Sunday, October 29, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 434, A Concert Review: "First Lady of Song Cherise Coaches Sings Ella Fitzgerald" (Westport Country Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco

The voice.
The sound.
The range.
The power.
The songs.
The life. 
The career.

Ella Fitzgerald - the first lady of song - is given the all-star treatment in Westport Country Playhouse's jazzy concert tribute "First Lady of Song Cherise Coaches Sings Ella Fitzgerald," a fond, tuneful and lively trip down memory lane that celebrates the life and times of one of the music industry's greatest recording artists with remembrances, songs and conversations from her illustrious half-century career.

An "Artists Lounge Live" production, documented with flair, liberation and triumph, this two-hour concert event, which includes a fifteen-minute intermission, replays and reinvents moments from Fitzgerald's "Great American Songbook" repertoire with clear, careful jazz precision, a probing, nostalgic thoughtfulness and time-honored music that lovingly spills its guts with jazz club, supper club influence and jubilation.

Structured as much by theme, appreciation, dedication and arrangement, this production gets off to an incredible jazzy start (how could it not?) that grows in stature from song to song and moment to moment before its glorious, memorable, exciting big finish.
It also fits perfectly into the intimate, welcoming and cozy environs of the Westport Country Playhouse with smiles, tears and applause deftly etched in from patrons, newcomers, regulars and music lovers united as one to hear songs they've all heard before and want to hear again and again.
Magical, oh yes. 
And, so much more. 

Make no mistake about it: "First Lady of Song Cherise Coaches Sings Ella Fitzgerald" is in a class by itself.
It unfolds with brooding melancholy and bristle.
It is commanding and heavenly.
It tilts and spins.
Its breezy jazz eruption channels the lady herself.
Its balance of color, detail and complexity heightens its charm, its vibrance and its signifying groove, immediacy and trigger.
And then, there is the star herself.

Creating a strong, natural and charismatic bond between singer and audience, Chicago-born actress and entertainer Cherise Coaches takes center stage in "First Lady of Song" and creates a unique sound and vibe of boom, high energy, impact and passion.
She is sensational. 
But first, let's backtrack.
On Broadway, Coaches appeared in the hit musical "Waitress" and later, was featured in the National Touring edition of "Disenchanted: The Musical."
Her other credits include Dionne in "Hair," Charlene in "Dreamgirls" and Young Patti in "A New Attitude: In Tribute to Patti LaBelle." 
With "Artists Lounge Live," Coaches appeared as a featured vocalist in "Aretha Franklin: Queen of Soul," "Higher and Higher with Chester Gregory" and "Signed, Sealed Delivered: John-Mark McGaha Sings Stevie Wonder."

With "First Lady of Song," Coaches shows how passionate she is about the music of Ella Fitzgerald, the songs she chooses to sing in concert, how and why each piece holds a special place in her heart and more importantly, the impact that comes from right after hearing and performing it.
Vocally, she dazzles and shines with a voice and range that showcases her talents in full display, offset by skill, uplift, swing and imagination.
Here, Fitzgerald's song hits - there are many - are remembered with a certain oomph and fondness that makes the occasion in Westport even more special.
They include: "I Got Rhythm," "Misty," "Mack the Knife," "Night and Day," "Summertime," "The Lady is a Tramp," "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," "A -Tisket, A-Tasket," "My Funny Valentine" and "Too Dark Hot," among others.

Backed by a confident, committed onstage band that includes William Kurk (musical director, piano), Jay Flat (flute/saxophone), Ryan Bennett (drums) and Runere Brooks (upright bass), Coaches steps into the limelight putting her own personal spin on the music of Fitzgerald rather than imitate or copycat the legendary singer's special voice and sound. It's a creative choice that the singer spins with warmth, bewitchment, purity, timelessness and Harlem Savoy Ballroom sultriness. It's all velvety smooth and navigated. Or belted and crooned with powerhouse sensation and bustle.
The singer also engages in scatting, a vocal improvisation that Fitzgerald was famous for, improvising melodies, sounds and rhythms, comprised of nonsense syllables, wordless vocables, humor, quick tongue, various compressions or no words at all. It's a showstopping feat and one of the many, many highlights of this exhilarating production.

Written and directed by Angela Ingersoll, "First Lady of Song" also comes packaged with unique stories, tidbits and facts that recall Fitzgerald's life story from her 1917 birth in Newport News, Virginia to her death at the age of 79 from a stroke in 1996.
With Coaches as narrator, a part she claims with tremendous inspiration and spirit, the audience is privy to lots of valuable documentation that includes Fitzgerald's 1934 "Amateur Night" contest win at Harlem's legendary Apollo Theater, her years of mentoring with bandleader Chick Webb, her first hit single at age 19, her booking at L.A. hotspot Macambo via superfan Marilyn Monroe and the creation of Verve Records in 1955 for the singer herself.

"First Lady of Song Cherise Coaches Sings Ella Fitzgerald" is being staged at Westport Country Playhouse (25 Powers Court, Westport. CT), now through November 5, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (203)227-4177

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 433, A Review: "Pride and Prejudice" (Hartford Stage)

By James V. Ruocco

There are many ways to stage novelist Jane Austen's cherished 1813 novel of manners "Pride and Prejudice" without losing the richness of her writing, her carefully choreographed plot and her hugely entertaining views of the world, society, wealth, influence, marriage, courtship, position, alliteration, observation and the complete absurdity of it all.
In Hartford Stage's animated, brilliantly skewered interpretation of Austen's classic character study, playwright Kate Hamill digs deep into the novel's very posh, readable text and concocts a tale of great comic relief that pushes the boundaries of manners, marriage, social standing, education and morality in the most entertaining of ways. It's still the same story, but it's crafted without the stiff, upper lip dramatics and theories of a four-part BBC presentation, a prim and proper National Theatre revival or a sprawling cinematic adaptation from the popular heyday of the Merchant-Ivory filmmaking team.
Through the bold, outrageous comedic lens of Hamill, this glorious Austenian take on "Pride and Prejudice" is a treatment like no other. It revives the original source material with such with thrill and spill, one easily succumbs to the page-turning craziness and versatility of the presentation itself, its critique of feminism and social conventions, its playful conversations and banter and its over-the-top theatrics and acknowledgements that propel the action forward with steadfast giddyap.

Played against the backdrop of Sara Brown's lush, atmospheric set design, which includes a twirling, revolving stage of early 19th century period surroundings, this frame-worthy, nontraditional take of Jane Austen - reinforced by a joyride of gleefully oddball jokes, ideas, scandals, proposals and cross-casting outrageousness - is so much fun, one wishes there was a "replay" button to watch it all over again.

Better yet, this "Pride and Prejudice" dances to its own set of rules.
It is saucy and irreverent.
It is jaunty and peculiar.
It is confident and spirited.
It is grand and glorious.
Its screwball silliness is masked with chiming cynicism.

Set in rural England, circa 1813, the play centers on the themes and conflicts of the day when women either married for love or for purely economic reasons. For plot purposes, because none of Mr. Bennet's four daughters - Lizzy, Mary, Jane or Lydia - can inherit his Hertfordshire estate (in the novel and the 1940 film adaptation starring Greer Garson, there are five daughters) they are pressured by both he and Mrs. Bennet to marry well and find financial security in what is commonly known as "good marriages."
And so, the game begins.
Who is suitable? Who is not?
Who has money? Who has prospects?
Who can help secure the Bennett family fortune?
Which man - there are many - will bewitch the Bennett sisters?
And who, during the final fadeout, will get their happily ever after? 

At Hartford Stage, "Pride and Prejudice" is being staged by Tatyana-Marie Carlo whose directorial credits include "Marisol," "She Kills Monsters," "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot," "Clybourne Park," "Real Women Have Curves" and "Don Quixote." It's a labor of love fueled by smart directorial choices, great comic zing and snap, well played, collective gimmickry and push and pull silliness.
In shaping Hamill's inventive playscript, she creates a lively, circus-like arena where private conversations, upper class exchanges, chance meetings, exits, entrances, philosophies, theories, dispositions and playful romantic notions are tossed and bandied about with giddy, front-and-center abandonment.
At the same time, nothing is out of place, thrown in or shockingly tactless. As "Pride and Prejudice" evolves, Carlo adapts a vigorous, refreshing and mischievous gait that is confident, inventive, apparent, surprising and knee-deep in Panto-like creativity, assertiveness and period melodrama.
Here, timing is everything and Carlo balances humor, pathos and wit with dynamic, well-oiled flashes, flourishes, sweeping, sloping, prancing, preening and expansive gestures that complement the merriment and drawing room theatrics at hand. It's all very genuine, unexpectedly funny stuff that lives up to its potential and tears into the 1813 source material of Austen's legacy with a voice that is confident, snarky, devious, enlightening and whimsical. Directorially, she also marshals her eight-member cast swiftly and expertly through the play's fast-paced scene changes, fadeouts, musical interludes and dances with splendid musicality.
This is timeless, universal, thoroughly engaged Austen played mainly for laughs, coasting effortlessly between Hertfordshire, Netherfield, Kent and Pemberly, then back again.

That's not all. Glitter balls and disco-like dances spring out of nowhere. Modernism is mixed amusingly with Regency wanderlust. Sight gags pop up with in-and-out craziness. Characters run wildly across the stage screaming, ranting and raving. A purposely paused Hertfordshire location gets a Hartford, Connecticut name drop giggle. Certain lines are purposely exaggerated as if "Pride and Prejudice" was reborn as a late 19th century melodrama. Period fans are opened and closed by the female characters with very loud flaps and flapping. The fourth wall is continually broken to allow certain characters to flirt with the audience or enter and exit through the actual theater. Spilled punch prompts rowdy crotch jokes.
The use of a mannequin, garbed in period servant's clothing, to announce the arrival of certain characters, is well worth the price of admission as is the hilarious substitution of broomsticks and poles (all dressed in various, familiar costume fragments) whenever an actor is playing a different role, but their previous character, is called upon, if only fleetingly to participate in the ongoing scene. A true stroke of genius on Carlo's part.

"Pride and Prejudice" stars Renata Eastlick as Lizzy, Carman Lacivita as Mr. Darcy, Lana Young as Mrs. Bennett, Anne Scurria as Mr. Bennett and Charlotte Lucas, Madeleine Barker as Mary and Miss Bingley, Sergio Mauritz Ang as Mr. Bingley, Wickham and Mr. Collins, Zoë Kim as Lydia and Lady Catherine and María Gabriela González as Jane and Miss de Borough.
Everyone in the cast are tremendously gifted, talented performers whose charm, warmth, wit and knack for this type of full-tilt mayhem and craziness give the production its unifying lift, pulse, drive and fever-pitched adrenaline. Under Carlo's intuitive, fancy-free, colorful direction, each and every actor inhabits the role he or she is given (Barker as the unhinged Mary is a real comic standout) with the right comic dash and flourish that serves the material well. Everyone understands his or her role inside out and all around. They are quick on their feet. They know how to play comedy and they play it well. They engage. They entertain. They toss and turn. They give the play's multiple characterization and cross-casting conceit the creative aplomb it deserves. They have great onstage chemistry with one another. They know how to get a laugh without exposing the punchline. They can also shift gears in a millisecond whenever they are asked to change from character to character, man to woman, or vice versa.

Silly, lightweight, witty, romantic and swayable, Hartford Stage's sumptuous mounting of "Pride and Prejudice" breathes new life into Jane Austen's celebrated 19th century classic. It gallops and stirs. It tilts and glides. It delights and cajoles. It takes liberties with the actual story and gets away with it.
Playwright Kate Hamill creates a madhouse of giddy romantic mayhem, entanglement and enticement. Director Tatyana-Marie Carlo goes full-tilt in well-timed, harmonious fashion. Regency period costuming designed by Haydee Zelideth makes its mark in true couture fashion.
The entire cast has great fun with the insanely wacky material. And like several other Hartford Stage productions that came before it - "The Rivals," "Loot," "The School for Scandal," "Tartuffe," to name a few - every element works splendidly in this liberating, intoxicating staging that amusingly conveys the age-old struggle between pride and prejudice with riotous exhilaration, social mayhem, screwball indulgence and gooseberry empowerment.
In short, what's not to love?

Photos of "Pride and Prejudice" courtesy of T. Charles Erickson

"Pride and Prejudice" is being presented at Hartford Stage (50 Church St., Harford, CT), now through November 5, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-5151.

Friday, October 20, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 432, A Review: "The Panto of the Opera" (Pantochino Productions)

By James V. Ruocco

Traditionally performed at Christmas and after, "The British Panto," developed in England, is a laugh-out-loud entertainment consisting of sight gags, slapstick, double entendres, songs, dancing, improvisation, erotic content, outrageous costuming, gender-crossing actors and lots and lots of accompanied giddyap.
Following a similar, basic format "The British Music Hall Entertainment," originally designed for a working-class audience, offered unpretentious skits, songs, dancing and bawdy plot lines that parodied everyday life, famous operas and the high-profile scandals of the rich and famous. 

In "The Panto of the Opera," a silly, wicked, eccentric musical comedy that takes its cue from both "The British Panto" and "The British Musical Hall Entertainment," Pantochino Productions concocts a dazzling, classic, bin hilarious production that unleashes a tsunami of wonderfully dispensed hilarity reinforced by loop-the-loop innuendo, true to tradition mayhem, glitz and giggles, channeled zing and snap and marvelously orchestrated deadpan aloofness.
This is Pantochino at its very best, brimming with joy and genuineness, grandness aplenty, celebrated cackle and sure-footed engagement.

Written by Bert Bernardi, the two-act musical deliciously puts the "Panto" spin on Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera," which has been entertaining West End theatre audiences for decades since its premiere at Her Majesty's Theatre (renamed His Majesty's Theatre in 2022 to reflect the current reign of monarch King Charles III) on October 9, 1986.
Mixing spoof with parody along with that in-house Pantochino tilt and swerve, Bernardi retells the famous story of the Paris Opera House masked Phantom who makes his home in the subterranean labyrinth below.
For story purposes, there is no papier-mâché music box with a monkey figurine, no unexplained deaths or murders, no angry mob searches and no elaborate masquerade balls. Egotistical opera diva Carlotta still gets a frog in her throat, the opera house chandelier still rises and falls, and Christine Daae is still the Phantom's romantic obsession.
But since "The Panto of the Opera" is played for laughs, Bernardi has great fun throwing in local geographical commentary (Christne travels from Norwalk to Paris), referencing other well-known musicals including "Les Misérables" and "Beauty and the Beast" and breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience. It's a playful conceit that fuels the production with smart, heartwarming, popcorn gallop, shared amusement and just-the-right filter of hotfoot insanity.

Staging the production, Bernardi turns the tables upside town and topsy turvy offering the theatergoer a fancy-free exploration that thrives on the pleasurable clash between "Panto" and Andrew Lloyd Webber. The show takes flight immediately with illustrated gags-land bite and humor, mixed affectionately with can-do doses of optimism, confidence, imagination and channeled, well-played exaggeration.
It's a win-win situation for all boasting a wicked spirit of fun, a sugar rush wattage of directorial commitment and the usual shenanigans that come gift wrapped with "Panto."

Featuring a colorful and tuneful score, with music by Justin Rugg and lyrics by Bernardi, "The Panto of the Opera" unfolds through ten strategically placed musical numbers that set the story in motion, give it shape and balance and wildly cement the insaneness of the Phantom story.
They are (in order of performance): 
"A Night at the Opera," "The Phantom's Song," "Carlotta's Song," "The Baguette Song," "Angel of Music," "The Peripatetic Paranormal," "I Only Want to Sing," "Phantom in Red," "The Phantom Situation" and "Angel of Music (reprise)."
"I Only Want to Sing," a showstopping comic duet sung between the characters of Raoul and Madame Dreary," is an inventive, slippery, attention-grabbing ditty similar to that of "Mr. Cellophane" from "Chicago" and "Never the Luck" from "The Mystery of Edwin Drood." Hilariously executed and brilliantly sung by Lu DeJesus and Rachelle Ianniello, the song itself showcases the angst of two secondary characters of not-too-great importance in a story who sadly, are not given the chance to get a major solo that would thrust them in the spotlight. That, all changes here, in only fleetingly. And yes, it is SENSATIONAL.

"The Panto of the Opera" stars Justin Rugg as The Phantom, Jimmy Johansmeyer as Maestro, Shelly Marsh Poggio as Carlotta (a star turn of the highest order enriched by great presence and intuitive comic timing), Rachelle Ianniello as Madame Dreary, Killian Meehan as Noel, Don Poggio as Manager, Mary Mannix as Christine, Leanne Onofrio as Solange, Sydney Maher as Yvette, Lu DeJesus as Raoul and Bert Bernardi as Victoria Sautee in the role of Madame Cherchez.
The perfect fit for "Panto" cross-dressing, the character of Victoria Sautee, garbed in haute couture refinery for the role of Madame Cherchez, not only gets a big, colorful, rousing musical number ("The Peripatetic Paranormal") at the end of Act I, but springs to life on the Pantochino stage in the form of Bert Bernardi whose energy and charm oozes naughtily out of his spectacular costuming, thus, providing his audience with an electric-charged performance of cockle-warming innuendo and festive spirt, offset by humor, on point, improvisational dare and riotous pace, grip and presentation.

Costuming at Pantochino - in this production and others before it - is executed with bespoke fostering, creativity and design by Jimmy Johansmeyer, a master craftsman who knowledge of fabric, style, form and presentation could easily give the House of Chanel, Balenciaga and Dior a run for its money. Here, he creates a 19th century period look of eye-popping clothing using a variety of colors and materials that each and every cast member on stage displays with proud showmanship, flair and standout bespoke definition.

"The Panto of the Opera" is being staged at Pantochino Productions (40 Railroad Avenue, Milford, CT), now through October 29, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 843-0959.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 431, A Review: "Night of January 16th" (Castle Craig Players)

By James V. Ruocco 

Not guilty?
You decide.

In Ayn Rand's taut, quick-paced 1934 courtroom drama "Night of January 16th," the theatergoer assumes the role of juror and decides, along with everyone else in the audience, the collective verdict that closes the play.
It's a gimmick that works especially well and adds a dash of lightweight fun to the already enjoyable proceedings. 
At Castle Craig Players, an intimate, immersive venue where Rand's three-act play is being revived to thrilling satisfaction, the bailiff takes center stage five minutes before the play's conclusion to ask each table - (the venue offers patrons a cabaret style setting) - to submit of verdict of "guilty" or "not guilty" much to everyone's delight. Once the votes are collected and tallied up, "Night of January 16th" resumes, the verdict is read, and the production draws to a close.

As written by Rand, Karen Andre, a former secretary and lover of successful business mogul Bjorn Faulkner stands trials for the murder of her crooked boyfriend. She, of course, claims that she is innocent. But evidence suggests that during the night of the murder, Faulkner's body was thrown to his death from his penthouse balcony.
If she didn't do it, who did?
Is she lying? Is she telling the truth?
Was it a set up?
Is Faulkner still alive?
If so, whose body ended up smashed and bloodied on the pavement below?
According to the medical examiner, the body of Faulkner was so damaged by the fall, it was impossible to tell if he was killed by the impact of the fall or he was already dead.

Drawing inspiration from the real-life death of Swedish financier and industrialist Ivar Kreuger (his body was found dead in his Paris bedroom flat and years later, it was discovered that he didn't commit suicide but was murdered) and the 1927 melodrama "The Trial of Mary Dugan" (a showgirl is prosecuted for the death of her wealthy lover), Rand concocts a thrilling cast-and-mouse game of courtroom theatrics that give "Night of January 16th" its weight, its push and pull, its dynamic and its edgy, shrewd impression and concept.

The drama of the courtroom, the testimonies, the exchanges, the lies, the tension, the truths, the betrayal and the humor are effectively rendered, performed and executed in Castle Craig's superior mounting of "Night of January 16th," which kicks off the venue's official 2023-2024 season.
Smooth, mobile and intelligently fluid, "Night of January 16th" is a fun, crackerjack entertainment with polished wit, climactic sweep, significant temperament, and engaging stop-smart melodrama.
It gets you thinking.
It gets you excited.
It moves.
It tilts.
It taunts and delights.
It surprises.

The grand payoff comes from putting Pamela Amodio in the director's chair. With a trunk load of acting and directing credits to boot including "California Suite," "The Vagina Monologues," "Doubt," "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," "Steel Magnolias" and "Lend Me a Tenor," she weaves together a smooth, confident, fully alive work that heightens the real drama and humor of the piece, its arguments, its etymology of words, its power plays, its grandstanding, its rooted influences, its common sense, its reasonable doubts and its salacious unpicking of evidence.
Directorially, Rand's playscript is shaped wonderfully and intuitively by Amodio with close attention paid to the ongoing narrative, the characters, the courtroom setting (smartly designed by Mark Laucella), the dialogue, the interactions and the play-by-play evolvement of the story. There is real dedication here, backed by a real understanding and knowledge of how a scene should be played, how it should be developed, how it should be acted and how it moves the action forward.
Here, as in other productions she has directed including "California Suite" at Castle Craig, Amodio's attention to detail, stage movement and positioning, is conveyed with relaxed, important brush strokes and colors that heighten the dramatic momentum of individual scenes and how they are implemented by the actors themselves. Not one to go the paint-by-numbers route when directing, Amodio, in turn, enriches the material with in-the-moment, natural engagement, probing, rallying and investment that ripens the performance, the storytelling and the connection between actor and audience.

"Night of January 16th" stars Michael Paris as District Attorney Flint, Art Canova as Defense Attorney Stevens, Carolyn Doherty as Karen Andre, Bret Olsen as Judge Heath, Nick Demetriades as Baillif, Gayle Barrett as Nancy Lee Faulkner, Len Fredericks as John Graham Whitfield, Dawn Maselli as Mrs. Sportelli, Beth Goodwin as Jane Chandler, Gina Marie Davis as Magda Svenson, Beth Goodwin as Jane Chandler, James Hyland as Larry "Guts" Regan, John Garvey as Siegurd Jungquist, Jacob Gannon as Homer Van Fleet, Ethan Timothy as Elmer Sweeney, Zoe Roland as Roberta Van Rensselaer and Diane Warner-Canova as Dr. Kirkland. 

The cast, all well-chosen by Amodio, bring plenty of real emotion, twist, excitement and atmospheric sting to Rand's powerhouse courtroom drama, which, in turn, elevates the play's footing, attitude, shock, surprise and trickling eleventh hour revelations. Working together as a confident, primed and able ensemble, they deep dive into "Night of January 16th" with a committed trust and confidence (a five-star performance by Dawn Maselli rises to the top of the leaderboard) that complements the drama, its tension, its feel and its evolution. They also bring a natural, relaxed exuberance to the piece that prompts an immediate, immersive grasp between actor and audience.

The play's two jousting attorney's think they have the answer.
Was it murder? Was it suicide? Was it a ruse?
Ladies and gentlemen of the audience - rise and cast your vote.
My verdict: "Not guilty."

Photos of "Night of January 16th" courtesy of Kevin McNair

"Night of January 16th" is being staged at Castle Craig Players (Almira F. Stephan Memorial Playhouse, 59 W. Main St., Meriden. CT), now through October 29, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 634-6922.

Friday, October 13, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 430, A Review: "Lizzie" (TheaterWorks/Hartford)

 By James V. Ruocco

Fall River, Massachusetts.
230 2nd Street.
August 4,1892.
Two axes and a hatchet-head with a broken head.
Two dead bodies - Andrew and Abby Borden.
Bloody cloths found in the basement.
A forensic investigation.
No evident motive.
No robbery or sexual assault.
Widespread publicity.
The primary suspect: 32-year-old Lizzie Borden who was served with a warrant of arrest and jailed on August 11,1892 and indicted by a grand jury for murder on December 2, 1892.
But did she, do it?
Did she get away with it?
What really went on behind the closed doors of the Borden house?
Is she innocent, guilty or a damned good actress and liar?
On June 20, 1893, Borden was acquitted of the actual murders by a judge who ruled that the incident was "too remote" to have any connection or links to the death of both Andrew and Abby Borden.

Her story - fascinating, hypnotic, disturbing - is played out in true rock concert form in "Lizzie," Tim Maner's adrenaline-fueled take on the infamous, supposed serial killer who had an axe to grind along with grievances, guilt, oppression, sin, fantasy and standout sexual liaisons with a woman.


"Lizzie," as presented on the stage of TheaterWorks in Hartford is a rollercoaster thrill ride of darkness and playfulness allegorized by unapologetic dialogue, music, madness and motive that it distinctive, hip, crazed, ferocious, fucked up and completely mind blowing.
It is fun.
It is confident.
It is cold-blooded.
It is sexy.
It is original.
It is psycho-grand steeped in fascination, metaphor, subjugation and theory.
Its blast of energy and breezy confidence is blood-red roar with plenty of rumble, personality and impassioned perspective.
Here, anything that can happen, will happen and does.

The brainchild of Steven Cheslik-Demeyer (music and lyrics), Alan Stevens Hewitt (music) and Tim Maner (lyrics), "Lizzie's" emotional fireworks pave the way for steely vocals, soulful voices, pop-rock beats and rhythms, mind-blowing high notes and four girl ensemble runs that frame the story, emphasize the musical's mystery and deliver a blast of megawatt energy and contrast.
Carefully positioned, jockeyed, constructed and ready to rock, they are (in order of performance):  "Forty Whacks (Prologue)," "The House of Borden," "This is Not Love," "Gotta Get Out of Here," "If You Knew," "The Soul of the White Bird," "Maybe Someday," "Sweet Little Sister," "Shattercane and Velvet Glass," "Will You Stay?" "Why Are All These Heads Off?" "Mercury Rising," "Somebody Will Do Something," "The Fall of the House of Borden/The Alibi," "What the Fuck Now, Lizzie?" "Burn the Old Thing Up," "Questions, Questions," "Will You Lie," "Watchmen for the Morning," "Maybe Someday (reprise)," "Thirteen Days in Tanton," "Maybe Someday (reprise 2)" and "Into Your Wildest Dreams (Epilogue)."
Bringing an adventurous, unique voice and style to the proceedings, musical director Erica R. Gamez's effective movement and expressivity thrust the "Lizzie" musical score front and center with achieved balance, spark, navigation and sensationalism. The result, in turn, is seamless, excited and harmonic - delivered with total commitment, truth, force and roar.
It's a thunderbolt process delivered with precise, bold interpretation by Gamez herself (conductor/keyboard 1) and an especially talented orchestral team that includes Molly Plaisted (drums), Billy Bivona (guitar 1), Esther Benjamin (cello), Jeff Carlson (guitar2/keyboard 2) and Christie Echols (bass). As "Lizzie evolves, its themes of anguish, lust and majesty come full circle as Gamez and company produce a performance that accentuates the sweep and drama envisioned by the musical's collaborators, its intense rock concert partnership, its daring push and pull, its cemented rattle and its lyrical position and poetry.

Staging "Lizzie," director Lanie Sakakura takes hold of the musical's daring ideas and flaming chaos and theories and creates an artfully arranged spectacle of colorful, made-made arcadia that stalks, tilts, hypnotizes and embellishes. Working alongside Brian Prather (set design), Rob Denton (lighting design), Camilla Tassi (projection design) and Megan Culley (sound design), she transports the theatergoer back in time to an eerie 19th century environment that retraces the Lizzie Borden story with a Jack the Ripper-like madness and darkness that is harrowing, speculative, invested and truthful.
Yet despite its alluring, ovation-worthy special effects and rich, atmospheric landscape, Sakakura doesn't turn "Lizzie" into a bona fide sound-and-light show. Nor does she sacrifice storytelling or characterization. Instead, she takes hold of Tim Maner's playscript, gives it a long, hard read and digs deep. That determination prompts knotty connections, theories, surprises and thoughts that lucidly augment the play's aesthetics, musicality, wordplay and dangerous implications and romanticism.
The heat intensifies. The danger mounts. Story arcs evolve till there's no time left. The music soars. And finally, full pathos clarifies the play's concluding moments as the lights ease their way into complete darkness. 

"Lizzie" stars Sydney Shepherd as Lizzie Borden, Courtney Bassett as Emma Borden, Kim Onah as Alice Russell and Nora Schell as Bridget Sullivan,
All four actresses bring spirit-lifting humor, voice and sass to the rock concert arena that is "Lizzie" strutting around the stage with fierce determination, allure, spotlight exhilaration and power pop musicality.
Their singing gives way to hyper-aware, diva-like entertainment that is pop spectacle galore. Vocally, they are very much in the moment, lathered up in perfect-pitch girl-band spice and sizzle.
They jump. They tilt. They entice. They command.
They know their history. They know the story.
And each and every one of them get the anthems and showstoppers they deserve.

A musical etched with rock concert jubilation and off-the-charts hysteria, "Lizzie" cuts loose across the TheaterWorks stage with a diva-like thrust, illuminated by a backdrop of eye-popping, technical brilliance, four outstanding performances, a cutting-edge score and a wicked mindset of blood, gore, motivation, mutilation and humor that takes an axe to front-page headlines with confidence, intensity and influence.
It is dark. It is gruesome. It is bizarre. It is emotional. It is mad. It is queer. It is hypnotic.
It is dangerous.
More importantly, it's all backed by story-shaking fantasy, barnstorming and attitude that hits you in the face, kicks you in the ass, gets you clapping and up on your feet ready for an amped up history lesson of female victimhood, education and survival that is absolutely incredible.

Guilty? Not Guilty?
You decide.
The choice is yours.

Photos of "Lizzie" courtesy of Mike Marques.

"Lizzie" is being staged at TheaterWorks (233 Pearl Street, Hartford, CT), now through October 29, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-7838.

Thursday, October 12, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 429, A Review: "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (Hole in the Wall Theater)


By James V. Ruocco

Attempting to make Robert Louis Stevenson's classic 1886 gothic novella "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" a bit more twisted and maniacal than it already is, playwright Jeffrey Hatcher opts to have the good doctor Jekyll's sadistic alter ego creation Edward Hyde not only played by four different actors, but several times at once.
It's a "new work concept" that also eliminates love interests, 19th century facts and formulas and most of Stevenson's melodramatic details in favor of a more upbeat cat-and-mouse telling void of horror story bleakness, sensation and hysteria. Here, Hatcher, as storyteller, is much more interested in the good versus evil scenario that finds one man's goodness compromised by late-night scientific experimentations that transform him into a tormented, blood thirsty madman.

That means lots and lots of talk, talk, talk.

In "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," the latest drama to be showcased at Hole in the Wall Theater, Hatcher's work serves up a menu of violence, punch, bloodshed and creepiness, offset by conversations, dialogue and edits, that despite good intentions, often falls flat, bores or disconnects as the play inches forward toward its inevitable climax.
It's a valiant effort but with so many other "Jekyll & Hyde" stories out there, Hatcher's take on Stevenson's original story just isn't up to the speed or style of many other adaptations including those written by Thomas Russell Sullivan, John McKinney, David Edgar and Jonathan Holloway.

Staging "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," director John Bosco adapts a Gothic melodrama mindset that, in some sections of the piece, is inventive, attractive, alluring and fast-forward fluid. Transporting his audience into 19th century drawing rooms, back streets, offices, laboratories, hotel rooms and dissection theaters, he never once loses focus, drive or intent.
But Bosco, is no miracle worker. Nor can he add shading and color to certain sections of the story that lack pulse, momentum, curiosity or strangeness. With the start of Act II, however, "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" becomes creepy, bloody and mystifying with many important moments played out in true melodramatic fashion under Bosco's direction. 

To bring "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" to life, Bosco has chosen a hard-working, consistent cast of actors who play a variety of different roles throughout the production.

Terrance J. Peters (Hyde 3, Surgical Student 1, Man 3), Jan Andree (Poole, Woman 1), Luis Marrero-Solis (Enfield, Sanderson, Inspector, Man 2) and Ed Bernstein (Dr. Jekyll) command attention whenever they are on stage offering real, dramatic, powerful   turns that adhere to the play's 19th century format, its specific style and concept, its language and accent, its positioning, its interactions, its exchanges and its Gothic melodrama.

One final note: Scene changes, which include the back-and-forth action of rolling panels, are especially noisy throughout the production and could benefit from dramatic music underscoring. 

"Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" is being staged at Hole in the Wall Theater (116 Main Street, New Britain, CT), now through October 21, 2022.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 229-3049.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R Take 2, Column 428, A Review: "Joan Joyce!" (Seven Angels Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

Let us remember softball great Joan Joyce.
Her pitching feats including striking out baseball great Ted Williams during a 1961 fundraiser game at Municipal Stadium in her hometown of Waterbury, Connecticut before a crowd of 17,000 people were absolute legend as was her all-around athletic greatness in basketball, volleyball and golf. 

"Joan Joyce is the greatest player who ever played the game," said Johnny Stratton, her longtime coach with the Brakettes. "She dominated the sport for 24 years. And her name is the biggest name in softball forever. 
"But she was tops at everything - volleyball, basketball, bowling, shooting pool, ping pong, cars. It didn't make any difference. She'd always beat you." 

In "Joan Joyce!" a new musical tribute that takes its cue from Tony Renzoni's acclaimed 2019 bestseller "Connecticut Softball Legend Joan Joyce," the life and times of this softball phenom and true pioneer of women's sports, takes center stage at Seven Angels Theatre, time traveling back in time to when it all began, concluding with her death at the age of 81 on March 22, 2022.
It was first presented at Branford's Legacy Theatre, back in 2021, as part of the venue's "Family Series." The 2023 edition includes updated commentary and the addition of one new song.

Given the fact that Joyce was actually born in Waterbury, Connecticut (her birthday was August 18, 1940), Seven Angels Theatre is the ideal venue to showcase this musical homage to the much-honored athlete.
Its intimate, inviting working space not only complements the production itself but provides the theatergoer with a one-on-one. actor-audience connection not found in larger proscenium venues including New Haven's Shubert Theatre and the Bushnell in Hartford.
It makes all the difference in the world.

At Seven Angels Theatre, "Joan Joyce!" is cleverly shaped and handled with nostalgic assurance.
It's a grown-up sports story of the gentlest kind.
It's brave and honest.
It's informative and page-turning.
It's brightly detailed.
It's wistful and caring.
It's also grounded, accurate and inspired.

As written by Keely Baisden Knudsen and Lauren Salatto-Rosenay, "Joan Joyce!" is promoted and pitched with a full-on glide and spin that addresses the subject matter with sports-oriented definition, purpose and excitement. The on-stage banter between author Tony Renzoni and the older Joan Joyce contains dialogue, conversations, history, facts, anecdotes and memories that create a great hook to keep the theatergoer informed, educated and completely tuned in to the ongoing narrative. It is also practical, involving and full of feeling and discovery.
Pivotal to the story are the real-life movie screen projections of Joan Joyce, her family, her friends, her coaches, her sports evolution and news-making headlines, all of which have been expertly designed by Rosenay and synced seamlessly throughout the musical highlighting the long, illustrious career of the famous, acclaimed athlete. Rosenay's eye for detail, history and period accuracy is home run worthy.

Production wise, "Joan Joyce!" comes packaged with a keen, tuneful musical score created by Brad Ross (music) and Keely Baisden Knudsen/Lauren Salatto-Rosenay (lyrics). Additional songs contain music composed by Matthew Harrison, David Bell, Knudsen and Rosenay.
The musical numbers (in order of performance) are: "Joan Joyce (Show Us Who You Are)," "One Day," "We're Playing the Same Game," "Pitching My Game," "Slingshot," "Snap," "Who Knew," "Round and Round," "17 Puts," "Girls Gone Pro," "Your Biggest Fan," "Winter" and "Finale/The Game's Won."
An impressive score with just the right amount of thrust, vibe, impact and musicality, the music itself is natural, realistic, consistent, plot moving and inspirational. It complements the actual sports story, its renowned leading lady, its memories, its leaps and bounds, its expectations, its triumphs and its fact-based storytelling.
In short, everything is orchestrated and placed to ensure a play-by-play performance brought to life by a group of voices whose powerful sound is rendered with gleaming clarity, melody, pitch and velvety execution.
Musical director David Bell engineers all of the important emotions of the "Joan Joyce!" score, including its pleasurable outpourings, its joy, its anxiety, its hope, its anxiousness, its frustrations, its sports mentality and its musical theatre wonderment. There's refinement and color here, mixed with just the right instrumental balance, lyricism, texture and organic fluidity. It's a solid execution and build-up, nicely interpreted with the imagination and connection envisioned by the show's creators.

Staging "Joan Joyce!" director Keely Baisden Knudsen comes to the production with a depth of range, knowledge and experimentation that serves the production well. Her direction is clean and precise. It respects the boundaries and playing ground of what a musical can say and do. It is harmonized and executed with apt elevation that moves each song and scene to the next with tilt and swerve. It is also illuminated by everyday movement, enthusiasm and committed directorial choices that cement and accentuate the story, its ideas, its values and its athletic milieu.

Directorially, the power of "Joan Joyce!" lies in its ability to pay homage to the legend herself, which here, is conveyed with swinging emotions, nostalgic remembrance, a relaxed sports vibe and an informational format that Knudsen richly develops wholeheartedly. It's all precise and matter of fact, comfortably layered with centerpiece delivery, conversational accompaniment, smooth progression and warmhearted bouts of the athlete's accomplishments, struggles, familial ties and front-page headlines.

"Joan Joyce!" stars Keely Baisden Knudsen as Joan Joyce, Kiersten Bjork as Teenage Joan Joyce and Al Bundonis as Tony Renzoni. Mitchel Kawash, Jillian Millette, Rylee Maxwell and Dan Frye play a variety of roles throughout the two-act musical.
In the role of the teenaged Joan Joyce, Bjork is sensational. She is precise, crisp and clear in every scene, covering the part's nostalgic journey with power, dash, range and believability. Vocally, she sings with rich, complex tones and phrasing, supported by a controlled Broadway-like sound that gives full voice to her many musical numbers.
As the older Joan Joyce, Knudsen touches the heart with a sweet, sentimental and polished portrayal of Joyce, matched by great line delivery, presence and a natural, up close and personal impersonation. Here, as in Legacy Theatre's recent mounting of "The Musicals of Musicals," Knudsen is a vocal powerhouse of wonderful musicality that ignites sparks and is always thrilling to hear.
The supporting cast - Bundonis, Kawash, Maxwell, Millette and Fry - complement the proceedings with strong acting and vocal skills which enhance the storytelling, the musical and their role or roles in the "Joan Joyce!" sports narrative.

A remarkable life story told with vibrance, warmth and narrative gaze, "Joan Joyce! " is a confident, emotionally anchored musical that matches and celebrates the ambition and stamina of its subject matter.
It is spelled out with strong, newsworthy exuberance.  It is nostalgic. It is big hearted. It is relevant. It is energetic. It is genuine.
Director Keely Baisden Knudsen creates a tremendous, upbeat, sentimental entertainment filled with likeable, music, framed, capable dialogue and a host of standout performances by a very energetic cast who excel in every single role they create.
The real Joan Joyce would be ever so proud.

"Joan Joyce!" is being staged at Seven Angels Theatre (1 Plank Road, Waterbury, CT), now through October 22, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 757-4676.

Thursday, October 5, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 427, A Review: "The 12" (Goodspeed Musicals)

By James V. Ruocco

The graffiti-drenched warehouse set of "The 12" bears a striking resemblance to that of Jonathan Larson's 1996 Broadway musical "Rent" as does some of its characters, its props, its set pieces, its costumes, its music, its dialogue, its lighting its dramatized cry for help.
Yet Mimi, Roger, Mark, Angel and Maureen never once slide into view.
Instead, "The 12" takes it cue from the New Testament story of Jesus Christ, picking up the action immediately following his death in Golgotha, a skull-shaped hill in biblical Jerusalem.
There, his frightened disciples gather together to sort out their lives (Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of Jesus, are also part of the story) trying to figure out how to move forward, what to do next and how to deal with the sudden loss of their beloved teacher while wrestling with mounting fear, confusion and jealousy coupled with thoughts of death, destruction, persecution and imprisonment.

Not your typical Goodspeed Musicals presentation, "The 12" basks in its own individual limelight drawing its audience into a valid, religious paradox using elements, theories, ideas and reasoning to support its ongoing narrative, context and biblical perspective.

It looks incredible.
Its gloriously musical.
Its staged and executed with a lot of buzz.
Its inventive and challenging with universal relevance.
Its electric-charged rock score suggests "Rent" meets "Jesus Christ Superstar."
It injects a mature feeling into its modernized composition.
It effectively punctuates crucial moments of the story.
It doesn't, however, reveal much about some of its characters, a minor flaw that rarely interrupts or lessens the impact of its storytelling.

Written by Robert Schenkkan (book and lyrics) and Neil Berg (music and lyrics), "The 12" unfolds through 23 musical numbers. They are (in order of performance): "Walk Away," "Sons of Thunder," "Anyone But Me," "Do You Remember?" "Pick Up the Knife," "Three Times," "What Kind of Friends," "Magdalene," "I Did," "Give Up," "Rain," "Sweet Dream," "Empty," What If," "The Path," "I Am Not Alone," "Your Own Way," "Lazarus," "Ordinary," "Why?" "Rise Up," "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep" and "Our Love." 
A rock opera infused with clever, healthy and infectious doses of pop, folk, rock, gospel and traditional Broadway melody fare, the musical score for "The 12" provides its audience with a tantalizing, edgy mix of focused, intensely triggered sound and volume that shines with accompanied concern, drama, detail and immediacy.
Musical director Adam Souza and his orchestral team play the score with clarity, warmth and flourish, thus creating a hypnotic, unfolding drama full of notable solos, ensemble turns and majestic, choral symphonies that drive the work forward, blaze with fortissimo unison, teem with meteoric rise and conclude with revered response, rumble and great satisfaction.
Highlights include "Magdalene," "Walk Away," "Rain," "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep," "Rise Up" and "Our Love." 

Staging "The 12," director John Doyle (he also designed the musical's stunning atmospheric set) receives able assist from lighting designer Japhy Weidman, sound designer Jay Hilton and costume designer Ann Hould-Ward. Their creative, united input fuels the production with a look, frame and focal point that is used to great effect throughout the ongoing narrative.
As "The 12" evolves, Doyle confidently delivers a precise, electrically charged work that raises questions about faith, loyalty and the nature of Christ's teachings, offset by the motives of his survivors and their different choices and perspectives following the aftermath of his crucifixion. The actual staging space is used to great advantage - no two scenes are alike - with bang on chaos, recourse, increase, civility and sustained energy and entrapment.

The cast - Wonza Johnson, Adrienne Walker, Etai Benson, F. Michael Haynie, Kelvin Moon Loh, Rob Morrison, Kyle Scatliffe, Rema Webb, Wesley Taylor, Mel Johnson, Jr., Gregory Treco, Brandon J. Elis, Akron Lanier Watson - bring plenty of depth, intrigue and vigor to the proceedings, matched by flawless, outstanding, ravishing vocals that kick "The 12" into rock opera orbit. Their contrasting styles - complex, emotional, arresting - pave the way for an explosion of vocal gymnastics that not only complement the material and its language but nearly blow the roof off the Goodspeed Opera House.

A bold, hypnotic musical rich in soulfulness, volatility and restless anticipation, "The 12" is an amazing, powerful experience that holds status in the musical theatre universe, savoring its power, its humanity, its reflection and its timelessness.
It stirs, It pops. It ignites. It moves. It wields.
It is frenzied. It is arresting. It endures.
At Goodspeed, it is outfitted with a dream team - cast, design, directorial, orchestral - that pull together for a 90-minute musical event kitted out with a moving story, a stunning atmospheric backdrop and a musical score draped in rock opera push and pull cemented with plenty of angst, swapper, excitement and superstar turns.

Photos of "The 12" courtesy of Diane Sobolewski

"The 12" is being staged at Goodspeed Musicals (6 Main Street, East Haddan, CT), now through October 29, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 873-8668.

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 426, A Review, "The Complete Works of Jane Austen (Abridged)" (Playhouse on Park)

By James V. Ruocco

"Pride and Prejudice."

"Sense and Sensibility."

"Mansfield Park."



"Northanger Abbey."

Six novels, two published posthumously in 1818 following her death the year before, English novelist Jane Austen's works are best known for their honesty, social commentary and realistic, often ironic accounts of 19th century women seeking economic security, favorable social standing and serious romantic commitment through the institution of marriage.
Rich in language, comedy, wit and romance, these works transformed Austen into a literary lioness whose observations, class structures and societal genius resonated comfortably and intuitively with readers from generation to generation.

That excitement, no doubt, led to the creation of "The Complete Works of Jane Austen (Abridged)," a playful, lively and sometimes exhausting work that pokes fun at her popular novels, her famous characters, her preserved traditions and arguments, her glib, important language and more importantly, her treasured, romantic endings.

At Playhouse on Park, now in its 15th season, three marvelously creative actors take center stage to engage the audience in all things Austen for an abridged 90-minute plus reenactment of novelizations that kick off with promise, merrily orchestrated cajoles and giggles, high tea preening and posturing and 19th century madness that affectionately pays tribute to the lady herself.
Unfortunately, the play periodically runs out of steam, backs itself into a corner, falls flat, disconnects or causes one's mind to wander. Then, before you can say Elizabeth Bennett, Fitzwilliam Darcy, Emma Woodhouse and Frederick Wentworth, "The Complete Works of Jane Austen (Abridged)" quickly picks itself up with plenty of English Regency gallop and commitment as it races toward the finish line.
Getting there, however, isn't always easy, a fault of the quartet of writers involved, namely Jessica Bedford, Kathryn MacMillan, Charlotte Northeast and Meghan Winch. While their intentions are good, as are their knowledge of Austen's literary canon, they automatically assume that the theatergoer is familiar with every single character and story arc from "Pride and Prejudice" to "Northanger Abbey."
Their choices - narration, asides, insight, explanations, the breaking of the fourth wall - are sincere and enthusiastic enough - but depending on the segment, novel of choice, or intentional bastardization, the end result isn't always satisfying, hilarious or gosh-oh-gee, let's hit replay and watch it again.

Staging "The Complete Works of Jane Austen (Abridged)," Kathryn MacMillian (she is also one of the play's writers) jump starts the production with grab-bag, watchable comfort and imagination. With the aid of select props, costumes, hats, melodramatic twists and turns, gasps, sighs, shouts and exaggeration, the mood is set, the verbiage is inked, and the English Regency period blossoms with apt animation and flourish.
Still, MacMillian can't work miracles.
The farce, at hand, tends to wear thin. Explanations of plotlines - "Northanger Abbey," for example - are tedious. Occasional modernizations - "Dungeons & Dragons" - flatline. Pacing, at times, is also a problem. 

The cast - Charlotte Northeast, Brittany Onukwugha, Shannon Michael Wamser - are brilliant, from start to finish, even when the script is not up to their standards. All three have great fun moving from novel to novel, character to character and challenge to challenge. They are engaging. They are animated. They are delightful. They are emotional. They are irreverent. They are fanatical. They are willing and ready.
They also have great fun changing costumes, shifting moods, making faces, breaking the fourth wall to address the audience and reenacting bits and pieces from Austen's celebrated novels and lesser-known works.
That said, "The Complete Works of Jane Austen (Abridged)" is fun and funny but sadly, often interrupted by scenes and dialogue that suggest immediate BBC mini-series intervention or a trip to Hatchards for a hardback copy of "Pride and Prejudice," "Sense and Sensibility" or "Persuasion" for a true sense of the real English Regency period and its literary inhabitants as seen through the lens of the lady herself.

"The Complete Works of Jane Austen (Abridged)" is being staged at Playhouse on Park (244 Park Road, West Hartford, CT), now through October 22, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 523-5900.