Rob Ruggiero

Short and Sweet

Review of Girlfriend, TheaterWorks

At 80some minutes, Girlfriend, the newish musical at TheaterWorks, directed by Rob Ruggiero, is short, and, with the music from Nebraska-born musical artist Matthew Sweet featured, it is certainly Sweet. The play, by Todd Almond, is indeed sweet as its boy meets boy story set in Alliance, Nebraska, 1993—while it has drama—is mostly easygoing. The two characters are Will (David Merino), a gay senior in high school, and Mike (CJ Pawlilowski), a still closeted senior. Mike’s opening overture to Will is the gesture of giving him a tape of Matthew Sweet’s LP, Girlfriend (released 1991). The duo’s story is set to Sweet songs mostly from that album.

If this sounds to you like a rather thin Book—take a bunch of songs and construct a story to accompany them—then you and I agree. Unlike some instances of rock we might imagine, Sweet’s songs have the strength of being unprovocative. They can be somewhat propulsive, like the title song, and somewhat lyrical, like “Your Sweet Voice,” and one or two—“Winona,” “Evangeline”—have interesting lyrics. The live band playing them at the back of the stage—Evan Zavada, conductor, keys, vocals; Billy Bivona, guitar 1; Julia Packer, guitar 2, vocals; Adam Clark, bass, vocals; Elliot Wallace, drums—can be as fun to watch as the play’s action.

Will (David Merino), Mike (CJ Pawlikowski) and the band in Girlfriends, directed by Rob Ruggiero, at TheaterWorks, photos courtesy of TheaterWorks

Will (David Merino), Mike (CJ Pawlikowski) and the band in Girlfriends, directed by Rob Ruggiero, at TheaterWorks, photos courtesy of TheaterWorks

The story is comprised of very static scenes: Will in his bedroom with his boombox; Mike in his with his more imposing all-in-one stereo; the friends sitting in Mike’s car at a drive-in, watching the same film—about a superhero alien whose alter-ego is a nun named Evangeline—night after night. Eventually (spoiler alert!) they do get to Mike’s bedroom while his somewhat domineering father is away (we never meet him, but he seems to be pressuring Mike into maintaining relations with his girlfriend, whom we also never see).

The play insists on being a two-hander so any schoolmates who might sneer at this budding romance never show up. Any threat to the status quo that this same-sex couple poses must be imagined (mostly rude stares from the other guys on the baseball team Mike plays on). All of which is deliberate. This romance isn’t about overcoming parental disapproval (which certainly factors in for all sorts of couples for all sorts of reasons) or about overcoming peer pressure (ditto), but about whether or not Mike really loves Will.

Will (David Merino)

Will (David Merino)

Will, who is played with disarming, outgoing cheer and charm by Merino, is clearly the girl in this relationship. He sits at home waiting to be asked out; when he is, he always goes. His passivity might be seen as comic, or pathetic. Here, it just is. The implication is that, as a gay boy in a predominantly hetero culture, he has to take what he can get. What he gets is Mike’s vacillations. Is giving music to someone a sexual overture? Depends. Is going to the drive-in together an invitation to make-out? Depends. What the play mostly explores is the gray area of that “depends.” Will lets us know he’s up for it but not enough to make a first move. As Mike, Pawlikowski plays obtuse well. The guy acts like leading Will on is the last thing on his mind, though of course it’s the first thing on Will’s. Whether or not Mike can admit that or not is really the only question here.

It’s all coy and almost-not-quite closeted. We’re waiting for a big breakup or big breakthrough. Things don’t get nasty, but they do get a little more complicated: Mike is off to college; Will, apparently, can’t think of anything better to do than stay in this Nebraskan town some 300 miles from the university in Lincoln. Was this all just an experiment for Mike before moving on?

Mike (CJ Pawlikowski)

Mike (CJ Pawlikowski)

Almond’s approach to dialogue is to stick with the demotic. These guys need those songs because they have nothing much to say. The best dialogue is Will trying gently to suggest that the movie isn’t all that good. Indeed, we might easily believe Mike is actually straight since he has so little of interest to say. Will, whatever he may feel for Mike, is clearly slumming.

The opening weekend matinee I saw featured an audience comprised mostly of people who might well have grandchildren the ages of these characters. They seemed warmly touched by the romance. The play might strike with a bit more force played for an audience closer to the boys’ ages. In fact, that would be the perfect audience for this play—and, I suppose, fans of Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend. The band do the songs justice, Merino and Pawlikowski have suitable singing voices, and the sound design, by Joshua D. Reid, is perfectly adapted to the Wadsworth’s auditorium.

Will (David Merino), MIke (CJ Pawlikowski) and the band

Will (David Merino), MIke (CJ Pawlikowski) and the band

 

Girlfriend
Book by Todd Almond
Music & Lyrics by Matthew Sweet
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Music Direction by Evan Zavada

Set Design: Brian Prather; Costume Design: Blair Gulledge; Lighting Design: Rob Denton; Sound Design: Joshua D. Reid; Hair: John McGarvey; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth

Cast: David Merino; CJ Pawlikowski

Band: Evan Zavada, conductor, keys, vocals; Billy Bivona, guitar 1; Julia Packer, guitar 2, vocals; Adam Clark, bass, vocals; Elliot Wallace, drums

 

TheaterWorks
At the Wadsworth
March 22 to April 28, 2019

Beat Those Christmas Blues

Review of Christmas on the Rocks, TheaterWorks

What are some of your favorite memories of the Christmas holidays? If the list includes such things as the black boot of Santa waving in the face of a young boy before he plummets down a slide at a department store North Pole, or a cartoon boy with a blanket intoning words about the true meaning of Christmas, or the beleaguered manager of a Saving and Loan fixing to jump off a bridge into icy waters, or a sickly boy enlivened by “the pudding singing in the copper,” or a young girl accosted by giant mice, or a cartoon snowman cavorting as the “baddest belly-whopper in the business,” or a distraught young reindeer facing cruel taunts due to his beaming nose, then TheaterWorks has the show for you.

With Christmas on the Rocks, director Rob Ruggiero has brought together different playwrights to create dialogues for characters from Christmas classics. This year, the list entails A Christmas Story, It’s a Wonderful Life, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, A Christmas Carol, and A Charlie Brown Christmas. For many of us, Christmas has taken its tone from such entertainments for as long as we can remember. So, we might ask ourselves, how would those familiar characters experience Christmas now, in 2018?

The show’s title “on the rocks” is apropos. Not only have the holidays become rocky terrain—which they pretty much were even in the original stories—but the entire action of the play takes place in a cozy little corner bar, presided over by Tom Bloom as the bartender. If the setting and the pace of featured character actor skits doesn’t bring to your mind Art Carney as the barkeep on the Jackie Gleason Show, then you’re probably younger than I am. The shtick is familiar, the exchanges between each guest and the barkeep anything but.

The jokes tend to assume familiarity with the shows from which these characters originate, which is fair enough. Playing off to the side on big screens, before the play starts, is a loop of clips from the requisite features to help jog your memory, should that be necessary. Each respective playwright takes the material and runs with it, adding absurdist humor, many a knowing chuckle, and some outright hilarity. There’s also a touch of the Christmas blues throughout so that the show caters to those of us who find Christmas—in its commercial insistence—a bit too incessant.

The Bartender (Tom Bloom), Ralph (Randy Harrrison) in TheaterWorks’ Christmas on the Rocks

The Bartender (Tom Bloom), Ralph (Randy Harrrison) in TheaterWorks’ Christmas on the Rocks

This year, the effervescent Randy Harrison—of the TV show Queer as Folk—plays all the male guests, while Jenn Harris—a talented comedienne who puts me in mind of the irrepressible Ruth Buzzi—plays the females. John Cariani’s “All Grown Up” starts things off with the Ralphie facing the fact that he’s a fictional character everyone knows thanks to “the movie.” Because the story of Ralph is so richly told in the original, there’s plenty to work with. Harrison is a believable grown-up Ralphie, getting laughs from his true feelings about that bunny suit.

Zuzu (Jenn Harris)

Zuzu (Jenn Harris)

The part of Zuzu in It’s a Wonderful Life has less to offer, but Jacques Lamarre rises to the occasion with “A Miserable Life” which lets us see the grown Zuzu, forever haunted by those damn bells that signal an angel getting wings. Her paranoia, in Harris’ hands, is quite funny in a quirky way. Harris really comes into her own with “My Name is KAREN!” which she co-wrote with Matthew Wilkes. Karen, you might not remember, is the little girl who accompanies Frosty through his life and death adventures in the Rankin/Bass cartoon. Here, she has become an online celebrity of sorts, taking the followers of her video postings on a retributive journey that includes tying up the hapless bartender with Christmas lights. She’s a memorably psychotic rendering of the Christmas spirit, complete with screen projections from her cell phone, which she speaks to as an audience and trusted confidante. Then, as the girl from the Nutcracker ballet, Harris turns in a frenetic performance in Edwin Sánchez’s “Still Nuts About Him,” complete with comic Russian accent, some not so chaste moves, and a great deadpan.

The Bartender (Tom Bloom), and Clara (Jenn Harris)

The Bartender (Tom Bloom), and Clara (Jenn Harris)

Harris’ best role is as the put-upon dentist Hermie from Rankin/Bass’s stop-motion puppet production of the Rudolph story, adapted from the famous song. In Jeffrey Hatcher’s “Say It Glows,” the character of Hermie, a bit awkward and whiny in the original show, hasn’t changed much. But he is much more “out” than he was as a kid, understandably, and that’s the main takeaway: that wanting to be a dentist wasn’t the only reason Hermie was a “misfit,” and Harris does this queerer version of Hermie proud, complete with a “Tooth Fairy” T-shirt. Here, growing up and coming of age seems an improvement rather than a downer. It does get better.

The Bartender (Tom Bloom), Hermie (Randy Harrison)

The Bartender (Tom Bloom), Hermie (Randy Harrison)

Something maybe not so true for the grown-up Tiny Tim, who Harris plays like a Cockney who might once have joined a punk band. In Theresa Rebeck’s “God Bless Us Every One,” Tim is down on the whole Christmas bit, seeing Ebenezer as an old gent who cracked and went about handing out money recklessly. Here, the dialogue with the bartender proves the most meaningful. Often, he’s merely a genial looker-on at someone who briefly takes over the place, but with Tiny Tim he gets to debate the merits of the Scrooge story, which shows, yet again, that Dickens is a hard man to beat when it comes to Christmas.

The Bartender (Tom Bloom), Tiny Tim (Randy Harrison)

The Bartender (Tom Bloom), Tiny Tim (Randy Harrison)

The Charlie Brown segment—“Merry Christmas, Blockhead,” by Jacques Lamarre—is something of an anticlimax, if only because a soured Charlie Brown seems less suitable than the other transformations, and being married to Lucy a bit of a stretch. His unexpected encounter with a special someone gives us a romantic close, a nice way to end, but with less of the edginess that sustained the more offbeat laughs.

A fun shot of cheer—with some of the bite of holiday hangovers from yesteryear—Christmas on the Rocks, like the shows it recalls, is the stuff of a collective fantasy that’s been dancing in our heads like sugarplums at least since “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Love Christmas or dread it, this show has a place in your holiday traditions.

 

Christmas on the Rocks
An Offbeat Collection of Twisted Holiday Tales by
John Cariani
Jenn Harris & Matthew Wilkas
Jeffrey Hatcher
Jacques Lamarre
Theresa Rebeck
Edwin Sánchez
Conceived and Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Set Design: Michael Schweikardt; Costume Design: Alejo Vietti; Lighting Design: John Lasiter; Sound Design: Michael Miceli; Wig Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth

Cast: Tom Bloom, Jenn Harris, Randy Harrison

TheaterWorks
November 27-December 23, 2018

To the Fishing Cabin

Review of The River, TheaterWorks

Sigmund Freud called it “repetition compulsion,” the psychological condition of having to repeat a traumatic event. It may involve revisiting the place where the event occurred, or trying to recreate a situation through specific actions. A popular depiction of the condition can be seen in Alfred Hitchcock’s highly praised film Vertigo. That film might come to mind when watching Jez Butterworth’s fascinating and mysterious play The River, now playing at TheaterWorks, directed by Rob Ruggiero.

The setting—a fishing cabin “on the cliffs, above the river” in some out-of-the-way English dell—finds a suitable rustic charm in Brian Prather’s handsome set. It’s a homey place for The Man (Billy Carter) because he’s been coming there to fish for sea trout since he was a boy when his uncle was “the man” on the place. As the play opens we get one of those nice jolts that maintaining the fourth wall can still deliver. The Woman (Andrea Goss) is looking right out over the audience in TheaterWorks’ intimate space. She’s gazing raptly at a gorgeous sunset, and tries to entice The Man to share in the moment. “I’ve seen it,” he says, fussing with his gear for the big fishing trip, then proceeds to describe the sky with fulsome words, without looking, and creates a verbal painting.

The Woman (Andrea Goss), The Man (Billy Carter) in TheaterWorks’ production of The River

The Woman (Andrea Goss), The Man (Billy Carter) in TheaterWorks’ production of The River

He’s got a knack for poeticizing, and at one point, trying to convince The Woman she needs to be a part of his fishing expedition, he asks her to read a Ted Hughes poem from a book. She, on the other hand, would rather stay in the cabin and read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. At that point we might be afraid, indeed. “They’re going to the lighthouse, will they get there?,” she asks, half-facetiously. And then the pair go fishing, but what happens?

Butterworth, for all that he might be writing this play tongue-in-cheek, has taken on an interesting assignment: how to convey obsession, loss, hope, love, and the playfulness of seduction while maintaining the mystery of such experiences? All the while keeping the glory of fishing—and the nature of sea trout has its metaphoric application—before us as, well, what it’s like to try to catch something wild and fleeting.

The Man (Billy Carter), The Woman (Andrea Goss)

The Man (Billy Carter), The Woman (Andrea Goss)

We might begin to think—after we meet The Other Woman—we’re in a Gothic story, a kind of Bluebeard-as-fishing-story that will reveal some awful truth about a serial killer. That would be a blunter version of what Butterworth offers. Instead, we’re contemplating something almost as off-putting: serial seduction, the strange-to-relate way that a search for true love—or an effort to recapture a previous moment—involves a set script. All we need to do is find the right actor for the part we’ve written in our heads.

That might sound like a very dark play, and in some ways it is. The brooding tone is leavened by the characters of the women. As The Woman, Andrea Goss is slyly mocking at times, apt to fear that The Man has plans more romantic than she’s prepared to accept. The Other Woman is played by Jasmine Batchelor as even more engaging, enough to make us think she may be “the One” after all. She brings a winning outlook to her match with The Man, even if she does catch a fish by a method forbidden in his code.

The Other Woman (Jasmine Batchelor), The Man (Billy Carter)

The Other Woman (Jasmine Batchelor), The Man (Billy Carter)

The Man could be a crashing bore, so set in his ways, but Billy Carter—in a role that Hugh Jackman played on Broadway—keeps us guessing about his motivations and where his heart really lies. He can be taciturn as well as rhapsodic. And he has to gut a fish on stage if only so we can watch him interact with his favorite species. He’s deliberate, almost devout. Later, he draws The Other Woman’s portrait with a similar concentration. The play asks us to see him as the women do: as someone who attracts interest but who also seems to hold others at bay, which only adds to his allure. His manliness may be the theme most at issue here, a studied self-sufficiency that requires a certain elusiveness in his prey, and his bride.

The Man (Billy Carter), and the fish

The Man (Billy Carter), and the fish

Every date between strangers is a kind of try out, we might suppose, but The River keeps an archly archetypal quality in play. A few oddities—like a scene about a bird getting into the cabin that plays the same for both women, each told “it’s happened before”—keep us guessing, waiting for a reveal that makes all the pieces fit. And fitting oneself to someone else is what successful romance is all about. 

Director Rob Ruggiero keeps the tension palpable, and the sound effects in Frederick Kennedy’s sound design, including a subtly hypnotic song, add an eeriness. The River makes the most of the scenic quality of theater, so that each new scene, playing with our sense of how narrative unfolds, establishes a static moment without a clear relation to before and after. It’s “the still point of the turning world,” while it lasts.

  

The River
By Jez Butterworth
Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Set Design: Brian Prather; Costume Design: Tricia Barsamian; Lighting Design: John Lasiter; Sound Design: Frederick Kennedy; Associate Director: Taneisha Duggan; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth; Dialect Coach: Johanna Morrison

Cast: Jasmine Batchelor, Billy Carter, Andrea Goss

 TheaterWorks
October 4-November 11, 2018

Who Wears the Heels

Review of The Legend of Georgia McBride, TheaterWorks

Boy meets his inner girl—more or less—and performs happily ever after. That’s the essential gist of Matthew Lopez’s cheerily entertaining The Legend of Georgia McBride, a funny and breezy look at the showpersonship of drag performance now playing at TheaterWorks, directed by Rob Ruggiero.

Casey (Austin Thomas) is a would-be Elvis Impersonator whose act is dying, though he refuses to see that. His put-upon wife, Jo (Samaria Nixon-Fleming), has to give him a wake-up call when his buying a Papa John’s pizza puts them in the red and they might face eviction. The chemistry between the two is earnest in a sit-com manner where we don’t really believe the direness of the situation or see any reason not to assume that Casey will come up with something.

Eddie (J. Tucker Smith), Rexy (Nik Alexander), Casey (Austin Thomas), Miss Tracy Mills (Jamison Stern) (photos provided by TheaterWorks)

Eddie (J. Tucker Smith), Rexy (Nik Alexander), Casey (Austin Thomas), Miss Tracy Mills (Jamison Stern) (photos provided by TheaterWorks)

“Something” arrives in the form of Miss Tracy Mills (Jamison Stern) and his sidekick Rexy (Nik Alexander), two drag queens from out of town who have come to the bar run by Tracy’s cousin Eddie (J. Tucker Smith) to bring in the customers with their stylish show. One imagines we have RuPaul to thank for the fact that folks in a nondescript Florida beach town will flock to see drag queens flaunt their stuff. In any case, flock they do and then, one night, Rexy is too tanked to go on for her big Edith Piaf number. Tracy, with Eddie’s backing, threatens and cajoles Casey, long since demoted to bartender, into taking over, which he does with a charmingly inept lip-synch to a song that, in time, he almost manages to make his own.

All well and good, except Casey hasn’t leveled with Jo about where the money’s coming from. That, such as it is, is the main plot complication, along with the possible return to form of Rexy, which would be a shame once Casey has re-upped his sequin-studded Elvis-jumpsuit into feisty “Redneck Woman” duds. Casey likes his new persona—Georgia McBride—and much of the middle section of the show has Casey and Tracy strutting their stuff in lively fashion.

Matthew Lopez’s script is very funny, with many sharp asides, mostly in the mouth of Tracy, the drag queen as backstage den mother, who Jamison Stern plays with wit, warmth and a tight grip on making the most of the seedy dregs of Eddie’s bar. Most of the show’s sparks come from Tracy’s deft humor while dispensing tough love to her acolyte, Casey, and her flighty collaborator, Rexy, and from Stern’s drag numbers, performed in classic diva couture. One number, in which he lip-synchs memorable movie quotations, convinces us that Tracy’s show would keep 'em coming back for more.

Miss Tracy Mills (Jamison Stern)

Miss Tracy Mills (Jamison Stern)

With Casey/Georgia’s show, I’m less certain. Speaking personally, the prospect of Country-diva drag doesn’t push the same show-biz buttons, and Thomas’ Georgia, while convincing as a Country-diva, infuses his stage persona with none of the bristly charm or femme fatale naturalism that can make drag so fascinating. Casey was more beguiling as Piaf.

Much of the visual comedy comes from stuffing a straight man into woman’s clothing, with drag presented as, for some, a more authentic way of life, and, for such as Casey, a way to make a buck in a costume. It’s all about performance, sort of Tootsie meets La Cage aux Folles. The play never ventures into the murky waters of gender identity or sexual ambivalence. Casey loves his wife. End of story. The Legend of Georgia McBride isn’t about gay performativity but rather a valentine to hetero men who like to dress as women.

Miss Tracy Mills (Jamison Stern), Casey (Austin Thomas)

Miss Tracy Mills (Jamison Stern), Casey (Austin Thomas)

The problem of a wife who might not warm to a hubby as a bubbly babe gets its moment but mostly any real contentions disappear like last night’s sequins. A key argument between Jo and Casey is ably diffused by landlord/friend Jason (Nik Alexander as well) who leavens the “heavy” moment with apt comments. Alexander’s Rexy is also an asset, and the actor adds a welcome dose of cattiness to Rexy’s effort to enlighten Casey—who never seems to lose his naivete, no matter how seasoned he becomes as Georgia—about the true nature of drag. The speech may feel a bit of an editorial but it helps to let audiences register why Rexy and Casey will never be on the same page even if they’re on the same stage. Another welcome scene, with a bit more depth, lets Stern show us Tracy when she’s a he, and Stern makes the implications of the distance between Tracy’s drag persona and his offstage persona register subtly.

Rexy (Nik Alexander)

Rexy (Nik Alexander)

Leon Dobkowski’s costumes are numerous and eye-catching. I was having a great time noting the range of Hawaiian shirts Eddie wore over his concert T-shirt, even before he started dressing up for national holidays. Rexy and Tracy and Georgia are always a sight to behold, and Paul Tate dePoo III’s set design provides a tell-tale backstage that switches gracefully into the couple’s modest living room. John Lasiter’s lighting moves between public-space and private-space with élan, while Ed Chapman’s sound design and Ralph Perkins’ choreography make the musical numbers cook.

The Legend of Georgia McBride aims to be a crowd-pleaser and succeeds by giving everyone a good time and letting its hero have his wife and his high-heels too.

Jo (Samaria Nixon-Fleming), Casey (Austin Thomas)

Jo (Samaria Nixon-Fleming), Casey (Austin Thomas)

 

 

The Legend of Georgia McBride
By Matthew Lopez
Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Choreography: Ralph Perkins; Set Design: Paul Tate dePoo III; Costume Design: Leon Dobkowski; Lighting Design: John Lasiter; Sound Design: Ed Chapman; Wig Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Casting: McCorkle Casting; Assistant Director: Eric Ort; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth

Cast: Nik Alexander, Samaria Nixon-Fleming, J. Tucker Smith, Jamison Stern, Austin Thomas

TheaterWorks
March 16-April 22, 2018

Time-Tossed Lovers

Review of Constellations, TheaterWorks

What can be less remarkable than a love story as a two-hander play? The premise that, after a meeting in some context or other, two people will create a satisfying narrative arc as we follow the fortunes of their romance is on pretty solid ground. Mostly, the comedy and/or drama comes from the context, which might provide obstacles, or other incentives. “The course of true love never did run smooth” and therein lies the two-hours or less traffic of our stage. The trick, of course, is in making us care about the two, both separately and as a couple. And that can be easier said than done, sometimes.

Roland (M. Scott McLean), Marianne (Allison Pistorius) (photos: TheaterWorks)

Roland (M. Scott McLean), Marianne (Allison Pistorius) (photos: TheaterWorks)

In Constellations, Nick Payne does something very clever with the context, yet not so clever as to be a mere gimmick. His lovers, Marianne (Allison Pistorius) and Roland (M. Scott McLean), live not only in the world, governed by linear temporality, of all biological beings, they also live (as do we all, somehow) in the world of subatomic particles where time is not linear and where the unity we find in the notion of “universe” becomes the multiplicity of the “multiverse.” “The game is the same it’s just up on a different level,” as our nation’s most recent Nobel laureate puts it.

But what a difference that makes! As depicted in Constellations, Marianne and Roland’s lives are patterned with non sequitur, where that necessary first meeting—guests at a rainy barbecue—could go any number of ways, and does. Each time, we jump back to the “medias res” of the same conversation. The start, stop, start again rhythm is something we’re all familiar with from instant replay. Here, the fun is seeing how easy it is to bollocks the badinage. One wrong word or a fake laugh or a dropped detail and either person might be on to the next appealing stranger. There is one path at least that will lead to a satisfying night together, but how soon, and on what terms? And, once that happens, there are various paths that fork from that event, including a cute re-meet at a ballroom dance class.

Marianne (Allison Pistorius), Roland (M. Scott McLean)

Marianne (Allison Pistorius), Roland (M. Scott McLean)

How momentous intimacy can be in certain lives, and how casual are most interactions is certainly the main social context here. Both Marianne and Roland are kind of “nerdy”—a word which has gone from a complete put-down (like “dork”) to denoting, in the age of technology über alles, a kind of sexy regard for things once thought abstruse. Here, it’s Roland’s status as a bee-keeper, and Marianne’s as a researcher in theoretical cosmology. It’s a cute meet, alright: biology and quantum physics. The man—biology—is the more romantic and takes his bearings from—and even proposes in the terms of—creatures that serve a “queen.” The woman—physics—is more elusive because too brainy for the tedium of linearity. Grand irony (and spoiler) alert: she will come to suffer from biology, soon enough.

Stated like that, it may seem a bit pat, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. And Pistorius and McLean, directed—with a sure hand that trusts the audience and doesn’t overplay anything—by Rob Ruggiero, are a treat indeed. They play as Brits and that gives a breeziness to their interactions that helps greatly, particularly as their backgrounds don’t quite jell. It’s a romance that works—in the versions of it that do—because Roland likes being a bit out of his depth and because Marianne is always pleasantly surprised by his efforts. We see how easily either or both might go astray—each gets a jealous scene—and how hard it is to remain together for the long haul.

Roland (M. Scott McLean), Marianne (Allison Pistorius)

Roland (M. Scott McLean), Marianne (Allison Pistorius)

The popularity of the play, one suspects, derives from its swiftly delineated scenes and for letting us enjoy the sensation of “let’s try that again” or “Take 2.” And the TheaterWorks production, held over to the 22nd, is handsomely mounted by Jean Kim in a surrounded stage that looks more than a little like a planetarium. In its circle, these two orbit while, in an alcove nearby, Billy Bivona plays live the music of the spheres, so to speak, and the lights overhead work within the rhythms the duo provide. It’s subtle and very satisfying, even when the play has to go for big emotion over romantic comedy.

Roland (M. Scott McLean), Marianne (Allison Pistorius)

Roland (M. Scott McLean), Marianne (Allison Pistorius)

One of the things quantum physics tells us, of course, is that time is an illusion and, therefore, there is no real beginning or end. Nice to know, and yet the parts of us that become used to certain relatively stable, long-term molecular arrangements aren’t apt to be so nimble as equations would have us be. Marianne, played with glowing charm and a very deft grasp of several realities by Allison Pistorius, eventually must come to grips with a difficult condition, while Roland is always confronted with having to convince Marianne with his low-key but heartfelt attraction to her. M. Scott McClean makes the most of an average guy-ness that is anything but average. They are well-met as characters and support each other quite well as actors.

In the end, Constellations is a great “date play.” To see it, there’s no time like the present, illusory or not.

 

Constellations
By Nick Payne
Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Set Design: Jean Kim; Lighting Design: Philip S. Rosenberg; Sound Design: Michael Miceli; Casting: McCorkle Casting: Assistant Director: Taneisha Duggan; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth; Sign Language Coach: Laurel Whitsett

Composer/Musician: Billy Bivona

Cast: M. Scott McLean, Allison Pistorius

 

TheaterWorks
January 18-February 18, 2018, extended to February 22

Immigrant Experience, Revisited

Review of Rags, Goodspeed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

Goodspeed Musicals
from October 6, 2017

The Singing Cure

Review of Next to Normal, TheaterWorks

A family—mother, father, son, daughter—going through the motions of their suburban, middle-class existence and singing about it. At first, the low-key comedy of this family, all centered on the stay-at-home mom, might seem a gentle send-up of patriarchy. Then we notice something’s not quite right with mom—about the time she starts making sandwiches assembly-style on the floor—and realize this isn’t an installment of “desperate housewives.” There’s a shadow lurking from the past, and it has managed to eclipse real, day-to-day life for Diana (Christiane Noll), so much so that she lives her life heavily medicated.

Dan (David Harris), Diana (Christiane Noll)

Dan (David Harris), Diana (Christiane Noll)

The toll this takes on her family—husband Dan (David Harris), daughter Natalie (Maya Keleher)—is the story here, as Diana has to live with the loss of the son (John Cardoza) she never knew, though in her mind he’s a teen capable of being more real than her long-suffering husband and sulky daughter. Sure, it’s the kind of situation that a Freudian might have a field-day with, but the book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey have different fish to fry. We’re in the era of medications, and even ECT (electroconvulsive therapy, which someone thinks sounds better then “electroshock,” apparently) is prescribed for suicidal housewives who go off their meds. It all would be grimmer than it is but for the fact that Diana, for all her unresolved issues, is an entertaining sufferer of bipolar disorder. As played by Christiane Noll, she’s a strong woman who just can’t deal with certain facts, such as how her own mind and spirit can betray her despite her best efforts. Her saving grace is the forthright self she pours out in song, and Noll's performance is indeed electrifying. The other great saving grace, for the show, is that her daughter, who has more than enough of her own to kvetch about, is played with tons of charm by newcomer Maya Keleher.

I shouldn’t neglect mentioning the males, even if they seem rather ancillary to the wild mood swings of their female counterparts. As Dan, David Harris does a lot with a role that mainly comes down to being patient and understanding, until, perhaps, his façade of repression also begins to crack. As the son who won’t say die, John Cardoza is a dreamboat with a big voice, though it wouldn’t hurt for him to unstiffen a little while insisting “I’m Alive”—though his dance with mom on the verge of a major breakdown is as fluid and magical as is called for. Henry, a sort of hipster kid who woos Natalie, is fine, if overly self-effacing. While the Drs. Fine—the drug pusher—and Madden, the hot-shot ECT salesman—are both assayed by J. D. Daw with the kind of professional obtuseness that, if not part of the problem, doesn’t do much to get at the problem’s root.

Dr. Madden (J. D. Daw), Gabe (John Cardoza), Diana (Christiane Noll)

Dr. Madden (J. D. Daw), Gabe (John Cardoza), Diana (Christiane Noll)

Director Rob Ruggerio has done a wonderful job making this domestic and medical musical, with its requisite and recurring blasts of bathos, work at TheaterWorks where the intimacy of the staging makes the action feel all the more personal. We’re looking on at a family trying to cope and the fact that they can make a first-rate show of their suffering is all to the good. The set, complete with a turntable for moving things about in place swiftly, upper-level wings, and a backdrop that looks like a store-display of lamps and knickknacks, is never obtrusive and, with a range of color and lighting effects, a part of the quick-switching moods of the music by Tom Kitt. And a very tight band, invisible and just loud enough but not too loud—particularly effective are the drums—make the most of the score, under Adam Souza’s able direction, and Ed Chapman’s Sound Design is incredibly precise. Everyone sounds great and the casting has arrived at six voices that harmonize well and make the vocals—almost everything is sung—the show’s best feature.

Dan (David Harris), Diana (Christiane Noll), Natalie (Maya Keleher)

Dan (David Harris), Diana (Christiane Noll), Natalie (Maya Keleher)

In the end, I find myself, for all the talent and skill on display here, somewhat unmoved by this Pulitzer-winning musical. Time was, I suppose, it showed the way in clueing us in, not only about the lives of quiet desperation in many a dream-home, but about the resources of the musical for making music from the everyday. There are many effective numbers that lay out the levels of trauma here—“He’s Not Here,” “Superboy and the Invisible Girl,” “I Dreamed a Dance,” “Didn’t I See This Movie?”, “Song of Forgetting,” “Why Stay?”, “A Promise”—but much of it serves to remind that we have seen this movie, or some version of it. Melodrama in the service of mourning and melancholia seems to be a big staple of tear-jerk show-biz.

What puts Next to Normal a cut above what the screens might provide is that its Tony-winning score sets us in a pop-rock universe and won’t let us stray into the weepy strings that many a soundtrack would bathe us in. The musical numbers stay sharp and focused, for the most part, and that’s to be appreciated. Still, who knew that what all the characters most deeply desire is a non-traumatized version of the perfect little family paradise that, it seemed for a minute, the show was seeking to send up. Living “next to normal”—for theater—can also be next-door to boring.

 

Next to Normal
Music by Tom Kitt
Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Music direction by Adam Souza

Set Design: Wilson Chin; Costume Design: Tricia Barsamian; Lighting Design: John Lasiter; Sound Design: Ed Chapman; Casting: McCorkle Casting, Ltd., Associate Director: Eric Ort; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth

Cast: John Cardoza, J.D. Daw, David Harris, Maya Keleher, Christiane Noll, Nick Sacks

TheaterWorks
March 24-April 30, extended to May 14

Arm in Arm

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

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

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

The Notorious Cagelles

The Notorious Cagelles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

A Play with Class

Review of Good People at TheaterWorks, Hartford

David Lindsay-Abaire's Good People, superbly directed by Rob Ruggiero at TheaterWorks, opens with Margie (Erika Rolfsrud), a Dollar Store employee, losing her job. She has been late one too many times over the past eight years. As she tries, first humorously and then with rising rage and desperation, to negotiate with her boss, the young Stevie (Buddy Haardt), we come to understand quite a bit about Margie and about Lindsay-Abaire’s aims in writing this play.

Set before gentrification comes to the Irish-American working class neighborhood of South Boston (“Southie”), the playwright’s hometown, Good People explores the complicated role that luck plays in a person’s ability to escape impoverished circumstances. America’s increasingly shaky belief in a classless society is based on the notion that hard work and determination are all one needs for success. Margie is here to tell us otherwise.

Audrie Neenan, Erika Rolfsrud, Megan Byrne
Audrie Neenan, Erika Rolfsrud, Megan Byrne

In the following scene, set in Margie’s kitchen, we meet her brassy friend Jean (Megan Byrne) and her landlady, aptly named Dottie (Audrie Neenan). The talk centers on jobs: who has one, who hasn’t got a chance of finding one, how Margie can get herself another one, fast. Here we learn why Margie has lost numerous minimum-wage positions: her adult daughter, severely disabled due to a premature birth, requires constant supervision. When Jean remembers that at a catering gig she met one of their high school friends, Mikey Dillon (R. Ward Duffy), who got out of Southie and became a doctor, she’s certain that he’s Margie’s ticket to solvency: after all, Margie and Mike were an item for awhile in high school, and surely he’ll help someone from the neighborhood.

Erika Rolfsrud, R. Ward Duffy, Chandra Thomas
Erika Rolfsrud, R. Ward Duffy, Chandra Thomas

What unfolds between Margie and Mike—when she visits his office to test the limits of his loyalty to old friends; when Jean and Dottie react to this meeting during one of two funny and telling scenes set in a bingo hall; and during a searing scene in Act Two—dramatizes the play’s themes and provides an evening of thought-provoking, high-tension, nearly brilliant theater. I say “nearly” only because some of Lindsay-Abaire’s scenes go on a bit too long. While one could listen all night to these uniformly terrific actors speak his sharp, gritty, and at times hilarious dialogue, the plot, to its credit, creates a momentum that can’t afford to sag.

Erika Rolfsrud (Margie)
Erika Rolfsrud (Margie)

Lindsay-Abaire couldn’t hope for a better rendering of Good People than Rob Ruggiero’s terrific production. As Margie, Erika Rolfsrud gives a stunningly strong and nuanced performance. Margie is tough, but she must also convey anxiety without coming across as a victim (an epithet she would despise). She is brilliant and at the same time unapologetically uneducated. She has a mean streak and knows how to use it: watch her deploy the phrase “lace-curtain Irish” when talking about Mike’s rise in the world, and see her satisfaction when her words hit their target. Yet if the actress doesn’t also display warmth and humor, she loses the audience and the production falls apart. Rolfsrud nails every note.

The rest of the cast is no less remarkable. As Mike, R. Ward Duffy is coiled as tightly as a camouflaged snake. Mike knows how Margie can needle, shame, and possibly destroy him. He’s plenty arrogant, but he is also persuasive in his belief that hard work leads to success and, conversely, that the lack of success proves inadequacy. Mike is Margie’s natural enemy, yet Duffy and Rolfsrud’s arguments have a sexual spark that makes us believe in their intense youthful affair, and in Mike’s uneasy kinship with his background.

Megan Byrne (Jean), Audrie Neenan (Dottie)
Megan Byrne (Jean), Audrie Neenan (Dottie)

As Dottie, Audrie Neenan provides more than comic relief: her character’s comments on the surrounding events bring to mind one of Shakespeare’s fools. Her foolishness is real enough, and a riot, but her wacky utterances unwittingly convey the resignation of a life defined by Southie. Megan Byrne, as Jean, carries some of Lindsay-Abaire’s sharpest and most humorous dialogue, and her timing is perfection: she can deliver a zinger with one raise of an eyebrow or dart of an eye.

Buddy Haardt, as Stevie, who quietly endures Jean’s scornful certainty that he is gay because he plays bingo, gives us an understated, gentle performance that adds moments of rest amidst the women’s sharp repartee. And Chandra Thomas, as Mike’s wife—the least well-written role in the script—finds moments of subtle humor and genuine pain without overplaying.

Of special note in this production is the use of film-like, photographed projections (by Scenic Designer Luke Hegel-Cantarella) to create distinctively different neighborhoods, and to simulate, also, the movement between them: our movement along with Margie’s. We watch the Dollar Store and run-down strip malls roll by, and later the appearance of trees and large houses tell us we are in another world.

Buddy Haardt, Erika Rolfsrud, Megan Byrne, Audrie Neenan
Buddy Haardt, Erika Rolfsrud, Megan Byrne, Audrie Neenan

Beautifully rendered, too, is the sound design by Mike Miceli, especially in the bingo scenes. Of course, much of the credit goes to Lindsay-Abaire for writing these scenes as he has, but Ruggiero and Miceli—along with these terrific actors—have brought out the script’s sharp music. As the characters talk about Margie’s mounting difficulties, the marking of cards echoes the characters’ larger hopes, and the bingo caller’s voice drives the tension.

Ruggiero’s Good People is one of the most gripping, layered, and provocative productions seen at TheaterWorks in the past eight years, which is a high compliment indeed. The performances invigorate and inspire, and the play’s complex ideas resonate long after the evening ends.

Good People
By David Lindsay-Abaire

Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Scenic Design: Luke Hegel-Cantarella; Costume Design: Harry Nadal; Lighting Design: John Lasiter; Sound Design: Mike Miceli; Casting: McCorkle Casting LTD.; Production Manager: C. Nikki Mills; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth; Dialect Consultant: Gillian Lane-Plescia

TheaterWorks
May 22-June 28, 2015

It's Got That Swing

Ella Fitzgerald was known as “the First Lady of Song” for a reason.  Her way with a lyric was impeccable, her delivery making the listener discover nuances in even the most well-known standard (her versions of the Cole Porter songbook are for me the best of both worlds: Ella at her best and Porter rendered superlatively).  And her improvisational ability – her famed scatting – was likewise incomparable. One of the interesting moments in the show Ella the Musical, currently playing at the Long Wharf, is when she hits upon scat as a way to counteract the charge that her precise diction makes her sound “too white.”  Indeed, the best aspects of the show are such moments that recreated the feel of a performer’s life, trying to cope with what “the audience wants.”

In the first half of the show Ella (Tina Fabrique) is rehearsing with her band and speaks to us, the audience, as though we’re her confidantes as she, a very private person, tries to wrestle with her manager’s idea that she provide some revealing “patter” as part of her performance.  In the second half we’re treated to a ficitonalized dramatization of a show Ella played in Nice shortly after the death of her half-sister whose child Ella had raised, though with much absenteeism, as her own.

There was some dramatic tension in going from “insiders” at the backstage session to a generalized audience treated to the professional stage Ella.  What didn’t work, for me, was the dualism of the vulnerable and forthright Ella of the first half and the more vapidly entertaining Ella of the second half.  And when she had to breakdown and cry on stage it felt to me like a betrayal of the controlled and personally self-effacing Ella we got to know in the first half.  In other words, the breakdown seemed like “show biz” though ostensibly it wasn’t meant to be.

But that’s just me quibbling about the script.  And the script is incidental to what makes this a great show to go to.  It’s the music – provided by George Caldwell (piano), Rodney Harper (drums), Ron Haynes (trumpet), Cliff Kellam (bass) and the full-throated vocals, with feeling, style and, yes, swing delivered by Fabrique.  When Ella teases early on with “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” and doesn’t do it (“haven’t I done that enough”), I didn’t mind – as with most signature songs I found myself wondering why that was the tune synonymous with her name.  For me, the show-stopper was “The Man That I Love,” but then I'm a jazz ballad aficionado.  And don’t worry: Fabrique as Ella on stage does the great lady's most famous song with all the exuberance you’d expect.

And about that band: not only did they provide great support, turning the Mainstage into a hot jazz club, but they also interacted very effectively with Ella’s story, as for instance, Harper playing Ella’s first manager and band leader, Chick Webb, or Kellam as Ella’s supportive husband, or Haynes’ Satchmo imitation for a sparkling Ella / Armstrong duet in the second half.

“It don’t mean a thing if ain’t got that swing” Ella sings at the beginning of the show, and, musically, this show means all it needs to.  If the drama didn’t always swing it, it at least let us in on the trials faced by even a consummate professional like Ella, for whom hitting the right musical note was never an issue, but the right note as a public personality might be a bit more hit or miss.

Ella the Musical; book by Jeffrey Hatcher; conceived by Rob Ruggiero and Dyke Garrison; directed by Rob Ruggiero; music direction by George Caldwell; music supervision and arrangements by Danny Holgate

Long Wharf Theatre, Sept. 22-Oct. 17

for my review of Crumbs, the current Yale Cabaret show, go to: http://www.newhavenadvocate.com/culture-vulture/crumbs-and-clues