Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Theater Review: Holiday Inn -- Goodspeed

The cast of Holiday Inn. Photo: Diane Sobolewski

It’s Old and New and Features Sensational Choreography
By Lauren Yarger
It’s got great tunes by Irving Berlin, old-fashioned dance numbers and a lot of heart. Another revival of a classic musical at Goodspeed you might think -- but you would be wrong. It’s the word premiere of a new musical. Well, a new, old musical, if you will.

Based on the classic film starring Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby, Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn features tunes like “What’ll I Do?,” "Happy Holiday," "Easter Parade," "Be Careful, It's My Heart" and “You’re Easy to Dance With” with a new book by Gordon Greenberg (who directs) and Chad Hodge.

The plot is the same: Entertainers Ted Hanover (Noah Racey), Jim Hardy (Tally Sessions) and Lila Dixon (Hayley Podschun) have been performing their song and dance number waiting for their big break, but Jim has had a change of heart. He wants to get out of show business and settle down on a farm in Connecticut.

He buys the old Mason Farm in Midville, CT at foreclosure and pops the question to Lila. She opts to join Ted on the road for a while, however, and Jim finds himself trying to figure out how to raise chickens and fix his repair-needy old farm house. Offering some help are fix-it expert Louise (Susan Mosher) and the farm’s former owner, Linda Mason (Patti Murin), a school teacher who once dreamsed of a career in show biz.

The three stumble upon a way to make money to keep the farm: invite Jim’s show biz friends, who don’t have anywhere to go on the holidays, up to Connecticut to put on some shows. The inn turns into a holiday showplace and a romance between Linda and Jim blossoms, until Ted pays a visit and decides Linda is the perfect dance partner. Will Jim lose another girl to his best friend?

Don’t stress too hard. The light plot serves mostly as a vehicle for the delightful songs (Music Direction by Michael O’Flaherty; Orchestrations by Dan DeLange), splashy, glittery mid 1940s costumes designed by Alejo Vietti (with excellent Wig and Hair Design by Mark Adam Rampmeyer) and the clever and exciting choreography by Denis Jones (watch for his work in the soon-to-hit-Broadway musical Honeymoon in Vegas). Anna Louizos designs simple sets that don’t detract from the other elements and leave plenty of room for dancing.

And that choreography is the star of the show, with tap dancing, foot-stomping, jump roping, prop throwing and lots of other spectacular movement. Mosher also steals the show whenever she is on as the goofy, kind-hearted Louise (think Carol Burnett).

Songs aren’t exactly the same as the movie (the controversial, black-faced number “Abraham” has been eliminated), but the firecracker dance remains.

The show has been extended twice, through Dec. 21. Its charm and old-fashioned trip to a much simpler time can’t help but bring a smile to the face of a more modern audience looking for escape.

Holiday Inn plays at the Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main St., East Haddam. Performances: Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 pm; Thursday at 7:30 pm and select matinees at 2 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturdays at 3 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm with select performances at 6:30 pm. Tickets $15-$77.50  860 873-8668; www.goodspeed.org.

Our Town -- Long Wharf

Rey Lucas and Jenny Leona. Photo: T.Charles Erickson
Wilder’s Classic Becomes Our Town with Local, Alumni Cast Members
By Lauren Yarger
Long Wharf Theatre kicks off its 50th anniversary season appropriately with a look at community and the past via a production of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play, Our Town.

Every cast member in the production has previously appeared in a Long Wharf Theatre production and the townspeople of Grovers Corner, NH are members of the greater New Haven community.

Stage Manager Myra Lucretia Taylor guides us back to 1901 Grovers Corners. Set Designer Eugene Lee’s chalk drawings on a blackboard backdrop depict the buildings of the small town. Life here is so simple that it can be depicted with just the help of some tables and chairs. The day-to-day activities, like preparing meals, are pantomimed.

The Webbs and the Gibbs go about their business interacting with other townspeople. Mrs. Gibbs (Linda Powell) and Mrs. Webb (Christina Rouner) prepare endless meals for their families. Mr. Webb (Leon Addison Brown) edits the town’s newspaper. Mr. Gibbs (Don Sparks) is the doctor. Over the years (time passes to 1913, aided by musical composition by Sound Designer John Gromada), teenagers Emily Webb (Jenny Leona) and George Gibbs (Rey Lucas) find love, marriage and their own place as a family in the community.

When Emily’s time on earth comes to an end, she has a chance to revisit one day in her life and discovers that she – and all of us – never really took time to appreciate life or each other while she was here.

Wilder’s play is a reflection on what really is important in life amidst the common concerns it presents:
  • How do others see us?
  • What is our purpose?
  • How can we be happy?
  • Will we find love?
  • What happens to us after we die?

“It goes so fast and we don’t have time to look at one another,” Emily reflects.

Our Town has received countless productions since the three-act play premiered in 1938. No doubt you have seen it, have been in it or have gone to see a family member or friend in it. So why see it again? Because the truths explored in the questions above still are relevant today.

Gordon Edelstein brings community to the center with the use of local residents (the church choir, under the musical direction of Jonathan Berryman) and riotously directed by drunk choir master and church organist Simon Stimson (Robert Dorfman) is really good. Gossipy choir member Mrs. Soames also gets a nice comedic turn by Ann McDonaugh.

Giving the stage manager a more prominent treatment detracts from the feel of the production, however, as she often appears to interrupt and lecture, rather than walk with us through the town. The best productions of Our Town are those where I don’t even remember that there is a “narrator.” Some of the pantomiming technique could use some polish too, as thoughts stray to “what is she doing?’ or “I thought that would be heavier” creep in.

Also triggering question are Emily Rebholz’s costumes, some of which seem modern, perhaps to make the point about the themes being contemporary. But the stage manager keeps filling us in on what year we’re in in the early 20th century…

Providing a special treat opening night was the Long Wharf premiere of its own Director of Marketing Steven Scarpa as the Man in the Graveyard. And added sense of community occurs at the second intermission after George and Emily’s wedding where members of the audience visit on stage as if attending the reception.

Our Town runs through Nov. 2 at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven. Performance times vary. Tickets: $25-$75. 203-787-4282; www.longwharf.org

Friday, October 17, 2014

Theater Review Arcadia -- Yale Rep

Rebekah Brockman and Tom Pecinka in Arcadia. Photo © Joan Marcus
A Waltz Across Centuries to Discover the Truth
By Lauren Yarger
Nothing – and everything – is certain in Arcadia, Tom Stoppard’s sharp, intelligent play which waltzes the present and past In a dance for truth. The present production at Yale Rep has a few missteps, however.

At Sidley Park, an English country house in Derbyshire, two dramas unfold, one in 1809, the other in modern day (1993 in the original) with scenes playing out from one time frame to the other. Set Designer Adrian Martinez Fraust’s imposing, light blue walls serve as the backdrop for an ever-present library table and a couple of chairs used in both eras. Costume Designer Grier Coleman also helps define the time travel.

The lives of the characters from both time periods intertwine as present day scholars research past events to determine whether Lord Byron ever stayed at the estate. The 19th-century inhabitants of Sidley show us just what really happened. An old tortoise, and Original Music by Matthew Sutter, help make transitions between scenes while keeping continuity.

Hannah Jarvis (RenĂ©   Augesen), an author who has written a best-selling book about Byron’s mistress, now is researching a hermit who lived on the grounds of Sidley Park, landscaped by designer Richard Noakes (Julian Gamble) under the supervision of Thomasina’s mother, Lady Croom (Felicity Jones), and Lady Croom’s brother, Captain Brice (Graham Rowat).

Scholar Bernard Nightingale (Stephen Barker Turner), who is convinced that not only did Lord Byron stay at the estate, but that he killed poet Ezra Chater (Jonathan Spivey) in a duel while there. He is so sure, that he even announced his theory on national TV, so now he must provide it. He joins forces with Hannah.

Chloe Coverly, a descendant of the family, and her brother, Valentine (Max Gordon Moore), join in the research, with Valentine’s study of the estate’s “game books” and their account of game hunted on the estate providing valuable clues.

Meanwhile, back in 1809, tutor Septimus Hodge (Thomas Pecinka) tries to get his soon-to-turn 17 year old pupil Thomasina Coverly (Rebekah Brockman) interested in poetry, but the flighty girl has other things on her mind. She loves mathematics and soon starts to prove an amazing theory about heat exchange and time. Her attempted proof finds its way to Valentine two centuries later. Or was it the elusive hermit who penned the ages of equations?

Nothing is simple in this Arcadia, from playwright Stoppard, the four-time Tony and Academy Award-winning author of The Coast    of Utopia, Rough Crossing and the film “Shakespeare in Love. Certainly nothing about the past is certain, but the investigation into it is where this production mostly gets off track.

For some reason the relationships between the modern characters never gel. Silent Gus Coverly (Bradley James Tejeda). Valentine and Chloe’s younger brother, is one of the main links to the past, where  Tejeda also plays Thomasina’s younger brother, Augustus, but the connection is lost here. So is Gus’s crush on Hannah. Meanwhile, the pace of the two-hour, 45-minute production is slow. Also troublesome are phony sounding English accents (Dialect Coaching by Stephen Gabis).

Standing out is Pecinka who brings an energy and vitality to Septimus, whose way with the ladies provides the catalyst for the duel Nightingale would like to attribute to Byron.

The play itself is intriguing  as past and present become dance  partners to show that nothing much changes and that truth is ever illusive.

Arcadia runs at Yale Rep through Oct. 25. Peformance times vary. Tickets $20-$98: (203) 432-1234; www.yalerep.org.

Theater Review: Annapurna -- TheaterWorks

Debra Jo Rupp and Vasili Bogazianos. Photo: Lanny Nagler
Exploring the Mountains that Need Climbing in Relationships
By Lauren Yarger
When Emma (Debra Jo Rupp) shows up at her ex’s rundown trailer, she brings a lot of baggage – literally and metaphorically, in Sharr White’s Annapurna, opening the season at TheaterWorks.

The suitcases aren’t the only metaphor, either. Set Designer Evan Adamson provides a backdrop of the imposing Colorado mountains surrounding ex-husband Ulysees’ laundry and food-littered trailer as another reminder that relationships are full of mountain climbing – the hard work it takes to rise above the things that cause gaps in them.

Ulysses (Vasili Bogazianos) isn’t exactly welcoming when Emma starts moving in uninvited. After all, it has been 20 years since the couple split. Ulysses doesn’t really remember the details of the night Emma left. He was drunk. All he knows is that she left with their 5-year-old son, Sam, and he hasn’t seen him since, even though he wrote the boy letters every week for years.

Those letters recently prompted Sam to track down the location of his poet father, but Emma decided to come first, especially after discovering that her ex-husband probably is dying following unsuccessful surgery to treat his lung cancer. The condition is hard to hide – Ulysses coughs a lot, wears a portable oxygen tank and very little clothing, revealing the bandage on his chest (Costume Design by Amy Clark).

As details about the marriage and the night that resulted in its shatter are revealed, it becomes obvious that Emma never quite got over the intense feelings she had for Ulysses. In fact, she has left her less-exciting, recently abusive husband, Peter, to carry her baggage up a mountain to come clean Ulysses trailer. She also offers Ulysses some money she stole from home if it will help with his treatments.

Though decades have gone by, the couple still seems to know each other very well.

“Don’t open the mini fridge,” Ulysses advises, knowing that the smell will upset Emma’s stomach.

Ulysses hasn’t forgotten anything about Emma, it appears. In fact, his latest epic poem, composed mainly on napkins and scraps of paper that fill a large cardboard box, is all about her. It’s called “Annapurna,” inspired by a section of the Himalayas referencing a goddess of the harvest – without whom, everyone starves.

Rob Ruggiero directs the two hander which brings the talented Rupp, who starred as Ruth Westheimer in Becoming Dr. Ruth, back to the TheaterWorks stage. If you are a fan of the soap “All My Children,” you will recognize Bogazianos as Benny Sago There is good onstage rapport between the two characters, even if the play leaves us unconvinced that there should be.

Reconciliation between these two seems more a forced notion to fuel a play than reality. There are just too many gaps between the mountains to make it plausible. Underlying the action is Emma’s lack of self esteem, which never really is addressed. She thinks being in an abusive relationship or covering up truth about his father are the best ways to keep her son’s love.

Annapurna plays through Nov. 9 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl st., Hartford. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays: 7:30 pm; Fridays and Saturdays: 8 pm; Weekend Matinees at 2:30 pm. Tickets $15-$65; (860) 527-7838; www.theaterworkshartford.org.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Theater Review: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat -- The Bushnell

Ace Young and Ryan Williams. Photo: Daniel A. Swalec
Dreamy Joseph Leads Tour of Wit-Filled Musical
By Lauren Yarger
I look handsome, I look smart; I am a walking work of art.”

That’s sort of an understatement in the tour of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat stopping this week at The Bushnell. This Joseph, played by dreamy-handsome American Idol contestant Ace Young, whose finely-chiseled torso is on display for most of the show, certainly fits the definition of “work of art.”

The biblical character isn’t really singing about his physical appearance, however. In this operetta from the team of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, who gave us other classic musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, Joseph really is singing about the coat of many colors just given to him by his father, Jacob (William Thomas Evans).

Jacob’s special fondness for one son doesn’t go over with his 11 jealous brothers (played by Paul Castree, Brian Golub, Max Kumangai and Brandon Hudson, among others). They tell Jacob he was killed by a wild animal and sell him into slavery in Egypt.

 “It's all there in chapter thirty-nine Of Genesis,” sings the Narrator, played by Young’s real-life wife, Diana DeGarmo, who also was a contestant on “Idol.” The couple met when they performed together in the Hair revival on Broadway.

In Egypt, Joseph first finds himself doing well, working for a rich guy named Potiphar (also Evans), but his master’s wife (Claire Camp) has an appetite for attractive men and won’t take no for an answer where Joseph is concerned (must be those abs….). Joseph lands in jail, where he stays until his knack for dream interpretation lands him in service as the Number Two to Pharaoh (Ryan Williams).

Now, before you decide that you don’t need any more Sunday School at the theater, the words “technicolor dreamcoat” should clue you in that this isn’t a boring lecture. Webber’s music. Directed by Wayne Green, is varied in style to lend some humor to the storytelling. Pharaoh is an Elvis wannabe; lamenting brothers sing in the style of a sad, French melody in “Those Caanan Days” – a real crowd pleaser -- then rejoice while doing a limbo-themed number (all directed by Andy Blankenbuehler, who also choreographs using a lot of hand and arm motions that seem awkward at times).

The Narrator fills in all we need to know about the story, and Rice pens some of the most clever lyrics written for a Broadway stage.

Go, go, go Joseph you know what they say
Hang on now Joseph you'll make it some day
Don't give up Joseph fight till you drop
We've read the book and you come out on top 
No matter how many times I listen to the score of this musical (and, OK, it has been a lot), I enjoy the lyrics.

When I got to try it on
I knew my sheepskin days were gone

Now that’s clever.

Any way, back to the show. Young has an adequate voice and does a nice job putting emotion into the show’s best known ballad “Close Every Door,” but seems still a bit wet behind the ears on the stage. DiGiarmo brings her high, strong, belting voice to the role. Her instrument is worthy of respect, but is a bit piercing for storytelling and some of the narration gets lost.

Bass baritone Evans does nice comedic turns as Jacob and Potiphar. The ensemble is impressive as well, with many minor roles enhanced with good facial expression.

Beowulf Boritt creates simple backgrounds on which videos are projected as enhancement (design by Daniel Brodie) and Designer Jennifer Caprio creates costumes that are a blend of ancient and biblical times (Egyptian looking pants with sneakers, for example).

It’s a brisk two hours with one intermission, even if the second act does feel a bit draggy by the time a very long curtain call (designed to remind us of all the characters played by the actors, followed by moment in the spotlight for Young and DiGiarmo) ends.

Joseph runs through Oct. 19 at The Busnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. Perfromances are: 

Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays: 7:30 pm; Fridays and Saturdays: 8 pm; Saturdays at 2 pm; Sundays 1 and 6:30 pm Tickets $20-$80: (860) 987-5900; www.bushnell.org.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced
numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont
Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.”

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway
League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill
Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/. She
is editor of The award-winning Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com),

She is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Contributing Editor for BroadwayWorld.com, Connecticut theater editor
for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web. Yarger is a book reviewer and writer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented
by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle (awards committee).

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts,
the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.

Copyright Notice

All contents are copyrighted © Lauren Yarger 2009, 2010, 2011,2012, 2013, 2014. All rights reserved.