Thursday, October 18, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 108, A Review: "The Roommate" (Long Wharf Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

It's not exactly "The Odd Couple," which, when you think about it, is a compliment in itself.

Regardless, "The Roommate," written by Jen Silverman, uses the oft-told story of two divorced people, who become housemates as the story board for her winningly human, laugh-filled comedy that makes you completely forget about Felix and Oscar and their upper West Side digs and say "Hello" to Sharon and Robyn of friendly Iowa.


"The Roommate" spins, cajoles and snaps. It's fresh and exciting. It unfolds with a cork-popping cascade of laughs that keep coming and coming. It never fails to deliver. It's also the perfect pick to launch Long Wharf's exciting, new 2018-2019 season, which includes "Paradise Blue," "A Doll's House, Part 2" and "Tiny Beautiful Things."

As devised by the playwright, "The Roommate" is a play about chance, camaraderie, assumptions, femininity, parenting, homosexuality, self-expression, loneliness, observation, motherhood, failed marriage, starting over, empty nesting, middle age, divorce, friendship, living together, transformation, conversation, finding space, awareness and experimentation.
Yes, there are laughs. Yes, there are cliches. Yes, there are one-liners. And yes, there is an obvious state of arsenal clownishness mixed with well-orchestrated dashes of heightened reality and pathos by the playwright.

Nonetheless, without the right sense of comic timing and pacing, it could all go belly up if the material falls into the hands of someone not versed or akin to this particular brand of comedy. Luckily for us, Long Wharf  has enlisted the talents of Mike Donahue, a director not only skilled in the mechanics of this form of storytelling, but one who understands that good comedy is more than just double takes, broad characterizations, snappy zingers and robust flapping.

That said, Donahue crafts a well-honed theater piece that respects and understands its comic origins, its odd couple territory, its snappy language, its story board advancement, its conversational cogs and its conventional realism. From rehearsal space to actual live audience, everything that happens in "The Roommate" has been delegated with clockwork precision, nuance, color and delightful awareness.

This being a two-character play with no intermission, Donahue must keep the entire piece flowing at breakneck speed without any lulls or pauses in the action except for quick scene changes, lighting cues, props cues or obvious passages of time. Here, pacing and timing is everything and Donahue succeeds swimmingly. Blocking, stage business, positioning, character interaction and line delivery is done with metronome precision, style and comic grace. There's no preening. There's no hogging of the spotlight. There's no camping things up for a laugh. There's no upstaging. Instead, Donahue lets Silverman's material breathe, entice and take shape naturally as well it should be. And therein, lies the play's flavorsome enjoyment.

The casting of Tasha Lawrence as Robyn and Linda Powell as Sharon gives "The Roommate" its comic snap, its topicality and its marvelous sense of vibe, drive and character. Like Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane in Joe Mantello's 2005 Broadway revival of Neil Simon's "The Odd Coule," they too share a noticeable fondness for the material, their mismatched roommate dilemma and their role in the play's advancement and the outcome of the story. They are also able to shift gears in a single millisecond with chameleon-like dexterity.

Upfront, both actresses are perfectly cast for their respective roles. There's real depth and feeling to what they say and do. There's an element of surprise and dash to their body language and facial expressions, particularly when Silverman reveals a plot twist, tick or comic jolt. Lawrence and Powell also trot out a deliciously timed zaniness and diligence when the play's humor purposely drifts over the top (Silverman and Donahue navigate things with witty, steadfast precision), sending them happily into flight. Even so, no matter how crazy things get, they make you believe everything they say and do. Windups and madness aside, they are an ideal, but very real odd couple.

"The Roommate" is very, very funny stuff. It is carried out to ovation-worthy status by two versatile actresses who have a good time, how know to build and frame a joke and know how to deliver a swag-load of pleasure. Cheeky, minty and inventive, this comedy has much more fruitful mayhem than both "The Odd Couple" and "Barefoot in the Park" combined. So roll out the welcome mat and enjoy. There's lots of laughter here, and then some.

"The Roommate" is being staged at Long Wharf Theatre (222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, CT), now through November 4.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 787-4282.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 107, A Review: "The Drowsy Chaperone" (Goodspeed Musicals)

By James V. Ruocco
A man.
A chair.
An LP.
A showtune.

Thus begins, "The Drowsy Chaperone," a bright and bouncy homage to the forgotten Broadway musicals of yesteryear that erupts into lighthearted fun for anyone willing to succumb to its over-the-top theatrics and dizzying musicality.

It pops.
It charms.
It beguiles.
It sings.
It dances
It also contains enough featherweight confection, chutzpah and jokey enthusiasm to knock the bejesus out of you or send you off to the emergency room in a state of candy floss frenzy from laughing so hard. Then again, that's the point, isn't it?

There's so much to see, appreciate, enjoy and applaud in this rousing Goodspeed Musicals' production, you'll not only be gobsmacked, but you'll probably want to see it again. It's that much fun.

A play-within-a-play, the musical takes its cue from a devoted Broadway musical lover's adoration for LP recordings, which, in this case, is the 1928 recording of "The Drowsy Chaperone," a family favorite that springs magically to life in his apartment as he sits off to the side, talking us through its silly, purposely transparent love story.

There are pauses, interruptions, mistakes and mishaps in between the commentary, designed to elicit laughs.....lots of them.... And one by one, the laughs keep coming and coming and coming right at you. There's also some deliciously candied plotting that toys with your senses if only because you're not exactly sure if things are real or imagined, if light cues are missed on purpose, if skips in the LP are intentional or if certain songs are part of "The Drowsy Chaperone" or some other dated Broadway musical. Regardless, more laughter ensues.

In the director's chair, Hunter Foster ("42nd Street," "Company," "Guys and Dolls") does a magnificent turn as spokesperson for this witty, nostalgic entertainment. From the opening tune, he creates a catchy build and momentum that prompts laughter in all the right places. To his credit, he also instills the material with a confidence and a tremendous vigor that keeps "The Drowsy Chaperone" moving merrily along without a hitch, glitch or hiccup.

Because this is a parody, Bob Martin and Don McKellar's book overflows with a trunk full of broad stereotypes, cartoonish buffoonery, shameless cliches, one-note dialogue, mistaken identities, spit takes, double entendres, occasional upstaging, wrong stage cues, constant preening and old LP's that skip or get stuck playing the same music and lyrics over and over.

Daunting? Hardly.

An actor himself, Foster's knowledge of performance, musical theater, song execution and satire serves the material well. Upfront, he's in on the joke and so are we. The trick, of course, and one that Foster knows inside out, is that the actors on stage must play it straight without ever reaching for a laugh, going for a laugh or waiting for a laugh cue. One slight misstep and that's it. The show would stop dead in its tracks.

Luckily for us, that never happens. Foster's treatment of "The Drowsy Chaperone" is polished, airy, giggly and syrupy-sweet. Nothing happens just to happen No one steps out of place or claws at the walls for attention. Everyone knows their place, their character, their jokes, their line delivery and how to act and react in accordance with the play script. Foster makes it look especially easy, but it's not. Here, timing is everything. As is every bit of stage business, blocking and positioning. That said, things unfold swimmingly because everyone grasps what they're sending up under Foster's intuitive tutelage.

The musical score for "The Drowsy Chaperone" features music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison. Designed solely to parody those innocent, sugar-coated musicals of the 1920's, it is sassy, smart, refreshing and gumdrop-gooey. The musical numbers, 14 in all, include "Fancy Dress," "Cold Feets," "Show Off," "As We Stumble Along," "Wedding Bells," "Love Is Always Lovely" and "I Do, I Do In the Sky."
Every single one of them is nicely tucked into the witty, conniving silly plotline without overkill. And every one of them takes us through the musical's breezy sub plots and tomfoolery with range, dazzle, sparkle and showstopper aplenty.

With this production (and "Oliver!" and "The Will Rogers Follies" before that), Michael O' Flaherty celebrates his 27th season as Goodspeed's resident musical director. And rightly so! As "The Drowsy Chaperone's music and choral interpreter, he is in his element. He's talented. He's challenged. He's focused. He's re-vitalized. He's carefully attuned to the choices, the styles and the musicality laid out by the show's creators. His orchestral team of musicians is top dollar. And when teaching the songs, the harmonies and the intricate choral numbers to his choice, hand-picked team of  actors and singers, there are no mistakes or wrong notes. He always gives 110 percent.

For this go-round, he does an incredible job of bringing the Lambert/Garrison score to life in all its stylized musical glory. Assisted by William J. Thomas, Pete Roe, Liz Baker Smith, Matthew Russo, Michael Schuster, Jim Kleiner and Sal Ranniello, O' Flaherty conducts "The Drowsy Chaperone"  with inspired snap, virtuosity, vision, thought and imagination. Moreover, he always knows what buttons to push, how to get a belly laugh through song, how to amp things up musically, what important lyric or musical beat to emphasize, how to create a romantic or silly musical interlude and how to build and move a song to its dizzying crescendo. It's all marvelously conceived, colored and controlled.

The employment of Chris Bailey ("Chasing Rainbows," "The Music Man," "My Fair Lady") as choreographer for this glittery, slapstick, song and dance send up, is a coup for all on everyone's part. Deft and confident, he delves head first into the campy, giddy and colorful musical numbers like a 1920's impresario with a candied sugar fix. He dazzles. He excites. He takes chances. He camps it up ever so gaily. He is also very conscious of the musical's period setting, it's carefree mood swings, its flavorful sweetness, its charm, its lampooning, its playful, obvious stock characters and its nostalgic dance rhythms.

Ever inspiring, Bailey's choreographic style has plenty of oomph, sparkle and rainbow-tinged lightness. As "The Drowsy Chaperone" makes its mark, his choices are delightfully "spot on" and perfectly in sync with the musical's ripe and overly campy mechanics. It's a feat that elicits laughter, applause, melancholy and excitement in all the right places and one that Bailey sustains ever so beautifully throughout the two act musical. Highlights include "Fancy Dress," "Cold Feets," "Show Off," "Toledo Surprise" and "I Do, I Do In the Sky."

The performances are polished, sparky, rhythmic and fundamentally moving.

John Scherer, best remembered for his thrilling musical turns in "By Jeeves," "The Apple Tree" and "George M!" is back on stage as the Man in Chair, a fanatical lover of Broadway musicals and just about every other thing that cries musical. It's a role overflowing with dash, charm, nerdiness, personality and fantasy that Scherer owns and plays with obvious warmth, surprise and chutzpah that is always consistently funny. Stephanie Rothenberg, as Janet, the Broadway star who is willing to forsake footlights for marriage, is perfect, believable and stunning as the big-voiced, high-kicking showgirl. Her big number, aptly titled "Show Off" puts the actress center stage telling everyone she no longer needs attention while she does just the opposite in exhilarating, show-stopping fashion.

As Robert, the narcissistic, look-at-me-I'm-gorgeous wedding groom to Janet's perplexed bride, Clyde Alves is an appropriately dashing song and dance man who sings beautifully, dances beautifully and looks every inch like a 1920's movie matinee idol worth bedding for a night, a week, a month or a lifetime. The amazing Tim Falter is perfectly cast as Robert's best man George. A Donald O'Connor-like actor, dancer and singer, he plays his second banana role with amazing comic consistency and like Alves, enjoys being center stage and in the spotlight when the script commands him. The wonderfully comedic Jennifer Allen gets well-orchestrated laughs as the title character (i.,e, the Drowsy Chaperone) whose drowsiness is the result of drinking too many cocktails. As Adolpho, the self-proclaimed Latin lover who can't resist the wicked charms of the opposite sex, John Rapson camps it up in sheer melodramatic fashion, as well he should be.

There's always room for a ditsy blonde showgirl and Ruth Pferdehirt (Kitty) pulls off this frothy feat with amazing aplomb while Blakely Slaybaugh and Parker Slaybaugh offer well-crafted vaudevillian comic turns as two gangsters disguised as pastry chefs. If anyone is doing "Kiss Me Kate," the Slaybaugh's would be perfect as the scene-stealing gangsters who stop the show with their rousing rendition of "Brush Up Your Shakespeare." Just ring them with the details.

"The Drowsy Chaperone" is a fun, well-made entertainment that is tailor-made for The Goodspeed. It is full of heart, craft and giggles. It captures the playfulness of the characters and the material amazingly well. It is a breezy recreation of a time long gone by. It duly knocks you out of your seat from laughing so hard. And finally, it sends you out into the night (or daylight, if you choose a matinee) happily entertained, complete with a smile, a dance step or two and a wicked sense of wonderfully absorbed delirium.

"The Drowsy Chaperone" is being staged at The Goodspeed (6 Main St., East Haddam, CT), now through November 25.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 873-8668.

Monday, October 15, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 106, A Review: "The River" (TheaterWorks/Hartford)

By James V. Ruocco

"The Ferryman"
"The Winterling"
"Parlour Song"

There are many things that make a play by Jez Butterwiorth stand out.

The scripts, for example, are intoxicating overflowing with language that is layered, powerful and utterly distinctive. At times, there's also a poetic, ambitious naturalism to the dialogue that hooks the audience and makes them want to listen.

The characters in turn, are absorbing, soulful, serious, sentimental, offbeat and articulate. Depending on the piece, they are also full of private passions, wandering reminiscences, gentle graces, mad pronouncements, jovial elan and heartfelt dedication.

Directorially, Butterworth's plays give the interpreter the opportunity to work in an multi-textured environment of conventions, clashes, dreams, realities, myths, mysteries, melodrama, darkness and surprise.

Case in point: "The River" at TheaterWorks/Hartford.


This is a proud, unapologetic piece of theater that celebrates Butterworth's resilience as a playwright, the aching beauty of his theatrical language and his ability to probe deeply into the lives of his characters.

From the start, "The River" captures your attention. It is both intimate and propulsive. It also pivots on strange and quirky, laying clues, missteps, stories, lies and remembrances, all of which lend themselves nicely to the grand scheme of things laid out by the playwright.

Set in a remote, rural fishing cabin, "The River," at first glance, focuses its attention on two people, a man and a woman, newly acquainted, who are trying to make small talk. But when the woman leaves the room, then returns, she has morphed into a completely different female who is also mutually attracted to the handsome fisherman who has brought her there. The man, in turn, doesn't notice the change, even when the first woman reappears much later and then, soon after, it's time for yet another switcheroo as the second female makes another appearance.

Director Rob Ruggiero ("Next to Normal," "Rabbit Hole," "Venus in Fur," "The Laramie Project") is the perfect boulevardier to bring Jez Butterworth's snap of a play to life. There's thought and imagination to his approach. There's a wonderful sense of adventure and chance. There's also a boldness and gentleness which serves the material well.

As ever with Ruggiero, he leaves no stone unturned. That said, his grasp of the entire piece is uncanny. He knows how and when to pique your interest. He knows how to build, develop, pause and run. He knows how to play fast and fluid with the narrative. He gives his cast great opportunities to work with, as both actor and creator. And though things are studied, practiced and rehearsed, his direction is free, precise and observant without any form of calculation.

With "The River," he offers theatergoers a deft, calibrated drama that toys with your senses and when necessary, tosses fragments of bait in your lap, which, when you think about is the point of Butterworth's three-character drama. Nonetheless, it's up to you to figure things out. Yes, Ruggiero know exactly what's going on and what the playwright had devised scene by scene, frame by frame. But at the same time, there is that nagging sense of wonderment.

Are things real? Are things imagined? Is this a ghost story? Are the characters dead or alive?  Was someone murdered? Is this a dream? Are we in the past, present or future? And what about that gutted fish? Metaphor? Parable? Or simply, a savory dinner for two?

Regardless, "The River" plunges forward with probing, inevitable intensity. Things get eerie and cryptic, but no one drowns. Instead, the heart beats faster. The bewilderment grows. And just when you think you know what the hell is going on, Ruggiero pulls the plug, the lights fade and suddenly, it's all over. But wait. The mystery remains leaving you and yours to decide what just happened, what it all means and how you think it all ends.

The acting is faultless. Billy Carter brings heart and soul to the part of The Man who quotes Claudius Aelianus, William Butler Yeats and Ted Hughes. His recitation of Butterworth's pungent dialogue is pitch-perfect precise as is his gutting of a sea trout that, in this version, doesn't end up with a severed, bloodied head in full view of the audience. The Woman and The Other Woman, played respectively by Andrea Goss and Jasmine Batchelor, generate the right appeal, mystery and allure. They also project the necessary angst, determination, eeriness and skittishness associated with their parts. All three bring a strong sense of dramatic purpose to the piece and are perfectly in sync with the play's moody, twisty undercurrents and its metaphorical nuance.

"The River" is an intriguing, complex drama that haunts, taunts and teases its audience with a mystery at heart that purposely forces one to draw his/her own conclusions. Its theories are indeed, food for thought for all who see it and succumb to its thrilling strangeness. Rob Ruggiero's clear, sometimes quirky direction mirrors playwright Jez Butterworh's tangy exploration. And the cast, a thoroughly fascinating threesome, reflect this vision, most engagingly.

"The River" is being staged at TheaterWorks/Hartford (233 Pearl St., Hartford, CT), now through November 11.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-7838

Monday, October 8, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 105, A Review: "Evita" (ACT of CT)

By James V. Ruocco

If you dream hard enough, it with happen.

For Daniel C. Levine, that dream began at the tender age of 10 when he sat in a darkened theater watching a community theater production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical "Evita."

Thrilled, excited, dazzled and charged by the electricity and theatricality of that moment, he vowed to one day be part of an "Evita" production that would challenge him, entice him, move him and push his creativity level to the max as both storyteller and interpreter.

Flash forward to October, 2018.

At ACT of CT, the stunning new Equity showcase that sprang to life earlier this year with "Mamma Mia!," Levine's dream of directing "Evita" finally became a reality when the two-act musical was added to the 2018-2019 full season line up as the opening show. His feet haven't touched the ground ever since.


His "Evita" makes for captivating, spectacular, beguiling musical theater.

That said, this is "Evita" like you've never seen before.

It is chock full of the romantic ambivalence, glory-chasing tirades, political debates, sexual ambiguity, bitter, ironic commentary and cult celebrity worship dictated by its originators. But the comparisons stop there.

This "Evita" dances to its own individual beat.
Reimagined, retooled, reworked and revitalized, Levine sets the ACT of CT stage ablaze with a fiery, vivid interpretation bathed in cynicism, rage, calculation, wistfulness and jaw-dropping spectacle.

He not only makes you forget everything you already know and love about the London, Broadway and National Touring editions of "Evita," but uses his creative juices so advantageously, you feel as if you are seeing and experiencing "Evita" for the very first time.

In this version, Eva Peron, Argentina's favorite leading lady and political wife means business. Turn your back on her and she'll snap you in half.

Arguably, this is the best Equity production of "Evita" in the last decade or two. From the very first moment the musical begins, in the very assured hands of Levine, a  fresh electricity and dazzle permeates his confident, multi-layered vision of the of-told story. It is textured. It is nuanced. It is raw. It is real. It is honest. It is flavorful. It is complex.

As "Evita" unfolds, Levine pays close attention to the rise and fall of Eva Peron, Che's deliberate stalking of the sainted Eva, her bedroom theatrics, the rapidly accelerating momentum of the  fortune's made/fortune's fade agenda and the twisty machinations that thrust her to the top of her game before it all comes crashing down and the spotlight fades forever.

Staging "Evita," Levine brings a seamless energy to the musical, offset by artistic choices that are revolutionary, spirited and different from other incarnations. Che, grabbing a framed photo of Eva, during the opening funeral interval and singing with unbridled sarcasm, is a choice moment that heightens the musical's velocity. Elsewhere, Eva's removal of Peron's Mistress from the bedroom unfolds with more rage and nasty calculation. The expert revision and reworking of the epic, final montage which includes the reappearance of Person's Mistress and the entire Argentine populace during Eva's last  moments, astonishes. Levine also adds much more passion and romance to the Eva/Juan Peron love story, which in turn, gives it added allure, heat and sexual tension. Under Levine's watchful eye, the actual Casa Rosada balcony is the the exact same color as the real one in Buenos Aires. There's also a natural, refreshing intimacy to the piece, which at times thrusts the audience into the pending action as both voyeur and participant. Simply amazing.

The "rock opera" show score for "Evita," as written by Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics), contains 30 well-placed, positioned and timed musical  numbers that carry the story and its characters through both Act I and Act II with the buzz and intoxication of topicality and timeliness intended by its creators. Ambitious, vital, classic and passionate, the songs include "Requiem for Evita," "Oh What a Circus," "Buenos Aires," "Another Suitcase in Another Hall," "A New Argentina," "High Flying Adored," "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" and "And the Money Keeps Rolling In." "You Must Love Me," written for the 1996 film adaptation of "Evita," is also included. It was added to subsequent revivals of the musical, beginning in 2006 with the West End London production in addition to the 2011 Broadway incarnation that starred Elena Roger, Ricky Martin and  Michael Cerveris. It works wonderfully here.

Then and now, the character-driven South-American inflicted music, coupled with the rags-to-riches story of a fiercely-driven, independent woman who becomes the wife of Argentine President Juan Peron and achieves sainted, cult, celebratory status with the adoring populace is epic, revolutionary,  and challenging.

Music direction for this "Evita" is provided by Evan Roider, a deft, capable, hands-on musician who spent the last year as assistant conductor for the North American tour of "Les Miserables."  Among his other credits are "The Pirates of Penzance" for Barrington Stage Company, "The Golden Apple" for Encores!, "Candide" for St, Luke's Orchestra at Carnegie Hall and "Company" for Playhouse on Park.

What's remarkable here is Roider's bright, invigorating  perspective toward the "Evita" material and its evolution throughout the Eva Peron story. Yes, we know the music. Yes, we know the lyrics. Yes, we know the interludes, the epic passion and the pauses used for dramatic effect. We also know the fluent beats and rhythmic musicality as officiated by Webber . Regardless, this "Evita" often takes us by surprise, as though we are hearing "Oh What A Circus," "Buenos Aries," "Don't Cry For Me Argentina," "High Flying Adored," "I'd Be Surprisingly Good For You" and "A New Argentina" for the very first time.

Elsewhere, there is just the right amount of attitude, pulse, frankness and ambivalence in Roider's musical and orchestral depiction of Argentina's sanctified first lady. Nothing is taken for granted. Nothing is copycated. Nothing is overplayed or overdramatized. Here, you get blunt, biting, beautifully amplified words that resound with the sting and scope Rice intended. Roider also amps up the music when necessary or takes chances by playing things differently or adding 30 or 40 seconds of scoring here and there for added dramatic effect. No matter. The whole expressive world of the "Evita" score is perfectly evoked under his skill tutelage, and then some.

Choice, exacting, pitch-perfect music supervision by the versatile and talented Bryan Perri (Resident Music Supervisor for ACT of CT and musical director for Broadway's "Wicked") also heightens the reverent, vocal richness of the "Evita" experience. 

For "Evita," choreographer Charlie Sutton ("Young Charles Dickens," "Wringer," "Gregorian") has devised a thrilling, dynamic, wide range of movements, patterns, pairings and groupings that marvelously punctuate Eva's journey from poverty and backstreet whore to upward rise as visionary, celebrity and cult icon. In turn, every one of the dances and musical numbers requiring specific choreographic stylization, unfolds with the intoxicating sweep and passion required to unleash the ambitions, politics, propaganda, sarcasm and disenchantment of the "Evita" blueprint.

But there is no copycating, as this "Evita" is decidedly different from the Broadway, London and National Tour editions of the musical. Here, Sutton dances to his own rhythms and creates a wide range of dynamics and moods that are fast, fluid, fiery, muscular and graceful. The texture and  presentation is powerful and juicy. The stop and go speed and slowness is impeccably timed. There's also lots of twists, turns, jumping, stomping, dipping and holding, performed with wild, gleeful abandon by the entire "Evita" cast. Sutton also retains the musical's steamy, hallmark Argentine flavor, which is dutifully reflected in many of the show's big dance numbers. It's all quite visionary, kinetic and atmospherically smoldering.

To portray Eva Peron, Levine has cast the captivating, wonderfully compelling Julia Estrada to take center stage as Juan Peron's grand, glamorous, calculating, self-absorbed wife and lover. A brilliant actress and singer, she boldly steps into the iconic role made famous by Elaine Paige in London and Patti LuPone on Broadway and makes you forget everything you know and remember about their very, very different portrayals of Argentina's first lady.

It's a fearless, dynamic performance that is breathless, beguiling, determined, urgent and awe-inspiring. That said, this is Estrada's role from start to finish. It's a part the actress was destined to play and play it shes does. She soars. She flies. She enchants. She sky rockets. She also summons up every emotion imaginable to make us feel and believe what the character is thinking, experiencing and desiring.

What's equally impressive about Estrada's work (ovation worthy at every turn) is her actual grasp of the character and her desire to take the part far beyond the confines of the proven Broadway musical. Her Eva is much more calculating, self-absorbed, egotistical and predatory. It's a creative process that builds and builds over the course of the two-act musical and one that the actress cultivates with effortless style, depth and precision. Mess with this Eva and she'll snap you in two, eat you for breakfast, knock you down a flight of stairs, cut you completely out of her life or look you straight in the eye, smile and say "Fuck you."

Addressing the pungent and popular "Evita" vocals, which include "Don't Cry For Me Argentina," "Buenos Aires," "High Flying Adored," "Rainbow Tour," "You Must Love Me" and "A New Argentina," Estrada's quick, expertly timed transitions from powerhouse belt to liquid loveliness or  melodic sweetness (or back and forth again, depending on the musical score) is both commanding and seamless. She never once channels or copycats the show's female originators. Instead, she is a whirlwind of versatility who puts her own personal stamp on the vocals, thus, creating a thrilling musicality that passionately reflects Eva's calculated ambitions, her impassioned climb to the top, her love of Peron and his politics, her iconic star quality with the Argentine populace and finally, her fall and unexpected death decree.

Pivotal to the musical telling of "Evita," is the character of Che Guevara, the Argentine Marxist revolutionary, who serves as Greek chorus member, narrator, observer, commentator and storyteller, all rolled into one. It's a choice, distinctive role that requires a strong, personable actor and singer who must not only click immediately with the audience, but guide them along on that amazing journey that is "Evita."

Angel Lozada, as Che, accepts that challenge and steps into the spotlight full force to enlighten and entertain both the on-stage actors and audience with the glamorous, tawdry, opportunistic and political events of Eva's life (in reality, they never actually met) and what they actually mean, using the full operatic sweep and drama of the subject matter.

Completely at ease with the robust, often acerbic Webber-Rice material, the actor takes his role seriously and keeps his audience riveted and entertained using the fiery, three-ring circus brio the musical is famous for. Vocally, he is in fine voice projecting the manipulation, edge, sarcasm and disappointment associated with his stellar music numbers ("Oh What a Circus," "A New Argentina," High Flying Adored," "And the Money Keeps Rolling In," "Rainbow Tour"). It's a driven, five-star performance that brings an emotional roundness and strength to the production and hits the mark on all accounts.

As Juan Peron, the founder and leader of the Peronist political movement, Ryan K. Bailer offers a suave, forceful, passionate character turn, very different from that of Bob Gunton who originated the part in the original Broadway production and Michael Cerveris who played the same role in the 2012 Broadway revival. In this "Evita," we get a more handsome, grounded, politically powerful Peron that stands tall and proud. It's a well-acted dramatic turn, offset by strong, expressive vocals ("The Art of the Possible," "A New Argentina," "She is a Diamond," "Dice Are Rolling") that intuitively reveals  Peron's upper-class persona, his political agenda, his selflessness, his worship of Eva and lastly, his acceptance of her idol worship by the Argentine populace.

Charismatic and appealing Julian Alvarez, as Magaldi, the smoldering, narcissistic tango/milonga singer whom Eva charms, seduces and beds as her transport ticket to the cosmopolitan capital city of  Buenos Aires, delivers a smooth, distinctive, wry characterization that is peppered with real emotion and humanity, punctuated by appropriate dash, sleaze, suave and egotism.

Vocally, he creates a strong, harmonious impression with the tango-tinged "On This Night of a Thousand Stars," coupled with rich, passionate phrasing and enunciation that reflects the original intent, sarcasm and meaning of the material as dictated by the show's creators. Alvarez also diligently doubles as actor, singer and dancer in the "Evita" ensemble, using the same dash and spirit exuded as Magaldi. If anyone is doing the musical "Nine," pick up the phone and ring Alvarez. He'd be perfect for the lead role of disillusioned filmmaker Guido Contini.

Marlena Lopez Hilderley is cast in the supporting role of Peron's Mistress, a young, attractive woman who is shown the door in quick, assumptive fashion by Eva whose capacity for cruelty and ruthlessness knows no boundaries. But before she disappears into the Argentine moonlight, she pauses and delivers "Another Suitcase in Another Hall," a haunting, brokenhearted rendition of this quietly understated lyrical solo. This lament is performed with such exemplary beauty and clarity by the actress/singer, it is just as magical as the one set forth by Siobhan McCarthy in the original West End/London production of "Evita" and that of Jane Ohringer, who assumed the role on Broadway, a year later.

Representing the "Evita" ensemble are Daniel Marhelko, Alex Caldwell, Mia Scarpa, Jordan Fife Hunt, Paul Aguirre, Monica Ramirez, Alison Mahoney, Morgan Harrison, Erick Sanchez-Canahuate, Kyle White and Daniel Schwait. Handpicked by Levine, Roider and Sutton, they are a talented, driven group of actors, singers and dancers who exhibit the kind of professional showmanship and versatility that gives this production its dazzle, verve, punch and atmospheric frenzy. As "Evita" unfolds, they assume a variety of different roles entering or exiting the stage as one set of characters, reappearing only seconds later as someone else, replete with different costumes (Brenda Phelps' costume design for the entire cast is absolutely stunning)  and a completely different mindset.
Vocally, they are outstanding. Their choral sound, often amped up by the sound team to suggest an even richer chorus, doubled in size, (via echo-type sound maneuvers and other tricks of the trade)  gives this "Evita" an incredible vocal kick that thrills and excites every step of the way. As dancers, everyone adapts to Sutton's atmospheric, complex choreographic beats, rhythms and pairings with proper agility, fire and intensity. Simply incredible.

"Evita" is a magnificent achievement for ACT of CT. Daniel C. Levine's direction is creative, liberating and joyously syncopated. Every song style and melody that Evan Roider instructs his brilliant orchestral team to play has purpose beyond its initial meaning.  Charlie Sutton's lively, flavorsome choreography unfolds with great professional skill. The artistic choices and spirit of the entire cast carry the musical story forward in all its impassioned glory.
And finally, the power and gleam of this stunning revival lies in its ability to reawaken the oft-told story of Eva Peron and make it look and feel undeniably present (Jack Mehler's moody, smokey, atmospheric set and lighting design is gorgeously conceived) as though we are seeing it for the very first time. It's quite an accomplishment and one this Ridgefield-based Equity showcase delivers with a theatrical exuberance and wealth of ambition that literally takes your breath away.

Jeff Butchen Photography

"Evita" is being staged at ACT of CT (36 Old Quarry Rd., Ridgefield, CT), now through November 11.
For tickets or more information, call (475) 215-5433.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 104, A Review: "El Huracan" (Yale Repertory Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

Ocean waves.

La familia.

This is the world of "El Huracan," Charise Castro Smith's absorbing, hypnotic, intellectually challenging world premiere drama that looks at life, past and present, with such passionate fluidity and attentiveness, it awakens that familial heartbeat in all of us.

Here, you get flat-out truths, raw, real and broken, mixed with a scrapping lyricism and fragility that is stripped bare by the playwright who leaves no stone unturned. Then again, that's the point of the piece, which allows clear and not-so-clear views of life, its engine of conflict, its undermining twists of fate, its crashing blows and its bleeding remembrances.

Es hermoso, a lo largo de.

The production, which kicks off Yale Rep's new 2018-2019 season, charts the chaos, pain and damage incited by 1992's Hurricane Andrew and Hurricane Penelope, a fictitious one that occurs in 2019. At the center of the story, set in Miami, is a Cuban-American family, played by six different actors, all of whom assume multiple roles, often playing younger or older versions of themselves, achieved through quick-change costuming and well orchestrated character turns that are effortlessly conceived with Drama Department verve by this tremendously talented Yale Rep ensemble.

As scripted by Smith, "El Huracan" begins with an older, confused woman wandering alone onstage watching a younger version of herself dance (a la Fred and Ginger) and perform a simple magic act with a handsome male assistant, dressed in tails, looking lovingly into her eyes. This engaging, romantically-tinged remembrance is backed by Frank Sinatra's sweet-sounding "Come Fly With Me," the 1957 song hit that is lovingly weaved in and out of the action until the lights fade and it becomes a distant memory.

Flash forward, it's 1992. Much later, it's suddenly 2019.

Scene by scene, "El Huracan" drifts back and forth in time, presenting scenes in both Spanish and English, which, regardless of one's background and grasp of a second language, are pretty easy to follow based on the individual moment, the direction, the expressions, the body language and the actual line delivery of the performers. It's a concept that heightens "El Huracan's" already steadied velocity.

To bring "El Huracan" to life, Yale Rep has enlisted the talents of the very capable Laurie Woolery to take hold of Smith's redemptive and gripping story and give it the life it so richly deserves. A playwright, educator, producer and director, Woolery has worked at several prestigious theaters across the country including the Kennedy Center, the Goodman Theatre, the Public Theatre and the Cornerstone Theater Company. Bringing her back to New Haven (in 2017, she staged "Imogen Says Nothing") is a coup for both actor and the audience. And lastly, for Yale Rep.

Bienvenido de nuevo.

Under Woolery's inspired  direction, "El Huracan" is daring and truthful, overflowing with tremulous vitality and good intention. It is forceful when it needs to be. It is sentimental and illuminating, when called for. It is edgy and heartbreaking, depending on the moment. It is sexy and peculiar when the right moment strikes. It also swims beautifully between realism, dream and memory.

Because Woolery understands the piece backwards, forwards, front and center, each scene she develops smartly complements the intimate and raw intentions of Smith's evocative character study. She knows what works and what doesn't. She know when to pause, hold or jump start a moment, a character twist or expression. She moves the actor's freely and intuitively about the vast, handsomely designed set by Gerardo Diaz Sanchez. And when things are stripped bare (parts of the set disappear to reveal the back wall and wings of the University Theatre), to signal loss, decay and destruction, this particular directorial choice and others (stage hands move scenery or help actors dress and undress in full view of the audience) makes perfect scene.

"El Huracan" stars Adriana Sevahn Nichols as Valeria, Maria-Christina Oliveras as Ximena, Jennifer Paredes as Alicia, Val and Dr. Kempler, Arturo Soria as Young Alonso, Fernando and Theo, Irene Sofia Lucio as Young Valeria and Miranda and Jonathan Nicholas as Alonso.

Gifted, talented and focused, all six performers stand out individually or in scenes, where they work together as one important, unified ensemble. They love what they do and it shows. They are so very right for the role or roles they have been asked to portray. Their intuitive level of trust, dedication, drive and synchronicity is unbeatable. Their understanding and knowledge of the material is pitch perfect. They demand and command attention right from the start. And everyone, skillfully develops their very different roles and characters in accordance with the plot machinations of Smith's timeless and truthful story.

"El Huracan" is a striking, heartfelt production. It contains some very electrifying dramatic, tender and wistful moments that add depth to Smith's already emotional story. It gives you plenty to think about. It gives you plenty to admire. And when it's finally over, the overall effect of the story and its people, lingers.

Vaya y disfrute!

Photos by T. Charles Erickson

"El Huracan" is being staged at Yale Repertory Theatre (University Theatre, 222 York St., New Haven, CT), now through October 20.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 432-1234

Saturday, October 6, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 103, A Review: "The Grapes of Wrath" (Connecticut Repertory Theatre)

By James V . Ruocco

If there is a reason why "The Grapes of Wrath" is oft-revived, look no further than Connecticut Repertory Theatre's resplendent, stellar revival of the play inspired by John Steinbeck's literary classic.

It dances.
It sings.
It taunts.
It stirs.
It inspires.
It provokes.

It is one of the major highlights of the new fall theatrical season, smartly directed by Gary English and backed by the first-class design team of Kristen P-E Zarabozo (scenic design), Joey Morrissette (lighting design), Darby Newsome (costume design) and Teddy Carraro (sound design).

It also reconfirms CRT's reputation as a major Equity showcase dominated by ambitious, responsible, uncluttered theatrical fare that is fresh, inventive and relevant.

So, what's not to like?
Absolutely, nothing.

This "Grapes of Wrath" soars.

Written for the stage by Frank Galati, this thought-provoking, two-act drama recalls the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930's to tell the story of one Oklahoma farm family....the Joads....forced from their dusty homestead to travel west toward California to begin a new life with big hopes and dreams and only a pocketful of money between them.

At Connecticut Repertory Theatre, "The Grapes of Wrath" is being staged by acclaimed director Gary English whose directorial credits include "Pentecost," "Galileo," "Julius Caesar," "Olives and Blood," "The Island" and "The Miracle Worker." With this production, he brings a ferocious, impassioned urgency to John Steinbeck's forever classic story, propelled by a cinematic, fluency that is energetic, intimate and mellifluous, as required.

The smoothness of this presentation benefits from English's deft, steadied hand, his knowledge of the original source material, its irony and pathos, its translation from novel to play form and the enormous humanity of the characters, their spirit, their calamity, their exploitation and their endurance.

English also infuses his telling of "The Grapes of Wrath" with the gritty insight and harsh realities of the Depression era. It's all here: the anti-migrant prejudice, the dashed dreams and hopes of its people, the homelessness, the poverty, the corruption, man's inhumanity to man, the personal tragedies, the massive obstacles and the uncertainty of life on the open road. There's also an achingly tenderness and rawness to the piece.

Like the Steinbeck novel, this production has lots to tell as it focuses primarily on the Joad's eventual cross-country journey to the golden land of opportunity. With creative staging that is fast and fluid, English keeps the stage heavily populated, when required or decidedly intimate, depending on the storyboard dictated by the playwright. The director also surrounds himself with a cast of well-chosen actors who perform confidently and are fluent in the recitation of Steinbeck's language, as set forth by the playwright.

"The Grapes of Wrath" stars Mauricio Miranda as Tom Joad, Angela Hunt as Ma, Joe Jung as Jim Casy, Aaron Bantum as Muley Graves/Floyd Knowles, Alex Campbell as Rose of Sharon, Aidan Marchetti as Connie Rivers, Johanna Leister as Granma, Dale AJ Rose as Granpa, Ken O'Brien as Pa (Tom Joad, Sr.), Rob Barnes as Singer/Narrator, .Sebastian Nagpal as Al, Annie Rossi as Winfield and Nick Greika as Noah/Willy Freeley,/Major of Hooverville.

Everyone stands out, individually or working opposite one another in pairs, trios or one big ensemble.
Up close, "The Grapes of Wrath" is not an easy show to pull off.  But luckily for us, English has assembled an intelligent, crafty lot of actors who possess the necessary drive, spirit, intuition and spark to bring this particular drama to life. Their intuitive level of trust, dedication, stamina and synchronicity is unbeatable. Their understanding and knowledge of the material is uncanny. They demand and command attention right from the start. And everyone, skillfully develops his or her character in accordance to Steinbeck's masterpiece and its tangible sense of period authenticity.

Many of the actors, particularly those in the ensemble, perform live, folksy, bluegrass music in the show. Their singing, fiddling, guitar strumming and high-spirited dancing not only brings additional color and nuance to the piece, but creates a rich, moody and smokey atmosphere that ties individual scenes together and lets other pivotal moments settle and breathe. It's a create process that is deeply relevant, nostalgic and timely.

As often is the case with  various CRT productions, directors (in this case, English), utilize the talents of actors from the University of Connecticut's theater department and other arts-oriented programs (all creative levels) on campus to play a part in their productions. In "Grapes of Wrath," several of these actors play multiple roles, which require fast costume changes and very different character turns. All of them succeed swimmingly, blending seamlessly into the framework of the story alongside the more experienced adult actors. They are not only amazing actors in the making, but ones who should have no trouble finding work in professional theater after they finish their studies at the University of Connecticut.

In conclusion, "The Grapes of Wrath" is an iconic, fascinating, character driven piece of American theater that articulates beautifully. It is personal. It is heartfelt. It is absorbing. It is inspiring. And under Gary English's determined, thoughtful direction, it is completely unforgettable. And, then some.

"The Grapes of Wrath is being staged at Connecticut Repertory Theatre (Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre, 2132 Hillside Rd., Storrs, CT), now through October 14.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 486-2113