Kevin Connors

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

Seek Hyde

Review of Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical, Music Theatre of Connecticut

MTC opens its 32nd season with a real winner. ‘Tis the season to get scary and this production of Jekyll & Hyde fits right in, a dramatic adaptation of the hoary Robert Louis Stevenson classic about a man of science who experiments on himself and releases the demon within. As adapted to musical theater by Leslie Bricusse (Book and Lyrics) and Frank Wildhorn (music) and conceived for the stage by Wildhorn and Steven Cuden, Jekyll & Hyde isn’t a toe-tapper so much as a riveting foray into the darkness we may each harbor, in one form or another.

Andrew Foote (Hyde), Elissa DeMaria (Lucy Harris) in the Music Theatre of Connecticut production of Jekyll & Hyde

Andrew Foote (Hyde), Elissa DeMaria (Lucy Harris) in the Music Theatre of Connecticut production of Jekyll & Hyde

As a popular show that was first staged in the 1990s, it’s likely that audiences have had a chance to see Jekyll & Hyde by now. Whether you have or not, be sure to take it in at the intimate space of MTC. Here, you’re thrust into the heart of the action as this very talented and intense cast delivers this show with a power that could easily fill a much larger theater. Director Kevin Connors has assembled a great troupe to put this tale through its paces and everyone is splendid.

The set is simplicity itself, a long riser stretching into shadowy offstage areas, with a crackerjack band led by David Wolfson behind an arras. Nothing distracts from the action, which is abetted by Diane Vanderkroef’s costumes—jackets, vests, flounces, bustles, hats, hair, whiskers, it’s all well realized. The mic sets can be obtrusive, here and there, but Will Atkins’ sound design is sharp and clear, and all the voices—whether commanding majestic arias or remarking sotto voce—are compellingly present.

foreground: Emma Carew (Carissa Massaro), Gabriel John Utterson (Sean Hayden), and the cast of Jekyll & Hyde

foreground: Emma Carew (Carissa Massaro), Gabriel John Utterson (Sean Hayden), and the cast of Jekyll & Hyde

Despite the fact that our hero is also our villain and gets to own the stage, this is very much an ensemble piece in the sense that all the attendant figures help create this tale of a man at odds with his society, trying to prove something he believes will be of benefit to mankind but managing to ruin himself and nearly everyone else in the process. And, without getting too morbid, it might be fun to imagine some choice hypocritical leaders of our day falling into the hands of the ruthless Mr. Hyde, the way the board of governors does here. The song “Façade” felt only too relevant last week.

Henry Jekyll (Andrew Foote)

Henry Jekyll (Andrew Foote)

In Henry Jekyll (Andrew Foote) we see a driven man, trying to convince a board of naysayers—Lady Beaconsfield (Kirsti Carnahan), Sir Archibald Proops (Peter McClung), the Bishop of Basingstoke (Lou Ursone), General Lord Glossop (Bill Nabel), and Sir Danvers Carew (Donald E. Birely—a welcome return), father of Jekyll’s betrothed—that he has developed a serum that will isolate the two aspects of humanity, the good and the evil. Rightfully skeptical, the board also fear what will become of the evil part, once isolated. Good question!

In fact, after Jekyll proceeds to experiment with himself as guinea pig, the evil part runs amok in the form of Edward Hyde, a more hirsute version of Jekyll with none of the latter’s kindness. We see Jekyll’s kindness when he, alone among those of his social class, takes pity on a prostitute named Lucy Harris (Elissa DeMaria). To her, he becomes a hero, and to his fiancée, Emma Carew (Carissa Massaro), he is a man without peer, even if he does seem to be treading into deep waters. Elissa DeMaria and Carissa Massaro have done much fine work in a variety of shows at MTC and it’s a treat to see them together here perform the affecting duet about their shared object, “In His Eyes.” Massaro’s Emma is a paragon of the Victorian virtues, a seemingly flawless Angel in the House, while DeMaria’s Lucy is both frisky—“Bring on the Men”—and increasingly vulnerable, “Sympathy, Tenderness.” As with the two sides of the hero, the two main female characters gesture at a dichotomy that our social norms never quite seem to bridge.

Lucy Harris (Elissa DeMaria)

Lucy Harris (Elissa DeMaria)

Having to be both good and evil, alternately, falls to Andrew Foote’s very vulnerable—if somewhat overbearing—Jekyll and his monstrously vicious Hyde. Flinging a lengthy hairpiece over his visage for the latter and snarling, Foote’s performance is all the more fascinating for taking place so close to the audience. His singing voice is electrifying, and his energy as an actor is both scary and inspiring.

Edward Hyde (Andrew Foote)

Edward Hyde (Andrew Foote)

And that’s the word, I’d use for the entire cast and production—inspiring. And that includes notable support by Sean Hayden as Gabriel John Utterson (Horatio to Jekyll’s Hamlet), Jeff Gurner, in a trio of roles, all impeccable, Christian Cardozo as a fussy Simon Stride, and Alexandra Imbrosci-Viera and Carolyn Savoia shape-shifting between courtesans and denizens of St. James.

In Kevin Connors’ capable hands, MTC’s Jekyll & Hyde shows what a small, regional theater can do when it sinks its teeth into a show it is able to realize fully. In its humble surroundings, this show bests some bigger houses we could name. This is a Jekyll & Hyde worth seeking.

 

Jekyll & Hyde, The Musical
Book and Lyrics by Leslie Bricusse
Music by Frank Wildhorn
Conceived for the stage by Steve Duden & Frank Wildhorn
Orchestrations by Kim Scharnberg
Arrangements by Jason Howland

Directed by Kevin Connors
Musical Direction by David Wolfson

Scenic Design: Michael Blagys and Kelly Burr Nelsen; Lighting Design: Michael Blagys; Technical Direction: Kelly Burr Nelsen; Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Sound Design: Will Atkin; Fight Choreography: Dan O’Driscoll; Stage Manager: Jim Schilling

Cast: Donald E. Birely; Christian Cardozo; Kirsti Carnahan; Elissa DeMaria; Andrew Foote; Jeff Gurner; Sean Hayden; Alexandra Imbrosci-Viera; Carissa Massaro; Peter McClung; Bill Nabel; Carolyn Savoia; Lou Ursone

Music Theatre of Connecticut
September 28-October 14, 2018

The Folks at Home

Review of Fun Home, Music Theater of Connecticut

In its Connecticut premiere, directed by Kevin Connors, the Tony-award winning musical Fun Home, which was staged in a thrust space at Circle in the Square on Broadway, finds a home in the intimate thrust space at MTC. The show, which includes several children in its cast and fits the band into the back of the playing space, feels very much at home in the community-theater aspects of the venue.

And there is definitely a homegrown aspect to the musical’s concerns, its living room set made odd by a coffin in the wings. In the early scenes, the children (Ari and Jonah Frimmer and Caitlin Kops) in this house that incorporates a funeral home—nicknamed by the kids “fun home”—set the tone, including a show-stopping and bouncy Jackson Five homage.

front: Avi Frimmer, Jonah Frimmer; middle: Megan O'Callaghan, Amy Griffin, Caitlin Kops; standing: Abby Root, Anthony Crouchelli, Greg Roderick, Raissa Katona Bennett

front: Avi Frimmer, Jonah Frimmer; middle: Megan O'Callaghan, Amy Griffin, Caitlin Kops; standing: Abby Root, Anthony Crouchelli, Greg Roderick, Raissa Katona Bennett

 

With music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, Fun Home, adapted from the graphic novel memoir by cartoonist Alison Bechdel (of Dykes to Watch Out For), looks back at the pains of growing up gay in a small town in Pennsylvania, keeping one eye on the upward trajectory of the protagonist—who we see at three different ages: Small Alison (Caitlin Kops), Middle Alison (Megan O’Callaghan), and Alison (Amy Griffin), our grown-up narrator—and the other eye on a crippling dysfunction in the family.

Bruce (Greg Roderick), the father of three, has another life as a sometimes predatory gay man. Early in the show, Alison announces that she became a lesbian and that her father was gay and killed himself. The effect is to suck much of the bounciness out of what had seemed to be a family chronicle about kids coping with a demanding and fussy father, replacing it with Alison’s brooding view of her childhood. While it may be, in some ways, a happy coming-out story, Fun Home houses a bitter tale of intergenerational failure.

Bitterness is the main note of Amy Griffin’s Alison, but the youngest version of Alison is lighter if only because not so keen to judge Bruce, and Caitlin Kops does a nice job of making Small Alison seem her own person. Small Alison’s struggles with her father tend to be about matters of taste—he takes command of her reading, belittles her choice of TV programs, and demands she make her drawings conform to his dictates.

As played by Greg Roderick, Bruce is not as threatening as Alison views him, merely an unpredictable bully. He seems to be genuinely attached to Alison, as his eldest child and only daughter, and we don’t really get interactions with his sons after those initial scenes. Alison’s view of her father might resonate more if he were creepier, but the scenes she didn’t witness—such as her father’s efforts to seduce high school students and handymen (Anthony Crouchelli)—seem more sad than bad.

While we might see Bruce’s tale as a tragedy in its own right, the elder Alison is more concerned with how his lies and bad choices undermined the family. Alison’s youth is summed up by a few key scenes—an early aversion to wearing dresses, a fascinated view of a butch delivery woman, a visit to the Gay Union at college, followed by the discovery of sex sweetly invoked by Megan O’Callaghan’s bright rendering of “Changing My Major.”

At one point we learn, when Helen (Raissa Katona Bennett), the mother, finally admits her knowledge of the hidden side of Bruce’s sexuality, that the couple has coped their entire lives with his closeted homosexuality and a festering resentment on both sides. We might expect Middle Alison, in college and in a couple with Joan (Abby Root), to feel some compassion, but that doesn’t seem to occur to her. The sense in which adults are unknowable to their children resonates, but, within the memoir conceit, the focus is always on the child’s perspective, making Bruce unknowable to us as well.

Helen is something of a mystery too. She’s away a lot, it seems, as an actress in theater. Raissa Katona Bennett’s performance puts heart into Helen’s songs, such as one about how it feels to maintain a museum-like household to her husband’s satisfaction, and a powerful aria to her daughter about the psychic costs of a long marriage to such a man. Her scenes with Bruce are mostly arguments, and a recollection of their earliest days together ends prematurely.

Late in the play, a visit to the “fun home” by Middle Alison and Joan seems like it might assuage the tensions, though a drive between Alison and Bruce goes nowhere, as neither father or daughter have a clue about how to speak about themselves. In place of a connection, there’s a song by Alison that chronicles the missed opportunity.

The play reaches for a resolution—since it’s harder to leave a musical than a play unresolved—that seems to me more maudlin than moving. It might register with more feeling if there weren’t so many unanswered questions—about Bruce and Helen—and so much overwrought feeling in Alison.

Without Bechdel’s artistry, in her drawing and her wide-ranging literary allusions, the book of Fun Home feels a bit like a Sisyphean punishment in which Alison must circle round and round the story of her life and never come to a different conclusion or a deeper understanding. Not much fun.

 

Fun Home
Music by Jeanine Tesori
Book & Lyrics by Lisa Kron
Based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel
Directed by Kevin Connors

Musical Direction: Thomas Conroy; Scenic & Lighting Design: Michael Blagys; Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Sound Design: Monet Fleming; Stage Manager: Jim Schilling

Cast: Raissa Katona Bennett, Anthony Crouchelli, Ari Frimmer, Jonah Frimmer, Amy Griffin, Caitlin Kops, Megan O’Callaghan, Greg Roderick, Abby Root

Musicians: Thomas Conroy, conductor / keyboard; Susan Jiminez, violin; Michael Mosca, guitar; Chris Johnson, drums

Music Theatre of Connecticut
April 20-May 6, 2018

'Tis the Season

Review: A Christmas Carol, A Live Radio Play, Music Theatre of Connecticut

The story of Ebenezer Scrooge, all too familiar as it may be, always has something to tell us, which is one reason why it is the inescapable chestnut of every holiday season. Charles Dickens created a figure in his A Christmas Carol that has long been celebrated for its unflagging resonance. This year, two productions not too far from New Haven have re-imagined the story to achieve different effects.

The staples are the same—the humbugging miser, the spirits of Christmases past, present and future, the ghost of Marley, the poor, and the uplift of seeing a soul restored. The tale has had any number of updates and celebrity turns, much as every singer worthy of the name has assayed an album of Christmas tunes sooner or later. And yet there’s a seriousness to the tale that saves it from being yet another helping of seasonal schmaltz.

At Music Theater of Connecticut, Joe Landry has given Scrooge and company the same treatment he gave to the great and unavoidable American Christmas story, It’s a Wonderful Life: namely, Landry has turned Dickens’ classic into a script for a radio broadcast. The conceit of the show is that, rather than watching a straight-forward play, we are watching actors “on the air,” so that we become a studio audience for a fictitious broadcast. Part of the fun of that set-up is that the actual actors in the play we’re watching are performing as radio personalities first, and Dickensian characters, second.

Sally Applewhite (Elissa DeMaria), Lana Sherwood (Kaia Monroe), Freddie Filmore (Mike Boland), Jake Laurents (Matt Grasso), Harry Heywood (Jacob Sherburne)

Sally Applewhite (Elissa DeMaria), Lana Sherwood (Kaia Monroe), Freddie Filmore (Mike Boland), Jake Laurents (Matt Grasso), Harry Heywood (Jacob Sherburne)

Mike Boland plays Freddie Filmore, who enacts Scrooge; Elissa DeMaria plays Sally Applewhite, who voices Martha Cratchit, Scrooge’s fiancée, and the wife of Scrooge’s nephew; Matt Grasso plays Jake Laurents, who plays Scrooge’s nephew and Tiny Tim; Kaia Monroe plays Lana Sherwood, who performs Mrs. Cratchit and the Ghost of Christmas Past; Jacob Sherburne plays Harry Heywood, who delivers Marley, Cratchit, and the Ghost of Christmas Present. There are many other incidental characters and sometimes those are the most rewarding for comic touches—such as the take-offs of Scrooge’s priggish business acquaintances by Grasso and Sherburne, and the lively scene when DeMaria, Monroe, Grasso and Sherburne enact the scrounging low-lives who pawn Scrooge’s meager possessions.

Matt Grasso, Kaia Monroe, Jacob Sherburne, Elissa DeMaria

Matt Grasso, Kaia Monroe, Jacob Sherburne, Elissa DeMaria

There are fewer outright comic elements in A Christmas Carol than in It’s a Wonderful Life, so the use of commercial breaks—for a fruitcake purveyor—are welcome additions. The story of Scrooge—as Hartford Stage’s current production shows—has an inherent drama that could be detached from the question of Christmas cheer and still be worthwhile. MTC’s production plays to the warm and fuzzy qualities that we would expect from a broadcast playing in living rooms. As with It’s a Wonderful Life, the era of the broadcast already supports a feeling of nostalgia for the bygone comforts of Christmases past. And that means the whole is pitched so as to bring both a twinkle and a tear to the eye.

Scrooge (Mike Boland)

Scrooge (Mike Boland)

As Scrooge, Boland truly seems a man set in his ways, impervious to the needs of others and the charms of the season. His fear when confronted with the visions provided by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is convincing and helps to make the lesson of the spirits feel earned. The Ghost of the future has no lines but is instead signified by sound effects—and watching the cast perform sound effects, or Foley, is another aspect that makes the old-time radio show setting enjoyable. In terms of voice effects—important to making these characters alive for listeners—Sherburne’s Marley is chilling and his Ghost of Christmas Present warmly chiding; Grasso gets the most boisterous characters and keeps the show merry; DeMaria, who was a memorable Violet Bick in It’s a Wonderful Life, doesn’t get to be as sexy this time—except in one of the commercial spots—but she’s good at ingenue too; Monroe gets the arch tones of the Ghost of Christmas Past and the straightened Londoner of Mrs. Cratchit and shines as the blustery cockney, Mrs. Dilber.

As with It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s easy to get caught up in the drama when one knows so well the story and the lines, and it’s a treat to see a faithful rendition that hits all the high points, while we imagine it all taking place in our minds just like those visions of sugar plums.

 

A Christmas Carol, A Live Radio Play
Adapted for the Stage by Joe Landry with Music by Kevin Connors
Based on the novella by Charles Dickens
Directed by Tim Howard

Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Set Design: Jordan Janota; Lighting Design: Michael Blagys; Sound Design: Monet Fleming; Stage Manager: Jim Schilling; Musical Direction: Matt Johnson

Cast: Mike Boland, Elissa DeMaria, Matt Grasso, Kaia Monroe, Jacob Sherburne

Music Theatre of Connecticut
December 1-17, 2017

Twinkle, Twinkle

Review of I’ll Eat You Last, Music Theatre of Connecticut

Sue Mengers, the subject of John Logan’s entertaining and saucy monologue I’ll Eat You Last, A Chat with Sue Mengers, was a groundbreaking Hollywood agent, often called the first “super agent.” She made her mark, a pioneering woman in a man’s world, under what was called at the time “the New Hollywood,” to differentiate the hip up-and-comers of the 1960s and 1970s from the old guard that had been sustained by the studio system. Most of the big stars that Mengers helped make household names—often with Oscars garnered—are already facing something less than instant recognition with contemporary audiences. And therein lies the ever-encroaching subtext of this vibrant but oddly vulnerable play.

Ali McGraw and Steve McQueen, once a hot couple, have long since gone the way of all flesh, as even Brad and Angelina will one day spark the quizzical look that “Jack and Anjelica” most likely earns today from anyone under thirty. Celebrity is not a constant and those who rule the tabloids for a time will one day be eclipsed in the popular imagination. Mengers knew well how to play the game that the Pink Floyd song “Have a Cigar” called “riding the gravy train.” The question nibbling at the edges of Mengers’ reminiscences in this breezy one woman play concerns what happens when the gravy’s gone.

Sue Mengers (Jodi Stevens)

Sue Mengers (Jodi Stevens)

Mengers, given larger-than-life presence by Jodi Stevens, directed by Kevin Connors at Music Theatre of Connecticut, reclines on a couch in her swanky Beverly Hills home, regaling us with tales of how she came to lead the life she always dreamed of. A Jewish family from Germany, fleeing Nazism and speaking little English, the Mengers settled in Utica, NY, but, after the suicide of the traveling salesman father, they headed to the Big Apple, or rather Brooklyn, birthplace of one of Mengers first clients, the ever-twinkling star Barbra Streisand (this was, as Mengers lets us know, so early Streisand was still “Barbara”). Mengers, we suspect, has the goods on many a lifestyle of the rich and famous, but what she wants to impart are the tricks of the trade, as in: how to become a great agent and make careers.

Sue Mengers (Jodi Stevens)

Sue Mengers (Jodi Stevens)

That might entail camping outside the home of film director William—or “Billy”—Friedkin, to wheedle a consideration of her client Gene Hackman for the part—Popeye Doyle in The French Connection—that would earn Oscars for both director and lead and make Hackman a star, despite his lack of leading man qualities. Events like that add credence to Mengers’ canny sense of what works—all the other actors being considered would’ve made for a much weaker film—but it’s not all success stories in Mengers’ dossier. The way Ali McGraw threw over a film career to be a wife and mother, married to brutish and misogynistic McQueen still burns up Mengers, even though McGraw might well have sussed that she wasn’t much of an actress and landing a real leading man might be better than making movies with his peers. Still, this is the world according to Mengers—who rather exults in not knowing or caring about political causes or places other than Hollywood. Any movie person who wants to talk about something other than the movie business and its “twinklies”—stars and only stars—won’t be getting an invite to her stellar soirées.

The set-up of the play is that Mengers is entertaining us—the hoi polloi—before entertaining her A-list guests later in the evening. In flowing, glittering loungewear that recalls the muu muu, Mengers lazes about, drawing languidly on a joint and cigarette in either hand—she even compares herself to the famed hookah-smoking caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland (the one that asked, rather peremptorily, “who are you?”). The point of her career is getting her clients “to the watering-hole,” and, when possible, poaching other clients from other agents, and she’s at her best when enacting the moxie she employs to those ends, as when Sissy Spacek calls and Mengers dispenses off-the-cuff advice, even though Sissy is not a client, or when she re-enacts for us the gamesmanship by which she got Faye Dunaway a career-making role in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown over, allegedly, Jane Fonda. As with most gossip—and Mengers is very convincing about gossip as the lubricant of choice in Hollywood—it’s impossible to know if what she says is true or not. What she thrives on is the entertaining anecdote.

Sue Mengers (Jodi Stevens)

Sue Mengers (Jodi Stevens)

Jodi Stevens is so compellingly charming and so natural a hostess that we, the audience, might well feel we’re in a tête à tête with her, or on a date, or on an audition. Stevens keeps the tone bouncing through a range of crowd-pleasing intimacies, but there are deliberate drops that give us insight into how someone like Mengers plays the game with herself in private, keeping score of her triumphs, her gaffs, and trying to work out the “secret” to her—or any rival’s—success. Behind the façade—and Stevens lets us glimpse its cracks—there’s the harrowing drive to know what others are saying and thinking and to try to control it. This is a world where friends are contacts and social occasions are work, where business and pleasure mix because, for Mengers it seems, business is the only pleasure (other than something to smoke or drink). Even sex seems to be valued primarily as an accomplishment rated by whom you did it with. Marriage—and Mengers has an off-stage husband who writes and directs and produces—comes across as the behind-the-scenes that Mengers won’t let us see.

Like the “smoke and mirrors” of show-biz, Logan’s play is a protracted tease. Will Mengers receive the call she’s awaiting, from Streisand? What will we learn about them if we see Mengers huddled up with her favorite famous alter-ego? We’ll never know, as I’ll Eat You Last saves that tasty morsel for the end, off-stage. Whatever happens, we’re on Sue’s side, and that in itself is a victory.

Sue Mengers (Jodi Stevens)

Sue Mengers (Jodi Stevens)

 

I’ll Eat You Last. A Chat with Sue Mengers
A play by John Logan
Starring Jodi Stevens
Directed by Kevin Connors

Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Set Design: Jordan Janota; Lighting Design: Michael Blagys; Stage Managing: Jim Schilling

Music Theatre of Connecticut
February 24-March 5, 2017

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

Mother Knows Best

Review of Gypsy, Music Theater of Connecticut

Gypsy, “A Musical Fable suggested by the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee,” is a popular musical that depends upon the quality of the actor playing Momma Rose—mother of Gypsy Rose Lee—to succeed. In MTC’s production, Kirsti Carnahan does the show proud, giving us a Rose who, though still as overbearing and relentless as the part calls for, is comical, touching and, ultimately winning. And that helps make this big show in a small space shine.

I don’t think Madame Rose is always played so appealingly. The part was long associated with Ethel Merman, who I can’t imagine anyone finding “touching,” and in the Hollywood film, which I watched recently, Rosalind Russell, besides being unable to sing with real feeling, is mostly insufferable. Carnahan’s Rose reminds me more than a little of the actress/mother Shirley MacLaine plays in Postcards from the Edge—which is to say, pushy and willing to use self-pity artfully, but also affecting and full of fun.

Kirsti Carnahan as Rose (photo: Joe Landry)

Kirsti Carnahan as Rose (photo: Joe Landry)

The big climactic number—“Rose’s Turn,” including the reprise of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”—finds Rose alone with her fantasies of fame and delivers plenty of sizzle, and Carnahan is also charming when Rose needs to be, as in “Small World,” her courtship of agent and beau Herbie (Paul Binotto). In the scenes when Rose goes ballistic over thwarted plans, director Kevin Conners lets us see how extreme Rose can be, but with a sense of her as a passionate woman with a mission, not as some kind of show-biz monster mom. And that’s all to the good.

June (Carissa Marisso) and Louise (Kate Simone) (photo: Joe Landry)

June (Carissa Marisso) and Louise (Kate Simone) (photo: Joe Landry)

As June and Louise, the hapless, grown daughters forced to play out mom’s insistent drive to make them stars, Carissa Massaro and Kate Simone put across “If Momma Was Married” with plenty of verve, Massaro strong on attitude, and in the transformation from tomboyish Louise to stylish Gypsy, Simone shows a gradual, no-nonsense grasp of practicalities that gives some shape to an easily overshadowed role. Thankfully, Becky Timms’ choreography lets us see Gypsy’s wit in her striptease numbers, with accent on the “tease.”

Young Tulsa (Charlie Pelletier), Rose (Kirsti Carnahan), Baby June (Abby Sara Dahan) (photo: Joe Landry)

Young Tulsa (Charlie Pelletier), Rose (Kirsti Carnahan), Baby June (Abby Sara Dahan) (photo: Joe Landry)

As the little wind-up toys that the sisters begin as, Abby Sara Dahan (as Baby June) and Natalie Steele (as Baby Louise) make Mama’s silly routines better than they might be—with Dahan’s comic presence making the most of Baby June’s bid for glory. As the supporting dancers, Joe Grandy (as Tulsa) gets a nice tap routine that almost steals away Louise’s heart. While, as the long-suffering Herbie, Binotto is likeable if not very forceful. Special kudos to Jodi Stevens, always a treat, as Mazeppa, the stripper with a way with a horn, while Marca Leigh and Jeri Kansas also provide colorful support, making “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” the crowd-pleaser it’s meant to be.

Tessie Tura (Jeri Kansas), Mazeppa (Jodi Stevens), Electra (Marca Leigh) (photo: Joe Landry)

Tessie Tura (Jeri Kansas), Mazeppa (Jodi Stevens), Electra (Marca Leigh) (photo: Joe Landry)

In many ways, this small scale production of Gypsy might prove more satisfying than a larger production. The feel of the backstage world and the effort to create a plausible entertainment that are so important to the story are very much in evidence. The story’s subtext about how vaudeville permitted a certain kind of DIY professionalism to flourish, giving way—in these characters’ lifetimes—to few respectable outlets also feels germane to the world of regional theatrics. The irony of Gypsy’s story is that she achieved the stardom her mother dreamed of, but not in the desired format. But even there, the bias against burlesque can seem quaint to us now when so much show-biz is all about showing it all.

Gypsy is a gutsy take on making good of a downward spiral, and MTC’s Gypsy is a tasteful take on the ups-and-downs odyssey of Momma Rose and her daughter.

 

Gypsy, A Musical Fable
Book by Arthur Laurents
Music by Jule Styne
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Original Production by David Merrick & Leland Hayward, directed choreographed by Jerome Robbins
Directed by Kevin Connors

Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Wigs: Peggi De La Cruz; Set Design: Carl Tallent; Lighting Design: Michael Blagys; Choreography: Becky Timms; Musical Direction: Thomas Martin Conroy; Stage Manager: Jim Schilling

Musicians: Piano/Conductor: Thomas Martin Conroy; Second keyboard: Luke McGuinness; Drums: Chris Johnson; Reeds: Gary Ruggiero

Cast: Paul Binotto, Kirsti Carnahan, Brittany Cattaruzza, Joe Grandy, Jeri Kansas, Marca Leigh, Carissa Massaro, Peter McClung, Chris McNiff, Abigial Root, Kate Simone, Jodi Stevens; and featuring: Abby Sara Dahan, Jonah Frimmer, Charlie Pelleteir, Natalie Steele

Music Theater of Connecticut, MTC Mainstage
September 9-25, 2016

One Effing Elf

Review of The SantaLand Diaries at Musical Theatre of Connecticut

Best-selling, Grammy-winning author David Sedaris has come a long way since his stint as an elf in a Macy’s SantaLand, and he’s also come a long way since the humorous essay he wrote about that experience, which has also been shared as a spoken word feature on NPR and This American Life. And yet the story as adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello has taken on a life of its own since its debut in 1996. It’s become a holiday staple for many a theater in the U.S., a one-man show that lets us laugh at the corny traditions that constitute “the Christmas spirit”—a glut of decorations, food consumption, familiar tunes, holiday reruns, and much buying, and sometimes giving, that happens without fail from late in November (or earlier) and runs till December 25th.

Ostensibly all the hoopla has something to do with the birth of Christ, but in fact, in the U.S., it mostly has to do with marketing, as every store in the land, almost, has its Christmas come-on. One of the best-known of all department stores, of course, is Macy’s and one of its ways of celebrating the season and getting people to come in and shop is providing a guy dressed in the traditional garb associated (at least since a very influential Coca-Cola ad campaign anyway) with old St. Nick to meet the kids and listen to Christmas wishes. And it was at Macy’s that Sedaris really did take the job of being one of the helpers of the store’s Santas. The SantaLand Diaries plays as the amusingly jaundiced view of a rather less than inspired elf enduring the fake cheer, the clueless “foreigners,” the pushy and obnoxious parents, the scared or sick or displeased children, and the on-the-job antics of his fellow not-so-bright elves and a variety of Santas.

Matt Densky (Crumpet)

Matt Densky (Crumpet)

Taking the name Crumpet, our narrator/hero is at his best in recounting the kind of behind-the-scenes stories that play to our curiosity about “show-biz,” even this far down the food chain. As Crumpet says, many of the people who apply for a job in SantaLand—in New York anyway—are unemployed actors looking for some easy money at Christmastime. It helps, in a job like this, to be willing and able to transform oneself to match one’s costume. Green velvet, with striped stockings, pointy shoes and hat. The works. Crumpet’s tongue-in-cheek approach to the job—and, it seems, to life in general—is his best defense against the simple-mindedness of the task, but he’s also not the kind to fool himself with visions of sugarplums. He sees through everyone and almost anyone can be an occasion for an unflattering anecdote or apothegm.

Much of this material, however, pulls its punches. Rarely is Sedaris’s text truly witty and often an anecdote will sort of fizzle without any real zinger. It’s not really something to fault Sedaris on, since he wrote an essay of observational humor, the sort of thing that plays best as a stand-up monologue, seeming to come off the top of one’s head in the moment of telling. Turned into a play, the monologue has to have more zing, requiring a performer up to the task of taking on the raconteur role while also able to act out other characters who get mimicked by Crumpet. Fortunately Matt Densky, directed by Kevin Connors, has the skills needed to make Crumpet vivid, fun, and a little unsettling.

One of Densky’s strengths in the role is his mimicking ability. He does a number of quick “sketches” of the people Crumpet interacts with, and each one is a spot on “take off,” via vocal mannerism, of an immediately recognizable type. You’ve got to be cheerful to be an elf, but you’ve got to be mercurial to make the story of Crumpet work. Denksy’s got it down. A high point is the rendition of “Away in the Manger” in the manner of Liza Minelli.

Alas, there’s not enough of that sort of thing. You soon find yourself thinking that this material needs to be further adapted—enlarged to make room for Densky’s talent. He exults in the snide manner so much so that you don’t for a minute believe that you’re hearing the really juicy stuff. Most of Sedaris’s observations are pretty anodyne, never really going for the jugular. I know, it’s Christmas and all that and we’re supposed to be looking for the good in everyone, but that’s not Crumpet’s approach. He tends to see the worst in people. Not because he’s vicious but because people tend to live up to his worst expectations. And I can’t help thinking there are naughtier and nastier characterizations that were left out of Sedaris’s text in favor of gentler laughs.

Even so, caricaturing others can seem mean, but Crumpet doesn’t come across that way, primarily because the tone Sedaris, Mantello and Densky create is of someone who wants us on his side. We have to see he’s better than “this,” this job of being an elf, as his giddy glimpses of the training sessions and of the less than inspiring Santas shows. And so we’re eager to hear how he managed it—took on this thankless job and maintained his dignity and his sense of humor. By aiming his humor at others, of course, and the laughter we share with him is laughter at how daft the Christmas season is. It’s supposed to be jolly and merry, like Santa, but often it’s a downer or at least disappointing. So, why not liven it up with Crumpet, a refreshingly honest elf, as eager as many of us are to exit the enforced euphoria come December 25th, and get on with business as usual.

 

The SantaLand Diaries
By David Sedaris
Adapted by Joe Mantello
Directed by Kevin Connors
With Matt Densky

Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Scenic Design: Carl Tallent; Lighting Design: Joshua Scherr; Stage Manager: Jim Schilling

Music Theatre of Connecticut
December 11-20, 2015

Little Shop with Errors

Review of Little Shop of Horrors at Music Theatre of Connecticut (MTC)

Little Shop of Horrors, a campy rock musical with a cozy cast of eight—plus a talking plant—is understandably enticing to any Artistic Director of an intimate theatre. But beware! If the director isn’t careful, this fanciful show can—like the exotic Venus fly trap, Audrey II, who consumes the lives of the characters—overpower the space and dominate even the most skilled and charming actors.

Such is the case with the current production of Little Shop of Horrors at the Music Theatre of Connecticut (MTC). In a 200-seat house, the audience is snuggled right up to the outsized and often demented action, which is all part of the fun. But where director Kevin Connors, musical director Thomas Martin Conroy, and vocal arranger Robert Billig make a serious mistake is in their collaborative sound design. Each of the very strong singers is electronically amplified, and each has been encouraged to sing full out. Not only does this make for a show that is simply too loud, but the clever lyrics (written by Howard Ashman, who also wrote the book) are often garbled, through no fault of the singers themselves.

Audrey (Elissa DeMaria)

Audrey (Elissa DeMaria)

We need those lyrics, not only for their wit, but also because, as with any fine musical, the songs advance the plot, elucidate the relationships, and raise the stakes of the story. For those not familiar with Little Shop, picture the legend of Dr. Faustus set to the sounds of doo-wop, early Motown, and 1960’s rock and roll. In Skid Row, a sweet schlemiel, Seymour (Anthony DiCostanzo), works at a failing flower shop under Mr. Mushnik (Lou Ursone), his irate boss. The only light in his life is his fellow florist, the lovely Audrey (Elissa DeMaria). Audrey regularly comes in with a black eye or broken arm, courtesy of her sadistic boyfriend, Orin (Tony Lawson), a dentist.

Seymour (Anthony DiCostanzo)

Seymour (Anthony DiCostanzo)

Just before the shop is about to go under, Seymour produces a strange plant that he’s been tending, and this plant begins to draw customers’ attention. Voiced by Peter McClung, Audrey II, as Seymour wistfully names his botanical discovery, also begins to draw blood—first Seymour’s, and then . . . well, you know, it’s your basic Faustian pact. Will Seymour give into Audrey II’s burgeoning appetite in exchange for fame, money, and the ability to provide his beloved the perfect house and garden she longs for? Or will he resist, and risk living on Skid Row forever?

Helping to fill in this bizarre and comic plot are a Greek chorus of three Supremes-like singers—Chiffon (Inuka Ivaska), Crystal (Kristian Espiritu), and Ronette (Gabrielle Lee)—and a three-piece band playing Alan Menken’s marvelous score: Thomas Martin Conroy on keyboards; Dan Asher/Henry Lugo on bass; and Chris Johnson on drums.

Seymour (Anthony DiCostanzo) and Audrey (Elissa DeMaria)

Seymour (Anthony DiCostanzo) and Audrey (Elissa DeMaria)

The problems with sound are especially unfortunate because nearly every actor has been cast well and performs expertly. DiCostanzo and DeMaria are especially winning, both in their separate roles and as a lovestruck, star-crossed couple. DiCostanzo looks wonderfully nerdy yet sings like an angel, which is just right for the role. DeMaria has the difficult task of performing broadly but never losing our sympathy, and she makes playing Audrey look easy. As Mr. Mushnik, Lou Ursone, a fine singer and dancer, has wonderfully comic moments, especially in his appeal to adopt the suddenly famous Seymour (“Mushnik and Son”). Ivaska, Espiritu, and Lee, though especially hampered by the decision to amplify their already big voices, execute their moves with the requisite fire and sass.

Orsin (Tony Lawson)

Orsin (Tony Lawson)

In the only questionable casting, Tony Lawson stretches credulity as Orsin. Lawson’s performance itself is suitably funny and frightening. A combination of early Elvis and James Dean, he hits his girl and loves to cause his dental patients anguish (“Dentist!”). But where Lawson has a physical softness about him, Orsin needs to come across as sharp and strikingly seductive.

While the costumes, designed by Diane Vanderkroef, are just right in nearly every case, director Connors should have caught the problem, late in the show, where Chiffon, Crystal, and Ronette all appear in the same glittering dress. Each of the three women is shaped very differently, and one style does not fit all. Vanderkroef could have achieved the same effect with identical fabric, cut to flatter.

Chiffon (Inuka Ivaska), Ronette (Gabrielle Lee), Seymour (Anthony DiCostanzo), Crystal (Kristian Espiritu)

Chiffon (Inuka Ivaska), Ronette (Gabrielle Lee), Seymour (Anthony DiCostanzo), Crystal (Kristian Espiritu)

In designing the set, David Heuvelman faces a challenge: important action occurs inside the flower shop, while the actors need as much external playing space as possible. Heuvelman accomplishes this, but his set is far from visually arresting. In particular, if a curtain is going to be pulled across the shop to represent the degraded world of Skid Row, it must be expertly painted. Unfortunately, it’s not. Skid Row is a character in itself, inspiring not one but two songs (“Skid Row (Downtown)” and “Somewhere It’s Green”), and as such, should be a place darkly, stylishly realized.

A musical that’s hard to listen to and lacks an evocative design can hardly be considered a success. However, MTC’s Little Shop of Horrors must be commended for its actors, who bring style, sweetness, and commitment to this wacky, twisted tale.

Little Shop of Horrors
Book and Lyrics by Howard Ashman; Music by Alan Menken
Based on the film by Roger Corman; Screenplay by Charles Griffith
Directed by Kevin Connors
Musical Direction by Thomas Martin Conroy

Vocal Arrangements: Robert Billig; Orchestrations: Robert Merkin; Choreography: Steven Midura; Set Design: David Heuvelman; Audrey II Design: Erin Flanagan Lind & Corey T. Lind; Audrey II Puppeteer: Will Strong; Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Lighting Design: Tyler H. First; Stage Manager: Jim Schilling

Music Theatre of Connecticut (MTC)
509 Westport Avenue, Norwalk

April 17-May 3, 2015