Monday, October 12, 2015

Theater Review: Third -- TheaterWorks

Kate Levy and Conor Hamill. Photo:
Prejudices Get Scrutinized Center Stage, and In Theater Seats
By Lauren Yarger
When’s the last time you admitted you could be wrong, or that you might have misjudged someone simply because they hold an opinion different from your own?

That’s the challenge presented by playwright Wendy Wasserstein in her thought-provoking play Third, kicking off the 30th anniversary season at TheaterWorks, Hartford. The themes and issues brought into the light are just a relevant as they were when the play first premiered in 2004 – perhaps even more so now as the nation seems increasingly polarized by political and religious thought.

Kate Levy (who won last season’s CT Critics Circle Outstanding Lead Actress Award for The Other Place) returns here as Laurie Jamseon, a liberal, women’s rights champion and pioneering professor at a small New England college. She dismisses one of her students, Woodson Bull III, as a super-privileged white male, whose political views get him labeled as a Republican, though he claims no official ties with the party.

More interested in his wrestling schedule and the sociological studies of athletes in pursuit of a sports-contract management career, Bull doesn’t fit in with the serious academic student Jameson feels should be admitted to the selective school, which not too long ago was only for women.

The professor labels him as shallow and suggests that he transfer to a different school. So when Bull turns in an insightful paper discussing a new take on the anger of King Lear, she accuses him of plagiarism, convinced he could never have come up with such a fresh and academic approach on the subject. Bull claims reverse prejudice – athletes like him are only admitted so they can be photographed for college propaganda to urge donors to give the college money. They aren’t taken seriously as academics, he claims, then goes on to defend his astonishing sociological study of Lear.

On the review board is Jameson’s best friend and co-women’s libber Professor Nancy Gordon (a terrific Andrea Gallo who gives a touching portrayal laced with humor), who is going through a second round of breast cancer treatment. Fighting for her life has given her some new perspective and Gordon challenges Jameson to rethink some of her long-held opinions and to embrace life.

Jameson begins to examine her life and discovers to her shock, that she might not always have been right about everything. She seems to have taken some missteps in her marriage, which is not as strong as she’d like to think, and daughter Emily (Olivia Hoffman) has no trouble telling her mother where she’s gone wrong – especially with regards to Third, the nickname by which Bull goes. She might even be able to repair her relationship with Gordon who is enjoying the third portion of her life to the fullest.

As she cares for her father, Jack (Edmond Genest) slipping ever more frequently into the memory loss of Alzheimer’s, Jameson struggles to hang on to “know what she knows.”

It’s a thought-provoking piece that challenges us to consider whether we are just as prejudiced and unwilling to change as the people we accuse of the same offense. What are the consequences of labeling people and dismissing them when don’t agree? If you’ve ever decided that supporters of Donald Trump or listeners of Rush Limbaugh shouldn’t be allowed to vote, perhaps you should head to the TheaterWorks Box Office….

Rob Ruggiero coaxes fully developed performances and assembles an able creative team to help tell the story: Michael Schweikhardt’s rotating set easily switches scenes and John Lasiter’s expert lighting adds focus and mood.  This is a favorite work by Wasserstein: She makes her points by developing interesting characters instead of creating stereotypes and gives them room to grow, which they do here through the solid performances, especially by Levy and Gallo.

Third runs through Nov. 8 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. Wednesday Matinees Oct. 15 and 21 at 11 am. Tickets $15-$65; 860-527-7838;

Additional offerings:
Talk Back Tuesdays
Free Student Matinee Oct. 17 at 2:30

Monday, October 5, 2015

Theater Review: Tuesdays With Morrie -- Playhouse on Park

Gannon McHale and Chris Richards. Photo:Meredith Atkinson
Gripping Life and Death Drama about . . . Well, Life and Death ...
By Lauren Yarger
The classroom was in a home in West Newton, MA. Class were every Tuesday and there wasn’t any homework. And the one and only student had already graduated from college.

These lessons were about life, and about death, as related by Mitch Albom in his book Tuesdays With Morrie.  He and Jeffrey Hatcher have combined to turn the book into a one-act stage adaptation, getting a fine production at Playhouse on Park.

Chris Richards stars as Mitch, who having discovered that his sociology and mentor at Brandeis University is dying of ALS (Lou Gerhig’s Disease), travels from his home in Detroit to pay a visit after not having kept in contact for 16 years. For Mitch, there is a sense of duty, a deire to pay his respects, and a nagging curiosity about death.

Morrie (Gannon McHale) is happy to see his former student, who has made quite a name for hiself as a sports reporter and columnist. The first visit is a bit awkward, as Mitch feels guilty about not having kept in touch with his “Coach,” but Morrie is overjoyed. The disease is progressing, but Morrie still feels he has a few things he can teach Mitch, who agrees to visit every Tuesday.

Armed with a tape recorder, the journalist comes each week with a list of questions, and what transpires is a lesson on what’s important in life and how to face death. Morrie wishes he had realized the importance of being with people he loved and telling them that he loved them. He hopes that Mitch, troubled with issues of intimacy in his marriage and struggling with the need to be successful in his career, will take his advice and find enjoyment in life.

Sasha Bratt directs the intimate two-hander which offers effective performances, particularly from McHale, who effectively portrays the devastating effects of the illness and Morrie’s struggle to maintain dignity while trying to live life to the fullest – at least as full as the disease will allow. Richards is a good foil as the uptight, scoffer who fears the love he has for Coach and allows himself to feel it. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house the night I saw it, so bring some tisues.

The action is played out, and told in some narration,  on a minimal set designed by Christopher Hoyt, effectively lighted by Aaron Hochheiser. Sound effects are added (Joel Abbott, design) to help take us out of the room and remind us of a world taking place outside the talks about life and death. Albom and Hatcher’s script is plied with humor throughout to keeo the topic from being too morose. 

Catch this slice of life . . . and death at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Rd, West Hartford  through Oct. 18. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets $22.50-$35; (860) 523-5900 x10. 

Additional events in conjunction with this run include:
• Tuesday Playdate Matinee Oct. 13 at 2 pm with all seats priced at $22.50
• Tuesdays With Morrie book club, meetings Oct. 6 and 18. Call the box office or visit the website to register. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Theater Review: Little Shop of Horrors -- Ivoryton

Laura Woyasz and Audrey. Photo: Roger U. Williams.
Seems We Never Get Tired of Hearing Audrey II Say, “Feed Me!”
By Lauren Yarger
Yes, there’s another production of Little Shop of Horrors you can enjoy, this one at Ivoryton Playhouse. I say “another” because it seems that there’s always a production of this Alan Menken/Howard Ashman musical playing somewhere every season.

The rock musical, based on the 1960 dark comedy film of the same name directed by Roger Corman and written by Charles Griffith, has been the darling of regional, community and student theaters since it premiered Off-Broadway in 1982.

It features, Audrey II, a human-flesh-eating, venus-fly-trap sort of plant puppet (designed by Martin P. Robinson), manipulated at Ivoryton by Austin Costello, a recent graduate of UConn’s recent UConn puppetry program, and a crowd-pleasing score from Menken (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin) that includes “Suddenly Seymour,” “Somewhere That’s Green” and “Skid Row.”

The book (also written by lyricist Ashman) tells the odd story of nerdy Seymour (Nicholas Park), who creates a hybrid plant that starts bringing attention to the Skid Row flower shop owned by Mr. Mushnik (David Conaway). He names the plant Audrey II, after shop co-worker Audrey (Laura Woyasz), who doesn’t realize at first that Seymour’s in love with her. She’s lived a hard life and doesn’t think she deserves a nice, sweet guy like Seymour. Instead, she continues in an abusive relationship with a sadistic dentist, Orin Srivello (Carson Higgins).

While Seymour’s fame -- and Audrey II’s size -- grow enormously, Seymour tries to hide  the secret to Audrey II’s success: the plant lives on human blood. “Feed Me!” the plant demands as it grows and sings (voiced here by Steve Sabol) while Seymour sacrifices first his own blood, then others’ to satiate Audrey II’s hunger.

You can try to read all kinds of philosophical themes into the plot about greed, the drive for fame and success or even concern for the environment, but take my advice and just sit back and enjoy that fabulous score (with orchestrations by Robert Merkin) featuring a really great trio of neighborhood girls (played by La’Nette Wallace, a vocal power house, Azarria White  and Denielle Marie Gray) who hang out by the shop and sing some terrific harmonies while wearing nifty costumes and excellent wigs (designed by Vickie Blake and Elizabeth Cipollina, respectively).

When they aren’t sitting on the steps or dancing out Apollo Smile’s campy choreography in front of the shop, the trio can be seen upstairs, next door to the shop through windows incorporated in Martin Scott Marchitto’s impressive, quick-changing set. Artistic Director Jacqueline Hubbard referred to some technical glitches with the set during previews, but everything seemed in perfect working order when I saw the show opening night. The sound mix (designed by Tate R. Burmeister) needs adjustment, however, as some of the vocals in group numbers are overwhelmed by the chorus. Vocals are arranged by Robert Billing.

Laughter proved that the audience members seemed to be taking my advice and were enjoying the show – many probably for the first time based on gasps heard when the larger Audrey II made its appearance or in response to other plot points that wouldn’t surprise a veteran like me who has seen the show numerous times. One woman near me chortled every time the dentist was on the stage. I was enjoying her as much as the show.

A disappointment from the veteran perspective, however: Director Larry Thelen, who helmed the recent La Cage Aux Folles and the really terrific production of Dreamgirls at Ivoryton, allows Woyasz and Higgins to take their characters too far. They go over the top when it’s unnecessary. We’re going to laugh when Audrey alludes to the classiness of her gaudy outfit (designed by Vickie Blake) and we’re going to cringe when Orin gets pleasure out of using a power drill on his own teeth. It doesn’t require extra effort by the actors to try to be funny. In addition, Thelen fails to coax dialogue from Conaway at anything but a constant yell. I’d say, relax everybody. You don’t have to work so hard.

Park, who starred last year in Ivoryton’s All Shook Up, turns in another engaging performance, this time nailing the nerdy Seymour. He seems to be enjoying himself, and we enjoy watching him.

Robert James Tomasulo directs the terrific-sounding, six-man band housed off-stage.

Little Shop of Horrors runs through Oct. 11 at Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., Ivoryton, CT. Performnces are Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm. Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm.  Tickets are $42 for adults, $37 for seniors, $20 for students and $15 for children. (860) 767-7318;

Theater Review: An Opening in Time -- Hartford Stage

Deborah Hedwall and Patrick Cear. Photo courtesy of Hartford Stage.
Going Home Again Doesn’t Always Work Out The Way You’d Hope . . .
By Lauren Yarger
Playwright Christopher Shinn’s latest play, An Opening in Time, getting its world premiere at Hartford Stage, is proof for both its author and its characters that going home again doesn’t always work out the way you’d hoped.

Shinn sets the play in his native Wethersfield, CT and for locals, there are street and city names as familiar as the historic, clapboard houses depicted in Antje Ellermann’s grey backdrop where this late-in-life romance takes place. The play itself, never seems to come together, however, and is plagued by scenery that so frequently appears from beneath the stage via trapdoors that we think it should be titled “An Opening in the Floor,” rather than “An Opening in Time.”

The idea is that the main characters, Anne and Ron (excellently portrayed by Deborah Hedwall and Patrick Clear) missed an opening in time 30 years ago when they could have been together and now, following Anne’s return to her small town roots following the death of her husband, they’ve got another opening for romance.

Ron and his buddy, Frank (Bill Christ) are regulars at the local Greek-owned diner, where Anetta (an engaging Kati Brazda), a surly Polish waitress with attitude slings spanakopita and coffee while they watch TV. One night, Ron spies Anne and they make plans to get together. She doesn’t seem to recall their last time together, however, before she left with her husband and son to start a new life on a farm. He is hurt, because that is when they declared their love for each other.

The couple gets together a few times, but nothing seems to work right. It’s fitting, because the play itself seems to be having a hard time getting comfortable. Once we discover the significance and complexity of the couple’s last meeting, it is implausible that Anne would forget it or that Ron would accept that she just didn’t remember. The misunderstandings that resulted in in the couple’s separation could be better explained.

Meanwhile, there is a side story involving Anne’s neighbors. The former teacher is drawn to George (Brandon Smalls), a teen living in the foster care of her new neighbor, and influenced by his older brother who has been in trouble with the law. The neighbor, uppity homophobe Kim (Molly Camp), undermines the friendship between George and Anne, especially when Anne is supportive of George’s desire to be known as a female named Corey.

After waiting and waiting for something to happen between Anne and Ron, it appears that her friendship with George might keep them apart, just as her concern for her son, Sam (Karl Miller) was a factor in keeping the couple apart 30 years ago. Nothing ever really seems to happen in the two acts lasting about an hour and 45 minutes.

There are some sparks in confrontations between Anne and Sam, who has been accused of inappropriate sexual contact with one of his students (another subplot that doesn’t take us anywhere), and between Anne and Ron over what really happened 30 years ago. There just isn’t enough here to hold our interest, however. It’s easy to get distracted, especially by the set pieces that keep popping in from below.

The diner counter, which factors in many scenes, should have been made part of the stationary set, like Anne’s kitchen, to eliminate the distraction. The sight of Ron and Frank seated at the counter as they ride the counter up from below repeatedly brings laughter from the audience. In its final appearance, the counter appears in a new spot with a booth taking its place, staging the diner from the rear instead of from the front perspective. It is sloppy and not well planned. Yes, we know Hartford Stage has trap doors now (along with a nifty new marquee), but they aren’t needed for every set change.

Add to that the fact that almost every scene involves the characters eating and we have more reason to be distracted. Anetta thuds down numerous dishes at the diner, Anne bakes a pie, Ron bakes cookies. Sam and Anne meet at a restaurant…. Scenes really can be – and should be -- structured around people doing things besides eating. I could almost make a case for the title of this one being “An Opening of the Mouth.”

Forgive me for being peevish, but I was expecting a more cohesive play from the Pulitzer Prize finalist for Dying City. Shinn also won a 2005 OBIE in Playwriting and a Guggenheim Fellowship in Playwriting. He was shortlisted for the London Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Play and has been nominated for an Olivier Award for Most Promising Playwright and the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Playwright. An Opening in Time has an interesting premise and some thought provoking themes about seizing opportunities and second chances, but they fail to come together and the play becomes a missed opportunity itself.

Director Butler, a founder and co-Artistic Director of The Debate Society, gives everything he can and coaxes fine performances, which are the saving grace of the production. Even Mike Keller, who plays the very small role of a police detective who investigates when someone breaks Anne’s windows, stands out with an effective performance. Hedwall and Clear achieve good rapport and enough depth to make their characters interesting people we would like to see get a second chance at love. We just don’t believe why they are still apart and give up caring while we wait for something to happen in between appearances of the scenery.

An Opening in Time plays through Oct. 11 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday evenings at 7:30 pm.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm; Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm.   Tickets $25-$95.  (860) 527-5151;

Monday, September 28, 2015

Connecticut Arts Connections

Carol Fred Thornley IV and Robert Hannon Davis. Photo: T. Charles Erickson
HARTFORD STAGE will host a sensory-friendly performance of its annual holiday classic, A Christmas Carol – A Ghost Story of Christmas on Tuesday, December 8, 2015 at 7:00 p.m.
Tickets for this special performance are 50 percent off regular ticket prices, starting at $18.50, and will go on sale Monday, September 28, 2015 at noon.
Hartford Stage was the first theatre in Connecticut to offer this type of performance for the community last year. Sensory-friendly performances are designed to create a theatre experience that is welcoming to all families of children with autism or other disabilities that create sensory sensitivities.
United Technologies is the exclusive Presenting Sponsor for A Christmas Carol. Additional funding to support the sensory-friendly performance is provided by the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving Grant – as recommended by The Right Track Fund, as well as a generous contribution from an anonymous donor. Hartford Stage also extends special thanks to Theatre Development Fund’s Autism Theatre Initiative for serving as an advisor (
The storyline and basic structure of A Christmas Carol will remain intact, but several important changes were implemented last year to help make the experience comforting and fun for those with sensory sensitivities. Overhead lights will remain lit but dimmed, and audience members are encouraged to move around during the performance as needed. There will also be a reduction in loud or jarring noises, flashing/strobe lights, and startling effects that are part of the production. Sensory support tools such as blankets, stress balls and ear plugs are offered to patrons, and a designated quiet area will be available. Trained staff and volunteers will be on hand throughout the performance to offer assistance.
To help prepare for their Hartford Stage visit, families can access free resource materials including a social story (a visual guide designed to detail the various social interactions, situations, and behaviors that occur during a visit to the theatre) and a comprehensive performance guide on the Hartford Stage website. These tools will help individuals with sensory sensitivities prepare to enjoy the play without any fear or uncertainty. A dedicated page on the Hartford Stage website is available to provide additional resources.
To purchase tickets for the sensory-friendly performance, call the Hartford Stage Box Office at 860-527-5151 or order online at The Hartford Stage production of A Christmas Carol is recommended for children ages 8 and older.

Christina Anderson is the 2015-16 Aetna New Voices Fellow at Hartford Stage. Anderson’s plays include The Ashes Under Gait CityGood Goods,Man in LoveBlacktop SkyHollow RootsHow to Catch Creation, and Drip. Her work has appeared at The Contemporary American Theatre Festival, Penumbra, Yale Rep, A.C.T., The Public Theatre, Crowded Fire, and other theatres across the country. Anderson received a BA from Brown University and an MFA from the Yale School of Drama’s Playwriting Program. She serves as an Assistant Professor of Playwriting at SUNY-Purchase College. Anderson has been recognized with two PoNY (Playwrights of New York) nominations, the Schwarzman Legacy Scholarship, two Susan Smith Blackburn nominations, the Lorraine Hansberry Award (American College Theatre Festival), and a Wasserstein Prize nomination. A 2011 Woursell Prize finalist (University of Vienna), Anderson has held the Lucille Lortel Fellowship at Brown University, the Van Lier Playwriting Fellowship with New Dramatists, and served as the 2011/12 Playwright-in-Residence at Magic Theatre (National New Play Network) and the 2011 National Playwrights’ Conference Residency at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre.

Photo courtesy of the Palace
THE PALACE THEATER in Waterbury is expanding its monthly tour program this October to offer patrons a full afternoon of classic architecture and classic theater.

In addition to selling $5.00 tickets for the venue’s monthly history tour on Saturday, Oct. 10 at 11a.m., the Box Office is also offering a special tour package that includes an orchestra ticket to the afternoon’s Webster Broadway Series matinee performance of the musical comedy classic 42ND STREET.

Following a guided tour of the theater, customers that purchased the tour package will enjoy light refreshments in the venue’s Poli Club lounge before attending the 2p.m. performance of 42ND STREET. Package price is $63.50 per person and must be paid in full one week before the tour date. Reservations for both the individual tour and tour package can be made online at www.palacetheaterctorg,by phone at 203-346-2000 or in person at the Box Office, 100 East Main St. in Waterbury.

Each Palace tour is approximately 90 minutes and is led by a team of engaging volunteers well-versed in the theater’s rich history, architectural design and entertaining anecdotal information. In addition to exploring the theater, Poli Club and lobby spaces, patrons will visit the star dressing rooms and view the venue’s backstage murals that were painted and signed by past performers and Broadway touring companies.

It is important to note that each walking tour covers five floors of history and architecture, including grand staircases from the 1920’s. While elevator access is available, guests with walking disabilities or health concerns are asked to inform the Box Office ahead of time, so that the tour guides can make the proper accommodations, or offer a modified program featuring a 30-minute tour of the main floor and a 60-minute visual presentation.

Cardboard Explosion by Brad Shur
THE BALLARD INSTITUTE AND MUSEUM OF PUPPETRY and the UConn Puppet Arts Program will present the 2015 UConn Fall Puppet Slam on Saturday, October 3 at 8:00 p.m. in UConn’s J. Louis von der Mehden Recital Hall. The UConn Fall Puppet Slam will feature short works by professional puppeteers, including Massachusetts-based puppeteers Brad Shur and Madison J. Cripps, as well as new works by talented students from UConn’s Puppet Arts Program. The UConn Fall Puppet Slam is supported by the Puppet Slam Network.

The Puppet Slam movement is a nation-wide flowering of short puppet productions for adult audiences, encouraged by the Puppet Slam Network created by Heather Henson and Marsian De Lellis. UConn Puppet Slams have been taking place since 2008, thanks to the generous support of the Network.

The UConn Fall Puppet Slam is free and open to the public; donations are greatly appreciated. The event will take place in the J. Louis von der Mehden Recital Hall located at 875 Coventry Rd, Storrs, CT. These performances are recommended for mature audiences. For more information, call the Ballard Institute at (860) 486-8580, visit, or email us at
Arthur Miller. Photo: Courtesy of WCP
WESTPORT COUNTRY PLAYHOUSE will present a community engagement initiative, “The Individual & American Society: Celebrating Arthur Miller at One Hundred,” through Oct. 26. The series of events, many of which are free-of-charge, will run concurrently with the Playhouse’s production of Miller’s Broken Glass, directed by Mark Lamos. The Tony Award-nominated play takes place at the time of Kristallnacht, The Night of Broken Glass, in Nazi Germany, as a Brooklyn Jewish couple’s marriage begins to shatter. Programming will include speakers, discussions, workshops, films, family events, and a month-long lobby exhibit, as well as events off-campus. The enrichment programs are designed to deepen the audience’s experience of the play.

A complete calendar of community engagement events with details, dates, times, and locations, is available on-line at, or a special brochure may be requested by calling 203-227-4177.

Event highlights include speaking engagements by Arthur Miller scholars Susan Abbotson, author of “The Critical Companion to Arthur Miller” and “The Student Companion to Arthur Miller,” and Stephen Marino, founding editor of “The Arthur Miller Journal,” on Sunday October 11, following the 3 p.m. performance of “Broken Glass”; Rita B. Gabis, author of “A Guest at the Shooter’s Banquet,” on Tuesday, October 13, noon, at Westport Library; World War II child survivor Aleena Rieger, author of “I Didn’t Tell Them Anything,” on Wednesday, October 14, 6:30 p.m., in WCP’s Sheffer Studio; and J.J. Goldberg, editor-at-large of “The Forward,” on Sunday, October 18, following the 3 p.m. performance.

In addition, there will be an Artistic Directors Forum, sharing personal insights into Miller’s work, with WCP’s Mark Lamos, Yale Repertory Theatre’s James Bundy, and O’Neill National Playwrights Conference’s Wendy Goldberg, on Monday, Oct. 19 at 7 pm at the Playhouse.

Film screenings of Miller’s works, followed by talkbacks, will include “Focus,” starring William H. Macy and Laura Dern, on Saturday, October 3, at 7:30 p.m., at Unitarian Church in Westport; and “The Crucible,” starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Joan Allen, and Paul Scofield, on Monday, October 5, 7 p.m., in WCP’s Sheffer Studio.

Arthur Miller’s 100th birthday on Saturday, Oct. 17 will be celebrated with refreshments in the WCP lobby prior to the 3 pm performance of Broken Glass.

The Norwalk Library will host a book discussion group around Miller’s 1945 novel “Focus,” on Thursday, September 24, at noon; and Norwalk Community College will present a student/faculty forum celebrating Miller on Thursday, Oct. 1 at 2:30 pm.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Theater Review: The Illusionists -- The Bushnell

Witnessing the Impossible, and it’s Impossible to Believe that People Want to Witness it
By Lauren Yarger
The Illusionists: Witness the Impossible sold out last year in a limited run on Broadway and returns again this year for another highly anticipated run during the holiday season. Connecticut residents don’t have to wait to see the work of seven of the world’s most acclaimed illusionists, however, as the show’s tour makes a stop at the Bushnell this week. The real question for me is, "Do I really want to?"

This show, conceived by Simon Painter (with creative direction by Jim Millan and direction and choreography by Neil Dorward), is not your grandmother’s version of a magic show. Oh, yes, there are some of the elements you would expect like pulling a rabbit out of a hat, card tricks, sawing a person in half, escaping from a straitjacket, etc. All of this is done with colorful flashing lights (design by Paul Miller) and video projections (designed by Darrel Maloney).

There also are some unexpected bits, like a very, very creepy guy forcing a coin into his eye and cutting it out of his arm, and another lying on a sharp nail and placing a scorpion in his mouth while handcuffed and placed in further peril. These acts seem more fitting for TV’s “The Fear Factor” than a magic show. There also is a crossbow demonstration that is interesting, but not what I would call an illusion.

When it comes to “Fear Factor” and shows of that genre, there is always something else on I would prefer to watch, even if it is something as horrible and frightening as “The Brady Bunch.” I never have been able to figure out why people would want to watch others do potentially harmful or stupid things. I have to admit it, but I never have been wowed by Houdini’s water torture trick, so seeing it performed without curtains hiding it here didn’t do anything for me either.

TV ratings and the popularity of The Illusionists on Broadway prove me clueless, however, when it comes to what people sometimes find entertaining, so take everything I say here with a grain of salt (and then go rub it in wound for added fun ….)

The show features seven male illusionists. There a couple of women among the assistants who dance it up to blaring music composed by  Evan Jolly during the illusions designed by Don Wayne and directed by Mark Kalin, The illusionists are (as described in press materials, so I don’t ruin the magic with my cynicism…):

·         The Manipulator, Yu Ho-Jin.  Considered a rising superstar in the world of magic, he was named 2014 “Magician of the Year,” by Academy of Magical Arts and was the first Asian to win the Grand Prix at the Fédération Internationale des Sociétés Magiques, also known as the “Olympics of Magic.”  
·         The Anti-Conjuror, Dan Sperry. Described as Marilyn Manson meets David Copperfield, Sperry combines the art of magic with the macabre and is one of the top-10 most Googled people, thanks to a legendary “America’s Got Talent” appearance.

·         The Trickster, Jeff Hobson is the epitome of glamour and showmanship. Don’t be fooled by his innocent appearance; Hobson has audiences laughing long after the curtain goes down.

·         The Escapologist, Andrew Basso. Italy’s star escape artist, Basso considers Houdini his hero and is fast becoming one of the world’s most popular illusionists. He is the only person in the world to perform Houdini’s famous Water Torture Cell with absolutely no covers.

·         The Inventor, Kevin James, known for innovative illusions, is an inventor, comedian and collector of the strange and unusual. He is one of the most prolific inventors of magic in the world and has created some of the most celebrated illusions of the last century.

·         The Weapon Master, Ben Blaque, has established himself as America’s foremost master of the crossbow after appearing four times on “America’s Got Talent.” He performs incredibly dangerous acts of dexterity using highly powerful crossbows to shoot various objects supported by his assistant.

·         The Daredevil, Jonathan Goodwin, the British-born Goodwin is considered to be one of the most creative, skilled and craziest stunt performers in the world who has been hanged, buried alive, hung by his toes from helicopters, burned at the stake and attacked by sharks.

All righty then, I’ll let you determine whether any of that appeals. I’ll just tell you what my favorite parts were:
  • The Trickster. Hands down, the best part of the show. Hobson is delightfully snarky, causing belly laughs among magical tricks. He’s a cross between Liberace and Don Rickles and I would have enjoyed the show a lot more if it had been two hours of just this guy insulting audience members and killing balloon animals he made for little kids in the audience.
  • The Manipulator. Yu does some amazing card tricks. Cards change in front of your eyes and appear from nowhere.
  • Audience participation. A number of people are selected and brought up on stage to verify that props are real and not tricks or to participate in actual illusions. Their interaction with the illusionists and reactions are quite entertaining (one woman’s reluctance to check out a severed torso was a hoot).
If you want to catch The Illusionists here, it is at the Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford,  through Sunday.  Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 1 and 6:30 pm. Tickets $29.50-$89.50 (860) 987-5900;

 If you’re too busy watching “Fear Factor”  or planning a macabre Halloween party and want to catch this later, the show will play at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd St., NYC from Nov. 19-Jan. 3.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Boston Theater Review: A Little Night Music -- Huntington

Morgan Kirner and Lauren Molina. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
A Little Night Music
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Peter DuBois
Huntington Theatre Company, Boston

A Breezy Trip to the Swedish Country (or to Boston, as the Case May Be)
By Lauren Yarger
I don't get to Boston as often as I'd like for some of the fine theater over there, but sometimes it really is worth the trip (and fighting the traffic and paying outrageous parking fees). Huntington Theatre's production of A Little Night Music is worth the trip.

The recent revival on Broadway of the Stephen Sondheim classic about love, sex and relationships in turn-of-the-19th-Century Sweden was such a disappointment, that I was yearning for a really good production. Huntington delivers with  with an outstanding show featuring top-notch performances and taught, fresh direction by Huntington's Artistic Director Peter DuBois.

Tony and Olivier Award nominee Haydn Gwynne stars as Desiree Armfeldt, an aging actress who rekindles a love affair with Frederik Egerman (Stephen Bogardus), who married a very young friend of the family, 18-year-old virgin Anne (a fabulous Morgan Kirner) who begs her husband to be patient while she gets used to the idea of maybe having sex with him some day.... Meanwhile, she spends her days tormenting Frederik's shy, introverted son, Henrik (Pablo Torres) who takes comfort in playing the cello.

Because Desiree leads a hectic life on the road, her mother, the formidable Madame Armfeldt (Bobbie Steinbach) insists that Desiree's  young daughter, Frederika (Lauren Weintraub) be raised with her in the country at her sprawling chateau (Madame Armfeldt has acquired vast wealth through a series of her own liaisons....)

Desiree convinces her mother to throw a weekend party to which Frederik and Anne are invited. Complicating things, however, is the unexpected arrival of Desiree's jealous lover, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Mike McGowan) and his bitter wife, Charlotte (Lauren Molina), who collaborates with Anne to break up Desiree and Frederik.

The book by Hugh Wheeler, is based on the film "Smiles of a Summer Night" by Ingmar Bergman,  This musical version contains classics like "Send in the Clowns," "A Weekend in the Country,"The Miller's Son," and others, with musical direction here by Jonathan Mastro. The simple set pieces (scenic design by Derrick McLane)  glide on and off stage to create different settings and moods without interrupting the flow of the story (much like the original on Broadway which was pioneering in this technique). Dreamy lighting by Jeff Croiter enhances the settings. Beautiful  costumes by Robert Morgan put us in the period. Choreography by Daniel Pelzig seems a bit forced at times, especially for the Quintet (Andrew O'Shanick, Wendl Bargamini, Amy Barker, Nick Seffaro and Amy Doherty)..

Madame Armfeldt instructs Frederika to watch for the night to smile three times: once for the young who know nothing, once for the fools who know too little and a third time for the old who know too much. I submit that this night smiled a fourth time on a superb production of this musical, which has a very difficult score. Voices across the board are great and this production features some standout performances that rival any I have seen, including the original on Broadway.

Gwynne is a strong and capable Desiree who also is vulnerable. She gave me goosebumps while singing "Send in the Clowns,"as she expresses her regrets at chances lost. Bogardus excels at the comical aspects of frustrated Frederik and Torres expands on the inherited quality as he becomes one with his cello (in a very nicely done "Later.") McCaela Donovan is a feisty and lusty Petra (Madame Armfeldt's maid who gets around) and Molina gives new dimension to the pain Charlotte feels (and DuBois gives some new takes on what she must endure being married to pompous, selfish Carlos-Magnum).

Steinbach is a hoot as the crusty old Madame Armfeldt. Let's just say that if pressed to choose my favorite actress in the role, Steinbach just might beat out Angela Lansbury in the Broadway revival and Hermione Gingold in the original. Loved her! And even more of a spotlight needs to be shone on Kirner, who is one of the best Annes I ever have seen, She's fresh and funny and adorable and you totally understand why Frederik abandoned all sense to marry her (and why another is madly in love with her). Well done.

A Little Night Music runs through Oct. 11 at Huntington's BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston. Performances are Select Evenings: Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; select Sundays . at 7 pm; Matinees: Select Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets: Single tickets starting at $25 and FlexPasses are on sale; 617 266 0800; Box Office, 264 Huntington Ave. and the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA Box Office, 527 Tremont St. in Boston’s South End.

Other Events being held in conjunction with the run of the show:

  • Wednesday, Sept. 23 after the 7:30 pm performance: Join WBUR’s Ed Siegel and Huntington Artistic Director Peter DuBois for a post-show conversation about directing Sondheim’s A Little Night Music
  • STUDENT MATINEE -- Thursday, Sept. 24 at 10 am: For students in grades 9–12. Tickets: $15. Includes pre-show in-school visit, curriculum guide, post-show Actors Forum, and Dramatic Returns card for each student. Call 617 273 1558 for more information.
  • ACTORS FORUMS -- Thursday, Sept. 24 after the 10 am performance (student matinee); Thursday, Oct. 1 after the 7:30 pm performance; Wednesday, Oct. 7 after the 2 pm performance. Meet participating members of the cast of A Little Night Music and ask them your questions.
  • AMERICAN SIGN LANGUAGE-INTERPRETED PERFORMANCES -- Thursday, Sept. 24 at 10 am (student matinee); Friday, Oct. 2 at 8 pm.Seating for each ASL-interpreted performance is located in the orchestra, house left. Tickets are $20 for each Deaf patron and an additional $20 ticket can be purchased for a guest. To reserve tickets, please contact Access Coordinator Meg O’Brien at
  • HUMANITIES FORUM, BOSTON GLOBE & ARTWEEK EVENT: Sunday, Sept. 27 after the 2 pm performance, join Boston Globe Assistant Arts Editor Steve Smith and Music Director Jonathan Mastro for an in depth discussion about the music of Stephen Sondheim. 
  • POST SHOW CONVERSATION  -- Saturday, Oct. 3 after the 2 pm performance. Join Huntington dramaturg Charles Haugland and Christopher Caggiano, musical theatre faculty member at The Boston Conservatory, for a compelling conversation about A Little Night Music and the legacy of Stephen Sondheim.
  • POST SHOW CONVERSATION -- Sunday, Oct. 4 after the 2 pm performance. Join Huntington dramaturg Charles Haugland and Scott LaFeber, head of the musical theatre program at Emerson College, for a discussion about the show.
  • POST-SHOW AUDIENCE CONVERSATIONS LED BY MEMBERS OF THE HUNTINGTON STAFF -- After most Tuesday - Friday, Saturday matinee, and Sunday matinee performances.
  • The entire cast will perform the National Anthem on Friday, Sept. 25 at Fenway Park before the televised Red Sox versus Orioles game at 7:10 pm. Old Town Trolley will transport the cast from Fenway Park to the BU Theatre immediately following the Anthem for the evening’s 8 pm performance.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Connecticut Theater Season Preview

The Illusionists will play at The Bushnell.
Here’s the Scoop on What Shows Not to Miss this Fall on Connecticut Stages
By Lauren YargerSummer is on its way out, but Connecticut theaters are heating up with some exciting offerings this fall.
Theater lovers have the best of both worlds here in the Nutmeg State: Broadway is just down the road, but we never even have to leave home to see exceptional theater thanks to the bevy of professional theaters that call Connecticut home too. This season looks particularly exciting and I’ll share with you what I am most looking forward to reviewing this fall. There are other great shows scheduled this fall as well as through the 2016 season, but in the interest of space, I will concentrate on top picks for this fall.
Can you say Kevin Bacon? Within hours of the announcement that the Emmy and Golden Globe Award winner (A Few Good Men, Apollo 13, Footloose) would star in the stage adaptation of Rear Window at Hartford Stage, tickets for the run Oct. 22-Nov. 15 were selling out. Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak will direct Keith Reddin’s adaptation of the classic story by Cornell Woolrich about a man confined to his apartment who thinks he has witnessed a murder (you probably saw Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film starring Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly). This version promises to be a little different:
“Keith Reddin's taut adaptation takes place inside of a sweltering, claustrophobic apartment, very much like the addled brain of the leading character, who will be played by Kevin Bacon. I can't imagine finer collaborators than Kevin and Keith in exploring the terrifying psychological landscape of this timeless thriller.”
More info: 860-527-5151; Special note: Due to renovations at the theatre, there are no walk-up, in-person sales. All sales are by phone and internet only with the website being the quickest way to get tickets.

Always a favorite, Yale Rep offers a world premiere of Paula Vogel’s play Indecent Oct. 2-24 in a co-production with California’s LaJolla Playhouse.
Indecent will be directed by Rebecca Taichman, who co-created the piece with Pulitzer-Prize winner Vogel (and kudos to Yale for being one of the few theaters to have women writers and directors featured regularly on its stage – in the case, it will be the  stage at University Theatre at 222 York St., not at the Rep. theater.)
This new play with music is inspired by the true events surrounding the controversial 1923 Broadway debut of Sholem Asch’s The God of Vengeance—a play seen by some as a seminal work of Jewish culture, and by others as an act of traitorous libel. Indecent charts the history of an incendiary drama and the path of the artists who risked their careers and lives to perform it.

Indecent was commissioned by Yale Rep and American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and has received a 2015 Edgerton Foundation
New American Plays Award.
More info: 203-432-1234;
Hartford’s gem of Off-Broadway shows also offers the work of a woman playwright with Third, by Wendy Wasserstein. It tells the story of how a college professor’s well-ordered life is thrown into disarray when she accuses a student of plagiarism. In the wake of her accusation, she is forced to question her aggressively feminist ideology and family relations.
Director Rob Ruggiero says, “Ms. Wasserstein has a gift for dissecting the emotional and intellectual struggles of women. Funny and biting, this is Wendy's last, and perhaps best, play."
Third runs Oct. 1-Nov. 8. A repeat of the fun TheaterWorks production Christmas on the Rocks, an off-beat collection of twisted holiday tales by multiple playwrights featuring children from holiday classics, will be offered Nov. 27-Dec. 23.  
More info: 860- 527-7838; 

Director Gordon Edlstein presents the 2013 Pultizer-Prize winning play Disgraced, by Ayad Akhtar Oct. 14-Nov. 8.

The play, which I enjoyed in New York, delves into religious and ethnic ties and the consequences of denying one’s identity. Amir, who identifies himself as a former Muslim and his wife Emily enjoy their charmed life in New York—he’s poised to make partner at a white-shoe law firm while her painting is being considered for a prestigious gallery exhibit. When he’s asked to help defend an imam accused of funding terrorists, a series of shattering events occurs.
Disgraced is being presented in association with Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company.
More info: 203-787-4282;

The feel-good musical producer offers another holiday show this year Sept. 18-Nov. 29 at the Opera House: Grammy and Emmy Award-winner Joe Raposo and Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winner Sheldon Harnick’s  A Wonderful Life, based on the beloved 1946 holiday movie classic.

Bedford Falls will come alive as never before in this premiere of the tale of finding hope and meaning.  Book and Lyric writer Harnick wrote Fiddler on the Roof, She Loves Me and Fiorello! among others and composer Raposo is known for his work on “Sesame Street for which he wrote the theme song and classics like "Bein' Green" and "C is for Cookie."

I don’t know about you, but they had me at “It’s A Wonderful Life.” And the team of Harnick and Raposo would have been enough to get me into a theater seat regardless of the title. I am really looking forward to seeing an angel earn his wings in this one, directed by Michael Perlman and choreographed by Parker Esse. It stars Duke Lafoon as George Bailey (a role he has performed in regional theater), Kirsten Scott as Mary and Frank Vlastnik as Clarence.

More info: 860-873-8668; 

OK, I admit it, I have seen Little Shop of Horrors tons of times, but I am still looking forward to the Alan Menkin/Howard Ashman classic when it is presented Sept. 23-Oct. 12 at Ivoryton. The story is a bit out there, but the music is great.

If I can’t interest you in giant human-eating plants, consider the next one up at Ivoryton this fall (Oct. 28-Nov. 15):  Liberace! by Brent Hazelton, a moving tribute to the performer and musician famous for his charm, glitz, and glamour. Liberace! relives the highs (and lows) of the entertainer’s life with a wide-ranging piano score spanning classical and popular music from Chopin to “Chopsticks,” and Rachmaninoff to Ragtime.

Directed by Jacqueline Hubbard, Liberace! Stars Starring Daryl Wagner, a classical pianist who was a protégé of the real Liberace and who does his own tribute show.

More info: 860-767-7318;

Brandy Burre of HBO’s “The Wire” and the critically acclaimed documentary film Actress, and Josh Aaron McCabe of Shakespeare & Company will lead the ensemble cast of CT Rep’s The Laramie Project Oct. 8-18 at the Nafe Katter Theatre on the Storrs campus.
Helmed by CRT Artistic Director Vincent J. Cardinal, The Laramie Project by Moisés Kaufman and the members of Tectonic Theatre Project details the reaction in the community of Laramie, WY following the 1998 murder of gay student Matthew Shepard, who was left to die, tied to a fence.  Five weeks later, members of the Tectonic Theater Project went to Laramie, and over the course of the next year, conducted more than 200 interviews with people of the town.  From these interviews they wrote The Laramie Project.
More info: 860-486-2113;
A best-selling book by Mitch Albom comes to stage in Tuesdays with Morrie Sept. 20-Oct. 18 at Playhouse on Park.
Jeffrey Hatcher and Mitch Albom adapt the story from Albom’s book based on his visits with a former college professor who is battling Lou Gehrig’s Disease. A simple visit turns into a weekly pilgrimage and a last class in the meaning of life.

More info: 860-523-5900 ext. 10;

In celebration of longtime Connecticut resident Arthur Miller’s one-hundredth birthday, the Playhouse will present Broken Glass, a powerful account of what happens when the lines between what we believe and what is true, Oct. 6-24.
It is a psychological study hinging on the events of Kristallnacht (the Night of broken Glass) in Nazi Germany.
More info: 203-227-4177; 1-888-927-7529;
I was a bit skeptical when I heard Music Theatre of Connecticut was planning to premiere the 2015-2016 season with one of my favorites: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita. Let’s just say my brain had a hard time imagining the large seeping saga playing out on floor of MTC’s small stage at their new home in Norwalk. 

But that is what  I thought a couple of seasons ago when MTC presented another favorite, Next to Normal, at the former home which was  a lot smaller. I was blown away by the quality of that show, so I can trust Artistic Director Kevin Connors – especially when the  Evita he is staging is a new, re-envisioned version with a cast of just 10, getting its premiere here in Connecticut Oct. 16-Nov. 1. 

The last Broadway revival was such a disappointment, I am looking forward to a fresh and new take on the musical that follows the rise and fall of Eva Peron and features such terrific songs as “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” “Rainbow High” and “Another Suitcase Another Hall.”

More info: 203-454-3883;

The Connecticut premiere of Living on Love, starring Stephanie Zimbalist by Joe DiPietro, based on the play Peccadillo by Garson Kanin. The play premiered in Williamtown and played on Broadway, starring Renee Fleming. When a demanding opera diva discovers that her larger-than-life maestro husband has become enamored with the lovely young lady hired to ghostwrite his largely fictional autobiography, she hires a handsome, young scribe of her own. As the young writers try to keep themselves out of the story while churning out chapters, the high-energy — and high-maintenance — power duet threatens to fall out of tune for good. Sparks fly, silverware is thrown and romance blossoms in the most unexpected ways.
Nov. 12-Dec. 6.
More info: 203-757-4676;

And what would the season be without some tour stops from recent Broadway hits? We have three major tour presenters here offering a wide variety of shows form the Great White Way:

THE PALACE, WATERBURYThe always pleasing, tap-dance happy 42nd Street will play for three performances, Oct. 9 and 10.
Based on a novel by Bradford Ropes and Busby Berkeley’s 1933 movie, 42nd Street tells the story of a starry-eyed young dancer named Peggy Sawyer, who leaves her Allentown home and comes to New York to audition for a new Broadway musical.  When the lead breaks her ankle, Peggy takes over and quickly becomes an instant star.  If you don’t know the show, you know its score, which includes classic tunes like “We’re In The Money,” “Lullaby of Broadway,” “Shuffle Off To Buffalo,” “I Only Have Eyes For You” and the title song.

More info: 203-346-2000; .

Check out the schedule, because there are a bunch of new hits and old favorites coming to Hartford on the Bushnell Broadway Series, but the one I am looking most forward to this fall is not a typical show: The Illusionists: Witness the Impossible (Sept. 22-27). This show is one of the hottest selling tickets on Broadway, where it returns this year for a limited run during the holidays.
The show features seven of the world’s greatest magicians, each having his own title. There’s the Anti-Conjuror, the Deceptionist, the Unusualist, the DareDevil, the trickster and the Futurist.
More info: 860-987-5900;

The Book of Mormon. Photo: Courtesy of The Shubert.
If you missed The Book of Mormon on its previous tour through Hartford, you can catch it in New Haven, where it will play Oct. 13-18. The show won nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Score (Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, Matt Stone), Best Book (Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, Matt Stone and Best Direction (Casey Nicholaw, Trey Parker).

More info: 203-562-5666;
--- A R T S ---

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 award-winning Connecticut Arts Connection (,

She is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Contributing Editor for, Connecticut theater editor
for 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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