Thursday, March 27, 2014

Bushnell, HSO Announce New Affiliation

The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts and the Hartford Symphony Orchestra announced that their boards have agreed to two-year management services contract which would have Bushnell CEO Davd Fay assume the position of interim CEO for the HSO and move the symphony's staff to the Bushnell.

HSO CEO Carrie Hammond will step aside next week when Fay assumes the role. The staff move is expected in August. It was not immediately known which HSO staff positions are moving and whether any might eventually be eliminated, though Bushnell Communications Manager Paul Marte said there were no immediate plans to eliminate positions as part of the move. A CFO position, currently vacant at the HSO, would not be hired, he said.

The HSO's current staff consists of Hammond's executive assistant, a development department of four, an education department of two, a finance and human resources manager, a marketing and PR director, an artistic operations manager, a technical director, and four box office personnel. The financially struggling HSO has eliminated other positions over the years.

Under the agreement, the HSO and The Bushnell will remain independent, 501(c) (3) non-profit organizations.  The HSO is contracting for management services from The Bushnell through an agreement that runs through the summer of 2016.  The agreement will provide the HSO with enhanced financial reporting and management; human resources management and processes; office space, clerical and IT services; marketing and box office services; and education and programming delivery support. 

The Bushnell also will provide principal management during the initial term of the arrangement, including fundraising, governance support and the services of Fay.

Hammond served as interim CEO for the HSO from May – October 2011 during Music Director Carolyn Kuan’s first season with the organization, and has been CEO since May 2012.  During her tenure, the orchestra developed numerous successful community initiatives, including CityMusic, the Musicians Care Project, the LIFE project, and Bachtoberfest. It was not known whether the HSO's Masterworks, Pops!, Talcott Mountain, Sunday Serenades and Musical Dialogues will continue as in under the new management agreement.

The Bushnell also manages Rentschler Field in East Hartford and SummerWind Performing Arts Center in Windsor.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Theater Review: The Other Place -- TheaterWorks

Kate Levy and Amelia McClain. Photo: Lanny Nagler
Exploring the Inner Places of The Other Place a Mind Can Go
By Lauren Yarger
Where does a woman who is an expert on dementia turn when everyone around her tells her she’s losing her mind?

The complex answer comes in various parts in Sharr White’s complex psychological study The Other Place, getting a run at TheaterWorks in Hartford.

Kate Levy plays Juliana Smithton, a neurologist and expert in the subject of dementia who is a spokesperson for Identanyl, a new treatment for the disease. She’s been under a lot of stress and has been having some “episodes.”

Husband, Ian (R. Ward Duffy)  is leaving her. The couple have never quite recovered from the disappearance of their headstrong daughter, Laurel (Amelia McClain). They hope she ran off with Juliana’s assistant, Richard (Clark Carmichael) after an argument, but they haven’t heard from her again and have feared the worst – until Juliana starts getting phone calls from her.

Laurel and Richard have married, Juliana learns and have twin girls whom she can hear in the background as she chats with Richard. Laurel is reluctant to come to the phone, but when she finally does speak with her mother, Juliana tells her she’s having some tests regarding the “episodes” and that she thinks it might be brain cancer.

Oncologist Ian and Juliana’s doctor (also McClain) aren’t so sure. Nothing shows cancer, but Juliana’s behavior, including rages, repeated conversations and a sort of breakdown at a medical conference seem to indicate something else.

Ian doesn’t even believe that Juliana has finally tracked down Laurel. In her confusion, Juliana returns to the one place that represents stability and peace in her life – the family’s summer home on Cape Cod which they call “The Other Place” (Designer Luke Hegel-Cantarella’s set nicely morphs from the sterile doctor’s office and lecture stage to the warm, memory-filled beach house). There, she finds extraordinary kindness and understanding from a stranger (also McClain) and finally is able to figure out what’s going on.

Director Rob Ruggiero neatly directs the character-driven piece with the addition of video projections (design by William Cusick) that give a glimpse into the mind of Juliana. Images of a rainstorm, for example, combined with lighting effects designed by John Lasiter, brilliantly produce the same tempest taking place in Juliana’s mind.

Levy shows a wide arc of emotions as the character goes from educated woman in control of her life to someone not quite sure who to trust, including herself. She tends to play all of the ranges, unfortunately, with a ferocity that doesn’t allow us to see enough of Juliana’s fear and vulnerability through the process. In addition, chemistry isn’t quite there with Duffy, who gets blown away by the intensity of Levy’s performance. We’re not quite sure whether to feel sorry for him or Juliana.

McClain stands out, first as the sympathetic, but fascinated doctor, then as an empathetic stranger who puts her own worries aside to try to help Juliana find answers about what happened to Laurel and to whether or not she’s losing her mind. This scene, while giving Levy some of her most dramatic moments, stands out in the White’s script as not quite plausible, however.


Overall, The Other Place is a fairly intense and moving 90 minutes of theater. It plays through April 19 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays: 7:30 pm; Fridays and Saturdays: 8 pm; Weekend Matinees at 2:30 pm. Tickets $15-$65; 860-527-7838; www.theaterworkshartford.org.

SHOUT! -- Ivoryton Playhouse

Tamala Baldwin, Mikah Horn, Monica Bradley, Jennifer Lorae and Bethany Fitzgerald. Photo: Anne Hudson
Mod England Swings into Ivoryton Playhouse
By Lauren YargerFive young girls embrace the mod life in 1960s and 1970s England in Phillip George and David Lowenstein’s SHOUT!: The Mod Musical getting a swinging run at Ivoryton Playhouse.

Singing 30 tunes popular in the era like “Goldfinger,” “Downtown,” To Sir with Love,” and the title song “Shout,” the girls, identified only by colors that signify their personalities, try to embrace modern times while seeking the advice of columnist Gwendolyn Holmes (voiced by Ivoryton Playhouse Company Manager Beverly J. Taylor). Holmes writes for Shout Magazine, the popular culture bible that guides them on what to wear and what to think.
Yellow Girl (Tamala Baldwin) is emotionally charged. An American, she travels to England to follow her heart and stalk the love of her life, Paul McCartney. In his trash, she finds a souvenir to treasure: his dandruff-laced comb.
Red Girl (a very engaging Bethany Fitzgerald) is clumsy and not what the magazine would call a beauty. Should she be suspicious of the attentions being shown to her by a new beau?

Orange Girl (Mikah Horn) is domestic and maternal – and completely in denial as she waits for her husband to come home from the office on their anniversary. Meanwhile, Green Girl (Monica Bradley) goes through a long line of men before finding the right one and Blue Girl (Jennifer Lorae) remains proper and sophisticated as she slowly discovers that the reason she never feels sparks with a man is because her passion might actually rest with a girl named Penelope.

Through the years (represented by fashions designed by Kari Crowther) marriage, partner abuse, pregnancy, pot, women’s lib, the hippie movement – and a bunch of music – help usher the women into a new age and into an understanding that Dear Gwendolyn Holmes doesn’t know everything.

Jacqueline Hubbard directs the silly tale with choreography by Caitlin Sailer on a minimal “mod” set (designed by Daniel Nischan) featuring colored, lighted squares (lighting design by Marcus Abbott). A four-piece band directed by Kyle Norris is housed on stage.

The show is mostly about the songs which are strung together by the loose plot. The women seem to be having fun, but lack energy in the songs. The pacing of the show seems slow at points (the hour, 45 run time is long) and sometimes the British humor falls flat:

“There are worse things than being ugly… You could be French.”

As SHOUT is the operative word here, it’s a bit ironic that the vocal combinations seem very soft in volume. Blame doesn’t fall on sound designer Jo Nazro, whose mix of vocal harmonies and vocals with instruments is good. The singers just don’t project. The best number is “These Boots Were Made for Walking” where vocal volume, choreography and energy find a good blend.

Fitzgerald (who entertained as Amber in Ivoryton’s Hairspray) stands out with comic chops. Her character’s quirky personality comes through and the audience responds to her.

SHOUT! plays at the Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., through April 6. Performances are Wednesday and Sundayat 2 pm; Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm. Tickets $42 for adults, $37 for seniors, $20 for students and $15 for children. (860) 767-7318;  www.ivorytonplayhouse.org;

Theater Review: These Paper Bullets -- Yale Rep


Beatles, Bard and Billy Joe Make for a Mod Mix Musical
By Lauren Yarger
Who says Shakespeare is boring?

Take one of his classic comedies, throw in a Fab Four group sort of like the Beatles and let Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong (American Idiot) write the music and presto: you have a modern, interesting show called These Paper Bullets.

The subtitle is right: “A Modish Ripoff of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.” With a book by Rolin Jones (“Friday Night Lights,” “Weeds”) set in 1964 London, it follows the romantic and revenge-filled antics of the pop band Quartos: Ben (David Wilson Barnes), Claude (Bryan Fenkart), Balth (Lucas Papaelias), and Pedro (James Barry) – and Don Best (Adam O’Byrne), the drummer Pedro replaced.
They are worshipped by their fans and feared by Scotland Yard.

“What’s wrong with the youth of England?”

Can they  find true love – Ben with verbal sparring partner Bea (a very engaging Jeanine Serralles) and Claude with model Higgy (Ariana Venturi)? BBC reporter Paulina Noble (Liz Wisan) is sure to keep you up to date (thanks to video projections designed by Nicholas Hussong).

The Quartos: Bryan Fenkart as Claude, Lucas Papaelias as Balth, James Barry as Pedro (on drums), and David Wilson Barnes as Ben in These Paper Bullets! Photo © Joan Marcus, 2014.
The band plays Armstrong tunes (orchestrated and arranged by Tom Kitt of Next to Normal fame) under the musical direction of Julie McBride. Jackson Gay, who staged Jones’s Pulitzer-Prize finalist The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow at Yale Rep in 2004 directs the antics on Michael Yeargan’s multi-tasking set. Costume Designer Jessica Ford has fun putting the characters in 1960s outfits.

It’s a fun show with lots of laughs throughout. Commissioned by Yale Repertory Theatre, it’s a perfect offering for its WILL POWER! Series which includes three morning performances for  high school student groups. Most exciting to me was that if you didn’t know the basis plot was Much Ado, you wouldn’t know you were watching Shakespeare. The adaptation takes on its own persona and except for a few times when lines suddenly sound Shakespeare-like, those enjoying the tunes and story might have no idea old Will had anything to do with the production.

Warning: the show contains strong language and adult content. Showtimes vary through April 5. Tickets $20-$98: (203) 432-1234; www.yalerep.org. These Paper Bullets plays at the University Theatre, 222 York St., New Haven.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Book of Mormon -- The Bushnell

Mark Evans with First National Tour. Photo: Joan Marcus
These Mormons Get a Warm Welcome When They Ring The Bushnell’s Doorbell
By Lauren Yarger
Hello! The Mormons ringing bells at a special two-week engagement at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts are receiving a warm welcome from the packed audience, who provides lots of laughter while watching the antics of two Mormons trying to survive a missions trip from hell. 

The Book of Mormon, winner of nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical, is the brain child of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, four-time Emmy Award-winning creators of the animated series “South Park,” and Tony Award-winner Robert Lopez, co-creator of the long-running hit musical comedy, Avenue Q. Together the three wrote the book, music and lyrics and Parker Co-Directs with Casey Nicholaw, who also choreographs.

The show is as funny as it is irreverent, and there’s something to offend everyone, not just Mormons.

Elder Price (Mark Evans) has always been a model Mormon and he anxiously awaits his assignment for the missions trip required of all men in the church. He knows God expects him to do something amazing and he hopes it will be in the most fabulous location in the world. Orlando!

His hopes are dashed however, when he is sent to Uganda and partnered with needy and nerdy Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O'Neill) who has a history of telling lies.

The group of missionaries in Uganda, led by Elder McKinley (Grey Henson), are really happy to have new recruits, because so far their efforts to convert and baptize the people of the impoverished village have been unsuccessful. The villagers just have other things on their minds, like AIDS and a dictatorial General (Corey Jones), who believes all females should have their genitals mutilated. They’re a hard sell and dance out their general philosophy of life and gesture with their middle fingers to the heavens in “"Hasa Diga Eebowai, which translated means, “Fu** You, God.”

Nabulungi (Alexandra Ncube) glimpses a hope for salvation in the Mormons’ stories of a paradise named Salt Lake City, however, and encourages the villagers to give them a listen. When Price suffers a crisis of faith and leaves, the task is left to Cunningham, who unfortunately has never read the actual Book of Mormon (because it’s too boring, he says). Wanting to impress the beautiful Nabulungi, even though he never can seem to quite pronounce her name correctly, he invents his own stories to try to give the people what they want.

The missionaries offer advice and support in two very funny numbers: “Turn it Off,” where McKinley, struggling with same-sex attraction, advises the men to repress any bad feelings by turning them off like a light switch, and “"Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” which shows what will happen if they give in to bad thoughts.

Cunningham’s bizarre stories, combining the life of Joseph Smith (Ron Bohmer), Jesus Christ, Brigham Young and characters from Star Wars, Star Trek and Lord of the Rings, cause the villagers to join the church and be baptized, but also find their way into a riotously funny and highly offensive dramatic presentation performed as a surprise for the visiting church president.

This tour is quite well done, with strong vocals for the leads. Evans nails “I Believe” and Ncube shows a lovely soprano in her national tour debut. O’Neill, making his professional debut, shows solid comic ability as the awkward Cunningham (O’Neil, who has toured internationally with his sketch comedy duo The Chris and Paul Show, has won Best Actor in a Comedy in the New York Television Festival and was a nominee for Best Newcomer in the 2011 Montreal Sketch Festival & Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Nicholaw’s choreography lends to the zaniness on stage, as do Ann Roth’s costumes (encompassing everything from white shirts with name tags to African tribal garb to Mormon history and hell characters). Scott Pask’s sets convey locations, but are a bit tongue in cheek too.

The big problem with this production is the sound (design by Brian Ronan). In Mortensen Hall, the volume was way too loud, particularly on group songs and the mix wasn’t good, allowing solos consistently to be drowned out by backup singers. Individual words often were hard to hear, which is especially disappointing given the very clever lyrics.

In Hartford, the production will conduct a pre-show lottery at the box office, making 20 tickets available at $25 apiece. Entries will be accepted in the box office lobby beginning two and a half hours prior to each performance; each person will print their name and the number of tickets (1 or 2) they wish to purchase on a card that is provided. Two hours before curtain, names will be drawn at random for the tickets, priced at $25 each. Payment for these ticket(s) must be in cash.  Only one entry is allowed per person.  Cards are checked for duplication prior to drawing.  Winners must be present at the time of the drawing and show valid ID to purchase tickets.  Limit one entry per person and two tickets per winner. Tickets are subject to availability.

Say "Hello!" to these bell-ringing Mormons through March 30. Performances: Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday: 7:30 pm; Fridays and Saturdays: 8 pm; Saturday at 2 pm; Sunday 1 and 6:30 pm. Tickets $25-$100. 860-987-5900; www.bushnell.org.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Michael Wilson Returns to Direct Show Next Season at Hartford Stage

Hartford Stage has announced its 2014 - 2015 season.

ETHER DOME (East Coast Premiere)
By Elizabeth Egloff
Directed by Michael Wilson
September 11 – October 5, 2014
A co-production with La Jolla Playhouse and Huntington Theatre Company
Terror, murder, betrayal, and ruthless ambition. When a new treatment promises to eradicate pain, a doctor and his student play out an epic battle between altruism and financial gain. Based on the true story of the discovery of ether as an anesthetic in 1846 by Hartford’s own Dr. Horace Wells, Ether Dome is a psychological thriller that explores the pain that afflicts humankind, our attempts to find relief, and the beginning of healthcare as big business.

HAMLET
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Darko Tresnjak
October 16 – November 9, 2014
Following his productions of The TempestTwelfth Night and Macbeth, Tresnjak takes on Shakespeare’s masterpiece, Hamlet. A Danish prince returns home to find his father killed, and his mother marrying the murderer. When his father’s ghost rises to demand retribution, Hamlet is put in an impossible situation. In this opulent, Elizabethan staging, Hamlet’s tragic tale of revenge gets the full-on, terrifying — and bloody — treatment.

PRIVATE LIVES
By Noel Coward
Directed by Darko Tresnjak
January 8 – February 1, 2015
Amanda: vivacious, sexy, sophisticated. And Elyot: virile, charming, seductive. The epitome of a 1930's cosmopolitan couple. Until the divorce. Five years later, they are horrified — yet intrigued — to bump into each other while honeymooning in a French hotel with their new spouses. With its stinging barbs and clever wit, Private Lives is Noel Coward’s finest and funniest comedy.

REVERBERATION (World Premiere)
By Matthew Lopez
Directed by Maxwell Williams
February 19 – March 15, 2015
From the author of The Whipping Man and Somewhere. After a personal tragedy, Jonathan has withdrawn from the world, with little social life beyond the men he meets online. When charming, flighty Claire moves into the apartment upstairs, she tries to coax him out of his shell. They forge a tenuous connection, but the past reverberates into the present, threatening what happiness they’ve found. (Adult themes, language, violence.)

THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE (East Coast Premiere)
Based on the Book The Children of Willesden Lane by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen
Adapted and Directed by Hershey Felder
March 26 – April 19, 2015
An expression of hope and the life-affirming power of music, The Pianist of Willesden Lane tells the true story of a young Jewish musician, who was sent from Nazi-ruled Vienna to the relative safety of London during the Blitzkrieg. In this inspirational show, piano virtuoso Mona Golabek performs some of the world’s most beautiful music as she shares her own mother’s riveting story of survival.

KISS ME KATE
Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter
Book by Bella and Samuel Spewack
Directed by Darko Tresnjak
May 14 – June 7, 2015
Cole Porter’s joyful and high-spirited musical comedy follows the backstage antics of a touring company performing The Taming of the Shrew, featuring two feuding couples, a few gun-toting gangsters, and some of the best numbers ever written: “Another Op’nin,’ Another Show,” “Too Darn Hot,” “Wunderbar,” “So in Love,” and “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.”

No Bullying at the Palace!

Photo courtesy of the Palace.
The secrets to “bully-proofing” young students and their schools will be revealed in a colorful, comedic and entertaining way during the Palace Theater’s Education Series presentation of Choosy Suzy’s Bully Prevention Show Thursday, April 10, at 9:30 and 11:30 am. 

Tickets are $10 for individuals, $8 for student groups of 15 or more: 203-346-2000; www.palacetheaterct.org; Box Office, 100 East Main St., Waterbury.

Using a wacky and entertaining blend of illusions and practical illustrations, Choosy Suzy and her magical confidante, Zucchini the Genie, challenge young audiences to think clearly and carefully about how they interact with one another. Working as a team, this funny and dynamic duo uses magic, comedy, colorful props and audience interaction to deliver a message to kids that by working together, “You can make your school a Bully Free Zone.”

Based on the best-selling book "Stick Up For Yourself" by Gershen Kaufman, Ph.D, Choosy Suzy’s Bully Prevention Show has been proven to reduce bullying behaviors by half, while doubling confidence, increasing co-operation, and promoting kind words. Knowing that bullying and teasing are roadblocks to learning. Choosy Suzy teaches students effective, real-world strategies that stop the name calling and stop the bullying cycle.

Endorsed by the Connecticut Association of Schools, all Palace Theater Education Series shows are carefully selected to address specific curriculum for students grades K-12. Before the show, teachers are equipped with a package of study guides, workshop ideas and homework assignments that reinforce State Curriculum Standards in Education while enhancing students’ everyday academic work.

Recommended for grades kindergarten through eighth, Choosy Suzy’s Bully Prevention Show is sponsored by Thomaston Savings Bank and highlights curricular integrations in the subjects of health, physical education, conflict management, reading, writing, and arts and humanities.

Administrators interested in booking a classroom or school field trip to the show should contact Group Sale Coordinator Deirdre Patterson at 203-346-2011.

Monday, March 10, 2014

This Week at The Mark Twain House

The Trouble Begins at 5:30! "Mark Twain and the Philippine-American War" With Susan K. Harris
Wednesday, March 12, 5 pm reception; 
The Trouble Begins at 5:30 pm

Late in life, Mark Twain railed against the American suppression of the Philippine independence movement. He wrote "I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land." Twain's role in the anti-imperialism movement will be discussed by Susan K. Harris, the Joyce and Elizabeth Hall Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture at The University of Kansas and the author of God's Arbiters: Americans and the Philippines, 1898 - 1902.  A book signing will follow the event.

This is a free event, but reservations are suggested: 860-280-3130. 

Exhibition Opening: At Your Service
Thursday, March 13, 5:30 p.m. - 7:00 p.m.

Do you enjoy Downton Abbey? If so, you'll love the new At Your Service exhibition at The Mark Twain House & Museum. This special exhibition, which will be on view from March 14 until Sept. 1, will use historic objects from the museum's collection and other institutions to educate visitors about the daily work lives of servants of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and to tell the stories of the diverse and interesting individuals who worked as servants for Mark Twain and his family. The opening reception will include beverages and appetizers and will allow attendees to see the exhibition before it opens to the public on the following day. 

The Opening is followed by: 
BOOK/MARK: Charles MacPherson - Author of The Butler Speaks
Thursday, March 13, 7:00 p.m.

Following the At Your Service exhibit opening, Charles MacPherson, founder of the only licensed butler academy in North America, will discuss the essentials of entertaining and household management as outlined in his new beautifully illustrated style, etiquette and entertainment guide. For anyone who rents or owns--be it a small urban condo or a lavish country estate--The Butler Speaks includes everything you need to know to simplify, organize and care for your home.
  
The At Your Service Opening and the Charles MacPherson lecture are free events, but reservations are suggested: 860-280-3130.

Savage Girl by Jean Zimmerman - The Official Book Launch
Friday, March 14, 7 pm

Calling all wild women (and the men who love them)!  The Mark Twain House & Museum has been selected to launch Jean Zimmerman's latest novel, Savage Girl. A suspenseful and murderous read, the book follows the story of a young woman believed to be raised by wolves who is adopted and transported to Gilded Age Manhattan. Shortly after her arrival, suitors start dropping, leading to a sensational investigation to determine whether or not the deaths are caused by this "savage girl."


Get ready for a savage evening of fun and conversation with New York Times bestselling author Jean Zimmerman, author of The Orphanmaster and Love, Fiercely: A Gilded Age Romance.

This is free event, followed by a book signing. Reservations are suggested: 860-280-3130.
  
CHRISTINE LAVIN: Live In Concert!
Saturday, March 15, 7 pm  (The Knitting Circle pre-show is at 6 pm)

Christine Lavin is a humorous singer/songwriter/
recording artist living in New York City. She is currently working on her 21st solo album, and in December 2013 she co-produced her tenth compilation CD Just One Angel v2.0 showcasing the holiday songs of 19 songwriters whose work she loves. The food-themed compilation One Meat Ball, includes a 96-page cookbook that Christine edited. Christine performs concerts all over the US, Canada, and points beyond (Australia, Germany, Israel), and hosts knitting circles backstage prior to each show.  Arrive with your needles and yarn at 6:00 p.m. for the pre-concert knitting circle with Christine!

Tickets are $25.  860-280-3130;  or click here for tickets.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Theater Review: Much Ado About Nothing -- CT Repertory

Leonato (David McCann), Margaret (Olivia Saccomanno) and Ursula (Khetanya Henderson) are entertained by Beatrice (Sarah Wintermeyer). Photo: Gerry Goodstein..
Much to Make a Big To-Do About in This Much Ado
By Lauren Yarger
OK, I admit it. In a season during which I already have seen eight Shakespeare plays, I wasn’t sure I was looking forward to a ninth.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big Shakespeare lover, but some of the interpretations can leave me out, out, damn spot” to the image on my eyes or the pain in my ears when Romeo is wearing red sneakers, or the iambic pentameter sounds more like the stilted reading off the page of a book. And, well, eight in one season is kind of a lot of Shakespeare. So when the ninth was Much Ado About Nothing at CT Repertory set in the 1950s with only two Equity actors leading a cast of UConn theater students, I was wary. I’m so glad I went, though. This show is a fresh breath of Elizabethan air.

This production, helmed by Paul Mullins, is delightful in every way, with wonderfully full portrayals, a fanciful set (designed by Joe Keener III) and costumes (designed by Tiffany Delligatti) that are to die for.

With Frank Sinatra on the radio, soldiers returning home from the Korean Conflict, arrive at a Newport, RI estate where romantic involvements and entanglements ensue. Wooden walkways take folks along the green walkways and putting greens of the estate of Leonato (veteran stage actor David McCann) while a 3-D miniature mansion, complete with twinkling lights, provides the backdrop.

Leonato’s niece, and Benedick (James Jelkin), one of the returning soldiers, apparently can’t stand each other and enter into witty, sharp-tongued barbs to communicate. Benedick’s companion, Claudio (Colby Lewis) is enamored with Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Briana Maia) and declares his intention to marry her. Benedick, not a fan of marriage, tries to dissuade his friend, but their other companion, Don Pedro (Anthony J. Goes, the other Equity actor in the production) is all for it, prompting his scornful illegitimate brother, Don John (Will Haden), to scheme to destroy the happiness of his friends.

Hero’s reputation is impugned leading to problems with the planned marriage. The events of the day cause Beatrice and Benedick to realize the true nature of their feelings for each other, however.

It’s a light, fun play without the tragedy or ridiculous disguises used in some of Shakespeare’s other plays and it’s done so well here. Wintermeyer and Jelkin have marvelous rapport so their banter is a fine-edged sword. They also connect with the audience through humor and facial expressions.

Choreography by Gerry McIntyre enhances Mullins’ staging so that the show feels like a dance between merriment, poetry and humor. The costumes play out that theme, with lovely, flowing lines, delicate prints and designs that create different looks for individual actors while uniting a scene. The constables of the watch, dressed in Park-Ranger-looking uniforms, and conspirators on the putting green, lend much humor. Kudos.

Each cast member expertly delivers lines in the right meter – which is more than I can say for some of the Broadway Shakespeare I have heard this season. CT Rep can make a big to-do about this Much Ado. Rounding out the ensemble are: Thomas Brazzle, Darek Burkowski, Khetanya Henderson, Olivia Saccomanno, , Saul Alvarez, Gabriel Aprea, Harry Elfenbaum, Kevin Hilversum, Alison Janavaris, John Manning, Ryan Marcone, JoonHo Oh, Susannah Resnikoff, and Adam Schneemann.

Much Ado plays at Ct Repertory's Nafe Katter Theatre on the Storrs campus through March 9. Perfromances are Wednesday and Thursday, 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm. Tickets $6-$30; (860) 486-2113; www.ct.uconn.edu.

Theater Review: 4,000 Miles -- Long Wharf

Zoaunne LeRoy and Micah Stock in 4000 Miles, photo by T. Charles Erickson
Miles of Distance, Understanding Covered in Moving Slice-of-Life Play
By Lauren Yarger
Distances between coasts, age, philosophy and death all become traveling companions in Amy Herzog’s sweet slice-of-life story about a young man and his grandmother in 4,000 Miles, getting a run at Long Wharf.

College-age Leo (Micha Stock) arrives unexpectedly in the middle of the night at the New York apartment of his grandmother, Vera (Zouanne Leroy). The two haven’t seen each other in years, and it’s unclear exactly why Leo has stopped by at the end of his cross-country biking trip, but one thing is certain: he needs a shower.

“You smell,” his blunt-talking, feisty grandmother tells him as she hands him a set of keys and lends him some money. It’s the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

She agrees not to tell Leo’s estranged mother he’s there, even though the family has been worried since he didn’t show up for the funeral of his friend, Micah, who died while accompanying him on the cross-country journey. Leo is pretty tightlipped about how he feels about anything, including the end of his relationship with girlfriend, Bec (Leah Karpel).

He settles into the rent-controlled apartment that hasn’t been redecorated since the ‘60s (set design by Frank J. Alberino) and tries to be patient living with a grandmother who can’t hear well without her hearing aid and who is very plainspoken – when she can remember the words she’s trying to say. They find some common ground in Vera’s communist beliefs, and the 91-year-old starts to hope Leo will stay around, making her daily check-in-that-we’re-still-alive phone calls with another crotchety neighbor unnecessary.

He’s not willing to commit, however, and grows agitated when Vera complains about his moving things out of place in the apartment. She also interrupts a late-night rendezvous Leo has with one-night-stand Amanda (Teresa Avia Lim). The Asian party girl reminds him of his adopted sister, Lily, with whom he shared a kiss that haunts him still and contributes further to his depressed state.

As grandmother and grandson grow closer, he finally opens up and shares the details of Micah’s accident – with riotous results. The scene, however, is staged in almost total darkness, and misses some effect. Herzog’s script calls for darkness, but the lighting here (designed by Matt Frey) almost looks like a malfunction, as if the control board isn’t operating correctly leaving the audience listening to and extended voiceover in the black and missing a touching part of the staging directed by Eric Ting.

The story manages to be moving and sweet, despite the fact that Leo isn’t a very likable character. There seems to be hope, despite distances between miles, cultures, philosophies and years.

The actors all give strong performances and the audience feels as though it has been eavesdropping on a slice of life while watching through a secret window into the apartment. Ting’s tight direction keeps the dialogue, not linked by any great plot actions, from wandering. And Leroy is just so adorable you want to go up on stage, give her a big hug and ask whether she’ll be your adopted grandma.

You can journey over to see 4,000 Miles at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, through March 16. Tickets are $40-$75. 203-787-4282 or visit www.longwharf.org.

Theater Review: A Song at Twilight -- Hartford Stage

Gordana Rashovich, Nicholas Carrière and Brian Murray.
A Song from Noel Coward’s Twilight Doesn’t Shine in Modern Age
By Lauren Yarger
In Noel Coward’s time, and when one of his last plays, A Song at Twilight was written in 1966, it must have been shocking to have the possible outing of a closeted gay man be the driving force of a plot.

In 2014, when such a play is just one of a plethora of stories written by men, featuring male characters and very often, gay men’s issues, we have to wonder why two of Connecticut’s theaters have chosen to include a revival of  it on their stages this season (currently it’s at Hartford stage through March 16. It moves to Westport Country Playhouse April 29), especially when there are so many other great plays out there just begging to be produced.

Is it because this play gives new insight into the time period’s less-than-welcoming attitude toward homosexuality? Not really. It’s no secret that prominent men, in this case international literary figure Hugo  Latymer (Brian Murray), maintained relationships with women, in this case his wife, Hilde (Mia Dillon) and a former mistress, Carlotta Gray (Gordana Rashovich), to hide their true sexual identities. Laws and social attitudes did not allow people to be openly gay back then without ramifications.  

Is it because the play gives new insight into the women who were used by such men back then? Not really. Hilde is kind of a mousey, retiring woman, who figures out her husband’s true nature, but who is content to play along despite his rather cruel verbal abuse. She’s just upset that he didn’t let her in on his secret. “He’s all I have,” she offers as a pathetic excuse. No, there’s no great development of a strong woman character there.

Carlotta, meanwhile, also isn’t upset about being used – she was 19 and a virgin when she became involved with Hugo. No, the most important thing to her too is that Hugo didn’t trust her with his secret. Seriously, what guy wrote this?

Any way, Hugo seems to think it’s perfectly fine to degrade Hilde and to taunt her with the idea that her closest female friend might be a lesbian. She leaves him on his own to entertain a “rendezvous with the very distant past” when old flame Carlotta calls and asks for a meeting.

He puts down Carlotta’s acting career and isn’t exactly nice since he “prefers to see people as they are,” he explains, rather than in the sympathetic way they’d like to be seen.

It dawns on him that this strategy might not have served him well in life, however, when Carlotta asks Hugo for permission to include his old love letters in the memoir she is writing. When he refuses, the bitter woman produces another set of letters Hugo once wrote to the real love of his life – a man. This guy somehow was with Carlotta at the end of his life and gave her the letters. Hugo apparently, unaware that his love had passed away, will be unable to stop the letters from being published by another writer and his secret will be out. That is the play’s major plot point. Shocked! No, not really.

When Hugo isn’t salivating over his waiter, Felix (Nicholas Carriere), he remembers his male lover. Director Mark Lamos gives us a staging of their encounters, including nudity, behind a scrim in the mountains surrounding the Swiss hotel suite in which the action takes place (set design by Alexander Dodge). It’s totally unnecessary. We don’t get to see Hilde’s memory of the one true love she lost in the concentration camp…. Or Carlotta’s memory of losing her virginity…..so we have to wonder why this memory is so important to stage.

A Song at Twilight doesn’t really offer anything new to the mix of plays out there about homosexual issues (Please bring Geoffrey Nauffts’ insightful play Next Fall or the delightful musical Far From Heaven to Connecticut instead!) This one just offers a bunch of unhappy, unlikable people putting each other down. This is actually the first in a trilogy of plays Coward wrote set in the same hotel suite, by the way. Twilight isn’t interesting enough, however, to make me wonder what else takes place there.

A Song at Twilight plays through March 16; Evening performances are most Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday evenings at 7:30 pm.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm; matinee performances on Sundays, and select Wednesdays and Saturdays, at 2 pm.   Tickets $25-$95.  (860) 527-5151; www.hartfordstage.org.

Additional offerings from Hartford Stage for this production:
The AfterWords Discussions take place March 4, 5, 11, 12. Join members of the cast and artistic staff for a free discussion, immediately following 7:30 pm performances on Tuesdays or 2 pm. matinees on Wednesdays. FREE.
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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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