Review: The Phantom Stages A Comeback in the Perplexing “LOVE NEVER DIES” at Segerstrom Center

Review: The Phantom Stages A Comeback in the Perplexing “LOVE NEVER DIES” at Segerstrom Center

First, let's get some pleasantries out of the way.

There are many, very obvious spectacular things that stand out while watching “LOVE NEVER DIES,” Andrew Lloyd Webber's infamously, uh, troubled 2010 musical follow-up to his long-running global hit “THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA,” now continuing its two-week engagement at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa through May 5, 2018.

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Review: Robb McClure & Adam Pascal Bring the Hilarious High-Jinks of “SOMETHING ROTTEN!” to the OC

Michael L. Quintos

  • OnStage Associate Los Angeles Critic

In a rarity that doesn't happen too often here in Southern California, a brand new national tour of a recent hit Broadway musical has arrived first in Orange County in advance of a much longer sit-down engagement up the freeway in Los Angeles. And, boy, is this one a marvelous gift from the comedy gods!

Behold, ladies and gentlemen, the merry awesomeness that is “SOMETHING ROTTEN!,” the multi-Tony Award nominated musical comedy that kicks off Segerstrom Center for the Arts' 2017-2018 Broadway series! A delightful, seemingly non-stop conveyor belt of wit, hilarity, and outrageous high-jinks, this extremely funny 2015 original musical comedy will continue to slay audiences (in a good way) through November 19, 2017 in Costa Mesa before beginning its Los Angeles-area performances.

I have to say that from the second the curtain went up, right up to even the cast's final bows, I don't think I have ever sat through a performance of a musical comedy that has garnered this much hearty laughter and unabashed giggling from the audience in a quite a long time—sounds our world sorely needs more of at the moment, especially in such a genuine, communal way.

Yes, “SOMETHING ROTTEN!” is that rare comedic perfect storm of script, music, costumes, sets, and cast that surrounds material and storyline that only mildly offends (if at all) yet skewers bitingly with the sharpest of tongues. Don't mistake this as just another broad, middle-of-the-road comedy. Despite its appeal to various ages, demographics, and walks-of-life, this lively, entertaining musical is a whip-smart, joyful, creatively rich stage production that, I predict (much like Nostradamus) will be just as funny centuries from now as it is today.

Featuring a brilliant, wisecracking book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O' Farrell and impressively amusing music and lyrics chockfull of ingenious wordplay by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick, “SOMETHING ROTTEN!” offers up the European Renaissance viewed through very meta, forward-thinking 21st Century goggles. While its silly but clever storyline seems easy enough to follow, the musical truly impresses with its never-faltering gaze beyond the future, generously peppering every lyric and comedically-delivered line with an allusion to something characters are hilariously unaware of in their timeline, but the audience is from our informed present. Hence, the audience is in collective stitches watching characters navigate through the events and customs of these late 90's—the 1590's, that is—which are lovingly skewered for our amusement.

Of course, a musical comedy is only as good as its execution, and fortunately, under Casey Nicholaw's swift but assured direction (he also choreographed the show), SOMETHING ROTTEN!'s expressively jubilant cast is able to truly savor their given material, resulting in performances that audiences will welcome with outstretched joy. Leading the pack is Tony nominee Rob McClure, whose incredible comic timing, impressive singing chops, and wildly erratic facial expressions will have you laughing constantly as he embarks on one scheme after another.

McClure plays Nick Bottom, one half of the Bottom Brothers, a pair of creatively-gifted but financially-struggling siblings working in the theater during the time of the Renaissance, a period of great artistry and poetic expression in Europe. As the brothers strive desperately for some modicum of success, Nick—often engulfed in a jealous rage—is constantly annoyed by all the attention and fandom bestowed upon the much more liked, and much more famous William Shakespeare (played with palpable mega rock star swag by Adam Pascal), whose latest play "Romeo and Juliet" is a hit with both critics and audiences (and, yep, Nick's brother is a fan).

More than anything, Nick wishes he could once and for all one-up his more celebrated rival whom the public has irritatingly dubbed "The Bard."

As Nick and his more timid playwright bother Nigel (the adorkable Josh Grisetti) continue rehearsals for their next show "Richard II" with their rag-tag acting troupe, their patron Lord Clapham (the very funny Joel Newsome) informs them that Shakespeare has announced plans to also do a new play called "Richard II"—a move that irks Nick even more considering Shakespeare had already mounted a production of "Richard III" which is clearly a stupid move backwards. Clapham urges the brothers to come up with something else to open with in a few days—or else he's pulling out his funding altogether.

Despite finance offers from Shylock (the amusing Jeff Brooks), a local Jewish merchant (get it?), and Nick's wife Bea (the playful Maggie Lakkis) who promises to take on various male-only jobs in disguise to earn them some seed money, Nick sneaks away to try to fix his problem his own way. Armed with the family money box holding what little savings they have accumulated, Nick visits a sketchy part of town to buy the wisdom of a future-forecaster, Thomas Nostradamus (the spectacular Blake Hammond), the younger, less-famous nephew of that other Nostradamus.

His prediction for the Next Big Thing in theater?

"A Musical!" shouts Nostradamus.

Nostradamus explains that musicals are plays in which dialogue is stopped so that characters can convey the plot or action through song. Some musicals, shockingly, don't even have dialogue at all!

Nick is, understandably, confused and skeptical at first. But thanks to an all-out, song-and-dance, show-stopping extravaganza which features clever homages to many of future history's greatest and most famous musicals, Nick is wholeheartedly sold on the idea and begins to formulate his own musical play. What would be a good current subject? Oh, yeah! The plague!

Meanwhile, as Nigel struggles to come up with some fresh new material of his own, he has a meet-cute with a lovely young lady named Portia (the gorgeous-voiced Autumn Hurlbert). Unfortunately, though, Portia is a Puritan, a group of holier-than-thou, ultra religious citizens under the leadership of the, um, rather effeminate Brother Jeremiah (scene-stealer Scott Cote) who all feel that the world of theater is full of sin, evil, and depravity.

But, alas, Nigel and Portia are totes in love. So, naturally, when Nigel finds himself surprisingly invited to go to "Shakespeare in the Park" (haha) and attend the post-show after-party, Portia is his "plus one" to the event thrown by his idol. But wicked d-bag Shakespeare has an ulterior motive for Nigel's presence: to peruse Nigel's journal and steal some of his ideas! Soon enough, a vengeful Nick vows to steal from Shakespeare, too—asking more help from Nostradamus for any hints on what his rival's next hit is going to be.

And thus begins the humorous tug-of-war between Nick and the Bard. Who'll come out on top?

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Filled with a plethora of pun-tastic lines, saucy double-entendrés, hilarious sight gags, and cheeky, self-aware references, “SOMETHING ROTTEN!” is a truly madcap, laugh-out-loud musical comedy that delivers the funny without dumbing it down for its audiences. The show trusts the theatergoers enough not to overexplain everything it parodies—creating an even more satisfying payoff whenever jokes land… and most of them do. This overly meta approach to material that supposedly takes place in a much more antiquated era is certainly not something new (see: “SPAMALOT,” Disney's “ALADDIN”), but this musical does it so well, it's hard not to feel like you're getting it all and that you're laughing at every single joke it doles out with complete comprehension of what it's referencing and why exactly it's so damn funny.

Yet beyond that is the musical's enjoyable wordplay. Though its comedic silliness isn't over the top absurd or heavily reliant on vulgarity, “SOMETHING ROTTEN!” still manages to be genuinely funny with each passing scene, cleverly straddling the line between total buffoonery and knowing intelligence. It's certainly a testament to this show's great writing and musical lyrics.

And even more impressive which merits repeating: “SOMETHING ROTTEN!” is an original musical—not based on any previously published or staged material, a label you hardly see sprout on Broadway these days where almost every new musical seems like it's just another musical adaptation of a movie or a book. Because of this very fact, the show is all at once refreshing and unique, even though much of what is experienced feels hilariously familiar or reminiscent of tropes we may have run across before.

But by far the show's greatest contribution to musical comedy is its sensational act-one tribute to the art form of musical theater, which becomes a literal showstopper: "A Musical." Led by Hammond's showmanship flare and McClure's dazzled pupil-in-training, this fantastically-staged number garnered a well-deserved extended applause that basically had the cast catching its breath as it enjoyed a nearly three-minute stretch of claps and cheers from the show's recent press performance in Costa Mesa. A tour-de-force of rapid-fire stamina and encyclopedic musical theater hutzpah, this number name-checks pretty much every iconic musical to ever grace Broadway without outright flashing their titles up on a marquee (it even spills into the second act once the brothers forge ahead with their planned musical).

The added glee of recognizing each musical mentioned in "A Musical" feels like a communal treasure hunt the whole audience can enjoy. This alone is worth the price of admission.

Luckily, though, the price of admission gets you so much more, such as seeing Scott Pask's eye-catching sets and Gregg Barnes' magnificent, billowing costumes—all of which not only look luxe and stunning, but are also quite comedically functional (I mean, how can we not talk about those enlarged cod pieces-slash-fanny packs?)

Also worth noting: Jeff Croiter's transformative lighting design, plus Josh Marquette's daring hair designs and Milagros Medina-Cerdeira's amazing makeup designs. Sound-wise, musical director  Brian P. Kennedy leads a terrific-sounding orchestra, though the cast was a bit drowned out volume-wise during the opening number which resulted in some mumbled lyrics that didn't quite come through fully comprehensible. But it's apparently a fixable flaw, because the rest of the show had the audience laughing at every single joke and lyric dispensed by this excellent cast, which also includes standouts Pierce Cassedy (the always in "drag" Robin) and Nick Rashad Burroughs (who sings a terrific opening solo as the Minstrel). In almost every scene, you can tell the entire cast enjoys performing the show—and this joy is definitely contagious.

But this production's ultimate cherry on the top is definitely McClure, a comic treasure of action and reaction. For a solid two-plus hours, he displays an astonishing, manic, hard-working, limber, comically-blessed, grand belter extraordinaire that everyone wants to root for… or, at least, wish well in his wondrous endeavor of creating stage magic. If he represents the guy who brought us musical theater, then, wow thanks, man!

An uproarious musical comedy that deserves every bit of laughter thrown at it, “SOMETHING ROTTEN!” is definitely a must-see show this holiday season in Southern California. Leave your sadness and toss-able rotten tomatoes at home, because this show is an all-around guaranteed audience pleaser.

 

** Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ **

Photos from the National Tour of SOMETHING ROTTEN! by Jeremy Daniel, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

 

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Performances of the National Tour of “SOMETHING ROTTEN!” at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through Sunday, November 19, 2017. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.

Review: Theatrically Inventive “CURIOUS INCIDENT” Tour Captivates at OC's Segerstrom Center

Michael L. Quintos

  • OnStage Los Angeles Critic

Usually, the "Broadway" series offered by larger national tour-hosting theaters consists of a variety of stage musicals, from popular hits and recent revivals to so-so titles that hit the road to extend its reach beyond New York.

Rarely do Broadway plays go on tour—so when one is thrown into the mix of a local theater's offerings, you know it's very likely to be something extra special.

That is basically one of many superlatives you can bestow on the intriguing road production of Simon Stephen's Tony Award-winning play “THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME,” now in Costa Mesa at Orange County's Segerstrom Center for the Arts through September 17. For two-plus electrifying hours, audiences are offered a rare treat: a modern, theatrically-thrilling play direct from Broadway—by way of London's acclaimed Royal National Theatre and based on Mark Haddon's novel—that enraptures the audience in the same manner you would more likely expect from an all-singing, all-dancing grandiose musical.

Uniquely structured, visually stunning, and yet remarkably approachable, “CURIOUS INCIDENT”—directed with dynamic exuberance by Tony winner Marianne Elliott—is a prime example of what a great live theater experience can bring to an audience willing to jump in for a different kind of ride.

Right from the get-go, the play elicits plenty of exactly what's promised in the title: curiosity (and, yes, there's a dog). Right away, it feels unlike any play you've ever experienced.

As the audience enters the theater to find their seats, they'll immediately notice a curtain-free open stage fitted with an imposing giant black room. The room is lined perfectly with illuminated white grids on all sides, including the floor. And right smack dab in the center of the floor is an unexpected sight: a rather large dead dog impaled with a rather large pitchfork. It's actually quite a disturbing scene to walk into… eased only slightly with the knowledge that it is (hopefully) not a real dead dog (Hello!? This is theater!)

This futuristic-looking block container—outfitted with seemingly millions of LED lights, large projections, and lots of hidden compartments—feels like something out of the movie Tron. For me personally (nerd alert), the perfectly symmetrical grid-lined stage box is immediately reminiscent of an empty holo-deck in Star Trek where the surroundings will soon come to life once the "hologram" projections inside are activated.

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In somewhat similar fashion during the entirety of “CURIOUS INCIDENT,” the play’s blank electronic canvas also comes to life as the digitally-animated immersive environment that surrounds 15-year-old Christopher Boone (played with unbound ferocity by Adam Langdon), a mathematical genius and amateur sleuth who also displays signs of a young man on the more pronounced end of the autism spectrum—though this is never once outright mentioned or used to describe him in the play.

His assumed Asperger's-like condition is, naturally, the primary shaper of the play's narrative, as the audience witnesses first-hand in great, almost visceral visual and audio detail what it means and feels like to have this condition: a disturbingly chaotic cacophony of piercing sounds, nagging voices, incessant stimuli, and flashing lights that overtake, overwhelm, and overpower anyone in its nucleus. The once blank, dark grid that make up the stage suddenly becomes an enveloping avalanche of light and noise that's difficult to escape—not for the audience and certainly not for Christopher.

Aside from the sensory overload, even the slightest touch can set Christopher off into a toddler-like tirade. It's heartbreaking to watch—knowing how uncontrollable and debilitating this condition can be for a person who must endure it. “CURIOUS INCIDENT” cleverly immerses the audience in Christopher's world, allowing us to, at least briefly, step into his world.

Not surprisingly, Christopher is so much more comfortable with the language of maths, so it's only fitting that he is seen at his calmest and most confident when he is dealing only in that language. Fittingly, the play even later treats Christopher like a rock star—complete with all the swagger and strut—while diving into some serious mathematical problem solving.

As one may expect, Christopher's unpredictable condition is a challenging aspect to be around, particularly for his well-meaning working class dad Ed (Gene Gillette), who is raising his son alone and trying his best, for all intents and purposes, to be a good (or, perhaps, good enough) parent to a child with special needs.

Ed desperately wants to connect emotionally with his son while keeping him safe and content at the same time. But because Christopher's condition doesn't allow many moments for meaningful conversations, for common sense human understanding, or even for physical demonstrations of affection (Christopher, remember, doesn't like to be touched), Ed feels the need to be just at arms-length from his otherwise brilliant son, yet is still extra protective while also being fiercely cautious.

Ed, too, feels overwhelmed and mostly confused as to how to best handle him without losing him completely. But then again, he chooses to be evasive during Christopher's rare queries about his no-longer-around Mom, dodging a perfectly good opportunity to connect.

Book smart, highly analytical, and, of course, mathematically inclined, Christopher prefers calm, order… and answers. So when we first meet him, he is fixated with something new: he has tasked himself to solve the mystery of the neighbor's murdered dog, Wellington, a bloody act he is initially accused of doing himself. Once his father retrieves him from jail, Christopher dives deep into his scientifically-charged investigation, running into many "obstacles" along the way.

Funny enough, in the process of his investigation (which he, duh, eventually solves), he also accidentally uncovers a different, much more juicy mystery—one that personally holds an important key to his past and his future. This discovery, natch, triggers an irrational, spontaneous decision to run away from home, breaking him out from the somewhat protective bubble of his hometown Swindon to the congested streets of London. Will he fare well in such an overwhelming environment away from his dad, his sole protector?

In one of the play's many interesting twists, Christopher's absorbing, surprisingly riveting tale—part electro-fantasy, part animated infographic, part detective mystery, and part road adventure—is actually conveyed as a staged play for the audience, read out loud from Christopher's self-penned manuscript in a "Children's Story Hour"-kind of voice by his enthusiastic mentor/school therapist Siobhan (Maria Elena Ramirez), a wonderfully encouraging, if slightly patronizing, non-judgmental presence in his life. She recognizes another talent in Christopher—writing—and is championing him to continue.

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Meanwhile, a hardworking standby troupe of metamorphic character actors sit patiently in the sidelines to await their many turns to get up and portray various people—and objects—that cross paths with Christopher. An awesome compliment to Finn Ross' eye-popping video designs/projections and Paule Constable's intuitively choreographed lights is the play’s incredibly fluid ensemble cast, whose movements were devised by Frantic Assembly's Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett. Bunny Christie's inventive scenic and costume designs complete this production's modern high-tech aspirations.

But while the plot of “CURIOUS INCIDENT” itself isn't too complicated, the play’s clever and often artistically beautiful usage of technology combined with innovative staging and terrific acting performances are the things that make the play truly satisfying to watch. Even better, Langdon brings an endearing quality and memorable authenticity to his performance as Christopher that earns our affections and sympathy almost instantly (he alternates the role with Benjamin Wheelwright at certain performances). Sure, the visuals certainly do play a much more significant role in the telling of this story, but it does so in service of the play's goal to illustrate the main character's mind, ultimately making for a much more engaging experience overall.

A quirky, captivating exercise in theatrical inventiveness “CURIOUS INCIDENT” may be a high-tech-reliant play, but for the most part, it is ultimately a searingly human story that we can all cheer and celebrate.

 

** Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ **

Photos from the National Tour of CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME by Joan Marcus, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

Performances of the National Tour of “THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME” at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through Sunday, September 17, 2017. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.

Review: Beautifully Poignant "FUN HOME" Tour Moves Into OC's Segerstrom Center

Michael L. Quintos

Riveting, powerful and beautifully poignant at every step, "FUN HOME"—the Tony Award-winning musical based on Alison Bechdel's 2006 autobiographical graphic memoir—is one of those rare, great stage musicals that represents an astonishingly unique point-of-view that is somehow miraculously universal and inclusive at the same time. Armed with a moving, deeply personal story that's filled with heartache and heartbreak, yet with still plenty of room to be profoundly heartwarming, the musical's truly excellent national tour production continues performances at Orange County's Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa through August 6.

If you haven't seen this musical yet, do yourself a favor and get tickets while it's here.

Featuring piercing book and lyrics from Lisa Kron and euphonious music from Jeanine Tesori, "FUN HOME" is inspired by real events that happened to cartoonist Bechdel—particularly two specific stages of her past that she feels may have helped shape the person that she is in the present, and perhaps have also had a significant impact in her family. In looking back at her life, she is hoping that with deeper recollection and examination of these specific moments, they will lead to answers to some burning questions she has about her tumultuous relationship with her father that still haunt her today.

As audience members file into the theater, they will notice that there is no curtain, just a barely furnished bi-level stage where the terrific-sounding in-house band led by musical director Micah Young is tucked away downstage. Suddenly, with just a few notes from the band, in scurries Adult Alison—played by current Actors' Equity Association president Kate Shindle—wearing the same hipster spectacles and closed-cropped hairstyle the real-life Bechdel also sports.

Now in her 40's, she is in the midst of writing (well, drawing) her life story, which time-jumps from her seemingly happy home life in suburban Beech Creek, Pennsylvania as a curious young 10-year-old (played by the adorable Carly Gold) living with her two brothers and her parents, to her later life as a still curious 19-year-old Oberlin College undergrad (played by the impressive Abby Corrigan) just discovering that she is, in fact, a lesbian.

But the biggest question mark Adult Alison can't seem to shake in her reminiscing is, of course, her mysterious father Bruce (the superb Robert Petkoff), the distant yet highly intimidating family patriarch who taught English part-time at the high school and also ran the family business: a funeral home, which the Bechdel kids endearingly refer to as the "fun home" for short (get it?). She reveals quite matter-of-factly early on that four months after "leaping out of the closet," her father—himself a not-so-secret homosexual—stepped in front of a truck and may have killed himself.

As young (Small) Alison, she observes a father who barely engages with her let alone indicate any affection for her, at least in the way most fathers do with their pre-teen. He is, however, quite demanding and very particular about appearances, and how he wants certain things to look… from the way Alison dresses and the way she spends her leisure time, to the way their family house—a painstakingly restored ornate Victorian house—needs to always be meticulously perfect. He actually gets more excited over antiquated objects rather than the actual people around him. He shows more affection to a piece of linen damask than he does his own family. I guess this makes him perfectly suited to working with silent corpses and making them look pristine.

For coed (Medium) Alison, Bruce sends her more grown-up daughter books on philosophy while having awkward phone conversations that span different intellectual subjects, still unable to fully engage on a personal level. Such trivial things are easier to converse about, one can guess. For her part, Medium Alison jots down banal notes about their relationship in her journal. And strangely, Bruce all but glazes over Medium Alison's brave confessional letter that says she is gay and in love with a fellow student, Joan (Victoria Janicki).

But… surprise (but, not really)! She soon learns of Bruce's double life.

It is, however, apparently not much of a secret to his wife Helen (a stirring Susan Moniz), Alison's distressed mom—a former actress now working on her dissertation—whose only recourse is to feign happiness by silencing her sadness. Partially checked out and forcing herself to stay in an unhappy marriage, she gets used to turning the other cheek, then going about her own chores while reluctantly observing her husband's flirtations with various man-boys that seem to always show up at the house—from a fit former student to a random guy that comes to "help out" around the house. Eventually, one of these flirtations gets him into real trouble, forcing him to go see a psychiatrist as punishment/treatment.

Soon after coming out, Alison—hoping, perhaps, that she now has something much more substantial in common to talk about with his dad—is still unable to share a heart-to-heart with her dad during a visit home from college (with girlfriend in tow). Her mom, on the other hand, confesses tearfully about having to put up with it all these years.

As Bruce's realities start to implode, we witness Alison's father and his sudden death, which may have been a suicide. Alison, naturally, can't help but wonder…is her coming out and his suicide interconnected somehow? Did her act of pride lead to his act of shame?

Emotionally complex and intriguingly layered, "FUN HOME" is a 100-minute metaphor-heavy musical that touches on surface facades—those who use them to shield truths in order to try achieving a fulfilling life, and those who shed them and actually come closer to living a more fulfilling one.

Bruce, of course, is the biggest practitioner of the former, a man caught in a time and place that told him not to reveal his true self. Instead, he surrounds himself with a house full of precious, artistically valuable objet d'arts that he is more attached to than to his own family. Alas, the family has a purpose, though: its an army of free and willing museum custodians, all helping to keep Bruce's show palace a good spit-and-shine at any given moment.

For their part, Helen and her kids are wary not to upset Dad, making sure that the Bechdel's museum-like home is kept up to his exacting standards.

"Like chaos never happens and is never seen," they sing. "A volume out of place could start a third world war!"

His attachment to such beautiful things is clearly his compensation for not being able to fully express himself outwardly in another, more visceral way. And yet, lookee there, he manages to satisfy his other hidden urge quite frequently anyway—so much so that his own oft neglected wife is willing to just tolerate it rather than admit she's in a loveless marriage and have wasted her life being ignored and being taken for granted, minimizing her own wants and needs for his sake. Ultimately though, no amount of lovely things can be enough for a man living a lie all his adult life.

It's certainly a fate Alison seems to be trying to avoid falling into herself. Unlike her father, Alison is able to express her feelings with a modicum of bravery, despite its surface awkwardness. We see this in her boastful, so-happy-she-could-scream-it-with-a-megaphone pride over her meet-cute turned one-night-stand with Joan (her coming home with Alison for a visit obviously signals that they have progressed later to an out-in-the-open relationship). Alison is living her authentic self, something her father felt he wasn't ever able to do.

Additionally, "FUN HOME" is also a stern cautionary tale about the harsh consequences of non-communication. In certain cases, we entrap ourselves in these cycles of not telling others how we feel in the most honest of ways. Bruce deceived everyone. Helen kept her feelings to herself that it made her finally blow up, much, much too late. Alison almost didn't get what she wanted from Joan at first. Alison didn't even get the closure she needed from her father, but instead settling to remember her father in a rare moment of "perfect balance."

Under the smartly purposeful direction of Sam Gold, "FUN HOME" whips through a swift, chronologically jumbled puzzle of moments and revelations and then organizes them into an emotional drama with fair amounts of very welcome, well-timed joy. While, sure, "FUN HOME" isn't exactly the happiest, most feel-good musical around, there are enough breaks in the sadness to keep the audience entertained.

Gold's Small Alison is clearly having a blast with her little bros Christian (Luké Barbara Smith) and John (Henry Boshart) during the too-cute "Come To The "FUN HOME"," while Corrigan's Medium Alison enjoys a moment of euphoria during "Changing My Major." The disco-sparkle of "Raincoat of Love" perfectly contrasts with the tumultuous nature of the story at the very moment it arrives. Even the show's signature ballad "Ring of Keys" has a layer of buoyant joy bursting from its belted notes.

But it's the heartbreaking songs laced with deep cuts of melancholy and subtext that keep the audience at the edge of their seat to make this one of the most stirring contemporary musicals today. "Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue," "Maps," and "Telephone Wire" revealed more to me during this recent visit to the musical than it did the first time I saw it. And I just about fell apart in sobs much more this time around hearing Moniz sing through the devastating "Days and Days" while Petkoff's "Edges of the World" was a shudder-inducing manic explosion of fear and sorrow.

And, yes, the cast is stupendous. I can listen to Corrigan's beautiful singing voice all day long, she was that good. Moniz and Petkoff offer strong, excellent musicality paired perfectly with their incredible acting prowess (even the subtlest of facial expressions from Moniz are overloaded with context). Pint-sized Gold sounds delightful in every song, particularly in "Ring of Keys," the show's signature "aha" moment. And finally, Shindle, blessed with impressive vocal control and a commanding presence both as an omniscient narrator and the vulnerable "girl" in an awkward car ride with her dad, is the show's beacon home. As she examines her life right before her eyes, she is also, in a way, the audience's calming guide and docent in this musical museum, taking the time to sort of tell us that everything will be okay in the end.

Without fanfare, fancy visuals or outlandish theatrical setups, "FUN HOME" also seems to be all about theatrical transparency, even though, in a not-so-subtle contrast, the characters in the show themselves are almost always hiding their true selves from outward exposure. Zinn's simple exposed brick-lined set, portable furniture pieces, and an always-seen terrific in-house band tucked in the back reiterates this openness, and also helps recreate the theater-in-the-round scenario it employed during its Broadway run. Later towards the end of the musical, a (SPOILER ALERT) stunningly opulent Victorian home set is revealed and—wow. So that's what Bruce was doing. Kudos also go to Ben Stanton for the fabulous lighting, and Zinn (again) for the contextually relevant costumes.

Overall, "FUN HOME" is utterly moving and achingly heartfelt with every scene—and feels genuinely authentic. While I understand that this is all told through Alison's filtered lenses, in the end, I actually feel like Bruce's story is given equal weight with Alison's... although she tries to find answers to the mystery of his father (which she never really gets completely wrapped up in a bow), the fact that Bruce remains a somewhat unsolved enigma and mystery is probably the best thing for her—in order to heal and to be well without her recovery hinging primarily on solving the riddle of his dad. In spite of a fairly dysfunctional upbringing, Alison turned out to be a pretty darn great adult.

But more than anything, "FUN HOME" can be a thoughtful reminder of how important it is for people to live their truth, no matter how hard it may be for others to take or to understand. Sure, it was much more difficult to do so back in Small Alison's days (or, well, Medium Alison's days, too)… but nothing is more fulfilling than living life authentically. In this instance, we are also reminded about how much more alike we all are as feeling, emotional human beings, than we are different from one another.

Thanks, Alison, for allowing us to peer briefly into your world.

** Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ **

Photos from the National Tour of "FUN HOME" - A NEW MUSICAL by Joan Marcus, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Review also published in BroadwayWorld.

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Performances of the National Tour of "FUN HOME" at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through Sunday, August 6, 2017. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.

Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the Ahmanson Theatre

Erin Conley

The opening tableau of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which opened at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre on Thursday, is horribly upsetting and frankly makes you wonder what you’re walking into. In the middle of Bunny Christie’s versatile, simple set consisting of a black box covered in what looks like lit-up graph paper sits the corpse of a dog, impaled with a garden fork. The dog, Wellington, was murdered, and Christopher (Adam Langdon), a 15-year-old boy with an autism spectrum disorder, makes it his mission to solve the case. As an inciting incident, it is quite straightforward, but the twists and turns of the plot end up covering more ground than you would ever expect, and innovative staging makes for a truly dazzling production.

Curious Incident is based on the 2003 book of the same name by Mark Haddon. The stage version, adapted by Simon Stephens and directed by Marianne Elliott, premiered at the National Theatre in London in 2012 and won seven Olivier Awards. It later ran on Broadway for almost two years, winning five Tony Awards, including Best Play. The original National Theatre production is the same one that is now in Los Angeles, and this is exactly the type of show that will surely have a long, profitable life in theaters of all shapes and sizes. While the vivid central character and emotional journey evoke a feeling of intimacy, highly physical and inventive staging makes the show larger than life, combining a small, human story with theater spectacle in a rare and far-reaching way.

The grid the show takes place on has many uses—it is used for projections (Finn Ross), for displaying artwork Christopher draws in chalk on the ground, and as a blank slate of sorts on which the ensemble of ten can create magic. In addition to playing a variety of important characters and sometimes delivering narration, they also act as furniture and props—in one scene, where we see Christopher arriving to his home in Swindon, they create shapes with their bodies to mimic the doormat, a coat rack, a table, and even the bed Christopher eventually lies in to play video games. The ensemble also literally carries Christopher at times, notably in one scene in act two when they enable him to appear as if he is walking along the walls perpendicular to the stage, a sequence which drew rare mid-act applause from the audience.

While the book is told strictly from Christopher’s point of view and this is, for all intents and purposes, a rather loyal adaptation, the play uses a variety of storytelling techniques. There are so many, in fact, that it seems like it should not work—in addition to the many functions of the ensemble, you also have Christopher’s teacher and therapist, Siobhan (Maria Elena Ramirez) often acting as a narrator. In act one, she sometimes reads aloud from a book she has instructed Christopher to write about his experience investigating the dog murder, and in act two, the book is adapted into a play—see what they did there? Transitions between scenes are often abrupt and almost jarring with the action opting to move on once necessary information has been delivered. All of this combined should feel busy and overwhelming, but the emotional threads are so strong and the staging is so smart that somehow it never feels that way. Christopher’s beloved pet rat, Toby, is even played by an actual, live rat, because what is live theatre without as many variables as possible?

Nearly all of the aforementioned emotional threads have to do with Christopher as a character, who is beautifully portrayed by Langdon here. Christopher’s particular autism spectrum disorder, which is never addressed by name in the show, seems to be a rather severe one. He does not go to a mainstream school, he can recite every prime number into the thousands, he has a strong preference for the colors blue and red (and equally strong dislike for yellow and brown), he dislikes being touched, and he navigates the city in a very particular way, consisting of a specific system of right and left turns. During act one, as Christopher gets closer to an answer about who killed Wellington, an answer that shatters his perception of his own family more than he ever thought possible, we see him building a model train on stage with increasing franticness.

When the completed train is not only functional but provides a literal roadmap for the unprecedented adventure Christopher embarks on in act two, it is a stunning moment that brings everything we have seen up until that point together. While his mission changes multiple times throughout the show, his core personality and values never shift, and your heart will break for him as he discovers the secrets his family has kept from him and root for him as he fights his fears.

It feels worth mentioning that not all autism experts or people affected by autism find Christopher to be a good representation of the disorder. Haddon’s novel was marketed specifically as a book about a boy with Asperger’s, even though that word never appears in the text. Many of its critics feel Christopher’s condition is far too extreme to be truly indicative of Asperger’s, which no longer exists as a separate diagnosis but was generally associated with high-functioning cases. Others feel the portrayal of Christopher as a mathematical savant is stereotypical and damaging. Of course, there are two sides to every story, and others have written that the play helped them get a sense of what is happening inside the brains of their children with spectrum disorders in a way they never had previously. Also on a very positive note, in productions this coming fall at Indiana Repertory Theatre and Syracuse Stage, Mickey Rowe will become the first actor with an autism spectrum disorder to play the role of Christopher, a very necessary and exciting step towards better disability representation in the media.

The reason I have talked so little about the plot is because it is arguably the least special thing about this show. That is not to discredit it—it is an engaging story that keeps you invested even throughout a relatively lengthy two and a half hours. But when every other element feels exceptional, something has to be a bit ordinary. Oh, and don’t worry—they make up for the disturbing initial image with the crowd-pleasing appearance of a ridiculously adorable puppy towards the end.

 

The National Theatre Production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time runs through September 10th at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre. The running time is two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased at www.centertheatregroup.org. You can also enter a daily lottery to win tickets for $19.67 through the TodayTix app. After LA, this production will proceed to Costa Mesa and Las Vegas. Photo: Joan Marcus

Review: 'Fun Home' Tour Stops in Hartford CT

Nancy Sasso Janis

Hartford, CT - The touring company of The Public Theater’s production of ‘Fun Home’ opened at the Bushnell on Tuesday. The musical is based on the the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel with music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron. This production was restaged for the road by director Sam Gold, with music supervision by Chris Fenwick. 
 
Kate Shindle, a former Miss America and currently the (unpaid) president of Actors’ Equity, plays the role of the nation’s most famous lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel in the first Broadway musical to feature a young lesbian protagonist. ‘Fun Home’ tells the story of Ms. Bechdel’s discovery of her own sexuality and her relationship with her gay father as she attempts to unlock the mysteries surrounding her life. 
 
The writer/artist’s memoir presented in comics format was published in 2006 to critical acclaim. It chronicles her coming of age with a heavy emphasis on her relationship with her father Bruce. Ms. Bechdel’s coming out is complicated when she learns that her father, a funeral director and English teacher who is obsessively restoring the family’s Victorian home, has had homosexual relationships, some with students under the age of consent. Four months after the author comes out to her parents in a letter that she writes from Oberlin College, Bruce is killed by an oncoming truck. All of this is shared with the audience in the song “Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue” early in the musical, so there are no real surprises in this non-linear storytelling. 
 
It is a harrowing childhood remembered by the adult Alison that is at times difficult to watch. I had a tough time getting past how poorly the character of the father treats everyone around him, not the least of which is his only daughter. The music is very closely integrated into the script and the small orchestra adds much to the action. Thankfully, the pretend commercial for the family business performed by the three children in the cast "Come to the Fun Home" adds a bit of levity; the memorable "Ring of Keys" is also performed beautifully by the youngest Alison. 
 
The small cast did an admirable job of bringing the variously damaged characters to life. Ms. Shindle has chopped her hair to more closely resemble the cartoonist and was an almost constant onstage presence. Her Broadway credits include Legally Blonde (Vivienne) and Cabaret (Sally Bowles.) Carly Gold, who thanks dance teacher Janine Molinari in her bio, did very well in the role of Small Alison; clearly a professional, she remained a child for the part. Abby Corrigan took on the teenaged role of Medium Alison; she did well with “Changing My Major.” 
 
Robert Petkoff (Tateh in ‘Ragtime’ on Broadway) played the difficult role of Bruce with conviction and Susan Moniz (‘Grease’ on Broadway)  gave a heartfelt performance as his wife Helen. The young boys in the family were played by Luke Barbato Smith (as Christian) and Henry Boshart (as John in his professional debut); Kally Duling (‘Fun Home’ on Broadway) was Alison’s first (very confident) girlfriend Joan. Robert Hager played four male roles well. 
 
The orchestra, under the direction of Micah Young (on keyboards,) included Jakob Reinhardt on guitars, Alan Stevens Hewitt on basses, Philip Varricchio on reeds, John Doing on drums and percussion, Eric Dahlin on cello and Jaroslaw Lis on violin/viola. Theirs was a beautiful sound to accent the proceedings. I had some trouble discerning the lines and lyrics at several points and some of the lighting was probably more effective in the Circle in the Square than it was in the more traditional setting of the Bushnell. The scenic and costume design of David Zinn was both authentic and impressive. 

‘Fun Home’ is presented without an intermission. Recommended for ages 13 and up. The tour at The Bushnell runs through June 25. 

Pictured: Kate Shindle and Robert Petkoff. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Review: 'RENT': National Tour at the Fabulous Fox Theatre - On Stage and in the Audience

Erin Karll

On Stage: 

Setting the opera La Boheme in New York City in the late 80s during the AIDs crisis was a strong choice for Jonathan Larson 21 years ago. In two acts we follow the story of a group of friends who live in the city and are struggling to stay alive on many levels.

RENT is one of my favorite shows. I have seen many productions and consider myself a RENThead. When the 20th anniversary tour was announced I knew I had to see it. This was a chance to see the original style costumes and set one more time. And having seen the reunion panel at Broadway Con last year I felt a need to come full circle and see the show again. There are some slight changes to the show, but all those just solidified the message and came across as fitting. I always look at ‘Mark’ dancing during La Vie Boheme and was not disappointed with some modern updates. 

The audience had energy from the beginning. Read my Open Letter (Link) to see my opinion on the audience behavior during the show. Beside those issues the production was professional and told the story beautifully.

This cast is full of standouts. The ensemble worked together and the harmony parts “voice mail” and “Christmas Bells” sounded strong while also delivering the humor that was written in those parts. Kaleb Wells (Roger Davis) plays the rock star and has the voice to match. His chemistry with Skylar Volpe (Mimi Marquez) is stunning and powerful showing all the twist and turns of the relationship between ‘Roger’ and ‘Mimi’. They own “Light My Candle” with its flirty but dark tones. Aaron Harrinton (Tom Collins) and David Merino (Angel Schunard) had the crowd roaring each entrance they had together. Danny Harris Kornfeld (Mark Cohen) is charming and heartbreaking as the everyman survivor of this bohemian group. Jasmine Easler (Joanne Jefferson) is in charge on stage. She plays the relationship between ‘Joanne’ and ‘Maureen’, played by super talented Katie Lamark, perfectly going from deeply in love to heart broken, strong and independent and back to love.

I knew the audience was enjoying themselves from the discussions during intermission. My favorites were from the group behind me. Before the show they were talking about how they hoped Taye Diggs would be on tonight and how they all had crushes on him. During the intermission one in the group commented about how surprised he was that the show was sung through almost entirely and how he enjoyed it. RENT is a rock opera and was responsible for a new style of Broadway shows. It is modern stories being told by a diverse cast. Those stories and the message of ‘no day but today’ are as touching and import today as they were when Jonathan wrote them.

Visit renttour.net for the tours dates and times along with show information. I would recommend this production to any RENThead, and those just wanting to see a good musical. The only thing left to say is “Thank You Jonathan Larson”. 

In the Audience: 

An open letter to the audience of RENT at the Fablous Fox Theatre in St. Louis.

Audience members please show more respect for the art!

At a recent show I had the most horrendous experience as an audience member I have ever had. The show was RENT: the twentieth anniversary tour. Before the show started I had a feeling the audience had an energy. This show is known for the passionate fan base called the RENTheads so I was expecting a high level of excitement for this long awaited return. During the show that energy did not settle at all. There was massive rush of late seating during ‘One Song’ and that began the trouble. In the middle of almost every song there was someone in my row or section needed to get up and leave, I understand a few people needed to excuse themselves for emergencies but this was almost every song! Phones were out either recording the performance or texting. Drinks were dropped and rolled down under rows of seats before the echo was stopped. The worst distraction was the talking during the show. The ushers, who are volunteers at this theatre, were around but mainly focused on helping people find their way back to their seats.

Before the show I warned my neighbors that I ‘moo’ during the “Over the Moon” performance. They were slightly aware of the story, but didn’t know that the audience participated. We continued to talk a bit more, noting that we were on a hold while a stream of audience members rushed to their seats. There was a group behind me that was quizzing each other on the characters names and which song they sang. They seemed to be fans of the movie and were wondering if Taye Diggs was going to be on for “Benny”, but more on their funny notes for the show in my full review. (Link).

Theatre should be an escape from the real world for a few hours. I understand an emergency surprising you during the show causing the need to rush to the lobby or bathroom. I have received those calls, and had those illnesses. Quickly and quietly excuse yourself. It happens at every show and people will understand. Don’t try to return to your seats two minutes later with fresh drinks or with a new group of people.  Please refrain from having full conversations with your neighbors. A quite gasp or “see that” is understandable, and even sometimes a sign of a good performance that is engaging the audience. So, please, just do as the preshow announcements say. Turn off your phones, finish all snacks, sit back and enjoy the performance.  Your fellow audience members and the cast and crew will thank you.

Review: 'Dirty Dancing' National Tour (Clearwater, FL)

Melinda Zupaniotis 

  • Florida Critic

BOTTOM LINE:  This is not a musical, it is a dance show where music is played, with some singing and a sprinkling of acting.  Die-hard nostalgics will enjoy this copy of the film, otherwise, just watch the movie onbasic cable. Currently on tour in the US. 

REVIEW:

I was given the tickets.  I don’t think I would have purchased them on my own.  In fact, the people who gave me the tickets didn’t purchase them, either – they were won as part of a charity silent auction package.  Having recently moved to Florida from the New York – Tri-State area, I thought this would be a great way to explore my adopted town with one of my new friends, while also checking the cultural pulse of the region at the local Mecca of theatre and concert presentations.

Ruth Eckerd Hall is beautiful.  Mutli-colored lights change the appearance of the façade and its large footprint has many entrances.  There appears to be ample parking, and there are a lot of parking attendants, including valets, to assist in directing one to the right area.  On the flipside, one must allow for unlimited time exiting the parking lot, as it becomes somewhat of a debacle post-show.  The inside of the theater is a swirling maze of restrooms and vendors, serving wine, beer and popcorn, as well as show swag for whatever is playing that night.  In the instance of Dirty Dancing, there was also the installation of a selfie wall, where one could pose in front of a pink drop, emblazoned with the catch-phrase, “I Had The Time Of My Life.”  Although I really wanted to partake in this, I resisted and made my way to our seats.

I wish the designers of the venue had thought ahead a little more, as it is laid out with continental seating - each row stretches from one wall to the other, with no cut-through aisles.  Yes, this allows for a few extra seats, I’m sure, but it also allows for much frustration by constantly having to make way for row-mates, especially those annoying late-arrivals (and there were a lot!).  Additionally, with a full row in orchestra seating, some seats are placed on a strange curve, as mine was, so I wasn’t really square with the stage – something that never exited my awareness.

But, enough about the theater – how about the show?? 

Dirty Dancing’s stage incarnation is tightly based on the 1987 film, now celebrating its 30th anniversary.  In fact, the adaptation is so tight that, if like me, one saw the film a gazillion times and knows every word, one will be able to speak the lines along with the performers.  With the exception of an added storyline that enhanced the themes of war and equality, the stage show is a verbatim retelling of the film. This is understandable, as the screenplay writer, Eleanor Bergstein, also conceived and wrote the stage show.  There are also 47 musical entries in the show – most are from the film, but some are songs that were originally intended to be in the film, but licensing was not granted.  I guess Dirty Dancing has enough clout now to be granted those licenses.  I will get back to the music, but first, let’s talk about the story.

Actually, let’s not talk about the story…you know the story.  If you are too young to know the story, ask your mom to dig up her VHS copy of the film.  Trust me, she has it somewhere! But the truth is, if you don’t know the story, you probably wouldn’t be interested in this show, anyway. So…moving on…

Jillian Mueller and Christopher Tierney play Frances “Baby” Houseman and Johnny Castle, respectively.  From Row T, it was extremely hard to distinguish Ms. Mueller from Jennifer Grey, who played Baby in the film.  Mr. Tierney, a former ballet dancer, was graceful and beautiful to look at, plus, if you closed your eyes, you heard Patrick Swayze’s voice delivering the lines with the same timber and cadences as the film. Jennifer Mealani Jones, a Season 10 dancer on So You Think You Can Dance, performed Penny’s choreography incredibly.  She is graceful and lithe and made every quick move and turn seem effortless.  Ms. Mueller, Mr. Tierney, and Ms. Jones certainly danced their faces off in the show, but none of them sang a note and none of them did anything resembling acting.  But man, did they dance!

Someone in the cast who tried to act was Alyssa Brizzi, who played Baby’s superficial and annoying sister Lisa.  I use the word “try” because she went too far over the top with every line she said and movement she made.  Granted, the character is supposed to be a contrasting comic relief, but there’s a difference between an actor finding the humor in a role and a caricature chewing the scenery.  While the audience certainly laughed it up during her song at the talent show (Lisa’s Hula), I was happy when it was over.  What I will say is that she was at least consistent in her performance – but the performance was just too much.

Considering how close most of the casting was to the original iconic characters, I was surprised with the casting of Baby’s parents, Dr. & Marjorie Houseman, originally played by Jerry Orbach and Kelly Bishop.  Jerry Orbach’s character was a little older, which made sense for the timeline – Lisa and Baby would have been born just after World War II, when men were coming home to start families.  Gary Lynch and Rachel Bell Carpenter, who filled these shoes, were too young, inmy opinion.  Plus, their costumes, by Jennifer Irwin, didn’t seem to fit the era of 1963 – they seemed modern and more of an afterthought compared to the mostly appropriate attire of the rest of the cast (petticoats fah dayz!).

Rounding out the performances, I wanted to acknowledge Chante Carmel for handling the task of most of the singing in the show.  I was surprised that this is NOT a musical.  It’s a dance show with music and a smattering of acting.  Ms. Carmel was one of the few cast members who sang, and she did a great job.  Her voice is more suited to rock/pop/karaoke, so it worked well with this “score”.  Also, in the famous finale, she shared the best known song, “I Had The Time Of My Life” with Jordan Edwin André, who also played Billy Kostecki, and the crowd went wild.

Production value was high and clever, as it needed to be in order to move this production from venue to venue across the country over the course of a year, or more.  Through the use of video projection, designed by Jon Driscoll, the minimalist set was transformed into a lakefront then a dining hall, then a cabin, then a campground, etc.  Most interesting were the outdoor dance lesson scenes on the log, in the field, and then the lake.  Using a proscenium scrim with the projections, a 3-D effect was created and while it wasn’t perfect, it presented something I had not seen before. 

Sound started out spotty, but once the booth found their levels, it was consistent and sonorous in this beautiful music hall.  The choreography by Michelle Lynch) was clearly based off the film (the original choreographer, Kate Champion, receives credit in the program), and it was fun to see those classic routines redone.  As for the music, there was an orchestra on stage.  They were good. They are already being paid.  I will never understand, then, why there so much pre-recorded music and/or original studio tracks used.

All in all, it was a fun night out.  The dancing was spectacular, the One question I asked myself, though, was, “WHY do we need this show?”  Even though I could tell that Ms. Bergstein was trying to force a reason onto the audience by amping up the war and equality scene, the show honestly doesn’t make any poignant points, and it won’t change the world…BUT it made a room of 2,000 people happy for 2.5 hours and allowed some of us to relive a little part of our youth.

Review: Rodgers &Hammerstein's Updated 'Cinderella' is the "Lovely Night" Out You Deserve

Damon Jang

  • OnStage British Columbia Critic

The Broadway Across Canada bus and truck non-union tour rolls into Vancouver and its just the night out you need.

With music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II who also wrote the original book, Cinderella was originally a made for TV movie in 1957 starring Julie Andrews, it was remade again in the 1990's with Leslie Anne warren and then again in the 90's Starring Brandi, produced by  by ABC Family and Disney before its Broadway debut in 2013. It should be noted that regional and professional non Broadway productionsbased on these versions have been running prior to 2013.

Partly based on the book by Hammerstein, Douglas Carter Bean writes an updated book introducing several new characters, including a revolutionary, a sympathetic stepsister and a re-orchestrated score that includes many rare R & H tunes cut from other shows.

After its run on Broadway a US national tour followed and subsequent have been ongoing since 2016.

This production, brought to you by Work Light Productions, is a very good representation of the original Broadway production, just a little tighter. Dialogue was shortened, there was reduced orchestrations and some numbers were cut all together, making this version a tight 2 hours and 20 minutes with intermission. A far cry from its original run at over 3 hours. Tour director Gina Rattan keeps the pace brisk and tight which works for the most part but at times has characters rushing through and not allowing time for them to land.  She keeps all the magical production elements and humour though of the original direction by Mark Brokaw and puts a unique touch on it. Much is the same for Lee Wilkins interpretation of Josh Rhodes Choreography. Slick and grand but a little scaled down for tour purposes.  The only down side was the reduced overture which is a shame not to listen to that wonderful score in its full glory. it should be said that the scenic design, Tony Award winning costumes and lighting design is worth the ticket price alone.

Tatyana Lubov (Ella) sings with a crystal clear one and has all the sweetness and smarts that little girls can really up too. Prince Topher (Hayden Stanes) captures the spirit of youth in power that's somewhat lost and needs the right guidance from atrue friend.  skilfully portrayed is Sarah Primer as Madame the less than wicked and more self serving and jaded stepmother along with stepdaughters Charlotte (Joanna Johnson) and Gabrielle (Mimi Robinson) who will soon reveal she never loved the prince or even liked him, but whose heart belongs to another. The trio provide sharp comedic timing as well as a layer of humanity that's often overlooked in previous incarnations. The story shifts from the original in that we are introduced to Jean Michel (Chris Woods) whose optimism and spirit for political change in the kingdom only falters a little but again is saved by the advice, kindness and compassion of dear Ella.

The story gets more complicated and many layers add a much needed facelift to its 1957 predecessor but I won't get into the details. It's something you have to see for yourself.

This is the show you can take anyone too and they will have a great time, a truly magical lovely night. Its especially important to bring our young ladies and men to this as it carries an important message about finding yourself, and the empowerment of women. And that it only takes a touch of magic to get to the ball, but the real power is what is inside of you. As the fairy godmother (Leslie Jackson) so eloquently puts it " go..in the name of every girl who wanted to change the world she lives in...go with the promise of possibility!"

Rodgers & Hammerstein's CINDERELLA                                                                                           Runs at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in downtown Vancouver                                                       Till Sunday April 16th                                                                                                             www.BroadwayAcrossCanada.ca

Review: 'Once' Tour at Waterbury's Palace Theater

Nancy Sasso Janis

  • Connecticut Critics Circle/OnStage Connecticut Critic

"I'm always serious. I'm Czech." - Girl in 'Once'

Waterbury, CT - The NETworks Presentations LLC touring company of ‘Once’ stopped at the palatial Palace Theater for three performances this weekend as a part of their Webster Broadway Series. ‘Once’ features a book by Enda Walsh with music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova and of course is based upon the motion picture of the same name written and directed by John Carney. The musical is the winner of eight 2012 Tony Awards® including best musical.

I liked the film and especially the song “Falling Slowly,” so I could understand all those Tony wins as I watched what is definitely a unique and original Broadway experience. It is a tale of a street musician in Dublin who is about to give up on his dreams when a young Czech woman takes a sudden interest in the love songs he has written. The chemistry between them grows while his music soars to new heights, but this unlikely connection turns out to be much more complicated than a common romance. It is about not living in fear, going for your dreams and the power of music that connects all of us. The best part of the production is the impressive ensemble of actor/musicians who all play their own instruments onstage to the music that is cleverly woven into this complex love story.

The performance at the Palace opened with the bar onstage being open to serve ticket holders on the set of an old Irish pub. Bright house lights made it easy to preview the program before the show. Some of the actor/musicians came out during this preshow to perform some tunes before the crowd was ushered off the stage by the headset-wearing crew. Then without house announcements, the show began.

The unnamed Guy was played by the very talented Sam Cieri, who convincingly banged on his battered guitar as he alternated between shouting and quietly singing the lyrics to the street musician’s songs. He brought a lot of heart and stage presence to the role. Mackenzie Lesser-Roy gave a shining performance in the role of Girl. The Boston Conservatory grad entered through an aisle and truly became the serious young woman from Czechoslovakia who plays the piano.

The supporting cast of musicians who sat on the sides of the stage and stepped up to play the other roles included Jenn Chandler as a bank manager who skillfully played both guitar and cello, and Nyssa Duchow as (briefly) the ex-girlfriend on violin and percussion. Liam Fennecken as Svec covered guitar, mandolin, banjo, drum set, and percussion. Isaac Haas played Girl’s flatmate Andrej and played electric bass, ukulele, guitar and percussion. John Hays was Billy and played guitar, percussion, and ukulele.

Angel Lin was the emcee and played guitar. Alison Rose Munn was lovely as Girl’s mother Baruska and played both accordion and concertina. John Pierson was the Da of Guy and played mandolin, while Lauren J. Thompson was Reza while also playing violin. Dan Tracy played Eamon and expertly played piano, guitar, percussion, melodica, and harmonica. Young Lily Caputo appeared as Ivanka.

I loved the recording session of  “When Your Mind’s Made Up” and the visual ballet for “Gold” that was the first act closer. The performances of “Falling Slowly” did not disappoint.  Music captain was Barry DeBois and kudos to movement captain Adam Huel Potter. The scenic and costume design by Bob Crowley was spot on and the magnificent lighting design by Natasha Katz clearly deserved her Tony Award. There was video captioning of the Czech lines that the actors spoke in English, except for one important line that was said in Czech and translated into English for the audience.

Coming next season to Waterbury’s Palace Theater will be ‘The Phantom of the Opera,’ for a two-week CT exclusive engagement, ‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,’ ‘Jersey Boys,’ ‘Rent,’ and “Motown the Musical.’

Nancy Sasso Janis is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. She continues to contribute theatre news to local Patch.com sites. Follow her new Facebook page Nancy Sasso Janis: Theatre Reviewer and on Twitter @nancysjanis417

Photos by Joan Marcus

Review: S' Wonderful "AN AMERICAN IN PARIS" Tour Makes Beguiling L.A. Debut

Michael L. Quintos

OnStage Associate Los Angeles Critic

Every season, it seems almost a given that yet another old (or not quite recent) movie has yet again been converted into a premium-priced stage musical—so much so that it's predictably common to find yourself seeing a movie-based musical rather than one that started from a completely fresh, original idea.

And, yes, we've all heard a multitude of reasons why it's a common practice—chief among them are that, 1, there is value in name (well, title) recognition and that, 2, there's (usually) a ready-made narrative in a film-based musical, thereby giving adaptors the necessary blueprints to easily craft settings, situations, characters, and, of course, songs.

Just these past few weeks alone, I saw four, yes, FOUR (!) musicals that all exist both on stage and on the silver screen. Most of the time, I find myself crossing my fingers while watching such theater pieces, hoping that the stage iteration is at least as good if not better than its cinematic counterpart (and, yep, it works vice versa, too, of course).

Well, you can certainly count the all-singing, all-dancing musical now parked at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood in that ovation-worthy category, thank goodness.

Strikingly refined yet pleasingly grounded and altogether delightful, the gorgeous 2015 Broadway musical stage adaptation of "AN AMERICAN IN PARIS"—inspired by the Academy Award-winning 1951 movie musical of the same name—is a sweepingly lush, dance-centric production that combines the high-brow sophistication of classical ballet with the pure exuberance of musical theater. The resulting hybrid? Absolutely beguiling. The national tour production continues its "S'wonderful" Los Angeles-area debut through April 9, 2017.

For those new to the not-so-complex story, "AN AMERICAN IN PARIS"—somewhat like the basic plot of its source material—follows the story of three men and a lady (all talented artists in their own right) who find themselves at a crossroads as they try to navigate post-World War II life in Paris, France. The sting of war certainly remains fresh for them, and so they long for the day when the memory of such ugliness and inhumanity they saw first-hand during the fighting would simply be erased.

Enamored by the City of Lights—and an anonymous French girl that crosses his path—former American G.I. and budding fine artist Jerry Mulligan (smolder-extraordinaire Garen Scribner) decides to belay returning home to America to extend his stay in Paris, with hopes that the artist-friendly environment will reignite his love of painting (and, who knows, maybe even jumpstart a career). Jerry's close friend is fellow struggling artist Adam Hochberg (the utterly huggable Etai Benson, our everyman narrator), who is also an American war vet, but with starry-eyed dreams of being a respected musician and composer. Both men share a camaraderie with local Parisian Henri Baurel (the dapper Nick Spangler), who dreams of being a musical performer himself, an occupation that is perhaps far beneath what is expected of someone who comes from a wealthy family like his.

And then there's star-on-the-rise Lise Dassin (the stunning Sara Esty), the gorgeous Parisian shopgirl turned ballerina who becomes intertwined in their lives.

During casual interactions, Lise seems guarded, timid, and even a little secretive (well, she has reasons). But when she dances—whether alone or with a partner—it's like watching someone being unabashedly free to express her true self. All of Paris, it seems, is instantly smitten when they see her. Well, you see, it turns out that the mysterious French woman that Jerry's been obsessing over is actually Lise! And to further complicate the situation, it turns out Lise is also the same woman that has captured Henri's heart—so much so that Henri is contemplating a marriage proposal that both Jerry and Adam have previously advised him to pursue (not knowing who she was, of course)!

On the career front, quick-witted nice-guy Adam continues to pursue every gig he can get (while not getting the girl, natch), and resorts to fantasizing about an idealized future. Meanwhile Jerry suddenly finds himself quite in-demand by wealthy American socialite Milo Davenport (Emily Ferranti), a philanthropist and patron of the arts who wants to not only guarantee that Lise become a superstar in the French ballet world, but also push Jerry and his, uh, paintings (well, eventually) into the forefront of the French art scene.

In between the soapy, melodramatic tug-of-war for Lise's affections between Jerry and Henri (and Adam, I guess, though he barely had a chance), everyone dances… and dances… and dances some more. And, my gosh, all of it just soars. More than anything, "AN AMERICAN IN PARIS" is a dance lover's dream.

And therein lies the real beauty of this dance-devoted musical. 

Following the basic blueprints of director Vincente Minnelli's grandiose MGM musical starring Gene Kelly, the stage version of "AN AMERICAN IN PARIS" reduces some of the original film's Hollywood "big-ness" but still packs palpable emotional power in its lovely, much more relatable presentation. The tour—just like the show's Paris and Broadway beginnings—is directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, who, with this production, expands from the similarly-titled ballet he created for the New York City Ballet in 2005 to fashion a full-fledged traditional song-and-dance-and-dialogue musical a decade later.

To achieve this new level of theatricality, Wheeldon incorporates a new book by Craig Lucas, itself an updated adaptation of Alan Jay Lerner's screenplay for the original film. While the basic stories remain pretty similar between the movie and the stage musical, Lucas' newer book adds more wit and thoughtfulness, and is much more in touch with modern, real-world sensibilities that a 1950's-era screenplay could merely graze with cautious gloves. While, sure, the characters and the still-skimpy story points don't exactly get a major overhaul, they still do feel slightly expanded. No worries, though, because you'll be so mesmerized by the spectacular dancing that you won't find the time to be nitpicking all of the show’s shortcomings.

Of course, arguably the most important aspect that all iterations—whether film, stage or ballet—have in common is the usage of classic works from a pair of titans of the Great American Songbook: George and Ira Gershwin. "AN AMERICAN IN PARIS" sets its stories around many well-known standards such as "I Got Rhythm," "S Wonderful," "They Can't Take That Away From Me," and, yes, the title song—all of which sound more beautiful than ever in new arrangements performed live by an orchestra under the baton of musical director David Andrews Rogers.

Visually, the production pops with aesthetically pleasing vibrancy. Bob Crowley's exquisite costumes and set designs mesh seamlessly with Natasha Katz's lighting and 59 Productions' dynamic projections. When you sit back and take it all in, the entire production feels like a living, breathing canvas, framed perfectly by the Pantages Theatre's ornate vintage proscenium.

Also framed perfectly: this amazing tour cast, all superb triple-threats who can all sing, dance, and act—while holding an entire audience in rapt attention.

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Both Scribner and Esty come to the tour by way of the musical's Broadway company, promoted to lead roles full-time on the road and they darn well prove they deserve their spots. Overflowing with talent, they are equipped with powerful dance skills that complement their strong voices. Watching them partner in number after number is mesmerizing—which is also an indicator of their undeniable chemistry. That 18-minute dance duet in Act 2? Unbound brilliance.

Their costars, Benson and Spanger are both not only strong singers and hoof-sters but are also genuinely likable as well, making it easy for the audience to root and care for their respective characters’ journeys, too. The ensemble as a whole unit is wonderfully exciting and in sync during the dance numbers, making their collective appearances even more fun to watch.

While certainly not a completely flaw-free musical, overall, "AN AMERICAN IN PARIS" is an entertaining hybrid of posh culture and fulfilling commerce, and by far one of the best, most accomplished dance-centered musicals ever produced for the stage. Ballet purists will appreciate it just as much as those, I dare say, who normally wouldn’t even sit through a ballet performance. Additionally, this musical wholeheartedly proves that while most book-musicals expectedly use sung lyrics to convey emotions or story, no one should ever underestimate the storytelling power of a well-choreographed dance number or even an astonishing gravity-defying leap in the air.

Don't miss this beautifully assembled production if it ever comes to a city near you.

Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ

Photos from the National Tour of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS by Matthew Murphy, courtesy of The Hollywood Pantages Theatre.

Remaining performances of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre continue through April 9, 2017. Tickets can be purchased online at HollywoodPantages.com, by phone at 1-800-982-ARTS(2787) or in person at the Pantages box office (opens daily at 10am) and all Ticketmaster outlets. The Pantages Theatre is located at 6233 Hollywood Boulevard, just east of Vine Street. For more information, please visit HollywoodPantages.com.

Review: Charming but Flawed "FINDING NEVERLAND" Searches for Magic

Michael L. Quintos

OnStage Associate Los Angeles Critic

In preparation for seeing the touring version of the 2015 Broadway musical adaptation of FINDING NEVERLAND at OC's Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa this week (where it will play through April 2, 2017), I decided to re-watch the 2004 Oscar nominated film that inspired it, in order to reacquaint myself to this particular re-telling of the "making of" the Peter Pan legend. The five-hanky tearjerker written by David Magee and directed by Marc Forster certainly wrings out deep emotions from its viewers while introducing hit-starved playwright J.M. Barrie (played by Johnny Depp), the author and creator of Peter Pan, and the family he befriends that also served as his muses for his most famous work.

In hindsight, part of me wishes I didn't watch the movie again, mostly because the film's freshness in my mind reiterated to me that this stage adaptation would have been much better off had it stayed closer connected to the film as much as possible. A charming though perplexing—and, at times, frustrating—adaptation, FINDING NEVERLAND jets into too many erratic directions at any given moment and doesn't gel completely as a whole. And for all its gorgeous, visual splendor, it is surprisingly lacking in honest-to-goodness stage magic.

For more than a century, Barrie's fantastical story of Peter Pan—the adventurous, magically-blessed boy who refuses to grow up—has received countless similar origin stories that try to trace how Peter became Pan… from books, television, and film. Some are more inventive and clever than others, but the semi-autobiographical FINDING NEVERLAND—based on Allan Knee's 1998 play THE MAN WHO WAS PETER PAN—hews perhaps the closest to actual real-life events by showing how Barrie (here played by Billy Harrigan Tighe), whose chance encounter with widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Christine Dwyer) and her tiny all-male brood inspired him to create the stories we all know so well today.

Forced to come up with a fresh new play by his worrisome American producer Charles Frohman (Matthew Quinn, at this performance) to erase the memory of his last bad one, Barrie finds himself wandering Kensington Gardens one afternoon hoping to combat writer's block. There, he meets the Davies boys George (Finn Faulconer, at this performance), Jack (Colin Wheeler, at this performance), Michael (Jordan Cole, at this performance), and Peter (Ben Krieger, at this performance) playing in the park accompanied by their harried but lovely mother Sylvia. 

Barrie, a playful, immature man himself, instantly forms a liking with the playful, highly-imaginative boys, whose playtime consists of elaborate, made-up stories. Soon—despite the odd friendship developing between a fully-grown man and four impressionable young kids—is welcomed frequently into the Davies household. Rightfully skeptical of the situation, though, is Sylvia's mother Emma du Maurier (Karen Murphy) who, like everyone else in London, is increasingly a little troubled by Barrie's involvement in their lives.

But it all seems to be benign: Barrie is genuinely fascinated by the boys (seeing himself as a make-shift father-figure of sorts) and soon begins development of a new play centered around them, paying particular attention to young Peter, whom Barrie finds to be a smart and sensitive young man that reminds him of his younger self. The play he shapes, however, confounds his producer and assembled cast, who can't see his vision in its full glory. Alas, Barrie assures all that the play—despite its juvenile gathering of pirates, fairies, and mermaids—will connect with all audiences of all ages and all tastes.

Meanwhile, as Barrie's own home life with his wife Mary (Crystal Kellogg) starts to disintegrate, he finds himself growing ever closer to Sylvia. But unfortunately, something gloomy is on the horizon that could end such courtship before it even truly begins.

And…. Cue the tears.

Just like the film, the stage musical adaptation of FINDING NEVERLAND tries its best to sprinkle as many spotlight-illuminated real-life moments in the narrative that have a direct (or slightly skewed) connection to the Peter Pan play that Barrie eventually writes—from why the Darling nursery is run by a large shaggy-haired dog, to why a thimble is a good-enough substitute for a first kiss. Finding these parallel "Easter eggs," intermixed with a few witty one-liners here and there, I suppose, is part of the fun…but I'm not sure these bits of fun is enough to sustain a musical clearly suffering from an identity crisis.

That familiarity with its magical source material is perhaps why FINDING NEVERLAND feels like it comes up short most of the time, particularly in its frustratingly schizophrenic first act. In many ways, it somehow stops itself from going full tilt—except for maybe trying to hit you on the head with, uh, you know… Important Life Lessons you may have missed while reading or watching much more subtle fare. This to me is genuinely shocking to see transpire in this production—especially after realizing that FINDING NEVERLAND is helmed by Tony Award winner Diane Paulus, the genius director behind such awe-inspiring, beautifully-realized stage shows such as the recent revivals of HAIR, PORGY & BESS, and PIPPIN as well as the hit stage adaptation of WAITRESS. But armed with an uneven book by James Graham, FINDING NEVERLAND simply meanders.

Many of the songs, written by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, are fine as stand-alone compositions, but they don't necessarily sound like they belong in THIS musical. Rather, the show's musical collection sounds more like a hodgepodge of randomly procured adult-contemporary pop that feels inserted rather than integrated. Compare the song list in the national tour production with the Broadway song list and you'll see that things have been moved, rearranged, deleted, or newly inserted for this traveling iteration. This is already a surefooted sign that the show is still perhaps a work-in-progress, even now in the midst of its national tour.  

Things vastly improve during the more enjoyable, less cluttered second act, which—surprise—feels much more connected to the film that originated it (in a way, the entire film feels like it was compressed to fit the entire second act). Suddenly, FINDING NEVERLAND finds a palatable balance between humor, whimsy, and genuine heartbreak that it sorely lacked before intermission.

While the first act can't decide its focus (overstuffing it instead with a lot of exposition and extraneous muck), the second act much more effectively demonstrates the correlation between the Davies family and the play Barrie is so desperate to put on for London theatergoers. There are also even more out-front emotional clouds hanging over the story that are highlighted in the second act that all effectively tugs on the audience's heartstrings—so much so that many will eventually forget how terribly executed the first half was in the first place. Sure, it's blatantly manipulative, but, man, you'd really have to be a Grinch not to feel a lump in your throat as real-life Peter suddenly realizes that he'll eventually have to grow up and face the not-so-nice aspects of the adult world, especially the fragile mortality of adults who've been charged to care and look out for them. Well, geez, I'd want to be Peter Pan, the character, too!

And, yep, the second act certainly amps up the magic we've all kind of longed for all along.

It's actually too bad, because on the surface, FINDING NEVERLAND has the makings to be wholly entertaining, especially given its relatively familiar roots. Visually, the production is aesthetically stunning: from Scott Pask's scenic designs, John Driscoll's dazzling projections, and Suttirat Anne Larlarb's period garments, to Kenneth Posner's lighting, Richard Maybey's hair and makeup, and Jonathan Deans' enveloping sound design. The lyrical movements devised by choreographer Mia Michaels are gorgeously jarring, though some of it does feel like they belong to a much more ethereal musical rather than this one, so there's a disconnect at times. 

As for the cast, these talented, enthusiastic actors winningly do their best with their given material. Tighe makes for a rather dashing J.M. Barrie, and makes an effective case for why everyone surrenders to his charms easily—including Dwyer's effervescent Sylvia. Dwyer's soaring voice is also wonderfully matched with Tighe's strong vocals, giving way to a believable chemistry (more affectionate than sexual, that is). 

Stepping in for Tom Hewitt, understudy Quinn does a great job essaying both Barrie's Yankee theater producer Charles Frohman and his imaginary alter-ego Captain Hook. The young actors who played the Davies boys were also all wonderful, particularly Krieger as Peter (his duet with Barrie in "When Your Feet Don't Touch The Ground" is an emotional highlight). Extra kudos to supporting players Dwelvan David for his scene-stealing appearances as the acting troupe thespian Mr. Henshaw who has been tasked to play Nana in the play "Peter Pan," and Murphy as Sylvia's stern and protective mother.

By the time FINDING NEVERLAND reaches its highly emotional ending, most audience members may be in a forgiving mood and forget the travesties of the jumbled first act. While the musical's sentimental qualities may sear into lots of you, I feel that many won't get past how the production seems to go through the motions initially just to speed towards the latter scenes of smile-inducing visuals ("Oh, look, Peter Pan the play is happening right in front of us!") and its ugly-cry-baiting story climax ("awww, poor Peter. This kid's going to need a lot of therapy.") As in most musicals and plays, the entire journey is what makes something worth experiencing, not just the final destination. 


** Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ **

Photos from the National Tour of FINDING NEVERLAND by Jeremy Daniel, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Review also published in BroadwayWorld.

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Performances of the First National Tour of FINDING NEVERLAND at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through Sunday, April 2, 2017. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.

Review: 'Cabaret' National Tour at the Fabulous Fox

Erin Karll

OnStage St. Louis Critic

The Roundabout Theatre Company's touring production of 'Cabaret' stopped in St. Louis. 'willkommen' indeed! Fresh off its Broadway run at studio 54 theatre the show travels well and is a powerful reminder of a dark time in the worlds history.

The story is of an American novelist Clifford Bradshaw (Benjamin Eakeley)traveling to Berlin during the rise of Hitler. He becomes infatuated with the night club lifestyle and a singer Sally Bowles (Leigh Ann Larkin), but realizes the danger that is coming. Narrated by the Emcee (Jon Peterson) who is the embodiment of excess that Cliff wants to fill his life with, the story takes some dark turns.  Eakeley and Larkin have powerful chemistry and truly show the obsession of the characters relationship. Peterson was wild, charming, engaging, and put the audience on notice from the opening number. The jokes hit even the back of the house.

Having seen the original set in the Broadway theatre I really liked the way it filled the Fox's stage. The lighting was brilliant and led to amazing transitions. The Kit Kat boys and girls flirted and charmed their way into the lime light.

Standout scenes for me were 'Willkommen', 'Don't Tell Mama', 'Maybe This Time', and the opening of act 2 'Entr'Acte' and 'Kick Line'. All classic and well known to fans of the show.

I would recommend you 'leave your troubles outside' and see this amazing production. Also leave the little ones and sensitive ones at home. Topics and themes for this show are not family friendly, but this time there was no Shia Labeouf.

For touring information visit cabaretmusical.com.

Review: National Tour of 'Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella'

Nancy Sasso Janis

OnStage Connecticut Critic / Connecticut Critics Circle

“The world is full of zanies and fools, who don't believe in sensible rules, and won't believe what sensible people say. And because such daft and dewy-eyed dopes keep building up impossible hopes, impossible things are happening every day.” 

Waterbury, CT - The touring company of ‘Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella’ that graced the stage of Waterbury’s regal Palace Theater marks the midway point of the 2016-2017 Webster Broadway Series. It is the work of Work Light Productions with music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein and a new book by Douglas Carter Beane from the original book by Mr. Hammerstein. This tour direction is by Connecticut native Gina Rattan, who is currently directing ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ at Pace University and has served as associate director for ‘Matilda The Musical’ on Broadway and ‘The Sound of Music’ and ‘Peter Pan’ Live on NBC. Tour orchestrations are by Bill Elliott. 

The notes of the overture brought back memories of the music from the classic television special that I watched repeatedly as a child and the music held up to the test of time for me. The first incarnation starred Julie Andrews, and the one I know by heart is the 1965 remake starring 18-year-old Lesley Ann Warren and ‘General Hospital’ star Stuart Damon. Four additional songs from the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalogue were added to the 2013 Broadway production.

In the tour, Tatyana Lubov plays the title role with grace and pluck; while “Ella” sounded just fine in the first act, her voice was able to shine for the numbers after intermission. Hayden Stanes played the handsome prince “Topher” (short for “Christopher”) and he sounded best when he was singing with his love. Vincent B. Davis played his shady guardian Lord Pinkleton and Chris Woods took on the role of a young and unconfident revolutionary Jean-Michel 

Sarah Primmer was the vile stepmother called Madame. Joanna Johnson was a riot in the role of stepsister Charlotte (accent on the last syllable) that was originated on Broadway by Ann Harada (‘Avenue Q.’) Mimi Robinson was sincere as the taller stepsister Gabrielle. Ryan M. Hunt stood out as the royal town cryer Sebastian. Brian Liebson was the magical footman and Arnie Rodriguez was the coach driver. Chloe Fox was a Lady of Ridicule in a scene that allowed Ella to demonstrate her innate kindness. Members of the ensemble served as puppeteers for woodland creatures, knights, townspeople, lords and ladies of the court and peasants. 

Leslie Jackson started out as a peasant named “Crazy” Marie and made a beautiful transformation into the fairy godmother. And speaking of transformations, the costumes designed by William Ivey Long make mind-boggling onstage changes that truly look like they could have been done by magic. Just don’t blink or you might miss one of them. 

Beautiful wig and hair design was done by Paul Huntley. Choreography by Lee Wilkins based on the original choreography by Josh Rhodes was well-done and I was impressed with all of the one-armed lifts executed by the male dancers in the ballroom scene. The orchestra sounded great under the direction of Charlie Reuter. 

I enjoyed this fresh look at the classic tale that retained the feel of the television special. Little bits of comedy made it feel a little more contemporary. The scenic design by Anna Louizos was both lovely and functional, including that necessary white staircase; the look of the entire production overall was quite beautiful, mostly because of those amazing costumes. 

‘Cinderella’ runs through Feb. 26 at the Palace. STUDENT RUSH! Tickets in the mid mezz are available for any performance for ONLY $35. To ensure a safe and positive experience for all patrons, the Palace Theater has new protocols: All bags will be checked and all patrons will be subject to security wanding upon arrival.

Review: Fun and Cheeky “MATILDA The Musical” Amuses at OC’s Segerstrom Center

Michael L. Quintos 

OnStage Los Angeles Critic

What is often uniquely wonderful—and, once in a while, unfortunate—about live theater is its unpredictability, in that sometimes unscripted surprise moments take over. 

That very notion happened for the packed house of kids and adults alike that gathered recently for the Orange County opening night press performance for the Olivier and Tony Award-winning “MATILDA - THE MUSICAL” at Segerstrom Center for the Arts. After almost an hour delay, the audience, sadly, had to be told by the national tour's management that the scheduled performance that evening was not going to happen as planned—all due to some stubborn technical difficulties that the crew tried so diligently all evening to fix. 

Understandably, for the safety of the production staff and the cast (many of whom are very young children with a curfew quickly approaching), the audience was dismissed. As a proud theatergoer, I was relieved not to witness too many complaints about the theater's decision, though, admittedly, the sight of a few tear-stained faces from a few little ones walking outside did break my heart a little. 

As predicted, Segerstrom Center happily reissued tickets to patrons (and, yes, us press folk), assuring that the much-anticipated arrival of the just recently closed Broadway musical adaptation of Roald Dahl's beloved children's novel will be seen at another time during its performance run through January 29 in Costa Mesa.

As we walked out en masse that evening, I repeatedly overheard some variation of the same phrase from several patrons:

"In all my years of going to shows, that has never happened!"

They are, of course, referring to the cancellation of a show due to technical difficulties. Looking back at my own long history as a theatergoer, this statement surprisingly applies. 

I have sat through many live theater showings where something—whether it's an uncooperative set piece, a microphone on the fritz, or a wardrobe malfunction—goes awry in the middle of it all. But still, everyone soldiers on through the rest of the show. Realizing that a cancellation of a show due to technical difficulties is certainly not a new phenomenon, it still made me think about the kinds of shows that would force such an action if something were to happen.

Remembering back to my first exposure to “MATILDA - THE MUSICAL”—during the national tour's launch at the Ahmanson Theatre in nearby Los Angeles back in the summer of 2015—I can definitely understand why. 

The show, which tells the tale of clever 5-year-old telekinetic bookworm Matilda Wormwood, is a vividly colorful, eye-popping visual and technical marvel, replete with a stunning cacophony of theatrical magic and intricately moving set pieces and props that all work in cohesive precision to try to recreate the fantasy world of Dahl's well-known story. 

The show, in a way, partly hinges on a complex sequence of well-choreographed, wow-inducing set pieces and production numbers that not only enhance the theater experience but also help propel the wildly outrageous aspects of the story. From Hugh Vanstone's lighting design and Simon Baker's sonic creations, to Paul Kieve's "illusion" design and Peter Darling's electric choreography—all working in conjunction with Rob Howell's impressive sets and costumes design—“MATILDA - THE MUSICAL” is not a simple show to pull off.

It's no wonder, then, that if even just one piece (large or small) malfunctions in this sequence, the show is thrown into chaos. The special effects of the show is, admittedly, one its audience draws; to present the show with any part of those effects in jeopardy or not in its full glory would certainly be a disservice to the overall presentation—which this show in particular relies on heavily.

Be that as it may, “MATILDA - THE MUSICAL,” overall, is genuinely a fun time. It's a cheeky, kid-friendly (and, really, kid-catering) stage musical that has plenty for both kids and their parents to enjoy together. Featuring lively songs by Tim Michin and a witty, yet easily digestible book by Dennis Kelly, “MATILDA - THE MUSICAL” celebrates how one adorable, truly likable kid —who, sure, may seem a little odd and different—can overcome a troubled environment and still come out the other side a remarkably self-assured, open-minded, and kind-hearted young lady who can fully distinguish right from wrong—while having a bit of naughty fun along the way. 

The surprisingly demanding title role, appropriately enough, is played by three rotating child actors who each take their turns for each performance. For my "make-up" return visit to the show, Matilda was played by Jenna Weir, who at her young age displayed some remarkable acting and vocal skills that can rival even many actors multiple times her age (Hannah Levinson and Jaime MacLean alternate with Weir at different performances). 

Weir is also surrounded by a cast of wonderfully over-the-top pint-sized and full-sized actors to play the various people that affect Matilda's life.

In Dahl's fantastical story, the extraordinary yet sadly underestimated Matilda Wormwood is born into a world where the neighborhood parents dote on their little "miracles,"—their self-indulgent yet truly unexceptional children. Matilda, on the other hand, spends her days in a household where she is often berated, brushed aside, or completely ignored by both her inattentive, loudly-dressed mother (the very funny Darcy Stewart) and her scheming, fraudulent father (the hilarious Matt Harrington) who keeps yelling "boy!" at Matilda even though she is clearly a girl. Her older brother, uh, mentally challenged Michael (Darren Burkett) even gets more love from the Wormwood parentals than she does.

To alleviate some of her strife, Matilda retreats to her own bedroom "library" to escape into the world of literature. Other times, particularly as a reaction to Mr. Wormwood's cruelty, she often plays harmless but hilariously naughty tricks on her father, from pouring neon green dye into her father's hair tonic to super-gluing his hat to his head right before an important meeting with Russian mobsters. 

Outside her home, however, Matilda—an avid, above-average reader with a gifted mind, a vivid imagination, and a penchant for pointing out unfair and detestable things and taking creative action—is mostly celebrated as the extraordinary person that she is. Her visits to the local library are especially enjoyed by Jamaican-accented librarian Mrs. Phelps (the bubbly Keisha T. Fraser) who gets excited to hear Matilda's enchanting stories. 

Matilda, not surprisingly, also becomes a beacon of intelligence, activism, and civil disobedience at the prison-like Crunchem Hall, the local school she attends that is ruled by the scary, former Olympic hammer-throwing champion headmistress Miss Agatha Trunchbull (the incredible Dan Chameroy). Even amidst the incarceration-like environment, Matilda's effortless display of knowledge and critical thinking catches the attention of her new teacher, the kind-hearted, mousy Miss Honey (the lovely Jennifer Bowles), who makes it her mission to encourage Matilda's studies and to seek extra ways to challenge her remarkable intellect. 

The authoritarian dictator Miss Trunchbull, however, runs the school with an evil demagogue's fist, creating a constant, seemingly insurmountable obstacle not only for Matilda, but also for Miss Honey and the other scared students (No joke, some of the character's egomaniacal lines eerily parallel some of the things being said by, uh, well… someone we all know with a similar first initial—and I along with several audience members even laughed at the very timely correlation).

But, as you may predict, our little heroine with a big heart, a big imagination, and lots of chutzpah finds a way to triumph through it all.

That is, of course, the main factor in liking the show. Audiences will happily root for the title character, a staggeringly intelligent, well-read youngster who can spot unfair things in the world and doesn't stay silent when she sees them happening…then swiftly takes action herself. The fact that this tiny heroine is crammed into the persona of a spunky 5-year-old makes it that much more adorable.

The cast of over-the-top thespians also aid in making the musical enjoyable. Besides the awesome principal cast, scene-stealing standouts include Stephen Diaz's Rudolpho, Mrs. Wormwood's very limber ballroom dancing partner (and, uh, secret paramour maybe?); Riley O'Donnell as Lavender Brown, Matilda's squirrelly BFF; and Aiden Glenn who does a great job as poor cake-stealing, Chokey-destined Bruce. Bravo, Aiden for those solo riffs and sassy line readings!

And funny enough, you will also gleefully cheer for the show's deliciously sinister main "villain" Miss Trunchbull, whose tyrannical rule over what she calls "revolting children" while simultaneously showing a soft spot for her past triumph with dainty delight… is a visual that, well, you just don't want to un-see. 

While “MATILDA - THE MUSICAL,” for me, is still a bit hindered by what I have often called "exaggerated accent syndrome"—the over-affected, over-British-ified of accents rendering much of the songs and some of the dialogue virtually incomprehensible—the buoyant spirit, infectious joy, and childlike wonder enveloping the musical never wanes. Luckily you pretty much get the gist of the story and plot despite the hard-to-decipher diction. Having been exposed to cast albums and the liner notes that accompany them, I feel I had an advantage over the casual audience member seeing/hearing this for the first time—yet, I'm almost certain that alone doesn't deter one's enjoyment of the show overall.

In essence, “MATILDA - THE MUSICAL” is a charming, visually arresting, high-tech musical that will amuse the kids and warm the hearts of adults. Can't really beat that these days.


** Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ **

Photos from the National Tour of MATILDA - THE MUSICAL by Joan Marcus and Cylla von Tiedemann, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts. 

Performances of the National Tour of MATILDA - THE MUSICAL at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through Sunday, January 29, 2017. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.

Review: 'Beautiful' National Tour (Hartford, CT)

Noah Golden

OnStage Connecticut Critic

More than any other play I’ve seen, “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” is the theater equivalent of fast food. It’s unimaginably cobbled together from various popular parts, overly cheesy and not very nourishing. But, for many people, there’s an undeniable pleasure to its salty, plasticky goodness that scratches an itch like no fine steak dinner can. Perhaps it’s that sense of comfort, that it will always taste the same no matter your location or age.

Clearly, if we are judging by box office numbers, fast food does incredibly well in the theater. The recently closed “Jersey Boys” is the twelfth longest running Broadway show of all time, while “Mamma Mia” is the eighth. Even if the crowds are mainly soccer moms, tourists and retirees, one most bow down to the fact that, for a large population of theater-goers, this bouncy-squeaky clean formula works. It clearly did for the packed house at The Bushnell in Hartford, CT when the tour of “Beautiful” rolled through. As a season subscriber, this is my fourth show there since the fall and I’ve never seen a bigger, more enthusiastic crowd. For “The Curious Incident of The Dog In The Night-time,” a stunning, imaginative work of theater that I reviewed for this site last month, the orchestra was peppered with empty seats. “Beautiful” played to a packed crowd of nearly 3,000 whose enjoyment was palpable. 

That is expect for one audience member: me. You see, there is one secret ingredient to enjoying “Beautiful” and it’s one I lack: nostalgia. “Beautiful” runs almost completely on nostalgia. Nostalgia is its gasoline and its wheels. I grew up in the ‘90s, when Carole King was already pushing 50. My first introduction to Ms. King (and to the songwriting team of Mann/Weil who feature prominently in the story) were songs from children’s films like “Really Rosie,” “An American Tail” and “Muppet Treasure Island.” I like Carole King’s music and the Motown catalogue enough, but they don’t mean much to me other than something pleasant to put on in the background. The truth is, when you watch “Beautiful” without a pair of nostalgia glasses firmly planted on your nose, what is there?

A pretty flimsy plot, to begin with. Yes, the musical is based on the true story of singer-songwriter Carole King and how she got her start in show business. At 16, she sold her first song to producer Don Kirshner, landing her an office in the Brill Building, a factory of 1960s pop hits. We trace her turbulent romance with lyricist Gerry Goffin, her friendship with songwriting duo Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and the arc of popular music in the middle of the 20th century. Even though the story actually happened and all the characters are real, Douglas McGrath’s script is predictable, dull and superficial. There is an interesting story to tell here, but McGrath rarely fills the page with anything more than sitcom quips, fan-service, winking jokes about celebrities of yesteryear and trite, soapy dialogue (“The girls deserve better than this and, you know what, so do I!”). Perhaps if the dizzyingly long song-list was trimmed, more time could have been devoted to fleshing out characters and giving us a little more to sink our teeth into. I’d have gladly given up a few numbers sung by actors impersonating The Drifters or The Shirelles in favor of a stronger story.

But all is not lost. Even though the show features nearly 30 songs, most of them are winners. It’s almost impossible to listen to “One Fine Day” or “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” without subconsciously tapping your feet and King’s later work (minus the always-saccharine “You’ve Got A Friend”) is gorgeous, mature pop music at its best. Even though King struggled with writing words early in her career, it is her ability to pen deeply poetic but unfussy lyrics that stick with me the most. In the title song she sings, “I have often asked myself the reason for the sadness in a world where tears are just a lullaby/If there's any answer, maybe love can end the madness, maybe not, oh, but we can only try,” a piece of writing that does more in two lines than McGrath does in a full act. The numbers too are staged uniformly well by director Marc Bruni and choreographer Josh Prince (even if his moves lean too heavily on “Dreamgirls” posturing at times). There’s a lot going on in “Beautiful” between the large cast, the hit-parade of songs and a story that takes place over ten years, but Bruni keeps the show going at a buoyant clip that prevents us from ever feeling confused or bored.

Besides the tunes, the other thing the national tour of “Beautiful” has going for it is a stellar young cast. Our Carole, Julia Knitel, is incredibly likable as the vulnerable, slightly awkward Jewish girl from Brooklyn who starts the show and as the confident musician she grows into. That transformation is perhaps the most interesting part of “Beautiful” and Knitel plays it perfectly, never dipping too far into caricature or vocal mimicry, even though she sounded remarkably like the real King. Liam Tobin’s strong voice and compelling performance as Gerry Goffin was welcome too, even if he was often overshadowed by two comedic turns from Erika Olson and Ben Fankhauser. As Cynthia Weil, Olson (whose spitfire energy brought to mind Kate McKinnon) felt right out of a black-and-white sitcom with her quick, dry remarks while Fankhauser, channeling Barry Mann by way of Woody Allen, took great pleasure in milking every laugh out of his nebbishy character. Also doing fine comedic work in a one-note part is Suzanne Grodner as King’s stereotypical Jewish mother.

In many ways, a show like “Beautiful” is critic proof. What does it really matter if one reviewer found it generic and coasting on nostalgia, like one of those PBS shows that cobbles together “Ed Sullivan” performances? During “Beautiful,” I was keenly aware of the audience around me, who all seemed to be having a blast. The friendly, middle-aged women next to me grinned and danced in her seat from the overture on, another behind me softly sang along during multiple numbers. The entire crowd would gasp in anticipation after the first chord of many songs and laughed heartily at references that flew over my head. I won’t even mention the post-curtain call sing-along.

It was close to intermission when I figured out what had been troubling me since I sat down: watching “Beautiful” felt like being at someone else’s high school reunion. When the reunion is yours, it’s fun to make superficial small-talk, tell old stories and reminisce. When you graduated forty years later, there’s just not much to talk about and the enjoyment quickly wears thin.

Review: The National Tour of “Something Rotten!” kicks off in Boston

Angelica Potter

OnStage Massachusetts Critic

Launching their national tour in Boston this week, Something Rotten! plays at the Boston Opera House until January 29th. The tour features Rob McClure as Nick Bottom, Josh Grisetti as Nigel Bottom and Adam Pascal as Shakespeare. All three closed the Broadway run in those roles a few short weeks ago. Lucky for us they are now touring this hilarious show with twenty-four other incredible performers and it is clear from the start why this show was nominated for ten Tony Awards in 2015. 

The show transports us to London, circa 1595, where the Renaissance is well underway. There we meet the Bottom brothers, Nick and Nigel, who are writers and actors constantly competing with William Shakespeare to put a hit play on the stage. After one too many failed ideas, Nick visits a soothsayer to find out what Shakespeare’s biggest hit will be, and what the future holds for the theatrical world. The pandemonium that ensues keeps the audience laughing for the rest of the show. 
 
Rob McClure, as Nick, was energetic and funny throughout, delivering solid vocals and sharp comedic timing. His interactions with Maggie Lakis, his wife Bea, were believably heartfelt. 

Her vocals were superbly showcased in “Right Hand Man”. With his pure vocals, Josh Grisetti, as Nigel, was delightful and his interactions with Portia, played by Autumn Hurlbert, were adorably sweet. Both pairs had great chemistry and their voices blended wonderfully. 

Adam Pascal is outstanding as Shakespeare and shined in both “Will Power” and “Hard to Be the Bard”. His “duel” of sorts with Nick, towards the end of act one, was fantastic and impeccably well timed. The soothsayer Nostradamus, played by Blake Hammond, was hilarious and his visions of future musicals and Shakespeare’s greatest play instantly generated exuberant laughter from the audience. Hammond was exceptional! 

The audience produced robust, long-lasting applause after three of act one’s numbers: “A Musical”, “Will Power” and “Bottom’s Gonna Be on Top”. Similarly, “Something Rotten!” and “Make an Omelette” in act two had the audience laughing hysterically. After the finale, just as the lights came up for the curtain call, the audience leapt to their feet with thunderous and vocal applause. They clearly enjoyed this production. Though I think this production is best enjoyed by people who are familiar with famous musicals and Shakespeare’s works, it’s ridiculously fun enough that even the occasional theatre goer, unfamiliar with the many references made, will find it amusing. Something Rotten! reminded me of the first time I saw Monty Python’s Spamalot. Having at that time, a very limited knowledge of the Monty Python films and humor; I didn’t get every joke, but still found myself laughing and enjoying the overall production. With this show, I caught almost all of the references and was able to enjoy it even more, laughing aloud at many comical moments. 

Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, this production is full of exciting, well executed dancing and smart staging. The transitions between scenes and songs were quick and seamless. All the technical elements from the sets to the costumes were stunning and blended together wonderfully. If you didn’t get to see this on Broadway, you have got to check out the tour! Due to the “colorful” content, I recommend this show for a mature audience. It’s a fun, lighthearted, musical comedy sprinkled with farce that will make you laugh and elevate your spirits for a little over two hours.© Like Nostradamus sings, and I completely agree, “go see something more relaxing and less taxing on the brain…there’s nothing quite like a musical!”.

Visit www.BroadwayInBoston.com , www.ticketmaster.com, or www.rottenbroadway.com/tickets to purchase tickets, to learn more about the show or to find out where the tour goes next. Photo: Joan Marcus

For more of my reviews and theatrical thoughts check out: intheatresome1isalwayswatching.blogspot.com

Theater Review: Gorgeous New 'THE KING AND I' Tour Continues to Enchant Los Angeles

Michael L. Quintos

OnStage Associate Los Angeles Critic

While most would probably deem yet another new production of any Rodgers and Hammerstein musical as something you can skip over in favor of something much more current, discerning audiences both young and old shouldn't so easily dismiss the utterly exquisite new production of the 1951 Broadway musical "THE KING AND I" that just recently launched its brand new national tour in San Francisco in November and now, after a rather lengthy So. Cal. sit-down, continues its final performances at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood through January 21.

Sweepingly opulent and beautifully staged, this Tony Award-winning 2015 Lincoln Center Theater revival combines the elegance and grace of the classic musical with a knowing sensitivity of modern times. This truly magnificent production is yet another feather in the cap of director Bartlett Sher, whose superb revivals of SOUTH PACIFIC and FIDDLER ON THE ROOF have certainly cemented his knack for refreshing classic musicals to glorious heights. 

Much like THE KING AND I's still surprisingly-timely plot, Sher's new revival acts as a bridge between old and new—between tradition and innovation. In his hands, Richard Rodgers' timeless score and Oscar Hammerstein III's unforgettable book and lyrics feel properly honored yet still purposely refreshed for the 21st century.

The resulting show, to put it simply, is thoroughly enchanting from start to finish.

From the moment the curtain rises to reveal the stunningly imposing ship Chow Phya slowly docking into Bangkok carrying British school teacher Anna Leonowens (the spectacular Laura Michelle Kelly) and her young son Louis (Graham Montgomery), the production will have you instantly mesmerized. Michael Yeargan's eye-popping sets and Catherine Zuber's Tony Award-winning costumes convincingly transport the audience to 19th Century Siam, where we find the country caught in the crossroads of many centuries' worth of traditional standards and a new modern world outside their borders slowly spreading its forward momentum of progress.

Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna and the Royal Children of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I. Photo by Matthew Murphy.jpg

Mrs. Leonowens, we learn, has been summoned by none other than the King of Siam himself, King Mongkut (the brilliant Jose Llana) to not only serve as his many (many!) children's governess, but to also teach these same children (and himself, by proximity) in modern and scientific principles that other countries possess—all in the hopes of ushering his country out of traditional, ancient thinking and into modern progress and equal footing on the world stage. 

It continually proves difficult on both sides, as the King struggles to exert his absolute authoritarian rule, as dictated by his very country's own standards, while Anna struggles to advise the King to adopt new world principles without offending him or causing him anger, while at the same time, being heard by the King as an equal, not as a mere servant. She almost bolts her post upon learning that the King is openly defying her contract demands for a house separated from the palace. The King, naturally, doesn't understand why anyone would not want to live inside the grand walls of his palace.

Like the King, though, Anna doesn't back down too easily from a debate—which often results into some fiery arguments. The King and Anna are both very strong-minded and strong-willed—which causes much of the underlying tensions between the characters throughout the musical.

But as stubborn as the King is, he does possess a genuine willingness to improve and to learn and to adapt to a world moving towards modernization.
He also wants to make sure his son and heir, Prince Chulalongkorn (Anthony Chan) is prepared to take over the throne properly equipped to handle this new world and to be knowledgeable of it. 

And more than anything, the King's biggest personal hurdle to overcome is for Siam (and he, as its leader) to not be looked upon by other nations and outsiders as weak, behind-the-times, and, worse, "barbaric"—a label he is particularly sensitive to and that he is desperate to shed, even if it means willingly toning down centuries of traditions. Anna, of course, finds this to be an admirable (and, perhaps, attractive) attribute of the King, and, thus, is more than willing to help him reach his goals.

Hmmm… are there maybe romantic feelings bubbling just below the surface? I mean, okay, sure, the King is an old-world misogynist and polygamist, but hardly a barbarian. Even better, he's a ruler that's willing to change for the ultimate betterment of the kingdom and its citizens. This makes a very palpable, viable case as to why Anna develops an affection for the sovereign and, yes, why it also develops vice-versa. They both, in a way, "improve" each other.

Meanwhile, right under their noses inside the palace, another romance is blossoming: slave girl Tuptim (Manna Nichols), a "gift" from the King of Burma, develops a secret relationship with Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao), the young student who dropped her off at the palace. They soon resolve to runaway together.

Manna Nichols and Kavin Panmeechao in Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I. Photo by Matthew Murphy.jpg

Gorgeous and lush at every turn, this brand new revival of THE KING AND I is truly something wonderful—a perfectly balanced hybrid of old and new. Robert Russell Bennett's orchestrations of this Rodgers and Hammerstein masterwork sounds even better under Ted Sperling's supervision and Gerald Steichen's baton—played to perfection by a glorious 18-piece orchestra. Even new choreographer Christopher Gatelli has revived much of Jerome Robbins' original moves, particularly in the still amazing ballet "Small House of Uncle Thomas," one of the most iconic set pieces of any musical that, wow, I must say is still thrilling to experience. 

And as if this touring production of THE KING AND I isn't blessed enough on most fronts, the incredible ensemble cast elevates it even more, providing many outstanding performances—most notably from its two incredible leads who sound great together and, yes, even apart. Kelly's beautiful, ethereal vocals, are practically perfect in every way (yes, her perfect diction harkens to her days as Mary Poppins), while Llana's quirky, much more relatable humanizing new take on the King is by far my favorite portrayal thus far of the role. He's stern one minute, playfully eccentric in another, etcetera… etcetera… It was genuinely heartbreaking seeing Llana's King react to Kelly's Anna calling him a "barbarian" during a passionate fit of rage—as if one lover said the most hurtful thing you could possibly say to the other who was already feeling vulnerable. Yep, that one totally got me.

While I would have liked to have seen a less subtle display of flirtation and a bit more underlying sexual tension from both in many key scenes that expected such feelings to surface—particularly in "Shall We Dance"—I still applaud their discernible chemistry. 

Joan Almedilla is a wonderful standout as the King's "senior" wife Lady Thiang. Her "Something Wonderful" is a memorable, soaring highlight. I was transfixed by Nichol's sumptuous singing voice. Her duets with Panmeechao's Lun Tha in "We Kiss In A Shadow" and "I Have Dreamed" made me sigh with satisfaction and teary-eyed with romantic euphoria. 

The children's ensemble is, as one might expect, delightful and adorable—I genuinely smiled every time the children came into the room. And, man, as I mentioned before… "Small House of Uncle Thomas" was a truly timeless piece of musical theater. 

Of course, it goes without saying, that THE KING AND I, on a deeper personal level, means a lot for this reviewer because it's an opportunity (that's unfortunately few and far between) to see faces like mine—Asians and Asian-Americans—on stage performing musical theater. I don't think I have to express how empowering it is to experience that, especially when such occurrences are still, in 2016, quite rare. THE KING AND I historically has had to contend with a few unfortunate stereotypes in previous productions, even though its intentions for showcasing cultural diversity were otherwise honorable. This new revival, I'm happy to report, made me feel represented rather than ridiculed.    

I urge any and all—whether you've experienced the musical in a less opulent regional production or even a previous big-budget iteration—to seek out this brand new, emotionally rich, exquisitely-staged, and beautifully-sung national tour. It truly fills you with infectious glee then breaks your heart before you know it. Its themes, funny enough, are remarkably timely considering the current state of our world, too. Bottom line, THE KING AND I is worth a revisit.

Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ

Photos from the 2016-2017 National Tour Company of THE KING AND I by Matthew Murphy, courtesy of The Hollywood Pantages Theatre.

Remaining performances of Rodgers and Hammerstein's THE KING AND I at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre continue through January 21 and are scheduled Tuesday through Friday at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 pm and 8 pm, and Sundays at 1pm and 6:30pm. Tickets can be purchased online at HollywoodPantages.com, by phone at 1-800-982-ARTS(2787) or in person at the Pantages box office (opens daily at 10am) and all Ticketmaster outlets. The Pantages Theatre is located at 6233 Hollywood Boulevard, just east of Vine Street. For more information, please visit HollywoodPantages.com.

2nd Opinion Review: “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” - National Tour (Hartford

Noah Golden

OnStage Connecticut Critic

Christopher Boone doesn’t quite fit in. He thinks differently than those around him, has trouble making friends and often annoys the people he comes into contact with. He does large sums of math in his head yet has trouble reading facial expressions and understanding basic figures of speech. He loves space, trains and his rat Toby yet hates the color yellow and being touched. The most monumental achievement in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” isn’t telling Christopher’s story but transplanting us right into his psyche. Theater has a long and storied tradition of doing just that. From Seurat to Stella, Shrek to Shylock some of the best theater lets us see life through the eyes of an outsider who doesn’t fit in with the world around them. “Curious Incident” does that and so much more. It is a fully immersive and transformative show, which accomplishes that task like no other piece I’ve seen.

Closely based on the best-selling novel by Mark Haddon, “Curious Incident” tells a seemingly simple story. One evening, 15-year-old Christopher finds his neighbor’s dog Wellington dead with a garden pitchfork through its body. The dog’s owner and the policeman who comes to investigate think Christopher might be the culprit but we know that’s not true. Why? Because Christopher tells us himself. Like the source material, the play uses narration from a personal essay homework assignment Christopher writes for his special education teacher Siobhan. What follows are Christopher’s own adventures in his own words as he tries to find out who killed Wellington. Along the way he uncovers a secret about his parents and goes on a journey that pushes the boundaries of his comfort zone to the limit.   

Yes, the central mystery is largely a McGuffin, but plot is not what Simon Stephens’ play is most interested in. The goal is to see the world through the eyes of our protagonist, who is most likely on the autism spectrum, which is done magically through means both technically savvy and primitive by director Marianne Elliot. Bunny Christie’s set is a large, white, three-sided grid not unlike the board from one of Christopher’s favorite computer games:

Minesweeper. During the course of the story, it comes to life with sketches, math equations, train schedules and even a sky-full of stars courtesy of Finn Ross’ pitch perfect projections. Except for a handful of stackable white cubes (the kind of all-purpose theater material you’re likely to find at any high school blackbox), the rest of the scene changes are accompanied by using the excellent ensemble cast as living scenery. In brilliantly staged moments (choreographed by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett), the throng of bodies come together as a single organism – sometimes angry and chaotic, sometimes still and sympathetic – that disorient Christopher or, quite literally, allow him to fly.

Notice how Adrian Sutton’s techno-infused score is always a bit too loud, making you want to cover your ears in crucial moments. Or maybe note the use of strobe and unexpectedly sudden cues in Paule Constable’s lighting design. Notice, as well, the odd, over-annunciated cadence many of the adults speak with. What at first seemed like a case of bad acting revealed itself to be another one of Elliot’s best tricks – we hear his elders the way Christopher does, with little nuance and a sing-song synthetic tone. Together, all these strands create a richly textured tapestry that changes the way each and every audience member views the world Christopher lives in.

While Elliot’s staging is the most miraculous part of “Curious Incident,” it is carried out by a terrific ensemble cast including Gene Gillette as Christopher’s father and Maria Elena Ramirez as Siobhan. Leading the show with a lived-in, nuanced performance at the matinee I attended was Benjamin Wheelwright, who alternates the role of Christopher with Adam Langdon after pulling the same duties on Broadway. An easy role to overplay or reduce to a mawkish, hand-flapping trope, Wheelwright’s Christopher is both bold and childlike, enigmatic and charismatic.

If one can find any fault in this production, originally produced by England’s National Theatre, it lies with Simon Stephens’ decision to frame the second act as a play-within-a-play with Christopher as both director and actor. This change from the first act, which is presented as a reading of Christopher’s homework assignment, is unneeded, under-baked and adds a layer of fourth-wall-breaking hokiness which never quite worked.

But this slight detour does nothing to sour “Curious Incident,” a brilliant play about a brilliant boy. He may seem odd or scary at first but, after spending two hours with him, you’ll quickly realize he is just like everyone else. A bit scared of change, perhaps, and not always able to fit in, but slowly gaining the sacred knowledge that his story is unique and only his to write. 

 

Review: 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time' - National Tour

Nancy Sasso Janis

  • Connecticut Critic
  • Connecticut Critics Circle

“The word 'metaphor' means carrying something from one place to another . . . and it is when you describe something by using a word for something that it isn't. This means that the word 'metaphor' is a metaphor." - Christopher in 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time'

Hartford, CT - The National Theatre production of ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ stopped in Hartford during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day to close out 2016 and ring in 2017 at the beautiful Bushnell Theater. It is rare for the theater to have their doors open for a Broadway tour during this time, but they did not want their audiences to miss this dazzling production. The play is directed by Marianne Elliott. 

This Tony Award-winning Best Play is adapted by Simon Stephens from Mark Haddon’s 2003 best selling novel with the same cumbersome title. We watch Christopher as he interacts with the (often loud) world around him in his own unique way. While a diagnosis of autism spectrum is not specifically mentioned in the play or the novel, the brilliant fifteen-year-old teen has significant sensitivity issue that are imaginatively presented so that the audience is effectively brought into his often-confusing world. He is clearly exceptionally intelligent but has great difficulty interpreting everyday life, and is enrolled in a special school that is in the process of teaching him the life skills he obviously needs. When he falls under suspicion for killing his neighbor’s large dog, he bravely tries to identify the real culprit; this leads to a shocking discovery and an unlikely journey that changes his life forever.

Some have written that Christopher is not significantly affected by autism but I would disagree. He presents with and has a history of severe sensitivity issues as well as difficulty with being with and understanding other people. While the actions of his parents Ed and Judy are awful, they have been dealing with a child with special needs for fifteen years and it clearly has caused a strain on their marital relationship. These two parents clearly love with son but they are not able to give him a hug without setting off a violent episode. 

This adaptation of the novel is presented as a play within a play based upon a book that Christopher has written about his real life coming of age story. Siobhan, his highly-effective teacher/mentor at school, serves as the onstage narrator and once breaks the fourth wall to address the audience. The ensemble members sometimes sit at the edges of the black box awaiting the entrance of their next character; that black box with some incredible lighting effects was almost an uncredited character. 

At the press night performance, the lead role of Christopher Boone was masterfully played by Adam Langdon. Mr. Langdon graduated from The Juilliard Drama Division just last year and clearly has the stamina needed to pull off this role where he is in constant motion and seldom offstage. At three upcoming performances, the role of Christopher will be played by Benjamin Wheelwright, who appeared on Broadway in this play. Maria Elena Ramirez, who did ‘Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson’ on Broadway, was just as busy onstage as the caring teacher who never loses her patience with Christopher. 

Felicity Jones Latta, who appeared in ‘Cymbeline’ at Hartford Stage and has lots of Yale Rep credits, did very well with the role of Christopher’s mother Judy and Tim Wright, the dance and fight captain who was also in the Broadway cast, ably covered the role of the teen’s father Ed normally played by Gene Gillette. It was so cool to see Charlotte Maier (who was recently in ‘Queens for a Year’ at Hartford Stage) as the neighbor who owns the deceased canine, the administrator at Christopher’s school and others. The other talented ensemble members included Amelie White, John Hemphill, Brian Robert Burns, Francesca Choy-Kee, Geoffrey Wade, Josephine Hall, Robyn Kerr, Tim McKiernan, J. Paul Nicholas and Tim Wright. 

Bunny Christie designed both the costumes and the scenery. Paule Constable did the lighting design that worked well with the unusual set and Finn Ross designed the fabulous videos that suggested locations and much more. The ensemble members served as furniture when a small white stool did not suffice. Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett were the choreographers of the fluid movements that defy description and Adrian Sutton did the interesting music. Ben Furey was the voice and dialect coach of the English accents that proved difficult to follow for some audience members around me. 

It isn’t often that we see tour cast members make an entrance through the audience or speak lines from the front of the balcony; this added to the intimacy in this large venue. The audience laughed at the misinterpretations of Christopher without irony and these lightened the otherwise often heavy proceedings. Be warned that parts of the show are deafeningly loud and at least once too long in duration and ironically would not be appropriate for anyone with sensory issues. 

This was a thinking person’s play that was fully immersive. Patrons familiar with the book enjoyed seeing how the artistic team brought some of the more difficult parts to the stage. I was able to put the pieces together without having read the novel and only missed on plot point that may have been intentionally eliminated or downplayed. 

The Bushnell has adjusted the Saturday curtain times for this production to get everyone out early in time for New Year's Eve festivities: 1:00 and 6:30 p.m. shows this Saturday, December 31.