Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Family That Plays Together, Stays Together, Putting on Plays Together

Dorothy, Jenna, Macy and Bill Berloni. Photo Lauren Yarger.
By Lauren Yarger
The musical Annie stirs different emotions in the Berloni household. On the one hand, the Broadway show, which made its debut 33 years ago and brought fame to “Tomorrow”-belting Andrea McArdle, also launched Bill Berloni’s career as a theatrical animal trainer.

He rescued a dog from the shelter and trained him to play the role of Sandy when the musical was in previews at Goodspeed. When the production found its way to the Great White Way, Berloni’s role changed from wannabe actor to Broadway animal trainer. 30 plus years, countless dogs and scores of Annie productions later, he still provides dogs for tours and regional productions of the show around the country as well as a variety of animal stars for other stage shows like Legally Blonde and The Wiz, television commercials and feature films like “Charlie Wilson’s War” and “The Producers” to name a few.

On the other hand, “It’s a wonderful annuity,” he said about Annie in a recent interview, “but I do long for new material, too. I’ve listened to a lot of tomorrows for this,” he laughed, gesturing at his 90 acres in Higganum, where he currently has 23 dogs, six equines, two llamas, five cats and some Jacobin pigeons, all in training for their moments in the spotlight.

Bill will provide Sandy once again when the musical enjoys a 35th anniversary revival on Broadway in 2012. Before then, though, a local production will hit close to home.

Artful Living, a community theater group in Killingworth, CT will present a limited run of the musical July 30 through Aug. 8 and Macy, starring as Sandy, won’t be the only Berloni taking the stage. Bill’s wife, Dorothy, who has served as a company manager for Annie, been cast as Miss Hannigan (pictured, left, with Hollis Long, who stars as Annie; Photo by Peg Scofield, PurpleDog Productions ) and daughter, Jenna, will play little orphan Pepper. It’s the first time all three family members have been involved with a production.

“My vision for Artful Living is to empower families to come together for a validating theatrical experience while learning together the craft of musical theater,” Christopher Solimene, producer and founder of Artful Living, said. ‘Making life-long memories with members of their community is an added benefit. So many parent-child, grandparent-grandchild combinations have graced our stage. I am grateful to be able to provide the Berlonis the opportunity to all come together in this production, especially considering their lifetime connection to Annie.”

Dorothy, who had done some acting in dinner theaters, met Solimene while helping out on Jenna’s middle school productions, which he directs. She was impressed with the quality of the productions and both she and Jenna performed in last year’s Artful Living production of The Sound of Music (Dorothy was one of the nuns and Jenna was Luisa, one of the Von Trapp children) before deciding to go out for Annie as well. It was daunting for Dorothy, who hadn’t really performed in 10 years.

“The dancing scares the bejesus out of me," she laughs, but she’s enjoying the experience and working with Jenna, who has been bitten by the theatre bug and who will “audition for anything,” her mom jokes.

The auditions have gone well and Jenna landed the understudy roles of Helen Keller in last season’s The Miracle Worker at Ivoryton Playhouse and Jane in Jim Henson’s Emmet Otter last season at The Goodpseed Opera House.

It’s exciting for the young actress who before had only had some cameos on Sesame Street when her dad contributed some live animals for the show. (Her dad still kids her for not realizing that the Muppets weren’t real animals before arriving on the set).

Her favorite part of performing is getting to work in a “make believe” reality where she can just have fun and not worry about what anyone thinks.

Reality may take on a new definition for the family, however, as a reality television series about their lives is in development.

Catch them live at Haddam Killingworth Middle School, where Artful Living’s production of Annie will run on the following schedule: Friday July 30, 7:30 pm; Saturday July 31, 7:30 pm; Sunday Aug. 1, 2 pm; Friday Aug. 6, 7:30 pm; Saturday Aug.7, 7:30 pm; Sunday Aug. 8, 2 pm. Ticket and other information is available at

The middle school, 451 Route 81, Killingworth, CT, is located north of the Route 80/81 circle and south of the intersection of Route 148 and Route 81.

Find out more about Bill’s theatrical training experiences at his website and in his book, Broadway Tails, available for purchase here.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Theater Review: The Buddy Holly Story -- Ivoryton Playhouse

Gregg Hammer as Buddy Holly

A Rockin’, Rollin’ Night at the Theater
By Lauren Yarger
Classic tunes combine with a concert-like telling of the phenomenal, but tragically short life of Buddy Holly to offer an entertaining evening at the theater in The Buddy Holly Story running through Aug. 1 at the Ivoryton Playhouse.

Gregg Hammer, directed by Ivoryton’s Artistic Director Jacqueline Hubbard, stars as the rock icon. He looks a lot like Holly (Pam Puente, costume design; Joel Silvestro, hair design) and gives his voice a workout singing most of some 30 songs including “Peggy Sue,” “That’ll Be The Day,” It’s So Easy to Fall in Love,” and “Johnny B Goode.”

The show follows the life of Holly and the Crickets (Jerry Allison and Joe Maudlin played by John Rochette and Daniel Orion Glynn), from their early days with recording for Norman Petty (Steve Gagliastro) through the group’s breakup and their separate careers following.

“I want to do things that people haven’t even started to think about yet,” says the young man, whose music went on to inspire, among others, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan.

Along the way, Buddy marries Maria Elena (Samantha Joy Pearlman), who has prophetic visions about her husband’s plane going down in flames, and sings with legends The Big Bopper (a very good Robert W. Schultz, Jr) and pelvis-swirling Richie Valens (Khalid Rivera). The last part of the show, written by Alan Janes and Rob Bettinson, who originally directed, features moments from the final performance of the three legends at Clear Lake, IA, before boarding their ill-fated plane which crashed in an Iowa corn field in a snow storm.

Some of the highlights in this production come from minor characters: Danielle Erin Rhodes (Vi Petty) commands the stage whenever she’s on it. The night I attended, her quick improv covered for a malfunctioning musical instrument and made the failure seem part of the script. Female backup singers (Pearlman, Allanna Burke, Amaris Montoya and Gayle Elizabeth LaBrec) do their job well and stand out as jingle singers, performing an ad on the radio.

Also shining are Antoine L. Smith and Patryce Williams as performers at Harlem‘s Apollo Theater where Holly and the Crickets, who sound “black” but who stun the crowd by being white, perform a concert. Smith and Williams milk the scene’s irony and humor when the audience at the fittingly named Ivoryton Playhouse, where most everyone is white, represents the crowd at the Apollo. The theater’s real raffle also is deftly woven into the show as part of the concert at Clearwater.

If you’re a fan of the music, you’ll be tapping your toe and at some points, singing along with the entertaining ensemble. The action takes place on a sparse set (Cully Long, design) with the actors doubling as musicians (music direction by John S. De Nicola).

Performance times are Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm; Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm. Tickets are $38 for adults, $33 for seniors, $20 for students and $15 for children and are available by calling the Playhouse box office at 860-767-7318 or by visiting our website at (Group rates are available by calling the box office for information.) The Playhouse is located at 103 Main Street in Ivoryton.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Review: An Evening with Ben Vereen at Hartford Stage

Always an Electrifying Entertainer
By Lauren Yarger
Ben Vereen joked that he shouldn’t be part of the Hartford Stage’s summer Broadway Legends series because legends are dead and he’s very much alive. No one attending An Evening with Ben Vereen through Sunday at Kingswood Oxford’s Robert Auditorium could hardly think otherwise.

Vereen, star of shows like Sweet Charity, Pippin and Jelly’s Last Jam, just to name a few, sings and dances his way through a variety of numbers from Broadway shows and pays tribute to two “real” legends, Frank Sinatra and Sammie Davis, Jr. in the 90-minute showcase.

He splices some personal history, like how his first role was as the king in an elementary school production of The King & I and how nerve-wracking his first audition for legendary director Bob Fosse was with humor, some dance and lots of songs.

Performing such classics as “Corner of the Sky,” “Hair,” Defying Gravity” and “I Have Dreamed,” Vereen puts his own unique spin on each. His medley of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” is moving and excitingly rendered. In fact the night is practically non-stop entertainment.

Toward the end, he focuses on the songs that made Sinatra and Davis famous, and spends some time giving his four-man band, which includes son, Aaron on percussion, some time in the spotlight.

Vereen’s performances benefit SOS (Support Our Soldiers) and Diabetes Type 2, two organizations he supports. A live concert recording of the performance, with an anticipated release date of late 2010, was made Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Vereen’s performances conclude the summer Broadway Legends series which also included Elaine Stritch and Chita Rivera.

Tickets for An Evening with Ben Vereen may be purchased by calling the box office at 860-527-5151 or by visiting for more information. The show is presented at Kingswood Oxford while the theater’s Hartford location is being renovated.

Hana Sharif Named Associate Artistic Director at Hartford Stage

Hartford Stage has named director, playwright and producer Hana Sharif Associate Artistic Director.

Sharif joined Hartford Stage seven years ago, and has been its Artistic Producer for the last three years. She succeeds Jeremy B. Cohen, who was recently named producing artistic director of The Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis. Sharif will assume her new position on Aug. 9.

Sharif made her MainStage directorial debut at Hartford Stage with last season’s Gee’s Bend, which won the Connecticut Critics Circle Award for Best Ensemble and a nomination for Sharif as best director. For the 2009-2010 season, she was selected as the Aetna New Voices Playwright in residence.

Sharif is a recipient of the prestigious TCG New Generations mentorship, which she completed at Hartford Stage from fall 2005 to spring 2007. This upcoming season, she will direct the MainStage production of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean. A graduate of both Spelman College and the University of Houston, Sharif is the co-founder of Nasir Productions, a theatre dedicated to the exploration of contemporary voices experimenting with traditional structure.

She directed the American team of the 2008 ITI UNEASCO World Congress in the international collaboration IfDENTITY. She has brought theatre to underserved communities and has directed and produced shows in Atlanta, Houston, and Hartford, including the world premieres of Fragility’s Decline, Next Stop Africa, and The Drum.

High Extends at TheaterWorks

High, a new play by Matthew Lombardo, directed by Rob Ruggiero and starring Kathleen Turner, has been extended through Aug. 22 at TheaterWorks, Hartford.

Turner plays Sister Jamison Connelly who agrees to sponsor a 19-year-old drug user in an effort to help him combat his addiction. Her own faith ends up being tested.

Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 pm; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm with weekend matinees at 2:30 pm.

For complete information and reservations, call TheaterWorks at (860) 527-7838. Visit TheaterWorks at

Summer Theater of New Canaan

Cast members of Big River

Summer Theater of New Canaan continues its seventh season with three more shows under the tent at Waverly Park.

Here's the schedule:
JULY 10 T0 AUG 1, WED - SUN 7:45PM (Previews July 10, 11, 14)
JUNE 19 - JULY 18, FRI/SAT 10AM, & SUN 11AM
JUNE 19, 27, JULY 3 2PM

Performances are rain or shine. All seating under the tent is reserved and can be purchased online, by phone or at the tent theater box office 1 hour prior to the performance. New this year are reserved Dining Box seats and stage side picnic tables where you can picnic prior or during performance.

Hillside/field outdoor seating starts, 60 minutes prior to curtain. Tent opens 30 minutes prior to performance for reserved ticket holders. All children's shows are general admission with open seating under the tent. Seating begins 30 minutes prior to performance.

Visit for more information.

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