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.

AAIP_pantages-1306.jpg

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.

Review: ' A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder' National Tour (Providence)

Liz Chrico

  • OnStage Massachusetts Critic

My husband and I decided to treat ourselves to a dinner and a show in Providence this weekend. (And by my husband and I, I mean I said I want to see this show and he said OK.  He’s great like that.) What I knew about A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (forever abbreviated to AGGTLAM cause DAMN that’s a long title) came from their performance at the Tony Awards in 2014. So not much which is rare for me. 

A quick bit about the venue. Providence Performing Arts Center (PPAC- us New Englanders love abbreviations!) is a gorgeous venue. There really isn’t a bad seat in the house. We were up in the balcony but only a couple rows back, just to the left of center. I always sacrifice height if I can be closer to center, FYI. 

The set backdrops were minimal and they made excellent use of a projection system for some of the background elements.  The show utilizes a stage on a stage which at first I was wary about but ended up loving. The show itself is so tongue-in-cheek that having the stage on a stage added to the fun. Costumes were exactly in keeping with the time period- very richly colored, luxurious to look at and I wanted all of Phoebe’s hats. I love hats. Why don’t Americans where more hats? Anyway.

The story line centers on Monty Navarro who discovers that his recently deceased mother was actually a member of the D’Ysquith family making Monty 9th in line for the Earldom. Monty however would prefer to be a little closer to the top, and begins picking off family members one by one.

It’s quite a small cast and everyone pulls their weight. The four main leads especially were superb. My husband and I were torn over which of the female leads we enjoyed more, the character of Phoebe (my husband’s favorite) or Sibella (my favorite). One of the highlights vocally for me was the song, “I’ve Decided to Marry You” featured on the 2014 Tony Awards telecast. The two women were in perfect sync vocally and choreographically as they sang about their love for Monty. Monty was equally delightful bouncing between his two women. 

Perhaps it’s because I’m a performer and I know the magic that has to take place behind the scenes for everything to run so smoothly on stage but I thought the actual standout performance went not to any of the actors (all quite good) but to those responsible for dressing John Rapson who plays every character in the D’Ysquith family save Phoebe. There were several changes including hair, teeth, and makeup executed in seconds. I counted. After John took his well-deserved bow I found myself wanting the dressers to come out to have their moment in the spotlight!

In short, if AGGTLAM comes to a city near you go. It’s a delightful romp that will amuse you and leave you looking over your shoulder lest any 8th or 9th cousins twice removed try to pick you off on their way towards an Earldom. 

Review: 'Finding Neverland' National Tour (St. Louis)

Erin Karll

  • OnStage Associate St. Louis Critic

The tour of “Finding Neverland” is currently running at the Fabulous Fox Theatre in St. Louis. The charming and tear jerking story behind the creation of ‘Peter Pan’ is a perfect choice for a family. From the young to the young-at-heart, this show is entertaining for all. Be ready to believe and never grow up.

The physicality of the show is top level. The ensemble of dancers climbing and moving over the stage is stunning. I must give a special notice of Kevin Kern (J.M Barrie) and the ensemble dancers during the scene “Hook”. I have not seen so much energy in a number since the last tour of ‘Pippin’. The choreography was created by Mia Michaels and illusions by Paul Kieve.
I enjoy this well written story within a story, and seeing the clever staging (scenic design by Scott Pask) that is used to show the connections between 1900s London and Barrie’s Neverland.

The scenes where Barrie’s imagination would take over were well played and showed how it feels to be a writer trying to figure out the next story. “We Own the Night” is one of my favorite parts of the whole show. References to the ‘Peter Pan’ had the older crowd uttering out loud in acknowledgment. This show has a lot of quotable lines that had everyone laughing and cheering. The use of lighting (Kenneth Posner) to link the two worlds is well played. ‘Tinker Bell’s’ light and the fairy dust effects were jaw dropping and had everyone clapping along. The theatre nerd in me also enjoyed that there was a whole acting troupe that welcomed the Davis Boys into their own Neverland as they prepare to enter Barrie’s.

Standouts in the cast are Christine Dwyer (Sylvia Llewelyn Davis) and Kevin Kern (J.M Barrie). They have a strong chemistry that shone through in all of their scenes together. Dwyer was the doting and loving mother. Her telling number “All That Matters” is powerful. Kern plays ‘Barrie’ so sweetly. He combines the innocence of someone who does not want to grow up with the experience of someone who has suffered a loss. The children who played the Davis Boys were all amazing. “We’re All Made of Stars” was a show stopper.

Over all this is a sweet show with a strong message about the importance of remaining young at heart and the trouble of being stuck never growing up. I would recommend a visit pass the second star on the right and straight on until morning by getting ticket and show information at fabulousfox.com or metrotix.com. 

Photo by KSP Images

Review: Fun Home brings Maple Ave. to the Fox

Erin Karll

  • OnStage St. Louis Critic

The story of Alison Bechdel and her family was first told via graphic novel in her biography, then it made a move to the stage in a musical (Jeanine Tesori for music and Lisa Kron for book and lyrics). The musical was a success and ran on Broadway and launched a tour. In “Fun Home” she covered topics like her own story of coming out to her family, growing up in her family run funeral home, and her finding out that her father was gay. Adult themes are covered so this show may not be appropriate for all ages, but the topics covered are important and will open a lot of discussions on the ride home.

The original Broadway production was performed in the round, so I was interested on how they would make the changes to fit the proscenium stages found in most touring houses. Under the direction of Sam Gold, choreography by Danny Mefford, and scenic and costume design by David Zinn this production hits the mark. Starting with a simple platform to show ‘upstairs’ and to house the band, set pieces are then rolled out to fit the time frame the audience is seeing. The use of lighting is also important as squares light up around characters emphasizing that this is part of Alison’s drawing.

The character of Alison is split into 3 parts referred to as small “Alison” (Alessandra Baldacchino), medium “Alison” (Abby Corrigan) and “Alison” (Kate Shindle). The story flashes back and forth between childhood, small “Alison”, and college years, medium “Alison” with adult version chiming in with hindsight trying to ‘caption’ the story panel the audience is seeing now and narrating. Baldacchino’s small “Alison” is funny and drew a long applause from the audience with the song “Ring of Keys”.  Corrigan played witty and awkward perfectly, the average college age person with some big discovery happening. Her song “Changing my Major” was a crowd favorite. Shindle is powerful as the adult “Alison”, I connected the characters emotion of looking back and making sense of the past.

Other important characters and standout actors are Alison’s father “Bruce” (Robert Petkoff), her mother “Helen” (Susan Moniz), and her first girlfriend “Joan” (Karen Eilbacher). The whole cast came together wonderfully and told this story with care and honesty. The song “Come to the Fun Home” got a lot of laughs and showed off the talent of the younger cast members.
Somethings you may want to know about this production before you go. There is no intermission so be prepared when the lights go down. The cast is collecting for the fantastic charity Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDs after the performance.  Bring some money if you are interested in some rare collector items like signed posters, weaved bracelets from costumes, and the traced picture that Shindle drew on stage.

I would recommend this production to everyone with a family since most of the audience can relate to family secrets coming out, and growing into your own person. You can catch Fun Home on tour all around the country. For ticket and show information check out funhomebroadway.com

Review: 'Wicked' National Tour at Oakdale Theatre

Nancy Sasso Janis

Connecticut Critic

“There are bridges you cross
You didn't know you crossed
Until you've crossed...
So I couldn't be happier
Because happy is what happens
When all your dreams come true
Well, isn't it?” - Glinda in “Thank Goodness”

Wallingford, CT - The tour of ‘Wicked The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz’ landed at Toyota Presents Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford on the final day of November and runs through December 11 with a total of 16 big performances. Marc Platt, Universal Stage Productions, The Araca Group, Jon B. Platt and David Stone launched this large production. The Oakdale theatre campus is dressed in green in honor of this magical event and the Thursday night performance was very well attended by many young, very well-behaved patrons. One young lady in our row knew every single word to “Popular.”

I am thankful that I have seen the Stephen Schwartz modern classic with the book by Winnie Holzman (‘thirtysomething’) on Broadway with a middle school field trip and then a few years later brought my other teenager to see the touring company when it came to the Bushnell for the third time. I have made no secret that I am of the opinion that ‘Wicked’ is the best musical ever. Elphaba and the show’s logo is the background of my smartphone, I own the sheet music of the entire score, “The Wizard and I” is my audition piece, I was thrilled when the composer shared some background information at an appearance I covered….you get the idea. 

So to say my expectations of this tour were high is a bit of an understatement. I have never seen a theatrical production at this venue and my companion was impressed by the look of the physical space on his first visit. The tour took advantage of larger space than what is available in the Gershwin Theatre on Broadway and what my son dubbed the “God” lighting for “Defying Gravity” was the best I have ever seen anywhere. 

“Thank Goodness” I was impressed with everything about this touring company. The ensemble that played the flying monkeys, Shiz students, Denizens of the Emerald City (in the best costumes ever!) and the Palace Guards did not miss a step or a note. Chase Madigan played the monkey Chistery that wears the wings that grow onstage and Wayne Schroder was the tall Ozian Official. Tregoney Shepherd was the midwife that delivers the green baby, while Wayne Schroder and Kerry Blanchard played her shocked parents. Fred Applegate (who was in ‘Wicked’ on Broadway) was charming as the flawed Wonderful Wizard of Oz. 

Jeremy Woodard oozed charm as Fiyero and reminded me of Neil Patrick Harris for some reason. Chad Jennings donned the horns as the animal professor Doctor Dillamond. Broadway vet Isabel Keating was commanding and magical as Madame Morrible. Andy Mientus (‘Spring Awakening’ on Broadway) was the loyal Boq (not ‘Bic’,) while Kristen Martin (original cast of ‘Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark) played the handicapped sister Nessarose. The latter did well on “The Wicked Witch of the East,” the only number that was not included on the original Broadway cast recording because the producers felt it included too much dialogue and would give some of the plot away.

Amanda Jane Cooper, who returns to the metal bubble after playing Glinda on the first national tour, was beautiful as the perky G(a)linda the Good Witch. One quibble was that I thought that she understated a bit the line “I mean they’re shoes...let it go” so that some may have missed it. Jessica Vosk, just off her run as Fruma Sarah in Broadway’s revival of ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ was just as good as the misunderstood Elphaba. I loved her take on the powerful “No Good Deed.”  The two were at their comic best for “What is this Feeling?” and “Popular,” and the soaring “For Good” gave me the usual chills. 

Eugene Lee designed the settings and Oz never looked better. Costumes by Susan Hilferty and wigs and hair by Tom Watson were divine and Kenneth Posner gets the credit for the spectacular lighting design. Sound by Tony Meola was good and projections by Elaine J. McCarthy quite impressive. 

The traveling orchestra of five, under the admirable conductor Dan Micciche, welcome nine local musicians who play at all performances. The musician next to me did not like the amplification of their work, but I thought they played the Schwartz score that I adore beautifully. Orchestrations by William David Brohn (Tony Award for ‘Ragtime,) music supervisor Stephen Oremus (‘Kinky Boots, The Book of Mormon’) and musical staging by Wayne Cilento did not go unnoticed. Joe Mantello was the director and I learned that he earned Tony nominations as an actor when he appeared in both ‘Angels in America’ and ‘The Normal Heart.’

If you have never seen ‘Wicked,’ and even if you have, I urge you to try to attend one of the remaining performances in Wallingford. Oakdale is located at 95 S. Turnpike Road in Wallingford and is pretty easy to find. There is free parking located at the back of the large parking lot, or for $20 one can take advantage of premium parking. 

Review: “An American In Paris” National Tour (Hartford, CT)

Noah Golden

  • Connecticut Critic

Poet Mattie Stepanek famously urged readers to “play after every storm,” a reminder that the creators of “An American In Paris” – a cheerful, old-fashioned tuner – seemed to heed, no questions asked. In a short prologue we get introduced to the war-ravaged city of Paris in 1945. The color palate is grey and muted, angry Parisians fill the streets, swastikas and United States army uniforms mingle together. But once the Nazi flag is taken down, the colors quickly begin to pop, feet begin to tap and there’s little time to look back on the country’s recent violence.

No, despite the post-war setting “An American In Paris” is a decidedly sunny piece of song-and-dance nostalgia. Based on the 1951 film of the same name, the musical premiered on Broadway in 2015, where it played a celebrated, Tony-winning 18-month run before launching a national tour (which this reviewer caught in Hartford, CT). At its core, “Paris” is a theatrical ode to dance and art lovingly staged and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. The songs (a handful of catchy standards by George and Ira Gershwin) and book (by Craig Lucas) have one real goal: to make sure this bubbly musical sails seamlessly from one piece of choreography to the next.

In the moments when feet are firstly planted on the ground, “Paris” feels uninspired and old-hat. There’s a plot, of course, involving a love triangle (or perhaps a love quadrangle) between an American GI turned amateur artist (alternate Ryan Steele), an aspiring American composer (Etai Benson), a French industrialist with a secret desire to be a nightclub singer (Nick Spangler) and a beautiful Parisian ballet dancer (Sara Etsy). In increasingly predictable ways, the paths of these four artists cross in the City of Light and love blooms in various combinations. It’s a fine, pleasant story populated by character types rather than real people and conflicts that can easily be overcome in a few bars of music. Writer Lucas does a nice job of moving the show along with a breezy pace, infusing the corny plot with some zippy jokes and adding a few moments of somber reflection. What doesn’t work so well is the admirable but unnecessary attempts to modernize the script with a smattering of four-letter words and the questioning of a character’s sexuality, which ends up feeling anachronistic in the world of this squeaky clean, MGM musical brought to life. 

The cast do their best to make the thin story works. Etsy is on point and en pointe as our ingénue, dancing beautifully and singing with a crystal-clear soprano (even if her French accent mostly disappears in song). Steele proves a handsome and spritely lead, as well as a good foil to wise-guy Benson (think Crutchie from “Newsies” all grown up) and dapper Spangler, whose “Book Of Mormon” pedigree is apparent in his sparkling comic timing. The large ensemble cast is uniformly strong, all dancing with panache and singing with the tight vibrato and bright tone of Depression-era radio performers.

They are backed by a terrific sliding panel set by Bob Crowley, romantic lighting by Natasha Katz and exquisite “Sunday In The Park With George”-like projections by 59 Productions. While these kind of animations are overused nowadays, the ones in “Paris” (which emulates a variety of artistic styles, from charcoal sketches to Degas-like impressionism to bright, cubist geometric patterns) are among the most artful and interesting I’ve seen.

But, again, they are all in service of some terrific dancing of which there are a few highlights. A fun routine at the top of the show has the leads dancing with umbrellas, a charming nod to the musical’s Gene Kelly roots, while Spangler gets his own top hat and tails number in the second act, complete with showgirls and a kick line. The climax and Wheeldon’s crowning achievement is a colorful 15-minute long ballet that’s terrifically performed and artfully meshes the moves of Fosse, Robbins and Tharp into the vocabulary of classical ballet. Backed by a lush, string-heavy, 13-piece orchestra (conducted by David Andrews Rogers), this segment is the only time “An American In Paris” steps out from the shadow of being just an average Great American Songbook musical.

Unfortunately, the whole thing doesn’t quite live up to the artistry and creativity dispelled in that final ballet. Long stretches feel flimsy and we just don’t care enough about these bland characters to support a two act musicals that runs over two hours. But perhaps these are all symptoms of being the kind of outdated show I’ve never been able to take cotton to, the kind of musical that too often gives the genre a bad name. There are those that equate all musicals with cheesy one-liners, characters who randomly break out into pirouettes mid-sentence and romances that are formed in the blink of an eye, although “Paris” is as far from something like “Next To Normal” as “The Shining” is to “Zoolander.”

That being said, late in the show wannabe composer Adam Hochberg has an epiphany about the ballet he’s writing. “Life is already so dark,” he says, “if you’ve got the talent to make it brighter, to give people hope, joy, why would you withhold that? [The show has] got to be a celebration.” We currently live in turbulent times.  Violence and bigotry are on the rise, protesters are still flooding city streets and it’s unclear how our new administration will treat the diverse group of Americans that make the theater community and our country so vibrant. In fact, hours before I sat down at the Bushnell, our president-elect sent out a series of tweets criticizing a hit Broadway show. There will be time for “Hamilton,” “Cabaret” or “Ragtime” – works that comment and reflect on our current political climate. There will also be new, challenging works written in response to our country’s collective fear and anger. I welcome all of those. But Mr. Hochberg also has it right. Sometimes, amidst all the darkness and uncertainty, you just have to forget your troubles for a few hours, celebrate life, love and beauty and you just gotta dance.