Thursday, April 28, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 312, A Review: "Pretty Woman: The Musical" (The Bushnell)

By James V. Ruocco

A Cinderella tale of wealth, class, social position and prostitution, "Pretty Woman: The Musical" takes its cue from the popular 1990 motion picture of the same name and hooks itself up (no pun, intended) with plot points from "Sweet Charity," "My Fair Lady," "Gigi" and "Irma LaDouce," among others.

Not that any of that matters.
This is musical theatre - big, grand, colorful, silly, frothy, gooey, absolutely delightful.
Pretty much everyone in the audience - boys, girls, couples, homosexuals, married folk, seniors, transgenders - have seen the movie so this tale of a loveable Hollywood prostitute named Vivian who finds her "happily ever after" with Edward, a handsome millionaire who looks very much like an older version of Roger Davis from "Rent" (that's a casting coup destined to bring hundreds of diehard  Rentheads to the box office) is hardly cause for alarm.

Like it, love it or hate it, a fact is a fact.
"Pretty Woman: The Musical" is fun.
It's entertaining.
It's cute.
It's harmless.
It's easy to digest.
It's irresistible.

At the same time, "Pretty Woman: The Musical" is also not going to change the world.
Nor is it going make you hop on a plane headed for Los Angeles to book a room or the penthouse suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.   

If you should see it - and see it you should - its "Pygmalion"-like graces and charms will definitely win you over as will its old-fashioned storyline, its Hollywood setting, its vivid, rainbow-tinged Technicolor, its lyrical musicality, its bright period costumes and its appealing, attractive characters.
In short, what's not to like?

Using a script penned by J.F. Lawton and the late Garry Marshall, "Pretty Woman: The Musical" comes to the stage with story, dialogue, characters and situations amped up or reconfigured - to some degree - for the Broadway (in this case, the National Tour) audience. As before, Vivian's accidental meeting with Edward prompts him to hire her on the spot (for a week, that is) as a paid escort to satisfy him sexually in the bedroom, dine with him at fancy restaurants, attend a performance of "La Traviata" and accompany him on heated business meetings with some very wealthy, well-dressed clients.
On film or in musical form, things move pretty fast as Lawton and Marshall go the sugar daddy route (obviously, they know what they're selling) and treat the material and its sexual subtext with abject sweetness, polish and fun-and-fancy charm and kindness while Adams and Vallance inject oiled, well-orchestrated songs into the already familiar scenario. It all comes off swimmingly (did you expect, otherwise?) as long as you succumb (this is mandatory, folks) to its decided humor, its candy-coated frivolity and the crazy conceit that sex workers are people who think big, dream big and live big - no matter what the cost.
PS: a charge card with unlimited credit for shopping sprees on Rodeo Drive (a major, plot advancing story arc that segues into song and dance) is just one of the many perks "Pretty Woman: The Musical" dishes out in playful, in-your-face abandon.

Pulled together by Jerry Mitchell, the director/choreographer who staged both the Broadway production and the current West End editon starring Aimie Atkinson and former "Hollyoaks" heartthrob Danny Mac, the National Tour is afloat with that "together forever" humor and sexiness that is gleefully pimped out for two hours and twenty minutes (much to the delight of everyone on stage and in the audience) in grand, Broadway musical fashion. Again, Mitchell holds all the cards and instills this production with a winsome capability and cheer that doesn't falter for a moment. Here, you get froth and giggle mixed with hope, thrust, good will and cookie-cutter vulnerability.

Sexually speaking, the musical is also fueled with some steamy, soft-core niceness (first and foremost, Vivian is a prostitute) that is treated openly and tastefully by Mitchell throughout both Act I and II.  Edward's paid sex with Vivian includes two quickly orchestrated fade-outs of oral sex along with subsequent moments of both characters pulling off their clothes, kissing passionately and making love as the music swells and swells. Again, this isn't "The Sound of Music" or "Annie." It's a 2018 Broadway musical where the lead female character engages in sexual intercourse for pay. 

That said, the story board and songbook for "Pretty Woman: The Musical" benefits from a plot line that makes great use of its ensemble cast in very much the same way as all those wonderful Broadway musicals of yesteryear did. Most of the supporting cast changes clothes, hairstyles, moods, manners and body language to morph into a variety of different characters, all of which progresses the
Pretty Woman" storyline without any blips or hiccups. As director and choreographer, Mitchell is chock full of whip-snap invention that is seamlessly cued to Hollywood Technicolor movie musical fun offset by wonderfully orchestrated production numbers mixed with hints of cuteness, flair, schmaltz, gayness and let's-applaud-this-moment showmanship. It so much fun, you can't help but lap it up like honey.

Channeling the wicked romcom nostalgia and cheerfulness of the popular 1990 Richard Gere-Julia Roberts motion picture "Pretty Woman,"  composer and lyricist duo Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance craft an accommodating, sweet-sounding score that pays homage, in part, to those pleasant enough Broadway musicals populated by gumdrop ditties, plausible choral numbers, bona fide solos and duets and pulse-racing production numbers that cry "showstopper," "standing o" and "gosh-oh-gee that sure is pretty."  Here, you get 22 musical numbers, carefully tucked into the storyboard plotting of Act I and Act II. They are: "Welcome to Hollywood," "Anywhere But Here," "Something About Her (preamble)," "Welcome to Hollywood (reprise)," "Something About Her," "I Could Get Used to This," "Luckiest Girl in the World," "Rodeo Drive," "Anywhere But Here (reprise)," "On a Night Like Tonight," "Don't Forget to Dance," "Freedom," "You're Beautiful," "Entr'acte/Opening Act II," "This Is My Life," "Never Give Up on a Dream," "You and I," "I Can't Go Back," "Freedom (reprise)," "Long Way Home," "Together Forever" and "Finale/Oh, Pretty Woman." The latter, as most people know, was written by Roy Orbison and Bill Dees.

Every one of the songs is perfectly positioned to move the story forward with just the right amount of thread, kick and dimension to not only get you to listen - and listen well - but keep things always fun and cohesive with nary of blip, a hiccup, a jolt or a move in the wrong direction. The score, of course, is not in the same league as something by Tim Rice, Jonathan Larsen and Stephen Sondheim - "Chess," "Rent," "tick...tick...Boom!" "Company," immediately spring to mind - but, so what?  There's still a massive hook to the music from melody lines and power blasts to instrumentations and lyrics that are fresh-sounding, spontaneous and inspired.

Working from the blueprint of arrangements, orchestrations and music supervision provided by Will Van Dyke, music director Daniel Klintworth ("The Book of Mormon," "Billy Elliot") brings a tremendous sense of theatricality and color to the National Tour. It's a high-octane feat of moods, flavor, flamboyance and harmonics which he and his orchestral team address with dazzle, tilt and savvy Broadway lyrical expression. Song by song, act by act, it's all vividly realized with splendid artistic  freedom and comfort offset by a fingerhold that follows the musical narrative, its progression and its kaleidoscope of change intuitively.  It's all expertly timed to the musical songbook at hand and the obvious, playful conceit set forth by both Adams and Vallance.

The cast - leads, supporting players and ensemble - also benefit from Klintworth's tutelage. On every level, their vocal consumption of the material is rife with a thrall and encouragement that is the music's forte. That said, the vitality of mood, swing and articulation is subsequently marked by harmonic relishing, grace and concern that is performed and negotiated with natural aplomb. The Bushnell's ideal, perfectly balanced sound system furthers that notion.

The cast, is true to form, in rich Broadway musical fashion.

Adam Pascal, best known for his cutting-edge portrayal of Roger Davis in Jonathan Larson's 1996 Broadway production of "Rent" oozes plenty of charm, sophistication and sexiness for his role of the rich and very eligible bachelor Edward Harris. It's an emotionally engaged turn - as was Roger in "Rent" - and one Pascal coveys with honesty, passion, drive and confidence. Even when things get silly - and they do from time to time - the actor never lets his guard down for a moment. Vocally, he is magnificent (no surprise, here), displaying a wide range of emotions, style and reflection that makes every one of his musical moments ring loud and clear throughout the two-act production.
Olivia Valli, the granddaughter of "Four Seasons" frontman Frankie Valli, takes hold of the now iconic role of Vivian Ward (played by Julia Roberts in the 1990 film version of "Pretty Woman" movie) and turns it into a smart and savvy heroine who actually does get her "happily ever after" ending right before the final fadeout. She not only has great fun with the role, but invests it with a natural sense of whimsey, freedom, charm and allure. Like Pascal, she too comes to "Pretty Woman: The Musical" with vocal chops befitting a true Broadway leading lady. Her singing, which includes a powerhouse belt, is heartfelt, die-hard enthusiastic, centered and wonderfully alive. 

In the role of Vivian's trusty and mouthy sidekick, Jessica Crouch delivers plenty of sass, spunk and voltage-charged vocals. Kyle Taylor Parker, cast in the dual roles of a crafty hotel manager and the show's street-singing Mr. Hollywood narrator, is an amazing talent exuding showstopping charm, personality and command throughout the musical. Lastly, there's the wonderfully animated Trent Soyster, who pretty much steals the show as Giulio, a gay Beverly Wilshire Hotel bellhop whose singing, dancing, preening, posing and frequent flights of fancy are so excitably executed and performed, his every on-stage moment, which also includes some standout ensemble work, is well worth the ovation worthy applause he gets during the musical's final curtain calls. Chock full of charm, candy store sweetness and Broadway razzle-dazzle, Soyster commands your attention from start to finish.

A crowd pleaser with nothing on its mind except to entertain, "Pretty Woman: The Musical" is a colorful, splashy entertainment that breezes along with the carefree snap and zing of a musical theatre confection designed solely to get you clapping, smiling and oh yes, put you in a romantic mood for the night, the day or the morning after (no fee required). Direction and choreography by Jerry Mitchell who helmed both the 2018 Broadway production and the London edition, currently running at the Savoy Theatre, is sweet, lively and motivated. The cast, headed by "Rent's" Adam Pascal and Olivia Valli, all deliver old-school Broadway caliber performances - the kind where every single person on stage can not only sing, dance and act, but also are in sync with the mindset and good cheer set forth by the show's creators. And that is exactly what makes this playful National Tour fly.

Photos of "Pretty Woman:The Musical" by Matthew Murphey.

"Pretty Woman: The Musical" is being staged at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford, CT), now through May 1, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 987-5900.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 311, A Review: "Bee Trapped Inside the Window" (HartBeat Ensemble)

By James V. Ruocco

The interconnected lives of three women from very different racial, social and cultural backgrounds living in the comfort-zoned suburbs of Connecticut is the emotional centerpiece of Saviana Stanescu's powerful, poetic full-length play "Bee Trapped Inside the Window," a stirring, ovation-worthy work, which kicks off HartBeat Ensemble's eagerly anticipated 2022 regional theater season - its first since the pandemic. And, though it's been a long time coming, it's well worth the wait.

A play heavily reliant on confident, mind-building storytelling techniques and metaphors, the production benefits from Stanescu's trio of first-person characterizations and story arcs that forge ahead with apt verbatim, conversation, thoughts, ideas and viewpoints that are seamlessly woven into the framework of her important story and its full-titled sense of entrapment.

Sasha is an attractive, materialistic, opinionated, white, Russian-American corporate executive who drinks too much, is obsessed with physical appearance and doesn't exactly look forward to growing old gracefully with age. Early on, we also learn that during a business trip to Africa from several years ago, she had wild, passionate sex with a black man who, following their fling, faded completely into oblivion and was never heard from again.
Mia, Sasha's outspoken, black, teenaged daughter, is the product of their intimate coupling, a smart, inquisitive young woman who is often ridiculed for her light-skinned biracial identity, but, nonetheless, wants answers about her biological father while being forced to endure the prejudice and discrimination of the times and her mother's refusal to fully understand her issues, needs and fight for freedom of expression.
The trio is completed by May, an Asian-American, in-house domestic worker from next door who works tirelessly for a wealthy suburban family with children and is completely content with her boring, routine existence, much the surprise of both Sasha and Mia whose observe her daily cleaning indoor and outdoor rituals with a confused contentment and acceptance they find baffling. Well, at first anyway. There is much more to May's story than both women are aware of.


"Bee Trapped Inside the Window" is played and written with full-throttle fury and smarts, offset by heightened sensitivity, varying degrees as blatant candidness and actively addressed questions and answers specific to its development and scene-by-scene progression.
Written as interior-framed monologues that glide into important truths and conversations, the play, as theater, pulls you in and never once loses its grip. As playwright, Stanescu's sustained arc of consequence, hope and longing is fueled by page-by-pace reactive that adds shading, diversity and cohesiveness to her telling, all very well worth watching. There are pauses. There are beats. There are breaks. There are reactions. There are surprises. There are conflicts. There are shocks. There are conclusions.
It's all carefully positioned, timed and edited with just the right amount of time, space, atmosphere and conversation necessary to sustain interest and move the play forward toward its surprise, emotional conclusion.

At HartBeat, "Bee Trapped Inside the Window" is being staged by Vernice P. Miller. As director, she taps into Stanescu's important character study with activist-instilled energy, standpoint, strongness and duty-bound precision. Her treatment of the material is potent and authoritative, always mirroring the playwright's fluidity, her fiery, involved shifts of tone and expression and the private torment of the characters, their growth, their isolation, their differences and their willingness to bare their souls and break free of the net that taunts and entraps their lives. The latter is smartly distinguished by Norm Johnson Jr's confined, atmospheric set design which Miller utilizes splendidly throughout the play. Well-time sound effects that include bees buzzing about the stage add dimension to Stanescu's already angst-ridden, determined essay.
Scene by scene, line by line, movement by movement - everything is crafted and tossed into orbit by Miller with pulse, imagination and purpose. A performer herself, she gets inside the mind of her three characters, fills them with the right ticks, the right voice and quirks, thrusts them center stage and lets them speak and fly on their own as one, as two or as a trio confidently in sync with the mindset and persona instilled in Stanescu's weighty, intelligently-written play script. There is also a guided, natural fluidity to Miller's directorial prowess that gives the production a fascination and enthrallment reminiscent of the dramatic works akin to Yale Rep, Circle in the Square, the Public Theater in the East Village and London's intimate Donmar Warehouse.

"Bee Trapped Inside the Window" stars Erin Lockett as Mia, Jennifer Dorr White as Sasha and Mami Kimura as May. Casting, of course, is everything and here, the trio of performers chosen to bring Stanescu's play to life, is strong and well chosen.
As Mia, Erin Lockett is an articulate, charismatic performer who shows her command of the material in a beautiful-defining performance of poise, frenzy, determination, racial abuse and a climactic declaration of independence. In the role of Sasha, Mia's mother, Jennifer Dorr White delivers an equally assured characterization outlined with detail, thrust, excitement, control and a marvelous sense of edged, picture-framed intimacy. Mami Kimura, cast in the part of May, sparks the piece with a captivating, intuitive turn fraught with real emotion, real concern, real humility and real unbrokeness. It's a straightforward, delicate performance, deep, rich and resonant that rings so very true in today's world, a fact that is fully enriched and developed by both actress and playwright as "Bee Trapped Inside the Window" concludes with some very painful, surprising, defining moments.

A clever, thought-provoking drama of enormous depth and persuasion, "Bee Trapped Inside the Window" invites the theatergoer into an intimate, troubled world populated by three very different women, all of whom shake things up with riveting stories and dialogue that allows one to step back, think, absorb, question and make sense of the ongoing drama at hand. Directed with navigating savvy and modulating precision by Vernice P. Miller, this 90-minute character study edges itself completely into our consciousness, backed by three raw, vivid performances and a fascinating play script by Saviana Stanescu that is written in bold, beautifully orchestrated increments. It is not only one of the highlights of the 2022 regional theater season, but one that will linger in memory long after it is over and the actors takes their bows.

"Bee Trapped Inside the Window" is being staged by HartBeat Ensemble (The Carriahe House Theater, 360 Farmington, CT), now through May 7, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 548-9144.


Tuesday, April 19, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 310, A Review: "Lost in Yonkers" (Hartford Stage)

By James V. Ruocco

Set in Yonkers, New York, 1942, Neil Simon's poignant, emotionally enthralling play "Lost in Yonkers" steps back in time to record and replay the story of two young boys (based, in part, on Simon and his older brother) who are temporarily placed with their hard-as-nails, rigidly disciplined grandmother (their father, a traveling salesman, is away on business to earn money to payback borrowed funds from loan sharks) in an apartment overlooking the family-owned Kurnitz Kandy Store. The boy's mother, we learn, has died of cancer.
From the start, it's clear that the style, the tone and the mindset of this particular narrative is going to gloriously play out the Simon aesthetic with echoes of slap-dash cynicism, angst, sentiment, surprise and rock-solid storytelling.
It does, of course, and so much more.
One of the major highlights of Hartford Stage's eclectic 2021-2002 season, this is a fierce, polished and playful production chock full of invention, grit, charm, skill, humor and nostalgia.
It looks perfect.
It's keen-witted.
It accommodates with context and characteristics that heighten its visceral appeal.
Its heightened awareness of family is strong and responsible.
It is clever and prolific.
It is fueled by an experienced, dream cast led by Marsha Mason, Andrea Syglowski, Jeff Skowron, Hayden Bercy, Gabriel Amoroso, Michael Nathanson and Liba Vaynberg.
And finally, it's all about the man himself - the late great playwright Neil Simon.

A master of the one-liner and a plotline infused with humor, inspiration, social relevance and autobiographical ticks, beats, skips and coining, Simon's works - "The Odd Couple," "Come Blow Your Horn," "California Suite," "Barefoot in the Park," to name a few - follow a certain formula that thrust the theatergoer into a vertigo of fun, sentiment, pathos and conflict. Timing, of course, is everything, as is the play's concept, its story arcs, its recurring themes, its characters, its exchanges, its monologues, its solutions, its dialogue, its time, its place and its language.

"Lost in Yonkers," which won the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, retains the wit, the banter and the insults that Simon is famous for, but it treads on a more serious, more grounded, more complex terrain that is shaken and stirred - pun obviously intended - with thought-provoking darkness, change of heart, exploration and tilting crusade. And therein, lies its theatrical hook, its orchestrated involvement and smart and savvy nuance.
What's fascinating about Simon - in this case, "Lost in Yonkers" - is that he opens the door to his heart and mind, invites you in, chats with you as if you're a long-lost friend and then digs deep to make you laugh, cry, shake your head and pull things apart while using his writing skills to entertain and enthrall you in the darkened confines of a theater.
It's an efficiently organized work that runs like clockwork. It also has all the satisfactions and frustrations you'd expect from Simon intertwined with splendidly orchestrated memory, unexpected surprise, pathos and verbal gravity.

That said, who better than Marsha Mason, the playwright's wife of ten years (they divorced in 1983) to co-direct "Lost in Yonkers" alongside Rachel Alderman. She received three of her four Academy Award nominations for works written by the late playwright and screenwriter - "The Goodbye Girl," "Chapter Two," "Only When I Laugh." On Broadway, she appeared in Simon's "The Good Doctor." In London's West End, she starred in "The Prisoner of Second Avenue" opposite Richard Dreyfuss who won an Oscar for his performance in Simon's 1977 romantic film comedy "The Goodbye Girl" opposite Mason.
She also was featured in 1983's "Max Dugan Returns," which was written for the screen by Simon and on record, voiced the Grammy-nominated L.A. Theatre Works' recording of "The Prisoner of Second Avenue."
Directorially, she gets inside Simon's head and runs with it. She's confident. She's determined. She's emotional. She takes chances. She hits the right notes. She uses every inch of the playwright's story-teller instincts to reel you in hook, line and sinker. She does all of this with great style, purpose, warmth and a nostalgic sweetness that gives "Lost in Yonkers" a one-on-one intimacy that makes the theatergoer feel as if they are right there alongside her, deeply involved in Simon's meticulously crafted, largely personal play.

Laughter - laced with deliciously wicked sting and surprise - is the centerpiece of any Simon play and both Mason and Alderman come to this revival with the knowledge and understanding necessary to build, frame and punctuate a laugh simply, resourcefully and naturally. The beats, the pauses, the rhythms, the set ups and the punchlines are orchestrated with the zing and snap the playwright is famous for, but without overstatement and calculation. Here, they simply happen in the moment, a directorial choice that gives "Lost in Yonkers" a brilliant comic centeredness that works most advantageously throughout this illuminating, affectionate revival.

While Simon's technique for getting laughs is evident throughout "Lost in Yonkers," this revival also carries a dramatic weight and unapologetic honesty that is clear, delicate and implicitly connected. Here, the illusion of truth, mixed with memory, skill and dramatized urgency feels naturally bedded-in with perfectly positioned elements and specificity as dictated by both Mason and Alderman. It's an artistic choice that not only creates expertly devised pathos, but the shrewdly imagined world of the seven characters who inhabit the playwright's gutsy, spoon-fed domain.

"Lost in Yonkers" stars Marsha Mason as Grandma Kurnitz, Andrea Syglowski as Bella, Gabriel Amroroso as Arty, Hayden Bercy as Jay, Jeff Skowron as Eddie, Michael Nathanson as Louie and Liba Veynberg as Gert. 

In the role of Granda Kurnitz, originated by Irene Worth in the 1991 Broadway production and played by Mercedes McCambridge in the subsequent National Tour, Marsha Mason is the play's thrilling, dominant force and one, that in this incarnation, she invests with pride, dignity, chutzpah, frustration and broken illusion. Well versed in the mechanics of all things Simon, she offers theatergoers a determined, raw and charismatic performance, built with flawless comic timing, energy, positioned character development, expert line delivery and naturally timed starts, stops and pauses that heighten her already fueled portrayal of the play's proud, manipulative matriarch.
As Bella, the mentally challenged, unmarried, childlike, 35-year-old daughter who is not always playing with a full deck, Andrea Syglowski takes charge of her very demanding role with a channeled effectiveness that makes her every moment on stage inspired, motivated, cheerful and hauntingly purposeful. Playing the pivotal role of Eddie, the boy's father who convinces his mother to take charge of them during his absence, Jeff Skowron offers an honest, grounded performance enhanced by welcomed charisma, splendid comedy relief, accurate, delivered narration and a naturally orchestrated interaction with the young actors who play his sons.

Cast in the roles of Arty and Jay, Gabriel Amoroso and Hayden Bercy capture the confusion, curiosity, angst and rebellion of two boys quickly uprooted from their home and forced to relocate to an entirely new environment where strict rules and conditions are reinforced daily without room for any sort of negotiation. As actors, they are charming, personable and natural, often reminding one of the typical Simon characters who populate "Brighton Beach Memoirs" and "Broadway Bound." 
Engaging as they are in the presence of the play's seasoned adults, both actors need to fully understand how to play and position themselves for laughs, take a breath, speak more clearly and not rush or garble Simon's choice verbiage. A ten-minute jam session with Mason and Alderman is greatly suggested.

Though she arrives late in the play - about halfway through the second act - Liba Veynberg, cast in the role of the older daughter Gert, a character who suffers from breathing issues whenever she pays a visit to her mother (for comic purposes, she is unable to finish a sentence or two without loudly gasping for breath), crafts a hilariously rounded, deftly comic performance, high on octane, and ignited with just the right amount of comic snap and brio to madly applaud her performance during the show's final curtain calls. As Uncle Louie, a Yonkers thug on the lam, played by Richard Dreyfuss in the 1993 film adaptation, Michael Nathanson instills his character with comic thrust, spirit and inspiration. His scenes with Bercy and Amoroso are genuine, important, playful and completely in sync with Simon's serio-comic vison for the part.

This revival of "Lost in Yonkers" also comes packaged with inspiration, color and atmospheric period detail provided by a very talented design team that includes Lauren Helpern (scenic design), An-Lin Dauber (costume design), Aja M. Jackson (lighting design) and Broken Chord (original music and sound design). All four work harmoniously together crafting a fluid, warm and inviting atmosphere that reflects Mason and Alderman's personal take on the material and its original vision, as shaped by the playwright himself. The incorporation of a huge outdoor sign that invites customers to experience the sweet and tasty confections of the Kurnitz Kandy Store is a nice but underused touch that heightens the aura and nostalgia of Yonkers, circa 1942.

A wonderfully constructed, enthralling piece of theatre, "Lost in Yonkers" basks in the reflective potency of Neil Simon's words, conversations, one-liners and smartly drawn characters. The story is kept in motion, not only by the thrilling vigor of its seven-member cast, but by the intimate, involved, poignant direction by both Marsha Mason and Rachel Alderman.
It's a smartly justified work rife with Simon's trademark, wildly inducing humor, stories and situations that touch the heart, fill us with memory and transport us back to a time when life was much more simple.
It's also the first time a work by Neil Simon has been presented at Hartford Stage. Given the theater's past production history, it's a bold move, indeed. But one, nonetheless, that stands tall and mirrors the commitment, excellence and brilliant pay-off of the Hartford-based venue.

Photos of "Lost in Yonkers" by T. Charles Erickson 

"Lost in Yonkers" is being performed at Hartford Stage (50 Church St., Hartford, CT), now through May 1, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-5151

Sunday, April 17, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 309, A Preview: "Steve Solomon's My Mother's Italian My Father's Jewish & I'm In Therapy!" (The Ridgefield Playhouse)

 By James V. Ruocco

"Watching Steve Solomon perform 'My Mother's Italian My Father's Jewish & I'm In Therapy!' is a bit like listening to a mockingbird. You'll catch a little Alan King here, a pinch of Seinfeld there, with a smidgen of Don Rickles, Billy Crystal and George Carlin thrown in. Adding to the sense of comic deja vu, his delivery is peppered with clever vocal effects - the kind that were Billy Cosby's trademark during his standup days."

"A 90-Minute Laugh-Fest."
Hadassah Magazine

"It's So Clever! You're Going to Love It."

"Steve Solomon is like the uncle at Thanksgiving who just won't stop cracking jokes."
The New York Times

"Perfect Comic Timing."
The New York Post

After more than 10,000 live performances and a record-breaking one million in ticket sales, Steve Solomon brings his critically-acclaimed comedy show "My Mother's Italian My Father's Jewish & I'm In Therapy!" to The Ridgefield Playhouse on Sunday, May 8, 2002, which, coincidentally, also happens to be Mother's Day.

Oy, vey!
What a great gift for mother, Uncle Louie and dear, old dad.
If you're looking for laughs, Solomon more than delivers, one by one, in rapid succession like a master vaudevillian weened on grandma's medicinal chicken soup.

"I wanted to write something that was universal - that was accepted universally and it worked," says Solomon. "You don't have to be Jewish or Italian to love the show. All you have to do is recognize a family that you happen to know and come home from a dinner with a heartburn and a headache."

The event - yet another gem in The Ridgefield Playhouse's weekly calendar of invigorating hand-picked entertainment's - is being presented as part of the venue's ongoing Teed & Brown Broadway & Cabaret Series and the Barts Tree Service Comedy Series.
All mother's - or mom's, if you prefer - in attendance will receive a complimentary glass of Freixenet Ice (a refreshing sparkling wine from Spain) for all their hard work.

As created by Solomon, "My Mother's Italian My Father's Jewish & I'm In Therapy!" is classic comedy stand-up laced with funny bone essentials, ticks and gadgets that celebrate the comedian's Jewish-Italian heritage, his upbringing, his thoughts, his memories, his conversations and his upclose, wonderfully unique comic persona.
Using hilariously timed accents, sound effects, impersonations and dialects, he transports his audience into a fun-filled world of remembrance rife with playful tidbits and characters that pretty much everyone who buys a ticket can relate too. 
Among them: growing pangs, mixed marriages, divorce, ex-wives, raising children, diets that don't work, cat and dog obsession, meddling parents, therapy, Kosher cooking, Jewish grandmothers, cultural misunderstandings, mobile phones calls with mom and dad, kids, grandkids, etc.

A native of Brooklyn, New York, Solomon grew up in the multi-cultural neighborhoods of Sheepshead Bay. The perfect training ground for the up-and-coming comedian, he knew at an early age how to use observations, dialogue and real-life events - class clown, Chinese delivery boy, among them - to hone and develop accents, jokes, one-liners, comic characters and crafty comic routines.

In addition to "My Mother's Italian My Father's Jewish & I'm In Therapy!" his other works include "I'm Home For the Holidays," "Cannoli, Latkes & Guilt...the therapy continues" and "From Brooklyn to Broadway in Only 50 Years."
Solomon also penned the best-selling book "Political Correctness and Other Forms of Insanity," which was also the basis for comedic episodes produced for The Golden Network TV Channel and programs of the same name that are currently being streamed on all ROKU devices.
Currently on tour throughout the United States, Solomon is the recipient of the Connecticut Critic's Circle Award; the "Best New Off-Broadway Play" award from; and "Audience Favorite Play" from Broadway World.

"What is comedy?" says Solomon. "Comedy is being able to laugh at yourself. That's funny. That's comedy.
"When you grow up in a big family, as I did, you grow and change. You tolerate things as a kid because you didn't know any better. When you come back, one uncle has dementia and the other has terminal gas."

"Steve Solomon's My Mother's Italian My Father's Jewish & I'm In Therapy" is being staged 7:30 p.m. at The Ridgefield Playhouse (80 E. Ridge Rd., Ridgefield, CT) on Sunday, May 8, 2022.
Tickets are $45.
For reservations or more information, call (203) 438-5795.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 308, A Preview: "Pilobolus Big Five-Oh!" (The Ridgefield Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco

Since its inception, the acclaimed, always evolving dance troupe Pilobolus has made a name for itself by creating dance pieces that challenge, excite, rebel and push boundaries to the max.

Its recipe for success is simple.

It abandons the norms of ballet and modern dance in favor of something completely different and unique.
Its creators think outside the box.
It basks in newness and free-flowing reflection.
Its partnering and dance vision is iconic and surprising.
Its healthy doses of experimentation are intelligently conceived.
No two dance movements are alike.

On Friday, April 22 - 8 p.m. to be exact - Pilobolus takes up residence at The Ridgefield Playhouse for "one night only" to celebrate its 50th Anniversary with "Pilobolus Big Five-Oh!" a thrilling, newly conceived dance celebration of the troupe's history. The event is part of the venue's Teed & Brown Broadway & Cabaret Series and the Xfinity Family Series with additional support from HamletHub.
WSHU Public Radio serves as media sponsor for the performance.

Dedicated to the memory of Jonathan Wolken, one of the founders of Pilolobus, this production revisits works that celebrate every decade of the company's history. They are: "Megawatt" from 2004; "Empty Suitor Solo" from 1980; "Shizen" from 1978; "Behind the Shadows" from 2021; and "Day Two" from 1981.

"Megawatt" showcases the troupe's iconic styling of partnering. "Empty Suitor Solo" uses top hat and cane to portray the struggles and frustrations of the dancer who is directed to never touch the floor. The Japanese-inspired "Shizen" explores nature's meditation.
Inspired by the company's 2009 piece "Shadowland," "Behind the Shadows" offers a behind-the-scene's look at the shadow works of Pilobolus. "Day Two" is an acid-tinged, influenced psychedelic trip.

Headlining this visionary, reimagined 90-minute production are Pilobolus dancers Paul Liu, Quincy Ellis, Marlon Feliz, Nathaniel Buchsbaum, Zack Weiss and Hannah Klinkman.

Billed as a high-energy, avant-garde dance company, Pilobolus has explored and tested the limits of human physicality and the disciplined athleticism and tradition of connected bodies through dance since 1971. Telling and shaping stories with the human form as its centerpiece, this acclaimed dance company addresses, educates and entertains its audience with specially choreographed visions of communal diversity, problem solving, surprise, sexuality, joy, hope, survival and nonverbal communication. These artistic collaborations also take their cue from some of the greatest influencers, thinkers and creators of our society - both past and present.
Globally, Pilobolus has developed, traveled and toured worldwide bringing more than over 120 pieces of specially designed dance repertory to millions of people in the United States and 65 different countries. The troupe has been featured on "The Today Show," "CBS This Morning," "The Harry Connick Show," "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," "The Chew," "Penn & Teller: Fool Us" and the "MTV Video Music Awards."
In 2015, Pilobolus was named one of Dance Heritage Coalition's "Irreplaceable Dance Treasures." Additional honors include a TED Fellowship, a 2012 Grammy Award nomination and a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cultural Programming. Working alongside several well-known organizations in retail, finance, fashion, sports and social media, the group has created various bespoke dance performances for film, television and theater including the Oscars and the Olympics.

"Pilobolus Big Five-Oh!" is being staged at The Ridgefield Playhouse (80 E. Ridge Rd., Ridgefield, CT) on Friday, April 22, 2002.
Showtime is 8:00 p.m.
Tickets are $60 and $65.
For more information, call (203) 438-5795.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 307, A Review: "Next to Normal" (Westport Country Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco

The bipolar disorder of a wife and mother painfully coping with a life that thrusts her back and forth into a mental hell she might, or might not, necessarily escape, is the driving force of Marcos Santana's inspiring, voltage-charged, conversational telling of "Next to Normal," which opened Saturday night at The Westport Country Playhouse to an excited, appreciative audience whose screams, cheers and ovation-worthy applause often brought the show to a standstill much to the delight on everyone on stage and those seated in the spacious, immersive auditorium.
An emotionally demanding evening of theatre designed to rock your senses, make you think, touch your soul and bask in its layered, gutsy reality, this revival forges ahead with the stamina, and angst a musical of this caliber demands, craves and deserves.

It breathes, probes and gesticulates.
It attacks with a profound fury.
It is raw, real and terrifying.
It is intimate, deft and nuanced.
It is honest, artistic and principled.

Upfront, "Next to Normal," which features book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, is not your typical feel-good musical. And therein, lies its appeal, its pulse, its heartbeat and its emotional center as realized by its creative team who won the 2009 Tony Award for Best Musical Score and Best Orchestration.
Musically, it deals openly with themes and subject matter designed exclusively for an adult audience: first love; a marriage slowly unraveling out of control; parental neglect; liberation; drug dependency; regret; missed opportunities; escape from reality; bipolar disorder; shock treatment; boredom in the bedroom; death; favoring one child over another; hiding behind-closed doors, etc.
Then, the ball drops, so to speak.
About 20 or 25 minutes into Act I, "Next to Normal" delivers a jolting, surprising twist to the proceedings that you didn't see coming, unless you've seen the show before. If you have, it's easy to figure out what's real, what's imagined and how it fuels the progression of the story and its heady aftermath.

This production is helmed by Marcos Santana (he doubles as both director and choreographer) who staged both "In the Heights" and "Man of LaMancha" at the Westport-based Playhouse. In terms of staging, everything from the move of a prop and the turn of a table to how someone walks up and down the stairs or faces full front to musically address their feelings at any given moment is important to the telling of the story. It's all carefully designed, choreographed and staged with a modern thrust that takes it out of the 2009 setting of its Broadway past and into the world of today. Nothing happens or should without reason - a point that is meticulously played out with surprise momentum, character, connection and savvy by Santana. Not a word of dialogue or lyric from a vocal is unclear. You hear and experience everything. Sound design by Domonic Sack is absolutely flawless as is Adam Koch's atmospheric, handsome, roomy set design and Cory Pattak's vigorous, erupting, impassioned lighting palate.

Given the intimacy of the "Next to Normal" experience, there's not a lot of dance or overplayed movement to Santana's organic enhancement. His connection to the source material and its heated thrall is rich in opportunity and scope as each act builds and amps toward its well-timed release and dicey thickening. His mental pruning is lively and important. As is his steadied level of dramatic interaction, character exchanges and chess-like swagger and face offs.  It's a creative process that makes all the difference in the world.

As devised by Yorkey and Kitt, "Next to Normal" hits the stage with 43 songs - upbeat, lyrical, evolving, smart, soft, rock-tinged - that are seamlessly implemented into Yorkey's edgy, intelligently written play script: They are: "Prelude (Light)," "Just Another Day," "Everything Else," "Who's Crazy/Psychopharmacologist and I," "Perfect for You," "I Miss the Mountains," "It's Gonna Be Good," "He's Not Here," "You Don't Know," "I Am the One," "Doctor Rock," "I'm Alive," "Make Up Your Mind/Catch Me I'm Falling," "A Good Step," "I Dreamed a Dance," "There's a World," "E.C.T.," "I've Been," "Dad That's Bullshit," "Didn't I See This Movie?" "A Light in the Dark," "Wish I Were Here," "Song of Forgetting," "Hey #1," "Seconds and Years," "Better Than Before," "After Shocks," "Hey #2," "You Don't Know (reprise)," "Music Box," "How Could I Forget?" "It's Gonna Be Good (reprise)," "Why Stay?" "A Promise," "I'm Alive (reprise)," "The Break," "Make Up Your Mind/Catch Me I'm Falling (reprise)," "Maybe (Next to Normal)," "Hey #3/Perfect for You" (reprise), "So Anyway," "I Am the One" and "Finale (Light)."

The score - clawing, convincing, tender, poised - is punctuated with moods and moments that are delivered with full-spectrum involvement and teeming invention that trusts "Next to Normal" into the spotlight, using the right emotional shifts and tones to make its point, musically and dramatically. Nothing is thrown into the mix as an afterthought or something resembling an unimportant solo, duet or ensemble coupling that stops the musical dead in its tracks. Every song - long, short or in between - matters and fuels each act with a resonant musicality that is notably strong and respectable.

As music director, Emily Croome, allows Yorkey and Kitt's original music and intricate lyrics to intoxicate, hypnotize and seduce her audience, thus drawing them inside the minds of each of the characters, using just the right amount of emotional rigor, snap, savvy, sensitivity and operatic force to get the message of the musical across. As crafted by its creators, this is a very complicated theatrical piece of varying rhythms, styles, pauses, beats and vitalities that recall the musical score from both "Rent" and "Spring Awakening." Its execution, from ballad to duet to choral number or showstopper - there are many - leaves little room for error.
No surprises, here.
Working alongside her exceptional orchestral team - Andy Buslovish (guitar), Arei Sekiguchi (drums/percussion), Wes Bourland (bass), Melody Allegra Berger (violin, keyboard 2) and Bobby Lee Crow III (cello), Croome (on keyboard) creates a flawless, hypnotic evening of musical theater that respects, honors and understands the concept and mindset of the show's original team and  unobtrusively adapts it to the vocal styles, range and attitude of her six-member Westport Country Playhouse cast.
What follows is an outpouring of polished control, fluency and musical abandonment with an interpretation that ignites the emotional temperature of the original work with exemplary form, trajectory and forward-moving polyphony. 
Vocally, the entire cast is as outstanding as the one who first performed "Next to Normal" on Broadway back in 2009 following its Off-Broadway run; the subsequent 2010 National Tour; and the 2017 revival at TheaterWorks in Hartford directed by Rob Ruggiero. Here, all of the vocals are sung with reinforced resolve and purpose, offset by astonishing volume, illumination, edge and ambition.

"Next to Normal" stars Dar. Lee. See. Ah. as Diana, Wilson Jermaine Heredia as Dan, Ashley LaLonde as Natalie, Daniel J. Maldonado as Gabe and Katie Thomson as Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine.

Last seen on Broadway as Erzulie, the Goddess of Love, in the Tony award-winning revival of "Once on This Island," Dar. Lee. See. Ah. gives the musical performance of the season - and one that will be seeped in memory for many more years to come. From the moment she appears on stage, she immediately projects the troubled, portrait of a married woman and mother, trapped in a real and imagined world rife with anger, confusion, sorrow, loss, guilt, tragedy, longing and memory. So much so, we immediately feel her pain. We feel her joy. We feel her grief. We feel her yearning. We feel her entrapment. We feel her need for escape.
Through dialogue or lyric (her captivating rendition of "I Miss the Mountains" literally stops the show), we are with her every step of the way. Her portrayal of the fractured, bipolar Diana is sold with such compassion, comfort, intimacy and chiseled dysfunction, it never once swerves out of control. Vocally, the actress is a powerhouse of wildfire energy and brio, tackling each and every song she is asked to sing with emergence, truthfulness, consistency and grace.

Wilson Jermaine Heredia, the proud recipient of the 1996 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his breathless, flamboyant, ground-breaking portrayal of the cross-dressing Angel Dumott Schunard in Jonathan Larson's "Rent," tackles yet another important role in this particular production. As Dan, the husband of Diana who has stood by, supported and loved his wife through the years, hoping that one day his wife's pain, would completely disappear, he handles the ever-changing plot swings of his character with honesty, perfection, torment and finely tuned moments that always grab for the heart. Here, as in "Rent" he possesses an ardent, persuasive vocal range that rises comfortably to all the challenges, ticks and boxes of the vast "Next to Normal" score. It's all vocally bright and brilliant, exuded with the necessary weight, intensity and mature emotion the role requires.

As Gabe, the boyishly-charming, teenaged son who is both an imagined angel/lost child and demon to his mother Diana, Daniel J. Maldonado finds himself in the same role originated by Aaron Tveit in the 2009 Broadway production. Not one to copycat, Maldonado offers a wonderfully fresh, enriched, steady performance that is personable, forceful, dizzying and edgy. He plays the part with  proper dash, charm, angst and confusion. His voice and vocal style, which, is somewhat akin to that of British singer and songwriter Gary Barlow is pure, solid, beautiful and beaming with proud delight. As  interpreter, he pays close attention to the lyrics and music and communicates them effortlessly. His show stopping interpretation of "I'm Alive" is so exhilarating and amazingly performed, you are never once reminded of Tveit and the role that transformed him into a Broadway star.

Ashley LaLonde, cast in the role of Gabe's sister Natalie, the fragile young teenager who often feels that she is invisible to her mother Diana, delivers a genuine, thought-provoking performance that is so honest and so real, you can't take your eyes off her for a moment. Her singing voice is absolutely perfect, imbued with a refreshing, reflective snap that gives her character's emotional journey additional weight, purpose and attention. As Henry, Natalie's boyfriend, Gian Perez is wonderfully in sync with his offbeat, quirky character. Vocally, he possesses sheer, strong vocal chops that reflect the visceral power of musical theatre. Katie Thompson, in the dual roles of Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine, also commands attention, vocally and dramatically whenever she's on stage. Her character also comes equipped with some impeccably timed comic thrusts and musicality in her real and imagined scenes with Diana.

One of the best musicals of the 2022 Equity regional theatre season, "Next to Normal" is an affecting, moody, no-frills musical that celebrates its emotional nakedness and penetrating double-act shrewdness with three-dimensional size and scope. The electrifying honesty and unnerving edginess of Marcos Santana's kinetic direction, offset by the rich, raw, flavorful performances of its tremendously talented six-member cast, bring additional spark and pulse to the proceedings, making you tune in to every word, conversation and musical note of its accessible, sound-flowing palette.

"Next to Normal" is being staged at the Westport Country Playhouse (25 Powers CT, Westport, CT), now through April 24, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 227-4177.

Photos of "Next to Normal" by Carol Rosegg

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 306, A Review: "Jesus Christ Superstar" (ACT of CT)

 By James V. Ruocco

The dystopian world of "The Handmaid's Tale" and its fight for freedom in a violent world mixed with destruction, desire, despair, greed and persecution is the inspiration behind ACT of CT's thrilling futuristic take on "Jesus Christ Superstar," the Andrew Lloyd Webber/ Tim Rice musical that began life as a concept album in 1970, made its Broadway bow the following year as a fully realized stage musical and finally crossed the pond - so to speak - for its splashy, eagerly-awaited 1972 debut in London's West End.

A jarring, explosive interpretation of the last week in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, this theater-shaking incarnation adapts a competent, angry, important motif of urgency, laced with rock-concert consistency, befitting sexuality, heightened frenzy and bold leaps of wildly crazed abandon to retell the Christ story as viewed through a crafty lens of illustrious examination and collective debate.

This is "Jesus Christ Superstar" as you've never seen it before. And therein, lies the heart and soul of this imaginative piece of musical theater that shimmers with attentive, demanding directness and interpretive definitude.


Between the pungent musical score and the elaborate visual display created by the production's stellar design team, this newly envisioned "Jesus Christ Superstar" is an adventurous oeuvre chock full of mind-blowing spontaneity, enthusiasm and grit, set against an intricately designed futuristic landscape of high-voltage drama, sentiment and game-inducing melange.

"I began directing this incredibly talented company of actors just four days after the Russian invasion of the Ukraine," reports director Daniel C. Levine. "It is not lost on me that our version of 'Jesus Christ Superstar' depicting the freedom fighters, revolutionaries, and refugees, in some small way mirrors the atrocities taking place 4,775 miles away from Ridgefield. These current events also influenced our production."

An interpreter with a keen eye for justified detail, creation, smartness and wisely-stated, bleeding-edge coda, Levine takes hold of this production working from a proven blueprint, hellbent on originality, engagement, stop-start consciousness and revolutionary bravura. His direction is carefully thought out scene by scene, song by song, line by line. Who goes left? Who goes right? Who ends up front and center? He does it all with a dash, a spin, a thought, a pause, a reflection, a moment.

As "Jesus Christ Superstar" evolves, he also shapes and molds entrances and exits to conform to the musical's perfectly synced orchestrations. How an actor, stands, sits, moves, wipes a forehead, lays out a blanket, unpacks a box of canned goods backs or falls to the ground is also part of the "Superstar" directorial mix as is the placement and stance of each and everyone on the ACT of CT stage as individuals, soloists, members of the ensemble or observers of the actual story, its advancement and gripping, angst-ridden conclusion.

What separates this revival from other interpretations of the two-act musical is Levine's desire to dig deep, experiment, change and implement, surprise and shock, taunt and tease and never once doubt his theatrical showmanship. Relying on his knowledge and fully imagined skills as both actor and director, he takes a 52-year-old musical, twists and shapes it to his own liking and lets it breathe and resonate until everything naturally and evenly falls into place. 
In Act II, for example, the whip-stroke effect of the "39 Lashes" is signified by red stage blood - rather that actual whips - that is splashed hard against Christ's naked torso. It is a shocking, defining moment that works most imaginatively as does Levine's Act One opening montage that sets the stage for what's to come using elements, sights and sounds reflective of "The Handmaid's Tale," but reinvented for the atmospheric playground that is "Jesus Christ Superstar."

Conceived as a rock opera reflective of the era and musical styling of its birth, "Jesus Christ Superstar," as created by Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics) is an edgy, immersive dramatization gorgeously dressed with 25 musical numbers designed to enhance and progress the Jesus Christ story. They are: "Heaven On Their Minds," "What's the Buzz?" "Strange Things Mystifying," "Everything's Alright," "This Jesus Must Die," "Hosanna," "Simon Zealotes," "Poor Jerusalem," "Pilate's Dream," "The Temple/Make Us Well," "Everything's Alright (reprise)," "I Don't Know How to Love Him," "Damned For All Time/Blood Money," "The Last Supper," "Gethsemane," "The Arrest," "Peter's Denial," "Pilate and Christ," "Herod's Song," "Could We Start Again, Please?" "Judas' Death," "Trial By Pilate/39 Lashes," "Superstar," "Crucifixion" and "John 19:41."

The score - a challenge in itself- is surreal, judicious, raw, real and energy sapping. Though its origins are 1970's rock hallucinatory, then and now, the songs themselves unfold with apt compassion, tenderness, voice, scope and euphoria. As composer and lyricist, Webber and Rice offer haunting orchestrations and lyrics that are seamlessly placed throughout the two-act musical, each complementing and probing the emotional heartbeat, tension and hysteria concurrent in the story, the landscape, the characters and its defiant urgency. Their rhythmic inventiveness and mighty thwacks of pacing, clarity and focus give "Jesus Christ Superstar" an immense sound and stature that complements its otherwise moving, pulsating theatrical recognition.

Key to the success of any musical is the employment of a musical director, music supervisor and orchestral team equipped to handle the complex machinations of the score itself, its evolution, its driving spirit and its performance before a live audience. At ACT of CT, the combined team of Jeffrey Campos (musical director), Bryan Perri (music supervisor) and an nine-member band consisting of Campos (conductor/keyboard 1), Clyde Daley (trumpet), Tom Cuffari (keyboard 2), Dennis J. Arcano (drums/percussion/synthesizer programmer), Amy Griffiths (woodwinds), Darlene Kaukoranta (french horn), Dan Harrington (guitar 1), Al Orlo (guitar 2) and Alex Busby Smith (electric bass) play out the rightly considered classic score with a well-matched fullness and intensity that is organic, encouraging and powerfully executed.

Completely aware of the musical's ground-breaking message and its joyously constructed symphony, Campos, as musical director and conductor, brings a smart, fluid, well-balanced sound to the otherwise familiar "Superstar" material. But in terms of nostalgia and remembrance, familiarity is sidestepped in favor of a more involved, modern form of musical storytelling steeped in clean, lucid sonic's of zest, zeal and alert packaging.

At ACT, this is a show about newness and taking chances. Adhering to that conceit, Campos and his orchestral team offer both actor and audience a gazillion order of musical impressions and fingerprints that brilliantly solidify the Webber/Rice arrangements, but view them in a completely different setting and time period. Wisely avoiding over-the-top eccentricities and glitter-coated revelry of other stagings, things are told from a completely different futuristic viewpoint. Here, musical jumps, pings and counterpoints are mysterious, surreal and mystifying, which, in turn, adds more fuel to the re-imagined darkness and surprise of the original Biblical telling. 
With the boldest musical cards in place, this fruitful collaboration fascinates on all levels, offset by the pitch-perfect vocal sound of the performers, all of whom are adroitly attuned to communicating harmonies and phrasing with perfect rhythm, drive and impact. What's wonderful about this luminous offering is the ease, the breath, the directness and the tonal specificity in which the music was taught and shaped. More importantly, there is no copycatting here. Everyone from leads to supporting players and members of the ensemble offer their own original take on the music with Perri standing by as both guide, instructor and vocal interpreter. That, in a nutshell, stirs and shakes the emotions musically, thus, adding cause and substance to this futuristic telling and its weighty touches of emotion and musical conflict.

As with any rock opera  ("Hair," "Tommy," for example)  - dance - celebratory, reflective, edgy, expressionistic - is part of the musical journey in terms of illumination, turning point, contrast, influence and storytelling. Here, choreographer Sara Brians uses Levine's dystopian-inspired perspective to create movement, rhythm and stylization that addresses the story at hand in terms of musicality, struggle, effort, salvation and persecution. Augmenting athleticism as her choreographic centerpiece, she creates frenzied clusters and tableau's that respectively mirror "Superstar's" strong sense of mind games, rebellion, public ceremony, attack, mockery, persecution and carborundum.

Throughout the musical, there's a centered rootedness and continuity to her choreography. The arrangements - physical and figurative - unfold with full-fraught intoxication, insanity, aggressiveness and quicksilver inspiration. It's all confidently spread out across the ACT of CT stage with applied theatrical-applied joy, homage and dark, eerie, strict Gilead undercurrents effectively timed the beat and pulse of the Webber/Rice score and its mind-blowing orchestrations.

Headlining the cast of "Jesus Christ Superstar" are Brett Stoelker as Jesus, Caitlin Kinnunen as Mary Magdalene, Avionce Hoyles as Judas, Michael McGurik as Pilate, Katie LaMark as Annas, Isaac Ryckeghem as Caiaphas, Ben Cherington as the Priest, Randy Donaldson as Herod, Andrew Stevens Purdy as Peter and Ariel Neydavoud as Simon.

With any interpretation of  "Jesus Christ Superstar" - in order for the production to fly and resonate - the casting of the lead role of Jesus is crucial to the success of the musical and its frenzied rock opera staging.  At ACT, Levine thrusts Brett Stoelker into the spotlight to portray this iconic role. That said, it's all a matter of choice on the director's part in terms of what he wants to accomplish, how the role is to be played and whether or not he wants someone to mirror the Christlike image set forth by Jeff Fenholt in the original 1971 Broadway musical, Paul Nicholas in the 1972 West End edition or Ted Neeley in Norman Jewison's 1973 movie musical adaptation.
The fact that Stoelker looks like none of these performers is intentional on Levine's part.  Then again, for this version, he's not supposed to. What matters here is that Stoelker is more of an everyman sort of Jesus - longish, unkempt hair, neutral clothing, laid back rock persona - who,  even when surrounded by the entire cast bears no resemblance to any one of them. And that look, that separation, that natural sense of wonderment and purification works especially well in this reworked, re-imagined telling.
Acting wise, Stoekler delivers a strong, centered, emotional portrait that draws the audience immediately into his character's story. He reminds one of an older Justin Bieber, but without the fan club, the screaming girls, the hype and pop and dazzle overkill. Instead, he keeps things simple, natural and earnest. Vocally, he's a powerhouse of passion, drama and agility, tackling the iconic score (a few tweaks have been made showcase his enormous talent) with confidence, range and splendid musicality. His many vocals, which include "What's the Buzz?" "Poor Jerusalem," "The Last Supper" and "Gethsemane" are seared into our consciousness with focus, achievement, sweetness and appreciation.

As Mary Magdalene, Caitlin Kinnunen offers audiences a brilliant star turn as the soulful, caring, but often misunderstood Mary Magdalene. Like Stoelker, she too has an exceptional singing voice and brings graceful simplicity, beauty and vibe to the stirring pop vocals "I Don't Know How to Love Him," "Everything's Alright"  and "Could We Start Again Please?" the latter shared with the likes of the charismatic Andrew Stevens Purdy as Peter and the equally talented Ariel Neydavoud as Simon.

Katie LaMark, a dynamic actress who rocked the world of Jonathan Larson's "Rent" back in 2017, in the role of Maureen Johnson, plays the part of Annas, a dystopian-appointed high priestess who, in this production, is both antagonist and upscale advisor. Here, she commands your attention with an edgy, dramatic turn (she also did so in "Rent") whenever she sings, moves, observes, taunts, stares or takes part in the musical's hypnotic rock-drenched numbers. Dressed in a stunning California blue ensemble outfit - 1950's Coco Chanel couture mixed with "Handmaid's Tale" Blue of the Wives wardrobe - she is a vision of loveliness and government-controlled perfection perfectly in sync with the plot moving machinations at hand. 
Avionce Hoyles, last seen in ACT of CT's rousing musical "Smokey Joe's Cafe" is an amazing, forceful Judas. He also possesses a rangy, powerful, pure singing voice that makes all of his vocals sound absolutely magnificent.
In the roles of Pilate, the official who presided over the trial of Jesus and eventually ordered his crucifixion, Michael McGuirk is a competent, vocally perfect and slick, twisted leader with plenty of dash, personality and presence to boot (he's the perfect choice to play Peron in "Evita") as is the equally impressive, striking Ben Cherington in the role of the Priest. As Caiaphas, the high priest who organized the plot to kill Jesus, Isaac Ryckeghem makes his every on-stage moment shine. He also comes to ACT of CT with a strong baritone voice that is simply incredible. Randy Donaldson also strikes a high note as Herod, the client king of Judea, and has great fun performing the snarky "Herod's Song" with his trusty minions halfway through Act II.

The brilliance of Levine's casting and Perri's expert vocal tutelage continues with the start-out, breath-taking performances of the "Jesus Christ Superstar" ensemble. They are: Kellie MacMillian, Corrine C. Broadbent, Will Stephan Connell, Val Moranto, Marlena Lopez Hilderley, Alex Hartman, Amber Hurst Martin, Devin Price, Daniel Thimm, Cole Wachman, Caitlin Witty and Chris Balestriere. Ariel Neydavoud and Andrew Stevens Purdy also partake in the "JCS" electric-charged mania when not playing their respective roles of Simon and Peter.
Throughout the production, this group of 14 crackle with vibe, enthusiasm, passion, adrenaline, chill and confidence. They glide through the Webber/Rice score with a hyper-fueled charge that is both timeless and revolutionary. They also make us believe that we're hearing the music of  "Jesus Christ Superstar" for the very first time.

As with the evocatively staged "Nickel Mines," this production of  "Jesus Christ Superstar" is rife with inspiration and color provided by a very talented design team that includes Jack Mehler (set design), Claudia Stefany (costume design), Penny Jacobus (lighting design) and Nathan Rubio (sound design). All four work harmoniously together crafting a fluid, surreal atmosphere that reflects Levine's unique take on the musical and its connection to both the Ukraine and "The Handmaid's Tale."

The elation and magnificence stirred by this revelatory revival and its strong sense of character, concept, music and dystopian experimentation and injustice imbues this staging of "Jesus Christ Superstar" with an incredible balance and credulity that gives it a heightened awareness and narrative thrust that is afresh with swerving aplomb. The combined talents of Daniel C. Levine, Bryan Perri, Jeffrey Campos and Sara Brians - director, music supervisor, musical director, choreographer - make it a bold, dark and frightening journey of rock opera sweep and restless range, matched by the vocal intensity and emotion of the entire cast, all of whom illuminate the crushed, hypnotic investment of this timeless tale of a man and his disciples in a Holy Land riddled with war, destruction, contamination, destruction and mind-bending, controlled channeling.
It keeps you on edge. It excites and sings. It barks and provokes. It makes you tune in and listen. And more importantly, it transports you to a time and place like no other.

"Jesus Christ Superstar" is being staged at ACT of CT (36 Old Quarry Rd., Ridgefield, CT), now through April 17, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (475) 215-5497.

Photos of "Jesus Christ Superstar" by Jeff Butchen