Monday, March 2, 2015

Theater Review Reverberation -- Hartford Stage

Luke Macfarlane and Aya Cash Photos by T. Charles Erickson
A Little Too Up Close and Personal with Characters We Don’t Know
By Lauren Yarger
It’s about friendship and love. It’s about loss and taking chances. And it’s about some other things I’m not so sure about.

Most of all, the world premiere of Matthew Lopez’ Reverberation at Hartford Stage was just not interesting to me. Now before you leap to the conclusion that the only reason I wouldn’t like this play is because of an extended opening scene involving nudity and gay sex (which, yes, like most sex scenes --  homosexual or not -- are unnecessary on stage), let me say that isn’t the reason. I’m actually a fan of Lopez, a frequent collaborator at Hartford Stage (he participated in the Brand:NEW series, served as the 2013-14 Aetna New Voices Fellow and has had productions of Somewhere and The Whipping Man – a fresh and intensely interesting piece – here).

The problem for me was that at 20 minutes in, I still had no real idea of who these people were or why I was being asked to feel as though I were sitting in a chair in the cluttered Astoria, Queens apartment designed by Andromache Chalfant watching them – Director Maxwell Wiliams creates a kind of voyeur feeling by breaking down the fourth wall. Near the end of the two and half hours (with intermission) I still hadn’t engaged with the strange characters and the plot took such a bizzare turn that my notes say, “please make this stop.”

That first sexual encounter is with the apartment’s occupant, Jonathan (Luke Macfarlane of TV’s “Brothers and Sisters”), a reclusive greeting card illustrator who lost his longtime partner in a violent anti-gay attack. His only contact with the outside world is with men he hooks up with for sex through the gay social networking site “Grindr.”

His current hookup, Wes (Carl Lundstedt), has just experienced the best sex of his life  (and so have we, unfortunately) and he is interested in more. Right now, any time. He can’t keep his hands off Jonathan. It might go a bit deeper than just this moment, however. Wes lives in the neighborhood and has had his eye on Jonathan for a while, it seems. The idea of anything more serious than a one-night stand turns Jonathan off, however, and he sends Wes on his way.

Enter Claire (Aya Cash, star of the sitcom “You’re the Worst”). She has just moved into the loft upstairs that Jonathan and his former lover occupied before the tragedy (this second story is visible above Jonathan’s apartment and realistically connected via hallway and stairs). She offers sex to her new neighbor before discovering his orientation, then rather aggressively offers him friendship. He is reluctant at first, but Claire’s flighty, fun-loving and caring personality win him over and the two become best friends, filling needs that aren’t met through their other relationships.

When Jonathan is overwhelmed with grief and crying and screaming in the night, he has only to bang on the ceiling and Claire comes downstairs to get into bed with him so he can spoon her and stroke her hair the way he did with his dead lover. When Claire is getting ready for a date, Jonathan is there to help her zip up her dress and to soothe her later when it doesn’t go well with a jerk who through her out of his car when she wouldn’t put out.

The relationship suffers complications, however, when plans for a vacation together are jeopardized. Claire might have found “Mr. Right” and Wes returns to the mix saying he loves Jonathan and asking to rekindle their relationship. Jonathan just might be in ove with wes after their one too….

The play suffers complications (besides having a bunch of uninteresting characters we can’t really relate to) when Lopez introduces bizarre, psychological or otherworldly twists (though the otherworldly feeling is played up by Lighting Designer Matthew Richards with shadows flitting throughout.)

Under the direction of Williams, the three actors give solid performances – Cash has most of the humorous moments and she makes us think Claire might have some interesting qualities hidden in there somewhere. It’s not enough, unfortunately, to convince us it has been worth the time we have spent being voyeurs into her dealings with odd Jonathan or into his encounters with the one-dimensional Wes.

It’s one of those plays that leaves you wondering what the heck it was about. The audience (which was not full on opening night) was very quiet on the way out of the theater – usually a sign that people haven’t understood what they have seen and are afraid to ask. Or maybe they just didn’t care.

I guess I was hoping for more after so enjoying the rich, fully developed characters of The Whipping Man. We wish Lopez the best on his next project, an adaptation of Javier MarĂ­as’ trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow, for the big screen.

Reverberation runs through March 15 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Matinees Sunday and select Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 pm. Tickets $20-$85  (860) 527-5151; www.hartfordstage.org.


Note: The theater recommends this one for ages 18+ because of the adult themes, language, nudity, violence 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Theater Review: Familiar -- Yale Rep

Cherise Boothe, Shyko Amos, Patrice Johnson Chevannes and Kimberly Scott. Photo © Joan Marcus, 2015
Family Cultures of Zimbabwe, America Might Be More Familiar Than You’d Think
By Lauren Yarger
A family struggles to find balance between its Midwestern and African roots. You might think you don’t have much in common with them, but by the end of Danai Gurira’s newest play getting its word premiere at Yale Rep, you’ll realize that everything actually feels very Familiar.

Whether they are shouting out greetings in their native Shona language, or whooping it up while watching their favorite Minnesota football team plays on TV, these folks are reflections of us and stretch our thoughts about just what is and isn’t familiar.

Donald and Marvelous Chinyaramwira (Harvy Blanks and Saidah Arrika Ekulona) have achieved the American dream. They have enjoyed successful careers, raised two daughters in their comfortable midwestern home (nice appointed by set designer Matt Saunders) and bicker like any long-married couple – even if it is over the unusual topic of whether to display a portrait of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe or a dog in the lovey living room.

Eldest daughter, Tendikayi  (Cherise Boothe ) is about to marry rich, white Chris (Ross Marquand ) and the couple isn’t sure just how much to call attention to her past. Youngest daughter, Nyasha  (Shyko Amos), and artist still supported by the couple,  has just returned from a visit to Zimbabwe  and embraces her African roots. She has been asked to share a song at the rehearsal dinner, but hasn’t been included as a bridesmaid in the wedding party.

The bridesmaids are Tendikayi’s “spiritual” sisters, she explains – friends from the couple’s evangelical Christian church, which teaches, among other things, that she and Chris should wait to have sex until they are married. When Nyasha scoffs, we understand that there are cultural differences in the family that have nothing to do with African vs. American roots.  Against the wishes of Marvelous, who wants her family follow its American culture, the bride and groom announce that they are incorporating a Zimbabwe custom into the marriage ceremony.

Assisting is Margaret (Patrice Johnson Chevannes), their  sister who comes over from Africa against the wishes of Marvelous, thanks to the surprising meddling of their other sister,  Annie (Kimberly Scott), a fashionista who embraces the American culture so much that she refused to teach her own children her native language.  When Margaret requires a spokesman to negotiate for the bride’s dowry on behalf of the groom, Chris begs his brother, Brad (Joe Tippett) to step in.

Besides the culture conflicts, the family must weather a medical emergency, discover a deeply buried family secret,  reinvent identities and decide whether this wedding will go forward and whether a marriage will survive. Are the roots of the family tree strong enough for the branches to bear the weight of these relationships?

Rebecca Taichman (Marie Antoinette) directs a tightly knit cast that delivers strong performances across the board. Each character gets full development and a range of emotion. Tippet gets laughs as the laid-back, black sheep of both families who just might be the one who really knows what’s important.

Adding to the storytelling by Zimbabwe native Gurira (Eclipsed, In the Continuum) are costumes from both cultures by Designer Toni-Leslie James and original music by jazz artist Somi. It’s a rich, thought-provoking tale of likable characters that really does feel as familiar as our next family get-together. 

Familiar runs through Feb. 21 at Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel St., New Haven. Performance times vary. Tickets: $20-$98. www.yalerep.org; 203-432-1234. Student, senior, and group rates are available.


Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Theater Review: Nice Work If You Can Get It -- The Bushnell

The cast of Nice Work I f You Can Get It. Photo: Photo by Jeremy Daniel
Settling in for Gershwin Tunes, Witty Script is Nice Work if You Can Get It (and I did!)
By Lauren Yarger
I love a Gershwin tune, how about you?

I also love my job as a theater critic and It’s Nice work When You Can Get It to sit back, relax and enjoy more than two and a half hours of George and Ira Gershwin tunes -- especially when enhanced by fabulous direction and choreography by Kathleen Marshall.

And oh, yeah, the silly, witty book by favorite writer Joe DiPietro (Memphis, Toxic Avenger, All Shook Up) isn’t too bad either in this tour of the production making a stop this week at The Bushnell. It almost doesn’t feel like a jukebox musical with a portfolio of tunes wrapped around a silly plot.

Silly it is. With a few political digs woven in a witty script housing almost 30 tunes like “But Not For Me,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” “I’ve Got a Crush on You” and “Someone to Watch Over Me” that make you want to sing along. And, unfortunately, some folks at the performance I attended decided to do just that -- in out-of-key voices all night long, so be prepared.)

DiPietro’s book (which got its earliest tryouts here at Goodspeed as They All Laughed) is inspired by material by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse and follows the hijinks of bootleggers and rich folks in Prohibition era New York

Billie Bendix (Mariah MacFarlane) and her bootlegging buddies, Duke Mahoney (Aaron Fried) and Cookie McGee (Reed Campbell), work for the elusive Brownbeard, king of the underground liquor market. They need a place to stash their illegal product when Police Chief Berry (Thomas Schario) starts getting too close.

Billie thinks she sees an easy mark when playboy Jimmy Winter (Alex Enterline) tells her his large summer place on Long Island is sitting empty (the soaring, stage-filling sets are recreated for the tour by Shoko Kambara, based on the original Broadway scenic design by Derek McLane).

He also tells her a few other things, like he’s not really in love with his soon-to-be fourth wife, Eileen Evergreen (Rachael Scarr), the daughter of a senator (Benjamin Perez). He is just marrying her to convince his controlling mother, Millicent (Barbara Weetman), that he is mature enough to take over the family business – even though he has no idea what that business involves.

Sparks ignite between the two and they are surprised to meet up again when Jimmy shows up unexpectedly for his honeymoon at the summer place the bootleggers planned to use as a hideaway. Cookie poses as the butler, Billie is a Cockney maid and Duke is mistaken for British royalty by Jimmy’s chorus-girl groupie friend Jeannie Muldoon (Stephanie Gandolfo).

Lots of romance and hilarity ensue, especially when Eileen’s speakeasy-burning, uppity duchess Aunt Estonia Dulworth (Stephanie Harter Gilmore) arrives with her vice squad in tow. Let’s just say there’s drunken swinging from a chandelier, poetry, modern dance and chorus girls popping out of bubble baths  -- all guffaw-inducing and brilliantly directed. And I do mean brilliant – with opulent drapes and sparkling flapper-inspired costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, coordinated here by Amy Clark with lighting designed by Paul Toben, based on the original Broadway lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski.

The small band under the direction of Charlie Reuter does the score proud and the horns are particularly good. (Orchestrations are by Bill Elliott; Music Arrangements by David Chase; Music Supervision by Shawn Gough.) Marshall’s choreography, recreated for the tour by David Eggers is executed well, but doesn’t capture the magic of the Broadway dancing which I described as “furniture and gravity” defying.

Enterline (making his touring debut) and MacFarlane have nice chemistry and give good turns, as do Scarr (her character’s “modern dance” is a hoot), and most of the ensemble, particularly Campbell, also making his tour debut, who brings in a lot of the laughs with good delivery. Gilmore disappointed a bit, not just because I had been hoping, perhaps unfairly, for more of a show-stopping turn like the one Tony winner Judy Kaye gave as the duchess, but also because the actress was struggling for pitch. Or maybe it was just that those off-key audience members decided to join more often on her songs. . .

Overall, “’swonderful” way to spend about two hours and 45 minutes with an intermission.

Catch it through Feb. 8 at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday: 7:30 pm; Fridays and Saturdays: 8 pm; Saturday at 2 pm; Sunday 1 and 6:30 pm. Tickets $26-$82: 860-987-5900; www.bushnell.org.

Theater Review: Driving Miss Daisy -- Music Theatre of CT

Rebecca Hoodwin and Lorenzo Scott. Photo: Joe Landry


Driving Miss Daisy
Music Theatre of Connecticut
Through Feb. 22

What's It All About?
Only one of the best plays ever! This thoughtful character study and comment on race relations through the years seen through the lends on an unlikely friendship won playwright Alfred Uhry a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 and an Academy Award for the brilliant screenplay adapting it for the big screen in 1990. Rebecca Hoodwin plays Miss Daisy Werthen, an elderly southern, Jewish woman, who takes offense when her son, Boolie (Mike Boland) hires her a chauffeur. She doesn't want Hoke Coleburn (Lorenzo Scott) in her house or driving her around Atlanta, where her friends might get the idea she is putting on airs. 

Patient and determined, Hoke finally gets her to ride with him (the car is represented by benches and a steering wheel taking up on corner of the minimal set designed by David Heuvelman) and a friendship ensues over the years from 1948-1973. Racial, class and other tensions are tested, not only by the friendship, but in society in general.

What Are the Highlights?
The play is one of my favorites and when it's done right, it will make you cry (it did.) Hoodwin gives a solid performance as the frail woman who can be overbearing and unreasonable. She ages noticeably through the years. Countering nicely is Boland as the tough business man with a soft heart.

Sound effects and music to transition scenes are excellent. The incidental music was composed by Robert Waldman (and licensed from Dramatists with the script) and is the music used in the original production, according to Joe Landry, director of marketing and PR for MTC. The sound effects were added by Kevin Connors and the creative team, he said. Well done!

This production was a welcome revisit to the play for me after a disastrous revival on Broadway a few years ago, which proved that even excellent plays can get horrible productions. So, if you never have seen this gem of a play, or if that James Earl Jones/Vanessa Redgrave revival was your first experience, run over the the Music Theatre of Connecticut box office and see this one!

What Are the Lowlights?
The pace is too brisk. This is the type of play that should have the feel of a slow, southern morning, enjoyed while sipping iced tea, slowly rocking in a chair on the porch and listening to the buzz of insects in air so hot it's barely moved by weak breezes. . .

Some of the dialogue needs a few seconds of silence following it for the impact to sink in. Scott gives us a Hoke who is affable, but who seems very youthful and robust. He needs to be more laid back for us to understand the submissive demeanor he has had to assume to get along as an African American during those racially challenging times in the south. We also need to see the difference in his attitude when he occasionally stands up to Miss Daisy. 

Director Kevin Connors also uses some odd blocking at times which has characters talking off into space instead of to each other.

More information:
Miss Daisy drives by through Feb. 22 at Music Theatre of Connecticut's new home, The Melissa and Doug Theatre, 509 Westport Ave.,  Norwalk, Performances are Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 4 and 8 pm, Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets: Tickets: $30-$50 ($5 off for seniors/students based on availability): 203-454-3883; www.musictheatreofct.com.

C O N N E C T I C U T
--- A R T S ---
C O N N E C T I O N

Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced
numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont
Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.”

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway
League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway
run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill
Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/. She
is editor of The award-winning Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com),

She is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Contributing Editor for BroadwayWorld.com, Connecticut theater editor
for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web. Yarger is a book reviewer and writer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented
by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle (awards committee).

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts,
the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.

Copyright Notice

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