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Monday, August 23, 2010

Ivoryton’s “Finian’s Rainbow” a colorful confection

IVORYTON — It’s a bit of leprechaun’s charm with a touch of old Irish blarney at the Ivoryton Playhouse in their colorful production of the sweet musical “Finian’s Rainbow,” running through Sept. 5.
This is a high school perennial favorite, and one can see why, with many parts along with a good moral story about the evils of racism and the possibility of redemption.
R. Bruce Connelly makes a fine Irishman, Finian McLonergan although his Irish accent evaporates at times, and has an elfin twinkle in his eye.
He drags his daughter, Sharon, to America in order to make a new life for themselves in the fictional town of Rainbow Valley, Missitucky, a combination of Mississippi and Kentucky, in 1947.
When Sharon, played by the excellent Kathleen Mulready, asks her pop if there aren’t people who are hungry and poor in America, he responds enthusiastically that there are but, “They are the best ill-clothed and the best ill-housed in the world.”
And when he says he “borrowed” some gold from the leprechauns, he observes, “Who else would have gold in Ireland?”
Finian has brought that stolen pot of gold to bury it and start good things here, but since he actually stole the leprechauns’ gold, all the leprechauns have started to grow, loose their green color, and become human.
Finian and his daughter come upon a scene where the family homestead belonging to a mute girl named Susan, played by the graceful Tessa Grunwald, is about to be seized by the bigot Senator Billboard Rawkins, played by Larry Lewis, because of unpaid back taxes. Lewis is terrific as the arrogant and obnoxious senator who learns to see the world through a black man’s eyes.
Woody, brother of Susan, played by the swell John Rochette, comes at the last minute with the money, but it turns out he is $70 short. Sharon comes up with the cash, and they fall in love, natch.
Rochette has a fine, warm singing voice, which blends well with Mulready’s strong melodic sound.
They sing some lovely songs together, including the crooning “Old Devil Moon.”
The dynamic powerhouse Patryce Williams plays Dottie and belts out the jazzy doo-wop “Necessity,” practically stealing the show from the leprechaun.
That leprechaun, Og, is played by the quirky and wacky Michael Nathanson, who seems a bit like the naughty Puck from Shakespeare’s “A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream.”
Og is terribly upset that he is becoming human after some 475 years as a leprechaun, but at the same time is learning to enjoy the sensations of being human, including falling in love, and oddly enough, morphing into an Elvis impersonator.
Then there is the Irish-tinged “How are Things in Glocca Morra?” that has a sweet, melancholic sound and appears a couple of times in the musical.
Also nice is the lighthearted gospel novelty song “The Begat,” which is well done, with fine choreographed by Schuyler Beeman.
The show, which was originally produced on Broadway in 1947, feels heavily influenced by Thornton Wilder archetypes, where the characters talk directly to the audience, informing us what is going to happen next, and where we are in the show. Dottie tells the audience when Act I is ending, for example. That style feels somewhat dated, but since the show is set back in that era, it works all right.
The set, designed by Tony Andrea, is simple and functional, with a tree that gets climbed at times, and an undulating backdrop that is elegant and fits this whimsical musical to a tee.
The lighting illuminating the backdrop in shades of chartreuse, fuchsia, purple, pink, and more, designed by Tate Burmeister, is inspired and well executed, adding much to the enjoyment of this colorful happy production.


3 Stars
Location: Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main Street, Ivoryton
Production: Book by E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy. Directed by Julia Kiley. Music by Burton Lane. Lyrics by E.Y. Harburg. Music direction by John S. DeNicola. Scenic design by Tony Andrea. Lighting design by Tate Burmeister. Choreography by Schuyler Beeman. Costume design by Pan Puente. Stage manager T. Rick Jones.
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 Sept. 5.
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
R. Bruce Connelly ... Finian McLonergan
Kathleen Mulready ... Sharon McLonergan
Tessa Grunwald ... Susan Mahoney
John Rochette ... Woody Mahoney
Michael Nathanson ... Og
Larry Lewis ... Senator Billboard Rawkins
George Lombardo ... Buzz Collins
Jamison Daniels ... Sheriff
Nicholas Fillippides ... Henry
Patryce Williams ... Dotty
Christopher Brasfield ... Howard
Jayson Kerr ... Sharecropper
Stefanie Foster, Emily Ide, Megan Wingo, and Schuyler Beeman ... Ensemble

Monday, August 09, 2010

Love makes the world go round in Goodspeed’s charming “Carnival!”1)
EAST HADDAM — Before there was Cirque du Soleil there was the Imperial Cirque de Paris in the darling and daring production of “Carnival!” at the Goodspeed Opera House.
The show is beautifully cast with every actor just perfect for his or her part, lead by the dear naïve waif, Lili, played with perky charm by diminutive Lauren Worsham.
Worsham, who looks much like the actress Natalie Portman, has not only the strongest voice of the many fine singers in the musical, but has a tone that is clear and thrilling to hear.
She plays an orphan who joins a second-rate circus in post-World War II France that is longing to return to their former glory days and play Paris again. It would have been nice if the actors had French accents to make it feel more like France rather than somewhere in Iowa.
She meets the usual suspects, including an arrogant magician, Marco the Magnificent, played with broad self-absorption by Mike McGowan. His sidekick is lovelorn Rosalie, played by the funny and fine Michelle Blakely, who reminds me of a Lucille Ball who can sing.
Lili also meets the acerbic and bitter Paul, a former famous dancer who was wounded in the war and now hides behind his puppets. He uses the puppets to express his love and gentleness in ways he cannot. Paul is well played with intensity and anger by Adam Monley.
The four puppets are beautiful and detailed by puppet designer Robert Smythe, and Monley makes them come to life.
The show which opened in New York in 1961, has one familiar song, the sweet lullaby “Love Makes the World Go Round,” and while the other songs advance the plot and are very good, they are not particularly memorable.
The acrobatics, gymnastics, and choreography by the top-notch ensemble cast are remarkable, with choreography by Peggy Hickey and aerial choreography by Joshua Dean.
The costumes by Fabio Toblini live up to the high standards that the Goodspeed always sets, with a colorful compendium of acrobatic strips and solid silks for the ensemble.
Also gorgeous are the fabulous can-can outfits and the high-kicking can-can dance that shows off the detailed underskirts.
There is an over-the-top frilly pink poofy dress for one scene with Lili and the puppets, proving that you can have comedy in clothing.
“Carnival!” is a sweet bit of cotton candy of a musical — Not too filling and delicious.


3½ Stars
Location: Goodspeed Opera House, Route 82, East Haddam
Production: Music and lyrics by Bob Merrill. Original book by Michael Stewart based on material by Helen Deutsch with revisions by Francine Pascal. Directed by Darko Tresnjak. Choreography by Peggy Hickey. Music direction by Michael O’Flaherty. Scenic design by David P. Gordon. Costume design by Fabio Toblini. Puppet design and staging by Robert Smythe. Lighting design by John Lasiter. Sound by Jay Hilton.
Running time: 2 ½ hours including one 15-minute intermission
Show Times: Wednesday, Sunday, and selected Thursday matinees at 2 p.m., Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Saturday matinees at 3 p.m., and selected Sundays at 6:30 p.m. through Sept. 18.
Tickets: $27.50 — $71. Call the box office at 860-873-8668 or visit their website at
Lauren Worsham … Lili
Adam Monley … Paul
Nathan Klau … Jacquot
Michelle Blakely … Rosalie
Mike McGowan … Marco
David Engel … Marco starting Aug. 18
Laurent Giroux … Schlegel
Michael Kostroff Schlegel starting Aug. 18
Price Waldman … Grobert
LTM’s first 25 years is celebrated in a musical review

MANCHESTER — In celebration of 50 years including 240 plays and musicals, it’s a walk down memory lane at the Little Theatre of Manchester’s production of “The First 25 Years — A Musical Review” playing through Sunday.
There is something for every musical lover here, with some that are classics that never grow old, like “Try to Remember” from “The Fantastics,” “If I Loved You” from “Carousel” and “Matchmaker” from “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Other songs are from musicals I have yet to see, such as “The Boy Friend” with the rousing song and dance number “Dance the Charleston with Me,” energetically performed by the nimble Ric Plamenco and perky Kristen Shaw. Also “Gorgeous” sung by Sarah Jane Hayes from the musical “The Apple Tree.”
The show is well directed by LTM Artistic Director Debi Freund, with no down time between songs, and moves along at a fine pace in the two-hour show. The show opens with a pre-recorded reminiscence by Fred T. Blish, who has been with the company since the start.
Blish is still active with LTM as the set design for this production.
I liked how Freund has the stage manager walk about the stage in the very beginning, yelling out cues and testing the lights and sound. It feels authentic, and sets the right tone for the show. I also appreciate Blish’s comments, but would prefer to have them broadcast before the stage manager does his thing.
Freund does a fine job mixing and matching the pace of songs, with upbeat tunes following slower ballads and funny numbers after more somber tunes.
The 23 talented performers work well together in the ensemble and then have their moment to shine with solos, which include the wonderful John-Michael Whitney singing “If I Loved You,” from “Carousel,” to a duets, such as Wesley Olds and Marika Kraus who sing the delightful “People Will Say We’re In Love,” from “Oklahoma.”
Another touching and sweet duet is by Art and Charlotte Bradbury who sing the poignant “Do You Love Me” from “Fiddler on the Roof.” We later learn from the relaxed LTM veteran Mike Zizka that in real life the Bradburys have been married to each other for 63 years.
There is a tricky trio well done by Sam Greene, Olds, and Dan Petrozza called “Fugue for Tinhorns” from “Guys & Dolls,” and a quartet with Kate Garrahy, Joyce Hodgson, Olds, and Zizka singing the romantic anthem “If We Only Had Love,” from “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.”
The cast represents a broad spectrum of age and experience, with the youthful Katie Emery and Maria Meier blending beautifully with Shaw in the “Fiddler on the Roof” song “Matchmaker,” which was also finely choreographed, as was the entire show, by choreographer Todd Santa Maria.
There is also the veteran performer Jayne Newirth, who still has that old pizzazz when she sings the terrific “People” from “Funny Girl” and the sarcastic “The Ladies Who Lunch” from “Company.”
Jenna Levitt is also super singing “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” from “Funny Girl,” along with the razor-fast “Getting Married Today” with Whitney, and Mary deManbey from “Company.”
Michael Forgetta is, dare I say it, unforgettable as Pseudolus singing the fun “Comedy Tonight” with campy excess, which is just what the song requires, from the musical “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
I also like how they have each of the 23 show’s names on sparkling stars in the back of the stage, as well as the year it was performed at LTM. A spotlight shines on the show from which a song is about to be performed.
This is a song-and-dance vaudevillian feel good experience, where everyone is having a great time strutting their stuff.
When seen altogether, it is clear that LTM has much to be proud of with their long and varied history in the unabashed pure cabaret entertainment at LTM’s “The First 25 Year — A Musical Review.”


3½ Stars
Location: Cheney Hall, 177 Hartford Road, Manchester
Production: Directed by Debi Freund. Musical direction by Kim Aliczi. Choreography by Todd Santa Maria. Stage manager Tom Goodin. Set design by Fred T. Blish. Lighting design by Lee Hammit. Sound design and operator Jim Ryan.
Running time: 2 hours, plus one 15-minute intermission.
Show Times: Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Sundays at 2 p.m., and through Aug. 15.
Tickets: $16 — $23. Call the box office at 860-647-9824, or visit their website at
PERFORMERS in alphabetical order
Diane AmEnde, Susan Bailey, Art Bradbury, Charlotte Bradbury, Mary deManbey, Katie Emery, Michael Forgetta, Kate Garrahy, Sam Greene, Susan Jane Hayes, Joyce Hodgson, Marika Kraus, Jenna Levitt, Maria Meier, Laura Nadeau, Jayne Newirth, Wesley Olds, Dan Petrozza, Ric Plamenco, Sherrie Schallack, Kristen Shaw, John-Michael Whitney, Mike Zizka

Monday, August 02, 2010

HSC’s “Sheila’s Day” glorious musical history

WEST HARTFORD — A vibrant, informative, and ultimately uplifting civil rights history lesson set to music is in store for you at the Hartford Stage production of the glorious “Sheila’s Day” at Roberts Theatre on the Kingswood-Oxford School campus.
This 90-minute show, originally produced at the Crossroads Theatre Company in New Brunswick, New Jersey, bursts with life, love, rhythm, and song, with everything from blues to gospel to fabulous South African ululation and songs.
The Hartford Stage Company’s theater in Hartford is being remodeled with additional trap doors beneath the stage, new heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems, and probably most welcome of all, much needed expanded restrooms.
South African playwright and musician Mbongeni Ngema originally conceived “Sheila’s Day” to honor his mother, a South African domestic worker. In South Africa, maids are often referred to as “Sheilas” by their white employers, despite their native names.
The concept eventually evolved to include the United States civil rights movement and smoothly, interestingly balances the painful, often horrific parallel stories of mob hatred and violence against blacks in both countries.
Scenes such as the Freedom Rider bus that was bombed in 1961 in Alabama; the four black students who demanded to be served at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960; and Rosa Parks refusal to give up her seat to whites on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955 were intermingled with South African protests and other atrocities.
Perhaps less familiar to some, but informative, was the 1956 Pretoria, South Africa boycott where 20,000 women protested the extending of passes to African women. Also reenacted is the 1972 incident at Cape Town, Johannesburg where white authorities push activist and writer Mthuli Shezi in front of a moving train for defending Black women at the Germiston Station.
Often when actors play composite characters they become one dimensional, but that is not the case with this truly talented ensemble of 10 performers, lead by Ann Duquesnay as Ruby Lee and Thuli Dumakude as the South African Qedusizi.
Dumakude is also the show’s musical director.
Their harmonies are gorgeous, making the pain of their stories only slightly less overwhelming. Thankfully there are some comic-relief bits, such as when Ashley Bryant as Stephanie flirts with the southern wives’ husbands at night, and then shows up at church the following day, looking for forgiveness from those same wives.
There’s also some fun and light-hearted interaction with the audience — but don’t worry, no one gets pulled up onto the stage.
The show drags a bit in the beginning, but once the singers get warmed up, they hit their stride and fly.
“Sheila’s Day” is a blessed opportunity to become immersed in two rich cultures and is an enriching experience worth every step of the journey. And at 90 minutes without an intermission it is just the right length.


4 Stars
Location: Hartford Stage Company at Kingswood-Oxford School’s Roberts Theatre, 170 Kingswood Rd., West Hartford.
Production: Conceived and written by Duma Ndlovu. Directed by Ricardo Khan. Co-created with Mbongeni Ngema, with additional material by Ebony Jo-Ann. Music direction by Thuli Dumakude. Lighting design by Victor En Yu Tan. Costume design by Sasha Ehlers.
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Show Times: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with matinee performances Sundays and selected Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. through Aug. 15.
Tickets: $23 — $66. Call 860-527-5151 or visit their website at
Thuli Dumakude … Qedusizi
Ann Duquesnay … Ruby Lee
Tu Nokwe … Tu
Natalie Venetia Belcon … Annelen
Carla Brothers … Carla
Ashley Bryant … Stephanie
Erin Cherry … Valerie
Chantal Jean-Pierre … Torres
Taifa Harris … Breedlove
Julia Lema … Irene
Kathleen Turner tour-de-force performance in TheaterWorks’ “High”

HARTFORD — It’s been said that writers should write about what they know. For Connecticut native Matthew Lombardo, playwright of the world premiere at TheaterWorks of “High,” that knowledge lies squarely in methanphetamine addiction and the Catholic Church.
For Lombardo, who grew up in Wethersfield, his story is of a successful playwright turning into a hard-core drug addict at 36.
In his play, a young gay meth addict, Cody Randall (Evan Jonigkeit), is brought to a Catholic Church rehab center where Father Michael Delpapp, played by Michael Berresse, demands that social worker and nun, Sister Jamison Connelly, played by the commanding Kathleen Turner, is fix the junkie.
Turner is dominating as the wisecracking, foul-mouthed, tough-as-nails nun who has seen it all, and is more than capable of handling the young gangsta-talking homosexual hustler.
Turner’s Connelly is a recovering alcoholic with a mouth like a longshoreman. She says she told a fellow-nun that between alcohol and cursing, she could only handle giving up one addition in a lifetime.
Between scenes with the addict and the priest, she speaks directly to the audience about her own demons and her dark and sad past, along with sharing parables and mini-sermons, like one of my favorites, the scorpion and the frog.
This very adult play has nudity, prolific profanity, and violence, with discussions of sodomy, prostitution, child rape, death, and of course, plenty of drug abuse.
Jonigkeit is convincing as a bundle of nervous ticks and hyper-kinetic energy. He is wary and understandably distrustful as the youthful meth addict whose story of being the son of a drug addict and a drug user since a child, makes his future a pretty dismal one.
The addict was found in a hotel room with a 14-year-old boy, dead from an overdose, by the priest, who insists the nun counsel him.
The priest, played with depth by Berresse, has his own set of dark secrets, that aren’t of the usual creepy priest variety, but disturbing none-the-less when revealed, and frankly difficult for me to fathom.
Sometimes the dialog is over-long and pedantic, such as when we learn that Connelly doesn’t wear a “penguin suit” the nun’s Habit, and goes into great explanation about how things have changed. Irrelevant, really.
There are also some glaring holes in the plot, such as why the parents of the 14-year-old boy were concerned enough to send the child money to come home, but not concerned enough to actually come and get the child.
Plot issues aside, however, the topic of drug abuse, addition, and the sheer effort of will to live are relevant, poetically written and powerfully expressed.
Part of the problem we have as a society, I believe, which “High” brings to crystalline clarity, is that we forget that often the original intention behind abusing drugs or alcohol is to forget about our troubles and feel good and happy, and to connect with others. These are not bad intentions, but using drugs to achieve them just doesn’t work in the long run.
Connelly says as much when she says, “Booze has a way to make a young life more bearable.” Good intention — bad result.
Meth ups the ante, though, when it comes to trying to quit. Statistically the chances of staying clean are a frighteningly low one in three.
Elsewhere, Connelly tells Cody that the sooner he realizes he is a “garden-variety addict,” the sooner he will be on his way to recovery. Tough love, but true.
The simple set designed by David Gallo works well for this production, with parallel walls rolling forward and retreating when needed. The stars in the backdrop add a magical and dreamy quality.
The production, commandingly and surly directed by Rob Ruggiero, moves at a fast clip in the second act, revealing in the dark and heart-breaking recesses of life and death the fragile miracle of healing and redemption.


3 1/2 Stars
Location: TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford.
Production: Written by Matthew Lombardo. Directed by Rob Ruggiero. Assistant director Mick Eilerman. Set design by David Gallo. Costume design by Jess Goldstein. Lighting design by John Lasiter. Sound design by Vincent Olivieri. Special makeup design by Joe Rossi.
Running time: 2 hours including one 15-minute intermission.
Show Times: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday, Aug. 15 at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with matinee performances Sunday and selected Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. through Aug. 22.
Tickets: $49 for all shows. $15 more for reserved seating. Ages 16 and 17 free. Call 860-527-7838 or visit their website at
Kathleen Turner … Sister Jamison Connelly
Michael Berresse … Father Michael Delapp
Evan Jonigkeit … Cody Randall