Thursday, July 28, 2016

Theater Review: The Invisible Hand -- Westport

Eric Bryant and Rajesh Bose. Photo: Carol Rosegg
The Invisible Hand
By Ayad Akhtar
Directed by David Kennedy
Westport Country Playhouse

By Lauren Yarger
What's It All About?
Two men staring at a laptop making a killing in futures trading under any other circumstances might be colleagues on Wall Street, but in this play by Pulitzer-Prize winner Ayad Akhtar (Disgraced) one is kidnapped Citi Bank employee Nick Bright (Eric Bryant) and the other is his captor, Bashir (Fajer Kaisi), an Islamic extremist loyal to Imam Saleem (Rajesh Bose), a religious leader in Pakistan. 

Bashir actually botched the kidnap attempt -- he was supposed to take Nick's boss -- and as a result, the $20 million ransom they were hoping to demand probably isn't going to happen. Constantly reminded about how kidnap victims are beheaded, Nick, desperate to see his wife and little son again, strikes a deal to pay his own ransom by using his stock market skills. 

Chained in the room after a failed escape attempt, he gives trading instructions to Bashir, who discovers a love for the financial games they play that result in lots of profits -- and death when Bashir realizes that a terrorist attack at a wedding will drive stock prices to enhance their earnings. When it becomes increasingly clear that the imam is using the funds for personal gain rather than to help the Pakistan people, however, the game changes and suddenly Nick remembers that he isn't on a safe trading floor, but at the mercy of zealots who don't have his freedom at the top of their priority list.

What Are the Highlights?
Taut direction by David Kennedy keeps the action swift and suspenseful. Excellent writing by Akhtar develops characters beyond stereotypes. There are people -- much like you or me -- behind the veil of extreme Islam and the playwright gives us a glimpse. The feeling that these people would be friends under any other circumstances is palpable throughout. The transition in Nick's guard, Dar (Jameal Ali), from trusted friend to would-be executioner and a covert to the bloody cause is chilling. All of the actors deliver a wide range of emotion.

Adam Rigg's set visualizes the complexity of the relationships: the living part of the room where Nick is held could be a shabby apartment anywhere -- it is the caged area around the door that reminds us he isn't free. When we fade to black between scenes, the room's outline appears lighted (design by Matthew Richards) to give the impression that everyone is a prisoner in a large box.

The scene that closes act one is one of the best I have ever seen to make people want to come back for more after intermission.

What are the Lowlights?
The second act, in particular, could use some edits.

More Information:
The Invisible Hand plays through Aug. 6 at Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport. Performances are Tuesday at 7 pm, Wednesday at 2 and 8 pm, Thursday and Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 3 and 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm. Tickets are $40-$60: www.westportplayhouse.org; 203)-227-4177; toll-free 1-888-927-7529. 

Monday, July 25, 2016

Theater Review: MIdsummer, A Play with Songs -- TheaterWorks

Rebecca Hart and M. Scott McLean. Photo: Lanny Nagler
A Song-filled, Magical Summer Night
By Lauren Yarger
Think Once set in Scotland instead of Ireland and you have a pretty quick take on Midsummer: (A Play with Songs) getting its delightful New England premiere at TheaterWorks.

The two hander, starring M. Scott McLean as Bob and Rebecca Hart at Helena, two folks who shouldn’t get together, but do.

David Greig and Gordon McIntyre’s script is part narrative, part first-person action and part song. Directed by Tracy Brigden, the engaging characters meet in an Edinburgh pub on Midsummer night. Helena is waiting for a man. She wants to get a bit drunk and have some no-strings-attached sex so she can forget about a secret that may change her whole life. She finds instant attraction with Bob, who earns a living on the wrong side of the law.

The action jumps through events from their past to the present, where they find themselves seeing each other again after what they thought would be a one-time encounter (their sexual encounter is shared for all of us to witness in a most amusing manner as directed by Bridgen and aided by basic stage props on the austere set backdropped by a hodgepodge of furniture and other cast off items (design by Narelle Sissons, who also designs the costumes). A pair of shoes transformed Helena into a bridesmaid; a chair becomes a car or a toilet.

Another scene has Bob having a conversation with his male reproductive equipment about what they really want from a relationship (many of the male members of the audience were very amused). The dialogue throughout is crisp and witty. So are the lyrics (both performers play the guitar and sing tunes composed by Greig (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the musical) and McIntyre, lead singer and songwriteçr for ballboy, an Edinburgh based band . The album Midsummer is a solo album of songs written for the show.

“If my hangover were a country, it would be Belgium,” sings Helena. Now that’s funny stuff.

In a bizarre twist of plans, the two end up enjoying a wild midsummer money-spending spree and find themselves falling in love. McLean and Hart are in sync on stage, both musically and physically. The chemistry between the actors is apparent from the start and sparks reactions as heat turns up on the Bunsen burner of their relationship.

A couple of criticisms: the play at more than 100 minutes without intermission could use a trim – especially to fix a couple of false endings. In addition, it’s hard to warm up to the characters until later in the show because they are making such poor choices (one reason we stay with them is because the actors make them so engaging). Since we jump around in time a bit any way, maybe a teaser early on to let us know these folks have some hope might be in order.


Overall, TheaterWorks ends its 30th anniversary season with a bang. Midsummer plays through Aug. 21 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays: 7:30 pm; Fridays and Saturdays: 8 pm; Saturday and Sunday Matinees at 2:30 pm. Tickets $15-$65; (860) 527-7838; www.theaterworkshartford.org.

Credits:
By David Greig and Gordon McIntyre; Directed by Tracy Brigden; Assistant to the Director: Eric Ort; Scenic and Costume Design by Narelle SissonsAssociate Set Design by Lucy Pope, Lighting Design by Andrew Ostrowski, Sound Design by Liz Atkinson.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Tonight's Talcott Mountain Concert is Postponed

Photo: Ellis Hall
Tonight's Hartford Symphony Orchestra Talcott Mountain Music Festival performance of A TRIBUTE TO RAY CHARLES, MOTOWN AND BEYOND at the Simsbury Meadows Performing Arts Center has been postponed due to a forecast of rain for this evening. 

Friday concert tickets will be honored tomorrow at the Saturday, July 23 rain date performance at 7:30 pm. Check www.hartfordsymphony.org for further weather updates tomorrow.

Patrons who have already purchased tickets for tonight and are unable to attend the rain date concert can call 860-987-5900 between July 22 and July 29 for exchange options. Tickets are on sale for A TRIBUTE TO RAY CHARLES, MOTOWN AND BEYOND athartfordsymphony.org, and at the Simsbury Meadows Performing Arts Center on Friday and Saturday from 11 am to 7 pm.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Sharon Playhouse Presents Big River

Sharon Playhouse presents the Tony Award-winning musical Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn July 21-31.

Based on Mark Twain’s "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," Big River features a book by William Hauptman and music and lyrics by Roger Miller. Playhouse Artistic Director John Simpkins directs. Jennifer Werner (Broadway's The Book of Mormon choreographs and James Cunningham is musical director.

The production features Joseph Allen (Huck), Nicholas Ward (Jim), Thomas Cannizzaro (Duke), Travis Mitchell (King/Pap), David Fanning (Judge), Alex Dorf (Tom), Carrie Lyn Brandon (Mary Jane), Ginny Rickard (Widow Douglas) Susan Hackel (Miss Watson), Galyana Castillo (Alice). The ensemble includes Tyler Altomari, Nick Case, Julia Hemp, Sarah Anne Fuller Hogewood, Jacqueline Minogue, Lily Autumn Page, Libby Rosenfield, Richard Spitaletta, Johnathan Teeling, and Aidan Wharton.

The design team: Josh Smith (scenery) Ken Wills (lighting), Michelle Humphrey (costumes), and Emma Wilk (sound). E. Sara Barnes is production stage manager. Geoff Josselson is casting director.

Big River played Broadway in 1985 and won six Tony Awards including Best Musical. It had a successful revival in 2003 by Roundabout Theatre Company and Deaf West.

Tickets are $15-$47:  www.sharonplayhouse.org ;860-364-7469; Sharon Playhouse, 49 Amenia Road, Sharon.

Theater Review: Bye Bye Birdie -- Goodspeed

The cast of Bye Bye Birdie. Photo: Diane Sobolewski
Audiences Put on a Happy Face Watching Refreshed Birdie
By Lauren Yarger
If you ever have walked out of a production of Bye Bye Birdie and wondered why you didn’t hear the song of that title, you won’t have that issue at Goodspeed’s production.

Director Jenn Thompson has given the stage production a few new twists, including adding the song from the 1963 film (which wasn’t in the stage production) as well as “A Mother Doesn’t Matter Anymore” from the 1995 television presentation as well as new dance arrangements by David Krane. The result is not your mother’s Birdie, which is a relief for those of us who have seen in multiple times from local high school and community theater productions to Broadway (which was pretty disappointing in its last revival in 2009.)

That’s because it is pretty hard to make a musical set in 1958 and conceived in response to Elvis Presley being drafted into the Army relevant 50-plus years later. The new dance arrangements, choreographed by Patti Wilcox are fun and the addition of the mother’s song gives Kristine Zbornik, who already is stealing the show as manipulative mother Mae Peterson, a chance to bring down the house. The changes give the show a needed lift.

Still in place are familiar tunes by Charles Strouse with Lyrics by Lee Adams like “Put On a Happy Face,” “One Boy,” “Kids” and “A Lot of Livin’ To Do.”

The story (book by Michael Stewart) follows a couple of romances. First there is Albert Peterson (George Merrick), who manages teen heartthrob and rock star Conrad Birdie (Rhett Guter) who has been drafted. His assistant, Rosie (Janet Dacal), comes up with a publicity stunt idea to have the idol travel to Sweet Apple, Ohio to kiss the president of his fan club goodbye. Once he’s on his way, Rosie wants Albert to quit the business, become an English teacher and settle down for a simple life. The aforementioned Mrs. Peterson isn’t making that easy, however, and she objects to Rosie, making numerous references to her Hispanic roots. Without those constant references and a dance number in which she becomes a new personality – Spanish Rose – I am not sure any of us would realize she was supposed to be Latina…..

Meanwhile, fan club President Kim MacAfee (Tristen Buettel) can hardly believe that Conrad Birdie himself is coming to kiss her! Neither can her parents (Donna English and a funny Warren Kelley) and little brother Randolph (Ben Stone-Zelman, who is over-the-top-adorable in his 1960s haircut and clothes). Costumes are by David Toser; Hair and Wig Design by Mark Adam Rampmeyer. The whole clan ends up on Ed Sullivan!

One person not happy about the excitement is Kim’s boyfriend, Hugo (Alex Walton). After all, he and Kim just got pinned. Why is she kissing another guy?

You get the drift of the plot. Thompson uses lots of action up and down the house aisles to make the audience feel a part of the action. The orchestra, with Goodspeed vets Michael O’Flaherty music directing and Dan DeLange providing orchestrations, can be a bit overwhelming at times, especially the horns, and drown out the singers.

Overall it’s a fun, breezy trip down memory lane that puts a happy face on a lot of audience members.

Birdie has been given ectended wings to fly at Goodspeed, 6 Main St., East Haddam, through Sept. 8. Performances are Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 pm; Thursday at 7:30 pm. (with select performances at 2 pm), Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 3 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm (with select performances at 6:30 pm. Tickets $39-$84 (860) 873-8668; www.goodspeed.org.

Additional cast:
Dorcas Leung…. Ursula
Paul Aguirre…. Mayor
Lauren Fijol…. Gloria
Branch Woodman…. Maude
Hannah Bradley…. Margie
Emily Applebaum…. Nancy
Kristen Hoagland…. Helen
Jake Swain…. Harvey Johnson
Logan Scott Mitchell…. Kari
Eddie Olmo II…. Freddie
Michael James…. Roger
Hannah Bradley, Jeremiah Ginn, Brittany Nicholas, Marci Reid, Austen Danielle Bohmer, Michal Kolaczkowski…. Ensemble

Additional credits:
Set Design by Tobin Ost, Lighting Design by Philip RosenbergSound Design by Jay Hilton,

Monday, July 11, 2016

Theater Review West Side Story -- CT Repertory

Julia Estrada and Luke Hamilton PPhoto by Gerry Goodstein
Themes of West Side Story Are Timeless -- Unfortunately
By Lauren Yarger
“Hatred fueled by racism leads to violence and the death.”

Last week, that was news headline from which we were all reeling as protests erupted following police killings of black suspects in New Orleans and Minnesota and as five police officers were slain during a protest in Dallas. 

That also was the plot unfolding before our eyes as the timeless musical West Side Story opened the final production of CT Repertory’s Nutmeg Summer Series at UConn (where, near the Jorgensen Theatre, a memorial remembering the victims of the Orlando nightclub shootings stands as a reminder that this latest rash of violence spurred by hatred is not unique, but only the most recent.) 

Never have modern-day events blended so closely with theater, proving that the Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim musical, with a book by Arthur Laurents based on a concept of Jerome Robbins who did the original choreography, is still relevant more than 50 years after making its Broadway debut.

It also proves that race problems in this country haven’t made a lot of progress. Then again, feuds based on hatred go back even farther than US history. West Side Story takes its inspiration from another tale: William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

In the modernized, New-York set version, the star-crossed lovers are Tony (a miscast Luke Hamilton) and Maria (Julia Estrada). The two fall instantly in love, despite knowing that the relationship is forbidden.  Maria is the sister of Bernardo (Yurel Echezarreta), leader of the Sharks, a gang comprised of his fellow Puerto Ricans and some blacks. Tony is a former leader of the Jets, the white gang (Tony is short for Polish Anton in this version), headed now by Tony’s best friend, Riff (Bentley Black).

Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita (a sparkling Cassidy Stoner) warns newly-arrived-in-America Maria to stay away from “A Boy Like That” and to stick to one of her own kind (cue headlines about immigration issues. . .). When the gangs meet at the drug store owned by Tony’s boss, Doc (Dale AJ Rose), to plan a rumble, police Officer Krupke (Nick Lawson) questions gang members to try to find out where it will be. Maria begs Tony to stop the fight, but with tragic consequences
.
Cassie Abate returns to CT Repertory to direct and to provide the very good choreography staged on Tim Brown’s minimal set where scenes are created with a few props and set pieces. Also enhancing the visual are Christina Lorraine Bullard’s colorful costumes.

NDavid Williams directs the beautiful Bernstein tunes, which comprise what could arguably called the best Broadway score ever and which includes classics like “Tonight, Tonight,” “I Feel Pretty,” “Somewhere,” “Tonight,” and “Something’s Coming.” Tom McDonough conducts a 12-person band.
Estrada is a lovely Maria, lending a fine soprano, but Abate does little to keep actors from singing full out most of the time “One Hand, One Heart” feels like a belting match instead of a love song. The score is beyond the capability of Hamilton, however, who seems overwhelmed in the role. It’s a case of miscasting, because the actor turned a fine performance right there at CT Rep when he played Sonny in Xanadu.

Black and Echezarreta bring fire to the rival gang leaders (as well as some good singing and dancing skills). The fight choreography is exciting and well executed. Standing out in this production is Stoner, who brings layers and spirit to Anita in her CT Repertory debut.

Here’s hoping that soon when we see a production of West Side Story we’ll think, “Gee, all that racial hatred was really a big problem in the past…”

West Side Story plays through July 17 at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre on the Storrs campus of UConn. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm. Matinees at 2 pm Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets $12 to $55: www.crt.uconn.edu; (860) 486-2113.

Full credits and casting:
Production:  Music by Leonard Bernstein and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; book by Arthur Laurents based on a concept of Jerome Robbins; Direction and Choreography by Cassie Abate, Scenic and Projection Design by Tim Brown,  Lighting Design by Michael Chybowski, Costume Design by Christina Lorraine Bullard, Sound Design by Michael Vincent Skinner, Technical Direction by John W. Parmelee, Musical Direction by NDavid Williams, Conducting and Piano by Tom McDonough 


Yurel Echezarreta…. Bernardo
Luke Hamilton…. Tony
Julia Estrada…. Maria
Bentley Black…. Riff
Cassidy Stoner…. Anita
Chino…. TJ Newton
Jose Luaces…. Indio
Gabriel Bernal …. Anxious
John Bixler…. Lt. Schrank/Gladhand
Nick Lawson…. Officer Krupke
Dale AJ Rose…. Doc
Olivia Benson, Rebekah Morgan Berger, Dalton Bertolone, Brian Binion, Jacob Burns, Gerald Caesar, Susie Carroll, Tori Gresham, Caroline Iliff, Liam Johnson, Aaron Bennett Miller, Janayla Montes, TJ Newton, Alyssa Sarnoff, Cassidy Stoner, Adria Swan, Ty Taylor and Ross Thompson….. Ensemble

Monday, July 4, 2016

Theater Review: Chicago -- Ivoryton Playhouse

Stacey Harris. Photo: Anne Hudson

Murder, Tabloid Headlines and All That Jazz Provide Cool Entertainment on a Hot Summer Night
By Lauren Yarger
Gruesome murders, tabloid headlines and scandal. You could be watching the news, but this tale is set in the Windy City in the 1920s and has a terrific score to boot.

Chicago, the Kander and Ebb classic musical with original choreography by Bob Fosse that took Broadway by storm back in 1975 and is still running there in the longest running revival in history (it won the Best Revival Tony in 1996).

One reason this musical has enjoyed such popularity for so long has to do with that comment about the fact that you could be watching it on TV news today. The book (by Ebb and Fosse) is based on an earlier play by Maurine Dallas Watkins, a Chicago Tribune reporter, who had covered some sensational murder trials where the women accused became celebrities in the press. She based her play on those experiences, so a plot that otherwise might have seemed ludicrous is supported by realism.

In late 1920s Chicago, accused murderesses await their trials. Among them are:
·         Celebrity of the day, Velma Kelly (Stacey Harris), a former Vaudeville star who killed her husband and sister after finding them in bed
·         Annie (Lauren Watkins), who, upon discovering her husband was a polygamist, poisoned him
·         June (Carolina Santos Read) who served up her cheating husband with a carving knife
·         Mona (Daniela Delahuerta), who has “artistic differences” with her husband’s way of “finding himself” with other women
·         Liz (Sarah Mae Banning), who killed her husband for popping his bubble gum
·         Hunyak (Caroline Lellouche), who only speaks in her native Hungarian, and whose only English words are “not guilty!”

They soon are joined by Roxie Hart (Lynn Philistine), who shot lover Fred Casley (Jason Daniel Rath) before he could dump her. Her milquetoast husband, Amos (Ian Shain), tries to take the blame for the shooting when his wife claims she was attacked by a burglar, but changes his story when he realizes she knew the victim.

The story is covered in a media frenzy led by reporter Mary Sunshine (operatic soprano Z. Spiegel) and Velma soon finds herself out of the spotlight now focused on Roxie (unfortunately the real spotlights on stage, designed by Marcus Abbott often leave the actors in the dark). The newcomer steals her sensational trial ideas, and even Billy Flynn (Christopher Sutton), the hotshot lawyer she secured with the help of a bribe paid to the prison’s matron, Mama Morton (Sheniqua Trotman, who returns to the Playhouse where she wowed as Effie in Dream Girls).
As Billy crafts Roxie’s defense painting her as a poor victim of circumstances and Amos as an unsympathetic husband, another sensational triple murder committed by Go-to-Hell Kitty (Sarah Mozelle Waxman) threatens to take attention away from Roxie and her hopes for a Vaudeville career post trial – until she comes up with an even more sensational twist to tantalize the press and get her picture back on the front page.

Another reason this musical endures through the decades is the fabulous score by Kander. Tunes like “All that Jazz,” Razzle Dazzle,” Nowadays,” “My Own Best Friend” have been a part of the Broadway song book ever since Gwen Verdon (Roxie) and Chita Rivera (Velma) introduced them in 1975. We were thrilled to hear Ann Reinking (who had been married to Fosse and won the Tony for her choreography) and Bebe Neuwirth (who also won a Tony) sing them in the revival.

Equally, we are happy to hear Philistine and Harris give them a whirl along with Fosse-like choreography (rolled shoulders, jazz hands, etc.,) by Todd Underwood, who also directs the very good performances (although Sound design by Tate R. Burmeister doesn’t allow solos against chorus to be heard well consistently). +

A couple other complaints:
·         Young Shain is miscast as Amos. Though he executes the song “Cellophane” well vocally, he is too nice looking. Amos should be sort of heavy and dumpy so we understand why the man is ignored by anyone. Shain is rather too attractive to have that problem.
·         Somehow Billy Flynn is missing that old razzle dazzle – along with some of the dialogue in this show, which sounds like it is being delivered by rote. Underwood needs to sharpen it. A scene between Mama and Velma, for example, as they reflect on the lack of “Class” people have, should elicit lots of laughs, but instead, it just gets a few chuckles. In another scene, a secret is revealed, but it goes almost unnoticed.

Some additional positives (because there are lots more of those):
A small band directed by Paul Feyer sits on a platform over the action on stage behind jail cell bars – kudos to Set Designer Martin Marchitto. Costume Designer creates sparkly, risqué costumes as well as period clothing and wigs to remind us we are in the art deco era and not in present day. “Cell Block Tango” is nicely staged and sung.

Do yourself a favor. Turn off the election coverage and head on over to Ivoryton for some really sensational headlines set to fabulous music.

Chicago runs at Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., Ivoryton through July 24. Performances are Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm. Evening performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm. $50 for adults; $45 for seniors; $22 for students and $17 for children: (860) 767-7318;  www.ivorytonplayhouse.org

Sheniqua Trotman. Photo: Anne Hudson

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

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