Monday, March 20, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 381, A Review: "Moon Over Buffalo" (Sacred Heart University)

By James V. Ruocco 

What is farce?
In theater, farce is a silly, very giddy entertainment featuring characters, situations and dialogue that are purposely exaggerated, absurd, ridiculous, improbable and over-the-top.
Laughs, of course, are plentiful as farce relies heavily on physical humor, double entendres, deliberate nonsense, parody, choreographed confusion, mockery, lies, deception, swift action and broadly stylized performances to get the point across - all for the sake of humor.
Quick comebacks, tart witticisms, crude one liners, politically incorrect dialogue and misunderstood sexual repartee also play a key role in the ongoing buffoonery at hand.

Not one to disappoint, playwright Ken Ludwig ("Lend Me a Tenor," "Baskerville," "The Games Afoot") fills "Moon Over Buffalo" - a 1995 Broadway comedy that originally starred Carol Burnett and Philp Bosco - with enough slapstick humor, sexual innuendo and high energy to keep the two-act face fueled and ready for non-stop, door-banging fun reminiscent of "Noises Off," "Run for Your Wife" and "No Sex Please, We're British."

Here, George and Charlotte Hay, two fading, narcissistic, egotistical stars of the 1950s find themselves moonlighting at a theater in Buffalo, New York performing Noel Coward's "Private Lives" and Edmond Rostand's "Cyrano de Bergerac" in repertory alongside five other performers.
However, once they learn that filmmaker Frank Capra ("It's a Wonderful Life," "It Happened One Night") is coming to town to catch them in a matinee performance, all hell breaks loose. Rumor has it that Capra is scouting talent for his big-budget movie "The Twilight of the Scarlet Pimpernel," a period costume drama which, if he likes what he sees, could find the duo playing the principal roles of Sir Percy Blakeney and Marguerite St. Just.
This being a farce, Capra's arrival in Buffalo doesn't quite go as planned. There's also plenty of backstage confusion involving who's who, who's mistaken for somebody else, who's in the wrong costume and what play is actually going to be performed once a switcheroo is made on the repertory performance callboard.

As corny as this sounds, "Moon Over Buffalo" - as staged and performed by members of the Sacred Heart Performing Arts Theatre Arts Program - is tossed and bandied about with gleeful abandon, laugh-a-minute chutzpah, ceaseless energy and double-trouble thrill and spill.
Doors slam or open in rapid succession.
Costumes are accidentally ripped in two.
A lead male character is overcome by too much alcohol.
Someone accidentally falls offstage and into the pit.
An illicit affair with a co-star comes with a pregnancy announcement.
Pratfalls, sidesteps and drunken behavior are misconstrued as homosexual acts.
And oh, yes, where the hell is Franck Capra? And when, exactly, does he show up?

As farce, this production of "Moon Over Buffalo" is off-the-wall, precision-drilled mayhem tossed off by a cast of eight with well-sustained fun, frolic and dangerously silly roar and delight.
It's inked and dotted with farcical color.
It's dizzying and playful.
It's knockabout silly.
It teases and cajoles with immersive, hot-on-the-heels engagement.

Staging "Moon Over Buffalo" at Sacred Heart University, director Jerry Goehring (a Tony-nominated producer with credits on Broadway, off-Broadway and in London's West End) grabs hold of Ludwig's farce, kicks it into high gear, lets it breathe and resonate and fulfill its duties as an eight-character comedy knee deep in absurdity, improbable situations and patently silly giddyap.
The horseplay that ensues is matched boldly and confidently by Goehring's keen directorial stokes (at SHU, he has staged more than 40 different productions), all of which take their cue from the farce handbook - fast, furious, ridiculous, exaggerated - and hilariously accentuate the wit, gait and eccentricity prevalent in Ludwig's playscript. Here, comic timing is everything. One false beat, one wrong move or one missed cue, and it's over.
Not to worry, though.
Directorially, "Moon Over Buffalo" moves seamlessly from one scene to the next with everyone on stage perfectly in sync with the mechanics, mindset and melodrama of farce and how it is to be portrayed and reenacted through a live performance with push-and-pull momentum and frenzy. In turn, the rewards are boundless, thus, signaling a landscape of viable comic language, comfy acquaintanceship, actor-audience collaboration and zing and snap fulfillment.

"Moon Over Buffalo" stars Jordan Pita as George Hay, Abigail Palmer as Charlotte Hay, Maggie Devlin as Ethel, Maggie Ives as Rosalind, Graig McMenamin as Howard, Nora Delehanty as Eileen, Samuele Deluise as Paul and Samuel Easton as Richard.
Silliness, of course, is the key here, matched by alertness, inventiveness and movement pivotal to the story, its focus, its pacing, its timing, its mass confusion, its misunderstandings and its characterizations.
With Goehring pulling the strings, so to speak, all eight actors come to the Little Theatre stage with a full understanding of how to play physical comedy, how to articulate it, how to set up jokes, how to make sense out of every outrageous situation and more importantly, how to make the action flow seamlessly without missing a beat, a tick, a pulse, a pause or a rhythm.
It's a feat they pull off swimmingly, never once wasting an opportunity to make "Moon Over Buffalo" spark and shine or wear out its welcome before happily fading to black leaving plenty of room for applause, achievement, gratification and a healthy smile or two.

"Moon Over Buffalo" is being staged at Sacred Heart University (The Little Theatre at the Edgerton Performing Arts Center, 5151 Park Ave., Fairfield, CT), now through March 26, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 371-7908.

Friday, March 17, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 380, A Review: "The Art of Burning" (Hartford Stage)

By James V. Ruocco

In "The Art of Burning," playwright Kate Snodgrass uses her complex, upfront and talky narrative to pinpoint the disintegration of a marriage, a bitter custody battle, a divorce, a proposed arson, a possible murder, sexism, infidelity, mediation, artistic freedom and creation, assault and parental control.
Lots of words.
Lots of choices.
Lot of arguments.
Lots of lashing out.
Lots of details.
Lots of bite.
Lots of anger.
Lots of flip flopping between time and space.
Lots of parallels between modem day life and the ancient Greek tragedy of "Medea" by Euripides.

What's real?
What isn't?
Who's lying?
Who's cheating?
Who's struggling?
What is the back story of the six principal characters and their role in the evolution of Snodgrass's emotional, edgy, often satiric play?

Suffice to say, the Hartford Stage production of "The Art of Burning" generates plenty of heat, excitement, conversation and conflict, offset by identifiable toxicity, confrontation, roar and mystery. It gets under your skin. It slaps you in the face. It empathizes and instructs. It baffles. It complicates. It stuns. It surprises.
And like "Medea," the Greek play in which the title character murders her children in a bloody act of revenge, it too declares that sometimes you have to kill the things you love in this world in order to save them. Or do you?

As playwright, Snodgrass creates an interesting work that mixes comedy and drama theatrically by pushing buttons, escalating scene shifts, story arcs, monologues and brief moments with gallop, pace, assertation and smock and smear. Some of it is well defined. Some it is alert and offbeat. Some of it is broken and idiosyncratic. Some of it makes complete sense or no sense at all as it toys with your emotions.

Staging "The Art of Burning," director Melia Bensussen takes hold of Snodgrass's play text, amps up the heat, adds alarm to the storm, elevates the important, driven dialogue with conscience and guidance and when necessary, accentuates the humor and acidity of the piece with apt reflection, entrapment and momentum.
As director, she receives able assist with her stirring interpretation from set designer Luciana Stecconi, lighting designer Aja M. Jackson and Jane Shaw (original music and sound design). Moving the actors across the chessboard-like set which lights up or incorporates moody, edgy illumination in the stage floor's carefully etched and enhanced grid system (reminiscent of the original London staging of Tim Rice's "Chess"), she creates a pivotal point of significance in the subject matter, its flashbacks, its pairings, its push-and pull tug-of-war, its underscoring, its surprise and its ever-shifting atmosphere of time and space.

"The Art of Burning" stars Adrienne Krstansky as Patricia, Rom Barkhordar as Jason, Michael Kaye as Mark, Vivia Font as Katya, Clio Contogenis as Beth and Laura Latrelle as Charlene.
The cast, all well chosen for the respective roles, bring plenty of emotion, angst, twist and confidence to the piece, which, in turn, heightens the play's attitude, footing, excitement, outrage and amusement. As a result, things are primed, ready, eerie and full of potential - aimed directly at the heart.

Photos of "The Art of Burning" courtesy of T. Charles Erickson.

"The Art of Burning" is being performed at Hartford Stage (50 Church St., Hartford, CT), now through March 26, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-5151.
website: hartfordstage,org.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 379, A Review: "The Sound of Music" (Black Rock Theater/Broadway Method Academy Studio Theater)

By James V. Ruocco

A captain.
A governess.
A convent.
A love story.
Seven well-schooled children.
Singing nuns.
A daring escape.
A happy ending.

"The Sound of Music" - replete with its skillfully crafted music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II - transports theatergoers back to the Austrian mountains of yesterday backed by a rapturous, melodic score of popular showtunes including "Do-Re-Mi," "My Favorite Things," "Sixteen Going on Seventeen," "Edelweiss" and lastly, the title song itself draped in abundant swatches of heart, emotion and genuine harmony.
It's beautiful.
It's sweet.
It's tuneful.
It's affectionate.
It's nostalgic.
Moreover, every word, every phrase and every song is lodged in the memory of pretty much every single person in the audience who bought a ticket to this oft-produced musical.

The iconic 1965 film aside, the two-act musical, backed by a talented, confident and equally delightful cast of performers - all ages; all sizes - transforms Broadway Method Academy's sweet-sounding revival into a ceremonious good time for fans of the Oscar-winning film, the original 1959 Broadway production that starred Mary Martin, Theodore Bikel, Marian Marlowe and Patricia Neway and the musical's many incarnations throughout the years.
This is wholesome, feelgood entertainment with catchy songs, adorable children and ready-made escapism. 
It's milk chocolate, candy-coated fun with homespun dazzle, radiance and demand.
It warms the heart. It lives up to its expectations.
It's singalong ready with perky, loveable enthusiasm.
It's spontaneous and respectful and despite its familiarity, it builds and sustains interest marvelously without rarely missing a beat.
Moreover, it doesn't tamper with history or the musical's original conceit as envisioned by Richard Rodgers (music), Oscar Hammerstein II (lyrics) and Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, who wrote the book. 
Set in 1938, "The Sound of Music" takes its cue from Maria von Trapp's 1949 memoir "The Story of the Trapp Family Singers" and the popular 1956 German films "The Trapp Family" and its 1958 sequel "The Trapp Family in America" which starred Ruth Leuwerik as Maria von Trapp and Hans Holt as Baron Von Trapp.
Then and now, it musically portrays the family story of a young novitiate who becomes governess to seven children, falls in love their father, marries him and becomes stepmother to his two sons and five daughters. For story purposes, some of the real-life events of the von Trapp family have been altered for dramatic purposes including the names of the children and the family's escape from the Nazis over the Austrian mountains in Saltzberg to Switzerland on foot. 

In its musical form, BMA's revival features all the songs from the original 1959 stage musical including two numbers that were cut from the film but nonetheless, essential to the story - "How Can Love Survive?" and "No Way to Stop It," sung here with melodic dash, spirit and panache by Brenna Donahue (Elsa Schraeder), Martin Giannini (Captain von Trapp) and Sam David Cohen (Max Detweiler). Here, as sung by the trio, both songs heighten the dramatic momentum of the story, its references to society and position, its politics, its compromises and the imminent arrival of the "Anschluss."
For this production, musical director Matt Moisey brings energy, contrast, mood, tone and great warmth to the original Rodgers and Hammerstein score, carefully conveying the intended meaning of every song, its sense of line and purpose, its story progression and its signature theatricality.

Staging "The Sound of Music," director Connor Deane ("Annie," "Evita," "Carousel," "The Addams Family") brings a memorable, breezy spin to the story, reinforced by a strong sense of clarity, eloquence, sweetness and coloring that heightens the musical's evolving narrative, its nostalgia, its optimism and its built-in cheeriness.
It's an inspiring, cheered-up approach, built around playful, important musical numbers, daft conversations, familiar characters, a smart mix of performers of all ages and more importantly, fresh, invigorating pacing of high expression, delicate simplicity, lightness of touch, controlled dynamic and smooth, straightforward confidence.

Emily Fink, as Maria, comes to "The Sound of Music" with a crisp, clear, beautiful soprano voice that brings a fresh excitement and musicality to every song she is asked to sing including the showstopping title song, "Do-Re-Mi" and "The Lonely Goatherd." Martin Giannini, as Captain von Trapp has a rich baritone voice reminiscent of opera stars at the MET. He is also well matched opposite his charismatic leady lady which makes their on-stage romance relatable and plausible throughout the musical story. As Mother Abbess, Michele Jennings delivers one of the production's most memorable musical numbers, the anthem-like "Climb Every Mountain" with an operatic mezzo soprano voice well worthy of a standing ovation. As Gretl, the youngest member of the von Trapp family, Marcela Perkins radiates the same charm and innocence that Kym Karath brought to 1965 film adaptation and Ashley Rose Orr playfully reenacted in the 1998 Broadway revival starring Rebecca Luker.

"The Sound of Music" is being staged at Black Rock Theater/Broadway Method Academy Theater (1935 Black Rock Turnpike, Fairfield, CT), now through March 19, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 675-3526.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 378, A Review: "Bed, Breakfast, and Broadway" (The Arts at Angeloria's)

By James V. Ruocco

A bed and breakfast.
A play.
A group of actors.
A complete mix up of facts.
A set of mistaken identities.
Mass confusion of the highest order.

According to playwright Dennis Reece, the idea for "Bed, Breakfast, and Broadway" sprang from a real-life experience involving his wife, a regional theater and their association with a director who actually owns and operates a cozy bed and breakfast that houses actors-in-residence.
Watching them run lines, slip in and out of character and ready themselves for opening night, Reece (assisted by co-writer Arlen Daleske) thought it would be funny to create a play within a bed and breakfast setting that not only poked fun at theater but gained mileage from unsuspecting visitors who didn't know the actor's rehearsing their lines were actual performers or that one of the guests was actually a Broadway producer scouting talent for an upcoming production.
In typical farce fashion, a newly arrived guest is mistaken for the actual producer while the real producer is forced to assume the guise of a hotel maid.
Who's who? Who's acting?
What's real? What isn't?

Suffice to say, "Bed, Breakfast, and Broadway" - now being showcased at The Arts at Angeloria's - whips up a mouth-watering souffle of giggles, chaos and nuttiness as a cast of nine brings balance and aching ridiculousness to Reece and Daleske's nonstop skewering of the theater world, its actorly populace and its promise of fame and fortune (i.e., overnight stardom) for one lucky individual.
It's corny.
It's dumb.
It's funny.
It's lightweight. 
It's over-the-top.
It's community theater send-up with flutter, batter, dry ice and grab.
Nothing more. Nothing less.

Staging "Bed, Breakfast, and Broadway," director Ed Rosenblatt is well aware that this two-act comedy has jokes galore, happily mixed with slapstick, lunacy, chaos, mistaken identity and exaggerated physical comedy. As director, his job is to make it erupt hilariously, which he does. And never once run out of stream, another directorial tick which he pulls off swimmingly.
Here, there's lots of ham - cut, diced, sliced and honey-baked - with intentionally cheesy aplomb, mug and egg, twitter and shake and exhausting farcical effect.

The cast, all in sync with Rosenblatt's comic vision, have great fun with both plot and characterization, portraying the hilarious opportunities they are given with rendered mayhem, reaction, amusement and sustained silliness. Each and every one of them are right for their respective roles and the chosen cartwheel of emotions they are asked to portray throughout the two-act comedy.
They are: Kevin Pelkey as John Cunningham, Dave Walton as Pat O'Brien, Kate Simpson as Sally Hendrickson, Suzanne Thorner Robertson as Marge Cunningham, Joe Passaretti as Fred Atkins, Kuhlken Corman as Jack Hudson, Peter Weidt as Bob Oliver, Mary Lou Mao as Olivia O'Brien and Patrick Cassidy as Patrick Olivier Bryant.

This production of "Bed, Breakfast, and Broadway" also comes packaged with a select, hand-picked, dine-in menu of delicious, treats, starters, drinks, desserts and a main course courtesy of Carmela Marie and Tops Market. Patrons move from room to room at the stunning Victorian-fused venue, guided by The Arts at Angeloria's charming, professional and courteous wait staff.  
The all-inclusive menu is as follows:
Pre-Show Welcome Course: Mixed field greens with smoked salmon, goat cheese, hard-boiled eggs, baguette toast and tomato/avocado salsa.
Intermission Main Course: Breakfast quiche, spring hash and savory bacon strips.
Post-Show Dessert Course: Waffles with whipped cream and berry medley.
Unlimited Drinks: Virgin mango mimosas, seltzer water, coffee, tea.
There's plenty to feast on and enjoy. Everything is made fresh and the portions at every course are generous, filling and quite pleasing to the palate. 
The smoked salmon is foodie delicious and bang-tang savory. The fresh greens salad is absolutely perfect as is the tomato/avocado salsa. The brunch-like quiche will please everyone at the table as will the richly flavored, smokey bacon. The waffle and berry medley is succinct and syrupy and doused with a heap of fresh and tasty whipped cream paired perfectly with your choice of freshly brewed coffee and tea.
There's also a meet-and-greet with the entire cast of "Bed, Breakfast, and Broadway" following the performance. 

"Bed, Breakfast, and Broadway" is being staged at The Arts of Angeloria's ( 223 Meriden Waterbury Turnpike, Southington, CT), now through March 19, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 426-9690.

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 377, A Concert Review: "Sunday Broadway Concert Series - Max Von Essen" (Legacy Theater)

By James V. Ruocco

It's all about the song, the style, the music, the star, the audience and the connection.
Max Von Essen, last seen as Broadway show director Julian Marsh in Goodspeed Musicals' whimsical, nostalgia steeped revival of "42nd Street" exudes such full-scale charm, handsomeness and refreshing vocal occupation, it's easy to succumb, or, by coincidence, be seduced by his antidotes of fun, cheer, legend, novelty, remembrance and more importantly, his pleasurable embrace of all things musical.
On stage - spotlight stage center - for Legacy Theater's 2023 immersive, inviting new "Sunday Broadway Concert Series," Von Essen, joined by longtime friend, pianist and musical director Billy Stritch, captivates, charms and enthralls with a musical story of show tunes and memories that convey and accentuate his artistry and love of Broadway song hits, movie classics, composers, ballads and orchestrations that are easy going, beautiful and jazzy.
Von Essen, from the very first note or song he sings, draws you in, entertains, keeps you there and cuts loose with a voice and sound that breaks down the fourth wall of theatre with grin, melody, pure love, snap and absolute delight.
No grandstanding.
No gimmicks.
No tricks.
Just incredible skill, executed with ease, swoon-worthy display, traditional showmanship and swinging salute.

Raised in Long Island, New York, Max Von Essen comes to Legacy Theatre with an impressive list of theatrical credits ranging from "West Side Story," "Finian's Rainbow" and "Chicago" to "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Evita," "Anastasia" and "Xanadu."
On Broadway, he appeared in "Les Misérables" as Enjolras and worked alongside "The Phantom of the Opera's" Michael Crawford in "Dance of the Vampires." In 2015, he received a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his captivating portrayal of Parisian aristocrat Henri Baurel in the Broadway production of "An American in Paris," inspired by the 1951 film of the same name.

For his Legacy Theater engagement, Von Essen's keen, clever, well-mixed selection of song repertoire is matched by 14 musical numbers, each and every one, including two duets with the incomparable Billy Stritch (absolute magic at the piano), a genuine showstopper.
"Throwing a Ball/Big Beautiful Ball."
"I Can't Give You Anything but Love."
"Someone to Watch Over Me."
"She Loves Me."
"Fly Me to the Moon."
"Can't Take My Eyes Off of You."
"Bobby Short's New York."
"Empty Chairs at Empty Tables."
"Shimmy Like They Do in Paree."
"Isn't It a Pity/When Do We Dance."
"The Trolley Song."
"42nd Street."
"An American in Paris Medley."
"I Could've Danced All Night."

Opening the "Sunday Broadway Concert Series" with "Throwing a Ball/Big Beautiful Ball," an up-tempo, mixed tune of glide and swing, Von Essen gets the "ball" rolling," so to speak, with swells, lifts and razzmatazz that is big and alive and exactly what you'd expect from a Broadway star of his stature. It's the perfect vocal - crisp, dynamic and conditioning - to segue into the jazzy, playful "I Can't Give You Anything but Love" which features a piano solo by Billy Stritch ('s wonderful) and later, a vocal duet in perfect harmony with Von Essen. The sense of warmth and nostalgia between the two erupts into a let's get the party started proclamation, offset by genuine club-style mood and inspiration.
"Someone to Watch Over Me," a 1926 song composed by George and Ira Gershwin finds Von Essen romanticizing to the beat and rhythm of an icon's classic composition with applied melancholy and sweet, in-the-moment engagement. "She Loves Me" from the 1963 musical of the same name is performed with joyous anticipation and celebration of first love by Von Essen (he'd be perfect for the lead role of the lovesick Georg Nowack).
"Bobby Short's New York," an invigorating medley of song hits showcasing the excitement of life in the Big Apple gets plenty of welcoming kick and swerve from Von Essen while "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," a showstopping ballad from "Les Misérables" gives the actor/singer the opportunity to use his rich, expressive voice to portray the edgy drama associated with the piece, its desired impact and its chilling, tearful intimacy. 
For those theatergoers who caught Von Essen's magnetic star turn in Goodspeed's "42nd Street," a replay of that showstopping number at Legacy, is laced with slightly different rhythms and beats - think late night 1940's New York supper club with the lights down low - that work most advantageously. "The Trolley Song," a homage to the late Judy Garland is both sweet and nostalgic and beautifully performed by Von Essen. "I Could Have Danced All Night" from "My Fair Lady," is an appropriate encore imbued with heaven-sent thrill and boom made sweeter by the singer's charm, zest and zing for every note sung.

Music aside, Von Essen's concert allows for casual conversation (such fun) with the audience while sitting on a stool, taking a sip of water or orange-flavored Gatorade or standing up tall, stage front center.
Drawing and reflecting on moments past and present, many of which retraced his theatrical roots and background, Von Essen's knack for dialogue - pure, natural and unrehearsed - provided welcomed verbiage about early auditions; his childhood years; his love of Broadway musicals; auditioning for Liza Minnelli, whom he eventually worked with; the Paris opening of "An American in Paris;'" acting in musicals at the University of Connecticut, Musical Theatre of Connecticut, Downtown Cabaret and the Goodspeed Opera House;" and understudying but never getting the opportunity to perform the role of Marius on Broadway in "Les Misérables." 
All in all, largely entertaining stuff, neatly arranged in between the musical numbers with soothing glee, spirit, reflection and perfectly timed placement and syncopation. Storytelling with heart - and then some.
Max Von Essen wouldn't have it any other way.
Hearing him sing with accompaniment by Billy Strich at the piano is one of the many thrills of this Legacy Theater concert.
He has fun.
They have fun.
We have fun.
It's a personal touch interpreted with savvy, intelligence and maintained musicality and climax.

"Sunday Broadway Concert Series - Max Von Essen" was performed at Legacy Theater (128 Thimble Islands Road, Stony Creek, CT) on March 3, 2023.
For tickets or information on all upcoming events, call (203) 315-1901.

In the weeks ahead: "Eden Espinosa" (April 2), "Mack is Back! The Music of Bobby Darin" (April 21 and 22), "A Princess Tea" (April 29 and 30) and "Jenn Colella" (May 7).

Sunday, February 26, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 376, A Review: "Sweet Charity" (Kingswood Oxford)

 By James V. Ruocco

A spirited, kind-hearted musical from 1966 enjoying a cheery revival at Kingswood Oxford, "Sweet Charity" - originally produced on Broadway with Gwen Verdon in the title role and featuring choreography created by her then-husband Bob Fosse - is draped and configured with the kind of red-carpet optimism and resilience guaranteed to make everyone in the audience stand up and cheer.

And cheer, they do.

This "Sweet Charity" is trumped up in glorious Technicolor that never once gets out of sync.
It's imaginative and good-natured.
It's an exercise in nostalgia chock full of big song-and-dance numbers.
It's imaginative and good natured.
It's got style.
It's got feeling.
It's sweet-sounding with dazzling choreographic verve.
It also comes gift-wrapped with a cast of more than 30 Kingswood Oxford students primed and ready to tackle the musical's 1960's songs, ballads and ensemble numbers and its stylized, invigorating choreography designed to reflect and pay homage to the late, great Bob Fosse. And lastly, its essential footing and atmospheric environs.

Written by the late Neil Simon ("The Odd Couple," "Barefoot in the Park"), the two-act musical tells the story of Charity Hope Valentine, an attractive New York dance hall hostess (i.e., taxi dancer) looking for love and finding it, only to be denied a happy ending once her nerdy, neurotic boyfriend Oscar Lindquist gets cold feet and walks away during the musical's final minutes.
"Did you ever have one of those days?" she tells the audience. "At least I didn't get tattooed again. And I still have my dowry. Maybe things are beginning to look up for me."
Not to worry, though.
A sign appears high above the proscenium stage and reads: "And so she lived hopefully ever after."

Simon, as playwright, portrays the title character's romantic journey through a series of sparkling comedic moments and conversation filled with laugh lines, optimism, drama, heartache and supportive female chum characters that carry the musical forward with effectively paced accomplishment, build up and payoff. Strategically placed, important musical numbers and choreography heighten the experience.

Staging "Sweet Charity," Kyle Reynolds, Director of Theater at Kingwood Oxford, brings a vigorous, kinetic energy to the production that produces spark and dash from a bygone era laced with plenty of sizzle, razzle dazzle, smooth talk, irony, humor and unstoppable juggernaut. Directorially, there's notable precision and distinctive strength here mixed with the playful timber, motif, character and facilitated subscription of traditional Broadway musical theatre.
It all comes together seamlessly from scene to scene, song to song and act to act. More importantly, it's all swiftly incorporated into a 145-minute run (not counting intermission or opening night talks and fundraising auctions with the audience) highlighted by perfectly timed scene changes, sound and light cues and ace instrumental accompaniment by the orchestra. 
The use of above stage screen projections that light up from time to time the to reveal locations, mood swings and dilemmas ("Girl Who Wanted to Be Loved," "A Big Decision," "To Be Continued," "Meanwhile Back in the Elevator") is seamlessly interspersed throughout the two-act musical with genuine, feel-good panache and humor.

Creativity on Reynold's part (he also choreographs all but two of the production's big dance numbers) is the root of this musical telling. Given the musical's origins - Federico Fellini's 1957 Italian language film "Nights of Cabiria;" the Bob Fosse/Gwen Verdon legacy; book by Neil Simon - he takes hold of the material, whips it into shape and moves it from the rehearsal hall to the vast space of the Roberts Center with full-bodied start and finish acumen.

This isn't standard repertoire. It's big, loud, grand and bold musical theatre.
It all has to be inked, dotted and synced in accordance with the original blueprint of its collaborators, a daunting task that Reynolds greets with enthusiasm, order, flair, improvisation and entitlement.
That said, his "Sweet Charity" respects, understands and celebrates the style and talent of its predecessors from Fellini-like images, postering and character preening reminiscent of both "Nights of Cabiria" and "La Dolce Vita" to obvious staging and dance techniques that pay homage to "Hair," "Chicago" and West Side Story," among others, ingeniously incorporated into the ongoing story by Reynolds and assistant choreographer Meghan McDermott.

Bursting with ideas, classic unlucky-in-love associations and lots and lots of heart, the musical score for "Sweet Charity," written by Cy Coleman (music) and Dorothy Fields (lyrics) is a product of the times - similarities to "Mame," "Funny Girl," "Hello, Dolly!" "Golden Rainbow" and She Loves Me" immediately spring to mind - and the 1960's Broadway mindset from whence it came.
It is fun. It is kitschy. It is sweet and sentimental. It is plot driven. It is melodic. It is hummable. 
It's a star vehicle.
Its woven textures, playful bounce, swing and lyrical expressionism are filtered through 14 deftly positioned, energetically arranged musical numbers. They are: "You Should See Yourself," "Big Spender," "Charity's Soliloquy," "Rich Man's Frug," "If My Friends Could See Me Now," "Too Many Tomorrows," "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This," "I'm the Bravest Individual," "The Rhythm of Life," "Baby, Dream Your Dream," "Sweet Charity," "Where Am I Going?" "I'm a Brass Band" and "I Love to Cry at Weddings."  

As musical director, Steve Mitchell, Kingswood Oxford Director of Choral Music, takes hold of the "Sweet Charity" musical score and guides it with a steady and sure hand, capturing its rhythmic dynamic, its acoustical energy, its imbued push and pull and its inspired musicality.

This is a fun Broadway score crafted, developed and orchestrated by Coleman and Fields with syncopated diligence and soundscape that Mitchell and his 18-member orchestra evoke with a nostalgic thrust full of reminiscences, references and inspiration that are not only pleasant to the ear, but lovingly in sync with the theme, the sound and the turning points and evolution of the original 1966 Broadway musical.
When necessary, some of the musical numbers are creatively extended - "The Rhythm of Life," "I'm a Brass Band," "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This," for example - for story, dance, choral and dance purposes with subtle revisions and beats that heighten their already-proven accent and dimension. The orchestra also gets a big solo spot halfway through Act II reminiscent of those posh, popular New York supper clubs of the 1940s and the 1950s and the big band stretch motifs employed by those live shows integrated between all those classic romantic comedies that once played the Radio City Music Hall.

A regular fixture of "Sweet Charity" and one that thrust the musical center stage for eight performances a week on Broadway during its original 1960's run at the Palace Theatre was Bob Fosse's choreography - a dazzling feat of quality, skill and exquisite partnership.
Jazz hands. Turned in knees. Curved shoulders. Synchronized movement shifting from fast to slow then back again. That was (and is) signature Fosse.
Here, at Kingswood Oxford, choreographers Kyle Reynolds and assistant Meghan McDermott dig deep to give an immaculate account of everything Fosse, creating fluid, iconic movement - in all its forms - mirroring the flashes of brilliance, stylization, detail and parodying concurrent in the musical's dance aesthetic. It's a process pierced with wonder and imagination that bobs and sweeps with animated aplomb which the cast sells with organic spooling, imagination and theatricalized sway and swagger. So much so the genius that is Fosse never once leaves the stage, a compliment of the highest order to both Reynolds, McDermott and their hard-working company of actors, singers and dancers.

"The Rhythm of Life," a tangy paean to the hippie movement of the 1960s finds Reynolds paying tribute to "Hair" using the signature stylization and oomph of Fosse which he implements through choice beats, tilts, spins and turns that recall the song-sermon spiritual angst of the original Broadway Act II musical number, offset by his own thrilling, defined creative choices. As Big Daddy, the cult leader of the Rhythm of Life Church, Zaire Ramiz delivers a rousing vocal turn, amplified impressively with a heavy-hitting choral gospel treatment from the acid-tipped hippie ensemble.

With "There's Gotta be Something Better for This," a jazzy, breezy cry for help (i.e., a real job with real hours and real benefits) from the Fandango Ballroom trio of Charity, Nikki and Helene, played respectively by McKenzie Campbell, Faith Potter and Diya Mistri, McDermott mixes elements from both the 1966 Broadway and 1969 film adaptation of "Sweet Charity" (a great idea) to produce a frenzied dance free-for-all that snaps, pops, twirls and cajoles with fierce, wild Fosse abandon and frenzy. The addition of several Fandango taxi dancers to the musical number (originally, it was just danced and sung by Gwen Verdon, Helen Gallagher and Thelma Oliver) adds a "West Side Story" (think rooftop "America" without Anita) flair and zing to the number that heightens its already tremendous choreography and catchy dance about.

The iconic "Big Spender," a flashy, moody, no-nonsense musical number where the Fandango Ballroom taxi dancers flirt and proposition male customers for money and a quick dance ("Hey mister can I talk to you for a minute; Hey fella, ya wanna dance? I could give you some fun") is a sensational, driven and epic dance number showcasing the athleticism and emotional expressionism of the Fosse "Sweet Charity" legacy that Reynolds adapts and triggers with an innate, up-close-and-personal stamp that rises from the ground, stands up right, front, tall and center and seduces and entices the theatergoer with ovation-worthy sparkle and representation. "Rich Man's Frug," a Fellini-like showstopper performed with "La Dolce Vita" abandon furthers that concept as McDermott turns up the heat for a 1960's Italian bacchanalian night club dance fest of pleasurable movement connected to the dots of the past, its ritualistic rhythms, its twirling, transfixed heads and its impactive luminosity.

"I'm a Brass Band," a well-known Fosse song-and-dance number that here, is designed to transform this particular "Sweet Charity" segment at Kingswood Oxford into a "Music Man" declaration of "hopefully ever after scenario " for the show's leading lady, is etched with such spark, static and buzz and organized illumination, if there was a "'replay" button attached to the seats, a second viewing would be mandatory. It's big, grand and drop-dead spectacular, replete with a drumming chain-and-mix sequence (no drums; just drumsticks) that Reynolds shapes with thrilling, showstopping acumen. "I Love to Cry at Weddings," a splashy ensemble number celebrating Charity and Oscar's pending nuptials also scores high points not only for its breezy choreographic inventiveness by Richards, but for Gordon Beck's (he plays Herman, Charity's boss and owner of the Fandango Ballroom) skilled, smooth, unstoppable crowd-pleasing solo turn, with able support from the ensemble. If anyone is doing a teen version of "Guys and Dolls," Beck is the perfect fit for the part of Nation Detroit or Nicely-Nicely Johnson.

In the lead role of Charity Hope Valentine, a dance hall hostess with a knack for falling for the wrong men, McKenzie Campbell, like others before her - namely Gwen Verdon, Tamzin Outhwaite, Anne- Marie Duff, Christina Applegate, Molly Ringwald - comes to "Sweet Charity" investing real talent, real energy, real vulnerability, real charm and real vocal star power into one of musical theater's most demanding roles ever written for a female.
It's a part imbued with the lived-in, spirited persona, similar to that of Giulietta Masina in Fellini's "Nights of Cabiria," etched and inked with the dabs of imagination, grin, aesthetic, wistfulness and passion from Simon's cheeky, playfully sifted play text, Fosse's megawatt dance blueprint for the character and the Sutton Foster Broadway leading lady handbook for musical theatre performance.
On stage at Kingswood Oxford, Campbell's "big heart for yearning for love" performance is effervescent, joyful, seductive, genuine, unbreakable and Broadway smooth. Vocally, she is at the top of her game, belting out song after song - "You Should See Yourself," "Charity's Soliloquy," "If They Could See Me Now," "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This," "Where Am I Going?" "I'm A Brass Band," - with just the right amount of percussive, in-the-moment conviction, echoing the Coleman/Fields vocal conceit for the character with the buoyant energy, faded joy or sparkly red ribboning of their invention.

Faith Potter (Nickie) and Diya Mistri (Helene) enact the bold, daring well-defined supporting roles of Charity's best friends and Fandango Ballroom taxi dancers with rollicking good flair, fun, style, force and persona. Together, they each bring a sustained truth, style and dash to their characters, offset by splendid, electric-charged vocals - "Baby Dream Your Dream," "Big Spender," "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This" - that beautifully convey their smashing, faultless musicality. Luke Roen's portrayal of Charity's unstrung, neurotic boyfriend Oscar Lindquist is an infectious mix of Felix Unger "Odd Couple" flibbertigibbet madness, fleshed out with contagious tick and sight-gag-giggle accompaniment. His first meeting with Charity - they get trapped in stalled elevator at New York's Ninety-second Street "Y" - is great comic fun that eventually leads to "I'm the Bravest Individual," an enjoyable comic duet peppered with lyrical tonic, flutter and carefully sifted sit-com desperation by both performers.

Presented with the immersive, iconic recreation of a big 1960s musical, "Sweet Charity," at Kingswood Oxford, is a dazzling showcase of light and color that everyone - on stage and off - pulls off spectacularly.
It is nostalgic. It is whimsical. It is striking. It is theatrical. It is splashy. It is stylish.

It is also a labor of love - Kyle Reynolds, Meghan McDermott, Steve Mitchell, costume designer Jack Richards, duly noted - anchored by the showstopping performance of McKenzie Campbell, a Kingwood Oxford student who comes to the Roberts Center stage leading a big song-and-dance parade of her own backed by a team of players - lead, supporting and chorus - united as one to perform one helluva revival celebrating the Fosse/Verdon legacy.

"Sweet Charity" was staged at Kingswood Oxford (Roberts Center, 170 Kingswood Rd., West Hartford, CT) on February 24 and 25, 2023.
For information about the school, admissions or upcoming productions, call (860) 233-9631.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 375, A Review: "Spring Awakening" (Brookfield Theatre for the Arts)

 By James V. Ruocco

It's a musical about schoolchildren - teenagers coming of age - but "Spring Awakening" is actually a dark, sophisticated, edgy, angst-ridden musical designed primarily for adults.
It is raw and dangerous.
It is sharp, jagged and imaginative.
It is amoral, explosive and intellectual.
It is anachronistic in expression.
It is startling and cynical.
It numbs the senses.
It leaves you breathless.
It floors you with its honesty.
It is pure poetry that defies the odds, gets the juices flowing, kicks you in the ass and finally, breaks you in two.

At Brookfield Theatre for the Arts, the teenage repression and rebellion that permeates "Spring Awakening" is addressed with challenge, commitment, stylization and engrossing lyricism.
It rocks.
It tilts.
It haunts.
It entices.
As musical theatre, it is a bruise your heart experience staged with affecting, vibrant, free-flowing enthusiasm.
It is sensational.

Written for the stage by Steven Sater, "Spring Awakening" takes its cue from Frank Wedekind's intimate, explicit, controversial 1891 German play of the same name that was subsequently banned in Germany for its blatant portrayal of sexual copulation, masturbation, rape, abortion, homosexuality, father-daughter incest, suicide, self-flagellation, communal ejaculation, fantasy and induced masochism amongst teenagers discovering the intimacies of their inner and outer sexuality amidst a backdrop of strict bourgeois practice and morality.

Not exactly fodder for a Broadway musical, but glancing back, they said the same thing about "Hair," "Rent," "Next to Normal," "Fun Home" and most recently, "A Strange Loop." And we all know what happened there.
Intriguingly, the subject matter for "Spring Awakening," though hardly shocking by today's standards, lends itself nicely to the musical stage. And luckily for us, it is not based upon a movie, a television series or a hit concept record album like so many past or present Broadway and West End musicals.
Instead, it wisely and intuitively respects its original 19th century source material using a carefully orchestrated blend of pseudo pop, folk-infusion and alternative rock music and dialogue to retell its brutally honest tale of sexual awakening and turn it into a piece of mind-blowing, intelligent, provocative musical theatre.
There's raw emotionality to this particular staging of the original 2006 Broadway musical inked and dotted with interrogation, identity and vast, probing explosion.

In Brookfield, "Spring Awakening" puts award-winning director Beth Bonnabeau ("Rent," "American Idiot," "tick, tick...Boom!") in the directorial chair to touch a nerve, command your attention and deftly mirror the gutsy, intense emotions, conversations and exchanges that define the original 19th century story and its reworked telling by Sater. As storyteller, she creates an impassioned, illuminating portrait of teen angst and sexual awakening using all the right colors, strokes, imagery, positioning and patterns. 
It's all here: flat-out truths, bared souls, consensual sex, discovery, experimentation, pain, confusion and passion.
No tricks. No games. No gimmicks. No pandering.
Just real, justified, revolutionary storytelling.

Bonnabeau, as director, dances to her own decided beat.
Her "Spring Awakening" is bold, brazen, wistful, grief-laden and bleeding.
Scene after scene, song after song, line after line, there's marvelous creativity here.
The movement she creates, is matched by important moments that thrust the action forward with exacting punch and thrilling perspective. She also doesn't copycat or feel the need to compete with other productions of the iconic musical.
There is her vision, her interpretation, her musical.
The immersive, up-close-and-personal atmosphere of the Brookfield-based venue also works to Bonnabeau's advantage. As with both "American Idiot" and "tick, tick...Boom!" she opts for s staging device that transforms the theatergoer into a willing participant and full-on voyeur. It's a dig deep theatrical process that heightens the musical's intimacy (a suicide; a kiss between two lovers; a confession; a group masturbation; a confused coupling that ends mid-orgasm; a homosexual encounter in the woods; the burial of a loved one; the reading of a very private, explicit letter) its frank and outspoken dialogue, its emotive vocals, its atmospheric dimension and the identity of every character.
As orchestrator, she transforms "Spring Awakening" into a shattering, astonishing, tragic tale of teen angst feted in tour-de-force theatricality, gutting brilliance, quaking honesty and tick clock establishment.

Musically, "Spring Awakening" unfolds with an expressed mix of humor, lightness, seriousness, spirit and drama concise with its coming-of-age storyline, the rise and fall of its central characters, its grounding experiences, its values and traditions and its weighty repercussions. Written by Duncan Sheik (music) and Steven Sater, it evolves through a variety of songs - rock; folksy; anxiety-ridden - well-placed and positioned throughout the story.
They are: "Mama Who Bore Me," "Mama Who Bore Me (reprise)," "All That's Known," "The Bitch of Living," "My Junk," "Touch Me, " "The Word of Your Body," "The Dark I Know So Well," "And Then There Were None," "The Mirror-Blue Night," "I Believe," "The Guilty Ones," "Don't Do Sadness/ Blue Wind," "Left Behind," "Totally Fucked," "The World of Your Body (reprise)," "Whispering," "Those You've Known" and "The Song of Purple Summer."

For this incarnation, the onstage band, in full view of the audience is led by musical director/conductor/pianist David Anctil (last seen as Jonathan in "tick, tick...Boom!" at the venue) with the able assist of Josh Rodis (guitar), Charles Casimiro (bass), Samantha Marcial (cello), Em Squatrito (viola), Daniele Browning (violin) and Chris Babcock (percussion). In sync with Sheik and Sater's involved vision for "Spring Awakening," Anctil and his orchestra bring the right amount of intensity, intimacy and precision to the original music and lyrics, reveling in its frenzied, arousing, adrenalized, impassioned, ardent, fiery, animated beats.
As the musical evolves, a special fission of musicality is thus produced, carried off with clarity, energy, purpose and a drive all its own. Elsewhere, the vocals of the leading players, the ensemble and the supporting cast are uplifting, impassioned and affecting, producing and giving a powerful, confession-like voice to the catalogue of 21st century songs and their varying blends of melancholy, discovery, sensibility, anger, passion, desire and hope.

The sweet and sentimental anthem "I Believe," which augments the passionate, hayloft lovemaking of Melchior and Wendla, is rife with plenty of sensual and pulsating harmonies. "The Dark I Know Well," sung by Martha and Ilse, captures the confusion, the horror, the humiliation and the torment of the pair, who sing about the parental physical and sexual abuse they are forced to endure and hopefully have escaped. The exhilarating, pumped-up "The Bitch of Living" finds Moritz, Melchior and the other boys – Ernst, Hanschen, Otto and Georg – hilariously sharing their very own sexually frustrated thoughts and desires. When Melchior is brought before the school's discerning governors for disseminating explicit information about the facts of life, "Totally Fucked" is transformed into a showstopping, blatant, radical and rousing cry of protest that rings loud and clear throughout the entire Brookfield-based venue.

Another standout of this mounting of "Spring Awakening" is the insightful, original, jaw-dropping choreography by Josephine Harding, a five-star talent with a distinct style and visualization, delivered here with great artistry and conceptual brilliance. Her approach - exploratory, mind-bending, dreamlike, surreal, transporting - is executed with just the right amount of genius, liberation, passion, desire and carefree abandon. It is also very different from the Broadway staging (Harding puts her own personal stamp on the material), but smartly in sync with the show's complicated, beautiful lyrics, its varying beats and rhythms, its themes of sexual exploration and self-discovery and its invigorating, contagious musicality. Its flashes of pure excellence, accomplished stylization, inventive pairing and streamlined interplay mixed with emotive punk expressionism and organic thrust succeed as both dance art and coordinated, voltage-charged expression.

Bonnabeau's casting of the boyishly charming Zachary Geiger as the troubled Melchior Gabor is a stroke of genius that gives the production its strong, emotional center. Like Jonathan Groff who originated the part on Broadway he embodies the curious, endearing persona of a young 19th century romantic and dreamer channeling his emotions through self-discovery, sexual experimentation, scholastic excellence and teenaged camaraderie. It's a very real, natural, in-the-moment performance offset by outstanding delivered vocals that include "Totally Fucked," "All That's Known," "The Mirror-Blue Night," "Left Behind" and "The Word of Your Body."
In the role of the troubled Moritz Stiefel, the school oddball and sport, tortured by day-to-day fears of failing his classes and the mysterious blue legs that haunt his late-night dreams, Dylan Ryan owns and inhabits the part of the often-misunderstood teenager. He's funny. He's quirky. He's dramatic. He's lost. He's also an idiosyncratic mess (his character, that is) worried about scholastic failings and being cast out into the world by his parents (he takes his own life), all of which transitions into a completely driven, electrifying performance. If anyone's doing "Jekyll & Hyde," Roberts would be perfect for dual title role. He's also got the vocal chops, as evidenced here - "The Bitch of Living," "And Then There Were None," Don't Do Sadness/Blue Wind" to completely pull it off.

As the inquisitive, beguiling Weldla Bergmann, Kennedy Morris ("Carrie," "Beauty and the Beast") embodies the innocence, the shy apprehension, the shadowy air of longing and the brazen confidence of her character, which gives her ardent participation in "Spring Awakening" its necessary pulse, joy, incentive and curiosity. Her tender-hearted, acquiescent portrayal also allows the theatergoer to see the world through her eyes and naturally experience her innermost thoughts about love, intimacy and its many conflicting emotions. Vocally, she takes charge of her character's many songs - "Mama Who Bore Me," "The Word of Your Body," "Whispering," among others - with a shimmering bravura all her own. She also shares a believable, tender-hearted chemistry with Geiger - carefully moving from awkward innocence and curiosity to aroused pleasure and sexual intensity, sparked by real compassion and desire. 
Jocelyn Titus completely immerses herself in the part of Ilse Newmann, the teenager who escapes an abusive home to live freely in the environs of an artist's colony. Her troubled plight, which prompts her eventual freedom from her family, is performed with raw gusto in "The Dark I Know Well" which she shares with Martha, played in this production by the very talented, intuitive Katelyn McGuire.
Much later, Titus takes center stage to sing "The Song of Purple Summer" (the entire cast eventually joins in), a revelatory musical number about the emotional growth and birth of a new generation, who eagerly await a very liberated future. Her singing of this emotional song reveals a fiery energy and compassion completely in sync with the conceit set forth by the show's creators. 

As the educated, flirtatious Hanschen Rilow, a young man attracted to other boys his age, Ethan Valencia sparks a magnitude of actor-audience interest in his characterization delivering instinctive quirks, gestures, comments and emotions that adds real dimension to his already proven character. In "My Junk," - an audience favorite that plays to thunderous applause - his character amusingly cuts loose with an erotically charged masturbation fantasy involving a postcard depicting Correggio's "Jupiter and Io." Much like the original sequence from the Broadway production, it is performed by the actor with deliberate, playful release and explosion keyed to the max by choreographer Josephine Harding (it's all in fun and hardly obscene) who frames and builds Hanschen's hand-job action effectively (most of his transfixed, curious classmates surround him) without any form of censorship. 
Alicia Dempster and Eli Patton fill the shoes of the multiple adult characters they are asked to play with draconian registry and deliberation. Given the musical's 1891 setting, they effectively humanize their characters carefully portraying both the provincial and judgmental Lutheran background concurrent in the society of the times and their strict upbringing.
The supporting cast - mainly Bowie Perlman, Eliana Russotti, Katelyn McGuire, Jordan Toribio, Daisy Stott, Noah Leibowitz - offer raw, dangerous, driven, hypnotic performances that transform their individual classmate characters into seismic interpreters of the times, the story and the poetry that is "Spring Awakening."

"Spring Awakening" is being staged at Brookfield Theatre for the Arts (184 Whisconier Rd., Brookfield, CT), now through March 4, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 775-0023.

Photos of "Spring Awakening" courtesy of Steve Cihanek 

In the weeks ahead: "The Revolutionists" (April 21-May 6) and "Urinetown" (June 9-24).