Thursday, December 12, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 228, A Review: "The Plot" (Yale Repertory Theatre)


By James V. Ruocco

If you've seen "The Realistic Joneses," "The Underlying Chris" or "Thom Pain," then you already know that playwright Will Eno is a fascinating writer who can turn every day life upside down and all around with conversational dialogue that is absurd, ridiculous, weighty, cerebral and slippery.
It's a gift - a ritualistic exchange of sorts - that puts Eno at the top of his game and rightly so. His live-wire language and ferocious take on life itself is in a class all its own. It is also one that is very, very real.

Case in point: "The Plot" at Yale Rep.

For this go-round, a cemetery, imaginatively envisioned by set designer Sarah Karl, is the setting, so to speak, for five people who have plans of their own amidst this quaint, country graveyard including final resting places, a big-time commercial business development, and other strategies and gambits, which, for plot purposes, are best kept under wraps so as not to spoil the big reveal that's kept hidden by the playwright until it's time to slap everyone in the face with an announcement that no one saw coming. Or did they?

Unique.
Quirky.
Flip.
Dry.
Outrageous.


There's much to savor in this snappy, well-made comedy that tosses normalcy out the window for a series of lively, idiosyncratic, absurdest encounters that the playwright is famous for. As usual, you're never quite sure what's going to happen next, how it will all play out or what exactly the chitchat at hand might reveal or conceal. With Eno pulling the strings, that zigzagging unpredictability is exactly what drives "The Plot" forward. You simply go along for a ride that unfolds with a gleeful, runaway train abandon that's impossible to resist. 

At Yale Rep, "The Plot" is being staged by Oliver Butler, the co-founder and co-artistic director of the Brooklyn-based theatre company, The Debate Society. His directorial credits include "What the Constitution Means to Me," "Thom Pain," "Blood Play," "The Whistleblower," "The Open House" and "Timeshare." Here, Butler delivers a perfectly balanced, involving production that never once makes a wrong more or opts for cheap tricks to get a laugh. There's wit and abundant sarcasm. There's charm, immediacy and quirky togetherness. There's unexpected twists and turns. There's also a wonderful sense of solidarity, quickness, incident and collaboration.


Timing - peppy, intuitive, wisely positioned timing - is everything in "The Plot" and Butler swathes Eno's text with gusto, vocal firepower and the right choreographic angst and cheer to keep the on-stage action whirling and spinning with extreme vision and originality. That said, he's a savvy interpreter who knows what he wants and how to run with it. He can be wise, ridiculous or full-blown when the script asks him to be. He can pull a prank out of thin air with saucy repartee and get away with it. As "The Plot" evolves, he also brings a refreshing honesty to the project which heightens its already impactive animation, allure and spot-on story arc rotation.

"The Plot" stars Harris Yulin as Righty, Stephen Barker Turner as Tim, Mia Katigbak as Joanne, Jennifer Mudge as Donna and Jimonn Cole as Grey.


Harris Yulin, a brilliant, versatile character actor whose credits include "A Lesson from Aloes," "Hedda Gabler," "The Diary of Anne Frank" and "The Price," plays the part of Righty with a big-hearted warmth, wryness, wit and compassion that makes every one of his scenes fascinating, perplexing and well worthwhile. As Grey, Jimonn Cole observes "The Plot's" ongoing game of truth, lies and deception with perfectly rendered cynicism. Jennifer Mudge, in the role of the unmistakably cool, sometimes misunderstood Donna, delivers a wonderfully smooth portrait of a shrewd businesswoman who is more than just a pretty face in the bedroom and in the boardroom. Stephen Barker Turner's wild and wacky portrayal of snarky businessman Tim gets laughs in all the right places due to the actor's impeccable comic timing, his dry, droll line delivery and his deadpan, appropriately timed reactions and expressions. As Righty's wife Joanne, Mia Katigbak crafts a truthful, deeply passionate performance that is genuine, confident and always inspired.

"The Plot" is an important piece of theater with an authentic voice that rings true with surprising, deeply felt storytelling techniques and craftsmanship. All of which is marvelously facilitated by director Oliver Butler who gives Will Eno's rich, organic playtext the appropriate resonance it deserves, offset by hilarious, well-orchestrated performances, comedy and engagement. It's a play that reverberates with feeling and confidence and one that pulls you deep into its twisty, perplexing world where anything can happen and does.


Photos of "The Plot" courtesy of Joan Marcus

"The Plot" is being staged at Yale Repertory Theatre (1120 Chapel St., New Haven, CT), now through December 21.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 432-1234.
website: yalerep.org

Saturday, November 30, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 227, A Review: "Shakespeare in Love" (Connecticut Repertory Theatre)



By James V. Ruocco

Taking its cue from the 1998 Oscar-winning film of the same name, Lee Hall's stage adaptation of "Shakespeare in Love" is a delightfully witty theatrical piece that retells the story of young Will Shakespeare's early days as a playwright with obvious charm, crackle, command and inspiration. It is a labor of love that transports its audience back in time to Shakespeare's London, a place that finds the Bard struggling valiantly to transform the comedy "Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter" into the dramatic tragedy and celebrated work that eventually became known as "Romeo and Juliet."

Lovely.
Innocent.
Determined.
Snappy.
Vigorous.

Connecticut Repertory Theatre's playful presentation of Hall's popular play (based on the screenplay by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman) is full of insight, invention, dazzle, clarity and dreamy innocence. It's a great company achievement that is profoundly affecting and unforced. It is full of wonder and recognizable grace and warmth. It also jumps and spins with a raw, youthful energy that is fresh and hormone-fueled.


Staging "Shakespeare in Love," director Vincent Tycer naturally eases his audience into the play's Elizabethan setting, its evolving theatricality, its comedic and dramatic mindset and its ensuing, playful fantasia. That said, everything that happens on stage unfolds with good cheer, determination and flourish. It is also well-rehearsed, blocked and maneuvered with just the right amount of honesty, conviction and inspiration necessary to heighten its charm and consequential fluidity. Having directed Shakespearean productions both in the United Stage and overseas in England and beyond, Tycer also brings the right atmospheric touches to the play's remembrance of the early stages of the Bard's career and the different venues where his works were first performed including the Globe Theatre.

As the production evolves, there's so much to savor and enjoy. From start to finish, Tycer knows exactly what he wants and how to stage it. He jumps in with apt engagement. He doesn't waste a single moment. He sustains the right rhythm and beat. He knows how to charge and counter. He is completely knowledgeable of the playwright's conceit and language. He knows when to heat things up and when to power them down. He moves his large cast of actors from scene to scene with ease and purpose. He knows how to get a laugh without revealing the punchline. Romantic moments are projected with love and assurance. Mistaken identities and cross-dressing are addressed in much the same manner as "As You Like It" and "Twelfth Night." When necessary, the play is also awash with a bittersweet melancholy that is appropriately conceived and conveyed  As is, Tycer's naturally tossed, welcoming dashes of angst, merriment, desire, zaniness, bona fide passion and celebration.

The choreography for "Shakespeare in Love" has been researched well in terms of Elizabethan period excitement and splendor while background music, under the leadership of music director Chris Coffey has been reproduced to match the lyrical soundscape of the times. All of the it - vital, positioned, courtly and impactive - is performed live on stage by actor-musicians whose baroque stylization and musicality is beautifully ornamented, acquainted and lovingly emotive while complementing the Shakespeare tale at hand and its story arc progression.


Heading the cast for this production are the equally engaging and charismatic Jack Dillon as Will Shakespeare and Erin Cessna as Viola De Lesseps, both of whom have the necessary wit, charm,
chemistry, balance and comedic timing to make every one of their scenes together gel and resonate.
Dillon, looking and sounding every bit as English as the young romantic playwright he is asked to portray, is personable, witty, confidant and full-voiced, thus, giving his character the required energy and spark the part demands along with the frustration and hesitancy that comes from not being able to find the right words to express himself on paper while writing his next play. Cessna's Viola is just as commanding and played with a certain lightness and lyrical frisson that works particularly well. Her impersonation of the male actor Thomas Kent, a young man who is asked to portray Romeo, is a task that the actress invests with comedic bluster and panache. And when she and Dillon are given dialogue that comes directly from Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," the duo's recitation is so flawlessly delivered, one wishes these moments could be replayed on extended.


Joining them are Mauricio Miranda as Marlowe, Anthony Cochrane as Henslowe, Guisseppe Jones as De Lessops/Tilney, Andrianna Simmons as Nurse/Molly, Angela Hunt as The Queen, Matthew Antoci as Fennyman, Neil Callahan as Lambert,  Angus MacLennan as Ned, Nick Luberto as Ralph, Thalia Eddyblouin as Kate/M. Quickly, Anthony Giovino as Burbage, Justin Jager as Wessex, Jim Jiang as Peter, Alex Kosciusek as Robin, Hunter Monroe as Nol/Frees, Sean Redahan as Adam and Leone Rodriguez as Webster. Well cast by Tycer, everyone is nicely in sync with the Elizabethan setting, the Shakespearean concept, the dialogue and the play's scene by scene progression.  They are quick on their feet. They know how to play comedy. They know how to get laughs. They also give the production its pulse, its drive, its lift and its vocal adrenaline.

Technically,  this edition of "Shakespeare in Love" is pleasing to the eye with handsome period sets and moody light cues (designed by Morgan Shea and Samuel Biondollio) that enhance and illuminate the theatrical art form of the times. Brittny Mahan's costumes, a colorful mix of Elizabethan and 21st century pairings, are trendy, inventive, ambition and original. It's a designer's vision that complements the action of the play at every single turn.

At CRT, "Shakespeare in Love" is a strikingly beautiful, intelligently conceived tribute to the Bard, his plays, his heroines and his well-spoken leading men. It is a highly energetic work with wonderfully calibrated bits of drama and comedy, all used to entertaining effect under the mindful tutelage of the play's director Vincent Tycer. The cast, a combination of Equity actors and UConn drama students, have great fun with the material, particularly it's well-timed comic conventions, barbs, cross-dressing, double entendres and mistaken identities. They also give the play its necessary snap, zest and poetic verve, which here, is a task that delights and cajoles with decided relish, pulse and well-appreciated involvement.


"Shakespeare in Love" is being staged at Connecticut Repertory Theatre (Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre, 2132 Hillside Rd., Storrs, CT), now through December 8.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 486-2113.
website: crt.uconn.edu

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 226, A Review: "A Good Old Fashioned Redneck Country Christmas" (Connecticut Cabaret Theatre)


By James V. Ruocco

What does it mean to be a redneck?
Is is bad? Is it good? Is it somewhere in between?
Well, that depends.
In actuality, the term itself refers to southern stereotypes who like to drink and get drunk, drive fast cars, party hard, care nothing about putting food on the table, can't earn a decent living and don't give a rat's ass about their next-door-neighbor or whether or not they have a 74" HD television in their basement cellar.

That's just the way it is. Or is it?
Looked at objectively, is it so terrible to be a redneck?
Hell, no!
Not if you're looking for laughs or writing a bang-out-loud comedy for the stage.

In "A Good Old Fashioned Redneck Country Christmas," playwright Kristine Bauske pokes fun at redneck stereotypes and everything else that brands someone an actual redneck. Nothing derogatory. Nothing crass. Nothing mean-spirited. Nothing racist. Her take finds great humor in people who are hard-working, caring, rebellious, nutty and kind-hearted. All of this, of course, is laced with obvious comic zest, brazen exaggeration and road kill allegiance. And therein, lies its good ol' boys allure, pick-up truck bark and bite and down home tat and giggle.
All of it is intended as pure unadulterated fun.
Not high art.
Not Shakespeare.
Not Neil Simon.
Not Netflix or Walt Disney.

The story, in a nutshell, goes something like this.
In the small, rural American town of Christmas, a town located somewhere in the deep south, it's business as usual at Lou's Diner.
While getting ready for the Christmas Day festivities, Lou Wexler, Barbie Jo Fox and Darlene Fullman are steamed that their menfolk - Bill Wexler, Dave Fox and Jimmy Weaver - have taken the day off to go hunting in the mountains right in the middle of a huge snowstorm. They'd rather drink beer than listen to all that talk about holiday cheer, baked pies, gift-wrapped presents, in-laws or sitting down at the dinner table with people they'd pretty much like to avoid.
That all changes when a stranger named Mary Sue Archer arrives in town pregnant with nowhere to stay except Lou's Diner. Things go from bad to worse when right in the middle of a blizzard, Mary Sue ends up giving birth (nerdy Mark Riley - played with exceptionally timed comic aplomb by James J. Moran - is forced to play doctor) to a newborn baby in a nearby cow shed surrounded by pretty much everyone in the story. Time for a song. You betcha!


At Connecticut Cabaret Theatre, Bauske's glimpse of redneck life is given the full-tilt treatment facilitated by an awful lot of laughs, gags, double takes, spins and stretches that keep the two-act comedy afloat from start to finish.

Outrageous.
Atmospheric.
Bang-Out Silly.
Irrepressible.
Bonkers.
Mind-Blowing.

"A Good Old Fashioned Redneck Country Christmas" plies its audience with such infinitely fluid merriment, it's impossible not to succumb to its welcoming comic flourish and accompaniment, its wild sense of communal spirit and its mad-dash unraveling chaos. If you're looking for a night out, look no further than the comfy and cozy environs of Connecticut Cabaret Theatre. This is one comedy you won't want to miss.

Staging "Redneck Country Christmas," director Kris McMurray keeps things lively, fresh and home-spun with frequent doses of wickedness, imagination, surprise and kick-ass bluster. No matter what the joke or gag is, McMurray throws one more more banana peel or empty beer can at you to knock you completely on your ass from laughing so hard. Sometimes, you can see it coming. Other times, it just hits you smack in the face and you are powerless to stop it. Then again, that's the point isn't is?


What's especially fun about this production is that McMurray never once overreaches, steps out of line or asks his cast to engage in over-the-top acting that would dampen the hilarity of the piece or its well-orchestrated southern humor. Instead, he crafts a comedy that is rich in human vitality and character that amuses and delights and never once loses sight of its origins or redneck conceit and mindset. Here, everything that happens is well rehearsed and staged with a natural fluidity and respect that brings a realness and truth to the story, the dialogue and the characters. Nothing is taken for granted. Nothing is out of sync. Nothing is dumbed down or paint-by-numbers. McMurray knows exactly what he wants and he runs with it. He also brings the right rhythm, heartbeat and soul to the proceedings which makes the production resonate, sparkle and pop. Not to mention tug at your heart strings with a very happy ending that gets you ready and excited for the upcoming Christmas holidays.

"A Good Old Fashioned Redneck Country Christmas" stars Rick Bennett as Jimmy Weaver, Chris Brooks as Dave Fox, Russell Fish as Bill Wexler, Karen Gagliardi as Lou Wexler, Tracey Brown as Darlene Fullman, Jennifer Nadeau as Barbie Jo Fox, James J. Moran as Mark Riley, Dave Wall as Bob/Narrator and Maria Pompile as Mary Sue Archer.  All nine are especially gifted performers whose charm, warmth, personality and passion give the production its unifying lift, pulse, drive and free-flowing adrenaline. Under McMurray's steadfast, astute direction, each actor inhabits the role he or she is given with the right comic dash and verve that serves the material well. Everyone understands their role within the play inside out and all around. They are quick on their feet. They know how to play comedy and they play it well. They have great onstage interaction with one another. They know how to get a laugh and deliver a punchline without any form of calculation. And individually, every single one of them stands out in scenes or special moments that trust them center stage in the quirky, contained environment of a small southern town where laughter is the bill of fare along with a homemade pie right out of the oven and a cooler overflowing with ice-cold cans of beer.


In conclusion, "A Good Old Fashioned Redneck Country Christmas" is a zany, fast-paced comedy laced with spirited dashes of redneck humor, holiday cheer and festive merriment. It is good, old-fashioned fun played for laughs that keep coming at you in rapid succession. The ensemble cast, under Kris McMurray's playful direction, have great fun bringing Kristine Bauske's relatable, silly story to life. C.J. Janis delivers the sound and light cues with expert timing and precision. The atmospheric set, designed by James J. Moran, is absolutely perfect. And so are the costumes.
As holiday entertainment, the show itself has plenty of charm and giddy yap. And get this, there's a sequel waiting in the wings this spring offering more of the same charm, punch, big laughs and redneck irrelevance. 

Photos courtesy of Stu Clark 


"A Good Old Fashioned Redneck Country Christmas" is being staged at (Connecticut Cabaret Theatre, 31 Webster Square Rd., Berlin, CT), now through December 21.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 829-1248.
website: ctcabaret.com.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 225, A Review: "Rudolph" (Downtown Cabaret Theatre)



By James V. Ruocco

Per tradition, Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer, a 20th century creature created by Robert Lewis May, is the ninth and youngest member of Santa Claus's reindeer who uses his luminous, bright red nose to guide Santa's sleigh through the wintry skies above from city to city on Christmas Eve alongside his trusty reindeer team to bring presents and holiday cheer to children everywhere.

Without him, Christmas would probably come to a crashing halt, Dasher, Prancer, Cupid and Vixen, among others, would be jobless in the North Pole and Santa Claus would be surrounded by heaps and heaps of undelivered presents that would have to be stored in the holiday vault by very unhappy elves until the following year.

In  "Rudolph," a new play written by Phill Hill, America's best-loved reindeer is faced with yet another crashing blow prior to Christmas Day - a huge snowstorm in the North Pole threatens to cancel Santa's big night unless you-know-who and his shiny, bright nose can lead the sleigh through icy, snowy, uncharted skies and overcome impossible odds with the help of his fellow reindeer.


Not to worry, though.
At Downtown Cabaret Theatre, Hill's spin on "Rudolph" ends happily, of course.
But not before, it teases and taunts, excites and cajoles and gets you all pumped-up for Christmas presents, Christmas goodies and Christmas memories about that lovable reindeer and his trusty sidekicks who braved the storm and made Christmas happen for boys and girls all over the world.

As storyteller, Hill brings an old-fashioned charm to the familiar Rudolph story that is engaging, cheerful and sugar-coated. With nothing on his mind except to entertain, Hill's conceit is straightforward, delightful and chock full of sight gags, shenanigans, wildly funny jokes, actor-audience interaction, yuletide anecdotes and colorful characterizations. He also has the right mindset and finesse for this type of play which he colors and outlines effortlessly for both the children and adults in the crowd.


This Children's Theatre production of "Rudolph" is being staged and choreographed by Frank Root, a clever and savvy director who takes hold of the "Rudolph" play text and basks in the cherry uplift of the story, its sunny familiarity, its sentiment, its humor, its up-to-date message about fitting in and its inhabited community immediacy. As "Rudolph" evolves, the comic and musical elements of the story float easily from scene to scene and song to song in light, agreeable fashion that serves the material well. Dance wise, Root's choreography is holiday-tinged and featherweight with a nostalgic, synchronized feel and jingle-jangle that's crisp, intuitive, upbeat and whimsical. The cast has great fun with Root's dance steps, patterns and movements, some of which take their cue from 60's and 70's television variety shows. Admittedly, it's a win-win situation for all.

The musical score for "Rudolph" is comprised of eight thoroughly engaging songs that are strategically placed throughout the story, popping up here, there and everywhere whenever the characters feel the urge to break out in song and let their feelings be known to all the smiling faces out there in the dark. They are "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," "Don't Stop Me Now," "Run Run Away," "Fly Away," "Movin' on Up," "Danger Zone," "Holding Out for a Hero" and "Run Rudolph Run." Playful, spirited and imbued with just the right amount of peppermint cheer and good will, the songs themselves add a fresh twist to the "Rudolph" tale that never falters for a moment. All six cast members are in fine voice - never once missing a single beat - as musical director Aron Smith creates a fun, holiday party atmosphere and sound that unfolds in remarkably consistent ways, offset by an artist ownership and pulse that complements the musicality of the individual songs and their intended meanings, themes and undercurrents.



"Rudolph" stars Jason Parry as Rudolph, Andrea Pane as Jingles, Sara Winant as Cupid, Kaylin Weller as Prancer, Lauren Bell as Dasher and Madeleine Tommins as Vixen. All six are especially talented performers whose charm, warmth, personality and actor/audience showmanship give the production its unifying lift, spirit, sugar plum magic and yuletide adrenaline. As envisioned by Hill, "Rudolph" allows each actor to inhabit the role he or she is given, take hold of it, shape and mold it, give it voice (here, everyone adapts a childlike voice that works especially well) and illuminate its veracity through dialogue, song and dance that's exhibited with refreshing honesty and storybook brio. They are quick on their feet. They have great fun gliding from scene to scene. They have great onstage interaction with one another. When the script calls for it, they also interact with the audience most engagingly never loosing sight of their colorful characterizations, the evolution of the "Rudolph" story and the show's lively, impromptu improvisational moments which change from performance to performance depending on the kids and the adults in the audience.

That said, "Rudolph" is a sweet, enjoyable entertainment for kids and adults of all different ages. It is well performed by its engaging cast of six. The story, written by Phill Hill, is easy to follow and includes lots of fun facts about Christmas, Santa Claus and reindeer that even the youngest of kids will be able to enjoy without  any narration or explanation from their parents. It teaches us that what makes someone different or stand out can be extra special. It is chock full of peppy songs and important character values. And finally, it's the right kind of holiday yarn to get everyone excited for Christmas Eve.


"Rudolph" is being staged at Downtown Cabaret Theatre (263 Golden Hill St., Bridgeport, CT), now through December 29.
For tickets for more information, call (203) 576-1636
website: dtcab.com

Saturday, November 16, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 224, A Review: "Don Juan" (Westport Country Playhouse)


By James V. Ruocco

As reinvented by playwright Brendan Pelsue, there's a fleet-footed charm and rangy cleverness to his modern day telling of Moliere's 1665 play "Don Juan" that's ironic, sleazy, frantic and fearless. In every way, it's off-the-cuff entertainment, crazily amped up with oozes of hysterical slapstick, tottering spliff, mounting pranks, blustery condemnation and several what-the-hell-was-that kind of moment's that include Don Juan's manservant Sganarelle wiping his master's ass (thrusted right up in the air for a thorough cleaning) after defecation in the bathroom.

Nonetheless, the character of Don Juan is still a feckless womanizer obsessed with the taste of female flesh. He's also decadent, narcissistic, privileged, complicated, liberated and oddly detached in much the same manner as first portrayed in the original work by the great Jean-Baptiste Moliere. Old school ideas also meet new ideas this time round when Don Juan finds himself lip-locked with a very attractive man in the woods. No sex, mind you, just a very hot, wet kiss, meant to shock, titillate or surprise, depending on one's sexual lifestyle, orientation or beliefs.


Pelsue's fascination with the title character and his wild romantic misadventures is cunningly usurped in Westport Country Playhouse's rampant telling of "Don Juan," which sizzles with wicked glee, shameless exploitation and open-mouthed sensationalism. This "Don Juan" is imaginatively wired and radical. It is savage and hilariously disgraceful. It is well-heeled and oiled. It is also tawdry, out there with the stars and planets and very much in the moment.

The two-act comedy chronicles the last two days in the life of Don Juan, an atheist and libertine who mocks the Church and in the end, is taken into Hell by the living statue of the man killed in a duel. But before he meets his untimely doom, he is accompanied on his daily adventures by his trusty valet Sganarelle, a superstitious, cowardly fellow who stands by his master's side and playfully engages in the conversations, debates, power plays and craziness set forth by the masterly, oversexed courtier.

Orignally performed at the Theatre du Palais-Royal on February 15, 1665 with Moliere playing the past of Sganarelle, "Don Juan," written in prose, was quickly withdrawn from public performance following a two-week run after attacks by the playwright's critics who claimed the production offended religion and the king by eulogizing a libertine. It was critical and costly failure.


In Westport, "Don Juan" is being staged by David Kennedy whose directorial credits include "The Understudy," "The Invisible Hand," "Tartuffe," "Suddenly Last Summer," "Appropriate" and "Loot." A savvy director and storyteller, Kennedy is keenly attuned to Moliere's commedia dell-arte influences, his social satire principals and decorum, his barbed sarcasm against the Church, the hypocrisies of his thoroughly messed up characters and the playwright's love of language. That said, he crafts a perfectly valid theatrical piece that offers a radical new take on Moliere's "Don Juan" and comes across loud and clear with nothing on its mind except to provoke, entertain and slap you in the face once or twice.
As "Don Juan" evolves, Kennedy ventilates the new version's story conceit with appropriate awareness, pampered idiocy, giddy jumbling, brash gobbledygook and glorious sexuality. Despite the play's modernism, this is still recognizably Moliere in all its plot contrivances, stances, paces, religious hypocrisies and character developments. It dances to its own drum beat. It teases and taunts. It manipulates and stirs. It rips and roars. It jokes and shocks. It gets under your skins and tosses you about like a scorned lover.


With comedy as the main focal point, pacing - the right kind of pacing - is mandatory in order for "Don Juan" to take shape, cast its spell and work its magic. Without it, the play would come to a crashing halt.  A clever manipulator of sorts, Kennedy never lets that happen. He brings his own rhythmic beat to the production. He knows how to play comedy and he plays it well. He knows how to build a laugh or punchline, when to take a breath and when to  modulate into wild action. Everything is carefully thought out, timed and released with plenty of imagination, bravado, erupting energy and confidence.

In the title role of Don Juan, Nick Westrate quickly succumbs to the tawdry titillation of the play text and crafts a very amusing, well-paced character portrait of a shallow, narcissistic human being that is bracing, brutal, sexy, decadent and in your face. Bhavesh Patel's Sganarelle is funny, crazy and charming, played with a scene-stealing flourish and mischief that is very much Jean-Baptiste Moliere.

Carson Elrod, as Pierrot, totters around with a spastic gait, manner and conversational anxiousness that is exactly right for his character, peppered with frequent flights of sitcom hysteria and pent-up angst that make his every moment on stage a Molerian knockabout, puffed-up treat. Ariana Venturi, Suzy Jane Hunt and Claudia Logan, cast in the roles of Charlotte, Dona Elvira and Mathurine, each contribute to the merriment at hand with chatter, feeling, inspiration, interaction and naughtiness that piques interest throughout the production.


Technically, "Don Juan" has its standouts. The set design by Marsha Ginsberg, which includes bright colored lime green walls, a coke vending machine, heaps of plastic bags of trash, a leather sofa, among other things, is both colorful and abstract. Katherine Roth's modern-dress costumes are playful, hip, outrageous and cavalier and perfectly in sync with the mindset of the various characters who wear them.

Funny, farcical, odd and quirky, Brendan Pelsue's modern day take on "Don Juan" basks in its own narcissistic madness with foppish delight. It's a sugar rush of frenetic energy, played entirely for laughs by a crazy and wonderful cast who quickly succumb to the play's freely interpreted silliness and unquenchable heartache and pathos. If Moliere's your thing, prepare to be seduced by clownish gags, visually addictive engagements and dialogue chock full of mirth, wisecracks and weltered grandstanding. With David Kennedy pulling the strings, things are broad, pumped-up and frivolous. Humor is everything here and this "Don Juan" delivers the laughs, clearly relishing every quirk, tear and knock, reveling in all the liberties taken here.


Photos of "Don Juan" courtesy of Carol Rosegg

"Don Juan" is being staged at Westport Country Playhouse (25 Powers Court, Westport, CT), now through November 23.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 227-4177.
website: westportplayhouse.org

Thursday, November 14, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 223, A Review: "Hello, Dolly!" (The Bushnell)


By James V. Ruocco

It's everything you'd expect and so much more.
It's luminous and crafty.
It's bright and bouncy.
It's frivolous and snappy.
It's sinfully sweet and ice-cream shop flavorful.
It's a welcome return to the heyday of the big, old-fashioned Broadway musical.
It's a colorful journey back in time to the Victorian world of late 19th century America.
It sparkles and illuminates.
It sings and dances with the feel-good vitality and chutzpah it is famous for.
It has the winning charm of a long lost friend reunited.
It's a delightful uplift and spit-spot sugar rush.
And finally, it's just what the world needs right now.

That said, there's also something magically dreamlike and wistful about "Hello, Dolly!" the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical that kicks romance, legend, courting and first love into high gear with an embodied sentiment and engagement that's as grand and extraordinary as this musical take on Thornton Wilder's "The Matchmaker" was meant to be. On tour through May, 2020, this elegant, freshly minted touring edition of the hit Jerry Herman musical (the first tour ended its run at Boston's Opera House on August 25) is brand-spanking new (it officially kicked off September 24 at the Starlight Theatre in Kansas City, Missouri), carrying with it a shine, pulse and glimmer that passionately reflects its flush and bloom, the excitement of a new cast headed by Carolee Carmello and John Bolton and a storytelling bravado that twinkles and delights in high-stepping, energetic fashion.


Taking its cue from Wilder's original story, the musical, penned by Michael Stewart, travels the same route as the original 1954 play. As "Hello, Dolly!" opens, matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi takes the train to Yonkers to find a suitable partner for Horace Vandergelder, an esteemed, half-a-millionaire looking to remarry. She, of course, plans on marrying Vandergelder herself. But before she sets her plan (i.e., trap) in motion, she travels back to New York accompanied by Vandergelder's sniveling niece Ermengarde, her intended suitor Ambrose Kemper and two of Vandergelder's Hay and Feed Store employees Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker with promises of advenure, money, romance, fancy dinners and sightseeing. Upon arrival, she fixes up Vandergelder's hapless, lovesick clerks with Irene Malloy, the attractive hat shop owner he has been officially courting (Dolly, of course, arranged the match) and giggly Minnie Fay, her shop assistant, who, like Hackl and Tucker, is just as inexperienced when it comes to good, old-fashioned love and romance.

Not to worry, though.
Though song, dance, dialogue, comedy, drama and cotton candy goodness, things end up on a very high note.
Dolly gets Vandergelder. Cornelius and Barnaby become merrily entwined with Irene and Minnie. And Ermengarde and Ambrose live happily ever after.


This glorious revival is being staged by Jerry Zaks who directed the 2017 production and the subsequent 2018-2019 first national tour that starred the extraordinary Betty Buckley in the lead role of Dolly Levi, a part she played and inhabited in the most amazing of ways using a polished spin and luster that gave the musical its heart, its soul, its passion and its sweet-natured intimacy and sparkle. Back in the director's chair for the 2019-2020 second touring edition of  "Hello, Dolly," Zaks
leads his new cast to victory using the same bubbly charm, earnestness and comic shuffle he brought to the previous two productions, firmly rooted in the classic spectacle, the comforting embracement and the harmonic complexity the show is famous for.

As director, Zaks pulls out all the stops and punches with a flair and flourish of fresh paint and vigor that is pure tonic for both everyone on stage and in the audience. This is "Hello, Dolly!" for a 21st century audience. Not a postcard replica or imitation of the "Dolly" of yesteryear. Nor it is an homage to the leading ladies of the past who gave it life - Carol Channing, Ginger Rogers, Pearl Bailey, Betty Grable, Ethel Merman, among them. Instead, it is reinvented and reworked by Zaks with a savvy mentality and repositioned grin and consciousness that incorporates many elements of Thornton Wilder's "The Matchmaker" back into the framework of the story, thus, breaking new ground for the characters, the original Michael Stewart book and its scene-by-scene conversational and musical evolution. It's funnier. It's tighter. It pulsates with enthusiasm and relevance. It's feel-good factor is truly uplifting. It doesn't waste a single breath, emotion, dance step or lyric. With Zaks pulling the strings, it is also fresh, lush and every inch what you'd expect from an epic Broadway musical with a very colorful past and much-ballyhooed history.


With music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, the celebrated musical score for "Hello, Dolly!" features 17 original musical numbers reflective of the 1890's period of the show's setting and the blueprint set forth by Thornton Wilder in his 1954 play "The Matchmaker," which is the basis for the two-act musical. They are: "I Put My Hand In," "It Takes a Woman," "Put on Your Sunday Clothes," "Ribbons Down My Back," "Motherhood," "Dancing," "Before the Parade Passes By," "Penny in My Pocket," "Elegance," "The Waiter's Gallop," "Hello, Dolly!" "The Contest," "It Only Takes a Moment," "So Long Dearie," "Hello, Dolly! (Reprise)" and "Finale."

As penned by Herman, the songs for "Hello, Dolly!" - a richly textured patchwork of clean, pure melodies chock full of loud, proud, clear emotions and full-hearted optimism -  bristle with the familiar snap, crack, flavor and pop the composer/lyricist is famous for. They are creative, sunny and lyrical with an ever-pleasing sound that is moving, simplistic, romantic and invigorating. It's all very much inspired for the characters who sing them - leads, supporting characters and ensemble - and fits harmoniously into the framework of the story, its evolution, its very happy ending. Horace Vandergelder's big solo number "Penny in My Pocket," which was composed exclusively for David Burns in the original 1964 Broadway production but cut for time purposes, has been restored to its rightful place at the opening of Act II (the 2017 Broadway revival used it first), where it kicks the story into high gear with its musical freshness, comic gaiety and lyrical verve.


Throughout "Hello, Dolly!" Herman's lyrics - witty, pungent, driven, sweet, intricate -  mixed seamlessly with the composer's effervescent, unpretentious, tuneful music, give the production its sonic, rhythmic musicality. Musical director Ben Whiteley and his tremendously talented orchestral team tackle the popular musical score with the breezy, persuasive and expressive swagger and lilt it demands, offset by a mercurial freshness and melancholy mixed with a vibrant energy, zest and love in every bar. Even if you've heard the music of  "Hello, Dolly!" before, it doesn't really matter. Whiteley and company make it sound, brand-spanking new. It's a partnership that is bold and bright with an alertness and impulse that reflects the sounds, textures and tonality set forth by Herman. The playing itself is dispatched in spectacular fashion. It glides and soars. It is super confident and joyous. It is honeyed and stirring. There's so much to savor in Whiteley's articulation and dynamic, you eagerly go along for the ride, enjoying every single moment - "Put on Your Sunday Clothes," "Hello, Dolly!" "Before the Parade Passes By," "It Only Takes a Moment," to name a few - while humming along quietly as the entire "Hello, Dolly!"  cast - all enthusiastic and in very fine voice - delight and cajole as the two-act musical whirls and twirls toward it's cheery, cheeky, much-anticipated happy ending.


Much of the success of any big stage musical hinges on the choreography and "Hello, Dolly!" flies through the starting gate with lively, kinetic, harnessed dancing that is chock full of imagination, charm, lift and manner that mixes theatricality, color and late 19th century mindset with comfort, thrill and oozing confidence. As shaped by Warren Carlyle who helmed the choreographic wonderment of the 2017 Broadway edition, it dazzles and pops, bounces and soars and whiz-bangs and delights in the most resonant and magical ways an audience could wish for.

"Put on Your Sunday Clothes."
"The Waiter's Gallop."
"Hello, Dolly!"
"Dancing."
"I Put My Hand In."
"Before the Parade Passes by."
"Elegance."

From one big musical number to the next, Carlyle raises the roof, so to speak, using the simplicity and gusto reflective, in part, of the original dance work of Gower Champion, mixed with the "flash-bang-wallop, what a picture, what a photograph" nostalgia of  London's "Half a Sixpence" and a reawakened, Victorian pop-up-book stylization and class-conscious period shimmer that serves the material well as it glimmers and shines with tour de force validity and perspective. Not one to rest on his laurels, Carlyle also adds much more dancing and invigorating movement to many of the production numbers using reworked and extended orchestrations that are aesthetically pleasing, transformative and interpreted with playful dashes of bright sunshine, fully committed artistry and high-packed kicks, hops and flutter that snap into place effortlessly.


It's a role she was born to play and play it she does. As Dolly Gallagher Levi, Carolee Carmello offers her own personal spin on the much-loved character, offering a showstopping performance that is very different in style and tone from others who have played the part before her. She's a class act with one of the most beautiful voices ever who takes hold of the material and moves from scene to scene and song to song with the confidence, charm, polish and gait of a Broadway leading lady whose star burns bright from the moment she steps on stage right on through the final curtain call.  She bristles. She shines, She pops. She sparkles. She enthralls. She makes the part her own and never lets go.

John Bolton is the right and proper fit for the blustery, chauvinistic Horace Vandergelder who wants a wife "all powered and pink" and ends up with the forceful but loveable matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi instead. His vaudevillian charm, quick-mannered comic timing and confident embracement of  the "Hello, Dolly!" play text wins us over immediately as does his hilarious and joyous rendition of "Penny in My Pocket" at the start of Act II. As Horace Vandergelder's perplexed and tyrannized Hay and Feed Store clerks Barnaby Tucker and Cornelius Hackl, Sean Burns and Daniel Beeman cut loose with dance moves that dazzle, snap and pop, comedy shtick that is ripe and cleverly orchestrated and pitch-perfect singing that comes straight from the heart. They are so charismatic and engaging, one eagerly their every entrance.


Analisa Leaming, in the role of the beautiful New York City milliner Irene Malloy is completely captivating in a part well suited for her splendid acting and vocal talents. As "Hello Dolly!" evolves, she deftly projects the girlish glee and Victorian refinement associated with her character. As Minnie Fay, Chelsea Cree Groen is zany, sweet, bubbly, giggly and featherweight, which is exactly what the past calls for. In the roles of Ambrose Kemper and Ermengarde, the tremendously talented Laura Sky Herman and Colin LeMoine are ideally matched as a very cute 19th century couple who love to sing, love to dance and love to interact with just about everyone else on stage.

Energetic, irresistible and completely high-spirited, the national touring company of "Hello Dolly!" amazes at ever single turn. Everything about it is on fire from Carolee Carmello's showstopping turn as Dolly Gallagher Levi to Jerry Herman's infectious musical score, the dancing, the candy-coated sets and costumes designed by Santo Loquasto and every single person who steps forth on the grand, welcoming Bushnell stage to reenact the playful nostalgia and merriment of this high-stepping old fashioned musical. Watching it unfold in glorious vintage Technicolor, its charm and newness is so engaging, you wish it would never end. That said, it's not only nice to have Dolly back in town, but this is one of those musicals where you wish there was a "Replay" button that you could hit immediately after the final curtain call and watch the whole thing all over again. You won't be alone...not by a long shot.


Photos of "Hello, Dolly!" courtesy of Julieta Cervantes

"Hello, Dolly!" is being staged at The Bushnell (166 Capitol Avenue, Hartford, CT), now through November 17.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 987-5900.
website: bushnell.org.

Monday, November 11, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 222, A Review: "Admissions" (Square One Theatre Company)


By James V. Ruocco

Robert Thomas Halliwell as Charlie Luther Mason.

Janet Rathert as Sherri Rosen-Mason.

Pat Leo as Bill Mason.

Lucy Babbitt as Ginnie Peters.

Ruth Ann Baumgartner as Roberta.

At Square One Theatre Company, these five performers expose the racial pieties, the self-mockery
of the upper middle-class, the pomp and psychosis associated with parenting and the underlying discrimination that robs a privileged white youth of his rightful college placement at a prestigious university in Joshua Harmon's "Admissions," a fascinating work of angst, heated appeal, ethical grandstanding and identifiable vigor that rocks the senses and shakes you up in all the right ways imaginable.

Biting.
Satisfying.
Smart.
Raw.
Pent-Up.
Confident.

This is a play with insights, intentions, observations and histrionics that hit hard and fast in showstopping, up close, in-your-face style, matched by intelligently-written dialogue, passionate monologues, clever one-liners and well-constructed characterizations.


As penned by Harmon, "Admissions" deals openly with the prickly points, factors and criticisms associated with fact-based acceptance policies at prep schools and elite universities, which, in this play is Yale University. Shortly after the play opens, Hillcrest prep school student Charlie Luther Mason learns that his best friend Perry, whose father is black and mother is white, got accepted into Yale. Charlie, in turn, received a standard deferral letter that not only pissed him off, but forced him to run off and scream loudly and madly in the woods for four hours before facing his overly concerned parents and launching an uncontrollable tirade of hurt, frustration and major disappointment.

Is this right?
Is this wrong?
Was Charlie purposely snubbed by Yale because of the color of his skin and his posh familial privilege?
Is he not entitled to speak his mind and throw his fate into reactionary waters?

What follows sets the tone for this amazing piece of stagecraft that is full of rage, full of dare, full of surprise, full of truth, full of excitement and believe it or not, full of humor. It is one of those works that prompts lots to talk and lots to think about over drinks and dinner at your favorite pub or high-end restaurant, but not before grabbing you by the throat, leaving you emotionally drained or making you want to get up off your seat to shake Charlie's hand and tell everyone else to "Shut up" or "Fuck off."



At Square One Theatre Company, "Admissions" is being staged by Tom Holehan whose directorial credits include "The God Game," "White Guy On A Bus," "The Normal Heart," "A Walk in the Woods" and "Clever Little Lies." Always looking for something new and challenging, Holehan crafts a dramatic, full-bodied work of tremendous power and weight that is sharp, perceptive and provocative as it tackles the playwright's central arguments and questions about white privilege, racial prejudice, access and opportunity, acceptance, favoritism and diversity. Throughout the 90-minute play, which is performed without an intermission, there is a pulse and immediacy that blisters with conviction and purpose. Holehan respects and understands the playwright's character-driven dialogue, his impeccably timed page-by-page scene rota, his sanctimonious power plays, his lengthy monologues and his booming characterizations. He knows what he wants and how to play it. He never once oversteps or jumps out of bounds. He also gives this production of "Admissions" a hypnotic allure and vigor that heightens its importance and drives the message home.

Timing and pacing is mandatory in a work of this nature and Holehan dives in and creates a workable, involved blueprint that is fast, fluid, and meaningful and gets the pulses racing. As "Admissions" evolves, he doesn't waste a single second. He is very precise and detail-oriented when moving his cast of five through the paces of the play's raging storms, domestic pathos, playful humor, hysteria, straightforward panache and calibrated chaos. It's all incredibly timed and positioned with a natural feel and grace that complements and augments the conceit of the piece as envisioned by the playwright. Through Holehan's eyes, it is also a timely and conscious story ripped from today's headlines.


Here, as in other plays he has directed, Holehan has assembled the perfect cast to bring "Admissions" to life. Yes, they are actors. Yes, everything they say and do is rehearsed. Regardless, all five work splendidly together, individually, in pairs, in threes and as a unified ensemble. They connect with the story, their particular character and their role in the progression of the drama. Under Holehan's expert tutelage, they not only inhabit each and every one of their roles with thrilling conviction, but look and act as if they were plucked out of some elite prep school and social environment and brought to Stratford to perform in a play. 

Last seen as Sky the fiancee of Sophie Sheridan in Downtown Cabaret Theatre's captivating  produiction of "Mamma Mia," where he displayed tremendous musicality in the oft-produced musical, Robert Thomas Halliwell, as the frustrated and angered Charlie Luther Mason, takes center stage at Square One Theatre Company and gives one of the most riveting dramatic performances of the 2019 season. As an actor, he's an original, raw talent who tackles his character's tirades, outbursts, mood swings and off-the-cuff madness with amazing realness, passion and emotion that is well timed, well played and well orchestrated. Using the right timing and mindset, he delivers an edgy 17-minute hysterical rant about blatant discrimination that is very much in the moment. From an acting standpoint, it is delivered with spellbinding intensity in every regard and well worthy of a standing ovation or two.

As Charlie's mother Sherri Rosen-Mason, the head of the Admissions Department at Hillcrest, Janet Rathert is a versatile, intelligent, passionate actress who does first-rate work here on every dramatic and emotional level. It's a part she plays impeccably and beautifully and one that is completely in sync with the anguish, frustration and determination set forth by the playwright for how the character is to be portrayed. In the role of Charlie's father Bill Mason, the headmaster at Hillcrest, Pat Leo digs deep into the psyche of his character and brings emotional weight and purpose to every one of his scenes. It's a rich character turn that allows Mason to play a variety of different emotions - concern, amazement, anger, surprise, bafflement - while using Harmon's heated, humorous and potent dialgoue to back up his very polished performance.


Ruth Anne Baumgartner is such a natural fit for the role of Roberta, one wonders which prep school or university Holehan plucked her from to appear in his production. Choate? Yale? Greenwich Academy? St. Lukes? Admittedly, this is her calling. As the devoted, long-time Hillcrest employee working on the develoment of the school's new admissions catalogue with Charlie's mother, she knows the part inside out, frontwards, backwards, hook, line and sinker. She is confident and focused in every one of her scenes which often push her character at wit's end, a frazzled reaction and condition that she plays magnificently. As Perry's proud mother, Ginnie Peters, Lucy Babbitt delivers a solid, centered emotional performance that comes straight from the hip in every possible way. She is at her emotional peak when she cries white privilege and questions why her mixed race husband isn't given the same opportunity for job advancement as someone who is white.

One of the best plays to be staged by Square One Theatre Company this year, Joshua Harmon's "Admissions" is an edgy, timely, persuasive and gripping theatrical piece of real depth that is acted throughout with the right combination of tension, vulnerability and angst by its five-member cast under Tom Holehan's provocative, intense direction. It is a play that reverberates with acidity, heat, heartbreak, hypocrisy and pain. Its arguments and confrontations are fiery and crushing. Its emotional connection to liberal power plays and privileged familial influence is entirely truthful. Its intellectual dynamic gets you angered and excited. And finally, it's a play that delves completely into its tongue-wagging paradox with fueled vigor and imagination using a creative input and theatrical savvy that hits the right chord at every single unadulterated turn.


"Admissions" is being staged at Square One Theatre Company (Stratford Academy, 719 Birdseye St., Stratford, CT), now through November 24.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 375-8778.
website: squareonetheatre.com