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“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.

“Endurance”

Susan Granger’s review of “Endurance” (Stage II, Long Wharf Theater: June, 2014)

 

What does contemporary downsizing in a fictional Hartford, Connecticut, insurance company have in common with the challenges facing heroic British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton whose ship was trapped in Antarctica for two years in the early 20th century? That’s the premise of Nick Ryan’s new play at Stage II of the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven.

A lot – at least acccording to Walter Spivey (Christopher Hirsh). When haplessly insecure Spivey is promoted to department manager, while his colleagues are being fired, he learns inspiring lessons about leadership from reading Shackleton’s memoir:  Like getting to know his discouraged staff better by asking unusual questions that reveal their hobbies and interests and creating genuine teamwork by allowing them to invent new solutions to the old problem of backlogged claims. Above all, as Shackleton wrote, “Optimism is true moral courage.”

So when you contrast Antarctica’s icy landscape with the bleak coldness of corporate-profit mentality, the poignant travails of sailors and suits are actually not that much different in today’s business world.

What’s most exciting is how they interweave these diverse elements. According to press notes: “Split Knuckle Theatre creates dynamic, physical, visually striking theater from simple materials. Through imagination, text and movement, we create vast landscapes, vivid characters, and epic stories.”

Working collaboratively, the four energetic, acrobatic actors (Christopher Hirsh, Andrew Grusetskie, Jason Bohon and Greg Webster as Shackleton), playing multiple roles, maneuver three tables on rollers, a metal filing cabinet, hat rack, some chairs and three huge wastebaskets, subtly crafting not only the paper-pushing specificity of their monotonous office environment but also dramatizing the edgy crew on Shackleton’s doomed ship.  Zany humor abounds, augmented by Ken Clark’s musical accompaniment, Dan Rousseau’s lighting and Lucy Brown’s minimal costumes/accessories.

This 90-minute intermissionless work is the most innovative, exciting theater I’ve seen in a long time. But it closes on June 29. So if you want to share this experience, call the box-office at (203) 787-4242 or visit www.longwharf.org immediately.

“Sing For Your Shakespeare”

Susan Granger’s review of “Sing For Your Shakespeare” (Westport Country Playhouse, June 2014)

To celebrate William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, this vibrant new musical revue takes, quite literally, what Cole Porter so aptly wrote in “Kiss Me Kate”: “Brush up your Shakespeare. Start quoting him now….”

In its world premiere, the stylish cabaret show explores through song, dance and verse how the Bard of Stratford-on-Avon’s works have shaped the popular American songbook. The 27 segments include familiar show tunes like “Falling in Love with Love” from “The Boys From Syracuse” by Richard Rodgers (music) and Lorenz Hart (lyrics), along with “Maria,” “Tonight” and “Somewhere” from “West Side Story” by Leonard Bernstein (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics).  Others are delightfully different, like Frank Loesser’s novelty number, “Hamlet,” originally sung by Betty Hutton in John Farrow’s 1949 movie “Red, Hot and Blue,” and “Ariel,” written by Julie Flanders (lyrics) and Emil Adler (music) as the second track on their first October Project album released by Epic Records in 1993.

The diverse six-member cast includes Karen Akers, Britney Coleman, Darius de Haas, Stephen DeRosa, Constantine Germanacos and Laurie Wells. They not only sing superbly but enunciate every word clearly, no matter how complex the sonnet or verse.…a remarkable tribute unto itself!

Co-conceived by Playhouse artistic director Mark Lamos, music director Wayne Barker and playwright Deborah Grace Winer, the idea originated at the 92nd Street Y, where Winer is artistic director of the Lyrics & Lyricists concert series. Backed by a seven versatile musicians, the creative, if loosely structured revue is set on an elegantly raked stage, designed by Riccardo Hernandez, complete with Elizabethan verses scribbled on the archway, curtain and backdrop. There are glittering lighting effects by Robert Wierzel, playful choreography by Dan Knechtges and graceful costuming by Candice Donnelly.

Running 90 minutes with no intermission, “Sing For Your Shakespeare” is terrific. Rejoice in this unique, festive frolic at the Westport Country Playhouse through June 28. For more information, call (203) 227-4177 or toll-free 1-888-927-7529 or visit www.westportplayhouse.org.