Thursday, September 21, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 425, A Review: "Jersey Boys" (Music Theatre of Connecticut)

By James V. Ruocco

"Big Girls Don't Cry"

"Walk Like a Man"

"Oh, What a Night"


"Can't Take My Eyes Off You"

"Rag Doll"

"Working My Way Back to You"

A rock-and-roll fable engineered with jukebox musical potency, precision-drilled period choreography and impeccable performances that pull you in and keep you there, Music Theatre of Connecticut's stylish, invigorating revival of "Jersey Boys" rocks the stage with an all-American thrill and polish that is absolutely triumphant.

It sings.
It soars.
It dances.
It spins.
It tilts.
It unfolds with real and raw dynamic.
It remembers yesterday with heyday fondness and spirit.
It fires the imagination with illuminated veneer and imagination.
It is filled with choice moves and flashy momentum.
Its storytelling technique is sweet, sincere, nostalgic and pulse-racing.

A big heart drives every single moment with a commitment like no other carried about with an intrigue and bluster that's romanticized with hyperactive passion, heat and pop music energy and education.

Featuring music by Bob Gaudio and lyrics by Bob Crewe, "Jersey Boys" retells the story of the 1960s rock 'n' roll group The Four Seasons, using a semi-documentary style format, each narrated by a different member of the band, who, for story purposes, offers his own perspective on the ongoing story, its music, its highs and lows, its conflicts, its headlines, its drama, its wobbles, its fantasy and its chartbusting success.
The book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice eases comfortably into the Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons vintage scrapbook with slick, connected arrangement that gives way to important rags-to-riches info that rolls happily along with slide, purpose and vibe, never once clouded in preachiness, overkill or showbiz cliche or crackle. It's all pretty much straightforward charge-into-fame storytelling lathered in songs, remembrances and info that brings "Jersey Boys" to its emotional peak, climax and gravitational constant.

Staging "Jersey Boys" at Musical Theatre of Connecticut, director Kevin Connors ("Ragtime," "Falsettoland," "Cabaret," "Gypsy," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof") is very much in his element shaping, molding and implementing the "Jersey Boys" terrain. Well versed in the mechanics, structure and presentation of musical theatre, he crafts a buoyant, multi-octave entertainment, offset by swagger, skill, trickle, presence and fantastic song involvement.
Directorially, Connors kickstarts the musical with an effective, one-on-one immersion that thrusts his audience into the emotional sweep of the two-act narrative. This directorial kinship prompts an immediacy and energy that teems with life and incident, narrative emphasis and clarity and charmingly done channeling and impact. No lulls. No pauses. No halts. No interruptions. Just gliding theatricality overflowing with details, diagnosis, wonder and maximum musicality.

As with other productions he has staged at MTC including "Cabaret," "Falsettoland" and "Ragtime," "Jersey Boys" benefits from the venue's three-quarter staging set up which in terms of execution, brings the actor into closer proximity with the audience and heightens the production's realness, emotion and story arc evolution. Here, Connors fleshes out the "Jersey Boys" story with a contained trueness and in-your-face determination that heightens the musical's emotional impact, legacy and coup d' theatre specificity, exploration and articulation. This intimacy also allows the audience to completely absorb the collective journey of The Four Seasons matched by a depth of feeling that digs deep into the heart and soul of its characters with an important closeness not found in typical proscenium stagings of "Jersey Boys." Actors entering and exiting the stage from five or six different locations furthers that creative process, thus, complementing the nonstop, adrenaline-pumping thrill and spill of the entire production.

Musically, "Jersey Boys" is absolute, sheer joy infused with good fortune and a musical score that goes the distance in terms of drama, humor, backstage storytelling, nostalgia and catchy, pop-infested song hits from yesteryear.
Songs include "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man," "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You," "Sherry," "My Boyfriend's Back," "Earth Angels," "Rag Doll," "Oh, What a Night," "Dawn (Go Away)," "I'm In the Mood for Love," "My Eyes Adored You," "I Can't Give You Anything but Love," "Stay," "Let's Hang On! (To What We've Got)," "Bye Bye Baby," "Fallen Angels" and "Working My Way Back to You."
Musical director Tony Bellomy brings expansive warmth and expressive depth to the material, basking in the immediate delight of the already proven music itself, its fruitful collaboration between the onstage performers, its rattle and roar and its many lapses into the time frame when whence it came. As "Jersey Boys" evolves, it resonates naturally, its sounds easeful and gracious, it shows off the brilliance and beauty of The Four Seasons themselves and gives the audience proof that then and now, the quartet's deep musical glow was rife with perfect harmony, rhythm and phrasing.
At MCT, Bellomy, doing double duty at the keyboard, brings the two-act musical into the spotlight with the able assist of Michael Blancaflor (percussion), Gary Ruggiero (woodwinds), Christopher McNellis (bass guitar), Max Caserta (guitar) and Stefan Dinkel (trumpet). Creating uniformity across the entire performance, mixed with formidable richness and contrast, the band fuels "Jersey Boys" with insightful translation, crystal clear attention and ideal acoustics that are both vivid and exemplary.

In the lead role of Frankie Valli, Michael Fasano, who has played the part before, gives a megawatt, five-star performance that rocks the MTC stage, pays homage to the Jersey boy himself and tickles the fancy of smiling, drooling, female audience members lucky enough to snag front row seats. Vocally, he projects the Valli sound with confidence, flank and versatility, mastering the singer's recognized balance, pace, rhythm and hypnotic falsetto.
As Tommy DeVito, Nathan Cockroft delivers a sexy, powerhouse performance that reflects the troublesome, out-of-control persona of the real-life Tommy. Throughout "Jersey Boys," he exudes a natural confidence and swagger, offset by a vocal, can-do-it-all song style that intuitively recreates The Four Seasons sound, pitch and breathless harmony.
Sean McGee brings real charm, challenge, gusto and personality to the part of Bob Gaudio. It's a polished, natural and honest turn, mixed with just the right amount of pop, sizzle and sentiment that keeps his character grounded in the ongoing narrative and "Jersey Boys" rages-to-riches drama. Vocally, he's on tap with an emotional release and high energy musicality that is personal, passionate and completely in sync with the blending harmonies of those around him.
Stephen Petrovich brings excited flourish and razor-sharp definition to the role of band member Nick Massi. Vocally and dramatically, he stands tall whenever he's on stage. He also gets one of the best written moments to perform halfway through Act II, which he delivers so magnificently, hearty applause from the audience is completely justified.

Emily Solo, cast in the role of Frankie Valli's first wife Mary Delgado, comes to "Jersey Boys" with a confident and ambitious sense of intrigue, charm and allure that makes her the perfect fit for the part of Delgado and the many other roles she is asked to portray throughout the "Jersey Boys" musical. In the role of Lorraine, a Detroit reporter who begins dating Valli after he splits with his first wife Mary, Brianna Bauch plays this part and others with crystal clear refinement, insight, sexiness and rattle.
As Francine, Frankie Valli's troubled daughter, Skye Gillespie's commitment to this role and others is chronicled with embraced definition and spark. Jeff Raab's high-amped turn as excited teenager Joe Pesci, who, later in life went on to star in numerous motion pictures including "Goodfellas," "Raging Bull," "Casino" and "My Cousin Vinny," possesses a bring-it-on star quality that makes his every on-stage moment knock and rock with individual certainty, excitement and trigger.

As musical theatre, "Jersey Boys" hits all the right notes soundtracked by a parade of hit songs including "Sherry," "Walk Like a Man," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Oh, What a Night" and "Let's Hang On! (To What We've Got)."
It's fun. It's emotional. It's clever. It's potent. It's jukebox ready.
Director Kevin Connors' take on the actual story of The Four Seasons is top-price creative, backed by a terrific cast of hard-working performers, all of whom bring real emotion and vocal prowess to the "Jersey Boys" story.
Katie Goffman's (also billed as assistant director) utterly natural choreography creates an onstage chemistry that is strong, complex, amazing and academically correct. It is melting and fusing with that "Oh, What a Night" feeling that defines and categorizes this welcomed, dedicated and engaging MTC revival of "Jersey Boys."

Photos of "Jersey Boys" courtesy of Alex Mongillo

"Jersey Boys" is being staged at Music Theatre of Connecticut (509 Westport Avenue, Norwalk, CT), now through October 1, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 454-3883.

Monday, September 18, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 424, A Review: "Our Town" (Sharon Playhouse)

 By James V. Ruocco 

"This play is called 'Our Town.' The day is May 7, 1901. The time is just before dawn.
 A rooster crows. The sky is beginning to show some streaks of light over in the East there, behind our mount'in.
Well, I'd better show you how our town lies. Up here is Main Street. Way back there is the railway station. Polish Town's across the tracks.
Over there is the Congregational Church; across the street's the Presbyterian. Methodist and Unitarian are over there. Baptist is down in the holla' by the river. Catholic Church is over beyond the tracks.
Here's the Town Hall and Post Office combined; jail's in the basement.
Here's the grocery store and here's Mr. Morgan's drugstore. Most everybody in town manages to look into those two stores once a day."
(Stage Manager) ("Our Town") 

An American stage classic with a beating heart and lifeline that gives way to small town life with a homespun and atypical perspective, Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" is a gripping, admired, determined work enhanced by perfunctorily etched characters, dialogue and situations that raise a laugh, a remembrance, a connection, an impact and oh yes, lots and lots of tears, the kind that stream steadily down your face and are impossible to hold back no matter how hard you try to make them stop, furiously wipe your cheek or quickly wish them away.
Then again, that's the point, isn't it?

As theatre, this iconic 1938 stage play taps into everyone's memory with unforgettable warmth, collective simplicity, impassioned intimacy and idyllic observation.
It stirs.
It moves.
It trickles.
It engages.
It excites.
It articulates.
It celebrates.
It is afresh with spirit, pace, pitch and clarity.

At Sharon Playhouse, the experience of seeing "Our Town" played out with thespian inhabitance and deeply felt poignancy and accompanying honesty, transforms this revival into an epic night (or afternoon) of theatre brilliantly balanced by a vast, energetic five-star dramatization with a narrative neatness and sweep schooled in the art of storytelling that's beautifully acted, performed and directed throughout.
This is theatre - real theatre - brimming with poetic depth, rising accomplishment, elated awe, marshalled detail and justified legacy.

Set in the fictional village of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, "Our Town" is divided into three acts - Daily Life, Love and Marriage and Death and Eternity. As shaped by Wilder, it portrays the everyday lives of its citizens from 1901 through 1913 including the childhood friendship and blossoming romance of George Gibbs and Emily Webb which ends in marriage at the conclusion of Act II. 
With the start of Act III, however, Emily, who has lost her life in childbirth takes her place among the dead in a new part of the hilltop cemetery alongside Mrs. Gibbs, Mr. Stimson and Mrs. Soames, among others. Here, she is granted the opportunity to revisit one very special day in her life only to discover upon her return to the past that she never fully appreciated everything that she possessed in life until she finally lost it. 

Wilder, as playwright, fills his play with dialogue and eloquent, narrated passages that fuel "Our Town" with wisdoms, opinions, ideas and theories that resonate, transform, divide, embellish and reflect. There's real charm, sincerity and beauty here, set forth by conscientious verbiage and experiences about ordinary life that are universal, individual, confident and important.
Theatrically, the three-act play breaks down "the fourth wall of staging" by setting the action inside the actual theater where "Our Town" is being performed orchestrated by the main character of the Stage Manager who directly addresses the audience, narrates the ongoing action, fields questions from strategically placed citizens of Grover's Corners and when necessary, plays various characters in the ongoing story.
As dictated by Wilder, the production is performed mostly on a bare stage where chairs, tables, door frames and stairways are minimal.  And with few exceptions, the entire cast is instructed to mime their everyday actions without the use of any props. 

Staging "Our Town," director Andrus Nichols thrusts Wilder's loving, committed portrait of ordinary people into the limelight with guided, assured, homespun tenderness, lilt and imagination. Directorially, she taps into the play's collective Americana and remembrance with brush strokes, colors, beats and rhythms that lend themselves nicely to the ongoing story, its wisdom, its beauty, its virtues, its irony, its simpleness and its unblemished reality. 
There is poetry and motion behind the mathematics of her staging, embellished by ideas, humor, drama, nostalgia and flights of fancy that challenge the brain, warm the heart and deftly address the high level of intelligence prevalent in Wilder's writing.
With the entire cast in top form, Andrus spans the Grover's Corners timeline, measure by measure, scene by scene and act by act with a lofty proudness and natural warmth that solidifies its bona fide greatness, its profound questions about the meaning of life itself, its classism, its romanticism, its history, its scope and its intellectual analysis and position.
As "Our Town" evolves, the everyday life of the characters and the bonds that exist between every single one of them are blocked, staged and performed with the simplicity, drive and intervening pantomime of Wilder's conceit. It's a brilliantly realized and energetic process that Andrus recreates within the parameters of time and space aided by expertly time sound cues, lighting effects and scene changes, many of which are arranged and verbally addressed by the Stage Manager. 
The climatic third act, played out against the backdrop of a hilltop cemetery, is pure genius. Here, Andrus interprets Wilder's finality of human life with particularly touching, tearful regard that not only cements the last fated moments of the deceased onstage characters but those who must continue living life without them.
It's chilling. It's poignant. It's urgent. It's raw. It's real. It's imbued with a piercing significance and immediacy that is completely unforgettable.

In the role of the Stage Manager, the narrator who introduces her audience to the small-town life and populace of Grover's Corners, Jane Kaczmarek invests her dialogue and commentary with a confident, observant, idyllic style and rhythm that trusts "Our Town" into orbit.
She's natural. She's personable. She's real. She's honest. She's charming. She's intimate. She's spontaneous. She's instinctive. She's direct. She's good-natured. She's passionate. She's inventive.
It's a fully appreciated turn - American classic with wonderful, universal appeal - that holds true to Wilder's original concept and intent, mixed with perfectly timed conjecture, vision, announcement and lecture that the actress grounds and implements with feeling, dash, insight and thoughtfulness. 

Samantha Steinmetz, in the role of Emily Webb, offers an exquisite, spellbinding dramatic turn, delivering the play's accompanying action, essence and illusion with open heart, open mind and intuitive, nostalgic menagerie. It's a performance that is affectionately portrayed and acted with beautifully modulated shifts of character and changing moods, leading up to an Act III graveyard denouement that Wilder, if he were alive today, would applaud with great engouement and pride.
As George Gibbs, Eric Bryant captures the spirit and feel of his important, simply crafted character with unwavering skill, charm, charisma and vulnerability. It's an intimate, tender-hearted performance that the actor skillfully weaves with an in-the-moment testimony and tilt, drawing you into a story that ends in tragedy with the death of his beloved Emily.

Other fine performances are delivered by Marinell Madden-Crippen (Mrs. Gibbs), Deron Bayer (Doc Gibbs), Dawn Stern (Mrs. Webb), Lori Evans (Mrs. Soames), Carter McCabe (Si Crowell), Katherine Almquist (Professor Willard), Michael Kevin Baldwin (Simon Stimson), Dick Terhune (Editor Webb) and Kennadi Mitchell (Rebecca Gibbs). Every one of them move through "Our Town" with a non-stop ease, confidence and trueness completely in sync with the concept, staging, drama and commitment set forth in the "Our Town" play script.

One of the most important, beautifully staged productions of the 2023 regional theatre season, "Our Town," at Sharon Playhouse, pays homage to playwright Thornton Wilder with keyhole, immersive bravura, insight and inspiration.
It is idealistic. It is relevant. It is timely. It is complex. It is hypnotic.
It invites you to think about life and how you choose to live it. Its bruising seriousness is testament to the power of its storytelling. It triumphs with extraordinary accomplishment. It's an impressive, sprawling piece of work that lingers in memory long after it has ended and has been performed.

"Our Town" is being staged at Sharon Playhouse (49 Amenia Road, Sharon, CT), now through September 24, 2024.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 364-7469

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 423, A Review: "Zanna, Don't!" (Connecticut Theatre Company)

 By James V. Ruocco

"Fairy tales don't happen by magic
There's gotta be somebody waving that wand.
And if I stopped for just one day,
How would life go on' "

It's not exactly a household name in musical theatre along the lines of "Rent," "A Chorus Line, " "The Sound of Music," "Oklahoma!" and "Grease."
So, what exactly is "Zanna Don't!" the smash, tongue-and-cheek, 2003 off-Broadway musical that has absolutely nothing in common with Jonathan Larson, Marvin Hamlisch, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey.
Is it a sequel to "Xanadu," the 1980 cinematic musical fantasy that starred Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly?
Does it further the musical exploits of the 2007 Broadway musical adaptation of the same name that made on overnight star of Kerry Butler?
Absolutely not.
Is it a musical odyssey set in outer space?
Is it "High School Musical" meets "Glee?"
Not a chance.

As written by Tim Acito, "Zanna Don't!" is an eight-character musical that trips the light fantastic of the present-day world with a plot line and concept of flashy colors, pink echoes and shimmers, rainbow hues, camp and kitsch and a whole lot of queerness.
Set in a candy-coated parallel universe where being gay is the norm and heterosexuality is strictly taboo, "Zanna Don't!" goes "Barbie" pink when a pair of opposite-sex Heartsville High School students find themselves falling madly in love, thus, causing immediate chaos amongst the teen populace, led by Zanna, the local, fun-loving non-binary matchmaker with a magical wand that can immediately change the course of anyone's destiny.  
At Connecticut Theatre Company, an immersive, inviting theatrical venue known primarily for its eclectic musical treats and endeavors - "Spring Awakening," "Disaster," "Head Over Heels," "Young Frankenstein," to name a few - "Zanna Don't!" unfolds with an unabashed freshness, kick-step and intimacy that scores high marks for its standout blaze, its patch of good cheer, its striking portrait of friendship and camaraderie and its overall commitment to acceptance, sexuality, identity and choice.

As musical theatre, this revival of "Zanna Don't!" is as good as it gets.
It is surprisingly current and effective.
It is generous, quirky and joyfully queer.
It is coming of age funny and delightful.
Its expressive variety is lovingly executed.
Its richly comical, keen and abundant.
It's issue-led with a big, climactic payoff.

CTC's skillful, optimistic production of "Zanna Don't!" offers something for everyone.

As director, Duane Campbell is an observant, authentic interpreter who follows his own path, experiments, takes chances and steers a show forward with just the right balance of wit, irony, humor, surprise and sentiment. Here, he crafts a breezy and buzzy musical about acceptance and love that produces a grin, a tear and a hearty round of applause.
He gets the job done, but he does it with a style and a flair that is truthful, involved and full of command.
As "Zanna Don't!" evolves, there's plenty to mull over and giggle about including well-timed jokes about San Francisco, the military, opposite sex attraction, bull riding, heterosexuality, proms, high school musicals, stereotypes and high school football quarterbacks.
It's all in jest and Campbell has great fun fleshing out the musical's flip flop take on gayness being the accepted norm and heterosexuality being absolutely taboo. And while things are meant to played as camp or over the top, Campbell sustains the beating comical heart of the show with staging dynamics and blocking techniques that respect the concept of the show's originators, their opinions, their hyper-aware liveliness, their debunking and their comic gold enthusiasm.

The musical score, written by Tim Acito (music and lyrics) and Alexander Dinelaris (lyrics), mixes sweetness with satire and camp, offset by plumy spurts, visions and high-energized concepts about sexual identity, coolness, opportunity, romance and following your heart. The songs themselves - 19 in all - playfully embody these qualities, culminating in a musical medley of glee, defiance, surprise, judgement and humor that gives the "Zanna Don't!" narrative its candy-coated greatness and allure.
They are: 
"Who's Got Extra Love?" "I Think We Got Love," "I Ain't Got Time," "Ride 'Em," "Zanna's Song," "Be a Man," "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," "Fast," "I Could Write Books," "Don't You Wish We Could Be in Love?" "Whatcha Got?" "Do You Know What It's Like?" " 'Tis a Far, Far Better Thing I Do," "Blow Winds," "Straight to Heaven," "Someday You Might Love Me," "Straight to Heaven (reprise)," "Sometime, Do You Think We Could Fall in Love" and "Finale."

Taking his cue from the Acito/Dinelaris blueprint, musical director Nick Stanford brings a sparkling sense of whimsey and confidence to the "Zanna Don't!" musical score which lets it pop, gesticulate and entertain at full-face value. Full of vivid detail, ebb and surge, the unfolding musical numbers are played with clarity and trigger, each layered with a message, a giggle, a surprise or a spoiler alert as to what may or may not happen.
At the same time, there is commitment and drive here, whirling and teeming with a campy energy and zigzag that befits the material splendidly, its thwacking multiplicity, its sugar-coated demands and its attractive sound, instrumentation and ushering blaze.

For the Connecticut Theatre Company production of "Zanna Don't!" Stanford (at the keyboard) is joined by a trio of musicians - (Nick Zavaglia) (guitar), Emily Byrne (bass), Michael Wyatt (drums) - who bring lament and directness to the music, its fantasia, its diva moments, its eccentricity and its punchy solos, duets and contagious ensemble turns. More importantly, there's no guesswork here. Stanford and his band members are ideal partners, all on the same level in terms of sound, balance, intensity and release. In turn, the music glides merrily along with camp, sizzle, snap and clarity, voiced splendidly by the "Zanna Don't!" cast, all of whom get their moment to share vocal honors of roar, wallop and storm to thrilling, pitch-perfect, harmonic effect. 

As Zanna, the magical, non-binary matchmaker of the musical's title, Charlie Hartel offers a thrilling, radiant turn that is raw, compassionate and illuminating. It's a natural, effervescent performance that brings to mind the pixie, endearing enchantment of former Disney star Janet Munro ("Swiss Family Robinson", "Darby O'Gill and the Little People") laced with a wonderfully played commitment to the storytelling, the character and the music. Vocally, Hartel's musical numbers are lovingly voiced with a strength and delicacy, guaranteed to deliver whenever Zanna's story is expressed through song.
Erin Aldrich, as Roberta, a tough-as-nails high schooler and great kisser, who, often is unlucky in love, invites the audience into her character's LGBTQ experience with genuine feeling, fascination, encouragement and perfectly timed hilarity. A graduate of the Hartt School of Music, her grandly voiced solo and ensemble turns reveal of tower of strength and rousing urgency that Aldrich exudes and controls with impressive, showstopping moments at the top of her range.
In the role of Kate, a notorious high school overachiever whose popular but complicated life produces sexual urges for both men and women, Emma Gulick crafts an amusing, sweetly mannered and enthusiastic performance that commands attention whenever she's on stage. There's a delicate smoothness to her characterization matched by a seamless blend of individuality and invention that is undeniably awesome. Vocally, she has plenty to sing about bringing great power and punch to the "Zanna Don't!" musical score.

As Mike, the Heartsville High dreamboat and champion chess player looking for the perfect guy to romance, Brandon Gregorie steps into his colorful role with a steadfast animation, flamboyance and loveable campus, all-star reflection that grabs the theatergoer's attention with a cut to the quick gallop and flourish that is greatly articulated and performed. When asked to sing, his ripe, resourceful delivery - exemplary at every turn - is powerful, focused and accommodating with an underlying power and richness that complements the material at hand.
Cast as Steve, a new Heartsville High student who has found a place as the quarterback of the football team, Staci Battle is fierce and funny offering an impressive performance that is authentic, real and versatile. 
Other fine performances are delivered by Isabella Carvalho, Allie Reya, Alexis Dasher and Erin Frechette. All four barrel through the musical with a non-stop ease and flair completely in sync with the kitschy concept set forth by the musical's originators. 

A musical with the accent on fun, "Zanna Don't!" is a candy-colored fairy tale with a uniquely clever rainbow twist that tilts, cajoles and spins merrily about with a laugh-out-loud silliness that's impossible to resist.
It's queer. It's over-the-top. Its glitter fueled. It's charmingly naive.
It has heart. It has soul. It has pulse. It has game.
It's high camp of the highest order dispelled with a magic wand, a toothy giggle and a sprinkle or two of "friends of Dorothy" madness.
Director Duane Campbell manages to make everything that happens feel hugely meaningful.  Erin Frechette's spirited, athletic choreography is both lively and atmospheric. Musical director Nick Stanford enlivens the proceedings with diagnosed pop musical amplification.
And the "Zanna Don't!" cast jump back and forth into the spotlight with an adrenaline rush of innovation and love that culminates into a celebratory partnership of love, choice and identity that hits hard with a firecracker smile and an endearing wiggle.

Photos of "Zanna Don't!" courtesy of Duane Campbell

"Zanna, Don't!" is being staged at Connecticut Theatre Company (23 Norden Street, New Britain, CT), now through September 24, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 223-3147

Monday, September 11, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 422, A Review: "Athena" (Andromeda Theatre Guild)

 By James V. Ruocco

Let the games begin.
In Andromeda Theatre Guild's electric-charged mounting of Gracie Gardner's acclaimed play "Athena," the immersive setting, or playing ground of the storytelling arena, if you prefer, is a high-performance fencing piste where fencers take the competitive spotlight in full-fencing gear using techniques, combat and exemplary disciplines to score winning points made through the weapon's actual contact with their dueling opponent.


It's a heated contest embellished by guttural screaming, slippery tactics, strategy, attack and blade-to-blade swordplay, all breathlessly engaged for the pursuit of glory, status, position and oh, yes, friendship.

The Players, first introduced by Gardner in the opening minutes of her intermission less 90-minute play are high schoolers and practice partners Athena (a "fencing name" by choice) and Mary Wallace, two very anxious, disciplined and dedicated young women from different backgrounds who become fast friends and eventual confidantes hoping to qualify for nationals and perhaps, even the Olympics.

With the groundwork laid, Gardner crafts a skillful, intriguing, brisk two-character play of competition, battle, coming-of-age, adolescence and expression, offset by precise fight choreography and personal reflection that heightens the set-up, the evolution, the conflict and the outcome of the story's confidant, growing, concentrated dynamic.

It's fun.
It's edgy.
It's timely.
It's urgent.
It's distinct.

The vitality, establishment and metaphorical thrust of "Athena" is also showcased with an "en garde" depth, quickness, verbiage, kinetic spirit and atmospheric allure that prompts immediate attention, stirs the senses, ignites the onstage conversations and punctuates the velocity of the swinging blade. 

"I get emotional too," Athena tells Mary Wallace. "Sometimes, after I lose, I'll bump into a random person on the street, on purpose. And I won't say sorry."

Much later, Athena admits, "I love knowing for a moment that I'm objectively better than someone else."

The culmination of the duo's journey, their connection, their destiny and their love of sport is robustly addressed and recounted with stoked assurance by "Athena" director Terrance J. Peters ("She Kills Monsters"), a fencer himself who brings years of knowledge and experience to the production along with an understanding of how the game is played, how each weapon has its own set of rules and regulations, how a point is scored and how contact is made with an opponent. It's an intuitive directorial feat that articulates the paradoxical status of the fencing drama itself, its bouts, its practices, its maneuvers and lastly, a final fencing match where the scores are projected on the back wall and the final outcome is revealed along with an eleventh-hour twist involving the appearance of a third character named Jamie (a well-played cameo turn by the charismatic Emma Holden),

Directorially, this is Peters show. 
Gardner's "girls who fence" script is braced with believability, guard, capture, propulsion and cutthroat edge by Peters who shakes and stirs "Athena" with lots of physical movement, vibration and spar 
and épée. In his eyes, there is so much more going on here than just an ordinary tale of adolescence and competition. 

As the character's talk, parry, chat, change clothes, engage or move about stage, anxious to blend in, stand out or make their mark, Peters keeps the action REAL, connecting the dots, pauses and points of the playtext with well-orchestrated definition, adrenaline and purpose. Each scene - short, long or in between - makes it point with blocking, movements and precise staging combat and fencing choices that plunge the action forward with lucidity and drive, offset by simple, mandated lighting cues, sound cues, music cues and atmospheric immersion that complement and define the pending action of the narrative.
Nothing is out of place. Nothing is thrown in for extra measure. Nothing is scuffed, bruised or bandied. Nothing is awkward or out of sync. There's tension. There's comedy. There's conflict. There's bonding. There's gaming. There's uncertainty. There's surprise. There's bickering. There's conditioning. There's showmanship.
Here, the weapon of choice is steadied by Peters and duked out with the competitive ambiguity and achievement envisioned by Gardner and never once out of sync with the words and actions of the storytelling at hand.

"Athena," the debut production of the newly implemented Andromeda Theatre Guild, stars Sydney Yargeau as Athena and Emma Rucci as Mary Wallace. Their combined stage credits include prominent roles in "She Kills Monsters," "Spring Awakening," "The Rocky Horror Show," "Shrek the Musical" and "Ride the Cyclone."
Well suited for their individual roles in "Athena," both 
actresses command the stage with important, witty, vivid and angst-ridden performances that reflect the aesthetic, metaphor-packed allure of their individual characterizations, desires, innuendo, roars, quirks, fizz, demands, sparks and sweet spots.
They are game. They are ready. They are centered. They are close. They are head on. They are bright. They are intriguing.
Their onstage camaraderie - a combination of poise, physicality, twinkle, fury, femininity and imagination - is unleashed with such in-the-moment honesty, drama and charm, one is immediately drawn into their story with a curiosity and hunger that never wavers for a moment.

An intoxicating, focused exploration about women, friendship, sport and a clash of swords, Gracie Gardner's "Athena" is a witty, dynamic coming-of-age drama full of real-life action and banter, wonderfully calibrated by director Terrance J. Peters.
It's shouty. It's forceful. It's fast. It's intriguing. It's engaging.
There's instinct and opinion here, matched by two passionate, colorful, well-rounded performances that complement the playwright's vision, genius and fascination with athletic competition.
On and off the piste, it is standout theatre of the highest order.

Photos of "Athena" courtesy of Mason Beiter.

"Athena" is being staged by Andromeda Theatre Guild (Hole in the Wall Theater, 116 Main Street, New Britain, CT) now through September 17, 2023.
For tickets, visit

Saturday, September 2, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 421, Front Row Center: Connecticut Theatre Company presents "Zanna Don't! - A Musical Fairy Tale"

By James V. Ruocco

As the cast of "Zanna Don't!" take their place on the Connecticut Theatre Company stage for a harmonic, perfectly pitched vocal warm-up led by musical director Nick Stanford, it's obvious this very talented group of eight are having the time of their lives.
They are smiling.
They are bonding.
They are committed.
They are having fun.
That camaraderie comes full circle when Stanford asks them to sing "Sometime, Do You Think We Could Fall in Love?" the closing song of the "Zanna Don't!" finale.
It also prompts the obvious question: What exactly is "Zanna Don't!"
Is it a sequel to "Xanadu," the 1980 cinematic musical fantasy that starred Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly?
Does it further the musical exploits of the 2007 Broadway musical adaptation of the same name?
Is it set in outer space?
The answer to all these questions is "Absolutely not." 

"It's a show that first came about in the early 2000's," explains "Zanna Don't!" director Duane Campbell.  "I got the CD recording from the off-Broadway production and listened to it and just thought it was a cool concept for a show.
"It was unique. Lots of people don't know it. It's something that's not done. So, I wanted to do it here."

Written by Tim Acito (book and music) and Alexander Dinelaris (lyrics), "Zanna Don't!" is a 2003 off-Broadway musical that has achieved worldwide success over the last twenty years with subsequent productions staged worldwide in San Francisco, London, Germany, New Zealand, Atlanta, Australia and Fort Lauderdale.

"It's a very fun show," says "Zanna Don't!" cast member Erin Aldrich. "It's super campy. You'll definitely be laughing. There's a lot of talent up there on the stage and behind the scenes as well."

It's very traditional musical theater," adds cast member Brandon Gregorie. "Campy and really diving deep into a character and trying to find out how you could show different aspects of the character you are playing."

Set in a candy-coated parallel universe where being gay is the norm and heterosexuality is taboo, "Zanna Don't!" trips the light fantastic when a pair of opposite-sex high school students at Heartsville High find themselves falling in love, thus, causing immediate chaos amongst the teen populace, led by Zanna, the local, fun-loving matchmaker.
The action, set in mid-west America, begins on the first day of the academic school year and concludes with a gala celebration at the high school prom.

"The show takes the fairy tale concept and looks at it in a world where every single character across the board is gay," reports Campbell. "Instead of having a mom and dad, they have two dads or two moms.
"All of the high school students are dealing with issues and concepts that we deal with every day but though a reverse lens.
So, when it comes time to do the high school musical, they decide to so a show about straights in the military and try to promote heterosexuality."

Now in rehearsal for a September 8th opening at Connecticut Theatre Company (23 Norden Street, New Britain, CT), "Zanna Don't!" stars Charlie Hartel as Zanna, Erin Aldrich as Roberta, Staci Battle as Steve, Brandon Gregoire as Mike, Emma Gulick as Kate, Isabella Carvalho as Tank, Allie Reya as Arvin and Alexis Dasher as Candi.

Although the "don't ask, don't tell" policy is played for laughs along with plenty of inbred humor about "horrible heterosexuals," within all the silliness of Tim Acito's playscript, "Zanna Don't!" is not without a purpose. It not only shows what is like to be bullied when choosing an alternate lifestyle but comes packaged with valuable lessons about being shunned in the workplace, the military, academia and at the high school prom.

"I am a part of the LGBT community," says Erin Aldrich. "This is a very queer themed show. So, it feels very important to me because it's advocating for equal rights but in a silly, fun way so that you don't feel like you're being reprimanded and taught.
"There are a lot of jokes about stereotypes and there are things that homophobic, bigoted people say about gay people but just turned right around and aimed at straight people.
"The show also points how silly those things are especially when you turn them around."

A musical with plenty of heart and soul, "Zanna Don't!" unfolds through a colorful, tuneful patchwork of nineteen songs including "Who's Got Extra Love?" "I Think We Got Love," "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," "I Could Write Books," "Don't You Wish We Could Fall in Love?" "Straight to Heaven," "Someday You Might Love Me" and "Sometime, Do You Think We Could Fall in Love?"

First and foremost, "Zanna Don't" is an entertainment that's meant to be shared and enjoyed by everyone who has purchased a ticket.
No matter.

" 'Zanna Don't' is about acceptance and love and empathy," Gregorie confesses. "No matter who you are, how you identify, it's just a people loving show."

"This is a really important story for people like me," adds Aldrich. "And I really wanted to be part of the storytelling.
"It's a reverse coming out story - but coming out as straight 
instead of coming out as gay."

"It covers all facets because it ends up dealing with both worlds," explains Campbell.

Despite its newness and unfamiliarity outside of the theater community, cast member Charlie Hartel believes that a visit to Connecticut Stage Company in New Britain is well worth the trip.
"The main reason you should come to see 'Zanna' is because it celebrates everyone - no matter who you are, no matter where you come from no matter who you love.
"It's also the most colorful musical I've ever been a part of both in set, costumes and characters. It's all sparkly and glittery and it's pretty much in your face but in a good way."

Rehearsing the two-act musical has not only been especially fun for Hartel, but the entire process itself, as shaped by Connecticut Theatre Company, is particularly special.

"Pretty much every character you see in the show is gay or presents themselves as gay. And in our cast, the characters and actors we have are trans people, queer people or both."
But wait, there's more.
"Some of the characters were originally written as male characters but we have trans people playing them, so we've changed who they are a little bit, which I think is amazing.
I also like the fact that CTC was willing to do that and support their actors as well."

The Connecticut Theatre Company staging of "Zanna Don't!' runs September 8-24, 2023.
Performances are 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays.
Tickets are $26.75 (single tickets in stadium seating) and $61.75 (two guest table seatings).
For more information, call (860) 223-3147.