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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

“Spring Awakening” eye-opening coming of age musical at the Bushnell

It is hard to imagine that the musical “Spring Awakening” playing at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts through Sunday, was based on a play written in 1891 about incest, rape, sadism, homosexuality, suicide, and adolescent love.
What a shock it must have been then in Victorian Germany, because it’s still very edgy today, with nudity and some profanity — needless to say, not for the kids.
The original play was written by Frank Wedekind who was born in San Francisco in 1864 to a young actress and singer, and a much older father who was a physician and political radical. The family moved to Germany where Wedekind became a favorite of the bohemian set, writing “Spring Awakening” when he was only 27 years old.
In the musical the story line follows the play closely with melodic, rock, and pop music, written by Duncan Shiek, with the book and fine lyrics by Steven Sater.
The story is set in a German boys’ school where one boy, the delicate Moritz, played by Taylor Trensch (looking very Edward Scissorhand-like in the first act and rather “Eraserheadish” by Act II) is being crushed under the weight of the rigid, school system and the unyielding, heartless society and “parent-ocracy.”
It’s a world of dog-eat-dog, where the boys are forced to conform or die trying, and the girls are kept ignorant of the facts of life, with dire consequences for everyone.
Melchior, played with indignant curiosity by Jake Epstein, in the song “All That’s Known” sings:
“Thought is suspect and money is the idol. And nothing’s okay unless it is scripted in their Bible.”
He also sings, “It’s a bitch of a living. And living in your head.”
He falls in love with naïve Wendia, played by Christy Altomare, who has a lovely, sweet voice.
She says to Melchior, “What serves each of us best serves all of us best.”
The ensemble of actors all have terrific voices, and sing quite well throughout, but their dancing isn’t quite up to the same level, and most don’t live up to the excellent angular modern dance movements by the award-winning choreographer Bill T. Jones.
At one point I thought they were all auditioning for the television show “American Idol,” so I wasn’t too surprised to learn that Isle was played by “Canadian Idol” finalist Steffi D.
Bad boy Hanschen played by Andy Mientus was a slippery operator, seducing the gullible Ernst, played by Ben Fankhauser.
Some of the boy’s hairstyles were asymmetrical, but this musical would have been even better served, and closer to the heart and soul of the original radical play, with some really wild existential costumes in exuberant punk-rock edginess.
The costumes by Susan Helftery are all bland as bland can be, with a couple stockings rolled down here and there.
The boys are fine in their school uniforms, but why is sexy Ilse wearing a baggy oversized man’s shirt in one scene, and then a shapeless green dress three sizes too big? Not too attractive for a character that is supposed to be a bad girl. And all the girls are wearing really dull pedestrian dresses that could have been so much more interesting.
There are tears and heartache on display by the actors, but musicals have a tendency to cause an emotional disconnect from the interaction, because of the break in the action to sing to the audience, and “Spring Awakening” is no exception.
Still, the music is really gorgeous, such as the beautiful “The Word and Your Body,” “I Believe,” and “The Song of Purple Summer,” giving hope that change and love are possible in this bleak and predictable world.


3 Stars
Theater: The William H. Mortensen Hall at the Bushnell Memorial Center
Location: 166 Capitol Ave. Hartford
Production: Music by Duncan Shiek. Book and lyrics by Steven Sater. Directed by Michael Mayer. Choreography by Bill T. Jones. Music director Kimberly Grigsby. Set design by Christine Jones. Costume design by Susan Helftery. Lighting design by Kevin Adams. Sound design by Brian Ronan.
Running time: 2 ½ hours including one 15-minute intermission
Show Times: Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with matinee performances Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m., through Sunday Feb. 28.
Tickets: From $15 to $72. Call 860-987-5900 or visit their website at
Jake Epstein … Melchior
Taylor Trensch … Moritz
Christy Altomare … Wendia
Steffi D … Ilse
Ben Fankhauser … Ernst
Anthony Lee Media … Otto
Andy Mientus … Hanschen
Sarah Hunt … Martha
Gabrielle Garza … Anna
Kimiko Glenn … Thea
Matt Shingledecker … Georg

Monday, February 22, 2010

“Communicating Doors” transporting science fiction play

SUFFIELD — Community theater at it’s best and most raucous can be seen at the Suffield Players in their production of the witty science fiction romp, Alan Ayckbrourn’s “Communicating Doors.”
A little confusing at first, with 20-year time travel for some through a mysterious spinning closet, the play is set in the same London hotel suite in 2024, 2004, and 1984.
In 2024, a dying man, Harold (Brian Rucci) has remorse for the untimely death of his two wives, who previously met their ends by his unscrupulous business partner Julian (Christopher Berrien). In a state of despair, Harold writes a confession and hides it down a drainpipe.
He hires a dominatrix, Phoebe, who goes by the name of Poopay, played by Becky Rodia Schoenfeld, to sign his confession, and tells her the whole sordid tale about his two wives’ untimely deaths — both of whom he learns late in life were murdered by Julian.
When Phoebe asks how he could not have seen a pattern in his partner’s behavior, Harold says they made millions from underhanded business practices, and he chose to ignore the fact that Julian was so evil that he even confessed to murdering his mother.
“I preferred to see the facts as they appeared,” Harold says, and deceives himself that “the version of the truth is the truth itself.”
But now Harold feels guilty on his death bed and wants to make a clean break from his past, writing a confession.
When Phoebe refuses to sign the confession, Harold says in frustration, “My God, an honest whore,” to which she responds, “I am not a whore. I am a specialist sexual consultant!”
Phoebe meets the Julian who learns about his partner’s written confession and does his best to destroy the document and Phoebe.
Unlike many science fiction tales where travelling back in time to change the outcome results in unforeseen dire complications, the manipulations in events here produce positive changes back in the future.
The witty, fast-paced English-accented dialog proceeds at a rapid clip, and the actors are all up to the challenge.
Special notice goes to the excellent Schoenfeld whose Cockney accent could not be better. A previous role elsewhere as Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady” was great training for her role in “Communicating Doors.”
Also very fine is Mary Fernandez-Sierra as the second wife, Ruella. The scenes with Fernandez-Sierra and Schoenfeld feel natural and true.
As with any theater production, it is a team effort, but this show is exceptional for it’s creative time-traveling closet that worked every time, with special recognition due to technical director Jerry Zalewski, stage manager Dorrie Mitchell, and production manager Konrad Rogowski, with sound design and operations by Dana T. Ring.
As a side note, the Suffield Players recently had to replace the furnace at their historic Mapleton Hall, incurring unexpectedly large expenses. They are hoping to raise $10,000 to help cover their costs, and are looking donations. For further information visit their website or contact them at 860-668-8037.


3 Stars
Location: Mapleton Hall, 1305 Mapleton Ave. Suffield.
Production: Written by Alan Ayckbourn. Directed by Dale T. Facey. Assistant direction by Sharon FitzHenry. Stage manager Dorrie Mitchell. Assistant stage manager Bob Williams. Backstage crew Larry Andersen. Technical director and lighting design by Jerry Zalewski. Production manager Konrad Rogowski. Costume design Rebecca Murray. Set design by Christopher Berrien. Sound design and operations by Dana T. Ring.
Running time: 2 ½ hours, plus a 15-minute intermissions.
Show Times: Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. through March 6.
Tickets: $17, $15 for seniors and students. Not recommended for young children, because of some adult situations. Call 860-668-8037 or visit their website at
Becky Rodia Schoenfeld … Poopay/Phoebe
Mary Fernandez-Sierra … Ruella
Brian Rucci … Harold
Christopher Berrien … Julian
Rayah Martin … Jessica
Allen Nott … Reece

Monday, February 15, 2010

“RENT” rocks at the Broad Brook Opera House

EAST WINDSOR — The Connecticut non-professional premiere of RENT at the Broad Brook Opera House, the award-winning rock opera, is full of energy, passion, intensity, and love, performed by a strong, diverse, and talented cast.
The story is based on the Puccini’s opera “La Boheme” about young bohemian artists living in New York City around 1997 at the height of the AIDS epidemic. A narrator and filmmaker, Mark, played by Thomas Jon Creatore, guides the audience through the complex relationships of his friends, many of who have AIDS.
It’s a bit of a soap opera with lots of relationship twists and turns. Fortunately the show’s program has a helpful flow chart, showing the links between partners. Mark’s roommate Roger is struggling with his girlfriend’s suicide, who killed herself because she had AIDS, which Roger (Tom Knightlee) also contracted presumably from former drug use.
They are freezing in their tenement and can’t afford to pay the rent, hence the title of the musical. They owe rent money to a former roommate, now landlord, Benjamin Coffin III, played by Wayne Crow, who is threatening to evict them all.
Roger’s neighbor, Mimi Marquez (Gia Wright) a dancer and junkie, also suffers from AIDS. Mimi and Roger become a couple eventually, singing the lovely, flirtatious “Light My Candle.”
Mark’s former girlfriend, Maureen Johnson, (Erica Lindblad) a performance artist, has hooked up with a woman, Joanne Jefferson (Nicole R. Giguere) a producer.
Another friend and former roommate who also has AIDS, Tom Collins, (Christopher deJongh) is mugged on the streets of New York. Later he is rescued by a kind street performer and drag queen Angel Dumott Schunard (Giovannie ‘Deseo’ Mendez.)
All the performers are well-cast and excel in their given roles. Wright’s Mimi is a limber, excellent dancer, weaving in and out of the railings, and has a strong piercing singing voice that stands out when she sings “Out Tonight.” Fine choreography by Todd Santa Maria, on a solid set designed by Peggy Messerschmidt.
The lyrics and music by Jonathan Larson are soulful and fine, such as when Mimi sings to Roger “Let’s find a bar so dark we forget who we are.”
Whether he is singing quietly or belting out a tune, Knightlee can always be heard, is articulate, and has a beautiful, emotional voice. Some other performances are difficult to understand at times, which can perhaps be attributed to the uneven sound system, which had some feedback issues Saturday.
Although she had a small role, Melissa Paul’s solo in “Season’s of Love” that kicks off the second act is amazing and powerful, supported by the terrific ensemble cast.
The ensemble really do a super job bringing it all together, and extra nice is the four who play the parents and sing the acappella “Voice Mail #5.”
With profanity, talk about drugs, and simulated sex acts, this show is inappropriate for children.
Mendez, as the drag queen, is fantastic, with energy to spare, jumping on and off tables in remarkably high-heeled shoes and terrific costumes, (costumes by the multi-talented Creatore, who also assisted with the choreography.)
Creatore and Nicole R. Giguere as Joanne Jefferson, Maureen’s new lover do a fine rendition of “The Maureen Tango,” lamenting their shared mistreatment by the darling diva, played with sassy energy by Lindblad, who has her own showstopper with “Over the Moon.”
Director Philip V. DeVito works wonders with a small stage and a large cast of 16 members. At times DeVito has some characters that are not in the action or dialog sitting on stage, which is distracting.
Tickets to the show are selling so well that they have extended their run through March 7.
It seems odd to think of RENT as a dated show. Although AIDS is as serious a health threat as ever, it isn’t what it once was. Still the show has a lot to say about all kinds of love — gay, lesbian, heterosexual, and also about family and finding one’s way in the world.


3½ Stars
Theater: Opera House Players
Location: 107 Main Street, Broad Brook
Production: Music, lyrics and book by Jonathan Larson. Direction by Philip D. Vetro. Musical direction by Angela Klimaytis. Choreography by Todd Santa Maria. Lighting designer Roy Ryzak. Sound design by Avitra, Inc. Costumes and additional choreography by Thomas Jon Creatore. Set designer Peggy Messerschmidt.
Running time: 3 hours, with a 15-minute intermission
Show Times: Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. through March 7.
Tickets: $20, $16 for seniors over 60. Definitely not recommended for children due to language and adult situations. Call 860-292-6068 or visit their website at
Thomas Jon Creatore … Mark Cohen
Tom Knightlee … Roger Davis
Gia Wright … Mimi Marquez
Christopher deJongh … Tom Collins
Erica Lindblad … Maureen Johnson
Nicole R. Giguere … Joanne Jefferson
Giovannie ‘Deseo’ Mendez … Angel Dumott Schunard
Wayne Crow … Benjamin Coffin III
Stacy Constantine, Melissa Paul, Jessica Cutino, Aslynn Brown, Joseph J. Martin, Mike King, Stephen Jewell, Dallas Hosmer … ensemble

Monday, February 01, 2010

Phenominal “The Lion King” at the Bushnell

HARTFORD — Pounding rhythms intertwine with one visual feast after another almost overwhelm the senses in the stunning, awe-inspiring, spectacular multi-award winning production of Disney’s “The Lion King,” returning once again to the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts through Valentine’s Day.
Directed, with costumes, masks and puppets by the inimitable Julie Taymor, the creativity of this film-to-play musical is unsurpassed and is an event that defies superlatives.
The colors and variety of tiny, life-sized, and over-sized animal puppets, flamboyant and gorgeous costumes, and huge, glorious sets, by Richard Hudson, are fantastic and breathtaking.
The story, however, is one of the least compelling aspects of the musical. A spoiler alert — don’t read any further if you want to see the ending for yourself.
A lion cub named Simba is born and the heir apparent as the next king of the jungle, (the young Simba played on alternate nights by Elijah Johnson, Jerome Stevens Jr., and the older played by the energetic Andre Jackson).
Simba’s uncle, Scar, (a fantastic Brent Harris) is not happy about the situation, feeling he should be king, rather than his stronger brother, Mufasa, played by Dionne Randolph.
Scar manipulates the young Simba into dangerous situations, once in the Elephant graveyard where he barely escapes being eaten by the nasty hyenas, who are Scar’s henchmen.
The second time Scar says he has a surprise for Simba that is “to die for,” and places him in the midst of a wildebeest stampede, where he once again escapes with his life, but this time his father, Mufasa, does not.
Simba runs away and hooks up with a couple of kooky characters, Timon the meerkat, played by the fine and funny Tyler Murree, and the flatulent warthog, Pumbaa, played by Ben Lipitz.
Simba grows up and returns to his pride, where the evil Scar has made a royal mess of things. The young lion sets things aright once more, and hence the circle of life continues.
A story like this is only as good as the evil protagonist is bad, and Harris is really, really bad, in a very good way. Hopefully he took it as a compliment when during the curtain call Friday he received some boos along with applause.
Scar’s costume was an exaggerated and uniquely stylized Japanese Kabuki-like outfit with an elaborate rope bodice.
Scar and Mufasu’s remarkable moving lion facemasks are a marvel of engineering and innovative in the way that they drop into full view and then retreat, with masks and puppet design by Taymor and Tim Curry.
Taymor brilliantly blends humans with life sized and larger-than-life puppets, in the tradition of 16th century Bunraku Japanese puppetry, which allow for the facial expressions of the human actors with their puppet counterparts.
She also incorporates the shadow puppet traditions of Indonesia, when showing the creatures moving about in the distance.
Songs by the inimitable Elton John and Tim Rice, such as “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?,” “Circle of Life,” and “Hakuna Matata,” while crowd-pleasers, are a bit cliché at this point. The real appeal is the fabulous African music and dancing.
Rafiki, the terrific baboon shaman, played by the riveting and mesmerizing Phindile Mkhize, opens and closes the show with a voice that is striking, unique, and unforgettable.
The real stunner about “The Lion King” is how Taymor and company are able to pull off the sheer magnitude of this production, with 143 cast and crew members, 25 types of puppet animals (including giraffes, zebras, antelopes elephants and a rhino), and 200 puppets, combined with first rate athleticism and graceful choreography. Garth Fagan is the choreographer.
Also astonishing is how the fragile and delicate costumes and creatures seem, yet how functional and durable they are to withstand constant use and movement.
“The Lion King” is perfect pageantry for all ages and is a phenomenon that exceeds all expectations.


4 Stars
Theater: The William H. Mortensen Hall at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts
Location: 166 Capitol Ave. Hartford
Production: Directed by Julie Taymor. Choreography by Garth Fagan. Music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice. Scenic design by Richard Hudson. Allers and Irene Mecchi. Costumes by Julie Taymor. Book by Roger Lighting design by Donald Holder. Masks and puppet design by Julie Taymor and Michael Curry. Sound design by Steve Canyon Kennedy.
Running time: 3 hours including one 15-minute intermission.
Show Times: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with matinee performances Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m., through Feb. 14.
Tickets: From $20.50 to $128. Call 860-987-5900 or visit their website at
Phindile Mkhize … Rafiki
Dionne Randolph … Mufasa
Brent Harris … Scar
Andre Jackson … Simba
Marja Harmon … Nala
LaShanda Reese-Fletcher … Sarubi
Tony Freeman … Zazu
Tyler Murree … Timon
Ben Lipitz … Pumbaa
Elijah Johnson, Jerome Stevens Jr. … Young Simba
Jamariana Tribble, Madai Monica Williams … Young Nala
“The Lady With All the Answers” is all about connections

HARTFORD — Sometimes plays with just one actor can get tiresome, but this is not the case with the terrific, insightful, and entertaining comedy “The Lady With All the Answers,” about the life and times of columnist Ann Landers, by David Rambo, at TheaterWorks, running through Mar. 7.
Charlotte Booker plays the perky, practical, and down to earth homey woman with forthright directness, and just the right mid-west twang to her speech.
Set in 1975 in Lander’s cozy 1960s furnished living room, with sets by Adrian W. Jones, she invites you to learn all about her fascinating life, from her marriage to Jules, a man she knew for three months before wedding to her eventual divorce. All under the auspices of her simultaneously compiling chapters for her book.
We learn that Ann Landers real name was Esther Pauline Lederer, and her identical twin sister, Pauline Esther Lederer, started her advice column “Dear Abby” about six months after Esther.
Landers says that her sister helped her for a few months with her mail. “She was a quick study,” Landers says, with just enough edge to her voice to let you know she is perturbed, but is too much of a lady and too positive a person to bellyache about it.
We also learn that Hugh Hefner, also from the mid-west, would put on a suit only for his mother and Landers when she would visit the Playboy mansion.
“I’m a square, but I’m no prude,” she says, at one point in her career appearing on a local television show with Linda Lovelace, and spoke of the infamous porn film in direct and graphic terms.
If this play is any indication, Landers was one amazing powerhouse. Having made useful connections in Washington, D.C. early on, she used her rolodex to contact experts, such as getting a supreme court judge to give his opinion on one woman’s question of who owns the walnuts that fall onto one property from the tree on another.
“I always defer to the experts,” Landers says, and through the years, and thousands of letters, she became something of an expert in the American cultural herself.
There are probably as many reasons why we go to plays as there are people who attend shows, but for me, it is all about making connections.
Landers was also all about making connections, and helping others — personally reading and answering every single letter sent to her, whether it was published or not — No small task when she regularly received thousands of letters each week, most of which we learn she read while soaking in a bubble bath.
Booker is simply amazing and top notch with her conversational tone and convincingly, confident, approachable demeanor, assuredly directed by Steve Campo.
Her speech is peppered with amusing and corny sayings, such as: “I needed that like a giraffe needs strep throat.”
When she met her husband-to-be, Jules, a salesman in the bridal section of a department store, who eventually founded Budget Rental Cars, she says: “October 1955 — A date that will live in intimacy.”
We learn that this mid-west “everywoman” became a vocal advocate for abortion rights, gay rights, and was passionately opposed to the Vietnam War.
It’s difficult to imagine today, but before Landers, the word “homosexual” was not printed in newspapers she says.
She was also not into self-aggrandizement. Knowing Hubert Humphrey, who was vice president at the time, she visited military hospitals in Vietnam. There she sat with thousands of wounded men, took down their messages, and when she returned home she made over 2,500 telephone calls to their loved ones. She never publicized her actions, however, saying only “it just didn’t feel right.”
Even when her husband of 36 years left her for a woman younger than her daughter, Landers was dignified, positive, honest, and loving. Not that she was a martyr or a wimp either. Ever the mid-west practical gal, she recognized that perhaps because of their busy lives they lost their connection.
Landers never lost her connection or her concern with her public, though, and it’s fascinating to hear all about it in this marvelous, insightful, endlessly satisfying play.


4 Stars
Theater: TheaterWorks
Location: 233 Pearl St. Hartford.
Production: Written by David Rambo. Directed by Steve Campo. Sets by Adrian W. Jones. Costumes by Kenneth Mooney. Lighting by Mary Jo Dondlinger. Sound by Mike Lastella.
Running time: 95 minutes with one intermission.
Show Times: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. through Mar. 7.
Tickets: Unassigned seating is $39; $49 on Friday and Saturday nights. Center reserved seats $12 extra. $12 student rush tickets at show-time with valid identification (subject to availability). For tickets call 860-527-7838 or visit their website at
Charlotte Booker … Ann Landers
By Kory Loucks
Journal Inquirer