Tuesday, September 29, 2015

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 3: A Review: Stephen Sondheim's "Assassins," presented by The Warner Stage Company

By James V. Ruocco

Every squeeze of the trigger, every bullet fired, every alarming effect emitted by the sound of a gunshot or multiple gunshots is deployed with such brilliant, side-show effect by director  Katherine Ray in the Warner Stage Company's dazzling, potent revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Assassins," the show's imposing, bizarre concept lingers long after the stage lights fade to black and the house lights come up, quickly transporting you back to the 21st century.
"Did I just spend two hours in the murky world of  political assassination and love every minute of it?" you ask yourself over and over again.
The answer is "YES."
All that, and more.

Welcome to "Assassins."
Mind you, this is not the world of "A Little Night Music," "Company," "Sunday in the Park with George" or "Follies." Instead, this dark and gloomy tale of assassins.....men and women, who have killed to tried to kill American presidents... unravels with such theatrical aplomb, you're not likely to take your eyes off the stage or the actors for any single moment, for dreaded fear of missing something important.
If "Assassins" comes up trumps, an ovation of sorts, is a must, for the visionary Ms. Ray. As director, she completely loses herself in the material; she completely understands the theatrical evolution of "Assassins" from script to stage; and revels in its marvelous, in-your-face oddities and perversity.
But she doesn't stop there.
As the assassins assemble, one by one, in pairs, or in groups, she brings disturbing and disquieting shading and nuance to the proceedings, which, by no means, is an easy task to master, considering the show's twisty concept. An added bonus comes from her choice of playing ground: an imposing carnival setting, reminiscent of Broadway's "Side Show" and Ryan Murphy's "American Horror Story: Freak Show."

It not only works to full advantage, but allows Ray to successfully juggle the show's intermingling flights of  slapstick, vaudeville, documentary, tabloid sensationalism, confessions, and oh yes, the gunshots (some aimed at the Presidents; others, aimed directly at the audience) without ever missing a beat.
She even treats the script's candid and amusing banter about bullshit, fucking and blow jobs with the right amount of cleverly-orchestrated brashness. You can't help but laugh. Is it shocking? Hardly. Is it funny? Hell, yes.
Finally, there is the casting.
An actress herself, Ray thrusts her audience into the hallucinatory world of "Assassins" using an exciting ensemble cast completely attuned to the freakish carnival world that surrounds them. As they seek to change history, make themselves front-page villains or simply cry out for help, she always knows what buttons to push or have her actors push (script wise, musically or improvisational), whether they appear in group scenes or others that find them dead alone...center stage...wondering whether or not they will be swallowed up whole right before our very eyes.
Aided by the Warner Stage Company's intimate theater space (a small-scale version of Broadway's Studio 54), Ray is able to communicate that one-on-one intimacy between actor and audience that is both aggressive, unsettling, taunting and commanding.  Jameson H. Willey's atmospheric Broadway-like set design only furthers that notion.

(The Actors, Front, Center, Sideways and Upside Down)

Ian Diedrich, as John Wilkes Booth, creates a polished, superbly etched portrait of an unhinged assassin and lost soul torn between an obsession to become front-page news or run blindly into the night from the pandemonium he created after shooting President Abraham Lincoln in the presidential box at Ford's Theater. This is not an easy role to pull off, but Diedrich grabs hold of it, pulls it apart from limb to limb, making us completely believe and understand the why's and why not's of his character's rage, both musically and dramatically. Bravo!

Noel Roberge, doubling as both Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald, is a magnetic young performer who easily communicates the narrator's unbridled optimism, soulful musicality and mockery of certain cold-blooded killers. Vocally, he is in such fine voice, if anyone is doing "Into the Woods" or "Sweeney Todd" (yes, more Sondheim musicals, folks!), Roberge would be perfect for both Jack and Tobias.
As Oswald, the now-famous assassin, who, in "Assassins" seems deeply troubled and tormented by his plan to shoot and kill JFK from the Dallas Book Depository window, the actor completely loses himself in the part and the material, a compliment of the highest order.

Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, played with ripe, inviting gusto, by Michelle Funaro, deftly communicates her character's giddy, over-the-moon love for Charles Manson like a late 1960's flower-child happily hooked on acid. She is so believable, dramatically, comically and musically, one wonders if she actually was yanked from that time period and plunked dead center into Ray's mesmerizing production

The casting of Suzanne Powers as the dithery, confused and manic Sara Jane Moore, a woman who realizes she once knew Manson in high school, is an absolute joy in itself to watch. The actress is wonderfully charismatic, off-balance, moody, edgy and bonkers (she reminds one of a young Lily Tomlin) and so much more. She never misses a beat. She is complete control and has great fun bringing her respective character to life. I can't wait to see what play or musical she does next.

There is a sheer brilliance to the commanding, crafty, freakish and disturbing performances of John Farias (Giuseppe Zangara),  Matt Cornish (Samuel Byck), Joe Harding (Charles Guiteau) and John Newey (John Hinckley) that completely gets under your skin, which, when you think about it, is exactly, what the material calls for. Watching each of them completely unravel and disconnect to the point where they completely lose their grip on reality (Ray's direction of each actor in these very frenzied on-stage moments is amazing) is worthy of a standing ovation.

The always-wonderful Keith Paul (President James Garfield/Ensemble) offers yet another dramatic and comedic turn, rich in the high energy and high spirit he is famous for. He plays a variety of roles, each to perfection. And yes, his take on every one of them is decidedly different, a sign of yet another dedicated and nuanced actor who connects with everything that's put before him.

(The Music, The Lyrics, the Musical Director)

Stephen Sondheim's score, a quirky mix of parodies, individual numbers, anthems, melodies and tattered confessions, springs vividly to life in the more-than-capable hands of music director Dan Koch. It should be noted that "Assassins" is not your typical Sondheim score. Here, the music is undeniably different....carefully chosen...to reflect the era and the characters who populate it. It is not something you'd hum in the shower, sing madly behind the wheel of your car or study madly for your next musical theater audition. Nonetheless, the songs...."Everybody's Got the Right," "The Ballad of Booth," "Gun Song," "Another National Anthem," to name a few....fascinate and compliment the progression of the carnival-themed proceedings.

The finale, titled "November, 22, 1963," finds the assassins singly wildly about the power and control that comes from taking a president's life. Here, they urge Oswald to act quickly, kill JFK and then, join their ranks. It's a justified conclusion to "Assassins" (boldly stated by both Ray and Koch) and one that lingers long after the musical ends. That, coupled with the fact that there is absolutely no curtain call (a wise decision dictated by the cast), heightens the final momentum of this dramatically different, cruelly funny Sondheim musical about reckless individuals, condemned forever in our minds and the freakish playground they once populated.

The Warner Stage Company of "Assassins" is being staged at the Nancy Marine Studio Theater ( 82 Main Street, Torrington, Ct.) The production runs through Oct. 4.
Performances are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $29. For reservations, call (860) 489-7180.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 2

By James V. Ruocco

The top source for Connecticut Cabaret Theatre's new stage production of "Rowan and Martin's Laugh In" is the irreverent and brash humor of Ed Friendly and George Schlatter, the creators of the popular 1960's NBC sketch comedy. It was there that millions of television viewers first heard the catch phrase "sock it to me" and "you bet your sweet bippy" or nearly fell off their sofas and recliners as the cast drifted merrily through the infamous "Cocktail Party" sequence or completely lost control of themselves and the material during the show's closing "Joke Wall" buffoonery.

No matter how you look it, is was that sheer zaniness that kept "Laugh In" going for six full seasons.
" 'Laugh In' is an iconic television show," says director Kris McMurray, who happily welcomed the opportunity to present the stage adaptation at his intimate cabaret space. "When I read the script, I knew we just had to do it. It was brilliant and contained all of the famous characters we had seen on  TV including those created by Ruth Buzzi, Judy Carne, Goldie Hawn, Jo Anne Worley and Arte Johnson.
Among them: the little old lady with the umbrella; the German soldier who kept muttering "very interesting;" the very, very dumb blonde whose body was covered in pithy wordplay; and the dirty old man on the park bench.

"I plan to take my audience on a very nostalgic journey," offers McMurray. "That is, a time when television and all Americana was beginning to be very controversial and played with us innocents."
True to form, "Rowan and Martin's Laugh In" includes plenty of sexual innuendo and politically incorrect jokes from that era plus the typical short sketches, one-shot sight gags, black outs, variety skits and comedic caricatures the show was famous for.           
" 'Laugh In' is for all ages," adds McMurray. "People who have actually grown up with the television show or for the new generation who want to take a peek at what was really the very first 'Saturday Night Live' for television."

The production stars Chris Brooks, Meagan Bomar, James J. Moran, Bobby Schultz, Brianna Zuk, Sue Emond, Abby Brooks, Russell Fish, Barbara Horan, Maria Pompile, Will Dayton, Carleigh Schultz, Dave Wall, Grace Rizzuto, Linda Kelly, Nancy Ferenc and George Lombardo.
"Rowan and Martin's Laugh In" runs Sept. 18 through Oct. 24 at the Connecticut Cabaret Theatre (31 Webster Square Rd., Berlin, CT).
Performances are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Doors open at 7:15 p.m.
Tickets are $30. For more information, call (860) 829-1248.

(The Great and Wonderful Wizard....I Mean Melissa....Comes to Ridgefield)

If you want to get up close and personal with Melissa Etheridge.....lots of lesbian women do...then, put on your best flannels and blue jeans, jump into your SUV and head over to Ridgefield this October for an edgy and exuberant concert guaranteed...and I mean, guaranteed.... to leave you breathless.
If you know me, then you already know that I'm a big Etheridge fan. I've seen her five or six times in concert. And, I'm not even a lesbian. Maybe, in my next life. Who knows? It's either that or poster child for Burberry or Ralph Lauren.

As evidenced in previous Etheridge concerts, this one allows the singer to entertain her audience with many powerhouse vocals (don't you just love her edgy, raspy sound) about life, sex, hope, romance, doomed relationships, confessions and survival.
She will perform several songs from her edgy 2014 album "This is M.E.," including "Ain't that Bad," "Who Are You Waiting For," "Do It Again" and "Take My Number."
"This is music that I love," she says. "There's more R&B and soulful feeling to it because that's always been inside of me and I think rock and roll and soul and R&B are brother and sister and those collaborations are probably my favorite."
Fans can also expect to hear many of her greatest hits: "Come to My Window," "I'm the Only One,"  "Breathe," "Bring Me Some Water," "Fearless Love," "Angels Would Fall" and "I Want to Come Over."
While some of the songs are two decades old or older, Etheridge isn't really bothered. Then, now, always, she finds new ways to whip her crowd into a frenzy and make them think they're hearing each song for the very first time.

"The emotion doesn’t cut like it used to," Etheridge explains. “But rather than coming from a place that is desperate it comes from place where it’s fun to sing a fist-raised-in-the-air song that has become more of an anthem.”
I couldn't agree more.
Performances are 8 p.m. Oct. 5 and 6 at the Ridgefield Playhouse (80 East Ridge, Ridgefield, CT). Tickets are $125. For more information, call (203) 438-5795.

(No Empty Chairs or Empty Tables at This Groban Concert)

International singing sensation Josh Groban is coming to Toyota's Oakdale Theater (good God, what an awful name for a venue) on Sept. 26th to promote his new Broadway show music album "Stages" and happily entertain and seduce audiences with the same charm, sparkle and vocal savvy that has kept him in the limelight for years and years.

Am I a big Groban fan, you ask?
Oddly enough, I'm a newbie....eight days and counting.
Yes, really.
So let's backtrack.
While perusing "You Tube" last week (my taste in music changes as often as my mood swings), I decided to track down some videos from the West End and Broadway productions of "Les Miserables" and who should pop up first, but Groban singing "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," my favorite song from that show. I hit play and was immediately hooked. Five minutes later, I decided to give Groban's "Bring Him Home," also from "Les Miz," a quick spin.
I was so impressed, I clicked on amazon.com and ordered Groban's new album "Stages," which, is the centerpiece of his new 2015 concert.

"Nothing has inspired me more in my life than the energy that is shared in a theatre when great songs and great art are on the stage," Groban said in a press statement for "Stages." "I wanted this album to pay tribute to those inspirations and memories.
"Having lived in New York City the last few years, seeing as much theater as I could see, and having so many great friends in the theater community, it became really inspiring to take this on. It was time."
Time is also on Groban's side.
"Stages," the actual album, is timely, inventive, stylish and sung magnificently. So it's easy to see why Groban decided to include most of this theatrical repertoire in his tour.
I, for, one, can't wait to hear these songs performed LIVE.
Included in the concert songbook are "What I Did For Love" ("A Chorus Line"),"Pure Imagination" ("Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"), "Bring Him Home" and "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" ("Les Miserables"), "Over the Rainbow" ("The Wizard of Oz"), "Children Will Listen"/"Not While I'm Around" ("Into the Woods," "Sweeney Todd'), "You'll Never Walk Alone" ("Carousel"), "Finishing the Hat" ("Sunday in the Park With George") and "Anthem" ("Chess")

Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets are $75 to $465.
For more information, call  (203) 265-1501.
Toyota Oakdale Theatre is located at 95 South Turnpike Road, Wallingford, CT)

(Wendy Wasserstein's Final Play "Third" is Set to Open at TheaterWorks)

With its upcoming production of Wendy Wasserstein's "Third," Hartford's prestigious "TheaterWorks kicks off its 30th season.
Wow, how time flies!
Then, as now, this critically-acclaimed Equity showcase will continue to offer theatergoers a fine assortment of contemporary works designed to entertain, challenge, entice and surprise its audience. And it doesn't get any better than Wasserstein, the late American playwright whose works include "The Heidi Chronicles," "The Sisters Rosensweig" and "An American Daughter."

"Wasserstein has a gift for dissecting the emotional and intellectual struggles of women," says "Third" director Rob Ruggiero. " Funny and biting, this is Wendy's last, and perhaps best, play."
Set during an academic year at a very small New England college, "Third" charts the emotional upheaval that erupts once Laurie Jameson, a female college professor accuses her student Woodson Bull III (in the play, he is nicknamed "Third") of plagiarism. He, of course, denies this, but she believes his essay on "King Lear" is not his work and reports him to the college's Committee of Academic Standards.

Is this action justified? Or is Jameson guilty of using the accused to fuel her inner torment with academics, relationships, age and identity politics?
You'll have to see the play to find out.
The production stars Kate Levy, Andrea Gallo, Edmond Genest, Conor Hamil and Olivia Hoffman.
"This is an exciting time for TheaterWorks," adds Ruggiero. "Together with you, we have grown into Hartford's best contemporary theater. We've stayed focused on sharing great stories, because we know that great stories make the best theater."

"Third" runs Oct 1 through Nov. 8.
Performances are 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Matinees are 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
Tickets are $15-$50. For more information, call (860) 527-7838.

(Tom Chute's Morning Show is Always First in My Book)

WATR's Tom Chute knows a thing or two about talk radio.
Originally, he planned on staying at 1320/AM for "just five years," but luckily for us, he's now in his 30th year at the popular Waterbury-based radio station. Even better, he has no intention of slowing down at any given moment.

Chute, first and foremost, is an entertainer. He has charm, personality, wit, compassion, warmth and about 101 other traits that keep WATR listeners merrily entertained weekday mornings whenever they tune in to "Tom Chute and You." He is the very definition of a media celebrity, and truly, one of the most likeable people on the planet.
Whenever I listen to this long-running radio program, I am always impressed with Chute's high-energy, his feel-good savvy, his professionalism and his ability to communicate his thoughts without ever missing a beat.
What is his secret, you ask?
How does he keep things fresh and spontaneous?
It's all fairly, simple.
"I basically plan on having different features and different conversations every half hour, after every news break," he explains. "That's why you hear fresh stories whenever you tune in."
How does Chute pick and choose what material to use, day after day, week after week?
"Some of it is lifestyle from my very own life," he says. "I also search the web and various publications for stories that I feel would be fun for our morning show.
"I always look for lighter stories because we try to entertain and bring people up with our morning show. We don't want to be depressing."
"Tom Chute and You" is broadcast Mondays through Fridays from 6:00 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.

So check things out. You won't be disappointed.
And if you listen to WATR from your car while driving to work, taking the kids to school or running "early morning" errands, you may, if you're like me, miss your exit, find your gas tank almost "on empty" or simply pull over, grab a cup of Starbucks, relax and let Chute do all the talking.

(They Like Me......They Really, Really Like Me)

I am truly humbled.
In just less than a week, "From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2"  has skyrocketed on Facebook, Twitter, Google, Bing, etc. The stats are well beyond amazing. And I mean, amazing. I had no idea that
"Take 2" would actually surpass my national/international column "From the Desk of Jim R," in hits and views during the first few days it was posted online.
And not just in Connecticut, but all across the USA and overseas in over 30 countries including Sweden, Slovakia, Denmark, France, England, Australia, Switzerland and Canada.
I guess it's safe to assume that "they like me.......They really, really like me."


Here's is just a smattering of what they've been saying:

"Jim! I can't thank you enough for writing this article and how excited I am for you to return to writing. You piece was wonderful! I love the fluidity and grace with which you use words. You truly have a gift. Every word draws you farther into the piece. And it's so flattering! I can't thank you enough!! I may not be performing for a while but I will be following you! " (Sybil Haggard Chamberlin)

"Jim, we loved the review. You are an excellent writer. I almost felt we were watching the play. Thank you for all the wonderful praise for Sybil and the whole production. You are so gifted and we are blessed to have you in our lives... If you are ever down North Carolina way, you are welcome. " (Dora Haggard)

"Absolutely loved it, Jim. There were so many interesting topics that kept me entertained. It's well written and informative. The play 'Gidion's Knot' has made me want to see it (even though I'm an 18 hr. flight away) which goes to show what a brilliant writer you are. Well done, my friend. Looking forward to the next one " (Rose Imbrogno)

"Jim,  thanks for the wonderful write up. If you had said anything more about the company I might have gotten a swelled head. Glad to see you writing again. It's alway a joy to read writing that is entertaining yet meaningful and has depth."  (Donato D' Albis)

"I met Jim for the first time at 'Gidion's Knot' and his passion for theater is apparent in the first moments of talking with him. Thank you for this wonderfully written article! "(Kailee Donovan)

"Yes! Jim did a wonderful job reviewing the play" (Teddi Therkildsen)

"I wholeheartedly agree. It was a special night at the theater." (Susan Pople)

"Loved reading this. Thanks for sharing. I know you are one proud Mama, Dora! I'd love to see Sissy in a play-- any play!" (Brenda Scott)

"Wow, Kailee and Sybil...what a great article and review of  'Gideon's Knot.' I could not have said it better!"  (Keith Donovan)

"You are a very witty writer with many enlightening things to say about entertainment and other matters, and I look forward to reading each and every one of your new works!"  (Lana Forrester)

"Great article on the Connecticut Cabaret!!! And the "infamous" and talented producer / director/ actor and, of course,  my friend, Kris McMurray....I love all your Facebook posts. Your blogs, etc. You're SO accomplished!!!!" (Melinda Learned)

"This is an awesome endeavor. I love the personalization and the photos....so much more interesting and user-friendly than a run-of-the-mill review. CONGRATS!!! " (Valerie Vitalo)

"Jim, båda versionerna av 'Från skrivbordet av Jim R' visar en mycket hängiven, begåvad och fokuserade writer.You göra orden hoppa rätt off sidan. Vi kan inte vänta och se vad du ska göra härnäst." (Bjarne Sjoner)

"It's so nice to have you back writing again." (Barbara Davitt)

"Congrats! Welcome back, Jim." (Barry Hughson)

" We hope you enjoy the show (and hope we enjoy the review" "('Rear Window") (Hartford Stage)

"What a great blog....wonderful Jim!" (Thomas Chute)

"Jim, loved the blog. Even though I get the Hartford Courant, I really don't take much notice. I found your blog much more informative and fun. Look forward to the next one. Thanks." (Linda Hodson

"Great stuff Jim! Thank you! I look forward to re-reading this a few times today! Welcome back!! " (Keith Paul)

"This makes me very happy!" (Sharon Wilcox)

"Jim, votre écriture est tout simplement magnifique. Nous attendons avec impatience votre prochaine colonne." (Gautier Fournier)

"Wow! You're back. How great!" (Donna Bonasera)

 "I've enjoyed your writings!" (David Stephen Irvin)

"Nous avons adoré votre écriture. Il est très frais, coloré et personnel." (Stephane Vallart)

"Fabulous. Loved every story! You certainly were busy!"  (Matthew Valenti)

"Congrats Jim! So glad to see you back doing what you love best." (Marianne Schmitt McKenna)

"Writing is your forte. So glad you are doing this again." (Linda Salerno)

"Nice to see local theatre coming back."  (Patricia Emily Rimkunas)

"Congratulations!"  (Janice Luise-Lutkus)

(The Big E.......No Way in Hell)

It's a question I get asked every year at this time.
"Are you going to 'The Big E?' "
"No," I reply.
Again, the same question, "Are you going to 'The Big E?' "
"No," I explain, "I AM NOT GOING TO 'THE BIG E.' "

In actuality, I absolutely hate (such harsh words there, Jimmy Boy) "The Big E," the crowds, the bumper-to-bumper traffic, the parking, the long lines for food, the ridiculous overpricing and all those people who think 'The Big E" is equivalent to Queen Elizabeth's Golden Jubilee or Christmas in Rockefeller Center.
I want no part of it.
But first, let's backtrack.
My first and only time at "The Big E" was when I was a wee boy of 9 or ten. My parents James-Vincent and Frances had never been before and thought it might be fun and interesting. A half- hour after we arrived, I could tell they wanted to bolt, especially after checking out the livestock on display or wandering through a CT pavilion of prize-winning vegetables.
"Oh, look, Jim," my mother said to my dad. "An entire pavilion with rows and rows of tomatoes and blue ribbons. I've seen enough. Let's go."

Thus, ended our first and only experience with "The Big E." Out of the gates we went, never, never ever to return.
By now, you're all probably saying, "Christ, what a bunch of snobs? How could anyone hate "The Big E?"
In defense of my parents, it just wasn't their thing? Or mine.
I have nothing against sheep, horses, cows or chickens, but I'd rather see them romping about the English countryside in Dorset, Wiltshire or Bibury than in West Springfield, Massachusetts.

What about the food and the refreshments?
My parents (and I) loved the fried dough, the hot dogs, the hamburgers, the cotton candy, the snow cones and the candied apples.....just like everyone else....But we could get that anywhere. Or make it ourselves.

As for "The Big E," it remains....and will continue to remain, a very distant memory. It is not on my list of things to do in 2015 or any year after. But in their defense,  they do make, a very mean fried dough.
End of story. Fade to black.                                                             


Thursday, September 10, 2015

"From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2"

By James V. Ruocco

Normally, when I go to the theater as actor, critic or audience member, I usually know something...or quite a lot....about what I am about to see.
Not so, with "Gidion's Knot" by Johnna Adams.
Surprisingly, I had never heard of the play.
I arrived at the Thomaston Opera House...pad and paper in hand....to see Sybil Haggard Chamberlin perform. It was as simple as that. I had seen Sybil make her stage debut back in 1990 playing Laurey in the Wolcott High School production of "Oklahoma!" (and yes, she was sensational) and I have followed her stage career ever since as both friend, writer and critic.
Taking a quick peek at the set, I saw that "Gideon's Knot" was set in a modern day classroom. No clues anywhere about what was going to happen.
Once the lights started dimming,  I took my seat like everyone else, sat back, and thought, "This should be interesting."
Well, "Gidion's Knot" was more than just interesting. It was phenomenal.

As written by Ms. Adams, this intricate and articulate two-character play was an emotionally, gut-wrenching theatrical experience that plunged the viewer head-first into its controversial subject matter. When it finally ended 85 minutes later, the need to take some very meaningful gulps of your finest Scotch, was absolutely mandatory.
Set in a 5th grade classroom after hours, "Gidion's Knot," charts the unexpected meeting between a demure schoolteacher and an emotionally-wrought parent. At first, they argue about her son's suspension, but as the play progresses, we learn that the boy, named Gidion, has died, from a self-inflicted gun shot. 

Why, or how, all of this happened, seamlessly connects and unravels under Donato J. D' Alibis studied, artful direction. D'Alibis grabs hold of the material and fashions an edgy, brutally honest story of argument, deception, courage, sexual awakening and regret, that builds and builds to its thought-provoking conclusion. Moreover, he doesn't rush things or clutter the stage with lots of superficial or unnecessary movement. Instead, he lets the material speak for itself though of voices of his two brilliant leading ladies, Sybil Haggard Chamberlin and Kailee Donovan.
If someone is staging "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf ?" "God of Carnage," "Art" or "The House of Bernard Alba," D'Alibis is your man. I, for one, can't wait to see what he does next.

"I am slated to direct two one act plays in the Warner Theater's One Act Festival in which, hopefully you will see Kailee, Sybil and other members of our extended company," he notes. "That will be in October. Then, in February and March we are presenting 'The Glass Menagerie.' "

Working on "Gidion's Knot" with D' Alibis "was fantastic, Chamberlin explains. "He studies each piece and has a clear idea of how he envisions every detail of the play from movement to sound to lighting to props. He also really trusts his actors. He works with your instincts about the characters and pushes you beyond what you believe you can do. He knows so much about theatre that every rehearsal is like a Master Class in acting and theatrical anecdotes."

In the role of the unassuming schoolteacher Heather Clark, Chamberlin brings the right amount of nuance, shading, honesty and depth to this fascinating role. Given the script's many, many twists and turns, she skillfully changes gears so unobtrusively, she inhabits and owns the part....and, then some. And yes, one never gets the impression that she is acting. She takes hold of the character, dissects her from limb to limb, and creates one of the most thrilling characters of her career. Wow!
Interestingly enough, Chamberlin accepted the role before she had read the play.
"I have such respect for our director Donato that when he suggested the show and said he wanted me in it, I said, 'Yes.' He picks incredible work and his vision is always beyond what I could imagine.
I loved doing 'Crimes of the Heart' with the Backyard Theatre Ensemble and I was excited to do another show with Kailee Donovan, one of the founders of the company and a great actress."

As Gidion's enraged mother Corryn Fell, Donovan, is equally as riveting. This is my first time seeing Donovan in a play and I was completely blown away by her gusty dramatic performance. Whatever she's doing next, I plan on being in the audience....fifth row center, on the aisle.
 Like Chamberlin, she too knows what buttons to push, how to play a character, develop it and run with it without every looking back.  She superbly communicates her character's anguish, grief and sense of loss. There are are times when Corryn becomes so despicable and opinionated, if I was sitting next to her character on a plane, I'd change my seat immediately. That's the beauty of Donovan's work, and a compliment of the highest order.
The casting of this duo is no accident. And, that in turn, makes "Gidion's Knot" one of this year's brilliant theatrical endeavors.
D' Alibis agrees. "After seeing the chemistry between Sybil and Kailee in 'Crimes of the Heart' I knew they would be great together. Sybil has an innocence and vulnerability on stage that is hard to find. She never has an untrue moment when acting. Kailee also has the same qualities but she also has a frailty that is brittle. You watch her and are waiting for the shell to crack and show her inner self. When I first read the play I knew Kailee had to play the role of Corryn. After working with Sybil I knew I had my cast. "

Is there life for "Gidion's Knot" after the Thomaston Opera House.
"We are reaching out to other theater companies to see if we can present the show in their seasons," D'Alibis," explains. "We want to work with other people and form a network of artists who are willing to work together and share resources. We are currently in discussions now with a couple of theaters but nothing is set in stone."
Chamberlin said she'd jump at the chance to do "Gidion's Knot" at another theatre venue.
And she hopes it will be soon. "In December, I will be 'producing' my second son so that will be taking up a lot of time, but I'm always open to any opportunity that comes down the line if I can fit it in my schedule.
"I've also gotten more into singing jazz in the last few years and had some fun gigs and hope to have more next year."

(Tony, Tony, Tony.....You Found Your Heart in Berlin) 

If you've ever been to a play or musical at the Connecticut Cabaret Theater (31 Webster Square Rd., Berlin, CT), then you already know why there's rarely an empty seat at this intimate showcase.  Season after season Artistic Director Kris McMurray offers theatergoers an eclectic mix of plays and musicals (both classic and new) that warrant standing ovations night after night.

Case in point: McMurray's recent musical staging: "I Left My Heart: A Salute to the Music of Tony Bennett." Stylish, savvy, wistful and brimming with reassuring energy, this sweet and simple musical revue not only honors the man himself, but transports its audience back to the days of those chic and dimply-lit supper clubs of the 1940's and 1950's. It's a moody effect that he sustains beautifully.
Just as he did with "Rent," "Pippin," "Singin' in the Rain," Into the Woods" and so many others, McMurray....genius that he is...understands the piece, enjoys the piece, edits the piece and mounts it as if he were a French painter creating a visual masterpiece. He also has fun with it, takes chances and injects his own brand of cheekiness into it, whenever possible.

The material, which lovingly opens and cherishes the Tony Bennett songbook (much to the delight of the audience, the on-stage performers and the musicians) includes several standouts. Among them: "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails," "Plenty of Money and You," "Steppin' Out," "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," "Fly Me to the Moon," "Rags to Riches," "Because of You," "The Best Is Yet to Come,"   and several others.

Musical director Sean Lewis (he and I were in "The King and I" together some years back; he played Prince Chulalongkorn; I was Lua Tha) masterfully takes his three-member cast into Bennett's world, and keeps them there for well over 90 minutes for an energetic, flawless, jazzy nightclub act that rarely slows down to catch its breath. That is, until intermission of course. Let's just say, the King and Mrs. Anna would be ever so proud.

What's especially nice about this particular production is that the cast never once tries to mimic or transform themselves into Tony Bennett. That, of course, would be completely impossible, a fact that the show's creators David Grapes and Todd Olson  have set in stone as "a no-no." Instead, Nick D'Angelo, Jonathan Escobar and Bobby Schultz set their own style of musicality under both the watchful of McMurray and Lewis (I like the way those name sound together; maybe, they should become Broadway producers). They sing smoothly as individuals and as a trio, rarely missing a musical beat. Moreover, they completely understand the genre they are working in and effortlessly connect with material they are performing.
For more information on Connecticut Cabaret Theater, call (860 829-1248)

(Want to Go Shopping? Let Me be Your Guide and Instructor)

Now is the time to go shopping for your new fall and winter wardrobe.
But before you do, here's a few "fashion tips" to make your experience fun, exciting and profitable.
Just follow my advice, ignore your friends, your family and your gay and lesbian confidantes. Shop alone. Trust your instincts. And have your American Express card ready.

The key to dressing right is... not how much you spend on clothing, but how you wear it, how you feel when you wear it  and knowing exactly what looks right on you. First and foremost, fashion is an extension of yourself, your personality, your lifestyle and the statement you choose to make. That's it, in a nutshell.

Therefore, when buying clothes, one must be aware that what looks good in the adverts, in magazines or in store windows, may not work for you, depending on your body type. So take notice...Just look in the mirror....and go from there. It's all fairly easy when you put your mind to it.
To start, find the right color and the ideal color combination that fits the entire picture, from top to bottom. Experiment. Try clothes on. Never buy form a catalogue. And don't go overboard. You don't want to look like a clown or something out of a freak show. Think smart, not trendy. Trends almost always, never last.

Essential to your look is the right tailoring. If you buy something off the rack, make sure it fits properly. Adjustments are often necessary, even the subtle ones. For the best look, however, pick a store like Brooks Brothers or Ralph Lauren that has an in house tailor. It makes all the difference in the world.

Lastly, make sure the salesperson you're working with knows exactly what he or she is talking about.
In the long run, it's all about you....not the commission.
Recommended stores: Brooks Brothers, Ralph Lauren, Nordstrom, J. Crew, Abercrombie & Fitch, Giorgio Armani,  Ermenegildo Zenga, Paul Stuart, Ascot Chang,  Eddie Bauer, L.L. Bean, to name a few

(Want a Slice or Two of Bacon? Sorry, Folks! This Bacon is Sold Out )

I'm the first to admit it... I have connections....I can even get fifth row center seats to "Hamilton" on Broadway. But that's another story.
Oddly enough, I didn't have to use "any connections" to get third row center seats for Hartford Stage's upcoming production of "Rear Window," starring Kevin Bacon. And yes, I'm one of the lucky ones, because unless you're living under a rock (maybe, some of you actually do), the production is completely "SOLD OUT. "

Bravo, Hartford Stage.
Per box-office management, the theater has had its biggest and highest sales day in its 52-year history. It seems everyone wanted to get close too....or grab a piece of the Bacon...himself.
The stage production of "Rear Window" is adapted by Keith Reddin from the original short story that inspired Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 classic film classic. Bacon plays L.B. Jeffries, a man confined to his claustrophobic apartment who actually believes he may have witnessed a horrible murder in a nearly building.
"Rear Window," directed by Darko Tresnjak, runs October 22 through Nov. 15 at Hartford Stage (50 Church St., Hartford, CT). It marks my fifth time seeing Bacon on stage. Caught him previously in the Broadway/off-Broadway productions of "Slab Boys, " "An Almost Holy Picture," "Album" and Loot."
For those of you lucky enough to get tickets, hold on to them tightly. Lots of Bacon groupies will probably descend upon you outside Hartford Stage or in the adjacent parking garage (a nightmare to get out of following any "sold out" performance) offering "top dollars" for your "Rear Window" seats.

If that's not your cup of Starbucks and you don't fall into the "Bacon groupie category," "Hartford Stage" is offering a special "wait list for tickets." Just go to the theater website, click on the form and fill in the information requested. Tickets, if any, will depend entirely upon cancellations and exchanges.

Per box office management, "no additional performances are being added" to the limited run engagement of "Rear Window."
For more information, call (860) 527-5151.....if you dare.

(It's Really About the Fundraiser.....Not that Delicious Abbey Cheese)

When I was telling close friends of mine that I was attending the gala "From Rags to Riches" fundraiser at the Abbey of Regina Laudis (273 Flanders Rd., Bethlehem, CT), they told me, "You're just going for the Abbey cheese."
I did a double take and said, "No seriously, I'm really going to show my support."
They laughed and said, "Sorry, Jim, we don't believe you. You love that cheese so much, you'd go the Bethlehem every day if the Abbey had it for sale."
That, of course, if true. I'd jump in my car and head straight to Flanders Rd without hesitation.

But seriously folks,
I'm really going to make a donation, support the Abbey (they were always wonderful to me whenever I covered their many events for the newspaper,), its outdoor theater and to visit with Mother Dolores Hart, James Douglas, Joan Gilbert, Mother Prioress Olivia Frances Arnold, among others.
I can't wait.
"From Rags to Riches" will be staged Sept. 19th from 3 to 6 .m. at The Gary-The Olivia Theater. Produced by the Clay and Wattles Theater Company, the three-hour event with feature music, dance, song, dramatic readings and a few surprises or two.

Mother Dolores Hart will offer a dramatic reading from Nikos Kazanzakis'  "Zorba the Greek."
Hannah Dubner will play Fanny Brice and sing songs from "Funny Girl." Katie Keough, Korie Blossey and Maurio Hines will perform selections from "Porgy and Bess." Other cast members include Meghan Corcoran, Thomas Camm and Nico Apicella.
Tickets are $45 for the performance, wine and cheese (ah, yes, the cheese) and a meet-and-greet reception with the cast.

I'm hoping to finally meet the famous Abbey cheese nun and commission a wheel of that savory cheese for me and my family.
For more information, call (203) 273-5669.

(This Big WATR Radio Fan Almost Ended Up "Running on Empty" )

Guilty as charged
Whenever I'm behind the wheel of my car in the very early wee morning (or wee later hours, depending on your point of view), I always make it a point to listen to WATR RADIO's "Tom Chute and You," hosted by my good friend, TC, the "King of Culture" himself.
There are even times when I deliberately plan my roads trips to coincide with the weekday broadcasts of both Tom Chute's radio show and Barbara Davitt's smart and savvy "Coffee Break."
But for purposes of this column, let's backtrack.

About a week ago, while driving, I hit the dial (it's already programmed to 1320/AM) to listen to "Tom Chute and You." The program was so exciting, entertaining, diverse and amusing (it always is), I actually missed my exit on the highway and kept on driving and driving.
This has happened many times before (Chute and Davitt can attest to this), but here's the twist.
I was so rigorously entertained by Chute's cheeky banter and marvelous wit (he and Allison Demers) are a great team), I forgot to see that my gas light was on drifting slowly toward "Empty."

Here I was heading toward Woodbury, completely unaware of what was going on. But, luckily,  I made it to Exit 16 on I-84, purchased my gas and drove the car home safely.
On Facebook, I retold the story.
"Thanks for the fun shout out, and for tuning in to WATR  in the a.m,," commented Chute. "Sorry about the gas. I happily used this story today on WATR!"

(These "Assassins" are Singing to the Tune of Bullets Flying)
No one could ever accuse composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim of "not being original."
Take, for example, his 1990 musical "Assassins." Here, a group of psychos, killer wannabes and nut jobs take center stage as men and women who have tried or actually assassinated American presidents. Their stories, told through song,  are so bold, brash, hypnotic and spellbinding, actors claim they "would kill (no pun intended) to be in this decidedly different Sondheim musical.
I mean, who could blame them? I'd even jump "head first" into the musical theater arena to take part in this deliciously macabre musical fare.

One person who did is the tremendously talented Torrington-born Keith Paul.
"I've always been attracted to odd stage shows," he explains. "Once I knew I wasn't directing this fall or returning to Provincetown to work on the Tennessee Williams Theater Festival,  I decided I needed a real challenge.
"Directing and producing events are great fun, but I really missed being in a cast. And 'Assassins' has proven to be a very fun challenge."
Previously, Paul was featured in the 2006 musical "Paint Your Wagon" at the Warner. He also appeared in the theater's 2014 International One-Act Play Festival.

"I have also been heavily involved in puppet acting with CT's Elmwood Productions after landing a role in their all-puppet horror comedy "HEAD" last fall. And, I also keep busy on all kinds of music and burlesque projects with my company, 'The Desultory Theatre Club.' "
So, who does Paul play in "Assassins."  John Wilkes Booth? Lee Harvey Oswald?
The answer is no.

"Alas, I am the assassinated this time around," muses Paul. "I am playing President James Garfield and a handful of other colorful characters in the ensemble. So I'm hoping to resonate all sorts of emotions through my performance along with the rest of this truly talented ensemble. 
"I'm also hoping some new faces will purchase tickets and take a risk to check out this wonderfully crazy show!"
The production, directed by Katherine Ray, is being staged at the Nancy Marine Studio Theatre (82 Main St., Torrington, CT). Dan Koch is musical director.
"Assassins" runs Sept. 26 through Oct. 2. Performances are 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday (opening weekend) and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday (closing weekend).
Tickets are $29. For more information, call (860) 489-7180.

(If You're Not the Right Age, This "Book" is Definitely Not For You)

TheatreWorks of New Milford is holding an "open casting call" for their upcoming production of "Bell, Book & Candle." The production, directed by Joseph Russo, is looking for 3 men (ages 25 to 70) and 2 women (ages 25 to 70). If your age is 24 or 71, however, it looks like you're completely out of luck. Or, you can simply lie, depending, on how desperately, you want a part.

Written by John Van Druten, the two-act play charts the cheeky story of a fun-spirited witch, who, after, falling in love with her handsome neighbor, resorts to witchcraft to stop the pending nuptials. Now, for the bad news. Any witch who falls in love loses her power. Then, again, who's to say, there isn't a magic potion around to reverse all that witchy nonsense.

Auditions will be held at the theater (5 Brookside Avenue, New Milford) on Tuesday, September 22 and Wednesday, September 23 from 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. All actors will be asked to read various parts from the "Bell, Book & Candle" script. There is no pre-casting. All roles are open to professional and community theater performers. You don't have to read the script prior to auditions, but, trust me, it helps....tremendously. There's also the 1958 film version of "Bell, Book & Candle" on DVD with James Stewart, Kim Novak (decades before that hideous face lift), Jack Lemmon, Janice Rule, Hermione Gingold and Ernie Kovacs.

Rehearsals will begin in October. The production runs December 4, 2015 through January 9, 2016. For more information, call (860) 350-6863.