Wednesday, October 26, 2016

CT Theater Review: The Piano Lesson -- Hartford Stage

Clifton Duncan, Christina Acosta Robinson and Roscoe Orman. Photo: T. Charles Erickson
The Piano Lesson
By August Wilson
Directed by Jade King Carroll
Through Nov. 13

By Lauren Yarger
What's it all About?
This ghost-story of a play won August Wilson a Pulitzer Prize in 1990. It is part of his 10-play  cycle following this history of African-American life in Pittsburgh. The slice of life brings the audience into the home of Doaker Charles (Roscoe Orman) where Boy Willie (Clifton Duncan) and Lymon (Gayden Ryan Kane) arrive with a tuck full of watermelons to sell. Boy Willie plans to sell a piano that his sister, Berniece (Christina Acosta Robinson) and he have inherited. He wants to use the money to buy some land to farm, but his sister refuses, even though she and her daughter, Maretha (Elise Taylor) rarely play the instrument. The piano tells their family's story through slavery with pictures beautifully carved on it by an ancestor. Berniece refused to sell it when her suitor, preacher Avery  (Daniel Morgan Shelley) brought a prospective buyer to the home (Alexis Distler's set design allows us to see the interior of the house, with its posh furniture, as well as its ragged edges). More than just family tensions are at play here, though, as the ghost of the man who owned the land Boy Willie wants starts making appearances and the piano seems to have a mind of its own.

What are the Highlights?
Wilson's tale is intimate and absorbing. Director Jade King Carroll coaxes strong performances across the board, but excels at finding humor to offset the heavier tones of the play. Cleavant Derricks steals the show as Wining Boy, Doaker's humorous older brother, and Toccarra Cash lights up the stage as a romantic interest for Boy Willie and Lymon.

A spiritual sung by the men  (composed by Baikida Carroll; Music Direction by Bill Sims, Jr.) is a delight (Derricks' is in extraordinary voice).

What are the Lowlights?
Orman, seems to search for some of his lines; the three-hour run time is too long.

More information:
The Piano Lesson plays at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford, through Nov. 13. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm. Tickets are $65-$81:; 860-527-5151.

Additional credits:
Costume Design. Toni-Leslie James; Lighting Design, York Kennedy; Sound Design, Karin Graybash; Wig Design, Robert-Charles Vallace; Music Director, Bill Sims, Jr.; Fight Choreography, Greg Webster; Dialect Coach. Ron Carlos

Saturday, October 15, 2016

CT Theater Review: Meteor Shower -- Long Wharf

Arden Myrin and Patrick Breen. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Meteor Shower
By Steve Martin
Directed by Gordon Edelstein
Long Wharf Theatre

By Lauren Yarger
What's It All About? Good question. Let's say that you might be able to figure that out before the explanation of the bizarre plot you have just seen is spelled out at the end, but for many the world premiere play from comedian Steve Martin ( presented by Long Wharf in conjunction with the Old Globe in San Diego), is a real puzzler.

Two couples get together to watch a meteor shower at the Ojai, CA home of Corky and Norm (Arden Myrin and Patrick Breen). Norm has invited Gerald and Laura (Craig Bierko -- I saw excellent understudy Josh Stamberg) and Sophia Brown, whom they don't know well, but who know another couple, the husband of which, Norm is eager to meet for work. He probably should have thought that through a bit because Gerald and Laura are very strange. Gerald's kind of funny and larger than life -- think Steve Martin -- and Laura is rude and blatantly sexual in her approach to Norm.

But wait, Norm and Corky are kind of weird too. They old hands and recite mantras learned through some sort of marriage therapy training for yuppies. And when a meteorite takes Norm out of the picture, Corky isn't too affected.

Wait again! Maybe that meteorite didn't really hit. Something seems to be wrong with perception here as scenes repeat from different perspectives. Just what is going on as the meteors light up the sky( Lighting Design by John Holder). The fantasy-inspired Orignial Music by John Gromada (who also designs the sound and three eggplants might provide some clues. Or maybe not.

If you aren't quite sure, you won't be alone (at intermission I wrote in my notes, "I have no idea what is going on." Michael Yeargan designs the upscale patio which rotates to help change perspective, but not enough to help Director Gordon Edelstein convey what is taking place.

There are some funny moments -- more than I found in Martin's other plays given a run at Long Wharf like The Underpants and Picasso at the Lapin Agile.  Norm's return to the action following the meteor strike certainly is humorous, thanks in part to Costume Design by Jess Goldstein. The script, however, is so bizarre and nonsensical, that we are wondering what is going on most of the time instead of enjoying some insightful humor. A good edit and a trim of the one-hour, 45 minute run time would make a big difference.

Meteor Shower runs at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, through Oct. 23. Tickets start at $27:;  203-787-4282.

Friday, October 14, 2016

CT Theater Review: King Lear -- CT Repertory

Raphael Nash Thompson (Gloucester). Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
King Lear
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Dale AJ Rose
CT Repertory
through Oct. 16

By Lauren Yarger
What's It all About?

Shapkespeare's tragedy of betrayal, coinciding with the recent stop at UConn of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s national tour of "First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare." Graeme Malcom is a brilliant King Lear and third-year MFA student Arlene Bozich is a star to watch as his eldest daughter, Goneril.

I will spare you the plot -- check the Sparks Notes -- but this is as solid a production of Lear as I ever have seen (kudos to Director Dale AJ Rose). A strong ensemble cast includes Michael Bobenhausen, Darren Brown, Natalia Cuevas, Jeff DeSisto, Curtis Longfellow, Emile Saba, Meredith Saran, Bryce Wood. Kent Coleman, Nick Greika, Derrick Holmes, Scott Redmond, Ben Senkowski, Ryan Shea, Andrew Smith, and Kristen Wolfe.

What Are the Highlights?
Besides the pleasure of seeing Shakespeare done well, the action takes place on an impressive angled set designed with grey stone, towering doors and arches designed by Pedro L. Guevara. Minimal props and period costumes that range from armor to garb in earthy hues (thank you, no red sneakers for Lear) designed by Raven Ong help tell the tale without distracting from the language (of which most of the actors have strong command).

Malcolm, who appeared on Broadway in Equus, Translations, Aida and The King and I is a consummate Lear: a sad, mad dad who also makes us laugh. Bozich is a riveting Goneril and has a better grasp of Shakespeare's language than some actors on Broadway. She is fascinating to watch. Also standing out with commanding stage presence is Kent Coleman as the Earl of Kent.

Sound and special effects enhance the mood. The creative team includes: Margaret Peebles (Lighting Design), Justin Graziani (Sound Design), Greg Webster (Fight Choreography), Karen Ryker (Voice and Text Coach) and Ed Weingart (Technical Director).

What Are the Lowlights?

More information:
King Lear plays at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre on the Storrs UConn campus through Oct. 16.
Evening performances are 8 pm tonight 2 and 8 pm Saturday and 2 pm Sunday. Tickets are $7-$30: ; 860-486-2113.

CT Theater Review: Scenes from Court Life -- Yale Repertory

Jeff Biehl, Greg Keller (foreground); Angel Desai, Andrew Weems, T. Ryder Smith, Mary Shultz (background). Photo: Carol Rosegg

Scenes from Court Life, or the whipping boy and his prince
By Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Mark Wing-Davey
Yale Repertory
through Oct. 22

Politics Apparently Hasn't Changed All That Much
By Lauren Yarger
Politicians volley with each other over who should be in office and what future the country should take. Are we watching a snippet from one of the most watched debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump? No. This political drama takes place on stage in a timely play by Sarah Ruhl commissioned by Yale Repertory (kicking off its 50th anniversary season) to examine the father/son dynasties of George H. and W Bush and Charles I and II.

A lot of this action takes place on the tennis court. George 41 (T. Ryder Smith) and the family -- George 43 (Greg Keller), Jeb Bush (Danny Wolohan), Barbara (Mary Schultz) play a doubles match while Laura (Angel Desai, who music directs and plays the harpsichord) detached, reads a book. While the match heats up on the court (Marina Draghici's set is designed with a net to keep some real volleys from landing in the audience), so does the competition between George and Jeb for the their parents' approval. Jeb is the apparent favorite, but George somehow seems to end up with all the breaks.  

Meanwhile, with a quick dress change (Draghici also designs the costumes) and by donning some period wigs, (Charles G. LaPointe, design), Keller and Wolohan transform into young Prince Charles and his Whipping Boy, Barnaby, in Stuart England. When the boy decides he wants to play tennis using gear of his father-the-king (a brilliant Smith), the Whipping Boy, as usual, takes the young prince's punishment, doled out by his tutor (Andrew Weems). The king has his own problems, however, and might lose his head to charges of treason. What's a king to do? He ponders while sitting on the royal throne -- the toilet that is -- while his comfort is attended to by a Groom of the Stool (Jeff Biehl, who metaphorically doubles as Karl Rove, adviser to the Bush clan.)

The relationship between the new king (following the death of Charles I) and his Whipping Boy changes from fond affection (there are implications that Charles has romantic feelings for Barnaby) to rivalry when the Whipping Boy falls for his sovereign's intended, Catherine of Braganza (Kernen Lugo, who also plays Jeb's wife, Columba). John R. Colley, Evelyn Giovine, Hudson Oznowicz and Arturo Soria complete the ensemble bringing this allegory to life (and it even includes a Donald Trump impersonation making the whole thing very timely).

Michael Raine choreographs, Rick Sordelet directs the fighting and Meggi Sweeney Smith provides Baroque expertise and choreography as Mark Wing-Davey directs Ruhl's campaign across centuries. The women don't figure much in the action (perhaps a commentary on the truth of that statement) but there are some funny one-liners from Barbara (nicely delivered by Schultz) and some insight from Laura who is the one charged with mopping up the blood following the war sanctioned by her husband (and that blood, by the way, has a nifty texture that lets it clean up quickly after spreading on the stage).

"I have a little theory about human evil—I call it my Judas theory," she says. "I figure that approximately one twelfth of the world—and of the disciples—are like Judas-- they want to destroy each other. And one twelfth or so wants to save other people. But the rest of us 10 out of 12 just wants to get by and tuck our children in at night. And these people with their bombs and their anger and their—Well. Things you can do when you feel like chopping off someone else’s head: Take a deep breath. Paint.  Dance. Read. Plant a garden. Call your mom."

It is entertaining and refreshing, but at two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission, it begins to feel like a personal essay stretched too long. The play did receive a 2016 Edgerton Foundation New American Plays Award, however.

Scenes from Court Life runs at Yale Rep's University Theatre, 222 York St., New Haven through Oct. 22. Tickets are $12-$99:; 203-432-1234; Box Office, 1120 Chapel St.

Additional credits:
Lighting Design Stephen Strawbridge, Sound Design Shane Rettig, Projection Design Yana Birÿkova, Technical Director Kelly Rae Fayton, Dialect and Vocal Coaches Beth McGuire and Jane Guyer Fujita.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Hartford Symphony Orchestra Kicks Off Season

Ana Vivodic. Photo: courtesy of HSO
Hartford Symphony Orchestra Masterworks Series 
Friday – Sunday, October 7-9, 2016
Belding Theater at The Bushnell
Friday and Saturday 8 pm│Sunday 3pm
Tickets starting at $36.00; $10.00 for students with ID
860-987-5900 or
Carolyn Kuan conductor
Ana Vidovic classical guitar

 Capriccio espagnol, Op. 34
Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez for Guitar and Orchestra
Rimsky-Korsakov Scheherazade, Op. 35

The Hartford Symphony Orchestra kicks off its 2016-2017 Masterworks season with a program of music with global flair! Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol is one of the most famous orchestra showpieces, a vividly brilliant composition based on Spanish folk melodies. Inspired by the collection of Middle Eastern and Indian tales “The Thousand and One Nights,” Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade brings to vibrant life the story of the young wife of a Sultan who tells tales to her husband to forestall his plan to kill her. Rodrigo’s extraordinarily beautiful Concierto de Aranjuez for Guitar and Orchestra is unquestionably his best known work, and established his reputation as one of the most significant Spanish composers of the 20th century. 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Women Get to Report Front and Center in Queens for a Year

Women's Issues Always Get Highest Rank with This Playwright
By Lauren Yarger
For one panelist at a recent event to launch Connecticut chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women, talking about gender parity and the need to have more women writers, directors and issues represented on stage wasn't a one-time conversation. For T. D. Mitchell, author of Queens for a Year wrapping up its highly acclaimed world premiere to open the season at Hartford Stage, the topic is a passion.

She knows first hand about the disadvantage women can experience in industries still controlled by men. The former writer for TV's "Army Wives" and author of numerous plays (Beyond the 17th Parallel, Gray Matter) shared stories about how using her initials, instead of a name that gives away her gender, can been a tool. The feminist in her has felt a call to tell the stories of women from a women's perspective. In fact, when she was in negotiations to premiere Queens for a Year, a tale on multi-generations of women from one family in military service, she insisted that a woman direct and was happy that she met no resistance to that idea from Hartford Stage's Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak. The outcome was hiring Director Lucie  Tiberghien, whom Mitchell praises.

Tiberghien was on the same page with her throughout, Mitchell said, even when those pages -- especially for the ending -- changed. The director wasn't uncomfortable with leaving some ambiguity and asked the audience to listen with attention to detail, which was crucial to her own storytelling needs, Mitchell said.

Some of the inspiration for Queens for a Year came from research for her play On the 17th Parallel, which dealt with Viet Nam vets. She realized that females serving in the military and vets have their own unique stories and place in US history, but they are absent in our culture. They needed their own play, she decided. 
That need and a random conversation with a veteran expressing concerns about his own son now deployed overseas, morphed into Queens for a Year, which focuses on a Marine (played by Vanessa R. Butler) trying to help a younger Marine (Sarah Nicole Deaver), who has been assaulted by members of her own troops while serving in Iraq. The women encounter intimidation from superiors to drop the matter and threats against their lives. 

It's an intellectual piece which juxtaposes a sense of patriotism -- the Marine is a product of generations of women who have served, including feisty great grandmother who folded parachutes in World War 11 -- with a rethinking of just what kind of behavior is acceptable from Americans in wartime or in peace.

Focusing on a family with multiple generations of service wasn't just a means of exploring women's issues, Mitchell said. Without a draft, the percentage of citizens serving in the military is small, and among them, there is a high percentage of "legacy joins" where service is a family tradition. It also gave her room to explore how women's role in the military has changed over the years. Back in the great grandmother's generation, women often served at home while waiting for their men to return from war. Today, a women is fighting along side the men in combat, but at what price? 

At the very least, the cost may be the elimination of femininity. In a dramatic scene, we see the main character stripped to her skivvies, then dressed in full Marine uniform as she recites the Marine Code of Conduct. She is hardly recognizable as a woman when she is done.

This idea of woman having to give up her feminism to be equal is echoed in the inclusion of Greek mythology into the storyline. The myth of Caenis, a young nymph who having been raped by Poseidon, asks to be transformed into a man so that can never happen to her again, came to Mitchell unexpectedly during her research on female warriors for the play, though it could have been a direct inspiration for Queens for a Year.  The attempt to remove femaleness doesn't provide a perfect solution in the play, or in the myth for that matter.

But then the issues of equality and gender parity haven't  been solved in out society either. The hanging questions caused Mitchell to wonder how her play should end. It changed four times as she sought to find a way to blend internal conflicts with a need for justice. The result is a thought-provoking play I called a "boot camp for the mind" in my review. The ending, Mitchell, says, seems inevitable to her now, "even if it's not the one we want."

Queens for a Year runs through Sunday, Oct. 2 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Performances are: Thursday and Sunday evenings at 7:30 pm; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm; Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm.   Tickets $25-$90.  (860) 527-5151;

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Theater Review: Queens for a Year -- Hartford Stage

Charlotte Maier, Vanessa R Butler, Heidi Armbruster, Alice Cannon. Photo: T. Charles Erickson
 It Feels Like the Enemy Just Messed With Our Minds – and We’re OK with That
By Lauren Yarger
T.D. Mitchell writes a disturbing and gripping tale of the consequences of war that orders us to stand at attention and prepare for an inspection of what we think about training people to kill. And with Queens for a Year, getting its world premiere at Hartford Stage, she examines the topic from a unique perspective: the role of females serving in the military.

Mitchell has visited the military before. She was a writer for TV’s “Army Wives” and explored the stories of Viet Nam vets in her play Beyond the 17th Parallel. It was interviews conducted for the latter which triggered the writing of Queens for a Year.

The play focuses on a 2007 visit by Lt. Molly Solinas (Vanessa R Butler) to her rural Virginia home (designed in framed simplicity by Daniel Conway) where her family is excited to welcome her and her friend, PFC Amanda Lewis (Sarah Nicole Deaver), back from duty in Iraq. They understand what the women have been through more than most as the multi-generational clan know all about serving their country. 

Molly’s aunt Lucy Walker (Heidi Armbruster) served until her lesbianism and the service’s lack of tolerance for it got her discharged. Her grandmother and namesake Molly, still goes by Gunny (Charlotte Maier) and her great-grandmother, Lu (Alice Cannon), served in World War II. Only Molly’s mother, Mae (Mary Bacon), isn’t all ooo- rah about a family of Marines. Her religion and calling as a midwife who brings lives into the world are at conflict with training to kill.

Amanda quickly bonds with Molly’s kin and feels at home, but it is apparent that she and Molly have sought shelter at the peaceful farmhouse from something sinister following them from Iraq. Through flashbacks, sharply directed by Lucie Tiberghien around the fringes of the home trimmed with camouflage material or upstairs where an uneasy Iraqi checkpoint suddenly comes to life, we begin to understand that the biggest threat the women Marines faced while deployed might not have come from the enemy.

Things aren’t easy for women serving overseas in the current conflict. In fact, it is a whole different front from when Grandma Lu packed her parachutes in the big war. Now women in service are called one of three things, Amanda tells us: a slut, a dyke or a bitch. The play’s title, program notes inform us, comes from an expression used to describe a female soldier or Marine serving her overseas tour of duty year, implying that even an “ugly” female gets away with slacking off and being unduly treated as a queen in the male dominated environment. A wink from a woman can imply consent for much more than intended and the knives the women soldiers carry offer protection against enemy attack – whether it is from their own male company members or Iraqi insurgents.

During her tour, Amanda was raped by a superior and his buddy, but the Marines have a zero tolerance policy for these types of incidents which means she doesn’t really have the option of reporting it or of seeking any justice. This is made plain to her by a staff sergeant (Mat Hostetler) who gets wind of the case and intimidates Amanda to make sure she won’t pursue it. Molly tries to help, but a senior female officer, Capt. Diaz (Jamie Rezanour), urges her not to get involved.

The women end up having to take things into their own hands –with the help of Molly’s ready-made militia family -- especially when the rapist feels threatened that Amanda might be able to prove what happened and pursues her and Molly to Virginia.

Mitchell’s no-nonsense writing style establishes a bond between the audience and the women early in the two-hour, 15-minute production. In quick military fashion, we see Molly transform before our eyes from a woman into a Marine (Beth Goldenberg costumes). We know these women and like them all, especially Grandma Lu who reminds us all of our own beloved elderly relatives who are not afraid to say what’s on their minds and Cannon wisely doesn't overplay the part.

The playwright makes us uncomfortable, however, by targeting some messages that might have been trained into our thinking about what is normal when it comes to war. We don’t question Grandma Lu’s patriotism, for instance, but then we’re a bit disturbed by the apparent prejudice still holds again people of Japanese descent. We are all for the US Marines – until we start hearing some of the cadences sung out and repeated back from time to time throughout the play. The work songs apparently are genuine, if not sanctioned, and are too vulgar to re-print here 9the theater recommends 14 and up for viewing the play). They make us pause in our admiration for an institution that accepts as "normal" training with chants full of glee and pride about killing people and treating women in the most vulgar of ways. And are we really OK with feeling nonchalant when it comes to killing?
It’s a little like realizing that the enemy has gotten inside your mind and messed with you and now you are forced to wonder whether you’ve been just a bit brainwashed by the good guys too. It’s definitely theater that makes us think: it's a boot camp for the mind.

Even the conclusion leaves us questioning our values as we surprise ourselves by easily rooting for a bloody outcome. The effect would be even more dramatic, however, if we had a clearer understanding of why Molly decides to take things into her own hands when she does and what her fate is. Without that, the ambiguity weakens the impact.

Another area that could use a tweak from Tiberghien is the timing and delivery of the humor. There is some in this play, despite its otherwise somber theme, but some jokes are lost, or have less oomph than they should.

Deaver is solid as the Corps-tough soldier who can’t quite forgive herself for not being strong enough to protect herself; Bacon finds depth in Mae that realistically portrays the love of a mother conflicted with the path her child has chosen. Butler seems less certain in her role, but it is fitting as Molly herself is trying to figure out where a woman can serve comfortably in a man’s military.
Its engrossing story brings the issues of women’s role in the military, burdens placed on families with members serving and the realities of women in combat front and center for full inspection.

Queens for a Year plays through Oct. 2 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; Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm.   Tickets $25-$90.  (860) 527-5151;

Additional credits:
Wig Design by Jodi Stone, Lighting Design by Robert Perry; Sound Design by Victoria Deiorio, Fight Direction by Greg Webster; Dialect Coaching by Robert H. Davis. 

Scenes from Second Launch of CT League of Professional Theatre Women

The Connecticut Chapter of the League of professional Theatre Women held its second launch event to kick off its activities in the state. The organization serves as a networking and advocacy tool for women working in the theater.

This second event at Westport Country Playhouse's White Barn featured a panel on "Lean In and Branch Out: Claiming our Voice as Women in Connecticut Theater" moderated by Actress/Director/Producer Marie Reynolds, a co-founder of the chapter along with Lauren Yarger, a theater critic and editor of the CT Arts Connection, Mary Miko, soecial events coordinator at Goodspeed and Tracey Moore, an associate professor of theater at University of Hartford's Hartt School. 

Panelists were Actress Mia Dillon (Tony award for Best Featured Actress Crimes of the Heart), NY Producer Pat Addiss (Eclipsed, Gigi, Vanya Sonya, Masha and Spike), Anne Keefe, artist associate and former co-artistic director at Westport Country Playhouse, and Director Jenn Thompson (Bye Bye Birdie at Goodspeed; Women Without Men Off-Broadway).

A "Seal of Approval" recognizing the achievements of Yale Repetory Theatre in hiring women on and behind its stages was accepted by Managing Director Victoria Nolan.  At the first launch in Hartford, a Seal of Approval was presented to Hartford Stage. That panel featured Elizabeth Williamson, associate artistic director at Hartford Stage, Jacqueline Hubbard, executive artistic director at Ivoryton Playhouse and playwright TD Mitchell (Queens for a Year; TV's "Army Wives").

The group will hold regional meetings around the state and will present works by women. For information on joining the local chapter, contact For information on the League and its many programs, visit

Panelist Mia Dillon and her husband, actor Kier Dullea.

Lauren Yarger, Mary Miko and Marie Reynolds.

Mary Miko and Diana Insolio

Lighting Designer Dawn Chiang

Joan Firestone, a former president of the League of Professional Theatre Women, welcomed the group.

Anne Keefe, associate artist at WCP.

The panel and friends: Anne Keefe, Pat Addiss, Jenn Thompson, Joan Firestone, Mia Dillon and Marie Reynolds.

Victoria Nolan

CT Theater Review: Little Shop of Horrors -- Playhouse on Park

Emily Kron , front right, and Cherise Clarke, Famecia Ward and Brandi Porter in rear. Photo: Meredith Atkinson
This Little Shop Gets a Dose of Miracle Grow and Stands Out from the Others
By Lauren Yarger
Little Shop of Horrors? Again?

This question comes to mind when the 1982 Alan Menken/Howard Ashman musical is staged, as it often is. Love the score, but seriously, how many times can we watch this tale of a human-eating Venus fly trap?

At least one more is the answer, thanks to a delightful staging of the musical at Playhouse on Park under the direction and choreography of Susan Haefner. This production has some nuances that make it unique –as though it has been given a good dose of Miracle Grow to make it stand out from all the others and it is well worth the trip to the box office.

Haefer gives a different take on the leads, Seymour (a talented Steven Mooney who reminds of Josh Gad – casting directors take note: he would be perfect for the role of Elder Cunningham in The Book of Mormon) and his heartthrob, Audrey (Emily Kron).

This Seymour is a little stockier than most and a bit more able to stand on his own two feet as he desperately tries to keep plant Audrey II (named after his love) satisfied with human blood. The extraordinary plant (designed by Martin P. Robinson and manipulated here by Susan Slotoroff) brings fame to Seymour and the florist shop where he and Audrey work for Mr. Mushnik (Damian Buzzerio). Even when Mushnik adopts Seymour as his son, we interestingly feel in this production that the manipulation is more on Seymour’s end than on Mushnik’s.

Audrey also seems tougher. She’s not the dumb blonde of most productions, but more a victim in her abusive relationship with sadistic dentist Orin (Aidan Eastwood). “Somewhere That’s Green” (musical direction by Penny Brandt) isn’t so much the fantasy of a naïve girl, but the poignant hope of someone who doesn’t feel she deserves a happy ending.

Some of the best distinctions in this production are in the background. Famecia Ward (Ronette),
Cherise Clarke (Crystal) and Brandi Porter (Chiffon) are perfection as the backup trio on skid Row. Whether they are reminding us to turn off our cell phones, sitting on the shop stoop (a.k.a. the aisles in house seating) or bopping along the stage, these three women steal the scene with their harmonized voices and beautiful appearance in shimmering dresses designed by Kate Bunce that change color in lighting designed by Christopher Bell.

In addition, Brian Dudkiewicz’s set, which changes from dull gray to colorful red, white and blue as the fortunes of the florist shop inhabitants blossom with the popularity of Audrey II, also incorporates chain link fencing behind the four-person band that allows us to see Rasheem Ford when he sings the part of the plant. I don’t recall ever being able to see this performer in a production of Little Shop before and it really enhances the experience. The audience seemed more engaged and Ford also may be the best I ever have heard sing the role.

If you haven’t seen the show and are put off by the title, go see it. The plant grows on you (pun intended). If you are like me and have seen the musical a bunch of times, this production is worth another visit.

Little Shop of Horrors plants itself at Playhouse on the Park, 244 Park Rd, West Hartford through Oct. 16. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm. Tickets $40-$50 with discounts for seniors and students.860-523-5900 x10 or visit

Music and Lyrics by Howard Ashman; Music by Alan Menken Direction and Choreography by Susan Haefner; Musical Direction by Penny Brandt, Scenic Design by Brian Dudkiewicz, Costume Design by Kate Bunce, Lighting Design by Christopher Bell; Sound Design by Joel Abbott; Properties by Pamela Lang; Puppet Design by Martin P. Robinson

Monday, September 19, 2016

Theater Review: Gypsy -- Music Theatre of CT

Kirsti Carnahan and Kate Simone. Photo: Joe Landry

Music by Jule Styne
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Arthur Laurents
Directed by Kevin Connors
Music Theatre of Connecticut
Through Sept. 25

What's It All About?

Well, it is the great American musical tale based on the memoirs of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee about a stage mother named Rose (Kirsti Carnahan ) who forces her daughters, Louise (Kate Simone) and June (Carissa Massaro) to perform a terrible vaudeville act in the hopes of making June a star.  Rose strings along manager Herbie (Paul Binotto) with the promise of connubial bliss some day, but having had two failed marriage already, Rose's ambitions are all for the act which keeps June a the center of the same act despite the fact that she has grown way beyond the age of 10. Eventually Rose makes some changes, adding a couple of orphan boys, Tulsa (Joe Grandy) and Yonkers (Chris McNiff) to back June up as "newsboys" and she finally achieves her dream of having the act perform on the Orpheum Circuit, but her dreams are shattered when June and Tulsa elope and leave to start their own act.

Rose then turns her attention to making the not-so-talented Louise into a star. The result is Gypsy Rose Lee.

What Are the Highlights?

That score! Well played by a four-man band under the direction of Music Director Thomas Martin Conroy, it gives us the classics “Some People,” “Small World,” “Little Lamb,” “You’ll Never Get Away From Me,” “Everything’s Coming up Roses,” “Together, Wherever We Go,” and “Let Me Entertain You.”

Carnahan is not as bold and belty as most Roses (think Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, Rosalind Russell and Bette Midler, who all have played this quintessential stage mom), but it works as she makes the role her own. We get a better sense of Rose as a mother and as a woman. Binotto's Herbie doesn't seem as steamrolled as a result and we have an opportunity to appreciate the depth of character achieved by the actor.

The small space at MTC, sparcely staged by Carl Tallent, makes the production more intimate. Skilled sound design, though uncredited, allows us to hear the lyrics without being blasted by the instruments.

Jodi Stevens steals the scene as the secretary to an entertainment mogul auditioning June and her entourage and as Mazeppa, a trumpet playing stripper along with crowd pleasers Electra (Marca Leigh) and Tessie tura (Jeri Kansas).

The kids also delight: Abby Sara Dahan (Baby June); Jonah Frimmer (Young Yonkers); 
Charlie Pelletier (Young Tulsa) and Natalie Steele (Baby Louise).

What Are the Lowlights?

None worth mentioning.

More information:
Let Gypsy entertain you through Sept. 25 at Music Theatre of Connecticut, 509 Westport Ave, (behind Nine West), Nowalk. Performances are Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 4  and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm. Tickets are $30-$55:; 203-454-3883.

Additional casting:
Brittany Cattaruzza (Margaret May, others)
Peter McClung (Father, others)
Abigial Root (Agnes & Others)

Additional credits:
Costume Design by Diane Vanderkroef; Wigs by Peggi De La Cruz; Lighting Design by Michael Blagys; Choreography by Becky Timms.
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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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