Saturday, November 25, 2017

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 43, A Review: "Phantom" (Downtown Cabaret)

By James V. Ruocco

In the Maury Yeston/Arthur Kopit musical "Phantom," it is the story of a disfigured man who lives below the Paris Opera House that is the centerpiece of this traditional musical and not its crashing chandelier or foggy underground lair that spins the story into motion.
Instead, this musical telling, based on the Gaston Leroux novel "Le Fantome de l'Opera," is simple and direct in execution and not controlled by grandiose automated trappings, special effects and tons of extravagant scenery. And that is what separates it from the opulent Broadway and West End production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera." This "Phantom" dances to an entirely different tune.

Here, the emphasis is on story, a "book story" reminiscent of the valued, typical Broadway musical. It is as powerful and dramatic as any of the other "Phantom" stories, but here, you get much more emphasis on characterization, the subterranean life of the Phantom and a complete back story on how he was conceived (his dark story from birth to adulthood is reenacted in Act II), which heightens the musical's angst and emotion. The characters, are pretty much the same, with the exception of the Count Philippe de Chandon (charmingly played here by John Hahn) who, surprisingly, is not as relevant to the actual story as he was in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.

Regardless, this "Phantom" is exquisite, explosive, bewitching and handsomely executed. Everything about it clicks from the set, sound, costume and lighting design to the direction, the choreography, the musical direction and the central performances, all of which are intuitively performed and beautifully sung.
It is yet another major achievement for the Downtown Cabaret Theatre whose compassion for musical theater was evidenced earlier this year with "Spring Awakening," "In the Heights" and most recently, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."
With "Phantom," the brilliance continues.
Just don't go in expecting to hear "Think of Me" and "The Music of the Night."
Those songs can be heard on Broadway, in London or on tour.
This "Phantom" musical is more varied, complex and intimate.

An obvious fan of musical theater, composer/lyricist Maury Yeston knows exactly what works and what doesn't work. With "Phantom," he offers theatergoers beautiful, stirring melodies, character-driven solos, unbridled musical emotions and stories, fiercely passionate choral numbers and other musical treats that drive the plot reverently as characters stand proud, their voices rich in song and conviction.
Yes, this "Phantom" is an homage, in part, to operetta. It is also an homage to old fashioned, romantic musicals of yesteryear. But there is no copycatting. From the start, his "Phantom" has plenty of heart and soul. It knows exactly where it is going, how it going to be played out musically and how it is going to end. The songs fulfill a purpose. Nothing is thrown in just to give a principal character another song to sing or simply to extend the musical an additional fifteen or twenty minutes. Here, as with "Nine" and "Titanic," Yeston's many musical numbers are precise and genuinely focused.

In turn, the "Phantom" score unfolds with charm, pistache and verve. It's romantic and beguiling when it is meant to be. It is eerie and moody when it must be. It enchants and cajoles when the mood is playful and rapturous. It also complements the plot machinations and wondrous inventions of  Arthur Kopit's book without any forced calculation, which, often is the case, with book musicals. But not this one this one.
Standouts include "Melodie de Paris," "Home," "Without Your Music," "Where in the World," "You are Music," "You Are My Own," "My True Love" and "Dressing for the Night."

Musical director Clay Zambo is the perfect fit for "Phantom." He is an exceptional musician who knows exactly how to make Yeston's musical score resonate, fascinate and dance with the magic, pulse, danger, angst and emotion intended by the composer/lyricist. He also surrounds himself with a first-class orchestral team (Josh Sette, Gabe Nappi, Charles Casimiro, McNeil Johnson, Mark Dennis, Frank Devito, Brendan Stavris) who give tremendous life and importance to the "Phantom" musical score. And under his tutelage, the entire cast unite and sing in perfect pitch without ever once missing a single beat, pulse, note or piece of important music. Well done, Mr. Zambo.

Staging "Phantom" is Eli Newsom who DCT directorial credits include "A Chorus Line" and "Evita." Newsom also served as musical director earlier this year for both "Spring Awakening" and "In the Heights."
Under Newsom's direction, this "Phantom" is profoundly moving, honest, vulnerable and stirring. Yes, the story is familiar. Yes, most of the audience knows how things are going to end. Yet despite this familiarity, Newsom makes you forget all of that with his blazingly honest telling and his solid grasp of Kopit's book, its form and structure. And naturally, his appreciation and understanding of Yeston's musical score and how it is to be shaped, staged and performed on the Downtown Cabaret Theatre stage.

There's plenty to enjoy and applaud here as Newsom brings the thrill of immediacy to this "Phantom" with careful attention paid to atmosphere, locale, period, character interaction and exchanges, shifts in plotting, the danger of discovery, horror and that big moment when the title character takes finally off his mask to show Christine his disfigured face. It's all very intimate and intriguing and the audience and the on-stage cast are with Newsom every step of the way.

The performances are spectacular.
In Max J. Swarner, Newsom has found an extraordinary actor and singer to portray Erik, the Phantom. Possessing one of the most beautiful male voices ever heard in musical theater today, Swarner takes hold of the many songs Yeston has created for his character and puts his own personal stamp on every one of them. There is beauty and passion in his voice, coupled with a deep, dark and stirring portrayal of a wounded, tortured outcast that is so affectingly played, it's impossible not to be moved or shaken.

As Christine Daae, the young woman who becomes Erik's musical protégée, Anna Fagan possesses that lilting, crucial soprano voice that befits her character. She acts the part lovingly and convincingly as if Kopit wrote it with her in mind. And when she sings, her voice is rich, passionate and appealing. Her clear, musical articulation and power is combined to wonderful effect.

If ever an actress was born to play the desperate, egotistical Opera House diva Carlotta, it is Carly Callahan. She is every inch the Carlotta that Rosemary Ashe was in the original London West End production of "The Phantom of the Opera" and she far surpasses the tantalizing performance of Judy Kaye in the original Broadway production of the same musical. Here, she dazzles, cajoles, taunts and surprises as a woman so desperate for attention and star power, she will do anything to see her name up in lights. But she does it so cunningly, you can't help but applaud and enjoy her dastardly deeds even when it's "lights out" for Carlotta in the middle of Act II.

As an actor, Perry Liu comes to the Downtown Cabaret Theatre stage with an unbeatable style, presence and passion that categorizes all of his work. In the recent "In the Heights" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," Liu offered two very different characterizations that were honest, real and emotional. Here, in "Phantom," as Gerard Carriere, the Opera House's purposely dismissed general manager who plays an important part in Erik's life, Liu offers yet another superbly etched character portrait, played brilliantly and sung brilliantly.

Haunting, romantic and tearful, this complicated tale of a disfigured man obsessed with a young and beautiful Paris Opera House singer is a gripping and intense musical, driven with a remarkable sense of feeling, pathos and drama. The songs are contagious, as are, the performances.

"Phantom" is being staged at the Downtown Cabaret Theatre (262 Golden Hill St., Bridgeport, CT), now through Dec. 10.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 576-1636.

Friday, November 17, 2017

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 42, A Review: "Avenue Q" (Warner Theatre)


By James V. Ruocco

Sometimes, "bigger" is better.
Case in point: "Avenue Q" at the Warner Theatre.
Originally conceived for a small, intimate space, this deliciously wicked musical about racy, foul-mouthed puppets and a handful of gobsmacked humans has been deftly reimagined in all its Technicolor glory to fit the large proscenium stage of Torrington's showplace venue using every vivid shade of the rainbow, a healthy smattering of fairy dust, lots of theatrical magic and whimsy, plenty of savvy sexual innuendos and larger-than-life hand puppets who say words like "fuck," "pussy," "shit" and "ass" proudly, loudly and devoutly.

This "Avenue Q" soars, roars, skips, jumps and flies through hoops much to the delight of everyone on stage and everyone in the audience. It never misses a beat. It never steps out of line. It never ceases to amaze or entertain. It never once loses sight of what it is, what it is about and what is was designed to do.

The sets (smartly designed by Stephen C. Houk), of course, are bigger, brighter, and more colorful and fill out every inch of the Warner Stage. The cast is bigger. There's a lot more props, schtick and mayhem. And some of the songs and orchestral music have more snap, crackle and pop.
Yet despite its bigness, (a great concept, by the way), this is still "Avenue Q," the way it was originally conceived by Jeff Whitty (book), Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (music and lyrics).
The street itself still houses puppet characters named Princeton, Rod, Kate Monster, Lucy, Nicky and a couple of wicked Bad Idea Bears along with real-life actors, some of whom, bring the puppets to life or just act alone without puppets as the deliciously playful and acerbic "Avenue Q" story unfolds, unravels and spins..

This "Avenue Q" is funny, clever, edgy, cheeky, devious, endearing, spiteful, sexy, pornographic and  gleeful.  It is designed to thrill and entertain anyone who buys a ticket: the 15-year-old teen and his giggly blonde date, the first-time theatergoer,  the lesbian couple down the street,  the puppet master himself, the Broadway musical groupie, the downtown Torrington book club,  the bored  Litchfield housewife, her starched-shirt husband, the pleasantly rotund restaurateur who's eaten too many potatoes and the 18-year-old boy who adores Lady Gaga, but is still in the closet.

 Behind the title, however, lies a site-specific story that drops it audience head first into the world of  confused, mixed-up, misguided characters (both puppets and humans) with topical, stories,  problems, diversions, hang-ups,  quirks,  anxieties, aftershocks, and ever-changing personas.
It's all here: job insecurities, growing pains, romance, dating, sexual intercourse, masturbation, computer porn, homosexuality, one-night stands, unemployment, discrimination, racial prejudice, homelessness,  empty bank accounts, bills that can't be paid and college degrees with no future.
All musicalized, of course, with a book and dialogue that hits hard, makes you laugh and gets right under your skin with plenty to talk about on the ride home.

The beauty of this "Avenue Q" stems from director Katherine Ray's insight, experimentation, knowledge, brilliance, passion, wit, flair and savvy. Like others at the Warner Theatre, she is not afraid to take chances, experiment, build and rebuild and turn her production into something wildly vivid and unique. She did this with the Stephen Sondheim musical "Assassins." She did this earlier this season with "Peter and the Starcatcher." And next year, she is going to rock everyone's senses when "Fences" debuts at the Ridgefield Theater Barn smack in the middle of winter.

Here, she creates a musical  that unfolds with a particular sensibility, ambitiousness and balance that is deftly communicated without any form of calculation. Yes, she puts her own particular stamp on it. Yes, she has surrounded herself with an A-list of local actors, musicians, technicians and a very savvy and talented choreographer. And yes, she knows exactly what buttons to push.

Then again, that's Ray.
Everything that happens on the Warner stage is carefully mapped out, plotted and delivered with authority, wit, snap, precision and dazzle. Given the largeness of her playing space, she keeps the intimacy of "Avenue Q" front and center. And when necessary, she paints a lovely, likeable Technicolor picture that expands the story and the musical numbers every-so-agreeably by adding clever bits of stage business in all playing areas. Or, she simply fills the stage with a few additional actors to flesh out and complete the stage picture for a specific scene or specific musical number.

She also has a wonderful sense of humor, most noticeable in "Avenue Q's" big sex scene in which the audience is privy to full puppet nudity and full puppet sex right before their very eyes. That's not all. Elsewhere, other puppets and humans are shown in various pairings doing "the nasty" in some very amusing, clever and outrageously pornographic positions. Fucking hilarious, yes. Absolutely crazy, yes. Offensive, hell no.

In "Avenue Q," 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 Ray and her team of performers pull off swimmingly. And there's real beauty in seeing how it all plays out scene after scene, song after song, dance after dance on the oversized Warner Theatre stage. Well done, Ms. Ray and "Avenue Q" company.

 The musical score for "Avenue Q"  has been written and imagined by the very talented Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. It is delicious, flavorsome, twinkly and tuneful with plenty of justified dash, punch, spunk, zip, snap, edge and rainbow-tinged madness. Its also been well envisioned by the composers. Everything that happens musically 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 happily and merrily to life.

The fun, of course, stems from the nature of the songs and the titles themselves: "What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?" "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," "There Is Life Outside Your Apartment,"  "Schadenfreude," "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," to name a few. The pungent, juicy, 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" knocks you on your ass with its contrasting pronouncements, its sly undercurrents and juicy obscenities that catch you off guard, bring a smile to your face, make you laugh uncontrollably and shake your head from side to side, saying "What the fuck was that?"

Musical director Dan Koch who wowed audiences earlier this season with "Into the Woods" at Musicals at Richter is a perfect fit for "Avenue Q." Backed by four other talented musicians (Anna DeMasi, Scott Kellogg, Jessical Pietrosanti, Charles Casimiro), this brilliant orchestral quintet makes the music of this witty and sardonic production bloom, blossom and dance with the magic, the style, the shock and the imagination its creators originally intended. Mix that with the fascination of hearing it for the first time (during the interval 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, Koch and his merry musical group conduct, instruct and guide their eleven-member cast through the entire "Avenue Q" score without ever once missing a single beat, note or piece of important music. Here, as in "Into the Woods" and "Assassins" (Koch was musical director for the Warner Stage Company production), every one of the songs is meticulously presented and delivered in the style and manner is was rendered by its creators. And, comfortably performed 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 Koch's exacting tutelage and showmanship.
Imagine what Koch could do with "Company," "Evita" or "Les Miserables." I'd buy a ticket or two and so would you.

Given the expansion of the "Avenue Q" story and its reinvention on the Warner Stage, Ray's enlistment of Peggy Terhune as choreographer is a stroke of genius. No stranger to musical theatre, Terhune's use of the stage, the actors and the puppets is truly creative. Her fluid and floating choreography is pure, simple and impeccably timed. She also brings a sense of urgency, comedy, whimsy and drama to the proceedings. It's all very wonderful to watch in this purposely oversized production.

The performances in "Avenue Q" are pure gold, with dashes or two of silver, violet, crimson and royal blue.  The boyishly charming, equally endearing Jonathan Zalaski is one of those tremendously gifted young actors whose love of theater and live performance is obvious from the moment he appears on stage. He loves every minute of it and so do we. Here, he is the perfect fit for the unworldly, confused Princeton who just wants to be loved and find real purpose in his life. His voice, his mannerisms and vocal delivery is "spot on" as is his body language when manipulating the movements of his Princeton puppet. Vocally, he is engaging and polished in all of his musical numbers including "What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?" "Purpose," "It Sucks to Be Me (Reprise)" and "There's a Fine, Fine Line (Reprise)."

As kindergarten teaching assistant Kate Monster, another "Avenue Q" character looking for love, acceptance, job security and purpose, Meredith Porri is lovely, exciting, honest, winsome and an absolutely pleasure to watch as her character's story unfolds throughout the two-act musical. She excels at every comic, musical, sexual, tearful and dramatic turn. Her puppetry mechanics are skillful, dynamic and moving. And like Zalaski, there is real, raw emotion here, both human and from the puppet she brings so merrily to life.

The versatile Chris Kulmann is right in sync with the troubled, often misunderstood plight of Nicky, who also happens to be Rod's roommate. He's funny. He's sad. He's crazy. He's sentimental. He's passionate. He's charming. And he never once misses a thump as an actor, as a singer or as a puppeteer.

Everything Josh Newey touches turns to pure gold. In "Evil Dead: The Musical," "Tommy" and in "Avenue Q," his acting style, range and persona is AMAZING. Acting is his forte. Make no mistake about it. No matter what part he plays, he always gives 110 percent. And he never gives the same performance twice. Here, he plays Rod, a genuine lover of Broadway musicals struggling with the fact that he might be "gay." It's one of those standout roles that Newey invests with that real emotion and honesty that categorizes all of his work. Ray gives him lots to work with and he delivers all of it unobtrusively.

In the role of the purposely stereotypical Christmas Eve, a Japanese therapist whose patients seem to leave after only one visit, Amanda Friedman delivers a dizzying, brilliantly conceived comic portrait that gets huge belly laughs every time she appears on stage. Her over-the-top, high-pitched caricature of Asian women is both hilarious and pleasurable. She knows how to deliver a line of dialogue with zing and snap. She commands your attention at every turn. And when she takes center stage to sing "The More You Ruv Someone," you are with her every step of the way.

Ray deserves an expensive, carefully wrapped "blue box" gift from Tiffany's flagship store on Fifth Avenue for the casting of both Joe Harding and Janette Ireland, who play Bad Idea Bear and Mrs. T (Joe) and Bad Idea Bear and Newcomcer (Janette). Together, alone, side by side or part of the "Avenue Q" ensemble, Harding and Ireland are two dynamic, versatile individuals who captivate, charm, cajole and light up the Warner stage in such enigmatic ways, they could easily cause a power failure.
Their facial expressions, their character voices, their body language, their line delivery, their musical skills and their natural manipulation of the Bad Idea puppets is sheer genius...and then some. As actors, they also go the extra mile in terms of characterization, performance, musicality and interaction with the rest of the "Avenue Q" cast. Bravo, Mr. Harding. Bravo, Ms. Ireland.

Other fine performances are delivered by Michelle Funaro (Lucy), Keith Paul (Trekkie Monster), Torry Thomas (Gary Coleman) and David Anctil (Brian).

"Avenue Q" is one of those saucy, relevant musicals that has plenty to say....and says it so well. It is sharp, witty, racy, and daring entertainment. It also has plenty of heart and soul and a sticky center of pure butterscotch that's very R-rated.

"Avenue Q" photography by Luke Haughwout 

"Avenue Q" was staged at the Warner Theatre (60 Main St., Torrington, CT) Nov. 4 through 12, 2017)
For tickets to upcoming productions, call (860) 489-7180.


Thursday, November 9, 2017

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 41, A Review: "Rags" (Goodspeed Musicals)

By James V. Ruocco

The story of the immigrant, who landed on foreign shores homeless and often clueless, in search of a new and better life, is remarkably told in Goodspeed Musicals' raw and thrilling new revival of "Rags," directed by Rob Ruggiero.

This is the world of "Rags," a character driven musical of extraordinary proportions, dimension and urgency. First performed on Broadway back in 1986 and reincarnated in various reworked versions (1991, 1993, 1999 and as a staged concert in 2006), this edition includes a brand new book by David Thompson (Joseph Stein penned the original book) and several new songs by "Rags" creators Charles Strouse (music) and Stephen Schwartz (music).

Then and now, the story of "Rags" is a familiar one.
Fleeing famine, rising taxes, land and job shortages, religious persecution and prejudice, millions of immigrants came to America in the hopes of starting of new life. A big dream, yes. A great idea, yes and no.
In "Rags," opportunity exists, of course. But, it's also a world where social classes collide (the upper class resents and hates immigrants), different cultures (most noticeably, Jews) and religions are attacked, neighborhoods are threatening and only a select few are invited to partake in a better way of life.
Still, there is hope. Or, so it seems.

To bring "Rags" to life, Goodspeed Musicals enlisted the immensely talented Rob Ruggiero, who earlier this year, directed and staged the phenomenal "Next to Normal" at TheaterWorks in Hartford. A wise decision, indeed. And one that gives "Rags" its dramatic pulse, its excitement and its timeliness.
First and foremost, Ruggiero, is not one to rest on his laurels. He is always looking for new ways to spark and challenge his theatrical savvy and "Rags" affords him great opportunity to do just that. It is his insight, his knowledge and his understanding of Thompson's new book that lets Ruggiero spin the "Rags" tales into something that is a joy to behold and a joy to watch.
His "Rags" is edgy, real, surprising and not without its share of tears.
Not just tears, but real tears.
Staging "Rags" on the Goodspeed stage, Ruggiero creates a world where everything moves and spins without the slightest calculation. Everything that happens in "Rags" is perfectly in sync with the story, the characters, the plot twists, the surprises, the revelations, the drama, the comedy and the many twists and turns that bring the "Rags" story to its choice, mind-blowing conclusion.

The musical score for "Rags,"  as written by Strouse and Schwartz (lyrics) is very specific. Above all, this is a story about immigrants, as seen through the eyes of various individuals who recount their experiences, both good and bad, while living in a new land, rich in opportunity, or so they believe.

The songs, of course, are designed for musical theater and they serve the story, the characters, the undercurrents and the outcomes particularly well. Nothing is out of place. Nothing is thrown in just or the sake of giving a particular lead or supporting player an extra song or two to sing. Nothing stops the story or its progression dead in its tracks. Everything fits. Everything works. Everything is beautifully layered, textured and nuanced ever so beautifully.

In turn, the "Rags" score and its many, many songs are pungent, proper, melodic, honest and moving. They honor and respect the immigration story. They are chock full of life and feeling. And every single one of them, is played to perfection under the guidance of musical director Michael O' Flaherty and his exceptional Goodspeed Musicals orchestra.

The talented, resourceful ensemble cast for "Rags" includes Samantha Massell (Rebecca), Christian Michael Camporin (David), David Harris (Max), Sean MacLaughlin (Sal), Sara Kapner (Bella),  Adam Heller (Avram), Emily Zacharias (Anna), Mitch Greenberg (Jack), Nathan Salstone (Ben)  and Lori Wilner (Rachel). All ten, are outstanding individually or working opposite one another as one big ensemble. As both singers and actors, they are so very right for the roles they were handpicked to play in the "Rags" story.

"Rags" is an amazing, important American musical that demands to be seen. Its understanding of a very different world other than the one we live in today is fueled with such insouciant energy and truth, the memory of the story itself and the characters who tell it, lingers long after the lights come up and your find your yourself driving home proud, excited and tearful at the events you just witnessed at the Goodpeed. Then, again, that's exactly the point, isn't it?

"Rags" is being staged at The Goodspeed (6 Main St., East Haddam, CT), now through Dec. 10.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 873-8668.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 40, A Review: "The Diary of Anne Frank" (Playhouse on Park)

By James V. Ruocco

The Nazi regime...The German occupation of Holland.....The persecution of the Jews...The secret annex...The hiding place...The Frank family...The Van Daan family...Albert Dussel....The diary...The nightmares....The cries in the night...The fear of discovery...The capture...The separation....Deportation and death.

"The Diary of Anne Frank," first published under the title "Het Achterhuis. Dagboekbrieven 14 Juni 1942 – 1 Augustus 1944"  (The Annex: Diary Notes 14 June 1942 – 1 August 1944), is a story that has survived the testament of time. It is a powerful reminder of the Holocaust, its horrors, its fears and all of its atrocities. It is also a story of hope, survival and awakening that demands to be told and must be told again and again. It is also something to behold and embrace as it was written by a courageous young girl who recorded her impressions of the times, the people, the war, the cruelties, the hunger, the confinement of living in hiding and lastly, the promise of a new life that was tragically cut short by death.

Using newly released passages from the actual "Anne Frank" diary, mixed with realistic, atmospheric dialogue created for the stage and augmented by some eerie and surprising sound effects, stark mood lighting and period radio recordings, Playhouse on Park's "newly mounted staging of  "The Diary of Anne Frank" is something of a revelation.

This "Anne Frank" is a riveting, powerful, truthful and intimately staged body of work that respects, understands, explores and embraces the original diaries and stage plays without any rose-tinted edges, consequences or contributions. Here, you fully understand the anguish, the pain and the uncertainty of living life day-by-day knowing that immediate capture and death could happen at any given moment, day or night.
You are also part of the production.
As devised by scenic designer David Lewis, the three-dimensional closeness of the actual stage set annex, replete with its claustrophobic living quarters and tiny bedrooms, thrusts the Playhouse on Park audience completely into the proceedings without any hesitation. This closeness to the characters and their story not only heightens the play's dramatic effect, its progression and its horrors, but allows every member of the audience to experience every single moment of the play without that actor/audience separation. It's a unique, voyeuristic concept that works most advantageously throughout the production.

Using Wendy Kesselman's shortened, briskly-paced adaptation instead of the original three-hour Frances Goodrich/Albert Hackett play text, director Ezra Barnes crafts a solid, memorable two-act play that vividly recalls the events and experiences of a young girl's diary, using very carefully-guided research, intimate strokes, colors, nuances and expressions. No one makes a false move. Everyone has his or her place in the annex. There is a time and place for everything. And Barnes knowingly never lets the "Anne Frank" characters or his audience forget the dangers lurking about right outside the actual hiding place.

For any actress, it's a daunting task to bring the part of the perky, optimistic and valiant Anne Frank to life. But Isabelle Barbier more than rises to the occasion. Not only does she give the performance of the year, but the actress far surpasses that of Natalie Portman who played Anne in the 1997 Broadway revival and others who have tackled the role locally and regionally over the last ten years.

As the play begins, the actress deftly projects the character's youthful exuberance, her unbridled curiosity about her new home and its inhabitants and her penchant for writing her daily experiences (good, bad and secretive)  in her treasured diary. Racing about the annex set, she is a force to be reckoned with. Then again, that's the point. You can't take your eyes off her. She is simply amazing.

Much later as the years pass and the story picks up additional steam, Barbier superbly captures Anne's troubled and tense relationship with her mother, her sexual interest in the teenaged Peter Van Daan and in the wake of adversity, her true belief that she and everyone else in the annex will eventually become liberated from the Nazi takeover of Holland.

This production also benefits from the fact that Barbier actually resembles the real Anne Frank. It's an uncanny feat and one that heightens the drama and the sensation of the piece with, of course, respect to the story and it's eventual outcome at the end of Act II.

In Frank van Putten, Barnes has found a very personable, compassionate and focused actor to portray the lead role of Otto Frank, the father of Anne and Margot Frank. From the moment he appears on stage, make no mistake about it, he's the real deal.
He gives full illumination to the part, always communicating the necessary dangers, difficulties and uncertainty of living in closed quarters completely cut off from the outside world. His Otto is a serious leader of sorts, but not without the understanding, the kindness, the sympathy and the heroism the part calls for. His final speech at the end of Act II, a brilliant, acting moment where Frank reveals the fate of everyone in the play, is profoundly touching, beautiful and truly revelatory.

As Edith Frank, Anne's mother, Joni Weisfeld brings just the right amount of emotional strength, sensitivity, passion and honesty to the part. Whether interacting with the onstage characters, changing her clothes or quietly standing there in silence, observing, reacting or thinking, she is always in complete control.

Allen Lewis Rickman and Lisa Bostnar bring the necessary drama, passion and verve to their respective roles of  Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan. They have great stage presence and stamina. They are perfectly in sync with the material, the drama, its edgy qualities and their role in the progression of the story. Like others in the play, they also believably communicate the dangers of hiding in complete confinement and fears of facing a very uncertain future.
Elsewhere, the dramatic conflict that ensues when Mr. Van Daan demands that his wife surrender the beloved fur coat that her father gave her because they are hard pressed for cash is alarmingly potent and real. It's a moment that lingers....and one, you're not likely to forget.

As Margot Frank, Ruthy Froch is an amazing, versatile young actress who brings a profound resonance to the part of Anne's sister. It's a very spirited, focused portrayal that is very real, truthful and raw. Even when she's just sitting there listening or reacting, we always know what she's thinking and feeling.
There is a real sense of urgency and compassion to Elizabeth Simmons pivotal portrayal of Miep Gies, one of the friends from downstairs responsible for the hiding and caring  of the "Anne Frank" characters during their two years of confinement in the annex. The actress brings so much more to the role than what's written on paper.

Taut, poignant, honest and observant, "The Diary of Anne Frank" is very real in its depiction of the outside dangers on the streets below the secret hiding place to the obvious threat of capture and separation from the annex sanctuary.
The ending, of course, is obvious. Nonetheless, we watch, we listen, we cry and we hope.

"The Diary of Anne Frank" is being staged at Playhouse on Park (244 Park Rd., West Hartford, CT), now through Nov. 19.
For tickets are more information, call (860) 523-5900.

Friday, November 3, 2017

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 39, A Review: "Seder" (Hartford Stage)

By James V. Ruocco

Is there a better moment or scene in theater?
A past of jangles and fragments, embodied  by secrets, lies and atrocities.
A fueled and fiery confrontation between a misunderstood mother and her estranged daughter.
A shock or two guaranteed to set heads spinning.
A family seder where chairs are knocked over, flowers are thrown across the room and glass frames with precious family photos are broken one by one and smashed into tiny little pieces all over the floor.
Elizabeth Williamson's staging of these and other moments in Sarah Gancher's explosive new play "Seder" is enough to blow the roof off  Hartford Stage, push the audience to the edge of their seat in a delirious frenzy, rally a standing ovation of the highest order and produce some very intelligent conversation long after the play has ended.

This is the world of "Seder," an unbelievable piece of American theater that shatters the closeted world of one family, vividly exposes its darkened past and present with startling fluidity and drama and gets under your skin in ways that leave you shaken and stirred.
Then, again, that's the point of this complex, marvelously constructed drama. It's designed to make you think, not only about the on-stage characters who bare their souls entirely, but make you examine your own life, your own family, your own past and present and lastly, a future where you may or may not live happily ever after.

The play, set in 20th century Hungary, begins with a woman, Erzsike, by name, entering the House of Terror, a Budapest museum, exhibiting various war atrocities and horrors. Moving through the exhibition, she immediately notices a photograph of herself on the Wall of Murderers. It seems that
Erzsike herself had worked in this very same building (she was a secretary), when she was younger and when it housed the Hungarian KGB.

 Much later, she discovers that the photo's placement was not accidental. It was deliberately included in the exhibit by her daughter Judit, who, ironically, is being reunited with her mother later that night (they have not spoken in years) at the family seder.

Staging "Seder," director Elizabeth Williamson brings a smart sense of truth, vitality, anguish, and realism to the proceedings. Never once does she make a false move or cloud the stage with any sort of odd calculation or movement. This is a sharp, well-envisioned drama, that wisely unfolds without any intermission. To actually cause a break or rift in the staging by having the audience retreat to the lobby for a 15-minute stretch or alcoholic refreshment would actually dampen or defeat the play's dramatic build-up and progression.

With Williamson at the helm, the play swims deftly between present and past, with each scene and remembrance enclosed in its own special reality and drama. Every scene, every moment, every character tick or line of dialogue is important to the "Seder" story. There are also some very clever bits of staging and technical tricks that separate the past from the present via some intricately designed sound and lighting effects.

As devised by the playwright, "Seder" derives great strength from its choice, verbal confrontations, which, are loud, harsh, spiteful and in-your-face. Think "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" "God of Carnage," "The House of Bernarda Alba," to name a few. Here, the effect is the same. Bold, brazen, raw and real as Williamson and Gancher unite as one to make "Seder" vividly come to life at Hartford Stage. There also some very clever, healthy bits of humor interspersed between the play's heavier, dramatic moments.

Regardless, the absolute satisfaction of "Seder" actually comes from the cast behaving so terribly in three-dimensional roles that allow them to rip the shreds out of one another, tear up the scenery, scream and shout profanities, stomp madly about the environs of their stage space and have the absolute time of their lives. Thanks to both Williamson and Gancher, we feel their pain, every step of the way, even when some very, very ugly truths are exposed and the utter jolt and surprise of it all sends shock waves through the theater. 

Mia Dillon is an exceptional, dedicated and clever actress who takes hold of a character, develops it, plays it and completely owns it. Here, in "Seder," she plays the older, misunderstood Erzsike who is often at odds with her family and in flashbacks, the much younger woman forced to endure the sexual advances and abuse of her boss Atilla, superbly played Jeremy Webb. It is a brilliant, illuminating performance.

Birgit Huppuch's portrayal of the angry, spiteful and vengeful Judit is astonishing. Her rage, her voice, her body language, her facial expressions are so unflinchingly honest and real, you sit there completely amazed by it all. Her interaction with Dillon is absolutely perfect. The actual experience of seeing both actresses quarrel at such lengths literally will blow your mind.

Julia Sirna-Frest brings just the right amount of belief to the slightly insecure younger daughter Margit. Dustin Ingram completely connects to the part of Erzsike's foul-mouthed, quirky son Laci. Steven Rattazi's David is the real deal. He gets some very funny lines while trying to conduct and get through the evening's celebratory seder. And his delivery of the actual Hebrew verbage would make every rabbi proud.

"Seder" is a riveting, satisfying drama with an intellectual, instinctive veneer. Yes, it's characters crash and burn. Yes, there's a lot of yelling and screaming. But there's nothing like conflict to rivet a crowd. And "Seder" travels this path every so convincingly.

"Seder" is being presented at Hartford Stage (50 Church St., Hartford, CT), now through Nov. 12.
For tickets and more information, call (860) 527-5151.