Monday, February 21, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 299, A Review: "Follies" (The Ridgefield Playhouse) (National Theatre/London)

By James V. Ruocco

The well-heeled period ambiance of The Ridgefield Playhouse lends itself nicely to the HD on-screen encore presentation of Stephen Sondheim's "Follies," which was originally staged at London's National Theatre from August 17, 2017 through January 3, 2018 with a cast that included Imelda Staunton, Tracie Bennett, Janie Dee and Philip Quast.


This revival of Sondheim's 1971 Broadway musical not only pays homage to the man himself, but marvelously fuses the ghost-like memories and angst and pain of James Goldman's original story with an obsessive, showbiz duality and poignancy that gives this incarnation a superior thrust and drive that lets it breathe and gesticulate like a long lost friend you want to cheer, embrace and applaud with sustained excitement and enthusiasm.

Then and now, "Follies" concerns itself with the grand yet final reunion of the legendary follies showgirls who have come together in a big, rundown Broadway theater with their friends, husbands and lovers right before it is to be demolished and transformed into a parking lot. Set in two different time periods - 1971 and 1941 - it smartly reviews and portrays the lives, loves, memories, disappointments, compromises and musical tributes of the older characters with those of their younger selves.
Here, that tear-stained doubleness, edge and loss of one's dreams, hope and confidence heightens the musical's intensity and regret with such accomplished procurement, everything that Sondheim and Goldman set out to say and tell never once gets lost in this splendid, showstopping  revival.

Staged with acute splendor, magic and bluster by director Domenic Cooke, this "Follies" is wisely performed without an interval to interrupt the dramatic story at hand. His concept, framed impeccably by smart camerawork, editing, close ups, long shots and reaction shots heighten the musical's twisty, emotional and romantic sub plots, the choreography and a musical score that shows Sondheim at his very best. As "Follies" unfolds, there's real thought behind every single move, syllable, dissolve and dilemma, offset by deluded glamour, divide, truth, lies, breakdowns and romantic awakening. No camp. No overplaying. No padding. No baggage. This "Follies" will have none of that.

The Sondheim score (he did both the music and lyrics) - an achievement in itself -  contains several showstoppers including "Losing My Mind," "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs," "I'm Still Here," "In Buddy's Eyes," "Broadway Baby," "Too Many Mornings" and "Could I Leave You?"
As musical director, Nigel Lilley doesn't opt for nostalgia by leaving this revival locked in the memory of its days on Broadway back in the 1970's. Instead, he brings Sondheim's pulsating score into the 21st century with a reworked invention, pulse, command and individuality that makes it sound brand, spanking new. Completely in sync with Sondheim's expressive mindset, he allows his musical score to breathe, beguile, astonish, entice, cajole and echo the pulsating notes, the haunting sounds, the merry skips, the delicious beats, the frenzied panting, the twisty malevolence and wonderfully timed festering and gentleness the composer/lyricist has created. At the same time, there's a freshness to all of the songs and orchestrations that Lilley elicits with the irony, wit, heft, loft and dark memory of its iconic creator. That said, the incredible sound system at The Ridgefield Playhouse heightens the massive sound of Lilley's orchestral showmanship.

The cast - Imelda Staunton, Tracie Bennett, Janie Dee, Philip Quast, Peter Forbes, Dawn Hope, Di Botcher, Adam Rhys-Charles, Zizi Strallen, Fred Haig, Alex Young, among others - tackle the material (song, dance, character and dialogue) with excitement, purpose, conviction, radiance and dazzle. All of them not only make this "Follies" unique, but one that lingers long after the final curtain has come down.

"Follies" was screened at The Ridgefield Playhouse (80 E. Ridge Rd., Ridgefield, CT.) on February 11, 2022.
For tickets and information about all upcoming events, call (203) 438-5795.

Saturday, February 5, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 298, A Review: "Five Guys Named Moe" (Playhouse on Park)

By James V. Ruocco

The concept for Playhouse on Park's exhilarating revival of "Five Guys Named Moe" goes something like this.
Nomax, a boyish-looking, young black man returns home to Harlem from a night on the town, turns on the radio and sits down in his comfy armchair to forget about life, his troubles and a complicated romance with his girlfriend that has finally hit rock bottom.
Not to worry, though.
As the music plays - five suave guys from yesteryear, all of whom are smartly named Moe - suddenly appear in his living room - ghostly bluesy magic, one would say - to take the disillusioned Nomax on a musical journey of redemption where song, dance, comedy, drama and humor go hand and hand with sound advice (is there any other?) designed to shake the misguided youth out of his decided funk and start thinking about life again, his girl and how to win her back.
So, bring on the music.
Pour the whiskey.
Let the journey begin.
And let the good times roll.

Continuing its 13th season of one hit show after another, Playhouse on Park's "Five Guys Named Moe" transports its audience back in time to the intimate supper clubs of the past where jazz and the original rhythm and blues were commonplace, music was sung with effervescent-fueled power and booze-induced stupors were the nightly norm as was sharply-keyed philosophies, round-the-clock cocktails and romantic complications that smacked you right in the face the very next morning.


"Five Guys Named Moe" is a wonder to behold.

As conceived by creator Clarke Peters (the show made its official UK debut in 1990 at the Cottesloe Theatre) for London's West End, the UK Fringe and Broadway, "Five Guys Named Moe" showcases the celebrated song style, skill and spirit of songwriter, saxophonist and bandleader Louis Jordan (and others), who was dubbed "The King of the Jukebox" from the late 1930's to the early 1950's. Then and now, Peter's joyful collaboration features 26 popular songs that pay homage to the musician and his musical influences, themes, specialities, urban tempos and syncopated vocals.
In order of their performance throughout the two-act musical (the show runs 90 minutes with a 15-minute interval), they are: "Early in the Morning," "Five Guys Named Moe," "Beware, Brother, Beware," "I Like 'Em Fat Like That," "Messy Bessy," "Pettin' and Pokin,' " "Life Is So Peculiar," "I Know What I've Got," "Azure Te," "Safe, Sane & Single," "Push Ka Pi Shi Pie," "Saturday Night Fish Fry," "What's the Use of Getting Sober," "If I Had Any Sense," "Dad Gum Ya Hide Boy," "Let the Good Times Roll," "Reet, Petite and Gone," "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens," "Caledonia," "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying," "Choo, Choo Ch'Boogie," "Look Out Sister," "Hurry Home," "Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby?" "Knock Me A Kiss" and "Five Guys Named Moe (reprise)."

For this production, musical director Dexter Pettaway, Sr., (percussion) has assembled a six-piece band that includes Kurt Eckhardt/Andrew Jones (trombone), Warren Byrd (piano/keyboard), Dakota Austin (reeds), Saskia Laroo (trumpet) and Stephen King Poter (bass). As "Five Guys Named Moe" evolves, Pettaway brings the right sense of thrill, clarity and effectiveness to Jordan's musical repertoire using a coloristic hand and nostalgic vision that gives the music its sense of purpose, vision and rhapsodic showmanship. More importantly, he doesn't waste a beat, a motion, a pause, an idea or a climax. Here,  everything is front and center from the orchestrations, the vocals, the segues, the accents, the syncopations, the shifts, the harmonies and the riots of flavor and musicality.

With one song following another, Pettaway and his orchestral team create a feel-good atmosphere and aura that befits the story, the music, the characters and its ghostly/jazzy premise. What's especially fun about this revival is that the show never stops except when it comes time for the announced interval. That said, Pettaway, as musical director, jumps right in and keeps the party going using Peters' blueprint as his guide, always offering fresh interpretations of the songs themselves, adding extra sparkle, dash and sass whenever possible.

All of this is reinforced by the non-stop energy of the musicians, the play-by-play progression of the songs themselves and the slick and catchy vocals. Under Pettaway's tutelage, all of the actors have their moments to shine individually or as a group, each delivering rigorous energy, emotion, depth and camaraderie for their respective numbers. It's a win-win situation for all.

The staging of "Five Guys Named Moe," as seen through the eyes of director Brittney Griffin, respects and honors the musical's magical conceit, its mix of playful metaphors and manipulations, its addictive whimsy, its period luminosity and its added breaths of charm, sweetness, shapeshifting, swagger and lightheartedness. Using the intimate, inviting Playhouse on Park environs to flesh out the actual story, Griffin keeps the show in high gear displaying a certain savvy, dynamic and arthouse shimmer that keeps the musical in the spotlight, never once running out of steam, momentum or gate-breaking speckle. Directorially, she's a master of creation, providing both an involving and faithful production that finds voice in a kitschy, show-biz plotline that shakes, rattles and rolls and never once loses sight of its origins, pulse or playful setups.

As in London and on Broadway, dance is key to the success of "Five Guys Named Moe" and Griffin, doubling as choreographer, crafts musical pieces that are pure, playful, joyous and imaginative, complementing the show's bluesy, jazz orchestrations, lyrics, vocals and various sprays of wisdom. Rooted in the nostalgic base from whence it came, the choreography - number to number; song by song - is configured with energy, marvel, intention and a marvelous sense of floating detachment. It all works splendidly - no two musical numbers are alike - as Griffin drives her cast frontwards, backwards and upside down to fashion technically demanding but seamless choreographic delights inhabited by intricate rhythms, flashes of style, well-timed splurts of emotion and feeling and speakeasy/supper club nostalgia.

"Five Guys Named Moe" stars Marcus Canada as Nomax, Devin Price as Little Moe, Darren Lorenzo as Big Moe, Jacquez Linder-Long as Four Eyed Moe and Arnold Harper II as Eat Moe. All six actors work especially well with one another throughout the two-act musical. There's power, emotion, determination and compassion in their singing from lead vocal to background musicality and sweet-sounding harmonies . Their ability to flesh out the story through song is uncanny. They click with the audience. Their work hard from start to finish. Their  onstage vibe and intermingling is chock full of surprise, chemistry, spirit and individuality. They are also right in every way imaginable for their respective roles. 

A beautifully staged production with plenty of snap, sizzle and pop, "Five Guys Named Moe" is an uplifting, joyous musical entertainment that delivers and delivers and delivers. It's the perfect musical entertainment to chase away the blues, put a smile on your face and keep you clapping madly, always wanting more.
It's fun. It's smooth. It's sassy It's cool.
It's also backed by an engaged, tremendously talented cast, an excited six-piece band and a catalogue of trademark jump and jive rhythm and blues songs that are simply impossible to resist. And who doesn't need just that - right now in their lives.

Photos of "Five Guys Named Moe" by Meredith Longo

"Five Guys Named Moe" is being staged at Playhouse on Park (244 Park Rd., West Hartford, CT), now through February 27, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 523-5900.

Thursday, February 3, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 297, A Preview: "Darlene Love - All You Need Is Love On Valentine's Day (The Ridgefield Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco

Hoping to put "the romance" back into Valentine's Day, Grammy winner Darlene Love takes The Ridgefield Playhouse stage on Monday, February 14th to perform a medley of her longtime hit songs, a trunk load of romantic favorites, a surprise or two and oh yes, song requests from her many fans in the audience.
Still going strong - Love who turned 80 last July - has no plans of giving up the spotlight and hopes to rock the concert stage for many years to come.

"I'll probably be doing this till I'm 100," she says. "I have songs in my show that the audience can sing with me and enjoy along with me. I make them a part of my show so it's not just about watching me. It's about you performing along with me.
"And we do the whole song," she adds. "Not just the chorus."

True to her roots - Love's joy for singing began with her joining the church choir as a child - the singer will look back on her long career, performing everything from gospel favorite "Marvelous" to pop-tinged classics that include "He's a Rebel," "The Boy I'm Going to Marry," "Da Doo Ron Ron (When He Walked Me Home)", " "Wait 'Til My Bobby Comes Home," "Where Is the Love," "He's Sure the Boy That I Love," "There's No Greater Love," "Too Late to Say You're Sorry" and "(You're My) Soul and Inspiration."

"I have to do the classics," she explains. "I can't go anywhere without them."

Part of an all-girl back-up group that sang with some of the music industry's greats - Tom Jones, Ray Charles, Elvis Presley - Love's career began right after high school. Soon after, she caught the attention of music icon producer Phil Spector who hired her to sing lead vocals on "He's A Rebel" and "He's Sure the Boy That I Love," which quickly turned her into an overnight recording artist.

"I'm so grateful and thankful to God that I have been able to do this," Love confesses. "I have had people around me who care and really cared about me."

Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, Love is featured in the Oscar-winning documentary "20 Feet From Stardom," for which she won a Grammy Award. In the mid 80's, she portrayed herself in the Tony Award nominated musical "Leader of the Pack" and was featured as Danny Glover's wife Trish Murtaugh in the "Lethal Weapon" film series. Other Broadway credits include Teen Angel in the 90's revival of "Grease," Motormouth Maybelle in "Hairspray" and Miss Gardner in the short-lived musical "Carrie" opposite Betty Buckley.
On television, Love has performed on "Shindig!" "Elvis Presley's '68 Comeback Special," "Late Night With David Letterman," "The View," "New Girl" and "Saturday Night Live." Most recently, she was seen in the Netflix original movies "Holiday Rush" and "The Christmas Chronicles 2."

Touted by "Rolling Stone" magazine as "One of the Greatest 100 Singers of All Time," Love's Valentine concert at The Ridgefield Playhouse is not "only going to be special," but per the singer, it's backed by "brand new arrangements" and a band of "great musicians" that will not only celebrate the highlights of her music career, but will lovingly recreate the sound of the '60s with nostalgic twists that pay homage to the past for a modern-day audience.

That's not all.

To help put her audience in a romantic mood for her concert, "Darlene Love - All You Need Is Love On Valentine's Day" the celebration kicks off at 6:30 p.m. at the Ridgefield-based venue with chocolates and a free glass of bubbly for all ticket holders.

Raffles will also be held to win jewelry, a spa package from the Adam Broderick Salon & Spa and a special "Date Night" event for two that includes a chauffeur-driven BMW (courtesy of BMW of Ridgefield) for the night, a romantic dinner at Bernard's and tickets to a Playhouse show of the winner's choice.

The concert - part of the Pepsi Rock Series Driven by North American Motor Car - features additional support from media sponsor WEBE-108 FM and Diamond Sponsors Cox, Berisford, Raminowitz, Ross & Stockel Families.

"Darlene Love - All You Need Is Love On Valentine's Day" will be performed Monday, February 14, 2022 at The Ridegefield Playhouse (80 East Ridge Rd., Ridgefield, CT).
Showtime is 8:00 p.m.
Tickets are $85 (orchestra), $80 (mezzanine) and $75 (balcony).
For tickets or more information, call (203) 438-5795.