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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

“Baby Universe, A Puppet Odyssey” boldly goes where no puppets have gone before

NEW YORK — Imagine it is billions of years from now. Our solar system is dying, and the sun has become a red giant, but a few people are is still alive and desperately trying to create another universe to where they might escape.
This is the premise of “Baby Universe, A Puppet Odyssey,” but don’t let the puppets throw you — this is no children’s show, although children would definitely get it.
It’s a world where the sun has literally turned into a large red giant, played by Andrew Manjuck, and the planet Mercury, (the voice of Kirjan Waage) is burning to a crisp, with the moon doing the jealous sun’s bidding, trying to stop man from creating another universe.
It is also a morality tale and a love story between a creator, here the loving Mother, (the voice of Gwendolyn Warnock), caring for a newly born adorable Baby Universe 7001, complete with mutant constellations, with the voice of Peter Russo.
The actors seamlessly interchange performing the various puppets throughout the show, but the voices of the characters are always the same actors.
There is only one man, one woman, and one child left on the dark and scary planet earth, in addition to the scientists. It doesn’t rain anymore and there are no trees or birds or beautiful things, and everyone wears gas masks and is terrified.
The perennially cheerful Apocalypse Radio host, with the voice of Andrew Manjuck, interviews all three, and they say, “These are the last days. Nothing can keep death from us.”
The scientists are desperately trying to create another world where the survivors can travel to and start again, and so they frantically create baby universes hoping one of them might contain a blue planet in a small solar system where they might find a home.
The puppeteers who anthropomorphize the planets are dressed in dark costumes and wear gas masks next to their various puppets, which renders them almost invisible and add to the dark and desperate atmosphere.
At times there is almost a mystical Javanese shadow puppet feeling when the miniature puppets are projected onto a screen in shadow form, such as when the sun’s henchman, the moon, chases after the new Baby Universe 7001 and delivers it to the sun to destroy as he has other baby universes before him.
Some have criticized the simplicity of the sets, designed by the Wakka Wakka ensemble from Norway and Joy Wang, but I think that they work perfectly well and enable the audience to participate in the fantasy and magic of the show.
Before the one-act play begins in the lobby an amazing robotic puppet named Hawkings 5000, who looks like a tiny version of the physicist Stephen Hawkings, tools about in a miniature wheelchair conversing with the people in the lobby. It’s slightly creepy, but pretty amazing, all guided by computer by creator Brian Patton.
This Off-Broadway production, located in the pristine Baruch Performing Arts Center in New York City, is off the beaten path but definitely well worth the effort.


4 Stars
Location: Baruch Performing Arts Center, 55 Lexington Ave. E. 25th St., at Lexington and 3rd Ave.
Production: Written and directed by Kirjan Waage and Gwendolyn Warnock. Costume design and masks by Warnock. Executive and creative producer in U.S. Gabrielle Brechner. Executive and creative producer in Norway, Waage. Composer Lars Petter Hagen. Video artist Naho Taruishi. Lighting design by Kate Leahy. Sound design by Brett Jarvis. Set design by Wakka Wakka and Joy Wang.
Running time: 75 minutes with no intermission.
Show Times: Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 7 p.m. through Jan. 9. There is no show on Friday, Dec. 31, but there is a show at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 1. There are additional shows on Friday, Jan. 7 and Saturday, Jan. 8 at 2 and 10 p.m., and on Saturday, Jan. 8 and Sunday, Jan. 9 at 11 a.m.
Tickets: $30 for adults and $20 for students and seniors. For tickets call 866-811-4111 or go to the website at
Peter Russo ... Baby Universe
Gwendolyn Warnock ... Mother
Andrew Manjuck ... The Sun, Apocalypse Radio host, Scientist 2, the Monitor
Kirjan Waage ... The Moon, Mercury, Scientist 1
Melissa Creighton ... Ensemble

Sunday, December 12, 2010

“Barnum” at Ivoryton a sweet biographical musical

by Kory Loucks

IVORYTON — It’s bah humbug of a completely different sort at the Ivoryton Playhouse production of the musical “Barnum” directed by Jacqueline Hubbard and playing through Dec. 19.
Here, it is Phineas Taylor Barnum, or P.T. Barnum as he is still known the world over, the famous circus impresario from the 1800s and Connecticut native, who is often quoted as having said, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” which is the first of many songs in the show.
It’s not clear if Barmum really said that quote, but one can understand why it stuck to him, because he made his livelihood hyping his productions.
For example, Barnum sold tickets to people to see the 160-year-old woman, Joice Heth, played by Marianne Hile, who was supposed to have been the nurse to George Washington.
In the musical he explains that humbug is just another word for stretching the truth, also known as lying, to give the people a show.
The musical follows the story of his eventful life, played by the energetic and effervescent R. Bruce Connelly, from finding the diminutive Tom Thumb, played by the fine Justin Boudreau, and parading him and other unique people around the world in his show, to running for political office.
The musical also examines his relationship with his wife, Chairy, played by Beverly J. Galpin, who was a conservative New England woman, very different than her flamboyant showman husband.
That’s where this musical bogs down at times, because a musical biography, even if it is historically and chronologically accurate, gets a bit dull. Some of the songs drag.
Usually there a lot of professional actors in the Ivoryton Playhouse productions, but this show is almost all local amateur talent, with many young and well-rehearsed children playing the clowns and gymnasts and all are excellent.
The aerialists, Michael Viau and Sara Stelizer in particular do an amazing job reminiscent of Cirque du Soleil. The gymnasts are the real thing too, and the clowns are a cute as can be. There is even a little dog, Minnie, who does some adorable tricks in a little tutu.
Also believable with a gorgeous voice is Danielle Cohen who does a realistic interpretation of the Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind, who toured with P.T. Barnum.
It wasn’t until after his political career that he hooked up with James A. Bailey, played by Scott Wasserman, and came up with the idea of a three-ring circus, where three acts could play simultaneously.
Barnum is a fine show for kids too. How can you go wrong with juggling, stilt-walkers, gymnasts, and clowns all performing as part of “The Greatest Show on Earth?


3 Stars
Location: Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main Street, Ivoryton
Production: Book by Mark Bramble. Music by Cy Coleman. Lyrics by Michael Stewart. Directed by Jacqueline Hubbard. Choreography by Francesca Webster. Music direction by John De Nicola. Scenic design by Daniel Nischan. Stage manager Holly Price. Lighting design by Doug Harry. Costume design by Vivianna Lamb.
Running time: 2 hours including 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 Dec. 19.
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 … Phineas Taylor Barnum
Beverley J. Galpin … Chairy Barnum
Marianne Hile … Joice Heth
Justin Boudreau … Tom Thumb, Chester Lyman
Jamison Daniels … Julius Goldschmidt, Humbert Morrisey
Danielle Cohen … Jenny Lind
Scott Wasserman … Ringmaster, James A. Bailey
Patrick Lynch … Amos Scudder
Chris Mahan … Sherwood Stratton
Maureen Alfiero … Mrs. Sherwood Stratton
Zach Ivins … Wilton
Chris Mahn … Edgar Templeton
Michael Viau … Aerialist
Sara Stelzer … Aerialist
Charles Everett Crocco, Olivia Harry, Bridget Harry, Emily May … Clowns
Annie Alfiero, Emma Nanamaker … Female ensemble
Julianna Alvord, Jenna Berloni, Torie Chiappa, Sabrina Henderson, Addison Marchese, Allie Nelson, Sara Stelzer … Dancers and gymnasts

Monday, December 06, 2010

Judith Ivey a marvel as “Shirley Valentine” at the Long Wharf

NEW HAVEN — It’s a leap over the pond and back in time to 1980s Liverpool, England in Long Wharf Theatre’s heartfelt production of “Shirley Valentine” starring the incomparable Judith Ivey.
This one-woman show, which was first produced in England in 1988, is the story of a 52-year-old wife and mother whose children are grown and whose husband is less than supportive. Shirley ends up talking to the wall and to the audience about her life and how she got to be in the sad and depressing rut she finds herself in.
Her friend, Jane, has bought her a ticket to Greece, and the two of them are going off on a two-week holiday.
When I first learned that “Shirley Valentine” was a one-woman show, my heart sank a bit. And when I learned that there were two acts, I was even more on guard. As good as actors are, I have found it difficult for any one person to hold my attention for two hours.
I needed have worried. Ivey is a marvel. And she really isn’t alone on that stage. She brings all the people in her life, including her husband Joe, her daughter Milandra, her son, Brian, her friend Jane, and others along for the ride.
Ivey is pitch-perfect with her dialects and when she speaks as others, it really feels like Valentine imitating people, rather than Ivey just doing accents.
There is a lot of dialog and she is talking all the time, but she manages to make it all sound natural and conversational. The audience is a character also, participating as the listeners to her fascinating story.
And she has a lot to say. It’s a philosophical journey, well directed by Gordon Edelstein and finely written by Willy Russell, who also wrote the terrific “Educating Rita.”
Russell was a hairdresser in his youth and he must have been a very good listener because you can hear all these Liverpool working class gal’s lives wrapped up in Valentine.
Valentine has a lively, down-to-earth, unique way of speaking, such as when she calls the act of making love a “horizontal party.” Her humor isn’t so much one-liners, though, but it evolves naturally from the story of her life she tells.
She says she doesn’t hate men, and isn’t a feminist, unlike her mate Jane who found her husband in bed with the milkman.
“From that day on I noticed she never takes milk in her tea anymore,” Valentine says.
There’s plenty of amusing maxims throughout, as when she says that marriage is like the Middle East — There’s no solution, and the best you can hope for is a cease-fire.
She recognizes that life is hard on men as well as women, and observes that it can’t be much fun for her husband to be stuck in his rut either.
In the beginning she is preparing eggs and chips for her husband Joe in a claustrophobically minuscule kitchen, with set design by Frank Alberino. She really cooks that sliced potato in oil on a stove and the whole theater smells of the grease.
When in the second act she is at a beach on a glorious Grecian isle, it would be wonderful to have the smell of the sea. Just lighting a scented candle would do the trick. Also, it would have been nice to have the sound of waves gently breaking in the background.
I love all the 1980s music by David Bowie, Phil Collins, and others, with sound by Ran Rumery. It really helps give the sense of time and place.
Ivey as Valentine confidently and assuredly takes you on an exciting, brave, and transformational journey of growth and self-discovery that everyone can benefit from.
She’s just the kind of gal I would be pleased to have a cup of tea with, or perhaps share a nice bottle of wine. And in many ways, I feel like I already have.


3½ Stars
Location: 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven
Production: Written by Willy Russell. Directed by Gordon Edelstein. Set design by Frank Alberino. Costume design by Marin Pakledinaz. Lighting design by Rui Rita. Sound design by Ran Rumery. Dialect coach Stephen Gabis. Stage manager Jason Hindelang.
Running time: 2 hours plus one 15-minute intermission.
Show Times: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Sundays at 7 p.m., Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Saturday matinees at 3 p.m. and Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. through Jan. 2.
Tickets: $45 to $65. For more information call their box office at 203-787-4282, or visit their website at
Judith Ivey … Shirley Valentine
CRT’s “A Flea In Her Ear” a sparkling quality farce

STORRS — In 1907 Georges Feydeau’s “A Flea In Her Ear” opened in Paris during a golden period in France called Le Belle Epoque, or Beautiful Era.
Now, over 100 years later, this ribald, witty, wacky, and sexy French bedroom farce is still as improbable and hilarious as it must have been back in its heyday.
The ensemble cast of energetic students at Connecticut Repertory Theatre does a fabulous job with the complicated and ever-changing show that requires a high degree of physical and oral dexterity.
As with any good farce worth its weight in silliness, the plot revolves around a mistaken assumption by a society woman, Raymonde Chandebise, played by Grectchen Goode, that her husband, Victor (the versatile Tom Foran) is having an affair with another woman.
Her suspicions are prompted by his lack of amorous attentions along with a pair of his suspenders that arrived in a package from a notorious hotel called the Frisky Puss.
She enlists her childhood friend, Lucienne Homenides De Histangua, played by Christina Greer, to assist her by writing a love letter to Victor and instructing him to meet Lucienne at the rather obviously named hotel.
While the acting, tumbling, and comic timing by the whole cast is terrific, I would have loved it if they had spoken with French accents when playing the French roles. They had either had pseudo-English accents, none at all, or in the case of the character of the jealous Don Carlos, played by Phil Korth, a Spanish accent, and Rugby, played by Robert Thompson Jr. with an Australian accent.
There are lines when the hotel’s proprietors, Ferraillon (Kevin Coubal) and Olympia (Alison Barton) say that they can’t understand what the English guest Rugby is saying, but he is speaking the same language they are.
Of course they couldn’t stick to the original French, but director Art Manke could have certainly helped the suspension of disbelief along with having the actors speak with exaggerated French accents. It would have also added to the comedy — think Inspector Clouseau in the “Pink Panther” films.
The set, design by Cassandra Ireland Beaver, particularly in Act II when they are at the hotel, is a fantastic Art Deco vision in curvilinear lines painted in hot pinks and purples. As with any farce, there are plenty of doors slamming, but here there is also a revolving bed that works like a charm.
The period costumes by Sachiko Komuro work beautifully with muted beige, white and gray colors that pop against the hotel’s pink motif, and complement the Edwardian era living room in the first and last acts.
It’s a couple hours of rapid-fire hijinks that fly by at CRT’s “A Flea In Her Ear.” If you love French farces and quality theater at a reasonable price, you’ll find it in this sparkling production through Saturday.


3 ½ Stars
Location: Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre, Jorgensen Road, Storrs.
Production: Written by Georges Feydeau. Adaptation by David Ives. Directed by Art Manke. Scenic design by Cassandra Ireland Beaver. Lighting design by Michelle Ashley Mann. Sound design by Steven Magro. Fight choreography by Greg Webster. Technical direction by Ed Weingart. Dramaturg Dassia Posner.
Running time: 2 ½ hours with two 10-minute intermissions.
Show Times: Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Saturday matinee at 2 p.m. through Dec. 11.
Tickets: $11 to $29. Call the box office at 860-486-4266 of visit their website at
Tom Foran … Victor Chandebise, Pouche
Gretchen Goode … Raymonde Chandebise
Leigh Miller … Camille Chandebise
Christina Greer … Lucienne Homenides De Histangua
Phil Korth … Don Carlos Homenides De Histangua
Philip AJ Smithey … Dr. Finache
Ryan Guess … Romain Tournel
Michelle Goodman … Antoinette
Brooks Brantly … Etienne
Kevin Coubal … Ferraillon
Alison Barton … Olympia
Brian Patrick Williams … Baptiste
Robert Thompson Jr. … Rugby
Kelsey Baker … Eugenie
HSC’s “A Christmas Carol” a memorable holiday tale

HARTFORD — Nothing welcomes in the holiday season like a performance of the Hartford Stage Company’s annual production of “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, adapted and directed by HSC Artistic Director Michael Wilson.
Now in their 13th year, this delightful morality tale has the familiar all-star cast lead by the effervescent curmudgeon Bill Raymond as old Ebenezer Scrooge.
This year, however, Raymond has undergone a fabulous change himself. In the past I complained that he was too sweet and silly from the start to be a real bah humbug type, but this year he has thoroughly embraced his inner Scrooge, making the old miser’s transformation at the end all the more powerful.
Raymond still has a lot of playful fun rattling his keys and fencing with his sword that turns into a light saber and then an imaginary golf club, to the delight of young and old. This year, however, he has more of an edge to his scrooge-ness that makes him thoroughly despicable, as he needs to be.
I still think this interpretation by Wilson, with the lightening, thunder, and spooky flying ghosts, is far too scary for youngsters under 5 years old, a view that is confirmed by 9-year-old Christopher Hillemeir, a three-year veteran of the holiday production.
Hillemeir enjoyed this production just as much as those he has seen in the past. He particularly liked the silly scenes, when Scrooge shakes the prized goose at people, when he lifts up the maid’s skirt, and when he burps from drinking too much.
As most know, it is a story about a miserly old man who idolizes money over friends and family, and has a vivid dream one night that shows him the error of his greedy ways, with the visitation of three spirits.
They are Christmas Past, played by the lovely and graceful Johanna Morrison, Christmas Present, played by the robust and hearty Allen Rust, and the spirit of Christmas Future, who is the scariest of them all — never saying a word and dressed all in black.
Hillemeir said that Scrooge wasn’t always mean, but his circumstances growing up changed him.
“I think he wanted to be nice, but everyone else was mean to him,” Hillemeir observed. “I think he was hurt in the past but after the dream he was happier.”
He said the lesson of the play is “never give up” and the moral of the story is if you give rather than receive, you will be happier and “you will receive love and more.”
When Tiny Tim Cratchit, played by Fred Thornley IV and Emily Weiner, appears to die in Scrooge’s dream, Hillmeir said it didn’t bring him to tears.
“I’m too young to cry about that stuff,” he said.
Hillemeir liked the humor in the show the best, something that there is just the right amount of in this heartwarming and familiar production of “A Christmas Carol” — A Hartford Stage Company tradition that will hopefully continue for years to come.


Four Stars
Location: Hartford Stage Company, 50 Church Street, Hartford.
Production: Story by Charles Dickens. Adapted and directed by Michael Wilson. Set design by Tony Straiges. Choreography by Hope Clark. Costume design by Zack Brown. Lighting design by Robert Wierzel. Original music and sound design by John Gromada.
Running time: 1 ¾ hour, with a 15-minute intermission
Show Times: Tuesday, Wednesday, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. There is no evening performance Dec. 24, Dec. 25, and Dec. 31; matinees are Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Dec. 31. There is no matinee on Saturday, Dec. 25.
Tickets: $25- $66. Children 12 and under save $10. Call 860-527-5151 or visit their website at
Bill Raymond… Ebenezer Scrooge
Bill Kux … Jacob Marley, Mrs. Dilber
Robert Hannon Davis … Bob Cratchit, Jacob Marley, Mrs. Dilber
Michael Bakkensen … Fred, Scrooge at 30
Allen Rust … Spirit of Christmas Present, Bert, Mr. Fuzziwig
Johanna Morrison … Spirit of Christmas Past, Bettye Pidgeon, Old Jo
Steve French… Mr. Marvel
Himself … Spirit of Christmas Future
Rebecka Jones … Mrs. Fezziwig, Mrs. Cratchit
Nafe Katter … First Solicitor, undertaker
Gustave Johnson … Second Solicitor, Ebenezer Scrooge
Michelle Hendrick … Belle, Fred’s wife
Nicholas Godfrey DeMarco … Scrooge at 15
Rebecka Jones … Martha Cratchit