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Monday, August 24, 2009

Hip-hop “High School Musical” top notch at Broad Brook Opera House

EAST WINDSOR — Just in case the name doesn’t give it away “High School Musical,” playing at the Broad Brook Opera House, is geared towards teenagers and their ‘tween counter-parts.
Based on a Disney television movie by the same name, this show, with lots of songs, takes a good look at the high school clique scene, pitting jocks against artists against the brains, and asks that age-old question, “Why can’t we all just get along?”
“High School Musical” is an updated “Grease,” where the two leads, the high school basketball star Troy Bolton, played by the able Keith Leonhardt, meets Gabriella Montez, played on alternate performances by Mandie Hittleman and Chelsea Sic, during summer vacation.
Gabriella, a math wiz, moves to the same town as Troy and they meet again at the high school. Conflicts ensue when they hesitantly audition for the new high school musical, “Juliet and Romeo,” to the disapproval of the manipulative Drama Club President Sharpay Evans played alternately by Erin Fitzpatrick and Emilie Ferreira, and her brother Ryan Evans, played by Michael Dikegoros.
Drama teacher Ms. Darbus, played by Marianne Hebenstreit and Coach Bolton, played by Dallas Hosmer, accentuate the conflict of arts versus sports, when Bolton’s son Troy is not only the star of the basketball team, but also has talents on the theatrical stage and is pressured to choose between the two.
Both adults are passionate about their interests, with Darbus speaking of “the timeless allure of the greasepaint.” Hebenstreit brings sarcastic humor to the character when she says to the students, “This ain’t my first rodeo, kiddies.”
The singing is fine most of the time, with the leads possessing strong solo voices, but they don’t always blend together during the duets as well as they sing on their own.
The dancing across the board is top-notch, with funky and fabulous hip-hop moves, much of which comes straight from the movie, thanks to Daniel Otero and Leonhardt, who assisted choreographer Laura Salerno with their adaptation of the film’s choreography.
There are some good, wholesome messages in the show, such as, “you can’t let people keep you from being who you are,” “anything can happen when you take a chance,” and the need for parents to listen to their kids.
The youthful cast know their parts and their dance steps and have all the energy and enthusiasm one could ask for in this fun show with a positive message just in time for the start of another school year.


Three Stars
Theater: Opera House Players
Location: 107 Main Street, Broad Brook
Production: Written by David Simpatico from Disney Channel movie written by Peter Barsocchini. Songs by Matthew Gerrard and Robbie Nevil and others. Directed by Patrique Alton Hurd. Musical direction by Rebecca Francis. Choreographer Laura Salerno. Adapted film choreography by Daniel Otero and Keith Leonhardt. Stage manager Debra Caswell. Technical direction by George Fields. Lighting design and operation by Diane St. Amand.
Running time: 2 hours, plus a 15-minute intermission
Show Times: Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. through August 30.
Tickets: $20, seniors over 60 and youth under 12 pay $16. Call 860-292-6068 or visit their website at
Keith Leonhardt … Troy Bolton
Mandie Hittleman and Chelsea Sic … Gabriella Montez
Erin Fitzpatrick and Emilie Ferreira … Sharpay Evans
Michael Dikegoros … Ryan Evans
Daniel Otero … Chad Danforth
Lexy Curtin … Taylor McKessie
Conor Ellis … Zeke Baylor
Joshua Pare … Jason Cross
Kathryn Suzanne Strempfer … Martha Cox
Deidra Jefferson … Kratnoff
Aslynn Brown … Jackee Scott
Hailey Brinnel … Kelsi Neilson
Nicholas Leahey … Ripper
Nicole Pare … Mongo
Nichole Giantonio, Caitlin Murphy, Kasey Rousseau … Skater Chicks
Marianne Hebenstreit … Ms. Darbus
Dallas Hosmer and Mark Wantroba (8/29)… Coach Bolton
Sheila Lehmann … Susan
Kristen Mary Fitzpatrick, Erin Fields, Sarah Ingraham, Kelsey Sobestanovich … Cheerleaders
Jillian Bower … Brainiac
John Fitzpatrick … John Brown

Monday, August 10, 2009

Ivoryton’s “The Odd Couple” witty fun

IVORYTON — Who’d think divorce and possible suicide could be so funny?
Evidently Neil Simon did when he wrote the witty, silly play, “The Odd Couple,” playing at the Ivoryton Playhouse.
The actors here are a combination of professional and amateur talent that consistently lend extra excitement and energy to Ivoryton Playhouse productions.
The story is set in 1966 in New York City in a hot and smelly bachelor apartment where a group of men are playing poker. They are worried about their friend, the ultra-neat gourmet food loving Felix Unger, because he hasn’t shown up for their weekly game.
The gang, including the affable cop, Murray, played by Al Mulvey, Roy the account, played by Mike Souney, the squeaky-clean Vinnie played by M. Carl Kaufman, and cigar-chomping Speed played by Brian M. Cunningham, all sit around the table drinking warm beer, Coke, and almost eat the moldy sandwiches.
Oscar’s clothes are scattered everywhere — there are even socks on a lampshade — and one of the pictures is painfully askew in the solidly constructed apartment, designed by Dan Nischan.
What would a Neil Simon comedy be without the one liners? Felix’s friends joke that he is so cautious he even wears a seatbelt at a drive-in theater. When he locks himself in Oscar’s kid’s bathroom threatening to commit suicide, Oscar says the worst he can do in there is brush his teeth to death.
When Felix has a neck spasm, Oscar tries to help, but tells him he is “the only person I know who has clenched hair.”
Oscar, a divorced sports writer, takes in the newly separated Felix as a roommate. Felix writes the news for CBS.
Which brings up the two English Pigeon sisters — Gwendolyn played by the delightful Laura Beth Wells, and her Cecily played by the equally perky Eleanor Handley.
They enter as the double dates to Oscar and Felix. At one point the giggly sisters are left alone with the depressed Felix. When he tells them he writes the news for CBS, Gwendolyn innocently asks, “where do you get your ideas?” Funny stuff.
The fast talking actors could have sped their dialog up, particularly in the beginning. There were a few awkward overlong pauses in their exchanges over the cards. Better was when they were on the move, literally and orally, chasing Felix around the apartment while screaming in rapid-fire dialog.
“The Odd Couple” proves that opposites do attract in this fun and funny production running through August 30.


3 Stars
Location: Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main Street, Ivoryton
Production: Written by Neil Simon. Directed by Lawrence Thelen. Set design by Dan Nischan. Lighting and sound design by Tate R. Burmeister. Costume design by C. Delari Johnston.
Running time: 2 hours plus one 15-minute intermission.
Show Times: Wednesday and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. through Aug. 30.
Tickets: $35 for adults, $30 for previews and seniors, $20 for students, and $15 for children 12 and under. Call the box office at 860-767-7318, or visit their website at
Tony Rossi … Oscar Madison
R. Bruce Connelly … Felix Unger
Laura Beth Wells … Gwendolyn Pigeon
Eleanor Handley … Cecily Pigeon
Brian M. Cunningham … Speed
M. Carl Kaufman … Vinnie
Mike Souney … Roy
World premiere “The Remarkable Thing About Stardust” sparkles at LTM

MANCHESTER — Seeing well-worn, perennial favorites like “Mame” and “Blithe Spirit” never grow old, but there’s something about a brand new production that is daring and exciting.
“The Remarkable Thing About Stardust,” by local playwright Anne Pie and making it’s world premiere at the Little Theatre of Manchester, is not only new, it is very good — something Pie’s many fans have come to expect.
This is the prolific Pie’s fourth show at LTM — a place she calls home. Other productions were “Sing, Vergie, Sing,” in 2008, “Wild Mushrooms” in 2004, and “Front Street” in 2005.
“The Remarkable Thing About Stardust” is her latest, about true love (hence the stardust) and family. It is beautifully and articulately crafted and well performed.
The play opens in present day New York in Milton Stern’s office. His wife, Diana, has just been arrested for loitering after midnight in a cemetery, rip-roaring drunk.
She’s ordered by a judge to seek psychiatric help, which seems like not such a bad idea, considering she keeps bursting out in hysterical tears for apparently no reason.
Debi Freund as Diana Bernadette Fogerty Stern seems to have been born to play this demanding role of a Catholic married to a successful Jewish man who is sporting goods store chain owner, confidently played by Michael Forgetta.
Diana is a sarcastic and funny woman, complaining that her 20-year-old son, Jason, played by Brian Courtemanche, has a girlfriend who “makes my eyes smart” because she has so many body-piercings that in the light she looks like a colander.
She says, “I don’t want to be around her in a thunder storm.”
Her husband, Milton, is the good provider of whom she complains, “you look but you don’t see.”
Forgetta, who plays Milton, evidently had to fill in at the last minute. On opening night he read somewhat surreptitiously from a script, but despite this he did a yeoman’s job and conveyed an amusing, domineering momma’s boy who is more married to his work than his wife.
Sometimes, though, the talking heads go on a little long, despite the actors mixing it up by hitting their marks all over the stage.
Diana finally agrees to see a psychiatrist, played with assurance by Jim Powers, and as the second act unfolds, what first appears as a simple baring of the soul turns into a compelling mystery.
Pie has a real gift for pithy dialog, along with a non-judgmental understanding heart that makes her dysfunctional memorable characters come alive.
It won’t be revealed here, but suffice it to say that “The Remarkable Thing About Stardust” has a believable, unexpected, and fulfilling payoff in the end.


3 Stars
Location: The Little Theatre of Manchester, Inc., Cheney Hall, 177 Hartford Road, Manchester.
Production: Written by Anne Pie. Directed by Jared R. Towler. Stage manager Tom Goodin. Set design by Greg Cerosky. Lighting design by Lee Hammitt. Sound design by Jim Ryan. Produced by Sara Logan.
Running time: 2 ½ hours, with one 15-minute intermission
Show Times: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8 p.m. Sunday at 2 p.m. through August 16.
Tickets: $16 — $23. Seniors over 60 and students receive a discount. Call the box office at 860-647-9824, or visit their website at
Debi Freund … Diana Stern
Michael Forgetta … Milton Stern
Jim Power … Dr. James Barlow
Brian Courtemanche … Jason Stern

Friday, August 07, 2009

“Yesterday’s, an evening with Billie Holiday” is intoxicating, transporting

HARTFORD — In life Billie Holiday was only 44 when she from liver disease after years of drinking and drug abuse. At the Hartford Stage company in the third in their summer series, “Yesterday’s, an evening with Billie Holiday,” that sorry tale is brought to life by the mesmerizing jazz singer Vanessa Rubin.
Rubin doesn’t so much impersonate Holiday but embodies her sad yet exuberant personality through music. You would think after two hours you might get tired of hearing Rubin intermingle songs with the story of Holiday’s. Rather, like a friend you haven’t seen in a long time, you just want it to go on all night.
It is almost like being drugged to listen to her sing and talk, and becomes even more intoxicating as the evening progresses.
“Singing is the way I communicate,” she says. “Singing is the way I give of myself.” Some people are good at living life, and some live only on stage. Holiday fell firmly in the second category.
Raped at 10, thrown in a Catholic reform school, hanging with bad guys, becoming addicted to heroin, which filled the hole inside her she said, as sad as it is, isn’t unique. What was different was her determination and ambition to succeed as best she could despite these tragically difficult odds.
In the south in the 1930s through the 1950s blacks were treated badly frequently, not allowed to eat with her fellow white performers and worse, of which she bravely sang about in the famous and still shocking song “Strange Fruit” about black men being lynched.
The show is set on the last night of her last concert in May 1959. She died three months later. We learn that she was born Eleanora Fagan and changed her name to Billie Holiday after her father Clarence Holiday who had married her mother, Sadie, but abandoned them when she was young.
Throughout the show, which is set up like a cabaret with tables and chairs that the stage usually occupies, Rubin’s Holiday interacts a bit with the audience, but also with her fine fellow band mates, Levi Barcourt, at Hart graduate, on piano, Bernard Davis on drums, and David Jackson on bass.
Jackson doesn’t say much, while Davis sings one song, and is a surprisingly natural actor and swell drummer. Barcourt, who also is the show’s music director, has a swinging swagger about him, but really is a far better musician than he is an actor.
At one point she says, “When people applaud it is the only time I feel really loved.” It teeters on the edge of maudlin self-pity, but her feisty determination, and charisma somehow keeps her from being an object of derision and scorn, but instead, she comes across as an honest black woman doing the best she could in her time and place.
“I could only sing the way I feel,” she says, and often changed the songs others wrote to suit her, or she wrote them herself. Songs like the terrific “Good Morning Heartache,” “God Bless the Child,” “You’ve Changed,” and “Moonlight,” plus others, filled the air. In one of the many songs she sang “love lives in a lonely land, where there’s not helping hand, to understand.”
There is something oddly heartening about these terribly sad songs. For Holiday fans, it’s fun to find out how many of them sound familiar, but even if you don’t know her music, you’ll enjoy it.
One that she didn’t sing, “Glad to be Unhappy,” always reminds me of Holiday when she says, “unrequited loves a bore, and I’ve got it pretty bad. But for someone you adore, it’s a pleasure to be sad.”
Nothing about Rubin’s Holiday, or this show, is boring, however. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.


3 stars
Location: Hartford Stage Company, 50 Church Street, Hartford.
Production: Written by Reenie Upchurch. Directed by Woodie King Jr. Music director and pianist Levi Barcourt. Lighting design by Antoinette Tynes.
Running time: 2 hours plus one 15-minute intermission.
Show Times: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with matinee performances Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 2 p.m. through August 22.
Tickets: $26 — $65. Call 527-5151 or visit their Web site at
Vanessa Rubin … Billie Holiday
Levi Barcourt … pianist
Bernard Davis … drummer and vocalist
David Jackson … bassist

Thursday, August 06, 2009

“Camelot” rules at the Goodspeed

EAST HADDAM — Step back into a spellbinding world of chivalry, magic, knights in shining armor at the round table, and grand visions of a world without war in Goodspeed Opera House’s production of “Camelot.”
First produced on Broadway in 1960 and then made into a major motion picture in 1967, this timeless musical features some of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe’s finest, most whimsical and heartfelt music, including the sultry “The Lusty Month of May,” where Guenevere sings that in May they can to be “proper or im,” and “wholesome or un.”
King Arthur is played by Bradley Dean with proper royal pomp and earnest striving, which occasionally reverts to an annoying whininess. Dean is so close to the greatness required of being king, but at times over-reaches. His voice is strong, fine, and clear, particularly when he sings the rousing theme song, “Camelot.”
Erin Davie plays Guenevere with appropriate haughtiness, but when confronted by the super stiff Lancelot, she misses the opportunity to really have fun as the petulant, spoiled, frivolous, young debutante that she is at first — (i.e., see Paris Hilton.) This would have given her eventual transition into a grown up serious woman who is deeply in love more gravitas.
Maxime de Toledo as Lancelot hits that character on all cylinders. Not so easy playing someone who is perfect, and he makes that self-sacrificing superior knight transition into a softer loving man believable.
Looking remarkably like the actor Rupert Everett, Toledo has the French accent and phrasing down, so that even when he is singing he still make he clearly articulates — not an easy achievement, but then he is, dare I say, perfect.
Toledo sings one of the most beautiful heartbreaking love songs ever written, “If Ever I Should Leave You,” and he sings it with heartfelt sincerity with a gorgeous, rich voice, but he seems to almost swallow some of the phrases a bit during the song.
It’s all fine and well to play the honorable hero, but the more evil the villain, the better the show, and Mordred, Arthur’s illegitimate son, here played by Adam Shonkwiler, is pointedly edgy and fantastic.
He’s funny too when he says that his step-father hated him so much that he gave him one of his mother’s magic youth potions that took ten years off of his life when he is nine, making him minus one.
Shonkwiler has a terrific Scottish accent that beautifully enhances his menacing, undermining, and scheming ways, giving a biting, conniving, and brittle performance that is a fine foil to Arthur’s lofty vulnerable goals of a new world order where might doesn’t make right and laws prevail. Mordred says with relish, “I cannot wait to rush in where angels fear to tread,” and you know he means it.
Mordred’s moral deficiency highlights how much more difficult it is to build up than to tear down.
Arthur struggles to create a world where “might doesn’t make right,” and “compassion is not weakness,” and establishing a world of laws and courts, and juries, rather than one where disputes are settled with bloodshed. All issues that we in our seemingly civilized world still haven’t figured out how to do.
At one point Arthur says in frustrated exasperation to Mordred, “The adage ‘blood is thicker than water’ is invented by undeserving relatives,” which received a knowing laugh from the audience. Still, he takes to heart the another adage — “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”
Director Rob Ruggiero does an innovative job utilizing the tiny Goodspeed stage, having the knights often entering from the aisles onto the stage — giving the show a more intense and intimate feeling.
The costumes, of which there were many, by Alejo Wietti, were period perfect, with long, flowing, colorful, low-waisted gowns from the gals and fine elegant leather bodkins and gorgeous leather boots for the men. The custom-molded armor is classy and appropriate. At first glance it looks like real pounded steel, but is most likely made from some kind of lightweight plastic polymer.
The simple, almost Japanese-like set, by Michael Schweikardt, works well on the tiny stage. Rather than have an elaborate and cumbersome castle, the palace is inferred with a great rock wall against the background that looks like an indoor rock-climber’s dream, well lit by John Lasiter.
Schweikardt also utilizing four sliding snowflake screens to fine effect, sliding them in and out to keep the stage visually interesting without being obtrusive.
There are many horns in the orchestra pit, always a danger for overpowering the singers, but here, with fine orchestrations by Dan DeLange and musical direction by Michael O’Flaherty, this is not an issue.
Come and enjoy this “fleeting wisp of glory” known as “Camelot.”


3 Stars
Location: Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main Street, East Haddam
Production: Music by Frederick Lowe. Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. Directed by Rob Ruggiero. Scenery design by Michael Schweikardt. Costume design by Alejo Wietti. Lighting Design by John Lasiter. Sound design by Jay Hilton. Orchestrations by Dan DeLange. Musical director Michael O’Flaherty. Choreography by Ralph Perkins.
Running time: 3 hours, with one intermission
Show Times: Wednesday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; Thursday at 7:30 p.m. (with select performances at 2 p.m.); Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. with Saturday matinee at 3 p.m.; Saturday matinee at 3 p.m. and Sunday matinee at 2 p.m., with select Sunday evening performance at 6:30 p.m. through Sept. 19.
Tickets: $27.50 — $74.50. Call the box office at 860-873-8668 or visit their website at
Bradley Dean … King Arthur
Erin Davie … Guenevere
Maxime de Toledo … Lancelot
Adam Shonkwiler … Mordred
Ronn Carroll … King Pellinore
Herman Petras … Merlyn