Theater Review

The Harm in Surviving

Review of How to Relearn Yourself, Yale Cabaret

Written by Doireann Mac Mahon, a third-year acting student at the Yale School of Drama, How to Relearn Yourself addresses the issue of sexual assault in social settings, and its existential impact on the victim. Like Anna Ziegler’s Actually, Mac Mahon’s play is mostly concerned with the aftermath of a sexual violation that occurs between two college freshmen, a male and a female. But unlike Actually, which puts its emphasis on the psychology of two students who date and move toward sex which takes place after the woman has changed her mind (and the way the school handles the complaint), in Mac Mahon’s play rape is taking advantage of someone unable to consent or refuse. Mac Mahon presents the post-event state of mind of The Girl (played by Mac Mahon) as a traumatic questioning of everything she knows or thought she knew.

The Girl (Doireann Mac Mahon), How to Relearn Yourself, Yale Cabaret, October 10-12, 2019 (Photos by Emily Duncan Wilson)

The Girl (Doireann Mac Mahon), How to Relearn Yourself, Yale Cabaret, October 10-12, 2019 (Photos by Emily Duncan Wilson)

How to Relearn Yourself is less about the culture of rape and the way teens comport themselves—though it does register some of the surrounding attitudes—and more about violation as a psychic affront. The play is gripping because its central character is so clearly in the grip of emotions that have no public or social outlet—it’s their privacy that makes them real. They belong to her alone.

Directed by Maeli Goren, a second-year director whose previous work at the Cab was the lively children’s mystery The Whale in the Hudson last season, the action takes place in a kind of isolation booth of white gauze that seems to glow from within (set and lighting by Stephanie Bahniuk). The way the audience is placed around the space makes us look a bit like voyeurs, a bit like a panel of judges. Inside there’s a couch, liberally strewn with articles of clothing. There’s also a coffee table. Two roommates, Squirrel (Leyla Levi) and The Girl, share a small flat where, Squirrel tells us, they aren’t too particular about housekeeping. They start out as two friends who try hard to share each other’s tastes and outlooks—and eventually that means going to parties together as backup, and possibly fixing each other up. It’s Squirrel’s idea that The Girl should go on a blind date with good-looking Dragon (Edwin Joseph).

Squirrel (Leyla Levi), The Girl (Doireann Mac Mahon), Dragon (Edwin Joseph) in How to Relearn Yourself, Yale Cabaret, October 10-12, 2019

Squirrel (Leyla Levi), The Girl (Doireann Mac Mahon), Dragon (Edwin Joseph) in How to Relearn Yourself, Yale Cabaret, October 10-12, 2019

We get to watch some version of this date, and by this point there has come into the proceedings a voice over, O (Maëlle Puechoultres), who poses questions like an investigator, on one hand, or, on the other, a kind of superego in loco parentis who might be a conscience of sorts. It’s a given that, whenever something untoward happens—particularly among the young—there is no end of second-guessing advice from the more experienced. O seems to stand for an external viewpoint, introjected to some extent, by which the actants are supposed to judge themselves.

For Dragon there’s so little cause for judgment. The blind date, he thinks, went well. What we see is that he’s rather callously full of himself but not in a threatening way. He thinks it’s becoming to talk about “just taking” something if you want it, and he wants to paint The Girl’s portrait, and he’s an up-and-comer, and lots of other bravado. Joseph plays him as obtuse but outgoing. The Girl’s reactions—and Mac Mahon is skilled at minor facial flurries that say so much—show us that he’s not going over nearly so well as he thinks. The Girl tells Squirrel that she really doesn’t want to see him again; he made her uncomfortable. That view seems to count for nothing to her friend.

Next thing we know there’s a party at Dragon’s place and The Girl has to go because—Squirrel says—there’s a guy there she’s interested in and she needs support, though it’s clear she’s also convinced that The Girl should give Dragon another chance. Then there’s lots of alcohol shots and loud music and dancing on couches until, apparently, The Girl passes out. Next thing she knows, she’s in a car and there’s blood, and one version of herself is “out of body” and out of the car, looking on at her powerless body. Here the particulars of what is actually happening get vague—and that’s the point. No one really knows, with unclouded certainty, and yet The Girl’s body does and what it tells her freaks her out.

The Girl (Doireann Mac Mahon), Dragon (Edwin Joseph), Squirrel (Leyla Levi) in How to Unlearn Yourself, Yale Cabaret, October 10-12, 2019

The Girl (Doireann Mac Mahon), Dragon (Edwin Joseph), Squirrel (Leyla Levi) in How to Unlearn Yourself, Yale Cabaret, October 10-12, 2019

Rather than move into the she said/he said terrain of Actually, Mac Mahon moves us into the psyche of The Girl where much is amiss. Squirrel can see—and report to O—that The Girl has changed: things she used to hate to do—like exercise—she now does, and things she used to do—like drink—she now hates. Their friendship suffers and Squirrel is apt to find The Girl seeking solace squirreled up behind the fridge rather than in activities they might share. Meanwhile, Dragon gets on with his life, not sure at all what became of Squirrel and her friend and not in the least concerned.

For The Girl, however, everything has changed, changed utterly. Perhaps because she’s Irish, her effort to present her inner state to Squirrel entertains questions about the reality of Jesus and of the afterlife. There’s even a segment in which fetuses are likened to parasites using the mother’s body as a host. The point is that The Girl is trying to express a state of extreme alienation toward her own physical being, but she’s also relearning her own moral compass. And what it comes down to—with considerable dramatic force—is that good and bad are entirely different, and thus Dragon can’t be both, and, what’s more, surviving is a terrible way to live.

The force of these ideas come from The Girl’s almost Beckettian journey through who or what she is when what she thought she was no longer suffices. Her view and her friend’s diverge so essentially that they truly are alternate realities. In Squirrel’s, Dragon is, if not totally good, at least harmless. In The Girl’s, he’s mean and, to make him even more nasty, conceals it quite well.

Lurking here, unstated but well-staged, is the nagging sense of what we might call intuition, as a capacity to know something simply because we know it. The Girl knows that what she knows isn’t something she can prove—and the burden of that knowledge, among other things, is not to go crazy from it (as for instance, the knowledge that someone “may smile and smile and be a villain”).

Relearning, in this context, is getting on with being who you have to be, though friends and even you to yourself seem like strangers. The implications of the play—as a reflection, for instance, on a certain U.S. Supreme Court justice—suggest that something is rotten in the state, indeed.

71927759_10157762909564626_5171466221559742464_o.jpg

 

How to Relearn Yourself
Written and Proposed by Doireann Mac Mahon
Directed by Maeli Goren

Producers: Samanta Yunuen Cubias, Markie Gray; Scenic & Lighting Designer: Stephanie Bahniuk; Costume Designer: April M. Hickman; Sound Designer: Noel Nichols; Dramaturg: Sophie Greenspan; Associate Director & Choreographer: Eli Pauley; Technical Director: Yaro Yarashevich; Stage Manager: Bekah Brown

Cast: Edwin Joseph, Leyla Levi, Doireann Mac Mahon, Maëlle Puechoultres

Yale Cabaret
October 10-12, 2019

Yale Cabaret is dark this week but returns October 23-26 with Red Speedo, Lucas Hnath’s well-received drama about competitive swimmers, proposed by Patrick Ball, Eli Pauley, and Adam Shaukat, and directed by Pauley.

Little Shop of Pleasures

Review of Little Shop of Horrors, ACT of Connecticut

Halloween comes every year. And it seems like barely a year passes without Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s Little Shop of Horrors playing somewhere in Connecticut, a theater perennial. And why not? The show is tuneful, kooky, creepy, and full of fun nostalgia for the ‘60s. The 1960 original was a Roger Corman quickie flick—and intentionally funny, unusual for Corman—with Jack Nicholson in a small part as an eager dental patient. The musical retains much the same plot and makes the prospect of a man-eating plant an excuse for macabre laughs, songs silly and infectious, and what at first appears to be a rags-to-riches, poor orphan boy makes good and gets the girl story. And that’s part of the attraction of the show: the way it all goes wrong!

Audrey II, Seymour (Robb Sapp), Audrey (Laura Woyasz) in ACT’s production of  Little Shop of Horrors

Audrey II, Seymour (Robb Sapp), Audrey (Laura Woyasz) in ACT’s production of Little Shop of Horrors

Seymour Krelborn (Robb Sapp) seems to be your typical sad sack nebbish, working in a flower shop that lacks customers while pining for his colleague, Audrey (Laura Woyasz—last seen at ACT in Working), who often shows up for work bearing the marks of her boyfriend’s physical abuse. That element of the show might seem less than funny, but it plays into the characterization of her boyfriend, Orin, a sadistic dentist. The joke draws on childhood (and maybe even adult) fears of visiting the dentist and makes such phobia reasonable. Orin, as enacted with scene-stealing glee by ACT Artistic Director Daniel C. Levine, is creepy and instantly unsettling. Good, given the fate that will befall him.

Chiffon (Kadrea Dawkins), Crystal (Ashley Alexandra Seldon), Orin (Daniel C. Levine), Ronnette (Rachelle Legrand)

Chiffon (Kadrea Dawkins), Crystal (Ashley Alexandra Seldon), Orin (Daniel C. Levine), Ronnette (Rachelle Legrand)

Granted, the fate of these characters—including the shop’s boss Mr. Mushnik, ably played with a Gleason-like volume by William Thomas Evans—isn’t pleasant, but that’s also a key aspect of what makes the show fun. Ashman knows that, when watching the Creature Features of the commercial television era, we were often rooting for the monster. Here, the monster begins as a cute little plant Seymour has nurtured, its origins somewhat obscure. It’s such an anomaly, it soon draws sightseers and even some well-heeled customers to the shop. It’s a hit and Seymour gains notoriety as the plant’s handler. Dubbed Audrey II, the plant speaks—at least it does to Seymour—and its voice, provided by Kent Overshown, is richly cartoonish. Even when it’s demanding more and more blood—its necessary nutrient—and growing larger and larger, the plant seems a likeable if fractious pet. And yet, a blood-sucking plant with a mind of its own is not something you want to have to keep under wraps.

The show, with its seedy Skid Row set on a spinning stage that shows both the atmospheric outside and the changeable inside of the shop, has great tech—set by Ryan Howell, lighting by Jack Mehler, Sound by John Salutz and costumes by Ryan Park (my tip of the hat for the poster of Frankenstein vs. the Wolfman). The band kicks loud but doesn’t overwhelm the singers.

Chiffon (Kadrea Dawkins), Audrey (Laura Woyasz), Crystal (Ashley Alexandra Seldon), Ronnette (Rachelle Legrand), second row

Chiffon (Kadrea Dawkins), Audrey (Laura Woyasz), Crystal (Ashley Alexandra Seldon), Ronnette (Rachelle Legrand), second row

The original musical never went to Broadway and ACT’s revival retains all the charm of quality Off-Broadway shows: it’s incredibly intimate, with the actors able to look much of the audience right in the eyes—Seymour even hands a flower to a lady to hold for him till needed. The chorus of backup girls—think The Supremes or Dream Girls, or (the girls’ names) The Chiffons (Kadrea Dawkins), The Ronnettes (Rachelle Legrand), The Crystals (Ashley Alexandra Seldon)—work the crowd as well, acting as the knowing narrators of this cautionary tale (the moral: “don’t feed the plants!”). And Levine, who keeps coming back as one creep after another, feeds off the audience’s energy the way Audrey II feeds off Seymour’s plasma.

Audrey II, Seymour (Robb Sapp), Audrey (Laura Woyasz)

Audrey II, Seymour (Robb Sapp), Audrey (Laura Woyasz)

As our unlucky lovers Seymour and Audrey, Robb Sapp and Laura Woyasz are attractive, romantic, and give off the aura of many a sitcom couple. We might almost believe they’ll work it out and make this a little shop of amours. And that’s what keeps viewers engaged, the way director Sparks capitalizes on the play’s varied tone—from romance to horror to comedy, or all at once. There’s even a classic bit of male bonding—“Mushnik and Son”—that comes off as if the start of a story about earning respect and finding one’s place in life. In fact, the show’s real moral might be said to show how outlandish success must generally own a few skeletons in the closet—or corpses in the vegetal maw. If you’ve already seen the show, it’s worth a drive out to Ridgefield to see again. And if you haven’t—don’t miss this chance to see this oft-produced show in such a wonderful theater. ACT has a great space where every seat has good sightlines.

A final word about puppeteer Thomas Bergamo. Audrey II is no electronic gizmo or special effect. He’s animated by Bergamo with a great sense of living presence and personality. Get ready, this invading vegetation is going places. Today Ridgefield, tomorrow—the world!

 

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 and Choreographed by Jason A. Sparks

Music Supervisor: Bryan Perri; Music Director: P. Jason Yarcho; Scenic Designer: Ryan Howell; Lighting Designer: Jack Mehler; Costume Designer: Ryan Park; Sound Designer: John Salutz; Wig and Hair Designer: Tommy Kurzman; Prop Master: Abigail Bueti; Puppeteer: Thomas Bergamo; Production Manager: Annie Jacobs; Production Stage Manager: Theresa S. Carroll

Band: P. Jason Yarcho, conductor/piano; Isaac Hayward, conductor/piano (10/31-11/3); Tom Cuffari, keyboards; Jeff Carlson, electric & acoustic guitars; Arnold Gottlieb, electric bass; Dennis Arcano, drums & percussion

Cast: Kadrea Dawkins, William Thomas Evans, Rachelle Legrand, Daniel C. Levine, Jaclyn Mercer, Kent Overshown, Robb Sapp, Ashley Alexandra Seldon, Ian Shain, Laura Woyasz

 ACT of Connecticut
October 3-November 3, 2019

Taken to Tusk: Westport's Clunky Mlima's Tale

Review of Mlima’s Tale, Westport Country Playhouse

The best thing to say about Lynn Nottage’s Mlima’s Tale, at Westport Country Playhouse through October 19 directed by Mark Lamos, is that it’s well intentioned. A polemic against the cruel and devastating slaughter of elephants in order to harvest their tusks for the ivory trade, the play is less a satisfying night of theater than a protracted glimpse behind the scenes in the illegal market for ivory. The play is based on an article, “The Ivory Highway” by Damon Tabor, and the show feels like a dogged effort to amplify nonfiction with theatrical touches, most of which lack any particular bite—whether of satire or sentiment.

Mlima (Jermaine Rowe) in Westport Country Playhouse’s production of  Mlima’s Tale , directed by Mark Lamos (Photos by Carol Rosegg)

Mlima (Jermaine Rowe) in Westport Country Playhouse’s production of Mlima’s Tale, directed by Mark Lamos (Photos by Carol Rosegg)

The gripping and memorable opening introduces us to the elephant, Mlima, an “old tusker” (indicating the age and size of his tusks) played with riveting presence by Jermaine Rowe, who speaks of his time-won integration into his environment, one that used to be free of “the acrid stench of men.” Now, though he lives on a protected reserve, he is a prime target for poachers. The brutal death of Mlima ends the first scene and is the last dramatic event to occur in this 90 minute display of short scenes, all comprised of dialogues between two characters, all complicit in the illegal trade for poor Mlima’s much valued tusks.

Most of the scenes play like dialogues of exposition in B-movies, an association that comes to mind because the three actors—Adit Dileep, Jennean Farmer, and Carl Hendrick Louis—affect a variety of accents that are at times more attention-drawing than smoothly natural. Rather than making the scenes feel more real, the effect is to make us aware of how staged it all is, an effect that might be used to create a certain satiric point—about how differences (of ethnicity, nationality, class status) are rather secondary to shared greed, perhaps—but that doesn’t seem the intention. In any case, the dialogue, as delivered, does little to open to us the worlds these people—a poacher, a game warden, a government official, a ship captain, a smuggler, a collector of objets d’art, and a master ivory carver, among others—actually inhabit. We may reflect on Hannah Arendt’s oft-cited line about the “banality of evil,” but scene after scene making the same point—for lack of any other—is dull indeed. And “evil” as such is remote as well. What we see instead is the ingenuity by which humans are able to capitalize on whatever or whomever invites exploitation while lacking in sufficient protection.

Mlima (Jermaine Rowe), Poacher (Jennean Farmer), Official (Carl Hendrick Louis)

Mlima (Jermaine Rowe), Poacher (Jennean Farmer), Official (Carl Hendrick Louis)

The further we get from the act of poaching that resulted in Mlima’s death, the more static the scenes become. Early on, the dialogue between the poacher (Farmer) and a corrupt official (Louis) might create the sense that we’re going to see how the killing of Mlima plays out within Kenya. But that would require staying with one or another set of characters. Instead, Nottage’s conceit is—as Mark Lamos points out in his introductory notes “From the Artistic Director”—to employ Arthur Schnitzler’s technique, in La Ronde, of presenting a series of scenes in which a character introduced in one scene—here, the poacher, for instance—is present in the next scene with a new character, who then has a scene with a new character, who then is in the subsequent scene, and so on. Throughout, Mlima appears as a baleful presence who, as a scene ends, walks up to the newly introduced character and smears them with the white paint which adorns his own body.

A customs officer (Carl Hendrick Louis), a ship captain (Adit Dileep), seated; Mlima (Jermaine Rowe), standing

A customs officer (Carl Hendrick Louis), a ship captain (Adit Dileep), seated; Mlima (Jermaine Rowe), standing

The set is mainly decorated by Yana Birykova’s projections, which include graphic photos of violence enacted upon an elephant carcass as well as sayings and titles that create a kind of folkloric subtext to the events, as if the drama were going to become a morality tale of sorts. Not all of the text can be seen from all seats, but it doesn’t matter much. Indeed, much of the tech is simply window-dressing, at times—as in a photo of a shop full of Chinese lanterns—distractions more than evocations.

Arguably, the play might do more than an article in a magazine can to get a rise of moral indignation from an audience. And yet the detachment we feel toward these characters only underlines how—once the breath has left Mlima’s body—what becomes of his tusks is immaterial, even if their material—ivory—is the whole point of their market interest. The park warden (Dileep) vows to keep the tusks in Kenya to honor Mlima but that is easier said than done. After that, it’s merely a case of what interest we find in how the tusks get to the carver and then to a collector. Once upon a time, such a play might’ve ended with the ivory gracing the keyboard of a piano upon which a musical genius attained to glory, but we can be said to be safely past those days.

The tragedy of the fate of such great elephants as Mlima is real. Mlima’s Tale, however, feels rather less than tragic. It’s depressing and infuriating, made more so by this uninspiring production.


Mlima’s Tale
By Lynn Nottage
Directed by Mark Lamos

Scenic Design: Claire DeLiso; Costume Design: Fabian Fidel Aguilar; Lighting Design: Isabella Byrd; Composer: Michael Keck; Projection: Yana Birykova; Choreographer: Jeffrey Page; Fight Director/Intimacy Coach: Michael Rossmy; Props Supervisor: Samantha Shoffner; Dialect Coach: Julie Foh; Dramaturg: Liam Lonegan; Production Stage Manager: Chris De Camillis

Cast: Adit Dileep, Jennean Farmer, Carl Hendrick Louis, Jermaine Rowe

Westport Country Playhouse
October 1-19, 2019

Billy Idol: Goodspeed Launches Billy Elliot Run

Review of Billy Elliot, Goodspeed Musicals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Goodspeed
September 13-November 24, 2019

Creatures of Theater

Review of benjisun presents bodyssey, Yale Cabaret

What were you doing last night at 11 p.m.? Whatever it was, could it have used a bit more inspiring beauty, a bit more intriguing mystery? Then you should’ve seen benjisun presents bodyssey, the current show at Yale Cabaret (which has two more showings tonight at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m.). That’s what I did.

Devised, directed and performed by Benjamin Benne, a playwright, and Jisun Kim, a dramaturg, both at the Yale School of Drama and known, symbiotically, as benjisun, the show features no spoken language. It’s a staged performance piece in which movement and gesture interact with lighting by Nicole E. Lang and live sound—featuring a looper, a clarinet, and a two-string violin—by Emily Duncan Wilson. The tone, neither heavy nor light, provokes contemplation, as Benne and Kim enact living tableaux that take us on a journey—a body odyssey or bodyssey—from the beginning of life on earth to something quite cosmic.

71542648_10157729933774626_8340834022204637184_o.jpg

The show begins with a kind of prelude in which shadow play sets up a visually striking dynamic: we see hands in light, and on the wall shadows that can morph from small to huge as one hand seems poised to engulf the other. Then Kim and Benne, garbed simply but elegantly by Phuong Nguyen, interact with cleaning implements while their shadows create a more lyrical vision. Which do you believe: the prosaic three-dimensional beings or their 2D renderings in light and shadow?

Now that they’ve got us in the mood to access what viewing—an active process as opposed to mere watching—does for us, Benne and Kim proceed to enact, first with hands, then with their entire bodies, the process by which protoplasm became sentient beings having two legs and expressive faces. An interlude under a kind of diaphanous pod, pulsing with light and the kind of movements most easily associated with birth—from an egg or amniotic sac or simply from one form of being to another—leads to two sequences I found utterly enthralling.

benjisun presents bodyssey at Yale Cabaret, October 3-5, 2019 (photos by Blaq Pearl Photography)

benjisun presents bodyssey at Yale Cabaret, October 3-5, 2019 (photos by Blaq Pearl Photography)

The first, in which the duo swim on the floor on their backs is accompanied by Wilson on clarinet and sound loops (and blowing bubbles) to create an aquatic sound that feels like the womb must have felt. So very relaxing, so serenely at ease. As James Joyce once wrote: “before born babe bliss had.” Like that. Featuring slow motion movement both very precise and very fluid, the segment is also quite beautiful to watch.

Next comes that moment when, as we all must, we depart from peaceful sleep, get born, or, y’know, crawl out of the primordial ooze. The sound here is like the sun on a day when you don’t want to wake that early or to so much light, or like being on a beach with no breeze. Wilson scratches those two strings and Kim and Benne try to get from supine to all fours.

Benjamin Benne and Jisun Kim in benjisun presents bodyssey, Yale Cabaret, Oct 3-5, 2019 (Blaq Pearl Photography)

Benjamin Benne and Jisun Kim in benjisun presents bodyssey, Yale Cabaret, Oct 3-5, 2019 (Blaq Pearl Photography)

Eventually they’re on two feet, and there comes a delightful segment of finger touching finger, testing the water, so to speak, of what another being feels like. There are also some gracefully portrayed fight or flight moments and, masked and armed with fans, a dance segment where they become a clownish couple. Maturity! The large masks are both comical and oddly expressive, making us see the pair as fully human, their movements fully self-conscious, bound by a certain obtuse presence they can’t escape.

Except . . . they sort of do. Back beneath the veil and out they come, faces alight like stars. Heavenly beings? Space travelers? Glowing sparks of remembered spirits? In any case, they appear as poetic expressions of that part of us we’d like to think isn’t wholly contained by this physical world or planet.

The artistry of the piece is a matter of the way all three—Benne, Kim, Wilson—work together, reacting and responding to each other, and provoking in the viewer responses that can be very individual and yet part of the overall experience.

The kind of theater Yale Cabaret provides can’t really be found anywhere else. An experimental space for student work, yes, but also a place where theater feels more communal, more centered in creative effort than commercial undertaking. And sometimes, like this weekend, it’s quite simply magical, a blend of sound, light, design, movement and physical presence that makes the theatrical seem elemental.

 

benjisun presents bodyssey
Created, Directed and Performed by Benjamin Benne and Jisun Kim
Live sound by Emily Duncan Wilson

Producers: Sarah Cain, Caitlin Volz; Scenic Designer: Jimmy Stubbs; Sound Designer and Composer: Emily Duncan Wilson; Costume Designer: Phuong Nguyen; Lighting Designer: Nicole E. Lang; Dramaturg: Zachry J. Bailey; Technical Director: Yaro Yarashevich; Stage Manager: Fabiola Feliciano-Batista

Yale Cabaret
October 3-5, 2019

Only in America

Review of Ragtime, The Musical, Music Theater of Connecticut

Terrence McNally packs much history and drama into the Book for Ragtime, The Musical, adapted from E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel. And in its current production, director Kevin Connors dauntlessly packs a cast of fifteen and two pianists onto the small stage at MTC Mainstage in Norwalk to deliver a show that proves that even epic musicals can be scaled down and work well. And that’s largely due to Jessie Lizotte’s multilayered set.

The MTC show’s vitality is powerful and the diverse cast—depicting interlocking stories of New Rochelle WASPs, Harlem-based African Americans, and recent Jewish immigrants—puts across a range of songs, from the jaunty to the heart-wrenching, with great brio. As musical drama, Ragtime, which debuted in the late 1990s, is better in its parts than as a whole, as the story’s melodrama sits oddly within its sprawling treatment of early twentieth-century hot topics, and its politics, while generally progressive, feel tainted by a quaint neoliberalism.

Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Ezekiel Andrew), Booker T. Washington (Brian Demar Jones), Sarah’s Friend (Kanova Latrice Johnson) in MTC Mainstage’s  Ragtime  (photos by Joe Landry) (rear: David Wolfson, conductor/music director, and Mark Ceppetelli, second piano)

Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Ezekiel Andrew), Booker T. Washington (Brian Demar Jones), Sarah’s Friend (Kanova Latrice Johnson) in MTC Mainstage’s Ragtime (photos by Joe Landry) (rear: David Wolfson, conductor/music director, and Mark Ceppetelli, second piano)

Ragtime, the African American musical form that exploded into popularity in the early decades of the twentieth century, becomes both a style and theme: the music in the air compels new feelings,  new relations, new possibilities. For the three main groups of characters, the new century has much to offer—not least the new Model T Ford and motion pictures—and ragtime, with its strong syncopation and innovative flair, is the soundtrack to the era, as detailed by the company in “New Music.”

Sarah (Soara-Joye Ross), Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Ezekiel Andrew), center, and the cast of  Ragtime

Sarah (Soara-Joye Ross), Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Ezekiel Andrew), center, and the cast of Ragtime

With Music by Stephen Flaherty and Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, the musical is at its best when giving us glimpses of colorful material that, while entertaining, is largely for purposes of historical exposition. The entire score is ably rendered on twin pianos by conductor/music director David Wolfson and second pianist Mark Cepperelli, featuring grand set-pieces such as “Crime of the Century,” about the early tabloid sensation/showgirl Evelyn Nesbit (Jessica Molly Schwartz) whose jealous lover killed another man over her, or “Henry Ford,” in which the famed inventor and businessman, played by Jeff Gurner, details his methods, or, in Act Two, when Jewish immigrant Tateh (Frank Mastrone), now styled as film impresario Baron Ashkenazy, sets forth the rationale of “Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc.”, or when Younger Brother (Jacob Sundlie), from the New Rochelle family, gushes over “The Night Emma Goldman Spoke at Union Square”—Goldman, the fierce anarchist, is played with gutsy force by Mia Scarpa. These songs do much to maintain Doctorow’s effort to incorporate news stories and such newsworthy individuals as escape artist Harry Houdini (Christian Cardozo), African-American intellectual Booker T. Washington (Brian Demar Jones), and tycoon J. P. Morgan (Bill Nabel) into a narrative of how the New York area could both empower ambition and destroy dreams.

Mother (Juliet Lambert Pratt)

Mother (Juliet Lambert Pratt)

McNally’s plot centers on Mother (Juliet Lambert Pratt), as she’s the lynchpin that brings together the immigrant story and the African American story. As a conscientious society lady, Pratt is a high caliber asset of the show, showing both a wifely detachment from her paternalistic husband (Dennis Holland) and a willingness to follow the burgeoning attachments that form when she lets them. Her heartfelt rendition of “Back to Before” is a highpoint of Act 2 and she seems born for the period costumes by Diane Vanderkroef.

Sarah (Soara-Joye Ross)

Sarah (Soara-Joye Ross)

Finding an abandoned black child in her garden, Mother takes in the orphan and eventually Sarah (Soara-Joye Ross), the child’s distressed mother, as well, then abets the child’s father, ragtime virtuoso Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Ezekiel Andrew) as he pays courtship. That’s the uplifting story of Act 1, brought to rapturous realization in the duet between Ross and Andrew, “Wheels of a Dream,” that feels like an Act 1 curtain but isn’t. Additional elements are Mother’s dignified flirtation with Tateh as both, with their respective children—charmingly enacted by Ari Zimmer and Ryan Ryan (or Hannah Pressman)—take a train out of New York. The anti-immigrant hostility of the times—and ours—creates a struggle for Tateh while the virulent racism endemic to the U.S. delivers an insult to Coalhouse through the destruction of his prized Model T. by volunteer firemen.

Tateh (Frank Mastrone) and his daughter (Hannah Pressman)

Tateh (Frank Mastrone) and his daughter (Hannah Pressman)

As Act 2 opens, newly radicalized Younger Brother, a fireworks manufacturer, is helping Coalhouse and his followers to blow up things in a wave of anti-capitalist, antiracist terrorism. The carnage is offstage, which lets us overlook Coalhouse’s violence, while a jarring act of violence aimed at Sarah threatens to derail the busy story. As Sarah, Soara-Joye Ross delivers Act 1’s “Your Daddy’s Son” with such incredible power that we may well be disappointed to learn what the plot has in store for her. So it goes. The story drives toward its benign vision of children—white and black, Jew and gentile—playing together agreeably, though the fact that the nonwhite parents are looking on from heaven might give us pause.

Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Ezekiel Andrew)

Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Ezekiel Andrew)

As Coalhouse, Ezekiel Andrew plays both pride and humility that become righteous indignation. He has great energy and a big voice, which helps greatly in a production where sometimes the pianos overpower the singers—not helped (when I attended) by some issues with the mics that created static and seemed to lose some singers in the big choral numbers. Soara-Joye Ross and Juliet Lambert Pratt add greatly to the vocal strengths on hand, with Kanova Latrice Johnson delivering Act 1’s impassioned closer, “Till We Reach That Day.” Frank Mastrone is more endearing as Baron Ashkenazy than as Tateh whose beard only serves to look remarkably fake. Jessica Molly Schwartz does well with an ironic rendering of Evelyn Nesbitt’s obvious cheesecake function, and Broadway veteran Bill Nabel adds the requisite patrician sangfroid to J.P. Morgan, even when his beloved library is being held for ransom. As Booker T. Washington, Brian Demar Jones has plenty of panache, and Christian Cardozo’s Houdini, we might imagine, would like to escape into a show where he’s something more than a famous Italian American.

Father (Dennis Holland), seated, and his son (Ari Zimmer) and the male cast of  Ragtime

Father (Dennis Holland), seated, and his son (Ari Zimmer) and the male cast of Ragtime

Finally, a word about Dennis Holland as Father. This is a role that could easily be a joke. One moment he’s off to the North Pole with Robert Peary, then he’s receiving a frosty welcome to his home, now a nursery, where an African American couple he never met is plying ragtime and romance in the parlor; later, he has to make man-to-man chat with Coalhouse while playing well-meaning hostage, but not before he takes his son out to a ballgame for some filial bonding, only to find it’s overrun by the kind of crass American types our culture never tires of caricaturing (the song, “What a Game,” is a moment of light fun in the overwrought Act 2). Ultimately, Father goes down with the Lusitania! Through it all Holland maintains the thoughtful dignity of someone who just doesn’t get it yet knows there is something to get. It’s just that, for a little while at least, he thought he had it. All. It’s a nicely rendered character-turn in a show more concerned with songs than characterization.

Once again, MTC’s Kevin Connors shows what can be done on a small-scale with shows that could easily overwhelm a less resourceful director. His love for theater shows in every aspect of this involving Ragtime. The intimacy of staging makes this show of many moving parts—there’s even a makeshift Model T involved—even more moving.

 

Ragtime, The Musical
Book by Terrence McNally
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Based on the novel Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow
Directed by Kevin Connors
Musical Direction by David Wolfson

Scenic Design: Jessie Lizotte; Lighting and Projection Design: RJ Romeo; Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Sound Design: Will Atkin; Props Design: Merrie Deitch; Wig Design: Will Doughty; Fight Choreographer: Dan O’Driscoll; Production Assistant: Charlie Zuckerman; Musical Staging: Chris McNiff; Stage Manager: Jim Schilling

Musicians: David Wolfson, conductor/piano; Mark Ceppetelli, second piano

Cast: Ezekiel Andrews; Christian Cardozo; Ari Frimmer; Jeff Gurner; Dennis Holland; Kanova Latrice Johnson; Brian Demar Jones; Frank Mastrone; Bill Nabel; Juliet Lambert Pratt; Hannah Pressman; Soara-Joye Ross; Ryan Ryan; Mia Scarpa; Jessica Molly Schwartz; Jacob Sundlie

MTC Mainstage
Music Theatre of Connecticut
September 27-October 13, 2019

Man of La Plancha: a New Quixote for a New Era

Review of Quixote Nuevo, Hartford Stage

From the moment the “calacas” take the stage, in a display of eye-catching costumes by Rachel Healy that evoke the imagery of the North American southwest and the ancient culture of Mexico, Quixote Nuevo explodes with color and movement. In Octavio Solis’ heartfelt modern reimagining of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, directed with vitality and poetry by KJ Sanchez, the demonic troupe’s energy comes from the disturbed mind of Jose Quijano, played by veteran TV actor Emilio Delgado with charming pathos and humor. A timely comedy with true mythopoetic power, the show runs at Hartford Stage until October 13, following its world premiere at the California Shakespeare Festival last year.

Quijano’s delusions, as he takes to the road as a modern-day Quixote in search of his muse Dulcinea, are profoundly disturbing to others and vastly entertaining to the audience. The “others” include his sweetly diffident niece, Antonia (Gianna DiGregorio Rivera); his abrasive sister, Magdalena (Mariela López-Ponce); his well-meaning but timid priest, Padre Perez (Orlando Arriaga), and his earnestly out-of-her-element psychiatrist, Dr. Campos (Gisela Chipe). After seeing how ill-served Quijano, a retired literature professor losing his mind, is at home, we’re ready to ride off with him, as he takes to his adult-sized tricycle adorned with a horse’s skull, garbed in a pastiche of armor that includes a rotary fan as breastplate.

Jose Quijano/Don Quixote (Emilio Delgado), front; Papa Calaca (Hugo E. Carbajal), rear, with the cast of  Quixote Nuevo  at Hartford Stage (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Jose Quijano/Don Quixote (Emilio Delgado), front; Papa Calaca (Hugo E. Carbajal), rear, with the cast of Quixote Nuevo at Hartford Stage (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

He soon enough finds his Sancho Panza in Manny Diaz, a vendor of paletas, played by Juan Manuel Amador with engaging comic nuance. And their first adventure is at a karaoke dive where many of the actors already introduced play slumming locals in an establishment run by Bruno Castillo (Ivan Jasso) and Rosario Castillo (Krystal Hernandez). Bruno graciously agrees to dub Quixote with a sacred relic: the trigger finger of Pancho Villa, a prop that will come back in Part 2 to hilarious effect thanks to Diaz. The remaining cast member is Hugo E. Carbajal who plays Papà Calaca—Death, in other words—with magnetic stage presence as a surprisingly simpatico wraith always hovering on the edge of Quijano’s awareness.

Manny Diaz/Sancho Panza (Juan Manuel Amador)

Manny Diaz/Sancho Panza (Juan Manuel Amador)

One of the great attributes of Cervantes’ classic tale of an aging Spanish landowner who believes he lives in a world of knights-errant and chivalry is how episodic it is. Quixote’s is a story of seemingly random encounters and the schema is easily adaptable by Solinas to a different series of adventures—such as an encounter with Cardenio (Arriaga), a grieving refugee in a mountainous region, or a battle with an overbearing border guard (Carbajal) and a joust with a surveillance balloon. The current and longstanding problems at the U.S. and Mexican border is key to the background ambiance of Solis’ play, and the device of Quixote chimes well with a felt need to find sustaining myths for our country and our times.

Jose Quijano/Don Quixote (Emilio Delgado), center, with the cast of  Quixote Nuevo

Jose Quijano/Don Quixote (Emilio Delgado), center, with the cast of Quixote Nuevo

The notion of a Tejano—a Mexican-American from Texas—as an American Everyman plays into our country’s fondness for myths about the West, even as the play finds a way both to inhabit the specific region and to take stock of the many tropes we already know so well. Solis’ jokes about Iron Man or Games of Thrones are tellingly apt. A latter day Quixote might believe he’s a Marvel superhero or living in one of the regions depicted in George R.R. Martin’s saga of warring houses. The point is that we’re always willing to enter a fantasy world, if only to suspend belief in the distressing times in which we live.

The weakest aspect of the play—tellingly—is the effort to people Quijano’s and Diaz’s village, La Plancha. The characters have little to sustain them beyond manner—whereas the people met on the road or in Quijano’s fantasies are suitably defined by the encounter. The play ends—after two and a half hours—somewhat abruptly, after evoking the challenge of a wall that may or may not exist. But then the end of any version of Quixote tends to be a compromise with dramatic necessity: the story must end somehow. Death is the end of delusion.

The music by David R. Molina and Eduardo Robledo lends much flavorful atmosphere as does Takeshi Kata’s chameleonic vista of sky and clouds, lit by Brian J. Lilienthal. If the changing colors and cloud consistencies on display doesn’t make you long for desert regions, you’re even more of a northeasterner than I am. The wide-open spaces of the set are graced when needed by a bar or miniaturized storefronts signaling distant streets. It’s a wonderfully imaginative use of the Hartford Stage’s amphitheater.

An entertaining epic on aging that looks at how the life of the mind—as a theater of consoling fictions—both sustains us and deceives us, Quixote Nuevo shows us, in the inspirations and confusions of its professor as paladin, the enduring humanitas of the humanities.

Jose Quijano (Emilio Delgado), Antonia (Gianna DiGregorio Rivera)

Jose Quijano (Emilio Delgado), Antonia (Gianna DiGregorio Rivera)

 

Quixote Nuevo
By Octavio Solis
Directed by KJ Sanchez

Scenic Design: Takeshi Kata; Costume Design: Rachel Healy; Lighting Design: Brian J. Lilienthal; Composer & Sound Design: David R. Molina; Co-Composer: Eduardo Robledo; Music Director: Jesse Sanchez; Fight Director: Ted Hewlett; Vocal & Dialect Coach: Robert Ramirez; Dramaturg: J. Sebastián Alberdi; Production Stage Manager: Rob Chikar; Assistant Stage Manager: Kasson Marroquin

Cast: Juan Manuel Amador; Orlando Arriaga; Hugo E. Carbajal; Gisela Chipe; Emilio Delgado; Krystal Hernandez; Ivan Jasso; Mariela López-Ponce; Gianna DiGregorio Rivera

Hartford Stage
September 19-October 13, 2019

Nun For All and All for Nun: Playhouse on Park Brings on the Nunsense

Review of Nunsense, Playhouse on Park

What lends charm to Dan Goggin’s venerable Nunsense after all these years is how refreshing it is to see a musical that, while unabashedly silly, is full of affection for the schtick of musical revues. The invigorating notion that “anyone can put on a show”—that everyone has intuited the forms of Old School musical comedy, even a group of nuns—is the conceit that drives the show’s machine. And it works!

Reverend Mother Superior, Sister Mary Regina (Amanda Forker) and the remaining nuns of the Little Sisters of Hoboken are in a fix: botulism in the vichyssoise prepared by Sister Julia, Child of God has killed all the other Sisters and all but four have been buried. Now money must be raised to inter the four stored in the convent’s freezer before a health crisis ensues. The solution: sing and dance and earn the needed cash. Anyone who has ever been associated with a school or religious organization knows that fund-raisers are part of the calendar. Here, there’s much appeal to the Appeal.

Sister Mary Leo (Rachel Oremland), Sister Mary Hubert (Brandi Porter), Sister Mary Regina (Amanda Forker), Sister Robert Anne (Lily Dickinson), Sister Mary Amnesia (Hillary Ekwall) in Playhouse on Park’s Nunsense, directed by Darlene Zoller (photos by Rich Wagner)

Sister Mary Leo (Rachel Oremland), Sister Mary Hubert (Brandi Porter), Sister Mary Regina (Amanda Forker), Sister Robert Anne (Lily Dickinson), Sister Mary Amnesia (Hillary Ekwall) in Playhouse on Park’s Nunsense, directed by Darlene Zoller (photos by Rich Wagner)

The humor in seeing a fivesome of nuns assay tap and ballet and Ethel Mermenesque belting may well be a matter of simple incongruity, but what Goggin—who was once a seminarist before performing in and then writing for theater—gets is how quirky the ladies of the habit can be. Each has her plausible skill or gripe or affliction—such as the faulty memory of timid Sister Mary Amnesia (Hillary Ekwall), or the ambition of tetchy Sister Mary Hubert (Brandi Porter) to be Top Nun, or the dream of sweet-faced novice Sister Mary Leo (Rachel Oremland) to be a ballerina, or the way brassy Sister Robert Anne (Lily Dickinson) of Canarsie asserts her stage-readiness at every opportunity.

Then there’s the Reverend Mother herself: with a background in carnival and a quirky sense of humor, her reign is full of the tics of idiosyncratic authority. And when she samples a bit of confiscated “Rush” (a form of amyl nitrate) she goes off on a gleefully slapstick bender that just gets weirder and weirder. Forker shows off the comedic skills she put to use in Say Things Funny, a tribute to Carol Burnett—the great TV comedienne of whom her routine is uproariously reminiscent. It’s a madcap, show-stopping set-piece that is both entertaining and unsettling.

Sister Mary Hubert (Brandi Porter), Sister Mary Regina (Amanda Forker)

Sister Mary Hubert (Brandi Porter), Sister Mary Regina (Amanda Forker)

The songs are peppy and showcase the cast’s skills, particularly Porter’s soulful rendition of “Holier Than Thou,” and Ekwall doubling herself with a fractious hand-puppet, Sister Mary Annette, while hitting angelic notes in “So You Want to Be a Nun.” The harmonizing on “Just a Coupl’a Sisters” between Porter and Forker seems natural and unforced. A certain kind of too-show-bizzyness could be the sin that would sink this show, but the cast, directed by Darlene Zoller, avoids the temptation. There’s a DIY aspect to the show that suits it, including patter with the onstage band featuring two players in school uniforms. The set, supposedly a school gym, bears the requisite basketball court markings, and also the left-over set from the previous show—a swing and divan and a vanity for strippers.

The nuns are engaging and fun to spend time with, working the crowd, encouraging interaction and—as nuns are wont to do—imposing quizzes. The backstory about a mission of mercy to an island of lepers goes by quite quickly (thankfully) early on, then Sister Mary Amnesia asks us about the details we remember, which leads to her sweetly earnest awarding of prizes to lucky audience-members. At times the show’s jokes can be a bit dated—Sally Fields and plays on the names of classic shows, and, by Dickinson, impressions of famous divas such as Cher and Katherine Hepburn—but they’ll land for audiences with a sense of the past, such as variety shows of the ‘70s.

Nunsense kicks off Playhouse on Park’s eleventh season, a season aimed to “focus on universal stories that give women a voice.” The voices here are lively and, if a bit clichéd, well, that comes with the territory Goggin is covering. It may help to have been in the company of nuns at some point in one’s life to get the show’s full effect (I was for my first 8 years of education and the pews and statuary, chalices and censers in the lobby help set the mood), but the only necessary prerequisite to enjoying this easygoing show is a willingness to be entertained. And you will be—saints be praised!

 

Nunsense
A Musical Comedy
Book, Music and Lyrics by Dan Goggin
Directed by Darlene Zoller

Music Director: Melanie Guerin; Scenic Designer: Johann Fitzpatrick; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Lighting Designer: Shane Cassidy; Costume Designer: Lisa Ann Steier; Choreographer: Darlene Zoller; Stage Manager: Mollie Cook; Props Artisan/Set Dresser: Eileen O’Connor

Cast: Lily Dickinson, Hillary Ekwall, Amanda Forker, Rachel Oremland, Brandi Porter

Band: Melanie Guerin, conductor, keyboard; Elliot Wallace, drums; Mallory Kokus, reeds; Phoebe Suzuki, violin

 

Playhouse on Park
September 18-October 13, 2019

Identify the Differences

Review: Latinos Who Look Like Ricky Martin, Yale Summer Cabaret

Xavier (Robert Lee Hart) likes to get to the meetings early. He has to set up the space, arrange the chairs and pens, erase the whiteboard and put up his huge yellow sticky-notes. Monica (Jackeline Torres Cortés) arrives on time. Together, they are the Latino Student Union at a college, after the graduation of the seniors who officiated last year. They need to figure out ways to pull in other students, and they need to decide who will lead them as their new president. And—a newly pressing matter—they must decide how to react to a racist slur—in Spanish—someone spray-painted in red on school property, clearly aimed at Latino students. Note: it’s the same slur U.S. President Donald J. Trump, in tweetspeak, flung at four non-white U.S. Congresswomen, all U.S. citizens.

Emilio Rodriguez’s Latinos Who Look Like Ricky Martin, directed by Jecamiah M. Ybañez, is the final play of the Yale Summer Cabaret’s Verano Season, which aimed to explore and expand and explode notions of Latinx culture. Rodriguez’s engaging and entertaining play seems made to order. While it could brood and wring its hands about burgeoning racism in the U.S., the play instead is very knowingly tongue-in-cheek about the earnest intentions of those who police the borders of identity. To adapt Pogo-cartoonist Walt Kelly’s familiar saying about “the enemy”: We have met the racists and they are us.

What could be the problem, you ask. Certainly only bona fide Latinos would want to be part of the Latino Student Union, right? Sure, but how will they know each other? Skin color, mother tongue, favorite foods and music and celebrity icon, the country or region of their ancestral origin? Xavier, who has a best-kept secret about his own upbringing, looks the part, but can’t speak Spanish. Isaac (Dario Ladani Sanchez), a newcomer, is from Puerto Rico, speaks Spanish but looks white—and doesn’t see why empanadas are automatically preferable to quesadillas or nachos as identity foods. Monica, who looks, speaks and dresses the part of colorful Latinx party girl, has her issues with Xavier’s overbearing efforts and the boys’ club atmosphere furnished by his heir-apparent relationship to outgoing president Oscar.

Monica (Jackeline Torres Cortés), Xavier (Robert Lee Hart), Isaac (Dario Ladani Sanchez) in Latinos Who Look Like Ricky Martin, Yale Summer Cabaret

Monica (Jackeline Torres Cortés), Xavier (Robert Lee Hart), Isaac (Dario Ladani Sanchez) in Latinos Who Look Like Ricky Martin, Yale Summer Cabaret

There are reasons enough for grievances aplenty, and it all plays out with the lively tones of sitcom comedy—full of an ironic sparkle de rigueur for youths who know that they are always mouthing received images and ideas coming at them from their ever-present phones. Before we even get to the actual difficulties they face communicating and commiserating with each other, there’s a sharp sense of hyper-awareness registered by Ybañez and his cast that suits perfectly today’s collegiate. They know everything because everything is just a quick search away, and, what’s more, they know the whole world is potentially watching for anything inflammatory that anyone might share digitally.

And yet it is to Rodriguez’s credit that his characters aren’t simply caricatures. They play with our expectations and their own, and each is capable of pulling a surprise out of the hat—or tote, as the case may be. My one criticism of the plot’s trajectory is that Monica’s big reveal gets played out twice—once for Isaac and once for Xavier—when it would feel more dramatically surprising if we learned it when Xavier did (since the two have known each other longest and have a very appealing way of one-upping and supporting each other). Isaac’s own reveal comes across more as a weak plot point rather than a necessary factor in the situation—we might be happier with him as outsider than surprise insider. Such matters, by inviting some overthinking, can make the play feel more contrived than it needs to be.

Isaac (Dario Ladani Sanchez), Xavier (Robert Lee Hart)

Isaac (Dario Ladani Sanchez), Xavier (Robert Lee Hart)

What makes it work, in the Cab’s tight space with a wonderfully generic-appropriate meeting space complete with frosted-glass hall window by Elsa GibsonBraden, is the vividness of these three actors. Hart’s Xavier has so much attitude it fairly drips from all his comments and reactions, and, in one tense moment with Isaac, his pain is palpable. Yet Xavier is also terrifically funny in his obtuse single-mindedness. His identity is the Club in a way that can be at least a little off-putting to anyone who wants to “belong” in the room with him.

Monica (Jackeline Torres Cortés)

Monica (Jackeline Torres Cortés)

Cortés’ Monica is the life of the play, and her laughter is unpredictable and genuine. Monica likes to have fun and make fun, and her somewhat perverse strategy for drumming-up unity makes us take a second look at her. She may be the most politically astute—or at least she’s not taking Psychology (for the third time) for nothing. Sanchez plays Isaac with a certain canny vagueness; he’s the one we expect to have some ulterior motive because the other two aren’t sure about him, yet he seems so immediately likable and forthright we hope he will be the sensible one without the earnest investments of Xavier and Monica. His greater maturity is key to what he’s doing here—wearing, appropriately, what almost looks like a referee’s shirt.

In the end it seems that leading the Latino Club—like winning the presidency in the U.S.—is a zero-sum game, a fact that puts to flight any notion of “unity in community,” or “unidad in communidad,” or indeed unitedness among our 50 states to say nothing of between political parties. Rodriguez wants us to laugh at how ego-driven and shortsighted much of our need to be “in” is, as the tendency makes many aspects of life into popularity contests. And yet, trivial as that may seem, the wrong use of power—however attained—can leave those on the outside weaker and more desperate. The solidarity of others can be scary.

Xavier (Robert Lee Hart), Monica (Jackeline Torres Cortés), Isaac (Dario Ladani Sanchez)

Xavier (Robert Lee Hart), Monica (Jackeline Torres Cortés), Isaac (Dario Ladani Sanchez)

 

Latinos Who Look Like Ricky Martin
By Emilio Rodriguez
Directed by Jecamiah M. Ybañez

Scenic Designer: Elsa GibsonBraden; Costume Designer: Stephanie Bahniuk; Lighting Designer: Evan Anderson; Sound Designer: Noel Nichols; Stage Manager: Edmond O’Neal

Ensemble: Jackeline Torres Cortés, Robert Lee Hart, Dario Ladani Sanchez

Yale Summer Cabaret Verano
August 8-17, 2019

Birds of a Feather

Review of The Swallow and the Tomcat, Yale Summer Cabaret

Morning (Adrienne Wells) is lazy and doesn’t want to rise. Wind (Dario Ladani Sanchez) tries to persuade her that things can’t get going without her. So they make a deal: first, a love story; then she’ll get up (a bit of bargaining that should be readily familiar to parents and children alike).

In Wind’s story, a group of animals hangout in a playground complete with a white picket fence and a swing and a lovely green lawn (Elsa GibsonBraden, scenic design). Like any human collective, the animals have their “do’s and don’ts” about expected behavior, and they have a love of gossip about anything out of the ordinary. And what could be more out of the ordinary than a haughty Swallow (Zoe Mann) taking an interest in a Tomcat (Reed Northrup), generally considered the scourge of the playground, and vice versa?

In The Swallow and the Tomcat, a story Brazilian novelist and playwright Jorge Amado wrote for his infant son that was later published, playfulness abounds and, as with most stories for children, there is a moral. Here, it arises from the struggle between conservative social customs and headstrong youth which tends to take things as they come. And any child who has encountered playground or classroom dynamics will immediately recognize the way others’ voices often limit our choices.

The ensemble of The Swallow and the Tomcat at Yale Summer Cabaret Verano (Dario Ladani Sanchez, Zoe Mann, Reed Northrup, Anula Navlekar, Julian Sanchez, Adrienne Wells) (Photos by Elsa GibsonBraden)

The ensemble of The Swallow and the Tomcat at Yale Summer Cabaret Verano (Dario Ladani Sanchez, Zoe Mann, Reed Northrup, Anula Navlekar, Julian Sanchez, Adrienne Wells) (Photos by Elsa GibsonBraden)

The play—translated from Amado’s Portuguese text and adapted by director Danilo Gambini, co-artistic director of this season’s Yale Summer Cabaret, and dramaturg Emily Sorensen—is made children-friendly by the colorful costumes (by Stephanie Bahniuk), the charming songs (by Solon Snider with Gambini and Sorensen), and, especially, the ensemble’s full immersion in the world Amado and his adaptors have created. And what makes the show worthwhile for adults are the very same qualities. It’s a joy.

In many ways, the show is a perfect example of what the Yale Cabaret does best: it depends on a concerted effort at make-believe, and, while that can have all kinds of different valence depending on the play, here it’s a question of storytelling as something inherently dramatic—and comic—and romantic—and even, perhaps, subversive. The cast interacts with the audience, drawing us in and making us judge for ourselves about the purpose of the tale they tell.

The ensemble: Anula Navlekar, Dario Ladani Sanchez, Zoe Mann, Julian Sanchez, Reed Northrup, Adrienne Wells

The ensemble: Anula Navlekar, Dario Ladani Sanchez, Zoe Mann, Julian Sanchez, Reed Northrup, Adrienne Wells

The animals all have distinct personalities and distinguishing voices—a total of 18 roles are handled by six actors—and they all have something to say about the forbidden love brewing in their midst. The joy comes from watching how quickly the actors can switch from one odd exchange to another, as for instance, the rather seedy Priest Parrot (Julian Sanchez) telling bad jokes to amuse Cow (Dario Ladani Sanchez) only to stir Cow’s anxious sense of inadequacy, or the way Daddy Swallow (Anula Navlekar) and Mommy Swallow (Julian Sanchez) bill and coo relentlessly. There’s also much fun with the storytelling itself, with interruptions for backstory and various asides and, at one point, a critical dismissal by Toad (Anula Navlekar) of the Tomcat’s hapless effort at a love poem. Other fun bits come from Freud the Mole (Julian Sanchez), always ready to put teen psychology into a nutshell for us, and Owl (Adrienne Wells), a kind of self-important commentator who sees political potential in the unheard-of mating of a cat and bird.

Swallow (Zoe Mann)

Swallow (Zoe Mann)

Key to the show’s success are its two titular characters, brought to life by Zoe Mann and Reed Northrup respectively. Mann gives the Swallow an early-teen sense of sophistication and a healthy curiosity about things she wants to know—like why she finds herself so fascinated by watching the Tomcat and takes such delight in dropping twigs on him. Northrup’s Tomcat put me in mind of a beloved cartoon character of my childhood—Top Cat—with his street-wise diction and a knack for self-reflection that comes as a surprise to himself. Their infatuation—which we certainly can’t call “puppy love”—is treated as a defining moment that might help both creatures learn things about themselves they wouldn’t otherwise. Both actors make this unlikely love seem both perfectly natural and perfectly unique—the way love is supposed to be.

Tomcat (Reed Northrup)

Tomcat (Reed Northrup)

There’s also a threat which the rather hypocritical critters are willing to let the brave Tomcat defeat for them, even as they treat him as something less than, well, human. The animals’ are adamant: “Dog with dog / Cat with cat / Bird with bird / And that is that.” Of course, a tale of star-crossed or cross-species love wouldn’t be complete without a beau favored by Swallow’s parents—here it’s a Nightingale (Navlekar) more adept at teaching singing than winning hearts. Will Swallow hold out for the lovelorn Tomcat, or will the forces of biological rectitude prevail?

In the end, the wily Wind helps a dawning idea light up Morning.

The ensemble: Anula Navlekar, Adrienne Wells, Julian Sanchez

The ensemble: Anula Navlekar, Adrienne Wells, Julian Sanchez

After plays about the harshness of fate, in Euripides’ Bakkahi, and the harshness of political and sexual abuse of power, in María Irene Fornés’ The Conduct of Life, Yale Summer Cabaret—Verano—with this, its third play of the season, reaches out to children with a lively story to inspire change.

 

The Swallow and the Tomcat
By Jorge Amado
Adapted by Danilo Gambini and Emily Sorensen
Directed by Danilo Gambini

Scenic Designer: Elsa GibsonBraden; Costume Designer: Stephanie Bahniuk; Lighting Designer: Evan Anderson; Sound Designer/Music Director: Emily Duncan Wilson; Composer/Music Director: Solon Snider; Dramaturg/Adapter: Emily Sorensen; Stage Manager: Olivia Louise Tree Plath

Ensemble: Zoe Mann, Anula Navlekar, Reed Northrup, Dario Ladani Sanchez, Julian Sanchez, Adrienne Wells

Yale Summer Cabaret—Verano
July 18-27, 2019

A Welcome Cabaret at UConn

Review of Cabaret, Connecticut Repertory Theatre

John Kander and Fred Ebb’s musical drama Cabaret, with Book by Joe Masteroff, is a show that keeps on giving. One imagines that the original production—back in 1966—was deliberately decadent to show-off how the Sixties could be as openly licentious as the 1930s in Berlin, the setting of the drama. But the source material of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories (adapted into a play as I Am a Camera by John Van Druten) contains themes that the film of Cabaret, in 1972, and the later stage revivals, in 1993 and 1998, brought to the fore. That makes for a palimpsest of a play—which means that each version I’ve seen (this is the fourth, counting the film) is different.

The current show at Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Summer Nutmeg Series, at the University of Connecticut, directed by Scott LeFeber with choreography by Christopher d’Amboise and music direction by Ken Clifton, includes songs included in the original version then later dropped as well as songs added later. That makes for a longer first Act and a shorter second Act.

The story depicts Cliff Bradshaw (Rob Barnes), a young American writer in Berlin who meets a German businessmen, Ernst (Aidan Marchetti), to whom he gives English lessons, and who takes in an English cabaret singer of the seedy Kit Kat Klub, Sally Bowles (Laura Michelle Kelly, who created the role of Mary Poppins in both the East End and Broadway productions). They have a liaison, and the boarding house’s landlady, Fraulein Schneider (Dee Hoty), is romanced by a Jewish fruit-seller, Herr Schultz (Jonathan Brody), while another boarder, Fraulein Kost (Leslie Blake Walker), entertains various sailors whom she insists are family members. At the Klub, the rather jaded Emcee (Forrest McClendon) oversees the entertainment and comments on the action, which includes the rise of the Nazis to power.

The Emcee (Forrest McClendon) in the Connecticut Repertory Theatre production of Cabaret, directed by Scott LeFeber (photos by Gerry Goodstein)

The Emcee (Forrest McClendon) in the Connecticut Repertory Theatre production of Cabaret, directed by Scott LeFeber (photos by Gerry Goodstein)

At UConn, the tension between the show’s professionalism and less professional elements makes for an interesting mix that suits this musical. With four superlative Broadway show-persons in the main roles and post-graduates and a few undergraduates providing support, this Cabaret showcases a divide between the adults—Sally Bowles, the Emcee, Fraulein Schneider, Herr Schultz—and the more youthful ensemble members. The latter bring a freshness to their roles that plays off the experience of the elders—whether the Emcee’s glittering irony, Herr Schultz’s cautious emotion, Fraulein Schneider’s brittle matter-of-factness, or Sally’s willfulness and selfishness. Barnes’ Bradshaw comes into his own when confronted by changes, notably those in Ernst, who Marchetti plays with an endearing charm only to turn cold and baleful.

Cliff Bradshaw (Rob Barnes), Sally Bowles (Laura Michelle Kelly)

Cliff Bradshaw (Rob Barnes), Sally Bowles (Laura Michelle Kelly)

The best aspect of the show is seeing Kelly deliver Sally. Here’s a Sally who is actually English, and it’s not just a case of not having to fake the accent, it’s a question of body language and a way of delivering a line. This Sally is never bubbly and rarely anxious; she’s blithe about her worldliness and lives as if ignoring unpleasantness makes it invisible. Her big numbers are just that—big! Even in her own mind, Sally is onstage, crafting a persona that will see her through. And when Kelly takes over a vocal—as in “Maybe This Time” in Act 1 and “Cabaret” in Act 2—it registers with newfound nuance. With a blonde wig and costumes that give her a tawdry sense of glamor, Kelly’s Sally knows more than she wants us to think she does, and her willful fantasy says a lot about why a transplanted Brit would stay in Berlin with the fascists on the rise.

Sally Bowles (Laura Michelle Kelly)

Sally Bowles (Laura Michelle Kelly)

A standout element of the show is always the Emcee’s numbers, such as “Money,” and here McClendon gives the role a darkly cynical presence. We sense how he likes to toy with his audience’s jaded sense of entertainment and to flatter or affront their willingness to regard risqué material in burlesque—whether a tongue-in-cheek depiction of a ménage à trois involving a man and “Two Ladies,” or a sentimental send-up about dating outside one’s race, “If You Could See Her.” McClendon’s Emcee, when he shuts off the recording of a patriotic song, might convince us that his sexual freedom is the shape of things to come. And it almost is, until all illusions are swept aside in the show’s conclusion.

The show provides a sense of realism as well in letting us watch how a disillusioned survivor like Hoty’s Fraulein Schneider can be beguiled by Herr Schultz’s courtship, only to capitulate to the times in the defeated “What Would You Do.” At first the romance, in the charming “It Couldn’t Please Me More,” adds a deeper humanity to the proceedings, only to push us into a sense of how private lives end up at the mercy of public brutality. Brody’s Schultz, rather than long-suffering, is apt to take on even the worst setbacks and humiliations with a philosophic shrug, like many a “good German.”

Fraulein Schneider (Dee Hoty), Herr Schultz (Jonathan Brody)

Fraulein Schneider (Dee Hoty), Herr Schultz (Jonathan Brody)

The Kit Kat Kompany looks great in Fan Zhang’s costumes, though the rendering of d’Amboise’s choreography—which is classic stuff with lots of dips and swirls and backbends and jazz hands and leaps and splits—isn’t always as nimble as it could be. The orchestra, which lines the back stage, lit moodily by Timothy Reed, is a treat with tones that bring on both schmaltz and nostalgia. The ‘30s are like that . . . until they aren’t.

As a musical that shows interesting characters living through a difficult time, with great songs and mood and atmosphere, Cabaret is always worth catching. At UConn it’s even more welcome with such talent onstage in this big production.

The Emcee (Forrest McClendon), center, and the Kit Kat girls and boys

The Emcee (Forrest McClendon), center, and the Kit Kat girls and boys

 

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 Scott LeFeber
Starring Laura Michelle Kelly
Forrest McClendon
Dee Hoty
Jonathan Brody

Music Director: Ken Clifton; Choreographer: Christopher d’Amboise; Stage Manager: Tom Kosis; Scenic Designer: Alexander Woodward; Costume Designer: Fan Zhang; Sound Designer: Michael Vincent Skinner; Lighting Designer: Timothy Reed; Technical Director: John Parmelee; Voice & Dialect Coach: Jennifer Scapetis Tycer

Cast: Rob Barnes, Thomas Bergamo, Jamie Colburn, Torie D’Alessandro, Emma Dowdy, Madeline Dunn, Mike Katz, RJ Higton, Aidan Marchetti, Rebekah Santiago, Sydney Skye, Cole Thompson, Leslie Blake Walker

Orchestra: Ken Clifton, piano/conductor; Tom McDonough: synthesizer; Mallory Kokus: reed 1; Al Wasserman: reed 2; John Helmke: trumpet; Jim Lendvay: trombone; Thomas Bora: guitar/banjo; Matt McCauley: bass; Dan Gonko: drums

Connecticut Repertory Theatre
2019 Summer Nutmeg Series
July 4-21, 2019

History Via Minstrelsy

Review of The Scottsboro Boys, Playhouse on Park

As composers of musicals, John Kander and Fred Ebb have a knack for subject matter potentially unsettling. Their Cabaret is having a resurgence in Connecticut, with three productions in 2019, and for obvious reasons. The rise of Nazism in Berlin in the uneasy 1930s finds a ready parallel in the swerve to the Right in many countries in the dwindling twenty-teens of this century.  

At Playhouse on Park through August 4 is a musical by Kander and his late partner Ebb, with book by David Thompson, that is just as timely. The Scottsboro Boys returns to a staggering miscarriage of justice in 1930s’ Alabama that makes us revisit the long, hard fight for civil rights for African Americans in the twentieth century. And it also comments tellingly on the staggering miscarriages of justice that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013—three years after the show opened and closed on Broadway.

The cast of Playhouse on Park’s production of The Scottsboro Boys, directed by Sean Harris (Photographs by Meredith Longo)

The cast of Playhouse on Park’s production of The Scottsboro Boys, directed by Sean Harris (Photographs by Meredith Longo)

At the time there were raised eyebrows—and outright protests—that a modern musical would adapt the manner of the minstrel show, a racist form of entertainment in which white performers, in blackface, imitated and caricatured blacks. Yet the minstrel show format brings to the Scottsboro Boys’ story both a vitality and an irony that would not be easily attainable otherwise. To have these engaging and entertaining actors dancing and singing about such a prickly topic would be unthinkable without the frame: we’re watching a cast who, under the imprimatur of their “master,” the Interlocutor and only white cast member (Dennis Holland, condescendingly grand), are forced to put on a jovial version of an injustice. The vitality comes from the fact that the minstrel show, as a form, influenced so much musical comedy, and the irony comes from the performers as knowing commentators on caricatures.

The story: the “boys” were nine African American youths from age 13 to 20 who were riding a train they had hopped—mostly separately—from Chattanooga to Memphis. A fight broke out when white rail-riders tried to force the blacks off the train. The whites reported to the sheriff in Alabama that they had been attacked, and the nine were detained. Two white women who had also hopped the train (and were possibly soliciting) accused the youths of raping them. With a lynch mob forming, the nine were tried without adequate counsel and were convicted and sentenced to death, despite the medical examiner’s evidence that the women had not been raped. Protests and support from the north—including the NAACP and the U.S. Communist Party—eventually brought about a retrial with Samuel Leibowitz of New York representing the accused. They were found guilty again, though one of the accusers recanted her earlier charge. Retrials continued and eventually, through certain plea deals, the four youngest of the nine were allowed to go free. Another was shot, nonfatally, for attacking a guard, two others escaped. Eventually—but not until 2013!—the three unpardoned were granted posthumous pardons. All had been burdened by their conviction, imprisonment, and the lengthy and publicized trials that continued to uphold the earliest verdict without sufficient evidence (the nine, in their individual defenses, gave contrary evidence as well, at times accusing one or some of the others).

Bones (Ivory Mckay), Tambo (Torrey Linder)

Bones (Ivory Mckay), Tambo (Torrey Linder)

Key to the spin The Scottsboro Boys gives to this material are the traditional minstrel-show roles of Bones (Ivory Mckay) and Tambo (Torrey Linder), two showmen, both excellent, who abound in bad puns, overt silliness, and who project a double-edged awareness that satirizes the conventions of the show as well as the outrageousness of the story the musical tells. They enact a racist white sheriff and his deputy, white lawyers (including a drunk-as-a-skunk defense attorney), and guards. Their obvious fun with these caricatures of caricatures gives even the obvious and corny aspects of the humor its bite. And their showdown in the retrial, as the anti-Semitic Attorney General (Mckay) vs. Leibowitz (Linder), shows how playing upon prejudices will often carry the day.. 

Granted, the Scottsboro story doesn’t have the trajectory of a well-made plot and the collective villainy of the authorities confers a questionable heroism on the nine accused, simply by virtue of being innocent. That means that most of the show’s strength comes from how well it arouses sympathy for the hapless predicament of the accused nine. As Haywood Patterson, who is presented as the strongest willed among them, Troy Valjean Rucker draws attention early in the show with “Nothin’”—a song that sums up a world-weary ethos—and later with “You Can’t Do Me,” a song that registers his unwillingness to admit guilt even if it means getting a pardon. Another standout number is “Never Too Late,” with Jaylan Evans as Ruby Bates making her courtroom retraction an over-the-top, high-stepping vaudeville number.

Center, seated: Heywood Patterson (Troy Valjean Rucker) and Eugene Williams (Trishawn Paul) with the cast of The Scottsboro Boys

Center, seated: Heywood Patterson (Troy Valjean Rucker) and Eugene Williams (Trishawn Paul) with the cast of The Scottsboro Boys

The songs are full of zest, and a few early on—like the anxious “Electric Chair” and the stirring “Go Back Home”—benefit from Trishawn Paul’s lovely tenor. Choreographer Darlene Zoller and director Sean Harris, two of the three founders of Playhouse on Park, maintain the high standard in ending their tenth season that they brought to last season’s closer, In the Heights. While not as exuberant and contemporary as the latter, The Scottsboro Boys earns admiration for its nimble handling of shameful truths—the farce of injustice and overt racism—and for its stripped-down design—which makes the show feel almost improvised—and for keeping its audience in the palm of its hand from the glad-to-meet-you opening to the point at which the troupe departs the frame.

Throughout the show its only female cast member, Renee J. Sutherland, is onstage as “the lady,” an African American woman holding a book and looking on as a witness aghast at what she sees, and possibly as a researcher encountering this almost forgotten story. At the close of the show, her identity is revealed to show a continuity with what Thompson and company most likely saw as the dawn of a more enlightened age. In any case, reminders are necessary.

 

The Scottsboro Boys
Music and Lyrics by John Kander & Fred Ebb
Book by David Thompson
Directed by Sean Harris
 

Orchestrations: Larry Hochman; Musical Arrangements: Glen Kelly; Vocal Arrangements: David Loud; Choreographer: Darlene Zoller; Music Director: Melanie Guerin; Scenic Designer: David Lewis; Lighting Designer: Johann Fitzpatrick; Costume Designer: Vilinda McGregor; Props Artisan/Set Dresser: Eileen O’Connor; Sound Designer: Rider Q. Stanton; Stage Manager: Mollie Cook

Cast: Cedrick Ekra, Jaylan Evans, Cedric Greene, Jerry Hamilton, Dennis Holland, Torrey Linder, Ivory McKay, Trishawn Paul, Grant Reynolds, Alex Robertson, Troy Valjean Rucker, Justin Sturgis, Renee J. Sutherland

Playhouse on Park
June 26-August 4, 2019

Power Play

Review of The Conduct of Life, Yale Summer Cabaret

Dysfunction reigns in María Irene Fornés’ The Conduct of Life, continuing at the Yale Summer Cabaret tonight through Saturday, directed by Jecamiah M. Ybañez. Fornés’ plays have a mysterious quality and a fascinating rhythm that works best in intimate settings, which makes the Cabaret a good place to see this provocative play.

Orlando (John Evans Reese) carrying Nena (Amandla Jahava) in the Yale Summer Cabaret’s production of María Irene Fornés’  The Conduct of Life  (Photos courtesy of Yale Summer Cabaret)

Orlando (John Evans Reese) carrying Nena (Amandla Jahava) in the Yale Summer Cabaret’s production of María Irene Fornés’ The Conduct of Life (Photos courtesy of Yale Summer Cabaret)

The dysfunction is political, not only the naked bid for power in an unnamed country ruled by a military dictatorship, but, more directly, domestic, in the sexual politics of the household where a lieutenant named Orlando (John Evans Reese) lords it over his well-intentioned wife Leticia (Juliana Martinez). They have a friend in fellow officer Alejo (Devin White) who tends to laugh appropriately at Orlando’s sallies, while retaining, perhaps, more soul than Orlando. And Leticia is attended by a maid, Olympia (Nefesh Cordero Pino), who seems to stand as an emblem of the simple folk and is both an accomplice of Orlando and a confidante to Leticia.

Olympia (Nefesh Cordero Pino), Leticia (Juliana Martinez)

Olympia (Nefesh Cordero Pino), Leticia (Juliana Martinez)

At first, the play might seem to offer a Chekhovian exploration of boredom, ambition and humiliation, but, importantly, there’s also Nena (Amandla Jahava), a young girl kidnapped by Orlando and held prisoner in a warehouse and later in the couple’s basement. The glimpses of rape and torture we get through Christopher Evans’ projections are harrowing, as if we were watching arty surveillance footage, but nothing we see quite equals in discomfort the sound of Jahava’s distraught whimpers and sobs. It’s unnerving.

Orlando, who opens the play doing calisthenics and giving himself motivational advice on how to climb higher among the brass, becomes an interrogator. In an early dialogue with Alejo, about a prisoner who died under questioning, Orlando prides himself on his brutal lack of sympathy. He seems the perfect man for the job, except perhaps too indifferent to outcomes. In other words, there are standards, even in dehumanizing tactics, and Orlando may be his own worst enemy. We get a fuller sense of his view of himself when we see him interact with poor, frightened Nena, a girl he picked up and forced himself on. It’s his need for her that drives Orlando, a passion for dominance that also dominates him.

Orlando (John Evans Reese), Alejo (Devin White)

Orlando (John Evans Reese), Alejo (Devin White)

The triangle between Orlando, Leticia and Nena is where Fornés’ interests lie, to let us see glimpses of darkly sadistic realizations of a family dynamic and to show us the powers that be and the powerless. In the latter view, Leticia is of interest as not quite either. She’s not the equal of Orlando, either politically or in terms of physical strength or cunning, nor is she as powerless as Nena is. An amazing scene late in the play comes when Nena and Olympia, who takes pity on the prisoner as well as showing a vicarious interest in her odd life, are at the table and are joined by Leticia, who asks “what are we talking about?” There sits wife, prisoner, and maid, and Fornés implies they might all easily be figures for the role of Woman in patriarchal society.

Leticia (Juliana Martinez)

Leticia (Juliana Martinez)

And yet, in director’s Ybañez hands, the play never veers into outright allegory or satire. The sure-handed naturalism of the approach is greatly abetted by the way these actors—all current students at the Yale School of Drama but for Jahava, a recent graduate—inhabit their roles.

As Orlando, John Evans Reese brings a boyishness to the role that completely suits the small-time tyrant. He’s impetuous, sensitive of his dignity, needy, and erratic. As Alejo, Devin White has a cheery cynicism but late in the play shows more character. Juliana Martinez’s Leticia is a minor dame who might like to be a grande dame, helping the poor and trying to avoid the implications of her lifestyle. She might be seen as vapid, but Martinez brings a sullen gravitas to Leticia that makes her intriguing. Nefesh Cordero Pino plays Olympia with the knowing earthiness of those who have no illusions about what is necessary to get along in the world of their social superiors. And Amandla Jahava’s Nena is the heart of the play: the child as Christ, a girl who has introjected the selflessness of the sacrificial victim willing to suffer for others. Her views come out, in Jahava’s wonderfully fresh performance, as not at all deluded or debased.

Nena (Amandla Jahava), Olympia (Nefesh Cordero Pino)

Nena (Amandla Jahava), Olympia (Nefesh Cordero Pino)

The stage is a long marble-looking plinth stretching into a space near the Exit door that acts as the basement, foregrounding the couple’s house with a table and chairs and a phone-stand as minimal furnishings. The warehouse space is provided by videos so that we’re unaware of Nena’s predicament when they’re turned off, unlike other productions where the prisoner is visible throughout.

Told in short vignettes with blackouts, Fornés play maintains a somewhat arch tone toward the lives it asks us to contemplate. We don’t really settle in as we would with a more continuous structure, and that’s deliberate—to keep us guessing. The force of the situations propels the drama to its violent conclusion in this gripping play, but one senses that Fornés’ script would reward a slightly more quizzical rendering.

 

The Conduct of Life
By María Irene Fornés
Directed by Jecamiah M. Ybañez

Scenic Designer: Stephanie Cohen; Costume Designer: Alicia J. Austin; Lighting Designer: Daphne Agosin Orellana; Sound Designer: Bailey Trierweiler; Projections Designer: Christopher Evans; Dramaturg: Sophie Greenspan; Stage Manager: Amanda Luke; Intimacy Consultant: Sam Tirrell

Ensemble: Nefesh Cordero Pino, Amandla Jahava, Juliana Martinez, John Evans Reese, Devin White

Yale Summer Cabaret
June 21-29, 2019

About Last Night . . .

Review of Actually, TheaterWorks 

The dramatic situation in Anna Ziegler’s Actually, which closes this weekend at TheaterWorks, directed by Taneisha Duggan, could happen, more or less, to any couple. When sex goes bad, it’s usually only a matter for the persons involved. But when the couple in question are freshmen at a major university—in this case Princeton—the fall-out about what did or didn’t happen becomes a matter for administration. And that way much frustration lies—on all sides.

Amber (Arielle Siegel), Tom (Ronald Emile) in TheaterWorks’ production of Actually (Photos courtesy of TheaterWorks)

Amber (Arielle Siegel), Tom (Ronald Emile) in TheaterWorks’ production of Actually (Photos courtesy of TheaterWorks)

Ziegler’s script—which is a two-person play in which some other key figures are spoken of but never appear—opens with the kegger where Tom (Ronald Emile) and Amber (Arielle Siegel) meet-up and then, fueled by alcohol and more-than-fleeting attraction, proceed to hook-up. They’ve been aware of each other with almost uncanny frequency in that first week of classes and get-acquainted activities and rushes and the like. Now they come face to face and—after Tom with urgent exasperation tells Amber to stop talking—kiss.

We get to see that much. All else is hearsay by the participants; though both are pretty sure what happened, their views of the events diverge on key points. On the way to the hearing—where a committee of faculty will decide if Tom’s actions will merit disciplinary action—we learn about these two teens in their own words, addressed to us, the audience, in a hopscotch of statements and realizations. The tone of what each has to say veers in interesting ways, part confession, part self-analysis, part defense, and part confusion. That last part is a major factor and derives mostly from not really understanding their own motivations or the position they allowed their vulnerability to their own desires and the desires of another to put them in.

What’s more than a little overbearing about Ziegler’s play is that everything we learn about these characters is tainted by the big event that is coloring their current discomfort. So Tom is at pains to establish that he’s not the kind of guy that would intentionally rape anyone, and Amber mostly aims to convince us that she had no bad motives and that her story is true. Both characters are shown to be truly affectionate toward each other, which is why the emphasis of the play’s inconclusive conclusion seems to fall so heavily on what the act of seeking some kind of intervention has brought about. Because these two never got together and discussed their night of “yes” or “no” or “maybe so” (or “actually,” which Amber seemed to want to use as a safe-word), they instead plead before a committee they both mostly distrust and deride.

Amber (Arielle Siegel), Tom (Ronald Emile)

Amber (Arielle Siegel), Tom (Ronald Emile)

In speaking of themselves, the students are personable, though with very different approaches. Ronald Emile gets across Tom’s sense of himself as a successful charmer, a ladies’ man who doesn’t take any particular woman too seriously. His account of some trouble in high school, due to his response to advances by a teacher, set him up—in his own view—as someone who has to beat ‘em off. So, of course, when he gets alone with Amber she’ll be eager for the treat of Tom. For all his obtuseness, Tom is too earnest to be disbelieved. The problem is that he really doesn’t remember too well what occurred in his dorm room with Amber.

Amber—in Arielle Siegel’s delivery—is apt to say things that feel like special pleading, then look askance as if thinking “did I really say that?” She’s a study in nervous tics and a self-consciousness that you’ll either find charming or tedious. (For me, it was the latter.) She’s apt to make assumptions such as Tom’s being black had the same weight on his application that playing squash did on hers, and to say that, as an African American and Jewish American, respectively, Tom and she grew up with the sense that they might be rounded up at some point.

Amber (Arielle Siegel), Tom (Ronald Emile)

Amber (Arielle Siegel), Tom (Ronald Emile)

The staging by director Duggan helps mightily, as the actors move about in nicely choreographed vignettes, and the support of incidental music helps create moods that the matter-of-fact chat language of the characters doesn’t do much to articulate. Occasionally there’s some fun with words or a quirky verbal expression gets toyed with, the way people do who are learning how someone from somewhere else talks. There’s also a keen sense of how easy it is to get carried away with talking, saying what you didn’t quite mean or meaning something you didn’t quite think.

Even more so than Girlfriend, the previous show at TheaterWorks, Actually is a two-hander that could use some fleshing out. Ziegler has written-in a “hot” Indian friend (who thinks he and Tom are in love) and a bossy sorta mean girl (named Heather, of course) who seems to be the driving force behind Amber wanting to get laid and then going to authorities when she was after she stopped wanting to be. The reliance on these sideline characters, along with a few too many clichéd locutions and asides about teen life, college, and cultural markers of our day, makes Ziegler’s play less than the sharply observed social criticism it seems to want to be.

But then it’s hard to say for certain what it wants to be. Ziegler might just be trying to beguile the time by looking like the time, as Lady Macbeth might say. The play is best at informing Tom and Amber with much plausible feeling, then leaves their story hanging by a feather.

Tom (Ronald Emile) and Amber (Arielle Siegel)

Tom (Ronald Emile) and Amber (Arielle Siegel)

 

Actually
By Anna Ziegler
Directed by Taneisha Duggan
 

Set Design: Jean Kim; Costume Design: Sydney Gallas; Lighting Design: Amith A. Chandrashaker; Sound Design: Julian Evans; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth

 Cast: Ronald Emile, Arielle Siegel

 TheaterWorks
(At Wadsworth Athenaeum)
May 22-June 23, 2019

Sport for the Gods

Review of Bakkhai, Yale Summer Cabaret

The first show of Yale Summer Cabaret’s Verano season has come and gone. The Summer Cab’s Co-Artistic Director Danilo Gambini, with a cast of six female actors, delivered a sexy and scary and funny and unsettling version of Euripides’ ancient Greek tragedy Bakkhai as translated by preeminent poet Anne Carson. As a kickoff to the Summer Cab season one might say the play puts us on alert that theater’s seductions come at a peril. 

Dionysos (Sarah Lyddan) and the Bakkhai (top to bottom: Zoe Mann, Nefesh Cordero Pino, Anula Navlekar) (Photos courtesy of Danilo Gambini)

Dionysos (Sarah Lyddan) and the Bakkhai (top to bottom: Zoe Mann, Nefesh Cordero Pino, Anula Navlekar) (Photos courtesy of Danilo Gambini)

The play has the temerity to put the god—or is that pseudo-god?—Dionysos (Sarah Lyddan) onstage and lets him get quizzed and dismissed by Thebes’ king Pentheus (Eli Pauley, in the getup of a military dictator) with the kind of disdain a police chief might aim at a local troublemaker. And Dionysus does make trouble. The women of Thebes—Malia West, Nefesh Cordero Pino, Anula Navlekar and Zoe Mann as an aroused chorus in negligees—are only too ready to worship him and are clearly doing so in a tranced and decadent way. What’s a ruler burdened with maintaining order to do?

Pentheus (Eli Pauley), front; background: Teiresias (Anula Navlekar), Kadmos (Zoe Mann)

Pentheus (Eli Pauley), front; background: Teiresias (Anula Navlekar), Kadmos (Zoe Mann)

We might feel we are watching a comedy in which each side—law and order vs. libidinous license—is going to get a big comeuppance, especially when we see two old-timers, Kadmos (Mann) and Teiresias (Navlekar) jumping on the bandwagon, off to take part in the Bacchic rites in clownish drag. Kadmos is Dionysus’ grandfather. The story is that Semele, Kadmos’ daughter by the goddess Harmonia, was impregnated by Zeus in the form of a lightning bolt—which incinerated Semele, so that Zeus had to rescue the unborn child, sewing him into his own immortal thigh from which Dionysos was born. Born of Zeus via a female half-mortal and half-immortal, Dionysos has no doubts that he’s a true god. And yet. Carson’s translation maintains use of the term daimon or daemon (from which we get “demon”) for what Dionysos claims to be, and that invites all sorts of colorations—especially in our Christianized world—about half-man/half-god hybrids who shake up the status quo with secret rites.

Dionysos (Sarah Lyddan) with Bakkhai (Malia West, left; Eli Pauley, right)

Dionysos (Sarah Lyddan) with Bakkhai (Malia West, left; Eli Pauley, right)

In any case, demonic is exactly how Lyddan plays Dionysos, an androgynous figure with the eyes, ringed in black, of one who regularly imbibes hallucinogens and a voice of clearest diction that runs from guttural to angelic to searing. Her Dionysos is a trip and a treat and not to be trusted. And that’s where the tragic dimension comes in, in the midst of all the seductive humor and high spirits. Lyddan keeps so resolutely her eyes on the prize, so to speak, to let us know that Dionysos sees all our human hubbub as barely worth his notice. Love him, hate him—in any case, woe unto you. He’s malevolent to anyone who crosses him—which Pentheus’ mother, Agave (Semele’s older sister), did when she dismissed the claim that Zeus was her sister’s lover. So Pentheus has to follow suit—only to be beguiled by the idea of spying on those secret rites . . .

The songs the chorus sings—developed by the ensemble and sound designer/composer Liam Bellman-Sharpe—are ably abetted by the voices of Malia West, who also spellbinds as a Herdsman, and Zoe Mann. The set—by Lily Guerin—occupies a diagonal corner of the space, with grand pillars and black tiles and a section lit bloodred (Riva Fairhall, lighting) when Agave (a fierce Cordero Pino) arrives with her son’s head, which she herself tore from his body, thinking him—thanks to Dionysos—a lion-cub.

Agave (Nefesh Cordero Pino) with the head of Pentheus

Agave (Nefesh Cordero Pino) with the head of Pentheus

As with many Greek tragedies, there’s a somber “joke’s on you” quality to where we end up, if only because these plays were meant to demonstrate to the populace that the gods toy with us for their sport, so don’t get your hopes up about life ending well. A lesson that somewhere—in all the humanizing centuries since—we seem to have lost a clear sense of. Bakkhai is meant to put the fear back into theater.

And, ultimately, it does. Though I would’ve preferred a bit more breathless shock and awe in the Servant (Navlekar)’s delivery of what befell the hapless Pentheus, the image that stays with me is of Mann as grandfather Kadmos, bowed, rotund, particolored, with powdered face, tears streaming as he awakes from a dream, in which gods and mortals can be held to the same account, to the nightmare—called reality—in which only mortals suffer. Eventually, the ages would supply us with a god who suffers and dies for us . . . but that’s another story.

Bakkhai (Anula Navlekar, Nefesh Cordero Pino, Malia West)

Bakkhai (Anula Navlekar, Nefesh Cordero Pino, Malia West)


Bakkhai
By Euripides
A new translation by Anne Carson
Directed by Danilo Gambini

Scenic Designer: Lily Guerin; Costume Designer: Alicia J. Austin; Lighting Designer: Riva Fairhall; Sound Designer & Composer: Liam Bellman-Sharpe; Projections Designer: Christopher Evans; Dramaturg: Emily Sorensen; Stage Manager: Alexus Cone 

Ensemble: Nefesh Cordero Pino, Sarah Lyddan, Zoe Mann, Anula Navlekar, Eli Pauley, Malia West

Yale Summer Cabaret
June 6-15, 2019

The opening of the Yale Summer Cabaret’s next show, María Irene Fornés’ The Conduct of Life, directed by Jecamiah M. Ybañez, has been postponed from tonight, June 20, to tomorrow night, June 21. Shows at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m.

Everyday Heroes

Review of Skeleton Crew, Westport Country Playhouse

Skeleton Crew is the third play from Dominique Morisseau’s The Detroit Project to be staged in Connecticut this season; it’s also the most recently written and the best of the three. Like Paradise Blue (at Long Wharf in the fall), and Detroit ’67 (at Hartford Stage in the winter), this four-person play is set in a very particular place—Detroit, of course—and time: in this case, the years of the Great Recession of the twenty-first century. That was the “too big to fail” era when the big automakers in Detroit declared bankruptcy, followed by the city itself shortly after.

Set entirely in an automotive plant’s very realistic breakroom (by Caite Hevner), Skeleton Crew lets us into the situation with a fly-on-the-wall access. We see how those who turn up for work each day have their frictions, their flirtations, their agreements and disagreements. And bit by bit we gain insight into what’s at stake in these lives, even as the characters themselves begin to realize how tied they are to a certain way of life, now under threat, and to each other.

Shanita (Toni Martin), Dez (Leland Fowler), Faye (Perri Gaffney) in Westport Country Playhouse’s production of Skeleton Crew (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Shanita (Toni Martin), Dez (Leland Fowler), Faye (Perri Gaffney) in Westport Country Playhouse’s production of Skeleton Crew (photo by Carol Rosegg)


Faye (Perri Gaffney) is the wise elder who has put in twenty-nine years on the factory floor—but not thirty. The remaining year is necessary for full benefits at retirement. She’s canny, at times jokey towards the others, and opens the play lighting up a cigarette in front of a No Smoking sign. The sign is an indication of how things are changing: more and more effort is being made to make workers behave by the rules, so that those with infractions—for smoking on site, lateness, gambling—can be dismissed. Faye knows times are tough—soon we learn just how tough—and is barely hanging on. Gaffney plays Faye without overt sentimentality, letting us admire her and her philosophic grasp of realities.

The most likely candidate for downsizing is Dez (Leland Fowler) who is too young to kowtow easily to authority and who has dreams of starting his own business—he needs to hang on until he’s got the start-up money. Shanita (Toni Martin), the star of the assembly line, is pregnant, very particular about her salad dressing, and apt to blame her mood swings on her hormones. She fields what might be pro forma come-ons from Dez with grudging patience. The arc of these two actually taking an interest in each other is developed slowly and without coy pretense. The two actors’ command of Morisseau’s language, which captures very subtle registers of emotion with skill, is fully engaging. A joy of the show is how naturally the dialogue flows, letting talk be the medium by which the characters move from rote reactions to something deeper.

Shanita (Toni Martin), Dez (Leland Fowler) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Shanita (Toni Martin), Dez (Leland Fowler) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Finally, there’s Reggie, the middle-management guy in a tie who has to figure out how to remain loyal to his workers without ruffling his bosses. Faye is a friend of his late mother’s who got him a job at the plant in the first place and she’s also the shop’s union representative. The tensions that come with being friends—almost family—and co-workers at different paygrades play out as the play goes on. Sean Nelson’s performance is pitch perfect, particularly when he must confess to Faye an angry misstep that may have dire consequences. Nelson lets us see the fire that Reggie represses to walk the line he does.

Reggie (Sean Nelson), Faye (Perri Gaffney) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Reggie (Sean Nelson), Faye (Perri Gaffney) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Skeleton Crew isn’t a gimmicky play; there are a few key props that add extra drama, but the story is conveyed entirely by the interactions of these four vivid characters. In LA Williams’ tight direction, the pacing and transitions are deliberately naturalistic—most scenes open with the workers arriving for their shift, though a few scenes also take place at the end of breaks or, in one key instance, after working hours. Particular problems may differentiate these characters, but we’re always aware that they’re experiencing—to alter the old adage—“same shit, different person.” Each has their individual griefs, but the threat of a shutdown impacts them all.

The crap that’s coming down on this particular outmoded form of capitalist excess is apt to bury them, but Morisseau has the instincts of a popular writer and that keeps the mood from becoming too grim. There are moments of real human caring and sharing and that’s what keeps the drama buoyant. As a slice-of-life play, Skeleton Crew might feel as outdated as the way of life that Motor City once sustained. And that’s part of the play’s charm, letting us settle in to an American story of work that will be familiar to many, and then unsettling us with the fears besetting those with no safety nets as the public good becomes a casualty of private interests.

Reggie (Sean Nelson), Faye (Perri Gaffney), Shanita (Toni Martin), Dez (Leland Fowler) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Reggie (Sean Nelson), Faye (Perri Gaffney), Shanita (Toni Martin), Dez (Leland Fowler) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Unlike the other two entries in Morisseau’s trilogy, Skeleton Crew doesn’t need to work through historical references to expand the story’s dimensions. The reality of big business in flight from the U.S. has been with us since the 1970s and, though specific here to Detroit, is common enough throughout the northeast where this play should resonate with audiences who’d like to meet everyday heroes.

 

 

Skeleton Crew
By Dominique Morisseau
Directed by LA Williams

Scenic Design: Caite Hevner; Costume Design: Asa Benally; Lighting Design: Xavier Pierce; Sound Design: Chris Lane; Dramaturg: Sandra Daley; Props Supervisor: Samantha Shoffner; Dialect Coach: Ron Carlos; Production Stage Manager: Bryan Bauer; Original Music by James Keys

Cast: Leland Fowler, Perri Gaffney, Toni Martin, Sean Nelson

Westport Country Playhouse
June 4-22, 2019

The Kid is Alright

Review of The Flamingo Kid, Hartford Stage

Darko Tresnjak, who steps down as Artistic Director with the conclusion of this season, ends his tenure at Hartford Stage on an upbeat note. The Flamingo Kid, a new musical based on the fondly regarded film by Garry and Neal Marshall from 1984, re-teams Tresnjak with Robert L. Freedman, Books and Lyrics, who wrote the Book and co-wrote the lyrics for the Tony-winning A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, one of the director’s prior big successes.

This time the comedy is not quite as wildly inspired, but the show is vastly entertaining, with the kind of witty lyrics—often adding a deliberate flavor of Jewish Brooklyn missing from the film—that musicals about coming of age should have. Scott Frankel, of War Paint and Grey Gardens, wrote the music and there’s a nice range of musical inspirations, all feeling at home in 1963, the year of the action. That’s the summer, of course, between the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963. A great time to be young and alive after the U.S. got the U.S.S.R. to backdown and before the country, in the view of many commentators, lost its innocence.

Steve (Ben Fankhauser), Hawk (Alex Wyse), Jeffrey Winnick (Jimmy Brewer) in Hartford Stage production of The Flamingo Kid (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Steve (Ben Fankhauser), Hawk (Alex Wyse), Jeffrey Winnick (Jimmy Brewer) in Hartford Stage production of The Flamingo Kid (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

The Flamingo Kid is rich with the kind of associations many of us have with the era, not least in pitting the bedrock values of the working lower middle-class, here instanced by the Winnicks in Brooklyn, with the leisure-time instincts of the upper middle-class out on Long Island. It’s still a time when such might occasionally rub shoulders, and when the so-called American Dream offered the notion that a kid who has to earn his way could still work his way up in pay and respect.

The story, which begins on the Fourth of July weekend and ends on Labor Day weekend, takes the side of the young, ethnic up-and-comer, Jeffrey Winnick (Jimmy Brewer), over the self-important blowhard Phil Brody (Marc Kudisch), owner of some luxury car showrooms, whose spell the young man falls under, while also falling for Brody’s niece, Karla (Samantha Massell). Freedman’s script takes a few potshots at those who put salesmanship over sincerity and elevate winning by any means over winning fairly. There’s even a little wink in having Karla reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique on the beach, a bit of cultural unrest that finds its answer in the actions of Brody’s wife Phyllis (Lesli Margherita) late in the play.

Phyllis Brody (Lesli Margherita) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Phyllis Brody (Lesli Margherita) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Indeed, one way the musical stretches beyond the movie is in its interest in the older generation. The film is concerned almost wholly with Jeffrey’s effort to prove himself, moving from the plans of his gruff but loving father, a plumber, to the slick and glib mentorship offered by Brody, “the King” of the gin game at the El Flamingo Beach Club. Freedman gives standout numbers to Mr. Winnick (Adam Heller), “A Plumber Knows,” and his wife Ruth (Liz Larsen), “Not For All the Money in the World,” and to Mrs. Brody, whose “The Cookie Crumbles” is a word-to-the-wise aimed at Karla, full of the cynicism of the neglected wife. Meanwhile, Brody gets to make the most of “Sweet Ginger Brown,” his tagline, a song that comes back for a rousing reprise in Act II.

For excitement, there are big dance numbers like “Another Summer Day in Brooklyn,” “Rockaway Rumba,” and even a visit to the track with “In It to Win It.” Gregory Rodriguez adds much pizzazz to Act II as the lead singer of Marvin and The Sand Dunes, singing “Blowin’ Hot and Cold.” Comic highlights are provided by Brody’s card-playing pals who are apt to carp at “The World According to Phil,” and by the MILFs of the day who can’t get enough of Jeffrey as the cutest “Cabana Boy.” The romantic plot is handled by “Never Met a Boy Like You,” wherein Karla is smitten, and it plays out with the sweetness of the sweetest summer romance, featuring a see-saw and a lifeguard stand and a painted moon over a painted sea.

Jeffrey Winnick (Jimmy Brewer), Karla Samuels (Samantha Massell) (photo by T, Charles Erickson)

Jeffrey Winnick (Jimmy Brewer), Karla Samuels (Samantha Massell) (photo by T, Charles Erickson)

Is the show sentimental and nostalgic? You betcha, so much so it feels like a return to an earlier time not only in its setting—which is fetchingly colorful in the set by Alexander Dodge and the costumes by Linda Cho, two longtime exemplars of excellence at Hartford Stage—but in its grasp of how to combine family and fun and romance with the kicks of kids and the fretting of elders. The movie was an Eighties’ nod to the way Fifties Hollywood informed so many of the movers and shakers of the era. As a musical in our day, The Flamingo Kid treats perennials like first love and first major summer job the way the Golden Age of television might and lets us enjoy the ride for all it’s worth.

Phil Brody (Marc Kudisch) and Jeffrey Winnick (Jimmy Brewer) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Phil Brody (Marc Kudisch) and Jeffrey Winnick (Jimmy Brewer) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

The first Act may run a bit long and, in general, there’s a sense, in each Act, that the search for a close is a problem that derives from the arc of numbers in a musical more than from the story per se. Freedman wants to keep the emphasis on “Fathers and Sons,” a theme that shows up strong at the end with the show’s penultimate number. Which makes it an ideal show running up to Father’s Day on June 16—indeed, the show has been extended from June 9, its original ending date, to June 15. Bring the folks, or the kids, as the case may be.

Jeffrey (Jimmy Brewer) and Arthur (Adam Heller) Winnick (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Jeffrey (Jimmy Brewer) and Arthur (Adam Heller) Winnick (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

The show’s secondary theme—what makes for marital happiness in two couples of different socio-economic situations and how the difference affects a young, formative couple negotiating both worlds—plays out as a fond look at how much we owe to where we’re from—and how much we all love summer getaways. As a musical getaway, The Flamingo Kid is hot, and that’s cool.

 

The Flamingo Kid
Book & Lyrics by Robert L. Freedman
Music by Scott Frankel
Based on the motion picture The Flaming Kid, screenplay by Neal Marshall and Garry Marshall, story by Neal Marshall
Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Choreography: Denis Jones; Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Linda Cho; Lighting Design: Philip Rosenberg; Sound Design: Peter Hylenski; Projection Design: Aaron Rhyne; Wig & Hair Design: Charles G. LaPointe; Makeup Design: Joya Giambrone; Dance & Vocal Arrangements: Scott Frankel; Music Director: Thomas Murray; Orchestrator: Bruce Coughlin; Fight Choreographer: Thomas Schall; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Production Stage Manager: Linda Marvel

Orchestra: Conductor: Thomas Murray, Keyboard: Paul Staroba; Percussion: Charles DeScarfino; Reed 1: John Mastroianni; Reed 2: Michael Schuster; Trumpet: Seth Bailey, Don Clough; Trombone: Jordan Jacobson; Horn: Jaime Thorne; Violin/Viola: Lu Sun; Guitar: Nick DiFabio; Bass: Roy Wiseman; Keyboard Programmer: Randy Cohen

Cast: Ben Bogen, Jimmy Brewer, Lindsey Brett Carothers, Ben Fankhauser, Michael Hartung, Adam Heller, Jean Kauffman, Ken Krugman, Marc Kudisch, Liz Larsen, Taylor Lloyd, Omar Lopez-Cepero, Lesli Margherita, Samantha Massell, Anna Noble, Erin Leigh Peck, Gregory Rodriguez, Steve Routman, William Squier, Kathy Voytko, Price Waldman, Jayke Workman, Alex Wyse, Kelli Youngman, Stuart Zagnit

Hartford Stage
May 9-June 15, 2019

A Well-Mannered Music Man

Review of The Music Man, The Goodspeed

Watching The Music Man, now in a colorful revival at The Goodspeed, directed by Jenn Thompson, is to be transported to a quintessential American myth: the insular small-town invaded by invidious forces from without. It’s the story of a town—against modernization, against outsiders, against any defiance of the status quo—that says a lot about the ethos of the heartland. It’s played for laughs, sure, and in this version of the venerable musical, the town has been integrated—a nod to the progressive aspects of Iowa. Still, “Stubborn, Iowa” expresses the attitude of the place. It’s not about to change, much—and neither has this time-honored musical.

Harold Hill (Edward Watts), center, and the cast of The Goodspeed’s production of The Music Man, directed by Jenn Thompson (photo by Diane Sobolewski)

Harold Hill (Edward Watts), center, and the cast of The Goodspeed’s production of The Music Man, directed by Jenn Thompson (photo by Diane Sobolewski)

Into River City comes “Professor” Harold Hill (Edward Watts). He takes up the challenge of hoodwinking the locals with his particular brand of chicanery after hearing Iowa described as nearly impregnable. That’s in the opening scene, the song “Rock Island” an acapella wonder that gets us off to a rousing start, as a group of salesmen bemoan their lot in life, with Hill mentioned as the scoundrel who gives them all a bad name.

Olin Hill (Kent Overshown), Ewart Dunlop (Jeff Gurner), Oliver Hix (C. Mingo Long), Jacey Squires (Branch Woodman) (photo by Diane Sobolewski)

Olin Hill (Kent Overshown), Ewart Dunlop (Jeff Gurner), Oliver Hix (C. Mingo Long), Jacey Squires (Branch Woodman) (photo by Diane Sobolewski)

It’s not long before we’re running through all the well-known chestnuts from this packed score—“Ya Got Trouble,” “76 Trombones,” “’Til There Was You,” “Gary, Indiana,” and, particularly enjoyable here, the barbershop quartet numbers featuring Branch Woodman, C. Mingo Long, Jeff Gurner, and Kent Overshown. Mostly everyone is equal to their tasks, making these wonderful tunes captivate, but the story never quite seems to catch fire. In part that’s because Watts’ Hill, good-looking to a fault, seems like a less than confident confidence man. He’s merely competent rather than compelling. He should own this thing because, after all, it’s Hill’s change in attitude that drives the whole locomotive here. We expect him to be cavalier only to become complicit in his own undoing—which might be the making of him. Here he’s too well-mannered so that we never really question his motives.

Marion (Ellie Fishman), Harold Hill (Edward Watts) (photo by Diane Sobolewski)

Marion (Ellie Fishman), Harold Hill (Edward Watts) (photo by Diane Sobolewski)

As Marion “the librarian” Paroo, the love interest who takes a shine to Hill (though she early discovers his lack of bona fides), Ellie Fishman is winsome, delivering her songs, like “My White Knight,” with all the sweetness required and playing hard-to-get with aplomb, though you might find yourself wishing she had a few more solos. She acts more blithely indifferent than alienated by the gossip going the rounds.

Marion (Elliie Fishman), Mrs. Paroo (Amelia White), Winthrop Paroo (Alexander O’Brien)

Marion (Elliie Fishman), Mrs. Paroo (Amelia White), Winthrop Paroo (Alexander O’Brien)

As the lisping Winthrop Paroo, Alexander O’Brien is engaging and the other children handle themselves well, including Katie Wylie as Amaryllis. There’s some wonderful support by Stephanie Pope as Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, the mayor’s wife and the local grande dame, by Amelia White as Mrs. Paroo, and by the ladies who gossip, doing their “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little” number full justice.

Maud Dunlop (Kelly Berman), Mrs. Squires (Victoria Huston-Elem), Marion (Ellie Fishman), Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn (Stephanie Pope), Ethel Toffelmier (Cicily Daniels) (photo by Diane Sobolewski)

Maud Dunlop (Kelly Berman), Mrs. Squires (Victoria Huston-Elem), Marion (Ellie Fishman), Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn (Stephanie Pope), Ethel Toffelmier (Cicily Daniels) (photo by Diane Sobolewski)

In fact, it’s the group numbers that are best here—the quartet, the ladies (and both groups move down the aisles to let us sample their dulcet tones up close)—and also the worked up dance numbers, especially Juson Williams, as Hill’s crony Marcellus, leading the teens in “Shipoopi” with rakish charm.

Marcellus Washburn (Juson Williams) and the cast of The Music Man (photo by Diane Sobolewski)

Marcellus Washburn (Juson Williams) and the cast of The Music Man (photo by Diane Sobolewski)

The scenery by Paul Tate DePoo III is lively and the costumes by David Toser are jaunty. The staging and choreography, by Patricia Wilcox, can feel a little crowded at times, and the whole production feels more respectful than revivified. The stubbornness of Iowa might have infected the whole, or it might be that the very reason to revive this show—to wink at middle-America’s long-established and greatly to be mourned love affair with con artists—requires a bit more bite and less reverence. Like the man said, ‘you gotta know the territory!’

Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn (Stephanie Pope, standing second from left) and the cast of The Music Man

Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn (Stephanie Pope, standing second from left) and the cast of The Music Man


 The Music Man

Book, Music, and Lyrics by Meredith Willson
Story by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey
Directed by Jenn Thompson
Music Direction by Michael O’Flaherty
Choreography by Patricia Wilson

Scene Design: Paul Tate dePoo III; Costume Design: David Toser; Lighitng Design: Paul Miller; Sound Design: Jay Hilton; Wig & Hair Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Assistant Music Director: F. Wade Russo; Orchestrations: Dan DeLange; Production Manager: Erica Gilroy; Production Stage Manager: Bradley G. Spachman; Producer: Donna Lynn Cooper Hilton

Cast: D. C. Anderson, Iman Barnes, Kelly Berman, Elizabeth Brady, Cicily Daniels, Shawn Alynda Fisher, Ellie Fishman, Damien Galvez, Jeff Gurner, Maddiekay Harris, Victoria Huston-Elem, Elise Kowalick, Ryan Lambert, Danny Lindgren, C. Mingo Long, Matthew B. Moore, Alexander O’Brien, Kent Overshown, Stephanie Pope, Raynor Rubel, William Daniel Russell, Benjamin Sears, Edward Watts, Amelia White, Corben Williams, Juson Williams, Branch Woodman, Katie Wylie

The Goodspeed
April 12-June 20, 2019

Be the Change

Review of Cadillac Crew, Yale Repertory Theatre

The links between the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the Black Lives Matter movement begun in the 2010s are dramatized in Toni Sampson’s intensely questioning play, Cadillac Crew, now in its world premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre, directed by Sampson and Jesse Rasmussen. An early staged reading of the play, directed by Rasmussen, took place at the Yale Summer Cabaret when Sampson and Rasmussen were rising third-years at the Yale School of Drama in 2016.

In the play’s first part, four women tease and taunt each other while working together in a civil rights office in Virginia in the early 1960s. Rachel (Chalia La Tour) is the dedicated leader, bossy, prim, always with her eye on the prize; Dee (Ashley Bryant) is the eldest, a mother and a wife, and more phlegmatic than the rest; Sarah (Brontë England-Nelson) is the white girl, descendant of a suffragette, but with a backstory only Rachel knows; and Abby (Dria Brown) is the youngest, her sensibility closer to our times than the times she’s living in. Which means she has most of the funny lines.

Sarah (Brontë England-Nelson), Dee (Ashley Bryant), Abby (Dria Brown), Rachel (Chalia La Tour) in the Yale Repertory Theatre production of Cadillac Crew, directed by Jesse Rasmussen and Tori Sampson (photo by Joan Marcus)

Sarah (Brontë England-Nelson), Dee (Ashley Bryant), Abby (Dria Brown), Rachel (Chalia La Tour) in the Yale Repertory Theatre production of Cadillac Crew, directed by Jesse Rasmussen and Tori Sampson (photo by Joan Marcus)

While establishing the where, when, and what of these women’s lives, Sampson engages with issues and draws out character. Asides, such as the fact that Rosa Parks became a figurehead for the civil rights movement because of her looks and because an earlier activist who made the same protest was unmarried and pregnant, rub against bits of personality, such as Rachel’s efforts to write speeches; Abby’s crush on James Dean and her assumption that Rachel is a lesbian; Dee’s decision to give her twelve-year-old daughter a penknife when the girl has to attend a mostly white school (as a weak local effort to comply with desegregation); and Sarah’s way of worming the truth out of Abby while hinting at a truth of her own.

Throughout the play, La Tour’s Rachel provides important moments of emotional focus with impressive presence, while Brown’s Abby keeps up a welcome buoyancy, as when she steps up to mimic a lead singer, telling Dee she’s too old and Sarah she’s too white to sing lead. As Act 1 closes, a shocking atrocity against a “Cadillac crew” (a desegregated carload of women on the road to register voters) galvanizes the women as Rachel, with keen defiance, resolves to form another crew and take to the road.

Dee (Ashley Bryant), Abby (Dria Brown), Sarah (Brontë England-Nelson) (photo by Joan Marcus)

Dee (Ashley Bryant), Abby (Dria Brown), Sarah (Brontë England-Nelson) (photo by Joan Marcus)

After intermission, Jessie Chen’s realistic office set becomes a more schematic space representing a road and the front end of a car, framed by areas for Rasean Davonte Johnson’s gloomy projections of roads, woods, and weeds illuminated by car lights. Dialogue comes to a standstill as the women offer pages from their journals, then, under the threat of prowling white men, the crew gets stuck when the car breaks down. Some new elements come to light but a significant testing of the women’s resolutions and solidarity (that seemed likely at the end of Act 1, arguably) never materializes.

After a projection-collage of timely items, we find ourselves in the era in which Sampson wrote the play, in response to events that gave rise to Black Lives Matter in 2013, with the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, and the 2014 protests in Ferguson, MO after the death of Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer. We watch a broadcast where three women who are major figures in Black Lives Matter—Opal Tometi (Brown), Patrisse Cullors (Bryant), and Alicia Garza (La Tour)—speak out to a journalist (England-Nelson). Accompanied by a pyrotechnic display of thunder and lighting, the three guests read a utopian text that makes a request to dream a sacred America, “an America where you are not better than but equal to”—words penned by Rachel in 1974, now held up as inspiration going into election 2016. And, by extension, the next one.

Dee (Ashley Bryant), Rachel (Chalia La Tour), Abby (Dria Brown) (photo by Joan Marcus)

Dee (Ashley Bryant), Rachel (Chalia La Tour), Abby (Dria Brown) (photo by Joan Marcus)

The challenge of societal injustice confronts all the characters in Cadillac Crew at every turn, even as they all work to offset its worse effects, work the play joins as though an exemplary fulfillment of Rachel’s hopes. One of Sampson’s key points is that women like those we meet in Act 1 have been erased from history, but the play erases these women in turn, as the effort to delineate personal histories, as in the play’s plot-heavy 1960s, is jettisoned for the public voices and hashtag slogans of the current friending and sharing climate. In its conclusion, the play offers theater that, like Karen Hartman’s Good Faith staged at Yale Rep earlier this year, takes on our times with as little filter as possible. The effect is a bit like being accosted to sign a petition or make a donation, or, indeed, to vote—or take to the streets.

As Rachel says early on, criticizing high-minded rhetoric that lacks practical application: “Without demands or a plan to infiltrate, it’s merely a performance. I can go to the theater for all that.” It’s at least an irony—whether deliberate or not—that Rachel’s own words, late in the play, become the basis for just such a theatrical performance by rights activists. When demands occur within theater, it is up to the individual viewer to determine the force of the interpellation, and how effective a performance is as a means to command change.

With its unflinching effort to incorporate the long history of racial injustice since its alleged end with the phasing out of Jim Crow laws, Cadillac Crew aims to be a telling provocation, but its discursive quality makes for a labored transition from page to stage.


Cadillac Crew
By Tori Sampson
Directed by Jesse Rasmussen and Tori Sampson

Scenic Designer: Jessie Chen; Costume Designer: Matthew R. Malone; Lighting Designer: Kathy A. Perkins; Sound Designer: Andrew Rovner; Projection Designer: Rasean Davonte Johnson; Production Dramaturgs: Amy Boratko, Sophie Siegel-Warren; Technical Director: Alexandra McNamara; Vocal and Dialect Coach: Ron Carlos; Stage Manager: Olivia Louise Tree Plath

Cast: Dria Brown, Ashley Bryant, Bronté England-Nelson, Chalia La Tour

Yale Repertory Theatre
April 26-May 18, 2019

Amazing Journey

Review of Tommy, Seven Angels Theatre

This year marks fifty years since The Who released their “rock opera” Tommy. Composed primarily by Pete Townshend, the band’s lead guitarist, the album told a story in song over two LPs. The story could feel a bit sketchy at times, but the main gist was that a young boy—Tommy—witnesses an act of violence and suffers a traumatic reaction: he goes deaf, dumb, and blind in defense. But that defense makes him highly vulnerable to certain unsavory characters around him, such as “wicked Uncle Ernie” and cousin Kevin, a bully. As Tommy becomes a teen he astounds the locals with his incredible skill at playing pinball. The eventual realization that his affliction is psychosomatic leads to a “miracle cure,” and he becomes “a sensation” as the spokesman for the value of an inner life cut off from the outer world. He founds a “holiday camp” where kids can experience sensory deprivation and learn to play pinball—until his followers become a mob in revolt and destroy the place, leaving Tommy to sing beseechingly to his own higher self, or to God, or to a guru (Townshend at the time was a follower of Meher Baba, an Avatar of God).

That, more or less, is the story that was translated into a film by Ken Russell in 1975. Then, in the early 1990s, Townshend with Des McAnuff, wrote the Book for a Broadway version. Called The Who’s Tommy, the show won five Tony awards and was nominated for an additional six. In this version, Tommy suffers the same affliction but the ending is much different. Instead it’s as if, at the end of Jesus Christ Superstar, the crowd calling for Christ’s crucifixion said “to hell with it” and left, and Pilate, relieved, sent Jesus home to his family and friends. In other words, Jesus Christ Superstar—the other great rock opera of the period—has to stick to the Gospel. The Who’s album isn’t gospel, and this “kinder, gentler” Tommy seems born of the 1990s’ need to remake the forces of the Sixties in its own image. Tommy doesn’t even get to try acid in this version!

Well, that’s all water under the bridge, or show-biz, we might say. Though a reminder of what was may be worthwhile since many more people—who might be vague about who The Who were—are likely to have seen the Townshend/McAnuff version of Tommy, which is now playing at Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury, directed by Janine Molinari, through May 19.

Tommy (Garrison Carpenter) (photo by Paul Roth)

Tommy (Garrison Carpenter) (photo by Paul Roth)

Even without the “flying by Foy” and the razzle-dazzle set constructions of McAnuff’s staging, Tommy at Seven Angels is still “a sensation.” The roles of Tommy as a 4 year old and a 10 year old are handled by RJ Vercellone and Brendan Reilly, respectively, and they are perfectly cast. Tommy as, at first, a vision seen by young Tommy, and then as the grown-up version, is energetically enacted by Garrison Carpenter, who has the looks and the voice to put across Tommy’s pop godhood. He hangs from scenery and struts and beseeches and takes us on “the amazing journey” with a cockiness that never flags.

Janine Molinari’s choreography is crisp and tight and matches well the propulsive rhythms of Townshend’s score. The songs are some of the songwriter’s best in their deliberate recall of show tunes mixed with the grandeur of hymns. “Pinball Wizard,” the first act closer—and the LP’s hit—is a big rave-up as Tommy seems to have found his calling, his skill praised by others in John-the-Baptist-like terms.

clockwise from top: Tommy (Garrison Carpenter), Mrs. Walker (Jillian Jarrett), 4-year-old Tommy (RJ Vercellone), Captain Walker (Ryan Bauer-Walsh) (photo by Paul Roth)

clockwise from top: Tommy (Garrison Carpenter), Mrs. Walker (Jillian Jarrett), 4-year-old Tommy (RJ Vercellone), Captain Walker (Ryan Bauer-Walsh) (photo by Paul Roth)

As Tommy’s mother, Mrs. Walker, Jillian Jarrett is plaintive when need be but also handles the lyrical “I Believe My Own Eyes,” in duet with Ryan Bauer-Walsh as Captain Walker, her husband, and mounts well the tension of “Smash the Mirror.” Bauer-Walsh has several fine moments where the father’s concern for his estranged son are quite tangible. Adam Ross Glickman brings such vocal skill and character-actor panache to Uncle Ernie it’s a shame there aren’t more songs for him. Likewise Keisha Gilles’ show-stopping Acid Queen: she’s such a presence we might find ourselves hoping she’ll break into character again when she’s onstage briefly as a nurse. As the Specialist, Will Carey has a certain wild-eyed charm singing “Go to the Mirror, Boy,” (one of my favorite tunes in the show).

Speaking of favorite tunes, I’ll never be able to acclimatize myself to what becomes of “Sally Simpson”—originally a wonderfully witty set-piece narrative of a fan’s ill-fated effort to get close to her idol, it becomes a weak gesture at a romantic interest, though Rachel Oremland does Sally full justice. Likewise, in terms of bowdlerization, “We’re Not Gonna Take It” barely recalls the nastiness of the original which makes the show’s conclusion—if you’re paying attention to the words—lacking in drama. That said, the song is a Townshend tour de force and, as it segues seamlessly into “See Me Feel Me”’s kick-out-the-jams climax, the audience—to vary the song’s lyrics—will show excitement on their feet.

And how about that band?  Guitar (Jamie Sherwood), bass (Dan Kraszewski) and drums (Mark Ryan) are the heart-and-soul of The Who’s sound, here fleshed out by conductor Brent C. Mauldin on keyboard 1 and Mark Ceppetelli, associate conductor on keyboard 2, and by Renee Redman on French horn. The voices of the singers—including Jackson Mattek (Cousin Kevin) and many in the ensemble—are all plenty strong enough not to get lost in the rock, and Matt Martin’s sound design is a delight. As are Ethan Henry’s costumes of those bygone years of the post-war look morphing into teddyboys and mods. Daniel Husvar’s scenery comes and goes quickly, making the most of risers and fast changes that make the action move quick and slick.

Colorful, passionate, and still full of the weirdness of an inspired rock savant of the late Sixties, The Who’s Tommy lets Pete Townshend turn the spotlight from the stage to his fans, celebrating “you” (i.e., us) for making his career—and his greatest creation, Tommy—a success. See it, and take a bow.


The Who’s Tommy
Music and lyrics by Pete Townshend
Additional music and lyrics by John Entwhistle and Keith Moon
Book by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff
Directed by Janine Molinari

Choreographer: Janine Molinari; Assistant Director: James Donohue; Music Director: Brent Crawford Mauldin; Assistant Choreographer: Boe Wank; Lighting Design: Doug Harry; Scenic Design: Daniel Husvar; Sound Design: Matt Martin; Costume Design: Ethan Henry; Stage Manager: T. Rick Jones

Cast: Richie Barella, Ryan Bauer-Walsh, Will Carey, Garrison Carpenter, Keisha Gilles, Adam Rose Glickman, Jillian Jarrett, Jackson Mattek, Rachel Oremland, Brendan Reilly, RJ Vercellone

Ensemble: Ryan Borgo, Eileen Cannon, Dean Cesari, Bobby Henry, Tony LaLonde, Peter Lambert, Diane Magas, Robert Melendez, Brittany Mulcahy, Patti Paganucci, Kevin L. Scarlett, Madeleine Tommins, Justin Torres

Orchestra: Brent C. Mauldin, conductor/keyboard 1; Mark Ceppetelli, associate conductor/keyboard 2; Dan Pardo and TJ Thompson, associate conductors; Marissa Levy, sub: keyboard 2; Renee Redman, French horn; Cody Halquist, sub; Jamie Sherwood, guitar; Dan Krazewski, bass; Mark Ryan, drums; Kurt Berglund, sub

Seven Angels Theatre
April 25-May 19, 2019