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“On the Town”

Susan Granger’s review of “On the Town” (Lyric Theatre – 2014-2015 season)

 

This rousing revival of the 1944 musical by Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Leonard Bernstein, based on an idea by Jerome Robbins, gets the audience to its feet immediately – with “The Star Spangled Banner” overture.

Set during W.W.II, it follows three sailors on 24-hour leave in the Big Apple. Warbling “New York, New York” with its “The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down…,” they’re searching for Ivy Smith (Megan Fairchild) – a.k.a. Miss Turnstiles – a beauty contest winner who has caught the fancy of naïve Gabey (Tony Yazbeck), who spies her face on a subway poster and immediately falls in love with her. As their quest progresses, macho Ozzie (Clyde Alves) hooks up with an aggressively amorous anthropologist, Claire de Loone (Elizabeth Stanley), who picks him up at the Museum of Natural History, confessing “I Get Carried Away,” while nerdy Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson) rides around with Hildy Esterhazy (Alysha Umphress), a sassy, sex-starved cabby who boasts “I Can Cook Too.” Eventually, the three couples meet up for the Coney Island finale before the guys return to the pier, board their ship and head off to sea.

Exuberantly directed by John Rando (“Urinetown”) and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse (TV’s “Smash”), it’s a helluva frothy, dance-dominated show with the melancholy “Lonely Town” and memorable “Lucky to Be Me” remaining the most haunting songs.  Developed last year at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass., it makes the transition to Broadway with high hopes and simplistic, candy-colored sets by Beowulf Boritt, period costumes by Jess Goldstein, and lighting by Jason Lyons.

Although whirling, twirling Megan Fairchild hails from the New York City Ballet, her dancing still cannot compare with Gene Kelly’s in the 1949 M.G.M. musical. And she can’t act.  Indeed, despite their youthful enthusiasm, the Broadway cast pales in comparison with Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Jules Munshin, Ann Miller, Betty Garrett and Vera-Ellen. Back in 2006, this film version was ranked No. 19 on the American Film Institute’s list of best musicals.

“Pippin”

Susan Granger’s review of “Pippin” (Music Box Theater)

 

Cleverly shifting the casting, the flashy Broadway revival of “Pippin” ups its exhilarating razzle-dazzle with the addition of Lucie Arnaz as Berthe, the high-spirited grandmother.

Originally conceived with a book by Roger O. Hirson and music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, it’s been impudently enhanced by visionary director Diane Paulus (“Hair,” “Porgy and Bess”) with circus gymnastics and acrobatics created by Gypsy Snider, co-founder of the Montreal-based circus company Les 7 Doigts de la Main (7 Fingers).

Choreographed by Chet Walker in the style of Bob Fosse, this insightful, coming-of-age pop musical revolves around befuddled Prince Pippin (Kyle Dean Massey), the son and heir of medieval King Charlemagne (John Dossett). Having graduated from university, Pippin earnestly embarks on a search for meaning in his life as a lively carnival – filled with tumblers, jugglers, aerialists, contortionists and magicians – swirls around him, eventually finding true love with a widowed mother Catherine (Kristen Beth Williams) – much to the dismay of his manipulative step-mother, Fastrada (Charlotte d’Amboise), who fancies her warrior son Lewis (Mike Schwitter) on the throne.

But – before that – Pippin is led astray by the devilishly seductive Ringmaster/Leading Player (Carly Hughes); unfortunately, Hughes’ performance seems formulaic and calculated, almost robotic, in stark contrast with the rest of the exuberant case. FYI: in the original 1972 production, the Leading Player was charismatic Ben Vereen, who did a variation on the ominous role in Bob Fosse’s autobiographical “All That Jazz” (1979).

Straddling a flying trapeze, Lucie Arnaz almost stops the show with her playful, sing-along rendition of “No Time at All.” Daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, she was raised in show business. Lucie made her Broadway debut in “They’re Playing Our Song,” followed by “My One and Only” with Tommy Tune, along with “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and Terrance McNally’s “Master Class.”

When Lucie Arnaz departs to resume the National Tour of “Pippin,” taking Kyle Dean Massey with her, Josh Kaufman, winner of NBC’s “The Voice,” steps in as Prince Pippin from Nov. 4 to Jan. 4, 2015.

“A Broad’s Way”

Susan Granger’s review of “A Broad’s Way” at the Bijou Theater in Bridgeport, CT

 

Sizzling Jodi Stevens rocked the roof of Bridgeport’s Bijou Theater with her one-woman show, “A Broad’s Way,” tracing her peripatetic life as a singer/actress, wife and mother.

Clad in black sequins and displaying her long, to-die-for legs, Jodi displays not only a talent for choosing the right material but also handling it with taste, singing a repertoire of pop and cabaret songs that includes familiar favorites, like “More Than You Know,” “You’d be So Nice To Come Home To,” and “That Old Devil Moon” from “Finian’s Rainbow,” to contemporary hits like Carole King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and patter ditties like “Is This Any Way To Fall In Love?,” detailing the perils of dating in Manhattan.

Jodi’s background includes participating in the original casts of “Jekyll and Hyde” and “Urban Cowboy: The Musical,” along with playing Marlene Dietrich in the New York production of “Dietrich and Chevalier: The Musical.” She was also featured in “Annie,” “Harmony” and “Dracula: The Musical.”

Because she’s such an astute and accomplished actress, Jodi can be sexy, sultry and sensual one moment – then delicate or sweetly spicy the next.  Her versatility is astonishing – her range awesome.  Basically, Jodi Stevens owns the stage, displaying great synergy with her three-piece band.

Jodi Stevens doesn’t just sing the music – she becomes it.

“Intimate Apparel”

Susan Granger’s review of “Intimate Apparel” at the Westport Country Playhouse (2014-2015)

The Westport Country Playhouse saved the best for last. The final play of the season is Lynn Nottage’s vibrant, sensitive story about her great-grandmother, a black seamstress who lived on the Lower East Side of New York City in 1905. That’s back when women weren’t allowed to own property or vote.

At 35 years-old, Esther (Nikki E. Walker) is considered a plain, middle-aged spinster.  For the past 15 years, she’s diligently created lovely, fashionable lingerie on a sewing machine in her room at a boarding house run by Mrs. Dickson (Aleta Mitchell), who keeps urging her to come down to the parlor to meet ‘eligible’ men.  But Esther has a dream: she wants to save enough money to open a ‘beauty parlor’ for black women.  One day, Esther’s humdrum life is turned upside when she receives a letter from George Armstrong (Isiah Johnson), a Panama Canal laborer from Barbados. A co-worker told him about Esther, and he begs to correspond with her.  Problem is: Esther can neither read nor write. So she turns to a sympathetic client, Mrs. Van Buren (Leighton Bryan), a boozing, bourgeois socialite on Fifth Avenue, to compose an answer. As the letter-writing becomes feverish, Esther also enlists the help of her friend Mayme (Heather Alicia Simms), a black prostitute. Meanwhile, Esther develops a courteously friendly relationship with gentle Mr. Marks (Tommy Schrider), an Orthodox Jewish fabric salesman in the Garment District. They’re obviously attracted to one another but race and religion keep them in separate worlds; all they can do together is marvel over fine fabrics. When opportunistic George eventually arrives in the United States and marries virginal Esther, her problems become even more complicated and heartbreak looms.

With deft artistry Lynn Nottage, who teaches at the Yale School of Drama and whose play Ruined won a 2009 Pulitzer Prize, and director Mary B. Robinson create an acute awareness of the dismissive anonymity of African-Americans during that era.  Eschewing sentimentality, they also draw a timely parallel with the perils of contemporary, on-line dating. While the acting ensemble is superb, much credit must also go to Michael Krass, whose choice of costumes speaks as eloquently as the dialogue.

“Intimate Apparel” runs through Nov. 1 at the Westport Country Playhouse.

“You Can’t Take It With You”

Susan Granger’s review of “You Can’t Take It With You” (Longacre Theatre)

 

If you’re looking for laughter, this is the ticket for you.  Written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, this classic comedy won a Pulitzer Prize for drama. Frank Capra turned the screwball mayhem into a movie and it’s enjoyed many stage revivals – but few as good as this slyly zany gem with an ensemble of 19 superbly-cast actors, directed by Scott Ellis.

Set on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in June, 1936, this giddy romp revolves around the extended family that dwells in spacious Vanderhof house on Claremont Avenue. Entrancing Rose Byrne makes her Broadway debut as sensible yet spunky Alice Sycamore, who must introduce her straitlaced Wall Street beau, Tony Kirby (Fran Kranz), and his prim, patrician parents (Byron Jennings, Johanna Day) to her eccentric clan. Ruling the roost is Grandfather Vanderhof (James Earl Jones), a perennial tax-dodger who quit work 35 years ago to enjoy life to its fullest.  Her parents, Penelope and Paul Sycamore (Kristine Nielsen, Mark Linn-Baker), relentlessly pursue their own frivolous hobbies, as do her dancer sister Essie (Annaleigh Ashford) and musician brother-in-law (Will Brill). There’s also the levelheaded cook Rheba (Crystal A. Dickinson) and her handyman boy-friend Donald (Marc Damon Johnson). Self-involved individualists, they’re, nevertheless, loving and strangely harmonious. Visitors are always welcome, like inventive Mr. DePinna (Patrick Kerr), ballet teacher Boris Kolenkhov (Reg Rogers), alcoholic actress Gay Wellington (Julie Halston) and Russian Grand Duchess Olga Katrina (Elizabeth Ashley), who has been reduced to waitressing at Child’s in Times Square.

The charming chaos generated by this nostalgic culture clash is guaranteed to amuse, along with occasional fireworks and the onslaught of determined G-Men.  David Rockwell’s splendid, two-story, turn-of-the-century set is crammed with treasures, like the photograph of George S. Kaufman hanging over the kitchen door and Moss Hart’s on the upstairs wall; a snapshot of the original cast is on the desk. Jane Greenwood’s costumes, Donald Holder’s lighting design, Jon Weston’s sound and Jason Robert Brown’s music add to the delight.

An escapist tonic during the Great Depression, “You Can’t Take It With You” is still relevant today.

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” (Barrymore Theatre)

 

This British import is the most exciting, innovative theater to arrive on Broadway on a long, long time. Life-affirming, it not only touches the heart and but also provokes the mind, a rare combination.

Adapted by Simon Stephens from Mark Haddon’s 2003 best-seller of the same name, it revolves around Christopher Boone (Alex Sharp), an inquisitive 15 year-old boy who discovers the corpse of Wellington, a neighbor’s dog, with a pitchfork stuck into it. Clearly on the autistic spectrum but highly gifted in math, logic and ethics, Christopher sets out to investigate whodunit, even though his father warns him not to stick his nose into other people’s business. His persistent inquiries get him into trouble with the police and lead him on a scary, bewildering trip from suburbia into metropolitan London.

Structured in a series of monologues, it’s propelled by Alex Sharp’s sympathetic and extraordinarily energetic performance. He is on-stage the entire time; a 25 year-old recent Julliard graduate, Sharp makes a brilliant Broadway debut. Supporting him are Francesca Faridany, as his helpful special needs teacher; Ian Barford, as his father; and Enid Graham, as his mother.

With dazzling technical expertise, director Marianne Elliott (“War Horse”) taps into the essence of minimalism to stimulate the imagination, along with a dazzling array of lighting, scenic, music and projection designers and choreographers. The stage is surrounded by walls of black squares divided by white lines into boxes, like vaults in cemetery mausoleum. Within them, doors suddenly appear, along with drawers containing props.  Strobe lights flicker and, at one point, confetti falls from the ceiling. Inventive and meticulously detailed, at times it feels like sensory overload – which is exactly what goes on inside Christopher’s brain. It’s emotionally enveloping and quite spectacular.

And FYI: the title comes from a Sherlock Holmes mystery.

Steve Solomon’s one-man show at Foxwoods

Susan Granger’s review of Steve Solomon’s show and evening at Foxwoods Resort & Casino

 

Forget about driving to Atlantic City or flying to Las Vegas, Foxwoods delivers it all – right here in Connecticut.  Conveniently located off I-95, the Northeast’s largest resort casino offers not only superb accommodations and excellent dining but also top-notch entertainment.

Like Steve Solomon’s “My Mother’s Jewish, My Father’s Italian and I am in Therapy” – in which comedian Solomon regales the audience for 90 minutes with hilarious ethnic stories about his fractured family while he’s ostensibly waiting in his therapist’s office. At the end of WWII, his Jewish GI father brought home an Italian war bride, but the two families never got over the culturally mixed-marriage. This one-man show ran for two years in New York, which is not surprising since he riffs on his Brooklyn roots and life as a physics teacher on Long Island. Now, Solomon’s touring the United States. Clad informally in a blazer, he artfully involves spectators as he jokes about his increasingly deaf parents, his chain-smoking sister and terminally stupid cousin, while doing vocal imitations of each of these characters, as well as sound effects.  His receptive audience convulses with laughter.

But before heading to see whoever’s headlining at the Fox Theater, be sure to schedule a sumptuous dinner at Cedars Steak House, where Mark can regale you with his up-close-and-personal Sinatra stories while Shawn supervises the impeccable staff. Entrees include delicious double-cut Colorado lamb chops with fresh herb demi-glace (which we had), an array of seafood, including Maine lobsters, along with steaks and prime rib. Cedars is the perfect place for a family gathering or to celebrate a special occasion.

If you’re staying at the impressive Grand Pequot Tower, your car will be whisked away to free valet parking while you’re greeted by a friendly front desk attendant. The reasonably priced rooms and bathrooms are spacious and scrupulously clean, offering a breath-taking panorama of the surrounding forest.  You have free access to a well-equipped gym and pool, and you can choose from an array of luxurious spa treatments.  The Foxwoods Rewards Card enables you to earn points while playing your favorite slot machine and table game, including Bingo, Keno, Poker or Race Book. The only downside is the smoke-filled air. While we slept comfortably on a non-smoking floor, Foxwoods’ many gaming casinos reek with cigarette smoke, including the so-called smoke-free Rainmaker casino, which is only open on weekends.

Foxwoods is owned and operated by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, a native Algonquin people known for their tenacity and spirit of survival in southeastern Connecticut.

 

“Things We Do For Love”

Susan Granger’s review of “Things We Do For Love” (Westport Country Playhouse)

 

Known as the most produced living playwright, Alan Aykbourn has written more than 77 plays, one for every year of his life. Set in a three-story house in London, this dark comedy about relationships has three out of five ingredients necessary for a successful play: the script is witty, the acting is superb, and the energetic direction is perceptive.

The bittersweet story revolves around Barbara (Geneva Carr), an outspoken, yet lonely and uptight professional assistant who’s devoted to her very-married boss. She’s just rented the upstairs flat to a needy former school chum, Nikki (Sarah Manton), who moves in with her new fiancé Hamish (Matthew Greer) while their house is being remodeled. The tenant downstairs is a garrulous widower, Gilbert (Michael Mastro), a postman who moonlights as Barbara’s handyman. Passion, lust and secrecy abound as the foursome frolics and fights among themselves.

Geneva Carr is exquisite as spiky Barbara, particularly when she’s snidely dismissive of Hamish, who is both Scottish and a vegetarian. Sarah Manton embodies affection-craving Nikki, a perennial victim. Matthew Greer scores as affable Hamish, while Michael Mastro adds a creepily unctuous fervor to the conflict.  Juggling all the emotional discourse, veteran director John Tillinger sets a fast-pace, adroitly aided by fight choreographer Robert Westley.  And Laurie Churba Kohn’s costuming is spot-on.

The problem with this production lies with James Noone’s scenic design and Paul Miller’s elusive lighting. According to Aykbourne’s notes, the set should resemble a layer cake. The main focus is compulsive Barbara’s immaculately tidy living-room, where most of the action takes place. Upstairs, there’s another flat, but the audience can only glimpse the actors’ lower limbs. Downstairs, there’s a basement in which audience should be able to see only the ceiling and the actor’s head. But – in this Westport production – it doesn’t work. There really isn’t a good seat in the house: meaning, you cannot see all three floors from anywhere. As a result of that discordant element, audience members are deprived of emotional involvement. In addition, at two-and-a-half hours with one intermission, it’s far too long.

“Things We Do For Love” is at the Westport Country Playhouse until Sunday, Sept. 7. For tickets and information, call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.

NOTE: REACTION FROM MARK LAMOS, ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF THE WESTPORT COUNTRY PLAYHOUSE

“There is a houseful of great seats at the Playhouse for our current production. Everything that happens in the basement apartment is completely clear to everyone in the audience, whether they can see the sliver of a set or not. This is due to the extraordinary clarity of the acting and directing. Not being able to see the apartment has nothing to do with the success of the production.”

“Hairspray”

Susan Granger’s review of “Hairspray” (The Summer Theater of New Canaan)

 

If you’re looking for summer musical theater that’s chock full of top-notch talent that – in this particular case – is better than Broadway – at a third of the price, get tickets to see “Hairspray” at the Summer Theater of New Canaan.

Set in Baltimore in 1962, it’s the story of how a pudgy, dance-crazed teenager, Tracy Turnblad (Rebecca Spigelman), stuns her oversized, overprotective mom (Greg Loudon – in drag) and sympathetic dad (Nick Reynolds) by winning a coveted spot on an afternoon TV dance party, stealing the affections of hunky heartthrob Link Larkin (Nick Pankuch) and becoming a fearless, unstoppable force for racial integration, much to the chagrin of scheming Velma Von Tussle (Jodi  Stevens), the ex-beauty queen who produces “The Corny Collins Show,” a local version of Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.”

Director Allegra Libonati and choreographer Doug Shankman gently bury many of the subversive undertones that dominated John Waters’ original concept, preferring to concentrate on the trials and tribulations of being ‘different’ in this bouncy, toe-tapping,  rock ‘n’ roll musical with music by Marc Shaiman who co-wrote the lyrics with Scott Wittman and book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan.  Julia Noulin-Merat’s set design and Daniel B. Chapman’s lighting enhance the effectiveness of Orli Nativ’s colorfully nostalgic costumes, Bobbie Clifton Zlotnik’s outrageous beehive wigs and David Hancock Turner’s superb on-stage orchestra.

Shimmying Rebecca Spigelman sparkles, while Greg Loudon camps it up with diminutive Nick Reynolds, and Jodi Stevens is marvelously malevolent.  Sharon Malane is effervescent as Tracy’s BFF, who teams up with dazzling dancer De’Sean Dooley and is befriended by show-stopping A’lisa Miles.

I must confess this was my first visit to The Summer Theater of New Canaan, located in an airy, all-weather tent adjacent to New Canaan High School in Waveny Park – but it won’t be my last. If you think you have to travel to Manhattan – or Goodspeed – for high quality musical productions with Equity casts, you haven’t discovered this ‘gem,’ right here in Fairfield County.

“You Can’t Stop The Beat” but, unfortunately, “Hairspray” only plays in New Canaan until August, 3, so get your tickets now.  Call 203-966-4634 or go to www.stonc.org

 

 

“Nora”

Susan Granger’s review of “Nora” at the Westport Country Playhouse (July, 2014)

 

Referred to as the father of modern drama, Henrik Ibsen was the first to propel contemporary dilemmas onto the stage, addressing changes that were occurring during the late 19th century. In “A Doll’s House” (1879), he explored a woman’s place in male-dominated Norwegian society, which Ingmar Bergman adapted into Swedish in 1981, adroitly cutting about a third of the original play, retitling it “Nora” and, not surprisingly, making it far more cinematic. And the essential dilemma still remains relevant.

In this translation by Fredrick J. Market and Lise-Lone Marker, the characters are reduced to a quintet:  beautiful, beguiling Nora (Liv Rooth), her dominating husband Torvald Helmer (Lucas Hall), her old friend Kristine Linde (Stephanie Janssen), the family physician/confidante, Dr. Rank (LeRoy McClain), and unscrupulous Nils Krogstad (Shawn Fagan), a bank clerk from whom Nora obtained a loan under false pretenses and without her husband’s knowledge, yet, ostensibly, to save his life.

Imaginatively directed by David Kennedy, time and place are amorphous, barely indicated by scenic designer Kristen Robinson’s minimalist set and Katherine Roth’s circa 20th century costumes.  Through sheer artistry, Liv Rooth allows the audience to see through the uncertainty of Nora’s mask, to see the doll dancing, while Lucas Hall brings a warmth and vulnerability that’s rarely seen in Torvald, even when he asserts, “No man will sacrifice his honor for love,” to which Nora replies, “Millions of women have.” She plays her role, just as he plays his – as their co-dependency becomes transparent.

But what audiences will remember most about this production is its bizarre conclusion. Eliminating Nora’s traditional slamming of the door as she leaves the Helmer home in order to grow up and make her own way in the world, instead, there’s Torvald, stripped not only of his clothes but also of his dreams and desires.

The powerful and, inevitably, controversial “Nora” runs through Aug. 2 at the Westport Country Playhouse. For tickets and more information, call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.