Sunday, August 25, 2019

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

By James V. Ruocco

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 24, 2019

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

By James V. Ruocco

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

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

The answer to all four questions is "Yes."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 22, 2019

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

By James V. Ruocco

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

What's not to like?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

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

By James V. Ruocco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 19, 2019

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

By James V. Ruocco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 18, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 188, A Review: "Cabaret" (Ivoryton Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco

"From 1929 to 1933, I lived almost continuously in Berlin, with only occasional visits to other parts of Germany and to England. Already, during that time, I had made my mind up that I would one day write about the people I'd met and the experiences I was having. So I kept a detailed diary, which in due course, provided the raw material for all of my Berlin stories."
(Christoper Isherwood,"The Berlin Stories")

And so, it begins.

Reprising the grunge, the turbulence, the sex, the excitement, the depravity, the seediness, the homosexuality, the angst, the unrest and the harsh undercurrents of Kander and Ebb's edgy classic American musical "Cabaret," Ivoryton Playhouse strikes the right chord - on every level - as its chillingly exposes the dangers, the shock, the prejudice and the insidious political climate of pre-war Berlin during the Hitler regime in Germany. The way this production - unfolds and moves from scene to scene with such amazing flourish and clarity - makes it impossible for one to look away for a single second. And when the ball drops at the end of Act II and "Cabaret" reaches its scorching, numbing conclusion, the effect is so emotionally draining, it's impossible not to be moved, disturbed, shaken or completely silenced by it all.

This is a very different "Cabaret"
The camera, so to speak, has its shutter wide open in the most curious, blatant and inviting of ways.
No sugar coating, here.
No watered down, facts.
No one-note characters.
No pretty backgrounds, costuming, lighting effects or happy endings.
Just real people, real stories, real life, real pain, real reflection, set to music.
Public zeitgeist, in black, white and grey with only a dalliance of color.


"Cabaret," at Ivoryton, pierces your emotional senses, envelops you in its rippling musical narrative, kicks you in the ass, smacks you in the face and gets you all hot and bothered as it revisits Joe Masteroff's oft-told story.

First performed on Broadway in November, 1966, the original "Cabaret" musical, which includes Kander and Ebb's thrilling, award-winning musical score, has been changed, altered, rewritten and revised through the years 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, his subsequent 1998 production on Broadway with Natasha Richardson as Sally Bowles, the 2012 London version and yet another Broadway outing, two years later. This edition takes its cue from the 1998 Sam Mendes outing and deletes "Meeskite," "The Telephone Song" and "Why Should I Wake Up?" from the song list, but adds "Maybe This Time" "Mein Herr" "Heiraten" from the original motion picture and the Mendes revival along with "I Don't Care Much" from the 1987 production that brought Joel Grey back to Broadway to reprise his original Tony award-winning role. Elsewhere, "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" is powerfully reworked (as it was in the 1972 film adaptation) to reflect the song's strong Nazi overtones, which here, signal the atrocities and horrors awaiting both Jews and homosexuals. The effect, in turn, is just as numbing as it was on film and in the 1998 and 2014 Broadway revivals."Don't Go," a powerful ballad which was added for Cliff's character in the 1987 Broadway production, however, is nowhere to be found.

Not to worry, though.
This "Cabaret" wisely preserves most of the music from the original 1966 Broadway production that starred Jill Haworth, Lotte Lenya, Joel Grey, Bert Convy, Jack Gilford, 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)," "Money," "Married," "If You Could See Her," "What Would You Do?" "Cabaret" and the "Willkommen! (Reprise)"

For Ivoryton Playhouse, musical direction for "Cabaret" has fallen into the more than capable hands of music director Michael Morris whose credits at the Connecticut-based theater include "A Chorus Line," "Rent," "A Night With Janis Joplin," "West Side Story" and "Dreamgirls,." Joining him are Andrew Janes (trombone), David Uhl (bass), Nicholas Borghoff (clarinet, alto sax), Dan Hartington (banjo, guitar), Harrison Kliewe (clarinet, tenor sax), Seth Bailey (trumpet), Elliot Wallace (drums) and Tom Conroy (piano).  Here, as in other productions which he has musically directed, Morris knows exactly how to make the music blaze and sing. "Cabaret" is no different. His smart, refreshing take on the popular Kander and Ebb musical score, its character-driven songs, its emotional undercurrents, its mood swings, its varied beats and its timeless simplicity heightens the musical's allure, its style and its mindful evolution over the allotted two-act time frame.

"Willkommen! And bienvenue! Welcome!
Fremder, etranger, stranger
Glucklich zu sehen
Je suis enchante.
Happy to see you
Bleibe, reste, stay
Willkommen! And bienvenue! Welcome!
I'm cabaret, au cabaret, to cabaret!"
(Emcee, "Cabaret")

With Morris and his tremendously talented orchestral team at the helm, this "Cabaret" achieves a saucy, explicit, edgy passion and depth that takes the already familiar music to an entirely new level. There are some rewrites here and there that are effectively implemented for scene changes, comedy or dramatic effect. Nonetheless, every song that is played and sung, achieves the mindset, angst, attitude, spirit and and openness that Kander and Ebb intended. In turn, nothing gets lost in the translation or gets sidelined. Here, things evolve with such finesse and purpose, familiar songs like "Two Ladies," "Cabaret," "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," "Maybe This Time," "Willkommen!" "Mein Herr" and "If You Could See Her," among others, take on new meaning, thus, giving additional sting, bite and melodrama to the already popular music. As "Cabaret" evolves, the energy created, mixed with the rolling complexity and expressionism of the individual musical numbers, heightens the overall feeling, its innate theatricality, it's heavy sense of menace and its sonic, orchestral tapestry.

Staging "Cabaret," director Todd Underwood takes his cue from the wildly popular, dramatically challenging 1998 Sam Mendes Broadway edition, which is the blueprint utilized for this version of the two-act musical that also includes new scenes, new dialogue and new characters. But like others before him, Underwood is not interested in presenting another "Cabaret" that plays by the rule book or reenacts a previous incarnation, scene by scene, song by song, act by act. That would bore the hell out of him and soften his creative input, which if you've seen any of his previous works, you already know that's not going to happen here. This director loves a challenge and he finds exactly that -  and so much more - at Ivoryton.

With this "Cabaret" he offers a more candid, believable and sensuous take on the material, its characters, its sexual content, its edginess, its politics, its depravity and its bleak, startling outcome.  Here, he exposes Cliff's homosexuality openly (the character is based, in part, on the real-life Christopher Isherwood) with kissing, touching and heated exchanges that give the character a certain edge, definition and groundness. Sally Bowles, in turn, is much more than just a party girl earning a living on her back or singing in a seedy nightclub. For this go-round, she is desperate, confused and completely oblivious to the world around her. Underwood also deftly defines the grimy yet inviting allure of pre-war Berlin, its decadent populace and the cheap, after hours clubs where sexual favors and sexual acts are performed with any combination or pairing. He also pays close attention of the issues facing German Jews and homosexuals living in Berlin and what will happen to them and others when the Nazi takeover begins

"There is a problem. A new problem. New to me because I had not thought about it. But at the party last night, my eyes were opened."
(Fraulein Schneider, "Cabaret") 

What's great about this telling of "Cabaret" is that Underwood doesn't whitewash, downplay or censor anything. As both director and storyteller, he simply tells it like it is. He adds color, excitement and dimension to every one of the principal and supporting characters. He allows each and every one of them to bare their souls openly and honestly as they try to make sense out of the changing world around them that will eventually rip them apart, imprison them or toss them head first in the gutter. He doesn't glamorize or underplay the drama, the heat, the emotion and the brutality of the material. He also takes key points from John Van Druten's "I Am a Camera" and Christopher Isherwood's "The Berlin Stories" and adds them to his interpretation. He lets the material breathe, stir, sit, pause and resonate.
He also effectively utilizes the talents of his brilliant technical design team - Daniel Nischan (set design), Marcus Abbott (lighting design), Ray Smith (sound design), Kate Bunce (costume design) - to flesh out the drama of the story, its detailed story arcs, its political climate, its musicality and its evolving undercurrents of gloom and doom which prompt the musical's shocking, important conclusion.

What about the choreography, you ask?
A twirl, a pose, a gasp, a flash of something naughty in the darkness.
In musical theatre, a song-and-dance number - big, small or somewhere, in between - needs to take its audience on a truthful, emotional, plot-evolving journey in order to make the show's story, characterizations and varying themes resonate. Here, Underwood, doubling as choreographer, does exactly that with his decidedly searing, colorful, often hard dance images which capture the harsh, queer, inscrutable essence of being in Berlin during the 1930's. No homogenizing. No cuteness. Just bare, real, raw, in-your-face innovation and wellspring.

Collective, eye-catching, spirit-filled, grim and gritty, every one of the dances in this production unfolds in a precise, bold manner that pays homage to the original work and the iconic 1998 Broadway revival of "Cabaret" which was choreographed by Rob Marshall. But you won't find any copycatting here. Underwood dances to his own beat and digs deep into the musical's original source's and undercurrents while at the same time, putting his own personal stamp on the show's important numbers - "Willkommen!" "Mein Herr," "Don't Tell Mama," "If You Could See Her," "Two Ladies" "Money" - to make them breathe, pulse, allude, seduce and plunge us headfirst into the pending action of the piece. Dancers stand. Dancers pose. Heads droop. Arms, legs and feet move imaginatively to the beat of the music. Underwood's addition of new moves, new combinations, new beats and new poses heightens show's already proven decadent concept, but unleashes a bolder, innovative, imaginative blueprint that works to the show's advantage and its twisty conclusion designed to leave you broken, shaken and disturbed.

The casting of Sam Given in the role made famous by Joel Grey in the original "Cabaret, " the 1972 film adaptation and the subsequent 1987 Broadway revival, is a stroke of genius on Ivoryton's part. It's a showstopping character turn that is uniquely original, genuine, bawdy and animated. As "Cabaret's" Master of Ceremonies, Given welcomes us into the world of decadent Berlin and its shameless sexual haven, mischievously, eerily and seductively. He dazzles. He shines. He sparkles. He flirts. He manipulates. He fascinates. He seduces. He teases. He surprises.
He's also an original who creates his own interpretation of the iconic character without ever once looking back at Joel Grey's award-winning performance. Here, you get a uniquely different Emcee who wears both men's clothes and women's clothes agreeably and bounces back and forth in gumby-like fashion like a firecracker on the Fourth of July, offering a winning combination of actor-audience showmanship (Given exudes a sexy magnetism that heightens the play's subtext)  that mixes eroticism, wit, pathos, gayness and condemnation most advantageously.

Musically, Given shines, sparkles and delights. His "Willkommen" has bite, flourish and decadent vitality. "If You Could See Her" is both amusingly and sardonically sung and danced with a scene-stealing female gorilla who loves being in the limelight with her handsome partner who isn't sidetracked by her Jewishness. "Money," performed alongside the Kit Kat Klub female chorus, is a sheer delight. "Two Ladies" is both sexy and mischievous. "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 pivotal role of tawdry Berlin party girl Sally Bowles, Katie Mack delivers a robust, free-spirited, kinky portrayal of the Kit Kat Klub's naughty, fancy-free entertainer with gleeful, wicked, celebrated abandon. So very right for the role, she delves deep -  very deep - into the character's idiosyncratic persona and crafts a wonderfully believable performance that is completely in sync with the Sally of Isherwood's "Berlin Stories" and the Sally portrayed in Van Druten's hypnotic "I Am a Camera." Acting wise, Mack also dramatically captures the confused, unpredictable abandon of a delusional woman seduced by money and grandeur, but completely oblivious to the political climate around her and its stinging, hateful, prejudiced repercussions.
Vocally, she's a powerhouse, offering her own, personal, dynamic take on "Cabaret's" most celebrated songs - "Maybe This Time," "Perfectly Marvelous," "Mein Herr," "Don't Tell Mama," "Cabaret." Her emotional engagement, breezy vibe, sparkle and vocal clarity are trademark perfect as is her ability to project the intended meaning behind every lyric and every musical beat put before her. She doesn't just sing the songs, she owns them. And when it comes time for Sally to deliver the showstopping title tune near the end of Act II, the actress offers a unique twist to the number that thrusts her center stage in a hellish, nightmarish euphoria that serves as a wake up call that eventually will swallow her up whole along with her beloved Berlin.

Ambitious, struggling American writer Cliff Bradshaw, a gay novelist struggling with his sexual identity, is played in this production by Andy Tighe who makes his Ivoryton Playhouse debut. The character, based in part, on the real-life Christopher Isherwood, is well-played by the actor who deftly projects the image of a well-spoken, determined writer who ends up meeting and bedding some of the play's most important characters including the infamous Sally Bowles. His performance is heartfelt, personable and entirely likeable. Vocally, he is strong, note-perfect and emotional, as evidenced in the second half of the cheeky and charming "Perfectly Marvelous," which he performs with Mack. But as "Cabaret" spins forward, he doesn't get the opportunity to sing anything else because Cliff's big Act II solo "Why Should I Wake Up?" doesn't exist in the 1998 revival (puzzling, to say the very least) and the character's other big ballad "Don't Go" was only heard in the 1987 Broadway edition of "Cabaret." Such a loss because Tighe has the vocal chops (check out his stirring rendition of "Wondering" from "The Bridges of Madison County" on YouTube) to pull off both songs most engagingly.

As the sexually promiscuous Fraulein Kost, Carolyn Connolly is saucy, racy, sexy and cunning in typical Red-Light district fashion (the character moonlights as a prostitute to pay her weekly rent), which is exactly what the part calls for. Underneath that painted facade, however, the actress believably communicates Kost's nationalist beliefs, her desperation and pain, her uninhibited sexuality and her fight for survival in a world that's about to change her life forever. Vocally, Connolly has a feel-good glow and Broadway style song delivery that puts her at the top of her game in the eye-opening "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" sung with both Ernst Ludwig (played by Will Clark) and the full-voiced "Cabaret" ensemble. The actress also gets to sing the haunting "Heiraten," the German version of "Married," which in this version is added to the original vocals, sung by Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. The mixing of the two numbers together with three very different voices is a defining moment of Act I that adds additional color and resonance to the song itself and its well-intended meaning of togetherness.

In the pivotal role of Fraulein Schneider originated by Lotte Lenya in the original Broadway production of "Cabaret," Carolyn Popp offers a strong, convincing characterization that is real, honest and raw. It's a part she owns to the fullest and one she invests with the edge, charm and truthfulness envisioned by the show's creators. Musically, the actress is in top form, capturing the underlying emotions of her character's songs with passion and exquisite sensitivity. Her rendition of the perplexing "So What?" is as powerful and commanding as Lenya's was. Her duets with John Little - "It Couldn't Please Me More (A Pineapple)" and "Married" are sung with heartfelt, sweet-tinged, stirring emotion. Much later, she delivers the potent and heartbreaking "What Would You Do?" an important song about choices, desperation, survival and life's deafening blows. There is such truth and anguish in her interpretation, we really feel her character's pain and struggle through the lyrics.

John Little, in the role of Jewish shopkeeper Herr Schultz, a part made famous by Jack Gilford in the original 1966 Broadway production of "Cabaret," delivers a heartfelt, sincere and compassionate portrait of a lonely and kindly man who longs for companionship with Fraulein Schneider, but refuses to acknowledge the danger that lies ahead for German Jews under the Nazi regime by saying "It will pass. It will pass." But sadly, it never does, a fact that adds horrifying resonance to his characterization at the end of Act II.

"Sally, wake up! The party in Berlin is over!"
(Cliff Bradshaw, "Cabaret")

"Cabaret" is gripping, trembling musical theatre. Daring, edgy, flip and enthralling, it embraces both the provocative conceit's set forth by Christopher Isherwood in "The Berlin Stories" and John Van Druten in "I Am a Camera" with bone-chilling resonance. Its numbing descent into the Nazi nightmare of Hitler's Germany is portrayed with raw intensity and boldness. As re-configured by director Todd Underwood, the actual story is more decadent, brazen and truthful. The Kander and Ebb score is chock full of melodically convincing music that is the heartbeat of this "Cabaret." The cast - every single one of them - are completely in sync with the songs, the characters, the dialogue and the various story arcs envisioned by the show's creators and collaborators. And the ending - the entire cast dressed in grey, striped prisoner costuming reflective of the Nazi death camps - is not only a stoke of genius on Underwood's part, but one that gives this production of "Cabaret"  a metaphorical darkness that stings, hurts and breaks you in two.

"Berlin was in a stage of civil war. Hate exploded suddenly, without warning. out of nowhere; at street corners, in restaurants, cinemas, dance halls, swimming-baths; at midnight, after breakfast, in the middle of the afternoon."
(Christopher Isherwood, "The Berlin Stories")

"Cabaret" is being staged at Ivoryton Playhouse (103 Main St., Ivoryton, CT), now through September 1.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 767-7318

Friday, August 16, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 187, A Review: "Fully Committed" (TheaterWorks/Hartford)

By James V. Ruocco

"Crispy deer lichen pillow dusted with edible dirt."

"Frozen polenta with honey mastic."

In "Fully Committed," Becky Mode's playful and acerbic attack of New York City's posh restaurant scene, the rich and famous can't seem to get enough of a booked-to-the-max establishment where they are willing to pay a fortune for molecular gastronomic cuisine that Yelp and Open Table are raving about and Gwyneth Paltrow has just booked a table for 15 with demands of a specially prepared tasting menu with "no-fat, no-salt, no-dairy, no-sugar, no-chicken, no-meat, no-fish, no-soy, no-rice, no-foam and no-corn." Even the light bulbs must be changed to "no-glare" before her arrival.

This faddishness and pretentiousness is dealt with on a daily basis by Sam Callahan (called Sam Peliczowski in other versions of the play), an unemployed actor who is left alone to man the non-stop ringing phone lines of this high-end restaurant while also dealing with umpteenth interruptions from friends, family, theatrical agents and co-workers clamoring for attention.

How does he cope?
What is his secret?
Can he "kiss ass" unobtrusively and get away with it?
Of course, he can. 

And therein, lies the humor in this hilarious, breezily-paced one-man show that casts the voltage-charged, charismatic Jamison Stern as the perplexed reservation's specialist who is on the verge of being swallowed up whole by customers lobbying for the right table, chefs with big egos and outrageous menu ideas and friends and co-staffers who are completely oblivious to his work-related agonies, frustrations and idiosyncrasies.


"Fully Committed" serves up a tantalizing menu of opinion, paranoia, craziness and sarcasm with enough endless energy and brio to make it the hottest ticket in town. If you haven't seen it, you need to pick up the phone and make a reservation today. If you have seen it, you'll no doubt want to see it again before it ends its run at the Wadsworth.

As penned by Mode, the play itself pokes fun at the foodie culture, egotistical chefs, overpriced menus, celebrities, show-biz wannabes, socialites, name-droppers, out-of-work actors, misguided relationships, family squabbles and convoluted friendships. It also gets laughs from cleverly-orchestrated bits about money, coercion, bribes, threats, ass-kissing, auditions, food-prepping and rich people making ridiculous demands that are completely out of step with life in the real world. The dialogue is fresh, witty, generous, colorful and topical. And the characters themselves, all brought to life by the actor playing Sam, are a marvelous bunch of people who make their presence known in very amusing, delightful, imaginative and demanding ways.  

"Fully Committed" is being staged by Bill Fennelly who makes his TheatreWorks debut with this production. As director, Fennelly is well attuned to the manic quickness of Becky Mode's playtext, its varying themes and story arcs, its one-man show conceit, its juggling act madness, its quick-change characters and conversations and its pent-up, over-the-top flamboyance. He also knows how to get a laugh, how to set up a joke, how to pump up the adrenaline, how to take a breath, how to make a point without overkill and how to keep the conversations rolling merrily along in real time without the slightest hint of rehearsal mode, feel or form. Here, everything that happens is real, raw and organic.

Given the fact that "Fully Commited" is a one-man show that rests entirely on the performance of the actor playing Sam (and everyone else), pacing - the right kind of pacing -  is essential in order for the play to succeed. One wrong move and it's over just like that. For this go-round, Fennelly doesn't make one false move. He know what works, what doesn't and how to shape and mold the material in ways that keep it lively, breezy and animated. No matter how crazy things get, everything is brilliantly timed to the millisecond so that nothing gets lost in the translation. Sound cues, lighting cues, dialogue cues, character cues and shifts in movement and staging are flawlessly executed and timed to the beat of the play and its frenzied, insane evolution. It's Mischief Theatre mayhem (i.e., "The Play That Goes Wrong"), but with a cast of one instead of eight.

It's a tour-de-force for any actor cast in the role of Sam, the beleaguered reservations guru forced to play nice-nice with the elite set begging for a table at the play's trendy New York City eatery. The casting of Jamison Stern, therefore, is hardly accidental. The actor, last seen as a drag queen in TheatreWorks' hilarious presentation of "The Legend of Georgia McBride, is more than up to the challenge of playing more than 35 different, unseen men and women. It's a full-blown shot of chilled champagne, so to speak, that gives "Fully Committed" its emotional center, its clever visage, its unstoppable chutzpah and its snappy, rip-roaring oeuvre.

Stern, in turn, is bloody brilliant, changing characters, voices, expressions, ticks and mannerisms at breakneck speed. He is assured. He is clever. He is smart. He is quick. He is savvy. And first and foremost, he is an entertainer at the very top of his game juggling phone calls, intrusions, crises, mishaps, hunger pains and other crazed moments that would send an otherwise normal human being off to the psychiatric ward at Bellevue Hospital on 1st Avenue. What's especially enlightening is that Stern never once shows any signs of slowing down. Things are so naturally staged, and conceived, you sit back in amazement  watching Stern make perfect sense out of the manic material put before him. It's a feat he pulls off excitedly with decided, gleeful relish, fortified by an adrenaline rush that keeps "Fully Committed" completely focused with nary a hiccup, a bleep, a sidestep or a glitch.

With summer just about to wind down, this is one comedy you won't want to miss."Fully Committed"  is a comic adventure bookmarked into a zany, outrageous, laugh-a-minute package fueled by well paced dialogue, mayhem and comic situations that elicit non-stop giggles and huge belly laughs in all the right places. With Jamison Stern, front and center, it's a night to remember (or day, if you so choose), infused with that actor-audience euphoria that commands attention in the most craziest ways imaginable.

"Fully Committed" is being staged at TheaterWorks at the Wadsworth (600 Main St., Hartford, CT), now through Sept. 1.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-7838

 (Note: "Fully Committed"  is the last of three productions to be staged at the Wadsworth  Antheneum while the Pearl Street location of TheaterWorks is being renovated)