Ivoryton Playhouse

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 . . .

Golden Girls

Review of The Queens of the Golden Mask, Ivoryton Playhouse

Ivoryton Playhouse is not known for new plays on difficult subjects, tending to specialize in spirited revivals of classic or soon-to-be-classic musicals. The decision to close the 2018 season with a hard-hitting topical play should make theater-goers glad to be surprised, though the play may not be considered a pleasant surprise. In The Queens of the Golden Mask, playwright Carole Lockwood creates a play that, in the words of its director at Ivoryton, Jacqueline Hubbard, is like “a cross between Steel Magnolias and Mississippi Burning,” a description that is accurate enough. As such, the play is something of a remedy to the cutesy version of the South as full of charming and idiosyncratic “characters.” Here, there’s even a touch of The Stepford Wives—a creeping unease about the costs to one’s moral values and autonomy in belonging to the neighborly town of Celestial, Alabama.

Jean (Jes Bedwineck), Faith (Gerrianne Genga), Ida (Ellen Barry), Fifi (Bonnie Black) in Ivoryton Playhouse’s production of The Queens of the Golden Mask (Photographs by Jonathan Steele)

Jean (Jes Bedwineck), Faith (Gerrianne Genga), Ida (Ellen Barry), Fifi (Bonnie Black) in Ivoryton Playhouse’s production of The Queens of the Golden Mask (Photographs by Jonathan Steele)

The Queens revisits a world that, once seemingly relegated to history, is on the upswing again. The Ku Klux Klan—as a voice for white supremacy—is a reference point for much of the racist hatred and violence in our current political climate, and the KKK was enjoying a virulent resurgence during the era of the Civil Rights movement in the South when the play is set. In Lockwood’s play, we first hear the Klan spoken of—as a part of the social culture of Celestial—the way that belonging to any “ladies’ auxiliary” might be, or, say, joining a Yankee organization up north such as the DAR.

The cluelessness necessary to sustain denial about the potential for cold-blooded acts of persecution or murder is maintained for a good portion of the play by Rose Jackson (Anna Fagan), a newlywed, newly arrived from Ohio, where she met and married an Alabama boy. Now, in his hometown, she’s trying her best to fit in. The other ladies make that seem easy, pressuring her into a “blood oath” as if as chummy as sharing recipes. And that’s an apt comparison because the sect seems to be nothing more than a “taste” shared by the seven members of the local chapter.

Ida (Ellen Barry) and Rose (Anna Fagan)

Ida (Ellen Barry) and Rose (Anna Fagan)

A lot of the dialogue is just so we get to know the seven members: Ida Sage, aka Moma (Ellen Barry), the ringleader; Ophelia Barnett, aka Fifi (Bonnie Black), the ditzy one; Faith Carlyle (Gerrianne Genga), the fashionable one; Jean Mooney (Jes Bedwineck), the sassy one; Kathy (Two) Boggs (Bethany Fitzgerald), the oft-pregnant girlish one; Rose Jackson, the newcomer; and Martha Nell Sage (Sarah Jo Provost), the subservient daughter-in-law to Ida. The interplay among the women may be too much Steel Magnolias in the sense that we’re already a bit too familiar with the types, but also in the sense that we immediately assume there must be a death or two to bring gravitas to the circle.

Martha Nell (Sarah Jo Provost), Rose (Anna Fagan)

Martha Nell (Sarah Jo Provost), Rose (Anna Fagan)

The hints that the menfolk are up to some clandestine activity that isn’t harmless are too overt not to be noticed, so we know the play’s dramatic crisis will involve a revelation of the Klan’s misdeeds. Mention of the Klan is like the gun in that famed saying by Chekhov—once you introduce it, it will have to go off.

The story references the actual bombing of a church in Birmingham, an appalling act that certainly overwhelms whatever fellow feeling we might have for these ladies. The shift from southern charm to baleful malevolence occurs best in Ellen Barry’s fully nuanced performance. Early on, we detect that Ida is tough as nails, but by the end we might easily see her as a monster, empowered like a minor crime boss to exact vengeance with a steely smugness. It’s a chilling role and, impressively, Barry does it full justice, letting us see how self-righteous the pitiless can be.

Ida (Ellen Barry), Fifi (Bonnie Black)

Ida (Ellen Barry), Fifi (Bonnie Black)

The plot requires a certain number of events that might strain our credulity, as for instance, the number of traitors in the ladies’ midst. Martha Nell Sage is played by Sarah Jo Provost with a sense of dutiful suffering that transforms into active malice, but her downfall comes via a fairly flimsy device, in more ways than one. As Kathy (Two) Boggs, Bethany Fitzgerald has two over-the-top scenes, one in which she begs Rose to join the Klan, another when she mourns the death of a friend who died standing up to police. The switch from devoted member to disillusioned member comes across as excessive in its staging.

Rose (Anna Fagan), Kathy (Bethany Fitzgerald

Rose (Anna Fagan), Kathy (Bethany Fitzgerald

As Fifi, Bonnie Black takes on most of what we’d consider comic relief, furnishing the kind of dimwit that, it seems, many take racists and bigots to be. That she should be the one most trustworthy is a judgment on the determined need to be needed and trusted that seems to underwrite many an urge to conformity. Her verbal sparring partner is Jean, and Jes Bedwinek plays her as the one most likely to be “woke,” if only because she’s able to see through the plastered-on niceness the ladies exude. In a sense, Faith, played with a self-aggrandizing sense of purpose by Gerrianne Genga, is the most dangerous, the type best able to make bigotry fashionable and reasonable.

All told, the play is one with its heart in the right place, played across a sprawling set where a middle-class kitchen is flanked by a shed and a somewhat rundown porch. There’s a contrast between a lower-class identity and an upward mobility that feels right for a demographic en route to dumping the Democrats for the Republicans. The play leaves us with hope, perhaps, for some of the individuals in the drama, and acts as a stimulus against the kind of bullying defended by evasive logic and repressed facts we are all-too-familiar with today. The best aspect of the play, as drama, is its staging of how insular accepted views can be, and how fatal.

 

The Queens of the Golden Mask
By Carole Lockwood
Directed by Jacqueline Hubbard

Scenic Designer: Daniel Nischan; Lighting Designer: Marcus Abbott; Sound Designer: Tate R. Burmeister; Costume Designer: Elizabeth A. Saylor; Stage Manager: Andrea Wales; Assistant Stage Manager: Kayla Gardner

Cast: Ellen Barry, Jes Bedwineck, Bonnie Black, Anna Fagen, Bethany Fitzgerald, Gerrianne Genga, Sarah Jo Provost

Ivoryton Playhouse
October 31-November 18, 2018

Teen Tragedy

Review of West Side Story, Ivoryton Playhouse

As a musical, West Side Story, with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents from a conception by Jerome Robbins, and originally directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, has much to recommend it. Inspired in its plot by Romeo and Juliet, it’s got young love, tragedy, comic relief, numerous dance numbers and some lovely and lively songs. It’s about urban tensions between sparring gangs of different races, and, even at this remove from the “daddy-O”s of the 1950s, is able to express something of that perennial motivator, teen angst.

The Jets (photo: Jonathan Steele)

The Jets (photo: Jonathan Steele)

The production at Ivoryton this summer, directed and choreographed by Todd L. Underwood, with musical direction by Michael Morris, with many young performers yet to break into Equity, offers a passable version of the show. What it does best is showcase Stephen Mir as Tony, whose voice has a purity that helps to render the character’s sincere idealism, and Mia Pinero as Maria, a soprano able to make Maria seem angelic. Their best scene, and one of the high-points of the show, is the “balcony” number, “Tonight,” and they do well with “One Hand, One Heart” in the bridal shop, though their chemistry as lovers isn’t all it might be.

Maria (Mia Pinero), Tony (Stephen Mir) (photo: Jonathan Steele)

Maria (Mia Pinero), Tony (Stephen Mir) (photo: Jonathan Steele)

And that’s the main criticism I have for Underwood’s take on what should be a show of drama leavened by delight: the chemistry doesn’t quite jell. It’s missing in the comic number of Act One, “America,” and shines best in the ensemble reprise of “Tonight” just before the Act One close. The comic number of Act Two, “Gee, Officer Krupke” follows awkwardly on the lovely rendition of “Somewhere”—which features good vocals from Annelise Cepero as Francisca and Hillary Ekwall as Anybodys. The show’s flow seems impeded by the difficulty of making so many big dance numbers fit in a small space. The dancers, for the most part, keep the pace, with nice costumes to showcase their movements, but the success of each number seems to be based more on its logistics than on the performances per se.

In the supporting cast, Conor Robert Fallon as Riff is an asset whose loss for Act Two can only be mourned, and Natalie Madlon’s Anita helps carry the latter act with “A Boy Like That.” As Doc, George Lombardo adds a suitable maturity, and, among the Jets, Max Weinstein’s A-Rab and Colin Lee’s Action help maintain the intensity.

Francisca (Annelise Cepero), Anita (Natalie Madlon), Consuela (Arianne Meneses) (photo: Jonathan Steele)

Francisca (Annelise Cepero), Anita (Natalie Madlon), Consuela (Arianne Meneses) (photo: Jonathan Steele)

The staging of the rumbles is impressive, and the quick changes of set props—such as Doc’s store—are efficient. The set itself, comprised of tall, tenement-like backdrops, helps to create a sense of the oppressive inner-city aspects of the story, though the space is a bit lacking in real urban feel—but for that fire escape for the “balcony” scene. Indeed, a curtained doorway for quick on-and-offs of the dancers seems oddly out of place in a back alley.

West Side Story is a great musical and it is important to give young performers a chance to work with its demands—which are considerable. Ivoryton should be commended for giving it a try on their stage. And, while the story of gangs at each other’s throats may have dated for a time, the policing of ethnicities and the bad rap for immigrants continues as a part of the darker side of the American Dream. West Side Story—as a tragedy—plays upon the way that good intentions can go awry, and offers a sobering look at how loyalty to one group often entails vicious hostility toward another group. That’s key to the drama of this musical and needs a strong presentation for the show to register its full effect. At Ivoryton, the show seems to be searching for its dominant tone.

 

West Side Story
Based on a Conception by Jerome Robbins
Book by Arthur Laurents
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Entire original production directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins

Directed and choreographed by Todd L. Underwood
Musical Director: Michael Morris

Scenic Designer: Daniel Nischan; Stage Manager: Laura Lynne Knowles; Costume Designer: Elizabeth Cipollina; Lighting Designer: Marcus Abbott; Sound Designer: Tate R. Burmeister; Assistant Stage Manager: Megan Wilcox

Cast: Christian Álvarez, Victor Borjas, Annelise Cepero, Tom DiFeo, Hillary Ekwall, Conor Robert Fallon, Michael Hotkowski, Colin Lee, Taylor Lloyd, George Lombardo, Joey Lucherini, Amanda Lupacchino, Natalie Madlon, Rick Malone, Pierre Marais, Arianne Meneses, Daniel Miller, Stephen Mir, Mia Pinero, Alexa Racioppi, Jason Daniel Rath, Carolina Santos Read, Max Weinstein

Ivoryton Playhouse
July 5-July 30, 2017

Man of Imagination

Review of Man of La Mancha, Ivoryton Playhouse

As musicals go, the reworking of Miguel de Cervantes’ classic tale of the adventures of Don Quixote, otherwise simply Alonso Quijana of La Mancha, is pretty powerful stuff. Written by Dale Wasserman, with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, Man of La Mancha is probably best known as the source of the rousing standard “The Impossible Dream” (which I remember being covered on variety shows often in my youth), but it also uses an intriguing play-within-a-play format to establish that Quixote is not only the fantasy life of Quijana but also the alter-ego of his author Cervantes.

Imprisoned by the Inquisition, Cervantes (David Pittsinger) is placed at the mercy of his fellow prisoners and pleads with them to hear his story about Quixote, which he then enacts for them while also pressing them into service as other characters in the tale. It’s a great theatrical idea and makes for involving storytelling as we move between the frame in the dungeon and the roadway and inn and other settings of Quixote’s story.

At Ivoryton, Daniel Nischan’s set places a huge platform in the center of the stage that makes for a somewhat shallow playing space stage front. While the higher space is used to good effect now and then, the area might have afforded more freedom of movement; at times Todd Underwood’s choreography feels a bit constrained and lacking in fluidity. But no matter, such is Cervantes’ imagination he could stage Quixote’s adventures anywhere. Props and costume changes here help greatly, as does Marcus Abbott’s lighting design.

Aldonza (Talia Thiesfield), Don Quixote (David Pittsinger), Sancho Panza (Brian Michael Hoffman) (photo: Anne Hudson)

Aldonza (Talia Thiesfield), Don Quixote (David Pittsinger), Sancho Panza (Brian Michael Hoffman) (photo: Anne Hudson)

As Cervantes/Quixote, Pittsinger has a rich baritone that is a pleasure to hear in songs like “Man of La Mancha,” “Dulcinea,” and, of course, the great crowd-pleaser “The Impossible Dream.” He’s quite adept at suggesting the failing strength of the Knight of the Woeful Countenance, while also playing the thoughtful showman Cervantes who wants all his listeners to be touched by Quixote’s dream. As his manservant who doubles as Quixote’s faithful Sancho Panza, Brian Michael Hoffman has the requisite easygoing manner, with his rendition of “A Little Gossip” at his master’s sickbed his high point. Other fine support is provided by David Edwards as a skeptical prisoner and as scheming Dr. Carrasco, and by Matthew Krob’s fine singing voice in the Padre’s touching “To Each his Dulcinea.”

A match for Pittsinger’s pure, noble and dreamy Quixote is Talia Thiesfield’s sharp, direct, and earthy Aldonza, with lithe movements and a voice that thrills. Dulcinea’s status as fantasy figure for Quixote and Cervantes both makes her seem a kind of ideal damsel brought out by the musical itself, so that Aldonza seems to accept her status as Dulcinea both in the Quixote story and in the dungeon as well. The abduction/rape scene, which is an act of brutality that’s meant to give the lie to Quixote’s unworkable dream, is handled here more as suggestion than outright violence, but, even so, Quixote’s reprise of “The Impossible Dream” immediately after still feels a willful blindness to harsh reality.

The show ends ambiguously both for Quixote and Cervantes, and yet with the sense that Cervantes has redeemed himself by letting Quixote’s madness—almost “cured” by Dr. Carrasco as the Knight of the Mirrors—still reign on, as it must so long as audiences thrill to the notion of a hopeless quest for an unreachable star.

Bravo to Ivoryton for reviving this timeless tale of art’s triumph over sordid reality.

 

Man of La Mancha
By Dale Wasserman
Music by Mitch Leigh, Lyrics by Joe Darion
Directed by David Edwards
Musical Director: Paul Feyer
Choreography by Todd Underwood

Scenic Designer: Daniel Nischan; Costume/Hair/Wig Designer: Elizabeth Cipollina; Lighting Designer: Marcus Abbott; Production Stage Manager: James Joseph Clark; Sound Designer: Tate R. Burmeiser

Cast: Brian Binion, Amy Buckley, Ryan Cavanaugh, David Edwards, Brian Michael Hoffman, AJ Hunsucker, Matthew Krob, James Ludlum, Conor McGiffin, Melissa McLean, Stephen Mir, David Pittsinger, Talia Thiesfield, James Van Treuren

Ivoryton Playhouse
September 7-October 2, 2016

That Toddling Town

Review of Chicago, Ivoryton Playhouse

In New York, Chicago, the musical, has been enjoying a popular revival for quite some time. It’s a somewhat cynical show that might be just the thing for these times of political chicanery.

John Kander and Fred Ebb, who wrote the music and lyrics for the songs, seem to be drawn to the demimondaine. They wrote the songs for Cabaret, a show famous for its evocation of seedy showmanship. Cabaret was choreographed by Bob Fosse, who wrote the book of Chicago with Ebb and choreographed the original Broadway production. Unfortunately, he was unable to direct the film version. Still, the late Fosse’s name is associated with Chicago since the revival in New York was mounted by Fosse protégé Ann Reinking, “in the style of Bob Fosse.” All of which is a way of saying that the pedigree of Chicago is strong, though it lacks the punch that Cabaret retains. The show, now playing in an original, not-touring production at Ivoryton Playhouse, directed by Todd L. Underwood, is never quite as entertaining as we hope it will be.

There are obvious similarities to Cabaret: the heroine, Roxie Hart (Lyn Philistine), like Cabaret’s Sally Bowles, would like to be a star of the stage. Instead of a stylish master-of-ceremonies presiding over a cabaret, we have Billy Flynn (Christopher Sutton), a smooth lawyer who stages courtroom scenes and press coverage for maximum effect. Even the cross-dressing that is a feature of Cabaret comes into play, though I won’t say how so as not to spoil what may be, for some, a big reveal. Then too, the show opens with the tune “And All That Jazz,” sung by vaudevillian Velma Kelly (Stacey Harris), immediately calling to mind Fosse’s amazing film All That Jazz, and featuring a dance routine reminiscent of Reinking’s big number in that film. As the show-biz dictum reads, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and cribbing from successful works sustains many a later career.

Velma Kelly (Stacey Harris) (photo: Anne Hudson)

Velma Kelly (Stacey Harris) (photo: Anne Hudson)

The source material for Chicago, a play by Maurine Dallas Watkins with script adaptation by David Thompson, was all about the showmanship behind the actual trials of two women accused of killing their husbands. One had been a performer and that detail is retained in the character of Velma in the play and musical; Roxie is hoping that the sensationalism around her own trial will propel her into fame as well. The thought that any of the women in the cell block are innocent is dispensed with when, in “Cell Block Tango,” each proudly tells how she killed a man who, each asserts, deserved to die. The cynicism comes in when we realize that sex appeal and sentimental sympathy are the only assets these women have.

The point is that Flynn is the kind of lawyer who knows how to work the system to achieve results. A problem with the show in Ivoryton is that Flynn, as played by Sutton, is never quite sharp and enthralling enough. He’s a bit too much TV game show host and not enough canny, Chicago shyster. In the show’s best number, “We Both Reach for the Gun,” his style of control comes off well, particularly as Philistine is a very convincing puppet. Indeed, Philistine, in the role Fosse’s wife Gwen Verdon played in the original, is the best thing in the show. She looks the part of essentially sweet girl turned killer and puts across the vapid but vivacious Roxie with moxie. It helps too that she’s skilled in the broad comedy of the show as well as in the dance numbers, particularly her show-off number “Roxie.”

Roxie Hart (Lyn Philistine), Billy Flynn (Christopher Sutton) (photo: Anne Hudson)

Roxie Hart (Lyn Philistine), Billy Flynn (Christopher Sutton) (photo: Anne Hudson)

As Velma, Harris has the bigger part as she opens both Acts and gets to work-out through an entertaining variety of dance routines in “I Can’t Do It Alone.” She’s the brassier of the two, but “When Velma Takes the Stand” seems to lack focus a bit, while her duet with Matron “Mama” Morton (Sheniqua Denise Trotman) is a nicely comic lyrical number to break up the somewhat static courtroom events of Act Two. Velma stands for the tried-and-true aspects of audience appeal—vaudeville style—and that’s what the show, as well as her defense, relies on.

At Ivoryton, the staging is stripped-down, the costumes are becoming—I particularly liked the look and moves of lithe Caroline Lellouche who plays “not guilty” Hunyak—the dance routines serviceable and the band tight. Kander’s score incorporates Twenties’ style melodies that, in Paul Feyer's hands, have zest and showiness aplenty. In supporting roles, Trotman shows off her finesse with Morton’s big number, “When You’re Good to Mama,” and Z. Spiegel’s upper-register for do-gooder Mary Sunshine’s “A Little Bit of Good” is quite convincing. And as “Mister Cellophane” Amos Hart, Ian Greer Shain mixes humor and pathos as a good stage clown should. Among the ensemble men, my eye most often followed Taavon Gamble, who also plays the Judge, and Danny McHugh, who also plays Sergeant Fogarty, and does a nice bit of soft-shoe early in the show.

Matron "Mama" Morton (Sheniqua Denise Trotman)

Matron "Mama" Morton (Sheniqua Denise Trotman)

As a song-and-dance spectacle, Chicago keeps the show tunes coming, as a plot it’s pretty thin, and as a comedy about crass opportunism it doesn’t have much point. As a show, it’s supposed to wow us with the razzle dazzle while letting us know—with a nudge in the ribs—that “razzle dazzle” is all we want.

Well, not really.

 

Chicago
Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Based on the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins
Script adaptation by David Thompson
Directed and choreographed by Todd L. Underwood

Musical Director: Paul Feyer; Set Designer: Martin Scott Marchitto; Lighting Designer: Marcus Abbott; Costume and Wig Designer: Elizabeth Cipollina; Sound Designer: Tate R. Burmeister; Production Stage Manager: William Vann Carlton; Assistant Stage Manager: Randy Lawson

Cast: Jose Amor Christensen, Sarah Mae Banning, Grant Benedict, Daniela Delahuerta, Taavon Gamble, Stacey Harris, Caroline Lellouche, Danny McHugh, Lyn Philistine, Jason Daniel Rath, Nick Raynor, Carolina Santos Read, Ian Greer Shain, Z. Spiegel, Christopher Sutton, Sheniqua Denise Trotman, Lauren Watkins, Sarah Mozelle Waxman

Orchestra: Paul Feyer, keyboard/conductor; Seth A. Bailey, trumpet; Michael Blancaflor, drums; Adam Clark, tuba/bass; Paul Gerst, trombone; Daniel Hartington, guitar; Benjamin Lostocco, trumpet; Alan Wasserman, reeds; Erin M. White, reeds

Ivoryton Playhouse
June 29-July 24, 2016  

All the Way from Memphis

Review of Memphis at Ivoryton Playhouse

Memphis, the Tony-winning musical by Joe DiPietro, Book and Lyrics, and David Bryan, Music and Lyrics, closes its run at Ivoryton Playhouse tonight. The show, a spirited crowd-pleaser, finds at Ivoryton an intimate showcase for its story of interracial relations surrounding the rise of black R&B—known, in the white music business of the 1950s, as “race music”—into a cultural force that eventually gave birth to rock’n’roll. Key to R&B making it across the racial divide were disc jockeys like real-life Dewey Phillips who first played black music for white audiences in Memphis. Inspired by Phillips, Memphis dramatizes the struggle to desegregate the radio as a key element in the effort to desegregate our country. In that sense, it’s a show with a vivid historical sense of how popular music could be a force for change.

One of the best things about DiPietro’s book is that it finds in the story of Huey (the character based on Phillips) drama enough to sustain the show, though at first that might seem a shaky proposition. There’s enough interest and tension, for one act, in watching Huey (Carson Higgins) defy his bosses—first at a record store and then at a radio station—while riding high on giving the people what they want. And, at the same time, courting and hoping to promote Felicia (Renée Jackson), a stunning singer he hears—and falls for—at the club owned by her brother, Delray (Teren Carter), where whites are decidedly not welcome. Songs like “Underground,” “Scratch My Itch,” and “Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night” celebrate the life force of the music Huey also loves—as he attests in “The Music of My Soul.”

Renee Jackson as Felicia

Renee Jackson as Felicia

Meanwhile the “rights” to the music—as a racial and not simply a cultural heritage—gets disputed hand-in-glove with the question of whether or not love can cross racial boundaries, with Felicia’s soulful “Colored Woman” and Delray’s electric “She’s My Sister” insisting—in the face of Huey’s often naïve indifference—that race is always a factor in the lives of African Americans. These themes come to a dramatic crest at the end of Act One when, after an act of violence shocks Huey into reality, Gator, a formerly mute bartender, steps up to sing “Say a Prayer,” a song with a strong sense of how gospel music was the basis for the heart found in R&B. But where can the show go from there?

Much depends on Huey expanding beyond the "hock-a-dooing" huckster of the first act. Carson Higgins inhabits the role with the kind of natural sure-footedness that makes even Huey’s less likeable aspects fully engaging. So, as he rides to success in Memphis, Huey must also deal with Felicia’s ambitions, which stretch beyond the Jim Crow South, her eyes on New York. Huey, in other words, has to face the fact that his love—whom he would like to marry—may be a bigger sensation than he is. While this takes us into A Star is Born territory, it does make Act Two an emotional struggle for Huey, and Higgins, with director Todd L. Underwood, is able to find the heart of this shifting, self-satisfied showman. His big song in Act Two, “Memphis Lives in Me” feels heartfelt and earned because we see what the town has done for him and to him and how much it has meant to him and cost him.

Melodie Wolford (Gladys) and Carson Higgins (Huey)

Melodie Wolford (Gladys) and Carson Higgins (Huey)

Along the way, there are many powerfully charged moments, in part because the show is so well-cast, with fully developed turns from Teren Carter as Delray, Melodie Wolford as Gladys, Huey’s mother, Beau Allen as Huey’s canny boss, and David Robbins as Bobby, a worker at the radio station and regular at Delray’s club who gets his moment of fame singing “Big Love” on Huey’s local TV show. These supporting parts lend the show much of its cred, and, in its key role, Renée Jackson gives Felicia a palpable hunger and sadness that help to sustain the meaning of the “blues” in R&B. Otherwise, we might think “race music” is all about having a good time. What even Huey can’t register is the degree of suffering the music acts as counter to, for its singers and makers and dancers. Jackson lets us feel what the structure of the show only suggests.

For, in the end, this is still Huey’s story. He, like many a hero, goes too far and grabs for a do-or-die moment that cooler heads would steer him from, and ends up with far less than he hoped. DiPietro does well to pull back from the happy-go-lucky happy-ever-after, that Huey would wish for himself, to take a sadder but wiser look at the time’s realities. Music may inspire us and bring us together, but—when it comes to recording and commercial radio—it’s a business first and foremost.

Underwood also choreographs the show and compresses the musical’s incredible energy onto the Ivoryton’s modest stage with great finesse. The dances seem to spring from the songs themselves without any labored sense of “dance routine,” and the big ensemble songs keep the energy level high throughout, with musical director Michael Morris conducting his orchestra from the piano, all situated as cool, shadowy figures behind a tasteful scrim. With no bad seat in the house, a show like Memphis—which can be seen in bigger houses on Broadway—demonstrates the full value of touring shows. The audience has full access to the power of the show, as every seat is “orchestra.”

Racial tensions, as DiPietro knows, were becoming more strident at that time in the South because it was becoming possible to challenge them. A key moment in that story comes when Huey’s mother (the excellent Melodie Wolford) has to overcome her deep-seated fear about her son’s interracial love, a fear mirrored in the resentment Delray (the excellent Teren Carter), feels for Huey. Such detentes are part of the complex story of how age-old systems can find challenge and courage in something new—at a time when, as Muddy Waters sang, “the blues had a baby, and they called that baby rock’n’roll.”

 

Memphis
Books and Lyrics by Joe DiPietro
Music and Lyrics by David Bryan
Based on a concept by George W. George
Orchestrations by Daryl Waters and David Bryan
Directed and Choreographed by Todd L. Underwood
Musical Director: Michael Morris

Scenic Designer: Martin Scott Marchitto; Lighting Designer: Doug Harry; Sound Designer: Tate R. Burmeister; Costume/Wig Designer: Elizabeth Cipollina; Stage Manager: Phill Madore

Orchestra: Michael Morris, conductor, piano; Andrew Studenski, alto sax, flute; Alan Wasserman: tenor sax, baritone sax, bass clarinet; Seth Bailey, trumpet; Matthew Russo, trombone; Luke McGinnis, keyboards; Dan Hartington, guitar; David Uhl, bass; Adam Holtzberg, drums; Elliot Wallace, drums

Cast: Beau Allen, Erik Bloomquist, Teren Carter, Roderick Cotton, Tiffani Davis, Taavon Gamble, Matthew Gregory, Carson Higgins, Renée Jackson, Amanda Leigh Lupacchino, Melissa McLean, Kevin Moeti, David Robbins, Jenna Rapisarda, Mya Rose, Tim Russell, Jamal Shuriah, Michael Sullivan, Garrett Turner, Chawnta’ Marie Van, Melodie Wolford

Ivoryton Playhouse
August 5-August 30, 2015