Tuesday, November 30, 2021

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 287, A Review: "Falsettoland" (Music Theatre of Connecticut)

By James V. Ruocco

Thirty-one years since its original premiere "Falsettoland" can still be experienced with the same reverence and appreciation it once had when it debuted off-Broadway in 1990 at Playwright Horizons Theatre on West 42nd Street.


It is the third in a trio of one-act musicals created by James Lapine and William Finn, continuing the groundwork of the first two stories - "In Trousers" and "March of the Falsettos." The subject matter - the AIDS crisis, homosexuality, lesbianism, marriage, divorce, therapy, conflict, Judaism, bar mitzvahs, familial dysfunction, coming-of-age, death, gay identity - is addressed with confidence, truthfulness and compassion by Lapine (he wrote the book) and lends itself nicely to the musical blueprint envisioned by Finn with a lyrical cleverness and caffeinated determination that demands immediate attention.

In this go-round, young Jason is preparing for his bar mitzvah, which is being put together by his divorced parents, Marvin and Trina. Meanwhile, Marvin's lover Whizzer falls ill with AIDS and begins treatment in a local hospital, where he is surrounded by friends and family including Charlotte and Cordelia, referred to in the musical "as the lesbians from next door."
As "Falsettoland" evolves, Jason is undecided about the bar mitzvah and is given the option to cancel the event. Once it becomes known that Whizzer is going to die, Jason has a change of heart and the ceremony is held at the hospital, much to the delight of everyone involved including Mendel, the family psychiatrist and boyfriend of Jason's mother Trina.

In less-skilled hands, this plotline could be somewhat problematic. But at MTC, it is exhilaratingly set in motion by Kevin Connors whose directorial credits at the Norwalk-based venue include "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "Cabaret," "Ragtime," "Evita," "Next to Normal," "Gypsy" and "Master Class." Here, Connors' love for musical storytelling achieves a greatness that is effective, exclusive, complex and creative. He takes hold of Lapine's script, finds its emotional centeredness and lets it fly, breathe and resonate. Scene by scene and song by song, there is real power here. At times, the emotional punch is so visibly vibrant, it's impossible to look away for a moment. 

As "Falsettoland" takes shape, Connors leaves no stone unturned. Given the demands of the playtext and the intricacy of the music, he brings a decided freshness to the subject matter that is upbeat and remarkable in terms of execution, design, staging and performance. The closeness of actor to audience is especially important here in order for the story to hit home and deliver and Connors creates a one-on-one kinship that fuels "Falsettoland" and thrusts its forward with the compassion, depth and irony envisioned by the musical's creators. 

The "Falsettoland" score - a thing of beauty, scope and musical theatre lyricism - has been written by William Finn (music and lyrics). It is powerful stuff, fueled by wit, imagination and commitment, blending excitement and melody with apparent thrust, refinement, detail and bursts of passion and tenderness. Told over two acts, the production contains 20 musical numbers, all of which are designed to move the story forward and provide necessary insight and development for the characters who sing them. They are: "Falsettoland," "About Time," "Year of the Child," "Miracle of Judaism," "The Baseball Game," "A Day in Falsettoland," "The Fight," "Everyone Hates His Parents," "What More Can I Say," "Something Bad Is Happening," "More Racquetball," "Holding to the Ground," "Days Like This," "Cancelling the Bar Mitzvah," "Unlikely Lovers," "Another Miracle of Judaism," "Something Bad Is Happening (reprise)," "You Gotta Die Sometime," "Jason's Bar Mitzvah" and "What Would I Do?"

As orchestrated by Finn," "Falsettoland" is a chamber musical of sorts with ballads, cannons, duets, recitations and melodic abstractions designed for a sophisticated audience weaned on weighty, intelligent musicals that have plenty to say and say it well. It is wonderfully expressive, rhapsodic writing, replete with textures, elements and themes that unfold with a crisp, tripping soundscape of assured abandon, thrust and powerfully moving scope and originality.

For MTC, David John Madone serves at musical director. Among his credits: "On the Twentieth Century" for Goodspeed Musicals, "Sweet Charity" at Barrington Stage" and "The Sound of Music" and "Smokey Joe's Cafe" at Sacramento Music Circus. Here, he sets "Falsettoland" in motion with a thrilling musicality that has an in-your-face effect and distinction, aided by a love of the actual material, its intended purpose and story arc evolution. It's a collaboration between musician and actor that is flawless and expressive and shaped with an aura of involvement and intimacy, rife with power, love, tenderness and essential lamenting. There's also a Sondheim-esque quality to the music, which is meant as the highest compliment possible. 

"Falsettoland" stars Dan Skylar as Marvin, Ari Skylar as Jason, Jeff Gurner as Mendel, Corrine C. Broadbent as Trina, Max Meyers as Whizzer, Jessie Janet Richards as Dr. Charlotte and Elissa DeMaria as Cordelia.

Making his MTC debut with "Falsettoland," Ari Skylar, as Jason, is one of those young artists you can't help but notice and watch attentively whenever he's on stage. It's not that he sets out to steal the show from the otherwise adult cast, it's just that he's so absolutely dynamic in the part and it shows. Performance wise, he's smart, savvy, natural and to quote the two women seated behind me "absolutely adorable." It's a performance like no other and one that is layered with the angst, emotion and hurt of a young man caught in between the crossfire of his divorced parents. Vocally, he's as polished as Ian Tucker who originated the role of Gavroche in the 1985 London staging of "Les Miserables" and Liam Vincent Hutt who played the title character in the 2019 production of "Billy Elliott" at Goodspeed Musicals. Skyler's real-life dad Dan, cast in the role of Jason's father Marvin, delivers a flat-out emotional portrayal that impresses, both acting wise and vocally. It's a raw, truthful character portrait, rendered with just the right layers of charm, attitude, vulnerability and personality.
Everyone else in the cast is also in fine form in terms of character, presence, style, commitment and emotional thrust. They too share a love and appreciation for the material, the story, the music and its indelible sound and execution.

One of the best musicals of the 2021 professional regional theatre season, "Falsettoland" is deeply admired for its bravery, its delicateness, its fluidity and its technique. Powered by Kevin Connors focused, impassioned direction, it is staged with an accomplished flair and pulse, seamlessly intertwined with David John Madone's extraordinary musical direction. The cast - every single one of them - invest the production with the heartbreak, vulnerability and fascination it requires along with an accomplished song style that is absolutely extraordinary on every level imaginable. So much so, that when it all ends, you wish there was a "replay" button available so you could watch this "Falsettoland" again and again.

Production photos of "Falsettoland" are by Alex Mogillo

"Falsettoland" was staged at Music Theatre of Connecticut (509 Westport Ave., Norwalk, CT) from November 5 through 21, 2021.
For tickets or more information to upcoming productions, call (203) 454-3883.
website: musictheatreofct.comr

Monday, November 29, 2021

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 286, A Review: "The Gifts of the Magi" (The Arts at Angeloria's)

By James V. Ruocco

"Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are the wisest. Everywhere they are the wisest. They are the Magi."
(O. Henry. "The Gift of the Magi.")

The Victorian ambience of The Arts at Angeloria's  beautifully designed, intimate venue lends itself nicely to the theater's charming holiday presentation of "The Gifts of the Magi," an 85-minute musical based on O. Henry's 1905 literary classic "The Gift of the Magi" and his lesser-known story "The Cop and the Anthem." Here, room by room, are Christmas trees, garlands, ribbons, fairy lights, ornaments and candles that reflect the bygone Victorian era, offset by period lamps, dining room tables, sofas, loveseats, cabinets, curios and buffets that prompt glorious visions of late 19th and early 20th century life. It's all yours to peruse and enjoy prior to the start of the show, during a 15-minute intermission and after the show has ended.
Lori Holm, the artistic director of the venue, is also on hand to entertain theatergoers with memorable stories about the property, its Victorian splendor, its design, its history, its people and its treasured antiques and gifted donations. Looking as if she stepped right out of a Victorian postcard, utilizing some beautifully designed period costuming and accessories, Holm, is a vision of loveliness and charm befitting the days of a nostalgic past. She was last seen as Donna Sheridan in the theater's exhilarating summer presentation of "Mamma Mia!" where she gave a showstopping turn as an independent woman confronted by her very colorful past.

Inside the theater, a cast of eight, dressed in choice period costumes, nicely coordinated by Kim Turret and Liz Parsons, await the start of this festive offering, which tells the familiar story of a young husband and wife, who, due to a lack of money, address the challenges of gift-giving by making certain sacrifices and choices to fulfill each other's dreams on Christmas morning.

Adapted for the stage with a book by writer Mark St. Germain, this musical telling wisely retains the sentiment, spirit, morality and invaluable lessons and themes set forth by Henry, mixed with dialogue, characters, irony, truths and plot twists that move the story forward with wit, pathos and profundity that is sweet, palpable and inviting. 
Retaining the stylized technique of Henry, Germain outlines this "Magi" with the well-knit suspense, observation, coincidence, conflict and suspense that made the original work so popular. All of the scenes are strategically placed and realized. The characters themselves are smartly envisioned to fit the play's musical format and its story progression. Nothing is overplayed or preachy. And the ending - a happy one, of course - rings loud and clear, reminding everyone that, in life, a greater good can ultimately be achieved through love and sacrifice.

Directing "The Gifts of the Magi" at The Arts at Angeloria's, director Sara Fabrizio creates a completely immersive, exciting theatrical experience that exemplifies the heartfelt sentiment and enchantment of the original O. Henry story. Using the theater's small, intimate space to full advantage, she moves her cast of eight briskly throughout this familiar tale with simple, important blocking techniques and movements, some of which take place center stage, to the left, to the right or downstage and off into the center aisle for reflection, song and genuine pitter-patter. It's a choice that is awash with thrust and continuity, time and place, hope and generosity and a lens of togetherness that serves the material well. The production also benefits from Amelia Nemeth's cheeky music hall-style choreography, a flavorful mix of period rootedness, artistry and highly spirited dashes of humor, gaiety and playful arrangement.

The songbook for "The Gifts of the Magi" was created by Randy Courts (music) and Mark St. Germain (lyrics). It contains thirteen musical numbers, all of which are cleverly interspersed throughout the story and sung by the show's principal and supporting players. They are: "Star of the Night," "Gifts of the Magi," "Jim and Della," "Christmas Is to Blame," "How Much to Buy My Dream?" "The Restaurant," "Once More," "Bum Luck," "Greed," "Pockets," "The Same Girl," "The Gift of Christmas," "Gifts of the Magi (reprise)." 
The songs themselves, all serviceable to the plot and the advancement of the story, are well worth hearing and performed with an ardent synergy and style that rightfully portrays the thoughts and feelings of the characters who sing them. As the story evolves, musical director Ed Rosenblatt allows his performers to pour their hearts out in song, always making sure they are vocally correct, distinct and stirring with their musical assertiveness. He succeeds nicely.
There is genuine sparkle here with some simply delightful orchestral touches, reminiscent of music created by both Stephen Sondheim and Alan Menken. Off to the side but onstage throughout the performance, "The Gifts of the Magi" accompanist Bill D'Andrea (at the piano), taking his cue from Rosenblatt, creates many fine musical moments that are rendered with excitement, refinement and wonderfully controlled effect. Clarity is key here, and all of the music - ballads, comedic numbers, duets - is played out, performed and executed with deep affection for both composer and lyricist.

"The Gift of the Magi" stars Joey Abate as Willy Porter, Jason Michael as Soapy Smith, Kaity Marzik as Della Dillingham and Charles Clark as Jim Dillingham. Kassiani Areti Kontothanasis, Joe Berthiaume, Samantha Gamez and Kuhlken Gorman also lend support as members of The City, Him and Her. Casting wise, all eight performers are exactly right for the parts they are asked to portray. The show's major two stand outs are Porter and Michael who bring plenty of personality, charm and charisma to their parts throughout the "Magi" story. One anxiously awaits their next character turn, song, joke or dramatic stance.
As Willy Porter, the affable newsboy who tells the "Magi" story through song and narration, Abate beguiles, charms and cajoles his audience with a nostalgic enthusiasm that is real, truthful and honestly conceived. Vocally, he's polished and controlled, always knowing when and how to make a point, sell a lyric or carry the story forward through song. In the role of Soapy Smith, a homeless individual hoping to be arrested to secure a warm bed and a holiday meal, Michael brings so much zest and personality to the role, you can't help but cheer him on in his quest for a warm cell and a Christmas feast of turkey, stuffing and all the trimmings. Kontothanasis, another determined, charismatic performer, offers a committed, powerful character turn, fueled by imagination, wit and great comic timing. Vocally, she is also is fine voice. 
Everyone else, in turn, has his or her own moment in the spotlight and delivers both different and engaging performances that are entirely memorable. What's also gratifying about this particular group (great casting on Fabrizio's part) is that they all work so well together as one, in pairs or in groups. There is trust here. There is dedication. There is passion. There is a great love of performance. And yes, they are unstoppable.

A sweet-tinged scrapbook of a memory's past, "The Gifts of the Magi" is a thoroughly enjoyable holiday confection that is front-page news for anyone willing to succumb to its pioneered Christmas delights. It is afresh with an emotional story arc that is compassionate, cheery and openly mirthful. Musically, it charges forward with precision and snap that's playfully delivered under the tutelage of musical director Ed Rosenblatt and assigned accompanist Bill D'Andrea. The cast - all eight of them - immerse us in the "Magi's" musical merriment and awakening. And director Sara Fabrizio's wondrous mindset evokes a spirt and copious surrender that is vibrant, great fun and bristling with the kind of life you find once-a-year at Christmastime.

The Gifts of the Magi" is being staged at The Arts at Angeloria's (223 Meriden Waterbury Turnpike, Southington, CT), now through December 5, 2021.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 426-9690.

Saturday, November 6, 2021

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 285, A Review: "Rent" (The Bushnell)

By James V. Ruocco

Then and now, the lyrics for Jonathan Larson's iconic 1996 musical "Rent" are unmistakably catchy, inspiring and timely. And well, they should be. Like all great music, they have acquired a history, a rhythm, a pulse and a universal vitality that goes way beyond the Bohemian stratosphere from whence they came.

Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six-hundred minutes.
Five hundred twenty-five
Moments so dear

Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
How do you measure - measure a year?
In daylights - in sunsets
In midnight's - in cups of coffee
In inches - in miles
In laughter - in strife

There's only us, there's only this.
Forget regret, or life is your's to miss.
No other path, no other way.
No day but today

"How do you document real life
When real life's getting more like fiction each day?
Headlines, bread-lines blow my mind
And now this deadline, "Eviction or pay." Rent!

Without, question.
"Rent" was....
"Rent" is...
"Rent" remains the celebrated work of  the very talented 35-year-old Larson, the composer, lyricist  and author of the musical who died of an aortic aneurysm on January, 25, 1996, just days before his exhilarating, ground-breaking rock opera made its official debut off-Broadway to heightened fanfare and subsequently, was later transferred to Broadway in April of the same year, where, it became the "Hamilton" of its day.
This, of course, came as no surprise to anyone in the cast, in the audience, in the producer's chair, backstage or on the creative team.
"Rent" was definitely in a class of its own.

Glancing back, the two-act musical, which won the 1996 Tony Award for Best Musical and Best Musical Score, among others, completely changed the face of musical theater with its adrenaline-pumped musical score of seamlessly mixed salsa, reggae, opera, gospel, tango, electric rock, pop and Sondheim-tinged eclecticism. Its complicated, important, angst-filled story of gay and straight characters fighting for survival in N.Y 's bohemian milieu of St. Mark's Place, was fueled with grit, hope, revelation, desire and unabashed vitality. And when the "Rent" cast stood on the edge of the proscenium stage facing the audience at the start of Act II to sing the soul-searching anthem "Seasons of Love," a tearful reminder of living and measuring life on borrowed time, your heart just about broke and broke....and broke.

Sitting there on the aisle - fifth row orchestra center at the Nederlander Theatre - just two days after its big Broadway bow, I remember thinking, "Oh, my God! How lucky am I to be sitting here watching this musical unfold with a cast that included Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, Idina Menzel and Daphne Rubin-Vega. It doesn't get any better than this."

In 2021, back on the road for it's much-publicized "Rent 25th Anniversary Farewell Tour," "Rent" still exudes that same theatrical magic and dizzying frenzy on today's audience (all masked and fully vaccinated) as it pretty much did way back in 1996  at the 79 East Fourth St in the East Village and four months later when it transferred to Broadway at the intimate Nederlander Theatre.
The cast is new. The production is new. The sets, the sound, the lighting and the costumes are new. But make no mistake about it.
This is "Rent" the way it was meant to staged and performed in all its gritty, ironic, sexy and heartfelt glory.

It's urgent.
It's raw.
It's edgy.
It's romantic.
It pops.
It snaps.
It entices.
It jumps.
It invigorates.
It delivers.
It gets the pulses racing.

One major difference, however.

Today, the audience, all revved up for "Rent" - pandemic aside - comes to the production knowing every song and lyric, every line of dialogue, every characterization, every plot twist, every heartbreak, every revelation, every drum roll, every tick, every kick, every beat, every nuance, every dance move, every shock and every surprise. They also know all the inhabitants of Larson's colorful East Village Bohemia (artists, drag queens, drug addicts, homosexuals, lesbians, songwriters, dancers, filmmakers, homeless people and those living with HIV) and how they will interact during the show's 2 hr. and 35 min. running time. 
Some are actors, Broadway groupies, college students, homosexuals, high school students, drag queens, transgenders, lesbians, business executives and freshly-scrubbed kids from middle-income or wealthy families who live, breathe and die for everything "Rent."
Each performance also brings out hundreds and hundreds of RENT-heads (fans of the musical who follow the show from city to city) who come through the theater's doors ready to clap, get emotional, lose control or go absolutely crazy whenever their favorite moment  - song, scene or line of dialogue - comes. It's a explosion of sorts and one that undoubtedly heightens the experience that is live theatre.

Nowhere - at least for the moment, anyway - is this more evident than at the Bushnell where the "Rent 25th Anniversary Farewell Tour" has taken up residence for a four-performance run, chock full of the emotional slap, bang, wallop it is famous for.  The tour, which happily proclaims, it is "the last chance" to enjoy "Rent" one final time, is masterfully crafted with moments of joy and beauty - "Seasons of Love" at the start of Act II, for example  - designed to send chills up and down your spine, shed a tear or two and more importantly, welcome back an old friend.


In Hartford, before a sold-out audience of hardcore "Rent" fans on opening night, the two-act musical basques in the atmospheric eclecticism and primal frenzy it is famous for. True to its roots, it kicks into orbit with snap, dash and pop and never once shows any sign of slowing down or running out of fuel. It works everyone on stage and in the audience into a fervent, voltage-charged lather, which, when you think about it, is probably what Larson envisioned all along for his mind-blowing character opus.
Then and now, it deals openly and creatively with truthful, personal stories about addiction, eviction, materialism, struggle, legacy, sexual identity, transgender activism, death, poverty, individualism, urban redevelopment and AIDS. Its raw adult language ( "fucking weird," "fucking bitch," "dildo," "clit club," for example)  hits hard and home without any form of hesitation or censorship. The characters are full-on and reflective of their impoverished East Village milieu. And nothing is taken for granted or thrown in to knock the audience off- center or on its ass. 

The vast Bushnell space, which houses nearly 3,707 people, is big, grand and splendid. Here, "Rent" is larger-than-life as its thrusts itself forward in a 3-D cinematic style not found in smaller theaters where the two-act musical has played before. It's a plus of high proportions that allows "Rent" to swirl, tilt and pivot in glorious Technicolor. It's still the same story (none of the intimacy is lost), but the lights, the sound, the scene changes and the songs are so beautifully configured against the backdrop of this spectacular venue, there are times when you wish you could hit "rewind" and play certain parts of this "Farewell Tour" over and over again.

If you've seen "Rent" before, this edition, though faithful, in part, to Larson's original conceit, is not a direct copycat of the original 1996 Broadway musical conceived by Michael Greif or its 1998 London/West End counterpart which featured three members of the original New York cast. Here, "Rent" director Evan Ensign (he also staged the 20th Anniversary National Tour) isn't interested in dusting off the blueprints of those two works to the point where his version of "Rent" is nothing more than a nostalgic, affectionate tribute to once upon a time.
Instead, he puts his own thrilling, definitive stamp on the "Farewell Tour," a directorial move that heightens and enlightens the original material and gives it a uniqueness all its own. Given the fact that "Rent" was originally conceived back in 1996 - changes - no matter how big or how small, bring additional color and pulse to this particular staging. As director, he tweaks some of the original stage direction (Maureen's choice to partially drop her jeans to bare her bottom is much more ballsy; Mark's use of props or the grabbing of his crotch to simulate an erection is fueled by some pretty playful pornographic comic strokes; Angel's drag queen flamboyance is kicked up a notch). Elsewhere, he thrusts the action forward at a much brisker pace. He brings some of the upstage action downstage, a directorial change that makes certain actor-audience moments more effective. He also brings an enlivened twist and perk to the show's many tune ups, voice mails and holiday greetings, which every RENT-head in the audience can recite verbatim.
Respectful of the play's origins, he lovingly recreates most of the original staging prevalent in the musical's wildly pulsating opening number of "Rent," which sets the stage for the events that follow. The hilarious "Over the Moon," based on the 18th century nursery rhyme "Hey Diddle Diddle," is ignited by some pretty well-timed over-the-top kitsch that thrusts it high flying high and onward. The wickedly feverish "La Vie Boheme," which closes Act I, also unfolds with an enlivened merriment that makes it even more fun to watch.

Choreography is key to the evolution of the "Rent" story and Marlies Yearby's playful, character-driven dance movement ("Tango Maureen," "Today 4 U," "Out Tonight," "La Vie Boheme") provides the necessary pulse, momentum and oomph necessary to get the juices flowing. It is energetic. It is modern. It  is confident. It is expressive. It is athletic. It fits perfectly into the dramatic fabric of the story. It is also purposely amped up to keep this "Rent" fresh and exciting. And much like that of the original work, it allows the audience to feel the emotions conveyed in the show as dictated by its predecessors.

As witnessed on Broadway, in London, in Los Angeles and on National Tour all across America or overseas, the defining pulse, sting and thrust of the show is Larson's inventive, optimistic, character-driven musical score. His creative and defining mix of anthems, duets, ballads, rock songs, plot-driven laments, pronouncements and lively showstoppers seamlessly reflects the anguish, rage, rift and emotion he intended for "Rent."
"La Vie Boheme," "Another Day," "One Song Glory," "Light My Candle," "Rent," "Out Tonight," "I'll Cover You," "Take Me or Leave Me," "Seasons of Love," " "Without You," "Santa Fe," "Over the Moon," "What You Own," "Today 4 U," "Tango Maureen."
It's all here and nothing gets lost in the translation.
Larson's recurring themes - living on the edge, taking chances, tragic losses, fighting for survival, a strong sense of community, death and adversity, shielding loved ones from danger, unspoken truths -  are emotionally addressed and melodically revisited by "25th Anniversary Farewell Tour" music supervisor Matthew DeMaria whose fierce, quick-shot handling of the material unfolds with the dizzying frenzy and magic of a great artwork set in motion.
Once the show makes its presence known through the catchy, pulsating beat of  the opening title song "Rent" - a cry for help channeling the frustrations of twenty-somethings faced with financial hardships - DeMaria follows every twist and turn of the story (the musical takes its cue from Puccini's "La Boheme") with the right sort of involvement and navigational detail intended by Larson.
He lets his players rip through moments of spontaneity, argument and escape, prompting an orchestral fluidity and flourish, mixed with a bustle or two of nostalgia that is hauntingly conceived and played with great warmth, passion and excitement. His conceit not only pays homage to "Rent's" roots, but gives it an immediacy and realization that keeps it both centered and productive throughout.

As "Rent" retraces Larson's blueprint moving from song to song, DeMaria and his team scrupulously create a revival that is musically commanding and exciting with plenty of flow, flexibility, attack, bite and you-ism. Here and there, they take risks with the tempos to give them a more contemporary feel and urgency. And that's o.k.
When necessary, they also squeeze a little bit of extra pulp out of certain phrases and lyrics to make them more palpable for today's audience. This process - a creative choice for this particular revival - brings additional color, depth and confidence to several songs - "One Song Glory," "Rent," "Seasons of Love," La Vie Boheme" to name a few - which, despite familiarity, makes them sound fresh, spunky and surprisingly new.

No one could play the part of the struggling Jewish filmmaker Mark Cohen like Anthony Rapp who created the role in the original 1996 Broadway production. That was a once-in-a-lifetime performance - a mix of charisma, personality and confidence - that has withstood the test of time. The good news about this "Rent" is that Ensign saw fit to cast Cody Jenkins - an actor who reminds one of 22-year-old Sean Giambrone from ABC's "The Goldbergs" - in the now-iconic role of Cohen. The enthralling result - elements of mood, scope, dimension and drive- allows the actor to naturally tap into Cohen's psyche and deliver a fascinating performance that is so true to the show's sense of time, place and story - you completely forget about that actor whose last name begins with a capital R.
From start to finish, Marks creates a real, raw and energetic characterization that steers clear of all things Rapp. He nails all of the familiar character traits that Larson set forth for Mark. He brings his own sense of thrill, compassion and playfulness to the part. He takes chances and runs with them. He also exudes a certain charm and sexiness that spills out into the audience every time he's on stage. Vocally, he imbues Mark's many songs with a naturally-placed musicality that is lively, direct and immediate. As both singer and actor, he so loves being on stage in front of a live audience, you can see the excitement on his face whenever he's thrust into the spotlight. His knowledge and understanding of the "Rent" material adds to his feel-good portrayal of the East Village filmmaker. It's a triumphant example of how an actor could create a character, sing a song, tell a story and interact with all the other players in a way that no other art form can.

Is Javon King's sassy and sparkly portrayal of Angel, the young gay drag queen who is dying of AIDS as showstopping as Wilson Jermaine Heredia's was in the original 1996 Broadway production?  You bet it is. As shaped and molded by King, it's a dazzling, whirl-and-twirl star turn of high kicks, glitter and individuality that the actor exudes with wishfulness, reality, reflection and accentuated engagement, beauty and flamboyance. This exhilarating mindset is utilized to full advantage throughout "Rent," thus, turning his big musicals numbers - "Today 4 You" and I'll Cover You" - into major showstoppers that the audience can't seem to get enough of. 
Coleman Cummings is the perfect fit for the part of Roger Davis, the restless, singer/ songwriter whose previous girlfriend committed suicide once she learned of her AIDS diagnosis. His anguished, emotional ballad "One Song Glory" is rendered with appropriate pain and pathos as is "What You Own," the character's big, fiery, harmonious duet with Mark in the middle of Act II.  Vocally, he's as polished and charismatic as Adam Pascal was in the original 1996 Broadway production, who, like his predecessor, uses a crisp, polished song style and confidence to sell every one of his songs.

As Mimi Marquez, the drug stoked dancer with a serious heroin habit, Aiyana Smash projects the sexy, slippery, sensuous and alluring persona intended for her character. Dancing wise, she cuts all the right moves liked a skilled acrobat. There's a wave of erotic electricity in "Out Tonight," her big dance-and-song solo in the middle of Act I rooted in a dance aesthetic, reinforced by an artistic strength and confidence of quicksilver application. Vocally, she also imbues "Light My Fire" and "Without You," her savvy duets with Roger, with a warmth and passion that nicely reflects the heart and soul of the original material.

Lyndie Moe and Rayla Garske create all the right sparks and passion as the touchy-feely, sometimes combative, sometimes argumentative Maureen Johnson and Joanne Jefferson. Together, or alone, they each bring plenty of unabashed charm, flair, excitement and earthiness to their individual roles. Their big duet "Take Me or Leave Me" unfolds with enough sizzle and snap (kissing, ass-grabbing, breast-touching and simulated cunnilingus, to boot) to cause a power outage. "Over the Moon," Maureen's wonderfully wicked protest number is so impeccably conceived and timed, both comically and vocally, it deserves a standing ovation in itself.  It's one of Act I's many showstoppers.
Jeremy Abram, in the pivotal role of Tom Collins, is both sincere and heartfelt Angel's newfound boyfriend and lover. He plays the part with an emotional sweetness and charm that works especially well. And when it comes time for him to sing his character's poignant Act II reprise of "I'll Cover You,"Abram stops the show this tear-drenched vocal. His serious vocal heft makes this particular song soar and wound with applause worthy and chilling resonance.

Theatergoers, new to "Rent" will easily embrace this energetic, sexy, hyperactive "25th Anniversary Farewell Tour" edition of the celebrated musical, which, in 2021 and long before that, has become its very own brand name. And why not? Its inspired enthusiasm extends far beyond the proscenium wall of the Bushnell stage with a sparkling urgency, zest and command that's pretty hard to resist. The familiar story of East Village Bohemia is inhabited by a new group of excited, emotionally-charged cast of men and women who eat, sleep, live and breathe "Rent."
The musical score by the late Jonathan Larson is smooth, ragged, raw and emotional. It gets the juices flowing. It seduces and invigorates. It gets you thinking.
First time, second time, 100th time, "Rent" still electrifies. What fun! What joy! What a resurrection! Bohemia, thank the Lord, is not dead. It's alive and well in Hartford at the Bushnell. 

"Rent" is being performed at the Bushnell (166 Capitol Ave., Hartford, CT), now through November 7, 2021.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 987-5900.
website: bushnell.org

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 284, A Review: "Mozart's Requiem" (The Connecticut Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra)

 By James V. Ruocco

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine,
et lux perpetua luceat eis.
Te decet hymnus, Deus, in Sion,
  et tibi reddetur votum in Jerusalem.
 Exaudi orationem meam, 
ad te omnis care veniet.
Requiem aeternam dona eis,
et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Mozart's final masterpiece "Requiem" - unfinished at the time of his death and completed by composer Frank Xaver Sussmayr  through notes, drafts and orchestral fragments  - is an exceptional, evocative choral work shrouded in controversy - a fact that makes it even more fascinating and obsessively compassionate in the classical music repertoire.
At the time of his death - December 5, 1791 - only two parts - the Introitus and the Kyrie - were near completion by the composer. The other sections, including the Sanctus, the Benedictus and the Angus Dei are credited to Sussmayr through passages, words and orchestrations he claimed were entirely his own, but nonetheless, faithful to the style, the memory and the identity of Mozart himself.
Energetic, respectful and undoubtedly uplifting - "Requiem" - a death Mass of fate, beauty, optimism and irony - was originally conceived for concert performance utilizing several instruments (trombones, bassoons, basset horns, violins and timpani drums, etc.) and featured parts for soprano, contralto, tenor and bass soloists and a four-part chorus.
The interpretation, the approach and the execution, however, comes down to the actual presentation of the piece, its size, its energy and the thrust of its classical concert performance tone, rhythm and orchestral sound of the music, matched by the choice blending of chorally trained male and female voices sharply attuned to the Latin verse of "Requiem's" scripted translation.

At the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Hartford - a 20th century architectural achievement celebrating the traditions and practices of the Catholic faith - the vast, welcoming interior design of this refined house of worship lends itself nicely to the Connecticut Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra's concert performance of Mozart's celebrated "Requiem."  Staged right upon the spacious center altar in front of adrenaline-pumped conductor Adrian Sylveen, this one-hour concert was played out in grand cathedral fashion before an attentive, appreciative audience of classical music lovers, parishioners of the Cathedral of St. Joseph and more than fifty young seminarians from the Archdiocese of Hartford.


The performance also benefits greatly from the marvelous sound acoustics of the cathedral itself, which, throughout the evening, heightened both the orchestral playing and the rich tonal quality of the "Requiem" singers. 

Balanced, graceful and powerful under the deft tutelage of maestro Sylveen, "Requiem's" classical music work flow, as envisioned by both Mozart and Sussmayr, unobtrusively changed courses from section to section always acknowledging its Mass for the Dead conceit, its intentioned modesty, its tender vibes and expositions and its wondrous strokes of fierce energy and contemplations.
The notes, the combinations, the pauses and the emotional collisions are combined with confidence and care. The certainty of the passages, their creation, their cycles and their hymn-like pronouncements and revelations are operatic and centered. The defined, purposeful orchestral range of the Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra - a sonic, lyrical pastiche of bite, sheen, harmony and reinvention - heightens the mood, texture and ululation of the piece. There's a smooth sense of presence and dimensionality in Sylveen's orchestra, which adds immediate feel, drive and resonance to the proceedings. The complexity and the deliberate authority of the piece is also smartly communicated in celebratory fashion.

Working alongside the Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra's hand-picked, primed chorus of exceptional singers, soprano Louise Fauteux, alto Agnes Vojtko, tenor Oswaldo Iraheta and bass Steve Fredericks each brought their own command and voice to "Requiem" individually, together or backed by the vocal ensemble. The movements of the piece, which ranged from mourning and remembrance to judgement and damnation were delivered by the quartet with full assimilation, power and contrast, propelled by the orchestra's immediateness, expertly-timed sudden changes or mood and dynamic climactic exclamations. Throughout the evening, the voices of everyone involved blended seamlessly together with the right amount of grace, lyricism, freshness and intimacy.
The chorus, of course, has a crucial role in "Requiem," all of which is sung accordingly at the Cathedral with fleetness, engagement and clarity as dictated by Sylveen. His sheer sense of drama and vocal timbre enlivens the choral sound of the men and women involved, all of whom raise their voices high through song seriously communicating the important Latin passages and different sections of "Requiem" with creative aplomb.
Upon conclusion, a moment of silent ensues, thus prompting joyous applause at the concert's end for both chorus, soloist, conductor and orchestra. It is well-deserved conclusion for this meticulously-crafted work that has made all the right choices with a significance, proudness and ability that never once got lost (program in hand translating Latin to English) while magically turning darkness into sunlight.

"Mozart's "Requiem" was presented 7 p.m. Monday, November 1, 2021 at the Cathedral of St. Joseph (140 Farmington Avenue, Hartford, CT).

For information about upcoming concerts and productions, check out the Connecticut Virtuosi Orchestra website at thevirtuosi.org