Friday, August 24, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 91, A Review: "West Side Story" (Barrington Stage Company)

By James V. Ruocco

With music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Arthur Laurents, "West Side Story" arrives on the doorstep of Barrington Stage Company fifty-one years after its Broadway debut. But there is nothing tiresome or dated about this story of doomed love set against the background of gangland warfare on the streets of New York's upper west side, circa, 1957.

If anything, this production not only reaffirms the musical's greatness, but like "Company," the year before at Barrington Stage, it creates its own magic, its own physical poetry, its own sense of style and its own emotional power.


This "West Side Story" has it all.

It's a show rich in theatrical brilliance as well as something deeply human and deeply moving. It contains extraordinary performances from its equally brilliant cast. The songs strike sparks in all the right places. And the dancing is simply magnificent.

In short, what's not to like?

Julianne Boyd, the director of "West Side Story," knows she has a Broadway classic in her hands and therefore, remains faithful to the original 1957 production. That said, she crafts an exuberant, heartfelt, dutiful production of high energy, pulse, sentiment and dimension. Her instinctive connection to the piece, the characters, the story, the music and its clash of cultures is real and achingly heartfelt. Nothing is sugar-coated. Nothing is taken for granted. Nothing is downplayed, changed or reinvented. The prejudice of the times, its ugliness, its verbal abuse, its hypocrisy and its obvious sneer at minorities is front and center. The "Romeo and Juliet" romance between Tony and Maria, the two lovers of different social, economic and racial backgrounds is also rife with reason, energy, drama and timelessness.

To many, the story of "West Side Story" is pretty much indestructible. It's big, yes. It's amazing, yes. It's loved, yes. The songs, the dances and the characters are legendary. Regardless, Boyd is not one to rest on her laurels. Nor is she one to copycat the original stage production or the 1961 Oscar-winning movie. There's a lot going on here, but she is never once daunted, intimidated or over anxious. It's her show and she works effortlessly to pull it all together, and pull it all together, she does.

Key narrative moments have real purpose, meaning and importance. The action is fast, fluid and well-defined. The songs and dances fit seamlessly into the framework of the story. And every actor on the Barrington stage (lead, supporting or ensemble member) is firmly rooted in the time period of the actual story, circa 1957.  Boyd wouldn't have it any other way.

Here, as in last year's "Company," Boyd is a force to be reckoned with. Staging the two-act musical, she embellishes the territorial, troublesome underbelly of the composer's and author's vision, its streetwise language and gangland bravado, its well-plotted scene structure, its flip sarcasm, its cowardice, its boldness and its surprise twists of fate. She also knows how to build and develop a given scene, how to thrust each principal character or supporting character into the spotlight, how to introduce an individual song or production number without calculation and how to embellish the vision set forth by the show's creators.

Boyd is such a clever, ingenious auteur, this "West Side Story" springs to life in every color of the spectrum imaginable. Even if you've seen the movie or some incarnation of the much-loved stage musical before, with Boyd pulling the strings, you forget all of that. Just as "Company" cast its spell, so does "West Side Story." At Barrington Stage, it's as if you're seeing this classic Bernstein/Sondheim musical for the very first time.

Then, now, tomorrow and the day after that, the strength and heartbeat of any production of "West Side Story" lies in Jerome Robbins' ground-breaking, original choreography, a hypnotic mix of urban cool and street-wise, dark and moody, breezy and erotic and factual and real. Here, choreographer Robert La Fosse takes hold of the master's shifting, pulse-quickening dance moves, maneuvers and dance patterns and plunges head-first into the fiery, passionate, testosterone-charged territory made famous by Robbins, bringing depth, heat and urgency to the opening "Prologue," the tangy "Dance at the Gym," the poignant, hopeful "Somewhere" ballet, the pungent "America" and the icy-hot "Cool."

In this production, La Fosse masterfully recreates the original choreography set forth by Robbins for the 1957 Broadway production that starred Larry Kert, Carol Lawrence, Chita Rivera, Michael Callan, Tony Mordente, Ken LeRoy and Marilyn Cooper. It is eye-popping. It is exhilarating. It is edgy. It is dynamic. It is explosive. It is fiery. It is passionate.

But La Fosse is no imitator. He's his own person. He connects all the right dots and uses all the right colors. Working from Robbins' blueprint, he crafts brilliant, dance moves that not only soar, entice and excite, but leave you completely awe stuck, begging for more, wanting more and crying for more over and over. This is "West Side Story" like you've never seen before. La Fosse is a master craftsman who produces some eclectic moments of macho swagger and turbulence, balletic elegance, touching playfulness, sexy spontaneity and street-wise edge and brutality. But the combinations, the set ups, the positions, the framing, the cross-cuts, the beats, the pauses and the rhythms, are so precise, natural and revelatory,  memories of every other "West Side Story" fade completely to black immediately.

This, of course, is bolstered by the rhythmic, snappy brilliance of Bernstein's flavorful musical score and the eloquent, expressive, poetic beauty of Sondheim's lyrics. Then and now, "West Side Story" comes gift wrapped with a visionary line-up of showstoppers that include "Tonight," "Maria," "America," "I Feel Pretty," "Something's Coming," "Cool," "Somewhere," "One Hand, One Heart" and "Gee, Officer, Krupke."

At Barrington Stage, Darren R. Cohen breathes new life into the popular "West Side Story" score in ways that would make its creators proud. Every showstopper, every song and every production number is rife with imagination, purpose and spirit. The vocally difficult "Quintet" is furiously delivered by the entire cast who never once step out of line, miss a beat or forget a lyric. Elsewhere, songs like "Maria," "Tonight," "Cool" and "America" are freshly delivered and performed with genuine ardor, sensitivity, compassion, gusto and yearning.

That said, this "West Side Story" never feels stuck in a musical time warp of nostalgia. Cohen completely understands the song material and the tragic, sincere and emotional dimensions built into the music and lyrics by Bernstein and Sondheim. Yet despite its familiarity and its very hummable lyrics, it all sounds very, very new. That is quite a feat to pull off, but Cohen does it quite splendidly.

Casting the right actor in the right part is crucial to the success of any production of "West Side Story" and Boyd, La Fosse and Cohen have done themselves proud. At Barrington Stage, everyone is so very right for their respective roles from lead and supporting players to members of the "West Side Story" ensemble. This cast far surpasses that of the 2009 Broadway revival which starred Matt Cavenaugh, Karen Olivo, Josefina Scagloine, Cody Green and George Akram and any subsequent National Tour in the last decade or two.
They are extraordinary. The skill, the sincerity, the mindset and the magic they each bring to this adrenaline-filled story fascinates, entertains, excites and enthralls. There's also a breathless rush and exhilaration to everything they say and do in a broken, confused and prejudiced world that never stops them longing for a better life far beyond their blue collar/immigrant, gang-ridden neighborhoods of the late 1950's.

The character of Tony, as written by Laurents, is not an easy role to pull off. Most often, the part is played with one-note charm from song to song or scene to scene with almost nothing to propel you into his story, his romance or subsequent death at the end of the musical. To pull it off, you need an actor who is not only charming, likeable and sincere from the moment we first meet him, but someone who can act, sing, dance and make even the most stilted or silliest of dialogue sound completely instinctive and believable.

Luckily, for us, "West Side Story" director Julianne Boyd saw fit to cast the very personable and charismatic Will Branner as the troubled, lovesick, kind-hearted romantic. The actor not only  possesses the boyish, laid-back charm, spirit and innocence that embodies Tony, but gives him equal dimension, color, personality, shading and presence.

He's not only the best Tony out there, but he's every inch the wide-eyed hero, the heartthrob, the dazed romantic and the mediator that Laurents envisioned the character to be. He makes us believe that love can (and does) happen at first sight. His stand against the ugly prejudice of the times is believably projected with pulse, concern and authority. And when he kills Bernardo in a fit of rage during the brilliantly staged "The Rumble" at the end of Act 1, his cry for help, namely "Maria," is so real and frightening, it's impossible not to be shaken or moved.

Vocally, Branner dazzles. He oozes sweetness. He oozes charm. He is in perfect pitch, utilizing his smooth, irresistible sound to such full effect, he could probably reduce Sondheim to tears if ever the composer was in the audience (he was there for "Company," so who knows?). Branner also gets the lyrics. He gets the music. You never doubt him for a moment. With "Something's Coming," he sings with excited certainty and curiosity. With "Maria," his astonishing vocal purity and power magically captures the wonderment of first love and the endless possibilities that will follow. And his "Tonight" duet with his very attractive co-star (Addie Morales) is hauntingly beautiful.

One of genuine pleasures of Boyd's "West Side Story" is the casting of Addie Morales as Maria. This too is not an easy role to play, but the sweet, enigmatic Morales takes hold of it and shapes and molds it into one of the most magical, enchanting and alarmingly real performances the musical has to offer. She is charming. She is innocent. She is radiant. She is compassionate. She is lovely. She is also an actress of intelligence, depth, drive and perseverance. And like Branner, she completely gets and understands the character she is playing and her role in the advancement of the actual story. Maria's desolate grief at the end of Act II is so realistically conveyed and projected, it's impossible to take your eyes off the actress for a second. She really makes you feel her pain, her anguish and her loss. Simply amazing.

When asked to perform Maria's many "West Side Story" vocals, Morales does so, every so agreeably, in ways that are charming, alluring, intoxicating and playful. Her thrilling, delightful rendition of "I Feel Pretty," is rife with charm, whimsy, color and imagination. "Tonight" and "One Hand, One Heart," the hauntingly beautiful romantic ballads she shares with Branner, are just as pungent and beguiling as the day they were first written. "A Boy Like That/ I Have a Love," the fiery, heated duet about first /lost love she sings and shares with the citrusy  Skyler Volpe (Anita) floats the voice, the concern and urgency of the song exactly as intended by Bernstein and Sondheim.

Anita, the fiery, sultry girlfriend of Maria's brother Bernardo, is played with passionate vitality, allure and temperament by the equally alluring and passionate Skyler Volpe who recently starred as Mimi in the 20th Anniversary National Tour of Jonathan Larson's feverish musical "Rent," where she dazzled and rocked audiences night after night with her thrilling performance.

Like "Rent's" Mimi, the part of Anita is tailor-made for Volpe. She dazzles, flirts, charms and glides herself through this colorful role (she's also an incredible dancer) with just the right emotion, pulse, depth and personality to pull it off. We get her. She gets us. We love her. She loves us. Her performance is so lusty and so powerful, we are never once reminded of Chita Rivera who originated the role of Anita in the 1957 Broadway production or Rita Moreno who assumed the role in the 1961 Oscar-winning movie musical.

Volpe's seamless, flavorsome rendition of  "America," performed, in part, with the fine-voiced Shark Girls, brilliantly captures the sardonic wit and contempt of life in both the USA and Puerto Rico with icy imagination. Much later, when the Jets taunt her with twisted racial slurs and a simulated rape that director Boyd builds and builds to a frightening crescendo, Volpe's anger is real, raw and warranted. It's an amazing piece of drama that gives additional edge to the story and its eventual dramatic conclusion.

Sean Ewing, as Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, the brother of Maria and the boyfriend of Anita is right in sync with Laurents' bold, intense interpretation of the iconic street gang character who dies at the end of Act I. Vocally, he stands tall in the brilliantly staged and sung "Quintet," which is performed by the entire cast. But, sadly, he does not perform in "America" like George Chakiris did in the movie version. Here, the popular musical number adheres to the original staging and concept (women only) of the original 1957 Broadway musical. In short, no Bernardo. No male Sharks.

For the part of Riff, Boyd has cast the versatile Tyler Hanes to play the leader of the Jets gang. Perfect casting. Most definitely. The actor makes all the right moves, from Riff's take-charge persona and urban vulnerability to the character's heated restlessness, short-changed hostility with the Sharks and the kind-hearted buddy-buddy camaraderie he shares with the Jets gang. The actor also brings a real sense of tireless, palpable humanity to the showstopping "Jet Song," performed with jazzy snap  by members of the Jets gang and danced to ovation worthy perfection under Robert La Fosse's choreographic tutelage.

Often, in "West Side Story," the parts of Doc (Gordon Stanley), Glad Hand/Lt. Schrank (Douglas Rees) and Officer Krupke (Christopher Tucci) get lost in the shuffle or are played by actors who simply are unable to get past the one-note mechanics of their characters or the writing. Not so, at Barrington Stage. Here, under Julianne Boyd's watchful eye, this trio of actors not only offer bold, full-bodied performances, but fit seamlessly into the framework of the story and its dramatic evolution.

"West Side Story" is an exciting fusion of music, romance, dance and story. It is a great American musical, reinforced by Julianne Boyd's gutsy, determined direction, the jazzy brilliance of Robert La Fosse's choreography and the vocal pulse and precision of the popular Bernstein/Sondheim score. It is an emotionally-ridden work, populated by an exceptional team of actors, singers and dancers, all of whom work tirelessly to bring the charm, menace, melody, angst and social concern that is "West Side Story" to life. It is also the only production where Chino's murder of Tony by gunshot at the end of Act II leaves the audience completely shaken. Then again, Boyd as director, wouldn't have it any other way.

"West Side Story" photos by Daniel Rader

"West Side Story" is being showcased at Barrington Stage (Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, 30 Union St., Pittsfield, MA), now through September 1.
For tickets or more information, call (413) 236-8888.

Monday, August 20, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 90, A Review: "Always... Patsy Cline" (Sharon Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco

It's more than just a tribute. It's a slice of country music Americana with a down home twist.

"Always...Patsy Cline," which has settled into Sharon Playhouse for an exclusive, very exciting run, is based, in part, on the real-life friendship between the Nashville country star and Houston housewife Louise Seger.

From the moment Seger first heard Cline pour her heart out in song on a 1957 television broadcast of 'The Arthur Godfrey Show," she became the singer's number one fan and continually hounded the local radio station's disk jockey to play Cline's music continually on the radio. He was more than happy to oblige.

In 1961, Cline and Seger officially met when the singer, who, was travelling alone for an concert engagement, bumped into her biggest fan at the venue itself an hour-and-a-half before showtime. It was there that their friendship began and would continue via phone calls and letters until Cline's untimely death in a plane crash two years later.

The musical, fondly looks back at their relationship, combining humor, song, dance, sadness and sweet dreams. The actual narrative, delivered by Seger herself, also pinpoints the high points of Cline's chart-busting success through the songs that made her famous. Sweet, oh, yes.

In the directorial chair, Alan Wager, the very talented artisan who staged the stylish and tuneful "Anything Goes" earlier this season, brings great knowledge, wit and understanding to the country-western backdrop of "Always...Patsy Cline." There's admirable clarity, charisma, dazzle and pathos to his staging. Not to mention a heartfelt tenderness, softness and kinship that gives the two-act musical, added strength and passion.

Wager, however, is not one to rest on his laurels. Working from Ted Swindley's already-proven script, he delves head first into its emotional center and looks for new ways to make a difference, celebrate the voice and sound of Patsy Cline and show what the singer and Seger really had in common.

This creative process, a clever mix of color, dash and nuance, fuels and drives "Always...Patsy Cline" past the running gate. The characters, for example, are more realistic and full-bodied. The jokes, the comedy, the stage business and the stage blocking have more spark, punch and animation. There's also more pizzazz to the story, which, in the hands of someone less experienced, would have ended up as just another musical, followed by one song after another. Here, Patsy Cline's heritage is timeless, uninhibited and universal. Wager wouldn't have it any other way.

The music songbook for "Always...Patsy Cline" contains the following songs: "Back In Baby's Arms," "Anytime," "Walkin' After Midnight," "I Fall to Pieces," "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," "Come On In (And Sit Right Down)," "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Stupid Cupid," "You Belong to Me," "San Antonio Rose," "Lovesick Blues," "Sweet Dreams," "She's Got You," "Shake Rattle and Roll," "Three Cigarettes in the Ashtray," "Crazy," "Seven Lonely Days," "If I Could See the World (Through the Eyes of a Child)," "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," "Blue Moon of Kentucky," "Gotta Lotta Rhythm," "Faded Love," "How Great Thou Art," "True Love," "If You've Got Leavin' on Your Mind" and "Bill Bailey."

At Sharon Playhouse, musical direction is provided by Eric Thomas Johnson whose orchestral credits include "Into the Woods," "In the Heights," "The Drowsy Chaperone," "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Oklahoma!" A deft, smart and powerful  musician with a real flair for this sort of flavorful entertainment, Thomas crafts a lively, memorable song fest that captures and radiates the talent, the drive, the charm and the spunk that was Patsy Cline.

The production also benefits from a choice, six-piece band, headed by Thomas (conductor/key board), Bruce Carlson (pedal steel guitar), Roger Cohen (drums), Steve Siktberg (electric guitar), Mike Lee (drums) and Elizabeth Handman (fiddle). Every song fulfills its intended purpose. Every song shimmers, shakes, rocks and beguiles. The band also seizes the moment, every now and then, to take a breath, reflect and pay homage to Cline's recording career and that unforgettable voice.

The performances: simply brilliant.
There's a smooth, smoldering passion and richness to the vocal sound of Carter Calvert, which makes her a natural for the part of the late country western music star. Affectionate, sorrowful, personal and vibrant, she transports the audience back to a time long gone by with genuine affection for Patsy Cline, her music, her song style, her legacy and the star power that capitulated her to stardom in the recording industry. And like the singer herself, she becomes lost in the emotion of the music and its lyrics, wistfully, gracefully and naturally.

The voice that is embodied here is Calvert's, of course, with just the right mix of Cline's indelible sound, phrasing, range and sassiness. It's all very original and marvelously pitch-perfect as the actress recreates that magic that was "Crazy," "Sweet Dreams," "Walkin' After Midnight," "I Fall to Pieces," and so many others. Calvert also loves being in front of an audience whether she's singing, drinking, chatting, talking or journeying down memory lane pulling one hit song after another from the trunk load of song hits fashioned by the show's creators.There's such star power here, it's impossible to take your eyes off her.

As Cline's most devoted fan Louise Seger, Alison Arngrim offers a five-star performance that amazes, cajoles and excites at every musical, comical and emotional turn. It's a role she was born to play and play it she does like a red, white and blue firecracker on the Fourth of July. Her grasp of the show's comedy shtick, its jokey, well-timed one-liners, its vaudevillian burlesque stage business and several impromptu ad libs with the audience is absolutely brilliant. She's on fire from start to finish and there's no stopping her. And wait till you see her bump-and-grind bit. Simply, amazing.

The actress, who, most people remember as the spoiled, selfish and devious Nellie Oleson from NBC's "Little House on the Prairie," radiates such natural charm and charisma, you could watch her perform all night. She is well-matched opposite Calvert. The duo share an on-stage bond and camaraderie which makes the Cline/Seger friendship completely palpable  And when, they sing a song or two, their completely different musical styles, blend together as one, most energetically.

"Always...Patsy Cline" is a heartfelt, endearing musical that celebrates the legacy of this incredible entertainer, her music, her star power and her friendship with Louise Seger, the Houston housewife who became her biggest fan. The stellar six-piece band, led by Eric Thomas Johnson is right in sync with all things Patsy. And the two lead performances by Carter Calvert and Alison Arngrim are sweet, emotional and ovation worthy.
The two-act musical closes the 2018 summer season at Sharon Playhouse, which included the show-stopping "Anything Goes," the vibrant "All Shook Up" teen showcase and Neil Simon's best-loved comedy "Barefoot in the Park."
With an impressive line up such as this one and the promise to keep the Playhouse running year-round with cabaret showcases and fun-night's-out until the summer of 2019, expect Alan Wager (Artistic Director) and Robert Levinstein's (Managing Director) tenure at the Sharon home base to last a very long time. They love theater and so do we. They also go the extra mile in everything they say and do, and that, in a nutshell, is what puts this savvy theatrical producing duo at the top of their game. Bravo!

"Always...Patsy Cline" is being staged at Sharon Playhouse (49 Amenia Rd., Sharon, CT), now through September 2.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 364-7469

Sunday, August 19, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 89, A Review: "The Understudy" (Westport Country Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco

Playwright Theresa Rebeck's "The Understudy" uses a "put-in rehearsal" for a Kafka masterpiece to satirize the life of a struggling Broadway actor at a time when New York producers are more interested in hiring Hollywood movie stars than performers who view theater as an art form to enhance their careers and not their bank accounts.


Rebeck leaves no stone unturned.
And therein, lies the enjoyment of this engaging, marvelously written play that exposes the shiftiness and shamelessness of the Broadway theater community with enormous truths and sensibility.

The joke, of course, is that the play in question throughout "The Understudy" has been written by the late Franz Kafka, a distinguished playwright whose celebrated works are hardly fodder for today's Broadway. Nor are Kafka's rambling themes about destruction, alienation, anxiety and disorientation in productions running three hours or longer. Most often, they are confusing, absurd, distant and often hard to understand. And the audience, those that are still awake, stare blankly at the stage wondering when it will all be over. 

That said, "The Understudy" celebrates this madness with a conceit that finds two Hollywood action film stars (one is never seen) playing lead roles in an unnamed Kafka drama that became a huge box-office sensation not because of the writing or the story, but because of the two celebrities in the spotlight.

Funny, you betcha.
And so, it begins.

With a ragingly outrageous script by Rebeck involving three characters and a fourth who is never seen, the groundwork is laid immediately at the start of the play as the playwright offers a quick study in the life of the misconstrued understudy who will probably never get to perform the part because most Broadway actors would rather die than give their angst-ridden standby the opportunity to copy their every move, copycat their sacred dialogue and proudly accept applause from an audience who shockingly welcomed their last-minute replacement with open arms.

In order for "The Understudy" to fully work, the play requires someone who knows actors, loves actors, understands actors and can get inside their heads like a Park Avenue therapist schooled in the mechanics of the theater world's never-ending jealousies, egos, greed, star power and kiss-ass tactics on stage, in the dressing room and in the rehearsal hall.

They don't get any better than David Kennedy whose directorial credits include "Tartuffe," "Suddenly Last Summer," "Loot," "The Invisible Hand" and "Appropriate."  Here, he crafts a fast, fluid, deliciously wicked production that jumps, spins, runs, turns and cajoles with the acerbic wit, sarcasm and the insider's show biz verbatim the playwright intended. He also respects the incredible detail and every-changing mood swings of Rebeck's character study, her penchant for ripe, fastidious dialogue, juicy one liners and fully-realized characterizations that seem ever so natural in a comic setting where over-the-top endangerment could, but thankfully, doesn't creep in.

The pleasure of watching "The Understudy" unfold also comes from Kennedy's ability to provide laughter....lots of it, that is... without ever going for the obvious. The jokes, are pure Rebeck, coming at you from left, right, front, center and upside side down. They are witty. They are clever. They are inspired. They are thrilling. But the good news, is that Kennedy doesn't go for the obvious. He lets them unfold naturally which makes them twice as much fun. He knows they are coming, but we don't and he never once oversteps those comedic boundaries.

Given the fact that "The Understudy" takes its cue from the play's rehearsal set-up, Kennedy has a lot to work with. In turn, some of the comedy stems from the frustrations, misgivings and tensions of the actors as they rehearse, break character, deviate from the rehearsal script, question the stage blocking and ask if they can override the actual direction of the finished piece. Here, Kennedy knows exactly what buttons to push and gets his actors to nail every little tick, quirk, beat and rhythm Rebeck tosses their way. It's so ingenious and well orchestrated, you just sit back and laugh and laugh and laugh. Then, again, that's the point of this marvelous, quirky comedy.

Casting is everything in a play of this small size and Kennedy has handpicked three incredibly personable, talented and charismatic actors to bring "The Understudy" to life with the polish, dash and showmanship required to make it fly, soar and smack you right in the face with its cheeky, icy and confessional-like humor.

Eric Bryant, last seen in "The Invisible Hand" at TheaterWorks/Hartford (the actor also headlined the 2016 Westport Country Playhouse production) is an incredibly gifted performer who is so in touch with the emotions and personalities of every character he portrays, you actually forget he's an actor appearing in a play. He just doesn't play a part. He owns it.

In "The Understudy," he is cast as Harry, an angst-ridden, messed-up, self-absorbed actor who has been asked to understudy the lead role in an important Kafka piece on Broadway, which, for box-office purposes, stars a very sexy, Hollywood action star whose current movie grossed $67 million the first weekend.

The joke, of course, is that Harry is neither sexy, tall or well built like the actor he has been asked to understudy. Harry is also pissed that Hollywood actors are taking important roles from aspiring hopefuls anxious to see their name up in lights on Broadway. When we first meet him, he turns up in a darkened theater awaiting the start of his big rehearsal. For laughter's sake, he breaks the fourth wall between actor and audience, to jabber incessantly and set the stage for what's to follow once the stage manager and lead actor make their presence known.

Bryant, of course, never misses a comic beat. He has great fun with the part, particularly when he goes into overdrive to find his actor's center, emote methodically and become the character he's understudying. For anyone who's seriously studied theater, these moments are fresh, invigorating and hysterical. For those who haven't, things are still funny, but, for laughter's sake, it helps if you are a real theater person schooled or knowledgeable in method acting. Bryant also gets laughs when questioning the logistics of the Kafka play's original direction, staging and character interaction. These moments, which find Harry arguing with the other characters. are impeccably timed and smartly performed under Kennedy's tutelage.

Brett Dalton, in the role of Jake, is handsome, sexy and every inch the leading man, which is exactly what the part calls for. But Dalton, is more than just a pretty face. His interpretation of Jake, which is every bit as funny as Bryant's Harry, is the epitome of the well-paid, high-priced movie star who actually believes he has the talent and drive to become a big Broadway star based on the box-office success of his movies. You can't help but laugh, if only because this analogy is so true of the Broadway community of today where box-office dictates everything and ticket prices get hiked from $150 to $800 if you want to see your favorite movie star up close and personal.

Nonetheless, Dalton, who is best known for his portrayal of Agent Grant Ward in ABC's "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D," is the perfect fit for the character of Jake. He possesses great coming timing. He can shift gears within a split second. He has great fun with Rebeck's script and dialogue. And he shares the playwright's penchant for moments that require his character to laugh at himself, his box-office persona and the method acting warm-ups he believes will give his character added depth, drive and stamina.

Roxanne, the Kafka play stage manager, forced to whip Harry and Jake into place at the first rehearsal, is played by the wonderfully charismatic Andrea Syglowski. If you've even been in a play or worked behind-the-scene's in a play, then you already know Syglowski's Roxanne is the real deal. It's a full-bodied portrait chock full of passion, color, nuance, heart, soul and fiery determination. It's also a  5 STAR performance that's so honest and so real, you'd swear she actually spent her days and nights working backstage at some big Broadway theater.

Finally, there's Laura, a fourth character who is never seen or heard, but is very much a part of "The Understudy" and its high voltage comic maneuvering. As written by Rebeck, she is the oft stoned, unreliable light, sound and set change person who brings on the wrong sets, cues the wrong music, lighting and sound effects and gets Roxanne boiling mad. It's a very funny conceit that gets laughs in all the right places as the Westport Country Playhouse staff and crew pull all the right strings to make all these mistakes (a la Laura) happen most ingeniously.

So, what's it like to be in theater? Or, in this case, understudy the lead role?
"The Understudy" dishes up an infectious mix of answers laced with wonderfully orchestrated bits of backstage drama, narcissism, self-doubt, confusion, truths, mishaps, bruised egos and inside scoops. It is funny. It is cheeky. It is poignant. It is revelatory. It is joyful. The cast is pitch-perfect. And David Kennedy's deft, insightful direction allows Rebeck's work to drift merrily beyond the environs of the proscenium wall and into our lives so that we can appreciate, understand, connect and enjoy this remarkable comic entertainment to its fullest.

Photos of "The Understudy" are courtesy of Carol Rosegg

"The Understudy" is being staged at Westport Country Playhouse (25 Powers Court, Westport, CT), now through September 1.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 227-4177

Saturday, August 18, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 88, A Review: "Mama D's Gay Nineties Romp" (Playhouse on Park)

By James V. Ruocco

"Mama D's Gay Nineties Romp" is a lively fusion of comedy, music, magic, dance and burlesque that draws you into a seductive world of entertainment where anything can happen and does and everyone dances to a decidedly different beat.

Boys wear dresses, high heels and mermaid costuming whenever the mood strikes them. Or they simply become androgynous when dancing alongside the show's females.

Girls wear naughty feminine garb and men's clothing. They also gyrate madly, hump a basketball or two and come into the audience shaking their booty with wild abandon.

Barbie invites Ken to "come into her box."

A gay Christmas elf celebrates his gayness with frivolous rainbow merriment.

Clothes are shed, ripped open or dipped and dropped seductively in true burlesque fashion.

Sexual innuendo and one-liners are delivered with vaudevillian aplomb.

Not to worry.
It's all part of the fun and excitement that "Mama D's" is famous for.


It's all pretty amazing...and then some.

And oh, yes.
No one is naked.
No one accidentally uncovers their private parts.
And no one, steps out of line unless it is dictated in the script.
This is the updated pre-war Berlin of Christopher Isherwood's "Cabaret" stories mixed with a flavorful dash of 1990's decadence and turn-of-the-century British musical halls.

At Playhouse on Park, "Mama D's Gay Nineties Romp" has been conceived, directed and choreographed by Darlene Zoller, the theater's co-founder and co-artistic director whose directing/choreographic credits include "Cabaret," "Chicago" and the most recent "In the Heights," which found audiences cheering her incredible choreography night after night. A deft, free-spirited and insightful director, she instills this production with just the right amount of sexiness, boldness, brashness and bawdiness, the script calls for. She knows exactly what buttons to push, how to develop and shape a punchline, when to turn up the heat, when to soften it and how to catch her audience off guard when they least expect it.

In a musical production of this caliber where just about anything goes and does, all for the sake of entertainment, dance is everything. That is the lifeline of "Mama D's" and Zoller fills the Playhouse on Park stage with one exciting production number after another, each and every one different from the next. Given the show's R-rated concept, there is plenty of humping, riding, kicking, gyrating, slithering, bouncing, shaking and touching, all of which compliments the individuality and uniqueness of the numbers themselves. There's also a lot of spread legs on chairs, on the floor or in squatting positions that boldly recalls the heated magic and sensuality of Fosse in "Cabaret" and in "Chicago." Mix that with a bit of Zoller and the result is electrifying.

Here, as in "In the Heights," Zoller's creative genius explodes and explodes in glorious MGM Technicolor. There are sparks. There are flames. There is fire. There is style. There is uniqueness. There is individuality. There is passion. There is sensuality. There is amazing fluidity. Everyone is at the top of their game, doing what they love best: singing and dancing. No matter what Zoller crafts or creates, each and every dancer maintains that contagious flourish, zest, pulse and marvelous theatricality that Zoller is famous for. Stand alone or collectively, it's all pretty amazing.

The song book for "Mama D's Gay Nineties Romp,"  a collective mix of songs from the 1900's and 1990's, is a well chosen mix of music hall favorites, pop favorites, rock favorites and Top 40 hits guaranteed to get you all hot and bothered, which, when you think about it, is the point of the entire show.

The musical line up is as follows: "Burlington Bertie," "Daisy Bell," "Maple Street Rag," "Man, I Feel Like a Woman," "Lovefool," "Wannabe," "Space Jam," "I Put a Spell on You," "La Vida Loca," "Crazy," "Say My Name," "Conga," "Part of Your World," "Genie in a Bottle," "Friend Like Me," "A Whole New World," "How Will I Know," "Super Model" and "Let's Get Loud."

Strategically placed from start to finish, with comic bits, sexual innuendo, naughty burlesque and cherry-red shtick thrown in for extra measure, the songs themselves are sexy, inviting, playful, hot and heated. With Colin Britt, as musical director, and conductor of the "Mama D's" orchestra, each of the musical numbers fulfills its intended purpose and the show's ever-changing mood swings, gaiety and pulsating frivolity.

There are showstoppers, ballads, tangy ensemble numbers and songs that are syrupy-sweet and ripe for picking. Britt, in full control, has great fun with everything. And, the cast, from lead singers to ensemble, deliver breakout vocals and choral sounds that are full-bodied, imaginative and in sync with the "Mama D's" concept and allure.

The cast, an intoxicating mix of actors, dancer and singers, is headlined by the charismatic and boyish Jake Blakeslee, from the Hartt School of Music, the always funny Amanda Forker, the sexy Sandra Manante and the dynamic Peej Mele. There are lots of other talented individuals in the cast, including Playhouse on Park's effervescent Meredith Atkinson, but "Mama D's" doesn't come with any playbill or listing of who's who. Nonetheless, everyone is in sync with the show's concept, it's bawdy humor and its hypnotic production numbers. They have as much fun performing as we do watching them.

"Mama D's Gay Nineties Romp" is must-see entertainment. It is naughty. It is sexy. It is wild. It is clever. It is passionate. It is exciting. It's the perfect summer entertainment for a hot summer night. It gets the juices flowing. It gets you all hot and bothered. It gets you clapping and stomping your feet. It gets you singing and singing out loud. It also invites you to witness some of the finest actors, singers and dancers ever to grace the Playhouse on Park stage. This is ovation worthy stuff that makes you want to shout "Encore" and "Bravo" over and over again.

Photos courtesy of Rich Wagner, Imagine It Framed

"Mama D's Gay Nineties Romp" is being staged at Playhouse on Park (244 Park Rd., West Hartford, CT) now through August 26.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 523-5900.


Wednesday, August 15, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 87, A Review: "A Chorus Line" (Ivoryton Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco

The feverish dreams and aspirations of the theatrical world's less recognized individuals ( the dancers) takes center stage in Ivoryton Playhouse's illuminating revival of Michael Bennett's treasured ensemble piece "A Chorus Line."


"A Chorus Line" has it all.
There are conflicts and clashes.
There are explosions of hope and freedom.
There is restlessness and curiosity.
There are also some deliciously wicked bits about boners, tits, ass, homosexuals, dressing up in drag, dance class, acting class, "The Red Shoes," being Puerto Rican, being Chinese and being the misunderstood straight boy who really likes to dance. There is also that hungry cry for acceptance, expression and artistic freedom in the uncertain landscape of the Broadway musical world.

The concept for "A Chorus Line," as devised by James Kirkwood, Jr., and Nicholas Dante, is incredibly simplistic, clever and alarmingly unique. As the musical unfolds. a select group of dancers are taken though the painful yet rewarding process of a lengthy audition for an upcoming Broadway show. Lining up along the front of the stage, they talk about themselves, their motivations, their ambitions, their childhoods, their backgrounds, their sexuality, their heartaches, their careers, their futures and why they all became dancers.

"A Chorus Line" is being directed by Todd L. Underwood who recently staged and choreographed the exhilarating revival of the 1972 Broadway hit "Grease" at Ivoryton Playhouse. Here, Underwood crafts a fascinating production that maintains a great sense of passion, realism, optimism and fidelity.

Yes, "A Chorus Line" is 43 years old. Yes, most of the audience have seen the musical before. Yes, the dancer's life in Broadway theater has evolved since the musical first sprang to life back in 1975 off-Broadway at the Public Theater before transferring to Broadway's Shubert Theater, three months later.

Regardless, Underwood keeps the musical locked in the time frame from whence it came. But his approach is fresh, timely and invigorating even if you already know how it all ends. Throughout the production, he delivers many home truths about the era, the people, the rejection, the pride, the competition, the gayness of some of the male dancers, the lifeline of a dancer and show business, in general. Anyone, in turn, can empathize with their situations. We've all been there at some point in our lives.

The closeness of actor to audience also allows one to witness things they might have missed in a large Broadway theater or National Tour venue. More importantly, the in-your-face theatricality of it all, asks you to play judge or casting agent before the final eight dancer's are selected at the show's conclusion. The process, of course, is irresistible.

Doubling as the show's choreographer, Underwood pays homage to Michael Bennett's original choreography, but brings his own sense of style, purpose and design to the proceedings. There is great variety in his dance moves, all of which excites with definitive scope when the whole ensemble dance together. It's so refreshingly delectable, a feverish buzz and pizzazz fills the auditorium that unites both actor and audience as one.

The Tony Award-winning musical  score by Marvin Hamlisch (music) and Edward Kleban (lyrics) includes the famous finale number "One;" the hauntingly romantic "What I Did For Love;" the wickedly playful and acerbic "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three;" the stirring and poignant ballad "At the Ballet;" and "I Hope I Get It," the anonymous dancer's desperate cry for work on Broadway and a guaranteed weekly paycheck.

At Ivoryton, Michael Morris, whose in-house musical direction has included "Rent," "West Side Story," "Saturday Night Fever" and most recently, "A Night With Janis Joplin" and  "Grease," breathes new life into the popular "Chorus Line" score, using the polished, personal and perfectly honed Broadway musical showmanship he is famous for.

Part of the magic and charm stems from Morris' ability to bring real emotion, grit and humor to each of the musical numbers as "A Chorus Line" evolves. Whether they are solos, duets or perfectly synced ensemble numbers that deftly arise from the main personal stories that are being told, they are reproduced with faithfulness, allegiance, class and lush, emotional quality.

In "Grease," Alexa Racioppi rocked the Ivoryton Playhouse stage with her flip and colorful portrayal of do-gooder Patti Simcox. As Val, the foul-mouthed dancer who opted for plastic surgery to thrust her into the Broadway spotlight, she not only gives the performance of the season, but turns her big musical number "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three" into a glorified showstopper that makes you want to shout back "Encore," "Encore," Encore."
Vocally, she is pitch-perfect and never misses a beat. Acting wise, she's every bit as charismatic and sexy as Pamela Blair who originated the role back in 1975 on Broadway. She also has great fun saying the world "Fuck" multiple times and showing off her womanly assets, as dictated by the script and director Todd L. Underwood.

Stephanie Genito's Cassie is an intriguing blend of pathos, confessional despair and dance exhibitionism. The latter, of course, permeates her big number "The Music and the Mirror," performed with high-kicking stamina, rawness and desperation as her character begs for one last change "to dance," if only in the chorus. We really feel and understand Cassie's pain and fight for survival.

Natalie Madlon is as right for Diana as was Priscilla Lopez in the original 1975 Broadway production. She also delivers Diana's two big songs "Nothing" and "What I Did for Love" in an achingly real and beautiful voice that would make both Hamlish and Kleban stand up and cheer. It's one of those standout performances that lingers long after the production has ended.

Lili Thomas' Shelia is bold, brassy, sarcastic, bitchy and fucked up, which is exactly what the part calls for. And Thomas never misses a beat, tick or quirk. Edward Stanley makes a suitably compassionate, authoritative Zack. Schuyler Beeman hits all the right character notes as the gayish Greg, as does Sam Given, in the role of the wildly flamboyant Bobby.

There is beauty, style and grace to Kayla Starr Bryan who plays Bebe. That same analogy applies to Liv Kurtz, as Maggie. Both actresses make "At the Ballet" completely memorable on their own or when they are joined by Thomas' Sheila as the song evolves ever so passionately. This is yet another musical number that makes you want to cry, "Rewind, please!"

Carl Zurhorst (Al) and Amanda Lupacchino (Kristine) make "Sing" soar musically. Their comic timing and complete grasp of the song's quirky and crazy concept is sensational. Corey Candelet's Don overflows with charm and charisma while Ronnie S. Bowman, Jr.'s, Ritchie commands your attention, whenever he's on stage. As a dancer, the effect is just the same. Simply brilliant.

As Paul, Joey Lucherini renders an endearing, impassioned portrait of a young man anxious for familial and showbiz acceptance through a very lengthy, deftly-paced monologue during which the character discusses his homosexuality and performing in drag at cheap clubs while waiting for his break into Broadway theater. It's all very, very moving.

Rounding out the script's remaining dancers, each giving equally diverse, well-drawn performances are Lina Lee (Connie), Sarah Warrick (Judy), Max Weinstein (Larry), Matthew Carp (Mark) and Dakota Hoar (Mike).

Lovingly staged and lovingly recreated and imagined, the Ivoryton Playhouse production of "A Chorus Line" is an exhilarating celebration of dance and the dancers who are part of its choreographic ensemble. The show's timelessness and simplicity still impresses. The cast sizzles and gives individual voice to each and every one of the characters they portray. And finally, the singing, the dancing and the personal stories are authentic, believable and consistently superb.

"A Chorus Line" photos by Jonathan Steele.

"A Chorus Line" is being staged at Ivoryton Playhouse (103 Main St., Ivoryton, CT.), now through September 2.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 767-7318.

This review is dedicated to Donna McKechnie, the actress/ dancer who created the role of Cassie in the original 1975 Broadway production