Tuesday, July 30, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 186, A Review: "Gypsy" (Castle Craig Players)

By James V. Ruocco

"I made you! And do you wanna know why? You wanna know what I did it for? Because I was born too soon and started too late, that's why!
(Rose "Gypsy")

You don't stage "Gypsy" - the 1959 musical inspired by the memoirs of the real-life burlesque star - without a Rose Hovick, a Gypsy Rose Lee, a Dainty June and a Herbie that is every bit as sensational as the material itself.
With a dash of glitter, a follow spot and enough hubris to taunt, tease and cajole, Castle Craig Players does exactly that with its edgy, unflinching, dazzling tale of a gusty stage mom who thrusts her children into the spotlight completely unaware that the entertainment world has changed and what she's peddling doesn't necessarily work anymore.

In this revival, Rose - blinded by the fact that time has marched on - plunges forward insisting dreams are meant to be followed, no matter how big or how small as long as her children become stars. That's STAR, of course, in bold, capital letters.

Loosely based on the early life of  Rose Thompson Hovick, Gypsy Rose Lee and June Havoc as they roamed the country "like gypsies" in search of fame and fortune along the vaudeville circuit of America, "Gypsy" takes it cue from Arthur Laurents' innovative blueprint and emerges a straight-up tale of tragedy and success, chock full of show biz allure, ambition, heartache and struggle,.


This "Gypsy" is unmissable entertainment that wisely disregards quaint and cute in favor of something more real, more brazen and more honest. It's still the same show that once starred Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, Betty Buckley and Imelda Staunton, among others. It's just been re-imagined in a more blistering, truthful light.

At Castle Craig, Ian Galligan has staged several musicals including "Company," "Hello, Dolly!" "Grey Gardens," "The Winter Wonderettes," "Cabaret," "The Sound of Music" and "The Drowsy Chaperone." An actor as well, Galligan brings a whirlwind angst and restlessness to his "Gypsy" along with a remarkable sense of style, spirit and chutzpah that drives the musical forward with an irresistible fizz and snap that befits the anticipatory excitement of the show itself, its brilliant music and its colorful, familiar characters.

As director, he goes the "Follies" route with a cleverly orchestrated opening number that finds the adult Gypsy Rose Lee remembering her life with memories that not only bring her face to face with her younger self (a very powerful moment, indeed) but time marching through the years, framed by the music of the show's exhilarating "Overture." It's a creative conceit that works splendidly under Galligan's tutelage and one that is marked by real, raw theatrical savvy, intuition and scrapbook determinations and delusions. It also thrusts the audience head first into the story that follows.

"Gypsy," by all accounts, is a big, splashy musical.
But Galligan, is never once daunted by the show's size. Given Castle Craig's small, intimate space, he crafts a very personal piece, marked by a very close association between actor and audience. He uses only minimal scenery and set pieces and concentrates instead on the dynamics of the story, the characters, the dialogue and the show's recurring themes and story arcs. This interpretation is also fueled with a finely calibrated appeal, vision, darkness and confidence that serves the material well. And the ending - "Rose's Turn" - is more than just a showstopper for the show's leading lady. Galligan turns it into an angst-ridden soliloquy of guilt, grandeur and deception about a star stuck mom who has lost the plot, lost her children and is fighting for a comeback. Wow! Yes, indeed.

With music by Jule Style and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the musical score for "Gypsy" tears through one classic song after another with plenty of showstoppers along the way. The songbook itself includes 18 musical numbers. They are "May We Entertain You," "Some People," "Some People (Reprise)," "Small World," "Baby June and Her Newsboys," "Mr. Goldstone, I Love You," "Little Lamb," "You'll Never Get Away From Me," "Dainty June and her Farmboys," "Broadway," "If Momma Was Married," "All I Need Now Is the Girl," "Everything's Coming Up Roses," "Madame Roses Toreadorables," "Together, Wherever We Go," "You Gotta Get a Gimmick," "Let Me Entertain You" and Rose's Turn."

Sondheim's lyrics - witty, elegant, driven, intricate - mixed magnificently with Styne's music - melodic, unpretentious, tuneful - give "Gypsy" its sonic, rhythmic life. Musical director Chris Coffey makes "Gypsy's" breezy and expressive demands seem easy as he and his six-member band tackle the invigorating score with enthusement, swagger, persuasiveness and 1950's Broadway melodrama. It's music making shaped with a mercurial freshness and melancholy with energy and love in every bar.

Making her Castle Craig Players debut as choreographer, Erin Coffey delivers inspired, upbeat, smart choreographic movements, patterns and couplings reflective of Broadway's golden age. With musical numbers that include "Dainty June and Her Newsboys," "Broadway," "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" and "All I Need Now Is the Girl," she transports her audience back in time to the forgotten vaudeville and burlesque houses of yesteryear, showing an extensive, emotional range of camp, swirl, dazzle, charm and dynamic. All of this is done with an honesty and justice that complements the "Gypsy" story, its music and libretto and its manically driven tale of thwarted ambitions, overnight success and faded dreams.

It's the killer role of the American Broadway musical and Lauren Linn, as the power-hungry, big-voiced Rose Thompson Hovick, inhabits the part with the snap, snarl, snare and delusional gusto it demands from the very first moment she shouts "Sing out, Louise, sing out" from the back of the theater and starts walking up the aisle and onto the stage balking at her eldest daughter's terrible audition pushing everyone out of her way and thrusting Baby June, the talented one, into the spotlight so that one day she can headline the Orpheum Circuit. It's one of those theatrical moments that theatergoers crave and one that Linn essays like a crazed stage mother ("a brassy virago," says the real June Havoc) about to explode or cut the throat of anyone who denies access to the gateways of her show business dreams.
Bold, brazen and often terrifying, this role is a hurricane of desperation and pathos with Linn developing and reproducing it, channeling the right savvy, dynamic and triumph it demands.

Then, there's the music. Linn's vocal skill is such where she can brassily belt out a song and sing it loudly and incredibly - the way it was meant to be performed - without shattering a champagne glass or two. At the same time, she can transition to soft, tender-hearted vocal tones that come alive with intimate, effortless conviction. Here, she gets eight different songs, including "Everything's Coming Up Roses" "Small World," "Rose's Turn" and "You'll Never Get Away From Me." Whatever the number, she makes the audience feel what Rose is going through, splendidly conveying the intended meaning behind every lyric.

In the role of Rose's daughter Louise, the young girl who eventually becomes the celebrated Gypsy Rose Lee, Voni Kengla naturally charts the character's growth from untalented child star and shy teenager to egomaniacal burlesque queen with the tremendous passion, conviction, mindset and allure the part calls for. It's a role that is the centerpiece of the musical and one the actress plays in an exhilarating, believable fashion as the "Gypsy" story unravels and entertains, musically and dramatically. Vocally, she brings truth, resonance and spark to her many vocals which include "Little Lamb," "Let Me Entertain You," "Together, Wherever, We Go" and "If Momma Was Married," her playful duet with Dainty June about a fantasy life with a mother who gave us show business for marriage.

The plum role of Dainty June, the young vaudeville star who would grow up to become stage and screen star June Havoc is played in this production by the tremendously talented Chelsea Dacey whose portrayal of this iconic character is as powerful as Ann Jillian's was in the 1962 film adaptation, Kate Reinders in the 2003 Broadway revival and Leigh Ann Larkin in the 2008 incarnation that cast Patti LuPone as Rose. What's remarkable about Dacey's work here is that she finds new ways to interpret and express the character adding more color, more nuance, more shading and more personality to this important part. This June is sweet and bubbly on the surface, but underneath she knows that her mother's showbiz ideas are terrible, the act she is forced to perform in is hideous and if she doesn't pack her bags and run - escape that is - she's going to be swallowed up whole. It's a conceit the actress chillingly and achingly conveys (she channels the real-life June Havoc's true feelings about show biz and the "Gypsy" story) until, for story purposes, she elopes with a male dancer from her act.

Dacey also has the vocal chops to bring Broadway style range and delivery to June's musical numbers, which include "If Momma Was Married," "Dainty June and Her Newsboys" and "Broadway." Here, as in the recent "The Winter Wonderettes," also performed at Castle Craig, the actress/singer knows how to achieve the maximum value of the material she is asked to perform, how to hold the audience in the palm of her hand and how to make it real and natural in the truest sense. That fiercely personal perspective is impossible to resist.

Often in productions of "Gypsy," the character of Herbie, Rose's lover and vaudeville act agent for her children, either gets lost in the translation or is wrong played as a second banana. Not so at Castle Craig. Bill Rodman charts Herbie's role in the "Gypsy" story with charm, charisma, assured support and admirable skill. He's not only the best Herbie community theater has seen in the last decade or two, but one that is extremely likeable and seasoned game for Lauren Linn's forceful Rose Hovick. Vocally he's in fine voice, most evident in "Small World" and "You'll Never Get Away From Me," (his duets with Rose) and the thoroughly engaging "Together, Wherever Me Go," performed alongside Rose and Louise.

Lisa DeAngelis, last seen in The Orange Player's enjoyable revival of Neil Simon's "The Dinner Party" is cast in the dual roles of Ms. Cratchitt  and burlesque performer Electra. As Ms. Cratchitt, an important show business secretary as Grantzigler's Palace who loathes small-time vaudeville acts with children and hates pushy stage mothers, DeAngelis shifts amusingly between contempt and outspokenness, then returns in Act II for yet another comic go-round as a no-talented stripper whose gimmick is flashing lightbulbs. She excels at both and musically, gets to strut her stuff in the showstopping "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" with Mazeppa and Tessie Tura, two burlesque queens played with dizzying crassness and diva-like naughtiness by the very talented Marsha Howard Karp and Kathy Wade.

It's a musical that will never go out of style. And "Gypsy," Ian Galligan's engaging incarnation of this classic showbiz tale about stardom and its addictive delusions of grandeur, brims with charm, wit, menace and pathos. The music has the power to still thrill and surprise. The performances are amazingly committed. And at a time when everyone else seems to be doing "Mamma Mia!" "Cabaret," "Into the Woods" and "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," this oft-told tale of a mother born into the wrong generation, is a very welcome, inviting diversion.

"Gypsy" is being staged by Castle Craig Players (Almira F. Stephan Memorial Playhouse (59 W. Main St., Meriden, CT), now through August 10.
For tickets or more information, call (800) 838-3006.
website: castlecraig.org.

Monday, July 29, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 185, A Review: "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" (TheatreWorks/NewMilford)

By James V. Ruocco

"The Actor's Nightmare."
"Beyond Therapy."
"Sex and Longing."
"Laughing Wild."
"Baby With the Bathwater."
"The Marriage of Bette and Boo."
"Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You."

Few playwrights have explored the human psyche and all it repercussions as crazily,
expressively or unpretentiously as Christopher Durang. The lightning bolts of his imagination - no matter how fucked-up or off the charts they purport to be - reveal a talent like no other akin to a humorous wold of primary colors, absurdities and conversational curves that are grotesque, nail-biting, strange and pathological yet, at the same time, ironic, satiric and alarmingly true.

The core of these plays - idiosyncratic, strong-willed people struggling to make perfect sense out of their messed-up lives - are rife with foolishness, mean-spiritedness, unabashed sexuality, imagination, quirky overdrive, weirdness, pitfalls, non sequitors and telling truths that only Durang could muster.
And therein, lies their enjoyment.

"I write intuitively, and with most of my plays, I don't know what is always going to happen. This means I can sometimes go off on a wrong tangent, and with luck then rewrite it in a better direction. But it means I sometimes surprise myself as I'm going along."
(Christopher Durang, Playwright)

Case in point: "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike."

Winner of the 2013 Tony Award for Best Play, this crazy, fun-filled comedy about life, love, loss and lunacy offers audiences a terrifically funny night of theatre guaranteed to keep them smiling and laughing for hours on end. Currently on view at Theatreworks/New Milford, Durang's voltage-charged comic portrait is staged with particular compassion and flair that complements his trademark absurdism most engagingly.


This is one of those plays that not only finds the joy in the language of Durang's writing, but has an intoxicating weirdness to it -  this is Durang; not Neil Simon - that makes it more palpable, vivid, colorful and refreshing.

The plotline, in a nutshell, takes it cue from the plays of Anton Chekhov and finds humor with the oft-told story of three siblings at odds with one another, using dialogue, character names, references and revelations associated with the Russian playwright. The jokes about cherry orchards and what actually constitutes the makings a real cherry orchards (ie., how many trees, etc.)  are hilarious as are the play's jokey bits about Maggie Smith, Gloria Swanson, Howdy Doody, Davy Crockett, Ozzie and Harriet, Snow White, Annette Funicello and decades-old television with only four channels.

As developed by Durang, this is a play that depends heavily on the right comic timing, the right pacing, the right preening, the right posturing, the right mindset, the right line delivery and the right farcical elements to make the playwright's articulated neuroses snap, crackle and pop. The implementation of Jocelyn Beard as director is not only a coup for TheatreWorks/New Milford, but one that keeps this otherwise tricky play and its full-blown ridiculousness completely in check from scene to scene and act to act.

Beard, as director and storyteller, gets Durang wholeheartedly, which, in turn, allows her to thrust her cast through the play's unexpected comforts, insecurities, passions and frustrations in ways that are fresh, exciting and counterpoint with the main elements of his voice and artistic expression. She never once makes a false move. As the play evolves, she knows exactly how to set up a scene, how to make it play before a live audience and how to make it breathe and resonate using just the right amount of beats, rhythms, pauses and animation to shake things up both comedically and dramatically. She doesn't waste a single moment. She makes things happen intuitively and playfully using simple stage movement and blocking depending on the moment at hand. And when the script shifts gears and demands something very over-the-top or wonderfully wicked, she plunges forward most agreeably getting the point across as defined and orchestrated by Durang. It's fun, fun, fun that toys with your senses, smacks you in the face and knocks you on your ass. Beard wouldn't have it any other way.

Back in 2013, Sigourney Weaver's outrageous portrayal of the showy, self-preoccupied Masha, a famous Hollywood film star with a ego the size of Beverly Hills, gave the Broadway production of "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" a high-octane energy that was chock full of splash, dash and glitter, offset by a series of rants, raves and tirades that poked fun at tinsel town, its manufactured talents, its labored success stories and its glamour-induced materialism. It's a role the actress inhabited  quite comfortably, using the right amount of lunacy and eccentricity indicated in the play script. Playing the same part, the tremendously talented Ali Berhardt ignites the part of Masha with the same fiery intensity and overblown narcissism that Weaver brought to the part. But, she's actually much funnier and crazier than her predecessor. Really? Yes, really.

Creating non-stop laughter and borderline chaos whenever she's on stage, Bernhardt gives new meaning to the the word "egotist," playing the role with such keen, ripe, comic exactness, you believe every she says and does without hesitation. It's a grand, showy role that the actress portrays with decided relish and movie diva flourish. She knows how to deliver a punchline and joke perfectly. Her moves, her expressions and her eye contact with everyone on stage is a genuine source of merriment. And in Act II, when her character comes home from a costume party (she is dressed as Disney's Snow White), she is at her comic peak crying and moaning about how pissed she is because most of the party guests assumed she was Norma Desmond from "Sunset Boulevard" on some colorful Hummel figurine.

In the Broadway production of Durang's comedy, Billy Magnussen's portrayal of Masha's hunky, blonde, muscular toyboy, got laughs in all the rights places due to the actor's uninhibited portrayal of a narcissistic exhibitionist prone to peeling off his clothing and stripping down to his underwear with gleeful abandon. At Theatreworks, Nick Raines, an actor whose longish hair and hippie-like persona suggest Woodstock, 1969 in all its glory, assumes the role of Spike superbly and plays it with a refreshing dash and spirited zest that makes the character stand out whenever he's on stage. He's funny. He's charming. He's witty. He's charismatic. And he knows how to play comedy frontwards, backwards, sideways and upside down without ever missing a beat. His reenactment of Spike's HBO audition for "Entourage 2" is delivered with Actor's Studio resilience - think Elia Kazan - using the necessary beats, pauses and seriousness associated with the live audition process. It's one of the major highlights of the production.

On Broadway, David Hyde Pierce's inventive comic spin on the part of Vanya was laced with that drool, deadpan playfulness that the actor is famous for. David Fritsch who plays the same part in this production, takes the character in an entirely new direction, offering a very real, raw performance that is passionate, poetic and honest. His line delivery, comic timing and interaction with the cast is flawless. And with Durang pulling the strings, he too gets one of those big theatrical moments during the second half of Act II that allows him to rant, rave and philosophize in grand, illuminating fashion which he pulls off effortlessly. It's so off-the-wall, you want to hit "Replay" and watch it again.

"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" is a wildly clever two-act comedy that playwright Christopher Durang crafts with outrageous wit, brainy, character-driven dialogue and enough biting irony to keep you happily entertained for well over two hours. The script is bold, bitchy, saucy and lampooning. thus, eliciting loud chuckles from start to finish. With director Jocelyn Beard at the helm, Durang's outright absurdities resonate loud and clear as does the play's Chekovian-inspired characters, their triggered-up craziness, their verbal tirades and their dysfunctional angst and ennui which is the heartbeat of this marvelously engaging, thrilling comic entertainment.

Photos courtesy of Ghostlight Photography

"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" is being staged at TheatreWorks/New Milford (5 Brookside Ave., New Milford), now through August 3.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 350-6863.
website: theatreworks.us

Thursday, July 25, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 184, A Review: "Because of Winn Dixie" (Goodspeed Musicals)

By James V. Ruocco

A 13-year-old girl.
A preacher father.
A move to a small Florida town.
The discovery of lozenge candies that taste like root bear.
An eclectic mix of townspeople.
A bit of sadness.
A lot of good cheer.
Conversations intertwined with music and dance.
A summer rainstorm or two.
And oh, yes, the arrival of a very big, loveable stray dog .

Welcome to the world of "Because of Winn Dixie," the 2013 Duncan Sheik/Nell Benjamin musical based on the popular 2005 film of the same name that starred Jeff Daniels, AnnaSophia Robb, Elle Fanning and Dave Matthews. Taking it's cue from Kate DiCamillo's cute and sunny 2002 novel, it casts a dog - a very big one at that - as its star.
That's STAR in capital letters.

Bowdie, the dog commissioned by Goodspeed Musicals to play Opal's canine best friend in their big summer musical presentation is one of the smartest, cleverest, well-trained animals to ever set foot on stage in a musical during the last decade or two.
Mind you, this isn't just any dog.
He's on stage for most of the production (a smart decision by all involved). He knows his cues inside out, frontwards and backwards, left, right and center and upside down. His interaction with everyone in the cast is absolutely amazing. His entrances and exits are incredibly timed and staged as are his licking of faces, licking of windows, jumping on and off furniture and stealing food from his human co-stars.
And get this, during the show's big thunderstorm scene, he runs in perfect harmony on a treadmill -  center stage, of course, - to the beat of the music and the special effects that surround him.
Incredible! Oh, yes!
It's one of the main highlights of Bowdie's performance.

Trainer Bill Beroni, the man in charge of guiding Bowdie through the central role of Winn Dixie and turning him into a real-life leading player, night after night and day after day at the Goodspeed, is well deserving of all the accolades and standing ovations that have come his way since the musical made its presence known in East Haddam.
Bowdie is a one-of-a-kind charmer whose starring role in "Because of Winn Dixie" is something your not likely to forget for quite some time.

The actual musical, however, is somewhat problematic.
Not enough to land it gob and smack, on its face.
Not enough to wish you hadn't bought a ticket.
And not enough to make you wish Goodspeed was doing "My Fair Lady," "The Sound of Music" or "Annie" instead.
It's fun. It's adorable. It's sweet.
But at times, it just stops short, then picks itself up again, and starts anew.
And that's, o.k.
There's Bowdie and that's more than enough to make up for the musical's shortcomings.

"Because of Winn Dixie" is being staged by John Rando whose directorial credits include "On the Town," "Damn Yankees," "The Royal Family of Broadway," "Urinetown," "The Sting" and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." Working from Nell Benjamin's sugar-coated, uneven play script, Rando keeps the two-act musical on its toes for well over two hours, dramatically, comedically and musically and never once lets the two-act musical run out of energy. There are a lot of scene changes, which Rando masters magnificently with the help of the experienced, dedicated backstage Goodspeed Musicals crew. Individual scenes are played with proper angst, humor and cuteness without any gosh-oh-gee cliches or dumbness thrown in for extra measure. Shifts from dialogue to song are handled unobtrusively. Rando also wisely keeps Bowdie in the spotlight - and well, he should - much to the delight of everyone on stage and in the audience.

The musical score for "Because of Winn Dixie" has been written by Duncan Sheik (music) and Nell Benjamin (lyrics). It contains 17 songs: "Strays," "Offer It Up," "Awooo," "Raise Your Voice," "O Lord of Pilgrims," "Ballad of the Crazy Pet Store Man," "Bottle Tree Blues," "Summer," "Searchin,' " "You Can't Run," "Sulking," "No One Watching," "I Know Lonely," "Not True at All," "Searchin' (Reprise)," "Thirteen Things," "What I Got Is You."

 As devised by composer and lyricist, the score itself befits the "Winn Dixie" story, its progression, its drama, its comedy, its Florida setting and the various characters who stand proud and tall when they sing them. It's not in the same league as anything written by Sondheim, Webber or Kandler and Ebb. Nor is it as edgy or enticing as Sheik's "Spring Awakening," which, when compared to his work here, makes you wonder what was going through his mind when composing the score for this family musical. As best, the music for "Winn Dixie" is cute, sentimental, atmospheric and candy-coated. Still, there are times when the actual song list sounds and plays like a work in progress awaiting new and better material, cuts, changes, edits and reworks, and finally, something that cries "showstopper."

Serving as musical director, keyboardist and conductor, Adam Souza ("Next to Normal," "Rags," "Wicked," "Kinky Boots") surrounds himself with yet another exceptional orchestral team comprised of  Diane Orson (violin), Sal Ranniello (percussion), Karin Fagerburg (viola), Julie Ribchinsky (cello), Roy Wiseman (bass), Nick DiFabbio (guitar) and John Widgren (pedal steel guitar). Taking his cue from both Sheik and Benjamin, he brings pluck, grit, humor and sentimentality to the proceedings. Every one of the musical numbers is driven, tuneful and energetic and performed with just the right amount of actor/character showmanship by each and every member of the "Winn Dixie" cast. No one steps out of line. No one hits a false note. Under Souza's tutelage, harmonies are crisp and pitch perfect, solos and duets gallop along with the right musical pacing and ensemble numbers work their magic with enough musical detail to pique interest, if only fleetingly. Problem is, you want more. Lots more. But Souza is no miracle worker. He does what he can and he does it ever so well as "Winn Dixie" plunges forward to reach its overly cute, happy ending with canine star front and center to get the ovation-worthy applause he deserves from every hard-clapping member in the audience.

The two-act musical stars Josie Todd as Opal, J. Robert Spencer as Preacher, Isabel Keating as Frannie, Roz Ryan as Gloria, David Poe as Otis, Chloe Cheers as Amanda, Kacie Sheik as Jeanne, John Edwards as Carl, Brian Michael Hoffman as Jiggs, Nicole Powell as Millie, Jamie Mann as Dunlap, Sophia Mazza as Sweetie Pie, Crystal Kellogg as Callie and Jay Hendrix as Stevie. Everyone has his or her own say in the "Winn Dixie" story through song, conversation and dance. Under Rando's practical direction, no one misses a cue, no one hits a false note, no one upstages anyone and no one drifts in and out of character. To their credit, everyone is attuned to the mechanics of the story, its evolution, its twists and turns, its surprises and its very happy ending.

But in the long run, it's Bowdie you remember most.
He is the reason to see this musical.
He is the reason it shines.
He is reason you smile.
And finally, he is heart and soul of this sweet but odd little musical about a stray dog who becomes a young girl's very best friend.

Photos of  "Because of Winn Dixie" courtesy of Diane Sobolewski

"Because of Winn Dixie" is being staged at the Goodspeed (6 Main St., East Haddam, CT), now through September 5.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 873-8668.
website: goodspeed.org.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 183, A Review: "Beauty and the Beast" (Sharon Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco

"I want adventure in the great wide out there. I want it more than I can tell."
(Belle, "Beauty and the Beast")

For enchantment, wit and glorious frivolity, look no further than Disney's "Beauty and the Beast."
It's heroine is a beautiful, confirmed bookworm pursued by a narcissistic, dumb-witted hunk who, for plot purposes, distances herself from his amorous advances and accidentally stumbles upon a handsome prince who has been transformed into a hideous beast by an evil witch but nonetheless, stays by his side and teaches him how to read, how to dance, how to love and how to be his very own person.

That's not all.
There's cavorting cutlery, a dancing carpet, high-kicking crockery and a bunch of real-life humans who have been transformed into half-turned objects - a mantle clock, a tea pot, a wardrobe, a feather duster, a tea cup, a candelabra, to name, a few - all for the sake of entertainment.


The stage version of "Beauty and the Beast," now on view at Sharon Playhouse, is a magic carpet ride of fun, excitement and exhilaration that gets you blitzed, ballyhooed, spellbound and energized in the most engaging of ways. So much so, a return visit is mandatory. That, plus a gin-and-tonic, a red wine or a frozen lemonade at intermission should keep you happily entertained for weeks on end.

In a summer dominated by one-to-many productions of "Mamma Mia!" "Into the Woods" and "Cabaret," this Disney confection is a welcome diversion to dancing queens, childless bakers and their wives, smart-mouthed youngsters wearing red-hooded capes, homosexual cabaret performers, Nazis, disillusioned singers and writers, sexually-perplexed princes, musical divas past their prime, and finally, a boy, a cow, a magic bean and an anxious bride-to-be wondering which one of her mother's three lovers is actually her real father.

Overseeing the action for "Beauty and the Beast" is Alan Wager, an actor and director with a long list of credits including "Anything Goes," "Always...Patsy Cline," "Fiddler on the Roof " and "Oklahoma!" Well attuned to the mechanics of musical staging and casting, Wager crafts an ever-concise, hypnotic production that overflows with a jaunty sense of fun, a flavorful punch, a bouncy gallop and a buoyant exhilaration that heightens the mood, sensibility and cheerfulness of the popular Disney story. Everything falls into place nicely and fittingly. Nothing is taken for granted. Nothing is overplayed. Nothing is out of place. Instead, there's a decided flourish and gait to Wager's full-bodied interpretation. It's one that comes from the heart (he loves theater and everything about it) and it's one that respects the concept set forth by its originators including the story's (Linda Wolverton wrote the book) adventurous undercurrents, its satiric wit, it's good vs. bad philosophy and its involved, but very different love story.

As director and interpreter, Wager makes great use of the Sharon Playhouse theatrical space without ever once overstepping its boundaries with unnecessary theatrics, staging, special effects or sight gags that detract from the material at hand. You'll find none of that here. Instead, Wager crafts a very intimate, involved musical that is very different from the one staged on Broadway, in London or on National Tour. Nothing fancy, just direct storytelling that actually brings a heightened spark, depth and resonance to his interpretation, matched by a one-on-one closeness between actor and audience that gives the material a newness, an enchantment and a magical sense of entitlement not found in previous productions of the oft-performed musical.

"Collaboration is being open to each other's ideas and benefiting from each other's perspectives in an open way. With 'Beauty and the Beast,' collaboration is all about rewriting and rewriting and helping each other to constantly improve a piece. And, it's also about spurring each other on to doing really great, hard work. It's easier to do it in a collaboration than on your own."
(Alan Menken, Composer, "Beauty and the Beast")

Adapted from the 1991 animated musical of the same name, the music for "Beauty and the Beast" was written by Alan Menken (lyrics) and Howard Ashman and Tim Rice (lyrics). The stage version includes songs from the original Academy award-winning film as well as musical numbers penned for the 1994 Broadway adaptation. This production also includes the original song "A Change In Me," which was written exclusively for Toni Braxton when she joined the Broadway edition in 1998 as Belle.
In this go-round, all 23 songs are performed intact. They are: "Belle," "No Matter What," "Wolves," "Me," "Belle (Reprise)," "Home," "Belle (Reprise II)," "Gaston," "Gaston (Reprise)," "How Long Must This Go On," "Be Our Guest," "If I Can't Love Her," "Wolves (Reprise)," "Something There," "Human Again," "Maison De Lunes," "Beauty and the Beast," "If I Can't Love Her (Reprise)," "A Change in Me," "The Mob Song," "The Battle," "The Transformation" and "Finale."

Then and now, the "Beauty and the Beast" musical score is a sumptuous feast of songs and musical numbers that bristle and shine and snap, crackle and pop with that classic, old-school Disney enchantment that the studio is famous for. Creative, melodic and lyrical, there is nothing formulaic about any of them. Their sound is uniquely their own- moving, simplistic, romantic and ethereal. Everything is truly inspired and fits harmoniously into the framework of the story, its evolution and its very happy ending.

Musical direction for the Sharon Playhouse production of "Beauty and the Beast" is provided by Patrick Hoagland (conductor/keyboard) with the able assist of a fine orchestral team comprised of Nathan Brewster (percussion), Adam Gloc (keyboard 2), Barbara Reineke (french horn), Dave Radovich (reeds) and Barney Stevens (violin). In addition to taking the cast through amazing, passion-filled and achingly beautiful vocals - both dramatic and humorous - Hoagland and company bring unmistakable truth and resonance to the score without every getting carried away or opting for over-the-top musicality for dramatic effect.

Here, you get great color, inherent weight and easy-listening verve, matched by frequent flights of whimsy, fantasy and wonderment. There's brightness and warmth. There's harmony and good cheer. There's dazzle and chutzpah. There's sweetness and candy-coated flavor. Nothing is too big or too small. It all conforms to the conceit of the show's originators which, under Hoagland's watchful eye, is both expressive and spontaneous. That artistry also gives the Menken/ Ashman/Rice score a certain wistfulness, grace and allure that serves the material well.

A song-and-dance number in "Beauty and the Beast" needs to cast its spell in glorious rainbow colors and take its audience on a truthful, emotional journey that is splash, dash and all that with all the Disney trimmings. Choreographer Cheryl Swift does exactly that (think, widescreen fashion) by serving up one big production number after another. Iconic, magical, stylish and amazingly polished with a dash or two of Disney Park-themed magic and luster thrown in for extra measure, she incorporates the right moves, the right combinations and the right ideas into such showstopping turns as "Be Our Guest," "Belle" and "Gaston," among others. Working from the show's bold, imaginative blueprint, she delivers musical numbers that catch the heat of the beat, the old-fashioned underscoring, the free-flowing dynamic, the indomitable sentiment and lastly, the infectious energy that remains the centerpiece of every "Beauty and the Beast" production. The cast, in turn, digests her creative intake swimmingly with good-feeling vibe and dedication that is strong, playful, focused and singularly championed in very inviting, deeply satisfying ways.

"Beauty and the Beast" stars Becky Whitcomb as Belle, Trevor Martin as the Beast, Daniel Patrick Smith as Gaston, Angel Hernandez as LeFou, Jesse Swimm as Lumiere, Michael Kevin Baldwin as Cogsworth, Debbie Prutsman as Mrs. Potts, RJ Vercellone as Chip, Leigh Martha Klinger as Babette, Johanne Borge Kesten as Madame De La Grande Bouche and Michael Britt as Maurice. Everyone is perfectly cast for their respective roles, each projecting the right attitude, mentality and personality associated with each of the parts they are asked to portray. As directed by Wager, they also offer more rounded, realistic portrayals of the characters with a smattering of Disney glitter and fairy dust thrown in for extra measure. Vocally, everyone masters the melodic lushness of the "Beauty and the Beast" score and demonstrates an impressive flair for the show's different musical styles, mood swings and important influences.

A beautiful retelling brimming with energy, charm and Disney magic, the Sharon Playhouse production of "Beauty and the Beast" is a major, magical achievement like no other. It pays homage to both the film and the original Broadway version, but dances to its own tune in terms of musical staging, performance and musicality. It enhances the wonderment and passion of the story with charm, gusto and warmth under director Alan Wager's expert tutelage. The musical numbers are everything you'd expect - and more- from the magical world of Disney. Everyone on stage offers fully-committed, three-dimensional character turns from leads, supporting players and members of the ensemble. And the ending, as expected, reduces you to tears...happy tears...that stream down your cheeks, thus, evoking those same magical feelings you once felt while watching the original animated film version and the many, many adaptations that followed including the 1994 Broadway production with Susan Egan and Terrence Mann and the 2017 live-action version that starred Emma Watson, Daniel Stevens, Luke Evans and Kevin Kline.

"You don't lose hope, love. If you do, you lose everything"
(Mrs. Potts, "Beauty and the Beast") 

"Beauty and the Beast" is being staged at the Sharon Playhouse (49 Amenia Rd, Sharon, CT), now through August 4.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 364-7469.
website: sharonplayhouse.org.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 182, A Review: "Hershey Felder As Irving Berlin" (Westport Country Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco

"There's No Business Like Show Business."
"White Christmas."
"Blue Skies."
"Puttin' On the Ritz."
"Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning."
"What'll I Do."
"Easter Parade."
"Alexander's Ragtime Band."
"God Bless America."

With a trunkful of songs that defined America for decades and a life that spanned more that 100 years, composer/songwriter Irving Berlin was an extremely simple man who wrote some of the most beautiful romantic ballads, novelty tunes, dance numbers and Broadway musical scores in songwriting history.

"Talent is only the starting point. Life is 10 percent what you make it, and 90 percent how you take it."
(Irving Berlin, American composer)

In "Hershey Felder As Irving Berlin," the life and times of this extraordinary showman is fondly remembered with Felder front and center, as actor and communicator, guiding us through the many highlights of Berlin's long and celebrated career.


"Hershey Felder As Irving Berlin" is one of those rare treats in American theatre that cues up the songs, turns on the charm and intertwines the tragedies and triumphs with significant aplomb. The showmanship on tap is so remarkable, one quickly forgets that they are in a theater watching a show.  In turn, that one-and-one closeness between actor and audience prompts an intimacy that heightens the show's illusion and its punctuated warmth and resonance.

Staging "Hershey Felder As Irving Berlin," Trevor Hay not only celebrates and acknowledges Berlin's extensive repertoire, but delivers a fully-committed enterprise of tight, comforting pace that is slickly executed, imaginatively realized and supremely entertaining. Here, nothing is too big or too small. As director, Hay know exactly how a one-person show works, how it is to be staged before a live audience and how conversations, songs, dialogue and memories come together as one. With Felder in the spotlight for a full 105 minutes, Hay charts the composer's journey across decades and time with a ripe, thrilling sense of urgency, dedication and charm. You sit back transfixed anxiously enjoying the ride.

What's especially gratifying about this particular work is the docudrama at hand never gets overly bogged down with facts, history, songs, relationships and nostalgia. There's a lot going on but it's all very controlled, breezy and to the point. Songs are played and sung in clipped, regaling fashion that is short, sweet and bristling with refreshing panache. This being a musical entertainment, behind every song, of course, is a story. But when told, the conversation delights and never bores. Here, timing is everything and Hay and Felder are more than up for the challenge, never once missing a decided beat.

Working from Felder's breezy, enlightening play script, Hay shows what made Berlin great, why his songs were so popular, what made them so memorable, how they influenced American music of the times and how his vast song repertoire made him rich and famous. The flip side of  "Hershey Felder As Irving Berlin" allows Hay to focus on the composer's personal life, his Jewish heritage, his humble beginnings, his parents, his children, his marriages, his loneliness and his decision, late in life, to become a recluse at his exclusive Beekman Place residence. All of this is informative and compelling and addressed most engagingly.

As Irving Berlin, Hershey Felder delivers an exhilarative performance that is genuine, kinetic, comfortable and inviting. Singing, talking or simply playing the piano, Felder assumes the role of both Berlin and storyteller with a natural grace and flair that's hard to resist. Yes, he's played the role before. Yes, he's traveled the show from city to city. Yes, he knows the material front, back, center, sideways, backwards and forwards. Regardless, his performance is so real, so honest and so engaging, he makes you believe he's performing the material for the very first time.
A master craftsman, he knows how to tell a story, spin a joke or two, get you thoroughly involved and keep you guessing and wondering how things will finally play out. He also reduces you to tears when revealing some very tragic elements of Berlin's life involving the death of his first wife, his infant son and much later, the death of his second wife after 62 years of marriage. No matter what the story arc - there are several - Felder shifts gears unobtrusively like a chameleon of many colors, entertaining his audience with inviting ease.

"Hershey Felder As Irving Berlin" is one of those rare, impressive one-man show's that uses song and conversation to paint a glorious, intimate portrait of one of America's greatest composers and songwriters. It dazzles. It shines. It entertains. It leaves you teary-eyed. The story is crisp, straight and personable. Trevor Hay's direction is smooth, sweet and exhilarating. And finally, Hershey Felder, as Irving Berlin, gives one of those strong, heartfelt performances that is not easily forgotten. A showman, a storyteller, an entertainer, Felder impresses at every turn. His take on Berlin, the man, the music, the times, the nostalgia, the sentiment and the heartbreak is charted with a fascinating rhythm and spirit that is the heart and soul of this particularly powerful and moving theatrical  piece.

Photos courtesy of Hershey Felder Presents

"Hershey Felder As Irving Berlin" is being staged at Westport Country Playhouse (25 Powers Court, Westport, CT), now through August 3.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 227-4177.
website: westportplayhouse.org.

Monday, July 22, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 181, A Review: "Birds of North America" (Thrown Stone Theatre Company)

By James V. Ruocco

In "Birds of North America," an intimate, profound and thrilling two-character drama by a very talented playwright, the father-and-daughter team of John and Caitlin meet like clockwork every fall to bird watch and talk openly about life and other issues in John's suburban Baltimore backyard.

It's a meeting that they both look forward to with decided relish and one that prompts moments of laughter, anger, bitterness, cruelty, revelation, nostalgia, prejudice, obsession, jealousy, warmth and hatred, depending on what's actually going on in their lives at the time. All of this is carefully intertwined with actual bird watching of the simplistic kind and properly placed within the context of the piece to include intimate conversations about these creatures, their eating patterns, their silent winged migratory flights, their fight for survival, their identification and their specialized nesting habitats.

As written by Anna Moench, "Birds of North America" is both intelligent and humane, replete with lively, informative, aggressive banter that speaks openly and honestly to its audience without any form of calculation. As the characters struggle with hopes, ideas, regrets and rivalries, the structure of the play is not only ambitious, but it is one that prompts immediate curiosity and attention from start to finish. Moench wouldn't have it any other way.

Both perceptive and emotionally wise, the language, its riddles, it character evolution and its frayed, edgy bewilderment, maintains an openness and integrity that works to the play's advantage. Yes, the playwright has a lot to say. Yes, there's a lot going on. Yes, the character's are going to be at each other's throats. Yes, every family has its share of problems. Yes, there's going to be a surprise or two to shake things up. Yes, the material is going to toy with your senses. Regardless, the story builds and builds with impeccable pacing and imagination, imbued with just the right amount of wry humor, pathos and linguistic savvy.

At Thrown Stone, "Birds of North America" gets the full five-star treatment its deserves - and then some.


Jason Peck, the director of "Birds of North America" brings an involved, cinematic fluidity and suppleness to Moench's story, offset by tension, pathos and humor that is minutely calibrated throughout the play's 95 minute running time with such authoritative flourish, freefall and excitement, it's impossible to look away for a single second. You're hooked. You're gobsmacked. You're on the edge of your seat. You're intrigued. And rightly so, because you're never quite sure what's going to happen next. And therein, lies the play's enjoyment and fascination.

As with previous productions at Thrown Stone, "Birds of North America" is deftly performed in three-quarter staging, a directorial conceit, seamlessly implemented by Peck throughout the play's scene-by-scene evolution. It's an ideal vantage point that lets the play resonate and breathe in extreme close up from all different angles and dimensions that suit both the playing space, the actors, the characters, the material and the dynamic of the storytelling. The actual arrangement of actor to audience also allows the theatergoer to experience and engage intensely with the play's on-going action and character interplay while also being able to see the reaction of other audience members throughout the theater. It's a voyeuristic concept that Peck shapes intuitively and sensitively always knowing what buttons it push, when to stand back, when to let the material breathe, when to pause or digest an important moment, when to introduce a new story element or when to knock you completely on your ass with a twisty line of dialogue or a complicated change in the storytelling that you didn't see coming.

Given the three-quarter staging process utilized for this production, each of the play's individual actors, in turn, have to move continually around the playing space - every 30 or 40 seconds is the rule of thumb depending on the situation at hand - so that everyone can view the play's ongoing action naturally without any form of stagy distraction or overkill. One wrong move. One wrong turn. One wrong placement. And sadly, it's over for everyone involved, both onstage and off.

Peck, of course, never lets that happen. From rehearsal hall to stage, everything that happens in "Birds of North America" happens for a reason and purpose that, of course, is never questioned. Here, Peck brings dimension, nuance, snap and pulse to the piece, always knowing when to move someone around the stage, when to have them stop and converse at a particular point and when to start the entire process over and over and back again without ever interrupting the flow of the story, its voice, its ideally crafted conversations or the scene-by-scene rota dictated by the playwright. Elsewhere, the actual bird watching (lots of well-timed chirps and trills by Peck designed the atmospheric sound for "Birds") which has the characters looking anxiously through their binoculars from every side of the stage is so believably realized under Peck's tutelage, the actors actually make you believe they are seeing real birds (Tufted titmouse, American redstart, Chipping sparrow, to name a few) right before their very eyes. It's all very, very amazing.

As John and Caitlin, J.R. Sullivan and Melisa Breiner-Sanders are two tremendously talented actors who connect with the material, the dialogue, the story arcs and their roles so effortlessly, you'd swear the playwright wrote "Birds of North of America" with each of them in mind. They get the piece. They understand the piece. They love the piece. They perform the piece. And as the story evolves, they bring a mastered passion, honesty and practicality to the proceedings that makes each and every one of their character turns (the play takes place over a 12-year period)  resonate with complete believability, illumination and practicality.

"Birds of North America" is an affecting, emotional play of tremendous depth, style and conversation. The two member cast is outstanding and well they should be under Jason Peck's stunningly realized direction. The story, rich in detail and color, delivers an emotional wallop that pierces the heart. And like "Cry It Out," which is performed in repertory with this illuminating character study, the overall effect is one that lingers long after the play has ended and the house lights come up and it's back to reality for everyone involved.

"Birds of North America" is being staged at Thrown Stone Theatre Company (440 Main St., Ridgefield, CT), now through August 3.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 442-1714.
website: thrownstone.org.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 180, A Review: "The Scottsboro Boys" (Playhouse on Park)

By James V. Ruocco

Haywood Patterson.
Olen Montgomery.
Clarence Norris.
Roy Wright.
Andrew Wright.
Eugene Williams.
Willie Roberson.
Ozie Powell.
Charles Weems.

On the evening of March 31, 1931, after a fight broke out on a southern railroad freight train in Jackson County bound for Memphis, nine black youths, ranging in age from 13 to 19, were arrested by local authorities on minor charges. But when the police questioned two white women - Ruby Bates and Victoria Price - they openly lied and accused the boys of raping them while traveling onboard the train.

The teenagers were immediately transferred to the local county seat in Scottsboro, Alabama to await trial. Despite their innocence, eight of them were sentenced to death by an all-white, all-male jury because of the color of their skin. The youngest boy, however, was sentenced to life imprisonment rather than execution following a hung jury and a mistrial.

Re-imagining one of America's most notorious injustices in the form of a musical minstrel show that purposely exploits that over-exaggerated form of prejudicial entertainment, "The Scottsboro Boys," at Playhouse on Park, emerges a stirring, moving and eclectic production that mixes gospel, blues, jazz and vaudeville, magnificently.

Determined, intelligent and often jarring, this is one of those jaw-dropping musicals that overflows with invention, resonance and braveness, all in quick-step fashion. It also opens ugly wounds, draws blood, kicks you in the ass and makes you uncomfortable as it dances shamelessly to the beat of minstrel music using songs and dialogue designed to jump start the story, piss you off, carry it onward to elation, then, piss you off again, which is reason enough why this particular production should be seen.

Staging "The Scottsboro Boys," director Sean Harris brings tremendous insight, sympathy, and texture to the musical, mixed with a ferocious passion and angst that heightens the play's concept, its despair, its history and it's dramatic weight. That approach epitomizes the production's hallmark undercurrents, its sense of purpose, its immersing resonance, its historic relevance and its vital spark.  Directorially, Harris has rehearsed the production well, knowing what works, what doesn't, how to frame an individual scene or group moment, how to let the material sit and breathe, how to stage the action fluidly and dramatically and how to ground the story into realistic moments in between the show's big, key musical numbers. He succeeds swimmingly.

The Kander and Ebb musical score for "The Scottsboro Boys" features an eclectic mix of 17 different plot-driven musical numbers. They are: "Minstrel March," "Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey!" "Commencing in Chattanooga," "Alabama Ladies," "Nothin,' " "Electric Chair," "Go Back Home," "Shout!" "Make Friends With the Truth," "That's Not the Way We Do Things," "Never Too Late," "Financial Advice," "Southern Days," "Alabama Ladies (Reprise)," "Zat So," "You Can't Do Me" and "The Scottsboro Boys." Not your typical brand of show musical, the score, nonetheless, tackles the subject matter diligently and harmoniously with plenty of verve, drive and cynicism. Each and every one of the songs is important to the telling of the story, the seriousness of the material and the characters who sing them.

Musical direction for "The Scottsboro Boys" is provided by the very talented Melanie Guerin whose Playhouse on Park credits include "In the Heights," "Murder for Two" and "Peter and the Starcatcher." Doubling as keyboardist and conductor, she is joined by band members Olivia Moaddel (violin), Elliot Wallace (drums, percussion), Allison Lazur (tuba), Morgan Brown (guitar/harmonica), Harry Kliewe (reed), Andrew Janes (trombone) and Tucker Barney, Brandon Dixon and Andrew Ploud (trombones).

Guerin and her orchestral team deliver the Kander and Ebb score with brilliant precision and showmanship, offering introspection, pulse, simplicity and abrading tension to the song repertoire. Everything unfolds with a crisp, well-rounded dash and spring that is deeply intelligent and thoughtful. The playing is so real and so convincing, the basic, rhythmic and melodic foundation implemented by the composers develops into a resounding interpolation for all.

Multi-talented Darlene Zoller whose rigorously designed, marvelously complex choreography has graced the Playhouse on Park space - past and present - thrusts "The Scottsboro Boys" into full swing, using specially designed, important dance steps, patterns and movements to carry the story forward amid the snap, hustle and seriousness of  David Thompson's writing.  Here, as in other musicals she has choreographed including "In the Heights," "Chicago," "A Chorus Line" and "Cabaret," Zoller grounds this production in a choreographic versatility that is performed with a lyrical spunk, grace and expressiveness which supports and embraces the unified style and movement of the piece. She also instills a jaunty spirit and confidence within each of the actors who move engagingly about as dancers, thus, allowing them to groove with ease, turn up the heat and stomp madly about the Playhouse on Park stage with determined zeal, driving home the universal message and fearlessness behind "The Scottsboro Boys" story.

The two-act musical casts Troy Valjean Rucker, Justin Sturgis, Jerry Hamilton, Trishawn Paul, Cedrick Ekra, Alex Robertson, Jaylan Evans, Grant Reynolds and Cedric Greene as "The Scottboro Boys" of the show's title. They are joined by Dennis Holland, Ivory McKay, Torrey Linder and Renee J. Sutherland. All thirteen performers, many of whom play various roles throughout the musical, pull their weight with tremendous vigor, stamina, resonance and confidence. Some parts, of course, are showier than the rest, but everyone, musically and dramatically, unites to bring theatrical life to this complicated, committed story. Moreover, they are living their respective roles rather than acting them. It's a conceit that is something to behold as "The Scottsboro Boys" inches toward its big, bold surprising conclusion. It's one of those final moments that you didn't see coming, but it's one that will grip you by the throat, shake you up and reduce you to tears that linger long after the production has ended.

"The Scottsboro Boys" is a major achievement in musical theatre. It is clever. It is provocative. It is unique. It is electrifying. It also painfully reminds one of the white bigotry of the past and how nine innocent men were accused of raping two white women just because they were black. It's a message that stings, angers and hits hard in this immensely powerful true-life tale of racism, delivered in hypnotic musical form by John Kandler and Fred Ebb.

Photos of "The Scottsboro Boys"  courtesy of Meredith Longo 

"The Scottsboro Boys" is being staged at Playhouse on Park (244 Park Rd., West Hartford, CT), now through August 4.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 523-5900
website: playhouseonpark.org.

Monday, July 15, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 179, A Review: "Cry It Out" (Thrown Stone Theatre Company)

By James V. Ruocco

Gina Pulice's masterfully crafted production of Molly Smith Metlzer's "Cry It Out" allows its cast of four to inhabit their roles in such uninhibited, unhinged fashion, the conversations at hand unfold through such fresh eyes, it's impossible to look away for a single second for fear of missing something important to the story's telling.

This is a production where the actors don't just perform, they invest their roles with a natural, polyphonic richness that epitomizes the script's involved, compassionate take on a story that gets under your skin, rattles your senses and leaves you emotionally drained when the cynicism, angst, familiarity and the comfort of the conversations are dialed down right before the final fadeout.


"Cry It Out" is addictively watchable entertainment with a vital spark and voice of quivering intensity that offers fertile ground for interpretation by its already hooked, attentive audience.

The title itself refers to sleep training methods that allow babies to shed tears and make a fuss for a set period of time before any parent intervention. The goal, of course, is to teach the infant to self-soothe and eventually drift off to sleep. It does not require a parent to allow their baby to cry out all night long without some degree of comfort, action and attention.

As penned by Metzler, "Cry It Out" examines the realities and myths of motherhood, birthing, infancy, maternity leaves, childcare vs. work, parenting, coping, fussing, comforting, stressing, miscalculating, sacrificing, reflecting and nurturing. It's all very direct, insightful and creatively forged by the playwright without any form of calculation.

As primary conversationalist for her play, Metzler offers theatergoers a smart, swiftly paced comedy-drama that is corrosively hilarious and mind-bending, chock full of irony, prickly wit, heartfelt sentiment and  structural involvement. There's also plenty of satisfying innuendo here, peppered with straight-referenced facts, connections, punchlines, four-letter words, infiltrating language and modernistic discoveries and outbursts that make everything in "Cry It Out" upfront and connected.

 Staging "Cry It Out," director Gina Pulice gives authentic voice to Metzler's work, its conversations, its characters, its blistering exploration of motherhood, its joys, its conflicts and its daily repercussions. These issues and others are articulated with authenticity, rawness, honesty and conviction, thus making the story resonate with a decided purpose and impact at every dramatic or comedic turn.

At Thrown Stone, "Cry It Out" is performed in three-quarter staging, a directorial process, seamlessly augmented by Pulice who lets the play live, sit and breathe from all different angles and dimensions that suit both the playing space and the material at hand. The actual arrangement of actor to audience also allows the theatergoer to experience and engage intensely with the play's on-going action and character interplay while also being able to see the reaction of other audience members throughout the theater. It's a voyeuristic conceit that heightens "Cry It Out's" evolution and enjoyment.

Given the three-quarter staging process utilized for this production, the actors, in turn, have to move, move, move continually - every 30 seconds is the rule of thumb - so that everyone can view the play's ongoing action unobtrusively. Pulice carries out this concept ingeniously and subtly, always knowing when to move someone and where to have them end up (and back again) without ever interrupting the flow of the piece, the conversations or the scene-by-scene rota dictated by the playwright.

Casting is everything in a play of this nature and Pulice surrounds herself with the best possible Equity talent for each and every one of the main roles - Clare Parme as Jessie, Maria McConville as Lina, Wynter Kullman as Adrienne and Jonathan Winn as Mitchell.

In the role of Jessie, a corporate lawyer on a leave of absence from work and fully engaged in newfound motherhood, Claire Parme offers a dynamic, sensitive, in-your-face portrayal of a woman grappling with baby monitors, child-rearing chaos, anxiety, insecurity and various domestic  challenges that keep her character hopping from early morning till midnight. Given the complexity of Metzler's writing for the character of Jessie, Parme is asked to portray a variety of emotions, mood swings and character turns, which she does so intuitively, everything she says and does rings true with amazing truthfulness and authenticity. It's a part that adds weight and perspective to the play and one that the actress manages to keep riveting from start to finish.

As the wisecracking Lina, a terribly unsophisticated and ballsy South Shore mother who immediately bonds with her loving neighbor Jessie, Maria McConville delivers a fascinating, serio-comic turn that is so real and so fucking honest, you'd swear Meltzer had the actress in mind when she sat down to write her play. This is one of those performances that piques interest the minute the actress first appears onstage, starts talking and lets it all hang out in weighty, ticking fashion. She is always switched on, listening, moving, reacting or reciting Meltzer's dialogue with pleasurable accuracy.  That said, it's a thrilling, stand-out performance afresh with ferocious passion, vulnerability, zing, snap and lots and lots of inhabited personality.

Jonathan Winn plays the part of Mitchell, a wealthy business entrepreneur who often spies on Jessie and Lina  through his telescope, with compassion, honesty, shyness and awkwardness, which, in turns, adds veracity to his deft portrayal of a man troubled by his wife's lack of interest and concern with their newborn baby. There's also a caffeinated restlessness and unspoken curiously about the character (in particular, his casual flirtation with Jessie) that Winn portrays with remarkable feeling and textured steadfastness. How the character ended up with the very castrating Adrienne is one of the play's biggest mysteries and concerns. 

Wynter Kullman, as Mitchell's self-absorbed wife Adrienne, a successful jewelry designer in her own right, drips disdain, rudeness, obnoxiousness  and contempt so effectively from her very first entrance to her last, she gives new meaning to the title "Supreme Bitch," which, in the context of her work here, is meant as the highest of compliments. It's a strong, full-bodied performance layered with plenty of fire and fury until the ball drops and the character reveals an anguished back story guaranteed to reduce you to tears.

"Cry It Out" is a candid, intimate piece of theater that surprises, illuminates and thrills at every turn. A psychological fantasia about four very different people, it is a remarkable new work that speaks to its audience through intimate, revealing conversations that are truthful, profound, disturbing, acerbic and surprisingly cogent. With its sweeps of simple, in-your-face choreographed movement, it draws you into the action immediately and keeps you riveted for its full ninety minutes. It's theatre so superb, the end result is truly electrifying.

"Cry It Out" is being staged at the Thrown Stone Theatre Company (440 Main St., Ridgefield, CT), now through July 28.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 442-1714.
website: thrownstone.org.