Thursday, June 30, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 326, A Review: "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (Black Rock Theater & Broadway Method Academy)

By James V. Ruocco

"Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd
His skin was pale and his eye was odd
He shaved the faces of gentlemen
Who never thereafter were heard of again
He trod a path that few have trod
Did Sweeney Todd
The demon barber of Fleet Street

He kept of shop in London Town
Of fancy clients and good renown
And what if none of their souls were saved?
They went to their maker impeccably shaved
By Sweeney
By Sweeney Todd
The demon barber of Fleet Street"

And so begins Stephen Sondheim's musical thriller "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," a full-belt symphony of gore, revenge, bloodshed, torment, rant, rasp, ruthlessness and  cannibalism, partnered and presented with just the right amount of balance, absurdity, melodrama and range by Broadway Method Academy/Black Rock Theater, a celebrated Fairfield-based arts and entertainment venue more than equipped to handle the steely intensity of the actual story, its majestic vocals, its seductive playfulness and its deluxe, macabre context and concept.

This is musical theatre at its very best and BMA/BRT's fiendishly clever take on one of Sondheim's most celebrated works is one of compelling, accomplished crescendo.


The list of superlatives goes on and on and on.

Inspired in part by penny dreadfuls (popular but cheap serial-telling, storybook literature produced during the 19th century in the United Kingdom), "Sweeney Todd," adapted for the musical stage by Hugh Wheeler, uses Christopher Bond's 1973 infamous take of the Victorian fable of Sweeney Todd to set his story in motion.
As the musical opens, Benjamin Barker (who, now calls himself Sweeney Todd) returns home to 1840's London (after being sent to jail for wrongful imprisonment), seeking revenge on those responsible for the rape of eventual death of his wife Lucy, including a ruthless judge (Turpin) who exiled him to Australia and became legal guardian to his then-infant daughter Johanna.
Resuming his former trade as a barber, he forms a partnership with landlady and pie-shop keeper Mrs. Nellie Lovett, who, after a murder is committed, decides to toss the body into the furnace, but not before using human flesh as the main ingredient in her meat pies. Once the bodies begin to pile up, things become quite enterprising for the duo.
More pies. More money. More blood. More human remains.
A recipe for success?
Oh, yes!

With the groundwork laid - barber and baker collude to murder nasty Londoners and bake their remains into pies - "Sweeney Todd" garishly illuminates the cannibalistic pastry scenario with in-your-face, ruthless amorality, making it entirely palatable and comically irresistible. That is, of course, until the plot thickens and things become darker and darker and darker. Nonetheless, it's a well-heeled concept that Wheeler fuels with thrill, spill and rapt imagination giving Sondheim enough fleshly flutings and exponents to musicalize the melodrama at hand. It all comes together splendidly.

Winner of eight Tony Awards (1979) including Best Musical and Best Musical Score, "Sweeney Todd" is told through more than 35 songs written by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics), sung entirely by the characters of Sweeney Todd, Mrs. Nellie Lovett, Anthony Hope, Tobias Ragg, Beadle Bamford, Judge Turpin, Joanna Barker Turpin, the Beggar Woman, Adolfo Pirelli and members of the "Sweeney Todd" ensemble. They are (in order of being sung in Act I and Act II): "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," "No Place Like London," "The Barber and His Wife," "The Worst Pies in London," "Poor Thing," "My Friends," "Green Finch and Linnet Bird," "Ah, Miss," "Johanna," "Pirelli's Miracle Elixir," "The Contest (Part 1 and Part 2)," "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd (reprise)," "Johanna (Mea Culpa)," "Wall," "Pirelli's Death," "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd (reprise)," "Kiss Me, Part I," "Ladies in Their Sensitivities," "Kiss Me, Part II," "Pretty Women," "Epiphany," "A Little Priest," "God, That's Good," "Johanna (Act II Sequence)," "I Am A Lass," "By the Sea," "Wigmaker Sequence," "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd (reprise)," " "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd (reprise)," "The Letter," "Not While I'm Around," "Parlor Songs (I, II and III)," "Fogg's Asylum," "City on Fire!" "Searching," "Finale Sequence" and "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd (epilogue)."

Mixing nightmarish revenge and dicey counterpoint with a keen, bawdy sense of humor, Sondheim's fierce approach toward the subject matter is marked by dynamic flexibility, great build-up, poised lyricism, edgy rasping, intimate eloquence and balanced seriousness. Added touches of humor and acidity also convey the faceted nature of the piece as does the composer's inspired use of melody, arrangement, syncopated rhythms and operatic undercurrents. One of his best musical score's, "Sweeney Todd's" most significant accomplishment is its ability to mix Gregorian chant and opera with both contemporary, popular music, psychological intrigue, black humor and repeated variants and reconfigurations of evoked musical commentary and thrust-forward narration.

To bring the music of "Sweeney Todd" to life, BMA/BRT has assembled a first-class team of live musicians headed by co-musical directors Blake Allen and Matt Moisey (doubling as keyboardist and conductor) and band members Elliot Wallace (percussion), Jessie Englander (reeds), Inna Ramen Langerman (violin), Samantha Marcial (cello) and Christie Echols (bass). Adapted and interpreted with fury, drive, drama and articulation, the rolling complexities of Sondheim's music are expressed with speed and temperament, accentuated with acknowledged doses of passion, grace, foundation and orchestral construct.

The star of the show being the music, both Allen and Moisey work especially hard to get everything right, which, of course they do, through the evolution of the "Sweeney Todd" story. Exquisite detail and impeccable timing bring out the emotional intensity of Sondheim's ravishing score with the orchestra working full throttle to create a sonic, engaging and immersive experience with plenty of buzz, energy, execution and passion. Vocally, the innate musicality of everyone involved reveals a wonderful sense of tone, clarity and control, coupled with a complete understanding of how to make their voices soar with the inhabited, operatic connection set forth by Sondheim, thus producing pristine vocals (every single lyric is audible) that sound even more convincing and more passionate, than they already are.

Crucial to any production of "Sweeney Todd" is the staging itself, which, here, is dependent entirely on the artistic and creative vision of director/choreographer Audra Bryant whose Broadway Method Academy/Black Rock Theater credits include "Cabaret," "Annie" and "The Little Mermaid." A constant presence throughout the two-act musical, Bryant sets "Sweeney Todd" loose - so to speak - with arresting details, visuals, choices, themes and ideas that bring necessary edge and urgency to the proceedings, matched by noticeable precision and punch that makes the narrative swirl, twist, turn and energize with inhabiting thrust, pathos, imagination and opportunity.

Throughout "Sweeney Todd," Bryant's direction complements Sondheim's musical vision, Wheeler's writing, the fable's penny dreadful inspiration, the age and time period of 19th century London, the intertwined relationships of the central characters, the story's dark, authentic flourishes, the macabre undercurrents and the stench, filth and decay of the musical's Fleet Street setting. It's all primed, plotted, explored and presented with an unmistakable stamp of engagement and authenticity reminiscent of work's presented at London's Donmar Warehouse, New York's Circle in the Square and Hartford's HartBeat Ensemble.

Staging "Sweeney Todd," Bryant opts for a three-quarter, immersive directorial conceit of certainty, invention and brilliantly-tailored ideas and choices that complement and nurture her core, hell-of-a-ride tactics and moody, motivational soundscape. In turn, the story's revenge, bloodshed, destruction and desperation unravels with thrilling force as does Bryant's decided blueprint of movement, blocking, positioning, grouping and melodramatic climax. Here, everything is addressed with importance, definition and purpose from how a character is murdered (throats are slit with no stage blood, for example) and removed from the stage (very clever, zombie/robot like maneuvers are employed) to how someone unwraps a tasty meat pie, walks into a fiery oven or becomes part of a Fleet Street chorus to sing various choral reprises of the title character's ever-evolving tale of revenge.

As director, Bryant gives a fresh, invigorating look to the production without sidestepping its original nightmarish vision. She also brings added momentum to the comic spectacle to Mrs. Lovett's pie making, the Beggar Woman's springboard of jigs and feverish sexual innuendo, Pirelli's showy elixir presentation and the lovestruck awe and innocence prevalent in Anthony's sudden romantic attachment to the beautiful Johanna. The multiple onstage deaths of Todd's unsuspecting victims are also contrasted with heavy doses of ingenuity, savagery and spotlit undercutting. 

In the role of Sweeney Todd, Tate McElhaney delivers a strong, thrilling and emotional portrayal of a man and skilled Fleet Street barber whose rage and thirst for revenge transforms him into a dangerous, demonic serial killer. Rose Messenger takes the stage with equal command, playing pie shop owner Mrs. Nellie Lovett with comic counterpoint and position, reveling in her newfound culinary skills (no pussy cats for catching; only grinded body parts and flesh) and bake shop profits. Her nervous laughter and cherry ebullience is a genuine source of delight as are her comic expressions, line delivery and character posturing and positioning. Vocally, both she McElhaney tackle the vocals of Sondheim's iconic score with celebrated fervor, sweeping surge, playful repartee and showpiece bravura.  Their vocal attachment to the material illuminates the complexity and skill of his musical artistry with intoxicating zeal, grandeur and lush imagination.

Standing tall and proud oozing plenty of sustained class, lust and infatuation for his young ward Johanna, Matthew Danforth (resplendent in vintage leather gentleman's topcoat finery) slides into the role of the self-flagellating Judge Turpin with extraordinary impact, entitlement and moody sensuality. Sasha Spitz chimes beautifully as the lovely, sweet-voiced Johanna. David Littlefield's Adolfo Pirelli is both cunning con man and scrum deviant. As Anthony Hope, the young sailor who befriends Todd and later, falls instantly in love with Johanna, Spencer Stanley puts a natural, worthy, romantic spin on his vocally perfect character while Nick Pattarini makes all the right moves as Beadle Bamford, the slippery church officer and lackey of the nasty Judge Turpin. 
Eliza Levy's portrayal of the Beggar Woman, a downtrodden character who is later revealed as Todd's long-lost wife Lucy, works brilliantly in the all-too-important ticking clock of the story. As the naive Tobias Ragg, Jackson Wood invites the audience into his story with a sensitive, well-crafted portrait of a young man asked to turn the handle of the meat grinder three times round for the making of Mrs. Lovett's tasty meat pies. He also gets to sing the beguiling "Not While I'm Around," one of Sondheim's signature character ballads.  
Strong acting and vocal performances are also given by "Sweeney Todd" ensemble members Ryan Kennedy, Ranease Brown, Ethan Horbury, Caroline Marchetti, Abby Tucker, Isabel Rina and Nathan Syzmanski. All of them not only have exceptional singing voices, but their inhabited connection to the material heightens the dark and eerie suspense and mayhem they create on the BMA/BRT stage.

Design wise, "Sweeney Todd" is conceptually brilliant with eerie, stylish and moody set pieces, costumes, hair, sound and lighting choices that reflect and define the pending action, story arcs, portraits, characterizations and musicality of the Wheeler/Sondheim musical. All of the information necessary to complete the picture is provided by Ryan M. Howell (scenic design), Dustin Cross (costume design), Curtis Shields (lighting design), Daniel Bria (sound design) and Kaitie Adams (wig design).

A dark musical masterpiece of the highest order, "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" is a bold, striking production that celebrates both Stephen Sondheim's ensured gift of musicality and his bold, authoritative penchant for involved, immersive storytelling. As presented by Broadway Method Academy and produced by Black Rock Theater, it is a superb achievement in musical theatre, set forth by a brilliant, full-voiced cast, dynamic musical direction and an exceptional design team who give this oft-told Victorian thriller its bite, its chills, its sting and its unsettling cries of revenge, death and comeuppance.
The standout direction and choreography by Audra Bryant packs dozens of collective punches, shocks, surprises and haunting interludes, all of which heighten this revival's dark, sinister allure and its razor-sharp flourish that lingers in memory long after the production has ended.
Jarring, yes. But sensational, every step of the way.

(Photos of "Sweeney Todd" courtesy of Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

"Sweeney Todd" was staged by Broadway Method Academy (Black Rock Theater,1935 Black Rock Turnpike, Fairfield, CT) from June 18 thru June, 26, 2022.
For information about upcoming productions, call (203) 675-3526.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 325, A Review: "Hamilton" (The Philip Cast) (The Bushnell)


By James V. Ruocco

Who is Alexander Hamilton, the title character of Lin-Manuel Miranda's stunning, ferociously entertaining Tony award-winning musical?

a.) the first secretary of the U.S. Treasury, credited with laying the foundation for American government and finance.
b.) the bastard son of a whore and a prosperous merchant Scotsman.
c.) a young man who emigrated to America as a teenager in 1772.
d.) an American revolutionary and influential interpreter of the U.S. Constitution.
e.) the husband of the very wealthy Elizabeth Schuyler whom he wed in 1777 and had seven children together.
f.) the man who had a three-year affair with a woman named Maria Reynolds that later evolved into a sex scandal and cover up when she blackmailed him for money.
g.) the unlucky gentleman who challenged Aaron Burr to a duel on July 11, 1804 and died the following day after being shot and mortally wounded by his opponent.

These facts - and so many more - lay the groundwork for "Hamilton," the much-hyped, much applauded, much ballyhooed, visionary hip-hop musical that rumbles, growls, delights and excites with a never-ending tempo and bravura that gives way to an American musical narrative and entertainment unlike anything you've seen before in the last five to ten years on Broadway, in London or on National Tour.

"Hamilton," by definition, is in a class by itself.
It also dances to its own drum roll.

It is clever and savvy.
It is timely, bold and significant
It is soulful, sad, beguiling and triumphant.
It is welcoming and observant.
It is liberating and vigorous.
It's a costume drama where period dress takes center stage.
It channels historical fact with a terrific sense of ability and accomplishment.
It is poised and daring.
Its rap battle with 18th century politics is fierce and intelligent.
Its language is direct, intelligent and tongue-pattering.

Settling in for a three-week run at the Bushnell, the artistry, size, scope and technical brilliance that is "Hamilton" is tailor-made for the lush, inviting, atmospheric venue. It's a perfect fit - so to speak - justified by a lived-in authenticity and gaze that complements and celebrates the musical's already-fueled anticipation and achievement.

Inspired by "Alexander Hamilton," the 2004, 818-page biography written by Ron Chernow, "Hamilton" comes to the stage with a complex book and lyrical blueprint by creator Lin-Manuel Miranda that befits the sprawling musical interpretation at hand using influential language, poetry and stagecraft. Well positioned, timed and plotted, it is communicated with reticence and elevation that is effective, revolutionary and collective. It is also articulated with understandable speed and musical verbiage that augments the storytelling, the incidents and the characters who populate the "Hamilton" story, its politics, its history, its constitutional conventions, thoughts, ideals and machinations.

At the center of "Hamilton," first and foremost, is the music. Sung and rapped-through accordingly using important, driven, music and lyrics created by Miranda, the two-act musical mixes R&B, pop, jazz, soul and synthetic hip-hop with traditional musical theatre styling, all of which is presented with mirrored establishment and cinched skill and character. Development, orchestration, drama and irony is key to Miranda's composition as is the atmospheric detail, engagement, unity, setting, placement of the individual musical numbers that thrust "Hamilton" into orbit, appropriately manipulated by orchestral colors, techniques and lyrical commentary woven tightly together with extraordinary flow, definition and melody.
Winner of eleven Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Original Score, "Hamilton" is told through 48 important musical numbers. They are (in order of being sung): "Alexander Hamilton," "Aaron Burr, Sir," "My Shot," "The Story of Tonight," "The Schuyler Sisters," "Farmer Refuted," "You'll Be Back," "Right Hand Man," "A Winter's Ball," "Helpless," "Satisfied," "The Story of Tonight (reprise)," "Wait For It," "Stay Alive," "Ten Duel Commandments," "Meet Me Inside," "That Would Be Enough," "Guns and Ships," "History Has Its Eyes on You," "Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)," "What Comes Next?"  "Dear Theodosia," "Tomorrow There'll Be More of Us," "Non-Stop," "What'd I Miss," "Cabinet Battle #1," "Take a Break," "Say No to This," "The Room Where It Happens," "Schuyler Defeated," "Cabinet Battle #2," "Washington on Your Side," "One Last Time," "I Know Him," "The Adams Administration," "We Know," "Hurricane," "The Reynolds Pamphlet," "Burn" "Blow Us All Away," "Stay Alive (reprise)" "It's Quiet Uptown," "The Election of 1800," "Your Obedient Servant," Best of Wives and Best of Women," "The World Was Wide Enough," "Who Lives Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story"  and "Finale."

Musically, "Hamilton's" emotions are big, bristling with edgy drama, liberated reform, speedy information and clandestine abundance. The message is clear. Perfect timing, structural authority, melodic perfection and knockout dashes of rhythm, beat and pause and quick-charge exhilaration heighten the mix as does Miranda's ability to make every conceivable musical choice he makes fit seamlessly into the framework of the story he judiciously creates, manifests and savors.

Using music supervision and orchestrations set forth by Alex Lacamoire, music director Emmanuel Schvartzman, who doubles as both conductor and keyboardist 1, brings drive and intensity to the iconic "Hamilton" score, duly capturing and framing the whirlwind moods and emotions prevalent in the material and its persuasive, detailed rhythmic consistency and orchestral abundance. As the musical evolves, the irresistible draw of the story, its cues, its captivation and its vocal connection are addressed with gravitas investment, tipped and primed at full throttle by an orchestral team whose immersive engagement blends remarkably well with the thrillingly voiced on stage assemblage of principals, supporting players and members of the vast "Hamilton" ensemble.

Thomas Kail, who staged the original 2015 off-Broadway edition of "Hamilton" and the subsequent Broadway production and Olivier award-winning 2017 London version at the Victoria Palace, recreates his directorial genius for the traveling National Tour performed in Hartford by the Philip's cast (two other productions - the Angelica cast; the Peggy cast - are also on tour throughout America). Here, as in the original Broadway production, Kail exemplifies everything with a steady, crisp, fast-paced aura of tableaux-illustrated scenes, moments and musical turns that acknowledge Miranda's keen, observant vision of the story, its progression, its methods, its complications and its brilliantly crafted, edgy, twirling drama. Given the vastness and evolving time frame of the material, no two scenes are alike, which is meant as the highest compliment to both Kail and Miranda. So what follows is lots and lots of different staging techniques, maneuvers, blocking patterns, groupings, pairings, scene changes and shifts of scenery that build with immersive momentum that never falters for a second. The cast, in turn, is more than up to the challenge, reveling in the excitement and bravura that is "Hamilton," its soulfulness, its musicality, its authority and finally, its conquering form and jaw-dropping execution.

This, being a musical, "Hamilton" is dependent on choreography that is fundamentally important, confidant and in sync with the time and place of the period itself and its breakout mix of contemporary and visionary beats and pulses that blend together with lobs and lobs of ruffling dance vigor, synchronization, rhythmic rapping and late 18th century storytelling. Here, choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler (also responsible for both the Broadway and West End productions of "Hamilton") is primed and sequenced with speed, absoluteness and smartly pitched emotion that represents the contrasting tones of Miranda's narrative, its energetic spunk and quickness, its historical undercurrents and its intertwined elements of struggle, influence, political ambition, jealousy, romance, sexuality, newness, community and entitlement.

In the title role of Alexander Hamilton, Pierre Jean Gonzalez commands the stage - and pretty much everyone else in the audience - with  a kinetic dramatic turn, acknowledging the scope, drive, entitlement and restlessness of the character, properly channeling the strengths, frenzy and gloriousness of this man with varying degrees of  power, stamina, personality and pathos. As American politician Aaron Burr, Hamilton's rival and nemesis, Jared Dixon offers a smart, slippery portrait of a historic figure defined in the history books by his famous personal conflicts with the man known as Alexander Hamilton that in 1804, culminated in the American stateman's death by duel. Vocally, both men bring class and charisma to their respective roles, matched by note-perfect musicality, rich in the style, spirit and emotional edge as penned by "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, as played by Stephanie Jae Park, is sweet, delicate and beguiling, tackling both her dramatic role and songs with a natural shimmer and freshness that musters real warmth and importance whenever she's on stage. Throughout "Hamilton," her singing voice comes shining through with lingering savvy, impression, pace and unhurried surge and emotion. Neil Haskell's preening King George hilariously conveys the pucker and gooey weight of the crown, mixed with magisterial, obviously effeminate allure that turns this otherwise cameo role into a scene-stealing standout happily envisioned by the actor in rainbow-tinged glory, approach and execution. As King, he may have lost America, but he more than makes up for it with wondrously camp entrances, asides, songs and acerbic, smartly-timed connotations. 

Other fine performances are delivered by Ta'Rea Campbell as Angelica Schuyler, Marcus Choi as George Washington, Warren Egypt Franklin as Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis De Layfayette, Paige Smallwood as Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds and Elijah Malcomb as Philip Hamilton and John Laurens.

One of the most important musicals of this or any other season, "Hamilton" is a knockout, magnetic entertainment that comes to the stage with intricate skill, spike and layering, bolstered by riveting. powerful, this-should-be-framed-and-mounted production values - i.e., zeitgeist scenic costume, sound and lighting design - that push theatrical creativity to an entirely new level of epic urgency and quake. The performances, the direction, the choreography and the music are amped to perfection, each representing the rap-influence of the story, its groundwork and its journey.
Hype and hoopla aside, Hamilton" is everything it was meant to be...and so much more.

"Hamilton" is being staged at The Bushnell (166 Capitol Ave., Hartford, CT), now through July 10, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 987-5900.

Monday, June 20, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 324, A Review: "The SpongeBob Musical" (Fairfield Center Stage)

By James V. Ruocco

"Ah, Bonjour, salud.
And welcome to this quiet corner of the ocean floor.
It is here we find the aquatic habitat known as Bikini Bottom.
Let us now observe as the sun rises on a new nautical day."

A "new nautical day?"
Not exactly.

As "The SpongeBob Musical" opens, life for the residents of Bikini Bottom - SpongeBob SquarePants, Patrick Star, Sandy Cheeks, Squidward Q. Tentacles, Gary the Snail, among others - is anything but cozy.

The world of Bikini Bottom, as scripted by playwright Kyle Jarrow, suddenly finds itself in the midst of an apocalypse. Once a violent tremor hits the town, the residents discover that their underworld paradise is about to be completely destroyed by a volcano.
Spoiler alert: To stop the volcano from erupting, it's up to you-know-who to save the day.
Who is it, you ask?
Good question.
Well, for starters, he's yellow.
He's anthropomorphic.
He wears brown short pants and a white-collared short.
He lives in a pineapple house.
He works as a fry cook at the Krusty Krab.

Get the picture!
Of course, you do.

A head-spinning musical jam-packed with enough jaw-dropping magic, color, brightness, imagination and flourish to thrust you into a giddy, sugar-coated frenzy, "The SpongeBob Musical," as presented by Fairfield Center Stage, is a sweet-and flavorful theatrical experience that pays homage to the long-running animated cartoon, its iconic characters and the much-loved, day-to-day shenanigans of the residents of Bikini Bottom.

Gumdrop gooey.

"The SpongeBob Musical" is everything you could ask for in a children's musical.
It is primed for all ages, all genders, all lifestyles and even those who aren't so sure.
It excites with a freshness that turns adults back into kids.
It bubbles over with giddy and heartfelt charm.
It also makes you forget the problems of the day - rising gas prices, outrageous grocery bills, road rage by the many assholes who clutter the expressways, the uncertainty of COVID - and dive deep into the magical world of Bikini Bottom.

Staging "The SpongeBob Musical" for Fairfield Center Stage is Joel Fenster who comes to the project with a knowledge and understanding of the material, the characters, the comedy, the drama, the music, the punchlines and the dialogue. As director, he is completely akin to the well-imagined adventures of the title character, his aquatic friends, the underwater city of Bikini Bottom and the big, melodramatic musical story envisioned by Jarrow.

Here, he tips the light fantastic. He raises the bar for avant-garde conceits. He knows how to get a laugh without any form of calculation. He swims and basks in the musical's underwater glory. He takes chances and runs with them. He cements the story's bubble-gum view of life in bold, broad rainbow colors. He also lovingly retains the light-hearted, animated spirit of the popular Nickelodeon cartoon much to the delight of everyone on stage and in the audience.

As "The SpongeBob Musical" moves from scene to scene and song to song, he works within the confines and restrictions of the budget and the venue at hand without ever once getting short-circuited or losing the bigness, the boldness or the animation of the entire project.
No brain freeze, here.
What you see is what you get as Fenster welcomes you into the 3-D coloring book world of the "SpongeBob" story with definitive strokes and touches that keep the musical's original concept happily and merrily alive.
Things are fast, fluid and well-timed to move the action forward without hesitation. 
Everything happens for a reason. No two scenes are alike. No one gets upstaged. Nothing gets lost in the translation. Actors switch back and forth from supporting roles into members of the ensemble with necessary and creative achievement. And under Fenster's precise, imaginative direction, every single person on stage slides into their projected lead, supporting and ensemble roles, stamped and readied with the playful attitude and mindset set forth by Nickelodeon itself.

The bright, bouncy and eclectic musical score for "The SpongeBob Musical" is culled from a lengthy song register of pop and rock sounds from Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, David Bowie, T.I., Sara Bareilles, Cyndi Lauper, Lady Antebellum, Plain White T's, Yolanda Adams, Jonathan Coulton, Flaming Lips and Panic! at the Disco, among others. The songs, in order of performance, are: "Bikini Bottom Day," "Bikini Bottom Day (Reprise)," "No Control," "BFF," "When the Going Gets Tough," "(Just A) Simple Sponge," "Daddy Knows Best," "Hero Is My Middle Name," "Super Sea Star Savior," "Tomorrow Is," "Poor Pirates," "Bikini Bottom Day (Reprise #2)," "Bikini Bottom Boogie," "Chop to the Top," "(I Guess I) Miss You," "I'm Not a Loser," "Simple Sponge (Reprise)," "Best Day Ever," "Finale: Bikini Bottom Day (Reprise)," and "The SpongeBob Theme Song."

The songs themselves - vigorous, honest, kind, genuine, delightfully orgasmic - are catchy, engaging, tick-tock ready and very plot moving. Moreover, they are strategically placed throughout the story by the show's creators and naturally reflect the musical's important themes, undercurrents, animation, comic dazzle, eruption and roller-coaster, joy ride mania. Musical director Benjamin Doyle greatly enhances and enlightens this orchestral process for "SpongeBob," by using a hand-picked band of very talented musicians who seamlessly bring a flavorful flow, beat, style, sound and rhythm to all of the musical numbers, which naturally fuel and pump up the creative energy of the entire, on-stage cast, all of whom display extraordinary charm, finesse and confident musicality under his inspirational tutelage.

Shuffling the musical's bold, expansive and expressive musical cards, Doyle, as interpreter and storyteller, covers all the necessary bases of musical theatre with his band of orchestral players, reveling in the show's immediate delights, its rattle, prattle and charm, its harmonious phrasing and its easeful, tuneful Nickelodeon packaging. His fresh perspective and full command of the orchestra throughout the 2 1/2 hr. presentation adds additional thrust, dimension and sunniness to the already proven potency and popularity of the music itself. No matter what song is played, the musical accompaniment is stellar.

The choreography for "The SpongeBob Musical" has been devised, fermented and blueprinted by Lindsay Johnson who utilizes the size, space and depth of the Fairfield Ludlowe High School stage to full advantage crafting choreography and specific dance moves and tableau's that connect and reflect the talents of her large, community theatre cast. Not your typical Broadway musical stuff - this is Nickelodeon - not Fosse, Bennett, Champion, Stroman, Kidd or Robbins - what transpires most advantageously is fun house glitter glam, happy-go-lucky tap, skip, pop and hop and technicolor playground carnival involvement all rolled up into one.

It is cute. It is sweet. It is driven. It is playful. It is animated. It is commanding. It is reactive. It is sharp. It is direct. It is different. It also has a wondrous harmony about it. From production number to production number, there's a choreographic versatility to Johnson's work, mixed with cartoonish athleticism, lyrical expressiveness, frantic electricity and humorous Bikini Bottom prompting. Even better - a complement in itself - no two musical numbers are alike.

In order for "The SpongeBob Musical" to click, spike and resonate, the title character must be played by someone with a lot of energy, enthusiasm, personality and under-the-sea cartoonishness. You get all that - and so much more - from Marcelo Calderon who finds himself cast in the title role of SpongeBob SquarePants. Comically, musically and dramatically, this is a very demanding role which requires complete and total involvement from start to finish. As actor, singer and cartoon character, Calderon's keen, natural eye for musical theatre comedy keeps his onstage performance afresh with confirming musicality, authenticity, engagement and gerrymandered position, definition and practice.

They don't come any better that Jacob Rogotzke, who, cast, in the pivotal role of Patrick Star, comes to Fairfield Center Stage with an abundant pulse, a harmonious command and a down-to-earth naturalness that explodes, excites and gets a workout-ready immediacy whenever he's on stage. Not only is he the right choice to play Patrick, but his onstage camaraderie with Calderon, as dictated, in part by Fenster, recalls the side-by-side amusement and giddiness set forth by Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane in the 2001 Broadway musical "The Producers," by Mel Brooks.

As Sheldon J. Plankton, a selfish, evil-doer who concocts a crazy cover-up scheme for the citizens of Bikini Bottom alongside wife and partner-in-crime Karen Plankton (played here by Ashley McLeod), Jonathan David crafts a hilarious portrait of crime and greed, layered with appropriate dashes of vaudevillian melodrama and face-off, synced and inked with great comic timing, jitney thrust and British farce opportunity and reward. Both he and McLeod complement one another perfectly.

Cast in the roles of Pearl Krabs and Eugene Krabs, Ainsley Dahlstrom and Brian Crook are the ideal father-and-daughter duo, each bringing humor, sonic boom and tremendous vocal charge to their respective roles and important musical numbers. Playing the part of Gary the Snail (a role shared with CJ Newsom), the domesticated house pet of SpongeBob Square Pants and the only child of Sluggo Star, Virgil Watson is the ideal choice to bring the popular character of Gary the Snail to life. He's sweet and adorable, which is exactly what the part calls for. But whenever the spotlight is upon him, there's a unaffected charm and radiance about the young lad that should serve him well, acting wise, if this is the path he chooses to follow.

Ainsley Novin, an important member of the "SpongeBob" ensemble, is featured in several of the show's big and splashy musical numbers. Here, as in other musicals that have recognized her God-given talents, Novin's dedication to her craft is polished, driven, charismatic and noticeable whenever she's on stage. It's a gift she wears particularly well. The charismatic Brian Bish, who transforms himself into the role of the fashionable Mrs. Puff, brings drag queen splendor and LQBTQ mystery to the role, matched by a gender-bending playfulness that thrusts his character front and center whenever he's on stage. 

Sandy Cheeks, an American squirrel from the surface who wears a white diving suit and other marine-life regalia to survive underwater, is brought magically to life by Alexis Willoughby, who, here in FCS's colorful presentation of "The SpongeBob Musical " commands the stage - that's command with a capital C - with a showstopping performance that fills the theater with pop influence, groomed dazzle, lively tonal musicality, exhilarating wit, breezy charm and well-positioned profile. Vocally, she delivers her power ballads and other character-driven musical numbers with finesse, thoughtful selection, wise resiliency and Broadway caliber versatility. Acting wise, she's the perfect fit for the part of Sandy Cheeks. It's a role she conveys with old-fashioned charm, fresh ideas, cemented nuance and light-hearted enthusiasm.  

Squidward Q. Tentacles, a four-legged Bikini Bottom octopus who dreams of putting his one-man, song-and-dance show center stage is all its Technicolor glory, gets the full-star, 3-D treatment by Eli Newsom who confronts the idiosyncrasies of the popular character with the delightful, spazzy, full-power dash envisioned by the show's creators and has one helluva time with the demands, sparkle and ingenuity of the original material. Like Willoughby, he too puts the right spin on his character, bringing impressive style, humor, fun and relevance to the part. His big number "I'm Not a Loser," which arrives halfway through Act II, is performed and sung by Newsom with the showstopping excitement indicative of his octopus' character, chock of Busby Berkeley/Bob Fosse razzle-dazzle, impeccable breeze and buckle-up-kiddo achievement.

As presented by Fairfield Center Stage, "The SpongeBob Musical" is sweet, candy-coated, bubble-gun fun and floss in bright Crayola crayon colors that snap, crackle and pop with the adventuresome spirit the popular, iconic Nickelodeon TV show is famous for. It also comes gift wrapped with bright, three-dimensional Technicolor theatricality from a design team that includes Kevin Pelkey (set and scenic design), Natasha Fenster (costume design), Chris Gensur (sound design) and Foley Artists (sound effects). The latter is implemented flawlessly by Shea Frimmer who performs all of the sound effects LIVE (you'll find her off to the side of the proscenium stage) in full view of the audience.
As with other FCS productions that include "Cabaret," "Dreamgirls" and last year's "Mamma Mia!" the cast is lively, cheerful and naturally high. The songs are perfectly in sync with the storytelling. And the happily ever after ending never once disappoints all those kids, parents, teenagers and adults in the audience who willingly succumb to the amusement of the "SpongeBob" story and life under the sea in its very magical, inviting, invigorating saltwater world.

Production photos of "The SpongeBob Musical" by Kate Eisemann Pictures and Jessica Cammero

"The SpongeBob Musical" is being presented by Fairfield Center Stage (Fairfield Ludlowe High School, 785 Unquowa Rd., Fairfield, CT), now through June 25, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 416-6446 (this is voice mail so leave message)

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 323, A Review: "Kiss My Aztec!" (Hartford Stage)

By James V. Ruocco

What is "Kiss My Aztec!?"
"Esa es la pregunta."
To understand and fully appreciate the size and scope of John Leguizamo and Tony Taccone's monumental, topical, decidedly wicked lampoon of Spanish history past, present and future, a quick trip down memory lane - Aztec style - is mandatory.

As the musical opens - circa, 1540 or something like that - a conspiracy of sorts is brewing. The Aztec's of the show's title - a merry, colorful, sexy band of men and women - suddenly find themselves battling a group of Spaniards who show up and try to steal the Aztec land for their own selfish purposes.
Mixing jokes about battle, codpieces, male penal endowment, gay sex, straight sex, colonialism, racism, prejudice, oppression, color, guilt, ancestry, astrology, feminism, nymphomania and 101 other people's problems, human history - fact, fiction, hellbent or imagined - is musicalized in wide screen TECHNICOLOR and played straight (no pun intended) with the accent on laughter, laughter and more laughter.

Willingly, one must go along for the ride (no hesitation here) to fully appreciate "Kiss My Aztec!"
And once you do just that, the laughter, the songs, the lunacy and the spirit of this cheeky celebration of historical happenings, will not only win your approval but make you rise to your feet applauding its dizzying creativity, craftsmanship and originality.

One of this season's major theatrical events, "Kiss My Aztec" is not to be missed.
It's so much fun, you'll no doubt want to call the box-office the next morning and book a return visit.

Intentionally offensive.
Down and dirty.

This mashup of Aztec culture, Spanish colonialism, stand up comedy, traditional musical theatre and "Monty Python/Lin-Manuel Miranda" homage, is a smashing spectacle of open form storytelling, explosively colorful shading and hot fun delirium.

As written by Leguizamo and Taccone, "Kiss My Aztec!" bends, riffs, distorts and skewers the Aztec empire, the customs and traditions of its people, the laws and hierarchies, the religious and ritualistic practices and the tribe's ancient prophecies and sacrifices. The humor, mostly rooted and derived from the comedy of today, is peppered with one-liners, situations, dialogue, pop culture references and story arcs that not only prompt immediate laughter but also acknowledge the imperfect life of contemporary society, its struggles, its foundations, its politics and its uncertainty. Nothing preachy - just tangy and ripe fodder - designed to evoke empathy, humility, understanding and concern through giggles, kicks in the ass, slaps in the face and 360-developmental, character turns you never once saw coming.

And therein, lies the musical's enjoyment.

At Hartford Stage, the show's potential is spotted, diced and sliced with lively, celebratory calling by director Tony Taccone ("Latin History for Morons," "Wishful Drinking," "Bridge & Tunnel") whose influence and treatment of the "Kiss My Aztec!" material is launched with jockeying position, terrific detail, groomed silliness and revolutionary encouragement. As storyteller and directorial referee, he fuels the two-act musical with thrilling force and style, crafting an unmissable musical comedy of haze, neon and glow, punctuated by a landscape of brilliantly tailored partnering, necessity, exploration and palpable information.
With entertainment as the key component, he also brings fresh energy, curiosity and adventure to the musical, thus, producing  applied merriment, modish trickery, candor and collective spasms chock full of gooey thrum, fuck-me sarcasm and anything goes calamity of the highest order. Of particular note is his use of placement, timing and pacing. Scene by scene, "Kiss My Aztec!" delivers its comic wallop  with a sauntering bang that's enormously helped by Taccone's cleverly orchestrated staging, engineering and arresting focus. In turn, all the information at hand finds both verse and purpose as does his employment of grabs, thrusts and tangles that switch back and forth between surprise, "Oh, my God" and "What the fuck?" without ever once missing a comic beat, snap, tilt, curve or tilt.

And then, there's the music.
Merging groove and zing with pulsating blends of salsa, gospel, hip hop, reggae, pop, funk and Afro-Latino arrangements, the musical score for "Kiss My Aztec" (music by Benjamin Velez; lyrics by David Kamp, John Leguizamo and Benjamin Velez) flourishes afresh with nineteen well-placed, well-timed and fully positioned, entertaining musical numbers. They are "White People on Boats," "Punk-Ass Geek-A," "No One Compareth to the Spanish," "The Inquisition," "Make the Impossible Possible," "What I Can Be," "Tango in the Closet," "Cave Rap," "Everybody Needeth a Fixer," "Happy Amigos," "Where the Bloody Moon  At?" "Spooneth Me," "Pilar's Lament," "New Girl, New World," "Puppetry Slam," "Plan B," "Chained Melody," "Reymundo's Requiem," "Throwdown Showdown" and "Dia de los Vivos."
Inked with playful dimension and captured musicality by Roberto Sinha (music director), Simon Hale (orchestrator) and David Gardos (music supervision & co-incidental musical arrangements), its "   música para los oídos," shaped with melody, assurance, irony, realization and sting. More importantly, every song - dramatic, silly, romantic, queer or slap-bang-ding - is played and orchestrated with just the right touches of wit, layering, wink and expression. The opening "White People on Boats" unfolds with playful, in-your-face sarcasm while "Tango in the Closet" brings LGBTQ gayness and flamboyance to an entirely new level as does a showstopping ditty that barks loudly and hilariously about the possibility of God being gay. What? Can it be? Is the Man above, actually a friend of Dorothy's? The song itself says yes, oh, yes, He is.

"Kiss My Aztec" stars Krystina Alabado, Joel Perez, Z Infante, Matt Saldivar, Marie-Christina Oliveras, Richard Ruiz Henry, Desiree Rodriguez, Eddie Cooper, Chad Carstarphen, Angelica Beliard, KC Dela Cruz, Geena Quintos and Nicholas Caycedo. As actors, they willingly succumb to the glow of the musical's blood-red moon, its frenzied sense of comic giddyap, its bedeviled plotting, its gay and heterosexual conquests, its tricks and gags, its musical highlights, its dances, its sounds and its atmospheric, picaresque colors of the rainbow. Everyone is right for their particular roles, their positioning in the story, the songs they are asked to sing and their recitation of Leguizamo and Taccone's verbiage.
They also bring a certain honesty, intimacy, commitment and whoop to the proceedings that makes the material they are given fly with leaping inventiveness, importance and punctuation. And finally, as singers, soloists and members of the ensemble, they address the Kamp/Velez/Leguizamo musical score with breakout harmony, oomph and confidence completely in sync with the music-forward thrust of the actual story, its mix of styles, its rhythms, its beats and its drenched-in-comedy conceit, mindset and cool sounding vibes, shouts and proclamations.

Choreography by Mayte Natalio is delivered with power, sweep and silliness.
Working alongside the show's creators and musicians, she conveys the emotions, the personality, the history, the time and the culture of the central characters with a modern activism, abstractness and emotional connection that celebrates and reflects the immediacy of the "Aztec!" story in a very big, wide and devoted way.

Technically, "Kiss My Aztec!" abounds with seamless energy, brilliance, atmosphere, soundscape and creativity. The collaborative efforts of the production's first-class design team - Clint Ramos (scenic and costume design), Alexander V. Nichols (lighting design), Jessica Paz and Beth Lake (sound design), James Ortiz (puppet design) and Charles G. Lapointe (wig and hair design) - are both artistic and appropriate, framed by invigorating choices of color and flourish that heighten the story's richness, its political surface, its history, its collateral, its navigation, its humor and its TECHNICOLOR genius.

Jam packed with silliness, frenzy, gayness and acknowledged, in-your-face brashness, "Kiss My Aztec!"  is a stunning, fierce new musical that pretty much succeeds on every level. It sings. It dances, It cajoles. It surprises. It fucks you up. It brings a smile to your face.
Everyone involved - cast, director, design team, musicians, runners, backstage crew - basks in its craziness, its over-the-top storytelling and its splashy, demented vibe. It is glorious nonsense from start to finish and one that celebrates the jewel-toned pulse and professionalism of Hartford Stage's stellar 2021-2022 season of productions that include "Lost in Yonkers" and "Ah, Wilderness! "

A thrilling draw for every person of color, gender and sexuality seeking lively musical fare, "Kiss My Aztec!" is amped to perfection with equal-opportunity dalliance.

"Hazte con un boleto y disfruta!"

Photos of "Kiss My Aztec!" by T. Charles Erickson

"Kiss My Aztec!" is being presented at Hartford Stage (50 Church St., Hartford, CT), now through June 26, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-5151.

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 322, A Review: "La Cage aux Folles" (The Arts at Angeloria's)

 By James V. Ruocco

The rainbow flag flies high and mighty in The Arts at Angeloria's bright and breezy staging of "La Cage aux Folles," the smash 1983 Jerry Herman Broadway musical that celebrates homosexuality - and all things gay - including long term gay relationships and dressing up in drag - as if it's the most natural thing in the world, which here, it absolutely and positively is.

The point of this musical - up close and personal - is to tell an amusing story about flamboyance, dignity and being true to one's self without any form of prejudice, pronouncement, jockeying or sensationalism. Here, being gay is a lifestyle choice with pros and cons that are no different from the lifestyles of those who are straight, bisexual, lesbian, transgender, non binary, confused or whatever. People are people. The world goes round and round. And no one should have to explain or defend their choices, their identities or their sexuality.

First and foremost, "La Cage aux Folles" is FUN.
It's meant to entertain.
It's meant to make you laugh.
It's meant to excite.
It's meant to make you think.
It's meant to bring a smile to your face.

The Arts at Angeloria's revival does that, and so much more.


This is well written and well staged musical theatre, fueled with feeling, laughter and bounce - the kind you'd get from French farce, English farce, drag show dissolve and LGBTQ iterations.

Taking its cue from the 1973 Jean Poiret play of the same name and the iconic 1978 French film comedy that starred Ugo Tognazzi and Michel Serrault, the stage version, scripted by Harvey Fierstein (an openly gay actor, playwright and director), is pretty watchable stuff with plotting demands and characters that explore gay history, gay pairings and gay legacies with entertaining, oversized consequences. You laugh. You cry. You clap. You scream. You jump for joy. Fierstein wouldn't have it any other way.

Then and now, this is a musical that has to be played straight (no pun, intended), fueled by important dialogue and story arcs, that no matter how campy, how frivolous or how silly, must be orchestrated with complete conviction. Well aware of this conceit, Fierstein crafts an honest, colorful and exhilarating story with verbiage that stings, cajoles, heartens and delights at every single turn.  An excellent writer with a cynical voice, a detailed focus and wonderful, wonderful, stand-alone quotes and humor culled from the gay/straight dichotomy, his "La Cage" is fabulously entertaining and checker-board essential, never once losing sight of its origins, its wit, its homosexual content and its technicolored purpose.

Like the original play and the 1978 French film on which it is based, "La Cage aux Folles" tells the playful story of Georges and Albin, a gay St. Tropez couple who own and operate a popular Rivera song-and-dance, drag nightclub known for its notorious late-night shows and very obvious, gay clientele.
With the arrival of Georges' twenty-four-year-old son Jean-Michel (the result of a drunken one-night stand with an attractive woman named Sybil), things are immediately thrown off balance once the boy announces that he is engaged to Anne Dindon, the daughter of a right-wing conservative who isn't terrible fond of gays, drag queens, glitter and boy-loves-boy couples. His goal: to rid the word of such gay notoriety.
But wait, there's more.
An arranged "meet-the-parent's" dinner (planned for the next night) is also cause for alarm once Jean-Michel announces that everyone has to play it straight, act straight, dress straight and get rid of any photos, furniture, paintings and assorted brick-a-brac that cries "homosexual." Acting "heterosexual" is the bill of fare.

Winner of six Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score, "La Cage aux Folles" features 17 musical numbers by legendary composer/lyricist Jerry Herman whose Broadway credits include "Hello, Dolly!" "Ben Franklin in Paris," "Mame," "Dear World" and "Mack and Mabel." They are "Prelude," " We Are What We Are," "(A Little More) Mascara," "With Anne on My Arm," "With You on My Arm," "Song on the Sand," "La Cage aux Folles," "I Am What I Am," "Entr'acte," "Song on the Sand (reprise)," "Masculinity," "Look Over There," "Cocktail Counterpoint," "The Best of Times," "Look Over There (reprise)," "La Cage aux Folles (reprise) and "Finale." 

Mixing charm, wit and dazzle with plenty of Broadway energy to boot, Herman's "La Cage aux Folles" songbook offers plenty of swoops, twirls, whirls and orchestral high kicks. Reflective, assertive and brimming with sparkling freshness, every one of the songs including the iconic gay anthem "I Am What I Am" delivers its intended purpose, its multiplicity and its welcoming anticipation. There's ballads. There's production numbers. There's glitter. There's sweetness. There's sentiment. There's sugar. There's niceness. There's power. There's enchantment. It all works. It all comes together. And Herman, master that he is, accentuates everything with total inspiration, thus, communicating his love for music, Broadway, musical theatre, performers, conductors and orchestras.

The employment of Nick Stanford as musical director for this particular staging of "La Cage aux Folles" culminates in a carefully weighted recitative of commanding, smooth gestures, whimsical detailing, artistic spark and knockabout vim and vigor. Addressing the zesty, spirited core of Herman's Tony Award-winning work with storytelling snap and orchestral intensity, he brings an enormity of theatrical realization to the music, basking in its sweetness, its truths, its comedy, its pathos, its advancement, its climax and its articulate pacing. Nothing is too big or too small. Here, Stanford delivers the fun inherent in the music along with a gateway of arcs, thrusts, rhythms, beats and chords that bring added vitality and depth to the "La Cage" music and the story itself.

Backed by a team of dedicated and very talented of musicians - Marc Sokolson, Phil Plott, Harry Kliewe, Jim Lendvay, Sean Haigh, Jordan Brint - Stanford, doubling as keyboardist and conductor - keeps the popular "La Cage" music afresh keyed into its atmospheric pleasures, merriment, action and story act fluidity. In turn, all of the musical numbers reach their required purpose as leads, supporting players and members of the ensemble tap into Herman's melodic, uplifting music with apt, harmonic navigation and confidence.

Staging "La Cage aux Folles," co-director's Lori Holm and Peter Weidt view and address the popular material using a creative mindset and lure that thrusts the musical front and center with a delightful backbone of magic and intuition that celebrates the gay life, gay pride, self-expression and the individuality of Fierstein's book, his characters, his humor and the proud, ripe and lively sound of Herman's iconic musical score. Given the intimate confines of the Arts at Angeloria's stage, Holm and Weidt take a very big musical and adapt it freely to their small, immersive space losing none of the bigness, the luster and the bravura moments associated with the overall production. Jokes fulfill their intended purpose. One-liners and asides are appropriately delivered with zing and stand-up comedy flair. Scenes sashay back and forth with spring and step. The musical numbers fit seamlessly into the fabric of the storytelling. Everything is timed and played out by the entire cast with creative aplomb. The camp and naughtiness of the scenario is programmed with hilarious voice. And no one steps out of bounds - all for the sake of laughter.

"La Cage aux Folles" stars Roger Grace as Albin/Zaza, Ed Rosenblatt as Georges, Joey Abate as Jean-Michel, Jason Michael as Jacob, Nicole Zolad as Anne, Kassiani Kontothanasis as Jacqueline, Stephen Maher as Edouard Dindon and Leann Crosby as Marie Dindon.

In the role of the effeminate Albin, who moonlights as drag queen Zaza, Grace delivers a rhinestone performance of dash and wit that allows him to strut his stuff freely and imaginatively to the beat of Fierstein's hilarious play script with breakneck speed, sincerity and affected, diva-like brilliance. Rosenblatt, cast in the role of Albin's lover Georges, brings charm, dignity and romanticism to the part along with a believable, nicely configured attachment to his co-star, which makes their onstage gay relationship completely and beautifully defined throughout the two-act musical. Vocally, both actors have their share of important showstoppers that are performed with style and lustrous assurance. They include "I Am What I Am" and "(A Little More) Mascara," sung by Grace and "Song on the Sand" and "Look Over There," delivered with heartfelt charm by Rosenblatt.

Joey Abate, in the role of Georges son Jean-Michel, brings an easygoing charm and warmth to the part along with plenty of natural charisma and personality. He also imbues his character with an innate, gentle kindness during the second half of Act II when Jean-Michel finally realizes he's a very lucky young man who's been raised by two very caring and loving gay parents. Vocally, there's slide, engagement and romantic depth to his character's breezy renditions of "With Anne on My Arm" and the reprise of "Look Over There," both performed with the smoothness and persuasion intended by Herman. As Anne Dindon, Jean-Michel's love interest, Zolad perfectly displays the sunny, quiet charm and sweetness associated with the part while Maher and Crosby, as her parents, make their mark in hilariously etched comic roles that are played out to farcical perfection in Act II. Their their comic timing is primed and flawless. 

Kontothanasis, as Jacqueline, the proud owner of the elegant French bistro Chez Jacqueline, comes to "La Cage aux Folles" with a command of both vocal technique and artistry that turns the big, whimsical choral number "The Best of Times" into a showcase of style, reference and absolute joy. She also performs part of the show's catchy title song in Act I with flawless range and fluidity that not only heightens the song's appeal but warrants a stand-alone concert of music (with a voice likes her, who wouldn't want to buy a ticket?) one fine night in the not-to-distant future on the Arts of  Angeloria's stage. Lastly, there's Michael's showstopping turn as Jacob, the French maid and confidante to Albin and Georges. This is one of those marvelously constructed roles where just about anything goes and Michael amps up the hilarity and dash with affected, girlish gait and merriment that makes everything he does an important piece of the "La Cage" blueprint fly, excite, cajole and delight.

A ground-breaking musical with plenty of gay characters at the forefront, "La Cage aux Folles" gay-on-gay comedic and musical escapades erupt with plenty of froth, glitter and giggly absurdity. Co-directors Lori Holm and Peter Weidt have great fun with the material bringing just the right amount of dizzying, carefree and heartfelt zing to the proceedings, which musical director Nick Stanford admirably continues with his adept musical treatment of fever-pitch, snappy effervescence. Liam Michael  Dempsey's campy Follies Bergere-like choreography is enjoyable, inspired, over-the-top drag fun with appropriate dashes of playful ingenuity that reflect his love of big Broadway musicals and cross-dressing oomph, imagination, gloss and glitter. Dempsey also stands out as the tallest member of the Cagelles, the show's outrageous drag chorines whose happily sing and dance their way through several of the musical's broad, attitude-driven production numbers.
And the cast - every single one of them - brings lots of musicality, flair and fun to this backstage affair of classic gay farce from a different era that has nothing on its mind except to entertain, which it does, ever so well.

"La Cage aux Folles" is being staged at The Arts of Angeloria's (223 Meriden Waterbury Turnpike, Southington, CT), now through June 19, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 429-9690.

Monday, June 6, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 321, On the Aisle: "The 2022 Connecticut Critic's Circle Nominations

‘Falsettoland,’ ‘The Chinese Lady,’ and ‘Lost in Yonkers’ Top Connecticut Critics Circle Nominations

By James V. Ruocco
(press release announcement written by members of the CCC) 

Music Theatre of Connecticut’s production of “Falsettoland” and Long Wharf Theatre’s “The Chinese Lady” and Hartford Stage’s “Lost in Yonkers” lead the shows nominated for the 30th annual Connecticut Critics Circle Awards.

The awards event, which celebrates the best in professional theater in the state, will be held Monday, June 27 at 7:30 p.m. at the Long Wharf Theatre (222 Sargent Drive) in New Haven. 
Kenneth Gartman,  a New York City based singer, music director, and producer, will preside over the show which is free and open to the public.

“Falsettoland” earned six nominations, including outstanding actor in a musical, best director, and best musical.  “The Chinese Lady” and “Lost in Yonkers” each received eight nods, including best actress, best director and best play.

Other outstanding play nominees are Westport Country Playhouse’s “Doubt,” Theaterworks Hartford’s “Walden,” and Playhouse on Park’s production of “The Agitators.”

Also earning outstanding musical nods are Playhouse on Park’s “Five Guys Named Moe,” Westport Country Playhouse’s “Next to Normal,” and A Contemporary Theatre of Connecticut’s production of “Smokey Joe’s Café.”

In addition to the nominees, there will be two special awards presented at the ceremony. This year’s Tom Killen Memorial Award, presented for a lifetime of dedication to the theater and to theater in Connecticut, will be presented to Executive Artistic Director and Co-Founder of Music Theatre of Connecticut (MTC), Kevin Connors. The award is named after Tom Killen, a talented young critic who died at the age of 33 in August 1989 and who helped found the Connecticut Critics Circle. Mr. Connors was also instrumental in leading MTC to become one of only three theaters in the country to have permission from Actors Equity and the CDC to open for live audiences after COVID-19 restrictions began to be lifted.

Artistic Director Rob Ruggiero and Theaterworks Hartford will receive a special award for the company’s tireless efforts and innovative means to bring streamed plays to Connecticut theater-goers during the COVID-19 pandemic. At a time when audiences were not permitted in the theater, TheaterWorks Hartford consistently produced high-quality streaming productions.


The 30th Annual Awards Ceremony is free and open to the public.  To RSVP, visit the Connecticut Critics Circle website at


The nominees are:

 Outstanding Solo Performance

Cloteal L. Horne - Fires in the Mirror – Long Wharf

Matt Densky - Fully Committed – Music Theatre of CT

Alaudin Ullah – Dishwasher Dreams – Hartford Stage


Outstanding Debut

Ari Sklar – Falsettoland – Music Theatre of CT

Avanthika Srinivasan - Queen – Long Wharf


Outstanding Ensemble

Five Guys Named Moe – Playhouse on Park

Smokey Joe’s Cafe - ACT of CT

The Porch on Windy Hill – Ivoryton Playhouse

It’s a Wonderful Life – Hartford Stage

A Grand Night for Singing – Goodspeed Opera House


Outstanding Projections

RJ Romeo - The Mountaintop – Music Theatre of CT

Camilla Tassi - Fires in the Mirror – Long Wharf

Mark Holthusen - Dream House – Long Wharf


Outstanding Sound

Hao Bai - Walden – Theaterworks Hartford

Fabian Obispo - The Chinese Lady – Long Wharf

Jay Hilton - A Grand Night for Singing – Goodspeed Opera House

Noel Nichols and Uptown Works - Today is My Birthday – Yale Rep

Outstanding Costume Design

Kara Harmon - Angry, Raucous & Shamelessly Gorgeous – Hartford Stage

Linda Cho - The Chinese Lady – Long Wharf

An-Lin Dauber - Lost in Yonkers – Hartford Stage

Harry Nadal – Zoey’s Perfect Wedding – Theaterworks Hartford

Haydee Zelideth - Dream House – Long Wharf


Outstanding Lighting

Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew – Walden - Theaterworks Hartford

Jiyoun Chang - The Chinese Lady – Long Wharf

Porsche McGovern - Fires in the Mirror – Long Wharf

Christopher Chamber - Nickel Mines – ACT of CT

Cory Pattak - Next to Normal – Westport Country Playhouse


Outstanding Set Design

You-Shin Chen – Walden - Theaterworks Hartford

Collette Pollard - Angry, Raucous & Shamelessly Gorgeous – Hartford Stage

Junghyun Georgia Lee - The Chinese Lady – Long Wharf

Stephanie Osin Cohen - Dream House – Long Wharf

Daniel Nischan - Native Gardens – Ivoryton Playhouse


Outstanding Choreography

Stephanie Pope Lofgren – Smokey Joe’s Cafe - ACT of CT

Brittney Griffin – Five Guys Named Moe – Playhouse on Park

Andrew Palermo - Nickel Mines – ACT of CT

Amy Hall Garner - Choir Boy – Yale Rep

Lainie Sakakura - Cabaret – Goodspeed Opera House



Outstanding Actor – Musical

Dan Sklar – Falsettoland – Music Theatre of CT

David Lutken – The Porch on Windy Hill – Ivoryton Playhouse

Spiff Wiegand - Buddy Holly - Music Theatre of CT

Avionce Hoyles – Jesus Christ Superstar – ACT of CT

Austin Turner – Rent – ACT of CT


Outstanding Actress – Musical

Lisa Helmi Johanson -The Porch on Windy Hill – Ivoryton Playhouse

Susan Haefner – Tenderly – Music Theatre of CT

Dar. Lee. See. Ah. – Next to Normal - Westport Country Playhouse

Ayla Stackhouse - Star of Freedom – Ivoryton Playhouse

Aline Mayagoitia - Cabaret – Goodspeed Opera House


Outstanding Actor – Play

Eric Bryant – Doubt – Westport

Tom Holcomb - This Bitter Earth – Theaterworks Hartford

Damian Thompson - This Bitter Earth - Theaterworks Hartford

Chaz Rose – The Mountaintop – Music Theatre of CT

Gabriel Lawrence – The Agitators – Playhouse on Park


Outstanding Actress – Play

Shannon Tyo - The Chinese Lady – Long Wharf

Betsy Aidem – Doubt – Westport Country Playhouse

Andrea Syglowski – Lost in Yonkers – Hartford Stage

Stephanie Janssen – Queen – Long Wharf

Darilyn Castillo - Dream House - Long Wharf

Outstanding Featured Actor – Musical

Jeff Gurner – Falsettoland – Music Theatre of CT

Daniel J. Maldonado – Next to Normal - Westport Country Playhouse

Richard E. Waits - Star of Freedom – Ivoryton Playhouse

Bruce Landry - Cabaret – Goodspeed Opera House

Gordia Hayes – Rent – ACT of CT


Outstanding Featured Actress – Musical

Jessie Janet Richards – Falsettoland – Music Theatre of CT

Jennifer Smith – Cabaret – Goodspeed Opera House

Paloma D’Auria – Rent – ACT of CT


Outstanding Featured Actress – Play

Sharina Martin – Doubt – Westport Country Playhouse

Antoinette LaVecchia - Ah, Wilderness – Hartford Stage

Marsha Mason – Lost in Yonkers – Hartford Stage

Liba Vaynberg – Lost in Yonkers – Hartford Stage

Marianna McClellan - Dream House – Long Wharf

Outstanding Featured Actor – Play

Jon Norman Schneider – Chinese Lady – Long Wharf

Francis Jue – Today is My Birthday – Yale Rep

Jeff Skowron – Lost in Yonkers – Hartford Stage

Michael Nathanson – Lost in Yonkers – Hartford Stage

Allen Gilmore - Choir Boy – Yale Rep


Outstanding Director – Musical

Brittney Griffin – Five Guys – Playhouse on Park

Kevin Connors – Falsettoland – Music Theatre of CT

Marcos Santana - Next to Normal - Westport Country Playhouse

Sherry Lutken – The Porch on Windy Hill - Ivoryton Playhouse


Outstanding Director – Play

Ralph B. Pena - The Chinese Lady – Long Wharf

Marsha Mason and Rachel Alderman – Lost in Yonkers – Hartford Stage

Laura Woolery - Dream House – Long Wharf

Mei Ann Teo – Walden - Theaterworks Hartford

Mark Lamos - Straight White Men - Westport Country Playhouse


Outstanding Production – Musical

Smokey Joe’s Cafe - ACT of CT

Five Guys Named Moe – Playhouse on Park

Falsettoland – Music Theatre of CT

Next to Normal – Westport Country Playhouse

Outstanding Production - Play

The Chinese Lady – Long Wharf

Doubt - Westport Country Playhouse

Walden – Theaterworks Hartford

Lost in Yonkers – Hartford Stage

The Agitators – Playhouse on Park

 And the winner is....