Sunday, February 26, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 376, A Review: "Sweet Charity" (Kingswood Oxford)

 By James V. Ruocco

A spirited, kind-hearted musical from 1966 enjoying a cheery revival at Kingswood Oxford, "Sweet Charity" - originally produced on Broadway with Gwen Verdon in the title role and featuring choreography created by her then-husband Bob Fosse - is draped and configured with the kind of red-carpet optimism and resilience guaranteed to make everyone in the audience stand up and cheer.

And cheer, they do.

This "Sweet Charity" is trumped up in glorious Technicolor that never once gets out of sync.
It's imaginative and good-natured.
It's an exercise in nostalgia chock full of big song-and-dance numbers.
It's imaginative and good natured.
It's got style.
It's got feeling.
It's sweet-sounding with dazzling choreographic verve.
It also comes gift-wrapped with a cast of more than 30 Kingswood Oxford students primed and ready to tackle the musical's 1960's songs, ballads and ensemble numbers and its stylized, invigorating choreography designed to reflect and pay homage to the late, great Bob Fosse. And lastly, its essential footing and atmospheric environs.

Written by the late Neil Simon ("The Odd Couple," "Barefoot in the Park"), the two-act musical tells the story of Charity Hope Valentine, an attractive New York dance hall hostess (i.e., taxi dancer) looking for love and finding it, only to be denied a happy ending once her nerdy, neurotic boyfriend Oscar Lindquist gets cold feet and walks away during the musical's final minutes.
"Did you ever have one of those days?" she tells the audience. "At least I didn't get tattooed again. And I still have my dowry. Maybe things are beginning to look up for me."
Not to worry, though.
A sign appears high above the proscenium stage and reads: "And so she lived hopefully ever after."

Simon, as playwright, portrays the title character's romantic journey through a series of sparkling comedic moments and conversation filled with laugh lines, optimism, drama, heartache and supportive female chum characters that carry the musical forward with effectively paced accomplishment, build up and payoff. Strategically placed, important musical numbers and choreography heighten the experience.

Staging "Sweet Charity," Kyle Reynolds, Director of Theater at Kingwood Oxford, brings a vigorous, kinetic energy to the production that produces spark and dash from a bygone era laced with plenty of sizzle, razzle dazzle, smooth talk, irony, humor and unstoppable juggernaut. Directorially, there's notable precision and distinctive strength here mixed with the playful timber, motif, character and facilitated subscription of traditional Broadway musical theatre.
It all comes together seamlessly from scene to scene, song to song and act to act. More importantly, it's all swiftly incorporated into a 145-minute run (not counting intermission or opening night talks and fundraising auctions with the audience) highlighted by perfectly timed scene changes, sound and light cues and ace instrumental accompaniment by the orchestra. 
The use of above stage screen projections that light up from time to time the to reveal locations, mood swings and dilemmas ("Girl Who Wanted to Be Loved," "A Big Decision," "To Be Continued," "Meanwhile Back in the Elevator") is seamlessly interspersed throughout the two-act musical with genuine, feel-good panache and humor.

Creativity on Reynold's part (he also choreographs all but two of the production's big dance numbers) is the root of this musical telling. Given the musical's origins - Federico Fellini's 1957 Italian language film "Nights of Cabiria;" the Bob Fosse/Gwen Verdon legacy; book by Neil Simon - he takes hold of the material, whips it into shape and moves it from the rehearsal hall to the vast space of the Roberts Center with full-bodied start and finish acumen.

This isn't standard repertoire. It's big, loud, grand and bold musical theatre.
It all has to be inked, dotted and synced in accordance with the original blueprint of its collaborators, a daunting task that Reynolds greets with enthusiasm, order, flair, improvisation and entitlement.
That said, his "Sweet Charity" respects, understands and celebrates the style and talent of its predecessors from Fellini-like images, postering and character preening reminiscent of both "Nights of Cabiria" and "La Dolce Vita" to obvious staging and dance techniques that pay homage to "Hair," "Chicago" and West Side Story," among others, ingeniously incorporated into the ongoing story by Reynolds and assistant choreographer Meghan McDermott.

Bursting with ideas, classic unlucky-in-love associations and lots and lots of heart, the musical score for "Sweet Charity," written by Cy Coleman (music) and Dorothy Fields (lyrics) is a product of the times - similarities to "Mame," "Funny Girl," "Hello, Dolly!" "Golden Rainbow" and She Loves Me" immediately spring to mind - and the 1960's Broadway mindset from whence it came.
It is fun. It is kitschy. It is sweet and sentimental. It is plot driven. It is melodic. It is hummable. 
It's a star vehicle.
Its woven textures, playful bounce, swing and lyrical expressionism are filtered through 14 deftly positioned, energetically arranged musical numbers. They are: "You Should See Yourself," "Big Spender," "Charity's Soliloquy," "Rich Man's Frug," "If My Friends Could See Me Now," "Too Many Tomorrows," "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This," "I'm the Bravest Individual," "The Rhythm of Life," "Baby, Dream Your Dream," "Sweet Charity," "Where Am I Going?" "I'm a Brass Band" and "I Love to Cry at Weddings."  

As musical director, Steve Mitchell, Kingswood Oxford Director of Choral Music, takes hold of the "Sweet Charity" musical score and guides it with a steady and sure hand, capturing its rhythmic dynamic, its acoustical energy, its imbued push and pull and its inspired musicality.

This is a fun Broadway score crafted, developed and orchestrated by Coleman and Fields with syncopated diligence and soundscape that Mitchell and his 18-member orchestra evoke with a nostalgic thrust full of reminiscences, references and inspiration that are not only pleasant to the ear, but lovingly in sync with the theme, the sound and the turning points and evolution of the original 1966 Broadway musical.
When necessary, some of the musical numbers are creatively extended - "The Rhythm of Life," "I'm a Brass Band," "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This," for example - for story, dance, choral and dance purposes with subtle revisions and beats that heighten their already-proven accent and dimension. The orchestra also gets a big solo spot halfway through Act II reminiscent of those posh, popular New York supper clubs of the 1940s and the 1950s and the big band stretch motifs employed by those live shows integrated between all those classic romantic comedies that once played the Radio City Music Hall.

A regular fixture of "Sweet Charity" and one that thrust the musical center stage for eight performances a week on Broadway during its original 1960's run at the Palace Theatre was Bob Fosse's choreography - a dazzling feat of quality, skill and exquisite partnership.
Jazz hands. Turned in knees. Curved shoulders. Synchronized movement shifting from fast to slow then back again. That was (and is) signature Fosse.
Here, at Kingswood Oxford, choreographers Kyle Reynolds and assistant Meghan McDermott dig deep to give an immaculate account of everything Fosse, creating fluid, iconic movement - in all its forms - mirroring the flashes of brilliance, stylization, detail and parodying concurrent in the musical's dance aesthetic. It's a process pierced with wonder and imagination that bobs and sweeps with animated aplomb which the cast sells with organic spooling, imagination and theatricalized sway and swagger. So much so the genius that is Fosse never once leaves the stage, a compliment of the highest order to both Reynolds, McDermott and their hard-working company of actors, singers and dancers.

"The Rhythm of Life," a tangy paean to the hippie movement of the 1960s finds Reynolds paying tribute to "Hair" using the signature stylization and oomph of Fosse which he implements through choice beats, tilts, spins and turns that recall the song-sermon spiritual angst of the original Broadway Act II musical number, offset by his own thrilling, defined creative choices. As Big Daddy, the cult leader of the Rhythm of Life Church, Zaire Ramiz delivers a rousing vocal turn, amplified impressively with a heavy-hitting choral gospel treatment from the acid-tipped hippie ensemble.

With "There's Gotta be Something Better for This," a jazzy, breezy cry for help (i.e., a real job with real hours and real benefits) from the Fandango Ballroom trio of Charity, Nikki and Helene, played respectively by McKenzie Campbell, Faith Potter and Diya Mistri, McDermott mixes elements from both the 1966 Broadway and 1969 film adaptation of "Sweet Charity" (a great idea) to produce a frenzied dance free-for-all that snaps, pops, twirls and cajoles with fierce, wild Fosse abandon and frenzy. The addition of several Fandango taxi dancers to the musical number (originally, it was just danced and sung by Gwen Verdon, Helen Gallagher and Thelma Oliver) adds a "West Side Story" (think rooftop "America" without Anita) flair and zing to the number that heightens its already tremendous choreography and catchy dance about.

The iconic "Big Spender," a flashy, moody, no-nonsense musical number where the Fandango Ballroom taxi dancers flirt and proposition male customers for money and a quick dance ("Hey mister can I talk to you for a minute; Hey fella, ya wanna dance? I could give you some fun") is a sensational, driven and epic dance number showcasing the athleticism and emotional expressionism of the Fosse "Sweet Charity" legacy that Reynolds adapts and triggers with an innate, up-close-and-personal stamp that rises from the ground, stands up right, front, tall and center and seduces and entices the theatergoer with ovation-worthy sparkle and representation. "Rich Man's Frug," a Fellini-like showstopper performed with "La Dolce Vita" abandon furthers that concept as McDermott turns up the heat for a 1960's Italian bacchanalian night club dance fest of pleasurable movement connected to the dots of the past, its ritualistic rhythms, its twirling, transfixed heads and its impactive luminosity.

"I'm a Brass Band," a well-known Fosse song-and-dance number that here, is designed to transform this particular "Sweet Charity" segment at Kingswood Oxford into a "Music Man" declaration of "hopefully ever after scenario " for the show's leading lady, is etched with such spark, static and buzz and organized illumination, if there was a "'replay" button attached to the seats, a second viewing would be mandatory. It's big, grand and drop-dead spectacular, replete with a drumming chain-and-mix sequence (no drums; just drumsticks) that Reynolds shapes with thrilling, showstopping acumen. "I Love to Cry at Weddings," a splashy ensemble number celebrating Charity and Oscar's pending nuptials also scores high points not only for its breezy choreographic inventiveness by Richards, but for Gordon Beck's (he plays Herman, Charity's boss and owner of the Fandango Ballroom) skilled, smooth, unstoppable crowd-pleasing solo turn, with able support from the ensemble. If anyone is doing a teen version of "Guys and Dolls," Beck is the perfect fit for the part of Nation Detroit or Nicely-Nicely Johnson.

In the lead role of Charity Hope Valentine, a dance hall hostess with a knack for falling for the wrong men, McKenzie Campbell, like others before her - namely Gwen Verdon, Tamzin Outhwaite, Anne- Marie Duff, Christina Applegate, Molly Ringwald - comes to "Sweet Charity" investing real talent, real energy, real vulnerability, real charm and real vocal star power into one of musical theater's most demanding roles ever written for a female.
It's a part imbued with the lived-in, spirited persona, similar to that of Giulietta Masina in Fellini's "Nights of Cabiria," etched and inked with the dabs of imagination, grin, aesthetic, wistfulness and passion from Simon's cheeky, playfully sifted play text, Fosse's megawatt dance blueprint for the character and the Sutton Foster Broadway leading lady handbook for musical theatre performance.
On stage at Kingswood Oxford, Campbell's "big heart for yearning for love" performance is effervescent, joyful, seductive, genuine, unbreakable and Broadway smooth. Vocally, she is at the top of her game, belting out song after song - "You Should See Yourself," "Charity's Soliloquy," "If They Could See Me Now," "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This," "Where Am I Going?" "I'm A Brass Band," - with just the right amount of percussive, in-the-moment conviction, echoing the Coleman/Fields vocal conceit for the character with the buoyant energy, faded joy or sparkly red ribboning of their invention.

Faith Potter (Nickie) and Diya Mistri (Helene) enact the bold, daring well-defined supporting roles of Charity's best friends and Fandango Ballroom taxi dancers with rollicking good flair, fun, style, force and persona. Together, they each bring a sustained truth, style and dash to their characters, offset by splendid, electric-charged vocals - "Baby Dream Your Dream," "Big Spender," "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This" - that beautifully convey their smashing, faultless musicality. Luke Roen's portrayal of Charity's unstrung, neurotic boyfriend Oscar Lindquist is an infectious mix of Felix Unger "Odd Couple" flibbertigibbet madness, fleshed out with contagious tick and sight-gag-giggle accompaniment. His first meeting with Charity - they get trapped in stalled elevator at New York's Ninety-second Street "Y" - is great comic fun that eventually leads to "I'm the Bravest Individual," an enjoyable comic duet peppered with lyrical tonic, flutter and carefully sifted sit-com desperation by both performers.

Presented with the immersive, iconic recreation of a big 1960s musical, "Sweet Charity," at Kingswood Oxford, is a dazzling showcase of light and color that everyone - on stage and off - pulls off spectacularly.
It is nostalgic. It is whimsical. It is striking. It is theatrical. It is splashy. It is stylish.

It is also a labor of love - Kyle Reynolds, Meghan McDermott, Steve Mitchell, costume designer Jack Richards, duly noted - anchored by the showstopping performance of McKenzie Campbell, a Kingwood Oxford student who comes to the Roberts Center stage leading a big song-and-dance parade of her own backed by a team of players - lead, supporting and chorus - united as one to perform one helluva revival celebrating the Fosse/Verdon legacy.

"Sweet Charity" was staged at Kingswood Oxford (Roberts Center, 170 Kingswood Rd., West Hartford, CT) on February 24 and 25, 2023.
For information about the school, admissions or upcoming productions, call (860) 233-9631.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 375, A Review: "Spring Awakening" (Brookfield Theatre for the Arts)

 By James V. Ruocco

It's a musical about schoolchildren - teenagers coming of age - but "Spring Awakening" is actually a dark, sophisticated, edgy, angst-ridden musical designed primarily for adults.
It is raw and dangerous.
It is sharp, jagged and imaginative.
It is amoral, explosive and intellectual.
It is anachronistic in expression.
It is startling and cynical.
It numbs the senses.
It leaves you breathless.
It floors you with its honesty.
It is pure poetry that defies the odds, gets the juices flowing, kicks you in the ass and finally, breaks you in two.

At Brookfield Theatre for the Arts, the teenage repression and rebellion that permeates "Spring Awakening" is addressed with challenge, commitment, stylization and engrossing lyricism.
It rocks.
It tilts.
It haunts.
It entices.
As musical theatre, it is a bruise your heart experience staged with affecting, vibrant, free-flowing enthusiasm.
It is sensational.

Written for the stage by Steven Sater, "Spring Awakening" takes its cue from Frank Wedekind's intimate, explicit, controversial 1891 German play of the same name that was subsequently banned in Germany for its blatant portrayal of sexual copulation, masturbation, rape, abortion, homosexuality, father-daughter incest, suicide, self-flagellation, communal ejaculation, fantasy and induced masochism amongst teenagers discovering the intimacies of their inner and outer sexuality amidst a backdrop of strict bourgeois practice and morality.

Not exactly fodder for a Broadway musical, but glancing back, they said the same thing about "Hair," "Rent," "Next to Normal," "Fun Home" and most recently, "A Strange Loop." And we all know what happened there.
Intriguingly, the subject matter for "Spring Awakening," though hardly shocking by today's standards, lends itself nicely to the musical stage. And luckily for us, it is not based upon a movie, a television series or a hit concept record album like so many past or present Broadway and West End musicals.
Instead, it wisely and intuitively respects its original 19th century source material using a carefully orchestrated blend of pseudo pop, folk-infusion and alternative rock music and dialogue to retell its brutally honest tale of sexual awakening and turn it into a piece of mind-blowing, intelligent, provocative musical theatre.
There's raw emotionality to this particular staging of the original 2006 Broadway musical inked and dotted with interrogation, identity and vast, probing explosion.

In Brookfield, "Spring Awakening" puts award-winning director Beth Bonnabeau ("Rent," "American Idiot," "tick, tick...Boom!") in the directorial chair to touch a nerve, command your attention and deftly mirror the gutsy, intense emotions, conversations and exchanges that define the original 19th century story and its reworked telling by Sater. As storyteller, she creates an impassioned, illuminating portrait of teen angst and sexual awakening using all the right colors, strokes, imagery, positioning and patterns. 
It's all here: flat-out truths, bared souls, consensual sex, discovery, experimentation, pain, confusion and passion.
No tricks. No games. No gimmicks. No pandering.
Just real, justified, revolutionary storytelling.

Bonnabeau, as director, dances to her own decided beat.
Her "Spring Awakening" is bold, brazen, wistful, grief-laden and bleeding.
Scene after scene, song after song, line after line, there's marvelous creativity here.
The movement she creates, is matched by important moments that thrust the action forward with exacting punch and thrilling perspective. She also doesn't copycat or feel the need to compete with other productions of the iconic musical.
There is her vision, her interpretation, her musical.
The immersive, up-close-and-personal atmosphere of the Brookfield-based venue also works to Bonnabeau's advantage. As with both "American Idiot" and "tick, tick...Boom!" she opts for s staging device that transforms the theatergoer into a willing participant and full-on voyeur. It's a dig deep theatrical process that heightens the musical's intimacy (a suicide; a kiss between two lovers; a confession; a group masturbation; a confused coupling that ends mid-orgasm; a homosexual encounter in the woods; the burial of a loved one; the reading of a very private, explicit letter) its frank and outspoken dialogue, its emotive vocals, its atmospheric dimension and the identity of every character.
As orchestrator, she transforms "Spring Awakening" into a shattering, astonishing, tragic tale of teen angst feted in tour-de-force theatricality, gutting brilliance, quaking honesty and tick clock establishment.

Musically, "Spring Awakening" unfolds with an expressed mix of humor, lightness, seriousness, spirit and drama concise with its coming-of-age storyline, the rise and fall of its central characters, its grounding experiences, its values and traditions and its weighty repercussions. Written by Duncan Sheik (music) and Steven Sater, it evolves through a variety of songs - rock; folksy; anxiety-ridden - well-placed and positioned throughout the story.
They are: "Mama Who Bore Me," "Mama Who Bore Me (reprise)," "All That's Known," "The Bitch of Living," "My Junk," "Touch Me, " "The Word of Your Body," "The Dark I Know So Well," "And Then There Were None," "The Mirror-Blue Night," "I Believe," "The Guilty Ones," "Don't Do Sadness/ Blue Wind," "Left Behind," "Totally Fucked," "The World of Your Body (reprise)," "Whispering," "Those You've Known" and "The Song of Purple Summer."

For this incarnation, the onstage band, in full view of the audience is led by musical director/conductor/pianist David Anctil (last seen as Jonathan in "tick, tick...Boom!" at the venue) with the able assist of Josh Rodis (guitar), Charles Casimiro (bass), Samantha Marcial (cello), Em Squatrito (viola), Daniele Browning (violin) and Chris Babcock (percussion). In sync with Sheik and Sater's involved vision for "Spring Awakening," Anctil and his orchestra bring the right amount of intensity, intimacy and precision to the original music and lyrics, reveling in its frenzied, arousing, adrenalized, impassioned, ardent, fiery, animated beats.
As the musical evolves, a special fission of musicality is thus produced, carried off with clarity, energy, purpose and a drive all its own. Elsewhere, the vocals of the leading players, the ensemble and the supporting cast are uplifting, impassioned and affecting, producing and giving a powerful, confession-like voice to the catalogue of 21st century songs and their varying blends of melancholy, discovery, sensibility, anger, passion, desire and hope.

The sweet and sentimental anthem "I Believe," which augments the passionate, hayloft lovemaking of Melchior and Wendla, is rife with plenty of sensual and pulsating harmonies. "The Dark I Know Well," sung by Martha and Ilse, captures the confusion, the horror, the humiliation and the torment of the pair, who sing about the parental physical and sexual abuse they are forced to endure and hopefully have escaped. The exhilarating, pumped-up "The Bitch of Living" finds Moritz, Melchior and the other boys – Ernst, Hanschen, Otto and Georg – hilariously sharing their very own sexually frustrated thoughts and desires. When Melchior is brought before the school's discerning governors for disseminating explicit information about the facts of life, "Totally Fucked" is transformed into a showstopping, blatant, radical and rousing cry of protest that rings loud and clear throughout the entire Brookfield-based venue.

Another standout of this mounting of "Spring Awakening" is the insightful, original, jaw-dropping choreography by Josephine Harding, a five-star talent with a distinct style and visualization, delivered here with great artistry and conceptual brilliance. Her approach - exploratory, mind-bending, dreamlike, surreal, transporting - is executed with just the right amount of genius, liberation, passion, desire and carefree abandon. It is also very different from the Broadway staging (Harding puts her own personal stamp on the material), but smartly in sync with the show's complicated, beautiful lyrics, its varying beats and rhythms, its themes of sexual exploration and self-discovery and its invigorating, contagious musicality. Its flashes of pure excellence, accomplished stylization, inventive pairing and streamlined interplay mixed with emotive punk expressionism and organic thrust succeed as both dance art and coordinated, voltage-charged expression.

Bonnabeau's casting of the boyishly charming Zachary Geiger as the troubled Melchior Gabor is a stroke of genius that gives the production its strong, emotional center. Like Jonathan Groff who originated the part on Broadway he embodies the curious, endearing persona of a young 19th century romantic and dreamer channeling his emotions through self-discovery, sexual experimentation, scholastic excellence and teenaged camaraderie. It's a very real, natural, in-the-moment performance offset by outstanding delivered vocals that include "Totally Fucked," "All That's Known," "The Mirror-Blue Night," "Left Behind" and "The Word of Your Body."
In the role of the troubled Moritz Stiefel, the school oddball and sport, tortured by day-to-day fears of failing his classes and the mysterious blue legs that haunt his late-night dreams, Dylan Ryan owns and inhabits the part of the often-misunderstood teenager. He's funny. He's quirky. He's dramatic. He's lost. He's also an idiosyncratic mess (his character, that is) worried about scholastic failings and being cast out into the world by his parents (he takes his own life), all of which transitions into a completely driven, electrifying performance. If anyone's doing "Jekyll & Hyde," Roberts would be perfect for dual title role. He's also got the vocal chops, as evidenced here - "The Bitch of Living," "And Then There Were None," Don't Do Sadness/Blue Wind" to completely pull it off.

As the inquisitive, beguiling Wendla Bergmann, Kennedy Morris ("Carrie," "Beauty and the Beast") embodies the innocence, the shy apprehension, the shadowy air of longing and the brazen confidence of her character, which gives her ardent participation in "Spring Awakening" its necessary pulse, joy, incentive and curiosity. Her tender-hearted, acquiescent portrayal also allows the theatergoer to see the world through her eyes and naturally experience her innermost thoughts about love, intimacy and its many conflicting emotions. Vocally, she takes charge of her character's many songs - "Mama Who Bore Me," "The Word of Your Body," "Whispering," among others - with a shimmering bravura all her own. She also shares a believable, tender-hearted chemistry with Geiger - carefully moving from awkward innocence and curiosity to aroused pleasure and sexual intensity, sparked by real compassion and desire. 
Jocelyn Titus completely immerses herself in the part of Ilse Newmann, the teenager who escapes an abusive home to live freely in the environs of an artist's colony. Her troubled plight, which prompts her eventual freedom from her family, is performed with raw gusto in "The Dark I Know Well" which she shares with Martha, played in this production by the very talented, intuitive Katelyn McGuire.
Much later, Titus takes center stage to sing "The Song of Purple Summer" (the entire cast eventually joins in), a revelatory musical number about the emotional growth and birth of a new generation, who eagerly await a very liberated future. Her singing of this emotional song reveals a fiery energy and compassion completely in sync with the conceit set forth by the show's creators. 

As the educated, flirtatious Hanschen Rilow, a young man attracted to other boys his age, Ethan Valencia sparks a magnitude of actor-audience interest in his characterization delivering instinctive quirks, gestures, comments and emotions that adds real dimension to his already proven character. In "My Junk," - an audience favorite that plays to thunderous applause - his character amusingly cuts loose with an erotically charged masturbation fantasy involving a postcard depicting Correggio's "Jupiter and Io." Much like the original sequence from the Broadway production, it is performed by the actor with deliberate, playful release and explosion keyed to the max by choreographer Josephine Harding (it's all in fun and hardly obscene) who frames and builds Hanschen's hand-job action effectively (most of his transfixed, curious classmates surround him) without any form of censorship. 
Alicia Dempster and Eli Patton fill the shoes of the multiple adult characters they are asked to play with draconian registry and deliberation. Given the musical's 1891 setting, they effectively humanize their characters carefully portraying both the provincial and judgmental Lutheran background concurrent in the society of the times and their strict upbringing.
The supporting cast - mainly Bowie Perlman, Eliana Russotti, Katelyn McGuire, Jordan Toribio, Daisy Stott, Noah Leibowitz - offer raw, dangerous, driven, hypnotic performances that transform their individual classmate characters into seismic interpreters of the times, the story and the poetry that is "Spring Awakening."

"Spring Awakening" is being staged at Brookfield Theatre for the Arts (184 Whisconier Rd., Brookfield, CT), now through March 4, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 775-0023.

Photos of "Spring Awakening" courtesy of Steve Cihanek 

In the weeks ahead: "The Revolutionists" (April 21-May 6) and "Urinetown" (June 9-24).


From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 374, A Review: "Tootsie" (The Bushnell)

 By James V. Ruocco

A man in drag?
The horror?
Not really.
A struggling male actor pretending to be a woman in order to get a part in a brand-new Broadway musical?
Bring it on!

"Tootsie," the giddy, candy-coated musical adaptation of the popular 1982 movie that starred Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange and Terri Garr comes to the stage with such a nostalgic, unstoppable mindset, the very idea of a straight male putting on a dress and masquerading as a woman with a full-on Equity card membership is jiggered happily to perfection with the gait, twirl, spin and luster of bygone Broadway- and then some.
As musical theatre, its gender-bending plotline is easy to digest or swallow, if you prefer, because it's really all in good fun - i.e., designed solely for entertainment purposes and nothing more.

And just in case you missed it on Broadway back in 2019 at the Marquis Theatre, the Bushnell - grand and glorious with a mammoth proscenium stage and sound system like no other - is the perfect place to enjoy it just the way it was meant to seen when it first played New York four years ago and received 11 Tony Award nominations including Best Musical and won two - Best Performance by a Leading Actor and Best Book of a Musical.

The National Tour on the road through June 2023 - and perhaps even longer - abounds with giggles galore - in both style and content - mixed and stirred with considered update, emotion, thought and man-in-a-dress hysteria.
The sets, designed by David Rockwell and flanked by breathtaking views of New York City's skylines, are slick, colorful and ingeniously atmospheric.
William Ivy Long's costume design - modern day, Renaissance and 1950's-like Balenciaga - is smart, savvy and specified couture.
The lighting palate, the brainchild of Don Holder, recalls the old-fashioned Broadway musical when Gwen Verdon, Jerry Orbach, Carol Channing and Angela Lansbury were center stage. It is beautiful to the eye and framed with direct, definite narrative inspiration.

Transferring "Tootsie" from screen to stage, playwright Robert Horn gives "the man dressing up as a woman to land an important role" concept a wise, well-fueled update by moving the story from the set of a television soap opera to the rehearsal hall of a brand, new Broadway musical in progress. This, in turn, allows for lots of candor, sarcasm, wit and plenty of inside jokes aimed at actors, producers, auditions, rehearsals, leading ladies, casting directors, writers, backers, reality stars, etc. 
It's a topic Horn knows inside out (he also won the Tony for Best Book of a Musical) and one that produces laughs in all the right places.
Almost everything is pretty much fact based - no surprise there - as Horn turns up the heat on the Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels story while layering the many "Tootsie" subplots with acidic and outrageous banter guaranteed to piss off members of the Broadway theatre world and its snarky, double-talking elite.

Musically, "Tootsie" is set afire with music and lyrics by acclaimed composer David Yasbeck whose Broadway credits include "The Full Monty," "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" and "The Band's Visit." Here, he creates a variety of accessible, pleasant-sounding musical numbers that propel the action forward with rapt equality, signature and melody. They are: "Opening Number," "Whaddya Do," "What's Gonna Happen," "Whaddya Do (reprise)," "I Won't Let You Down," "I'm Alive," "There Was John," "I Like What She's Doing," "Who Are You?" "What's Gonna Happen (reprise)," "Unstoppable," "Jeff Sums It Up," "Gone, Gone, Gone," "Who Are You? (reprise)," "This Thing," "Whaddya Do (reprise)," "The Most Important Night of My Life," "Talk to Me Dorothy," "Arrivederci!" "What's Gonna Happen (reprise)" and "Thank You/Talk to Me Dorothy (reprise)."
The score itself - sweet, hummable and pleasant-sounding show music - is lighthearted and family-friendly - filled to the brim with snappy vocals and ensemble numbers that happily portray the musical's innate sense of comedy, its character-driven renaissance, its channeled charm and its faultless giddyap. At the same time, it's not in the same league as "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" or "The Band's Visit." It's also not something you'd be rushing off to buy from anytime soon. It is what it is and that's entirely o.k. Music supervisor Dean Sharenow captures the romantic symphonism of it all with drive, energy, sound and lyrical directness.

Staging "Tootsie," director David Solomon, working from a blueprint of the original Broadway direction by Scott Ellis, is wholeheartedly committed to the musical's standard recipe for success - pure laughter; fun storyline; entertaining accompaniment. For the National Tour edition of the two-act musical, he brings flair, opportunity and eyebrow raise to the piece, punctuated by peppy pacing, swoony melodrama, laugh-a-minute giggling and crafty intoxication. He makes great use of the ensemble - one of the best groups of performers out there - who play a variety of different roles while doubling most effectively as the scene change crew. Also effective is Denis Jones' Broadway style choreography, which, in this go-round, peaks and sizzles with uniformed, undeniable chemistry by every single performer on stage.

"Tootsie" stars Drew Becker as Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels, Ashley Alexandra as Julie Nichols, Payton Reilly as Sandy Lester, Matthew Rella as Max Van Horn, Jared David Michael Grant as Jeff Slater and Adam Du Plessis as Ron Carlisle.

In the dual role of Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels, Drew Becker brings the right comedic style to the musical, which, in turn, prompts hilarious laughter in all the right places. He has such great fun in the role, it's easy to get swept up in the Michael/Dorothy story and everything it has to offer. Ashley Alexandra, who plays Julie, the romantic leady lady of the new Broadway musical "Juliet's Curse" and the love interest of Michael/Dorothy, is a standout both vocally and acting wise.  As Sandy, Michael's angst-ridden, girlish friend who can't seem to get an acting gig, Payton Reilly's neurotic persona and line delivery is right on point as is her splendid delivery of "What's Gonna Happen," a hilariously written and replayed patter song that paints her obvious neuroses in full-fledged, giggly, manic mania.
Max Van Horn, a young, handsome, dumber-than-dumb reality star with a hot body he continually shows off by dropping his shirt multiple times, Matthew Rella not only stops the show with "This Thing," a full-on, big comic number, but comes to "Tootsie" with a natural, raw energy that makes his studly character stand out every time he's on stage. As Michael's roommate Jeff Slater, Jared David Michael Grant hams it up with perfectly synched deadpan delivery and shading that's well worth watching and cheering.

"Tootsie" is being staged at the Bushnell (166 Capitol Ave., Hartford, CT), now through February 26, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 987-6000.

In the weeks ahead: "Hadestown" (March 7-12), "Tina - The Tina Turner Musical" (April 11-16) and "Jagged Little Pill" (May 9-14).

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 373, A Review: "Jack and the Beanstalk" (Downtown Cabaret Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

A fairy tale is a short story - suitable for adults and children alike - that features magic, enchantment, wonder, myth, folklore, happy endings and the presence of fairies or mythical beings alongside its popular human characters.
It also comes packaged with several key elements that make it truly magical.
a.) a hero, a heroine and a villain.
b.) a morality lesson.
c.) a warm, cozy setting.
d.) a conflict and resolution.
e.) a journey, a challenge, a quest, a celebration, a win.
f.) simple, inspirational language that all groups can understand.

One of the most popular - "Jack in the Beanstalk" - the latest in a series of youth-oriented productions to grace the Downtown Cabaret Theatre in Bridgeport - is a story worth telling.
It is fun. It is playful. It is exciting. It is enchanting. It is colorful.
It unfolds with a whizzbang of knockabout innuendo, song, merriment, dialogue and family-friendly giddyap - candy-coated to perfection to not only justify the beans, but clap and cheer its lifetime supply of ruse, skit, silliness, sparkle and inspiration.

It is stunning to look at.
It is cast brilliantly.
It is comforting and uplighting.
It is skittle and dash - and then some.

An English fairy tale that first appeared in 1734 as "The Story of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean" and later in 1807 as "The History of Jack and the Beanstalk," the story itself was rewritten in 1890 by Joseph Jacobs for his popular collection of children's stories titled "English Fairy Tales."
Here, a poor, young country boy named Jack sells his milky white cow for a handful of magic beans, which for fairy tale purposes, grow into a towering beanstalk high above the clouds.
Upon climbing the beanstalk, Jack finds himself standing tall in the castle of an unfriendly giant filled with a mountaintop of treasures which he steals - a bag of gold; a goose that lays golden eggs; a magical golden harp - to fund his struggling, penniless family.
He escapes. The giant goes berserk. 
Jack chops down the beanstalk. The giant falls to his death.
And Jack and his family, not only prosper, but in true fairy tale tradition, they live happily ever after.

Phill Hill, the author of several successful DCT children's theatre productions - "Beauty and the Beast," "Cinderella," "Rapunzel," "Ugly Duckling," to name a few - finds plenty to write and laugh about with his engaging, flavorful retelling of the "Jack and the Beanstalk" story. Putting his own personal stamp on the much-loved fairy tale, he crafts a colorful, inventive musical, backed by a free-spirited energy and wit that lends itself nicely to the original source material.
This being a production solely designed for kids, the dialogue and story arcs unfold with a frenzied, understandable gallop of words and situations that any child could easily grasp without the aid of a quick recap from their parents, child-minders or uncles and aunts.
As storyteller, it's all inked and spliced with ease, charm, irony and engagement by Hill. And befitting the trademark British Panto of his mindset, this "Jack and the Beanstalk" breaks down the theatrical fourth wall for one-on-one interaction and commentary from everyone in the audience when the script dictates their involvement in the ongoing action, its stop-and-go silliness, its shout backs and its resolution. Hill also leaves room for some slight improvisation (actor vs. audience) within the framework of the story, which, depending on the chatter and response, differs from performance to performance.

Staging "Jack and the Beanstalk" for Downtown Cabaret Theatre, Ashley Depascale, who also appears in the production as Maribelle, works effortlessly within the parameters of musical panto staging to make the most out of Hill's storytelling, the musical exchanges, the ad-libbing, the audience interaction and the jokes and interplay aimed primarily at the children in the theater. It's all make do with fun and startling ease, offset by playful musical-hall style choreography by Cassie Peterpaul and musical director Aron Smith's easy glide and pull of the show's neatly incorporated pop tunes, all of which heighten the "Jack and the Beanstalk" experience.

Sean Davis, last seen as Mark Cohen in DCT's critically acclaimed 2022 production of Jonathan Larsen's iconic musical "Rent" is the ideal candidate to play the pivotal role of Jack. He's assured. He's committed. He's charming. He's animated. He's panto-ready. He also has a Disney plus quality about him (perfect for this sort of entertainment) that he uses to full advantage while tackling the many dilemmas and surprises of the "Beanstalk" story.
The Baron, wonderfully portrayed by Andrea Pane, is an intoxicating mix of vaudevillian mock, delight and sneer that the actor plays to the hilt, going from nasty to nice and back again, using a dastardly smarmy voice that commands your attention every time he's on stage. Pane, who portrayed Roger in last year's "Rent," also directed the iconic musical at DCT.
In a role of Jack's Mother's, Corinne Marshall preens, reels, spins and twirls in a laugh-out-loud comedic role that she pulls off with punch-thrill-drive-and-shake at every single comic turn. She also stops the show with a 5-STAR rendition of a Grammy award-winning song recreated for a "Record of the Year" win by a much-loved, fallen diva and recording artist.

Ashley Depascale, as the blonde, materialistic daughter of the Baron, crafts an astonishingly creative leading-lady turn embraced and coated with particular sweetness, optimism and zest in accordance with the fairy tale playbook. In the dual roles of Jill and Nimbus, Carly Jurman (choreographer for "Rent" at DCT), offers two decidedly different character turns of contrast and brightness that lead to a charismatic double act for both actress and audience. Lisa DeAngelis, as Luna and Alta, adds potent personal element to both her characterizations and has fabulous fun doing do.
PS: There's also a dancing cow named Pat that charms and cajoles the audience - much to everyone's delight - every time she's on stage. Plus, an exceptional DCT design team headed by Tamar Klausner (set design), Axel Hammerman (lighting design) and Lesley Neilson-Bowman (costume design).

"Jack and the Beanstalk" is being staged at Downtown Cabaret Theatre, Bridgeport, CT), now through March 26.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 576-1636.

In the weeks ahead: "Decades in Concert: The 1980s "(March 10-April 8), "Wizard of Oz" (April 8-May 21) and "Cabaret" April 21-May 21)

Thursday, February 16, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 372, A Review: "Queen of Basel" (TheaterWorks/Hartford)

 By James V. Ruocco

The play: "Queen of Basel."
Where: TheaterWorks/Hartford.
Playwright: Hilary Bettis.
Setting: South Beach, Miami during an international art fair showcasing and exhibiting art from prominent art collectors, artists, curators and museum directors.
Primary Location: The action of the play is set in a cluttered, messy kitchen/storage room at a posh, luxury hotel. Outside the kitchen, a swank party is taking place with members of the art world's upper-class patrons.
Inspiration: A modern day telling of power, privilege, oppression, race, prejudice, sexual flirtation and hypocrisy that takes its cue from Swedish playwright August Strindberg's 19th century chamber drama "Miss Julie."
The characters: Julie, Christine, John.
Character breakdown:  Julie, the attractive, outspoken daughter of the hotel's owner who wanders into the kitchen after getting her green Oscar de la Renta designer gown soaked in gin - the result of a spilled drink tray that leaves her shaken and hiding from the paparazzi.
Christine, a Venezuelan cocktail waitress (in actuality, a South American refugee who hopes to get the rest of her family, including her five-year-old daughter over to Florida) who comes to Julie's aid after accidentally spilling drinks all over her. 
John, a handsome uber driver with plans to set up his own HVAC business who is Christine's boyfriend (he's originally introduced to help Julie escape the prying eyes of the paparazzi) and later has sexual intercourse with Julie once his partner leaves the kitchen and heads back to the party.

Does the play work: Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no.

The playwright: Bettis, as storyteller, crafts an interesting, talky, but flawed drama that despite its energetic, invigorating premise and emotional dynamic either disconnects, falls flat or doesn't always live up to its promised potential.
There's edge. There's drama. There's heat. There's conversation. There's vulnerability. There's madness. There's shock. There's crisis. There's truth. There's collapse.
Given the play's length - 90 minutes with no interval - sometimes one's attention wanders or prompts too many glances at one's watch, the playbill or those seated around you. Things, of course, jump back on track as the playwright delivers some weighty verbiage and melodrama laced with real edge, real excitement and real entrapment. She also crafts a trio of interesting, important characters as "Queen of Basel" moves forward toward its preachy, justified conclusion. However, her decision to have the character of Christine off stage for more than 20 minutes during the second half of the play is puzzling. Yes, it's a creative choice, but the character is missed - really missed.

The direction: At TheaterWorks, "Queen of Basel" is being staged by Christina Angeles. In steady command of the piece, she works hard to make sense of the play's turbulent emotions, its full-house tilt and swerve, its evident preachiness and its steady ache and scuttle. But she's no miracle worker.
When the dialogue or situation at hand becomes strained and ineffective, there's really nothing she can do. Still, she plunges forward prompted by fresher, well-positioned moments - the seduction of Julie by John; the return of Christine, for example - that works surprisingly well and gives the production a blistering sting, a dramatic anchor and an appointed, narrative mouthpiece.
The use of Spanish language is also well implemented by both the playwright and the director with John, acting as interpreter during Christine's numbing dialogue (a backstory of sorts) near the end of the play. It's a theatrical device that (these are no subtitles) adds a certain resonance to the story and its racial identity.

The performances: As Julie, Christine Spang delivers a taut, fiery dramatic performance of rich girl entitlement invested in rampaging chaos, vocal authority and well-played emotion. As "Queen of Basel" evolves, she brings heightened emotion, conflict and realistic passion to the production.
Silvia Dionicio, as Christine, locates a thrilling buzz within the characterization that allows her to carry the role far beyond its involved expectation. So much so that when the script dictates Christine to drift off stage, one eagerly awaits her very next entrance. But when she returns, the actress, in a riveting turn, delivers a lengthy monologue about personal loss, which up until this point, she chose to keep hidden.
The perfect choice to play John, Kelvin Grullon is a charismatic leading player who communicates his character's plight, sneer, sexiness and existing language with bite, range and deepening personal element. Acting wise, he finds real nuance and color in the role, imbued with steamy motivation, ripened complexity and straightforward thrust.

Photos of "Queen of Basel" courtesy of Mike Marques.

"Queen of Basel is being staged at TheaterWorks (233 Pearl St., Hartford, CT), now through February 26, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-7838.

In the weeks ahead: Varla Jean Merman's "Ready to Blow" (March 19) and "The Rembrandt" (April 21-May 14) 

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 371, A Review: "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" (Sacred Heart University)

By James V. Ruocco

It's a musical narrative that comes from the heart with a slice-of-life perspective and trajectory that pretty much everyone - male, female, whatever - has experienced at one point in their lives.

Doting parents.
Obsession with newborns.
Not rising to the occasion in the bedroom.
Overacting to impress.
Wakes. Funerals. Old age.
Phone calls, break ups, deadly conversations, bridesmaids, sports talk, insecurity, spending the night alone.

Get the picture? Of course, you do.

In "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change," the hit 1996 off-Broadway musical about late 20th century relationships that ran for 5,003 performances at New York's Westside Theatre (it was also staged at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre prior to its New York engagement), these topics and others are hilariously addressed and reenacted in all their full, unadulterated glory via the Performing Arts Theatre Program at Sacred Heart University.
This is 5 STAR entertainment that comes together with the flash-bang-wallop of London Fringe Theatre - Donmar Warehouse, Southwark Playhouse, for example - offset by the dedicated markings and professionalism of a cast and production team on tap with a voice and presence that cries theatre and breathes theatre with immediacy, ability and curiosity.
Fearless, playful and active, this four-person reverie is sonic in detail, bold in aim, economic and daring in execution and engagingly awash with signature fun, hitch and musicality.

As written by Joe DiPietro, the two-act musical unfolds through a series of lighthearted, neatly assembled, well-positioned song-and sketch vignettes, deftly matched to segments titled "Not Tonight, I'm Busy, Busy, Busy," "A Stud and a Babe," "Men Who Talk and the Women Who Pretend They're Listening," "Tear Jerk," "The Lasagna Incident," "And Now the Parents," "Satisfaction Guaranteed," "I'll Call You Soon (Yeah, Right?)" "Scared Straight," "Untitled," "Always a Bridesmaid," "Whatever Happened to Baby's Parents?" "Sex and the Married Couple," "The Family that Drives Together," "Waiting," "Untitled II," "The Very First Dating Video of Rose Ritz," "Funerals Are for Dating" and "Epilogue."
It's all in jest, served up with a let's-have-fun concept and plotline chock full of acidic one-liners, candid, explicit conversations, vivid characterizations, zany diversions and well-formed engagement and nostalgia.
Its message: the discovery and embracement of one's authentic self with equal wants, mores and wises.

In the director's chair, Justin Zenchuk crafts a smooth, flawless, focused musical comedy romp that's as good - if not better - than previous incarnations staged at Long Wharf, London's West End Fringe and the original off-Broadway outing from 1996. An actor himself with a trunkful of directorial and performance credits, Zenchuk is the real deal. And that, in a nutshell is what puts him at the top of his game. More importantly, he's no copycat. Nor is he interested in a by-the-numbers blueprint of something than sprang to life 27 years ago.
Here, you get a show - a real show where the star is the material, the music, the cast, the design and the one-on-one velocity or connection, if you prefer, between the actor and the audience. 
As storyteller he presents a cheerful, invigorating revival (this mounting takes its cue from the 2018 edition featuring two new songs, revised lyrics, reworked dialogue and tangy social media updates) that bounces, tilts, swirls and twirls with well-choreographed diversity and amusement. Given the show's simplistic framework and swift, evolving scenic musings, he glides "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" from one scene to the next seamlessly reflecting the musical's already-proven wit, irony, energy and accountability.

A clever auteur and creator, he goes the extra mile, letting each segment, each musical number and each character exchange evolve naturally, playfully and humorously. More importantly, he doesn't rush things. He lets the material speak for itself and find its own special sting or brand of humor. He knows how to get a laugh without the slightest hint of calculation. He navigates his cast through the paces always knowing what buttons to push. He excites and surprises. He's also a master of stagecraft invention.
As musical theatre, there's a lot going on here - scene changes, costume changes, actors shifting gears in a millisecond to become the next character in the scenario. The good news is that Zenchuk, directorially, never once repeats himself in terms of staging, blocking mechanics or time and place. Things are fast. Things are fluid. Things are fresh.
The show's powder-keg of ideas, ploys and maneuvers are thrust center stage with just the right weight, the right spin, the right mindset and the right perspective.

Musically, "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change," never once misses a beat, a tick or a rhythm.
The slightly revised musical score is lightweight, clever, evolutionary and good-humored. Written by Jimmy Roberts (music) and Joe DiPietro (lyrics), it contains more than 20 character-driven songs, from solos and duets to tangy, invigorating ensemble numbers that complement the up-close-and-personal subject matter.
They are: "Prologue/Cantata for a First Date," "A Stud and a Babe," "Single Man Drought," "Why? Cause I'm a Guy," "Tear Jerk," "I Will be Loved Tonight," "Hey There, Single Guy/Gal," "Satisfaction Guaranteed," "He Called Me," "Cantata Reprise/Wedding Vows," "Cantata Reprise/Always a Bridesmaid," "The Baby Song," "Marriage Tango," "On the Highway of Love," "Waiting Trio," "Cantata Reprise," "Shouldn't I Be Less in Love with You?" "I Can Live with That" and "Epilogue/"I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change."
Totally in sync with the musical's keen and kindly vignettes, they quickly make their mark, reflecting both the book's celebratory "relationship and love" conceit and its fast-forward, amusing sense of entitlement, purpose, individuality and dynamic thrust.
The lyrics are witty, timely, reflective and nostalgic. The exchanges are snappy and playful. The orchestrations unfold with a wide range of interpretation and abandonment.
Nothing is out of place or jumbled. Nothing is thrown in to make the musical longer than it is or should be. Nothing is preachy or melodramatic. Here, the centerpiece of love and romance is conjured up by its creators with attentive musical interplay, fun and fantasy scoring and committed, melodic partnership.

Under the supervision of musical director Leo Carusone, Tom Morris, at the piano, comes to "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" with high standards and showmanship (a given at Sacred Heart University) that justly solidify the matter-of-fact sound of the material, its range and color, its expressive, strong irony and its assured, relaxed lyricism. A take-charge, animated musician, he has great fun with the score, smoothly portraying its rhapsodic dimensions, its artistic tilts, its giggly irony and its ever-evolving thematic threads.
As a musician, Morris is also completely cognizant of the actor's themselves, their raw, natural vocal talents, their relationship to the story, their partnership with one another and the individual songs they are asked to sing over the two-act time frame of the production. 
His technique - savvy, instinctive and personalized - brings remarkable lucidity and breath to the production but also unleashes a free-flowing flight between singer and musician that complements the elaboration of theme's set forth by the musical's originators, the live performance itself and the intended meaning of the songs they are about to sing.
More importantly, he follows the singers; they don't follow him.

As musical director, Carusone creates a musical thrill ride of theatricality and interlude, underscored by terrific moments of comic and dramatic value, clear articulation, brilliantly realized high notes, creamy intoxication and score-bound fluidity. Under his tutelage, "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" unfolds with a natural, spontaneous feel that showcases the confident, full-bodied song style of his cast, matched vocally by the quartet's strength, spirit, volume, warmth, realization, command and instinctive musicality.
Gleaming. Textured. Abundant. Rich. Complete. Emotional. Satisfying.
It's music making at the highest level and one that everyone in the audience - student, faculty, friend, parent, theater group, aficionado of musical theatre - feels privileged to hear.

"I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" stars Chris Conte as Man #1, Paul Keegan as Man #2, Julianna Rezza as Woman #1 and Grace Kelly Kretzmer as Woman #2.
As members of Sacred Heart University's Performing Arts Theatre Arts Program, they come to the Little Theatre stage with musical theatre credits ranging from "Oliver!" "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Falsettos" to "A Chorus Line," "Sondheim on Sondheim" and "[title of show]."
All four are exceptionally gifted actors and singers with impeccable comic timing, personality, musicality and improvisational versatility who adapt freely and effortlessly to the mounting mayhem of the piece, its sentimentality, its romanticism, its whimsy and its quick-change artistry.
Vocally, they are solid, intuitive singers with beautiful voices, song styles and phrasing that connect and compliment the songs they are asked to sing together, alone, as a duet or as a trio.

Keegan, a performer who tops the bill with crowd-pleasing razzmatazz is a natural born showman well-versed in the mechanics of stage performance and everything it has to offer. He's funny. He's charming. He's musical. He's a vaudevillian with stand-up roar, punch and spill who can collapse an audience into fits of laughter using a bagful of tricks (his own, of course) that are full house hysterical and well in sync with the material at hand. Conte is equally impressive in the truest sense, offering a rich, developed, completely natural musical comedy turn that's sincere, quick-witted and area specific effective. Musically, both he and Keegan tackle every musical number with an intervening dazzle, power, emotion and a signature sense of effortlessness that heightens their tremendous vocal talent, range and ability.

The undeniable onstage chemistry of Rezza resonates throughout the entire production, infused with a melt away charm and center stage flair that adds up to fabulous fun for everyone on stage and in the audience. She's a talent - a major one of that - who can play comedy superbly without missing a beat or grace an audience with emotional, powerhouse vocals awash with balance, sweep, immediacy and engagement. Equally dynamic, Kretzmer addresses the "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" musical canvas with an energetic style, approach and command that not only defines her intuitive performance skills, but her strong sense of identity, flourish and takeaway captivation. Vibrant, passionate and magnetic, she is an incredible performer with a voice, a presence and an acting style that comes right from the heart. 

A clear-headed, carefree production, meticulously crafted by the Sacred Heart University Performing Arts Theatre Program, "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" is a sweet, sentimental musical that takes an amusing, satiric and wistful look at this thing called "love" with a fine flourish and pulse that is not easily forgotten.

It's fun. It's spirited. It's heartfelt. It's hilarious. It's flirty. It's giggly. It's original.
It also serves as a wonderful showcase for students serious about acting, drama and musical theatre to test the waters, get their feet wet, learn their craft and engage in live performance surrounded by professionals that provide a trusty, engaging, relished repertoire of accomplishment, balance, diversity and adventure.
On that note, "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" spins, dazzles and tilts with rhapsodic lamentation and animation.
Here, four people - Conte, Keegan, Rezza and Kretzmer - stand proud and tall echoing the picture-perfect theatrical dynamic of Sacred Heart University and everything it has to offer.

"I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" is being staged at Sacred Heart University (The Little Theatre at the Edgerton Center for the Performing Arts, 5151 Park Ave., Fairfield, CT), now through February 19, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 371-7908.

In the weeks ahead: "Moon Over Buffalo" (March 16-26) and "The Rocky Horror Show" (April 13-15)

Monday, February 6, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 370, A Review: "I Hate Hamlet" (Music Theatre of Connecticut)

By James V. Ruocco

To be or not to be...
a television actor in a hit primetime series.
a movie star who lives in a Beverly Hills mansion.
a stage actor playing the title role of Hamlet before a New York audience of 1,800 for free in the open-air space of the Delacorte Theater in Center Park.
an actor under hire for a new television series commissioned for a full season by a major network offering a $3 million dollar salary.

In Paul Rudnick's "I Hate Hamlet," a hilarious 1981 comedy that draws inspiration from "Bell, Book and Candle," "Goodbye, Charlie," "Topper" and "Blithe Spirit," among other works, popular television actor Andrew Rally ("L.A. Medical") struggles with these issues and many more once the ghost of matinee idol John Barrymore comes back to earth via a seance to convince the disillusioned actor to accept the Shakespearean role of a lifetime and abandon all thoughts of fame and fortune including a guaranteed back account with a three million dollar deposit.

Of, course.
Oh, yes.

"I Hate Hamlet" is good-natured, escapist fun with no real message except to make theatergoers laugh out loud, stamp their feet, drop their playbills and enjoy a drink or two at intermission as Rudnick's outrageous plotline kicks into high gear producing giggles, shouts and roars that come at you nonstop from everywhere in the house.

This is comedy - slap-bang-wallop - played out in gorgeous living color at Music Theatre Connecticut, an immersive, inviting venue where earlier this season a faded silent screen star attempted a comeback at Paramount Pictures and a womanizing Italian opera star found himself being replaced on stage at an opening night gala by a nerdy wannabe with a singing voice that cried "grand opera."

With "I Hate Hamlet," there are lightning bolts.
Candles that flicker.
A dash or two of Shakespearean verbiage.
Swashbuckling swordplay.
A virginal girlfriend.
A veteran casting agent who once had a fling with the late, great John Barrymore.
Bad reviews from New York critics.
And lots, lots more.

As playwright, Rudnick whose previous works include "Jeffrey," "Poor Little Lambs" and "The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told," has a gift for the gab - dry wit laced with irony, firewater and gin. He has fun. We have fun. He laughs. We laugh.

Here, "I Hate Hamlet" finds him targeting movie stars, matinee idols, opening nights, casting agents, actor vs. agent mind games, virginity, sexual promiscuity, romantic obsession, bad actors, television actors, primetime shows that became overnight hits, newspapers, critics, overblown salaries, theatre vs. art, the New York stage, the Hollywood dream factory, monetary obsession, failed marriages, acting mentors, script pitch sessions, selling out  and finally, losing sight of reality.
As befits a comedy of this nature, "I Hate Hamlet" is rife with the kind of cynicism and tilt Rudnick is famous for.
He's a savvy writer. His observations, sentences, chatter and one-liners are excited and juicy. He never loses sight of the playful subject matter or the happily drawn humor of the characters he chooses to parody. His dissection of the entertainment industry is dead-on, merciless fun. As is his grand and cocky giddyap toward art vs. crap.

Mounting "I Hate Hamlet" for the Music Theatre of Connecticut audience, Kevin Connors brings the right sense of inspiration and cynicism to the project, offset by wonderfully orchestrated dashes of flame, fantasy, farce and nostalgia. Directorially, it's all diced and spliced with the acerbic conviction and gait set forth by the playwright - inked and dotted from scene to scene and act to act with flavorful expectation, understanding and command.
As director, Connors knows how to build, frame and get a laugh without overreaching. It's a directorial feat that gives the production its unique freshness and irony that never once oversteps Rudnick's blueprint in favor of over-the-top schnocker influenced by tireless, repetitious melodrama. You'll find none of that here. It's all in jest peppered with bright, brash intention, persona and spotlight ham and pastiche.

"I Hate Hamlet" stars Constantine Pappas as Andrew, Dan O' Driscoll as John Barrymore, Elena Ramos Pascullo as Deirdre, Liliane Klein as Felicia, Robert Anthony Jones as Gary and Jo Anne Parady as Lillian.
The cast - crackerjack, engaging and comically seasoned - grab hold of Rudnick's script and chew it up and spit it out with expertly drilled precision, confidence, snap and pop. All six are consistently entertaining, each possessing a comic style and artistic grandeur that complements the play's nostalgic roots, its icy banter, its fantasy, its eccentricity, its playful lore and its unabashed escapism.
As Andrew, Pappas is endearing, charismatic, perplexed and perfectly in sync with Rudnik's comedic vision for the character. O' Driscoll offers a commanding, well-honed turn as the ghostly Barrymore. In the role of Gary, Jones is a scene-stealing ham personified. As Felicia, Klein is such a whirlwind of talent, she leaves you always wanting more. 
There's also a splendid, rat-a-tat duel, choreographed by O' Driscoll for Act II that achieves an actor-audience dynamic of closeness and split-second timing that is full-on thrill and spill - and then some.

Photos of "I Hate Hamlet" courtesy of Alex Mongillo.

"I Hate Hamlet" is being staged at Music Theatre of Connecticut (509 Westport Ave., Norwalk, CT), now through February 19, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 454-3883.