Sunday, November 20, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 353, A Review: "Nuncrackers: The Nunsense Christmas Musical" (The Arts at Angeloria''s)


 By James V. Ruocco

"They need a Sugar Plum Fairy not a dancing ham!"
(Sister Mary Regina, the Rev. Mother)

"Sister Leo is appearing in 'The Ballbreaker.' "
(Sister Mary Amnesia)
"Sister, the name of the ballet is 'The Nutcracker.' "
(Sister Mary Regina, the Rev. Mother)

"What would the holidays be without Christmas candy. If you want a treat that'll really 'slay 'em' sweeten up your tree with a Candy Cain and Abel."
(Father Virgil)

"We were watching 'All My Children' and Erica Kane took that baby and I said, girlfriend, you better put that baby back!"
(Sister Mary Hubert)

The cheeky aplomb of that dialogue, among others, sets the stage for the comic underpinning, the vamping, the rivalry, the chaos and the madness that ensues when the Little Sisters of Hoboken find themselves back in the spotlight for "Nuncrackers: The Nunsense Christmas Musical," a light-hearted continuation of the original "Nunsense" story set against the backdrop of WCON-TV, a special cable access television station (built in the convent basement) that will broadcast the nun's first ever televised Christmas concert filmed and edited before a live television audience.
Four Catholic school children are also scheduled to appear in the program alongside Father Virgil, a Franciscan monk who also happens to be the real-life brother of the convent's Sister Mary Leo, a nun who has dedicated her life to the world of ballet.

At the Arts of Angeloria's, Goggin's hit musical springs to life in a deliciously witty production that is topped with fulltime giggles and holiday merriment just the way Goggin intended it to be. The material - timed, primed and decked with an invigorating, interactive book that thrusts the audience right into the ongoing action (this is true of all "Nunsense" musicals) - allows for additional megawatt nuttiness, sprinkled with jokes, songs, remembrances, skits, dances and inappropriateness that kicks "Nuncrackers: The Nunsense Christmas Musical" into orbit with surefire wit, savvy and whirling abandon.

There's Christmas gift giveaways.
There's a Catholic Home Shopping Network with questionable items thrown in for laughs.
There's a "Nutcracker" ballet with Father Virgil in drag.
There's a Julia Child Cooking Show. 
There are holiday songs that unfold with the wrong lyrics due largely on Sister Mary Amnesia's misinterpretations.
There's bickering, embarrassed moments, revelations and mistimed skits that go belly-up.
And if you've missed any of the "Nunsense" musicals (doubt anyone in the audience would admit to such a sin), "Nuncrackers" includes playful bits and pieces that recall how 52 nuns of the order died from food poisoning and how Sister Mary Paul was nicknamed Amnesia after a crucifix fell on her head causing frequent absent mindedness.

Breathless.
Funny.
Wildly caricatured.
Ingenious.
Divinely daft.

If it's laughter you want, you'll find plenty of that - and so much more - smartly woven into the utterly silly comic palette of Goggin's creation.

The heartfelt residency that is "Nuncrackers: The Nunsense Christmas Musical" is communicated with laugh-a-minute celebration and assertion by director Peter Weidt who gives the two-act musical comedy an open-faced appeal and zany badge of honor that paves the way for non-stop fun and theatrical clout of the highest order. It's a madcap foray of opportunity that's extended and played with vaudevillian brio, high spirit and showbiz hokey that brings down the house pretty much every five or six minutes.

Then again, that's the point. 
It's massive. It's in-the-moment. It's hoot and howl. It's deliberate. It's overshooting. It's goofy. It's hysterical. 
Weidt takes great delight in making people laugh, going with the flow, whisking the story foreward with a chuckle and filling the liminal space of the theater with immersive song and comedy that supports Goggin's concept, his humor, his story arcs, his characters, his tilts, his double takes, his one-liners and religious gamboling.

The musical score for "Nuncrackers: The Nunsense Christmas Musical" - sweet, rhythmic, charming and committed - unfolds with room-filling glee and giggle, offset by a self-confident carapace of tunes that recall the playful, invigorating cheer of "Nunsense" and its many continuations including "Nunsense 2: The Second Coming" and "Sister Amnesia's Country Western Nunsense Jamboree."
Featuring music and lyrics created by "Nunsense" maestro Dan Goggin, "Nuncrackers" contains 22 musical numbers, all of which are seamlessly integrated into the actual story, which is also penned by Goggin himself.
They are: "Christmas Time Is Nunsense Time," "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," "Joy to the World the Cat's Away," "Santa's Little Teapot," "Twelve Days Prior to Christmas," "The Christmas Box," "Santa Ain't Comin' to Our House," "The Wassail Song (A Waffling)," "A Carnival Christmas," "The Holly and the Ivy (Ivory)," "The Nutcracker Ballet," "Three Hundred Sixty-Four Days," "Jesus Was Born in Brooklyn," "In the Convent," "The Three Kings," "The First Noel (Leopards)," "All I Want For Christmas," "Christmas Sing-Along," "Gloria," "A Brand New School," "It's Better to Give" and "Christmas Time Is Nunsense Time (reprise)."

The idea behind any of the "Nunsense" musicals is Fun! Fun! Fun! And Goggin, musical guru that he is, is not one to disappoint. Here, the joie de vivre is a musical score that excites, entertains, commands and gets you howling with laughter.
Goggin, as musical storyteller, carries the "Nuncrackers" torch proudly with hilariously shaped melodies, ballads and production numbers that unfold with just the right amount of irony, instrument, investment, patter, color, wink and gum-drop gooey abandon. Then and now, his writing is freewheel and matter-of-fact with splendid gurgles of mischief, mayhem, range and humor - all individually tailor-made for the specific characters he's selected to bring them merrily to life.

All of this is energized full throttle by "Nuncrackers" musical director Ed Rosenblatt who fulfills the demands of Goggin's score with style, zing, snap and trademark "Nunsense" representation. There's ping and jest right from the start along with showpiece focus, backbone and highlight, all of which complements the musical's orchestral hijinks, its holiday cheer and evolving comical narrative. It's a labor of love - tuned and guided with lively acoustics and presentation by onstage accompanist Bill D'Andrea, a musician, who, under Rosenblatt's tutelage, brings an immersive, campy elan to the proceedings that dominates the show and its music with the entertaining kitsch and carry craftsmanship that adheres to Goggin's original conceit.

"Nuncrackers: The Nunsense Christmas Musical" stars Lori Holm as Sister Mary Paul (Amnesia), Leann Crosby as Sister Mary Hubert, Jen Passaretti as Sister Robert Anne, Tony Lamberto as Father Virgil Manly Trott, Heidi Bass-Lamberto as Sister Mary Regina (Rev. Mother), Eric Chubet as John Kelly, Aaj Desai as Billy Wilson/Nutcracker Prince, Lilly Wood as Louise Mayfield and Alexandria Joshi-Staples as Maria Montini.

In the role of Sister Mary Amnesia, the daffy nun who gets things continually mixed up and often can't remember her own name, Lori Holm - last seen in the venue's exhilarating 2021 summer production of "Mamma Mia!" - launches into high gear with a comic portrait etched with brilliantly timed verbal acumen, skittish twirl, comic harmony and priceless, baffled expressions and wonderment. 
Leann Crosby - a perfect fit for the part of Sister Hubert - crafts a wonderfully conceived comic performance - rich in daring physical energy and flawless comic timing - that hilariously mirrors the playfulness and spunky, flavorsome spirit of the character as originally conceived by Goggin in the "Nunsense" musicals.

As Sister Mary Regina, the Rev. Mother of the Little Sisters of Hoboken order, Heidi Bass-Lamberto blasts off with a refreshing, full-bodied performance that portrays the character's bossy mode, her love of the spotlight and bottled attempts to make light of situations that go wrong on stage and at the convent during the filming of the WCON-TV holiday special.
There's fun galore into the animated, charismatic character turn delivered by Jen Passaretti in the role of Sister Robert Anne from Brooklyn. It's a wry, teasing, knockabout portrayal, laced with wit, imagination, depth and spin that the actress orchestrates brilliantly throughout the production.
Father Virgil, as played by Tony Lamberto, smoothly shifts into comic gear with natural, vaudevillian ease, thus, bringing lots of well-timed flourishes to his many onstage "Nuncracker" skits and zany twists of fate that push his character into the center stage spotlight.

Making his acting debut in "Nuncrackers" as Billy Wilson and the Nutcracker Prince, Aaj Desai brings the right voice, charm and spirit to the proceedings, which makes his stage debut as relevant as ever. "Oliver Twist" lookalike Eric Chubet slides into his role of John Kelly with plenty of personality, opportunity, enthusiasm and energy. Like Desai, he's an onstage natural who adapts to the material at hand with polish, point and harmony.
Lily Wood (Louise Mayfield) and Alexandria Joshi-Staples (Maria Montini) also come to "Nuncrackers" with nicely played rhythm, interaction and holiday merriment.

A musical confection that bounds along with a ceaseless energy that appeals to audiences of all ages, "Nuncrackers: The Nunsense Christmas Musical" is sheer fun for anyone who succumbs to the rip-roaring silliness of its unapologetic giddyap and over-the-top lunacy.
It sways. It sings. It dances. It cajoles.
As directed by Peter Weidt, it's high-energy fun chock full of pizzazz and slapstick, performed by a confident, committed cast who sing and sway their way through yet another "Nunsense" musical of time capsule nostalgia, frivolity and make believe, all dressed up in the red and greens of the upcoming Christmas holidays.

Nuncrackers: The Nunsense Christmas Musical" is being staged at The Arts of Angeloria's (223 Meriden Waterbury Turnpike, Southington, CT), now through December 4, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 426-9690.
website: theartsatangelorias.com


Sunday, November 13, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 352, A Review: "Putting It Together" (Fairfield Center Stage)

By James V. Ruocco

The works of the late Stephen Sondheim, the celebrated composer and lyricist of several Broadway shows including "Company," "Sweeney Todd," "Follies" and "Into the Woods" seamlessly interweave drama and comedy within musical scores grounded in collaborative sophistication, definition, attitude and experimentation.
Tinged with shadow, tone, ambiguity and theoretic survey - these productions - mixed with harmonic voice and diagonal dissonance -reflected a unique, astringent style and rhythmic balance, framed by its own cleverness and stinging scattershot.

In "Putting It Together," a benefit concert produced by Fairfield Center Stage, the artistry of Sondheim is lovingly on display - front, line and center.
Offering a pleasurable feast of Sondheim songs that are shaken and stirred with vodka stingers, marriages on the rocks, murderous barbers, seductive vamps and howling wolves, the composer's narrative genius is parlayed, executed and staged with real vibe, real verve, real wit and real, full-scale passion.

Wistful.
Chilly.
Carnal.
Nuanced.
Intelligent.

It's an involving conceit that not only gives audiences an opportunity to enjoy the evening's unfolding musical events but embark on a creative journey that contains some of Sondheim's well-known compositions and some of his lesser known, but nonetheless, important collaborative efforts.

As presented by Fairfield Center Stage, "Putting It Together" masters and delivers twenty-four Sondheim polished gems. Among them: "The Ladies Who Lunch," "Being Alive," "Getting Married Today" and "Marry Me a Little" from "Company;" "Giants in the Sky" and "Hello, Little Girl" from "Into the Woods;" "Lovely" from "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum;" "More" and "Sooner or Later" from "Dick Tracy;" "Invocation/Instructions" from "The Frogs;" and "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" from "Sweeney Todd."

So vast a talent with so many varying musical styles overspilling with great detail and vocal clarity, Sondheim's work necessitates a talent - i.e., musical director - who can acknowledge his legacy, his musicality, his art, his lyrical dexterity and his standalone immediately with designated closeup and cutaway to make it breathe and soar with invigorating freshness and curation.
In Eli Newsom - a perfect fit for all things Sondheim - the expressive depth and vigor of the composer's music is communicated in perfect orchestral harmony, offset by an in-the-moment directness, breath and interpretative specificity. As musical director, he brings great knowledge, understanding and demand to the project, meticulously rooted in clear, structural decision, embracement, exploration and celebration.
At the keyboard throughout "Putting It Together," Newsom gets able assist from a hard-working orchestral team of seven very talented musicians. They are: Clay Zambo (keyboard), Charles Casimiro (bass), Mark Dennis (trumpet), John McNeil Johnston (violin), Jim Marbury (trombone), Gabe Nappi (drums) and Kate Testani (reed). The sound they create is fabulous, matched by a fullness, emotion and intensity that complements the music and makes it sing. It's natural and realistic. It's convincing and encouraging. It's organic. It's also awash with exemplary control, velvety measurement and gleaming melody.

"Putting It Together" is directed by Christy McIntosh-Newsom in a seriously comfortable, impromptu style that wisely avoids a staged concert feel in favor of something more intimate, electric and gorgeously reflective. There's a lot going on - 24 musical numbers in all - but things are never rushed, clipped or fade-to-black awkward with lengthy pauses, halts or missed cues. Instead, she keeps the two-act concert flowing seamlessly from one number to the next, basking in the moment, the allure, the current and the celebration of the material itself.
There's beguiling ease to her directorial prowess. There's independence. There's pleasure. There's achievement. There's angst and compromise. There's charm and sweetness. There's balance. Directorially, she also savors every tuneful moment with free-spirited gourmand and visual surprise, which keeps it from becoming from just another musical number. 

Marilyn Olsen, the charismatic actress who played Donna Sheridan in Fairfield Center Stage's lively production of "Mamma Mia!" back in 2021, not only gets the best musical number to sing in "Putting It Together" - that being "The Ladies Who Lunch" from "Company" - but sells it with enough cynical depiction and angst to rival that of Elaine Stritch and Patti LuPone who sang it in both the Broadway and London/West End productions.
Here, she vocally addresses Sondheim's, powerful judgmental paean to middle-aged women - those wasting away their lives with mostly ridiculous daily activities - with the galloping rage and acidity envisioned by the late composer. It's a driven, brutally honest musical turn of swelling expression - lush, tailored and intuitive - that packs the same show-stopping velocity it did when it was first performed on Broadway 52 years ago.

Equally commanding is Christy McIntosh-Newsom's feverish, inventive, ovation-worthy delivery of "Getting Married Today," also from "Company." Tapping into the manic, overwhelmed psyche of a soon-to-be-bride who gets a case of cold feet from the pending nuptials, Newsom tackles Sondheim's fast-paced, comic musical turn - one verse contains 68 words to be sung in exactly 15 seconds - with rapid fire pitch, tone, diction and melodic accuracy reflective of its performance in the 1985 Broadway revival and the 2017 incarnation at Barrington Stage. The actress/singer also brings her comic skills full circle with moves, expressions and improvised giddyap that adds to the song's swift fluidity and humorous trumpeting. "Getting Married Today" also includes additional, amusing vocal support from Leslie Uhl and Marcelo Calderon  

Kevin Pelkey and Nick Kuell bring infinite charm, operatic fullness and dramatic intensity to "Being Alive," which was a last-minute replacement and addition to the "Company" songbook prior to the musical's original 1970 Broadway opening. "Giants in the Sky," performed by Nathan Horne and CJ Newsom is given clear, beautiful tone and urgent enunciation that harkens fond memories of Sondheim's "Into the Woods." The rarely performed, but flavorful "Invocation/Instructions" from the musical "Frogs," which debuted at Yale Repertory Theatre back in 1974, unfolds with plenty of snap, zing and verbal sting in the more than capable hands of Lisa Dahlstrom and Marc Improta, both of whom are vocally right for this hilarious, witty invocation that instructs audiences on how to behave accordingly during an actual theatrical performance. Nick Kuell sells "Live Alone and Like It" from "Dick Tracy" with carefree, high-energy abandon while Alexis Willoughby gives "Sooner or Later," also from "Dick Tracy," its smokey, seductive, encouraged, jazz and swing allure. T. Sean Maher captures the pop-influenced vibe, language and clarity of "Good Thing Going" from "Merrily We Roll Along" with impressive charm, aching vulnerability and soul-stirring abandon.

"More" from "Dick Tracy" is sung with plenty of inviting pizzaz by Lindsay Johnson who sells the song in thrilling, sassy fashion, backed by a group of dancers who hit all the right marks envisioned by choreographer Emily Frangipane. As dance interpreter, Frangipane thrusts this production number into orbit with rhythmic beats, moves, tilts and patterns that are completely in sync with the power, the glide and the jazz-infused solidity of the song itself. 
Ainsely Novin, an actress, singer and dancer who is featured in various production numbers throughout "Putting It Together" including "More" and the "Our Time/Old Friends" Act II finale, owns whatever it is she's doing, coupled with a natural charm, personality and professionalism that is sure to carry her far in musical theatre. "Lovely" from "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" is given a hilarious gay spin, merrily reenacted by Bobby Henry while "Have I Got a Girl for You" from "Company" is handsomely delivered with vocal finesse from Mark Silence who also appeared in the 2021 FCS production of "Mamma Mia!"
Eli Newson, who doubles as both musical director and keyboardist, takes center stage to perform "Pretty Women" from "Sweeney Todd." His rich, tenor voice brings chill and smoothness to his haunting ballad which also highlights his distinct voice and musical versatility. Equally impressive is Ben McCormack who is the perfect choice to perform "Marry Me a Little" from "Company." Like Newson, he too knows how to sell a song and find the emotional meaning behind every single lyric. There's also a confident charm and snappy vigor to his song style that works especially well for this particular musical number.
Maggie Meath - vocally brilliant in every respect - gives her fired up, bad marriage revenge anthem "Could I Leave You?" from "Follies" the hard-boiled intensity and sarcasm it deserves. It's a diva-induced climax that accelerates into shellshock survivor mode, most magnificently. "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," sung by a variety of performers also gives "Putting It Together" its appealing voice, its crafty sensation and its finely sharpened musical exploration.

"Putting it Together" was presented by Fairfield Center Stage (First Church Congregational, 148 Beach Rd., Fairfield, CT) on November 12, 2022.
For tickets and more information to upcoming shows, call (203) 416-6446 (voice mail).
website: fairfieldcenterstage.org


Saturday, November 12, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 351, A Review: "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (Yale Repertory Theatre)


 

By James V. Ruocco

In Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" human choice, human potential and the structuring of action through potentially dangerous game playing - "Humiliate the Host," "Hump the Hostess," "Get the Guests," "Bringing Up Baby" - lend accusatory voice, distinction and challenge to the playwright's stinging autumnal commentary about emptiness, illusion, deception, metaphor and more importantly, death-in-life.
Centering upon a dysfunctional married couple - George and Martha - and their invited, middle-of-the-night guests - Nick and Honey - the action of the play is tightly unified in time and place at the New England home of a college professor and his wife - in the early hours (2 a.m. to 5 a.m., to be exact) of a Sunday morning.
The invitation - in the guise of a friendly nightcap - sets the play in motion.

(the front door bell chimes)

Martha: "Party! Party!"

George (murderously) "I'm really looking forward to this, Martha."

Martha: "Go answer that door."

George: (not moving) "You answer it."

Martha: "Get to that door, you, (he does not move), I'll fix you..."

George: (fake-spits) ..."to you."

(door chimes again)

Martha: (shouting) "C'MON IN!!" (to George) "I said get over there!"

George: "All right love...whatever love wants."

Martha: "Get over there and answer that door."

George: (moving toward the door) "All right, love...whatever love wants. Isn't it nice the way some people have manners, though, even in this day and age? Isn't it nice that some people won't just come breaking into other people's houses even if they do hear some sub-human monster yowling at 'em from the inside?"

(the door opens to reveal and Nick and Honey)

Martha: "Fuck You!!!"

(Nick and Honey stand there dumbfounded)

Thus, the familiar dance of Albee's shatter-proof play begins.

With its wicked sense of humor, manic drunkenness, sexual unraveling and edgy tableau of candid, stacked verbiage, Yale Repertory Theatre's revival of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" plunges into overdrive with a unique explosiveness that taunts, teases and bites with the judgmental restlessness and crossfire intended by the playwright.

It's all here: the fantasy; the emasculation; the cruelty; the bloodshed; the hypocrisy: the absurdity; the championing; the vulgarity; the thrill; the escape; the truth.

Sizzling with sadistic brio, it achieves a flavor and identity all its own.
It is candid and cathartic.
It draws you in with caged, encouraged hallmark.
It deep dives into a terrifying abyss.
It snaps, barks, bends and tilts.
It juices your palate.
It allows the weight of the dialogue to drag you into submission.
It confronts reality with sorrow, loss, silence and uncertainty.

At Yale Rep, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is being staged by James Bundy, an award-winning impresario whose directional credits include "Arcadia," "A Woman of No Importance," "Death of a Salesman," "Assassins," "A Delicate Balance" and "Hamlet." Here, Bundy is in his element.
Smartly attuned to the edgy counterbalance of Albee's dancing ideas, pitch and artfully arranged bloodbath, he creates a stirring four-character portrait of chaos and madness, coupled with a racing heart, a flaming intelligence and a dark determination that explodes across the Yale Rep stage and doesn't falter for one, single moment.
Directorially, this is a play that demands attention at every page turn. Otherwise, it simply cannot and will not work. It also needs a free-flowing, non-stop sense of fluidity, acidity and balance to keep the wheels spinning, the characters talking and the thrills, spills and chills coming at you full force from every possible angle.
What's wonderful about Bundy's staging of Albee's work is the contrasting openness, vibe and strongness he brings to the production along with a keen sense of certainty, frankness, hysteria and surprise.

His revival stirs the intellect. It's linguistic and tonal. It's intimidating and sexual. It's clever and brazen. It also creates a dangerous tension that needs to be there.
Divided into three acts - "Fun and Games," "Walpurgisnacht" and "The Exorcism" - "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is largely dependent on the beats, the pauses, the hooks, the tilts and rhythms of Albee's writing.
There's also plenty going on in the minds of the four characters, all of which has to be etched, steadied and paced with a verbal souffle of push-pull leaps, clobbers, landscaping and pounding necessary to drive everyone over the moon and back again. Bundy, of course, succeeds swimmingly. His descent into the play's many arguments, conflicts, enticements and nasty game playing is engaged, blended, massive and maintained. He pushes the bar to the end point and ends "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" on a significant high - like no other.

As Martha, Rene Augesen brilliantly embodies the blousy, boozed-up, sharp-tongued character set loose for more than three hours in Edward Albee's slugfest arena. She's hungry. She's vicious. She's sexy. She's cornered. She's vulnerable. She's anxious. She's self-loathing. She's out for blood. It's a star turn on every level, mixed with the desolate sadness, deliberate anger and finger-pointing comebacks the character is famous for.

In the role of George, Martha's wounded, embittered intellectual husband, Dan Donahue is every inch as magnificent as Augesen, offering a hypnotic Chekhovian performance, prompted and shaped by well-matched bouts of desperation, exhaustion, awakening, in-bred destruction and acerbic verbal ping pong. Both he and Augesen are great stewards of Albee's language and like others before them, they deliver it with punch, acidity and wild abandon.
Nate Janis projects the cocky arrogance of youth with both the growing awareness and ripe, attractive sexiness the playwright envisioned for the role of Nick. It's a well-rounded turn of character ambition, confrontation, passion and entrapment that Janis taps into with appropriate chill, vigor, smarm and confidence. Emma Pfitzer Price deftly portrays Honey's giggly mania, her childlike innocence, her queer phobias and the shocking reality of discovering that she's one of the unlucky victims of the night's violence, carnage and twisted, hurtful mind games. Too much booze also turns Price's Honey into complete slush.
With Bundy orchestrating the game playing, the bitchiness, the mood swings and the rise and fall of all four characters, the ticks and beats of the play are completely in sync with Albee's successful, sardonic, in-your-face writing. Bravo!

The greatness of Edward Albee's astonishing 1962 drama "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is ignited with punch-drunk awareness and mind-bending realism in Yale Rep's stellar mounting of this iconic, award-winning Broadway play.

The game-playing, the violence, the humor, the passion and inbred distain for marriage - all prevalent in the playwright's acerbic commentary - is fueled with weighty confrontation by director James Bundy who not only gives audiences the best play of the 2022 regional theatre season, but one that celebrates the verbal combat and cathartic slugfest of the four central characters with steadied destruction, vindication, vulnerability and vividly expressed ensemble.
This is theatre. Real, lavish, complex - breathtaking.
It's arguably one of American theater's great masterpieces as it wildly cuts loose to examine the dissection of an unhappy marriage with such flair and confidence, witnessing it will leave you drained, exhausted and disturbed.
Then again, that's the point of this arresting, involved, provocative night of truth-telling.

Photos of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" courtesy of Joan Marcus

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" was staged at Yale Repertory Theatre (1120 Chapel St., New Haven, CT) from October 6 through 29, 2022.
For tickets or more information about upcoming shows, call (203) 432-1234.
website: yalerep.org 


Friday, November 11, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 350, A Review, "The Mousetrap" (Hartford Stage)

 By James V. Ruocco

In typical whodunit fashion, the identity of the murderer in Agatha Christie's 1952 play "The Mousetrap" isn't revealed until nearly the very end of the play. Otherwise, there actually would be no point to the ensuing mystery and the list of suspects ranging from Mollie Ralston, the smartly dressed proprietor of Monkswell Manor to her concerned husband Giles Ralston.
Other possible culprits in the unsolved sleight-of-hand include Miss Casewell, an odd, aloof woman with a secret past and Christopher Wren, a loud, peculiar homosexual who admits to running away from something but refuses to tell anyone what it is.
This being a whodunit, the audience is asked not to reveal the name of the killer to anyone outside the theater so as not to spoil the actual game of murder to anyone who buys a ticket to future performances.

A quintessential English murder mystery designed for macabre amusement, the Hartford Stage mounting of Christie's celebrated play unfolds with false clues, veiled expressions, overplayed histrionics, giggly coincidences, connected revelations, guessing game interrogations and plenty of tick tock chatter.

It is partly fun.
It is partly cheeky.
It is somewhat alert.
It is also springy.

But 70 years on, this "Mousetrap" is often dated, dull, uneventful and only mildly comforting.
Whereas the London production had class, style, allure and a steadfast sense of eerie accomplishment, "The Mousetrap" at Hartford Stage - though stunning to look at and suitable for framing - is way too idiotic to be taken seriously. Yes, the creaky material - penned by Christie herself - needed a face lift - but this is not English farce. Nor it is meant to be played entirely for laughs with characters amped up to the point of Oscar Wilde hysteria to connect with a 2022 audience and not one from forty, fifty or sixty years ago.

You still get your money's worth, but the interpretation - though enjoyable and snappy to a degree - is marred by wackadoodle updates and "The Play That Goes Wrong" silliness that openly exposes the creaks and dust of the play itself.

There's suspense, yes.
But it's not chilling.
It's not even remotely edgy.

Still, Hartford Stage has spent a fortune on the show's scenic and costume trappings, which indeed are the real stars of the show.
Riw Rakkulchon's period set design of Monkswell Manor, complete with a huge back window that reveals falling snow and mounting snow drifts is Rolls-Royce stunning, replete with a large chandelier hanging high above the stage, an impeccably detailed atmospheric interior, meticulously shaped velvet draperies and assorted books and props that celebrate its period magnificence. Krista Smith's lush, moody lighting heightens the mood as does Fabian Fidel Aguilar's handsomely designed costumes, all of which are uncannily couture and period appropriate for the cast of eight who are asked to wear them.

This edition of "The Mousetrap" is directed by Jackson Gay whose directorial credits include "August: Osage County," "Make Believe," "Woman in Mind," "Grand Horizons" and "The Taming of the Shew." Given the fact that "The Mousetrap" has been running in London's West End forever - 70 years and moving on to another 70 years - Gay's decision to add more laughter than thrills to the material gives the play an amusing, sometimes, disconcerting vibe.
This overly eccentric conceit is fine for the play's first fifteen to twenty minutes or so, but as "The Mousetrap" continues, there's far too much of it for this type of murder mystery genre. However, when Gay makes the decision to play it straight, the cast-and-mouse game that is "The Mousetrap" is efficient, melodramatic, confident and perfectly in sync with Christie's evolving narrative.

"The Mousetrap" stars Sam Morales as Mollie Ralston, Tobias Segal as Giles Ralston, Christopher Geary as Christopher Wren, Ali Skamangas as Miss Casewell, Brendan Dalton as Detective Sergeant Trotter, Jason O'Connell as Mr. Paravicini, Yvette Ganier as Mrs. Boyle and Greg Stuhr as Major Metcalf.
All eight performers are physically right for their respective characters and costumed to perfection by Aguilar. They have fun with the play text and do their best to keep everyone in the audience guessing until the big reveal. The acting, in turn, is passable to some degree until Gay asks them to ham it up and cut loose with over-the-top theatrics that suggest "Clue Meets The Play That Goes Wrong" instead of the murderous trauma that is "The Mousetrap."

Photos of "The Mousetrap" courtesy of T. Charles Erickson

"The Mousetrap" was presented at Hartford Stage (50 Church St., Hartford, CT) from October 13 through November 6, 2022.
For more information or tickets to upcoming productions, call (860) 527-5151.
website: hartfordstage.org



Thursday, November 10, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 349, A Review: "tick, tick...Boom!" (Brookfield Theatre for the Arts)

By James V. Ruocco

Composer/lyricist Jonathan Larson died in January,1996 just four months before the opening of his first major Broadway musical "Rent," which as everyone in theatre knows became a cult phenomenon through the subsequent decades that followed.

Prior to "Rent" - in 1989, to be exact - Larson, on the verge of turning 30 - wrote "tick, tick...Boom!" an autobiographical musical (originally conceived as a one-man show) that portrayed the life of a struggling, talented composer on the verge of a musical breakthrough, but deeply concerned that no one would produce or accept his work and that he would remain a failure who was "flat broke" and didn't have "a fucking penny."
Ironically, the musical never got a theatrical run until 2001, five years after Larson's death. Expanded to a three-character musical, it finally opened at the Jane Street Theater in Greenwich Village with a reworked script by David Auburn who played homage to the original work and Larson's insightful, philosophy about life itself - "Stop running around, wake up and start living."

The musical itself, which chronicles Larson's life prior to the "Rent" experience, is awash with color, vibe and excitement in yet another important theatrical go-round, this time, in the immersive, up-close-and-personal environs of the Brookfield Theater for the Arts.

It ticks.
It excites.
It frames.
It bends.
It aspires.
It does Larson proud.

At Brookfield Theatre for the Arts, "tick, tick...Boom!" is being staged by Beth Bonnabeau who brought welcomed anarchy, rebellion and epic volume to her award-winning musical dramatization of Green Day's "American Idiot" a few seasons back at the intimate Brookfield-based venue. Then and now, attention to detail, mixed with a strong sense of compassion for both the dramatic and musical execution of the material, are integral to the emotional core and the shape of her riveting interpretation.

Here, Bonnabeau is in her element. Her assured direction harkens moments of rhythmic freedom, expressive leeway, conveyed staple, ardent breathing room and in-the-moment fluidity. With this form of creativity in store, the famed early work of Jonathan Larson is solid, fluid and focused, barely stopping to catch a breath. Story arcs are believably cemented. The angst of a talented young composer on the brink of discovery is rooted with steadied involvement. The correlating events of the composer's life are given gusts of rhythm and flutter. And finally, the push-pull limits and aspirations of Larson's story strike a lasting chord that lingers, most engagingly.

As originally conceived by Jonathan Larson (composer and lyricist), "tick, tick...Boom!" is told through a series of 13 songs which portray the personal and professional struggles of the lead male character Jon who, as the musical progresses, hopes to find the right art form to showcase his edgy, complicated productions. They are: "30/90," "Green Green Dress," "Johnny Can't Decide," "Sunday," "No More," "Therapy," "Real Life," "Sugar," "See Her Smile," "Come to Your Senses," "Why!" "30/90 (reprise)" and "Louder Than Words."
Whereas the 2021 Netflix adaptation of "tick, tick...Boom!" included bits and pieces of commentary and musical interludes that suggested the early beginnings of "Rent," the stage version does not include any elements, lyrics or orchestral sounds reminiscent of "Rent." Here, the rough edges of Larson's early days are celebrated with an eclectic, pop-rock musical score that is tuneful, plot-evolving, complex and celebratory.

Musical director Sarah Fay, at the keyboards alongside the onstage band of John Hoddinott (guitar), Christian Peragine (drums) and Josh Rodis (bass) addresses the "tick, tick...Boom!" score with fiery command, subtlety and imagination. Freshly expressed and played to the fullest, the music's vibrant tempos, riffs and beats are delivered with refreshing alertness and nudge, thus, making Larson's work resonate and sparkle with a satisfying conversational flow and intimate sound that's exactly right for this particular form of musical storytelling.
As musical director, Fay also brings out a full-bodied, taut sound and connection from her trio of performers, all of whom melodically connect with the back-and-forth emotional frenzy of the music, the lyrics and the intended meaning of every song they are asked to perform.

"tick, tick...Boom!" stars David Anctil as John, Laura Majidian as Susan and Bennett Glenn Cognato as Michael.
In the role of Jon, Anctil amplifies the anxiety faced by Larson as he struggles for the big theatrical break in a reality that may or may not happen. It's a centered, determined character portrait framed in believable ambition, dedication and honesty. Majidian is exactly right for the part of Larson's girlfriend Susan. She also sells the character's big musical number "Come to Your Senses" with genuine, exciting musical bravado. As Jon's gay best friend Michael, who ditches acting for a high-profile advertising gig, Cognato crafts a dynamic performance voiced with strongness, vulnerability and truth.

"tick, tick...Boom!" was staged at Brookfield Theatre for the Arts (184 Whisconier Rd., Brookfield, CT) from October 21 through November 5, 2022.
For more information or tickets to upcoming shows, call (203) 775-0023.
website: brookfieldtheatre.org


Wednesday, November 9, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 348, A Review: "Aladdin" (The Bushnell)

By James V. Ruocco

Latticed palaces shimmering in the night.
Caves drenched in gold.
Magic carpets floating in the air.
A winning formula with knockout production numbers.

Disney's "Aladdin" - now on view at the Bushnell - is a big, sumptuous spectacle awash with sparkle, color, comedy, music, romance, a flying carpet, chiseled pecs, dancing beauties, fireworks, a loveable genie, assorted villains and plenty of freshly minted references from the 21st century amusingly thrown in to keep up with the times.

Like the 1992 animated film on which it draws its inspiration, this "Aladdin" is fun for audiences of all ages.
It's expensive Disney panto well worth the admission.
It's heroic and free-spirited.
It's adventurous and emotional.
It's doused with dare and dazzle.
Its diverse and tuneful.
It's given full reign over every city it plays.
And it's showcased in typical Disney fashion.

Taking its cue from "The Arabian Nights/One Thousand and One Nights," a popular collection of Middle Eastern fairy tales that includes the story of "Aladdin," the two-act musical (written by Chad Beguelin) features a handsome, young hero, a beautiful princess, an evil villain and a magical genie as its central characters.
Set in the Middle Eastern city of Agrabah, it goes the traditional romantic Disney route - poor boy falls madly in love with a beautiful princess- backed by a series of engaging, well-orchestrated, plot-defining story arcs and songs - all of which leads to a very happy ending showcased in dreamy, megawatt Technicolor splendor.
Jaw-dropping moments and madness aside, "Aladdin" is diced and spliced with enough cartoon-bright innocence, divvying villainy and giggly flourish to keep the actual story afloat without any hiccups, pauses, halts or interruptions. It's all dreamland Middle East (nothing wrong with that) - neat, clever and consistent - mixed seamlessly with jokes, tricks and abstractions that heighten the musical's magical allure.

Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw who staged the 2014 Broadway production, "Aladdin" has been designed solely to put a smile on your face, ask you to boo and hiss the villain, cheer the hero, applaud the show's bejeweled content, enjoy its catchy production numbers, bask in the glory of its bright full moon and shed a tear or two when good triumphs over evil right before the big finish.
As director, Nicholaw crafts a big-budget, well-oiled production with moments of mischief, charm, romance, madness and dreamy intervention. It's storytelling for the kids peppered with delightful bits and muscle strictly for the adults.
It all comes together swimmingly with enough ice-cream showmanship and sugar that not only impresses but leave you high as a kite begging and always wanting more. Dance wise, "Aladdin" feeds the soul with a body of virtuoso work that is potent, effective, inspired and striking.

The musical score for "Aladdin" features songs written and composed by Alan Menken (music) and the late Howard Ashman (lyrics) for the original 1992 Disney animated film in addition to new musical numbers orchestrated by Menken with lyrics created by Tim Rice and Chad Beguelin. Designed to enhance, balance and improve the popular story, the music itself is lush, lively and melodic with Arabic-tinged sounds and words that complement the atmospheric setting, the characters and the varying themes of the "Aladdin" narrative.
In order of performance, the songs are as follows: "Arabian Nights," "One Jump Ahead," "Proud of Your Boy," "These Palace Walls," "Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim," "A Million Miles Away," "Diamond in the Rough," "Friend Like Me," "Friend Like Me (reprise)," "Proud of Your Boy (reprise)," "Prince Ali," "A Whole New World," "High Adventure," "Somebody's Got Your Back," "Proud of Your Boy (reprise II)," "Prince Ali (Sultan reprise), Prince Ali (Jafar Reprise)," "Somebody's Got Your Back (reprise), "Arabian Nights (reprise)" and "A Whole New World" (reprise)."

The full energy and scope of the "Aladdin" score is shaped and solidified by musical director/conductor James Dodgson, a talented musician and orchestral leader whose persuasive sense of balance and rhythm complements the emotional demands of the material itself. It's Disney + all the way (no surprise there) - front, back and center - moving between lyricism and melody with tapped exhilaration, sweetness and charm.
The music itself speaks volumes - "Arabian Nights," "A Whole New World," "Friend Like Me," "A Million Miles Away," "Proud of Your Boy" - propelled forward with focus, clarity, dimension, elation and joy. It's numbing. It's nostalgic. It's lovely. It's important. It's impossible to resist.
The added delight of "Aladdin" is that it is 100% Disney. That, of course, is meant entirely as a complement to Menken, Ashman, Rice and Beguelin. They speak Disney. They get Disney. They understand Disney. They also know what works for an audience who has seen the film, loved the film and thoroughly enjoyed the story, the songs and the characters. Here, you get all that and so much more with an effervescent offering sweet-talked to candy-coated goodness and cheer, much like the 1992 animated feature.

"Aladdin" stars Marcus M. Martin as the Genie, Adi Roy as Aladdin, Sensel Ahmady as Jasmine, Anand Nagraj as Jafar, Aaron Choi as Iago, Jake Letts as Babkak, Ben Chavez as Omar and Colt Prattes as Kassim. Seeing them work en masse, they each bring artistic smarts and unapparelled points of view to the proceedings synched lovingly to their songs, their characters, their story arcs and their dances. It's an artistic choice full of theatrical joys that complement the material most engagingly.

In conclusion, the national touring edition of Disney's "Aladdin" is a big, bold, colorful musical confection proudly displaying the Disney + banner, its values, its traditions, its greatness, its merriment and more importantly, its embracement of the traditional family musical. It sings. It soars. It smiles. It dances.

You also get a magic carpet that really works. Two very attractive, charismatic leads. A scene-stealing, larger-than-life genie. An elaborate set and costume design of Technicolor opulence. A very happy ending. And a wonderful songbook of musical numbers that includes the very hummable, show-stopping romantic ballad "A Whole New World."

"Aladdin" is being staged at the Bushnell (166 Capitol Avenue, Hartford, CT), now through November 13, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 987-6000.
website: busnhell.org

Monday, November 7, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 347, A Review: "Lend Me a Tenor" (Music Theatre of Connecticut)


By James V. Ruocco

The time is 1934.
It's opening night.
World famous opera star Tito Morelli is scheduled to perform the title role in the Cleveland Grand Opera Company's colorful staging of Ruggero Leoncavallo's 1892 opera "Pagliacci" before a black-tie audience anxious to see the much-ballyhooed "Il Stupendo" take center stage.
So, what could go wrong?
Plenty.
This being a Ken Ludwig farce - aptly titled "Lend Me a Tenor" - all hell is about to break loose.
Morelli is late for rehearsal.
He's eaten too much food for lunch.
He's mixed his relaxant medication with wine.
His wife Maria thinks he's cheating on her - again.
He's also fallen asleep in the bedroom of their Cleveland Hotel suite and won't wake up.
The discovery of an empty medicine bottle and a letter on the bedside night table stating, "By the time you read this, I will be gone" not only signals suicide, but a cancelled performance of "Pagliacci" as well.
Really?
Well, not exactly.
Max, the nerdy, harried assistant to Henry Saunders, the Opera Company's stalwart General Manager, has a plan.
It's a long shot, but it can work.
"Pagliacci" will go on as scheduled, but he will don the title character's clown costume and starry white-faced make-up (he insists no one will notice that he's not the famous tenor) and perform the role in full operatic splendor.
One slight problem - Morelli is not dead.

Taken as a whole with all the necessary ingredients to make it fly, sting and resonate, "Lend Me a Tenor" is drenched in over-the-top farcical giddyap right from the starting gate.
Remember, this is farce.
Ludwig, in turn, is quick to establish his place in the comic firmament as both storyteller and playwright.
Here, comically collected doors open, close and are slammed shut by the on-stage characters in rapid succession depending on the "Tenor" blueprint.
Mistaken identities, off-the-cuff silliness and improbable situations that do not mimic real life hilariously pop up from time to time in sync with the play's absurd plotting. Sexual frivolity and innuendo are mixed to thrilling sensation. Quick pacing and double-time exaggeration are plentiful. Ensemble trust or bonding, if you prefer, is also part of the playwright's comic packaging.

At Music Theatre of Connecticut, the inviting, intimate venue where "Lend Me a Tenor" has settled in for an enjoyable three-week run, audiences are privy to a polished, fluffy and eccentric bit of nonsense that is innovative, breezy, light-hearted, charming and boldly theatrical.
This "Tenor" sings and soars with full comic fruition, uproarious identity, ricocheting gait and whirlwind madness.

It is fun.
It is crazy.
It is sexy.
It is nostalgic.
It is giggly.
It is push and pull.
It runs like clockwork.

Farce of any kind - "Noises Off" and "The Play that Goes Wrong" immediately spring to mind - is difficult to pull off, but here at MTC, director Pamela Hill crafts a knockabout entertainment of rambunctious imagination and stagecraft that cuts loose with anxious abandonment, aggressive slapstick, battered abasement and well-timed verbal gymnastics.
It's all wildly caricatured to perfection with plenty of ceaseless physical energy and minutely timed tomfoolery, offset by expertly choreographed staging, positioning and preening that tilts and spins with precision-drilled lunacy from start to finish.

Amid all the chatter and the unexpected chaos that ensues, Hill's slap-bang approach to Ludwig's glazed and crazed scenario necessitates order, teamwork, split-second comic timing and the ability to shift gears at a moment's notice. Without it, the play simply would not work, much less entertain, charm and titillate.
Putting the ballyhoo back into farce, Hill creates a carnival-like atmosphere where even the silliest character, situation or line of dialogue makes perfect sense. She also has great fun with the push-pull, stop-and-go mechanics of the actual story, its evolution, its mishaps, its conflicts and its romantic couplings and does her best to keep things rolling merrily along until the play's fitting, justified conclusion.
This production also comes gift-wrapped with a frenzied, over-the-top epilogue that replays the action of the entire play in less than three or four minutes. It's a feat that Hill pulls off swimmingly much to the delight of everyone on stage and in the audience.

In the role of Max, the bespectacled nerd who takes on the role of Pagliacci, Michael Fasano brings a sparky, squeaky-clean Felix Unger/Leo Bloom quality to the character that is refreshing, charming and pivotal to the comic mayhem at hand. Frank Mastrone's Tito Morelli is accompanied by expertly timed double takes, line delivery, clever movement, fast, clip action, an amusing Italian accent and a keen understanding of how to play farce with artful creation and panache. Jeff Gutner triumphs most amusingly as a hilariously starstruck intrusive bellhop who pops in and out of Morelli's hotel suite hoping to meet his idol face to face. Cynthia Hannah, in the role of Morelli's jealous wife Maria, comes to the proceedings with a thick Italian accent, a Fellini-like persona and a commanding comic presence that is freshly minted and executed with delightful perfection. Elsewhere, Jo Anne Parody interprets her portrayal of Julia, a wealthy society matron with silly position and indulgence.

The always versatile Jim Schilling slides into the role of jowly Opera manager Henry Saunders with such ease, skill and farcical certainty, playwright Ken Ludwig would surely applaud his centered, madcap, eye-catching performance. Watching his face change from bafflement and smarm to cover-up fear and hysteria is priceless as is his assured investment of the play's whirlwind chaos, complications, conflicts and increasing frantic paces. In the role of Saunders ingenue daughter Maggie, Alexandra Fortin is glamorous, flirty, attentive and well suited to the mechanics of stage farce - front and center. Her comic timing - like all those around her - is priceless.

Emily Solo, as Diana, the beguiling Cleveland Opera soprano/seductress anxious to fling her way to the top, is the epitome of 1930's movie star glamour and sophistication while sashaying across the MTC stage with fiery sweep, prance and flounce. As both actress and comedienne, she has created an important female role delivered with focus, power, fun, sensuality and natural silver screen flair. Credit also goes to MCT costume designer Diane Vanderkroef for not only giving Soto the right period look, but everyone else in the cast as well.

Hysterically funny with belly laughs galore, "Lend Me a Tenor" is a jolly good show with knockout comic performances, clever, insider gags, playful, sexual innuendo and flip, giddy one-liners reminiscent of days gone by.
It's the perfect fit for Music Theatre of Connecticut - up close and personal - and one that connects actor to audience for an immersive, lively, one-on-one experience. Pamela Hill's cracker-jack direction not only enlivens the mood of the piece, but revels in the hoot-and-holler farcical conceit of Ken Ludwig's playscript with ovation worthy zing, bling, fire and snap.

Photos of "Lend Me a Tenor" courtesy of Alex Mongillo

"Lend Me a Tenor" is being staged at Music Theatre of Connecticut (509 Westport Avenue, Norwalk, CT), now through November 20, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 454-3883.
website: musictheatreofct.com