Friday, September 29, 2017

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 36, A Review: "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (Downtown Cabaret)

By James V. Ruocco

The bells toll....and they toll loudly....for the deformed outcast Quasimodo in Downtown Cabaret's thrilling, dazzling, buoyant telling of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," brilliantly directed by Christy McIntosh-Newsom. This production is so electrifying, it nearly blows the roof off this intimate Bridgeport theater space and ignites a fireworks display worthy of every color of the rainbow.
It glows.
It sparkles.
It dances.
It sings.
It cajoles.
It charms.
It excites.
It tugs at your heart stings.
It's unlike anything you've ever seen before.

It is not only one of the best musical productions of 2017, an honor shared with the equally superior DC presentations of "Spring Awakening" and "In the Heights," but it comes perfectly gift-wrapped with stellar performances by its five principals (Ben McCormack, Alexis Willoughby, Perry Liu, Nicholas Kuell, Joe Cardozo), all of whom deserve their own personal standing ovation.
That's not all.
There's a Broadway caliber chorus and choir whose sound rivals that of The Choir of King's College in Cambridge. Not to mention a costume, lighting, sound and set design that is truly in a class by itself. Clay Zambo's musical direction is superior. Christy McIntosh-Newsom's stirring emotional vision is nothing short of spectacular.

The two-act musical takes its cue from the 1996 Walt Disney musical and the Victor Hugo novel that was first published in 1831. Set in medieval Paris under the twin towers of its greatest structure and supreme religious symbol, the cathedral of Notre-Dame, the production offers haunting insight into the troubled lives of Quasimodo, the hunchback; Esmeralda, the seductive gypsy dancer; Claude Frollo, a priest tortured and haunted by the specter of his own damnation; and Phoebus, the dashing, egotistical Captain of the King's Archers.

There's a lot of story to tell and Peter Parnell's lively book delves directly into "Hunchback's" many plot machinations (sorry folks, I'm not going to reveal any of them), using Hugo's profound sense of irony, his prejudicial undercurrents, his atmospheric sense of time and place, his historical imagination and his multi-layered characterizations. It all comes together nicely and is very easy to follow in its musicalized form of presentation.

In the recent DC presentation of "In the Heights, "director Christy McIntosh-Newsom embraced the harsh realities of barrio life and the continued tug-of war between people fighting for survival or escape with confidence, imagination and brio. An intuitive, passionate director, Newsom, always knew what buttons to push, who to thrust into the spotlight, what plot twist to amplify or downgrade, how to get laughs or pump up the drama without the slightest form of calculation. She succeeded swimmingly.

Bringing "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" to life, Newsom is pretty much in her element. From the moment the production begins and builds to its justified conclusion, it's obvious that a lot of care, respect, understanding and stagecraft went into the mounting of her mammoth presentation. No stone has been left unturned. This "Hunchback" is rife with imagination, spirit, pathos, merriment and inspiration. It has its splashy, lovely Disney moments, but Newsom opts for a decidedly darker tone which amps up the material in carefully etched ways that superbly reflect the novel's flavorsome sexual undercurrents, its temptations, its guilty sins, pleasures and desires. Brilliant, just brilliant.

Musically, Clay Zambo crafts an unforgettable on-stage experience that superbly emulates the imagination behind the Alan Menken (music) and Stephen Schwartz (lyrics) score and its traditional, complex and classically-influenced musical numbers which include "The Bells of Notre Dame," "Out There," "Esmeralda," "Topsy Turvey," "Rest and Recreation" and "Made of Stone." Each cast member is pitch perfect with an unbeatable Broadway sound. And finally, there's the vast congregation/choir that tackles "Hunchback's" complicated vocals, harmonies and chants so superbly, you hands actually hurt from applauding so hard.

Choreographer Lindsay Johnson comes to "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" with a knowledge and professional mindset that is absolutely perfect for musical theater. But she, like Newsom, is not one to rest on her laurels. Here, each set of characters has their own particular style of dance, stance, mood and expression. It's a marvelous conceit that Johnson develops masterfully with proper emphasis placed on appearance, fluidity, illusion, reality, passion, magic, spectacle and razzle-dazzle. Just gorgeous.

Ben McCormick gives one of the best musical performances of 2017 as Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame. His movements, his expressions, his hops and leaps across the stage are so real and so raw, you cannot take your eyes off him for a moment, for fear you might miss something important. He superbly communicates his character's emotional anguish and pain, his physical deformities, his love for the beautiful Esmeralda and an unbridled heroism in typical, dark Disney fashion. His singing, in particular, "Out There" and "Heaven's Light" is rich and emotional.


In the role of the villainous, twisted Frollo, Perry Liu's powerful baritone voice is absolutely sensational as is his intriguing, colorful portrait of an emotionally conflicted man tortured by dark secrets, lusts, passions and desires that he cannot and will not control. He amazes at every dark, twisty and revelatory turn. Joe Cardozo, as Clopin Trouillefou, the King of the Truands, cuts a colorful figure throughout "Hunchback." He is funny. He is witty. He is as charming as a snake. And he not only loves every minute of his character's tomfoolery, but never once misses a beat acting-wise or vocally.

As Phoebus, a notorious womanizer Nicholas Kuell easily adapts to the vain, untrustworthy, egotistical and self-serving ways of his antagonistic character. But he does it with such slippery charm, dash and charisma, you can't help but like, admire and applaud his every move. Think "Beauty and the Beast's" Gaston (it's a role he has played before), but just a little darker and smarmier. Its a formula that Kuell has perfected and works ever so well. Vocally, he has charm, wit, dazzle and range.

The beautiful Alexis Willoughby is ideally cast as the gypsy Esmeralda, a lusty young woman who attracts men, pleasures them and seduces them with one of her seductive dances. Her performance is rife with feeling, emotion, sexuality and passion, all of which Willoughby conveys effortlessly. Here, as in the recent "In the Heights," she is a brilliant actress and performer with a powerhouse voice that is used most effectively throughout the two-act musical.

"The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is being staged at the Downtown Cabaret Theatre (263 Golden Hill St., Bridgeport, CT) , now through October 15.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 576-1636.


Thursday, September 28, 2017

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 35, A Review: "And Then There Were None" (Warner Stage Company)

By James V. Ruocco

In Agatha Christie's deliciously wicked "And Then There Were None," a throng of not-so-typical house guests are invited to Soldier Island, an isolated Devonian escarpment in the United Kingdom purposely cut off from the mainland and just about everybody else.
The host and hostess, of course, are conspicuously absent. There is no telephone. Supplies are limited. The actual invite letters are nondescript. And everyone in the room, including the servants themselves, has definitely something to hide.

Otherwise, there'd be no point to the play.

The plot, of course, immediately thickens once a disembodied message accuses all ten of the house's occupants of having actual blood on their hands. Then, the ball drops. It seems everyone in the room is a murderer of sorts. They have been invited to Soldier Island as punishment for their dastardly deeds.
Bloody hell!
Flipping wanker!

So much for cocktails, a candlelit dinner, a mouth-watering dessert and after dinner drinks.
It's not going to happen.
Instead, each of the characters is reminded of their individual crimes, which include children being drowned or run over, an irate husband murdering his wife's lover, a failed medical operation in theater and a couple's negligence over an old woman who died in their care.

Complicating matters is a nursery rhyme ditty that warns each of the invited guests and house staff that they could be next.

"Ten little Indian boys went out to dine;
One choked his little self and then there were nine.
Nine little Indian boys sat up very late;
One overslept himself and then there were eight.
Eight little Indian boys travelling in Devon:
One said he'd stay there and then there were seven.
Seven little Indian boys chopping up sticks;
One chopped himself in halves and then there were six.
Six little Indian boys playing with a hive:
A bumblebee stung one of them and then there were five."

There's more of course, but suffice to say, a point has been made.
Who lives? Who dies? Who's the killer? Who's not dead?

The daunting task of making "And Then There Were None" palpable for the stage without any form of calculation is hardly easy. It can be actually suicidal (no, pun intended) if the director is not privy to the mechanics of the English whodunit, its beastly undercurrents, its jest, its priggish set of characters, its marvelous dissection of the English class (upper, middle and lower), its clues, its red herrings and its ability to taunt and tease everyone who bought a ticket.

Luckily, for us, The Warner Stage Company put Lynn Paulella Beard in the driver's seat. Not sure whether Beard is a fan of the BBC (the real one, not the creaky, misguided American one), but whatever tricks she has up her sleeve, "And Then There Were None" fascinates, titillates, excites and surprises. It is definitely English in spirit and tone. The way the actors move, stand, sit, observe, enter, exit or express themselves without any dialogue is decidedly English. As is, the way they sip their tea, coffee or hold a glass of drink.
That, in turn, keeps the three-act play firmly rooted on the ground without any flat footing. It also gives the stage proceedings added excitement, zest, appeal and placement within a particular time and period.
First and foremost, this is a whodunit. Beard never once missteps anything. She knows the murder mystery genre, sideways, backwards, front and center. She knows how to build suspense. She knows how to grab you by the throat when you least expect it. She knows how to get a laugh or push you to the edge of your seat.
She also knows how to keep you thoroughly entrenched in the ongoing game of murder created by Agatha Christie herself.

The actual script is rife with backbone, atmosphere, dark truths, backstories, twisty excitement and surprise revelations. There's also a lot of brilliantly executed cheekiness and English wordplay which the cast delivers with amazing splash and brio. Unfortunately the brain dead Torrington audience is surprisingly clueless (at least they were, the night I was there) to this form of English wit and therefore, had no reaction to some very funny passages and one-liners. Or maybe, a pit stop to McDonalds or Burger King for tea much earlier fried their American brain to the point of confusion when faced with figuring out the cheeky mechanics of Christie's convoluted plotting.

If "And Then There Were None" falters, only for a moment or two, it is due largely to the different English accents (or in one case, a complete lack of one) of the on-stage actors. Everyone does their best to act properly English, but, at times, you're not exactly sure which geographic region of the United Kingdom they are from. Or what class or social position they are meant to represent. Still, they sustain their choice of accent throughout the production and never once let it interfere or dampen the whodunit allure of the play.

Tony Enright, however, cast in the pivotal role of Dr. Edward George Armstrong, seems to have landed head first in the wrong play. Though Armstrong is purebred Englishman, Enright's characterization is completely American from his mannerisms, stance, mood swings, expressions and line delivery. He makes no attempt to play an Englishman, much less act and speak like one. Perhaps a visit to 27A Wimpole Street could remedy the situation. Or a dash or two of some Harry Potter elixir could be dropped in the actor's whiskey glass before the next performance.

The easiest fix, however, would be a quick reworking of the script.
Upon Armstrong's very first entrance to the house, Philip Lombard remarks, "I say, old chap, you're American."
"Yes, I am," Armstrong says.
"How terrible for you," quips Lombard.
Problem: Solved.

Its not that Enright is terrible. He's definitely not terrible at all. He's a very accomplished and talented actor with plenty of style, stamina and passion.
For story purposes, however, Armstrong must be British and not American. Otherwise, the character looks like he wandered into the wrong play. This is not "The Actor's Nightmare." So, let's get cracking, folks. It's not like script changes haven't been done before in Torrington. Just ask Ingrid Smith, Brooke Tansley, Charlie Tirrell, the cast of "Follies" or the cast of "The Elephant Man."

In last season's "The Scarlet Letter," staged by the Vagabond Theatre Company, Thursday Savage's evocative portrayal of seductress Hester Prynne was so heartfelt, so honest and so compassionate, it was impossible to take your eyes off her for a single moment. As Prynne grappled with her demons, her past sins, her uncertain future and the evil town folk who damned her soul straight to hell, the actress unflinchingly tapped into her characters dilemmas so believably, the production, never once lost its focus, its energy or its purpose.

In "And Then There Were None," Savage is cast as the cold-hearted, somewhat reserved Emily Brent, who has lots to hide and eventually ends up paying for her sins. Here, as in "The Scarlet Letter, the actress completely loses herself in the part to the point where she becomes the actual character and the woman named Thursday completely disappears right before your very eyes.

She is dramatic. She is polished. She is clever. She is calculating. She is authoritative. She is everything Brent is meant to be and more. Her definitive, superbly executed English accent is 100 per cent accurate as are her actions, reactions and line delivery.
And as the audience who watch her, we are with her every step of the way until she is knocked off by a lethal injection with a hypodermic syringe. Ouch!

Maytae Harge as Vera Claythorne is a classy, intuitive actress with plenty of spunk, spirit and stage presence. As the plot for "And Then There Were None" unravels and unravels, she always makes the right choices and never once drops characterization or forgets her role in the advancement of the story. She is absolutely fascinating to watch and vividly displays Vera's full range of emotions, choices, responses and motivations. Even when she is just standing there reacting to the other on-stage characters, you wonder what her character is going to do next. Luckily, for us, she appears in all three acts. Her last ten minutes in the production are absolutely brilliant.

In "Follies," Eric Lindblom, in the role of Young Ben, was completely shortchanged by both director and musical director. Here, it's quite the opposite with Beard in the director's chair. The wonderfully suave and charismatic actor not only plays the part of the dashing Philip Lombard to perfection, but he completely owns it. He never once makes a wrong move. He always knows where to put the focus, how to recite and deliver a line of dialogue, how to observe and react and how to fit neatly into the frame of a whodunit. His costuming, however, is more Torrington Goodwill than Gieves & Hawkes, but a quick wardrobe fix can remedy all that before the next performance.

As the flamboyant  and priggish Anthony Marston, Nicholas Bourne is a comic delight who revels in his character's over-the-top outrageousness. Unfortunately, his character is the first to die (drugs are slipped into his drink when no one was looking). But, what a way to go. Bourne's death scene is worthy of a standing ovation in itself. It is so brilliantly executed, from his coughing and choking to his actual fall to the floor, one wishes you could hit replay and watch it again. Simply amazing.

In the role of Ethel Rogers, the caretaker who was brought to Soldier Island to cook and care for the invited houseguests, Lana Peck is so unbelievably English, you'd swear she was plucked from an important BBC One drama and flown over to America on British Airways (first class, of course) to appear in Beard's murder mystery.  Roger Grace, who plays her twitchy husband Thomas Rogers also scores high points for his performance.

The very personable Payton Turpin (what a great, great name) is completely "spot on" as General Mackenzie, the man who murdered his wife's lover in cold blood. Scott Murphy brings appropriate life and mystery to the role of William Henry Blore. His characterization, his choice of accent and his line delivery is very real and very raw. Mike Zizka, in the role of Sir Lawrence Wargrave, is a commanding and versatile actor who never once strikes a false note. The role of the irascible Wargrave shows him off splendidly. And he makes perfect sense out of his character's cruel intentions in ways that scare, delight and catch you off guard. Then again, that's the point.

"And Then There Were None" is being staged by the Warner Stage Company at the Nance Marine Studio Theatre (68 Main St, Torrington, CT), now through Oct. 1)
For tickets or more information, call (860) 489-7180.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 34, A Review: "I Do, I Do" (TheatreWorks/New Milford)

By James V. Ruocco
A man.
A woman.
A wedding.
A life.
Welcome to the world of  "I Do, I Do," that popular 1966 Tom Jones/Harvey Schmidt Broadway musical that takes its cue from the 1951 play, “The Fourposter,” written by Dutch playwright Jan de Hartog and lovingly chronicles the married life of Agnes and Michael from 1895 to 1945 in ways that will make your heart skip a beat or two and flutter ever so engagingly.

Written by Jones, this two-character musical opens with a wonderful wedding scene, then, confronts the nervousness of two people in bed (a fourposter, of course) who've never made love before or have seen each other fully naked in the daylight, in the moonlight or anywhere else, for that matter.

It's a beautiful, tender, romantic and comedic moment that jumps starts this simple little musical and sets the ongoing mood for what's to follow. Then, it delves head first in the private, professional and personal life of Agnes and Michael and finds humor and pathos in everything from the search for a husband's elegant vest and a wife's before-bed night cream rituals to the arrival of the first child where the husband experiences his own labor pains. Much later, it also copes with a wife's loss of self-esteem as the years finally catch up with her while her husband finds comfort in the arms of another woman.
Oh, no!
Oh, yes!
But not to worry.
It all ends happily much to the delight of the on-stage characters and everyone else in the audience.

At TheatreWorks/New Milford, where "I Do, I Do" has been happily and magically reborn under the watchful eye of director/choreographer Bradford Blake and musical director Charles Smith, this production intrigues, cajoles, entertains, excites, explodes and delights. The casting of the very experienced Carey Van Hollen as Agnes and the equally accomplished Jonathan Jacobson as Michael is a stroke of genius on Blake's part. As is Blake's decision to place Smith at the piano. Together, this quartet turn this musical examination of marriage over five decades into a savvy, sparkly entertainment well worthy of a standing ovation or two. Or, maybe even, three.

But first, let's backtrack.

Two character musicals can be especially tricky or tiresome given the fact that both actors are on stage for nearly two hours and have page after page of dialogue to remember, recite and act without ever missing a single beat. There's also a songbook of numbers in between the dialogue that asks both performers to sing, sing, sing. And dance, dance, dance.
Hard, yes.
Not really.

As evidenced in "Into the Woods," his most recent directorial effort at Musicals at Richter, Blake is not one to rest on his laurels. He knows how to paint and develop an interesting stage picture, sustain it and make it jump, fly, surprise and skip across the pavement. He casts his productions flawlessly. He's not afraid to take chances. And there is always a marvelous wonder and wit to the actual production itself.

"I Do, I Do" is no different.
Everything that happens on the small yet resourceful TheatreWorks stage is carefully envisioned,  executed and seamless. Never once does the action, the songs or the performances come to a screeching halt. Instead, Blake's anecdote of  married life is distinguished by a natural drive, sentiment, whimsy, spirit and wonderful sense of entitlement. And therein, lies its pulse and heartbeat.

The musical numbers for "I Do, I Do" are exactly right for the onstage story, its evolution and the characters (in this case, one man, one woman) who bring them so vividly to life. Among them: the title song, "Together Forever," "Goodnight," "I Love My Wife," "My Cup Runneth Over," "Love Isn't Everything," "Flaming Agnes," "Where are the Snows?" "What Is a Woman?" "Someone Needs Me," "Roll Up the Ribbons," etc.

At the piano, Smith works his magic quite beautifully. Everything is in sync with the on-stage proceedings from ballads, duets and solos to novelty numbers. Smith also produces splendid, dynamic vocals from both Van Hollen and Jacobson who clearly understand and communicate the veracity of the "I Do, I Do" musical score and the underlying message behind everything they sing.

In the recent "Into the Woods," Carey Van Hollen gave one of the most memorable musical performances of the year at Musicals at Richter. It was real, raw, emotional and tender. As the Baker's Wife, a role that seemed tailor-made for the actress, she sang Sondheim's wonderfully complicated songs with snap, zest, passion, and precision.
In "I Do, I Do," Van Hollen  takes hold of the character of Agnes, makes it her own and brings just the right amount of color, shading, emotion to the part to keep it entirely emotional and honest. She sings beautifully. She acts beautifully. She know how to get a laugh without any form of calculation. And she is well-matched opposite Jacobson as Michael in much the same way as she was in "Into the Woods" alongside the charismatic Nathan Mandracchia as the Baker.

Looking very much like John Davidson's kid brother, Jonathan Jacobson is very much married to the part of Michael. He is dashing. He is charismatic. He is boyish. He is funny. He is ruthless. He is pompous. Like Van Hollen, he  knows how to play a scene to the fullest. He is a master at the droll, comic one-liner. He's reactions are expressions are flawless. And he's completely genuine, both vocally and musically.

"I Do, I Do" is being staged at TheatreWorks/New Milford (5 Brookside Ave., New Milford, CT), now through October 22.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 350-6863.

Friday, September 22, 2017

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 33, A Review: "Avenue Q" (Playhouse on Park)

By James V. Ruocco

At first glance, the inviting outdoor streetscape for Playhouse on Park's "Avenue Q," backed by video screens on both sides of the intimate stage, resembles that of ITV's "Coronation Street,"' the long-running British primetime soap that began life on telly back in 1960.
Interesting...oh, yes.
Yet there are so signs of Rita, Norris, Gail, Steve or Hilda Ogden once this colorful, uplifting   production begins. Instead, Emily Nichols' resourceful, cleverly-constructed set lends itself nicely to the "Sesame Street" like world of puppet characters named Princeton, Rod, Katy Monster, Lucy, Trekkie Monster, Nicky, and several others. It also houses real-life actors, some of whom, act alone without puppets to bring the deliciously playful and wicked "Avenue Q" to life.

That said, this "Avenue Q" is funny, clever, edgy, polished, devious and gleeful. It is well worth a visit or two and the perfect vehicle to open Playhouse on Park's ninth season, which includes an ambitious line up of productions from "The Diary of Anne Frank" and "Intimate Apparel" to "The Revisionist" and "In the Heights." You won't want to miss a single one.

"Avenue Q" is also a bonus for anyone who buys a ticket: the 13-year-old teen and his giggly date, the first-time theatergoer, the puppet master, the Broadway musical groupie, the bored West Hartford housewife, the starched-shirt husband, the same-sex couple, etc. And let's not forget granny and grandpa, who will have lots of fun. Or either be shocked or delighted by full puppet nudity/ puppet sex right before their very eyes.

Behind the title, however, lies a site-specific story that drops it audience head first into the world of puppets and a few humans with topical stories, problems, diversions, hang-ups, insecurities, anxieties, aftershocks and ever-changing personas.
It's all here: romance, dating, sexual intercourse, masturbation, computer porn, homosexuality, one-night stands, unemployment, discrimination, racial prejudice, homelessness, college education with no future and bills that can't be paid. All musicalized, of course, with book and dialogue provided by cheeky Jeff Whitty.

The beauty of this "Avenue Q" stems from director/choreographer Kyle Brand's exceptional staging. This production shimmers with a particular sensibility and ambitiousness that Brand deftly communicates. He not only knows and understands the material well, but takes it way beyond its "Sesame Street" parody status and turns it into something real, raw and honest that everyone in the audience can relate too.
Everything is mapped, plotted and delivered with authority, wit, snap and precision, which, in turn,  keeps this "Avenue Q" upfront and center without any awkward pauses, lapses or confusion. Brand paints a very likeable Technicolor picture that is both playful and witty and very much in touch with its ever-changing  emotions, spirit and surprises.

There's a lot going on here. In particular, the puppets and the actors themselves.
Each of the characters is embodied by a colorful, wonderfully designed oversized hand puppet, manipulated by a very visible actor who provides voice, movement and song in perfect synchronization. There are also moments throughout "Avenue Q" when two actors handle the movement of s single puppet while one actor does the voice and the other one (a silent partner, of sorts), simply reacts. It is a creative process that Brand and his team of performers pull off swimmingly. And there's real beauty in seeing how it all plays out on the intimate Playhouse on Park stage. Well done, Mr. Brand.

The "Avenue Q" musical score has been written by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. It is delicious, flavorsome, twinkly and tuneful with plenty of justified dash, punch, craziness and rainbow-tinged madness. It's also been well envisioned by the composers without any form of calculation or hesitancy.  Everything that happens is not only perfectly in sync with the on-stage action, but for the actors who sing them and the puppets who engagingly bring the "Avenue Q" songs so merrily to life.

The fun, of course, stems from the nature of the songs and the titles themselves: "It Sucks to Be Me," "If You Were Gay," "The Internet Is For Porn, "I'm Not Wearing Underwear Today," "The More You Ruv Someone," "Schadenfreude," "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," to name a few. The pungent, detailed, often R-rated lyrics are marvelously wicked, slick, dirty and acerbic, backed by agreeable scoring that commands and demands your attention as "Avenue Q" hits you in the face with its contrasting pronouncements, its sly undercurrents and juicy obscenities that catch you off guard, bring a smile to your face or make you laugh uncontrollably out loud.

Musical director Robert James Tomasulo is a perfect fit for "Avenue Q." Backed by four other talented musicians (Sean Rubin, Nick Cutroneo, Elliot Wallace and Andrew Studenski) ), this quintet makes the music of this particular production bloom and dance with the magic, the style and the grit its creators originally intended. Mix that with the fascination of hearing it for the first time (during intermission many theatergoers remarked that they had never seen or heard of "Avenue Q" before) and experiencing it "live" and you've got something wonderful to embrace and enjoy.

Elsewhere, Tomasulo and company conduct, instruct and guide their seven-member cast through the entire "Avenue Q" score without ever once missing a single beat, note or piece of important music. Every one of the songs is meticulously performed and delivered in the style and manner is was rendered and voiced by actors who wrap their vocal chops around the marvelous score singing in perfect pitch, alone, in a group, or simply with one or two people. The harmonies also blend seamlessly together and well they should under Tomasulo's exacting showmanship.

The performances are pure gold, with a dash or two of every color of the rainbow.
The charismatic and boyish Weston Chandler Long, who looks as if he could be the long lost cousin or younger brother of "A Clockwork Orange's" Jonno Davies is perfect for the dual roles of the unworldly Princeton and the repressed, thoroughly confused Rod as well. The different voices, mannerisms and vocal delivery of each character he portrays is absolutely brilliant, as is his body language when manipulating each of the puppets. Musically, his vocals are polished, engaging and completely endearing. So if anyone is doing "Les Miserables" or "Next to Normal," Long would be the ideal Marius or Gabe.

As kindergarten teaching assistant Kate and the very slutty, sex-crazed Lucy, Ashley Brooke excels at every comic, musical or dramatic turn in "Avenue Q."  Her puppetry mechanics  are skillful, dynamic and astonishing. She's is not only completely at home on the Playhouse on Park stage, but there is real, raw emotion here, both human and from her puppet counterparts. Can't wait to see what project she does next.

Playing the purposely stereotypical Christmas Eve, a Japanese therapist whose patients seem to leave after only one visit, EJ Zimmerman, offers a brilliantly conceived comic portrayal that gets huge belly laughs every time she appears on stage. Her over-the-top, high-pitched caricature of Asian women is so dynamic and pleasurable, you'd swear "Avenue Q" playwright Jeff Tilly wrote the part specifically with her in mind. Just amazing.

James Fairchild is ideally cast as Brian, the would-be stand up comic who turns his big solo "I'm Not Wearing Underwear Today" into a genuine showstopper. The versatile Colleen Welsh who plays the dual roles of Mrs. T. and Bad Idea Bear, exhibits fine showmanship as both performer, singer and puppet manipulator. She also completely masters the part of observer or silent partner in scenes when she is simply asked to react while her co-partner assumes the voice or musical moment of a specific puppet. Absolutely brilliant.

In the role of Gary Coleman (yes, Gary Coleman), the former child star who can't seem to get an acting gig, Abena Mensah-Bonsu is completely in sync with the look, the persona, the voice and the expressions that are all things Gary. You can't help but love everything she says and does.

And Peej Mele, cast in the roles of the often misunderstood Nicky, Trekkie Monster and Bad Idea Bear, offers a unique take on all three of his completely different characters. He's funny. He's amazing. He's sad. He's crazy. He's sentimental. And his enthusiasm for "Avenue Q" is absolutely contagious.

"Avenue Q" is one of those relevant musicals that has plenty to say....and says it so well. It also delights and cajoles much to the delight of everyone on stage and in the audience. Do not miss it!

"Avenue Q" photos courtesy Curt Henderson, Imagine It Framed. 

"Avenue Q" is being staged at Playhouse on Park (244 Park Rd., West Hartford, CT) through Oct. 8.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 523-5900.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 32, A Review: "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (Hartford Stage)

By James V. Ruocco

Darko Tresnjak's ability to breathe new life into all things Shakespeare is in a class by itself.  And rightly, so.
As a director, he has never once been hampered by the Bard's rambling exposition, his over reliance on plotlines, his many, many characters or his well-oiled, component pieces that must be played straight with absolutely no changes, no cuts or edits or accessorized experimentation.

But like a cinematic Federico Fellini or Ingmar Bergman, Tresnjak dances to his own tune. He does it his way...and only his way... much to the delight of the actors, the audience, the production team, the dramaturgs, the benefactors, the starched suits and their droll wives, the LGBTQ community, the students, their freshly-scrubbed and not-so-scrubbed professors and lastly, the critics. And that, in turn, is what makes his productions snap, crackle and pop and explode across the stage in every color of the rainbow without dampening or detracting from the emotional weight of the evening..

Darko Tresnjak is a genius. He is a showman. He is an auteur. And lastly, he is an original with so many tricks of his sleeve, one is always in awe of his expressive choices and zestful creativity, anxiously awaiting his next move, or, in this case, his next production.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream," Shakespeare's darkly comic, resplendent, opus, puts Tresnjak, at the very top of his game. It is refreshing, astonishing, exuberantly funny, crazy, magical, sexy, delightful and broadly eclectic. There's a lot going on in this joyous Hartford Stage production, but it all make perfect, perfect sense. Delicious, innovative, bold and wildly unorthodox, it is so much fun, you'll want to see it again and again.

What is most impressive is Tresnjak's fastidious attention to Shakespeare's four different sets of characters: The Court of Theseus, The Young Lovers, The Mechanicals, The Fairies. They purposely have a different look, manner, style, speech pattern, language and uniqueness about them that keeps them afresh and afloat in their own particular stories.
The Court, for example, recite Shakespeare like members of the Royal Shakespeare Company. It's a distinct, clever process that works especially well. The Young Lovers offer polished recitations like A-level Eton scholars or no-nonsense Harlem-schooled students. There's also a youthful vitality about them that heightens their aura throughout the night's proceedings.

The Mechanicals, are rife with Fellini-like comic bits, stretches, bawdy puns and sexual innuendo that has everything to do with Shakespeare or nothing at all. Regardless, you're with them every step of the way, laughing and smiling at their mad, twisty persona's. The Fairies, in turn, have an ethereal quality to their words and actions that also suggest RSC training, but with a dash or two of fairy dust.

There is also plenty of well-orchestrated, well-placed fun in Tresnjak's frenzied staging, particularly with The Mechanicals that runs the gamut from three-ring circus and silent movie homage to English melodrama and farce that's superbly staged, acted and delivered. Lots of happy tears steaming down your face can't be helped during these particular interludes and dalliances. And beyond the immediate horseplay, this wild and outrageous group have a definitive feeling for Shakespeare, so nothing ever gets lost in the translation. 

Elsewhere, Tresnjak crafts a slick theatrical piece that is ingenious, fast-paced, layered and textured. There is a wonderful sense of time and space about the piece. Every entrance, exit, dash of comedy, drama or twinkling bit of fairy dust, is strategically placed and centered. The musical bits, the songs, the dances and the sounds of the night blend seamlessly together without any calculation, whatsoever. So impressive, so delicious, so consistent.

The plot, in brief: It's a magical night in Athens and the surrounding woods. Four runaway lovesick students find themselves in the middle of a raging dispute between their proud families and the king and queen of the fairies. A troupe of amateur actors get sidetracked while trying to rehearse a play. And a fairy named Puck, armed with a special love potion and wickedness, tricks some of the characters into falling in love with the first person they set eyes upon. Ever, so clever.

The comic glue of  "A Midsummer Night's Dream" falls rightly into the hands of the tremendously talented John Lavelle who plays the part of Nick Bottom with such dash, wit and personality, if Shakespeare were alive today, he'd probably shout "Bravo" a dozen times or more from the rafters. The character of Bottom, which, as everyone knows is famous for getting his handsome head transformed into the goofy-looking donkey by the elusive Puck, is tailor-made for Lavelle who dashes and romps across the "Midsummer" stage for well over two hours without ever missing a single beat. He is funny. He is crazy. He is over the top. He is Barnum and Bailey with a twinge of Federico Fellini and "Saturday Night Live" thrown in for extra measure. And  he's always chock full of wonderful surprises that Tresnjak pulls from his magical bag of tricks over and over without the slightest hesitation. What an actor! What a performance!

There is a beauty and grace to Jenny Leona's blonde, attractive Hermia that not only piques your interest whenever she's on stage, but makes her character one of the most vital and alluring of the star-crossed lovers. There is an urgent truth to her performance, her line delivery and her characterization that is both enchanting and riveting.  Tom Pecinka makes all the right moves as Lysander, the handsome, boyish young man who is forced to overcome many obstacles in his pursuit of love. He is a natural, resourceful actor who gets lost in the forest of mischief and merriment and aptly proves his character is a lovesick force to be reckoned with.

As the lovesick Demetrius, Damian Jermaine Thompson deftly portrays the angst and frustration of a fickle young man who falls quickly in and out of love. His pained expressions and decidedly different Shakespearean line delivery are absolutely perfect for his character and his participation in the story. Fenda Laure Jacquet, as Helena, delivers wonderful, impeccably timed pronouncements about love and its weepy, serious dilemmas and virtues. Like Thompson, she connects beautifully to the piece, its complications and delicious enchantment.

Will Apicella brings plenty of mischief and merriment to the sprightly, quick-witted Puck.  He sprints about the stage with ethereal agility, an enchanting Shakespearean voice and magical demeanor.  Playing the dual roles of Theseus and Oberon, Esau Pritchett is a commanding, brooding actor that offers two uniquely different characterizations like a skilled RSC professional.  The very strong and principled Titania, the fairy queen who is intoxicated with a love potion that has her fawning over a donkey's ass (Bottom, to be precise),  is majestically rendered by the beguiling Scarlett Strallen, a dynamic, charismatic actress with enormous stage presence, range and personality. Her characterization has plenty of allure and passion. Her perfect Shakespearean tongue would make every member of the RSC green with envy. Elsewhere, she plays the part of Hippolyta with appropriate demand, intention and icy snobbery.

Tresnjak's  bewitching production, aided by Alexander Dodge's evocative set design, Alexander Sovronsky's music, York Kennedy's lighting and Joshua Pearson's costumes, creates the complete "Midsummer Night's" world where strange things happen, spells whirl magically out of control, transient absurdity reigns, love conquers all and fairy dust goes a very long way.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" is being presented at Hartford Stage (50 Church St., Hartford, CT), now through October 8.
For more information, call (860) 527-5151.