Friday, October 29, 2021

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 283, A Preview: "La liberazione di Ruggiero dall'isola d' Alcina" (Connecticut Lyric Opera)

By James V. Ruocco

In 17th century Europe, Italian baroque composer and singer Francesca Caccini was one of a few women whose orchestral compositions were published during her tenure at the Medici Court in Florence.
Her only publication for the stage -  "La liberazione di Ruggiero dalla'isola d' Alcina" - an opera, adapted from Ludovico Ariosto's epic poem "Orlando furioso," will be presented November 5 and 7, 2021 by Connecticut Lyric Opera in association with its partner, the Connecticut Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra.
Described as a humorous musical saga of daring rescue, adventure and mysticism, the opera - consisting of four individual scenes - was first performed on February 3, 1625 at the Villa di Poggio Imperiale in Florence. Written in the Florentine moderno/recitavito style of Claudio Mondeverdi and Jacopo Peri, it was originally conceived for six sopranos, two altos, seven tenors, one bass and a trio of recorders.

Following the myths of the knight Ruggiero, the opera is set in and around the island of Alcina. As the production opens, Ruggiero finds himself captured by the sorceress Alcina who has placed him under her spell. Hypnotized to believe that she is young and beautiful and not the ancient sorceress she really is, Ruggiero learns of his future by Melissa, another enchantress who sets out to rescue him from his sealed fate which includes a marriage to his betrothed Bradamante. 
But in order for this to happen, she assumes the guise of Atlas, the ancient sorcerer who has raised him, She also releases Alcina's former lovers from enchantments - they have been imprisoned on the island as rocks and trees - and returns them to life in human form.

"La liberazione di Ruggiero dalla'isola d' Alcina" will be conducted by Adrian Sylveen, Artistic Director of Connecticut Lyric Opera and the Connecticut Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra. The production will be staged by Alan Mann, Artistic Director of Opera Theater of Connecticut.

As envisioned by Caccini, it was one of the first works to shift the narrative from classical subject matter to one drawn from a Renaissance epic. Following its premiere, it is also believed to have been the first Italian opera to be performed outside of Italy.

Headlining the Connecticut Lyric Opera cast of "La liberazione di Ruggiero dall'isola d' Alcina" are Rebecca Batista de Almedia (Alcina), Madison Marie McIntosh (Melissa), Daniel Kamalic (Ruggiero), Maria Margiolakou (First Lady), Heather O'Connor (Second Lady), Allison Waggener (Third Lady), Samuel Bowen (Nettuno), Rongjun Li (First Tenor) and Sung Shi (Second Tenor).

Performances are 7:30 p.m. on Friday, November 5 at the Trinity-On-Main-Arts Center (69 Main St., New Britain, CT) and 2 p.m. November 7 at the Wadsworth Antheneum Museum of Art (600 Main St., Hartford, CT). The Wadsworth performance is being presented in conjunction with the exhibition "By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy" from 1500-1800.
The suggested ticket price (  at both locations is $35.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 282, A Review: "Fire Shut Up in My Bones" (The Ridgefield Playhouse) (The Metropolitan Opera House)

 By James V. Ruocco

"Fire Shut Up in My Bones," based on Charles M. Blow's character-driven 2014 Louisiana memoir, is the first opera by a black composer to be staged at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Set to music by composer Terence Blanchard, it is a complex, fiercely-driven coming-of-age portrait of a young boy, who, after being sexually molested by his older cousin ("it's a game," we are told), escapes that childhood nightmare to become a well-respected college graduate of Grambling State University and a critically-acclaimed journalist, often described as "the James Baldwin of our age."
Redemptive, stirring and delicately executed, Blow's story takes audiences on a journey to the past where he is forced to confront his fears and heartaches as a young black boy growing up in the rural South (Gibsland, Louisiana, to be exact) surrounded by five brothers and a "do-right," church-going mother who only wants the very best for her young son.

Candid, affecting and lyrically defined for the mainstream opera world, "Fire Shut Up in My Bones" was presented on the movie screen at The Ridgefield Playhouse on October 25th before an excited, well-versed audience of theatergoers, opera buffs and MET loyalists who applauded and appreciated this grand, well-rounded childhood memoir composed by the prolific, very talented Terence Blanchard who prior to his MET debut wrote "Champion" for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis.


"Fire Shut Up in My Bones" allows Blanchard to raise his voice through operatic storytelling - the kind that pushes you to the edge of your seat and forces you to listen - artfully revealed though the transitions, dynamics, movements and harmonics of his beautifully imagined creation. This is opera - MET opera - at its very best - told through a bold, intimate eye that's mounted, balanced, impressive and vigorously voiced. It's a new work - special in its own right - and one that no doubt will be showcased time and time again at the MET and other opera venues - in America and worldwide.

Let's continue.

James Robinson and Camille A. Brown, the co-creators of the 2021 MET staging of "Porgy and Bess," direct "Fire Shut Up in My Bones" with ease, grace and a combined passion and professionalism that confidently addresses the funneled challenges and the steep and artfulness of Blanchard's opera. No guesswork here. No confusion. No hesitancy. No overplaying. No unwarranted calculations. The connection between orchestra, conductor and singers is both powerful and unified as is their visual freshness, formatting and storytelling thrust and conception. They wouldn't have it any other way.

Completely akin to the pain, angst and hope and struggle of the black experience, they construct and address Blanchard's operatic blueprint bringing both resonance and nuance to the subject matter, its purpose and its progression over a 195-minute running time, which includes a half-time interval. It's all here: the secrets, the taboos, the struggles, the conflicts, the history, the pain, the loneliness, the safe places, the choices, the memories of a haunted past, the prejudice, the survival, the struggles with identity and sexuality, the sense of community, the romance, the discovery and the importance of family. Though crafted to reflect the black experience, the material, nonetheless, is universal in itself touching on topics, truths, customs and traditions that almost everyone can identify with.

In terms of presentation, Robinson and Brown give "Fire Shut Up in My Bones," a welcoming palette of diversity and feeling that works especially well. As directors, they also emphasize the distinct, direct and important factors concurrent in the story, its characters, their growth, the original source material and its operatic bandwidth. There's also a tremendous sense of bravery, proudness and realness throughout the production that adds additional weight, dimension and excitement to the storytelling. It's subdued. It's thrilling. It's shocking. It's heartbreaking. It's tearful. It's nostalgic. And depending on the scene or the moment, it's bathed in a warmness, a romanticism and a sweetness that's contagious and impossible to resist.
Another plus to this particular opera is Robinson and Brown's handling of the principals, the supporting players, the dancers and the chorus. As "Fire Shut Up in My Bones" evolves, there's a dynamic on-stage connection that is created, lived, enlivened and naturally performed by the entire MET cast under the duo's primed directorial tutelage.
That's not all.
This production includes a show-stopping fraternity step dance; a holier-than-thou Church baptism; and a fueled fraternity hazing that's full of fire, emotion and unabashed momentum and frenzy.

For those audiences not present at the Lincoln Plaza location, the MET HD ENCORE edition of Blanchard's powerful character memoir at the Ridgefield Playhouse benefits from lots of perks including important commentary and exciting interviews prior to the screening and during the opera's 30-minute intermission. There's also a concession stand of delectable treats (the butter popcorn is a must), cookies, candies, chips, sodas, coffee, seltzer, wine and assorted mixed drinks. It's all very organized, showcased and delivered with courtesy and professionalism by the always welcoming Playhouse staff.

Inside the theater, "Fire Shut Up in My Bones," like the recent "live" broadcast of "Boris Godunov" earlier this month at the Playhouse, unfolds with exceptional camera work that prompts a one-on-one connection between singers and audience. This carefully thought out technique (the camera is always in the right place at the right time) is showcased with perfectly imagined editing techniques that frame the story through close ups, pull backs and long establishing shots that portray the tone, pathos, humor and drama of the storytelling and the varied emotions of the central characters. It's a cinematic process that thrusts the audience full-throttle in the into heart and soul of the story, its well-positioned story arcs, its musicality and its savored viscera.

As with any opera - the key to its success - is the implementation of a conductor whose affinity, flair and aggressiveness allows the score to unfold with the measured intensity, drama and totality intended by its creator. With "Fire Shut Up in My Bones," the MET has enlisted the talents of conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin (the current musical director for the New York-based venue (2018-present) whose Metropolitan Opera House credits include "Carmen," "Rusalka," "Don Carlo," "La Traviata" and "Faust." A maestro whose work is best described as both detailed and powerful, Nezet-Seguin leads his audience - at the MET and at the Ridgefield Playhouse - into a musical world that is not only utterly compelling, but one that recalls the passion and angst he brought to both "Faust" and "La Traviata" at the MET.

Addressing Terrence Blanchard's important, intricate orchestral composition for "Fire Shut Up in My Bones," he brings layers of sound, scope and tonality to the piece, accentuating its textures, its melodic lyricism, its delicateness, its beauty, its controversy and its immersive sense of family, time and place. As conductor, he is scrupulously prepared, but never showy or off form. Here, he lets the material breathe and entice the on-stage performers, the concert crowd at the MET and those in theaters across America and beyond watching the opera on movie screens including a very attentive Ridgefield Playhouse audience.

What's remarkable here is Nezet-Seguin's marvelous sense of pacing and affection as Blanchard's opera moves from scene to scene and act to act. In complete control of the assertive and energetic MET orchestra, there is great warmth, gamble and expressiveness at the podium. The experience itself - a thrilling sense of spirit, trust and discovery - smartly enhances the ambiance and pulse of the operatic narrative, its solo and choral moments, its naturalness, its flavor and fluidity. The cohesive strength and drama between conductor, orchestra and performer is matched by a striking illumination and expanse that furthers the already distinct and truthful awareness of Blanchard's timely period piece, its characters, its story, its progression, its parting, its beauty and its deeply personal conclusion.

At the MET, the role of the adult Charles is sung by Will Liverman, a classic bass-baritone whose strong voice is well-suited for his particular type of angst-ridden character. Vocally, he is supercharged and ready, filled with the rage, alertness, self-doubt and hope envisioned by the composer. The dynamic Latonia Moore, perfectly cast as Billie, Charles's loving, workaholic mother, brings gospel verve and down-home Southern polish to her vocals, offset by a sense of purpose, strength and belonging that speaks volumes in this particular opera. The versatile, charismatic Angel Blue, playing three different roles - one real (Greta); the other two (Destiny and Loneliness) imagined by the adult Charles - comes to the MET with a vocal radiance and luster that is magically conveyed through blazing musicality, rife with personality, unforced richness and enticing emotional fervor. Walter Russell III, a charismatic 13-year-old musical dynamo with a voice that you can't get enough of, crafts an emotional, sensitively sweet portrayal of Charles in his boyhood years that is so perfect, during the final curtain calls - wonderfully showcased in extreme close-up on the movie screen at the Ridgefield Playhouse - Russell can't hold back his tears as the MET audience madly applauds his ovation-worthy performance.

Another diamond in the MET's vast library of classics and new works, "Fire Shut Up in My Bones" is a persuasive, brilliantly written and constructed opera that demands heartfelt praise and applause for its emotional continuity, momentum and smoothness. Backed by the strong, exceptional performances of its four principals - Liverman, Moore, Blue and Russell III - it welcomes you into its deeply emotional past, telling an important, controversial story of family, kinship, memory and survival that lingers long after the performance has ended.

Yannick Nezet-Seguin, as conductor, brings a burnished fullness to this glorious, crowd-pleasing MET production, matched by tremendous insight and passion for the material. It all flows naturally and seamlessly, engineered by an orchestral sound of gleaming clarity and purpose. Bravo!

"Fire Shut Up in My Bones" was presented in conjunction with the MET'S ENCORE IN HD series on October 25, 2021 at The Ridgefield Playhouse (80 E. Ridge Rd., Ridgefield, CT.) It will return to the Playhouse for an additional ENCORE presentation on November, 20, 2021 at 12:55 p.m.

The MET LIVE IN HD and ENCORE series at the Ridgefield-based venue continues with "Eurydice" (Monday, December 13, 2021 at 6:30 p.m.), "Cinderella" (January 2, 2022 at 2 p.m.), "The Magic Flute" (Sunday, January 9, 2022 at 2 p.m.), "Rigoletto" (January 29, 2022 at 12:55 p.m), "Ariadne Auf Naxos (Saturday, March 12, 2022 at 12:55 p.m.), "Don Carlos" (Sunday, April 3, 2022 at 12 p.m.), "Turandot" (Saturday, May 7, 2022 at 12:55 p.m.), "Hamlet" (Saturday, June 4, 2022 at 12:55 p.m.) and "Lucia Di Lammermour" (Sunday, June 19, 2022 at 12:55 p.m).
For more information and tickets to the Ridgefield Playhouse's upcoming operas, concerts, movies and ballets, call (203) 438-5795.

In New York, "Fire Shut Up in My Bones" was staged September 27 through October 23, 2021 at the Metropolitan Opera House (30 Lincoln Plaza, New York, N.Y.)
For tickets or more information to upcoming productions, call (212) 362-6000.

(Photos of "Fire Shut Up in My Bones" by Ken Howard)

Monday, October 25, 2021

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 281, A Review: "The Rocky Horror Show" (Pantochino Productions)

By James V. Ruocco

Justin Rugg as Riff Raff
Shelley Marsh Poggio as Magenta
Jack Saleeby as Brad
Elise Sullivan as Janet
Don Poggio as The Narrator
Everton Ricketts as Rocky
Mary Mannix as Columbia and The Usherette
Steve Autore as Eddie and Dr. Scott
Maria Berte, Michael Cavone and Sherri Alfonso as The Phantoms
Jimmy Johansmeyer as Frank-N-Furter

Time-warping its way into Pantochino Productions, "The Rocky Horror Show" - the fan-friendly brainchild of sci-fi movie fanatic Richard O' Brian - explodes full-throttle across the Milford Arts Council stage in all its rip-roaring, cross-dressing glory, thus, producing a carnival-esque spark and dazzle where lace, drag and playfully overt sexual activities - gay, straight, gender-bending - go hand-and-hand with horror-film cliches, butter pop corn, ruby-red lips, thrift-store corsets, B-movie camp, tighty whitey's and back-row kissing and you-know-what.

This production - a change of pace for always effervescent Pantochino - takes audiences on such a wild, thrill-a-minute, roller-coaster ride, you wish you could hit "replay" and watch the entire 80-minute, intermission-less musical all over again. That's how much fun it is.

Insanely Crazy

This is a musical, that despite its age - its been around since 1973 - still feels fresh, still feels inviting and still delivers the goods in all its oozy, gooey, timeless glory.

The story - which, pretty much everyone on this planet - RuPaul, Donald Trump, Susan Sarandon, Caitlin Jenner, included - and beyond knows - goes something like this.
As the musical opens, married couple Brad and Janet seek refuge in the middle of nowhere (their car breaks down during a rainstorm) at the Transylvanian castle of  Frank-N-Furter, a mad scientist and transvestite from the planet Transsexual whose lust for both men and women finds him back in the laboratory where he creates a muscle-bound hunk named Rocky for use as his own sexual plaything.
As devised by Richard O'Brien, the production abounds with plenty of other crazies that include that  trusty, live-in butler Riff Raff, his oversexed sister Magenta, a groupie named Columbia and perplexed, put-upon Eddie, the unfortunate victim of a botched-up delivery that led to very troubled circumstances.
Also along for the ride are a singing Usherette who introduces and closes "The Rocky Horror Show," her trio of minions who pop up everywhere throughout the story, a smiling Narrator who addresses the audience with plot tidbits and reflections and finally, Dr. Everett Scott, the paraplegic science tutor Brad and Janet had hoped to visit at the start of the story.

Staging "The Rocky Horror Show," director Bert Bernardi puts the zing, snap, color and pulse back into this oft-produced sci-fi parody, offset by a creative mindset, oomph, stamp and paint-brush of originality, flavor and unpredictability that gives this incarnation a uniqueness that makes it fly, entice and run wild. Here, as in other productions he has directed including "The Gingerbreads of Broadway," "The Wicked Witch of the West: Kansas or Bust," "The Waffle House Five" and "Glitz! The Little Miss Christmas Pageant Musical," Bernardi crafts something that is not only special and hypnotizing, but dances to its own individual rhythm and beat. And that's exactly what puts him at the top of his game.

Here, invention and surprise is the key to the success of "The Rocky Horror Show" and that is what keeps it spinning and spinning and spinning. In one of the musical's most hilarious and memorable sequences, the towering Frank-N-Furter seduces Brad in the bedroom - a well-placed sheet (think "Two Ladies" from "Cabaret") camouflages most of the below-waist and rear-ended, X-rated action - but that doesn't stop Bernardi from creating an orgiastic sexual coupling where mind-blowing oral sex and hard anal penetration produce cries, screams and yelps that are amusingly orchestrated to the point of a celebratory climax that both actors toss off brilliantly. Immediately after, Frank N-Furter beds Janet using the same pent-up sexuality and energy that pushed Brad over the edge. Once again, sexual pleasures abound with the same, over-the-top frenzy and merriment as before signaling additional laughs as Bernardi imaginatively cuts loose without any form of censorship or hesitation.
Another fun bit of stage business finds Brad having trouble walking, moving about or lifting up his legs after getting boinked by Frank-N-Furter. Again, Bernardi prompts giggles in all the right places allowing his audience to witness Brad's dilemma as the character winces and tries to hide his discomfort after his first time, same-sex experience.

As with most productions of "The Rocky Horror Show," audience participation is encouraged and welcomed. Here, however, for the safety of the onstage actors and the audience, there is no throwing of rice, toast, water, flour or other objects. But that in no way spoils or derails the cosmic Technicolor feast that Bernardi has put on display. There's plenty to enjoy here from his vivid, immersive staging and choreography to his development of the wonderfully wicked plot, characters, dialogue and swiftly-paced scenario.

One of the show's hilarious pleasures - and there are many - comes from the "Call Backs" which, for anyone who has seen the show before are humorously and freely shouted back to the characters from the audience throughout the production. A clever bit of mayhem that began during midnight showings of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" movie back in the 70's at the 8th Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village, this playful conceit (used throughout the Pantochino edition by die hard "Rock Horror" fans) heightens the musical's frivolity, allure and impromptu silliness if only because you know who's going to say what to whom. In turn, some comments spring directly from the 8th Street Playhouse madness while others come from all different angles depending on the crowd and that particular performance.

One of the funniest:
"Where's Brad?

As created by Richard O'Brien (music and lyrics) "The Rocky Horror Show" unfolds through sixteen  musical numbers, much to the delight of  the show's groupies, drag queens, straights, gays and die hard fans, many of whom have seen the stage musical or its 1975 film adaptation hundreds and hundreds of times. If given the chance, they'd probably welcome the opportunity to jump on stage and join the excited twelve-member cast for any of the show's catchy, high-energy songs.
In this go-round they are: "Science Fiction, Double Feature," "Dammit Janet," "Over at the Frankenstein Place," "The Time Warp," "Sweet Transvestite," "The Sword of Damocles," "I Can Make You a Man," "Hot Patootie," "I Can Make You a Man (reprise)," "Touch-A, Touch-A, Touch Me," "Once in a While," "Eddie's Teddy," "Planet Schmanet-Wise Up Janet," "Floorshow/Rose Tint My World," "Superheros" and "Epilogue/Science Fiction/Double Feature."
In this production, as in others, the kitschy, tongue-in-cheek, underground-inspired music - is pre-recorded. Nonetheless, music director Justin Rugg leads himself and the rest of the cast happily through the show's exclusively-tailored craziness with total involvement, right down to the smallest outrageous tick which everyone on stage communicates with wild, emotional craziness and Greenwich Village camp, paying close attention to the spirit and yelp of the original musical while at the same time,  making it very much their own.

Surrounding himself with a "dream cast" of veteran performers - many of whom have contributed greatly to the success of dozens of hit musicals that have comprised the theater's acclaimed repertoire - the entire "The Rocky Horror Show" cast is well-suited for each of the particular roles they are asked to portray. All twelve are fresh, flashy and dynamic throughout, embracing the musicals' B-movie plotting, its sci-fi stylization, its campiness, its glitter, its free-wheeling sexuality, its famous one-liners, its songs, its heart, its soul, its choreography, its homosexuality, its surprises and its hilariously welcomed callbacks. There's plenty of emotion here, mixed with a love of performance, encounter and lace well worthy of a standing ovation or two - and so much more.

The perfect 70's musical to kick Pantochino Productions back into orbit following a very long intermission, "The Rocky Horror Show" is a refreshing, raunchy, sexy, rainbow-tinged confection that allows director Bert Bernardi to create a R-rated musical entertainment where anything goes (and does) much to the delight of everyone on stage and in the audience, all of whom share his love for this sort of unabashed B-movie flash, bang and wallop giddyap that's told with that special brand of knowledge, creativity and luster that Pantochino is known for.
This is a production chock full of glitter, glitz, glamour and fairy dust that basques and dances freely about with nothing on its mind except to whip you up into an excited frenzy and get you all hot and bothered over "The Rocky Horror Show" characters, their individual stories, their music, their gender-bending sexuality and the show's time-warped, sci-fi movie musical ending.

PS: In the 2000 Broadway staging of "The Rocky Horror Show," Dick Cavett, in the role of The Narrator was bland, boring, stiff and colorless. Playing the exact same role in the Pantochino production, Don Poggio delivers an amusing, playful turn that often leads to him breaking character, purposely cracking up, laughing madly or improvising bits and pieces of the story as "Call Backs" are hurled from him in every direction from rapid "Rocky Horror" fans throughout the theater. It's such a standout performance, you can't help but applaud and applaud his giddy, wayward, kitschy, show-stopping characterization. 

"The Rocky Horror Show" is being staged at MAC (Milford Arts Council, 40 Railroad Avenue, Milford, CT),  now through October 29, 2021.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 843-0959.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 280, A Review: "Ah, Wilderness!" (Hartford Stage)

 By James V. Ruocco

"How are you going to punish me, Pa?"
(Richard Miller, "Ah,Wilderness!")

"Oh, well, I thought of telling you, you couldn't go to Yale."
(Nat Miller, "Ah, Wilderness!")

"But gee, that's great! Well, then I can get a job and marry Murial. That's no punishment, Pa."
(Richard Miller," "Ah, Wilderness!")

"Well, then you'll go to Yale and stay there until you graduate."
(Nat Miller, "Ah, Wilderness!")

In 2020, the pandemic put the kibosh on Hartford Stage's long-waited revival of Eugene O'Neill's rarely-performed comedy "Ah, Wilderness!" and Meila Bensussen's directorial debut at the theater, her very first production since succeeding Darko Tresnjak as Artistic Director, a role she assumed in June, 2019.

Eighteen months later, O'Neill's play of joy, melancholy and family conflict -  originally produced on Broadway in October, 1933 at the Guild Theatre with George M. Cohan, Adelaide Bean, Eda Heinemann and Elisha Cook, Jr., in principal roles - arrives at the downtown-Hartford with Bensussen in the directorial chair surrounded by an exceptionally talented team of actors and design staff that give "Ah, Wilderness!" a justified, balanced potential that allows it to breathe and resonate and unfold at a steady giddyap that serves the material especially well.

The emotional reality of the piece, lathered by O'Neill's absorbed, compassionate glimpse of American middle-class life gives Bensussen and company a honed and steady blueprint of early 20th century life  that is concrete, jovial, pleasing and front-face forward.

But first, let's backtrack.

The idea for "Ah, Wilderness!" came to the playwright while he visited his boyhood home in New London, Connecticut - Monte Cristo Cottage - right before the Fourth of July festivities of 1932. Envisioned as a full-length memory play, set during New London's 1906 celebration of Independence Day, O'Neill crafted a moving family portrait, loosely based, in part, on his own family life, offset by a cynical veneer and verbatim, which, depending on the moment or scene, moved from nostalgic and wishful sentiment to candid and frank conversation about a time, place and people that he believed no longer existed.
At Hartford Stage, the struggles, psychologies, emotions, dilemmas, observations and truths of these characters are front and center, all universalized in their depiction and presentation, a relished and enlivened conceit that gives thrust and animation to their particular, but very different stories.
There are manners and codes. There are pleasures, discoveries and romantic love. There are observations and pronouncements. There are social philosophies, conventions and traditions. There are jokes about Henrik Ibsen, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Emma Goldman and "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam." There are amusing references about New Haven and Waterbury, Connecticut that today, no longer exist. There's also a sense bluster, bullying and anarchy.

Making her eagerly, anticipated directorial debut at Hartford Stage Melia Bensussen imbues "Ah, Wilderness!" with a lyrical, often poignant take which is certainly the plus side of this particularly touching production. Executed with a definitive pulse and rapture, O'Neill's portrait of the Miller family of Connecticut is lovingly addressed by the director who not only gets to the core of the playwright's talky, involved play text, but allows the piece to flow seamlessly from scene to scene and on to the next with the truth, conviction and domesticity intended by the playwright.

As evidenced in "Long Day's Journey Into Night," "A Moon For the Misbegotten" and "Anna Christie," among others, this is yet another play where you must listen to every line of dialogue in order to fully appreciate the story, its development, its progression and its finality at the end of Act II. Attention, focus and development is so important here, if you turn away for a moment, get distracted or allow your mind to wander for a second or two, you may miss something pivotal to the telling, which is something Bensussen works hard to alleviate throughout. At the same time, nothing is ever rushed or hurried. Here, she allows the material to charm, pause, tilt and entice. Everything is smartly rehearsed, staged and performed with such a real sense of involvement, the play's two hour running time flies by with nary a hiccup, halt or hesitation.
There are laughs, of course, but remember, this is Eugene O'Neill. That said, Bensussen's choice of subdued humor is both fun and appropriate, giving his idealistic paean to yesteryear a comic smartness that is nicely underscored and addressed. 
Another plus for this staging of "Ah, Wilderness!" is Bensussen's implementation of vintage period background music and song (pretty much everyone in the cast sings on cue and in perfect harmony)  during scene changes, furniture and set placement, costume changes, lighting cues and sound cues. It's a creative process that works most advantageously and gives the production a colorful, atmospheric pop-up postcard look and feel that's backed by a first-class design team consisting of Jim Noone (scenic design), Wen-Lin Liao (lighting design), Olivera Gajic (costume design), Yan Li (pianist and musical director) and Rob Milburn/Micha Bodeen (sound design). Working alongside Bensussen, their creative contributions are clear, affecting and expertly executed.

"Ah, Wilderness!" stars Michael Boatman as Nat Miller, Jaevon Williams as Richard Miller, Antoinette LaVecchia as Essie Miller, Natascia Diaz as Lily, Annie Jean Buckley as Norah, McCaleb Burnett as Sid Davis, Brittany Anikka Liu as Murial McComber and Belle, Myles Low as Tommy Miller, Katerina McCrimmon as Mildred Miller, Tanner Jones as Wint Selby, Antonio Jose Jeffries as Arthur Miller, Joseph Adams as David McComber and the Salesman and Stuart Rider as the Bartender. 

Casting wise, this ensemble group of thirteen are exactly right for the particular characters they are asked to portray. Under Bensussen's tutelage, they get O'Neill. They understand O'Neill. They appreciate O'Neill. They also work together as a team of storytellers and actors gathered together to embrace the material and its profound observations and thus, bring it to life seamlessly and move the action forward toward its heartfelt, justifiable conclusion. 

A visually stunning production balanced by stirring performances and intimate, heart-warming direction, "Ah, Wilderness!," Eugene O'Neill's semi-autobiographical memory play, sets the stage for yet another diverse season of theatergoing at Hartford Stage. It is passionate. It is driven. It is playful. It is nostalgic. It is heartwarming. It is optimistic.
It also showcases the playwright in a very different light, but nonetheless, is it one that reveals a charming, energized scrapbook of ideas and thoughts that are very close to O'Neill's heart and, as this incarnation dictates, will live on forever.

(Photos of "Ah, Wilderness!" by T. Charles Erickson)

"Ah, Wilderness!" is being performed at Hartford Stage (50 Church St., Hartford, Ct), now through November 7, 2021.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-5151

Thursday, October 21, 2021

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 279, A Preview: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's "Requiem" (The Connecticut Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra)

By James V. Ruocco

The Connecticut Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra will perform Mozart's celebrated "Requiem" (in D minor K 626) at the Cathedral of Saint Joseph on November 1 at 7 p.m.
Described as an emotionally stirring masterpiece and written at a time when Mozart's health was deteriorating, this 18th century commissioned swan song remains of the most famous choral works in the classical music repertorie.

"It is an honor to collaborate with the esteemed Cathedral Schola Cantorum and out talented soloists Louise Fauteux, Agnes Vojtko, Oswaldo Iraheta and Steve Fredericks to present this performance of Mozart's 'Requiem' in tribute to those who have lost their lives to COVID-19," said Adrian Sylveen, Artistic Director of the Connecticut Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra. "Together, in voice and music, we will heal and celebrate life.
"We hope that everyone who attends will be moved by this performance."

Unfinished at the time of his death on December 5, 1781, "Requiem," orchestrated in Mozart's hands with detailed drafts, papers and bars of specific moments, was completed the following year by composer Franz Xaver Sussmayr who later claimed that certain sections of the piece were actually his own and not Mozart's.
Presented in eight different parts by Sussmayr -  none of them are present in any of Mozart's fragmented manuscripts - "Requiem" begins with the "Introitus." It is followed by the seven remaining sections - "Kyrie," "Sequentia," "Offertorium," "Sanctus," "Benedictus," "Angus Dei" and "Communio."
Scored for several instruments including trombones, bassoons, basset horns, violins and timpani drums, "Requiem" features parts for soprano, contralto, tenor and bass soloists and a four-part chorus

Controversy aside, the constant rhythmic energy of the famously unfinished or mysteriously completed "Requiem" or "The Mass for the Dead," as it is sometimes called, remains its selling point. The beauty of this dark and powerful work - and probably one of main reasons why the Connecticut Virtuosi Chamber orchestra - chose to showcase it - comes from its anger, its pathos, its quietness, its melodrama and its sublime uplifting energy.

Highlights include "Recordare," "Rex Tremedae," "Confutatis," "Lacrimosa," "Benedictus" and "Agnes Dei."

The Artists for "Requiem"

Soprano Louise Fateux enjoys a diversified career in the arts devoted to education and performance, including solo roles in "Peer Gynt" with the New York Philharmonic and actor John de Lancie and a tour of Venice with the DiCapo Opera and the Fairfield Chorale. Some of her favorite operatic roles include Pamia in "The Magic Flute," Belinda in "Dido and Aeneas", Gretel in "Hansel and Gretel," "Violetta in "La Traviata" and Lucy in "The Telephone." 
Locally, Ms. Fateux has performed with the New Haven Chorale, the Litchfield County Choral Union, the Farmington Valley Chorale, the Con Brio Choral Society, the Connecticut Master Chorale and the Connecticut Chamber Chorus and Alchemy. She is also a resident artist for the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in Hartford and a music instructor at the A.I. Prince Technical High School. 

Hungarian alto Agnes Vojtko is frequently commissioned as a concert soloist. Her recent appearances include Handel's "Messiah," Bach's "St. Matthew Passion," the "Christmas Oratorio" with the American Bach soloists and "Requiem" with the Manchester Chorale. Other credits include appearances with the Austin Lyric Opera and Opera in the Heights and concerts staged in Hungary with the Ars Classica Chamber Opera and the Budapest Chamber Opera. Presently, she sings with the Schola Cantorum at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Hartford.

Salvadoran-American tenor Oswaldo Iraheta has sung in many opera premieres including Domingo in "El Mozote" with Opera de El Salvador, the Prince in "The Magic Mirror" at the New York International Fringe Festival and the Shepherd in NYC's "Shulamit." Other roles he has performed include Alfredo in "La Traviata," "Rodolfo in "La Boheme," "Remendado in "Carmen," "Alfred in "Die Fledermaus," "Don Ottavio in "Don Giovanni" and Aeneas in "Dido and Aeneas."
Ihaheta's other credits include work with St. Petersburg Opera, Connecticut Lyric Opera, the Aspen Music Festival, the Zezere Arts Festival, the Assisi Music Festival, the Opera Circle of Cleveland, the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice, the Trentino Lirica Opera, the Knoxville Opera, the New Sussex Opera and the Royal Opera House Muscat.

Bass Steve Fredericks has performed throughout the United States with several major American opera companies. His credits include Antonio in "The Tempest" for the Dallas Opera, Timur in "Turandot" for the Cincinnati Opera and Reinmar in "Tannhauser" for the Baltimore Opera. Other credits include "The Messiah" at Carnegie Hall and Verdi's "Requiem" for the Hudson Opera Theatre.

For Connecticut Lyric Opera, he has sung the roles of Colline in "La Boheme," the Dutchman in "Der Fliegende Hollander, the Commendatore in "Don Giovanni," "King Marke in "Tristan und Isolde" and Filippo in "Don Carlo."

About Connecticut Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra

The Connecticut Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra is the state's premier professional chamber orchestra. It is dedicated to presenting both traditional and contemporary classical chamber works to the public. The Orchestra, led by Founder and Artistic Director Adrian Sylveen, continues to grow and prosper in size and repertoire, presenting approximately 35 concerts a year throughout major performing arts centers in Connecticut and New York. To date, the organization consists of 27 musicians and an administrative staff of four.

The mission of the Orchestra is to preserve and perpetuate the great traditions of orchestral music through the expansion of its public performance season and its education series, showcasing exceptional regional and international talent. In its choice of programming, special attention is given to music from Eastern Europe.

The Orchestra itself collaborates on many projects with the New Britain Chorale, Central Connecticut State University, the Middletown Concert Association and New York's Chopin Foundation. The Orchestra also co-produces fully-staged operatic productions with Connecticut Lyric Opera. A frequent guest at the Kosciusko Foundation's Chamber Series, the Orchestra was invited  to perform at a 2003 Gala Concert celebrating the 25th anniversary of John Paul II's papacy.

The Cathedral Schola Cantorum

Founded in 1999 by Archdiocesan Music Director and organist Dr. Ezequiel Melendez, the Cathedral Schola Cantorum is composed of professional singers (many of the choristers are accomplished vocal soloists and music educators) who maintain a very high standard of musical excellence under the direction of Choirmaster, Ms. Meredith Neumann.
The choir's repertoire encompasses the full range of Roman Catholic music, including plainchant, a cappella motets from the 16th through 20th centuries, music for chorus and orchestra and newly commissioned works.
The Cathedral Schola Cantorum performs frequently with the Solo Dei Gloria Orchestra, founded by Dr. Melendez and Dr., Bolkovac and features some of the state's finest orchestral musicians. It also provides music for the 11 a.m. Sunday Liturgy and other Archdiocesan events, many of which are broadcast by EWTN, WCCT and the Catholic Radio Station. In addition to its liturgical function, the Cantorum plays an active role in the concert life of the Hartford area and has performed with both the Hartford and New Haven Symphony Orchestra.

Mozart’s “Requiem” will be performed at the Cathedral of Saint Joseph (140 Farmington Avenue, Hartford, CT) 7 p.m. November 1, 2021.
There is no cost to attend, but free-will offerings will be gratefully accepted.
Secure parking is available for patrons via the Asylum Street entrance to the Cathedral from 809 Asylum Avenue. For additional information, visit or

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 278, A Review: "The Chinese Lady" (Long Wharf Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco 

"I came across the story in the preface of a book about the history of Asian America, just like a sentence about her. It sparked something in me and I then went into kind of a deep dive trying to research anything I could find about her and was startled to find that there was not a lot."
(Lloyd Suh, Playwright)

In Lloyd Suh's mesmerizing, beautifully-written play "The Chinese Lady," which made its official debut back in 2018 at Barrington Stage, the story of 14-year-old Afong Moy, the first Chinese woman to set foot in America - circa 1834 - is retold by the playwright through the eyes of the title character who was taken from China's Guangzhou Province by New York City traders and put on display in a museum for Americans to stare and gawk at as she explained in length (via a translator named Atung) her humble beginnings, her life in China, her family, her culture, her traditions, her hopes and dreams, her desires, her sideshow major-city tour and travels, her PT Barnum association, the importance of drinking Chinese tea, the culinary differences between Chinese and American food and finally, the painful, barbaric process of foot binding, an ancient Chinese custom where feet were broken and altered to modify their shape.

The production, directed by Ralph B. Pena, brilliantly portrayed the little-known story of Afong Moy with a raw power and urgency that kept audiences completely riveted for its 90-minute intermission-less journey. More importantly, the casting of Shannon Tyo as Afong Moy not only gave Suh's play its strong, emotional center, but allowed the actress to create a dynamic character portrait laced with unforced ease, command, gentility, perception and absolute wonderment.

At Long Wharf Theatre, Tyo takes center stage (Pena also returns as director) to repeat her thrilling portrayal of Afong Moy in a brand new production of "The Chinese Lady," which originally was set to premiere at the theater's intimate, immersive theatrical space back in March, 2020. But due to the widespread COVID-19 pandemic, the play was temporarily postponed for the safety and well being of the performers, the theater, the production staff, the community and the Long Wharf Theatre audience.

The good news is - it was well worth the wait.


"The Chinese Lady" is an ambitious, compassionate drama shaped and nurtured by playwright Lloyd Suh, who, for theatrical purposes, re-imagines the sketchy fragments of Afong Moy's life and journey with feeling, irony, humor, perspective and arrangement. Whether or not Moy was actually the first Chinese person to come to America is debatable, but that isn't necessarily the point of the playwright's study. Here, in a production that far surpasses the greatness of the Barrington Stage endeavor, Suh presents a crafty, polished work that transports his audience back in time to the title character's world. As the story evolves, he adapts a brush-and-ink approach to the piece through words, situations, moments and impressions, all of which seamlessly connect the dialogue, the characters and his use of multiple story arcs from 1834 to present-day America, 2021. As storyteller, "The Chinese Lady" also benefits from content that is fresh, creative, challenging, aesthetic and thought-provoking.

"It's very much my hope that the play asks a contemporary audience watching it to interrogate their own assumptions about what their feelings are when they enter and what they are at the end of the play when they've spent some time with Afong Moy."
(Lloyd Suh, Playwright)

Re-staging "The Chinese Lady" at Long Wharf and backed by an exceptionally talented design team, namely------manelt - Jiyoun Chang (lighting), Junghyun Georgia Lee (sets), Linda Cho (costumes), Fabian Obispo (sound/background music composer), director Ralph B. Pena creates a relevant work that is instructive, imaginative, academic and descriptive. Framing the story voyeuristically, he prompts an actor-audience connection that deepens the complexity and idealism of the actual story, its progression through time, its history, its facts and fictions, its sexism and its oppression. Here, as in Pittsfield, Mass., where "The Chinese Lady" was first performed, Pena delivers an intriguing, finished work that unfolds with expressive eyes, thoughts and ideas that are consistent, detailed and wisely constructed. He also maneuvers his two-member cast effortlessly about Lee's atmospheric, inviting set design, thus, establishing a time, place and sense of drama that demands attention from the moment the story begins through its Tardis-like forward jump into present-day society.

In Shannon Tyo, Pena has found a dedicated, proud and personable actress to assume the identity of the Chinese Afong Moy who first came to America in 1834. It's a performance - the performance of the year - fraught with real emotion, thrust, commitment, soul, drive and ingenuity. It's a dream role for any actress to play, but here, as in the 2018 Barrington Stage production, Tyo doesn't just portray a character, she becomes the character, which, in turn, gives the play a freshness and truthfulness that beguiles and enchants from the moment she appears in stage. It's a role she has performed before, but Tyo's interpretation is so captivating and unique, it's as though she's performing the part for the very first time. And it is exactly that kind of connection that makes "The Chinese Lady" definitive, compelling, soft and delicate.
Jon Norman Schneider, cast in the role of Atung, Afong Moy's friend, companion and translator, offers a fascinating, vibrant, driven character turn that contrasts nicely with Tyo's portrayal of Afong Moy. He smiles. He complains. He beckons. He translates. He gets irritated. He even dreams about being her lover.
When called upon, he also delivers Chinese tea, food and chopsticks to Moy in sideshow fashion, which we learn early on is part of her act before the American public. His big moment comes when he is asked to portray Moy's important meeting with President Andrew Jackson. Assuming the role of the President and communicating Jackson's words back to Moy, the actor humorously jumps back and fourth between his own character and that of the President using a vaudevillian mindset that is savvy, funny and impeccably timed. It's so playful and engaging, you wish there was a button to hit "replay."

A thrilling start to Long Wharf's 2021-2022 season, "The Chinese Lady" is an exquisite undertaking for this prestigious New Haven-based venue, ideally positioned by great performances, skillful direction and playwright Lloyd Suh's beautifully imagined memoir of a young, unknown Chinese woman whose personal life and journey through time is not easily forgotten. It is one of the best plays of the year and one where emotions and thoughts linger...long after the play has ended.

(Photos of "The Chinese Lady" by T. Charles Erickson)

"The Chinese Lady" is being staged at Long Wharf Theatre (222 Sargent Drive, New haven, CT), now through October 31, 2021.

For tickets or more information, call (203) 787-4282.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 277, A Preview: "The Rocky Horror Show" (Pantochino Productions)

By James V. Ruocco

"The Time Warp"
"Dammit Janet"
"Sweet Transvestite"
"Science Fiction/Double Feature"
"Over at the Frankenstein Place"

For Bert Bernardi, the founder and artistic director of Milford's delightful, long-running Pantochino Productions, the glitz, glam, participatory cult stage musical "The Rocky Horror Show," a classic presentation vamped and draped in playful wickedness and gender-bending craziness, is one that is filled with the kind of joy, oomph, nostalgia and humor, he simply cannot get enough of.

"I've seen the film countless times," he confesses during a rehearsal break from the theater's upcoming revival of two-act musical which made its official London debut back in 1973 followed by an American version the following year in Los Angeles, thus, prompting the 1975 film adaptation starring Tim Curry, Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon.
" 'Rocky Horror' was the first book musical I ever directed many, many years ago," Bernardi recalls. "So, there are lots of memories from the past as together we're creating new ones, which is why I love directing so much.
"Helping the cast create these characters and watching them find new moments that are inspiring and encouraging is why I love directing."

A tasty, infectious mix of science fiction, B-horror movies, sexual innuendo, over-the-top musicality and transvestism, "The Rocky Horror Show" finds nerdy romantic, married high school couple Brad Majors and Janet Weiss seeking refuge (their car broke down during a rainstorm) at the Transylvanian castle of Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a mad scientist and cross dresser, surrounded by a bunch of crazies that include live-in butler Riff Raff, his sister Magenta, a groupie named Columbia, a muscular male body builder called Rocky and Eddie, the unfortunate victim of a botched-up delivery that led to very troubled circumstances.

"The Rocky Horror Show - a departure from Pantochino's original whimsical musical fare - "The Gingerbreads of Broadway," "The Wicked Witch of the West: Kansas or Bust," "The Waffle House Five," "Glitz! The Little Miss Christmas Pageant Musical" will be staged at the Milford-based venue from October 22 through October 29, 2021.

Bernardi agrees with this 'breaking from the norm' assessment, admitting that "Rocky Horror" is an unusual choice for Pantochino Productions, but quickly admits that the show itself is absolutely perfect for these difficult, troubled and unusual times. "While our mission remains to create original musical theatre for family audiences, back in the spring, we weren't sure where the world would be with the pandemic with the coming of fall.
"Would parents be ready and willing to bring children into the theater in October when our season normally begins? So, we decided to take the leap and do something completely unexpected, appealing to our other part of the family - the grown ups!"

Glancing back, Bernardi admits that the choice to stage "The Rocky Horror Show" this fall was one that kept popping up in his head "as a yes or no choice for Pantochino" until he finally caved and decided to green light this revival. "The songs, the film, the various memories of it all kept the show alive in the back of my brain somewhere," he explains. "So I said, 'Why not?' "

Surrounding himself with a "dream cast" of veteran performers - all of whom have contributed greatly to the success of dozens of hit musicals that have comprised the theater's acclaimed repertoire - Bernardi began casting the production with actors and actresses best suited for the theater's official opening since the COVID-19 pandemic shut things down for good back in March, 2020.
Starring in "The Rocky Horror Show" are Pantochino co-founder Jimmy Johansmeyer as Dr. Frank-N- Furter, Jusin Rugg as Riff Raff, Jack Saleeby as Brad, Elise Sullivan as Janet, Shelley Marsh Poggio as Magenta, Mary Mannix as Columbia, Everton George as Rocky, Steve Autore as Eddie/Dr. Scott and  Don Poggio as the Narrator. Michael Cavone, Maria Berte and Sherri Alohonzo will play the Phantoms.

"Originally, our plan was to create another drive-through Halloween experience for families which was a fantastic success for us last year," says Bernardi. "But when financial backing and power simply wasn't there as it was before, we had to come up with a new plan. And so 'Rocky Horror' and this cracker-jack cast seemed like the right possibility."

And what a cast it is!

"The bonus, of course, was that our core company was tailor-made for this project," adds Bernardi. "Without a doubt, my co-producer and husband Jimmy Johansmeyer was absolutely perfect for the lead role of Dr. Frank-N-Furter. Justin Rugg, our musical director, was an outstanding choice for Riff Raff. Shelley Marsh Poggio and Mary Mannix are exciting performers for Magenta and Columbia, respectively."

Given the racy, sexually-charged premise for "The Rocky Horror Show," exactly how risque is this particular staging? It is fine-tuned and edited? It is PG perfect? Is it censored? It is re-imagined for the Pantochino audience? "It's a little bit of both - tame and risque," admits Bernardi. "We're not shying away from the text or the visuals. So those who have never seen it before may be surprised, which is a good thing!
"For those who know the show inside out, hopefully they will be delighted as Pantochino puts its unique stamp on the piece."

Originally, Bernardi thought his production would just appeal to a younger thirty-something crowd. But the more and more he thought about it, he found that "Rocky Horror" is the kind of show that should appeal to everyone including seniors who have already purchased tickets to the musical along with teenagers, young couples and the parents of the theater's popular camp for children.

Is there audience participation?

"Having directed this show twice before, I know there will be audience members who know the 'call backs' and they should be free to shout them out during the show as it is part of the 'Rocky Horror' experience.
"Throwing rice, toast and other objects at live actors, however, will not be permitted. It's simply too dangerous. Still, I know our audience will have a great time without putting the cast at risk."

Staging "The Rocky Horror Show" for the third time in a row has been especially gratifying for Bernardi who is having a great time readying the production for a live audience with his stellar cast of performers. "The creativity, the trust, the freedom to experiment and the sense of camaraderie and respect within the cast makes for a very happy rehearsal," he explains. "This, however, is wildly different from anything we've done thus far, which makes the entire process and exploration even more fun."

If you've never seen a production staged by Pantochino or you are someone who has seen their several of their original works, the timing, per Bernardi, couldn't be more perfect than the theater's offering of "The Rocky Horror Show."
"Audiences are ready to come back to the theater," he says. "I hear it not just from the theatre community, but from everyone around town. People are ready for the return of live entertainment. And I think this show has it all - an exciting rock score, a sassy and campy sense of humor and lastly, a chance to see it in person, live on the stage."

"The Rocky Horror Show" will be staged at MAC (Milford Arts Council, 40 Railroad Avenue, Milford, CT),  from October 22 through 29, 2021.
Performances are 7:30 p.m. October 22, 6 and 10 p.m. October 23, 6 p.m. October 24 and 7:30 and 10:30 p.m.October 29.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 843-0959.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 276, A Review: "Mamma Mia!" (Fairfield Center Stage)

By James V. Ruocco

"Money, Money, Money"
"Super Trouper."
"Dancing Queen."
"Honey, Honey"
"The Name of the Game"
Does Your Mother Know?"

"Mamma Mia!"
Oh, yes.
Here we go again.
Yes, indeed.
But with one catch.

This "Mamma Mia" is unlike any other "Mamma Mia!" you've seen in the last five years.

Here, planes fly high overheard.
The smell of fresh cut grass engulfs you.
The salty, fragrant sea air of nearby beaches is constant and very welcoming.
And the breeze of an October night hits you right in the face with a welcome reminder that fall is happily upon us.

None of this, of course, is accidental.
It's all part of the outdoor experience that is Fairfield Center Stage's stunning, immersive presentation of "Mamma Mia!" on the grounds and back lawn of the town's Scandinavian Club, a thriving Fairfield organization that preserves and celebrates Norwegian, Finnish, Danish, Swedish and Icelandic traditions and cultures. 

So, let the celebration begin.

On Broadway, in London, on National Tour, in Regional Theatre or performed locally - as is the case with this particular FCS production - "Mamma Mia!" is one of the those infectious, family-friendly musicals that works its audience up into a emotional lather with a proven track record of bright colors, catchy musical numbers, fluid staging, lively characters, frenzied choreography, smart and sassy one liners, playful sexual innuendo and a traditional ending right out of the MGM movie musical backlot.

You know the story.
You know the punchlines.
You know the music.
You know the characters.
You know the play text and the scene-by-scene evolution.
You know the outcome.

Therefore, watching "Mamma Mia!" for the third, fifth or eighth time on stage (the FCS outing marks my 15th viewing of the musical since its premiere in London and on Broadway, both of which I enjoyed immensely along with subsequent National Tours, Regional Theatre incarnations and local productions) is like coming home to a big family celebration of sorts where the champagne flows, the music sparkles, the food is delicious and the dancing keeps you entertained for hours. Toss in a wedding ceremony, a tasty vanilla cake with butter cream frosting and you 'll have the time of your life.

At Fairfield Center Stage - the place to be at the moment - there are rewards aplenty.

This "Mamma Mia!" is fizzy and clever.

It is terrific fun.
It is full of life.
It is sweet and syrupy.
It is energetic and full-out.
It abounds with endless finesse and enthusiasm.
It appeals to all ages and lifestyles.
It is captivating and enchanting.
It is sweet and bubbly.
It is fast and fluid.
It is a welcome diversion in these very troubled and uncertain times.
It is also must for ABBA fans.

As musical theatre, it happily serves up the Scandinavian-based band's vintage but timely classics - each and every one a hit.

In Fairfield, it displays invites of hugs, kisses, singalongs, swaying arms, clapping hands and remembrance.
It asks you to get up off your lawn chair or LL Bean blanket and start dancing.
It invites you to hum along to the songs when and if the mood strikes you.
It asks you to ooh and aah at the characters and their choices.
It asks you to shout out familiar one-liners much to the delight of everyone around you.
And even though you've seen the show before (at FCS this was the case with pretty much everyone in the audience), this "Mamma Mia" wants you to forget everything and act like your seeing the two-act musical for the very first time.

Written by Catherine Johnson, the story of "Mamma Mia!," set on the Greek island of Kalokari, takes place right before the wedding of Sophie Sheridan, the 21-year-old daughter of Donna Sheridan, who, after finding and reading her mother's diary, learns that three men from her mother's past - Sam, Harry and Bill- might very well be her biological father. How all of this happens and plays out over the musical's 120-minute evolution (not including intermission) gives "Mamma Mia!" enough fuel, fire and adrenaline to keep things things merrily in focus until the play's big finish at the end of Act II.

The success of this "Mamma Mia!," first and foremost, rests largely in the hands of director Christy McIntosh-Newsom whose directorial credits include "The Music Man," "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," "Barnum," "Matilda," "A Christmas Carol Experience," "The Secret Garden" and most recently, "The Sound of Music." A visionary who dances to her own theatrical beat and mindset, she isn't interested in staging just another musical or following the paint-by-numbers blueprint of musical theatre productions. Instead, she opts for something fresh and original that bends the rules, portrays things in a completely different light or is so full of surprises, you never once saw any of them coming. 

Staging "Mamma Mia!" for Fairfield Center Stage, McIntosh-Newsom brings appropriate charm, voice and color to the production, matched by cleverly orchestrated patches of whimsy, boldness, pulse and originality that swirls and twirls the familiar story into orbit and keeps it happily spinning with a savvy wit and pizzazz that overrides the musical's otherwise bubble-gum goo and corny ornamentation. She also makes great use of her vast outdoor arena by having various cast members arrive on the scene by weaving their way through a very excited audience or making other entrances and exits from the sidelines in full view of various theatergoers. It's all seamlessly connected without any form of hesitation or overkill.

Here, this matter-of-fact readiness and viable staging process allows the material to breathe and resonate without any calculation or hiccups. Nothing is taken for granted. Nothing is over-the-top or corny. Nothing upstages the story, the music, the dancing, the story board, the dialogue or the characters. It's all very well-plotted, rehearsed and staged. And nothing is thrown in for the sake of additional laughter or dramatic effect.
What sets this "Mamma Mia!" apart from other productions of  "Mamma Mia!" is that McIntosh-Newsom takes chances and she runs with them. She's an individual and not a copycat. She finds new, creative ways to tell a story. She adds nuance and shading wherever she sees fit. She also doesn't always play by the rules either. The idea to turn "Does Your Mother Know?" into a LGBTQ celebration of sorts where all sexes and lifestyles blend into one, replete with rainbow colors, rainbow flags, rainbow banners and rainbow blankets, is a stroke of genius, brought vividly to life by most of the cast who move about with playful, frenetic abandon under her tutelage and that of Kelsey Kaminski, the show's very talented choreographer.

A celebration of the songs made famous by ABBA (originally composed by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus with Stig Andersson also credited in the footnotes for certain songs used in the production),  "Mamma Mia!" includes 26 familiar, high-octane musical numbers pulled from the pop-tinged ABBA songbook. They are "Prologue/I Have a Dream," "Honey, Honey," "Money, Money, Money," "Thank You For the Music," "Mamma Mia!" "Chiquitita," "Dancing Queen," "Lay All Your Love On Me," "Super Trouper," "Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (A Man After Midnight)," "Voulez Vous," "Under Attack," "One of Us," "S.O.S.," "Does Your Mother Know?" "Knowing Me, Knowing You," "Our Last Summer," "Slipping Through My Fingers," "The Winner Takes It All," "Take a Chance On Me," "I Do, I Do, I Do," "I Have a Dream," "Mamma Mia! (Encore)," "Dancing Queen (Encore)" and "Waterloo."

The songs - all very hummable and memorable - are neatly incorporated into Catherine Johnson's sugar-coated romantic story, which then and now, transcends time and place in the most agreeable of ways. All of them are serviceable to the plot, its power-pop progression, its scene-by-scene story arc and the various characters and ensemble members who sing them, perform them and bring them to life - day or night. They are ABBA of the highest caliber and every one of them are fun, sweetly nostalgic and completely entertaining.

For this production, Fairfield Center Stage has enlisted the talents of Jackie Martino as musical director. Well versed for this particular sort of musical entertainment, Martino's gift for musicality gives this incarnation plenty of energy, panache, passion and a fastidious sense of line and commitment. In turn, this "Mamma Mia!" snaps, crackles and pops. Its heart is in the right place. It gallops through the gate in rainbow colors of sweetness, sexiness and emotion. It gets the pulses racing. It slaps you in the face and gets you all hot and bothered. It also comes gift wrapped with a glitter ball flair and fantasia that's impossible to resist.

Completely akin to the song style that is ABBA - pop rock, folksy glam, light ballads, gum-drop gooey novelty, bittersweet kitsch, flavorful sweetness - Martino dutifully respects and understands the mindset and spirit that is ABBA, the group's universal, highly commercial bliss, their unstoppable rhythms, beats and expressions, their lathered, lyrical tonality and the surface beauty and intimacy of the songs themselves. Here, she is at the top form with one showstopper after another. The entire cast - leads, supporting players, chorus - are all in fine and full voice with so much energy to boot, if there's a power outage one night or afternoon in Fairfield, Martino and company are to blame. Here, the harmonizing, the solos, the duets and the big production numbers are matched by the right blending of voices and pitch-perfect vocalizations that joyously reflect the intentions of its creators.

Working side-by-side with an exceptional team of musicians (Clay Zambo (keyboard, programming), Michael Mosca (guitar), Charles Casimiro (bass) and Gabe Nappi (drums),  Martino (also on keyboard), bring a certain pulse and urgency to the oft-played "Mamma Mia!" score that is played out to perfection with precision, scope and exceptional orchestral pacing and movement. In turn, there are many, many showstoppers - "Mamma Mia!" "Super Trouper," "Dancing Queen," "Voulez Vous," " "Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (A Man After Midnight), " "Does Your Mother Know?" - all of which marvelously capture the emotional gravity of the music itself, its playful concept, its obvious sparkle and intended dazzle.

Dance, when done right, is also key to the success of the "Mamma Mia!" experience.  For this go round, Kelsey Kaminski, a choreographer who is well versed in the mechanics of dance for musical theater, has developed a choreographic blueprint that not only celebrates the music of ABBA, but the good-natured feel, emotion, wryness and intensity of the love story at hand, its progression through dance and how is is shaped to move the action along both effectively and artfully. As "Mamma Mia!" unfolds, she creates a whirlwind of ABBA frenzy that explodes in MGM movie musical fashion deftly reflecting the the celebratory conceit that has made this musical giddyap through the decades since its 1999 London debut with no sign of slowing down 22 years later.

Using the outdoor stage and atmospheric space of the Scandinavian Club (a standing ovation is mandatory for Don Rowe's exceptional lighting palate of rhythmic colors, invention, style and purpose), Kaminski dazzles her audience with wild, ferocious and fun-filled dance maneuvers and rhythmic patterns that not only enhance and drive the musical story forward, but heighten the dramatic and passionate momentum of the piece, its flourish, its commitment and its Greek-island sweetness. This is dance full of brains, craft, propulsion and trademark destiny. It thrusts you into its world and subject matter with increasing power and precision. It has beauty and surprise. It is dynamic and thrilling. It unfolds with zest and rhythmic harmony, propelled by a calibrated energy and wattage of choice moves, gestures, beats and turns, all mixed together in trademark fashion to define the quality, virtuoso and exhilaration that is "Mamma Mia!."

In the role of Donna Sheridan, the mother of Sophie and the former lead singer of the girl group "Donna and the Dynamos," the blue-haired Marilyn Olsen takes hold of this very popular character and spins it into a full-filled, exciting portrait of concern, exasperation, madness and frivolity that keeps her at the very center of the musical's action as scripted by the playwright and the show's musical collaborators. It's a riveting performance, both musically, comically and dramatically that the actress addresses with sure-fire commitment and dedication.

Her Donna is earthy, stubborn, motherly, caring, cautious and misunderstood. It's also a characterization of strongness, determination and optimism which Olsen communicates with vision and insight. Vocally, she is in fine voice delivering powerhouse renditions of the many ABBA songs she is asked to perform including "The Winner Takes It All," "One of Us," "Money, Money Money," "Dancing Queen," "Super Trouper," "S.O.S." and the musical's showstopping title song "Mamma Mia!" which members of the audience happily chimed in loudly and clearly alongside the show's pleasant-sounding men and women of the ensemble.

As Donna's daughter Sophie, Jessica Pescosolido has a powerful voice, presence and spirit that serves the material well. No matter what song she sings - "Slipping Through My Fingers," "I Have a Dream," "The Name of the Game," "Honey, Honey," "Under Attack" - she hits all the right notes with a freshness, vitality, charm and mindset that does justice to the ABBA songbook, the original material and the popular orchestrations. As an actress, her pairing with both Olsen and the always enjoyable Sean Davis who plays her boyfriend Sky, is fraught with a real emotion that is genuine, truthful and passionate.

Carolyn Reeves, as Tanya, delivers a dynamic, sexy, charismatic star turn that prompts immediate attention whenever she's on stage. It's one of the best portrayals of the character itself and one that is as exciting and refreshing as the one originated by Louise Plowright for the 1999 London production and the following year by Karen Mason on Broadway. Her big number - the reworked, playful, rainbow-tinged "Does Your Mother Know?" is a bonafide showstopper and one of the major highlights (there are many) in Act II. Elsewhere, Shannon Grumet brings the right snap, fizz and decidedly comic relish to the part of Rosie, which she infuses with a zany dash and spark that adds additional fuel to her very memorable and unforgettable performance.

There's a raw power and realness to Mark Silence's portrayal of Sam Carmichael which heightens the character's appeal and his interpretation of the part throughout the "Mamma Mia!" telling. As both actor and singer, he is well prepared and ready, most notably in his many scenes with the principal characters and his stirring, emotional delivery of Sam's solo musical number "Knowing Me, Knowing You." As Bill Austin, Jeffrey Fulton brings plenty of personality and humor to his role of a traveling guru as does Bill Wamcke, in the part Harry Bright, a cheeky Englishman whose first and only sexual encounter with a woman was Donna Sheridan. 

The perfect song-and-dance musical to kick off the start of the 2021-2022 season at Fairfield Center Stage, "Mamma Mia!" is a pulsating, mainstream musical entertainment of stunning dimension that is fresh, flouncy, power-grabbing and gigawatt fantastic. It breaks out all the ABBA classics with obvious care, affection, sparkle and sugar-coated affection and has great fun doing so. With Christy McIntosh-Newsom as director, this is "Mamma Mia!" like you've never seen it before and that, in a nutshell, is what makes its extra special. It's not only sparkly and flavorful, but it's full of surprises and choice directorial moments guaranteed to make you forget about every other "Mamma Mia!" production you've seen over the last five or six years. It also puts ABBA back on the brain again, but in a very different light.
The cast - each and every one of them - exceptional in their very own right - perform with a thrilling exhilaration that complements the musical's airy, emotional, sugar-coated delirium. And the combined talents of Jackie Martino (musical director), Kelsey Kaminski (choreographer),  Don Rowe (lighting designer), Jessica Camarero (costumer designer), Kevin Pelkey (scenic designer) and Chris Gensur (sound designer) give this particular production an identity all its own that makes it stand tall and jump right out at you in a three-dimensional flourish where yin and yang energy go hand and hand to breathe new life into a very, very popular musical where "happily ever after" does exist and really, really matters.

Photos of "Mamma Mia!" courtesy of Kate Eisemann Pictures

"Mamma Mia!" is being performance at Fairfield Center Stage (Scandinavian Club, 1351 S. Pine St.,  Fairfield, CT), now through October 24, 2021.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 416-6416