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Monday, June 29, 2009

TheaterWork’s “Speech and Debate” funny, fresh look at the high school experience

HARTFORD — There are times in “Speech and Debate” where you will likely LOL and even ROFL in this fresh and funny and eerily timely play at TheaterWorks.
LOL and ROTF are e-mail acronyms for “laugh out loud” and “roll on the floor laughing” as many know. In this play, set in a high school in conservative Salem, Oregon, three students with odd quirks and evolving personalities work out their differences and hypocrisies, sometimes thwarting and other times helping each other along the way.
Diwata, played by the energetic Jee Young Han, is a feisty and fierce diva who has her own pod-cast where she lambastes the high school drama teacher for not casting her in the high school play.
Carl Holder plays the 18-year-old student Howie who is new in town, has no friends, and flirts online with an older man who it turns out is the school’s drama teacher.
Howie is gay and comfortable with his sexual orientation, while Solomon, played by Ben Diskant, is an uptight, awkward, unhappy youth.
Solomon sums his observations of the human experience well when he says, “Sometimes the best part of being young is knowing that there are all these older people who wish they were me.”
What one hopes to see in any work of drama is a character’s self-revelation, transition, and growth. In this play by 28-year-old Stephen Karam, the characters don’t disappoint, each facing their own short-comings and with the help of the others, becoming more honest with themselves.
Perhaps because of the high school setting, this play feels like an R-rated modern version of the 1980’s TV sitcom “Saved by the Bell,” with a heavy emphasis on sexuality, abortion, and plenty of profanity, so it is absolutely not for younger kids.
These conversations are all around the proposed new debate team that Liwana is establishing to help build her acting career, as well as the straight/gay alliance that Howie is looking to start.
This play has an authentic and youthful perspective that intelligently looks at how difficult it is for teenagers to transition from childhood to the adult world.
The teacher and then the reporter are both played by Eva Kaminsky. She captures the exasperation of a teacher following the official school line, while as the reporter she has the smug self-serving drive that fits her “it’s all about me” motivation, especially when she is on National Public Radio plugging her new book about her interpretation of what causes youthful angst.
Art imitates life in “Speech and Debate” too, where the Republican anti-gay Salem mayor is rumored to be having elicit relationships with young men, with knowing laughs coming from the audience because of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s recent sex scandal.
Solomon says that people expect Democrats to behave badly, but the moral Republicans hold themselves to a higher standard from whence they regularly crash and burn.
What Solomon most objects to is the hypocrisy of it all. The mayor leads a fictional life that cuts against who he is, says Solomon, who is struggling with his own fiction.
The dialog is best when the conversation is most natural, with partial sentences, the way people really talk.
The characters aren’t all instantly likable, but are complex and interesting, and the choreography by John Carrafa and music adds life to the sometimes over-long dialog.


3 Stars
Theater: TheaterWorks
Location: 233 Pearl St. Hartford.
Production: Written by Stephen Karam. Directed by Henry Wishcamper. Set designed by Luke Hegel-Cantarella. Costume designed by Jenny Mannis. Lighting designed by Matthew Richards. Sound designed by Bart Fasbender. Choreography by John Carrafa.
Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission
Show Times: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays — 8 p.m. Matinees on Saturdays and Sundays — 2:30 p.m. through July 26.
Tickets: $37, except Friday and Saturday nights, $47, and are unassigned. Center reserved seats $11 extra. $11 student rush tickets at showtime with valid ID (subject to availability). For tickets call 860-527-7838 or visit their website at
Carl Holder … Howie
Ben Diskant … Solomon
Eva Kaminsky … Teacher/reporter
Jee Young Han … Diwata

Monday, June 15, 2009

“Crowns” — a musical ode to African American women.

STORRS — For the first time in seven years the Connecticut Repertory Theater the University of Connecticut is presenting a Nutmeg Summer Series play, “Crowns,” a co-production with Indiana University and Syracuse University.
This musical feast is the story of a teenaged girl, Yolanda, from Brooklyn, New York, who is sent to her grandmother’s home in the south after her brother is shot and killed. The connection between the African practice of wearing bright colors and crowns and the African American practice of women wearing fabulous hats in all shapes and sizes, as well as always dressing your best to go to church, is examined.
It feels like a Baptist or Evangelistic Church service, with many exuberant hymns such as “When the Saints Come Marching In,” soulful blues numbers, and lots of “Praise the Lords,” from an excellent ensemble cast. Throughout the show they were all singing, dancing, and each telling their different stories about their lives and their many hats.
Each of the women dress in different bright colors throughout the 2-hour show — yellow, white, blue, red, and purple. This color-coded identification is a useful technique.
At the beginning of the show, Yolanda, played with appropriate teen-age angst by Shannon Antalan, enters from the back of the audience and bursts into an energetic rap number.
The rest of the cast then enters dressed in African regalia, with matching cloth crowns. Their African apparel disappears and is replaced by color-coordinated slips and then dresses — the colorful costumes designed by Reggie Ray. The women continue to change into different hats, some reversible, throughout the play.
Written by Regina Taylor, the story-telling format, often without much interaction between the performers, starts out interestingly enough, but then becomes tedious near the end of this one-act production — by the third time one of the women says, “I have about 200 hats,” it’s two times too much.
That’s too bad, because they have some wise information shared. It appears these stories are taken from interviews of women who wear these hats, similar to the technique used for the musical “Chorus Line.”
Other than Mother Shaw, Yolanda’s grandmother, played by the commanding Chandra Currelley, Yolanda, and the Man, well played by Ronald McCall, the names of the characters and actors are difficult to identify.
One of the characters observes, “Hats are like people — Sometimes they reveal and sometimes they conceal.”
Statements such as “a woman can flirt with a hat,” “hats make you happy,” and “hats can be competitive,” are all made.
Another says wearing hats is one way to cope with a bad hair day while being able to express creativity and unique style.
Still another of the women gives a litany of “Hat queen rules” warning, “Never touch my hat” along proper hat greetings, saying it is important to show “excellence in all things, including your appearance.”
The audience Friday got a rousing and heartwarming look at an exuberant style of worship and fun that had everyone on their feet, clapping along, at the end of “Crowns” — a musical ode to African American women.


3 Stars
Location: Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre, Jorgensen Road, Storrs.
Production: Written by Regina Taylor. Adapted from a book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry. Directed and choreographed by Patdro Harris. Music direction by William Hubbard. Sound designed by Jonathan Herter. Scenic design by Felix E. Cochren. Costumes designed by Reggie Ray. Lighting designed by Jennifer Setlow.
Running time: About 2 hours with no intermission.
Show Times: Wednesday, and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. through Sunday.
Tickets: Range in price from $14 to $36. Call the box office at 860-486-4266 of visit their website at
Ronald McCall … Man
Shannon Antalan … Yolanda
Chandra Currelley … Mother Shaw
Crystal Fox … Jeanette
Roz White … Velma
Valerie Payton … Mabel
Terry Burrell … Wanda

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Vibrant “The Color Purple” transcends at the Bushnell

HARTFORD — “The Color Purple” has seen all kinds of transformations, from a novel, to a movie, and a Broadway musical that is now on tour, playing at the Bushnell through Sunday.
Some of the lead characters in the cast were from the Broadway show, including Kenita R. Miller as Celie, and the Tony nominated actors Felicia P. Fields as Sofia and Brandon Victor Dixon as Harpo.
The play closely follows the story originally written by Alice Walker. Beginning in 1911 Georgia through the 1940s, it follows the life of 14-year-old Celie, whose future looks none-too-bright, giving birth to her second child by the man she thinks is her father, and is shortly thereafter married off to a man she calls Mister, who treats her even worse.
Mister, played by Rufus Bonds Jr., transforms from a mean, nasty man, to a lover of Shug Avery, played by Angela Robinson, and finally to a redeemed and humbled human being.
Bonds has a terrific, powerful, and excellent voice which he really shows when he sings “Celie’s Curse” in the second act.
Celie loves her sister Nettie, in Tuesday’s show played by Latrisa A. Harper. Nettie ends up in Africa with missionaries, while Celie toils through her thankless, loveless life.
Celie meets the glamorous singer Shug, and they fall in love, a relationship the musical explores. Celie eventually finds the strength to leave her husband and then learns to see the wonder in her own self.
The subplot, with the fiesty Sofia, played by the sassy Fields, marrying one of Mister’s sons, Harpo, played by Dixon, is interesting and lends the show depth.
The large ensemble cast displays a lot of talent and energy, dancing the jitterbug during the jazz scenes, as well at the athletic African dance numbers.
The costumes, and there were many, were bright, fun, and intricate, including some wacky and bizarre hats for the church ladies. Costumes by Paul Tazewell.
Celie starts a career making colorful pants that anyone can wear that she calls “Folkspants” thereby becoming the forerunner to a “Project Runway” contestant.
The backdrop of the sun in various degrees of setting, was a good choice, by John Lee Beatty, giving a feeling of the warm southern skys.
The rousing gospel numbers in the beginning are the most memorable. The show is more of a musical opera than a typical musical, with little dialog and lots of singing, while none of the songs are ones that you can’t stop thinking about.
“The Color Purple” is a production that affirms the possibility of change even in the worst of characters, and the power of redemption and forgiveness. It’s a beautiful sentiment and a well-staged show.


3 Stars
Theater: The William H. Mortensen Hall at the Bushnell Memorial Center
Location: 166 Capitol Ave. Hartford
Production: Book by Marsha Norman. Music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray. Directed by Gary Griffin. Choreography by Donald Byrd. Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Paul Tazewell. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Sound design by Jon Weston.
Running time: 2 ½ hours, plus one 15-minute intermission
Show Times: Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. through June 14.
Tickets: $25 — $75. Call 860-987-5900 or visit their website at

Kenita R. Miller … Celie
Felicia P. Fields … Sofia
Rufus Bond Jr. … Mister
Brandon Victor Dixon … Harpo
Angela Robinson … Shug Avery
Tiffany Daniels … Squeak

Monday, June 08, 2009

“Forever Blonde” a believable reincarnation of Marilyn at the Ivoryton Playhouse

IVORYTON — Will we ever tire of Marilyn Monroe stories?
Whether you know a lot or a little about the life of Monroe, this one-woman tour-de-force performance is a frank and entertaining look into the life of one of America’s icons, in her own words.
The play, written by Greg Thompson, is a compilation of various conversations and interviews Marilyn Monroe gave over the years when she was alive, performed by Sunny Thompson, who practically channels Monroe’s manner of speaking, walking, and singing.
Many dismiss Monroe as being nothing more than a dumb blonde, but her story isn’t that simple or straightforward. The play begins near the end of her short life at 36, when she was in her last photo shoot, where the lights flash to show Sunny Thompson as Monroe in various poses for the camera.
Some interesting facts about Monroe are reveled. Many might know she was an orphan abandoned by her mother, but she was in and out of nine foster families between stints at orphanages before she was practically forced into marriage as a teenager.
The play, set in 1962, is generously sprinkled with bits from many of her film songs, such as “When Love Goes Wrong,” “A Little Girl from Little Rock,” and the famous “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” from the terrific musical with Jane Russell “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
She also sang the zippy “Running Wild” and “Some Like It Hot” from the Billy Wilder movie with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis “Some Like It Hot.”
The monologue play runs through her struggling years, and the many, many men, some famous, such as President Jack Kennedy and brother Robert, in her life who helped her, and often used and exploited her along the way. Some surprising anecdotes, such as a brief affair with Joan Crawford, pop up along the way.
Before the show and during intermission the music of Frank Sinatra, who also was one of those men, plays, but it goes on a little too long, particularly between acts.
Better to hear orchestral arrangements of some of Monroe’s great tunes. Monroe had a fine, under-appreciated singing voice, as Thompson the actress nails it for the most part.
The costumes by Mimi Countryman and Alice Worthy are glamorous, and there are a number of changes, most done behind a semi-transparent screen, which, along with some frank sexual talk, make this a show best not for young children.
When she sang the big “Diamonds” number, it would have been better if she dressed in a hot pink gown with matching gloves, as the real Monroe wore in the film “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
The set is right on target, with white everything, including the stereo console. The make-believe bubbles in the bubble bath at the start of the second act are a nice touch too.
Although there are no apparent microphones, the sound system is first rate — enhancing the sexy and sweet sound unique to Monroe. Sunny Thompson has toured this show around the country, and seems to more than act the role. She almost appears to channel Monroe’s kind, ambitious, and real persona, making her frustrations and disappointments heartfelt, moving, and most importantly, believable.
Sometimes one-person shows can feel tedious, but that is never the case in this sweet and sad story of an American original who continues to capture the national imagination decades after her death.


3 Stars
Location: Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main Street, Ivoryton, CT
Production: Written by Greg Thompson. Directed by Stephanie Shine. Sets by Jason Phillips. Costumes by Mimi Countryman and Alice Worthy. Lighting by Woody Woodburn. Make-up design by Jimmy James.
Running time: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission.
Show Times: Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. through June 21.
Tickets: $35 for adults, $30 for seniors, $20 for students, and $15 for children 12 and under. Call the box office at 860-767-7318, or visit their website at
Sunny Thompson … Marilyn Monroe

Friday, June 05, 2009

Kory's final thoughts on the Barcelona Sojourn. For me, going to Barcelona was more than a vacation - it was a long time quest to get to see the architecture of Antoni Gaudi that I have admired and loved since I first discovered his work while in college. It was all I could have hoped for, and I have to thank Jessica for willing the idea into reality. Other highlights were the unusual and delicious food, the Roman and Greek ruins, putting my feet into the Mediterranean Sea and of course our road trip to Cadeques. The unexpected bonus was the fun I had, even when times were stressful. I would travel again with all of you anytime.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

“Dividing the Estate” a divine human comedy at the HSC

HARTFORD — In Horton Foote’s oh-so human comedy “Dividing the Estate” the family members waste no time getting to the point — some want desperately to divide the family’s valuable estate before the matriarch has died.
Set in a fictional town of Harrison, Texas in 1987 during the savings and loan crash, the story couldn’t be more poignant or timely today, with the global financial crisis making those good old days pale in comparison.
What a honor to have the whole 2009 Tony nominated Broadway production, in this show with the venerable Lois Smith playing Stella, the strong matriarch, here in Hartford. Directed on Broadway by Hartford Stage’s own Michael Wilson, this play is a funny, direct, and often moving story of a family’s attitude around money and familial ties.
Leading the cast, and up for a 2009 Tony for best lead actress in a play, Foote’s daughter, Hallie Foote is dynamic as the straight-forward, energetic, focused woman.
Foote plays sister Mary Jo who is desperate for more money since she and her husband, Bob, played with grand gusto by James DeMarse, and their two daughters, live well beyond their means.
These characters could be stereotypical and pathetic, but they aren’t. When situations veer on the tragic, the family’s aged servant, Doug, played by Arthur French, steps in with some welcome comic relief.
Son, the family’s only gainfully employed individual has the thankless job of trying to run the estate. Played with patience and integrity by Devon Abner, Son is the moral center of the household.
Gerald McRaney plays Uncle Lewis, who has good intentions, but a weakness for alcohol and gambling. McRaney’s Lewis can be an embarrassment to the family, but he also has his own sense of integrity. His relationship with a teenager is creepy though. That teenager, Irene, played by Virginia Kull, makes a brief but indelible appearance near the end.
The lighting, designed by Rui Rita, streams through the windows and doors and manages to give a real but subtle sense of the intense Texas sunshine.
Sadly Horton Foote died in March, 10 days short of his 93 birthday, but he has left an amazing legacy with this play, and “The Orphan’s Home Cycle” that Hartford audiences will luckily get the chance to see next season.


3½ Stars
Location: Hartford Stage Company, 50 Church Street, Hartford.
Production: Written by Horton Foote. Directed by Michael Wilson. Scene design by Jeff Cowie. Costume Design by David C. Woolard. Original music and sound design by John Gromada. Lighting design by Rui Rita.
Running time: 2 hours plus one 15-minute intermission.
Show Times: Tuesdays, Thursdays, and selected Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with matinee performances most Sundays and selected Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. through July 5.
Tickets: $23 — $66. Call 860-527-5151 or visit their website at
Devon Abner … Son
Penny Fuller … Lucille
Lois Smith … Stella
Pat Bowie … Mildred
Arthur French … Doug
Gerald McRaney … Lewis
Keiana Richard … Cathleen
Maggie Lacey … Pauline
Hallie Foote … Mary Jo
Jenny Dare Paulin … Emily
Nicole Lowrance … Sissie
James DeMarse … Bob
Virginia Kull … Irene