Sunday, July 20, 2014

Theater Review: Fiddler on the Roof -- Goodspeed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiddler plays through Sept. 12 at Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main St., East Haddam. Performances are  Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 pm; Thursday at 7:30 pm and select matinees at 2 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturdays at 3 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm with select performances at 6:30 pm. Tickets $27-$82.50  860 873-8668;

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

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Theater Review: Gypsy -- CT Repertory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now for the review.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theater Review: The Bikinis -- Long Wharf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bikinis throw their beach party through July 27 at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven. Performances are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Maitinees Wednesday and Sunday at 2 pm, Saturdays at 3. Through July 27. Tickets: $59.50. 203-787-4282;

Thursday, July 3, 2014

CT Arts Connections

Click here for info and tickets

Click here for info and tickets

  • Playhouse on Park is offering the Young Actors Onstage program for grades 6-8 in two-week sessions. The first session meets for two hours in the afternoon, and the second session meets for three hours in the morning to allow for more in-depth training. Students will learn age-appropriate acting techniques and demonstrate their new skills in a culminating showcase. The program focuses on developing acting technique in a comfortable and professional setting. Director of education Dawn Loveland will teach acting and storytelling activities, improvisation exercises, monologue and scene work, movement for actors, and voice for actors. Registration is required; class size is limited and will be first-come, first-served. For more information or to learn about our other programs, including the Young Actor Musical Theatre Preparatory Program, visit, call 860-523-5900 x10 or email
  • For students who love to perform, Playhouse on Park will offer a two-week full-day musical theatre program this summer. The program guides performers entering grades 3-8 in becoming triple threats!
    The Young Actor Musical Theatre Preparatory Program gives older elementary and middle school students theatre instruction in a comfortable and professional setting. Students have daily classes in acting, music, and movement, plus rehearsals for their final showcase, which will feature them in all three disciplines. Students also have opportunities to develop and perform their own pieces. The faculty for this program includes Dawn Loveland, Kevin Barlowski, and Hillary Ekwall. Students also participate in master classes with visiting Broadway artists, including Janelle Robinson (Mary Poppins, Oklahoma, Show Boat) and Joel Newsome (The Producers, 42nd Street). They will also have a chance to learn from the cast of the Playhouse on Park summer musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Upon completing the program, students should have the skills to create a compelling and engaging musical theatre performance.
  • With warmer weather just around the corner, Playhouse on Park offers summer acting programs for Grades K-5. Each program meets two hours a day for two weeks. Students are generally grouped by grade level to focus on age appropriate acting techniques, and each session ends with a final student showcase. For grades K-2, there is the Creative Kids program, which introduces young children to acting with creative play. Exercises and games will focus on acting, story telling, puppetry, music, and movement. A craft and story will often be included. By the end of the class, students should be using their bodies and voices to start to create characters. Grades 3-5 have the Young Actors program, where students gain more comfort portraying a character onstage. Topics will include basic scene work, story telling, puppetry, music, and movement. The instructor for these programs is Dawn Loveland, the Playhouse's Director of Education. Registration is required; class size is limited and will be first-come, first-served. For more information on these or to learn about our additional programs, including the Young Actor Musical Theatre Preparatory Program, visit, call 860-523-5900 x10 or email

Talcott Mountain Concert Tonight Postponed

The Hartford Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Celebrate America! at the Talcott Mountain Music Festival has been postponed due to a forecast of lightning storms for this evening. 

Thursday’s concert tickets will be honored tomorrow evening at the Friday, July 4 at 7:30 p.m. rain date performance. Please check the website for further weather updates tomorrow

Patrons who have already purchased tickets for tonight and are unable to attend the rain date concert can call HSO Ticket Services at (860) 244-2999 between Monday, July 7 and Friday, July 11 for exchange options. Please note: there is a $3.00 charge per ticket for the exchange.

Extended Box Office hours: HSO Ticket Services will be open during its regular hours tomorrow, Friday, July 4. The Hartford Box Office, located at 100 Pearl St., will be open from 10 am to 3 pm and the Simsbury box office, located at the concert site on Iron Horse Boulevard, will be open starting at 11 am. through the start of the concert. 

Additionally, tickets are available for purchase online at or by calling (860) 244-2999.
--- 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 Connecticut Arts Connection (, CT Press Club's award winner of first place for web editing and second place in feature writing for the web in 2012.

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

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

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

Copyright Notice

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