Get In The Act: The Fall Theater Scene in Connecticut

Preview: Fall Theater Season, 2019

Labor Day has come and gone, and “back to school” weather in Connecticut actually felt like early autumn, for a change. And my email inbox’s increase of press releases indicates that the theater season of fall 2019 is tuning up. The “twenty-teens” are coming swiftly to a close, while the next presidential election is barely more than a year away as we start to wonder who is at “20/20” for 2020.

Here is a glance at the upcoming shows on the Connecticut theater scene (touring Broadway shows exempted) for the next four months between now and the beginning of that oddly doubled year—the last one was 1919!

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Yale Cabaret, the black box in a basement on Yale campus where theater leaders of tomorrow make extracurricular theater as students at the Yale School of Drama, begins its 52nd season this week (see Lucy Gellman’s coverage at Arts Paper ); the incoming team are Artistic Directors Zachry J. Bailey, a third-year in Stage Management, Brandon Burton, a third-year in Acting, and  Alex Vermilion, a third-year in Dramaturgy & Dramatic Criticism, together with Managing Director Jaime Totti, a fourth-year joint candidate for an MFA in Theater Management at the School of Drama and an MBA at the School of Business. The 2019-20 season kicks off, September 12-14, with We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, from the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jackie Sibblies Drury, a lecturer in playwriting at YSD, directed by Christopher Betts (Directing, ’21); the play dramatizes the difficulties of authentic representation in a tale of genocide by staging the play’s rehearsal; next, September 19-21, is Waste \\ Land: Climate Change Theatre Action 2019, an anthology mixing short plays by international playwrights and pieces written by students, the show is curated and directed by members of Beyond Borders, a new affinity group for international students at YSD; then, October 3-5, the Cabaret returns with benjisun presents bodyssey, a movement-and-puppetry piece created by Benjamin Benne (Playwriting ’21) and Jisun Kim (Dramaturgy & Dramatic Criticism ’21); first seen in the TBD festival of rough drafts last season, the expanded version further explores themes of the human body and the world it inhabits.

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Goodspeed, the venerable musical theater on the Connecticut River in East Haddam, has had a very successful 2019 season so far: its revival of the classic The Music Man won the CT Critics Circle Award for Best Musical; its new musical Because of Winn Dixie enjoyed an extended run, and now it brings the season to a close with Billy Elliott, Book & Lyrics by Lee Hall, Music by Elton John; an audience choice, the original Broadway show won 10 Tonys, adapting a popular film about a young boy in a tough North England mining town who dreams of becoming a dancer. September 13-November 24.

Originally the first self-supporting summer theater in the country, Ivoryton Playhouse has been running versatile full seasons since 2006 under Executive Director Jacqueline Hubbard; the last two shows of the 2019 season, which began in March, are Sheer Madness by Paul Portner, a lively—and long-running—comedy-mystery in which audience members spot clues, question suspects, and solve the case, complete with improvised topical humor from the cast, September 18-October 6, and Woody Sez – The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie, an involving celebration of the songs of Woody Guthrie, the anti-fascist folk-bard of Depression-era America, devised by David M. Luken, who plays Woody, with Nick Corley, Darcie Deauville, Helen J. Russell, and Andy Tierstein, October 23-November 10.

Like my own reviews of New Haven theater, Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, founded in 2009 by Co-Artistic Directors Sean Harris and Darlene Zoller and Executive Director Tracy Flater, is entering its second decade; the spacious stage in the Playhouse thrust space, which has housed some memorable productions such as The Diary of Anne Frank (2017) and The Scottsboro Boys (2019), will present the “inspired madness” of Dan Goggin’s Nunsense, a spirited musical in which singing nuns raise fun and funds to bury their sisters, September 18-October 13, followed by Barbara Lebow’s A Shayna Maidel; Dawn Loveland Navarro directs the tale of a patriarch and his two daughters—as children, one escaped the Holocaust with him, the other had to survive it—meeting again after many years, an exploration of “family, faith and forgiveness,” October 30-November 17.

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Following the departure of its celebrated Artistic Director, Darko Tresnjak, Hartford Stage opens its 56th season, the exciting first season for new Artistic Director Melia Benussen and new Managing Director Cynthia Rider; first up is Quixote Nuevo by Octavio Solis, a contemporary reimagining of Cervantes’ immortal Don Quixote, now set in a Texas border town, directed by KJ Sanchez; the production is in association with Huntington Theatre Company and Alley Theatre, September 19-October 13; the next two shows will be directed by Rachel Alderman, Artistic Associate (and longtime member of New Haven’s innovative Broken Umbrella Theatre): Molly Smith Metzler’s Cry It Out, a recent comedy about four parents negotiating “the power of female friendship, the dilemma of going back to work after being home with a newborn, and the effect social class has on parenthood in America,” October 24-November 17, and the fun, elegant, and ghostly A Christmas Carol, the traditional holiday favorite of spiritual redemption from Charles Dickens by way of Michael Wilson’s inventive adaptation, November 29-December 28.

Originally a dance hall built in the 1920s, later—in the 1970s—a skating rink, and, since the 1990s, a theater, Waterbury’s Seven Angels Theatre in Hamilton Park, boasts a good sound system, great for concert-style shows such as Million Dollar Quartet (2017) and The Who’s Tommy (2018); the 2019-20 Mainstage season opens with Honky Tonk Laundry, by Roger Bean Take, a tuneful tale of two gals running a laundromat, featuring the music of a slew of female Country Music legends, such as Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, Carrie Underwood, Trisha Yearwood, and Reba McEntire, September 26-October 20; then, November 7-December 1, it’s Matthew Lopez’s hilarious, crowd-pleasing tale of how a straight married guy—a struggling Elvis impersonator—must learn to walk the walk of a stylish drag queen in The Legend of Georgia McBride.

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Founded in 1987 as a small, black box equity theater together with a school of the performing arts, Music Theater of Connecticut in Norwalk, just past the Westport border, follows the gripping productions—Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Cabaret—of its strong 2018-19 season with the ambitious musical adapted from E. L. Doctorow’s historical pastiche, Ragtime, with Book by Terence McNally, Lyrics by Lynn Ahern, and Music by Stephen Flaherty, a story of multicultural America, involving African Americans in Harlem, white upper-class suburbanites in New Rochelle, and East European Jewish immigrants, September 27-October 13; then, November 8-24, it’s Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias, the story of small-town life in Louisiana as lived and learned by a group of women for whom the local beauty salon is a kind of clubhouse beyond the purview of the fellas.

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At Westport Country Playhouse, Mark Lamos is in his second decade as Artistic Director, continuing to produce an able mix of sumptuously mounted classics, such as Romeo and Juliet (2017) and Camelot (2016), notable new work like Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand (2016) and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Appropriate (2017), and rousing crowd-pleasers like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, which began the 2019 season in April; the season has two more shows: Lamos directs Mlima’s Tale by two-time Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, a fable about a Kenyan elephant, Mlima, a species facing extinction in a world of capitalist greed and economic desperation, October 1-19; and Brendan Pelsue’s new translation and adaptation of Molière’s dark comedy Don Juan about the legendary libertine facing the consequences of his faithless lifestyle, directed by David Kennedy, November 5-23.

ACT (A Contemporary Theatre) of Connecticut opened the doors of its own theater in Ridgefield in June 2018; the stylish, open stage, with amphitheater seating, has so far only five theatrical productions to its credit as founders Katie Diamond, Executive Director, Daniel C. Levine, Artistic Director, and Bryan Perri, Resident Music Supervisor, continue their mission to bring Equity, Broadway-caliber productions to CT’s northwest. The second season opens with Alan Menken and Harold Ashman’s ever-popular and entertaining The Little Shop of Horrors, a macabre musical comedy about a lovable schlemiel, his demanding man-eating pet plant, Audrey II, and the girl he loves, October 3-November 3.

In the northeast part of the state, The Connecticut Repertory Theater is the production component of the Department of Dramatic Arts at the University of Connecticut in Storrs; CRT productions are directed, designed by, and cast with visiting professional artists, mixing Equity actors, faculty members, and UConn’s most advanced theater students. The 2019-20 season of six shows leads off, in the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theater, with Chekhov’s masterpiece The Cherry Orchard, a more apt choice for our times than the playwright’s more oft-produced The Seagull; the production, adapted by Jean-Claude van Itallie and directed by John Miller-Stephany, features Mark Light-Orr as Gayev and Caralyn Kozlowski as Ranevskaya, October 3-13; later in the month, in the Studio Theatre, is Sarah DeLappe’s spirited The Wolves, directed by Julie Foh, in which a girls’ high school soccer team copes with the tensions of coming of age, October 24-November 3; Shakespeare in Love, a stage adaptation of the Oscar-winning romantic comedy film by Tom Stoppard, Lee Hall and Marc Norman, about the young Shakespeare’s writer’s block and inspiring tryst with Viola, a titled woman with an overweening love of theater, plays the Harriet S. Jorgensen theater November 21-December 8, directed by Vincent Tycer, its Equity cast still to be determined.

In New Haven, James Bundy has been the Artistic Director of Yale Repertory Theatre, the theater in residence for the Yale School of Drama, and the Dean of Yale School of Drama since 2002, fostering theatrical talent and showcasing top professionals; the first show of the 2019-20 season is the World Premiere of Girls, the always challenging Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ modern adaptation of Euripides’ The Bacchae, a popular go-to classic of our moment, this time with “a killer DJ, bumping dance music, and live-streaming video,” October 4-26, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, an inspiring Directing alum of YSD (2012) who teamed with Jacobs-Jenkins for War at Yale Rep in 2014; The Plot, by the always rewarding Will Eno, has its World Premiere November 9-December 21, directed by Oliver Butler, who won the OBIE for directing Eno’s Open House at the Signature Theatre; Eno’s previous play at Yale Rep was The Realistic Joneses (2012).

The first two thesis productions at the Yale School of Drama, in which third-year Directing students work with a cast and technical team comprised of—generally—current YSD students, will run in the closing months of 2019 as well: Kat Yen directs Anne Washburn’s post-apocalyptic Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, in which collective memories of shows on The Simpsons become the basis of an epic myth, October 26-November 1; and, December 14-20, Danilo Gambini, the Co-Artistic Director of the 2019 Yale Summer Cabaret season, directs Fun Home; Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic-novel memoir of her early life, her coming out, and her fraught relationship with her closeted gay father won the Tony Award for Best Musical of 2015.

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At New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre, last season was still transitioning after the ousting of longtime Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein in 2018; now the implementation of the vision of new Artistic Director Jacob G. Padrón is underway, “Grounded in the past, leaping into the future,” though the season that will be entirely his own won’t arrive until 2021-22 (read Frank Rizzo’s talk with Padrón at Newhavenbiz). The 2019-20 season opens with the World Premiere of Ricardo Pérez González’s On the Grounds of Belonging, October 9-November 3; directed by David Mendizábal, the story tells of a forbidden love between a white man and a black man in 1950s’ Jim Crow Texas; oft-produced actor-playwright Kate Hamill has become a veritable industry of quirky, third-wave feminist adaptations of the kinds of nineteenth-century classics formerly the stuff of Masterpiece Theater productions; her third effort, and second Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice fills Long Wharf’s second slot, November 27-December 22.

In downtown Hartford at the historic City Arts building on Pearl Street, TheaterWorks has been producing theater since 1985; the 2019-20 season will open in the newly renovated but still very intimate theater space, after staging several of last season’s shows at the Wadsworth Atheneum’s auditorium; the opener is American Son, Christopher Demos-Brown’s topical drama, on Broadway last season, about a mixed race couple’s grim night of truth when their son gets stopped by police, October 18-November 23; the last show of 2019 will be “Hartford’s twisted holiday tradition,” Rob Ruggerio’s Christmas on the Rocks in which a battery of playwrights devise futures for the figures many of us spent far too many Christmases with; so here’s to all those for whom “the holidays” were as much—or more—about repeat-viewing of “holiday classics” as about spending time with loved ones, December 1-29.

I’ll be reviewing many of these shows, so stop back and follow links to the reviews as they come in, and make the most of the rest of 2019 . . .

Identify the Differences

Review: Latinos Who Look Like Ricky Martin, Yale Summer Cabaret

Xavier (Robert Lee Hart) likes to get to the meetings early. He has to set up the space, arrange the chairs and pens, erase the whiteboard and put up his huge yellow sticky-notes. Monica (Jackeline Torres Cortés) arrives on time. Together, they are the Latino Student Union at a college, after the graduation of the seniors who officiated last year. They need to figure out ways to pull in other students, and they need to decide who will lead them as their new president. And—a newly pressing matter—they must decide how to react to a racist slur—in Spanish—someone spray-painted in red on school property, clearly aimed at Latino students. Note: it’s the same slur U.S. President Donald J. Trump, in tweetspeak, flung at four non-white U.S. Congresswomen, all U.S. citizens.

Emilio Rodriguez’s Latinos Who Look Like Ricky Martin, directed by Jecamiah M. Ybañez, is the final play of the Yale Summer Cabaret’s Verano Season, which aimed to explore and expand and explode notions of Latinx culture. Rodriguez’s engaging and entertaining play seems made to order. While it could brood and wring its hands about burgeoning racism in the U.S., the play instead is very knowingly tongue-in-cheek about the earnest intentions of those who police the borders of identity. To adapt Pogo-cartoonist Walt Kelly’s familiar saying about “the enemy”: We have met the racists and they are us.

What could be the problem, you ask. Certainly only bona fide Latinos would want to be part of the Latino Student Union, right? Sure, but how will they know each other? Skin color, mother tongue, favorite foods and music and celebrity icon, the country or region of their ancestral origin? Xavier, who has a best-kept secret about his own upbringing, looks the part, but can’t speak Spanish. Isaac (Dario Ladani Sanchez), a newcomer, is from Puerto Rico, speaks Spanish but looks white—and doesn’t see why empanadas are automatically preferable to quesadillas or nachos as identity foods. Monica, who looks, speaks and dresses the part of colorful Latinx party girl, has her issues with Xavier’s overbearing efforts and the boys’ club atmosphere furnished by his heir-apparent relationship to outgoing president Oscar.

Monica (Jackeline Torres Cortés), Xavier (Robert Lee Hart), Isaac (Dario Ladani Sanchez) in Latinos Who Look Like Ricky Martin, Yale Summer Cabaret

Monica (Jackeline Torres Cortés), Xavier (Robert Lee Hart), Isaac (Dario Ladani Sanchez) in Latinos Who Look Like Ricky Martin, Yale Summer Cabaret

There are reasons enough for grievances aplenty, and it all plays out with the lively tones of sitcom comedy—full of an ironic sparkle de rigueur for youths who know that they are always mouthing received images and ideas coming at them from their ever-present phones. Before we even get to the actual difficulties they face communicating and commiserating with each other, there’s a sharp sense of hyper-awareness registered by Ybañez and his cast that suits perfectly today’s collegiate. They know everything because everything is just a quick search away, and, what’s more, they know the whole world is potentially watching for anything inflammatory that anyone might share digitally.

And yet it is to Rodriguez’s credit that his characters aren’t simply caricatures. They play with our expectations and their own, and each is capable of pulling a surprise out of the hat—or tote, as the case may be. My one criticism of the plot’s trajectory is that Monica’s big reveal gets played out twice—once for Isaac and once for Xavier—when it would feel more dramatically surprising if we learned it when Xavier did (since the two have known each other longest and have a very appealing way of one-upping and supporting each other). Isaac’s own reveal comes across more as a weak plot point rather than a necessary factor in the situation—we might be happier with him as outsider than surprise insider. Such matters, by inviting some overthinking, can make the play feel more contrived than it needs to be.

Isaac (Dario Ladani Sanchez), Xavier (Robert Lee Hart)

Isaac (Dario Ladani Sanchez), Xavier (Robert Lee Hart)

What makes it work, in the Cab’s tight space with a wonderfully generic-appropriate meeting space complete with frosted-glass hall window by Elsa GibsonBraden, is the vividness of these three actors. Hart’s Xavier has so much attitude it fairly drips from all his comments and reactions, and, in one tense moment with Isaac, his pain is palpable. Yet Xavier is also terrifically funny in his obtuse single-mindedness. His identity is the Club in a way that can be at least a little off-putting to anyone who wants to “belong” in the room with him.

Monica (Jackeline Torres Cortés)

Monica (Jackeline Torres Cortés)

Cortés’ Monica is the life of the play, and her laughter is unpredictable and genuine. Monica likes to have fun and make fun, and her somewhat perverse strategy for drumming-up unity makes us take a second look at her. She may be the most politically astute—or at least she’s not taking Psychology (for the third time) for nothing. Sanchez plays Isaac with a certain canny vagueness; he’s the one we expect to have some ulterior motive because the other two aren’t sure about him, yet he seems so immediately likable and forthright we hope he will be the sensible one without the earnest investments of Xavier and Monica. His greater maturity is key to what he’s doing here—wearing, appropriately, what almost looks like a referee’s shirt.

In the end it seems that leading the Latino Club—like winning the presidency in the U.S.—is a zero-sum game, a fact that puts to flight any notion of “unity in community,” or “unidad in communidad,” or indeed unitedness among our 50 states to say nothing of between political parties. Rodriguez wants us to laugh at how ego-driven and shortsighted much of our need to be “in” is, as the tendency makes many aspects of life into popularity contests. And yet, trivial as that may seem, the wrong use of power—however attained—can leave those on the outside weaker and more desperate. The solidarity of others can be scary.

Xavier (Robert Lee Hart), Monica (Jackeline Torres Cortés), Isaac (Dario Ladani Sanchez)

Xavier (Robert Lee Hart), Monica (Jackeline Torres Cortés), Isaac (Dario Ladani Sanchez)

 

Latinos Who Look Like Ricky Martin
By Emilio Rodriguez
Directed by Jecamiah M. Ybañez

Scenic Designer: Elsa GibsonBraden; Costume Designer: Stephanie Bahniuk; Lighting Designer: Evan Anderson; Sound Designer: Noel Nichols; Stage Manager: Edmond O’Neal

Ensemble: Jackeline Torres Cortés, Robert Lee Hart, Dario Ladani Sanchez

Yale Summer Cabaret Verano
August 8-17, 2019

Join the Club, If You Can

Preview of Latinos Who Look Like Ricky Martin, Yale Summer Cabaret

The final show of the Yale Summer Cabaret’s Verano season opens this week, a new comedy by Emilio Rodriguez in which three college-student members of a Latino Student Union meet to decide how to make their club both inclusive and authentic. This goal quickly leads to having to “out Latino each other” to become the president the club needs.

The question, as the Summer Cabaret’s co-artistic director Jecamiah M. Ybañez, who directs the play, says, is about “how we shape identity and how people respond.” The three students—Xavier, Monica, and Isaac—have different ideas about how to appeal to other students who may or may not identify themselves with the group’s interests. In fact, the trio may have little in common other than a desire to represent Latinx culture, and even that shared interest might be a bit too amorphous for the kind of solidarity that Xavier and Monica—who want to “put the unidad in communidad”—aim at.

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The play’s title, Latinos Who Look Like Ricky Martin, is itself a test of sorts. Ricky Martin, born Enrique Martin Morales in San Juan, Puerto Rico, became known as the King of Latin Pop, with a worldwide fan base, beginning in the mid-90s, and a cross-over hit that topped American charts in 1999, “Livin La Vida Loca.” Does his fame and his looks make him an instant spokesperson for Latinos everywhere, or only those who “look like” him—in terms of features or coloring—or sound like him, or who would like to? And what if you’re not even much into a figure who becomes some kind of emblem for “people like you”?

For Ybañez such questions aren’t merely academic. Raised in San Antonio, TX, Ybañez doesn’t speak Spanish and, as a kid in the ‘90s when Ricky Martin’s first fame came, didn’t identify with the Spanish-language hits that made the singer’s name early on. For the director, Martin made a bit more of an impression when he finally came out as gay in 2010. A fact that adds another dimension to Martin’s identity and so complicates the very question of whether anyone can be a normative figure to unite a people’s full diversity.

And that’s the point, for Ybañez, of doing the play. As our social world becomes increasingly polarized and exclusive, with many preferring to communicate only within a bubble that ostracizes other members of the population, comedy can help portray some of the unsavory aspects that come with policing borders—in day-to-day exchanges, or as national policy.

Jecamiah M. Ybañez

Jecamiah M. Ybañez

The idea that “all people of a particular culture share one particular identity” is one that Ybañez said is not uncommon among advocates for identity politics. Such views can lead to “shaming,” where some members of, for instance, a Latino Student Union, may be “too Latin,” or “not Latin enough,” depending on their genetic and cultural antecedents. To Ybañez, instead of questioning others’ commitment to a given trait or attribute in order to dismiss those who “don’t get to be ‘in,’” such questioning should be “aimed to understand, to get to know” others and their differing backgrounds.

Further, what should the club—or any community based on free association—be? Each of the characters has a slightly different emphasis: the club could be simply “a hangout” for whoever likes Latinx culture—the food, the music, the look; or must it have initiatives to give Latinx culture a voice and an agenda in the larger culture at the school; or should it aim above all to welcome those who might not feel they fit in elsewhere?

The different views of those questions are dramatically relevant to the play, and are handled comically. Only one of the three will get to be the club’s president. Is winning a matter of having a vision and leading? Is it giving the people what they want? Is it making allegiances with allies who can help convince others? While the stakes are small for the dwindling numbers who make up the club, the play’s sense of how deep emotional need can readily escalate to absurd lengths is all-too American.

The cast features Robert Hart as Xavier and Jackeline Torres Cortes as Monica and Dario Ladani Sanchez, who was already seen at the Cab this summer in The Swallow and the Tomcat, as Isaac. Shows are this week, Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8 p.m. and at 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and at 8 p.m. next week on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with 11 p.m. shows the latter two nights.

For tickets, dining menu and other information, go here.

 

Latinos Who Look Like Ricky Martin
By Emilio Rodriguez
Directed by Jecamiah M. Ybañez

Yale Summer Cabaret—Veranos
August 8-17, 2019

Birds of a Feather

Review of The Swallow and the Tomcat, Yale Summer Cabaret

Morning (Adrienne Wells) is lazy and doesn’t want to rise. Wind (Dario Ladani Sanchez) tries to persuade her that things can’t get going without her. So they make a deal: first, a love story; then she’ll get up (a bit of bargaining that should be readily familiar to parents and children alike).

In Wind’s story, a group of animals hangout in a playground complete with a white picket fence and a swing and a lovely green lawn (Elsa GibsonBraden, scenic design). Like any human collective, the animals have their “do’s and don’ts” about expected behavior, and they have a love of gossip about anything out of the ordinary. And what could be more out of the ordinary than a haughty Swallow (Zoe Mann) taking an interest in a Tomcat (Reed Northrup), generally considered the scourge of the playground, and vice versa?

In The Swallow and the Tomcat, a story Brazilian novelist and playwright Jorge Amado wrote for his infant son that was later published, playfulness abounds and, as with most stories for children, there is a moral. Here, it arises from the struggle between conservative social customs and headstrong youth which tends to take things as they come. And any child who has encountered playground or classroom dynamics will immediately recognize the way others’ voices often limit our choices.

The ensemble of The Swallow and the Tomcat at Yale Summer Cabaret Verano (Dario Ladani Sanchez, Zoe Mann, Reed Northrup, Anula Navlekar, Julian Sanchez, Adrienne Wells) (Photos by Elsa GibsonBraden)

The ensemble of The Swallow and the Tomcat at Yale Summer Cabaret Verano (Dario Ladani Sanchez, Zoe Mann, Reed Northrup, Anula Navlekar, Julian Sanchez, Adrienne Wells) (Photos by Elsa GibsonBraden)

The play—translated from Amado’s Portuguese text and adapted by director Danilo Gambini, co-artistic director of this season’s Yale Summer Cabaret, and dramaturg Emily Sorensen—is made children-friendly by the colorful costumes (by Stephanie Bahniuk), the charming songs (by Solon Snider with Gambini and Sorensen), and, especially, the ensemble’s full immersion in the world Amado and his adaptors have created. And what makes the show worthwhile for adults are the very same qualities. It’s a joy.

In many ways, the show is a perfect example of what the Yale Cabaret does best: it depends on a concerted effort at make-believe, and, while that can have all kinds of different valence depending on the play, here it’s a question of storytelling as something inherently dramatic—and comic—and romantic—and even, perhaps, subversive. The cast interacts with the audience, drawing us in and making us judge for ourselves about the purpose of the tale they tell.

The ensemble: Anula Navlekar, Dario Ladani Sanchez, Zoe Mann, Julian Sanchez, Reed Northrup, Adrienne Wells

The ensemble: Anula Navlekar, Dario Ladani Sanchez, Zoe Mann, Julian Sanchez, Reed Northrup, Adrienne Wells

The animals all have distinct personalities and distinguishing voices—a total of 18 roles are handled by six actors—and they all have something to say about the forbidden love brewing in their midst. The joy comes from watching how quickly the actors can switch from one odd exchange to another, as for instance, the rather seedy Priest Parrot (Julian Sanchez) telling bad jokes to amuse Cow (Dario Ladani Sanchez) only to stir Cow’s anxious sense of inadequacy, or the way Daddy Swallow (Anula Navlekar) and Mommy Swallow (Julian Sanchez) bill and coo relentlessly. There’s also much fun with the storytelling itself, with interruptions for backstory and various asides and, at one point, a critical dismissal by Toad (Anula Navlekar) of the Tomcat’s hapless effort at a love poem. Other fun bits come from Freud the Mole (Julian Sanchez), always ready to put teen psychology into a nutshell for us, and Owl (Adrienne Wells), a kind of self-important commentator who sees political potential in the unheard-of mating of a cat and bird.

Swallow (Zoe Mann)

Swallow (Zoe Mann)

Key to the show’s success are its two titular characters, brought to life by Zoe Mann and Reed Northrup respectively. Mann gives the Swallow an early-teen sense of sophistication and a healthy curiosity about things she wants to know—like why she finds herself so fascinated by watching the Tomcat and takes such delight in dropping twigs on him. Northrup’s Tomcat put me in mind of a beloved cartoon character of my childhood—Top Cat—with his street-wise diction and a knack for self-reflection that comes as a surprise to himself. Their infatuation—which we certainly can’t call “puppy love”—is treated as a defining moment that might help both creatures learn things about themselves they wouldn’t otherwise. Both actors make this unlikely love seem both perfectly natural and perfectly unique—the way love is supposed to be.

Tomcat (Reed Northrup)

Tomcat (Reed Northrup)

There’s also a threat which the rather hypocritical critters are willing to let the brave Tomcat defeat for them, even as they treat him as something less than, well, human. The animals’ are adamant: “Dog with dog / Cat with cat / Bird with bird / And that is that.” Of course, a tale of star-crossed or cross-species love wouldn’t be complete without a beau favored by Swallow’s parents—here it’s a Nightingale (Navlekar) more adept at teaching singing than winning hearts. Will Swallow hold out for the lovelorn Tomcat, or will the forces of biological rectitude prevail?

In the end, the wily Wind helps a dawning idea light up Morning.

The ensemble: Anula Navlekar, Adrienne Wells, Julian Sanchez

The ensemble: Anula Navlekar, Adrienne Wells, Julian Sanchez

After plays about the harshness of fate, in Euripides’ Bakkahi, and the harshness of political and sexual abuse of power, in María Irene Fornés’ The Conduct of Life, Yale Summer Cabaret—Verano—with this, its third play of the season, reaches out to children with a lively story to inspire change.

 

The Swallow and the Tomcat
By Jorge Amado
Adapted by Danilo Gambini and Emily Sorensen
Directed by Danilo Gambini

Scenic Designer: Elsa GibsonBraden; Costume Designer: Stephanie Bahniuk; Lighting Designer: Evan Anderson; Sound Designer/Music Director: Emily Duncan Wilson; Composer/Music Director: Solon Snider; Dramaturg/Adapter: Emily Sorensen; Stage Manager: Olivia Louise Tree Plath

Ensemble: Zoe Mann, Anula Navlekar, Reed Northrup, Dario Ladani Sanchez, Julian Sanchez, Adrienne Wells

Yale Summer Cabaret—Verano
July 18-27, 2019

A Man and a Piano

Review of Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, Westport Country Playhouse

He wrote “White Christmas” and “God Bless America” as well as an estimated 1500 other songs. Irving Berlin is one of the “household name” composers of the great American songbook. And one of the few who wrote both lyrics and melodies. Hershey Felder, who has formed a kind of theatrical cottage industry of one-man shows about famous composers—including Gershwin, Chopin and Beethoven—brings to his enactment of Berlin a warmth that makes this tour of the man’s life and music truly entertaining. The show, now playing at Westport Country Playhouse through August 3, manages to incorporate the heartbreaks in Berlin’s life without getting bogged down, creating a portrait of a unique talent who, no matter what life served up, could find his way to a tune—for a career that ran from the 1920s to the 1960s.

Berlin was born Israel Beilin, in what is now Belarus in 1898, of Jewish parents who came to this country after their town was burned down in a pogrom. The show is full of what Berlin would have known, in Yiddish, as schmaltz and chutzpah. And that’s to its credit. The story of Old World Jews making good in the new world of U.S. entertainment has a deep resonance in what people like to call “the American Dream.”  That Berlin furnished two of the key theme songs of our great secular religion—in which we Americans like to worship ourselves—makes him a fitting hero in these times when pundits and politicians are so keen to assert what America really is. The chutzpah serves Berlin’s rags-to-riches climb; the schmaltz is the emotional mainstay of songs full of popular sentiment that manage not to pander, mostly.

Irving Berlin (Hershey Felder) in Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin

Irving Berlin (Hershey Felder) in Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin

Berlin’s story begins with the event that undermines those who would flout the part that immigration played in making twentieth-century America what it was. And he served in World War I—entertaining troops as an enlisted man—and entertained troops in World War II, as a celebrity. In other words, his immigrant origins and his patriotic bona fides can’t be denied. For both wars, Berlin wrote revues—the primary form for much of his career, a career based on his incredible knack of writing songs for any occasion. That knack began when, as a boy on the streets after his father—a trained cantor—died, he got work as a “singing waiter,” entertaining barflies with risqué lyrics to well-known songs. In the Twenties, he struck unprecedented gold with “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” a song that both tweaked the craze for ragtime and capitalized on it.

From there, as Felder shows, moving us through the years and the ups and downs, there are wonderful tunes—like “What’ll I Do” and “Always,” songs that seep nostalgia even for viewers who weren’t alive when they were hits—and there are peppy numbers that show off Berlin’s charm, like “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” from World War 1, and, much later, “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” a song forever associated with Ethel Merman, whose ear-needling delivery Felder mimics.

Along the way there are also exemplary moments that instill in the audience the background to some familiar numbers. For instance, “God Bless America” was buried away in a drawer until its right moment came. And “White Christmas” was not only a holiday card to Berlin’s second wife, an Irish Catholic socialite, but also commemorates a personal loss. And, from As Thousands Cheer, a show in which the songs took inspiration from contemporary headlines, the great song “Suppertime” was sung by Ethel Waters as an African American wife’s lament for a lynched husband—in 1933. Felder-as-Berlin points out the times when he riled public opinion or made a bad decision—usually due to someone else’s advice.

Irving Berlin (Hershey Felder)

Irving Berlin (Hershey Felder)

Throughout, there’s a becoming pedagogical element to the presentation, since Felder’s Berlin is all-too-aware that he’s an old fossil—the show’s opening conceit is that the audience to his 110-minute reminisce are carolers he invited into his elegant home on Beekman Place—and that understanding his career requires a history lesson. The fact that the show never quite loses momentum in the face of so much information is remarkable. Felder is well-practiced at the personable quality necessary to keep us listening, and the presentation is aided by evocative projections of photos and even footage of Al Jolson singing “Blue Skies” in The Jazz Singer, the first “talkie.”

Felder’s Berlin has the characteristic glasses, eyebrows, and hair, but Felder is a much more skilled musician than Berlin, and that lets him give a musical lesson as well, letting us see how Berlin’s sense of melody, while simple, is, at its best, distinctive. As a vocalist, Felder keeps to a delivery I assume is patterned on Berlin’s limited skills, to some extent, and as a style it serves to remind us of how dated the originals of these songs are. We hear none of the crooning that a singer like Bing Crosby brought to “White Christmas,” and one of the show’s more effective devices is using audience sing-along participation to demonstrate that not only are Berlin’s songs well known, they have been learned “by heart.”

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin

As a quick intro to a formidable talent, the show has much to recommend it, and as a theatrical device that lets us consider the skill of wartime entertainments, the struggle in the lives of immigrants, the competitiveness of show biz and the luck and persistence, the personal resonance in any artist’s relation to his own work, and the sprawling effort, over the decades, to remain true to what America wants, Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin lets us feel the stirring identification that comes with being audience to a great career lovingly evoked.

 

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin
Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin
Book by Hershey Felder
Directed by Trevor Hay
Starring Hershey Felder

Consulting Producer: Joel Zwick; Lighting Design: Richard Norwood; Projection Co-Design: Christopher Ash; Projection Co-Design: Lawrence Siefert; Sound Designer/Production Manager: Erik Cartensen; Costume & Scenic Artist: Stacey Nezda; Historical and Biographical Research: Meghan Maiya; Producer: Eva Price

Westport Country Playhouse
July 16-August 3, 2019

Why Am I Naked?

Review of Wake Me When It’s Over: Selected Poems by Bill Kushner

If you happen to have a kooky old Jewish uncle who’s also a kind of poetic savant sitting around on park benches in NYC taking things in, you’ll have an idea of what to expect from the poems of the late Bill Kushner. Kushner’s a genial nonconformist by temperament and Wake Me When It’s Over, Peter Bushyeager’s excellent selection drawn from the poet’s eight books, offers the seductive charm of childish candor without any of the obvious calculation so often implicit in ‘confessional’ poetry.

Kushner’s free and easy lines blithely mix questions and statements, generalities and specifics, to get at a thought the reader never sees coming:

                                                 …The trouble is
          One can understand passion, any form of it, more
          Readily than affection.

In a poem called “Goodbye,” the speaker watches “two friends who’re men who’re lovers kiss.” The casual act fascinates, prompting a meditation on the poet’s own status as a single person. What they have, he doesn’t, and he compares his status as a single person to being the first guest to arrive at a party: “...am I that/ Most awful of beings: The First One?”

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From the book’s opening poem, “Night Fishing,” (“Why are you crying, he asks, as the sun/like a hungry shark follows us home.”) you know you’re reading a highly original writer averse to falsehood or convention. The point of his personal and streetwise poetry is not to spill secrets but to give us life as it’s lived, without filter, as in for instance the poem “Bread,” when he recalls his father suddenly entering the room where he’s in bed with another guy (“He looked and his face just went dead.”). These narratives are variously ecstatic, funny, bewildering, fearful and above all replete with disappointments that must somehow be negotiated without losing heart.

Kushner the writer never pulls rank on his reader by telling us what to think about what he describes, which is often what he remembers about his relationship with his parents. The level of insight is sometimes chilling, and it’s the poet’s deft handling of words that enables him to pull it off, again and again. On reading the poems you may wonder how anyone ever manages to grow up.

In “My Father’s Death,” three lines say everything:

          I am in this world only because
          the first son died. He wanted a son.
          So they tried again.

But the perspective Kushner brings to this subject is never demeaning. On the contrary, these parental poems exude an affection and remorse the reader can feel. Compare these lines to the most famous lines in Philip Larkin’s most notorious poem, about how  “they fuck you up, your mum and dad./They may not mean to, but they do.” Kushner recalls his Russian immigrant parents in a way that thoroughly humanizes them, rather than simplifying them into authority figures. Four of his books were dedicated to his parents, either as a couple or individually.

In falling back on memories of childhood, Kushner gives us its grim moments of emotional denial and enervating guilt along with something other poets of family dysfunction often forget: the image of the boy inexplicably bursting with so much love he can scarcely contain it. “My restless bed awake/with it, love,” he remembers, in the extraordinary poem, “When I Was Five.” Many poets mine the fears and fantasies of childhood but how many also conjure its almost embarrassing exuberance? No wonder adulthood turns out to be bewildering for this poet, and his life’s point unknowable or non-existent. Kushner often sounds like a 12-year old kid in an old man’s body yacking to his friends—us, his readers.

My guess is these poems would irritate many creative writing teachers and bring grad school writing workshops to blows. Kushner takes chances most poets wouldn’t. For instance, the first stanza of a poem with a date for a title (“5/9/87”) recollects the so, so serious sexual scolding delivered to the poet by a now-deceased friend (“Bill, I don’t understand you…”), while the second stanza describes the movies on TV that night. On first reading it’s funny. Read a second time it comes through as a reflection on fate as chance and the beguiling craziness of popular culture.

The spontaneity of Kushner’s poems completely convinces. They mix memory, dream, desire, anecdote and reflection, sometimes in the same stanza, and are propelled by the generous wisdom that comes through in the how they read, sound, are structured, and in the effects of the poet’s voice which is often hilarious (example, “UFOs,” which begins: “They come from outer space/dressed as cornfields.”). At moments Kushner seems to be talking to himself (“Narrowly avoiding gulp just about everything…”) with that bruised and lyric honesty one part of the mind uses to address another. Many poems describe, in memorable ways, the seeking, finding and losing of love, as for instance in the poem “Lee Wiley,” where the speaker goes home with someone who worships the jazz singer popular in the 30s, 40s and 50s and instead of having sex they stay up all night listening to platter after platter.

Reading Kushner sometimes feels like watching a Warhol movie. The aesthetic arises out of social awkwardness, rendered here as comedic. The poet says exactly what he feels, as for instance about a pain-in-the-ass little dog: “Sometimes I just want to kill my naughty chiwawa/but I love my little Chi Chi too much.” His dream poems prove that the rampant absurdity that takes place while we sleep is indistinguishable from what goes on in “this spinning wheel world” when we’re awake.

Never having met him, my guess would be that reading this wholly unfiltered book is pretty much like hanging out with Kushner, not only because the poems are “Written by someone who knows all about True Life” (“Pigeon”) but because of the directness and authenticity of the speaking voice. The poems change line length and form over the years, but the tone remains a constant. Kushner can be downright erotic when writing on sex (in sonnets such as “Rock” or “Hot,”), or fiercely tender on the topic of friends, parents, and other relationships.

Dull poetry can bore like no other form of literature. Great poetry, on the other hand, can electrify, which is why, like music, we return to it often. Kushner’s poems will not only light you up on a first read but also justify a permanent presence on the bookshelf. These sad, spirited, crazy and tender constructions show us a different way to look at life, and remind us not to take it too seriously. “It’s just one/old lazy day after another,” the poet writes in “We Make Plans. “…here at the/far far end of the world.”

Bill Kushner just telling it like it is makes for a poetry of strange, lyric beauty.


Wake Me When It’s Over: Selected Poems
By Bill Kushner
Edited by Peter Bushyeager
Talisman House, 2018
162 pgs.

Available here.

Bill Kushner (1931-2015) authored eight collections of poetry and co-authored a volume of collaborative poems with Tom Savage. His work has been anthologized in Up Late (4 Walls & Windows, 1987), In Our Time: The Gay and Lesbian Anthology (St. Martin's, 1989), Out of This World (Crown, 1991), Best American Poetry 2002 (Scribner’s, 2002), and Poetry After 9/11: An Anthology of New York Poets (Melville House Publishing, 2003). He was a 1999 and 2005 Fellow of the New York Foundation of the Arts.

A Show For All Ages

Preview of The Swallow and the Tomcat, Yale Summer Cabaret

The Yale Summer Cabaret’s Verano season continues this week with a show that’s sure to be a crowd-pleaser. Adapted by Co-Artistic Director Danilo Gambini and dramaturg Emily Sorensen from a new translation of Jorge Amado’s children’s book, The Swallow and the Tomcat, the show is aimed for families, young adults, and audiences of all ages—six and up.

The grumpy Tomcat is seen as a horror and a threat by the animals in the garden, but for some reason the sassy Swallow isn’t afraid and tries to get to know him. Their affection is the talk of the garden and makes life difficult—especially as the Swallow’s parents are convinced she should marry the Nightingale. A story of identity and of the social strictures that make some forms of love “forbidden,” The Swallow and the Tomcat asks, Can enemies learn to love one another, and can that love find acceptance? Showtimes have been adjusted to allow for young audiences, with a Sunday 2 p.m. matinee show, and on both Fridays, special 11 a.m. performances. The show runs approximately 70 minutes.

To call the book upon which the play is based a children’s book is a little misleading, according to director and co-adapter Danilo Gambini. The book, in its original Portuguese, was written solely by Jorge Amado for his infant son and was never meant to be published. Amado is best known in the U.S. as the author of the play Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, which was made in 1976 into a film that was a huge box office success in Brazil and in the States as well. Amado’s son, with his father’s blessing, chose to publish his childhood gift, and found an illustrator, Carybe, who helped create one of the seminal works for children in Brazil. The book “screams for adaptation,” Gambini said, and there have been two approaches that he is familiar with. One is “to play it strictly for children,” much as one would in a storybook session; the other is make it more avant-garde, with a definite allegorical emphasis.

For Gambini, who dislikes the earlier plays adapted from the book, creating a new adaptation was crucial. When Sorensen told him that she was translating a Spanish version of the book into English for a translation class, he knew he’d found his second show of the Verano season. As a director, Gambini is attracted by the levels of storytelling in the play he and his collaborators are creating. “The play lets us investigate which storytelling devices are theatrical, engaging, and fun.”

The Cast of The Swallow and the Tomcat (front: Julian Sanchez, Adrienne Wells, Zoe Mann; rear: Anula Navlekar, Dario Ladani Sanchez, Reed Northrup); Set: Elsa GibsonBraden; Costumes: Stephanie Bahniuk; Lighting: Evan Anderson

The Cast of The Swallow and the Tomcat (front: Julian Sanchez, Adrienne Wells, Zoe Mann; rear: Anula Navlekar, Dario Ladani Sanchez, Reed Northrup); Set: Elsa GibsonBraden; Costumes: Stephanie Bahniuk; Lighting: Evan Anderson

There are two layers, he said, to the presentation: a chorus of six animals is telling the story of a swallow and a tomcat who fall in love, and as they tell it, they take on and act out the parts of the story, which involves a host of comical roles, quite in the manner of Disney cartoons. For Gambini, “the theatricality of the play depends upon the virtuosity of the players.” And, of course, there are songs, all of which are original to this production and have been developed by Gambini and Sorensen with recent Yale College graduate Solon Snider, the show’s composer and music director.

The main cast consists of the Cat (Reed Northrup) a loner who finds himself intrigued by the Swallow (Zoe Mann); a Parrot (Julian Sanchez) who has definite ideas about decorum; a rather laconic Cow (Dario Ladani Sanchez), a rather pretentious Toad (Anula Navlekar) and a busybody Owl (Adrienne Wells), with additional roles, such as Swallow’s parents, the Duck family, a Snake, as well as Wind and Morning, taken up by the ensemble as needed.

The attractions of the show, for its director, is that “it’s engaging to see actors play animals,” and that, as a family-oriented play, it will entertain children while also depicting social types and attitudes. It’s “about love and seeing how others react” to the choices we make. For Gambini, there is always the question of what he calls the “five daemons” in creating theater. The first is to have a “marvel” that children can enjoy—such as talking and singing animals; next is a “passion” that appeals to the teens in and among us, wanting theater to be intense and convincing; third is a civic or social or political element that addresses what the young adult finds compelling; for the fully adult, perhaps more detached, there must be intellectual satisfactions, such as artistic virtuosity; finally, for mature audiences, a feeling that the show “lives in the now,” providing something that hasn’t already been overdone. The challenge of a show that accents the first and second “daemon” is how well it can still satisfy the other three.

Gambini’s first show of the Verano season adapted Anne Carson’s recent translation of Euripides’ Bakkhai, a show which foregrounded, perhaps, the fourth daemon while fully engaging with the second and third. It also featured Dionysus, an androgynous god who considers himself a daemon—a daemon that oversees the creation of theater since ancient Greek times. While the emphasis, mood and nature of The Swallow and the Tomcat will be very different from the season’s first show, the need to please the theater-god remains. And that means, for Gambini, addressing, even in a children’s story, important themes such as “living with the consequences of how we live and what we do.”

What kind of consequences? Gambini ended the interview by citing a line from the play, spoken by Wind: “Every morning is a chance to make a little revolution.”

The Swallow and the Tomcat
By Jorge Amado
Translated and Adapted by Danilo Gambini and Emily Sorensen
Directed by Danilo Gambini
Yale Summer Cabaret—Verano
July 18-27, 2019

For more information about the cast and creatives, and for tickets and dining menu and reservations, go here.

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A Welcome Cabaret at UConn

Review of Cabaret, Connecticut Repertory Theatre

John Kander and Fred Ebb’s musical drama Cabaret, with Book by Joe Masteroff, is a show that keeps on giving. One imagines that the original production—back in 1966—was deliberately decadent to show-off how the Sixties could be as openly licentious as the 1930s in Berlin, the setting of the drama. But the source material of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories (adapted into a play as I Am a Camera by John Van Druten) contains themes that the film of Cabaret, in 1972, and the later stage revivals, in 1993 and 1998, brought to the fore. That makes for a palimpsest of a play—which means that each version I’ve seen (this is the fourth, counting the film) is different.

The current show at Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Summer Nutmeg Series, at the University of Connecticut, directed by Scott LeFeber with choreography by Christopher d’Amboise and music direction by Ken Clifton, includes songs included in the original version then later dropped as well as songs added later. That makes for a longer first Act and a shorter second Act.

The story depicts Cliff Bradshaw (Rob Barnes), a young American writer in Berlin who meets a German businessmen, Ernst (Aidan Marchetti), to whom he gives English lessons, and who takes in an English cabaret singer of the seedy Kit Kat Klub, Sally Bowles (Laura Michelle Kelly, who created the role of Mary Poppins in both the East End and Broadway productions). They have a liaison, and the boarding house’s landlady, Fraulein Schneider (Dee Hoty), is romanced by a Jewish fruit-seller, Herr Schultz (Jonathan Brody), while another boarder, Fraulein Kost (Leslie Blake Walker), entertains various sailors whom she insists are family members. At the Klub, the rather jaded Emcee (Forrest McClendon) oversees the entertainment and comments on the action, which includes the rise of the Nazis to power.

The Emcee (Forrest McClendon) in the Connecticut Repertory Theatre production of Cabaret, directed by Scott LeFeber (photos by Gerry Goodstein)

The Emcee (Forrest McClendon) in the Connecticut Repertory Theatre production of Cabaret, directed by Scott LeFeber (photos by Gerry Goodstein)

At UConn, the tension between the show’s professionalism and less professional elements makes for an interesting mix that suits this musical. With four superlative Broadway show-persons in the main roles and post-graduates and a few undergraduates providing support, this Cabaret showcases a divide between the adults—Sally Bowles, the Emcee, Fraulein Schneider, Herr Schultz—and the more youthful ensemble members. The latter bring a freshness to their roles that plays off the experience of the elders—whether the Emcee’s glittering irony, Herr Schultz’s cautious emotion, Fraulein Schneider’s brittle matter-of-factness, or Sally’s willfulness and selfishness. Barnes’ Bradshaw comes into his own when confronted by changes, notably those in Ernst, who Marchetti plays with an endearing charm only to turn cold and baleful.

Cliff Bradshaw (Rob Barnes), Sally Bowles (Laura Michelle Kelly)

Cliff Bradshaw (Rob Barnes), Sally Bowles (Laura Michelle Kelly)

The best aspect of the show is seeing Kelly deliver Sally. Here’s a Sally who is actually English, and it’s not just a case of not having to fake the accent, it’s a question of body language and a way of delivering a line. This Sally is never bubbly and rarely anxious; she’s blithe about her worldliness and lives as if ignoring unpleasantness makes it invisible. Her big numbers are just that—big! Even in her own mind, Sally is onstage, crafting a persona that will see her through. And when Kelly takes over a vocal—as in “Maybe This Time” in Act 1 and “Cabaret” in Act 2—it registers with newfound nuance. With a blonde wig and costumes that give her a tawdry sense of glamor, Kelly’s Sally knows more than she wants us to think she does, and her willful fantasy says a lot about why a transplanted Brit would stay in Berlin with the fascists on the rise.

Sally Bowles (Laura Michelle Kelly)

Sally Bowles (Laura Michelle Kelly)

A standout element of the show is always the Emcee’s numbers, such as “Money,” and here McClendon gives the role a darkly cynical presence. We sense how he likes to toy with his audience’s jaded sense of entertainment and to flatter or affront their willingness to regard risqué material in burlesque—whether a tongue-in-cheek depiction of a ménage à trois involving a man and “Two Ladies,” or a sentimental send-up about dating outside one’s race, “If You Could See Her.” McClendon’s Emcee, when he shuts off the recording of a patriotic song, might convince us that his sexual freedom is the shape of things to come. And it almost is, until all illusions are swept aside in the show’s conclusion.

The show provides a sense of realism as well in letting us watch how a disillusioned survivor like Hoty’s Fraulein Schneider can be beguiled by Herr Schultz’s courtship, only to capitulate to the times in the defeated “What Would You Do.” At first the romance, in the charming “It Couldn’t Please Me More,” adds a deeper humanity to the proceedings, only to push us into a sense of how private lives end up at the mercy of public brutality. Brody’s Schultz, rather than long-suffering, is apt to take on even the worst setbacks and humiliations with a philosophic shrug, like many a “good German.”

Fraulein Schneider (Dee Hoty), Herr Schultz (Jonathan Brody)

Fraulein Schneider (Dee Hoty), Herr Schultz (Jonathan Brody)

The Kit Kat Kompany looks great in Fan Zhang’s costumes, though the rendering of d’Amboise’s choreography—which is classic stuff with lots of dips and swirls and backbends and jazz hands and leaps and splits—isn’t always as nimble as it could be. The orchestra, which lines the back stage, lit moodily by Timothy Reed, is a treat with tones that bring on both schmaltz and nostalgia. The ‘30s are like that . . . until they aren’t.

As a musical that shows interesting characters living through a difficult time, with great songs and mood and atmosphere, Cabaret is always worth catching. At UConn it’s even more welcome with such talent onstage in this big production.

The Emcee (Forrest McClendon), center, and the Kit Kat girls and boys

The Emcee (Forrest McClendon), center, and the Kit Kat girls and boys

 

Cabaret
Book by Joe Masteroff
Based on the play by John Van Druten and Stories by Christopher Isherwood
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Directed by Scott LeFeber
Starring Laura Michelle Kelly
Forrest McClendon
Dee Hoty
Jonathan Brody

Music Director: Ken Clifton; Choreographer: Christopher d’Amboise; Stage Manager: Tom Kosis; Scenic Designer: Alexander Woodward; Costume Designer: Fan Zhang; Sound Designer: Michael Vincent Skinner; Lighting Designer: Timothy Reed; Technical Director: John Parmelee; Voice & Dialect Coach: Jennifer Scapetis Tycer

Cast: Rob Barnes, Thomas Bergamo, Jamie Colburn, Torie D’Alessandro, Emma Dowdy, Madeline Dunn, Mike Katz, RJ Higton, Aidan Marchetti, Rebekah Santiago, Sydney Skye, Cole Thompson, Leslie Blake Walker

Orchestra: Ken Clifton, piano/conductor; Tom McDonough: synthesizer; Mallory Kokus: reed 1; Al Wasserman: reed 2; John Helmke: trumpet; Jim Lendvay: trombone; Thomas Bora: guitar/banjo; Matt McCauley: bass; Dan Gonko: drums

Connecticut Repertory Theatre
2019 Summer Nutmeg Series
July 4-21, 2019

History Via Minstrelsy

Review of The Scottsboro Boys, Playhouse on Park

As composers of musicals, John Kander and Fred Ebb have a knack for subject matter potentially unsettling. Their Cabaret is having a resurgence in Connecticut, with three productions in 2019, and for obvious reasons. The rise of Nazism in Berlin in the uneasy 1930s finds a ready parallel in the swerve to the Right in many countries in the dwindling twenty-teens of this century.  

At Playhouse on Park through August 4 is a musical by Kander and his late partner Ebb, with book by David Thompson, that is just as timely. The Scottsboro Boys returns to a staggering miscarriage of justice in 1930s’ Alabama that makes us revisit the long, hard fight for civil rights for African Americans in the twentieth century. And it also comments tellingly on the staggering miscarriages of justice that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013—three years after the show opened and closed on Broadway.

The cast of Playhouse on Park’s production of The Scottsboro Boys, directed by Sean Harris (Photographs by Meredith Longo)

The cast of Playhouse on Park’s production of The Scottsboro Boys, directed by Sean Harris (Photographs by Meredith Longo)

At the time there were raised eyebrows—and outright protests—that a modern musical would adapt the manner of the minstrel show, a racist form of entertainment in which white performers, in blackface, imitated and caricatured blacks. Yet the minstrel show format brings to the Scottsboro Boys’ story both a vitality and an irony that would not be easily attainable otherwise. To have these engaging and entertaining actors dancing and singing about such a prickly topic would be unthinkable without the frame: we’re watching a cast who, under the imprimatur of their “master,” the Interlocutor and only white cast member (Dennis Holland, condescendingly grand), are forced to put on a jovial version of an injustice. The vitality comes from the fact that the minstrel show, as a form, influenced so much musical comedy, and the irony comes from the performers as knowing commentators on caricatures.

The story: the “boys” were nine African American youths from age 13 to 20 who were riding a train they had hopped—mostly separately—from Chattanooga to Memphis. A fight broke out when white rail-riders tried to force the blacks off the train. The whites reported to the sheriff in Alabama that they had been attacked, and the nine were detained. Two white women who had also hopped the train (and were possibly soliciting) accused the youths of raping them. With a lynch mob forming, the nine were tried without adequate counsel and were convicted and sentenced to death, despite the medical examiner’s evidence that the women had not been raped. Protests and support from the north—including the NAACP and the U.S. Communist Party—eventually brought about a retrial with Samuel Leibowitz of New York representing the accused. They were found guilty again, though one of the accusers recanted her earlier charge. Retrials continued and eventually, through certain plea deals, the four youngest of the nine were allowed to go free. Another was shot, nonfatally, for attacking a guard, two others escaped. Eventually—but not until 2013!—the three unpardoned were granted posthumous pardons. All had been burdened by their conviction, imprisonment, and the lengthy and publicized trials that continued to uphold the earliest verdict without sufficient evidence (the nine, in their individual defenses, gave contrary evidence as well, at times accusing one or some of the others).

Bones (Ivory Mckay), Tambo (Torrey Linder)

Bones (Ivory Mckay), Tambo (Torrey Linder)

Key to the spin The Scottsboro Boys gives to this material are the traditional minstrel-show roles of Bones (Ivory Mckay) and Tambo (Torrey Linder), two showmen, both excellent, who abound in bad puns, overt silliness, and who project a double-edged awareness that satirizes the conventions of the show as well as the outrageousness of the story the musical tells. They enact a racist white sheriff and his deputy, white lawyers (including a drunk-as-a-skunk defense attorney), and guards. Their obvious fun with these caricatures of caricatures gives even the obvious and corny aspects of the humor its bite. And their showdown in the retrial, as the anti-Semitic Attorney General (Mckay) vs. Leibowitz (Linder), shows how playing upon prejudices will often carry the day.. 

Granted, the Scottsboro story doesn’t have the trajectory of a well-made plot and the collective villainy of the authorities confers a questionable heroism on the nine accused, simply by virtue of being innocent. That means that most of the show’s strength comes from how well it arouses sympathy for the hapless predicament of the accused nine. As Haywood Patterson, who is presented as the strongest willed among them, Troy Valjean Rucker draws attention early in the show with “Nothin’”—a song that sums up a world-weary ethos—and later with “You Can’t Do Me,” a song that registers his unwillingness to admit guilt even if it means getting a pardon. Another standout number is “Never Too Late,” with Jaylan Evans as Ruby Bates making her courtroom retraction an over-the-top, high-stepping vaudeville number.

Center, seated: Heywood Patterson (Troy Valjean Rucker) and Eugene Williams (Trishawn Paul) with the cast of The Scottsboro Boys

Center, seated: Heywood Patterson (Troy Valjean Rucker) and Eugene Williams (Trishawn Paul) with the cast of The Scottsboro Boys

The songs are full of zest, and a few early on—like the anxious “Electric Chair” and the stirring “Go Back Home”—benefit from Trishawn Paul’s lovely tenor. Choreographer Darlene Zoller and director Sean Harris, two of the three founders of Playhouse on Park, maintain the high standard in ending their tenth season that they brought to last season’s closer, In the Heights. While not as exuberant and contemporary as the latter, The Scottsboro Boys earns admiration for its nimble handling of shameful truths—the farce of injustice and overt racism—and for its stripped-down design—which makes the show feel almost improvised—and for keeping its audience in the palm of its hand from the glad-to-meet-you opening to the point at which the troupe departs the frame.

Throughout the show its only female cast member, Renee J. Sutherland, is onstage as “the lady,” an African American woman holding a book and looking on as a witness aghast at what she sees, and possibly as a researcher encountering this almost forgotten story. At the close of the show, her identity is revealed to show a continuity with what Thompson and company most likely saw as the dawn of a more enlightened age. In any case, reminders are necessary.

 

The Scottsboro Boys
Music and Lyrics by John Kander & Fred Ebb
Book by David Thompson
Directed by Sean Harris
 

Orchestrations: Larry Hochman; Musical Arrangements: Glen Kelly; Vocal Arrangements: David Loud; Choreographer: Darlene Zoller; Music Director: Melanie Guerin; Scenic Designer: David Lewis; Lighting Designer: Johann Fitzpatrick; Costume Designer: Vilinda McGregor; Props Artisan/Set Dresser: Eileen O’Connor; Sound Designer: Rider Q. Stanton; Stage Manager: Mollie Cook

Cast: Cedrick Ekra, Jaylan Evans, Cedric Greene, Jerry Hamilton, Dennis Holland, Torrey Linder, Ivory McKay, Trishawn Paul, Grant Reynolds, Alex Robertson, Troy Valjean Rucker, Justin Sturgis, Renee J. Sutherland

Playhouse on Park
June 26-August 4, 2019

Power Play

Review of The Conduct of Life, Yale Summer Cabaret

Dysfunction reigns in María Irene Fornés’ The Conduct of Life, continuing at the Yale Summer Cabaret tonight through Saturday, directed by Jecamiah M. Ybañez. Fornés’ plays have a mysterious quality and a fascinating rhythm that works best in intimate settings, which makes the Cabaret a good place to see this provocative play.

Orlando (John Evans Reese) carrying Nena (Amandla Jahava) in the Yale Summer Cabaret’s production of María Irene Fornés’  The Conduct of Life  (Photos courtesy of Yale Summer Cabaret)

Orlando (John Evans Reese) carrying Nena (Amandla Jahava) in the Yale Summer Cabaret’s production of María Irene Fornés’ The Conduct of Life (Photos courtesy of Yale Summer Cabaret)

The dysfunction is political, not only the naked bid for power in an unnamed country ruled by a military dictatorship, but, more directly, domestic, in the sexual politics of the household where a lieutenant named Orlando (John Evans Reese) lords it over his well-intentioned wife Leticia (Juliana Martinez). They have a friend in fellow officer Alejo (Devin White) who tends to laugh appropriately at Orlando’s sallies, while retaining, perhaps, more soul than Orlando. And Leticia is attended by a maid, Olympia (Nefesh Cordero Pino), who seems to stand as an emblem of the simple folk and is both an accomplice of Orlando and a confidante to Leticia.

Olympia (Nefesh Cordero Pino), Leticia (Juliana Martinez)

Olympia (Nefesh Cordero Pino), Leticia (Juliana Martinez)

At first, the play might seem to offer a Chekhovian exploration of boredom, ambition and humiliation, but, importantly, there’s also Nena (Amandla Jahava), a young girl kidnapped by Orlando and held prisoner in a warehouse and later in the couple’s basement. The glimpses of rape and torture we get through Christopher Evans’ projections are harrowing, as if we were watching arty surveillance footage, but nothing we see quite equals in discomfort the sound of Jahava’s distraught whimpers and sobs. It’s unnerving.

Orlando, who opens the play doing calisthenics and giving himself motivational advice on how to climb higher among the brass, becomes an interrogator. In an early dialogue with Alejo, about a prisoner who died under questioning, Orlando prides himself on his brutal lack of sympathy. He seems the perfect man for the job, except perhaps too indifferent to outcomes. In other words, there are standards, even in dehumanizing tactics, and Orlando may be his own worst enemy. We get a fuller sense of his view of himself when we see him interact with poor, frightened Nena, a girl he picked up and forced himself on. It’s his need for her that drives Orlando, a passion for dominance that also dominates him.

Orlando (John Evans Reese), Alejo (Devin White)

Orlando (John Evans Reese), Alejo (Devin White)

The triangle between Orlando, Leticia and Nena is where Fornés’ interests lie, to let us see glimpses of darkly sadistic realizations of a family dynamic and to show us the powers that be and the powerless. In the latter view, Leticia is of interest as not quite either. She’s not the equal of Orlando, either politically or in terms of physical strength or cunning, nor is she as powerless as Nena is. An amazing scene late in the play comes when Nena and Olympia, who takes pity on the prisoner as well as showing a vicarious interest in her odd life, are at the table and are joined by Leticia, who asks “what are we talking about?” There sits wife, prisoner, and maid, and Fornés implies they might all easily be figures for the role of Woman in patriarchal society.

Leticia (Juliana Martinez)

Leticia (Juliana Martinez)

And yet, in director’s Ybañez hands, the play never veers into outright allegory or satire. The sure-handed naturalism of the approach is greatly abetted by the way these actors—all current students at the Yale School of Drama but for Jahava, a recent graduate—inhabit their roles.

As Orlando, John Evans Reese brings a boyishness to the role that completely suits the small-time tyrant. He’s impetuous, sensitive of his dignity, needy, and erratic. As Alejo, Devin White has a cheery cynicism but late in the play shows more character. Juliana Martinez’s Leticia is a minor dame who might like to be a grande dame, helping the poor and trying to avoid the implications of her lifestyle. She might be seen as vapid, but Martinez brings a sullen gravitas to Leticia that makes her intriguing. Nefesh Cordero Pino plays Olympia with the knowing earthiness of those who have no illusions about what is necessary to get along in the world of their social superiors. And Amandla Jahava’s Nena is the heart of the play: the child as Christ, a girl who has introjected the selflessness of the sacrificial victim willing to suffer for others. Her views come out, in Jahava’s wonderfully fresh performance, as not at all deluded or debased.

Nena (Amandla Jahava), Olympia (Nefesh Cordero Pino)

Nena (Amandla Jahava), Olympia (Nefesh Cordero Pino)

The stage is a long marble-looking plinth stretching into a space near the Exit door that acts as the basement, foregrounding the couple’s house with a table and chairs and a phone-stand as minimal furnishings. The warehouse space is provided by videos so that we’re unaware of Nena’s predicament when they’re turned off, unlike other productions where the prisoner is visible throughout.

Told in short vignettes with blackouts, Fornés play maintains a somewhat arch tone toward the lives it asks us to contemplate. We don’t really settle in as we would with a more continuous structure, and that’s deliberate—to keep us guessing. The force of the situations propels the drama to its violent conclusion in this gripping play, but one senses that Fornés’ script would reward a slightly more quizzical rendering.

 

The Conduct of Life
By María Irene Fornés
Directed by Jecamiah M. Ybañez

Scenic Designer: Stephanie Cohen; Costume Designer: Alicia J. Austin; Lighting Designer: Daphne Agosin Orellana; Sound Designer: Bailey Trierweiler; Projections Designer: Christopher Evans; Dramaturg: Sophie Greenspan; Stage Manager: Amanda Luke; Intimacy Consultant: Sam Tirrell

Ensemble: Nefesh Cordero Pino, Amandla Jahava, Juliana Martinez, John Evans Reese, Devin White

Yale Summer Cabaret
June 21-29, 2019

About Last Night . . .

Review of Actually, TheaterWorks 

The dramatic situation in Anna Ziegler’s Actually, which closes this weekend at TheaterWorks, directed by Taneisha Duggan, could happen, more or less, to any couple. When sex goes bad, it’s usually only a matter for the persons involved. But when the couple in question are freshmen at a major university—in this case Princeton—the fall-out about what did or didn’t happen becomes a matter for administration. And that way much frustration lies—on all sides.

Amber (Arielle Siegel), Tom (Ronald Emile) in TheaterWorks’ production of Actually (Photos courtesy of TheaterWorks)

Amber (Arielle Siegel), Tom (Ronald Emile) in TheaterWorks’ production of Actually (Photos courtesy of TheaterWorks)

Ziegler’s script—which is a two-person play in which some other key figures are spoken of but never appear—opens with the kegger where Tom (Ronald Emile) and Amber (Arielle Siegel) meet-up and then, fueled by alcohol and more-than-fleeting attraction, proceed to hook-up. They’ve been aware of each other with almost uncanny frequency in that first week of classes and get-acquainted activities and rushes and the like. Now they come face to face and—after Tom with urgent exasperation tells Amber to stop talking—kiss.

We get to see that much. All else is hearsay by the participants; though both are pretty sure what happened, their views of the events diverge on key points. On the way to the hearing—where a committee of faculty will decide if Tom’s actions will merit disciplinary action—we learn about these two teens in their own words, addressed to us, the audience, in a hopscotch of statements and realizations. The tone of what each has to say veers in interesting ways, part confession, part self-analysis, part defense, and part confusion. That last part is a major factor and derives mostly from not really understanding their own motivations or the position they allowed their vulnerability to their own desires and the desires of another to put them in.

What’s more than a little overbearing about Ziegler’s play is that everything we learn about these characters is tainted by the big event that is coloring their current discomfort. So Tom is at pains to establish that he’s not the kind of guy that would intentionally rape anyone, and Amber mostly aims to convince us that she had no bad motives and that her story is true. Both characters are shown to be truly affectionate toward each other, which is why the emphasis of the play’s inconclusive conclusion seems to fall so heavily on what the act of seeking some kind of intervention has brought about. Because these two never got together and discussed their night of “yes” or “no” or “maybe so” (or “actually,” which Amber seemed to want to use as a safe-word), they instead plead before a committee they both mostly distrust and deride.

Amber (Arielle Siegel), Tom (Ronald Emile)

Amber (Arielle Siegel), Tom (Ronald Emile)

In speaking of themselves, the students are personable, though with very different approaches. Ronald Emile gets across Tom’s sense of himself as a successful charmer, a ladies’ man who doesn’t take any particular woman too seriously. His account of some trouble in high school, due to his response to advances by a teacher, set him up—in his own view—as someone who has to beat ‘em off. So, of course, when he gets alone with Amber she’ll be eager for the treat of Tom. For all his obtuseness, Tom is too earnest to be disbelieved. The problem is that he really doesn’t remember too well what occurred in his dorm room with Amber.

Amber—in Arielle Siegel’s delivery—is apt to say things that feel like special pleading, then look askance as if thinking “did I really say that?” She’s a study in nervous tics and a self-consciousness that you’ll either find charming or tedious. (For me, it was the latter.) She’s apt to make assumptions such as Tom’s being black had the same weight on his application that playing squash did on hers, and to say that, as an African American and Jewish American, respectively, Tom and she grew up with the sense that they might be rounded up at some point.

Amber (Arielle Siegel), Tom (Ronald Emile)

Amber (Arielle Siegel), Tom (Ronald Emile)

The staging by director Duggan helps mightily, as the actors move about in nicely choreographed vignettes, and the support of incidental music helps create moods that the matter-of-fact chat language of the characters doesn’t do much to articulate. Occasionally there’s some fun with words or a quirky verbal expression gets toyed with, the way people do who are learning how someone from somewhere else talks. There’s also a keen sense of how easy it is to get carried away with talking, saying what you didn’t quite mean or meaning something you didn’t quite think.

Even more so than Girlfriend, the previous show at TheaterWorks, Actually is a two-hander that could use some fleshing out. Ziegler has written-in a “hot” Indian friend (who thinks he and Tom are in love) and a bossy sorta mean girl (named Heather, of course) who seems to be the driving force behind Amber wanting to get laid and then going to authorities when she was after she stopped wanting to be. The reliance on these sideline characters, along with a few too many clichéd locutions and asides about teen life, college, and cultural markers of our day, makes Ziegler’s play less than the sharply observed social criticism it seems to want to be.

But then it’s hard to say for certain what it wants to be. Ziegler might just be trying to beguile the time by looking like the time, as Lady Macbeth might say. The play is best at informing Tom and Amber with much plausible feeling, then leaves their story hanging by a feather.

Tom (Ronald Emile) and Amber (Arielle Siegel)

Tom (Ronald Emile) and Amber (Arielle Siegel)

 

Actually
By Anna Ziegler
Directed by Taneisha Duggan
 

Set Design: Jean Kim; Costume Design: Sydney Gallas; Lighting Design: Amith A. Chandrashaker; Sound Design: Julian Evans; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth

 Cast: Ronald Emile, Arielle Siegel

 TheaterWorks
(At Wadsworth Athenaeum)
May 22-June 23, 2019

Conducting "The Conduct of Life"

Preview of The Conduct of Life, Yale Summer Cabaret

The second show of the Yale Summer Cabaret’s Verano season opens tonight. The Conduct of Life, written by María Irene Fornés, was first produced in 1985. Fornés, who died last year, was one of the foremost avant-garde U.S. playwrights of her time. Jecamiah M. Ybañez, a Co-Artistic Director of this year’s Summer Cabaret and a 2019 MFA of the Yale School of Drama, directs. For Ybañez, who admits being drawn to “gritty material,” one of the attractions of doing the play at this time comes from its poetic handling of political questions. 

As Ybañez sees it, we, as a culture, are “more educated, knowledgeable, and aware” than ever before. We have so much information easily available, but “the question becomes: how do we behave? How do we move forward—do we act on what we know or ignore it? How do we respond to the inequalities in our society?” Fornés play, as the title suggests, is about how we conduct our lives—whether we “blatantly or subversively” take action.

62384295_2255779337824769_550022535652048896_o.jpg

Like Martin Zimmerman’s Seven Spots on the Sun, which was Ybañez’s thesis show at YSD last winter, The Conduct of Life takes place in a “nondescript Latin American country under a military dictator.” At the time the play was written, the events of the play could be in “almost any of a number of Latin American countries,” Ybañez said. Indeed, Fornés’ play, in focusing on the domestic life of a couple whose husband, a military officer, is attempting to rise in political power, recalls a couple in Seven Spots where the brutality of military service during a civil war impacts a soldier’s relation to his wife. Fornés’ play more directly confronts “the obsession with power” on the part of a military man in a corrupt system, Ybañez said. Conduct depicts acts of violence “in a specific context,” where scenes of “child abduction, sexual assault, and interrogation” show the impact of abusive power on “othered bodies.” Ybañez mentioned the audience advisory on the Summer Cab’s website: “This production contains depictions of sexual violence, disturbing and explicit images and audio, coarse language, and simulated gunshots.”

For Ybañez, the attractions of the play are twofold. He sees the play as “a thriller” where “information is withheld.” The audience has to react to the imperfect evidence Fornés provides within a context of political unrest and violence. The typical element of the thriller—that secrets will come to light—is complicated by Fornés’ method. Fornés’ earliest influence as a dramatist was a production of Beckett’s En attendant Godot she saw in Paris. At the time she was a painter who had studied with the abstract theorist and artist Hans Hoffmann. In Conduct, Fornés uses an avant-garde form of nineteen vignettes, some too short to be considered individual scenes, where the narrative connections are not always clear, so that viewers must infer the particular connotations of what they see.

Jecamiah M. Ybañez

Jecamiah M. Ybañez

The play has a cast of five, all of whom have done memorable work at the term-time Cabaret. Orlando (John Evans Reese) is a ruthless man married to Letitia (Juliana Aiden Martínez), who speaks with some social conscience. Orlando’s friend, Alejo, is played by Devin White and Letitia’s maid, Olimpia, by Nefesh Cordero Pino (the only cast member also seen in Bakkhai, the season opener). Amandla Jahava, who graduated from YSD in May and worked on several projects at the Cabaret last season, returns to play Nena, a child Orlando has kidnapped. Outside the house in which the action takes place, Ybañez said, the government is trying to obtain absolute power over its people.

In working with his cast, Ybañez has been concentrating on the rhythm and the tempo of the vignettes. Each has “a time signature,” he said, and it is necessary to “feel the shift” in a scene. Fornés eschews naturalistic dialogue, preferring to let characters speak in ways that suggest unspoken thoughts. Her theatrical palette includes Theater of the Absurd and the Brechtian effort to alienate audiences from naturalistic comforts for the sake of political effect. Her style and intentions are mercurial and make for challenging theater.

“There’s no neat tie-up,” Ybañez said of the play’s conclusion, but he stressed how the play suggests that even the powerless “have a certain agency,” and that even victims of unjust systems, Fornés indicates through Nena, must decide how “to live each day the best way possible.” The notion that even those who perpetrate criminal violence may be in pain is one that Fornés is able to bring to light through the tensions between her characters. In a time when we find polarized accusations of evil on each side of our political divides, Fornés’ play may have a resonance relevant to how we might conduct ourselves differently.

 

The Conduct of Life
By María Irene Fornés
Directed by Jecamiah M. Ybañez

Yale Summer Cabaret Verano
June 21-29, 2019

For tickets and information regarding showtimes and dining, go here.

Sport for the Gods

Review of Bakkhai, Yale Summer Cabaret

The first show of Yale Summer Cabaret’s Verano season has come and gone. The Summer Cab’s Co-Artistic Director Danilo Gambini, with a cast of six female actors, delivered a sexy and scary and funny and unsettling version of Euripides’ ancient Greek tragedy Bakkhai as translated by preeminent poet Anne Carson. As a kickoff to the Summer Cab season one might say the play puts us on alert that theater’s seductions come at a peril. 

Dionysos (Sarah Lyddan) and the Bakkhai (top to bottom: Zoe Mann, Nefesh Cordero Pino, Anula Navlekar) (Photos courtesy of Danilo Gambini)

Dionysos (Sarah Lyddan) and the Bakkhai (top to bottom: Zoe Mann, Nefesh Cordero Pino, Anula Navlekar) (Photos courtesy of Danilo Gambini)

The play has the temerity to put the god—or is that pseudo-god?—Dionysos (Sarah Lyddan) onstage and lets him get quizzed and dismissed by Thebes’ king Pentheus (Eli Pauley, in the getup of a military dictator) with the kind of disdain a police chief might aim at a local troublemaker. And Dionysus does make trouble. The women of Thebes—Malia West, Nefesh Cordero Pino, Anula Navlekar and Zoe Mann as an aroused chorus in negligees—are only too ready to worship him and are clearly doing so in a tranced and decadent way. What’s a ruler burdened with maintaining order to do?

Pentheus (Eli Pauley), front; background: Teiresias (Anula Navlekar), Kadmos (Zoe Mann)

Pentheus (Eli Pauley), front; background: Teiresias (Anula Navlekar), Kadmos (Zoe Mann)

We might feel we are watching a comedy in which each side—law and order vs. libidinous license—is going to get a big comeuppance, especially when we see two old-timers, Kadmos (Mann) and Teiresias (Navlekar) jumping on the bandwagon, off to take part in the Bacchic rites in clownish drag. Kadmos is Dionysus’ grandfather. The story is that Semele, Kadmos’ daughter by the goddess Harmonia, was impregnated by Zeus in the form of a lightning bolt—which incinerated Semele, so that Zeus had to rescue the unborn child, sewing him into his own immortal thigh from which Dionysos was born. Born of Zeus via a female half-mortal and half-immortal, Dionysos has no doubts that he’s a true god. And yet. Carson’s translation maintains use of the term daimon or daemon (from which we get “demon”) for what Dionysos claims to be, and that invites all sorts of colorations—especially in our Christianized world—about half-man/half-god hybrids who shake up the status quo with secret rites.

Dionysos (Sarah Lyddan) with Bakkhai (Malia West, left; Eli Pauley, right)

Dionysos (Sarah Lyddan) with Bakkhai (Malia West, left; Eli Pauley, right)

In any case, demonic is exactly how Lyddan plays Dionysos, an androgynous figure with the eyes, ringed in black, of one who regularly imbibes hallucinogens and a voice of clearest diction that runs from guttural to angelic to searing. Her Dionysos is a trip and a treat and not to be trusted. And that’s where the tragic dimension comes in, in the midst of all the seductive humor and high spirits. Lyddan keeps so resolutely her eyes on the prize, so to speak, to let us know that Dionysos sees all our human hubbub as barely worth his notice. Love him, hate him—in any case, woe unto you. He’s malevolent to anyone who crosses him—which Pentheus’ mother, Agave (Semele’s older sister), did when she dismissed the claim that Zeus was her sister’s lover. So Pentheus has to follow suit—only to be beguiled by the idea of spying on those secret rites . . .

The songs the chorus sings—developed by the ensemble and sound designer/composer Liam Bellman-Sharpe—are ably abetted by the voices of Malia West, who also spellbinds as a Herdsman, and Zoe Mann. The set—by Lily Guerin—occupies a diagonal corner of the space, with grand pillars and black tiles and a section lit bloodred (Riva Fairhall, lighting) when Agave (a fierce Cordero Pino) arrives with her son’s head, which she herself tore from his body, thinking him—thanks to Dionysos—a lion-cub.

Agave (Nefesh Cordero Pino) with the head of Pentheus

Agave (Nefesh Cordero Pino) with the head of Pentheus

As with many Greek tragedies, there’s a somber “joke’s on you” quality to where we end up, if only because these plays were meant to demonstrate to the populace that the gods toy with us for their sport, so don’t get your hopes up about life ending well. A lesson that somewhere—in all the humanizing centuries since—we seem to have lost a clear sense of. Bakkhai is meant to put the fear back into theater.

And, ultimately, it does. Though I would’ve preferred a bit more breathless shock and awe in the Servant (Navlekar)’s delivery of what befell the hapless Pentheus, the image that stays with me is of Mann as grandfather Kadmos, bowed, rotund, particolored, with powdered face, tears streaming as he awakes from a dream, in which gods and mortals can be held to the same account, to the nightmare—called reality—in which only mortals suffer. Eventually, the ages would supply us with a god who suffers and dies for us . . . but that’s another story.

Bakkhai (Anula Navlekar, Nefesh Cordero Pino, Malia West)

Bakkhai (Anula Navlekar, Nefesh Cordero Pino, Malia West)


Bakkhai
By Euripides
A new translation by Anne Carson
Directed by Danilo Gambini

Scenic Designer: Lily Guerin; Costume Designer: Alicia J. Austin; Lighting Designer: Riva Fairhall; Sound Designer & Composer: Liam Bellman-Sharpe; Projections Designer: Christopher Evans; Dramaturg: Emily Sorensen; Stage Manager: Alexus Cone 

Ensemble: Nefesh Cordero Pino, Sarah Lyddan, Zoe Mann, Anula Navlekar, Eli Pauley, Malia West

Yale Summer Cabaret
June 6-15, 2019

The opening of the Yale Summer Cabaret’s next show, María Irene Fornés’ The Conduct of Life, directed by Jecamiah M. Ybañez, has been postponed from tonight, June 20, to tomorrow night, June 21. Shows at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m.

Everyday Heroes

Review of Skeleton Crew, Westport Country Playhouse

Skeleton Crew is the third play from Dominique Morisseau’s The Detroit Project to be staged in Connecticut this season; it’s also the most recently written and the best of the three. Like Paradise Blue (at Long Wharf in the fall), and Detroit ’67 (at Hartford Stage in the winter), this four-person play is set in a very particular place—Detroit, of course—and time: in this case, the years of the Great Recession of the twenty-first century. That was the “too big to fail” era when the big automakers in Detroit declared bankruptcy, followed by the city itself shortly after.

Set entirely in an automotive plant’s very realistic breakroom (by Caite Hevner), Skeleton Crew lets us into the situation with a fly-on-the-wall access. We see how those who turn up for work each day have their frictions, their flirtations, their agreements and disagreements. And bit by bit we gain insight into what’s at stake in these lives, even as the characters themselves begin to realize how tied they are to a certain way of life, now under threat, and to each other.

Shanita (Toni Martin), Dez (Leland Fowler), Faye (Perri Gaffney) in Westport Country Playhouse’s production of Skeleton Crew (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Shanita (Toni Martin), Dez (Leland Fowler), Faye (Perri Gaffney) in Westport Country Playhouse’s production of Skeleton Crew (photo by Carol Rosegg)


Faye (Perri Gaffney) is the wise elder who has put in twenty-nine years on the factory floor—but not thirty. The remaining year is necessary for full benefits at retirement. She’s canny, at times jokey towards the others, and opens the play lighting up a cigarette in front of a No Smoking sign. The sign is an indication of how things are changing: more and more effort is being made to make workers behave by the rules, so that those with infractions—for smoking on site, lateness, gambling—can be dismissed. Faye knows times are tough—soon we learn just how tough—and is barely hanging on. Gaffney plays Faye without overt sentimentality, letting us admire her and her philosophic grasp of realities.

The most likely candidate for downsizing is Dez (Leland Fowler) who is too young to kowtow easily to authority and who has dreams of starting his own business—he needs to hang on until he’s got the start-up money. Shanita (Toni Martin), the star of the assembly line, is pregnant, very particular about her salad dressing, and apt to blame her mood swings on her hormones. She fields what might be pro forma come-ons from Dez with grudging patience. The arc of these two actually taking an interest in each other is developed slowly and without coy pretense. The two actors’ command of Morisseau’s language, which captures very subtle registers of emotion with skill, is fully engaging. A joy of the show is how naturally the dialogue flows, letting talk be the medium by which the characters move from rote reactions to something deeper.

Shanita (Toni Martin), Dez (Leland Fowler) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Shanita (Toni Martin), Dez (Leland Fowler) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Finally, there’s Reggie, the middle-management guy in a tie who has to figure out how to remain loyal to his workers without ruffling his bosses. Faye is a friend of his late mother’s who got him a job at the plant in the first place and she’s also the shop’s union representative. The tensions that come with being friends—almost family—and co-workers at different paygrades play out as the play goes on. Sean Nelson’s performance is pitch perfect, particularly when he must confess to Faye an angry misstep that may have dire consequences. Nelson lets us see the fire that Reggie represses to walk the line he does.

Reggie (Sean Nelson), Faye (Perri Gaffney) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Reggie (Sean Nelson), Faye (Perri Gaffney) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Skeleton Crew isn’t a gimmicky play; there are a few key props that add extra drama, but the story is conveyed entirely by the interactions of these four vivid characters. In LA Williams’ tight direction, the pacing and transitions are deliberately naturalistic—most scenes open with the workers arriving for their shift, though a few scenes also take place at the end of breaks or, in one key instance, after working hours. Particular problems may differentiate these characters, but we’re always aware that they’re experiencing—to alter the old adage—“same shit, different person.” Each has their individual griefs, but the threat of a shutdown impacts them all.

The crap that’s coming down on this particular outmoded form of capitalist excess is apt to bury them, but Morisseau has the instincts of a popular writer and that keeps the mood from becoming too grim. There are moments of real human caring and sharing and that’s what keeps the drama buoyant. As a slice-of-life play, Skeleton Crew might feel as outdated as the way of life that Motor City once sustained. And that’s part of the play’s charm, letting us settle in to an American story of work that will be familiar to many, and then unsettling us with the fears besetting those with no safety nets as the public good becomes a casualty of private interests.

Reggie (Sean Nelson), Faye (Perri Gaffney), Shanita (Toni Martin), Dez (Leland Fowler) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Reggie (Sean Nelson), Faye (Perri Gaffney), Shanita (Toni Martin), Dez (Leland Fowler) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Unlike the other two entries in Morisseau’s trilogy, Skeleton Crew doesn’t need to work through historical references to expand the story’s dimensions. The reality of big business in flight from the U.S. has been with us since the 1970s and, though specific here to Detroit, is common enough throughout the northeast where this play should resonate with audiences who’d like to meet everyday heroes.

 

 

Skeleton Crew
By Dominique Morisseau
Directed by LA Williams

Scenic Design: Caite Hevner; Costume Design: Asa Benally; Lighting Design: Xavier Pierce; Sound Design: Chris Lane; Dramaturg: Sandra Daley; Props Supervisor: Samantha Shoffner; Dialect Coach: Ron Carlos; Production Stage Manager: Bryan Bauer; Original Music by James Keys

Cast: Leland Fowler, Perri Gaffney, Toni Martin, Sean Nelson

Westport Country Playhouse
June 4-22, 2019

The Theater God is Present

Preview of Bakkhai, Yale Summer Cabaret

Last summer, Danilo Gambini, the Co-Artistic Director of this year’s Yale Summer Cabaret, took a trip to Greece, a longstanding goal from the time of his study of mythology in college and his reading of all the Greek tragedies in 2009. As he sat in the theater of Dionysus in Athens, he began “crying compulsively.” He also had a nosebleed, which may have had to do with the atmosphere and the physical exertion of hiking. In any case, the event was for Gambini an epiphany, which might be an actual manifestation of the god, Dionysus, the guiding spirit of ancient Greek drama, there “where the craft and art” Gambini practices “was born.” Gambini says he “made a pact with Dionysus” that day, a “renewal of vows” as a theater director, that “at the next opportunity I would do a Greek tragedy.”

That opportunity is the opening show of the Yale Summer Cabaret’s Verano season. Euripides’ Bakkhai, in Anne Carson’s recent translation, opens June 6 and plays for sixteen performances through June 15.

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His choice of Bakkhai, Gambini said, comes from the fact that Euripides’ audacious play puts Dionysus himself on stage. The play has been getting a variety of revivals of late, including at Brooklyn Academy of Music last season, and Girls, a modern adaptation by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, will open the Yale Repertory Theatre’s next season. Gambini discussed the play’s message for our times with his cast and said the consensus was that “it was clear that the play is about women and female power and the suppressed voice of women finding a release.” He added that Pentheus, the king of Thebes in the play, says things that are “too familiar from Trump.” So, in a way we might say that the current attention to the play is the theatrical equivalent of the 2017 Women’s March in protest over Trump’s election. Gambini quoted a line in the play that describes the women “overjoyed by the sheer absence of men.” Gambini’s six-person cast is comprised of female actors.

For Gambini there’s a deliberate camp element in that choice, which he defines as “having fun with theater.” Pentheus and Dionysus, in Gambini’s staging, are played as “drag kings” by Eli Pauley and Sarah Lyddan respectively, a distancing effect that Gambini spoke of as a deliberate element of current theater’s approach to gender politics. The choice of gender in casting roles, he said, “explores how to tell the story from one side, or extreme, or the other.” He lets his actors have a lot of agency in how they choose to tell the story, including the music of the chorus which was worked out by the actors in ensemble with sound designer and composer Liam Bellman-Sharpe.

There is humor in the play and Gambini finds that Anne Carson’s contemporary language helps the comedy land. Gambini described Carson’s writing as “visual,” a form of “concrete poetry that talks to me and inspires me in seeing the play’s spatial construction.” She writes, he said, “the way I stage.” For Gambini, an attraction of the Cabaret is that its intimate setting, without the usual separation of actors from audience, allows him to explore the kind of theater that is most meaningful to him. In his view, “text is a pretext to create an event” and the “audience is always seeing what they are seeing.” Which means that the idea of theater as an illusion of action happening elsewhere is dropped in favor of treating theater as an event at which both the cast and the audience are concurrently present.

Gambini sees Bakkhai as a play that questions a society’s beliefs, which includes religious faith and the status of the occult. The play was first produced late in Euripides’ career, and is “fully mature,” Gambini says. But with that maturity comes a definite interest in “how to transgress” further. Putting the god on the stage and having him argue for the vanities of the gods indicates, for some, Euripides’ cynicism toward religion, but also shows him addressing the very powerful social force of religious belief.

Danilo Gambini

Danilo Gambini

Gambini says that, originally, tragedy for the ancient Greeks was an “outlet—it enabled them to live what they didn’t want to live.” And he sees the same purpose provided by theater today, as well as TV and film. He stated that the etymology of the word “tragedy” derives from “chant of the goat,” which means that the poetry of tragedy was conceived as the song of the dying animal—a goat—sacrificed in religious ritual. While tragedy, Gambini said, “can be dark and even heartbreaking,” he sees the form as “voluptuous,” celebrating “joy and pleasure” in the physical body.

Greek tragedy, Gambini said, “survived because the plays keep speaking to our times.” The battle between an oppressive government—Pentheus often seems more a bureaucrat than a king—and a wildly inspired populist cult, and the status of faith in capricious gods versus a more reasoned ideal of humanity are themes that, it’s easy to see, have never ceased clashing in human society. At the Yale Summer Cabaret that drama plays out once again—with the added attraction of watching director Danilo Gambini fulfill his pact with Dionysus.

 

Euripides’ Bakkhai
Translated by Anne Carson
Directed by Danilo Gambini
Yale Summer Cabaret
June 6-15, 2019

For information about the season, season passes, individual tickets, the menu and dining reservations, go here.

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The Kid is Alright

Review of The Flamingo Kid, Hartford Stage

Darko Tresnjak, who steps down as Artistic Director with the conclusion of this season, ends his tenure at Hartford Stage on an upbeat note. The Flamingo Kid, a new musical based on the fondly regarded film by Garry and Neal Marshall from 1984, re-teams Tresnjak with Robert L. Freedman, Books and Lyrics, who wrote the Book and co-wrote the lyrics for the Tony-winning A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, one of the director’s prior big successes.

This time the comedy is not quite as wildly inspired, but the show is vastly entertaining, with the kind of witty lyrics—often adding a deliberate flavor of Jewish Brooklyn missing from the film—that musicals about coming of age should have. Scott Frankel, of War Paint and Grey Gardens, wrote the music and there’s a nice range of musical inspirations, all feeling at home in 1963, the year of the action. That’s the summer, of course, between the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963. A great time to be young and alive after the U.S. got the U.S.S.R. to backdown and before the country, in the view of many commentators, lost its innocence.

Steve (Ben Fankhauser), Hawk (Alex Wyse), Jeffrey Winnick (Jimmy Brewer) in Hartford Stage production of The Flamingo Kid (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Steve (Ben Fankhauser), Hawk (Alex Wyse), Jeffrey Winnick (Jimmy Brewer) in Hartford Stage production of The Flamingo Kid (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

The Flamingo Kid is rich with the kind of associations many of us have with the era, not least in pitting the bedrock values of the working lower middle-class, here instanced by the Winnicks in Brooklyn, with the leisure-time instincts of the upper middle-class out on Long Island. It’s still a time when such might occasionally rub shoulders, and when the so-called American Dream offered the notion that a kid who has to earn his way could still work his way up in pay and respect.

The story, which begins on the Fourth of July weekend and ends on Labor Day weekend, takes the side of the young, ethnic up-and-comer, Jeffrey Winnick (Jimmy Brewer), over the self-important blowhard Phil Brody (Marc Kudisch), owner of some luxury car showrooms, whose spell the young man falls under, while also falling for Brody’s niece, Karla (Samantha Massell). Freedman’s script takes a few potshots at those who put salesmanship over sincerity and elevate winning by any means over winning fairly. There’s even a little wink in having Karla reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique on the beach, a bit of cultural unrest that finds its answer in the actions of Brody’s wife Phyllis (Lesli Margherita) late in the play.

Phyllis Brody (Lesli Margherita) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Phyllis Brody (Lesli Margherita) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Indeed, one way the musical stretches beyond the movie is in its interest in the older generation. The film is concerned almost wholly with Jeffrey’s effort to prove himself, moving from the plans of his gruff but loving father, a plumber, to the slick and glib mentorship offered by Brody, “the King” of the gin game at the El Flamingo Beach Club. Freedman gives standout numbers to Mr. Winnick (Adam Heller), “A Plumber Knows,” and his wife Ruth (Liz Larsen), “Not For All the Money in the World,” and to Mrs. Brody, whose “The Cookie Crumbles” is a word-to-the-wise aimed at Karla, full of the cynicism of the neglected wife. Meanwhile, Brody gets to make the most of “Sweet Ginger Brown,” his tagline, a song that comes back for a rousing reprise in Act II.

For excitement, there are big dance numbers like “Another Summer Day in Brooklyn,” “Rockaway Rumba,” and even a visit to the track with “In It to Win It.” Gregory Rodriguez adds much pizzazz to Act II as the lead singer of Marvin and The Sand Dunes, singing “Blowin’ Hot and Cold.” Comic highlights are provided by Brody’s card-playing pals who are apt to carp at “The World According to Phil,” and by the MILFs of the day who can’t get enough of Jeffrey as the cutest “Cabana Boy.” The romantic plot is handled by “Never Met a Boy Like You,” wherein Karla is smitten, and it plays out with the sweetness of the sweetest summer romance, featuring a see-saw and a lifeguard stand and a painted moon over a painted sea.

Jeffrey Winnick (Jimmy Brewer), Karla Samuels (Samantha Massell) (photo by T, Charles Erickson)

Jeffrey Winnick (Jimmy Brewer), Karla Samuels (Samantha Massell) (photo by T, Charles Erickson)

Is the show sentimental and nostalgic? You betcha, so much so it feels like a return to an earlier time not only in its setting—which is fetchingly colorful in the set by Alexander Dodge and the costumes by Linda Cho, two longtime exemplars of excellence at Hartford Stage—but in its grasp of how to combine family and fun and romance with the kicks of kids and the fretting of elders. The movie was an Eighties’ nod to the way Fifties Hollywood informed so many of the movers and shakers of the era. As a musical in our day, The Flamingo Kid treats perennials like first love and first major summer job the way the Golden Age of television might and lets us enjoy the ride for all it’s worth.

Phil Brody (Marc Kudisch) and Jeffrey Winnick (Jimmy Brewer) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Phil Brody (Marc Kudisch) and Jeffrey Winnick (Jimmy Brewer) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

The first Act may run a bit long and, in general, there’s a sense, in each Act, that the search for a close is a problem that derives from the arc of numbers in a musical more than from the story per se. Freedman wants to keep the emphasis on “Fathers and Sons,” a theme that shows up strong at the end with the show’s penultimate number. Which makes it an ideal show running up to Father’s Day on June 16—indeed, the show has been extended from June 9, its original ending date, to June 15. Bring the folks, or the kids, as the case may be.

Jeffrey (Jimmy Brewer) and Arthur (Adam Heller) Winnick (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Jeffrey (Jimmy Brewer) and Arthur (Adam Heller) Winnick (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

The show’s secondary theme—what makes for marital happiness in two couples of different socio-economic situations and how the difference affects a young, formative couple negotiating both worlds—plays out as a fond look at how much we owe to where we’re from—and how much we all love summer getaways. As a musical getaway, The Flamingo Kid is hot, and that’s cool.

 

The Flamingo Kid
Book & Lyrics by Robert L. Freedman
Music by Scott Frankel
Based on the motion picture The Flaming Kid, screenplay by Neal Marshall and Garry Marshall, story by Neal Marshall
Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Choreography: Denis Jones; Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Linda Cho; Lighting Design: Philip Rosenberg; Sound Design: Peter Hylenski; Projection Design: Aaron Rhyne; Wig & Hair Design: Charles G. LaPointe; Makeup Design: Joya Giambrone; Dance & Vocal Arrangements: Scott Frankel; Music Director: Thomas Murray; Orchestrator: Bruce Coughlin; Fight Choreographer: Thomas Schall; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Production Stage Manager: Linda Marvel

Orchestra: Conductor: Thomas Murray, Keyboard: Paul Staroba; Percussion: Charles DeScarfino; Reed 1: John Mastroianni; Reed 2: Michael Schuster; Trumpet: Seth Bailey, Don Clough; Trombone: Jordan Jacobson; Horn: Jaime Thorne; Violin/Viola: Lu Sun; Guitar: Nick DiFabio; Bass: Roy Wiseman; Keyboard Programmer: Randy Cohen

Cast: Ben Bogen, Jimmy Brewer, Lindsey Brett Carothers, Ben Fankhauser, Michael Hartung, Adam Heller, Jean Kauffman, Ken Krugman, Marc Kudisch, Liz Larsen, Taylor Lloyd, Omar Lopez-Cepero, Lesli Margherita, Samantha Massell, Anna Noble, Erin Leigh Peck, Gregory Rodriguez, Steve Routman, William Squier, Kathy Voytko, Price Waldman, Jayke Workman, Alex Wyse, Kelli Youngman, Stuart Zagnit

Hartford Stage
May 9-June 15, 2019

Recap of Yale Cabaret 51

Yale Cabaret Season 51 is now just a treasured memory, brought to mind again by my yearly recap of some highlights of what went down. All cordial thanks to the departing team of Co-Artistic Directors Molly FitzMaurice and Latiana “LT” Gourzong and Managing Director Armando Huipe for a lively season abetted by their welcoming presences.

Departing team 51: Armando Huipe, Molly FitzMaurice, Latiana “LT” Gourzong

Departing team 51: Armando Huipe, Molly FitzMaurice, Latiana “LT” Gourzong

In hitting the highlights, I cite my “top five” in each category in order of appearance—except my favorite, which comes last.

 The pre-existing plays I was most glad to see: (Cab 2) Fade by Tonya Saracho, directed by Kat Yen: a character study in the context of gender inequalities and upward mobility and claiming cultural kinship in the workplace; (Cab 5) Agreste (Drylands) by Newton Moreno, translated by Elizabeth Jackson, directed by Danilo Gambini: a folkloric story of sexual identity and the true meaning of love and sacrifice; (Cab 10) School Girls; Or the African Mean Girls Play by Joceyln Bioh, directed by Christopher D. Betts: a lively treatment of the teen rivalry genre with many knowing details; (Cab 11) The Rules by Charles Mee, adapted by Dakota Stipp, Zachry J. Bailey, Alex Vermillion and Evan Hill, directed by Zachry J. Bailey: a quizzical upbraid of cultural and aesthetic norms and the tired conformities we live by; and . . . (Cab 1) The Purple Flower by Marita Bonner, directed by Aneesha Kudtarkar: a mythopoetic tale of racism as a curse of biblical proportions, requiring epic heroism.

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Plays from Yale School of Drama authors: (Cab 8) Taking Warsan Shire Out of Context on the Eve of the Great Storm by Christopher Gabriel Nuñez, directed by Oliva Plath: a futuristic tale, both ironic and vulnerable, about a coterie of brainiacs in a frozen waste, finding love; (Cab 13) Lenny’s Fast Food Kids Gang by Angie Bridgette Jones, directed by Alex Keegan: a very sharp and entertaining take on how “televised” our lives are, and how that undermines real connections; (Cab 15) Avital by Michael Breslin, with Amandla Jahava and Zoe Mann, directed by Michael Breslin: academic privilege is never usually this funny but it’s also, y’know, sad; (Cab 18) Alma by Benjamin Benne, directed by Cat Rodriguez: a reminder that equality in America is always a work in progress, requiring constant vigilance; and. . . (Cab 14) Novios by Arturo Luis Soria III, directed by Amandla Jahava and Sohina Sidhu: a workplace love story among immigrants from various points of origin, forging an Americas dream.

Scenic Design: (Cab 1) The Purple Flower, Lily Guerin: the detritus of civilization framing two distinct worlds; (Cab 3) The Light Fantastic, Stephanie Bahniuk: a homey space grown creepy with uncanny happenings; (Cab 17) Fireflies, Anna Grigo: a kitchen aching with nostalgia; (Cab 18) Alma, Elsa GibsonBraden: a convincingly homey apartment, with kitchen; and . . . (Cab 14) Novios, Gerardo Díaz Sánchez: a restaurant kitchen as the center of the universe.

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Lighting Design: (Cab 3) The Light Fantastic, Emma Deane: effects for the sake of suspense and surprise; (Cab 5) Agreste (Drylands), Nic Vincent: poetic and impressive, suggesting the passing of time; (Cab 14) Novios, Nic Vincent: a range of moods in the same locale; (Cab 15) Avital, Ryan Seffinge: playfully creating a unique performance space; and . . . (Cab 17) Fireflies, Riva Fairhall: the light streaming across the kitchen late in the play nailed it for me.

Projection Design: (Cab 4) Untitled Ke$ha Project, Elena Tilli: fun on all fronts, a multi-media party; (Cab 5) Agreste (Drylands), Yaara Bar: a subtle and transcendent effect; (Cab 11) The Rules, Camilla Tassi & Elena Tilli: scenic, abstract, a visual tapestry; (Cab 15) Avital, Erin Sullivan & Matthias Neckermann: when life becomes a cartoon and a newsfeed; and . . . (Cab 17) Fireflies, Nicole E. Lang: the skyscapes to the side were effective, but when they came into the kitchen…

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Sound Design: (Cab 1) The Purple Flower, Liam Bellman-Sharpe, Emily Duncan Wilson: otherworldly and direct, enabling a protracted myth; (Cab 3) The Light Fantastic, Andrew Rovner: uncanny and surprising, enabling suspense; (Cab 4) Untitled Ke$ha Project, Megumi Katayama: propulsive and upbeat, enabling voice and dance; (Cab 17) Fireflies, Kathy Ruvuna: unsettling and dark, inspiring foreboding; and . . . (Cab 11) The Rules, Dakota Stipp: inventive, interactive, creating an inspired environment.

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Use of Music: (Cab 5) Agreste (Drylands), directed by Danilo Gambini: when Ilia Isorelýs Paulino sang “Eye on the Sparrow”; (Cab 7) It’s Not About My Mother, directed by Sam Tirrell: Stevie Nicks incarnate! and I was never much of a fan; (Cab 14) Novios, directed by Amandla Jahava and Sohina Sidhu: kitchen percussion, among other dance measures; (Cab 15) Avital, directed by Michael Breslin: from ABBA to Barbra and on; and . . . (Cab 4) Untitled Ke$ha Project, directed by Latiana “LT” Gourzong: I don’t know this music, gotta admit, but “Hymn” and “Tik Tok” worked, and I’d rather watch a dance-off than a karaoke contest…

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Original Music: (Cab 8) Taking Warsan Shire Out of Context on the Eve of the Great Storm, Aaron Levin, Composer: my favorite aspect of this oddly challenging play; (Cab 16) Exit Interview, Christopher Gabriel Núñez aka Anonymous (And.On.I.Must), Beats by The Brainius: a surprising range of moods, from aggressive to vulnerable to uplifting; (Cab 16) Untitled semi-improvised dance/music piece, Sarah Xiao and Liam Bellman-Sharpe: no, I don’t really know what it was aiming for, but I was fascinated the entire time; (Cab 16) UNAMUSED: a feminist musical fantasia…, Book, Music & Lyrics by Sam Linden: a cute feminist musical fantasia; and . . . (Cab 9) The Whale in the Hudson, Liam Bellman-Sharpe, Music Director; Brad McKnight, Music: an utterly charming use of music and song, in an epic kids’ mystery based on real life.

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Costumes: (Cab 1) The Purple Flower, Mika H. Eubanks: sometimes a character is in a hat, but it’s got to be the right hat; (Cab 4) Untitled Ke$ha Project, Yunzhu Zeng: fanciful, fun, and the robe “LT” wore was worthy a prize-fighter; (Cab 5) Agreste (Drylands), April M. Hickman: restrained, austere, and evocative of a range of places; (Cab 11) The Rules, April Hickman & Yunzhu Zeng: the transformation of Arthur was simply stunning; and . . . (Cab 17) Fireflies, Mika H. Eubanks, with hair by Earon Nealey: it’s rare to have costume changes like this in a Cab show, and all so appropriate.

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Acting Ensemble: (Cab 5) Agreste (Drylands), Abubakr Mohamed Ali, Rachel Kenney, Ilia Isorelýs Paulino: incredibly effective round-robin sequences and intense character studies; (Cab 10) School Girls; Or the African Mean Girls Play, Moses Ingram, Wilhemina Koomson, Kineta Kunutu, Gloria Majule, Alexandra Maurice, Vimbai Ushe, Adrienne Wells, Malia West: some are actors, some aren’t but this cast created a vivid dynamic, funny and mean and lovable; (Cab 13) Lenny’s Fast Food Kids Gang, Holiday, Daniel Liu, Bre Northrup, Julian Sanchez, Madeline Seidman, Malia West: a range of actors trying to figure out who they really are and were; (Cab 14) Novios, Nefesh Cordero Pino, Raul Díaz, Christopher Gabriel Nuñez, John Evans Reese, Gregory Saint Georges, Devin White, Jecamiah M. Ybañez: bilingual, multiracial, with a striking group energy and individual interactions; and . . . (Cab 3) The Light Fantastic: Stephen Cefalu, Jr., Noah Diaz, Gregory Saint Georges, Moses Ingram, Doireann Mac Mahon, Anula Navlekar, Adrienne Wells; a dream cast in a somewhat unmanageable tale of fate and second chances (kudos to director Molly FitzMaurice for bringing this to the Cab).

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Actors: (Cab 2) Fade, Dario Ladani Sánchez: a reserved working guy with something to hide and something to lose; (Cab 5) Agreste (Drylands), Abubakr Mohamed Ali: an elusive, mysterious figure, full of quiet charisma, and a priest out of his depth; (Cab 14) Novios, Jecamiah M. Ybañez: the loose cannon, a man of passion and talent making a big discovery; (Cab 17) Fireflies, Manu Kumasi: the nuances of a man of faith and progress who can still be a bully at home; and . . . (Cab 15) Avital, Michael Breslin: performance as provocation and seduction delivered with fragile irony, and funny as hell.

Michael Breslin in Avital, Yale Cabaret

Michael Breslin in Avital, Yale Cabaret

Actresses: (Cab 2) Fade, Juliana Aiden Martínez: a mercurial woman on the way up, and, in general, writers are not to be trusted; (Cab 7) It’s Not About My Mother, Amandla Jahava: holy fuck, whatever she’s got—figure out how to bottle and sell it! (Cab 10) School Girls; Or the African Mean Girls Play, Moses Ingram: you aren’t supposed to like her, but then you do; a performance that stayed with me; (Cab 18) Alma, Ilia Isorelýs Paulino: a powerful showcase as all the mothers everywhere, just trying to stay here; and . . . (Cab 1) The Purple Flower  and Fireflies (Cab 17), Ciara Monique McMillian: in the first, she was all the men; in the second, she was all woman, in both cases, memorable.

Ciara Monique McMillian in Fireflies, Yale Cabaret

Ciara Monique McMillian in Fireflies, Yale Cabaret

Directing: (Cab 1) The Purple Flower, Aneesha Kudtarkar: a varied cast played essentially by two actors in an amazing concert of types and archetypes; (Cab 5) Agreste (Drylands), Danilo Gambini: a bracingly rhythmic approach, full of portent; (Cab 10) School Girls; Or the African Mean Girls Play, Christopher D. Betts: a play about intergenerational group dynamics brought off with great ensemble work; (Cab 11) The Rules, Zachry J. Bailey: an offbeat highpoint of the season in its amorphous approach to theater; and . . . (Cab 14) Novios, Amandla Jahava & Sohina Sodhu: two third-year actors direct with great feeling a large cast at work, at love, and in strife with their place in life.

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For overall Productions:

Cab 1: A thoughtful and poetic play, unproduced and mostly forgotten, delivered with consummate skill as a challenging opening to Cabaret 51: The Purple Flower by Marita Bonner; conceived by Mika H. Eubanks and Aneesha Kudtarkar; directed by Aneesha Kudtarkar; Producer: Caitlin Crombleholme; Co-Dramaturgs: Christopher Audley Puglisi, Sophie Siegel-Warren; Stage Manager: Olivia Plath; Scenic Designer: Lily Guerin; Lighting Designer: Nicole E. Lang; Sound Designer: Liam Bellman-Sharpe, Emily Duncan Wilson; Costume Designer: Mika H. Eubanks; Movement Director: Leandro Zaneti; Technical Director: Alex McNamara;; Cast: Ciara Monique McMillian, Adrienne Wells, Devin White, Patrick Young

Cab 11: What do you do when the avant-garde becomes “classic” and then declassé: make new rules? An exhilarating production, “old school” Cab: The Rules by Charles Mee; adapted by Dakota Stipp, Zachry J. Bailey, Alex Vermillion, Evan Hill; directed by Zachry J. Bailey; Producers: Caitlin Crombleholme & Eliza Orleans; Dramaturgs: Evan Hill & Alex Vermillion; Stage Manager: Sam Tirrell; Scenic Designer: Sarah Karl; Lighting Designer: Evan Christian Anderson; Sound Designer & Composer: Dakota Stipp; Costume Designers: April Hickman & Yunzhu Zeng; Projection Designers: Camilla Tassi & Elena Tilli;; Technical Director: Mike VanAartsen; Cast: Robert Hart, David Mitsch, Adrienne Wells

Cab 14: Poetic, mysterious, and as vivid as real life, full of fun, tension, and passion—and it was only the first half!: Novios by Arturo Luis Soria III; directed by Amandla Jahava & Sohina Sidhu; Producer: Estefani Castro; Dramaturg: Nahuel Telleria; Stage Manager: Fabiola Feliciano-Batista; Choreographer & Intimacy Coach: Jake Ryan Lozano; Scenic Designer: Gerardo Díaz Sánchez; Costume Designer: Matthew Malone; Lighting Designer: Nic Vincent: Projection Designer: Sean Preston; Sound Designer: Andrew Rovner; Technical Director: Martin Montaner V.; Cast: Nefesh Cordero Pino, Raul Díaz, Christopher Gabriel Nuñez, John Evans Reese, Gregory Saint Georges, Devin White, Jecamiah M. Ybañez

Cab 17: The play itself is a bit overwrought in its dramatic arc—but the cast and crew upped the ante for Cab shows: Fireflies by Donja Love; directed by Christopher D. Betts; Producer: Dani Barlow; Dramaturg: Sophie Greenspan; Stage Manager: Zachry J. Bailey; Scenic Designer: Anna Grigo; Costume Designer: Mika H. Eubanks; Projection Designer: Nicole E. Lang; Sound Designer: Kathy Ruvuna; Lighting Designer: Riva Fairhall; Technical Directors: Chimmy Anne Gunn & Francesca DeCicco; Fight Choreographer: Michael Rossmy; Hair: Earon Nealey; Cast: Manu Kumasi, Ciara Monique McMillian

And…

Cab 5: Part folktale, part mystery play; a magisterially achieved story of transformation and the miracle of love—regardless of what kind of body it wears: Agreste (Drylands) by Newton Moreno, translated by Elizabeth Jackson; directed by Danilo Gambini; Producer: Jaime F. Totti; Dramaturg: Maria Inês Marques; Stage Manager: Cate Worthington; Set Designers: Alexander McCargar and Sarah Karl; Costume Designer: April M. Hickman; Lighting Designer: Nic Vincent; Sound Designer: Emily Duncan Wilson; Projections Designer: Yaara Bar; Technical Director: Martin Montaner V.; Cast: Abubakr Mohamed Ali, Rachel Kenney, Ilia Isorelýs Paulino

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Special honorary citations: Cabaret Heroes: working on three shows in a season at the Cab is not uncommon, so most of these have surpassed that number, and/or worked in varied positions: Ciara Monique McMillian appeared in three shows in lead roles; Amandla Jahava appeared in two shows, contributed content to one, and co-directed a third; Kat Yen directed two shows, providing sound design for one, and wrote and performed a third; Stephanie Bahniuk worked as a set designer for two shows, costume designer on a third, and co-conceived a fourth; April Hickman designed costumes for three shows and co-conceived a fourth she appeared in; Olivia Plath worked as stage manager on three shows and directed a fourth; Zachry J. Bailey worked as stage manager on three shows and directed and co-adapted a fourth; Liam Bellman-Sharpe was sound designer on two shows, music conductor on a third, and was co-conceiver, composer, and performer in a fourth; Adrienne Wells acted in four shows and provided a voice-over for a fifth; Mika H. Eubanks was costume designer on four shows and co-conceived two others, appearing in one.

The Yale Cabaret has entered its sixth decade, going strong! Great thanks and grateful acknowledgment to all who took part and who came out for the shows.

Next year’s team, for Yale Cabaret 52, are Co-Artistic Directors Zachry J. Bailey, Brendan Burton, Alex Vermillion, and Managing Director Jaime F. Totti; they’ll take over after the long-awaited return of the Yale Summer Cabaret, or “Verano,” with Co-Artistic Directors Danilo Gambini and Jecamiah M. Ybañez and Managing Director Estefani Castro, which will feature: Euripides’ Bakkhai, in Anne Carson’s translation, directed by Danilo Gambini, June 6-15; The Conduct of Life by María Irene Fornés, directed by Jecamiah M. Ybañez, June 20-29; The Swallow and the Tomcat by Jorge Amado, adapted and directed by Danilo Gambini, July 18-27; and Latinos Who Look Like Ricky Martin by Emilio Rodriguez, directed by Jecamiah M. Ybañez, August 8-17.

Yale Cabaret
September 2018-April 2019

A Well-Mannered Music Man

Review of The Music Man, The Goodspeed

Watching The Music Man, now in a colorful revival at The Goodspeed, directed by Jenn Thompson, is to be transported to a quintessential American myth: the insular small-town invaded by invidious forces from without. It’s the story of a town—against modernization, against outsiders, against any defiance of the status quo—that says a lot about the ethos of the heartland. It’s played for laughs, sure, and in this version of the venerable musical, the town has been integrated—a nod to the progressive aspects of Iowa. Still, “Stubborn, Iowa” expresses the attitude of the place. It’s not about to change, much—and neither has this time-honored musical.

Harold Hill (Edward Watts), center, and the cast of The Goodspeed’s production of The Music Man, directed by Jenn Thompson (photo by Diane Sobolewski)

Harold Hill (Edward Watts), center, and the cast of The Goodspeed’s production of The Music Man, directed by Jenn Thompson (photo by Diane Sobolewski)

Into River City comes “Professor” Harold Hill (Edward Watts). He takes up the challenge of hoodwinking the locals with his particular brand of chicanery after hearing Iowa described as nearly impregnable. That’s in the opening scene, the song “Rock Island” an acapella wonder that gets us off to a rousing start, as a group of salesmen bemoan their lot in life, with Hill mentioned as the scoundrel who gives them all a bad name.

Olin Hill (Kent Overshown), Ewart Dunlop (Jeff Gurner), Oliver Hix (C. Mingo Long), Jacey Squires (Branch Woodman) (photo by Diane Sobolewski)

Olin Hill (Kent Overshown), Ewart Dunlop (Jeff Gurner), Oliver Hix (C. Mingo Long), Jacey Squires (Branch Woodman) (photo by Diane Sobolewski)

It’s not long before we’re running through all the well-known chestnuts from this packed score—“Ya Got Trouble,” “76 Trombones,” “’Til There Was You,” “Gary, Indiana,” and, particularly enjoyable here, the barbershop quartet numbers featuring Branch Woodman, C. Mingo Long, Jeff Gurner, and Kent Overshown. Mostly everyone is equal to their tasks, making these wonderful tunes captivate, but the story never quite seems to catch fire. In part that’s because Watts’ Hill, good-looking to a fault, seems like a less than confident confidence man. He’s merely competent rather than compelling. He should own this thing because, after all, it’s Hill’s change in attitude that drives the whole locomotive here. We expect him to be cavalier only to become complicit in his own undoing—which might be the making of him. Here he’s too well-mannered so that we never really question his motives.

Marion (Ellie Fishman), Harold Hill (Edward Watts) (photo by Diane Sobolewski)

Marion (Ellie Fishman), Harold Hill (Edward Watts) (photo by Diane Sobolewski)

As Marion “the librarian” Paroo, the love interest who takes a shine to Hill (though she early discovers his lack of bona fides), Ellie Fishman is winsome, delivering her songs, like “My White Knight,” with all the sweetness required and playing hard-to-get with aplomb, though you might find yourself wishing she had a few more solos. She acts more blithely indifferent than alienated by the gossip going the rounds.

Marion (Elliie Fishman), Mrs. Paroo (Amelia White), Winthrop Paroo (Alexander O’Brien)

Marion (Elliie Fishman), Mrs. Paroo (Amelia White), Winthrop Paroo (Alexander O’Brien)

As the lisping Winthrop Paroo, Alexander O’Brien is engaging and the other children handle themselves well, including Katie Wylie as Amaryllis. There’s some wonderful support by Stephanie Pope as Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, the mayor’s wife and the local grande dame, by Amelia White as Mrs. Paroo, and by the ladies who gossip, doing their “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little” number full justice.

Maud Dunlop (Kelly Berman), Mrs. Squires (Victoria Huston-Elem), Marion (Ellie Fishman), Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn (Stephanie Pope), Ethel Toffelmier (Cicily Daniels) (photo by Diane Sobolewski)

Maud Dunlop (Kelly Berman), Mrs. Squires (Victoria Huston-Elem), Marion (Ellie Fishman), Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn (Stephanie Pope), Ethel Toffelmier (Cicily Daniels) (photo by Diane Sobolewski)

In fact, it’s the group numbers that are best here—the quartet, the ladies (and both groups move down the aisles to let us sample their dulcet tones up close)—and also the worked up dance numbers, especially Juson Williams, as Hill’s crony Marcellus, leading the teens in “Shipoopi” with rakish charm.

Marcellus Washburn (Juson Williams) and the cast of The Music Man (photo by Diane Sobolewski)

Marcellus Washburn (Juson Williams) and the cast of The Music Man (photo by Diane Sobolewski)

The scenery by Paul Tate DePoo III is lively and the costumes by David Toser are jaunty. The staging and choreography, by Patricia Wilcox, can feel a little crowded at times, and the whole production feels more respectful than revivified. The stubbornness of Iowa might have infected the whole, or it might be that the very reason to revive this show—to wink at middle-America’s long-established and greatly to be mourned love affair with con artists—requires a bit more bite and less reverence. Like the man said, ‘you gotta know the territory!’

Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn (Stephanie Pope, standing second from left) and the cast of The Music Man

Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn (Stephanie Pope, standing second from left) and the cast of The Music Man


 The Music Man

Book, Music, and Lyrics by Meredith Willson
Story by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey
Directed by Jenn Thompson
Music Direction by Michael O’Flaherty
Choreography by Patricia Wilson

Scene Design: Paul Tate dePoo III; Costume Design: David Toser; Lighitng Design: Paul Miller; Sound Design: Jay Hilton; Wig & Hair Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Assistant Music Director: F. Wade Russo; Orchestrations: Dan DeLange; Production Manager: Erica Gilroy; Production Stage Manager: Bradley G. Spachman; Producer: Donna Lynn Cooper Hilton

Cast: D. C. Anderson, Iman Barnes, Kelly Berman, Elizabeth Brady, Cicily Daniels, Shawn Alynda Fisher, Ellie Fishman, Damien Galvez, Jeff Gurner, Maddiekay Harris, Victoria Huston-Elem, Elise Kowalick, Ryan Lambert, Danny Lindgren, C. Mingo Long, Matthew B. Moore, Alexander O’Brien, Kent Overshown, Stephanie Pope, Raynor Rubel, William Daniel Russell, Benjamin Sears, Edward Watts, Amelia White, Corben Williams, Juson Williams, Branch Woodman, Katie Wylie

The Goodspeed
April 12-June 20, 2019

Be the Change

Review of Cadillac Crew, Yale Repertory Theatre

The links between the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the Black Lives Matter movement begun in the 2010s are dramatized in Toni Sampson’s intensely questioning play, Cadillac Crew, now in its world premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre, directed by Sampson and Jesse Rasmussen. An early staged reading of the play, directed by Rasmussen, took place at the Yale Summer Cabaret when Sampson and Rasmussen were rising third-years at the Yale School of Drama in 2016.

In the play’s first part, four women tease and taunt each other while working together in a civil rights office in Virginia in the early 1960s. Rachel (Chalia La Tour) is the dedicated leader, bossy, prim, always with her eye on the prize; Dee (Ashley Bryant) is the eldest, a mother and a wife, and more phlegmatic than the rest; Sarah (Brontë England-Nelson) is the white girl, descendant of a suffragette, but with a backstory only Rachel knows; and Abby (Dria Brown) is the youngest, her sensibility closer to our times than the times she’s living in. Which means she has most of the funny lines.

Sarah (Brontë England-Nelson), Dee (Ashley Bryant), Abby (Dria Brown), Rachel (Chalia La Tour) in the Yale Repertory Theatre production of Cadillac Crew, directed by Jesse Rasmussen and Tori Sampson (photo by Joan Marcus)

Sarah (Brontë England-Nelson), Dee (Ashley Bryant), Abby (Dria Brown), Rachel (Chalia La Tour) in the Yale Repertory Theatre production of Cadillac Crew, directed by Jesse Rasmussen and Tori Sampson (photo by Joan Marcus)

While establishing the where, when, and what of these women’s lives, Sampson engages with issues and draws out character. Asides, such as the fact that Rosa Parks became a figurehead for the civil rights movement because of her looks and because an earlier activist who made the same protest was unmarried and pregnant, rub against bits of personality, such as Rachel’s efforts to write speeches; Abby’s crush on James Dean and her assumption that Rachel is a lesbian; Dee’s decision to give her twelve-year-old daughter a penknife when the girl has to attend a mostly white school (as a weak local effort to comply with desegregation); and Sarah’s way of worming the truth out of Abby while hinting at a truth of her own.

Throughout the play, La Tour’s Rachel provides important moments of emotional focus with impressive presence, while Brown’s Abby keeps up a welcome buoyancy, as when she steps up to mimic a lead singer, telling Dee she’s too old and Sarah she’s too white to sing lead. As Act 1 closes, a shocking atrocity against a “Cadillac crew” (a desegregated carload of women on the road to register voters) galvanizes the women as Rachel, with keen defiance, resolves to form another crew and take to the road.

Dee (Ashley Bryant), Abby (Dria Brown), Sarah (Brontë England-Nelson) (photo by Joan Marcus)

Dee (Ashley Bryant), Abby (Dria Brown), Sarah (Brontë England-Nelson) (photo by Joan Marcus)

After intermission, Jessie Chen’s realistic office set becomes a more schematic space representing a road and the front end of a car, framed by areas for Rasean Davonte Johnson’s gloomy projections of roads, woods, and weeds illuminated by car lights. Dialogue comes to a standstill as the women offer pages from their journals, then, under the threat of prowling white men, the crew gets stuck when the car breaks down. Some new elements come to light but a significant testing of the women’s resolutions and solidarity (that seemed likely at the end of Act 1, arguably) never materializes.

After a projection-collage of timely items, we find ourselves in the era in which Sampson wrote the play, in response to events that gave rise to Black Lives Matter in 2013, with the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, and the 2014 protests in Ferguson, MO after the death of Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer. We watch a broadcast where three women who are major figures in Black Lives Matter—Opal Tometi (Brown), Patrisse Cullors (Bryant), and Alicia Garza (La Tour)—speak out to a journalist (England-Nelson). Accompanied by a pyrotechnic display of thunder and lighting, the three guests read a utopian text that makes a request to dream a sacred America, “an America where you are not better than but equal to”—words penned by Rachel in 1974, now held up as inspiration going into election 2016. And, by extension, the next one.

Dee (Ashley Bryant), Rachel (Chalia La Tour), Abby (Dria Brown) (photo by Joan Marcus)

Dee (Ashley Bryant), Rachel (Chalia La Tour), Abby (Dria Brown) (photo by Joan Marcus)

The challenge of societal injustice confronts all the characters in Cadillac Crew at every turn, even as they all work to offset its worse effects, work the play joins as though an exemplary fulfillment of Rachel’s hopes. One of Sampson’s key points is that women like those we meet in Act 1 have been erased from history, but the play erases these women in turn, as the effort to delineate personal histories, as in the play’s plot-heavy 1960s, is jettisoned for the public voices and hashtag slogans of the current friending and sharing climate. In its conclusion, the play offers theater that, like Karen Hartman’s Good Faith staged at Yale Rep earlier this year, takes on our times with as little filter as possible. The effect is a bit like being accosted to sign a petition or make a donation, or, indeed, to vote—or take to the streets.

As Rachel says early on, criticizing high-minded rhetoric that lacks practical application: “Without demands or a plan to infiltrate, it’s merely a performance. I can go to the theater for all that.” It’s at least an irony—whether deliberate or not—that Rachel’s own words, late in the play, become the basis for just such a theatrical performance by rights activists. When demands occur within theater, it is up to the individual viewer to determine the force of the interpellation, and how effective a performance is as a means to command change.

With its unflinching effort to incorporate the long history of racial injustice since its alleged end with the phasing out of Jim Crow laws, Cadillac Crew aims to be a telling provocation, but its discursive quality makes for a labored transition from page to stage.


Cadillac Crew
By Tori Sampson
Directed by Jesse Rasmussen and Tori Sampson

Scenic Designer: Jessie Chen; Costume Designer: Matthew R. Malone; Lighting Designer: Kathy A. Perkins; Sound Designer: Andrew Rovner; Projection Designer: Rasean Davonte Johnson; Production Dramaturgs: Amy Boratko, Sophie Siegel-Warren; Technical Director: Alexandra McNamara; Vocal and Dialect Coach: Ron Carlos; Stage Manager: Olivia Louise Tree Plath

Cast: Dria Brown, Ashley Bryant, Bronté England-Nelson, Chalia La Tour

Yale Repertory Theatre
April 26-May 18, 2019

A Beautiful Day in the Barrio

Review of In the Heights, Westport Country Playhouse

Westport Country Playhouse opens its 2019 season with a crowd-pleaser. In the Heights by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, directed and choreographed by Marcos Santana, is a lively look back at a certain time and place, full of the kind of evocative nostalgia that becomes the stuff of myth—or of musicals.

We may be forgiven for looking back at the 1990s as a more innocent time. Set in July 1999, when an eighteen-hour blackout hit Washington Heights, where the action takes place, the musical evokes the summer heat and the way a neighborhood meets its daily challenges. There are many subplots—some are romantic, some economic, but most have to do with proving oneself and with learning to meet new challenges.

Nina (Didi Romero), Benny (Gerald Caesar), Graffitti Pete (Edward Cuellar), Usnavi (Rodolfo Soto), Piragua Guy (Paul Aguirre), Sonny (Ezequiel Pujols), Ensemble (Randy Castillo), Vanessa (Nina Victoria Negron), and Ensemble (Sarita Colon) in Westport Country Playhouse’s production of In the Heights (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Nina (Didi Romero), Benny (Gerald Caesar), Graffitti Pete (Edward Cuellar), Usnavi (Rodolfo Soto), Piragua Guy (Paul Aguirre), Sonny (Ezequiel Pujols), Ensemble (Randy Castillo), Vanessa (Nina Victoria Negron), and Ensemble (Sarita Colon) in Westport Country Playhouse’s production of In the Heights (photo by Carol Rosegg)

At the center of it all is Usnavi, an outgoing bodega owner, played with eager energy by Rodolfo Soto. His rapping intro to the barrio in the show’s title song is matched by many moving bodies, becomingly clad in Fabian Fidel Aguilar’s eye-catching costumes, and parading in Santana’s dance moves across the atmospheric set by Adam Koch. We’re off to a vivid start.

Carla (Amanda Robles), Daniela (Sandra Marante), Nina (Didi Romero), and Vanessa (Nina Victoria Negron) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Carla (Amanda Robles), Daniela (Sandra Marante), Nina (Didi Romero), and Vanessa (Nina Victoria Negron) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

At the heart of the story is Nina, played with delicate grace by Didi Romero; she’s the girl who made good by earning a scholarship to Stanford, now she’s back with a secret and finds a budding romance with Benny (Gerald Caesar), a worker at her father’s cabstand. Romero brings a lyrical sweetness to her numbers, “Breathe” and “Everything I Know,” and to her duets with Benny that book-end Act 2, “Sunrise” and “When the Sun Goes Down.” Nina’s parents, Kevin (Tony Chiroldes) and Camila (Doreen Montalvo), each get a standout number in Act 1 and Act 2, respectively. For Chiroldes, it’s Kevin’s melancholy “Inútil (Useless),” a theme song for fathers everywhere, and for Montalvo it’s “Enough,” Camila’s theme song for mothers tired of family bickering.

Miranda has a knack for putting the stuff of everyday life into pithy song, and he makes sure there’s a place in the show for all aspects of the neighborhood he’s at pains to depict. “Pacienca y Fe (Patience and Faith),” sung by the neighborhood’s “abuela” Claudia (Blanca Camacho, perfectly cast) is in many ways the theme song for the neighborhood’s mix of immigrants and their descendants from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba and elsewhere. One of the most touching moments comes early in Act 2 when Usnavi and Claudia join in acknowledging the “Hundreds of Stories” in the barrio.

Usnavi (Rodolfo Soto), Abuela Claudia (Blanca Camacho) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Usnavi (Rodolfo Soto), Abuela Claudia (Blanca Camacho) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

There’s also a big club number, which lets the kids dress up, to close out Act 1, followed by some violence and chaos during the blackout, and even a willful celebration of Carnaval, led by Daniela (Sandra Marante), who also encapsulates gossip as a lingua franca at her hair salon, with “No Me Diga.” The dances are led by Alison Solomon and make the most of Westport’s wide, deep stage. Domonic Sack’s soundstage, however, seems not quite up to the challenge of Westport’s barnlike space as some of the voices don’t come across with the requisite precision in the mix.

Santana, who choreographed Westport’s Man of La Mancha last season, here gets to take on a more upbeat musical. In the Heights lacks any darker dramatic tension, comprised of the kind of everyday challenges that only glance at issues of racism and the need for political action. Miranda and Alegría Hudes prefer to make the show a love letter to the barrio with the kind of united front common to sit-coms and Disney musicals. Usnavi, as the role Miranda originated, keeps a positive focus and Soto imbues him with a wide-eyed hope that makes him decide that his ticket out can just as easily be a reason to stay.

In the Heights is nothing if not celebratory, giving to an area previously depicted primarily in terms of gangs, crime and drugs a feel for its joy and strong ties—encapsulated by the moving “Everything I Know,” where moving on and taking the past along is key to the immigrants’ experience, handed down as legacy for the young and beautiful inhabitants in the heights.

Nina (Didi Romero), Benny (Gerald Caesar) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Nina (Didi Romero), Benny (Gerald Caesar) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

 

In the Heights
Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book by Quiara Alegría Hudes
Directed and choreographed by Marcos Santana

Scenic Design: Adam Koch; Costume Design: Fabian Fidel Aguilar; Lighting Design: María-Cristina Fusté; Sound Design: Domonic Sack; Music Director: Daniel Green; Associate Choreographer: Alison Solomon; Props Master: Alison Mantilla; Production Stage Manager: Jason Brouillard

Musicians: Aron Caceres, bass; Ernie Fortunato, guitar; Alex Giosa, drums; Daniel Green, keyboard; Christopher Gurr, keyboard II; Simon Hutchings, reeds; Chris Rinaman, trombone; Les Rogers, trumpet; Arei Sekiguchi, percussion

Cast: Paul Aguirre, Gerald Caesar, Blanca Camacho, Randy Castillo, Tony Chiroldes, Sarita Colon, Edward Cuellar, Jonté Jaurel Culpeppr, Melissa Denise Lopez, Sandra Marante, Doreen Montalvo, Nina Victoria Negron, Ezequiel Pujols, Amanda Robles, Didi Romero, Marco Antonio Santiago, Alison Solomon, Rodolfo Soto

 

Westport Country Playhouse
April 23-May 19, 2019