“S’Wonderful” Dance Numbers and Gershwin Music in “Nice Work If You Can Get It” at Warner Theatre

It was nice work and they got it opening night of the Warner Theatre production of “Nice Work If You Can Get It: A New Musical Comedy.”

The show, which originally opened on Broadway in 2012 starring Matthew Broderick as Jimmy Winter and Kelli O’Hara — 2015 Tony Award-winner for “The King and I” — as Billie Bendix, is set in the 1920s during the prohibition, flapper and jazz era and features the music of George and Ira Gershwin. Bootlegger Billie (Marcia Masio) and her cohorts, Duke Mahoney (Richard McKenna) and Cookie McGee (Joe Guttadauro) are trying to sell over 400 cases of hooch when our tomboyish female ingenue meets the wealthy, partying Jimmy (Rick Fountain) who’s getting married soon to prove he’s responsible and please his mom and who has a beach house his family “never uses.” The bootleggers decide to stash their alcohol there and then have to play servants when Jimmy and his fiancee, Eileen Evergreen (Christiane Olson) show up the next day before their nuptials, requiring a lot of deceit.

The plot of the show doesn’t always make sense, jumping into musical numbers for no reason like Jimmy’s initiation of a dance break to stop The Vice Squad from searching the basement where the hooch is hiding. But the book by Joe DiPietro is lively and comical in using a modern perspective to pull off jokes looking back on the time period, like the double meaning in the “Society for Dry Women,” led by Duchess Estonia Dulworth (Lana Peck) in efforts to eradicate the “demon rum,” or political references. The show is a caricature of the time period it represents and doesn’t cease to make you laugh. There is a big twist at the end though that comes out of left field and is probably the strongest moment in the writing when it comes to plot.

But honestly, you don’t come to the show for the plot. You come for the music and the dancing. The show brings jazz to life at a time where that genre of music was considered new and edgy. The pit orchestra, which also included pit singers, is a vital part of the show, taking us back to the music of the Gershwins, with familiar classics like “Rhapsody in Blue” motifs.

Director/Choreographer Sheila Waters-Fucci put together exquisite, precise and fun dance numbers, including tap. All of the female dancers had grace and energy in their dancing. While many of the men clearly had less experience and had to work at it to get the technical dance steps down, they all had smiles on their faces and kept up with the women with never-fading enthusiasm. This is a heavy dance show.

The costumes were the bling of this production from the sparkling dresses of the flappers to the colorful dresses of Jimmy’s lady friends. Renee C. Purdy and Matthew Dettmer were co-costume designers for the show.

The most complicated wardrobe change was for Olson as Evergreen, who appears to do a whole dance naked (though she clearly has a nude-colored, strapless body suit of sorts), covered with a pink sheet blanket held by the dancers during her bath song “Delshious,” which they then wrap around her like a towel. There was a moment when the sheet dropped too low in a near wardrobe malfunction and the wrapped edge did come undone requiring Olson to casually re-tuck it as she sang. But those were only minor hiccups and it was impressive she was able to do an entire song and work in the sheet to her choreography and blocking nearly effortlessly.

The actors had special costumes for the bows.

There was a lot of musical talent in the cast, particularly in Jean-Marie McGrath as Jeannie Muldoon, Maslo as Billie, Fountain as Jimmy and Lana Peck as Dulworth. Maslo’s microphone had a lot of problems in the second act, resulting in distracting static, but she powered through with unwavering poise and her vocal prowess still shone through with her beautifully clear soprano.

Peck may be little, but she has the pipes of an opera singer with a wide range. And she proved she can sing high vibrato and hold a note in her “By Strauss”/”Sweet and Lowdown” voice battle with Cookie. She also had one of the funniest songs of the show when her stern, dry character accidentally becomes drunk.

As an ensemble, there were pitch problems on some harmonies in held high notes toward the end of “Fascinating Rhythm” before intermission and it didn’t seem like those notes were intended to be discordant. However, the footwork in that scene was fast and the dancing was captivating.

Holly McCan served as music director for the show.

Comedic timing was something the cast at the whole did well at, particularly Maslo as Billie, Fountain as Jimmy and Billie’s bootlegger pals, Cookie and Duke. I loved the moment before the wedding luncheon when three of the actors popped their heads up from behind the table when you didn’t expect they were there for “Do, Do, Do.”

This cast also had a lot of chemistry and every ensemble and smaller part was important to ornamenting the scenery and story. Catherine Thoben Quirk (Millicent Winter) doesn’t appear on stage until the very end of Act 2, but she is very present and her character is a plot catalyst who reveals a big twist you don’t see coming. She also delivers some of the most notably comedic lines in the show in the form of social and political commentary.

You’ll also recognize familiar songs like the Gershwin brothers’ “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” made popular by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and “S’ Wonderful.”

And s’ wonderful the show was.

The show runs through Sunday, Nov. 15, with matinee shows starting at 2 p.m. and evening shows starting at 8 p.m. You can get more information on the production and tickets at http://www.warnertheatre.org.

LTM Lets Freak Flags Fly on Opening Night of “Shrek”

Little Theater of Manchester certainly wasn’t compensating for anything taking on the complex technical production of “Shrek,” with a theatrical kingdom boasting layers of talent and musical prowess.

The unconventional fairy tale is about a gruff ogre’s quest to take back his swamp from outcasted fairy tale creatures squatting there. Shrek (Michael King) finds himself on a journey with a talking donkey (Lucas Veo) to rescue the quirky, cursed Princess Fiona (Chelsea Kelle) at the bequest of the lowly Lord Farquaard (Brian Rucci), who is obsessed with finding a queen to rise in stature to king. Unexpected romance blossoms along the way in the production that preaches to let your freak flag fly and embrace yourself despite your differences and oddities.

Opening night Friday definitely wasn’t on short supply of compliments as the actors’ high energy cast a spell of radiant comedy and unbreakable fun on the audience – for adults and children alike.

One of those compliments came from Geno Auriemma, head coach of the national championship-winning UConn Huskies women’s basketball team. He was in the audience with his wife, Kathy watching their daughter, Alysa Auriemma play Dragon.

“This is something she loves to do. She played the perfect part for her and got to do what she loves best. She loves to sing, she loves to dance. And she loves children’s literature. I don’t think it can get any better for her than this,” said Geno Auriemma, who, along with his wife, have been watching their daughter act since she was 10 and try to catch as many shows and opening nights as they can.

While most of Connecticut is used to seeing Geno in action court-side coaching the lady Huskies, as he watched the LTM production as a spectator, he likened the courage of the actors to that of his athletes. He said that the way this production handled the show “made it fun for everybody” and that the actors looked like they were having fun so it “made the audience have fun with them.”

“I was thinking this when the show ended that it takes a lot of guts to go up there and do that stuff, as much as it takes for kids to play,”Auriemma said. “You’re always performing and you’re always hoping that the audience loves you and it takes a lot of guts, takes a lot of courage and I’m really proud of her.”

When Alysa Auriemma emerges on the tower as the personification of the fire-breathing Dragon guarding Fiona, she looked like a rock star — Pink to be precise with her short, blond hair spiked and streaked with flame-like orange. And when she sang, her voice breathed soulful power into the gospel-style music with a flare of pop as though she was headlining a concert.

Director John Pike’s staging of the dragon was creative. Some cast members carried the dragon head — with glowing eyes — body and tail. Three others — Sandra Lee, Tracy Funke and Kate Brophy — sang backup gospel vocals as the Dragonettes. Alysa not only voiced Dragon, but also portrayed her emotions and you could tell by her body language and facial expressions what Dragon is thinking and feeling.

“I thought it was fun because I originally thought I wasn’t going to be on stage. I thought I was going to do the voice and that was it. And then when I got to rehearsals, they were like, ‘no, we want you to be on stage too.’ And basically it was just like getting to act like a pop star for three minutes and getting to do fun stuff and trusting everyone else was going to do their thing,” Alysa Auriemma said. “It’s fun because I get to see the whole set as what’s happening and I get to watch how the dragon’s going around…it was really fun to get on stage doing it. Fun because I’m like the dragon’s subconscious and then the body of the dragon.”

Funke, who was featured prominently vocally as Humpty Dumpty and Mama Ogre, Veo as Donkey, King as Shrek, Kelle as Fiona, Lee, who also played Gingy and Sugar Plum Fairy, and Ian Yue as Pinocchio also excelled in particular with their powerful singing, textured with character voices. There were a lot of other talented singers in the cast too, with people playing multiple roles, giving the ensemble a chance to shine.

Aside from Dragon’s “Forever,” standout songs included a beautiful, touching trio in the tower called “I Know It’s Today,” with Little Fiona (Teagan Krieger), Teen Fiona (Paige McHenry) and Princess Fiona (Kelle), Donkey’s (Veo) “Don’t Let Me Go,” Shrek (King) and Fiona’s (Kelle) comical battle about who had it worse growing up in “I Think I’ve Got You Beat,” Pinocchio’s (Yue and fairytale creatures) “Story of My Life” and Gingy’s (Lee) “Freak Flag Fly.”

Kelle also shined in “Morning Person,” featuring Kate Brophy as the voice of the exploding bird. She tears off her princess skirt to show some legs in a major tap number that includes Yue as the Pied Piper and Alysa Auriemma, Emily Borne, Brophy, Funke, Lee, Krieger and Emily Weiner as the dancing rats. That was the highlight of many delightful dance numbers, choreographed by MacKenzie Friedmann. McHenry did a flip as Little Red Riding Hood!

King brought layers of sarcasm, toughness and tenderness to Shrek beneath a Scottish brogue that was done just right and wasn’t so heavy that it washed out the words. He and Veo had great chemistry. While Veo did have Eddie Murphy inflections in his voice, he was enjoyable to watch with his high energy, enthusiasm and bouncy movements. “Travel Song” was fun, referencingn other fairy tales and even some adlibbed “Frozen” references that weren’t in the script as a cute little Olaf skipped across the stage. “I Think I’ve Got You Beat” was a strong scene for King and Kelle, who also had a lot of chemistry, as the song brought out their goofy side and characters’ true selves, showin things aren’t always as they seem on the surface. The farting and burping sound effects enhanced the comdedy. 

Yue brought a wooden puppet to life with every jerky movement and facial expression. He even had an air-powered apparatus that made his nose grow longer. He maintained the high-pitched Pinocchio voice you would recognize from the movie, whether speaking or singing. And that’s not easy to do, given that producing that nasally voice required muscle strain to squeeze out the high pitch, which makes it harder to sing low notes that require more relaxed vocal chords.

Lee also voiced the high-pitched Gingy, whether concealed behind the torture cookie tray or on stage with a gingerbread man puppet as she played the Sugar Plumb Fairy. It was almost a moment of ventriloquism.

I was impressed by how mobile and energetic Rucci was on his knees for the whole show, made to look like the dwarfish Lord Farquaard. He was equipped with knee pads, which helped. Farquaard may be a Lord, but Rucci is the king of comedy in that role.

“Shrek” is a fantastic ensemble show, with many featured smaller parts that are necessary in depicting the fairy tale world.

Nightwing Whitehead did the costume designs, featuring an array of bright colors and cartoony styles — particularly in the Duloc dancers.

The makeup was also top notch. It adds a whole new element to quick changes when you also have to wash off makeup between scenes (particularly if it’s green!).

Linda Ferreira did the set and light design. This was a complicated set with a lot of moving pieces. The tower and castle were the most challenging to put together. At one moment there was an awkward, silent moment without music as we waited for the visible stage crew to lock the tower into place — which took us out of the story and into reality for a minute. But otherwise, the set was moved pretty fluidly.

There were a lot of neat effects, including Gingy spitting out “milk,” which looked like silly string when he is being tortured for information on Fiona’s whereabouts.

The high energy of the actors makes this show great for kids and adults will enjoy older humor that goes over children’s heads.

It wouldn’t be “Shrek” without “I’m a Believer,” so feel free to get up in your seat and dance your heart out if you want to at the end. Let your freak flags fly.

“Shrek” runs Nov. 7, 8, 13-15 and 20-22 with shows at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. matinees on Sundays and Saturday, Nov. 21. Tickets cost $29 for VIP and $24 for general seating. You can also buy ogre ears at will call and at the snack bar for $3 to get in the swampy spirit! For more information on the production and Little Theatre of Manchester, visit www.cheneyhall.org.

“Rear Window” Starring Kevin Bacon Sizzles in Debut at Hartford Stage

Spoiler Alert: This review does reveal some of the plot, so if you want it to be a surprise, read this after you see it.

People came to the Hartford Stage Friday night for some Bacon and left opening night having experienced something even more savory in “Rear Window.”

The thriller — perhaps more commonly known in the form of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film adaptation starring James Stewart as L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries and Grace Kelly as female ingenue Lisa Carol Fremont — actually mirrors the original crime story by Cornell Woolrich more closely in playwright Keith Reddin’s stage adaptation. Set in the 1940’s, the play stars Kevin Bacon as wheelchair bound Hal Jeffries who spies on his neighbors and is convinced one of them, Thorwald (Robert Stanton), killed his wife, Mrs. Thorwald (Melinda Page Hamilton).

Before Bacon completely emerged on stage, the audience applauded as they heard the stage door open in the obscured set bedroom. He crutched in with a full leg cast and didn’t have to speak for you to recognize the attention to detail and prestigious talent in his acting. Bacon presents a eccentrically fixated, rugged, washed up former crime journalist, with masked flamboyance, who helped police nab many killers — an alteration from Stewart’s photographer peering through his literal and figurative camera lens at his neighbors’ lives for entertainment and even questionably voyeuristic purposes.

Bacon’s Jeffries also observes his neighbors for entertainment, referring to them as characters in his own real-life movie. But his spying doesn’t seem to be of the “peeping Tom” variety and more of a character study of their lives. He seemingly thrives on solving the puzzle of others’ lives with frightening precision and connecting with them from afar while at the same time being ironically reclusive without a real need for human contact and struggling with embracing his own reality.

The playwright, Reddin, who was seated in the audience opening night, infused biographical facets of original author Woolrich’s life into Bacon’s character, such as alcoholism and closeted homosexuality.

“I went back to the original short story by Cornell Woolrich, which was very different from the Hitchcock movie. The relationship of Jeffries to this young black man, Sam was really intriguing and I thought it’s also really topical to now,” Reddin said after the premier, describing the short story as much “grittier,””darker,” and “much more disturbing and complicated.” “So we wanted to go back to that.”

While Grace Kelly plays Stewart’s love interest in the movie, her Lisa and the female caretaker, Stella (Thelma Ritter) don’t appear in the play. Instead Reddin populates the theatrical version with male characters at the forefront of the story. A black caretaker named Sam (McKinley Belcher III) replaces both Lisa and Stella, harking back on Woolrich’s inclusion of that character in the original story. Both Belcher III’s Sam and John Bedford Lloyd’s role as the homicide detective, Boyne allude to Jeffries’ possible romantic interest in Sam, but no physicality manifests confirmation of that. Bacon does, however, portray a self-conflicted resistance to subtle advances and comments referencing his characters’ potential love interest, particularly in forbidding Sam from entering his bedroom at first. Reddin said that he chose that direction with the story, representing the author’s life and the time period of the original story.

“Cornell Woolrich, the writer, was a repressed homosexual, a closeted homosexual. He was married and then the marriage broke up and then in the ’40s, which was illegal, was trying to have relationships with me,” Reddin said. “You couldn’t do it. It was forbidden. It was illegal. So the fact that there’s this sexual tension that he’s (Jeffries), on a very subtle level’s attracted to this man (Sam) and torn between it’s illegal and forbidden and ‘I’m attracted to this black man because I’m a homosexual,’ as the writer was.

Reddin also found importance in reintroducing the character of Sam because of the racial significance, which he found relevant today as the “Black Lives Matter” movement sweeps the country.

“And the whole thing with police intolerance, you know, the racism of that time, and how it reflects on now, I thought that was really fascinating,” Reddin said.

Lloyd’s pompous Boyne interacts with Sam in a blatantly racist fashion and Belcher III’s bubbly, friendly Sam puts his guard up the minute Boyne comes through the door, showing contempt and distrust toward law enforcement, symbolizing the tension between police officers and minorities in that time period.

The racial motif also surfaces when Thorwald catches Sam in his apartment looking for clues he murdered his wife (a mission Grace Kelly is sent on in the movie). While Grace Kelly’s Lisa, a white, stunning, upstanding lady, is able to talk her way out of the possible murderer’s apartment wearing his wife’s wedding ring when police arrive, Sam is pegged as a burglar as prejudiced police hunt for him after he flees.

Thorwald later breaks into Jeffries’ apartment armed and out for blood — but not as a scared wife-killer wanting to know why a stranger is harassing him. He’s not even really after Jeffries or necessarily worried about the accusation of murder and who’s behind it. He knows a black man was rifling through his things and his purpose seems to be a racial motive to kill him. All the while, Sam seems to hope Jeffries, who wrote an unfavorable article condemning police for executing a young black boy he believed was innocent, will be his savior in helping him escape racial stereotypes.

In the movie, the killer is caught and lives to tell his story, but in the play, all killers’ stories are told through Jeffries articles — commemorated with murder weapons from the crimes that he keeps on display in his apartment and other artifacts of Jeffries’ triumphs in helping police put away murderers that secured him journalistic glory. In the stage version, Sam shoots Thorwald dead as police are faced with the aftermath of a shootout involving a black and white man, so he doesn’t tell his story. We know what we know because of Jeffries’ inferences about his life and Boyne’s skewed explanation of the murder of Mrs. Thorwald that makes the police look good and gives Jeffries no credit.

Sam’s fate is unclear at the end. He walks out as an equal with Jeffries, who is seemingly at peace, leaving the murder weapon memorabilia on the walls instead of continuing to herald them as trophies. Jeffries is walking again and seems to accept his relationship with Sam and refuses to let him carry his suitcase like a servant. But we saw Sam get shot, so did he die and this is a figment of Jeffries’ imagination? Or did he actually live and his death was faked so he and Jeffries could start over happily ever after?

Perhaps the reason for that blurred ending is that we see different versions of Jeffries’ reality, obscured by alcohol and tempered on the surface over layers of near insanity, paranoia and the thrill of uncovering people’s secrets. He seems to abruptly jump to the conclusion that Thorwald killed his wife early on, deciding on the ending without evidence and looking for any clue to support his theory. The play often cuts back and forth hastily to his spying and conspiracy theories like you’re on a train that has stalled and then suddenly jolts full steam ahead. Jeffries’ obsession with proving Thorwald is a murderer controls his reality and drives the plot.

We see this visually with one of the most elaborate and ingeniously crafted sets I’ve ever seen, designed by Alexander Dodge, who also did the set for the Tony Award-Winning Hartford Stage original musical, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” Jeffries’ apartment is at the forefront and the back wall drops when we are observing Jeffries spying on his neighbors, brought to life by an ensemble that breathes depth into the story’s many layers. The apartment of the Thorwalds’ even spins so we can see the interior as Jeffries imagines it during conversations with Thorwald in his head. The production is very cinematic by design and makes utilizes music, train sound effects, projections of Bacon’s eyes as he spies on his neighbors and other images and other visual and audio elements, bringing the feel of the movie to live theater.

“There’s jump cuts and dissolves and reveals and we had a whole score, you know, which you don’t usually see. Like a film score underscoring all the action. You don’t usually see that with theater, so again the director wanted to use a lot of cinematic devices and also make it theatrical,” Reddin said. “Going into his (Jeffries’) head like a guy is talking to him in his head and stuff like that.”

The dropping set wall also allows us to more clearly see what Jeffries is seeing when he looks out his rear window, making it much more interesting than if this were a one-man show only relaying his observations through monologue and reliance on audience imagination. Thrillers are more effective when they draw on all the senses required to give you chills and make you curious about the unknown. The visual access to the back apartment set also allows Jeffries to have conversations, albeit imaginary, with Mrs. Thorwald, and to better see interactions with her and her husband to build on the audience’s assessment of whether Thorwald had a motive to kill his wife and is indeed a murderer. This also takes us visually into Jeffries’ head a bit more.

You don’t hear the neighbors speak much in the movie, besides when Thorwald comes to Jeffries’ apartment to confront him and figure out what’s going on.

Melinda Page Hamilton, also known for her role as the real Mrs. Donald Draper in “Mad Men, doubles as Mrs. Thornwald and Gloria, Jeffries’ ex-wife, who we see in flashbacks. Reddin said that was intentional because he sees some of Gloria in her, perhaps seeking redemption for his failed marriage and the pain he caused Gloria by trying to save Mrs. Thorwald or get justice for her if she indeed was killed.

“We played around with the idea that maybe you think he’s crazy or this guy didn’t do it and he’s disintigrating as your watch, but ironically he’s actually right,” Reddin said.

Woolrich, who Isaac Asimov dubbed “the master of suspense” and his editor Francis M. Nevins Jr. called the “Poe of the Twentieth Century,” was born in 1903 in New York City  and studied journalism at Columbia University in 1918, influencing film noir with his short stories and novels, according to the playbill for “Rear Window.” In 1925, he got a foot infection and left college to write his first novel, “Cover Charge” and later met and married filmmaker J. Stuart Blackton’s daughter, Gloria Blackton, who he met when he moved to Hollywood to work on a screen adaption of his second book, “Children of the Ritz,” according to the program. But they only lasted six months and Gloria later discovered Woolrich’s diary, which disclosed him “dressing up in a sailor suit to pick up men.” He said in one entry that “it might be a really good joke to marry this Gloria Blackton,” according to the program.

Woolrich moved in with his mother in New York and lived with her for the remainder of her years, writing crime and detective stories that were published in “pulp magazines,” according to the program. “Three O’Clock” and “It Had to Be Murder,” the inspiration for “Rear Window,” were two of his most famous stories and many of his works were adapted to movies, radio and television, the program states. He became more reclusive and took his mother’s death in 1957 pretty hard, turning to the bottle and drinking heavily, which affected his writing as he dabbled in less successful horror and adventure fiction, according to the playbill. He got gangrene in 1968 and the infection spread on his right leg, requiring it to be amputated below his knee, the playbill states. That year, he dipped into a coma after being found unconscious in a hotel room, dying Sept. 25, according to the program.

The playwright, Reddin, is from New Jersey and now lives in New York, but he chose to debut his stage adaptation of “Rear Window” in Connecticut at the Hartford Stage because of Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak, who directed “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.”

“Because Darko’s a very exciting director,” Reddin said, adding that he enjoyed tackling “old film noir” and “crime stories.” “You know, he’s visually the most exciting director around. I knew that he could bring this to life in a really big way. This is a huge ambitious production that we don’t normally get to see.”

And if you were lucky enough to get tickets to the sold-out production, you will.

For more information on “Rear Window” and the Hartford Stage, visit www.hartfordstage.org. The play runs through Nov. 15. The theater did make standing room only seats available opening night, so it might be worth looking into because this is a production you won’t want to miss. I could definitely see this as another Hartford Stage original making it to Broadway.

Click here to hear director Darko Tresnjak talk about “Rear Window.”