Friday, March 30, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 66, A Review: "The Fantasticks" (Ivoryton Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco

The unabashed charm of the 1960 off-Broadway musical "The Fantasticks" is happily replicated in Ivoryton Playhouse's fanciful revival, which, way back when, was originally created by lyricist/librettist Tom Jones and composer Harvey Schmidt using featherweight storytelling, minimalist stagecraft, low-budget set pieces and costuming, pop hits and ballads, illusions and metaphors and lastly, a very happy ending.


This production is not only pure gold, but it is one of the very few to get it right. That is, ever so right with the dash, the panache and the polish of a recreation that never once hits a false note or makes a wrong move. If you're never seen "The Fantasticks" or want to see it again, then, this is the one you should see. It is absolutely dazzling.

An obvious lover of musical theatre, director/choreographer Brian Feehan is the perfect fit for this 2018 incarnation of "The Fantasticks." He not only crafts an utterly delightful and enveloping musical that honors and respects the origins of the material, but also its allegorical inventiveness, its hypnotic allure, its sexual excitement, its story-dictated fabrications and the surprise concept of turning something very innocent into something passionate, illicit and dangerous, if only fleetingly.

Most often, the musical itself is played against a bleak, black background of sparse set pieces and props with little or next to no color at all. Not so at Ivoryton. Here, Feehan opts for grand, MGM Technicolor with a clever dash of Federico Fellini ("Juliet of the Spirits," "Fellini's Roma" and "8 1/2" spring to mind), offset by colorful circus/carnival imagery, bacchanal undercurrents and nicely balanced cheekiness.

Elsewhere, he transforms the Mute into a leading player (in other productions, the character is mainly a prop piece or afterthought that has no little or no connection to the story). Matt, in turn, is no longer a one-dimensional Ken doll. Here, the character is a bespectacled nerd with plenty of drive and chutzpuh. And the characters of Hucklebee and Bellomy, the dueling parents, originally played by men, are now portrayed by women. It's a concept that is so ingenious and refreshing, you can't help but applaud Feehan for this unique, slight reshaping of the musical. Mind you, it's still the same show and the same characters. It's just a bit more wiser, more colorful and more enlightening.

With musicals, pacing is everything. If a show stops short, looks rehearsed or simply calculated, it's not going to work its essential magic. With Feehan as auteur, everything has a purpose. Exits, entrances, lighting cues, musical cues, line delivery, character development, song execution, choreography, the segue into intermission, the final curtain call....all impeccably shaped, framed and executed. Well done, Mr. Feehan.

A whimsical, allegorical fable about a boy, a girl, their parents, a feud, an abduction and a dashing cavalier, among others, needs a musical score that is nostalgic, tuneful, universal and character driven. Creators Tom Jones (lyrics) and Harvey Schmidt (music) have done just that with "The Fantasticks." Their collaboration is a musical treat for both actor and audience not only because every song is a gem in itself, but because the songs themselves are ideally matched to the characters who sing them, who bring them to life and use every one of them to entice and cajole the audience while the musical excitedly inches forward to its justified, bittersweet ending.

The most famous one, of course, is the beautiful ballad  "Try to Remember," which first saw life back in 1960 when the musical debuted off-Broadway at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, and has been thrilling audiences ever since. But that's not all. "The Fantasticks" comes merrily gift wrapped with other melodic treats such as "Much More," "Soon It's Gonna Rain," "I Can See It," "They Were You" and a well-rounded pistache of inspired comic numbers including "Never Say No" "This Plum is Too Ripe" and "Plant a Radish." It all comes together effortlessly. And yes, you can't help but hum along silently along with other smiling theatergoers who have seen the show time and time again. Or give the original 1960 album or CD a spin or two (if you own it) on any given Sunday afternoon.

At Ivoryton, the Tom Jones/Harvey Schmidt musical score is lovingly brought to life by musical director Jill Brunelle (at the piano) and Sena Hornby (at the harp). There's a quaint romanticism and timeless relevance that each musician brings to the proceedings, matched by flawless accompaniment of a traditional musical score that heightens and enriches the paradoxical plot, its cheeky flights of whimsy and the score's rapidly changing rhythms, beats, pulses and varying composer/lyricist orchestral stylizations.

No one misses a cue. Everything is precise with just the right amount of natural theatricality. All songs are played exactly as written, but never once sound dated or contrived. Brunelle has chosen an exceptional team of actors/singers, all of whom respect, understand and perform the material with a freshness and excitement that is absolutely contagious. There is also a beguiling beauty that Brunelle, Horby and the entire "Fantasticks" cast bring to the production which heightens the story's essential charm and relished enthusiasm.

As Matt, Ryan Bloomquist deftly articulates both the excitement and anguish of a 20-year-old young man on the verge of first love and adventure, but longing for so much more, and not always knowing which way to turn. Adapting the ways of a nerd (as dictated by Feehan), the actor makes all the right moves and has great fun with this slightly different take on pretty boy Matt. His line delivery, his expressions and movements are appropriately geeky, but never once over the top. He's very grounded in his actual execution of the character always fun to watch, particularly when he loses his way, falls face down into depravity, then bounces back again.

Musically, "The Fantasticks" is pitch-perfect for Bloomquist. There is real affection and enthusiasm in his voice when he sings "Metaphor," "Soon It's Gonna Rain," "They Were You" and "I Can See It." It's an area of theatrical musicality where the singer clearly thrives, offset by an unaffected charm and dash, that is very, very genuine.

Kimberly Immanuel, in the role of 16-year-old Luisa, a young girl in love with Matt and the very idea of love itself, is completely immersed in the naivete and budding sexuality of her character, her passion, her femininity and her rose-colored take on the world itself. Given the character's typical ingenue trappings, this is not an easy role to play. But Immanuel is such an incredible talent, watching her project Luisa's lovely romantic demeanor, her giggly outbursts, her maniacal laughter, her obsession with love itself and her desire to be taken seriously, is convincing and electrifying throughout.
Vocally, she is the quintessential Luisa. When singing "Much More," "Metaphor," "Soon It's Gonna Rain," "Round and Round" and "They Were You," her voice is full of confidence, wide-eyed wonderment and optimism. It's all very glorious, intimate and very, very beautiful.

The tremendously gifted Carly Callahan, last seen as the wicked, egomaniacal diva Carlotta in Downtown Cabaret Theatre's thrilling production of "Phantom," delivers yet another exciting, smartly executed performance. Here, she plays Bellomy, the mother of Luisa, who with the help of Matt's mother Hucklebee, tricks the boy and girl into falling in love by pretending there's a feud between the neighboring families.
It's a role the actress crafts with apt emotion, urgency, light comic relief and marvelous melodiousness. She also keeps the character firmly rooted in the period from whence it came without any form of modernism. And when asked to sing alongside her "Fantasticks" co-stars in such infectious comic ditties such as "It Depends On What You Pay," "This Plum is Too Ripe" and "Plant a Radish," Callahan's grasp of the material is genuine, melodic and flavorful. It is practiced and ferocious. Her vocal diction is impeccable. And she can create an impression of great power in the most natural of ways.

The part of El Gallo, the narrator of the piece, is a role that David Pittsinger, was born to play. And play it, he does. So brilliantly, in fact, one eagerly awaits his every entrance throughout the two-act musical. Charismatic, sexy, devilish and mysterious, the actor owns the part from the moment he appears on stage. He's grand. He's smart. He's inviting. And as written by Jones, he's the actual liaison between the audience and the story that commands your attention, a trait the actor carries off swimmingly.
Vocally, his "Try to Remember" is a showstopper (and well, it should be) as is his hypnotic song style, his allure, his crisp baritone voice and his command of a lyric. The other songs he sings including "Round and Round," "I Can See It" and "Happy Ending" are so beautifully and engagingly rendered, it's easy to see why Feehan and Brunelle awarded him the role. He's bloody brilliant.

He may play the role of The Mute in "The Fantasticks," but there is nothing uncommunicative about Cory Candelet's  knockout performance. He doesn't say a single world throughout the production, but that doesn't stop the charismatic actor from taking a completely underwritten, nondescript part and turning it into a major leading role. Recognizing his talents, Feehan places Candelet's Mute into the main frame of the entire story and keeps him there. Like a young Charlie Chaplin, he acts the role of scene changer, props man, clown, silent observer, musical hall dancer, handyman and actual wall between feuding parents like he was plucked out of Hollywood's silent movies and transported via Dr. Who's Tardis to this invigorating production of "The Fantasticks."

His body language, his facial expressions, his split-second 360-degree character turns are simply amazing to watch and behold. Elsewhere, he reminds one of a young Donald O'Connor when dancing British musical hall style with Hucklebee and Bellomy in the middle of Act II. And finally, some of his raw, naturally timed reactions and observations suggest Fellini's "La Strada."

In the role of Henry Albertson, a crusty old actor with memory lapses, but a flair for the spotlight and all things dramatic, R. Bruce Connelly has a wonderful, wonderful sense of comic timing that is put to great use in this production. He knows how to get laugh without ever going for the punchline. His comic expressions and Fellini-like clownishness are impeccably rendered as his interaction with sidekick Mortimer, played with marvelous comic aplomb by the equally talented Will Clark. The latter's trademark skill, is dying on stage, a feat Clark plays to giddy perfection, much to the delight of everyone on stage and it the audience.

As Hucklebee, Matt's mother, Patricia Schuman opts for a more glamorous approach, but wisely retains the wise, spirited characterization created by Jones in the original 1960's production. She is funny. She is charming. She is motherly. She gets laughs in all the right places. She and Callahan also work wonderfully together as feuding parents, as performers and as singers ("It Depends On What You Pay," "Plant a Radish")

"The Fantasticks" is a breathtaking, light-hearted classic musical that charms, beguiles and enchants. The Tom Jones/Harvey Schmidt musical score is just as potent as it was when the musical first saw life at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village. Feehan's  pungent direction marvelously reflects the origins of the show's creators. All the performances are first rate. And the musical team of Brunelle and Sena offer a delightful songfest of classic show music that lingers and lingers long after the musical has ended.....and then some.

"The Fantasticks" is being staged at Ivoryton Playhouse (103 Main St., Ivoryton, CT), now through April 8.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 787-7318


Friday, March 23, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 65, A Review: "Jesus Christ Superstar" (Downtown Cabaret Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

Jeff Fenholt as Jesus.
Ben Vereen as Judas.
Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene.
Barry Dennen as Pontius Pilate.
Paul Ainsley as King Herod.

No miracles were performed on the night of October 12, 1971 at Broadway's Mark Hellinger Theatre. But for those who were there for the opening night performance of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical "Jesus Christ Superstar, it was a night of lavish surprises, souped-up staging, theatrical decadence, roaring energy, splashy performances, floating scenery and a spectacular, hypnotic rock opera score that was absolutely ground-breaking for the times...and then some.

Staged by Tom O'Horgan, the celebrated director of the original Broadway productions of "Hair" and "Lenny," this "Jesus Christ Superstar" was part roller coaster ride, part acid trip, part Biblical story, part Federico Fellini, part Greenwich Village, part hippie movement, part sci-fi and part none-of-this madness makes any sense.

Who knows? Maybe, that was the point.
Regardless, the musical itself numbed your senses.
It left you breathless. It left you hungry.
And finally, it left you with a memory that you would never ever forget.

47 years later, the musical story of "Jesus Christ Superstar" still surprises, excites and resonates with that same unbridled passion and energy its creators intended. But this time around, there is no floating scenery, sci-fi imagery or exploding pyrotechnics. At Downtown Cabaret Theatre in Bridgeport, this "JCS" is raw, real, honest, emotional and grounded. It is beautifully acted and sung by an amazing cast of principals, supporting actors and chorus members. Lance Gray's deft direction and smart choreography serves the material well. Exceptional musical direction provided by Eli Newsom no doubt would easily bring Webber and Rice up out of their seats cheering and applauding madly at both musical director and his superior orchestral team.

Originally conceived as a rock opera concept album before its glitzy 1971 Broadway debut, "Jesus Christ Superstar" charts the last days in the life of the Messiah, his arrival into Jerusalem with his disciples, his interpersonal struggles with the menacing Judas, his capture and trial and finally, his crucifixion.

A self-proclaimed fan of "Jesus Christ Superstar" for many years, director/choreographer Lance Gray is the perfect fit for this compelling revival. In his eyes, this is an everyman story about a man named Jesus who is a real person and hardly a superstar. This intentional "grounding" of the musical keeps the story firmly rooted in reality without any pomp, circumstance, glitter or Tom O'Horgan madness. It's a directorial choice that allows the musical to breathe, develop and resonate naturally without any abrupt shifts in tone, style or storytelling. Even the choreography is direct and simple with only a dash or two of splash and color. At times, some of the staging shadows or suggests elements from "Hair" and "Evita"  but it doesn't time travel to those periods. It remains true to the time frame of the actual Biblical story of Christ.

Given the funk, hippie-era rock style of the "Jesus Christ Superstar" musical score, music director Eli  Newsom showcases the musical styling of the show's past (1970-1971) without any sort or modernization, which is exactly right on all levels. This is musical from the 1970's. Its sound, its scoring, its beats, its tones, its pulses are all gob, smack and groovy from a time capsule of days gone by. That said, it's still a cause for celebration. And that's exactly what you get.

As written by Webber and Rice, there's a contagious, hip, melodic and stirring beauty to the entire piece that Newsom and his orchestral team (Josh Sette, Gabe Nappi, Mark Dennis, McNeil Johnson, Charles Casimiro and Christoper Cavaliere) recreate effortlessly. Since the entire production is sung without a single line of spoken dialogue, the music never stops. One great song follows another including "Heaven on Their Minds," "Everything's Alright," "Hosanna," "I Don't Know How to Love Him," "Damned for All Time," "Gethsemane," "Could We Start Again Please?" and "Superstar," among others.

The excellence of Newsom as musical director is apparent as soon as the production begins and the cast starts singing. No one hits a false note. Everyone understands their musical role in the story and the essence of the Webber and Rice music and lyrics put before them. The score is played exactly as intended with careful attention paid to its varying tempos, rhythms, potency, intensity and spiritualism.

In the role of Jesus, the enigmatic Chris Kozlowski offers a genuine, honest and passionate performance that respects and honors the actual Christ-like figure he portrays. He's as charismatic as Jeff Fenholt was in the original 1971 Broadway production. He sings magnificently. And as the story builds to its eventual conclusion and things become even more unbelievably real, we actually feel Christ's pain and anguish during the flogging-whipping/crucifixion scenes through Kozlowski's piercing eyes, expressions and body language.

Christian Cardozo is an amazing, forceful Judas. He also possesses a rangy, powerful and pure singing voice that makes all of his vocals sound magnificent. Carolyn Reeves offers a brilliant star turn as the soulful, often misunderstood Mary Magdalene. She too has an exceptional singing voice and brings graceful simplicity to the stirring pop vocals "I Don't Know How to Love Him" and "Everything's Alright."  Nick Kuell is a commanding, watchful Caiaphas.

"Jesus Christ Superstar" is an intelligent, energetic piece of musical theater. It is wonderfully staged and beautifully acted. It is also an intriguing journey down memory lane for both actor and audience to experience as one. And finally, it reconfirms Downtown Cabaret Theatre's long-term commitment to exceptional musical theater entertainment including last year's phenomenal "Spring Awakening," "In the Heights," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "Phantom." Plus fine dramatic works as the recent "A Raisin in the Sun."

"Jesus Christ Superstar" is being staged at the Downtown Cabaret Theatre (263 Golden Hill St, Bridgeport, CT), now through April 8.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 576-1636