Saturday, June 23, 2012

Quick Hit Theater Review: The Odd Couple -- CT Rep

Pat Sajak as Felix Ungar and Joe Moore as Oscar Madison in Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nutmeg Summer Series production of Neil Simon’s comedy classic, The Odd Couple playing in the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre, Storrs, June 12 – July 7.  For tickets and information call 860-486-2113 and visit  Photo by Bob Copley.
The Odd Couple
By Neil Simon
Directed by Vincent J. Cardinal
CT Rep

What is it about?
You probably don't need to ask that since you probably have seen a staging of the play or the movie starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, or the long-running TV version starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, but just in case, it's about a sloppy, gambling sportswriter named Oscar Madison (news anchor Joe Moore) who invites uptight, hypochondriac, clean freak Felix Ungar ("Wheel of Fortune" host Pat Sajak)  to move in to his large New York apartment to save money since both have to come up with a way to live while paying alimony and child support. Felix is soon messing up Oscar's weekly poker night with the guys (a nice little ensemble played by Murray Rubenstein, Brad Bellamy, Patrick Kerr and David Alan Stern) and cramping Oscar's style. He suggests they go on a date with the Pigeon sisters, Cecily and Gwendolyn (Kathleen McNenny and Liz Larsen), two single girls living upstairs in the apartment building. Felix is pining for his ex wife and messes up Oscar's plans again. As the TV show asked, "Can two grown men live together without driving each other crazy?"

What are the highlights?
The direction by Cardinal, CT Rep's artistic director and head of the Department of Dramatic Arts at UConn is spot on. Nice touches add to the humor of Simon's script, which still holds up nicely (the play premiered on Broadway in 1965 -- Oscar refers to paying $250 a month for an eight-room apartment. Can you imagine?)

Costumes by Sara Ewing are exquisite in their authenticity to the period. I wouldn't be surprised to find out that she selected the garments, ties, etc. while shopping in actual vintage clothing stores. A really nice job here.

McNenny's Cecily is a treat.

Moore is a convincing Oscar and has a nice rapport with Sajak -- the two have been real-life friends since their tour of duty together in Viet Nam.

What are the lowlights?
Sajak is a more easy going, content, less persnickety Felix. He appears to have his eyes closed a lot(maybe he's just looking down and the lighting makes them appear closed?) and the result is a less animated Felix. He does some nice crying and honking (Felix clears his sinuses) that get some deserved laughs, though.

Michael Anania's set has fake moulding that looks fake. Paitnings on the wall don't seem Oscar-like -- wouldn't there be sports memorabilia and a lot more clutter around the apartment? It looked fairly neat to me. Also, there is a scene where Felix is fussing about the poker guys using coasters to avoid leaving rings on the table -- but the table has a cloth on it...

More information:
The Odd Couple, the second in CT Rep's Nutmeg Summer Series at UConn runs through July 7 in the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre, 2132 Hillside Road on the campus of the University of Connecticut in Storrs. Performances: Tuesday - Thursday at 7:30, Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2  2 and 8 pm and Sunday at 2 pm.Ticket prices range from $32 to $45.  All Student/Child tickets are $10. The box office opens one hour prior to curtain at the Jorgensen.  Daily box office hours are noon – 5 pm at the Nafe Katter Theatre also on the Storrs campus at 820 Bolton Road. Call 860-486-2113 for tickets or visit

Running time is around two and a half hours with an intermission.

See a video clip from the show at

Friday, June 22, 2012

Music Theater Conference Continues at O'Neill

The National Music Theater Conference, Artistic Director Paulette Haupt, continues June 25 – July 1, with rehearsals and public staged readings of three new musicals.

A Good Man, book and lyrics by Philip S. Goodman; music by Ray Leslee will open its first of four public staged readings on Saturday evening, June 30 at 8pm. Set after World War II, A Good Man tells the story of Albert Clayton, a black sharecropper, who decides to paint his tenant house white causing an uproar in his rural Mississippi town. He struggles with a desperate wife, a frightened landlord, a sexy sister-in-law, and a furious town. The show will be directed by Jerry Dixon with music direction by William Foster McDaniel and feature performances Terence Archie, Ta’rea Campbell, Tina Fabrique, Antwuan Holley, Anastasia McClesky, Jacob Ming-Trent, Andrew Samonsky, Don Lee Sparks, and Dennis Stowe.

When We Met, book by Dan Collins with music and lyrics by Julianne Wick Davis, will wrap up with its third and final reading this Sun., June 24 at 3pm. String, book written by Sarah Hammond with lyrics and music by Adam Gwon, will perform its final readings Wed., June 27 at 8pm and Fri. June 29 at 7pm.

Theatermakers, the six-week summer intensive of the National Theater Institute, will also present original work on Monday, June 25 at 7pm. The performance is free and open to the public.

All performances take place at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, 305 Great Neck Road, Waterford, CT 06385. Schedule is subject to change. Tickets for the National Music Theater Conference performances may be purchased online at or through the box office at (860) 443-1238.

Weather Cancels Tonight's Opener at Talcott Mountain

Picnics before the concert will have to wait until Saturday...
The Hartford Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Four Seasons: Vivaldi & Piazzolla at the Talcott Mountain Music Festival has been postponed due to a forecast of thunderstorms for this evening. 

Friday concert tickets will be honored tomorrow evening at the Saturday, June 23 at 7:30 pm Rain Date performance.  Please check the website for further weather updates tomorrow ( 

Patrons who have already purchased tickets for tonight and are unable to attend on Saturday can call HSO Ticket Services at (860) 244-2999 starting at 10 am Monday, June 25, to exchange tickets for an upcoming 2012 Talcott Mountain Music Festival concert on a space-available basis.

Extended Box Office hours: The HSO’s Box Office at the Simsbury Performing Arts Center will open Saturday starting at 11 am and tickets will also be available to purchase by phone at 860-244-2999 from 11 am  to 3 pm. Additionally, tickets are available for purchase online at

Quick Hit Theater Review: The Year of Magical Thinking -- Westport

Maureen Anderman as Joan Didion. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

The Year of Magical Thinking
By Joan Didion
Starring Maureen Anderman
Directed by Nicholas Martin
Westport Country Playhouse

What is it about?
Based on Didion's bestselling memoir of the same title (winner of the National Book Award), it details a year in the life of the author and how she copes with the sudden loss in 2003 of her screenplay writing partner, best-friend and husband, John Gregory Dunne, to a heart attack even while their daughter, Quintana, lies in coma battling a septic infection. The daughter hangs on and seemigly recovers, only to relapse and die in 2005 (Didion recorded her thoughts about this in another book,"Blue Nights".) "Magical Thinking" refers to her thought process as she works through complete denial, avoidance and acceptance of her grief over John's death. The message: Life changes in an instant.

What are the highlights:
It is full of great insight about life, love and coping. An honest reflection that helped the author get through her grief. It's a tour de force for the actress who delivers 90 minutes of monologue without an intermission. Alexander Dodge nicely sets the stage, boxing in Anderman's grief with a wooden frame, then revealing an ocean of grief just beyond a veil of denial (depicted by a backdrop lighted by Philip Rosenberg behind  a scrim).
What are the lowlights?
It's 90 minutes of a lot of unhappy stuff. Depending on how it is presented (here with an intensity that masks some of Didion's humor), it can be difficult to sit through, particularly if you have lost a loved one.

More information:
The year of Magical Thinking runs at the Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport, through June 30.
For more information or tickets: 203-227-4177, toll-free 1-888-927-7529;

On Thursday, June 28, at  7 pm, Didion will appear at Hartford Stage, 50 Church Street, Hartford. She will be interviewed by Julia Pistell in a special presentation by The Friends of The Mark Twain House & Museum.
Tickets are $40 ($30 for Mark Twain House & Museum members and Hartford Stage subscribers) and can be obtained by calling 860-527-5151 or going online to The event will be followed by a dessert reception and book signing.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Judy Blume Talk Benefits Mark Twain House

Children's author Judy Blume will deliver the Clemens Lecture to benefit The Mark Twain House & Museum on Thursday, June 21, at 7:30 p.m. (NOTE: The event will take place at  the Lincoln Theater, University of Hartford, 200 Bloomfield Avenue, West Hartford.)

Tickets are $25 and $40; an $85 ticket includes VIP seating and a pre-event reception with Judy Blume. To reserve a place, call 860-768-4228 or go to

Kick Up Your Heels with Dancing Under the Stars at Talcott Mountain Concert

Carolyn Kuan conducting the 2011 Talcott Mountain Music Festival. Photo: Steven Laschever
The Hartford Symphony Orchestra will invite audiences out of their chairs and onto the dance floor for Dancing Under the Stars at the Talcott Mountain Music Festival on Friday, July 6 at the Performing Arts Center at Simsbury Meadows. 

The festivities will begin at 6:30 pm with an open dance lesson from instructors from Arthur Murray Dance Studios of Bloomfield. Concert-goers will get the chance to learn the waltz, the single-swing, the lindy swing, the fox-trot and more. Then, starting at 7:30, Carolyn Kuan will lead the HSO in waltzes, including Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” from The Nutcracker and “Waltz” from Swan Lake, and Johann Strauss’ On the Beautiful Blue Danube; swing music, including Glenn Miller’s In The Mood and Benny Goodman’s Sing, Sing, Sing; and fox trots, including Cole Porter’s I’ve Got You Under My Skin. (Additionally, there will be an opportunity to request encores at the end of the night through a live audience poll on facebook.)

Throughout the concert, audiences will be invited to join the Arthur Murray dancers out on two large dance floors on the field for a night of dancing under the stars.

Ticket Information: Subscriptions to the 2012 Talcott Mountain Music Festival range in price from $100-$1420; single tickets range in price from $20-$45; and lawn tickets for kids 12 and under are $5. Discounts are available for tickets purchased in advance. For more ticketing information, call (860) 244-2999 or visit

Additional Information: Gates open at 6 pm for all Talcott Mountain Music Festival concerts. The HSO Family Activity Tent is open from 6 to 7:15 with free activities such as music-themed games and crafts, the “Instrument Zoo,” and youth performances.  Arthur Murray Dance Studios of Bloomfield will offer an open dance lesson to all ticket-holders starting at 6:30 pm at this performance. In the case of severe weather, this concert will be performed the following night (July 7) at the same time.

Stowe Center Hosts Negative Images Exhibit

“They” are not like us. “They” do not understand us. “They” are strange. Therefore, we mock “them,” we exclude “them.”

This “Us” vs. “Them” thinking is the basis for a traveling exhibit at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center June 14 through Sept 3. An opening reception will be held Thursday, June 14 at 6:30 p.m.
THEM: Images of Separation shows artifacts that target Asian-Americans, African Americans, Hispanics, Jews, poor whites, women, and people marked as “different” because of how they look, their body type or sexual orientation. On loan from the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University, the exhibit uses objects of intolerance to teach tolerance and promote social justice. With 35 framed pieces, the exhibit shows how everyday objects are used to foster prejudice and discrimination—and separation.
“These negative images on ordinary artifacts – like postcards, license plates, games, souvenirs and costumes – are shocking,” says Stowe Center Executive Director Katherine Kane. “They are meant to persecute and isolate, holding down people and groups.” THEM tackles cultural hot-button issues: anti-Arab sentiment, Holocaust denial, "don't ask, don't tell" and immigration.
THEM: Images of Separation was inspired by the words of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere…Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Kane notes, “Viewing the exhibit, we see how we demonize those who are different, and that differences are seen as deficiencies, weaknesses, and moral failings.”
The Stowe Center presents THEM as part of Stereotypes: Designed to Degrade, a site-wide initiative including exhibits, tours and programs on the power of hateful name-calling. Also on exhibit is Who is Uncle Tom? where visitors learn how Stowe’s title character evolved from 19th-century inspiration for abolition to racial slur. Stereotypes: Designed to Degrade is supported by funding from Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and Travelers.
A companion exhibit, Hateful Things, runs concurrently at the Mark Twain House and Museum next door to the Stowe Center. Hateful Things looks at inflammatory representations of African Americans. Stowe and Twain worked to make change yet, despite their effort, inequity and injustice are prevalent in the 21st century. The exhibits and associated programming examine the damage of racism and stereotyping while offering opportunities for dialogue and action.
The exhibit will be open during Stowe Center hours, Tuesday through Friday, 9:30 4:30 pm; Saturday 9:30 am to 5:30 pm; Sunday noon to 5:30 pm. Admission is free for Stowe Center members or with paid admission to the Stowe Center. Admission for the exhibit only is $3.
WARNING: This exhibit contains graphic and vulgar images with racist and sexual content. The Stowe Center has rated it appropriate for mature 13 year olds and older; guardians should be prepared to answer tough questions from younger visitors.
For more information, contact 860-522-9258, ext. 317.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Theater Review: Last of the Red Hot Lovers

Bonnie Black, Beverley Taylor, Kate Hubbard with R. Bruce Connelly. Photo courtesy of Ivoryton Playhouse
Connelly Sparks Some Life into an Aging Comedy
By Lauren Yarger
R. Bruce Connelly, one of Connecticut theater's gems, gives Neil Simon's Last of the Red Hot Lovers at Ivoryton Playhouse a shot in the arm with some charm and comic timing, but he and a willing cast can't fully resuscitate an aging play that's rather dated.

Connelly stars as Barney Cashman, a married man of 23 years who decides to try his hand at a romantic tryst. He sneaks into his mother's place (Rachel Reynolds designs the knickknack cluttered midtown New York apartment) while she is at work, bringing with him everything he thinks he'll need to seduce the object of his desire: Elaine Navazio (Beverly J. Taylor), whom he met at his seafood restaurant. Barney brings his own glasses for drinks and refluffs pillows into their exact positions lest his mother detect their presence. He closes the curtains and talks in whispers so his mother's nosy neighbor can't hear. He also keeps smelling his fingers to make sure that the smell from shucking oysters at his restaurant hasn't lingered.

Needless to say, Elaine, looking for some quick action, doesn't find any of that sexy. When Barney finally tries some romantic moves, they are awkward at best. The encounter leaves him swearing he'll never do anything like that again, but then there wouldn't be a play . . .

Enter conquest number 2: free-spirited, much younger actress and hippie type Bobbi Michele (Katherine Ailsa Hubbard). Barney soon realizes his mistake, but before he knows it, she has him getting high on marijuana and listening to tales about her lesbian, Nazi roommate. By the time he tries again with conquest number 3,  Jeanette Fisher (Bonnie Black), Barney has become pretty adept at the sneak-off-to-Mom's-apartment routine, but prudish, uptight Jeanette, who is a friend of his wife, proves another kind of challenge for Barney.

Most of the humor in Simon's 1969 hit is the type that probably was funny then, but loses something in the passage of years.  We're stuck in a time warp, unable to get out of the '60s when World War II wasn't so long ago, marijuana was something new and kinky, cheating on your wife was something most men didn't do and calls were made on rotary dial phones (LisaMarie Harry designs the costumes that depict the era).

Director Maggie McGlone Jennings lets the actors drift into a slow pace, especially in the first act, that fails to give what humor their is any chance of taking off. Even the scene changes are slow. The The meeting between Connelly and Black, who does a nice job giving Jeanette some depth, is more interesting, with both actors bringing skill to the exchange, but by the time this occurs in the second act, it's too late to revive the dying play.

Connelly does what he can to keep things interesting along the way, however, and deserves a nod. His antics tickled one woman in the audience and it was just as much fun to watch her break up every time Connelly did something funny as it was to watch the play.

Last of the Red Hot Lovers plays at Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., through June 24. Performance times are Wednesday and Sunday at 2pm; Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm. Tickets are $40 for adults, $35 for seniors, $20 for students and $15 for children and are available by calling 860-767-7318 or by visiting

Dwight/Edewood Project Presents 8 Student Presentations

Yale Repertory Theatre andYale School of Drama presents the 17th annual Dwight/Edgewood Project (D/EP): eight original one-act plays written bystudents from Augusta Lewis Troup School and designed, produced, and performed by Yale School of Drama students, will be presented for two performances only on June 22 and June 23 at 7 pm at the Off-Broadway Theater (41 Broadway, New Haven).

Admission is free. Seating is available on a first come, first served basis.

D/EP pairs eight sixth- and seventh-graders fromAugusta Lewis Troup School, who were selected based on their interest in writing and storytelling, with mentors from Yale School of Drama. During the month of June, the students work one-on-one with their mentors and learn about theatre and playwriting through interactive games and writing exercises. Each student then writes an original one-act play, which is designed, directed, and performed by the same Yale School of Drama artists who have served as teachers and mentors to the young playwrights.

The program onFriday, June 22 features: Revorby Saran Toure, Chaotic Friendship Duo byParis Ransom, What Are We? by Saschin Choy, and The Kings of Friendsby Nikolaos Constantopoulous.

The program on Saturday, June 23 features: Helping out Cheat byRaQuan Jones, Little Big Footby Ashley Chapman, Trust Me When Feeling Down by Daneel Morrison, andNo Such Thing As Perfect byKiyesha Smith.

The staff of the Dwight/Edgewood Project 2012 includesMerlin Huff and Melissa Zimmerman (Co-Producing Directors), Jack Tamburri and Dustin Willis (Directors),Rachel Gordon Smallwood (Scenic Designer),Nikki Delhomme (Costume Designer), Benjamin Ehrenreich (Lighting Designer), Keri Klick (Sound Designer/Composer), Sonja Thorson (Production Stage Manager), Brian Smallwood (Technical Director), and Maree Barbara Tan-Tiongco (Assistant Technical Director). Mentors include Jabari Brisport (Yale Presidential Public Service Fellow), Ceci Fernandez,Sophie von Haselberg, Mary Laws, Dan O’Brien, Emily Reilly,and Jon Wemette. The Teaching Artist isMichael Walkup.

The Dwight/Edgewood Project 2012 is made possible in part by Yale Repertory Theatre/Yale School of Drama, Yale University Office of New Haven and State Affairs, Ms. Esme Usdan, The Lucille Lortel Foundation, Allegra Print and Imaging, and individual donors.

For more information, please call (203) 432-2174.

CT Free Shakespeare Presents Romeo & Juliet

O'Neill Music Theater Conference Kicks Off with Readings

The O'Neill Center's National Music Theater Conference, under the artistic direction of Paulette Haupt, kicks off during the week of June 17 with the readings of two new works.

When We Met, book by Dan Collins; music and lyrics by Julianne Wick Davis, will show Wed., June 20 at 8pm, Fri., June 22 at 7pm, and Sun., June 24 at 3pm. String, book written by Sarah Hammond with lyrics and music by Adam Gwon, will perform Sat., June 23 at 8pm and Sun. June 24 at 7pm.

Theatermakers, the six-week summer intensive of the National Theater Institute, will present their first work on Monday, June 18 at 7pm. The performance is free and open to the public.

When We Met tells the story of two comfortably single, middle-aged people who reluctantly meet on a blind date, struggling to understand one of the greatest intangibles of all: love. The musical is directed by Sheryl Kaller with music direction by Matt Castle, and features Sally Wilfert and Michael Winther.

Directed by Mike Donahue with music direction by Ray Fellman, String is an original musical about the three fates in the modern city. A workaholic Greek god gets tangled up with a security guard in the basement of the tallest building in the world, and divinity and humanity became tangled in a web of fate. Featuring performances from Jill Abramovitz, Joe Cassidy, Amanda Jane Cooper, Katrina Rose Dideriksen, Ryan Link, Margot Seibert, Jason Tam, Katie Thompson, Price Waldman, and Betsy Wolfe.

This week’s Theatermakers performance will be a reading of original work created by the students over the period of three days. Students in the program write, direct, and act during their six-week tenure showcasing their work with free public performances.

All performances take place at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, 305 Great Neck Road, Waterford, CT 06385. Schedule is subject to change. Tickets for the National Music Theater Conference performances may be purchased online at or through the box office at (860) 443-1238.

Summer Theater at New Canaan Previews Begin Tonight

Jasmin Gorslin
Previews for Lerner & Loewe's My Fair Lady begin tonight  at Summer Theatre of New Canaan.

Box office 203-966-4634
Hours: Mon-Friday 11 am to 4 pm, Weekends 11 am to 2 pm
Day of show At Tent Festival Theatre - 1 hour prior to performance All ticket pick up at theater beginning one hour day of performance. Email orders to

Festival Theatre entrance 11 Farm Road, New Canaan, CT
(New Canaan High School Entrance) - parking adjacent to theatre

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Campo Steps Down at TheaterWorks

Michael G. Albano, president of the board of directors of TheaterWorks, Hartford, announced that Steve Campo has stepped down from his position as executive director.

Campo, who founded TheaterWorks in 1985, guided the company’s business and artistic functions since its inception.  On medical leave since December 2011, Campo elected to leave the theater to focus on his health.

Albano also announced that the board of directors would promptly assemble a search committee for a new executive director composed of volunteer advisors and members of the board.  Until a new executive director is in place, Rob Ruggiero will continue to serve as the theater’s interim artistic director.

Ruggiero has been a partner in the artistic leadership of TheaterWorks since 1993 and has directed more than 40 productions for the theater including High, Take Me Out, Lobby Hero, Rabbit Hole, The Little Dog Laughed, and the current production I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti.  Ruggiero has directed productions at major regional theaters around the country, as well as on Broadway and Off-Broadway.

Under Ruggiero’s artistic direction, TheaterWorks recently announced its five-play 2012-2013 season, which will include Venus in Fur by David Ives, Almost Maine by John Cariani, The Mountaintop by Katori Hall, and Time Stands Still by Donald Margulies.  Ruggiero is currently negotiating the rights to the fifth play of the season.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Theater Review: I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti -- TheaterWorks

Antoinette LaVecchia. Photo: Lanny Nagler
'Sex and the City,' 'Love, Loss and What I Wore' and 'Bad Dates' all Get Together Over a Delizioso Pasta Dinner
By Lauren Yarger
Antoinette LaVecchia sparkles like a fine Chianti in Connecticut playwright Jacques Lamarre's stage adaptation of Giulia Melucci's bestselling memoir I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti getting a delectable world premiere at TheatreWorks in Hartford. 

LaVecchia, directed by Rob Ruggiero, serves up delicious, humor-seasoned stories of disastrous dating relationships while working out her frustrations by kneading homemade pasta  and whipping up an Italian dinner for 10 lucky theatergoers seated at stage-side tables. From antipasto and salad to spaghetti Bolognese, LaVecchia blends a bubbling personality with Melucci's tales from the dating trenches for a dinner party where the women of Candace Bushnell's "Sex and the City," Nora and Delia Ephron's Love, Loss and What I Wore, and Theresa Rebeck's Bad Dates would feel right at home. 

New York writer/publicist Giulia entertains the audience with details about relationships with Mr. Wrong while cooking to relive her stress prior to a date with the one who could be Mr. Right and taking numerous phone calls from her overly inquisitive mother. She always thought that the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach, but despite all of her culinary skills, none of her past relationships have resulted in the “specialita della casa” of every good Catholic, Italian girl – a walk down the aisle. (Lamarre chops the number of relationships recounted in Melucci’s book and focuses on a variety of guys who have been recipes for relationship disasters.)  

They include Giulia’s first boyfriend and tender memories of their making out, her first sexual encounter, the love that got away, the Scottish guy whom she never should have dated, the older guy with kids she dates out of sheer desperation and even a relationship with her priest when she opts for a period of celibacy. Giulia offers some personal revelations along the way too: she remembers what guys order to eat on first dates, not what they wear; she loves her mother, but she driver her nuts. 

Relationships are a lot like making pasta, she tells us – it gets sticky at times, but it’s worth the effort. A drawer full of souvenirs – a beer can from the guy who drank too much and a picture of another’s ex girlfriend , among other items – are proof that her taste in men has left a bit of a bitter taste in her mouth, but also reminders that she has learned from each experience. 

Each story includes humor, seasoned by LaVecchia’s mocking characterizations of the men’s voices as she recalls their conversations. Her take on the older Charles-Nelson-Reilly sounding guy is saucy, even while the Bolognese simmers on the stove in her functioning kitchen (John Coyne designs the colorful set lighted by John Lasiter). She also deserves a big salute! and a tip of the wine glass for reciting the two- and-a-half-hour-long mouthful of a monologue (there is one intermission) without being distracted by adjusting the temperature on boiling water, adding a pinch of salt to the dough or delivering the plates to her dinner guests. (D & D Market in Hartford, Hartford Baking Company in West Hartford and Bin 228 across the street from TheaterWorks all have donated food items for the run of the production).

While the script measures out generous portions of humor and palatable storytelling, the start of the play could use a little more simmering for a smoother roux into the entrée: Giulia launches too heavily into her anecdotes before we feel really know who she is or why we are in her apartment (and oddly there is no interaction between her and the folks for whom she’s preparing pasta from scratch, something which she tells us she only does for people she loves, so who are they?) Also, pronounced changes between scenes where lights go down with music playing (Sasha Wahl, sound design) are superfluous – we’re just going from salad to pasta, not changing days or settings. They interrupt the momentum. 
These items requiring a toothpick are small potatoes, however. Overall, it’s an enjoyable evening about good food and bad relationships -- topics to which most everyone can relate.  
Mangia! I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti runs at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford, has been extended through July 14. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30, Fridays and Saturday at 8 pm with weekend matiness at 2:30 pm. Tickets: 860-527-7838; Special kitchen seating at the tables bordering the stage (includes a glass of wine and the food prepared during the show) is $76. Copies of the book “I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti” signed by Melucci, LaVecchia, Lamarre and Ruggiero are available in the lobby or by calling the box office. 
Full disclosure: Jacques Lamarre, Director of Communication and Special Projects at the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, is a critic colleague and covers Connecticut theater with me for

Friday, June 8, 2012

Kathleen Turner Returns to Long Wharf

Kathleen Turner returns to Long Wharf Theatre during the 2012-13 season, to star in and direct The Killing of Sister George, a new adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher of the play by Frank Marcus.  

The show will replace the previously announced God of Carnage on the schedule and will take place Nov. 28-Dec. 23. 

“I announce this change in our season schedule with overwhelming excitement,” said Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein. “We are thrilled to welcome the great Kathleen Turner back to our stage.” 

The estate of Frank Marcus has given Hatcher permission to re-envision the original 1964 play. “This is going to be another level of challenge to me. I truly enjoy directing. I love creating the overall picture, which is more than an actor usually gets to do,” Turner said.  

By day June Buckridge (Turner) plays Sister George tending to the sick and poor on the radio hit “Applehurst.” By night, she chews on cigars, swills gin and lets nothing and no one stand in her way, including her long suffering “secretary” Childie. When “Applehurst”’s ratings plummet, Sister George is shuffled meekly off to the Great Beyond. June refuses to go quietly from her starring perch, however, in this bawdy and witty comedy.

Turner is best known for a series of starring film roles in the 1980s, including Body Heat (Golden Globe nomination for New Star of the Year), The Man With Two Brains, Crimes of Passion, Romancing the Stone (Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy), The Jewel of the Nile, The War of the Roses (Golden Globe nomination), Prizzi’s Honor (Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy), Peggy Sue Got Married (Academy Award and Golden Globe nomination), Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Serial Mom, and The Virgin Suicides, among many others.  

She also appeared at Long Wharf Theatre during the 1986-87 season as Marguerite Gautier in Camille. 

The Killing of Sister George rounds out Long Wharf Theatre’s 2012-13 season. Previously announced shows are Satchmo at the Waldorf, by Terry Teachout; January Joiner, by Laura Jacqmin; Curse of the Starving Class, by Sam Shepard; Ride the Tiger, by William Mastrosimone; and Clybourne Park, by Bruce Norris. 

For more information about Long Wharf Theatre 2012-13 season, visit or call 203-787-4282. 

Crystal Gayle Follows Grand Ole Opry Return with Performances in Bridgeport

Just days after Crystal Gayle’s historic and long-awaited return to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry on Friday, June 15, she will take the stage of Bridgeport’s Downtown Cabaret Theatre for two concerts (5pm & 8pm) on Saturday, June 23.

Downtown Cabaret Theatre is located at 263 Golden Hill St. Reserved tickets are $47 and $67: call 203-576-1636; visit; mail Crystal Gayle, c/o Downtown Cabaret Theatre, 263 Golden Hill St., Bridgeport, CT 06604.

Box Office Hours: 11am to 4:30 pm Tuesdays through Fridays. Box Office open 90 minutes prior to performance times. More nformation:

Marc Kudisch Will Play Tartuffe at Westport

Three-time Tony Award-nominated actor Marc Kudisch, left, will play the title role in Westport Country Playhouse’s July staging of Molière’s Tartuffe, directed by David Kennedy, Playhouse associate artistic director. Mark Nelson will play Orgon, Nadia Bowers is cast as Elmire, and Patricia Conolly will portray Madame Pernelle.
Others in the cast are Justin Adams, Chrissy Albanese, Matthew Amendt, Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, Jeremy Lawrence, William Peden, Jeanine Serralles, and Charise Castro Smith.

Playing July 17 though Aug. 4, the performance schedule for Tartuffe is Tuesday at 8 pm, Wednesday at 2 and 8 pm, Thursday and Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 3 and 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm. Special series feature Taste of Tuesday, Previews, LGBT Night OUT, Opening Night, Thursday TalkBack, Sunday Symposium, and Backstage Pass. “Books Worth Talking About,” a pre-show discussion with a prominent author, will be presented on Wednesday, July 18, 6:30 pm. In addition, the Playhouse will offer an open-captioned performance on Sunday, July 29, at 3 pm for the hearing impaired.

Subscriptions are available (Pick 3 Plans and FlexTix) offering up to 40 percent off single tickets. Single ticket prices, starting at $30, are subject to change based on availability. Buy early for the best prices.

For more information or tickets: 203-227-4177, toll-free at 1-888-927-7529;

Renovations Begin at Long Wharf's Main Stage

Long wharf Theatre staff and Petra Construction employees
Long Wharf Theatre's Mainstage is ready for demolition and renovation.

A $3.8 million renovation project to the newly christened Claire Tow Stage in the C. Newton Schenck III Mainstage begins today and is slated for completion in mid-October. Since the close of My Name is Asher Lev, Long Wharf Theatre staffers have been working to prepare the space for the demolition work slated to begin June 8, taking down equipment and removing some of the decades’ worth of stuff stored in the crevices of the theatre. The track lighting was removed completely for the first time since the theatre’s inception, uncovering a patchwork of paint cans hung in the rafters to catch leaks in the ceiling. 

The backstage area, at one point in the theatre’s history the original scene shop, was stripped of its temporary dressing rooms and racks of stored materials, reducing the room to its original industrial roots. 

Unbeknownst to most patrons, there are a series of tunnels beneath the Mainstage Seats. The tunnels, used for actors and stage crews to have different access points to the thrust stage, were lined with all sorts of theatrical memorabilia – archival information, lighting equipment, boxes and boxes of the theatre’s institutional memory. The process of clearing the arteries of the theatre, so to speak, has been ongoing. The entire staff has pitched in to clean up and get ready to turn the building over to Petra Construction. 

Fundraising for the project continues to be successful, with over $3.23 million already contributed by patrons and friends of the theatre. However, Long Wharf still needs to achieve the last 15 percent of its total fundraising goal, and there are still giving opportunities, including naming seats in the new theatre. 

For more information about how to support the project, contact Director of Development Eileen Wiseman at 203-772-8237 or via e-mail at

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Directors Named for O'Neill's Music Theater Conference

Paulette Haupt, Artistic Director of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Music Theater Conference, today announced the Directors of the four new projects selected for development at the 2012 Conference.
The list of Directors includes: Tony Award nominee Sheryl Kaller; acclaimed independent director and Fulbright Fellow Mike Donahue; Off-and-On Broadway actor and Director Jerry Dixon; and Breaking Bread Theatre co-Artistic Director and 4-Time Helen Hayes Award winner Joe Calarco.
Music Directors include: Musician, actor, and director Matt Castle; Ray Fellman, acclaimed performer and Professor of Musical Theatre at Indiana University; Pianist, composer, conductor, and Fulbright Scholar William Foster McDaniel; and David Libby, Music Director for the 2011 Off-Broadway production Play it Cool, an Outer Critics Circle nominee for Outstanding New Musical.
Director: Sheryl Kaller
Music Director: Matt Castle
Book by Dan Collins; lyrics, music by Julianne Wick Davis;
in collaboration with Sally Wilfert & Michael Winther
Performances: 6/20 at 8PM; 6/22 at 7PM; 6/24 at 3PM
Director: Mike Donahue
Music Director: Ray Fellman
Book by Sarah Hammond; lyrics, music by Adam Gwon
Performances: 6/23 at 8PM; 6/24 at 7PM; 6/27 at 8PM; 6/29 at 7PM
Director: Jerry Dixon
Music Director: William Foster McDaniel
Book, lyrics by Philip S. Goodman; music by Ray Leslee
Performances: 6/30 at 8PM; 7/1 at 3PM; 7/3 at 8PM; 7/6 at 7PM
THE TOYMAKER Director: Joe Calarco
Music Director: David Libby
Book, lyrics, and music by Bryan Putnam
Performances: 7/7 at 8PM; 7/8 at 3PM; 7/11 at 8PM; 7/13 at 7PM
Schedules are subject to change. Tickets go on sale Wednesday, June 6. Please call the O’Neill Box Office at 860-443-1238 or visit for times, prices and reservations. Outdoor performances will be moved indoors in the event of rain.
Sheryl Kaller – Director, When We MetSheryl Kaller received a Tony Award Nomination for Best Director for the critically acclaimed Broadway production of Next Fall by Geoffrey Nauffts. She most recently directed Mr. Joy, written and starring Daniel Beaty. Sheryl has directed at many theaters including New York Stage and Film, Naked Angels, Primary Stages, the New Group, A.C.T., the Geffen Playhouse, Williamstown, Pasadena Playhouse, Philadelphia Theater Company, the York and American Music Theater Project, and has developed many new plays with writers including Christopher Durang, Peter Melnick, Regina Taylor, Dick Beebe, Daniel Beaty, Alan Menken, Nick Blaemire, and Geoffrey Nauffts. Greatest joys: Scott, Tobey, and Tess.

Matt Castle – Music Director, When We Met
Mr. Castle has helped create over 70 new works as musical director and/or actor. Favorite venues include York Theatre (LingoLand, Blue Roses, Falling to Earth, NEO Concerts 2006-2012), NYU (Only Children, I’ll Be Damned, Yellow Wood), Playwrights Horizons (Southern Comfort), Barrington (Pool Boy), Sundance and Weston Playhouse (Saint-Ex), Signature (Queens Boulevard), the Triad (Amazing Sex), NYMF (Austentatious, Gutenberg), CAP21 (The Giver), and Theatreworks/USA. Other credits as musical director include Romance in Hard Times (starring Lillias White), Enter Laughing, and many concerts, cabarets, and regional productions.
His work as an orchestrator has been heard on cast albums, demos, and concert stages around the country. With Frank Galgano he has orchestrated five shows (Duck for President, Skippyjon Jones, Austin the Unstoppable, Litter, and Snow White, Rose Red), and is working on two more (Martha Speaks, A Little Princess). As an actor, Mr. Castle has appeared in the original 2006 Broadway cast of Company, original off-Broadway casts of The Musical of Musicals and Enter Laughing, and several regional productions (Music Circus, Paper Mill, Cincinnati Playhouse, Cape Playhouse, Sacramento Theatre Company).
Mike Donahue – Director, StringMike has directed for Playmakers Repertory Company (2011/12 Distinguished Guest Artist), Chicago Opera Theater, The ART Institute + Club Oberon, EST Youngblood, NYU Grad Acting, The New Jersey Shakespeare Festival (NSE), Old Vic New Voices (London), Terra Firma @ City Center (Stage II), The Studio NYC @ The Wild Project, The DUMBO Wave Rising Festival, Yale School of Drama and Yale Dramat (as guest director), UNC Grad Acting, and The Summer Cabaret in New Haven, where he was also the Artistic Director for two seasons. He has developed new work with Soho Rep (Writer/Director Lab), MCC, Williamstown, Clubbed Thumb, The Lark, Ars Nova, Working Theater, Dramatists Guild, and Studio 42. Mike is a recipient of a Fulbright to Berlin, the Opera America Director-Designer Showcase Award, the Theatertreffen International Forum Fellowship (Berlin), and a Drama League Fall Directing Fellowship.
Upcoming projects include: Sagal Fellowship at Williamstown Theater Festival to develop Becoming Sylvia, a new musical by Janine Nabers and Sharon Kenny; premiere of Ethan Lipton’s Red-Handed Otter with Playwrights Realm; and world premiere of Lauren Feldman’s Grace, or the Art of Climbing with the Denver Center.
Graduate, Harvard University and Yale School of Drama.
Ray Fellman – Music Director, StringRay Fellman resides in NYC and Bloomington, Indiana where he is Professor of Musical Theatre at Indiana University. Works developed at the O’Neill include Buddy’s Tavern, Blood Drive, and Iron Curtain. Other Music Directing credits include Stephen Schwartz’s Captain Louie (Little Schubert Theater); The Tutor (59 E 59); Reluctant Pilgrim (NYMTF); 22 Caliber Mouth, directed by Diane Paulis (Premieres, Ohio Theater). He has conducted numerous workshop readings with Lance Horne/Winter Miller, Howard Marren/Judy Sanger, Joel Derfner/Rachel Sheinkin, Ilene Reid/Michael Heitzman, and Kim Oler/Allison Hubbard in such venues as The York Theatre, New York Theatre Workshop, Dramatists Guild, The Zipper, The Hudson Guild.
Ray is a regular conductor at the Fulton Theatre (Lancaster, PA) and Teatro Nacional Sucre (Quito, Ecuador), was music director for the 2007 MAC Awards at B.B. King’s, and received the Backstage Magazine Bistro Award for musical direction of The After Party, hosted weekly by Brandon Cutrell (Laurie Beechman Theatre). Concert and Cabaret experience includes Feinstein’s, The Algonquin, Jazz At Lincoln Center, Joe’s Pub, Birdland, Metropolitan Room, Duplex Cabaret Theatre with Liz McCartney, Susie Mosher, Anne Runolfsson, Lauren Molina and Cole Escola. Voice coaching: Indie film Greetings from Tim Buckley (2012) starring Penn Badgley.
Upcoming projects include West Side Story at Teatro Nacional Sucre, A Little Night Music starring Sylvia McNair at Indiana Repertory, and Spring Awakening at Indiana University Theatre and Drama.
Entertainment's The Incredible Hulk. B.A. Bowdoin College, M.M. Rutgers University.

Jerry Dixon – Director, A Good ManMr. Dixon has guided several new works from page to stage, including productions of Barnstormer, and Take Me America. Regional and Off-Broadway credits include: The Full Monty, Show Boat, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Crowns, Bernarda Alba, and Two Gentlemen of Verona. Jerry has years of concert direction, including work at Carnegie Hall, Belgium National Symphony, National Black Theatre, as well as solo concerts for Broadway stars LaChanze, Kecia Evans, Norm Lewis, and recording artist Raul Midón. He has also written Special material for CBS, VH1, Comedy Central, and original songs for the Tony-nominated Broadway show and Showtime special, Laugh Whore, starring Mario Cantone, directed by Joe Mantello, His original musical Guess Who’s Coming for Chitlins? premiered at the Thalia Theatre, in Hamburg.
His performance credits include Original Broadway and Off-Broadway casts of Once on This Island, Five Guys Named Moe, Avenue X, Bright Lights, Big City, The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds her Chameleon Skin, newyorkers, Taking a Chance on Love, and tick, tick… BOOM! As a director, Mr. Dixon has several works in development, including “21” (Alki Steriopoulos), a musical inspired by baseball legend Roberto Clemente; “Amber Street” a romantic musical comedy (Bob Larimer & Hal Schaefer), and “Dig Lenny Bruce” (Walter Marks), which will receive a workshop at Bay Street Theatre this fall.
William Foster McDaniel– Music Director, A Good ManWilliam Foster McDaniel is a pianist, composer, arranger and conductor. He began his career in musical theatre as pianist-conductor of Off-Broadway’s long-running The Fantasticks. He then served as Assistant Musical Director of the Broadway Production and National Tour of Timbuktu! and Musical Director/Conductor of National Tours of Bubblin Brown Sugar and Ain’t Misbehavin’. Since his original involvement with the show, Mr. McDaniel has musical directed over 50 productions of Ain’t Misbehavin’ and is regarded as its premiere interpreter.
Other conducting credits include Sophisticated Ladies, House of Flowers (with Patti Labelle), Once on this Island, Big River, Fiddler on the Roof, Guys and Dolls, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Hello, Dolly! Dreamgirls, Damn Yankees!, Show Boat, Storyville, Dinah Was, The Will Rogers Follies, A Wonderful Life, Nunsense II, Call the Children Home, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, Always… Patsy Cline, Cookin’ at the Cookery, Crazy for You, and Smokey Joe’s Cafe. He was nominated for the Audelco Award for Call the Children Home at Primary Stages in New York, the Helen Hayes Award for Ain’t Misbehavin’ at Arena Stage in Washington, DC, the Joseph Jefferson Award for Cookin at the Cookery at Northlight Theatre in Chicago, and the Dora Award for Ain’t Misbehavin’ at CanStage in Toronto.
With Edward C. Sullivan, Mr. McDaniel is a co-author of Adam, a new musical based on the life of Adam Clayton Powell. As a classical musician, Mr McDaniel appears frequently in solo recitals and chamber concerts featuring his own compositions as well as works from the standard concert repertoire. His compositions have received performances by the Philharmonia of Greensboro, the Savannah Symphony Orchestra, the Mozart Society Orchestra at Harvard, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, The United States Army Band Brass Quintet and the Antara Ensemble of New York.
Mr. McDaniel holds a Bachelor of Music from Capital University in Columbus Ohio and a Master Of Music from Boston University. He was a Fulbright Scholar in Paris.
Joe Calarco – Director, ToyMaker
Joe Calarco is the recipient of 4 Helen Hayes Awards, the Barrymore Award, the Lucille Lortel Award, and is an Executive Board member of SDC. He is currently co-artistic director of Breaking Bread Theatre, which will produce Picnic at Hanging Rock as its premiere production in NYC in October.
Previous directing engagements at the O’Neill include: Sarah, Plain and Tall, In Transit, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Shadow Sparrow. Several Off-Broadway projects have been featured at Playwrights Horizon, Primary Stages, Second Stage, Transport Group, and Dream Light Theater Company, including; The Burnt Part Boys, Floyd and Clea, Under the Western Sky; Boy, In Transit (Drama Desk nomination), in the absence of spring (playwright/director), The Audience (contributing book writer), Bury the Dead, Fugitive Songs, and Shakespeare’s R&J (adaptor/director).
His regional theater work includes engagements with Philadelphia Theatre Company, Barrington Stage Company, The Old Globe, Signature Theater, and Mosaic Theater, including The Light in the Piazza, The Last Five Years, Elegies, M. Butterfly, Lincolnesque, The Glass Menagerie, The Memory Show, The Burnt Part Boys, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (book writer/director),Walter Cronkite is Dead (playwright/director), God of Carnage, Assassins, Urinetown, Side Show, Nijinsky’s Last Dance, Nest, and A Measure of Cruelty (playwright). Pregnancy Pact will be performed at Weston Playhouse.
David Libby – Music Director, ToyMakerDavid was Music Director, and played the role of "Smokey", in the 2011 Off-Broadway production of Play it Cool, which recently received an Outer Critics Circle nomination for Outstanding New Musical. Other musical director credits include Shadow Sparrow (O'Neill NMTC 2011); That Other Woman's Child (NYMF); The Fantasticks (Gallery Players), Little Shop of Horrors, My Way, Sisters of Swing (Infinity Theatre Company); Little Mary (Not For Broadway Festival) and Golden Prospects (Fringe Festival). David played keyboards on the tours of Kiss Me Kate (First National Broadway Tour) and Beauty and the Beast (Las Vegas), and also worked as pianist on the national tours of Hairspray, The Drowsy Chaperone, Oliver!, among others.
David is also a composer/arranger, and is currently arranging songs from the MGM catalog for Chasing Rainbows, a new musical about the early life of Judy Garland, in development with EMI Music Publishing, book by Thomas Meehan. He has composed musical scores for award winning short films and webisodes, including Greg Pak's Mister Green (Best Short Film, London Sci-Fi) and Marvel Comics characters in The Incredible Hulk, X-Men, and Spiderman.
David holds a B.A. from Bowdoin College , where he studied composition with avant garde icon Elliot Schwartz. He later received his M.M. in Jazz Studies from Rutgers University, where he studied with jazz piano legend Kenny Barron.

Paul McCartney's Hits Close Out HSO's Pops! Season

The Hartford Symphony Orchestra will close out the 2011-2012 POPS! Series with Live and Let Die: A Tribute to Paul McCartney this Saturday, June 9 at 8 pm in Mortensen Hall at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts.

Led by guest conductor Martin Herman and vocalist Tony Kishman, Live and Let Die combines the power of pop with the beauty of symphonic orchestration to bring a delightful concert experience to McCartney, Beatles, and Wings fans of all ages.

Kishman, along with vocalist Jim Owen, guitarist John Brosnan, guitarist John Merjave, and drummer Chris Camilleri, will re-create Paul McCartney’s most popular songs alongside the HSO, including 17, Band on the Run, Bluebird, Eleanor Rigby, Get Back, Here Comes the Sun, Hey Jude, Jet, Let It Be, Live and Let Die, Long and Winding Road,  Penny Lane, Silly Love Songs, Uncle Albert, I Am the Walrus, What the Man Said, When I’m 64, Yesterday, and more.

Ticket Information: Tickets range in price from $20-$67.50. Student and children tickets are $10. $25 tickets are available for patrons age 40 and under.  The Hartford Symphony is moving offices over the next week; to purchase tickets by phone or in person for this concert please contact The Bushnell Box Office at (860) 987-5900. Tickets are still available to purchase online at

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Into the Woods, Show Boat, Water by the Spoonful Receive Top Honors from CT Critics

Into the woods WCP_LaurenKennedy_ErikLiberman_DanielleFerland. Photo: T. Charles Erickson
The CT Critics Circle has announced winners for the 2011-2012 theater season.
Into the Woods at Westport Country Playhouse and Show Boat at Goodspeed have been honored as outstanding musicals and Water By The Spoonful at Hartford Stage (the 2012 Pulitzer Prize Winner for drama), is the outstanding play.
Awards will be presented at a ceremony 2 pm Sunday, June 24 at the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford.
The complete list:
“Into the Woods” (Westport Country Playhouse)
“Show Boat” (Goodspeed Musicals)
“Water by the Spoonful” by Quiara Alegria Hudes (Hartford Stage)

Christopher Bayes, “A Doctor in Spite of Himself” (Yale Rep)
Sam Gold, “The Realistic Joneses” (Yale Rep)
Mark Lamos, “Into the Woods”
Davis McCallum, “Water by the Spoonful”
Rob Ruggiero, “Show Boat”

(inludes main and supporting perfromances in plays and musicals)
Stanley Bahorek, “February House” (Long Wharf)
Ken Barnett, “February House”
Sarah Uriarte Berry, “Show Boat”
Claire Brownell, “Boeing-Boeing” (Hartford Stage)
Steven Epp, “A Doctor in Spite of Himself”
John Horton, “The Circle” (Westport Country Playhouse)
Annalee Jefferies, “Suddenly Last Summer” (Westport Country Playhouse)
Erick Lochtefeld, “February House”
Jacqueline Petroccia, “Always Patsy Cline” (Ivoryton Playhouse)
Dana Steingold, “Into the Woods”
Brenda Thomas, “Sty of the Blind Pig” (TheaterWorks)
Sam Tsoutsouvas, “The Crucible” (Hartford Stage)
Kirsten Wyatt, “Mame” (Goodspeed Musicals)
Alexander Dodge, sets for “The Tempest” (Hartford Stage), “Bell, Book
            and Candle” (Long Wharf / Hartford Stage), “The Circle”
            (Westport Country Playhouse)
John Gromada, sound for “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” (Westport Country
Fabio Toblini, costumes for “Bell, Book and Candle” and “The Tempest”
John Lasiter, lighting for “City of Angels” (Goodspeed Musicals)
Noah Racey, “Show Boat”
“Into the Woods”
“The Realistic Joneses”
“Water by the Spoonful”
Carey Cannata, “Over the Tavern” (Seven AngelsTheatre)
Ben Cole, “The Tempest”

Jacqueline Hubbard, artistic director, Ivoryton Playhouse
“I’m Connecticut,” Connecticut Repertory Theatre
The awards selection committee includes Frank Rizzo (Hartford Courant), Karen Isaacs (Two on the Aisle), Jacques Lamarre (Manchester Journal-Inquirer;, Bonnie K. Goldberg (Middletown Press) and Lauren Yarger (The Connecticut Arts Connection;

Friday, June 1, 2012

A Musical Journey That's . . . Amazing

The cast of Amazing Grace. Photo: Diane Sobolewski
Epic Tale of Slavery and Grace Eyes the Great White Way
By Lauren Yarger
It's a love story weaved between the threads of slavery, forgiveness and faith and though everyone is familiar with the hymn that grew out of it, no one has tried to put the epic tale on the stage before. Until now.

Amazing Grace is getting a run at Goodspeed Musicals' developmental Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, CT with an eye toward hitting Broadway. This might seem like a lofty goal given the large scale of  the production in a struggling economy that has producers holding on tightly to their investment dollars  (even smaller musicals can cost tens of millions of dollars to produce in New York). And the material is religious to boot (religious-themed shows have a hard time getting favorable reviews on the Great White Way.) Given the nothing-short-of-miraculous journey of the musical, so far, however, all things may be possible.

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Christopher Smith.
The musical is the creative baby of Christopher Smith, a soft-spoken Warwick, PA resident who as a teen had taught himself to play the guitar by watching video tapes. Music provided an escape from a difficult home: his parents divorced and his mother struggled with depression. He wrote a lot of folk music and listened to a lot of music videos. He found that music started to "build pictures" in his head and that he could "feel" how the music should sound.

He attended Catholic schools, but "didn't believe in much of anything" until he was 17 when he met up with a youth director who invited him to join the group at his church.

"I was a nerdy kid who didn't get along with anyone, but these people loved me even when I was a dork."
The experience led him to start attending their Presbyterian church and a personal faith in God. In 1996, helping with a youth activity for the church, he picked up a children's book about John Newton, the writer of the Amazing Grace hymn, and his passions of music and faith fused.
Some research revealed that no one before had focused a stage musical on Newton, the 18th-century slave trader who came to faith, became a clergyman and strongly supported the abolitionist movement in England. He would do it, he decided, despite the facts that he never had written anything for the theater and doesn't actually read music.
 "Daybreak," one of the songs included in Amazing Grace, actually is the third song he ever composed.

"I wrote from the heart years ago," then years later, his wife suggested that the tune would be  perfect for Amazing Grace.

He continued working on the musical off and on for about 10 years, knowing that it had "all the stuff of good drama."

"It has a a personal story of redemption about a man who has made mistakes and comes through tumultuous circumstances," he said, drawing comparisons to Les Mis.

Finally, in 2006, he mentioned the work to a musician friend in Bucks County, PA who was excited by the project and encouraged Smith to show it to others. Smith borrowed some music composing  software from his brother and created an overture (you can listen to it here, along with other selections form the score). He went to offices and homes to tell the story, sing songs and drum up interest in the project.

"The first half million dollars came from right inside Buck's County," he said.
Smith set up a reading at a Baptist church which could seat 600 people and had to find room for 1,200 who showed up. A second reading was set up for New York in the Empire State Building. Attending was Carolyn Rossi Copeland, founder of the former Lamb's Theater in Times Square, and producer of successful shows like Smoke on the Mountain, Gifts of the Magi, Johnny Pye, Roads to Home and Freud's Last Session, about an imaginary meeting between Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis, which currently is enjoying a long Off-Broadway run. 

"I went begrudgingly at first," said the producer who says she gets pitched anything with a religious connection because of her time with the Lambs, which was affiliated with the Nazarene Church. Once she heard the music, she was glad she went.

The story, however, needed development, she thought. Smith had stuck close to historic facts and focused on the love story between Newton and his childhood sweetheart Mary Catlett (Smith drew upon his own relationship with his wife, Alana, who was his own high school sweetheart, to create a strong character for Mary, about whom not much is known).
Copeland felt that this story was as much the slaves’ as it was Newton's. She suggested bringing in Arthur Giron as a mentor. He eventually came on as co-writer of the book They added slaves as prominent characters and tell part of the tale from their point of view.  The rewrites have continued through the developmental run at Goodspeed where producer Michael P. Price's input and perspective have been invaluable, Smith said. Audience feedback following some performances is helpful too.

Gabriel Barre directs. The creative team includes choreographer Benoit-Swan Pouffer, Music Director Jodie Moore, Set Designer Beowulf Boritt and Costume Designer Toni-Leslie James.

"There are parts of Amazing Grace that are hard for me to watch," Smith said referring to the depiction of slavery, but he felt strongly about not "Disneyfying" that aspect of the story. "More than 27 million are in bondage today."

So is Broadway ready for an epic musical Goodspeed advertises as "Storms. Slavery. Romance. Redemption?"

Copeland and Smith think so, perhaps following a national tour.

Smith, who defines his own faith as broadminded and not defined by extremism, says the message in the musical is not religious, or preachy, but one which can appeal to everyone.
"It is written into our DNA that we want to be loved in spite of our failures," he said. Amazing Grace is about that (the beautiful tune "Nothing There to Love" puts this sentiment into a soul-touching ballad) and the fact that suffering matters, that people can go beyond perceived limits.

"We're trying to give the audience something so basic to the human heart that everyone will get it."

Apparently they are. The Box Office has done strong business and Copeland reported that the opening-night crowd lept to their feet at the final curtain with people talking about how moving they had found the show.

Amazing Grace runs at the Norma Terris, 33 North Main Street, Chester, CT, through June 10. For tickets and performance schedule: 860-873-8668;
Chris Peluso (Mamma Mia!, Lestat, and Assassins) stars as Newton with Whitney Bashor as Mary. Principal cast members are Mike Evarsite (Thomas/Keita); Harriet D. Foy (The Princess); Chris Hoch (Major Gray); Laiona Michelle (Nanna/Ayotunde); Dennis Parlato (Captain Newton).
Whitney Bashor (Mary Catlett). Photo: Diane Sobolewski
 her supportive and beautiful famil

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