Monday, July 25, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 332, A Review: "Hysterical!" (Thrown Stone)

 By James V. Ruocco

of, relating to, or marked by hysteria.
feeling or showing extreme and unrestrained emotion.
(Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

All of us, at one point in our lives, exhibit hysterical behavior.
Some, in fact, more than others.
At Thrown Stone, playwright Elenna Stauffer tackles that issue, and others, in her mind-blowing 2016 comedy "Hysterical!," a cheery, flavorful, angst-ridden portrait of teen life that goes full tilt (or topsy turvy, if you prefer) once five members of the high school cheerleading squad, aptly named "Bandits," find their otherwise normal lives interrupted by a strange, mysterious, unexplained illness that sidelines  their victory-planned year, their scholastic endeavors, their personal lives, their social life and their big-time collegiate preparations following graduation.

The girls:

Of the five, three of the teenagers (maybe more, we are led to believe) begin to display odd, unidentifiable, strange behavior - a quirky, but entirely justified plot twist - that sets "Hysterical!" in motion.

Who's got it?
Who will get it?
Is it contagious?
Is there a cure?
Will it go away?
Or is this hysterical condition going to be a part of their lives forever?

Spoiler alert:
Answers to any of these questions would interrupt or destroy the interplay, the reality and the eventual outcome of "Hysterical!" and its potential enjoyment, its observations, its confrontations and it frequent bouts of absolute, well-positioned bouts of hysteria.

So get ready to dive in.

Thrown Stone's "Hysterical!" is delectable, judiciously employed fun that catches its audience by surprise, offset by choice moments of detailed charm, craziness, power plays, teen rivalry, girlish conversations, youthful innocence and zippy authority and voice.

It is witty and engaging.
Its quality never wavers.
It's a significant achievement in modern theatre.
It prompts immediate attention.
It kicks surprise and wonderment into high gear.
It works brilliantly on every level.

As playwright, Elenna Stauffer imbues "Hysterical!" with qualified dialogue, conversations, characters, motives, story arcs and marvelous stand-alone quotes that enhance the play's enjoyment, its progression and its keenly observed teen trappings, nuances, social norms and juicy envelope of opinion, discussion and investigation. Here, things are carefully timed and positioned with scenes, advancements in time, aesthetic and intention effectively connected in shades, tones, moods and colors designed to mirror the vibe, the feeling, the thoughts and the behavior of the five central characters.

The action of "Hysterical!" is shaped, linked and bandied about with shipbuilding confidence, tat and demand by Tracey Brigden who also staged Thrown Stone's emotionally involved production of Gracie Gardner's "Athena" at the intimate indoor venue. With script in hand, she once again confirms her keen eye and ear for theatrical repertoire, its set-piece monologues, its stage footing and its rehearsed, but natural, reflective live performance interplay. There's also a natural, inviting charm and flurry to her work which here, in "Hysterical!" brings additional potency, craft and gut-punch-thrill to the proceedings.

Given the "spoiler alert" context of the plotline and the unexplained illness that takes hold of certain characters (no names, please), Brigden is also faced with the "how to" mechanics of showcasing each affliction without resorting to camp, overkill or brutish, out-of-sync melodrama. Instead, she provides real, inspired, well-orchestrated bits of comedy, movement, blocking, expressions and vocal attacks that not only serve the material well, but prompt the right giggly response from the audience without any form of insult, injury or prejudice toward the afflicted characters.
Each character has her own individual, idiosyncratic blueprint or tick, which Brigden fuels with impeccable timing, delivery, spontaneity and expression. This in-and-out of quirk vs. normalcy technique is timed to the millisecond by the director, a requirement that must be conveyed with the right rhythm, beat, pause and tick, interspersed with exact line delivery and phrasing in order for it to take shape whenever the script deems it necessary. It's all magnificently handled, shaped and nurtured under Brigden's deft, precise tutelage.

"Hysterical!" stars Julia Crowley as Charlotte,  Kendyl Grace Davis as Madison, Isa Muino as Mia, Olivia Billings as Shannon and Shannon Barnes as Maddie. Projecting the different personalities, ticks, frustrations, angst, charm and background of their decidedly different characters, all five performers deliver exciting, honest, driven, observant performances individually or as a hard-working ensemble. Comic timing is key here as is the ability to master the in-and-out frenzy and confusion that springs out of nowhere whenever the script dictates the affliction of a certain character (or more than one) to interrupt the pending action as things spiral completely out of control. It's all divinely wobbly, silly and wildly caricatured, matched by ceaseless physical energy, line delivery and minutely detailed expressions and exaggerated body language.

Crowley (also appearing in the final moments of "Athena") brings fresh, lively, side-splitting sacrosanct and embracement to the pivotal role of Charlotte. As Madison, Davis gallops happily along (and not so happily depending on the scene) with trailblazing recreation, joy, teen spirit and a strong sense of natural, evolving camaraderie. Muino, in the role of Mia, bowls the audience over into genuine fits of laughter and slap happy dash and drive with a characterization of farcical cleverness, knowledge, hoot and split-second timing and line delivery.
Barnes, who commands the stage from start to finish as the title character of "Athena," crafts another noteworthy, polished performance in "Hysterical!" using instinct, occupation, enthusiasm and perfectly poised specificity and rhythm for her colorful portrayal of Maddie.  Billings, an actress who also shares the stage with Barnes in "Athena," crafts a comical, gloriously funny performance (she plays Shannon), multi-layered with excavation, plight, pause, surprise and remarkable, knock-about consistency.

A fresh, confident, urgent comedy sprinkled with playful doses of wit, amusement and amped eccentricity, "Hysterical!" is pure summer fizz, comically choreographed by director Tracey Brigden with a feast of ideas, points, swings, dips and flourishes that support and embellish Stauffer's already proven script. The well-chosen cast of five bring authority, voice and presence to their respective roles, sweetened by a strong sense of commitment, exhilaration and obvious love of live performance.
"Hysterical!" is performed in repertory with the fabulously entertaining "Athena," the latter, written by playwright Gracie Gardner.
Two great plays. Five exceptional actresses. Two equally talented playwrights. One significant director.
Thrown Stone is the place to be this summer.

Photos of "Hysterical!" courtesy of Chuck Jennes Photography 

"Hysterical" is being staged at Thrown Stone (Ridgefield Conservatory of Dance, 440 Main Street, Ridgefield, CT), now through August 6, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 442-1714.
website: thrownstone: org.

Monday, July 18, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 331, A Review: "Pippin" (Playhouse on Park)

By James V. Ruocco

What's It All About?

"Pippin," as envisioned by Roger O' Hirson (book) is set against the landscape of an immersive, vaudeville-themed backdrop of song, dance, mayhem, sex, perversion, acrobatic artistry, medieval war play, sorcery, magic, illusion, schmaltz and Broadway sizzle.
The title character, a prince and son of the mighty Charlemagne, is struggling to find a purpose in life as the musical opens using the character of the Leading Player as guide, instructor and musical storyteller to break down "the fourth wall of live theatre," surrounded by a mysterious, slithering and sexy troupe of performance artists (no sexual inhibitions, here) who take center stage to set the "Pippin" story in motion for well over two hours with no historical accuracy, rule of language or poetic license, whatsoever.
Here, anything goes: war, violence, revolution, dismemberment, tyranny, injustice, murder, trickery, treason, entrapment, defiance, narcissism, sex, orgasm, orgies, flirtation, incest, deception, etc., etc., etc.
Not to worry, though. It's all in jest, liberties taken, preferred and preserved.

The Music of "Pippin"

Originally staged on Broadway at the Imperial Theater (opening night was October 23, 1972), "Pippin" features 16 original songs penned by "Godspell" composer Stephen Schwartz who was nominated for a 1972 Tony Award for Best Original Score,but lost to Stephen Sondheim for "Follies."
The songs (in order of how they are performed in the production) are: "Magic to Do," "Corner of the Sky," "Welcome Home," "War is a Science," "Glory," "Simple Joys," "No Time at All," "With You," "Spread a Little Sunshine," "Morning Glow," "On the Right Track," "And There He Was," "Kind of Woman," "Extraordinary," "Love Song," "I Guess I'll Miss the Man" and "Finale."
"And There He Was," performed in the Playhouse on Park revival, was originally cut from the show before it made it to Broadway in 1972 but was incorporated by Schwartz into all future editions of "Pippin" including the 2013 Broadway revival and the subsequent 2014 National Tour.

Who Plays What?

The Playhouse on Park edition of "Pippin," directed and choreographed by Darlene Zoller, stars Shannon Cheong as Pippin, Thao Nguyen as the Leading Player, Juliana Lamia as Catherine, Kate Wesler as Fastrada, Gene Choquette as Charlemagne, SuEllen Estey as Berthe, Brad Weatherford as Lewis and Ryan Byrne as Theo,
The Players of "Pippin" (i.e., ensemble) are Julia Solecki, Dalton Bartolone, Teagan La'Shay, Rae Janeil, Stephanie Reuning-Scherer, Leyland Cockerl-Patrick, Oleode Oshotse and Kristen Schoen-Rene. Ryan Byrne, Juliana Lamia and Brad Weaterford are also part of the "Player" ensemble when not playing their regular roles.

 The Musical Direction

As with any musical - "Rent," "Les Miserables," "Evita," "A Little Night Music," "My Fair Lady," to name a few - the song line-up, its style, its position, its rift, its emotion and its melody must be brilliantly written, detailed and constructed with happy anticipation, elan and exuberant characterization.
With "Pippin," composer/lyricist Stephen Schwarz duly captures all those expectations, crafting an ardent, persuasive musical score that rises comfortably and emotionally to reach all challenges with affecting passion, maturity, lightness, sensibility, humor, edge, urgency and vocal punch.
At Playhouse on Park, music director Colin Britt and assistant music director Melanie Guerin set this edition of "Pippin" in motion with a pace and precision that complements and heightens the glorious melodies and orchestrations set forth by Schwartz. It's all channeled with lightness of tone, heft and lyricism, synced with stylish rapture, abandonment, dreamlike captivation and bohemian wonderment.
The band - Tucker Barney (trumpet), Selah Kwak (violin), Andrew Studenski/Harry Kliewe (reeds), Nick Cutroneo (guitar), Elliot Wallace/Jianpeng Feng (percussion), Kevin Huhn/Christine Echols (bass), Matthew Russo/Andrew Janes (trombone) - foster the snappy timing, drive, sprawl, joy and merriment of the music with sustained honesty and compliance alongside Britt and Guerin, doubling at the keyboard.

The Staging, the Direction and the Choreography

Staging "Pippin," director/choreographer Darlene Zoller is at the top of her game crafting a show-stopping, meticulous musical revival that pays homage to the original 1972 Broadway production with an endorsement of highs, shouts, jumps, kicks and pivots that explode in thrilling fashion, offset by a creative depth, ingenuity and marshaled activity that is fun, fun, fun.
Here, Zoller takes hold of the "Pippin" material, kicks it into orbit, pulls out the paint brushes and conjures up a three-dimensional musical portrait of dash and panache, populated by an energetic cast of men and women who plunge head-first into her theatrical expressway of imagination, fulfillment and validation with the blueprint-proven exploration, power and physicality dictated by the show's originators and collaborators.
As "Pippin" evolves, Zoller anchors the proceedings forthright and effectively, playing close attention to the show's musical palate, its on-and-off fourth wall abandonment, its fizzy live action sizzle and its constant, strategically placed flourishes of gambit, metaphor, innuendo and cuddled up sweet spots and tangy romanticism. It's all timed, synced and exhibited with the force and drive concurrent in Zoller's vast directorial repertoire, offset by recognizable strokes of challenge, chance, originality and expression.

The storytelling heart and soul of "Pippin" - then, now and always - is its intricate, driven, stylized and acrobatic choreography, which on Broadway and in London's West End, was originally conceived by the late Bob Fosse, a dance visionary whose unique, distinct choice of choreographed movement was one of a kind, in a class by itself - magnificent - on every level imaginable.
Well aware of this inspired influence and athleticism, Zoller, as "Pippin's" choreographer, celebrates all things Fosse with themes, expressions, configurations, gyrations and data reminiscent of his celebrated work in the stage productions of "Pippin," "Chicago" and "Sweet Charity" and the film version of "Cabaret."
Fingers snap. Shoulders are rolled. Shoulders are curved. Knees are turned in. Heads tilt. Bodies move back and forth through sideways movements and shuffles.
It's an homage of sorts, illuminated by smart, original, creative choices of newness, confidence, abstractness and application that heighten the jazzy pulse and ripeness of the "Pippin" story, its melancholy, its activism, its double dares and its hyper-specific evolution. Zoller, of course, is in her element (this comes as no surprise to those familiar with her oft-praised work) and "Pippin" represents her love and embracement of dance and everything else it has to offer.
She also turns up the heat full blast in an explicitly choreographed dance/action/movement sequence that wildly embraces Pippin's "anything goes" sexual exploits (i.e., orgy) and couplings with selected, rhythmic moves, gestures and pairings reminiscent of "Rich Man's Frug" and "Rhythm of Life" from "Sweet Charity."

The Standout Performances

As Pippin, Shannon Cheong is a handsome, charismatic leading man oozing plenty of charm, invention, humor and dash, all of which heightens his engaging, open-hearted performance. He also brings a natural, unaffected innocence to the part, a requirement that immediately draws the audience into his story, hoping that he finds contentment and happiness during the final minutes of musical. Vocally, Schwartz gives the character of Pippin several storied songs to sing - "Corner of the Sky," "With You," Morning Glow" and "Extraordinary," among others. It's a feat Cheong pulls off swimmingly, bringing warmth, chill, tempo and changing mood sensation to the composer's grab bag of appealing show tunes.
In the role of the beguiling Catherine, the widowed mother who falls for Pippin in Act II, Juliana Lamia delivers a sweet and sentimental performance, chock full of real emotion, radiance, spirit and nuance which makes every one of her scenes stand out whenever she's on stage. Her vocals - "And There He Was," "Love Song," "Kind of Woman," "I Guess I'll Miss the Man"- are palpable and silky smooth, refreshed and lavished with unhurried pace, rhythmic swing and definition and rapturous surge, phrasing and expression. 
Welcoming everyone to the production with the hypnotic and tuneful opening number "Magic to Do," Thao Ngyuen brings mystery, mayhem, menace and icy cool persuasiveness to the part of the Leading Player. It's a role he plays with command and thrust, doubling as storyteller, actor and singer, always making sure the "Pippin" story is front and center, even when scripted cues are purposely missed, performers let their egos run amok and the female leading lady is late for her big, first entrance. Like Cheong, he too gets his share of songs - "Glory," "On the Right Track," "Simple Joys"- which he tosses off with relished enthusiasm, charisma, joy and vocal engagement.

In the role of Pippin's grandmother Berthe, a role created especially for Irene Ryan (best remembered as Granny in "The Beverly Hillbillies") in the 1972 Broadway production, SuEllen Estey has some pretty big shoes to fill. Not to worry, though. Her knowing smile, wry misdemeanor and engaging personality does wonders for her performance (she's a perfect fit for the part) as does her splendid, humorous, perfectly primed vocal rendition of "No Time at All," a lighthearted ditty about life's pleasures and comforts that includes an invited, much-appreciated sing-a-long (chorus only) from the audience. Just as Ryan stopped the show on Broadway, Estey does more of the same here with her own, spirited uniquely different rendition of the popular Schwartz-fueled musical number. Elsewhere, Gene Choquette green lights Pippin's all-powerful father King Charlemagne with engaged wit, purpose, kaleidoscope, reflection and status quo. Vocally, he also has great fun with "War is a Science," a playful musical number that asks his character to explain intricate plans of battle, war and strategy to son Pippin who longs to one day become a soldier in his father's army.

Kate Wesler's Fastrada, Pippin's manipulative stepmother (originally played on Broadway by the great  Leland Palmer) brings plenty of grace, sensuality, spirit, fun and bitch realization to the part. Musically, she is in fine voice, thus, turning the cheery "Spread a Little Sunshine" into a bona fide showstopper, enhanced by impressive vocal command, applied rhythm and savvy, athletic Fosse-style choreography. They don't come any better than pretty-boy Brad Weatherford, a shrewd, driven, gleeful actor whose frequent dashes of preening, twinkle, narcissism and muscular agility make him the ideal candidate to play Fastrada's egotistical son Lewis, a character who loves - so we are told - only Lewis. He's monstrously entertaining. He's slippery and cunning. He's deceptively menacing. And finally, he's a fantastic addition to the cast giving an undeniably amusing performance of gleam, mood and eye-catching comedic detail. 

Why You Should See It

An atmospheric revival of artistry, fantasy and vocal strongness, "Pippin" is hardcore musical theatre served up in style by a group of talented musicians, actors and collaborators who have magic to do - and do it ever so well.
As seen through the eyes of director/choreographer Darlene Zoller, this revival is deep level Fosse at its finest hour with choreography, movement and staging that's controlled, involved, commanding and showstopping.
If it's entertainment you're after, you'll find plenty of that here - and so much more.
Delightful. Blissful. Hypnotic. On its toes.
This is the one musical to catch this summer.
It's easy on the eyes. It's fun to watch. It's hot and steamy. It's sexy. It's exhilarating.
And boy, do we need it now.

Photos of "Pippin" courtesy of Meredith Longo  

"Pippin" is being staged at Playhouse on Park (244 Park Rd., West Hartford, CT), now through August 21, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 523-5900.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 330, A Review: "Day of Absence" (Hole in the Wall Theater)

By James V. Ruocco

The time is 1965.
The place is an unnamed Southern town with a medium population.
But on this hot, humid morning, something is terribly wrong.
It's obvious to every single white folk just waking up.

Clem: "Do, feel anything funny?"
Luke: "Like what?"
Clem: " - something - strange?"
Luke: "I dunno...haven't thought about it."
Clem: "I something's wrong - outta place, unusual."
Luke: "I don't know...What you got in mind?"
Clem: "Nothing...just that...just somp' ums outta kilter, I gotta a funny feeling somp' ums not up to snuff. Can't figure out what it is."
Luke: "Maybe, it's in your haid?"
Clem: "No, not like that...Like somp' ums happened - or happening - gone haywire, looney."
Luke: "Well, don't worry 'bout it, it'll pass."
Clem: "Guess you right...I'm sorry, Luke, but you sure you don't feel nothing peculiar?"
Luke: "Toss it out of your mind, Clem! We got a long day ahead of us. If something's wrong, you'll know 'bout it in due time. No use worrying about it 'till it comes and if it's coming, it will. Now, relax!"

Five or six minutes pass.
Confusion sets it.
People are missing.
What the hell is going on?

One: "The Nigras, Henry! They gone!"
Mayor: "Gone?...Gone where?"
Two: "That's what we trying to tell ya - they just disappeared! The Nigras have disappeared, swallowed up, vanished! All of 'em. Every last one!"
Mayor: "Have everybody 'round here gone batty?...That's impossible, how could the Nigras vanish?"
Three: "Beats me, but it's happened!"
Mayor: "You mean a whole town of Nigras just evaporate like this - poof? - Overnight?"
One: "Right!"
Major: "Y'all must be drunk! Why, half this town is colored. How could they just sneak out!"
Two: "Don't ask me, but there ain't one in sight!"

First performed off Broadway in 1965, Douglas Turner Ward's thrilling "Day of Absence" tells the serio-comic story of a Southern town where -  much to the dismay of every white person who lives there - all of the black residents have suddenly disappeared, thus, forcing the town's regular day-to-day operations normally performed by black laborers, to come to a complete standstill.

Now what?
Billed as "a satirical fantasy" meant to be performed by an entirely black cast in exaggerated white face make-up - a reverse minstrel show of sorts - "Day of Absence," as envisioned by Ward, intentionally and arguably pokes fun at the town's angry and confused white residents who slowly come to realize how dependent they are upon the major black populace around them who happily (or unhappily) bounce about as their chosen maids, housekeepers, nannies, garbage collectors, caregivers, cooks, shoe shine boys, drivers, delivery men, bathroom attendants and other labor-oriented task workers who are at their beckoned call 24-7.

"You don't know what it's like to wake up when your cheerful, grinning, happy-go-lucky faces are missing," cries the mayor during an important, live television broadcast.

As presented by Hole in the Wall Theater, an avant-garde showcase dedicated to important, quirky, thought-provoking plays that challenge, educate and entertain, "Day of Absence"' is a potent, significant work refracted and imagined with pertinent satisfaction, humor, escape and stirring exploration. But unlike those hideous, damaging, one-note minstrel shows of the early 1900's, it's not played or positioned for cheap laughs. Instead, it uses dialogue, story arcs and wonderfully drawn characters to turn the tables on the prejudiced, white southerners of the time who, as presented here, misuse, mistreat and take their black neighbors for granted.

No sugar-coating - just direct, in-your-face, take off the blinders commentary - shaped with right track observation, scathing wit, razor-sharp energy and applied ridicule.

Helming "Day of Absence," director Laurie Maria Cabral is mindful of the playwright's reverse minstrel show stylization, his recurring themes of blatant whiteness, his discrimination against black America, his cruel and crazy humor and his inhabited caricature premise and conscience. That knowledge gives her staging a committed and timely pulse, offset by an atmospheric, smartly placed southern vibe and mentality which allows the material to unfold with the snap, bite and sting concurrent in the original script. Directorially, she uses inventive strategies, movements and staging techniques to add richness, acidity and flabbergast to the proceedings. Mind you, it's all in jest, but underneath Cabral makes certain each scene, each story and each character is completely in sync with Ward's vision, his conceit, his history, his hypocrisy and his need to shock, stun, hurt and cajole through live, pointed and heated theatrical storytelling.

Addressing the play's reverse minstrel show conceit and the utilization of a predominantly black cast, Cabral abandons the broad, white face make up concept indicated in the production notes, opting  instead to use white, plastic masks to cover the faces of her energetic, keyed-in cast. It's a directorial choice that works especially well and, in this go-round, adds a surreal, sci-fi aura to the proceedings without ever once veering away from Ward's stinging portrait of southern life, its ignorant grasp of reality and its determined, well-placed displays of landmark resonance.

"Day of Absence" stars Malcolm Yancey as the Mayor, Tom Adams as Luke/Jackson, Liston Filyaw as Clem/Rob Pious, Elizabeth Reynolds as the Announcer, C.S. Dunn as Rastus/John/Clan, Jacqui Davis as First Operator/ Mrs. Aide/Voice, Denise Pyburn as Mary/Protester, Ashanti Fleming as Second Operator/Citizen #3/Industrialist/Protester, Monique Jennings as Supervisor/Protester, Frances McAlpine Sharp as Club Woman,/Protester/Brush Woman, Tatyana Rozetta as Third Operator/Citizen #1/Courier and Sara Lafrance as Citizen #2/Business Woman/Protester.

Grounded, intuitive and free-wheeling, every member of the cast delivers standout performances - white mask in place -  playing one, two, three or more roles apiece, steeped in farce, absurdism, fantasy and nostalgic homage. It all works wonderfully well, collaborated with vim and vigor that roars, shouts, stirs, cajoles and astonishes in all the right places.

A shrewd, social commentary with mocking jest and mutually perceptive articulation, "Day of Absence" is a monstrously entertaining piece of theatre with chronological sweep, gleeful dynamic and wired, shuffling wunderkind. Directed with infectious, blown-up caricature and side-by-side playfulness by Laurie Maria Cabral, this HITW revival is feisty, slapdash fun kicked into orbit by an extraordinary ensemble cast whose sharp, collective intake of Douglas Turner Ward's ground-breaking story is laced with darkly comic flourishes and frenzied, well-timed diagnosis that complements and anchors the playwright's effective, alarming, massive, innuendo-laden lampooning.

"Day of Absence" is being staged at Hole in the Wall Theater (116 Main St., New Britain, CT), now through July 30, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 229-3049

Friday, July 15, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 329, A Review: "Athena" (Thrown Stone)

 By James V. Ruocco

The immersive setting for Gracie Gardner's "Athena" is a high-performance piste - an officially raised platform where fencers compete in full-fencing gear using techniques, combat and exemplary disciplines to score winning points made through the weapon's actual contact with their dueling opponent.


It's a contest embellished by guttural screaming, slippery tactics and blade-to-blade swordplay, all breathlessly engaged for the pursuit of glory, status, position and oh, yes, friendship.

The Players, first introduced by Gardner as practice partners are Athena and Mary Wallace, two very disciplined and dedicated high schoolers from different backgrounds who become fast friends and eventual confidantes hoping to qualify for nationals and perhaps, even the Olympics.

With the groundwork laid, Gardner crafts a skillful, intriguing, brisk two-character play of competition and adolescence, offset by precise fight choreography and personal reflection that heightens the set-up, the evolution, the conflict and the outcome of the story's confidant, growing, concentrated dynamic.

The vitality, urgency and metaphorical thrust of "Athena" is showcased with depth and recognition in Thrown Stone's shrewd, ambitious mounting of the playwright's 2018 work, which, as directed here by Tracy Brigden, unfolds with appropriate articulation, intensity, reward and fencing match exhilaration.


Gardner, as playwright, fills "Athena" with enough background information, research and technicality to make it both interesting and important, which, here at Thrown Stone, is embellished and enhanced with the kinetic energy and spirit concurrent in her writing, concept and penchant for both characterization, verbiage and storytelling.

"I get emotional too," Athena tells Mary Wallace. "Sometimes, after I lose, I'll bump into a random person on the street, on purpose. And I won't say sorry."

Much later, Athena admits, "I love knowing for a moment that I'm objectively better than someone else."

As "Athena" evolves, Gardner's work is well versed in lingo and story arcs that address feminism, sport, competition, background, achievement, sexual fantasy, coming-of-age, friendship, Sapphic tension, jealousy, ambiguity, opportunity, familial conflict, partnership, university, battle, swinging blades, forfeit and defeat. As such, there's depth and feeling here, played out straightforwardly with words and conversations that are essential, realistic and believable and never once out of sync with the storytelling at hand.

Staging "Athena," Tracy Brigden ("The Lifespan of a Fact," "Art," "The Price') fuels Gardner's work with connection, force and interest, showing that there is so much more here than just an ordinary tale of adolescence and competition. As the character's talk, parry, chat or move about the platform, anxious to blend in, stand out or make their mark, Brigden connects the dots with well-orchestrated definition and purpose that keeps the 80-minute performance focused and meaningful without any form of hesitation or calculation. Each scene - short, long or in between - makes it point with blocking, movements and precise staging choices that plunge the action forward with lucidity and drive, offset by mandated lighting cues, sound cues, music cues, costume changes and fencing choreography that complement and define the pending action.
Nothing is out of place. Nothing is thrown in for extra measure. Nothing is scuffed, bruised or bandied. Nothing is awkward or out of sync. There's tension. There's comedy. There's conflict. There's bonding. There's gaming. There's uncertainty.
It's all stirred and served with competitive delight and a natural, one-on-one, matter-of-factness by Brigden with much to admire as "Athena" inches forward with truths, twists, turns and impact until it reaches its justified, powered, emotional conclusion.

The Thrown Stone production stars Shannon Helen Barnes as Athena and Olivia Billings as Mary Wallace. Both actresses command the stage with important, intuitive, vivid performances that reflect the aesthetic, metaphor-packed allure of their individual characterizations, actions, innuendo, roars, fizz, demands, quirks and sweet spots. Everything they do is brilliantly timed, rehearsed and choreographed under Brigden's deft direction with able assist from Michael Martin (fencing coach) and Mark Silence (fight director). Their onstage camaraderie - a combination of poise, physicality, twinkle, fury, femininity and angst - is unleashed with such natural conviction, honesty and charm, one is quickly drawn into their story with a curiosity that never wavers for a moment.

A high energy exploration about women, friendship, sport and a clash of swords, Gracie Gardner's "Athena" is a witty, conversation fueled coming-of-age drama full of real-life action and banter, wonderfully calibrated by director Tracy Brigden.
It's shouty. It's forceful. It's fast. It's intriguing. It's challenging.
There's instinct and opinion here, matched by two passionate, energized performances that speak to the moment with well-established authority, exhilaration, genius and fascination.
Into all of this is the fencing, a combat sport of invention intricately tied to Gardner's thrilling character study of teenage duelists battling each other through choice, impact, transformation and the stirring velocity of splendid, well-placed wordplay.

Photos of "Athena" courtesy of Chuck Jennes Photography 

"Athena" is being staged at Thrown Stone (Ridgefield Conservatory of Dance, 440 Main St., Ridgefield, CT), now through August 6, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 442-1714.

Monday, July 11, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 328, A Review: "Kim's Convenience" (Westport Country Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco

A Korean-owned convenience store in Toronto's Regent Park neighborhood is the setting for Ins Choi's 2011 play "Kim's Convenience," which, as most people know, became the inspiration for the CBC Television comedy of the same that ran for five seasons from 2016 through April, 2021 in Canada and can now be viewed, much to the delight of "KC" fans everywhere, in its entirely on Netflix.
Following the lives of Appa and Umma, a married Korean couple living as immigrants in Toronto with their two children Janet and Jung, the play, as envisioned by Choi, addresses such universal themes as identity, race, prejudice, sacrifice, independence, monetary struggle, legacy and cultural significance using humor and pathos to illuminate one family's fight for survival in today's confused, uncertain, every-changing society.

"What is my story?" Abba tells his daughter Janet. "What is the story of me, Mr. Kim? My whole life is this store. Everybody knows this store, they know me. This store is my story. And if I just sell this store, then my story is over. Who is Mr. Kim? Nobody knows that. You take over the store, my story keeps going."

As "Kim's Convenience" evolves, Choi fills the room, the store and the theater with choice, positioned facts, observations and playful sprays of well-time humor and cleverness that deftly reveals his character's thoughts, feelings and everything else without a fancy, over-the-top flamboyance, thus opting instead, for story arcs, scenes and dialogue that are simplistic, profound, intimate and palpable.
No tricks. No boldness. No ticks. No gawps. No anchoring, No blatancy. No mumbling.
None of that.
"Kim's Convenience" is what it is.


The Westport Country Playhouse staging of "Kim's Convenience" is sugar-rush, summer theatre escapism effectively driven with clear, standout energy, personality, and smooth, paraded storytelling.

Staging Choi's popular play, director Nelson T. Eusebio III brings both significance and purpose to the playwright's outlined storytelling without any form of overkill or preachiness. Jokes abound, as does running gags about language barriers, racial misconceptions and cultural differences, but underneath everything is defined with conversations and verbiage that reflect the conceit, character and emotional journey set forth by the playwright.
In any given scene, Eusebio uses closeness and intimacy to make "Kim's Convenience" gallop along steadily, always finding potential and worth in the moment itself, heightened by the right mood swing, glance, gesture, register, expression or bold new side to the character speaking or listening. Directorially, the working-class life of the characters is always front-and-center, drawn convincingly with visibly imposed movements, staging and blocking techniques that cement the knuckle and snap of Choi's story, its lifeline, its humor and its welcoming portrait of family life, from all very different, important angles.

"Kim's Convenience" stars David Shih as Appa, Cindy Im as Janet, Chuja Seo as Umma, Hyunmin Rhee as Jung and Eric R. Williams as Alex/Other Characters. Throughout the production, every performer gets his or her place in the spotlight, bringing the right illumination, individuality and conviction to the roles they are asked to portray within the confines of the actual playtext and its theatrical evolvement as shaped and molded by Eusebio.
There are laughs. There are tears. There are surprises. There are outbursts. There are conflicts. There are arguments. There are differences of opinion. There are twists, curves and turns. There's also a pacy vibe from all five performer which prompts a payoff of excitement and satisfaction that works to the play's advantage as does the realness, honesty and compassion reflective in their individual, decidedly different performances.

A lighthearted production with plenty of edge, humor, charm and familial illumination, "Kim's Convenience" is a sweet and satisfying comedy with many ideas, themes and motivations that are nicely woven and nurtured throughout Ins Choi's playtext. Featuring strong performances by the entire five-member cast, it works its magic particularly well during its relatively short 80-minute running time.
Breezy, fluid direction by Nelson T. Eusebio III heightens the play's appeal as does the story's on-going banter, absurdity, reflections, remembrances and very happy ending.
PS: "Kim's Convenience" also comes gift wrapped with a perfectly workable, inviting, well-crafted set design by You-Shin Chen featuring lots of products - both Korean and American - that following curtain calls - put you in a very buying mood for all those tasty, delicious treats right in front of your eyes on the Westport Country Playhouse stage.
Many, of course, can be found locally, or online via Korean grocery shops and retailers. Just have your charge card ready. You'll be glad you did. 

"Kim's Convenience" is being staged at Westport Country Playhouse (25 Powers Court, Westport, CT), now through July 17, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 227-4177.

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 327, A Review: "Smokey Joe's Cafe" (Ivoryton Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco

"Spanish Harlem"
"Stand By Me"
"Little Egypt"
"Hound Dog"
"Love Potion #9"
"Poison Ivy"
"Yakety Yak"
"On Broadway"
"Jail House Rock"

Welcome to the world of Leiber and Stoller's celebratory musical revue "Smokey Joe's Cafe."

Then, now, today and tomorrow, this two-act musical is a feast of pop nostalgia, wonderful songs, fabulous sounds, booming voices, playful personalities, tangy lyrics, captured memories, sweet emotions and time-remembered innocence.
As presented on the stage of Ivoryton Playhouse, it spins and tilts its well-chosen, slice-of-life anthems, melodies and ballads into exciting musical tales of life, love, loss, desire, lust, romance and angst in the most imaginative of ways.

A tribute to one of the industry's most iconic songwriting teams, this revival is a rhythmic, enthusiastic entertainment, chock full of finger-snapping, foot-stomping, good, old-fashioned fun.

Its got feel.
Its got game.
Its got fire.
Its got pulse.
It sparks the heart.
It seductively acknowledges sexual heat and attraction.
It sings.
It dances.
It jives and shimmy's.
It transports you to a time and place of another decade.
It recognizes and respects the wit, the humor, the spark and the imagination of its creators.

It's also the perfect summer refreshment.
And boy, do we need it now.

To direct "Smokey Joe's Cafe" - and get it exactly right on all artistic and conceptual levels - directorial requirements mandate someone with a complete understanding of theatrical performance, theatrical form, theatrical presentation and theatrical expression. In Todd L. Underwood, a respected, acclaimed and award-winning director whose stage credits include "Saturday Night Fever," "Cabaret," "Rent," "The Color Purple" and "West Side Story," this revival of the original 1995 Broadway production is blessed with a dynamic individual whose technique, inspiration, knowledge and love for musical theater is extraordinary, detailed, creative and virtuosic. That mindset, mixed with musical-loving candor, consistency, correctness and homage dazzle, sparkle and spill gives this musical trajectory its nostalgic validation.

As storyteller, Underwood's direction complements the music at hand, thus, making important, stand-out choices that reflect the age and time of the piece, its characters, its setting, its musical revue mentality and its bounce from song-to-song flair and frenzy. In turn, nothing is out of place or out of sync during the musical's Act I and Act II evolution. Its all been carefully blocked, rehearsed, executed and staged with seamless energy and spirit that keeps it miraculously alive as actors take their place individually, in pairs, in quartets or as a full-front, nine member ensemble bringing a new sense of style and rhythm to the already familiar music. Or, as performers, complementing one another with the bend and snap concurrent in Underwood's swooping, stand-alone, emotionally-charged chart-stopping showcase.

Doubling as choreographer for "Smokey Joe's Cafe," Underwood creates a fusion of diverse styles, moods, themes and ideas that heighten the musical's flavor, its seriousness, its humor, its warmth and its actor-audience involvement. Torsos twist. Hands pop. Arms move heavenward. Bodies shake, quake and shimmy. Images reflect unity, beauty, love, lust and loss. Dancers twirl and swirl with ignited passion and purpose. It's all performed with irresistible elan using choice dance choreography that reflects the tradition, the magic, the conscience, the power and the musical heritage of the Leiber and Stoller legacy.

In revue format, "Smokey Joe's Cafe" unfolds through 41 musical numbers, presented in various combinations with no dialogue or no interconnected, unifying themes. They are (in order of being sung by the nine-member ensemble):  "Neighborhood," "Young Blood," "Falling," "Ruby Baby," "Dance With Me," "Neighborhood (reprise)," "Keep on Rollin,' " "Searchin," "Kansas City,"  "Trouble," "Love Me/Don't," "Fools Fall in Love," "Poison Ivy," "Don Juan," "I Keep Forgettin,' " "On Broadway," "D.W. Washburn," "Saved," "Baby, That is Rock & Roll," "Yakety Yak," "Charlie Brown," "Stay a While," "Pearl's A Singer," "Teach Me How to Shimmy," "You're the Boss," "Smokey Joe's Cafe," "Loving You," "Treat Me Nice," "Hound Dog," "Little Egypt," "I'm a Woman," "There Goes My Baby," "Love Potion #9," "Some Cats Know," "Jailhouse Rock," "Fools Fall in Love (reprise)," "Spanish Harlem," "I (Who Have Nothing)," "Neighborhood (reprise)" and "Stand By Me." 

Given the artistry, vibe and musical vocabulary of Leiber and Stoller and their elicitation of strong, moody, particularly fancied, lively songs. melodies and showstopping solos, musical director Mike Morris comes to Ivoryton with an even-handed pitch, boom, pace, clutch and understanding of the duo's iconic music, influence, vitality and thematic blocks. As "Smokey Joe's Cafe" evolves, he knows exactly how to make every single pop, R&B and rock 'n roll song present in this stellar revue to resonate with the inclusive, intimate haze and supper club magic that was prevalent in the 1950's and 1960's. Here, his approach to the actual, familiar music is fast, snappy, detailed, grounded and adventuresome. There's also a freshness to it all, complemented by choice orchestral ingredients that pinpoint different notes, styles, beats, rhythms, combinations and collisions. At the same time, it's more than just Broadway sonic pastiche. You get reinvention and reinterpretation that is smart, clever and veritable.

Doubling as conductor and pianist, Morris surrounds himself with the very talented orchestral team of Mark Gehret (bass), Andrew Wilcox (keyboard 2), Alex Giosa (drums/percussion), Dan Hartington (guitar) and Michael Paglione (saxophone), all of whom expressively share his fondness and appreciation of the Leiber and Stoller songbook. Under his tutelage, the band address and play the signature musical score with just the right amount of enthusiasm, emotion and humor evident in the duo's moody, ever-changing songs and styles. It all comes together beautifully, contoured with addictive, vibrant accounts, observed variants, projected buzz  and carefully calibrated tonal stability. The cast, in turn, have great fun with the material, never once missing a single beat, intention, harmony or rhythm associated with the tangy "Smokey Joe's Cafe" musical songbook. 

"Smokey Joe's Cafe" stars Debra Thais Evans, Tiffany Frances, Joseph Castro, Elvie Ellis, Cartreze Tucker, Cameron Loyal, Sandra Marante, Warren Nolan, Jr. and Gabriella Saramago. As dictated by the show's creator and director Todd L. Underwood, every performer on the Ivoryton stage gets his or her place in the spotlight while embracing the catchy, familiar sounds of Leiber and Stoller and illuminating the vocal brilliance, thrust and individuality of the musical score with integrity, wit, style, class, compassion and dignity.
There are star turns. There are showstoppers. There are laughs. There are tears. There are playful and sexy bits of stage business and musicality that get the pulses racing. Song by song, all nine members of the ensemble cast are in full and fine voice, reflecting the conceit of the material, its fluent story arcs, its conjuring questions and answers and its artistic brilliance. What's wonderful about this particular group of performers - all stars in their own right - is the depth and versatility they bring to every song they perform, their amazing range and control, their individual harmonizing and how they wrap their voice around a lyric they want you to appreciate and understand. Then again, that's the point of this oft-produced musical.

An energetic and savvy tribute to one of America's most celebrated songwriting duos, "Smokey Joe's Cafe"  gigawatts lightning-fast ripples of mood, voice, harmony and excitement with nostalgic spectacle and thrilling momentum. It jumps. It pops. It sparkles. It sings. It dances.
Every one of the musical numbers shows Leiber and Stoller at their very best and the cast - all nine of of them - go full-throttle as both singers and dancers - under Underwood's lofty, inspired direction and emotionally shifting choreography. 
It's sugar-rush escapism mixed with inviting, whizzing megamix, paraded around with charm and dazzle that goes a very long way.

"Smokey Joe's Cafe" is being staged at Ivoryton Playhouse (103 Main St., Ivoryton, CT), now through July 31, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 767-7318.