Wednesday, June 28, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 407, A Review: "Something Rotten!" (Sharon Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco  

And so, it begins.

Nick Bottom: "What the hell are musicals?"

Nostradamus: "It appears to be a play where the dialog stops, and the plot is conveyed through song!"

Nick Bottom: "Through song?"

Nostradamus: "Yes!"

Nick Bottom: "So an actor is saying his lines and then out of nowhere he just starts singing?"

Nostradamus: "Yes!"

Nick Bottom: "Well that is the stupidest thing I have ever heard! You're doing a play, got something to say, so you sing it? It's absurd! Who on Earth is going to sit there while an actor breaks into song? What possible thought could an audience think other than this is horribly wrong?"

Not really.
Oh, yes.

Sharon Playhouse's exhilarating presentation of "Something Rotten!" a splashy period musical chock full of catchy songs. takeaway gags, sparkly innuendo and abundant invention is showcased with such enthusiasm, magnitude, spirit and light and color, it is stagecraft ready and cranked to the max with a contagious vibe and velocity that prompts immediate enjoyment at every turn, twist, tilt and chuckle.

This is musical theatre at its every best and one that whirls and twirls with vaudevillian shtick, madcap high jinks galore and fourth wall breaking surprise, irony and Renaissance giddyap.
It is exuberant and inventive.
It is tap happy and theatrical.
It is joyful and victorious.
It snaps and pops.
It is sweet and buzzy.
It is also full of surprises, wackadoodle punchlines, over-the-top characterizations and big, showstopping musical numbers.

The book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O'Farrell sets things in motion as it time travels back to England, circa 1595, and finds two brothers, namely Nick and Nigel Bottom struggling to find success in the world of theater by producing a noble work of art that showcases their playwriting skills and ensures an audience much bigger and much larger than that of William Shakespeare, their narcissistic arch rival who has become the toast of England and the most respected playwright of the times.
To succeed, all they need is a hit play, a team of backers, lots of monies and a big theatrical smash that will knock the Bard off his pedestal once and for good.
With the help of Nostradamus, a celebrated female soothsayer, they discover - via a glimpse into the future - that the only way to topple young Will is to produce and mount of big lavish musical with lots of songs, lots of dancing and a very happy ending. It's their only chance of survival and one they cannot afford to pass up.
With Broadway references galore, backed by one hilarious scene after another, Kirkpatrick and O'Farrell transform "Something Rotten!" into a broad, nonstop laugh fest that never once runs out of steam. 

Staging "Something Rotten!" director Amy Griffin ("Fun Home," "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change," "Aida," "The Taffetas") is completely akin to the musicals' over-the-top wallow and pop, its inbred giddiness, its goofy puns, its jokey double-entendres, its glide and spin, its camp and parody and its lets-pull-out-all-the-stops musical theatre oeuvre. She also gets and understands the purposely inflated mechanics of the Karey Kirkpatrick/John O'Farrell play text, its mischievous attack of the Renaissance, its deliberate assault of Broadway musical theatre, its references to pretty much every musical out there, its wheel-and-deal producer/creator brainstorming sessions and its hilarious viewpoint that too much is never really enough for theatergoers with plenty of monies in their pockets to spend.
As storyteller, Griffin frames "Something Rotten!" with full-throttle commitment, voice, bounce and steamroller enthusiasm. Inside and out, her take on this utterly kitschy 16th century musical romp is surprisingly inventive, shout-out infamous and glorious fun for anyone with real knowledge of musical theatre, its performers, its history and its broad range of Tony award-winning productions that have once graced the Great White Way. It's all merrily spoon fed to the theatergoer from scene to scene and song to song with a carefully calibrated dynamic, rhythm and pulse that's diced and spliced with a harmonious, involved flow that never once falters for a millisecond. No matter how silly things get, Griffin keeps everything enjoyably weighted, partnered and fueled.
Directorially, Griffin also brings plenty of pep and snap to "Something Rotten's!" obvious obsession with Broadway musicals and its periodic glimpses into the future with visions of fiddlers on the roof, singing and dancing cats, falling chandeliers, a masked phantom, vengeful Nazis, seedy Berlin-based cabarets and traveling salesmen signaling trouble in River City. This no-holds-barred skewering - a source of genuine amusement throughout the production - references everything from "Rent" and "Evita" to "Chicago," "Wicked," "Sweet Charity," "A Chorus Line," "Les Misérables" and so much more.

Receiving a well-deserved 2015 Tony Award nomination for Best Original Score, "Something Rotten!" features a peppy musical libretto by Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick who have penned the music and lyrics to absolute perfection, offset by a panoply of well-orchestrated kitsch, parody and slap and dash that serves the material well. Each of the musical numbers not only serves its intended purpose but propels the action forward with its choice use of humor, wickedness, abandonment and playful homage to Broadway musical theatre, past and present.
The score itself is comprised of twenty musical numbers. They are: "Welcome to the Renaissance," "God, I Hate Shakespeare," "Right Hand Man," "God, I Hate Shakespeare (reprise)," "A Musical," "The Black Death," "I Love the Way," "Will Power," "Bottom's Gonna Be on Top," "Welcome to the Renaissance (reprise)," "Hard to Be the Bard," "It's Eggs!" "We See the Light," "Nigel's Theme," "To Thine Own Self," "Right Hand Man (reprise)," "Something Rotten!" "Make an Omelette," "To Thine Own Self" and "Welcome to America."
As orchestrators and lyricists, the Kirkpatrick's address the musical's subject matter with engagement, anticipation and emotional intensity so hilariously contoured, things are celebrated, understood and articulated with such massive ridicule, twist and energy, nothing gets lost in the translation or its wistful gallop, skronk and swerve.
At Sharon Playhouse, the "Something Rotten!" musical score is brought to life by musical director Jacob Carll, who doubles as conductor and keyboardist one alongside the handpicked orchestral team of Walter Barrett (trombone), Alec Sisco (drums), Dan Koch (keyboardist two), Kevin Callaghan (electric, acoustic bass), Steve Siktberg (electric, acoustic guitar), Dave Pratt (piccolo, trumpet, flugelhorn) and Rich Conley (recorder, piccolo, flute, clarinet, alto sax, tenor sax).
With the accent on fun, Carll supplies the two-act musical with a sound and atmospheric presence that's floated about with the jovial momentum and capability envisioned by its creators and rendered with evident chant, contrast, complexity and inspiration in pretty much all of musical numbers including "Welcome to the Renaissance," "Bottom's Gonna Be on Top," "God, I Hate Shakespeare" and "Welcome to America."

This being a musical, and one that takes its inspiration from all things Bard and all things Broadway, who better than Justin Boccitto to act as choreographer for "Something Rotten!" Here, as in the Sharon Playhouse productions of "Anything Goes" and "Crazy For You," Boccitto's choreography is rife with inspired variance, influence, depth, connection and theatrical retro that complements his extraordinary skills and craftsmanship for dance interpretation.
Into this jovial environment or glorious musical farce if you prefer, he brings astounding technique and energy to the dance numbers, offset by a splendid sense of merriment, weight and surprise that effectively reflects the humor of the book, the theatricality of the orchestrations, the parody at hand and the underlying emotions of every single character onstage.
There's also a bright positivity to his work that allows "Something Rotten!" to bounce, dazzle and amaze as both a paean to showbiz and a down-out, dash-and-go parody of musical theatre. The inclusion of tap dancing - a Boccitto trademark - to several of the musical numbers adds fuel to the fire with everyone on stage smiling and selling things in grand, solid "42nd Street/Anything Goes" fashion that prompts ovation worthy applause at every turn.

"Something Rotten!" stars Michael Santora as Nick Bottom, Jen Cody as Nostradamus, Max Crumm as Nigel Bottom, Danny Drewes as William Shakespeare, Emily Esposito as Bea, Melissa Goldberg as Portia, Ryan Palmer as Shylock and Daniel Pivovar as Brother Jeremiah.
As shaped and molded by director Amy Griffin, 
every performer on the Sharon Playhouse stage gets his or her place in the spotlight (standouts include Santora, Cody and Drewes) while embracing the catchy musical score by the talented Kirkpatrick duo and the invigorating choreography by Boccitto.
There are star turns. There are showstoppers. There are laughs. There are playful and sexy bits of stage business and musicality that get the pulses racing.
Song by song and dance by dance, everyone is in fine voice and full swing, playfully reflecting the conceit of the material, its fluent story arcs, its wicked abandonment, its parody and its homage to Broadway musical theatre.

One of the funniest musicals of the summer, "Something Rotten!" is a snappy, entertaining musical comedy with rapid-fire humor and hands-down musicality that rips and roars with non-stop confidence, cheer and individuality.
It's bold. It's buoyant. It's colorful. It's hysterical. It's full-beam tonic and fizz.
The cast keeps it fresh and breezy under Amy Griffin's wild and wacky direction.
Justin Boccitto's choreography is lively, expressive and dynamic.
In fact, "Something Rotten" is so much fun, once is not enough. This is one of the musicals you'll want to see again and again.

Photos of "Something Rotten!" courtesy of Aly Morrissey.

"Something Rotten!" is being staged at Sharon Playhouse (49 Amenia Road, Sharon, CT), now through July 9, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 364-7469.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 406, A Review: "Urinetown: The Musical" (Brookfield Theatre for the Arts)

 By James V. Ruocco

In the three-time Tony award winning musical "Urinetown," Greg Kotis, who penned the production's catchy book and lyrics, concocts a plotline that Little Sally, played here by the phenomenally talented Kate Patton, deems positively awful during the show's satirically fueled opening minutes of this exhilarating Brookfield Theatre for the Arts revival.

"Bad subject matter or even a bad title (i.e., "Urinetown: The Musical") could kill a show pretty good," she tells Officer Lockstock. "Or a premise so absurd."
Is she right?
Yes! No! Maybe!
For plot purposes, her 
questions, of course, are left immediately unanswered, thus, kicking the show into orbit along with the fact that everyone - both onstage and off - is in on the joke.
And therein, lies the fun.
Urination and all.

As devised by Kotis, "Urinetown: The Musical" is set in a mythical place where a twenty-year drought has outlawed private toilets in the homes of its citizens and produced a very strict public health act that forbids public urination in alleyways, behind trees, in bushes or wherever the urge strike's one's fancy.
To earn "the privilege to pee," the population must use the town's only public amenities which are owned and operated by a money-hungry private company that charges huge fees for citizens to do you know what.
Worse yet, if they break the law, they're sent to Urinetown and eventually killed by the police.
Enough said.

Given its wacky premise, its off-the-wall conceit and its crazed, confused and bewildered populace, "Urinetown: The Musical" is a complete triumph in terms of writing and staging, offset by intricate, pungent music and extraordinary characters that complement and cement the mayhem that ensues.
In Brookfield, the two-act musical is yet another home run for the immersive, intimate venue coming quickly on the heels of "Spring Awakening," a passionate, heartbreaking, unforgettable tale of teen angst, self-expression and coming of age, set in late 19th century Germany.

A tale of greed, lust, corruption, tyranny and revolution, this hypnotic revival of the 2001 Broadway musical is laced with a satirical bounce and flourish that is rousing, eclectic, invigorating and inspirational.
Part Brechtian, part Weill and part dystopian, "Urinetown: The Musical" tilts and spins with just the right amount of self-conscious absurdity, cheeky pastiche and splendidly induced mockery.

Staging this wildly wicked and witty parody of corporate greed and the obvious exploitation of one's daily urinary habits and functions, director David Anctil seizes the all-in-fun moment of the piece and its hilarious sendup of musical theatre with flair, giddyap and juicy amplification. He also comes to "Urinetown: The Musical" with an appreciation for satire, big swing jokiness, actor-audience push and pull, situational humor and absurdist melodrama.
Moreover, he's directorially committed to the story at hand, its evolution, its shifts in tone, its surprise twists of fate and its well-commissioned weirdness. Scene by scene, he gets the job done with real imagination and purpose, filling the Brookfield Theatre for the Arts space with intoxicating imagery, blocking maneuvers and ensemble tableaus that heighten the impact of the story, its inherited sweep and menace and its running joke of breaking down the fourth wall to connect, tease and beguile the audience.

Musically, "Urinetown: The Musical" rides merrily along with an inventive, magical and playful musical score created by Mark Hollman (musical and lyrics) and Greg Kotis (lyrics). The song tracks (melodious, acerbic, character driven) are strategically placed and positioned, thus, giving the musical its intended edge, spirit and substance.
They are: "Too Much Exposition," "Urinetown," "It's a Privilege to Pee," "It's a Privilege to Pee (reprise)," "Mr. Caldwell," "Cop Song," "Follow Your Heart," "Look to the Sky," "Don't Be the Bunny," "Act One Finale," "What is Urinetown?" "Snuff That Girl," "Run, Freedom, Run!" "Follow Your Heart (reprise)," "Why Did I Listen to that Man?" "Tell Her I Love Her," "We're Not Sorry," "I'm Not Sorry (reprise)" and "I See a River."

Here, the palpable grit, harmony and eclecticism of the score is brought to life by musical director Sarah Fox (piano, conductor) and the orchestral team of Benjamin Olsen (trombone), John Hoddinott (bass), Patrick Pierce (reeds) and Chris Babcock (percussion). It's a winning combination of talent fueled by an appellation of lyricism and identity that complements that massiveness of the score, its generated levels of musicality and its remarkable fluency, demonstration and commitment to the story at hand. 
Everyone on stage - lead, supporting player, ensemble - intuitively connects to the musical numbers they are asked to sing, bringing a strong sense of urgency, style, tone to the piece, never once breaking out of character, missing a note, falling flat or wrapping their vocal chops around the dynamic phrasings, movements and rhythms envisioned by the show's creators.

They don't come any better than Josephine Harding and here, as in the recent Brookfield Theatre staging of "Spring Awakening," her gift for choreography gives "Urinetown: The Musical" its creative spin, its atmospheric aura and its magical tingle. 
Surrounded by a gifted company of performers, Harding's crisp, tight, informational choreography captures the angst, illusion and intensity of the telling, its nod to both parody and dystopia, its amped up exhilaration, its desperation and its salute to musical theatre abandonment. Elsewhere, her fresh feel for the show's musical staging comes across with the complexity and originality of someone skilled in Broadway bravado, its live performance execution and its framed visual flair. 

As Little Sally, Kate Patton's broad, neo-Brechtian take on her characterization, line delivery, vocals and interaction heightens the absurdity of the piece, its air of menace and its parody is such showstopping ways, her invigorating performance becomes the focal point of "Urinetown: The Musical."
She has fun. We have fun. She excites. She delights.
That said, her reactions are vaudevillian ready and worthy. She knows how to play a scene to its fullest. She completely understands Hollman and Kotis' original tongue-and-cheek concept and has great fun questioning the logistics and practicality of the material from the show's "awful title" to its preoccupation with paid public space pissoirs for urination.
Javen Levesque's commanding and dashing portrayal of Bobby Strong, the young, rebellious everyman who assists Miss Pennywise (the dynamic Missy Hanlon who turns her big musical number "It's a Privilege to Pee" into an ovation-worthy showstopper) in the great outdoors amidst the city's filthiest and poorest public urinals, brings consummate charm, humor and opportunity to his romantic leading man role, coupled with a smooth voice and song style as good as Hunter Foster who originated the role on Broadway back in 2001.
Other first-rate performances are delivered by Bennett Cognato (Officer Lockstock), Patrick Spaulding (Caldwell B. Caldwell), Jocelyn Titus (Hope Caldwell), Beth Bonnabeau (Josephine "Ma" Strong), Gary Blu (Joseph "Old Man" Strong), Billy Dempster (Officer Barrel), Laura Majidian (Little Becky Two Shoes), Ainsley Novin (Rebel) and Ethan Valencia (Mr. McQueen).

"Urinetown: The Musical is being staged at Brookfield Theatre for the Arts, 184 Whisconier Road, Brookfield, CT), now through June 24, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 775-0023.

Saturday, June 17, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 405, A Review: "Head Over Heels" (Connecticut Theatre Company)

By James V. Ruocco

Think about it for a moment - the pitch session that led to the actual mounting of the 2018 musical "Head Over Heels."

An Elizabethan comedy romp that takes its cue from Sir Philip Henry's 16th century prose poem "The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia" featuring the chartbusting song hits of the American rock band The Go-Go's while playfully nourishing subject matter about acceptance, homosexuality, drag queens, penis size, seduction, adultery and sexual awakening.

Not exactly "The Sound of Music," "My Fair Lady" or "Anything Goes."
And therein, lies the attraction.
Naughty, giddy, glittery and appropriately queer, "Head Over Heels" is absolute freewheeling fun, offset by an escapist preserve and gender-fluid identity that's impossible to resist.
It's also the perfect fit for Connecticut Theatre Company, arriving just two months after the theater's hypnotic staging of "Spring Awakening" and three months before the venue's wild and wacky mounting of "Zanna, Don't!" a 2003 musical set in a parallel universe where homosexuality is the norm and heterosexuality is strictly taboo.
"Head Over Heels" is glide-and-slide kitsch, LQBTQ diverse and off-the-wall flash and pan all rolled up into one. Feel-good songs like "We Got the Beat," "Vacation," "Heaven Is a Place on Earth," "Head Over Heels" and "Our Lips Are Sealed," amongst others, heighten and complement the mood.

The premise of the musical - a cotton candy gooey one at that - entails the prophesized collapse of a Tudor empire beset by raging hormones, flirtation and romping, same-sex couplings, mistaken identities, non-binary oracles, jealous siblings, musical theatre humor, cries of freedom, greed and corruption and high tempo madness.
As devised by Jeff Whitty (he wrote the original book) and adapted for the musical stage by James Magruder (Whitty quit the show due to conflicts with the director), "Head Over Heels" addresses its ongoing story arcs, character exchanges and idiosyncrasies with dashes of pep and vigor reminiscent of all those popular Shakespearean comedies where boys pretend to be girls and vice versa and that recognizable jukebox musical reinforcement where nothing is questioned, nothing has to make sense and lines of dialogue spring out of nowhere signaling yet another catchy and popular song that's meant to carry the action forward without hesitation.

Staging "Head Over Heels" for Connecticut Theatre Company, co-director's Duane Campbell and Emma Gulick ignite the two-act musical with enough witty camp and froth to make it tilt and spin accordingly and reflect the original conceit springboarded by both Whitty and Magruder. No matter how crazy or idiotic things get, this talented duo unite as one to craft a fast-paced entertainment that brims with feeling, youthful impulsiveness, rampant delight and atmospheric sensation, punch and triumph.

Musically, "Head Over Heels" celebrates the beats and punkish qualities of the Go-Go's, wrapped around a truckload of carefully chosen and well-placed musical numbers of discovery, influence, style and boom originally introduced decades ago by the popular five women group headlined by Belinda Carlisle and Charlotte Caffey.
They are, in order of performance: "We Got the Beat," "Beautiful," "Vision of Nowness," "Get Up and Go," "Mad About You," "Good Girl," "Vision of Nowness/Beautiful (reprise)," "Automatic Rainy Day," "Cool Jerk," "Vacation," "How Much More," "Our Lips Are Sealed," "Head Over Heels," "This Old Feeling," "Turn to You," "Heaven Is a Place on Earth," "Lust to Love," "Here You Are," "Mad About You (reprise)," "Finale" and "Get Up and Go (reprise)."
At Connecticut Theatre Company, Nick Stanford serves as musical director alongside "Head Over Heels" musicians Nate Dobas, Jordan Brint, Nick Zavaglia and C. Descoutures. 
As the musical unfolds, Stanford and company address the Go-Go's song tableau with knowingness, efficiency, complement and exploration. There's rhythmic vigor and delight here, as one Go-Go's hit follows another. There's concert vibe and connection. There's slate and step. There's glow and movement. There's also a fruitful collaboration and trust between orchestra and performer that is communicated in perfect harmony, which, in terms of artistic expression, gives credence and specificity to every one of the musical numbers.

Casting wise, "Head Over Heels" succeeds largely to the pivotal, commanding and energetic performances of several of the musical's key players - Joey Abate, Montana Telman, Taylor Klein, Janet Aldrich, Kerrie Maguire, Scott "Scooter" Hauser, Joe Berthiaume and Chris "C.S." Dunn.
Everyone, more or less, gets his or her moment to shine (Maguire, Telman and Abate offer spectacular, stand out performances), each giving "Head Over Heels" a comedic flair and musicality that circles round and round with wicked abandonment straight right through to the story's confirmed and hilarious resolution.

"Head Over Heels" is being staged at Connecticut Theatre Company (23 Norden Street, New Britain, CT), now through June 25, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 223-3147.

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 404, A Review: "Webster's Bitch" (Playhouse on Park)

By James V. Ruocco

What is the definition and meaning of Noah Webster's English language dictionary?

Answer: A dictionary is a book or electronic resource that lists the words of a language in alphabetical order, thus explaining their meaning while providing additional information about pronunciation, origin, etymologies, translation and usage.

What is a lexicographer?

Answer: A lexicographer is the writer, editor and compiler of a dictionary who examines how words came into being, how they evolved or changed in terms of pronunciation, spelling, usage and meaning. A lexicographer is also tasked with the decision of deciding which words should be kept, added, updated or removed from a dictionary.

In "Webster's Bitch," a compelling new play by Jacqueline Bircher, language, dictionaries, lexicography, gender bias, verbiage misuse and misinterpretation are among the topics discussed, considered and tossed about in conversational-fueled dialogue that invites discussion, opinion, debate, collaboration, clash and conflict.
Making its "world premiere" debut at the immersive, intimate Playhouse on Park venue, the production itself comes to the stage with a premise, intelligence and sense of discovery that's mixed with cleverly couched flashes of joy, individuality, chutzpah and collaborative power.
As theatre, "Webster's Bitch" is talky and clever.
It is engagingly pitched and self-assured.
It is fierce and sharp-tongued.
It is spontaneous and witty.
It hits hard.
It digs deep.
It gets you thinking.
It fucks with your senses.
It is also the perfect fit for Playhouse in Park amidst a stellar season of productions that included Paula Vogel's "Indecent" and "Fences" by August Wilson.

As playwright, Bircher creates a showcase of bold emotions, black comedy and informational dramatics that are egged on by arguments, stances, elements, skewering, causes and character turns that drive "Webster's Bitch" forward, anchored by meaty dialogue, savvy situations and surprise twists that you didn't see coming.
There's also a balance and heartbeat to her writing, particularly in the way she creates characters, festers their high and low points, flatters them and knocks them down and evokes words and thoughts that define who they are, what they are and how they fit into the puzzle and mind games of her creation.
Whatever the scene or focal point, Bircher knows exactly what she wants and runs with it. It is that sort of intuition that makes "Webster's Bitch" so attractive, observational and juicy. The fact that you never quite know which way the tide will turn also heightens the appeal of the playwright's narrative.

Staging "Webster's Bitch" at Playhouse on Park, director Vanessa Morosco delivers a masterful piece of storytelling infused with the truths, vision, stance and pivotal turns reflected in Bircher's complex playtext. Working against the backdrop of Johann Fitzpatrick's atmospheric, lived-in office setting, she creates an evolving world of upstart and determination, offset by a seamless energy and effectiveness that gives the play a front-page realness, mindset and message-oriented effectiveness.
An actress herself, Morosco guides her five-member cast through a swirling mix of emotions and conversations, grounded and implemented with deft, seamless staging and blocking maneuvers that are naturally specific to their characters, the story, 
their evolvement in the progression of her telling and the heart and soul of the piece. Here, a reaction, an expression, a tilt of the head or the movement of a prop, a paper or a folder is just as important as a line of dialogue, a joke, a four-letter-word or a heated debate or a change of direction in the narrative.

The always magnificent Veanne Cox - "Company," "Murder on the Orient Express," "Private Lives," "Cinderella," "La Cage aux Folles" - gives the performance of the season as Joyce, the workplace "bitch" of the show's title (no spoilers, here) whose chain of command, uptightness and quest for power not only unleashes a very dangerous, structured and educated women, but prompts an immediate actor-audience vibe the moment she appears on stage.
She's driven. She's fiery. She's determined. She's angry. She's vulnerable. She's shrewd. She's devious. Mess with her and she'll eat you for dinner.
Here, in "Webster's Bitch," Cox draws you into her story and that of those around her with a polished, natural display of confidence, habitation and collision that fascinates and echoes with fire and precision, pungency and bravado and magisterial edge and toughness. Watching her perform, one could only imagine the onstage drama that would erupt if she should ever tackle the lead role of Martha (she should) in Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Mixing illusion and reality to explosive proportions, Cox would not only master the range of emotions of that very iconic character, but vividly express, as she does here, the voice, body language and persona of that particular role as well.

As Gwen, the young, intuitive woman dedicated to keeping the dictionary's lexicography timely and relevant, Mia Wurgrat totally captivates while delivering a natural, nuanced performance. In the showy role of Gwen's sister Ellie, Isabel Monk Cade absolutely shines, hitting every comedic and dramatic cue with a free-flowing zest and enthusiasm that is key to the enjoyment of this very powerful and intense world premiere play.

"Webster's Bitch" is being staged at Playhouse on Park (244 Park Road, West Hartford, CT), now through May 18, 2021.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 523-5900.

Tuesday, June 6, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 403, A Review: "Trouble in Mind" (Hartford Stage)

 By James V. Ruocco 

American racism is the explosive subject matter of Alice Childress's conversation-fueled 1955 landmark work "Trouble in Mind," the final production of Hartford Stage's 2022-2023 season of plays that included "The Winter's Tale," "The Art of Burning" and "The Mousetrap."
As theatre, it 
is sharp and poignant.
It is pertinent and full of rage and protest.
It is a play about voice and discovery.
It is an important work of great platform and great bones.
It also brings its audience to a standstill.
But then again, that's the point.

"Writing is a labor of love and also an act of defiance. A way to light a candle in the gale wind."
Alice Childress, playwright

First produced at Stella Holt's Greenwich Mews Theatre in 1955, where it ran for 91 performances, "Trouble in Mind" openly explored the behind-the-scenes' conflicts and frustrations of a group of black actors and actresses as they gathered to rehearse a new work in a mainstream white theater.
Originally, the production was commissioned for a Broadway transfer, but when Childress adamantly refused to change the play's ending to accommodate a largely white theatergoing audience, plans to move her play uptown were immediately scrapped.
Regardless, the struggle, opinion, dignity and resolve of "Trouble in Mind" endures.
And rightly so.

Set in a rehearsal room - a theatrical battleground of sorts - the play's four main black characters are forced to play lynched victims, mammies, servants or whittling "colored folk" (the narrative is set in the deep south) while at the same time, acting, smiling and nodding agreeably without complaint or hesitation when asked to recite dialogue or act out situations concerning their overtly racially prejudiced roles.
As actors, they also must contend with a pompous, egomaniacal white director ("You think it's wonderful to be white," he yells) who often belittles them or continually reminds them that they have been hired to play a part and not question the logistics, the misgivings or the sloppiness of the script itself.
They are working actors and nothing more. They could also be replaced at the drop of a hat.

As playwright, Childress navigates her play about backstage racism with edge, with satire, with intensity and with narrative command. There's eloquence and passion here, mixed with spark, attitude, debate and consequence.  More importantly, the collective stories of "Trouble in Mind" bespeak the actual anger of the era she writes about as it was recorded and experienced at the time of the play's setting.
There's a push and pull to it all, with friction and conflict front and center, mixed evenly with a play-within-a-play premise interspersed with bouts of comedy, language, power plays and industry flamboyance meant to be either humorous and offensive or legitimate and binary. Elsewhere, there's also some fun bits about Bridgeport and Yale University involving the character of Judy Sears, an over-anxious white actress and graduate of Yale hoping to make her mark in the entertainment industry. Early on, the director's explanation of the playing space (stage right, stage left, downstage center, etc.) to Judy is hilariously executed with enjoyable dash and panache. 

Staging "Trouble in Mind," director Christopher D. Betts positions a combative and humorous piece of stagecraft that is witty, intelligent, dramatic and thought provoking. Directorially, he is akin to machinations of the Childress playtest, its unspooling, its observations, its rebelliousness, its playing ground, its urges, its honesty and its extremism. 
There's lots going on, but the details, the cues, the expressions, the feel and the flow of the piece are sustained with natural thrust and immediacy as are the shifts in tone, character and story evolution. Lots of questions are raised by the playwright and Betts provides the answers with heightened awareness, element and articulated accompaniment.

"Trouble in Mind" stars Heather Alicia Simms (Wiletta Mayer), John Bambery (Al Manners), Chelsea Lee Williams (Millie Davis), Sideeq Heard (John Nevins), Sarah Lyddan (Judy Sears), Michael Rogers (Sheldon Forrester), Adam Langdon (Eddie Fenton), James Joseph O'Neil (Bill O' Wray) and Richard Hoxie (Henry).
The cast, all well-chosen for the respective roles, bring plenty of emotion, angst, twist and atmospheric sting to Childress' story, which, in turn, heightens the play's attitude, footing, excitement, outrage, shock, irony and trickling revelation. Working together as a very confident, primed ensemble, they deep dive into the "Trouble in Mind" with a committed trust and swim that complements the story, its history, its presence and its evolution. They also bring an authentic life to the production (Simms is absolutely magnificent; Bambery's bullish director is the personification of real sleaze) that honors the great and good of live theatre, its presentation and its immersive grasp, conclusion and task at hand.

"Trouble in Mind" is being performed at Hartford Stage (50 Church Street, Hartford, CT), now through June 18, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-5151.