Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Alexander Gemignani to Head O'Neill's Music Theater Conference

Alexander Gemignani will become the second artistic director in the history of the O'Neill Center's National Music Theater Conference. Founding Artistic Director Paulette Haupt will step down in August after 40 seasons at the helm.

Since its founding in 1978, NMTC has developed more than 132 new musicals, including early works of Nine, Violet, Avenue Q, In Transit, and In The Heights. Actor, musical director, composer, lyricist, and educator, Alexander Gemignani is currently performing as King George III in the Chicago company of Hamilton.

Broadway acting credits include: Violet, Chicago, Les Misérables, Sweeney Todd, Assassins, The People In The Picture, Sunday in the Park With George. Off-Broadway: Road Show at the Public, Headstrong at EST, and Avenue Q at the Vineyard Theatre. Favorite Regional: The Three Sisters (Cincinnati Playhouse), Oklahoma! (THE MUNY), The Boys From Syracuse (Shakespeare Theatre Company) and Saint-Ex (The Weston Playhouse). Concerts: Encores! 1776 at New York City Center, the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall, The New York Pops at Carnegie Hall, LA Phil at the Hollywood Bowl, and Lincoln Center’s American Songbook.

He has premiered solo shows at the Kennedy Center (Barbara Cook’s Spotlight), The Sheen Center, Birdland, and Feinstein’s. TV/Film: Empire, Homeland, Chicago Fire, The Good Wife, Empire State, and The Producers.

As a composer/lyricist, he is currently developing four new musicals and has composed the incidental music for several plays. As a musical director, he is in development for productions with The Public Theater and Roundabout Theatre Company. He has served on the faculty of the National Theater Institute and NYU. He is a member of the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop and a graduate of the University of Michigan

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Paulette Haupt Will Be Honored at CT Critics Circle Awards

Paulette Haupt, founding artistic director of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Music Theater Conference in Waterford, will be honored with the Connecticut Critics Circle’s Tom Killen Award, given in recognition of her 40 years of extraordinary achievement and service to Connecticut theater.

Haupt will be presented with the award on June 26 at the 27th annual event celebrating the state’s outstanding professional theater, which will be held at the Edgerton Center for the Performing Arts at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield. The event, scheduled to begin at 7:30 pm, is free and open to the public. Three-time Tony Award-nominee Terrence Mann will be master of ceremonies

Previous winners of the Killen Award include Lloyd Richards, Michael Price, Gordon Edelstein, Michael Wilson, Lucille Lortel, and Carmen de Lavallade. Last year’s winner was Anne Keefe.

Since 1978, Haupt has served as artistic director of the National Music Theater Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. In that capacity, she has selected and guided the development of more than 120 new musicals including Nine, Avenue Q, Violet, The Wild Party, In The Heights, and Darling Grenadine, which will be performed at Goodspeed Musicals’ Norma Terris Theatre in Chester later this summer.

An associate producer for Polly Pen’s Goblin Market Off Broadway, Haupt has commissioned, developed, and produced new works for OPERA America, the National Alliance for Musical Theater, and Columbia Artists Management.

Following her San Francisco Opera debut in Carmen, for more than three decades Haupt was a music director and conductor of numerous operas and musicals in the US and abroad. As a pianist, Haupt has appeared worldwide in concerts with renowned musical theater and opera singers and was the only ‘Plaidette’ ever to perform in Stuart Ross’s Forever Plaid in New York.

Since 2001, Haupt has commissioned, developed, and produced new works with her New York Company Premieres, including several works by Richard Rodgers Award recipients and a workshop of Lauren Robert’s .22 Caliber Mouth (New Millennium Theater Company, Chicago, 2004). She continues to develop Premieres and its very successful “Inner Voices” series.

Nominees for 2016-17 Connecticut Critics Circle Awards will be made public in early June. Winners in each category will be announced at the awards ceremony and will be posted on this site.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Broadway’s Terrence Mann to Host Connecticut Critics Circle Awards

Three-time Tony Award-nominee Terrence Mann will be master of ceremonies for the 27th annual Connecticut Critics Circle Awards 7:30 pm Monday, June 26 at Sacred Heart University’s Edgerton Center for the Performing Arts in Fairfield. A private reception will precede the awards show.

The event, which celebrates the best in professional theater in the state, is free and open to the public. At the ceremony, Paulette Haupt, founding artistic director of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Music Theater Conference in Waterford, will be honored with the Connecticut Critics Circle’s Tom Killen Award, given in recognition of her 40 years of extraordinary achievement and service to Connecticut theater.

Last year’s top honorees -- Yale Repertory Theatre’s Indecent and Hartford Stage’s Anastasia -- are currently on Broadway.

Mann is artistic director of the Nutmeg Summer Series at the University of Connecticut at Storrs. He received Tony nominations for his roles as Javert in Les Miserables, as the Beast in Beauty and the Beast and as King Charles in the revival of Pippin. He also originated the role of Rum Tum Tugger in the Broadway production of Cats.

His Broadway debut was in 1980 in Barnum. Other Broadway credits include The Scarlet Pimpernel, Rags, Getting Away with Murder, Lennon, The Rocky Horror Show, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, The Addams Family, Finding Neverland and last season’s Tuck Everlasting. He was in the original off-Broadway production of Assassins.

Mann also has a recurring role in TV’s “Sense8.” Other television roles include the role of Earl Boyd in “All My Children.”

In film, Mann played bounty hunter Ug in the four “Critters” films. Other movie roles include  “A Chorus Line” and “A Circle on the Cross.”

He has also acted and starred in productions at UConn, including Les Miserables in Concert, Peter Pan, Man of La Mancha and My Fair Lady. Mann will direct the first show of the Nutmeg season, 1776, with performances starting June 1.

A graduate of North Carolina School of the Arts, he is a professor of musical theater at Western Carolina University in North Carolina. He is married to actress Charlotte D’Amboise.

CT Theater Review: Biloxi Blues-- Ivoryton

Alec Silverblatt and Mike Mihm. Photo Anne Hudson
Biloxi Blues
By Neil Simon
Directed by Sasha Bratt
Ivoryton Playhouse
Through May 14

By Lauren Yarger
What's It All About?
A memoir with humor from Neil Simon (The Odd Couple) about a group of young men sent to boot camp in Biloxi, MS in 1943. Eugene Morris Jerome (Zal Owen) is the Simon persona, who steps out of the action (with the help of Lighting Designer Tate R. Burmeister, who also designs sound) to give us some background or commentary on what is taking place.

The group of unlikely barracks mates arrives. Eugene, an aspiring writer, records his thoughts about his hopes that he'll fall in love and lose his virginity (not necessarily in that order) and his impressions of his fellow soldiers. There's  Arnold Epstein (Alec Silberblatt), who rebels against Army food and regulations and clashes with their no-nonsense Sergeant Merwin Toomey (Mike Mihm); Don Carney (Ethan Kirschbaum), who fancies himself the next Perry Como; troublemaker Joseph Wykowski (Conor M. Hamill); secretive James Hennessey (George Mayer) and jokester Roy Seldridge (Chandler Smith). Together they share push ups, chipped beef and learn about pulling together as a team.

Helping Eugene fulfill his two fondest wishes about sex and love are prostitute Rowena (Moira O’Sullivan) and his first love, the very Catholic Daisy (Andee Buccheri).

What Are the Highlights?
A solid production using a mix of Equity and non-Equity actors. Simon's play is poignant and personal with some humor.  Some of the themes are ahead of their time both in 1984 when the play premiered and in 1943 when it is set.

Glenn Davd Bassett's set appears simple at first glance, with Quonset type facades either side of the stage framing a bunk quarters on a raised center platform. Parts of the set reveal hidden dimension and props cleverly transform in unexpected ways.

What Are The Lowlights?
This middle piece in Simon's trilogy featuring Eugene (the first is Brighton Beach Memoirs and the last is Broadway Bound) is a bit on the long side clocking in at about two hours and 40 minutes with an intermission.

More Information:
Biloxi Blues marches on the Ivoryton Stage at 103 Main Street in Ivoryton through May 14. Performances are Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm, Evenings Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30; Friday and Saturday at 8. Tickets are $50 for adults; $45 for seniors; $22 for students and $17 for children: 860-767-7318; www.ivorytonplayhouse.org

Additional credit:
Costume Design by Lisa Bebey.

A Conversation with Alan Alda and Jason Reitman

Alan Alda and Jason Reitman. Photo: CT Forum
An Evening of Reflections,  Laughs and Anecdotes
By Lauren Yarger
Actor Alan Alda and Director Jason Reitman chatted about growing up in the entertainment industry with famous fathers, dealing with fame and reflected on their careers as part of the CT Forum series held Saturday at The Bushnell.

Alda was a last-minute replacement for actor/director Rob Reiner, but he and Reitman shared banter that couldn't have been a better fit. They have a lot in common: both have written and directed (Alda is most known for his multi-year run as Hawkeye Pierce on TV's "MASH" and Reitman for "Up in the Air" and other films) and they both grew up the sons of Hollywood icons: Alda's father was stage and film actor Robert Alda and Reitman is the son of film director and producer Ivan Reitman.

The conversation was moderated by Wesley Morris, a critic at large for the New York Times, who asked his own questions in the first part of the program and then presented questions from audience members in the second. Here's a synopsis of the questions and comments:

Reflecting on their fathers' influence:

Alan -- He had been reading lines with his father since he was 9. He often would decide he knew best, suggesting. "Maybe you should say it like this...." He realized this had given him confidence. Later he had a chance to write an episode of "MASH" starring his father who made a suggestion for an ending to the episode at which Alda initially scoffed. He realized he shouldn't resent the idea because of father/son dynamics and gave it a try. "Not only did it work, but it was a moment of father/son connection that we hadn't had before."

Jason -- He had decided to go to med school when his father urged him to select a field with more "magic." "My father became the first Jew to say don't be a doctor, be a film maker!" Reitman Sr. was a producer on "Up in the Air," which was an interesting dynamic. He didn't buy the scenes where people were being fired and Jason took his advice. He realized he didn't have the life experience to write them, so he ended up interviewing real people in Detroit and St. Louis and incorporating those conversations into the film.

Reflecting on fame:

Alan: It takes a while to get used to it. He had night terrors. People get disoriented when meeting famous people. He has had many come up to him and tell him, "You're my biggest fan." He tries his best to put people at ease as quickly as possible. He does a lot of takes, while directing (which he has little interest in doing any more) waiting "for life to happen." A scene with many takes develops an energy of its own.He is a big advocate of improvisation, especially to discover back story and help the actors understand what their characters have experienced up until beginning the dialogue.

Jason: the relationship with actors on film is different for people than on TV, he thinks, because the big screen in the dark has a more surreal feel. Actors on TV seem more like friends in your home. He doesn't believe in telling actors how to do a scene or say a line and "squeeze them in a box," but prefers to discover direction together. His job is to let the actors create and ask himself ,"Do I believe them."  Some actors, like George Clooney, always are aware of what they are doing and why. Others get lost in the scene and have no idea of what is happening in relation to where the camera is, for example. He likes to combine those two as "dance partners." Some actors, like Charlize Theron or Ellen Page, he said, are 100 percent in both of those categories.  Ellen can take so much direction that once he gave her about 25 directions on a take just to watch her do it, he joked. There's something about getting actors to expose something from their souls that's beautiful and exciting.

Reflecting on directing and what most excites them:

Alan: Loves a chance to do something that matters. The last episode of "MASH" united millions of people at the same time and touched them. He has to write form experience and refuses to write propaganda. Material needs to be about how people treat each other to be interesting. He loves working with good material, people he respects and having the audience "get it." When he worked on "The Four Season," which he starred in, wrote and directed, he started the process by telling the actors that their job was to become friends. He wanted that to translate to the film. He said doesn't have an interest in directing any more, but if he did, he would lean toward being more spontaneous.

Jason: A great performance is a gift to the director. He likes to listen and see what the actors' performances tell him about the material. He described his job in comparison to his father: His father wants to take your favorite song and play it the best you ever have heard. Jason wants to take your least favorite song and play it so well that you like it. He figures out which take works for his actors. Clooney, for example is take one.

"If we ever work together," Alda quipped, "I'm take 22."

Reflecting on women and film:

Alan: "For decades I have been an avowed feminist." When he is writing, what the women in the scene want is just as important to him as what the men want, he said. And the women shouldn't be staying home pouring coffee while the story focuses on the men. He pondered why the film industry, which had more women writers at the beginning of the industry now has so few.

Jason: Wants to tell new stories, and as women's stories are not generally told, they excite him. It must be terrifying to be a smart woman living in this country today, he said. Why aren't there more movies made by women? "Five different forms of sexism happening all the way up the ladder," he replied. There aren't enough women decision makers. We need to buy tickets and support films with women in them and written by women. He sees the internet and services like Amazon, Hulu and Netflix opening opportunities for more woman film makers.

Here's a glimpse of the conversation:

Monday, May 8, 2017

Opera to Feature Deaf Actress and American Sign Language Interpretation

Hartford Opera Theater will present The Tender Land with music by Aaron Copland, libretto by Horace Everett and directed by Kristy Chambrelli with music direction by Joseph Hodge.

In keeping with its mission of making opera accessible to everyone, the company has partnered with the American School for the Deaf to cast a deaf actress, Nakita Mallach, in the role of Beth Moss. The opera will be fully interpreted in American Sign Language.

Performances are Friday, June 2 at 7:30 pm and Sunday, June 4 at 3 pm at the Aetna Theatre at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main St., Hartford. There will be an ASL interpreted performance on June 2 and a touch-tour and audio description for the June 4 performance.

The Tender Land tells the story of a young girl, who finds herself on the cusp of adulthood and must choose whether to remain in her small town or experience what the world has to offer. Themes of love, communication, and what it means to belong are explored in the piece. All of the characters are struggling to be heard.

The cast features Lisa Williamson as Laurie, Janelle Robinson as Ma Moss, Robert Barefield as Pa Moss, Darius Gillard as Martin, Michael McAvoy as Top and Mallach as Beth. The production team includes: Chambrelli (Director), Hodge (Conductor), Elena Blue (Sign Director), Ashley Atencio (Scenic Designer), Damian Dominguez (Costume Designer), Paige Nee (Lighting Designer), Caitlin Leigh Flemming (Asst.Director/Stage Manager), Lisabeth Miller (Executive Producer), Charity Clark and Michelle Murray Fiertek (Co-Producers).

There will be a pre-show lecture beginning at pm. Tickets are available at hartfordoperatheater.com and at the door: $25 preferred seating/$15 general admission/$10 seniors and students.

Hartford Opera Theater, Inc. is dedicated to enriching the lives of all members of the Greater Hartford community by offering quality, innovative, and affordable opera. Our organization commits itself to keeping the genre of opera relevant for patrons and artists through the presentation of productions that are both culturally topical and true to opera as an art form. We foster a safe environment in which emerging and established artists can feel free to collaborate and create. In addition, HOT promotes arts education and appreciation by providing free outreach programs to members of our community. At HOT, we believe that all people deserve to experience the beauty and total art that is opera. Hartford Opera Theater - Opera for Everyone.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

CT Theater Review: Mary Jane -- Yale Repertory

Emily Donahoe and Kathleen Chalfant, Photo: Joan Marcus
Mary Jane
By Amy Herzog
Directed by Anne Kauffman
Yale Repertory
Through May 20

By Lauren Yarger
If you think you are having a bad day, think again. Most of us can't imagine a day like any of those Mary Jane is having in the world premiere of Amy Herzog's poignant play and we probably wouldn't handle them with as much grace or optimism.

Mary Jane (an excellent Emily Donahoe), you see, is a single parent trying to balance caring for her extremely handicapped son, Alex (never seen), while trying not to eat up all of her sick and vacation days as an administrative assistant -- a job her sister's friend gave her out of sympathy, but which Mary Jane was happy to take for its medical benefits. Alex needs full-time care and while, some caregivers, like Sherry (Shona Tucker) go above and beyond, some refuse to take the case at all because it is "too hard." Others slack off and cause Mary Jane to miss work or sleep to make sure her son is being fed through his tube and not choking.

What emerges from an oppressive situation, smacking us in the face with its unexpected recurrence, is an unwavering positive attitude from Mary Jane. If anyone has a right to be down, it's she. Her husband couldn't face the future when Alex was born prematurely at 25 weeks with cerebral palsy and other issues and left her to deal with the reality alone. But her coping looks different from what you might expect.

Instead of cursing her life (like Job was encouraged to do), Mary Jane is a beacon of optimism for the women with whom she interacts. Sherry's young niece, Amelia (Vella Lovell),  asks a lot of questions, which Mary Jane cheerfully answers. Brianne (Miriam Silverman), a new mother of a child with special needs, gets helpful advice about how to cope and shortcuts for how to get what she needs from the system.

Mary Jane gets some assistance from other women in her circle as well, like building superintendent Ruthie (Kathleen Chalfant) who provides practical help, like unclogging the sink, but who isn't able to provide much emotional support. That comes from Chaya (Silverman), another mom of a special-needs child, who well understands the long stints in the hospital (Laura Jellinek's versatile set switches to this location from Mary Jane's apartment) and Tenkei (also Chalfant), a compassionate Buddhist nun and the hospital's chaplain on call.

From Chaya and Tenkei, Mary Jane tries to glean some religious wisdom which can help her through the journey which her doctor doesn't think she fully understands -- it's not a journey to bringing Alex back home, it's the end of the road for her son whose health is deteriorating. In a way, realism translates into surrealism and we're not always sure which is the better way to go.

Mary Jane's propensity to cope -- except for one moment when she expresses her frustration when a music therapist fails to arrive to work with her son -- is extraordinary and a lesson for those of us who would complain about a lot less. Circumstances happen, but it is how we react to them that can make all the difference. Mary Jane's ability to see beauty, even in a migraine, is inspiring. Often there are murmurs of agreement from the audience as some truth is expressed.

It's an eloquent piece which makes some big statements without speeches, but in the development of an extraordinary, unusual character. Donahoe, under the direction if Anne Kauffman, who also helmed Herzog's Belleville at Yale) is sensational, communicating the depth of Mary Jane's feelings often in a simple expression or tone of voice. It's hard to believe we know her so well in the five months that span the play. The supporting cast all double in roles made distinguishable by Costume Designer Emily Rebholz and Wig, Hair and Makeup Designers J. Jared Janas and Dave Bovas.

Mary Jane plays through May 20 at Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel St., New Haven. Tickets are $12–$99: yalerep.org; 203-432-1234.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Anastasia Leads Outer Critics Circle Award Nominations

Anastasia at Hartford Stage. Photo: Joan Marcus

Outer Critics Circle
2016-2017 Award Nominations

A Doll’s House, Part 2

A Bronx Tale
Come From Away
Groundhog Day
Holiday Inn

If I Forget
A Life
Love, Love, Love

The Band’s Visit
Himself and Nora
Kid Victory

(Broadway or Off-Broadway)
Terrence McNally     Anastasia
Itamar Moses     The Band’s Visit
Chazz Palminteri     A Bronx Tale
Danny Rubin    Groundhog Day
Irene Sankoff & David Hein     Come From Away

(Broadway or Off-Broadway)
Stephen Flaherty & Lynn Ahrens     Anastasia
Alan Menken & Glenn Slater     A Bronx Tale
Tim Minchin    Groundhog Day
Irene Sankoff & David Hein     Come From Away
David Yazbek     The Band’s Visit

(Broadway or Off-Broadway)
The Front Page
The Little Foxes
The Price
(Broadway or Off-Broadway)
Finian’s Rainbow
Hello, Dolly!
Miss Saigon
Sunset Boulevard
Sweeney Todd

Lila Neugebauer     The Wolves
Jack O’Brien     The Front Page
Daniel Sullivan     The Little Foxes
Rebecca Taichman    Indecent
Kate Whoriskey     Sweat

Christopher Ashley    Come From Away
David Cromer     The Band’s Visit
Darko Tresnjak    Anastasia
Matthew Warchus    Groundhog Day
Jerry Zaks     Hello, Dolly!

Andy Blankenbuehler    Bandstand
Warren Carlyle     Hello, Dolly!
Savion Glover     Shuffle Along
Kelly Devine     Come From Away
Denis Jones     Holiday Inn

(Play or Musical)
Alexander Dodge    Anastasia
Nigel Hook     The Play That Goes Wrong
Mimi Lien     Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Scott Pask     The Little Foxes
Douglas W. Schmidt    The Front Page

(Play or Musical)
Linda Cho     Anastasia
Susan Hilferty     Present Laughter
Santo Loquasto     Hello, Dolly!
Ann Roth     Shuffle Along
Catherine Zuber     War Paint

(Play or Musical)Christopher Akerlind    Indecent
Donald Holder    Anastasia
Natasha Katz     Hello, Dolly!
Bradley King     Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Kenneth Posner     War Paint

(Play or Musical)Duncan McLean    Privacy
Jared Mezzocchi    Vietgone
Benjamin Pearcy for 59 Productions     Oslo
Aaron Rhyne    Anastasia
Tal Yarden     Indecent

(Play or Musical)Gareth Fry & Pete Malkin     The Encounter
Gareth Owen     Come From Away
Nicholas Pope    Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Matt Stine     Sweeney Todd
Nevin Steinberg    Bandstand

Doug Besterman    Anastasia
Larry Blank     Holiday Inn
Bill Elliott & Greg Anthony Rassen    Bandstand
Larry Hochman     Hello, Dolly!
Jamshied Sharifi     The Band’s Visit

Daniel Craig     Othello
Michael Emerson    Wakey, Wakey
Kevin Kline     Present Laughter
David Oyelowo    Othello
David Hyde Pierce     A Life

Janie Dee     Linda
Sally Field     The Glass Menagerie
Allison Janney     Six Degrees of Separation
Laura Linney     The Little Foxes
Laurie Metcalf     A Doll’s House, Part 2

Christian Borle    Falsettos
Nick Cordero     A Bronx Tale
Andy Karl     Groundhog Day
David Hyde Pierce    Hello, Dolly!
Tony Shalhoub     The Band’s Visit

Christy Altomare    Anastasia
Christine Ebersole    War Paint
Katrina Lenk     The Band’s Visit
Patti LuPone     War Paint
Bette Midler     Hello, Dolly!

Monday, April 17, 2017

Meet the Playwrights at Hartbeat's Women's Theater Festival April 2

The Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women will host a reception where audience members can meet the playwrights featured in Hartbeat Ensemble's Women's Theater Festival this month.

The reception will be held at 6 pm Friday, April 28 prior to the reading held that evening (see info below for how to attend the festival). Light refreshments will be served. Don't miss a chance to meet the playwrights and network with other women in theater form Connecticut.

Women’s Theater Festival Set
at HartBeat Ensemble

From Artistic Director Julia Rosenblatt:
HartBeat Ensemble in Hartford will present a performance series of plays in development at the Carriage House Theater , 360 Farmington Ave. 

Tickets are $15 General Admission | $10 Students, Seniors and Let's Go! Arts members. Subscription package for all three shows. $35 General Admission; $25 Students, seniors and Let’s Go! Arts members. Shows are 7:30 on Friday and Saturday nights.  
Pegao  - April 21-22
written by Cindy Martinez
*Pegao: The crispy rice at the bottom of the pot.
The year is 1971 and the Flores sisters have returned to their childhood home in Humacao to visit their mother, Dona Lina, Puerto Rico’s reigning queen of dominoes.  But in tonight’s game, the stakes are higher. Throughout the night it becomes clear that the black and white tiles represent life choices as each player tries to expose the other's weaknesses while battling over issues of colorism, the US militarization of Vieques, sterilization abuse and what it means to be a modern woman. 
Lest We Forget - April 28-29
written by Vanessa Butler and Aurelia Clunie
Melding storytelling, poetry and movement, Lest We Forget probe’s the question, “What do I do with this black body, with this legacy, with these stories—in today's world?” Vanessa Butler and Aurelia Clunie, two actresses hailing from the Midwest, swapped family histories and discovered an intersection of experience. Using investigative research techniques and their own personal experiences, Butler and Clunie examine their understandings of 21st century blackness as it stands in the shadow of 20th century blackness. The piece asks,“What do we bring forward with us? What do we lay to rest? What do we shout from the mountaintop, lest we forget?”

Group! (working title)
written by Julia B. Rosenblatt
Six women from vastly different worlds come together to battle the great common denominator: addiction. In this new Musical Theater work, Rosenblatt explores the terrifying, dramatic and often hysterically funny journey toward sobriety.  Who will make it? Who will fall off of the proverbial wagon? And what happens when the place they come to for healing appears to be coming apart at the seams?
For tickets, visit hartbeatensemble.org.

Monday, April 3, 2017

CT Theater Review: Next to Normal -- TheaterWorks

David Garris, Christiane Noll and Maya Keleher. Photo Lanny Nagler
Next to Normal
Music by Tom Kitt
Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Extended again through May 14

By  Lauren Yarger
Presenting something a little different form the norm has proved to be a successful move for TheaterWorks, where an excellent run of the Pulitzer-Prize winning musical Next to Normal has been extended through May 7.

Broadway star Christian Noll (Chaplin, Ragtime, Jekyll and Hyde) stars in Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's rock musical about Diana Goodman, a woman struggling with bi-polar disorder and suicidal thoughts. Australian sensation David Harris plays her husband, Dan.

This is not an easy musical, on many levels. Technically, the show requires really good singers who can belt; emotionally, it's hard to watch Diana's illness wreak havoc on her and her family. She has struggled for 16 years and hasn't been much of a wife or mother. Dan made a vow, though when they married and stands by her as it becomes apparent that she needs to adjust her meds. Again.

Her doctors (both played by J.D. Daw) try talking treatments, various medications and even shock therapy, but nothing seems to help long term. Growing up in this house has its effects on daughter, Natalie impressive newcomer Maya Keleher), who turns both to overachieving at school, drugs and new boyfriend, Henry (Nick Sacks), to escape the fear that she might end up just like her mother. Meanwhile, all of the problems in Diana and Dan's marriage might not be the result of her illness. They have unresolved issues with regards to their son, Gabe (John Cardoza).

The libretto contains some of the smartest lyrics I ever have heard in a musical. developing the characters, their relationships and telling the story, which contains some humor to break up the rather serious and troubling reality of the family's situation. 

Blended with music that senses the emotions being experienced, the show takes us on a rocking emotional roller coaster that is at once satisfying and heartbreaking.

The sensation that you're screaming
But you never make a sound,
Or the feeling that you're falling
But you never hit the ground—
It just keeps on rushing at you
Day by day by day by day...
You don't know
You don't know
What it's like to live that way.

Director Rob Ruggiero expertly focuses on the relationships. The night I attended those relationships seemed less cohesive in the first part of the show, but with the song "You Don't Know," they bonded as though they had been pulled together with super glue and were dynamic throughout. 

The six-person band, under the direction of Adam Souza, plays more than 30 numbers housed on stage behind Wilson Chin's ingenious two-level, rotating set lined with bookcases and lights to create the family's house as well as other locations. Ruggiero also uses the house aisles, reinforcing the bond the audience feels with the characters, but unfortunately eliminates the blood from Diana's suicide attempt. The result is that we lose some of the reality and heartbreak of the situation when Dan cleans it up. Without experiencing the gruesome reality of the blood, Dan can seem just like a helpful husband chipping in with the household chores as he rinses out clear rags into a bucket.

Getting huge kudos for advancing the storytelling is the superb Lighting Design by John Lasiter, who delivers some of the best lighting I have seen on any stage any where. Mood is depicted, as well as emotions of characters. The lights seem to develop their own case of schizophrenia as they morph into a rainbow of personalities of color and intensity. In one scene, Diana is slipping away: Dan is in full light, Diana is dim and the past that is pulling her is in the shadows. Exquisite.

Noll brings an almost playful quality to Diana to expand the layers of the character who can other wise seem too depressed or crazy. It's always a pleasure to hear her voice and she doesn't disappoint on the the belting, especially for "I Miss the Mountains" (you can listen to her sing this here.) All of the voices are excellent, in fact. Connecticut audiences know Noll from Goodspeed and concerts with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra; Harris also appeared at Goodspeed in Anything Goes and was Jean Valjean in Les Miserable at Connecticut Repertory. This production marks Connecticut native Keleher's professional debut.

Don't miss this one -- if you are a fan, you will enjoy and if you never have seen this musical, you probably won't see a better version.

Next to Normal touches hearts at TheaterWorks, 223 Pearl St., Hartford through May 7. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 pm. Tickets are $35-$75: theaterworkshartford.org; 860-527-7838.

Additional credits: Tricia Barsamian (Costume Design), Ed Chapman (Sound Design).
--- A R T S ---

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

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