Sunday, December 2, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 117, A Concert Review: "Onward and Upward" (Fairfield Center Stage)




By James V. Ruocco
"Dreamgirls."
"Hello, Dolly!"
"The Secret Garden."
"Everybody's Talking About Jamie."
"Titanic: The Musical."
"Into the Woods."

Those were just a few of the Broadway and West End musicals uncorked with freshness and confidence in Fairfield Center Stage's "Onward and Upward," a musical theater concert, directed by whiz-bang Artistic Director Christy McIntosh-Newsom, a no-nonsense auteur and performer with a trunk full of directorial credits and rave reviews, ranging from "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and "In the Heights" to "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."

Impressive.
Savvy.
Joyous.
Delightful.
Inspiring.

"Onward and Upward" had it all, from memorable show tunes and surprises, to that kind of happy magic that happens only in the land of make believe. It was a night to remember and one that theatergoers (lucky enough to be there and show their support) will be talking about for quite some time.

Is there a sequel?
Let's hope so.

Having Christy McIntosh-Newsom in charge of bringing "Onward and Upward" to life, was a very smart move. She knows musical theater. She loves musical theater. She loves actors. She loves show music. She also understands the mechanics of concert staging, the importance of song-after-song positioning, who to put when and where and how to tie everything together seamlessly for a two hour-plus concert presentation.

"It's a scary thing to start a new theatre company, especially when you don't have a permanent venue. But a theatre company is not a place. It's its people and we are grateful beyond measure for our theatre family.
(Christy McIntosh-Newsom, Artistic Director, Fairfield Center Stage)

As director, she dressed the "Onward and Upward" stage with highly regarded musical theater performers who not only delivered knockdown performances but elevated this one-night-only concert into a slam-dunk triumph for Fairfield Center Stage, its talented ensemble and everyone else in the audience.

Simplistic in execution, "Onward and Upward" inhabited that rarefied world of song and dance where things were exhibited with depth and personality, style and ambition and a forever-potent directorial beat that McIntosh-Newsom delivered most advantageously. If ever there is a follow-up, and, well there should be, there won't be a single ticket left to sell in the house. And that's a given, mark my word.
Bravo, Fairfield Center Stage!


"The spirit of our benefit concerts is threefold. The evening is a unique opportunity to be able to highlight a large amount of local talent in a single evening. There are very few shows that include a cast of 70, so these events are a wonderful opportunity to feature as many artists as we can. Since theater artists are at the center of our organization (without them we'd have no reason to exist, and no way to connect with our community), it is a celebration of their expressive talents through this connection that only live performance can provide."
(Eli Newsom, Executive Producer, Fairfield Center Stage)

There's nothing like a "live band" and "playing live" makes all the difference in the world in terms of power, passion, swing and ingenuity. With Clay Zambo doubling as conductor and musical director on keyboard, the varied musical styles of "Onward and Upward" were clear, urgent, melodic, provocative and charmingly personal.


No stranger to musical theater, Zambo and his orchestral team ( the equally talented Josh Sette, Gabe Nappi, Charles Casimiro, Brendan Stavris, McNeil Johnston and Mark Dennis) sounded better than ever, playing both popular and some very new show tunes with fresh improvising, distilled power, musical theater snap and dazzle and flavored bounce and invention. It was everything you wanted to hear in a concert of this caliber, offset by great thematic moments, powerful soloing/ duets and very compelling, voltage-charged ensemble turns.

Let's recap:

"And You Don't Even Know It" ("Everybody's Talking About Jamie")  The West End musical smash "Everybody's Talking About Jamie" finds year eleven student Jamie New telling the audience and the entire student body that he wants to be a drag queen. Jamie, as played by John McCrea in the London production, stops the show nightly with "And You Don't Even Know It," a rousing celebration of all things Jamie furiously staged with a decidedly gay teen twist of high-impact colors, moves and wickedness.
Across the pond, "Onward and Upward" performer Sean Davis assumed the Jamie role with sharp and sassy abandon, much to the delight of everyone on stage and in the audience for the pulse-racing "And You Don't Even Know It."
Vocally, Davis was in top form as he nailed the character's musical dazzle and pronouncement for following your dreams and being yourself. Elsewhere, Emily Frangipane's choreography, which, in part, took its cue from the London production, was snappy, peppy and punchy, backed by a group of pop-honed singers and dancers, programmed for this exhilarating classroom romp of Sheffield's real-life, high-heeled superstar Jamie Campbell.



"You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" ("South Pacific")/"Children Will Listen" ("Into the Woods")  Individually or side by side, both Carly Callahan and Betsy Simpson-Wilkes captured the angst, the passion and the human emotion behind their Sondheim/Rodgers and Hammerstein solos with poise, interpretive depth and lustrous control. Both singers also delved deeper into the meaning of their songs and found unexpected nuance, color and emotion. The final result was spectacular, torchy and sublime, accompanied by a feel-good glow that left you wanting more.


"Lily's Eyes" ("The Secret Garden")  The much-loved "Lily's Eyes" duet from "The Secret Garden" was given impassioned bravado by the superb-voiced duo of Eli Newsom and Christopher Wilkes, both of whom ideally mastered this emotionally satisfying song of lost love and remembrance. Their beautiful melodic tones and uplifting musical perfection gave "Lily's Eyes" such a proud sense of conviction, it quickly became a standout on all levels and rightly so.

"Defying Gravity" (Wicked")  Stepping out over the rainbow to deliver "Defying Gravity," the showstopping finale of Broadway's "Wicked," Arielle Boutin  (Ilse in "Spring Awakening") easily reinforced her perfectly honed vocal talents using a powerful belt and rock star range to capture the essence and spirit of this now-classic show tune. She not only owned the song with her fresh, fierce perspective, but the end result was pure magic.


"And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" ("Dreamgirls")  If you've seen "Dreamgirls," then you already know that Effie White's big solo "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going," was designed to bring down the house and get people up off their feet standing, cheering and applauding madly. An ovation-worthy performance by Alana Cauthen singing the same song made famous by both Jennifer Holiday and Jennifer Hudson produced that same kind of frenzy in "Onward and Upward." Taking hold of this showstopping solo, Cauthen delivered a powerful, soulful rendition using the right right vocal chops and confidence to not only rock the heavens but reflect Effie's pain, anger and vulnerability. But wait, there's more. In 2019, Cauthen will be playing Effie White in Fairfield Center's Stage's upcoming production of "Dreamgirls." Yes!


"America" ("West Side Story")  Wonderfully choreographed by Lindsay Johnson, Anita's fiery "America" anthem from "West Side Story" was vividly brought to life with fiercely energetic staging and movement. It was also sung with appropriate Latino spirit and fury by Olivia Grace, Jaden Bonfietti, Renee Sutherland, Bonnie Gregson, Laura Piacenza and Ms. Johnson. 


"The History of Wrong Guys" ("Kinky Boots")  The very charismatic Chelsea Dacey brought real vocal power to this multi-colored Cyndi Lauper showstopper about "bad choices," performed with just the right amount of dash, style and personality. It was the perfect vocal for Dacey's incredible voice. It had drive. It had energy. It had dazzle. It had zing. It also proved that Dacey not only knew how to sell one of the most popular songs from "Kinky Boots" with tremendous musicality, but offer her own personal spin on this high-energized number made famous on Broadway by Annaleigh Ashford.

"Everything Changes" ("Waitress")  Maggie Meath delivered this sweet rendition of  "Everything Changes" from the "Waitress" menu with a tasty slice of fell-good comfort, whimsy and melodious pop.

"You Will Be Found" ("Dear Evan Hansen") Described by the creative team of "Dear Evan Hansen" as "an anthem of self-affirmation," "You Will Be Found" was chock full of inspiration and reflection. Performed by the "Onward and Upward" ensemble, it was moving, passionate and feverishly compelling.


"Put On Your Sunday Clothes" ("Hello, Dolly!")  Jacqueline Owens, Eric Regan and Bobby Henry united as one to bring this classic Jerry Herman show tune to life, backed by members of the "Onward and Upward" ensemble. It was pure fun for all involved, voiced with plenty of spunk and Yonkers spirit by this full-voiced and talented trio.

"Dear Theodosia" ("Hamilton")  Sung by the characters of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton in the Broadway/West End edition of "Hamilton," this poignant ballad put Marcelo Calderon and Garth West in the spotlight as two fathers willing to make the world a better place for their children. A genuine heart breaker, it was voiced with principle and real human emotion.

"Where Do We Go From Here?" ("Vows")  If this song is any indication of what lies ahead in Fairfield Center Stage's world premiere presentation of Clay Zambo's original musical "Vows," be prepared to be thoroughly entertained. Splendidly performed by Lisa Dahlstrom and Christopher Wilkes, this song about couples and how they met, got the point across most engagingly.



"There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This" ("Sweet Charity")  Performed with appropriate gusto by Emily Frangipane, Lindsay Johnson and Jessia Rahrig, this celebratory musical number about 60's taxi dancers speculating on alternative careers, captured the spunk, drive and dazzle of the the show's famous dance trio, matched by Frangipane's fluid, energetic, voltage-charged, character defining choreography. It was fun for all, both onstage and off.

"Muddy Water/River in the Rain" ("Big River")  The talents of Robert Peterpaul and Everton Ricketts blended harmoniously in this dual song fest from Broadway's "Big River." Both numbers were superbly delivered by this endearing musical duo who charmed the audience with their smooth melodic musicality, their winsome exuberance and their innate knack for country/gospel tinged ballads.

"This Is Me" ("The Greatest Showman")  Alexis Willoughby and company closed the show with this rousing and catchy show tune, giving it the right pulse and energy to bring everyone in the house to their feet in perfect, ovation worthy unison.


"Princess Power Medley"  Classic, iconic songs from Disney's "Cinderella," "Aladdin," "The Little Mermaid," "Sleeping Beauty," "Frozen," "Beauty and the Beast" "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and "Pocahontas," among others, were the heart, soul and pulse of this memorable, showstopping "Princess Power Medley," lovingly performed by the tremendously talented Christy McIntosh-Newsom, Laura Piacenza and Leondra Smith-West. It was "spot on" enchantment of the purest kind with just the right touch of humanity, magic and Disney fairy dust. A real audience pleaser.

"You're Just in Love" ("Call Me Madam")  Megan Grace and Lauren Linn took the spotlight for this popular Ethel Merman show tune and sang it with playful and acerbic aplomb.

"Don't Stop Believin' " ("Rock of Ages")  This song, taken from Journey's seventh album "Escape" unfolded with anthem-like precision in the more than capable hands of select "Onward and Upward' ensemble members. It was the perfect rock song to get the pulses racing and it did just that.

"Homeward Bound" (Simon & Garfunkel)  Dubbed "the voice of a generation," music duo Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel created melodies with a folk music sound that often defined the face and pulse of '60s America. "Homeward Bound," performed by Kevin Pelkey and T. Sean Maher, celebrated that notion with uncanny simplicity, harmonizing and charm. It was not only unforgettable, it left you wanting much, much more. Encore, please!


"The Proposal/The Night Was Alive" ("Titanic: The Musical")  Everyone knows the story of "Titanic," the sinking and the imminent warnings of an iceberg that were continually dismissed or ignored. In "Onward and Upward," Nicholas Kuell and Joe Cardozo achieved White Star first-class passenger status with their stirring vocal interpretations of "The Proposal" and "The Night Was Alive," written by composer/lyricist Maury Yeston.
An engaging showman with a voice of extraordinary range and resonance, Kuell, in the role of stoker Frederick Barrett, beckoned his audience to join him for a vocal proposal via telegraph to his loving girlfriend. Cardozo, an equally powerful vocalist, in turn, assumed the part of the overwhelmed telegraph operator Harold Bride.
Handling their individual spotlight solos, Kuell and Cardozo brought tremendous insight, style and charm to their very different musical moments. Gorgeously sung and performed, the overall effect, was truly epic.

"Set Those Sails/I'd Rather Be Sailing" (William Finn)  Brian Crook and Carolyn Reeves displayed perfect vocal harmony and ideal rhythmic syncopation in this beautifully sung William Finn song combo. It was simply "Finntastic," no pun intended.


"Movin' Right Along" ("The Muppet Movie")  Originally sung by Kermit and Frog and Fozzie Bear, this upbeat and comical song was given new life in typical "Muppet" fashion by Matthew Casey and Kellen Schult. Lots of fun, fond memories were conjured up for this one.

"Wait 'Til You See What's Next" (Jason Robert Brown)  Choreographed with zest and flair by Madeleine Tommins, this was the ideal production number to open Act One of "Onward and Upward." It featured lots of performers, ready and able to put their their best put forward, which they did. It also set the mood for the evening's on going musical entertainment..



Food wise, the concert buffet (courtesy of the friends and family of benefit co-chair Stephanie Seanor), was sumptuous and absolutely delicious with flavorful wraps, jumbo shrimp cocktail, domestic and imported cheeses, dried fruits and nuts, grilled skewers and kabobs and assorted hor d'oeuvres. Even better, there was more than enough to go around and around and around. And the bar staff, was superb, at every turn. 

Gratifying, entertaining and intelligently conceived, "Onward and Upward" was a dazzling night of musical theater that proved once again that Fairfield Center Stage was a force to be reckoned with...and then some. You'd be mad to miss their upcoming productions of "A Christmas Carol Experience," "Dreamgirls" and "The Secret Garden." Do not let something this wonderful slip away.


"Onward and Upward" was staged at Fairfield Center Stage (Penfield Pavilion, 323 Fairfield Beach Rd, Fairfield, CT) on November 17, 2018. 
website:.fairfieldcenterstage.org.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 116, A Review: "The Prisoner" (Yale Repertory Theatre)



By James V. Ruocco

A morality tale of sorts that clocks in at a mere 69 minutes and unfolds with a dreamy, surrealistic yellowish glow, "The Prisoner" has the look and feel of an experimental, avant-garde theatre piece designed for acting students, drama festivals and West End fringe.

It's the sort of Brechtian/Beckett workshop stuff that challenges, baffles, excites and astonishes ballsy theatergoers who crave this sort of entertainment even when the ball drops, the narrative confuses and the ambition falters, if only fleetingly.

Regardless, there's something very provocative and dramatically enlightening about "The Prisoner," which arrives at Yale Rep following a prestigious overseas engagement, chock full of self-importance, moral trashing, self discovery, abstinence and redemptive obsession.

It bemuses.
It makes you wonder.
It gets you talking.
It stirs the senses.
It raises questions.
It maintains an odd sense of argument.

It is also part of Yale Rep's ongoing commitment to offer audiences topical works, world premieres and innovative plays that compliment its visible platform of contemporary stagecraft decidedly different from the season sked of other regional theaters across the nation.

The theater's recent presentation of "El Huracan" ideally reflects that notion as does its upcoming productions of "Good Faith (Four Chats about Race and the New Haven Fire Department)" and Cadillac Crew."

That said, let's backtrack.


Written and directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne, "The Prisoner" is based on Brooks' own story idea, inspired by a visit to Afghanistan, where he heard the troubled story of an angry young man and murderer who had been sitting on an outside hill facing a prison for many, many years as punishment and absolution for his crime.

In this play, a pseudo-colonialist discovers a man living shamefully in the desert (he's forbidden to leave the spot even when certain characters offer to help him move on) tormented by his guilt, which, we learn is punishable by mutilation following 20 years in exile. As "The Prisoner" evolves, we also learn that the actual murder of his father was prompted by the statutory rape and pregnancy of a 13-year-old girl who also happened to be the man's daughter. The man himself also harbors incestuous thoughts and feelings for his sister.
Confusing, not exactly. But why this has happened in this very backward country (a name for this location is never mentioned) isn't exactly addressed full throttle. It's more of a plot device for the play's back story and evolution.


As directors, Brook and Estienne have an o.k. handle on the piece, which they shape and thrust forward swiftly enough. But sometimes, a very fascinating dramatic scene is cut too short, when it begs for more exposition and detail. Or it is followed by one in complete silence or one that isn't exactly dramatically fulfilling. It doesn't exactly derail the piece, but it doesn't invite applause either. A few rewrites, here and there, would improve things immensely. Not to worry, though. Other scenes are rife with splendid dialogue, great dramatic interaction and tension. And yes, the conflict, the struggle and the guilt of the central character, is strongly felt.

The best moment in "The Prisoner" is a playful one involving a rat, conjured up from carefully timed hand movement under a fold in a cloth which is used as a cloak. Directorially, it is played with workshop improvisation, mime and comic panache. But it does not end well. As expected, the rat becomes dinner. Delightful!


Elsewhere, the play exerts its abstract, metaphysical power more fluently during the second half  (35 minutes on and counting) as the characters wrestle for appropriate closure and resolution. Here, Brook and Estienne fuel their story with vivid humanity, naked simplicity and innate wisdom. It's a highly emotional journey shared by both the onstage characters and the audience, the latter, in part, being Yale Drama students, who, of course, are pushed agreeably to the edge of their seats enjoying parallels to the more satisfying "Waiting For Godot" and wondering how to it all come together and end before the actors gather center stage for their final bows.

"The Prisoner" stars Hiran Abeysekera as Mavuso, Herve Goffings as Ezekiel, Kalieaswari Srinivasan as Nadia/Guard, Omar Silva as Man/Guard and Hayley Carmichael as Visitor/Guard. All five bring authority, drive, compassion and purpose to their respective roles. They understand the play's concept, theme, format, dialogue and quick-change storytelling. They deftly handle the play's deliberate shifts in tone, time and pace. There's also a brittle sense of reality to their work that captures the varying mood swings of their different characters, offset by a focused, communicative honesty and signature body language.


The action for the play takes place on a stage that is mostly empty (the actors are also barefoot) with the exception of some randomly placed twigs, branches, sawdust and some over sized, nondescript cloths that are used for blankets and warmth. Created by David Violi, the set design is eerily abstract and lends itself nicely to the telling of actual story.

Although "The Prisoner" has some minor flaws, the production is, nonetheless, first class. The story and its after effect, disturbs. The characters themselves are drawn with a chilling nuance. And finally, the performances and their adrenaline-fueled power shifts, make for compelling theater.


Photos by Joan Marcus

"The Prisoner" is being staged at Yale Repertory Theatre (1120 Chapel St., New Haven, CT), now through November 17.
For tickets ore more information, call (203) 432-1234.
website: yalerep.org.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 115, A Review: "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (Playhouse on Park)


By James V. Ruocco


"Too much sanity may be madness. And maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be."
(Dale Wasserman)

More than 55 years have passed since playwright Dale Wasserman first penned "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," the nervy, controversial stage adaptation of Ken Kesey's best-selling novel that challenged and ripped apart the emasculating forces of the American asylum, its people, its patients and its twisted practices.

In 2018, the play still packs a punch, still pushes you over the edge and still makes your skin crawl with jittery intensity.

At Playhouse on Park, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" is a stirring, entertaining, worthy revival that captivates, challenges and excites. The performances of Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, William Sampson and Brad Dourif still linger in the shadows as does any other remembrance from Milos Foreman's hypnotic 1975 film adaptation.

But, that's o.k.
If anything, the film version serves as juicy creative fodder that heightens and enjoyment, the drama and the craziness that is the stage production.


Wild.
Unpredictable.
Numbing.
Electric.
Gripping.
Maddening.

"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" draws you in and keeps there you, till the bitter end.

15 people get credit for that. They are:

Wayne Willinger (Randle Patrick McMurphy)
Patricia Randell (Nurse Ratched)
Santos (Chief Bromden)
Alex Rafala (Billy Bibbitt)
Adam Kee (Dale Harding)
Katya Collazo (Nurse Finn/Sandra)
Athena Reddy (Candy Starr)
Harrison Greene (Anthony Martini)
Rick Malone (Charles Cheswick)
Justin Henry (Aide Williams)
Andrew R. Cooksey Jr. (Aide Turkell)
Lance A. Williams (Aide Warren)
David Sirois (Dr. Spivey)
John Ramaine (Frank Scanlon)
Ben McLaughlin (Ruckley/Technician)


"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" is set in a mental asylum, populated by patients that are diagnosed as mad, insane, rebellious, delusional and paranoid. With the arrival of new patient Randall Patrick McMurphy (a con man, deemed psychopath, originally sentenced to six months of hard labor at a prison work farm for "too much fucking and fighting"), the cage, so to speak, gets rattled and rattled as he purposely disrupts the ward's daily operation and challenges the all-knowing authority of Nurse Ratched, a hard-nosed woman who maintains her power through shame, guilt, emasculation and manipulation.

Working from Wasserman's detailed, driven script, director Ezra Barnes recreates the atrocities of badly run mental-health institutions where abuse, verbal assaults, pill popping and very uncontrollable group therapy sessions ran rampant. The atmosphere itself is raw, rebellious, dicey, draining, horrific and noticeably fucked up. And, well, it should be.
That said, Barnes, intrigued by the subject matter, never once lets his guard down or lets the material drift into caricature or drama class experimentation. He keeps things real, focused and thought provoking.

It's all here: the paranoia, the delusions, the fear, the hallucinations, the conformity, the harshness, the electroshock treatments, the dreaded lobotomy practices, the ball busting, the rebellion, the false hopes and promises, the cowardice, the mind games, the power plays, the hysteria, the petty rules, the schizophrenia, the state-sanctioned tyrannies, the hysteria that prompts a suicide, the mercy killing and the child rhyme epigraph.


Barnes builds this production around these ideas, theories and other climatic confrontations, which, in turn, allows the teeth-baring menace of Wasserman's Darwinian jungle to spin, rattle and turn on its head to its devastating conclusion. In the end, the combative instincts of the play comes strongly across, as does the fight for liberation against the unjust practices of the psychiatric system itself.

Working with a very large cast, similar to the one utilized by Barnes in last year's spellbinding "The Diary of Anne Frank," which he also directed, can be especially daunting. No so, with this production. Here as in "Anne Frank," Barnes provides each and every one of his actors with a colorful palate of stage direction, stage business, stage blocking and back story so that every one of them stands out individually throughout the two-act drama. This directorial concept keeps the story, its evolvement and its continual changes in mood and tone, completely in perspective. That way, nothing gets lost, nothing gets sidestepped and nothing pushes the audience into an awkward state of confusion.

Wayne Willinger plays McMurphy with steadfast energy, bad-boy charm, droll hostility and a quirky  intensity that works especially well. He's a hustler and live wire about to explode, which is exactly what the part calls for. He uses Nicholson's film performance as back story only, with absolutely no copycatting whatsoever. Elsewhere, he's completely in sync with the angst-ridden machinations of his character, McMurphy's advancement in the story and McMurphy's camaraderie with the other patients. There's also a playful and sexual spark to his characterization, which he portrays with well-timed wickedness, dazzle and masturbatory horniness when he's trying to get a rise out of the play's three female characters. His scene's with prostitute Candy Starr, played with cheeky aplomb by Athena Reddy, are happily conceived and reenacted.


Patricia Randell's Nurse Ratched dominates "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" step by step, scene by scene, act by act. She is superb in the role and offers one of the best female performances of the 2018 theater season. Like Willinger, she too understands her role and her involvement in the drama of the story and always knows what buttons to push for added dramatic effect. She keeps it real at every twist and turn. She also gives Nurse Ratched that perfectly practiced smile, glazed look and sincere conviction the character is famous for.


As Chief, a pivotal Native-American character who pretends to be deaf and dumb, Santos is a larger-than-life presence who entrusts his character with a lumbering, full-voice (he doubles as the play's narrator) and mysterious persona that smartly adheres to Wasserman's original interpretation of the part. We feel his pain. We feel his torment. We feel his bruised dignity. We also get his silent strength and desperate compassion.

In the role of the relatively normal Dale Harding, Adam Kee projects the prissy denial, buttoned-up quirkiness of his married (he is unable to satisfy his wife in bed), closeted homosexual character with wonderful, well-timed conviction and abandon. As the shy, often misunderstood Billy Bibbitt, Alex Rafala offers a perfectly honed, honest portrayal of a young man, unable to face the world, who, sadly chooses suicide as the final escape.


In a show of ensemble strength and purpose, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" is admirably taut, tense and ferocious. The entire cast keeps it completely honest  under Ezra Barnes impassioned direction. The play's unnerving drama, as revealed through Dale Wasserman's fresh, propulsive script, is raw, intense and mind-blowing. And when it all ends, the reality of what just happened will leave you on edge completely shaken by this courageous piece of drama.

Photos courtesy of Curt Henderson (Imagine It Framed) and Meredith Longo


"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" is being staged at Playhouse on Park (244 Park Rd., West Hartford, CT), now through November 18.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 523-5900
website playhouseonpark.org

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 114, A Review: "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof" (Music Theatre of Connecticut)




By James V. Ruocco

Playwright Tennessee Williams was a sexual sensationalist with a strong social conscience and wit whose take on life, most notably, the human condition, was crazily absurd, radical and often tragic.

"When I write, I don't aim to shock people, and I'm surprised when I do. But I don't think that anything that occurs in life should be omitted from art, though the artist should present it in a fashion that is artistic and not ugly. I set out to tell the truth. And, sometimes the truth is shocking."
(Tennessee Williams)

At his best, Williams wrote and penned stories about characters that were marginalized and defeated; torn and infatuated; bleak and repressed; sexual and struggling; delusional and tyrannical; martyred and misguided; cunning and salacious; hypocritical and vulnerable; truthful and starving.

"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."
"The Glass Menagerie."
"A Streetcar Named Desire."
"Sweet Bird of Youth"
"The Night of the Iguana"
"Camino Real"
"Suddenly Last Summer"



In the oft-revived "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof," which many claim is "the front piece of his artistic expression," Williams creates a tragedy about self-delusion, lust and homophobia, in which the hero, the handsome and strapping Brick, can no more admit to his homosexuality and love for his deceased best buddy Skipper than his father, Big Daddy, can to his cancer, ridiculously labeled by doctors and family members as  "a spastic colon."

"One man has one great good true thing in his life. One great good thing which is true! I had a friendship with Skipper. You are naming it dirty!"
(Brick)

"You two had something that had to be kept on ice, yes, incorruptible, yes!"
(Maggie)

"If you needed a big daddy, why didn't you come to me? If you needed someone to lean on, why Skipper? Why not me? I'm your father! Why didn't you come to your kinfolk, the people that love you."
(Big Daddy)

As the plot thickens, these and other questions are addressed with epic resolution in Music Theatre of Connecticut's spellbinding revival of  "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof," which dissects and spits out the truth with brutal, thrilling diagnosis.

Raw.
Forceful.
Impulsive.
Hypnotic.
Scorching.


This "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof " unfolds in a whole new light that peels back the layers of Williams dicey, explosive drama with such wild abandon, the experience (or ride) itself is completely revelatory.

The beauty of this production, first and foremost, lies in the more than capable hands of Kevin Connors who recently staged Frank Wildhorn's Gothic pop opera "Jekyll & Hyde" with Whitechapel eeriness, urgency and murderous tessitura at MTC. An obviously meticulously craftsman and auteur, Connors knows exactly what he wants on every dramatic level and is very skillful and adept at getting it, running with it and letting it breathe, sizzle and snap.

Here, one feels the sexual disillusionment between the alcoholic Brick and his wife Maggie who yearns for the sexual passion and intimacy they once enjoyed. One is also subject to the desperation and braying tactics associated with the huge inheritance of Big Daddy's Mississippi estate. Big Daddy's explosive encounter with Brick in the second act regarding his "queer" relationship with Skipper is also rife with sarcasm, anger and edgy, staggering father-son honesty.


Staging this "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof," Connors effectively utilizes the script from the original 1955 Broadway production that starred Barbara Bel Geddes, Ben Gazzara, Burl Ives, Mildred Dunnock, Madeline Sherwood and Pat Hingle. Nothing is censored. Nothing is whitewashed or marginalized. Nothing is glossed over. Instead, Connors allows his cast and audience to bask in the glory of Williams' language, its allure and controversy, its truths and illusions, its heated directness and sting, its idiosyncratic stamps and finally, its textual symbolism. It's all very personalized, marked by rhythmic line deliveries that aptly reflect the playwright's intentions. Things are so beautiful, there are times when you wish there was a "Replay" button you could hit to hear certain passages a second and third time.

With Connors at the helm, the play swims effortlessly from scene to scene and act to act with an airy fluidity that serves the material well. He also knows exactly what buttons to push: easy and understated; dramatic and feverish; shocking and sexual; candid and light-hearted; sweet and simplistic; revealing and suggestive; confrontational and nasty; gnawing and predatory. His choices unfold with illuminating, fulfilling results.




Andrea Lynn Green, as Brick's wife Maggie, is sultry, alluring and every inch the "cat" of the play's title. But her Maggie is not just a pretty face. She's tough. She's desperate. She's manipulative. She's shrewd. She's money hungry. She's a social climber. She's a victim. She's a predator.
No matter. The actress channels Maggie's colorful persona to natural, dazzling, determined effect. She also adapts brilliantly to the natural rhythm and melody of Williams' dialogue and plays it with the conviction and verisimilitude of someone who gets and understands the playwright and her character's fully charged freight of emotions.

Michael Raver who plays Brick shows us his character's many colors. His Brick is a numb and bored alcoholic craving the "click" of release. His Brick is a frustrated man and husband who is disgusted by his wife Maggie's kisses, touches and sexual advances. His Brick is a confused individual fighting the gay attraction he once felt for Skipper, thus, refusing to acknowledge their relationship as something "queer" and "dirty." His Brick is also someone longing for acceptance and love from a father who doesn't quite understand him. It's a dynamic that allows Raver to inhabit Brick with a validity that is both timely and persuasive. His drink dependency is also both slovenly and raw.


There's something wonderfully decadent about Frank Mastrone's egomaniacal portrayal of Big Daddy that fuels his character's flash-bang extremities, brashness, hysteria, vulgarity and snarky outspokenness. It's a showy part, yes. But Smith doesn't go for the obvious or look for the easy way out. Instead, he plays it for real, thus, reveling in the heat, the drama or the comedy of the moment. There are real sparks in Big Daddy's father-son faceoff with Brick that Mastrone projects with crude, slippery relish. The actor also conveys his character's hardness, especially when he reveals his disdain for his devoted wife Big Mama.

"Think of all the lies I got to put up with! Ain't that mendacity? Having to pretend stuff you don't think or feel or have any idea of? Having for instance to act like I care for Big Mama! I haven't been able to stand the sight, sound, or smell of that woman for forty years now, even when I laid her!"
(Big Daddy)


Big Mama, Big Daddy's devoted wife is played with glorious solidity, quiet dignity and well-orchestrated kindness and cheer by Cynthia Hannah. This is a powerful, demanding role that the actress invests with raw, natural energy, style and vintage Southern charm. She's fluent in the language that is Williams. She has plenty of stage presence. And she brings a decided freshness to the part which works to her advantage. As Brick's sneaky and shady brother and sister-in-law, Gooper and Mae, Robert Mobley and Elizabeth Donnelly are marvelously effective, projecting the required notes of greed, rapacity and resentment associated with their roles.

"Cat On a Hot Tin Roof" is a steamy, sexy, compelling drama that observes and celebrates the gusty, admirable writing of celebrated American playwright Tennessee Williams. It is fierce. It is provocative. It is ballsy. It is an unforgettable piece of theater driven by bold, ravishing performances and daring, impassioned direction that brings a ferocious energy to this forever stirring story of sexual repression and desire, splendidly voiced by a master craftsman who broke new ground with truthful, courageous storytelling.

"I don't have an audience in mind when I write. I'm writing mainly for myself. After a long devotion to playwriting, I have a good inner ear. I know pretty well how a thing is going to sound on stage, and how it will play. I write to satisfy this inner ear and its perceptions. That's the audience I write for."
(Tennessee Williams)


"Cat On a Hot Tin Roof" is being staged at Music Theatre of Connecticut (509 Westport Ave, Norwalk,  CT), now through November 18.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 454-3883
website: musictheatreofct.com


Tuesday, November 6, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 113, A Review: "Thousand Pines" (Westport Country Playhouse)



By James V. Ruocco

"No play, even one as well-served by its company as this one, can cure what ails us as a society. Still, in an era so marked by division, there's something sacred about the communal act of theatre. I'm still naive enough to believe that miracles can happen when a group of strangers gathers to sit quietly in the dark as the story unfolds, laughing together, crying together, and dreaming together of a better world."
(Matthew Greene, Playwright)   

An ensemble, three-part play without an intermission, "Thousand Pines" takes place in the dining room of three strangely identical suburban homes on Thanksgiving Day, six months after a senseless shooting at a junior high school.
Here, three sets of characters each struggle with the loss of a child who was taken away from them without warning like so many others across the nation including the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy, which claimed the lives of 20 children between six and seven years old as well as six adult staff members.

"In the meantime, we press on. We hold on to each other, search for answers, and fight for the things we believe in. And we try, along with the characters onstage, to keep believing."
(Matthew Greene, Playwright) 


Ironically, the trauma that was Sandy Hook gives "Thousand Pines" its bite, its emotional backbone and its drive as it openly deals with yet another group of parents, relatives and friends trying to cope and deal with yet another horrific school shooting.

Timely.
Provocative.
Compelling.
Though-provoking.
Personal.

"Thousand Pines" doesn't claim to have all the answers. Its anguished cries of grief, outrage and denial, nonetheless, ring loud and clear. As does the characters' cries for help, compassion, understanding and survival.


As written by Matthew Greene, "Thousand Pines" addresses public gun shootings with an honesty that is meant to leave you shaken, uncomfortable and emotionally drained. But things are never preachy or in-your-face with obvious calculation. At times, the tone is dark and stirring, but Greene never allows the material to get bogged down in constant heartbreak. Or spin off into space with no justified conclusion.
There is laughter. There is warmth. There is honesty. There is confrontation. There is sorrow. There are typical family squabbles. There is uneasiness. There is awkwardness. There are jokes about mashed potatoes, butter, cranberry sauce and turkey. Greene also tells us that it's important to unite in tragedy, to persevere, to connect, to remember and more importantly, to never forget.

To direct "Thousand Pines," Westport Country Playhouse has enlisted the dynamic Austin Pendleton ("Hamlet," "Ivanov," "Park Your Car in Harvard Yard," "Between Riverside and Crazy") as director. It's a move that serves the material well for Pendleton has always been at home with this particular kind of conversational drama, it's character-drive populace and its textbook extremes, resourcefulness, urgency and promise. Moreover, he gets and understands actors who play multiple roles which here, are as varied, mixed up and as swirling as the three different segments themselves.


As "Thousand Pines" takes shape, Pendleton aptly captures the fear, anxiety, restlessness and uncertainty of people coping with loss, in denial or anxious to move on, regardless of the consequences. He also understands this particular kind of grief, but never once goes overboard to make a point. Instead, he brings a natural, kindly openness to the piece, often reminding us that there is hope in the aftermath of tragedy and the human instinct for survival.

The exemplary cast, well chosen by Pendleton, are Kelly McAndrew, Andrew Veenstra, William Ragsdale, Katie Ailion, Joby Earle and Anne Bates. McAndrew, playing three different mothers, is onstage the most. Her performance is honest and gratifying, allowing her to shift gears like a Broadway chameleon, offering three colorful, decidedly different portraits of three grief-stricken women, coping with the loss of a child. Is this the same actress, you ask? You bet it is.



Veenstra, last seen in Hartford Stage's awarding winning production of  "The Age of Innocence," appears in two of the three segments and delivers a sensitive, heated, argumentative character turn rife with stubbornness, self-awareness and irony. Ragsdale glides from one character to the next most agreeably playing a kind-hearted uncle, a hot shot lawyer and a small-town policeman. Earle, Bates and Ailion also offer complex, centered, radically different character turns, fraught with truth, emotion and signature compassion. They too, each have their big actor's moment, depending on the action and the individual scene at hand.

In conclusion, "Thousand Pines" is a fast, talky, well-crafted play about grief, loss, coping and moving on. Its conversations are timely and conventional. Its characters and plot twists are honest enough to get under your skin and get you thinking. The play also reminds us about the terrible tragedy that was Sandy Hook and so many others. The gunfire has ended. But the horror of those ghastly moments lives on and leaves us broken, once again.


"Thousand Pines" is being staged at Westport Country Playhouse (25 Powers Court, Westport, CT), now through November 17.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 227-4177.
website: westportplayhouse.org



Monday, November 5, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 112, A Review: "The God Game" (Square One Theatre Company)



By James V. Ruocco

Religion, politics, deceit, agnosticism and compromise are the centerpiece of Suzanne Bradbeer's "The God Game," a prescient, fascinating political drama that is timely, solid, urgent, well-spoken and marvelously conversational.

Written long before Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States, this two-act character drama, nonetheless, is chock full of snarky cynicism, smart aleck sermonizing, dirty tricks, unsavory machinations and middle America power plays that feel as true today as when Bradbeer wrote "The God Game" five years ago. And therein, lies its enjoyment.

Commanding.
Outspoken.
Compassionate.
Personal.
Edgy.




"The God Game" is a brilliant expose that tackles many, many relevant topics.
It's all here: how political campaigns are shaped and conducted; the angling for endorsement; the impulse to pour God over everything regardless of one's personal beliefs; the face that politicians are forced to present to the world even if it means lying or stretching the truth; the prominence and monetary gain associated with politics; the behind-the-closed-doors conversations; the win at any cost candidate topicality.

At Square One Theatre Company, "The God Game's" marvelously orchestrated arrival couldn't be more timely or pertinent. The play itself not only proves its enduring, powerful appeal, but does so with impeccable pathos, acidity and page-turning brashness.


There are a lot of interesting, intellectual ideas at play here, all of which are ambitiously shaped, attacked and addressed by director Tom Holehan.  The script, of course, is carefully layered and developed by the playwright to only give so much in terms of character and set up during each act, thus, producing an element of surprise as the play unravels and evolves until all is revealed during the final moments of the piece. Holehan, in turn, piques interest at every turn, always knowing what buttons to push, when to take a breath, pause and continue, how to build and sustain tension, how to get a laugh and how to knock the audience on their ass when something they didn't expect is suddenly dropped into their laps in explicit, confrontational fashion.

In terms of pacing, Holehan never once misses a beat as characters come and go, scenes change, lights come up and down and "The God Game" taunts and teases, as well it should. From start to finish, there is an airy, fresh and centered look and feel to the piece. Nothing is taken for granted. Nothing is amped up. Nothing is overplayed. Nothing is stagy or calculated.

Holehan lets "The God Game" settle, breathe, cajole and entice most agreeably. Yes, the production is rehearsed. Yes, the actors have memorized their lines. Yes, there are stage cues, stage movement, stage business and stage blocking. Yes, there is a beginning, middle and end. Regardless, Holehan lets things unfold naturally, believably and honestly. He knows what he wants and he runs with it. He trusts his actors to deliver and deliver they do. The closeness of actor to audience also works most advantageously and gives "The God Game" its voyeuristic verve and intimacy.


In the role of Tom, a Virginia senator and rising star in the Republican Party arena, David Victor brings admirable voice, electric-charged energy and splendid, edgy drama to his portrayal of a man whose personal values, beliefs and integrity are thrust into the limelight, at all costs. Make no mistake about it, Victor is the real deal. He has the look, the manner, the mindset, the drive, the stamina, the wardrobe and the body language of someone who has spent a lifetime in Washington and knows exactly how to play the political game. He's so real and so honest, one wonders if Holehan actually traveled to the nation's capital and convinced Victor to give up his day job and become an actor in his production. That said, it's the performance of the season and one that smartly contributes to the greatness that is "The God Game."

Danielle Sultini, as Tom's wife Lisa, brilliantly captures the wifely angst, insecurity, determination, condescension and principled vacillation of her character as set forth by the playwright. She also exudes a traditional charm, class and shrewdness, offset by a believable, well-oiled outspokenness, which serves the material well. As Matt, the ex-lover of Tom's deceased brother Jay who died in a car accident shortly after the two of them broke up, Kiel Stango projects the cool confidence and calculated business savvy required of the part along with an invigorating sense of political spark, agenda and offbeat quirkiness. He works especially well opposite both Victor and Sultini and strikes exactly the right note between seriousness and playfulness. It's a memorable, focused performance that is played with plenty of heart, soul and compassion. And when things get especially heated, Stango's Matt is not only a force to be reckoned with, but one who says exactly what's on his mind regardless of the consequences.


"The God Game" is the first of  three plays to be performed during Square One Theatre Company's 2018-2019 theater season. Waiting in the wings are "Clever Little Lies" and Lungs." Smart, savvy and timely, "The God Game" addresses the political arena of America with revelation, tension, wit and emotion. Tom Holehan's insightful direction not only captures the dicey schematics of playwright Suzanne Bradbeer's vision, but invites everyone in the audience to confront and reexamine their own personal feelings about religion, family, compromise, God, homosexuality, politics, voting, the Presidency and so much more. Then again, that's the point, isn't it?

"The God Game" is being staged by Square One Theatre Company (Stratford Academy, 719 Birdseye St., Stratford, CT), now through November 18.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 375-8778.
website: www.squareonetheatre.com.