Monday, June 18, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 78, A Review: "In the Heights" (Playhouse on Park)

By James V. Ruocco
And so, it begins.

A store clerk longs to woo the woman of his dreams.
A refreshing frozen fruit Piragua of shaved ice awaits those customers willing to bypass the tempting offers of the nearby Mister Softee vendor.
A heat wave, a power cut, a blackout, a sunset.
A Fourth of July fireworks display of bright rainbow colors.
A stolen kiss between two people who are about to become lovers.
A winning lottery ticket.
A cafe con leche with cinnamon.
The frequent sounds of subway trains rumbling past apartment buildings, day and night.
A bodega owner's dream of returning to his parents' birthplace.
The loss of a business, an unexpected death, a chatty rap of syncopated awakening.
And, oh yes, music.
And oh yes, dancing.

That said, the electrifying sound of Hispanic zing and spirit you hear coming from the intimate, cozy environs of Playhouse on the Park is not only real, but absolutely contagious. Amidst cries of joy, surprise, frenzy and passion,  this celebration of life and the people who live it belongs to Lin-Manuel Miranda's pulsating rap-meets-salsa musical "In the Heights," which began life on Broadway back in 2008, long before "Hamilton," that $3,000-$6,000 a-ticket, hip-hop Broadway musical about founding father Alexander Hamilton became the rage of those who could afford it and those who couldn't, but deliberately maxed out their American Express card for three long years all for the sake of all things Miranda.

Not to worry.
You can see this one for much less.
Ticket prices range from $35 to $50, depending on your seating preference.

"In the Heights," which won the Tony Award for Best Musical and Best Musical Score, is set in the barrio of New York's Washington Heights neighborhood right near the tip of the borough. Here, a variety of  multi-lingual, multi-racial residents become Miranda's mouthpiece as they sing and dance about their troubled lives, their financial and romantic problems, their lusts, longings and fears, their familial conflicts and finally, their desire to break away from the community, in search of a better place...god willing.
And luckily for us, it all makes s perfect sense. 

From the moment the incredible, tremendously talented cast of "In the Heights" at Playhouse on Park take center stage to sing the welcoming title tune that sets the musical in motion at the start of Act I to the joyful, tear-stained closing Act II anthem "When the Sun Goes Down," this splendid revival of Miranda's earlier work, delights, cajoles, excites and thrusts you into a frenzied state of delicious, sweaty delirium.

It is brilliant.
It is original.
It is timely.
It is in a class by itself.

The "In the Heights" experience is further enlivened by the musical's zesty Latin pop and salsa score and the spirited, completely moving play script by Quiara Alegria Hudes, which, almost everyone in the audience could identify with regardless of their economic, social, religious or educational background. Then again, that's the point, isn't it?

At Playhouse in the Park, "In the Heights" has been directed by Sean Harris, the theater's co-founder and co-artistic director whose directing credits include "A Chorus Line," "Angels in America," "Passing Strange," "Cabaret" and "Hair."  As director, he embraces the "In the Heights" material with passion, confidence and brio. The harsh realities of barrio life, the financial struggles and the continued tug-of war between people fighting for survival or escape, rings loud and clear. As does the different personalities of the individuals who populate the neighborhood.

A deft, understanding and determined director with tremendous insight and perspective, Harris, leaves no stone unturned. He has cast his production well, using performers who not only look the part, but act as though they actually grew up in the neighborhoods of upper Manhattan's Washington Heights. He also knows what buttons to push, who to thrust into the spotlight, when to turn up the heat and when to amplify a plot twist or an unexpected turn of events. And finally, his take on the musical's choice, cheeky Hispanic one-liners, body language and innuendo, speaks volumes.

Dance is everything in a musical of this caliber, which as envisioned by Miranda, must, at all times, reflect moments from his own life, his own neighborhood, and the people he grew up with. So who better to do that than Darlene Zoller, who, like Harris, is also a co-founder and co-artistic director of Playhouse on Park.

The creative genius that is Zoller could actually blow the roof off the West Hartford venue. The sparks, the electricity, the fire, the passion and the fluidity of movement she ignites is contagious, amazing and ovation worthy. For starters, the show's effervescent style, look and overlaying themes of actual life in the barrio is realistically imagined through Zoller's heavy use of rap influences, hit hop, break dancing, street dancing and merengue.

That's not all. There are streetwise cusps and signals, pulsating bumps, twists, grinds and lifts and round-and-round the floor dance patterns, offset by intricate Latino and salsa rhythms that give a three-dimensional pulse to the proceedings at hand.

Everyone that participates in Zoller's musical tableaux is at the top of their game. There's no strain, no mistakes, no uncertainty. Just dancers, singers and cast members doing what they love best, enhanced by an ease and understanding of dance movement. Things are performed with such contagious flourish and theatricality, you actually believe these dances really came from the streets of Washington Heights.

Lin- Manuel Miranda's intricately layered music and lyrics for "In the Heights" is crisp, inviting, distinct and kaleidoscopic. Everyone has his or her own song to express their inner thoughts, feelings and desires.  Nothing is thrown it just for the sake of giving certain leads and supporting players extra stage time. Nor is anything in the music and lyrics overly preachy, corny or dripping with sentiment.
Everything is mapped out perfectly. Songs unobtrusively advance the plot and its ever-changing moods. There are showstoppers, glossy comic numbers that reflect the in-your-face life of the barrio, sweet and sassy ballads, tender duets and others that are designed to get under your skin and linger long after "In the Heights" has ended.

With musical director Melanie Guerin standing watch with ten very talented musicians, the vocal diction of the cast, in both English and Spanish, is dynamic and wonderfully precise. Full-bodied ensemble numbers generate authority and heated passion. Breakout vocals with one, two or three characters, contain the same balanced pulse, imagination and allure. Moreover, Guerin and company are not just playing the score, they are living it. Big, big difference!

In the role of Unsavi de la Vega, the role originated by Miranda in the 2008 Tony award-winning Broadway production,  Niko Touros is a natural showman and entertainer who clearly enjoys being on stage, singing, acting and narrating the "In the Heights" story.  He is sexy. He is shy. He is vulnerable. He is charming. He is animated. He is personable. He is also an actor who can get everyone up on stage front and center for a big, celebratory neighborhood dance or shed massive tears when a beloved character is suddenly taken away by death during the first half of Act II. Lastly, he brings a sense of urgency to the proceedings that keep things real and reflective despite familiar themes of chasing dreams, financial debt, a better life and a romantic sub-plot than prompts memories of Tony and Maria from "West Side Story."

Sandra Marante, cast in the pivotal role of the street-smart, take-charge, vivacious Daniela, is commanding, sexy, vibrant and wicked and comical. She is so in sync with the material, the music (vocally, she is absolutely dynamic), her character and her role in the story, never once do we think she is acting. She is the real deal. We not only get what she does and why she does it, but we understand her character's desire to close up shop (she owns a beauty salon) and move to the Bronx. We cheer her every step of the way, hoping she will succeed.

The very beautiful and charismatic Analise Rios is well cast as Nina Rosario, She is vigorous, plucky, resolute and high-spirited. She truthfully projects the portrait of a young woman who made it out of the barrio, only to return home (she has dropped out of Stanford University) troubled, confused and uncertain about the path that lies ahead. She is well matched opposite the the very talented Leyland Patrick who portrays Benny, a black dispatcher for her father's cab company who doesn't speak a word of Spanish, but tries to pull off his difficult feat in one of the play's hilariously timed comic sequences. And when both characters fall in love, a la "West Side Story," we gladly cheer them on, knowing they won't suffer the same fate as Tony and Maria did in the popular Tony Award-winning musical.

In the role of "Abuela" Claudia, the neighborhood barrio matriarch who has become grandmother to most of the musical's characters, Amy Jo Philips gives a three-dimensional performance that is so beautiful, so controlled and so real, you just want to hug her and never let her go. In the script, her character is the one who has looked after Usavi after his mother died.
From the moment she appears on stage, it's impossible to take your eyes off. She commands your attention whenever she engages in conversations with the characters around her, reveling about a zest for life, forgotten dreams and passions and pathos-steeped gallantry. Vocally, she is dynamic and yes, she literally stops the show when she takes center stage to sing "Paciencia Y Fe," an impassioned song of encouragement.

As Kevin and Camila Rosario, the owners of a not-so-profitable gypsy cab company, which they are forced to sell so their daughter Nina can realize her dream and return to college, JL Rey and Stephanie Pope believably communicate their character's ongoing troubles through song, dialogue and characterization. With "Enough," Pope delivers a searing vocal that projects Camilla's loss of patience regarding her husband and daughter's arguments and deceits.

Other standout performances come from Nick Palazzo as Sonny, Paul Edme as Graffiti Pete, Sophia Introna as Vanessa and Willie Marte as the neighborhood Piragua Guy.

Spicy, soulful and sizzling, "In the Heights" celebrates life, togetherness and survival through the eyes of its creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. The musical score, chock full of rap, pop, salsa and hip hop, is beautifully articulated by the Playhouse on Park cast. The dancing is festive, funky and effective. The contemporary feel of the book and its modern slant toward neighborhood life warrants attention. And finally, the overall experience of "In the Heights" is memorably captured in this pulsating, cutting edge musical entertainment that pulls you right into the world of its colorful inhabitants using the kind of energy and exhilaration Mr. Miranda is famous for.

"In the Heights" is being staged at Playhouse on Park (244 Park Rd., West Hartford, CT), now through July 29.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 523-5900.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 77, A Review: "Cole Porter's "Anything Goes" (Sharon Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco

Cole Porter songs.
Vintage champagne.
A London-bound cruise ship.
Raucous frivolity.
Boatloads of sexual innuendo.
Tap-dancing sailors and chorines.
Golden age wit and nostalgia.
And, oh yes, a very happy ending.

Perfection, you ask?
Yes, indeed!

In "Anything Goes," the frothy, sumptuous Cole Porter musical that jump started Sharon Playhouse's dazzling new 2018 summer season, daffy comic shtick merrily abounds alongside delightful comic caricatures, confection-laced dialogue, frothy swagger, vamp and camp, mismatched lovers, leading man/leading lady charisma, splashy dance routines and a musical songbook in which every single number is gorgeously sung, acted and performed.

Everything about this production is right: Alan Wager's direction; Justin Boccitto's choreography; Ben Kiley's musical direction: Keith Schneider's elegant period costuming; Jason Myron Wright's swanky set design; Zach Pizza's candy-coated lighting; Paula Schaffer's 1930's freshly-minted hair designs; the lead performers; the supporting players; the lively ensemble; the Cole Porter music and lyrics; and the revised book by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman.

There is so much generated charm, passion and talent in this delectable revival, a one-time visit simply won't do. Buying a ticket or two to another showing is of the highest order as is advance reservations for the theater's upcoming productions of "All Shook Up," "Barefoot in the Park" and "Always...Patsy Cline."

That said, the plot for "Anything Goes" is ideally wrapped around a syrupy-sweet, high seas confection of love, passion and beguiling kookiness. There's glorious romance, celebrity gangsters, topical gayness, organizational mishaps, breezy set ups, champagne corkers and oozing nostalgia. There's also plenty of ripe, playful and acerbic commentary about social position and class, icebergs, sinking ships and safety drills, English society vs. American society, casual sex and innuendo, Chinese stereotypes, homosexuality, drugs and alcohol, arranged marriages, religion, brash business deals and swooning flirtations under the moonlight.

You laugh and laugh, always remembering that everything that happens or is said in this two-act musical is simply done in jest. This isn't 2018, a time when a barbed insult or prejudiced remark could get your TV series cancelled. It's the 1930s. Things were very different back then.
In short, "anything goes."

Musically, "Anything Goes" is the quintessential 1930s musical and rightly so. It contains the quintessential Cole Porter trunk of musical treasures: "You're the Top," "Anything Goes," "All Through the Night," "I Get a Kick Out of You," "Friendship," among others. Everything is tied seamlessly into the plot machinations without any hint of calculation. No one sings just to sing. No one dances just to dance. No one quips to just quip. Every musical number comes complete with frothy dialogue and intros that merrily signal each and every Cole Porter tune.

At Sharon Playhouse, musical direction is provided by Ben Kiley, a talented, deft musician who magically brings the popular "Anything Goes" score to life.  As the musical unfolds, Kiley emphasizes the playfulness and social jest of Porter's music and lyrics, its educated sprinkles and purple moods, matched with delicious helpings of mischief, melancholy, seasoned pathos, tangy usurps and sincerity.

Careful attention is also paid to Porter's lyrical brashness, its truths and magnificent wordplay, its compulsive, deft phrasing, its implied promiscuity, its chic insouciance, its pungent, distinct melodies and lastly, its sophisticated, swinging rhythms. With Kiley as auteur, the orchestra is in full swing and never once misses a beat or important song cue. And the entire cast (leads, supporting players, ensemble) deliver every one of the songs in perfect pitch and harmony as Mr. Porter intended.

In the directorial seat, Alan Wager is a stage great whose knowledge and understanding of the American stage musical has spinned the coin on one hit after another.  Here, his directorial choices for "Anything Goes" are thrilling, exciting, confident and transfixing to watch and unfold. Everything he does justifiably reflects the show's themes, plotlines, characters, jokes, shtick, corniness and musicality.

With the help of the entire Sharon Playhouse team, he keeps the musical firmly rooted in the period from whence it came. Every actor's move, every gesture, every position, every nuance, every mood, every zing, every dash is indicative of the 1930s. Elsewhere, he knows how to fully utilize the set design to full advantage, thus, moving the actors about on every playing level, from top to bottom, without unobtrusiveness. He also knows the period, the music, the nostalgia and the humor inside out and often gives his actors crafty bits of choice stagecraft which they toss off effortlessly. This, in turn, keeps "Anything Goes" in marvelous form. His directorial touch is so natural and so rewarding, nothing in this musical is ever questioned, out of place or out of sync for a single second. Well done, Mr. Wager.

Dancing is everything in a musical of this caliber and Justin Boccitto succeeds on every level. Like those around him, he makes the right choices in terms of style, mood, movement and dance tableaux. From high-charged numbers that include "Anything Goes" and "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" to the buoyant, simply-stated "You're the Top" and "It's De-Lovely," Boccitto brings a slick, distinct 1930s feel to the dances, matched by plenty of spirit, attitude, froth and glamour. It's ovation worthy stuff and it doesn't go unnoticed. The thunderous applause from the Sharon Playhouse audience is completely justified....and then some.

As Reno Sweeney, the brassy, flirty nightclub singer who is ready and willing for romance, particularly when the lights are low and a handsome man is standing right beside her, Amanda Lea Lavergne is both stunner and showstopper. It's a part that she plays with sass, brass, spunk, spirit and wickedly orchestrated heat and sensuality. It is also one she invests with the power and stamina of a Broadway leading lady who not only enjoys being center stage under the spotlight, but one whose undeniable spirit, electricity and love of performance could probably blow the roof off of Sharon Playhouse on any given night.

With beautifully coiffed red hair and a buoyant gait and blazing, wicked demeanor guaranteed to turn any straight man's head, the actress reminds one of Debbie Reynolds ("Singin' in the Rain," "The Unsinkable Molly Brown") with a dash or two of Lee Remick ("Anyone Can Whistle") and Amy Adams ("Enchanted") thrown in for extra measure. That said, she's no copycat either. Her Reno Sweeney is her own creation. Vocally, she is full-voiced with just the right amount of trumpeted blare, gusto and contagious pizzaz. As a dancer, she taps, glides, leaps and flows with wild, measured abandon. And when it comes time to toss off the play's cheery, icy and flip one-liners or engage in some pretty silly 1930s shenanigans, she takes told of it all with the timing and dash of  a Hollywood film star from yesteryear.

In the role of Moonface Martin, i.e., Public Enemy No. 13, who, for plot purposes is disguised as a parson, Paul Kreppel is every inch as good as Bill McCutcheon who played the part in the big, splashy 1987 Lincoln Center revival opposite Patti LuPone and Howard McGillan. His lovable moonface mugs, vaudevillian comic line delivery and double takes are portrayed and timed with delicious glee. And when it comes time for some burlesque shtick (a small dog's invasion of his trousers with a pinch or bite or two, for example), the actor's slow burn comic technique sets the stage for huge belly laughs.

The perfectly cast Caleb Albert is ideally suited for the role of the clean-cut, perplexed, misunderstood leading man Billy Crocker. He's handsome. He's dashing. He's Brooks Brothers and Yale University from head to toe. And when he sings, his full voice suggests that of the Yale Whiffenpoofs in all its glory. As Hope Harcourt, the social debutante that Crocker pines for despite her engagement to another, Amara Haaksman  is polished, charming, enchanting and desirable, which is exactly what the part calls for. But despite the musical's 1930's frivolity, the actress offers a fully-fleshed out performance that is anything but corny and one note. She also has the kind of singing voice well-suited for Cole Porter and Broadway musicals.

Edward Miskie, in the role of the deliciously witty, malaprop-prone Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, offers a hilarious comic portrayal of a twitty Englishman with a secret past just waiting to be unleashed. His English accent is splendid and perfect along with his decided English manner, dash and sensibility. He has great fun with the role and savors every minute of it whenever he's on stage. As Erma, the brassy, flirtatious young woman with a penchant for taking the pants off agreeable, lovesick sailors, Seana Nicol strikes all the right moves. She is funny. She is sexy. She is vulnerable. She is ditsy. And she lights up the stage whenever she's front and center.

As the musical's dancing and singing sailors, Richard Westfahl, Quinten Patrick Busey, Taylor Joseph and Nick Gurinsky turn heads with their swift, natural and athletic skills and tap dancing finesse. All four display a deft, decided facility for building momentum, speed and urgency in "Buddy, Beware," "Anything Goes" and "Blow, Gabriel, Blow," the show's big trio of musical production numbers. They also bring confidence, simplicity and a marvelous understated tension and passion to the proceedings, which choreographer Justin Boccitto utilizes to full advantage.

The perky, beautiful and delectable Jenna Chin, Katie Hardin. Michelle Lemon and Delaney Bailey accomplish similar feats as Reno Sweeney's sidekicks Virtue, Chastity, Charity and Purity. They are a polished, cohesive and energetic character-driven delight who lovingly bask in the sheer fun of the material, its 1930's playfulness and its show-stopping musicality.

And finally, let's not forget the double brother act of Colin and Tyler Gallagher, the real-life brothers and twins who play the ship's smiling pursers. Their love of theater and musical performance doesn't go unnoticed whenever they're on stage. They have a gift and they utilize it ever so naturally.

"Anything Goes" is stylish, tuneful, glamorous entertainment. The plot is simple and fun. The dialogue is wickedly cheeky and the absolute embodiment of a wonderfully bygone era. The Cole Porter songs are savvy, playful and sophisticated. And the entire cast is impressively showcased.
With shows as wonderful as this one, expect Alan Wager (Artistic Director) and Robert Levinstein's (Managing Director) tenure at Sharon Playhouse to last a very long time. They've stuck gold, and so have we.

"Anything Goes" is being staged at Sharon Playhouse (49 Amenia Rd., Sharon, CT), now through July 1.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 364-7469.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 76, A Review: "A Night With Janis Joplin" (Ivoryton Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco

The lead character in "A Night With Janis Joplin," the affecting, high-powered musical about the life and times of the late, manic, outspoken entertainer, now being showcased at Ivoryton Playhouse, is none other than Janis herself.
Crazed, driven and sweet-natured, this cult music icon, played by two different actresses, bares her soul for nearly two-hours, talking about her life, her loves, her future and her music in typical Joplin fashion.
And when she sings, "Piece of My Heart," "Me and Bobby McGee," among others,  that wailing, feisty flower child image and sound she was famous for, springs miraculously to life with the memory of what "Rolling Stone" described "as a true original."

As a celebration of the singer's life, the howls, the cries, the tears, the angst and the signature melodrama is very, very real. As a concert, it's the 1960s all over again, rife with blues, bruises, inspiration, booze, drugs, breakdowns, bell bottoms, long hair and glitter.

You cry.
You clap.
You laugh.
You shout.
You succumb.
Then again, that's the point.

On the production side, "A Night With Janis Joplin" owes its dazzling, show-stopping brilliance to Randy Johnson (creator, author and director), Grady McLeod Bowman (choreographer/associate director) and Tyler Rhodes (co-director at Ivoryton Playhouse). Under the trio's tutelage, the two-act musical serves up a slice of life called "Janis," sprinkled with plentiful dashes of spice, nostalgia, darkness and sentiment.

As the musical seamlessly navigates a history of all things Joplin, the trio delivers a deft, determined portrait of her ache for acceptance and liberation, her musical roots and desires, her demand to be taken seriously and her need to grasp, understand and project her vocal sound, personality and oft madness through her unique musical voice. It's a sweet argument of sorts and one that has been approved and tweaked by the estate of Janis Joplin during its initial conception and subsequent premiere back in 2012. Her death of a heroin overdose on Oct 4, 1970 at the age of 27 is not shown in this musical production. Instead, the singer plunges forward with the hope of longevity in life, in love and in the music world.

That said, "A Night With Janis Joplin" is mainly about her music. It doesn't dwell on her obvious drug and alcohol dependence, her breakdowns, outbursts or life that eventually spiraled madly out of control. There are hints and reminders, of course. But that's not the point of this musical odyssey. It never has been. Instead, the actual piece unfolds with a playful period nostalgia about it locked firmly in the decade from whence it came. Its look, its style, its costuming, its lighting, its scenic backdrop, its verbage, its movement, its choreography, its body language, its band and its performers are all very real. But "A Night With Janis Joplin" keeps everything and everyone behind the Ivoryton stage proscenium wall in a time and world that no longer exists. And to pull that off successfully without one glitch or hiccup is ovation worthy in itself.

Musically, "A Night With Janis Joplin" never misses a beat.
At Ivoryton, the show's terrific, solid, on-stage band, has been assembled by musical director Michael Morris, who doubles at keyboardist. Band members are Alex Prezzano (guitar 1), Dan Hartington (guitar 2), Chase Fleming (bass), Mike Mulligan (trombone), Michael Raposo (reeds), Michael Blancaflor (drums) and Seth Bailey/David Wharton (trumpets)

As the production unfolds, the band, dressed in authentic period hair and gear, reflect the style, look and persona of Joplin's world and its many influences. Everyone adapts splendidly to the magic of the live concert experience of yesteryear, which, in a show of this nature, often comes from the energized pulse of the people seated in the audience, many of whom are Joplin fans and unafraid to show it when the moment comes for them to indulge, cut loose or go absolutely crazy much to the delight of everyone on stage or seated amongst them in the theater.

With Morris as their ringleader, each band member blends in so smoothly with the set of songs that "A Night With Janis Joplin" sets forth, both naturally and memorably, the psychedelic era of the late 1960s and its mixture of the old and new influences of blues and rock that thrust Joplin into the limelight, rings loud and clear in typical musical tribute/concert fashion.

Everything, of course, is important to the musical story and its staying power.
The sumptuous, infectious song list for "A Night With Janis Joplin" is as follows: "My Baby," "Mercedes Benz," "Ball and Chain," "Little Girl Blue," "Summertime," "Me and Bobby McGee," "Kozmic Blues," "I Shall Be Released," "Maybe," "Piece of My Heart," "Spirit in the Dark," "Today I Sing the Blues," "Cry Baby," "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," "Stay With Me" "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)," " "Turtle Blues," "I'm Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven," "Combination of the Two" and "Tell Mama."

It's all such fun, you can't enough.
Whether thundering madly through "Piece of My Heart" or soulfully reflecting the passion behind "Summertime" and "Little Girl Blue," this nine-piece band is astute and marvelously adept at every musical twist and turn. Well done, Mr. Morris.

In the lead role of Janis Joplin, Paige McNamara (she alternates the role with Francesca Ferrari at certain performances) gives a standout performance that sends sparks, shivers and meg-a-fueled adrenaline throughout the Ivoryton Playhouse. And, well it should. It's a part that the actress plays and owns magnificently from the moment she takes the stage. Her dizzying, full-throated versions of Joplin's music immediately harkens the late singer's signature's wild growls, maddening moans and crazy screeches. She also swigs down booze from a bottle in much the same way as Joplin. Her laughs, grins, crazy faces, tipping of the microphone stand, holding of the hand mike and storytelling bits between songs is in sync with that of the late singer. Her constant jumping around the stage during loud, pulsating instrumentals is wonderfully Joplinesque. As is her tales about her personal life, the blues, her music and the women who influenced her while she was growing up.

As dictated by Randy Johnson's playtext, McNamara shares the stage, when necessary, with four outstanding singers (in this case, Jennifer Leigh Warren, Amma Osei, Aurianna Angelique, Tawny Dolley), who either join Joplin in song or take the spotlight to sing the blues, in the guise of Aretha Franklin, Odetta, Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Etta James, among others. All four have voices that rock the heavens and then some. And each actress, captures the aura, personality and star power of the marvelous female singer or singers they are each asked to portray. All four deserve a standing ovation in their own right. They are absolutely brilliant.

"A Night With Janis Joplin" is must-see entertainment chock full of pulse, dazzle, high octane, high spirit and enough sparks to blow the roof off Ivoryton Playhouse. It also reminds us of the musical legacy that is Janis Joplin.
It is one that will live forever along with the memory of a very talented, independent woman who lived life to the fullest until it was cut short by a drug addiction that silenced her in death forever at the age of 27.

"A Night With Janis Joplin" is being staged at Ivoryton Playhouse (103 Main St., Ivoryton, CT), now through June 24.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 767-7318.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 75, A Review: "The Invisible Hand" (TheaterWorks/Hartford)

By James V. Ruocco

Urgent matters of money, religion, cultural identity, banking, corruption and terrorism figure prominently in TheaterWorks gripping staging of  "The Invisible Hand," written by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Ayad Akhtar.

Well-acted and directed.

"The Invisible Hand" is both volatile and grim, fraught with a real sense of danger and pathos that keeps its audience purposely on edge. It also contains some healthy moments and passages of humor, which the playwright uses most effectively, when the situation calls for a cheeky twist or turn, if only fleetingly.

In the play, Nick Bright, a money-hungry American banker has been wrongfully kidnapped by Pakistani militants who have mistaken him for his high-profile Citibank boss. Regardless, they want a $10 million ransom for their prisoner's release, which the United States refuses to negotiate.
To survive, Bright adapts the role of international market trader, trading futures and currencies with flair and precision, making money for his captors while teaching them how to profit from their capitalistic gains.

Not to worry. Even if you don't understand the logistics of international finance or repeated trader jargon that includes puts, shorts or basket trading, you are never at a loss. It's all very fascinating, including a dicey, well-etched plot conceit involving Bright's special monetary funding.

The works of playwright/ author/screenwriter Ayad Akhtar include "American Dervish," "Disgraced" and "The War Within." All three reveal his passion for fervent, impulsive, vitally important dialogue that jumps off the page with wit, intelligence and urgency. "The Invisible Hand" continues that notion. It is powerful. It is commanding. It is simple. It is natural. It is tense. Like "Disgraced" it is one of those theatrical pieces where every spoken word is important to the story, the characters he has created to bring the dialogue to life and the scene-by-scene advancement of the production over a two-act period.

Thus, "The Invisible Hand" is not to be taken likely. To fully experience it, you must listen to each word, each sentence, each passage and each exchange between the play's pivotal four characters. It is overwhelmingly talky in ways that demand your attention 100 per cent. So if you look away, check out a name or two in the playbill, unwrap a mint or glance at your watch, you are definitely going to miss something. Like Athol Fugard's riveting "A Lesson From Aloes," currently being showcased at Hartford Stage, "The Invisible Hand" demands that same actor/audience listening respect in order for the play to fully achieve its emotional sweep, its pacing, its progression and its cathartic normality.

At Theater Works, "The Invisible Hand" is being staged by director David Kennedy whose directorial credits include "Loot," "Tartuffe," "Suddenly Last Summer" and "Appropriate." Kennedy also staged "The Invisible Hand" at the Westport Country Playhouse back in 2016. Here, he crafts an important work that generates apt dramatic tension and pulse. It's a play that he knows well, both inside and out, but he never once takes things for granted.
Everything that happens on the TheaterWorks stage has been carefully thought out, shaped, molded and turned over to his brilliantly talented cast who never once make a false move or let the play's high-energy or drama falter for a second. "The Invisible Hand" contains lots and lots of scenes. Some are long. Some are short. Still, there's real purpose and imagination to Kennedy's approach of this restaging. It all connects seamlessly, from its heated economic and political arguments and surprise ending to an eerie, uneasy tension that extends through both acts regarding the fate of not one, but two of its characters.

The performances are taut, effective and consistently rich.
As Nick Bright, Eric Bryant humanizes his character with a pungent mix of arrogance, humor, despair, pragmatism, craziness and mental disconnection. The well-sketched plotting and cranked up tension that Kennedy instills throughout the play's course provides additional fuel for the actor to grapple and play with most instinctively.

Fajer Kaisi's Bashir, a very complicated, driven man seduced by faith and the thrill of making serious money under Bright's tutelage, is played with chilling, brutal, believable authority by the actor. Rajesh Bose, as Imam Saleem, a captor who hopes to use Nick's ransom money to benefit the Pakistani people's welfare, inhabits his role with real force, dignity and when necessary, a patch or two of deftly-defined humor. Anand Bhatt's Dar, a low-level captor who befriends Bright, makes his presence known. He is played most engagingly by Bhatt, but the character, unfortunately, is only a minor player in "The Invisible Hand" story.

"The Invisible Hand" is a vivid, impassioned work that unfolds with edgy, intense authority. The performances and direction are pitch perfect. The dialogue is intelligent and absorbing. As a theater piece, the two-act drama is unmissable. And lastly, "The Invisible Hand" reaffirms TheaterWorks ongoing commitment to important theater that has included such fine and diverse theatrical fare as "The Wolves,"  "Constellations," "The Legend of Georgia McBride" and "Next to Normal."

"The Invisible Hand" is being staged at TheaterWorks (233 Pearl St., Hartford, CT), now through June 23.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-7838