Sunday, August 27, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 420, A Review: "Rent" (White Rabbit Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco 

Then, now, always.
The experience that is "Rent" - not just onstage but in the audience - is shaped by story, vocals, music, exchanges and characters that touch the heart, stir the senses, create an atmosphere of pure euphoria and produce lots and lots of wet tears for those willing to succumb to the musical's oft-told tale of triumph, adversity, friendship, life, death and bohemian camaraderie.
Twenty-seven years old, it remains a source of great joy, strength and opportunity.
It rocks effectively.
It tilts and spins.
It is unmistakably catchy, inspiring and timely.
It promotes diversity.
It's every bit as powerful as when it was first performed.
And like all great music or art, it has acquired a strong sense of history, rhythm and pulse that goes way beyond the Bohemian stratosphere from whence it came.

"Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six-hundred minutes.
Five hundred twenty-five
Moments so dear

Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
How do you measure - measure a year?
In daylights - in sunsets
In midnight's - in cups of coffee
In inches - in miles
In laughter - in strife"

"There's only us, there's only this.
Forget regret, or life is your's to miss.
No other path, no other way.
No day but today"

"How do you document real life
When real life's getting more like fiction each day?
Headlines, bread-lines blow my mind
And now this deadline, "Eviction or pay." Rent!"

No matter how you look at it - The East Village premiere in 1996 or the thrilling 2023 revival by White Rabbit Theatre - the legacy that is "Rent" remains the brainchild of the very man himself - 35-year-old Jonathan Larson, the visionary composer, lyricist and author of the hit musical who died of an aortic aneurysm on January, 25, 1996, just days before his ground-breaking rock opera made its official debut off-Broadway to heightened fanfare and subsequently, was later transferred to Broadway in April of the same year, where, it became the "Hamilton" of its day.
This, of course, came as no surprise to anyone in the cast, the audience, the producer's chair, the backstage crew or the creative team.
"Rent" was a Broadway musical, like no other.


Winner of the 1996 Award for Best Musical and Best Musical Score, among others, "Rent" completely changed the face of musical theater - Broadway, West End, Fringe, Regional, National Tour - with an adrenaline-pumped, frenzied musical score of seamlessly mixed salsa, reggae, opera, gospel, tango, electric rock, pop and Sondheim-tinged eclecticism.
Its angst-filled story of gay and straight characters fighting for survival in N.Y 's bohemian milieu of St. Mark's Place was fueled with grit, hope, boldness, revelation, lust and unabashed vitality. And when the "Rent" cast stood on the edge of the proscenium stage facing the audience at the start of Act II to sing the harmonic anthem "Seasons of Love," a tearful, angst-ridden reminder of living and measuring life on borrowed time, your heart just broke and broke and broke. 

At Cheney Hall in Manchester, an inviting, elegant Victorian structure of brick and brownstone, White Rabbit Theatre's invigorating revival of the 1996 Tony Award winning musical, fills the historic venue with an immersive, in-the-moment exhilaration and celebratory, pseudo pop feel that not only pays homage to 
Jonathan Larson's vision, concept and blueprint for "Rent," but does full justice to his visionary story, his representation of different races, his colorful gay and straight characters, his contagious rock score and his overflowing sense of promise, hope, attitude and urban rawness.

The cast of 23 is new.
The interpretation is new.
The direction is new.
The style, the staging, the twists, the ideas and the vision is new.
The costume design is new.
But this is "Rent" the way it was meant to be seen, enjoyed, performed and experienced.

No stone is left unturned in this White Rabbit Theatre revival.
It is bold and brazen.
It is focused and uplifting.
It is electric and connected.
It is raw and sexual.
It is urgent and romantic.
It dances to its own decided heartbeat.
It also has a mind of its own, as seen through the eyes of its extraordinary directors, Adam Tortorello and Lena Felix.

Written by Jonathan Larson (book, music and lyrics), "Rent," which loosely takes its inspiration from Puccini's celebrated opera "La Boheme," deals openly and objectively with upfront and personal themes and ideas about drug addiction, eviction, materialism, queerness, struggle, legacy, entitlement, debate, sexual identity, transgender activism, death, poverty, individualism, urban redevelopment and AIDS.
Its raw, necessary, stringent language ("fucking weird," "fucking bitch," "dildo," "clit club," "queer," for example), jump starts the storytelling, its musical format and its scene-by-scene progression without any form of hesitation, whitewashing, cop outs, editing or censorship. Here, the principal characters are full-on and reflective of their impoverished, quirky East Village milieu. Nothing is taken for granted, pumped up, overplayed, exaggerated or prettified. Everyone has his or her piece to sing or recite including Larson's wandering, perfectly integrated populate of parents, police officers, vendors, junkies, homeless people, beggars, waiters, pastors and AIDS-inflicted men and women clinging to a hope of a better tomorrow.

From its very first performance at the 150-seat New York Workshop, the defining pulse, sting and heartbeat of "Rent" comes from Larson's inventive, optimistic, character-driven musical score. Cleverly integrated into his hypnotic thought-provoking, two-act narrative, this defining and creative mix of anthems, duets, ballads, rock songs, plot-driven laments, rifts, pronouncements, declarations and lively showstoppers seamlessly reflect the anguish, rage, conflict, underbelly and emotion he intended for the two-act musical.
"La Vie Boheme," "Another Day," "One Song Glory," "Light My Candle," "Rent," "Out Tonight," "I'll Cover You," "You Okay, Honey," "Take Me or Leave Me," "Seasons of Love," "Without You," "I Should Tell You," "Santa Fe," "Christmas Bells," "Goodbye Love," "We're Okay," "Over the Moon," "What You Own," "Today 4 U," "Tango: Maureen," "Will I?" "Life Support," "Your Eyes."
It's all here at White Rabbit Theatre - loud, proud, significant, harmonic, energized - and nothing gets lost in the translation.
Larson's recurring musical themes - living on the edge, taking chances, tragic losses, fighting for survival, a strong sense of community, death and adversity, homophobia, shielding loved ones from danger, unspoken truths - are emotionally sustained, addressed and melodically revisited in this eclectic WRT remounting which is musically directed by Marc Sokolson and band director/conductor Nick Stanford (doubling as keyboardist 1) alongside the talented, handpicked orchestral team of Maurice Thomas (Bass), Mike Bafuma (drums), Nick Zavaglia (guitar 1) and C. Descoutures (guitar 2, keyboardist 2).
A collaborative effort that gives way to a luxury outing of colorful, collective interludes, beats, rhythms and pulses, Sokolson and company fuel "Rent" with a dizzying, involved frenzy, fire and spirit that sets Larson's great musical artwork in motion. There's shimmer and grasp. There's lingering drama and resonance. There's rainbow flag theatricality. There's lift and challenge. There's punch and climax. There's variety and contact. There's warmth, ache, sorrow and presence.
As "Rent" evolves, there is also a real immediacy and realization here offset by precise, seamless involvement and navigational detail reflective of Larson's original concept for the two-act musical. From the catchy, pulsating beat of the opening title song "Rent" to the tear-stained, emotional "Act II Finale," things are hauntingly replayed with a bustle or two of nostalgia lovingly mixed with thrill, substance, style and RentHead verve and momentum.  

As with any musical - "Evita," "Sweeney Todd," "Fun Home," "Les Misérables," "Next to Normal," to name a few - the underlying strength, aside from the original musical score, that is, comes from the interpretative stamp of the director of choice and his or her emotional take on the story, the characters and the evolutional journey that ensues between actor and audience. Here, at White Rabbit Theatre, "Rent" springs to life under the directorial tutelage of Adam Tortorello (he also portrays Mark Cohen in this production) and Lena Felix (guest "Seasons of Love" soloist for the 9/03 performance), two artists and visionaries whose love, connection and commitment to Jonathan Larson's acclaimed, iconic work is met with a seamless blend of vibrancy, buzz, passion, thrust and boom that ignites their telling with an expressive depth, fury and specificity that makes their presence known throughout the theater and on the stage at Cheney Hall during any given performance of "Rent."
Directorially, Tortorello and Felix come to this revival with a grab-bag of ideas, visions and staging maneuvers that heighten, strengthen and influence their reenactment of the popular musical. If you've seen "Rent" before ("Is there anyone out there who hasn't?"), this revival, though faithful, in part to Larson's original work, takes chances and occasional liberties with the play text while experimenting, exploring and filling in the dots with colors and shading that accentuates and improves the already familiar story and libretto.
As directors, and exceptionally talented ones at that, they are not interested in dusting off the blueprints of the 27-year-old musical, its revivals, its anniversary productions, its final tours or its subsequent by-the-book incarnations. Instead, they have looked for new ways to stage key story points, elements exchanges and situations of the popular musical. It's a directorial strategy that not only heightens and enlightens their telling of "Rent" but give it a shine and uniqueness all its own.
Reinterpreting the musical, they bring some of the upstage, elevated-tiered action - the AIDS-related encounter group sessions, for example - downstage, front and center - which, in turn, make these individual scenes much more powerful and effective. Elsewhere, Maureen's "Over the Moon" protest (based on the 18th century nursery rhyme "Hey, Diddle, Diddle") finds the character entering the arena from the rear of the Cheney Hall auditorium transporting two cows - one that's as big as the Milky White cow from "Into the Woods;" the other, a full-blown miniature white plastic replica she carries onstage. It's a three-dimensional directorial stroke that works splendidly and heightens both the over-the-top humor, unrest and tension of the piece tremendously. It also puts a lively spin on Maureen's cleverly staged infusion of fresh milk as she hilariously sucks the hell out of the cow's udder's savoring each drop of the milky treat that lands smack, dab in her mouth. It's a moment you're not likely to forget for quite some time. 
Tortorello and Felix also take great delight in staging and reinventing the musical's many tune ups, voice mails and holiday greetings that are shrewdly infused by Larson into the ongoing action. Often, in other productions, these moments are sometimes lost or sidetracked depending on how they are staged, interpreted or performed. Here, each and every one of them (there are many) never once miss a beat, pause or musical note. They are performed and blocked with an enlivened twist, perk and craziness that smartly reflects Larson's penchant for comedy, dialogue and vaudevillian timing and delivery.

Bright, snappy and atmospheric choreography is key to the evolution, enjoyment and enhancement of the "Rent" musical story and Chantel Martin's lively, intuitive, character-driven dance maneuvers and movements ("Tango: Maureen," "Today 4 U," "Out Tonight," "La Vie Boheme") provide the necessary pulse, thrust and sensation necessary to propel the action forward, get the juices flowing and heighten the dramatic momentum of the narrative.
Confident, original, modern and athletic, her choreography fits perfectly into the dramatic fabric of the story and much like that of the original work, it allows the audience to feel and experience the emotions conveyed in the musical by every one of the characters.
There's color, excitement and individuality in her choreographic choices. There's style. There's spirit. There's excitement. There's irony. There's command.
Dance wise, it's also greatly focused and assured, confidently showcasing the bohemian milieu of the "Rent" locale, its 90s framework and its troubled, angst-ridden populace.

Playing the pivotal role of Mark Cohen, Adam Tortorello is the ideal choice to bring the character of the young Jewish-American documentary filmmaker-narrator to life. He's personable. He's confident. He's driven. He's passionate. He's anxious. He's the focal point of Larson's story. His heart is also in the right place, which in terms of storytelling and progression, fuels "Rent" with the pace, the want, the rhythm and the arrangement necessary to keep the production afloat from start to finish.
Acting wise, he taps believably into Cohen's psyche and delivers a fascinating performance that is real, honest and raw and perfectly in sync with the production's sense of time, place and story.
He gets Larson. He understands Larson. He loves Larson. He respects Larson.
He also knows everything there is to know about "Rent" - front, back, center and sideways - and nails all of the familiar character traits, quirks, values and street-smarts that Larson set forth for Mark.
Vocally, he imbues the character's many songs - "Rent," "Tango: Maureen," "La Vie Boheme," "What You Own" - with a pitch-perfect, rich-sounding musicality that is powerful, direct, immediate and very much in the moment. It's dream role come true for any actor and one he ignites with a feel-good energy and excitement that captivates, charms and evolves.

In the role of Roger Davis, the restless, HIV-positive singer and songwriter whose previous girlfriend committed suicide once she learned of her AIDS diagnosis, Tiernan Shea convincingly projects the emotional intensity and epic despair of his character, his struggle for survival and his strong determination to compose one hit song before he dies. It's an edgy turn, performed with angst, anger and naturally appropriated solidity.
His raw, anguished rendition of the popular ballad "One Song Glory" and "Your Eyes" is rendered with appropriate pain, emotion and pathos as is "What You Own," the character's big, fiery, harmonious duet with Mark in the middle of Act II.
Performance wise, both he and Tortorello naturally reflect and recall the performances of Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp who originated the roles of Roger and Mark in the original 1996 Broadway production of "Rent" and subsequent 1998 London staging. A compliment, no doubt, of the highest order.

As Angel Dumont Schunard, Galen Donovan, garbed in colorful costuming, glitter, makeup and hair styles that would make any East Village drag queen green with envy, delivers a sassy, intuitive and sparkly performance of high kicks and whirl-and-twirl flirtation wrapped up Technicolor camp, gayness and engagement that is playfully executed, designed and accentuated.
Mixing the character's intentional flamboyance with wicked hints of "Kinky Boots," "La Cage aux Folles," "Barbie," "Goldfinger's" Pussy Galore and "Everybody's Talking About Jamie," Donovan glides through "Rent" with a sizzling and fresh drag queen oeuvre, aura and edgy sunniness. 
Dressed in Brendon Rogers creative, inspired and outrageous costuming, he turns Angel's big musical numbers - "Today 4 You" and "I'll Cover You" - into major star turns. And when his character shows up during the conclusion of the Act II finale, there isn't a dry eye in the house. This moment, which indirectly changes the original ending of "Rent," if only for three, four or five seconds, is a stroke of genius on Rogers' part as well as that of co-directors' Tortorello and Felix. 
The always charismatic Kevin Kiley, in the role of Tom Collins, is both sincere and heartfelt as Angel's newfound boyfriend and lover. It's a role he invests with an emotional sweetness, warmth and realness that catches one's eye whenever he's on stage or thrust center stage in the spotlight. 
He's the perfect choice to bring the character to life in the evolving "Rent" story.
And when it comes time for him to sing his character's poignant Act II reprise of "I'll Cover You," a tear-drenched vocal that occurs immediately following Angel's funeral, Kiley's serious vocal heft, style and chill, gives this particular musical number a soar and wound like no other.

Olivia Ciaffaglione and Krystina Diaz create all the right, necessary sparks, passion, tilts and spins as the touchy-feely, often argumentative and combative lesbians Maureen Johnson and Joanne Jefferson. They are funny. They are fiery. They are intense. They are outspoken. They are effective. They are sensational.
Together, or alone, they each bring plenty of excitement, color, flair, charm and sensuality to her individual roles. Their big duet "Take Me or Leave Me," staged and choreographed by Martin, is laced enough fire, sizzle and snap to ignite a power outage at Cheney Hall.
Maureen's "Over the Moon," an avant-garde, wonderfully wicked song of protest is so impeccably conceived and performed, both comically and vocally, one wishes there was a "Repeat" button in the theater so it could be replayed for a second or third viewing. That's how much fun it is. 

As Mimi Marquez, the drug stoked Hispanic dancer and stripper with a serious heroin habit, who lives downstairs from Mark and Roger, Destiny Whitten enlivens the proceedings with a sultry, slippery and sensuous allure that is exactly right for her characterization. Vocally, she brings plenty of erotic electricity to "Out Tonight," her big dance-and-song solo in the middle of Act I and naturally cements "Light My Candle," "I Should Tell You" and "Without You" with the warmth and romantic sentiment envisioned by Larson. The latter, a tale of love and loneliness, performed halfway through Act II, is not only vocally affecting (Shea also joins in for romantic purposes), but inhabited with a stunning, lyrical sonority and control that elevates it to immediate showstopping status.

Cast in the otherwise underwritten role of Benjamin "Benny" Coffin, the local landlord and former roommate of Mark and Roger and the ex-lover of Mimi, Abraham Hussein has such a strong stage presence and charismatic command and gait, he transforms the part of Coffin into a three-dimensional character that catches your eye whenever he's on stage or seated in the front row of Cheney Hall during the "Over the Moon" protest near the end of Act I urging audience members ("Team Benny" t-shirt friends and groupies, included) to fight for his cause.
There's a vaudevillian charm to his performance heightened by a feeling of freshness and fizzy pop that's ingeniously mixed and stirred with the right ingredients, humor and musicality. 

The "Rent" ensemble - so full of life, love and vigor - play a variety of different, choice and standout role throughout the two-act musical including artists, drug users, homeless people, parents and members of an important HIV/AIDS support group. They are Diana Yeisley, Gillian Snyder, Daniel J. Otero, Jenn Lohmann, Des Tahnee Manick-Highsmith, Amanda Butler, Tomas Echevarria, Anna Greenwald, Angelica Velez, Amanda Starr, Jeff Snyder, Melissa Rand, Christina Haff and Lauren Roosa.
All exceptional singers, actors and performers in their own right, they contribute greatly - individually or in a group - to Jonathan Larson's timely, realized, realistic snapshot of New York East Village life, circa, 1989 and 1990.
Gillian Snyder's solo turn in "Seasons of Love" during the 8/25 performance also deserves special attention. It was not only impeccably performed - what a voice - but one that would bring a smile to the original cast of "Rent" if they were seated amongst the audience during the musical's opening night at Cheney Hall. Well done, indeed.

Photos of "Rent" courtesy of A.J. Marquot.

"Rent" is being staged by White Rabbit Theatre (Cheney Hall, 177 Hartford Road, Manchester, CT), now through September 3, 2023
For tickets, visit or email

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 419: The 2023-2024 Equity Theatre Season in Connecticut, Part One: The Bushnell, The Shubert, Music Theatre of Connecticut, Goodspeed Musicals, Palace Theater

By James V. Ruocco

It's everything you wanted it to be and so much more.

New Works.

It's the best Equity theatre in the state - Connecticut, that is - and it's full of exciting choices well worth booking and getting excited about.

So, pick up the phone.
Get out your charge card.
Grab yourself a ticket.
Make plans for dinner and drinks before or after the show.
Have fun.

The 2023-2024 season is about to begin.
The choices are as follows:

The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Avenue, Hartford, CT
(860) 987-6000

"Mrs. Doubtfire" (October 3-8, 2023)

"Moulin Rouge! The Musical" (November 21-December 3, 2023)

"Frozen" (February 8-18, 2024)

"The Cher Show" (March 5-10, 2024)

"Wicked" (April 24-May 12, 2024)

"Beetlejuice" (May 28-June 2, 2024)

"Funny Girl" (June 18-23, 2024)

The Shubert, 247 College Street, New Haven, CT
(203) 562-5666

"Come From Away" (November 8-11, 2023)

"Chicago" (December 7-10, 2023)

"Company" (January 31-February 4, 2024)

"Annie" (February 29-March 3, 2024)

"Hadestown" (April 30-May 5, 2024)

"Stomp" (May 31-June 1, 2024)

Music Theatre of Connecticut, 509 Westport Avenue, Norwalk, CT
(203) 454-3883

"Jersey Boys" (September 15-October 1, 2023)

"Clybourne Park" (November 3-19, 2023)

"The Legend of Georgia McBride" (February 16-March 3, 2024)

"Ghost" (April 12-28, 2024)

Goodspeed Musicals, 6 Main Street, East Haddam, CT
(860) 873-8668

"The 12" (September 18-October 29, 2023) 

"Dreamgirls" (November 10-December 30, 2023)

Palace Theater, 100 E. Main Street, Waterbury, CT
(203) 346-2000

"Pretty Woman" (October 10-12, 2023)

"To Kill a Mockingbird" (November 3-5, 2023)

"On Your Feet" (December 15-16, 2023)

"Hairspray" (January 16-18, 2024)

"Jesus Christ Superstar" (April 2-4, 2024) 

"Mean Girls" (May 18-19, 2024)

"The Kite Runner" (June 4-6, 2024)

Saturday, August 19, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 418, A Review: "Mentors" (Backyard Theater Ensemble)

By James V. Ruocco

A fascinating storyline mixed with the right amount of conversation, flair, approach, sponsorship and encounter gives Kristen Palmer's new play "Mentors" a powerful voice that stings, entices, questions and leads to an impactful, effective climax.
This is a production - a fine one at that - that is handled with care, with liberation, with volume and with a savvy interest that allows the material to breathe, to resonate, to march, to pitch and to explore with personal, smartly plotted and executed passion.
As theatre, "Mentors" also thrusts its audience into the pending action of the storytelling with characters and dialogue that not only get the pulses racing but prompt immediate curiosity about what exactly Palmer has hidden up her sleeve.
What's right? What's wrong?
Who's telling the truth? Who's lying?
What secrets are about to be uncovered?
Will there be heated drama - the kind prevalent in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" "August: Osage County," "Death and the Maiden" and "Long Day's Journey into Night?"  Or is Palmer, just toying with one's senses?
Or simply traveling down a very different narrative path?

That imagined belt and tilt gives Backyard Theater Ensemble's maverick staging of "Mentors" a compelling, potent inventiveness that is expressed and positioned with a mindset that stirs, provokes and unravels with takeaway merit, ambition and stand-alone guile and honesty.
And rightly, so.

As scripted by Palmer, "Mentors" finds expectant parents, Jenna and Brian, a hard-working, educated, independent-minded married couple face-to-face with David, their former arts department college professor whose life they discover - over dinner and drinks - has been turned upside down via an ongoing investigation of sexual misconduct at the university.
Is he guilty?
Is he a sexual predator?
As onetime students of David, what exactly do Jenna and Brian remember about their years of working side-by-side at the college with their ex-professor?
Are they too victims of his artistic impulses or sexual desires?

Like most important dramas, "Mentors" pulls you into its web of spiraling conversations, accusations and remembrances with tremendous, observed acumen that prompts immediate attention almost immediately after the play begins. It's very much in the here and now, swept up in the debate of timely storytelling devices that are navigated with organic concern and effect by Palmer while addressing everything from academia, artistic expression and environmental issues to woke, child rearing, sexual harassment, mentoring, influence and freedom of speech.
As storyteller, Palmer writes from the heart, clearly communicating the necessary information, essential to a particular scene, a particular character and a particular part of her story arc. Here, her choice of dialogue and situation is natural and free flowing, smartly advancing the plot through pivotal moments and situations that add resonance and heartbeat to her persuasive, important, involved dramatic material.
More importantly, there's an in-the-moment feel to the piece sparked by language, details and circumstances that bring out the human side of Palmer's dancing ideas, thoughts, revelations and theories.

Staging "Mentors," director Teresa Langston - "A Number," "Barbeque," "The Devils," "Uncommon Women and Others" - crafts a work of artfully arranged intelligence that arms its audience with just the right amount of information, believability and artifice to make it catch fire, thrill, dance and excite. Directorially, she digs deep and like Palmer, accentuates the play's inquisitive humanism, its engaged emotionalism and its abundant awareness with clear-cut measure, equality, intrigue and playful swottiness.
There's lots of clever clogs here but Langston takes her time with it all, thus allowing the play to breathe, gesticulate and smolder without any form of rushness, calculation or let's race to finish and drop an atomic bomb and shock the hell out of everyone. 
You'll find none of that here.
Here, as in "A Number" and "Barbeque," Langston, creative auteur that she is, allows "Mentors" to progress with united strains of directorial melody that is confident, assured and unleashed with steady, delicate, natural fluidity. Blocking is minimal as well it should be given the play's conversational ingredients, properties, chemicals, compounds, dueling and theorizing.
To have actor's continually moving about Evan Ev Seide's lived-in, smartly designed atmospheric set (a small, framed poster of Jonathan Larson's "Rent" musical immediately caught my eye) would derail the intimacy of the piece, its central playing ground and its rich concentration of wordplay. So, in staging it, Langston suffuses "Mentors" with minimal action and movement which works most advantageously throughout the play's one-hour-and-twenty-five-minute allotted running time (including a 15-minute interval) and validates the accuracy, emotion and certainty of Palmer's character study and its definitive proprietorship.

"Mentors" stars Tina Parziale as Jenna, Tony Palmieri as Brian and Rick Malone as David.
The character of Jenna, as portrayed by Parziale, is drawn with powerful, fiery, soft and delicate strokes that set the role ablaze with fruition and recognition that blossoms into a brilliant performance of edge, pathos, exchange and vulnerability. Palmieri's Brian hits all the right notes with well defined, unleashed sweeps and crescendos that thrust his character into the spotlight with influence, spark and drama. There's also a delightful bit of well-orchestrated humor that comes halfway through Act II when he and Parziale find themselves sharing a pint of tasty, nearly melted ice cream (the after-dinner dessert was accidentally left in the car by David) in a comforting, husband-and-wife moment warmly intertwined under Langston's sweet-and-sentimental direction.
As David, Malone crafts an inspirational, heavy-handed performance of high-level mystery and wit, combined with the necessary heat and involvement of an educator whose taste for fun and games in and out of the classroom often knows no boundaries.

Photos of "Mentors" courtesy of Robert MacPhearson

"Mentors" is being staged by Backyard Theater Ensemble (The Arts at Angeloria's, 223 Meriden-Waterbury Turnpike, Southington, CT), now through August 26, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 699-6476.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 417, A Review: "August: Osage County" (Hole in the Wall Theater)

By James V. Ruocco

Much like Edward Albee ("Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" "Tiny Alice," "A Delicate Balance"), the works of playwright Tracy Letts use words and outbursts as weapons - cruel, vicious, humiliating, humorous, slashing - that are played out with such numbing conviction, the effect for both actor and audience is one of excitement, insanity, boldness and complete gratification.
True to form, every character, every word of spoken dialogue, every pause, every expression and every truth create an effortless, intoxicating feel, hypnotically sustained by well-positioned uncomfortability, extremism, chaos and blatant annihilation.

Nowhere is this more evident than in "August: Osage County," the recipient of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2008 Tony Award winner for Best Play. As written by Letts, this anguished, thirsty meltdown of one very large Oklahoma family, bristles with excited Freudian intent and purpose, offset by mind games, blood sports, revelations and whiplash that leaves welts, bruises, sweats, jitters and sleepless nights for pretty much everyone involved.

At Hole in the Wall Theater, the playwright's high-wire drama is articulated with heightened awareness, intimacy, blaze and stealthily built accompaniment and entrapment.
It flies.
It pops.
It attacks.
It bites.
It digs deep.

It is also yet another reminder of the quality work that is produced at Hole in the Wall - "She Kills Monsters," "Barbeque," "A Number," "Love Labour's Lost," "Day of Absence," "Wife/Worker/Whore" - and one that benefits from punchline direction, casting and storytelling.

As conceived by Letts, "August: Osage County" frames the demolition, darkness and craziness that immediately erupts once Beverly Weston, the heavy-drinking, poetic-quoting patriarch of the family goes missing. Where he is and what actually happened to him (there are all kinds of suspicions including suicide) is finally revealed at the end of Act I, thus, paving the way for a showdown, interrogation and confessional of sorts involving a dozen or so assorted characters including Violet Weston, his foul-mouthed, pill-popping wife who is dying of cancer and Barbara Weston Fordham, their troubled, outspoken daughter whose estranged husband Bill, a college professor has left her a one of his students, a much younger woman named Cindy.

Letts, as playwright, fuels the action of his story with truths, angst, collapse, lamentation, agony, absurdity, ritual and abuse exploring family dysfunction in emotionally charged ways reminiscent of Albee, Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller.

"We're all just people, some of us accidentally connected by genetics, a random selection of cells. Nothing more."

"Thank God we can't tell the future. We'd never get out of bed."

"The window shades have all been removed. Nighttime is now free to encroach."

"You know, this country was always pretty much a whorehouse, but at least it used to have some promise. Now it's just a shithole."

"Surely, you must have known when you started porking Pippi Longstocking you were due for a little self-righteousness."

There's a wry, signaling agenda here that amazes, taunts and numbs, layered with edge, release and contrast, all of which builds and resonates with brashness, realism, fact and naturalism. Some of it catches you by surprise. Some of hit kicks you in the ass. Some of it creeps up on you out of nowhere. Some of it causes your jaw to drop in amazement.
Then again, that's the point.
The fact that you never quite know what Letts has up his sleeve gives "August: Osage County" its mighty allure, its gravity, its mouthpiece and its strong sense of entitlement.

Staging "August: Osage County," director Warren Dutkiewicz portrays the skewed and bruising portrait of one family's repeated rounds of madness and exaltation with crisp, carefully etched crescendos, truths and climaxes that reflect the playwright's blatantly honest, revelatory dramatization. As actor himself, Dutkiewicz comes to the production with a whiz bag of ideas, thoughts, theories and staples that bring lift and melodrama to the piece, its story board progression, its conversations, its heated expressions, its characters and its clever, accountable verbiage.
Directorially, he's always prepared whether there's two people on stage, five people, six people or seven or ten. At the same time, everything that happens (card games, the placement of a table setting, a fight in the dining room, a drug-induced moment of confusion, etc.) is watchful, balanced, precise or very much in the moment.
It's a directorial choice of decisions and compliance measured by deft blocking maneuvers, rhythms, beats and stances that mirror the swerves, irony, assaults, outrage and abrupt twists envisioned by Letts, all of which are unleashed in the manner he envisioned, intended and administered to keep "August: Osage County" harrowing, hilarious, engaged and liberating. There's also a ripping expanse of periodic surprise (no spoilers here) that Dutkiewicz handles with eleventh hour skill, showmanship and "Oh my God, I never saw that coming."

"August: Osage County" stars Ingrid M. Smith as Violet Weston, Sarah Etkin as Barbara Fordham, Lindsey Campbell as Ivy Weston, Krysten Drachenberg as Johnna Monevata, Miriam Neiman as Mattie Fae Aikem, Dennis Hull as Charlie Aiken, Khara Hoyer as Karen Weston, Julia Stone as Jean Fordham, Larry Niland as Bill Fordham, Bill Mullen as Beverly Weston, William Moro as Little Charlie Aiken, Shawn Murray as Steve Heidebrecht and Wayne Crow as Sheriff Gibeau.

In the role of Violet Weston, the dying, pill-popping, acid-tonged wife of the missing patriarch ("Nobody slips anything by me," she yells), Ingrid Smith spirals into madness, addiction, anger and pretty much anything else she is asked to do with a garlanded festoon of vivid, natural and raw emotions that culminate in a "performance of the year" status of the highest order.
She doesn't just play Violet Weston. She Is Violent Weston.
Crafting a characterization as rich, as hypnotic and as shocking as Deanna Dunagan who created the part for the original 2008 Broadway production, Smith takes hold of the playscript, eats it for dinner and spits it out with such thrilling acumen, it's impossible to take your eyes off her for a single second whenever she's on stage. 
Mixing drug-induced stupefaction with high-tailed viciousness and disapproval, she is potently explosive, chilling, caustic and bare-your-soul, raw. The final image - a woman broken at odds with the rise of tomorrow - brings Act III to a close with a lingering realness that lasts long after the play has ended.

Starring in her third show at Hole in the Wall, Sarah Etkin - "She Kills Monsters," "Wife/Worker/Whore" - offers yet another five-star performance of despairing strength, guilt and crisis illuminated by real identity, purpose, rage, accent and ethic that is unleased with the knockout involvement and confidence of an actress always at the top of her game. She's amazing to watch, not only because of her extraordinary range of an actress, but because she knows how to play a scene, play a character, deliver a line and interact with the other performers with an inbred spontaneity and flourish completely in sync with the conceit of the playwright, the vision of the director and finally, her role in the ongoing drama.
Here, she steps into the role of Barbara Fordham, the oldest daughter of the Weston family whose marriage has fallen completely apart with the right mindsight, stamina, curiosity and rage Letts envisioned for the character. It's an intuitive, driven performance of reactions, beliefs, values and loss of control that Etkin communicates with befitting control, demand and embraced abandonment.

Krysten Drachenberg, as Johnna Monevata brings a natural charm, stability and presence to her role of the newly hired Native American housekeeper chosen by the missing Beverly Weston (a perfectly cast Bill Mullen) to care for his ailing wife Violet. Miriam Neiman and Dennis Hull, in the roles of Mattie Fae and Charlie Aiken, deliver dialogue and characterizations with perfectly timed resonance, heat and humor. Lindsay Campbell, as Ivy Weston, the middle daughter of the family who's secretly having an affair with her cousin Little Charlie Aiken (humorously portrayed by William Moro), plays her part with wallflower liveliness, contentment and subjected oppression.

Additional pleasure lies in the fine, nuanced performances of the supporting cast - Hoyer, Murray, Niland, Crow and Stone - all of whom fit especially well into the framework of the story, its evolution and surprise twists of fate.

A knock-out drama with a potent set up, a faultless acting ensemble and directorial choices full of buccaneering vigor, spiraling doom and blatant laceration, "August: Osage County" is brilliant, thrillingly effective theatre that plunges its audience into the mayhem and doom of an American family in the midst of collapse, rebirth and complete loss of control.
It amazes. It entices. It manipulates. It depresses. It shocks. It surprises. It resonates. It exposes. It satisfies.
The sound and the fury of Tracy Letts award-winning drama flows through the immersive environs of Hole in the Wall Theater with a rip, a roar, and an excitement helmed by director Warren Dutkeiwicz, an impressive storyteller and auteur whose grasp of the fiendishly clever material, dialogue, characters and story evolution would lead many to call this production "a work of art."
Clocking in at three hours and twenty minutes including two, ten-minute intervals, "August: Osage County" is exactly that - and so much more.

Photos of "August: Osage County" courtesy of Regina Cleaves

"August: Osage County" is being staged at Hole in the Wall Theater (116 Main Street, New Britain, CT), now through August 25, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 229-3049.

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 416, A Review: "The Musicals of Musicals" (Legacy Theatre)

 By James V. Ruocco

parody: a form of humor that imitates or exaggerates someone or something for pure comic effect or ridicule.

spoof: a humorous imitation of something, typically, a play, a film or a particular genre where everything is exaggerated for great comic effect.

In Legacy Theatre's "The Musicals of Musicals," the celebrated works of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Kander & Ebb are skewered and bandied about with top flight wicked abandon as the show's creators Eric Rockwell and Joanne Bogart concoct an over-the-top parody of sorts that amusingly rips apart the plots, characters, themes and songs of popular Broadway fare with apt melodrama and homage tossed in for an outrageous party that never once dies down for a millisecond.
It's killer funny.
It's ridiculously realized.
It's knockout wackadoodle.
It's bright and brash.
It's creative and inspired.
It's quick-paced and dizzying.
It is also riddled with theatrical references and in-house jokes so amusingly fine-tuned and spoon fed, you make need to bring a pad and pencil to write everything down or grab yourself a ticket for a return visit.

Whatever the case, The Musicals of Musicals" is guaranteed fun that hits every giggly note with a drive forward delight that's absolutely irresistible.

The set up is simple enough.
Divided into five acts, each of which is dotted and inked with a short musical tale that purposely parodies the works of a specific Broadway composer, lyricist of team, "The Musical of Musicals" goes hog wild with a goofball conceit tied together by a running melodramatic gag that finds the four central characters of each story crying "I can't pay my rent!" (i.e., "Rent" by Jonathan Larson)

"Corn!" an homage to the musicals penned by Rodgers & Hammerstein pokes fun at "Oklahoma!" "The Sound of Music," "Cinderella," "South Pacific," "The King and I" and "Flower Drum Song."
"A Little Complex" thrusts the musicals of Stephen Sondheim center stage with barbed attacks aimed specifically at "Sweeney Todd," "Sunday in the Park with George," "A Little Night Music," "Company," "Assassins," "Pacific Overtures," "Into the Woods" "Anyone Can Whistle" and "Merrily We Roll Along."
"Dear Abby" roasts Jerry Herman and "Hello Dolly!" "Mame," "Dear World" and La Cage aux Folles."
"Aspects of Juanita" playfully attacks the celebrated musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber including "Evita," "The Phantom of the Opera," "Aspects of Love," "Starlight Express," "Cats," "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," "Sunset Boulevard," "Tell Me on a Sunday" and "Jesus Christ Superstar."
"Speakeasy" finds Kander & Ebb in the hot seat with jokes aplenty about "Cabaret," "Chicago," "Liza with a Z" and Kiss of the Spider Woman."

Fueled with designated wit, camp, disses, mash ups, roars, blasts and jolly good comeuppances, "The Musicals of Musicals," as shaped by Rockwell and Bogart, thrusts Legacy Theatre's bountiful production into the spotlight where it gathers up steam, rips each composer/lyricist to shreds, places characters from various musicals in the wrong story and finally, creates outrageous opportunities for the actors to run around in circles elicited by comic and musical situations that produce great laughter at every turn. 

Staging "The Musicals of Musicals," director Colin Sheehan - a Broadway aficionado who first fell in love with musical theatre at the tender age of seven - crafts a solid, focused, thrill-and-spill parody that nearly blows the roof off Legacy Theatre. Here, the knowing nonsense of the material, mixed with flavorful song and dialogue that ignites the musical's melodramatic spin, allows Sheehan to run wild - and run wild he does - amping up the onstage action to 100 mph and finding laughs in all the right places while putting his own personal spin on the story itself, its homage to Broadway musical theatre, the characters themselves and the production's dizzying plotting and parody.
As theatre auteur and storyteller, Sheehan gets it right at every turn. 
Directorially, he knows what works. He knows how to build and pace a scene. He knows how to get a laugh. He knows when to pause, when to take a breath, when it hit hard, when to pull back, when to overplay and when to surprise.
He also creates the perfect stage picture, giving "The Musicals of Musicals" an over-the-top heartbeat that carries it from one segment to the next, eliciting laughs in all the right places while juxtaposing the ideas, themes and sarcasm of the play's originators with side-by-side frivolity, strong comedic timing and blasts of musical staging inspiration that complements his innate versatility and tremendous directorial showmanship.

Musical director Bill Speed, seated at an onstage, off-to-the-side piano for the entire production (there is no intermission) runs the show with a crisp, playful, campy-like precision that complements the musical's bounce, twists, turns, puns, nuttiness and in-your-face parody. It's a feat that keeps "The Musicals of Musicals" on its toes (no pun intended), harnessing the poke-fun musicality of the piece, its rapid-fire momentum, its ripe vocals, its machine-gun-fast lyrical spins and mash ups and its hilarious melodic assaults of original songs that take their cue from "Sweeney Todd" ("The Ballad of Jitter," "Birds"), "Carousel" ("Clam Dip," "I Don't Love You," "Sowillyquey"), "Oklahoma!" ("Oh, What Beautiful Corn," "Daylight Savings Time"), "The Phantom of the Opera" ("Chandelier Scena," "Sing a Song"), "Cabaret" ("Easy Mark," "Hola, Aloha, Hello") and "Mame" ("Did I Put Out Enough?" "Take My Advice and Live").

"The Musical of Musicals" stars Randall Delone Adkison, Keely Baisden, Karl Gasteyer and Christine Voytko.
There are star turns. There are showstoppers. There are laughs. There are surprises. There are moments destined to live long in memory.
Song by song and segment by segment, this talented quartet are in full and fine voice that reflect and complement the conceit and parody of the material, the musical story arcs, the over-the-top theatricality of the show's creators and the delightfully wicked mashups that leave you breathless and begging for more.
What's wonderful about this particular group of performers - all stars in their own right - is the depth and versatility they bring to every song they perform, their amazing range and control, their individual harmonizing, their continuity, their bouts of humor and how they wrap their voice around crazy lyrics they want you to appreciate and understand. It's a bull's-eye win from start to finish.

A musical entertainment that combines clever staging with hilarious parodies of Broadway musicals with a lush, inviting old vaudeville palace sound, "The Musicals of Musicals" is a delightfully inventive kitsch and carry theatrical gumdrop amped up to giddy perfection by director Collin Sheehan and his fantabulous cast of four.
It pops. It swaggers. It soars. It shifts. It tilts. It sings. It surprises. It stings.
Given its title and the genre it spoofs so insanely, its homage to all things musical is Broadway cheese and ham like no other, spliced and diced with healthy dozes of nonsense and fluff guaranteed to keep you howling for weeks.
It's a comedic jewel in Legacy Theatre's ongoing 2023 season and one that initiates a front row seat for any theatergoer who gets his or her kick from hijinks and hokum, great throwaway gags and dozens and dozens of songs that give the all clear to breezy and pacy spoofs of everything from "Evita" and "The Phantom of the Opera" to "Oklahoma!" "Sweeney Todd," "Cats," "South Pacific" and "The King and I," etc., etc., etc.

"The Musicals of Musicals" was staged at Legacy Theatre (128 Thimble Islands Road, Banford, CT) from July 13-30, 2023.
For more information or tickets to upcoming shows, call (203) 315-1901.

Sunday, August 6, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 415, A Review: "Bandstand (Playhouse on Park)

 By James V. Ruocco  

"War does not determine who is right - only who is left."
(Bertrand Russell)

"The world must know what happened, and never forget."
(Dwight D. Eisenhower)

"Never in the field of humor conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."
(Winston Churchill)

A serious musical about the damage war does to its surviving soldiers and veterans, "Bandstand" - the thrilling, hypnotic summer presentation at Playhouse on Park - unspools with an understandable darkness and pain so vivid and so alluring, it thrusts you into the center of the action and keeps there you - riveted, excited and anxious - haunted by the narrative, the characters, the music, the vintage dances and the forgotten traumas of a survivor's guilt, depression, lingering sadness and the bad, traumatic after effects of the war itself.

Intercut with artillery fire, remembrance and powerful, immersive storytelling techniques, "Bandstand" is a profound, catchy and raw theatrical piece, offset by a daring, matchless immediacy and alertness that grabs you by the throat and never once releases its grip.
It excites and stirs.
It shocks and frightens.
It numbs the senses.
Its sustained arc of intensity is nurtured with swept away thrill and fascination.
It echoes with duty-bound privilege.
It is well crafted, exceptionally directed and powerfully performed.

Set in 1945, "Bandstand" tells the story of Donny Novitski, a handsome musician and soldier who returns home from the war tormented by visions and memories of his best friend Michael, whose death on the battlefield was actually caused by Donny himself, a fact that he keeps from Julia, Michael's widow - at first, anyway.
This being a musical, book writers Robert Taylor and Richard Oberacker (they also wrote the music and lyrics) have devised a quick-and-easy, level-headed plot that finds Donny and his fellow army veterans forming a big band (Julia eventually is introduced as the lead singer) destined for greatness if they become the first prize winners of an upcoming national 1940s swing band contest. In between, the horrors of war and its effect on pretty much everyone in the band, toughen up the story, its exploding realism, its bite, its restorative power, its hurt and its frank, often misty-eyed vocabulary.

Staging "Bandstand" at Playhouse on Park, director Sean Harris carries out the play's musical story with golden age spirit and rootedness, PSTD believability, communicative thrust and balance, observed honor and compliance and fused, immersive seriousness. At the same time, he celebrates the joys and charm of big-band swing, the blossoming romance between Donny and Julia, the band's final audition in New York City and the conflicts that arise once everyone realizes that the contest itself is more exploitative than legit.
Directorially, Harris's reenactment of "Bandstand" is swaggering and sharp, richly theatrical, anchored and steady and juiced up with ideas, traditions and movements that portray a very different lifestyle that existed 78 years ago. To his credit, there is no modernization, updates, lingo or contemporary isms in his interpretation. He also plays the action to the fullest in an immersive, three-quarter staging using James Rotondo's atmospheric turntable set to the max suggesting and implementing multiple locations that keep the storytelling fast, fluid, cemented and lucid.

Musically, the "Bandstand" score, created by Robert Taylor and Richard Oberacker fuels the two-act production with a 1940s zing and snap, a breezy wallop, a liberating concentration and a novelty like appeal and dizzying momentum. All of the musical numbers fit seamlessly into the framework of the story and smartly fulfill their intended purpose.
In order of introduction, they are: 
"Just Like It Was Before," "Donny Novitski," "I Know a Guy," "Ain't We Proud," "Proud Riff," "Who I Was," "Counterpoint/Pie Jesu," "Just Like It Was Before (reprise)," "First Steps First," "Breathe," "You Deserve It," "Dwight Anson & Jean Ann," "Love Will Come and Find Me Again," "Right This Way," "Nobody," "The Boys Are Back," "I Got a Theory," "Everything Happens," "Welcome Home," "A Band in New York City," "This is Life," "This is Life (reprise)," His Theory," "Welcome Home (Finale)" and "Epilogue." 
As musical director, Melanie Guerin brings a tremendous sense of vintage appeal and big band swell to the proceedings, capturing the signature sound of the period, its orchestral vibrancy, its jazz swing rhythms and references, its swaying and snapping and its shouldering knock, sweep, nudge and elbow. The production also benefits from the on-stage presence of cast members who not only sing, dance and act but play their own musical instruments. It's a conceit that creates an immersive supper club atmosphere of high standards and one that lifts the spirits, drives the message home and heightens the play's ongoing musical drama.

"Bandstand's" heart, soul and drive wouldn't be complete without the booming, boogie-woogie, nostalgic shimmer of Darlene Zoller and Robert Mintz's choreography, which, as recreated here, unfolds with a period vibrancy, glisten and gleam that is snazzy, individual, fronted and engaged with a vintage scrapbook fluidity that is indicative of the musical's 1940s setting, its wartime reminiscing, its traditions, its ideals and its dance aesthetics.
As the cast swoops, slides and soars to the rising sound of the band's catchy, rhythmic interplay, Zoller and Mintz turn up the heat with frenzied, jigsaw choreography and formations that confidently secure the sweep, the wonderment, the cluster and the focus of a bygone era and all its resplendent trappings.

Benjamin Nurthen, as Donnie, carries the show with a fiercely defined angst, charm and vulnerability that suits his troubled, tormented portrait of a World War II veteran struggling to move past the guilt and anguish of a survivor responsible for the death of his best friend Michael Trojan in combat. Looking as if she time traveled back to the big band era, Katie Luke generates the right spark and sizzle with her winsome, affecting portrayal of Julia Trojan, Michael's widow.
As June, Julia's mother, Mindy Cassle delivers a winning combination of wartime pathos, humor and sugar. She's such fun to watch, it's a shame that Taylor and Oberacker didn't give her more to do in the ongoing "Bandstand" story. Chris Haley cuts a fine figure as Wayne Wright, a clean-cut trombone player whose marriage has fallen on the rocks. It's a performance fraught with real emotion reminiscent of William Wyler's "The Best Years of Our Lives."

Photos of "Bandstand" courtesy of Meredith Longo

"Bandstand" is being staged at Playhouse on Park (244 Park Road, West Hartford, CT), now through August 20, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 523-5900.