An exceptional leading cast of women and confident direction by Terrence Mann has made Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s production of “Mamma Mia!” a delightful show.Read More
Nancy Sasso Janis
- OnStage Connecticut Critic
Storrs, CT - Connecticut Repertory Theatre at the University of Connecticut presents their Nutmeg Summer Series at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre on the campus in Storrs. The 2106 series began in June with ‘How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying!’ and “Peter and the Starcatcher.’ One of my favorite musicals, ‘West Side Story’ with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, is the final production in the series and it runs through July 17.
CRT is the professional producing arm of the Department of Dramatic Arts at UCONN, Storrs and their productions are directed, designed by, and cast with visiting professional artists, including Equity actors, faculty members, and the department’s most advanced student artists. The university proclaims in their press releases that the synergy between professional and advanced student artists creates extraordinary theatre and a unique learning environment.
So my expectations were incredibly high as I made the ninety-minute trek to Storrs. My first visit to the massive campus was during a time of major construction projects, but I still managed to find the commuter parking lot positioned relatively close to the theatre. The theatre itself is an older building that is well-maintained and the smallish stage fits nicely the approximately 350-seat house. In the same building there was a wonderful fashion exhibit featuring women’s clothes from the 1980s entitled ‘The Eccentric The Evolution of the Eighties.’
Cassie Abate, who staged last summer’s ‘Peter Pan,’ directed this mix of professional actors and upcoming students (with only a few from UCONN) for this iconic story of Romeo and Juliet transported to New York City and entwined in rival street gangs. The music is soaring, the tension is high and the story is timely. In fact, I took a photo of a rock painted with a rainbow and a message for Orlando that I noticed on my walk to the box office.
The production fit well on this intimate stage and the musical fit snugly within two hours, so I suspect that some trimming was done. The show started strong with the iconic prologue; the dancing was great even though it felt shorter in length than usual. On the flip side, I have never seen a stronger staging of “Cool;” the choreography by the director was excellent overall. Music Director NDavid Williams ensures that the band of a dozen musicians sounded fantastic; some of the numbers seemed more lyrical than usual with beautiful violin strains that I appreciated. Thomas McDonough served as conductor/pianist.
I do have high expectations when it comes to this show, and this cast gave good performances with a few actors going to the next level. The Jets girls included the talents of Olivia Benson, Alyssa Sarnoff and Caroline Iliff, and the Sharks girls were Tori Gresham, Susie Carroll, Ms. Iliff, Janayla Montes and Rebekah Morgan Berger. All of these young ladies danced extremely well.
The adults were played by Equity actors Nick Lawson as Officer Krupke and John Bixler as Schrank and a hysterical Principal Gladhand. The best of the all was Dale AJ Rose as an ethnic Doc, the owner of the teen-aged hangout. His accent was spot on and his acting superb; I was not surprised to read that Mr. Rose is the Director of Performance Training at UCONN.
The Jets boys were played by Ty Taylor, Aaron Bennett Miller, Dalton Bertolone, Ross Thompson, Jacob Burns, Liam Johnson and Adria Swan as Anybody’s.
Bentley Black did a really great job in the role of Riff and Luke Hamilton played an earnest Tony, although some of his notes seemed off on opening night.
On the opposing team of the Sharks were Gabriel Bernal, Brian Binion, Jose Luaces, Gerald Caesar, and TJ Newton as Chino. I liked Cassidy Stoner in her CRT debut in the role of the strong Anita and Yurel Echezarreta was a dark, handsome and menacing Bernardo. Julia Estrada used her perfect soprano to nail every one of her solos, although her Spanish accent could have been more consistent.
The tech aspects of the show were top notch. The urban scenery was designed by Tim Brown and it was nicely lit by Michael Chybowski. Costume Designer Christina Lorraine Bullard provided colorful period costumes for most of the scenes, with more muted tones for the ballet.
CRT Artistic Director Vincent J. Cardinal did an outstanding job in his curtain speech of making all of the audience members feel welcomed and appreciated. The opening night audience cheered throughout and were on their feet for curtain call. An opening night reception was held following the performance where patrons were able to mingle with the cast and crew. ‘West Side Story’ runs in Storrs through next Sunday.
Anthony J. Piccione
This past summer, I had the honor of attending all three shows in Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nutmeg Summer Series on behalf of On Stage. I remember all three of those shows being some of the best examples of musical theatre that I’ve had the privilege of watching as a Connecticut theatergoer, and I couldn’t have asked for better show to review as a new writer at On Stage. However, this past week they were about to produce a very different kind of show: One of William Shakespeare’s most well-known comedies, Twelfth Night. I was very eager to see if it would meet the high expectations I had for CRT after seeing their previous work, as I attended the first performance of the show on Thursday night. Needless to say, I was not disappointed.
Produced in UConn’s Nate Katter Theatre, director Victor Maog does an excellent job at executing a vision for the show that is clearly designed to bring plenty of laughs for the audience during this holiday season. Throughout the production, the entire Black Box theater is put to fantastic use, as actors are seen entering from all over the place and with as high a level of enthusiasm that theatergoers could hope for. With excellent choreography from Marie Percy, many of the scenes also involve a great deal of movement that makes the show engaging from beginning to end.
The biggest highlight of the show, without a doubt, is the large cast of talented performers that all made the show a lively and entertaining experience. The cast consists of a strong mix of both student actors and more experienced performers, with all of them doing a respectable job in each of their respective roles. On the one hand, there is BFA actor Juliana Bearse and MFA actor Jeff Desisto, who turn in solid performance as Viola and Sebastian respectively. On the other hand, there is Richard Ruiz – known for his work with the Public Theater, Yale Repertory Theatre and Long Wharf Theater – who is highly delightful as Sir Toby Belch.
However, it was Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte – known for his work on popular TV shows such as Nurse Jackie and Law and Order: SVU – who ultimately steals the show. Guilarte’s energetic and hysterical performance as Malvolio proves to be the stand-out performance of the night, with two other notable highlights being the performances of Mark Blashford and Kevin Hilversum as Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Feste respectively. Rounding out the rest of the cast is Olivia Benson, Arlene Bozich, Darren Lee Brown, Madison Coppola, Max Helfand, Curtis Longfellow, Chester Martin, Joon Ho Oh and Brian Sullivan.
Although it was mostly the actors that made this show such an enjoyable experience, there were also various technical elements that proved to be notable aspects of the production. The set of the production – designed by Brett Calvo – is one that is proves to be fitting for both the setting of the play and the holiday season, with even small Christmas trees on the sides of the set. This festive set is complimented nicely by sound effects designed by Abigail Golec, lighting effects designed by Justin Poruban, and most impressively, the diverse range of colorful costumes designed by Tuoxi Wu.
By the end of the night, I was blown away by the incredible level of dedication that this diverse and talented group of actors had put into the production, as well as that of the brilliant creative team. If you choose to attend only one show during this holiday season, and if you are someone who enjoys lots of laughs, I would certainly recommend going to see this show if you get the chance. This production shows exactly why it is, just as dramaturg Molly Hamilton put it, “one of Shakespeare’s most loved comedies” and it is bound to be a highly pleasurable experience for theatergoers everywhere.
Twelfth Night runs at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre from December 3rd-13th. For more information, please visit www.crt.uconn.edu.
2015 will be the year remembered as when the LGBT movement achieved their greatest victory. This was the year when the Supreme Court ruled traditional marriage laws as unconstitutional, thus legalizing same sex marriage in all 50 states.
Some people don’t realize that it was only 17 years ago that people weren’t fighting for equal civil rights for LGBT individuals, but for their actual physical safety. Read that last sentence again.
That is where the Laramie Project comes in. The Laramie Project is a play written by Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theatre Project as a result of thousands of interviews with residents of the town of Laramie Wyoming after the brutal death of 21 year old college student Matthew Shepard. Shepard was beaten to death by two men and left to die tied to a fence in the middle of nowhere for 18 hours. It is widely believed Shepard was targeted for the vicious assault due to being gay.
The Laramie project is a “documentary theatre” style play, which means the entire dialogue is verbatim from the actual words said by the people interviewed in Laramie, as well as the interviewers. Speeches from the courtroom during the trial and sentencing hearings were also included.
The stage is mostly barren except for a dozen or so TVs stacked in two piles on opposite sides of the stage. The TVs would eventually become part of a powerful statement the Laramie Project wanted to make on the whole incident (more on that later). Otherwise, the stage consisted of a dozen actors and chairs, moving seamlessly from scene to scene, with only different articles of clothing and a video screen at the very top of the stage signifying scene and character changes.
Know going in that this is a very fast paced production. The actors each play at least half a dozen different characters and they only explain who each character is once in their relation to the case. It was difficult in the first 20 minutes to realize what was going on and to keep up with all of the character switches; they change scenes VERY fast in Act 1, and only slight changes in the clothing they wear distinguishes the characters from each other. Once you have the cadence and speed down, it became a lot easier to follow.
The production was also surprisingly clinical for most of the first act. It was as if you were watching a Dateline special being acted out live on stage. It was jarring at first the casual way they deliver the narration of the scenes. Was it because Laramie was such a laid back, casual town? Here we are in a place where two of its residents acted like the Devil himself, and the residents were like “Gays don’t bother me none, just don’t do anything in front of me”. That seemed to be one of the points the production was making.
The first act darts between different locales of Laramie, interviewing subjects about the town, about Matthew, and about gay life in Laramie. But then it kicks it up a notch when they showcase Aaron Kreifels, played by Zach Dictakis, who found Shepard tied to the fence, beaten within an inch of his life. Dictakis was one of a couple standout performers of this show, playing the moment with such innocence; you could feel his wonder and heartbreak at finding at actual person in the middle of nowhere, covered in blood. With the picture of the actual fence where Shepard was tied up in the background during the monologue, it was the first scene where you could hear a pin drop in the theatre.
Act 2 has a different feel to it. The production to this point has been mostly neutral, in that, it has treated this incident like most other crimes, with little editorializing, minimal dramatic flair, and mostly treating Shepard as a crime victim, not a gay crime victim. However, Act 2 made it clear it had A LOT to say about media sensationalism. This is where the TVs on stage come into play. Each of the TV sets were lit up with different news feeds from either the video cameras on stage or actual news feeds from Laramie the day after the murder. Everybody in the cast plays a reporter or cameraman, and they mince no words in portraying their overbearing nature and sensationalism. Their portrayal of the media was outlandish, and very effective. Does the media actually inflame the situation further? Does it prolong the town’s healing process? Do they ironically cause residents who would normally talk to shut down given their confrontational style? The production makes a couple hints that, the Laramie Project was much more effective at getting answers from the Laramie residents with their laid back, friendly demeanor than the media was. Does the media want information, or do they want to make a show? That’s one of the questions posed by this show.
Most of Act 2 and 3 turn away from the tricks they used in act 1 to seamlessly transition between scenes and instead focus on the monologues. The emphasis is on Shepard battling for his life in the hospital, how the town reacted to his death (hint: there are some who at least partially blame the victim), and what transpired in the courtroom for the trials of the two perpetrators. The last two acts let the actors shine, and as a result, the production really shines altogether.
If you are into star power, this production features Brandy Burre, who played Theresa D’Agostino in HBO’s The Wire. She was excellent specifically in portraying Marge Murray, an elder statesman of Laramie and mother of the cop who was first on the scene at the fence where Shepard was tied up.
However, the star of the night was unquestionably Josh Aaron McCabe, a 10 year veteran of the “Shakespeare & Company” group. He played a number of quirky characters, from a local limo driver to a Unitarian minister, to Matthew Shepard’s father at the sentencing hearing. All of these characters sounded and felt authentic, as if he did soul searching for each one to find out what their heart and motivation was during this whole incident. The speech he makes as his father in Act 3 on whether to call for the death penalty was so powerful, you could hear a tear drop. And I heard a couple. He captured the emotions of the scene instantly, and never let go throughout the monologue. I thought for a few moments I was actually watching Matthew Shepard’s father live on stage
The production finishes up on a bittersweet note. There’s no forgetting what happened on that day; the actions of two people impacted hundreds of people’s lives forever in many different ways. And yet, the Laramie Project also wants to let you know that these good folk of Laramie are still good folk, and that hope and love will survive.
I carefully watched people as the show ended, curious as to what sort of emotions they were left with. It seemed split pretty evenly between genuine admiration for the show, genuine sadness at experiencing the death of Matthew Shepard, and then genuine conversation about what it all means. I think this production intended to elicit all three emotions; admiration for the degree of difficulty all of these actors faced in presenting all of these characters as objectively as possible, sadness over the brutality of life taken as a result of one’s sexuality, and conversation about where we are today as a result of where we have come from. It’s no easy feat to evoke all three emotions, but the Laramie Project did that.
This is a production first and foremost interested in telling the story of Matthew Shepard’s death through the tales of others, with minimal editorial discretion. Its second purpose is to remind us that there was a time when gay people feared for their lives if they were public with their sexuality. Its third purpose is to explore how a town heals in the aftermath of such an incident, and whether the media makes things better or worse. If any of these things interest you, then see this show. You won’t be disappointed.
Final Rating: 3.5 Stars out of 4.
Anthony J. Piccione
The 1980s. When people look back on that decade, they tend to remember many things. Mostly, what they remember is a bunch of cheesy but catchy pop music. For some who are old enough to remember it, they might choose not to remember such music. For other people, it might be a guilty pleasure. For many others, just pure pleasure. No matter which of those three categories you fall into – or if you are not even old enough to remember the 80s – I can guarantee that the show Xanadu is bound to be a lively and entertaining theatrical experience. Based on the 1980 film starring Olivia Newton-John, this musical adaptation – filled with tons of songs from that era – proves to be a surprisingly joyful experience for all audiences.
As the third and final show in their 2015 Nutmeg Summer Series, Connecticut Repertory Theatre did not disappoint when they brought to life this fun-filled musical this weekend. Under the direction of Artistic Director Vincent J. Cardinal, this production proves to be a great way to close out the summer at CRT. Cardinal’s directorial vision for the show is executed to perfection, with a highly-talented cast that is blocked and choreographed wonderfully, and set designs and special effects that prove to be what makes the show as visually stunning of a spectacle as it is. The fact that all of the choreography in this show is performed with the actors wearing skates in these settings only serve to make an already spectacular production even more impressive.
The show begins with a young man named Sonny – played by Luke Hamilton – coming out to talk directly to the audience with plenty of laugh-lines that get the crowd warmed up for a show that has no shortage of them from beginning to end. During these 90 minutes, Hamilton’s portrayal of the role proves to be equally comedic and enduring through the remainder of the production. In the show, Sonny meets a young Australian girl named Kira – played by Amandina Altomare – and later discovers that she is really a muse from Mount Olympus named Clio in disguise. Altomare’s vocal performance in this production proves to be one of the many aspects of the show that make it a success. The story of the show largely revolves around the forbidden romance between Sonny and Clio, and overcoming the obstacles that prevent a muse from falling in love with a mere mortal.
Playing the role of businessman Danny Maguire is Broadway veteran Dirk Lumbard, known for his roles in shows such as The Music Man and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. His performance in the role proves to be both humorous and poignant at certain points in the show, with the musical number “Whenever You’re Away From Me” standing out in the show. Two other major highlights in the show that keep the audience laughing hard are the performances of Ariana Shore in the dual roles of Melpomene and Medusa and Steve Hayes in the dual roles of Calliope and Aphrodite, with the musical number “Evil Woman” standing out as one of the best in the production. The rest of the cast is rounded out by an equally talented ensemble of muses, including Jayne Ng and Johnny Brantley III who each respectively stand out at various points in the show with incredible stage presence.
As talented as all the performers were, perhaps the biggest highlights of the show were the technical aspects of the show. The set designs are very bright and colorful in the best possible way, and are complimented by stunning projections that make the show a visually superb experience for the audience. Another aspect that adds to the excellence of the show’s visuals is the usage of fog and lighting that prove to be some of the best special effects to be used in the show. Finally, with all the highly-catchy music included in this show, credit should be given to the musicians involved in the production that helped make music such a great part of this show. All of these various elements of the show play a huge role in making this production as entertaining as it is.
All in all, Xanadu is a fun-filled spectacle with plenty of joy and laughs to go around for the audience. Connecticut Repertory Theatre does an excellent job at bringing this highly-amusing show to life, and for making it as high-quality of an experience as one could expect, if not more so. This was very clear on Friday night, as audiences left the theater feeling largely satisfied and entertained. If possible, be sure to get a chance to catch this event during the summer. This last show in CRT’s Nutmeg Summer Series is not to be missed.
Xanadu runs at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre from July 9th-19th. For more information, please visit www.crt.uconn.edu.
Anthony J. Piccione
For over a century, J.M. Barrie’s timeless story of Peter Pan has continued to be one of the most beloved children’s stories of all time. Nowhere is this more evident than in the success of the story’s musical adaptation. When it premiered on Broadway in 1954, it was both critically and commercially successful, having received numerous awards. It has since been produced again and again on several occasions, serving as a reflection of the musical’s enduring popularity. This was especially clear when a nearly sold-out audience attended the recent production of Peter Pan at Connecticut Repertory Theatre. The members of this audience largely expected – and rightfully so – to be just as joyfully entertained by this production as audiences who saw the show in the past had been.
In the end, they got exactly what they were hoping for.
This production of Peter Pan – directed by Cassie Abate – is just as magical and exciting as one could hope for, as it takes the audience straight to Neverland with its wide range of talent and stunning visual effects. Abate’s talent as a director is evident in the casting of the production. The show’s ensemble consists of a nice mix of seasoned professionals with several younger, college-aged actors, all of whom do an excellent job breathing life into this classic story. In addition to directing, Abate also fulfills the duties of choreographer in this production. Her talent in this area particularly shines during the show, as choreography proves to be a major highlight. Over the course of the production, her love for the show is evident in each of the scenes, as the show is blocked and choreographed down to perfection, keeping the audience engaged from beginning to end.
Starring in the title role is Riley Costello, known for his roles in the Broadway production of 13: A New Musical and the Broadway revival of Bye, Bye Birdie. This is a noteworthy casting choice, given the history of this show, as the role of Peter has traditionally been given to a female performer since the days of Mary Martin in the original 1954 production. This proved to be a non-factor in the quality of the production, as Costello proves himself to be more than up for the task of playing the role of Peter, turning in a highly energetic and enthusiastic performance. The song “Neverland” is a particularly notable highlight of his performance during the night.
Starring alongside Costello is three-time Tony nominee Terrance Mann, who recently directed and starred in CRT’s production of Les Miserables this summer. In this production, Mann steals the show with his equally villainous and hilarious portrayal of Peter’s arch-nemesis Captain Hook. Though largely known for playing the much darker villain known as Javert in the original 1987 Broadway production of Les Miserables, Mann displays his high-versatility as a performer as he clearly taking on the more comically evil Hook in this show. This is most noticeable during the musical number named for his character, when audiences are left laughing in their seats as a result of the entertaining interactions between Hook and his crew.
Among the rest of the cast, Maggie Bera delivers a lovely performance in the role of Wendy, particularly shining in the musical number “Tender Shepherd”. Troyer Coultas delivers a solid performance as John, while young Atticus L. Burrello is charming in the role of Michael. A particularly notable highlight of the show is Jonathan Cobrda, who provides an extra-dose of pleasant comic relief in the role of Mr. Smee. Accompanying the lead characters is a large ensemble of equally talented and entertaining performers, including Captain Hook’s mischievous crew of pirates, a highly-gifted tribe of dancing Indians, and several cheerful and delightful Lost Boys.
In addition to the cast and direction of the production, the visual elements of the show prove to be yet another major highlight, with various technical aspects put to excellent use. The set design is as pleasantly bright and colorful as one can expect Neverland itself to be, providing the perfect backdrop to take the audience into the world of the show. The lighting in the theater is also put to good use as a compliment to these lovely sets. Transitions from scene to scene are accompanied by video projections that are so stunning, you would think that Connecticut Repertory Theatre had hired Disney to come in and do the show’s special effects. Overall, these technical aspects take an already entertaining show, and make it an even more wonderful live experience for the audience.
By the end of the show, theatergoers left with just as much joy and happiness as one can typically expect from a show like Peter Pan, with plenty of laughs and smiles to go around for people of all ages. This production is a fun-filled spectacle that makes a perfect night-out for the whole family, and proves that Peter Pan is still just as captivating for audiences as it was when it first premiered on Broadway. If you are looking for something fun to do this summer, especially if it’s something that both you and your kids can enjoy together, this production is not to be missed.
Peter Pan runs at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre from June 18th to July 3rd. For more information, please visit www.crt.uconn.edu.
Anthony J. Piccione
When thinking about what the greatest Broadway musicals over the past half-century are, Les Miserables is usually at or near the top of everyone’s list. Since it first premiered in the 1980s, it has received near universally acclaim, been produced again and again by theatres across the world, been adapted into an Oscar-nominated feature film, and continues to be among the most beloved musicals among theatergoers worldwide. So when it was announced that Connecticut Repertory Theatre would be producing the show as part of their Nutmeg Summer Series, the expectations were understandably high. They did not disappoint.
The show is presented in the form of a staged concert production, meaning that the focus is on the music and the actors, rather than the more technical aspects that come with a full-scale production. However, this is easily forgotten over the course of the production, as the incredible acting and voices of the cast take us into the world of the show with their suburb talents. In terms of the direction and the performances– as well as the reactions they invoke from audiences – the level of quality is near that of any show you could see on Broadway, and just by looking at the wide range of talented individuals in the production, it’s not hard to see why.
The show is directed by none other than Broadway legend Terrance Mann, the three-time Tony nominee who appeared in the original 1987 Broadway production of Les Miserables as the villainous Inspector Javert. His experience shows in the direction just as much as it does in his acting. While the production is not heavy of blocking or choreography, with the lead actors primarily acting and singing into a set of four microphones, the moments where they are included are blocked down to perfection, giving the show the same feel of an epic musical spectacle as the original Broadway production.
The biggest highlight of the night is, by far, the level and dramatic and musical talent in the cast that make this show as enjoyable as it is. Reprising his role of Inspector Javert, Mann shows that he’s still just as much the gifted actor that he was three decades ago. His performance in this production was every bit as exhilarating as it was when he played the role for the first time. David Harris – known in Australia as one of the most gifted actors in the country –does an equally impressive job in the role of the valiant Jean Valjean. His magnificent voice plays a big role in helping to make this production soar to the musical heights that it does.
Among the other lead characters, Alex Zeto does an excellent job portraying the role of Fantine, and her performance of I Dreamed a Dream proves to be a poignant highlight of the show. Chandler Lovelle and Joe Callahan both do a fine job in their respective roles of Cosette and Marius. Will Bryant does a superb job in the role of Enjorlas, while Philip Hoffman and Liz Larsen provide a nice dose of comic-relief with their portrayals of Thenardier and Madam Thenardier. Aidan and Dermot McMillan do a fine job as they take turns playing the role of young Gavroche, while Ariana DeBose as Eponine delivers a very touching performance of On My Own. All the lead actors are backed up by an equally strong and talented ensemble that helps give the show much of the same feeling of excitement that the Broadway production had.
While the acting, singing and direction prove to be the highlights of the show, there are some visual and technical elements of the show worth noting that make the show a better experience. While the set takes a minimalistic approach, due to the format of the production, this becomes a very minor aspect of the show as the audience becomes completely immersed in the show’s actors. This is largely thanks to the spectacular use of lighting in the show, which helps set the tone of various scenes and also keeps the focus on the gifted cast of actors. The production also makes good use of projections, as a means of providing both a visual backdrop for each scene, as well as a subtitle that lets the audience know at various points where the characters are in the story at that moment. Overall, these prove to be creative and effective ways of enhancing the production and making the most of the concert-style format that is used.
Overall, this production provided just as much of the same thrills, laughs and tears to audience members as one could typically expect from a show like Les Miserables. With an outstanding level of talent involved, Connecticut Repertory Theatre is able to do what is not an easy task: To do a concert-style performance of one of the greatest Broadway musicals of all time, and make it just as much of a worthwhile experience for the audience as a full-scale production would. For anyone who enjoys great theatre and great music, this event is something that they are certain to enjoy and is not to be missed.
Les Miserables: A Musical Celebration runs at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre from May 28th to June 7th. For more information, please visit www.crt.uconn.edu.