Thursday, November 9, 2017

CT Theater Review: Rags -- Goodspeed

 Sean MacLaughlin, Christian Michael Camporin and Mitch Greenberg (seated),
Samantha Massell and Adam Heller. Photo: Diane Sobolewski
Music by Charles Strouse
Lyrics by Stephen Scwartz
Book by David Thompson, adapted from the original book by Joseph Stein
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Through Dec. 10

By Lauren Yarger
Like the immigrants who come to America in this musical, Rags gets a second chance at life in this Goodspeed production directed by Rob Ruggiero.

David Thompson re-imagines the book, originally written by Joseph Stein. It is bolstered by a score by Charles Strouse and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and a current political environment that has put interest in immigration center stage.

In 1910, Russian immigrant widow Rebecca Herhkowitz (Samantha Massell)  and her son, David (Connecticut native Christian Michael Camporin) arrive at Ellis Island with empty pockets, but hearts full of hope for a new life. While on board the ship bringing them to their new home, Rebecca becomes friends with young Bella Cohen (Sara Kapner), who is on her way to reunite with her father, Avram Cohen, who works on New York's lower east side in the garment industry. Bella convinces Avram to vouch for Rebecca, a gifted seamstress, and David, and the mother and son are given a place in the family business and home.

Rounding out the tenement environment are Avram's sister, Anna Blumberg (Emily Zacharias), her husband, Jack (Mitch Greenberg), an employee of the dressmaking business named Ben Levitowitz (Nathan Salstone), who turns Bella's head against her father's objections, and neighbors Rachel Brodsky (Lori Wilner), who has her sights set on Avram, and Italian Sal Russo (seam MacLaughlin) who celebrates Sabbath with the group and falls for Rebecca when he's not spending his time trying to convince workers to strike for better wages and conditions.

Interfering with that last love story is underhanded, wealthy Max Bronfman (David Harris) who uses his influence in the garment industry and the promise of material goods to keep Rebecca's romantic interest, even while he takes advantage of her dress design ability and offers jobs in unsafe factories.

The sweeping story unfolds with the help of more than 30 songs, a set (designed by Michael Schweikardt) enhanced by projections of historic photos (design by Luke Cantarella) and lighted by Designer John Lasiter, with period costumes designed by Linda Cho.

If the plot seems a bit predictable, there are some subtleties that balance it out. We care about the characters and are rooting for them to succeed. All of the performances are engaging. Ruggiero keeps things from getting too saccharine or political. Parker Esse's understated choreography provides movement without eclipsing the storytelling. Orchestrations, as usual are by Dan DeLange with Michael O'Flaherty music directing. David Loud provides vocal arrangements (volume on some vocals seems to high -- design by Jay Hilton).

Rags embraces the American dream through Dec. 10 at Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main Street, East Haddam. Performances are Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 pm; Thursday at 7:30 pm (with select performances at 2 pm); Friday at 8pm; Saturday at 3 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm (with select performances at 6:30 pm). Tickets are $29-$89:; 860-873-8668.

Ensemble: JD Daw, Ellie Fishman, Danny Lindgren, Sarah Solie, Jeff Williams, Giovanni DiGabrielle, Catalina Gaglioti, Gordon Beck.

Thanksgiving Week Performances;
Nov. 20 2 and 7:30 pm; Nov. 24 2 and 8 pm; Nov. 25 3 and 8 pm; Nov. 26 6:30 pm

Thanksgiving Food Drive: Monday, Nov. 20 at the 2 and 7:30 pm. Buy one ticket, get one free for select seats with a generous non-perishable food donation to benefit the East Haddam Food Bank. Additionally, Goodspeed will be collecting donations at all performances during Thanksgiving week, Nov. 20-26.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

CT Theater Review: Bridges of Madison County -- Music Theatre of CT

The Bridges of Madison County
Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Book by Marsha Norman, based on the novel by Robert James Waller
Musical Direction by Nolan Bonvouloir
Directed by Kevin Connors
Music Theatre of Connecticut'
Through Nov. 19

By Lauren Yarger
Music Theatre of Connecticut is the little theater that could when it comes to producing big musicals and Director Kevin Connors is the engineer.

Jason Robert Brown's sweeping The Bridges of Madison County is the latest of the big Broadway musicals to appear n MTC's intimate stage with stunning results. When I heard a few years ago that MTC was attempting to stage Next to Normal, I scoffed (sorry, but it's true). It is a very difficult score requiring most of the cast to belt into the rafters. And this show on Broadway had rafters -- a multi-leveled set depicting the frame of the family's house which became a character of sorts itself as lighting design brought to life the electrical impulses in the brain of a character suffering from Bi-Polar Disorder. How could that ever translate to the tiny little stage (then in the old theater in Westport that seated about 50)?

Connors made me eat any doubt I might have had. He cast Juliet Lambert Pratt in the lead and with a strong cast, transformed that small space into a storytelling wonderland.

Then, when MTC moved to its new space -- a bit larger, but still small and intimate -- Connors tackled Andrew Lloyd Webber's big-scale musical Evita. While Next to Normal has a small cast and seemed more likely to fit in a smaller setting, Evita certainly did not.  Again, I was very pleasantly surprised to see the re-imagined musical come to life in small scale, with emphasis given to relationships. Scenes came into focus in a way they never had in the big-stage version and I decided then and there to stop doubting.

When I saw The Bridge of Madison County on MTC's 2017-2018 season, my first instinct was to think, "Are you kidding?" The huge score is very difficult -- Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale, two of the best voices on the Great White Way, had starred in the Broadway version and sang their lungs out -- not to mention accompaniment by a full orchestra to convey the complexity of the music. Sets had depicted the sprawling Iowa sky. Before doubt could set in, I remembered the past two shows I thought would be impossible to mount on a small stage in Connecticut and went to the theater with eager anticipation. I wasn't disappointed.

If you are wondering why I have chosen to comment more personally, instead of getting right to a show review, it is because I want to make sure that none of my readers are making the same assumptions I was about whether or not these musicals are worth seeing at MTC. They definitely are.

For Francesca, the bored Iowa housewife in Bridges, Connors again taps Pratt (who won the CT Critics Circle Outstanding Actress Award for her performance in Next to Normal). The belting is there. So are the multi layers of Francesca, who is torn between her lover and her family. Sean Hayden is Robert, a National Geographic photographer who falls in love with Francesca, while he is on assignment to shoot the covered bridges in Madison, County. His rugged good looks and silvery voice are just right for the part. It's a pleasure to hear these songs again, especially "It All Fades Away."

Marsha Norman's book improves the story from Robert James Waller's bestselling novel (which I couldn't get through) and the screenplay, which miscast Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood in the main roles. Norman rounds out the love story with development of Francesca's family: husband Bud (George Roderick), daughter Carolyn (Megan O'Callaghan and son, Michael (Matt Grasso.) She also adds humor through neighbors Marge and Charlie, delightfully portrayed by Kristi Carnahan and Frank Mastrone. We even meet Francesca's sister, Chiara (Mia Scarpa),, in flashbacks of how Bud met his war bride back in Italy. All of these other folks, and Francesca's relationship with them, help us understand the decisions she makes.

Nolan Bonvouloir music directs and plays keyboard for a four-person band house on a platform at the rear of center stage (a cello, violin and guitar are all that are needed to bring Brown's score and orchestrations to life). The sides of the upper platform serve as various locations while most of the action takes place on the floor. A few props are all that is needed to transform scenes from Francesca's farmhouse to the Roseman Bridge (a couple of gables hang from above) to a journey in a truck. (Set Design by Jordan Janota).

The Bridges of Madison County is Kevin Connors' gift of big theater magic in a small package. Don't miss an opportunity to hear this beautiful score performed really well, both vocally and instrumentally.

The Bridges of Madison County plays through Nov, 19 at Music Theatre of Connecticut, 509 Westport Ave. , Norwalk. Performances are Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 4 and 8 pm, Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets are $30-$55:; 203-454-3883.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

CT Theater Review: Seder -- Hartford Stage

The cast of Seder. Photo" T. Charles Erickson
By Sarah Gancher
Directed by Elizabeth Williamson
Hartford Stage
Through Nov. 12

By Lauren Yarger
What's It All About?
A tour-de-force performances by Mia Dillon heads this look at a family trying to put the past behind. In the case of this clan, it's a pretty horrific past. Erzsike (Dillon) did what she had to do to survive during communist rule of Budapest, Hungary. That included being the mistress of torturer and killer Attila (Jeremy Webb). Now, 13 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Budapest's House of Terror Museum has opened and a wall exhibiting portraits of murderer's under the past regime ignites embers of discord in her home. Her estranged daughter, Judit (Birgit Huppuch) is the curator of that exhibit and has included a picture of her mother, even though Erzsike proclaims she knew nothing of the torture and murder taking place in the basement of the office building where she worked, even though it was the home of the Nazi-affiliated Hungarian Arrow Cross Party during World War II and to the AVO, the brutal secret police of the Hungarian Communist Party.

Caught up in the conflict are Erzsike's son, Laci (Dustin Ingram) who makes his living trafficking women for the Russian mob -- things aren't all that great under Democracy -- along with daughter Margit (Julia Sirna-Frest) who remains in a state of denial while trying to hold the families first Seder in honor David (Steven Rattazzi), the American writer she hopes will be a serious romantic interest,

What Are the Highlights?
Dillon's performance is bold and chilling. In flashback ( Director Elizabeth Williamson and Lighting Designer Marcus Dilliard) create clear time travel that doesn't distract from the present) we see her helplessness as a 19-year-old chosen to be Attila's mistress while growing fond of the demanding military man. We also cringe when she is handed off, almost as a piece of property, to Tamas (Liam Craig) for a marriage that is doomed to fail, but Erzsike continues to make sacrifices for her children. Perhaps the most chilling component is a matter-of-fact disclosure that all of her conversations and movements seemed to be under surveillance by the communist regime.

Adding some much-needed humor is a continuing gag that has David mispronouncing vowels in his otherwise almost-perfect Hungarian (the technique at the beginning to slip changes in the dialogue that allow us to understand whether English or Hungarian is being spoken by the group, even though we are always hearing English, is very clever).

What Are the Lowlights?
This is pretty heavy material layered on the standard dysfunctional family theme. So overall, it's pretty depressing.

Having David also be a counselor who offers his help to the dysfunctional family feels glib. The idea that David would insist they continue on with the Seder (and that they would) also seems a bit forced, though the play apparently is based on a true story.

More Information:
Seder is part of Gancher's seventh cycle of plays set in Budapest, where she lived for several years.

Set Design: Nick Vaughan; Costume Design: Ilona Somogyitage); Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Script Consultant: Jocelyn Clarke. (Sundance Theatre Lab, SITI Company); Wig Design Jodi Stone

Seder runs through Nov. 12 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm and Sun at 2 pm.
Tickets are $25-$95: 860-527-5151;

Open Captioned Performance Sunday, Nov. 5 at 2 pm.
Audio Described Performance Nov. 11 at 2 pm

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