Wednesday, February 27, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 141, A Review: "Detroit '67" (Hartford Stage)

By James V. Ruocco

"I wanted to dive into Detroit's history and look back at the important moments that changed the landscape of our city. And 1967 was definitely one of the more definitive moments."
Dominique Morisseau, playwright, "Detroit '67"

Police brutality, racism, rebellion and segregation are among the topics addressed in Dominique Morisseau's "Detroit '67," a fascinating, emotional character-driven portrait that turns the clock back in time to just a few days before the 1967 conflagration between black residents and the Detroit Police Department that left 43 dead, 1,186 injured and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed by fire.


"Detroit '67" packs an emotional wallop that is not easily forgotten.
Here is a play that educates, remembers and basques in its timeliness.
It sparks conversation.
It gets the juices flowing.
It rocks the boat.
It strikes a power chord.
It creates empathy among people and neighbors who share a past, present and future bond.

The second chapter of Dominique Morisseau's "Detroit Project" three-play cycle, "Detroit '67" takes an up close look at two siblings, Chelle and Lank, a brother and sister who have converted the basement of their newly inherited home into a small, after hours private club (known in those days "a blind pig."). However, with the arrival of Caroline, a mysterious, badly beaten white woman, whom Lank and his best buddy Sly found one night on their way home, the situation becomes extremely complicated.
Her attraction to Lank, in part, heightens the racial tension of the story while outside, the developing Detroit riots, are raging on. Elsewhere, the hypnotic music of Motown, which the playwright moves
effortlessly throughout the production, also plays a key role in the story, its evolution, its interconnected moments and its powerhouse conclusion.

"Detroit '67" is being staged by Jade King Carroll whose directorial credits include "The Piano Lesson," "Having Our Say," "Sunset Baby," "The Revolutionists" and "Skeleton Crew." Embracing Morisseau's nerve-jangling story, she creates a shockingly relevant piece of theater that unfolds with stirring intensity, pulse and immediacy. It's impossible to look away for a second.

Moving from scene to scene with rapid, involved story board development, there's lots of dialogue, lots of conversation and lots of character interaction. You watch. You listen. You take it all in. You believe every single moment. Carroll addresses the serious subject matter as well as its humorous blueprint, naturally, realistically and practically. You don't always know what's going to happen next, which is a good thing. Still, you listen attentively as the pieces eventually all fall into place while Carroll gives "Detroit '67" apt space to breathe, fly, surprise and get you both rattled, shaken and pissed off.

Directorially, she is well attuned to the playwright's vision of family, conflict, conversation and rebellion. She fills the stage with memorable detail and solidity. She captures the angst, the hurt, the confusion and the restlessness of the five principal characters. She knows what works and what doesn't. She knows how to plunge her audience into the politics and prejudice of the story. She finds time to concentrate on those big play moment's than propel the action forward. She creates raw and real images that are gripping and boldly imaginative. She also is well versed in the mechanics of the piece, its history, its time line, its attitude, its people, the black experience and its mindset.

The production stars Myxolydia Tyler as Chelle, Johnny Ramey as Lank, Nyahale Allie as Bunny, Ginna Le Vine as Caroline and Will Cobbs as Sly. In yet another five-star casting coup for Hartford Stage ("The Engagement Party" was another), all five performers, each and every one a standout on their own, individually, or acting side by side as a very involved ensemble, craft bold, refreshing, invigorating performances that complement "Detroit '67's" raging themes, the actual subject matter, the period itself and the in-your-face immediacy of the riots, the discrimination and the prejudice of the times. Everyone looks, acts and behaves as if they were rooted and raised in the Detroit of the play's turbulent era. Never once do you doubt anything they say and do.

A round of applause is also necessary for Riccardo Hernandez (scenic design), Dede M. Ayite (costume design), Karin Graybash (sound design), Nicole Pearce (lighting design) and Leah J. Loukas (hair and makeup design). Their detailed, creative choices heighten the experience that is "Detroit '67" most advantageously.

Well-acted and compassionate, "Detroit '67" is a thought-provoking play that shakes you up, gets you angry, gets you thinking and leaves you emotionally drained. Then again, that's the point of Dominique Morisseau's lengthy conversational drama - a powerful work that retraces the violent and bloody confrontations between the residents of Detroit's African-American neighborhoods and the city's white, oppressive police department that subjected innocent black people to unwarranted searches, harassment, discrimination, shootings and beatings all because of their skin color. It's a fact that hits home with heavy-handed realism and the sad reality of what was going on in Detroit during the summer of 1967.

All photos by T. Charles Erickson, courtesy of The McCarter Theatre Center

"Detroit '67" is being presented at Hartford Stage (50 Church St., Hartford, CT), now through March 10.
For tickets or more information, call (860)  527-5151.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 140, A Review: "The Revolutionists" (Playhouse on Park)

By James V. Ruocco

Introduire les femmes de la révolution.

Olympe de Gouges: A French playwright and political activist who began a career writing about women's right's and abolitionism in the 1780s, de Gouges demanded that women be given the same rights as men. In 1793, she was executed by guillotine for attacking the Revolutionary regime of the French government and for her association with the Girondists,

Marie-Antoinette: The last Queen of France before the French Revolution, Marie-Antoinette was accused of harboring sympathies for France's enemies and placed under house arrest in October, 1789 along with other members of the royal family. In 1793, she was convicted by the Revolutionary Tribunal of treason and executed by guillotine on the Place de la Revolution.

Charlotte Cordey: Nicknamed "l'ange de l'assassinat" or the Angel of Assassination for the stabbing (through the heart, that is) of Jacobin leader Jean-Paul Marat (this was done during his medicinal bath), the man who played a significant role in the political purge of the Girondians,  Cordey, the daughter of an impoverished aristocrat, was executed by guillotine in 1793 for her crime.

Marianne Angelle: A fictional character fighting against the French occupation of the West Indies and the ongoing rebellion in her country against French-imposed slavery, Angelle is a foreigner and spy who was created from an amalgam of Black revolutionary women who were involved in the 1790's rebellion of Saint-Dominique, which today, is now known as Haiti.

Ainsi, il commence.

These four women are the vocal centerpiece and raging comic quartet of  Lauren Gunderson's "The Revolutionists," a bright, lively and ballsy 18th century period piece overflowing with conversational roars, stinging truths, enjoyable narcissism, icy one-liners and astonishing relevance.


Playhouse on Park's definitive interpretation of Gunderson's deep dive into a very feminist revolution enlightens and entertains with a freshly-minted gleam that makes its profound, forward-thinking tone and undercurrents timely, powerful and digestably delightful.

Set in 1793 Paris during the period known as the Reign of Terror, "The Revolutionists" finds French playwright/activist  Olympe de Gouges frantically trying to write a play about the French Revolution using the personal stories of Charlotte Corday, Marie-Antoinette and Marianne Angelle as its main selling point.

"The play can't be about power and death," she explains. "But about grace and power
in the face of it."

"My actions will be talked about for centuries and I don't want to sound like a dingbat," cries Charlotte Corday. "I need something that will sink into their memories for all time, something with a lot of 'Fuck you' in it."

A musical, perhaps. Not very likely, but the jokes and pointed references to "Les Miserables" ensue, prompting laughs in all the right places.

Rires visant au théâtre musical.

Staging "The Revolutionists," director Sarah Hartmann is well aware of the play's verbal choreography, its modernistic sociospeak, its frivolous giggles, its eloquence, its undecided questions, its feminist gallops and proclamations and its dizzying flourishes. That said, she creates a fast-spinning work that prompts attention from the get-go, chock full of well-defining moments, powerful emotions, embracing tenure and nerve-jangling bravery.

Directorially, her choices are imaginative and succinct. She is well attuned to the playwright's understanding of the revolution and the human condition. She fills the stage with memorable detail and solidity that piques immediate interest. She captures the angst, the absurdity, the truths and the crisp flicks of the four main characters in bold, show-stealing fashion. She also evokes the wisdom and the free-spirit of the author's original conceit and its playful, in-your-face form of storytelling.

Finally, she makes the story of an 18th century playwright and feminist well worth telling. She knows what works and what doesn't. She knows how to pull her audience in hook, line and sinker. She finds those big, important moments in the script and lets them dance, breathe and dazzle. She creates stirring images and gives voice to four uniquely different women who are outspoken, revolutionary and electric. Moreover, she does this without the preachy clutter and creaky calculation found in so many of today's newer plays and productions.  Elsewhere, the actual staging of the execution scenes is both gripping and boldly imaginative.

Ainsi, la guillotine tombe.

"The Revolutionists" stars Rebecca Hart as Olympe de Gouges, Jennifer Holcombe as Marie-Antoinette, Olivia Jampol as Charlotte Corday and Erin Roche as Marianne Angelle. All four craft fresh, invigorating performances with a bold, Actor's Studio vibe that complements the play's 18th century machinations. As Olympe de Gouges, Hart brings the necessary pulse and heartbeat to the part of the frantic playwright, exuded with refreshing spunk, humanity and appropriate craziness. Jampol, in turn, brings thrilling immediacy and boldness to her colorful portrait of stab-crazy assassin and heroine Charlotte Corday. She's a nut job, front, line and center, but we love her just the same.

In the larger-than-life role of Marie-Antoinette, Holcombe delivers a zesty, showy, thoroughly delightful performance that reveals the heart and mindset of an embattled, misunderstood monarch whose promiscuity was fodder for well-heated gossip and lavish spending habits plunged France into a financial crisis. She prances. She poses. She babbles. She gapes. She plays the Queen as an actual person rather than a caricature of privilege. And she does it, every so effectively. As Marianne Angelle, Roche brings imaginative, raw nuance and purpose to her characterization, coupled with great personality, earnestness and commitment. Hers is a full-bodied, beautiful performance.

Focused, captivating and theatrically thrilling, "The Revolutionists" is a dazzling entertainment well aware of its acutely polished verbal capabilities. It is fun. It is provocative. It is truthful. It is bold. The lead actors pierce the soundscape with extraordinarily nuanced performances. Sarah Hartmann's direction is pertinent and precise. The dialogue is both radical and victorious. And, as written by Lauren Gunderson, it is well worth seeing. So is the big, perfectly-coiffed Marie-Antoinette wig, worn to absolute perfection by its star and well worthy of a round of applause or two.

Profitez! Célébrez! Manger du gâteau!

Photos by Meredith Longo

"The Revolutionists" is being staged at Playhouse on Park (244 Park Rd., West Hartford, CT), now through March 10.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 523-5900.

Monday, February 25, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 139, A Review: "Tiny Beautiful Things" (Long Wharf Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

"Dear Sugar, We still don't know who the fuck are you and seriously, who the fuck do you think you are?"

"Dear Sugar, Are you even qualified for this gig?"

"Dear Sugar, Your advice is all over the place?"

"Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar" was written by Cheryl Strayed in 2012. A collection of real-life stories and essays, it drew its inspiration from her popular advice column "Dear Sugar," an intimate patchwork of conversations and memoirs that provided straightforward, satisfying, optimistic comfort.

The stage version, simply titled "Tiny Beautiful Things," follows a similar plight. Adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos ("My Big Fat Greek Wedding"), with the able assist of Marshall Heyman and Thomas Kail, it too finds comfort in Strayed's clever, passionate advice column and her willingness to help others while interjecting her voice and her point of view into the proceedings without any form of condescension.

The big question: Does a tale of self help warrant a stage version that gives voice to Strayed's wisdom, depth and commanding presence?

Yes, no, kind of and maybe.

"Dear Sugar,  I am a 35-year-old woman who has lost her job and is entering into a relationship with a married man."

"Dear Sugar, when is it the right time to say I love you?"

"Dear Sugar,  I get really seasick and I have a boat trip coming up with my boss who doesn't really like me?"

During the 80 or 85 minutes allotted for "Tiny Beautiful Things" to take shape, the play delves hard into Strayed's "Dear Sugar" column, its letters, its writers, its conversationalists, its long responses, its quirks, its popularity, its truths, its insight, its perversions, its controversies and its oddities.

It fascinates.
It stings.
It surprises.
It entertains.
It provokes.
It bores.
It leaves you on the outside looking in.
It is flat.
It is repetitious.
It also alerts you to the world outside Long Wharf Theatre which includes the sounds of trains signaling their arrival at the nearby Union Station.

Then, surprisingly after about 20 minutes of ups, downs and in-betweens, "Tiny Beautiful Things" picks up momentum, stands proud and tall and gets you very involved, using apt diversity and theatricality to pique interest and stop you from looking at your watch, thinking about your next workday or that special cup of java being offered at Blue State Coffee, the Greek Olive or Starbucks.

At Long Wharf, "Tiny Beautiful Things" is being directed by Ken Rus Schmoll whose credits include "The Invisible Hand," "Aphrodisiac," "A Map of Virtue," "Proserpina," "Gone Missing" and "The Grown Up." Staging the play, Schmoll strives hard to elicit concentration as the characters wander about and seek answers to their personal and collective problems, hoping for the very best advice from Strayed, who, through most of the play, doesn't reveal her true identity.

Give the limitations of the script - advice columnist sharing her experiences through e-mailed letters - there's not much for Schmoll to do, directorially except direct traffic, so to speak. Since most of the action is restricted to the confines of Strayed's comfy backyard (handsomely designed by Kimie Nishikawa), interaction is very limited and confined. Mostly, the actors simply face front when it comes time for them to recite their "Dear Sugar" questions promptly, studiously and in character. When they finish, Schmoll simply moves them downstage right, downstage left, upstage right or upstage left to either observe, listen, stand still or strike a pose, their backs to the audience waiting for the next cue to move, speak and perform.

It's an abstract creative process that Schmoll utilizes and controls to the best of his advantage, never once interrupting  the pending action, conversations, seriousness or humor of the piece with unnecessary movement. Here, what matters most are the words, their effect, their resolution and how they reach out and touch the audience. Then, it's time for Schmoll  to play traffic cop again and move everyone round and round until the play builds to is its amicable, well-awaited conclusion.

The production stars Cindy Cheung as Cheryl Strayed, a.k.a., Sugar, Brian Sgambati as Letter Writer # 1, Elizabeth Ramos as Letter Writer # 2 and Paul Pontrelli as Letter Writer #3. The very versatile and charismatic Cheung brings sustainable warmth, empathy, snap and pulse to the Strayed character who has become a 21st century social media star to the people who adore and write to her. We see that Strayed is an involved, dedicated writer and storyteller with a purpose. That said, despite the play's shortcomings, Cheung's work is sharp, clear, personable and always affecting.
The other cast members, played respectively by Sgambati, Ramos and Pontrelli, assume and play many different characters  throughout "Tiny Beautiful Things," all of which they do so effortlessly. As actors, they are real, they are focused, they are trusting and they are completely in sync with the nature of the piece and their ever-changing roles in the production.

In conclusion, "Tiny Beautiful Things" is an emotional, achy and legitimate entertainment. It is also flawed, quirky and one-note. Those expecting a riveting piece of theater will be largely disappointed. Like Cheryl Strayed's advice column, there are moments that glimmer, shine and catch you completely off guard. There are also moments that are comforting, heartfelt, brave and humorous.

But as a play "Tiny Beautiful Things" is riddled with drawbacks. Its letter/monologue conceit has its range of truths and emotions. But, something is missing. And the advice being given only fleetingly catches fire, despite the valiant efforts of all involved. Union Station, anyone?

"Tiny Beautiful Things" is being staged at Long Wharf Theatre (222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, CT), now through March 10.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 787-4282.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 138, A Review: "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)" (Castle Craig Players)

By James V. Ruocco

"Romeo and Juliet"
"A Midsummer Night's Dream"
"The Comedy of Errors"
"Antony and Cleopatra"
"Titus Andronicus"
"Two Noble Kinsmen"
"Twelfth Night"
"As You Like It"

"All the world's a stage" in Castle Craig Players' wonderfully silly "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)," a slaphappy parody of the Bard's 37 plays, involving 3 actors, dozens of costume changes, R-rated props, gender switching, madcap disguises and giddy gravitas, all clocking in at around 97 minutes or longer, depending on the crowd or who's being invited up on stage to engage in some fiendishly clever improvisation a la "Hamlet."


What's not to like?
This edition of the oft-performed "Complete Works" is dappled with cleverly orchestrated patches of slapstick and contrasting humor, reminiscent of "Monty Python" comedies, West End farce and the specialized silliness dished out by Mischief Theatre, the creators of "The Play That Goes Wrong," "The Comedy About a Bank Robbery" and "Lights! Camera! Improvise!"

Written by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield, the two-act play was first performed in 1987. This production takes its cue from the original play text and a newly minted revised script that asks its actors to invite audience participation, break character, speak directly to the audience, deviate from the script when necessary, disregard the fourth wall and make references to today's people, places and headlines.

Here, there's some lively bits about Donald Trump and The Wall,  "General Hospital," "The Bold and the Beautiful," female breasts, male genitalia, tight ends, sword fights, upchucking in handbags and food hampers, hogging the spotlight, actors walking out on show's midway through the performance, show biz rivalries, bending genders, homosexuality, homeboys, spaghetti, Anne Hathaway and oh yes, Patti LuPone, the star of "Evita," whom one audience member claimed he saw on Broadway in "Chicago," not once realizing that the current star of the West End edition of "Company" was never in that Bob Fosse musical. Never!

"Complete Works" is being directed by Melanie Del Sole who co-founded Castle Craig Players with her dad Warren, 26 years ago. The production itself works terrifically, in part, because of Del Sole's deft understanding of farce and its specialized staging techniques, her kinship with her very talented three member cast, her ability to encourage improvisation when the script calls for it and her willingness to uncover the multiple layers of the stories, the characters, the passages and the conceit behind the crazy interpretation.

Shaping the production, Del Sole knows what works and what doesn't. She knows how to get and sustain a laugh. She knows when to amp things up, when to take a breath and when to let all hell break loose in the name of William Shakespeare. She trusts and encourages her trio of actors to run wildly with the material without ever looking back. And no matter how crazy or over the top things get, everything is very well put together with plenty of bounce, snap and animation.

Laughs are the key element here and Del Sole's choice of inspired pacing keeps them coming and coming at breakneck speed. It's all farcical silliness from fake breasts deliberately popping out of medieval costuming over and over to "Hamlet" being played backwards in 47 seconds to "Coriolanus" being frowned upon due to the vulgarity of the title and a recitation of Shakespeare's bio accidentally getting intertwined with that of Adolph Hitler. This isn't high art by no means. But with Del Sole at the helm, the laughter elicited by her directorial choices is never ending. What makes it even more fun it that we are all in on the joke.

The impeccable timing and technical skills of Ian Galligan, Bobby Schultz and Griffin Kulp are all uniformly excellent. All three throw themselves headfirst into the mounting mayhem of the piece  using the banana peel mindset associated with this form of entertainment. Galligan, a master of comic craziness and laugh riot schadenfreude, effortlessly drifts from one character to the next, echoing the showmanship of silent-film actors, vaudevillians and London comedy troupes all rolled into one. He's funny. He's crazy. He's skillful. He's polished. He loves every minute of what he does from the moment he takes the stage right through to the ovation worthy curtain calls. And it shows.

Griffin Kulp, in turn, handles the play's purposely egregious acting and overplayed mayhem with devilish variety, face-first agility, wildly peppy angst and sidesplitting commitment. He is well versed in playing farce out before a live audience. He possesses the drive and pulse of an actor prone to the laugh-out-loud lunacy, the piece demands. And like Galligan and Schultz, he knows how to make the faux calamities,  mishaps, hiccups, sight gags and slapstick of the entire night workable in true ensemble piece fashion.

Bobby Schultz has great fun hamming and camping it up, using recognizable comic shtick to heighten his grasp of the tricky material he is asked to perform. He gets it right at every comic turn,  exuding the polish and finesse of someone groomed in British farce who has performed at both the Alhambra and Empire musical halls that once dominated Leicester Square.

"The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)" pays due homage to the Bard's uniquely satisfying voice, amped up and distorted for humor's sake  to knock you on your ass, drive you mad, nearly piss your pants or send you out into the winter night mercilessly trying to recite passages from "Hamlet," "Macbeth" and "Romeo and Juliet." It is well staged. The blokish camaraderie between Galligan, Schultz and Kulp is truly magnificent. The actual text is sprinkled with mad lampooning and overflowing improvisation. And finally, it joyfully reinforces that push-and-pull dynamic between actor and audience that is randy, ridiculous and ever so free-spirited.

"The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)" is being staged at Castle Craig Players ( Almira F. Stephan Memorial Playhouse, 59 W. Main St., Meriden, CT), now through March 9
For tickets or more information, call (800) 838-3006.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 137, A Review: "The Bikinis" (Connecticut Cabaret Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

An intoxicating mix of '60s and '70s song hits, some long forgotten, makes Connecticut Cabaret Theatre's newly mounted production of "The Bikinis" snap, crackle and pop with the cool assurance and charm of all things musical.


"The Bikinis" delivers the goods and plenty more.

All sweetness and light, it packs a surf city wallop that is sincere and sentimental.
The actual songbook contains one hit song after another.
The cute quotient gets laughs in all the right places without going overboard or resorting to high camp.
And the plot?
Believe it or not, there is one.

Created by Ray Roderick and James Hindman, "The Bikinis" takes a fond look back at a group of women, who, when they were in high school, formed a girl band (hence, "The Bikinis") and ended up having "Side A" of their 45 rpm single becoming a one-hit wonder.

"It's like we're 14 again," one of them remarks.

But as the show opens, it's New Year's Eve, 1999 and the girls, now women, have reunited for a one-night only concert at Sandy Shores Trailer Park, a beach front property where the residents are about to get kicked out of their homes by a very wealthy conglomerate who wants to pay them off with a very hefty sum and develop a brand new mobile home resort for the 21st century. Everything, however, is up for grabs depending on who votes "Yes," who votes "No" and who wants to grab the money and run.

When the music stops, and it does from time to time, there's plenty of peppy talk about high school, school girl crushes, "Beach Party" movies, Frankie and Annette, transistor radios, Nancy Sinatra, Woodstock, Lifeguard 23, the Summer of Love, the psychedelic era, the loss of virginity, disco fever, New Jersey and the Vietnam War.

A show like this, which taps into nostalgia for entertainment's sake, could easily fall into that escapist trap of doo-wop and bubble gum in the hands of inexperienced directors not versed in this sort of gumdrop gooey conceit. The enlistment of Kris McMurray as director of "The Bikinis," however, keeps this two-act musical happily afloat for well over two hours. With  a trunk load of directorial credits that include "Into the Woods," "Rent," "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," "Singin' in the Rain," "South Pacific," "The Queen Bees," and "Grease," among others, McMurray gets it right every time.

As actor himself, he always finds new ways to entice and excite his audience with one memorable show after another. Directorially, he understands the mechanics of staging a musical, how to position and move it, how to cast it perfectly, how to design and stage it, how to make it flow and how to find the right musical director who shares his penchant for theatrical presentation and live performance.

Here, we get a finely crafted, lightweight musical entertainment of sorts that sizzles and snaps, charms and cajoles and keeps tight control of its playful, sugary concept. It is fun. It is simple. It is cute, It is fanciful. It is energetic and full of sparkle. And nothing is taken for grated. As the musical moves from one song to the next, McMurray always knows exactly what buttons to push. If the script calls for camp or whimsy, that's what you get. If the script calls for sentiment, candy-coated crushes, girl group rivalries or impromptu silliness, McMurray is only happy to oblige. But he's no copycat. Here, as in "Rent" and, most recently, "Wait Until Dark," he dances to his own tune. And that is what makes McMurray special and always at the top of his game.

"The Bikinis" also benefits from McMurray's actual knowledge and appreciation of the musical's time frame. He get the '60s and the '70s. He loves the '60s and the '70s. He understands the '60s and the '70s. He is akin to the musicality of the girl groups themselves, from their spirit and personalities to their synchronized dance moves, expressions and body language. He finds plenty to laugh at for entertainment's sake, but the end result is indicative of the dances found on "Hullabaloo," "Shindig!" "American Bandstand," "Where the Action Is," "Hollywood Palace," "Hollywood a Go-Go" and "Dance Fever." Fun, fun, fun.

The musical songbook for "The Bikinis" is a vinyl record showcase of the highest order that pays homage to those ever popular songs from the '60s and '70s. Among them: "It's in His Kiss," "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini," "Heat Wave," "Under the Boardwalk," "Where the Boys Are," "Chapel of Love," "Mambo Italiano," "You Love Me," "Secret Agent Man," "Dedicated to the One I Love," "Last Dance," "I'm Every Woman," "I Will Survive," It's Raining Men" and "(Lay Down) Candles in the Rain." The songs themselves are an eclectic mix of chart busters that are lively, sweet, entertaining and syrupy smooth like a freshly-minted 45 rpm single from the nearby record store. You know, the kind where you could go into a listening booth, drop the needle down to play your record of choice and give your favorite song a spin or two on the turntable and indulge.

For the Connecticut Cabaret Theatre presentation, TJ Thompson (on the keyboard) serves as musical director with the able assist of Jamie Sherwood (guitar) and Tim Urso (percussion). They are great, of course, and are perfectly in sync with the show's musical journey down memory lane. There are a lot of songs here, 35 in all,  but nothing sounds repetitive or borders on overkill. From act to act, this exhilarating three-member band cuts loose much to the delight of everyone on stage and in the audience with well-timed whisps and bursts of sweet-sounding nostalgia.

Here, you can feel the music as well as hear and experience it. Thompson would have it no other way.  Under his tutelage, "The Bikinis" is lightweight fun and beach blanket bingo friendly all rolled up into one. Every one of the songs exudes that joyful commodity of the times. There is a genuine feeling for the lyrics, the mood swings and the textures of life and sound. The scope and genius of the different decades is celebrated with self-conscious flair and stimulation. And through it all, Thompson and company elicit something truly distinctive and vital. Then again, with a line up of songs like these, they could hardly avoid it.

The two-act musical stars Maria Soaft as Jodi, Emily Gray as Karla, Erin Liddell as Annie and Erica Whitfield as Barbara. All four are a bunch of charismatic performers whose innate charm, personality and showmanship give "The Bikinis" its unifying lift, spirit, sweetness and nostalgic adrenaline. As envisioned by the show's creators, the production itself allows each actress to embrace the music she is given, take hold of it, make it her own and illuminate its vocal veracity with the refreshing honesty and compassion that rocketed it to the top of the "Billboard" charts way back when.

As with most musicals of this genre, including "The Taffetas," "Forever Plaid," "The Wonderful Wonderettes" and "Beehive," there are obvious star turns, standouts, showstoppers and wonderfully wacky moments that make you smile, clap madly, shed a tear or give your husband, wife or partner a kiss or two on the cheek. Through it all, all four actresses have great fun and never once cease to amaze.  As actors, they are so very right for each of the roles they are asked to portray. They have a wonderful rapport with each other and the audience. They are skilled at impromptu improvisation whenever the moment strikes them. They know how to play comedy and they play it well. They also vividly project the mindset, the quirks, the quibbles and the uniquely different personalities of their characters.

Vocally, they are in full voice, smartly reflecting the vocal finesse and intent of the many songs they are asked to sing. They have fun. We have fun. What's wonderful here is the depth, the versatility and the song style of each vocalist as "The Bikinis" pays tribute to the songs of yesteryear. All four exude amazing form, range and control. Their harmonizing is pitch perfect. They also know how to wrap their voice around a lyric they want you to understand, acknowledge and appreciate. In turn, you can't help but reciprocate.

"The Bikinis" is lightweight froth with candy-coated sprinkles and vanilla ice cream. It's cute. It's sunny. It's gumdrop gooey. It's nostalgic. It's sweet-natured fun. It also comes gift wrapped with with beautiful ensemble blends and harmonies, soda pop on ice and sun, sand and surf. And oh yes, fond memories of Lifeguard 23, that blond, blue-eyed stud who caught the wave and the heart of every lovesick girl on the Jersey Shore who dropped her bikini top and bottom in the sand for some not-so-innocent fun and a whole lot more - under the boardwalk.

"The Bikinis" is being staged at Connecticut Cabaret Theatre (31-33 Webster Square Rd., Berlin, CT), now through March 16.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 829-1248

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 136, A Review: "Working" (ACT of CT)

By James V. Ruocco

"Working," the 1978 Stephen Schwartz Broadway musical that took its cue from Studs Terkel's 1974 bestseller "Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do," offered theatergoers a smartly detailed, tuneful exploration of the American working class, using 19 different characters, 18 musical numbers and an ensemble cast of 17 men and women.

It was breezy.
It was enlightening.
It was raw and real.
It got you thinking.
It made a big impact.

But that was then, and this is now.

In 2009, a revised edition of the show was invented by Schwartz and his creative team, adding new material and updated references to the already existing book, but paring down the cast to only six actors (three men and three women). Several songs were cut- "Lovin' Al," "The Mason," "Neat to Be a Newsboy," "Treasure Island Trio," "Un Mejor Dua Vendra," "Nightskate," "Husbands and Wives" - and replaced by new ones including "A Very Good Day" and "Delivery" by Lin-Manuel Miranda ("In the Heights," "Hamilton").

It too was inspired and thoughtful, using the stories and songs of people from all walks of life as its creative connection. Subsequently, the two-act musical was revived in 2011 at Chicago's Broadway Playhouse. One year later, it opened off-Broadway with a cast that included Joe Cassidy, Donna Lynne Chapman and Jay Armstrong Johnson.

At ACT of CT, the 2019 production of "Working" comes full circle with ovation worthy results as it celebrates the working endeavors of such ordinary people as a firefighter, a waitress, a housewife, a mill worker, a truck driver, and so many others.


This "Working" packs an emotional wallop.
Reimagined and reconceived with the blessing of "Working" creator Stephen Schwartz ("Wicked," "Godspell," "Pippin"), it is not only the best incarnation of the musical and its many rethinks, but one that respects its origins, its immediacy, its viewpoints, its close ups and its observations.

It paints a fascinating patchwork of everyday Americans who often go unnoticed.
It is genuinely original.
It is exquisitely sung.
It is a feast for the eyes chock full of vibrant colors and high tech imagination.
It also raises questions about the worker in all of us, what we value and what we've become.

Staging "Working," director Daniel C. Levine brings a seamless energy, compassion and artfulness to the musical, offset by artistic choices that are revolutionary, involving, intimate and wildly creative. Here, as in last year's illuminating production of "Evita," Levine, imprints this work with a steadfast knowledge, understanding and zest that heightens its hypnotic allure, its movement, its evolution, its rapidly changing emotional palate, its exploding spirit and its restructured curiosity, realism and truthfulness. It's also no secret that Levine loves the entire creative process, from casting and rehearsing a show to opening night and subsequent live performance. So naturally, "Working" is brimming with that special love and incandescence that only he could muster, every so engagingly.

Levine is also a master craftsman. Storytelling is key to any musical and Levine crafts a show with a big heart that becomes even more personal with the addition of the real-life stories of Ridgefield workers he interviewed and incorporated into the existing framework of the "Working" story" This personal element, which includes real glimpses of the waitress at Dimitri's Diner to the smiling female customer service representative at CVS, among others, fuels "Working" with eye-opening inspiration and honesty. It's not only an added plus, but one that gets you thinking about other workers you see on a daily basis, from the man or woman at the drive-thru window at Starbucks and the UPS delivery man roaring earnestly through town to the risk-taking man who cuts away branches from the power lines on Main Street and the friendly waitstaff at Gallo.

Elsewhere, "Working," under Levine's tutelage, dazzles with its creative use of arresting visual projections, sound-and-light cues and video clips (designed by Caite Hevner), all of which come together as one against a range of different, exciting platforms. This state-of-the-art process, impeccably timed to the millisecond by Levine and company, is not only a feast for the eye, but one that heightens the emotional rapidity of the storytelling so seamlessly, you continually shake your head in amazement and silently just sit back and say "Wow!" three, four or five times.

The musical song book for "Working" has been culled from the imaginative mindset of Stephen Schwartz, Micki Grant, James Taylor, Craig Carnelia, Susan Birkenhead, Mary Rodgers, and Lin-Manuel Miranda. The revised 2019 version of the original 1978 Broadway musical includes the following songs: "All the Livelong Day," "Delivery," "Nobody Tells Me How," "Brother Trucker," "Just a Housewife," "Millwork," "The Mason," "It's an Art," "Joe," "A Very Good Day," "Cleanin' Women," "Fathers and Sons," It I Could've Been" and "Something to Point To."

Musical direction for "Working" is provided by the very talented Dan Pardo, a creative genius whose professional credits include "Amazing Grace," "Found," "Fun Home," "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" "Stepchild" and the showstopping 2017 Barrington Stage production of Stephen Sondheim's "Company"  starring Aaron Tveit as Bobby. No stranger to musical theater, Pardo creates a wonderful, exacting unity throughout the show's 80-minute length that flows naturally and melodically from one number to the next. Bryan Perri (ACT's Resident Music Supervisor), in turn, leads the music department in this production, and wisely respects the refreshing simplicity and truthfulness of the show's approach, its musical catalog of worker's songs, its invigorating anthems and its breezy, steadfast amiability.

With Perri at the helm, and Pardo at the keyboard and as conductor, the musical score for "Working" springs to life with the able assist of Matt Hinkley (electric and acoustic guitars), Arnold Gottleib (electric and acoustic bass) and Dennis Arcano (drums and percussion). It is rich. It is full. It is exciting. It is lush. Here, as in "Company," Perri and Pardo's inventive musicality unfolds with decided interest, gusto, flavor, joyfulness, purpose and precision. Every single song, lyric, beat and rhythm of  the especially tuneful "Working" score is marvelously imagined by Perri and his orchestral team, which, of course, allows the material to breathe, beguile, seduce and entertain just as the show's creators originally intended.

The enlistment of Chip Abbott as choreographer for "Working" is an absolute plus that benefits the telling of the actual "Working" story and the various characters who reveal their innermost thoughts through song, dance and dialogue. He is not only fluent in the mechanics of musical staging, but  has devised a series of brilliant, innovative choreographic moves, beats, styles and synchronizations that benefit and highlight the truthfulness and honesty of the material. He surprises. He excites. He pushes boundaries to the max. He takes chances. He knows what works and what doesn't. He knows how to move people about naturally as one, as two or in a group of six. He's in sync with the storytelling. He knows how to make things dazzle and pop. And never once, does he repeat himself.

"Working" stars Laura Woyasz, Brad Greer, Monica Ramirez, Cooper Grodin, Zuri Washington and Andre Jordan. All six are a charismatic bunch of performers whose innate charm and personality give the material its unifying lift, spunk and spirit. True to form, the production remains an especially gratifying ensemble piece where each actor embraces the music he or she is given, takes hold of it and runs with it, thus, illuminating its vocal passion and veracity with refreshing honesty, compassion, wit, warmth and dignity.

As with most musicals, there are star turns, standouts and showstoppers. There are moments that make you smile. There are moments that make you shed a tear or two. There are moments when you can't clap hard enough to show your appreciation. But through it all, the "Working" cast of six, all of whom play a variety of different roles with amazing polish and finesse, are in full voice smartly reflecting  the intentions of the show's creators and composers. They have fun. We have fun. And they never once cease to amaze. What's wonderful here is the depth and versatility of each vocalist, their amazing range and control, their individual harmonizing and continuity and how they wrap their voice around a lyric they want you to understand. As actors, they are so very right for each of the roles they are asked to portray. But they just don't play a part, they own it, which in a show as intimate as this one, makes all the difference in the world.

"Working" is an exhilarating musical about people, about life, about dedication, about following your dream and more importantly, the worker in all of us. It speaks to us from the heart. It is filled with truths and real-life exposition. It gets us thinking. It gets us excited. It achieves its decidedly simple, message-oriented aim with gusto, with pride and with a smile. It floors you with emotion. It also unfolds with a fond appreciation and vigor for the men and women who make up the working class population of America that is not easily forgotten.

A round of applause is also necessary for Brenda Phelps (costume designer), John Salutz (sound design), Jack Mehler (lighting and scenic design) and Liz Printz (wig design and hair supervision). Their creative choices heighten the "Working" experience"  most advantageously, and then some. 

"Working" is being staged at ACT of CT (36 Old Quarry Rd., Ridgefield, CT), now through March.
For tickets or more information, call (475) 215-5433

Monday, February 18, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 135, A Review: "Always...Patsy Cline" (Music Theatre of Connecticut)

By James V. Ruocco

"The one thing I wanted to do more than anything else was sing country music"
Patsy Cline

"Sweet Dreams"
"Walkin' After Midnight"
"I Fall to Pieces"
"Back in Baby's Arms"
"Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray"
"Your Cheatin' Heart"

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

"Always...Patsy Cline," an intimate, crowd-pleasing, big-hearted musical, which has the Music Theatre of Connecticut audience clappin' hard and jumpin' up on their feet for nightly standing ovations, is based, in part, on the real-life friendship between the Nashville country star and Houston housewife Louise Seger.

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

It's not hard to see why.

A budding friendship between two women via letters and telephone calls.
The indelible voice of the great Patsy Cline.
The concerts.
The singles.
The cheers.
The country classics.
That's a huge plus...and then some.

"We can't all be hairdressers," cries Louise.

Sweet and sentimental.

"Always...Patsy Cline" is so beautiful, it's bound to give you chills.

In the directorial chair, Music Theatre of Connecticut has enlisted the talents of Pamela Hill, a very savvy, quick-smart artisan whose credits include "The Music Man," "Crazy For You," "Side by Side by Sondheim," "Urinetown," "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" and "The 39 Steps."  Here, she brings great knowledge, sentiment, wit and understanding to the country-western backdrop of "Always...Patsy Cline."  Things are powerful. Things are pertinent. Things are played out to delicate, nuanced perfection.

There's also an admirable clarity, charisma, showmanship and sparkle to her staging. Not to mention a heartfelt, one-on-one closeness, kinship and tenderness to the proceedings that gives the two-act musical, added strength, warmth and passion. The closeness of actor to audience is also a plus for it allows Hill to create a country concert intimacy that heightens the show's appeal and also allows, when necessary, both performers to engage and flirt with the audience in three-dimensional fashion.

Working from Ted Swindley's charming, playful, already-proven script, she delves head first into the musical's emotional center and looks for new ways to make a difference, celebrate the voice and sound of Patsy Cline and show her audience what the singer and Seger really had in common. This creative process, a clever and honest mix of color, dash and sweetness, fuels and drives "Always...Patsy Cline" past the running gate. The characters, for example, are more realistic and full-bodied. The jokes, the comedy, the stage business, the stage blocking and the stage movement, have more spark, punch and animation than other productions of the same show.
There's also much more pizzazz to the story, which, in the hands of someone less experienced, would have ended up as just another musical, followed by one song after another. The interaction and  breezy rapport with the audience is swift and spontaneous. The show's celebration of Patsy Cline's legacy is timeless, uninhibited and universal. And finally, her decision to use and include the on-stage band to reflect, comment, sing a few harmonies and participate in the telling of the story is an added bonus that heightens the musical's verve and vitality.

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

For this production, musical direction is provided by the tremendously talented Thomas Martin Conroy whose orchestral credits include many musicals at MTC and all across America. A deft, smart and intuitive musician with a real flair for this sort of raw and flavorful entertainment, Conroy crafts a lively, memorable song fest that captures and accentuates the talent, the drive and the down home spunk and charm that was Patsy Cline. Every song fulfills its intended purpose. Every song shimmers, shakes, rattles and rolls. Every song delivers an emotional punch that makes it entirely personal. There's also plenty of heart, resonance and country spirit to the show reflective of all those wonderful acts that have played (or are still playing) Nashville's Grand Ole Opry.

The performances are uplifting, passionate and dazzling.

As Patsy Cline, there's a smooth, smoldering passion and richness to the vocal sound of Mia Scapra, which makes her a natural fit for the part of the late country western music star. Affectionate, sorrowful, charismatic and vibrant, she transports the audience back to a time long gone by with real, genuine affection for Patsy Cline, her music, her song style, her legacy and the star power that capitulated her to stardom in the recording industry. And like the singer herself, she becomes lost in the emotion of the song, the music, the lyrics, the themes and the undercurrents, wistfully, gracefully and naturally.

The voice that is embodied here is Scarpa's, of course, with just the right mix of Cline's indelible sound, phrasing, range, sass, boldness and compassion. It's all very original and wonderfully pitch-perfect as the actress recreates that magic that was "Crazy," "Sweet Dreams," "Walkin' After Midnight," "I Fall to Pieces," "Your Cheatin' Heart," and so many others. Scapra also loves being in front of an audience whether she's singing, drinking beer, chatting, talking or journeying down memory lane pulling one hit song after another from the trunk load of song hits fashioned by the show's creators.
There's such star power here, it's impossible to take your eyes off her for a moment for fear you might miss something important to the story or something special that can and does happen from performance to performance. Her stance, her spontaneity, her musicality, her spirit and her in-the-moment drive is absolutely thrilling. During the second half of the show, there's also a Judy Garland allure and persona that springs into view from time to time, which when you think out it, would make Scarpa the perfect fit for the Judy Garland role in "The Boy from Oz" or "End of the Rainbow," the 2005 musical about the legendary singer herself.

As Cline's excited, devoted and dedicated fan, friend and pen pal Louise Seger, Becky Barta's animated star turn amazes, cajoles and excites much to the delight of everyone around her. It's a role that she was born to play and play it she does like lightning in a bottle about to explode. She is ballsy. She is kooky. She is wicked. Her grasp of the show's comedy shtick, its jokey, well-timed one-liners, its vaudevillian burlesque stage business and several impromptu ad libs with the audience is absolutely sensational and completely in sync with Swindley's playful conceit for the character.
As "Always...Patsy Cline" unfolds, she's on fire from start to finish and there's no stopping her. Or telling what she might do next. Her bump-and grind bits are absolutely hysterical and played out in true burlesque fashion. When she pulls some unsuspecting but lucky gentleman out of the audience to dance with her in impromptu fashion, you willingly go along for the ride and cheer her comic spontaneity.  The actress also shares a refreshing, on stage bond and camaraderie with Scarpa which makes the Cline/Seger friendship of the actual story completely palpable.

"Always...Patsy Cline" is a heartfelt and endearing musical that celebrates the life and legacy of the late, great Patsy Cline, her music, her star power and her friendship and kinship with Louise Seger, the Houston housewife who became her biggest fan. The music itself is right in sync with all things Patsy. The direction is expressive and passionate. And the two lead performances by Scarpa and Barta leave you wanting and begging for more. Then again, that's the point, isn't it? You bet it is.

"Patsy touched the lives of countless people in all walks of life and paved the way for many upcoming female country singers. 'Always Patsy Cline' is both a tribute to her musical talent and a testament to the woman herself."
Pamela Hill, Director, "Always...Patsy Cline, Music Theatre of Connecticut

"Always...Patsy Cline" is being staged at Music Theatre of Connecticut (509 Westport Ave, Norwalk, CT), now through February 24.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 454-3883.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 134, A Review: "Good Faith: Four Chats About Race and the New Haven Fire Department" " (Yale Repertory Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

" 'Good Faith' is inspired by the landmark labor case Ricci v. De Stefano, which wound its way through the federal court system all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the majority ruled in 2009 that the City of New Haven has violated the civil rights of a group of firefighters whose promotion test results the City had discarded as having disparate impact on candidates of color. The Court's decision impacted labor laws across the nation, and still echoes in our own community today."
(James Bundy, Artistic Director, Yale Repertory Theatre)

And so, the test on race, discrimination and other matters ensues in Karen Hartman's talky, two-act drama "Good Faith," a complicated, absorbing work that attempts to understand the Ricci v. De Stefano U.S. Supreme Court case, its key players, the actual promotion testing strategies of the New Haven firefighters, its ramifications, the worthiness of the job applicant's status and the various conversations, testimonies and meetings that resulted from the unrest and racial disparity of all parties involved.

Penning "Good Faith" as an actual theatrical piece, Hartman (using the character of the Writer as the play's mouthpiece) questions the abstractions raised by the case, its social injustice, its impact, its inequality and its effect in present day society.  Moreover, what is fair and what is just. Her goal, of course, is to get people thinking about the the city of New Haven, its history, its square miles, it population, its venues, its eateries, its schools, its culture, etc. She also wants people to understand the role of the New Haven firefighter, his day-today interactions, his risk taking, his goals and his leadership.

Her play is also peppered with inside jokes about New Haven, Yale Rep, the Greek Olive and Yale University, the renowned institution where she still owes money. Elsewhere, she delves wholeheartedly into  the creative process of writing a play that audiences may or may not get and how it was important, whenever possible to stick to the facts of Ricci v. DeStefano, using real-life documentation and dialogue, the latter compiled from one-on-one interviews with some of the key figures involved.

As "Good Faith"  evolves, it's obvious that Hartman has a clear sense of the entire picture and framework, its cracks, its fissures, its rambling undercurrents and its unifying message. Some may argue this point. Some may scoff and shake their head in disbelief. But this is a play - not a history class.

"Good Faith" is being staged by Tony Award-winning director Kenny Leon whose credits include "A Raisin in the Sun," "Fences," Children of a Lesser God," "American Son," "Hairspray Live!" "Gem of the Ocean" and "Smart People." As director, Leon is closely attuned to the play's docudrama theories, conversations, events, interviews, meetings, prejudices, judgments, debates, litigations and policies. He is also aware that the piece, as dictated by the playwright from real conversations, doesn't have all the answers, doesn't get all of the facts straight or right and often takes liberties with the material in its finished, reconfigured theatrical form.

Regardless, Leon crafts a personal, in-your-face drama that gets under your skin, makes you think, toys with your senses and asks you to examine and re-examine your own personal beliefs. Like Hartman, he doesn't purport to have all the answers. Instead, he simply asks you to pay attention, listen closely to the playwright's very talky exposition and in the end, agree or disagree as you draw and evaluate your own conclusions.

What matters here, of course, is the drama unleashed by Hartman.On that level, Leon succeeds swimmingly. As the story takes shape, the fluency of his expressiveness pushes the action forward without hesitation or calculation. Molding the piece, he always knows what buttons to push, what to emphasize, what to highlight in yellow magic marker, when to hold back, when to entice and excite and more importantly, how to keep the play's combatant undercurrents cracking.

The two-act drama stars Laura Heisler as the Writer, Billy Eugene Jones as Mike Briscoe, Ian Bedford as Frank Ricci and others, Rene Augesen as Karen Lee Torre and others and Rob Demery as Tyrone Ewing and others. Under the direct, conscious tutelage of Leon, the performances of all five actors, some of whom play multiple roles, are crisp, fluent and persuasive. It's a treat to watch them inhabit every one of their roles with amazing vigor and pertinent staying power. Clearly, they relish every moment they are on stage tackling Hartman's dialogue with real, raw, nuanced perfection.

Given the logistics of the piece, Leon creates an atmosphere that is strong and absorbing and at times, not without humor. In turn, the actors are asked to shift gears like graduate students in a Yale School of Drama class, which they do most agreeably. The trick, of course, is to keep everyone focused and not  allow the audience to see the wheels turning as they go through the entire process of reenacting "Good Faith" under Leon's watchful eye. It's a feast of sorts and one that registers their eclectic acting range with astonishing clarity.

Technically, "Good Faith" includes an impressive, vast set, designed in black and fire engine red by Stephanie Osin Cohen and a cohesive sound and light palate by Kathryn Ruvuna and Stephen Strawbridge. There's also some interesting, atmospheric projections devised by Zachary Borovay and  serviceable wardrobing for each of the actors, smartly envisioned by costume designer Beatrice Vena.

"Good Faith: Four Chats About Race and the New Haven Fire Department " is a brave, inspired new work that speaks to all of us. It is involved and passionate. Its conversations are well-rehearsed. The issues it resonates stimulates in true theatrical fashion. The performances realistically mirror the real life people, which they are based upon. And when it's over, the subject matter lingers - and well it should.

"Good Faith" is being staged at Yale Repertory Theatre (1120 Chapel St., New Haven, CT), now through February 23.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 432-1234.