Tuesday, July 31, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 85, A Review: "Hand to God" (TheaterWorks/Hartford)

By James V. Ruocco

In "Hand to God," an unhappy teenager named Jason suddenly finds that the puppet named Tyrone he has created not only has a mind of its own, but has taken full possession of both his left hand and his unsuspecting mind.

"You want the devil," Tyrone shouts. "I'll give you the devil."

And that's just the beginning.

As written by Robert Askins, "Hand to God" takes an unabashed look at Exorcist-like possession, Southern-style Christianity, teen angst, adolescent rebellion, raging hormones, religious hypocrisy, masturbation, sexual intercourse, Bible preaching, puppet fellatio, crazy sex. broken dreams, moral grandstanding, widowhood, loneliness, alcoholism, survival, rejection, anxiety, breakdowns, sadism and violence.

Mind you, all of this is meant to be funny. And it is. It really is.

Under Tracy Brigden's spirited direction, "Hand to God" is fast, furious and frenetic with well-paced laughs coming in all directions. The strength of the piece is, of course, its antic energy, which Brigden uses to full advantage. Creatively, she knows how to frame a joke, how to position it, how to make it fly and how to make it fit unobtrusively into the core of the non-stop action. The material itself contains gobs and gobs of hysterically funny stuff, funny lines, funny sets up and funny stage business. The trick, therein, is to make it all seem quite natural while going for the punchline and the laughter without any sort of calculation. Brigden pulls this off swimmingly.

 "Hand to God" hits the mark on all accounts. Each line of dialogue is spoken with the mindset and wisdom of someone skilled and schooled in palpable madness, cheeky innuendo and farcical torment and in-your-face absurdities. It's all marvelously accentuated and delivered scene by scene, act by act with plenty of surprises, jolts and unexpected chaos thrown in for extra measure. You laugh out loud, you shake your head in wonderment and you slap your knee as the proceedings get crazier and crazier, which is exactly the point of this wildly wicked piece of theater.

One of the play's funniest bits comes in Act II when the puppets Tyrone and Jolene have enthusiastically frenzied, X-rated sex in full view of the audience. The sex itself, which includes, oral, anal, hard-pressed penetration, humping, riding and glorified masturbation, is outrageous and screamingly funny in voyeuristic ways that Brigden controls and navigates as if she were directing hardcore porn for a ready and willing audience. Timing is everything here and she never once lets things drop or get limp for a second.

"Hand to God" is littered with terrific comic performances well suited for the material at hand. All five actors bring appropriate squeals of excitement, absurdity and cockiness to the piece, matched by precision-drilled physical comedy technique reminiscent of both "Noises Off" and "The Play That Goes Wrong."

In order for the role of Jason and Tyrone to work, you need someone with amazingly accurate comic timing to pull off the difficult feat of playing two different characters (in this case, man and puppet), who can shift gears and roles at any given moment without any form of hesitation. In Nick LaMedica, Brigden has found the ideal young actor to step front and center as both the naive Jason and Tyrone, the possessed puppet prone to obscenities, threats, insults and sexual manipulation. It's a dual acting role that demands 100 per cent accuracy, timing and puppetry showmanship in order for you to believe that each character is completely separate from the other. LaMedica never lets his guard down for a moment and delivers the comic performance of the season. He is incredible.

Lisa Velten Smith is howlingly funny as Margery, Jason's widowed, oversexed, often misunderstood mother who teaches puppetry and longs for sexual fulfillment and acceptance as a Bible-practicing Christian. This is a vivid, colorful performance, chock full of surprise and craziness at any given turn. As Timmy, the hot, sexy young teenager and bad-boy rival of Jason, Miles G. Jackson oozes enough charm and James Dean-like rebellion to not only seduce and penetrate a very willing Margery for some down-and-dirty onstage sex but get several women and homosexual men in the audience very hot and bothered. It's a feat he pulls off magnificently.

As Jessica/Jolene, Maggie Carr manages to be both nerdy and sexy as Jason's bewildered love interest. She is funny. She is crazy. She also knows how to deliver a joke or punchline in true stand-up fashion. Peter Benson, as Pastor Greg, superbly projects the image of a Southern milquetoast pastor willing to do anything for the Lord himself and his thoroughly mixed-up and confused congregation. He's so in sync with the part, you'd swear he actually was uprooted from a Lutheran Church in Texas.

"Hand to God" is a daring, robust, wicked, sexy comedy anchored by a rare, emotional comic energy that is truly inspired. The laughs keep coming and coming. The non-stop mayhem of the script is hilariously orchestrated by director Tracy Brigden. And the cast have as much fun bringing this story to life as we do watching them. Who knew a blasphemous puppet who takes possession of a teenager's left hand could be so funny? In short, what's not to like?

"Hand to God" is being staged at TheaterWorks (233 Pearl St., Hartford, CT), now through August 26.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-7838.
website: theaterworkshartford.org/

Monday, July 30, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 84, A Review: Lionel Bart's "Oliver!" (The Goodspeed)

By James V. Ruocco

There is nothing frothy, giddy, clownish, gooey or squeaky-clean about Goodspeed's thrilling production of Lionel Bart's "Oliver!"
It's still the same musical that first saw light in 1960 at London's West End and subsequently, three years later, on Broadway.
But this "Oliver!" is unlike any other "Oliver!" that's been revived or produced over the last decade or two.

It is menacing.
It is dark.
It is earthy.
It is wild.
It is saucy.
It is daring.
It is unsettling.
It is disturbing.
It is clever.
It is real.
It is amusing.

Director Rob Ruggiero isn't interested in sugarcoating the story or delivering a musical with a decidedly very happy ending. Instead, he goes back to the original source material for inspiration: "Oliver Twist" by Charles Dickens. That conceit, in turn, not only allows Ruggiero to breathe new life into this 58-year-old musical, but shape and mold it against the dark and grim backdrop of Dickensian London that Dickens himself created.

Nothing is downplayed or misinterpreted.
Here, you get living, breathing, real people living in impoverished 19th century London, a place populated by thieves, pickpockets, prostitutes, murderers, scavengers, drunks and kidnappers. Life is cruel. Life is unkind. Life is unfair. Life is disappointing. Life is inhuman.

The challenge, of course, is to flesh out this thematic gloom and doom and make it sing, make it soar, make it fly and make it dance. And that is exactly what this "Oliver!" does.

This "Oliver!" is sensational.
This "Oliver!" is spectacular.
This "Oliver!" is stunning.
This "Oliver!" is the best musical revival of the year.
This "Oliver!" is also English in every sense of the word and well, it should be.
It may be staged at the Goodspeed in East Haddam, CT., but there is nothing American about it.
Instead, the general feeling inside the Connecticut-based theater is that of the Drury Lane in London's West End. And that is meant as the highest compliment to everyone involved on stage and off.

Lionel Bart's "Oliver!" retells the classic story of Oliver Twist, a young orphan boy who runs away from his workhouse surroundings and meets The Artful Dodger, a pickpocket of sorts, who invites him to join and live in a household of young boys (girls are added for this production) run by Fagin, an older gentleman who trains everyone to rob and steal for their master in exchange for food and lodgings.

Ruggiero's ingenious, deeply moving staging of "Oliver!" brings the audience face to face with the bleakness and grim realities of life and the human condition in 19th century London without the sweet comforts and strawberry syrup of other "Oliver!" revivals that exist solely to entertain and soften the blow without any semblance of realism. There are laughs, of course. And some of the musical numbers are deigned to bring a smile to your face.
But what's refreshing and unique about this production is that it shatters your emotions using characters and situations that are painstakingly real and completely aware that they exist in a crowded environment grappling with chaos and the concept of their own morality.

That said, the musical opens with a new, ground-breaking moment that chronicles the unhappy birth of young Oliver followed immediately by his real mother's death. It's a pivotal scene that sets the tone for what's to follow as Ruggiero reworks and reshapes some of the material to heighten the play's realism and story board advancement. Bill Sikes, for example, is much more scarier, menacing and sinister than before. He is meant to frighten you and he does. But underneath, he loves Nancy. He hurts Nancy. He bruises and kills Nancy. But yet there's a strange, acceptable desperation to their odd coupling that other productions leave unanswered. In turn, Nancy's big musical number "As Long As He Needs Me"  becomes not only a cry for help about victimization, but one that explains Sikes' dominance over her, in and out of the bedroom. And sadly, she won't walk away.

Elsewhere, the heat is purposely turned up on both Mr. Bumble and the Widow Corney for comic relief as they engage in some well-orchestrated flirtation and sexual frivolity that brings more dimension and scope to their characters. This conceit also extends to the characters of Noah Claypoole and Charlotte as they too find comfort in anything and everything sexual.
Fagin, in turn, is still fun. But here, he is much more criminal and crooked and there are many more sides to his already idiosyncratic personality. Bet, Nancy's sidekick, also gets more to do this time round (both musically and acting-wise) instead of being just a one-note character. And three songs, which are often cut from the story...."I Shall Scream!" "That's Your Funeral" and "My Name"......are wisely retained, reworked and played out to their fullest capacity in very exciting, imaginable ways.

Despite some changes to the story, "Oliver!" is still "Oliver!."
When necessary, Ruggiero amps up the musical's playfulness, high spirit, wonderment and sense of adventure. Given the musical's London setting, he also pays close attention to the attitude, the personality and the different class representation of the many characters who populate the "Oliver!" story. Here, as in "Rags," which he directed as the Goodspeed last season, he is very conscious of the period, the setting, the style and the heartbeat of everyone involved and everything that happens to them as the story evolves. It's all beautifully realized and perfectly in sync with the songs and the dances set forth by his creative team.

With "Oliver!" (and "The Will Rogers Follies" before that), Michael O' Flaherty celebrates his 27th season as Goodspeed's resident musical director. He's talented. He's challenged. He's carefully attuned to the choices and different styles of the musical's that round out the theater's year-by-year calendar. His orchestral team of musicians is first-rate. And when teaching the songs, the harmonies and the intricate choral numbers to his team of actors and singers, he always gives 110 percent.

Here, he does an incredible job bringing the popular Lionel Bart score to life. Assisted by F. Wade Russo, Pete Roe, Liz Baker Smith, Karin Fagerburg, Matthew Russo and Sal Ranniello,  O'Flaherty conducts "Oliver!" with inspired virtuosity, vision, thought and imagination. Yes, we've heard the songs before. Yes, we know who sings them. Yes, we know what's going to happen. Yes, we know what song goes where in both Act I and Act II. But it doesn't really matter. With O' Flaherty at the helm, it's as though we are hearing "Where is Love?" "Food, Glorious Food" and "It's a Fine Life," among others, for the very first time.

Lastly, there's also a bawdy, brazen, in-your-face truthfulness to the proceedings, which other, less-accomplished musicians and musical directors miss. Here, O' Flaherty and company always know what buttons to push. You want dark, you get dark. You want sexy or frothy, you get sexy and frothy. You want endearing or character-driven. You get endearing and character-driven. No matter what direction or tone the musical story takes, it's all marvelously conceived and controlled.

Given its Dickensian roots, the choreography in Lionel Bart's "Oliver!" can't be dished out as Broadway escapism or candy-coated nostalgia with a raspberry twist. In order for it to work its magic and work it well, you need someone behind-the-scene's who gets Dickens, understands Dickens and has a working knowledge of the 19th century "Oliver Twist" novel and its dark and twisty machinations. Otherwise, things could get pretty dicey or end up looking like "Half a Sixpence" meets "Oliver Twist: American Style."

The employment of British-born James Gray (he hails, from Bristol, UK) as choreographer for this particular "Oliver!" is a stoke of genius on everyone's part. The fact that he's English definitely helps  this "Oliver!" stand dark and tall like something you'd find in a 19th century English music hall, London's Black Market or the backstreet alleyways that lie in close proximity to the streets and locations referenced by Dickens in "Oliver Twist."

Pro that he is, Gray delves head first into the musical numbers like a 19th century historian and crafts them with passionate fervor, angst, gritty charm and spindly authenticity. He is very conscious of the musical's many different settings, its bleak and grimy characters, the different classes they represent and the darkness of Dickens's imagination and wordplay. Everywhere you look there's an authentic whiff of the real Dickens, whether its the opening "Food, Glorious Food," the lively "Consider Yourself," the crafty "Oom-Pah-Pah," the thievery paean "You're Got to Pick a Pocket or Two" or the colorful and endearing  "Who Will Buy?"

As choreographer, Gray surprises, cajoles and excites. He takes chances. He reinvents. He reinterprets. He leaves you awestruck. And, he never once, repeats himself. As "Oliver!" unfolds, he makes the right, appropriate choices in terms of style, period, mood, movement, beat, rhythm and interaction. It's all very, very English and beautifully in sync with Ruggiero's direction, O' Flaherty's musical direction and the marvelous, inventive musicality of the entire "Oliver!" This is "Oliver!" like you've never seen before.

"Oliver!" stars Donald Corren as Fagin, EJ Zimmerman as Nancy, Elijah Rayman as Oliver Twist, Gavin Swartz as the Artful Dodger, Brandon Andrus as Bill Sikes, Richard R. Henry as Mr. Bumble, Joy Hermalyn as Widow Corney, Jamie LaVerdiere as Mr. Sowerberry, Karen Murphy as Mrs. Sowerberry and Miranda Gelch as Bet.

Because everyone of these performers is so very right for the the parts they have been asked to portray by Ruggiero, O' Flaherty and Gray, the actual "Oliver!" material brilliantly unfolds in the manner it was conceived by Lionel Bart. Nothing looks rehearsed. Nothing looks out of place. Nothing fall flat. Nothing is hurried or calculated. The dialogue, some of which is pulled from the original "Oliver Twist" story by Charles Dickens, is believably imagined and rendered. The beats, the pauses, the exchanges, the character interactions and the breaks unfold quite naturally. And when it comes time for a few heated jolts, scares, surprises and nasty twists of fate, everything is reenacted in true Dickensian style.

Vocally, everyone delivers his or her musical number or numbers with fluent efficiency, flair and imagination. They also take their time to express and convey the intended meaning behind each and every one of the Lionel Bart songs. And in terms of casting, the entire "Oliver!" cast look, act and behave as if they stepped out of the Charles Dickens novel which serves as the musical's inspiration.

In conclusion, "Oliver!" is a smart, dynamic production full of contrast, style, polish and cliffhanger quick-footedness. It is full of great voices and surprises. The Dickensian story itself accentuates its relevance through a uniquely different, more credible eye. It pulls you in and keep you there for well over two hours. Musically, it overflows with apt darkness, wit, charm and endearment. And the 19th century environs of the Goodpeed itself, lend itself nicely to the story at hand and the people who bring this musicalization of "Oliver Twist" to life, night after night. Or at any given matinee.

"Oliver!" is being staged at The Goodspeed (6 Main St., East Haddam, CT), now through September 13.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 873-8668.
website: goodspeed.org.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 83, A Review: Cole Porter's "Anything Goes" (Westchester Broadway Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco
Cole Porter songs.
Tap-dancing sailors and chorus girls.
Vintage champagne.
A London-bound cruise ship.
Raucous frivolity.
Giggly, giddy subplots and dialogue.
Boatloads of wicked, sexual innuendo.
Golden age wit and nostalgia.
Lovesick couples.
Nightclub singers, English fops and gun-toting mobsters.
Dancing, dancing and more dancing.
And, oh yes, a very happy ending.

Perfection, you ask?
Yes, indeed!

The world of Cole Porter and the one that is the centerpiece for the big, bright and bouncy "Anything Goes," currently on view at Westchester Broadway Theatre, transforms this production into the musical event of the summer. It sings. It dances. It delights. It sparkles. It excites. It explodes. It also comes brightly gift wrapped with big, splashy dance numbers, a variety of colorful characters and a musical songbook of show tunes, in which every single number is gorgeously sung, acted and performed.

There is so much generated charm, passion, inspiration and talent in this glossy, deliciously wicked  revival, a one-time visit to Elmsford simply won't do. Buying a ticket or two to another showing of this high-calibrated production is absolutely mandatory. I speak the truth. Trust me, you will want to see this "Anything Goes" again and again. If you are in the market for an effortlessly stylish musical, it doesn't get any better than this.

That said, let's get down to basics.
The plot line for this high seas romance (set abroad a luxury ocean liner bound for England), goes something like this. As characters of every shape, size and social class come and go, there's glorious romance, confused identities, beguiling kookiness. celebrity gangsters, topical gayness, organizational mishaps, breezy set ups, champagne corkers and oozing nostalgia. There's also plenty of ripe, playful, acerbic commentary about social position and class, icebergs and sinking ships, English society vs. American society, casual sex and tangy innuendo, Chinese stereotypes, homosexuality, drugs and alcohol, arranged marriages, religion, brash business deals and swooning flirtations under the moonlight and way down below deck. Anything can happen and does.

"Anything Goes" is the 206th production to be staged at the Westchester Broadway Theatre. Therefore, it's only fitting that Richard Stafford should return as director to stage this immensely popular musical. At WBT, his previous directorial credits include "Saturday Night Fever," "Fiddler on the Roof," "Show Boat," "Annie Get Your Gun," "Mary Poppins" and Guys and Dolls." A keen, deft, intuitive director, he brings a vast knowledge and understanding of musical theater to this production, which is utilized most effectively here. He's also an original who is always looking for new ways to shape and reinterpret the traditional Broadway musical.

Here, his staging techniques are thrilling, inspired, confident and enthusiastic. Everything he creates and shapes justifiably reflects the mechanics of the original "Anything Goes" book and the complete, reworked edition by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman. The jokes, the plotlines, the vaudevillian shtick, the double takes, the characters, the musicality and the sheer corniness of it all spring merrily to life under his watchful tutelage.

With the help of the entire Westchester Broadway Theatre design team, including Steve Loftus (set design), Andrew Gmoser (lighting design), Keith Nielsen (costume design), Mark Zuckerman (sound design) and Gerard Kelly (wig/hair design), Stafford keeps "Anything Goes" firmly rooted in the period from whence it came. Every actor's move, every gesture, every position, every nuance, every mood, every line delivery and every song introduction cries 1930s.

Elsewhere, he knows how to fully utilize the colorful and mammoth set design (the ever changing colors of the ships' smoke stacks are an absolute plus for this production), to full advantage, thus, moving the actors about on every playing level, from top to bottom, front and center, and in and out of the audience without any form of hesitation or calculation. He also knows the story, the period, the music, the nostalgia and the humor inside out and often gives his actors crafty, wonderfully timed bits of stagecraft and blocking which they toss off effortlessly. This, in turn, keeps "Anything Goes" in marvelous, high-spirited form. Things are so spontaneous, natural and light-hearted, nothing that happens in this musical is ever questioned, out of place or out of sync for a single second.

Cole Porter wrote some of the greatest entries in the Great American Broadway Musical Songbook and "Anything Goes" contains more than a dozen of his most treasured, glorious, show stopping song hits including "I Get a Kick Out of You," "Friendship," "Anything Goes," "Blow, Gabriel, Blow," "All Through the Night," "You're the Top," "It's Delovely," "Easy to Love" and "Buddy, Beware."
So, what's not to like?

At Westchester Broadway Theatre, musical director Patrick Hoagland treats the Cole Porter score with reverence, dazzle, sentimentality and spirit. He knows he has something wonderful in front of him as does his spirited band of musicians John Bowen (keyboards), James Mack (percussion), David Dunaway (bass), Brian Uhl (trumpet), Steven Bleifuss (trombone) and Nicholas DeVito (reed).

Given the quintessential 1930's style of "Anything Goes" and a plotline that cries let's sing another show tune, everything that happens musically is tied into the actual structure of the piece quite seamlessly. No one sings just to sing. No one dances just to dance. This is not that kind of musical. Nor is there any obvious padding or excessive baggage thrown in without purpose. It's all beautifully, timed, packaged, sealed and delivered.

As "Anything Goes" segues from scene to scene, act to act or song to song, Hoagland, ever mindful of the great musical score before him, emphasizes the extreme playfulness and social jest of Porter's music and lyrics, its educated sprinkles and purple moods, its urbane flavoring and its risqué implications and mechanics. This, of course, is shaken and stirred with deliciously icy helpings of mischief, melancholy, pathos, tangy usurps and sincerity.

Careful attention is also paid to Porter's lyrical brashness, its truths, pronouncements and magnificent wordplay, its compulsive, deft phrasing, its overt promiscuity, its chic insouciance, its distinct melodies and lastly, its sophisticated, swinging beats and rhythms. With Hoagland calling all the shots, the "Anything Goes" orchestra is always in full swing and never once misses a beat or important song cue. They have fun. We have fun. And the entire cast (leads, supporting players, ensemble) deliver every one of the familiar songs in perfect pitch and harmony as Mr. Porter intended.

Given that fact that "Anything Goes" has been designed solely as pure escapism, dancing, of course, is everything in a musical of this caliber. And Stafford, who doubles as choreographer, blows the roof off the Westchester Broadway Theatre with sensational.....and, I mean, sensational.....choreography that establishes that sweet and pungent sense of bubbly euphoria that a 1930's musical can inspire. The good news is that this is not your everyday production of "Anything Goes." This is "Anything Goes: The Extended Version" and its like nothing you've ever seen before, which is meant as the highest compliment to Stafford and his cast of dancing professionals.

Since "Anything Goes" is presented in three-quarter staging, a conceit that thrusts everything that happens on the WBT stage out before us in 3-D brilliance, Stafford is able to expand, reinvent and design more intricate, more daring and more fluid dance choreography that explodes, snaps, crackles and pops in every color of the rainbow. He takes chances. He surprises. He cajoles. He delights. He leaves you awestruck with giddy delight. And he never once, repeats himself.

Bringing the dances of the story to life, he makes the right, appropriate choices in terms of style, mood, movement and dance tableaux.  From high-voltage tap numbers that include "Anything Goes" and "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" to the buoyant, simply-stated "You're the Top," "Easy to Love" and "It's De-Lovely," Stafford brings a slick, distinct 1930s feel to the proceedings, matched by plenty of electricity, attitude, sizzle, froth and glamour.

But that's not all. When necessary, the dances reflective in certain musical numbers are extended to not only showcase the talents of certain principals and ensemble members, but to provide additional shading, purpose and dimension. This process also allows Stafford to add some dazzling, show stopping "42nd Street" choreography to his production, offset by some enlightening, energetic dance moves, combinations and pairings that heighten the brilliance of this already ingenious production. Stafford also adds dancing to every single one of the scene changes, which, is not only effective, but keeps the flavorful buoyancy of "Anything Goes" in full swing.

In the role of the sassy and brassy nightclub chanteuse Reno Sweeney, a role once played by Elaine Paige, Sutton Foster, Mitzi Gaynor and Patti LuPone, among others, the very talented Stacia Fernandez steps into the part looking very much like a younger Glenn Close or her cousin from Greenwich, CT.  It's a dream-role come true and one the actress reenacts with spunk, pizazz, heat, passion and drive. She plays it as written with undeniable spirit and gusto and when it comes time to take center stage to sing and dance, this Reno Sweeney is her own creation.

Vocally, she is full-voiced and able ("Anything Goes," "Blow, Gabriel, Blow," "I Get a Kick Out of You"), with just the right amount of trumpeted blare, snap and musicality. As a dancer, she taps, glides and swoons with flip, wild and sexy abandon. And when it comes time to toss off the musical's cheery or acerbic one-liners, she does it ever so engagingly, with a dash or two of perfectly-barbed glee.

Playing the part of Moonface Martin, i.e., Public Enemy No. 13, who, for story purposes is disguised as a parson, Jon J. Peterson gives one of those showstopping, scene-stealing performances that you're  not likely to forget in the years that lie ahead. He's such fun to watch, one anxiously awaits his every entrance. It's a role that is tailor-made for the actor and one that is every inch as good (if not, better) than Bill McCutcheon who created the same part in the big, splashy 1987 Lincoln Center revival opposite Patti LuPone and Howard McGillan.

Nothing is too difficult or too complicated for Peterson. His high-pitched, screechy voice, his infectuous mugs and double takes, his vaudevillian/burlesque line delivery, his body language and the way he moves in and about the Westchester Broadway Theatre stage, is a source of merriment for all involved. His big comic solo "Be Like the Bluebird" in Act II, sets the stage for lots of belly laughs. And he's the perfect sidekick for Reno Sweeney in Act I, when it's time to deliver the flavorsome ditty "Friendship" alongside Ms. Fernandez.

If there is anyone more right or more capable for the part of the clean-cut, lovesick, misunderstood, Billy Crocker, it's none other Zach Trimmer. He's handsome. He's charming, He's dashing. He's personable. He's Yale University and Brooks Brothers from head to toe. And he completely understands how to transform a matinee idol character from page to performance in ways that give the character a much-needed persona and dimension that other actors who've played the part before him were sorely lacking.
Vocally, he is absolutely outstanding in every one of Crocker's vocals including "All Through the Night," "It's Delovely," "Easy to Love" and "You're the Top," the latter performed alongside Ms. Fernandez. As a dancer, he reminds one of a young Lee Roy Reams in "42nd Street," a conceit choreographer/director Richard Stafford embellishes to full effect throughout "Anything Goes."

As Hope Harcourt, the gorgeous, social debutante that Crocker pines for throughout Act I and Act II of "Anything Goes," Jackie Raye is polished, charming, beguiling and desirable, which is exactly what the part calls for. The good news, however, is that despite the musical's 1930's frivolity, her characterization of the part, is anything but one-note. Instead, the actress offers a witty, intuitive, three-dimensional portrait. This Hope speaks her own mind, stands on her own two feet and refuses to be taken for granted. Raye also has the vocal chops well-suited for Cole Porter ("Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye," "It's Delovely") and several Broadway musicals including "Les Miserables," "Evita" and "Hello, Dolly!"

Kevin Pariseau, in the part of malaprop-prone Englishman Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, delivers a deft, often hilarious comic portrayal of a twitchy British fop with a secret past just waiting to be unleashed. His English accent is splendid as is his decidedly English wit, manner and dash. He has great fun with the role and cuts loose when it's time to deliver the wildly outrageous "The Gypsy in Me" in Act II. As Erma, the brassy, flirty young woman who can't wait to take the pants off agreeable, lovesick sailors, Mychal Phillips makes all the right moves. Her ditsy, high-pitched voice and persona is right out of a 1930's screwball comedy. Her comic interplay with everyone on stage including Mr. Peterson, keeps laughs coming in every direction. And finally, her "Buddy, Beware" is just what you'd expect. It's a showstopper every step of the way.

The Westchester Broadway Theatre production of "Anything Goes" is a great addition to the 2018 summer theatrical roster of Broadway musical entertainment. It is sumptuous, glamorous, luscious, inspired fun brimming with admirable clarity, dazzle, chutzpah and savior faire. The plot is cheeky, campy, adorable and silly. It is played entirely straight by the WBT cast and gets appropriate snickers in all the right places. The dialogue is the absolute embodiment of a bygone era that no longer exists. The characters are playful, giddy, bold and brazen for the shipboard romance, mix-ups and calamity that surround them.

The Cole Porter songs are savvy, wicked and marvelously inspired. The cast, all in fine voice, nail every single one of the musical numbers with absolute vocal power and sublimity. Richard Stafford's impassioned direction and choreography unfolds in glorious 3-D Technicolor. Patrick Hoagland's splendid musical direction is proof positive that everyone onstage and off loves a Cole Porter show tune.
And, oh yes, there's the food.
Great service. Great wait staff. Great dinner menu selections. Great desserts. Great cocktails. Great appetizers. And everything is handled by the managers, owners and chefs in a relaxed, casual matter indicative of ocean voyages, both past and present. Something wonderful, indeed.

 Photos By John Vecchiolla

"Anything Goes" is being staged at the Westchester Broadway Theatre (One Broadway Plaza, Elmsford, NY), now through September 9.
For tickets or more information, call (914) 592-2222.
website: broadwaytheatre.com.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 82, A Review: "All Shook Up" (Sharon Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco

"All Shook Up,"  the Elvis Presley inspired musical about small-town Americana during the Eisenhower era, takes it cue from several Broadway musicals including "Footloose," "Grease," "Bye, Bye, Birdie," "Good Vibrations" and "Mamma Mia,!" among others.

But that's not necessarily a bad thing. If anything, it sets the stage for a night of non-stop entertainment where bright and bouncy is the bill of fare, offset by distinctively shaped familiar musical songbooks, sit-com laughter, period dances, family-friendly parodies, shakeups, outbursts and surprises and a cast list of characters common to old-fashioned movies and TV shows from the 1950's.

What separates this production from others this summer is that "All Shook Up" has been solely designed to showcase members of the Sharon Playhouse 2018 "Teen Camp," who, prior, to opening night, were given a two-week rehearsal process to master the mechanics and craftsmanship of a full-fledged Broadway musical, culminating in ten performances at the acclaimed summer theater.

What especially gratifying about this particular "Teen Camp" is that every single one of these teenagers is absolutely serious about musical theater performance and their individual role or roles in the actual production. They are talented. They are personable. They are charismatic. They are energetic. And they when they come together as one, they are spontaneous, thrilling and spectacular.
Sharon Playhouse is to be commended for creating this summer program and encouraging young people to follow their dream.

The plotline for "All Shook Up," borrows some of the tasty ingredients from William Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night " for its playful conceit. That includes mismatched lovers, lusty and forbidden romances, comic buffoonery, sidekicks delivering love letters, and lastly, a woman disguising herself as a man to win the heart of the man she loves.

To bring "All Shook Up" to life, director Sarah Combs has cast the entire production well, using the only the very best performers (ages 13 to 19) to play the leads, supporting roles and the singers and dancers of the ensemble. She has also surrounded herself with a tremendously talented technical team, which includes Thomas P. Swetz (set design), Zach Straeffer (lighting design), David Baxter (costume design), Jeremy Oleska (sound design) and Karla Woodworth (props design).

As director, she gives tremendous voice and humanization to the story, the characters, the sub plots, the outcomes and the show's dizzying musical theatricality. She has researched the 1950's time period well from top to bottom to front and center. Everything that happens on the Sharon Playhouse stage has been carefully timed and positioned. The entire cast acts and behaves as if they were uprooted from the 1950's and dropped down into Sharon, CT. via Dr. Who's Tardis. The show's silly, corny and playful dialogue is played straight, chock full of nuance and believability. Every single one of the scene changes is fast and fluid and expertly handled by the production's incredible backstage running crew. And no one makes a mistake or misstep under Combs' deft, creative tutelage.

First and foremost, Combs has got a story to tell and she tells it well. The show itself  has been designed exclusively as feel-good entertainment and that's exactly what you get. There is no Elvis to speak of, but the musical plays like something you'd find in one of his movies, only its live and played out in glorious Technicolor.
It dances. It sings. It cajoles. It stings. It bites. It produces huge belly laughs. It make you smile. It make you stand up and cheer. It gets you hot and bothered. And given the talent Combs has assembled, its amazes and amazes and amazes..

Musically, "All Shook Up" takes it cue from other jukebox musicals where the songs and not the plotline are the main attraction. That said, its creators have included more than 25 Elvis Presley classics that fuel the musical's energetic, snappy and pumped-up nostalgic musical songbook. The good news is that each and every song fits seamlessly into the night's entertainment from solos and duets to big, high octane, showstopping  production numbers. Nothing is pre-packaged, drippy or gooey. This is 100 per cent Elvis just the way you like it. And it's all been designed solely to knock your socks off, work you into a frenzied state of breezy delirium and get you clapping and clapping until your hands hurt.

The songs are as follows: "Jailhouse Rock," "Love Me Tender," "Follow That Dream," "Burning Love," "Blue Suede Shoes," "Don't Be Cruel," "Heartbreak Hotel," "One Night With You," "The Power of Love," "It's Now or Never," "All Shook Up," "If I Can Dream," "Roustabout," "C'mon Everybody," "Teddy Bear," "Hound Dog," "That's All Right," "Let Yourself Go," "It Hurts Me," "I Don't Want To," "A Little Less Conversation," "Devil in Disguise," "There's Always Me," "Can't Help But Falling in Love" and "Fools Fall in Love."

At Sharon Playhouse, "All Shook Up"  springs to life under the musical direction of Jacob Carll (conductor/keyboard), Rich Conley (reeds), Joe Deveau (guitar), Mike Siless (trumpet), Steve Kessler (trombone/keyboard 2), Ben Basile (bass) and Tim Hermann (percussion). Carll, a talented musician with credits ranging from "Footloose" and "Avenue Q" to "9 to 5" and "Urinetown," works his magic here and brings a unique freshness, snap and pulse to each and every one of the musical numbers. Yes, this is the music of Elvis Presley. Yes, there's a certain homage and nostalgia to the "All Shook up" musical songbook. But at the same time, there's so much more going on here.

What makes "All Shook Up" snap, crackle and pop is the way Carll and his orchestral team wrap themselves around the music to make it sing. Everything has its time and place in the actual story, but the songs themselves have been pumped up and re-imagined for a modern day audience without losing any of their tangy, pungent 1950's flavor, dimension, melancholy, sweetness and social commentary.  That concept not only breathes new life into the familiar Elvis soundtrack, but lets you experience the music on an entirely different level, which is exactly the point. No boring, tired retreads here
This production shines like a brand new 1958 Cadillac going that extra mile and living the dream along that fast and slick musical highway. And the "All Shook Up" cast (leads, supporting players, ensemble) demonstrate great showmanship throughout, tackling every single song. beat and harmony as if it was written especially for them. They are AMAZING. And finally, in the big production numbers, the rich choral sound that fills the Sharon Playhouse stage is ovation worthy at every musical turn.

The dancing in "All Shook Up" is amazing, energetic and thrilling. Choreographer Grace Mihalchik dishes up dance moves, styles, beats and rhythms that vividly and superbly reflect the 1950s period from whence they came. Creatively, Mihalchik connects with the material, its songbook, the characters and the many, many dance numbers that propel the action forward. No two numbers are alike.

Here, you get individual numbers that are brilliantly choreographed using extremely complicated and very stylized 1950's dance moves dance that cry Equity and not Teen Summer Camp. Mihalchik is too professional to go the paint-by-numbers route. Instead, she crafts a thrilling musical dance entertainment where every single cast member on stage has his or her individual moment, recreating dance moves designed for Broadway heavyweights. How very lucky the "All Shook Up" cast is to have someone of Ms. Mihalchik's caliber in their corner. And how lucky are we to sit in the audience and watch this woman set the Sharon Playhouse stage ablaze with such energy, talent and electricity.

In the lead role of Chad, the guitar-playing roustabout who rides into town and causes the entire female population to drool, swoon or faint at the sight of him, Nick Lamberti has the kind of dreamy good looks, swagger, smile and persona, necessary to pull the part of Chad off believably and ignite the necessary sparks, passion, tension and intrigue. He's a major talent and a force to be reckoned with from the moment he appears on stage. He's an exceptional singer, dancer and showman. He's got the Elvis moves down perfectly. His character's unbridled narcissism is believably conveyed. He loves being on stage in front of an audience. And even though the show is rehearsed, he has a natural charm and confidence about him that makes one believe everything is happening in real time.

Kelly Follette, as Natalie Haller, the tomboyish mechanic who disguises herself as Ed in order to pursue the man she loves, is charming, personable, intelligent and charismatic. She has great fun bringing both characters to life. And she does it ever so perfectly. Vocally, she is powerful and commanding. And she is perfectly matched opposite her brooding, handsome co-star.

Angel Hernandez hits all the right marks with his energetic, comic portrayal of the nerdy and geeky Dennis. As Sylvia, the local bar owner, Isabel Penn is "spot on." She also has a wonderful singing voice, which is used to full effect in "There's Always Me."  Alex Besio, who plays her love interest Jim Haller brings plenty of charm and charisma to the part of a troubled man who has lost his wife and is anxious to start over.

Other standout performances come from Cara Leahy as Lorraine, Haley Napier as Mayor Matilda Hyde, Vann Strassen as Dean Hyde, Victoria D' Orazio as Miss Sandra and Nick Scott as Sheriff Earl. All five are appropriately cast for their respective roles, which they bring to life most engagingly.
Their singing, their facial expressions, their body language, their line delivery and their interaction with the rest of the cast is believably rendered.

The "All Shook Up" ensemble is headed by Lizzy Quinby, Ryan Flynn, Julia Baroody, Brandon Swetz, Sarah Cattelan, Kiley Foxhall, Riley Francisco, Madelynn Peterson, Alexa Lamberti, Rachel McGeachy, Heather Murphy and Dan Warman.  Their involvement in the production is fueled by exceptional singing, dancing and acting skills. Just look at their faces. They are having the time of their lives and it shows every time they are on stage doing what they love best.

"All Shook Up" is the musical hit of the summer. It is lively and inspired. It is fast-paced and light-hearted. It is bright and bouncy. It is sexy and charming. It contains one hit song after another. The performances are incredible. And the rapturous applause and standing ovations that greet every performance are well deserved. So go and enjoy. You won't be disappointed. And who knows? In the years ahead, you might see some of the "All Shook Up" cast members on Broadway. It's been know to happen. And, it has.

"All Shook Up" is being staged at the Sharon Playhouse (49 Amenia Rd., Sharon, CT), now through July 22.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 364-7469.
website: sharonplayhouse.org

Saturday, July 14, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 81, A Review: "The Pianist of Willesden Lane" (Hartford Stage)

By James V. Ruocco

In "The Pianist of Willesden Lane," performer/musician Mona Golabek journeys back in time to tell the sensitive, personal, biographical story of her mother, Lisa Jura, a young, aspiring, classical pianist in Vienna, Austria, circa 1938. The story, which concludes in London, 1942, charts Jura's escape from the Nazi regime to finding asylum in Great Britain while her family was left behind.
Amidst piano concertos and ambitions, Nazi edicts and prejudice and the notorious Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) and its horrific aftermath, the actress assumes a variety of different roles and voices (her mother Lisa is the centerpiece of the narrative), with commanding intent and belief, backed by hauntingly evocative classical music pieces composed by Mozart, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Grieg, Bach and Debussy, among others.

It is moving.
It is haunting.
It is alarming.
It is beautiful.
It is timely.
It is powerful.
It is ambitious.
It is passionate.
It is unforgettable.
It also makes you weep.

Many moments, of course, stand out.
As storyteller, Golabeck recounts her mother's pain and confusion after being told that her beloved piano instructor can no longer teach her music because he's been forbidden to instruct anyone of Jewish origin. There is the "children's  train," (Kindertransport) that moved thousands of youngsters to safety in England. There is the destruction of the Willesden Lane property during the Blitz and its eventual recovery. There is the allied invasion of England. There are also stories about her mother's father, her mother's siblings, her cousins, the group foster homes and hostels,  the bus rides and piano lessons, the cafes, the famous blue dress and audition that led to a scholarship at the Royal Academy of  Music, the financial relief that came from playing the piano at hotels during World War II and  making uniforms for the RAF plus assorted romances, woes and heartaches.

"Never stop playing," her mother Lisa told her just before she boarded the train in Vienna bound for London. "And I will be with you every step of the way."  It's a connection that the young Lisa  never ever forgot.

In reality, the actual conceit of staging a one-woman can be especially daunting and problematic, especially if the director is not up to the challenge of the material (in this case, Golabek's stirring book "The Children of Willesden Lane," co-authored with Lee Cohen), the specific staging blueprint and the mechanics of keeping the entire project afloat while using just one actor....and only one actor...for the play's allotted running time of 90 minutes. No interruptions. No pauses. No stop and go for freeze frame. Just one person, front and center, establishing complete trust and camaraderie between actor and audience that cannot be broken for a single second

Dangerous, yes.
Crazy, yes.
Daring, yes.
Lethal, yes.
But when done right, as is the case with "The Pianist of Willesden Lane," the effect is completely captivating and an absolute privilege to witness.

This production, adapted and directed by Hershey Felder, unfolds with extraordinary assurance, ambition and resonance. Nothing happens just to happen. Everything from Golabek's piano-accompanied journey into her mother's past and the extraordinarily personal dialogues and remembrances that follow, fascinates. As observer, Felder is creative, dynamic, crafty, appreciative and respectful. Moreover, he lets the subject matter breathe, build, take shape and unfold intuitively. And that, in a nutshell, is why this production works ever so well.

One actor. One play. No intermission. Simply amazing.
One of the greatest accomplishments under Felder's tutelage is the closeness he creates between actor and audience. Yes, we are in a theater. Yes, we are watching a play. Yes, we can see the faces of those seated around us on all different levels. Yes, we are watching a deft, very accomplished musician, performer and storyteller bare her heart and soul through memory. But with Felder orchestrating "The Pianist of Willesden Lane," one is made to feel and experience a voyeuristic intimacy and bond with Golabek where it feels as if she is talking only to us. No one else, just us.

To enhance the reality and power of the story, images are often projected in the background on four over-sized, gold-encrusted picture frames. Pinpoint-perfect film clips, special moody lighting cues and properly placed sound effects and orchestrations further that notion.

It's all pretty unique and fascinating, when you think about it.
That said, the actual environs of the Hartford Stage space, also heightens that experience wholeheartedly.
"It's like being in your living room, " Golabek tells us following the play's conclusion.

In terms of performance, it takes an extraordinary talent to hold the audience in the palm of her hand for 90 minutes and the equally astounding Mona Golabek does exactly just that. She is genuine. She is real. She is childlike. She is frightened. She is curious. She is brave. She is honest. She is affectionate. She is personable. She captures the voice of Lisa, her adolescent mother with effective imagination and purpose. And under Fedler's smart, inventive direction, she is completely focused and at ease no matter what the situation it, what the dialogue is, what the character is, what the music is or what the memory is.

At the piano, she is passionate, resourceful and uplifting. She is also self-giving and self-revealing, displaying superb concert pianist skills and qualities that are appropriate, distinguished, committed, sensuous and thrilling. She can shift gears with amazing aplomb. She gets lost in the very moment of it all. The love she shares for every classical piece she brings to life is astonishing. Watching her play piece after piece while shaping and molding her mother's personal journey is an actual feast for the eye of the beholder. She also knows exactly how to keep you riveted and spellbound, how to find humor in certain situations and how to reduce you to tears when talking about the war, the Holocaust, its survivors and uncertainty of someone's fate.

Music, of course, is everything in "The Pianist of Willesden Lane" and several classical selections stand out. They include Debussy's "Clair de Lune," Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata," Grieg's "Piano Concerto in A Minor" and Rachmaninoff's "Prelude in C Minor." Performed with such style and grace, the music, the notes and the sounds become a vital character in Golabek's  narrative.
The audience is also privy to the sweet-sounding "Strike Up the Band" and "These Foolish Things."

 I simply cannot say enough.

A triumph for all involved, "The Pianist of Willesden Lane"  is a mesmerizing, unforgettable evening of theater. It is emotional. It is heartfelt. It is gratifying. It is thought-provoking. It connects with you one-on-one. It tugs at your heart strings. It gets you thinking about your own life and your own family. And, it reveals itself in ways that are both deeply affecting and meaningful.

At the center of it all is keyboard virtuoso Mona Golabek herself, a selfless, extraordinary individual who recounts her mother's tale of survival through music and storytelling in ways that linger long after the production has ended.  Bravo, Ms. Golabek. Bravo.

"The Pianist of Willesden Lane" is being presented at Hartford Stage (50 Church St., Hartford, CT), now through July 22.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-5151.
website: hartfordstage.org

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 80, A Review: "Grease" (Ivoryton Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco
"I want to see it again."

That is the general reaction for Ivoryton Playhouse's witty, gloriously inspired revival of "Grease," that all-too-familiar 1972 Broadway musical about rock and roll, boy-meets-girl, teen idols, hamburger hangouts, prom night, broken dreams, high school drop outs, sleeping around, overnight beauty makeovers, teen angst and following your heart.

This is "Grease" like you've never seen before.
And that is great, great news.

At Ivoryton, the cast is racially diverse, a concept that brings a refreshing dynamic to the story and its popular characters.
Some of the musical numbers have been vocally re-imagined or reinvented.
And finally, more attention is paid to the script and its individual characters.

That said, "Grease" is the musical event of the summer.

It's ambitious.
It's witty.
It's exciting.
It's powerful.
It's fluid.

It is yet another crowning achievement for Ivoryton Playhouse whose stellar 2018 theater season has included one hit after another from "The Fantasticks" and "Love Quest" to the recent "A Night With Janis Joplin."

Directorially speaking, Todd L. Underwood is the ideal choice for "Grease." With a trunk load of stage musicals to his credit including "Saturday Night Fever," "Man of La Mancha," "Rent," "West Side Story" and "Chicago," he brings a tremendous insight, style and uniqueness to every production he stages by always going that extra mile, shaking things up a bit and making a change or two to the material that benefits the production, his vision and the actual performance itself.

First and foremost, he is not a copycat. Nor is he one to sit back and go the paint-by-numbers route with this revival of "Grease" and its overly familiar story, characters, songs and dances. His "Grease" is fresh, invigorating, unique and different.. There is nothing dated, soppy or corny about it. Instead, it is brimming with newness, style and individuality.

As "Grease" evolves, Underwood never repeats himself,  replays a joke or takes things for granted. He keeps the musical spinning and whirling from one scene to the next, but firmly rooted in the 1950s time period set forth by its Broadway creators. He also has done his homework by smartly integrating some of the rough and raunchy body language and innuendo of the original 1972 Broadway musical into his production minus the four-letter words that eventually were exorcised completely once the 1978 movie version came out. Elsewhere, he amps up the volume with some very sexy gyrating and bold dance moves. And he actually enlivens....much to the delight of the audience....the bare-ass show-and-tell antics of Rydell High's "mooning champ," the one and only Roger.

Nothing happens just to happen.
With Underwood at the helm, every actor's move, every gesture, every smirk, every smile, every foul gesture, every beat, every nuance and every line delivery cries 1950s. Nothing is rushed. Nothing is out of place. Nothing gets lost in the translation. As "Grease" plays out, Underwood gives his entire cast a back story, fully fleshed out characterizations, a sense of individuality and a real purpose for their actual placement in the story, the musical numbers and the dances. He also gives his actors some marvelous bits of 1950s stagecraft and blocking maneuvers which they reenact effortlessly.

Given "Grease's" 1950s setting, attitude and mentality, Underwood, who also doubles as choreographer, stirs the pot, so to speak, with appropriate dash, wry amusement and nostalgic theatricality. The addition of a "Jersey Boys" upper level playing area at the back of the stage mixed with a pop-out, three-dimensional song/dance tableaux meant to fill every nook and cranny of the Ivoryton Playhouse stage, gives this "Grease" an electricity and pulse that heightens every single one of the musical numbers and dances.
The good news: Underwood doesn't go for the obvious. He's an original.
And that, for a musical that's been revived and revived, decade after decade, is something of a major accomplishment. Take, for example, the opening number "Grease Is the Word," which finds the entire cast of "Grease" front and center singing, harmonizing and dancing to their own individual beats and rhythms. It is not only an amazing choreographic feat that is ovation worthy, but one that lets you know that this is not your typical, average production of "Grease." It is so much more.

"We Go Together" retains the fun, playful camaraderie and exuberance it is meant to have, using staging and choreography similar to that of the 1972 Broadway production. "Greased Lightnin' " explodes with the notched up energy and fuel its creators intended. "You're the One That I Want" amps up the heat with appropriate drive and sex appeal. And "Born to Hand Jive" unfolds with just the right amount of dizzying frenzy and momentum that never once drops.

Musically, "Grease" retains most of the Jim Jacobs/Warren Casey songs from the original 1972 Broadway production including "Summer Nights," "Freddy, My Love," "Those Magic Changes," "It's Raining on Prom Night," "Greased Lightnin'," "We Go Together" and "Mooning." The production also uses songs from the 1978 motion picture including "Grease Is the Word," "Sandy," "Hopelessly Devoted to You" and "You're the One That I Want."

At Ivoryton Playhouse, musical direction is provided by Michael Morris,  a very talented musician  whose credits include "Dreamgirls," "Rent," "Saturday Night Fever" and "A Night With Janis Joplin." Like Underwood, Morris brings a unique freshness and snap to the musical numbers that other revivals sorely lack. Here, he re-imagines certain vocals by adding ensemble players or supporting cast members to the piece, backed by some brilliant, impeccably sung harmonizing that takes each song to an entirely different level. He also retains the musical's 1950's acerbic commentary, its playful wickedness, its tangy usurps and its wholesome melancholy and sincerity.
And the entire cast (leads, supporting players, ensemble) have great fun bringing the show's many musical numbers to life, traditionally or in freshly minted, new interpretations.

Looking like a cross between Jerry O'Connell's cousin and Tony from "West Side Story," Johnny Newcomb glides perfectly into the role of Danny Zuko, offering a slightly different, more believable  portrayal of the popular Rydell High School greaser that grounds him firmly into reality instead of comic book caricature. He's got Zuko's moves, swagger, persona and smile.  He also brings an endearing, boyish charm to the part which works perfectly opposite Immanuel. And vocally, everything he sings from "Summer Nights" and "Sandy" to "You're the One That I Want," is delivered with confidence, honesty and gusto.

From the moment she first breaks into song, Kimberly Immanuel, last seen as Luisa in Ivoryton Playhouse's dazzling production of "The Fantasticks," has a radiant charm, sweetness, intelligence and vulnerability about her. Her Sandy is neither one-note, flat-footed or cardboard cutout. Instead, Immanuel offers a grounded, free-spirited, three-dimensional portrait of a 1950's high schooler that is real, raw and unafraid to speak her mind regardless of the consequences. She is a force to be reckoned with, a trait that the actress not only believably portrays, but allows her to bring additional nuance to the original book material, thus, making it jump off the page instead of just sitting there.

Vocally, she is at the top of her form. Her heartfelt, endearing rendition of "Hopelessly Devoted to You" is as good as it gets. And her transition from good girl to bad girl at the end of Act II is so convincing, it's true....the other Sandy has truly left the building.

Rizzo, played by Alyssa V. Gomez, has attitude and vamp, with a dash of coolness, which is exactly right for her wise-cracking character. She also has a moody, bluesy voice that connects perfectly with her big solo "There Are Worse Things I Could Do." As Marty, Taylor Lloyd makes all the right moves and turns "Freddie My Love" into a genuine showstopper. Corey Candelet's Eugene is nerdy, twitchy and prone to falling completely on his face, a crazy bit of stage business, which the actor pulls off swimmingly. Natale Pirrotta pumps up the adrenaline as Kenickie in "Greased Lightnin' " as does Luke Linsteadt's Doody in "Those Magic Changes." Taylor Morrow, as Roger, the mooning champ of Rydell High, not only stops the show with his crazed and hilarious musical turn "Mooning" (he is joined by the amusing Audrey Wilson as Jan) but his all-around performance is 100 per cent better than that of  Walter Bobbie who played Roger in the 1972 Broadway production and Hunter Foster who portrayed the same role in the 1994 Broadway revival.

"Grease" is a great addition to summer theater going at Ivoryton Playhouse. It is fun. It is snappy. It is playful. It is smart. It is full of great voices. The familiar story accentuates its relevance through a uniquely different eye. Musically, it is chock full of melody, sentiment and personality. And lastly, the very idea of using a racially diverse cast keeps its soaring and soaring and flying high.
And oh, yes. You'll want to see it again.

"Grease" is being staged at the Ivoryton Playhouse (103 Main St., Ivoryton, CT), now through July 29.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 767-7318
website: ivorytonplayhouse.org