Saturday, October 19, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 211, A Review: "Respect: A Musical Journey of Women" (Connecticut Cabaret Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

Oh, what a night!

Based on the stories and research of Dorothy Marcic, "Respect: A Musical Journey of Women" glances back at the history of the women's movement, their independence and fight for equality  drawing upon a wide range of material pulled from 20th century song classics, pop hits and anthems. It's all very powerful and breezy stuff that celebrates all forms of music specifically and effortlessly with vigilance and sterling intentions that are very hard to resist.


This freely-flowing musical is a surprising delight that delivers songs with punch and power, bright sincerity and a buoyant tunefulness ready for reinvention.

A show like this, which taps into nostalgia, womanhood and camaraderie for entertainment's sake, could easily fall into that escapist trap of bubble gum gooey repetition in the hands of inexperienced directors not versed in this sort of page-by-page songbook conceit. The enlistment of Kris McMurray as director of "Respect" however, keeps this two-act musical real, romantic and heartwarming from start to finish with nary a hiccup, a break, a halt, a skip or a bump. As director and storyteller, he takes chances and runs with them. He never repeats himself. He knows when to amp things up and when to power things down. He understands the mechanics of staging a musical of this caliber, how to position and move it, how to cast it perfectly, how to design and stage it, how to make it flow, how to pause it and make it linger in the moment and how to ready it for live performance.

Here, we get a finely crafted, lightweight musical romp and revue that sizzles and snaps, charms and enlightens, teases and taunts and keeps its playful, sugar-coated concept well grounded and controlled. It is fun. It is simple. It is cute, It is fanciful. It is energetic. It is full of sprinkles and sparkles. It knows exactly where it is going and never looks back.
"Respect" also benefits from McMurray's actual knowledge and appreciation of the musical's time frame which spans over 100 years. He is completely akin to the wonderful musicality of the different decades and knows exactly how to move his cast carefully through well timed and orchestrated group movements and synchronized dance moves that give the individual songs additional weight, drive, purpose and remembrance. There's a lot of stage business from song to song and McMurray keeps his musical quartet knee deep in the merriment of it all no matter how silly, how dramatic, how cute or how important it is to the evolution of the story. His creativity is inspired throughout, mixed with a clever uniqueness and style that never falters for a moment.

Big on music with over 40 songs sung entirely from a women's perspective that happily trips the light fantastic while sailing through the decades, "Respect" adapts a snappy juke-box format with one song hit after another. Some are sung in their entirety. Others are delivered in bits and pieces.  No matter, all of them are well worth the ride. They include "You Don't Own Me," "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," "As Long As He Needs Me," "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," "I Will Survive," "My Man," "Beautiful," "Where the Boys Are," "Que Sera Sera," "Greatest Love of All," "If I Knew You Were Coming I'd Baked A Cake," "It Must Be Him," "God Bless the Child," "Over There" and "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend."

Strategically placed in chronological order, the songs themselves offer commentary, history and nostalgia while tapping into everything from marriage and the workplace to girl-boy crushes, lost loves, tragic blues, broken hearts, World War II canteens, Rosie the Riveter and standing by your man when the chips are down. On keyboard, musical director TJ Thompson with the able assist of Jamie Sherwood (guitar) and Tim Urso (percussion) are in vast command, keeping things sharp and shining throughout. Everything is focused and inspired with fanfares, high points, syncopation's, rhythms and mood swings fueled with perfect orchestral coloring and form that is wonderfully evocative, soothing and pace impressive.

The two-act musical stars Maria Soaft, Emily Gray, Erica Whitfield and Erin Liddell, all of whom were featured earlier this year in Connecticut Cabaret Theatre's bouncy and buoyant musical hit "The Bikinis." All four are a bunch of talented, charismatic performers whose innate charm, warmth, personality and showmanship give "Respect" its unifying lift, spirit, magic, sweetness and nostalgic adrenaline. As envisioned by Dorothy Marcic, the show's author and creator, the production itself allows each actress to embrace the music she is given, take hold of it, make it her own and illuminate its vocal veracity with the refreshing honesty and compassion that rocketed it to the top of the "Billboard" charts in the first place.

As with most musicals of this genre, including "The Taffetas," "Forever Plaid," "The Wonderful Wonderettes" and "Beehive," there are obvious star turns, standouts, showstoppers and wonderfully wacky moments that make you smile, clap madly, shed a tear or give your husband, wife or partner a kiss or two on the cheek. Through it all, this quartet of actresses have great fun gliding through the years, changing costumes and personalities, talking to the audience and doing what comes naturally. As actors, they are so very right for each of the different women they are asked to portray. They have a wonderful rapport with each other and the audience. They are great storytellers. They know how to play comedy and drama and they play it well.

Vocally, they are in full voice, smartly reflecting the vocal finesse, style and intent of the many songs they are asked to sing. They have fun. We have fun. What's wonderful here is the depth, the versatility and the song style of each vocalist as "Respect" pays homage to the songs of yesteryear. All four exude amazing form, range and control. Their harmonizing is pitch perfect. They know how to wrap their voice around a lyric they want you to understand, acknowledge and appreciate. They also exude a down-to-earth charisma, fondness and genuine affection for being able to do what they do in front of a live performance And in a show like this one, that mentality goes a very long way.

An engaging entertainment, chock full of catchy music and memorable performances, "Respect: A Musical Journey of Women" comes packaged with enough song variations and tidbits to keep everyone merrily entertained with its soundtrack of 20th century hits. The words and music from each decade are vigorous and assertive. The band provides melodic, catchy accompaniment. And director Kris McMurray guides his cast of four through the decades with a thumbs-up brio and magic that is not only contagious, but makes you want to get up and dance and boogie all night long.

"Respect: A Musical Journey of Women" is being staged at Connecticut Cabaret Theatre (31-33 Webster Square Rd., Berlin, CT), now through November 9.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 829-1248.

Friday, October 18, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 210, A Review: "Girls" (Yale Repertory Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

The apparent frenzy and wildness of Yale Rep's "Girls," a maddening, entertaining and bizarre new take on "The Bacchae" embodies all the certainty, authority, sexuality, absurdity and lather of a superbly ushered rave presented in glorious, acid-tripping Technicolor.

It sings.
It speaks.
It flashes.
It entices.
It satisfies.
It engages.
It delights.

It also celebrates Yale Rep's ongoing commitment to original, avant-garde works that are unique, odd and decidedly different but very much in the moment of expressive, dynamic and memorable theatre that is surreal, jaw-dropping, experimental and pretty much "out there." And "Girls" gets that message across with a refreshed admission spiked with a ritualistic leap and flourish, which is perfect for its story of female opinion, power, responsibility and collectivism.

At Yale Rep, "Girls" is being staged by Lileana Blain-Cruz, a creative talent and director with a wild imagination and passionate confidence who moves crazily through the world of Euripides and Greek tragedy with a gift for tumbling madness, jazz-like dementia and revolutionary re-ordering. Here, wildness is the heart and pulse of this re-worked telling of "The Bacchae" and she fans out the bathos, anxiety and war zone hysteria with yelps, cries, chants, speeches and Bacchic shrills and laments that thrust the action forward like a hurried outdoor storm that intensifies and swirls absurdly out of control with its intensified flourish and force that demands attention at every turn.

Some of it, you grasp. Some of it, leaves you baffled and confused. Some of it, leaves you shaking your head in wonderment thinking, "What the fuck was that?" But in the long run, it doesn't really matter. Blain-Cruz knows exactly what she wants and she delivers it with delicious delinquency and lightning-bolt imagination, offset by quirky measures, tones and twists that arouse, sway, intrigue and tumble. It should also be noted that "Girls" plays like one big outdoor party of glee and trance-like abandonment with female voices front and center ready to reveal the strange, hypnotic and bizarre elements that have shaped and molded their already equally messed-up lives.

It's all pretty powerful stuff, strategically placed and ingeniously performed in between Raja Feather Kelly's pulsating, fevered non-stop choreography that's timed perfectly to the beat of background music that sizzles with pleasure-toting wickedness, delirium and in-your-face raunch and perversity. 
Depending on the moment, some figures appear burdened, trudging slowly to the dance rhythms and beats at hand while others glide happily about expressing joy and personal freedom with infectious energy. They even find time to hump the scenery, play with inflatable plastic cows or flirt with one another via orgasmic enlightenment and debauchery.

"Girls" stars Nicholas L. Ashe as Deon, Jeanine Serralles as Gaga, Will Seefried as Theo, Tom Nellis as Dada and Haynes Thigpen as Cowherd/Rere/Acting Sheriff Officer Ronnie. The Girls are played by Gabby Beans, Ayesha Jordan, Amelia Workman, Zoe Mann, Daniel Liu, Keren Lugo, Julian Sanchez, Jenna Yi, Maia Mihanovich, Anula Navlekar, Jennifer Regan, Gregory Saint Georges, Jackeline Torres Cortes and Adrienne Wells. Everyone works individually or as a team to bring out the play's playful or tragic trajectory, its ironic words and conversations, its dark truths and propulsive illuminations, its barbed levity and comic counterblasts. With Blain-Cruz offering detailed insight on how everything should be played and acted before a live audience, the cast stands tall and proud covering the whole spectrum that is "Girls" with boldness, ingenuity, gusto and a dash or two of intimate, hydralazine strangeness.

As theatre, "Girls" amps up the madness in energetic, weighty fashion, mixed with fantasies, observations, alerts, pronouncements and political stances that creates a hypnotic fervor that Yale Rep takes full advantage of. Its crazed, fucked-up take on "The Bacchae" is bizarre, mangled and dizzying with LSD-driven dazzle and a coked-up mindset that blasts you in the head, kicks you in the ass, toys with your senses and shakes you up vicariously in ways you never thought possible. Then, again, that's the point, isn't it? This is 21st century Euripides with a Studio 54 glaze and drug-induced, live stream euphoria that invites you to come in, take a look and succumb to its bold, water colored collage of fanaticism and derangement and then run out into the street dazed and stirred by the stoned, tripping, loaded insanity of it all.

Photos of "Girls" courtesy of Joan Marcus

"Girls" is being staged at Yale Repertory Theatre (University Theatre, 222 York St., New Haven, CT), now through October 26.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 432-1234.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 209, A Review: "The Book of Mormon" (The Bushnell)

By James V. Ruocco

Shocking, hell, no.
Crazy, oh, yes.
Wild, wacky and wonderful, yes, yes, yes.
Must-see entertainment,  most definitely.

The national touring company of "The Book of Mormon" is a big, splashy, explicit musical parody that attacks Mormons, Mormonism and missionaries with a lively animating spark of intelligence and satiric elan, that is so much fun, its witty take on the beliefs and practices of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, is impossible to resist.


This is a musical that overflows with giddy contempt and stinging acidity as fresh-faced Mormons (is there any other kind?) head to Uganda to preach the word of their Christ and build a new congregation of followers anxious to learn all about the Third Testament of the Bible. There are laughs galore and plenty of bounce, bite, sting and color to keep you happily entertained at the expense of Mormons everywhere, including those headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah and Independence, Missouri.
Who knows?  You may even find yourself curiously googling information about the holy book of Mormon itself or inviting a friendly Mormon or two over for an early Friday night supper.  

Staging "The Book of Mormon" is Trey Parker and Casey Nicholaw who won the 2011 Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical. Here, they create a madcap world that is chock full of cartoonish wit, energy, chutzpah, vulgarity, blasphemy and gayness. There's jokes about dysentery, baptism, medicine, vagina's, the male penis, sacrilege, homosexuals, lesbians, Africa, sex with frogs, maggots in the scrotum, religion, famine, Satan, Jesus Christ, the Bible, sexual intercourse, blow jobs, poverty, resurrection,  "Star Wars," "Star Trek," "The Lion King," "The King and I" and so more more. Nothing, of course, is off limits, a running gag that allows Parker and Nicholaw to run hog wild in very original and creative ways that heighten the musical's enjoyment from start to finish. The whole show is mapped out with such flourish, depth and drive, nothing ever gets lost in the translation.  It's a wild and wacky ride that is both uplifting and incredible and one that shows why "The Book of Mormon" took home nine Tony Awards including Best Musical.

Winner of the 2011 Tony Award for Best Musical Score, "The Book of Mormon" includes 21 musical numbers conceived by Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez. They are "Hello," "Two By Two," "You and Me (But Mostly Me)," "Hasa Diga Eebowai," "Turn It Off," "I Am Here For You," "All American Prophet," "Sal Tiay Ka Siti," "I Am Here For You (Reprise)," "Man Up," "Making Things Up Again," "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream," "I Believe," "Baptize Me," "I Am Africa," "Joseph Smith American Moses," "Hasa Diga Eebowai (Reprise)," "You and Me (But Mostly Me) (Reprise)," "Tomorrow Is a Latter Day," "Hello (Reprise)" and "Encore."

Gleeful, crazy and wonderfully harmonious, each of the musical numbers drives the production forward with heart, optimism, emotion and unabashed silliness. Satirizing organized Mormon religion with lampoons, pronouncements, declarations and playful escapist-like teasing and bashing, the tunes themselves are joyous, melodic, acidic and inspirational. They all fit perfectly into the framework of the story and are so very right for the characters who sing them and bring them to life night after night.

As "The Book of Mormon" evolves, musical director Andrew Graham and his orchestral team emphasize the extreme playfulness, madness and social jest of the music and lyrics, its twisty mindset and mood swings, its rainbow-tinged gay overtness, its saucy flavoring, its risqué implications and its over-the-top mechanics. Careful attention is also paid to the lyrical brashness of the piece, its tangy truths and upsurps, its magnificent wordplay, its deft phrasing, its jovial promiscuity, its distinct melodies and its giggly beats and rhythms. With Graham upfront and center, the orchestra is always in full swing and never once misses a beat or important song cue. They have fun. We have fun. They laugh. We laugh. And under Graham's expert tutelage, the entire cast (leads, supporting players, ensemble) deliver every one of the show's songs with the perfect pitch, confidence, pizazz and harmony intended by the show's creators.

Given that fact that "The Book of Mormon" has been designed solely as pure escapism with an homage to Broadway's golden past, dancing is everything in a musical of this caliber. Doubling as the show's choreographer, Nicholaw concocts a sweet, pungent bubbly dance euphoria that mixes elements of George Gershwin, Fred Astaire, Gower Champion, Gene Kelly and Busby Berkeley, among others, with intricate, daring and highly original dance moves, maneuvers and stylizations that snap, crackle and pop in every color of the rainbow.  He takes chances and runs with them. He surprises and delights. He leaves you awestruck with giddy delight. And he never once, repeats himself. He makes the right, appropriate choices in terms of style, mood, movement and dance tableaux and brings a fresh, slick, distinct feel to the proceedings, offset by plenty of froth, kitsch, electricity, attitude, eccentricity and craziness.

The two-act musical stars Liam Tobin as Elder Price, Jordan Matthew Brown as  Elder Cunningham, Alyah Chanelle Scott as Nabulungi, Andew Huntington Jones as Elder McKinley and Jacques C. Smith as Malfala. Everyone is suitably cast for their musical comedy roles, which they deliver most engagingly using the right mindset for lampooning, coupled with appropriate mischief, attitude, charm, angst, camp and hysteria. Vocally, they are in perfect unison, singing alone, in duets or with the ensemble, smartly mastering the melodic drive, pulse and heartbeat of the musical score. Vocal standouts include "I Believe," "Hello," "You and Me (But Mostly Me)," "Turn It Off," "Sal Tlay Ka Siti," "Joseph Smith American Moses" and "Hasa Diga Eebowai (Reprise)"

Big-hearted, well-intentioned and absolutely hysterical, "The Book of Mormon" is explicit, in-your-face fun that cheerfully reflects Broadway's golden age of musicals while satirically exposing the absurdities of the Mormon doctrines and its smiley-faced do-gooders. The hard-working cast is both accomplished and animated. The R-rated language is appropriately crazy. The songs are tremendous fun. And the dancing is done in such a clever good way, its bare-faced cheek and dazzle will send you out into the night thinking naughty thoughts about those door-to-door religious salesmen with gleaming teeth peddling Mormonism all across the USA anxious to recruit you and yours into their big money-making institution.

"The Book of Mormon" is being staged at the Bushnell (166 Capitol Ave., Hartford, CT), now through October 20.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 987-5900.

Monday, October 14, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 208, A Review: "Billy Elliot: The Musical (Goodspeed Musicals)

By James V. Ruocco

In the northeast mining community of County Durham, circa 1984, working-class society is crumbling at the hands of Margaret Thatcher's destructive government while at the same time, a young boy discovers artistic self-expression, quite accidentally, through dance.

Thus begins, "Billy Elliot: The Musical," a whimsical, inspiring, socially-conscious tale that takes its cue from Stephen Daldry's acclaimed 2000 motion picture drama that starred Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Gary Lewis and Jean Heywood and sets it to music.

Spectacular, visceral, bold and brash, this is an amazing piece of musical theatre, chock full of boundary-pushing information, depth, fantasy and stagecraft that overflows into something quite triumphant and remarkable. More importantly, it supports artistic freedom in the arts, it practiced equality, the camaraderie of dancing and its intensives and oh yes, the increased confidence that boys can dance too and they do it ever so well. Here, the discovery of one's talent is what's important. Anyone who has a problem with that, is advised to stay home.

At Goodspeed, "Billy Elliot: The Musical" is being staged by internationally renowned director Gabriel Barre whose credits include "Sweeney Todd," "Camille Claudel," "Private Lives," "John & Jen," "Hair" and "The Scarlet Pimpernel." As with other musicals and plays he has directed, there is a rawness, soulfulness and warm humanity here that gives the story a real, spontaneous feel and passion that keeps it grounded, truthful, graceful and emotionally expressive. Barre's production also pays close attention to the period in which the musical is set, the people who populate the coal-mining town of County Durham, their raw energy, their solidarity, resentment and defiance, their stubborn and one-sided mindset and their fight for survival amidst the heated Thatcher government that threatens their very existence.

At the center, of course, is the story of young Billy Elliot, his mourning for his mother who died two years before the musical begins, his relationship with his oppressively male-dominated family and finally, his discovery of dance - i.e., ballet- and its many possibilities. As director and storyteller, Barre shapes Lee Hall's well-honed script imaginatively and sensitively with wonderfully sketched and played tenderness and affection. He also never allows the show's pacy musicality to sidetrack the emotional resonance of Billy's personal struggle, his hopes and dreams and his ongoing fight to overcome impossible odds and become a respected ballet dancer with the full support of his not so terribly encouraging family.

Pacing is everything in this invigorating telling and Barre doesn't waste a single moment. The individual stories and the emotions expressed by every one of the characters is calibrated brilliantly with a page-turning power and balance that keeps the production airborne with nary a glitch, a hiccup, a halt or a stumble. From rehearsal hall to stage, Barre's determined vision not only reflects the well-intentioned conceit of the show's originator's, but cements the liberal humanity of the play text, its exhilarating simplicity and its triumph-over-adversity machinations most engagingly.

Written by Elton John (music) and Lee Hall (lyrics), the musical score for "Billy Elliot: The Musical" features 16 individual musical numbers. They are "The Stars Look Down," "Shine," "Grandma's Song," "Solidarity," "Expressing Yourself," "The Letter (Mum's Letter)," "We Were Born to Boogie," "Angry Dance," "Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher," "Deep Into the Ground," "Dream Ballet/Swan Lake," "He Could Be a Star," "Electricity," "Once We Were Kings," "The Letter (Billy's Reply) (Reprise)" and "Finale." Emotional, endearing, plot moving and character driven, the songs themselves take inspiration from the British working class of the 1980's and dutifully reflect the tensions, frustrations and observations of the times and the County Durham populace.

John and Hall also include underlying themes that tap into the title character's discovery, chase and pursuit of balletic dance along with chants, rhythms and percussion's that communicate the inspirational message of the musical -  acceptance, open-mindedness, the embracement of individuality, the stamping out of homophobic prejudice and standing tall in the face of adversity. This process, both collective and immersive, adds resonance and purpose to the story, punctuated by intimate bits of pathos and humor the characters project through choral sounds and climatic moments that define the "Billy Elliot" experience.

Serving as musical director is Michael O' Flaherty, a celebrated, award-winning musician whose Goodspeed credits include "Oliver!" "The Drowsy Chaperone," "The Music Man," "Big River," "1776," "Bye, Bye Birdie," "The Most Happy Fella," "Me and My Girl," "The Pajama Game" and "Sweeney Todd," among others. Now in his 28th year at the Goodspeed, he brings the right flair and precision to "Billy Elliot: The Musical" along with an energy and form that is persuasive, inspired and true to the production's fully committed, fully disciplined high musical standards.

Under his tutelage, every one of the songs is completely realized, envisioned and performed to let you see and hear it all the more clearly. Working alongside his handpicked, exceptional orchestral team (William J. Thomas (keyboard), Sal Ranniello (percussion), David Kidwell (keyboard II), Pete Roe (trumpet), Matthew Russo (trombone),  Liz Baker Smith (reed),  Mickey Schuster (reed II), Nick DiFabio (guitar),  O'Flaherty always knows what buttons to push, how to let an important element of the score linger, when to amp things up and when to take a breath, a pause or a break. As "Billy Elliot: The Musical" evolves, he draws upon his own musical knowledge and experience to recreate the authority and vibrance envisioned by the show's originators with the able assist of his band who bring the required charm, spirit and drama to the piece.

Dance being a key element in "Billy Elliot: The Musical," Goodspeed has enlisted Marc Kimelman to choreograph the show's key dance moments, which range from awkward and gawky to eventful, exciting and completely passionate. Kimelman immediately connects the story elements at hand and creates many moments to savor including Billy's colorful, breakout "Angry Dance" and the imagined "Dream Ballet/Swan Lake" ballet where the title character dances with his older self. What stands out most here is Kimelman's unbridled confidence, his impeccable speed and timing and the way he mounts each of the dance numbers in terms of expression, polish and advancement. In every respect, he understands the artistic parameters of the production's dance blueprint from end-to-end and makes inspired choices of accomplished partnering, all of which are delivered superbly and engagingly.

The casting of Liam Vincent Hutt as Billy Elliot is a major tour-de-force that not only thrusts him front and center as he is in almost nearly every scene, but allows him to display his natural talent with the thrill, dazzle, charm and charisma the character of Billy is meant to have. He's articulate. He's focused. He's innocent. He's confident. He's curious. He's intuitive. He's sensitive. He just doesn't play Billy. He is Billy. It's the performance of the year and one that lets Hutt shine as a performer, singer, dancer and gymnast without ever missing a single beat, skip, leap or turn.
As the musical moves from scene to scene and act to act, the actor superbly captures the character's transition from klutzy dance beginner to graceful, seasoned pro along with his fight for freedom and expression amidst the tension, frustration and conflict that gives the musical its drive. His Geordie accent, skillfully developed under the tutelage of dialect coach Jennifer Scapetis-Tycer (she also works wonders with the entire "Billy Elliot" cast), reflects the character's northeast upbringing. And finally, Hutt is very much in the moment, making every he does real, raw and natural.

Making his Goodspeed debut, Sean Hayden aptly portrays the angst-ridden troubles and concerns of Billy's dad Jackie as he copes with the loss of his wife, the prolonged miner's strike and the fact that his son has taken an interest in balletic dance, which he feels is a recreation for just girls and poofs. It's a performance fraught with real honesty, depth and emotion. As Tony, Billy's older brother, Gabriel Sidney Brown vividly crafts a portrait of a reckless young man committed to the cause, but filled with anger and uncertainty. Jon Martens, in the role of Billy's best friend Michael, offers a genuine, endearing performance as a young lad who loves dressing up in women's clothes and find himself attracted to Billy. It's a character turn that comes from the heart and one that Martens plays with gleeful, wicked abandon. His big song-and-dance number "Expressing Yourself," performed with Billy and the Ballet Girls, is a genuine showstopper.

As Mrs. Wilkinson, the dance teacher who recognizes Billy's raw talent, Michelle Aravena delivers an intelligent, confident turn that is fresh, amiable and entirely in sync with Lee Hall's vision of this important character. Grandma, as played by very charismatic Barbara Marineau, is accomplished, personal and likeable. Her motherly concern is assuredly rendered and kept within bounds, which makes her portrayal always a pleasure to watch whenever shes on stage. As Mrs. Wilkinson's daughter Debbie, the young girl who completely crushes on Billy, Erika Parks is animated, exhilarating, teasing and very much a stand-out performer due to her natural ability to emphasize the humor, energy and feisty spirit embedded in the role. Her keen comic sense is priceless.

Bold, big-hearted, imaginative and truthful, "Billy Elliot: The Musical" stands tall and proud at the Goodspeed. It is brilliant and daring. It is funny and poignant. It is passionate and deeply affecting. It is also blessed with a refreshing, sincere talented cast, headed by Liam Vincent Hutt, an amazing 13-year-old performer, who, in the title role, crafts one of the most realistic portraits of a young boy who refuses to give up his fight for artistic freedom and expression with the same conviction and kick that Jamie Bell brought to the original 2000 film version. Like Bell, Hutt takes that same leap, radiating pride, awe and yearning from his every single pore.

Photos of "Billy Eliot: The Musical" courtesy of Diane Sobolewski

"Billy Elliot: The Musical" is being staged at the Goodspeed (6 Main St., East Haddam, CT), now through November 24.
For tickets for more information, call (860) 873-8668.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 207, A Review: "Mlima's Tale" (Westport Country Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco

In Lynn Nottage's absorbing 80-minute play "Mlima's Tale," the title character, a much-loved and fiercely protected Kenyan elephant is attacked and killed by two poachers who anxiously await for him to die so that they could sever his magnificent tusks for their own commercial gain. But as the play evolves, his spirit lingers about in subsequent scenes as a reminder of their guilt and the savagery associated with their morally corrupt, unjust acts of murder. The tusks, in turn, eventually end up going to the highest buyer, openly displayed in a penthouse foyer as proof of their extraordinary beauty and quality.

Here, as in other works that include "Sweat," "Ruined" and "Intimate Apparel," Nottage is a masterful storyteller who gives each of her plays identity, strongness and purpose. Her passion for writing is  well-intentioned, mixed with just the right amount of wit, edge and confirmation that from page to page and scene to scene, complement her inner strength, stability and remarkable playwriting vision.


This is a powerful play that is appropriately timely, extreme and dangerous. It is unexpectedly in the moment, in its execution and in its take on the subject matter. It is also pin-sharp, revered and alarmingly sensationalized.

At Westport Country Playhouse, "Mlima's Tale" is being staged by Mark Lamos, an acclaimed, award-winning director whose credits include "The Rivals," "A Flea in Her Ear," "Ghosts," "Tartuffe," "The Miser," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "Romeo and Juliet," "Of Mice and Men," "Our Country's Good" and "Tiny Alice." Here, as in other plays he has directed, Lamos brings a raw honesty and a strong emotionalism to this drama as he lays bare the involved patchwork of Nottage's words, observations, themes, characters and story arcs, calibrated by his alternatively chilling, piercing directorial strokes.

What's especially exciting at watching Lamos at play (no pun, intended) is the way he prefigures the work from the start, how the situation or situations at hand unfurl, how everything seamlessly connects and how the piece moves from rehearsal hall to stage like an unstoppable force determined to fly and unravel with a uniqueness and freshness that's carefully blocked and persuasively balanced.

With "Mlima's Tale," the spotlight is aimed at short, narratively involving episodes that move the story forward with a force and inspiration that provides many powerful moments, thoughts, reflections and resolutions that are both convincing and dramatically effective. This is all stylistically configured to include important projections of Africian-inspired proverbs, mood music, lighting and sound cues and Jeffrey Page's sensual choreography that heighten the story's already strong docu-drama feel and allure. That said, Lamos knows what to emphasize and what to let stand still and breathe, how to let an important piece of information linger, when to amp up the pathos without calculation and how to drive each of the playwright's key story points home convincingly and unobtrusively.

The produiction stars Jermaine Rowe as Mlima, Jennean Farmer as Player 1, Adit Dileep as Player 2 ans Carl Hedrick Louis as Player 3. Playing a variety of characters including poachers, government officials, smugglers, boat captains, ivory carvers, art buyers and collectors, Farmer, Dileep and Louis shift gears with creative, chameleon-like aplomb that is admirable, persuasive and coated with actor-like relish and dynamic that works most advantageously throughout the entire production. As Mlima, Rowe is astonishing. His transformation into elephant and subsequent spirit is imbued with a lyrical command and Alvin Alley balletic grace that fascinates at every single turn. The actor also brilliantly communicates the character's suffering, anguish and torment in early scenes that portray Mlima's death and passing from one world to the next.

A shattering, potent work with edge, impact and theatrical dynamic, "Mlima's Tale" is an important drama that benefits greatly from Mark Lamos' sharp, intuitive direction and the particularly effective performances of its hardworking quartet of actors. Playwright Lynn Nottage crafts an intensely personal play that stirs and ignites with an overpowering compassion that is not easily forgotten.

Photos of "Mlima's Tale" courtesy of Carol Rosegg

"Mlima's Tale" is being staged at Westport Country Playhouse (25 Powers Ct., Westport, CT), now through October 19.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 227- 4177.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 206, A Review: "The Cherry Orchard" (Connecticut Repertory Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

Though it has been staged mostly as a mannered psychological story of despair and ennui since its 1904 debut at the Moscow Art Theatre, Anton Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" contains some hilariously ribald moments and comic contradictions that Connecticut Repertory Theatre can't seem to get enough of.

The story of the wealthy, aristocratic Ranevskaya family who lost their land due to the collapse of a feudal order, this classic play from the early days of the 20th century has been adapted to the stage in a version by Jean-Claude van Itallie that adds a lot of comic punch and bite to Chekhov's wistful, weeping masterpiece.

As theatre, it charms and probes with wicked delight. It delves deeply into the dark emotions and angst it conjures up so effortlessly. It swans around with many different kinds of loss, regret and baffled wonder. It associates itself with remembrances of missed opportunities. It laughs at the starchy restraint of yesteryear. It also gallops along with some highly choreographed clowning and nouveau-riche gesticulation reminiscent of "The Importance of Being Earnest," "The Play That Goes Wrong" and "A Little Night Music."

With all of this chicanery lathered up in one big Chekhovian mind game, both comic and dramatic, this telling of one family's fall from fortune never once seems out of place. It sparkles with originality and besotted merriment. It ridicules and cajoles. It is also so quirky, offbeat and colorful, there are times when you forget you're watching a play devised by Anton Chekhov.

At CRT, "The Cherry Orchard" is being staged by John Miller-Stephany, a savvy storyteller and director whose credits include "The Night of the Iguana," "To Kill a Mockingbird," "Sweeney Todd," "Jane Eyre," "The Music Man" and "1776." Completely akin to the plot and character machinations of Chekhov's world, he crafts an unmistakably challenging piece of theatre that broods, chirps,
tantalizes, skips and growls. It's all carefully thought out, bouncing back and forth between emotional turbulence and jaunty comedy, staged with appropriate dash, wit and pitch perfection.

Much of what happens here works seamlessly enough as "The Cherry Orchard" is played with elegant restraint and fast-wilting zaniness rather than something more layered, mannered and simmering from the likes of London's National Theatre. It's a directorial choice, of course, that changes things considerably, but, at the same time, respects the blueprint set forth by Chekhov without  glossing over any Chekhovian darkness, gloom, edge or high passion.

Played out in four segments (two per act), this production brings the right mood and mindset to the Russian classic with Stephany orchestrating knockabout humor and warmth with moments of tragedy, cruelty, tranquility and unquietness. Working with very classy ingredients, both melodramatic and sincere, his personal touches and directorial insight keep the material alert, punchy and poetic. Nothing just happens out of nowhere. There is drive and purpose to this telling that puts a playful twist on things without losing any of its somber, bleak intent. Stephany also travels a more understandable route in terms of storytelling which allows the audience to tap into the play comfortably and realize the story's issues upfront and first hand.

"The Cherry Orchard" stars Caralyn Kozlowski as Lyubov Andreyevna Ranevskaya, Mark Light-Orr as Leonid Andreyevich Gayev, Abigal Hilditch as Anya, Alex Campbell as Varya, Tristan Rewald as Yasha, Bryan Mittelstadt as Pyotr Sergeyevich Trofimov, Rob Barnes as Semyon Paanteleyevich Yepikhodov, Sierra Kane as Charlotta Ivanovna, Sebastian Nagpal as Firs, Erin Cessina as Dunyasha, Nikolai Fernandez as Yermolay Alexeyevich Lopakhim, Matthew Antoci as Simeonov-Pischik and Anthony Antoci as a Vagrant. Everyone stands out in his or her own way, projecting the tortured or sharply funny voices of their characters in dutiful, relatable ways. They get Chekhov. They understand Chekhov. They like Chekhov. They are so very right for each of the different roles they are asked to portray. They are smartly attuned to the setting of the play,  the manners and expressions of the period and how they should react and behave with one another. They also have great fun reciting the full names of the play's Russian characters (a running gag, one might say) without skipping a beat or reciting the ambiguous, lyrical and humorous dialogue dictated by the playwright.

Life as seen through the eyes of Anton Chekhov manages to be glib, funny and forever crumbling in CRT's nicely staged production of "The Cherry Orchard." This handsome revival makes perfect sense out of the character's idiosyncrasies, their browbeaten bathos and egotism, their high strung  conversations, their silly dalliances and their restless passions. When necessary, director John Miller-Stephany goes full tilt to shake things up a bit, but when the dust settles, he plugs deeply into his absurdist telling, thus, giving it a mind of its own and a jar or two of self-importance, angst and irony, fractured charm and poignant melancholy.

"The Cherry Orchard" is being staged at Connecticut Repertory Theatre (Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre, 2132 Hilldside Rd., Storrs, CT), now through October 13.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 486-2113

Monday, October 7, 2019

From The Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 205, A Review: "Sherlock Holmes and the Haunted Cabaret" (Downtown Cabaret Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

In "Sherlock Holmes and the Haunted Cabaret," a popular television game show called "The Helping Hand," discovers a mysterious phantom in the wings who threatens the livelihood of all involved with a terrible vengeance that brings Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's beloved character up on to the stage of the television studio to unmask (no pun intended) this psycho using the same whirlwind Baker Street strategies that put him on the map in the first place.

Who is this madman?
Is he a man?
Is he a woman?
What has he or she to gain?
Why has "The Helping Hand" been targeted?
Is is someone from behind-the-scene's of the popular game show?
Is it the producer?
Is it the host?
Is it the hostess?
Is is a shamed contestant who lost the big prize?

As scripted by Phil Hill, there are a number of possibilities, but the final decision rests not upon Sherlock Holmes, but every single member of the audience. Here, you decide the ending of the play and who to place in the limelight as the villain or villainess of the piece.

But before you do, there's lots of comedy, lots of drama, lots of clues, lots of big musical numbers, lots of dancing and lots of jokes to keep you and everyone in the theater on their toes as "Sherlock Holmes and the Haunted Cabaret" thrills, excites, entices and amps up the entertainment ante with enough guffawed glee and banana peel delirium to last right up until the big climax at the end of Act II.

At Downtown Cabaret, "Sherlock Holmes and the Haunted Cabaret" is being staged by Ricky Altamirano, an intuitive director who brings the right mindset and understanding to the genre, its well-constructed whodunit caseload, its logic puzzles and deceits, its chatter and expectations and its mounting, mannered curiosity. More importantly, he takes hold of the obviously giddy, double-barrelled plot and has great fun with it, always knowing when to go for a laugh, try something serious, toss you the wrong clue, unspool the invented rules or shake up the play's apparent, ordained fustiness.

Half the fun, of course, is discovering who the culprit is and why the act in question was done. Altamirano's eye for detail and his perfectly-timed staging for the play's eight individual scenes (four per act) fuels the fire as it becomes one of the most pleasurable aspects of his work here. In turn, the play's high-charged energy never falters for a moment even when Phil Hill's play text dictates a well-placed song, dance or both to thrust the action forward most engagingly.

This being an interactive piece of children's theatre, the audience is required to become an active participant when necessary through a show of hands, loud or not-so-loud applause, potent vocal responses, quick-witted improvisation and finally, the selection of the culprit which depending on their choice, changes the end of the play from performance to performance. Whereas some productions tend to milk or overplay these concepts, here, Altamirano keeps a tight reign on what to say and how to proceed within the confines of the script and its subsequent breaks to elicit audience response. It's all very professional, lively, consistent and great fun for both the on-stage actors and every single kid, teenager and adult in the audience.

"Sherlock Holmes and the Haunted Cabaret" stars Andrea Pane as Sherlock Holmes, Ashley DePascale as Joanna Watson, Lauren Bell as Vanessa Pearl, Ricky Altamirano as Montgomery Conyers and Zach Fontanez as Godfrey Rayburn. All five are not only well chosen for their respective roles, but deliver well-honed character portraits, laced with page-turning finesse, charm, wit and break-away exhilaration. Taking their cues from the script or from the audience, they never once break character for a second.

Sherlock Holmes, played by Andrea Pane, absolutely looks the part from head to toe in Leslie Neilson-Bowman's well-chosen costuming. Played with chilling spotlight accuracy by the actor, Pane has the patrician manner of the famous London sleuth, his razor-sharp cheekbones, his shameless magnifying glass polish and his aquiline grandstanding. He also deftly projects the character's famous deduction logic, his lengthy investigative conversations, his Baker Street ethics and his ability to trap the real culprit just when you think it's someone else entirely. Pane is also suitably cool, serious, intense and aloof when need be. And when asked to take the plunge into the play's broad comic directives, he nails the shtick perfectly with panache and well-timed wit and invention.

As Vanessa Pearl, a character modeled, in part, after "Wheel of Fortune" hostess Vanna White, Lauren Bell has charm, charisma, sass, sweetness and stage presence to boot. She carries off this bubbly role beautifully and is incredibly resourceful at illuminating the character's bright-colored persona, her smarts and ingenuity and her goldstar ambitions. Ashley DePascale makes an invigorating  Joanna Watson, channeling the character's dedication for playing Holmes' able crime solving partner, ultimately deserving of her chance to take the lead. She's a breath of fresh air with a flair for playing both physical comedy and pathos with hands-on-surprise and tom-foolery.

As Godfrey Rayburn, "The Helping Hand's" beleaguered production assistant, Zach Fontanez displays genius comic timing and technical skills that unravel with faultless precision and flustered spirit. "Sherlock" director Ricky Altamirano, in the role of Montgomery Conyers, "The Helping Hand's" razzle-dazzle game show host, knows how to play comedy to the fullest, chart the on-the-spot improvisation brilliantly and nail anything that's thrown at him from the audience with the intuitiveness of a true musical hall vaudevillian. He's a master at reducing audience members to helpless, wobbly jelly and sustaining laughter with wonderfully hammy bits and bobs that are joyously manic and absolutely right for this giggly choreographed mayhem.

"Sherlock Homes and the Haunted Cabaret" is fast, confident and deliciously witty children's theatre. The script is lively and well-suited to the genre it parodies. Under Ricky Altamirano's playful direction,  the five-member cast get it right at every single turn. So if you're a big Sherlock Holmes fan looking to play sleuth and solve the mystery at hand, this production makes wonderful use of Arthur Conan Doyle's world famous detective in between the laughs, the mayhem, the big reveal and the songs and dances. You can even come to the theater dressed as Holmes or Watson or any other British whodunit figure if you so choose.

"Sherlock Holmes and the Haunted Cabaret" is being staged at Downtown Cabaret Theatre (263 Golden Hill St., Bridgeport, CT), now through November 3.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 576-1636.