Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Quick Hit Theater Review: And a Nightingale Sang -- Westport Country Playhouse

Jenny Leona and John Skelley.  Photo by Carol Rosegg
And a Nightingale Sang
By C.P. Taylor
Directed by David Kennedy
Westport Country Playhouse
Through June 27

What's It All About?
a love story surrounding a working-class British family during World War II. Inspired by the 1940s popular song, “And a Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” which, among other music of the war years, is included in the play.

It is set in Northern England from 1939 to 1945. As the world rushes toward the brink of war, the Stott family copes on the home front. At the center of this domestic chaos is Helen (Brenda Meaney), who thinks herself unattractive due to a limp, but who finds herself unexpectedly awakened to the possibilities of love by Norman (Matthew Greer), a soldier home on leave. It is Helen who helps narrate the story.

Patriarch George (Sean Cullen), escapes into songs played on the piano, much to the displeasure of his wife, Peggy (Deirde Madigan), who repeatedly urges him to be quiet.  Her father, Andie, (a very engaging Richard Kline), an aging war vet, keeps showing up looking for a place to stay. All this while other daughter, Joyce (Jenny Leona) tries to decide whether to accept a proposal of marriage from Eric (John Skelley), who is about to ship overseas for action in the war.

Problems occur as war and the reconsideration of marriage vows separate the young lovers and family bonds are tested when Helen makes a surprising choice and Peggy shares a haunting secret.

What Are the Highlights? 
  • Well developed characters give us a glimpse of what it might have been like to live in wartime England. They hold our attention despite a slow moving plot.
  • Kline is a hoot and gets laughs with practically the same line delivered time and time again.
  • Director Kennedy ably stages the action with characters seemingly stepping into a new room or location without needing scene changes or prop additions to Kristen Robinson's set of the family's kitchen and living area.
What Are the Lowlights?
  • The action is pretty slow, with not a whole lot driving the plot (at intermission, audience members were kind of hoping someone would die in the war....). An opening scene has Meaney on stage well before the curtain, prompting an uneasy silence from the audience which begins to wonder whether they are supposed to be paying attention or not. This is followed by the curtain speech about sponsors and cell phones, which interrupts any sense of entering the 1940s. 
  • The strange dialect of Newcastle has characters referring to themselves in the plural and had audience members questioning each other about whom the dialogue referred. The dialogue drags and could use an edit. Lines like, "I trust you. You trust me. We trust each other, don't we?" had me sighing.
More Information: 

Playwright C.P. (Cecil Philip) Taylor, author of more than 70 plays, was born in Scotland in 1929 and spent his last 20 years in Northumberland, in Newcastle-on-Tyne. He was closely associated with the Live Theatre Company for which he wrote “And a Nightingale Sang” in 1977. He also wrote “Bring Me Smiles” and “Good.” In 1981, C.P. Taylor died suddenly at the age of 52.

The design team includes Lisa Gajda and Mary Ann Lamb, choreographers; Kristen Robinson, scenic design; Michael Krass, costume design; Matthew Richards, lighting design; and Fitz Patton, sound design.

And a Nightingale Sang plays through June 27 at Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport. Performances are Wednesday at 8 pm, Thursday and Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 3 and 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm.  www.westportplayhouse.org; 203-227-4177, toll-free at 1-888-927-7529.

Theater Review: Peter Pan -- CT Repertory

Troyer Coultas (John), Atticus Burrello (Michael), Maggie Bera (Wendy) and Riley Costello*(Peter). Photo: Matt Pugliese.
Triumphant Peter Pan Flies out from Shadows of Other Productions
By Lauren Yarger
A male Peter Pan! What a concept – and one that works very well in CT Repertory’s magical production of Peter Pan, directed and choreographed by Cassie Abate.

This musical, based on the play by Sir J.M. Barrie (go see the story of his life and how Peter Pan came to be written in the fabulous Broadway musical Finding Neverland, by the way) has never been a favorite, The story didn’t thrill me as a kid and makes even less sense to me as an adult. Apologies to those of you out there who adore flying boys, dogs who are Nanas, pirates who kidnap people and fight with Indians, crocodiles that tick and parents who worry about what happened to their missing children….

So I always wonder why theaters keep producing this show, originally directed, choreographed and adapted by Jerome Robins. The music by Morris (Moose) Charlap with additional music by Jule Styne with lyrics by Carolyn Leigh (and additional lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green) has some classic tunes like “I Won’t Grow Up,” “Neverland,” and “I’m Flying,” but that story…. And why is woman always cast as Peter, just because Mary Martin originated the part (possibly because the weight of a man would have proved too much for flying apparatus?). The only thing I didn't like about Broadway's Neverland was a creepy female Peter.....

At any rate, I begrudgingly went to the Jorgensen Theatre on the Storrs campus to see yet another production, but I found something that made me want to fly – and even crow: an utterly delightful, engaging production starring an athletic Riley Costello in the title role, opposite Broadway vet Terrence Mann as Captain Hook (and Mr. Darling). Costello even managed to make some of the awkward flying scenes seem more under control than I suspect they were on opening night.

Under Abate’s superb direction, this production took me on a journey I never would have imagined. When this Peter bursts onto the scene, he means it, singing, flying and charming away (he even sings high soprano notes in an amusing scene where he is taunting Captain Hook. Costello was recently seen as Dunlap Dewberry in Because of Winn Dixie at Arkansas Repertory Theatre and as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Costellos Broadway credits include Bye, Bye Birdie, 13: the musical, and Everyday Rapture. I was impressed.

Mann embraces the corny aspects of his role and has fun with it, often cracking himself up to the delight of the cast and audience.  He made his Broadway debut in 1982 as Chester Lyman in Barnum, and soon after originated the role of Rum Tum Tugger in Cats. His portrayal of Inspector Javert in Les Miserables, a role which he will be reprising in the first show of CRT’s summer season, earned him the first of his three Tony nominations. His second nomination came from his portrayal of the Beast in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. He was most recently seen as King Charles in the 2013 revival of Pippin, which earned him his third Tony nomination.

Rather than tell you the plot of Peter Pan, which I am sure most of you love and adore, let me just list some highlights and urge you to get up to UConn for this one:

·         The costumes by Lisa Loen are a combination of what we expect and surprises. Particularly exciting are the “natives,” who look more like inhabitants of a colorful Carribean Island, rather than stereotypical “American Indians.”
·         Jonathan Cobrda shows great comedic chops, especially in physical comedy and charms the audience
·         Maggie Bera is a solid and likable Wendy
·         The large puppets delight
·         Sound by Michael Vincent Skinner achieves a great mix between vocals and music.
·         10-person band under the Direction of Music Director Daniel Moctezuma ably handles the score.

Peter Pan soars at the Harriet S, Jorgenseon Theater on the UConn Storrs campus through July 3. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, Matinees Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm. Tickets $10 to $55: (860)-486-2113; www.crt.uconn.edu; box office in the Nafe Katter Theatre, 820 Bolton Rd.

The full cast:


Terrence Mann…. Captain Hook and Mr. Darling

Riley Costello…. Peter

Maggie Bera… Wendy

Troyer Coultas….John
Atticus L. Burrello…. Michael

Alessandro  Andy Viviano….Crocodile/Jukes

Alex Zeto….Mrs. Darling

Chris Hendricks….Slightly

Sean Ormond….Tootles/Nana

Nate Whipple…. Curly

Olivia Benson….Nibs

Jane Sydney Roberts….First Twin

Raegan Roberts….Second Twin

Shelby Mann…. Lost Boy

Jonathan Cobrda….Smee

Annie Wallace…. Tiger Lily/Liza

Paige Smith….Ostrich/Native/Bird

Jose Luaces….Native//Pirate

Danielle Behrens….Bird/Indian/Pirate

Gabriel Bernal….Mullins/Native, Johnny Brantley III…Cecco/Native

Joe Callahan….Starkey/Native

Will Bryant.... Noodler


Chester Martin.... Pirate

The Nutmeg Summer Series continues at CT Rep with Xanadu July 9-19.

Theater Review: Kinky Boots -- The Bushnell

Cast of Kinky Boots. Photo: Matthew Murray
Accepting People for Who They Are – Even if They are a Bit Kinky
By Lauren Yarger
Messages about acceptance, opening your mind, forgiving and accepting people for who they are abound in a solid and energy-filled tour of Kinky Boots making a stop this week at The Bushnell.

Kyle Taylor Parker, one of the “Angels”  and an understudy for  the role in the 2013 Tony-Award-winning Broadway version (which is still playing to packed houses at the Al Hirshfeld Theatre in New York), plays Lola, a drag queen who joins forces with shoe factory owner Charlie Price (Steven Booth) to design a line of “kinky boots” for men who want to dress as women.

The show’s book is by Harvey Fierstein, based on the film written by Geoff Deane and Tim Firth and boasts music and lyrics by pop star Cyndi Lauper (who won the Tony for best score) and direction and choreography by Jerry Mitchell. I wasn’t all that impressed with the Broadway version, to be honest. It seemed to want to force its politically correct message (the book seemed flawed with gaps) and focus on making a star of Billy Porter, who won the Tony for playing Lola. This production, however, focuses on storytelling and relationships, and is much more satisfying with a cast that is cohesive and story elements coming into sharper view.

Here’s the gist:
When Charlie steps in to save Lola when she is threatened by a couple of thugs, the two become friends. They have a lot in common, despite obvious differences. They especially bond over a sense of not being able to follow in the footsteps their fathers wanted for them in a beautiful ballad, “I’m Not My Father’s Son.” Charlie had run off to London with his materialistic girlfriend, Nicola (Grace Stockdale) despite his father’s hopes that he would take over the family business, Price and Son Shoe Company in Northampton, England. 

"May you never fail to point your shoes back home," his father says. When his father dies, he does, but only to find that the factory is failing. He must come up with a way to save it, or it will have to be sold, which is OK with Nicola, who sees dollar signs from the potential condominium conversion. But that will put all of the workers, and Charlie’s long-time friends, like Lauren (
Lindsay Nicole Chambers) -- who amusingly finds that she is attracted to the childhood boy she thought was stuffy --  and its manager, George (an amusing Craig Waletzko), out of jobs.

Lola, formerly Simon, was rejected by his father who trained him as a boxer to try to make a “man” out of the little boy with a penchant for women’s heels. He hasn’t talked to him in years.

Meanwhile, Lola and her “angels” – a.k.a. backup singers in her drag show -- keep breaking the heels of the women's shoes they wear since they aren’t designed to hold the weight of men, and Charlie is inspired to create a new line of "kinky boots" designed specifically for transvestites.  He needs someone with first-hand knowledge of the product to design it, however, and convinces Lola to come back to Northampton with him. 

Lola is reluctant to go to a small town, where bullies like factory worker Don (an excellent
Joe Coots), mock him, but he agrees to help his new friend, Charlie, who seems accepting and willing to listen. 

Soon a line of kinky, colorful boots that Lola describes as "two and a half feet of tubular sex" start moving off the assembly line and Charlie makes plans to launch them at a shoe show in Milan (Gregg Barnes designs the sparkling, kinky costumes and boots).

The factory that produced a "range of shoes for men," now produces a "range of shoes for a rage of men."

Problems ensue, however, when Charlie suddenly doesn't seem all that accepting of Lola and becomes more and more demanding of his workers. Lola and Don finally have it out with surprising results. Turns out many of the characters discover the importance of accepting people for who they are before it’s all over.

Lauper’s score is electric and fun. Mitchell playfully choreographs numbers on the shoe factory conveyor belt, part of the scenic design by David Rockwell. The one downside is that the lead vocals are not as strong as they should be, with some notes not quite finding their mark. The sound (originally designed by John Shivers) isn’t mixed well and it is hard to hear soloists at times.


The audience, which is packing in for this run, enthusiastically enjoyed the show and were singing the songs until they arrived at the nightmare that is the state parking lot across from the Bushnell. Add an extra half hour to your travel time (the show is about two and a half hours) since it will take you that long to get out with no one directing traffic. Check the Bushnell’s website for additional postings about traffic tie ups in the area.

Kinky Boots roll off the asembly line at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Harttford, through June 28. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday 1 and 6:30 pm. Tickets $26-$99. (860) 987-6000; www.bushnell.org.

The ensemble: Florrie Bagel, Joe Beauregard, Damien Brett, Stephen Carrasco, Lauren Nicole Chapman, Amelia Cormack, J. Harrison Ghee, Adam Halpin, Darius Harper, Nicholas Aaron Jenkins, Jeff Kuhr, Patty Lohr, Mike Longo, Tommy Martinez, Maggie McDowell, Jennifer Noble, Anthony Picarello, Griffin Reese, Jomil Elijah Robinson, Horace V. Rogers, Ricky Schroeder, Nick Sullivan, Anne Tolpegin, Juan Torres-Falcon, Hernando Umana and Sam Zeller …. Ensemble

Winners of CT Critics Circle Awards Feted at Reception, Ceremony

Carmen de Lavallade. Photo: Mara Lavitt.
The CT Critics Circle presented its awards for outstanding productions and performances during the 2014-2015 season Monday at Iseman Theater at Yale, as part of New Haven's Festival of Arts and Ideas.

A reception at The Study preceded the awards ceremony. R. Bruce Connelly was the emcee for the evening which included musical numbers by David Harris, accompanied by pianist Daniel Moctezuma.  The evening's script was written by Farnk Rizzo, critic and arts writer for the Hartford Courant.

Dancer, actor and teachr Carmen de Lavallade was presented the Tom Killen Award, bestowed upon persons who have made extraordinary contributions to Connecticut's professional theater. Yale Repertory's Artistic Director James Bundy presented the award to de Lavallande and read greetings sent by former student Meryl Streep.

The winners of the awards are:

Outstanding Production of a Play
Hamlet,  Hartford Stage

Outstanding Production of a Musical
Holiday Inn, Goodspeed

Outstanding Actress in a Play
Keilly MacQuail
Bad Jews, Long Wharf

Outstanding Actor in a Play
Zach Appelman
Hamlet, Hartford Stage

Outstanding Actress in a Musical
Danielle Bowen
All Shook Up, Ivoryton

Outstanding Actor in a Musical
Adam Heller
Fiddler on the Roof, Goodspeed

Outstanding Director of a Play
Darko Tresnjak
Hamlet, Hartford Stage

Outstanding Director of a Musical
Rob Ruggiero
Fiddler on the Roof, Goodpseed

Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play
Edward James Hyland
Hamlet, Hartford Stage
Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play
Rebekah Brockman
Arcadia, Yale Rep

Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical
Megan Sikora
Kiss Me, Kate, Hartford Stage

Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical
Stephen DeRosa
Sing For Your Shakespeare, Westport Country Playhouse


Outstanding Choreographer
Peggy Hickey
Kiss Me, Kate, Hartford Stage

Outstanding Set Design
Alexander Dodge
Private Lives, Hartford Stage

Outstanding Lighting Design
Tyler Micoleau
Elevada, Yale Rep

Outstanding Costume Design
Alejo Vietti
Holiday Inn, Goodspeed

Outstanding Sound Design
Jane Shaw
Hamlet, Hartford Stage

Outstanding Ensemble
Tie
Cast of Picasso at the Lapin Agile
Long Wharf
Penny Balfour
Grayson DeJesus
Tom Riis Farrell
Ronald Guttman
David Margulies
Dina Shihabi
Jake Silberman
Jonathan Spivey
Robbie Tann

Cast of …Spelling Bee
Playhouse on Park
Kevin Barlowski
Hillary Ekwall
Emily Kron
Steven Mooney
Maya Naff
Joel Newsome
Norman Payne
Natalie Sannes
Scott Scaffidi
Outstanding Debut
Carl Lundstedt
Reverberation, Hartford Stage

Special Awards
DramaRamas Program of the Summer Theatre of New Canaan
Shawn Boyle (projection designer) Elevada Yale Rep
Split Knuckle Theatre Company – production of Endurance

Tom Killen Award
Carmen de Lavallade

Monday, June 15, 2015

CT Critics Circle Nominations for the Best of 2014-2015 Theater

The CT Critics Circle has announced its nominations for best of the 2014-2015 theater season.

The awards ceremony, being held as part of New Haven's Festival of Arts and Ideas, will be held 7:30 pm Monday, June 22 at Yale's Iseman Theater, 11566 Chapel St., New Haven. Free admission. Seating is limited.

The Connecticut Critics Circle’s annual ceremony recognizes the best of professional theater in the state. The ceremony, which has become a celebration of the Connecticut’s diverse and renowned theater community.

Connecticut Critics Circle Awards – 2014-2015 Nominations

Outstanding Production of a Play

ArcadiaYale Rep
Elevada, Yale Rep
Hamlet            , Hartford Stage
Reverberation, Hartford Stage
The Liar, Westport Country Playhouse

Outstanding Production of a Musical

All Shook Up, Ivoryton
Fiddler on the Roof, Goodspeed
Holiday Inn, Goodspeed
Kiss Me, Kate, Hartford Stage
Spelling Bee, Playhouse on Park

Outstanding Actress in a Play

Laurel Casillo
Elevada, Yale Rep
Margaret Colin
Second Mrs. Wilson, Long Wharf
Keilly MacQuail
Bad Jews, Long Wharf
Nikki Walker
Intimate Apparel, Westport Country Playhouse
Shaunette Renée Wilson
The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Yale Rep

Outstanding Actor in a Play

Zach Appelman
Hamlet, Hartford Stage
Aaron Krohn
The Liar, Westport Country Playhouse
Luke Macfarlane
Reverberation, Hartford Stage
Tom Pecinka
Arcadia, Yale Rep
Steven Skybell
The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Yale Rep

Outstanding Actress in a Musical

Nancy Anderson
Guys and Dolls, Goodspeed
Danielle Bowen
All Shook Up, Ivoryton
Elissa DeMaria
Little Shop of Horrors , MTC Mainstage
Patti Murin
Holiday Inn, Goodspeed
Rebecca Spigelman
Hairspray, STONC

Outstanding Actor in a Musical

David Edwards
La Cage Aux Folles, Ivoryton
Preston Ellis
All Shook Up, Ivoryton
Michael Damian Fasano
Footloose, Seven Angels
Adam Heller
Fiddler on the Roof, Goodspeed
Noah Racey
Holiday Inn, Goodspeed

Outstanding Director of a Play

James Bundy
Arcadia, Yale Rep
Jackson Gay
Elevada, Yale Rep
Penny Metropulos
The Liar, Westport Country Playhouse
Darko Tresnjak
Hamlet, Hartford Stage
Maxwell Williams
Reverberation, Hartford Stage

Outstanding Director of a Musical

Richard Amelius
All Shook Up, Ivoryton
Gordon Greenberg
Holiday Inn, Goodpseed
Susan Haefner
…Spelling Bee, Playhouse on Park
Rob Ruggiero
Fiddler on the Roof, Goodpseed
Darko Tresnjak
Kiss Me, Kate, Hartford Stage

Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play

Edward James Hyland           
Hamlet, Hartford Stage
Greg Keller
Elevada, Yale Rep
Andrew Long
Hamlet, Hartford Stage
Carl Lundstedt           
Reverberation, Hartford Stage
Max Gordon Moore
Arcadia, Yale Rep

Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play

Rebekah Brockman
Arcadia, Yale Rep
Rebekah Brockman
The Liar, Westport Country Playhouse
Kate Forbes
Hamlet, Hartford Stage
Kristin Harlow
Angels in America, Playhouse on Park
Tonya Pinkins
War, Yale Rep

Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical

Elizabeth DeRosa
Fiddler on the Roof, Goodspeed
Barrie Kreinik
Fiddler on the Roof, Goodspeed
Sharon Malone
Hairspray, STONC
Susan Mosher
Holiday Inn, Goodspeed
Megan Sikora
Kiss Me, Kate, Hartford Stage

Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical

Scott Cote
Guys and Dolls, Goodspeed
Stephen DeRosa
Sing For Your Shakespeare, Westport Country Playhouse
Noah Marlowe
Holiday Inn, Goodspeed
John Payonk
Fiddler on the Roof, Goodspeed
Nick Reynolds           
Hairspray, STONC


Outstanding Choreographer

Richard Amelius
All Shook Up, Ivoryton
Peggy Hickey
Kiss Me, Kate, Hartford Stage
Denis Jones
Holiday Inn, Goodspeed
Alex Sanchez
Guys and Dolls, Goodspeed
David Wanstreet
Fingers and Toes, Ivoryton

Outstanding Set Design

Andromache Chalfant           
Reverberation, Hartford Stage
Alexander Dodge
Kiss Me, Kate, Hartford Stage
Alexander Dodge
Private Lives, Hartford Stage
Chika Shimizu
The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Yale Rep
James Youmans
Ether Dome, Hartford Stage

Outstanding Lighting Design

David Lander
Ether Dome, Hartford Stage
John Lassiter
Fiddler on the Roof, Goodspeed
Tyler Micoleau
Elevada, Yale Rep
Matthew Richards
Hamlet, Hartford Stage
Matthew Richards
Reverberation, Hartford Stage

Outstanding Costume Design

Tracy Christensen
Guys & Dolls, Goodspeed
Jessica Ford
The Liar, Westport Country Playhouse
Fabio Toblini
Hamlet, Hartford Stage
Fabio Toblini
Kiss Me, Kate, Hartford Stage
Alejo Vietti
Holiday Inn, Goodspeed

Outstanding Sound Design

David Budries
Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Long Wharf
Kate Marvin
Elevada, Yale Rep
Adam Phalen
Forever, Long Wharf
Jane Shaw
Hamlet, Hartford Stage
Matt Tierney
The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Yale Rep

Outstanding Ensemble

Cast of Altar Boyz
Playhouse on Park
Brandon Beaver
Nick Bernardi
Adam Cassel
Greg Laucella
Mark G. Merritt
Brock Putnam

Cast of Picasso at the Lapin Agile
Long Wharf
Penny Balfour
Grayson DeJesus
Tom Riis Farrell
Ronald Guttman
David Margulies
Dina Shihabi
Jake Silberman
Jonathan Spivey
Robbie Tann

Cast of …Spelling Bee
Playhouse on Park
Kevin Barlowski
Hillary Ekwall
Emily Kron
Steven Mooney
Maya Naff
Joel Newsome
Norman Payne
Natalie Sannes
Scott Scaffidi

Outstanding Debut

Curtis J. Cook
Brownsville Song, Long Wharf
Carl Lundstedt
Reverberation, Hartford Stage
Dina Shihabi
Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Long Wharf
Brittany Vicars
Hamlet, Hartford Stage


Special Awards to be Presented
DramaRama Program of the Summer Theatre of New Canaan
Shawn Boyle (projection designer) Elevada               Yale Rep
Split Knuckle Theatre Company – production of Endurance

Tom Killen Award
Carmen de Lavallade


Theater Review: Hair -- Playhouse on Park

Flower children in abundance in Hair at Playhouse on the Park. Photo: Tibor Zoller
This Production Pulled the Hair Back from My Eyes
By Lauren Yarger
It's a bunch of hippies doing drugs, having free sex and protesting against the United States. Usually not one of my favorite stories, despite some Galt MacDermot songs like “Aquarius,” “Good Morning Starshine” and the title song which topped the pop charts when I was a kid and which still are fun to hear.

But Playhouse on Park’s production of the 1960’s “Tribal Love Rock Musical,” directed by Co-Founder and Artistic Director Sean Harris, pulled the Hair back from my eyes and caused me to see this musical in a whole new way.

With the Playhouse’s largest ensemble cast ever, this production of Hair focuses on the individual characters and seeing life at the tumultuous time through their eyes. Excellent lighting design by Aaron Hochheiser creates separate worlds for us to see on the small stage.

Instead of trying to convince us we should be embracing this hairy lot, solid performances across the board from the tribe (despite the fact that there are only two Equity performers among them) and Harris’ wise focus on the people instead of trying to make a political statement, combine to give this story a fresh telling. I enjoyed it much more than the recent award-winning revival on Broadway, which was brilliantly staged, but which kept demanding that I join in and endorse the celebration.

In this production, the tribe (the term used to describe this show’s hippie, commune-like group of young people) are dressed so authentically in fashions of the time by Costume Designer Demara Cabrera (who also designs the set) that we feel transported back to the 1960s and its protests with a “make love, not war/ flower-power” unrest. The cast is put through razor-sharp choreography by Darlene Zolle (also co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director at the playhouse). We clearly see the horrors of the Viet Nam War, racial injustice and the hopelessness of a generation through the haze of pot with a trip through LSD. (Note: that haze is a little too real with herbal cigarettes filling the small theater with a heavy marijuana scent. I spent about 20 minutes trying not to inhale and timing coughs to the louder parts of dialogue and song when the cast lit up near the top of the second act.)

In 1967, in the midst of an era where young men burned their draft cars and yelled, “Hell no, we won’t go,” young Claude (Michael J. Walker, one of the Equity actors) find his number has been called and feels pressure from his parents to give the military a chance to make a man out of him. He would much rather pretend he is from “Manchester England” and  hang out with his hippie friends, Berger (Ryan Connolly, the other Equity member) who recently got thrown out of school, Woof (Kevin Barlowski), a guy who acts a lot like a dog, his African-American (and pleasantly voiced) friends, Dionne (Kristen Jeter ) and Hud (Kameren Chase Neal ) and a bunch of girls. Well, he likes  hanging with any and all of the girls, really.

There’s protest leader Sheila (Tara Novie), who sort of was Berger’s girl before, Jeanie (Jessie MacBeth) who is pregnant and wishes the baby were Claude’s instead of the result of a liaison with a guy on speed, and Crissy (Lauren Monteleone) an innocent girl who seems lost.

The tribe is studied by a guy in drag identifying himself as Margaret Mead (Jose Plaza, who had everyone at intermission taking about his amazing soprano) and tries to deal with the realities of one of their own going off to war.

Now don’t get me wrong. Just because I didn’t feel as though I were being asked to burn an American flag during this production doesn’t mean it doesn’t engage the audience. It does. Audience members are greeted by hippies playing drums in the lobby and cast members come out into the house to interact with theatergoers several times during the two-hour-30-minute production. In addition, two Open Mic Nights with an accompanist are set for June 20 and July 18 to allow you to become part of the tribe if you wish. Talkbacks with the cast also are held following Sunday matinees.

The nine-member band, under the musical direction of Colin Britt and Emmett Drake, sits on stage in a sort of cage-like environment that keeps it separate, yet connected to the action. My two complaints: the sound mix makes it difficult to hear certain performers and the arrangement of “Good Morning Starshine” was a bit too halting.

Finally, a production of Hair that sent me home singing “Let the Sunshine In,” instead of “They chain ya and brainwash ya when you least suspect it.”

Hair plays at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Rd, West Hartford through July 19. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm. Tickets $15-$45. Additional special ticket offers are available. 860-523-5900 x10 or visit www.playhouseonpark.org.

The ensemble: Courtney Rada, Peej Mele, Matt Magrath, Alejandra Lopez, Oludare Bernard, Emily Elizabeth Jones, Karissa Harris, Kelsey Flynn, Mallory Cunningham, Dalton Bertolone and Mary Berthelsen.

Note: The show posts warnings for brief nudity, adult language, sexual content, suggested drug use, burning incense and flashing lights. HAIR is recommended for ages 16 and up. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Theater Review: Calendar Girls -- Ivoryton Playhouse

The Calendar Girls at Ivoryton Playhouse. Photo courtesy of the playhouse.

The Seasons of Life and Love Provide Unexpected Images Throughout  the Year
By Lauren Yarger
The seasons of life can provide unexpected images throughout the year, but one group of British women uses that to their advantage to help a worthy cause in the US premiere of Calendar Girls at Ivoryton Playhouse.

Some local favorites, by way of England, Playhouse Artistic Director Jacqueline Hubbard (who also directs the show) and Company Manager Beverley J. Taylor, star in Tim Firth’s stage adaptation of his screenplay (written with Juliette Towhidi) from the popular film by the same name (starring Helen Mirren) about a real-life group of Yorkshire women who pose nude for a calendar to raise funds to fight leukemia.

Good friends Annie (Hubbard) and Chris (Taylor) participate in programs sponsored through the Women’s Institute, the largest voluntary organization for women in the United Kingdom, under the priggish leadership of Marie (Victoria Bundonis). They meet in a church (designed by Tony Andrea, enhanced by lighting and projections designed by Marcus Abbott and Gaylen Ferstand respectively) and hear talks about the history of the tea towel, or the fascinating world of broccoli.

Their annual calendar featuring local churches and other scenes, doesn’t sell all that many copies.

When Annie’s husband, John (R. Bruce Connelly) is diagnosed with leukemia, their frequent visits to the hospital reveal a very uncomfortable setee in the waiting area. When the disease claims John, Chris and Annie’s other WI friends, Cora (Maria Silverman), Jessie (Maggie McGlone Jennings), Celia (Katrina Ferguson) and Ruth (Lily Dorment) rally round her to raise money to replace the piece of furniture.

Chris spearheads the idea of having the women pose nude to sell as many calendars as possible. Lawrence (Erik Bloomquist), an orderly who got to know John and Annie at the hospital, signs on as photographer offering suggestions about how the women can pose discretely, with their regular calendar offerings, like recipes for buns and cakes. While the idea of a risqué calendar being sponsored by the WI doesn’t go over well with Marie, or posh Lady Cravenshire (Vickie Blake), it does sell like hotcakes ( since the hot looking photos are stages with private parts hidden by cakes and other items) and brings unexpected and unwelcome fame to the group.

Chris becomes energized by the project and by getting publicity for it. She neglects her husband, Rod (David Edwards), and their florist shop. Her friendship is tested with Annie, who becomes more interested in the letters that are pouring in from women whose lives have been touched by the calendar.

The calendar opens up some wounds for Ruth, who reluctantly agreed to pose for the calendar as a means of hurting her philandering husband. Single mom Cora deals with some issues of morality and church, thanks to a hypocritical experience with her parson father. Upscale Celia hides her insecurities in materialism and drink and older, wiser, Jessie anchors the group with sound advice (Jennings brings quiet dignity and humor to the role and makes us realize there are some thought-provoking themes buried in the dialogue).

Unfortunately, those descriptive blurbs are about all there is to go on for character development in Firth’s play. The first act, which sort of gets us to the idea of the calendar, takes far too long. Yes, seasons pass before our eyes and John goes downhill really fast, but all of the action seems very slow-going and disjointed, almost like the film has been condensed to clips on the stage. It lacks focus and some of the dialogue cannot be understood adding to the confusion. Marie suddenly makes a personality transformation for no apparent reason….

Highlights are Taylor, who lights up the stage with humor and presence, and the funny scene, nicely directed by Hubbard, where the calendar shots are snapped (all are discreet and there is no nudity with which to contend.) The photos are sharply projected onto screens either side of the stage (Projection Design by Gaylen Ferstand) with a fun flashbulb sound effect (Tate R. Burmeister, design).

There’s an upside to the production at Ivoryton: the Playhouse is raising awareness for several cancer charities. A Cancer Survivor Night with half price adult ticket price for those individuals who have survived the challenge of cancer was held on June 3. Participating organizations include Terri Brodeur Breast Cancer Foundation, Little Wonder, Valley Shore YMCA – Hope is Power Program and Middlesex Hospital‘s Center for Survivorship and Integrative Medicine.

“We are both Northern English lasses” says Hubbard, “I spent four years trying to get the rights to produce this wonderful play and though directing and performing at the same time will be a challenge, I knew I had to do it. These women are in our bones and it will be a rare treat to get to step in front of the curtain for a change.”

The Calendar Girls play through June 21 at Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., Ivoryton. Performances are Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 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.
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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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