Tuesday, May 30, 2017

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 23, A Review: "Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead" (Vagabond Theatre Company)

By James V. Ruocco

It's not that Charlie Brown isn't really a good man any more. It's just that his entire world has changed. I mean, really changed.
Worse yet, growing up in "Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead," isn't all that it's cracked up to be. It's crazy. It's unpredictable. It's nightmarish. It's freaky. It's messy. It's unexplainable.
And, oh, yes, it's totally, totally fucked up.

Snoopy, for example, is rapid. He's also been put down to sleep after hovering around in the corner of his beloved doghouse covered in the blood of that strange, endearing little yellow bird that once was his pal for so many years.

Linus is a stone head who has burnt his blanket and mixed its ashes with his favorite weed and smoked the living crap out of it.

Lucy is a lithium-addicted mess and mental patient at the Daisy Hill Mental Hospital. Why? She's been locked up for lighting the little red-headed girl's hair on fire. She also claims to have had sex with Charlie Brown.

Peppermint Patty and sidekick Marcie are now trendy, valley-type girls obsessed with materialism, popularity, boys, booze, sexual fantasies and juicy gossip that comes in every color of the rainbow.

Schroeder still loves the piano and Beethoven. But oddly, the "Charlie Brown" gang doesn't really like him anymore. They've also branded him a homosexual.

Matt is completely homophobic and forever shouting "Queer," "Fag" and "Faggot" at boys he deems homosexual. Or boys who are obsessed with giving or getting blow jobs. He's also somewhat OCD and loves to intensely masterbate.

Lastly, there's Charlie Brown. He's still completely loveable and charming. But here, he too is messed up. He misses Snoopy, has problems relating to girls. And get this, he not only falls in love with Schroeder, but they also have some pretty hot, passionate sex.

How can this be, you ask?
Well, unless you're brain dead, heavily addicted to Prozac or a drag queen obsessed with Alexander McQueen, it's pretty obvious that Bert V. Royal's darkly pungent and saucy "Dog Sees God" is an unauthorized parody of the original "Peanuts" gang. And yes, some of the character's names have been changed, omitted or reimagined to avoid any lawsuits or confusion with the original G-rated stories. But there's no problem telling who is who. Or who's exactly fucked up.

In this go-round, this motley crew are also several years older (it's 10 years later) than when we last saw them. And they no longer speak like cute little school kids from an  "Afterschool Special" or "You're a Good Man, Charlie, Brown," the original 1967 musical based on the characters created by cartoonist Charles M. Schulz.

Some examples are mandatory, if you catch my drift.

"He was a dog, Charles. They shit on the ground and lick themselves." (CB's Sister)

"Best sex I ever had was when I told this girl that my mom kicked it. She 'consoled' me for four hours straight! " (Matt)

"I wanted to be in Mr. Griffin's lit class. He gives A's to anyone with tits. But, no, I get the fag." (Tricia)

"CB said he'd only go if you give him head and let him cum on your tits." (Matt)

"My parents would kill me if they knew there was a homosexual in our house!" (Marcy)

"Hey, you know what would be the perfect revenge? If you had sex with your brother's best friend. Guys really hate that." (Van)

Absolutely, not.
Fucking, hilarious.
Yes, oh yes.
In fact, it is this sort of silly, wicked, acerbic, off-handed irreverence that turns Bert V. Royal's "Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead" into the surprise hit of the 2017 theater season. This 95-minute, intermission-less comedy is so crafty, so entertaining and so wickedly in-your-face, you often wish you could hit replay to watch certain scenes over and over again. Or better yet, hear some of the play's juicy R-rated one-liners one or two more times. That's how crazy this production gets. It always leaves you wanting more.

In fact, when someone yells "Holy fucking shit!!! You’re a homo, Charlie Brown!!!”  you lose it completely. The couple sitting next to me at the opening night performance nearly fell out of their seats from laughing so hard. And that wasn't the first time. Others around them had similar jaunts of hysteria.

"Dog Sees God" is the final production of Vagabond Theatre Company's eclectic 2016-2017 season, which included "The Scarlet Letter" and "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot." It is a fitting conclusion to VTC's brave, intuitive three-play season. And it is one that leaves you completely excited about what in store for 2017-2018. Trust me, whatever they decide, you'll want to be there. So will I. And so will everybody else.

But first, let's backtrack.

Director Michael R. Mele gives "Dog Sees God" its punch, wit, snap, bite, dazzle and its acerbic topicality. This is guilty-pleasure theater. He knows it. We know it. And the actors up  there on the stage know it. But Mele, brilliant auteur that he is, doesn't reduce the proceedings to over-the-top frivolity, nostalgic camp or a 1970's "Peanuts" acid trip for stoners. This is theater. Real in-your-face theater. The kind of theater that would be welcomed and produced by the theater department at some prestigious university, both here in the United States or overseas in London. It is also a work for actors who are dead serious about acting. That is, real acting that sends shivers up and down their spine. Or works them into a sweat of complete, intense delirium.

Like "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," "Dog Sees God" is divided into a series of vignettes, which plunge the action forward in rapid succession without any interruptions to the storytelling. Here, there are 20 in all, including "The Listener," "Canis Exequiae," "Nirvana," "It's the Great Pussy, Charlie Brown," "Drama," "You're Invited," "The Psychiatrist in In," "Sailsbury Steak," "Brothers and Sisters" and "The Voice of the Silent Friend."

Each segment thrusts the various "Peanuts" characters into the spotlight quite effortlessly. And the topics at hand....sexual awakening, repressed anger, hormones, bullying, suicide, death, mental illness, peer recognition, homosexuality...are direct, candid, truthful and well-played.
What makes this production sing, so to speak, is Mele's ingenious staging of the piece, his understanding of the original "Peanuts" characters, their familiar ticks, beats, quirks and personas and how they have evolved into full-fledged teenagers long after the original "Charlie Brown" stories have ended.

The word play and comic banter is snappy and impeccably timed. The character exchanges are seamless and well imagined. Everyone is completely in touch with who they are playing and what they are saying. And whenever possible, Mele throws in bits of cleverly-timed nostalgia that pays homage to Schulz and the original "Charlie Brown" stories. I, for one, can't wait to see what Mele does next.

John R. Smith, Jr's  set design for "Dog Sees God" reflects the minimalist design of other important "Charlie Brown" productions. The set pieces, reminiscent of the ones used in Schulz's "Peanuts" drawings are quickly and cleverly rearranged depending on the vignette that takes center stage. And the lighting palate, expertly imagined by Tanya Feduik-Smith is an exciting blend of primary colors that heightens and complements the on-stage action beautifully.

Ian C. Smith fills in the completely wild and wacky role of Van (Linus) with such winning stoner/pothead persona, you never once think he is acting. His facial expressions, line delivery (he brings tremendous zing and zest to his many snappy one-liners) and characterization are "spot on." He's absolutely perfect for the role. His big monologue about food during one of the play's big dramatic moments is superb. We also get a taste of the old Linus, which, when the script calls for it, Smith genuinely projects without missing a character beat or nuance. Under Mele's tutelage, the actor always makes the right decisions.


You want Charlie Brown. Oops, CB, in this version. You get exactly that and more with Ryan Shea in the ever-popular Charlie Brown role. Shea successfully makes the most of his characters ever-changing persona in ways that are engaging, personable, surprising and unflinching real and raw. In other productions, the character often comes across as nondescript and wishy-washy. Here, Shea gives CB a real sense of belonging and involvement. He is the heart and soul of "Dog Sees God."  His opening monologue is heartwarmingly rendered. And his emotional breakdown and outburst at the play's end is absolutely incredible. From actor to actor, those are real tears. Not something that can be faked or performed on cue. Incredible!

Joe Zumbo, as Matt (Pig-Pen),  immediately nails his character's conflicting angst, confusion, sexuality and big bully status right from the start. He also carefully balances his character's humor, empathy, madness, sexual excitement and big-man-on-campus importance in ways that make his every moment on stage count. He is an actor to keep your eye on and one that relies on instinct, which in a play of this nature is very important. One of his funniest moments comes in "It's the Great Pussy, Charlie Brown" when he hilariously recalls and reenacts his masturbatory moments and climax from a very eager female participant.

Hannah Pearsall is a comic delight as Marcy (Marcie), a quirky, oversexed valley-girl type who wears skimpy clothing, loves to gossip, longs for peer acceptance and mixes real booze into her school juice boxes. Oozing just the right amount of comic zing, sparkle and unabashed wackiness, she creates a vivid, three-dimensional comic portrait that is so superbly executed, it completely boggles the mind.

There are many shifts, quirks, beats, colors and depth to the complex, bullied and misunderstood character of Beethoven (Schroeder), but Karl Hinger gets it right every time. We get and understand his love of music, his inner torment and confusion over being gay and sadly, his decision to end his life and commit suicide. In the role of Van's Sister (Lucy), April Lichtman commands the VTC stage at every comic turn, superbly projecting the comic angst, crabbiness and obnoxious punch that propelled this popular "Peanuts" character into the spotlight way back when. She also makes Lucy decidedly human, which heightens the appeal of her big scene "The Psychiatrist Is In."

As CB's Sister (Sally), Anna Lynch is giddy, precocious and amusingly spiteful. She  makes all the right movies and is in completely in control of everything she does, both comic and dramatic. Her Goth interpretation is absolutely perfect as is her coming pacing and chemistry with co-star Vicky Pelletier. And wait till you see her big one-woman play-within-a-play. OMG! Sheer brilliance and comic perfection.

As Tricia York (Peppermint Patty) Vicky Pelletier delivers a uniquely individual comic portrait that gets big, broad, important laughs whenever she's on stage. She's perfect for the role of a crazy, fucked up high-schooler and party girl obsessed with being popular. It's a role she has great fun with, much to the delight of the audience who applaud her every move. Brilliant. Oh, yes.

Brash, crazy, exciting and hilariously conceived, "Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead" is one of the most innovative productions of the theatrical year. It has great fun deconstructing the "Peanuts" story of yesteryear and plunging the reimagined characters into a messed-up world of sweetness, craziness, confusion and angst. It also takes its audience on a thrilling, non-stop roller-coaster ride far beyond the gumdrop-colored world of Mr. Schulz, the "Peanuts" gang and Dear Penpal. And therein, lies its enjoyment.

"Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead" is being staged through June 4 at The Warehouse Blackbox Theatre (Performing Arts Center of Connecticut, 18 Lindeman Drive, Trumbull, CT)
Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 5 p.m.


Saturday, May 13, 2017

From the Desk of Jim R , Take 2, Column 22: A Review, "The Most Beautiful Room in New York" at Long Wharf, New Haven

By James V. Ruocco
The casting of Matt Bogart in "The Most Beautiful Room in New York" is just one of the many joys of this sweet, intimate, new character-driven new musical, featuring music by David Shire and book and lyrics by Adam Gopnik. Stepping into the role of David (a proud restaurant owner whose business is about to go belly up), just five days before the first preview, is no easy task. I mean, when you think about it, it's absolutely crazy. It's daunting. It's performance suicide. It's unheard of.
All that blocking. All that dialogue. All that music. All those songs.
I'd hop the next train back to New York, toss my mobile in the East River, go into hiding and not come out until three months later.
But not Bogart.

Standing tall, proud and confident on the Long Wharf stage, he's a master craftsman. With script in hand, (well, bits and pieces of it, anyway), he plunges head first into "Beautiful Room's" first  preview performance with such natural brio, style and panache, you are never once reminded that during a specific song, scene or character exchange or two, he might have to glance down at the white, yellow-highlighted paper in his hands for a cue, a note or an important bit of stage business. If he does, it really doesn't matter. He knows the part. He plays the part. And he sings and acts the part, ever so beautifully.
It's an eleventh hour scenario that Bogart pulls off quite swimmingly. He's so real, so alive and so connected, you can't help but cheer and applaud his every move. It's yet another great casting coup for Long Wharf  and just about everyone else connected to this snappy, thought-provoking production.
But wait there's more.

Now that previews are gone, rehearsals are finished and opening night is just a distant memory, Bogart is back in the spotlight for more of "The Most Beautiful Room in New York." As before, he's polished, quick and focused. But now, he owns the part. Not that he didn't before. This performance is just a bit more tweaked and centered. His singing is just as dynamic as it was the first time he wrapped his big, rich voice around the dutifully-layered Shire/Gopnik score. He just does things a little differently. And he's still a great showman and entertainer.

"The Most Beautiful Room in New York" is set mainly in Manhattan's Union Square. Here, Bogart's character David runs a nice little family business called "Table," which isn't doing terribly well. The menu isn't chic or trendy. The bills are not being paid. And "Table's" new lease costs $35,000 a month. Ouch! Double ouch!
That's more than a mouthful of problems and conflicts for a musical. But during the second and third course, David, in an effort to survive, is forced to do business with Sergio (the equally charismatic Constantine Maroulis), an egotistical former business partner who runs a very profitable food chain empire. There's also Claire (Anastasia Barzee), David's beautiful and sexy wife, who, had a fling with the dashing Sergio a long-time ago. Who knows? She could (or might) be tempted to bed Sergio again.

The musical score for "The Most Beautiful Room in New York," as written by Shire and Gopnik, contains a variety of enjoyable, pleasant-sounding songs that are serviceable to the plot and the characters who sing them. They are jazzy, bluesy, popish, romantic and playful. Nothing is thrown in just for the sake of being thrown in. Or just because, the so-called musical handbook of theater dictates how many songs a production should have for both Act I and Act II. Here, everything is carefully structured, planned and distributed amongst "Room's" very talented cast. Musical director John McDaniel and his exceptional seven-piece band keep things merrily rolling along. It's all quite a very pleasurable experience.

Going forward, however, "The Most Beautiful Room in New York” could benefit from additional songs for Sergio (one or two perhaps) along with some additional scenes for the character. When you have someone as talented and personable as Constantine Maroulis in your musical, you want him on stage, front and center, not in his dressing room standing around waiting for the stage manager to say, "Fifteen minutes till your next cue."

Directed with the usual style, heart and soul that categorizes most of his work, Gordon Edelstein crafts a breezy, heartfelt production that wisely addresses the problems facing small businesses, the threat of competition, the financial burdens and the losses. He also brings a real sense of urgency, belonging and anxiety to the piece, which, in turn, makes it play more believably as a two-act musical. Edelstein really makes you care about all the characters, their individual stories and how everything will (or will not) be resolved at the conclusion of Act II.

Edelstein is also an actor's director. He cares about the actors. He understands actors. He gets them. He is open to ideas. He is also open to change, which, in a brand new spanking production like this one, is very, very important. Obviously, "Room" is going to be shopped elsewhere. You can feel it the minute you enter Long Wharf. New Haven is definitely not going to be its last stop.

  "Something's Growing" a pungent and melodic opening number gets things off to a quick, rousing start. The harmonies, the rhythmic blending, the beats and the pauses, are perfectly and always in sync. "There's Always a Wait For Your Table, another hot, piping hot song achieves a similar feeling at the start of Act II. Claire's songs ("David," "Planet David in the Stars"),  David's songs (Bitter," "Your Table Will Always Be Waiting," "Please Don't Misunderstand") and Sergio's songs ("Take My Life," "And Then I'll Go"), some, of which are also performed as duets, are workable and flavorful enough, and never once stop the show dead in its tracks. You simply savor and enjoy the moment.

Constantine Maroulis possesses a rich, distinctive voice that is full of charm, wit, punch, drama and drive. He's completely comfortable with Shire's music and Gopnik's precise, often sophisticated lyrics and never gives us less than 100 per cent when acting or singing. The songs suit him perfectly, but we definitely want more. Most definitely.
Acting wise, he always knows what buttons to push. The role of Sergio, of course, suits him like a glove. The character's ego, his dastardly ways, his sarcasm, his Faustian mannerisms and exchanges, are suitably nuanced and performed with devious relish. If anyone's doing "Damn Yankees," anytime soon, Maroulis is your man.

In the role of David's wife Claire, Anastasia Barzee is beautiful, sexy, alluring and complicated. Her singing projects a radiant sound and expressivity when called for. She can also be bold, brittle, direct and passionate when the music and lyrics demand it. To her credit, she and Bogart behave and act like a real married couple. We also get and understand her attraction to the overly complicated Sergio.

Comedy is KING and I mean KING in bold capital letters whenever Mark Nelson appears on stage. In the musical, the actor plays Carlo, the proud, sometimes misunderstood owner of Carlo’s Anarchist Pizza, a cozy Bensonhurst eatery that he's been running for years. A master at comic timing, expression, holds, beats and delivery, Nelson's sheer comic brilliance gives "Beautiful Room" a refreshing, comic zing. Whether singing the pivotal, but comic "Espresso!" and "Slice of Life"  or just acting, he is Jackie Mason and Jerry Stiller, Italian style. You eagerly await and applaud his every entrance. Elsewhere, Shire also gives him a great comic zinger about President Donald Trump, which, pretty much sums up how America really feels about the current occupant of the Oval Office.

 The show's resident lesbian couple, played respectively by Danielle Ferland (Gloria) and Darlesia Cearcy (Phoebe) lend themselves nicely to the proceedings. Ferland, incidentally, originated the role of Little Red Riding Hood in Stephen Sonsdheim's 1987 Broadway musical "Into the Woods" and was truly magnificent. Here, she doesn't get as much exposure as her musical and acting talents warrant, but with a little tweaking, maybe, Shire could give her more do. The same applies to her very talented co-star who rocks the house with her potent musical delivery of "Market Forces.".

Other roles are played by Tyler Jones, Sawyer Niehaus, Krystina Alabado, Ryan Duncan, Anne Horak and Allan Washington. They too contribute nicely Long Wharf's final production of its thrilling 2016-2017 season. Bon appetit!

"The Most Beautiful Room in New York" is being performed at Long Wharf Theatre (222 Sargent Drive, New Haven) through May 28th.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 787-4282.




Thursday, May 11, 2017

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 21: A Review, Stephen Sondheim's "Follies" at the Warner Theatre, Torrington


By James V. Ruocco 
Who's that woman?
I know I know that woman,
So clever, but ever so sad.
Love, she said, was a fad.
The kind of love that she couldn't make fun of
She'd have none of.
Who's that woman.
That cheery, weary woman
Who's dressing for yet one more spree?
Each day I see her pass
In my looking-glass--
Lord, Lord, Lord, that woman is me! 
Those lyrics belong to Stephen Sondheim's iconic, much-loved 1971 musical "Follies" which is currently being revived at Torrington's Warner Theatre under the direction of Michael Berkeley ("Hello, Dolly!" "Billy Eliott"), choreographer Donna Bonasera ("A Chorus Line") and musical director Willard C. Minton ("Evita," "Company").
It's an inspired work of love, inspiration, chutzpuh , nostalgia and pathos that follows the original blueprint by Sondheim and playwright William Goldman, but alters, cuts and changes some of the dances, completely reinvents the characters of Hattie Walker, Stella Deems and Carlotta Campion, deletes Max Deems, Vincent/Young Vincent, Vanessa/Young Vanessa from the story completely and reduces the song-and-dance team of Emily and Theodore Whitman to a complete afterthought.
Some of it works, quite splendidly.
Some of it is completely wrong, but nonetheless, remains very inspired, dazzling and inventive.
Some of it makes you cry "wrecking ball."
Some of it is as good as the original 1971 Broadway musical, the 2001 revival and the recent 2012 incarnation that starred Bernadette Peters, Ron Raines, Jan Maxwell, Elaine Page and Danny Burstein in the leading roles.
And one of the leads on the Warner stage is actually much better than the trio of performers who played the same part on Broadway.
That said, let's quickly, move on.
In the original 1971 production, the character of Hattie Walker was a frumpy, forgotten follies star and Broadway wanabee who, didn't really possess any real star power, but, nonetheless, longed to be on Broadway, even if it meant playing the maid. The Warner's Hattie, as played by the thrilling, enigmatic Elyse Jasensky, is anything but dowdy and secondary. Instead, she is a Judy Garland/Liza Minell/ Dolores Grey hybrid of star power...real star power...that turns Hattie's "Broadway Baby" into the night's first big showstopper. This is one of those numbers you want to applaud and applaud until your hand hurt and hurts. And, well you should. It is magnificent.

Stella Deems also gets a Warner Theatre makeover. Originally, this character was a plain, dumpy, fat, unattractive, middle-aged  showgirl, shocked at the passing of years and shocked at the older image of her once-glamorous self, as revealed and lamented in the bittersweet, angst-ridden "Who's That Woman?"  For this "Follies," Stella is fit, gorgeous, stylish and sunny. The versatile, magnetic Susan Kulp looks and acts as if she just spent a week or two at some Palm Springs resort and spa. She sings beautifully. She dances beautifully. And, in turn, "Who's That Woman? succeeds swimmingly, even though the number completely abandons Sondheim's stinging concept of old age ( The vision's getting blurred/Isn't that absurd?)  and its dramatic, uneasy repercussions between present and past.

The song-and-dance team of vaudevillians Emily and Theodore Whitman, played by Katherine Walker and Dave Cadwell, has been pretty much reduced to rubble, In this interpretation, they exist only to perform "Rain on the Roof," a song-and-dance ditty that has been cut and re-imagined by Donna Bonasera and performed like an outtake from "No, No Nanette" instead of "Follies." It doesn't work on any level.

And finally, the characters of Christine Crane and Sandra Donovan have merged to become just character, Christine Donovan. But exactly who is Christine? Good question.

Staging "Follies," director Michael Berkeley, gives Sondheim's dark and spirited tale of ghostly exorcism and wonder and regret, a grand, nostalgic opulence that evolves nicely, despite some obvious bumps, curves, revisions, cuts and restructuring. The musical is fast and fluid. The story rarely loses its old theater traditions and values or its jagged myths about love and happiness. The reunion itself never becomes a dirge or dreary wake, despite the next day demolition of the theater itself. And Berkeley wisely keeps the material from becoming preachy, corny, and campy.

"Follies" begins with the exciting and tuneful opening Sondheim number "Beautiful Girls," effectively staged by Berkeley and lovingly choreographed by Bonasera who gives each of the characters the right moves and nuances as they parade across the Warner stage, backed by their own respective ghosts, shadowing them instinctively. It's a shimmering, glorious moment that sets the story in motion in much the same way as the original Broadway show did. The re-enactment of the once famous Ziegfeld-style promenade, colliding as it does with the show's wandering memory theme, is dutifully portrayed under Bonasera's watchful eye. It's absolutely brilliant .

 The Warner Theatre's vast, cavernous stage lends itself nicely to Sondheim's final reunion theme, where the past glories of 1941 eerily collide with the equally eerie comings and goings of the same characters thirty years later. The worn, torn and battered theater set design by Stephen C. Houk, which includes a fallen "Loveland" sign, strategically placed upstage, is haunting, hypnotic, creepy, and oh, yes, very, very effective.
In turn, the ghosts who appear and reappear throughout "Follies" never once look out of place, bored or awkward. Representing the younger selves of the main characters and all of the older Weismann follies stars, the undead, so to speak, rarely make a false move, as dictated by director Michael Berkeley and choreographer Donna Bonasera. They look very much at home.

The Amazonion showgirls, dressed in smart, stunning costumes by Matt Dettmer and Renee C. Purdy, appear immediately at the start of the play's haunting and evocative Prologue/Overture. They glide and prance about the Warner set and cleverly utilize the strategically-placed, semi-circular, lighted runway (great, great idea, by the way), which is attached to the apron of the stage. Guided by Bonasera and Berkeley, they are in perfect sync with the haunting and phantasmal images indicated in Sondheim's music and James Goldman's book.
To everyone's credit, Berkeley and Bonasera also eliminate the guesswork of past productions. In this "Follies," you always know who these ghostly figures and sepulchral apparitions represent. Taking their measured and collective cue from B&B, they always remain a major part of the production even when standing perfectly still or lurking about in the shadows of the soon-to-be-demolished Weismann Theatre setting.

Trying to unravel and make perfect sense out of Sondheim's complicated music and lyrics, Willard C. Minton often kicks and jumpstarts the composer's celebrated tale of  psychoanalytical angst, lost, misspent youth and sequined showbiz confection into high gear. He pumps the fantastic Warner Theatre orchestra into a wild state of frenzied delirium. And, they often succeed. He also tries valiantly to cover up some of the production's obvious flaws, mistakes and bad casting choices by completely ignoring them. But, he can't. Not really. They are there and you notice every single one of them.

But first, the good news.

In "Loveland," a delightful tribute to young love and overwhelming optimism, he leads the on-stage performers through a perky, well-timed and balanced musical tribute, offset by cute, Hallmark card choreography, impeccably designed and fleshed-out against the derelict-theatre backdrop by Bonasera.

 "One More Kiss," however, shows Minton, at his musical peak. This light-operatic ballad about dreams that fade when reality kicks in, is splendidly performed by Katie Kat (Heidi Schiller) and Amy LeBlanc (Young Heidi), who, by some mere stoke of genius, look very much alike, which in turn, heightens this very important musical number. Each actress maintains perfect melodic pitch, harmony and gusto. This is the real deal. Make no mistake about it.

Minton works the same vocal magic with Priscilla Squiers, cast in the role of French chanteuse Solange LaFitte, a still-sultry ex-follies showgirl who has left showbiz to work in the perfume industry. The always-versatile Squiers could easily have had her pick of any role in "Follies," with one or two exceptions. But luckily, for us, Minton, Bonasera and Berkeley, gave her the plum role of Solange which she plays with that same sort of honesty, chutzpah and realism that categorizes all her work. Her vocal rendition of the playful "Ah, Paris!" joyously celebrates her character's love of all things French and thrusts Squiers back in the spotlight for a round or two of well-deserved applause. She is absolutely sensational.

Things, unfortunately, start to disconnect, once Eve Van Syckle, takes center stage to entertain and cajole us with "I'm Still Here," the big Sondheim anthem that charts the bruised ego of a screen goddess, now reduced to performing in Las Vegas and regulated to has-been, camp or nobody status. Unfortunately, Van Syckle lacks the vocal, belt quality prowess associated with the song. She also drops several important Sondheim lyrics thorough the entire number and has absolutely no clue what the hell she's singing about....or not singing about.
If there's anyone in the cast who could do justice to the jaded humor and pathos of "I'm Still Here," it's Elyse Jasensky who, early on, stops the show with the rousing "Broadway Baby." With some quick rewrites (this is the Warner, they do it all the time) and some very devilish Bonasera choreography, this gritty ballad can achieve its anticipated momentum. In the meantime, you'll have to settle for a wispy, coffee-house version that belongs in Poughkeepsie....not Stephen Sondheim's "Follies."

"You're Gonna Love Tomorrow/Love With See Us Though," the sunny, deliriously perky song that thrusts Young Sally, Young Ben, Young Buddy and Young Phyllis into the "Follies" spotlight of yesteryear and retraces the quartet's sunny outlook toward a rosy future where the skies are always blue and nothing is impossible falls flat on its face. The orchestra, under Minton's direction, plays the song exactly as written. But vocally, things quickly go merrily wrong. All four (Shannon Sulivan, Cole Sutton, Becky Sawicki, Eric Lindblom ) actor/singer's have great difficulty with the song's overlapping lyrics, the melodies and the harmonies. They also forget some of the lyrics.

Donna Bonasera's choreography is effective, smart and snappy. It's also cute and wrongheaded. Still, she knows what a Ziegfeld Follies-like show is all about from the body language, the prestige, the razzle-dazzle, the gay trivializations and all the major dance moves. But since this "Follies" has been revised and reimagined for some of the characters, in particular, Stella Deems and Hattie Walker, she opts for a "42nd Street," "No, No Nanette" and "Anything Goes" style that undercuts and dampens that Sondheim sting.


Regardless, "Who's That Woman?' is marvelously staged. Bonasera whips her cast quickly into shape, particularly when the older characters break into a frenzied dance alongside mirror images of their younger selves. It's lots of fun, from its gentle soft-shoe and step-ball-change to the rousing imaginary mirror that is used to converge the past and present into one vibrant experience. Sadly, the sarcasm of the original piece and its glaring truths and pronouncements about who that woman in the mirror really is, get lost in the translation.

"You're Gonna Love Tomorrow/ Love Will See Us Though," in turn, is lively enough, but the jubilant period dancing that made this number stand out on Broadway, is conspicuously absent from the Warner production. "Rain on the Roof" also suffers a similar fate. Working with non-dancers often has that rippling effect.

In Stephen Sondheim's "Assassins," Suzanne Powers found herself playing the dithery and manic Sara Jane Moore, a woman who once knew Charles Manson in high school and tried and failed to assassinate United States President Gerald Ford in 1975. As both actress and singer, she offered a superbly crafted performance that was both edgy, moody and completely bonkers. Earlier this year, she also headlined "The Diary of Anne Frank" playing the pivotal role of Edith Frank, Anne's mother.
Whether interacting with the onstage characters of "Anne Frank" or quietly standing there in silence, observing, reacting or thinking, Powers, incredible actress that she is, gave yet another passionate, controlled performance fraught with real emotion, passion and honesty.

"Follies" casts the actress as the brittle, wisecracking, fashionable, ultra-chic Phyllis Rogers Stone, an ex-follies star trapped in a loveless marriage, which, may or may not be on the brink of disaster. It's a glamorous and showy role that Rogers embraces with the same sort of passion, integrity and strength that classifies all her stage work. She not only gives the evening's best, completely rewarding performance, but her Phyllis is actually more believable and beguiling than Alexis Smith, Blythe Danner and Jan Maxwell, the trio of  Broadway stars that starred in three very different productions of "Follies."

Yes, of course, the dialogue is rehearsed. And so are the songs and the dances. The trick, of course, is to make us forget completely about that. And that's exactly what makes Powers stand out. She delivers Goldman's dialogue with fiery intensity and believability. Vocally, she knows Sondheim inside and out, sideways and backwards, front and center. "The Story of Lucy and Jessie," a leggy, feverishly-pitched song that dissects her character's twisty and complicated persona, is a genuine showstopper that Powers has great fun with. It is offset by Donna Bonasera's unique, eye-popping choreography, which adheres closely to the musical's original staging and stinging pointedness, as dictated by Sondheim. It is just brilliant.

“Could I Leave You?,” Phyllis’s taunting declaration of war on Ben allows Powers to fiercely deliver the bitchiness and manic ferocity, the popular Sondheim song calls for. And much, much earlier, "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs" allows the character to playfully reminiscence about the early years, the follies, her first love and how things eventually changed for everyone when the curtain finally came down. She doesn't miss a beat.

The casting of Juliette Koch as former showgirl Sally Durant Plummer is "spot on." Ms. Koch lights up the Warner stage whenever she's front and center, in the spotlight or standing in the shadows reminiscing about Sally's past, which, for story purposes, has left her fractured and resentful years later, due to mistimed choices and opportunities.
As an actress, there's a natural radiance and passion about her, which, she quietly and effectively underplays to project the portrait of a woman who has nearly given up on life, but plunges forward hoping to reclaim a lost love and hopefully find, true happiness.

When we first meet her, Koch vocally engages us with the smart and pungent "Don't Look at Me," a unique Sondheim character turn that addresses the frumpy, dull woman that Sally has become after the showgirl spotlight has dimmed. Koch affectively gets the point across in a vocal rendition that is beautifully timed and delivered. We get more of the same with "In Buddy's Eyes." And then, halfway though Act II, the actress stands directly in the spotlight for "Losing My Mind," the torchy showstopper where Sally, most affectingly realizes that she can never be with or have Ben, her one true love. Koch suffuses her final song in "Follies" with the emotional pathos and melancholy Sondheim intended. It is, simply sensational.

Following in the footsteps of John McMartin who originated the part of Benjamin Stone in the 1971 Broadway production and Gregory Harrison and Ron Raines, who, subsequently, played the same part in the 2001 and the 2012 revival of "Follies" in New York, William Molnar tackles the role with such passionate, intuitive aplomb, you'd think Goldman had the Warner stage actor in mind when he first created the role. The actor not only plays the part of this egoistical ladies man and Washington hotshot brilliantly, he completely owns it. He's charming. He's sexy. He's confident, He's completely genuine. Plus he's a natural born-showman and entertainer who delights, surprises and commands your attention as both actor and singer.

Vocally, he's got the vocal chops for Sondheim's choice, melodic and complicated musical score. In the deliriously complicated "Live, Laugh, Love," a frenzied production number that vividly plunges Stone into a crackling madness, Molnar hits every note, quirk and tick exactly as Sondheim intended. Just watch him. He is fucking amazing. Yes, fucking amazing. His command of Sondheim is simply stunning. His delivery is energetic. And when parlaying into "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs," "The Road You Didn't Take" and "Too Many Mornings," there is lots of beguiling warmth and genuine affection.

Playing the nice, chatty and downtrodden Buddy Plummer, the husband of Sally Durant, who, sadly always seems to come in second in his wife's eyes, Chris Gilbert has the same sort of charm, personality and presence that Gene Nelson did in the original 1971 Broadway production. Make no mistake about it, Gilbert is the real deal. The forced smiles he exudes to hide Buddy's pain and disappointments, hit you smack-in-the-face. He suffers every-so-greatly. Unfortunately, the comparisons to Mr. Nelson stop there.
Vocally, he's definitely not up to the challenge of all things Sondheim. He can sing, yes. He can act, yes. And he redeems himself quite nicely with Buddy's big, gooey and clownish relationship diatribe "Buddy's Blues," which he pushes to the max and never once, loses the song's snarky, valanced attitude, negatively or vaudevillian flavor.

Early on, however, Gilbert strangely disconnects from the pivotal "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs." He forgets intricate Sondheim lyrics, beats and melodies and can't quite pick up his musical cues from the orchestra. Much later, he has major problems with "The Right Girl." He completely goes blank and forgets lyrics (again) during the song's big key moments. And sadly, he can't quite jump back on the Sondheim band wagon. If blame is to be issued for this sort of vocal sloppiness, the finger points directly to musical director Willard C. Minton, who easily could have avoided this situation by teaching Gilbert the necessary vocal tricks to pull this off. This isn't "Sweeney Todd" or "Sunday in the Park with George." It's "Follies." End of!

"Follies" is being staged at the Warner Theatre (68 Main St, Torrington, CT).
 Performances are 8 p.m. May. 12 and 13 and 2 p.m. May 14.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 489-7180.

(All production photos of "Follies" were taken by Mandi Martini)