Total Pageviews

Monday, June 28, 2010

Musical magic at CRT’s “Smokey Joe’s Café”

STORRS — After hearing 39 songs in just short of two hours, including “On Broadway,” “Love Potion Number 9,” “Hound Dog,” “Ruby Baby,” and “Charley Brown,” it feels like every 1950s and 1960s Motown Rock and Rock and Roll pop song ever created must have been by the musical team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
Of course this isn’t so, but in the musical review “Smokey Joe’s Café, The Songs of Leiber and Stoller,” at the University of Connecticut’s Nutmeg Summer Series, the sheer volume of the familiar with the new is almost overwhelming, in a very good way.
If the nimble and talent performers only stood still in front of the stage reciting the tunes, that would be fine enough.
What really brings this all music show to life with a huge shot of adrenaline is the stunning choreography, by director B. Peter Westerhoff, the gorgeous and non-stop period costumes, by Sabrina Notarfrancisco, and the clever and impressive cityscape set by scenic designer Michael Anania.
The large panels that had city buildings at angles slipped around the stage, nicely mixing up the visual image of a changing energetic city world.
The lighting by designer Michael Anania creatively changed regularly throughout the show, giving a constantly new look to the set, but at times the spotlights were late or missed their mark.
How these singers have the energy to sing as well as they do while in constant motion, on and off the stage, is difficult to conceive.
Much of the choreography is of the Motown style with three backup singers moving in seamless synchronicity with the lead singer in front, but there was constant variety and well rehearsed timing throughout.
The movement in the wings must be just as impress as on the stage because between most songs, particularly in the first act, with the performers zipping in and out of costumes in a flash.
The cast features professional actors along with non-equity performers including the fine recent University of Connecticut graduate Rachel Rosado as the vixen Brenda when she sang the amusing and seductive “Torch Song.”
At times some of the singing is uneven, and seems to strain and sound nasally, such as when Kaitlin Monte as Pattie sings the harsh-sounding “I Keep Forgetting,” but then really hits her mark with the resoundingly excellent belting tune “Pearl the Singer.”
Same too with Chelsea Gidden as DeLee who sounds strained when she sings “Falling” but sounds terrific in “Trouble” with Monte, and really shakes it up with “Teach Me How to Shimmy.”
A’Lisa D. Miles who plays B.J. found her stride and sounded terrific when she sings “Hound Dog.”
James Frisby sings “Stand by Me,” and others with fine tenor clarity and the animated Curtis Wiley as Victor when he belts out the emotional “I (Who Have Nothing.)”
The comical and mellifluous Nicholas Ward as Frederick has the most beautiful, deep bass voice that is delightfully incongruous with this youthful wide-eyed innocence when he is Charley Brown and at other times.
“Smokey Joe’s Café” is a musical review that could easily go on tour, and as usual with shows at the fine Connecticut Repertory Theater, is ending too soon on Sunday.


Three ½ Stars
Location: Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre, Jorgensen Road, Storrs.
Production: Words and music by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Directed and choreographed by B. Peter Westerhoff. Music direction by Seth Weinstein. Scenic design by Michael Anania. Costume design by Sabrina Notafrancisco. Lighting design by Al Crawford. Sound design by Nathan Leigh. Technical direction by John W. Parnelee. Stage manager Mary P. Costello.
Running time: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission.
Show Times: Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. through July 4.
Tickets: $34 for adults, $18 for Uconn students. Call the box office at 860-486-4266 of visit their website at
James Frisby … Adrian
Brandon Moorhead … Michael
Nicholas Ward … Frederick
Curtis Wiley … Victor
Jamal Lee Harris …. Ken
Rachel Rosado … Brenda
A’lisa D. Miles … B.J.
Kaitin Monte … Pattie
Chelsea Gidden … DeLee

Monday, June 21, 2010

Ivoryton’s “Arsenic and Old Lace” a macabre farce

IVORYTON — An old Connecticut favorite, “Arsenic and Old Lace” is playing at the Ivoryton Playhouse through Sunday.
This show, written by Joseph Kesselring, was originally produced in 1939, and is about two lovable aunts in Brooklyn, New York, who poison elderly gentlemen in what they see as an act of kindness, since the men they knock off are old and lonely, with no family.
What gives the play such a tie to Connecticut is that the story is based on a real murderess, former Windsor-resident Amy Archer-Gilligan, who killed off two of her husbands and at least 66 others in her boarding house around 1911.
Interestingly enough, it was a Hartford Courant reporter who first noticed something suspicious when there were an inordinate number of obituaries reported from the Archer Home for Elderly People and Chronic Invalids, which Archer-Gilligan had opened and operated.
Archer-Gilligan did the dirty deeds with arsenic-laced lemonade, but the Brewster sisters lethal cocktail of choice is elderberry wine with arsenic, strychnine, “and then just a pinch of cyanide.”
They see themselves as angels doing good deeds, while their nephew, Teddy Brewster, played with conviction by Tom Libonate, sees himself as President Theodore Roosevelt, charging up the well-built staircase like it was San Juan Hill.
As Aunt Martha, played with loveable charm and a bizarre logic by Susan Gayle Pynn, says of their nephew, “We so much rather he be Roosevelt rather than nobody.”
Equally charming and delusional, Aunt Abby, played by Alden Rockwell Murphy, laments that their other nephew, Mortimer Brewster, played energetically by Dan Whelton, is a theater critic for a New York newspaper.
“The theater can’t last much longer, but it’s a living,” says Aunt Abby, adding, somewhat incongruously, how appalling it is that Mortimer has to see so much murder and mayhem on the stage.
There is also a third nephew, Jonathan Brewster, who makes an unwelcome entry after a lengthy sojourn. Mortimer says that as a child Jonathan used to “cut worms in two with his teeth,” and adds, “he left Brooklyn early by request.”
Now Jonathan’s back, looking like Boris Karloff and up to nefarious deeds, sporting a face filled with many botched plastic surgeries by erstwhile surgeon, Dr. Einstein, (Herman, not Albert).
The gothically hammy Robert Boardman plays Jonathan Brewster with a malleable face like a rubber mask, while possessing a dancer’s flexibility and grace, well used when he tumbles in windows or sidles up the stairs.
R. Bruce Connelly plays his alcoholic cohort in crime, Dr. Einstein, with perfect comic timing. Connelly ekes every drop of hilarity out of the smallest line with nothing more than a gesture or knowing glance.
The fine Victorian-era living room by scenic designer Rachel Reynolds, a vision in browns, is period perfect, down to the filigree on the staircase banister and the stained glass windows on the front door.
I love the classic 1944 Frank Capra film by the same name, starring Cary Grant with Peter Lorrie, which is just as wacky, but not as hilarious as this production, well directed by Julia Kiley.
As a special extra, M. William Phelps, the author of “The Devil’s Rooming House,” about female serial killer Archer-Gilligan, will be at the Ivoryton Playhouse on Saturday to speak about his book and sign copies after the evening performance.
I have seen this show numerous times at community theaters and have enjoyed them all, but this production of “Arsenic and Old Lace” at the Ivoryton Playhouse is hands down the best one yet.


4 Stars
Location: Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main Street, Ivoryton, Conn.
Production: Written by Joseph Kesselring. Directed by Julia Kiley. Scenic design by Rachel Reynolds. Stage manager Theresa Stark. Costume design by Pam Puente. Lighting design by Aaron Breskey. Wig design by Joel Silvestro.
Running time: 2 ½ hours including 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 June 27.
Tickets: $38 for adults, $33 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
Dan Whelton … Mortimer Brewster
Robert Boardman … Jonathan Brewster
R. Bruce Connelly … Dr. Einstein
Alden Rockwell Murphy … Abby Brewster
Susan Gayle Pynn … Martha Brewster
Tom Libonate … Teddy Brewster
Courtney Shaw … Elaine Harper
Kevin Spedding … Officer O’Hara
Stephen Kelly … Rev. Dr. Harper; Lt. Rooney
Jamison Daniels … Officer Brophy
Dan Coyle … Mr. Gibbs
Joe Kornfeld … Mr. Witherspoon

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

CRT’s “All in the Timing” an aburdist, existential romp

STORRS — What can you say about six short one-act plays that take the real world and turn it on its head?
The plays were written by David Ives at different times and are presented together as a kind of Ives surreal smorgasbord.
These vignettes investigate the nature of connection through an invented language in “The Universal Language,” the absurd study of chimps attempting to type in “Words, Words, Words,” and a stop-motion language of courtship in “Sure Thing,” and others.
Directed by AJ Rose at the Nutmeg Summer Theater at the Nafe Katter Theater at the University of Connecticut, these mini-plays require an actively attentive audience, rather than just kicking back.
There aren’t many plays that joke about Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” but they do in “Sure Thing.”
Have you ever had that feeling of saying the wrong thing and wishing that you could yell “cut!” and begin again? This one act explores that possibility in a humorous and intellectual manner.
Blake DeLong plays Bill who walks into a restaurant and meets the stranger, Betty, played by Gretchen Goode.
They engage in various halting attempts at conversation, and each time they go too far, or say something they wish they hadn’t, a desk clerk bell rings and they get to try it again.
The absurdist “Words, Words, Words” has three actors playing chimpanzees, DeLong as Swift, Goode as Kafka, and Phil Korth as Milton, who are being tested by scientists to see if they can type, through random chance, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”
You wonder who’s using whom when Korth’s Milton slyly observes, “for apes in captivity this is not a bad gig.”
They talk a good game amongst themselves, and have all the intelligence needed to get what they want, food and shelter, but can’t articulate their knowledge through their typing, and only produce endless nonsense.
Kristin Wold and Mark Emerson are charming and disarming as student and teacher in “The Universal Language,” an attempt to bring all people together under one common tongue called “Unamunda” that sounds suspiciously like the pig Latin of my youth, or rip everyone off in the process.
It is a delightful celebration of the quirky, extreme, and “bizzaro,” but interesting. The fantastical “Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread,” is an ode to Glass and Robert Wilson’s wild ground-breaking surrealist opera, “Einstein on the Beach” with Goode, Wold, Emerson, and DeLong as Glass, in an intricate, seamless opera-like staccato performance that is difficult to describe, but strangely satisfying to observe.
“The Philadelphia” short play is something like the song “I’m in a New York state of mind.”
DeLong observes that it is “opposite day” for Mark, played by Korth, where everything he asks for, he gets the exact opposite — a sure sign that he woke up in “a Philadelphia,” he is told.
Meanwhile, DeLong, playing Al, lost his job and his girlfriend, but doesn’t care because he woke up in “a Los Angeles.”
Being in “a Cleveland” is the worst state of all, because DeLong says, “Cleveland is like death without the advantages.”
Wold and Goode play Edna and Flo, two Polish church helpers, in the sweet and humane “Lives of Saints,” where the everyday acts of caring for others is honored, and the interesting, complex sound effects, operated by DeLong, Emerson, and Korth, are revealed.
In his comments on his plays, Ives says he enjoys the collaboration with actors during the creative process even more than the plays’ performances, and you can sense the improvisational, random elements at work here.
Directed by AJ Rose, “All in the Timing” is like nothing else you have probably ever seen, and is well acted and energetically performed.


3 Stars
Theater: Connecticut Repertory Theatre
Location: Nafe Katter Theater, 802 Bolton Rd., Storrs
Production: Written by David Ives. Directed by AJ Rose. Scenic design by Michael Anaia. Costume design by Lucy Brown. Lighting design by Zakaria M. Al-Alami. Sound design by Nathan Leigh. Technical director Stefan Koniarz.
Running time: 2 hours with one intermission.
Show Times: Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., and Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. through June 20.
Tickets: Admission $25 and $37. Call 860-486-4226 or visit their website at
Blake DeLong … Bill, Philip Glass, Swift, Al
Gretchen Goode … Betty, Kafka, Flo
Kristin Wold … Dawn, Waitress, Edna
Mark Emerson … Don, Baker
Phil Korth … Milton, Mark