Sunday, February 15, 2015

Theater Review: Familiar -- Yale Rep

Cherise Boothe, Shyko Amos, Patrice Johnson Chevannes and Kimberly Scott. Photo © Joan Marcus, 2015
Family Cultures of Zimbabwe, America Might Be More Familiar Than You’d Think
By Lauren Yarger
A family struggles to find balance between its Midwestern and African roots. You might think you don’t have much in common with them, but by the end of Danai Gurira’s newest play getting its word premiere at Yale Rep, you’ll realize that everything actually feels very Familiar.

Whether they are shouting out greetings in their native Shona language, or whooping it up while watching their favorite Minnesota football team plays on TV, these folks are reflections of us and stretch our thoughts about just what is and isn’t familiar.

Donald and Marvelous Chinyaramwira (Harvy Blanks and Saidah Arrika Ekulona) have achieved the American dream. They have enjoyed successful careers, raised two daughters in their comfortable midwestern home (nice appointed by set designer Matt Saunders) and bicker like any long-married couple – even if it is over the unusual topic of whether to display a portrait of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe or a dog in the lovey living room.

Eldest daughter, Tendikayi  (Cherise Boothe ) is about to marry rich, white Chris (Ross Marquand ) and the couple isn’t sure just how much to call attention to her past. Youngest daughter, Nyasha  (Shyko Amos), and artist still supported by the couple,  has just returned from a visit to Zimbabwe  and embraces her African roots. She has been asked to share a song at the rehearsal dinner, but hasn’t been included as a bridesmaid in the wedding party.

The bridesmaids are Tendikayi’s “spiritual” sisters, she explains – friends from the couple’s evangelical Christian church, which teaches, among other things, that she and Chris should wait to have sex until they are married. When Nyasha scoffs, we understand that there are cultural differences in the family that have nothing to do with African vs. American roots.  Against the wishes of Marvelous, who wants her family follow its American culture, the bride and groom announce that they are incorporating a Zimbabwe custom into the marriage ceremony.

Assisting is Margaret (Patrice Johnson Chevannes), their  sister who comes over from Africa against the wishes of Marvelous, thanks to the surprising meddling of their other sister,  Annie (Kimberly Scott), a fashionista who embraces the American culture so much that she refused to teach her own children her native language.  When Margaret requires a spokesman to negotiate for the bride’s dowry on behalf of the groom, Chris begs his brother, Brad (Joe Tippett) to step in.

Besides the culture conflicts, the family must weather a medical emergency, discover a deeply buried family secret,  reinvent identities and decide whether this wedding will go forward and whether a marriage will survive. Are the roots of the family tree strong enough for the branches to bear the weight of these relationships?

Rebecca Taichman (Marie Antoinette) directs a tightly knit cast that delivers strong performances across the board. Each character gets full development and a range of emotion. Tippet gets laughs as the laid-back, black sheep of both families who just might be the one who really knows what’s important.

Adding to the storytelling by Zimbabwe native Gurira (Eclipsed, In the Continuum) are costumes from both cultures by Designer Toni-Leslie James and original music by jazz artist Somi. It’s a rich, thought-provoking tale of likable characters that really does feel as familiar as our next family get-together. 

Familiar runs through Feb. 21 at Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel St., New Haven. Performance times vary. Tickets: $20-$98.; 203-432-1234. Student, senior, and group rates are available.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Theater Review: Nice Work If You Can Get It -- The Bushnell

The cast of Nice Work I f You Can Get It. Photo: Photo by Jeremy Daniel
Settling in for Gershwin Tunes, Witty Script is Nice Work if You Can Get It (and I did!)
By Lauren Yarger
I love a Gershwin tune, how about you?

I also love my job as a theater critic and It’s Nice work When You Can Get It to sit back, relax and enjoy more than two and a half hours of George and Ira Gershwin tunes -- especially when enhanced by fabulous direction and choreography by Kathleen Marshall.

And oh, yeah, the silly, witty book by favorite writer Joe DiPietro (Memphis, Toxic Avenger, All Shook Up) isn’t too bad either in this tour of the production making a stop this week at The Bushnell. It almost doesn’t feel like a jukebox musical with a portfolio of tunes wrapped around a silly plot.

Silly it is. With a few political digs woven in a witty script housing almost 30 tunes like “But Not For Me,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” “I’ve Got a Crush on You” and “Someone to Watch Over Me” that make you want to sing along. And, unfortunately, some folks at the performance I attended decided to do just that -- in out-of-key voices all night long, so be prepared.)

DiPietro’s book (which got its earliest tryouts here at Goodspeed as They All Laughed) is inspired by material by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse and follows the hijinks of bootleggers and rich folks in Prohibition era New York

Billie Bendix (Mariah MacFarlane) and her bootlegging buddies, Duke Mahoney (Aaron Fried) and Cookie McGee (Reed Campbell), work for the elusive Brownbeard, king of the underground liquor market. They need a place to stash their illegal product when Police Chief Berry (Thomas Schario) starts getting too close.

Billie thinks she sees an easy mark when playboy Jimmy Winter (Alex Enterline) tells her his large summer place on Long Island is sitting empty (the soaring, stage-filling sets are recreated for the tour by Shoko Kambara, based on the original Broadway scenic design by Derek McLane).

He also tells her a few other things, like he’s not really in love with his soon-to-be fourth wife, Eileen Evergreen (Rachael Scarr), the daughter of a senator (Benjamin Perez). He is just marrying her to convince his controlling mother, Millicent (Barbara Weetman), that he is mature enough to take over the family business – even though he has no idea what that business involves.

Sparks ignite between the two and they are surprised to meet up again when Jimmy shows up unexpectedly for his honeymoon at the summer place the bootleggers planned to use as a hideaway. Cookie poses as the butler, Billie is a Cockney maid and Duke is mistaken for British royalty by Jimmy’s chorus-girl groupie friend Jeannie Muldoon (Stephanie Gandolfo).

Lots of romance and hilarity ensue, especially when Eileen’s speakeasy-burning, uppity duchess Aunt Estonia Dulworth (Stephanie Harter Gilmore) arrives with her vice squad in tow. Let’s just say there’s drunken swinging from a chandelier, poetry, modern dance and chorus girls popping out of bubble baths  -- all guffaw-inducing and brilliantly directed. And I do mean brilliant – with opulent drapes and sparkling flapper-inspired costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, coordinated here by Amy Clark with lighting designed by Paul Toben, based on the original Broadway lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski.

The small band under the direction of Charlie Reuter does the score proud and the horns are particularly good. (Orchestrations are by Bill Elliott; Music Arrangements by David Chase; Music Supervision by Shawn Gough.) Marshall’s choreography, recreated for the tour by David Eggers is executed well, but doesn’t capture the magic of the Broadway dancing which I described as “furniture and gravity” defying.

Enterline (making his touring debut) and MacFarlane have nice chemistry and give good turns, as do Scarr (her character’s “modern dance” is a hoot), and most of the ensemble, particularly Campbell, also making his tour debut, who brings in a lot of the laughs with good delivery. Gilmore disappointed a bit, not just because I had been hoping, perhaps unfairly, for more of a show-stopping turn like the one Tony winner Judy Kaye gave as the duchess, but also because the actress was struggling for pitch. Or maybe it was just that those off-key audience members decided to join more often on her songs. . .

Overall, “’swonderful” way to spend about two hours and 45 minutes with an intermission.

Catch it through Feb. 8 at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday: 7:30 pm; Fridays and Saturdays: 8 pm; Saturday at 2 pm; Sunday 1 and 6:30 pm. Tickets $26-$82: 860-987-5900;

Theater Review: Driving Miss Daisy -- Music Theatre of CT

Rebecca Hoodwin and Lorenzo Scott. Photo: Joe Landry

Driving Miss Daisy
Music Theatre of Connecticut
Through Feb. 22

What's It All About?
Only one of the best plays ever! This thoughtful character study and comment on race relations through the years seen through the lends on an unlikely friendship won playwright Alfred Uhry a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 and an Academy Award for the brilliant screenplay adapting it for the big screen in 1990. Rebecca Hoodwin plays Miss Daisy Werthen, an elderly southern, Jewish woman, who takes offense when her son, Boolie (Mike Boland) hires her a chauffeur. She doesn't want Hoke Coleburn (Lorenzo Scott) in her house or driving her around Atlanta, where her friends might get the idea she is putting on airs. 

Patient and determined, Hoke finally gets her to ride with him (the car is represented by benches and a steering wheel taking up on corner of the minimal set designed by David Heuvelman) and a friendship ensues over the years from 1948-1973. Racial, class and other tensions are tested, not only by the friendship, but in society in general.

What Are the Highlights?
The play is one of my favorites and when it's done right, it will make you cry (it did.) Hoodwin gives a solid performance as the frail woman who can be overbearing and unreasonable. She ages noticeably through the years. Countering nicely is Boland as the tough business man with a soft heart.

Sound effects and music to transition scenes are excellent. The incidental music was composed by Robert Waldman (and licensed from Dramatists with the script) and is the music used in the original production, according to Joe Landry, director of marketing and PR for MTC. The sound effects were added by Kevin Connors and the creative team, he said. Well done!

This production was a welcome revisit to the play for me after a disastrous revival on Broadway a few years ago, which proved that even excellent plays can get horrible productions. So, if you never have seen this gem of a play, or if that James Earl Jones/Vanessa Redgrave revival was your first experience, run over the the Music Theatre of Connecticut box office and see this one!

What Are the Lowlights?
The pace is too brisk. This is the type of play that should have the feel of a slow, southern morning, enjoyed while sipping iced tea, slowly rocking in a chair on the porch and listening to the buzz of insects in air so hot it's barely moved by weak breezes. . .

Some of the dialogue needs a few seconds of silence following it for the impact to sink in. Scott gives us a Hoke who is affable, but who seems very youthful and robust. He needs to be more laid back for us to understand the submissive demeanor he has had to assume to get along as an African American during those racially challenging times in the south. We also need to see the difference in his attitude when he occasionally stands up to Miss Daisy. 

Director Kevin Connors also uses some odd blocking at times which has characters talking off into space instead of to each other.

More information:
Miss Daisy drives by through Feb. 22 at Music Theatre of Connecticut's new home, The Melissa and Doug Theatre, 509 Westport Ave.,  Norwalk, Performances are Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 4 and 8 pm, Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets: Tickets: $30-$50 ($5 off for seniors/students based on availability): 203-454-3883;

Monday, February 2, 2015

Theater Review: Dancing Lessons -- TheaterWorks

Paige Davis and Andrew Benator. Photo: Lanny Nagler
Exploring Whether People Can Change – 
Especially if We Look Beyond What’s on the Surface
By Lauren Yarger
Who are we really deep down, beyond what everybody sees on the surface and can is it possible to adapt? And if we allow ourselves to explore new definitions of ourselves, can life be even better than we imagined?

These are the underlying questions of Dancing Lessons, a new play from Mark St. Germain (who wrote Freud’s Last Session and Becoming Dr. Ruth which also had recent runs at TheaterWorks in Hartford).  They get a thoroughly moving exploration in a production directed by Julianne Boyd, who helmed Dr. Ruth at TheaterWorks and who is artistic director at Barrington Stage, where the play had its world premiere.

Paige Davis, host of TV’s Trading Spaces, and Andrew Benator shine as the characters exploring these questions in a script that is as full of out-loud laughs as it is deep insight.

Senga Quinn (Davis) is recovering at home in her Manhattan apartment (designed by Brian Prather) following an accident which has left her in a leg brace – and in denial that her career as a Broadway dancer is over. An unexpected knock on the door brings Ever Montgomery (Andrew Benator), a geosciences professor who is looking for dancing lessons so he doesn’t look awkward when he is honored at an event that will require him to show his moves on the dance floor.

It won’t be as easy as it sounds. “Awkward” is no stranger to Ever who describes himself as the “tyrannosaurus” of geeks. The man has a form of Autism, is uncomfortable around other people and can’t be touched. He offers Senga (so named by a presumed dyslexic aunt who meant to call her Agnes) the exact equivalent of a week’s Broadway salary (everything with Ever is precise and to the penny) to teach him how to dance. His attempts to move with the beat of some club music (sound design by Will Pickens), with Benator’s fine skills making him look unskilled, are comedic to say the least, but the two find the beginning of a friendship.  

They try to find out what is beneath the surface and in a neat staging technique we are transformed into their internet research about each other with projections and lighting (designed by Andrew Bauer and Michael Gilliam). Senga learns about Asperger’s and Ever watches videos of Senga dancing. Each discovers a friend to trust.

Senga helps Ever get over his fear of touching and Ever helps Senga release emotions she has been keeping repressed about her father and the fact that she might never be able to dance again. A bottle of scotch allows the pair to overcome some inhibitions and the friendship blossoms into something more. But can it last?

St. Germain’s plot is predictable, but satisfyingly so. It keeps the characters real. They are brought to life in such a compelling and layered manner that we feel we are intruding into intimate moments between two friends we know very well. Benator takes Ever beyond a stereotypical poster boy for Asperger’s Syndrome to create a regular guy whom we know and like.

It’s an absorbing piece of theater, well done with snappy, funny dialogue and lots to think about in a brisk 90 minutes. My only complaint is with a bit contrivance employed in the script. Senga’s reasons for not being able to have surgery on her leg seem a bit too convenient and a fantasy sequence, where the two imagine gliding around the dance floor (with choreography by Christine O’Grady and a swirly gown designed by Sarah Jean Tosetti) seems out of place.

Dancing Lessons runs at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford, through March 1. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays: 7:30 pm; Fridays and Saturdays: 8 pm; Weekend Matinees at 2:30 pm. Tickets $15-$65; 860-527-7838; Warning: the show contains nudity.

Note: Thanks to a sharp-eyed reader for the correction on Mr. Bauer's name. Have no clue why I renamed him William.....

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