Monday, July 28, 2014

Support Free Programs at Mark Twain House

...a good and wholesome thing is a little harmless fun in this world; it tones a body up and keeps him human and prevents him from souring.
- Mark Twain, "Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc"   

As many of you know, Free Programs at The Mark Twain House & Museum have become a staple of our community offerings, serving thousands of people from age 0 to 100 each year. These programs include our Trouble Begins monthly lecture series, family-friendly community events (such as Tom Sawyer Day and our Ice Cream Social), performances, lectures, and more.What you may not know is that while these programs are free to you and your neighbors, they still cost money to put on: keeping the lights on so we can see, ensuring the safety and good condition of our buildings, grounds and parking areas, maintaining and running the air conditioning or heat and more. While many of our performers, lecturers and guest artists generously donate or discount their fees, not all can and there are still other costs like travel and set-up that we incur. 

For a few years, these programs were funded by a local corporation, but we recently lost that funding support. We are working to secure a new sponsor for 2015 but still need to pay for this year's programs. We would never back out on a promise to our community, which is why we need YOUR help. We've started a GoFundMe campaign to try to raise the money we need to keep these quality fun, free and important programs going. Please visit our campaign page to learn more about these programs and give whatever you can to help us reach our goal!
If you would prefer to send us a check, please make it out to "The Mark Twain House & Museum" and put "Free Programs" in the memo line.
The Mark Twain House & Museum
351 Farmington Avenue
Hartford, CT 06105

Thank you in advance for your support! We hope to see you soon!

The lack of money is the root of all evil.
- More Maxims of Mark, Johnson, 1927


The Mark Twain House & Museum has restored the author's Hartford, Connecticut, home, where the author and his family lived from 1874 to 1891. Twain wrote his most important works there, includingAdventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.  In addition to providing tours of Twain's restored home, a National Historic Landmark, the institution offers activities and educational programs that illuminate Twain's literary legacy and provide information about his life and times. 
The house and museum at 351 Farmington Ave. are open Monday through Saturday, 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., and Sunday, 11:00 a.m.-5:30 p.m.  (Closed Tuesdays January through March.)  For more information, call 860-247-0998 or visit 
Programs at the Mark Twain House & Museum are made possible in part by support from the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, Office of the Arts, and the Greater Hartford Arts Council's United Arts Campaign..  

Friday, July 25, 2014

Kimber Lee is 2014-2015 Aetna New Voice Fellow at Hartford Stage

Kimber Lee will be the 2014-15 Aetna New Voices Fellow at Hartford Stage.
Kimber Lee’s brownsville song (b-side for tray), which premiered at the 2014 Humana Festival, will receive productions this year at Lincoln Center, Long Wharf Theatre, and Philadelphia Theatre Company.
Elizabeth Williamson, Director of New Play Development at Hartford Stage, said, “Kimber Lee’s brownsville song (b-side for tray) blew me away. Kimber has an uncanny ability to insinuate herself into the language and speech patterns of wildly divergent characters, and to bring them together in plays which, collage-like, let us see a larger picture of society through the carefully structured accretion of every-day moments and interactions.”
A season-long engagement, the Aetna New Voices Fellowship provides an artistic home for important playwrights of color to develop work and become involved in the ongoing life of Greater Hartford. The residency includes working with Hartford Stage’s Education Department, advancing community development, and the commissioning of a new play, as well as readings and workshops.
Janine Nabers (Annie Bosh is Missing) served as the 2013-14 Aetna New Voices Fellow. Hartford Stage produced the east coast premiere of Somewhere by 2012-13 Fellow Matthew Lopez in April, and will be premiering his Reverberation in 2014-15.Hartford Stage premiered Breath and Imagination by 2007-08 Fellow Daniel Beaty in 2013-14. Quiara Alegr Hudes, the 2008-09 Aetna New Voices Fellow, won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Water by the Spoonful, which also premiered at Hartford Stage.
This May Center Theatre Group presented the world premiere of Lee’s latest play,different words for the same thing. Her works, including fight and tokyo fish story, also have been presented by Lark Play Development Center, Page 73, Hedgebrook, Seven Devils, Bay Area Playwrights Festival, and Dramatists Guild Fellows Program.  She is a Lark Playwrights Workshop Fellow (2013-2014); member of Ma-Yi Writers Lab; and recipient of both the 2014 Ruby Prize and the 2013-14 PoNY Fellowship. Lee, who holds a MFA from the University of Texas at Austin, is currently under commission at Lincoln Center Theater/LCT3, South Coast Rep, Denver Center Theatre Company, and is presently developing work with the Lark at Vassar and the Magic Theatre in San Francisco.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Theater Review: Fiddler on the Roof -- Goodspeed

The cast of Fiddler on the Roof  featuring Adam Heller as Tevye. Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Balancing Tradition with Changes, Not Always Easy in Life or for a Beloved Production
By Lauren Yarger
Tradition! It is what keeps the Jews in the little Russian village of Anatevka around the turn of the 20th Century grounded and able to weather the turbulent changes taking place around them in society.

Tradition also is one of the things that keeps audiences coming back year after year to see Fiddler on the Roof , the Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick musical that has been playing Broadway revivals, anchoring community theater seasons and giving kids their first starring roles on high schools stages ever since it stormed the Tony Awards 50 years ago (there even is a movie adaptation).

So tweaking with the norm can be risky. We expect to see a Tevye like the one created by Zero Mostel (who became synonymous with the role), and the story (based on stories by Sholem Aleichem) told in pretty much the same way we have seen it in the other 50 productions we have seen. Director Rob Ruggiero changes the focus for the production running over at Goodspeed, which has been extended through Sept. 12. Some choices for this production succeed (particularly in the casting of the outstanding Heller, who brings depth and humor to create a Tevye all his own). Other changes are hard to embrace. Change is hard. It’s a delicate balance – for the Jews of Anatevka as well as for the show’s creative team.

The setting here, designed by Michael Schweikardt, is a stark, birch-tree backdrop with the fa├žade of a couple of dwellings on either side of the stage (one providing the roof for the fiddler, where I doubt a bunch of people seated house right could see him.) All of the scenes come to life with the aid of simple props and by taking the focus off elaborate sets, Ruggiero highlights the personal stories and relationships. We get insights into characters we have seen many times, but never knew as well before.

There’s dirt-poor, Tevye (Adam Heller) who ekes out a living as a milk man to support his wife, Golde (Lori Wilner) and their five daughters including Tzeitel (Barrie Kreinik) Hodel (Elizabeth DeRosa) and Chava (Jen Brissman). Clinging to his Jewish traditions gets tricky when Tzeitel want to marry for love. She begs for a chance at happiness and to marry whom she loves: poor tailor, Motel (David Perlman) rather than wealthy butcher Lazar (John Payonk), with whom her father has arranged a marriage, thanks in part to the meddling of matchmaker Yente (Cheryl Stern). That’s how things are done: matchmakers strike a bargain and the fathers decide. What is this new love factor, Tevye ponders?

When he gives in, it seems to set off a chain reaction of change, not unlike the one taking place around the village. Jews are being forced to leave their homes and villages in Imperial Russia. Hodel finds herself drawn to revolutionary Perchik (Abdiel Vivancos) who teaches about the evil of employers and urges the people to unite. They don’t ask Tevye for his permission to marry, but do want his blessing.

The last straw for Tevye is when Chava becomes involved with a non Jew, Fyedka (Timothy Hassler). That is breaking with tradition and faith too much.

The recap I just gave sounds much more serious than the tone I usually think of for Fiddler. That’s what bringing the focus to the people and their situations does. I came away thinking more about the relationships and struggles rather than the great songs like “Tradition,” “If I Were a Rich Man” and “Sunrise Sunset,” among others. Tevye and Golde’s “Do You Love Me” is particularly moving and sharply defined by the events which have taken place. The connection between Heller and Wilner is natural and informs the characters. We are so happy they find that after 25 years of an arranged marriage, they really do love each other.

So what other things work and which ones don’t in this production?

·         John Lassiter’s lighting helps define mood, character and setting and Alejo Vietti’s muted, simple costumes give us a sense of who the people are
·         Ruggiero’s placement of a live fiddler (Max Chucker) as a participant or observer in the scenes where traditions are celebrated is a stroke of genius. It’s a constant reminder of the theme.
·         Nice business in the background develops the sense of community
·         Joy Hermalynis terrific in the minor part of Fruma Sarah, Lazar’s dead wife whom Tevye conjures in a dream. Loved the costume with the huge pearls!
·         Curtis Schroeger’s superb singing voice stands out with a few solo lines
·         Goodspeed’s small stage is always a challenge and without multi levels to increase space, big musicals always look crowded on it. That’s the case here and odd hand and arm choreography by Parker Esse, possibly to create motion without actors having to move, looks out of place and is distracting.
·         Stern is miscast as the matchmaker. She doesn’t look the part (a black wig with a few gray curl doesn’t do it) and doesn’t have the timing or intonation on the jokes.
·         The seven-person orchestra (Music Direction by Michael O’Flaherty; Assistant Music Direction by F. Wade Russo) isn’t enough to carry this score. In addition, orchestrations by Dan DeLange sometimes stand out as annoying. “Far From the Home I Love” took focus off the song and put it on the music. A single instrument seemed to be playing a tune completely different from and competing with  the one the actress was singing.
·         There is no chemistry between the daughters and their romantic selections. During “Miracle of Miracles,” Motel was beaming, but Tzeitzel was looking just about as unhappy as she was about marrying Lazar.
·         The musical numbers are missing some oomph and the first act, though it clocked in at just over an hour, seemed very long.

When we focus on the people and relationships, the flaws become more noticeable under the magnifying glass. Shifting and changing is hard in the process, but often worthwhile in the end. Heller’s performance alone is worth a trip to see this production.

Fiddler plays through Sept. 12 at Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main St., East Haddam. Performances are  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 $27-$82.50  860 873-8668;

The full cast:
Adam Heller…. Tevye 
Lori Wilner…. Golde
Cheryl Stern…. Yente / Grandma Tzeitel
David Perlman…. Motel
Elizabeth DeRosa…. Hodel
Barrie Kreinik….  Tzeitel                                               
Jen Brissman…. Chava   
Timothy Hassler….  Fyedka
Abdiel Vivancos….  Perchik
John Payonk …. Lazar
Joy Del Valle …. Shprintze
Allegra Rosa…. Bielke
Max Chucker…. Fiddler
Michael J. Farina…. Mordcha
Joy Hermalyn….Fruma Sarah
Jeremy Lawrence….Rabbi
Darren Matthias….Constable
Curtis Schroeger…. Russian Solo
Charles South…. Mendel
Jesse Swimm…. Nacham
Eileen Tepper….Shandel
Matthew Amira, Will Burton, Jeanette Minson, Dereck D. Seay…. Ensemble

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Theater Review: Gypsy -- CT Repertory

Leslie Uggams. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Everything’s Coming Up for the History Books as Leslie Uggams Becomes First African-American to Play Gypsy’s Rose
By Lauren Yarger
History is being made over at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre on the UConn campus as Leslie Uggams becomes the first African-American actress to star as Rose in an Equity production with a mixed race cast for the musical Gypsy.

Uggams, a Tony and Emmy Award-winning star of the stage and screen for six decades , who perhaps is best known for her role as Kizzy in the TV mini-series “Roots,” is no stranger to playing great roles not typically associated with an African-American actress. She’s played Maria Callas, Reno Sweeney, Desiree Armfeldt and Dolly Levi.

So did director Vincent J. Cardinal set out to make history by casting her as Rose? Apparently not, according to publicity from the theater.

“This is a multi-racial production. We are a university community, and we cast our plays to represent the global community that we serve. Our cast includes Latino, African American, Pacific Islander and Caucasian actors. It is not about the historical accuracy of race in America at that time,” he explained.

Uggams also is a bit older than the typical Rose. She apparently had been considered for the national tour of the Broadway revival of the show that starred Bernadette Peters back in 2003.

“I’d always wanted to play Rose but assumed that I’d never be considered because she was based on a real person,” Uggams is quoted as saying. “That conversation with Arthur (Laurents, the book writer) got me thinking. If Rose’s creator didn’t have a problem with an African American actress playing her, then why should I? When this opportunity with CT Rep came about, I jumped at it!”

I give you all that information, rather than delving right into a review of the production, because it’s an important moment in theater history. And it’s happening right here in Connecticut. (You can see the show through July 20 as it closes out the Nutmeg Summer Series for CT Repertory Theatre.

Now for the review.

Uggams is a ball of energy and throws herself into the part, though she has a few struggles vocally (remember, this is a part some of Broadway’s biggest belting voices including Ethel Merman, Patti Lupone and Bernadette Peters once sang….). She conveys well the manipulative stage mother Mama Rose, who forces her daughters – and anyone else who comes into their paths – to perform some really awful shows in vaudeville. She claims she is doing it so her daughters can be stars, but she really is trying to realize her own dreams through them.

June (Alanna Suanders) has some talent and is the star. Not-as-pretty, and not-as-talented -- at least that is what Rose has her thinking -- Louise (Amandine Altomare) is always cast as a boy or in a cow costume in a ridiculaous farm act (there are a number of stuffed animal/puppet pets that make appearances). Rose hooks up with agent/lover Herbie (Scott Ripley) and the act tours across the country.

Initial success wanes, however, as the kids grow up and the act loses its appeal as vaudeville dies. When June leaves to follow her heart with fellow performer Tulsa (Luke Hamilton) and the rest of the boys seek paying jobs elsewhere, Rose turns her attentions to making Louise a star.

At the bottom of the barrel, they find themselves booked in a burlesque theater where a sudden opportunity transforms Louise into one of the most famous strippers of all time: Gypsy Rose Lee.

While most of the attention here has been on Uggams and the historic significance of the role she is playing, one performance might get overlooked, and that would be a shame, because it’s a showstopper.

Altomare is really good as Louise. She gives a nuanced, layered performance and brings to the stage a superb singing voice. Her solo “Little Lamb” was what haunted me long after – not the more famous numbers of “Let Me Entertain You,” Some People,” Together, Wherever We Go” or “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from the songwriting team of Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim. Kudos.

Also standing out in minor roles are Mackenzie Leigh Friedmann (as a crotchety audition monitor), Steven Hayes as Uncle Jocko, Dale AJ Rose as Mr. Goldstone and Ariana Shore, Cassandra Dupler -- and Friedmann again -- as the strippers who tell Louise “Ya Gotta Get a Gimmick.”

Some things I’d like to see tweaked: the book – it has some gaping holes – and the sound. There were pops and static all through the performance and at times volumes obscured lyrics.

But don’t let those things stop you from being a part of theater history. Gypsy’s songs are a treat and Uggams as Rose is the icing on the cake.

Here's the ensemble:
Leslie Uggams…. Rose
Michael James Leslie…. Pop
Scott Ripley…. Herbie
Alanna Saunders…. June
Amandina Altomare…. Louise
Luke Hamilton…. Tulsa
Dale AJ Rose…. Mr. Goldstone/Cigar
Steve Hayes…. Uncle Jocko/Kringelien
Brandon Beaver, Johnny Brantly III, Thomas Brazzle, Madison Coppola, Kristin Devine, Conor Donnally, Cassandra Dupler, Julia Estrada, Mackenzie Leigh Freidmann, Khetanya Henderson, James Jelkin, Sean Jones, Rebecca Mack, Coles Prince, Maria Sheehan, Kyle Schoeplein, Courtney Schoeplein, Annie Tolis, Gianna Yanelli and Madison Young…. Ensemble

Gypsy plays through July 20 at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre. Evening performances 7:30  Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays;  8 pm Fridays and Saturdays. Matinee performances 2 pm Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets: $10 to $43. (860) 486-2113;

Amandina Altomare (Louise) and Luke Hamilton (Tulsa) Photo Gerry Goodstein.

Theater Review: The Bikinis -- Long Wharf

Lori Hammel, Karyn Quackenbush, Regina Levert, Meghan Duffy in the Goodspeed productions of the show. Photo by Diane Sobolewski., courtesy Goodspeed Musicals
Just When You Thought Bikini Musicals Were a Thing of the Past...
By Lauren Yarger
As folks enjoy the sand and food from vendors along the Long Wharf Pier in New Haven these hot summer days, folks just a few steps away at Long Wharf Theatre are enjoying a musical beach party of their own.

The Bikinis are belting out some popular 1960s tunes in a musical on the mainstage (co-produced with Miracle or 2 Productions). The show, which got its start over at Goodspeed, is created and written by Ray Roderick and James Hindman. It tells the history (in a very loose plot) of a one-hit musical group known as The Bikinis who reunite in 1999 for a fundraiser to help keep the Sandy Shores Mobile Home Beach Resort in New Jersey from falling into the hands of a developer.

Sisters Annie (Valerie Fagan) and Jodi (Lori Hammel) grew up on the property, but don’t agree on whether they should keep their trailer or sell out. They and group members Barbara (Regina Levert) and Karla (Karyn Quackenbush) have lots of memories there. It’s where they got their start as a group.

Their history unfolds around the singing of some 35 hits like “Under the Boardwalk,” Where the Boys Are,” “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” “Dedicated to the One I Love,” When Will I Be Loved” and “I Will Survive” as the pop ‘60s turn into the peace-loving, anti-war and disco beats of the 70s. Some are lucky at love, others not so much. Will their reunion spark a new era for their friendship?

Musical Directors Don Pardo and Joseph Baker, who also does the arrangements and writes additional music and lyrics, hand out solos evenly so all four actresses get a chance to shine. There also is a very funny parody of the old Beach Blanket movies starring Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon with the actresses getting to play Elvis and an old Italian mobster among other roles. Audience members are pulled out for a turn at the twist too.

While the plot is really nothing more than a device to since the tunes, the theme here is light fun and the audience seemed to enjoy it (one woman a little too much so as she sang along with every song.) The volume is a bit loud on some numbers (Sound Design isn’t credited that I could find, so maybe that’s the problem).

The production is enhanced by a minimalist set offering two tent cabanas either side of a stage housing the four-member band behind the women and video projections above showing images. Also a hoot was the use of a fan to simulate ocean breeze for one number.

Overall it’s light fun, if a bit too long. I had pretty much had my fill by intermission. The two acts (50 and 45 minutes) would work better combined into one intermission-less, 75-minute presentation that left us wanting more.

The Bikinis throw their beach party through July 27 at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven. Performances are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Maitinees Wednesday and Sunday at 2 pm, Saturdays at 3. Through July 27. Tickets: $59.50. 203-787-4282;
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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 She
is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, CT Press Club's award winner of first place for web editing and second place in feature writing for the web in 2012.

She is a contributing editor for and is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Connecticut theater editor
for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web. Yarger is a book reviewer 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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