Monday, September 16, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 196, A Review: "Macbeth" (The Brookfield Theatre For the Arts)

By James V. Ruocco

" a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing."
(William Shakespeare, "Macbeth")

And, so it begins.

William Shakespeare wrote "Macbeth" between 1605 and 1606 in what is commonly referred to as "his dark period."


It's all here waiting to be explored, dissected and bandied about in scholarly, exhaustive, unstressed fashion with witches, prophecies, slayings, hand-scrubbing, apparitions, beheadings and crimson-drenched blood securing its horror show craziness and conceptual madness.

The Brookfield Theatre For the Arts production of  "Macbeth" brings the clock-ticking brutalism and atmospheric eeriness of the story right onto the stage itself with plenty of suspense, shock, coolness and pathos, all of which is intelligently rendered with a daring, energized mindset that proves rewarding from start to finish. Re-cut and re-imagined to fit a 100-minute time frame, this "Macbeth" sizzles with in-your-face ambition, corruption and tension that never falters for a second. Elsewhere, the closeness between actor and audience (a plus at this location) heightens the play's bloodcurdling appeal amid the precise, inventive cacophony of Shakespeare's words, moments, meltdowns, observations, chants and power plays.

Then and now, the play begins with the brief appearance of three witches who tell the inquisitive Macbeth that one day he will become King of Scotland. Encouraged by his wife to make this royal position an immediate reality, he kills the King, takes the crown and throne, then  kills and kills again out of guilt and paranoia until he realizes he is doomed and finally submits to his enemy.

The psychological intrigue, collective madness, downward spirals and bloody savagery that is "Macbeth" is carried out in bold, thrilling, intense fashion - the kind that toys with your senses and leaves you breathless - by English-born director Jane Farnol whose credits include "All My Sons," "Quartet," "Exit the King," "The Taming of the Shrew," "Medea," "The Laramie Project" and "The Elephant Man." Upfront, this is a very layered, important, involved dramatic work that requires someone well-versed in the mechanics, structure and storytelling techniques set forth by Shakespeare, its angered showdowns, its long and mannered conversations, its diverse characterizations, its opaque plotlines and page-by-page dramatics.
Not to worry, though. Farnol handles all of this ferocious pain and angst with the grace, skill, imagination and knowledge gained from years of study at The Royal Academy of Art in London. Every moment of this "Macbeth" is so carefully etched, explored and designed, the moments fly swiftly and fluidly from one scene to the next with a deft flourish and involved design that works to the play's advantage. Extraneous parts of the story are missing here and there, but never once does this "Macbeth" seem truncated or at odds with the the director's choice, beat-by-beat editing.   

What's impressive about Farnol's work in this production is the honesty, realness, rawness and compassion she brings to this telling of this oft-told tale. It's all laid out with the purpose, stamina and wild theatrics the story demands. But things are never rushed or taken for granted. Here, you get a taut, explosive examination of the Bard's famous tragedy that masterfully draws you into the drama, its demons, its internal conflicts, its treachery, its repercussions and its articulate nastiness.
It's a well-orchestrated game plan infused by smart, apt blocking maneuvers that includes entrances and exits up and down the aisles of the theater's intimate working space, moody music and lighting cues, lively sword fights and the implementation of widescreen projection Technicolor cinematography (amazingly timed and photographed by Stephen Cihanek) involving the appearance and disappearance of the three witches who taunt and tease Macbeth with their eerie chants and prophecies. 

To be asked to play the lead role of Macbeth in Shakespeare's iconic tragedy is a coup for any actor and David Regelmann's descent into madness, murder and paranoia has a quicksilver charge, pathos and broken dynamic about it that allows him to dig deep into the character's complicated persona, his extreme behavior, his dark heart, his tormented delusions and believable bloodlust. It's a significant, ambitious portrait of memory fraught with real strength and honesty, anchored by line delivery with great clarity, scope and cynicism that reflects the character's sense of restlessness, torment, greed and thirst for regal power.

As Lady Macbeth, Vicki Sosbe is tormented, self-possessed, dangerous and sensual. It's a stirring, vibrant character turn that comes from the heart, layered with the just the right amount of confidence, nuance, passion and intensity. As "Macbeth" unfolds, she brings such a marvelous sense of drive and importance to Shakespeare's dialogue, familiar words, conversations and truths glimmer with a freshness and excitement that is both unique and rewarding. It's a star turn worth coming to Brookfield for commandeered by an imperious passion and poised grit that is completely haunting and captivating whenever she's on stage. The actress also shares a great on-stage chemistry with Regelmann which, here, heightens the dramatic scope and intensity of their many scenes together.

In the role of Banquo, Macbeth's rival and a general in the King's army who is completely oblivious to his own impending doom, Thomas Samuels cuts a very striking figure of bravery, attention, wisdom, dash and command. A supremely, self-assured actor who adds new dimension and personality to his characterization, Samuels is masculine, edgy and aggressive, bringing the right intonation and flourish to Banquo's wordplay, thoughts and feelings. It's a performance steeped in such keenly drawn,  Royal Shakespeare Company-like instinctiveness, Banquo's many conversations, speeches and dialogue seem newly-minted.

For this production, Farnol also surrounds her three amazing principal players with a fine supporting cast of actors including Sam Bass as Malcolm, Christopher Bird as Macduff, Ron Malyszka as the Doctor, Rebecca Pokorski as Lady Macduff, Sean Gorman as Angus/First Murderer and Kylie Block, Molly Badinelli and Keira Sosbe as The Three Witches. They too bring excitement and nuance to this engrossing Shakespearean drama.

A bold, brave and intense retelling, this "Macbeth" compels and fascinates at every turn. It is well played by the entire cast to stimulating effect. As directorial interpreter, Jane Farnol is a brilliant communicator of Shakespeare's language and his eerie take on bloodshed and revenge. Crafty ideas mixed with remarkable cinematic back screen visuals and refreshingly swift and edgy staging make this "Macbeth" is triumph of the highest order that reflects a very fresh, captivating makeover.

Photos of "Macbeth" courtesy of Stephen Cihanek

"Macbeth" is being staged at The Brookfield Theatre For the Arts (184 Whisconier Rd., Brookfield, CT), now through September 28.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 775-0023

Saturday, September 7, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 195, A Review: "God of Carnage" (Greenwich Theatre Company)

By James V. Ruocco

"Theatre is a mirror, a sharp reflection of society."
(Yasmina Reza, Playwright) 

In Yasmina Reza's  thrilling, high-powered dark comedy "God of Carnage," everything hinges on the casting, the direction and the shrewdness of how it all comes together in an 85-minute time span without an intermission.

On Broadway, the exhilarating frisson of James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis as two middle-class couples who meet one night to discuss and resolve a heated schoolyard fight between their two 11-year-old sons (one boy strikes the other with a stick that knocks out his two front teeth), prompted a verbal tango of unforgettable madness and razor-sharp imagination that was not easily forgotten.

At Greenwich Theatre Company where "God of Carnage" has been justifiably and superbly revived, the effect is very much the same with Mike Boland, Stephanie Hazard, Jason Peck and Wynter Kullman assuming the roles once played by that luminous Broadway foursome. Every joke, every insult, every quirk and every rant is played full-throttle by this tremendously talented quartet with the acidity and rippling irony it demands, thus, making this 2019 incarnation bristle with a life force and primitive aggression all its own.


This production not only has a wonderful sense of intuition about it, but it is potent with very savage,  edges. It flows passionately and impressively freely. It is liberal and angry. It is compassionate and nuanced. It is mouthy and perverse. It pulls no punches. It dissects society with stinging impact. It also retains the crackling precision, the fiery cynicism and the symbolic abundance commandeered by its creator. Elsewhere, a running gag of incessant cell phone interruptions mixed with characters continually switching sides, having anxiety attacks, spouting four-letter words, getting completely bladdered by booze or accidentally revealing their true colors in rapid fire succession, heightens the play's vitriolic energy.

"God of Carnage" is being staged by Rob Kennedy whose directorial credits include "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," "Catch Me If You Can" and "The Addams Family." A smart and savvy showman with an attentive appetite for Reza's talky, driven character drama, Kennedy accepts the playwright's rules of the game, her pragmatic undercurrents, her skillful hypocrisies and her blatant truisms and delivers a meaty mind game of sorts that taunts and teases, spits and brays, fucks you over, toys with your senses and yanks you head first into the play's well-timed jokes, arguments, ideas, confessions, outbursts and breaking points.

Like Reza's other works - "Art," "The Unexpected Man," "A Spanish Play"- "God of Carnage" unfolds with dialogue and conversations that demand the right pacing, the right rhythms, the right mindset, the right motivation and the right stimulation. One wrong move, one missed cue or one abrupt halt in the action and it's over. Just like that. With Kennedy pulling the strings, that never happens here. He not only knows the play inside out, backwards and forwards and front and center, but creates a three-ring circus of sorts (shades of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf ?") that keeps coming at you from all directions with an emotive thrust and scrutinization that keeps to Reza's triggered conceit, its distinct criterion and its locked horns ante.

"I am not a member of polite society. What I am and always have been is a fucking Neanderthal."
(Michael, "God of Carnage")

As penned by Reza, the dialogue is very rhythmic. It's all beats and measures. It's timed and played to the second. It's all very exact and specific. Even the overlapping voices of two or more characters talking at the same time requires the same split-second acumen. Here, as in the Broadway production, the real pleasure of  "God of Carnage" comes from the fiendishly clever manipulation of the four central characters in real time which Kennedy masters with naughty, playful and stylish outrageousness. The fact that you never quite know what's around the corner or how things will actually play out heightens the play's appeal, its story arc evolution and its numbing conclusion.

More importantly, there's always a big reveal or a big surprise at the heart of a Reza play which shocks, titillates and makes for exceptional theatre. In this go round, that trademark gasp of excitement occurs about halfway through the production. It is a bold, brilliantly orchestrated move for one of the play's four character's that Kennedy builds and shapes with such wicked glee, a jaw dropping release of  shock and disbelief from every member of the audience is practically guaranteed when the big moment comes.
The staging for this particular sequence, in part, is similar to that of the Broadway production. But the advantage here is the voyeuristic closeness between actor and audience that changes things considerably and prompts an in-your-face "Oh, my God, did you see what just happened?" effect that you didn't quite get in the original New York production. It will blow your mind as will the aftermath of it all, which is imaginatively staged in extreme close up by Kennedy who reveals a maddening cleverness that Reza, if she were present, would stand up and cheer.

It's a well-known fact that Reza writes plays for actors - an ensemble of equals, that is - who revel in the wicked dynamics of her page-by-page conversations and quirky diatribes using an edgy, savvy, satiric mindset that brings just the right amount of dramatic resonance to the material and its razor-sharp chasms, jousts, name-calling and dicey hauteur. With the brush strokes in place for this originally shrewd, cultivated satire, there's something revelatory in every performance here.

In the role of Michael, a man very eager to create peace between the two conflicted school boys, Mike Boland delivers a raw and powerful character portrait of a typically uncouth individual who tries too hard, makes racial slurs and denounces child-rearing as something completely wasteful. His timing is impeccable. His line delivery is flawless. He nails the emotional heart and soul of his character's persona perfectly. He takes chances and runs with them.  He can be truth or dare at once. And often, when just standing there listening and observing, we know exactly what he is thinking.

As Michael's judgmental wife Veronica, a woman who is writing a book about the Darfur atrocities and hopes to maintain a peaceful resolve for her son's injury, Stephanie Hazard is a whirlwind of rational deliberation, personal bias, emotional pain and thin-lipped liberalism. It's a part she owns and plays with complete honesty, drive, passion and amazing serio-comic flourish. Smartly attuned to Reza's linguistic oeuvre, she displays the right rhythms, tics and beats in an open arena where dangerous mind games and limited visions collide within the marvelously sketched limits of the playwright's controlled, wickedly funny blueprint.

Jason Peck, cellphone in hand for the part of Alan, an obnoxious, self-centered lawyer representing a pharmaceutical company about to be sued over one of its new products that has harmful side effects, delivers an emotionally wild, roller-coaster-ride of a performance that gets under your skin, slaps you in the face, pisses you off and makes you want to get up from your seat and punch him very hard in the stomach for being such a first-class prick. Then again, that's the point, isn't it?
His face - conveying a mess of smarmy, desperate and fearful emotions - pulls you right into Alan's convoluted story, his shaky marriage, his slimy business tactics and his pacy anxiety. Elsewhere, his remarkable ability to shift gears from story to cell phone within a millisecond many, many times over is brilliantly rendered as is his complete breakdown, a wonderfully orchestrated actor's moment that prompts cheers and convulsed laughter in all the right places.

As Alan's wife Annette, a woman on the verge of yet another panic attack who is constantly annoyed by her husband's feckless behavior and total ignorance, Wynter Kullman, last seen in Thrown Stone's "Cry in Out," gives yet another stand out performance in an electrifying role in which she is absolutely amazing. Here, as in "Cry It Out,"  Kullman is very clear about her character, her dialogue, her conversations, her moves, her expressions and her interaction with the other on-stage actors. She plays the part of Annette effortlessly with smartness, purpose, angst and a broodingly intense desperation that is thrilling to watch and discover.
What's exciting about her work at Greenwich Theatre Company is how she goes about it. Yes, "God of Carnage" is rehearsed page by page to fit its allotted running time. Yes, Kullman is blocked to move, speak and participate on cue. Regardless, she is so refreshingly honest and focused, everything she does is real, impassioned and truly inspired without any rehearsed feel whatsoever. If anyone is doing Federico Garcia Lorca's visceral 1934 drama "Yerma" in the near future, Kullman would be perfect for the lead role of Her, a manic, misunderstood, depressed woman whose descent into madness is astounding. It's a part that would show her in an entirely new light and one she could inhabit with unhinged melodrama and therapeutic pathos.

Tense, satirical, edgy and unpredictable, "God of Carnage" is an exhilarating piece of theatre written with great insightfulness and craft by Yasmina Reza. Under Rob Kennedy's smart, unrelenting direction, the cast of four - Boland, Hazard, Peck, Kullman - deliver confident and determined performances that crackle with such excitement, you forget that you are in a theater watching a play.
A bold, disturbing work of tremendous power, "God of Carnage" jump starts Greenwich Theatre Company's premiere season in Fairfield County. It is a thrilling beginning for what promises to be one of the most talked about new Equity theater companies in the state and one that audiences will embrace most engagingly.

"God of Carnage" is being staged at Greenwich Theatre Company (100 Arch St., Greenwich, CT), now through September 15.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 629-5744.

Monday, September 2, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 194, A Review: Broadway Method Academy presents "The Little Mermaid" (Westport Country Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco

It's the girl-meets-boy story retold, but with complications.
She's a mermaid.
He's a human.
She lives under the sea. He lives above on land.
Not to worry, though.
This, being a Disney musical, things end happily, of course, in Broadway Method Academy's bright and bouncy telling of "The Little Mermaid," Hans Christian Anderson's beloved children's tale about a beautiful mermaid so fascinated with life on land, she swims to the surface, falls for a handsome prince and makes a deal with a devious sea witch to become human for just three days.

Based on the 1989 Disney animated film musical of the same name, this reinvented revival of the 2008 Broadway production that starred Sierra Boggess and Sean Palmer, uses the combined talents of Equity performers, non-Equity actors and Broadway Method Academy students to make its mark, or splash, as the case would be, on the very inviting, intimate Westport Country Playhouse stage.
It is simplistic and sweet and retold without aerial illusions simulating underwater life, aggressive scene changes, gargantuan sets and backdrops, lavish costuming and over-the-top special effects that could obstruct the story at hand.  This is a very budget conscious "Little Mermaid" more concerned with graceful storytelling and pretty music than Magic Kingdom opulence. Here, using or stretching your imagination to the fullest, is mandatory.

Utilizing Doug Wright's reworked play script (updates were made in 2012 to the book, the musical score and characterizations), director Bret Shuford crafts a pleasant enough fish tale of land and undersea action that is fun, silly, imaginative and entertaining. At times, however, his direction, lacks the three-dimensional grandness of both "The Lion King" and "Beauty and the Beast" and occasionally, the story itself somersaults into tedium, but only fleetingly. Happily, for all involved, both onstage and off,  it bounces right back to reach high moments of comedy, drama and musicality intended by the show's creators, all of which Shuford embraces with wit, good cheer and heartfelt projection.

The musical score for "The Little Mermaid," written by Alan Menken (music) and Howard Ashman/Glenn Slater (lyrics) contains 26 songs. They are: "The World Above," "Fathoms Below," "Daughters of Triton," "If Only (Triton's Lament)," "Daddy's Little Angel," "Part of Your World," "The Storm," "Part of Your World (Reprise)," "She's in Love," "Her Voice," "Under the Sea," "If Only (Ariel's Lament)," "Sweet Child," "Poor Unfortunate Souls," "Act I Finale," "Positoovity," "Beyond My Wildest Dreams," "Les Poisson," "Les Poissons (Reprise)," "One Step Closer," "Daddy's Little Angel (Reprise)," " Kiss the Girl," "If Only (Quartet)," "The Contest," "Poor Unfortunate Souls," "Final Ultimo." "I Want the Good Times Back" and "Human Stuff," which were featured in the original 2008 Broadway production of "The Little Mermaid" are deleted from this revamped edition of the two-act musical.

Musical direction for "The Little Mermaid" is provided by J. Scott Handley whose Broadway Method Academy credits include "Evita," "Annie," "Carrie: The Musical," "Into the Woods," "Hair," "Spring Awakening" and "Carousel." Working from the Ashman/Manken/Slater blueprint, Handley creates a melodic tonal picture that caps the musical's pleasant-sounding songs and production numbers, its jovial rhythms and colors, its magical flourishes, its individual eccentricities and its elated outbursts of joy. Fully engaged throughout with the able assistance of an accomplished orchestral team of very talented musicians, the ebb and flow of the music is splendid at every turn, full-throated in typical Disney fashion and tinged with a playful humor that is canny, effective and lively.

Choreography for "The Little Mermaid" is the brainchild of Audra Bryant, a crafty dance auteur who opts for simplistic beauty and lyricism whenever the musical happily glides into dance. Her rhythmic compositions befit the story's underwater/on land magic and bliss and heighten the production's narrative progression, its fairy-tale atmosphere and its sugary, cartoonish appeal.
All of the choreography is inspired and diverse with touches of avant-garde emotion and ersatz panorama that bring sass and kitsch to the story along with an inherent wistfulness, brightness and balance. It's all marvelous to watch as "The Little Mermaid" cast dives deeply into Bryant's work with energetic confidence and articulate elan.

Jordan Tyson, as Ariel, possesses a beautiful, lilting soprano voice that commands attention and generates well-deserved applause when she sings the ever-popular "Part of Your World," "The World Above" and "If Only (Ariel's Lament)." Acting wise, she brings  an invigorating sense of humor, compassion and independence to the part, which works especially well throughout the production. As Prince Eric, the handsome prince who wins Ariel's heart, Johnny Stellard is charming, truthful and  dashing, personified by splendid, pitch-perfect vocals ("Her Voice," "One Step Closer," among others) that reflect the kindheartedness and romanticism of the material. Steve Blanchard, in the role of Ariel's widowed father King Triton, plays the part with attendant care, strictness and power the characterization demands while Lawrence Cummings laps things up comically, acerbically and  campily as Sebastian, the king's trusty crab servant, who offers advice to Ariel at his master's request and musically, stops the show with his beautifully-performed renditions of "Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl."

The wicked and evil Ursula, played here with mischievous allure and unbridled sexiness by Meredith Inglesby, is yet another one of those Disney villainesses, you can't help but love and hate for all the right reasons. She's flamboyant. She's vengeful. She's confident. She's lively. She's calculating. And vocally, she brings the right sound and mindset to both "Daddy's Little Angels" and "Poor Unfortunate Souls." As Flotsam and Jetsam, Ursula's giggly electric-eel henchmen, Jackson Wood and Kyle Geriak are a lively, energetic and comical twosome with plenty of well-timed personality, dash and slipperiness that makes them stand out whenever they are on stage. Performing most engagingly alongside the diva-like Inglesby, one eagerly awaits their next onstage moment.
Scuttle, the nonsensical gull, hilariously portrayed by Marty Gnidula, performs "Positoovity" with vaudevillian aplomb. Connor Deane, as Price Eric's trusty, seafaring Pilot, acts and sings admirably. Chef Louis, played with giddy zest and unabashed craziness by Jules Royce, turns "Les Poisson" into the French-tinged showstopper it was meant to be, enhanced greatly by his superbly-timed expressions, gaiety and musicality. It's so much fun, you want to shout "Replay" over and over again.

As with "Evita" and "Annie," the latter of which was staged earlier this season by Broadway Method Academy, one of the key points of this production and others before it, is to showcase the vocal, acting and dance talents of the dedicated, hard-working students of BMA, all of whom put their best foot forward in the name of musical theatre. And what better way to do that than with the zest, vitality and animation that is "The Little Mermaid" and its happily ever after themes and undercurrents.

Under the invigorating tutelage of Shuford, Handley and Bryant, each and every one of the Broadway Method Academy cast members (all ages, all sizes)  succumbs to the beat, spark and magic of this Disney musical. As performers, acting alongside established Equity actors, they are assured, animated, emotional young artists, completely in sync with the production's musicality, its humor, its warmth, its story arcs, its dances, its theatrics and its high-spirited Disney tonality. They are first-class troupers who smartly reflect BMA's long-term commitment to nurturing and shaping the raw, real, refreshing talent of tomorrow. They dazzle. They surprise. They entertain. They also bring a smile to your face, which is this day and age, goes a very long, long way.

Photos of "The Little Mermaid" courtesy of Evan Zimmerman for Murphy/Made

Broadway Method Academy presents "The Little Mermaid" at Westport Country Playhouse (25 Powers Ct., Westport, CT), now through September 8.

For information about Broadway Method Academy, call (203) 675-3526

For tickets or more information about "The Little Mermaid"at Westport Country Playhouse, call (203) 227-4177.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 193, A Review: "Bye, Bye Birdie" (New Paradigm Theatre Company)

By James V. Ruocco

Bright lights.
Screaming teenagers.
Rock star idolization.
Confident, booming vocals.
Fervent flirting.
Long telephone calls.
Classic dancing in full swing.

Welcome to the world of "Bye, Bye Birdie," the musical story of a heartthrob singer who gets drafted into the army, but not before he kisses one lucky girl goodbye on "The Ed Sullivan Show," much to the delight of anxious, spellbound female fans all across America who nearly faint or scream (or both) whenever someone mentions his name or simply gush and drool should they be lucky enough to see him perform "LIVE."

Originally created to parody the real-life Elvis Presley and his draft notice into the army in 1957, the two-act musical is intended as feel-good fun with plenty of justification for its effortlessly cute and sunny concept, its music, its songs, its dancing and its cotton candy script.

In New Paradigm Theatre Company's brash, exhilarating, colorful revival of the popular 1960 Broadway musical, this conceit is unleashed with such passion, euphoria and professionalism, the "Wow!" factor of it all creates a vibrancy and track-driven urgency that's not only delivered in flash-bang-wallop style, but one that is lots and lots of sheer, unforgettable fun.


Everything is exactly right in this musical confection that is chock full of effervescent energy and determined zeal and populated by a cast of professional and non-professional actors, singers and dancers who unite with perfect synchronization to perform this fearless, merry-go-round entertainment with the kind of fitting exuberance and dash it demands.

This production of "Bye, Bye Birdie" is being staged by Courtney Laine Self who recently directed and choreographed "Fun Home" at Millbrook Playhouse and "All Shook Up" at the Hartt School. Completely akin to the mechanics, the structure and the mindset of musical theatre from way back when, Self crafts an outstanding, cheery welcome revival that is clean and slick, joyful and tuneful and freshly minted to effectively make it well worth the journey back to 1958, Sweet Apple, Ohio.

Her interpretation not only captures the fever pitch frenzy of teen/pop star hysteria from the Elvis Presley/Ricky Nelson/Fabian era, but effectively sheds new light on the big, overstuffed book stage musical of yesteryear by using modernistic parallels and buoyancy that make it sing and dance even more magnificently. This "Bye, Bye Birdie" never once shows it age (the original production opened on Broadway with Dick Van Dyke, Chita Rivera, Susan Watson, Paul Lynde, Dick Gautier and Kay Medford in leading roles), misinterprets its original conceit, disrespects the characters and their  unabashed innocence or Michael Stewart's playful and twirling scenario.

Doubling as the show's choreographer, Self creates eye-popping song-and-dance numbers that pay tribute to the show's rock and roll craze, its spirited teen angst and mayhem, its pubescent fantasies, it's light-hearted innocence and the youthful, excited verve that was the 1950's. Things are lively. Things are well-honed. Things are electric and lyrical. There are also moments when the actors and dancers express their emotions as if playing the actual music with their bodies.
Elsewhere, Self also preserves the show's original dance numbers that were created for the show's star Chita Rivera on Broadway. Whereas most productions delete these choice, important dance numbers, here they are preserved and reinterpreted in bold, invigorating fashion that add nuance and color to the musical. There's also a percussive insistence and elegant athleticism about them that Self grounds with stunning dash, drive and versatility.

The musical score for "Bye, Bye Birdie" - an intoxicating mix of memorable moments that pulse, strike and gleam with timeless familiarity - is the brainchild of Charles Strouse (music) and Lee Adams (lyrics). In working order, the two-act musical contains 24 musical numbers: "An English Teacher," "The Telephone Hour," "How Lovely to Be a Woman," "Put On a Happy Face," "A Healthy, Normal, American Boy," "Penn Station to Sweet Apple/We Love You, Conrad!" "One Boy," "Honestly Sincere," "Hymn for a Sunday Evening," "One Hundred Ways (Ballet)," "One Last Kiss," "What Did I Ever See in Him?" "What Did I Ever See in Him (Reprise)," "A Lot of Livin' to Do," "Kids," "Baby, Talk to Me," "Spanish Rose," "The Shriner/Veteran's Ballet," "A Mother Doesn't Matter Anymore," "Kids" (Reprise)," "Ice House Livin', " "An English Teacher," "Rosie," and "Bye, Bye Birdie (Finale)."

Musical director Chris Coogan and his exceptional orchestral team (Mike Mosca, Jim Andrews, Kristin Huffman, Louise A. Baranger, Clay Zambo, Jackie Chasen, Peter Hohmeister), tackle the musical score with an excited flourish and vitality that heightens the show's already-proven musicality. The crowd-pleasing tunes unfold with a tingly, elucidated wallop more in sync with today's musical theatre that its nostalgic, old-fashioned, book musical past. The show, of course, still brims with its own rigorous life force - visceral, sweet and bubbly, melodic, in the moment - but the overall effect is much more moving and catchy, smartly attuned to the action, the concept, the story arcs, the characters and the varying themes and undercurrents and repercussions at hand.

As "Bye Bye, Birdie" evolves, Coogan produces a clear, pure sound of tremendous depth and harmony with his very large ensemble cast, all of whom possess abundant vocal qualities, insight, stamina and energy. With harmonies worked out to the very last detail, the choral blending is immaculate, expressive and impressive as are the individual solos and duets. As the band plays on, the crispness and precision of the Strouse/Adams score is cogently conducted and integrated with breezy, masterly playing that is afresh and absorbing. There's also an organic, swift urgency to the proceedings that brings added fuel, detail and excitement to the show's musical high points, of which there are many.

"Bye, Bye Birdie" stars Jamie Karen as Rose Alvarez, Patrick Heffernan as Albert Peterson, Laura Jean Spineti as Kim MacAfee, Randye Kaye as Mae Peterson, Cameron Burrill as Conrad Birdie, Mark Holleran as Harry MacAfee, Barbara Distinti as Doris MacAfee, Aimee Turcotte as Ursula Merkle, Nathan Horne as Randolph MacAfee, Bailey Jamieson as Hugo Peabody and  Jaiden Jackson as the Sad Girl.

As Rose Alvarez, a part originated by Broadway icon Chita Rivera in the original New York stage production of "Bye, Bye Birdie," Jamie Karen is bright, witty, sassy, magnetic and alluring. It's a dream role for any actress and Karen is pure magic from start to finish. She dances up a storm in solo numbers that are beautifully choreographed to complement her dance and rhythmic finesse and leading lady status. Acting wise, she's real, honest and independent, which makes her performance breezy, entertaining and entirely watchable. Vocally, she's nails every single song Rose is given to sing with a natural confidence, range and believability. Patrick Heffernan, in the role of Albert Peterson, makes you completely forget about Dick Van Dyke from the 1963 motion picture and the 1960 Broadway production. Like Karen, he has plenty of personalty and charisma to boot, but he dances to his own musical beat which makes his performance even more appealing. He's funny. He's original. He's musical. He's clownish. He's charming. He's a product of the times. He's a delightful addition to every scene he's in. He sings beautifully. He dances with the confidence and showmanship the part calls for. And he's the perfect gentlemanly match for his attractive female co-star.

Randye Kaye gives a standout performance as Albert's mother, Mae Peterson. Her nagging, complaining and numerous attempts to mollycoddle her son are a genuine source of merriment as is her showstopping comic solo "A Mother Doesn't Matter Any More." In the role of Kim MacAfee, Laura Jean Spineti is charming, winsome, cheery and free-spirited, which is exactly what the part calls her. Her radiant soprano voice is strong and vocally perfect, as evidenced in "How Lovely to Be a Woman," "One Boy" and "What Did I Ever See In Him." If anyone is doing "Oklahoma" in the near future, Spineti would be the ideal Laurey Williams. Think what she could do with those lush, melodic Rodgers and Hammerstein songs. Barbara Distini is absolutely fine as Doris MacAfee, Kim's mother.
She hilariously hits the satirical mark on her Donna Reed-like character while Bailey Jamieson, as Hugo Peabody, has plenty of pent-up teen angst as Kim's steady boyfriend Hugo Peabody.

Conrad Birdie is clearly meant to be Elvis, but in this version, Cameron Burrill plays him like Aaron Tveit as Danny Zuko ("Grease") and Tucker Smith as Ice ("West Side Story"), mixed with a honest, narcissistic, manufactured, blank-slate pop star allure that is both comical and perfectly in sync with today's social media idolization. Mark Holleran portrays Kim's father Harry MacAfee with a decidedly funny, straight-man comic flourish that works most advantageously during "Hymn to a Sunday Evening," which he owns, lock, stock and apple, Sweet Apple, that is. As Randolph McAffee, Kim's young brother, Nathan Horne is one of those charismatic child actors who's a whirlwind of energy, personality and talent which should carry him off to Broadway and television sit-com land in the not too distant future. And wait till you hear him sing in "Hymn to a Sunday Evening" and the "Kids" reprise. What a voice. Simply amazing!

One of the best Ursula's ever, Aimee Turcotte fully inhabits her comic characterization of a lovesick teenager who completely idolizes Conrad Birdie. Her comic timing and line delivery (let's not forget those ear-piercing screams) is champion ready from the get-go. As the Sad Girl who needs cheering up in Albert's playful solo, "Put On a Happy Face," Jaiden Jackson is an amazing young performer.  She dances like a dream. She is charming and personable. And throughout "Bye, Bye Birdie" she has that star quality about her that you can't help but notice whenever she's on stage.

Technically, "Bye, Bye Birdie" benefits greatly from Stephen Cyr's innovative set design, which includes smart and savvy background projections on a rear movie screen that changes from scene to scene and heightens the musical's atmospheric aura. Colorful period costuming designed by Elizabeth Saylor is rich, detailed and period eclectic. Elizabeth M. Stewart's lighting design heightens the musical's sense of entitlement as does various live camera feeds that frame the onstage action brilliantly in black-and white docudrama fashion.

The sweet naivete of yesteryear, mixed with inspirational twists about rock and roll, teen idols, boy-girl romance and life in the suburbs, make this "Bye, Bye Birdie" a dazzling, musical treat. Brimming with just the right amount of charm, nostalgia and good cheer, it is period-appropriate fun with an exceptional, talented cast - all ages, all types - who brilliantly satirize the 1950's mindset, offset by a manic energy and freshness that is exhilarating and never once saccharine.

"Bye, Bye Birdie" was staged August 16 and 17, 2019 by New Paradigm Theatre Company at Black Rock Church ( 3685 Black Rock Turnpike, Fairfield, CY).
For more information, call (203) 357-5021.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 192, A Review: "Sylvia" (Connecticut Cabaret Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

"A man and his dog is a sacred relationship. What nature hath put together let no woman put asunder."
A. R. Gurney, Playwright,"Sylvia")

Can a kindly, middle-aged man in the middle of a mid-life crisis love a dog a little too much?
Can a perky, smartly-groomed mutt anxious to please her master drive a wedge through his somewhat happily ever after marriage?
Can neglecting your wife for daily walks in the park with your four-legged friend lead to trouble in the bedroom, in the living room and at the dinner table?
Can loving a pet way too much much send a concerned dog owner onto the couch of a mad therapist who advises, "Get a divorce, then shoot the dog?"

The answer to all four questions is "Yes."

As written by the late A.R. Gurney, this wild and wacky tale comedy aptly and amusingly explores man's obsessive devotion to a canine friend with plenty of humor, acidity and cheeky wordplay. It tickles your funny bone. It produces lots of loud laughs. It gets you thinking about your own pets. It produces smiles and happy tears. It tugs at your heart. It oozes giddy charm. It catches you off guard. And any time one of the main characters says the word "Fuck," it delivers hysterical jolts aplenty.

"Sylvia," of course, is no ordinary play.
And therein, lies its appeal, its cheekiness and its flavorful comic center.

As penned by Gurney, it all begins, quite innocently, the moment  Greg (Michael Gilbride) arrives home from Central Park one afternoon with a stray dog, named Sylvia (Ashley Ayala)  whom, as the story progresses, gets more love, affection, hugs and kisses than his loving wife Kate (Barbara Horan) who is quite pissed every time she sees her husband fawning and drooling all over his latest canine acquisition.

The beauty and enjoyment of this savvy 1995 comedy lies in its ability to place the central characters in crazy situations punctuated by sharp and witty dialogue that elicits laughs in all the right places while driving the action forward. The play's uninhibited humor - catchy one-liners, playful counter-ripostes, off-color dialogue - also stems from the fact that the title character of the piece,  a scene-stealing, stray mutt, is actually played by an actress who talks, cries, barks, slinks, argues, swears, sniffs crotches, licks asses, offers advice and has sex (with dogs, of course) whenever it suits her whim. This conceit is well-orchestrated by the playwright who always knows what buttons to push, how to frame a joke to get a laugh, when to step back and let the material breathe and when to let this hysterical love triangle snap, crackle and pop.

This production of "Sylvia" is being staged by Kris McMurray whose Connecticut Cabaret Theatre directorial credits include "Wait Until Dark," "Singin' in the Rain," "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change," "Rent," "Calendar Girls,"  "Rowan and Martin's  Laugh In," "Into the Woods," "Pippin," "I Left My Heart" and "Tea at Five." Here, he crafts a bold and breezy theatrical piece that has a tangy, zesty energy, a three-dimensional flair and a touching sweetness about it. He presents Gurney's play text in its entirety. He doesn't censor or downplay the play's raunchiness or R-rated language. He doesn't cut any of the dialogue or shorten any of the scenes. He also includes "Every Time We Say Goodbye," a popular jazz song by Cole Porter, sung here by Ayala, Gilbride and Horan, which is often deleted in many revivals of Gurney's popular work. With the very talented CJ Janis in fine form at the piano, the song's elegiac, straightforward, heartfelt melody achieves the necessary verbal fretwork intended to amplify the very idea of the song and its strong connection to the "Sylvia" characters and their story.

As "Sylvia" makes its mark, McMurray plays it with detail, color and imagination. Working from Gurney's blueprint, he charts the "Sylvia" journey, its consolation, its comfort and its impact with particular power, humor, raunch and craziness.  Everything has its time and place. Nothing is off-centered or one-note. The characters themselves are full-bodied and completely in sync with the play's comic zest and snap. The staging is balanced, involved and madcap. There's also an element of surprise which McMurray amps up with decided flourish. Elsewhere, he adds the necessary colors, shading, ticks, quirks and oddities to make each and every one of the play's five characters stand out, work their magic and make this production sparkle and shine.

"Sylvia" stars Ashley Ayala as Sylvia, Michael Gilbride as Greg, Barbara Horan as Kate, Carleigh Schultz as Phyllis and Dave Wall as Tom and Leslie.

Playing the title role of Sylvia, the loveable, sex-charged and oft-misunderstood pooch, Ashley Ayala delivers the comic performance of the season playing the part of a dog who has the ability to speak perfect English and can curse like a drunken sailor on a Saturday night. She charms. She cajoles. She snaps. She bites. She entices. She smiles. She delivers. She amazes. To sustain the actions, mannerisms, moves, expressions, mindset and doggy persona of a canine for well over two hours without ever once letting her guard down for a single millisecond is no easy task, but Alaya basks in the part's craziness and never once misses a comic beat, an important punchline, a daft one-liner or a plot-evolving interaction with any of the play's colorful characters. She doesn't just play a dog. She is the dog.

 As "Sylvia" unfolds, she skips, jumps, leaps, hops, slobbers and crawls across the floor of the Connecticut Cabaret Theatre with the polish, inventiveness and mania envisioned by the playwright throughout his two-act comedy. There's a lot going on here, far beyond slobbering all over her master, having sex in the park with other horny dogs or accidentally or intentionally peeing all over the floor.
The stage blocking alone, as devised by McMurray and unleashed (no pun, intended) with creative aplomb by Ayala, is so wonderfully savvy and inventive, you sit back in amazement, reveling in a performance where accelerated schtick, humor and interplay are so naturally executed, the actual creation of the Sylvia character and its hysterical evolution will literally blow you completely away.

What impresses most about Michael Gilbride's full-bodied comic turn as Greg is the sweet, calm and collected reasonableness he brings to the situation of being a dog owner, his undying love for his new found pet and all the crazy idiosyncrasies and revelations Gurney tosses his way as this new found friend dampens and threatens his marriage and his once tidy and predictable life. With a steadied, raw comic style reminiscent of George Wendt and Jack Weston, Gilbride know how to play comedy front, back, sideways and in between with a mentality and attitude that is exactly right for this Gurney play.

The very charismatic and personable Barbara Horan, last seen as Annie in CCT's effervescent staging of "Calendar Girls," is funny, determined and crystal clear about her character of Kate, a woman who tries to understand her husband's ridiculous obsession with his new canine friend and often sputters hostility toward the animal, often referring to it as "Saliva," a running gag that prompts laughter in all the right places. Here, as in "Calendar Girls," she connects immediately with the playwright's interpretation of the character and offers a three-dimensional performance that is rich and layered. Her emotional responses are honestly convincing and expertly timed. Her sense of anger, betrayal and pain is also quite palpable. She also is a very classy dresser and wears "Sylvia" wardrobe magnificently.

In "Sylvia," Dave Wall (also from "Calendar Girls") is given the marvelous opportunity to play not one, but two completely different roles throughout the production. First, he plays Tom, a macho,well-oiled, in-your-face dog owner who acts like a proud papa when his male dog engages in a wild sexual frolic with Sylvia in Central Park. He also plays Leslie, a quack therapist whose gender is highly questionable. Is he a man pretending to be a woman? Is he a woman pretending to me a man? Or is he homosexual or transgender. It's up to you to decide.

Acting wise, Wall connects with both characters and has the wit, the stamina and kinetic timing to make you believe and understand everything he says and does. As Tom, he is macho, crazy and somewhat of a perve, which is exactly what the part calls for. As Leslie, his androgynous persona, line delivery, mysterious voice and hilariously timed mannerisms are wild, wonderfully wacky and  downright hilarious.

Last seen as Celia in "Calendar Girls," a part she played with comic zing and spitfire effectiveness, Carleigh Schultz has a great sense of comedy about her that is used to full advantage here as Kate's opinionated friend, Phyllis Cutler, a snobbish, East Side know-it-all dripping with icy contempt and disdain that is absolutely perfect for her characterization. She knows how to get a laugh, how to position a punchline and how to move everything along with sparkle. That's not all. Her interaction with the title character, who takes a real liking to her (no spoilers, here), prompts one of the play's most original, side-splitting comic moments that's played to the hilt in all its outrageous, R-rated glory by the actress and Ayala under McMurray's overheated and spirited tutelage.

Throught "Sylvia," Gurney's choice of language, banter, four-letter words, story arcs and characterizations is persuasively on tap, thus, bringing added nuance and intellect to this breezy, conventional, quirky comedy. The acting is believable, hysterical and confident. Kris McMurray's direction is playful, strong and sturdy. And the resulting production proves once again how creative and intelligent a playwright A.R. Gurney was. No kibble and bits here.

"Sylvia" is being staged at Connecticut Cabaret Theatre (31-33 Webster Square Rd., Berlin, CT), now through September 28.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 829-1248

Thursday, August 22, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 191, A Review: "Spamilton: An American Parody" (Playhouse on Park/The Bushnell)

By James V. Ruocco

The success of Lin-Manuel Miranda's hot-shot Broadway musical "Hamilton" is the primary target for Gerard Alessandrini's "Spamilton: An American Parody," a shrewd, observant satire that gleefully takes shots at Miranda and his big, expensive musical opus with gags, music and wordplay that escalates into an utterly transfixing work that's meticulously planned, amazingly acted and brilliantly executed.

What's not to like?


"Spamilton" and its giddy, farcical mechanics function impeccably in this laugh-out-loud send up chock full of unpredictable invention, bullish motivations and tetchy eccentricity. Like the "Forbidden Broadway" series, which is also the brainchild of Alessandrini, it comes at you at breakneck speed, reveling in its unbridled mayhem, originality, camp and chutzpah.

Staging the 80-minute parody ("Spamilton" is performed without an intermission), Alessandrini, who also wrote the book, crafts a polished, acerbic musical comedy that never once looses sight of its wicked and wild origins. As director and storyteller, Alessandrini, maps things out perfectly always knowing when and how to set up a punchline, when to amp up the craziness, when to stop and let the material breathe, how to move his cast about with comedic zing and flourish and how to let a musical number work its magic, catch you off guard and plunge you into absolute hysteria whenever the right moment strikes.

In keeping with tradition, "Spamilton" lambasts "Hamilton" with playful acidity and lampoons several other Broadway musicals, movies and TV shows with sheer, unadulterated pleasure, the kind that produces loud belly laughs, screams and manic reactions from those audience members who live, breathe, eat and sleep theatre, 24-7. In no particular order, the 2019 production of "Spamilton" pokes fun at "Cats," "Sweeney Todd," "West Side Story," "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," "Mary Poppins," "Mary Poppins Returns," "Gypsy," "Into the Woods," "Rent," "Annie," "Camelot," "Spamalot," "Miss Saigon," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "The King and I," "The Lion King," "Wicked," "The Music Man," "Man of LaMancha," "The Book of Mormon," "Guys and Dolls," "In the Heights," "Hello, Dolly!" "Avenue Q" "Kinky Boots," "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child," "The Cher Show" "1776," "Mamma Mia!" "Matilda," "Hedwig and the Angy Inch," "La Cage aux Folles," "Company," "Sunday in the Park With George," "Cinderella," "Assassins," "La La Land," "Yentl," "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Aladdin."

There's also lots of well-orchestrated commentary, gags and one-liners about Lin-Manuel Miranda, Stephen Sondheim, Bernadette Peters, Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand, Julie Andrews, Emily Blunt, Mickey Mouse, Disney, Cher, Elton John. Bob Mackie, Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Daveed Diggs, Jonathan Groff, Leslie Odom, Jr., Audra McDonald and Renee Elise Goldsberry.

This, being a musical of sorts, Alessandrini, isn't one to mess around with the show's original conceit or its rallied, over-the-top musicality. Nonetheless, minor changes are often necessary to keep the production fresh and up-to-date.
Since its off-Broadway debut in July, 2016 at the Triad Theatre, the musical score for "Spamilton" has been revised and revised to reflect the changing times and the ever-changing Broadway line-up of plays and musicals.
The 2019 edition contains the following musical numbers: "Lin-Manuel as Hamilton," "Aaron Burr, Sir, Nervous-er," "His Shot," "Look Around (The Schuyler Puppets)," "Lin-Manuel's Quest," "Ticket Beggar Woman," "Straight Guy's Winter's Prom," "Straight is Back," "What Did You Miss?" "Ben Franklin, Sondheim & Lin-Manuel," "Daveed Diggs- The Fresh Prince of Big Hair," "Ticket Beggar Woman #2," "Liza's 'Down With Rap," "Ticket Beggar Woman #3," "In the Hype," "Book of No More Mormons," "Broadway Assassins," "Cool Duel," "Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Cries," "Lin Manuel's NYC," "The Film When It Happens" and "Encore: Our Shot."

At the piano, musical director Curtis Reynolds gives "Spamilton" a powerful pulse and rhythmic beat that lets the music snap, crackle and pop in typical parody fashion. Since the action is non stop, timing is everything here. One wrong move, one wrong beat, one halt in the proceedings and it's over. That said, Reynolds captures the music and comedy of the piece with refreshing exuberance, wit and style. The singing, the harmonies, the rapping, the quick changes in tempo, the humor and the drama are marvelously conveyed by the entire cast under Reynolds' tutelage. In spoofing "Hamilton," choreographer Gerry McIntrye delivers a comedic homage that humorously lampoons the big-act musical, its dances, its staging and its key performers with painstaking accuracy and dazzle. He also has great fun providing dance steps for the show's sure-fire roasting of such popular hits as "West Side Story" and "In the Heights," among others.

"Spamilton" stars Adrian Lopez as Lin-Manuel, Datus Puryear as Aaron Burr and Leslie Odom, Jr., Paloma D' Auria as the Leading Ladies, Chuckie Benson as Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and Others, Domenic Pecikonis as Daveed Diggs and Others and Brandon Kinley as King George III.
Everyone is suitably cast for their musical, dramatic and comedic roles, which they deliver most engagingly using the right mindset for lampooning, coupled with appropriate mischief, attitude, charm, angst, camp and hysteria. Vocally, they are in perfect unison, smartly mastering the melodic drive and heartbeat of the musical score. And comically, they are masters of their craft with comic timing that is impeccable.

A fast-moving spoof that ridicules the non-stop craziness of live theatre and theater life with jokey aplomb, "Spamilton: An American Parody" pulls you into its taut, dastardly tomfoolery with enough goofiness, cheek and earnestness to knock you on your ass, slap you in the face and leave you begging for more. Its cutting-edge lampooning draws heavily on the already-proven "Forbidden Broadway" formula with side-splitting results and costs a helluva lot cheaper than a fourth row center orchestra seat on a Saturday night to the real "Hamilton" on Broadway with a $1,4999 price tag.

The Bushnell and Playhouse on Park present "Spamilton: An American Parody" at Playhouse on Park (244, Pard Rd., West Hartford, CT), now through September 8.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 523-5900.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 190, A Review: "Mambo Italiano" (Westchester Broadway Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

The Italian family portrayed in "Mambo Italiano," the musical adaptation of the popular 2003 film,  is loud, crazy, dysfunctional, reactionary and pushy. And oh yes, very, very loveable. 
But when the grandson and the sexy cop step out of the closet and announce that they are not only gay, but  lovers - a big reveal that closes Act I - the outlook and the wacky consequences that follow lead to ridicule, squabbles, embarrassment and tension at the dinner table.

Not to worry, though.
This being a musical, a ray of sunshine intervenes by the end of Act II, signaling an ending, dressed up like an ethnic television sit-com from the 1980's. 

Billed as a "big, pre-Broadway new musical where no one comes out hungry," "Mambo Italiano" has plenty of ambition, wit, irony and drama.

It is fun.
It is silly.
It is crazy.
It is conventional.

It is also non-committal, short-sighted and oddly oblivious to the gay lifestyle and all those men and women who fly the rainbow flag high and proudly in all its Technicolor glory. And it's about as gay as "The Wizard of Oz," "The Sound of Music," "Cats" and "Evita." Despite its time frame - the year 2000 - gay men were not as closeted or as insecure as this musical purports. Nor were they very innocent about jumping in and out of bed with one another.  

Regardless, there are laughs galore, songs galore and an ensemble cast of exceptional actors and singers who deliver the goods, sells the goods and keep you happily entertained despite the musical's misgivings and shortcomings. 

Staging "Mambo Italiano" is Tom Polum whose Westchester Broadway Theatre credits include "Phantom," "Funny Girl," "Grease," "Carousel," "Hello, Dolly!" and "Oklahoma!"  Working from a play script that he co-authored with Jean Cheever, he attempts to bring dazzle, exhilaration and joy to this production. He also strives to create a family-friendly environment where smiles and good cheer are commonplace and anything offensive or PG-13 is left offstage so as not to break the show's carefree, happy spell.

There are cheeky one-liners. There are tears. There is excitement. There is pasta. There is home-made spaghetti sauce. There is meatballs. There is Italiano, frontwards, backwards, sideways, left, right and center. There is a real sense of family. There is familial commitment. No one looks lost. No one lets their guard down. With Polum pulling the strings, every cast member has great fun bringing the musical story of "Mambo Italiano" to life. Even when the dialogue isn't up to par, he keeps things spinning merrily along from scene to scene, song to song and act to act. At the same time, he's a little over cautious as to what he can do and cannot do, a conceit that often weakens the play's premise and lessens its credibility.

This being a musical where two men are gay and very much in love, there is nothing really in the actually story to support that conceit except a line or two of dialogue. They don't kiss. They don't hug. They don't embrace. They don't flirt. They don't  play with each other's hair. They don't touch. They don't have sex. They don't finish each other's sentences. So why should anyone care if they stay together, break up, go their separate ways or piss off their very different families. The addition of a non-sexual bed scene - played for laughs with the relatives paying a surprise visit on the romantic duo - could not only liven things up, but add fuel to their uneven, one-note romance.     

The musical score for "Mambo Italiano" has been written by James Olmstead (music) and Omri Schein (lyrics). It contains 24 songs. They are "Italia," "Famiglia Italiana," "Maria's Wish," "Italia (Reprise)," "Nino," "Yes, Girl," "Space," "Space (Reprise)," "The Lunetti Code," "Mama's Cannelloni," "Before You," "A Simple Family Dinner," "The Dream," "All I Need Is You," "Mama's Cannelloni (Reprise)," "Hammonton, New Jersey," "Yes Girl (Reprise)," "Before You (Reprise)," "Read Between the Lines," "Family," "Il Processo! (The Case)," "And Mama Would Dance" and "Famiglia Italiana (Reprise)." "Mambo Italiano," the 1954 song hit, written by Bob Merrill for Rosemary Clooney,  is used during during the Act II finale.

Musically, the score is original, entertaining, pleasant-sounding and fun. Nothing earth-shattering in the musical theatre vein - just songs that thrust the action forward and songs that are exactly right for the specific characters chosen to sing them. Many of them - "Italia," "Famiglia Italiana," "Mama's Cannelloni," "Space," Family," to name a few - are attuned to the feel-good Italian landscape of the piece and naturally evoke the right emotion, intent, drive and connection.

For this production, Ryan Edward Wise serves as musical director, conductor and keyboardist. Joining him are Bob Ray (keyboardist #2), Jay Mack (drums), Crispian Fordham (reeds), Bryan Uhl (trumpet), David Shoup (guitar/mandolin) and Katie Von Braun (violin). The orchestral sound evoked by Wise and company - high energy, flavorful tempos, rippling intimacy - is confident, moody, responsive and engaging. The standard musical language is effecting and pleasing. The melodies maintain their harmonic structures. No matter the orchestration or tonality, everything is played with precipitous muscularity.

Nonetheless, there are a few problems. "The Dream," for example, which opens Act II, is a direct rip-off of "Teyve's Dream" from "Fiddler on the Roof." The song, the staging , the intro, the dialogue and the addition of a menacing, towering character similar to that of Fruma-Sarah, cries "Fiddler on the Roof " at every single turn. If this number is to remain in the show, the writer's need to include a line or two that explains why they are spoofing "Fiddler" and why the dream itself is similar to the one Teyve imagined and told to a frightened Golde. Elsewhere, a song or two is needed to flesh out the Nino/ Angelo love story. And "Mambo Italiano" could greatly benefit from a much larger ensemble and some dazzling  new production numbers that cry "big, Broadway musical."

"Mambo Italiano" stars Joy Hermalyn as Maria Barbieri, Bill Nolte as Gino, Alex Drost as Angelo, Alexandra Amadeo Frost as Anna, Diana DiMarzio as Lina, Natalie Gallo as Donna and Zach Schanne as Nino. Everyone is perfectly cast for their respective musical roles, which they deliver most engagingly using the right attitude, charm, angst and theatrical savvy the production calls for.  Vocally, they are in perfect harmony, smartly mastering the melodic qualities of the musical score under Wise's whimsical tutelage. You want singing - great singing. You find that here.

"Mambo Italiano,"  despite its obvious flaws, is lightweight, formulaic musical theatre entertainment. The well-chosen cast - every single one of them - are in fine form musically, dramatically and comically and have the chops to do justice to this obvious work-in-progress. But though things are often fresh and fun, "Mambo Italiano" is hardly ready to makes its New York City debut. It has the makings of something that could viably enjoy a healthy commercial run, but it needs to be a little more aggressive its its treatment of homosexuality and the sexual relationship between its two Italian male lovers. In its present form, it's way too G-rated for a piece that is set 19 years ago and purports to celebrate family, Italian food and same-sex relationships to the fullest, dishing out a menu that is only half-baked and imagined. This is 2019, folks. The very thought of two boys kissing is hardly alarming or offensive. It should be sexy and fun. 

"Mambo Italiano"  is being staged at Westchester Broadway Theatre (One Broadway Plaza, Elmsford, N.Y.), now through September 28.
For tickets or more information, call (914) 592-2222.

Monday, August 19, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 189, A Review: "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" (Sharon Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco

Long before "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Evita" and "Cats," Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice created a modest pop cantata called "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," an 80-minute musical set "many centuries ago, not long after the Bible began."

It was colorful.
Ir was tuneful.
It was entertaining.
It was innocent.
It was fun.

Today, "Joseph" is still going strong as it dances to a more spectacular beat and wildly celebrates its origins in grand, cheerful fashion while retelling the familiar story of an idealistic dreamer who clashes with his jealous brothers who conspire to sell him into slavery in Egypt. The plan, of course,  backfires once Joseph reveals his dream interpretation powers and rises (remember, this is a musical) to the very top of Egyptian society, reaping all its tempting and materialistic rewards.

To bring the story of  "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" to life, Sharon Playhouse has enlisted the talents of Russell Garrett who is making his Playhouse debut in the dual roles of director and choreographer. No stranger to musical theatre, Garrett crafts an irresistible production, framed and sung with tremendous warmth, discipline, style and energy. The show oozes charm and rainbow sparkle from start to finish with a flash-bang-wallop mindset that remains utterly perfect and engaging throughout the two-act musical.

Garrett sets his "Joseph" in the 1960's, a clever and outrageous conceit that breathes new life into the oft-produced musical and sends it through the starting gate with plenty of dash, wit, color, nuance, invention and juicy period mania. None of that corny and tired Bible stylization here. In its place, you get wonderfully-timed bits, bobs, gadgets, props and song-and-dance combos that harken back to the la la land of yesterday uncorking fired up memories of London's Carnaby Street, "Goldfinger," Burt Bacharach, Petula Clark, "Shindig," "Hullabaloo," "Yellow Submarine," The Grand Ole Opry, Federico Fellini, "West Side Story" and the iconic "Rich Man's Frug" from "Sweet Charity," which was choreographed on Broadway and in the 1969 film version by Bob Fosse. Dance wise, song wise and scene wise, this crazed nostalgic inventiveness gives this production a "Wow!" factor like no other. And the "Wow!" factor keeps on coming as Garrett puts his talented cast through some fancy foot-work (his choreography is frenzied, fiery and on tap) that heightens this thrilling re-vitalization of the popular "Joseph" story.

Written by Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics), the musical score for "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" contains 21 songs. They are "Prologue," "Jacob and Sons," "Joseph's Coat," "Joseph's Dreams," "Poor, Poor Joseph," "One More Angel in Heaven," "Potiphar," "Close Every Door," "Pharaoh's Story," "Poor Poor Pharaoh," "Song of the King," "Pharaoh's Dream Explained," "Stone the Crows," "Those Canaan Days," "The Brothers Came to Egypt/Grovel, Grovel," "Who's the Thief?" "Benjamin Calypso," "Joseph All the Time," "Jacob in Egypt," "Any Dream Will Do" and "Joseph Megamix/Finale." The actual score, written in 1968 (this was the duo's first outing) is an eclectic mix of musicality that is both cheeky and broad with crowd-pleasing tunes that range from Elvis-style rock and 1960's pop to French chanson, calypso, country western and pleasurable Broadway.

What's best in this "Joseph" is the orchestral wonder and flourish of Jacob Carll's musical direction, which vibrantly remasters music from over 50 years ago with a richly elucidated wallop more in sync with today's musical theatre than its nostalgic past. The show, of course, still brims with its own life force - visceral, melodic, in the moment - but the overall effect is much more moving and sumptuous, perfectly attuned to the action, the concept, the story arcs and the varying themes and undercurrents at hand.

With Carll on keyboard working alongside a handpicked team of exceptional musicians (Steve Siktberg (guitar), Steve Austin (trumpet), Mike Lee (bass), Rich Conley (reeds), Tim Herman (drums) ), every one of the show's songs - "Prologue," "Jacob and Sons," "Close Every Door," "One More Angel in Heaven," "Any Dream Will Do,"  to name a few - emerges a winner. To complement the talents of the show's leading players, some of the songs have been purposely re-imagined to utilize their splendid vocal ranges (higher belt notes, for example) and musical virtuosity. This, in turn, adds much more depth to their interpretations. Elsewhere, Carll produces a clear, pure sound of real depth and harmony with the ensemble cast, all of whom possess abundant vocal qualities, insight and stamina. With harmonies worked out to the very last detail, the choral blending is immaculate, expressive and impressive.

"Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" stars Max. J. Swarner as Joseph, Merrill Peiffer as the Narrator, Michael  Glavan as Pharoah/Reuben, Michelle Lemon as Mrs. Potiphar, Sam W. Snyder as Naphtali/Butler, Bill Morris as Jacob/Potiphar, Mijon Zulu as Simeon, Aidan Farren as Levi, Ryan Thomas Curley as Issachar, TJ Swetz as Asher, Nick Lamberti as Benjamin, Tony Harkin as Judah, Daniel Pahl as Dan, Michael Doliner as Gad and Jeffrey Jannitto as Zebulon. Everyone is perfectly cast for their respective song-and-dance roles, which they agreeably project using the right mindset, attitude, charm and theatrical savvy the musical calls for. Vocally, they master the melodic musicality of the Webber/Rice score and take it to new levels under  Carll's exceptional tutelage. And as dancers, they have great fun re-enacting the dance fever of the 1960's in all its Technicolor glory wearing eye-popping Carnaby Street fashions and other period regalia, stylishly designed by costume designer David Jordan Baxter who design work is AMAZING.

In the lead role of Joseph, Max J. Swarner is handsome, charismatic, personable and charming, which is exactly what the part calls for. Vocally, he delivers every song his character sings with polish, smothness and raw emotion. His showstopping take on "Close Every Door" and "Any Dream Will Do," which Carll re-orchestrated to suit the actor's beautifiul, big-voice sound, is worthy of a standing ovation or two. As the show's Narrator, Merrill Peiffer comes to Sharon Playhouse with a voice, a vocal ability and a charm that impresses at every turn. Her performance is heartfelt and sincere. And she tackles the Webber/Rice score in ways that make it sound fresh, new and wonderfully alive.

Bright, colorful and breezy, "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" is a stunning musical entertainment that embraces the bounce and pulse of the popular Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice score, its simplistic storytelling, its buoyant conceit and its jubilant song-and-dance merriment. The dream cast -  all ages, all types - has great fun bringing this feel-good musical to life. Their peppy, winning charisma gives the two-act musical a purpose that other incarnations lack. They also bring fun and innocence to the piece along with a certain vitality and freshness that goes a very long way.

"Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" is being staged at Sharon Playhouse (49 Amenia Rd., Sharon, CT), now through August 25.
For tickets or more information, call (8600 364-7469.