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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Goodspeed’s “Emmet Otter” becoming a holiday tradition

EAST HADDAM — Back by popular demand, Jim Henson’s “Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas” makes it’s second appearance in as many years at the Goodspeed Opera House, running through Jan. 3.
Adapted from the 1980s HBO television special featuring the Jim Henson puppets, this production uses a combination of animal puppets and actors dressed as the animal menagerie, set to music.
The plot is a sweet but light tale of a magical world where animals talk and deal with their day to day travails. A father and daughter who have just lost wife and mother are sharing their first Christmas together without her.
The well-meaning dad, played by Stephen Bienskie, (who also plays a mean rocking ACDC-like weasel), tries to be both dad and mom, while pre-teen Jane, played by the adorable Meg Guzulescu, dressed in Hanna Anderson togs, wants to hang with her friends.
They find the children’s book that the mom gave to Jane when she was just baby, and dad starts reading about the fantasy world of Frog Town Hollow.
In this magical place a mom otter, played by Kathy Fitzgerald, and her son, Emmet Otter, the fine, dimpled Justin Bohon, are struggling to put food on the table, but want to give each other a special Christmas gift, as in O’Henry’s “Gift of the Magi.”
Emmet wants to buy his mom a used piano and joins a jug band, while mom otter wants to buy her son a beautiful guitar.
The show kicks off with the two in a rowboat, Emmet rowing and the two singing the funny duet “The One Bathing Suit.”
In this show the colorful costumes are as much a character as the actors are, with oversized buttons and a riot of rainbow colors, textures, and designs, by the talented Gregg Barnes, which are cheerful and bright. The set, by Anna Louizos, features ingenious folding walls that quickly convert from outside to in, and oversized pine trees.
While the full-sized characters are busy working on putting on a talent show, the little critters, including the goofy flying squirrels, an owl, ducks, rabbits, a frog, and other sundry puppet animals, adding lots of silliness and comic touches. Without giving too much away, watch for the deer in the headlights and some awfully corny jokes.
Guzulescu is sweet, but really comes into her own when she sings with the kooky four flying squirrels, and clearly has a fun time with the little fury creatures.
The talent show is a delight, with Squirrel-batics, Der Field Mouse, the song Bar-b-que, Rabbit-tastic, the fabulous Mrs. Mink, played by Jill Abramovitz, doing a minkish strip-tease in the song “Born in a Trunk,” and more.
My favorite song is the rousing ballad, “When the River meets the Sea,” which is reprised a couple times, with songs written by Paul Williams.
Here’s hoping that this show continues to be a Goodspeed holiday tradition for years to come.


3 Stars
Location: Goodspeed Opera House, Route 82, East Haddam
Production: Music and lyrics by Paul Williams. Book by Timothy A. McDonald and Christopher Gattelli, based on the book written by Russell and Lillian Hoban. Directed and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli. From the original television special produced and directed by Jim Henson and written by Jerry Juhl. Musical direction by Larry Pressgrove. Scene design by Anna Louizos. Costume design by Gregg Barnes. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt.
Running time: 2 hours including one 15-minute intermission
Show Times: Wednesday Dec. 23 and 30 at 2 and 7 p.m.; Thursday Dec. 17, Friday Dec. 18 and Saturday Dec. 19 at 7 p.m.; Sunday Des at 12 p.m. and 4 p.m.; Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve at 12 p.m.; New Year’s Day at 2 p.m. through Jan. 3. There are no performances Dec. 25.
Tickets: $39 — $59. Call the box office at 860-873-8668 or visit their Web site at
Meg Guzulescu … Jane
Justin Bohon … Emmet Otter
Kathy Fitzgerald … Mrs. Alice Otter
Lisa Howard … Mrs. Gretchen Fox
Thomas Cannizarro … Mayor Harrison Fox
Jill Abramovitz … Mrs. Mink
Stephen Bienskie … Russ/ Stan Weasel
Jennifer Barnhardt … Madam Squirrel

Monday, December 14, 2009

Athol Fugard’s World Premiere of “Have You Seen Us?” at Long Wharf is a fine, nuanced production

NEW HAVEN — I once knew a man who had a son who could feel no pain and almost died when his appendix burst and he didn’t know it.
Pain, either physical or emotional, is often considered anathema in our society as something to avoid like the plague and ignored or denied sometimes with the assistance of drugs or alcohol. But without some discomfort and pain we would miss out on growth and the possibility of change and transformation into wiser and more fulfilled individuals.
In Athol Fugard’s world premiere of “Have You Seen Us?” at the Long Wharf, Sam Waterston plays a bitter South African emigrant, Henry Parsons, who is living a lonely isolated life in Southern California. His only relationship is a love/hate one with an illegal alien from Mexico, Adela, who is a waitress at a coffee shop, played by Liza Colon-Zayas.
Colon-Zayas is quite good as the no nonsense earthy woman, but for some reason Colon-Zayas stares into the audience at times, which is somewhat unnerving.
She also doesn’t have enough independent activities to keep her occupied. How many times can you sweep the floor and clean off the table? She would be better served if she had some soup to prepare or another cooking activity while Waterston’s Parsons is chatting away with his fine Africaan accent.
It is not an easy one, that accent, and Waterston seems uneasy with it as he opens the play, but as it continues, he comes into his own. This play with its small cast is made or destroyed by the sensitivity of the actors, and make no mistake about it, Waterston is the heart and soul of this show, and he is riveting. He is aided in part by his shock of gray hair, which is almost a character on it’s own.
It’s easy to like a likable person, but Waterston makes the angry, mean, and often nasty Parsons compelling and intriguing. When he sings his alma mater’s Africaan school song, his face erupts with constantly changing and mesmerizing expressions that I could not stop watching, showing such life and pain and heartbreaking nostalgia that speaks far beyond words to deep understanding. It is beautiful and will make you fall in love with this lovely play.
Waterston’s Parsons is a college professor, estranged from his ex-wife and daughter, and intensely anti-Semitic. This suppressed belief rises to the surface when he wishes a couple Merry Christmas and the man, Solly, responds, “Thank you, but we are Jewish.”
Solly is played by Sol Frieder, who slowly enters the stage with his wife Rachel, played by Elaine Kusack. They were so believable that when they entered the stage from the hallway, I first thought the elderly couple were late-arriving audience members interrupting the show.
The two have a quiet, sweet dignity and tenderness that is touching, and flies in the face of Parson’s barely contained contempt.
Not only does the play examine blind prejudice, but it also explores the nature of alcoholism as well as the cultural vapidity created by the expedient strip malls.
I know that friends of Bill would take issue with me, but I don’t like Alcohol Anonymous’ tenant “once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.” I realize AA has helped millions, but I hate labels of any sort, especially the negative ones, and it saddens me that people carry that negative stereotype about themselves throughout their lives as a way to stay away from drinking their problems away.
It was only last year that I saw another of the prolific Fugard’s world premiere “Coming Home” and I was not impressed. But now with “Have You Seen Us?” I understand what all the fuss over Fugard is about.
This is a beautiful and beautifully produced show that takes an indirect and unsentimental look at the transformational grace of redemption and forgiveness.


3 1/2 Stars
Location: 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven
Production: Written by Athol Fugard. Directed by Gordon Edelstein. Set design by Eugene Lee. Costumes by Jennifer Von Mayrhauser. Lighting by Stephen Strawbridge. Sound design by Corrine Livingston. Dialect coach Stephen Gabis. Stage manager Jason Kaiser.
Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes with no intermission.
Show Times: Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday at 7 p.m., Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8 p.m., with Wednesday and Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. and Saturday matinee at 3 p.m. through Sunday, Dec. 20.
Tickets: $42 to $72. For more information call their box office at 203-787-4282, or visit their website at
Sam Waterston … Henry Parsons
Liza Colon-Zayas … Adela
Sol Frieder … Solly
Elaine Kussack … Rachel

Monday, December 07, 2009

HSC’s “A Christmas Carol” a familiar, comforting holiday treat

3½ Stars
Location: Hartford Stage Company, 50 Church Street, Hartford.
Production: Story by Charles Dickens. Adapted and directed by Michael Wilson. Choreographed by Hope Clarke. Scenic design by Tony Straiges. Lighting design by Robert Wierzel. Original music and sound design by John Gromada. Music director Ken Clarke. Youth direction by Carleigh Cappetta.
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 Friday, Dec. 25; Matinee performances are Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. with additional 2 p.m. matinees on Dec. 24, 28, 29, and 30, and additional 7:30 p.m. performances on Dec. 3, 20, and 27.
Tickets: $25 — $66. Children 12 and under save $10. Call 860-527-5151 or visit their website at
Bill Raymond … Ebenezer Scrooge
Bill Kux … Ghost of Jacob Marley, Mrs. Dilber
Robert Hannon Davis … Bob Cratchit
Michael Bakkensen … Fred, Scrooge at 30
Allen Rust … Spirit of Christmas Present, Bert, Mr. Fuzziwig
Johanna Morrison … Spirit of Christmas Past, Bettye Pidgeon
Robert Patrick Sheire … Mr. Marvel
Himself … Spirit of Christmas Future
Rebecka Jones … Mrs. Cratchit
Natalie Brown … Mrs. Fezziwig, Fred’s sister-in-law
Nafe Katter … first solicitor and undertaker
Gustave Johnson … Second solicitor
Michelle Hendrick … Belle, Fred’s wife
Patrick Morrisey … Scrooge at 15
Rebecka Jones … Martha Cratchit
HARTFORD — Even if you are the most generous, giving soul around, its comforting and helpful to remember the true meaning of the holiday season, the gift of loving and the knowledge that the more you give, the more you get back.
That timeless message is always a welcome reminder, and one the keeps audiences coming back year after year to the Hartford Stage Company’s production.
The ageless Charles Dickens’ tale is about a miserly, bitter, old wealthy man, Ebenezer Scrooge, played by the exuberant Bill Raymond, who loves money more than anything or anyone in the world.
As most know, Scrooge treats his one employee, Bob Cratchit, played with sympathy by Robert Hannon Davis, terribly — refusing to allow him any heat while he works, and begrudges giving Cratchit his one paid Holiday a year — Christmas Day.
Cratchit has a large family to support, and one sickly young boy, Tiny Tim, who is sickly and needs medical assistance the family cannot afford.
It turns out Scrooge wasn’t always such a bad guy in his formative years.
On Christmas Eve Scrooge falls asleep and in his dream has a visit from his former business partner, Jacob Marley, played with dramatic misery by the wonderful Bill Kux.
Marley tells Scrooge he must change his ways or when he dies he will be doomed to the same eternal suffering in the hear-after that he is experiencing.
Next comes three different ghosts, the ghost of Christmas past, the ghost of Christmas present, and the Ghost of Christmas future. The three guide him from his sad neglected childhood to the present, where he hears what others really think of him, good and bad, and then to the future, after he is dead.
Raymond’s Scrooge is meaner and nastier than he was two years ago when he last graced the stage and that is a very good thing. In the 2007 production, he just wasn’t awful enough, making his transformation less meaningful then, but that isn’t the case this year.
The flying and thumping white ghosts that open the show have blank white masks for faces, grotesque movements, and rattling chains continue to be deeply scary, and far too real for children under 8-years-old.
Even for those desensitized kids who can watch the grossest events on the television have a difficult time with this show, because theater is more immediate and visceral.
The original music by John Gromada continues to work beautifully to fully realize the horrific future that awaits Scrooge if he continues on his miserly path.
One of the elements that make Dicken’s tale such a timeless one is the possibility of change and redemption, no matter what our past has been, and that we all have the power to make our lives more beautiful and meaningful.
There’s nothing new here, but, with fine solid direction from Michael Wilson, there’s no need to mess with a very good thing.