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“Appropriate”

Susan Granger’s review of “Appropriate” (Westport Country Playhouse)

 

Talk about timely! The plot points of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ dysfunctional family drama pivot on anti-Semitism and white supremacy, evoking Biblical themes.

When the Lafayette family gathers at their recently deceased father’s dilapidated Arkansas plantation house, memories are revived as shameful secrets are revealed by the discovery of a scrapbook containing explicitly horrifying photographs of lynching and mason jars containing pickled body parts.

Having dutifully cared for their father, the eldest sibling, embittered Toni (Betsy Aidem), expects the most from the upcoming Estate sale and auction; recently divorced, she’s had a rough year, and her troubled, slacker son Rhys (Nick Selting) is moving in with his father.

Her brother Bo (David Aaron Baker) and his Jewish wife, Rachael (Diane Davis), arrive from New York with their children: rambunctious pre-teen Ainsley (Christian Michael Camporin) and teenage daughter, Cassie (Allison Winn), who has a crush on her cousin Rhys.

The angst-riddled youngest brother Franz (Shawn Fagan), the prodigal son once known as Frank, appears unexpectedly with his sensible, New Age girl-friend, River (Anna Crivelli), insisting he wants to make amends for past misbehavior, including alcoholism, substance abuse and child-molestation.

Setting up the conflict, the first act is provocative and revelatory. But the second and third act meander, making it seem endless – and exhausting. They’re combined in this production by director David Kennedy and punctuated by the deafening, incessant chirp of cicadas; credit sound designer Fitz Patton.

After each family member indulges in a long, explanatory soliloquy, anger erupts and chaos reigns, epitomized by the rotting decay and eventual deconstruction of scenic designer Andrew Boyce’s cluttered set.

FYI: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins won the 2014-15 Obie Award for this as Best New American Play.

Containing mature themes and crude language, “Appropriate” is at the Westport Country Playhouse until September 2. For more information, call the box-office at 203-227-4177 or visit www.westportplayhouse.org.

“Grounded”

Susan Granger’s review of “Grounded” (Westport Country Playhouse)

 

Talk about timely! George Brant’s provocative theatrical monologue revolves around a cocky U.S. Air Force Pilot (Elizabeth Stahlmann) who revels in her job, feeling exhilarated “up in the blue,” dropping missiles on desert fortresses in Iraq.

As she tells it, her beloved F-16 is out of there even before the explosion happens. Afterwards, she unwinds with other “Top Gun” boys, downing drinks at the bar.

While on leave at home in Wyoming, she meets Eric, who works in a hardware store. “Most guys don’t like what I do,” she notes with a macho swagger. “Feel they’re less of a guy around me. I take the guy spot, and they don’t know where they belong.”

Seeing her in a flight suit, Eric’s turned on. Soon she’s pregnant, which means she has to take a desk job. “I want the sky. I want the blue, but I can’t kill her,” she wails plaintively.

After her daughter is born, she reports back for active duty, only to discover that she’s been re-assigned to the “Chair Force.” Her new job is to pilot an $11-million unmanned drone, sitting in front of a video monitor in an air-conditioned trailer on a base outside of Las Vegas, Nevada – for 12 hours each day.

She’s devastated but her commander assures her, “In one year, the drone will be king.”

The evocative lighting (Solomon Weisbard), sound (Kate Marvin) and cinematic projections (Yana Birykova) convey the harrowing reality and immediacy of long-distance combat. A drone pilot not only sees the faces of the ‘enemy’ close-up but also bears witness to the destruction when her missiles hit the ground.

Although Eric gets a job as a blackjack dealer in a casino and does his best to try to understand the pressure she’s under, the Pilot eventually suffers PTSD or, according to the latest lingo, “a moral injury.”

Carrying this intense performance piece on her slim shoulders is Elizabeth Stahlmann, a recent graduate of the Yale School of Drama. Under the direction of the Yale Rep’s Liz Diamond with a metal chair as her only prop – she establishes an easygoing rapport with the audience, which intensifies their empathy as she becomes mired in conflicting emotions, steeped in the psychological side-effects of remote warfare.

FYI: Anne Hathaway, who played the Pilot in Julie Taymor’s 2015 Off-Broadway production, immediately optioned the property and it’s in development as a major motion picture.

“Grounded” plays at the Westport Country Playhouse thru July 29. For tickets and more information, call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org

“Singin’ in the Rain”

Susan Granger’s review of “Singin’ in the Rain” (Summer Theatre of New Canaan)

 

There’s great, exuberant fun – for the whole family – under the big white tent at Waveny Park as the Summer Theatre of New Canaan turns what many consider the best movie musical of all time into a rollicking stage production.

It’s 1927 when Monumental Pictures premieres “The Royal Rascal,” yet another silent movie starring the swashbuckling idol Don Lockwood (Mathew Tiberi) and beautiful Lina Lamont (Jodi Stevens).

Suddenly, Hollywood is rocked by the arrival of sound, as Al Jolson’s “The Jazz Singer” fills theaters. Don Lockwood’s game to make the transition to talkies – but what will audiences think when they realize that ditzy, vapid Lina Lamont’s squawky, strident voice could shatter glass?

Cue the arrival of an adorable ingénue, Kathy Selden (Annabelle Fox), an impudent chorus girl who catches the eye and captures the heart of Don Lockwood. At the suggestion of Don’s tap-dancing buddy Cosmo (David Rosssetti), they’ll secretly use Kathy’s dulcet voice to dub Lina’s screech.

Fashioned as a whimsical satire by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, it features a catalogue of Arthur Freed/Nacio Herb Brown songs, including “All I Do Is Dream of You,” “Make ‘Em Laugh,” “You Were Meant for me,” “You Are My Lucky Star,” “Moses Supposes” and “Good Mornin.’”

While the entire cast is enchanting, Jodi Stevens steals the show. Every time she opens her mouth, it’s hilarious. Lina Lamont’s character is supposedly based on silent screen beauty Norma Talmadge, who couldn’t make the transition to “talkies” and her informant-BFF was supposedly actress Clara Bow.

Credit Melody Meitrott Libonati’s astute direction and Doug Shankman’s choreography, particularly for the inventive staging of the rain-drenched title number – with the entire cast decked out in yellow slickers and rubber boots, twirling umbrellas.

Special kudos to Scott Bryce for filming the imaginative videos and Kelly Loughran as the femme fatale in “Broadway Melody.”

Running through July 30, it’s impossible not to enjoy this tuneful musical – the best of Broadway in nearby New Canaan.

For tickets and more information, call 203-966-4634 or go to www.stonc.org.

“1984”

Susan Granger’s review of “1984” (Hudson Theatre: 2017-2018 season)

It’s no coincidence that after President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January, George Orwell’s 1949 cautionary, dystopian, sci-fi nightmare topped the best-seller list.

And it’s not surprising that astute producers Scott Rudin and Sonia Friedman just brought Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s grimly intense London stage adaptation of that novel to Broadway.

The doomed hero, an Everyman narrator named Winston Smith (Tom Sturridge), is introduced through a group of citizens gathered around a table in what resembles a shabby book store/library. It seems that by 2050 the Party fell but, before that, the terror of thought-control reigned throughout the land.

But back in 1984, Winston Smith decides to keep a diary, refusing to accept the oppression of Big Brother’s manipulated reality as chronicled in “The Principles of Newspeak,” which outlines the structure and etymology of the official language of Oceania’s dictatorship.

In newspeak, War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery and Ignorance is Strength. Those who protest are “vaporized” or “un-personed,” denied existence and obliterated from history.

And if O’Brien (Reed Birney), the interrogator at the Ministry of Truth tells you that 2+2=5, you must accept that as fact. The contemporary parallels are abundantly clear.

When Winston endeavors to evade the Thought Police, he joined by Julia (Olivia Wilde, making her Broadway debut), a red-belted member of the Anti-Sex League, who slips him a note, simply stating, “I love you.”

Although they indulge in what they believe is an intimate tryst, enjoying forbidden delicacies like chocolate and coffee – they subsequently discover that they have not escaped surveillance. Their images appear on a giant screen above the stage – and Winston must pay a horrific price for disobedience.

This wildly innovative production features so much sadistic political torture, punctuated by blinding lights, frequent blackouts and an ear-blasting soundscape that no one under the age of 13 is allowed in the audience. And if you leave for seat for any reason during the performance, you are not permitted to return.

Audience members are also alerted that the play is performed without an intermission and runs 101 minutes which is obviously a reference to Room 101, where the torture takes place. Since nothing in this depressing play is subtle, the audience seems to be numb by the time it concludes.

 

 

“Napoli, Brooklyn”

Susan Granger’s review of “Napoli, Brooklyn” (Roundabout Theatre Company: Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre – off-Broadway)

 

Tolstoy once wrote, “Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Set in New York City during the 1960s, Meghan Kennedy’s domestic drama revolves around the Muscolino family: an Italian couple and their three American-born daughters.

The parents, Luda (Alyssa Bresnahan) and Nic (Michael Rispoli), are caught between their Sicilian culture with its Old World values and the freedom of the New World, epitomized by Brooklyn.

As the play opens, their middle daughter, Vita (Elise Kibler), has been dispatched to a convent after brutish Nic savagely beat her when she tried to protect her younger sister, feisty Francesca (Jordyn DiNatale), who has chopped off her long hair. And self-sacrificing Tina (Lily Kaye),the eldest daughter, feels guilty for not protecting Francesca.

Then there’s Albert Duffy (Ejik Lochtefeld), the kindly, courteous, Irish butcher who secretly adores Luda, and his adolescent daughter Connie (Juliet Brett), who bonds with her BFF Francesca. Plus gentle Celia Jones (Shirine Babb), an African-American co-worker who befriends awkward Tina.

Commissioned by the Roundabout Theatre, playwright Meghan Kennedy (“Too Much, Too Much, Too Many”) drew from the recollections of her Italian-American mother who grew up in Brooklyn in the 1960s. In interviews, Meghan Kennedy has alluded to how girls born to immigrants “had to fight so hard to find their voices, and even harder to keep them intact.”

Character development is what propels this immigrant experience, as each participant poignantly changes within the context of the play when a real-life disaster rocks their Park Slope neighborhood.

As long-suffering Luda, Alyssa Bresnahan is outstanding, expressing her love for her family through her cooking, praying to an onion because God seems to be ignoring her poignant entreaties.

Under the direction of Gordon Edelstein, the acting ensemble is superb, and Edelstein handles the episodic, often overwrought drama with finesse, working in conjunction with set designer Eugene Lee, lighting designer Ben Stanton, costumer Jane Greenwood and sound specialist Fitz Patton.

“Napoli, Brooklyn” plays a limited engagement Off-Broadway through September 3, 2017. Tickets are available online at roundabouttheatre.org or by calling 212-719-1300.

 

“Lettice and Lovage”

Susan Granger’s review of “Lettice and Lovage” (Westport Country Playhouse)

 

Laughter reigns as Westport Country Playhouse kicks off its 87th season with Peter Shaffer’s delightful comedy which has been imperceptibly snipped and deftly trimmed by director Mark Lamos.

While loquacious Lettice Douffet (Kandis Chappell) is doing her best to enliven her tour of the historic Fustian House in Wiltshire, which, admittedly, is “quite simply the dullest house in England,” her wildly imaginative fabrications raise the ire of strait-laced Charlotte Schoen (Mia Dillon), a formidable bureaucrat from the Preservation Trust.

Summoned to the Trust office, Lettice knows she’s going to be reprimanded and dismissed but, gradually, a bond of friendship develops between these lonely, yet disparate middle-aged women.

They meet on a weekly basis, indulging in grisly historical reenactments and enjoying goblets of a homemade libation, a cordial adapted from a 16th century recipe, containing vodka, brandy, sugar and a parsley-like herb called lovage.

Eventually, an accident occurs in Lettice’s basement apartment in Earl’s Court that requires the services of a solicitor (lawyer), Mr. Bardolph (Paxton Whitehead), summoned to defend her against a charge of attempted murder. Mr. Whitehead originated this part on Broadway in 1987, and he has become a master of befuddlement.

Although Shaffer wrote this play specifically for Dame Maggie Smith, Lamos’ Westport ‘odd couple’ casting is spot on: Kandis Chappell’s charismatic Lettice brims with theatrical vitality and grace, while Mia Dillon’s strident, idealistic Lotte softens, becoming a terrific comic foil.

John Armone’s entrancing set is evocative, complemented by Philip Rosenberg’s lighting, John Gromada’s sound design, and Jane Greenwood’s costumes.

The eloquent characters created by prolific playwright Peter Shaffer (“Amadeus,” “Equus”) always have a timely universality and his acerbic observations about London’s post-W.W.II urban planning lament the destruction of antiquity: “It wasn’t the Germans who destroyed London, it was British architecture.”

“Lettice and Lovage” runs through June 17 at the Westport Country Playhouse. For more information, go to www.westportplayhouse.org or call 203-227-4177.

 

“Groundhog Day”

Susan Granger’s review of “Groundhog Day” (August Wilson Theater)

When Andy Karl tore a knee ligament three days before this new musical opened, people worried whether he’d be able to perform the strenuous routines. I’m happy to report that, miraculously, he runs, jumps and leaps – magnificently – aided by a black leg brace that he doesn’t even bother to disguise.

Based on Billy Murray’s beloved 1993 film, it’s the saga of worn-out Pittsburgh weatherman Phil Connors, who is trapped in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, for a single day, February 2nd – that repeats and repeats and repeats.

As Groundhog Day dawns, supercilious Phil shows nothing but contempt for the celebrated rodent and “small town hicks” he’s forced to contend with, sarcastically sneering, “Will he see his shadow? Won’t he? Civilization once again hangs in the balance.”

“Small towns, tiny minds/Big mouths, small ideas…”is the way he refers to the quaint, rural community, despite the entreaties of his producer, Rita Hanson (Barrett Doss). Eventually, of course, bewildered Phil is humbled by the surreal situation in which he’s trapped and comes to recognize the kindness and humanity of the townsfolk who surround him.

Adapted by Danny Rubin from his own time-loop screenplay with songs by composer/lyricist Tim Minchin, it’s adroitly directed by Matthew Warchus, utilizing Rob Howell’s ingenious set designs, utilizing five interlocking turntables, and Paul Kieve’s amusing optical illusions.

What’s missing is the strong character arc that Bill Murray established with director Harold Ramis. While his Phil Connors was a nasty misanthrope, Andy Karl’s is just snarky and cynical. Nevertheless, you cheer when Rita helps him drop his negativity and open his heart to the simple pleasures of the world around him.

A Broadway veteran whose resume includes “Rocky,” “On the Twentieth Century” and “Legally Blonde,” Andy Karl is terrific, deserving of the standing ovation he gets after every performance. And Rebecca Faulkenberry brings down the house with her “Playing Nancy” lament.

Warning note to theatergoers: the August Wilson Theater is riddled with stairs, up-and-down, more than any other Broadway Theater. To get to your seats, it’s a hike!

Susan Granger’s review of “Come From Away” (Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre)

 

Why do you go to theater? Because it’s entertaining and fun. Because it opens your heart, teaches life-lessons and transports you to another time, another place. Because, occasionally, it conveys the essential goodness and resiliency of the human spirit at the same, shared moment in time.

That’s why I stood up and cheered when the cast of this new Canadian musical took their bows.

After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, all flights in and around U.S. airspace were diverted to the nearest airport. Once a popular refueling spot on the edge of North America, Gander, Newfoundland, suddenly became the destination for nearly 7,000 bewildered passengers from around the world.

The rousing “Welcome to the Rock” introduces the insular townspeople whose morning coffee at Tim Horton’s began like any other – before the “38 Planes” began to land, sending them scrambling for “Bedding and Blankets,” not to mention school buses, warm clothing, food and medicine, as a nervous, novice TV reporter tries to chronicle the chaos.

Its book is largely based on interviews that Canadian writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein conducted in 2011, when some of the travelers returned for a 10th anniversary ceremony – because Gander’s genial, person-to-person hospitality was beyond remarkable.

A gay couple from Los Angeles was afraid of encountering homophobia but, instead, found warm acceptance, along with a distraught mother whose son was a New York City firefighter, a Texas divorcee, her amorous British acquaintance, a wary urban Black man, a Muslim chef and a rabbi – to name a just a few.

Admittedly, many of these characters are composites, but not trailblazing American Airlines pilot Beverly Bass, played by Jenn Colella, whose rousing “Me and the Sky” is a wistful feminist anthem.

Director Christopher Ashley (from California’s La Jolla Playhouse) cleverly utilizes his talented cast of 12, having them don and doff Toni-Leslie James’s accessories, like hats and jackets, to play multiple roles. Beowulf Boritt’s versatile set accommodates these shifts, as does Howell Brinkley’s lighting. The catchy, conversational, Celtic/folk rock songs are often accompanied by Kelly Devine’s stomping choreography.

The crowd-pleasing, one-hour-45-minute performance fittingly concludes on a life-affirming note: “We honor what was lost – but we also commemorate what we found.”

 

 

“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”

Susan Granger’s review of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (Lunt-Fontanne Theater)

By the time this garishly grotesque new musical concludes, Charlie’s fabled Golden Ticket is so tarnished that its creator, Roald Dahl, would barely recognize it. “Pure Imagination” goes terribly awry!

Admittedly, it’s difficult to follow in the footsteps of Gene Wilder’s bewitching Willy Wonka, but Christian Borlie tries, embodying the charming, mischievous chocolatier, opening the show, singing one of its most popular numbers: “The Candy Man.”

The story revolves around virtuous, young Charlie Bucket (Jake Ryan Flynn) who lives with his impoverished family in the shadow of Willy Wonka’s mysterious Chocolate Factory.  Lonely and looking for a successor, Willie launches a contest, offering to open his factory to five lucky children who find Golden Tickets tucked in their candy bars – along with their parents.

Introduced by smarmy TV personalities, there’s the gross Bavarian sausage glutton, Augustus Gloop (F. Michael Haynie); Russia’s entitled ballerina, Veruca Salt (Emma Pfaeffle); California’s gum-snapping Violet Beauregarde (Trista Dollison); and Idaho’s smartphone-obsessed Mike Teevee (Michael Wartella).

Bizarrely, these obnoxious caricatures of ‘children’ are played by adults. And the cacao-craving Oompa-Loompas are “humanettes,” kneeling performers whose heads bobble above their puppet bodies.

At one point, Mrs. Teavee (Jackie Hoffman) aptly quips, “The little people are singing again. That’s never a good sign.”

Since this fanciful musical ran for almost four years on London’s West End, it’s surprising that the producers replaced not only director Sam Mendes with Jack O’Brien but also most of its creative team, as Scottish playwright David Greig relies on the bond created between fatherless Charlie and childless Wonka for emotional resonance.

While O’Brien and songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman previously collaborated on “Hairspray,” the most memorable music is from the film score by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. Mark Thompson’s serviceable sets and costumes disappoint, as does Joshua Bergasse’s clunky choreography.

FYI: Roald Dahl’s subversively popular 1964 book was first filmed as “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (1971) with Gene Wilder; then Johnny Depp played a creepy Wonka in Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (2005).

Since family fare is always in demand on Broadway, it’s too bad that something magical must have been lost crossing the Pond.

“Anastasia”

Susan Granger’s review of “Anastasia” (Broadhurst Theatre)

 

Snowflakes fall as the doomed family of Tsar Nicholas II and his family frolic in the palace in St. Petersburg. Then comes the Revolution in 1918, and the Bolsheviks slaughter them, one-by-one – except 17 year-old Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanov, who somehow escapes the massacre.

Skip ahead to 1927, when Anastasia (Christy Altomare) – suffering from amnesia and dubbed Anya – takes up with ambitious, young proletariat Dmitry (Derek Klena) and his mentor, paternalistic Vlad (John Bolton). They’ve devised a get-rich-quick scheme to claim that Anya is Anastasia, something that she herself doesn’t believe at first.

After hours of Henry Higgins-style tutoring, haunting dream sequences and the recollection of a lullaby hidden in a music box, Anastasia is ready to travel to Paris to be presented to her beloved Nana, the elegant Dowager Empress (Mary Beth Peil), who fled to France along with other White Russians.

To add a note of danger, Anya’s being pursued by Gleb (Ramin Karimloo), a suspicious Soviet officer. And Caroline O’Connor injects humor as the Dowager’s confidante, flirtatious Countess Lily.

Unless you’re an impressionable tween, you’ll probably come out singing the sumptuous scenery – because that’s the most impressive aspect of the show. Designed by Andrew Dodge, the immense set is stunning, particularly the imaginative train carriage, encompassing Aaron Rhyne’s amazing landscape projections. And Linda Cho’s period costumes are authentic, including Tsarina Alexandra’s tiara.

Unfortunately, Stephen Flattery’s insipid music and Lynn Ahrens’ serviceable lyrics are almost immediately forgettable, as is Terrence McNally’s dutiful libretto. So director Darko Tresnjak and choreographer Peggy Hickey visually dazzle, ingeniously moving the cast like swirling, sparkling Swarovski crystals.

FYI: If the story’s familiar, you probably saw the fanciful 1997 animated version with Meg Ryan voicing Anastasia or, better yet, Ingrid Bergman’s Oscar-winning 1956 adaptation with Yul Brynner.

Tucked into the program, there’s a postcard on which audience members can jot down what they’d do on their journey with the hashtag #onmyjourney. Given my druthers, I’d reinstate Rasputin and his bat Bartok.