Tuesday, November 19, 2019

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

By James V. Ruocco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 16, 2019

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

By James V. Ruocco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos of "Don Juan" courtesy of Carol Rosegg

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

Thursday, November 14, 2019

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

By James V. Ruocco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 11, 2019

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

By James V. Ruocco

Robert Thomas Halliwell as Charlie Luther Mason.

Janet Rathert as Sherri Rosen-Mason.

Pat Leo as Bill Mason.

Lucy Babbitt as Ginnie Peters.

Ruth Ann Baumgartner as Roberta.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 10, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 221, A Review: "Steel Magnolias" (Music Theatre of Connecticut)

By James V. Ruocco

All it takes is the right kind of dialogue to score a home run.

"I do not see plays, because I can nap at home for free."
"Steel Magnolias"

"Well, we went skinny dipping and we did things that frightened the fish"
"Steel Magnolias"

"Honey, time marches on and eventually you realize it's marchin' across your face."
"Steel Magnolias"

"I didn't know if you would hire someone who may or may not be married to someone who might look like a dangerous criminal"
"Steel Magnolias"

"All gay men have track lightin.' And all gay men are named Mark, Rick, or Steve."
"Steel Magnolias"

"Maybe, I should have an emotional outburst more often. Maybe, I should start havin' them at home. Drum would be so pleased."
"Steel Magnolias"

"You sound almost chipper. What happened today, you run over a child or something?"
"Steel Magnolias"

First performed off-Broadway in 1987, but best known as the 1989 film that starred Dolly Parton, Sally Field, Julia Roberts, Olympia Dukakis, Daryl Hannah and Shirley MacLaine, Robert Harling's "Steel Magnolias" was based, in part on real-life incidents from the playwright's own life.
If you've seen the film or the play before, then, of course, you already know what happens. But for those of you who haven't, a lot happens, both good and bad, to this particular group of female friends inside Truvy's, a cozy beauty parlor where everyone's words and personal conversations set the mood for what follows, both on stage and off.

This bright, breezy and very welcoming Louisiana hair salon is the main setting for Harling's sparkling, poignant comedy drama, which is lovingly and truthfully brought to life in Music Theatre of Connecticut's lively second production of its 2019-2020 season.


"Steel Magnolias"  dazzles and cajoles as it celebrates womanhood, the stories of womanhood and the heartaches of womanhood with wonderful splashes of peach, pink, rose and magnolia. Plus a fair amount of sunshine, sparkle, glitter, teased hair, curlers and lots and lots of hairspray.
It also gives every actress the opportunity to shine on every level, not just in the freshness and vivacity of the material, but in the characters themselves, all of whom have plenty of baggage, history and back story to boot, offset by candid back talk, cheery one liners and loud, involved character-driven pronouncements that thrust you head first into their colorful, well-written stories.

All of this is given a rich, deeply textured life here, as shaped and molded by director Pamela Hill whose credits include "Always...Patsy Cline," "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," "The Tempest," "Blithe Spirit," "The 39 Steps" and "Sleuth."  As "Steel Magnolias" evolves from scene to scene, emotion to emotion and laugh to laugh, the audience is privy to a first-class, well-intentioned production that is deeply naturalistic, achingly real and feelingly enacted by its choice, intuitive hand-picked cast. Nothing is out of place. Nothing is overplayed. It is all framed and well thought out by  by Hill who puts her own definitive stamp on Harling's  popular, oft-revived comedy-drama.

Given the fact that "Steel Magnolias" has only six central characters, in terms of stage blocking, positioning and movement, Hill always knows exactly what buttons to push, what to power up and power down, where and when to move an actor and how to thrust an important story arc front and center through dialogue, characterization and reaction. Her approach is vivid, cinematic and three dimensional. Whether there are two people on stage or four or six, everything that happens is touchingly, comically and tenderly observed and played with the right spirit, pathos, comedy and  sadness set forth by the playwright.

The giving of a Christmas present, the cutting and styling of hair, the answering of a phone, a quiet observation or expression, a hug, a cry or sigh of relief, a sudden outburst, a remembrance, a reflection....all of this (and more) heightens the entire, emotional "Steel Magnolias" experience. As director and storyteller, Hill knows how exactly how actors think and behave, create and build a character, explore and develop and finally, perform an entire play before a live audience. Here, things are so naturally and intimately conveyed, you actually forget you're in a theater watching a play. The closeness of actor to audience makes one feel as if they are sitting in Truvy's beauty parlor as a silent observer or seventh character sipping coffee, flipping through magazines or just watching everyone doing their thing from the sidelines.

The casting is perfect. All six actresses work splendidly together, individually, in pairs and as a unified ensemble. They connect with the story, their particular character and their role in the progression of the story every single second they have on stage

It's a role Andrea Lynn Green was born to play and play it she does with all the heart, kindness, sweetness and passion the part calls for, and so much more. As Shelby, a diabetic young woman who is about to be married shortly after the play opens, Green crafts an amazing, naturally nuanced portrait of beauty, determination and survival that is true to the spirit and pulse of the character throughout "Steel Magnolias." Her enactment of Shelby's on-stage hypoglycemic attack not only illustrates the severity of her illness, but is performed with a realness and rawness that will immediately shake you up and break your heart in two. She also brings voice, vitality and freshness to the part whenever she's on stage. 

Investing the pivotal role of Shelby's mother M'Lynn with the command, resilience and reserve the playwright envisioned for the character, Kaia Monroe brings a compelling, emotional courage and energy to the part that is delivered convincingly, remarkably and quite touchingly by the actress. Her big meltdown which occurs during the second half of Act II and the eventual release of emotions and tears that follow is so honest and real, it's impossible not to cry along with her in this amazingly staged, performed and well-known scene from the production.

As the caring, good-spirited Clairee, the widow of the town's former major, Cynthia Hannah is  exhilarating, delightful and utterly passionate about her character and her role in the ongoing story.  Her performance is effecting, honest, strong and well-paced with a charm, spunk and effervescence that comes straight from the hip and from the heart. In the role of Annelle, the runaway wife who becomes the salon's brand new hairdresser, Rachel Rival offers a quirky, wistful and goofy portrayal of a young woman who eventually becomes a born-again Christian and looks to the Lord for spiritual guidance. It's a comic, warm and emotional turn that the actress invests with an earthy immediacy that is inhabited rather than played, thus, making her performance shine, swirl and captivate whenever she's front and center.

Truvy, the wisecracking salon proprietor with a great head of hair and a chitchat flowing personality that would charm the pants off any heterosexual male is played with down home honesty and southern charm by Raissa Katona Bennett, an actress completely attuned to the wit and verve of Harling's play text which she harvests with good-humored thoughtfulness, zing and pin-sharp abandonment. As Ouiser, Kirsti Carnahan is a mighty whirlwind of sass, brass and sour-note artifice that is tossed off cleverly with lots of funny and dialogue-rich moments that are hurled back and forth with the glazed sarcasm and merriment her character is famous for.

Vivid, exciting, upbeat and extremely well done, "Steel Magnolias" offers theatergoers a healthy batch of female conversation, gossip and banter about life, death, marriage, sex, divorce, friendship, birth, money, recipes, religion, bonding, men and sudden, unexpected twists of fate. It is fast. It is funny. It is bubbly. It is intimate. It is sad. It is emotional. It is clever. It unfolds with an organic vitality and pulse that is rare in theater, nowadays.
Most of all, it's about six women who deeply care about each other even when they disagree or cling to age-old opinions and traditions that are fly-away-fun like a delicious cup of hot, flavored coffee and a delicious, home-cooked southern meal on a warm summer night.

"Steel Magnolias" is being staged at Music Theatre of Connecticut (509 Westport Avenue, Norwalk, CT), now through November 24.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 454-3883.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 220, A Review: "Admissions" (St. Luke's School)

By James V. Ruocco

If you're thinking of sending your kids and teenagers to a scholastic environment that has the right drama class curriculum, look no further than St. Luke's in New Canaan. Here, students actively engage in career-focused classes, plays and musicals designed to support individuality and growth mentored by trained professionals who love acting just as much as they do.

Case in point - Josh Harmon's Broadway/West End drama "Admissions," a very timely and vocal play about white privilege, liberal hypocrisies, the struggle for diversity, scholastic anxiety and racial conflicts and  representation. Here, five young actors take center stage at the Wyckhoff Black Box Theater and offer theatergoers five very different performances that are grounded, emotional and spirited, demonstrating spectacularly resourced teamwork and dedication.

They are:

Henry Jodka as Charlie Luther Mason.

Leila Pearson as Sherri Rosen-Mason.

Cameron Tyler as Bill Mason.

Emily Stute as Ginnie Peters.

Alexandra Vogel as Roberta Russert.

As written by Harmon, "Admissions" deals with acceptance policies at prep schools and elite universities, which, in this play is Yale University. Shortly after the play opens, Charlie Luther Mason learns that his best friend Perry, whose father is black and mother is white, got accepted into Yale. Charlie, in turn, received a deferral letter which forced him to run off and scream loudly in the woods before facing his parents and launching an uncontrollable tirade of hurt, frustration and major

What follows sets the tone for this amazing piece of stagecraft that is full of rage, full of dare, full of surprise, full of angst and believe it or not, full of humor. It is one of those plays that kicks you in the ass, spits you in the face, toys with your senses, leaves you emotionally drained and tells you, quite frankly, to "Fuck off."

"Admissions" is being staged by Jason Peck, St. Luke's Director of Theatre Arts and Co-Artistic Director of Thrown Stone in Ridgefield. An artful, perceptive storyteller, Peck crafts a provocative, sharp theatrical piece that tackles central arguments and weighty questions and undercurrents about white privilege, access and opportunity, racial prejudice and diversity and status quo with in-your-face rawness, connection and honesty. He respects the playwright's choice of dialogue, his cleverly orchestrated scene-by-scene rota, his sanctimonious grandstanding, his lengthy monologues and his booming characterizations. He keeps the play's expletives intact without any cuts, including the word "Fuck," which figures predominantly in the vocabulary of most of the on-stage characters. His knowledge and understanding of the play text is extraordinarily useful and gives the production a raw diversity and conviction that heightens its importance.

Timing and pacing is mandatory in a work of this nature and Peck doesn't waste a single second. He knows what he wants and he runs with it. He submits a stage blocking blueprint that is rife with application and imagination. He is very precise and detailed when moving his cast through the paces of the play's raging storms and domestic drama. His handling of the show's brilliant running crew throughout every single one of the scene changes is incredibly timed and positioned. He also pays close attention to little things like how a teenager quickly gulps down a glass of wine, how a dad sneakily adds another slice of carrot cake to his already full dessert plate, how a mother prepares a family dinner from scratch, how someone sits, stands and reacts and when to simply take a breath, a pause, a beat and a power down to complete silence.

An actor himself, Peck's handling of his teenage cast is both remarkable and intuitive. These aren't just teenagers playing parts in a school play. These are five serious, determined actors who inhabit their respective roles with brains, skill, stagecraft and emotive performance style and energy. In the grand scheme of things, they make it all seem natural and flowing as Peck moves them about John Rourke Conners' handsome, atmospheric, incredibly designed setting using moves and patterns that are spontaneous and free and never formulaic or stagy. They also come to the St. Luke performance space with the attitude of young professionals who speak from the heart, give the audience a lot to think and talk about and move the action along with provocation, conscience and purpose.

As the frustrated and angered Charlie Luther Mason, Henry Jodka tackles his character's tirades, outbursts and outrageous pronouncements with amazing realness, honesty and emotion. What's particularly refreshing about his work is that he is very much in the moment. Yes, he knows his lines. Yes, the entire play has been rehearsed. Yes, he knows his cues frontwards, backwards and center. But when he speaks, it comes from within. When he performs, never once do you think he is acting. He's the real deal. His reactions, expressions and movements throughout "Admissions" only furthers that notion.

In the role of Charlie's mother Sherri Rosen-Mason, Leila Pearson offers an outstanding, beautifully textured performance that is layered, raw, intuitive and completely in sync with the playwright's conceit for the character. She's in pretty much every scene and commands your attention with her important dialogue and conversations, all of which she delivers effortlessly. As Charlie's father Bill Mason, Cameron Taylor fathoms his depths as an important character with an unbridled charm, force and naturalness that gives every one of his scenes the emotional weight they demand. Using a wonderfully humorous voice to show her character's age, Alexandra Vogel is quirky, offbeat, outspoken and amusing, which is everything the part of Roberta Russert calls for and more. As Perry's mother, Ginnie Peters, Emily Shute gives a solid, centered, precisely right performance that is played with authorial voice, sting and snap and emotion.

Gripping, persuasive, challenging and complex, Josh Harmon's "Admissions" is a fast paced, intelligently written play of real depth performed by a deeply committed cast under Jason Peck's astute, involved direction. It is a play that reverberates with feeling, heartbreak, hypocrisy and pain. Its arguments are heated and crushing. Its emotional connection is entirely truthful. And finally, it's a play that allows its cast of teenage actors to cut loose and perform with refreshing, fueled vigor using a creative mindset and theatrical savvy that hits the right chord at every single unadulterated turn.

"Admissions" is being staged at St. Luke's School (Wyckoff Black Box Theater, 377 North Wilton Rd., New Canaan, CT), now through November 10.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 424-2989
website:  stlukesct.org

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 219, A Review: "Cry It Out" (Hartford Stage)

By James V. Ruocco

"You have no idea what you're getting into when you have a kid. You have no idea it's going to crack you life open, it's gonna crack your identity open, it cracks your marriage open, and in my case, it actually physically cracked me open."
(Molly Smith Metzler, Playwright, "Cry It Out")

Learning how to be a mother of a newborn baby without first hand experience is just one of the many topics addressed in "Cry It Out," Mary Smith Metzler's complex, significant play about choices, worrying, anxiety, options, common errors, breastfeeding, sleepless nights, depression, isolation, financial troubles, childcare issues, societal pressure and so more more.

The list goes on and on.
Some questions are answered. Some are not.
The possibilities, however, are endless and that is the point of this moving, edgy, acerbic take on motherhood, its experiences and its day-to-day challenges.

At Hartford Stage, director Rachel Alderman's handsome, deftly crafted production of  "Cry It Out" plunges you headfirst into the playwright's weighty storytelling as its cast of four -  Evelyn Spahr as Lina, Rachel Spencer Hewitt as Jessie, Caroline Kinsolving as Adrienne and Erin Gann as Mitchell - take hold of the material, play it for all its worth and invest each of their roles with a natural, polyphonic richness that gets under your skin, rattles your senses, makes you uncomfortable, breaks your heart in two and leaves you emotionally drained when the cynicism, angst, shock, surprise and familiarity of the conversations are dialed down right before the final fadeout.


 "Cry It Out" is addictively watchable entertainment with a vital spark and commanding voice of quivering intensity that offers fertile ground for interpretation by both director and playwright who startle and taunt, tease and cajole and reflect and argue about the highs and lows of 21st century motherhood. The 90-minute play, performed without an intermission, unfolds through such fresh eyes, it's impossible to look away for a single second for fear of missing something important to the story's telling and progression.

The title itself refers to sleep training methods that allow babies to shed tears and make a fuss for a set period of time before any parent intervention. The goal, of course, is to teach the infant to self-soothe and eventually drift off to sleep. It does not require a parent to allow their baby to cry out all night long without some degree of comfort, action and attention.

As playwright and storyteller, Metzler offers her audience a fast and fluid serio-comic work that is direct, humorous and mind-bending, offset by lots of irony, prickly wit, sentiment and structural involvement. There's also plenty of satisfying innuendo here, peppered with straight-referenced facts, themes, connections, punchlines, four-letter words, infiltrating language and modernistic discoveries and outbursts that make everything that happens in "Cry It Out" upfront and connected without the slightest form of calculation.

Staging "Cry It Out," director Rachel Alderman knows exactly what she wants, how to play a certain moment, when to take a breath, how to interpret each page of dialogue, when to amp things up and when to power them down for a moment or two of silence. As "Cry It Out" evolves, she gives authentic voice to Metzler's conversations, characters, themes, undercurrents, explorations, conflicts and repercussions.  Here, everything that happens is articulated with such purpose, authenticity and conviction, you often forget that you are sitting in a theater watching a play. The actual voyeuristic arrangement of actor to audience is so uniquely felt under Alderman's tutelage, it often heightens "Cry It Out's" dramatic and comic momentum, its scene-by-scene rota and its overall enjoyment.

In the role of Jessie, a corporate lawyer on a leave of absence from work and fully engaged in new found motherhood,  Rachel Spencer Hewitt delivers a raw, intuitive, sensitive portrayal of a woman grappling with baby monitors, child-rearing chaos, late night feedings, anxiety, insecurity, organizational planning and various domestic challenges that keep her character hopping from early morning till midnight. Asked to portray a variety of emotions, mood swings and character turns, the actress is a natural fit for the part, which she plays with amazing truthfulness, authenticity and realness.

It's a role she was born to play and play it she does. As the wisecracking, foul-mouthed Lina, a terribly unsophisticated and ballsy South Shore mother who immediately bonds with her loving neighbor Jessie,  Evelyn Spahr inhabits the part so convincingly, there's no mistaking her character's background, personality and mindset for a single second.  She is always switched on, listening, moving, reacting or reciting Meltzer's dialogue with pleasurable accuracy and ferocious passion.

Erin Gann plays the part of Mitchell, a wealthy business entrepreneur who often spies on Jessie and Lina through his telescope, with the right compassion, honesty, shyness, confusion and awkwardness the part calls for, which, in turn, adds the right rhythm and honesty to his deft portrayal of a man troubled by his wife's lack of interest and concern with their newborn baby.

Caroline Kinsolving, as Mitchell's beautiful, self-absorbed wife Adrienne, a successful jewelry designer in her own right, drips disdain, rudeness, obnoxiousness  and contempt so effectively from her very first entrance to her last, you wonder why the hell he married her, why he is still living with her and why he asked Lina and Jessie to make her a part of their outdoor morning and afternoon coffee routines. That said, it's a strong, confident performance layered with plenty of fire and fury until the ball drops and the character reveals an anguished back story designed to reduce you to tears.

"Cry It Out" is a candid, intimate piece of theater that surprises and illuminates with remarkable clarity and vision. A psychological fantasia about four very different people, it is a remarkable new work that speaks to its audience through intimate, revealing conversations that are truthful, profound, disturbing, acerbic and surprisingly cogent. With its sweeps of simple choreographed movement by director Rachel Alderman, it draws you into the action immediately and keeps you riveted for its full ninety minutes. This is the kind of theatre that Hartford Stage does best and the end result is truly electrifying.

Photos of "Cry It Out" courtesy of T. Charles Erickson 

"Cry It Out" is being presented at Hartford Stage (50 Church St., Hartford, CT), now through November 17.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-5151.
website: hartfordstage.org

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 218, A Review: "A Shayna Maidel" (Playhouse on Park)

By James V. Ruocco

The story of the Holocaust, as seen through the eyes of those who survived the slaughter, the devastation and the concentration camps, comes with memories, shadows, fragments and nightmares of family, friends and people loved, admired and lost.

In "A Shayna Maidel," Barbara Lebow's compelling 1984 drama about two sisters - Rose, safe and living life in America; Lusia, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps - are reunited in America years after the separation that tore them apart. Rose has no memories of her life in Poland while Lusia is not only haunted by them, but often drifts back and forth through memory with vivid recollections about her mother, her best friend  Hanna and Duvid, the love of her life, who, sadly, has gone missing.

As playwright, Lebow delivers a powerful study of family and sisterhood, privation and privilege, loss and suffering, chance and circumstance and liberation and assimilation that appeals to people of all ages, religions and lifestyles. It's a work fraught with well-written, well-researched historical facts and explanations that lend themselves nicely to the framework of her story, its crucial context, its scene-by-scene evolution, its characterizations and its horrible crimes against the human race.

At Playhouse on Park, Lebow's two-act drama stands tall and proud as a harrowing litany of loss, sorrow and survival in a presentation that is fully committed, redemptive and compelling at every single turn. Fittingly, "A Shayna Maidel" is a rare and arresting play that is timely and painful, extraordinary and emotional and one that moves through the lives of every one of its on-stage characters with the pain, confusion and joy set forth by the playwright. It also celebrates the theater's on-going commitment to important dramatic works that entice and surprise and make you always feel like you are part of the story that unfolds right before your very eyes.

Working from Barbara Lebow's blueprint, director Dawn Loveland Navarro crafts a boldly intense and personal character drama that pulls you deep into Lusia and Rose's story, providing different moods, interactions and intimacy that makes it all very worthwhile. Scenes build and evolve traveling down different paths of reality, conflict and remembrance with astonishingly atmospheric and enveloping touches. As director and storyteller, Navarro also brings an infinitely fluid, natural feel to the play, which gives it added depth and resonance plus an art-house feel that deepens the human resilience and psychological rawness of the play text.

As "A Shayna Maidel" evolves, Navarro always knows where she is going, what she wants, how a scene is to be played and acted and how she wants the audience to react to the storytelling at hand. She doesn't waste a moment, an emotion, an important pause, a character turn, a monologue or an aspiring piece of stagecraft. Here, things are confident, articulate, circular, attentive, emotional and well rooted. She uses the intimate Playhouse on Park space and its actor-audience closeness most advantageously throughout the two-act drama. Her detailed grasp of the material is also configured with a voyeuristic honesty and ambition that is appropriately distinctive and thoughtful in all the right ways. She also plunges you head first into one very extraordinary scene where Lusia and her father Mordechai painstakingly compare notes from meticulously kept pocket journals they have kept on the many dead and missing relatives and friends they have in common. It's one of those theatrical moments that will break you in two...and then some.

"A Shayna Maidel" stars Katharina Schmidt as Lusia Pechenik, Laura Sudduth as Rose Weiss, Mitch Greenberg as Mordechai Weiss, Alex Rafala as Duvid Pechenik, Julia Tolchin as Hanna and Krista Lucas as Mama.

Playing the pivotal role of Lusia Pechenik, a liberated concentration camp survival who travels to America to reunite with her long-lost family, Katharina Schmidt gives an ovation-worthy performance that puts her at the top of her game in this very competitive season of dramatic theategoing. Her portrayal is rife with feeling, emotion, depth, delicacy, grace and curiosity, all important characteristics that give Lusia backbone and nuance in the ongoing story. Inhabiting the role as if the playwright wrote for part with her in mind, she commands attention at every turn. Her every gesture, movement, expression and recitation of the dialogue before her is so believably executed, never once do you thing she is acting. You also can't take your eyes off her for a single second for fear you might miss something important in the telling and evolution of her Holocaust story.

In the role of Rose Weiss, Laura Sudduth has the right mindset and all-American zest and perkiness to bring her character to life honestly and convincingly. Like Schmidt, she too is firmly rooted in the mechanics of Lebow's story, its past and present conflict and pathos and its developmental progression. There's a clear-eyed honesty to her work that is abundantly potent and real, suffused with just the right amount of understanding and knowledge to make her reconciliation with her long-lost sister workable and palpable without the slightest hint of calculation. 

As Lusia and Rose's father Mordechai Weiss, Mitch Greenberg delivers a forceful, involved portrayal of a man conflicted by his own private burdens of guilt, parental responsibility, victimization and wrong choices. He's the real deal by all accounts from his authentic Yiddish accent to his vivid, well-played dramatic moments that are unleashed with stirring pathos throughout the production. Alex Rafala, as Duvid Pechenik, brings depth, feeling and nuance to his portrayal of Lusia's beloved husband. As Lusia's high-spirited childhood friend Hanna, Julia Tolchin crafts a very memorable performance that unfolds with both a big-hearted feel and piercing sadness that is exactly right for her characterization. In the role of Mama, Krista Lucas provides a strong, thoughtful and sensitive portrait filtered through reality and remembrance with affecting realism.

As important today as when it was first performed off-Broadway in 1987, "A Shayna Maidel" is a deeply affecting, luminous drama about the reunion of two sisters who were separated during the Nazi's Polish blitzkrieg and reunited years later in America. It is an important work of theatre that demands to be seen, framed by surprising pathos and power, beautifully detailed direction by Dawn Loveland Navarro and six honest, exquisitely acted performances that reflect the aftermath of the Holocaust in very frightening, emotionally-charged ways that linger long after the play has ended.

One final note: Translated from Yiddish, "a shayna maidel" means "a pretty girl."

Photos of "A Shayna Maidel" courtesy of Meredith Longo

"A Shayna Maidel" is being staged at Playhouse on Park ( 244 Park Rd., West Hartford, CT), now through November 17.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 523-5900.
website: playhouseonpark.org

Sunday, November 3, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 217, A Review: "American Idiot" (Brookfield Theatre for the Arts)

By James V. Ruocco

"I jerked off into oblivion last night and today I forgot to shower, again. Oh, well. It doesn't matter, because I'm just gonna meet up with Will and Tunny and the usual suspects again for another afternoon of shit talkin,' cigarettes and blah, fucking blah."
Johnny, Will, Tunny ("American Idiot")

In "American Idiot," the 2010 musical adapted from Green Day's 2004 album of the same name, the characters who populate the punk culture represented in the show are all on edge complaining and bitching noisily about conservative media, the Presidency, the lack of challenges, family miscommunication, the war in Irac, heroin abuse, self-destruction, mood disorders, broken dreams and so much more.

The list goes on and on.
Then again, that's the point of this significant, scream-heavy opus where voices are raised in song selling the emotional angst, heartache and attitude of the songs they are asked to sing, backed by a six-member band who keep the sound and energy of the story as pumped-up and vibrant as the show's creators (Green Day, Billy Joe Armstrong, Michael Mayer) allow.

The story is simple enough. Three suburban best friends - Johnny, Tunny, Will - anxiously try to move forward through post-9/11 America. One finds comfort through drugs, women and hot raw sex in the big city. Another heads off to war. A third struggles to support a wife and a newborn baby.

What follows is a fast and furious portrait of tortured misfits, wasted youth, beleaguered friends and crazed slackers who emulate Green Day's pleasurable, raucous, fuck-you-protest punk music with all the rage, love and wonder this 90-minute, full-tilt, thrill ride has to offer.

The newly minted Brookfield Theatre For the Arts presentation of "American Idiot" gets it right at every turn.

It engages its audience.
It runs on pure adrenaline.
It breaks you in two.
It haunts and stifles.
It celebrates and rejoices.
It is punk rebellion of the wildest kind.

Beth Bonnabeau, last seen as Miss Mona in Brookfield Theatre for the Arts' summer presentation of "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," has the right mindset, attitude and directorial sheen necessary for "American Idiot" to work. As director, she brings extraordinary depth to the material, an amazing sense of balance and nuance and a well-suited reality that makes everything that happens on stage look solid and sloshing, contained and vitriolic and wonderfully heart-shedding with a dash or two of retro sideshow Bohemia thrown in for extra measure.

Given the musical's themes of anarchy, rebellion, disillusionment, substance abuse and sexual freedom, Bonnabeau handles these issues and more with a directness and passion that is completely in sync with Green Day's concept for the music, its narrative thrust and its in-your-face promiscuity.
She doesn't hold back either, a conceit that creates some blatant, well-orchestrated moments that burst with imagination and wild abandon. Directorially, she keeps her energetic cast in constant motion, using very creative movement, staging and blocking that enhances the mood and feel of "American Idiot." She handles the intimate Broofield Theatre space well creating some impressive 3-D visuals reminiscent of "Rent," "Hair" and "Spring Awakening." She also knows when to strike a pause, when to take a breath, when and where to move the audience's eye through the ongoing action and when to let things pop, snap and resonate.

"American Idiot" comes packaged with 31 individual songs, written by American punk rock band Green Day (music) and the band's lead vocalist Billy Joe Armstrong (lyrics). They are: "American Idiot," "Jesus of Suburbia," "City of the Damned," "I Don't Care," "Dearly Beloved," "Tales of Another Broken Home," "Holiday," "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," "Favorite Son," "Are We the Waiting," "St. Jimmy," "Give Me Novocaine," "Last of the American Girls/She's a Rebel," "Last Night on Earth," "Too Much Too Soon," "Before the Lobotomy," "Extraordinary Girl," "Before the Lobotomy (Reprise)," "When It's Time," "Know Your Enemy," "21 Guns," "Letterbomb," "Wake Me Up When September Ends," "The Death of St. Jimmy," "East 12th St," "Nobody Likes You," "Rock and Roll Girlfriend," "We're Coming Home," "Whatsername," "Good Riddance."

Politically charged with primal anger, mind-fuck summarizing and tough, punkish balladry, the music for "American Idiot" is pretty hardcore stuff that's insightful, ballsy, bratty and undeniably tuneful.
Reconceived for the stage, it's all pretty relevant and inspirational in terms of storytelling, who sings what, who is scarred and confused, who vibes with his or her set of problems, who feels like an outsider, who is fighting for equality, who's anxious to free themselves from political bashing, who's desperate for a better future and who comes to terms with his or her own life before the final fadeout.

For this production, Adam Snyder serves as musical director and keyboardist with the orchestral assistance of Peter Gialo (bass), Sarah Fay (keyboard), Andrew O' Farrell (guitar) and Christian Peragine (drums). Snyder keeps everything in fluid motion, establishing "American Idiot's" own musical universe. Totally involved in the thrill of music making with an edge, he translates the musical's angst, rage, rebellion and fantasia with plenty of energy and flair. And through it all, the band's playing is alert, spontaneous and involving.

The loud, proud sound of the music beckons dance - kinetically entertaining dance that is cutting edge, dramatically mesmerizing and plot advancing. Alicia Dempster, as choreographer, defines that conceit throughout "America Idiot" with breakthrough choreography that reflects the angst, ache, sizzle, mystery and slacker-snarl of the songs themselves. Like others before her, she pushes the envelope with punkish solidarity, funky-locking moves and maneuvers and inspired synchronization propelled by a rapid urgency that is full of brains, stagecraft and visual addiction. Bodies move in compelling, uplifting and satisfying ways, but no two numbers are alike. Dempster's world is not only deep, mad and metaphoric, but bathed in originality and inspiration that is all very satisfying to watch.

The two act-musical stars David Anctil as Johnny, Mason Sacco as Tunny, Noah Leibowitz as Will, Ruby White as Heather, Jami Valzania as St. Jimmy, Anna Hicks as Whatsername, Jared Reynolds as Favorite Son, Carly Phypers as Extraordinary Girl, Phil DeHuff as Phil, Kate Patton as Kate, Elizeth Brito as Eli, Sabine Dempster as Sabine, Sarah Denn as Sarah, Jasmin Love Salas as Jasmin, Matthew MacGregor as Matt, Amanda Highley as Amanda  and Faith Fernandes as Faith. All of the actors do a remarkable job of holding the plot together. They are top-notch vocalists who nail Green Day's anthemic sound with bold, intuitive, pointed musicality. They inhabit the personality and mind games of their characters with raw, confident showmanship. They lose themselves completely in the stage madness concocted by Bonnabeau, Dempster and Mayer. They shout "What the fuck?" and "Motherfucker!" repeatedly with glazed accuracy and enthusiasm. They also "get" the concept and mindset of "American Idiot," how it is to be acted and played, why it exists and how several of the main characters spiral out of control before "Good Riddance," the final number, finishes the show in perfect, soaring harmony.

"All I want you to understand. That when I take your hand, it's cause I want to. We are all born in a world of doubt. But there's no doubt. I figured it out."
Johnny ("American Idiot")

Technically, the rock opera that is "American Idiot" explodes in gig-like, concert style. This adrenaline rush is the collaborative effort of lighting/ special effects designer Stephen Dempster, the set design team of Steve Cihanek and Andrew Okell, sound designer Lou Okell and costumers Jami Valzania, Lou Okell and the cast themselves. All of them give the show its Green Day heartbeat, its bold, punkish look and its individualistic style and expressionism.

Rebellious, wild, thrilling and powerful, "American Idiot" ramps up the volume blasting through Green Day's concept album of songs with constant angst, screams and craziness that deserves to be heard. Its political protests and discourse hits hard. Its breakneck pace is exhilarating and 100mph punkish. The cast who populate the show's mad, live wire utopia bring the right dramatic edge and punch to Green Day's amped-up hit parade. And the closeness of actor to audience gives this incarnation of "American Idiot" a feverish pitch like no other.

Photos of "American Idiot" courtesy of Stephen Cihanek

 "American Idiot" is being staged at Brookfield Theatre for the Arts (184 Whisconier Rd., Brookfield, CT), now through November 23.
For tickets or more information, please call (203) 775-0023.
website: brookfieldtheatre.org