Monday, October 27, 2014

Theater Review: Hamlet -- Hartford Stage

Cliff Miller, Zach Appelman and James Seol. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Though this be madness, 
yet there is method in't." (Act II, Scene 2)

Darko Creates a Youthful, Emotional Chess Match for Hamlet
By Lauren Yarger
From the opening gambit to the sacrifice of the queen, Darko Tresnjak’s Hamlet at Hartford Stage is an emotional, gripping chess match between two kings.

On one side of the board is Hamlet (a gripping and energetic Zach Appelman), Prince of Denmark, who returns from university to discover his father dead and his mother, Gertrude (Kate Forbes), quickly remarried to his uncle, now King Claudius (Andrew Long). There is something rotten in Denmark, however, and the ghost of the late king begs son Hamlet to avenge his murder at his brother’s hand.

Visualizing the chess match about to take place for power and the throne, Tresnjak, who designs the set as well as directs, places the action on a black-and-white checkered platform in the shape of a cross. All it takes is for a chandelier to drop or a curtain to be angled and the set transforms to various locations.

All of the players are positioned. On Hamlet’s side are his best friend, Horatio (James Seol), and a group of theatrical players (led by Floyd King) who Hamlet has re-enact Claudius’ crimes to unnerve the king.

Moving for Claudius are his counselor, Polonius (a very funny Edward James Hyland), and his son, Laertes (Anthony Roach). Polonius’s daughter, Ophelia (Brittany Vicars) is the pawn, bending to her father’s instructions to reject Hamlet’s romantic advances. Also Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Curtis Billings and Cliff Miller), friends of Hamlet’s from the university, are manipulated around the board by Claudius as spies.

Tresnjak also focuses on the religious themes in Shakespeare’s play, having the cross (expertly lighted by Matthew Richards) change with a stained glass window effect, into the church where he contemplates a checkmate move against Claudius.

Shakespeare’s tragedy of revenge is the first show artistic director has helmed since winning the Tony Award last season for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, still running on Broadway where it transferred following its premiere at Hartford Stage. In casting TV star Appelman (“Sleepy Hollow,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Homeland”), Tresnjak infuses the Elizabethan-era tragedy with modern youthfulness. Appelman is energetic and complex, often transforming his soliloquies into laid-back chat sessions with the audience. We get his disgust at Gertrude’s haste to marry Claudius. Forbes’s strong performance gives insight into a mother dealing with an increasingly irrational son.

A couple of things don’t quite fit, though: Shakespeare’s lines don’t come easily off Vicars’ tongue and she overdoes the dramatics; also overdone are comedic line delivery and props in the grave-digging scene.

Tresnjak captures our attention, however, as we watch maneuvers to trap the king and set up the kill. The final scene is unique, at least in my experiences of productions of Hamlet, and satisfyingly illuminating.

Hamlet plays at Hartford Stage, 50 Church Street, Hartford, through Nov. 16. Performances Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday at 7:30 pm; Friday, Saturday at 8 pm;  Saturday, Sunday at 2 pm. Wednesday matinee at 2 pm on Oct. 29 only. Weekly schedules can vary. Tickets:860- 527-7838; www.

Special program: a free lecture from artists and scholars connected with the production will following the 2 pm matinee Sunday, Oct. 21. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Hartford Symphony Orchestra

The Hartford Symphony Orchestra will present Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto as the second concert of its 2014-2015 Masterworks Series on Nov.  13-16 in Belding Theater at The Bushnell in Hartford.  

The piano concerto will feature guest artist Martina Filjak. The program, conducted by HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan,  also will include Brahms’ Tragic Overture and R. Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration

“In this concert, we will invite our audience to discover powerful themes of human existence,” says Kuan.  “The bravura notes of Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto express why it is known as the “Emperor.”  Brahms’ heart-wrenching Tragic Overture has a turbulent, tormented character to it, while Strauss’ transcendent Death and Transfiguration explores earthly struggle resulting in heavenly bliss,” she explained.

Johannes Brahms’ Tragic Overture is somber and darkly heroic. Though Brahms wrote the two orchestral overtures Academic Festival andTragic in tandem during the year 1880, the works have more of a complementary balance than a continuity. “Having composed this jolly Academic Festival Overture, I could not refuse my melancholy nature the satisfaction of composing an overture for a tragedy,” Brahms wrote to his biographer Max Kalbeck, “One overture laughs, the other weeps.”

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor” is the largest in scale of all the composer’s concertos.  The year 1809 had been a difficult one for Vienna and for Beethoven. Napoleon invaded the city with enough firepower to send the residents scurrying and Beethoven into the basement of his brother’s house. He wrote to his publisher Breitkopf und Härtel, “The whole course of events has affected me body and soul.  What a disturbing, wild life around me; nothing but drums, cannons, men, misery of all sorts.” He additionally bellowed his frustration at a French officer he chanced to meet: “If I were a general and knew as much about strategy as I do about counterpoint, I’d give you fellows something to think about.”  The “Emperor” Concerto was written with fully textured chords and wide dynamic range.  The piano technique is remarkable, considering that the modern, steel-frame concert grand was not perfected until 1825.  In this work, written sixteen years earlier, Beethoven envisioned the possibilities that this later, improved instrument would offer.

Guest pianist Martina Filjak is praised for her poetic passion and technical mastery at the keyboard, as well as for her charismatic personality and magnetic stage presence.  She came to international attention by winning the Gold Medal, the First Prize and the Beethoven Prize at the Cleveland International Piano Competition in 2009, which brought her numerous engagements in United States and internationally. Prior to that, she won First Prize awards at the Maria Canals Piano Competition (Barcelona, Spain) and the Viotti Piano Competition (Vercelli, Italy).

Hartford Symphony Orchestra Masterworks Series
Thursday – Sunday, November 13-16, 2014
Belding Theater at The Bushnell
Thursday 7:30pm│Friday & Saturday 8pm│Sunday 3pm
A pre-concert talk will take place one hour prior to each performance.
Carolyn Kuan conductor
Martina Filjak piano
Brahms Tragic Overture, Op. 81
R. Strauss Death and Transfiguration, TrV 158, Op. 24
Beethoven Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat Major, Op. 73, “Emperor”

Ticket Information: Tickets $35.50-$67.50. Student tickets are $10. On Saturday, October 18, $25 tickets are available for patrons age 40 and under. 860-987-5900;

Broadway Divas To Benefit TheaterWorks

December 1 @ 8pm

Fabulous, Flirty and Funny!
An evening of song, dance, laughter and memories
that will have you seeing the stars!


Ticket includes a post-performance MEET & GREET
with Andrea, Maureen, Donna, and Faith,
Matthew Lombardo, John McDaniel and Rob Ruggiero

CALL 860.527.7838
$50 of each ticket sold will benefit TheaterWorks' Annual fund

Hal Holbrook Celebrates 90th with Mark Twain Performance

Having first donned Samuel Clemens' infamous white suit in 1954, Hal Holbrook's humorous and affecting portrayal of Mark Twain has charmed audiences for six decades. The Tony and Emmy Award winner and Academy Award nominee returns to the city that Twain called home for 20 years to mark an unforgettable occasion -- Holbrook's 90th birthday with a special event to benefit the Mark Twain House and Museum.

The performance will be held 7:30 pm, Tuesday Feb. 17 at The Bushnell. Tickets will go on sale to the general public on Friday, Oct. 31, with sale days for Mark Twain House members starting Tuesday, Oct. 28. 

To make this benefit event as affordable as possible to all Holbrook fans, there is an array of ticket price options. The VIP Package at $125 includes premium orchestra seating, and a private dessert reception after the show with Holbrook. Orchestra and box seats are $75, mezzanine seats are $40-$55, and balcony seats are $25-$40. Tickets:; 860-987-5900.

Harold Rowe "Hal" Holbrook, Jr. (born Feb. 17, 1925) is an American film and stage actor. Holbrook initially gained notoriety for a one-man stage show he developed while in college in 1954, performing as Mark Twain, and made his film debut in Sidney Lumet's The Group. He later gained international notoriety for his performance as Deep Throat in the 1976 film "All the President's Men" followed by roles in "Julia," "The Fog" and "Creepshow." 

Holbrook's later career has included roles in "Into the Wild," for which he was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award and an Academy Award, as well as a recurring role on the television series "Designing Women" and "Sons of Anarchy", and as Francis Preston Blair in Steven Spielberg's film "Lincoln."

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Theater Review: Holiday Inn -- Goodspeed

The cast of Holiday Inn. Photo: Diane Sobolewski

It’s Old and New and Features Sensational Choreography
By Lauren Yarger
It’s got great tunes by Irving Berlin, old-fashioned dance numbers and a lot of heart. Another revival of a classic musical at Goodspeed you might think -- but you would be wrong. It’s the word premiere of a new musical. Well, a new, old musical, if you will.

Based on the classic film starring Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby, Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn features tunes like “What’ll I Do?,” "Happy Holiday," "Easter Parade," "Be Careful, It's My Heart" and “You’re Easy to Dance With” with a new book by Gordon Greenberg (who directs) and Chad Hodge.

The plot is the same: Entertainers Ted Hanover (Noah Racey), Jim Hardy (Tally Sessions) and Lila Dixon (Hayley Podschun) have been performing their song and dance number waiting for their big break, but Jim has had a change of heart. He wants to get out of show business and settle down on a farm in Connecticut.

He buys the old Mason Farm in Midville, CT at foreclosure and pops the question to Lila. She opts to join Ted on the road for a while, however, and Jim finds himself trying to figure out how to raise chickens and fix his repair-needy old farm house. Offering some help are fix-it expert Louise (Susan Mosher) and the farm’s former owner, Linda Mason (Patti Murin), a school teacher who once dreamsed of a career in show biz.

The three stumble upon a way to make money to keep the farm: invite Jim’s show biz friends, who don’t have anywhere to go on the holidays, up to Connecticut to put on some shows. The inn turns into a holiday showplace and a romance between Linda and Jim blossoms, until Ted pays a visit and decides Linda is the perfect dance partner. Will Jim lose another girl to his best friend?

Don’t stress too hard. The light plot serves mostly as a vehicle for the delightful songs (Music Direction by Michael O’Flaherty; Orchestrations by Dan DeLange), splashy, glittery mid 1940s costumes designed by Alejo Vietti (with excellent Wig and Hair Design by Mark Adam Rampmeyer) and the clever and exciting choreography by Denis Jones (watch for his work in the soon-to-hit-Broadway musical Honeymoon in Vegas). Anna Louizos designs simple sets that don’t detract from the other elements and leave plenty of room for dancing.

And that choreography is the star of the show, with tap dancing, foot-stomping, jump roping, prop throwing and lots of other spectacular movement. Mosher also steals the show whenever she is on as the goofy, kind-hearted Louise (think Carol Burnett).

Songs aren’t exactly the same as the movie (the controversial, black-faced number “Abraham” has been eliminated), but the firecracker dance remains.

The show has been extended twice, through Dec. 21. Its charm and old-fashioned trip to a much simpler time can’t help but bring a smile to the face of a more modern audience looking for escape.

Holiday Inn plays at the Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main St., East Haddam. Performances: 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 $15-$77.50  860 873-8668;

--- 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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