Tuesday, April 30, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 157, A Review: "Quartet" (TheatreWorks/ New Milford)

By James V. Ruocco

The setting for Ronald Harwood's  engaging two-act comedy "Quartet" is Beecham House, an English retirement home for aging musicians, all of whom are former opera-singers keen on reprising the celebrated third act quartet "Bella figlia dell'amore from "Rigoletto" for an upcoming concert tribute to the opera's composer Giuseppe Verdi.

One big problem: one can't sing anymore and the others aren't exactly opera ready.

With the stage set for laughter, therein, lies the humor for this gleeful and playful oeuvre that works hard to tickle your funny bone, slap you in the face, bite you in the ass and nearly knock you out of your seat from laughing so hard.


"Quartet" revels in its own lightheartedness and eccentricity as it delivers dollops of charm and warmth, mixed with cleverly orchestrated doses of open-hearted honesty, vulnerability and unabashed delight. It's a show that wears its heart on its sleeve, but comes gift wrapped with characters and situations that are rich in incident, detail and audience involvement. All that's missing is a bottle of champagne waiting to be uncorked. Or a cuppa of Typhoo waiting to be brewed.

As written by Harwood, "Quartet" exposes the truths of old age, both humorously and affectingly in much the same fashion as "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel." The premise is interesting. The characters are interesting. The combined potential of both is compelling. As is, the play's simplistic and candid remarks about bad knees, walking sticks, senility, sagging body parts, sexual malfunctions and having to make endless trips back and forth to the bathroom in the middle of the night. It's a fact of life for people past a certain age and one that the play attacks with devious relish.

British-born Jane Farnol who trained at London's prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art is the perfect fit for "Quartet." At TheatreWorks, she has directed several major works including "The Taming of the Shrew," "Shakespeare For My Father," "The Laramie Project," "Gross Decency," "The Elephant Man" and last season's hypnotic character drama "All My Sons."  She gets theater. She loves theater. She understands theater. Directorially, she brings tremendous insight, understanding and depth to every project she undertakes. And when casting a production, she finds the best possible talent out there to bring a real sense of authenticity and performance dynamic to their parts, whether it be drama, comedy, Shakespeare or some celebrated stage classic.

With "Quartet," Farnol creates a breezy entertainment that unfolds with pointed diversity, snap and cheeky amusement. Her direction is spunky and bemusing, solid and crisp, sweet and sentimental, and oh yes, wicked and acerbic. She has great fun with the material, the characters, the dialogue, the  beats, rhythms and pauses, the pronouncements, the observations, the surprises and the eventual outcomes. It's all beautifully shaped and controlled, but without that rehearsed feel of an opening night or performance after performance wariness. Here, things are spontaneous, direct and natural. Farnol wouldn't have it any other way.

This being a British comedy with decidedly British humor, detail, references and geography, Farnol never once goes the Neil Simon route to get laughter from her American audience. She also doesn't dumb things down to justify the play's English, look, feel and verbage.  She respects Harwood's
diverse play script and gives it the proper bounce, lift and zest it demands page after page, scene after scene, act after act. You also don't have to be from England or be well versed in all things English to get "Quartet." If you are, well "bully" for you. If you're not, not to worry. Farnol gets the point across amusingly enough with nary a hiccup, a skip or a bloody crackle.

Given the play's premise, the production is well built to deliver one laugh after another which "Quartet" ratchets steadily and effortlessly. The trick, of course, is not to see the gag or its banana peel effect coming. Therefore, as "Quartet" glides from one comic bit to the next, Farnol orchestrates things beautifully, always allowing the material to breathe and ripen without any form of obvious calculation. No matter what the joke is or its intention, the circumference of each poke or dilemma gets the big laugh, gets the big wink and gets the big nudge with deadpan mischief and merriment.

"Quartet" stars Dandy Barrett as Jean Horton, Jody Bayer as Cecily Robson, Timothy Breslin as Reginald Paget and Ron Malyszka as Wilfred Bond. Every one of these actors is well versed in the style, language and mechanics of British comedy which they enact with assurance, efficiency, wit and immediacy, thus giving the production the kick, warmth, spirit and spunk it requires in order to succeed. They have fun. We have fun. They are excited. We are excited. They know to deliver the punchline with added measure. And yes, we lap it up like honey, willingly going along for the ride.

As performers, they also bring a vibrant, eclectic collection of expressions, emotions, personalities and acting styles to their individual roles. They take hold of them, shape them to their liking and make them their own (no two actors are alike), which in a production as intimate and refreshing as this one, makes all the difference in the world. Elsewhere, they nicely succumb to the atmospheric  feel of the production, its conceit, its humor, its British roots, its comedy, its drama, its remembrances and its operatic dalliances.

Breslin is splendid as the harsh, opinionated Reggie who shouts profanities when marmalade is withheld from him at breakfast, treats Jean abhorrently when she first arrives at Beecham House or becomes completely absorbed in his long-winded discussions about art and other topics he fancies.
Malyska gets laughs in all the right places as the lusty, oversexed Wilfred who somehow gets the urge to seduce and fornicate whenever an attractive female is nearby. Bayer, an actress with a keen, natural sense of comic timing, is appropriately silly and batty as the forgetful but charming and loveable Cecily. Barrett, in turn, beautifully conveys the proudness and vulnerability of a self-centered opera diva obsessed with her celebrated past, now forced to accept an uncertain future with no money and a trunk full of faded memories.

Technically, "Quartet" is in top form. The set for Beecham House, designed by Jim Hipp, is spacious, inviting, colorful and atmospherically reflective of its British surroundings in Kent. Lighting by Nick Kaye is smart and savvy and adapts admirably to the TheatreWorks environs and actual playing space .

Costuming, which, in this production, plays a central role in the proceedings, especially during the latter part of Act II, has been designed by Mary Kimball, who also created the wardrobe for last year's "All My Sons" at TheatreWorks. For "Quartet," every inch of every look is impeccably done in terms of style, flow, color and fashion statement. The clothes themselves complement each of the characters who wear them, taking into account the ready-to-wear individuality of each garment, its ensemble feel, the skin tones and hair styles of each actor and the playwright's characterization conceit for "Quartet." Kimball's impressive talents are not only exceedingly polished, but also take into account the design palate of the production's creative team. In short, no one get upstaged or fades quietly into the furniture, the wall paper or the scenery. Well, done, Ms. Kimball.

In conclusion, "Quartet" is a sincere, strong, individualistic character piece that rivets attention with amusing, quirky panache and gentle pathos without ever taking serious aim at retirement and its sometimes  discomforting consequences. Working from Ronald Harwood's splendidly crafted script, director Jane Farnol leads her talented cast of four through a  very moving, honest work that humorously celebrates old age with harmonious balance and purpose.Nothing tragic. Nothing antiseptic. Nothing mundane. Just an incredibly honest story about a group of people that connects the dots between life, death and survival with positive thinking and positive communication and nary  a drop of condescension and preachiness.

"Quartet" is being staged at TheatreWork/ New Milford (5 Brookside Ave., New Milford, CT), now through May 18.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 350-6863.
website: theatreworks.us

Monday, April 22, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 156, A Review: "The Complete History of Comedy (Abridged)" (Connecticut Cabaret Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

Poking fun at William Shakespeare, Abbott and Costello, Adolph Hitler and Germany, Anton Chekhov, the Bible, Donald Trump, Richard Nixon, Betty White, the Supreme Court - plus a whole lot more- "The Complete History of Comedy (Abridged)," is a laugh-out-loud riot that overplays the art of comedy gag with dead-on hilarity and merriment.


It's impossible not to be swept up into the comic craziness envisioned by the show's creators, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor, the creative duo also responsible for "The Complete History of America (Abridged)," "William Shakespeare's Long Lost First Play (Abridged)," "The Complete World of Sports (Abridged)," "The Bible- The Complete Word of God (Abridged)" and "The Ultimate Christmas Show (Abridged)."

For this go-round, three actors step forth to make perfect sense out of the first twelve chapters of Ah Tsu's dicey Chinese manuscript titled "The Art of Comedy," which, for comic purposes is missing the final thirteenth chapter. Presenting the book in true working order fashion, the trio drift merrily through time using everything from burlesque humor and high camp to pie-in-the-face humor and Mischief Theatre tomfoolery to make things snap. crackle, pop and hop. And, hop and pop, they do.

There's a send up of multiple baby births, a la caveman style; an homage to Anton Chekhov's convoluted, character-driven dramas; a jokey skit presented in many different incarnations about a chicken crossing the road to get to the other side; and a musical tribute to the Supreme Court, among others, requiring the cast to take a deep breath and become quick-change artists in rapid succession, playing both male and female roles, each with their own set of colorful, cross-dressing costuming.

Staging "The Complete History of Comedy (Abridged)," director Kris McMurray relies on broad swaths of humor and amusement to get the message across. Therefore, the knock-about laughter, culled from comedy shtick that is as equally ridiculous as the material itself, must be played straight in order for it to fly off the back walls and hit the audience smack in the face with craziness so impossible to resist, a coughing fit is more than likely, as is a near-fall out of your seat onto the Connecticut Cabaret Theatre floor.

What's especially fun about this piece is that you're never quite sure what's going to happen next or when the frantic cast of three (exceptional casting on McMurray's part) is going to switch gears, plunge headfirst into the play's powder-keg of different characters and personalities, purposely break character or pull unsuspecting members of the audience up on stage to participate in a comic sketch or two. And therein, lies the play's enjoyment and unsuspected giddy up.

A master craftsman of sorts, McMurray comes to "The Complete History of Comedy (Abridged)" with the right directorial choreography and illustrative style to thrust the piece into high gear with the infectious energy and wickedness it demands. He has fun. We have fun. He laughs. We laugh. He gets down and dirty. We get down and dirty. He's bold and brazen. We are bold and brazen. He goes for the sight gag. We go for the sight gag.
And when a  cast member humorously says the word "fuck," we humorously say the word "fuck" as well. And, so on.

As with "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)," another comedy of the same ilk, this production is largely dependent on comic sketches that tie both acts together and thrust the action forward in non-stop comic fashion. McMurray tackles the play's varying types of comedy - slapstick, vaudevillian, musical hall, sit-com, physical, pun, double take, double entendre - with creative aplomb, never once getting bogged down in overkill, repetitiveness or paint-by-numbers staging. Here, no two scenes are alike. Nothing is replayed over and over unless the script dictates a replay. And nothing is out of sync with the show's conceit. The accent is on fun and McMurray keeps the laughter coming and coming in rapid succession.

The production stars Rick Bennett, Chris Brooks and James J. Moran.
All three are exceptional actors with impeccable comic timing and improvisational versatility who adapt brilliantly to the mounting mayhem of the piece using the over-the-top mindset and dizziness associated with this type of entertainment. They are crazy. They are polished. They are funny. They are also in top form as they effortlessly drift from one character to the next, echoing the technical panache of silent film actors, vaudevillians, sit-com television stars, stand up comedians and London comedy troupes all rolled up into one.

Given the play's crazy premise and its purposely egregious acting styles, all three take hold of the production's overplayed mayhem with the kind of devilish variety, face-first agility, peppy angst and sidesplitting commitment prompted by the show's creators. They ham it up. They camp it up. They improvise. They toy with the audience. They also know how to make the faux calamities,  mishaps, pratfalls, sight gags and double takes of the entire production workable in true ensemble piece fashion like actors groomed in the school of British farce or the British musical halls that once dominated Leicester or Trafalgar Square in London.

The fourth member of the piece, who, remains offstage for the entire production is sound and light operator CJ Janis, a young, savvy, intuitive technician and theater lover, who comes to Connecticut Cabaret Theatre with a creative mindset and showmanship that keeps  the two-act comedy technically in sync for its entire 90 minute length. Since laughs are the whole kit and caboodle here, Janis has the enviable task of controlling and unleashing a trunk load of sound and light cues designed to heighten the farcical silliness and chaos at hand.

Timing that is expertly driven right to down to the millisecond is important  here and Janis - always knowing what buttons to push and when - succeeds swimmingly. His creative expertise not only reflects the comic vision set forth by writers Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor, but allows the cast to unleash their comic hijinks and shenanigans without a hiccup, glitch or halt in sight. In turn, laughs comes in all the right places, as set forth by McMurray's snappy, heavily-detailed stage book of light cues, blackouts, slide show presentations and sound-effects which Janis milks to perfection much to the delight on everyone on stage and in the audience.

In conclusion, "The Complete History of Comedy (Abridged)" is a tremendously funny comedy that provides non stop laughter for its audience using a cast of three that throw themselves headfirst into the ensuing mayhem. The script itself is cheeky, crazy and outrageous. Kris McMurray's playful, titanically silly direction goes the banana peel route, laced with a giant dollop of never ending sitcom jokes and comedy cliches that are impossible to resist. And the cast, all uniformly excellent, deliver one of the funniest shows on record at the moment.

"The Complete History of Comedy (Abridged)" is being staged at Connecticut Cabaret Theatre (31-311 Webster Square Rd., Berlin, CT), now through April 27.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 829-1248.
website: ctcabaret.com

Sunday, April 14, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 155, A Review: "Girlfriend" (TheaterWorks/Hartford)

By James V. Ruocco

A music tape.
A boombox.
A phone call.
A car.
A drive in movie.
A glance.
A hug.
An embrace.
A kiss.
Another kiss.

Thus, begins the sweet and simple teen romance that blossoms into something more serious in Todd Almond's "Girlfriend,"  an angst-ridden, emotional portrait of young gay love that takes its cue from Matthew Sweet's popular album of the same name.

In the musical, Will, a young gay man in a small Nebraska town has an impossible crush on Mike, a wildly attractive, college-bound athlete who plays baseball, has a girlfriend and is struggling with his own sexuality. Mike, it seems, has also grown tired of being the ever-popular jock and high school hero he's forced to play-act in order for him to fit in. So he turns to Will. And so, the attraction begins.

"My life has finally become the musical I always suspected it was," Will tells us.


Like "Fun Home,"  "Girlfriend's" workmanship is twofold. It is a story about coming out. It is also a coming-of-age story about sexual awakening, following your heart and not being ashamed of your individual beliefs, lifestyle and wistful longings for same-sex relationships.

Does Mike really love Will?
That is the musical's big question.

"Girlfriend" is being staged by Rob Ruggiero whose TheaterWorks directorial credits include "Next to Normal," "Molly Sweeney," "Take Me Out," "The Goat," "The Understudy," "The Mountaintop," "The Laramie Project," "Constellations" and "The Legend of Georgia McBride." Here, Ruggiero crafts a wonderfully sculptured and nuanced production that is rich, witty and heartfelt. He also brings the right honesty and understanding to the project, which, in turn, allows the material to grow, delight and entice plus maintain its strong sense of individuality, balance and animation.

From a musical perspective, the story of "Girlfriend" is a simple set up - two teenaged boys discover and embrace gay love. Nonetheless, Ruggiero's vision, is one freighted with complications, complexities and uncertainties. And one that never once loses sight of its origins, its rippling undercurrents and its ever-changing landscape. And therein, lies its allure, its fascination and its heartbeat.

As storyteller and director, Ruggiero doesn't waste a single moment. This being a two-character musical, pacing - the right pacing - is everything in order for the story and its characters to click and resonate with its audience. One false move, one mistimed moment or one abrupt halt in the action and  "Girlfriend" could stop dead in its tracks. Naturally, that doesn't happen here. There's lots going on from scene to scene and song to song and Ruggiero has a tight reign on things from how a scene is to be played, how a song is blocked and staged and how the two central characters relate to one another from their first meeting, their first date, their first kiss and their first night together in the bedroom making love. No matter what one's sexual orientation, Ruggiero's open-hearted treatment of the material makes this tale of young love so sweet and so personal, you can't help but conjure up fond memories of your first romantic encounter and its eventual outcome.

Written in 1991 by Matthew Sweet (musical and lyrics) as an alternative pop-rock album, "Girlfriend's" blueprint for love, conflict and romantic interplay anxiously exposed the heartbreak, optimism, confusion and excitement of new romance. With its guitar-heavy emotions, sweetness and  edgy vocal hooks, Sweet's 15-song compilation bristled with the right pulse, imagination and in-your-face emergence. Its clever, lyrical mix of grunge, pop and sarcasm not only came from the heart, but provided solace for the broken-hearted  men and women who identified with Sweet's angst-ridden glimpse of mainstream love, its positive vibes, its pickup lines its sentiment and its bittersweet realities.

Reimagined for the stage version by playwright Todd Almond, the songs themselves - ten in all - fit nicely into the framework of his bittersweet love story, its progression and the discovery of one's own sexual identity. They are: "I've Been Waiting," "Reaching Out," "Winona," "Looking at the Sun," "Girlfriend," "We're the Same," "Evangeline," "Your Sweet Voice," "You Don't Love Me," "I Wanted to Tell You." Others, however, did not make the cut including "Your Sweet Voice," "Does She Talk?" and "Don't Go."

At TheaterWorks, musical direction for "Girlfriend" is provided by Evan Zavada ( conductor, keys, vocals), backed by the orchestral team of Billy Bivona (guitar 1), Julia Packer (guitar 2, vocals), Adam Clark (bass, vocals) and Elliott Wallace (drums). Placed strategically upstage throughout the entire production, this talented group of five jam most engagingly like a band performing in someone's basement or at a dimly lit bar off a much-traveled highway in small town Americana. It's a great touch and one that works quite well in this particular production.

The music itself - direct, spirited and incredibly universal - resonates with a beating heart and comfort that Zavada fully comprehends, understands and releases with sensibility, strongness and passion. That said, there is also a  sense of humor in the songs which Zavada and company unleash most engagingly along with Sweet's intentional angst, bite, sarcasm, cheerfulness and romantic obsession. Here, nothing gets lost in the translation. Nothing is pumped up or thrown in. Nothing is out of place or repetitive. Instead, the music of "Girlfriend" unfolds naturally and unobtrusively. Musically, Zavada knows exactly what he wants, how to shape and mold things, when to pause and take a breath, how to get his cast of two pumped up and excited over the material at hand and how to heighten certain vocals with brilliantly timed harmonizing from both his two, charismatic leading men and select members of his exceptional orchestral team.

The two-act musical stars CJ Pawlikowski as Mike and David Merino as Will.
As befitting a work of this nature, both actors are fluent in the musical nature of the piece, its message, its characters, its story and its embracement of the gay lifestyle. Taking their cue from the gay characters in "Fun Home," they too play it as it is, simply reveling in the moment, enjoying their exploration of self-discovery and never once pushing for effect. What matters here are the hearts and minds of the characters, their beliefs and how things come together before the final fadeout. It's as simple as that. The duo also share an on-stage chemistry and vibe that's very natural and very, very believable.

Pawlikowski's portrayal of Mike is sharp, focused, sensitive and energetic. He's a handsome prince of sorts. But underneath, we feel his pain and insecurity as he struggles with feelings he doesn't quite understand until he befriends Will and eventually ends up becoming his boyfriend and lover. Vocally, he's a powerhouse of sorts with a rich, clear voice that embraces Sweet's strong and tenderhearted vocals, its lyrical message and its celebration of all things romantic. There's also a simmering sexiness to his song craft offset by a melodic, note-perfect delivery of warmth, good cheer and a one-on-one vocal showmanship between actor and audience.

Last seen as Angel in the national touring edition of  Jonathan Larson's "Rent," Merino richly inhabits the character of Will, the young, openly gay high school senior who pretty much rockets to the moon once he romantically connects with the ever-dreamy Mike. Here, as in "Rent," the actor takes hold of a character, makes it his own and runs with it every step of the way. His attraction to Mike is naturally conveyed and believably executed as their relationship is played out, both musically and dramatically.
Vocally, he too is blessed with strong melodic skills that allow him to engagingly connect to Sweet's music, his songs and their intended meaning.

"Girlfriend" is a vibrant, intimate, sweet-natured musical portrait of two gay men who find love following high school graduation. Under Rob Ruggiero's solid, endearing direction, it comes alive with the right passion and conviction that feels utterly real and revelatory.  Matthew Sweet's pop-tinged musical score serves the material well with its playful, lyrical weight of love and loss. The performances are nicely telegraphed by the tremendously talented duo of CJ  Pawlikowski and David Merino. And the love story that plays out over the course of 85 minutes is touching, well told and timely. So much so, it's impossible not to be moved.
Love is love - gay, straight, whatever. And "Girlfriend" celebrates that feeling with unhinged, heartwarming romanticism.

"Girlfriend" is being staged at TheaterWorks at the Wadsworth  (600 Main St., Hartford, CT), now through April 28.
For tickets for more information, call (860) 527-7838
website: theaterworkshartford.org.

Note: "Girlfriend" is the first of three productions to be staged at the Wadsworth  Antheneum while the Pearl Street location of TheaterWorks is being renovated)

Saturday, April 6, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 154, A Review: "Newsies" (Westchester Broadway Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

The oft-forgotten newspaper strike of 1899, which pitted New York City newsboys against some of the nation's most powerful print-and-press magnates, is the background fodder for "Newsies," the angst-filled Broadway musical that takes its cue from the 1992 Disney musical of the same name and adds lots more story, songs, characters and dances to its live theatrical incarnation that leaps across the stage in grand, high-kicking, exhilarating fashion.

Aglow with that same agreeably niceness and competence that made "Beauty and the Beast," "The  Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin" utterly charming, "Newsies" travels the same route with little on its mind than to entertain, cajole and bring a smile to your face. And entertain, it does.

It is fast and furious.
It is gum-drop gooey and carbonated.
It is invigorating and playful.
It makes you laugh.
It tugs at your heart strings.
It shows that there is great strength in solidarity.
It also comes gift wrapped with some Dickensian words of wisdom, some "Oliver Twist" like urchins and orphans and some Disney-tinged bad guys who get their just comeuppance right before they turn out the lights.

Coming quick on the heels of "Phantom," "Menopause" and "Ain't Misbehavin',"  "Newsies" is the perfect fit for Westchester Broadway Theatre. It puts you up close and personal with the cast, the story, the music and the dances. It is joyously resourceful with lots of recognized warmth and vulnerability. It also presents a strong argument for workplace achievement. In short, what's not to like?

The two-act musical is being staged by Mark Martino whose directorial credits include WBT's "Mamma Mia!" and "A Chorus Line," which he also choreographed. With "Newsies," Martino crafts a plucky, uplifting musical that springs to life in 3-D, pop-up storybook fashion. Things are fun and festive, intricate and dramatic, poignant and tearful and magical and nostalgic.

Working from Harvey Fierstein's lively play script, Martino paints interesting, arresting pictures about 19th century life, its populace and the news-making headlines of the times. This being a musical, there are lots of romantic cliches, stock characters, giddy dialogue, happy endings, breezy conversations, a surprise or two and important spoken line cues that drift furiously into song at the drop of a newsboy cap. No matter. Martino, in turn, has a tight reign on things. Well versed in the style, mechanics and mindset of all things Disney, he takes hold of "Newsies," pulls it apart from limb to limb and reshapes it much to his liking using both broad comic and dramatic stokes that thrust the story forward figuratively and  imaginatively.

Directorially, he doesn't take things for granted. He knows the "Newsies" story inside out. He treats every single character, large or small, with great importance. He knows when to take a breath, pause and let the material breathe from scene to scene, song to song and dance to dance. He knows how to set up a situation, block it and stage it with snap and sparkle. He also gives this production of "Newsies" a cinematic flair that complements WBT's three-quarter staging mechanics and its up close, voyeuristic viewpoint.  And when necessary, he places his actors in and around the audience in interesting, well thought out tableaux's that heighten the velocity and spirit of the actual story.

On film, "Newsies" contained 12 songs written by Alan Menken and sung by the film's stars Christian Bale, Ann-Margaret, Max Casella and the talented "Newsies" ensemble. Only six are featured in the stage adaptation: "Carrying the Banner," "Santa Fe," "King of New York," "The World Will Know," "Once and For All" and "Seize the Day." For the 2012 Broadway version, Menken, with the able assist of lyricist Jack Feldman, penned several additional songs including "Something to Believe In,"  "Watch What Happens," "The Bottom Line" and  "That's Rich." "Letter from the Refuge," written exclusively for the National Tour was added to all subsequent and future productions of the musical. It fits in perfectly.

For this production of "Newsies," the theater has enlisted the talents of Bob Bray (keyboards) as musical director, backed by the orchestral team of  Ryan Edward Wise (keyboards 2/banjo/guitar), Jay Mack (percussion),  Brian Uhl (trumpet/flugelhorn), Jordan Jancz (bass), Crispian Fordham (reeds), Steve Bleifuss (trombone) and Katie Von Braun (violin). In bringing the popular "Newsies'"score to life, Bray and company are simply masterful as they interpret the Menken/Feldman  music with apparent ease, power and delightful inspiration.

The songs themselves are serviceable to the plot and the characters who sing them. They are distinctive, melodic, playful and catchy, but not very deep. But that's, o.k.  This isn't "Les Miserables," "Evita" "Into the Woods" or "Company." This is "Newsies." Standouts include the hyperactive "King of New York," "Seize the Day." "The World Will Know" and "Santa Fe." Under Bray's tutelage, the solos, duets and ensemble numbers look terrific, sound terrific and complement they story at hand without any form of oddness or calculation. The harmonies blend together brilliantly to produce a rich, choral sound that is absolutely sensational on all levels.

On Broadway, the choreography for "Newsies" was the brainchild of Christopher Cattelli, a dance impresario who grabbed  hold of his adrenaline-pumped actor/dancers, spoon fed them enough sugar to get them Disney-high and tossed them a trunk load of cartwheels, back flips, high jumps, somersaults, pirouettes and kick lines to shake them silly and work them up into a feverish sweat. Despite obvious repetition, especially in the first act, these dances, nonetheless, commanded your attention, got you shouting and clapping madly always begging for and wanting more. Happy to oblige, Cattelli set the Nederlander Theater stage ablaze with full-throttle dance maneuvers and production numbers that sprang to life in glorious, three-dimensional Technicolor.

At Westchester Broadway Theatre, choreographer Shea Sullivan takes hold of the "Newsies" dance banner, puts her own personal stamp on things and creates a whirlwind of turn-of-the-century newsboy frenzy and excitement that's catchy, flavorful, breezy and sugar-energy high. Like Cattelli, she too goes the acrobatic route, using plenty of cartwheels, high kicks, leaps, back flips, high jumps, tap steps and somersaults which her anxious cast of actors - every shape and size imaginable - grab, accentuate and replicate in ways that recall the original 2012 Broadway musical. Amazing, yes indeed!

What's wonderful here is watching how it all comes together in three-quarter staging that actually heightens the flavor, allure and angst of the piece, its people, its fight, its cause and its voice. The dances, as envisioned by Sullivan, are trademark athletic with signature acrobatic moves, dynamic turns, ferocious kicks and specific, detailed movements that keep "Newsies" afloat for well over two hours. Enthralling and rhythmic, this is choreography that makes the most of its young talent to revelatory effect. It is flashy. It is diverse. It is celebratory. It is full of life. It is also clean, well-rehearsed and filled with eye-popping theatrics, pulse and personal expression.

In the role of trusty newsboy leader Jack Kelly, a role inspired by real-life strike leader Kid Blink (Louis Ballatt was his real name), Daniel Scott Walton is every inch as charismatic and memorable as Christian Bale was in the 1992 movie and Jeremy Jordan was in the 2012 Broadway musical adaptation of "Newsies." It's a part he plays with fervor, charm, honesty and steadfastness. He owns the part from start to finish. Vocally, his rendition of the pivotal ballad "Santa Fe" is rife with the kind of raw energy and snap that personifies his characterization. As both actor and dancer, he takes center stage with the right actor/audience mindset, vitality and bravura that's impossible to resist.

The part of the educated, upper-class news reporter Katherine Taylor is tailor-made for the lovely, beguiling Mary Beth Donahue who looks and acts as if she stepped out of the pages of a Victorian magazine, novel or turn-of-the-century Broadway musical. She sings beautifully. She acts beautifully. She is perfectly in sync with the telling of the "Newsies" story and her role in it. She also brings the right freshness, scope, drive and personality to the role and keeps it completely natural with nary a cliche or hiccup in sight. Vocally, she performs "Watch What Happens" with melodic brio and conviction. Her romantic duet "Something to Believe In," performed alongside Walton, is also expressed with vocal perfection, sweetness and honesty.

As Crutchie, the young newsboy who carries a crutch due to a leg disability, Patrick Tombs offers a memorable, endearing, heartfelt performance that's real, optimistic and refreshingly honest. His big solo number, the heart-breaking "Letter from a Refuge," is so moving and so perfectly sung, it is guaranteed to melt your heart. Young Benjamin Wohl who plays the newsboy Les is one of those young gifted performers who stands out the minute he steps out on stage to perform. And not just because he's a kid. As actor, singer and dancer, he possesses that raw, real energy that comes from within and can't be taught, bought or faked. He's the real deal. With talent like his, he will go far, very far. And Broadway is only a phone call away.

Other fine performances come from Galyana Castillo as Medda Larkin, Stuart Marland as Joseph Pulitizer, Alec Cohen as Davy and Bruce Crilly as Governor Roosevelt.

"Newsies" is a lively, big-hearted musical that pays homage to a youth-led revolution, the rag-tag  children and teenagers who pushed newspapers across New York City and its boroughs, the strike that made front page news and the demand for equality and justice that today, is more relevant than ever.
Combined with firecracker choreography and cheerful, optimistic direction, "Newsies" hits hard in grand, traditional Disney style. The entire cast is an absolute joy to watch. The music and the dances make them stand out at every angle, twist and turn. The show itself is also surprisingly sweet as it carries the Disney banner gallantly right through to the big finish for a rousing, well-intentioned finale of candy-coated floss, choreographic dazzle and significant color. And that in itself, is something well worth celebrating.

Photos of "Newsies" by John Vecchiolla 

"Newsies" is being staged at Westchester Broaday Theatre (1 Broadway Plaza, Elmsford, NY), now through May 26.
For tickets or more information, call (914) 592-2222.
website: broadwaytheatre.com

Friday, April 5, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 153, A Review: "Cabaret" (Music Theatre of Connecticut)

By James V. Ruocco

Reprising the grunge, the turbulence, the sex, the angst and the soul of Kander and Ebb's edgy classic American musical "Cabaret," Music Theatre of Connecticut strikes the right chord - on every level- as its dutifully exposes the dangers, the shock and the insidious political climate of pre-war Berlin during the Hitler regime in Germany. The way this production inches forward from act to act and builds toward its fervid, scorching conclusion is so emotionally draining, it's impossible not to be moved, tearful or just plain stunned and silenced by it all.

Then again, that's the point isn't it?
No sugar coating, here.
Just real people, real stories, real life, set to music.

The Players:

Eric Scott Kincaid as the Emcee.
Desiree Davar as Sally Bowles.
Anne Kanengeiser as Fraulein Schneider.
Jim Schilling as Herr Schultz.
Nicolas Dromard as Cliff Bradshaw.
Andrew Foote as Ernst Lugwig.
Hillary Ekwall as Fraulein Kost.
Alex Drost as Man 1.
Tony Conaty as Man 2

All nine are equally strong in their own right, serving as the musical's emotional voice in a world where illusion and fantasy are about to be stripped naked and bare. And life, as they know it, is going to completely disappear forever.

Since its Broadway debut in 1966, the musical score for "Cabaret" by Kander and Ebb has been changed, altered, rewritten and revised to include original songs from the 1972 film adaptation or new ones that were introduced in subsequent incarnations including the 1993 London revival by Sam Mendes and his subsequent 1998 production on Broadway with Natasha Richardson as Sally Bowles. This edition takes its cue from the original Broadway version but deletes "Meeskite" and "The Telephone Song" and adds "Maybe This Time" from the original motion picture and the Mendes revival along with "I Don't Care Much" from the 1987 Broadway production and the 1998 Broadway version, eerily sung by Alan Cumming. "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" is also reworked at MTC to reflect the song's strong Nazi overtones, which in this version, are an indication of the atrocities and horrors awaiting both Jews and homosexuals. The effect is as numbing as it was in the 1972 motion picture, directed by Bob Fosse.

Elsewhere, this "Cabaret" wisely preserves most of the music from the original Broadway production that starred Jill Haworth, Lotte Lenya, Joel Grey, Bert Convy, Edward Winter and Peg Murray. In short: "Willkommen," "So What?" "Don't Tell Mama," "Perfectly Marvelous," "Two Ladies," "It Couldn't Please Me More (A Pineapple)," "Why Should I Wake Up?" "Sitting Pretty," "Money," "Married," "If You Could See Her," "Cabaret" and "Willkommen (Reprise)"

Musical direction for "Cabaret" has fallen into the more than capable hands of Thomas Conroy (on keyboard) with the able assist of Bob Carlson (trombone), Gary Ruggiero (reeds), Joe Sinaguglia (bass) and Chris Johnson (drums). What's remarkable here is Conroy's smart, invigorating take on the Kander and Ebb musical score and its seductive, mindful, throbbing evolution through the "Cabaret" story. Yes, we know the music. Yes, we know the lyrics. Yes, we know who sings what and when? And yes, we know the intended meaning and conceit of the entire score that Kander and Ebb fought so hard to preserve.

Nonetheless, with Conroy, front and center, the "Cabaret" musical score achieves a thrilling, edgy passion and pulse that takes it to an entirely new level of musical theatre. Here, every song achieves the attitude, spirit, angst, humor and frankness of Kander and Ebb's creative mindset. Things unfold with such a  fiery and remarkable freshness, you'd think this was your first time hearing familiar showstoppers like "Cabaret," "Willkommen" and "If You Could See Her." Here, nothing is taken for granted. Nothing is overplayed. Nothing is out of place. It all resounds with the sting, bite and melodrama that "Cabaret" is famous for.

If you're seen the Broadway production, the film adaptation, the Mendes' version or the national tour, this "Cabaret," as envisioned by Kevin Connors, finds new ways to seduce and entice you (there's plenty of skin, a wise and important move on Connors' part), push you over the edge, make you blush and squirm, kick you in the ass, drop your panties or pull you pants down starting with the zipper. That said, it unfolds in a whole new light that peels back the juicy layers of Joe Masteroff's play script and thus, openly exposes the grimy yet inviting allure of pre-war Berlin, its decadent populace and its seedy, after hours clubs where boy meets girl or boy meets boy and anything can (and does) happen once the lights go out.

What's special about this production is that Connors doesn't whitewash or censor anything. He tells it like it is. He adds real dimension and nuance to every one of the principal and supporting characters. He allows each and every one of them to bare their souls openly in a changing world that will eventually rip them apart and toss them in the gutter. He doesn't glamorize or underplay the angst, swagger or brutality of the material. He also relies on John Van Druten's "I Am a Camera" and Christopher Isherword's "Berlin Stories" for additional shading and inspiration.

Here, as in "Jekyll & Hyde" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," Connors takes chances and runs wildly with them. He loves theater. He loves actors. He loves plays. He loves musicals. He loves directing. Yet nothing is by the book or by the numbers and that's exactly what keeps him at the top of his game. This is "Cabaret," not Disney Theme Park. So yes, things are smutty, dirty, queer, sensational and wicked. This is Berlin, circa the 1930's. So what you get are people fighting for their life, fighting for survival and fighting for a living, no matter the cost. It's all very upfront and personal, marked by real compassion via songs, dances, musical, dialogue and lyrics. Things are also candid and light, confrontational and predatory and mysterious and expressionistic, depending on the situation. No matter. Connors knows exactly what he's doing and the end result, as always, is both illuminating and fulfilling.

As "Cabaret's" Master of Ceremonies, Eric Scott Kincaid welcomes us into the world of decadent Berlin, mischievously, eerily and seductively. He dazzles. He shines. He manipulates. He fascinates. It's a showstopping performance that mixes eroticism, wit, gayness and condemnation most agreeably. Musically, his "Willkommen" has bite and decadent vitality. "If You Could See Her" is both amusingly and sardonically portrayed, complete with a dancing gorilla in pink costuming. "I Don't Care Much," which he sings like a dying prisoner awaiting execution, is shivering, commanding and definitely worth an encore or two.

In the plum role of Sally Bowles, Desiree Davar (a Liza Minnelli/ Patti LuPone lookalike) offers a robust, free-spirited, kinky portrayal of the Kit Kat Klub's naughty, promiscious singer and party girl, which she plays and sings ("Don't Tell Mama," "Maybe This Time," "Cabaret," for example) with gleeful, unpredictible, celebrated abandon. But when she drops her guard, most noticeably in Act II, we see a very frightened woman, who, despite illusions of grandeur, is very aware of what is happening around her and how she may (and can) be swallowed up whole. Vocally, she's a powerhouse, offering her own, personal, dynamic take on "Cabaret's" most celebrated songs.

Would-be American writer Cliff Bradshaw, as portrayed by Nicolas Dromard, is dashing, handsome, polished and heartfelt. His pure, vibrant rendition of "Why Should I Wake Up?" which oddly is often  cut from other revivals of "Cabaret," is left intact for this incarnation. It is a genuine showstopper, performed with playful resonance and passion. Andrew Foote, last seen as Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde in MTC's thrilling production of "Jekyll & Hyde" offers an honest, full-bodied,  portrayal of Ernst Ludwig, a German citizen who offers Cliff work smuggling currency in and out of Paris. He too is in fine voice and completely in control of his character and his every-changing role within the musical.

Jim Schilling, in the role of Jewish shopkeeper Herr Schultz, a part made famous by Jack Gilford in the original Broadway production of "Cabaret," offers a warm, sincere and compassionate portrayal of the iconic character that is every bit as good, if not better than Gilford's. He is well matched opposite Anne Kanengeiser who plays his love interest Fraulein Schneider, the German landlady who agrees to become his wife. Their duets "It Couldn't Please Me More (A Pineapple)" and "Married" are pitch-perfect and sung with real, sweet-tinged emotion. Much later, Kanengeiser delivers the potent and stirring "What Would You Do?" a song about choices, desperation, survival and life's deafening blows. It is magnificent.

As Fraulein Kost, Hillary Ekwall is saucy, sexy and appealing, which is exactly what the part calls  for. But underneath, the actress deftly exposes the character's desperation, pain and fight for survival in the wake of a troubled tomorrow. Alex Drost and Tony Conaty, as Man 1 and Man 2, assume a variety of different roles from Kit Kat Klub dancers to soldiers and conductors, etc. They are totally in sync with the provocative and bold conceit that is "Cabaret." And when they perform mostly with their shirts off, they serve as eye candy for both the excited women in the audience and the gay men as well. This being "Cabaret," that is meant as the highest compliment.

Edgy, enticing and enthralling, "Cabaret" is a whirlwind of musical theatre that reflects the turbulent climate of the times with bone-chilling effect. As seen through the eyes of director Kevin Connors, it is fresh, brazen and relevant. The Kander and Ebb score is thrilling at every single turn. The cast - every one of them - are outstanding. And the ending will leave you broken, the way its creators and Connors intended.

"Cabaret" is being staged at Music Theatre of Connecticut (509 Westport Ave., Norwalk, CT), now through April 14.
For tickets for more information, call (203) 454-3883
website: musictheatreofct.com

Thursday, April 4, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 152, A Review: "Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense" (Hartford Stage)

By James V. Ruocco

In "Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense," the wildly dashing and charismatic Bertie Wooster decides to use the intimate, inviting environs of Hartford Stage to perform his one-man show about his recent comic misadventures as Totleigh Towers.
But, sadly, there are hiccups, lots of them.

The show, of course, is not ready. Nothing has gone to plan. Nothing has been rehearsed. And to his horror, there's a full house of theatergoers seated in the darkness, anxiously awaiting to be entertained.
Bloody hell, what's a man to to do?

This being the brainchild of P.G. Wodehouse (as envisioned for the stage by the Goodale Brothers), it's an easy fix. With the help of his trusty valet Jeeves and his equally dependable butler Seppings (each playing a variety of roles), Wooster saves Hartford Stage from ruin (no refunds at the box office for an unperformed play, that is) and puts on the show of a lifetime. And what a show, it is.

Infectiously silly.
A savvy, observant rip-tickler.
Wildly choreographed.
A masterpiece of astonishing intricacy.
Perfectly timed to the split second.

"Perfect Nonsense" delivers, delivers and delivers.
This being an American production....not an Englishman is sight except for the director...the two-act comedy thrusts farcical comedy into high gear, ingeniously reproducing the accents, manners, posturing and expressions of the Edwardian upper class and their servants, their simultaneously wild and woolly shenanigans, their droll, mannered line delivery and lastly, the British conceit of farce in the style and send up from whence it came.

Staging "Perfect Nonsense," director Sean Foley goes the specialized route of London's Mischief Theatre, the award-winning British comedy troupe responsible for "The Play That Goes Wrong," "The Comedy About a Bank Robbery," "Lights! Camera! Improvise!" and "Peter Pan Goes Wrong."
And that is meant as the highest complement to the British-born Foley whose West End credits include "Pinter's People," "A Mad World, My Masters," "The Ladykillers," "Ben-Hur," "What the Butler Saw" and "Perfect Nonsense" at the Duke of York's Theatre starring Matthew MacFadyen,  Stephan Mangan and Mark Hadfield.

For anyone who has seen "Perfect Nonsense" before, "The Play That Goes Wrong" or "Noises Off," farce, for example, is not that easy to pull off - not by a long shot. It requires the right cast, the right director and the right comic mindset for its non-stop flights of sheer, unadulterated lunacy. One wrong move. One wrong cue. One wrong mistimed line of dialogue and it's over, just like that.

At Hartford Stage, Foley is completely in his element. It's obvious just seconds into "Perfect Nonsense." It's obvious ten minutes into "Perfect Nonsense." It's obvious at the end of Act I. It's obvious at the start of Act II. It's obvious right through to the end of Act II. This is grand, uproarious farce - British style - that works hard (very hard) to entertain, to cajole, to delight, to stick it to you, to knock you on your bloomin' ass and get you to laugh out loud over and over and over. Foley succeeds swimmingly.

As director, Foley mounts a farce in the fine tradition of West End slapstick where lines are purposely dropped, actors break character, costumes don't cooperate, props are misused, plot lines shudder into chaos, technical malfunctions ensue, the fourth wall between actor and audience is abandoned and on-the-spot improvisation is sometimes necessary.

What makes "Perfect Nonsense" so much fun is that its dizzying dash is sustained throughout as is its  slaphappy, varying degrees of craziness and personal disasters, its banana peel embarrassment, its mounting mayhem, its no-fault nonsense and its wickedly timed schadenfreude. No matter where you look or what ensues, Foley never once lets anyone see the wheels turning, the actor's pausing to reflect their next move or the well-oiled staging maneuvers and mechanics he creates showing any signs of wear and tear from performance to performance. And therein, lies the show's strength and comic lifeline.

Donning the tailcoats of everyone's favorite English gentleman, Chandler Williams is classy, droll, charming, amusing and poised perfectly. He's also marvelously in sync with Wodehouse's conceit for the character of Bertie Wooster, which he gets exactly right at every twist, corner, stop-and-go turn that "Perfect Nonsense" throws at him. He's American, yes, but he's so English in every way imaginable, one wonders if maybe was was an Englishman in another lifetime, No matter, he brilliantly manages the show's physical and farcical mechanics, its lofty tricks and double takes, its lucrative, but corny jokes, its class oriented rituals and its unflappable actor/audience strategies and flourishes.

As Jeeves and Seppings, Arnie Burton and Eddie Korbich are asked to play several different roles, both male and female, which they do so most agreeably. As "Perfect Nonsense" evolves, they manage their share of the show's biggest laughs, switching costumes swiftly and imaginatively (one in fact, gets to argue with himself from left two right playing two different characters), diving headfirst into the play's private jokes, tomfoolery and featured craziness, its tangled disasters and its Wodehouse-flavored dialogue. They do it ever so engagingly. And get this, they too are American, not British.

With "Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense," Hartford Stage serves up a very saucy, tasty and dishy farce, chock full of well-orchestrated zest, irony, slapstick, double entendres, visual gags and pratfalls. The laughs are big and loud. The direction is individually expressive. The performances - all three- merge into complete triumph. And the show itself is one to savor from top to bottom and in between with its high farce relish dictated from the splendid, enjoyable P.G. Wodehouse comic catalog.

P.S: Wait till you meet the show's 8' 6" character, Roderick Spode, the leader of London's fictional fascist group "The Black Spots." You'll go absolutely bonkers watching him try to make entrances and exits through the set's doorways. There's also some cheeky costume tricks by designer Alice Powers that heighten the merriment. 

"Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense" is being performed at Hartford Stage (50 Church St., Hartford, CT), now through April 20.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-5151.
website: hartfordstage.org

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 151, A Review: "An Iliad" (Long Wharf Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

"An Iliad," based on Homer's poetic, mythological glimpse of the Trojan War's tenth year of battle, is pure, invigorating theater of the highest order. It's something you'd find at New York's Public Theater, the Donmar Warehouse in London's West End  or a small, inviting actor/studio space at New York University's prestigious Tisch School of Drama.


This is a bold, deeply satisfying work of death, destruction and survival that gives a majestic pulse to the everyday mortals and gods who popular Homer's "Iliad." It is also a perfect fit for Long Wharf's ongoing, distinguished commitment to real, raw, energetic theater, the kind that raises the bar on acting and provides tasty fodder for its thirsty, appreciative theater-oriented crowd anxious for something new and completely different.

Written by Dennis O'Hare and Lisa Peterson, this adaptation is an "Iliad" of sorts, that takes its cue from Homer's epic poem, its potent translation by Robert Fagles and one of many possibly different "Iliad" stories. It covers similar terrain (war is war, but in a minimalist context, that is ), but at times, it is distinctly modern or classic (contemporary language/ancient Greek verse), in spirit, tone, conversation and execution. No matter. It is an exquisite elegy on all levels that speaks directly to its audience while portraying the collateral damages of war in graphic detail, its unrelenting suffering and its unified fight for survival.

"An Iliad" is being staged by Whitney White, a fine, tremendously talented director whose credits include "What to Send Up When It Goes Down," "Jump," "This Land Was Made," Othello" and "Macbeth in Stride." Here, she crafts a vibrant, active and commanding work rife with inspiration, empathy, pulse and definitive immersion.

Telling the tale of "An Iliad" through the eyes of one main actor and much later, a supporting one, White relies on her cast of two to follow the recurring themes of a Greek tragedy by throwing themselves directly into the spotlight and basking in the ripe vocal deliveries and many character turns set forth by its creators. As "An Iliad' evolves, it elicits the push-pull mechanics and choices of the playwright's accessible language, which, as mentioned earlier, is both modern and traditionally Greek. It's a feat that requires steadfast precision and dedication from all parties and one that White accomplishes with immediacy, boldness and omniscient individuality.

That said, White still has her work cut out her her. Clocking in at an unbroken 1 hour and 32 minutes, "An Iliad' must evolve with the necessary tension, wit and fiery passion set forth by Homer's original work with absolutely no lull in the proceedings. It must also be allowed to move and breathe in ways that are gripping, dramatic and inspirational. One false move, jolt, hiccup or abrupt stop and you have a problem, a major one.

White, clever auteur that she is, never once lets that happen. Staging "An Iliad," she always knows what buttons to push, what to emphasize or downplay, when and how to shift gears in a  millisecond, how to move her actors freely about, when to prompt a light cue, a music cue, a sound cue or a blackout, how to connect and reconnect with the audience,  how to create that special, unbroken bond with every theatergoer and how to hold each and every one of them in the palm of her hands as the "Iliad" story moves forward toward its justifiable conclusion.

The beauty here, is seeing how it all comes together. Working from Denis O' Hare and Lisa Peterson's marvelously constructed play script, White brings a modernistic fidelity and zest to her storytelling techniques. This contemporaneity heightens the play's pivotal dramatic moments, its frequent flights of humor, its narrative luster and its potent mix of ill-fated warriors, battles, emotional tractions, secrets, disjunctions, convoluted intersections and near-purple melodrama. By turns deeply human, honest and provocative, White ignites the play's emotions, its urgency and its complexity with quivering, lofty results. And therein, lies the magic that is "An Iliad."

To bring "An Iliad" to life most effectively, an actor of tremendous skill, mindset and gravitas is requited. In Rachel Christopher, White has found the ideal actress to translate the carnage and ravages of war, the litany of battle witnessed through the different millenniums, the parallels, the distinctions, the participants, the differences, the enslavement and the vengeance. The actress must also portray, become and inhabit the bodies of several "Iliad" characters.
They are:
Agamemnon, the King of Mycenae and leader of the Achaean army.
Hector, the son of King Priam and Queen Hecuba and the mightiest warrior in the Trojan army.
Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, stolen from her husband Menelaus and brought to Troy by the narcissistic Paris.
Priam, the King of Troy and father to fifty Trojan warriors including Paris and Hector.
Andromache, Hector's devoted and loving wife.who begs him to withdraw from the war.
Achilles, the headstrong champion of the Greek armies who commands the Myrmidons soldiers and moves them from his homeland in Phthia in Greece.
Petroclus, Achilles' beloved friend, advisor and companion.
Paris, the handsome, self-centered, spoiled son of Priam and Hecuba and brother of Hector.
Hermes, the messenger of the gods who takes Priam to his enemy's camp.

The artistry here, and one that allows Christopher to move from character to character in a single moment, is her tight, natural reign on the voices, the body language, the expressions, the reactions, the line delivery and the movements of the characters she is asked to portray. No two characters are alike and the majority of them spring to life without a single costume change. And that, of course, is the invigorating lifeline that is "An Iliad."

Christopher, center stage, mesmerizes throughout. As an actor, she is in full control. She gets the "Iliad." She understands the "Iliad." She knows how to perform it and perform it well. The  memorization itself, which shifts gears rapidly and continually with absolutely no warning whatsoever is conveyed with dazzling dynamism and individuality to warrant ten standing ovations. And the overall effect of Christopher's work is one you'll be talking about for weeks to come.

As the Poet's Muse, the handsome, golden-haired Zdenko Martin, on electric guitar, remains in the sidelines, so to speak, playing the show's evocative music precisely on cue and ever so passionately. Halfway through "An Iliad," he gets some dialogue of his own, which he delivers with the regulated intensity and passion indicated by the script and nurtured by White's steadfast direction.

Technically, "An Iliad' shines. Its soaring ode to violence, destruction, war and humanity is smartly reflective in Daniel Soule's splendid, atmospheric set design which brings an out-of-world aura to the piece, reminiscent of BBC One's "Doctor Who," Homer's Trojan War, Greek mythology itself and the NASA space program. It is moody, evocative and urgent, offset by Kate McGee's edgy light design, Lee Kinney's eerie, well-intentioned sound cues and White and Zdenko Martin's intense, very involved music.

At Long Wharf, "An Iliad" sprawls across the floor of the Stage II Theatre with a modern relevance that does justice to Homer's ancient Greek epic poem about the final weeks of the Trojan War and the Greek siege of Troy after a monumental ten-year battle. Epic, ambitious and very handsomely staged, this production echoes the actor-audience inspiration found at New York and London-based drama schools and universities, the avant-garde complexity of the live performance and those wonderful moments where the lights go out and the theatergoer sits on the edge of his or her seat  riveted by the on-stage events witnessed in the darkness. It's a ritual of the whole that one savors and applauds in the moment - and long thereafter.

"An Iliad" is being staged at Long Wharf Theatre (222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, CT), now through April 14.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 787-4282.
website: longwharf.org

Monday, April 1, 2019

From the Desk of Jim, R, Take 2, Column 150, A Review: "If We Were Birds" (Connecticut Repertory Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

Megan Casagrande
Carly Polistina
Matthew Antoci
Aiden Marchetti
Pearl Matteson
Eilis Garcia
Elizabeth Jebran
Willow Giannotti-Garlinghouse
Adrianna Simmons
Thalia Eddyblouin

This talented ensemble of ten ...all drama students at U-Conn's School of Dramatic Arts... are the true stars of  "If We Were Birds," Erin Shields' empowering character study of war, revenge, tragedy, heroism, madness, misfortune and rage that uses Ovid's myth "Procne, Philomela and Tereus" (Book VI of "Metamorphoses")  as its emotional centerpiece.


Shields' colorful canvas, an awe-inspiring mix of Greek myth, prophetically drawn voices, reality-twisting experiences and oppressive, crazed agenda, produces a contrapuntal freshness from the outset of this hypnotic production that smartly mixes political subjugation and the brutalities inflicted on women through war using both free-form verse and modern vernacular dialogue. This is theater: real theater. It's the kind of intriguing, avant-garde work that every drama student welcomes, every audience member cheers and every impassioned director wants to envelop. It is also one of those rare, full-bodied dramatic pieces that is both immediate and timely. Not to mention, chilling. 

The core story of "If We Were Birds" resonates with profound truths, horrific conflicts, violence, shocking twists and surprises and raw, heavy-handed commentary. Tereus, a dashing, handsome warrior-king, rapes his sister-in-law Philomela, cuts out her tongue and holds her captive so that she will not reveal the horrible facts of their violent, traumatic coupling. As the story unfolds, he remains sexually enticed and enamored by  his beautiful wife Procne, but once she finds out about her husband's nasty transgressions, she seeks revenge, kills their young son Itys and serves the boy to him for dinner in various, specially prepared delicacies.
A chorus of five women, each a victim of rape and male violence (drawn from real-life 20th century atrocities), also populate the piece, sharing their personal thoughts and tragedies as the story unfolds. They also comment on the pending action at hand with authoritative flourish.

Staging "If We Were Birds," director Helene Kvale ("Eurydice," "The Skin of Our Teeth," "Pride and Prejudice") crafts an outstanding, inventive drama that is puzzling, profound, sexual and wonderfully watchable. So much so that it's impossible to look away for a single second for fear of missing something important and integral to her storytelling and harrowing reenactment of Erin Shields' deeply affecting study.

In every respect, this is an outstanding production. Kvale has that sort of magic touch and furious imagination when it comes to staging this type of colorful presentation. It's a challenge she accepts with immediate relish. She takes hold of it, shapes it, molds it, works it, plays with it and gets it feverishly spruced up to her liking. There are plenty of dramatic bits, yes. But "If We Were Birds" also comes packaged with various, carefully-constructed comic moments and witty anachronisms that Kvale orchestrates with purpose and wicked aplomb. She succeeds swimmingly.

Directorially, "If We Were Birds" is reenacted and paced with a visionary zest and vigor that's pummeled and pushed to the max (simulated sex acts, nipple sucking, and pleasurable masturbation with both hands and stage props, for example), offering plenty of surprise, conflict and tension for both actor and audience. It slaps us in the face. It kicks us in the ass. It works us up into a fevered sweat. It gets the pulses racing. It ignites our emotions. It delights. It leaves us hungry for more. And with Kvale at the helm, we eagerly go along for the ride.

The way this director ignites "If We Were Birds," (one could only imagine what she could do with Lorca's "The House of Bernarda Alba," which would be perfect as her next project at U-Conn), it's impossible not to be swept up in the drama created by the actors themselves. The cast, restless, excited, fascinating and capricious, takes hold of the material, swallows it whole and moves wildly and sensually about the Studio Theatre stage with plenty of unleashed passion as they make perfect sense of the tragedies that unfold. What's wonderful about all ten of them is that no matter what they do, be it large, small, in between or just simply standing in the sidelines reacting and observing, they do it ever so well.
As actors, they are an extraordinary team, completely in sync with the insistent pathos, absurdity and sexuality that Kvale hands them. They understand the material. They get the material. They connect with the material. They love the material. They understand their role in the story and its rapid evolution. They loose themselves in the drama of the piece without ever once breaking character. They take direction well. They take chances. They also love being on stage performing before a live audience. And though "If We Were Birds" is rife with plenty of creative input and direction by Kvale, every actor on stage moves about freely and effortlessly without the slightest hint of calculation or hesitation. And that, in turn, is what makes this production soar.

The creative team for "If We Were Birds" work their necessary magic effectively through bold, colorful and unique choices that are artistic, powerful and dazzlingly effective. They are Casey Lampert (set design), Mack Gauthier (sound design), Allison Zerio (lighting design) and Taowen Pan (costume design).

Brought to life by an exceptionally talented group of University of Connecticut Dramatic Arts students, "If We Were Birds" is an exciting, dynamic, twisty drama that will push you over the edge, grab you by the throat, leave you emotionally drained and finally, undeniably riveted by its frightening, sexually overt dystopia. It is an amazing piece of theater, superbly crafted by Helene Kvale, a director who sets the Studio Theatre ablaze with fiery passion, wit and ambition. And in doing so, thus, creates a  thrillingly alive work, chock full of one amazing moment after another that is entirely gripping for an unbroken 1 hour and 20 minutes. Bravo!

"If We Were Birds" is being staged by Connecticut Repertory Theatre (Studio Theatre, 820 Bolton Rd., Storrs, CT), now through April 7.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 486-2113.
website: crt.uconn.edu.