and hard to witness as demonstrated by some audience members leaving their seats.

As directors, Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan convey the blandness of the lives of the denizens of Oceania, one of the three superstates that rule the world.  This banality, coupled with a strict adherence to Party values, effectively communicates a depressing and cheerless existence.  Their significant use of television monitors, or telescreens, in the production strongly transmits the notion of zero privacy, no matter where or when the setting.  The point of the show where Winston and Julia are captured and Winston is continually punished and tormented is harrowing, but the scenes do channel the essence of the novel.

The creative team of Scenic Designer Chloe Lamford, Lighting Designer Natasha Chivers, Video Designer Tim Reid and, especially, Sound Designer Tom Gibbons add a sonic, other worldly element that enhance the production.

The three main cast members—Tom Sturridge as Winston, Olivia Wilde as Julia, and Reed Birney as O’Brien—give absorbing and penetrating performances.  Sturridge embues his character with a lackluster sheen, but also with an undercurrent of rage and, towards the end, an inner strength that is ultimately wiped clean.  Ms. Wilde is animated and purposeful.  Her defiance comes across as less muted then her companion.  Mr. Birney is chilling as the reserved, smooth-talking, and matter-of-fact Party VIP.  He is downright terrifying with his doublethink and fanatical obedience to Party doctrine.  

1984, an overall disappointing production of the Orwellian classic at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Review of "Oklahoma!"


The first collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II was the musical Oklahoma!  The show is recognized as the first to integrate book, score, and choreographed numbers seamlessly into a musical.  A spirited revival of the ground-breaking production opened last week at the Goodspeed Opera House, playing now through September 27th.

The book by Oscar Hammerstein II, based on the 1931 play, Green Grow the Lilacs, emphasizes the simpler, less complicated time around the turn of the 20th Century in the Oklahoma Territory.  It can appear hokey and sometimes too straightforward, but the naturalness and ease does belie an ominous undercurrent.
“Let people say we’re in love!” Laurey (Samantha Bruce) and Curly (Rhett Guter) in Goodspeed Musicals’ Oklahoma!, now playing at The Goodspeed through September 27.
Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
The focus is on cowboy Curly McLain and his awkward, apprehensive pursuit of Laurey Williams.  Complicating matters is the unsettling farm hand Jud Fry’s interest in Curly’s would-be beau.  A secondary storyline is the relationship of the flirtatious Ado Annie and suitor Will Parker and Annie’s dalliances with peddler Ali Hakim.  Overseeing all that transpires to the satisfying ending is the matriarch Aunt Eller.

The score of the show?  What can you say?  Every song by Rodgers and Hammerstein is a tuneful gem.  There are simple bouquets to everyday life as in “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” and “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.”  The romantic rumblings of young love are expressed in “People Will Say We’re in Love,” and there are full-throttled comedic numbers, such as “I Cain’t Say No!” and “Kansas City.” 
“You're doin' fine, Oklahoma! Oklahoma O.K.!” The cast of Goodspeed Musicals’ Oklahoma!, now playing at The Goodspeed through September 27.
Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
The cast features Rhett Guter as Curly McLain.  Winner of last year’s Best Featured Actor in a Musical by the Connecticut Critics Circle, Guter is engaging, reserved, but also shows his determination and fight in an all-round winning performance.  Samantha Bruce’s Laurey Williams is more than a match for her cowpoke admirer.  She gives a tough, no-nonsense portrayal of the farm girl, who is also seeking love and romance.  Gizel Jimenez as Ado Annie and Jake Swain as Will Parker provide ample comedic interludes as does Matthew Curiano in his role as Middle Eastern peddler Ali Hakim.  Matt Faucher shows anguish and a elicits a modicum of pity as the quarrelsome, ill-fated Jud Fry.  Terry Burrell’s Aunt Eller is probably the key role of the musical.  She is the overseer and the one everyone gravitates to for advice and solace.  Ms. Burrell brings a knowingness and common sense and inner strength to the role.
“I don't say I'm no better than anybody else. But I'll be damned if I ain't jist as good!” The cast of Goodspeed Musicals’ Oklahoma!, now playing at The Goodspeed through September 27.
Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
In any production of Oklahoma! the Ballet Scene dream sequence at the end of Act I is a key barometer of the show’s quality and success.  Choreographer Katie Spelman carries out this critical assignment with confidence and style.  The number effectively explores the darker side of Laurey’s feelings which, in turn, adds depth to the character as well as the show.  Ms. Spelman is equally adept at the more rambunctious and festive dance sequences.  They are playful and, most of the time, appear organically within the action.

Director Jenn Thompson adroitly expands the confines of the production into the audience.  This opens-up the show beyond the boundaries of the small Goodspeed stage.  She demonstrates a deft hand helming the different tonal qualities and settings of the musical—from the friskiness of the young lovers to the humorous and mischievousness of Ado Annie and Will Parker to the ominous, menacing rumblings surrounding Jud Fry.  Her incorporation of the dance segments into the overall storyline is seamless and harmonious.
“Ev'rythin's up to date in Kansas City.” Will Parker (Jake Swain) and cowboys (Alex Ringler, Mark Deler, Tripp Hampton and Marco Antonio Santiago) in Goodspeed Musicals’ Oklahoma!, now playing at The Goodspeed through September 27.
Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Wilson Chin’s Scenic Design captures the airiness and sunshine of a summer’s eve to the foreboding setting of the rundown smoke house.  Philip B. Rosenberg’s Lighting Design is skillful in its efficacy, especially when the daylight filters hauntingly through the planks of Jud Fry’s living space.   Also, a special nod to Unkledave’s Fight-House for their staging of the realistic fight sequences.

Oklahoma!, a feisty classic at the Goodspeed Opera House through September 27th.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Review of "Finding Neverland"


Rarely does the national tour of a Broadway musical surpass its New York original. Such is the case with Finding Neverland that has alit on the Bushnell stage through Sunday, August 6th. The show, which tells the back story of how playwright J.M. Barrie conceived his classic tale, Peter Pan, is enchanting and captivating and well-worth the price of admission.

Audiences are most likely familiar with the many iterations of Peter Pan, from the 1950’s musical starring Mary Martin to the Disney classic and so many others. Before all of these versions there was simply the 1904 play, with no music, that charmed the world.  

Finding Neverland tells the story of how the beloved play, Peter Pan, came into existence.  Barrie, a highly successful London playwright at the turn of the twentieth century, is searching for inspiration for a new show to write.  Pressured by his longtime producer; beautiful, but dispirited wife; and others the writer’s creative spark is ignited by a chance meeting in the park with four boys and their sickly, widowed mother, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies.  The boys are rambunctious, full of energy and imagination.  Barrie, whose life is anything but exciting, immediately takes to Ms. Davies and the children.  Their frequent rendezvous leads the author to his breakthrough play even though it takes a toll on his marriage and the health of the woman he now admires and respects. 
Playwright James Graham has crafted a well-structured, surprisingly emotionally laden story inspired by Barrie’s creation and the events and personalities that played a part in its genesis.  He has skillfully constructed cheerfully buoyant scenarios while also exploring the darker side of the turn-of-the-century writer’s life. 

The music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy satisfactorily work in advancing the plot and enriching character development.  The score is uncommon in today’s world of musical theater since there are actually songs you leave the Bushnell Center humming!  They include such spirited numbers such as “Believe” and “Play” and moving ballads as with “When Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground” and “All That Matters.”

The entire cast is first-rate, led by Billy Harrigan Tighe as J.M. Barrie.  The actor brings an element of fun and playfulness to the role of the man who won’t grow up.  At the same time, he layers his performance with an earnestness and steadfastness, which rounds out his character.  Christine Dwyer as the widow Sylvia LLewelyn Davies is cheeky and effervescent.  She has a beautiful voice, which is highlighted in the song “All That Matters.”  John Davidson, yes the John Davidson who was ever-present on 1970’s variety and talk shows and the host of one of the first reality shows—remember “That’s Incredible”—is superb in the dual role of producer Charles Frohman and Captain Hook.  Even with his fifty plus years in show business, there is still a youthfulness and bounce in his step.  He is also more worldly wise and this comes across winningly as he plunges into his portrayals of the gruff, yet kindhearted man of the theater as well as the slyly menacing Hook.  Broadway veteran Karen Murphy is suitable haughty and protective as Mrs. Davies’ imposing grandmother, Mrs. D Maurier.

The four children are endearing and enchanting.  They are a talented, cohesive group, especially the oldest lad, Colin Wheeler as Jack, who plays a mean ukulele in the song “We’re All Made of Stars.” 

Director Diane Paulus, who helmed the original Broadway production, has tightened up the story, making the show more fluid and compelling then the New York version.  She has created a believable chemistry and esprit de corps among the acting troupe, which translates well whether in the surreal numbers such as “Circus of the Mind” and “Hook” or the more carefree moments as in “The World is Upside Down.”

Scott Pask’s minimal Scenic Design is enhanced by Kenneth Posner’s Lighting Design, Jonathan Deans’ Sound Design and, especially, Jon Driscoll’s Projection.  They beautifully augment the production without calling undue attention to their use.

Finding Neverland, a magical, dazzling theatrical experience, playing at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts through Sunday, August 6th.  Ticket information is at https://bushnell.org/ or 860.987.5900.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Review of "The Government Inspector"

Fans of the Marx Brothers and Keystone Kops, rejoice, for the inspired lunacy and theatrics in Nikolai Gogol’s classic comedy, The Government Inspector.  The Red Bull Theater’s production, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher, is nonstop laughter provided by a seasoned group of comedic actors.  The show is playing at New World Stages Off-Broadway at 50th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues.


The premise of the 1836 Russian play is simple.  The corrupt mayor of a small-town, along with the equally corrupt and morally bankrupt school principal, judge, hospital director, and others panic when word filters in that a government inspector is in the vicinity to check the goings on in town.  They mistakenly believe a young, self-absorbed, womanizing, and carousing bon vivant from St. Petersburg, staying at the local inn, is the man.  Immediately, a delegation of the unscrupulous bureaucrats and businessmen seek him out, lavishing praise and money upon him in the hope of keeping him quiet.  When the mayor invites him to stay at his palatial home he cheerfully accepts.  The outcome is semi-controlled inanity and a denouncement that surprises all.

Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation is brisk and full of hilarity.  In the program booklet, he states he did not update the essence of the script because the portrayals are so recognizable, even in today’s topsy turvey world.  By stretching the scheming and shenanigans to absurd levels he brings out the stupidity of the characters.  The byproduct is a sprightly hoopla, which is consistently frisky and buoyant.

The cast is a treasure trove of top-notch funnymen and women.  I could spend much of this review rhapsodizing about each cast member, but let me, instead, highlight just a few.  Michael Urie is glorious as the egotistical swaggerer, Ivan Alexandreyevich Hlestakov.  He is so good as a pompous ass taking advantage of the imbecilic officials.  The actor is also a superb physical comedian, which adds a layer of looniness to his performance.   Michael McGrath smartly plays it straight as Mayor Antonovich, a man so full of greed and hubris.  The result magnifies his shallowness and idiocy.  Arnie Burton, doubling as Hlestakov’s sarcastic, uppity servant Osip and the buffoonish Postmaster, is outrageously funny.  He adds an extra zing to the production whenever he is on stage.  Mary Testa as Anna Andreyevna, the Mayor’s wife, is cheeky, loud-mouthed and brings a tactless brashness to her role. 

Director Jesse Berger smartly lets the skirmishes and conflicts of the banal, crooked town administrators dictate the sweep of the production.  He doesn’t go looking for laughs unnecessarily, but let’s the action, humor and absurdity come out naturally.  Berger skillfully maneuvers the large cast with deft and precision, integrating physical comedy into the uproariousness of the script.

The two-tiered set by Alexis Distler divides the performing space into three distinct areas.  The two lower level sections, cramped and utilitarian, amplify the comedic action as the group of actors uneasily maneuver about the rooms.  The single upper level allows for broader clowning and farcical elements.  Tilly Grimes’ Costume Design can be whimsical, seemingly plucked from a Marx Brothers release as well as grandly ceremonious.  Greg Pliska’s Sound Design and original music add an element of audio lunacy to the production.

The Government Inspector, highly entertaining and full of laughs by an outstanding, riotous cast.  

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Review of "Money Talks"

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The new musical romp, Money Talks, has a fun premise as we follow a $100 bill, the one with Ben Franklin’s face front and center, and see its impact on individuals as it is passed from person to person.  But the piece of currency that is continually forked over is not just a C-Note, but Ben Franklin himself.  In the guise of actor Ralph Byers, dressed regally in a monetary suit, Mr. Franklin gives the audience a running commentary on his journeys in addition to an endless stream of his witty, humorous maxims.   
The cast of "Money Talks" at the Davenport Theater Off-Broadway.

After a jaunty opening number by the four-person cast, each wardrobed as a different denomination of legal tender, the trek begins when a hedge fund manager passes the $100 bill to a stripper, which her slacker husband then “borrows” for a poker tournament in Las Vegas and so on and so on.  The 90 minute odyssey ends at the beginning as loose ends from some of the more charming and absorbing stories are neatly brought to a close.

The book by Peter Kellogg, who also contributed lyrics to the score, is a sometimes serious, more lighthearted meditation on the meaning of money.  The show has numerous scenes, some better conceived and more engaging than others.  They are broken up with tuneful songs by composer David Friedman and Mr. Kellogg.  They encompass amusing compositions, pleasing ballads, a gospel tune, and even a rollicking hoedown.
The cast of "Money Talks" at the Davenport Theater Off-Broadway.

The cast, led by Ralph Byers as a befuddled, still wise Benjamin Franklin, is a likeable, seasoned group of professionals.  The other three members of the troupe--Sandra DeNise, Brennan Caldwell, and George Merrick—take on numerous roles throughout the musical demonstrating their comedic abilities as well as a more penetrating presence.

Director/Choreographer Michael Chase Gosselin keeps the pacing brisk, skillfully incorporating the sage Ben Franklin without weighing down the storyline.  He has the quartet of actors working together nimbly as a well-oiled ensemble and smoothly breaks up the show with the occasional small-scale production number. 

Ann Beyersdorfer’s Scenic Design, while minimally conceived for the pocket-sized Davenport Theatre stage, feels full and robust.  She is amply assisted by Ido Levran’s whimsical Projections, which add a highly satisfying component to the show.  They help establish the setting for each vignette and adroitly move the action from scene to scene.

Money Talks, a bouncy, entertaining piece of merriment.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Review of "Raging Skillet"


[Note:  For translation of the Yiddish words used in this review (in bold), go to The Yiddish Handbook.]

Oy vey!  What mishegas is cooking up at Theaterworks where Jacque Lamarre’s newest creation, Raging Skillet, has settled in through August 27th.  The show is equal parts cooking demonstration and combative mother-daughter relationship, with a heaping tablespoon of Jewish guilt. 
 
George Salazar and Dana Smith-Croll from "Raging Skillet."
The play, based on the true story of Rossi, a self-proclaimed lesbian, punk rocking chef, opens with the chef and partner in crime DJ Skillit, about to begin a book signing event and cooking demonstration in her kitchen.  Before she can start her mother strolls onto the stage to kvell over her daughter’s success.  The chutzpah of mom!  The problem is mom has been deceased for quite a few years.  Still, she is now part of the setting and for the next 90 minutes the late Mrs. Ross and her daughter dredge up old wounds, bicker, and relive the good times and bad.  The two kvetch, they plotz as the third member of the triumvirate, DJ Skillet, comforts, humors, and obliges his boss.

Playwright Jacuqes Lamarre mixes a number of themes and storylines together without settling on one constant direction.  It is an inconsistent concoction with the constant interweaving of the chef’s backstory and her stormy relationship with her mother.  The concept he has presented is fun and interactive, sometimes a bit schmaltzy.  Several appetizers and drinks—anyone for a Manischewitz Spritzer--is prepared and served to the audience throughout the production.  But the essence of the show, the dramatic arc of Chef Rossi’s life, is only somewhat realized.  There is an over reliance on Yiddish words and terms that will leave some audience members not getting the jokes. 
 
George Salazar and Marilyn Sokol from "Raging Skillet."
The three performers work well together, effectively playing off each other’s strengths and rhythms.  Dana Smith-Croll gives Rossi an irascible, fiery spirit, which could have been even edgier.  The actress is at ease playing with and connecting with the audience.  George Salazar as DJ Skillet comes across as a believable sidekick who is more technician—mixing music with his handheld device and pumping up the audience with his ever-present wireless microphone.  Marilyn Sokol is wonderful as Mrs. Ross, the over wrought mother and yenta. She can be a bit over-the-top with her portrayal, but adds humor leavened with sentiment.
 
Marilyn Sokol and Dana Smith-Croll from "Raging Skillet."
Director John Simpkins relies on a lot of shtick to keep the performers busy and the play moving forward.  They hustle and bustle around Michael Schweikardt’s finely detailed kitchen set.  The food preparation and serving works well, but there is a lot of lag time when the characters break the fourth wall and pass out the treats.  This disrupts the tempo of the production and requires a constant restart of the play’s momentum.  Working with Sound Designer Julian Evans and Lighting Designer John Lasiter, Simpkins has Integrated snippets of loud, contemporary music and a variety of lighting to pump up the crowd and showcase the fitfulness and punk roots of the main character.

Raging Skillet, playing at Theaterworks in Hartford through August 27th.   For information, go to http://www.theaterworkshartford.org/ or call 860.527.7838.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Review of "Grounded"


Elizabeth Stahlmann as The Pilot in "Grounded."
The art of war has grown more sophisticated and lethal with the advent of technological advances.  In 2002 weaponry took a quantum leap forward when a drone was used for the first time in combat.  These small, pilotless aircraft had enough firepower to level a fortified bunker as well as the precision to target an individual enemy combatant.  Since the early part of the 20th century drone usage has risen dramatically.  The increase in this new breed of military hardware has also necessitated a different type of aviator or, as The Pilot in George Brant’s provocative, ripped-from-the-headlines one-person show states, The Chair-Force.

At the center of the play is the nameless female pilot who lives for soaring through the heavens in F-16 fighters.  After an inadvertent pregnancy grounds her she is eventually shifted to a desk job guiding drones on their silent missions.  At first rebellious over the assignment, she eventually settles into the routine of long, tedious hours watching a monitor in a small cubicle, hoping for some action that would take place thousands of miles away.  While not glamorous, the position affords her a 9:00-5:00PM job and time with her daughter and husband.  Slowly, though, the physical and psychological demand from the tedium and stress begins to take its toll on her personal life as well as her career, resulting in unforeseen results.

Playwright George Brant has crafted a mostly engrossing story that is at times riveting, humorous, and shattering.  He has taken an aspect of modern day warfare that most of us know little about and illuminated it with both dramatic flair and subtlety.  The language can be coarse and penetrating.  Together they give an air of authenticity to the to the story.

Actress Elizabeth Stahlmann delivers a gripping and captivating performance as The Pilot.  Her every emotion, every nuance is openly on display.  This total embodiment of the character by the actress, whether sky high with exhilaration or distressed over her disquieting circumstances, draws the audience deeper into the recesses of her soul.  Her mannerisms, overt and slight, add a richer dimension to the role.

Managing the performance of a one-person show can be difficult.  But Director Liz Diamond has done a laudable job in making the play interesting and compelling.  She has skillfully taken Ms. Stahlmann and molded her into a believable character, celebrating her joys and exposing her anguish.  Ms. Diamond has reduced the performing space to a minimum, giving the audience a feel for the confined and sequestered space of The Pilot.  She has also judiciously integrated projections into the production.

Yana Birykova’s projection designs, emblazoned across the back of the stage, allows the audience to surreptitiously view what The Pilot is seeing in her viewfinder.  Their prudent use, along with Kate Marvin’s sound design and Solomon Weisbard’s lighting design it gives an added dimension of urgency and reality to the show.   

Grounded, playing at the Westport Country Playhouse through July 29th.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Review of "West Side Story"


The street gangs, the Jets and Sharks, are battling anew in the problematic production of the Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim/Arthur Laurents classic, West Side Story, playing at the Ivoryton Playhouse through July 30th.  The musical can be utterly captivating, primarily when actress Mia Pinero, who plays the innocent, love struck Maria, is on stage.  The actress has a golden, powerful voice that radiates sonorously throughout the historic theater.  However, the elevated moments are tempered by a mostly young cast whose exuberance comes across as somewhat headstrong and unruly.

For patrons unfamiliar with the musical, the story parallels Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  Tony (Stephen Mir) and Maria (Mia Pinero) are the two star-crossed lovers from different worlds and ethnicities.  Their deeply felt romance, nonetheless, leads to tragedy even though, ultimately, there is reconciliation between the two gangs.  

Book writer Arthur Laurents brings an urgency to the story that can still crackle today.  When the show opened in 1957 the raw emotions of the characters, the urban setting, and unforgiving street life were jarring to audiences.  The uncompromising race relations between the Puerto Rican youths and their white counterparts were powerful images that, while not as impactful today, sixty years later still resonate loudly.

The score, with music by Leonard Bernstein, who was at the height of his composing skills; and lyrics by an unseasoned Stephen Sondheim, still endures to this day.  Every song seems like a timeless classic from the rousing opening “Jet Song” to the lovely, haunting duets of “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart” to the comedic “I Feel Pretty” and “Gee, Officer Krupke.”  I only wish the pit band could have been located somewhere on the staging area, as opposed to underneath, to avoid a slight muffling of the sound.  

The cast, a mix of professionals, recent college graduates and current higher education students, is full of vitality and abandon.  The fervor most of them bring to the musical energizes the production, but also leads to uneven performances.   Stephen Mir, as Tony, has a strong voice and boy-next-door quality, but lacks the commanding presence required by the former leader of the Jets.  Conor Robert Fallon’s Riff has the passion necessary for the role of second-in-command of the street gang, but needs a more nuanced approach to the role.  Likewise, Victor Borjas’ portrayal of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, could have used more shading to bring out his outrage and contempt.  The other male characters, again, have an impassioned zeal, but could have displayed more subtlety and restraint.  The two key women, on the other hand, have a confident stage presence that invigorates the production.  Mia Pinero’s Maria is sweet, naïve, and bursting with love.  She has a stunning voice that make her duets with Stephen Mir one of the main highlights of the show.  Natalie Madlon’s Anita is sexy, self-assured, yet vulnerable.  She is so well poised on stage that she demands your attention.  Hillary Ekwalls shows a cageyness and adroitness in the minor role of Anybodys.

Director/Choreographer Todd L. Underwood has helmed a production which can soar, yet also swoop.   The pacing of the show comes fast and furious, with echoes of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography.  But the task of harnessing the sometimes unbounded enthusiasm of his actors in group settings proves daunting.  He Is more successful in the intimate scenes and the musical’s comedic turns.  The dream sequence in Act II, for those not familiar with the storyline, came across as perplexing.

The Set Design by Daniel Nischan, with its hinged scenery opening and closing to create distinct locales, is judicious in its use of space to create minimal, yet different settings.  The Lighting Design by Marcus Abbott helps augment the tensions in the show.  His use of shadows heightens the drama and ferment of the production.

West Side Story, playing at the Ivoryton Placehouse through July 30th.  For tickets go to the Ivoryton website.