Monday, May 30, 2016

Theater Review: Anastasia -- Hartford Stage

Christy Altomare and company of Anastasia. Photo: Joan Marcus
Breathtaking Sets Bring Fantasy to Life in Broadway-Bound Anastasia
By Lauren Yarger
Revolutionary Russia and Gay Paris are among the locales brought to life in sumptuous, mind-blowing detail in a musical adaptation of the animated film Anastasia getting its world premiere at Hartford Stage before heading to Broadway next season.

Darko Tresnjak reunites with Choreographer Peggy Hickey from the Tony-Award-winning A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder to bring the Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (Ragtime) musical (with a book by Terrance McNally) to the stage. Much of the basic plot from the 1997 animated movie featuring the voices of Meg Ryan, John Cusack, Angela Lansbury and others remains intact, but some characters, like villain Rasputin and his magic spell, have been eliminated while others have been added or expanded for the stage adaptation. The score contains the film’s Oscar-nominated tunes including the stirring “Journey to the Past,” and the beautifully haunting “Once Upon a December” as well as a slew of new songs to fill out the two-and-a-half hour production.

The story follows orphan Anya (Christy Altomare), who has no memory of her past, as she joins with conmen Dimitry (Derek Klena) and Vlad (John Bolton) to try to convince Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna (Mary Beth Peil of TV’s “Dawson’s Creek" and “The Good Wife”) that she is none other than her granddaughter, Anastasia. The old woman, living in Paris after the Russian Revolution, has posted a reward for her granddaughter’s safe return in the hope that rumors about her escaping death when the rest of the royal family was executed are indeed true.

Military leader Gleb (Manoel Felciano) wonders whether Anya could be the real Anastasia too and follows the trio to Paris to finish the job of his father who executed Tsar Nicholas II (Constantine Germanacos), Tsarina Alexandra (Lauren Backman) Alexandra and their children, Olga (Samantha Sturm), Tatiana (Shina Ann Morris), Maria (Alida Michal) and Alexei (Nicole Scimeca) – and maybe Anastasia who would have been 17 at the time (Molly Rushing ) -- to usher in an era of Communism in Russia.

Along the way, Anya and Dimitry find unexpected romance as she struggles to remember who she is and while memories of a long-ago family and life haunt her dreams (in amazing Video and Projection Design by Aaron Rhyne).

Vlad and his old flame, Countess Lily Malevsky-Malevitch (Caroline O'Connor), who serves as a lady-in--waiting of sorts to the Dowager Empress, reignite a romantic spark and give the production most of its comedy, including one especially amusing number, “The Countess and the Common Man,” where love eternal needs a bit of oil to continue springing as aging bodies creak. Bravo for developing older characters and letting them have some romance on stage. Tresnjak lets them have fun and the solid stage actors (Bolton was in Spamalot and Curtains on Broadway and O’Connor was in A Christmas Story and Chicago) make the most of it.

Helping to bring the action to life is Hickey’s choreography (which includes a snippet from Swan Lake) and Linda Cho’s period costumes which include some breathtakingly beautiful gowns.

Derek Klena and Christy Altomare. Photo: Joan Marcus
The most tantalizing stars in this production, though, are the resplendent sets designed by Alexander Dodge (who designed the stunning sets for Rear Window, Private Lives and A Gentleman’s Guide at Hartford Stage). The royal palace, St. Petersburg, a train ride and 1920 Paris among other locations all come to life in vivid detail. Imposing interiors combine with the video projections to give added depth to the stage.  (The complexity of the technical elements of the production prompted a delay in the run’s previews and  a performance was cancelled. The show officially opened May 27 and because of demand for tickets, has extended through June 19). Check out the costume and set design here.

While it’s exciting to see another Broadway-bound musical launch here at Hartford Stage it could use some tweaks before is hits Broadway (the production is expected to go into a Shubert theater during the 2016-2017 season) – and us New York critics. Most problematic is the opening and way into the story inspired by true incidents in turn of the 20th Century Russia. We first see Anastasia at 6 (played by Scimeca) when her grandmother presents her with a music box before heading to Paris. Time passes and then a more mature Anastasia is living a royal life at the palace, entertaining suitors, attending balls and enjoying the devotion of her father and enduring her mother’s critical tones. It’s all rather tedious and leaves practically no suspense about Anastasia’s fate. An added disappointment is that the music box loses some of its magic (there is a special key needed in the movie).

There’s very little suspense or tension in the plot at all, despite the addition of Gleb as a villain of sorts. A glimpse of the Romanovs’ execution is a bit much to include in a show that otherwise would be excellent for families with children and its inclusion doesn’t add anything to the plot. There are several scenes that easily could be cut as well as they do little to propel the story, so the whole thing seems very promising, but in need of some focus by book writer McNally and polishing by Tresnjak.

I wouldn’t cut the Gleb character totally. He gives historic perspective, interesting for adults in the audience, and Feliciano (who was nominated for a Featured Actor Tony for the Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd) lends a lovely singing voice to the mix. Increasing the love-triangle angle with him, Dmitri and Anya, however, might help heighten some tension and be more interesting than playing up Gleb’s communist manifesto and unbelievable showdown with Anya at gunpoint.

Altomare and Klena have good chemistry on stage, particularly as sparring partners whose frustration with each other masks a growing affection, finally realized in a pleasing ballad called “In a Crowd of Thousands.” I found myself wishing Anya were a little more confident and effervescent, however, to stand out– after all, role models on stage for young girls are hard to come by.

Peil lights up the stage and gives excellent emotional depth to the relatively minor role. We sense her dignity as an empress, her frustrations as a mother, her love for her family and her depression when she wearies of being presented with women making false claims to be Anastasia.

With some tweaking, this beautiful-to-look-at story will provide another hot ticket for young girls who are looking for new characters in which to see themselves besides Wicked’s  Elphaba and Glinda and will have people on Broadway saying a “tsar” is born.

Anastasia animates at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford, through June 19. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday, 8 pm; Saturday and Sunday at 2 om; Wednesday matinee 2 pm June 1. Weekly schedules vary. Tickets are limited with some shows sold out. Prices: $20-$115: www.hartfordstage.org860- 527-5151.

Tickets also are available through TodayTix. Beginning 12 am every Monday morning, a mobile lottery will be available on the free mobile app for entries throughout the week until Saturday at noon. Winners will be notified at that time if they have won two $25 tickets to the Sunday matinee performance of Anastasia the following day. This exclusive TodayTix lottery price is discounted more than 75 percent. 

Additional Credits:
Hair and Wig Design by Charles G. LaPointe, Lighting Design by Donald Holder; Sound Design by Peter Hylenski, Music Direction by Thomas Murray, Associate Music Direction by Steven Malone, Orchestrations by Doug Besterman, Vocal and Text Coaching by Claudia Hill-Sparks; Fight Choreography by Jeff Barry, Vocal Arrangements by Stephen Flaherty; Dance Music Arrangements by David Chase.

Additional casting:

Lauren Blackman…. Isadora Duncan

James Brown III…. Hotel Manager

Max Clayton…. Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake

Janet Dickinson…. Coco Chanel

Constantine Germanacos…. Count Ipolitov

Rayanne Gonzales…. Gertrude Stein

Ken Krugman…. Pablo Picasso, Gorlinksy

Kevin Ligon…. Ernest Hemingway, Count Leopold

Alida Michal…. Marfa, Odette in Swan Lake

Shina Ann Morris…. Tatyana

Kevin Munhall…. Russian Doorman

Molly Rushing…. Anna

Johnny Stellard…. Django Reinhardt, Von Rothbart in Swan Lake

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Theater Review: Dirty Dancing -- The Bushnell

Dirty Dancing. Photo Matthew Murray
Audience Has Time of Their Life Even if We Don’t Really Get Why
By Lauren Yarger
Let me begin by telling you that the audience at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts absolutely loved the stage version of the hot 1987 film “Dirty Dancing” starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey.

They cheered and applauded, sometimes sang along and were having such a good time, they even laughed for no apparent reason. I put this information out there to balance the rest of this review, which reflects my reaction to this musical, which pretty much matches the response I had to the film by Eleanor Bergstein, who also writes the book for this musical: “what is everyone so excited about?”

The highlight of the movie, and also of the stage musical, is the dancing (Choreography is by Michele Lynch based on the original choreography by Kate Champion.) The story, however, leaves a lot to be desired. Like a cohesive plot with more than a culminating dance, for starters.

Set at a Catskill Mountain resort (a large shutter-type backdrop designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis completed with cheesy video projections (designed by Jon Driscoll) and sound effects (designed by Bobby Aitken), the plot focuses on the Houseman family, spending the summer enjoying exciting activities like golf, swimming and dance lessons taught by sexy Johnny Castle (Christopher Tierney in the Swayze role).

All is not as wholesome and pure as it is supposed to be in 1963, however (Jennifer Irwin designs colorful period costumes that lend themselves to dancing). Tension snaps between Dr. Jake Houseman (Mark Elliot Wilson) and his wife, Marjorie (Margot White), though we are not exactly sure why. We get the impression Dr. Houseman might have cheated. Their daughters, Lisa (Alex Scolari) and Frances “Baby” Houseman (Rachel Boone, complete with a curly-Grey coif designed by Bernie Ardia), are bored and looking for love in all the wrong places, Lisa with womanizing waiter Robby Gould (Evan Alexander Smith) and Baby with wrong-side-of-the-tracks Johnny.

Johnny and the hotel workers see to the need of the wealthy resort guests by day, where Johnny gives traditional dance classes (and a bit of loving for money on the side). By night they hold their own “dirty dancing” sessions in the staff lodgings and Baby longs to join in.

When Johnny’s regular dance partner, Penny (very talented dancer Jenny Winton), find herself pregnant after succumbing to Robby’s charms, Baby borrows money from her father to finance an illegal abortion for the girl then learns her dance steps so Johnny can keep a dancing gig.
When Penny suffers complications, Baby asks her doctor father to help, but when he assumes Johnny is the culprit, he forbids his daughter to see him again. Baby also has a rift with her sister which prevents her from warning her about Robby’s darker side.

Meanwhile, Neal Kellerman (Jesse Carrey-Beaver), the nerdy grandson of the resort’s owner, Max (Gary Lynch), has his eyes on Baby and gets rid of Johnny, but not before he can dance back into the room declaring “Nobody puts baby in a corner” and wowing everyone at the vacation spot –as well as at the Bushnell --, with the sexy dance routine they have been practicing on the sly.

When Baby finally is able to make the leap that has eluded her so far, the audience burst into shouts and applause, even more enthusiastically than they did when Johnny and Baby shared their first sexual encounter (is that really something we want to be cheering?).

I couldn’t get into this story any more than I could when I watched the film (Eleanor Bergstein, who wrote the screenplay for the 1987 movie also writes the book for this stage version). This musical, in particular, seems to be all about getting to the point where the couple can dance to the hit tune “(I've Had) The Time Of My Life." Let’s just save ourselves a lot of unnecessary scenes -- there really are a few that had me scratching my head as to why they were included, and the character of Mrs. Houseman is so confusing that she could be eliminated entirely – and cut this almost two-and-a-half thing down to size.

There are a couple of other popular songs too, like "Hungry Eyes” and "Do You Love Me?" as well as a couple of tunes by the Drifters and Marvin Gaye which weren’t in the movie. An eight-person band plays on stage, directed by Alan Plado. Music Supervision and Orchestrations are by Conrad Helfrich.

Most of the vocals are adequate with Adrienne Walker standing out as a lead singer for some of the numbers. The real star here, though, is Lynch’s choreography with exciting dancing by Winton, Tierney and Boone. Herman Petras also gets a few laughs as Mr. Schumacher, a misbehaving resort guest. The set projections, particularly images of ocean waves in which Johnny and Baby splash and swim without getting wet, draw laughs as well. So did a set change, but why the audience found it funny, another critic colleague whom I consulted and I, were unable to discern.


But I digress. The opening-night audience loved it, and they aren’t alone. The show has been a hit since it began as an eight-week staged workshop in Manhattan in 2001.  A successful international tour followed and the show most recently launched new tours in the UK, Germany and Italy and in 2014 returned to Australia in honor of the stage production’s 10th anniversary. So go enjoy the time of your life like everyone else apparently has been doing. Then drop me a line and tell me what I was missing.

Dirty Dancing plays at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts through May 29. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday: 8 pm; Saturday at 2 pm; Sunday 1 and 6:30 pm Tickets $36.50-$105.50: (860) 987-5900; www.bushnell.org. If you miss it in Hartford, you can catch the show this fall when it plays a limited run at the Palace in Waterbury  Oct. 7-9.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Theater Review: The Call -- TheaterWorks

Michael Rogers and Mary Bacon. Photo: Larry Nagler
Is Anyone Ever Ready When They Get the Call to Parenthood?
By Lauren Yarger
Questions of race and motive come into play as a white couple seeks to adopt an African-American girl in Tanya Barfield’s thought-provoking play, The Call, getting a run directed by Jenn Thompson at TheaterWorks.

Annie (Mary Bacon) and Peter (Todd Gearhart) have ended years of trying to have a baby and numerous miscarriages with a decision to adopt. That decision prompts some intriguing  questions about whether the white couple know what they are getting into. Annie’s African-American best friend Rebecca (Jasmin Walker) offers to help do the child’s hari, for example, but her new spouse, Drea (
Maechi Aharanwa) has some harder questions like will the girls mother ever really understand what it feels like to be a black woman?

And the questions don’t stop there. Why look to Africa to adopt? Aren’t there a lot of children in the US who need homes? And why does their neighbor, Alemu (Michael Rogers) keep insisting that the couple take syringes, soccer balls and used shoes with them when they go to his homeland to adopt?

Annie and Peter have some hard questions for themselves when they finally get “the call” from the adoption agency saying a child is available for them to adopt. Are they willing to put aside their dreams of adopting a baby and take an older child – one whose health might not be perfect?  Are they ready to make this commitment jut when Annie’s artistic career seems ready to take off?

The drama plays out in Annie and Peter’s apartment and a dog park with a few props and sliding panels designed by Luke Hegel-Cantarella to make easy transitions between scenes. Thompson’s taut direction, with attention to detail, transforms the play into an emotional power house. There is a lot more going on here than just the question of adopting or adopting across cultures. Annie’s mental state is questionable. The fertility treatments and their failure have taken their toll and we wonder whether she is ready to be a mother to anyone at this point. Conversation and body language indicate that Peter questions just how solid their marriage is.

There also is baggage from Peter’s days in Africa with Rebecca’s brother, David, who later died of pneumonia complications brought on by malaria. Why won’t Peter ever talk about David or answer questions for Rebecca?

The couples sit around drinking wine, sharing gourmet food in their comfortable apartment while solving the world’s problems. The significance that Annie and Peter can’t even figure out how to solve their own issues, or comfortably relate to their African neighbor, is not lost. And despite their close friendship with Rebecca and Drea, just one word can suddenly spark race issues and tension takes center stage. Barfield’s script raises a lot of issues in a natural way while handling exposition extremely well so we don’t get bogged down in how all the characters met and came to know each other.

Characters are multi-layered (Costume Designer Tracy Christensen dresses them) and are strongly portrayed, with Aharanwa getting laughs with Drea’s plain-spoken dialogue.

It’s a strong ensemble and a brisk 90 minutes including intermission.


Answer The Call through June 19 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays: 7:30 pm; Fridays and Saturdays: 8 pm; Saturday and Sunday Matinees at 2:30 pm. Tickets $15-$65; (860) 527-7838; www.theaterworkshartford.org

Additional credits:
Lighting Design by Rob Denton, Sound Design by Toby Algya. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Theater Review: My Paris -- Long Wharf

The cast of My Paris. Photo: T. Charles Erickson
Aznavour’s Musical about Toulouse-Lautrec is Très Bon 
By Lauren Yarger
Bienvenue to the seedy world of late 19th-century Paris, where painter Toulouse-Lautrec and the Moulin Rouge come to life on the canvas of the stage at Long Wharf Theatre.

My Paris features a score and lyrics by the legendary Charles Aznavour, who has written more than 1,000 songs (you probably know a lot of them) and sold almost 200 million records since beginning his career in 1933. He gets a hand from American theater legend Jason Robert Brown (The Last Five Years, The Bridges of Madison County, Parade, 13, Honeymoon in Vegas and Songs for a New World) who writes the English lyrics and provides musical adaptions for the show’s 18 tunes.

If that isn’t enough to get you saying “Oui, Oui,” how about throwing in Pulitzer-Prize winner Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy, The Robber Bridegroom) as the book writer? And that’s not all this show has going for it. Kathleen Marshall (Nice Work If You Can Get It, Anything Goes among others) directs and choreographs. You heard it here first: it will be no surprise if this show, which originated at Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theater last summer, finds its way to another city of lights on a Broadway stage.

Set Designer Derek McLane uses big brush strokes to wrap us in the shabby, gilded hall, where projections designed by Olivia Sebesky bring the Moulin Rouge to colorful life. So do the four musicians (Directed by David Gardos), playing on upper levels of the platforms separating the stage where tables and chairs create the nightclub setting. Those platforms also serve another purpose: they allow Marshall to strategically place the characters to help create the illusion of Toulouse-Lautrec’s small size. Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec is known for deformities in his legs that left him just 4 feet, 8 inches tall -- much shorter than actor Bobby Steggert, who plays the painter.

He was nobility – born to Alphonse (Tom Hewitt), a count who struggles with a boy who can’t ride to the hunt like a man, and Adele (Donna English), an overprotective mother who follows her son to Paris when he decides to try to make it on his own as a painter. He finds acceptance in Paris among friends who introduce him to slummy nightclubs in the Montmarte section of Paris. He finds a niche painting the nightlife there and of people like comedian and club owner Aristide Bruant (a saucy Jamie Jackson) and the girls who dance the can-can.

He even finds some romance with Suzanne Valadon (an excellent Mara Davi who is in wonderful voice), a mysterious woman with painting talent of her own who poses for Toulouse-Lautrec. But the Green Fairy (Erica Sweany) – alcohol – calls to him as a way to drown out his pain and disappointments.

In Uhry’s expert hands, the story plays out like a painting of the artist’s life rather than a biographical recounting of it. Marshall guides the actors in subtle movement and choreography to Aznavour’s enchanting tunes. It’s an emotional two hours during which the painter’s portrait comes to life and we find ourselves in old Paris soaking in the atmosphere and admiring Designer Paul Tazewell’s richly elegant, detailed period costumes.

The show has got a lot of potential and could be a contender for a spot on the Great White Way (and we can only smile to think of the choreography that will be possible on a larger stage). Here are some suggestions I think would make that smoother transition:
  • Tighten the book a bit. Even at just two hours and 10 minutes, it drags a few times and the reasons behind the end of Suzanne and Toulouse-Toulouse-Lautrec’s romance aren’t clear.
  • Recast Toulouse-Lautrec. Though Steggert is a seasoned performer on Broadway (and in fact originated the role at the Norma Terris), he is miscast here. We need a more mature, less attractive looking guy in the role to be able to sympathize more. Steggert appears to exude no emotion or passion (especially in a scene where he tries to forget his disappointments with Suzanne by turning to the prostitutes in the clubs) and isn’t believable.
  • Get rid of the creepy puppet wheeled around to depict Toulouse-Lautrec as an invalid boy. While the thought has merit when Toulouse-Lautrec refers to himself as a person with a marionette’s legs, the effect is to invoke laughter while the little puppet voice is supplied by another actor instead of sympathy for the character. A real, live boy in that chair will have greater impact.
My Paris runs on the main stage at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven through May 29. Performances are ; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8 pm; Matinees Wednesday and Sunday at 2 pm, Saturdays at 3 pm. Tickets $25 to $85
 (203) 787-4282; www.longwharf.org.

Full Casting:
Darius Barnes…. Le Chocolat/Ensemble

Mara Davi…. Suzanne Valadon

Donna English…. Maman (Adele)

Josh Grisetti…. Rachou/Doctor/Ensemble

Anne Horak…. May Milton/Ensemble

Thomas Hewitt…. Papa (Alphonse)

Timothy Hughes…. Valentin/Ensemble

Jamie Jackson…. Aristide Bruant/Bonnat/Ensemble

Nikka Graff Lanzarone…. La Gouloue/Ensemble

Tiffany Mann…. Cha-U-Ka-O/ Little Henri/Ensemble

Kate Marilley…. Yvette Guilbert/Ensemble

Andrew Mueller…. Anquentin, Ensemble

John Riddle…. Grenier/Ensemble

Bobby Steggert…. Henri de Toulouse-Toulouse-Lautrec-Toulouse-Lautrec

Erica Sweany…. Jane Avril, The Green Fairy, Ensemble

Additional credits:
Associate Direction/Associate Choreography by David Eggers, Lighting Design by Don Holder, Sound Design by Brian Ronan

Additional note: I didn't mention a missed catch of a prop from the stage to a stagehand waiting in the aisle which resulted in the cane flying into the audience. Another critic reported that the same thing happened at another performance where she was struck by the cane. Maybe a rethink of that part of the choreograph is needed?

Theater Review: Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks

Valerie Stack Dodge and Michael Iannucci. Photo: Anne Hudson
Waltzing Through the Complexities of Life, Friendship
By Lauren Yarger
An unlikely love story dances across the stage as an older woman and a younger, gay dance instructor discover the music of friendship together in Richard Alfieri’s Six Dance  Lessons in Six Weeks at Ivoryton Playhouse.

Friendship is a melody neither of them really expected to enjoy again. Lily Harrison (Valerie Stack Dodge) has withdrawn from society and keeps to herself in a retirement community in Florida where she seems to have only one friend – an Alzheimer’s-stricken neighbor downstairs whom she sees on occasional outings. She further shields herself by pretending that her husband is still alive to deter anyone who might try to take advantage of a widow on her own.

Enter Michael Minetti (Michael Iannucci), hired by Lily to give her six private dance lessons in six weeks. They get off on the wrong foot -- their antagonism is palpable – and Lily almost fires Michael before the first dance step. A second chance paves the way for a relationship that surprises them both.

While foxtrotting, waltzing and doing the tango around Lily’s living room (designed by William Russell Stark), they reveal more about themselves, their insecurities and lies they have told. Lisa Bebey designs an assortment of costumes for each of the routines choreographed by Apollo Smile.

One of the biggest hurdles is for Michael to trust Lily – a teacher and Baptist minister’s wife—in the face of prejudice against gays. Their losses – Michael has lost his partner and his mother, Lily has lost her husband and a daughter – unite them as they master the steps of a deep and abiding friendship.

The play, which clocks in a just over two hours with an intermission, is a delightful spin around tough subject matters, the things that really get in the way of being able to enjoy being with other people and the joy that is possible when leading and following results in Fred-and-Ginger-like perfection.

There are many “ah-ha” moments where the characters express truths of life – even if they don’t sound like true phrases people say in conversation. The actual dancing seems a bit stiff and we don’t really buy Iannucci as a former Broadway chorus dancer-turned instructor. But  the bond between the characters is genuine, thanks to the strong performances from the actors and their good rapport (though Dodge’s wig, designed by Mark Adam Pampmeyer, doesn’t make her look anywhere near 72…). Scene changes unfortunately interrupt the mood as we have to wait for a stage manager to reset props (it would have been smoother to have the actors gather props while exiting.)


It’s a gentle story that makes you smile and believe in humanity again. A 2014 film adaptation of the story starred Gena Rowlands and Cheyenne Jackson, but I have never seen it performed since it made its Broadway debut in 2003. I’m glad the Playhouse has rediscovered it.

Six Dances in Six Weeks actually doesn't play that long -- just until May 22, at the Playhouse, 103 Main St., Ivoryton, so catch it while you can. Performances are Wednesday and Sunday at 2 pm; Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm.Tickets are $44 for adults; $39 for seniors; $22 for students and $17 for children. (860) 767-7318; www.ivorytonplayhouse.org;

Monday, May 9, 2016

Theater Review: Happy Days -- Yale Repertory

Dianne Wiest in Happy Days. Photo © Joan Marcus, 2016.
Happy Days Again at Yale with Rock-Solid Turn by Dianne Wiest
By Lauren Yarger
Two-time Academy Award winner Dianne Wiest returns to Yale Repertory to give a rock-solid performance in Samuel Beckett’s tour-de-force for an actress, Happy Days, directed by James Bundy.

On this rock mound (massively created by Scenic Designer Izmir Ickbal), everything is far from happy. Winnie (Wiest) is buried up to her waist in the rocks, with only a bag with some items within arm’s reach. Her husband, Willie (Jarlath Conroy) is living in a hole somewhere behind her. He never really talks to her. On occasion, he completes the arduous task of crawling up the rocks to see her.

Somehow, as Winnie tries to read the writing printed on her toothbrush and chatters on about everything and nothing, she expects this to be a happy day, despite the feeling that she is about to be sucked down into the earth. Mostly, she just doesn’t want to be alone. Perhaps the sound of her own voice brings her comfort and lets her forget the truth that her husband seems perfectly content to sit with his back to her, ignoring her while he reads the paper.

“That is what I find so wonderful, that not a day goes by --to speak in the old style -- hardly a day, without some addition to one’s knowledge however trifling, the addition I mean, provided one takes the pains. And if for some strange reason no further pains are possible, why then just close the eyes and wait for the day to come.”

Whatever the reason, Winnie speaks about the little things in life, the beauty in them and gives a portrait of the indomitable human spirit in the two-act (which would play better in a trimmed 80-minute show without the interruption of an intermission). Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting defines moments.

Buried up to her waist, or later to her neck on the barren lump of sand-colored rock offering only a few springs of plant life, Wiest never lets your mind wander, even if you don’t completely understand what is taking place.

“Well anyway—this man Shower—or Cooker—no matter—and the woman—hand in hand—in the other hands bags—kind of big brown grips—standing there gaping at me—and at last this man Shower—or Cooker—ends in er anyway—stake my life on that—What’s she doing? he says—What’s the idea? he says—stuck up to her diddies in the bleeding ground—coarse fellow—What does it mean? he says—What’s it meant to mean?”

What does it mean, indeed? I’ll let you decide, but don’t miss Wiest’s rock-solid performance. She returns to Yale where she appeared in Hedda Gabler and A Doll House. Her Academy Awards were for the films “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Bullets Over Broadway.” Conroy, whose subtle performance allows Wiest to shine at the top of the pile, also is returning to Yale where he appeared in Hamlet in 2013.

Happy Days runs through May 21 at Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel St., New Haven. Performance times vary. Tickets $20–99: www.yalerep.org; (203) 432-1234. Student, senior, and group rates are available.

Audio Described Performance Saturday, May 14 at 2 pm (talk back follows). The performance Saturday, May 21 at 2 pm will be open captioned.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Connecticut Arts Connections

HARTFORD STAGE

Darko Tresnjak, Artistic Director of Hartford Stage, will lead a discussion with Jack Viertel, Artistic Director of New York City Center Encores! and Senior Vice President of Jujamcyn Theaters, at Hartford Stage on Monday, May 16 at 7:30 p.m. Viertel will talk about his career and book, The Secret Life of the American Musical, which will be available for sale at the event.

Viertel is senior vice president of Jujamcyn Theaters, which owns and operates five Broadway theaters. He is also the artistic director of New York City Center's Encores! series, which presents three lesser-known musicals in concert productions every season. 

Viertel spent two years as dramaturg of the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles; and from 1980 to 1985, he was the drama critic and arts editor of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. He was the original conceiver of the Broadway shows Smokey Joe's Cafe and After Midnight; and he helped shepherd six of August Wilson's plays to Broadway, as well as Tony Kushner's Angels in America, the original production of Into the Woods, City of Angels, Jelly's Last Jam and Hairspray. He is an adjunct professor at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, teaching musical theater structure, and began his career playing national steel-body guitar behind Bonnie Raitt, Son House and the Pointer Sisters.

Viertel’s discussion is free to the public, but registration is strongly encouraged. Visit https://hartfordstage.formstack.com/forms/rsvp_jack to register online. For additional information, contact the Hartford Stage Box Office at 860-527-5151.


THE KATE

The Yale Whiffenpoofs, the world's oldest and best-known collegiate a cappella group, will perform at the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center, 300 Main St., Old Saybrook, 3 pm May 1. Tickets are $32. For more information, call 877-503-1286 or visit katharinehepburntheater.org.

Kate Classic Film: On Golden Pond --  Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn star in one of the 1980's most honored and cherished films, On Golden Pond, shown at the Kate 7 pm May 12. Tickets are free in honor of Kate’s 109th Birthday. For more information, call 877-503-1286 or visit katharinehepburntheater.org.

MARK TWAIN HOUSE

Do people say you look like Albert Einstein? And do you counter with, “No! I look like Mark Twain!” If so, you’re a great candidate for The Great Mark Twain Look-Alike Contest to be held in Mark Twain’s hometown of Hartford.

You can show up with a wig or without, with a real mustache or fake, in a white suit, ivory suit, or birthday suit (just kidding – you need clothes!), strut on the stage, deliver one Mark Twain quote (verified! – not attributed!), and a panel of distinctive, ornery, and un-bribable judges will determine whether YOU are the winner of The Great Mark Twain Look-Alike Contest! Yes, there will be prizes!

FIRST PRIZE: Bragging Rights, Lifetime Membership at The Mark Twain House & Museum,
and a $100 Gift Certificate to spend in the Museum Store!

SECOND PRIZE: Free One-year Membership at The Mark Twain House & Museum
and a $50 Gift Certificate for the Museum Store!

THIRD PRIZE: Two free passes to tour The Mark Twain House and a $25 Gift Certificate!

ALL CONTESTANTS receive a “GREAT MARK TWAIN LOOK-ALIKE” T-shirt
and one free pass to tour The Mark Twain House! (You can even purchase extra shirts if one just isn't enough!)

Entry fee: $25 (to keep out the riff-raff)

Contestants must register online at http://tinyurl.com/ha7ggha by Sept. 1, 2016.

NOTE: This event is part of Downtown Hartford's 5th Annual EnvisionFest. The contest will take place at 2 pm on Main Street. The stage will be set up across from the Travelers building.

CT Forum Presents Evening With Artists

Creative Artists

An evening with storytellers, creators and entertainers

Fri. May 13, 2016
8 PM at The Bushnell

Doors open at 6:30PM for a
Creative Artists Showcase
A live, unscripted conversation with creative artists who will share their work, their process, and their spark for creative inspiration.
Featuring Grammy Award-winning musician and producer Nile RodgersElizabeth Gilbert, bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, and renowned choreographer and dancer Bill T. Jones.








All Forums LIVE at The Bushnell. VIP ticket packages available.
Click here for tickets or call 860.509.0909.
Subscribe today for our 2016-2017 25th Anniversary Season!
Nile RodgersElizabeth GilbertBill T Jones
Nile Rodgers
Grammy Award-winning 
musician and producer
Elizabeth Gilbert
Bestselling author of Eat,Pray, Loveand Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear
Bill T. Jones
Award-winning choreographer and dancer
Moderated by Alison Stewart.

For tickets, click here.

Red, Art in Rep Open Westport's Season

Benton Green and John Skelley in Art. Photo: Carol Rosegg
“Where do you see art in your world” is a question that Westport Country Playhouse is asking as the theater presents a series of “Art Is Everywhere” events and exhibits around the 2016 Season opening productions of Art and Red, two Tony Award-winning plays performed in repertory (alternating daily) through May 29.

To celebrate Red, and the play’s subject, Mark Rothko, The Glass House will present a selection of photographs featuring the interiors of architect Philip Johnson's celebrated Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building as well as his iconic Glass House in New Canaan. Rothko and Johnson were long-time collaborators and friends who worked together on many projects including the Four Seasons murals and the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. The display will be in the Playhouse lobby.

Also in the lobby will be the finished canvas, entitled “What Do You See?,” from a community-created art project that drew a number of participants at the 2016 Season Kick-off Block Party in early April.

To further enhance the audience’s appreciation of the plays, local art historian Fiona Garland will host a post-show discussion on “The Art of ‘Art’” May 18. Patrons will have the opportunity to learn more about the play and answer questions, such as: What are these all-white paintings about? Is Antrios a real artist or is he based on someone else? What constitutes art anyway?

Pre-show discussions on “The Art of ‘Red’” are scheduled with Garland on May 11 and 25, at 7:15 pm in the Playhouse’s Smilow Lounge. The talks will give context to Red, while exploring some of the great works and artistic movements mentioned throughout the play, including who and what influence artists, as well as some of the great works and artistic movements mentioned throughout the play.

About the plays:

Art by Yasmina Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton, and Red by John Logan, are directed by Mark Lamos, Playhouse artistic director. The plays are staged in repertory to connect and intensify their similar themes. Each play alternates daily.

In Art,  a novice art collector proudly shows off a newly acquired painting to his friends. The painting is expensive and completely white. He imagines they will stand in awe, but they have a slightly different point of view.

In the drama Red the famous abstract expressionist Mark Rothko paints; his assistant runs the errands; each knows his place in the world. But when the artist asks his protégée, “What do you see,” it rearranges everything.

Art will be performed on the even-numbered days of May; Red on the odd-numbered days. Performance schedule is Tuesday at 7 pm., Wednesday at 2 and 8pm, Thursday and Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 3 and 8pm and Sunday at 3 pm. Tickets start at $30:  www.westportplayhouse.org; 203-227-4177, toll-free at 1-888-927-7529.
Patrick Andrews and Stephen Rowe in Red. Photo: CarolRosegg

Legally Blonde Closes Out Seven Angels Season

Legally Blonde will close out the 25th anniversary season at Seven Angels Theatre, Waterbury.

With music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin and book by Heather Hach, Legally Blonde is based on the novel by Amanda Brown and the 2001 film starring Reese Withserspoon. The show runs May 12 through June 19. (No performances Memorial Day weekend).

Elle Woods is a sorority girl who enrolls at Harvard Law School to win back her ex-boyfriend. She discovers how her knowledge of the law can help others, and successfully defends an exercise queen in a murder trial. Throughout the show, no one has faith in Elle because of her "blonde" personality, but she manages to surprise them when she defies expectations while staying true to herself proving that pink can save the day.

Performances are Thursday through Sunday at 8 pm (check schedule for matinees). Tickets range from $38 to $54 depending on day or night of the performance. Doors and the Devil’s Corner Bar open one hour before curtain. See website for special food and drink nights and matinees.  For tickets or details about the show: 203-757-4676, sevenangelstheatre.org.

Special pricing for Thursday, May 19 performance. Help Support Bravo Waterbury. $48 tickets for only $40. See the Bravo Performance at 6 pm and Legally Blonde at 8 pm. Plus, with your ticket get 1 slice of Pizza and 1 free beer. 
C O N N E C T I C U T
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C O N N E C T I O N

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
run.

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.

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