Goodspeed Musicals

Billy Idol: Goodspeed Launches Billy Elliot Run

Review of Billy Elliot, Goodspeed Musicals

The London original of the long-running success Billy Elliot, the Musical closed in 2016, having opened 11 years previous. The show clearly has audience appeal, based largely on the prospect of seeing youngsters dance in a variety of styles, including ballet and tap and boogie. It’s a show that celebrates the urge to self-expression that can lead to a life chasing the footlights, reminding audiences how uplifting—even to onlookers—the discovery of talent can be.

The film directed by Stephen Daldrey, from Lee Hall’s script, from which the musical derives, arrived in 2000 and looked back at the hard-fought and losing struggle by the UK’s National Union of Miners to prevent mine-closings in their doomed industry by staging a massive strike in 1985-86. The effort, which occasioned considerable sacrifice and conflict among the miners, was defeated by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in what became an important victory in the ongoing privatization that dismantled the so-called Welfare State. Billy Elliot, The Musical gives Sir Elton John, Music, the opportunity to fashion a working-class-hero vehicle with Lee Hall’s Book and Lyrics. Certainly one of the effects of the musical is that it’s given thousands of child actors opportunity to take to the stage in dance roles that are both demanding and rewarding.

Billy Elliot (Liam Vincent Hutt) with the cast of Goodspeed Musicals’  Billy Elliot The Musical , now playing at The Goodspeed through November 24. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

Billy Elliot (Liam Vincent Hutt) with the cast of Goodspeed Musicals’ Billy Elliot The Musical, now playing at The Goodspeed through November 24. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

At Goodspeed in East Haddam, directed by Gabriel Barre, with choreography by Marc Kimmelman and musical direction by Michael O’Flaherty, Billy Elliot, the Musical makes the most of its talented young cast, and the many opportunities for the adult cast to move in the aisles, sometimes as riot police opposing strikers, give the show a rowdy energy. Which helps because the songs don’t exactly stick in one’s mind and the show’s dramatic arc feels like something you’ve already seen, even if you missed the Oscar-nominated film. And yet there are pleasures to be found.

Mrs. Wilkinson (Michelle Aravena), Billy Elliot (Liam Vincent Hutt) with the cast of Goodspeed Musicals’  Billy Elliot The Musical . Photo by Diane Sobolewski

Mrs. Wilkinson (Michelle Aravena), Billy Elliot (Liam Vincent Hutt) with the cast of Goodspeed Musicals’ Billy Elliot The Musical. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

A young lad in a mining family minus recently deceased Mum, Billy (Liam Vincent Hutt or Taven Blanke), discovers a talent for ballet he didn’t know he had, encouraged by Mrs. Wilkinson (Michelle Aravena), a wonderfully committed teacher who sees in him a vicarious satisfaction of her own defeated dreams; working-class family struggling (even more than usual because they’re on strike) is not sympathetic to the boy’s means of self-expression, or probably artistic expression in general (Billy takes up dance lessons when he’s supposed to be going to boxing lessons). The subtext is that any boy who wants to dance rather than box must be gay—greatly not ok with this lot. But he’s not—ostensibly. Billy does have a friend, Michael (Jon Martens), complete with Elton John glasses, who fancies him, as does Mrs. Wilkinson’s daughter, Debbie (Erica Parks). Eventually there’s a row when Mrs. W. visits Billy’s home to take the boy to an audition at the Royal Dance Academy and the cat is out of the bag, about ballet. In the second act, after a Christmas pageant in which the miners and their families mock Thatcher in effigy, a touching moment between Dad (Sean Hayden) and son precedes a moment when Dad views Billy in the full flight of dance. Dad eats crow and visits Mrs. W. and even, after the strapped miners all chip in to pay for the trip, accompanies Billy to the audition. But will the boy’s dream come true? By that point, he’s not a weird outsider to his native community but rather a symbol of its hopes. It’s the kind of story a rock star might identify with, as Billy aspires to leave one field of exploited labor (mining) for another (theater). So it goes.

Michael (Jon Martens) and Billy (Liam Vincent Hutt) in Goodspeed Musicals’  Billy Elliot The Musical.  Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

Michael (Jon Martens) and Billy (Liam Vincent Hutt) in Goodspeed Musicals’ Billy Elliot The Musical. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

Onstage, there’s the somewhat interesting juxtaposition of flashes of glam aesthetic (mostly via Michael, and Jon Martens is a wonderfully engaging young show-person) against a nicely done “angry young man” kitchen-sink set. The best stuff comes mostly in Act 1: “Shine” may be a song with utterly banal lyrics, but it’s fun to see a troupe of game girls (Erica Parks, Margot Anderson-Song, Amy Button, Tess Santarsiero, Camiel Warren-Taylor) practice ballet only to be shown up by Billy; “Grandma’s Song,” very engagingly sung by Barbara Marineau as Billy’s slightly dotty grandma, recalling her days of drinking and dancing as breaks from domestic abuse (the song inspires hopes for more such bits of characterization to come, but they mostly don’t); “Expressing Yourself” led by Michael (whose story might be rather more interesting than Billy’s) with flashy dress-up; “Solidarity” which gets the cops and the miners into it while the ballet girls and Billy are trying to make art in the midst of chaos; finally, Billy’s “Angry Dance,” which shows him expressing himself, indeed, after getting squelched by his dad.

Grandma (Barbara Marineau) reminisces with Billy (Liam Vincent Hutt) in Goodspeed Musicals’  Billy Elliot The Musical . Photo by Diane Sobolewsk

Grandma (Barbara Marineau) reminisces with Billy (Liam Vincent Hutt) in Goodspeed Musicals’ Billy Elliot The Musical. Photo by Diane Sobolewsk

The best bits in Act 2: Sean Hayden’s rendering of “Deep into the Ground,” which becomes an elegy for his dead wife; “Dream Ballet” in which Billy and his older self (Nick Silverio) do a very graceful pas de deux to “Swan Lake,” and Billy’s “Electricity” in which he tries to explain how he feels when he dances. The lyrics, again, are rather bland, but Liam Vincent Hutt does convince us that Billy has transcendent talent. The fearsome puppet of Thatcher at the Act’s opening didn’t seem to spark much mirth the night I saw the show, perhaps because even more vile politicians swarm upon us today, and yet it’s nice to know that the show’s denigration of “the Iron Lady” continues unabated.

“Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher!” The cast of Goodspeed Musicals’  Billy Elliot The Musical . Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

“Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher!” The cast of Goodspeed Musicals’ Billy Elliot The Musical. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

The emotional core of the show, though, isn’t so much the us vs. them of the miners trying to unite—either in striking or in backing Billy—or even in Billy finding himself as a talent, but rather in Dad seeing that his son has something special and taking that as a badge of pride rather than as an affront. To make sure that aspect of the show is as weepy as possible, there’s Dead Mum (Rachel Rhodes-Devey) on hand to provide loving, albeit ghostly, support, with a letter to her son upon his eighteenth birthday that Billy has read prematurely and takes as his own badge of emotional security.

There’s a certain earnestness about the value of childhood dreams, talent, and the belief of those who sacrifice for another’s success that, I suspect, makes Billy Elliot, the Musical an all-ages favorite (despite the authentic profanity of the setting). And yet it’s also—because of the context of Billy’s one-among-thousands selection—a bit of a shrug-off to all those who worked for something other than simply launching a ballet idol. As Tony (Gabriel Sidney Brown), Billy’s self-righteously indignant and somewhat bullying older brother, says, “we can’t all be dancers.” But if just one of “us” is, well, I guess that means it hasn’t all been a bloody waste.

The cast of Goodspeed Musicals’  Billy Elliot The Musical , now playing at The Goodspeed through November 24. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

The cast of Goodspeed Musicals’ Billy Elliot The Musical, now playing at The Goodspeed through November 24. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.


Billy Elliot, The Musical
Book and Lyrics by Lee Hall
Music by Elton John
Directed by Gabriel Barre
Musical Direction by Michael O’Flaherty
Choreographed by Marc Kimelman

Scenic Design: Walt Spangler; Costume Design: Jen Caprio; Lighting Design: Jason Kantrowitz; Sound Design: Jay Hilton; Hair & Wig Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Fight Direction: Unkledave’s Fight-House; Dialect Coach: Jennifer Scapetis-Tycer: Assistant Music Director: William J. Thomas; Orchestrations: Dan DeLange; Production Manager: Erica Gilroy; Production Stage Manager: Bradley G. Spachman; General Manager: Rachel J. Tischler; Producer: Donna Lynn Cooper Hilton

Cast: Margot Anderson-Song, Michelle Aravena, Taven Blanke, Gabriel Sidney Brown, Amy Button, Billy Cohen, Richard Costa, Erik Gratton, Sean Hayden, Julia Louise Hosack, Liam Vincent Hutt, Emily Larger, Gerard Lanzerotti, Samantha Littleford, Barbara Marineau, Jon Martens, Connor McRory, Erica Parks, Simon Pearl, Rachel Rhodes-Devey, William Daniel Russell, Tess Santarsiero, Nick Silverio, Bryon St. Cyr, Jesse Swimm, Camiel Warren-Taylor

Musicians: Keyboard 1: William J. Thomas; Keyboard 2: David Kidwell; Trumpet: Pete Roe; Trombone: Matthew Russo; Reed 1: Liz Baker Smith; Reed 2: Mickey Shuster; Guitar: Nick DiFabio; Percussion: Sal Ranniello

Alternates: Keyboard 2: Anthony Pandolfe, Sarah Iadarola; Trumpet: Seth Bailey; Trombone: Andrew Janes, George Sanders; Reed 1: Mickey Schuster, Andrew Studenski; Reed 2: Harrison Kliewe; Percussion: Dave Edricks

Goodspeed
September 13-November 24, 2019

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).

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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 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.

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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 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 (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; 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; 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 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

Wedding Blitz

Review of The Drowsy Chaperone, Goodspeed Musicals

When Ben Brantley reviewed the original Broadway production of The Drowsy Chaperone in 2006 he noted what a crowd-pleaser it was, but seemed bemused by that fact. You could say there’s a certain critical prejudice against shows that are simply good fun and have, as the saying goes, “no redeeming social value.” It’s fitting that the show should be mostly fluff, since the idea for this musical spoofing musicals began as a party joke that Don McKellar, Lisa Lambert, and Greg Morrison devised for the amusement of Robert Martin and his betrothed, Janet Van de Graaff. And so the main plot element here is how to keep the affianced lovers—Bob (Clyde Alves) and Janet (Stephanie Rothenberg)—from seeing each other before the marriage, while, of course, lots of ambient romance circulates and we wait to see who couples or uncouples with whom. An added attraction is that Janet is a Broadway star of some magnitude who has vowed to forsake the footlights for the sake of her man.

“Show Off,” with Janet Van de Graff (Stephanie Rothenberg), center, and the cast of The Goodspeed production of The Drowsy Chaperone (photos credit: Diane Sobolewski)

“Show Off,” with Janet Van de Graff (Stephanie Rothenberg), center, and the cast of The Goodspeed production of The Drowsy Chaperone (photos credit: Diane Sobolewski)

Lambert and Morrison wrote the music and lyrics and the songs are mostly excuses for silliness set to music, having the kind of effervescence associated with champagne in large quantities. And that’s fitting as the titular character—The Chaperone (Jennifer Allen)—imbibes immodestly and tends to get drowsy (or so she says) when she drinks. Her faux dozing leaves her charge, Janet, free for a prenuptial espial of her betrothed, Robert, he of the gleaming teeth, as he roller-skates blindfolded in the garden. Their encounter there sparks a contretemps that may capsize their particular love boat.

“Adolpho,” with Adolpho (John Rapson) and The Chaperone (Jennifer Allen)

“Adolpho,” with Adolpho (John Rapson) and The Chaperone (Jennifer Allen)

Meanwhile, the Chaperone finds herself mistaken as the bride for the erotic attentions of Adolpho (John Rapson), an operatic Italian who wants to seduce Robert’s betrothed as payback for a perceived slight. Meanwhile, there are gangsters on hand—two brothers played to the hilt by the brothers Slaybaugh (Blakely and Parker)—because, if Janet jilts the production she’s starring in, it ain’t going to be pretty for Feldzieg (James Judy), a theater producer accompanied everywhere by Kitty (Ruth Pferdehirt), an inspired ditz as strident would-be star. There’s also the lady of the house, Mrs. Tottendale (Ruth Gottschall) and her fastidious butler, Underling (Jay Aubrey Jones), George, the forgetful best man (Tim Falter), and, for good measure in the finale, a genial aviatrix, Trix (Danielle Lee Greaves).

“Cold Feets,” with George (Tim Falter) and Robert Martin (Clyde Alves)

“Cold Feets,” with George (Tim Falter) and Robert Martin (Clyde Alves)

The book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar bristles with quick scenes, the kind of exchanges that set-up improbable songs—like Robert singing about “Cold Feets” and then proceeding to tap-dance enthusiastically with George, who channels his best Gene Kelly, or like the gangsters, Feldzieg, and Kitty enlightening us about the “Toledo Surprise,” a bit of vaudevillian vim that leads into the Act One closer. And while I’m on the songs, the show-stopper and untoppable topper is Janet’s big number “Show Off”—she changes costume at least three times on stage, hits high notes, twirls hoops, flings knives, and does everything she can think of to hold attention while insisting, quite fetchingly, that she’s done with it all. My other favorite was The Chaperone’s paean to the blitzed life, “As We Stumble Along,” dished up as what it is: the big number for an aging grande dame of the theater to showboat on.

Man in Chair (John Scherer)

Man in Chair (John Scherer)

Pointing out how each song and plot-point and character-turn hangs together with featherbrained logic is the task of the real hero of this fizzy farce, Man in Chair (an affably flappable John Scherer). He’s a retiring nebbish ensconced in his favorite chair in his no doubt rent-controlled apartment, spinning his beloved platter of the original cast recording of The Drowsy Chaperone. He’s a lover of musicals, so long as the show’s not too long—preferably with no intermission and without the musical theater stylings of Sir Elton. The rest of the scenes occur by benefit of his memory and imagination as the show unfolds before us while the double LP plays. And whether you love musicals or approach them with trepidation, you’ll find him a simpatico host. I wanted to cheer when he chucked a ringing phone out the door. He’s even a bit more scathing than a critic might be: while the spit-take scene between Mrs. Tottendale and Underling is indeed pointless, it is also surprisingly hilarious.

Underling (Jay Aubrey Jones), Man in Chair (John Scherer), Mrs. Tottendale (Ruth Gottschall)

Underling (Jay Aubrey Jones), Man in Chair (John Scherer), Mrs. Tottendale (Ruth Gottschall)

In fact, most of the fun here is in seeing how much brio the cast—all top notch—and director Hunter Foster, with choreography by Chris Bailey, can bring to this balderdash. And don’t forget the costumes! Tony Award winner (for this show on Broadway, as well as Follies) Gregg Barnes does Man in Chair’s imagination proud, including the chinoiserie of a strange interlude that opens Act Two, and extending to countless costume changes—and not just for the starlet. The Slaybaugh brothers—who have perfected the slow burn—appear in different complementary get-ups each time they show up. The razzle dazzle throughout is in your face and eye-opening, including scenery that comes and goes as required thanks to the design by Goodspeed veteran Howard Jones, culminating with a biplane, by George!

“I Do, I Do in the Sky,” with the cast of The Drowsy Chaperone

“I Do, I Do in the Sky,” with the cast of The Drowsy Chaperone

In the end, what if anything does this zany show say? Maybe something about the version we carry with us of a past we never saw in person. Filling out a recording with mental enactments is nearly a lost art, so that our nostalgia for Man in Chair’s nostalgia leads us to newfound delight in living actors able to embody, boldly and broadly, that old Broadway we missed.

Gangster #1 (Blakely Slaybaugh), Kitty (Ruth Pferdehirt), Gangster #2 (Parker Slaybaugh)

Gangster #1 (Blakely Slaybaugh), Kitty (Ruth Pferdehirt), Gangster #2 (Parker Slaybaugh)

It’s a hoot, and the most fun you’ll ever have chaperoned.

 

The Drowsy Chaperone
Music & Lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison
Book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar
Directed by Hunter Foster

Music Direction by Michael O’Flaherty
Choreography by Chris Bailey

Scenic Design: Howard Jones; Costume Design: Gregg Barnes; Lighting Design: Kirk Bookman; Sound Design: Jay Hilton; Wig & Hair Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Assistant Music Director: William J. Thomas; Orchestrations: Dan DeLange; Production Manager: Erica Gilroy; Production Stage Manager: Bradley G. Spachman; Producer: Donna Lynn Cooper Hilton

Cast: Jennifer Allen, Clyde Alves, Hallie Brevetti, Abby Church, James Spencer Dean, Tim Falter, Ruth Gottschall, Danielle Lee Greaves, Bryan Thomas Hunt, Jay Aubrey Jones, James Judy, Evan Mayer, Ruth Pferdehirt, John Rapson, Stephanie Rothenberg, John Scherer, Blakely Slaybaugh, Parker Slaybaugh, Gabi Stapula

 

Goodspeed Musicals
From September 21, 2018

Stoops to Follies

Review of The Will Rogers Follies, Goodspeed Theatre

Will Rogers, once upon a time, was one of the most famous Americans alive. He was part Cherokee and became known as a performing cowboy—on radio, in Wild West Shows, on vaudeville, Broadway, and in films. He was a commentator too and columnist, often sniping, in a witty and down-home way, about the issues of the day and about politicians, the perennial laughingstocks of U.S. news.

Rogers’ popular stint in Ziegfeld’s Follies, a cowboy among showgirls, is recreated, tunefully and tongue-in-cheek in The Will Rogers Follies, now at Goodspeed, directed by Don Stephenson, with music direction by Michael O’Flaherty and choreography by Kelli Barclay. A fond look back at a brand of Americana that has a certain pertinence today, The Will Rogers Follies was a big Broadway success in the hands of Tommy Tune back in the early ‘90s, with Keith Carradine in the title role. At Goodspeed, the razzle-dazzle of what feels like a precursor to every Vegas and television Variety show is abetted by David M. Lutken’s engaging and easy-going enactment of Will Rogers, rope-tricks included.

Will Rogers (David M. Lutken), with Michael Biren, Borris York, Brad Frenette, Aaron Burr (photos by Diane Sobolewski)

Will Rogers (David M. Lutken), with Michael Biren, Borris York, Brad Frenette, Aaron Burr (photos by Diane Sobolewski)

The great strength of Rogers’ brand of humor is that it never talked down to “average Americans,” seeming to impart a wisdom derived from homespun common sense. Rogers’ tendency to take shots at those aspects of daily American life that still plague us—the two-party system and those who flourish in that system, and the knee-jerk aspects of news coverage—makes him a welcome voice in our day. His manner, in Lutken’s hands, is casual rather than tendentious, with a low-key delivery that takes every aspect of life in stride—and that includes jokes about his eventual death in a plane crash with friend the pilot Wiley Post.

Lutken, who I saw play Woody Guthrie in Woody Sez, a show he devised, at Irish Rep in New York, brings a similar folksiness to the role of Rogers. He has a clear, no-frills singing voice, and immediately warms up the audience by commenting on the stories in a current newspaper. There are similarities between Guthrie and Rogers inasmuch as both believed in the United States as, potentially, a force for good often kept from its best by the specialized interests of those who use government to promote power and wealth for themselves. Both are images of the “common man” (though both were very uncommon in their talents and accomplishments) that are helpful to offset the general cynicism and idiocy of our times.

Ziegfeld's Favorite (Brooke Lacy) and the cast of The Will Rogers Follies (photos by Diane Sobolewski)

Ziegfeld's Favorite (Brooke Lacy) and the cast of The Will Rogers Follies (photos by Diane Sobolewski)

In the show, the story of Rogers comes out in snippets, with songs that keep the Variety show aspects of the musical front and center. As “Ziegfeld’s Favorite,” Brooke Lacy is a delight in a role that oozes the kind of sexist casting that Florenz Ziegfeld (voiced with imperious élan by James Naughton) promoted relentlessly. Rogers never lets us get comfortable with the cheesecake, as he tends to shake his head over Flo’s favorite’s every appearance. And yet the display of the feminine physique is key to what makes the show a “follies.” The dance routines and the “living tableau” are part of the charm, and this show will keep a grin on your face, though it never quite stuns or amazes the way some dance routines at Goodspeed have.

To change focus from the chorus girls in Ilona Somogyi’s eye-teasing costumes, Peter Stone’s book plays up Will the family man, with emotional coloration by Catherine Walker as Betty Blake, who becomes Will’s oft-neglected wife. Their kids also get into the act and there’s even a collective rope-trick number in Act Two. It’s a very old-fashioned entertainment, a period-piece looking back at an older period.

Will Rogers (David M. Lutken), Betty Blake (Catherine Walker) (photos by Diane Sobolewski)

Will Rogers (David M. Lutken), Betty Blake (Catherine Walker) (photos by Diane Sobolewski)

As is often the case with stories of the famous, the first half plays better as it seems that every celebrity is more interesting on the way up than when in demand on all fronts. The interplay between Lutken’s Rogers and the other characters—such as his amiably put-upon father, Clem (David Garrison)—keep things bouncing, as Rogers has a gift for ribbing others’ pretensions and for calling it like he sees it, and that includes the hokeyness of the Follies themselves. The best aspects of the show are Lutken’s natural aptitude for the part and the way the action is commented on as something of a relic that has its place in a nostalgia for an Americana all but lost. Michael Clark’s projections help to recreate a sense of the era when Rogers was consulted by presidents and provided bi-partisan chiding of the show-biz aspects of our press and government.

Will Rogers (David M. Lutken) and the cast of The Will Rogers Follies (photos by Diane Sobolewski

Will Rogers (David M. Lutken) and the cast of The Will Rogers Follies (photos by Diane Sobolewski

Genial, nice to look at, with songs that serve the story but have little strength on their own, The Will Rogers Follies gives us a likeable version of the man who never met a man he didn’t like.

 

The Will Rogers Follies
Book by Peter Stone
Music composed and arranged by Cy Coleman
Lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green
Original New York production directed and choreographed by Tommy Tune
Inspired by the words of Will and Betty Rogers

Music Director: Michael O’Flaherty
Choreographer: Kelli Barclay
Director: Don Stephenson

Scenic Design: Walt Spangler; Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design: Rob Denton; Projection Design: Michael Clark; Sound Design: Jay Hilton; Wig & Hair Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer: Orchestrations: Dan DeLange; Rope Trick Supervisor: Keith Nelson; Production Manager: Erica Gilroy; Production Stage Manager: Bradley G. Spachman

Cast: Michael Biren, Ella Briggs, Riley Briggs, Aaron Burr, Dewey Caddell, Mallory Davis, Sarah Fagan, Kaitlyn Frank, Brad Frenette, David Garrison, Brendan Reilly Harris, Patrick Heffernan, Nathan Horne, Brooke Lacy, David M. Lutken, Emily Jeanne Phillips, Kelly Sheehan, Ben Stone-Zelman, Karilyn Ashley Surratt, Catherine Walker, Caitlin Wilayto, Borris York, and James Naughton as the Voice of Ziegfeld

Goodspeed Musicals
April 13, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

Immigrant Experience, Revisited

Review of Rags, Goodspeed

The challenges are many for the current Goodspeed production of Rags, the new, heavily revamped version of a musical that first ran on Broadway, briefly, in 1986, and received several revisions in the 1990s. How to compress the “immigrant experience”—so various, so multicultural—into the book for a musical? How to remain true to the spirit of a long bygone era while also tapping into current sensibilities? How to stage tenements and factories and city streets? How to revisit by now familiar struggles without falling into sentimental cliché?

Have no fears, Charles Strouse and Stephen Schwartz—who came up with new songs—and David Thompson—who wrote the new book for the show—and Rob Ruggiero—who directs with sure pacing—have figured it out. The show is full of many successful touches and the whole jells together to make an involving musical with its heart and head in the right place.

Ellis Island official (Jeff Williams), Rebecca Hershkowitz (Samantha Massell), David Hershkowitz (Christian Michael Camporin) (photos credit: Diane Sobolewski)

Ellis Island official (Jeff Williams), Rebecca Hershkowitz (Samantha Massell), David Hershkowitz (Christian Michael Camporin) (photos credit: Diane Sobolewski)

Thompson went back to the earliest intentions of the author of the original book, Joseph “Fiddler on the Roof” Stein. Then, Rags was about an immigrant Jewish family with a patriarch; now, it’s about Rebecca Hershkowitz (Samantha Massell), a widowed immigrant with a young son, David (Christian Michael Camporin). Key to Thompson’s new conception is that Rebecca finds shelter with the Cohen family—father Avram (Adam Heller) and daughter Bella (Sara Kapner) in a tenement flat where brother-in-law Jack Blumberg (Mitch Greenberg) runs a cottage industry, producing dresses with his wife Anna (Emily Zacharias), for uptown magnate Max Bronfman (David Harris).

The “rags” of the title—already an implied reference to half of the phrase “rags to riches”—are now literalized as part of the activity of sewing. In an early scene, the working of the production line is sung about in a jaunty way by Jack and the others (“Fabric of America”), including schlepper turned sewing-machine operator Ben Levitowitz (Nathan Salstone). It’s a clever way to evoke “rags” and “fabric” while also creating a scene of entertaining choreography—the dance of work (Parker Esse, choreographer).

Rebecca (Samantha Massell), Ben Levitowitz (Nathan Salstone), Jack Blumberg (Mitch Greenberg), Bella Cohen (Sara Kapner), Anna Blumberg (Emily Zacharias)

Rebecca (Samantha Massell), Ben Levitowitz (Nathan Salstone), Jack Blumberg (Mitch Greenberg), Bella Cohen (Sara Kapner), Anna Blumberg (Emily Zacharias)

Key to the show’s success is Ruggerio’s less is more approach. The mainstay of Michael Schweikardt’s versatile set is a detailed, condensed, two-sided flat that spins between the bedroom / living room / workroom and the kitchen, where the Shabbat ceremony is staged in a manner both playful and pious. In such scenes, the older generation—Zacharias, Greenberg, Heller—shines, looking and acting very much the part. The outside world is suggested by tenement-block backgrounds and by greatly enhancing projection designs by Luke Cantarella, which help to convey the immigrant experience with stills and sometimes scurrilous cartoons of the era. Lindo Cho’s costume designs make for some telling contrasts on July Fourth, and help show off Rebecca’s way with a dress.

Another great asset here is Massell’s vibrant Rebecca. Her talents as a seamstress lead her to the fast track, thanks to seductive employer, Bronfman (David Harris is suitably charming and unctuous, reminiscent, perhaps deliberately, of the rich, German playboy in Bob Fosse’s film of Cabaret). Rebecca’s teetering between her earliest American attachments and the stylings of the moneyed create her character’s conflict. Massell’s voice can be stirring, as in “Rags,” an aggrieved song against bigotry that closes Act One, and nicely intimate, as in the roof-top romantic number, “Blame It on the Summer Night” with downstairs Italian neighbor Sal Russo (Sean MacLaughlin). She also plays maternal well in her scenes with David.

Sal Russo (Sean MacLaughlin), Rebecca Hershowitz (Samantha Massell), David Hershowitz (Christian Michael Camporin)

Sal Russo (Sean MacLaughlin), Rebecca Hershowitz (Samantha Massell), David Hershowitz (Christian Michael Camporin)

Special mention goes to the youngest member of the cast and to one of the elder: as young David, Christian Michael Camporin turns in a nicely convincing performance with a strong, clear singing voice, and, as Avram, Adam Heller played my favorite character, adding wit and weightiness whenever needed. His scenes with Lori Wilner as Rachel Brodsky, a street peddler who takes a shine to him, are charming and give us “Three Sunny Rooms,” her not-so-coy come on that displays Schwartz’s ease with a clever lyric. On that score, making worker Ben a would-be songwriter strikes close to home, and Salstone gives “Yankee Boy” old-time moxie and puts beauty into “Bella’s Song.”

Rachel Brodsky (Lori Wilner), Avram Cohen (Adam Heller)

Rachel Brodsky (Lori Wilner), Avram Cohen (Adam Heller)

The romance between Ben and Bella may be a bit underdeveloped and, in general, the tragic dimension of the show feels a bit shoe-horned in for a point. Still, it is a good point and brings in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster as a telling reminder of the evils faced by immigrant populations in their efforts to contribute to the fabric of America and make a good start. The disaster feeds into the labor union activities of neighbor Sal, played with conviction by MacLaughlin. Indeed, making this character an Italian adds both comedy—in his song “Meet an Italian” where stereotypes are compared tongue-in-cheek style—and nicely staged rituals in duet: “Shabbos / Latin Mass.”

The Quintet (Jeff Williams, Sarah Solie, Danny Lindgren, Ellie Fishman, J.D. Saw)

The Quintet (Jeff Williams, Sarah Solie, Danny Lindgren, Ellie Fishman, J.D. Saw)

Another nice touch is the use of “the Quintet” (J.D. Daw, Ellie Fishman, Danny Lindgren, Sarah Solie, Jeff Williams) who mostly play a group of old school bigots—er, patriots—whose America looks down on, and tries to keep down, any members of the huddled masses yearning to breathe free in their country. It’s a useful reminder that the exclusionary nature of U.S. exceptionalism didn’t begin with the Orange Menace. To that end, the defamation a Jewish mother aims at Catholics, and the violence Irish toughs visit upon Jewish women and children remind how closely akin “neighborhoods” could be to “ghettos.” One the one hand, where people who are alike feel comfortable together; on the other, where people “like that” are forced to remain “where they belong.”

center: Sal Russo (Sean MacLaughlin) and the cast of Rags

center: Sal Russo (Sean MacLaughlin) and the cast of Rags

In distinction to Goodspeed’s earlier shows this season—the greatly entertaining Thoroughly Modern Millie and a nearly definitive Oklahoma!Rags doesn’t aim for anything like the same level of big dances and choruses, but it does let our country’s strengths and inconsistencies shine through in a way that recalls folk opera. Particularly, it shows us how resourceful and inspired immigrants can be in response to the challenges of the new, and how worrisome it is that they came here for liberty and found bigotry.

The repairs to Joseph Stein’s old suit of a show have produced spruce new duds. Stein’s tale has been lovingly re-purposed in a way that does the original conception proud, while also finding new heart in a more straight-forward and timely tale. This show may go from rags to riches yet.

Jack Blumberg (Mitch Greenberg), Ben Levitowitz (Nathan Salstone), David Hershkowitz (Christian Michael Camporin), Avram Cohen (Adam Heller), Bella Cohen (Sara Kapner)

Jack Blumberg (Mitch Greenberg), Ben Levitowitz (Nathan Salstone), David Hershkowitz (Christian Michael Camporin), Avram Cohen (Adam Heller), Bella Cohen (Sara Kapner)

 

 

Rags
Book by Joseph Stein
Music by Charles Strouse
Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Revised Book by David Thompson

Music Direction by Michael O’Flaherty
Choreographed by Parker Esse
Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Scenic Design: Michael Schweikardt; Costume Design: Linda Cho; Lighting Design: John Lasiter; Projection Design: Luke Cantarella; Sound Design: Jay Hilton; Wig & Hair Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Fight Director: Ron Piretti; Assistant Music Director: William J. Thomas; Orchestrations: Dan DeLange; Vocal Arrangements: David Loud; Dialect Coach: Ben Furey; Casting: Paul Hardt, Stewart/Whitley Casting; Production Stage Manager: Bradley G. Spachman; Associate Producer: Bob Alwine; Line Producer: Donna Lynn, Cooper Hilton; General Manager: Rachel J. Tischler

Cast: Gordon Beck, Christian Michael Camporin, J.D. Daw, Giovanni DiGabriele, Ellie Fishman, Catalina Gaglioti, Mitch Greenberg, David Harris, Adam Heller, Sara Kapner, Danny Lindgren, Sean MacLaughlin, Samantha Massell, Nathan Salstone, Sarah Solie, Jeff Williams, Lori Wilner, Emily Zacharias

Goodspeed Musicals
from October 6, 2017

Way Better Than OK

Review of Oklahoma!, Goodspeed Opera House

The Cast of Oklahoma! (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

The Cast of Oklahoma! (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! is the big daddy of all musicals. Back in the 1940s it set the standard for what a musical could be—catchy songs, big dance numbers that are part of the narrative, recognizable character types that manage not to be clichés. In some ways, of course, the material has dated if only because so many of the tropes of the Broadway musical take their cues from this show. And yet. Even if you’re a longtime viewer fully familiar with every aspect of the show, the production at Goodspeed, directed by Jenn Thompson with new choreography by Katie Spelman, and additional dance arrangements by David Chase, is bound to give you some fresh insights.

Curly (Rhett Guter), Laurey (Samantha Bruce) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Curly (Rhett Guter), Laurey (Samantha Bruce) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

The story, while in some ways a simple “boy gets girl after obstacles” plot, has enough tensions under the surface to keep a contemporary audience engaged. The Goodspeed production is particularly well cast and that’s all to the good. Our heroine, Laurey Williams is given a smart, sassy, pretty, and full-voiced incarnation by Samantha Bruce, and as our hero, Curly McLaine, Rhett Guter plays his agreeable swagger with a touch of Elvis while also registering the role’s insecurities without overplaying them. Curly knows he is the best match in town for Laurey, but he also knows she has enough mind of her own, and maybe petulance, to refuse him out of spite. Aunt Eller (Terry Burrell) keeps an eye on everything with the kind of knowing wit and wisdom that we come to expect from Okies ever after.

Aunt Eller (Terry Burrell), Curly (Rhett Guter) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Aunt Eller (Terry Burrell), Curly (Rhett Guter) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Villainy in the play is given a nuanced presentation by Matt Faucher as put-upon Jud Fry. The difference in class between Laurey, the owner, and Jud, the hired man, is key, but there’s also a sense in which Jud represents the more unsavory aspects of male dominance—he keeps pornographic pictures, and in his “Lonely Room,” plots how he will best Curly and carry the day. Their scene, “Pore Jud is Daid,” is comic but is also permitted to be a bit melancholic, with the kind of mixed signals that give the show more strength than some interpretations might. Jud, however, is not above fighting dirty and that spells his doom. Director Thompson’s effort to add nuance to Jud stops short of a reprise of “Pore Jud is Daid” at the close, but the song’s grim presentiment is allowed to add some questioning to the show’s happy ending.

Curly (Rhett Guter), Jud Fry (Matt Faucher) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Curly (Rhett Guter), Jud Fry (Matt Faucher) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Comic performances in this production are stand-outs. As Ado Annie, the gal who “cain’t say no,” Gizel Jiménez is feisty and forthright, very nimble, and quite capable of stealing a scene. As peddler Ali Hakim, Matthew Curiano makes the most of a role that shows both a survivor’s wit and an outsider’s pathos. And as Will Parker, the most serious of Annie’s many suitors, Jake Swain gives the role lots of energy, and his rendering of “Kansas City” is one of the high-points as the first ensemble number in the early going.

Ado Annie (Gizell Jimenez), Ali Hakim (Matthew Curiano) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Ado Annie (Gizell Jimenez), Ali Hakim (Matthew Curiano) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

A key reason to see this production is the big ballet number that comes before the first act curtain. Here, it’s a rendering of Laurey’s ambivalence about becoming any man’s wife, with the sexual side of that relation and its implied ownership rendered by women being roped and cavorting in show girls’ lingerie. At the heart of this Oklahoma! are not only the expressed rivalries between the ranchers and the farmers, and between respect for law and the town’s favoritism, but between women who want to live their own lives and the men who want them wedded. It’s a compelling lesson about revisionism that sometimes simply stressing the full nuances of a major work is all that is necessary to see it anew.

Will Parker (Jake Swain, front) and the cast of Oklahoma! (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Will Parker (Jake Swain, front) and the cast of Oklahoma! (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Costumes, lighting, sets, arrangements—and the ensemble of limber and expressive dancers—all help to make this Oklahoma! an eye-catching and engaging triumph. Goodspeed again does a wonderful job of bringing the classics back in their best light. The cast keeps up the proper drawl and, for an added touch of authenticity, the ushers are costumed and accented as well.

If you want to get out of Connecticut for a few hours, why not go to Oklahoma!

 

Rodgers & Hammerstein’s
Oklahoma!
Music by Richard Rogers
Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on the play “Green Grow the Lilacs” by Lynn Riggs
Original dances by Agnes de Mille

Directed by Jenn Thompson
Choreography by Katie Spelman
Music Direction by Michael O’Flaherty

Scenic Design: Wilson Chin; Costume Design: Tracy Christensen; Lighting Design: Philip S. Rosenberg; Sound Design: Jay Hilton; Wig & Hair Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Fight Director: Unkledave’s Fight-House; Orchestrations: Dan DeLange; Additional Dance Arrangements: David Chase; Production Manager: R. Glen Grusmark; Casting: Paul Hardt Stewart/Whitley Casting; Production Stage Manager: Bradley G. Spachman; Assistant Music Director: F. Wade Russo; Associate Producer: Bob Alwine; Line Producer: Donna Lynn, Cooper Hilton; General Manager: Rachel J. Tischler

Cast: Kelly Berman, Samantha Bruce, Rebecca Brudner, Terry Burrell, Morgan Cowling, Aaron Patrick Craven, Lauren Csete, Matthew Curiano, Mark Deler, Matt Faucher, Tamrin Goldberg, Rhett Guter, Tripp Hampton, Olivia Nicole Hoffman, Gizel Jiménez, Kate Arrington Johnson, Howard Kaye, C. Mingo Long, Morgan McCann, Andrew Purcell, Alex Ringler, Marco Antonio Santiago, Alex Stewart, Jake Swain, Madison Turner

Goodspeed Musicals
July 14-September 17, 2017

Millie's Winning Makeover

Review of Thoroughly Modern Millie, Goodspeed Musicals

Once a campy and very dated romantic comedy musical film, released in 1967 but set in 1922, Richard Morris’s familiar story of a young girl come to the big city with a dream to marry smart (i.e., for money) has a new lease on life. Thoroughly Modern Millie, a vehicle for Julie Andrews once upon a time, has been revamped and re-imagined and mostly rewritten by Dick Scanlan—who wrote the lyrics for 4 songs in the original film—and Jeanine “Fun Home” Tesori, music—to become a jazzy, fizzy send-up of the clichés the original nurtured. The transformation proves that old standards can speak to new times when handled with wit and imagination.

The cast of Thoroughly Modern Millie; Millie (Taylor Quick), center (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

The cast of Thoroughly Modern Millie; Millie (Taylor Quick), center (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

What hasn’t changed? The charm of the plucky though naïve and somewhat misguided heroine is very much key to how the show plays. Here, Taylor Quick, as Millie, looks great in her bobbed hairdo and period costumes and shows off the right mix of get-ahead smart cookie and hapless heroine. Millie gets most things wrong in the first act, but that’s part of the fun, and “Jimmy,” her stirring “I’m available” number right before the Act One curtain, bodes well for how much sharper she’ll be in Act Two as she knows who she really wants. This is a show with a learning curve and Act Two shifts into high gear to bring it all home, including a wonderful duet on a well-realized skyscraper ledge—“I Turned the Corner”—featuring Millie and Jimmy (Dan DeLuca, quite the able heart-throb). DeLuca plays well his self-possessed character’s joshing of the gal he can’t help falling for, and his “What Do I Need with Love?” is one of the high-points of Act One.

Jimmy (Dan DeLuca), Millie (Taylor Quick) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Jimmy (Dan DeLuca), Millie (Taylor Quick) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

The set, with lovely Art Deco features that look like they cost a bundle, is full of nimble changes—including a hotel corridor with elevator, a speakeasy, an upscale New York penthouse, the lobby and the laundryroom of the shady Hotel Priscilla, and, very efficiently effective, the offices of the Sincere Trust where Millie spends her day as a “stenog” and tries gamely to entrap her boss, Mr. Trevor Graydon (Edward Watts), an obtuse banker. His falling for slumming heiress Miss Dorothy Brown (Samantha Sturm) is another high-point in Act Two as Watts and Sturm have voices that can pull heartstrings and a way with a song—the comic “Oh Sweet Mystery of Life”—that earns laughs. And the part of stern office manager Miss Flannery is more than ably handled by Lucia Spina.

Bun Foo (Christopher Shin), Mrs. Meers (Loretta Ables Sayre), Ching Ho (James Seol) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Bun Foo (Christopher Shin), Mrs. Meers (Loretta Ables Sayre), Ching Ho (James Seol) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

What has changed? The show plays up the “perils of Pauline” sub-plot of a “white slavery ring” with great panache, and if the idea of lurking, nefarious Asians seems a bit retrograde to you, have no fear. First of all, Mrs. Meers, the mastermind of the kidnapping, is played with great comic grasp of evil-doing by the redoutable Loretta Ables Sayre (who seems out to steal the show in Act One); her delivery of the tagline “so sad to be all alone in the world” is a memorable sound-byte, and her playing up of the clichés of “the dragon lady” is full of good fun.

Mrs. Meers’ henchmen have evolved far beyond the lackluster jokes they are in the film and have become key to the plot. They are working for Meers because of her threats to them, and have hopes of making it on the Great White Way themselves—and have the song-and-dance capabilities to prove it. What’s more, James Seol, as Ching Ho, and Christopher Shin, as Bun Foo, get to sing in Chinese, with subtitles, thus further dignifying their viewpoints. It’s a great touch and lifts these secondary characters from slapstick to straightmen. In fact, Ching Ho has a passionate attachment for Dorothy that might inspire a rooting interest in his amours.

Muzzy von Hossmere (Ramona Keller) and her boys (Darius Wright, PJ Palmer, Daniel May) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Muzzy von Hossmere (Ramona Keller) and her boys (Darius Wright, PJ Palmer, Daniel May) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

And that’s to the good, because, with the shifting romantic factors at work here, we’re not sure who will end up with whom by show’s end. The only “loss” from the film is the scene where James Fox, who plays Jimmy, dons drag to infiltrate Mrs. Meers’ establishment. Here, the task is assigned to Muzzy von Hossmere, to give Ramona Keller something more to do than the hot cabaret numbers she handles with such easy aplomb. Keller plays Muzzy very tongue-in-cheek, which is a welcome change from Carol Channing’s ditzy jazz baby in the original. And the new version means a treat of a scene between Sayre and Keller as dueling would-be wool-pullers.

All in all, with its fabulous costumes, fast-changing scenery, engaging cast, and new plot points, the show has been thoroughly re-modernized for an audience that still likes to see obstacles in the way of love and wants its musicals tuneful and snappy with plenty of spirit and sharp as a tack dance ensembles. Goodspeed’s revival of Thoroughly Modern Millie—directed and choreographed by Denis Jones—is the cat’s meow!

the cast of Thoroughly Modern Millie (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

the cast of Thoroughly Modern Millie (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

 

Thoroughly Modern Millie
Book by Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan
New Music by Jeanine Tesori
New Lyrics by Dick Scanlan
From the original story and screenplay by Richard Morris

Music Direction by Michael O’Flaherty
Directed & Choreographed by Denis Jones

Scenic Design: Paul Tate dePoo III; Costume Design: Gregory Gale; Lighting Design: Rob Denton; Wig & Hair Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Assistant Music Director: William J. Thomas; Orchestrations: Dan DeLange; Sound Design: Jay Hilton; Production Manager: R. Glen Grusmark; Production Stage Manager: Bradley G. Spachman

Cast: Darien Crago, Caley Crawford, Dan DeLuca, Patrick Graver, Bryan Thomas Hunt, Ramona Keller, Emily Kelly, Daniel May, Evan Mayer, Elise Mestichelli, P.J. Palmer, Amelia Jo Parish, Taylor Quick, Loretta Ables Sayre, James Seol, Christopher Shin, Lucia Spina, Sherisse Springer, Samantha Sturm, Sarah Quinn Taylor, Amy Van Norstrand, Edward Watts, Darius Wright

Orchestra: Keyboard I/Conductor: Michael O’Flaherty; Keyboard II: William J. Thomas; Reeds: Liz Baker Smith; Violin: Karin Fagerburg; Trumpet: Peter Roe; Trombone: David Kayser; Percussion: Salvatore Ranniello. Alternates: Keyboard I/Conductor: William J. Thomas; Keyboard II: David Kidwell, Molly Sturges, Anthony Pandolfe; Reeds: Michael Schuster, Andrew Studenski; Violin; Diane Orson; Trumpet: Seth Bailey; Trombone: Matt Russo, Ben Griffin; Percussion: Dave Edricks

Goodspeed Musicals
From April 21-July 2, 2017

Arm in Arm

Ending its extended run at the Goodspeed Opera House, La Cage aux Folles, directed by Rob Ruggiero, officially brings the summer season to an end. The show commenced on June 26 and closed on September 10, a lengthy run that indicates the attraction of musicals, with their big casts, complicated costume changes, live musicians, songs and, in this case, a hint of slapstick and a touch of sentimental schmaltz in an affecting tale of true love triumphant.

The Book by Harvey Fierstein, which won a Tony back in 1983, has become by now quite venerable, however outrageous it may once have been. Key to it all is the character of Albin, played here by Jamiston Stern in a faultless and winning performance. Albin’s alter ego is “Zaza,” a top notch drag star at La Cage aux Folles, the St. Tropez cabaret run by his romantic partner Georges (James Lloyd Reynolds). Georges, once upon a time, begat a son, Jean-Michel (Conor Ryan), and the latter has come round to say it’s time for his folks—Georges and a long absent mère—to meet the folks of his intended bride, Anne Dindon (Erin Burniston). This inspires some despair over the youthful marriage but the real catch is who those prospective in-laws are. M. Dindon is a man with a mission: as leader of the “Tradition, Family, and Morality” Party, he’s all for cleaning up places like Georges’ club and doing away, Anita Bryant-style, with anything that suggests same-sex coupling is not a crime or an outrage. So, of course, swishy Albin must be forced into hiding.

What makes the show work in the first half are the jumps between the apartment, where Albin frets over his feelings and reviles everyone else’s lack of feeling, and, downstairs, the stage of La Cage where Georges prowls about in swank threads and regales the audience with pleasantries while “the girls”—a collection of cross-dressers known as The Notorious Cagelles (Darius Barnes, Michael Bullard, Alexander Cruz, Erin M. Kernion, Alex Ringler, Nick Silverio, Nic Thompson)—entertain. Ralph Perkins’ choreography for the show tunes features acrobatic splits and flips as well as sinuous gestures, the costumes by Michael McDonald are as pizazzy as one could hope—particularly for the “La Cage aux Folles” number—and the songs by Jerry Herman let the girls strut their stuff.

The Notorious Cagelles

The Notorious Cagelles

Less effective are the musical efforts to be more touching and less tongue-in-cheek. Reynolds, with his firm jaw and twinkling eyes, is a lady-killer of a Georges, but “Song on the Seine,” his number in tribute to his love for Albin, doesn’t quite stir as it should. And the other love song, “With Anne on My Arm”—sung by Ryan winsomely—sags a bit, especially following Stern’s worked up rendering of “A Little More Mascara.” Thankfully, the two lovebirds, Albin and Georges, make “With You on My Arm,” a variant on Jean-Michel’s number, debonair and delightful. And Albin’s show-stopping curtain song “I Am What I Am” is in every sense a tough act to follow.

Jamison Stern (Albin), James Lloyd Reynolds (Georges)

Jamison Stern (Albin), James Lloyd Reynolds (Georges)

The shorter second act doesn’t quite cook as much as the first. Whenever Albin is onstage we get to bask in the fascination Stern finds in the part, even when simply the object of Georges’ admiration—as the only mother Jean-Michel knew—in “Look Over There.” But the staging of the dreaded meeting between the Dindons (Mark Zimmerman and Stacey Scotte) and Georges, sans wife until Albin shows up in a dress, is short on pay-off. The dialogue’s never quite as entertaining as one might hope and soon enough it’s time for another song with everyone whirling a partner and, of course, M. Dindon leading the Chanel-clad Albin. Things go awry and then get realigned with the age old schtick of comic cross-dressing.

Theatrically, one of the neat tricks of La Cage is that it is able to exploit the sexiness of guys (the Cagelles) who look good as gals, the perceptiveness of a guy (Albin), who identifies feminine, trying to act masculine, and the comic yuks of a guy (M. Dindon) who considers himself all male having to dress as a woman. And then there’s Cedric Leiba, Jr., as maid/butler Jacob, who does all that can be done with the role of a sassy and surly underling in hot pants and heels.

By the end of the show, the warmth of affection for Stern’s touching Albin and Reynolds’ doting Georges carries the day, and, in the light of recent refusals to grant legal marriage certificates to gay couples, one might say that the lesson of La Cage is still pointed enough and not simply all in fun. The audience was on their feet cheering and one hopes it’s a cheer for the show’s benign depiction of same-sex love as equally amenable, as marriage always is, to “tradition, family, and morality.”

Jamison Stern as Albin as Zaza, with Nic Thompson, Nick Silverio, Alexander Cruz, Darius Barnes

Jamison Stern as Albin as Zaza, with Nic Thompson, Nick Silverio, Alexander Cruz, Darius Barnes

 

La Cage aux Folles
Book by Harvey Fierstein; Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Based on the play by Jean Poiret
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Musical Direction by Michael O’Flaherty
Choreography by Ralph Perkins

Scenic Design: Michael Schweikardt; Costume Design: Michael McDonald; Lighting Design: John Lasiter; Sound Design: Jay Hilton; Hair, Wig & Makeup: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Assistant Music Director: F. Wade Russo; Production Manager: R Glen Grusmark; Production Stage Manager: Bradley G. Spachman

Cast: James Lloyd Reynolds; Jamison Stern; Conor Ryan; Cedric Leiba, Jr.; Wade Dooley; Barbara McCullon; Kristen Martin; Sue Mathys; Chris Hietikko; Alex Ringler; Erin M. Kernon; Mark Zimmerman; Stacey Scotte; Darius Barnes; Michael Bullard; Alexander Cruz; Erin M. Kernion; Alex Ringler; Nick Silverio; Nic Thompson; Brett-Marco Glauser; Emily Grace Tucker

Goodspeed Musicals
East Haddam, CT
June 26-September 10, 2015