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Thursday, January 21, 2010

“Gee’s Bend”at Hartford Stage glorious celebration of life

HARTFORD — Often plays that trace historic events can be meaningful, but allegorical and dry. That is not the case with the brilliant and beautiful “Gee’s Bend” by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder, running at the Hartford Stage Company through Feb. 14.
This musical drama follows the life of four black women, played by three actors, and one black man from 1939 through 2002 in the very real Gee’s Bend, Alabama where Martin Luther King came to speak.
It traces the Civil Rights ground roots movement where marchers were attacked by police with gas, clubs, and whips in what became known as Bloody Sunday in 1965, as well as other historic events leading to significant social changes.
The remarkably talented actors transition from young teenagers to middle-aged adults to elderly people seamlessly.
Sadie, played by Kimberly Hebert Gregory, starts out as a naïve 15-year-old who falls in love and marries an older man, Macon, played by Teagle F. Bougere.
Macon buys land thanks to low interest loans that were offered by the federal government and they start a family, which follows actual historic events.
At one point later in the play they speak of moving up north to Bridgeport, Conn., to escape the very real threat of violence in the south.
Sadie has a sassy sister who loves to sing and not do too much else, Nella, played by Tamela Aldridge. She is the comedian of the family and is witty even in the direst situations, providing much-needed comic relief.
Miche Braden plays Alice, the mother of Sadie and Nella. She also plays Sadie’s adult daughter much later in the play, and is the musical director and arranger for “Gee’s Bend.”
The women of “Gee’s Bend” make hand-sewn quilts from scraps of material that eventually become collector’s items, with additional quilts designed by Michael Schweikardt.
Nella, who doesn’t sew, says, “These white folks are paying a lot of money for our trash.”
In fact, the real quilts by the real women of Gee’s Bend were displayed in an exhibit at the Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts in 2002, and have been recognized as works of art, according to the terrific program accompanying the play.
At times the drama seems somewhat like the 1985 film-turned-musical, “The Color Purple” particularly when the husband, Macon, tries to reel in his woman, “for her own good,” and traces the personal growth of Sadie as the lead character in the movie, Celie, does.
The music is fantastic, ranging from soulful gospel and evolving to contemporary music, tracing the time progression of the play, with original music and sound design by “Broken Chord Collective.”
This fine play is more than just words — it is a collaborative process, confidently lead by director Hana S. Sharif.
Visually compelling and arresting, the apparently simple set designed by Scott Bradley is a visual dream, with a multi-layered quilt-like background that has a symbolic river, beautifully rendered, undulating through it.
The lighting, designed by Lap Chi Chu, works with silhouettes, and is perfectly complimentary to the set, particularly when the rippling water reflects off the quilt-like back drop and the stark orange glow highlights the two sisters and daughter near the end.
“Gee’s Bend” celebrates the perseverance, hope, and artistry of the human spirit, and is a moving tribute to Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

“Lil’s 90th” at Long Wharf a poignant, touching cautionary tale

NEW HAVEN — In a poignant and surprisingly tense production of the world premiere of “Lil’s 90th” by Darci Picoult, it is just as the title suggests, a celebration of Lil’s 90th birthday.
Lillian is played by veteran actress Lois Smith, who is no stranger to stage and screen, have performed in all mediums since the 1950s.
Smith was locally last seen at the Hartford Stage Company’s production of Horton Footes “Dividing the Estate.”
She plays a homemaker living in New York City, who decides rather than just having a birthday party to make her stage cabaret debut in a club, during their “early bird” hours, and sing some ditties with her husband Charlie (David Margulies), accompanied by her grandson, Tommy (Nick Blaemire), and his girlfriend Deirdre (Lucy Waters.)
Margulies and Smith are real life companions, which doesn’t hurt the chemistry between the two actors one bit.
The characters clearly love and care for each other, including Charlie and Lil’s frazzled adult daughter Stephanie, played by Kristine Nielsen, Tommy’s mother. That close-knit dynamic lulls you into a comfortable complacency that makes you care for this family.
Without giving too much of the plot away, the play deals with Charlie’s progressing Alzheimer’s disease, and the havoc, leading to serious life-altering ramifications, it can create when his ability to reason starts to slip.
In the play Charlie, who takes great pride in having been the only wage earner in the family, has a surprise up his sleeve as a special gift for Lil, which really speaks more of him, rather than allowing her the limelight.
“She never had to work a day in her life,” Charlie says with pride more than once.
It’s a beautifully and gently realized character study, and Picoult captures the tension and dismay when Charlie’s actions start going terribly wrong and there is little that those who love and care for him can do about it — But love him they do.
Margulies’ Charlie made his living in the garment industry and when he puts on a dapper suit, he looks smashing, with costumes by Ilona Somogyi. He has an elfin, irresistible charm and beguiling charisma that is riveting, making Lil’s love and tolerance for his erratic behavior understandable.
Smith’s Lil, who is a dynamo herself, confesses at one dark point that she saw the changes coming, but they came on so slowly she hardly noticed, and admits that she didn’t want to see them either.
Blaemire’s Tommy steps up to the plate and speaks out directly in frustration about the desperate problems Charlie has created in a way that his mother and grandmother won’t.
Blaemire has a fine singing voice, and its fun to see his band-mate, the lithesome Neilson as Deirdre, and Blaemire’s Tommy accompany Lil on guitar, violin, and keyboard to some old-time musical numbers.
Neilson and Charlie have an interesting scene together when she agrees to watch Charlie and explains to him how a cell phone works, but it is tinged with anxiety too with Charlie’s unpredictable behavior.
Most of the play is set in a New York apartment, with a bedroom, living room, and kitchen that looks like nothing has changed in 50 years, by Frank Alberino.
Directed by Jo Bonney, the actors move comfortably about the oddly shaped wide stage in Long Wharf’s Stage II.
The only problem with “Lil’s 90th” is that Smith appears too youthful and vibrant at first to play a 90-year-old woman, but as the play progresses she becomes more frail and fragile.
“Lil’s 90th” is a gentle late-life love story and cautionary tale well worth experiencing.


3 Stars
Location: 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven
Production: Written by Darci Picoult. Directed by Jo Bonney. Musical director Erin Hill. Set design by Frank J. Alberino. Costume design by Ilona Somogyi. Lighting design by Lap Chi Chu. Sound design by Jill Duboff.
Running time: 2 hours including one 15-minute 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 Feb. 7.
Tickets: $30 to $65. For more information call their box office at 203-787-4282, or visit their website at
Lois Smith … Lil
David Margulies … Charlie
Kristine Nielsen … Stephanie
Nick Blaemire … Tommy
Lucy Waters … Deirdre

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

“In the Heights” heartwarming city tale

HARTFORD — The most unexpected reality of living in a big city like New York is the old fashioned small town feeling you get from spending so much time seeing your neighbors face to face each day, rather than passing them from behind the wheel of a car in the suburbs.
This close-knit experience is evident in “In the Heights,” the 2008 Tony award-winning musical with an exuberant Latino twist, running at The William H. Mortensen Hall at the Bushnell Memorial Center through Sunday.
The story is a heart-felt, touching look at a Latino community’s every day struggles with family, money, and relationships.
The plot has a couple threads, with one girl, Nina, the first in her family to go to college, having difficulty with her first year at Stamford University, and struggling with the culture clash.
She tells a friend that when the college students say they are going to their cabin in the woods, it is a code word for “mansion.”
Nina is played by Arielle Jacobs who has a real college coed look about her and a lyrical but surprisingly strong sound. She falls for Benny, played by the energetic and powerful Shaun Taylor-Corbett.
Another is the orphaned Peurto Rican owner of a deli, or corner bodega, the rapper Usnavi, played by the fine Kyle Beltran. He’s shyly in love with the sexy Vanessa, played by Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer, who has troubles of her own with her drug-addicted mother.
There’s plenty of Spanish mixed in with the predominantly English lyrics and dialog, giving the musical an authentic feeling, however there isn’t much talk of drugs and crime except when there is some looting during a city blackout.
The matriarch of the neighborhood is Abuela Claudia, convincingly played by Elise Santora, who can belt out a tune to match the younger performers.
She says when she sees Nina, “You are the watermelon of my heart.”
Rap isn’t really my thing, and there’s a lot of rapping in this show. I find it stressful to listen to. Sometimes the words spill out so fast when Beltran’s Usnavi gets rolling, there’s no telling what’s been said, particularly in the beginning until I adjusted my ears to a faster-than-usual pace.
But it isn’t all rap and there are some lovely ballads and slower paced songs, such as “Everything I Know” sung by Nina.
Gonzalez-Nacer has a fine alto sound which she gets to show off in songs like “It Won’t be Long Now.”
“In the Heights” was conceived with words and lyrics by former Wesleyan student Lin-Manual Miranda, who grew up near Washington Heights, in northern Manhattan. He was raised on theater and musicals there.
The set by Anna Louizos really looks like an ungentrified New York neighborhood, and has the height with the four-story brick facades that fill the Bushnell’s spacious stage.
The choreography with it’s salsas, hip hop, and jazzy syncopated rhythms reminded me of those dance competition television shows, so it wasn’t much of a surprise when I learned that Andy Blankenbuehler, the choreographer who won a 2008 Tony Award for “In the Heights” is a guest choreographer for the TV show, “So You Think You Can Dance.”
The costumes are a fabulous riot of brilliant, festive colors, by Paul Tazewell, brightening up a drab winter night, while the fireworks are well done, with sound by Acme Sound Partners and lighting by Howell Binkley.
The musical is set in the heat of the summer over July 4th — a welcome treat during these freezing, dark days of winter. So come in out of the cold and heat up with “In the Heights.”