Monday, January 15, 2018

A LOOK BACK TO THE BEST OF THEATER IN 2017


                           CT REPERTORY'S PRODUCTION OF "1776" AT UCONN

With the year 2017 just a memory, it is important to look back and select those theatrical events that were significant, at least in this review's eyes.  In no particular order, just as memory serves me, the following  shows had a lasting impart on me for a variety of reasons.  This list is not exclusive but these are the cream that has risen to the top of the milk bottle.  I hope you agree with at least some of them.

Having just come home after an exhilarating and exhausting weekend at the 13th Annual Goodspeed Festival of New Musicals, still wrapped in the excitement of seeing a trio of brand new musicals, two cabarets and a number of talks on topics from the role of a critic to the progress of the Goodspeed born show "Come From Away" currently on Broadway, I have to start with The Festival.  Last year and every year, it has been a dream for theater lovers.  Set in the middle of winter, it gathers new ideas and gives them wings.  Mark your calendars now for January 11, 12 and 13, 2019 and join me in rooting on the talented participants.

Did you get to experience the magic of "Fireflies" at the Long Wharf with those luminous stars Judith Ivey and Jane Alexander? Set in a small Texas town, it circled around a retired teacher, her nosy neighbor and a stranger/intruder/romancer, played by Denis Arndt who disrupts their quiet life in the most unexpected ways.

If Katharine Hepburn invited you for "Tea at Five" you would be delighted to accept, thanks to Connecticut Cabaret Theatre in Berlin with the wonderful actress Kelly Boucher who plays Kate.  We get to meet her at two distinct stages of her life, first when she is young and actively lobbying for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone with the Wind," and later at the end of her life when she is ill but not yet ready to end her acting career.

For a little dramatic tension, I hope you attended Yale Rep's "An Enemy of the People" by Henrik Ibsen.  This timely saga pitted two strong men, brothers, against each other over the fate of their town in Norway's political future and its prosperity.  The tug of war between the siblings was a wonder to behold, as the entire town took sides.

A drama of an entirely different nature took place at Long Wharf Theatre with a new adaptation of Chaim Potak's "The Chosen" where two teenage boys, raised in quite different religious viewpoints, become unlikely friends.  Reuben and Danny learn a lot from their fathers and from each other as they grapple with the difficult task of growing up.

For a complete change of pace, with sunny sides of the street and the need for umbrellas, I hope you got to skip to the big tent in New Canaan for the effervescent musical "Singing' in the Rain" by Summer Theater of New Canaan.  This Betty Comden and Adolph Green sweetness tells the tale of how stars of the silent screen transitioned to talkies, or not.

Moving the historical timetable back to our country's founding, we meet the fervent champion of freedom John Adams and his lively battle to win America's release from mother Britain.  The Connecticut Repertory Theater on the campus of the University of Connecticut gave their red, white and blue best to make this story, the musical "1776,"  a stirring stage presence.

Two theaters gave great performances of the momentous concert in rock and roll history "Million Dollar Quartet" that actually took place on December 4, 1956 at Sun Records, the studio of Sam Phillips, considered the Father of Rock and Roll.  Sam assembled four icons of the genre, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Elvis in a once in a lifetime concert at both Ivoryton Playhouse and Seven Angels Theater in Waterbury to great acclaim.

Hopefully you were lucky enough to score a ticket to Hartford Stage's amazing production by Hershey Felder of "Our Great Tchaikovsky." Felder is the king of musical biographies which he writes and stars in as the composer himself.  He is a maestro at the piano and this 19th century tale  from Russia is no exception.  Next on his list is DeBussy.  Watch for it.

Perhaps the most outstanding production of the year goes to Playhouse on Park's "The Diary of Anne Frank,"  a journey through World War Ii seen through the eyes of a teenage girl.  Isabelle Barbier's portrayal of Anne was so on target it is clearly the role Isabelle was born to play.

It is easy to see why I love theater and writing about it.  But even I will admit that seeing seven plays in six days, my current record, may be a little too much.  See you at the theater.
KELLY BOUCHER AS KATE HEPBURN AT CT CABARET IN BERLIN

Thursday, January 11, 2018

WOODY GUTHRIE, THE MAN AND THE MUSIC, AT WCP




WOODY SEZ

Being named after a President might be daunting for a baby boy, but if your moniker is Woodrow Wilson Guthrie you are able to strive for perfection and then some.  Your life has to be meaningful and special, even if it means walking from one end of the country to  the other.  When you boast about making a joyful noise unto the Lord, Woody did so with his treasure trove of 3000 songs, novels, short stories, poems, oil paintings, political cartoons, children’s books and sketches of everyday life.  He is considered one of America’s greatest songwriters and cultural icons and you have the privilege of making his unique acquaintance at the Westport Country Playhouse until January 20 in “Woody Sez,” a musical portrait devised and starring David M. Lutken.
Woody Guthrie wrote  folk tunes about his growing up years in Oklahoma's Dust Bowl, political, children's,  songs of wanderlust and traveling, songs of peace and against war, social justice and even songs with a Jewish flavor.  None of his verses is more well known than "This Land Is Your Land," that he penned in 1940, considered one of folk music's most famous tunes.  Even that was a protest against the sentiment he heard in Irving Berlin's "God Bless America."

The team of David M. Lutken and Nick Corley gets full credit for this production which they conceived together.  Lutken stars as the prosaic philosophizing guitar playing guy who was compelled to ramble across the country and write about all he saw and all the people he met along the way.  Nick Corley sets his hand to directing this impassioned yet humble tale, of a man and the music he had to make.

Guthrie was a social commentator, a radical with an advocacy for truth, who believed “all you can write is
 all you can see.” He has been described as “a three chord picker with a poet’s brain” and his tale has been 
brought to 65 cities, thanks to David Lutken and his comrades on fiddle, bass, guitar, banjo, harmonica and 
more, Katie Barton, David Finch and Leenya Rideout.

Think of Woody Guthrie as an amalgam of Will Rogers and Pete Seeger, a man filled with words and sentiments which he put into poems, plays, letters, a newspaper column called "Woody Sez," song lyrics as well as novels and artwork. He suffered many tragic losses in his life as well as great happiness. They translated into his writings.  As Woody says himself, "There's a feeling in music and it carries you back down the road you have traveled and makes you travel it again.  Sometimes when I hear music I think back over my days - and a feeling that is fifty-fifty joy and pain swells like clouds taking all kinds of shapes in my mind.”

 Some highlights include "This Train Is Bound for Glory,” “Jack Hammer Blues,” "Sinking of the Reuben James," "The Ballad of Tom Joad," "Riding In My Car," and, of course, "This Land Is Your Land."
For tickets ($35, 45, and 50), call the Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport at 888-927-7529 or 203-227-4177.  Performances are Tuesday at 7 p.m., Wednesday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.,  Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m.and Saturday at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.,


Come meet this home spun, down home country boy named  after our 28th president, with his guitar and his friends in this special and moving tribute to the Oklahoma Troubadour. They are all bound for glory.

Monday, January 8, 2018

ACTOR DOROTHY STANLEY COMES HOME TO “STEEL MAGNOLIAS”



                                                  DOROTHY STANLEY
While some people catch a cold or the flu with great annoyance, Dorothy Stanley caught the acting “bug” with tremendous joy when she was four years old and it is still actively in her system.  She performed “Oh, You Beautiful Doll” as part of a dance recital, as a soloist, and her fate was sealed.  Now she is busy cruising the streets of West Hartford,  her hometown, reacquainting herself with the places she grew up visiting, as she prepares for a new role, that of Clairee, the mayor’s wife, in that sentimental Southern saga “Steel Magnolias” coming to Playhouse on Park from January 10 to 28.

Stanley is “waxing nostalgic” as she revisits all the old familiar places from her youth.  Born at Hartford Hospital, she is calling it “great to be back.”  Now she lives in Vermont, and recounts happily all the plays from summer theater at the Weston Playhouse where she honed her craft. She moved around a lot due to her father’s profession with the Air National Guard, allowing her unique experiences from the Bushnell, to Pittsburgh, New Hampshire, Juilliard and Broadway.  Originally a professional violist, she soon found acting her passion and has performed in such classics as “Bye, Bye Birdie,” “Carousel,” “Sound of Music,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “Dames  at Sea,” "Once” and “Billy Elliot,” to name but a few.  She credits her audition for “Kiss Me Kate,” the moment everything fell into place and her career officially took wing.

Whether she is playing one of the strippers in “Gypsy” or a happy “tapper” in “Sugar Babies,” Stanley has found joy in singing, dancing and acting on stage.  She especially likes feel good shows and this one at Playhouse on Park  definitely fills the bill. Even though it is the story of a mother and her ill daughter, there is a lot of humor to wrap around the sadness.  This  is a sisterhood of women, strong women of the South, who stand together.  As Stanley sees it, “We are all there for each other.  We feel like sisters.  We all get along and are supportive.”  Stanley credits Susan Haefner, the director, for how well the cast is performing.  “We’re having a ball.  First Susan had us discussing our feelings about each other and about diabetes, the disease that affects the every day existence  of Shelby, a main character, and how close we are at different stages in life.”  Thanks to Susan, "we all feel like family. We are working in an extremely positive, professional yet relaxed atmosphere and that’s a delightful way to work.”

“Steel Magnolias” was written three decades ago as a celebration of the life of the playwright’s sister Susan by Robert Harling.  He was having trouble coping with his younger sister’s sudden death, after receiving a kidney from their mom, and it was suggested he write about it to help heal.  In ten days, he penned this tribute to the family and friends whose love surrounded them. Harling wanted to capture his sister’s life and spirit.  He set the story in the place where he grew up, Natchitoches, Louisiana. He placed it in a beauty parlor, the private place for women where they gathered for inspiration, support and strength.  The title comes from “something beautiful, made of very strong stuff.”

For tickets ($25-40), call Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Road, West Hartford  at 860-523-5900, ext. 10, or online at www.playhouseonpark.org.  Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.  There is an added performance on Tuesday, January 23 at 2 p.m.

In addition to everything else, Dorothy Stanley admits to being a Stephen Sondheim fanatic, having played 14 roles in seven of his shows over the years, like “Follies,” “Sweeney Todd” and "Gypsy.”  She even confesses, “I would perform a Sondheim musical in a barn for free.”  Since that may not happen any time soon, join Stanley’s bevy of high school friends who are coming to the Playhouse to see her shine as Clairee.

REBELLION AND RIBALDRY REIGN AT THE KATE



An unlikely subject for a broad based comedy might well be the seriously rebellious historical figure Karl Heinrich Marx, yet that is who the creative team of Richard Bean and Clive Coleman have fixated on for their latest production.  The year is 1850 and we find the 32 year old revolutionary, deemed Europe's number one terrorist, hiding in the soho section of London on the brink of despair and brilliance.

With Rory Kenner as Marx and Oliver Chris as his adopted best friend Friedrich Engels, the National Theatre Live will present "Young Marx" for your enlightened edification at the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center tonight, January 11, at 7 p.m.

We first meet Karl as he is hounded by creditors and in fear of having his wife Jenny flee from his side.  He is constantly ill, with continual debts and apparent poverty not improving his outlook.  Are you in hysterics yet?  To add to the pathos, one of his children is close to an unhappy ending.  No wonder Marx has taken to hiding in the cupboard whenever there's a banging on his door.

Have no fear, the gag lines are soon falling over themselves like an Abbott and Costello routine and the apparent despair of the setting is no longer helpless. Soon you are marveling at Marx's genius as he philosophizes about the changes in economics he hopes to promote, to save the working class from the cruelty of the capitalists and effect changes, especially in child labor laws.  Quickly the seriousness is pushed aside as the comic soap opera tone returns with a vengeance for a brief encounter with Charles Darwin and a fight at the stately British Museum library.

For all his bright ideas, Marx is portrayed as a boozer and womanizer, an angry young man who spouts ideas as the spirit moves him. This new work is the opening salvo to introduce London's newest theatrical home The Bridge to audiences, a $16 million space overlooking the Tower Bridge, the first all-new commercial theater to be built in London in eight decades.  Nicholas Hytner, artistic director of the National Theatre, is at the helm.

For tickets ($20), call The Kate, 300 Main Street, Old Saybrook at 877-503-1286 or online at www.katharinehepburntheatre.org for this National Theatre Live in HD production.  Come back the next night, Friday, January 12 at 8 p.m. for the tantalizing sounds of a talented quintet of female singer-songwriters who carry the sparkling torch of the Lilith Fair tour for the twentieth year.  Hear the finale of this celebratory tour that features former Connecticut State Troubadour Lara Herscovitch, Sharon Goldman, Sloan Wainwright, Trina Hamlin and Connecticut Folk Songwriting Contest winner Amy Soucy, accompanied by guitarist Stephen Murphy.  The show entitled "Steady On" features a sisterhood of songs created over the last two decades.

For tickets ($26-28), call The Kate at 877-503-1286 or online at www.thekate.org.

Whether you are in the mood for hysterical historical comedy or sensational singing, look to The Kate to satisfy your entertainment desires.  Check their calendar  for dozens of  exciting offerings every month of the year. 

Monday, January 1, 2018

GOODSPEED FESTIVAL IS WARMING UP WINTER

PHOTO OF A PAST GOODSPEED FESTIVAL BY DIANE SOBOLEWSKI

 If the thought of snow boarding, skiing and skating are just chilly reminders of winter, ones you might prefer to ignore, then plan to warm up the winter month of January with a toasty and inviting weekend of theatrical magic.  This year for the luckiest 13th time, Goodspeed Musicals is offering its annual Festival of New Musicals, produced by the Max Showalter Center for Education in Musical Theatre, and you are invited to unwrap your plaid scarves and take off your fuzzy mittens to enjoy all the fun and festivities.  From Friday, January 12 to Sunday, January 14, The Goodspeed in East Haddam has a plethora of musicals, cabarets, workshops and seminars for your entertainment pleasure.

 Think of an incubator of new chicks being hatched and you are fortunate enough to be witnessing their birth.  They are emerging from their shells right in front of your eyes. How special is that! The weekend begins with the viewing of “Five Points” at 7:30 p.m., written with book by Harrison David Rivers, music by Ethan Pakchar and Douglas Lyons and lyrics by Douglas Lyons. This staged reading will take you back to the Civil War era of 1863 in New York City as two men, one John Diamond, an Irish immigrant who was a jig champion, uniting forces with Willie Lane, a young black performer at the well known Alack’s Dance Hall.  They are willing to  risk everything to achieve the American dream. At 10 p.m., the Gelston House, right next door, will welcome a cabaret featuring Jenny Giering, a composer, singer and pianist who was a 2013 and 2014 participant in the Johnny Mercer Writers Colony on site. She will share selections from the two new musicals she is writing.
 
Make sure you take your vitamins to prepare for a wonderful day, long and exciting, on Saturday starting at 10 a.m. being held at the Gelston House and La Vita Restaurant across the street in a series of seminars that will be held until 1 p.m. At 10 a.m. you have a choice of Festival Alumni Success Stories, Marionette Magic and Dramaturgy 101, at 11 a.m. the selections are The Life of a Child Actor, Marionette Magic and The State of the NEA while at noon you can pick from The Music Man: David Krane, The Business of Show:  How to Produce Commercially and Show and Tell. From 1-2:30 p.m., the Scherer Library will show the movie “On the Town” to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth.
 
 At 3 p.m. you will get the tasting flavor of one of the trio of musicals offered at the Goodspeed’s Terris Theatre in Chester, a sneak peek if you will, to whet your appetite for what is coming in the spring.  This will be followed by a symposium, free and open to the public, on “The Critic’s Role in the Digital Age” with Colin McEnroe from WNPR moderating a panel of well known theater critics.  If you purchased the Gold Package at $139, you will now gather with fellow festival goers for a three course meal at the Gelston House or LaVita at 5:30 p.m. or otherwise dinner is on your own at a local establishment.

 AT 7:30 p.m., it is back to the Goodspeed to meet brave and independent women who, during World War II, joined the U.S. Army to fly, risking everything to leave their home in Sweetwater, Texas, without military status, to serve their country.  With book and lyrics by Patricia Noonan and music by Sean Mahoney, “Sweetwater” will introduce you to these intrepid female pioneers. At 10 p.m, the Gelston House will open its doors for the second Cabaret, this time featuring Zoe Sarnak, a 2016 Johnny Mercer Writers Colony participant at Goodspeed, who will share her award-winning works as a composer, lyricist and playwright. Zoe is one half of the indie folk/pop band “she.”

 Sunday begins at 1 p.m. with the third musical offering, “Passing Through” with book by Eric Ulloa and music and lyrics by Brett Ryback at the Goodspeed. Follow the journey of a young man who walks from Pennsylvania to the west coast gathering stories as he goes until he must face a family trauma from his past.  Will the lessons he is learning as he travels be enough to offer him the healing power of forgiveness?  A Meet the Writers Reception will be held at the Goodspeed at 3:30 p.m. with the teams of composers to learn about their process of creation.

 For tickets ($25 for each stage reading, students $15) call Goodspeed at 860-873-8668 or online at www.goodspeed.org.  The Gold Package at $139 includes admission to all events, dinner on Saturday night and one cabaret while the Siiver Package at $80 features the three staged readings, the New Musical Preview, the Festival Symposium and the Meet the Writers .  Students from the Hartt School of Music and the Boston Conservatory will present the musical material with enthusiasm and skill. 

  Warm up your winter with an active participation in Goodspeed’s Festival of New Musicals.  Come watch these chicks hatch and show off their feathers and fur of potential greatness.