Thursday, October 20, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 345, A Review: "Fun Home" (TheaterWorks/Hartford)

By James V. Ruocco

A musical memoir that takes its cue from lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel's graphic, autobiographical novel of the same name, "Fun Home" is an uncorked, revelatory coming-of-age portrait of sexual identity and fantasy that unfolds with wonderfully detailed patches of song, dialogue, remembrance and liberation.

It haunts.
It excites.
It erupts.
It flies.

Told in non-linear fashion, it follows Alison through the various years of her life and retraces her troubled relationship with her closeted, gay father who had sex with teenaged boys; her mother, the victim of an unhappy marriage who knew about her husband's homosexuality; her dysfunctional homelife with her adorable, fun-loving siblings; her father's supposed suicide; and lastly, the melodrama associated with lesbian life, including her discovery of gay sex, her coming-out as a gay woman and her romantic entanglements with other females.

"A careful archivist of her own life," Bechdel narrates her evolving "Fun Home" musical portrait with details, illustrations, commentary, observations and memories that include watching cartoons on TV with her brothers, hording ticket stubs and sugar packets, drawing pictures as reference photos of her life, going to college and working alongside her father at the Bechdel Funeral Home.

At TheaterWorks in Hartford, the intimate, invigorating venue where "Fun Home" has settled in for an extended run, Bechdel's impassioned memoir unfolds with a euphoric wistfulness and confident delicateness that not only captures the quirky, sometimes haphazard reminiscence of the 2006 novel, but the fascination and commitment of a woman who has turned her life into art while endlessly discovering her own sexuality and the liberated gay proudness it has become.

It is beautiful and timely.
It is conscious and complicated.
It is catchy and tuneful.
It is heartbreaking and emotional.
It is also a musical tale about characters you believe in and care about what actually happens to them.

The image of a small-town Philadelphia life family trying to bring love and harmony into their otherwise shattered, erratic lives is probed and imagined with skill, entry, insight and preservation by director Rob Ruggiero whose TheaterWorks credits include "Next to Normal," "Constellations," "The Sound Inside," "Zoey's Perfect Wedding," "American Son" and "The Legend of Georgia McBride." Here, the details, the emotions, the levels, the sting and the discovery concurrent in Alison's story are vivid, powerful, candid and fully dimensional. This reminiscence is also laced with a special edge and sensitivity that makes its unique twists and turns palpable, compassionate and refreshingly photographic.
This, being a musical staged in the up close and immersive space that is TheaterWorks, Ruggiero is able to create a special, emotive one-on-one connection between actor and audience that brings additional nuance, personalization and intimacy to the production. That process not only heightens the drama and wonderment associated with the three simultaneous stories of Lisa Kron's telling - Adult Alison, Medium Alison, Small Alison - but gives "Fun Home" a centered uniqueness and haunting sincerity that makes the story even more special than it already is.
As "Fun Home" evolves, Ruggiero makes great use of this atmospheric touch, artfully navigating his family of performers through the ins and outs of the evolving narrative, offset by the grandeur of Luke Cantarella's brilliantly conceived set design, Camilla Tassi's detailed, important, past and present projections and Rob Denton's moody, dramatic lighting cues. 

Winner of the 2015 Tony Award for Best Original Score, "Fun Home" is the brainchild of Lisa Kron (lyrics) and Jeanine Tesoni (music). There are 27 songs, all of which are seamlessly interspersed throughout Kron's evolving, emotional narrative. They are: "It All Comes Back (Opening)," "Sometimes my father appeared to enjoy having children," "Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue," "Not Too Bad," Just had a good talk with Dad," "Come to the Fun Home," "Helen's Etude," "Thanks for the care package," "Party Dress," "Changing My Major," "I leapt out of the closet," "Maps," "Read a book," "Raincoat of Love," "Clueless in New York," "Pony Girl," "A flair for the dramatic," "Ring of Keys," "Let me introduce you to my gay dad," "Shortly after we were married," "Days and Days," "You ready to go for that drive?" "Telephone Wire," "It was great to have you home," "Edges of the World," "This is what I have of you" and "Flying Away (Finale)."
The subject material is infused with a thrilling musicality that brings command and grasp to "Fun Home's" musical exploration of Alison's story. It is tight. It is fluid. It is probing. It is tactful. As storytellers, Kron and Tesori are sincere in their efforts filling in the memories and commentary with appropriate shading, tone, sweetness and aching harmony. Musical director Jeff Cox brings intimate detail and range to the score allowing it to soar remarkably with the shifts, mood swings, clarity and illumination dictated by its originators.

"Fun Home" stars Sarah Beth Pfeifer as Alison, Julia Nightingale as Medium Alison, Skylar Lynn Matthews as Small Alison, Aaron Lazar as Bruce, Christiane Noll as Helen, Ali Lous Bourzgui as Roy/Mark/Pete/Bobby Jeremy, Cameron Silliman as Joan, Myles Low as Christian and Sam Duncan as John.
The three Alisons - a casting coup for Ruggiero - are magnificent singers and actresses. Confident, charming and charismatic in their own right, they deftly convey the quirkiness, the innocence, the identification, the curiosity, the self-discovery and the sexual awakening of the character with shining, warm, personable realization. The vocally perfect, charismatic Lazar easily projects the image of a dominant, torn, sometimes distant father driven to suicide, a noted fact introduced early on in the proceedings. The actor also believably projects the character's pain, suffering, unvarnished truths and brooding sexuality with troubled allure. The tremendously gifted Noll sensitively delivers a haunting, stirring portrait of a mother and wife trapped by an unhappy marriage. It's a rich, angst-ridden performance, driven by exceptional acting and vocal range. Bourzgui plays all four of his roles with invested spirit and personality. Silliman nails the role of Alison's lesbian girlfriend perfectly. Low and Duncan are truly delightful as Alison's siblings.

A moving, beautifully performed adaptation of Alison Bechdel's graphic novel, "Fun Home" is an assured, confident revival that explores sexual yearning, fantasy, coming-of-age and familial acknowledgement with a quiet elegance and grace that is refreshing, wistful and truthful.
As musical theatre, this production is textured and complex. It is observant and dignified. It is also spirited and uplifting.
Uncorked with a liberating, ebullient feel by director Rob Ruggiero, "Fun Home" unfolds with an exciting energy, twist and swirl that makes it even more remarkable than it already is.
The cast wonderfully embodies the reality, joy, angst and complicated openness of Bechdel's autobiographical work. And the "Fun Home" score, recreated here by musical director Jeff Cox and his six-member band is complemented by an edgy, haunting and energized feel that carefully probes the emotional meaning of each song.

"Fun Home" is being staged at TheaterWorks (233 Pearl St., Hartford, CT), now through November 6, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-7838.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 344, A Review: "California Suite" (Castle Craig Players)

By James V. Ruocco

The verbal interplay of Neil Simon's four-part comedy "California Suite" takes center stage in Castle Craig Players lively, brilliantly staged revival of the playwright's 1976 Broadway comedy, which is set in Suite 203-04 of L.A.'s posh Beverly Hills Hotel.
Laced with Simon's trademark jibes, jokes, observations, trade-offs, slapstick, pathos and sparkling one-liners, the play is a massive comic entertainment of aesthetic and tone, translated with five-star speed, pacing and balance by director Pam Amodio and played impeccably by a ten-member cast who interpret the playwright's non-stop hilarity and madness with free-flowing pops of wiggle, dazzle, shag, warmth, wildness and wonderful, wonderful immersion.


This production of "California Suite" not only solidifies Simon's punchy, infectious wit but earns notable raves for every single person involved.

The director.
The cast.
The set designer.
The costume designer.
The lighting designer.
The tech/sound operator.
The producer.

It is live entertainment with a beating comic heart.
It is feisty.
It is bold.
It is energetic.
It tilts.
It hops.
It frames.
The laughter is non-stop.

Similar in style to both "Plaza Suite" and "London Suite," all four acts unfold with their very own set of individual stories, characters, wind-ups, conversations and humor.

The Visitors from New York

The characters: Hannah Warren, Bobbie Warren
The plot: Manhattan workaholic Hannah Warren arrives in Los Angeles to retrieve her teenaged daughter Jenny who has been living with her ex-wife Bobbie, a chic, successful screenwriter.
The reunion - a battle of wit, bickering, whimsy and practicality - finds the divorced lesbian couple deciding what living arrangement - New York or L.A. - would be the best option for their young daughter.
The actors: Gina Marie Davies, Tina Marie Falivene

Originally conceived by Simon as a heterosexual pairing (i.e., William Warren instead of Bobbie Warren), this reworking, or gay twist, if you prefer, adds important shading, dimension, momentum and thrust to the piece, all of which is unfaltering in its presentation. Director Pam Amodio advocates this change with sure-fire command, thus creating a fast-paced sequence that keeps the playwright's key elements in place along with his penchant for choice one-liners, comic banter and bittersweet resolution.

"The Visitors from New York" also benefits from the witty, confident performances of both Davies and Falivene, two fascinating actresses whose grasp of Simon's play text is real, raw and timely. Their work is also showcased with exceptional charm, savvy and splendidly orchestrated conversation.

The Visitors from Philadelphia

The characters: Marvin Michaels, Millie Michaels, Bunny
The plot: Middle-aged businessman Marvin Michaels - in town for his nephew's bar mitzvah - has got a problem. A BIG problem, you might say.
After a good night's sleep, he awakens and finds a prostitute named Bunny - a gift from his brother Harry - unconscious in his bed after consuming a very large bottle of vodka. A call from the front desk finds Marvin trying to hide all traces of Bunny and their night of drunken fun once the operator tells him that wife Millie is on her way up to their suite.
The actors: Nick Demetriades, Dawn Maselli, Malena Gordo

Staging this comic free-for-all, Amodio crafts a three-ring circus of slapstick, madness and mayhem which benefits greatly from her seamless blend of perfectly timed humor, suggestion, reaction, expression and staging maneuvers.

Demetriades and Maselli are absolutely hilarious as the perplexed couple whose California vacation has been ruined by a meaningless bedroom romp that nearly destroys their marriage. As a duo, they are well-matched. They get Simon. They understand Simon. They know how to play Simon. They also know how to get a laugh in the manner that Simon intended.
As Bunny, Gordo figures predominantly into their story as well. Though her character is supposedly unconscious, Amodio fuels the fire with moves, positions and abject silliness that have been timed to the millisecond in order for them to work within the context of the story. Godro adheres to the orchestrated wackiness magnificently.

The Visitors from London

The characters: Diana Nichols, Sidney Nichols
The plot: It's Oscar night and British actress Diana Nichols, a first-time nominee for Best Actress is in a panic. Nominated for a silly, inconsequential little comedy of no importance, she knows she doesn't stand a chance of winning and would like to skip the entire, stupid affair. Husband Sidney, a gay antiques dealer with a penchant for pretty young men, believes they should attend the event and spare the studio any form of embarrassment.
They go, of course, but upon their return to the hotel, Diana, after throwing up on girl in a Pucci muu-muu, comes back a loser. Sidney, in turn, has spent the evening flirting and chatting madly with an adorable young actor named Adam.
The actors: Deanna Swanson, John Swanson

This sequence is a vital watch, most notably for Simon's verbal sparring, his brash, energetic commentary, his snappy punchlines, his sharp scattering and his inside jokes about Hollywood, the Academy Awards, the nominations, the acceptance speeches and the poor fools who are asked to dress up, play nice, get drunk and drift off into the night as winners or losers, depending on how the voting process is resolved.

As director and storyteller, Amodio concocts a riveting ritual of harsh realities, magnetic pulls and playful animosity, matched to perfection by real-life married couple Deanna and John Swanson who have a field day - and then some - in the roles of Diana and Sidney Nichols.
Their odd-couple affair is rife with breezy welcome, invested craftsmanship, cool logic, passionate argument, ferociously delivered banter and crisp, pungent one-liners. The wit drawn out from these snappy exchanges is as priceless as their exceptional, in-the-moment performances.

The Visitors from Chicago

The characters: Mort Hollender, Beth Hollender, Stu Franklyn, Gert Franklyn
The plot: The Hollender's and the Franklyn's are best friends who have decided to take a much-needed vacation together in sunny Los Angeles. Unfortunately, things take a turn for the worse when Beth Hollender is injured in a friendly tennis match by Stu Franklyn.
Mort Hollender thinks Stu deliberately caused the accident. Did he?  Or, did Beth just trip? Was Gert a witness? Is their friendship over?
The actors: Michael Jack Kaczynski, Malena Gordo, Bret Olson, Katie Kirkland

With Amodio pulling the strings, "The Visitors from Chicago" is a sustained, divinely daft, wildly caricatured comedy segment expertly choreographed by you-know-who and played to the hilt by its fantastic foursome - Kaczynski, Gordo, Olson and Kirkland.

Simon's breakneck exercise in over-extended idiocy is flawlessly recreated by this precision-drilled comic quartet, all of whom get everything they do exactly right under Amodio's enthusiastic direction. They have fun. We have fun. They laugh. We laugh. 
The funnier things become, they dig right in, leaving you aching with laugher upon laughter right through the curtain calls.

Photos of "California Suite" courtesy of Kevin McNair

"California Suite" is being staged by Castle Craig Players (Almira F. Stephan Memorial Playhouse, 59 W. Main St., Meriden, CT), now through October 23, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 634-6922.

Monday, October 17, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 343, A Review: "School Spirits" (Pantochino Productions)

By James V. Ruocco

Something's afoot at Mockingbird High School.
Halloween is vastly approaching.
Time is running out.
The school is scheduled for demolition.
The students - not your squeaky-clean or preppie types - are in a panic.
A member of the faculty is up to no good.
The plug on a big Halloween talent show fundraiser is about to be pulled.
The spirits of three teenaged high schoolers who vanished without a trace and make Mockingbird High School their place of residence also hang in a balance.

Who's good?
Who's bad?
Who's lying?
Who's telling the truth?
Who has everything to gain if the walls of Mockingbird High School come tumbling down?

Not to worry.
In "School Spirits," a new musical entertainment from Pantochino Productions, these and other questions are rightfully processed, addressed and answered in glorious Technicolor, but not before the light-hearted jocularity of the scenario casts its spell, teases and taunts, rattles your senses and pushes you over the edge right before the big reveal and a dynamic climax you never once saw coming.

Cotton candy, anyone?

Light, flavorful and brimming with ghoulish delight, "School Spirits" is an assured. snappy, slap-bang musical comedy entertainment that unfolds with an arch silliness and madcap aesthetic that is completely irresistible.

It's Halloween candy and trick-or-treat all rolled up into one.
It's funny.
It's clever.
It's eerie.
It's jammy dodger, time warp delightful.

It also reaffirms Pantochino's ongoing commitment to plays and musicals that utilize talent - both new and established - in productions produced and mounted at the highest level of quality for both musician, director, actor, audience and design team.

As director of "School Spirits," Bert Bernardi creates a high-energy, standout musical, flanked by just the right amount of hyper-detailed fun, cheer, riff, surprise and recurring spookiness. Here, the accent is on laughter, heft and throbbing beats of silly, full-on storytelling, all of which is awe-inspired and gussied up with an extended nod to Halloween, netherworld utopia and all those crazy, ghostly spirits of one's imagination.

Not one to disappoint or shape and mold with the skill and mindset of a great originator, Bernardi's narrative is well-charged with superb comic timing, slap-band chatter, crafty stage management and knockabout rush and mystery. It's non-stop pandemonium that's refreshingly staged, stated and paced with tickling images, story arcs, gags, situations and dialogue that keep coming and coming in rapid succession much to the delight of everyone on stage and in the audience.

The plot-driven musical score for "School Spirits" - a playful mix of humorous, spirited and inspired musical numbers - has been configured with plenty of bounce, vigor and melody by Bernardi (lyrics) and Justin Rugg (music). The songs - eleven in all - are: "Just Like That," "Right Here," "Room Thirteen," "The Rules of Miss Cassowary's Classroom," "Schoolegy," "Talent Show Crossover," "Welcome to the Horror Show Rehearsal," "Flash Loose Foot Dance," "This Better Be Good," "Recitative Reveal" and "Welcome to the Horror Show Finale."
An expressive, free-flowing and charismatic achievement, maintained by sweet, distinct accompaniment, sound and rhythmic programming, the songs themselves are fun, enjoyable, entertaining and perfectly in sync with the story at hand, the humor and the melodrama, the Halloween theme, the high school setting and the rota of specific characters who have been asked to bring them to life. Here, as in other Pantochino musicals including "The Littlest Christmas Tree" and the more recent "Checking in on Charles," Bernardi and Rugg create lofty, frisky and festive-like songs, anthems, duets and ensemble numbers that are thoroughly fresh, clocked in and full-bodied.

Their love of musical theatre is engaging and perfectly clear as is their total involvement to music and lyric, right down to the smallest detail, beat, gesture and emotional moment. That command and commitment gives "School Spirit" its scholarly lift, its contrasting pleasures, its dispelled musicality and its significant detail.

Doubling as musical director, Rugg makes all the right moves and choices with vocalists - teen and adult - who complement and grasp the size and scope of the material, the mood, the surprise and the delivery of every individual musical number, its buildup, its climax, its execution and its importance to the evolvement of the actual story. Rugg also allows his cast to have great fun with the music, which, of course, they do, thus, bringing out all their vocal strengths, tones, virtuosity and sensibility alone, in pairs, in groups or as an ecstatic ensemble.

The cast - a megawattage of kitsch, camp, cartoonishness and B-movie, horror film mono - are an invigorating bunch of performers who wondrously morph into Bernardi's colorful lot of teens, spirits and high school faculty with truthfulness, equality, sizzle, influence and playfulness. Casting is key here, as is vocal ability, stage presence, personality and characterization. 
That said, all twelve make "School Spirits" fly, snap, soar and excite. The adults - Valerie Solli as Miss Cassowary, Hannah Duffy as Miss Raven and Jeremy Ajdukiewicz - bring a collective madness and punch to their respective roles. All three provide the necessary magnetism, voice and thunder associated with their colorful, stereotypical roles.
The teens - Annabel Wardman as Crystal, Connor Rizzo as Ace, Christopher Serrano as Liverwurst, Maya Barnes as Ginger, Nathan Horne as Baze, Delia Canarie as Shellac, Jamie Lamb as Keen, Fiona Pasley as Spooki, Ali McLaren as Kane - incorporate a wide range of emotions, assumptions and high school accent and persona into their individual roles, offset by perfectly-pitched poise and musicality, which makes every one of their musical numbers a thrilling showcase of fun, merriment, spark and horror film dollop.

Another "star" of the production is Jimmy Johansmeyer's choice, inspired and inventive, red, white and black costume designs, all of which have been tailor-made for all twelve cast members in accordance with the Halloween-esque conceit envisioned by the show's creators and musical collaborators. Design wise, every one of them is different, as well they should be. But the presentation itself, a creative blend of color, fabric, style and culture is shaped by Johansmeyer's strong sense of confidence, point of view, identity, tailoring, line and individuality. That feeling of fashion is fused and crafted to perfection throughout "School Spirits."

An invigorating megamix of song, trouble, glee, wit, dance and sparkle, "School Spirits" is a breezy, original Halloween musical paraded around in perky gadabout fashion that never once ceases to amaze and entertain.
It's frothy. It's playful. It's vigorous. It's surprising. It's exciting.
It's powered and performed by a committed, hard-working cast whose blast-out, room-filling energy ignites Bert Bernardi's high-decibel script.
The music - Bernardi and Rugg united as lyricist and composer - is joyously festive with track-race finesse and feeling. And the ending - happily-ever-after, of course - not only brings the ghost/ghoul/teen story to a close in very surprising, uplifting ways, but from the applause and happy smiles of everyone who bought a ticket, one wonders whether or not "School Sprits" should be a seasonal event at Pantochino every Halloween.

The answer: YES!!!!
Without question - Go for it!

"School Spirits" is being staged by Pantochino Productions (Milford Arts Council, 40 Railroad Avenue, Milford, CT), now through October 30, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 843-0959.

Monday, October 10, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 342, A Review: "Love's Labour's Lost" (Hole in the Wall Theater)

 By James V. Ruocco

In "Love's Labour's Lost," one of William Shakespeare's earliest and rarely performed comedies, the character of Costard is a silly, foppish court jester positioned by the Bard to make clever puns, mock upper-class society, amaze everyone with his splendid wit and wordplay, prance about with wild abandon, continually mispronounce the name of Spanish braggart Don Adriano de Armado and other foreign names and finally, mix up two very important love letters by giving them to the wrong people.
It's a character-driven plot device that brings cheeky laughter and maddening flourish to Hole in the Wall's giggly, flouncy staging of this broad, driven, amusing Shakespearean comedy. 
For David Sherman, the jovial, teenaged actor playing the part of Costard, it's a show-stealing turn of showboating, stumbling, giggling, overplaying, preening, laboring and page-turning merriment that he willingly inhabits with hammy charm, ballsy devotion and gooey-gumdrop, childish fun. From the moment he appears on stage, it's an "in-the-moment" acting choice that is embraced throughout the entire production with everlasting energy, commedia dell'arte tradition and high-spirited lift, gait and well-courted spontaneity.

"O, they have lived long on the almsbasket of words.
I marvel thy master hath not eaten thee for a word, for thou art not so long by the head as honorificabilitudinitatibus.
Thou art easier swallowed than a flapdragon."
(Costard "Love's Labour's Lost")

A festive romp, graced by screwball comedy charm and parody, "Love's Labour's Lost" is yet another Hole in the Wall theatrical entertainment that is shaped, molded, performed and staged with embraced knowledge, administered complement, innovative visual gags and counted, picture-frame delight.

It hops.
It skips.
It jumps.
It tilts.

It is articulate.
It is clever.
It is poetic.
It is fast and fluid.
It is jolly, good fun.

Rumored to have been written by Shakespeare between 1594 and 1595, "Love's Labour's Lost" is a comic tale of love, thought, scheme, happenstance, confusion and argument.
The silliness of it all is linked to a witty game of diversion and determination involving a group of men who decide to abstain from women - in this case, the Princess of France and her ladies-in-waiting - for three long years of study, fasting, self-improvement and sacrifice.
Love, chaos, comedy and miscommunication ensue, mixed with the Bard's oft-revived puns, twists, turns, squibs, jibes, mistaken identities and happily-ever-after's.

The goofy pleasure that is "Love's Labour's Lost" is matched with respective pleasantry, blithe and cynicism by Maranda Gallo whose directorial credits include the British farce "Don't Dress for Dinner" and "Brothers Grimm Spectacuralathon." Making her official mainstage directorial debut at HITW with this Shakespearean comedy, she crafts a keen, intuitive mounting of comedic love and mischief that is delectable fun, farcical, class-appropriate and innuendo-laden fizzy.
As director, Gallo spins an ironic, flashy, free-for-all of fact and opinion that brings sweep and involvement to the story, the characters, the exchanges, the conflicts, the shuffling, the asides and the laments. Peppered with playful bits of befuddlement, passion, spunk and period-specific satire, she adds fresh energy and adventure to the presentation, ignited by well-orchestrated bend and snap that keeps the material afloat with intrigue, aim, contract and intent. There's also a combined harmony of skill, ingenuity and practicality to Gallo's direction that complements the Bard's power of words, misunderstandings, mischief, romantic pursuits, tomfoolery, character interaction and evolution.

"Love's Labour's Lost" is performed by an ensemble cast of fourteen. They are: William Moro (Ferdinand), Carlos Holden (Berowne), C.S. Dunn (Longaville), Chris Blum (Armado), Krysten Drachenberg (Princess), Meg Farinsky (Rosaline), Sara Lafrance (Maria), Jeanie Tuzzio (Jaquenetta), Wayne Crow (Boyer), John Bosco (Moth), Gene Tellier (Holofernes), David Sherman (Costard), Andrew Fai (Nathaniel/Forester) and Luis Marrero-Solis (Dull/Merrcade).
A team effort, supported by table-turning twinkle, spark and whimsy, the cast, all appropriately linked to the devoted merriment and invention of the Bard's narrative, have great fun using words, emotions, manner and positioning to bring off the cheeky laughter and physical gags of the "Love's Labour's Lost" story.
As they frantically dash about the HITW stage, in sync with the Bard's poetic language and wordplay, they amplify the comedy of the text in all the right moments. They add pace and value to the work itself. They meet the demand of the play's two-hour length with confidence and agreement. As actors, they are corrective and expedient when performing alone, in pairs or as a group. They handle the play's quick passages and soliloquies with consummate ease. The play's glorious buffoonery and mischievous amusement is addressed with energetic whirl and twirl. There's also an overall sense of joy and pride buzzing around them from scene to scene that lasts right through the final bows that end the performance.

A funny, clever and crisp production with laughs and colorful performances aplenty, "Love's Labour's Lost" speaks and swerves in the most entertaining of ways. It rides the wave of showroom snap and kitsch with surprise wit and verve. It is wonderfully intricate and twisty. It gets laughs in all the right places. It is also recharged with a certain vitality, sweetness and goofy gaze by director Marando Gallo that lingers most agreeably.

Photos of "Love's Labour's Lost" courtesy of Mason Beiter/Mason Media Photography

"Love's Labour's Lost" is being staged at Hole in the Wall Theater (116 Main St., New Britain, CT), now through October 22, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 229-3049.

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 341, A Review: "Lady Day at Emerson's Park & Grill" (Playhouse on Park)

By James V. Ruocco

The year is 1959.
March, we are told.
The time: late at night.
The setting: a run-down bar in South Philadelphia.
The star: Danielle Herbert as the late Billie Holiday.

In "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill," jazz legend Billie Holiday takes center stage as playwright Lanie Robertson retraces a night in the singer's life, where, high on booze, Ms. Holiday attempts to wow a Philadelphia audience with songs and stories from her checkered past while falling apart, missing cues, stumbling, nearly collapsing and sometimes, not making any sense, whatsoever.

It's a performance - 90 minutes; no intermission - where Holiday holding a half-lit cigarette, guzzles vodka from a half-filled glass which she refills ten times over and talks about everything from being raped at the age of ten to being denied access to a restroom at a fancy nightclub where she was performing with bandleader Artie Shaw being she "was colored."
No matter. No explanation needed.
She just urinated all over the floor.

A close-up.
A snapshot.
A laugh.
A telling.
A sigh of relief.

But first, some facts about the great Lady Day.

She was born Eleanora Fagan on April 7,1915 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
As a child, she took a job doing chores and running errands for a local madam in exchange for the opportunity to play records on the Victrola.
As a teenager, she worked as a prostitute to survive.
She gave herself the name "Billie" because she adored silent screen film star Billie Dove.
Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith were among Holiday's early music influences.
She was continually plagued by bad relationships.
In the early 1940s, she started using heroin.
She was arrested on drug charges in 1947 and ended up spending several months in jail for possession.
Two years later, she was thrown in prison again after being caught with drugs by the police.
Her addiction continued throughout the 1950s which saw a decline in her career despite concert tours and the release of a few new jazz albums.
In May 1959, Holliday was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver.
She died on July 17, 1959, at the age of 44.

A star vehicle for any actress to inhabit and perform, "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill" jump starts Playhouse on Park's brand new 2022-2003 season, which includes August Wilson's "Fences," Paula Vogel's "Indecent" and the 1940's musical "Bandstand."

It's not a great play, but the music, the stories, the banter, the backstage drama and the songs themselves transform Robertson's entertaining musical tale of woe, heartbreak and decline into a grand, applause-worthy telling of spellbound intimacy, nostalgia and emotion.

It's dark.
It's painful.
It's real.
It's raw.
It's smokey.

There's also plenty of drinking and swearing and teetering on edge as Robertson portrays the utterly wrecked, desperate, celebratory life of the late jazz singer with a magnetic voice whose shot to fame was full of despair, tragedy, substance abuse and a whole lot of darkness.

The centerpiece of "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill" is, of course, the music - songs made famous by Holiday herself and songs made famous by others that she absolutely loved. Here, there are fifteen in all, in order of performance: "I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone," "When a Woman Loves a Man," "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," "Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer)," "Baby Doll," "God Bless the Child," "Foolin' Myself," "Somebody's on My Mind," "Easy Livin,' " "Strange Fruit," "T'ain't Nobody's Business If I Do," "What a Little Moonlight Can Do (reprise)" and "Deep Song."
Positioned in between the play's dialogue, stories and recollections, each of these musical numbers brings rhythm, voice and splendid musicality to the piece. They are smooth. They are clever. They are real. They are remarkable. They set the mood for the play and keep it going.
Introduced by band master Jimmy Powers - played here by actor and music director Nygel D. Robinson, Holiday's vocal turns in the spotlight are beautiful, page-turning and persuasive. and well, they should be.
As musical director, Robinson - at the piano - takes hold of the "Lady Day" songbook and does full justice to the singer's song repertoire and its unique blend of power, eloquence, urgency and hushed remembrance. Its sheer theatricality, intimacy and dramatic tension are scarcely dropped for a moment, which, in turn. adds a whooping realness and spirit to the proceedings, its musical flow, its hyperactive outbursts and its numbing, terrifying climax.
There's also a trust and unique bond between Robertson and his leading lady Danielle Herbert that gives "Lady Day" a thrilling, in-the-moment flourish and command that is shared by all. It's a splendid, impassioned touch of assurance, enhanced by the roar and sound of the Holiday music tapestry.

Providing a fixed point of trademark presence, confidence and sting, chock full of mood, swell and volume, director Stephanie Pope Lofgren - a performer herself - treats "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill" as something special, making every detail, emotion, rasp and grasp of the Billie Holiday story feel totally natural and effortlessly instinctive.
Holiday didn't have an easy life - make no mistake about that - but here, with Lofgren pulling the strings, the darkness, the abuse, the prejudice and the craziness take a backseat - if only fleetingly - as Lofgren mixes things up with little rays of sunshine, dazzle, sway and charm. It's a directorial conceit that heightens the show's rhythm and pulse, its nostalgic feel, its musical wealth and its one-on-one connection between actor and audience. It also allows the material, in spite of some clunky, overlong passages, to breathe, resonate, grow, roll, entice and tug at the heart. Lofgren masters those feelings and many more as "Lady Day" inches toward its frightening, but entirely justified conclusion.

In the role of jazz songstress Billie Holiday, Danielle Herbert captures the style, the verve, the spirit, the persona and the uniqueness of the legendary performer. It's a star turn on every level, but, nonetheless, it is portrayed by the actress singer with a real rawness and gutsy honesty that captivates, stings and entices. Yes, Holiday was a mess. Yes, Holiday was a trainwreck. Yes, Holiday was damaged. But underneath it all, Herbert offers her audience a chilling portrait of a woman whose musical voice had a had a special sound and individuality of its own, graced with shadings, transformations, phrasings and intonations that were hers - and hers alone.
That distinctiveness, that swoon of a lyric, that sway and swagger, that established bantering - all flawlessly inhabited by Herbert - infuses her characterization with a dignity, an unpredictability and a disturbing underscoring that never once falters.

Photos courtesy of Meredith Longo 

"Lady Day at Emerson's Park & Grill" is being staged at Playhouse on Park (244 Park Road, West Hartford, CT), now through October 16, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 523-5900.

Monday, October 3, 2022

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 340, A Review: "My Children! My Africa!" (HartBeat Ensemble)

By James V. Ruocco

Bold, crisp, telling, alas, the plays of South African playwright Athol Fugard.

These works - "The Road to Mecca," "A Lesson from Aloes," "Master Harold...and the Boys," "Blood Knot," "Sizwe Banzi Is Dead," to name a few - profoundly display the playwright's influences, concerns, ideas, thoughts, arguments and political engagements, as both influential storyteller and dramatist. Fueled by naturalistic language, metaphor, social realism and linear plot execution - all meticulously detailing the struggles, prejudice and conflicts of life in South Africa and linked effectively to the hardships of apartheid and the resulting consequences - the resulting effect, in conclusion, is relevant, verbal, timely, appropriate and justified.

"My essential identity is that of a writer. The things that converge in the writing of a play come from a complex of motives - a genesis shrouded in a certain kind of mystery."
Athol Fugard, Playwright.

Effective communication, alighted by engaged conversation, analysis, negotiation and discourse bring out the underlying message of Fugard's hypnotic 1989 play "My Children! My Africa!" Set during the final years of the apartheid regime, a time when a white supremacist government ruled South Africa and imposed strict racial segregation of the population, the two-act drama shows how the apartheid system reserved wealth and power for white people by dividing and defining South African society and influence along a destructive, debilitating racial line that ruthlessly exploited and harmed the black majority of the nation.
At the center of Fugard's raw, edgy and personal work, which is set primarily in a South African classroom at Zolile High School, are three pivotal characters: Isabel Dyson, an outspoken, independent-minded, privileged white student from Cambdeboo Girl's High; Thami Mbikwana, a smart, educated black student from Brakwater at odds with the educational system's colonial curriculum; and Mr. M, a dedicated, idealistic, older black schoolteacher who believes he can help young black students develop personal and critical thinking skills under his direct, responsible tutelage.

Their energetic, conflicted, often hopeful relationship, mixed with Fugard's courageous, defined attempt to portray the wrongness of apartheid while lobbying for justice and equality, is the heart and soul of HartBeat Ensemble's fiery, urgent, mind-blowing revival of the playwright's vigorous, vividly evoked tale of conflict, battle, debate and entrenched racism.

It is complex and necessary.
It is resonant and respective.
It is solid and profound.
It is motivated and intelligent.
It is passionate and precise.
It is painful and truthful.
It is why people go to the theater.
It is also why they come back.

This production of "My Children! My Africa" not only packs an enormous punch, but it showcases HartBeat Ensemble's ongoing commitment to the continual power of live, important, meaningful theatre.

True to Fugard's unique vision, concept and richly documented perspective, director Melanie Dreyer brings great knowledge, insight and understanding to the playwright's work, using intimate, clever touches, strokes, interaction and moves to ignite his haunting, beguiling story and soundscape. Her strategy strikes hard and digs deep, reinforced by life-affirming action that teeters on a volatile knife's edge, creates a racial and social divide and lays credence on the important subject matter, floored by bouts of conscience, madness, hope, willpower and determination.
Directorially, she doesn't waste a moment. As "My Children! My Africa" casts its spell over both the audience and the onstage characters, she uses moment-to-moment, one-on-one immersion to build, develop and cement Fugard's complicated, absorbing, verbal narrative. Sometimes, there are three characters on stage at a time. Often, there are just two. There's also room for soliloquy when Fugard feels the urge to have his characters step forth, bare their souls individually and bask in the stellar, challenging verbiage of his creation, exposing and augmenting their feminist, post-colonial, radical or psychoanalytic points of view.
It's a process or staging technique, if you prefer, that Dreyer propels and instills with precise, convincing thought and accuracy of equal measure, position, mindset and enablement. Part of the beauty is Fugard's intellectual language. Part of the beauty is how it is shaped and delivered. Part of the beauty is its genuineness. With Dreyer pulling the strings, it all comes together seamlessly, flawlessly and intuitively.

"My Children! My Africa!" stars Godfrey L. Simmons Jr. as Mr. M, Brianna Joy Ford as Isabel Dyson and Jelani Pitcher as Thami Mbikwana. This trio of performers - all exceptional in their own right - share an eloquence of speech, line delivery, performance and execution that complements and adheres to Fugard's conceit, his political blueprint, his historical perspective and his inherent need to inform and educate.
As the play evolves, there is great chemistry here, measured with appropriate vigor, tension, humor and passion. Alternating between relevant, confrontational dialogue and very lengthy, perfectly positioned monologues, they deliver forceful messages and laments with shocking immediacy, reinforcement, command and acknowledgement. 

One of Athol Fugard's best-made plays, "My Children! My Africa!" is a thought-provoking, full-blooded drama of tremendous power and conviction, orchestrated brilliantly under Melanie Dreyer's poetic, combative direction.
In the hands of three exceptional, hardworking, gifted actors, Fugard's dialogue and story are projected with real, raw intensity that shakes you up, hits hard, gets you thinking and keeps you completely on edge.
This is theatre.
Complex. Fierce. Determined. Impressive.
Successfully voiced, played and portrayed.
Completely unforgettable.
It is not to be missed.

"My Children! My Africa!" is being staged by HartBeat Ensemble (Carriage House Theater, 360 Farmington Avenue, Hartford, CT), now through October 9, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 548-9144.