Connecticut Repertory Theatre

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 Management. 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 (review). For a preview of the shows from October 24 through December, go here.

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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 (review).

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 deceased sisters, September 18-October 13 (review), 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 (review).

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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 (review); the next two shows will be directed by Rachel Alderman, Artistic Associate (and a founding 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 (review), 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 (review); 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 (review); 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 (review).

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 (review), 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 (preview) (review); 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 (review); 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 (review); 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 . . .

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

Superstar of Sorrows

Review of Jesus Christ Superstar, Connecticut Repertory Theatre

Certainly, there is genius in the notion of Jesus Christ as a “superstar.” The venerable rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice dates from a time when the adulation surrounding rock stars could combine with counter-cultural possibilities to suggest a populist savior (think John Lennon and the “bed-in for peace”). Jesus, as a counter-cultural force both within the Roman empire and within the orthodoxy of Judaism, seems tailor-made to fit the bill.

All that was needed was to concoct a musical that combined both aspects of Jesus’s appeal—the religious and the political—with the energies of the youth of the day. Rice and Webber’s rock opera presents the main details of the Passion Play while also stressing the tensions without and within. As Jesus leads his hand-picked troupe of apostles into Jerusalem, the authorities grow concerned at the size of the mob following him, and Judas, one of the disciples, grows worried that “Jesus can’t control it like he did before.”

Jesus (Alex Prakken), center, with the apostles/ensemble (photos courtesy of CT Repertory Theatre production of "Jesus Christ Superstar")

Jesus (Alex Prakken), center, with the apostles/ensemble (photos courtesy of CT Repertory Theatre production of "Jesus Christ Superstar")

In Terrence Mann’s staging of Jesus Christ Superstar at Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nutmeg Summer Series, the trappings of a hippie theatrical troupe—put on the screen so indelibly by Norman Jewison in the 1973 film version—stress the youth of the followers, and with half the apostles male and half female, this Jesus leads a co-ed apostolate. The way in which youth and high spirits and community will be ground down by religious authorities and Roman potentates, while the fall of the Jesus cult will be seized on by media spoke to the times of the original Superstar, and Mann’s version—with vivid staging and design—brings all that back. (I saw a later Broadway production, way back in 1973, and the film, from which Mann borrows a few key touches, many times over the years.)

So what’s new in this classic tale? The element that struck me most forcefully is how overwhelmed Jesus is by the forces he has put into play. The part, as written, doesn’t give him much to say after his great soliloquy (or colloquy with God) in “Gethsemane,” and that song, in Alex Prakken’s rendering, is confrontational and brittle. Jesus, in the authors’ view, is anything but a “lamb of God.” He chides his followers (“why are you obsessed with fighting—stick to fishing from now on”), provokes Judas (“save me your speeches I don’t want to know”), and throws Pontius Pilate’s own words back at him. Prakken delivers accordingly. This is a Jesus who might be easily conceived as the rabble-rouser the high priests Caiaphas (Tyler Grigsby) and Annas (Bryan Mittelstadt) fear he is. Jesus’s high-pitched screech at the clinging, needy sufferers who hound him—“Heal yourselves!”—is anything but compassionate.

Annas (Bryan Mittelstadt), Judas (Ryan Vona), Caiaphas (Tyler Grigsby)

Annas (Bryan Mittelstadt), Judas (Ryan Vona), Caiaphas (Tyler Grigsby)

The notion that the musical should show us a human Jesus is well-taken, but nowhere at CT Rep do we see a hero who rises above his suffering. The part of Judas is generally seen, rightly, as the main role, one driven by both a complicated love of Jesus as well as a belief in how best to serve the collective purpose. Ryan Vona gives Judas a canny, second-lieutenant look, and makes him the figure here who is actually betrayed. His cries in extremis leading up to his death in despair are suitably tortured. The rave-up of the song “Superstar”—as it always does—comes as the questioning of Jesus by the show’s authors, its words put in Judas’ mouth. “Who are you, what have you sacrificed?” Then comes the gripping answer. Jesus, whether “misguided martyr” (as Pilate says) or not, sacrifices himself.

Jesus Christ (Alex Prakken)

Jesus Christ (Alex Prakken)

In this production the crucifixion is strikingly executed, putting stress on the fact that there’s only one possible outcome. Having to enact Jesus’s death is harrowing and that means, as a musical, the ending is bound to feel bitter. Along the way, the more typically heart-tugging moments come from Sasha Renae Brown’s soulful Mary Magdalene, singing the popular hit “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” with the requisite passion surging up in the midst of bewilderment. The bewilderment becomes even more eloquent in her duet with Peter (Will Bryant), “Could We Start Again, Please?”, delivered after Jesus has been taken away without a fight. As Pilate, Jonathan Cobrda lords it up well, and plays to our sympathies as a man who hoped to avoid this particular date with destiny. The iron sense that, as Jesus says late in the play, “everything is fixed and you can’t change it,” plays out badly for the humans involved. Jesus, in his immortal guise, lets things take their course.

Pontius Pilate (Jonathan Cobrda)

Pontius Pilate (Jonathan Cobrda)

The dance numbers—especially “Simon Zealotes” (with Simon Longnight as Simon)—and the forming of tableaux, such as a Da Vinci-esque Last Supper and a Pieta-like moment between Jesus and Mary, are where the power of this production lies. The big show-biz number—“King Herod’s Song”—is camped up amusingly by Griffin Binnicker, perfect as Herod, backed by a colorful ensemble. In general the ensemble, often in the aisles, makes the “50,000” feel palpable, and enacts all the joy to be found here.

Jesus (Alex Prakken), Mary Magdalene (Sasha Renae Brown)

Jesus (Alex Prakken), Mary Magdalene (Sasha Renae Brown)

And, of course, there’s the score—which makes guitar riffs feel “operatic” and, in the hands of a capable band, streamlined enough for “classic rock” status. I particularly liked having guitarist Thomas Bora come onstage at the opening to lead off the “Overture” with the needling guitar figure from “Heaven on Their Minds.” Elsewhere, some nice choral effects from the ensemble caught my ear, and Ryan Vona impressed me with his vocal ability to give new readings to familiar lyrics.

Prophet, messiah, confused leader, patsy to his Dad’s plans for the firm, Jesus is a superstar grown truculent with his management and tired of having to play the same role all the time, trying, in the early going, to keep his fans on course (“you’ll be lost, you’ll be sorry, when I’m gone”), and then throwing in the towel. Have no fear, the “cult” went on and became its own authority, though, given the events of Jesus Christ Superstar, it’s not surprising its hero has—to date—not returned.

Jesus Christ Superstar
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Directed by Terrence Mann

Music Director/Conductor: Bryan McAdams; Stage Manager: James Mountcastle; Scenic Designer: Tim Brown; Choreographer: Christopher d’Amboise; Sound Designer: Michael Vincent Skinner; Costume Designer: Fan Zhang; Lighting Designer: Doug Harry; Technical Director: John Parmelee

Cast: Alex Prakken, Ryan Vona, Jonathan Cobrda, Griffin Binnicker, Sasha Renae Brown, Will Bryant, Tyler Grigsby, Simon Longnight, Bryan Mittelstadt, Jamie Colburn, Madeline Dunn, Shaylen Harger, Annelise Henry, Michael Katz, Nick Nudler, Jovick Pavajeau-Orostegui, Hayden Elizabeth Price, Paige Smith, Alessandro Viviano

Orchestra: Bryan McAdams, conductor, keyboard 1; Thomas Bora, guitar; Daniel Gonko, drums; Seth Lisle, bass; David Parsons, trumpet; Philip Plott, reed; Katya Stanislavskaya, keyboard 2

Connecticut Repertory Theatre
2018 Nutmeg Summer Series
July 12-22, 2018

 

King of Comedy

Review of Spamalot at Connecticut Repertory Theatre

First of all, let’s get this out of the way: I’m a huge fan of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and of Monty Python in general. I saw the film on its first U.S. run, several times, and had, in my teens, committed to memory many Python routines, including most of the dialogue of the film. I resisted going to see the Broadway run of Spamalot because, frankly, the idea of actors trying to take on the variety of roles and voices that the Pythons themselves—Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and sometimes Terry Gilliam and Carol Cleveland—originated struck me as a kind of sacrilege. But time goes on and we’ve got to get over that.

Richard Kline (far right) as King Arthur with his Knights (photo by Gerry Goodstein)

Richard Kline (far right) as King Arthur with his Knights (photo by Gerry Goodstein)

Particularly as Spamalot has managed to bring to the stage the inspired inanity of the film, but with the advantage that the actors can actually hear the audience laughing. Where the film spoofed certain genres of film-making, not least the documentary and the arthouse film, Spamalot spoofs the stage and, particularly, Broadway musicals. Both film and musical, of course, spoof the august tale of King Arthur and his noble Knights of the Round Table, the search for the Holy Grail, and the mix of the fabulous and the folksy that comprises the world of legend. Idle, who had to go it alone without his former colleagues in converting their best-known work into a stage show, is clever in how he “lovingly rip[s]-off” (to use the official terminology) the film and adapts it to the stage.

The Cast of Spamalot (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

The Cast of Spamalot (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

Tremendously popular, Spamalot has played all over the world—which is fitting as the good old British empire got about a bit. As staged at University of Connecticut’s Connecticut Repertory Theatre, directed by Richard Ruiz, with a few professional parts and the rest student actors, Spamalot comes across as a wacky romp trying to “find its legs.” The notion that Arthur has to put on a Broadway show, as charged by the Knights Who Until Recently Said Ni, feels like a quest indeed. Though production values may have been a bit different on Broadway, the show sends up professional theater while remaining true to what Idle conceived: taking aim at Broadway while aiming for Broadway. That means there are plenty of cheesy visuals that are remarkable for how serviceable they are—such as the castles for the outrageous French taunters and the plaintive plight of Herbert. There’s even catapulted cows and a hilarious plush, fanged rabbit. And a great variety of costuming by Heather Lesieur.

Arthur (Richard Kline) and BFA actors as attendants (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

Arthur (Richard Kline) and BFA actors as attendants (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

The pros in the cast—Richard Kline as Arthur and Mariand Torres as the Lady of the Lake—together with choreographer Tom Kosis give this show its Broadway shine. The stagework throughout is lively and inventive (and special credit to Voice and Accent Coach David Alan Stern for keeping an ear to the original). Kline’s Arthur has the right straight-man tone—diffident and generally perplexed—but he can also soft-shoe and sing and break the fourth wall—“there goes my career”—all while seeming like an aging CEO trying to find out what makes his business go. And Torres, besides looking great in her various get-ups, from Disneyish princess to outlandish Vegas-style hoofer, handles the vocals given to the Lady—who is mainly only there to provide musical commentary—with joyous comic aplomb.

Mariand Torres as The Lady of the Lake (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

Mariand Torres as The Lady of the Lake (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

But about that part: since most of the Python’s works were “boys only” affairs, with an occasional actual female cameo, mostly in the T&A category, there’s not much for a female star to do in Spamalot. Idle’s solution is to make that lack thematic, having the Lady gripe—in full-throated song—about being underused. It’s funny, yes, but misses taking advantage of the Zoot/Dingo dichotomy from the film, as the stage play—disappointingly—drops the entire Castle Anthrax scene. It should’ve been expanded rather than excised and then there would be some actual female “peril” and possibly a song or two for a female character that isn’t simply meta-commentary.

The show is well cast, particularly in key roles: Gavin McNicoll is perfect as Pasty, Arthur’s overlooked Cockney assistant, who gets a major song, and Nick Nudler is rather Idle-esque as the cowardly “Brave” Sir Robin, who gets to lead the droll “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway”—very Gilbert & Sullivan—while, as Sir Lancelot, Bryce Wood does full justice to the delightful “His Name is Lancelot.” Both songs develop facts about the American stage—the prevalence of Jews and gays—in a breezy, poking-fun way. Like “The Song That Goes Like This” and “Twice in Every Show,” the song routines laugh at the convenience of conventions even while benefiting from them, for the sake of a laugh.

BFA actor Gavin McNicholl (Patsy) leads the cast in "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

BFA actor Gavin McNicholl (Patsy) leads the cast in "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

And that’s pretty much the only take away from the show, as stated in “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” (which Idle, who wrote it, cleverly steals from the Python’s other successful film, The Life of Brian): “They say it’s all a show, keep ‘em laughing as you go / Just remember that the last laugh is on you.” The laugh, initially, was that a show that spoofs successful Broadway musicals became a successful Broadway musical, winning three Tony awards. Here, the “last laugh” is that the show is also a delightful big production event for university theater with its infectious sense that it’s best not to take anything too seriously.

BFA Actor Bryce Wood as Tim the Enchanter (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

BFA Actor Bryce Wood as Tim the Enchanter (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

 

 

Richard Kline in
Monty Python’s Spamalot
Book and Lyrics by Eric Idle; Music by John Du Prez & Eric Idle
Featuring Mariand Torres
Directed by Richard Ruiz

Scenic Designer: Abigail Copeland; Lighting Designer: Adam Lobelson; Musical Director: John Pike; Costume Designer: Heather Lesieur; Voice & Accent Coach: David Alan Stern; Technical Director: Gregory Maine; Dramaturg: Benjamin McSheehy; Video/Projection Designer: Josh Winiarski; Choreographer: Tom Kosis; Sound Designers: Justin Graziani, Joel Abbott

Cast: Mikaila Baca-Dorion; Valerie Badjan; Juliana Bearse; Olivia Benson; Kent Coleman; Jeff DeSisto; Zack Dictakis; Tabatha Gayle; Derrick Holmes; Sarah Jensen; Richard Kline*; Kirsten Keating Liniger; Curist Longfellow; Gavin McNicoll; Chester Martin; Nick Nudler; Joon Ho Oh; Scott Redmond; Susannah Resnikoff; Ryan Rudewicz; Meredith Saran; Ben Senkowski; Ryan Shea; Brian Patrick Sullivan; Mariand Torres*; Bryce Wood; Jacob Harris Wright

*AEA member

Connecticut Repertory Theatre
University of Connecticut School of Fine Arts
April 21-May 1, 2016