Monday, August 21, 2017

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 30, A Review: "Company" (Barrington Stage Company)

By James V. Ruocco

That lost, perplexed, boyishly-handsome bachelor Bobby.
All that angst over not being married.
All that worry about not being able to find the right girl.
All those friends who arrive on his doorstep, year after year, for a surprise birthday party and cake that he simply would like to forget.
It's just not fair.
Or is it?

In "Company," Stephen Sondheim's lively 1970 Broadway musical, now being sumptuously revived by Barrington Stage, the 35-year-old Bobby, played by the sexy and charismatic Aaron Tveit ("Next to Normal," "Catch Me If You Can," "Grease Live"), spends a great part of the show watching his married friends kiss, cuddle, get stoned, get drunk, get divorced, fight, flirt and tell him for the umpteenth time why he shouldn't be alone.
He listens and observes with bemusement and envy. And he responds, all too well.
But oddly, he's afraid of making a commitment. He likes being single. He likes having sex. And yes, he's always willing for another door to open and take him on a brand new adventure.
Who could blame him?

As played by the enigmatic Aaron Tveit, Bobby's complicated plight and final resolution, is real, raw, honest, soulful, cheerful, passionate and very moving. There's also a vibrant charm, passion and natural dreaminess to the character that makes Tveit's interpretation of Bobby much more believable and grounded than that of his Broadway predecessors Dean Jones, Larry Kert, Boyd Gaines and Raul Esparza. Back then, all four were simply acting out a part and nothing more.
Here, Tveit plays Bobby. But he also owns the part. Big difference.

From the moment he appears on the Barrington stage, he is Bobby, front and center, backwards and forwards, etc. Moreover, there's real talent behind that boyish allure mixed with just the right amount of poise, presence, flair and personality. Sure, it's all rehearsed, but Tveit makes us believe we're seeing his Bobby for the very first time. There is nothing remotely calculated about his facial expressions, line delivery, body language or interaction with the other onstage actors. Though he wasn't born when "Company" was first conceived, you'd swear Sondheim and playwright George Furth wrote Bobby with Tveit in mind.
It's the musical performance of 2017. And one, you'll want to see again and again.

Vocally, Tveit's voice is beautiful, polished, strong, commanding and natural. He pays close attention to the beats, lyrics and different rhythms of every Sondheim song he sings. And when he takes center stage and joins the entire cast for a song or two, he avoids that annoying grandstanding you find in other Sondheim shows where the lead actor looks you right in the face with private thoughts that cry out, "Hey, look at me. I'm in a Sondheim show."

With the emotional "Being Alive," Tveit passionately reveals the quiet longing and intimacy Bobby desires with another person. The stirring "Marry Me A Little" conveys his confusion and doubt over a real relationship while "Someone Is Waiting" poignantly portrays the character's quiet yearning for that special something collectively shared by his married friends.

Anyone familiar with the musicals of Sondheim ("Into the Woods," "Sweeney Todd," "Follies") immediately knows that in order for a show to work both musically, dramatically and theatrically, you must have a director who completely understands the intricacies, dynamics and colors of the story, its music and lyrics, its characters, its rhythmic wordplay, its quirks, its beats, its ticks, its sensations and its pulses. Enter Julianne Boyd, the tremendously talented director of Barrington Stage's "Company."

Staging the two-act musical, Boyd brings real purpose, depth, understanding and vision to her splendid, five-star incarnation of Sondheim's popular 1970's musical. She embellishes the flip, satiric and poignant underbelly of the composer's and author's vision, its atypical language and fragmented scene structure, its twisty predicaments, its playful paradoxes, its juicy revelations about marriage and divorce, its sexual content, both straight and homosexual, its cowardice, its icy sarcasm and its surprise twists of fate. 

There's a lot going on here. And, yes, there's a lot to digest in this production, which takes its cue from the 1995 Roundabout Broadway revival that featured new dialogue by George Furth, the addition of one new song ("Marry Me A Little")  and the inclusion of some intriguing facts about Bobby's bisexuality and hints of a homosexual flirtation rallied by his best friend Peter.

Regardless, it all comes together quite swimmingly.

Boyd always know what buttons to push, where to put the primary focus, how to build and develop a given scene, how to thrust each principal character or supporting character into the spotlight, how to introduce an individual song or production number and lastly, have it play out entirely without bringing the onstage action to a halt or failing to reach the intended vision of its creators.

Boyd is such a clever, ingenious auteur, this "Company" far surpasses the brilliance of the original 1970 Broadway production, the fanciful 1995 Broadway revival and the salty and pungent 2006 Broadway edition where most of the actors played their own musical instruments. At Barrington, you are never once reminded that "Company" was created 47 years ago. With Boyd at the helm, it's as if you're seeing this Sondheim musical for the very first time.

Kristen Robinson's set design, Brian Tovar's lighting and Sara Jean Tosetti's costuming, heighten the allure.

The inevitable greatness of "Company," of course, also comes from Sondheim's pungent, prolific, saucy and melodic musical score. From sweet and bouncy ensemble numbers about friendship and the right girl to a patter song about not getting married today and others about sexual enticement, renunciation, rebirth, being single, commitment, bored housewives, loneliness and vodka stingers, the composer/lyricist casts his spell all over you, reels you in for the night and lets you happily bask in the lyrical beauty, wit, drama, tension, uncertainty and snappy sarcasm of his brilliant, celebrated "Company" score.

In the more than capable, inventive hands of musical director Dan Pardo, Sondheim's imaginative musical arrangements and vocals glide merrily across the Barrington Theatre stage with decided interest, gusto, color, joyfulness, purpose, passion and artful precision. Every single song, lyric and pulsating beat is marvelously recreated by Pardo and his orchestral team, which, in turn, allows the material to breathe, beguile and enchant just as Sondheim originally intended.

It's all here: popular solo numbers that inch their way into duets; trios that evolve with perfect pitch and harmony; complicated ditties that work their way into larger production numbers; and delectable character turns that stun, excite and thrust the action forward without hesitation. Not a piece of the Sondheim "Company" puzzle is missing under Pardo's dynamic guidance.

The upbeat, inspired choreographic style of Jeffrey Page is well suited for "Company's" surprisingly simple and playful production numbers. Every one of them, including the title opener and "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" are upbeat, smart, witty and ingeniously conceived without any sort of nostalgia or datedness. Nonetheless, Page is also not afraid to take chances. He wisely cuts the frenzied solo dance number "Tick-Tock," which was created for Donna McKechnie in the original 1970 Broadway production and would probably bore the Barrington Stage audience to death and add little relevance to the night's proceedings.
Elsewhere, Page completely reinvents "Side by Side by Side," which opens Act II of "Company." Originally, this production number was staged with top hat and cane and danced by most of the cast. Here, Page concocts a splendid, revelatory song-and-dance sports number which respects the soft-shoe elements of the original, but unfolds with such athletic excitement and brio, you happily applaud and cheer its choreography until your hand hurts. Well done, Mr. Page.

The supporting cast of "Company" is personable, dynamic and perfectly in sync with all things Sondheim. In the role of Joanne, the part made famous by Elaine Stritch in the original 1970 Broadway production, Ellen Harvey puts her own spin on the drunken, often delusional character, the show-stopping "Ladies Who Lunch" and just about everything she does and says in the production. While Stritch will always be connected to "Company," Harvey, nonetheless, is the real deal.
Her boozy, stinging interpretation of  "Ladies Who Lunch," Sondheim's  brilliant assault of women who live off their husband's paychecks, plan parties and brunches, attend Broadway matinees and shop uncontrollably, explodes with the glacial sarcasm and wit he intended. It also reveals a private, troubled side to Joanne that was missing from both the 1995 and 2006 Broadway production of "Company." Harvey, in turn, never misses a beat, vocally or dramatically. You can't help but love her, or wish she could be your very best friend.

Lauren Marcus as Amy, the bride-to-be who suffers a major anxiety attack on the day of her wedding, practically stops the show with "Getting Married Today," Sondheim's marvelously fast patter song that vocally and comically reflects the character's complete, rapid meltdown. Marcus beguiles in much the same way as Beth Howland did way back in 1970, but takes it to a new level using some choice lyrical phrasing and comedy shtick that suggests a very young Carol Burnett.

Playing dumb and clueless without any hesitation, the gorgeous, sexy Mara Davi gives the character of airline hostess April a delicious sweetness and confused pizzazz that's so beautifully conceived (her comic timing is impeccable), you quickly forget every other actress who played the part including Susan Browning and Jane Krakowski. Her "Barcelona" duet with Tveit is pitch perfect and completely charming. Her bedroom seduction scene, also with Tveit, is hilariously staged and choreographed by Boyd. Both actors are incredible.

Nora Shell, cast in the role of Marta, another one of Bobby's girlfriends, delivers a powerhouse rendition of  "Another Hundred People," that popular Sondheim song that deftly attacks the N.Y. lifestyle and it's phony, impersonal inhabitants. This show-stopping vocal literally blows the roof off of  Barrington Stage. You'll love it!

Also impressive as both actors and singers are Joseph Spieldenner (Paul), Rebecca Kuznick (Kathy), James Ludwig (David), Kate Loprest (Susan), Paul Schaefer (Peter), Jane Pfitsch (Jenny), Lawrence E. Street (Harry), Peter Reardon (Larry) and Jeannette Bayardelle (Sarah). Every one of them is perfectly cast for their respective roles and quite adept at bringing Sondheim's "Company" magically to life on the Barrington Stage.

"Company" is being staged at Barrington Stage Company (Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, 30 Union St., Pittsfield, MA) through September 10.
For more information, call (413) 236-8888

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 29, A Review: "Raging Skillet" (TheaterWorks Hartford)

By James V. Ruocco

Snickers, marshmallow and potato chip casserole.
Soba noodle salad with scallions shavings and toasted sesame dressing.
Black rice salad with baby shrimp and barbequed sweet corn.
Turkey bacon swathed in gooey peanut butter.
Wild mushroom won-tons with red pepper and miso dip.

When it comes to food, the amazingly talented Chef Rossi offers quirky, offbeat dishes that are completely edible but uniquely different from your everyday caterer.
Never flat, boring or decidedly bland, these colorful, trendy, wacky and wonderful treats will wet your palate in ways that will leave you not only deliriously happy, but shouting Chef Rossi's name from the rooftops, the back yard, the penthouse, the jacuzzi, the car and even your kitchen sink.
And that, in a nutshell, is exactly what separates Rossi from the rest of the wolves (caterers, if you prefer) out there in la la land.

How Rossi became a chef, a lesbian, a free-spirit, a rebel and an anti-caterer of sorts is the subject of Jacques Lamarre's brand new play "Raging Skillet," a quirky, snappy and refreshing soufflĂ© chock full of  recipes, food,  shtick, scrapbooks, one-liners, remembrances, pathos, heart, soul, Jewish guilt and chutzpah. And oh yes, audience participation.
Is it funny?
Most definitely.
Is the food good?
Yes, indeed.
Are you likely to you use Rossi as a caterer?
Of, course.
When should you contact or hire her?
Immediately following the performance of "Raging Skillet" at TheaterWorks.

Using Rossi's popular memoir "Raging Skillet" as his lifeline, Lamarre gives his audience a 90-minute comedy that delves head first into her mad and complicated life, offering just enough information to keep the play afloat without any dead weight, abrupt halts or bits and pieces that seem thrown in just for the sake of time without purpose.
He definitely knows how to get a laugh and he definitely know how to deliver them one by one at breakneck speed to the point where you're constantly wiping away the happy tears dripping down your face or slapping yourself silly from laughing so hard. It also helps if you understand the Jewish-Orthodox religion, Yiddish, the Catskills and that nagging sensation that exists between a Jewish mother and her daughter. If you don't, call the rabbi, call the synagogue or call 1-800-YENTE.

The actual play takes place during the launch of Rossi's "Raging Skillet" book. Throughout the production, the chapter titles of her book are flashed onto both sides of the stage, thus, noting, the passage of time and years. But since the play clocks in at a mere 90 minutes, Lamarre can only tell us so much, which, at times, leaves certain segments rushed, disjointed or uneven. The addition of at least another 20-30 minutes is wisely suggested along with the 2-3 more characters. That, in turn, would give "Raging Skillet" more depth, color, character and resolution.

Staging "Raging Skillet" director John Simpkins keeps Rossi's story of interest through choice direction, staging, movement, character interaction and the occasional use of his already excited audience who happily lap up the food that's passed around the theater when the script demands it. He knows where to put the focus, how to get a laugh or tear, how to believably move his cast freely about the stage without any calculation and how to thrust his audience unobtrusively into the proceedings.
Michael Schweikardt's brilliant, fully-functional, superbly crafted kitchen design also heightens the play's momentum as does Julian Evans perfectly-timed sound effects and John Lasiter's crafty lighting.

In the pivotal role of Chef Rossi, Dana Smith-Croll is instantly warm, likeable and spirited. She connects immediately with the audience from the moment she appears on stage and often makes them forget that they are watching and listening to an actress and not the real Rossi. In the kitchen, she is "spot on" cajoling about her recipes, cooking them and putting them together. Her many mother-daughter scenes are rife with real emotion and depth. And when she is alone on stage looking through her mother's "book" near the end of the play, your heart just breaks and breaks in ways that it is intended to by the playwright.

The casting of Marilyn Sokol as Rossi's deceased mom who shows up unexpectedly at the book signing is a stroke of genius. She is brilliant, outstanding, mesmerizing, personable, magical, dynamic and wonderfully vaudevillian. It's the comic performance of the year and one that is fraught with real emotion, depth, honesty and personality. She doesn't just play a part, she owns it in much the same way as Bette Midler owns Dolly Levi in the current Broadway revival.

In "Raging Skillet," she is the quintessential overbearing Jewish mother, but without the caricature or expected calculation. Sokol is the real deal. Her facial expressions, her body language, her line delivery, her stage movement and her interaction with the other actors, is spontaneous and "spot on." She is such an amazing actress, you can't take your eyes off her for a moment, for fear you might miss some of the cut-up zaniness, zest and fascination she brings to the role. Hopefully, TheaterWorks will bring her back for another play next season or simply resurrect her one-woman show from yesteryear.

In the role of DJ Skillit,  the very talented George Salazar has the enviable task of playing several characters in Rossi's life, depending on the situation, the moment and the remembrance. It's a feat that he pulls off swimmingly much to the delight of the audience and the other on-stage actors. He's funny, personable, charming, energetic and hammy. His interaction with the audience is absolutely perfect, especially when passing out some of Rossi's delectable treats, ad-libbing or flirting with some of the ancients or blue hairs from West Hartford, Westport and Simsbury.

"Raging Skillet" is a witty, insightful and quirky work that sheds interesting light on one of the most fascinating and creative women in the foodie industry today. Her recipe for life....and food contagious. Enjoy!

"Raging Skillet" is being staged at TheaterWorks (233 Pearl Street, Hartford, CT) through August 27.
Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2:30 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m.
For more information, call (860) 527-7838.