‘If/Then’ Explores What-Ifs of Life in Dual Narrative at The Bushnell

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Left to right: Tamyra Gray (Kate), Jackie Burns (Liz/Beth) and Anthony Rapp (Lucas) in “If/Then.” Credit: Joan Marcus

If you had made one different choice, then where would you be? Would anything be different?

Many of us ask that question about seemingly minor moments in our lives and it’s something “If/Then” at The Bushnell explores.

We experience the parallel lives newly divorced Elizabeth (Jackie Burns) could lead when she moves to New York to start a new life depending on a simple choice.

In one life, she is Liz and her decision to go to a concert with her new but very good friend Kate (Tamyra Gray) sets her on a seemingly happier less career-oriented path of love and family. She meets a soldier named Josh, who has just returned from his second tour of service, and misses a call about a high-ranking job offer from ex-boyfriend, Stephen (Jacques C. Smith).

In her other life, she is Beth. The activist in her drives her to go to a protest with her friend Lucas (Anthony Rapp, who played Mark in the Broadway original cast of “Rent” and the movie alongside Idina Menzel, who also played the original role of Elizabeth opposite Rapp on Broadway). She takes the call from Stephen for the deputy urban planner job and that consumes her life, so she doesn’t have romance or meet Josh. Yet.

Which life is better? That’s up to you to decide. Both have moments of happiness and misery, but in both she experiences love and loss. One moment in her life as Liz is a real tear-jerker. The contemporary setting of the play makes it so real and relatable that you can’t help but put yourself in Elizabeth’s lives and feel the emotions she feels.

Elizabeth interestingly experiences very familiar issues, for instance getting pregnant at the same point in both her lives, though with different men. One situation leads to children and marriage and in the other she chooses abortion, though the subject is very lightly touched upon. In any case, you wonder what you would have done in her shoes. The flurry of intertwining parallel narratives makes the story lively and captivating.

Burns, of the original Broadway cast of “If/Then,” presents us with a likable protagonist who over-thinks everything and examines her life with a statistical realism. Her voice has an Idina Menzel and Lea Michelle quality to it and she even looks like both of them, so her style is very powerful, expressive and captivating for the role, which Menzel has also played. Burns has also played Elphaba in “Wicked” on tour and on Broadway, a role that Menzel originated on Broadway.

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Jackie Burns as Elizabeth in “If/Then”. Credit: Joan Marcus

Matthew Hydzik plays the very positive and friendly Josh, who influences both of Elizabeth’s story lines in some way. His friend, David (Delacruz) only comes into the story because of him and is another optimistic character in the story.

Rapp has a very recognizable voice as Lucas that carries on attributes and traits of his role as Mark from “Rent” as an activist concerned about lower income housing options in New York. His character’s life and who he loves – man, David (Marc Delacruz) or woman (Beth) – is affected by the path of Elizabeth’s life.

Gray stood out as a favorite character in the spunky, free-spirited “f-ing great kindergarten teacher” Kate. Her vocal prowess was no surprise, as she appeared in the inaugural season of “American Idol” alongside winner Kelly Clarkson. Her love life is also affected by Elizabeth’s decisions – while she marries the love of her life, Ane (Janine Divita) in both, the outcome changes.

It was nice to see two gay couples in the forefront of the story in an uncontroversial light showing us that love comes in many forms. We also see love in Elizabeth’s friendships even when her lives don’t have her on a romantic path.

The contemporary style of the music makes it very conversational, like the oh-so-funny song, “What the F@$%?” questioning how you get to certain moments and surprises in your life. Tom Kitt wrote the 2014 Tony-nominated score. Brian Yorkey wrote the book and lyrics, which also earned a Tony nomination in 2014.

The set, designed by Mark Wendland, was very modern and the park serves as the focal point of the beginning, middle points and ending of the coinciding stories. It worked really well because so many strangers cross paths in a park, which makes you wonder how your life could change if your storyline intersected with a new person’s. You also see a lot of life being lived in a park, from music to blind dates. The ensemble helped to make these scenes very realistic, particularly with the addition of bikers on stage and people interacting in the background and sitting on park benches.

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Credit: Joan Marcus

Projections designed by Peter Nigrini map out the locations of the different scenes for us, much like the map on a metro, where part of the story actually takes place.

I didn’t know much about this story going into it, but it was one of the few musicals that ever made me cry. The story draws a lot of emotion out of you and really hits home in an authentic way that makes you think about your own life.

So think, how would your life be different if you went to this musical? Then what?

Find out by checking out “If/Then” at The Bushnell in Hartford, running through Sunday. The play is directed by Michael Greif and choreographed by Larry Keigwin. Kyle C. Norris is the music director.

More information on the show and tickets is available at www.bushnell.org.

Warner Theatre Hears a Who in ‘Seussical The Musical’

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The cast of “Seussical The Musical” at Warner Theatre. Credit: Mandi Martini

Of all the places you go, one of them should be to this Warner show.

It’s a musical called “Seussical” that will give you lots of thinks.
And it’s a production enjoyable both for adults and kiddliwinks.

Our happy, lovable elephant Horton (Josh Newey) hears a many a Who land on a clover,
And the whimsical Cat in The Hat (Samuel Everett) sparks wide-eyed young JoJo’s (Trevor Rinaldi) imagination to runneth over.

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Josh Newey as Horton the Elephant. Credit: Mandi Martini

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JoJo (Trevor Rinaldi) and The Cat in the Hat (Samuel Everett). Credit: Mandi Martini

Meanwhile brassy diva lazy Mazie La Bird (Mary C. Johnson) wants all the attention,
As Horton’s nerdy, quirky and adorable neighbor, Gertrude McFuzz (Maggie Gillette) seeks his affection.

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Mazie La Bird (Mary C. Johnson). Credit Mandi Martini

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Gertrude McFuzz (Maggie Gillette). Credit: Mandi Martini

The mischievous Wickersham Brothers (Raymond Cook, Theron Johnson III, Michael Newman) monkey around, wreaking havoc on Horton in the Jungle of Nool,
And we get oh so much sass and opinions from jazzy, alto AlexaRae Campagna as the spunky Sour Kangaroo.

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The Wickersham Brothers (Michael Newman, Raymond Cook, Theron Johnson III) Credit: Mandi Martini

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Sour Kangaroo (AlexaRae Campagna) and Horton (Josh Newey). Credit: Mandi Martini

The Bird Girls (Veronica Johnson, Caleigh Lozito, Kennedy Morris) chirp angelic, operatic gospel with attitude,
And we fell oh so sorry for selfless Horton and one-feather tailed Gertrude.

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The Bird Girls (Kennedy Morris, Caleigh Lozito and Veronica Johnson). Credit: Mandi Martini

Creators Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens teach us a lot of lessons through Seuss,
About the dangers of over-indulging in medicine to give us long tails on our caboose,
Or abandoning one’s egg to go to Palm Beach, using many an excuse,
Or Mr. Mayor (JD Bauer) and Mrs. Mayor (Sara Wilson) discouraging their child, JoJo’s thinks, scared of them running wild and loose.

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A person’s a person no matter how small, which is why everyone in this cast is important, after all.
From the Whos to the Citizens of Nool, they put in all of their energy and really answer the call.

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The Whos and The Grinch. Credit: Mandi Martini

The set has a very illustrated, Seussy flare popping against the vibrant and stunning costumes and hair!

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Kaitlyn Anthony as a featured dancer in the circus. Credit: Mandi Martini

Even if you’re like General Gengus Kahn Schmitz (Conrad Sienkiewicz) and his cadets, sounding off about disliking green eggs and ham,
There’s a lot of flavor in this musical to appeal to every sir, child and madame.

The full orchestra is powerful and sometimes overpowers the voices,
But the modern-day jing tinglers, flu floopers, trum tupers and slu-slumkers make oh so joyful noises.

The dancing is lively and the actors bring high energy and expressiveness needed in a kids’ show, those are facts.
You’ll see many familiar and beloved characters return, like The Grinch (Adam Fancher) and his dog Max (Jake Kordas).

So whether your soar to the Warner like Vlad Vladikoff (Dylan Zawisza) or inch there slowly like Yertle the Turtle (Joe Guttadauro), come see these stars,
They’ll help you see you’re not alone in the universe and teach you about friendship, and make you think just how lucky you are.

The staging and characterizations in “Seussical” are creative and cleaver.
Well done by Richard McKenna on his first directing endeavor.

Music directed by TJ Thompson and choreographed by Sharon Wilcox, the musical is two acts,
And on the last day of the run, Aug. 7, you’ll be visited by special friend, The Lorax.

So, go to warnertheatre.org for tickets and info,
And of all the places you go, one you won’t regret is this show!

 

Hartford Stage’s ‘Anastasia’ to Open on Broadway With Original Leads

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Credit: Joan Marcus

“Anastasia: The New Musical” will open on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre next April with the original leads from the production that premiered in a sold-out, world record-breaking run at Hartford Stage.

“After finishing a record breaking run in Hartford, we look forward to bringing the magic of Anastasia to Broadway audiences next spring,” producers Bill Taylor and Tom Kirdahy said. “In Hartford, we saw people ages 8-100 travel from all over the world to enjoy Anastasia’s enduring story. We are thrilled to have Christy, Derek, John and Caroline leading our company again for the Broadway premiere.”

The musical tells the story of a royal family’s demise in the fall of the Russian empire and the hope that remains for the people and the Dowager Empress that a rumor of the duchess Anastasia’s survival is true as a new regime takes over Russia. The story also ventures into lively and euphoric 1920s Paris as a con artist duo — Dmitry and Vlad — try to pass off a young girl with amnesia, Anya, as the surviving Anastasia to collect a reward from her grandmother. Little do they know they may have stumbled across the real Anastasia and then it becomes a question of whether their scheme has become truth and whether Anya can verify her identity.

Christy Altomare will continue her role as Anya.

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Christy Altomare (Anya). Credit: Joan Marcus

Derek Klena will once again be beside her playing Dmitry.

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Credit: Joan Marcus

John Bolton will reprise his role as Dmitry’s con artist partner Vlad Popov and Caroline O’Connor will again take on the role of his old flame, Countess Lily Malevsky-Malevitch.

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Credit: Joan Marcus

Inspired by the Twentieth Century Fox 1997 animated feature “Anastasia,” the stage adaptation was brought to life by Tony winners Terrence McNally, the book writer, and composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens. The music writing team also wrote the music for the animated film, including their Oscar-nominated song, “Journey to the Past.”

If the musical didn’t already show enough Broadway promise with Tony potential from its creators, take a look at the acclaimed production team. The original production debuting at Hartford Stage came together under the lead of the theater’s artistic director, Darko Tresnjak, the Tony Award-winning director of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” the winner of the Tony for Best Musical in 2014 that originated at Hartford Stage. He will also direct the Broadway version.

“Gentleman’s Guide” set designer Alexander Dodge, who designs Hartford Stage production sets including “Anastasia”, will design the Broadway set. Peggy Hickey will once again choreograph.

The Broadway version will include beautiful costume design by Linda Cho.

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Credit: Joan Marcus

Creative team members also involved include Donald Holder (Lighting Design), Peter Hylenski (Sound Design), Aaron Rhyne (Projection Design), Charles LaPointe (Hair/Wig Design), Thomas Murray (Music Supervision & Direction), Doug Besterman (Orchestrations), casting by Telsey + Company/Craig Burns, CSA.

Tickets will go on sale this fall and the show will open on Broadway April 24, 2017.

Windsor Jesters’ ‘August Osage County’ Tackles Heavy Drama With Humor

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Credit: Courtesy of Windsor Jesters

That can’t be the end of the story. Oh, but it is in the very long emotional roller coaster that is “August Osage County” presented by the Windsor Jesters.

It’s a line spoken by Barbara Fordham (Virginia Wolf) after her drug-addled, outspoken and seemingly maniacal mother, Violet Weston (Rosemarie Beskind) tells a story that ends abruptly and harshly. And it’s fitting with the play, which ends on a note of turmoil without any real resolution or happy ending and contains many stories that don’t end neatly and aren’t necessarily pretty.

There is a lot of gray area in this play in terms of any moral center and the characters’ actions are sometimes questionable and inexplicable.

“August Osage County” is not for the faint of heart, but you also have to take it with a sense of humor. In the darkness and despair of the story, there is also light and hope and dry comedy that comes from the ridiculousness of what some of the characters say and do.

In fact, the humor is why director Chris Bushey chose the play. He said it has so many funny moments and that he considers it a comedy. If you don’t look at it through that paradigm though, it can come across as rather depressing. That is one main difference actress Virginia Wolf said there is between the play and the Oscar-recognized film by the same name. She said the movie takes out the comedy that the play has written into the script. Ah, live theater.

There are some very heavy topics addressed in the show. There’s a suicide, incest, presumed sexual molestation of a minor that happens in the dark, there are marital problems with one couple on the brink of divorce, there is drug use and there’s domestic violence. You have to recognize the humor not to be bogged down by it all.

The play starts out with a very drawn out monologue from Bill Mullen as Beverly Weston, the patriarch of the Oklahoma family in the story, as he spews drunken ramblings and quotes T.S. Eliot in a retrospective way to a silent, stone-faced prospective housekeeper, Johnna Monevata (Anna Neild) of native American decent. Despite consuming the seemingly eternal opening scene with his words, Mullen’s mannerisms and voice are compelling and convincing in contrast to the seemingly emotionless and flat Johnna. He sets the scene for us, talking about his drinking and his wife’s recreational use of pills.

That’s the last time we see Mullen, but his character remains very crucial to the plot as he goes missing and the sheriff (Mark Proulx) says he is a presumed suicide. That brings back a lot of the family that has moved away home, initially to help look for him and then for his funeral and to help get things back in order.

Because once Beverly’s gone, the focus is on Violet and what to do about her pill addiction. Beskind is phenomenal in the role, which requires a very steep emotional arch and has a lot of layers. Beskind showed us all shades of Violet, from a sweet elderly mother to someone with a blunt, humorous perspective on life to a raging, belligerent drug addict experiencing highs and lows.

“August Osage County” depicts a very dysfunctional family that is brought together and in some way grows by what they learn from each other. But the wounds of the characters are very deep and their healing scars are often abruptly torn apart again. It shows life in the rawest form.

Wolf, as Barbara, has a way of conveying a range of emotions in a very natural and genuine way. One of the most powerful scenes is when a tense scuffle breaks out between her and Violet (Beskind) and she very firmly tells her “I’m in charge now.”

The play is very long and is a rare three acts with two intermissions, running at least three hours. While compelling in dialogue and character, Act I drags on as the longest. Act II is more captivating because of its brevity and because action between the characters is added. Act III kind of sets the characters back on their own paths and wraps up some of the story lines, but doesn’t tie them up with a bow, leaving what happens next open to interpretation.

Phil Godeck does a good job at conveying the awkward tension between his character, Bill Fordham and his wife, Barbara as they struggle with marital troubles. He’s able to show the contrast of trying to be a good man and the level-headed one as he fights with the growing distance between him and his wife. The chemistry is strongest between him and Wolf in the scenes where they are arguing.

Jacqueline Lasry, the youngest actress in the show, is able to tackle very dark moments with a combination of maturity and innocence and has an easy-going way about her that depicts the ultimate teenager.

Marisa Clement is the one we’re routing for as Violet’s dutiful daughter, Ivy. She’s the one who stayed home to take care of her mother, yet she seems to go unappreciated and is often criticized. Clement’s facial expressions convey exactly how much her character struggles with those moments, yet tries to suppress her emotions to keep the peace. She has a deep secret that will leave you questioning your assessment of what is right romantically in this day and age. You’ll question it even more with the twist.

Suzanne Robertson is the brightest of the bunch as Karen, the sister who lives in Florida and is newly engaged and bubbling with happiness and gab.

Enrico DiGiacomo brings out the youthful, immature side of his character and paired well with both the older and younger actors. He and Robertson bring a lighter and more naive contrast to many of the other characters.

Bruce Larsen, as Charlie Aiken, is able to play both a loving father standing up for his son, Little Charles Aiken when his wife, Mattie Fae (Helen Malinka), Violet’s sister, is hard on him and a single-minded button pusher on the topic of eating meat, or fear. Malinka comes across as harsh as Mattie Fae in the way she treats her son, but there’s a reason for that that we learn later.

Logan Lopez is another character you feel very badly for as Little Charles, a 37-year-old under his parents’ thumbs who supposedly watches TV all day. He embodies this in every movement from his shaking to his somber expressions to his soft-spoken apologies.

One of the only purely happy moments in the play is when we get to hear Lopez play the guitar and sing for Ivy. It’s the only time he smiles and the two actors together bring out their characters’ single strand of happiness and hope.

While Johnna is referred to as “the Indian” by Violet and has a quiet observer role most of the show, she really comes through for the family, making them dinner, saving Jean in a disturbing moment and coming to Violet’s aid when everything truly comes crashing down on her in the end. It’s the first time Violet actually calls her Johnna.

Mark Proulx is adorable, innocent and kind-hearted as Sheriff Deon Gilbeau.

The play leaves you with a lot of questions. Some of the answers lie with Violet, who is more all-knowing and with it than she leads on. But that’s the beautiful thing about the play. It has a lot of layers and makes you think and doesn’t always give you the answer. You don’t always get the answer in life.

Now that’s the end of my story. So now you still have two more chances this weekend to go see this one. The play is running at the senior center Friday and Saturday night.

 

 

Discover the Magic of Broadway-Bound “Anastasia” Musical at Hartford Stage

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Left to right: Lauren Blackman (Tsarina Alexandra), Christy Altomare (Anya), Constantine Germanacos (Tsar Nicholas II and Derek Klena (Dmitry) as Anya tells Dmitry a flashback about a music box belonging to Anastasia as the ghosts Grand Duchess’s parents look on. Credit: Joan Marcus

While Anya (Christy Altomare) may not fully remember her past and whether she is Russia’s rumored surviving Grand Duchess Anastasia, audiences will be unable to forget Broadway-bound “Anastasia” debuting now at Hartford Stage.

Once upon a December, little Anastasia, 6, (Nicole Scimeca) receives a lovely music box from her grandmother, Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna to remember her before she leaves St. Petersburg for Paris, though her mother, Tsarina Alexandra (Lauren Blackman) tells her prayers are more crucial than music boxes. In a dance with her father, Tsar Nicholas II (Constantine Germanacos), we see Anastasia morph into her 17-year-old self, played by Molly Rushing, in a smooth transition made possible by the masking effect of the ensemble dancers. As rebels overtake the Romanov dynasty’s palace, clashing with exquisite and luxurious scenes illustrated by dance, the family flees and is ultimately killed. Anastasia runs back for that precious music box and is caught in the blast.

Fast forward to the 1920s, St. Petersburg has been renamed Leningrad in evolved Communist Russia. A young man named Dmitry (Derek Klena) and his mentor, Vlad Popov audition girls to play Anastasia to collect reward money from the Dowager Empress when a legend circulates claiming the grand duchess survived the attack on her family. In the process of developing their con, Dmitry and Vlad meet Anya (Christy Altomare), a young woman who awoke in the hospital with amnesia and doesn’t remember who she is but needs help with exit papers to get out of the country. She falls into their plan and it isn’t long before she and they wonder if their farce is true. Maybe she really is the Grand Duchess Anastasia, hope for Russia, which proves a threat to the current regime and sets high-ranking government official Gleb (Manoel Felciano) on a manhunt for her to kill her.

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Left to right: Derek Klena (Dmitry), Christy Altomare (Anya) and John Bolton (Vlad) as the two conmen teach their new acquaintance Anya everything she’ll need to know that will make her a convincing Anastasia. Credit: Joan Marcus

The play is a stage adaptation inspired by the 1997 Disney animated feature film by the same name. When first I heard composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens were behind the music, I was excited and immediately optimistic this new musical would have Broadway and Tony potential given its creative team. Flaherty and Ahrens wrote the music for the Disney classic and they also wrote the music for esteemed Broadway favorites like “Seussical The Musical,” “Ragtime,” “My Favorite Year” and “Lucky Stiff.” I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Flaherty when he happened to be sitting next to me in a staged reading for a rewrite of “My Favorite Year” Off-Broadway in New York and he was so kind and down-to-earth, so his involvement made me all-the-more enthusiastic about this production.

Not to mention that a significant number of the major players who took “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” from its Hartford Stage debut to Broadway and earned it the Tony in 2014 for Best Musical are involved in “Anastasia.” Director Darko Tresnjak, set designer Alexander Dodge and costume designer Linda Cho all won Tonys in their respective crafts for “A Gentleman’s Guide” and they’re reunited on the creative team for “Anastasia,” along with choreographer Peggy Hickey, projection designer Aaron Rhyne and dramaturg Elizabeth Williamson, who also worked on “A Gentleman’s Guide” with them. Lighting designer Donald Holder, who won the Tony for lighting in “The Lion King,” sound designer Peter Hylenski, who received a Tony nomination for “After Midnight,” and orchestrator Doug Besterman, who earned a Tony for “The Producers,” also comprise this crackerjack team, as well as music director Tom Murray (“Honeymoon in Vegas”).

With the lofty credentials of the creative team, it’s no wonder that “Anastasia” was one of the most beautiful musicals I’ve ever laid eyes on. The set is stunning. Projections bring the setting of every scene to life with vivid details such as animated seasonal features like snowfall, blood red hues representing bloody and violent rebellions against the royal family, fast-scrolling scenery giving a train the illusion of movement, Paris backdrops and the shadows of the ghostly figures of Anastasia’s royal ancestors and family. The lighting and breathtaking colors enhance the scenery.

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Christy Altomare (Anya) and company of Anastasia. Credit: Joan Marcus

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Derek Klena (far left as Dmitry), Christy Altomare (Anya) and John Bolton (far right as Vlad) and the company of Anastasia as the characters escape Russia. Credit: Joan Marcus

The set choreography runs smoothly and beautifully as set pieces are twirled and lifted mechanically. The only moment I noticed a possible delay in the timing of a set feature was when Countess Lily Malevsky-Malevitch lights the Dowager Empress’s lantern and it doesn’t come on until the end of the scene.

The spinning stage is an element that helps time pass and makes the attack on the royal family more chaotic. It also livens the culturally and artistically bright and exuberant Paris when Anya, Dmitry and Vlad arrive there, adding a challenge to the choreography as the three effortlessly maneuver and climb on a revolving Eiffel Tower in a vibrant and memorable number about the city of love.

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Christy Altomare (Anya). Credit: Joan Marcus

The breathtaking aesthetics of this production are also decorated by the sparkling costumes from Tsarina Alexandra’s and Anya’s stunning gowns to the brightly colored and fashionable attire of the Parisians in contrast to the more earthy wardrobes of the Russians.

Flaherty’s score preserves history in a majestic and reflective way. The orchestra’s sound was very full and the melodies were twinkling, though it was a little distracting that you could see the conductor.

Ahrens’ lyrics are romantic and emotional. The words make us feel for the characters as the actors, particularly Mary Beth Peil as the Dowager Empress, Christy Altomare as Anya, Derek Klena as Dmitry, pour every bit of their expressions, movements and all-around being into the songs and strongly emote their meaning and tug at your heartstrings. The cast had the privilege of working with the writing team throughout the process and adjusting as songs were removed or added or words were changed.

You feel the Dowager Empress’s sorrow when she finds out her family is dead in a brief scene that Peil said in a cast talk-back was added for the purpose of biding time for a costume change. Peil is acting royalty (you might recognize her as Grams from “Dawson’s Creek”) and she commands the stage in every element from her powerhouse vocals, to her expressions, character voice and all-around powerful emotions.

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Mary Beth Peil as the Dowager Empress. Credit: Joan Marcus

Altomare was easy to relate to as the sweet but spunky Anya and her voice had a pure Disney princess quality to it and her smile was captivating. She played well with Klena as the cheeky, clever pauper who remembers the Grand Duchess Anastasia waiving to him during a parade when she was eight and he was 10. Their chemistry is strong whether their characters are working together as new pals, sparring over a moral disagreement or falling in love. Klena’s vocals are princely and most powerful when he utilizes vibrato, occasionally waivering ever so slightly in pitch and tone when he puts more of a character voice on when singing. His charming nature and dimpled smile add to his appeal as our leading male.

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Derek Klena (Dmitry) and Christy Altomare (Anya). Credit: Joan Marcus

Caroline O’Connor’s brassy voice, saucy attitude and dry humor as Countess Lily Malevsky-Malevitch, attendant to the Dowager Empress and Vlad’s old flame, brought comedy in her standout role. So did John Bolton as Vlad in his scenes with her. They were a dynamic duo of chemistry and paired well. O’Connor’s snazzy night club number was very lively and memorable.

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At center, John Bolton (Vlad) and Caroline O’Connor (Lily) and the company of Anastasia. Credit: Joan Marcus

Their duet reflecting on their history together was touching, comical and full of youthful fervor.

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Caroline O’Connor and John Bolton. Credit: Joan Marcus

Young Nicole Scimeca was adorable in her doubled roles as little Anastasia and Prince Alexei Romanov. In the talk-back after Tuesday night’s performance, she said she loved having the opportunity to play characters with different gender perspectives, swiveling her hips less to walk as the young prince.

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Nicole Scimeca (Young Anastasia) and Mary Beth Peil (Dowager Empress). Credit: Joan Marcus

Manoel Felciano played a rather anticlimactic villain as Gleb, who like Anya wants to live up to his family, instead channeling history for bad in wanting to finish what his father was supposed to do in executing Anastasia if the rumors of her survival prove true. I expected his character to be more menacing and causing tragedy for our protagonists, but that was surprisingly not so and he has a moral awakening of sorts. However, Felciano’s acting was solid.

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Manoel Feliciano (Gleb) and Christy Altomare (Anya). Credit: Joan Marcus

Many of the actors doubled parts in the ensemble and they gave character to even the smaller parts, like Rayanne Gonzales who got a lot of laughs as Gertrude Stein, and fleshed out the scenes. The cast is only about 20 people, so it’s small, and on a larger Broadway stage I could see the ensemble being larger.

The choreography was beautiful, particularly when our lead characters attend the “Swan Lake” ballet with Alida Michal as Odette, Max Clayton as Prince Siegfried and Dance Captain Johnny Stellard as Von Rothbart. The elegant dance mirrors what Anya is going through as Gleb looms in the shadows of the theater, aiming to shoot her dead.

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Alida Michal (in the air) and the company of “Anastasia” in the “Swan Lake” ballet scene. Credit: Joan Marcus

This version of the story captures history and leaves out the magical elements that are in the Disney film. However, the story is still very magical. In a way, Anya’s memories are like magic as glimpses of her possible flashbacks of her royal origin rush through her head sporadically from seeming memories to dreams and nightmares. They jump from fragments to more complete when she meets the Dowager Empress, which could seem far-fetched, but that is mystery of memory.

Is Anya really Anastasia? The story too simply presents her as such even if it’s unbelievable. Director Darko Tresnjak said that, historically, DNA findings of the Romanov family confirm that “Anna Anderson was not Anastasia.” The ending isn’t really clear about that either way or what becomes of her, which I guess represents the nature of the rumor of her survival as legend. But regardless of whether she is or isn’t, Anya’s sense of self-discovery by the end and growth is almost more important.

“To me, that does not really matter. A fabrication gave birth to a myth, a modern romance,” Tresnjak says in the program.

Anastasia means resurrection, according to Tresnjak, and this play certainly does just that for this romantic story of hope.

The play ends on the symbolic Pont Alexandre III bridge, named after Anastasia’s grandfather. As the background projection transforms into a painting, we see how this production is a bridge between art and history through the magical vehicle of storytelling.

Many media outlets have reported that there are plans for “Anastasia” to go to Broadway in 2016-17, though it’s unclear when that will precisely happen and which theater.

However, Hartford Stage has a history of birthing Broadway shows and this one has promise, so you won’t want to miss it before it closes in our capital city. The production has extended its run time to June 19 due to popular demand.

“Anastasia” is about two and a half hours with an intermission.

For more information on the production and purchasing tickets, visit http://www.hartfordstage.org or call the box office at 860-527-5151.

 

Have the Time of Your Life With ‘Dirty Dancing’ at The Bushnell


Hey, spaghetti arms. Carry a watermelon and enter the clubhouse where dirty dancing is the language of choice.

If you loved the movie, the stage adaptation of “Dirty Dancing” is essentially the movie to a tee, but with the added thrill and energy that only a live performance can give you. The show is running as part of The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts’ Broadway series.

The production plays on movie fans’ fondness for the story of Baby and her family’s vacation to a camp-like resort for the summer where dancing is the main form of entertainment and where she is allured  by the staff’s free and sexy after hours dancing. She meets and tangles with dreamy dance instructor Johnny Castle and he opens up her world when she steps up to fill his dance partner, Penny’s place for a performance when she finds out she’s pregnant and wants to have an abortion. They open up Baby’s world by teaching her their dance routine in a coming of age story as the young virgin falls for Johnny. 

Christopher Tierney (Johnny Castle) is the epitome of Swayze from the dancing and the attitude to the silky hair and the muscles (oh, those abs and biceps!). Rachel Boone (Frances “Baby” Houseman) looks like a skinnier Jennifer Grey with that iconic curly brown hair and all. She channels more comedy into the character than you get from the movie, accentuating the awkward moments for humor.

Tierney danced with swagger and grace and Boone was an elegant dancer when her character learns the moves. You almost have to be a good dancer to play a character fumbling through the steps because you have enough of an understanding of how it should be that you can really milk acting the mistakes and sell it as comedy.

The unique thing about “Dirty Dancing” that’s different than your typical musical is that the dancing is the focal point, not the singing. Very few of the actors actually sing in the show, except the ones playing performers within the story and did so very beautifully. There aren’t really any original songs written for the stage version, as you mostly hear the classics from the movie. But the show gets away with it because the movie fans want to hear those songs, so when they are tracks  with no one singing on stage the audience is enjoying the music, remembering those moments from the film, and enjoying the dancing and acting. You can tell because the loudest cheer erupted when two of the actors touchingly sang “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” for Baby and Johnny’s iconic dance at the end. It was a beautifully poignant recreation of that choreography, as was most of the choreography in the show for the dance lesson scenes involving our two leads.

The playbill noted that this production was able to get rights to songs from the movie that the original stage adaptation was not able to do they inserted the songs where they were intended to appear.

Tierney and Jenny Winton (Penny Johnson) paired well as a dancing team and had strong chemistry, which is fitting because their characters are often mistaken as dating in the show when they’re not. Winton moved effortlessly and gracefully. The dirty dancing seen in the staff clubhouse is very smooth and fluid and serves as a visual and physical representation of a conversation between two people in addition to the sex appeal.

Alex Scolari paints a caricature of Baby’s sister, Lisa, really using the role as a vehicle for comedy, particularly in her hula song for the talent show. She is a master of the musical, not only singing powerfully, but knowing where to hit the comical notes in her style to make it play funny and ridiculous honoring that scene from the movie. Alex is able to add sisterly antics to her character from snooty tattle tale to concern and compassion. In a way she is more innocent than Baby, who is sheltered toward the beginning as the protected Daddy’s girl. And because of that Baby looks out for her, particularly when she falls in with the wrong guy who is deceptively charming, Robbie Gould, played by Evan Alexander Smith.

Mark Elliot Wilson plays Dr. Jake Houseman as goofy yet stern and overprotective when it comes to his morals and his daughters, particularly Baby. Dr. Houseman is literally man of the house, a true family man. So it’s not surprising he jumps to conclusions when he sees someone he thinks could be detrimental to his family.

One area where the play is different than the movie is in the character of Baby’s mother, Marjorie, played by Margot White. She is much stronger than in the movie in how she stands up for Baby and comes to her defense with compassion. It makes her much more essential than in the film. I loved the moments when Baby, in teenage angst, yells at her “you don’t understand,” expecting a scolding. But she literally doesn’t understand because she doesn’t know what happened to be able to, so we empathize with her as she reacts with innocent and comical oblivion.

The Civil Rights movement is woven into the stage version more, particularly in a musically powerful reimagining of “We Shall Overcome.” It also comes into play in terms of Baby’s motivations to help others and make a difference in the world and maybe join the Peace Corps.

Aside from the magnificent dancing in the production, I found the sets, lighting and use of video projection to be stunning. At one point it felt like the audience was under the sea with the sparkling glow of pink twinkle lights. The production also made use of scrims to show silhouettes and shadows of dancers in the background as visual imagery underlying the scene before it. 

The projections were also utilized in the dirty dancing scenes to enhance the mood of a partying crowd after hours. Background scenery was also projected, such as when Johnny is teaching Baby “the lift” in the water and in the grassy field. The thing that was cool about that was how the actors pretended they were in that environment. When they acted out Baby’s several “falls” into the water, the composition of the lighting on those parts of the screen became thicker to hide them and make it appear like they were under water. When Baby and Johnny emerged, they flicked their hair like they were coming out of the water soaking wet. It played humorously. 

Sound effects were also crucial in moments where the actors pantomime the use of set pieces that aren’t there like Johnny driving his car or the slamming of the car doors. There was a lot of laughter in the audience at those moments as people seemed to find it amusing.

The physical set pieces were maneuvered in and out very smoothly, such as the door representing the entrance to the place where Baby is staying.

Jon Driscoll was the video and projection designer, Bobby Aitken was the sound designer, Stephen Brimson Lewis designed the set and Tim Mitchell was the lighting designer.

James Powell directed the show, Michele Lynch choreographed and Alan J. Plado was the music director.

The show requires a talented ensemble that all show character and dancing prowess to propel the story.

I certainly had the time of my life. To have yours, visit http://www.bushnell.org for ticket information. The show runs through May 29.

‘Into the Woods,’ You’ll Like This Show, You Have to Go, I Told You So

Into Broadbrook we like to go, twisted fairy tales in the woods, you’ll like this show.
Things are different in the woods for fairy tale characters from princesses like a flighty and uncertain Cinderella (Chelsea Kelle) and Rapunzel (KaitlynVandeloecht) and princes (Gavin Mackie as Prince Charming and Tim Reilly as Rapunzel’s prince) to Little Red Riding Hood (Kellie Comer) and the Jack who enters the world of the giants by planting and climbing a beanstalk (Randy Davidson), as well as an eccentric witch (Lindsay Botticello) and an average baker (Michael Graham Morales) and his wife (Nikki Wadleigh). The characters undergo epiphanies, experience unlikely events, encounter and overcome obstacles and eventually find a clearing of resolution in their lives, some for the good and some for their demise.Endings are not necessarily happy in The Opera House Player’s production of “Into the Woods” and outcomes are certainly unexpected. 

A witch casts a spell on a baker whose father stole beans from her garden so that his family tree will always be a barren one. She tells the baker and his wife that they can break the curse if they find hair as yellow as corn, a cape as red as blood, a shoe as shiny as gold and a cow as white as milk within a certain time frame. 

The woods are often on the fringe of our lives and can be dark and mysterious. It’s the unfamiliar and they are almost never the destination. You pass through them and navigate through trees and could get lost or encounter a wolf as Little Red does in Shaun O’Keefe. They are confusing and beautiful as is life, even for fairy tale creatures. The woods are a place of transition and are the crux of this play’s setting.

As it can take you a long time to trudge through the woods, this play’s one downfall is it’s three-hour length, much like most Stephen Sondheim masterpieces. Act I could almost be its own play in and of itself with a happy ending. But Sondheim and book writer James Lapine (also the original Broadway director of the show) take it further and create a second bout of turmoil for the characters to work through leading to death for some and sad but tranquil endings for others.

Because the show is so long and Sondheim jams a lot of words into his lyrics that can sometimes overwhelm you, character is really important. And that is where this show succeeded. 

Particularly Wadleigh as the baker’s wife, who told stories with her mere expressions to convey her emotions from frustrations and doubts about her husbands to conflicted passion after a woodland romp with Cinderella’s Prince (Mackie).

She paired well with Morales, whose sarcastic attitude made them a strong comic duo. There was a moment toward the end when the baker is distraught and it actually looks like Morales produces tears, which is very hard to do. 

Botticello also got a lot of laughs as the witch despite being the villain. 

Comer was sassy as Little Red. O’Keefe was haunting and playful as the wild singing the creepy song “Hello, Little Girl” harken info back to the dark French Little Red Riding tales teaching children to be wary of strangers. Sherrie Schallack was fierce as Granny.

Kelle was another standout as her character’s blunt observations played comically. She also sung very powerful soprano vocals. Aileen Merino Terzi and Jen Augeri were beautiful yet shrill as the stepsisters and teamed up well with a strong, conniving stepmother in Anna Giza. 

Emily Smith played Cinderella’s mother in a stunning shiny dress with ink a beautiful tree hollow set piece (the set was the most intricate and beautiful I’ve seen at the Broad Brook Opera House). She also did the voice of the seemingly omnipotent giantess.

Randy Davidson was whimsical and humorous as Jack in his obsession with Milky White (a girl), his friend the cow who he keeps referring to as a he. That cow as white as milk is another star of the show! He sang “Giants in the Sky” beautifully. 

Amy Rucci played the role of Jack’s mom seriously when I’ve seen it play well comically in other versions, but was ever so motherly and concerned.

Tim Reilly’s booming operatic tenor voice was sheer royalty as Rapunzel’s Prince and and was strong in his duet with the arrogant Prince Charming (Mackie), “Agony,” arguably one of the most memorable songs on the show besides the lengthy but catchy overlapping prologue and Kelle’s “On the Steps of the Palace” as Cinderella.

Gene Choquette was mysterious and delirious as the Mysterious Man who randomly appears at times to help the baker and respectable doubling as our reliable narrator. There’s a scene where he interacts with the characters breaking the wall between the all-knowing narrative and the subjects of the story, ultimately being destroyed causing the stories to spiral out of control. 

Many of the actors went for character over musicality in their songs, which sometimes was effective. The most beautiful melodies came from the stunning Vandeloecht as Rapunzel from her tower.

Thomas Schutz plays the Steward. 

Opening night there were some problems with the microphones for some of he actors like Little Red and some were harder to hear than others. There was also a moment when Cinderella’s birds got caught while being lifted over the wall. 

Overall set transitions went smoothly. The costumes by Moonyean Field were beautiful. 

Sharon FitzHenry is the artistic director, Bill Martin music directs. This is one of the few musicals without dancing so there was no choreographer. 

“Into the Woods” runs again tonight at 8 and Sunday at 2 as well as next weekend. Find more information about tickets on the opera house’s website or by calling the box office at 860-292-6068.