Review: “Because Of Winn Dixie” at Goodspeed Musicals

Review: “Because Of Winn Dixie” at Goodspeed Musicals

“Winn Dixie” wisely understands that real life is far more complicated and it doesn’t try to deliver easy answers. Its characters are real, flawed humans whose problems can’t be tap-danced away. Their demons won’t be cured tomorrow. It’s a good lesson for kids of all ages to learn, rolled up in a fun and charming package.”

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Review: 'A Wonderful Life The Musical' at Goodspeed Musicals

Nancy Sasso Janis

‘A Wonderful Life The Musical’ opened in September at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, but press opening was this week. I attended soon after on a not particularly well-attended Friday evening. 

Bedford Falls comes alive in this Goodspeed premiere of the tale of finding hope in your own hometown. In this tuneful re-imaging of the classic film with “It’s” at the beginning of the title, a would-be angel comes to the rescue of desperate banker George Bailey on Christmas Eve. It reminds us that “every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”

I have written before that the movie is not one of my favorites, but I was heartened by the fact that the music for this version was written by Sesame Street composer Joe Raposo. The late composer wrote over 1,000 songs for the venerable children’s show. Musical numbers would add value and make the piece a little happier, I thought. The book being written by the Tony-winning co-creator of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ Sheldon Harnick also raised my hopes. 

"Christmas Gifts" The cast of 'A Wonderful Life' Photo by Diane Sobolewski

‘A Wonderful Life’ was billed as heartwarming, and in a few parts I guess it was. Family-friendly for sure, with a few young actors featured in only the second act. Director Michael Perlman and his team were going for a Norman Rockwell look to the production and in parts it definitely gave off that vibe, especially in the truly wonderful period costumes by Jennifer Caprio, wigs and hair by Mark Adam Rampmeyer and the magical set designed by Brian Prather. 

There were plenty of scenes to move along the well-known action and some were helped by the addition of the musical numbers. I felt that the songs were uneven at best, with only maybe the title song being memorable. There was some good choreography to fit the little Goodspeed stage by Parker Esse for the Charleston number and some wardrobe tricks for Mary during the fantasy “First Class All the Way.” The rest, despite the best efforts of the talented cast, just felt not so wonderful. Some changes were made to the second act according to an insert in the program that were hopefully for the better.

Duke Lafoon played George with sincerity but seemed a bit disconnected from the other actors at times; he did show off his wonderful singing voice in a few numbers. Kirsten Scott (Jenny Hill in Broadway’s ‘Big Fish’) looked the part of Mary and made the most of an underwhelming role. Logan James Hall played the role of George’s brother Harry. 

George McDaniel played angel Matthew, Tom, Mr. Martini and Bob Hepner and Frank Vlastnik was pretty cute as the angel-to-be Clarence. 

Broadway veteran Ed Dixon played the evil Mr. Potter quite well and Josh Franklin played the equally unlikable Sam Wainwright. Berthe B. Austin played both the Bailey matriarch and Mrs. Martini. Ryan G. Dunkin played Ernie and Kevin C. Loomis played Burt (in a Sesame Street homage?) Michael Medeiros was believable as the hapless Uncle Billy. 

The three local actors chosen to play the Bailey children include the talented Ben Stone-Zelman as Tommy and sisters Riley and Ella Briggs of East Hampton as Beth and Zuzu (and who names their child Zuzu?) I remembered Young Ben who has appeared at Hartford Stage in ‘A Christmas Carol’ and at Landmark Community Theatre in ‘Little Mermaid’ and ‘Mary Poppins.’ All the ensemble members gave it their all. 

‘A Wonderful Life’ runs at Goodspeed Musicals at the Goodspeed Opera House through November 29, 2015.

Review - 'Guys and Dolls' at Goodspeed Musicals

Nancy Sasso Janis

'Guys and Dolls,' a musical fable of Broadway, will be enjoying a nice long run at the Goodspeed Opera House as Goodspeed Musicals opens it's 2015 season with a show they have never before produced. The story is based on a story and characters by Damon Runyon with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and the book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows. The brassy new staging at Goodspeed was directed by Don Stephenson, choreographed by Alex Sanchez, and musical direction by Michael O'Flaherty.
 
The experience at Goodspeed began when the ushers wearing fedoras showed patrons to their seats. Then the recorded announcements were done in character by Nicely-Nicely. On the stage there was a set that featured a Times Square neon effect (actually more energy efficient LED lighting) on moveable panels that set the scene, well, nicely.
 
I will admit that I am not a big fan of this show but this production gave me a new appreciation for it's merits. The pace of this production was stepped up and that definitely helped. The choreography was on the level of 'Newsies' on the tiny Goodspeed stage and that is about as good as it gets. The musicians in the pit under the direction of Mr. O'Flaherty could not have been better as well.

General Matilda B Cartwright (Karen Murphy),  Big Jule (Jerry Gallagher) and the cast of Goodspeed Musicals’ Guys and Dolls now playing at the Goodspeed Opera House through June 20. Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski

General Matilda B Cartwright (Karen Murphy),  Big Jule (Jerry Gallagher) and the cast of Goodspeed Musicals’ Guys and Dolls now playing at the Goodspeed Opera House through June 20. Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski

Especially fine scenes were the first act closer, the quiet "I've Never Been in Love Before," and "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat." There was plenty of fun and lots of heart.
 
The large cast, almost all Equity professionals, were a mix of Goodspeed veterans and new faces. Nancy Anderson was an adorable Miss Adelaide, the perennial fiancée of Nathan Detroit, played with lots of charm by Mark Price. Scott Cote made his Goodspeed debut as the very cute Nicely-Nicely. Jerry Gallagher was a very big Big Jule, but wasn't overly scary. Karen Murphy was the commanding Gen. Cartwright.
 
Manna Nichols debuted at the opera house in the role of Sarah Brown and she sang beautifully. Noah Plomgren played gambler Benny Southstreet and the handsome Tony Roach oozed charm as Sky Matherson. All the 'guys' in the men's chorus sang in tight harmony and danced so very well.
 
Kudos to John Jellison who played Arvide Abernathy, Sarah's uncle and fellow mission worker. He gave a heartfelt and heartwarming performance as her loving uncle.
 
Costumes designed by Tracy Christensen were colorful and perfect for the period, with some of Adelaide's having a cartoon quality that definitely worked.
 
Michael Gennaro is the new Executive Director of Goodspeed Musicals, having recently replaced Founding Director Michael P. Price. Mr. Gennaro's father Peter danced in the 1950 Broadway production of 'Guys and Doll.' Director Don Stephenson is the husband of Mr. Loesser's daughter Emily, so this production is a bit of a family affair.
 
Guys and Dolls will run through June 20, 2015 Curtain times are Wednesday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m. (with select performances at 2:00 p.m.), Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. (with select performances at 6:30 p.m.).