Jim Schilling

A Dark Cabaret in Norwalk

Review of Cabaret, Music Theatre of Connecticut

As a musical, Cabaret has much to recommend it. The songs by John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics) are catchy and full of the charm of the demimonde. Joe Masteroff’s book manages to provide romance while capturing the risks of bohemia and the shock of the rise of Nazism. The story unfolds as a bitter lesson on several fronts, and yet, like its showman of an emcee, it manages to be engaging until all is lost. Played again—in MTC’s second staging of Cabaret—by Eric Scott Kincaid, The Emcee seems less a Mephistophelean overseer of the fortunes of the other characters and more like the portrait of Dorian Gray, suffering more the uglier the situation in Berlin grows. Kincaid’s Emcee looks tortured and tired from the start, an emblem of the Kit Kat Klub’s seediness and its losing effort to deny its days are numbered.

The Emcee (Eric Scott Kincaid) in Music Theatre of Connecticut’s Cabaret, directed by Kevin Connors

The Emcee (Eric Scott Kincaid) in Music Theatre of Connecticut’s Cabaret, directed by Kevin Connors

The show has a small cast, so there aren’t quite the big dance numbers we might expect, which also gives a realness to a Kit Kat Klub that lacks the glitz and sparkle of Broadway versions. The opening “Willkommen” has plenty of energy, and the dancers are close enough to flirt with audience members or to upbraid them for not flirting enough. Two male dancers, Tony Conaty and Alex Drost, provide the requisite Fossean physicality, and Hillary Ekwall, who plays Fräulein Kost, does a mean split.

Fräulein Kost (Hillary Ekwall), The Emcee (Eric Scott Kincaid), Man 2 (Tony Conaty)

Fräulein Kost (Hillary Ekwall), The Emcee (Eric Scott Kincaid), Man 2 (Tony Conaty)

The droll numbers—like “Two Ladies”—have a tawdriness that showcases the unreality of the romance between pining British showgirl Sally Bowles (Desirée Davar) and straitlaced American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Nicolas Dromard). The romance between timid Jewish fruiterer Herr Schultz (Jim Schilling) and pragmatic German landlady Fräulein Schneider (Anne Kanengeiser) has perhaps a better chance of enduring, but that’s where the menace of the rising Nazis becomes most keenly felt. As Ernst Ludwig, Cliff’s student of English lessons, Andrew Foote is disarmingly friendly, even after everyone notices his armband, but as the edicts against Jews escalate, we know there will be violence.

Sally Bowles (Desirée Davar)

Sally Bowles (Desirée Davar)

As the irrepressible Sally Bowles, Desirée Davar sounds remarkably like Liza Minelli, the most famous Sally, in the big numbers “Maybe This Time” and “Cabaret.” Davar is better in Act II, when emotions begin to take their toll, than she is as the bubbly, flirtatious Sally of Act I. As Cliff, Dromard is also best in Act II, when he begins to see what’s at stake. To Fräulein Schneider falls such great numbers as “So What?” in Act I and “What Would You Do?” in Act II, both trenchant expressions of a life with no illusions and not many choices, but their fatalism exposes the quietism that let the Nazis have their way. Kanengeiser plays the part perfectly, giving the aging fräulein a weary wit. Jim Schilling’s Herr Schultz is a nice match for her. He’s touching in his wooing, and their duet, “Married,” is a fragile, lyrical moment. His insistence that Nazism will pass because “I know the Germans and, after all, what am I? A German” acts as a sad reminder of how deluded even a Jewish merchant could be.

Fräulein Schneider (Anne Kanengeiser), Herr Schultz (Jim Schilling)

Fräulein Schneider (Anne Kanengeiser), Herr Schultz (Jim Schilling)

Some of the popular songs featured in the film and in other iterations—such as “Money” and “Mein Herr”—are not here, as they weren’t in the initial version of the musical. Instead, “Sitting Pretty” and “Don’t Tell Mama,” both less jaunty, fill those spaces. This is a more chastened Cabaret, and its powerful ending stabs not only with the sorrow that no one gets what they want but with how horribly correct the Nazis were in singing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” (here greatly helped by the singing voice of Andrew Foote, who played Jekyll/Hyde with such power earlier this season). Against the Nazis brutal will to power, the call to “come to the Cabaret” is desperate, and Sally’s insistence that she’s “going out like Elsie,” her roommate who ended her life rather than live in an uncaring world, is apropos to the fates we see visited upon Herr Schultz and The Emcee.

The Emcee (Eric Scott Kincaid)

The Emcee (Eric Scott Kincaid)

Somber in mood, Kevin Connors’ production of Cabaret is all-too appropriate to times when denial and dancing away a sense of doom are endemic. In that sense, one hopes life isn’t a Cabaret.

 

Cabaret
Book by Joe Masteroff
Based on the play by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood
Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Directed by Kevin Connors

Musical Direction: Thomas Conroy; Scenic Design: Kelly Burr Nelson; Lighting Design: RJ Romeo; Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Sound Design: Will Atkin; Prop Design: Merrie Deitch; Choreography: Simone DePaolo; Fight Staging: Dan O’Driscoll; Stage Manager: Gary Betsworth

Cast: Tony Conaty, Desirée Davar, Nicolas Dromard, Alex Drost, Hillary Ekwall, Andrew Foote, Anne Kanengeiser, Eric Scott Kincaid, Jim Schilling

Music Theatre of Connecticut
March 29-April 14, 2019

A Hot Cat in Connecticut

Review of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Music Theatre of Connecticut

What makes a play great? That it explores human complexity with characters that generations of actors can lose themselves in and find compelling truths. That its setting and style, in being specific to a time and place, manage to incorporate a wider sense of human possibility. The people in the drama are caught where and when they are, but they speak to us, across time and distance, with a directness and a passion for life that will always be meaningful.

In every sense, Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a great play. And Music Theatre of Connecticut, in a production directed by Kevin Connors, has done it proud. And that means playgoers have the unusual treat of seeing a powerful and professional production of this masterpiece in an intimate space that makes us aware of how voyeuristic our attention can be. All the action takes place in a young married couple’s bedroom, with the audience flanking it on three sides, as if spies watching the struggle at the heart of this fractious and uneasy family drama.

Big Daddy (Frank Mastrone), seated, Big Mama (Cynthia Hannah), Reverend Tooker (Jim Schilling), Doc Baugh (Jeff Gurner), Maggie (Andrea Lynn Green), Gooper (Robert Morley), Mae (Elizabeth Donnelly) in Music Theatre of Connecticut’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Big Daddy (Frank Mastrone), seated, Big Mama (Cynthia Hannah), Reverend Tooker (Jim Schilling), Doc Baugh (Jeff Gurner), Maggie (Andrea Lynn Green), Gooper (Robert Morley), Mae (Elizabeth Donnelly) in Music Theatre of Connecticut’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

The Pollitts—Big Daddy and Big Mama—are well-to-do landowners in the south who came from nothing. Big Daddy scraped his way to a position of power and wealth, but his health is at issue. The family—the Pollitts’ two sons, Gooper and Brick, with their wives Mae and Maggie, and a slew of Gooper and Mae’s offspring—have gathered to celebrate Big Daddy’s 65th birthday. The news from the clinic is good. Big Daddy doesn’t have cancer, merely a spastic colon. That’s the situation, seemingly, as the play opens, and it’s clear that all is not well right from the start.

Brick was a sports hero, now he drinks relentlessly and has broken his leg in a drunken attempt to jump hurdles as he once could. His wife just as relentlessly belittles Gooper and Mae and schemes at how to make sure that she and Brick are not cut out of the old man’s will. At the base of their marital dysfunction is an act of infidelity and the nature of the affection between Brick and his best sports buddy, Skipper. And then there’s the fact that everybody but Daddy and Mama Pollitt know that, in truth, the news is cancer and the cancer is terminal.

Brick (Michael Raver), Maggie (Andrea Lynn Green)

Brick (Michael Raver), Maggie (Andrea Lynn Green)

How the characters cope with a hopeless situation and each other is intrinsic to this drama. There is humor because Williams had a wonderful ear for the locutions of southern speech, both in its willful gentility and in its pointed lapses. His characters can lash out with language and can also avoid speech with particular emphasis. By the end, we find surprising turns in some of the characters and, at the play’s heart, a coming to terms with grim truth on the part of Big Daddy and Brick.

Here, director Connors makes the tense and difficult scene between these two men achieve a cathartic climax, abetted by his two fully engaging actors whose control of the material is impressive and convincing. Frank Mastrone’s Big Daddy isn’t simply an egotistical bully—though he is one—but also a man of the world with an almost fatal attachment to his beautiful son, Brick. He lets us hear the fondness, feel the ache, and see the man take the bullet of the last straw. It’s riveting.

Big Daddy (Frank Mastrone), Big Mama (Cynthia Hannah)

Big Daddy (Frank Mastrone), Big Mama (Cynthia Hannah)

And Michael Raver’s Brick deepens and deepens as the play goes on. He begins the play sullen, in a towel, a hedonist trying to withdraw from the world into his own private pleasure palace. His showdown with Big Daddy occurs almost despite himself, driven by the booze he needs so desperately. Late in the play, he nearly steps out of his senses, playing as if a whirlwind of suppressed emotion makes him, finally, one of the “weak, beautiful people” who fall under the sway of the Maggies of this world, an outcome that feels enheartening.

Brick (Michael Raver)

Brick (Michael Raver)

And what of Maggie? It’s a tough role because Maggie can so easily become a caricature of feminine wiles wedded to a desperate resentment, but she’s so much more, and Andrea Lynn Green makes her a memorable mix of sex appeal and sly charm, with a refreshing girlishness that suits her steady awe of her husband, in spite of—or even because of—all his failings. Connors’ blocking always puts Green where she can do the scene most good.

Maggie the Cat (Andrea Lynn Green)

Maggie the Cat (Andrea Lynn Green)

As the put-upon and unprepossessing Gooper and Mae, Robert Morley and Elizabeth Donnelly do the parts full justice. Again, caricature can be too easily achieved, but Williams clearly wants us to see that the griefs of this grasping and manipulative couple are real. Morley gives us the pathos of Gooper—never favored, never preferred, but trying to live up to his life’s challenge. Donnelly’s Mae is snitty, and, when she believes she has the upper hand, insufferable as she should be. Excellent support is also provided by Jeff Gurner as Doc Baugh, a professional man who tends to look on in constrained silence, and by the entertaining turn of Jim Schilling as Preacher Tooker, a pious conniver delivered with great comic relish.

Big Mama (Cynthia Hannah)

Big Mama (Cynthia Hannah)

Finally, there’s Cynthia Hannah as Big Mama, nearly upstaging Big Daddy. As a role that requires both silliness and heartbreaking pathos, it’s in some ways the more complex role. She rises to the great threat posed by Gooper and Mae with a commanding strength, but her most affecting moment is carrying a cake with lighted candles offstage, pathetic and chastened. Williams’ grasp of the ugliness of marital strife is deep and abiding but he always leavens the bitterness with flashes of affection and the sudden recognition of dependence and sympathy that keeps us fascinated, waiting for the next illumination.

Luminous, bracing, sexy, and satisfying, this Cat stays on that Hot Roof just as long as it can.

 

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
By Tennessee Williams
Directed by Kevin Connors

Scenic Design & Technical Direction: Kelly Burr Nelson; Lighting Design: Michael Blagys; Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Sound Design: Will Atkin; Stage Managed by Gary Betsworth

Cast: Elizabeth Donnelly, Andrea Lynn Green, Jeff Gurner, Cynthia Hannah, Frank Mastrone, Robert Mobley, Michael Raver, Jim Schilling

Music Theatre of Connecticut
November 2-17, 2018

Gags Galore

Review of The 39 Steps, Music Theatre of Connecticut

Enter the wacky world of spies in England and Scotland between the two great wars of last century. Adapted by Patrick Barlow for the stage, from John Buchan’s 1915 novel by way of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 thriller, The 39 Steps, directed by Pamela Hill at Music Theatre of Connecticut, keeps up a steady pace of escapes and oddball encounters, with the tone of an espionage story jettisoned in favor of skit comedy and slapstick. With all characters played by four actors, and the artifice of theater exposed right on the stage, props get put through their paces and the audience is made to indulge its imagination.

Richard Hannay (Gary Lindemann), Annabella Schmidt (Laura Cable) (photos from Music Theatre of Connecticut)

Richard Hannay (Gary Lindemann), Annabella Schmidt (Laura Cable) (photos from Music Theatre of Connecticut)

MTC likes such stripped down staging, as it has shown with its staged radio shows, and much of the charm of the show comes from a willingness to make theater a frenetic game of make-believe. That starts with Gary Lindemann’s Richard Hanny, a posh Brit who lounges about narrating his ennui before being catapulted into a series of dangerous predicaments by way of an encounter with Annabella Schmidt, a mysterious German woman played with hilarious creepiness by Laura Cable. Lindemann’s Hanny is a kind of unflappable Everyman, even if there’s nothing at all everyday about his adventures.

Pamela (Laura Cable), Richard Hannay (Gary Lindemann)

Pamela (Laura Cable), Richard Hannay (Gary Lindemann)

The acting here is turned up a few notches from the kind of overplaying you’d find—played for real—in B movies, or on radio programs. The situations also smack of radio shows, with visualization a key part of the effect—except, of course, for the sight gags. My favorite features Lindemann and Cable—as Pamela, a skeptical woman pressed into aiding Hannay—handcuffed together and trying to get over a stile. And the bit when she removed her stockings while handcuffed makes comedy of discomfort.

Clown #2 (Matt Densky), Clown #1 (Jim Schilling)

Clown #2 (Matt Densky), Clown #1 (Jim Schilling)

The play is designed to let such tomfoolery go on as long as it can, particularly the many bits furnished by the two clowns, Matt Densky and Jim Schilling. It helps that Schilling bears a resemblance to that great veteran of televised skit comedy, Tim Conway. When Schilling mutters and putters around, setting up chairs for a speech, or has to carry several chairs offstage at once, the gags are vintage Conway. As the other Clown, Matt Densky tends to specialize in outrageous voices—I don’t think I’ll ever forget how his diabolical German says “Mr. Hannay!”

Clown #2 (Matt Densky)

Clown #2 (Matt Densky)

The presence of diabolical Germans and slow-witted Scots (without quite as funny an accent as you’d expect) and bland society types and traveling lingerie salesmen, to say nothing of the many caps Schilling juggles as cop, train conductor, and passenger, lets us experience a parade of characters as matters of costume and voice and mannerism.

The cast of The 39 Steps

The cast of The 39 Steps

The entire cast is having so much fun you might find yourself forgetting what is going on with the story. It doesn’t really matter, and the plot’s flights of fancy are abetted by a number of references to Hitchcock films for the attentive. I have to say though that the production I saw in London’s West End in 2015 seemed more verbally inventive, but that might be the effect of familiarity.

MTC’s version of this screwball caper comedy brings together two of its top comic actors—Schilling, who has played many roles, and Densky, last seen as the irritable department store elf in The Santaland Diaries—with Lindemann and Cable, two other comic talents who work very well together, to provide an evening of inspired silliness with pretty much a gag a minute. Seeing these quick-timed switches in such close proximity to an audience makes for a certain awe at what they get away with.

 

The 39 Steps
Adapted by Patrick Barlow
From the novel by John Buchan
From the movie by Alfred Hitchcock
Directed by Pamela Hill

Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Wigs: Peggy de la Cruz; Set Design: Jordan Janota; Lighting Design: Michael Blagys; Sound Design: Monet Fleming; Stage Manager: Gary Betsworth

Cast: Laura Cable, Matt Densky, Gary Lindemann, Jim Schilling

Music Theatre of Connecticut
March 2-18, 2018

Radio Wonderment

Review of It’s a Wonderful Life, Music Theatre of Connecticut

It’s a Wonderful Life, the story of American Everyman George Bailey, has become, in the 70 years since its release, a holiday favorite, a Christmas classic. It wasn’t always so, but that hardly matters now. The tale of how a struggling Building and Loan manager in Bedford Falls manages to best Old Man Potter, the grasping Scrooge of the community, and survive a Christmas Eve’s dark night of the soul worthy of Dickens’ infamous hero, feels like the stuff of American folklore. It weaves its spell even without the fine cast of character actors, beginning with James Stewart and including Lionel Barrymore, Ward Bond, Donna Reed, Thomas Mitchell, and Henry Travers, that grace Frank Capra’s film of 1946. As a kind of welcome back to small-town America for all those returning G.I.s, the script has its heart in the right place.

Transformed by Joe Landry into a “live radio play” set in 1946, It’s a Wonderful Life at MTC, directed by Kevin Connors, adds the charm of old-time entertainment to the well-known script. The melodramatic aspects of the story are gently winked at by such devices as using commercial breaks and voice-over announcers. We enter not only the bygone era of the story itself but also the way in which such a story would have been framed for its listeners in the golden age of radio. And since the audience is present for the dramatization—though you might be forgiven if you close your eyes and let images from the film play through your head in response to the lively voices of the cast—we get to watch the performance of sound effects and the delightful business of how five actors at microphone stands become the inhabitants of a small town with over a dozen named roles.

Lana Sherwood (Elisa DeMaria), Sally Applewhite (Elizabeth Donnelly), Harry Heywood (Jim Schilling), Jake Laurents (Jon-Michael Miller)

Lana Sherwood (Elisa DeMaria), Sally Applewhite (Elizabeth Donnelly), Harry Heywood (Jim Schilling), Jake Laurents (Jon-Michael Miller)

The pleasures of the enactment come from how the familiar types of the original become comic turns in the hands of five radio actors, Freddie Filmore (Allan Zeller), Jake Laurents (Jon-Michael Miller), Sally Applewhite (Elizabeth Donnelly), Lana Sherwood (Elisa DeMaria), Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood (Jim Schilling). Each has a certain kind of showbiz attitude that plays into the parts they bring to life “on the air” (the audience at the show gets to double as the studio audience, with an Applause sign that lights up to let us know when we should be heard).

Freddie Filmore (Allan Zeller), Jake Laurents (Jon-Michael Miller), Harry Heywood (Jim Schilling)

Freddie Filmore (Allan Zeller), Jake Laurents (Jon-Michael Miller), Harry Heywood (Jim Schilling)

Begin with earnest George (Jon-Michael Miller), a well-meaning type whose life we trace from moments of past presence of mind to present despair to bewilderment and eventual redemption. Miller’s Laurents plays George as a bit of a would-be matinee idol, not quite what Jimmy Stewart aimed for. He’s abetted by DeMaria’s Lana Sherwood who also aims to get as much sex appeal into her portrayal of the somewhat wayward Violet Bick as she can. As George’s ever loyal wife Mary, Sally Applewhite looks a bit more elegant than she would on film, and Donnelly gets some mileage out of the remove between a Manhattan radio celebrity and the can-do smalltown girl. As grasping Potter, Zeller’s Freddie Filmore brings to bear the kind of overbearing style he uses to lord it over the airwaves as one of those inescapable announcer voices. And Jim Schilling’s “Jazzbo” Heywood, complete with bowtie, is the kind of easy-going, laidback entertainer just perfect for the gently ditzy angel Clarence and for the gee-whiz voices of little kids.

Landry’s adapted script plays it close to the original, with a host of other familiar voices—the druggist Gower, Bert the cop, Ernie the cabbie, Uncle Billy, Mrs. Bailey, Mr. Martini—to let the actors show off their range of voices and, sometimes, a single actor enacts a conversation between two roles. The folks at home with their ears attending the box would never know. What we see that they don’t is part of the fun of this form of presentation.

Lana Sherwood (Elisa DeMaria), Sally Applewhite (Elizabeth Donnelly)

Lana Sherwood (Elisa DeMaria), Sally Applewhite (Elizabeth Donnelly)

The original film runs for over two hours. Landry’s script makes some judicious cuts, so as not to bog down the set-up that gets us to George’s time of trial, and the show also doesn’t have to draw out scenes for the sake of “screen time,” and that makes for a swifter if less expansive telling.

It’s a Wonderful Life, in any format, does its moral of the importance of friends and community proud. Maybe a more telling moral now than for many a year.

 

It’s a Wonderful Life
A Live Radio Play
Adapted for the stage by Joe Landry
Based on the screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra and Jo Swerling
Directed by Kevin Connors

Music: Kevin Connors; Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Set Design: Jordan Janota; Lighting Design: Michael Blagys; Stage Manager: PJ Letersky

Cast: Elisa DeMaria, Elizabeth Donnelly, Jon-Michael Miller; Jim Schilling; Allan Zeller

Music Theatre of Connecticut Mainstage
December 9-18, 2016