Thursday, September 26, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 201, A Review: "Mamma Mia!" (Downtown Cabaret Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

"Dancing Queen."
"Honey, Honey"
"The Name of the Game"
"Take a Chance On Me."
"Money, Money, Money"
Does Your Mother Know?"
"Super Trouper."

"Mamma Mia!"
Here we go again.
You got that right.

At a time when everyone on the planet seems to be doing "Mamma Mia!" in one form or another, Downtown Cabaret jumps right onto the band wagon with its own interpretation of the popular ABBA musical and finds the right cast, the right production team and the right design team to move it right to the top of the leaderboard.

This is one of those shows that audiences can't seem to get enough of. And rightly so.
It comes gift wrapped with a catchy score, a happy ending, lively choreography and a cast of colorful characters guaranteed to bring a smile to your face. 

It also serves up ABBA classics - each and every one a hit.
It displays invites of hugs, kisses, singalongs and clapping hands.
It is terrific fun for audiences of any age and gender.
It is cute, cheery, energetic and full-out.
It is shrewd, snappy and giggly.
It is a welcome diversion.
Its party atmosphere rings loud and proud.
Longevity has also been its reward.

Dowtown Cabaret's buoyant, feel-good incarnation of  "Mamma Mia!" furthers that notion in a very good way.

"Mamma Mia!" is being staged at Downtown Cabaret by Frank Root whose directorial credits include "A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum," "She Loves Me," "Into the Woods," "42nd Street" and "The Wiz." A smart and savvy director and storyteller, he brings tremendous wit, understanding, knowledge and pizazz to this production along with a smart sense of stagecraft which kicks it into orbit immediately and keeps it spinning and twirling most engagingly.

What's particularly refreshing about this incarnation of the oft-produced musical is that Root's playful and sunny take on it never falters for a moment. It is bright. It is fun. It is emotional. It is cute. It is sentimental. It is sexy. It is warm. It is fiery. It is cheery. 
Nothing is taken for granted. Nothing is out of place. Nothing is over the top or thrown in for laughter's sake. Everything that happens - story arcs, music, character moves, changes in tempo and plot evolvement  - is perfectly mapped out, produced and staged fluidly and naturally.
Yes, we've seen the story before. Yes, we know how it all ends. Yes, we know the songs and the lyrics. Yes, we know who sings what and when.  But in the long run, it doesn't really matter. Root's imprint on this on this tender-hearted portrait of romantic life in the Mediterranean not only gives it the attentiveness and magical allure it demands, but his choices and what he does with them are so original, it's almost as if you're seeing "Mamma Mia!" for the very first time.

Based on the songs of ABBA, originally composed by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (Stig Andersson is also credited in the footnotes for certain songs used in the two-act musical), "Mamma Mia!" includes 26 musical numbers culled from the pop-tinged ABBA songbook. They are "Prologue/I Have a Dream," "Honey, Honey," "Money, Money, Money," "Thank You For the Music," "Mamma Mia!" "Chiquitita," "Dancing Queen," "Lay All Your Love On Me," "Super Trouper," "Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (A Man After Midnight)," "Voulez Vous," "Under Attack," "One of Us," "S.O.S.," "Does Your Mother Know?" "Knowing Me, Knowing You," "Our Last Summer," "Slipping Through My Fingers," "The Winner Takes It All," "Take a Chance On Me," "I Do, I Do, I Do," "I Have a Dream," "Mamma Mia! (Encore)," "Dancing Queen (Encore)" and "Waterloo."
The songs themselves, nicely incorporated into Catherine Johnson's zippy, romantic story, are serviceable to the plot, it's evolved progression and the various characters who sing them. Every single one of them are fun, gum-drop gooey and completely hummable. So much so, audience members cast resist the urge to sing quietly at their tables along with many of them or raise their hands in the air swaying back and forth to the beat of the music as if they were at some ABBA concert from yesteryear.

With Sabrina Post, behind the scene's, serving as musical director, this production of "Mamma Mia!" enthralls from start to finish. Musically, it snaps, it sparkles and it shines. It has plenty of heart and soul. It has plenty of drama, sweetness and emotion. It also comes packaged with a glitter ball lightness and fantasia that's completely irresistible.
Completely akin to the song style that is ABBA - pop rock, light ballads, folksy glam, novelty kitsch, sweet and sentimental - Post dutifully respects and understands the unstoppable, invincibly commercial romantic bliss that is ABBA, the group's lathered expressionism and the surface beauty and intimacy of the songs themselves. And what she does with the ensemble is absolutely amazing. The harmonizing, the blending of voices and the pitch-perfect choral sound necessary for some of the musical's big ensemble numbers is praise-worthy with a capital P.

Choreography, when done right, is also key to the "Mamma Mia!" experience.  For this production, Downtown Cabaret has enlisted the talents of Jennifer Kaye, a magnificent auteur and dance wizard who is wholeheartedly connected to the exquisite emotion, the wryness, the focus and the intensity of the core love story at hand. Here, she takes hold of the show's many different musical numbers - each a stand alone piece of ingenuity, depth and verve - and creates a whirlwind of ABBA frenzy that reflects the conceit of the show's originators and collaborators.

Crafty, dazzling, celebratory, sexy and ferocious, Kaye dazzles her audience with mass dance maneuvers and rhythmic patterns that not only enhance and drive the musical story forward, but heighten the dramatic and passionate momentum of the piece, its flourish and its eventual happy ending. Everything that happens on the Downtown Cabaret stage is well-rehearsed and trademark athletic. Through it all, the entire "Mamma Mia!" cast are in fine form, reveling in the eye-popping,
wildly uninhibited, Broadway-style choreography that Kaye tosses their way most advantageously.

This is dance full of brains, craft, propulsion and atmosphere. It absorbs you into its world and subject matter with increasing power and beauty. It finds the right mindset of the moment and runs with it. It is dynamic and thrilling. It also strikes the right storytelling beat with absorbing harmony. The churning bodies of  Kaye's handpicked, incredible dancers are completely swept up in the on-stage dance mania of it all, propelled by a calibrated energy and urgency of rapid moves, gestures, turns and expressions precisely mapped to the exact rhythm of the music and the lyrics. Amazing with a capital A.

As Donna Sheridan, the mother of Sophie and the former lead singer of the girl group "Donna and the Dynamos," Priscilla Squiers' rich, confident voice turns her renditions of both "Mamma Mia!" and "The Winner Takes It All" into two showshopping turns like no other.  The beguiling Julia Lennon, in the role of Donna's daughter, Sophie, has the voice and radiance of an angel and star power of someone who is very comfortable in the spotlight. Angela Jackson brings the right snap, personality and comic verve to the part of Rosie. Susan Kulp hilariously portrays the vain, showy and sex-crazed antics of Tanya. Mara Santilli (Ali) and Casey Walsh (Lisa) are harmoniously in sync as Sophie's best friends. Bill Molnar is a very caring and charismatic Sam Carmichael.  As Bill Austin, Chris Hetherington is trademark comicical in all the right places. Robert Halliwell makes all the right moves as Sophie's eager, loving young fiancee. John Royse's Harry Bright tackles his Englishman role with cheeky, UK full-on wit and emotion.

The perfect musical to jump start the 2019-2020 season at Downtown Cabaret, "Mamma Mia!" is a high-spiripted, uplifting musical entertainment that pulls out all the ABBA classics with obvious affection, sugar-coated sparkle and forgivable heartbreak and has great fun doing so. It's typical Broadway musical fare - sparkly, flavorful, energetic- that puts ABBA back on the brain again, performed with thrilling exhilaration by the 21-member cast.
Frank Root's direction is astute, snappy, stylish and up-tempo. Jennifer Kaye's choreography is fast, frenzied and fiery. The set, designed by David McQuillen Robertson, is functional, gorgeous and atmospheric. Lesley Neilson-Bowman's costumes are both sunny and colorful. And finally, Axel Hammerman's multi-textured lighting palate agreeably complements the musical's airy, emotional and sugar-coated delirium.

"Mamma Mia!" is being staged at Downtown Cabaret Theatre (263 Golden Hill St., Bridgeport, CT), now through October 20.
For tickets or more information, please call (203) 5765-1636.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 200, A Review: "Nunsense" (Playhouse on Park)

By James V. Ruocco

The joyous high that stems from any production of Dan Goggin's "Nunsense" comes from the cheery mindset of all parties involved - the cast, the director, the choreographer, the musicians, the production crew, the people who greet you at the door.

That harmonious theory is embodied with fearless repartee in Playhouse on Park's glorious production of Goggin's 1985 mega-hit - a delightful piece of fluff and candy floss that excites and cajoles with the vaudevillian splendor and dark comedy angst envisioned by the "Nunsense" guru himself, mixed with playful dashes of whimsy, spirit, fire, energy and snap. And finally, a candy-coated flourish that makes this revival, completely irresistible.

This is "Nunsense" like you've never seen it before.

It is a dozen times better than the original 1985 off-Broadway production that debuted at the Cherry Lane Theatre with Marilyn Farina, Christine Anderson and Vicki Belmonte, among others, in principal roles. It is way funnier than the zany London version that played the Fortune Theatre in 1987 with former "Goldfinger" star Honor Blackman as Mother Superior. It also surpasses many of the subsequent, well-intentioned revivals that have played both Equity and Non-Equity houses in Connecticut.

And, that's just the beginning.

Gum-Drop Gooey.

Playhouse on Park has done it again.
"Nunsense" raises the bar, perhaps even the roof, in this extraordinary, laugh-a-minute revival.

The plot, as envisioned by Goggin, is a complicated one steeped in madness, hilarity and non-stop laughter. For story purposes, the Little Sisters of Hoboken have suffered a great loss after their cook, Sister Julia, Child of God, unintentionally poisons and kills off 52 of their fellow nuns with a specially prepared vichyssoise recipe that has left them falling over dead in their chilled soup.
Burials, of course, quickly ensued, but lack of funds for four remaining sisters (the Rev. Mother has selfishly just bought a every expensive television) left them frozen in the convent freezer.
Not to worry though. To give them a proper send off, the Little Sisters have decided to stage a musical comedy variety show and send the thawed-out remains of the dearly departed merrily on their way to that beloved resting place in the sky.

Staging "Nunsense" is the tremendously talented Darlene Zoller (co-artistic director of Playhouse on Park) whose directorial credits include "I'd Rather Be Dancing," "Chicago," "Swinging on a Star," "That Holiday Feeling" and the theater's very own racy "Mama D" series. Looking at this show through very fresh eyes, mixed with cleverly orchestrated dollops of imagination, wit and chutzpah, she leads Playhouse on Park to victory with the best crafted "Nunsense" musical the state has seen in the last decade or two. As with previous productions, she takes the show's blueprint, looks at it front, back and center, shakes things up creatively, decides what works and what doesn't, adds her own personal stamp and voila, it's magic of the very best and personal kind.

Laughs come in all the right places, the show's giddyap conceit is realized to the fullest and the musical flows from scene to secne and song to song with a freshly-minted gallop that is absolutely irrestible. Doubling as the show's choreographer, Zoller is at the height of her game investing knowledge, understanding and razzle-dazzle through the lens of dance. Her choices, her combinations, her movements, her beats and her rhythms heighten the show's dance allure, both comedically and dramatically. She also adds a lot more dance to the scenario than previous incarnations of "Nunsense" where cuts were made based on the mindset of the choreographer or the dance experience of the cast. Here, Zoller pulls out all the stops using showstopping choreography of the highest order, intensified by bold strokes, bright sunshine, sharp shifts and snaps and electrifying master class quickness. Amazing! Oh, yes.

To bring the musical side of "Nunsense" to life, Goggin has crafted 22 heavenly, but very vital to the story, songs. They include "Nunsense Is Habit-Forming," "The Biggest Ain't the Best," "Playing Second Fiddle," "So You Want To Be a Nun," "Turn Up the Spotlight," "Tackle That Temptation," "Lilacs," "Just a Coupl'a Sisters," "I Just Want to Be a Star," "I Could Have Gone to Nashville" and "Holier Than Thou." The songs themselves are witty, campy, sweet and ever-so-tuneful. The melodies and orchestrations are perfectly in sync with the "Nunsense" concept. They drive the story forward. They ideally suit the talents of the five different characters who sing them. They also come peppered with the zing and snap that Goggin is famous for, laced with moments that touch the heart, produce umpteenth belly laughs and bring a smile to your face.

For this production, the onstage band is led by the versatile Melanie Guerin (musical director/keyboard) with the orchestral assistance of Elliot Wallace (drums), Mallory Kokus (reeds) and Phoebe Suzuki (violin). With Guerin calling the shots, the musical score for "Nunsense" is splendidly recreated with the high-spirited, full of fire wisdom set forth by Goggin. As the two-act musical unfolds, there is everything to enjoy about Guerin's melodic take of the material, all of which is played with the skill and proficiency that always categorizes her work at Playhouse on Park. Orchestral textures are beautifully clear. Individual songs and production numbers are well paced, emotionally driven and unleashed with flourish and flair. Harmonies, solos, duets and ensemble numbers also benefit from Guerin's tutelage. If anything, the "Nunsense" score has never sounded better. Musically, it also surpasses the tantalizing appeal of the original off-Broadway and London production, and subsequent revivals of the work that have played other Connecticut venues, in recent years, both Equity and non-Equity.

"Nunsense" stars Amanda Forker as Sister Mary Regina, the Reverend Mother, Hillary Ekwall as Sister Mary Amnesia, Lily Dickinson as Sister Robert Anne, Brandi Porter as Sister Mary Hubert, the Mistress of the Novices and Rachel Oremland as Sister Mary Leo. All five actresses are perfectly cast for their respective roles, each projecting the right attitude, mentality, humor, craziness and imprompu silliness associated with each of the heavenly parts they are asked to portray. As directed by Zoller, they also bring much more to the actual production than what's written on paper. Vocally, everyone is outstanding - this is the best "Nunsense" cast ever - mastering the melodic flair and merriment of Goggin's popular score to the fullest (showstoppers include "Nunsense Is Habit-Forming," "I Could Have Gone to Nashville," "Turn Up the Spotlight," "Holier Than Thou," "So You Want to Be a Nun," "I Just Want to Be a Star") and demonstrating an impressive wit, intelligence and ownership for the show's different musical styles, mood swings and vaudevillian influences.

Season after season, Playhouse on Park offers its audience choice, diverse plays and musicals - "The Scottsboro Boys," "The Diary of Anne Frank," "The Revolutionists," "Avenue Q," "In the Heights," to name a few - that reflect and cement the theater's ongoing commitment to the arts. Kicking off Season 11 with Dan Goggin's ever-popular "Nunsense," the West Hartford venue serves up some light-hearted musical fare that is jolly good fun and flat-out hilarious in all the right ways. Director/choreographer Darlene Zoller's staging is refreshingly realized. The cast populates the song-and-dance story with detail, comfort and humor.
One of the year's best musical entertainment's -  and one that shows no sign of ever slowing down - this "Nunsense"  is a thrilling rediscovery of a very familiar and lovable story. Judging from the cheers, laughter and standing ovations that greet every performance, the audience thinks so too.

Photos of "Nunsense" courtesy of Rich Wagner

"Nunsense" is being staged at Playhouse on Park (244 Park Rd., West Hartford, CT), now through October 13.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 523-5900

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 199, A Review: "Witness For the Prosecution" (TheatreWorks/New Milford)

By James V. Ruocco

"Witness for the Prosecution"
"And Then There Were None"
"The Mousetrap"
"The Unexpected Guest"
"Murder on the Nile"
"Appointment With Death"

The clues and plot secrets in any Agatha Christie murder mystery are hidden in plain sight.

The time of the murder is central to the whodunit.

The character and motives of the culprit are vital to the telling of the story as are the trick endings no one saw coming.

The who's who rota, replete with thrilling back stories, is a guessing game designed to prompt initial excitement.

The crime solver of the piece must be highly intelligent with plenty of theories and deductions that are easy to follow.

Each revelation leads to more unanswered questions.

The power to surprise and amaze is evident and prompts mainstream appeal.

And finally, the ultimate solution reveals a wit, clarity and narrative finesse that completely satisfies.

With "Witness For the Prosecution," a twisty, deliciously involving courtroom drama fueled with the kind of played-up melodrama one expects from the self-proclaimed  "Queen of  Crime," an innocent man (or, so he says) is on trial for the murder of an wealthy elderly woman who has left him everything in his will.

But, did he do it?
Is someone else involved?
Is the testimony of various witnesses in the Old Bailey Courtroom valid, truthful, fabricated or lies, followed by more lies?

In TheatreWorks/ New Milford's pointed, voltage-charged retelling of Christie's celebrated 1953 play, a guessing game of sorts ensues, reinforced by cemented twists, turns, surprises and shocks Christie plays are famous for.


This "Witness For the Prosecution" is an atmospheric, emotionally layered whodunit - surprising at every turn - where the impact left is both impressive and invigorating.

Staging the two-act drama is Frank Arcaro, a director who brought edge and intrigue to David Auburn's "Proof" last season at TheatreWorks. Here, he does a brilliant job of articulating the whodunit conceit, the guilt, attitude, inquisitiveness and responsibility of both story and characters and the roaring conflict set forth by Christie's contextualized mind games. As with "Proof," he knows how to shake things up, knock you off balance, keep you guessing and toy with your senses while waiting for the big reveal.

Working from Christie's innovative blueprint, Arcaro, knowing the twisty escalation that ends the two-act drama, takes his audience on a roller coaster ride of a journey, revealing only signature bits and pieces necessary to propel the story forward. He asks you to sit back and listen. He wants you to put on your thinking caps and play detective. He takes a breath now and then to let the material breathe and resonate. He steers you in the wrong direction, anxious to catch you off guard or succumb to the wrong information. He also asks you to listen attentively to the testimony, the back talk, the interrogations, the truth and the deceit.

From act to act and scene to scene, Arcaro creates a masterclass of thrills and emotions that give "Witness For the Prosecution" its bite, its sting, it tension and its staying power. He doesn't waste a moment. He knows what buttons to push, what to play up and what to play down. In the courtroom and out of the courtroom, he brings the necessary flourish to the play's individual moments. He never rushes things. He has a firm grasp on the murder mystery mechanics, the staging, the blocking, the stops and go's. He also has rehearsed the play well to avoid any form of staginess or artificiality which could dampen or detract from the play's ongoing melodrama.

Working with a very large cast of eighteen (all types, all styles, all methods, all acting techniques), he instructs his dramatic ensemble to play by the Christie rule book, adhere to the whodunit concept, play their parts accordingly and interact with one another believably and intuitively. At various points in the trial, he also asks them to mess you about so that you're never quite sure how the actual story will end. Everyone has fun with this concept until the ball drops near the end of Act II. And when it does, it hits you in the face like a hard slap from a scorned lover from which there is no escape. Then again, that's the point, isn't it?

Playing the pivotal role of Janet MacKenzie, the prosecution witness and longtime companion and housekeeper to the late Emily French who names Vole as the murderer, Maureen Sheehan offers the best performance of the night and impresses at every single turn. The characterization itself, reminiscent of some of the key female characters who once populated ITV's "Coronation Street" in the early 1960's, is emotional, revelatory, surprising, centered, observant and very, very real. From the moment she appears on stage, you are hooked, ball, chain, line and sinker. As an actress, her work is so bloody refreshing and honest, one wishes the part was expanded as it was in the edgy 2016 BBC One television adaptation of  "Witness For the Prosecution" that cast Monica Dolan in the same role.

As Leonard Vole, the prisoner in the dock believed to be guilty, Daniel Basiletti is every inch the misunderstood victim. He's tense. He's mad. He's calculating. He's humble. He's bitter. And yes, he plays the part convincingly. But is it all an act before the jury? And is his cry of innocence justified? Or it is part of a theatrical ritual or ruse shrouded in mystery? Timothy Huber, in the role of Crown prosecutor Mr. Meyers, Q.C., crafts a thoroughly believable portrait of a London barrister who exhibits an irascible disdain for his smooth-talking courtroom opponent.

Jonathan Jacobson, cast in the role of defense counsel Sir Wilfred Roberts is slick, articulate and every inch the courtroom intellectual. His look, his mannerisms, his style, his moves and his verbage bespeaks someone who is so well versed in BBC courtroom trials, you never doubt anything he says and does for a minute. The always watchable Jonathan Ross doesn't get much to do as Mr. Justice Wainright, the esteemed Old Baily courtroom judge who observes and comments on the trial at hand. Nonetheless, he's the perfect fit for a part we wears both comfortably, honestly and intuitively.

In the role of Vole's wife Romaine, a calculating, devious woman who testifies against her husband in very heated, well-staged courtroom maneuvers, Thursday Savage plunges head first into her role, perhaps, even finding comfort in a back story culled from the Agatha Christe murder mystery guidebook to add color and nuance to her performance. She works very hard to pull this off, but the fact that she has a tendency to overact causes  her to occasionally stumble, thus, making us always aware that she is an actress playing a part, rather than one who is inhabiting a role well-suited for her talents. A quick rethink of the character and the removal of some over-the-top melodrama would put her back at the top of her game where she belongs.

In a stellar season that has included "Race," "Quartet," "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," "Witness from the Prosecution" benefits from great direction, excellent use of the theater's intimate playing space, key performances and crafty behind-the-scene's production values. It's theater of the very best kind - and then some.

"Witness For the Prosecution" is being staged at TheatreWorks/New Milford ( 5 Brookside Ave., New Milford, CT), now through October 11.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 350-6863.

Photos of "Witness for the Prosecution" courtesy of  Ghostlight Photography

Monday, September 23, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 198, A Review: "Sheer Madness" (Ivoryton Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco
How funny is "Sheer Madness?"

FUNNY - in capital letters.

This is a play that amuses with its crazy human vitality, its pranks and shenanigans, its over-the-top characters and acting, its bungling craziness, its snafus, its double takes, its slamming doors and its  farcical dialgoue. It also comes gift wrapped with trendy 2019 political, geographical, showbiz and newsworthy digs, jibes and insults that are updated and changed periodically depending on the day's events and headlines.

In the middle of it all - a murder - that prompts a whodunit with four primary suspects, all of whom have motive to bump off Isabel Czerny, a reclusive classical piano music star who plays landlady to the unisex hair salon operating directly below her very private, but stylish digs.

The Suspects:

 Tony Whitcomb: a gay, trendy, gossipy hairdresser who enjoys flirting with the male clientele but is easily distracted by Isabel's loud piano playing which often disrupts his day-to-day hairdressing appointments and causes him to bang loudly on the pipes hoping she gets the message and calls it quits.

Barbara Middleton: a stylish, attractive hairdresser who is newly best friend's with Isabel, loves jumping in and out of bed with handsome men, can't always remember what happened from minute to minute and stands to benefit from the death of you-know-who.

Mrs. Shubert: a classy, wealthy, name-dropping client of the salon with a checkered past, a not-so-happy marriage, a hot guy or two on the side, lots of secrets, lots of motives and a penchant for stealing things from the salon including perfume whenever she gets the urge to play thief or misbehave.

Eddie Lawrence: a shady, well-dressed man and used antiques dealer who knows Isabel, is more than friends with Barbara, sneaks in an out of the salon unobtrusively and has a tendency to put things in his briefcase when no one is looking. He is also very interested in Isabel's piano, among other valuables of hers.

The Problems Solvers:
Nick O'Brien is the cop who shows up to lead the murder investigation and solve the crime with the jerky assistance of Mikey Thomas, his nerdy sidekick. For story purposes, neither one of them is a suspect. No eleventh hour revelation, here.

The Audience:
The audience is also the star.
As dictated by playwright Paul Portner, the ending of the play changes nightly as the audience hears or write down clues, question the actors when the house lights come up and votes on who they think is the culprit. Whoever is chosen as the murderer must jump back into the story, improvise the dialogue with everyone else (some of the key story points are scripted) and bring "Sheer Madness" to its hilarious conclusion.

"Sheer Madness"  is being staged by Bob Lohrmann who has directed more than a dozen productions of the two-act comedy in the United Stage and Canada. Additionally, he has played all the male roles - at one time or another - in shows performed in Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Cleveland and Boston. Therefore, he knows the show inside out, upside down, frontwards and backwards, left, right and center.

From the start, there's no denying the outrageousness of this endeavor - big, broad, colorful, knee-jerk zany. So an awful lot depends on Lohrmann's technique, verve, snap and creative mindset. Not to mention his casting of the six major characters, his cheerful blueprint of the show and, more importantly, his comic invention and swift, bullish pacing.

Savvy director that he is, Lohrmann pulls out all the stops in grand, Mischief Theatre (they're the folks who created "The Play That Goes Wrong!") fashion. That said, this edition of "Sheer Madness" is staged with rigorous precision, style and stamina along with well-orchestrated humor, movement and impromptu deliberation. It sings. It soars. It flounces. It skips. It cajoles. It erupts with sparks of real madness (no pun, intended) and insanity as well as crafty bits and bobs you never once saw coming.

What's especially fun about "Sheer Madness" is the way it all comes together. Working from Portner's engaging comic scenario, Lohrmann finds great humor in the querulous eccentrics of the piece, its characters, their interactions and exchanges,  the giddy mechanics of the farce at bay, the actual whodunit, the interaction of the four suspects and the challenges set forth during the Q and A with the audience and the search for actual clues and truths (some of the banter is designed to throw you completely off track so it's important to pay attention because some of the characters are manipulative schemers), which changes from performance to performance.
All of this requires the actors to think quick on their feet, mixed rehearsed dialogue with improvisation seamlessly ( at the performance I attended, a surprise kiss was planted on the mouth of Nick by Tony during questioning turning the cop character beet red so much so, it left the audience in complete hysterics and nearly stopped the show) and finally, partake in play's conclusion (as previously mentioned, the audience votes by show of hands and picks the murderer) reenacting the scene of the crime at breakneck speed with the guilty party finally confessing to the crime.

"Sheer Madness" stars Jordan Ahnquist as Tony Whitcomb, Patrick Noonan as Nick O'Brien, Bill Mootos as Eddie Lawrence, Lisa McMillan as Mrs. Shubert, Siobhan Fitzgerald as Barbara DeMarco and Lev Harvey as Mikey Thomas.

Ahnquist, a bright-eyed, intelligent actor oozing with plenty of charm and personality, jumps headfirst into his stereotypical gay hair salon owner characterization of Whitcomb with dash, merriment, purprose and drive. It's a showstopping performance where timing is everything, from start to finish. The actor makes physical comedy look easy without going overboard to get a laugh. Rehearsed or improvised, Ahnquist gets it right every time while adhering (or not adhering) to Porter's comic blueprint. If anyone is casting upcoming lead roles in the Broadway or National Touring edition of "The Book of Mormon," Ahnquist is your man. He'd be perfect.

As Nick O'Brien, Noonan knows how to play comedy and improvisation to the fullest without ever once losing the focus of his investigative character, his role in the story and his improvisational rapor and interaction with the audience. He does it effortlessly, bouncing back and forth with a creative comedic mindset and intuitiveness that gives "Sheer Madness" additional fuel and stamina and keeps the two-act comedy on track no matter what is thrown at him or other members of the cast.

Mootos brings a smarmy, slippery verve to Eddie Lawrence while Fitzgerald's Barbara Demarco is fresh, flirty, silly and always at the top of her game. As Thomas, Harvey has great comic timing which he uses to full effect when the script calls for it.
In the role of the classy and wealthy Mrs. Shubert, McMillan camps it up on cue with a dash of "Steel Magnolias" thrown in for extra measure, prompting non-stop laughs whenever her character is in the spotlight. Like those around her, she adapts to the play's conceit brilliantly and makes playing slapstick second nature.

There's no denying the non-stop hilarity of  "Sheer Madness," a crazy physical comedy played with lunatic abandon by an energetic cast of six, all of whom are akin to Paul Portner's over-the-top play text. Bob Lohrmann's flip, breakneck staging is orchestrated with giggly, farcical aplomb. The improvisational interaction between the audience and the actors is embellished with "spot on" intuition, even though it changes from night to night. And in true interactive whodunit fashion, the audience decides who the murderer is and the cast plays out "that ending" in wild, unpredictable ways designed to leave you breathless and begging and begging for more.

"Sheer Madness" is being staged at Ivoryton Playhouse (103 Main St., Ivoryton, CT), now through October 6.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 767-7318.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 197, A Review: "Cabaret" (Fairfield Center Stage)

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 heat, 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," Fairfield Center Stage strikes the right chord - on every level - as it 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 dances to its own decided beat and unfolds with such amazing flourish, influence 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 the musical 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.

Brilliant theatre on every level imaginable.
You bet it is.

First and foremost, this is a very different "Cabaret."
It does not have a happy ending.
The camera, so to speak, has its shutter wide open in the most curious, blatant and inviting of ways.
It spins. It photographs. It stops. It stirs. It listens. It exposes.
Nothing is left to the imagination.
There is no sugar-coating or watered down facts.
The characters are bold, colorful, impulsive, reckless and full of life.
Their stories are real.
Their pain and heartbreak are real.
Their hopes and dreams are real.
The prejudice and hatred are real.
 It's public zeitgeist with only a dalliance of color, but set to music.


Fairfield Center Stage's thrilling production of "Cabaret" flirts and seduces, gets you all hot and bothered, pierces your emotional senses, envelops you in its rippling musical narrative, titillates and surprises, catches you off guard and keeps you completely riveted as it revisits and reworks Joe Masteroff's original story and concept.

But first, let's backtrack.

Since its Broadway debut in November, 1966, the original "Cabaret" stage musical has been changed, altered, rewritten and revised to include original songs from the 1972 film adaptation or new ones that were introduced in subsequent incarnations including the 1993 London revival by Sam Mendes and his 1998 Broadway production with Natasha Richardson as Sally Bowles and Alan Cumming as the Emcee. This edition takes its cue entirely from that critically-acclaimed 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 version of "Cabaret" 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.

Not to worry, though.
This "Cabaret" wisely retains most of the music from the original 1966 Broadway production that starred Jill Haworth, Lotte Lenya, Joel Grey, Bert Convy and Jack Gilford,  In short: "Willkommen!" "So What?" "Don't Tell Mama," "Perfectly Marvelous," "Two Ladies," "It Couldn't Please Me More (A Pineapple)," "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," "Money," "Married," "If You Could See Her," "What Would You Do?" "Cabaret" and the "Willkommen! (Reprise)."

For Fairfield Center Stage, musical direction is provided by Ben McCormack who also stars in the production as American writer Cliff Bradshaw, a character, based on part on the real-life experiences of Anglo-American gay novelist and playwright Christopher Isherwood ("The Berlin Stories," "A Single Man"). Joining him are Clay Zambo (associate music director/keyboard), McNeil Johnston (bass/violin) and Gabe Nappi (drums), a talented threesome who, under McCormack's fine tutelage, know exactly how to push boundaries and make the show's familiar character-driven songs blaze and sing with the snap, emotional pulse and melodic allure set forth by the musical's savvy, intuitive  originators, Kander (music) and Ebb (lyrics).

From the rousing opening number "Willkommen!" to the shattering, mind-blowing "Finale" that ends Act II, this "Cabaret" achieves a saucy, explicit, edgy passion and emotional depth that takes the already familiar music to an entirely new level. Yes, we know the music. Yes, we know the lyrics. Yes, we know the song rota. Yes, we know who sings what and when. Regardless, every song that is played and sung, achieves such a refreshing, mindset and attitude, it's almost as if we're hearing them for the very first time. In turn, songs like "Two Ladies," "Cabaret," "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," "Maybe This Time," "Willkommen!" "Mein Herr" and "So What? " among others, take on new meaning, thus, giving them additional sting, fuel, bite and melodrama as the "Cabaret" story inches forward over its allotted time frame. The orchestral energy - confidant, vibrant and varied - created by all four seasoned musicians (McCormack, in character as Cliff, periodically plays the on-the-set  piano from time to time) heightens the overall feeling of the piece,  its innate theatricality, its rhythmic fluidity, its heavy sense of menace and its sonic, percussive tapestry.

Staging "Cabaret," director Eli Newsom - a creative auteur and storyteller with a tremendous sense of mystery and dare about him - takes his cue from the wildly popular, dramatically challenging 1998 Sam Mendes Broadway edition, which is the guiding force of this version of the two-act musical that also includes new scenes, new dialogue, new endings, new plot twists and new characters. But like others before him, Newsom is not particularly 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 dampen 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 Fairfield Center Stage.

With this "Cabaret" he doesn't pussyfoot around. Instead, he offers a more candid, honest and sensuous take on the source material, its characters, its sexual content, its edginess, its politics, its prejudices, its depravity, its seediness and its bleak, startling outcome.  As the story unfolds, he exposes Cliff's homosexuality openly with kissing, touching, flirting and heated exchanges with former lovers that give the character a certain edge, definition and groundness. Sally Bowles, in turn, is much more than just a thrill-seeking party girl earning a living on her back or singing in a racy nightclub waiting for the next one-night stand. Here, she is desperate, neurotic, reckless, confused and completely oblivious to the ever-changing political climate that is about to engulf her and everyone else. Elsewhere, Newsom - his creative juices flowing - 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 very close attention to the dangerous issues facing German Jews and homosexuals living in Berlin and what will happen to them and others when the Nazi takeover begins.

Directorially, Newsom is an original. He invents and reinvents. He takes chances and dares you to run with them. He doesn't copycat or repeat himself. He loves a challenge. He also loves the thrill of opening night. What's great about his work with "Cabaret" is that he doesn't whitewash, downplay or censor anything.  He lets the material sit, breathe, stir, shake and resonate. He adds color, nuance and dimension to every one of the principal and supporting characters. He allows each and every one of them to bare their souls, make mistakes, trip and fall and pick themselves up again. This being a musical, he doesn't glamorize or underplay the drama, the emotion, the reality or the ferocity 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 gripping interpretation. In turn, the dark soul that is "Cabaret," emerges.

The biggest difference between this version of "Cabaret" and others that came before it earlier this year and last is Newsom's crafty, sly and ferocious decision to stage the entire musical in an immersive theater setting that has the audience seated at tables, in chairs, on couches or at bar stools that signify the Kit Kat Klub. The theatergoer, a scene partner of sorts, is also surrounded by fragmented rooms, dressing tables, a working piano and other set pieces that are utilized throughout the telling of the story. It's a brilliant stroke of genius that embraces the musical's gritty song and dance numbers, its darkness, its sarcasm, its sensuality and its in-your-face rawness and crotch-grabbing. Newsom's fluid, precise and timely pacing heightens the overall experience every step of the way as does his decision to have the actors perform and enter from various parts of the immersive theater space often interacting directly with the audeince.

The high kickin' choreography, influenced in part by Bob Fosse's aggressively edgy dance maneuvers from the 1972 Oscar-winning film, is solidified here in this production by Lindsay Johnson, a  creative talent well versed in the mechanics of immersive theatre staging, the rhythmic mindset that is "Cabaret" and the raunch and decadence of Berlin's infamous Kit Kat Klub during the Weimer era.  Dancers stand. Dancers kick. Dancers pose. Dancers spread their legs wide open. Dancers bump and grind. Dancers flirt. Dancers touch each other openly and erotically. Heads droop. Heads turn. Bodies twist. Arms, legs and feet move imaginatively to the beat of the music. It's all pretty wild and naughty stuff that unfolds in the manner and style of the musical's 1930's setting where anything goes and anything can happen and does. Placing the audience strategically in the center of it all (remember, this is immersive theatre staging) heightens the mood, the feel, the heat and the allure of the production numbers and gives Johnson's work a tremendous voyeuristic spin that would be alarmingly modified or strangely absent if this revival were set on a proscenium stage.

For this go-round, every one of the dances is eye-catching, spirit-filled, grim and gritty. Staging  "Cabaret's" very important musical moments - "Willkommen!" "Mein Herr," "Don't Tell Mama," "If You Could See Her," "Two Ladies" "Money" - Johnson creates a fiery blueprint that digs deep into the musical's reworked conceit and its steamy undercurrents so that they breathe, spin, seduce, entice and plunge us head first into the flavorful decadence of the piece.  Her choices and her ideas are incredible to watch as dancers of every shape, size and gender - Emily Frangipane, Anne Collin, Bonnie Gregson, Matthew Casey, Patrick McMenamey, to name, a few - slither, pounce, prey and move anxiously about in wild abandon reflecting the harsh, queer, political and inscrutable essence of life in Berlin a very long time ago.

The casting of the charismatic, highly-animated Sean Michael Davis 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 on Newsom's part. He was born to the play the part and play he does. It's a showstopping character turn fraught with real emotion, real imagination, real charm, real bawdiness and real dimension. As "Cabaret's" mischievous Master of Ceremonies, Davis welcomes us into the world of decadent Berlin and its shameless sexual haven, eerily, sweetly and seductively. He smiles. He dazzles. He shines. He sparkles. He flirts. He cajoles. He manipulates. He fascinates. He seduces. He teases. He surprises. He looks right through you. He gets you all hot and sweaty.

He's also a fascinating actor, singer and dancer who creates his own raw interpretation of the iconic Emcee character without ever once looking back at Joel Grey's award-winning performance. Or for that matter, the one's envisioned by Alan Cumming, John Stamos, Randy Harrison or Wayne Sleep in the same role. Here, you get a decidedly different Emcee who dances to his own drum roar, wears both men's clothes and women's clothes slovenly, flirts shamelessly with both sexes and takes the stage of the Kit Kat Club like a true showman mixing eroticism, satire, gayness, pathos and condemnation most advantageously.

Musically, Davis is a gifted interpreter who shines, sparkles and delights. His big, splashy opening number "Willkommen!" has bite, string, flourish and decadent vitality. "If You Could See Her" a melodic rant about scorned love is both amusingly and sardonically delivered with a scene-stealing female gorilla (a very playful Bonnie Gregson) who loves being in the limelight with her handsome dance partner who insures everyone that he isn't bothered by her obvious Jewishness. The effervescent "Money," performed alongside the Kit Kat Klub chorus, is a sheer delight. The hilarious "Two Ladies" is raunchy, bawdy and happily mischievous. "I Don't Care Much," which he sings like a dying and tormented prisoner awaiting execution, is shivering, commanding and definitely worth an encore or two. It is also as good as Alan Cumming's  rendition was in the 1998 revival of "Cabaret," directed by Sam Mendes.

In the pivotal role of tawdry Berlin party girl and songstress Sally Bowles, Arielle Boutin reminds one of Natasha Richardson who won a Tony Award for her saucy portrayal of the same character in the acclaimed Mendes revival. Like Richardson, she is charming, charismatic, original and completely captivating. Here, she puts a new spin on the iconic character and delivers a robust, powerful and free-spirited portrayal of the Kit Kat Klub's naughty, fancy-free entertainer. She does it with such precise, wicked abandon, Sally's idiosyncratic persona and her detachment from the real world rings loud and clear as does the character's brazen attitude toward romance, money, grandeur, clubbing, performing and one-night stands.
Vocally, she's a go-getter with a rich, expressive voice who offers her own, personal, impassioned take on "Cabaret's" most celebrated songs - "Maybe This Time," "Perfectly Marvelous," "Mein Herr," "Don't Tell Mama," "Cabaret." Her emotional engagement, breezy vibe, melodic 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 to deliver the showstopping title tune near the end of Act II, the actress offers a unique twist to the number that allows us to feel her pain, her confusion, her desperation, her emotional denial  and nightmarish euphoria.

Ambitious, struggling American writer Cliff Bradshaw, a gay novelist struggling with his own sexual identity, is played in this production by Ben McCormack. One of the most engaging and personable actors to tackle this role, he sensitively projects the image of a well-spoken, determined writer who longs for success and ends up meeting and bedding some of the play's most important characters including the infamous Sally Bowles. His performance is honest, genuine and heartfelt in the most beguiling of ways. He not only amazes at every single turn, but offers a characterization as good as anyone who's played the part of Cliff before on Broadway, in London or on National Tour.
For this go round, he only gets one song to sing -   the cheeky and charming "Perfectly Marvelous," which he performs perfectly with Boutin. Doubling as musical director, he is called upon from time to time to play some of the show's pivotal songs, which he does ever so effortlessly.

In the plum role of  Fraulein Schneider originated by Lotte Lenya in the original 1966 Broadway production of "Cabaret," Marilyn Olsen crafts a strong, convincing characterization of a lonely woman and landlady whose life is not as exciting or as fulfilling as she had hoped.  Playing this kind-hearted survivor with the charm, edge and truthfulness envisioned by the show's creators, she commands your attention whenever she's on stage and brings so much more to the part than what is written on paper. Believe me when I say, you can't take your eyes off her for a moment. That's how amazing she is.
Musically, she is at the top of her game, capturing the underlying emotions of her character's songs with passion, realness and exquisite sensitivity. Her rendition of the perplexing "So What?" is as powerful and commanding as Lenya's was. Her sweet-tinged duets with Steve Benko - "It Couldn't Please Me More (A Pineapple)" and "Married" are sung with poignant, tender and stirring emotion.  Much later, during the second half of Act II, she delivers the potent and heartbreaking "What Would You Do?" an important song about choices, desperation, survival, wounded dignity 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. It's so incredibly rendered and performed, you want to stand up and shout, "Again, please."

Steven Benko, in the role of Jewish shopkeeper Herr Schultz, is an amazing actor and song stylist who brings real sincerity and compassion to his portrayal of the kindly older 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." Sadly, it never does, a fact that adds chilling resonance to his characterization at the end of Act II.
As Ernst Ludwig, a German who befriends Cliff Bradshaw on the train en route to Berlin at the beginning of the play, Nick Kuell offers a strong, centered portrayal of a man seduced by the Nazi politics of the time. He also makes the story's shameless Nazi undercurrents alarmingly real. As the sexually promiscuous Fraulein Kost, Alexis Willoughby, 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.  At the end of Act I, she and Kuell, backed by the "Cabaret" ensemble, take center stage to perform the eye-opening, faux-Nazi anthem "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," It's a fitting close to the show's first act and one that is delivered with a full-voice emotion and pathos that lingers long after the house lights come up.

There's a lot to love about this latest incarnation of "Cabaret." Daring, edgy, hypnotic and enthralling, it has a pulse, drive and style all its own. It takes chances and runs with them. It dutifully 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, crippling descent into the Nazi nightmare of Hitler's Germany is portrayed with raw intensity and boldness. Re-configured by director Eli Newsom in an immersive theatre setting, the actual story is more decadent, brazen and truthful than before. The tuneful Kander and Ebb score comes gift wrapped with melodically enticing music that is the heart and soul of this "Cabaret." Perry Liu's dark and inviting set design is edgy, observant and marvelously reflective of the show's up close and point-of-view concept.
The cast - principals, supporting players, dancers and ensemble - are completely in sync with the songs, the dialogue, the characters and the new material envisioned by the show's creators and collaborators. And the ending - all of the characters appear on stage, one by one, ready to face the consequences set forth by the Nazi regime - gives this production  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")

Photos of "Cabaret" courtesy of Kate Eisemann Pictures

"Cabaret" is being staged at Fairfield Center Stage (Trevil Lounge, 548 Kings Highway Cutoff, Fairfield, CT), now through September 28.
For more information, ca;; (203) 416-6446 (voice mail only) and leave a message.
For tickets, visit the FCS website.

Monday, September 16, 2019

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

By James V. Ruocco

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

And, so it begins.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos of "Macbeth" courtesy of Stephen Cihanek

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

Saturday, September 7, 2019

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

By James V. Ruocco

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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