American Idol Fradiani,Trinity Grad Platten and All-Stars Sing in the Christmas Season

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Rob Thomas closes 96.5 TIC’s All-Star Christmas concert at Oakdale Theatre in Wallinford, Connecticut on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015.

Oh what a beautiful night it was Saturday as budding and veteran artists made waves at Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford for the All-Star Christmas concert.

A couple musicians with Connecticut ties returned to perform among six acts bursting with talent at 96.5 TIC’s annual holiday concert – Nick Fradiani and Rachel Platten. Charlie Puth, Nate Ruess, The Band Perry and Rob Thomas were the other performers.

These days, things are looking up for Nick Fradiani – American Idol to the nation and one of our own living the dream to a Connecticut audience. He opened the show and had a smaller time slot, but he didn’t go unnoticed.  He performed with a smile and the ease of someone who had been a star all along before “American Idol” voters crowned him so. With signature ab-bending bops, Fradiani had dynamic energy and used the whole stage as he filled the auditorium from the floor to the balcony with the music of a champion. He gave us a sample of his upcoming album with some of the newer songs he’s been working on and closed with a crowd favorite and his “Idol” coronation song, “Beautiful Life” with his Beach Avenue buddies, Nick Abraham on guitar and harmonizing vocals and Ryan Zipp on percussion among those backing him. The song has a “carpe diem” vibe to it, reminding us to seize the moment because we’re never promised tomorrow.

Like a small boat on the ocean, Rachel Platten, a Trinity College ’03 graduate, has spent 12 years cultivating her music career and chasing a dream. But after writing “Fight Song” about pressing forward in her pursuit on song-writing and musical success despite obstacles, she is sending big waves into motion as she rises in the vast music scene. That song has become my anthem because it’s about more than pursuing a music career, it’s about fighting through life no matter what has you down. It brought me to tears on Saturday night and it’s the only song in a concert that has ever drawn that much emotion out of me. She also played music from her upcoming album, “Wildfire,” which is available to pre-order now. I also love her upbeat song “Stand by You” about standing by your love with faith no matter the hardships you face. She was so genuine in her inter-song monologues and I see Taylor Swift passion and positivity in her. We  can expect great things and she was one of the main reasons I wanted to go to the show.

I was familiar, as most people probably were, with Charlie Puth from his song featuring Meghan Trainor – “Let’s Marvin Gaye and Get it On.” He said he tried to get Meghan to come with him, but was unable to bring her, however, the song worked as a solo when he performed it. The 24-year-old was the youngest singer gracing the stage at the concert, but his talent and range was impressive. Puth is a singer who excels at falsetto and I appreciated the opportunity to see his music stripped down to him and the piano. He was Marvin Gaye meets Michael Bublé meets Ed Sheeran in his songs of soft, jazzy pure emotion. I really enjoyed his song “Suffer” about a girl who messed with his head for a couple weeks and appreciated his relatable candor. He also played a song I didn’t realize he sang and it turns out it’s one I harmonize to often in the car – “See You Again,” normally featuring Wiz Khalifa. Congratulations to Puth for his Grammy nominations for that song! After this show, I’d really like to follow his music.

The only musician I wasn’t familiar with going into the concert was Nate Ruess, who it turns out is the lead singer of the band Fun. I actually recognized a few of his songs and would like to hear more.

The Band Perry was another reason I came to this concert. I didn’t realize until they were telling the audience that they are siblings. The band features Kimberly, Reid and Neil Perry, often with Kimberly on lead vocals. “If I Die Young” is the song I know them for, but I enjoyed hearing their other music that I had never experienced before. They played one of the only traditional Christmas songs in the show and I would have liked to hear different artists takes on the classics in a concert dubbed as a Christmas show. For siblings to be able to share the gift of music together, that’s the ultimate Christmas present.

Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty was the headliner. He had 20 years or so of music to choose from in designing his set list for the show. “Smooth” was one of my favorites to hear, which was originally a collaboration with Carlos Santana. Thomas really worked the crowd, even venturing out into the audience. My favorite moment was when he stopped mid-song in one of his pieces and said “something’s missing.” And he brought out Nick Fradiani to help him close the show on a song. I would have liked to see more of the artists jamming together on stage because collaborative music is trendy right now and makes the songs we here frequently more fresh. They were kept very separate with 20-minute breaks or so between each set, losing fluidity in the format of the concert, but allowing the audience time to mingle and buy food and beverages in the lobby.

Fighting the traffic getting out of the Oakdale afterward was worth it because these were some exceptional artists. And I hope I see them again.

 

 

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TheaterWorks Serves Up ‘Christmas on the Rocks’: Raise a Glass to the Holiday Tradition

Christmas is not all “fah who for-aze, dah who dor-aze” for grown-up Christmas characters woefully cycling through a bar on Christmas Eve in “Christmas on the Rocks” at TheaterWorks in Hartford.

Someone shoots Ralph’s eye out (“Christmas Story” fans will appreciate this and the leg lamp decor in the bar). Susan (the little girl from “A Miracle on 34th Street” who gets the house she wants from Kris Kringle) becomes a real estate agent. Hermey the Elf launches a vengeful plan against an attention-hogging Rudolph that causes him to lose his glowing red nose. Cindy Lou Who marries the Grinch and snorts cocaine between swigs of hard liquor. Tiny Tim lives, but isn’t keeping Christmas in his heart. Clara goes on a nut-smashing spree after her never-aging nutcracker husband is unfaithful. Charlie Brown’s marriage to psychiatrist Lucy is a football-kicking sham that leaves him just about as depressed as we see him in various “Peanuts” cartoons.

They’re not the happy endings we’d imagine for our beloved yuletide protagonists, but the stories in this bar are served straight up with a twist, pouring raw humanity and bitters into the charming “cocktales” we know and love. It’s relatable. They are the hard truth, which, only in a bar, comes out so easily to strangers.

That’s why Director Rob Ruggiero conceived the concept of the “offbeat collection of twisted holiday tales” set in a bar that gives modern context to why we are hearing these sob stories.

The TheatreWorks original and holiday tradition is in its third year. Ruggiero recruited seven writers – John Cariani, Jeffrey Hatcher, Jacques LaMarre, Matthew Lombardo, Theresa Rebeck, Edwin Sánchez and Jonathan Tolins – to each write a vignette. In doing that instead of having one writer for the whole show, it breathes an original voice into each character that keeps each scene distinct and fresh in an “Almost Maine” sort of fashion.

And it’s all done with a three-person cast. Ronn Carroll plays the fatherly, endearing bartender who gives good advice that helps his forlorn customers. Jenn Harris reprises her role for the second year as “the woman,” playing all the female character. She brought on Matthew Wilkas, who she has worked with on other projects like feature film “Gayby,” to take on the male roles in his debut at TheaterWorks. The Bridgeport native mostly does acting in New York and has played the role of Peter Parker/Spiderman on Broadway.

Harris and Wilkas rise to the challenge of uniquely portraying multiple characters.

All of the characters have their sorrows, but Wilkas seems to have the most depressed characters – Ralph, who’s lonely after being separated from his family in the real world, Tiny Tim, who’s lost his optimism, and Charlie Brown, who’s never gotten to kick the football and find true love. But they have a lot of meaningful things to say that make you think.

In contrast, his high-energy, flamboyant Hermey the Elf is a show-stopper and was my favorite character in the show. His no-filter, nonstop chatter – which hilariously continues even when the bartender leaves the room when he can’t stand it – was riddled with poisonous humor and sarcasm that evoked nonstop laughter. Ironically, Wilkas said after the show that this was his least favorite character to play because he was concerned he would offend someone, but it doesn’t show in the most dynamic character in the show.

Another favorite was Cindy Lou Who. Her style spoke the loudest from her green Grinchy scarf and bright pink dress and fishnets to her colorful array of jewelry, wildly curly blonde hair and antennas. The writing for this scene was probably my favorite because the whole scene mirrored Dr. Seuss’s language and rhyming pattern.

The show always keeps you on your feet, not knowing what to expect. The joy of it is piecing together the puzzle in each scene as you try to figure which Christmas legends the characters are. Ruggiero said he’s even thought about mixing up the characters in future years to keep the play fresh.

Harris had some of the more challenging characters to identify. It didn’t click until halfway through her first vignette that she was Susan, the adorable little girl from “Miracle on 34th Street.” Once they started talking about Kris Kringle, the department store and the gift of the house with a cane left behind, I got it and that perhaps made it more meaningful because it was less obvious. Clara from “The Nutcracker” took me a little while until I saw the ballet slippers. Her Russian accent was also a hint before, of course, the nutcracker prop is revealed. Clara’s angry outbursts jab humor through the outrage. Her apparent psychotic break as she smashes nuts all over the bar with a nutcracker leaves a seamless transition into the Charlie Brown scene when the bartender looks at him and merely says, “Peanuts?”

Then, of course, there’s Little Red-Haired Girl, the quiet red-head Charlie Brown admired in the cartoons. While you knew what she was from, it was hard to place her initially. However, she is one of my favorite characters Harris plays because she gives Charlie Brown the beginning of his happy ending. It’s also the only scene Harris and Wilkas have together the whole show. I only wish more of the characters could have interacted.

Harris has a knack for playing many of her characters straight yet you glean their humor even through their seriousness. She had me laughing throughout.

The bartender is the constant that ties all the narratives together, much like the narrator in “Our Town.” Carroll said that the challenge of the bartender was coming up with a believable and consistent personality given each writer wrote the bartender in their own distinct way. He’s played the bartender every year, but the difference is the mix of cast members year to year that affect how he can play off them to make their chemistry fit in each character interaction.

Is he Father Christmas? That’s been a thought over the years as the production’s evolved at TheatreWorks, but that’s an unanswered question that’s left open to interpretation. It’s not overt, but in a subtle way he could be Santa. He gives all the characters gifts on Christmas Eve in the form of friendship, compassion and wisdom.  He is all-knowing about the different Christmas story worlds and his advice makes them think and pulls them higher out of their ruts.

When you watch the same Christmas movies every year, you’re sometimes left wondering what happens to your beloved characters after the story is over. “Christmas on the Rocks” is the afterlife of those stories that we’ve never otherwise had that allows the tales to live on as you see what happens to some of the most iconic Christmas personalities.

If you buy a wine or beer to have in your seat, it will put you in the mentality of sitting in a bar. The intimate setting of the theater makes you feel as though you’re a part of this very realistic, quaint bar thanks to the charming, intricately decorated set with a door that even opens to falling snow. Any seat is good in this establishment.

The Hartford Stage has “A Christmas Carol” and TheatreWorks has “Christmas on the Rocks.” I’ll raise a glass to both and hope this one becomes a longtime staple. Tradition is nice around the holidays, isn’t it?

“Christmas on the Rocks” runs through Dec. 23. Go to theaterworkshartford.org for more information on the production and to buy tickets.

“A Christmas Carol”: Hartford Stage Holiday Tradition of the Past, Present and Future

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                                                                                               Credit: T. Charles Erickson

“A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas” at Hartford Stage is a holiday tradition Christmases past and present and without a doubt many yet to come.

There wasn’t much different about the staging of “A Christmas Carol” this year after an overhaul of the costumes, effects and lighting a couple years ago. But that’s the beauty of tradition. It’s something to look forward every year. You might wonder why you’d want to see a show that’s essentially the same as the year before, but when you think about it, that’s why we watch Christmas movies every year that will never change. We love the lines, stories and characters and they stick with us. But even when a theater production is “the same,” there are variances in the casting, acting choices, line deliveries and character chemistry that can make a show fresh. And with it being live you never know what to expect! You can also watch the same show and notice new nuances every time. For me, this time, I was paying more attention to the dancing.

In fact, some of the things I love about “A Christmas Carol” at Hartford stage are the things that usually never (and shouldn’t) change. It’s the story of the classic Dickens tale of an old miserly bachelor, who is selfish about money and doesn’t keep Christmas in his heart, who is visited by four spirits for a chance to correct his path toward an early death and afterlife of chains and misery with the visits of four spirits. And this version resonates in our hearts.

First and foremost is Bill Raymond (who also played the Speaker of the House in “Lincoln” and was in “Gypsy” on Broadway with Patti Lapone). He is the heart and soul of “A Christmas Carol” as Scrooge (or as they fondly call him throughout the show, “the wicked ‘ol Screw”). Even though he plays a grumpy, Christmas-loathing miser, he is consistently the character that makes me laugh the most. What’s remarkable about Raymond is his instinct for comedic timing and playing off the audience’s reactions, especially what he does when he’s not speaking, from an accentuated hip thrust to get an achy older man down the stairs to voicing light saber sound effects during a drunken cider-fueled pretend sword fight with a ghost.

Another favorite moment is when he locks multiple padlocks to conceal the money in his desk only to have to unlock them all again when Bob Cratchit (Robert Hannon Davis) has to give him his wages. Oh, and the feather-dusting scene with Mrs. Dilber (Noble Shropshire).

Raymond gives Scrooge layers from bumbling, senile and quirky to sharp and judgmental to bitter and greedy to lovable and funny. He also knows which lines to emphasize and is tactful about his delivery. Lines like “dead as a doornail” and the string of similes after his ghostly visits (“merry as a schoolboy,” “giddy as a drunken man,” et cetera) are ones we remember from the original story. From repeating “dead” over and over to not overplaying the similes contrary to frequent interpretations and instead rattling through them like they’re toss away lines, Raymond breathes his own unique take on the words his character is given. From his laughs and expressions to his dainty, sprightly way of moving about the stage, I always look forward to soaking in every moment of Raymond’s Scrooge.

The year he stops doing “A Christmas Carol,” well let’s hope that day doesn’t come for awhile.

Noble Shropshire is the other audience favorite, double-cast as Mrs. Dilber and Jacob Marley. I adore him as Mrs. Dilber, whose sarcasm and humor is a highlight and who draws a lot of laughs as a man playing a woman. He seemed scarier than ever before as Scrooge’s late business partner Jacob Marley, flying in a scene involving dancing spirits emerging from a trap door flooded with red lights and fog that has always stuck with me since I was seeing this show as a child. His versatility and chemistry with Raymond make him another staple cast member we want to return annually.

The actors playing the three spirits double-cast as marketplace workers indebted to Scrooge — Johanna Morrison (doll vender Bettye Pidgeon/Spirit of Christmas Past/beggar woman), fruit and cider vender Alan Rust (Bert/Spirit of Christmas Present) and Michael Preston (Mr. Marvel and, we think, Spirit of Christmas Future) — are also highlights who bring true team spirit to the production.

Robert Hannon Davis (Bob Cratchit) is another veteran in the production whose acting prowess stands out. He plays the straight man to Raymond’s sometime eccentric Scrooge that makes it possible for the comedy to play well against his calm and pleasant but serious demeanor.

The show has a talented ensemble and even characters with minor roles have shining moments. I always love watching the games at Fred’s party in Scrooge’s tour with the Spirit of Christmas Present. Alex Setterini drew a lot of laughs as the nervous, awkward young bachelor, Mr. Topper, who seems to put his foot in his mouth with the ladies. The young lady who he is arranged to play “I Love My Love With an A” with contrasts his character with outgoing, giggly energy that makes the two play well off each other.

Casting is something that’s indeed well-thought out in this production. This year brought a new actor — Terrell Donnell Sledge — in to play the usually double-cast role of Scrooge’s merry nephew Fred and Scrooge at 30. Sledge brought a lot of energy and cheer to both roles at the appropriate moments, including a hilarious moment where he sneaks up on his uncle and pinches him in the rear.

I will say that I was admittedly distracted through a lot of the show by the directing team’s choice to have a black man play young adult Scrooge when the youngest and oldest Scrooges in the show are both white. I wanted so badly not to notice it, but I got distracted by the logic of biology. It was clear this casting decision was made for a reason, so before I wrote my review, I reached out to the directing team to get context for the choices they made.

The answer was very admirable. Associate Director Rachel Alderman said that the directing team always employs “color-blind casting,” also known as non-traditional casting, in the Hartford Stage rendition of “A Christmas Carol.” It’s the philosophy that anyone can play any character regardless of his or her race, counting on the audience to look past race and looks and see the character for the character. Alderman said it’s also a way of giving the story a fresh spin that appeals to a modern-day perspective and welcoming diversity into the show. She said that particularly reflects the Hartford community where the theater is located that is made up of people of different ethnicities.

The production also includes a lot of child actors and the “color-blind casting” allows more children from varying backgrounds and ethnicities to partake in the production. You’ll often notice diversity in the Cratchit family, for instance.

Alderman also pointed out that this is a ghost story. So, it’s the idea that a spirit can have different vessels if you will. Scrooge can really live on in any ethnicity when you think about it. It’s about the spirit of the actors, not their looks.

Speaking of looks, the visuals in Hartford Stage’s “A Christmas Carol” are always festively stunning. The entrances of the ghosts really are like scenes from a movie or portraits. Spirit of Christmas Past’s entrance on the sleigh through the white fog as snow falls is beautiful and Spirit of Christmas Present’s glittery float with two children poised on either corner as apparent cherubs sparkled. There was one moment when he knocked off one of the children’s halos accidentally, but the child maintained focus and didn’t break character, a tough skill when something goes wrong in live theater and impressive at such a young age.

The Christmas tree for the party that turns into curtain call also closes a heartwarming story and gets us in the spirit for the holidays.

The choreographed spirits in glowing white Victorian-style costumed accessorized with deadly weapons is a signature part of this show and adds to the ambience of the ghost story (don’t use the floor exit, you might run into a ghost).

The lighting effects are spectacular from the shadow casting outlines of windows in Scrooge’s counting house to the lights casting clock shapes onto the floor to represent the motif of time.

One challenge the actors face in this production is that most of them have to speak without microphones and project. For the most part it works in the small theater and gives it a raw quality that makes it relatable. It was hard to hear the quiet voice of the child actor playing Tim Cratchit (Norah Girard or Max McGowan) on opening night Friday, Dec. 4. The placement of Tiny Tim in a chair that had its back to the audience may have contributed to that, but the child actor was so adorable that it didn’t ruin anything.

The only other criticism I had was more of a writing observation about the script. When the Spirit of Christmas Present pulls back his robe to reveal Ignorance and Want, the two children, there’s not much preamble into their significance and the big reveal of those symbolic characters is not as jarring and shocking as it is in the movie. Maybe there was a reason for that, but it just made it a little more random that they were there. It wasn’t a glaring issue, so that’s more of an observation of personal preference that won’t make or break the performance.

Alderman said that the directing team valued keeping with the integrity of the adaptation and staging by original director Michael Wilson. And it seems like they have been able to maintain that for the 18 years this production has run during the holiday season.

Maxwell Williams directed this show, choreography was done by Hope Clarke, Ken Clark was the music director, Tony Straiges oversaw scenic design, Alejo Vietti and Zack Brown did the costume design, Robert Wierzel did the lighting design and John Gromada did the original music and sound design.

“A Christmas Carol” runs through Dec. 27. Weeknight and evening performances start at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and select weekday matinees start at 2 p.m. There’s also a sensory-friendly performance on Tuesday, Dec. 8 at 7 p.m. that welcomes “families of children with autism or other disabilities that create sensory sensitivities,” according to a release from the Hartford Stage. For more information on the production and tickets, visit www.hartfordstage.org/christmas-carol or call the box office at 860-527-5151.