Wednesday, April 28, 2021

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 257, A Review: "The Importance of Being Earnest" (Castle Craig Players)

By James V. Ruocco

Oscar Wilde's effervescent social satire "The Importance of Being Earnest," first performed at London's St. James Theatre on February 14, 1895, offers theatergoers the playwright's acerbic and witty commentary about English society, its dictated obsession with class and position and its imperious practices regarding traditions, values and ideals. The three-act comedy also explores the moral hypocrisy of the times, its giddy flirtations, its mannered, snobbish behavior, its sexual awakenings, its preoccupation with family honor, marriage and wealth and lastly, the silliness of individuals harboring family secrets, sexual desires and thoughts of forbidden love.

That said, there's much to admire about Castle Craig Player's charming reenactment of Wilde's popular, oft-performed period play.

Lori Katherine Holm as Miss Laetitia Prism

An actress with tremendous flair, dedication and focus, Lori Katherine Holm delivers a performance that is so irresistibly fresh and well-defined, it is without doubt the best performance of the season and one that will be remembered for its engaging lift, its colorful design, its humor and its bubbly poise and spirit. That is due mainly to Holm's marvelous handle on her characterization, the dialogue itself, its frivolous interplay, its period fancies and intentions and the rollicking humor inherent in the actual script.

As Miss Laetitia Prism, envisioned by Wilde as "a woman with a past," Holm's portrayal reveals a woman anxious to shed her otherwise plain-Jane Victorian appearance, her mundane job as Cecily's tutor and governess and the ridiculous moral guidelines of the times. It's a part that's frothy, enchanting and full of surprise. And one that Holm plays splendidly without ever once missing a comic beat or level of importance. That said, her voice and mannerisms are steadfast and stuffy. Her expressions, often photographed in close up are absolutely delightful. She is such fun to watch, one easily awaits her next entrance. In Act III, Holm gets her big moment, which Wilde pens in all its mischievous and gooey glory. It is well worth the wait. So much so, you might want to hit "replay' and watch the scene again. 

Ed Rosenblatt as Rev. Canon Chasuble

They don't come any better than Ed Rosenblatt and the part of Rev. Cannon Chasuble is one that the actor invests with valued duty, charm, code of conduct, personality and apt contention. Created by Wilde to mainly comment on morality and religion, the character, as envisioned by Rosenblatt, is your typical British country vicar, a man bemused by life itself, its recurring metaphors and the belief that he could succumb to lusty thoughts and desires pretty much like everyone else once he lets his guard down and lets his intentions be known.
It's a comic performance that's natural and genuine, mixed with just the right amount of silliness, allure, practicality and humor. Better yet, the actor is well matched opposite Holm to play Miss Prism's amorous suitor. Both he and Holm are a charismatic couple whose warmth and passion are projected with the honesty and allure intended by the playwright.

Lisa DeAngelis as Gwendolen Fairfax

Lisa DeAngelis is one of those instinctive actresses who finds what is essential and urgent about whatever part she is asked to perform. Acting wise, she is always at the top of her game and Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," is yet another feather in her hat. 

As Gwendolen Fairfax, she delivers a stellar performance of wit, style, chat and marvelous engagement. She is funny. She is flirty. She is enchanting. She is delightful. Perfectly cast in a role that suits her obvious talents, she projects the image of Victorian womanhood, the character's ideas and ideals, her preoccupation with image and appearance and the artificiality and pretentiousness of women at that point in time. Her manner, her posture and her wonderfully timed expressions are postcard perfect as is her knowledge of the period, the playwright, the other characters and pretty much everything she says and does.

The Three-Act Comedy Plotline

Two dashing bachelors - John "Jack" Worthing and Algernon "Algy" Moncrieff - have created alter egos named "Earnest" to escape their bored, rich and tiresome lives. Moncrieff's deception continues with the creation of a man named Bunbury, a fictitious invalid friend whom he claims to visit in the country, an oft-played conceit used periodically to get him away from London and his friends.
With the arrival of society grand dame Lady Bracknell, "Jack" proposes to her daughter Gwendolen Fairfax while "Algy" finds himself smitten with the the lovely Cecily Cardew, whose governess and teacher Miss Laetitia Prism longs for contentment with Rev. Canon Chasuble, but harbors a huge secret involving a lost baby who was left in her handbag at Victoria Station's cloak room 28 years ago.

All of this makes perfect sense as played out to well-timed comic effect by the entire Castle Craig cast, thus, producing a very happy ending where three couple's fall into each other's arms following the big announcement where "being important" and "being earnest" is completely justified by the playwright.

The Green Screen Process

The use of the green screen process - filming a person in front of a solid color prior to adding visual effects and keying them into the background of one's own choosing - is smartly utilized by Martin Scott Marchitto, the digital background guru for "The Importance of Being Earnest." His choice of simple, but attention-grabbing visuals gives this Castle Craig production a beauty and luminance that complements all of the actors, the 19th century period setting and its themes and story arcs envisioned by Wilde himself.

The entire process is confidant, creative, seamless and visually exciting. The set ups and backgrounds are correct. The actors look exactly right as "The Importance of Being Earnest" places them in different settings. And digitally, nothing gets lost in the actual translation.

The Dialogue by Oscar Wilde

The plays of Oscar Wilde - "An Ideal Husband," "A Woman of No Importance," "Lady Windermere's Fan," to name a few - are marvelously peppered with dialogue that is candid, accurate, truthful, reflective and ingenious.
With "The Importance of Being Earnest," the conversations of the characters and the delicious words that spill from their mouths are wonderfully inventive, intelligent and voiced with that pungent sarcasm Wilde is famous for.

"I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like an exotic fruit. Touch it and the bloom is gone."
Lady Bracknell.

"If I am occasionally a little over-dressed, I make up for it by being immensely over-educated."
Algernon Moncreiff.

"I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train."
Gwendolen Fairfax.

"Never speak disrespectfully about society, Algernon. Only people who can't get into it do that."
Lady Bracknell. 

At Castle Craig, the playful irony of the actual wordplay is infused with bold and brazen merriment, quotable pronouncements, timeless frivolity, sparkling observations and well-placed social agenda. There isn't an Englishman or English woman among them (this cast is 100 percent American), which, in part, explains their different choice of  British accents, mannerisms and posturing, but nonetheless, they have great fun with the dialogue and Wilde's quick-paced banter and its many surprises, revealed quite engagingly during the final moments of Act III.

Direction by Ian Galligan and Oliver Kochol

"The Importance of Being Earnest," co-directed by Ian Galligan and Oliver Kochol, is one of the most ambitious productions of the theater's 2021 season. Galligan's love of theater, actors and directing makes him the ideal candidate to stage Wilde's play alongside the equally creative Kochol. As a working duo, they have cast the play well. They have paid homage to the playwright's feverish and funny glimpse of late 19th century Victorian society. They have reduced the play's original running time by 30 to 40 minutes without any form of confusion, hesitation, halts or hiccups. They clearly understand the mechanics of play production in terms of staging, character development, pacing and concept. As actors themselves, they know how to get the best performance from every cast member and create an honest and united front of character, mindset and individuality. They also come to Castle Craig with a complete understanding of Wilde's very wicked drolleries, his flashes of flutter and circumstance, his penchant for crafty witticisms and his disarming hauteur.

Working alongside Martin Scott Marchitto (digital backgrounds) and Abraham Texidor, Sr. (filming), this very talented quartet deliver a snappy online streamed production that often resembles a pop-up Victorian postcard that shines and glimmers. Each scene flows freely about. Wilde's satiric concept never once gets upstaged by the direction or stunning visuals. In terms of editing, Galligan keeps things rolling merrily along with a running time of 1 hr. and 24 minutes. And much to the delight of everyone watching, that viewpoint is reaffirmed by the frivolity of the resulting comedy at hand, its grab bag of absurdity and giddyap, its sugary spirit and stylishness and finally, the added nuance and color Galligan brings to the completed project.

Jack, Algernon, Lady Bracknell, Cecily, Lane & Merriman

As John "Jack" Worthing and Algernon "Algy" Moncreiff, the play's lovesick gentlemen suitors, Griffin Kulp and Jim Kane are dashing, reckless, funny and decidedly off center in typical Wilde fashion. They are an agreeable duo who perfectly project 19th century life in England with mad dashes of unabashed silliness. Kulp is dapper, versatile, diligent, conscientious and well aware that he is in the best company with Wilde supplying dialogue and delicious, quotable witticisms that he reenacts with heartfelt dash and glee most engagingly. The good news is that he doesn't overplay things. Instead, he is suitably sparky with a dash or two of youthful ambition and gait thrown in that lends itself nicely to the play's frivolous fun and its springy chat. 

Often played by a man instead of a woman, the role of Lady Augusta Bracknell is one of Wilde's most important characters. She gets the best lines. She gets the best entrances and exits. Her upper class Victorian snobbery is ruthless, extreme and arrogant. Her opinions are wicked and calculated. But you can't help but love her. Throughout "The Importance of Being Earnest, the playwright uses her acerbic commentary to represent his own personal thoughts on privilege, position, society, money, marriage and respectability. No easy task, but Pam Amodio, as Lady Bracknell has great fun with the material, from looking down her nose at anyone who gets in her way to the recitation of attention-grabbing dialogue and one liners that prompt immediate laughter at every comic turn. 

Katie Kirtland plays Cecily Cardew with charm, curiosity, wide-eyed innocence and appropriate romanticism. She captures the sweetness, poise and girlish nature of her character with a well-orchestrated naturalness that works quite splendidly. She also does justice to the play's curlicued wit and its sardonic views of young English girls who are easily infatuated with Victorian propriety, class distinction, wealth and materialism and handsome suitors with proper backgrounds, stiff, upper lip manners and bank accounts with lots of money in them. In the roles of  "Jack's" servant Merriman and Algernon's butler Lane, both Oliver Kochol and Len Fredericks are very much a product of the times, delivering droll comments and perfectly orchestrated reaction shots in glorious close ups. As the play's two very different manservants, they invite laughter upon laughter and telegraph their feelings with devoted spark and calculation.

The Hats and Period Costuming

All of Oscar Wilde's plays come gift wrapped with fashionable, attractive costuming that reflects the style, position and vanity of English society, its 19th century aesthetics and its social, political and cultural standards and practices.

Surprisingly, no costume designer is listed for this particular presentation of "The Importance of Being Earnest," but the end result, approved by the show's directorial team, is both stylish and visionary.
The hats, however, have been designed by cast member Lori Katherine Holm whose fondness for all things Victorian is colorful, appropriate, inspired and one-of-a-kind vintage. Mary Dacey's wigs are styled with period perfection and complement Holm's exceptional and fashionable millinery design work beautifully.

"The Importance of Being Earnest," as staged and streamed online by the Castle Craig Players, made its official online debut April 23, 2021. The open-ended run (it is scheduled to run indefinitely) can be viewed on YouTube and on the Castle Craig Players website at

Streaming, of course, is free, but donations are welcomed. To make a one-time or recurring monthly deduction, simply click on the link, pick and choose your monetary amount and pay with PayPal, a debit card or a credit card.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 256, Connecticut Theatre News: Stuart Brown's "Sounds of Broadway" Is A Must for Show Music Lovers of All Things Broadway and London's West End...And Then Some

 By James V. Ruocco

You don't have to be an actor, a critic, a musician or a theater geek or guru to love and appreciate show music from Broadway, off-Broadway, London's West End or London Fringe.

All you have to do is sit down, lay back and listen to choice selections from show after show and let the sounds of today and yesterday work their magic, cast their spell over you and let the words and orchestrations thrill you with their musical language and diversity.

"Les Miserables."
"How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."
"Everybody's Talking About Jamie."

"My Fair Lady."
"The Mystery of Edwin Drood."
"The Last Five Years."
"Subways Are For Sleeping."

The choices and the possibilities are endless.

You can sing along with the likes of Elaine Page, Michael Ball, Betty Buckley, Patti LuPone, Robert Morse and Julie Andrews.

You can dance about your house pretending to be Eliza Doolittle, Eva Peron, J. Pierpont Finch, Jean Valjean, Alexander Hamilton or Grizabella, the Glamour Cat. 

You can chill over a glass of wine, a high ball or a a bottle of imported beer. Or you can pour yourself a vodka stinger, the preferred drink of Elaine Stritch's character Joanne in Stephen Sondheim's "Company."

To get you into that perfect show tune mood, mode or state of mind, all you need to do is tune into "Sounds of Broadway," the hit 24/7 online radio station program hosted by Stuart Brown, the creator of this entertaining musical showcase featuring the show tunes you know and love or others you might be hearing for the very first time.

Just go to your computer and type in and let the fun begin. Or you can simply download the streaming app from the Apple App/iTunesStore (available for all iOS devices), Google Play (available for Android devices) and Amazon Echo Devices (all you have to do is say "Alexa, play the 'Sounds of Broadway.' ").

Brown, the owner, host and program director for "Sounds of Broadway," which officially made its online debut in April, 2019, previously hosted Trinity College's "On Broadway" for WRTC-FM, 89.3 for over 25 years. Currently, he is President of the prestigious Connecticut Critic's Circle, a position he has held since 2012. He also writes an online blog titled "Stu on Broadway" that features timely reviews of Connecticut and New York productions. And finally, he is a member of  the Outer Critic's Circle, The Dramatist Guild and the American Theatre Critic's Association).

Per Brown, the database for "Sounds of Broadway" includes more than 4,800 show tunes pulled from 650 musicals. To keep you listening or coming back for more, the website includes "Next Song Up" and "Last 10 Played."

So how does Brown pick and choose his day-to-day musical line-up of songs?
"I have divided the songs/shows into three categories," he explains. "(A.) Well-known and popular." ("Camelot," "Hamilton," "Mame," "Guys and Dolls"). "(B.) Musicals that are obscure or flopped, but still have some great music." ("Ben Franklin in Paris," "The Golden Apple," "Oh, Brother!" "Do I Hear a Waltz?"). "(C.) Songs that are in-between A and B- not that popular, but not at the obscure level." ("Catch Me If You Can," "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," "Jelly's Last Jam," "Falsettos").

On any given day, you're likely to hear show tunes from "Come From Away," "Next to Normal," "Dear Evan Hansen," "Sweeney Todd," "Hello, Dolly!" and "South Pacific" alongside "A New Brain," "Illya Darling," "The Baker's Wife," "Me and Juliet," "Flora, the Red Menace" and "Dear World."

"I mix up the playlists I create," says Brown, "selecting songs from all three groups. Percentage wise, it probably works out to 50% for A, 20% for B and 30% for C."

In turn, "Sounds of Broadway" sparks interest immediately.
Brown keeps everything well-positioned and in sync from hour to hour.
His selections are songs you can enjoy and treasure.
The broadcast is always full of surprises.
The emotional connection of the music lets you feel what is happening very much in the moment.
Lots and lots of fun stems from songs you are hearing for the very first time, but want to hear again.

"My philosophy is to entertain and educate," Brown confesses. "If you want to hear the most popular shows and nothing else, then 'Sounds of Broadway' will not necessarily be your Broadway radio station. If, however, you are open to learning about the vast world of musical theater, from the very beginnings, primarily from 'Oklahoma!' up to the present, then you will want to tune into 'Sounds of Broadway.'
"You will hear songs that are like comfort food from shows such as 'The Sound o Music,' 'Fiddler on the Roof' and 'Hello Dolly!' as well as selections from musicals you were not aware of - 'Sweet Bye and Bye,' 'Birds of Paradise,' 'The Spitfire Grill.' "

Discovery of all things past also interests Brown.

"Everyone knows Cole Porter's 'Kiss Me, Kate,' " he explains. "But how many people are aware of his earlier works such as 'You Never Know' and 'The New Yorkers?'
"Great scores, but no other Broadway radio station plays songs from these musicals. In fact, 'Sounds of Broadway' plays songs that no other Broadway station anywhere plays."

"Sounds of Broadway" has a worldwide monthly audience of over 50,000 listeners from various countries including Australia, the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Canada, South Korea, Germany, Romania, Taiwan, India, Hong Kong, Morocco and Vietnam.

Although "Sounds of Broadway" is free to listeners, its costs over $1000 a month to operate the station - royalty payments, internet costs, website development, equipment expenses.
If you would like to make a donation or have questions, you can contact Brown at or visit the website.

Monday, April 26, 2021

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 255, A Review: "Tru" (Music Theatre of Connecticut)

 By James V. Ruocco

"Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act."
Truman Capote 

"Tru" - short for Truman - as written by Jay Presson Allen, is a one-man play that takes place in 1975 at the swank New York City apartment (870 United Nations Plaza, to be exact) of homosexual writer Truman Capote during the Christmas holidays. Although he's got plenty of money to burn, he's not exactly in a celebratory mood. His rich society friends have abandoned him. He's taking drugs. He's drinking too much. He's pissed off. He's unhappy. He's also in a very bad funk because he's facing exile from his treasured social elite after penning a tell-all story about their scandalous exploits, their sexual interludes, their obsession with wealth and their many, many indiscretions.

First performed in December, 1989 at Broadway's Booth Theatre, this 90-minute comedy-drama cast Robert Morse ("How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying") as Truman Capote, a feat that found the actor having a field day for eight performances a week reenacting moments from Tru's life prancing crazily about, talking boldly to the audience, making glorious and gossipy phone calls to friends, thrashing tacky Christmas gifts that were delivered to his doorstep on Christmas Eve and gushing madly about the joys of being homosexual and being able to get anyone he wanted into bed for some pretty hot gay sex.
Using that impish, high-pitched effeminate voice that was unmistakably Capote, offset by mannerisms, expressions and body language that was true to the writer's very own persona, Morse not only had audience's begging for more (saw the play twice; once on Broadway and once on National Tour), but won the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play.

The success of "Tru" also came from Allen's dishy, articulate take on Capote's world. As playwright, she captured the aura of Capote and who he was, his love of people, his infamous talk show appearances, his obsession with being a famous celebrity, his outrageous nightlife experiences and his passion for writing such popular works as "Breakfast at Tiffany's," "A Christmas Memory" and "In Cold Blood." At the same time, "Tru" is not a sensationalized gabfest. It comes packaged with involved and apt wit, resilience, emotion, grit and pain - all neatly woven into the fabric of  the playwright's  much-acclaimed and oft-performed theatrical piece.

"All my life, I've told things about myself that would make a baboon blush blue. Didn't those people understand they were talking to an artist? Isn't all fair in war and art?"
Truman Capote

In Norwalk, where "Tru" is being revived at the intimate and inviting Music Theatre of Connecticut venue, the production itself smartly projects the character, the style and the talent of the man himself, his overt eccentricities, his dazzle and his conversational brilliance. It dances. It cajoles. It entertains. It surprises. It produces giggles. It gets you thinking. It also willingly pushes you to the edge of your seat  clinging to get word, every tick, every joke, every revelation and every mood swing.

That said, this revival of "Tru" is absolutely brilliant.

For Musical Theatre of Connecticut, Kevin Connors has staged many important, critically acclaimed plays and musicals including "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "Ragtime," "Next to Normal," "Cabaret," "Master Class" and "Evita." With "Tru," he crafts an exciting, intuitive production that recalls Capote's grand and gaudy life - long before his downfall - with spontaneity, position, amplitude, vulgarity and glitter. More importantly, he takes chances. He dances to his own beat. He plays by the rules and sometimes breaks them just for kicks. He is a master craftsman and entertainer. He is sensitive to the needs of the actor and his development through rehearsal and live performance. He is always full of great ideas and theatrical values and influences. He also loves what he does, which, here with "Tru" comes full circle.

The casting of Jeff Gurner as Truman Capote on Connors' part is a stroke of genius. It's a 5 STAR performance that makes you completely forget about the one given decades ago by Robert Morse. And from an actor's perspective, it is rich in color, nuance, boldness, truthfulness and integrity. It's also one of those dramatic and comic turns where both director and actor unite as one, completely in sync with the material, the concept and stylization set forth by the playwright and the inherent connection between actor and audience. Here, Gurner commands the stage with delicious effeteness, raw, realistic self-hatred, remarkable grandstanding, tailored sophistication and intellectual vogue. As actor, he loves being on stage and we love watching him.

One of the best plays of the year, "Tru" is thrillingly plugged into the memory and mindset that was and is Truman Capote. It seduces and charms its audience - in person or at home - with 90 minutes of candid emotion, determination and heartache. It gives director Kevin Connors yet another opportunity to rise to the top of the leaderboard as one of regional theatre's most perceptive and prolific directors. And finally, it allows actor Jeff Gurner to give theatergoers a dynamic, ovation-worthy performance that lingers long after the play is over.

Tru" runs now through May 9 at Music Theatre of Connecticut (509 Westport Ave, Norwalk, CT). Performances are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets are $28 for live streamed performances. A link is provided to ticket holders one hour before the performance. In person tickets range from $39 to $70 and can be purchased by calling the box-office at (203) 454-3883.

All production photos of "Tru" are courtesy of Alex Mongillo. 

Friday, April 16, 2021

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 254, Primetime Television Reviews: "Kung Fu" (The CW), "United States of Al" (CBS), "Home Economics" (ABC)

By James V. Ruocco

"Kung Fu" (the CW)

It's a martial arts story with plenty of action, dark and light-hearted plotting, upbeat tones and ideals, engaging characters, gritty exposition, cohesive editing, gorgeous cinematography and a very talented cast of Asian-American actors who stand out in their individual scenes, thus, making this "Kung Fu" update well worth the attention it generates week after week with its fast-paced, involving scenarios, story boards and well-positioned, choreographed fight scenes.

As a weekly series, it is exhilarating. It is fun. It fully understands the martial arts arena and its artistic form. It has depth and purpose. It tells its stories with just the right amount of spiritual adventure and involvement. It is clever. It intrigues. It surprises. And better yet, it is never repetitive. 

Taking its cue from the original 1972 series that starred David Carradine, the CW version of "King Fu" casts the charismatic Olivia Liang as the show's star and moves the story from the Old West to modern day San Francisco using plotlines that focus primarily on family, community, traditions, romance, revenge, organized crime, gangland warfare and high voltage martial arts sequences. It all works especially well.

What keeps this "Kung Fu" afloat is its uncanny ability to move effortlessly from scene to scene without getting bogged down or preoccupied with the mystical aura of martial arts or steady, well-placed action moments, which serve their intended purpose but without overkill. Here, there's an even mix of real story and Chinese American traditions, framed by important dialogue, well-drawn sub plotting, characterizations, mood music, atmospheric detailing, pathos and humor and great reaction shots of the entire cast. Surprisingly, nothing gets lost in the translation or various story arcs, all nicely implemented by the writers. Better yet, every episode is completely different from the last one.

"Kung Fu" stars Olivia Liang as Nicky Shen, Shannon Dang as Althea Shen, Jon Prasida as Ryan Shen, Eddie Liu as Henry Yan, Gavin Stenhouse as Evan Hartley, Vanessa Kai as Pei-Ling Zhang, Tony Chung as Dennis Soong, Kheng Hua Tan as Mei-Li Shen, Tzi Ma as Jin Shen and Yvonne Chapman as Zhilan Zhang.

In the lead role of Nicky, Liang brings depth and purpose to the show's connecting stories, its spiritual nature, its moody romantics and its martial arts escapism. As an actress, she is also given the opportunity to create a likeable, driven character of quiet beauty, impassioned firepower and conventional wisdom. Dang plays her materialistic obsessive sister role of Althea with a light, witty and plucky optimism that is both funny and irresistibly relatable. As Henry (the love interest of Nicky), Liu projects the image of a handsome and charming leading man but without the cliches and stereotypical mindset associated with this type of role. Kai, the actress who plays Nicky's mentor Pei-Ling, delivers a stellar performance of compassion, strength and emotion that is exactly right for her characterization of a Chinese shifu and a compassionate ghost. Chapman is both evil and cryptic as Pei-Ling's sister, a martial arts villainess anxious to put Nicky completely out of commission and unlock the powers of the eight sacred weapons.

"Kung Fu" is a welcome addition to the CW network. It is timely, passionate, functional, mythical and intriguing. The writers are respective of the martial arts genre, the Asian-American characters, the story arcs, the show's setting and premise and the ongoing, creativity of every episode within the context of the updated main story and its evolution.

"Kung Fu" airs Wednesdays on the CW from 8:00 to 9:00 p.m.

"United States of Al" (CBS)

It's not in the big leagues like "The Big Bang Theory" and "Young Sheldon" but Chuck Lorre's new CBS comedy "United States of Al" exhibits potential and drive while trying to work out its comic niche in a sitcom world where jokes misfire, laughs are fleeting and the title character of Al lacks the sheer enthusiasm and humanization necessary for this mid-season comic fest to fly and earn its wings.

It has its moments, though. For example, when the jokes are good....real good...laughing out loud comes relatively easy for its home audience. But when things fall flat, you can't help but groan or wish you tuned into the latest episode of "Young Sheldon" instead or watched back-to-back reruns of the far superior "The Big Bang Theory."

Regardless, "United States of Al" works especially hard to generate laughter, win you over and force you to sit still and watch episode after episode without ever reaching for your remote to change the channel or tuning out completely to plan tomorrow's lunch and dinner menu or your weekly grocery list.

The series (good intentions abound) charts the renewed friendship between Riley (Parker Young), an ex-Marine and Awalmir (Adhir Kalyan), the unit's Afghan interpreter who arrives in the U.S. from Afghanistan to begin a new life while living in close quarters with his best friend and his bestie's wife (Kelli Gross), daughter (Farrah Mackenzie), sister (Elizabeth Alderfer) and dad (Dean Norris).   

 Much of the humor in this half-hour comedy comes from Awalmir's odd-couple like adjustment to life in suburban Ohio (the show's setting), his relationship to Riley, his confusion over American culture and ideals, his lack of understanding parts the English language, his dalliances with the opposite sex and his quirky discovery of lifestyles and situations that were considered taboo in Afghanistan. Some of it is funny. Some of it is desperate. And some of it is pretty lame and pointless. It's your call.

When the show works (it all depends on which episode you are watching), "United States of Al" makes great use of its unexpected charm, its knockabout craziness, its elevated mayhem, its pumped up landscape, it misunderstood cultural references and its zesty optimism. It also displays enough potential to make you forgive its shortcomings especially when the material isn't quite up to par. Regardless, you watch hoping things get better. Three or four episodes in, they actually do.

Adhir Kalyan, cast in the role of Al, works hard to make sense out of his characterization, the show's cockeyed humor, its beats, rhythms and subplots and his interaction with his newfound family and friends in America. Acting wise, he's completely charming, personable and fun to watch. The episode where Al struggles to get his driver's license but is quickly distracted by women in bikini tops, short-shorts and exposed cleavage is the actor's best work to date. But at the same time, he's only as good as the material allows. As Riley, Parker Young, best remembered for roles on "Enlisted," "Imposters," "Arrow" and "Suburgatory" is handsome, sexy and very much eye candy for the women who tune in with or without their husbands, partners or gay friends. The role itself is one the actor plays with style, ease, conviction and comic verve. It's also tailor-made for Young who adapts the persona of an ex-Marine most engagingly. He and Kalyan work especially well together. They have great, great chemistry. 

Is "United States of Al" worth watching? The answer is yes. Its intentions are good. Its got a great time slot (it follows "Young Sheldon" on Thursday nights). The ratings are high. And the cast is uniformly good for this particular type of sitcom. All the show needs is a shot of adrenaline and a writing team who needs to get off their ass and create a more heavy-handed kind of comedy with more creative input and energy and less stereotyping and jokey humor about Muslims, Afghanistan, combat, immigrants and minorities. 

"United States of Al" airs Thursdays on CBS from  8:30 to 9:00 p.m.

"Home Economics" (ABC)

Topher Grace, long absent from primetime once "That '70's Show" concluded its eight-season run back in 2006, returns to sit-com television in ABC's "Home Economics," a good-natured, goofball comedy series trying desperately to make a dent in the ratings while going for laughs that sometimes misfire or jokes that are insanely funny amidst the show's welcome, laidback silliness.

But does the show work? Possibly.
Is it worth watching week after week? Yes and no.
Can it overcome its comic pitfalls? That depends mainly on the writers' ability to recognize the show's real potential, its zany, twisty perspective and its alternating seriocomic instincts.

Three episodes in, "Home Economics" is still watchable in its infancy, but still waiting for that break though "big moment" that may or may not come. 

Created by Michael Colton and John Aboud, "Home Economics" casts Grace as Tom Hayworth, a up-and-coming novelist whose last book flopped and is very low on cash. Nonetheless, he is still hoping to break that spell with a second book about his crazy family that includes his sister Sarah (Caitlin McKee), a lesbian therapist trying to make ends meet for wife Denise (Sasheer Zamata) and Connor (Jimmy Tatro), a likeable but egotistical brother who flaunts his wealth daily while reminding everyone that he now resides in actor Matt Damon's former digs. The siblings, of course, are the show's central focus and the brunt of one liners and comic mishaps we've seen time and time before. But they are never dull. And neither are Denise or Tom's wife Marina (Karla Souza).

The funniest of the five main characters, however, is Connor, who, as played by Tatro gets the best dialogue, the most screen time, the best sibling role and the best jokes and one-liners that the actor invests with the right charm and dazzle that makes his performance flawless and the ideal comic centerpiece for "Home Economics."  Grace, a master at deadpan and comic execution, exhibits the right chemistry and balance, but the character of Tom needs some laugh-a-minute potency from the writers to fully make his mark.

McKee, Souza and Zamata, in turn, are cheery, refreshing and gleeful, but their characters are also in need of some fine tuning by the show's writing team. Regardless, all five performers work particularly well with one another. They are also very right for the roles they are asked to portray.

In a lot of ways, "Home Economics" sort of works. Going forward, it needs to find its footing, its beats and rhythms, its comic pedigree, its atmospheric surface and finally, a checklist of amusing banter and dialogue that would make it well worth the visit week after week.

"Home Economics" airs Wednesdays on ABC from 8:30 to 9:00 p.m. 

Monday, April 12, 2021

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 253, A Review: "The Sound Inside" (TheaterWorks/Hartford)

By James V. Ruocco

"I've been accused of being a lesbian. And a witch. And a maker of Bulgarian cheese. And a collector of cat calendars."
Bella Lee Baird

"Email's are just not my style. I prefer penmanship. Getting ink on your fingers. The human effort. Plus, I like the option of drawing the impulsive in appropriate pictures of two in the margins."
Christopher Dunn

The two characters - Bella Lee Baird, Christopher Dunn - at the center of Adam Rapp's immensely moving two-character play "The Sound Inside" interest us immediately as their troubled tale takes flight with stories and conversations that are real, raw, interesting and confessional.

Though it deals openly and smartly with elements, dialogue and information that merge agreeably to fit its fast-paced 90-minute format, the play itself and its eventual outcome adapts a powerful and profound hook and voice that draws us in with intelligible persuasion, ambition and conscience.

Rapp, as playwright, is original in his approach to the actual story, forcing us to listen attentively to every word and tick and willingly go along for the ride, compelled to understand and enjoy his complicated character exploration, which finishes strong and leads to unexpected plot twists and discoveries that you never saw coming. A master craftsman, he creates dialogue that is so beautifully expressed and cultivated, the engagement between actor and audience is riveting, voyeuristic, concentrated and wonderfully connected. The monologues, of which there are many, are delivered with the actors facing and speaking directly into the camera. Third-party narration, adapts a similar process. 

"The only sound was the chorus of neighborhood cicadas blending with the hum of the refrigerator."

"I'm suddenly struck by the notion of how one becomes remote in one's life. Like a forgotten object on a shelf."

This is one of those plays where wholeness and insight are markedly driven into a work where every word, pause, beat and breath shifts time and place seamlessly through a very impassioned, arresting lens. Rapp surprises. He ridicules. He laughs. He cries. He catches us off guard. He takes us down one path, then switches gears midstream. He kicks us in the ass. He shakes us senseless. He shocks. He overwhelms. And lastly, he moves through minds and memories with the fluidity of a great artist and consciousness that's beautifully positioned and told by just two people.

A character breakdown, goes something like this.
Bella, a 53-year-old creative writing professor at New Haven's Yale University, has just been diagnosed with stage 2 cancer (her stomach is riddled with a constellation of tumors), which prompts issues regarding her weekly classes, treatments, chemotherapy, hair loss, weight loss and possible suicide when and if she can't handle her pending death sentence. Christopher, an angst-ridden student at Yale, who, is taking her writing class hates emails, following rules, campus guidelines and fancy coffee, but finds obvious pleasure in their student-office sessions and casual dinner dates. Eventually, he talks about his novel-in-the-making, his life as a student, his love of celebrated authors and their novels and scatted memories about family life, sex, dating and puberty. As expected, he also develops an attraction for his female mentor.

At TheaterWorks/Hartford, the ideal venue for "The Sound Inside," Rob Ruggiero ("American Son," "Relativity," "Next to Normal") and filmmaker Pedro Bermudez ("Hasta Manana," "Antifaz") serve as co-directors. Bermudez also plays a major role in the project's editing and cinematography alongside Revisionist Films. Staging the production, Ruggiero adapts a simplistic mindset that adheres to the online streaming process most advantageously. He knows what he wants. He knows how to frame it. He doesn't waste a moment. He also avoids the staging curse that could reduce "The Sound Inside" to just another photographed stage play. Here, monologues, narration and character interaction are fueled by smart directorial choices that give the story its passion, its dramatic weight, its adrenaline and its ever shifting perspective. Bermudez, in turn, takes his directorial cue from Ruggiero, moving his camera freely about by always being in the right place at the right time. His use of close ups, long shots and well-honed cinematography plunges his audience into the throes of the ongoing action unobtrusively. Original music composed and performed by Billy Bivona only furthers that concept.

"The Sound Inside" stars Maggie Bofill ("A Doll's House, Part 2," "Viral Monologues") as Bella Lee Baird and Ephraim Birney ("Admissions," "The Good Person of Szechwan")  as Christopher Dunn. As Bella, Bofill exhibits a polished, detailed performance that is driven, sardonic, truthful, humorous and reflective. Here, as in Long Wharf's "A Doll's House, Part 2" (she played Nora), she dazzles in terrifically smart, intuitive and passionate ways and never once misses a choreographed beat or change in character or direction. She is totally in the moment, delivering extended monologues, narration and conversation that prompt immediate attention and reaction. Playing the part of Christopher, Birney is wonderfully direct and powerful, propelling "The Sound Inside" to its surprise, shocking and inevitable conclusion. As he moves from charm and likeability to rage and grief, he crafts a performance that easily gets under our skin. His paring with Bofill is both natural, affecting and attention-grabbing.

A complex, vital and urgent piece of theatre, "The Sound Inside" unfolds with an emotional zest and amplitude that is impossible to resist. It is clever, connected and potent. The performances of the two principals are complex, weighty and marvelously tangled. Ruggiero and Bermudez orchestrate the proceedings with flair and fluidity. And Rapp's dialogue abounds with focus, fascination and tension, thus, making "The Sound Inside" one of the most creative, intelligent productions o the 2021 season.

The TheaterWorks/Hartford production of  "The Sound Inside" is being streamed online, now through  May 9. Tickets are $25 plus a $3 processing fee.  To book a performance, go to Once the transaction is completed, a virtual watch link will be sent via email to the address you provided during checkout.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 252, A Review: "John Cullum: An Accidental Star" (Vineyard Theatre) (Goodspeed Musicals) (Irish Repertory Theatre)

 By James V. Ruocco


"On the Twentieth Century"




"Saint Joan"

"We Take the Town"

"On a Clear Day You Can See Forever"


"The Scottsboro Boys"

"My name is John Cullum. I've been performing in front of people since I was knee high to a grasshopper. Most of the shows I've done and the parts I've played have come to me through the back door. By accident, you might say. Or coincidence. Or just plain luck. And tonight, I'd like to share with you some of my lucky accidents."

And "share them," he does. 

With "John Cullum: An Accidental Star," the actor begins and builds his 80-minute showcase with smartly researched, in-depth material that fascinates, beguiles, mystifies and defines his very long theatrical career. Fittingly, he opens the show with "On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever)," a showstopping number from the 1965 Lerner and Lane musical that cast him as psychiatrist and widower Dr. Mark Bruckner opposite Tony Award winner Barbara Harris. Much later, during a segment titled "Bumps in the Road," he tells us that he "couldn't find any humor in the part" even after he auditioned "12 times" for the role and subsequently, didn't get the part until he replaced Louis Jordan, the original leading man when the show had its out of town tryouts at the Colonial Theatre in Boston. "It was a big deal," he recalls. "My first starring role" with only "five days to learn the part" before it reached Broadway.


This is one of those shows that could not have come at a better time, and one that makes you long for live theatre again as Cullum stands tall and proud bringing angst and fire to a production that although streamed online, celebrates that one-on-one actor/audience conceit we all know and love with perfect dynamism and engaging indulgence. It's impossible to take your eyes off him for a moment for fear of missing something important or pivotal to the advancement of his thrilling one man show. Then and now, here is a man who loves musical theatre, loves being a performer, loves traveling back to the past where it all began and loves being able to recreate songs and stories that have kept him in the spotlight for more than 60 wonderful years.

Moreover, there's a satisfying grace and intellectual savvy to Cullum's return. And therein, lies its enjoyment. Ingeniously structured through titled chapters - The Early Years, Shakespeare, Changes, A Different Direction - to name a few, this nostalgic postcard respects the actor's roots, his Broadway auditions' balancing act, his joys, his struggles, his frustrations, his declarations, his true-to-life theatrical tales and his chosen oeuvre of lyrics, orchestrations and songs that propel the story forward. He also shares his fondness and appreciation for fellow performers he has worked with including Julie Andrews, Richard Burton, Robert Goulet and Robert Preston. There's even some choice commentary about co-star Madeline Kahn who left "On the Twentieth Century" only two weeks into the run ("Was she fired?" he asks) and was quickly replaced by Judy Kaye.

The musical scrapbook for "John Cullum: An Accidental Star" features a wealth of show tunes that the actor/singer handpicked (oddly, "Molasses to Rum" from "1776" is not featured) for this presentation. They are the title song from "On A Clear Day (You Can See Forever)," "I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight" from "Camelot," "On the Street Where You Live" from "My Fair Lady," "There But For You Go I" from "Brigadoon," "I've Got a Girl" from "We Take the Town" ( the show starring Robert Preston folded during out-of-town tryouts), "Come Back to Me" from "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever," the title song from "Camelot," "I Rise Again" from "On the Twentieth Century" and "Don't Be a Bunny" from "Urinetown." Cullum also includes "Meditation," "The Pickers Are Coming," "Papa's Gonna Make It All Right" and "I've Heard It All Before" from "Shenandoah."

Vocally, this is a somewhat different Cullum in terms of style, musicality, impact and performance, but nonetheless, a complement to his enduring longevity. He still knows how to deliver a song with power and command. But, in some cases, some of the lyrics are slightly spoken (think Rex Harrison in "My Fair Lady") while orchestrations are tweaked or revised to adapt to Cullum's existing vocal range. Regardless, it's a task he does with ease and strongness (you can see it in his eyes and his body language), performing with just the right amount of heart and soul to create a musical sound that capitalizes on how personal each vocal moment was and is to him. He's amazing....and then some.

Staging "John Cullum: An Accidental Star," Lonny Price and Matt Cowart supply the production with its necessary vibe, personality and amplitude. Going in, the duo know that the material itself belongs to Cullum and they are there, as orchestrators, to tell his story honestly and naturally, which they do. As Cullum takes the spotlight, both men use simple staging, editing, close ups and reaction shots to propel the story forward via online streaming. This simplicity works especially well, accurately giving the show its atmospheric landscape, its nostalgia, its passion, its pain, its drive and its naturally rooted theatricality.

Working from David Thompson's ingenious play text (the actual concept was conceived by Cullum and Jeff Berger), Price and Cowart keep the action steady through well-placed songs, conversations and memories. References and thoughts unfold with genuine confidence. Words are energized with focused, in-your-face talk and intimacy. The madness and unpredictability of life in the theater is given ample strength and fury. That said, Cullum's enduring legacy never once hits a false note or low point. It plays out with a significant high and potency that commands and demands your attention most agreeably.

"Doing Shakespeare, I chewed the scenery to bits even though there was no scenery to speak of."

"I was the only white actor in ' The Scottsboro Boys.' "

"The title for 'Urinetown' was ridiculous. I thought 'How am I going to do crap like this?' "

" 'Shenandoah,' which I started at the Goodspeed Opera House was right down my alley."

Julie McBride, at the piano, serves as musical director. With Cullum as both storyteller and singer, the challenge, of course, is to make the music he sings fresh and vibrant with just the right dose of humor, pathos and playfulness. Some songs are sung in their entirety, Others are brought to life in bits and pieces, smartly orchestrated by McBride with crisp responsiveness and bite, melodic lyricism and lucid eloquence. It all comes together nicely with Cullum having a perfectly marvelous time traveling up and down the paths of his huge Broadway musical career.

A co-production with Vineyard Theatre, Goodspeed Musicals and the Irish Repertory Theatre, "John Cullum: An Accidental Star" puts the 91-year-old actor center stage - ready to perform - full of joy and gratitude. He laughs. He frowns. He sings. He tells jokes. He engages in splendid wordplay and conversation. He's happy to be back on stage. He packs an emotional wallop with his well-intentioned showcase of old-fashioned entertainment. And finally, he is up close and personal with his sincerity and emotionally honest spunkiness.

A bedazzling, impressive one-man show, "John Cullum: An Accidental Star" is one of those rare theatrical pieces that ignites power, passion, eccentricity and attitude. It also brings Cullum back to the theater for a profound, undeniably personal party that celebrates the man, the music and the cleverness of this iconic Broadway actor, singer and entertainer.  

"John Cullum: An Accidental Star" is being streamed online, now through May 6. To book the production, visit vineyardtheatre. org. Tickets are $55 (includes $5 service charge). For additional information, call (212) 353-0303.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 251, A Review: "Antigone" (Connecticut Repertory Theatre)


By James V. Ruocco

"Now, Deaar Ismene, my own blood sister,
do you have any sense of all the troubles
Zeus keeps bringing the two of us,
as long as we're alive? All that misery
which stems from Oedipus? There's no suffering,
no shame, no ruin - not done dishonor -
which I have not seen in all the troubles
you and I go through. What's this they're saying now,
something our general has had proclaimed
throughout the city? Do you know of it?
Have you heard? Or have you just missed the news?
Dishonors which better fit our enemies
are being piled up on the ones we love."

The plotline for "Antigone," the celebrated Greek tragedy written by Sophocles in 441 B.C., goes something like this.

The title character, a brave, honorable and proud young woman, comes from a family background steeped in murder, incest, hypocrisy and deception.
Her father Oedipus, the King of Thebes, unknowingly murdered his father, married his own mother Queen Jocasta and had two daughters and two sons with her. But when Jocasta uncovered the truth about her incestuous relationship with her son, she killed herself. Oedipus, in turn, plucked out his eyeballs and spent his remaining years traveling throughout Greece with his loving and loyal daughter Antigone.
Once he died, his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices fought each other for control of Thebes. Fate, of course (a family curse, perhaps), intervened and both brothers died. Creon, Antigone's uncle, assumed the throne and became the official ruler of Thebes. But as "Antigone" begins, he decrees that Polynices will not be given burial rights (he wants his body to rot before the citizens of Thebes as a warning to traitors) and anyone who tries to bury him will be punished immediately by death.
Grieving the loss of her two brothers, Antigone decides to take matters into her own hands (her sister Ismene warns her not to disobey Creon), and give Polynices a proper burial. As the play continues, she is caught, thus, forcing Creon to eventually have her put to death for disobeying the laws of the city.

The intensity of Sophocles' scenario, its many rants and arguments, its eerie pronouncements and unisons and its ironic twists of fate come full throttle in Connecticut Repertory Theatre's vibrant and moody retelling of the "Antigone" story. Insightful and emotional, this production also unfolds with a menacing and well-defined mindset that respects its theatrical origins and traditions, the instinctive words of its playwright, the spirit and structure of the actual drama and the human feelings of all parties involved. Its natural, well-played connection between actor and audience only furthers that notion.

"Antigone" is being staged by Gary English whose CRT credits include "The Grapes of Wrath," "Olives and Blood" and "Man of La Mancha." Here, he crafts a meticulously urgent and informative work that is fundamentally clever, wondrous, personable and distinct in its meaning and overall interpretation. As director, he doesn't waste a moment. He doesn't get bogged down with the material. He also doesn't overplay the dramatic elements of the piece or allow the characters and the actors to be upstaged by the choices he makes or the manner in which they are presented in this production.

As with other CRT plays this season including the recent "This Property Is Condemned" and  "Pericles, Prince of Tyre," "Antigone" has been staged for at-home viewers using the Zoom process to full effect from edits, close ups and split screens to carefully thought-out backgrounds and visuals that add dimension, scope and color to the story as it plays out over its 1 hr. and 45 minute time frame. This visualization, reminiscent of the surreal, stylistic and unusual imagery of Belgian artist Rene Magritte works most advantageously in the story's telling and its on-screen conversations and pairings of the play's many characters and their individual story arcs. The use of boxed-in faces, framed faces or partially covered faces brings mystery, clarity and enquiry to "Antigone" as does English's use of background music, his employment of quick fades and start ups and his strategic thoughts and influences involving conceptual and minimalist art.

Throughout "Antigone," Sophocles' writing is rich, apt and poetic and blessed with the appropriate style and conviction necessary for the piece to take shape, do it justice and preserve its prurience, metaphors, enticing aesthetics and rhyming trimeters. It also reflects the political and social elements of the times, from family traditions and war to the varying aspects of religion, social position, expression and lingual authority. Here, as in "Oedipus the King" and "Electra," his weighty, fast-paced language responds agreeably to the dramatic needs of the moment and its noticeable use of tragic orthodoxy.

"Antigone" stars Samantha Seawolf as Antigone, Michael Curry as Creon, GraceAnn Brooks as Ismene, Mercedes Herrero as Tiresias, Amy Morse as Eurydice/Chorus, Casey Wishna as Messenger, Christopher Collier as Haemon, Jack Dillon as Polynices, April Lichtman as Chorus and Ethan Caso as Sentry.
Seawolf is a strong, defiant and dominant Antigone who respects and understands the words and thoughts of Sophocles' original work, its survival/sacrifice story arcs and its captivating, often daring observations and touches. Whenever she's front and center, it's impossible to take your eyes off her. As Creon, Curry smartly projects the character's strength, voice, demeanor and boldness. It's an effecting performance and one that immediately draws us into the story and the action with both absolutism and individuality. 
The supporting cast brings a sense of urgency and importance to "Antigone" that is well defined, placed and equally fulfilling. Well cast for their respective roles, they also connect with the language, the  different layers of the play and its vital, often edgy theatrics.

Connecticut Repertory Theatre's production of "Antigone" is being streamed online, now through April 11. Performances are 8 p.m. April 3, 7:30 p.m. April 7 and 8, 8 p.m. April 9, 2 and 8 p.m. April 10 and 2 p.m. April 11. Tickets are  $10, $14 and $16. Event link and password will be emailed to you prior to the virtual performance. The box office is open 1 hr. prior to start of production. For additional information. call (860) 486-2113.