Tuesday, February 12, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 134, A Review: "Good Faith: Four Chats About Race and the New Haven Fire Department" " (Yale Repertory Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

" 'Good Faith' is inspired by the landmark labor case Ricci v. De Stefano, which wound its way through the federal court system all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the majority ruled in 2009 that the City of New Haven has violated the civil rights of a group of firefighters whose promotion test results the City had discarded as having disparate impact on candidates of color. The Court's decision impacted labor laws across the nation, and still echoes in our own community today."
(James Bundy, Artistic Director, Yale Repertory Theatre)

And so, the test on race, discrimination and other matters ensues in Karen Hartman's talky, two-act drama "Good Faith," a complicated, absorbing work that attempts to understand the Ricci v. De Stefano U.S. Supreme Court case, its key players, the actual promotion testing strategies of the New Haven firefighters, its ramifications, the worthiness of the job applicant's status and the various conversations, testimonies and meetings that resulted from the unrest and racial disparity of all parties involved.

Penning "Good Faith" as an actual theatrical piece, Hartman (using the character of the Writer as the play's mouthpiece) questions the abstractions raised by the case, its social injustice, its impact, its inequality and its effect in present day society.  Moreover, what is fair and what is just. Her goal, of course, is to get people thinking about the the city of New Haven, its history, its square miles, it population, its venues, its eateries, its schools, its culture, etc. She also wants people to understand the role of the New Haven firefighter, his day-today interactions, his risk taking, his goals and his leadership.

Her play is also peppered with inside jokes about New Haven, Yale Rep, the Greek Olive and Yale University, the renowned institution where she still owes money. Elsewhere, she delves wholeheartedly into  the creative process of writing a play that audiences may or may not get and how it was important, whenever possible to stick to the facts of Ricci v. DeStefano, using real-life documentation and dialogue, the latter compiled from one-on-one interviews with some of the key figures involved.

As "Good Faith"  evolves, it's obvious that Hartman has a clear sense of the entire picture and framework, its cracks, its fissures, its rambling undercurrents and its unifying message. Some may argue this point. Some may scoff and shake their head in disbelief. But this is a play - not a history class.

"Good Faith" is being staged by Tony Award-winning director Kenny Leon whose credits include "A Raisin in the Sun," "Fences," Children of a Lesser God," "American Son," "Hairspray Live!" "Gem of the Ocean" and "Smart People." As director, Leon is closely attuned to the play's docudrama theories, conversations, events, interviews, meetings, prejudices, judgments, debates, litigations and policies. He is also aware that the piece, as dictated by the playwright from real conversations, doesn't have all the answers, doesn't get all of the facts straight or right and often takes liberties with the material in its finished, reconfigured theatrical form.

Regardless, Leon crafts a personal, in-your-face drama that gets under your skin, makes you think, toys with your senses and asks you to examine and re-examine your own personal beliefs. Like Hartman, he doesn't purport to have all the answers. Instead, he simply asks you to pay attention, listen closely to the playwright's very talky exposition and in the end, agree or disagree as you draw and evaluate your own conclusions.

What matters here, of course, is the drama unleashed by Hartman.On that level, Leon succeeds swimmingly. As the story takes shape, the fluency of his expressiveness pushes the action forward without hesitation or calculation. Molding the piece, he always knows what buttons to push, what to emphasize, what to highlight in yellow magic marker, when to hold back, when to entice and excite and more importantly, how to keep the play's combatant undercurrents cracking.

The two-act drama stars Laura Heisler as the Writer, Billy Eugene Jones as Mike Briscoe, Ian Bedford as Frank Ricci and others, Rene Augesen as Karen Lee Torre and others and Rob Demery as Tyrone Ewing and others. Under the direct, conscious tutelage of Leon, the performances of all five actors, some of whom play multiple roles, are crisp, fluent and persuasive. It's a treat to watch them inhabit every one of their roles with amazing vigor and pertinent staying power. Clearly, they relish every moment they are on stage tackling Hartman's dialogue with real, raw, nuanced perfection.

Given the logistics of the piece, Leon creates an atmosphere that is strong and absorbing and at times, not without humor. In turn, the actors are asked to shift gears like graduate students in a Yale School of Drama class, which they do most agreeably. The trick, of course, is to keep everyone focused and not  allow the audience to see the wheels turning as they go through the entire process of reenacting "Good Faith" under Leon's watchful eye. It's a feast of sorts and one that registers their eclectic acting range with astonishing clarity.

Technically, "Good Faith" includes an impressive, vast set, designed in black and fire engine red by Stephanie Osin Cohen and a cohesive sound and light palate by Kathryn Ruvuna and Stephen Strawbridge. There's also some interesting, atmospheric projections devised by Zachary Borovay and  serviceable wardrobing for each of the actors, smartly envisioned by costume designer Beatrice Vena.

"Good Faith: Four Chats About Race and the New Haven Fire Department " is a brave, inspired new work that speaks to all of us. It is involved and passionate. Its conversations are well-rehearsed. The issues it resonates stimulates in true theatrical fashion. The performances realistically mirror the real life people, which they are based upon. And when it's over, the subject matter lingers - and well it should.

"Good Faith" is being staged at Yale Repertory Theatre (1120 Chapel St., New Haven, CT), now through February 23.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 432-1234.
website: yalerep.org

Monday, February 11, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 133, A Review: Broadway Method Academy Presents "Annie" (Westport Country Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco

The infectuous vitality of the Broadway Method Academy students alongside dazzling Equity performers is the big draw in BMA's bright, energetic and colorful revival of "Annie," that ever popular 1970's musical where the sun always comes out tomorrow, dreams can and actually do happen and the characters of Depression-era America have a catchy charm about them despite the poverty, the politics and the injustices of the times.


This "Annie" is a great work of ferocious entertainment that amuses, cajoles, excites and leaves you clapping madly till your hand hurts.

Did you expect otherwise?
Of course, not.

Helmed under the prestigious Broadway Method Academy banner, this production has all the hallmarks of a great night of musical theater from catchy songs and high paced dance numbers to exceptional performances from kids, teens and adults and a finely-honed production team of creative talents that will knock your socks off.

And, oh, yes, there's that dog named Sandy, played by a lovable canine named Sunny, who, under the guidance of animal director and trainer William Berloni, gets my vote as the best Sandy ever. And I mean, "ever."

"Annie" is being directed by Connor Deane whose BMA credits include "Hair," "Carousel," "Little Shop of Horrors," "The Music Man" and last year's exhilarating production of "Evita." Up close, Deane personifies everything that's great about musical theater. He knows what works and what doesn't. He knows how to cast a show. He knows how to create a catchy build with plenty of flourish and momentum. He's an absolute creator of sorts with a wealth of information, knowledge and technique at his fingertips. He also comes to the rehearsal hall and performance space with the confidence and showmanship of a virtuosic storyteller anxious to craft the best and cleverest production to ever hit the stage.

With "Annie," he accomplishes just that.
Deane's take on "Annie," the musical story of a plucky, red-headed, eleven-year-old orphan who ends up living in the Warbucks Mansion on Fifth Avenue as the adoptive daughter of Oliver Warbucks, is direct, electric and virtuous. And while the story takes its cue, in part, from those every-popular comic strips, there is nothing one-note or predictable about this "Annie." Instead, Deane opts for a more rewarding, believable take on the "Annie" scenario, enhanced by straightforward storytelling, refreshing intimacy, cheeky humor and lilting musicality.

Here, as in "Evita," his staging techniques are thrilling, inspired, confident and enthusiastic. Everything he touches, creates and shapes justifiably reflects the intentions of Thomas Meehan's cleverly orchestrated book for the original 1977 Broadway production of "Annie" and its inspired lunacy, shtick, double takes, mayhem, characterizations and period jokes. Every actor's move, gesture, position, nuance and line delivery is spontaneous, crafty and light-hearted.  Nothing that happens is ever questioned, out of place or out of sync for a single second. There are wonderfully timed bits of stagecraft and blocking that enhance the storytelling. Everything that happens is spontaneous and natural. And that, in turn, keeps this "Annie" in marvelous, high-spirited form.

Based upon Harold Gray's popular 1924 comic strip "Little Orphan Annie," the two-act musical features 21 Tony Award-winning songs, written by Martin Charnin (lyrics) and Charles Strouse (music). They are  "Maybe," "It's a Hard Knock Life," "It's a Hard Knock Life (Reprise)," "Tomorrow," "We'd Like to Thank You," "Little Girls," "Little Girls (Reprise)," "I Think I'm Gonna  Like It Here," "NYC," "Easy Street," "You Won't Be an Orphan For Long," "Maybe" (Reprise)," "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile," "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile (Reprise)," "Easy Street" (Reprise)," "Tomorrow (Reprise)," "Something Was Missing," "Annie," "I Don't Need Anything But You," "Maybe (Reprise)," "A New Deal For Christmas."

Punctuated with the lyrical magic that Charnin and Strouse strove so very hard to create, the "Annie" musical score is delightful, inspiring, high-spirited, tuneful and cheerful. All of the musical numbers are perfectly positioned within the framework of the actual story. Nothing is thrown in or out of place. Every musical moment heightens the story's advancement and appeal. And finally, the songs themselves are so very right for the characters who sing them.

Music direction for the Broadway Method Academy production of "Annie" has fallen into the more than capable hands of J. Scott Handley and Jad Bernardo, a very assured and talented musical duo whose combined credits include "Hair," "Carousel," "Into the Woods," "Five Guys Named Moe," "Ain't Misbehavin,' " Carrie: The Musical," "Urinetown," "Ragtime," "Little Women" and "Spring Awakening."

Given the popularity and familiarity of the "Annie" score, what's remarkable here is both Handley and Bernardo's fresh, pristine perspective toward the Charnin/Strouse material. Yes, we know the songs and the music, in particular, "Tomorrow" and "It's a Hard Knock Life." Yes, we know some of the lyrics by heart. Yes, we know what goes where and who sings what. Yes, we know when a song cue has been struck. And, yes we know that "Annie" will end with the rousing, playful anthem "A New Deal For Christmas," sung in perfect harmony by the entire cast.

Nonetheless, this incarnation of "Annie" often takes us by surprise, as though we are hearing "Maybe," "Tomorrow," "Easy Street," "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile"  and "It's a Hard Knock Life," among others, for the very first time. With Handley and Bernardo at the helm, backed by a first-class orchestral team (Phil Dolan, Mike Goodman, Jake Browstein, Matthew Suckling, Chris Smucker, Robert Patrick, Adam Myers, Daniel Dorrance, Jackie Chasen, Cristina Bustamante, Daryl Belcher), the Charnin/Strouse score for "Annie" has never sounded better, richer or fuller.

 Handley and Bernardo, however, don't stop there. To incorporate the talents of everyone involved, from Equity performers to BMA students, some of the songs are slightly changed, enhanced and extended musically, which, in turn, makes them pop, snap and sparkle most agreeably. The character of Annie, for example, is now featured in the big choral number "We'd Like to Thank You," surrounded by the perplexed, angst-ridden denizens of Hooverville. "Annie," in turn, now includes snippets of "We Got Annie," from the 1982 film version. "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile" also comes gift wrapped with additional musical bits as does "A New Deal For Christmas."
It's all seamless and perfectly synced, thus giving this "Annie" additional weight, charm and buoyancy.

The enlistment of Audra Bryant as choreographer for "Annie" is a stroke of genius. She is not only
agreeably fluent in the mechanics of musical staging, but she has devised a series of brilliant, innovative choreographic moves, beats, styles, rhythms and synchronizations that extend far beyond that of the original 1977 Broadway production. She surprises. She excites. She delights. She pushes boundaries to the max. She takes chances. She leaves you awestruck by her innate dance capabilities. And never once, does she repeat herself.

Bringing the many dances of the "Annie" story to life,  she purposely expands, reinvents and designs more intricate, more flavorful, more fluid dance choreography that recalls the gold age of movie musicals from MGM. In terms of style and period authenticity, she makes the right, appropriate choices offset by dance maneuvers that explode and unfold with plenty of  electricity, sparkle, froth, glamour and attitude.

But she doesn't stop there.
When necessary, the dances reflective in certain musical numbers are extended to not only showcase the talents of certain principals, ensemble members and BMA students, but to provide additional shading, scope and and dimension. This process also allows Bryant to add some dazzling, show stopping MGM movie musical choreography to various dance numbers, offset by some enlightening, energetic dance moves, combinations, pairings and twists that heighten the brilliance of this already imaginative production. This is "Annie" choreography like you've never seen before.

There are Miss Hannigan's and there are Miss Hannigan's. As envisioned by Klea Blackhurst, the Miss Hannigan of BMA's "Annie" is loud, blowsy, fiery and absolutely bonkers, everything the part calls for and more. With a belt voice that harkens memories of Ethel Merman, the actress/singer turns "Little Girls" and "Easy Street" into the genuine showstoppers they were meant to be, using that familiar trumpeting sound and vocal flair that Merman was famous for. But she's no copycat. She owns the part of Miss Hannigan front, line and center, instead of just playing it. She's a marvelous comedienne. She's a first-class songstress. She's also an original who brings additional nuance, shading and pulse to the oft-played character of Miss Hannigan, the alcoholic caretaker of the Municipal Girls Orphanage.

They don't come any better than Ava Lynn Vercellone, the versatile young actress who takes on the lead role of Annie, once played by Andrea McArdle, Sarah Jessica Parker, Shelley Bruce and Aileen Quinn, among others. Spunky, feisty, adorable and driven, Vercellone plays the part perfectly and enthralls everyone around her with her full-voiced renditions of "Tomorrow," "It's a Hard Knock Life" and "Maybe."  As billionaire Oliver Warbucks, Paul Schoeffler is in fine voice throughout the production wisely allowing his character's big heart to override his wealthy pomposity and larger-than-life persona. Vocally, he takes charge of every one of his musicals numbers including "NYC" and "Something Was Missing" and offers fresh, ripe interpretations that reveal his great vocal stamina, flourish and range.

Julie Kavanagh, last seen as Miss Gardner in BMA's fiery production of  "Carrie:The Musical," finds just the right amount of ditz and zaniness to bring the part of Lily St. Regis, the dumb, whiny girlfriend of Rooster Hannigan, so vividly to life. There's snap and polish to her broad comic strokes. Her dancing is absolutely dazzling. Vocally, she is at her peak and communicates her character's dumbness and obvious sexiness in true 1930's movie fashion. As Grace Farrell, the personal secretary of Oliver Warbucks, Lauren Sprague is glamorous, sophisticated, charming and personable. She has the right mindset and body language for the character of Grace, matched by exceptional acting and vocal skills. She's not only perfect for the part, but does so much more with it than Sandy Faison did in the original 1977 Broadway production.

As radio announcer Bert Healy, Kai Marrelli, last seen as bad boy Billy Nolan in last year's "Carrie: The Musical" at BMA, offers yet another full-bodied performance chock full of charm, wit and personality. Getting to sing one of the show's most popular songs, "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile," Marrelli has range, vocal roundness and pitch-perfect musicality. Even better, he puts his own personal stamp on the song, thus, making it more of a standout, backed by exceptional orchestral accompaniment and the sound of his catchy, sweet-sounding voice.

As the slippery-smooth Rooster Hannigan, Nicholas Rodriguez executes all the right moves as the show's arch comic villain. He's in fine form as singer and dancer, most evident in the showstopping "Easy Street" and its much-welcomed "Reprise." Dan Remmes cuts loose with a decidedly different portrayal of FDR that gets laughs in all the right places when the actor's drifts back and forth between comic book character and egotist President anxious to stand out in the crowd, the political arena and the spotlight. It's high camp, played out to sheer perfection.

One of the key points of this production is to showcase the vocal, acting and dance talents of the dedicated, hard-working students of the Broadway Method Academy.  And what better way to do that than with the frisson of vitality and animation that is "Annie."

Under the deft, invigorating tutelage of Deane, Handley, Bernardo and Bryant, each BMA cast member succumbs to the confident beat, spark and allure of this dazzling production. As performers, they are assured, animated, emotional young artists, completely in sync with the "Annie"" story, its musicality, its humor, its warmth, its theatrics its comic book tonality. And finally, they reflect BMA's on-going commitment to nurturing and shaping the raw, real, refreshing talent of tomorrow.

One of the best productions of "Annie" to be staged in the area during the last five years, this rousing, completely pleasurable revival has enough heart, soul and passion to last a lifetime. It is energetic and optimistic. The entire cast exudes the kind of seasoned professionalism one finds in a Broadway or West End show. Every one of the songs feels as fresh now as it did way back when "Annie" made its Broadway debut back in 1977. And just like last year's "Evita," also produced under the Broadway Method Academy banner, this production is not only an absolute revelation for everyone on stage, behind the scene's and in the audience, but one that reaffirms the pulse, the ingenuity, the mindset and artistic sophistication that is BMA,

Broadway Method Academy's production of  "Annie" is being staged at Westport Country Playhouse (25 Powers Court, Westport, CT), now through February 17

For information about Broadway Method Academy, call (203) 675-3526
website: broadwaymethodacademy.org

For tickets or more information about "Annie" at Westport Country Playhouse, call (203) 227-4177.
website: westportplayhouse.org

Sunday, February 10, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 132, A Review: "Ain't Misbehavin' " (Westchester Broadway Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

The music of legendary jazz pianist Fats Waller is effectively and lovingly recreated in Westchester Broadway Theatre's sizzling, fanciful revival of "Ain't Misbehavin,' " the place where jive meets jazz, ragtime and swing pulsate and rhythm and blues get you all hot, bothered and lathered up.


This "Ain't Misbehavin' " not only delivers, but celebrates a bygone ere where black jazz rocked Tin Pan Alley and Harlem's 125th St., bootleg gin was the drink of choice, liberated spirits burst from the rafters and songs about the blues and life itself, sizzled, jammed and smoldered.

It's a party of sorts where every performer gets his or her big moment to fly solo and jam with the band. Or simply glide into ensemble form and be carried aloft by the vocal arrangements and musical syncopation of the maestro himself....Mr. Fats Waller.

At Westchester Broadway Theatre, "Ain't Misbehavin' " is being staged by Richard Maltby, Jr., who conceived and directed the original 1978 Tony Award-winning Broadway production. This musical  recreation pays homage to that remarkable work in terms of whimsy, nostalgia, spirit, lyric conviction and heart-racing showmanship. It also gets things right by all accounts in terms of staging, using the same sort of silvery pulse and pungency that made the original musical revue such a dazzling, harmonious treat.

Still, Maltby is no copycat. Nor is he one to rest on his own laurels.

This "Ain't Misbehavin' " has a mind of its own and Maltby delivers the goods in colorful, rip-roaring passion. It's still a musical where the instrumental voices of a Harlem supper club are the show's high point and calling card. But some of the staging is much more intimate and cozy to reflect that one-on-one seriousness and playfulness that was the Harlem Renaissance. This production is also a tad more scripted.
Whereas the 1978 edition included lots of  hilariously orchestrated improvisation from performance to performance, here, there's only a smattering of shtick that's dangled in front of the audience whenever the mood strikes Maltby or his cast.  Simply stated, you can't replicate the brilliant improvisational purity that existed between the 1978 audience and the original Broadway cast, namely Nell Carter, Ken Page, Andre DeShields, Charlayne Woodard and Armelia McQueen. Quite frankly, no one could. And Maltby, in this go-round, knows exactly that.

Is it missed? Yes.
Does it lessen the impact? Absolutely not.
This production still packs the same emotional wallop as the original did when it first played Broadway. It's just a little bit different. And that's o.k.

The musical songbook for "Ain't Misbehavin' " features more than 30 musical numbers, most of them written by the extraordinary Fats Waller, Andy Razaf, Harry Brooks and other gifted lyricists of the time. They include "Honeysuckle  Rose," "Squeeze Me," "Cash For Your Trash," "The Joint Is Jumpin.' " "Fat and Greasy," "Black and Blue," "Ain't Misbehavin,' " "Spreadin' Rhythm Around," "I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling," "Lookin' Good But Feelin' Bad," "How Ya Baby," "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter," "Mean to Me," "Ladies Who Sing with the Band" and
"Find Out What They Like."

Peppered with wit, street savvy, high comedy, spunk, jive, swing, rippling black culture and marvelous period authenticity, the music itself snaps, crackles and pops as it carries and celebrates the emotional weight of the 1920's and the 1930's. Throughout "Ain't Misbehavin,' " the invention, skill and extraordinary technique that was Fats Waller rings loud and clear as does his penchant for stride piano, beat-by-beat alternations, plucky ranges, complex pitch chords, melody clicks, complex syncopations  and cascading musical notes.

Given the power, artistry and musical vocabulary of Fats Waller and its elicitation of strong, particularly fancied, lively song twists and emotions, musical director William Foster McDaniel is the perfect fit for "Ain't Misbehavin.' " He gets Fats Waller. He understands Fats Waller. He appreciates Fats Waller. He loves Fats Waller. He gets excited by Fats Waller.

McDaniel is a first-class, talented musician who knows exactly how to make every single song associated with "Ain't Misbehavin' " resonate and fascinate with that Harlem supper club magic, dash, pulse and drive intended by Waller and his merry band of lyricists and composers. First and foremost, Waller's music is the voice and centerpiece of this rousing musical entertainment. It is also imbued with the acerbic wit, humanity and power of the composer and his earthy embroidery of musical expressions, movements and invocations.

At Westchester Broadway Theatre, McDaniel, a musical dynamo in full force on the piano, surrounds himself with the tremendously talented orchestral team of Jay Mack (drums), Brian Uhl (trumpet), Steve Bleifuss (trombone), David Dunaway (bass) and Robert Carten (reeds). As "Ain't Misbehavin,' " unfolds, all six musicians play the award-winning musical score with just the right amount of effortless enthusiasm, passion, emotion and humor the production calls for. Nothing is rushed or hurried. Instead, things sizzle, simmer and pop as the entire five-member cast raise their voice in song never once missing a single beat, intention, harmony or rhythm associated with the the show's snappy musical songbook. It's all very, very beautiful.

"Ain't Misbehavin' " stars Martine Allard, Amy Jo Phillips, Tony Perry, Anita Welch and Ron Lucas.
True to form, the show remains an hypnotic ensemble piece where each performer embraces the music of Fats Waller, brings it magically to life, touches the heart and soul of its creator and illuminates the vocal brilliance of the musical score with ineffable beauty, compassion, warmth, humor and dignity.

There are star turns, yes. There are showstoppers, yes. There are crazy bits and shenanigans that get you roaring and roaring. There's also plenty of passionate, moody vocal turns that bring a tear to two to your eyes. But through it all, the cast is in full and fine voice that smartly reflects the intentions of the composers, the songs themselves and their conjuring questions and answers. What's wonderful is the depth and versatility of each vocalist, their amazing range and control, their individual harmonizing and continuity and how they wrap their voice around a lyric they want you to understand.

In conclusion, "Ain't Misbehavin' '' is an energetic and savvy music celebration that lovingly pays homage to the Harlem Renaissance. It jumps. It pops. It sparkles. It gets the pulses racing. Richard Maltby Jr's direction is sweet and sassy. Every one of the songs shows Fats Waller at his very best. And the cast - all five of them - communicate the show's music, kick, humor and nostalgia with that welcoming ensemble feel that put "Ain't Misbehavin' " on the musical map when it first played Broadway back in 1978. Then and now, the bygone era of Harlem jazz clubs, speakeasies, whiskey, bourbon and bathtub gin, is alive and well. And oh yes, "jumpin.' ".

This being a first-class dinner theatre, there's the food, of course.
The menu itself is very nice, chock full of delicious, savory, well-prepared entrees, starters, desserts and drinks. The beef  bourguignon, slow cooked in wine and served over a creamy bed of mashed potatoes, was topped with carrots, mushrooms and pearl onions. The hearty red wine, the savory sauce and the melt-in-your mouth beef pieces, made all the difference in the finished, comforting dish, as did the tender, juicy veggies. It's a five star dish that is so amazing, you'd no doubt want to do your best Oliver Twist imitation and ask for "More."

The actual food service is handled by a group of personable, confident staff members who are very good at their job and who trust everyone around them who are equally skilled. From kitchen staff to busboys and servers, the Westchester Broadway Theatre cuisine department is run by experts who know their food menu, know their audience and trust their culinary instincts to create a warm, inviting dining experience that feels like an ocean liner cruise from yesteryear in the very best way.
When it comes to planning, they get it right every time. You also get a very friendly waiter who can anticipate your needs as the menu changes from show to show.

This review is dedicated to the memory of Nell Carter, the Tony and Emmy Award-winning actress and singer best remembered for her showstopper musical turn in the original 1978 Broadway production of "Ain't Misbehavin.' " and the NBC comedy "Gimme a Break." 

"Ain't Misbehavin' " is being staged at Westchester Broadway Theatre (1 Broadway Plaza, Elmsford, NY), now through February 24.
For tickets or more information, call (914) 592-2222.
website: broadwaytheatre.com

Monday, February 4, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 131, A Review: "A Doll's House, Part 2" (TheaterWorks/Hartford)

By James V. Ruocco

In "A Doll's House, Part 2," it's been 15 years since Nora Helmer slammed the door on her husband, her children and her past and went out into the world to create a brand new life for herself with no connection to her bourgeois life or none to explain her curious existence far beyond the confines of her 19th century, middle-class home in Norway.

Where did she go?
How did she survive?
Who did she become?
How did she support herself?
More importantly, did Torvald Helmer actually file for divorce? And if he did, where exactly is the legal document proving the decree absolute?

Food for thought? Oh, yes!

Those questions and more are addressed and answered in TheaterWorks' neat and tidy staging of "A Doll's House, Part 2," a smart, freestanding work of sorts that thrusts Ibsen's characters in a brand new light with a brand new story that is often edgy, profound, comforting, strange and passive-aggressive. From the start, it's obvious that this piece was not created to equal or copy the dramatic sweep and frenzy of  "A Doll's House." Instead, it simply takes its cue from Ibsen's landmark play and seizes the opportunity to become its own period voice through a more contemporary lens.

Written by Lucas Hnath, "A Doll's House, Part 2' is peppered with a knowledge and understanding of Ibsen's original work and the playwright's thoughts and themes about marriage, divorce and relationships. But the comparisons stop there. Up close, this isn't an homage to Ibsen or something steeped in nostalgia despite many references to the far superior "A Doll's House" and its key story points. Instead, Hnath gives his work a decidedly modern heartbeat, offset by a very feminist political message and contemporary language and slang including the words "fuck," "shit" and so on. It's hardly jarring or controversial. It's just not Ibsen - style, structure and language. And, for the most part, that's o.k.

What's important here are the four central character's of the piece, their evolution and their growth as seen through the eyes of Hnath. Continuing Ibsen's story, the playwright concocts an often deft, well-versed drama with words and passages that excite, cajole and surprise. There's a lot going on during the play's 90-minute course as the characters themselves wrestle with ideas, dilemmas and conflicts as people from another century.

Most of it is edgy and smartly nuanced. In particular, the arguments, the revelations and the confrontations. Elsewhere, some of it, bores and falls flat. But only fleetingly. Then, there are times when you shake your head in disbelief wondering "What the fuck is Hnath thinking?" Or, "Bloody hell, this has absolutely nothing to do with Henrik Ibsen?"  Here, the point, Hnath is trying to make, despite familiarity, is to make everything that happened in "A Doll's House" seem new again. It is why this sequel exists.

"A Doll's House, Part 2"  is being staged by Jenn Thompson, an award-winning director whose credits include "The Call," "Conflict," "Bye, Bye Birdie," "Abundance," "The  Eccentricities of a Nightingale,"  "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," "Angel Street,"  "Mary Stuart" and the rousing, splendidly orchestrated production of  Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" at Goodspeed Musicals in 2017. That said, she's a natural fit for Lucas Hnath's sequel to "A Doll's House."

As director, Thompson fuels the piece with an energized, fluidly theatrical vision that often complements the playwright's continuation of Ibsen's original story. Her approach is personal, stylized and conscientious. She gets the story. She understands the story. She gets the characters. She also understands the mechanics associated with period drama from its confined staging and rangy acting techniques to how to build and shape a sequence in terms of character, line delivery and story advancement.
Everything that happens in "A Doll's House, Part 2" has been carefully thought out from how a character sits, observes, listens, moves, reacts and delivers a line of dialogue. This being a play completely dependent on conversation in a very small, sparse, intimate setting, there's not an awful lot of blocking and movement. In turn, Thompson is limited to what she can and cannot do.
Characters, of  course, move only when necessary, a conceit that works, for the most part, then, falls apart for two or three minutes as the play drifts completely into tedium, then, jumps back on course, as blips and boredom are quickly forgotten.

"A Doll's House, Part 2" stars Tasha Lawrence as Nora Helmer, Sam Gregory as Torvald Helmer, Amelia White as Anne Marie and Kira Player as Emmy Helmer. All four wear Alejo Vetti's handsomely designed 19th century period costuming with tailored precision and flair.

Last seen in Long Wharf's "The Roommate," a marvelously constructed two-character play where she gave a clever, intuitive performance, Tasha Lawrence takes the lead role of Nora Helmer, grabs it by the horns, makes it her own and runs with it. It's a compelling, progressive turn that smartly shows how the character has evolved over 15 years and one that is rich in emotion, defiance, power and independence. In the pivotal role of house servant Anne Marie, Amelia White is somewhat of a revelation. Her performance, true to Ibsen in every way imaginable, is layered, passionate, driven and bruised. Throughout "A Doll's House, Part 2," her interaction with Lawrence is truly magnificent. It is one that demonstrates superb acting, characterization and fundamental grace and precision.

As Nora's husband Torvald, Sam Gregory looks very much like the controlling, self-absorbed character channeled by Ibsen. Acting wise, he does his best, but he plays a part rather than inhabiting it. His rapport with Lawrence is palpable, but it is never really fiery or exciting. Then, there are times when his performance drifts into acting mode and we can see the wheels turning and turning. Making her TheaterWorks debut, Kira Player has been cast as the teenaged Emmy, one of Nora's abandoned children. It's a nice enough part and one the actress is definitely right for. Her emotions are real and properly centered, but Hnath, unfortunately never gives the character room to grow or provides her with ample stage time. She's onstage. Then, she's off. Sadly, it's all rather hurried.

Inspired by the original Henrik Ibsen play about the denunciation of a doomed marriage and its door-slamming denouement, "A Doll's House, Part 2" exists in its own contemplative world as playwright Lucas Hnath pays homage to the 1879 masterwork and offers a newly engaged work in the modern vernacular. Acerbic, provocative, anxious and sometimes pleasurable, "A Doll's House, Part 2" makes for inspired, character-drive theater. It's quick and well-intentioned with some obvious highs, lows and dead spots, here and there. It also leaves you hungry for the real Ibsen piece, a three-act 19th century drama of drama of extraordinary proportions where character, conversation and plot twists toy with your senses, push you over the edge and leave you emotionally drained following the play's justified, thrilling conclusion.

"A Doll's House, Part 2" is being staged at TheaterWorks (233 Pearl St., Hartford, CT), now through February 24.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-7838
website: theaterworkshartford.org

Sunday, January 27, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take, 2, Column 130, A Review: "Murder For Two" (Playhouse on Park)

By James V. Ruocco

It takes incredible skill to pull off something as wonderful as as marvelous as "Murder for Two." Done right, every pratfall, planned fiasco, spit take, hoary grin, gasp, tick, sight gag and double take must be performed with gleeful solidity, timing and dash to support the craziness that follows. One wrong move, and it's curtains for everyone involved.

At Playhouse on Park, that, of course, never happens. Here, you get a very bold and classy production that exists mainly to kick you in the ass with laughter, knock you out of your seat with laughter and put you in the line of fire for amusement's sake. And oh yes, more laughter.


"Murder for Two," written by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair, gets it right every time using the same jellylike precision that made "The Play That Goes Wrong," "Noises Off " and "No Sex Please, We're British," such a hit with both Broadway and West End audiences.

One big difference.
In this go round, there are only two actors.
And that's the goofball gag, so to speak.

And since this is a musical whodunit, both actors must be able to act, sing, dance and play the piano on cue. One of them must also be able to jump back and forth and round and round again to play a variety of male and female characters (i.e., the suspects) using different voices, faces, mannerisms and expressions in a single heartbeat. No costume changes either. Just a bottle of alprazolam on a nearby table. Just kidding about the tablets, folks!.

"Murder for Two" opens in the spacious drawing room of a Victorian mansion. It is the night of a surprise birthday party for Arthur Whitney, the celebrated author of many popular mystery novels. Unfortunately, he's shot dead in the play's opening minutes. Not to worry though. Officer Marcus Moscowicz, a charismatic rookie, pretending to be a detective, arrives on the scene immediately to interrogate the suspects, all of whom have a motive. Or do they? Its been said that Whitney exposed many of their real-life secrets in his books.

That's the surprise of the night.

Staging "Murder for Two," director Kyle Metzger basques in the show's synchronized silliness, its vaudevillian gaiety, its unbridled camp and its crafty parody of murder mysteries, the suspects themselves and those grilling interrogation moments orchestrated by the play's ace detective. Creativity, in turn, abounds as Metzger delves headfirst into Kinosian and Blair's wacky play text to pull you in at all corners, throw logic out the window, pump up the adrenaline. dish out the laughter and fashion his own wave of farcical, shtick-fueled comedy.

This being a two character play dependent on the full exploration of musical theater, comic shtick and whodunit parody, pacing, the right kind of pacing, is essential in order for "Murder for Two" to take shape, breathe and move. Given the mechanics of the play script, you also have to fill the stage with a certain kind of movement and blocking that adapts immediately to the show's split-second comic  timing motif. Without it, "Murder for Two" would stop dead in its track and fade to black during its opening minutes.

Metzger, as director, comes to "Murder for Two" well-prepared. Assured, steadied and perfectly in sync with the play's concept, he never once executes a false move. There's a lot going on here but everything that happens unfolds with real purpose and comic ingenuity. With just two actors in tow (there's also a piano and a prop or two), he fuels the production with a fast and breezy animation that complements the material and keeps things moving merrily along at breakneck speed. His staging is both thrilling and collective as is his detailed execution of the actual suspects, all of whom have so many parts to their persona, you sit back in amazement at the quick-handed artistry and imagination involved in scene after scene, song after song and character after character. Bloody amazing!

The musical score for "Murder for Two" has been written by Joe Kinosian (music) and Kellen Blair (lyrics). It contains 19 musical numbers: "Prelude," "Waiting in the Dark," "Protocol Says," "Dahlia Whitney," "A Perfectly Lovely Surprise,"  "Murray & Barb Flandon,"  "It Was Her," " Timmy, Yonkers & Skid,"  "A Lot Worse," "Steph Whitney," "He Needs a Partner," "Barette Lewis," "So What If I Did," "A Friend Like You," "Henry Vivaldi," "Process of Elimination," "Steppin' Out of the Shadows," "I Need a Partner/Protocol Says" and "Finale Ultimo (A Friend Like You)."

As with "Something's Afoot," another musical whodunit, the songs themselves are serviceable to the plot, the characters, the story and its evolution. They are fun, cheeky, whimsical, dastardly and happily romantic. Moreover, they never creep up out of nowhere or stop the action dead in its tracks. Instead, Kinosian and Blair craft a grab bag of musical entertainment that keeps the excitement of the show up as "Murder for Two's" musical twosome shift gears faster than a  coked-up chameleon  reveling in the show's mental fun house conceit and its many rhythmic colors.

At Playhouse on Park, musical director Melanie Guerin is best remembered for her musical showmanship on "In the Heights" and "Peter and the Starcatcher." Here, she is in exceptional form teaching her two stars the intricacies of the show's vocal score, its orchestrations, its ever-changing beats and rhythms and its live performance virtuosity. The dynamic duo, in turn, are in tip- top shape, playing melodies, hand switching among chords and deftly communicating the different emotions and reactions of the individual songs. Throughout "Murder for Two," they honor both the composers and the listener with intelligent, fully committed work at the piano, matched by a noticeable delicacy, dash, drama and challenging expressiveness.

As the man of many faces and characters, Trevor Dorner plunges head first into the play's ripe, unabashed lunacy. His passion for acting, characterization and song and dance is set forth with amazing vision, clarity and preparation. His stamina is completely staggering as is his gumby-like ability to jump back and forth between characters, then jump back in again, using madcap voices, faces, flapping arms and crazy orchestrated  body language with breakneck speed and invention. You learn so much about acting just by watching him glide across the Playhouse on Park stage with perfectly pitched and practiced elan.

As Marcus Moscowitz, John Grieco does his straight man detective bit effortlessly as things all round him get crazier and crazier by the second. It's a fun part and one the actor invests with plenty of personality, dash, bewilderment and spirit. Like Dorner, he comes to "Murder For Two" with tremendous vitality and verve. He succumbs to the play's comic crackle with identifiable passion, snap and dedication. He also magically clicks with Doner making their onstage comic interplay snap, crackle and pop. Both play off one another with gleeful, wicked abandon.

Musically, Grieco and Dorner are in their element. Both possess Broadway caliber voices which makes their many musical numbers hit home on every level. It's hard not to be won over by their vocal charms, nuance and full-range perfection. No matter what they sing, they allow their voice to fill out the theater and complement the material, always finding the real meaning and personalization behind every musical moment.

"Murder for Two" is a wild, winning musical mystery romp chock full of falls, twists, turns, laughter, mix ups, cliches, schadenfreude and blighty trips of the fantastic. As directed by Kyle Metzger, it embraces and celebrates its position as crazed, gobsmacked entertainment. Its playful attack on the whodunit genre is triumphant. It also comes gift wrapped with two performances of the highest order by the very talented and charismatic duo of Trevor Dorner and John Grieco. It's a genuine feat of endurance that they are still standing after  90 minutes of musical chaos, dizzying dash, high farce, low farce and everything in between plus the mounting mayhem that ensues when the script asks one actor to switch gears and characters at the drop of a hat. Crikey! Not a hiccup in sight.

 Photos by Meredith Longo & Rich Wagner, Imagine It Framed

"Murder For Two" is being staged at Playhouse on Park ( 244 Park Rd., West Hartford, CT), now through February 3.
For tickets or more information, call (86) 523-5900.
website: playhouseonpark.org.

Friday, January 25, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 129, A Review: "The Engagement Party" (Hartford Stage)

By James V. Ruocco

Josh and Katherine are celebrating their engagement.
One of one, the guests arrive.

The party, set in early January 2007, at the couple's posh Park Avenue apartment on Manhattan's upper East Side, however, comes with a price once a glass of wine is spilt and a $300,000 engagement ring goes missing at the dinner table.

That, of course, sets the stage for "The Engagement Party," a thrilling, inventive whodunit of sorts where everyone is suspect and subject to gloom, doom and condemnation as the story unfolds with the sort of crazy twistedness indicative of a BBC Agatha Christie-like thriller.


"The Engagement Party" is smartly original as this swank celebration goes from cheery to dark and things eventually come crashing down on everyone with a dynamic roar that is not only satisfying, but one that will have you talking for weeks.

Written to Samuel Baum, "The Engagement Party" is ultimately a play about trust, understanding and destruction brought on because of lies, deceit, jealousy and deception. It's a complicated puzzle,  offset by mystery, moral choices, shocking pronouncements, truths, homosexuality, monetary obsession and exposed nerves. Baum's dialogue, subplots and characters are meticulously drawn and centered and perfectly in sync with the play's many jumps, kicks, jolts and rhythms. At the same time, the playwright points out that no important relationship (familial, sexual, romantic or friend) could survive if trust is totally broken. And secondly, there is no going back whatsoever, if the betrayal is  especially hurtful and damaging. Ouch!

"The Engagement Party" is being directed by the award-winning Darko Tresnjak whose Hartford Stage credits include "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "Rear Window," "Anastasia," "A Lesson from Aloes," "Heartbreak House" and "The Comedy of Errors," among others. Here, he is in his element as he takes hold of Baum's script, turns it all around and upside down and fashions one of the most savvy, astute and spellbinding nights of theater on record in the state. His knowledge, aptitude and love of theater gives "The Engagement Party" its pulse, its dimension, its energy and its raw emotion.

Tresnjak, of course, knows the ending, but he never once lets things slip or does he throw you a bone and say jump. He's far too sophisticated for that. Instead, he asks you to put on your thinking caps, follow the characters from room to room and decide who's lying, who's telling the truth and who is fucked up enough to actually steal the ring when nobody was looking. At the same time, what if it's all a ruse? Was the ring actually stolen? Or did someone deliberately hide it to mess with everyone's heads and get them talking about what they hate and loathe most about one another.

As "The Engagement Party" unfolds, Tresnjak creates the necessary tension, bitterness and mayhem to keep the action moving forward without a halt or a hiccup. Everyone, of course, is guilty. some more than others. Then again, maybe, yes. Maybe, no. Nothing happens without reason or consequence. It's all carefully worked out to push you over the edge or cause you to break out in a sweat before the actual culprit is or isn't revealed.

"The Engagement Party" stars Zack Appelman as Josh, Beth Riesgraf as Katherine, Brian Lee Huynh as Kai, Mia Dillon as Gail, Teddy Bergman as Alan, Richard Bekins as Conrad, Anne Troup as Haley and Brian Patrick Murphy as Johnny. Here, as in other plays he has directed at Hartford Stage, Tresnjak has cast yet another group of personable, tremendously talented performers who completely understand the mechanics of the staging, the script, the characters, the evolution of the story and their role in its progression. Everyone is in sync with the actual proceedings and brings insight, perspective, drive, personality and dimension to their characters. All eight actors interact splendidly with their fellow performers no matter how tangled, twisted, crazy and convoluted things get. They toy with our senses. They push us over the edge. They surprise us. They shock us. They keep us guessing. And when the ball drops, they make us see that no one saw it coming.

In conclusion, "The Engagement Party" is a taut, fascinating and captivating theatrical piece that strikes a chord in all of us about family, marriage, friendship and relationships. It is brilliantly directed by Darko Tresnjak. The cast he has chosen shines bright in their individual roles. Sam Baum's play text is fluid and expressive and brings a fresh, intrinsic sound to the wonderful utilized space that is Hartford Stage. And finally, there's an ovation-worthy set, slickly designed by Alexander Dodge whose Hartford Stage credits include "Rear Window" and "Anastasia."

In the play's final minutes, all is revealed.
Let's just say that no one saw it coming.
And therein, lies the play's enjoyment.

"The Engagement Party" is being presented at Hartford Stage (50 Church St., Hartford, CT), now through February 3.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-5151.
website: hartfordstage.org

Thursday, January 24, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 128, A Review: "Miller, Mississippi" (Long Wharf Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco
Mildred Miller.
Thomas Miller.
John Miller.
Becky Miller.
Doris Stevenson.

These five characters are the heart and soul of Boo Killebrew's tough, frightening and fascinating Southern Gothic melodrama "Miller, Mississippi," a play that kicks you in the gut and makes your skin crawl as it digs deep to expose the pride, the pathos, the racism, the smut, the dirt, the deceit, the sex and the spilt blood of one white family and their black house keeper living in Jackson, Mississippi.


"Miller, Mississippi" packs an emotional wallop that is fierce, frenzied and insightful. It also handles the angst, pain, fight, attack, craziness and deplorableness of its characters like a mad shrink forced to work overtime while trying to make sense of it all.

Written by Mississippi-born Boo Killebrew, the play deals openly with suicide, prejudice, social change, political upheaval, homosexuality, incest, murder, civil rights, southern family tradition, sibling rivalry, class status, white privilege, secrets, lies, AIDS, economic disparity, family legacy,  marital disintegration, race relations, the breaking of rules, the fear of progression and the cry for freedom.

That, of course, is a lot to digest but Killebrew never lets her audience down as her characters grapple with the dicey ingredients she throws before them. Her dialogue is pungent and resourceful. The scenes themselves stir and fascinate. Danger and deceit lurk everywhere. Truths are exposed like a raging storm at sea. Nothing seems out of place or calculated. And it's all very bloody well interesting. You want edge of the seat entertainment. You'll find it here.

"Miller, Mississippi" is being staged by Obie-winning director Lee Sunday Evans whose directorial credits include "Dance Nation," "Caught," "Macbeth," "A Winter's Tale" and "Bull in a China Shop." Given the complicated, intricate mechanics of Boo Killebrew's play text, this is not an easy play to stage, much less get right as the action runs its course from 1960 through 1994. It takes someone with the knowledge and aptitude of Evans to give it pulse, drive, promise and momentum with nary a creak, a blip or halt in the proceedings.
If at any time the play stops dead in its tracks or the audience stirs or shakes their head in disbelief, than Evans has failed. Luckily, this never happens. Evans, as director, know the puzzle that is "Miller, Mississippi" sideways, backwards, front and center and in between. The groundwork is layed. The pieces are all set and move accordingly. Nothing happens without reason. And no matter how crazy or shocking things get, the audience willingly goes along for the ride never knowing what's around the corner, how it will all play out and how it will all end.

As the play unfolds, the characters rip pages from two strategically placed wall calendars on either side of Kristen Robinson's handsome set that reflects the passage of months, years and decades. Evans orchestrates these time changes with intrigue, purpose, surprise and confidence. She shocks you when she has too. She makes you laugh when the script asks her too. She kicks you in the ass. She slaps with in the face. She makes you gasp or pull back. And, she pisses you off. Then again, that's the point of the piece as the lives and fates of the five principal characters hang in a balance.

The two-act drama stars Charlotte Booker as Mildred Miller, Roderick Hill as Thomas Miller, Leah Karpel as Becky Miller, Jacob Perkins as John Miller and Benja Kay Thomas as Doris Stevenson.
All five actors are perfectly cast and completely in sync with Killebrew's  deft storytelling techniques and Evans sharp, in-your-face direction. They each bring proper dimension, scope, drive, versatility and purpose to their ever-changing characters as time marches on and on. And everyone interacts splendidly with their fellow performers no matter how tangled, crazy or shocking things get.

"Miller, Mississippi" is an accomplished, intelligently written drama that provides a serious, explosive night of deeply moving theatre that is not easily forgotten. It is real. It is raw. It is mad. It is fucked up. Add to the mix five gut-wrenching performances, a grab bag of unexpected plot twists and a quirky, but justified ending guaranteed to leave you emotionally drained. That said, conflict and tension go a very long way.

"Miller, Misspssippi" is being staged at Long Wharf Theatre (222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, CT), now through February 3.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 787-4282.
website: longwharf.org