Wednesday, August 10, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 335, A Review: "Anne of Green Gables" (Goodspeed Musicals)

By James V. Ruocco

The image of girlhood, as envisioned by Canadian novelist Lucy Maud Montgomery in the popular children's classic "Anne of Green Gables" - first introduced to the literary world in 1908 - is one to admire.

Orphaned Anne Shirley from Bolingbroke, Nova Scotia, is outspoken, independent, determined and strong-willed. She's a true friend. She places a high value on education. She is impulsive. She looks to kindred spirits for guidance. She also refuses to settle for second best, much less be compared to any boy who thinks he can outsmart her in life, in school, in competition or working on the family farm.
Make no mistake about it: This freckled, very talkative redhead means business.
And nothing, not even her fierce scholastic rivalry with Gilbert Blythe, the handsome young man who is completely smitten by her, will stop her from fulfilling her dreams.

With elements of the original story intact, but set to music, Anne's story - that's Anne with an E - balances charm, spunk and whimsy with absolute control and much-needed escapism in Goodspeed Musical's intimate take on the iconic story.
This "Anne of Green Gables" is quintessentially home spun (the play text has been written by Matte O'Brien) with beautiful, alluring stokes that glide across the Goodspeed stage, dotted and painted with hardcover contemporary flair and broad, intimate updates that heighten the musical's spritely gait and potency.

As musical theatre, it is profound and able-bodied.
It is recharged for the modern-day audience with invigorating capability.
Its snapshot of Anne's life in a new world is spotlighted with warmth and humor.
Its emotional blueprint is personal and reactionary.
This production also benefits from an exceptional cast of performers - leads, supporting players, ensemble - that amplify the inspiration of the book, its subtext, its characters and its welcomed adventures.

There's lots and lots of potential here, but nonetheless, this "Anne of Green Gables" could benefit from some very minor tweaking and retooling.
It packs an emotional wallop - that's a given - but it runs a tad longer than it should. Editing - ten minutes or more - should be mandatory.
Script wise, the musical could also benefit from the addition of pivotal classroom narcissist Gilbert Blythe to at least two or three more scenes. He comes and goes, then completely disappears, Then, guess what? He returns after a 20-minute (or more) absence.
Elsewhere, the characters of Matthew Cuthbert and Marilla Cuthbert could use some additional dialogue to elevate their already proven importance to the story.
An easy fix?
Most definitely.

At Goodspeed, director Jenn Thompson has staged "Bye, Bye Birdie," "Oklahoma!" and "The Music Man" - three splendid musicals - inked, linked and recharged with the swells, perks, impressions and ingenuity that categorize her work in musical theatre. Here, she embraces the iconic "Anne of Green Gables" story with bite, with purpose, with sting, with emotion, with sentiment and with sweet-seeming resourcefulness.

Directorially, Thompson, once again, is at the top of her game.
Capable of creating given, important moments of hope, joy, warmth and purpose, Thompson crafts a proper, fearless and mighty production, framed with apt tallies of musical storytelling that unfold with remarkable ease, accent and vocabulary. Nothing is too big or too small for Thompson, a directorial conceit, that here, fuels "Anne of Green Gables" with a strong sense of entitlement, personality and invention.
In terms of staging, it's all about choices.
As was the case with "Oklahoma!" "The Music Man" and "Bye, Bye Birdie," Thompson dances to her own decided, creative beat. She experiments. She invents. She digs deep. She takes chances. She finds new ways to express herself. With "Anne of Green Gables," her directorial oeuvre reigns supreme with staging, movement and blocking that feverishly portrays the plentiful story arcs of O'Brien's adaptation, its unabashed jauntiness and its passionate aesthetic. She also peppers her vision with stand-alone movements, moves and jump-suited abandonment that anchors and revolutionizes the guiding thrust and narration of the piece and its deep inhale of individuality and freedom of expression.

The musical score for "Anne of Green Gables," a folksy mix of melodic, moving, plot defining songs, ballads, duets and strong ensemble numbers, is the brainchild of Matt Vinson (music) and Matte O'Brien (lyrics). There are 17 songs in all. They are: "Prologue," "Waiting," "The Asylum," "Easy," "Matthew's Song," "Different Kind of Girl," "Forever," "Anne's Response," "Ashes of My Youth," "Oh, My Diana," "Different Kind of Girl (reprise), Gilbert's Song," "Diana's Lament," "Make a Move," "Marilla's Song," "Before You Hit the Ground" and "Waiting (reprise)."

Musical director Matthew Smedal ("Mrs. Doubtfire," "Matilda," "The Body Guard") brings breezy, entertaining boom and effort to the O'Brien/Vinson score, thus, turning it into great fun for both actor, singer and audience. From start to finish, the music is fresh and minted with expansive warmth, rhythmic vigor, harmonic glow and interpretive specificity. The spirit of the music, its power and its potential sound, prompts many important moments that include "Waiting," "Before You Hit the Ground," "Different Kind of Girl," "Easy," "Forever" and "Ashes of My Youth." 
Backed by an established team of musicians, the musical score never once loses its focus for a moment. Under Smedal's tutelage, the refinement of the playing, the pacing and the shaping are fiercely rooted and connected as is the peerless, powerful vocal quality of the entire "Anne of Green Gables" cast.

A standout in every step of the way is Jennifer Jancuska's persuasive, athletic, moody choreography, which, played out against Wilson Chin's hypnotic, atmospheric set and backed by Philip S. Rosenberg's equally impressive lighting design, is nothing short of brilliant. As "Anne of Green Gables" evolves - or tilts and glides, if you prefer - she fills the Goodspeed stage with raw, upbeat, frantic and bounding dance moves and patterns - angular, fitful, physical - that complement the musical numbers, their gesture, their bravura and their illuminating, syncopated sense of style and freedom.
True to form, there's sentiment and individuality here. There's character expression. There's storytelling evolution. There's exhilaration and danger. There's ceaseless motion. There's choreographic melody. There's cinematic underscoring.
Streamed and synced with edge, pulse, playfulness and obviously conveyed closeness and aggressiveness, Jancuska's choreography is root-tinged with moments that recall the springboard pathos and thrust of both "Spring Awakening" and "Mean Girls." Elsewhere, her timed, utterly inventive employment of chairs, props and moving platforms not only feels right, but when put together with the dancing, it becomes completely satisfying, insightful and wonderfully abstract.

In the lead role of the smart, saucy and outspoken Anne Shirley, Juliette Redden not only gives the performance of the season, but easily becomes the heart and soul of "Anne of Green Gables" - and well she should - with her joyful, engaging vocal rendition of the introductory "Waiting," which follows the welcoming "Prologue" at the start of Act I. Vocally, she can belt, roar and attack moments of simplicity, vulnerability, excitement and independence with a voice that rings pure and clear, but also reveals pleasurable doses of sheer fun, dazzle and full-beam luster. Acting wise, she brings an electric energy to the role, which is exactly right, offset by an invigorating command and likeability that never once loses its touch or hypnotic gaze through the production's musical storytelling.

Gilbert Blythe, as portrayed by Pierre Marais is dashing, charming, sexy and completely self-absorbed. Then again, that's the decided blueprint of his character, which the actor utilizes to full effect with natural, charismatic aplomb. Like Redden, he too comes to the Goodpeed stage with a beautiful singing voice and sound that makes every one of his vocals sound fresh, emotional and effortlessly alive.
As Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, the sister and brother who welcome Anne into their home (not at first anyway, as they were expecting a boy), Sharon Catherine Brown and D.C. Anderson are the ideal guardians of the story (they each get a well-deserved and well-played powerhouse solo as well) while Auriella Williams, as the outspoken, busybody Rachel Lynde, amps it up ever so agreeably with a Jackee Harry-like vibe and jive that heightens her grand, invigorating performance. Playing the part of Anne's best friend Diana, Michelle Veintimilla brings charm and sweetness to the role. She also has an amazing singing voice which is used to full advantage throughout the two-act musical.

A captivating journey of dreams, ideals, sunshine, happiness and following your heart, "Anne of Green Gables" is a big-hearted musical with splendid choreography, a flavorful musical score, keen direction and a dazzling performance by Juliette Redden. Her presence, her charm, her confidence and her attachment to the project gives this even-keeled musical a self-esteem and luster like no other. And that is reason enough to buy a ticket, escape the scorched heat of a summer afternoon or evening and succumb to the oft-told story of Anne Shirley, a wildly creative young woman who whirls into the fictitious town of Avonlea, Prince Island, Canada, and changes life for the better, not only for herself, but for all those around her.

"Anne of Green Gables" is being staged at Goodspeed Musicals (6 Main St., East Haddam, CT), now through September 4, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 873-8668.

Monday, August 8, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 334, A Review: "Secondo" (TheaterWorks/Hartford)

By James V. Ruocco

Bring on the laughter.
Bring on the wine.
Bring on the appetizers.

The world spins with lively, hilarious matter-of-factness in Jacques Lamarre's "Secondo," a tasty follow-up treat to his oft-performed 2012 play "I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti," which, looking back, was based entirely on Giulia Melucci's real-life 2009 comic memoir about Italian cooking, meddling mothers, dating, finding the right guy, making the perfect bowl of homemade pasta and looking for love - in and out of the kitchen.


"I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti," simply demanded a sequel of sorts.

With "Secondo," now on view at TheaterWorks Hartford, Melucci is back in the kitchen 10 years later after saying "I do" to her British-born mate Gavin, ready to prepare a 10th Anniversary dinner prompted by complications galore, food preparation madness, endless phone calls from her mother, hilarious bouts with Alexa and the surprise reappearance of a boyfriend from her past.

Veloce, rompere la ciotola di miscelazione.

As theatrical entertainment, reveling in language and situations designed exclusively for laughter's sake, "Secondo" gallops forward with onstage warmth, lightness, surprise and breezy, inviting welcomeness.

It's cheery and good-natured.
It's the perfect tonic for our troubled times.
It's lofty and dishy.
It's genuine great fun.
It's Italian vino uncorked, poured and ready.

As penned by Lamarre, "Secondo's" observations, sentences, quotes, stories, confessions and complaints about everyday life adapt a cynical, flavorful voice that's marvelously entertaining, connected and deliciously chartered. With Melucci back in the kitchen breaking down the fourth wall to update everyone on the continuing drama, comedy and chaos in her life, the playwright fuels "Secondo" with just the right amount of sting, sauce and merriment to keep the story afloat, involved and telling without any form of hesitation or calculation. Once the play begins, Lamarre's imagination runs wild,  never once losing sight of its origins, its character, its humanity, its pulse and its very amusing tableaux of conversations, memories, thoughts and ideas as Melucci prepares a savory meal timed to the beat of the story at hand. His attention to detail is done with fast and fastidious affection.

Staging "Secondo" with dutiful, front-row access and charm, director Rob Ruggiero crafts a grounded, playful domestic comedy with home-maker character, dimension, language and ambition. Here, every punchline, every line of dialogue and every instantaneous switch from laughter to sentiment is stoked with actor-audience captivation, focus and let's keep everyone in stitches amplification. No stopping. No lulls. No confusion. No interruptions. Everything that happens - scene by scene or moment to moment - unfolds with a wow, hook-line-and-sinker factor that's full-tilt, kitchen savvy and function ready.

Working from LaMarre's high-spirited, adroitly orchestrated play script, Ruggiero's theatrical candor and in-the-moment pace and move directorial evolvement keeps "Secondo" alert, alive and fleeting. For a one-woman show, there's a lot happening here (and rightly so) as Giulia takes center stage to tell her story, bare her soul, shock, surprise and titillate and oh, yes, cook a meal in real-time while running to the refrigerator, cracking eggs, making dough, spooning ricotta, boiling water, slicing cantaloupe and wrapping it in prosciutto. All of this is expertly timed, positioned and executed with Food Network precision by Ruggiero, synced perfectly to the playwright's verbiage, his shifts in mood and tone, his storytelling arcs, his developmental conceit and his sparky injection of some very funny, quick, get my pad-and-pencil ready to write down some pretty memorable quote and one-liners.

Antoinette LaVecchia who played the part of Guilia Melucci in "I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti" for TheaterWorks back in 2012, returns to the role with sparkling, inviting, intuitive definition that's etched and delivered with irresistible showmanship every step of the way.
It's an invigorating, personable solo performance well worthy of a standing ovation, which she gets following every performance at the immersive, Hartford-based venue. And why not?
Nonetheless, this is very hard work.
It's no secret that a one-person show is tough to pull off, but LaVecchia - splendid actress that she is -   hits every mark with total control, personality, vibe and capability. She's funny. She's delightful. She's vulnerable. She's gabby. She's quirky. She's master chef ready. She's sexy. She's a practical joker. She's invigorating. She's silly.
Moreover, her comic timing is absolutely incredible. As actress, storyteller and chef, she never once misses a beat. She has fun. We have fun. Everything she says and does is well worth a visit to her kitchen, which here, is attractively designed with real-life atmospheric detail by Brian Prather. 
The actress also connects one-on-one with the audience, a factor that, throughout the production, brings additional charm and gusto to her already proven, exhilarating performance.

A must-see comedy for any theatergoer with a penchant for kitchen culinary achievement mixed with playful doses of fun, dialogue and relationship do's and don'ts, "Secondo" is sweet-seeming, irresistible entertainment that delivers palpable pleasures from start to finish. Director Rob Ruggiero dishes up a hot plate of amusement and rightfully appropriate escapism matched by Antoinette LaVecchia's natural, lively portrayal of a woman worthy of spending 100 minutes with on any given hot summer night (or afternoon, if you prefer) - any time of the week.

Mangia! Indulgere!
Il tuo tavolo e in attesa.

"Secondo" is being staged at TheaterWorks (233 Pearl St., Hartford, CT), now through August 28, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-7838.

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 333, A Review: "Clue On Stage" (Castle Craig Players)

By James V. Ruocco

The board game "Clue," devised by Anthony E. Pratt, a British musician by trade, was originally launched in Leeds, United Kingdom, back in 1949.
A murder mystery board game, involving six suspects, each guilty of perhaps murdering the game's marked villain Mr. Boddy, the match (or playoff, if you prefer) itself is solved by players collecting a variety of clues which eventually culminate in the naming of the actual murderer, the weapon used and what room the crime actually took place at the mansion.

The Suspects:
Mr. Green.
Colonel Mustard.
Mrs. Peacock.
Mrs. White.
Professor Plum.
Miss Scarlett.

The Weapons:
A knife.
A revolver.
A rope.
A Wrench.
A lead pipe.
A candlestick.

The Rooms:
The Library.
The Study.
The Ballroom.
The Kitchen.
The Billiard Room.
The Lounge.
The Conservatory.
The Hall.
The Dining Room.

Taking its cue from the classic board game and the 1985 cult movie classic "Clue," the stage adaptation, aptly titled "Clue On Stage"- not to be confused with "Clue: The Musical" - comes packaged with the same whodunit suspects, weapons and familiar line of questioning.

Who killed Mr. Boddy?
Was it Colonel Mustard in the library with the revolver?
Did Miss Scarlett commit the act of murder in the study with the rope?
Who exactly is Mr. Green? And what is he hiding?
Is the Cook really a culinary wizard? Or does she too have a very shady past?
Like the board game, the list of possibilities is endless.
As the body count rises, "Clue On Stage" introduces lots of colorful supporting characters who may (or may not be) exactly who they say they are.
And therein, lies the fun.

The Castle Craig Players incarnation of "Clue On Stage" is a game well worth playing.
It's the perfect whodunit.
It's infectious and frothy.
It's galloping and giddy.
It's fast and furious.
Its transition from board game to stage play is clever and committed.
Its mix of laughter, energy, thrills and spills is centered and plot moving.
It also keeps you guessing and guessing and guessing.

Even with all of the game's trademark pieces, elements and characters in place, "Clue On Stage" is not that easy to figure out.  

Adapted from the 1985 film version of "Clue," which was written by Jonathan Lynn, "Clue On Stage," penned by Sandy Rustin with additional material by Eric Price and Hunter Foster, is constructed with lofty wit, mayhem, motive and assortment. A parody fueled with appropriate dashes of slapstick, swagger, anxiety and eccentricity, it gloriously attacks the murder thriller genre with daft and dandy panache, caricature, physical dare and splendid, well-timed wordplay. But the interpretation itself is not paint-by-numbers or an easy read of one, two or three. Not by a longshot.

Here, there's a purpose to everything. Spoof and satire aside, "Clue On Stage" is smart, chaotic fun with its own special brand of humor, personality, mystery and dash. Yes, it's played entirely for laughs. Yes, it gleefully attacks the murder mystery genre. Yes, it twirls, whirls and spins wildly out of control. Yes, it makes light of murder, momentum and interrogation. Yes, it includes some last-minute, surprise twists and turns you never saw coming. But at the same time, its cheeky verbiage, its pivotal scene-by-scene evolvement and its daft choices and coverups are laced with engaging, satisfying definition and description that add swing, swerve, bite and polish to Rustin's inspired, crafty parody.

That satirical silliness is reinforced throughout "Clue On Stage" by director Ian Galligan whose directorial credits at the Meriden-based venue include "Gypsy," "Company," "Cabaret," "Hello, Dolly!" "The Importance of Being Earnest" and "Who's Holiday!" A natural for this sort of farcical entertainment, Galligan (an actor himself) comes to the production with a feast of ideas, a plate load of certainty and an intuitive point of interest and knowledge that serves the material well.

This being a parody, deliberately set up by Rustin to lampoon, mock and meta gag the murder mystery genre, everything that happens from wordplay and pratfalls to hidden identities, bluff preferences and utter hysterics, must be timed, primed and delivered with appropriate roar, shout, force, glee and well-ordered, whodunit exactness. Well aware of the script's demands, Galligan, of course, digs deep with innuendo-laden wit and aesthetic illustration and transforms "Clue On Stage" into a laugh-a-minute, fizzy treat jam packed with glorious romp and conviction that never once falters for a moment.

Here, doors slam shut. The lights go out. No one knows exactly why they've been invited to the mansion on a stormy night. Weapons are distributed by the butler to the guests in smartly wrapped black gift boxes courtesy of the evening's host. Murders are committed. Bodies pile up. Rotating walls and scene changes heighten the mystery. Characters run vigorously into place simulating passage and arrival into the next room. Key developments in the plot are frozen and framed in stop-go-continue motion. And finally, when it comes time to name the murderer (or perhaps, murderers), the action is repeated and rewound with backwards silent-movie simulation reminiscent of D.W. Griffith, Mack Sennett and Ernst Lubitsch.
The breakneck craziness of it all - drilled, instilled physical comedy at its peak - is hard work. VERY HARD WORK. But as "Clue On Stage" evolves, the comedy at hand is brilliantly executed and driven by Galligan whose use of style, pacing, delivery and reenactment is timed to the millisecond (original music is supplied by Michael Holland) with able assist from production stage manager Olivia Defilippo, assistant director Todd Santa Maria and tech and sound operator Adam Plumley. In turn, the surprise, the chaotic fun and the actual mystery of the whodunit falls smartly into place as does the collective interaction of the characters, the story, the jokes, the mishaps, the slapstick, the mischief and the ensuing buffoonery. And that is what makes this production ever so special.

"Clue On Stage" stars Griffin Kulp as Wadsworth, Jim Kane as Mr. Green, Terrance Peters as Colonel Mustard, Cameron Long as Miss Scarlett, Gina Marie Davies as Mrs. Peacock, Michael Jack Kaczynski as Professor Plum, Mary Pelkey as Yvette and Johanna Milani as Mrs. White. In supporting roles are Toby Henst as Mr. Boddy, Elisa Albert as the Cook/Others, Bret Olsen as the Motorist/Others and Nick Ciasullo as the Cop/Others.
The energy and excitement of the cast is priceless, wild, daring and unquestionably the best ensemble work of season. The sheer force of every performance - lead, supporting and cameo - mixed with fast, fastidious wordplay, expression, personality and mystery brings real connection and commitment to the piece, where anything can happen and does. That said, there's real camaraderie and trust here, an actor-to-actor tool or trait that is inspired, fulfilled and completely genuine. Additional snap, momentum and stimulation by everyone involved heightens the many twists and turns of Rustin's cheeky, merrily-rolled-along play text. 

In a standout performance that offers an eccentric take on the stiff, upper-lipped butler character (privy, of course, to the goings-on in any English or American murder mystery thriller), Griffin Kulp, as Wadsworth, addresses the raveling ragtag and physicality of Rustin's giggly plot with pleasurable charm, gait, meander and an emotional complexity and curiosity that thrusts his character center stage throughout the play's succession of sparky repartee, hidden agendas, exits and entrances and deliberate negging.
So exactly, who is Wadsworth?
As "Clue On Stage" evolves, Kulp vacillates amusingly from servant and leader to problem solver, prankster and narrator, thus, prompting suspicion at every little turn. Everything he does is pitched into uproarious, farcical mode with perfectly timed dabs and dashes straight out of the Agatha Christie whodunit handbook.
That's not all.
His best moment comes (there are many) when Wadsworth is asked to replay the murder of Mr. Boddy over and over again using a rewind formula of repeated dialogue and action aggressively orchestrated by Galligan, Using breaking point comedic timing, offset by perfectly synced body language, verbiage and silly but believable facial expressions, Kulp's presentation of this otherwise maximum chaos is retro vivid, slap-and-command ready and a sheer force roar all rolled up into one. It's so engaging, the continual replay of these moments only heightens the play's already proven tomfoolery.

A whodunit mystery played exclusively for laughs, "Clue On Stage" is a wide-eyed pleasure of silly coincidences, macabre amusement, over-the-top histrionics and unbroken eccentricity that plays a large part in the show's success.
Deaths happen. Everyone has a motive. Silences are broken. Truths are exposed. There are sneers and raised eyebrows. There are juicy insults and barbed exchanges. False clues run rampant. Interrogations are plentiful. Nothing is as it seems.
Through it all, director Ian Galligan brings ceaseless energy and impeccable timing to the proceedings, using stage mechanics and utterly silly, parody-induced mayhem to set things in motion and keep the laughter coming and coming in rapid succession.
The cast, in turn, deliver minutely detailed comic performances, which, naturally heightens the play's merriment, its wackadoodle palate, its priceless gaffes and thrills and its bustling artifice until the big reveal is announced in quintessential murder mystery fashion.

Grab a seat. Play the game.
The multitude of clues - no pun intended - are endless.

"Clue On Stage" is being presented by Castle Craig Players (Almira F. Stephan Memorial Playhouse, 59 W. Main St., Meriden, CT), now through August 14, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 634-6922.

Note: All performances of "Clue On Stage" are sold out.
Anyone interested in a particular performance is asked to visit the Castle Craig Players website and fill out the "Clue" Waiting/Cancellation List for ticket availability.
If tickets become available, the theater will contact patrons in the order in which forms have been submitted. Ticket availability, however, is not guaranteed.