Friday, September 28, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 99, A Preview: "Evita" (Act of CT)

By James V. Ruocco

The cast of "Evita" are in the middle of a rehearsal break.
Some are having lunch. Some are doing exercises. Some are texting. Some are chatting on their cell phones. Some are looking over the sheet music and mouthing the lyrics silently. Some are anxiously awaiting the opportunity to get back into the theater to learn yet another piece of the puzzle that makes up this extraordinary Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical.

Who could blame them?

Beginning October 4th, the two-act musical will jump start ACT of  CT's new 2018-2019 season, a  diverse line-up of three musicals including the already mentioned "Evita" (Oct. 4-Nov.11), "Working" (Feb. 22-March 10) and "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" (May 31-June 16).

Picking "Evita" as the premiere attraction for the theater's first official full season (ACT began life this past spring with its sold-out debut production of "Mamma Mia!") was actually a stroke of genius and a no brainer. The two-act musical, which was originally booked through through Oct. 28, has already been extended two weeks. This, of course, is based entirely upon advance ticket sales, great pre-publicity, major theater chatter within and outside the community and the popularity of the actual story of Argentine first lady Eva Peron itself.

And so, it begins.
Daniel C. Levine, the Artistic Director of ACT of CT and director of "Evita" is thrilled to have said "Yes" to the musical's booking at the handsome, intimate Ridgefield-based venue.
"Those of us who are lucky enough to make a career in theater have that one show that inspired us when were were younger; the one show that lit a spark within us and made us say, 'I want to do that when I grow up!' "

For Levine, that show was "Evita."
His passion for the two-act musical began when he was quite young. The thrill of being an audience member and seeing the production for the very first time was one he has never forgotten.
"I saw a community theater production of 'Evita' in Massachusetts when I was about 10 years old," he recalls. "I remember sitting in that dark theater and being swept up in the music and in the story. While I didn't entirely comprehend what was unfolding in front of me, I remember understanding that this story deeply affected people watching it.
"How could an audience be so invested in the story of a woman they didn't even know? Why was the man who was sitting in front of me wiping away a tear as the lights faded at the end of the performance. That was the power of theater and good-storytelling. More importantly, that was the power of this enthralling story."

Throughout his career as both director and working actor, Levine has always wanted to be part of "Evita." He got the opportunity to play Che several years ago in a regional presentation of the musical. It was then that his passion for "Evita" was reawakened.
"When  Katie (Diamond) and I opened ACT of CT last May, we decided that 'Evita' should be part of our full season," he adds. "For those people not familiar with 'Evita,' I want them to fall in love with the show just like I did all those years ago."

Inside the theater, rehearsals begin.
Levine stakes the spotlight and asks his cast to participate in the presentation of three individual musical scenes: "Peron's Latest Flame," "The Art of the Possible" and "You Must Love Me."
No one is in costume. There are no lighting effects. There are sound effects. Just actors doing what they love and loving every minute of it. Simply brilliant.

What's especially unique about Levine's vision is that the actual staging of his "Evita" is completely different from that of the West End, Broadway and National Tour productions of  the same show. Here, there is a unique closeness not found in big, proscenium theater presentations which gives the piece a timely rawness and realness that is often voyeuristic.

To hear Levine tell it, none of this is accidental.
"Our intimate theater is the perfect venue for this show in my opinion," he relates."ACT of CT is a 180 seat theater, where the front row is literally 3 feet away from the actors. My concept was to have our audience feel a part of the story. Rather than watching it from far and seeing the story unfold, I wanted our production to include the audience, so that the audience feels as through the events are happening around them in real time."

It's a creative process that works most advantageously.
"While traditional 'Evita' productions can include a cast of up to 50 people, I was interested in telling this story with a much smaller acting company, " he adds. "If we could cast the right storytellers, this show could be effective with 16 actors as it is with 35. And boy, did we luck out with this company!"

"Evita" stars Julia Estrada as Eva Peron, Angel Lozada as Che Guevara, Ryan K. Bailer as Juan Peron, Julian Alvarez as Agustin Magaldi and Marlena Lopez-Hilderley as Peron's Mistress.
Ensemble members are Kyle White, Mia Scarpa, Paul Aguirre, Alex Caldwell,  Monica Ramierez, Morgan Harrison, Jordan Fife Hunt, Alison Mahoney, Daniel Marhelko, Erick Sanchez-Canahuate and Daniel Schwait.

From the beginning, the casting for this "Evita" was purposely authentic, honest and completely in sync with the Hispanic element of the production. "We felt strongly that our cast of 'Evita' should be heavily composed of Latinx talent," Levine explains. "I mean who better to perform in this than an acting company who represents the community that is meant to tell this riveting story? And that is not to say that non Latinx shouldn't be part of 'Evita' productions.
"Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin were the originals and truly made the show the success that it remains today! But I think than when presented with the opportunity for authenticity and diversity, one should grab it. And we did. I'm thrilled and excited that our 'Evita' has a large percentage of Latinx talent."

Written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice," the two-act musical traces the colorful life of Argentine political leader Eva Duarte Peron, the second wife of Argentine president Juan Peron. It follows her early life, her rise to power, her political tours, her charity work, her illness and her eventual death. Winner of six Tony Awards including  Best Musical," it features 30 songs including "Don't Cry For Me Argentina," "Oh, What a Circus," "High Flying Adored," "A New Argentina" and "Another Suitcase, Another Hall."

Then as now, the story and its music account for the continued success of "Evita," its longevity and its reappearance on stages all over the world including ACT of CT.
And why not?
"Eva Peron was extraordinary," Levine confesses. "She rose to power in Argentina at a time when women were not ever allowed to vote. She was complex and controversial, but like all complicated figures, Eva's achievements were not without a downside. Although beloved by the working class, both she and her husband were seen as power hungry authoritarians who would stop at nothing for absolute control of the country."

That said, Levine thought long and hard about his vision of the "Evita" story.
As director, he not only wanted to portray this own take on the production, but offer theatergoers a musical that came from the heart and portrayed his own personal vision.
"For me, this script and score is just so fantastic and complete, that I feel my job as director is to just tell the story that Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote," he says. "There's no need to completely reinvent 'Evita' by cleverly finding new and interesting slants on the story.
"While I certainly have my own view on how the story of Eva and Juan Peron parallels today's political climate, I leave it to the audience to draw any comparisons (or not). That's the beauty of theater. Everyone has their own interpretations of experiences."

"Evita" is being staged at Act of CT (36 Old Quarry Rd, Ridgefield, CT).
For tickets or more information, call (475) 215-5433.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 98, A Review: "Legally Blonde" (Downtown Cabaret Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

The big gay kiss has been scrapped.
Paulette's dog has been pink slipped.
The Act II  "Scene of the Crime" courtroom sequence has been slightly altered and no longer includes the pivotal shower reenactment.
And the pink goo and candy gloss nausea of previous "Legally Blonde" incarnations that sent certain audience members off to the ER with a severe case of sugar shock has been given the "All Clear."

Nonetheless, the two-act musical still works its charm in all its pop-kitsch glory.
It is fun. It is outrageous. It is cute. It is pink. It is off the charts.
It is also not believable for a single second.

Does one care? Absolutely, not.

The latest incarnation of "Legally Blonde," now on view, at the Downtown Cabaret Theatre, is one of the best musical interpretations of the popular Broadway smash to play Connecticut in the last two years or so. The roles originated on Broadway by Laura Bell Bundy, Christian Borle, Orfeh, Michael Rupert, Richard H. Blake, Kate Shindle and Andy Karl, now belong to an entirely different group of actors. But the "Omigod" effect that put "Legally Blonde" on the map in the first place remains in all its glory.

Only this time, you don't have to inject insulin into your blood stream between the songs, the dances, the one-liners, the sorority girl craziness, the sub plots, the romantic whimsy and the pink goo. 

This "Legally Blonde" marches to a different drumbeat all together.

Enter Jerold Goldstein.

He's a major directorial talent of the highest order and one that Downtown Cabaret is lucky to have on their newly minted theatrical leader board.

But first, let's backtrack.

"Legally Blonde" takes its cue from the popular 2001 movie that starred Reese Witherspoon, Luke Wilson, Jennifer Coolidge, Selma Blair and Matthew Davis. The story, rewritten for the stage by Heather Hach, is pretty much the same. It tells the over-cute, whimsical tale of fresh-faced Elle Woods, a California sorority girl and fashion major who enrolls in Harvard Law School for two reasons. One, to prove to everyone that she has the chutzpah to accomplish this outrageous goal. Two, to win back her preppy, handsome ex-boyfriend Warner Huntington III.

That said, reenter Jerold Goldstein.

Staging "Legally Blonde," Goldstein smartly abandons the candy coating that often devoured or sank the Broadway musical. The pink gloss still pops up, on occasion, but Goldstein, anxious to make his mark, grounds the musical in a determined, quasi-reality that keeps the story on its toes, front and center, never looking back. It's a creative process that is used to breezy effect throughout the two-act musical and one that keeps things in perspective.

"Legally Blonde" comes gift wrapped with a cute, serviceable, plot advancing musical score of 22 songs by Neil Benjamin and Laurence O'Keefe that includes "Omigod You Guys," "Serious," "What You Want," "Ireland," "Chip On My Shoulder," "Bend and Snap" and "Find My Way." Since there is absolutely no live orchestra to speak of, the entire show is akin to prerecorded music that has Goldstein doubling as both music director and traffic cop. Daunting, yes. Crazy, yes, Unheard of, yes. Risky, yes.

The good news is that Goldstein, clever auteur that he is, can work miracles. So much so, the musical side of "Legally Blonde" unfolds without a bump, glitch,  missed cue or hesitation. The entire cast, from leads to supporting cast members are 100 percent in sync with this otherwise odd and scary  process (no live band, that is) and never once let their guard down for a single millisecond. They tackle every single song like true professionals and offer some of the most thrilling, pleasant-sounding vocals ever to come out of Downtown Cabaret. The sound quality of "Legally Blonde" (sound design by Chris Gensur) is absolutely superior in every imaginable way possible.

The high-octane choreography for "Legally Blonde" has been impressively designed by Argentine-born  Gustavo Wans. It is energetic, campy, syrupy-sweet and enjoyably over the top. Remember, this isn't "42nd Street," "A Chorus Line" or "Chicago." This is "Legally Blonde" So sticky-gooey, crazy-giddy and gumdrop-fruity is perfectly acceptable because it adheres to the bubbly story concept set forth by the show's creators. The choreographer also makes great use of the Delta Nu sorority sisters who double as the Greek chorus in Elle's mind and cut loose with some frenzied, wild moves that showcase Wans' choreographic vibrancy.

Standout musical dance numbers include "Bend and Snap," "Whipped Into Shape," ''Omigod You Guys" and Find My Way."

"Legally Blonde" casts effervescent Monica Charline Brown as the irrepressible Elle Woods. An actress of comparable strength, determination, poise and personality, her characterization is never  prom-queen Barbie, sorority girl Barbie or Malibu Barbie. Her Elle means business. She is a force to be reckoned with. Get in her way and she'll snap you in half. Vocally, she is passionate, caring and marvelously melodic. There's a real understanding and appreciation for the collation of songs her character sings. The music suits her talents and really does create an energetic, harmonious whole. 

The sparkling supporting cast, likeable in every way, includes James Conrad Smith as Warner Huntington III,  Elle's narcisstic ex-boyfriend, Chris Cherin as Emmett Forrest, the nerdy law-teaching assistant who falls head over heels in love with Elle, Dana DiCerto as Paulette Buonufonte,  the powerhouse beautician anxious for love with a manly man and Margaret Buzak as Vivienne Kensington, Warner's new girlfriend and chief rival.

Also featured are Robert Watts as Professor Calhoun, the Harvard Law professor who makes a pass at Elle, Michael Kaulins as Kyle, the sexy UPS delivery man in very tight tight shorts, Katie Robidoux  as Brooke Wyndam, the fitness guru accused of murdering her husband, May Tae Harge as sorority sister Serena and Juan Ayala as  Nico Argitakoas, Brooke's pool boy who harbors a very big secret.

Every one of these cast members is perfectly right for their respective roles. Their acting, singing, dancing and line delivery is exceptional in every way. All of them bring so much more to "Legally Blonde" than what's indicated in the play script.

"Legally Blonde" is the first of four musicals to be performed at Downtown Cabaret during its new 2018-2019 season. Waiting in the wings are "Annie," "Sister Act" and "The Full Monty."

Despite its playful, bubble-headed absurdity, "Legally Blonde" gets a passing grade of A+ for its zany comic hijinks, its perky romanticism, its sufficient musicality, its zesty choreography and direction, its splendid visuals, its incredibly fast scene changes and its exuberant cast, many of whom are making their Downtown Cabaret Theatre debut. And oh yes, let's not forget the chihuahua. A true canine star in the making.

"Legally Blonde" is being staged at the Downtown Cabaret Theatre (263 Golden Hill St., Bridgerport, CT), now through October 14.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 576-1636.

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 97, A Review: "Once" (Ivoryton Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco

A story retold from a completely different perspective with a completely different cast and a brand new production team can make all the difference in the world.

Rarely, has this been so poignantly and remarkably conveyed than in Ivoryton Playhouse's smart, edgy and mesmerizing staging of the Broadway smash musical "Once," the engaging tale of two bruised souls whose lives are changed dramatically though music, song, inspiration and revelation.

Re-staged and retooled to fit the smart, intimate space that is Ivoryton, this incarnation of "Once," not only retains the magic and expressiveness of the original Broadway production, but, at times, dances to a decidedly different beat that is much more real, more folksy, more ethereal, more magical and more personal.

This is "Once" like you've never seen before.


It's almost like your seeing "Once" for the very first time.

Then and now, the stage version of "Once" is based on the acclaimed 2007 independent film of the same title, which was shot on a shoestring budget with the Irish Film Board for €112,000 and completed in just 17 days. It starred Glen Hansard, the lead singer of the Irish band "Frames" and Czech pianist Marketa Irglova, both of whom wrote all of  "Once's" original songs.

Not you typical musical, "Once" charts the simple story of a male busker musician who, through a chance meeting in Dublin, Ireland, meets a striking female European pianist and Czech emigre.  Naturally, both characters carry excessive baggage from troubled relationships (his girlfriend left Dublin and moved back to New York; she has a child and a husband, she may or may not reconcile with). The characters also share an outspokenness and brashness that is completely in sync with the times in addition to a passion for making music, making money and oh yes, the possibility of becoming or not becoming potential lovers.

The indie spirit of the film, mixed with an obvious, likeable story of two musicians who hope to strike Irish gold collaborating and recording their own songs, is the heart and soul of this stage version, which features an expanded book by Dublin-born playwright Enda Walsh ("Ballytork," "Misterman" and "The Ginger Ale Boy"). It is salty, flavorful, compulsive and well positioned.

The enlistment of Ben Hope as director/choreographer of "Once" is a match made in heaven. An actor himself, he made his Broadway debut in 2012 with "Once" and was featured in the production  (he also acted as understudy to the lead role of Guy and the supporting characters of Andrej, Svec and the Emcee) until it closed in 2015. So, who better than Hope to breathe new life into this acclaimed Broadway musical.

He's been in the show. He knows the show inside out, front and center, backwards and forwards. He knows what works and what doesn't. He also loves the show, its underlying themes, its characters, its music, its sentiment and its message about unfinished love.

But he's no copycat.
His interpretation of "Once" is as exhilarating as the Broadway production. But he takes chances with the material, mixing things up a bit ever so lightly by adding additional nuance and color to already  pivotal moments to brighten and heighten the original material's allure. It's a creative process that works most advantageously from start to finish and one that allows his production to stand tall on its own to feet and then some. Simply brilliant.

Doubling as choreographer, Hope is in his element, and well, she should be. His dance staging, Irish in every way imaginable, doesn't take its cue from traditional Broadway musicals, if only because the "Once" story and its characters doesn't adhere to that sort of rosy, often lavish choreographic interplay. Here, it's all about the moment, big or small, as the cast reenacts synchronized steps, beats,  poses and thumps that superbly reflect and signify the Irish traditions, history and social lineage of dance music and group song performances from Ireland. It's all very fascinating to watch as Hope sets the Ivoryton stage ablaze in very inspired, heartfelt ways that are ovation worthy at every turn. The fact that the entire cast doubles as the show's band (just look at their faces; they absolutely love it) is an added bonus that is addressed most creatively by Hope throughout the production.

Musical direction for "Once" is provided by the tremendously talented Eric Anthony whose credits include "Million Dollar Quartet," "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story," "Ring of Fire" and "Stand By Your Man." Taking his cue from the show's savvy, street-smart creators, he builds and fashions musical numbers that project the folk-wisdom, Irish-grit, secret sadness, wise observations  and driven human emotion of the piece. Songs erupt naturally from the action without question or awkwardness, helped by the sheer energy and drive from cast members who step forth, in character, of course, to play a variety of instruments including the fiddle, the guitar, the accordion and the drums. It's all beautifully conveyed and exhibited under his expert guidance, both musically and dramatically.

The "Once" musical score contains 17 musicals numbers. They are "Leave," "Falling Slowly," "North Strand," "The Moon," "The Moon (reprise)," "El Pada Pada," "If You Want Me," "Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy," "Say It To Me Now," "Abandoned in Bandon," "Gold," "Sleeping," "When Your Mind's Made Up," "The Hill," "Gold (A capella), "The Moon" and "Falling Slowly (reprise)."

As written by Glen Hansand and Marketa Irglova, the songs are pretty, alluring, driven, frenzied and enjoyable. Nothing looks or sounds out of place. Everything unfolds with pulse and purpose. The reprises and the ensemble numbers fit right in without any form of repetition. Anthony marvelously fulfills the intentions of the show's creators so magically and intuitively, there are times when you wish there was a "Replay" button so you can hear the songs again and again.

The heartfelt, show-stopping "Falling Slowly," which won the Academy Award for Best Song, still works its magic here. As does, the melodic "Leave," the romantic "If You Want Me" and the stirring, hypnotic ballad "The Hill." This production of "Once" also retains the score's edgy musical pronouncements, its splendid Irish roots and its sweet, tear-stained undercurrents. In short, what's not to like?.

Elsewhere, Anthony keeps a tight reign on the "Once" pre-show that has the cast take center stage  to sing, dance, howl, dash and kick as they play their own instruments in a lively, spirited manner that recalls those treasured, beloved Irish seisiuns. The songs. mainly rowdy drinking songs or sweet-sounding reflections are smart, fun and expertly performed. Whereas some productions tend to go overboard with the pre-show concept, here, everything is measured, steadied, shaken and stirred.

Because "Once" is a musical about two people who meet by chance in present-day Dublin, casting...the right casting, that absolutely essential in order for the love story (of sorts) to work, entice, excite and take effect without any candy floss sentiment or one-note romanticism.  Hope's  casting of the captivating Katie Barton and the emotionally centered Sam Sherwood as the Girl and the Guy (the show's romantic leads) not only gives this production of "Once" its heart and emotional backbone, but keeps the sweet-natured story grounded, driven and completely in focus without ever skipping a heartbeat.

Sam Sherwood who portrays the lead male character, simply known as Guy, has the necessary charm, handsomeness and Irish spirit necessary to keep the plot moving forward without any hitches or strained credulity. He's polished and professional and offers a multi-faceted character turn that is edgy, guarded, quirky, versatile, outspoken and kinda messed up. It's a role that is tailor-made for the actor and one that piques interest from moment he first appears on stage to sing the bittersweet "Leave" right up until the musical's tear-stained, justified conclusion at the end of Act II..

Musically, the actor can sell a song with capable, stirring power. Here, the "Once" vocal score suits his exceptional vocal range and style. When singing the already mentioned "Leave" or so many others that include "Say It To Me Now," "Sleeping" and "Falling Slowly," he never once misses a beat, a pause or a rhythm. Vocally, he sells the songs as written (he also plays guitar). He understands their value, their meaning and their emotional connection to the "Once" story and its evolution. As an actor, he also puts his own personal spin on every one of the vocals with a dash or two of old school charm, whimsy, cynicism, attitude, personality and Irish pub vigor thrown in for extra measure.

They don't come any better than Katie Barton, who plays the lead female character called the Girl, for story purposes. Acting wise, she is captivating and personable (she also plays the piano) and totally in sync with the creator's vision of the character she portrays. She possesses the Girl's winsomeness, tenderness, vulnerability, spark and mystery. She fills in all the colors runs with it. She is also the ideal sparring partner for the Guy, particularly when their characters clash, crash, burn, instigate, disagree, get a little too close, unravel or completely disconnect.

Vocally, the actress is in her her element. The "Once" score ideally strikes the right chord with Barton who brings a raw, personal intimacy to the proceedings. When singing "Falling Slowing" and "If You Want Me" with Sherwood or the swelling solo "The Hill, " she is a beguiling presence who sings with real power, sweetness and lovely confidence. It's impossible not to be moved.

The hand-picked supporting cast members are absolutely perfect and especially fine as actors, singers and musicians. They include Marcy McGuigan as Baruska, Margaret Dudasik as Reza, Andreina Kasper as Bank Manager, Jonathan Brown as Svec, Stephen G. Anthony as Billy, Morgan Morse as Andrej, Don Noble as Da, John Mervini as Eamon, Victoria Wepler as Emcee and  Rachel Mulcahy as Ex-Girlfriend. Every one of them loves being on stage performing, observing, listening, singing and dancing. Their joyous, heartfelt unity heightens the "Once" story, their role in its telling and their interaction with the two main characters.

Technically, "Once" is superior. The set design, by Glenn Bassett, which includes multiple doors, passageways and set pieces that fall smartly into place (via the actors) when required, is colorful, atmospheric and well positioned. Marcus Abbott's lighting palate richly conveys the beauty, intimacy and pulse of the musical's surroundings and the character-driven story. The costumes, handsomely crafted by Cully Long, looked lived-in, as well they should be.

In conclusion, "Once" is yet another musical triumph for Ivoryton Playhouse, offset by a sparkling, well-chosen season line-up that has included "The Fantasticks," "A Night With Janis Joplin," "Grease" and the recent "A Chorus Line." It is a haunting, captivating entertainment of distinctive, emotional power, skillfully shaped and honed by director/choreographer Ben Hope. Eric Anthony's  musical direction smartly reflects the Irish spunk, spirit and romanticism set forth by the show's creators. The entire cast never once (no pun, intended) misses a beat. And when it's over, you can't, unfortunately, hit "Replay." But you can, however, buy tickets to another performance and experience (once again) the magic, the allure and the brilliance of this Tony Award-winning musical for a second or third time. You won't be the only one seduced by this now cherished cult musical favorite. It simply cannot be helped.

"Once" is being staged at Ivoryton Playhouse (103 Main St., Ivoryton, CT), now through October 14.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 767-7318

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 96, A Review: "All My Sons" (TheatreWorks/New Milford)

By James V. Ruocco

There's something enormously gratifying about sitting in a theater, watching a play and being confronted by revelatory performances that unfold with such enormous passion and austerity, they grip you like a vice, fronted by constantly shifting balance, weight, power and beauty.

At TheatreWorks/New Milford, where Arthur Miller's tragic masterpiece "All My Sons" is being revived,  Mark Feltch, Noel Desiato and Tommy Ovitt, deliver three of the finest dramatic, explosive, ovation-worthy performances of the 2018 theater season . It's a privilege and an honor to not only watch them perform, but witness first hand how they address, tackle and portray three of American theaters most dynamic 20th century characterizations.

The play, of course, is just as revelatory.


This is a breathtaking, fiercely acted revival of American Dream dystopia. It is also one of the most fascinating plays to be presented at this theater this season, comparable to that of "Proof" which played this treasured New Milford space back in February.

"All My Sons" is the dramatic tale of an idealistic young man who discovers that his kind-hearted, hard-working father, a man he truly adores, knowingly shipped dodgy, defective aircraft parts (cracked cylinders, to be precise), during World War II that resulted in the death of 21 Air Force pilots.

As written by Miller, the play itself deals with themes of greed, depression, compromise, ethical responsibility, corruption, hidden truths and character renaissance. The beauty, of course, lies in the writing, an intoxicating blend of truths, criticisms, hypocrisies and generational struggles that are timeless, informative, observant and undeniably individual. Here, as in "Death of a Salesman" and "After the Fall," lives clinging to destiny and to a destructive fatefulness are the playwright's forte. It's a theme any director would welcome in a heartbeat.

Enter Jane Farnol.

The complex, emotional layers of Miller's play text are convincingly carried out in thrilling, edgy detail by the English-born director whose TheatreWorks' credits include "Exit the King," "The Taming of the Shrew," "Medea," "The Laramie Project," " Gross Indecency" and "The Elephant Man." Upfront, this is a very complicated, dramatic piece that requires someone with an appreciation and understanding for Miller's story, its human problems, its angered showdowns and shattering blows. Farnol handles all of this and more with the grace, skill and knowledge gained from years of study at The Royal Academy of Art in London.

What's impressive about Farnol's work in "All My Sons" is that things are never rushed, taken for granted or overly staged for dramatic effect. Instead, things happen naturally. A beat, a pause, a close up or a time out is effectively utilized for dramatic effect, when necessary, as is the placement of an actor full front to the audience or the pairing of two, three or multiple characters when dictated by the script
Farnol accomplishes this feat swimmingly, always knowing who to thrust in the limelight, when to move and place someone here and there, when to have them simply stand still and observe or when to let them completely fall to pieces. Given the intimate size of her working space, she lets the material  grow and breathe, entice the audience voyeuristically, shake them up a bit and push them to the edge of their seat. It's a game plan that complements Miller's writing effortlessly.

As Joe Keller, Mark Feltch gives his characterization the emotional punch and weight it so richly deserves. The role itself is absolutely perfect for this skilled actor who is appropriately guilt-ridden, haunted and defensive about his character's past, his dark secrets and his obviously divided household. Regardless, you are drawn to him, despite the deceit, the blood on his hands and a cover up that sent his partner to prison. Simply amazing.

Kate Keller, played by the brilliant Noel Desiato, is an assured, forceful, incredible talent whose love of performance and all things Miller, makes her the perfect candidate to bring this emotionally troubled character to life. Her pain and anguish over a son she refuses to admit is dead is honestly communicated through both dialogue and moments of strained or tormented silence. She also deftly projects the image of a woman trapped by her husband's guilty past and the decision to hide the truth from her only surviving son Chris. Her complete meltdown, which comes nears the end of the play, is a tour-de-force in itself, hauntingly conceived and played by the actress under Farnol's intuitive direction.

Tommy Ovitt gives a commanding, involved performance as Joe Keller's younger son Chris. It is charismatic, personable, innocent and genial and one of the most richly textured performances of the season. Clearly, acting is Ovitt's calling. He's so honest and so believable, even Arthur Miller would applaud his portrayal. He recites the playwright's dialogue with steadfast conviction. His characterization comes from the heart. His reactions, expressions, body language and dramatic interaction, development and intensity, are uncannily honest and always in sync with Miller's intentions for the character. And finally, the play's power and urgency are even more effective  (in
particular, his fury after discovering his father's corrupt cover-up), due to Ovitt's carefully-crafted crackerjack portrait.

Paige Grey, in the role of Ann Deever, the neighbor's daughter who has shunned her father since his imprisonment, plays the part with dutiful charm, passion and inquisitiveness. She is also well-matched opposite Ovitt who plays her boyfriend Chris. One of her best moments comes when she confronts and shows Chris' mother Kate a letter from her deceased son. She and Desiato give this pivotal moment in "All My Sons" the sting and tragic insight it deserves. Just brilliant!

Jonathan Ross, an actor who has spent decades performing in area theater, is one of those actors who comes into any given production, with the assurance, drive and dedication that always makes his work completely memorable. Here, he is well cast as Dr. Jim Bayliss, a frustrated, successful doctor and close friend of the Keller family, who, often finds himself in their backyard making conversation, observing or simply reacting. He does all three superbly..

Deron Bayer also stands out as George Deever, a successful New York lawyer and WWII vet, who finds himself completely enraged by the lies and secrets of the Keller family. It's a centered, angst-ridden performance that flows with the ease, curiosity and anger intended by the playwright and performed with a demeanour  that is personable, truthful and impressive.

For scenery, Jim Hipp has designed a handsome, serviceable backyard setting that serves the material well, as does Nick Kaye's sunny, moody, every-changing lighting palate. Mary Kimball's choice  costume design is colorful, important and reflective of the period from whence it came. The clothes themselves also complement the actor's who wear her different, assorted designs. And, no one gets lost or upstaged by the scenery, which is a sign of steadfast, intuitive costume execution.

"All My Sons" is a moving, passionate, intimate drama. As written by Arthur Miller, it remains a timeless classic of American theater, fraught with real characters, real dialogue, real subplots and real emotion.  Today, as when it was first performed on Broadway back in 1947, it displays a compelling humanity and moral ambiguity, well portrayed by the playwright, Farnol and the exceptional TheatreWorks cast.

Photos by Ghostlight Photography

"All My Sons" is being staged at TheatreWorks (5 Brookside Avenue, New Milford, CT), now through October 13.
For tickets or more information, call  (860) 350-6863.

Monday, September 17, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 95, A Review: "Peter and the Starcatcher" (Playhouse on Park)

By James V. Ruocco

Peter Pan, remember him?
But, of course.

It's been well over a century since J.M. Barrie's proud, jubilant, young boy who would not grow up delighted and cajoled Edwardian England, from the royals themselves to the upper class families of Bloomsbury and Mayfair, their household servants, their favorite bankers and just about anyone else who fancied stories about the lost childhoods of yesterday.
It was a winning combination, indeed.
Just think about it for a moment.

Mysterious treasures.
Queen Victoria.
Ticking crocodiles.
Orphaned boys.
Never, Never Land.
Captain Hook.
The Darling family.

In "Peter and the Starcatcher," the smart, ageless fantasy that creates a timely, innovative and humorous backstory for one of literature's most beloved and treasured characters, Playhouse on Park director Sean Harris ("In the Heights," "Cabaret," "Angels and America")  crafts a stylish theatrical experience that pays homage to Monty Python, British holiday pantos, Oscar Wilde, and those copious English musical hall skits that were naughty, wicked and decidedly gay, but gobs and gobs of fun.

Using just about every conceivable ounce of stardust, fairy dust, twinkle and afterglow to transport his audience back in time to the magical world of Rick Elice's dizzying reimagined glimpse of "Pan's" beginnings, this production entices and excites with its frequent flights of whimsy, merriment, grandeur, boldness and slaphappy tomfoolery.

This "Peter and the Starcatcher" rarely misses a beat.

It is, however, decidedly different from the original 2011 off-Broadway production that starred Christian Borle, Adam Chanler-Berat and Celia Keenan-Bolger. While the traditional storybook enchantment remains, as does, the play's goofy, sophomoric humor, some of the action, most noticeably, the distinct, proudly non-verbal stage business that puts the entire cast through some pretty vigorous moves, using ropes, banners, wheels, bridges and assorted props, has been either cut, trimmed or edited, depending on the actual sequence. It's not that the cast can't handle it (they can), it's just not needed in the small, intimate confines of Playhouse on Park's work space.

So what exactly is "Peter and the Starcatcher?" you ask.

Well, for starters, there's more to the story than bumbling buccaneers, pirate ships, secret treasures and amorous flirtations. Set in 1885, "Starcatcher" takes it cue from Dave Berry and Ridley Pearson's novel and tells theatergoers how Peter became "Pan," how he acquired that special gift of eternal youth, how a dastardly and dark Black Stache lost his hand and became the villainous Captain Hook, how a swirling yellowish thing became a twinkling greenish light named Tinkerbell, how a crocodile ended up tick-tocking and how a mysterious, magical island got its name....Never, Never Land. There's also lots, lots more, including some surprising facts about  a very special young girl whose last name is Darling and the very idea of "Pan" flying into a nursery window to take three children, including one named Wendy, on the adventure of a lifetime.
And, oh yes, there's that special ending, which, is this production, is different from the 2011 off-Broadway edition, but, nonetheless, works it's decided magic. It will make you smile, perhaps even shed a tear or two. But it's the absolute perfect conclusion to the "Peter Pan" story.

Musically, "Peter and the Starcatcher" is a play with music. There are a few, scattered songs here and there, but this is not a traditional musical like "Finding Neverland" or "Mary Poppins." Here, the musical numbers are limited to a pirate, a mermaid, a sailor and a chorus. Nothing terribly exciting or hummable. Just musical moments that advance the storyline or tickle your funny bone. Regardless, musical director Melanie Guerin ("In the Heights") has great fun with these tireless ditties and the show's moody and evocative background music, which is used most effectively throughout the two-act production. Synchronized with some expertly timed beats, ticks and quirky sound effects, Guerin  keeps things playful and magical, which is exactly the feeling dictated by the show's creators.

To bring the story of "Peter and the Starcatcher" to life, Harris has assembled a talented, resourceful, energetic ensemble team of twelve. The are Jared Starkey, Matthew Quinn, Natalie Sannes, James Patrick Nelson, Thomas Daniels, Elena V. Levenson, Nick Palazzo, Brianna Bagley, Sandra Mhlongo, Colleen Welsh, James Fairchild and Nicholas Dana Rylands. Everyone stands out, individually or working opposite one another in pairs, trios or one big ensemble.

This is not an easy show to pull off. Nonetheless, the gusto, the intuition, the spirit, the rawness, the drive, the spark and the enveloping energy of this group is bloody amazing at every twist, turn, wink, pose, grimace, surprise or costume change. To pull this feat off effortlessly is one thing. But to remember all of the stage blocking, movement, pantomime, expressions, body language, line delivery and conceits Harris supplies in full British panto fashion, is an accomplishment in itself. The fact that it all comes together so seamlessly (no sensory overload, here)  immediately impresses. As does the cast's intuitive level of trust, dedication, talent, stamina and synchronicity.

Jared Starkey, an actor of considerable charm and magnetism, takes hold of Peter's journey,  projecting just the right amount of warmth, heroism, restlessness, angst and soul-searching indicative of J. M. Barrie's famous creation. His athletic, animated prowess is unbeatable, as is his steadfast mime and balletic skills.
Watching him shift gears with split-second timing or simply just jump, spin, twirl, kick, shake or bounce about the Playhouse on Park set like a turn-of-the-century circus acrobat adds nuance, color and sweep to his boyish characterization. Elsewhere, he inhabits and projects the wonder, the mystery and the glimmer of the orphaned, lost boy who eventually can and will fly.

In the role of Molly, a part that seems tailor-made for the captivating Natalie Sannes, the actress offers a plucky, determined, good-natured portrait of  a young girl and apprentice starcatcher whose identity in the "Peter Pan" story is revealed during the final minutes of the play. As the dandy, overly effeminate Black Stache, Matthew Quinn hams it up in true British panto fashion, His gleeful, gayish comic turn would probably make Oscar Wilde green with envy. Regardless, it's a  performance that is delightfully merry, campy, giddy and outrageous, much to the delight of everyone on stage and in the audience. The actor's penchant for effete mischief, cross-dressing, snarky line delivery, uproarious puns, double takes and double entendres, is unstoppable .

A dazzling, spunky, wildly distinctive entertainment, "Peter and the Starcatcher" is an imaginative, uplifting backstory to J.M. Barrie's epic tale of the boy named "Peter Pan." It is an exciting and flavorful adventure, handsomely staged and shaped by director Sean Harris. It is also one that happily launches Playhouse on Park's diverse, new 2018-2019 line up of shows that includes "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Murder for Two" and "The Scottsboro Boys." So grab yourself a ticket. Indulge and enjoy!

Photos of "Peter and the Starcatcher" by Curt Henderson

"Peter and the Starcatcher" is being staged at Playhouse on Park (244 Park Rd., West Hartford, CT), now through October 14.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 523-5900.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 94, A Review: "Make Believe" (Hartford Stage)

By James V. Ruocco

The stories.
The memories.
The traumas.
The parents.
The best friends.
The pretending.
The secrets.
The games.
The homework.
The sibling rivalry.
Whoever said, being a kid, was easy?

In "Make Believe," a new play by Bess Wohl, the angst of being a kid and everything else that comes from that once childlike state of being, is the playwright's source of inspiration and joy, including a makeshift tent of sheets and other bed linens, which oddly enough, is a dead ringer for the very same one I had when growing up.
Seriously? Yes, seriously.
Mine was in the basement. Theirs is in the playroom.
But that's where the comparisons stop.

A memory play in two parts, "Make Believe" looks at childhood and how it develops and stays with us for the rest of our lives, using everyday dialogue and everyday situations most theatergoers can relate too. The kids swear, they play ball, they hide in tents, they break the heads off dolls, they pretend to bark and pee like dogs, they worry about their parents, they skip school, they drink liquor, they tell lies, they play games, they steal, they fight and they show off in front of one another just like every other kid in the neighborhood. And finally, they grow up, which, for story purposes, comprises the second half of "Make Believe."

Wohl, of course, doesn't claim to have all the answers. But there's a lot of truth and edge to what she has to say, including a few surprise plot twists which, if revealed here, would lessen the drama and tension that unfolds during the second half of "Make Believe" when the kids are all grown up.

Jackson Gay, making her Hartford Stage debut as director of  "Make Believe," crafts a funny, fast-paced presentation that invites laughs, tears, sentiment, pain and memories. Ah, yes, memories. There's no escaping them, which is one of the amusing points of this remembrance play.  As is, being in a playroom and living in the safe haven of a home as a child. Or coming back years later, as an adult,  confronting issues, traumas and memories that swim inside your brain, forcing you to remember the good stuff, the fun stuff and the bad stuff regardless of the consequences.

For the most part, Gay keeps things things in perspective throughout the play's 90-minute exploration. The first half of the play, which deals with the four kids as youngsters, contains lots of energy, laughter, silliness and childhood banter, offset by some quirky stage business of  "kids just being kids" moving about the playful, colorful set (handsomely designed by Antje Ellermann) with carefree abandon. Gay has found four incredibly talented kids to pull this feat off. They recite Wohl's dialogue in perfect pitch, address their quirky characterizations with tremendous ease and have great fun romping about the set like everyday kids.

It all makes perfect sense and later, plays a key role in certain sub plots and revelations when the kids reappear as adults. But Gay can't work miracles. The kids, delightful as they are, are on stage for far too long, a fault of the script, that can easily and quickly be remedied.  Eliminating about 10-12 minutes of their story or some of the non-verbal stage blocking is highly recommended. It not only would improve things considerably, but give the adult characters more stage time instead of equal stage time with the younger cast members.

When the adult characters finally appear during the second half of "Make Believe," the curiosity of having them all (minus one, of course) come face to face (in the very same playroom of their childhood) to confront their past demons, traumas and memories, gives the piece a certain curiosity and oomph that Gay brilliantly shapes and molds right through to the play's bittersweet conclusion. Things are lively, heated, surprising, offbeat, crazy and revelatory.
Directorially speaking, everything is mapped about evenly and dramatically with no breaks in the action, its plotting or its advancement. Gay gives her actors plenty of interesting things to do, but, sadly, it's all over too quickly. Adding an additional 15 minutes to the adult scenes could easily benefit the piece and add additional depth, shading and nuance to the characters themselves. It's an easy fix and one the playwright could easily master.

In "Make Believe," the younger characters are played by Sloane Wolfe (Kate), Alexa Skye Swinton (Addie), Roman Malenda (Chris) and RJ  Vercellone (Carl). They are the ideal quartet to inhabit these roles which they do so with childlike fervor, imagination, animation and excitement. They only miss a beat two when the material jumps off track for the moment or when the scenes play a bit longer than they should. .
The adult cast is represented by Megan Bryne (Kate), Molly Ward (Addie), Chris Ghaffari (Chris) and Brad Heberlee (Carl). Here, Gay has assembled a first-class team of talented performers, all of whom play their roles perfectly with creative and intuitive aplomb.  No one makes a false move. No one breaks character. All dialogue and interactions are delivered with natural ease. And when necessary, they display, much to the audience's delight, moments from their childhood past, copying the same animation, verbage and body language of the younger cast members.

"Make Believe" is an odd, quirky and lively entertainment about childhood, survival and growing up. It jump starts Hartford Stage's thrilling, new season of plays that includes "Henry V," "A Christmas Carol," "The Engagement Party," "Detroit '67," "Jeeves & Wooster in 'Perfect Nonsense,' " and "The Flamingo Kid."
The play itself is definitely worth a peak. It also conjures up memories of one's own childhood, both good and bad, and leaves one with that nagging feeling of "What if?" or "Could I have done things differently?"
I'd sure welcome the chance to build that tent again, invite my friends over to play board games, have pizza, talk about my secret crushes on the girls who lived up the street from me and show everyone how much money I had stolen from my dad's secret stash inside the jacket pocket of his Brooks Brothers suits. If the truth be known, he always knew about my thievery but found it funny that I kept going back for more. Ah, parents! Don't you just love them?

All photos by T. Charles Erickson

"Make Believe" is being presented at Hartford Stage (50 Church St., Hartford, CT), now through September 30.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-5151.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 93, A Review: "Johnny Guitar" (Majestic Theater)

By James V. Ruocco

There's nothing wrong with a little bit of camp, every now and then.

Cast in point: "Johnny Guitar," a lively, brazen, adventurous musical parody that jump starts Majestic Theater's new 2018-2019 theater season and delights and cajoles at every outrageous page-turning scene and soppy song confection.

Tumbleweed corny.

That is the world of this giddy send-up of the 1954 movie western that featured fake frontier sets, swinging saloon doors, one-note dialogue, mindless direction, bad acting, repressed sexuality, garish close ups and finally, that "Mommie Dearest" witch by the name of Joan Crawford acting terribly butch instead of terribly feminine around hunky poster boy Sterling Hayden, cast in the role of a reformed gunslinger who once seduced and bedded JC's character.

Taking its cue from the Nicholas Ray Technicolor film, "Johnny Guitar" retells the same story of lost love, shoot outs, bank robberies, lynched ropes, horse-opera tensions, seething rivalries and oh, yes, the arrival of the railroad right smack through the swinging doors of a newly opened saloon-casino. Only this time, the laughs are intentional.

Staging "Johnny Guitar" is Majestic Theater favorite Danny Eaton, a perfect candidate for this sort of western tomfoolery. Upfront, Eaton's love for theater and its overall presentation values, permeates this slap-happy musical production. He has as much fun putting it together as we do watching it. Working from Nicholas van Hoogstraten's outrageous script, he never once takes things for granted or oversteps his boundaries.

Given the obvious concept and zany plot machinations of the story, Eaton gets the point across  immediately. As "Johnny Guitar" unfolds, he maps things out precisely always knowing what buttons to push, when to take a breath or when to lay it on thick and easy to get laughs, sneers and jeers in all the right places. There are pregnant pauses, crazy muggings and positioning, silly line deliveries, melodramatic brawls and gunfights and purposely outrageous sound cues, light cues and music cues.
One of the best involves a crazy bit of well-orchestrated stage business involving the entire cast (or, whoever is on stage at the moment) when the name 'Johnny Guitar' is spoken. It's a running gag that is played over and over throughout the two-act musical and one that never once gets tired and old. It's downright hysterical.

The musical score for "Johnny Guitar" has been written by actor/singer Joel Higgins (lyrics) and Martin Silvestri (music). There are fifteen songs in all: "Johnny Guitar," "Let it Spin," "A Smoke and a Good Cup O' Coffee/Rhapsody in Boots," "Branded a Tramp," "Old Santa Fe," "They Were On Fire," "What's In It For Me?" "Who Do They Think They Are?" "Welcome Home," "Johnny Guitar reprise)," "Tell Me a Lie," "The Gunfighter," "We've Had Our Moments," "Bad Blood" and "Finale."

The songs themselves are serviceable to the plot without ever once interrupting the story or bringing the action to an abrupt halt just for the sake of all things musical. Up front, the score itself isn't exactly going to send you though the exit doors of the Majestic Theater singing and humming some of the lyrics. Then again, it's not supposed to evoke those musical feelings. This isn't "The King and I" or "Guys and Dolls." Here, what you see and what you get are 15 musical numbers that are fun, folksy, cheery and hokey. Each and every one of them are completely in sync with the characters who sing them and nothing more.

For "Johnny Guitar," the Majestic Theater has chosen Mitch Chakour (piano/guitar) as musical director. He is joined by Don Rovero (bass), Aaron Porchelli (guitar), Ann-Marie Messbauer (violin) and Tim Hosmer (drums). Chakour has great fun with the musical's camp and amp, its overplayed dramatics, its western-tinged ballads and its playful ensemble numbers. Everyone on stage is in perfect pitch and never once breaks character as the musical swells, edges over the top or breaks into tumbleweed hysteria. Chakour and company have a tight reign on everything and treat the Higgins/Silvestri material with the craziness and flavorful musicality it richly deserves.

"Johnny Guitar" stars Myka Plunkett as Vienna, Billy Clark Taylor as Johnny, Bethany Fitzgerald as Emma, Michael Graham Morales as the Dancin' Kid, Michael Garcia as Sam, Steve Sands as Eddie, Joseph Duda as Turkey, Walter Mantani as McIvers and Michael King as Bart. Well chosen by Eaton for their respective roles, all nine cast members are so very right for the parts they have been asked to portray. They act, sing, emote and camp it up at the top of their form. Nothing looks rehearsed. Nothing looks out of place. Nothing falls flat. And each and every one of them, understands over-the-top parody like polished pros, thus, giving the show's dialogue and situations the intended humor and cheekiness indicated in Nicholas van Hoogstraten's gooey script.

Additional praise is also mandatory for Greg Trochlil (set design), Dawn McKay (costuming), Daniel David Rist (lighting design) and Justin LeTellier (sound design). All four deserve necessary praise for their artful contribution to the success of the production.

"Johnny Guitar" is rock-solid camp and parody played out to the fullest exaggeration by a first-rate cast, director, musical director and a very creative production team that any working theater would be glad to have in their back pocket. It is fun. It is crazy. It is wild. And it makes you want to run home, call Netflix or check Turner Classic Movies for the next showing or available copy of the unintentionally funny 1954 western drama that starred Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge and Scott Brady.

One final note:
You may want to get to the Majestic Theater early to have a light snack or light dinner at the "Majestic Café," a cozy, intimate space, offering a themed dinner item (a very delicious turkey on roll sandwich and a tangy vegetarian vegetable soup that's absolutely yummy), plus lots of snacks, desserts, drinks, wines, sodas and beers. And of yes, let's not forget that freshly popped popcorn.
The "Café" is open one-hour prior to the performance and during intermission.

Photos by Kait Rankins

"Johnny Guitar" is being staged at the Majestic Theater (131 Elm St., West Springfield, MA), now through October 21.
For tickets or more information, call (413) 747-7797.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 92, A Review: "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" (Fairfield Center Stage)

By James V. Ruocco

A funny thing happened on the well-traveled road from Bridgeport to Fairfield.

Two very important theater people...Christy McIntosh-Newsom and Eli Newsom....found themselves fueled by the idea of starting a brand new theater group from inside out and top to bottom.

To jumpstart their dream, they invited the community (who came out in droves), to support and cheer their special outdoor presentation of "The Music Man in Concert" this past summer. Soon after, a full season of plays, musicals and concerts, was quickly put into place. And suddenly, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" became the season opener for this brand new theater group, aptly titled Fairfield Center Stage.
They they haven't looked back, since.


"Hedwig and the Angry Inch" is brilliantly layered and conceived in such imaginative ways, it not only deserves to be seen, but propels Fairfield Center Stage to the top of the leader board as one of the theater community's newest and brightest creations of the 2018-2019 season. The musical itself explodes in every color of the rainbow (no pun intended) and dazzles with enough theatrical savvy, wit and ingenuity to claim its place as one of the season's brightest and best experiences in Fairfield County.

Do not miss it!

Written by John Cameron Mitchell, the actor/singer who originated the part of Hedwig in the 1998 off-Broadway production at the Jane Street Theatre in Greenwich Village, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" tells the complicated story of a proud, determined but largely ignored song stylist who, after surviving botched gender-reassigned surgery (thus, the "angry inch" of the musical's title), decides to embark on a worldwide tour to tell her sad story accompanied by her "Angry Inch" rock band and Yitzhak, a Jewish drag queen from Zagreb who has become her back-up singer and husband.

Based on the success of the recent "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," which she directed with plenty of glam, glitz and drag queen oomph, who better to direct "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" than Christy McIntosh-Newsom. She knows the subject matter inside out. She is very familiar with the drag scene persona from heels and make up to feathers, glitter and sparkle. She understands the passionate art form that is drag. She is also sensitive to its language, its creativity, its decidedly different beat and its unique presentation before a live audience.

Here, she crafts a brilliant, personal and intimate piece of theater that comes from the heart and magically unfolds with the sensationalism, bravura and showmanship that always categorizes her work in theater. She is a major force to be reckoned with and one that makes you want to stand up and cheer, clapping madly and shouting "Bravo!" at the 95-minute musical production she has shaped and molded so effortlessly.

Her input works on every level. There is real honesty and angst in the main character's complex, genderqueer story, its development and its true underground conclusion. The intimacy of the small space heightens that essential aura and fascinates at every turn. And finally, there's the actual concert, which is staged with just the right amount of radicalism, desperation, energy, expression and poignancy John Cameron's Mitchell's wildly creative script demands.

The musical and lyrics for "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" are the brainchild of Stephen Trask, an American musician and composer who graduated from Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT. An infectious mix of glam rock, explicit gay content and hard rock punk, the music itself is unique on every level, as it drifts from melodies and edgy ballads to explosive puck sounds and rock tirades that serve the "Hedwig" story and material well. It is original. It is fun. It is queer. It is hard. It is fucked-up. It is character driven. It is an experience like no other. Then again, that's the point, isn't it?

The "Hedwig" songbook itself contains eleven wildly inventive songs guaranteed to smack you in the face, kick you in the ass and work you into an emotional frenzy comparable to the drug-induced euphoria that once put Studio 54 on the map. They are "Tear Me Down," "The Origin of Love," "Sugar Daddy," "Angry Inch," "Wig in a Box," "Wicked Little Town," "The Long Grift," "Hedwig's Lament," "Exquisite Corpse," "Wicked Little Town (Reprise)" and "Midnight Radio."

In the musical, Josh Sette, Christopher Cavaliere, Charles Casimiro and Gabe Nappi not only comprise the "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" onstage band, but double as the musical's characters Jacek (bass),  Schlatko (drums), Krzysztof (keyboard) and Skszp (guitar). All four bring the
cultish "Hedwig" musical score to life, playing each and every one of the songs the way Trask originally intended.
What's remarkable about this foursome is that it's all very naturally conveyed and perfectly in sync with moments that are improvised by the onstage actors, the audience and just about everyone else. It's fast, aggressive and rebellious. And it's played at a fevered tilt that compliments the night's hardcore proceedings, its blistering song tracks and its solidified smoky, sweaty, seedy, grunge mania.

To thrust Hedwig's musical story into the limelight and give her the rock star dazzle she craves, Emily Frangipane has been enlisted as the show's choreographer. As "Hedwig" makes its mark, Frangipane combines punk-rock glam and music into wild, outrageous patterns, movements and rhythms that superbly compliment the intimate space of Hedwig's concert world and the frenzy that erupts when everything unravels, both musically and dramatically.

Her work is captivating, punchy, gritty and emotional, driven by hard-hitting and kinesthetic action, reflective in the music, the drama and the heat of the moment. It is also full of well-orchestrated, fun surprises that, at times, involves unsuspecting members of the audience. One male, in fact, nearly gets the "angry inch" of Hedwig's you-know-what, shaken, stirred and gobsmacked into his bewildered face as the musical swells and Frangipane allows Hedwig to let it all hang out, so to speak, with dizzying dance movements and choreography that is amazingly brilliant and fucking outrageous.

It's the role of a lifetime and it's a role that Lance Anthony, last seen as Bernadette in McIntosh-Newsom's thrilling and colorful production of "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," was born to play. And play it he does and does and does. It's the performance of the season and one that the actor invests with wild, unapologetic abandon, wonder, sincerity and punk rocker exactness. We feel his pain. We feel his lust. We feel his sexiness. We feel his gayness. We feel his anger. We feel his cusp of the drag world, its persona and its artfulness. He is every inch (no, pun intended) the star that John Cameron Mitchell was in the original off-Broadway production, but he's no copycat. His Hedwig is a true original, wig flick and all.

As Yitzhak, the ex-drag queen who becomes the frequent object of Hedwig's verbal and mental wrath and abuse, the versatile Alexis Willoughby offers a moving, haunting portrait of an individual forced
to remain in the sidelines, but longing for a place in the spotlight, if only fleetingly. The actress, in fine voice, also gets to accompany Anthony on background vocals and duets. And when the big moment comes ("The Long Grift" solo), Willoughby not only owns the moment, but belts out the lyrics with a passionate, powerhouse delivery that shakes, rattles and nearly blows the roof off of this prime Kings Highway Cutoff venue.

In conclusion, "Hedwig and the Angy Inch" is a stunner. The Trevi Lounge is a venue perfectly suited to the nature of the piece and its rock concert glam. Lance Anthony is a stunning Hedwig, a perfect showman and a dazzling drag queen. Alexis Willoughby as Yitzhak, is the perfect right-hand showman and long-suffering partner. Christy McIntosh-Newsom's direction is topical, determined and illuminating. Emily Frangipagne's choreography is pop-cultured and iconic. And the band goes that extra distance most spontaneously.

"Hedwig and the Angry Inch" kicks off Fairfield Center Stage's inaugural season, which includes "The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Movie with Live Floor Show," "Onward & Upward, a 2018/2019 Benefit Concert," "A Christmas Carol Experience," "FCS Rocks: Queen, A Night at the Opera,"    "Dreamgirls," "FCS New Works: Vows,"  "The Secret Garden" and "The 2019 Playathon."

With Christy McIntosh-Newsom (Artistic Director) and Eli Newsom (Executive Producer) at the helm, the lifeline for Fairfield Center Stage is going to be a very, very long and prosperous one. Just look at their track record.
They love theater. They love the art form. They love the people. They love the actors. They love the  production team. They love the audience. And everyone loves them.

Inspired by the concept of environmental theatre, this enigmatic and talented twosome have put the town of Fairfield "center stage" by offering a variety of plays and musicals that showcase the town's amazing, different venues.  It's a challenge, yes.
But with the groundwork laid, it's time to say "Welcome Everybody" and roll out that welcome mat and say, "Goodbye, Bridgeport....Hello, Fairfield."

"Hedwig and the Angy Inch" is being presented by Fairfield Center Stage (Trevi Lounge, 548 Kings Highway Cutoff, Fairfield, CT), now through September 15.
For tickets visit the FCS website.
For more information, call (203) 416-6446 (voice mail only) and leave a message.