Review: “Good Faith: Four Chats About Race and the New Haven Fire Department” at the Yale Repertory Theatre

Review: “Good Faith: Four Chats About Race and the New Haven Fire Department” at the Yale Repertory Theatre

“So, I get a call a few years ago from a renowned institution, which I attended and to which I still owe money. ‘Would you care to dramatize a multi-year racially charged Supreme Court Case involving a bunch of firefighters in 2003?’ First I think: I will fail; this subject lies in that evil zone where boring meets offensive.”

When Karen Hartman, or at least the nom de plume of Hartman played winningly by Laura Heisler, says those words at the beginning of Yale Repertory Theatre’s “Good Faith: Four Chats About Race and the New Haven Fire Department” she is wrong. “Good Faith,” which was commissioned by the Rep and had its world premiere February 7th, is neither boring or offensive. It’s a smart, surprisingly engaging piece of docudrama that seeks to make sense out of a thorny and controversial event in New Haven’s history. It’s an imperfect work – “Faith” occasionally drags and is overly verbose – but a fascinating one nonetheless, directed with a steady hand by Kenny Leon

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Review: “Miller, Mississippi” at Long Wharf Theatre

Review: “Miller, Mississippi” at Long Wharf Theatre

Long Wharf Theatre’s latest, the beguiling and enigmatic “Miller, Mississippi,” begins with a ghost story. Doris (Benja Kay Thomas), a Black maid in 1960s Jackson, is recounting a tale right out of Shirley Jackson. There’s a house in town, she tells the three rapturous kids at her knee, that emanates the sound of a crying child from within its very walls, like something (or someone) was trapped inside. There’s also talk that blood has been known to seep out of the floorboards. A group of hooligan boys once tried to burn it to the ground, but despite their torches and gasoline, the house refused to be leveled.

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Review: “Other Desert Cities” by Saybrook Stage Company

Review: “Other Desert Cities” by Saybrook Stage Company

In 2004, as war was waging in the desert of Iraq, another kind of battle was happening in the desert of California when the Wyeth family reunited for a tumultuous Christmas holiday. That’s the set-up for Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities,” a familiar but fully engaging play, that ran January 17-20th at The Kate in Old Saybrook. I know the theater well – I’ve worked on three shows there myself – but am new to the Saybrook Stage Company, having only seen their winning production of “Noises Off” some years back.

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Review: “Rasheeda Speaking” at Collective Consciousness Theater

Review: “Rasheeda Speaking” at Collective Consciousness Theater

Collective Consciousness Theater [CCT] – New Haven’s hidden gem of a theater company – specializes in plays that facilitate a conversation about race. Their last offering, the incredibly exciting “Jesus Hopped the A Train,” was among my favorite shows of 2018, a powerful look at identity and biases based inside the prison system. Their follow-up, “Rasheeda Speaking,” is softer than most CCT shows. It’s funnier too, more buoyant and it occasionally even flirts with satire. In that respect, “Rasheeda” is a nice change of pace for the company. But it’s also less effective than most shows I’ve seen from them, in no parts due to the fine actors assembled by director Elizabeth Nearing, making an assured CCT debut. The problem here lies in the script by Joel Drake Johnson. It has some fascinating ideas and solid moments, but put up against other works CCT has presented recently, by masters like Suzan-Lori Parks, Stephen Adly Guirgis and Dominique Morisseau, “Rasheeda” can’t help feeling well-meaning but clumsy.

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Review: “Man of La Mancha” at TheatreWorks New Milford

Review: “Man of La Mancha” at TheatreWorks New Milford

1965’s “Man of La Mancha,” the “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” of musicals, can be read as a bridge between the countercultural tumult of the 1960s and the naval-gazing tendencies that characterized the “Me” generation of the 1970s. It’s also easy to see why its pliant message about the power of the imagination to uplift and transform resonates with artists—or anyone willing to fight for the right to self-expression and, crucially, prepared to risk rejection, ruination and despair in pursuit of their personal vision.

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Review: “The Prisoner” at Yale Repertory Theatre

Review: “The Prisoner” at Yale Repertory Theatre

In the past two years, I have been sent by On Stage to write about well over 25 shows – that’s not mentioning the countless plays I’ve seen, read or participated in – and yet “The Prisoner” is probably the hardest one to review. That’s because, unlike those other 25+ shows, “The Prisoner” doesn’t follow the guidelines of modern, Western theater. I understand how that kind of theater-making works from Shakespeare to Shaw to Sondheim. I know the rules and the conventions behind them. I can evaluate how they complement or break those traditions. But “The Prisoner,” making its US debut at the Yale Repertory Theatre, is a turn away from that style of performance.

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Review: “Thousand Pines” at Westport Country Playhouse

Review: “Thousand Pines” at Westport Country Playhouse

Watching Matthew Greene’s triptych “Thousand Pines” is like sitting down to a sumptuous Thanksgiving feast – the kind made up of individual, familiar parts you already like, the kind that takes center stage in Walt Spangler’s homey set – only to find a few side dishes that, while tasty, don’t nearly fill you up. It’s a frustratingly fuzzy experience, especially since there’s such a compelling story so close to the surface. But more often than not, Greene’s work is well-meaning but rushed, overstuffed and undernourished.

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Review: “Jesus Hopped The A Train” at Collective Consciousness Theatre

Review: “Jesus Hopped The A Train” at Collective Consciousness Theatre

Spoken in Riggins’ hoarse yet commanding drawl, modulating his speed and timbre with the dexterity of a blues guitarist, it’s the kind of moment when a play hits a perfect bulls-eye. Backed up by wonderful performances all around – especially McCarthy who does heart-breaking and detailed work as Mary Jane – “Jesus” is the kind of tough, uncompromising theater that is as philosophically engaging as it is emotionally and theatrically. That’s a rare thing to find anywhere, let alone in smaller professional or community groups. It’s the reason I keep coming back to Collective Consciousness.

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Review: “The Roommate” at Long Wharf Theatre

Review: “The Roommate” at Long Wharf Theatre

Sometimes a dish made with wholly familiar ingredients can feel fresh just because of the way they’re put together. Maybe you use higher quality cocoa in your brownies. Or perhaps it’s the addition of a secret ingredient that does the trick. Peanut butter chips or, I don’t know, marijuana. Those exact treats are featured in Long Wharf Theatre’s 2018-2019 season opener “The Roommate” and, like a good pot brownie, the play often feels like a bite of comfort food spiked with a woozy twist.

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Review: “The Drowsy Chaperone” at Goodspeed Opera House

Stephanie Rothenberg (Janet Van de Graaf) with the cast of Goodspeed Musicals' The Drowsy Chaperone, now playing at The Goodspeed through November 25. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

Stephanie Rothenberg (Janet Van de Graaf) with the cast of Goodspeed Musicals' The Drowsy Chaperone, now playing at The Goodspeed through November 25. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

Noah Golden

  • Associate Connecticut Critic

I’ve never really cottoned to old song-and-dance musicals. You know, the kind with peppy tap numbers, sunny jokes and conflicts that resolve in a few bars of music. The kind Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut is largely known for. Even though I’m generally a rather sunny guy, my taste in theater veers towards shows that some might call bummers. Your “Sweeneys,” your “Spring Awakenings,” your “Next To Normals.” Shows that might leave you, as the unnamed narrator in “The Drowsy Chaperone” says, “a bit blue.” But between my usual diet of depressing theater and the dire state of our country right now, I have to agree with the so-called Man In Chair and give in to the fact that, sometimes, an old-fashioned musical is exactly what the doctor prescribed.

 “The Drowsy Chaperone,” which closes Goodspeed’s 2017-2018 season is a highly entertaining cream puff of a play. It’s sweet and airy and has just enough heft to not merely float away. Written by Bob Martin & Don McKellar (book) and Lisa Lambert & Greg Morrison (music and lyrics), “Chaperone” is a fizzy 2006 Broadway smash that lovingly sends-up the long-forgotten shows of yesteryear. It concerns a lonely, skittish shut-in dubbed Man In Chair (John Scherer, hilarious) who first laments when actors relate directly to audience members during a play (“I didn’t pay good money to have the fourth wall come crashing down around my ears.”) before spending the next two hours doing just that. He introduces the audience to his favorite musical, a (fictional) 1920s show called “The Drowsy Chaperone” which Man In Chair has never seen himself but has listened to obsessively since childhood. Because he’s feeling a bit blue, Man decides to play the entirety of the album and, as he imagines the musical in his mind, it comes to life right in his drab apartment (Howard Jones did the tricked-out set).

The show-within-a-show revolves the wedding of Janet Van de Graaff (Stephanie Rothenberg) and Robert Martin (Clyde Alves). He’s the son of a wealthy oil magnate and she’s a showgirl whose marriage means the end of her stage career. That’s a problem for her harried producer Mr. Feldzeig (James Judy) and his dim-witted protégée (Ruth Pferdehirt), whose business dealings are somehow wrapped up with the mob. The wedding also proves a logistical nightmare for Robert’s put-upon best man (Tim Falter) and Janet’s boozy caretaker (Jennifer Allen, in full grand dame mode). Also staying at the wedding estate is a forgetful society lady (Ruth Gotschall), her straight-laced butler (Jay Aubrey Jones), a bumbling Lothario (John Rapson) and two gangsters posing as pastry chefs (Blakely Slaybaugh and Parker Slaybaugh). Of course, hi-jinks ensue, identities are mistaken, complications arise and then everything is neatly resolved before the final curtain.

The plot is purposefully thin, merely a series of songs and shtick connected by a needlessly busy story. But that’s part of “Chaperone’s” charm. If you begin to find yourself tired of a bit of physical comedy or a high-energy dance number, per se, the show quickly careens quickly into another song or a new set of jokes. There’s also the joy of Man In Chair’s narration. He is constantly interrupting the action to offer citations about the fake actors (“The gangsters were played by vaudeville duo John and Peter Tall. They were born Abram and Mendel Mosloskowicz, but were renamed at Ellis Island by a sarcastic immigration official”), personal interjections and even a fair share of meta-criticism. One song’s lyrics, he says, are dumb while the extended spit-take joke is lame and tired. I agree. These interruptions are not just hysterical but also feel like one big, winking in-joke since so much of Goodspeed’s repertoire is made up of the shows “Drowsy” is lampooning. The moment when Man puts on the wrong record, resulting in the presentation of a hilariously offensive “King and I”-esque stage show, is downright genius.

The cast all perfectly mirrors the chipper, overacted style of 1920s-‘40s style musicals. Rothenberg and Allen are a delight, while Falter is in pure Donald O'Connor mode. Rapson makes a four-course meal of the scenery, indulging in a cartoony accent that Man In Chair is quick to point out as being culturally insensitive and passé. In fact, all the dancing and singing is top-notch (the band sounds amazing too). But pulling everything together is Scherer, who plays Man In Chair like a wannabe chorus boy whose Broadway dreams were sidetracked by a troubled childhood and a disastrously short marriage. One might gander that a male companion would have suited him better. His comedic chops are sharp and it’s a joy to watch Scherer mouth the lyrics along to the musical numbers. Perhaps he leans into the fey affections a bit too heavily – a more restrained performance would have been a better contrast to the wacky fake-musical and might have made his few emotionally honest monologues land a bit more truthfully – but nevertheless, he’s a hoot start to finish.

So is the whole production. It’s clear director Hunter Foster understands and has a love for the material. There’s a joy on stage that’s nearly impossible to replicate. It overcomes the occasional lame joke or the shoe-horned intermission which leaves the show oddly lopsided or the fact that sight-lines are sometimes an issue in the beautiful but totally flat auditorium. “Drowsy” isn’t a perfect musical, but it’s a helluva lot of fun, which is exactly the point. As Man In Chair says about the show-within-a-show “It does what a musical is supposed to do: it takes you to another world and it gives you a little tune to carry in your head, you know? A little something to help you escape the dreary horrors of the real world...I just want a story and a few songs that will take me away. I want to be entertained. I mean, isn’t that the point?” In this case, I couldn’t agree with him more.

“The Drowsy Chaperone” runs through November 25 at the Goodspeed Opera House.

 Noah Golden is an associate theater critic and columnist for OnStage based near New Haven, CT. Throughout his life, he has been involved in many facets of theater from acting to directing to playing drums in the pit. When not in or writing about theater, Noah is a video producer and editor. Twitter: @NoahTheGolden. 

Review: World Premiere “El Huracán” at Yale Repertory Theater

Review: World Premiere “El Huracán” at Yale Repertory Theater

Yale Repertory Theater’s stunning season opener “El Huracán” begins with a series of magic tricks. Valeria (Adriana Sevahn Nichols, captivating) finds herself on stage in front of large, billowing curtains. She’s elderly, frail and seems more than a bit confused about how she ended up there. She wanders around for a moment and then, poof, a black-and-white cane appears in her hand. The curtains come down and we are in The Tropicana nightclub. It is the early 1950s in Havana and a magic show is in progress. Colored scarfs vanish and white doves appear out of thin air, all to the strains of “Fly Me To The Moon.” The magician is a beautiful young woman in a blue dress. Valeria watches all of this from the sidelines, mimicking the magician’s moves until you slowly realize the two women are the same. Set-up, presentation, reveal. Repeat.

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Review: "Man of La Mancha" at Westport Country Playhouse

Review: "Man of La Mancha" at Westport Country Playhouse

Inspired by the Miguel de Cervantes’ literary masterpiece, Don Quixote, Westport Country Playhouse brings us the classic musical, Man of La Mancha. It tells the story of a man, Alonso Quijano, who is convinced that he is “Don Quixote de la Mancha,” a determined and valiant knight-errant. The tale is told as a play-within-a-play by Cervantes himself, as part of a mock trial of the prisoners he is detained with, waiting to be questioned by the Spanish Inquisition.  Truth be told, I am not a fan of “old-school” musicals, but this production feels contemporary thanks to its choreography, staging, and casting. 

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Review: "Make Believe at Hartford Stage"

Review: "Make Believe at Hartford Stage"

air warning: this is a play that will be difficult for parents to watch. Knowing how our actions can affect our children permanently and profoundly is difficult for many to swallow. While the scenario presented here is extreme and (I presume) fictitious, it still demonstrates how what we do in front of our children will shape who they become. And often few people want to take on the burden of that kind of responsibility.

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Review: "The Understudy" at Westport Country Playhouse

Review: "The Understudy" at Westport Country Playhouse

“Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction, but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn't something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you.” – Franz Kafka

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Review: "Hand to God" at TheaterWorks

Review: "Hand to God" at TheaterWorks

I always appreciate TheaterWorks’ selections being edgy and unconventional, and their latest offering, Hand to God, meets the mark.  All the advertising warning about its content is there for a reason; this is not your grandmother’s Sunday matinee. Hand to God is outrageous beyond measure; so much so that at times it’s difficult to catch your breath either from laughing or sheer awe. What makes this play unique is its layering of profane absurdity; just when you think its ungodly cup hath spilleth over, more impious antics flow forth.

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Review: "Oliver!" at Goodspeed Musicals

Review: "Oliver!" at Goodspeed Musicals

Director Rob Ruggiero appears to have a special place in his heart for Lionel Bart’s iconic musical, Oliver! Based on Charles Dickens’ classic Victorian novel, Oliver Twist, Mr. Ruggiero tells us what he feels the story is about in his director’s notes: “…the change that Oliver provokes comes from him simply being: his special connection to the people he meets stimulates change and action.” I would agree with his assessment; the role of Dickens’ title urchin does not require much acting beyond simple presence. Oliver is a catalyst for action taken by others, otherwise, it would be a dull story of an orphan made legitimate through chance.

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Review: "A Flea in Her Ear" at Westport Country Playhouse

Review: "A Flea in Her Ear" at Westport Country Playhouse

In its second offering this season, Westport Country Playhouse has teamed up with the Resident Ensemble Players at the University of Delaware to bring us a new translation of Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear, considered by many to be his exemplar work. Directed by Mark Lamos and translated by David Ives, this production is no cheap, floozy farce, but high-brow satire complete with the familiar hallmarks of the theatrical style, (refined): multiple doors, (clever) physical comedy, confusion, misunderstandings, and (smart) bawdy humor.  I like my jokes served with a sharp wit rather than a lazy tongue, and A Flea in Her Ear delivers.

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Review: “Cabaret” by The Harpers

Review: “Cabaret” by The Harpers

Bracingly original, astonishingly resourceful and daringly theatrical. These are phrases I often associate with artists like John Doyle, Ivo Van Hoe or Michael Arden, directors who reinvent and reinvigorate everything they touch. These aren’t phrases, however, I often associate with the local theater scene. I’ve kvetched before on OnStage about the tendency for companies to offer cut-and-paste productions that assemble their musicals solely based on the italic notes offered in the libretto. Yet bracingly original, astonishingly resourceful and daringly theatrical is exactly how I’d describe the sublime and innovative production of “Cabaret” offered by the new New Haven-based troupe The Harpers.

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Review: “Hairspray” by the Shoreline Theatre Company

Review: “Hairspray” by the Shoreline Theatre Company

Welcome to the neighborhood, Shoreline Theatre Company. Unlike the Maryland community where “Hairspray” is set, the shoreline of Connecticut (Branford, Guilford, Madison and into New Haven County) isn’t particularly known for rats or flashers or barstool bums. It isn’t particularly known for active community theater either. While other parts of Connecticut have thriving theater scenes, the shoreline has always seemed strangely hesitant to join into that conversation. There are exceptions of course (like the Roundtable Players and the Whitney Players), but a gap for great summer community theater in this neck of the woods is surely present. In comes the Shoreline Theatre Company [STC], a brand-new group making a big splash of a debut with “Hairspray,” which played June 29 and 30 at the Branford High School auditorium.

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Review: “Flyin’ West” at Westport Country Playhouse

Review: “Flyin’ West” at Westport Country Playhouse

Pearl Cleage’s “Flyin’ West” was written in the early 1990s and set in 1898, yet the show has an ardent topicality that will surely resonate with audience members at the Westport Country Playhouse. The themes of discrimination, racial identity and the legacy one generation leaves for another in this segregated nation of ours are of the utmost timeliness, and the female-driven, anti-domestic violence narrative lies right at the heart of the current #MeToo movement. The moments in Seret Scott’s handsome and well-acted production where the characters speak freely and lyrically about the struggles they face as free black women stuck in an era between the Civil War and the end of the Jim Crow laws are moving and fascinating. Problem is, they’re buried in a boilerplate script that undermines the subtlety and intellect of its themes with one-dimensional characters and a series of contrived set-ups that would feel more at home in a Lifetime movie.

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