Board ‘Orient Express’ at Hartford Stage for Full-Steam Ride – A Regal, Riveting Riot

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The cast of “Murder on the Orient Express.” Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson

All aboard the Orient Express at the Hartford Stage, where you’ll meet passengers of varying backgrounds from all different countries on a high-speed ride of luxury, intrigue, delight…and murder.

Agatha Christie, the acclaimed mystery novelist who authored “Murder on the Orient Express,” traveled on the famous Orient Express, the Titanic of the tracks, in the late 1920s after her mother died and she divorced her husband, who was having an affair, an excerpt in the program by Charlotte Weber of McCarter Theatre Center recounts. Christie’s fascination with trains manifests as a recurring theme in her books and she thought the containment of characters on a train would make the perfect close-range setting for a murder mystery. And so this Hercule Poirot light-hearted, yet impassioned whodunit was born.

The first thing that strikes you about this production is its set – the work of Tony Award-winning scenic designer Beowulf Boritt. You would expect boarding a luxury train to put you in awe as you take in its decadence and fine aesthetics with your eyes. That is exactly what it’s like for the audience, the stowaway passengers aboard this train if you will, when the Orient Express is revealed to us on stage. Fashioned on a track, we slide from compartment to compartment and car to car thanks to smoothly maneuvered set transitions that give you a sense of not only the motion of the train, but also the movement and suspense of the story. Each room we see on the train is ornately decorated. The set even has depth to it, from the snow to a forest of trees layered behind and around the train. The curtains fly open and swing shut to zoom in on individual happenings and also give a more distanced vantage point of an entire train or car.

The period costumes by William Ivey Long and wigs by Paul Huntley are the epitome of glam.

Train travel naturally exposes you to a cast of quirky characters so it’s no surprise that “Orient Express” is no different. You have the astute, heavily mustached famous Belgian – not French – Det. Hercule Poirot (David Pittu) who is a last-minute addition on the supposedly booked train.

Then there’s the boisterous Scotsman Colonel Arbuthnot (Ian Bedford) apparently involved in a discreet love affair with a lovely English governess named Mary Debenham (Susannah Hoffman). And you can’t miss Helen Hubbard (Julie Halston), an American with a flair for the dramatics. Plus you’ve got royalty – the comically foreboding Princess Dragomiroff (Veanne Cox), accompanied by skittish woman of god Greta Ohlsson (Samantha Steinmetz), and the alluring, keen Countess Andrenyi (Leigh Ann Larkin) who has a medical background.

Finally, you have the aggressive, hotheaded Mr. Ratchett (also played by Ian Bedford) who is stabbed to death on the train and has mafia ties to the abduction and suspected murder of a little girl named Daisy Armstrong (Jordyn Elizabeth Schmidt, of “A Christmas Carol – A Ghost Story of Christmas” at Hartford Stage.)

Plus there’s dutiful and poised conductor Michel and show-stopping comically expressive company master Monsieur Bouc (Evan Zes), a personal friend to Poirot.

So whodunit?

You’ll have to come to Hartford Stage to find out.

But our loveable narrator Poirot does get to the bottom of it and he is faced with a heart-wrenching decision to heed to the law or protect justice served in another form. His decision keeps him up at night to the point that he can’t close his eyes until daylight. Would you do the same thing in his position?

Your ride on the Orient Express will be very fast-paced and riveting with laughs that punctuate the bumpy, jolting thrills. The plot advances quickly, speeding ahead full throttle, never lulling despite the occasional snow drift and single intermission.

Ken Ludwig – a Tony and Olivier Award-winning playwright who has authored acclaimed plays like “Moon Over Buffalo” – wrote his stage adaptation of the notorious Christie classic just last year after writing it at the bequest of the author’s estate. Simultaneously and separately, Twentieth Century Fox released a remake of “Murder on the Orient Express” in 2017.

“Murder on the Orient Express,” directed by Emily Mann and delivered by esteemed McCarter Theatre, boards at Hartford Stage through March 25. Get your tickets to enjoy the journey at https://www.hartfordstage.org.

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‘The Bodyguard’ Opens at The Bushnell With a Bang

The Bodyguard

Deborah Cox as Rachel Marron and Company in The Bodyguard. Photo by © Joan Marcus

If you wish you had the chance to see Whitney in concert, ‘The Bodyguard’ at Hartford’s The Bushnell is the next best thing.

The show opened with a bang. Conversations abruptly halted Tuesday night as the story immediately sucked the audience in with a sudden startling, glass-shattering gunshot.

That’s just one way “The Bodyguard” was unique. It was a comical, talent-filled musical treading on suspense thriller. And thrill it did. From show-stopping pop numbers to a riveting whodunit plot of a former secret service agent hired to protect a singer targeted with death threats, ‘The Bodyguard’ captivated me the entire time.

Every time Deborah Cox performed as sassy pop star Rachel Marron, the role played by Whitney Houston in the movie by the same name, it felt like we were at a Beyoncé concert. The flashing lights were almost too blinding, but the pyrotechnics, invigorating choreography, spinning and elevating platforms, sparkling costumes, and glitter cannons infused the flashy production with stunning intrigue.

While Cox was pitchy at times in her higher register, it was clear why she was cast in the role. Her powerhouse belting replicated the sound of Whitney extraordinarily. Her rendition of “I Will Always Love You” – which started off-stage sounding similar to the famous version of the Dolly Parton song Whitney recorded for the movie – received a standing ovation before she finished or the curtain call started. Her encore of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” got the audience up and dancing.

Jasmin Richardson was the vocal standout as Rachel’s sister Nicki. She had impressive command over her voice when she sang softly and had youthful vigor in her silky sound that added unique character. With the emotion she poured into her song in the nightclub, you can see why her character might be jealous of her sister’s stardom when she is also very talented.

Judson Mills didn’t have the authenticity and sincerity Kevin Costner did in the role of bodyguard Frank Farmer, but his serious demeanor and dry humor played very well off of Cox and clashing characters like the flamboyant, driven music producer Sy (Jonathan Hadley).

Kevelin B. Jones III was like a little Michael Jackson as a spirited and talented singer and dancer, playing Rachel’s son Fletcher. He was adorably mature as the only child character.

The ensemble members were every bit as present as the leads in making the show dynamic. Many had featured moments that popped from backup dancers doing flips and flips to three inebriated college girls delivering an impassioned and hysterically accurate depiction of karaoke night. It takes a lot to sing badly on purpose while hitting the comedic timing. That was something Mills excelled at in his karaoke take on “I Will Always Love You,” the song about somebody leaving somebody.

Lyrics projected over the set created the true ambience of a karaoke bar. It was one of many elements of projection and video technology that really modernized the stage version of this story. Video flashbacks during “I Will Always Love You” and realistic 3D animated graphics of “the stalker” (Jorge Paniagua) composing death threats and lurking in Rachel’s footsteps heightened the intensity of the onstage action.

I couldn’t help but tense up when he appeared in the audience during the Oscars scene, panning the crowd with the prop gun he would use for an attempted assassination. That breakage of the fourth wall awakened fears about real-life tragedies with shooters at entertainment events.

The audience was so into the storyline that they booed Paniagua in the curtain call. But he redeemed himself in the encore number singing to Cox’s Rachel to much applause. It was a moment of understanding and support between the audience and the actor and showed he could have a sense of humor.

As always “I Will Always Love You,” a song about love that endures even when a romantic chapter, drew a lot of emotions and tears from this reviewer.

Because it’s always sad when somebody leaves somebody. But it’s beautiful when the love remains through the pain in the memories of having danced with somebody at all.

“The Bodyguard” runs through Sunday, Feb. 25 at The Bushnell at 166 Capitol Ave. in Hartford. More information on purchasing tickets is available at www.bushnell.org.

‘Something Rotten!’ Shells Out ‘Egg-cellent Yolks’ Cracking Up Crowds in Smash Omelette of Shakespearean and Musical Farce

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Adam Pascal and the cast of the “Something Rotten!” National Tour. Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel

To “Omelette” or not to “Omelette”? That is the question. From top to Bottom, there is comically something not so rotten about the scramble of musical and Shakespearean satire being served up at The Bushnell in Hartford.

‘Something Rotten,’ the brainchild of brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick that closed last year on Broadway, is a musical that is an ode to musicals, Shakespeare, and artistic inspiration. While its farcical nature pokes fun at both Broadway musicals like itself and William Shakespeare, it does so in an endearing way cherishing such theatrical works. The show cracks jokes that will resonate most with lovers of both genres, as you hear references to Shakespearean literature and a medley of iconic musicals.

The story is set in Renaissance England when Shakespeare is like a pop star. Adam Pascal is dressed in bedazzling, shiny jackets and accentuated spiky collars, embodying a captivating charismatic, self entitled celebrity who puts on a confident shell hiding how hard he really feels it is to be “the bard.” His audiences are staged as though they are fans rocking out at a concert. The production makes the comparison well. Even the orchestral score and songs are seemingly infused with themes from hits like “Kiss” by Prince, “We Are The Champions” by Queen, and “Man! I Feel Like A Woman” by Shania Twain.

As Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” plays at The Globe, the Bottom brothers – nerdy Nick (Rob McClure) and flamboyant poet Nigel (Josh Grisetti) – grapple for a new idea for a hit to replace their “Richard II” production to avoid further financial ruin after learning Shakespeare is putting on a play about the same subject. While Nigel is fanatic about Shakespeare, sneaking off to his private parties and performances with Puritan Juliet, Portia (Autumn Hurlbert), Nick Bottom – clearly a reference to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” along with the names of his acting troupe members – hates him. His competitive frustration drives him to use the last of his savings on getting a soothsayer to tell him what Shakespeare’s biggest hit will be so he can steal the idea and what type of show will be popular.

Blake Hammond’s eccentric Thomas Nostradamus spits out foggy references to “Hamlet,” mistakenly reading the name of the future smash as “Omelette,” and occasionally blurting out plot descriptions for musicals like “Cats,” “Les Miserables,” “The Sound of Music,” and “The Music Man.” That leads Nick to become dead set on making a musical entitled “Omelette,” with songs referencing breakfast varietals like a danish and big numbers stringing together elements from major musicals like “The King and I,” “Chicago,” and “The Phantom of the Opera.” It drives a wedge between him and Nigel, who yearns to write something that captures his soul, as Shakespeare, who historically is suspected of plagiarism, tries to steal their idea.

Despite the time period, the play is very relevant to modern audiences. Moments like Bea (Maggie Lakis) proclaiming women can find jobs equal to men because “it’s the 1690s” before dressing like a male to get work and the stark contrast between Brother Jeremiah’s (Scott Cote) flamboyance and austere, homophobic, and sin-fighting personas satirize struggles that still exist today in establishing identity amidst inequality. Juxtaposing the Renaissance with today made punchlines stronger as audience members acknowledge areas we still need work on societaly. The blend of older and newer musical styles and dance also brought the Renaissance into 2018.

Aside from the recognizable musical, Shakespeare, and historical references that drove that jokes, the physical comedy and expressions of actors from leads to ensemble members like the jolly minstrel were very effective in helping deliver humor. Grisetti particularly excelled at this in this puppy dog circle to bed, twitchy movements, and acting choices of innuendo like pulling his poems out of his fly. He and Hurlbert (Portia) do a great bit reacting to his poetry as though they are having sex, a comical metaphor for the connection you can have to art. Hammond also used physicality well making his Nostradamus burst with impassioned quirkiness.

The performers accentuated character over vocal musicality, leading to an intentionally nasally voice for McClure that wasn’t necessarily harmonious. But Lakis belted beautifully while still putting her stamp on how her character sounds.

Who knew that “Omelette The Musical” could actually be so enjoyable? When a play within a play is the butt of the joke, it will do that for you.

“Something Rotten!” runs through Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 4, at The Bushnell at 166 Capital Ave. More information on the production and purchasing tickets is available at www.bushnell.org.

Hartford Stage’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ Gets a New Scrooge

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Michael Preston as Scrooge in Hartford Stage’s “A Christmas Carol – A Ghost Story of Christmas.”                                                                                                                          Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson

“A Christmas Carol” is nothing without Ebenezer Scrooge and Hartford Stage’s version just isn’t the same without Bill Raymond.

This year, the 20th anniversary of the beloved Connecticut holiday production, brings a new Scrooge in Michael Preston, who longtime patrons of this show will recognize as former regular Mr. Marvel, the steam-fueled clock inventor.

He has tough shoes to fill taking over for Raymond, who reprised the role for 17 seasons and retired last year. Raymond brought comic nuances in physicality, movement, expression and character choices that are greatly missed.

But he brings his own take on Scrooge that is different, as it should be. He is more gruff and stern, coming off as a senile curmudgeon losing his mind with age. The further along the story and spirit journeys take him, the lighter his humor and demeanor becomes and the more comedy and childhood heart Preston introduces.

Standing alone he does a fine job, but he unfortunately has to compete with our memory of Raymond’s Scrooge and does not measure up to him. But to be fair, no one can. That is the beauty of theater as actors rotate through roles. Each person puts his or her own stamp on a character to put a fresh spin on the story. Preston does have one thing on Raymond though drawing audience awe and delight– his juggling and balancing acts. I do however miss him as Mr. Marvel because he is stronger with comedy and a more upbeat, impassioned character. That element he brought to Scrooge later in the play had the most spark – like when he hides and sneaks up on Mrs. Dilber (Noble Shropshire).

“Playing Scrooge is really a dream come true for me,” Preston said in a press release. “I get to pay homage to Bill but also make the role mine. I’m completely honored and humbled. ‘A Christmas Carol’ is at the very generous heart of the Hartford community. With the 20th anniversary of ‘A Christmas Carol, Michael Wilson’s adaptation is even more important in this particular world that we’re in – the idea that change is possible and that the spirit of humanity resides in even the most troubled being.”

 

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                                                                                                                       Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson

Since Preston is Scrooge, you can expect a new Mr. Marvel. While Preston was iconic in the role, John-Andrew Morrison was delightful in his own right, pouring vivacious mirth into the watchworks vendor.

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Michael Preston as Scrooge and John Andrew-Morrison as Mr. Marvel.                                                                                                                                                                        Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson

 

Rebecka Jones replaces the elegant Johanna Morrison as the Spirit of Christmas Past, carrying on the legacy of the sparkling role and keeping the sleigh on the same caliber path.

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Rebecka Jones as the Spirit of Christmas Past and the children of “A Christmas Carol.”                                                                                                                                            Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson

Kenneth De Abrew is an undeniably dynamic addition to the cast as the affable lunch-loving First Solicitor, taunting Undertaker and jovial Mr. Fezziwig.

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Kenneth De Abrew as Mr. Fezziwig,Shauna Miles as Mrs. Fezziwig and the cast of A Christmas Carol.                                                                                                            Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson

Every production brings new children to the cast, each adorable and professional from the carolers, boy who delivers the prize turkey as big as him to Scrooge, and Bert/Ghost of Christmas Present’s children to the Cratchit kids and Tiny Tim.

While the casting changes bring a new chapter to “A Christmas Carol,” the veteran actors continue to excel, making you want to come back.

Aside from Raymond, Shropshire has always been the backbone of the Hartford Stage tradition as Jacob Marley and Mrs. Dilber. There’s something familiar and endearing about his performances as both characters. He shows true versatility as an actor to play the sweet yet candid housekeeper Dilber and the frightening spirit of Marley. And that is saying something, given he plays both male and female roles!

Alan Rust returns as the adored, jolly Spirit of Christmas Present and cider seller Bert. Robert Hannon Davis returns as Scrooge’s loveable assistant, Bob Cratchit.

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Alan Rust as the Spirit of Christmas Present.                                      Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson

They are just two of the doubled roles, playing parallel characters that straddle Scrooge’s Victorian England reality and the spirit world or past.

Terrell Donnell Sledge plays both Fred and Scrooge at 30, drawing connections between the two as Scrooge reflects on his life. You see a stark contrast between joyful, kind-hearted Fred and Sledge and Preston’s portrayals of Scrooge in his dark days from 30 to present. Fred is everything Scrooge could be if he weren’t so consumed by wealth and greed.

He is well paired with Vanessa Butler, as both Fred’s wife and Scrooge’s lost young love Belle. She dazzles and glows at both characters, having played Fred’s sister-in-law previously. It was the first time I really understood the importance of having the same actor play both characters – Scrooge is uncomfortable with Fred being married because it reminds him of the pain of losing Belle. It’s another way we see the contrast between Scrooge at 30 and now and Fred. Fred’s wife also parallels with his late sister Fran, singing the same Barbara Allen song she does.

The musical element of this rendition of “A Christmas Carol” is what makes it unique from the dancing spirits to the harmonious partygoers. The artistry of the singing and dancing serves scenic and historical purpose also – enriching us in the culture of Dickensian Victorian England. You even experience it in the writing with the quips at Charles Dickens’s language and expressions in the original stories from calling “dead as a doornail” disrespectful to the repetition of “Marley died seven years ago this very night” and Scrooge’s “Bah Humbug!” The games Fred and his guests play at his Christmas party like “I Love My Love with an A” and “Yes and No” draw us further into Victorian entertainment.

All of these arts and cultural details allow the ensemble to shine. Even minor characters have their spotlight moments like the Sarah Killough as Fred’s bookish, flirtatious, and giddy sister-in-law, also a ghostly apparition and the dance captain, and Jake Blackslee debuting with Hartford Stage as socially awkward bachelor Mr. Topper.

The flying and dancing spirits, Marley, and cycling Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come emerging from mist and a red, hellish glow from a trap door are always the staple of “A Christmas Carol,” bringing a Halloween spookiness and darkness to this otherwise cheerful ghost story.

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                                        Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson

The set and visual effects from the golden sparkles and glitter that fall from the sky as the spirits of Christmas Present and Past enter to the lighting are as stunning as always.

Be prepared to experience your first snow of the season at the end. This reviewer must have been sitting right under the drop point, leaving the theater with paper snow coating my hair in clothes. But it was welcomed fun, making me feel part of the story. Because the only way stories like “A Christmas Carol” are passed on from generation to generation is having someone to listen to them and retell them.

And “A Christmas Carol – A Ghost Story of Christmas” is a story I want to keep hearing and seeing Hartford Stage tell every holiday season.

The holiday favorite runs through Dec. 30 and tickets start at $25. More information on the production and ticket sales is available at www.hartfordstage.org/christmas-carol.

 

 

 

 

‘Christmas on the Rocks’: Every Time a Holiday Character Takes a Shot We Hear Christmas Stories With Twisted Plots

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The bartender (Tom Bloom) listens to Hermey (Matt Wilkas). Photo Credit: TheaterWorks

A bar once new to Hartford has become a staple to visit come Christmas time. You know the name of every character who comes in, though the bar’s name escapes you. It’s the kind of bar where you spill your holiday sob stories to an old-time bartender over a “root canal” mixer or wild turkey shot. It is a Christmas cocktail with a kick – and that is “Christmas on the Rocks,” a holiday tradition of twisted Christmas stories at TheaterWorks.

The bar has the same charming, realistic look every year, complete with a leg lamp, Christmas decorations, and a seemingly working tap. Mostly the same characters filter in and out telling stories you’ve heard before – Ralphie from “A Christmas Story,” Hermey the elf dentist from “Rudolph,” Karen from “Frosty the Snowman,” Tiny Tim from “A Christmas Carol,” Clara from “The Nutcracker,” and Charlie Brown. So what keeps people coming back? It might be the nostalgia of watching holiday classics at home in your pink fluffy bunny pajamas. But it’s also because every year, the menu has a little bit of a makeover.

While the show mostly features the same grown-up Christmas characters bemoaning their real-world gripes annually, this year’s production introduces a few new personalities to the line-up.

Zuzu (Jenn Harris) from “It’s a Wonderful Life” replaces the “Miracle on 34th Street” vignette. While the concept of an angsty, paranoid adult Zuzu afraid of bells and wing-seeking angels had promise, the sketch didn’t have the same level of edge, humor and intrigue as the other stories. It was more tragic than amusing and didn’t add much to the string of Christmas tales. However it built as it went along and came to an endearing, crashing close with an Amazon box full of laughs.

The show also introduces a new bartender – Tom Bloom, who has a resume that includes Broadway and television. He is like the wise, elderly neighbor next door who will put you in your place when crossed but who will always be there to offer sound advice and lend an ear. He has to face a lot of characters with a dash of crazy and serious issues, but he listens unconditionally nonetheless and gives them a shot of genuine kindness and perspective to guide them back on track. Most of them.

In the later vignettes, he is more judgmental and harsh with the characters. He embodies the spirits who visit Scrooge to Tiny Tim, teaching him a lesson. He cracks through the manic, jealous, age-conscious nut that is Clara, sinking his teeth into her cruelty but also dishing her sympathy.

Whereas the former bartender was like an endearing Father Christmas, Bloom was more like us – the audience. He is the receiver of stories and has his own preconceived notions of the characters that are challenged. Sometimes we see his judgement and other times his support, just as someone hearing a story or watching a movie is a listener. You have to take the narrator’s words for truth no matter how far-fetched and absurd it sounds, you’re sucked into the world of the story and you react stronger to some parts more than others. You pass judgements. In that regard, a bar is a perfect venue and metaphor for storytelling because the bartender naturally falls into the role of the captive listener. They are all-knowing in a sense just like the reader as you get a third party window into the world of the storyteller.

The beautiful thing about “Christmas on the Rocks” is the structure of individual one-act plays anchored by the bar setting to a flowing, connected narrative. It makes sense because the people that come into a bar all lead separate lives with different stories and the bar brings strangers from different walks of life together.

The one narrative that leaves our bartender mostly silent is in “My Name Is KAREN!” when he is gagged with a fluffy Santa and bound with Christmas lights as Karen from ” Frosty the Snowman”broadcasts her vlog live and answers her fans’ Tweets. The sketch written by the two other actors in the production, Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas, is one of the newest and most memorable vignettes, largely because it is the most current and utilizes video technology projecting what Karen is recording live-time on large screens. The utilization of such new technology in a quiet old bar in a production featuring the modern time tribulations of characters from old yet timeless Christmas stories represents the clash and conflict the characters face as they reflect on the past and deal with current problems. The segment also represents the need to be heard and the focus on self that the age of social media and YouTube has enabled. That perhaps is why the bartender is held hostage – because of Karen’s desire for a captive audience.

The actors also added in lines to older vignettes to keep it current, including a Donald Trump crack from Tiny Tim.

“Christmas on the Rocks” regulars also come back from year to year to see Harris and Wilkas. The production really tests their versatility as actors as they play multiple characters with gripes. The most vibrant scenes involve both actors’ knack for physical comedy. Wilkas excels as a flamboyant Hermey the elf, seemingly  channeling Jack from “Will & Grace” and Dana Carvey in his voice and expressions as he hops on the bar and caresses the bartender while speaking innuendos. Harris’ Russian accent, nut-cracking (peanuts were harmed in the making of this production), and splits lift the audience into laughter. Her close-ups as the fame-obsessed Karen on live camera drive the punchlines of her delivery.

Wilkas has the more depressed characters, while half of the ones Harris plays are more angry. However, the opening sketch with Ralphie, now a sexually frustrated and divorced “plushy” who needs fluffy things nearby to be intimate, is strong because of the writing and “A Christmas Story” references. His Charlie Brown scene at the end is the perfect way to close, presenting one of the only happy endings in the vignettes as he finally gets a moment of joy kicking the football and dancing with his childhood crush.

If you want to drink something simple and sweet go to your local bar. But if you want something with a flavor and edge to spark a good laugh, go to “Christmas on the Rocks.”

The show runs through Dec. 23, so you have plenty of time to see it this holiday season. Ticket information is available at www.theaterworkshartford.org/event/christmas-on-the-rocks-3/.

Hear The People Sing in ‘Les Misérables’ At The Bushnell

Les Misérables by Cameron Mackintosh, opening night November 28

                                                                                      “One Day More.”         Photo Credit: Deen Van Meer

It takes tremendous finesse and talent for a show about the bottom barrel of misery and tragedy to bring you joy and hope. And that is exactly what the entire cast and directing team of touring ‘Les Misérables’ accomplished on opening night at The Bushnell in Hartford on Tuesday night.

From the intricately detailed set to the physicality and vocal stamina of the performers, ‘Les Mis’ was awe-striking and captivating at every turn in telling a love story amid the tale of the fight for justice and mere survival during a time of revolution and socio-economic struggles in early-1800s France.

The artistic design team took a very cinematic approach to this production, utilizing projection, video, and motion graphic elements to enhance the look, projecting the title and author Victor Hugo’s name on the backdrop screen at the beginning like the opening credits to a movie. The roaring crescendo of a dynamic orchestra and powerful chorus drew us in as we saw prisoners rowing a boat through a scrim that projected video images of splashing water adding an element of realism.

The technology of the projections also served to show movement and travel as Jean Valjean (Nick Cartell) carries an injured Marius (Joshua Grosso) through the bowels of Paris in the sewer tunnels.

The projections also play a vital role in Javert’s (Josh Davis) epic jump and fall from a bridge. Usually during this iconic suicide scene, it usually seems like a cop out when the bridge isn’t high and the actor doesn’t actually jump. It loses the magnitude and impact. I even saw an actor simply step off into the wing in a high school production, not making it clear Javert died, perhaps to escape the subject of suicide. So when I saw Davis on a bridge at floor level, I was ready to be disappointed and see him simply crouch or step behind the bridge only to melt into darkness and vanish thanks to lighting-created illusion.

 

But the staging of this scene turned out to be captivating. The team utilized a technique I’ve seen in the movie, “The Omen,” manipulating perspective of horizontal movement to look like a vertical fall. Davis, standing on the bridge railing, flailed his arms as the set piece moved backward into darkness to take him further away as we saw video scenery behind him emulating the moving abyss he was falling into. That made it look like a realistic fall and compensated for not positioning the bridge at a high location.

The physical set was gorgeous, with several pieces smoothly maneuvered on and off stage for scene changes. In each scene, the stage transformed into believable villages or the city of Paris. The most striking sets were probably the ornate gate outside the hideaway, quiet home of Jean Valjean and Cosette (Jillian Butler) and the furniture-stacked, tall barricades protecting the French revolutionaries.

The battle scene at the barricades was so realistic it was a little frightening. With all the flashes and gunshot sound effects, it was slightly anxiety-inducing given the recent shooting massacre in Las Vegas.

But it wasn’t just the set that was so important in telling a story of this magnitude. The leads and the ensemble carried the storyline well on their own with their sound, energy, acting, and movements.

Cartell (Valjean) is a vocal powerhouse whose voice matches his brute physicality in his opening “Soliloquy.” He shows great control over his voice, demonstrating strength even when his sings softer and quiet prayer song “Bring Him Home” at the barricades. Davis matches him with a booming voice. Melissa Mitchell gives us an emotionally sweet soprano melody in “I Dreamed A Dream.” Even though she was slightly off-pitch at times, it didn’t detract from the number. Butler was an absolute songbird as “Cosette” hitting the high note in “A Heart Full of Love” without flinching. Joshua Grosso (Marius) and Phoenix Best (Eponine) blended nicely with her.

Grosso’s Marius was playfully and adorably dorky in his first attempt to win Cosette’s love. While he paired nicely with Mitchell, I was actually more drawn to his chemistry with Best. Their kiss right before Eponine dies was a nice touch that isn’t part of most productions I’ve seen given that she suffers from her unrequited love for Marius the whole show. It was a beautiful tribute to their friendship and how he cares for her immensely even if it’s platonic. Her emotional “On My Own” brought tears to my eyes and I related with her spunky yet sensitive character the most.

Even though I despised her parents, the Thernardiers, they were amusing villains that won the audience over despite their transgressions. J Anthony Crane was able to be both sinister and an affable fool as Thernardier and he was well-paired with Allison Guinn (Madame Thernardier) as his loathing, yet adoring, wife. Guinn had such grit to her operatic voice that personified her character. The dynamic comic duo got a lot of laughs because of their physical comedy, particularly Guinn when Madame Thernardier tries to seduce an uninterested Jean Valjean by perking up her – body. They brought down the house in “Master of the House.” Their re-entry in the wedding sequence drew even more laughter as platters fell out of her robust gown.

The children in this production are just as phenomenal as the adults. Zoe Glick and Sophie Knapp trade off playing young Eponine and Cosette in this run and are adorable. Jordan Cole and Julian Emile Lerner alternate as Gavroche. The Gavroche we got on Tuesday night was precious, fierce, and sassy, even flipping the bird at Javert. He really showed what little people can do. He brings honesty and innocence to the narrative, facing the same circumstances the adults do with bravery.

Intertwining separate storylines create a larger story about humanity, the misery people endure, and how they fight through it for a greater cause. Hugo’s story also incorporates large character arches, transformation, and role-reversing circumstances.

Javert, an officer of the law who is very by the books, releases Jean Valjean out of prison, branded with a number for stealing a loaf of bread to save his sister’s child and a condemning paper identifying him by his crime. So he finds himself in another prison of judgement that prevents him from turning his life around as people define him as bad and a criminal. He gets into fights defending his character and is pretty beat up in the process. Ironically there is no punishment for the people who are cruel and violent toward him and regard themselves as better than him. They, like Javert, have no compassion for his circumstances as a nice man trying to save a child’s life. The law is the law.

When all hope seems lost, the Bishop of Digne (Robert Ariza/Nicholas Edwards) shows him kindness and takes him in, but he steals from him. When a crowd and police try to make him answer for another crime, potentially sending him back to prison, the bishop vouches for him and gives him the church’s silver to make himself an honest man. He becomes a wealthy, well-respected upper class citizen who can do no wrong. That is, until Javert discovers his identity and makes it his life’s mission to put the fugitive back in prison where he believe he belongs.

Fantine (Melissa Mitchell) is also a victim of circumstance and prejudice when she is cast into a life of poverty and prostitution after petty women make her out to be a slut when they find out she is a single mother paying innkeepers to raise her daughter. Never mind the fact that her child’s father abandoned them. Her boss fires her. It’s Jean Valjean’s factory and he does nothing to help. She has to sell all her belongings, even her hair, the ultimate symbol of innocence being violated in literature. When she refuses to bed a captain and has to fight him off as he abuses her, he feigns being the victim and accuses her of attacking him. Javert, who destains criminals and takes a high-ranking official’s word over a prostitute’s, believes him and wants to take her in. It’s not right, but that shows the double standard in the society of the play. The real victims are the criminals and the real villains are people like Javert who do nothing to help and perpetuate the injustice.

Jean Valjean empathizes with Fantine, learning it’s the events at his factory that put her in this position, and stops Javert from locking her away so she can seek medical treatment. But to no avail, she dies. He makes it his life’s mission to care for her child, Cosette, who we see mistreated by Thenardier (J Anthony Crane), Madame Thenardier (Allison Guinn), Young Eponine.

The Thenardiers serve as the comic relief in this tragedy, and we certainly need it to balance out the heavy material. But they are also cruel, self-serving swindlers who aren’t to be trusted. After Jean Valjean rescues Cosette from them, their finances plummet. As Cosette rises in status, Eponine falls into poverty, trading in an elegant dress for rags, essentially swapping circumstances with Cosette. But the difference between her and her parents is that their characters never change, but she becomes a likeable protagonist who stands up against her father and selflessly helps Marius even though it brings her heartbreak.

As Gavroche, a little boy fighting with the revolutionaries, when people die they are all equals. Their status in life no longer matters. Both good and bad people die. And as the Thernardiers point out after the battle, they survive despite being awful humans.

That is the irony that drives Javert to his breaking point. While he chases Jean Valjean and considers him evil, he learns his perceptions were completely wrong. Valjean shows him mercy many times when he can kill him and rescues him when the revolutionaries take him captive. It turns his world upside-down and when he can’t bring Valjean to justice in the only way he knows how, he can’t make sense of the world anymore and takes his own life instead.

The play overturns systematic injustice and prejudice in a way that is relevant to the surfacing social and racial tension we are experiencing in our country today. ‘Les Mis’ teaches us that things aren’t always as they seem and that right and wrong should be subject to circumstances. It challenges convention.

“Les Mis” isn’t just a story about the individual. It’s about unifying to battle our demons and the strength that lies with the people.  There are many powerful choruses from the prologue to “The People’s Song” and “One Day More.”

While almost everyone dies in this show, we see the dead as a group at the end of the show for the finale. They gather as a crowd behind the newlyweds – Marius and Cosette. Yes, there is even a wedding in all of this misery. But they died for a greater cause trying to make things better for future generations. The wedding represents union and a new life. The fact that all the dead are standing behind them shows how they symbolically died for them and support them. This happy ending for the couple amid so much sorrow and terrible endings for others represents that even in the darkest of times there is a glimmer of hope and light.

Luckily for you the production runs for more than “One Day More.” “Les Mis” will be at The Bushnell for four days more, ending Oct. 8. More information on the production and tickets is available at bushnell.org.

‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ Casts Comic Shakespearean Spell on Hartford Stage

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Credit: T. Charles Erickson

Marry who your father wants or death. Or get thee to a nunnery. There’s a serious price at stake for fair Hermia (Jenny Leona) at the top of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Hartford Stage if she refuses to marry her father’s pick Demetrius (Damian Jermaine Thompson) and cut ties to her true love Lysander (Tom Pecinka). But, from bottom of the play Tony Award winner Darko Tresnjak directs, asinine and uproarious comedy dissolves all peril and casts a spell of laughter on us all.

In classic Shakespearean fashion, this masterpiece is chalk full of doubling, mistaken identities, and trickery. The tragic yet classic love triangle is essential to the comical geometry of this play and is a timeless device that makes the play relatable no matter what era we are in. And there are a couple. Hermia loves Lysander, Lysander loves Hermia, and Demetrius unrequitedly loves Hermia. And then Helena (Fedna Laure Jacquet) loves Demetrius but seemingly has no admirers. We delight in Demetrius’s dogged pursuit of Hermia and Helena’s embellished misery and heartbreak as she chases Demetrius. While the actors are adults, they play their characters young as believable schoolboys and schoolgirls.

Then we have a parallel love triangle in the fairy kingdom of Oberon (Esau Pritchett) and Titania (Scarlett Strallen) as Oberon feels threatened by the motherly love Titania has for a late friend’s baby she takes in as her own.

Oberon turns character dynamics on their heads, bottoms up if you will, when he enlists Puck (Will Apicella) to find a flower with the magic to make Titania fall in love with the first wild creature she lays eyes on upon waking. He plots to distract her so he can steal the baby from her and win his queen’s love back when she realizes what an ass she’s made of herself.

Enter Bottom (John Lavelle). He (a crashing chauffeur) and team of aspiring players (a bootboy, tailor, chef, and painter) are the tangential third world in the play that bind all of the realms together as they work tirelessly to put on the Romeo-and-Juliet-esque play “Pyramus and Thisbe” for a wedding in the court of Duke Theseus and Queen Hippolyta. Nick Bottom wants to play every character and Lavelle plays him up as a flamboyant diva whose knack for overdoing it elicits a lot of laughter. Bottom has no problem being an ass and making an ass of himself, so an ass he becomes when Puck transforms him into a donkey. A little more string-pulling and, hee-haw, Titania falls in love with an ass to the confusion and disgust of her fairy subjects.

While Oberon is scheming, he observes Helena following Demetrius around in the woods and empathizes with her pain. So he asks Puck to use the same magic on the Athenian boy to make love right. But Puck uses the magic flower on Lysander by mistake so he falls for Helena. When Puck tries to correct his error and uses it on Demetrius, he too falls for Helena. Boom. Another love triangle. Except this time, to Hermia’s dismay and confusion, Hermia is the one chasing her love with no one loving her in return. Both men seem to despise her. The musical chairs of love connections creates comedy like no other. The more entangled and hazy the characters’ worlds get, the more enjoyable it is for us to watch. The role reversals of lovers ups the ante in the play and drives it in a more lively and dynamic direction.

But as witty and crafty as the literature and story of the play may be, the actors make the show. The physical comedy in this play is phenomenal. Sometimes the movements and expressions of the characters brought more laughs than the lines they spoke. They were that good. Everybody had a moment from Snout’s (Brent Bateman) phallic wall and chink in “Pyramus and Thisbe” to Flute’s lollipop sucking to the sexual pose duel between Lysander and Demetrius as they try to attract Helena during a feud with a confused Hermia.

I also enjoyed the double casting of Strallen as Queen Hippolyta and Titania, Pritchett as Duke Theseus and Oberon and the housemaids as fairies because it made it more symbolic. The players also all have a role in the court of Theseus and their performance of “Pyramus and Thisbe” seems to connect the parallel universes despite how silly and mediocre the production is. There’s something endearing about their characters and performance that makes you delight in its flaws. You can’t help but love the shy Italian lion and man in the moon with his dog and appreciate the foresight of the actors to warn the royal court that it is not a real lion so they’re not scared and to assure them the actors are playing parts and the deaths aren’t real. It just goes to show how theater is so universal and magical.

Puck says at the end of the show “if these shadows have offended,” but the whole point of theater is to be edgy and impactful, so no apologies necessary. Actually the innuendos make the play the comic genius it is!

The play reunites a Tony Award caliber production team including director Darko Tresnjak and set designer Alexander Dodge, who were both involved in the Hartford Stage original plays “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” and “Anastasia” that went to Broadway. Dodge crafted the simple, yet magical set for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” complete with a spinning house and twinkling shrubbery.

While the fairy chorus was pitchy in their first song, it was a delight to hear Strallen sing at the end and bring her sweet, powerful Broadway vocals from “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love in Murder” back to Hartford Stage. It was a joy to see Hartford Stage’s Bob Cratchit, Robert Hannon Davis, as Peter Quince and Egeus.

All the world’s a stage and all of us are merely players, says Shakespeare. Hermia, Lysander, Helena, and Demetrius in a way become part of another play within a play in the show as the actors have to transform their characters and execute the role reversals. And they did so brilliantly, pouring a physical display of comedy into the production that gave it depth despite how frivolously it seems to resolve the characters’ love plights.  

Yet “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” challenges the convention of love and reminds us to dream and fight for our dreams. And in this case, the dreams shed light on life and melt into a more stable, happy reality.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” runs Oct. 8 at the Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford, Conn. More information on purchasing tickets and the production is available at www.hartfordstage.org.