Thursday, December 30, 2021

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 293: "The Best Plays and Musicals of 2021 (Non Equity)"


By James V. Ruocco


Despite the ongoing pandemic, the beauty of live or streamed theatre had its defining moments in 2021.

There wasn't a lot to choose from.
Some shows were able to complete their entire runs.
Some failed to open.
Schedules were revised, reworked and altered.
Audience members were asked to wear masks and show proof of vaccination.
A few performances - here and there - were cancelled due to COVID outbreaks amongst the cast.

What worked?
What stood out?
What left theatergoers begging for more?

My choices are as follows:

The Best Plays and Musicals of 2021

"Mamma Mia!" (Fairfield Center Stage)
director: Christy McIntosh-Newsom

"The Rocky Horror Show" (Pantochino Productions)
director: Bert Bernardi

"The Littlest Christmas Tree" (Pantochino Productions)
director: Bert Bernardi

"The Importance of Being Earnest" (Castle Craig Players)
director: Ian Galligan and Oliver Kochol

"Mamma Mia!" (The Arts at Angeloria's)
director: Kim Dougherty

"The Gifts of the Magi" (The Arts at Angeloria's)
director: Sara Fabrizio

Friday, December 17, 2021

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 291, A Preview: "Die Fledermaus" (Connecticut Lyric Opera)

By James V. Ruocco

Trinity-on-Main Arts Center.
The Bushnell's Belding Theater.
The Garde Arts Center.

"Die Fledermaus," Johann Strauss II's most celebrated opera, will be staged in New Britain, Hartford and New London on December 26 and 30, 2021 and January 7, 2022 by the prestigious Connecticut Lyric Opera. The production is being directed by Jan Mason (Associate Artistic Director of Connecticut Lyric Opera) and conducted by Adrian Sylveen (Artistic Director of Connecticut Lyric Opera and Connecticut Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra).

Mason has directed several operas including "La Boheme," "Tosca," "Don Carlo," "Cosi fan Tutte," "Aida" and "The Marriage of Figaro." Her non-opera credits include staging's of "The House of Bernarda Alba," "Mother Courage," "The Art of Diving," "The Night of the Iguana" and "Dollhouse." Sylveen has conducted more than 35 operas and 70 symphonies around the world in Germany, Switzerland, Israel, Poland, the United States, Cuba and the former Soviet Union.

Taking its cue from the German farce "Das Gefangnis" (The Prison), "Die Fledermaus" debuted at Vienna's Theatre an der Wien on April 5, 1874 and has remained a part of the venue's regular season repertoire ever since. It was performed in New York for the first time under the direction of German composer and violist Rudolph Bial on November 21, 1874 at the Stadt Theatre. The German premiere took place the following year at Munich's Gartnerplatztheater.

Originally sung in German, "Die Fledermaus" is a high-spirited comic operetta set in Vienna during the late 19th century. A marriage of words, music and ideas (the libretto was written by Richard Genee and Karl Haffner), it charts the comic exploits of a dashing Russian count, a chambermaid pretending to be an actress and a champagne-induced ruse concocted by the count's best friend and doctor.

The Connecticut Lyric Opera production will be performed in English with English supertitles. It runs approximately 3 hrs. in length and will include two intermissions.

The popular Strauss score contains 21 musical numbers including "Life is a Song," "What a Night," "How Sad We Are," "What a Feast," "The Laughing Song," "The Tick-Tock Polka," "All I Want Is More Champagne," "Merci, Merci, Merci," "After the Ball," "How Can You Be So Ungallant" and "The Legal Profession."

Headlining the Connecticut Lyric Opera production are Deborah Lifton as Rosalinde von Eisenstein, Daniel Kamalic as Gabriel von Eisenstein, Maria Margiolakou as Adele, Oswaldo Iraheta as Alfred, Charles Eaton as Dr. Falke, Rongjun Li as Dr. Blind, Sung Shin as Frank, Rebecca de Almeida as Orlofsky, Rachel Abrams as Ida, Rob Esposito as Frosch and Joey Taylor as Ivan.

Casey Howes and Jacob Warren of the world-renowned Pilobolus Dance Theatre will make a special guest appearance in the Connecticut Lyric Opera presentation when it is staged at the Bushnell in Hartford. The dancers will be featured in the operetta's classic New Year's Eve Ball sequence during Act II. 
"Die Fledermaus" will also showcase dance members of the Ballet Hartford company including Artistic Director Leyna Doran at both the Bushnell and Garde Arts Center performance. They too will be part of Act II's New Year's Eve Ball festivities.

"Die Fledermaus" Tickets & Performances

Opening Night: Sunday, December 26, 2021 at 7:30 p.m. (Trinity-On-Main Arts Center, 69 Main St., New Britain, CT.) Ticket price: $35 @

Thursday, December 30, 2021 at 7:30 p.m. (The Belding Theater at the Bushnell Performing Arts Center, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford, CT) Ticket price: $35-$79 @

Friday, January 7, 2022 T 7:30 p.m. (The Garde Arts Center, 325 State St., New London, CT). Ticket price: $29-$45 @ https:// 

COVID-19 Precautions: For this event, masks will be required of all patrons inside the different venues, as well as proof of full vaccinations. Unvaccinated patrons must provide documented proof of negative PCR testing within 72 hours of the start of the event, or a negative antigen test taken within 48 hours of the start of showtime.

For more information, call (860) 325-2826.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 290, A Review: "Who's Holiday!" (Music Theatre of Connecticut)

By James V. Ruocco

"Oh, hi. Well, hello! I'm so glad that you're here.
But I can't talk that long cause it's that time of year.
See, I'm throwing a party tonight for some pals.
Just a little soiree for some guys and some gals.
I'd invite you to join, but my place is so small.
And if I let one, I'd have to let all.
But we can chat for a bit, until they all show.
And then I'm afraid - well - you'll all have to go."

Thus, begins "Who's Holiday!" Matthew Lombardo's raucous and raunchy holiday confection that takes its cue from "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," but is decidedly not a Dr. Seuss revival despite dialogue that is spoken entirely in the rhyming couplets reminiscent of the popular books by Theodor Seuss Geisel, the famous poet, animator and cartoonist known for more than 60 English-speaking children's stories including "The Cat in the Hat," "The Lorax" and "Green Eggs and Ham."

"Oh, you all look so snazzy. Just bursting with cheer.

Hi Mister! Hi lady! Hi queer in the rear!
You remember me, right? Oh, I'm sure that you do.
When I was a youngster? I was Cindy Lou Who.
You recall my blue eyes. My one-piece pajama.
It was a present that year from my now dead great gramma.
Such an innocent I was. Oh, the ignorance of youth.
The life starts to unfold and you get kicked in the tooth.
But I'm getting ahead. I don't mean to confuse.
I just hate Christmas Eve. And do some of you Jews.
See? My loathing stems from a deep-rooted place.
In a town known as Who-ville, where I can't show my face."


The MTC staging of "Who's Holiday!" has enough high-energy and tilt to knock its audience on their ass as it amps up the Grinch story - years later, of course - and tells what really happened to him and how Cindy Lou Who grew up to be a curvaceous blonde bombshell ready to bare her soul through laughter, pathos, season kitsch and unadulterated memories you never once saw coming.

"Things started to change when I turned eighteen.
I was becoming a woman. And he? Was still green.
The night of my birthday, he took me alone to the dock.
Where he gave me my present. His big, thick, long..."

As playwright, Lombardo amusingly dishes up the dirt with matter-of-fact frankness and chutzpah in much the same way as he did with previous effectors that include "Looped," "Tea at Five," "Conversations with Mother" and "When Playwright's Kill." It's fun. It's real. It's wet. It's candid. It's icy. And it's awash with such freshness and luminosity, it's impossible not to be moved or succumb to his wit and choice verbiage, all of which is seamlessly constructed within the framework of every story he tells. Here, with "Who's Holiday!" he dives deep and comes up for air with a plethora of story arcs, memories, guilty pleasures and fuck-me witticisms that thrill, cajole and smack you in the face leaving you begging and wanting more. He doesn't disappoint.

"Where were we? Oh. Right. The first time I got laid.
And if you think black men are hung? Honey, try going' jade.
When he first took it out, I almost ran 'way
Cause that thing 'tween his legs grew three sizes that day!
But he was gentle and slow. He took his time with me then.
And once I relaxed? He hit it again and again!
Oh, I was transported, oh yes, from the back to my front.
I 'specially liked when he'd stick his tongue in my - left ear."

Staging "Who's Holiday!" for MTC, director Kevin Connors crafts a banger of an entertainment that is skillfully set up, played and introduced with just the right amount of glee, balance, cockiness and confidence. Working from Lombardo's whirlwind playtext, he knows exactly what he wants and runs with it, carefully punctuating the rhythms, beats, jumps, skips, pauses, breaths and twists dictated by the playwright throughout the story. This directorial conceit keeps "Who's Holiday!" flowing at breakneck speed hitting all the right marks with an exactness and fluidity that never once falters for a moment.
As with "Looped" and "Tea at Five," this is a one-woman show, a conceit that Connor addresses with a theatrical excitement that allows him to bring Cindy Lou Who's story to life with flavorful color, dimension and thrill throughout. From start to finish, "Who's Holiday!" is a kinetic hoot and Connors works his magic throughout with wonkish brio and a cyclone of comic stokes, moves, maneuvers and ideas that bounce, fly, titillate and circle about in playful, cemented fashion. 

The casting of Erin Maguire as Cindy Lou Who is a plum directorial choice, on Connors' part, that gives "Who's Holiday!" the snap, the pulse, the drive and the excitement is so rightfully deserves. The actress whose credits include "Act of God," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "The Divine Sister" and "Seussical" embraces this form of entertainment with personality, glamour, immediacy, charm, intention and snow-fronted engagement. Her's is a meticulously readied and researched love letter to theater that celebrates live performance, stand-up comedy, improvisation, one-on-one directness between actor and audience and anything-can-happen on stage readiness.

As "Who's Holiday!" evolves, Maguire addresses Lombardo's raunchy, playful material with sure-fire showmanship, reveling in the set-ups, the styles, the quirks, the suggestions, the madness and the aftermaths of her character's choices though the years and the different decades. What's especially wonderful about Maguire's performance is that it's so beautifully timed, executed and in-the moment. There's lots going on during her hour-long gabfest, which requires her to shift gears within a millisecond, then, jump back sideways, frontwards, backwards and front and center without missing a single beat, rhythm or stop, pause, breathe or start again. She is absolutely sensational, drawing the audience in at every turn. And when it comes time to sing, she dazzles everyone with a crisp, lovely, projected voice that sells every lyric most agreeably and sets the pulses racing.

Technically, "Who's Holiday!" abounds with splendid, atmospheric holiday wonderment created by the likes of Lindsay Fuori (set design), RJ Romeo (lighting design), Diane Vanderkroef (costume design), Will Atkin (sound design) and Sean Sanford (prop design). All of this design work - brimming with festive color, glitter and style - brings shimmer and shine to the proceedings as Cindy Lou Who takes center stage to regale her audience with tales of her very checkered past and quest for a better life in the snowy hills of Mount Crumpit.

A bawdy alternative to traditional holiday fare such as "A Christmas Carol" and "It's a Wonderful Life," "Who's Holiday!" is an outrageous Christmas treat that delivers and delivers and delivers. It's offbeat spin on Dr. Seuss is adult in nature and definitely not for the kiddies. But, then again, that's the point of this wildly wicked entertainment. It's chock full of surprises, all of which are handled with creative aplomb by director Kevin Connors and his wonderfully charismatic leading lady Erin Maguire. As Cindy Lou Who, she rocks the MTC stage with an unforgettable star turn of sass, funk, spunk and hugely inspired doses of wit, pathos, camp and in-your-face, R-rated silliness. It's the comic performance of the season and one you're not likely to forget for quite some time.

"Who's Holiday!" is being staged by Music Theatre of Connecticut (500 Westport Ave., Norwak, CT), now through December 19, 2021.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 454-3883.

Photos of "Who's Holiday!" by Alex Mogillo

Thursday, December 9, 2021

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 289, A Review: "The Littlest Christmas Tree" (Pantochino Productions)

By James V. Ruocco

The catalog of Christmas plays, musicals and panto's is endless - "A Christmas Carol," "The Nativity," "Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer," "It's a Wonderful Life," "A Christmas Story," "Dick Whittington and His Cat," "Holiday Inn," "White Christmas," "A Charlie Brown Christmas," "Miracle on 34th Street," etc., etc., etc.
Every year, these productions and others are dusted off the shelf and replayed over and over again hoping to set your heart a-flutter, put you in a holiday mood and make you anxious for the big day that is December the 25th.
The sad, reality, of course, is that there's nothing new or exciting about any of these productions.
The songs are the same. The stories are the same. The characters are the same. The dialogue is the same. The endings are the same. The reviews are the same.

No so, at Pantochino Productions.
Here, Christmas is celebrated in all its glory with original stories, original songs, original music, original dialogue, original characters, original costumes and very original endings.
There is no Ebenezer Scrooge.
There is no George Bailey.
There is no Charlie Brown.
There is no Ralphie, Tiny Tim or ZuZu.
There is no Bob Wallace or Betty Haynes.
There are no pinecones, holly berries, Christmas goose, Christmas turkey, mince pies or plum pudding.

And that's exactly what makes the annual Pantochino musical - or any musical at Pantochino - so very special.

This year, Artistic Director and Co-Founder Bert Bernardi has written yet another holiday musical well worthy of a viewing or two. A treat of a show for any age, "The Littlest Christmas Tree" is an energetic, incredibly inventive musical that uses its whimsical charm and atmospheric wonders to full effect.

It is timely and clever.
It is cheerful and heart-warming.
It is bright and bouncy.
It is inspiring and truthful.
It is everything a Christmas musical should be...and so much more.

As written by Bernardi, "The Littlest Christmas Tree" journeys to the North Pole where a young elf named Rolio (played to perfection by the charismatic, endearing, full-voiced Rowan Simonelli) has been given the task of finding the perfect holiday tree for the burly man in the shiny red suit, known to children and adults everywhere in the world as Santa Claus.

Of course, it's not as easy as it sounds.
One by one, trees come to life hoping Rolio will choose one of them to become Santa's greatest gift on Christmas Day. They include the Blue Spruce, the Norway Spruce, the White Fir, the Princess Pine, the Dawn Redwood and last, but not least - The Little Tree. 

As directed by Bert Bernardi (he staged the theater's thrilling Halloween production of "The Rocky Horror Show" this past October), "The Littlest Christmas Tree" is a big-hearted entertainment that immerses its audience into the inviting elements of the North Pole story with real spirit, real magic and real innocence. A master craftsman who knows exactly what buttons to push - both large and small - Bernardi glides his cast through the merriment of his original holiday story filling the air with catchy, melodic numbers, cleverly orchestrated scenes and dialogue, nostalgic reflections of North Pole life and just the right amount of sweet-tinged sentiment.

This genuinely fresh spin on a uniquely different holiday story gives "The Littlest Christmas Tree" an arresting, cheerful allure that plays out with palpable strength and determination intercut with a dynamic rectitude and assessment that propels the action forward.
It connects. It pockets a certain magic that delivers. It tugs at your heartstrings. It puts a big smile on your face. It gets you excited about the big day that has yet to come. It makes you believe in the traditions of Christmas. 
And Bernardi - true to form - leaves no stone unturned - as this two-act musical concludes with a very happy, well-intentioned ending that includes the appearance of Santa Claus himself, played by returning favorite George Spelvin (the nom de plume for BB himself).

With lyrics by Bert Bernardi and music by Justin Rugg, "The Littlest Christmas Tree" comes gift wrapped with 12 original songs. They are: "Christmas at the North Pole," "I Made a List," "The Symbol of Christmas," "I Made a List (reprise)," "Blue Spruce," "I Made a List (second reprise)," "The North Pole Collation," "I'm a Tree," "I'm a Tree (reprise)," "The Artificial Trees," "If You Want to Pick a Tree," "Carolina Sapphire" and "Christmas at the North Pole (finale)." All of the musical numbers are thoughtful, tuneful and story shaking. There's also lots of pulse here, rife with attitude, harmony, dash and inspiration.
As with previous Pantochino musicals, the songs - every one of them a delight - serviceably relay the story with gusto, irony and sparky frivolity. Working alongside Bernardi, Rugg, who also serves as musical director, leads his talented cast through the musical's abundant pleasures, accentuating the "Littlest Tree" score with whoops, reprises, candy-coated gum drop flavor and expositional efforts that reflect the production's potent mix of holiday-themed entertainment. Rugg also takes full control of his big Act 1 solo "Blue Spruce," which he delivers with heart, humor and accelerated rush. It's such fun, you wish there was a "replay" button so that you could watch it again.  

No matter what roles she plays, what she sings, what she says or how she interacts with members of the Pantochino ensemble, Shelley Marsh Poggio is a breath of fresh air. She's professional. She's dedicated. She's delightful. She's clever. She's inventive. She's musical. She's inspired. She's magnetic. And she never once gives the same performance twice. Here, she plays a variety of roles, all of which she invests with that sure-fire zest, zeal and showmanship that always puts her at the top of her game.

Jimmy Johansmeyer, a versatile performer fully immersed in whatever role he is asked to play (he was last seen as crazed transvestite scientist Frank-N-Furter in Pantochino's "The Rocky Horror Show") plays a multitude of roles in this production. As with Frank-N-Furter, Johansmeyer goes full tilt, offering a splendid blend of musicality, wit, personality and dimension. This production, like others before it, also finds him acting as costume designer, a plum position that affords him yet another opportunity to create an astonishing array of costuming and clothing with careful attention paid to texture, line, color, stitching, blending, assortment, material and expression. His craftsmanship is truly unique and delivered with a personal touch that cries "bespoke."

Playing the dual roles of Chin Chin and the "Little Tree," as referenced in the musical's title, Hazel Foley is a confident, natural performer oozing plenty of charm, personality and holiday cheer. It's a showstopping performance - musical and theatrical - well worthy of a standing ovation in itself. No matter what part he plays, Justin Rugg, cast in the role of the green-haired Blue Spruce, among other characters, is riotously entertaining and always in full-command of the emotional, playful arc that greets his on-stage characterizations. In his spruce garb, he's also a dead ringer for Danny Dyer who plays the lead role of Mick Carter in BBC One's "Eastenders."

Always afresh to meet new acting challenges, Mary Mannix, once again, plays everything for real and has great fun doing so. As director, Bernardi has given her room to fly with songs, dialogue and characters she invests with surprise, gaiety and conviction. Johansmeyer's beautifully detailed costuming completes the picture. Maria Berte (Mrs. Croquembouche), Sierra DiMartino (Charlotte Streusel) and Valerie Solli (Vatrushka) also add luster and charm to the proceedings, each delivering unique, versatile character portraits that agreeably conjoin with the musical's wondrous ideas, themes and Christmas merriment.

"The Littlest Christmas Tree" is one of the major highlights of the 2021 holiday season. It also reconfirms Bert Bernardi as of the one most creative talents of his generation. Just when you think you've seen it all, he reminds you that you haven't. And that in a nutshell, is what makes any Pantochino musical ever so special. 

(Meghan Cormier Photography)

"The Littlest Christmas Street is being staged by Pantochino Productions (Milford Arts Council, 40 Railroad Ave., Milford, CT), now through December 19, 2021.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 843-0959.

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 288, A Review: "Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly" (Playhouse on Park)

By James V. Ruocco

Sydney Torres as Mary Bennet.
Ted Gibson as Arthur de Bourgh.
Laura Axelrod as Lydia Wickham.
Griffin Standon-Ameisen as Fitzwilliam Darcy.
Dakota Mackey-McGee as Elizabeth Darcy.
Moria O'Sullivan as Anne de Bourgh.
Kristin Fulton as Jane Bingley.
Karim Nematt as Charles. 

This ensemble of eight, well-cast men and women - each alighted by the thrilling period piece before them - lend themselves nicely and agreeably to "Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly," a delightfully wicked comedy of manners set in England, circa 1815.


"Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly" is yet another Playhouse on Park offering that unfolds with the grace, wisdom and polish that is always on display at this venue, matched by a welcoming mindset and professionalism that makes for a great night of theatre (or matinee, if you prefer) that never once fails to disappoint or entertain. This collaboration only furthers that notion.

Written by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, "Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly" takes its cue from Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," a romantic novel (first published in 1813) about five sisters from an English family confronted by issues of morality, courting, marriage, position, social status, financial gradations and preconceived notions of customs, traditions and judgements. Here, the story continues with both writers offering their perspective and insights on what might have happened (or could have happened) to the Bennet sisters following the conclusion of "Pride and Prejudice."
Seemingly faithful to the spirit, irony and literary style of Jane Austen, Gunderson and Melcon craft a continuation of sorts that addresses the concept of womanhood and individuality with appropriate balance, imagination and practicality. This being a play, there are assorted story arcs, each designed to move the action forward while the Bennet sisters grapple with problems of freedom of expression, self-distraction, romantic flirtation, extreme pretentiousness, virtue, vanity and financial security. Lots of attention is also paid to a hilarious sub-plot involving love letters that get accidentally mixed up and fall into the wrong hands and the decision to copy a German tradition of bringing a fully grown fir tree into the house at Christmastime and decorating it with assorted ribbons, candles, flowers and ornaments.

Staging "Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly," director Sasha Bratt brings both strength and significance to this continuation of the "Pride and Prejudice" story, using the same sort of theatrical savvy and weight he brought to "The Revisionist" a few seasons back at Playhouse on Park. As the story evolves, cheeky charm is plentiful as is his strong sense of determination, comic assurance and welcoming wit. Completely at ease with the play's 19th century setting, he never once loses sight of the twisty romantic spin of the actual story, its characters, its shifts of mood, its palpable goings-on and its Austen-like musings.

Obviously weaned on the ethics, mechanics and stylization of BBC period dramas and comedies, all of which require a distinct attitude and conceit, Bratt gets it right every time - scene by scene, act by act, entrance and exit, etc. Here, everyone acts and behaves as if they are firmly rooted in the century from whence, they came. Bratt wouldn't have it any other way. In turn, the characters stand, sit, move, enter and exit with a decidedly English mindset that reflects their obvious upbringing and social position. You can see it in their eyes. You can see it in their stance. You can see it when they lie backwards on a chaise, hold a teacup, open and close a book, write a letter or simply stand completely still listening and observing until they feel the time has come to comment on the action. Well done. Mr. Bratt.

In terms of casting, everyone is exactly right for the roles they are asked to portray. Under Bratt's tutelage, they each have their moment in the spotlight. As actors, they completely understand how to address and perform an English comedy of manners. They know how to deliver a line of dialogue without missing a comic beat. They work wonderfully together. They are fully cognizant of the "Pride and Prejudice" back story. They know how to get a laugh by playing it straight and never once revealing the punchline. They also know how to succumb to the play's obvious romanticism without going overboard to make a point.

A continuation of Jane Austen's celebrated, character-driven novel "Pride and Prejudice," "Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly" is a refreshing, light-hearted portrait of early 19th century life in England portrayed with verve, style, wit and solicited enchantment. Director Sasha Bratt creates a lively atmosphere of fun, frolic and conversation, laced with well-rounded performances, pleasurable dialogue, vigorous pacing and a very happy ending.  At a time when there are far too many productions of "A Christmas Carol," "It's a Wonderful Life," and "Frosty the Snowman" or questionable fare like "What the Dickens?" "Wreck the Halls," "Earlene's A Christmas Carol - Scrooged Again!" and "Every Story Christmas Told," this production puts the fun back into holiday theatergoing by offering something completely new and enlightening without going the Charles Dickens or Frank Capra route. And that alone, is reason to rejoice.

(Photos by Meredith Longo)

"Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly" is being staged at Playhouse on Park (244 Park Rd., West Hartford, CT), now through December 23, 2021.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 523-5900.