“Once”: You’ll Want to See it Twice at The Bushnell

Once. Once there was a heartbroken Irish guy so sad and angry that he was going to give up playing guitar and singing. And once there was a funny but “serious” Czech girl who would change his life forever.

The eight-time Tony Award winning musical Once opened this week at The Bushnell Performing Arts Center in Hartford and is as modern a musical as they come. But it’s different than musicals that rely on songs to propel the plot. It’s more of a play that centers around music featuring singer-songwriter Stuart Ward as the lead, identified as a guitarist named Guy, pianist Dani de Waal as the principal female character, Girl and a cast of professional musicians.

It’s no wonder Once won Best Musical at the Tony Awards back in 2012 because this show is unique and truly special. Before the show officially started, limited audience members was invited up onto the Bushnell stage to listen to the majority of the cast jam and play a pre-show concert in the set pub. You really felt like you were in the heart of Ireland at a cozy bar.

The lights aren’t dimmed right away to signify a clear start to the show and the cast rolled right into the beginning of the play off their mini jam session once the audience members left the stage, so it was a little confusing. But in a way, the show had started before it officially began, getting you into the world of the musical from the moment you walk in the theater. The audience members become method actors without realizing it.

Ward opens the story playing an original song as Guy in an Irish pub and breaks down as he thinks about his ex-girlfriend, slamming down his guitar to leave, which prompts Girl to approach the teary-eyed Dubliner and encourage him to keep playing. From the beginning, her humor charms audiences and de Waal is clever with her delivery, creating a stark, ironic contrast to Ward’s emotional state as Guy. The juxtaposition of sad and funny works well. She does comedy really well.

The show itself has a lot of emotion as Guy and Girl go on to write music together the speaks to the heart and soul of humanity and relationships. The show had me crying by the end because I connected to the music, which draws out your emotions. That never happens to me and the only other show it did was Wicked when it played at the Bushnell on its national tour.

Ward is really believable as his character because he actually is a singer-songwriter. The actor, who is actually from Liverpool, England, signs autographs and sells his CD of original music in the lobby after the show featuring him on lead guitar and vocals, and cast members Waal on piano and back-up vocals, Erica Swindell (Reza) on violin, Benjamin Magnuson (Bank Manager, cello, guitar) on cello, as well as Raymond Bokhour on mandolin, Gary Craig on drums and percussion, George Koller on bass and Claire Wellin (violin and backing vocals). Guy is genuine and honest and you’ll fall in love with him.

While Girl does fall for him deep down, she feels she has responsibilities, as she has a daughter and husband, so the two never get together in the lifespan of the show, but you really want them to end up together.

The stage has a capacity limit for the amount of people allowed on it, but you’ll have a chance to  go on stage at intermission and buy beer or wine from the set pub, inviting the audience into the story. If standing on the Bushnell stage isn’t striking enough, getting the opportunity to see the set up close is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Mirrors adorn every wall, showing you the characters from every angle in the reflections.

During the show, the production employs a black box minimalistic set technique. The bar is the main set piece that never leaves and furniture is brought on stage and rearranged to connote a change in scenery or location.

There was no need for an orchestra because the actors served that role and it was refreshing to have true musicians acting as opposed to actors pretending to be musicians. John Steven Gardner (Eamon), who plays piano, guitar, percussion, melodica and harmonica, is the music captain.

Swindell (Reza) dances with dynamic stomps as she plays the violin and serves as the show’s dance captain. The show features a lot of modern and interpretive dance that is truly artful.

Evan Harrington, who plays guitar, percussion and ukulele in the show, will make you laugh as Billy, the music shop owner. He’s a big guy, but he puts a lot of physicality (and karate) into the role for comedic effect. The clash between his character and the bank manager (Magnuson) is a sidebar relationship in the show that gives the storyline of Guy and Girl some color.

A very poignant moment in the show was when Girl tells Guy she loves him in Czech, which you see in translated subtitles projected on the set. But when he asks her what it means, she says it means it’s about to rain. Guy’s parting gesture at the end does lead you to believe they’re not done with each other yet.

And I’m not done with this musical either. I’ve seen it once. And it left me wanting to see it again.

It runs at the Bushnell through Sunday. Performances are Saturday, May 30 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday, May 31 at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. For more information, visit bushnell.org/once or the musical’s website, oncemusical.com.

Welcome to the ’60s Where You Can’t Stop the Beat in Connecticut Theatre Company’s “Hairspray”

You can’t stop the beat. Or at least you won’t want to after seeing Connecticut Theatre Company’s production of Hairspray, which runs through next weekend at New Britain’s Repertory Theatre.

The show’s signature song by that name is at the end, but there are plenty of songs woven throughout that make it worth the wait and that will also make you want to dance and sing…. and luckily for you there may be an opportunity for audience dance-ticipation at the end.

Good morning, Baltimore and welcome to the ’60s. Lights up on a vertical set that mirrors a bird’s eye view of Tracy Turnblad’s (Johanna Regan) room, as you’d see it in the movie. The perspective makes it seem like you’re looking down on Tracy as her eyes burst open and allow you to see the dynamic facial expressions you wouldn’t otherwise be able to view if she was actually lying down. It also allowed for an easy transition into her being ready for school so she didn’t have to do a quick change and was the most clever set use in production that often has a bare stage with minimal set pieces.

What’s that entertainment reality show or talk show you absolutely have to watch every time it’s on? That’s what The Corny Collins Show is to Tracy and her best friend, Penny Pingleton (Chelsea Kelle) as the ultimate fan girls obsessed with Corny (Matthew Edgar-Jospeph), the legendarily dreamy Link Larkin (Stephen Michelsson) and the dancing and music featured on the show. Just like anyone trying out for American Idol or The Voice or So You Think You Can Dance, Tracy just has to audition for the show when a spot opens up.

But there’s more to it than a celebrity crush, fame and love of entertainment and dancing. Tracy finds herself on the cusp of a racial integration movement, as the show, sponsors and prejudicial, snooty, judgmental producer Velma Von Tussle (Elizabeth Shapiro), only allow people of color on during “Negro Day.” As she is also shafted for the way she looks and her big personality, she empathizes with them and finds her priorities shift to a quest for justice even if it lands her and everyone around her in prison.

The Turnblad family stands out in this production. Regan’s enthusiasm, expressivity, energy in character and dance and command of her voice in character, style and power make her a strong and fitting casing choice for Tracy. If John Travolta were to announce his own name at some awards show featuring a Hairspray performance by this cast, it would probably sound something like Duane Campbell. Edna Turnblad, Tracy’s mother, is typically played by a man, as Travolta did in the movie version, but Campbell puts his own stamp on the character and plays a very believable big-hearted woman in dresses, vocals and dance through and through. Man, does he have a powerful voice as a woman. And Rob Crumb plays an adorable, lovable Wilbur Turnblad, Tracy’s optimistic and comically dimwitted yet somehow wise father.

Kelle may play the best friend as Penny, but her supporting role does not make her go unnoticed. She plays Penny as the stereotypical ditzy, “dumb blond,” yet there’s a lot of depth in her acting from her knack for comedic instinct to her choices for movement and expression. Her voice is one of the powerful ones you keep listening for and shows versatility. There’s a moment as Penny’s exploring her new-found feelings for Seaweed J. Stubbs (Garth West) after hanging out with him, The Dynamites and crew when she puts some grit into her voice for a few soulful notes that showcase her musicality and vocal prowess.

I envision Tracy’s leading man, Link as more of a Zac Efron heart throb type. While Michelsson didn’t aesthetically fit the character in that regard, I adored the wisp of a curl locked into place with, well, hairspray on his forehead. He plays the rising teen celebrity entertainer as nerdy, making it more believable that someone of that fame stature would fall for an average girl like Tracy. Sometimes Link’s songs seemed to fall outside of the style and range fitting to Michelsson’s voice, leading to some pitch issues, but Michelsson pours his heart and emotion into the role and really commits to it with energy in line delivery and dance. He and Regan have strong chemistry as a team with their smiles lighting up the room.

The Corny Collins Show that is the center of this musical becomes the vehicle for change and the significance is perhaps even more poignant in contemporary time given the recent riots in Baltimore.

It wouldn’t be The Corny Collins Show without Corny, as he points out to Velma when she tries to get rid of him, but you don’t get the sense that he has a lot of control over it beyond being the talent and the face of the show. Edgar-Joseph plays him as a smooth, self-confident and exuberant television host with an accent of sass when it comes to his relationship with his producer and her mean girl type daughter, star Amber Von Tussle (Rachel Dufresne). He does what he wants, though it’s really Tracy that forges changes in his show. While he’s on board with it and just seems to roll with everything without question, his motive is more about being ahead of what’s trendy and a genuine open-mindedness than seeking justice. There’s not much in terms of character arch with the role because Corny lives in the present and is who he is, but Edgar-Joseph emotes what Corny is thinking, even when he has to put on a smile for the camera, through the slightest facial expressions, the tone in his lines and subtle sarcasm.  Edgar-Joseph has a voice for television that captures the excitement his character’s show is meant to exude and he sings with a pop edge needed for Corny’s songs. He is completely in the zone of the role. He fully commits to the dancing in his solos and it’s too bad Corny isn’t included in more of the large dance numbers.

Besides Regan, Kelle and Campbell, another vocal force to be reckoned comes from Motormouth Maybelle, Seaweed’s mother, who is shockingly only 19. She can belt with soul. Tiffany Vinters also stood out with her singing and ease at vocal riffs as one of the Dynamites. I’d see both of them in concert as solo artists. Little Inez, Seaweed’s younger sister, has some spunk and she may be little but the girl can sing. Renee J. Sutherland also had a beautiful, jazzy quality to her voice and I wish there was some more volume to her solos because she sings well and it’s pleasing to the ear. Both Vinters and Sutherland move well as dancers. Iesha Moore plays the third Dynamite and despite a bout of laryngitis was able to make herself heard.

West doesn’t have the physique of a dancer, but he also moved well and put suave attitude into the character. Omar Peele also stood out in the ensemble as a dancer. He had a line at one point that was inaudible because he had no microphone, which is always an issue for speaking roles without that audio boost, whereas other voices with microphones were almost too big for the small theater.

Jodi Dickson excels in comedy and proved herself versatile, taking on the roles of Prudy Pingleton, the gym teacher and prison matron. She’s not afraid to go there. It might take you a second to pick up on the meaning in her one-liners, innuendos and gestures, but she got some laughs.

The little girl who played Shirley Temple and the children displaying the final vote tally in the Miss Teenage Hairspray competition are adorable.

The “Mama I’m a Big Girl Now” with the three mother-daughter pairings of Mrs. Turnblad (Campbell) and Tracy (Regan), Mrs. Pingleton (Dickson) and Penny (Kelle), and Velma (Shapiro) and Amber (Dufresne) was a standout number from the funny use of tableau poses to the stellar vocals and characters.

The cast includes a range of ages from children to adults. Some of the characters are too old or too young for their parts, but everybody had smiles on their faces in the dances and really seemed to be enjoying themselves.

The costumes and hair were fantastic in this show. I would have liked to see wigs or a change in look for some characters who are double cast as a role and ensemble, like Brenda (Ashley Mirando), who goes on a 9-month hiatus from the show. However, it is theater so there is some semblance of suspension of disbelief.

Sometimes costumes do unexpected things and on the second Saturday night performance there was a wardrobe malfunction involving the back of Campbell’s dress in a duet with Crumb that caused several gasps in the audience when he spun around, exposing the bloomers he was wearing. It didn’t phase Campbell at all as he did his part with gusto and enthusiasm, leaving the audience wondering whether it was intentional. It unfortunately distracted from an otherwise fantastic number that really showcased both actors’ talents and the chemistry between Crumb and Campbell’s characters on stage. Even after they went off stage and came back on, the dress issue hadn’t been fixed, but the third time Campbell came back on it was resolved. What can you do? But it didn’t take away from the enjoyment of the number.

Kristen Norris choreographed the show and also played Tammy, one of The Corny Collins Show cast members. She has poise in her dance and her expressiveness stands out. It was no doubt a lot of work to be on the directing team and in the show, but she rose to the challenge.

Erin Campbell directed the show and Nathaniel Baker was the music director.

All in all, I can hear the bells and you can too with another matinee performance today at 2 p.m. at New Britain’s Repertory Theatre at 23 Norden Street and a final round of shows next weekend. For more information, visit www.connecticuttheatrecompany.org. Tickets are available at the door.

“Kiss Me, Kate” Woos Audience at Hartford Stage

A play within a play and a Kate within a Kate.

The Hartford Stage’s co-production of Kiss Me, Kate with The Old Globe in San Diego does a fantastic job of developing layers and showing the parallels and distinctions in the world between the world of the stage and the players that bring it to life while allowing the audience full enjoyment of the music of Cole Porter.

Credit: T. Charles Erickson

Credit: T. Charles Erickson

We follow the storyline of movie actress Lilly Vanessi (Anastasia Barzee, who starred alongside Kevin Kline in Henry IV: Parts 1 & 2, played Hope in Urinetown and did the role of Emma in Jekyll & Hyde on Broadway) returning to the stage to play Kate in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, which the modern audience would recognize as 10 Things I Hate About You, in Baltimore. It’s hard to place the time period the show is set in, but that’s not problematic.

Barzee’s command over her voice is impressive, enabling her notes to flutter with a powerful vibrato and operatic soprano range that fills the room.

Credit: T. Charles Erickson

Credit: T. Charles Erickson

Lilly initially comes off as a diva who is hard to work with, particularly when she calls her co-star Fred Graham (Mike McGowan, who has been in The Producers, the Ragtime revival and Grease on Broadway and the film version of The Producers) an unsavory name. But as you peel away the layers to her character, you understand why he has an austere front. He’s her ex-husband.

Credit: T. Charles Erickson

Credit: T. Charles Erickson

It wouldn’t be Shakespeare without a case of mistaken identity. The gangsters appear in Fred’s dressing room before one of the shows and he learns they think he signed an IOU for a hefty gambling debt to their mob boss when in reality it was Bill Calhoun (Tyler Hanes, A Chorus Line, Hairspray, Sweet Charity and Oklahoma! on Broadway). So when it becomes clear Fred can’t convince them it wasn’t him, they make a deal that he’ll get the money to him at the end of the week of shows as more money rolls in. He takes control of the situation and uses the threat to his advantage when Lilly wants to leave him and the show as the gangsters strong-arm her and force her to perform.

McGowan also has an operatic voice that is at its strongest when he is in the spotlight in a solo moment. When he and Barzee sang together, she sometimes overpowered him and you couldn’t always hear his lyrics.

The dynamic between them mirrors that of their characters. Kate, the shrew who hates men (just wait until that humorous number, you’ll love it) and Graham/McGowan’s confident, self-absorbed and manly Petruchio. Only Lilly and Fred drive each other crazy because they know each other deeply and their stage characters clash because they don’t understand each other yet and are just scratching the surface. Their performance is strengthened when Lilly and Fred break their stage characters after a realization that brings on a feud that spills over into their acting. You’ll see.

Later on though, we learn that Lilly’s husband-to-be, General Harrison Howell (Tony Lawson, of Broadway’s Les Misérables) who has personal meetings with the President of the United States and is wealthy, is an even more cocky version of Petruchio who cares about himself than respecting the woman he is wooing. He denies her food like Petruchio (and us actors get hungry, so not cool).

Credit: T. Charles Erickson

Credit: T. Charles Erickson

That being said, Kiss Me, Kate really does delve into commentary on the societal view of gender roles. In Taming of the Shrew, and 10 Things I Hate About You for that matter, Kate is temperamental, independent and tough, so the men and her father have negative views of her and do not consider her a lady. Marriage is a device used for her father to get rid of her and Petruchio is trying to tame her like she’s a wild beast. When he accomplishes this and they marry and she tones down her mean-spiritedness and suppresses her emotions and boldness, only then is she considered a lady, when she is tied to a man. Meanwhile, off-stage, Lilly’s spunk and challenging nature are almost a challenge to Fred that amuses him and keeps him interested. However, you’ll hear her fiancé talk about having complete control over his woman and supporting hitting his wife if need be.

Credit: T. Charles Erickson

Credit: T. Charles Erickson

Then there’s Lois Lane (Megan Sikora, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Bambi in CurtainsWicked, Dracula, Thouroughly Modern Millie and 42nd Street on Broadway, no not from Super Man, thought that can’t be a coincidence. Playing the part of Bianca, the shrew’s sister who every suitor wants to marry, off-stage, Lois is an exotic nightclub dancer who seduces many men, including the two leading men in Lilly’s life.

Credit: T. Charles Erickson

Credit: T. Charles Erickson

It’s a point of contention for her boyfriend, Bill Calhoun, who wants her to commit and is jealous of her getting so many gifts from admirers.

Credit: T. Charles Erickson

Credit: T. Charles Erickson

As Bianca, her song about any Tom, Harry and Dick allures all of the men and is suggestive and showcases her prowess as a dancer in a very entertaining number full of flips and air cartwheels between the men. She also has a knack for humor.

Another dancer who stood out the most, though all of them were excellent, is James T. Lane (Paul), the star and driving energy force of “Too Darn Hot,” one of the recognizable hits in the show like “Another Op’nin, Another Show.”

Credit: T. Charles Erickson

Credit: T. Charles Erickson

Charity Angel Dawson (Hattie) also had power behind her voice that brightened the theater.

The play within a play brings depth to the plot. Much like Curtains, you see the actors rehearsing and performing the musical their company is putting on and get a behind the scenes look at their lives backstage. While the entire company isn’t under quarantine or police investigation like Curtains‘ “whodunnit” murder mystery comedy plot, there are forces outside the theater world keeping a couple of the actors on the stage — gangsters First Man (Joel Blum, a Tony Award nominee for best supporting actor in Showboat on Broadway) and Second Man (Brendan Averett), a tough, lovable comical duo that somehow becomes part of the show (superlative for best costumes and wigs goes to them) and performs one of the hits, “Brush Off Your Shakespeare.”

Kiss Me, Kate HSC 5-15 089

Each ensemble member was unique with their acting choices and personality expressed through dance and song. You can’t have a show with genuine depth without strong background actors.

The costumes were radiant and colorful, accenting the set, thought the men’s attire in The Taming of the Shrew scenes was too tight and feminine to be believable as suitors for Bianca, though it made it easier for the dance numbers. And there are a lot of them.

Credit: T. Charles Erickson

Credit: T. Charles Erickson

There were some spots in the book that could have been developed more (a writing thing, not under the control of the production). The gangsters never realize Bill is the one who owes them debt and neither does Fred. Lilly also never learns that Lois had a previous relationship with her future hubby, which would have been an opportunity to build tension between them as oppose to the little interactions they have off-stage.

Music director Kris Kukul almost becomes a character and it’s always a crowd favorite when the actors interact with the band or conductor, but it was sometimes minimally distracting to have him so visible right at the front of the stage. However, the orchestra, under the stage, was fantastic under his direction!

With many Tony Award winners on the directing team, it comes as no surprise that the show is an entertaining, exuberant hit jam-packed with musicality and top notch dancing. Artist Director Darko Tresnjak is most recently known for winning a Tony for Best Direction in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which debuted at the Hartford Stage. He is reunited with Gentleman’s Guide‘s choreographer Peggy Hickey, Alexander Dodge, who was a nominee for a Tony Award for designing the Gentleman’s Guide set and who designed the exquisite set of Private Lives at the Hartford Stage, and Gentleman’s Guide lighting designer Philip Rosenberg. Dodge’s use of the spinning stage floor adds dynamic and movement to an already lively dance show.

The directing team had a Tony Award winning show with Gentleman’s Guide and they had another hit in Kiss Me, Kate. The Hartford Stage should do musicals more often.

Performances run 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays to Thursdays and Sundays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through June 14. There will be a special Wednesday matinee on June 3 at 2 p.m. Visit www.hartfordstage.org or call the box office at 860-527-5151 for tickets and more information.