Monday, April 24, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 391, A Review: "The Winter's Tale" (Hartford Stage)

By James V. Ruocco  

One of the more complicated, odd and unusual plays in the Shakespearean repertoire, "The Winter's Tale" is often conceptualized as "a problem play of sorts" because its narrative tone doesn't quite fit comfortably into a single category or storytelling genre.
Is it a dark and rambling tragedy?
Is it a comedy?
Is it meant to be a pastoral romance with a happy ending?
Is it pure Elizabethan drama with a mystical, magical resolution?
The answer: All of the above.

A work that is oft neglected and rarely performed, "The Winter's Tale," nonetheless, is an abstract piece of theatre, rich in concept and intuition, dominated by a complex plotline of two halves - darkness and jealousy; comedy, discovery and festivity - that gives way to an immersive, full-on work of intensity, illumination and lighthearted formality and playfulness.

At Hartford Stage, it is deftly told with vibrant abandonment and chilling confrontation, nicely cemented in spectacle, emotion, joyfulness and authority.
It is elegant.
It is lyrical.
It is dangerous.
It is surprising.
It is powerful.
It is fiery.
It is glorious.
More importantly, this production of "The Winter's Tale" marks Melia Bensussen's first time Shakespearean directorial effort at Hartford Stage.

" 'The Winter's Tale' has always been one of my favorite Shakespeare plays because of how much it speaks of transformation and possibility. This play celebrates those themes with great wit, great beauty, and some of the most amazing poetry."
(Melia Bensussen, Artistic Director, Hartford Stage)

And right she is.

The plot of this Shakespearean play is an interesting one, counterbalanced by many dancing ideas, twists, theories, tilts and determined exploration.
Leontes, the handsome, powerful and respected king of Sicilia, is driven quickly into madness once he learns of his wife Hermione's pregnancy. After becoming paranoid about her fidelity, he imprisons her and puts her on trial for adultery with no evidence other than his own suspicions.
Once she gives birth in captivity to her new daughter Perdita, the child is exiled to a distant shore where she is, by a strange twist of fate, rescued and adopted by a shepherd and his son. In Sicilia, Mamillius, the king's young son, dies soon after from the distress of his mother's arrest. Hermione, in turn, collapses and is declared dead.

As "The Winter's Tale" continues, the next segment of the play, picks up the story, 16 years later and changes from a dark, snowy winter to the celebratory season of spring. Here, Perdita has grown up and fallen in love with Florizel, the son of Leontes best friend Polixenes, the king of Bohemia who, years earlier was suspected of bedding Hermione, Leontes, deceased, fallen queen.
There's music. There's dancing. There's singing. There are folk melodies. There are reunions. There are disguises. There are engagements. There are surprises.  
But alas, another change in the story brings Perdita back to Sicilia to meet her real father and enjoy a reconciliation with her family and the king's court.
However, before "A Winter's Tale" concludes, a beautiful and realistic statue of Hermione magically comes to life. The music sounds, everyone is reunited, and, in true Shakespearean fashion, they all live happily ever after. 

The chaos, the tragedy, the surprise and the merriment of Shakespeare's story spins and races with poetic justice, thrust and comprehensive cleverness, all gussied up to perfection under the handsome staging techniques and employment, fashioned by Melia Bensussen, the play's director. It's a richly creative effort and process that pinpoints the human truths, historic echoes and trailing individualism of the Bard's writing, his intelligence, his gift for characterization, his swots of exposition and the enormity of his glib, complicated, often pleasurable plotting.
Directorially, Bensussen embraces the production's intoxicating mix of ingredients, thoughts and ideas with confidence, rationality and trafficking that validates her ingenious grasp of the material, its progression and confrontational sensibility. As storyteller, she doesn't waste a moment. She takes chances. She pauses. She breathes. She stands back. She creates.

Here, everything is stamped, steadied and delivered with seamless approximation that befits her telling, her interpretation, her staging, her cue cards and her great library of equation and fruition. As "The Winter's Tale" evolves, Bensussen taunts, titillates and entices both actor and audience with inspirational, atmospheric blocking maneuvers, patterning, positioning and exchanges concurrent with works by Henrick Ibsen, Anton Chekhov and Ingmar Bergman.
It's a creative choice fused with thrilling ambition, surreal experimentation and definitive output. One of the pleasures of this production is watching how it all comes together scene by scene and act by act, justly illuminated by Cameron Anderson's atmospheric set design, Evan Anderson's moody lighting cues, Whitney Lochner's gorgeous period costuming and Pornchanok Kanchanabanca's immersive original music and sound design.

"The Winter's Tale" stars Nathan Darrow as Leontes, Jamie Ann Romero as Hermione, Omar Robinson as Polixenes, Jeremy Webb as Shepherd, Ana Laura Santana as Perdita, Daniel Daviila Jr. as Florizel, Lana Young as Paulina, John Maddaloni as Clown (Shepherd's Son) and Pearl Rhein as Autolycus.
As Leontes, Darrow crafts a particularly maddening, centered dramatic portrait that is both rich in execution, style and interpretation and performance. Rhein, as trickster and medieval poet-musician Autolycus, own every scene that she appears in. In the role of Paulina, a strong-willed, outspoken Sicilian noblewoman, Young offers a brilliantly focused, driven characterization. Romero is rife with anger, rage and confusion as the unjustly accused Hermoine. Webb, as the goofy and funny Shepherd, bristles with appropriate comic flair and fancy.

An ambitious production, meticulously told through the adventurous eyes of director Melia Bensussen, "The Winter's Tale" addresses the emotional weight of William Shakespeare's rapidly progressive tale with style, imagination, elegance and impact.
It is a feast for the eyes - stunningly produced and designed - performed by a magnificent team of players, all of whom are well versed in the Bard's beautifully textured trappings, character development, hefty queries, reveling and combative drama.
This is must-see theatre afresh with wonder and celebration that breathes new life into Shakespeare's rarely performed centuries-old play text.

"The Winter's Tale" is being performed at Hartford Stage (50 Church St., Hartford, CT), now through May 7, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-5151.

Monday, April 17, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 390, A Review: "Ain't Misbehavin' " (Westport Country Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco

"The joint is jumpin'
It's really jumpin'
Come in, cats, and check your hats
I mean this joint is jumpin'

The piano's thumpin'
The dancers are bumpin'
This here spot is more than hot
In fact, the joint is jumpin'
(Fats Waller) 

Are you ready to party?
Well, of course you are.

The iconic music of legendary jazz pianist Fats Waller is effectively and lovingly recreated in Westport Country Playhouse's sizzling, tangy, fanciful revival of "Ain't Misbehavin,' " the place where jive meets jazz, ragtime and swing pulsate and rhythm and blues get you all hot and bothered, steamy and very much lathered up.

As musical theatre, it's exactly what you wished for.
It's everything you hoped it would be.
Its jazz fueled.
Its got soul.
Its got sass. 
Its got swing.
Its got the moves.
Its got game.
Its got the sound.
Its got the voice.

Savvy. Wicked. Tuneful. Bouncy. Pleasurable.

This revival of "Ain't Misbehavin' " not only delivers but celebrates a bygone era of time and place where black jazz rocked Tin Pan Alley and Harlem's 125th St., bootleg gin was the drink of choice, liberated spirits burst from the rafters, reefer drove everyone wild and songs about the blues, about love and about life itself, sizzled, jammed and smoldered.
It's a party of sorts - amped up with plenty of energy, jam and slam - where every performer gets his or her big moment to fly solo, flirt, dance, sing and wildly cut loose with the band. Or simply glide into ensemble form and be carried aloft by the vocal arrangements and musical syncopation of the maestro himself - Mr. Fats Waller.

Originally conceived and directed by Richard Maltby, Jr. for Broadway audiences back in 1978 - the same year it won the Tony Award for Best Musical - this musical revival pays homage to that remarkable work itself in terms of shine, sparkle, nostalgia, spirit, lyric conviction and heart-racing showmanship. It also gets things right on all accounts in terms of staging and remembrance by employing the same sort of silvery pulse, dazzle and illumination that made the original musical revue such a jive-hopping, harmonious treat.
But Jeffrey L. Page, the director and choreographer of the Westport Country Playhouse production, is no copycat. Nor is he one to rest on his own laurels or replicate a musical that was done on Broadway 45 years ago.
Celebrating the music of legendary jazz musician Fats Waller, his creative workprint includes new styles, new beats, new rhythms, new jams and new jokes, all of which seamlessly reflect his edgy, energetic, creative, page-turning conceit.
Yes, this is still "Ain't Misbehavin' " in all its Manhattan nightclub glory. It's also still a musical where the instrumental voices of a Harlem supper club are the show's high point and calling card. As are its love stories, catfights, lively jitterbugs and conversational, dance floor verbiage.
But with Page in the driver's seat, some 
it's been tweaked, inked and reimagined to breathe life into its already-proven formula.
For example, whereas the 1978 Broadway production included lots of hilariously orchestrated improvisation, which changed from performance to performance, here, there's only a smattering of shtick that's dangled in front of the audience whenever the mood strikes Page or his talented five-member cast.
That said, you also can't replicate the sweet and sassy improvisational purity that existed between the 1978 audience and the original Broadway cast, namely Nell Carter, Ken Page, Andre DeShields, Charlayne Woodard and Armelia McQueen. That, in itself, was a one-of-a-kind experience. And Page, as storyteller, knows exactly that. 
Is it missed? No.
Does it lessen the impact? Absolutely not.
This production still packs the same emotional wallop as the original did when it first played Broadway. It's just a little bit different, older, wiser and ingeniously trumped up in glorious, moody Technicolor. 

And that's o.k.
some of the staging is much more intimate and cozier to reflect that one-on-one seriousness and playfulness that was the Harlem Renaissance. It also creates an immersive vibe between actor and audience that heightens the musical's appeal, its sexiness, its scripted flirtation, its atmospheric aura and its midnight twinkle.
Elsewhere, Page adds recurring, important themes of identity, blackness and freedom of choice to his telling, which, in turn, brings a truthful resonance to the piece. Musically, he reconfigures many of the musical numbers with additional choreography and heightened ensemble thrust. He also amps up a great deal of the show's musical numbers with lengthened orchestrations that snap into place with a thrill and spill that never once becomes tiring or out of sync with the ongoing Fats Waller musical celebration. 

The musical songbook for "Ain't Misbehavin' " features more than 30 timeless musical numbers, most of them written by the extraordinary Fats Waller, Andy Razaf, Harry Brooks and other gifted lyricists of the time. In addition to the title song, they include "Honeysuckle Rose," "Squeeze Me," "Cash for Your Trash," "The Joint Is Jumpin.' " "Fat and Greasy," "Black and Blue," "Spreadin' Rhythm Around," "I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling," "Lookin' Good But Feelin' Bad," "At the Waldorf," "How Ya Baby," "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie," "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter," "Mean to Me," "Ladies Who Sing with the Band," "Find Out What They Like" and "I Can't Give You Anything but Love."
Peppered with wit, tilt, street savvy, high comedy, spunk, jive, swing, rippling black culture zing and marvelous period authenticity, the music itself snaps, crackles and pops as it carries and celebrates the emotional weight of the 1920's and the 1930's.
Throughout the two-act musical, the invention, skill, mindset and extraordinary technique that was Fats Waller rings loud and clear as does his penchant for stride piano, beat-by-beat alternations, plucky ranges, complex pitch chords, melody clicks, complex syncopations and cascading musical notes.
Given the power, artistry and musical vocabulary of Fats Waller and its elicitation of strong, particularly fancied, lively song twists and emotions, musical director Terry Bogart is the perfect fit for "Ain't Misbehavin.' " He gets Fats Waller. He understands Fats Waller. He appreciates Fats Waller. He loves Fats Waller. He gets excited by Fats Waller. He gets the audience excited about Fats Waller.

A first-class musician who knows exactly how to make every single song associated with "Ain't Misbehavin' " flash, spin and resonate with that special Harlem supper club magic that pretty much leaves everyone breathless, Bogart gets everyone on stage and off in the partying mood for well over two hours leaving no stone unturned.
Here, Waller's music is the voice and distinct centerpiece of this rousing musical entertainment. It is also imbued with the acerbic wit, humanity and power of the late composer and his earthy embroidery of musical expressions, movements and invocations.
Bogart, a full force on the piano, totally in sync with Maltby's ingenious concept for musical storytelling, is backed on the Westport Country Playhouse stage with a tremendously talented orchestral team of six, all of whom share his thrill for Fats Waller and his contagious, often frenzied orchestral jamming.
As "Ain't Misbehavin' " evolves, all band members - Donavan Austin (trombone), Jason Clotter (bass), John William II (trombone), Bernell Jones II (reed 2 clarinet/tenor saxophone), Ryan Sands (drums), Kevin Oliver (reed 1 clarinet/saxophone) - fuel the award-winning musical score with just the right amount of tangy passion, wild abandon and feverish pitch the production calls for.
Nothing is rushed or hurried. Nothing is out of place. Nothing runs out of steam.
Instead, things ignite and thrill as the entire five-member cast raise their voice in song never once missing a single beat, intention, harmony, jibe or rhythm associated with the show's snappy musical songbook.

Headlining the Westport Country Playhouse production of "Ain't Misbehavin' " are Will Stone, Miya Bass, Judith Franklin, Paris Bennett and Jay Copeland.
True to form, the show remains a hypnotic ensemble piece where each performer embraces the music of Fats Waller, brings it magically to life, touches the heart and soul of its creator and illuminates the vocal brilliance of the musical score with ineffable beauty, compassion, warmth, humor and dignity.
There are star turns, yes. There are showstoppers, yes. There are heated moments. There are crazy bits and shenanigans. There's flirting. There's oozing sexuality. There are stings and anthems. There's humor and grandstanding. There's also plenty of moody and passionate vocal turns.
But through it all, the cast is in full and fine voice that smartly reflects the intentions of the composers, the songs themselves and their conjuring questions and answers. What's wonderful is the depth and versatility of each vocalist, their amazing range and control, their individual harmonizing, their showmanship, their continuity and finally, how they wrap their voice around a lyric they want you to understand. Just amazing.

The ideal musical to jumpstart the Westport Country Playhouse's new 2023 season, "Ain't Misbehavin' " is an energetic, big-hearted, savvy music celebration of jazz that lovingly pays homage to the Harlem Renaissance.
It jumps. It hops. It sparkles. It delights. It gets the pulses racing.
Jeffery L. Page's direction is both bubbly and creative. Every one of the songs shows Fats Waller at his very best. Raul Abrego's colorful Art Deco set design evokes fond memories of a time gone by. Oana Botez's costume designs are colorful, glamorous and jaw-dropping.
The ensemble cast has great fun communicating the show's kick, spin, humor and nostalgia. The bygone era of Harlem jazz clubs, speakeasies, whiskey, bourbon and bathtub gin, is very much alive. And oh yes, this joint is jumpin.'
PS: Copeland's solo turn - "The Viper's Drag/The Reefer Song" - is an amazing piece of song and dance stagecraft chock full of daredevil effervescence, standout playfulness, wicked inspiration and unexpected speed and detail that makes its the standout solo turn of the evening.
And not a moment of energy is wasted.

" Ain't Misbehavin' " is being staged at Westport Country Playhouse (25 Powers Court, Westport, CT), now through April 29, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 227-4177.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 389, A Review: "Tina: The Tina Turner Musical" (The Bushnell)

By James V. Ruocco

It's an experience you're not likely to forget anytime soon.

"As long as I have people's attention, I can't stop. You can't put the public on hold, because they might not be there when you get back."
(Tina Turner)

Never have more truer words been spoken.

Watching the thrilling, megawatt-ignited National Touring edition of "Tina: The Tina Turner Musical" connect with pretty much every single person in the audience is just one of the many joys of this hypnotic British musical which, originally, got its start in London's West End back in 2018 and debuted on Broadway one year later only to be suspended in March 2020 by the COVID 19 pandemic and resume New York performances in October 2021.

Five years later - now on tour and still playing in London at the Aldwych Theatre - the spotlight continues to shine on Tina Turner with no chance of slowing down anytime soon.

"Tina: The Tina Turner Musical" thrives on that very notion.
As musical theatre, it's in a class by itself.

The production itself draws you in with seductive, brilliantly formulated theatricality. 
It's moving. It's emotional. It's uplifting. It's heartfelt.
The music solidifies the range, dynamic and emotion of the story.
The staging surges with electricity and impassioned explosion.
The concert vibe created night-after-night before an excited, appreciative crowd erupts with confidence, rush and impressive conclusion.
Everyone - principals, supporting cast members, ensemble - is exactly right for the roles they are asked to portray.
The entire 
production is a masterclass in musical theatre.
It is also executive produced by Tina Turner herself and her current husband Erwin Bach.
She wouldn't have it any other way.

Music, heartache, violence, domestic abuse, parental abandonment, prejudice, bad career choices, first love, waiting for the big break, touring, pop chart dominance, following your heart, crossing over - all that and more is part of the music legend's story.

Trying to make sense of it all, writers Katori Hall, Kees Prins and Frank Ketelaar fill the two-act musical with useful, challenging and interesting fragments from the singer's life that adapt nicely to the show's page-turning musical format.

It's all here: her early childhood years as Anna-Mae Bullock; her marriage to the hot-headed, abusive, womanizing Ike Turner; the birth of two sons, one of whom was the result of a romantic fling with a musician other than Ike; traveling the R&B and soul circuit in the mid-1960s; achieving moderate success in Europe during the 1970s but not in America; ending her marriage to Ike Turner; building a career with Australian record producer Roger Davies by her side; her pursuit of rock music; meeting music executive Erwin Bach who after 27 years of courtship became her husband; the European release of "Let's Stay Together" and "Private Dancer;" the recording of her first #1 single "What's Love Got to Do with It?" a song she absolutely hated to perform; her major comeback at the 1985 Grammy Awards.
Highs and lows aside, "Tina: The Tina Turner Musical" also comes replete with grim, not-so-pretty reminders about what it meant to be a black recording artist in the 1960's, from prejudiced commentary from white business executives to being denied hotel accommodations because of skin color or being subjected to the frequent use of the N-word. It's all inked and dotted accordingly with details, truths, observations and upsetting, hurtful moments interspersed between the production's vast, important musical numbers.

Billed as a "jukebox biographical musical," "Tina: The Tina Turner Musical" features song hits from the singer's own repertoire mixed with popular songs from the decades to portray her early childhood years in Tennessee and beyond to her eventual rise to stardom as music legend and award-winning rock star.
The songs - eclectic, driven, dynamic, exhilarating - give the story its pulse, set up and shout out, making everything that happens feel relevant and important to the accessible, traveling narrative.
They are (in order of performance): "Etherland -Sound of Mystic Law," "Nutbush City Limits," "Don't Turn Around," "Shake a Tail Feather," "The Hunter," "Rocket 88/ Matchbox," "She Made My Blood Run Cold," "It's Gonna Work Out Fine," "A Fool in Love," "Let's Stay Together," "Better Be Good to Me," "I Want to Take You Higher," "River Deep Mountain High," "Be Tender with Me Baby," "Proud Mary," "I Don't Wanna Fight," "Private Dancer," "Disco Inferno," "Open Arms," "I Can't Stand the Rain," "Tonight," "What's Love Got to Do with It?" "Don't Turn Around (reprise)," "We Don't Need Another Hero," "(Simply) The Best," "Finale: Nutbush City Limits (reprise), "Proud Mary (reprise)."

Flowing together with cemented revolution, liberation and major-key uplift, the songs themselves are assured and fitful, paraded in grand fashion and retreat, thus, fueling and complementing the legend herself and her complicated, sharpened, full-force musical biography. Music director/conductor Anne Shuttleworth ("Les Misérables," "Miss Saigon," "Jesus Christ Superstar") brings rhythmic extremity, flux and punch to the musical score, adapting a free-flowing, exhilarating orchestral style that befits the production's concert-like aura, its nostalgia undercurrents, its jukebox sound and its flavorful beats and percussions.
The conducting itself - bright, attractive, upbeat - keeps the musical afloat for its almost three-hour running time, all of which is fleshed and flung out with tremendous commitment, line and achievement. Vocally, the cast is in fine voice under Shuttleworth's tutelage giving rise to an epic musical journey of great style, tone and tremendous vocal energy.

The National Touring edition of "Tina: The Tina Turner Musical" is helmed by British-born Phyllida Lloyd who directed both the original London and Broadway incarnations of the popular musical. No stranger to theatre, her directorial achievements include "Mamma Mia!" "La Boheme," "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," "The Duchess of Malfi" and "Mary Stuart." Here, she crafts a pungent, consistent musical concert and biography that duly captures the persona of Tina Turner herself, her music, her private life, her success and her refusal to give up even when the cards were completely stacked against her.
The action, the story, the music, the mood swings and the shifting of scenery (the atmospheric set design by Mark Thompson is magnificent) is seamlessly kicked into gear by Lloyd whose staging style and technique complement the proceedings, its thematic flow, its passages of time and place, its live performance vibe, its biographical concept and the high-voltage mini concert at the end of Act II that gets everyone lathered up for the big finish and the standing ovation that quickly follows. It's everything you'd expect from a musical of this caliber and so much more.

Zurin Villanueva, the dynamic actress-singer who shares the lead role of Tina Turner with Ari Groover, channels the music legend's energy, song style, leggy persona and rangy wickedness with such superstar confidence and bravura, the real Turner would surely applaud her performance and participation in this production. As both actress and singer, she is persuasive and emotional, intuitively rising to the demands of the role musically and physically. She not only carries the show, but with a voice and range much like Tina Turner herself, she is truly magnificent.
Handsome, charismatic and completely in touch with his suave, leading man looks, Garrett Turner eases into the part of Turner's manipulative, abusive singer/husband with seriousness, rage, centeredness and chauvinistic standpoint. It's an important role and one he plays to the hilt, showing both the good and bad side of his character, his attraction to women and his need to be the center of attention regardless of the consequences.
Other standout performances are delivered by Ayvah Johnson as Young Anna-Mae, Roz White as Zelma, Lael Van Keuren as Rhonda, Parris Lewis as Alline, Carla R. Stewart as Gran Georgeanna and Max Falls as Erwin Bach.

As musicals go, "Tina: The Tina Turner Musical" is a showstopper of incident, emotion, excitement and roar. 
It's a great theatrical experience. The story is grounded in reality. It matches the energy of the iconic diva it celebrates. The music sizzles and zigzags through the decades. The performances are hot and steamy. And for those who buy a ticket, the payoff is boundless with jackpot proportions.

"Tina: The Tina Turner Musical" is being staged at the Bushnell (166 Capitol Ave., Hartford, CT), now through April 16, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 967-6000.

Monday, April 10, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 388, A Review: "The Legend of Georgia McBride" (Ivoryton Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco

A drag queen is a performer or artist (usually a male) who uses drag clothing, makeup, lipstick, glitter, wigs, jewelry and outrageous female costuming to imitate and parody women (all ages, all sizes, all shapes) solely for entertainment purposes.

Nothing obscene.
Nothing shameful.
Nothing worthy of a witch hunt.
Just something that's absolute fun and way over the top.

In "The Legend of Georgia McBride," a hilarious two-act comedy written by playwright Matthew Lopez, an Elvis impersonator (his name is Casey) with no money, a wife, a baby on the way and a music career that's going absolutely nowhere ends up getting fired from a Florida dive bar named Cleo's only to discover that his act is being replaced by a drag show starring Miss Tracy Mills and her overly tall sidekick Miss Anorexia Nervosa.
Not to worry, though.
Once Anorexia is too drunk to go on, he trades in his gawdy Elvis jumpsuit for a dress, hits the stage as a lip-syncing Edith Piaf and with the help of Mills herself, becomes an overnight star (this being a comedy, the days and weeks fly as quickly as Casey's many new looks and costume changes) and transforms Cleo's into one of Florida's most popular drag show venues.

With the groundwork laid - handsome straight guy becomes a drag queen at a Florida bar - the Ivoryton Playhouse revival of Lopez's 2014 play - unfolds with significant silliness and deliciously stirred satiric pacing for theatergoers who love to laugh, stand up and cheer and succumb to a sweet, playfully orchestrated amusement such as this one.
This is a production that shows audiences that drag itself is so much more than putting on lipstick, shimmying into a dress, wearing high heels and donning sparkly costumed jewelry. It is an art form - a serious one at that - that demands respect for its artistry, its candor, its expression, its cultural history, its longevity and its theatrical illusion.

As playwright, Lopez crafts a comedic work that communicates love and acceptance, instills positivity and treats people as individuals without any form of prejudice. He also creates dialogue, characters and story arcs that address the play's gay subject matter with contrast, illustration, debate and arrangement. Nothing preachy, just reflective storytelling laced with humor, nuance and tidiness.

Staging "The Legend of Georgia McBride," director/choreographer Todd L. Underwood ("Cabaret," "Smokey Joe's Cafe," "Saturday Night Fever") crafts a laugh-a-minute comedy that bubbles with focus, fidelity, snap and playful, irresistible delivery. It's a directorial conceit that honors and respects the original material to the hilt, its winning approach toward the subject matter, its full circle of hopes and dreams, its showbiz ethos and its vitality of expression.
What's especially nice about this production is that the comedy - no matter, how silly or frivolous it gets - never once veers out of control or loses sight of its drag roots, its freedom of expression or its celebratory, theatrical self. 
The message of "be yourself" rings loud and clear as does Underwood's keenly observed touches and strokes about the drag world of dress up, its grooming, its procedures, its persona, its dedication, its populace and how it adheres to the actual world of let's pretend. Here, Underwood, as storyteller, gets inside the heads of his characters, allows them to think on their feet, go with the flow, run wild and connect with everyone on the stage and in the audience.
He loves theater. He loves actors. He loves directing.  He loves live performance. He loves a challenge. He is always full of surprise.

From a directorial/actor standpoint "The Legend of Georgia McBride" is a veritable feast of acting styles, acting ranges, twists, turns and mood swings all agreeably designed and constructed to evolve in a quick, seamless fashion interspersed with lip-synced musical numbers and drag regalia brimming with plenty of snap, crackle, pop and lots and lots of glitter, ribbons, high heels, hairspray and teased hair. 
For this incarnation, Underwood punctuates Lopez's material with an extended, inventive glimpse into the world of drag by opening up the play musically to include additional songs, dances and whirls and twirls that wonderfully cement and heighten the appeal of drag, its high spiritedness, its happily themed showcases and the handpicked musical numbers designed to bring down the house night after night. 
It's a heartfelt aesthetic he fulfills most engagingly. 

In the lead role of Miss Tracy Mills, the kindly, curvy, outspoken, high-heeled drag queen who shows Casey the ropes and changes his life for the better, Sam Given - in a part that seems tailor-made exclusively for him - delivers an award-winning, show-stopping performance that is joyous, celebratory and proudly executed with jaw-dropping, applause-worthy skill, perfection and flourish.
He's funny. He's catty. He's bitchy. He's glamourous. He's witty. He's get-up-and-go magical. He's focused. He's in his element.
He also works hard - very hard.
He digs deep. He takes chances. He's primed and ready.
Musically, Underwood gives him prime songs and dances that Given tosses off effortlessly with wild abandon and drag show merriment including thrilling salutes to Peggy Lee, Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, among others, backed by homage choreography indicative of "Fosse's "Chicago" and the 1972 film version of "Cabaret."
He is at his comic peak when asked to lip sync "Some People" from "Gypsy."  Here, Given takes center stage mouthing the lyrics of this lively musical number using signature Liza Minnelli moves mixed with movements that playfully recall that of Judy Garland, Liza's mother. Is it magnificent? You bet it is.

Mike Boland, as Eddie, the desperate, money-hungry owner of Cleo's, who transforms a not-so-popular straight bar into a very successful drag show haven, eases into his important supporting role with such quick shot comic ping and zing, you'd swear Underwood yanked him out of some sleazy Florida backwoods bar and dropped him down headfirst onto the Ivoryton Playhouse stage. Framed by instinctive line delivery, manner, expression and actor-to-actor interplay, Boland delivers a tight, natural carefully balanced performance brimming with swagger, confidence, attitude and spunky, screwball bluster. He also gets lots and lots of laughs every time Eddie steps into the spotlight to deliver the next drag act. Scripted or improvised, he's a brilliant showman.

Rae Janell brings considerable warmth, charm and honesty to the role of Casey's pregnant wife Jo, who, for story purposes, is the last one to know what her husband is really up to night-after-night on the stage of Cleo's. The very tall - a casting plus on Underwood's part - and wonderfully animated Timiki Salinas, gets to play not one, but two very different roles, doubling as Casey's best buddy Jason and Rexy, the fiery drag queen extraordinaire known to her adoring audience as Miss Anorexia Nervosa. It's a spontaneous performance laced with just the right amount of wit, imagination and pulse that asks the actor to switch gears with such 360-degree duality - crazed, heated, hellish drag diva to friend/fun loving, best friend/landlord and back again - you wonder "Is this the same actor playing both parts?" You bet it is!

As Casey, a fifth-rate Elvis impersonator with an audience of about four or five, Clint Hromsco, plays the part of a down-on-his-luck character with a laid-back charm, likability and optimism that is exactly right for his character. We also feel his pain when his pockets are empty, he can't pay his rent, his bank account gets overdrawn, he faces eviction, and he suddenly learns that his wife is going to have his baby.
"We are going to be the best parents since Joseph and Mary,” he tells his wife Jo.
“Yeah, but then their kid died,” she cries back.
Transitioning himself into the title character of Georgia McBride under the watchful eye of Miss Tracy Mills, Hromsco has great fun portraying Casey's awkwardness in full drag make up and costuming never quite knowing which way to turn, how to act and move, how to lip sync and how to win over an audience.  But as the story evolves, he not only masters the art of drag performance, but shows great range as both actor, performer and musical star.

One of the funniest plays of the year, "The Legend of Georgia McBride" kicks the 2023 season at Ivoryton Playhouse into orbit with jackpot exhilaration and roar. It delivers laugh after laugh. It gets the juices flowing. The five-member cast is undeniably first-rate. Angela Carstensen's colorful, gawdy and glittery costumes create the right illusion. Martin Scott Marchitto's atmospheric set design lends itself nicely to the proceedings. And Todd L. Underwood's direction and choreography vividly portrays a real insider's glimpse in the world of drag performance and its classification as an art form that will live and thrive forever.

"The Legend of Georgia McBride" is being staged at Ivoryton Playhouse (103 Main St., Ivoryton, CT), now through April 30, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 767-7318.

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 387, A Concert Review: "Sunday Broadway Concert Series - Eden Espinosa" (Legacy Theatre)

 By James V. Ruocco 

It's all about choices, confidence, personality and musicality - strung together with voice, dedication, commitment and originality.
Eden Espinosa, a Broadway star brimming with style, charm and talent to boot, exudes such refreshing, delightful and cheerful showmanship, it's easy to succumb to her breezy, commanding, reflective concert appearance and embrace her genuine love of performance, live audience harmony, improvisation and all things musical.
Adventurous, relaxed and playfully intimate, she lives for the moment, goes with the flow, bows graciously, takes chances and transitions from one vocal arrangement to another with unique, laidback cabaret artistry that is both consistent and delightful.
To hear her tell it, she wouldn't have it any other way.
Her voice is one that can do it all - giving way to music that can soothe your soul, make you smile and cheer with great impact upon hearing it.

On stage for Legacy Theatre's celebrated, intimate 2023 "Sunday Broadway Concert Series," Espinosa is quick to point out that she's never done "a matinee concert before." Nonetheless, she's ready to take the plunge and entertain everyone, joined by longtime friend, mentor, pianist, composer and musical director John McDaniel (a charismatic showman and abiding impresario) whose credits include "Busker Alley" with Tommy Tune, the 1999 Broadway revival of "Annie Get Your Gun" and the 2011 Broadway staging of "Catch Me If You Can" with Aaron Tveit.
What's exciting about Espinosa in concert is that everything she does is very real, very exciting and very much in the moment. Yes, things are rehearsed. Yes, the musical numbers are sequenced and chosen in advance. Yes, both she and McDaniel come to Legacy Theatre well prepared.
No matter.
It's all up close and personal.

From the very first moment Espinosa takes the stage, she draws you in with grin, enthusiasm, melody and beautifully realized vital, harmonic interpretation.
And that, suffice to say, is what makes her "Sunday Broadway Concert Series" appearance alongside McDaniel ever so special.

Born and raised in Anaheim, California, Espinosa is perhaps best known for her portrayal of Elphaba in the Broadway, Los Angeles and San Francisco productions of Stephen Schwartz's Tony award-winning musical "Wicked." In 2004, she originated the lead female role in the Broadway production of "Brooklyn the Musical." Four years later, she portrayed Maureen in Jonathan Larson's iconic musical "Rent" and remained with the production until its final Broadway performance in January 2009.
Other musical credits include the Fairy Godmother in the Nashville Symphony Orchestra concert version of "Cinderella;" Eva Peron in "Evita;" Trina in the National Touring edition of "Falsettos;" and one of the Narrator's in the 50th Anniversary concert staging of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."

For her Legacy Theatre concert engagement, Espinosa's setlist - an eclectic mix of Broadway showtunes, ballads, personal favorites and genuinely thrilling moments - is lovingly assembled with that special magic and special power that makes each and every one of her choices come to fruition with remarkable resonance, dazzle and exploration.
There are 11 in all, every one of them important to her concert story, its evolution and its stylish, personal conviction.
"Defying Gravity."
"I Miss the Mountains."
"Another Life"
"Ring Them Bells."
"Get Here."
"I Never Knew His Name."
"Holding to the Ground."
"Look Around."
"A Quiet Thing." 

Opening the "Sunday Broadway Concert Series" with "Defying Gravity," dubbed "the crown jewel" of the "Wicked" score, Espinosa kicks off her show with explosive heat and energy vocally portraying the truth, acceptance and potential of this signature song with genuine, showstopping bravura. "I wanted to get this one out of the way first rather than doing it at the end of the show," she confesses.
It's brilliant strategy.
And one that gives her concert its free-flowing, effervescent vibe.
With "I Miss the Mountains" from Broadway's "Next to Normal," Espinosa engagingly projects the heartache and aching abandon associated with this haunting ballad bringing just the right amount of personal emotion and intensely focused capability to her rich vocal telling. "Meadowlark" from "The Baker's Wife" is lush, romantic and big. "Ring Them Bells" by Bob Dylan, is rendered with gospel-driven inspiration, spirit and spunk. "I Never Knew His Name" from "Brooklyn the Musical" is rife with the imagination and poignancy of a remembrance, a reflection and a tender kiss goodnight.

When the music stops - if only fleetingly - Espinosa address the audience with wonderfully paced banter and reminiscences about growing up as a young girl in California; why she often declined but finally accepted the role of Trina in the 2019 National touring edition of "Falsettos;" the thrill, excitement and uncertainty indicative of live stage and concert performance; acting as standby for Elphaba in the original Broadway production of "Wicked;" and finally, workshopping "Brooklyn the Musical" before its short run on Broadway.
Candid, natural and unrehearsed, Espinosa's memories thrill and entertain with laidback reflection, flair, syncopation and originality. 
Much to the delight of everyone in the audience at Legacy Theatre, a portion of her onstage concert also includes song requests from the audience which, depending on the title or the musical number itself, she could veto or willingly perform if she knows all the words, some of the words, the melody, the rhythm or the beat.
It's a great idea and one that allows Espinosa to engage in on-the-spot improvisation and creativity with her audience, matched by great musicality, dedication and in-the-moment engagement. 
The best moments include "Don't Rain on My Parade" from "Funny Girl," "Popular" from "Wicked" and "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" from "Evita." Earlier in the show, there's also a very memorable vocal turn and duet with McDaniel titled "Get Here," harmoniously performed with engagingly, playful interaction. 

Espinosa ends her show with "Look Around" and "A Quite Thing." 
Both songs not only illuminate her vast vocal range and style, but her versatility as actress, singer and performer.
The voice is hers.
The pleasure is ours.
The experience of Eden Espinosa in concert is memorable, heartfelt and thrilling.
It's fruitful collaboration between artist, musician and audience that's delivered with the care, respect and admiration it so richly deserves.

"Sunday Broadway Concert Series - Eden Espinosa" was performed at Legacy Theatre (128 Thimble Islands Road, Brandford, CT) on April 2, 2023.
For tickets or information on all upcoming events, call (203) 315-1901.

Saturday, April 1, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 386, A Review: "Decades in Concert: The 1980s" (Downtown Cabaret Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

It's time to dig deep, get your groove on, scream and shout, act like an idiot, turn back the clock, relive your past and let your senses run wild.
At Downtown Cabaret Theatre, it's the 1980s all over again staged and performed in glorious, living Technicolor, amped up to full throttle voltage with sights, sounds, lights, explosions and heat designed to recall a wild and wonderful decade steeped in music invention, experimentation and diversity featuring the iconic, chart-busting song hits of Madonna, Whitney Houston, Cyndi Lauper, Phil Collins, Prince, Michael Jackson, Journey, Huey Lewis & the News and so many others.
As written by Phill Hill, "Decades in Concert: The 1980s" - the third in a series of concert fests celebrating song hits from the past - includes historic media footage from that decade including the AIDS epidemic, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Challenger disaster and the Ronald Reagan White House years along with glimpses of popular primetime television shows and movies including "Dynasty," "Growing Pains," "St. Elmo's Fire," "The Breakfast Club," "Dirty Dancing," "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "The Golden Girls."
"Where's the Beef?" from "Wendy's" lightning-clad 1984 ad campaign featuring Clara Parker uttering that famous catch phrase gets an applause worthy replay as does an inserted tidbit showcasing the release of the Apple III, business-oriented personal computer.
"Decades in Concert: The 1980s" also includes 
hundreds of hand-picked images of once gorgeous film and television stars from that period who sadly, have lost their looks or not aged well alongside others who have died from cancer, AIDS, drug overdoses or cardiac arrest.
It's a detailed, well-documented process that while important to the concert itself, often plays on for far too long, stops the production dead in its tracks or continually upstages the performances of the engaging, charismatic cast of four throughout the entire two-hour presentation. Less is more is greatly suggested.

Musically, "Decades in Concert: The 1980s" dances about with whirl, twirl, snap, pop and nostalgic explosion. Dozens and dozens of costumes selected, paired and accessorized inventively by costume designer Lesley Neilson-Bowman heighten the concert vibe as does moody, effective, immersive light and sound cues seamlessly orchestrated by Alex Hammerman (lighting designer) and Matt Feeney (sound engineer).
It's fun.
It's catchy.
It's classic.
It also invites audience participation from an overzealous, strange crowd of fifty and sixty somethings, who, despite, no longer being teenagers, jump, hop and skirt around with wild, gleeful, highly questionable abandonment hoping to get zapped into a time warp that has long since passed them by.  Some of them should get zapped, which is, by no means a compliment.

As devised by Hill with music direction by Mark Ceppetelli, "Decades in Concert: The 1980s" unfolds with one song hit after another.
They include: 
"Like A Virgin," "Material Girl," "Footloose," "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)," "Purple Rain," "Faith," "Born in the U.S.A.," "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," "I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)," "The Look," "In the Air Tonight," "Back in Time," "True Colors" and "Don't Stop Believin.' "
Well-placed, organized and in sync with the production's nostalgic trimmings, every one of the musical numbers is replayed and performed with the skill and showmanship that first lifted them to the top of the "Billboard" charts so many, many years ago.

At Downtown Cabaret Theatre, "Decades in Concert: The 1980s" is being staged and choreographed by Jennifer Kaye, a dedicated and creative storyteller whose enthusiasm for the project is matched by an instinctive mindset of individuality, style and scope that exemplifies the subject matter, its staging, in movement, its song styles and its dances. Here, her energy - both directorially and as choreographer - is put to great use with fast-paced precision and achievement that kicks the production into orbit and lets it fly, sing, dance and resonate. In turn, she creates a show of shows packed with a winning formula, a nostalgic glue and an arena-like energy that is fast, fun and welcoming.

Conjuring up fond memories of a bygone era, vocalist Mikayla Petrilla comes to the Downtown Cabaret Theatre with a distinctive look, a distinctive style and a welcoming confidence that pulls an audience in, the moment she starts to sing. It's a performance of bold colors and kinetic dash and swing, fueled by dynamic vocals and accent which she dispenses with animation, personality, punk defiance and illuminating anthem-like lament.
Robert Peterpaul embraces the concert's 1980s concept with celebratory appeal, personality and a natural joyfulness that is smooth, breezy, trajectory and lush. Vocally, he eases into the production's song fest with lead-in character, freshness and vocal potence, offset by pop, audience-friendly choices that showcase his range, his smoothness and his invigorating musicality.

To the delight of an adoring crowd, Everton Ricketts swings and glides back and forth between a variety of song styles, all of which he performs with soft-soul, roiling funk, pop gig and afternoon party groove. Saige Noelle commands the stage with conscience- raising retreat, lush croon, deep melancholy and rhythmic bluster. The effect is thrilling, invigorating and uplifting, much like "Decades in Concert: The 1980s" itself. 
Everyone not only gets a chance to shine, squeeze and sway, but whip up the energy level - on stage and off - with an upbeat step and thrill that fulfills the 1980s musical royalty so lovingly bestowed on all of them.

"Decades in Concert: The 1980s" is being staged at Downtown Cabaret Theatre (263 Golden Hill St., Bridgeport, CT), now through April 8, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 576-1636.