“Reverberation” Debuts Globally at Hartford Stage

Wes (Carl Lundstedt, left) and Jonathan (Luke MacFarlane, right) share an intimate moment together after meeting on Grindr in "Reverberation" by Matthew Lopez.

Wes (Carl Lundstedt, left) and Jonathan (Luke MacFarlane, right) share an intimate moment together after meeting on Grindr in “Reverberation” by Matthew Lopez. Credit: Hartford Stage

An intense sex scene in dim lighting between two male characters who met on Grindr and full frontal nudity make for a shocking opening to Reverberation that was a major talking point at intermission for the world debut of the latest play by Matthew Lopez at the Hartford Stage.

Too racy for the Hartford Stage? For some, maybe. But if that’s all you’re going to judge this show on, you’re missing the poignancy and artfulness of a play that has more layers buried deep beneath mere nudity.

For a play that only has three actors, Reverberation kept me interested the whole time throughout because of the writing, the characters, the acting and the set.

The further into the story we get, the more layers Luke MacFarlane peels away from his character, Jonathan, a single homosexual sympathy card writer grappling with self and loneliness living by himself in a New York City apartment. He was able to bring humor, sadness, vulnerability, strength and likability to Jonathan and a complexity that made him very real. I felt for him as though he was someone I actually knew and wanted to help.

Then enter Claire, his new upstairs neighbor, and everything changes. Aya Cash plays a  young, funny, spunky, outgoing, nosy, flighty and free-spirited character who owns very little and is known to pack up and move around the world. Claire is in a lot of ways the exact opposite of Jonathan, namely in how open she is in comparison to his private lifestyle and how well-traveled she in contrast to his seclusion. But the chemistry between them proves strong and she is able to whittle her way into his world and draw him out. The chemistry between Cash and MacFarlane is also very real and connected. They play off each other well with even the smallest moments from their cuddle sessions to Cash singing Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” to get his character to drop the morning paper. They each fill in holes in each other’s lives as each of them long for connection.

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Jonathan (Luke MacFarlane) and Claire (Aya Cash ) in “Reverberation” by Matthew Lopez at the Hartford Stage.

Carl Lundstedt seemed to be less polished than the other two actors as Jonathan’s opening scene Grindr hook-up Wes, but what was impressive was his ability to say his lines confidently while completely in the flesh in front of an entire audience. That is something that could easily make an actor break character out of nervousness, but he stayed in character the whole time with ease. Wes, as a man in his 20s, brings a younger perspective that pushes Jonathan to be with the times while at the same time disrupting his solitary life by reminding him of his past. Lundstedt is very good at making the tone of some of their exchanges awkward while showing that his character clearly doesn’t feel awkward.

In the opening scene, Wes remarks on how many books Jonathan has around the apartment, sparking a debate about the Kindle versus reading a physical book. Jonathan loans Wes his favorite book, “Another Country” by James Baldwin, which is theme that reverberates later when Wes returns the book and reads an underlined passage about connection that seems to describe the transformation of Jonathan and Claire’s relationship. Now I really want to read that book and I think Lopez does a good job at representing art and literature in his work in a similar way that one of his other plays, Somewhere (which also was performed at the Hartford Stage) is an ode to West Side Story. Lopez is a former writer for HBO’s “The Newsroom.”

When Wes returns, he revives the conversation about the Kindle and books and is seemingly converted. Meanwhile, Jonathan has been giving the Kindle a shot. A seeming role reversal. Wes also plays a song that reminds him of his last boyfriend Gabriel, who we later find out died. It triggers a very violent reaction that seemed out of character for him that made me wonder how Gabriel really died and whether Jonathan’s sadness comes out of accidental homicidal guilt.

Lundstedt’s and Cash’s only scene together is when Wes is fleeing Jonathan’s apartment after a bloody beating that comes out of nowhere and it’s a shame because I would have liked to see how they’d interact. When Claire talks about “Real Real Boy,” a guy she meets at a department store, I half expected it to be him.

Reverberation is very contemporary, which makes it very relatable. “Shake It Off” just came out last year (can you tell I’m a Taylor Swift fan?!) and there is a reference to “The Interview” on the radio station Jonathan is listening to in one scene. So, the play is very present.

But for Jonathan, a lot of his past echoes, or reverberates, into his present. Later on in the play, Jonathan tells us his version of how Gabriel died and that he used to live in Claire’s apartment with him. Then it becomes clearer why he’s so guarded and vulnerable. Claire almost seems to fill Gabriel’s absence in female form.

The set is two levels with Jonathan’s apartment on the first floor and Claire’s on a platform above his, connected by stairs. Without the fourth wall, we are let into both their worlds simultaneously. The differences in their apartments show their personal contrasts. Claire’s apartment is bare with nothing but a bed, a clothing rack, a small TV and a folding chair. Jonathan’s apartment, however, is very detailed from every item of clothing askew on the floor to his books, “compassionate” paintings and music player. It looks like it could really be someone’s apartment in New York.

Jonathan doesn’t venture into Claire’s apartment, his old apartment, until the final scene. By that point, she’s gone, begging the question of whether she was really ever there at all or a figment of his imagination. He also makes a reference earlier to how he doesn’t believe in ghosts, but that scene makes me wonder if Claire was a projection of Gabriel’s ghost.

There are a lot of unanswered questions at the end of the show, but it leaves you thinking about a lot. And that is exactly what good writing and theater does.

Performances run through March 15. There are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday shows at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday shows at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. There is a Wednesday 2 p.m. matinee on March 4.

Tickets start at $25 and you can purchase them by calling the Hartford Stage box office at 860-527-5151 or by visiting www.hartfordstage.org

“Reverberation” by Matthew Lopez is debuting globally at the Hartford Stage. Credit for Photos: Hartford Stage

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Round Two of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” Still Brings the Laughs at Broad Brook

It’s been a “dirty, rotten…” couple of weeks in Connecticut. but in this case that’s a good thing.

Broad Brook Opera House and the Warner Theatre Stage company have simultaneously been putting on “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels the last two weekends. And Broad Brook’s giving them what the want with one more weekend of shows next week.

The Warner was my first exposure to the story of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” having never seen the movie, so I knew the twist at the end and I admit I was worried that it wouldn’t be the same second time seeing it at Broad Brook without the element of surprise. I was right. It wasn’t the same. But that’s why I loved it and I love theater. Because every production puts its own stamp on a show.

The play is based on the movie by the same title starring Michael Caine as Lawrence, Steve Martin as Freddy, and New London native Glenne Headly as Janet Colgate (Christine Colgate in the musical, played by Christine Voytko in the Broad Brook version), the main woman Lawrence and Freddy compete to con.

The opera house in Broad Brook is smaller and much more intimate, fitting considering the relationships in the show, taking you closer into the worlds of the ladies and their “princes.” The cast utilizes the aisles and plays jokes to the four-piece band, pulling them into the uproarious scheming and hilarity.

Broad Brook played up the comedy from Brian Rucci’s expressive Lawrence and Randy Davidson’s vulgar, unkempt, hammed up vagabond of a charming scam artist, Freddy, to Michael King’s exaggerated French accent as the crooked Chief of Police Andre and Tracy Funke’s knack for twinkling comedic reactions and exchanges as Muriel.

Just wait until you meet Ruprecht, witness the love sequence involving Andre (King) and Muriel (Funke) and see a “doctor’s” unconventional tactics to cure Buzz’s psychosomatic “paralysis” due  to dance fever. You won’t stop laughing.

Christine Voytko is both delightful as Christine and sassy as a duplicitous character. Emily Stisser emoted the transition from the bubbly, man killer Jolene to disgust upon meeting Lawrence’s “brother” Ruprecht

The ensemble was small, but added flavor and depth to the resort world. Most stunning was how the production utilized the ensemble to make set changes in choreographed dance numbers that made the transitions smooth. Jon Todd, James Galarneau, AJ Ganaros, Andee Wadas, MickeyGrabner, Madeline Lukomski, Rachel Shuttleworth, Reva Kleppel, Michell OrtizSaltmarsh, Kellie Comer and Maryanne Wilson-Feyer comprise the ensemble.

Stunning vocals came from Funke, who is strong at adding character acting into her songs, and the booming tenor of Davidson, who sometimes overpowered Rucci in duet numbers. The songs are catchy (I still have “Giving Them What They Want” stuck in my head), especially “Great Big Stuff,” All About Ruprecht” and the ongoing jazzy theme song.

There was one issue with microphone feedback during a kissing scene as the microphones got too close, but other than that, the sound suited the small space. There really wasn’t a bad seat in the house.

One thing I didn’t understand in either the Broad Brook or Warner productions is why scoundrels isn’t mentioned (at least not more than once) even though it’s in the title. Maybe it’s because the characters don’t think they’re scoundrels. They have heart.

And so does the cast.

“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” has final shows Friday and Saturday, Feb 20-21, at 8 p.m. and Feb. 22 at 2 p.m. Visit www.operahouseplayers.org for more information on how to buy tickets. Tickets are $21.

Dirty, Not So Rotten Scoundrels Play at the Warner

 L to R:  Nicole Thomas (Ensemble), Jonathan Jacobson (Lawrence Jameson), Lyle Ressler (Ensemble), Alyssa Fontana Bunel (Christine Colgate), Nora DeDominicis (Ensemble), Geoff Rucksdeschel (Ensemble). Photo Credit: Warner Theatre


L to R: Nicole Thomas (Ensemble), Jonathan Jacobson (Lawrence Jameson), Lyle Ressler (Ensemble), Alyssa Fontana Bunel (Christine Colgate), Nora DeDominicis (Ensemble), Geoff Rucksdeschel (Ensemble). Photo Credit: Warner Theatre

The latest Warner Theatre musical is certainly dirty and chock-full of scoundrels, but it is by no means rotten.

Directed and choreographed by Warner regular Sheila Waters Fucci, it is no surprise that dance is a key element in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It’s only appropriate because the two conmen in the show — Lawrence Jameson (Jonathan Jacobson) and Freddy Benson (Randy Ronco) — and French sidekick/Chief of Police Andre Thibault (Eric Lindblom) put on a lot of song and dance into wooing women and swindling them of their fortune and jewels at Beaumont-sur-Mer in the French riviera.

The play is based on the movie by the same title starring Michael Caine as Lawrence, Steve Martin as Freddy, and New London native Glenne Headly as Janet Colgate (Christine Colgate in the musical, played by Alyssa Fontana Bunel in the Warner production), the main woman Lawrence and Freddy compete to con.

Waters Fucci choreographed many elegant and playful dance numbers featuring the guests, hotel maids and leads. Some of the ensemble dancers were more experienced and others, but that’s not unusual, and each one put character and enthusiasm into their roles that made the ballroom dance sequences delightful.

It was a nice surprise to see producer Sharon Wilcox grace the stage again with the first line of the show, a sleek, red wig, and some solos after more than 20 years since her last time in a Warner main stage production.

Most charming was Becky Sawicki as the young, wealthy Southern blonde belle Jolene Oakes, who nearly cons Lawrence into marrying into her while he seeks her money in efforts to distract her with romance. Her Southern accent gave her character spunk and pizzaz and her pep made for a lively dance number with lifts that lands her sitting on the shoulder of her dance partner.

Becky Sawicki (Jolene Oakes) & Randy Ronco (Freddy Benson/Ruprecht). Photo Credit: Warner Theatre

Becky Sawicki (Jolene Oakes) & Randy Ronco (Freddy Benson/Ruprecht). Photo Credit: Warner Theatre

The show required a lot of accents, including Lindblom’s and ensemble member L. Nagle’s French accents.

Mary J. Johnson was strongest as Muriel Eubanks when she had to bring out her character’s passion in love scenes with Lindblom’s Andre.

Bunel has the most powerful performance toward the end with more edge to her voice and confidence in her character.

Ronco excelled at comedy in his role as Freddy, fake brother Ruprecht and a soldier with psychosomatic paralysis from the waist down from a Kevin Bacon-like dance incident.

The show almost pokes fun at the elements of musical theater in a loving way, from Jacobson’s Lawrence snapping his fingers for the perfect lighting to Johnson’s line “Is the balcony moving, while the balcony is dragged off stage for a scene change.

The stage crew was sometimes distracting to the storyline because of all the times they were on stage with set changes during the scenes. Ronco designed the set and his wife worked back stage.

There was one microphone issue during Saturday’s show and the band sometimes overpowered the singers, but otherwise the production was stunning and seemingly professional, like most Warner productions.

The slower songs dragged down the plot a little, but dance sequences and more dynamic numbers like “Great Big Stuff,””All About Ruprecht” and, of course, “Dirty Rotten” brought up the pace.

There’s a twist at the end that is surprising if you haven’t seen the movie. Just you wait!

The show continues next Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Call the box office or go to the Warner Theatre website for more information.

L to R:  Alyssa Fontana Bunel (Christine Colgate), Jonathan Jacobson (Lawrence Jameson), Randy Ronco (Freddy Benson) Credit: Warner Theatre

L to R: Alyssa Fontana Bunel (Christine Colgate), Jonathan Jacobson (Lawrence Jameson), Randy Ronco (Freddy Benson) Credit: Warner Theatre

The Honeymoon’s Over in Hartford Stage’s “Private Lives”

Imagine being divorced and done with your ex and then running into him or her on your honeymoon for your second marriage. What would you do?

That’s the problem 1930s British exes Amanda Prynne (Rachel Pickup) and Elyot Chase (Ken Barnett) run into at a resort on the French seaside five years after their break-up while honeymooning with their new spouses, Victor Prynne (Henry Clarke) and Sybil Chase (Jenni Barber), respectively, in Private Lives at Hartford Stage.

But their new lives become anything but private as old love threatens new and flares up again over all their years of rage and resentment. The result? Immorality. Comedy. Violence. Raw passion. Heartbreak. A happy ending, sort of. Gunshots. Romance. Drama, definitely drama. Cigarettes, a lot of cigarettes.

The star of the show for me was the set, designed by Alexander Dodge, who was also the set designer for Tony Award-winning A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder at Hartford Stage and on Broadway. There were only two pieces, but the attention to detail was impressive. The opening half of the play on two hotel balconies drives the plot, first juxtaposing Amanda’s and Elyot’s new lives by alternating between the couples’ separate conversations, then creating tension in their plans when they see each other and finally allowing them to literally climb over the balcony back into each other’s lives as the each spend time on the other’s hotel balcony to share cigarettes, drinks and embraces.

With little other stage space, I wondered if the entire play would take place on the balconies, until two of the characters run off together and the set dynamically spins around on a wheel to the fancy interior of a Parisian place. Quite a literal plot twist! And then one more spin at the end.

Darko Tresnjak, who won Best Direction for the Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Choice awards for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, is the artistic director for Private Lives.

The other stand-out moments came from the actress with the least stage time, Carine Montbertrand, who plays French maid, Louise. All of her lines are in French, so she plays up her character in such an animated way that even if you don’t know what she’s saying, you laugh because of her fierce reactions to the leads and her slow walks out of the room with a look of distain on her face. I did catch a “ce n’est pas ma faute” in there, which means “it’s not my fault.” If you speak French I’d be interested to see if you found her scenes even funnier.

Pickup is stunning and spirited as Amanda, an elegant tall, slender brunette. She is reminiscent of The Newsroom’s MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), which is only fitting because Mac and Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) muddle and battle through rekindled love in the same way Amanda and Elyot do.  You see the most emotion and physicality from Barnett when he is alongside Pickup. He masters sarcasm and imagination with humor in the irony of the situations presented and the contrast of a serious, pompous demeanor with what he is actually saying, sometimes casting a subtle smile to let the audience in on his jokes. Barnett also dazzles the audience with his masterful piano playing at one point.

While Pickup and Barnett excel in connection, their chemistry with their characters’ second spouses, Victor (Clarke) and Sybil (Barber) is lacking and artificial. You would never believe that those two are the ones they end up with, but maybe that’s the point. Maybe they need to be more distant from those characters to accentuate their residual love for each other. Clarke’s Victor is more sensitive and submissive, much like Barber’s Sybil, who works herself up into hysterics over Elyot’s secrecy and former wife.

The expressiveness in Pickup’s and Barber’s character voices added punch and comedy to their lines in a script by English playwright Noël Coward that is bound to make you laugh.

With a cast of five, it’s amazing how much the production captures your attention through mostly wordplay. The most action you see comes in the form of physical violence and stage combat. The audience was laughing during the scenes because the tone was almost comedic in how irrational the characters were being, but it did evoke some gasps when a head is smashed into a wall and gunshots are fired and it settled in that it was actually a serious moment of domestic violence. So, it might not be the best show to bring the kids to, though the violence is very choreographed.

The play doesn’t have an intermission and that does make it feel longer without the break, so make sure you use the restroom and get your snacks and beverages at concessions before the show.

Private Lives runs through Feb. 8, including Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets start at $25 and discounts of up to 40 percent are available for groups of 10 or more. For more information on tickets, call the box office at 860-527-5151 or visit www.hartfordstage.org.

“Nice Work” and They Get It in New Broadway Musical Touring at The Bushnell

The Roaring Twenties are roaring again in 2015 as a relatively new Broadway musical nationally touring stops at The Bushnell’s Mortensen Hall.

It’s Nice Work If You Can Get It is an ode to the Gershwin brothers’ music and depicts a transitory era in which edgy jazz, flappers and bootlegging mischief clash with classical music, traditional values and Prohibition.

Everything isn’t as it seems in this play full of deception, from a girl named Billie Bendix (Mariah MacFarlane) who masquerades as a Harvard scholar and Cockney maid, a fake butler named Cookie McGee (Reed Campbell) and a chef named Duke (Aaron Fried) who isn’t a king and can’t cook who are really bootleggers peddling hooch to rich playboy and Ivy League dropout Jimmy Winter (Alex Enterline), who is marrying his third wife before his second marriage is annulled. There’s even a gasp-worthy twist at the end that wasn’t predictable in a comedic musical that has an unexpectedly deep plot.

The show tells intertwining stories of Billie, who sells alcohol on the black market and is a wanted felon, and Jimmy, who is about to get married to show his mother he is responsible even though he is a loose lady’s man. Mariah MacFarlane stands out in the talented cast with a sweet and clear voice that carries the bouncy, playful and powerful expression of jazz melodies through the room. She also has strong character instincts from her clumsy seduction of Jimmy as a distraction from the illegal alcohol she’s storing in his summer home basement to her fancy footwork. Enterline is lovable and shines with his comedic knack, particularly as a drunkard when he meets Billie in the title song, though he doesn’t have enough dazzling charm and chemistry with MacFarlane to make it believable she’d fall for him.

Matthew Broderick played the role in the original Broadway cast.

Campbell will make you laugh when he plays Cookie disguised as a spunky, hot-headed “butler” and Fried’s Duke is like a dim-witted puppy dog you can’t help but love as he pretends he’s the Duke of England, heir to the king’s throne to impress Jeannie Muldoon (Stephanie Gandolfo). Benjamin Perez also gets some laughs as Chief Berry, who says he always seems to find himself in third wheel situations.

Rachael Scarr is like a red-headed, more airy Glinda as she obsesses over her “delicious” self more than her fiance, Jimmy as interpretive dance extraordinaire Eileen Evergreen. The bathtub dance number that transforms her from seemingly naked to draped in a pink sheet robe wrapped around her by dancers in the choreography is artfully done.

You want to hate Stephanie Harter Gilmore’s duchess, a threat to the bootlegging Billie, but you can’t help but be impressed by her acting as a pompous upper class traditionalist and booming singing voice.

Tony Award-winner Joe DiPietro, the writer for Memphis (Tony Award winner for Best Musical, Best Book and Best Score) and All Shook Up, adds a flavor of comedy to a time period of pizzaz that romanticizes the music of composer George Gershwin and lyricist Ira Gershwin. He’s not afraid to poke fun at it. Just listen for Prohibitionist and Dry Women’s Club leader Duchess Estonia Dulworth’s (Stephanie Harter Gilmore) jab at the music of Cole Porter and George Gershwin as she sings opera classics over nemesis Cookie’s jazz. The writing is intelligent and will keep you laughing throughout the show.

If you love The Great Gatsby, you’ll appreciate this show, flowing with bubbly (quite literally in the opening number, “Sweet and Lowdown” at the Speakeasy) dance numbers originally choreographed by Kathleen Marshal (Anything Goes, GreaseLittle Shop of Horrors and Seussical on Broadway). The dancers pop with precise and dynamic moments with the lively, easy-going, fun-loving attitude of the era in dances like the Charleston.

You’ll also enjoy hearing classics like “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” (that potato potahto song) and “‘S Wonderful” with Gershwin themes like “Rhapsody in Blues” sprinkled throughout the show if you like that genre.

When you think about it, the Twenties are a lot like our modern day Twenty-Fifteen. Jazz was a brand new syncopated style of music that was edgy and shocked the cultural norm and the dancing and partying that went along with it were scandalous, yet exciting. That music today is techno, hip hop, rap and remixes with controversial dancing like grinding and twerking and all the rebellion that comes with it, clashing with oldies like classic rock. All in all, very relatable.

It’s nice work and they got it with this musical. And it would be really nice for you to get out to see it.

The show opened Tuesday and runs through Feb. 8 at the Bushnell in Hartford. Visit the Bushnell’s website for more information on the show and tickets.