Wednesday, October 30, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 215, A Review: "American Son" (TheaterWorks/Hartford)

By James V. Ruocco

What has happened to 18-year-old Jamal Connor?

The stakes are high and amplified in Christopher Demos-Brown's "American Son," a chilling, taut, ambitious work that answers questions about race relations, politics, parenthood, family, marriage, prejudice and police wrongfulness in a very big, exciting way.

As the house lights come up on this 100-minute, intermissionless play, a very fidgety Kendra Ellis-Conner is anxiously checking her mobile phone in an empty police station waiting room at 4 a.m. while outside it is raining and thundering with no sign of slowing down at any given moment. While texting and leaving messages for her son Jamal who took his car out the night before and failed to return home, she is trying hard not to panic about her son's obvious disappearance even when Paul Larkin, a clueless junior officer tries to comfort her without any knowledge or updates of what has happened or any explanation of what is really going on behind the scene's as the search for Jamal continues.

With the arrival of Jamal's father Scott, an F.B.I. agent who demands an immediate explanation, things get very out of hand until Lt. John Stokes makes an appearance and eventually faces the concerned couple, explains Jamal's whereabouts and reveals what actually did happen when the boy was finally pulled over by the police with two other passenger's in the car. It's an incident like no other.


"American Son" is a sharp, intriguing, well-plotted play with satisfying twists, turns and surprises that spark and rattle in all directions that race productively toward an ending that is correct, draining and ultimately satisfying.

As written by Brown, the language, the conversations and the actual plot evolution are penned with a confident, detailed pacing and excitement that doesn't waver for a single second. Characters are accurately drawn with purpose, drive and determination. The dialogue is rich, bold and thought-provoking. There's also a well-orchestrated fluidity to the piece that is tight, dramatic and natural and never once over-bearing, forced or out of sync with the action and storytelling at hand.

At TheaterWorks, "American Son" is being staged by Rob Ruggiero whose directorial credits include "Next to Normal," "Constellations," "Relativity," "Oliver!" "The Legend of Georgia McBride," "Looped," "Carousel," "The Understudy," "Take Me Out," "Big River," "Three Tall Women" and "Carousel." Here, as in other productions he has staged, creative skills are pretty much evident and dominant as he taps passionately into the playtext cleverly, realistically and inventively, crafting an emotional ride that is accomplished, connected, intense and very self-assured. As both director and storyteller, he knows when to take a breath, when to take a pause and when to let the material sit, stir, entice or completely shake you up when things get especially heated or completely out of control.  

What's particularly impressive about Ruggiero's work in "American Son" is the way scene's connect and unspool with each of the four central characters when they converse, show up, exit and then reappear. The waiting room setting, the outside storm, the ongoing chaos and the uncertainty with only skeletal information delivered here and there allows Ruggiero to keep things edgy and crazed while waiting for the big reveal that ends the play. And when the balls drops - and drop it does- it's a actor-audience moment that Ruggiero delivers with stirring accuracy, pathos and shock as the stage lights slowly fade to black. 

"American Son" stars Ami Brabson as Kendra Ellis-Connor, J. Anthony Crane as Scott Connor, John Ford-Dunker as Officer Paul Larkin and Michael Genet as Lt. John Stokes. Brabson, very passionate and moving throughout, is the real deal. She not only completely connects with the story and its emotionally awakening mindset, but allows you to experience everything she does, says and feels. The closeness of actor to audience heightens that intensity. In the role of Scott Connor, Crane tackles the play's racial, political and familial issues with the right spark and emotional concern the part calls for. He is also well matched opposite Brabson which makes their individual moments together real, raw and honest. As Officer Paul Larkin, Dunker's racial ignorance, doofy unkindness and by-the-book policeman persona is so believably rendered, you never doubt him for a moment. Genet, as Lt. John Stokes, shows up near the end of the play, but it's a character turn so compelling and painstakingly honest, it's well worth the wait.

"American Son" is an edgy, raw, dramatic piece of theatre fueled by silence, influence, simplicity, attitude and rage. Christopher Demos-Brown has written a play that gets under your skin, rips your heart in two and kicks you in the ass when you least expect it. Director Rob Ruggiero gets it right at every turn. And his cast of four play out every one of his practical, involved directorial moves in thrilling, unravelling, in-your-face fashion.

PS: This is the first production to be performed at TheaterWorks' newly renovated space. The new design is stunning and well worth the wait. It too is a class act like the theater itself.  

Photos of "American Son" courtesy of Lanny Nagler. 

"American Son" is being staged at TheaterWorks (233 Pearl St., Hartford, CT), now through November 23.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-7838.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 214, A Review: "The Wicked Witch of the West: Kansas or Bust" (Pantochino Productions)

By James V. Ruocco

First published in 1900 as a children's book titled "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," L. Frank Baum's classic, much-loved story has given rise to many sequels, spin offs, prequels, adaptations, stage shows, musicals and the iconic Technicolor 1939 MGM film that starred Judy Garland, Margaret Hamilton, Ray Bolger and Billie Burke.

A delightful piece of wonder, told in a fairybook style of the brightest of colors, the "Oz" story is so well-intentioned, it's no wonder Pantochino Productions opted to do their own version of the oft-told story using the amused gleam of Baum's most enchanting creations, mixed with a fresh-sounding, original music score and plenty of zany humbuggery that unfolds in every color of the rainbow.


"The Wicked Witch of the West: Kansas or Bust" is a dazzling entertainment for all ages wrapped up in sugar-coated packaging designed to turn adults into little kids again and transport children back to that magical kingdom of Oz surrounded by some of their favorite characters including Dorothy Gale, The Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, Glinda, the Good Witch and the mighty Wizard.

In this version, the Wicked West of the West travels to Kansas to get back her magical powers (for story purposes, she's lost them), by stealing her broomstick and precious ruby-red slippers back from Dorothy Gale so that she can become "wicked" again. It's a feat, the green-faced witch hopes to accomplish effortlessly, using the slippery malice and sneaky intuition that first spun madly out of control in the popular MGM movie.

But can she do it?

Will Dorothy be able to outsmart her with the help of her trusty, rainbow trio?
Will Glinda, the Good Witch, be called upon for back up?
Or will the Wicked Witch suffer the same fate she did in "The Wizard of Oz" and melt again via yet another thrown pail of water?

Sorry, no spoilers, here.

Staging and directing "The Wicked Witch of the West: Kansas or Bust," Bert Bernardi brings the "Oz" story thrillingly to life using just the right amount of confidence, imagination, crystal ball magic, chutzpah, amusement and good, old-fashioned, rainbow-tinged charm. There's a homespun naturalism and whimsy to the piece, which when shaken and stirred, reveals apt doses of humor, surprise and poignancy of every possible shade. He has fun. We have fun. He smiles. We smile. He goes for the punchline. We get it and wait for another. He toys with our senses. We willingly go along for the ride. He changes direction. We sit back attentively wondering what's going to happen next.

Working from a play text that he wrote with oomph, style, passion and cheery references to the actual "Wizard of Oz" 1939 film, cleverly mixed with new information about what happened when Dorothy finally found herself back in Kansas,  Bernardi brings a ripened exactness and harmonious resonance to the work that allows it to sparkle, dazzle, breathe, settle and take shape. Nothing is taken for granted. Nothing is thrown in for extra measure. Nothing is staged as an afterthought. Nothing occurs out of the ordinary. This is a labor of love that respects the big Judy Garland MGM movie musical, its much-loved characters, their back story, the chaos and merriment of their journey down the Yellow Brick Road, their dicey entanglement with the Wicked Witch of the West and their grand encounter with Emerald City's masterful Wizard.

At the same time, Bernardi is not one to rest on his laurels. The aftermath of Dorothy's journey and her re-encounter with the "Over the Rainbow" sect - The Wicked Witch of the West, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, Glinda- is rich in promises, rainbows, adventure, fantasy, personality, spirit, happiness and a dash or two of madness. It sings and soars. It is imaginatively crafted and paced. It is warm and fussy. It has a marvelous sense of sequel enlightenment to it that Bernardi shapes and molds with such cleverness and excitement, it's impossible not to be swept up in the magic of it all. As storyteller, he also knows and understands how language is to be used. There's vitality and depth here along with some choice one liners, character turns, attributions and surprises that enrich this adaptation and its overall effectiveness.

The musical score for "The Wicked Witch of the West: Kansas or Bust" has been written by Bert Bernardi (lyrics) and Justin Rugg (music) whose collaborative efforts at Pantochino Productions include "Glitz! The Little Miss Christmas Musical" " and "The Waffle House Five." It contains 11 musical numbers. They are "Kansas," "Dorothy's Lament," "The Wicked Witch of the West," "Who Needs a Yellow Brick Road?"  "Slippers, A Broom and A Girl," "This Better Be Really Good!" "Who Needs a Yellow Brick Road? (Reprise)," "The Wicked Witch of the West (Reprise)," "On the Road to Wichita," " Fabulous Magical Shoes" and "I'd Click My Heels."

A musical sherbet of sorts that challenges and soothes the ear, the songs themselves - melodic, cherry-ripe, catchy - unfold with fine touches of originality, deftness, humor, sentiment, pathos, camp, cuteness, slapstick and music hall variety show.  They are fun, exciting, pleasurable, character driven and so very right for this hilarious new take on the popular "Wizard of Oz" story. Every one of them fits seamlessly into the show's two act scenario, thus, taking us on a full-filled musical journey that delivers the goods most engagingly. The placement, the orchestrations and the lyrics are slap-bang-wallop original. Each musical number not only carries the action forward, but says so much about the characters who sing them from loveable, misunderstood Dorothy to the green-faced, Wicked Witch of the West. There's also a pop-rock/classic show music fusion about them, which heightens their musicality, flair, characteristics and lyrical incitements.

Under Justin Rugg's effective musical direction, the rush of sound and virtuoso that greets each musical number is balanced, playful and rhythmically booming. It's show-catchy work, performed with amazing clarity and abandon that commands attention, pushes boundaries, complements the pending/ongoing action and adds color, nuance and sparkle, when necessary. In turn, nothing gets lost in the translation. Everyone in the cast is in perfect pitch, reveling in the musical's charms and abundant wit, pathos and sentimentality. All of the musical numbers, from solos to ensemble turns, are sung brilliantly. And when it comes time to harmonize, the performers themselves deliver a clean, crisp harmonious sound, rife with excitement, luster and brio that serves the material and the story very well.

It's a role Shelley Marsh-Poggio was born to play and play it she does as the show's larger-than-life title character, the Wicked Witch of the West. An actress with great personality, brilliant comic timing and lots of fire and spark, she takes hold of the title role and makes it her own,  injecting the right fizzy and slippery demeanor into the character which keeps things fast and furious in all directions. In the part of Dorothy Gale, Mary Mannix channels her character's warmth, expressiveness, curiosity and sweetness so beautifully and naturally, her incredible nuanced performance brings a tender humanity and shimmer to the proceedings. Both she and Poggio are at the top of their game throughout the two-act musical, working wonderfully together side-by-side and with the rest of the "Wicked Witch" cast. Vocally, both actresses have the vocal chops to pour out their hearts out in song, which they do with a feel-good glow and blazing intuition that is apparent in all of their musical numbers.

The Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion, played respectively by Jimmy Johansmeyer, Justin Rugg and Cadence Castro, dance to their own drum roll, offering fresh, inspired, snappy portrayals of the popular trio that are unique, well played and imagined while retaining the spirit and high energy envisioned in Baum's original story. There's no oversized floating bubble to signal Rachelle Ianiello's on-stage arrival as Glinda, the Good Witch. Regardless, the actress crafts a charming, sparkling performance that pays homage to the "Oz" scenario and respects the character's effervescent, do-gooder persona. The irrepressible George Spelvin gets to try on three different hats, all of which he does with the appropriate dazzle and chutzpah he is famous for. As Auntie Em, he delights and cajoles with a nod or two to BBC One's "Mrs.Brown's Boys." He also has great fun as the Wizard of Oz and the Ox Door Gate Keeper, two roles which he conveys with warmth, intuitiveness and comic zing and snap.

"The Wicked Witch of the West: Kansas or Bust" is a sharp, snappy, belly-laugh musical comedy with hilarious, gleeful performances, brilliant directorial timing and pacing and a breezy story line that is clearly inspired fun. It's a wonderful group effort in a class of its own, fueled by a twinkly, effervescent musical score, big jokes that harken fond memories of "The Wizard of Oz," great production values and a very happy ending that proves once again - "there's no place like home."

"The Wicked Witch of the West: Kansas or Bust" is being staged at Pantochino Productions (40 Railroad Ave., Milford, CT), now through October 27.
For tickets or more information, call (203)  843-0959.

Monday, October 21, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 213, A Review: "On the Grounds of Belonging" (Long Wharf Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

Two men -  one black; one white - meet and fall in love in a gay bar in Houston, Texas during the 1950's.

Thus begins, Long Wharf's world premiere staging of "On the Grounds of Belonging," Ricardo Perez Gonzalez's new, important drama about gay love, gay codes, gay sex and gay conventions that digs deep into the homosexual past of yesterday with a surprising openness and vision that pulses with a forward-moving persistence and vitality that is completely upfront and needs no introduction.

On the surface, Gonzalez's work is very much a product of its time, chronically the romance of a biracial gay couple in Jim Crow-era Texas, where that kind of love was not only taboo, but met with a history of violence and prejudice that did not want to see it flourish or succeed. No matter how messy, complicated or spat upon, no one dropped their guard or refused to follow their romantic beliefs, a key point of "On the Ground of Belonging," which the playwright acknowledges through choice words, dialogue, characters and events that retrace gay history proudly, humanly and importantly in ways that draw connections to the present LGBTQ lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community of today.


The inhabitants of this play are meticulously drawn and illuminated so that their story flickers, sputters and flames with a profound consciousness and weight  that is fully human and intense in all the right ways. Writing well about the past, Gonzalez fills his play text with piercing concreteness and headstrong force and reflections that produce the effect of realism unobtrusively. There's also a rhythmic completeness to his language in form and concern that gives the piece added power, depth, knowledge and resonance.

Staging "On the Grounds of Belonging," director David Mendizabal's attitude and intimate stagecraft construction is fueled by a bold, consistent mindset that investigates a love that, in 1950's Texas, though enjoyable, was underscored by pain, hatred and cruelty. Nonetheless, he crafts an interesting, well-played drama that is brash, provocative, heated, mincingly humorous and awash in a sadness that still persists today. As the play progresses from scene to scene, Mendizabal moves the action along with speed and gusto and amped-up moments that reflect the story's heartfelt moments, its quiet torments, its bewitching tenderness, its sexual boldness and its emotional tragedy.

The production also benefits greatly from a raw, fit interpretation that never veers out of control, disrespects the characters or adapts an overly preachy tone that lessens the impact, the presence or the pathos on stage. Here, conversations, mood swings, disclosures, details, boozy retreats and explosions are depicted with a confidence that is clean and clear. As director and storyteller, Mendizabal's take on the material is both rewarding and fulfilling.
He also treats the play's sexual content openly and realistically with lots of heated talk about oral sex, penetration, climaxing and sexual acts, many of which happen offstage. And when the script dictates same-sex kissing, embracing, touching and the tearing off of one's clothes for some very passionate, raw sex in the bedroom, he doesn't hold back for a moment and neither does the onstage actors. This conceit, through taboo for the time frame of the play, is staged with the right spark and intensity to make it pop and resonate honestly without any form of calculation.

"On the Grounds of Belonging" stars Jeremiah Clapp as Thomas Aston, Calvin Leon Smith as Russell Montgomery, Tracey Conyer Lee as Tanya Starr, Blake Anthony Morris as Henry Stanfield, Thomas Silcott as Hugh Williams and Craig Bockhorn as Mooney Fitzpatrick.

The casting of Jeremiah Clapp as Thomas Aston and Calvin Leon Smith as Russell Montgomery, the gay lovers of the story, is powerful, poignant and particularly moving. Both actors have the right charisma, puzzled kindness, dare, jagged edge, braveness and relatable gayness their character's demand to pull off the play's troubled romance and its heart-wringing conclusion. Thomas Silcott, in the role of black bar manager Hugh Williams, delivers a well-intentioned character turn filled with great insight and acquired observation and patience. As Tanya Starr, a blues singer who delivers some jazzy, moody torch songs, Tracey Conyer Lee is genuine, emotional and very much at the top of her game. If anyone is doing "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill," Lee would be the perfect choice to play the troubled, drug-addicted Billie Holiday. Blake Anthony Morris does not disappoint as Henry Stanfield, a promiscuous homosexual prone to backroom sex, toilet sex and any other kind of gay sex. It's a complex, intense performance played with rattlesnake allure and menace that the actor inhabits and exudes most convincingly. As Mooney Fitzpatrick, a racist Southern gay man who owns two of the town's gay bars, Craig Bockhorn conveys his character's prejudiced qualities with a swift and bullish-like thrust that never wavers. But when the dust settles, a genuine pathos and raw concern, emerges.

Celebrating its world premiere at Long Wharf, "On the Grounds of Belonging" is a poignant, soul-bearing play about social oppression, racism and homosexuality that bravely looks back at a forgotten time and people when certain lifestyles, choices and sexuality were not always welcome. Playwright Ricardo Perez Gonzalez drives the message home with passion, allure, despair and plenty of heartbreak. There are laughs. There are tears. There are surprises. There is lashing out. But through it all, the play itself is yet another hard nod to the bigotries that exist - then and now - for people willing to take a stand, be themselves and hold their head up high and proud whichever the identity stripe they choose to wear and follow.

One final note: This play is the first installment of a trilogy. So this is not the end. It's just the beginning.

"On the Grounds of Belonging" is being staged at Long Wharf Theatre (222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, CT), now through November 3.
For tickets or more information, call (203)  787-4282.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 212, A Review: "Little Shop of Horrors" (ACT of CT)

By James V. Ruocco

"Les Miserables"
"My Fair Lady"

It is often said that musical theatre is the best medicine in the world. If that is true, "Little Shop of Horrors" at ACT of CT, is prescription ready, matinee or evening, as the best laughter-generating medicine to cure what ails you, get your pulse racing and blow you out of the ballpark with some really spectacular, jaunty theatrical euphoria.


This is one of those musicals that is not only full of surprising and joyful moments, but given ACT's upclose, intimate space, its classy, inventive, high-tech theatrics, its impeccably timed turntable configurations and its dynamic sound, set, lighting and costuming design team, it's impossible not to be swept away by this gleeful, wicked, high-spirited sci-fi horror romp.

Those looking for great theatre will not be disappointed. This edition of "Little Shop" taps into an imagination that is uniquely created, played and performed. It is completely comfortable with its out-of-this world premise. It also sizzles and quakes with laughs, gasps and whoops that are wondrous to behold.

Based on Roger Corman's 1960 horror comedy about a nerdy floral shop worker who raises a giant, botanical man-eating plant that feeds on human flesh and blood, this act-musical finds humor and bite (no pun intended) in the sublime ridiculousness of it all as people - the less-fortunate souls of downtown's garbage-tinged Skid Row -  end up in bits and pieces as the demonic Audrey II Venus flytrap plant grows and grows and grows and cries "Feed Me, Feed Me" whenever the need for hot-red blood and gooey, dismembered body parts are requested for late-night feedings.

An arm.
A leg.
A foot.
A finger.
An entire body.
No matter, it's all on the menu.
Just dig in and devour.

The directorial blueprint for "Little Shop of Horrors," an inventive pastiche of humor, drive-in movie theater exuberance, menacing camp and cuddle, nitrous oxide sadism, sass and brass and pep and charm is the brainchild of Jason A. Sparks who also doubles as the show's choreographer. His riotous reinvention of the original off-Broadway production is twisty, masterful, rainbow high, giggly, goofy and cupcake sprinkle hungry. It looks terrific. It sounds terrific. It explodes with outrageous inspiration and cheekiness. It is maniacal and unhinged. It has the comic book feel of a 1960's Hammer Films horror fest. It tackles spoof and parody with slapstick brilliance. It is also lovingly staged in 3-D like glorious Technicolor.

What's most impressive about Sparks' direction is that is all makes perfect sense as it handles the pathos and hilarity of Howard Ashman's original play text, its indelible ditz and glitz and its ever-spinning kvetching, romanticism and period-appropriate riffs and charms. Although it takes it cue from the 1982 off-Broadway production, Sparks puts a fresh, fit, irresistible stamp on this incarnation that not only gives it a brand new life of its own, but surpasses that of the original version in terms of staging, casting, performance and overall execution.
Elsewhere, Sparks' choreography has a refreshing lift and feel to it that harkens fond memories of the 1960's, its mindset and the pop female singing groups of that era from the Marvelettes and the Chiffons to the Shirelles and the Supremes.  The moves, the beats and the rhythms are vintage, urgent fun chock full of exhilarating, complex and confident strokes, mixed with the right body language, synchronization and steps reflective of the period from whence they came. So when the music gets going and the cast starts to move and groove, the connectivity to the movement is signature, satisfying and harmonious.

The musical score for "Little Shop of Horrors" was written by Alan Menken (music) and Howard Ashman (lyrics), the creative team for Disney's "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast." First performed off-Broadway at the WPA Theatre before moving to the Orpheum Theatre in Manhattan's East Village, the musical includes 20 original songs that reflect the dark comic tone and mischievous spirit of the entire production. They are: "Prologue (Little Shop of Horrors)," "Skid Row (Downtown)," "Da-Doo," "Grow For Me," "Ya Never Know," "Somewhere That's Green," "Closed For Renovations," "Dentist!" "Mushnik and Son," "Sudden Changes," "Feed Me (Git It)," "Now (It's Just the Gas)," "Coda (Act I Finale)," "Call Back in the Morning," "Suddenly Seymour," "Suppertime," "The Meek Shall Inherit," "Sominex/Suppertime II (Reprise)," "Somewhere That's Green" and "Finale (Don't Feed the Plants)."

Nostalgic to the core, the "Little Shop" soundtrack - an infectious mix of doo-wop, 1960's rock and roll, early Motown, unapologetic chirp, glitter ball la-di-da, American Bandstand kitsch - cranks up the craziness and drives home the hell-bent, let-it-rip playfulness of the musical story, its absolute malice, its bubbly charm and its clever and tuneful vitality. All of the songs are well-intentioned and strategically placed from scene to scene and act to act and so very right for the characters who digest and sell them and bring them happily and effortlessly to life.

At ACT of CT, musical direction is provided by P. Jason Yarcho, a talented and savvy musician whose credits include the Broadway productions of "Wicked" and "An American in Paris" and the national touring edition's of "Falsettos" and "Bright Star." Well-attuned to the "Little Shop" concept envisioned by Menken and Ashman, Yarcho has great fun with the musical's melodic swagger and lyricism, its nostalgic rhetoric and its fierce, committed and paraded virtuosity. Every song is immaculate as anyone could wish. There's mediated power that sings and shouts. Things are capped with the taste, quench and thirst the music demands. And no matter what the mood or melancholic tilt, Yarcho and his orchestral team's (Isaac Hayward, Dennis Arcano, Jeff Carlson, Tom Cuffari, Arnold Gottlieb) darkly thrilling energy works its magic with dynamic pace and control.

"Little Shop of Horrors" stars Robb Sapp  as Seymour, Laura Woyasz as Audrey, Danicel C. Levine as Orin Scrivello, Bernstein, Luce, Sip and Everyone Else, William Thomas Evans as Mr. Mushnik, Kent Overshown as Audrey II, Kadrea Dawkins as Chiffon, Rachelle Legrand as Ronnette and Ashley Alexandra Seldon as Crystal.

In the role of the nebbish Seymour Krelborn, Rob Sapp is wide-eyed, confident, appealing, charasmatic and far superior to other actors who have played the part before including Lee Wilkhof who created the role in the original 1982 off-Broadway production and Rick Moranis who assumed the part in the 1986 movie musical adaptation. Here, Sapp's portrayal, both comically and vocally, is a work of creative imagination that allows him to completely inhabit the role, bring the right voice and personality to it and let it rip in all the right possible ways. As Audrey, the pretty shop assistant Seymour falls for, Laura Woyasz is glorious, magical, sweet, sexy, ditzy, vulnerable and fragile - everything the part calls for and more. It's a part that is played to perfection with an inner fire, charm and radiance that is completely real and natural, matched by a Broadway/West End voice, song style and vocal ability that is way beyond impressive. In terms of overall performance, she too surpasses that of Ellen Greene who played Audrey opposite both Wilkhof and Moranis. There is also a real warmth and honesty to her scenes with Sapp, which the couple invests with appropriate playfulness, sincerity and sweet-tinged, boy-girl affection.

Sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello, plastered in creepy, black tattoos and grinning with malice and trademark psychopathic gratification, is played with absolute abandon and manic craziness by Daniel C. Levine who acts brilliantly, sings brilliantly and creeps everyone out brilliantly as he floods "Little Shop" with a thrilling energy and performance brio that takes his character to an entirely new level of wickedness. The actor also does double and triple duty changing costumes, looks, smiles and personalities to portray a variety of script-dictated cameo roles that reveal incredible comic timing, presence, character and swagger, all cleverly controlled, conceived, executed and realized. 

Kadrea Dawkins, Rachelle Legrand and Ashley Alexandra Seldon are in terrific voice as Chiffon, Ronnette and Crystal, the doo-wopping trio of street urchins (i.e., Greek chorus), who comment on the action and move the story forward musically and collectively with plenty of sass, brass, spunk and attitude that is contagiously and agreeably balanced and perfectly in sync with "Little Shop's" maddening parody concept. As flower shop owner Mr. Mushnik, William Thomas Evans brings plenty of charm, zest and personality to the role, making every one of his scenes, songs and interaction with the cast, completely stand out. Kent Overshown has the right vocal chops, mindset and menacing energy as the unseen voice of Audrey II, the man-eating plant who turns most of the cast into fertilizer after they meet their untimely doom. 

Thomas Bergamo, the tremendously talented puppeteer who brings Audrey II to life on stage in various incarnations, takes hold of the plant's intricately-timed moves and maneuvers and brings such incredible life and purpose to this strange, green, oversized character, he not only outmaneuvers and rises above the puppet showmanship of the original off-Broadway production, but subsequent revivals and national tours of "Little Shop" as well.

A wild and wacky celebration of glee, doo-wop, camp and color, "Little Shop of Horrors" is a cult classic rock musical that is performed with absolute abandon, trademark swagger and bloodthirsty B-movie flourish. It captivates and cajoles. It taunts and teases. It charms and seduces. Its Faustian  elements are demented and manically daft. It is also an outrageous distraction of caricatures and madness designed to make you laugh hard and out loud, bring a wicked smile to your face and shake you up with a incredible, insatiable thirst for blood.
PS: There's plenty to gorge on, but be forewarned. Don't, for God's sake, feed the plants!"

Photos of "Little Shop of Horrors" courtesy of Jeff Butchen

"Little Shop of Horrors" is being staged at ACT of CT (36 Old Quarry Rd., Ridgefield, CT), now through November 3.
For tickets or more information, call (475) 215-5433

Saturday, October 19, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 211, A Review: "Respect: A Musical Journey of Women" (Connecticut Cabaret Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

Oh, what a night!

Based on the stories and research of Dorothy Marcic, "Respect: A Musical Journey of Women" glances back at the history of the women's movement, their independence and fight for equality  drawing upon a wide range of material pulled from 20th century song classics, pop hits and anthems. It's all very powerful and breezy stuff that celebrates all forms of music specifically and effortlessly with vigilance and sterling intentions that are very hard to resist.


This freely-flowing musical is a surprising delight that delivers songs with punch and power, bright sincerity and a buoyant tunefulness ready for reinvention.

A show like this, which taps into nostalgia, womanhood and camaraderie for entertainment's sake, could easily fall into that escapist trap of bubble gum gooey repetition in the hands of inexperienced directors not versed in this sort of page-by-page songbook conceit. The enlistment of Kris McMurray as director of "Respect" however, keeps this two-act musical real, romantic and heartwarming from start to finish with nary a hiccup, a break, a halt, a skip or a bump. As director and storyteller, he takes chances and runs with them. He never repeats himself. He knows when to amp things up and when to power things down. He understands the mechanics of staging a musical of this caliber, how to position and move it, how to cast it perfectly, how to design and stage it, how to make it flow, how to pause it and make it linger in the moment and how to ready it for live performance.

Here, we get a finely crafted, lightweight musical romp and revue that sizzles and snaps, charms and enlightens, teases and taunts and keeps its playful, sugar-coated concept well grounded and controlled. It is fun. It is simple. It is cute, It is fanciful. It is energetic. It is full of sprinkles and sparkles. It knows exactly where it is going and never looks back.
"Respect" also benefits from McMurray's actual knowledge and appreciation of the musical's time frame which spans over 100 years. He is completely akin to the wonderful musicality of the different decades and knows exactly how to move his cast carefully through well timed and orchestrated group movements and synchronized dance moves that give the individual songs additional weight, drive, purpose and remembrance. There's a lot of stage business from song to song and McMurray keeps his musical quartet knee deep in the merriment of it all no matter how silly, how dramatic, how cute or how important it is to the evolution of the story. His creativity is inspired throughout, mixed with a clever uniqueness and style that never falters for a moment.

Big on music with over 40 songs sung entirely from a women's perspective that happily trips the light fantastic while sailing through the decades, "Respect" adapts a snappy juke-box format with one song hit after another. Some are sung in their entirety. Others are delivered in bits and pieces.  No matter, all of them are well worth the ride. They include "You Don't Own Me," "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," "As Long As He Needs Me," "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," "I Will Survive," "My Man," "Beautiful," "Where the Boys Are," "Que Sera Sera," "Greatest Love of All," "If I Knew You Were Coming I'd Baked A Cake," "It Must Be Him," "God Bless the Child," "Over There" and "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend."

Strategically placed in chronological order, the songs themselves offer commentary, history and nostalgia while tapping into everything from marriage and the workplace to girl-boy crushes, lost loves, tragic blues, broken hearts, World War II canteens, Rosie the Riveter and standing by your man when the chips are down. On keyboard, musical director TJ Thompson with the able assist of Jamie Sherwood (guitar) and Tim Urso (percussion) are in vast command, keeping things sharp and shining throughout. Everything is focused and inspired with fanfares, high points, syncopation's, rhythms and mood swings fueled with perfect orchestral coloring and form that is wonderfully evocative, soothing and pace impressive.

The two-act musical stars Maria Soaft, Emily Gray, Erica Whitfield and Erin Liddell, all of whom were featured earlier this year in Connecticut Cabaret Theatre's bouncy and buoyant musical hit "The Bikinis." All four are a bunch of talented, charismatic performers whose innate charm, warmth, personality and showmanship give "Respect" its unifying lift, spirit, magic, sweetness and nostalgic adrenaline. As envisioned by Dorothy Marcic, the show's author and creator, the production itself allows each actress to embrace the music she is given, take hold of it, make it her own and illuminate its vocal veracity with the refreshing honesty and compassion that rocketed it to the top of the "Billboard" charts in the first place.

As with most musicals of this genre, including "The Taffetas," "Forever Plaid," "The Wonderful Wonderettes" and "Beehive," there are obvious star turns, standouts, showstoppers and wonderfully wacky moments that make you smile, clap madly, shed a tear or give your husband, wife or partner a kiss or two on the cheek. Through it all, this quartet of actresses have great fun gliding through the years, changing costumes and personalities, talking to the audience and doing what comes naturally. As actors, they are so very right for each of the different women they are asked to portray. They have a wonderful rapport with each other and the audience. They are great storytellers. They know how to play comedy and drama and they play it well.

Vocally, they are in full voice, smartly reflecting the vocal finesse, style and intent of the many songs they are asked to sing. They have fun. We have fun. What's wonderful here is the depth, the versatility and the song style of each vocalist as "Respect" pays homage to the songs of yesteryear. All four exude amazing form, range and control. Their harmonizing is pitch perfect. They know how to wrap their voice around a lyric they want you to understand, acknowledge and appreciate. They also exude a down-to-earth charisma, fondness and genuine affection for being able to do what they do in front of a live performance And in a show like this one, that mentality goes a very long way.

An engaging entertainment, chock full of catchy music and memorable performances, "Respect: A Musical Journey of Women" comes packaged with enough song variations and tidbits to keep everyone merrily entertained with its soundtrack of 20th century hits. The words and music from each decade are vigorous and assertive. The band provides melodic, catchy accompaniment. And director Kris McMurray guides his cast of four through the decades with a thumbs-up brio and magic that is not only contagious, but makes you want to get up and dance and boogie all night long.

"Respect: A Musical Journey of Women" is being staged at Connecticut Cabaret Theatre (31-33 Webster Square Rd., Berlin, CT), now through November 9.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 829-1248.

Friday, October 18, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 210, A Review: "Girls" (Yale Repertory Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

The apparent frenzy and wildness of Yale Rep's "Girls," a maddening, entertaining and bizarre new take on "The Bacchae" embodies all the certainty, authority, sexuality, absurdity and lather of a superbly ushered rave presented in glorious, acid-tripping Technicolor.

It sings.
It speaks.
It flashes.
It entices.
It satisfies.
It engages.
It delights.

It also celebrates Yale Rep's ongoing commitment to original, avant-garde works that are unique, odd and decidedly different but very much in the moment of expressive, dynamic and memorable theatre that is surreal, jaw-dropping, experimental and pretty much "out there." And "Girls" gets that message across with a refreshed admission spiked with a ritualistic leap and flourish, which is perfect for its story of female opinion, power, responsibility and collectivism.

At Yale Rep, "Girls" is being staged by Lileana Blain-Cruz, a creative talent and director with a wild imagination and passionate confidence who moves crazily through the world of Euripides and Greek tragedy with a gift for tumbling madness, jazz-like dementia and revolutionary re-ordering. Here, wildness is the heart and pulse of this re-worked telling of "The Bacchae" and she fans out the bathos, anxiety and war zone hysteria with yelps, cries, chants, speeches and Bacchic shrills and laments that thrust the action forward like a hurried outdoor storm that intensifies and swirls absurdly out of control with its intensified flourish and force that demands attention at every turn.

Some of it, you grasp. Some of it, leaves you baffled and confused. Some of it, leaves you shaking your head in wonderment thinking, "What the fuck was that?" But in the long run, it doesn't really matter. Blain-Cruz knows exactly what she wants and she delivers it with delicious delinquency and lightning-bolt imagination, offset by quirky measures, tones and twists that arouse, sway, intrigue and tumble. It should also be noted that "Girls" plays like one big outdoor party of glee and trance-like abandonment with female voices front and center ready to reveal the strange, hypnotic and bizarre elements that have shaped and molded their already equally messed-up lives.

It's all pretty powerful stuff, strategically placed and ingeniously performed in between Raja Feather Kelly's pulsating, fevered non-stop choreography that's timed perfectly to the beat of background music that sizzles with pleasure-toting wickedness, delirium and in-your-face raunch and perversity. 
Depending on the moment, some figures appear burdened, trudging slowly to the dance rhythms and beats at hand while others glide happily about expressing joy and personal freedom with infectious energy. They even find time to hump the scenery, play with inflatable plastic cows or flirt with one another via orgasmic enlightenment and debauchery.

"Girls" stars Nicholas L. Ashe as Deon, Jeanine Serralles as Gaga, Will Seefried as Theo, Tom Nellis as Dada and Haynes Thigpen as Cowherd/Rere/Acting Sheriff Officer Ronnie. The Girls are played by Gabby Beans, Ayesha Jordan, Amelia Workman, Zoe Mann, Daniel Liu, Keren Lugo, Julian Sanchez, Jenna Yi, Maia Mihanovich, Anula Navlekar, Jennifer Regan, Gregory Saint Georges, Jackeline Torres Cortes and Adrienne Wells. Everyone works individually or as a team to bring out the play's playful or tragic trajectory, its ironic words and conversations, its dark truths and propulsive illuminations, its barbed levity and comic counterblasts. With Blain-Cruz offering detailed insight on how everything should be played and acted before a live audience, the cast stands tall and proud covering the whole spectrum that is "Girls" with boldness, ingenuity, gusto and a dash or two of intimate, hydralazine strangeness.

As theatre, "Girls" amps up the madness in energetic, weighty fashion, mixed with fantasies, observations, alerts, pronouncements and political stances that creates a hypnotic fervor that Yale Rep takes full advantage of. Its crazed, fucked-up take on "The Bacchae" is bizarre, mangled and dizzying with LSD-driven dazzle and a coked-up mindset that blasts you in the head, kicks you in the ass, toys with your senses and shakes you up vicariously in ways you never thought possible. Then, again, that's the point, isn't it? This is 21st century Euripides with a Studio 54 glaze and drug-induced, live stream euphoria that invites you to come in, take a look and succumb to its bold, water colored collage of fanaticism and derangement and then run out into the street dazed and stirred by the stoned, tripping, loaded insanity of it all.

Photos of "Girls" courtesy of Joan Marcus

"Girls" is being staged at Yale Repertory Theatre (University Theatre, 222 York St., New Haven, CT), now through October 26.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 432-1234.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 209, A Review: "The Book of Mormon" (The Bushnell)

By James V. Ruocco

Shocking, hell, no.
Crazy, oh, yes.
Wild, wacky and wonderful, yes, yes, yes.
Must-see entertainment,  most definitely.

The national touring company of "The Book of Mormon" is a big, splashy, explicit musical parody that attacks Mormons, Mormonism and missionaries with a lively animating spark of intelligence and satiric elan, that is so much fun, its witty take on the beliefs and practices of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, is impossible to resist.


This is a musical that overflows with giddy contempt and stinging acidity as fresh-faced Mormons (is there any other kind?) head to Uganda to preach the word of their Christ and build a new congregation of followers anxious to learn all about the Third Testament of the Bible. There are laughs galore and plenty of bounce, bite, sting and color to keep you happily entertained at the expense of Mormons everywhere, including those headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah and Independence, Missouri.
Who knows?  You may even find yourself curiously googling information about the holy book of Mormon itself or inviting a friendly Mormon or two over for an early Friday night supper.  

Staging "The Book of Mormon" is Trey Parker and Casey Nicholaw who won the 2011 Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical. Here, they create a madcap world that is chock full of cartoonish wit, energy, chutzpah, vulgarity, blasphemy and gayness. There's jokes about dysentery, baptism, medicine, vagina's, the male penis, sacrilege, homosexuals, lesbians, Africa, sex with frogs, maggots in the scrotum, religion, famine, Satan, Jesus Christ, the Bible, sexual intercourse, blow jobs, poverty, resurrection,  "Star Wars," "Star Trek," "The Lion King," "The King and I" and so more more. Nothing, of course, is off limits, a running gag that allows Parker and Nicholaw to run hog wild in very original and creative ways that heighten the musical's enjoyment from start to finish. The whole show is mapped out with such flourish, depth and drive, nothing ever gets lost in the translation.  It's a wild and wacky ride that is both uplifting and incredible and one that shows why "The Book of Mormon" took home nine Tony Awards including Best Musical.

Winner of the 2011 Tony Award for Best Musical Score, "The Book of Mormon" includes 21 musical numbers conceived by Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez. They are "Hello," "Two By Two," "You and Me (But Mostly Me)," "Hasa Diga Eebowai," "Turn It Off," "I Am Here For You," "All American Prophet," "Sal Tiay Ka Siti," "I Am Here For You (Reprise)," "Man Up," "Making Things Up Again," "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream," "I Believe," "Baptize Me," "I Am Africa," "Joseph Smith American Moses," "Hasa Diga Eebowai (Reprise)," "You and Me (But Mostly Me) (Reprise)," "Tomorrow Is a Latter Day," "Hello (Reprise)" and "Encore."

Gleeful, crazy and wonderfully harmonious, each of the musical numbers drives the production forward with heart, optimism, emotion and unabashed silliness. Satirizing organized Mormon religion with lampoons, pronouncements, declarations and playful escapist-like teasing and bashing, the tunes themselves are joyous, melodic, acidic and inspirational. They all fit perfectly into the framework of the story and are so very right for the characters who sing them and bring them to life night after night.

As "The Book of Mormon" evolves, musical director Andrew Graham and his orchestral team emphasize the extreme playfulness, madness and social jest of the music and lyrics, its twisty mindset and mood swings, its rainbow-tinged gay overtness, its saucy flavoring, its risqué implications and its over-the-top mechanics. Careful attention is also paid to the lyrical brashness of the piece, its tangy truths and upsurps, its magnificent wordplay, its deft phrasing, its jovial promiscuity, its distinct melodies and its giggly beats and rhythms. With Graham upfront and center, the orchestra is always in full swing and never once misses a beat or important song cue. They have fun. We have fun. They laugh. We laugh. And under Graham's expert tutelage, the entire cast (leads, supporting players, ensemble) deliver every one of the show's songs with the perfect pitch, confidence, pizazz and harmony intended by the show's creators.

Given that fact that "The Book of Mormon" has been designed solely as pure escapism with an homage to Broadway's golden past, dancing is everything in a musical of this caliber. Doubling as the show's choreographer, Nicholaw concocts a sweet, pungent bubbly dance euphoria that mixes elements of George Gershwin, Fred Astaire, Gower Champion, Gene Kelly and Busby Berkeley, among others, with intricate, daring and highly original dance moves, maneuvers and stylizations that snap, crackle and pop in every color of the rainbow.  He takes chances and runs with them. He surprises and delights. He leaves you awestruck with giddy delight. And he never once, repeats himself. He makes the right, appropriate choices in terms of style, mood, movement and dance tableaux and brings a fresh, slick, distinct feel to the proceedings, offset by plenty of froth, kitsch, electricity, attitude, eccentricity and craziness.

The two-act musical stars Liam Tobin as Elder Price, Jordan Matthew Brown as  Elder Cunningham, Alyah Chanelle Scott as Nabulungi, Andew Huntington Jones as Elder McKinley and Jacques C. Smith as Malfala. Everyone is suitably cast for their musical comedy 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, singing alone, in duets or with the ensemble, smartly mastering the melodic drive, pulse and heartbeat of the musical score. Vocal standouts include "I Believe," "Hello," "You and Me (But Mostly Me)," "Turn It Off," "Sal Tlay Ka Siti," "Joseph Smith American Moses" and "Hasa Diga Eebowai (Reprise)"

Big-hearted, well-intentioned and absolutely hysterical, "The Book of Mormon" is explicit, in-your-face fun that cheerfully reflects Broadway's golden age of musicals while satirically exposing the absurdities of the Mormon doctrines and its smiley-faced do-gooders. The hard-working cast is both accomplished and animated. The R-rated language is appropriately crazy. The songs are tremendous fun. And the dancing is done in such a clever good way, its bare-faced cheek and dazzle will send you out into the night thinking naughty thoughts about those door-to-door religious salesmen with gleaming teeth peddling Mormonism all across the USA anxious to recruit you and yours into their big money-making institution.

"The Book of Mormon" is being staged at the Bushnell (166 Capitol Ave., Hartford, CT), now through October 20.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 987-5900.

Monday, October 14, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 208, A Review: "Billy Elliot: The Musical (Goodspeed Musicals)

By James V. Ruocco

In the northeast mining community of County Durham, circa 1984, working-class society is crumbling at the hands of Margaret Thatcher's destructive government while at the same time, a young boy discovers artistic self-expression, quite accidentally, through dance.

Thus begins, "Billy Elliot: The Musical," a whimsical, inspiring, socially-conscious tale that takes its cue from Stephen Daldry's acclaimed 2000 motion picture drama that starred Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Gary Lewis and Jean Heywood and sets it to music.

Spectacular, visceral, bold and brash, this is an amazing piece of musical theatre, chock full of boundary-pushing information, depth, fantasy and stagecraft that overflows into something quite triumphant and remarkable. More importantly, it supports artistic freedom in the arts, it practiced equality, the camaraderie of dancing and its intensives and oh yes, the increased confidence that boys can dance too and they do it ever so well. Here, the discovery of one's talent is what's important. Anyone who has a problem with that, is advised to stay home.

At Goodspeed, "Billy Elliot: The Musical" is being staged by internationally renowned director Gabriel Barre whose credits include "Sweeney Todd," "Camille Claudel," "Private Lives," "John & Jen," "Hair" and "The Scarlet Pimpernel." As with other musicals and plays he has directed, there is a rawness, soulfulness and warm humanity here that gives the story a real, spontaneous feel and passion that keeps it grounded, truthful, graceful and emotionally expressive. Barre's production also pays close attention to the period in which the musical is set, the people who populate the coal-mining town of County Durham, their raw energy, their solidarity, resentment and defiance, their stubborn and one-sided mindset and their fight for survival amidst the heated Thatcher government that threatens their very existence.

At the center, of course, is the story of young Billy Elliot, his mourning for his mother who died two years before the musical begins, his relationship with his oppressively male-dominated family and finally, his discovery of dance - i.e., ballet- and its many possibilities. As director and storyteller, Barre shapes Lee Hall's well-honed script imaginatively and sensitively with wonderfully sketched and played tenderness and affection. He also never allows the show's pacy musicality to sidetrack the emotional resonance of Billy's personal struggle, his hopes and dreams and his ongoing fight to overcome impossible odds and become a respected ballet dancer with the full support of his not so terribly encouraging family.

Pacing is everything in this invigorating telling and Barre doesn't waste a single moment. The individual stories and the emotions expressed by every one of the characters is calibrated brilliantly with a page-turning power and balance that keeps the production airborne with nary a glitch, a hiccup, a halt or a stumble. From rehearsal hall to stage, Barre's determined vision not only reflects the well-intentioned conceit of the show's originator's, but cements the liberal humanity of the play text, its exhilarating simplicity and its triumph-over-adversity machinations most engagingly.

Written by Elton John (music) and Lee Hall (lyrics), the musical score for "Billy Elliot: The Musical" features 16 individual musical numbers. They are "The Stars Look Down," "Shine," "Grandma's Song," "Solidarity," "Expressing Yourself," "The Letter (Mum's Letter)," "We Were Born to Boogie," "Angry Dance," "Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher," "Deep Into the Ground," "Dream Ballet/Swan Lake," "He Could Be a Star," "Electricity," "Once We Were Kings," "The Letter (Billy's Reply) (Reprise)" and "Finale." Emotional, endearing, plot moving and character driven, the songs themselves take inspiration from the British working class of the 1980's and dutifully reflect the tensions, frustrations and observations of the times and the County Durham populace.

John and Hall also include underlying themes that tap into the title character's discovery, chase and pursuit of balletic dance along with chants, rhythms and percussion's that communicate the inspirational message of the musical -  acceptance, open-mindedness, the embracement of individuality, the stamping out of homophobic prejudice and standing tall in the face of adversity. This process, both collective and immersive, adds resonance and purpose to the story, punctuated by intimate bits of pathos and humor the characters project through choral sounds and climatic moments that define the "Billy Elliot" experience.

Serving as musical director is Michael O' Flaherty, a celebrated, award-winning musician whose Goodspeed credits include "Oliver!" "The Drowsy Chaperone," "The Music Man," "Big River," "1776," "Bye, Bye Birdie," "The Most Happy Fella," "Me and My Girl," "The Pajama Game" and "Sweeney Todd," among others. Now in his 28th year at the Goodspeed, he brings the right flair and precision to "Billy Elliot: The Musical" along with an energy and form that is persuasive, inspired and true to the production's fully committed, fully disciplined high musical standards.

Under his tutelage, every one of the songs is completely realized, envisioned and performed to let you see and hear it all the more clearly. Working alongside his handpicked, exceptional orchestral team (William J. Thomas (keyboard), Sal Ranniello (percussion), David Kidwell (keyboard II), Pete Roe (trumpet), Matthew Russo (trombone),  Liz Baker Smith (reed),  Mickey Schuster (reed II), Nick DiFabio (guitar),  O'Flaherty always knows what buttons to push, how to let an important element of the score linger, when to amp things up and when to take a breath, a pause or a break. As "Billy Elliot: The Musical" evolves, he draws upon his own musical knowledge and experience to recreate the authority and vibrance envisioned by the show's originators with the able assist of his band who bring the required charm, spirit and drama to the piece.

Dance being a key element in "Billy Elliot: The Musical," Goodspeed has enlisted Marc Kimelman to choreograph the show's key dance moments, which range from awkward and gawky to eventful, exciting and completely passionate. Kimelman immediately connects the story elements at hand and creates many moments to savor including Billy's colorful, breakout "Angry Dance" and the imagined "Dream Ballet/Swan Lake" ballet where the title character dances with his older self. What stands out most here is Kimelman's unbridled confidence, his impeccable speed and timing and the way he mounts each of the dance numbers in terms of expression, polish and advancement. In every respect, he understands the artistic parameters of the production's dance blueprint from end-to-end and makes inspired choices of accomplished partnering, all of which are delivered superbly and engagingly.

The casting of Liam Vincent Hutt as Billy Elliot is a major tour-de-force that not only thrusts him front and center as he is in almost nearly every scene, but allows him to display his natural talent with the thrill, dazzle, charm and charisma the character of Billy is meant to have. He's articulate. He's focused. He's innocent. He's confident. He's curious. He's intuitive. He's sensitive. He just doesn't play Billy. He is Billy. It's the performance of the year and one that lets Hutt shine as a performer, singer, dancer and gymnast without ever missing a single beat, skip, leap or turn.
As the musical moves from scene to scene and act to act, the actor superbly captures the character's transition from klutzy dance beginner to graceful, seasoned pro along with his fight for freedom and expression amidst the tension, frustration and conflict that gives the musical its drive. His Geordie accent, skillfully developed under the tutelage of dialect coach Jennifer Scapetis-Tycer (she also works wonders with the entire "Billy Elliot" cast), reflects the character's northeast upbringing. And finally, Hutt is very much in the moment, making every he does real, raw and natural.

Making his Goodspeed debut, Sean Hayden aptly portrays the angst-ridden troubles and concerns of Billy's dad Jackie as he copes with the loss of his wife, the prolonged miner's strike and the fact that his son has taken an interest in balletic dance, which he feels is a recreation for just girls and poofs. It's a performance fraught with real honesty, depth and emotion. As Tony, Billy's older brother, Gabriel Sidney Brown vividly crafts a portrait of a reckless young man committed to the cause, but filled with anger and uncertainty. Jon Martens, in the role of Billy's best friend Michael, offers a genuine, endearing performance as a young lad who loves dressing up in women's clothes and find himself attracted to Billy. It's a character turn that comes from the heart and one that Martens plays with gleeful, wicked abandon. His big song-and-dance number "Expressing Yourself," performed with Billy and the Ballet Girls, is a genuine showstopper.

As Mrs. Wilkinson, the dance teacher who recognizes Billy's raw talent, Michelle Aravena delivers an intelligent, confident turn that is fresh, amiable and entirely in sync with Lee Hall's vision of this important character. Grandma, as played by very charismatic Barbara Marineau, is accomplished, personal and likeable. Her motherly concern is assuredly rendered and kept within bounds, which makes her portrayal always a pleasure to watch whenever shes on stage. As Mrs. Wilkinson's daughter Debbie, the young girl who completely crushes on Billy, Erika Parks is animated, exhilarating, teasing and very much a stand-out performer due to her natural ability to emphasize the humor, energy and feisty spirit embedded in the role. Her keen comic sense is priceless.

Bold, big-hearted, imaginative and truthful, "Billy Elliot: The Musical" stands tall and proud at the Goodspeed. It is brilliant and daring. It is funny and poignant. It is passionate and deeply affecting. It is also blessed with a refreshing, sincere talented cast, headed by Liam Vincent Hutt, an amazing 13-year-old performer, who, in the title role, crafts one of the most realistic portraits of a young boy who refuses to give up his fight for artistic freedom and expression with the same conviction and kick that Jamie Bell brought to the original 2000 film version. Like Bell, Hutt takes that same leap, radiating pride, awe and yearning from his every single pore.

Photos of "Billy Eliot: The Musical" courtesy of Diane Sobolewski

"Billy Elliot: The Musical" is being staged at the Goodspeed (6 Main St., East Haddam, CT), now through November 24.
For tickets for more information, call (860) 873-8668.