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“Gypsy” at Music Theatre of Connecticut

Susan Granger’s review of “Gypsy” (MTC – Sept. 2016)

 

Launching its 30th anniversary season, the Music Theater of Connecticut reimagines this classic show business fable in a smaller chamber setting, giving it an unusual intimacy.

Set in the 1920s-1930s, the story revolves around the relentless ambition of Mama Rose to make her youngest daughter, Baby June, a star on the vaudeville circuit and, later, turning her focus on her insecure older daughter Louise, who eventually becomes the famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee.

Sharply staged by director Kevin Connors with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by Arthur Laurents, it reveals the shabby backstage shenanigans of an assertive stage mother/manager.

Her girls do her proud with perpetually smiling Abby Sara Dahan and stoic Natalie Steele as the younger versions, melding convincingly with their grown counterparts, played by Carissa Massaro as June and Kate Simone as Louise. The latter take over the roles seamlessly during the “Let Me Entertain You” transition, eliciting spontaneous applause.

Restlessly roaming the small stage, Kirsti Carnahan grapples with pugnacious Mama Rose, never quite summoning the energy and vocal strength to propel the show, eventually allowing the complex poignancy of “Rose’s Turn” to slip from her grasp.

The two most memorable musical numbers feature endearing Joe Grandy as the talented chorus boy Tulsa, warbling “All I Need is the Girl,” and dazzling Jodi Stevens stunning as the stripper Mazeppa, triumphing with her trumpet in “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.”

Rounding out the cast are Paul Binotto, likable as Rose’s agent boyfriend Herbie, along with Jeri Kansas, Marcia Leigh, Peter McClung, Chris McNiff, Abigail Root, and Brittany Cattaruzza. Conductor/pianist Thomas Martin Conroy makes terrific music with Luke McGuinness, Chris Johnson, and Gary Ruggiero.

FYI: Since the show opened in 1959, starring Ethel Merman, Mama Rose has been played by Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone, among others. And Baby June became actress June Havoc (Gentleman’s Agreement 1947) and longtime resident of Wilton’s Cannon Crossing.

“Gypsy” plays at MTC through Sept. 25.

“The Trojan Women”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Trojan Women” at The Flea (Off-Broadway, Sept. 2016)

 

First produced in 415 B.C. in the midst of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, shortly after the Athenian army’s massacre of the men of the island of Melos, Euripides presents a tragic situation which dramatizes the fate of the women, who are considered spoils of war.

Set amid the rubble that once was Troy – after the infamous wooden-horse calamity – the women are asleep, as the sea god Poseidon (Thomas Mucciooli) counsels, “Whatever you dream, even the most horrifying dream, cannot be worse than what you will awake to.”

There’s Queen Hecuba (DeAnna Supplee), widow of King Priam and mother of his 19 children, including the slain warriors Hector and Paris, her vengeful prophetess daughter Cassandra (Lindsley Howard), and Hector’s widow Andromache (Casey Wortmann), who tries desperately to save her infant son, Astyanax.

They all blame the legendary beauty Helen (Rebecca Rad), whom the Greeks went to war to recover, brutally attacking her. “Behind every man who took me stood a goddess/Who steadied his hips and whispered in his ears,” she reminds them.

Developed in 1995 for a staged reading performed by refugees of the Balkan conflict, which followed the fragmentation of Yugoslavia, Ellen McLaughlin’s current adaptation focuses on the wasted lives that war leaves in its wake. And its theme, of course, is timeless.

Classical scholars will note that McLaughlin has totally eliminated the part of Spartan King Menelaus, shortening the play considerably.

Modestly staged by Anne Cecelia Haney with Scot Gianelli’s ominous lighting and Ben Vigus’ sound design, this translation is performed by The Flea’s resident acting company, known as The Bats, many dressed in togas and not well served by Joya Powell’s distracting choreography.

Perhaps because of their youth and relative inexperience, they declaim the choral text, never seeming to grasp the emotional subtlety, which is as relevant today as it was back then.

As Poseidon observes, “Another war has ended. When will the next begin?”

“The Trojan Women” runs through Sept. 26, downstairs at The Flea, located at 41 White Street between Church and Broadway, three blocks south of Canal.

 

“The Layover”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Layover” (Second Stage/Off-Broadway Sept., 2016)

 

It’s Thanksgiving and an American Airlines flight is delayed on the runway at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. So two business-class passengers, seated next to one-another, start a casual conversation that soon evolves into snappy, erotic bantering.

Based in San Diego, Dexter “Dex” Reidman (Adam Rothenberg) is a somewhat neurotic engineer, headed to New York to spend the holiday with his fiancée. Shellie Sayers (Annie Parisse) is a professor of American crime fiction at Hunter College – and happily unattached.

“I absolutely lust for loneliness,” she informs him.

When a snowstorm forces the flight’s cancellation, it’s clear that Dex and Shellie are destined for a one-night stand at the Marriott.  Before that, however, they stop for cocktails at the hotel bar, where Shellie reveals that her favorite mystery novels are Patricia Highsmith’s “Strangers on a Train,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Edith’s Diary” – all revolving around murder and fabricating false identities.

Not surprisingly, it’s soon discovered that Dex is none too happy about his upcoming wedding, particularly since his wife-to-be, Andrea (Amelia Workman), is suspicious and controlling.

On the other hand, Shellie is neither ‘happy’ nor ‘unattached.’ She’s very much married to deadbeat Kevin (Quincy Dunn-Baker), living with him and her epileptic father Fred (John Procaccino), who is confined to a wheelchair.  Instead of teaching, she does janitorial work and cuts hair.

Perhaps the play’s most telling moment comes when Shellie subsequently confesses her illicit assignation to Fred, who observes, “You either steal someone else’s life – or you stay put.”

Acclaimed for her 2010 comedy “Bachelorette,” playwright Leslye Headland turns her acerbic wit toward the darker side with this somewhat contrived, psychological drama, delving into infidelity and its unanticipated consequences.

Adroitly directed by Trip Cullman, both Annie Parisse and Adam Rothenberg are convincing and compelling, aided in great part by recognizable flickering film-noir faces (Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Lisabeth Scott, Ruth Roman, Alan Ladd, Glenn Ford), supplied by video designer Jeff Sugg,

Mark Wendland’s set features translucent screens, creating images of the plane’s interior, along with the airport food court and lounge, along with their hotel room, subtly enhanced by Japhy Weideman’s lighting.

“The Layover” plays through Sept. 18 at the Second Stage Theater at 305 West 43rd Street.

 

“What the Butler Saw”

Review of "What the Butler Saw"

Review of “What the Butler Saw”

Susan Granger’s review of “What the Butler Saw” (Westport Country Playhouse: Aug., 2016)

 

It’s not a spoiler to reveal that there’s no butler in Joe Orton’s 1967 comedy. The title refers to peeping through a keyhole, heralding a classic British farce, skewering Freudian psychology, social propriety, sexual norms and government institutions.

In a psychiatric clinic, Dr. Prentice (Robert Stanton) is trying to seduce naïve Geraldine Barclay (Sarah Manton) who has applied for a job as his secretary. Having requested that she remove her clothes, his wife (Patricia Kalember) bursts into his office, wearing a black dominatrix corset under her fur coat.

Although admittedly a nymphomaniac, Mrs. Prentice is hysterical about being “raped” in a closet by Station Hotel bellhop Nicholas Beckett (Chris Ghaffari), who is threatening to blackmail her with photographs of their tryst.

Since Miss Barclay’s cowering behind a curtain in her underwear, Mrs. Prentice hastily dons the dress that Miss Barclay discarded before the unexpected arrival of autocratic Dr. Rance (Paxton Whitehead), a supervisor from Her Majesty’s Government sent to evaluate the clinic.

Obviously confused Dr. Rance declares Miss Barclay insane, while Police Sergeant Match (Julian Gamble) searches for a missing body part from a statue of Winston Churchill.

“The final chapters of my book are knitting together,” Dr. Rance declares delightedly. “Incest, buggery, outrageous women and strange love-cults catering for depraved appetites.”

Amid the zany disrobing, cross-dressing and donning of straitjackets, Miss Barclay begs Dr. Prentice to clarify the situation by telling the truth. He brusquely replies, “That’s a thoroughly defeatist attitude.”

Director John Tillinger is devoted to the subversive works of Joe Orton, having successfully revived the playwright’s “Loot” and “Entertaining Mr. Sloane.” And he’s previously staged “Butler” at the Manhattan Theatre Club and Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum.

Precise timing is of the essence – and nobody does it better than Paxton Whitehead. He exudes an irresistible lunatic conviction, while the rest of the cast submit to the frenetic silliness involving mistaken identities.

Although its manners and mores seem a bit stale, the levity of “What the Butler Saw” runs through Sept. 10. For tickets and more information, call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org

“Quietly”

Susan Granger’s review of “Quietly” (Irish Repertory Theatre: August, 2016)

 

Imported directly from the Abbey Theater in Dublin, Owen McCafferty’s sectarian drama is perfectly suited to the newly renovated Irish Repertory Theater, located off-Broadway at 132 West 22nd Street.

Set in 2009 in a Belfast pub, it begins as Robert (Robert Zawadzki), a Polish immigrant, is tending bar. 52 year-old Jimmy (Patrick O’Kane) walks in, orders a pint and starts to watch a World Cup soccer match between Northern Ireland and Poland on TV.

They’ve been chatting amiably for about 20 minutes when another middle-aged man, Ian (Declan Conlan), walks in – and Jimmy, filled with fury, head-butts him.

Their backstories reveal how – on July 3, 1974 – when they were both 16 years old – their animosity began as Ian hurled a bomb into this same pub, killing six men suspected of being IRA sympathizers, including Jimmy’s father.

It was a savage time when unionist Protestants (“The Orange Bastards”) were battling nationalist Roman Catholics (“Fenian Bastards”).

“I can’t speak for the actions of a 16 year-old child,” Ian says, but he obviously harbors guilt, “not being able to look myself in the eye when I’m havin’ a shave.”

But apologies are of no use to grief-stricken Jimmy.

“Don’t ever come back here,” Jimmy tells Ian, when he eventually shakes his hand.

While its authenticity is never questionable, the terse dialogue often lacks believability, making one yearn for more layering or subtext, although all three actors and director Jimmy Fay do their best to propel the plot. And they’re well served by Alyson Cummins’ set design, Catherine Fay’s costumes, Sinead McKenna’s lighting, Philip Stewart’s sound and Donal O’Farrell’s fight direction.

Running 75 minutes with no intermission, this three-character play has the potential to be riveting theater with a timely message about the dangers of hatred and encouraging terrorism: “Kids can do more damage than you think.”

“Quietly” is scheduled to play through September 11, 2016.

 

 

“A Man Like You”

Susan Granger’s review of “A Man Like You” (IATI Theater-Off-Broadway, July, 2016)

 

Inspired by the real Somali terrorist attack at the Westgate Shopping Mall on September 21, 2013, Kenyan-born playwright Silvia Cassini envisions a conversation between a British hostage, diplomat Patrick North (Matthew Stannah), and his radicalized Al Shabaab captor Abdi (Jeffrey Marc) in a windowless concrete room in Somalia.

Meanwhile, North’s wife Elizabeth (Jenny Boote) provides a monologue counter-point from their home in Nairobi, relating plans for diplomacy that will lead to his negotiated rescue by the military.

During North’s 102 days of imprisonment, they discuss different practical and political points-of-view: who is a really terrorist and who is a martyr, what is good and what is evil, and the nature of a deity called God.

Abdi tells North he’s been targeted as a pawn and his life is no more than “a bargaining chip,” while Abdi’s cohort/enforcer Hassan (Andrew Clarke) ominously holds an AK-47.

Staged by director Yudelka Heyer, it’s a talky interrogation and, as such, more intellectually provocative than emotionally engaging. Yet it does present a psychological insight, along with a rarely-discussed rationale for these terrorist attacks.

As voiced by Abdi, his rationale is reminiscent of the Somali pirate played by Barkhad Abdi who commandeered Tom Hanks’ cargo ship in the movie “Captain Phillips.”

“A Man Like You” premiered in Nairobi earlier this year and has been imported to the New York theater scene by RED Soil, an African/Caribbean-inspired theater/film company, founded by Matthew Stannah (Nairobi, Kenya) and Yudelka Heyer (Dominican Republic). RED Soil’s purpose is to showcase new, innovative work that brings about new waves to share vivid stories, often untold, in which struggle and pain are depicted.

“A Man Like You” runs from July 13 to July 31 at the IATI Theater, 64 East 4th Street. For tickets, visit BrownPaperTickets.com, call 800-838-3006 or ticket directly at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2554996

“The Invisible Hand”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Invisible Hand” (Westport Country Playhouse: July, 2016)

 

During the summer’s heat, Artistic Director Mark Lamos took a gamble – challenging audiences to think about the geopolitical roots of Islamic terrorism – and I suspect it will pay off handsomely.

Pulitzer Prize winner Ayad Akhtar’s riveting thriller begins as Nick Bright (Eric Bryant), a Citibank executive, sits, handcuffed, in a jail cell in Pakistan. He was abducted by mistake by Bashir (Fajer Kaisi), a militant Muslim who really intended to capture his boss.

Bright knows he has to convince his captors to keep him alive, so he’s already advised his guard Dar (Jameal Ali) to stockpile potatoes until the price goes up, then sell them, making a sizeable profit, particularly when he exchanges rupees for dollars.

The terrorists’ leader, Imam Saleem (Rajesh Bose), is demanding a $10 million ransom, which Nick knows won’t be paid. Instead, Nick proposes to use the $3 million he’s stashed in a Cayman Islands account to earn a reduced ransom through strategic futures trading – with Bashir handling the intricate maneuvers on a laptop.

“Making money is intoxicating,” Nick warns, as Bashir’s greed grows.

“Everyone’s self-interest works to check everyone else’s,” Nick explains, referring to the “Invisible Hand” title, a term coined by economist Adam Smith in his 1776 book, “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.”

As a Muslim-American and Pakistani-American, playwright Ayad Akhtar utilizes each of the four characters to delineate various practical and political points-of-view. As a result, the result is more intellectually provocative than emotionally engaging.

While director David Kennedy adroitly stages this talky, yet timely, confrontational exchange of ideas, the drama is ominously punctuated by far too many disconcerting blackouts and the roar of U.S. drones hovering outside.

Its authenticity is augmented by Adam Rigg’s simple set design, Matthew Richards’ lighting, Fitz Patton’s sound, and Emily Rebholz’s costumes.

In support of this production, which runs until Aug. 6, the Playhouse is hosting a series of free, community engagement speakers and discussions. For a schedule and more information, visit www.westportplayhouse.org or call the box-office at 203-227-4177.

 

“Buyer and Cellar”

Susan Granger’s review of “Buyer and Cellar” (Westport Country Playhouse: June, 2016)

 

Laughter rocks the theater as Michael Urie brings Jonathan Tolins’ hit Off-Broadway comedy to the Westport Country Playhouse.

Urie opens the subtly seductive satire with several disclaimers, making it clear that it’s is a work of fiction, since none of this “could possibly have happened with a person as famous, talented and litigious as Barbra Streisand.”

On a stage sparsely furnished with a round café table, chair and bench, Urie relates how Alex More, a struggling gay actor in Los Angeles, gets hired to be the sole, always subservient clerk in the private mini-mall that Barbra Streisand has created for herself in the basement of a barn adjacent to her Malibu mansion.

Since Barbra’s a compulsive shopper, her quaint, European-styled arcade includes an antique shop and clothing boutique, stocked with her abundant collection of vintage dresses, object d’art, and dolls.

Its creation is detailed in Streisand’s 2010 coffee-table photo book “My Passion for Design.” As Alex notes from the front cover flap, this is the “refuge she’s longed for since the days when she shared a small Brooklyn apartment with her mother, brother and grandparents…”

Often recognized as Marc St. James from TV’s “Ugly Betty,” lanky Michael Urie energetically captures the iconic Streisand persona with a few masterfully nuanced mannerisms, including flipping her hair and shrugging one shoulder asking, “Am I right or am I right?”

Director Stephen Brackett reins in campy caricature, cleverly balancing superstar Barbra’s alleged perfectionism with sensitivity, affection, even empathy, adding emotional heft to a subplot involving Alex’s struggling screenwriter boyfriend Barry.

At the after-party, playwright Jonathan Tolins (“Secrets of the Trade,” “Twilight of the Golds”) revealed that the reason Westport was able to book this original production was because the show will be filmed there for broadcast on Theater Close-Up on Channel 13/WNET, joining a new wave of televised theatrical presentations that includes the current Broadway revival of “She Loves Me.”

The obvious question everyone asks is, “Has Barbra seen this?” Apparently not. If she were in the audience, her reactions to the tart absurdity would divert attention from the stage.  So, when it’s on TV, Ms. Streisand can watch in privacy.

Irresistibly amusing, “Buyer and Cellar” runs at the Westport Country Playhouse until July 3.  For more information, visit www.westportplayhouse.org or call the box-office at (203) 227-4177.

“My Paris”

Susan Granger’s review of “My Paris” (Long Wharf Theater)

 

It was fascinating watching one of the final performances of this dazzling new musical about Belle Epoque artist Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec because, around us, were potential ‘investors’ considering moving it to Manhattan.

Inspired by French singer/songwriter Charles Aznavour’s short-lived “Lautrec” concept, it was workshopped at Goodspeed’s Norma Terris in Chester, then moved to Long Wharf in New Haven, and the potential is certainly there.

With a book by Alfred Uhry (“Driving Miss Daisy,” “The Robber Bridegroom”) and English lyrics/additional music by Jason Robert Brown (“The Bridges of Madison County”), it’s expertly staged by Tony Award-winner Kathleen Marshall, utilizing four talented on-stage musicians.

The only son of a swaggering nobleman (Tom Hewitt) who was disappointed that he was born with a congenital disease that crippled his legs, little Henri (Bobby Steggert) always loved to draw. When he grew up, he moved to his family’s apartment in Paris where, briefly, he studied art with Leon Bonnat.

But it was a chance visit to a seedy nightclub in bohemian Montmarte that changed his life. Settling into a tiny studio, he began to earn a living, sketching colorful advertising posters of street performers and can-can dancers even the club’s owner (Jamie Jackson). Henri’s favorite model was aspiring artist Suzanne Valadon (Mara Davi), whom he deeply loved.

While subtly savvy Bobby Steggert is waiflike, director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall cleverly utilizes Derek McLane’s multi-tiered set to emphasize his deformed, diminutive stature.

What’s most impressive is how Paul Tazewell’s costumes, Donald Holder’s lighting and Olivia Sebesky’s projections create a vivid tableau, showcasing Lautrec’s most famous posters and the models who posed for them: La Goulue (Nikka Graff Lanzarone), Jane Avril (Erica Sweany), May Milton (Anne Horak), Yvette Guilbert (Kate Marilley), Valentin  (Timothy Hughes), Clown (Tiffany Mann), and le Chocolat (Darius Barnes). Magnifique!

So what doesn’t work?

The lamenting of Lautrec’s smothering Maman (Donna English) quickly becomes tedious, and the wraithlike Green Fairy (Erica Sweany), representing Lautrec’s toxic addiction to absinthe, is obtuse.

In addition, Suzanne Valadon’s alluring muse character needs to be fleshed out; in real life, she was the mother of artist Maurice Utrillo – as do the bland roles of Henri’s three art-school cohorts (John Riddle, Josh Grisetti, Andrew Mueller) who excel in the rousing “We Drink!” number.

I eagerly await the next incarnation of “My Paris” – with, perhaps, a more haunting, bittersweet title.

“The Father”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Father” (MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre: May, 2016)

 

Frank Langella weaves a tantalizing theatrical tapestry as Andre, an 80 year-old man who is declining into the debilitating dementia, rapidly losing cognitive function.

As the play begins, Andre’s exasperated daughter Anne (Kathryn Erbe) is explaining to him that she needs to find a new “helper,” since the previous one quit after he physically threatened her with a curtain rod and called her “a little bitch.”

Not surprisingly, Andre denies this but then dismisses it, saying he’s perfectly capable of caring for himself.  Which, obviously, he isn’t since – in the next scene – he doesn’t recognize her. Nor does the audience, actually, since the character of Anne is played by another actress.

While that’s eventually explained, Andre’s misperceptions continue. Is Anne married to Pierre, or is she preparing to go to London to live with a new lover?

Andre’s confusion continues as a strange man slaps him across the face, his watch gets stolen, and the elegant furniture he’s accustomed to disappears, replaced by a hospital bed.

Expressing the terror that is growing within his consciousness, Langella is a consummate actor, whether he’s oozing charm or claiming that he once was an engineer – or, perhaps, a clown – or tap dancer. His original irritation, manifesting itself in arrogance, becomes a pathetic cry of despair as he descends into helpless dependency.

French playwright Florian Zeller’s work has been translated by Christopher Hampton, directed by Doug Hughes, who stages 15 short scenes, punctuated by blinding flashes of light that seem indicate Andre’s cerebral synapses. Scenic designer Scott Pask and lighting expert Donald Holder have created a stunning Paris apartment, augmented by music/sound by Fitz Patton and Catherine Zuber’s costumes.

But what exactly is the audience experiencing?

Is it “a tragic farce,” which is what it was dubbed when it opened in Paris in 2012?  Tragic, yes, but I found nothing farcical about Andre’s dilemma.

I believe that Florian Zeller is depicting the various stages of the growing plague of Alzheimer’s, an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that has affected and will touch most of us during our lifetime. Estimates vary, but experts suggest that more than five million Americans may have Alzheimer’s.