Alexander Dodge

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

One Ring to Rule Them All

Review of The Engagement Party, Hartford Stage

Dinner parties never seem to go well onstage. The assembled characters are bound to find some cause for friction that will defeat the best-intentioned bonhomie. Think only of two plays produced last season at Hartford Stage: Sarah Gancher’s Seder and Athol Fugard’s A Lesson from Aloes. Though Samuel Baum’s The Engagement Party, currently in its world premiere there, doesn’t quite launch us into the contested waters of those two predecessors, it does live up to the expectation that the thin veneer of social cheer will be cracked and warped and all but destroyed by evening’s end.

There is entertainment in watching that happen—if only because Baum’s characters are so insular in their attitudes—but the play’s insistence on a whodunit moment (or, more properly, a “was something done?”) creates a catalyst that leaves a bit to be desired. Maybe I’d just like to think better of everyone gathered here than they do of each other, or maybe it’s that Baum, and director Darko Tresjnak, want characters we can “suspect” rather than characters we can expect to be complicated.

Haley (Anne Troup), Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Conrad (Richard Bekins), Gail (Mia Dillon), Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Alan (Teddy Bergman), Josh (Zach Appelman) in the world premiere of The Engagement Party at Hartford Stage (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Haley (Anne Troup), Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Conrad (Richard Bekins), Gail (Mia Dillon), Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Alan (Teddy Bergman), Josh (Zach Appelman) in the world premiere of The Engagement Party at Hartford Stage (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Josh (Zach Appelman) and Catherine (Beth Riesgraf) are a well-to-do couple in a swanky Manhattan townhouse, its living and dining areas’ comfortable modernism perfectly established by Alexander Dodge’s enthralling set, which spins to reveal a showcase kitchen—with an incredibly high ceiling inferred—and, later, a second floor bedroom we see through a picture window. Each space is more enclosed than the last, and that makes for an escalating sense of claustrophobia as the partyers find themselves looking over each other’s shoulders and trying to catch hints of the conversation walked in upon.

The guests are: Catherine’s parents, Conrad (Richard Bekins), a fit septuagenarian, and his wife Gail (Mia Dillon), who disdains sporting a needed crutch; Haley (Anne Troup), much frumpier than her friend Catherine, and her husband Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Josh’s not-as-successful colleague. The two younger couples have been mutual friends since college—Harvard—along with Alan (Teddy Bergman), the intellectual of the bunch who now teaches at Columbia and disdains the trappings of wealth that his former classmates are so keen on curating. But he’s not the real odd-man-out: that role is filled, with jocular, working-class machismo, by Johnny (Brian Patrick Murphy), a childhood friend of Josh’s who knew him when.

Johnny (Brian Patrick Murphy), Josh (Zach Appelman), Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Conrad (Richard Bekins), Gail (Mia Dillon), Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Alan (Teddy Bergman), Haley (Anne Troup)

Johnny (Brian Patrick Murphy), Josh (Zach Appelman), Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Conrad (Richard Bekins), Gail (Mia Dillon), Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Alan (Teddy Bergman), Haley (Anne Troup)

The revelations that come out about what the characters are hiding or lying about deserve to be preserved from spoilers, but the reliance on a misplaced—and insanely costly—engagement ring as the evening’s turning point spoiled what had looked to be a play in which we get to see what friends of long-standing say about one another when one or another is out of the room. That play gets swept away, more or less, by an extended investigation of suspicion that traps the characters (for a time) as though in a “lite” version of The Exterminating Angel. When Alan—whom Teddy Bergman plays with captivating dryness—leaves the party, close behind tearful Haley and exasperated Kai, I was quite sorry to see him go and wished we could follow him to some other destination where he might continue to add interest to the evening.

Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Alan (Teddy Bergman), Josh (Zach Appelman)

Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Alan (Teddy Bergman), Josh (Zach Appelman)

Back inside, the drama unfolding between the sophisticated elder couple and their vapid daughter and up-from-Canarsie son-in-law-to-be escalates to near violence. Johnny—important if only because he knows the backstory that Josh has told no one—heads out for coffee, inviting Josh for a dialogue that never occurs. Pity, but the host can’t leave until the expensive engagement ring’s whereabouts are determined.

The revelation you might be expecting—Baum is the author of The Wizard of Lies, the gripping story of Bernie Madoff, and the play is set, deliberately we imagine, in 2007, just about when the lie that was our nation’s economy was exposed—doesn’t materialize. That’s too “Noughts”; the exposures of the “Teens” have been “Me-Too” moments, so think along those lines.

Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Josh (Zach Appelman)

Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Josh (Zach Appelman)

 The women here are mostly engaged in low-key reaction—with the always excellent Mia Dillon almost entirely wasted—though Catherine eventually gets to vent at her parents and husband. She may be the one we sympathize with most, but since she has cluelessly not divined much about the men in her life, we can only go so far with that. As Josh, Zach Appelman has to go from grabby husband to alienated son-in-law to awkward boss-friend-host (of Kai) to embarrassed chum (of Johnny), and eventually to hyper, almost paranoid, frenemy to everyone and, at last, hero egregiously wronged while also still wronging. We might think better of him were it not that he seems to understand himself so little.

Conrad (Richard Bekins), Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Gail (Mia Dillon), Josh (Zach Appelman)

Conrad (Richard Bekins), Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Gail (Mia Dillon), Josh (Zach Appelman)

The others do what they can with what they’ve got. Bekins, in his confrontation scene with Josh, plays concerned pater convincingly until the unsavory past is thrown in his face (with Baum stacking the deck with not one, not two, but three wrongs!). The scene comes undone well, but there’s nowhere the play can go after that. Fortunately, it doesn’t have much longer to go.

Brian Lee Huynh keeps things lively as Kai who is, in his own eyes, the most put-upon person present; as Haley, Anne Troup plays distraught well, but never gets to have a scene alone with her friend Catherine. Teddy Bergman’s Alan is spot-on, including recalcitrant hair, and Brian Patrick Murphy gives Johnny the touch of soul that no one else here has any inkling of.

Up until the fateful wine spill a third of the way through this quick 85-minute play, I was engaged by The Engagement Party, thereafter not so much. Some viewers will be sustained by the low order curiosity concerning what became of that much admired ring. If you must know, go!

Gail (Mia Dillon)

Gail (Mia Dillon)

The Engagement Party
By Samuel Baum
Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Joshua Pearson; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Fight Choreographer: Greg Webster; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Casting: Laura Stancyzk, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Robyn M. Zalewski; Assistant Stage Manager: Whitney M. Keeter; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; General Manager: Emily Van Scoy; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Cast: Zach Appelman, Richard Bekins, Teddy Bergman, Mia Dillon, Brian Lee Huynh, Brian Patrick Murphy, Beth Riesgraf, Anne Troup

Hartford Stage
January 10-February 3, 2019

Come On A My House

Review of Fireflies, Long Wharf Theatre

The kitchen of an aging spinster in a small town in Texas may be an unlikely place to find romance, and that’s the challenge of Fireflies, Matthew Barber’s adaptation of a novel by Annette Sanford, now playing at the Long Wharf Theatre. The school-marm, the nosey neighbor, the drifter / hired man are figures almost archetypal in their familiarity, and in their evocation of a certain kind of nostalgic Americana. To instill such types with believable, three-dimensional reality is not easy, but that’s what a trio of top flight actors does with these roles, directed by Gordon Edelstein.

Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey), Eleanor Bannister (Jane Alexander) (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey), Eleanor Bannister (Jane Alexander) (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Jane Alexander, a superlative character-actor her entire career, makes Eleanor Bannister, a retired school-teacher, a study in impulse at war with set-in-her-ways certainty. Eleanor spends all her time in her expansive kitchen in a house built by her daddy in a town with a population under 2,000. Alexander Dodge’s homey set has the character of a place and style that suits the folks who live there. Its appliances all look lived with and serviceable and definitely not “remodeled”—a word that would probably seem a neologism to Eleanor’s fine—and fussy—sense of correct English.

Eleanor is a taciturn woman who likes to keep to herself. Her busy-body neighbor Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey, pitch perfect) is always dropping by to borrow something and to dispense reminders and warnings. The latest involves a mysterious “drifter” who has hit town, going around—as Grace sees it—looking for soft-touch elderly ladies living alone to bilk of anything they’ve got.

Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey)

Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey)

Judith Ivey, a favorite with Long Wharf audiences, plays Grace with a wonderfully sympathetic grasp of how seemingly oblivious the lady is to Eleanor’s weariness with her intrusiveness and unwanted advice. She knows Eleanor isn’t the gossipy sort, but she’s got to try. She’s the very epitome of the phrase “means well,” and anyone who comes beneath her care—as her solitary neighbor does, perforce—will be a recipient of endless nuggets of local news, queries, and remarks full of outright incredulity at the slightest departure from custom and good sense. In effect, this is Grace’s lucky day because Eleanor is departing from both with an almost reckless abandon.

Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey), Eleanor Bannister (Jane Alexander)

Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey), Eleanor Bannister (Jane Alexander)

Almost. And that’s the great charm of Barber’s simple tale. The way Alexander’s Eleanor moves with a spirit she never really knew, then reins it in again with doubts and suspicions and, characteristically, a tendency to think she knows better than anyone. It’s that conviction that keeps coming under scrutiny as she wonders if there might be a bit more to life than she’s already known. An idea that gets met with panic or is the product of panic.

The titular fireflies get invoked a few times, not least in a brief dream sequence that feels steeped in a bit of hoary Our Town-style modernism (Edelstein directed a fine revamp of that familiar American theater chestnut a few years back). Eleanor, in Alexander’s portrayal, is the real firefly, winking on and off in response to the one thing this town rarely sees: a stranger.

Eleanor Bannister (Jane Alexander)

Eleanor Bannister (Jane Alexander)

As Abel Brown, the stranger, Denis Arndt is ingratiating and obliging. In the show’s first Act, he seems genuine enough, deliberately not living up to what the wagging tongues would make of him. His interest in Eleanor's “honeymoon cottage” may be self-serving or it may be at her service, and that's the question. In the shorter second Act, Arndt’s Brown really comes into his own, driven to exposition by the fact that he has been compromised. He gives a nicely calibrated aria of admission from a man who never willingly explains himself. His aggrieved sense of why he’s being driven to such ends—that he is in fact in a love story—lands with a fine sense of how some things must be so because they are.

Abel Brown (Denis Arndt)

Abel Brown (Denis Arndt)

Fireflies is not cutting edge theater and it’s not out to set the world on fire. It works the complacent rhythms of romantic comedy quite well, and lets our familiarity with small-town drama provide a context that could be more sinister. Barber shrewdly builds in a little suspense by having an intermission provoke guesses about where we’ll wind up. As the second Act opens, the presence of a police officer—a former pupil of Eleanor’s—makes us wonder about the interim. He also provides some background detail that a Google search might turn up, these days. As Officer Claymire, Christopher Michael McFarland adds a touch more comedy to the proceedings, accounting himself well as a local authority presiding over the authority that once stifled him as a child. His impromptu partial recital of a poem Miss Bannister taught him—Coleridge’s rhythmic wonder “Kubla Kahn”—says it all.

Eugene Claymire (Christopher Michael McFarland)

Eugene Claymire (Christopher Michael McFarland)

It may be that Fireflies is a passing glimpse of a manner of theater that is dying off, as insects do when the season is over. Yet in showing how actors can make even simple characters compelling, the play provides more sparks of greatness than some other, more contemporary-sounding romances I might name. At least I cared whether or not these two would make up, and the fact that Alexander and Arndt argue like a seasoned couple helps sell the point that they both, indeed, have some skin in the game. Which might be a way of saying that people who have had to face up to a load of things they’ll never do are more likely to be stirred by this last chance Texaco romance.

Thematically, the play made me recall a little gem from the pen of Leonard Cohen: “It’s just that I thought a lover / Had to be some kind of liar too.”

 

Fireflies
By Matthew Barber
From the novel Eleanor & Abel by Annette Sanford
Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Set Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Jess Goldstein; Lighting Design: Philip Rosenberg; Sound Design: John Gromada; Production Stage Manager: Kathy Snyder, Mary Spadoni; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern, Michelle Lauren Tuite; Casting: Calleri Casting

Cast: Jane Alexander, Denis Arndt, Judith Ivey, Christopher Michael McFarland

Long Wharf Theatre
October 11-November 5, 2017

 

 

 

Window Watcher

Review of Rear Window at Hartford Stage

Darko Tresnjak’s production of Rear Window, adapted by Keith Reddin from the Cornell Woolrich story, “It Had to Be Murder,” that inspired the famous Hitchcock film, creates, on the one hand, a visually interesting “stage noir” take on the story, and, on the other, adds levels of complication that make for a confused approach to characters and content.

Some of the problem, of course, may be in the eye of the beholder. If you come to the show informed by the film, you may be expecting the play’s big-draw film star, Kevin Bacon, to be playing Jeffries as a take on the affable Everyman made so indelible by James Stewart. The Jeffries in Reddin’s script, based a bit on Woolrich himself, is deliberately not that. Jeffries is an alcoholic newsman brooding over at least two major issues: one is the loss of his wife, Gloria, in a vague backstory, the other is a certain disillusion caused by the conviction and execution of an innocent black youth in South Carolina, a story he covered. Typically, Jeffries likes to write about homicide, and to purloin the murder weapon when possible, but the racist handling of the case of George Stinney (which actually occurred) has given him pause, professionally speaking.

McKinley Belcher III (Sam), Kevin Bacon (Hal Jeffries)

McKinley Belcher III (Sam), Kevin Bacon (Hal Jeffries)

He’s also on pause because, like the main character in both story and film, he has a cast on his leg, and crutches, and a wheelchair. All of which gives Bacon something to do, physically, in moving about the stage and making the most of a world-weary, hang-dog manner. But if you’re hoping for a good, middle-aged female nurse role such as Stella, brought to life by Thelma Ritter in Hitchcock’s film (scripted by John Michael Hayes), forget it. The helper for Jeffries is a young black kid, Sam (McKinley Belcher III) who shows up saying Jeffries, one drunken night, invited him over. He also has nothing but wide-eyed praise for Jeffries the writer; Jeffries looks askance at the flattery but takes a liking to the kid anyway. All well and good, except that Sam, a cipher of a character, also has to take on the role of getting Jeffries evidence—in the film, that task is left to his swanky girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) and in the story to Sam, a servant of long-standing. Here, the strongest character reading of these two is as a folie à deux between newsman turned sleuth and adoring fan turned factotum; there are also a few hints of Jeffries being in the closet, but those aren’t developed any more than that wan recollection of a former wife.

Kevin Bacon as Hal Jeffries

Kevin Bacon as Hal Jeffries

And the lack of development on the level of Jeffries’ emotional life nags at the play and isn’t really compensated for by Jeffries’ activity. What Jeffries does, of course, is spy on his neighbors. Though they aren’t up to much other than offering window-dressing, there is an ensemble up there in a tenement-like set, complete with fire escape, able to turn when necessary to let us into the modest apartment of the Thorwalds (Robert Stanton and Melinda Page Hamilton), a couple at loggerheads that Jeffries becomes obsessed with. There’s a glimpse of where this might have gone, were we still living in the Freudian days that fueled elements in film noir and Hitchcock, when we see that the couple might be living out some version of Jeffries’ own marital woe (particularly as Hamilton plays both the former Mrs. Jeffries and the current Mrs. Thorwald, that is, until the latter disappears mysteriously). The psychological battle Jeffries might undergo in confronting why he believes Thorwald—a meek-enough-looking guy, seeming like the quintessential hen-pecked husband complete with effeminate apron when we first meet him—killed Mrs. Thorwald could be the lurid stuff of a melodrama of the 1950s or 1960s (cue Nicholas Ray).

But that’s not what we have here, seemingly. Or that’s at least—without giving it away—what we’re led to believe by the rather rushed and unconvincing denouement that comes about, complete with loud gunplay, before the fuzzy conclusion. Along the way, there’s John Bedford Lloyd as Boyne, a surly detective that Jeffries himself calls into action, as he does in the story, though in Woolrich sans the racism that seems present here to remind us that cops, in New York (not just down South), have been known to mistreat African-Americans. It’s a point that serves little purpose in this story of a house-bound, would-be sleuth going bonkers, but one must allow that it’s a point, at least. Nothing much else here has one.

Except, that is, for the manifest technical point that seems to be exercising director Tresnjak: can the stage take on the mood and feel of film noir and deliver similar entertainment? In terms of the use of Alexander Dodge’s amazing set, with York Kennedy’s rich lighting scheme, Jane Shaw’s powerhouse sound, and Sean Nieuwenhuis’ projections—including opening titles straight from a movie matinee and a pair of filmed eyes that Hitch, always a friend to kitschy effects, might use—Tresnjak creates a world that should be inhabited by characters from James M. Cain and the like, where murder will out and flawed heroes take their lumps. But this is no campy celebration of beloved effects of a bygone cinematic era. And as a dark night of the soul, the play is oddly soul-less, while the theme of murder, so dear to the noirish heart, is here a vague sub-plot among sub-plots, made all the more will-o’-the-wisp by the fact that the tenement set, as the Thorwalds’ container, leaps into view only when, as it were, Jeffries bothers “to turn on the set.”

Kevin Bacon (Jeffries), Robert Stanton and Melinda Page Hamilton (the Thorwalds)

Kevin Bacon (Jeffries), Robert Stanton and Melinda Page Hamilton (the Thorwalds)

And that might be the final irony of the staging of Rear Window. The film made the case that we all live, to some degree, in glass houses, created by our voyeuristic love of cinema and television. We look at one another as characters in a drama we’re trying to watch. The richly detailed set in the film recalled a stage set, but “off-stage” and “off-camera” are two different worlds, the one simply doesn’t exist, the other appeals to a range of imaginative possibilities. Staging the cinematic is a complicated business and Tresnjak’s Rear Window demonstrates the problems more than it solves them.

 

Rear Window
Adapted for the stage by Keith Reddin
Based on the story by Cornell Woolrich

Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Linda Cho; Lighting Design: York Kennedy; Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Projection Design: Sean Nieuwenhuis; Wig & Hair Design: Charles G. LaPointe; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Fight Choreographer: Steve Rankin; Casting: Jim Carnahan, C.S.A.; Production Stage Manager: James Harker; Assistant Stage Manager: Cherie B. Tay; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Cast: Kevin Bacon; McKinley Belcher III; Melinda Page Hamilton; John Bedford Lloyd; Robert Stanton; Erik Bloomquist; Caitlin Harrity; Dan Bender; Roy Donnelly; William Squier; Barbara Gallow; Ashley Croce; Jon Garrity; Quinn Warren; Dan Bender; Roy Donnelly

Hartford Stage
October 22-November 15, 2015

That Old Shakespearean Rag

Review of Kiss Me, Kate at Hartford Stage

Granted, Kiss Me, Kate is, as a play, more silly than shrewd. But then this 1940s’ musical isn’t noted for its Book by Bella and Samuel Spewack, but for its music and lyrics by Cole Porter. The vitality and wit of songs like “Too Darn Hot,” “Why Can’t You Behave,” and “Always True to You in My Fashion” remain undimmed by time, much as does the blank verse of the Bard. Combining both in one show is about as classy as you can get. And that’s what we get: a silly tale of backstage romance and its relation to, onstage, a musical of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew—on its opening night in Baltimore—with Porter’s songs to keep things witty.

Mike McGowan as Fred as Petruchio; Anastasia Barzee as Lilli as Kate

Mike McGowan as Fred as Petruchio; Anastasia Barzee as Lilli as Kate

As a musical about putting on a musical, and as a show about sparring leads—Lilli Vanessi (Anastasia Barzee) and Fred Graham (Mike McGowan)—who were once a couple, now playing the shrew Katharine and her roguish suitor Petruchio, Kiss Me, Kate has fun with actors’ egos, theater, musicals, Shakespeare, and the amorous ways of men and women. In this staging it also has director Darko Tresnjak, who scored a Tony for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, showing again his sure hand with flamboyantly fluffy stuff, reunited with members of the Gentleman team, Peggy Hickey, choreographer, Alexander Dodge, scenic designer, and Philip Rosenberg, lighting designer, and with Fabio Toblini, who did such an eye-pleasing job with the costumes for Tresnjak’s production of Bell, Book & Candle. And that means the show is a feast for the eyes and ears.

The somewhat clever conceit of the story is seeing an estranged acting couple patch things up in a comic arc that parallels the story of how Petruchio “tames” the shrew Katharine; meanwhile, the co-star Lois Lane (Megan Sikora), a source of jealousy for Lilli, has a boyfriend, Bill Calhoun (Tyler Hanes), who signed Fred’s name for his gambling debts, and that brings into the story two comical hoodlums (Brendan Averett and Joel Blum) who, in order to keep an eye on Lilli, get onstage in Shakespearean get-ups. No need to follow the plot too closely, the glory of the story is in the song and dance routines, and Tresnjak and company just keep ‘em coming.

James T. Lane and company

James T. Lane and company

To keep the various playing areas in play—with backstage, and onstage, and paired dressing-rooms—Dodge’s way with the staging is delightful, and Toblini’s Shakespearean costumes wow in blazing Technicolor. The well-known Porter songs, such as those mentioned above, grace the backstage action, where, sometimes, they’re just added delights with no plot points—such as James T. Lane’s frothy work-up of “Too Darn Hot,” the second act opener that threatens to make us forget all about Shakespearean shenanigans.

But there are some great comic tunes within Taming to divert us, particularly two numbers flaunting naughty fun: Petruchio’s “Where Is The Life That Late I Led?” makes the most of Porter’s tongue-in-cheek ribaldry, and the flirty Bianca (Sikora), with Gremio (Barrett Martin), Hortensio (Giovanni Bonaventura), and Lucentio (Tyler Hanes), gives “Tom, Dick or Harry” laughs and memorable moves a-plenty. Another comic highpoint finds the hoods lecturing the guys on the Bard’s seductive use with the girls (“Brush Up on Your Shakespeare). Averett and Blum make the most of the music-hall style comedy of heavies in leotards.

Anastasia Barzee (Lilli / Kate)

Anastasia Barzee (Lilli / Kate)

Most of the best stuff comes in the second act, with those first three numbers, “Too Darn Hot,” “Where is the Life” and Sikora’s wonderfully fluid rendering of “Always True to You in My Fashion,” whereas the first act is a bit heavy with plot. Still, “Another Op’nin’, Another Show” kicks the show off in grand fashion, and Petruchio and Katharine get to make their comical claims with “I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua” and “I Hate Men,” respectively. Indeed, the latter is Barzee’s finest moment, finding ways to work a nude male statue to keep viewers’ transfixed. And for those who like ballads, there’s the lovely lilt of “So In Love,” delivered by both Barzee and McGowan separately in each act. Especially good at what they do: McGowan’s ultra-masculine strut and sonorous voice as Fred/Petruchio, Sikora’s vivacious sexiness as Lois/Bianca, some rousing tap-dancing from Hanes and Lane, and vocals from Charity Angél Dawson as Hattie in the opening.

Megan Sikora as Bianca with suitors

Megan Sikora as Bianca with suitors

All in all, it’s a musical comedy of riches, featuring a judicious use of lines from The Taming of the Shrew to keep in play what T.S. Eliot called “that old Shakespeherian rag—It’s so elegant. So intelligent.” Words that might easily be used to describe the songs of Cole Porter. Together they make a fizzy cocktail of screwball fun.

Kiss Me, Kate
Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter

Book by Bella and Samuel Spewack

Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Choreography by Peggy Hickey

Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Fabio Toblini; Lighting Design: Philip S. Rosenberg; Sound Design: Jonathan Deans; Wig Design: Jason Allen; Music Director: Kris Kukul; Vocal & Text Coach: Claudia Hill-Sparks; Fight Director: J. Allen Suddeth; Casting: Binder Casting; Associate Music Director: Max Mamon; Production Stage Manager: Anjee Nero; Assistant Stage Manager: Amanda Salmons; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Hartford Stage
May 14-June 14, 2015