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Thursday, December 18, 2008

“Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” a silly sweet new musical

EAST HADDAM — Enter a fantastic world of Frogtown Hollow, where dreams come to life, and gifts from the heart are the most important things in the lovely tale of Jim Henson’s “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas.”
Adapted from the HBO television show with all Jim Henson puppets, which was based on an illustrated book by Russell and Lillian Hoban, this musical uses a clever combination of fabulous animal puppets and real people dressed as the animal menagerie, with music.
Emmet Otter, played with wide-eyed sweetness by Daniel Reichard, wants to give his mother a present, while the mom, Mrs. Alice Otter, played with nurturing kindness by Cass Morgan, wishes to give her son a gift, but neither has enough money.
They decide to enter the talent contest and win the $50 prize. This story begins as a story read to a little girl named Jane by her father. Jane is played by a petite and sweet Kate Wetherhead. In an Alice-in-Wonderland-like turn, she falls asleep and dreams she is in their animal world.
There are the bad Nightmare Band characters, including a funny Stan Weasel, played by Stephen Bienskie, who looks like a psychedelic version of the AC/DC guitarist Angus Young. Beware the catfish puppet, played by Tyler Bunch, that squirts the first few rows with water during the show.
The songs, with lyrics and music by Paul Williams, are either bluegrass, ballads, perky happy tunes, or the wild rock and roll song of the Nightmare Band. Some are from the televion show production, while others are new, and are all fine.
The most memorable is the song that Ma Otter and Emmet sing — “When the River Meets the Sea,” which is reprised again at the end, so they must know it is the money song of the show too.
The humor is puny and silly, such as when the fine Mrs. Mink played by Madeleine Doherty, starts to do a strip tease during her talent contest number, and the Mayor, played by the excellent Kevin Covert, ends it abruptly and then thanks her for her “revealing” number. Covert is so good, as is his wife, played by Lisa Howard, that it would have been great if they had bigger roles in the show.
That isn’t a criticism, but a complement to the volume of overwhelming talent of the whole cast. The puppets are terrific too, including the hyper flying squirrels that twittered and tumbled about, played by Tyler Bunch, Anney McKilligan, James Silson, and David Stephens.
The make up and wigs, which are uncredited, but are truly remarkable, particularly for Mayor and Mrs. Fox. The costumes, which are a riot of bright colors and imaginative textures, by Gregg Barnes, are lots of fun, with tons of padding for just about everybody. They must be incredibly hot to wear under the stage lights.
The set of the fairytale-like town and cottages is excellent, by Anna Louizos, and the forest trees are detailed with quirky pine needles on oak tree-like trunks.
The dad, played by Alan Campbell, has a fine voice, but he looks about a decade too young to play the teenage Jane’s dad.
It is difficult to tell who is having more fun, the audience or the actors, but that doesn’t really matter. What does is this sweet and delightful Christmas treat of a musical for all ages.


Three Stars
Location: Goodspeed Opera House, Route 82, East Haddam
Production: Music and lyrics by Paul Williams. Book by Timothy A. McDonald and Christopher Gattelli, who also directed and choreographed the show. Musical direction by Larry Pressgrove. Scene design by Anna Louizos. Costume design by Gregg Barnes. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt.
Running time: 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission
Show Times: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and select Fridays, and New Years Day at 2 p.m.; Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7 p.m. with Saturday matinee at 3 p.m.; and Sunday matinee at 2 p.m., with Sunday evening performance at 6:30 p.m. through Jan. 4. There are no performances Dec. 25,.
Tickets: $39 — $49. Call the box office at 860-873-8668 or visit their website at
Kate Wetherhead … Jane
Daniel Reichard … Emmet Otter
Cass Morgan … Mrs. Alice Otter
Robb Sapp … Wendell Porcupine
Lisa Howard … Mrs. Gretchen Fox
Kevin Covert … Mayor Harrison Fox
Madeleine Doherty … Mrs. Mink
Madam Squirrel … Sheri Sanders
Tyler Bunch … Doc Bullfrog and others

Monday, December 15, 2008

"It’s a Wonderful Life" makes a wonderful musical play

IVORYTON - Whether you have seen the Frank Capra film "It’s a Wonderful Life" or are one of the few who has not, this sometimes sentimental seasonal favorite translates well into a musical play.

First a short story then a film and now a musical play, "It’s a Wonderful Life" is a classic. The play centers on George Bailey, played by Chris Solimene, who is a remarkable incarnation of Jimmy Stewart who played the role in the movie.

George has dreams of going to college, traveling around the world, and becoming a famous architect, but instead stays in his small hometown of Bedford Falls and runs his family’s struggling Home Savings and Loan, marries his childhood friend Mary Hatch, played by Amy D. Forbes, and has four children.

Set in 1945 at the end of World War II, George struggles to make a success of the business, while Henry Potter, played with villainous greed by Donald Shirer, who owns the bank and just about everything else in town. He does everything he can to shut down George’s business, including trying to buy George out.

George’s Uncle Billy, played with befuddled ditziness by George Lombardo, loses $8,000 that he was supposed to deposit in the bank and George, facing ruin, scandal, and bankruptcy, considers committing suicide. Potter tells George with glee, "you are worth more dead than alive."
An angel second class who has yet to get his wings, Clarence Odbody, (played by Todd Little) comes down from heaven to help George. George gets his wish that he was never born, and sees what the people in his life, and his little town, would have been like without his generous and good influence.

The musical, told mostly in flash-backs, with a fine small orchestra lead by director and musical director John Sebastian DeNicola, never overpowers the actors, which is quite an achievement.

The choreography by Francesca Webster, with the Charleston, waltzes, and tangos, is admirable.

There is an interesting cacophony of Christmas carols at the start and then the familiar songs, along with some written for the show, are woven throughout. The theme song throughout is Irving Berlin’s "Puttin’ on the Ritz."

The actors are well cast, with the young George, played by Carlin Morris, who saves the drunken pharmacist, played by Aaron Tessler, from accidentally poisoning a child, and high school George, played by Jesse Eberl, who dreams of an exciting future.

Usually the Ivoryton Playhouse’s productions are predominately cast with professional actors, but this is their once a year community production with local actors. In this show, only Forbes, who plays Mary, is an Equity actor.

Here perhaps it is a disadvantage to have seen the film, because comparisons good and bad are inevitable. While Forbes does a fine job overall, when playing the younger Mary she seems too confident, and is missing the vulnerable anxiety and intense uncertainty that Donna Reed had playing Mary in the film.

At other times, it is an advantage to have seen the movie. For example, when they are dancing on the gym floor that opens up to reveal a pool underneath. In the play that scene was implied, but if you hadn’t seen the film, it wouldn’t make much sense.
The idea of sacrificing your dreams for the greater good of your community, and choosing integrity and ethics over personal wealth and enrichment is a beautiful morality tale that will never go out of style. The Ivoryton Playhouse’s production of "It’s a Wonderful Life" is a wonderful rendition of the touching and timeless story.

Three Stars
Location: Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main Street, Ivoryton, CT
Production: Adapted for the stage by James W. Rodgers from the film by Frank Capra. Story by Philip Van Doren Stern. Directed and musical direction by John Sebastian DeNicola. Choreography by Francesca Webster. Lighting design by Doug Henry. Set design by Dan Nischan. Costume design by Vivianna Lamb. Wig and hair design by Joel Silvertro.
Running time: 2 hours with one intermission.
Show Times: Friday and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., with Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. through Dec. 21.
Tickets: $25 for adults, $20 for students, and $15 for children 12 and under. Call the box office at 860-767-7318, or visit their website at
Chris Solimene ... George Bailey
Todd Little ... Clarence Odbody
Mary Hatch ... Mary Bailey
Donald Shirer ... Henry F. Potter
George Lombardo ... Uncle Billy
Carin Morris ... Young George
Jesse Eberl... High School George
Ryan Zanoni ... Harry Bailey
Divinna Schmitt ... Mother Bailey
Lindsay Mamula ... Violet Peterson

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

"Legally Blonde, The Musical" cute with a captial "C"

HARTFORD - OhmyGod! "Legally Blonde The Musical" at the Bushnell Memorial Theater is like totally cute with a great big capital "C."

The musical, based on a novel by Amanda Johnson and also the movie starring Reese Witherspoon, takes well to the musical format, with music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin and book by Heather Hach.

The plot centers on the Barbie blonde from Malibu, Elle Woods, played with pixy intelligence by Becky Gulsvig. Elle is in blissful love with her boyfriend Warner Huntington III (played by the handsome and fine-voiced Jeff McLean), and thinks he is going to ask her to marry him. Instead Warner dumps her in UCLA on his way to Harvard Law School, so she decides to get into the law school too, to win his heart back and prove to him she can be serious.

Like any good fairy tale, she gets in to the inconceivably competitive law school with nary a problem, just by cutting down on a few extracurricular beach parties and boning up on her LSAT studies. Fantasies really do make the world go round. Once in Harvard, where she is accepted for "cultural diversity" reasons, she who wears pink like the new black puts her own particular fashion-forward twist on higher education.

Along the way she brings her old sorority friends with her, as her own personal Greek chorus, and meets an earthy-crunchy nice lawyer guy (you can tell he’s nice, because he wears a corduroy jacket) Emmett Forrest, played with sweet sincerity by D.B. Brown. Forrest takes one look at Elle’s pink powder-puff dorm room and amusingly says "Hello Kitty." To help her save time he buys her Pert - the shampoo and conditioner in one.

She also has run-ins of various flavors with the lecherous and privileged Professor Callahan, played with superiority by Ken Land, as well as Warner’s new girlfriend, Vivienne Kensington, played by Megan Lewis, who asks Elle "All that pink you are wearing - is that even legal?"

Elle makes new friends too, with the hairdresser with a big heart, Paulette, played with down-to-earth energy by Natalie Joy Johnson. Paulette also supplies the subplot, with her budding romance with a hysterically funny UPS delivery man, played by Ven Daniel, who gives a whole new meaning to package delivery.

There are four dogs (two are understudies) who play two dogs in the show, one a bulldog named Rufus, and the other a tiny pooch named Bruiser, trained by Bill Berloni. Berloni got his start with show animals in the musical "Annie" and has been using only rescued dogs ever since. One of the canine actors, Frankie, who plays Bruiser, was found as a stray in Meriden.

As silly as the premise is, there are some interesting and true observations about how insane our collective world of appearances is. Success isn’t all about a dog-eat-dog world, as they sing in "Blood in the Water" where "The thrill of the kill is in the blood," but listening and helping others.

This show is a physical workout that includes lots and lots of energetic cheerleader-type dancing and singing, with well-rehearsed and delivered choreography by director Jerry Mitchell.

The show began a bit rushed and disjointed, with the chorus singing much too fast and not enunciating enough to be understood, while the orchestra ran over them. Once things settled down, however, and the leads came on stage, all improved.

The whole "gaydar" trial thing was crude and dated, and the Irish fantasy songs were kind of weird and could have been eliminated without being missed. This lawyers-in-love perky musical feels like an updated homage to the old big budget movie musicals like "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" with Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, which puts it in pretty good company.


3 Stars
Theater: The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts
Location: Mortensen Hall, 166 Capitol Ave. Hartford
Production: Directed and choreography by Jerry Mitchell. Music and lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin. Book by Heather Hach. Based upon the novel by Amanda Brown and the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer motion picture. Scenic design by David Rockwell. Costume design by Gregg Barnes. Lighting design by Ken Posner and Paul Miller. Sound design by Acme Sound Partners.
Running time: 2 and ½ hours, plus one 15-minute intermission
Show Times: Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday at 7:30 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. through Dec. 14.
Tickets: $25 - $75. Call 860-987-5900 or visit their website at

Becky Gulsvig ... Elle Woods
Jeff McLean ... Warner Huntington III
Megan Lewis ... Vivienne Kensington
D.B. Bonds ... Emmett Forrest
Ken Land ... Professor Callahan
Natalie Joy Johnson ... Paulette

Monday, December 08, 2008

"A Civil War Christmas" a walk down history lane at Long Wharf

NEW HAVEN - It’s Christmas Eve, 1864 in Washington, D.C. in Paula Vogel’s ambitious musical play "A Civil War Christmas," making it’s impressive world premiere at Long Wharf Theatre.

Abraham Lincoln has just been re-elected president, the tide of war has turned in favor of the northern forces, and is nearing the conclusion of the country’s devastating Civil War, which ended in April, 1865. Five days after the war’s end, the actor John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln.

Many familiar, along with some less usual Christmas carols are seamlessly woven in among the various vignettes and subplots of the play, including "Peace on Earth," "Rise up Shepherd," "Tidings of Comfort and Joy," "God Rest Yea Merry Gentlemen," "What Child is This?" "O Christmas Tree," and "Silent Night."

The actors all do a excellent job of making the iconic archetypal characters feel personal, such as Jay Russell as the generous and languid Abraham Lincoln, and Diane Sutherland as the complex and troubled historical scapegoat, Mary Todd Lincoln, who famously wore kid gloves once and then tossed away. Guy Adkins plays a self-possessed and determined John Wilkes Booth.

The play’s 14 actors work double-time playing many roles, including mules and horses, giving faces to actual people and events, with some artist license taken by Vogel to make it all fit into one evening. Some of the actors also impressively play musical instruments, such as Brain Tyree Henry who plays an accordion, Drew McVety plays the violin.

The production also highlights the less well-known contributions of African Amercians, as well as Jewish men who fought in the Civil War.

Ora Jones does an outstanding job playing the heartbroken stoic Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who worked as a seamstress and confidant to Mary Todd Lincoln. Keckley had purchased her freedom and was able to send her son to college, only to learn he died in the war.

Also intense and fine was Marc Damon Johnson who played Decatur Bronson, an African-American Union sergeant, who is a composite of two historic figures, Decatur Dorsey and James Bronson. Johnson plays a decorated hero who is tormented with grief because raiders kidnapped his wife, and he vows to find her and kill them.

The solid multi-level wooden set, designed by James Schuette, is intricate and works well, and is well-used by director Tina Landau. It manages to represent many scenes, from a river, to a blacksmiths forge, to the White House, with ease. The cast moves smoothly as a dynamic whole around the stage.

Mentioned at the beginning and the end of the play, ‘the hope of peace, which may be sweeter than peace itself’ is perhaps true.

The famous and not-so-famous all share a common humanity, and this time of year, and in this fine play, it is a good time to remember that we are all in this life together, and if we don’t learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.

It would be great to see this American original become an annual tradition because it is our story, and one that deserves to be heard over and over again.


3 Stars
Location: 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven
Production: Written by Paula Vogel. Directed by Tina Landau. Music supervised, arranged, and orchestrated by Daryl Waters. Musical director Andrew Resnick. Set designed by James Schuette. Costumes designed by Toni-Leslie James. Lighting designed by Scott Zielinski. Sound designed by Josh Horvath. Dialect design by Amy Stoller. Hair, wig and makeup design by Wendy Parson.
Running time: 2 hours with one intermission.
Show Times: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Sundays at 7 p.m., Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. and Saturday matinees at 3 p.m. through Dec. 21.
Tickets: Start at $32. For more information call their box office at 203-776-2287, or visit their website at

Guy Adkins ... John Wilkes Booth, Robert E. Lee, William Tecumseh Sherman, and others
Justin Blanchard ... Chester Manton Saunders, Hay, John Surratt, and others
Susanna Flood ... Raz, Anna Surratt, and others
J.D. Goldblatt ... Ely Parker, Silver, Frederick Wormley, Moses Levy, and others
Brian Tyree Henry ... Willy Mack Walker Lewis, Jim Wormley, and others
Marc Damon Johnson ... Decatur Bronson, James Wormley, and others
Bianca Laverne Jones ... Hannah, Rose, Aggy, and others
Ora Jones ... Elizabeth Keckley, Mrs. Thomas, and others
Drew McVety ... Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ulysses S. Grant, Ward Hill Lamon, and others
Jay Russell ... Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, and others
Rachel Shapiro Alderman ... Nicolay, Mary Surratt, Clara Barton, Widow Saunders, and others
Diane Sutherland ... Mary Todd Lincoln, Secretary of War Stanton, and others
Scott Thomas ... Lewis Payne, Mosby Raider, and others
Faith Philpot, Malenky Welsh ... Jessa, Little Joe
HSC "A Christmas Carol" familiar festive holiday treat

HARTFORD - Perhaps because of the more somber economic mood this holiday season, the Hartford Stage Company’s beloved production of Charles Dickens’ "A Christmas Carol- A Ghost Story" seems to carry an even more important statement of what is most precious in life - family, friends, and love.

Year after year the timeless tale of "Bah Humbug" Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation from miserly, miserable, greedy old man to generous, loving, and happy old soul winds it’s way into thousands of hearts in hundreds of theaters across the country.

Directed by Michael Wilson, this interpretation of the classic tale uses just the right amount of gold dust and sparkles to entrance even the most hardened theatergoer. The choreography, by Hope Clarke is seamless, as always, with creative use of the cutout white umbrellas that help make the show a visual feast.

White grotesque ghosts, with blank scary masks, axes in their heads, and swords piercing their bodies dance with rigid grace - some flying through the air with rattling chains and lighting strikes, making this show too scary for very young children.

Alan Rust plays the mean skinflint Scrooge to perfection - hoarding every penny with glee, which makes his eventual transformation all the more uplifting and hopeful.
Scrooge’s nephew Fred, well-played by Curtis Billings, says to Scrooge: "You fear the world too much," and tells his family that he feels sorry for his uncle, since he recognizes that Scrooge’s mean behavior really only hurts the old man in the end.

The Spirit of Christmas Future is the scariest of the three ghosts, because the creature says nothing at all.

In the Hartford Stage Company’s production, the spirit is a metallic futuristic ghost, much like some nightmarish character out of a Tim Burton movie, riding an oversized tricycle, which makes it tower ominously over the trembling and ultimately humbled Scrooge.

At the end of the frightening night, Scrooge is thrilled to be alive and have the opportunity to help those closest to him.

His employee Cratchit, played with feeling by Robert Hannon Davis, his angry wife, Rebecka Jones, and their sweet family including the adorable Tiny Tim, played alternately by Brendan Fitzgerald and Jacrhys Dalton, are all benefactors of Scrooge’s cathartic transformation.

Bring your loved ones and share the heart and soul of what makes life worth living in this soaring, exuberant production of Charles Dickens’ "A Christmas Carol."


3½ Stars
Location: Hartford Stage Company, 50 Church Street, Hartford.
Production: Story by Charles Dickens. Adapted and directed by Michael Wilson. Associate director Jeremy B. Cohen. Choreographer Hope Clarke. Scenic design by Tony Straiges. Costume design by Zack Brown. Lighting design by Robert Wierzel. Original music and sound design by John Cromada. Dialect coach Gillian Lane-Plescia. Music direction by Ken Clark.
Running time: Two hours with one intermission
Show Times: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and selected Sundays at 7:30 p.m. There is no evening performance Wednesday, Dec. 24; matinees are Saturdays Sundays and Wednesday, Dec. 24 and Friday, Dec. 26 at 2 p.m. through Dec. 28.
Tickets: $25 - $66. Call 527-5151 or visit their Web site at

Alan Rust ... Ebenezer Scrooge
Bill Kux ... Ghost of Jacob Marley, Mrs. Dilber
Robert Hannon Davis ... Bob Cratchit, Mr. Fezziwig
Curtis Billings ... Fred, Scrooge at 30
Jeffrey V. Thompson ... Spirit of Christmas Present, Bert the fruit and cider vendor
Johanna Morrison ... Spirit of Christmas Past, Bettye Pidgeon the doll vendor
Rob Cunliffe ... Mr. Marvel a watchworks vendor
Himself ... Spirit of Christmas Future
Rebecka Jones ... Mrs. Cratchit
Natalie Brown ... Mrs. Fezziwig, Fred’s sister-in-law, Old Jo, and others
Noble Shropshire ... first solicitor, undertaker
Gustave Johnson ... Second solicitor
Michelle Hendrick ... Belle
Deirdre Garrett ... Rich lady
Kurt Peterson ... Scrooge at 15
Tiny Tim Cratchit ... Brendan Fitzgerald or Jacrhys Dalton
Veronique Hurley ... Nichola, Fezziwig’s daughter
Ellenkate Finley ... Wendy, Fezziwig’s daughter
Amanda Karmelin ... Fiddler
Daniel Toot ... Dick Wilkins
Sarah Goosmann ... Martha Cratchit
Michelle Hendrick ... Fred’s wife
James DiMatteo ... Mr. Topper