Wednesday, May 30, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 74, A Review: "A Lesson From Aloes" (Hartford Stage)

By James V. Ruocco

In "A Lesson From Aloes," Athol Fugard's reflective, brilliant drama about racial oppression, survival, individual equality, guilt, hidden desires, secrets and the threat of political upheaval, the playwright crafts a life-changing character portrait of three people trapped in an obvious purgatory of uncertainty fighting for existence in a world they may or may not completely understand or escape.


Those words best describe Hartford Stage's splendid revival of Fugard's 1980 Broadway drama, which prior to its New York debut, celebrated its American premiere at New Haven's Yale Repertory Theatre.

The two-act drama, set in 1963 South Africa in the midst of the apartheid, is set at the home of Piet and Gladys Bezuidenout, a married white couple, anxiously awaiting the arrival of their dinner guests, Steve Daniels, his wife and their children. Questions of loyalty, trust, safety, independence, political unrest and freedom of expression come into view. As does, the harsh realities of exposed truths, conflicts and intrusions. 

The thrill of watching Fugard's play at Hartford Stage comes from  Darko Tresnjak's stunning directorial interpretation. Its articulation, its shifting perspectives, its microscopic exploration and dissection of three very different people and its thought-provoking verbage are addressed with keen precision by the director. It's a directional process that not only respects and honors Fugard's penetrating character portrait, but one that keeps the story, the subplots and the characters tremendously vivid and alive.

With the groundwork intricately laid by the playwright, Tresnjak masterfully crafts a production that addresses the personal and the political, the confusion and disorder of three lives on a collision course where there are no immediate answers, the lure of escape to an outside world of uncertainty and the safety of guarded home life shielded from the chaos of a country in turmoil. All of this and more allows "A Lesson From Aloes" to seduce, entice and provoke as its splendidly unravels. And finally, gets under your skin, allowing you to draw your own conclusions as the stage lights fade to black and the play deftly concludes.

"A Lesson from Aloes" also signals the near-end of Tresnjak's reign at Hartford Stage. Before leaving his position of artistic director at the end of the 2018-2019 season, he will direct "The Engagement Party" (Jan. 10-Feb. 3, 2019) and "The Flamingo Kid" (May 9-June 2, 2019). In the meantime, this play shows Tresnjak at his artistic best with a voice that is fluid, well heard and understood. And in the intimate space that is Hartford Stage, one that is uniquely profound and realized.

In the Broadway production of  "A Lesson From Aloes," the small ensemble of three were represented by James Earl Jones, Harris Yulin and Maria Tucci, three dynamic, high-powered actors with incredible chemistry, personality and insight, which, in turn, gave Fugard's apartheid drama its force, drive and complexity. At Hartford Stage, the effect is similar as Ariyon Bakare, Randall Newsome and Andrus Nichols assume the roles once played by this award-winning Broadway threesome.

James Earl Jones is a force to be reckoned with, but Ariyon Bakare stands tall and proud as Steve, Daniels, the sole guest of Piet and Gladys who joins the couple at the start of Act II. It's a very different performance from that of Jones and well it should be. For those who have seen Jones perform on stage, there is no bold, larger-than-life persona than the actor, who once voiced the character of Darth Vader in the "Star Wars" movies.
But Bakare isn't Jones. And that's a good thing. Here, the actor offers a completely different interpretation of the character. It is driven, well-balanced and grounded. It is also personable, complex and somewhat suspenseful, if only because Fugard offers just bits and pieces about the character prior to his introduction to the piece. When Steve finally appears, the actor makes all the right moves, slowly drawing us into his story using the excitement, energy and dilemma the part calls for.

Randall Newsome's Piet is wonderfully sincere, refreshing and genuine. The character's fascination with the aloe plant is both brilliant and articulate as the actor revels in the joys of cultivating and exploring the plant species and punctuating its names and varieties like a trained scholar. Like Steve, he too carries a past that is guarded and filled with secrets, which, the actor addresses and performs with commanding naturalness. He is every inch as good as Yulin was in the role.

Andrus Nichols, as Gladys, not only delivers the performance of the season but she is as outstanding as Maria Tucci was in the original Broadway production. Her portrayal of Gladys is played with infinite reservoirs of pathos, sensitivity, vulnerability, confusion and ovation worthy mental unraveling and detachment. What's exciting about the actress is watching how her character wrestles with a traumatic past that is both anguished and frightening and how her comforted world is threatened by the thought of someone curiously flipping through the pages of her private, guarded diary or how she may be forced to cope with life outside the trusty confines of her somewhat gated home.

It's a sympathetic, arresting performance that comes from within. It is also a characterization that, as envisioned by Fugard, was primarily designed to shake things up which the actress addresses "full on" with the clever, well-crafted greatness of someone trained at the Old Vic in London.

With "A Lesson From Aloes," Hartford Stage continues its winning streak of exceptional theater, which, in the last eight months has included "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "Seder," and "The Age of Innocence," among others. In this go-round, the theater offers a blistering character portrait of three articulate people whose pain, anguish and argument provide a high-stakes drama of wounding intensity and bracing intelligence.

"A Lesson From Aloes" is being presented at Hartford Stage (50 Church St, Hartford, CT), now through June 10.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-5151.

Friday, May 11, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 73, A Cabaret Review: "A Look Back" staring Connor Deane & Julian Decker. (Fairfield Theatre Company/Studio One)

By James V. Ruocco

The term musical theater performer with an instinctive ability to sell a song speaks volumes when applied to "A Look Back," a dynamic, innovative showcase of song, spotlighting the talents of twentysomethings Connor Deane and Julian Decker.

In their first cabaret concert at Fairfield Theatre Company's intimate Studio One, their onstage charisma and performance versatility is unrivaled. Sharing stories and anecdotes from their personal lives and careers, they are both humorous, heart-warming and high spirited. In song, their musical segments, together or individually, pulsate with incredible artistry and classic musical raconteur.

Up close, Connor Deane is a natural entertainer with a buoyant charm and appeal, who, vocally, connects to a song, or in this case a show tune and makes it his very own in a deep, pleasing affectionate way. He's a master craftsman. His approach to song is full of punch and savory attitude. He slides comfortably from solo to duet to ensemble number without missing a beat. And he has great fun riding on the blasts of favorite songs that colorfully shape out his life as a performer.

Julian Decker, in turn, is a charismatic artist and performer with remarkable talent, personality and ripe vocal utilization, offset by unbounded enthusiasm, emotional sweep and contagious, oozy charm.
He knows how to sing and he does it ever so naturally, showing us how powerful the human voice is. To his credit, he also makes every word of his song of choice sound like it emanates from a deep place within, which, in a show of this nature, is exactly what you want. His infectious charm and energy lights up whatever he sings.

Deane and Decker jump start "A Look Back" with "Songs From a New World" and "Out There" from "The Hunchback of Notre Dame,"  two stirring songs which they perform quite movingly using splendid orchestrated tones and rhythms and a heightened sensitivity to offset the meaning of each word. It's a powerful opening indeed, positioning the duo front and center for a night of indelible song that illuminates their brilliant, distinctive Broadway-tinged vocalizations.

 With "Those Magic Changes" from the Broadway production of "Grease," Deane cuts loose with high-voltage, free abandon and palpably clear phrasing that's as dynamic as Sam Harris who sang the song in the 1994 Broadway revival. "Back to Before" from "Ragtime" proves to be the ideal match for Decker who brings instinct, drama, understanding and guile fuse to this haunting show tune.

"Brothers from Other Mothers," a tart, acerbic original song by Jim Walton takes a cleverly-orchestrated and satiric look at the duo's long-term friendship while poking fun at their brotherly roommate living situation with laughs and jibes coming in all directions much to the delight of Deane and Decker and everyone in the audience. Who knows? There might even be a "Part II" to this hilarious roomie paean somewhere out there.

"On the Street Where You Live" from "My Fair Lady" and "Tonight at Eight" from "She Loves Me" are brilliantly performed by Decker with each song showing yet another side and persona to his dynamic, emotionally pleasing vocal range. Deane, in turn, elicits the same praiseworthy response with "Who I'd Be" from "Shrek" and "If I Can't Love Her" from "Beauty and the Beast." The duo reunite for "Cry For Me" and "Oh, What a Night" from "Jersey Boys" which they deliver engagingly and naturally. Here, and elsewhere, one is taken back by their enormous, individual performance skills. They can sing just about anything without any sort of repetition. Their vocal sound and range is unique and real. And they each possess the personality and charisma of actors and singers destined for a long career in concert and cabaret, or in a major leading role on Broadway and London's West End.

The duo's choice to salute "Les Miserables" through eight to ten minutes of song, is nothing short of epic. Backed by select, vocally-perfect students from the Broadway Method Academy, Deane and Decker  stand proud and tall to deliver impassioned vocals with beautiful melodies and unbridled emotions, rife with collective fury, angst, pain, sentiment and heroic sweep. The songs themselves, which include "Look Down," "I Dreamed a Dream," "Stars," "Who Am I?" "On My Own" and "One Day More" are delivered at glorious high decimals. And, they are just as powerful as those presented by members of the original Broadway and West End productions of "Les Miserables."

Later, the entire group lines up for one more song, this time from Jonathan Larson's "Rent." Their choice of song, "Seasons of Love" suits their relevant, touching sound with an energetic, pulsating embrace. Again, Deane and Decker vocally reflect the urgency of the moment with an eager, energetic cast of young faces, fulfilling the challenge of this iconic song the way its original musical creator intended. The closing encore, Frank Sinatra's "My Way" furthers that notion.

Musical direction for "A Look Back" has fallen into the more than capable hands of J. Scott Handley who has music directed such shows as "Evita," "Grease," "Hairspray," "Spring Awakening," "Urinetown," "Carousel," "Into the Woods" and "Ragtime," among others. Here, he is magic at the piano, guiding Deane and Decker on their musical journey, past and present, with a polished, carefully balanced nightclub/cabaret style that matches and compliments the poise, style, grace and showmanship of his two charming, charismatic leading men.

Handley, who recently served as musical director for Broadway Method Academy's thrilling "Evita," which, incidentally was directed by Deane, plays each of the show's musical numbers with note perfect precision, style and indisputable musicality. What's remarkable here is his fresh perspective toward the carefully chosen Deane/Decker material, which includes popular show tunes from "Rent," "Les Miserables," "Grease," "Jersey Boys" and "My Fair Lady."

Yes, we know the music, the lyrics, the beats, the pauses, the interplays, the segues and the rhythms. And yes, we know that "A Look Back"  has been rehearsed by Handley and his two performers prior to opening night. But what's remarkable here is the way its all been carried out. It's all very natural, fresh and inspiring. Nothing is taken for granted. Nothing seems out of place or out of sync. If anything, Handley's impeccable musical showmanship keeps "A Look Back" remarkably fresh and focused. That said, it's difficult not to get caught up in Deane and Decker's energy as they sing with touching honesty for their instinctive, demanding, breezy showcase.

"A Look Back" is a wonderful musical celebration of songs, styles, moods and remembrances. Deane and Decker's unquenchable charm, good spirit and excitement, offset by pungent, well-chosen musical numbers are not only completely entertaining, but prove that this duo were born to be onstage together or individually, doing what they love best. In concert, in cabaret, in a musical or in a play, they are a forced to be reckoned with. An encore or two is greatly suggested.

"A Look Back" starring Connor Deane and Julian Decker was staged May 8th at Fairfield Theatre Company (Studio One, 70 Sanford St., Fairfield, CT).

Thursday, May 10, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 72, A Review: "The Will Rogers Follies" (The Goodspeed)

By James V. Ruocco

At New York's Palace Theatre where "The Will Rogers Follies" made its Broadway debut back in 1991, the life and times of this storied entertainer, received the first-class treatment amid glitter, spectacle, razzle-dazzle and fitting theatricality.

Its conceit, the brainchild of Tommy Tune (director/choreographer), Cy Coleman (composer), Betty Comden and Adolph Green (lyricists) and Peter Stone (book), recalled the bygone era of Florenz Ziegfeld and celebratory vaudeville with a deluxe cast, headed by Keith Carradine, Dee Hoty, Cady Huffman and Dick Latessa. Theatergoers were also privy to the recorded voice of Gregory Peck as Mr. Ziegfeld.

It soared. It flied. It danced. It sung. It dazzled. It cajoled. It was good-time, old-fashioned Broadway musical theater of the very best kind. It happily pushed its adoring audience into candy floss delirium.

Transported to the Goodspeed in East Haddam 27 years later, using the same fantasy-like concept as the original Broadway musical, the effect is similar, but on a much-smaller scale.

Nonetheless, this flavorsome, brand new incarnation works its magic most advantageously using every color of the rainbow, evoking the glitter of a bygone era, its vaudeville, Ziegfeld grandeur, its tart and pungent exposition, its endearing story and star and its quick-witted political and social commentary.

It is fun.
It is inspirational.
It is delightful.
It is exciting.
It is emotional.
It is sentimental.

All of this...and more... is remarkably achieved by the show's exceptional creative team, while still delivering the emblematic story of Will Rogers from his birth to his untimely death at the age of 55. You're hooked and happily intrigued from start to finish. And yes, you'll probably want to see it again like so many others around you.

Staging "The Will Rogers Follies," director Don Stephenson brings this Tony Award-winning musical to life, without missing a single beat. Reimagining and reconfiguring the production to fit the intimate, historic Goodspeed theater and stage, the director loses none of the exuberance, sparkle and passion of the original Broadway production. If anything the Victorian ambiance of the theater and its pleasurable intimacy heightens the show's aura, its storytelling and its flavorful nostalgia.

Pacing, of course, is everything and Stephenson navigates his actors across the stage, from scene to scene and to each other, effortlessly and gracefully with absolutely no missteps. Under his directorial tutelage, no one has a problem with the material, their characters and their progression in the advancement of the story. Together, or individually, they exude the right combination of humor, sentiment and drive. They also make the corniest of jokes and overly played comic situations and shtick plausible, even though they know and we know, the writers are doing this deliberately. And therein, lies the fun.

As musical director and accompanist, Michael O'Flaherty does an incredible job bringing the Coleman, Comden and Green score to life. Backed by the Goodspeed orchestral team, he produces a rich, melodic and vibrant sound that reaches every single member of the audience and blends perfectly with the singing, the duets and the emotionally charged ensemble numbers.

The original musical score, which won a Tony Award for its creators in 1991, is hummable, pleasing and melodic fun. All of the musical numbers fit tightly and passionately into the framework of the story, including "Will-a-Mania," "The Big Time," "The Wedding," "Never Met a Man I Didn't Like," "My Unknown Someone" and "No Man Left For Me." O' Flaherty augments their intended meaning, from clever, snappy and Ziegfeld-inspired to sardonic, witty, sexy and buoyant, perfectly.

Choreographer Kelli Barclay does exceptional work with the dances in "The Will Rogers Follies," which, on Broadway and on tour, were created by dance icon Tommy Tune. Taking her cue from the acclaimed choreographer, she pays homage to Tune, but makes the musical's fancy footwork all her own. All of the dances in the Goodspeed production are precise, physical, fluid and magical with tap dancing, lifts, kicks and turns, etc, done impeccably.

Barclay also exhibits a wonderful knowledge of musical hall staging, vaudeville staging and Ziegfeld Follies staging throughout the two-act musical. All three are as decidedly different as the choices she makes from formations and couplings, to line ups, left and right movements and synchronization. Her flair and force is unbeatable. The end result, of course, is ovation worthy and uniformly superb. The perfectly-honed "Will Rogers Follies" ensemble, willingly oblige.

The secret to the show's success lies in the charismatic charm, fluidity and magnetism of the actor cast in the lead role of Will Rogers. At the  Goodspeed, David M. Lutken is more than up to the challenge. Stepping in the role made famous by Keith Carradine, Larry Gaitlin and Mac Davis, among others, Lutken is a genuine showman, entertainer and conversationalist.

Looking uncannily like a young Ray Bolger, he is bashful, playful, inspiring and wonderfully comical. He delivers the musical's satiric monologues about life, politics, Presidents, world affairs and all things local, with appropriate dash and agility. As a song-and-dance man, he readily adapts to the show's "Follies" format, his famous rope tricks, his ongoing celebrity status with audiences and the musical's juxtaposition in time concept, the latter, revealed through dates and dialogue, ranging from 2018 and traveling back in time to 1879, the year Will Rogers was born.

What stands out and elevates his performance to absolute brilliance is the spontaneity of it all. Yes, things are rehearsed, practiced and timed. But Lutken is such a natural, much like the character he portrays, there are times when you completely forget you're sitting in a theater watching a musical, performed in real time. Well done, Mr. Lutken.

In the role of Ziegfeld's Favorite, the show's glamorous, leggy and sultry emcee, Brooke Lacy makes you completely forget about the likes of Cady Huffman and Marla Maples who played the same part in the original Broadway production. Whereas her predecessors had "fun" just playing the role, Lacy, in turn, inhabits it, owns it and runs with it. Big difference!

Her engaging spirit and infectious personality keep what could have become a "second banana" role or something just one-dimensional in context, completely inspired, focused  and thrilling. Elsewhere, her singing and dancing is unbeatable and true to both the Ziegfeld, vaudeville and musical hall traditions of yesteryear. We eagerly await her every entrance.

As Betty Blake, the wife of Will Rogers who loves her husband dearly, but wishes he would spend more time at home and less performing for sold-out audiences around the world, Catherine Walker is appealing, refreshing and vulnerable, which is exactly what the part calls for. Better yet, she and Lutken are well-matched, both as a couple and as performers. And vocally, she has the leading-lady ability to communicate and live within the world of song, naturally, powerfully and lovingly.

Musical theater is all about entertainment, dash, wit and musicality. At the Goodspeed, "The Will Rogers Follies" succeeds swimmingly. It is fresh, exciting and exhilarating. The feel-good energy displayed by the entire cast is absolutely contagious. The songs and dances unfold with just the right mix of dazzle, affection and verve. The comic plot, which purposely takes liberties with time, place, aging, happy endings and Ziegfeld showstoppers, revels in its unabashed silliness. And the jokes and jibes about newspaper headlines, both past and present, mixed with brilliantly-timed barbs about President Donald Trump is hilariously toxic, regardless of one's political beliefs.

In conclusion, the show, the first of three productions ("Oliver!" and "The Drowsy Chaperone" are waiting in the wings) to be staged at the Goodspeed this season, is the perfect show to jump start the 2018 musical series. It is fresh and strong enough to keep you thoroughly entertained from start to finish. And yes, it is absolutely not to be missed.

"The Will Rogers Follies" is being staged at The Goodspeed (6 Main St., East Haddam, CT), now through June 21.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 873-8668.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 71, A Review: "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" (Downtown Cabaret Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

The 1994 Australian film "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," presented audiences with a witty, real, passionate story of a three-queen drag act on a self-driven bus tour through the sun-drenched Aussie landscape, rife with gritty characterizations, icy wisecracks, old-fashioned sweetness, real pathos and tenderness. The motion picture also benefited from the edgy, entertaining performances of its choice, remarkable threesome: Terrence Stamp as Bernadette, Guy Pearce as Adam/Felicia and Hugo Weaving as Tick/Mitzi.

The stage musical "Priscilla, Queen of the Dessert," co-authored by Allan Scott and Stephen Elliott who wrote and directed the acclaimed film, retells the same story, but with bucket loads of outrageous camp and glitter, spectacle and pitch, crazy gags and mayhem, gender-bending costuming, frenzied dancing and a trunk full of pop songs from yesteryear that almost everyone in the audience knows, loves and remembers.

The Downtown Cabaret Theatre production of this acclaimed musical, has been designed and fashioned with enough color, spectacle and dazzle to blow the roof off this celebrated Bridgeport theater. Then again, that's the point of this kitschy, crazy and daring musical where camping it up and acting gay, straight, confused or curious, is perfectly acceptable along with human cupcakes, pink paintbrushes, sparkly high heels, flirty flamboyance and signs that say "Real Entry-Upon Request."

Enjoyable shameless.
Rainbow colored and winning.
Provocative and witty.
Cheerfully gay.
Ballsy and high-spirited.

This "Priscilla" is hard to resist, no matter what your sexual preference is.
It is designed to take your breath away (it does). It is designed to put a smile on your face (it does). It is designed to elevate men in drag to cult status (it does). It is designed to entertain and whip you up into happy delirium (it does).

"Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" may be decked out with sequins, glitter, midnight-mad make-up and eye shadowing and gaudy drag regalia, but director Christy McIntosh-Newsom never once lets that get in the way of her directorial storytelling. Working from Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott's book, she gives the audience a very good time, chock full of sentiment, dash, wit, playfulness and candor. There's lot of energy on stage, which works to the musical's advantage. But when the music stops, she offers moments, characterizations and conversations that are as sincere and real as those indicated in the 1994 motion picture.

There's a lot happening on the Downtown Cabaret Theatre stage in terms of the musical's aggressive dance routines, the pop songs themselves, the show's many scene changes and its non-stop entertaining diversions. Yet nothing seems forced, calculated or out of place. McIntosh-Newsom always knows what buttons to push, how to make an important statement, what to define or refine and what to overplay or downplay. There's plenty of snap, crackle and pop to her directorial prowess. She also brings tremendous insight and understanding to the project, its glorification of drag queen performance as an art form and the script's underlying theme that it's o.k. to be different.

Musically, "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" is jam-packed with a mega line up of disco songs, all of which have been carefully integrated  into the story and distributed among the three drag-queen principals, the diva trio and the "Priscilla" ensemble chorus of singers, dancers and actors. There's a lot of them, but, then again, this is a big, glossy musical, not a replay of the 1994 Aussie film, which was written for the screen and not for the stage.

Musical director Eli Newsom, whose previous Downtown Cabaret Theatre MD credits include the recent "Jesus Christ Superstar" and last year's "Spring Awakening" and "In the Heights," is the man in charge of bringing it all together. Positioned on keyboard 1, backed by Josh Sette (keyboard 2), Charles Casimiro (bass), Mark Dennis (trumpet), Christopher Cavaliere (guitar) and Gabe Nappi (percussion), he amps up the sound with enough charm, frenzy and wonderment to keep "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" moving at breakneck speed much to the delight of the audience and everyone on stage.

What follows is a campy, pulsating sing-along soundtrack of pop hits from yesterday including "It's Raining Men," "I Will Survive," "Hot Stuff," "True Colors," "What's Love Got to Do With It?" "I Say a Little Prayer," "Color My World," "Shake Your Groove Thing," "Thank God I'm a Country Boy," "Venus," "Go West" and "Don't Leave Me This Way," among others. It's the kind of music you definitely would hear on the jukebox of some popular gay bar in New York, San Francisco and Boston or a huge Gay Pride celebration of sorts. Regardless, it all comes together nicely. It is playful. It is fun. It is frothy. It is intentional. And, it is inspired.

The wonderfully talented Emily Frangipane who choreographed many Downtown Cabaret Theatre productions including "Spring Awakening," "In the Heights" and "Phantom," is in her element here. Her choreographic indulgences are drenched in marvelously clever dashes of verve, camp, color, bawdiness, madness, fantasy, gayness and nostalgia. Everything she does works wonderfully within the context of the show and it's glorification of the drag queen persona. The dances themselves also remind one of something once performed at New York's chic supper club "The Blue Angel" a glittering showcase of musical entertainment on W. 44th St., that featured gay, straight and drag performers of the highest order who not only sang and danced nightly, but once the show was over, came to your table for a round of drinks and impromptu, pleasant conversation.

Lance Anthony, in the role of the transsexual Bernadette, looks like Lauren Bacall and Veronica Lake, all rolled up into one. It's a beautiful, detailed performance, both musically and comically, fraught with just the right amount of wit, charm and passion. Tim Rinaldi, as Adam/Felicia, is a force to be reckoned with. He's decidedly over-the-top, when the script calls for him to behave so. And he flounces and flutters in true diva like fashion. As Tick/ Mitzi, Jason Parry executes all the right moves in the musical's sentimental scenes. And he has great fun camping it up alone or with Anthony and Rinaldi in the musical's many production drag numbers.

Other fine performances come from Alexis Willoughby, Jessica Paige Braun and Leondra Smith-West as the Divas, Eric Dino as Bob, Nicholas Kuell as Frank, Alex Rosenberg as Benji, Lisa DeAngelis as Marion, Bobby Henry as Miss Understanding, Everton Ricketts as Jimmy and Bonnie Gregson as Cynthia.

"Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" is a wickedly wild, rainbow-tinged jukebox musical about love, acceptance, glitter, camp, gayness and being true to yourself, now, always and forever. It touches your heart. It awakens your senses. It gets you up on your feet, clapping, dancing and singing. It also thrusts the drag queen herself into the limelight as an artist, a performer, a singer and lastly, a connoisseur of incredible, over-the-top costuming fashion of the highest order. In short, it sets out to do what it's supposed to do in grand Technicolor fashion. And, then some.

"Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" is being staged at Downtown Cabaret Theatre (263 Golden Hill St., Bridgeport, CT), now through May 20.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 576-1636.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 70, A Review: "Love Quest" (Ivoryton Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco
To date or not to date.
To blind date or speed date. Or not to blind date or speed date.
To say, "Yes."
To say, "No."
To say,"Maybe."
That, in part, is the comic premise for "Love Quest," a hilarious two-act comedy that pokes fun at on-line dating, relationships, marriage, divorce, sex, commitment, one-minute speed dating encounters, awkward conversations and today's ever changing times.
That's not all.
"Love Quest" also comes gift wrapped with choice tidbits and verbage about beginner's mistakes, eating alone, drinking alone, sexual insecurity, homosexuality, familial mentors, eye candy, gossip, dating inexperience, love or hate at first sight, kale, Krispy Kremes, pepper spray, vagina waxing, etc.

At the center of "Love Quest" is Kate Crawford (Linda Purl), a 60-year-old divorcee and Brook Davis (Jes Bedwinek), a 35-year-old L.A. fashion designer, both of whom, enter the unpredictable world of on-line dating in the hopes of meeting attractive, eligible men.

Witty, wise and engaging, "Love Quest" hilariously explores the wild and wacky dating adventures that both women encounter as the play delves head first into their different stories and lifestyles. Playwright's Mary Maguire and Steven McGraw recount each women's experiences in colorful, swift detail and with disarming candor, zest and passion. You can't help but be seduced.

Upfront, this is a very funny play. The writing itself comes from the heart. In turn, it is genuine, real and timely. The two-act format is approachable and hands-on without any calculation or predictability. Elsewhere, both playwrights present a unique brand of humor that is inspirational, cheeky, sweet and furiously entertaining.

"Love Quest" is a comedy you will want to see again. Maguire and McGraw's flair for this particular entertainment heightens the play's emotional core, its rapid, ever-changing mischief, its whimsy, its colorful, individual scenes, the character's who've gotten under each other's skins, their emotional growth and their face-to-face encounters and conversations.

The play's unabashed cleverness, in turn, produces non stop laughs. That is, laughs that are genuine. Laughs that are tart and pungent. Laughs that catch you by surprise. Laughs that keep you reeling. And finally, laughs that revel in the wacky mischief that the play's two central, female characters unleash. If copies of "Love Quest" were available for sale in the Ivoryton Playhouse lobby, they would all be gone in a flash. And the back order list of names would be endless.

Director Jacqueline Hubbard, who, recently celebrated 25 years at Ivoryton Playhouse (currently, she is the theater's executive/artistic director)) is the perfect candidate to bring this engaging production to life. Under her directorial tutelage, "Love Quest" is played with immense charm and wit, offset with pockets of real craziness, comic distress and merriment.

She loves comedy. She knows comedy. She knows what works and what doesn't. She knows how to get and sustain a laugh. She knows how to build comic momentum and when to go for the punchline. She knows how an actor thinks, moves, expresses and develops a character. And she knows how to devise and shape a splendid piece of comedy naturally and fluidly.

Here, she is in her element. Comedy is really all about timing and Hubbard gives "Love Quest" the upfront finesse, zest, imagination and quirkiness, it demands. She fuels the play with an advantageous, cinematic style that keeps the action flowing at breakneck speed. There's a real sense of diversity and polish to the play's individual scenes. Jokes and one-liners unfold with style and brio. Everything is acted with warmth, dash and charm. There's also a marvelous playfulness to "Love Quest" that is embraced throughout, rife with lots of surprise and unexpected elements involving all of its vividly created characters.

In the role of the of the recently divorced Kate, the very attractive, stylish and glamorous Linda Purl offers an infectious comic performance that unfolds with wit, imagination, verve and marvelously orchestrated elan. She plays the role of Kate as if it were written with her in mind. Her delivery of the play's many comic zingers is impeccable. She makes us care about what happens to her character as the play evolves and builds to its acceptable conclusion. And finally, her comic expressions and reactions are fully-fledged hilarious. What's not to love!

As Brook, a talented, top-rated, fashion designer who enters the dating world looking for some manly eye candy, Jess Bedwinek  (Ivoryton debut) brings a stylish charm and sexiness to her role, offset by an innate flair for coming timing, line delivery, characterization, character interaction and performance. It's impossible to take your eyes off her. She's simply dazzling. And in this two-act comedy, the actress is in her element.

Susan Slotoroff, last seen as Shelby in Playhouse on Park's endearing "Steel Magnolias," makes her Ivoryton Playhouse debut with "Love Quest." As Kate's daughter Megan, she delivers a performance
full of spunk, spark, silliness and invention. Working opposite Purl, the actress also brings a refreshing honesty to the part, enhanced by an onstage chemistry, beautifully rendered by both actresses and further enhanced under Hubbard's watchful directorial eye. Also making his Ivoryton debut is Joe Candelora, in the role of Hal, a handsome older man who often finds himself at odds with dating , flirtation and the opposite sex. It's a role the actor invests with appropriate vulnerability, surprise and originality.

To portray the part of Everyman, Hubbard has wisely chosen Josh Powell, an actor, who, in "Love Quest," is asked to play a variety of decidedly different characters. It's a challenge the actor greets with the polish and adeptness of a master chameleon, reveling in the many zany comic portraits he is commissioned to portray and develop with quick change artistry. He succeeds swimmingly.
Mike Mihm, in the role of Brook's trusty, outspoken homosexual assistant BovĂ©, conjures up a zany,  purposely flamboyant characterization that produces laughter in all the right places. It's a fun, enjoyable-to-watch performance that's clever, raucous, sharp and never once strains credulity. Much later, a surprise twist in the proceedings, casts the performer in an entirely different light which Mihm tackles with such obvious relish and delight, you can't help but applaud  his carefully-honed, deliciously witty transformation. Amazing!

Coming fast on the heels of the equally brilliant "The Fantasticks," "Love Quest" is a contemporary, original play that is deliberately cheeky and wonderfully detailed. It sparkles. It delights. It cajoles. The direction is crisp, diverse and witty. The performances are full of dash and great humor. And once you surrender to the play's obvious charms, the laughter is non stop. So much so, you'll probably find yourself coming back for a second viewing. I know I'll be going back again.

"Love Quest" is being staged at Ivoryton Playhouse (103 Main St., Ivoryton, CT), now through May 13.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 767-7318.