Flock Pours Connecticut History-Infused Elderberry Wine in ‘Arsenic & Old Lace’

 

Eric Michaelian (Mortimer) and Amy Bentley (Elaine) Photo credit: Derron Wood

 
As the Brewster sisters served up their infamous elderberry wine with their killer secret ingredient – arsenic – at their boarding house in New London-based Flock Theatre’s closing weekend of “Arsenic & Old Lace,” patrons drank in some Connecticut history.

There’s a fine line between normalcy and insanity, as well as reality and theatrics, in Joseph Kesselring’s play inspired by real life serial killings at a Windsor, Connecticut home for the elderly, nicknamed the “Murder Factory,” where a woman named Amy Duggan Archer Gilligan was poisoning her boarders for their penchants.

Mortimer Brewster (Eric Michaelian) is a begrudged theater critic (the Cary Grant character in the 1944 film by the same name) who is engaged to the love of his life, Elaine Harper (Amy Bentley), the beautiful girl living next door to his sweet aunts, Abby Brewster (Suzanne McCormick) and Martha Brewster (Denise Shutzman). On the day he reveals the news of his upcoming nuptials to his loving aunts, he unearths a major skeleton (or 12) in their closet (or their window seat and basement).

They are poisoning boarders, specifically men, with arsenic-laced elderberry wine and burying them in graves dug by his crazed yet lovable uncle, Teddy (Bill Steinmayer), who thinks he’s President Theodore Roosevelt digging locks in the Panama Canal and burying yellow fever victims. Mortimer begins questioning his own sanity as he deals with his deluded family. The gravity of the situation later intensifies when his terrifying, murderous and multi-“face”-ted brother, Jonathan (Mark Sullivan) returns home.

Flock created an intimate setting by staging the play in a small room in Shaw Mansion, New London County’s historical society headquarters on Blinman Street.

The show was so popular and the space was so small that it sold out closing weekend, so Flock added a Saturday matinee.  A few rows of audience members sat close to the action happening just a few feet before our eyes on Saturday. In having us sit in the dining room of a real house, we are invited into what feels like an actual boarding home and are kept in close proximity to the story like we are part of it. The actors brushed by us in their aisle entrances making it so real and allowing us to feel the energy even more. It makes the play more relatable and meaningful.

The tight room also makes the actors’ reactions, emotions and expressions even more pertinent because the audience is so close and their every movement is more noticeable. For instance, you could detect nerves if an actor’s hand was shaking while holding a teacup and saucer and it was noticeable when actors broke character by making eye contact with audience members. Actors occasionally stuttered lines, which may not have been as audible in a theater, but they quickly recovered so it didn’t detract from the performance. That imaginary fourth wall between the actors and audience goes away when you’re so close to the action, just like theater in the round, so it takes even more concentration on the actors’ parts to play to the audience and connect without seeming to be aware of the people watching. It’s a challenging task.

However, for the most part, the close setting worked in the Flock company’s favor because the cast was very strong.

You could also hear their raw voices without the need for audio enhancement or microphones. As actors also shouted lines from other rooms in the mansion, it added more depth to the simplistic set to portray the illusion of other rooms we never see in the boarding house.

It breathed more comedy into Steinmayer yelling “charge” every time he leaves the room or blaring his bugle for “cabinet meetings” because the booming sound exaggerates Teddy’s eccentricities even more. Steinmayer’s look and mannerisms are even more distinct close up, so he was recognizable as his character’s Teddy Roosevelt persona before anyone even addressed him as such. He does a “bully” good job in that role.

Bentley achieves something very difficult in the world of theater. She goes beyond a character saying lines and delivers us a character who’s so real to the point you almost forget she’s an actress playing a role. The believability of her character is a credit to the raw emotions she pours into Elaine in how she connects with other characters. Her chemistry with Michaelian was particularly strong. Her loving and searching eyes as she makes eye contact with him so genuinely portrays her character’s love for Mortimer as he pulls away from her to protect her in dealing with his aunts’ murders and the reappearance of his dangerous brother, Jonathan. You can relate to her really easily.

Michaelian says a lot even when he’s saying nothing at all as Mortimer. The expressions in his eyes and on his face, as well as his exasperated reactive noises that emote shock more than words can, show us the complexity of his characters’ thoughts, emotions, reactions and motivations. Mortimer isn’t always able to say what he’s thinking because he’s a sane person processing what he deems to be insane in his family lineage as he worries he faces the same fate. As he grapples with morality and understanding of his family’s insanity, his words put on a truth-concealing layer of protectiveness for his aunts and fiancée as a front to bide time for him to figure out how to act. All the while, his instincts are frantic and we can read even deeper into his character’s internal conflicts in seeing the contrast between his lines and reactions. His initial discovery of a dead body in the window seat, revealing his aunts’ dark secret, is hilarious and priceless, drawing us into his shock even more so than if he just told us how he felt.

Similarly the aunts’ sweet, innocent and respectable demeanor juxtaposed against their actions of murdering 12 men with poison wine serves us comedy with a twist. McCormick and Shultzman are so pleasant, nonchalant and calm when they explain to Mortimer how they help men achieve a peaceful end without suffering that it lightens the mood with humor in contrast to the horrible deeds to which they are confessing. Instead of growing alarmed in their honesty or worrying about the repercussions, we see that they think their reasoning is rational, which is perhaps even more terrifying to Mortimer.

Sullivan’s character is very important in redirecting the story by upping the ante. He too has killed 12 people, bringing in another body to add to the window seat and “Panama Canal.” He also speaks matter-of-factly about his killings with a Donald Sutherland look and air about him, but we judge him more than the aunts because of his foreboding personality and stature and the graphic, horrific nature of the murders. Just don’t call him Boris Karloff. He’s sensitive about that.

Alex Kydd was another comic standout with his German accent as the quirky Dr. Einstein who gives Jonathan new faces, proving that appearances can be deceiving. A lot of characters put on fronts and faces, but Jonathan literally changes his.

Throughout the story, Mortimer grows increasingly more concerned about his own sanity to the point where he wonders if he should subject Elaine to marrying him. If his family is crazy, will he eventually become insane?

The play calls into question the definition of insanity. The Brewster sisters and Jonathan are arguably the most insane in their actions of serial killing and being okay with it, yet they are also the characters who are the least frightened and the most calm in talking about what they’ve done. Teddy may be defined as the crazy one in the play, but Mortimer is fine with him taking the rap for his aunt’s indiscretions, in fact coming up with that plan because it’s easier to justify the murders in his mind by blaming it on someone’s insanity as opposed to accepting his aunts are at peace with it. Yet, his aunts don’t want Teddy to take the blame and don’t believe the police will trouble themselves with all the paperwork of explaining all the dead bodies in their cellar. 

Teddy’s world is delusional because we obviously know he isn’t really the president of the United States, there is no yellow fever plaguing the Brewster boarding house and there is no Panama Canal in the basement. But “insanity” is an easy and understandable explanation for his abnormal actions. Mortimer is more alarmed by his aunts’ reality of killing than Teddy’s fiction.

The characters who are supposed to be the most sane are sometimes the ones who act the most irrationally. Elaine is bewildered when Mortimer goes from proposing to her one minute and throwing her out of the house the next as he runs around like a crazy person, frantically trying to figure out what to do.

Then there’s the police, who are supposed to be the prevailers of justice by punishing lawbreakers. Yet they can’t see what’s right in front of them when faced with criminality, perceiving truth as unrealistic. Teddy, the supposedly crazy one, is one of the first to tell them about the dead bodies in the basement, but they don’t believe him. They just write it off as crazy and don’t want to risk digging up the basement just because of what could be delusions. Then, when the aunts tell them, they still don’t believe them because they are pillars in the community and perception blinds them. When it comes down to it, Lt. Rooney (Malcom Cameron) and the officers just don’t want to deal with it, true or not.

And when Jonathan and Dr. Einstein tie Mortimer up and gag him in preparation to torture and kill him, Officer O’Hara (Nick Perry) happens upon it and thinks it’s Mortimer just acting out a scene from a play in a comical moment of dramatic irony made possible by the enthusiasm in Perry’s delivery. Rather than seeing it for what it is and rescuing Mortimer in his role as a police officer, he thinks it’s all play and as an aspiring playwright proceeds to tell the bound and gagged theater critic about his big story idea for his own script. Then when two more police officers (Stephen Breaux and Zach Amanti as Officers Klein and Brophy, respectively) barge into the home, they are more focused on addressing noise complaints about the bugle playing of a crazy man, Teddy, than completely grasping the severity of the situation. Sure, they do happen upon Jonathan and recognize him as a wanted man, but it still isn’t a focus for them.

Theatrical references are woven throughout the script despite the fact that Mortimer hates the theater. Theater becomes a metaphor for insanity versus reality, particularly in the scene where Mortimer criticizes the stupidity of a theatrical victim falling into harm’s way despite his intelligence as the very same thing is happening before our eyes as Jonathan creeps up behind him to capture him. In the same way, he can’t accept the possibility of insanity being in his life, so it comes as a great relief to him and Elaine when he finds out he isn’t really biologically related to any the Brewsters. Yet theater represents reality more than he realizes.

The Hartford Courant broke the real-life story of Amy Duggan Archer Gilligan that inspired the play, dubbing her Windsor home for the elderly, the “Murder Factory,” according to connecticuthistory.org/windsors-murder-factory. Two of her husbands died, as well as 60 residents of her boarding house between 1907 and 1916, according to the website. Authorities eventually dug up dozens of bodies from the property and discovered traces of arsenic with them, ultimately leading to her conviction and placement in a Middletown state mental hospital due to the legal determination she was “insane,” the website reports.

Similarly, the Brewster aunts resolve to go to a home for the insane with Teddy. Under the guise of insanity, they are never really punished for their crime and are content. Yet Jonathan is arrested and imprisoned. There is no right and wrong or black and white in this play.The funny part about the ending is that the aunts have to outshine Jonathan and “win” by killing one more person than him as we see them about to poison one more man, Mr. Witherspoon (George Dowker), the superintendent of the home for the mentally insane. The three Brewsters are all murderers, yet they don’t face the same consequences. Are the aunts’ serial killings on a different plain than Jonathan’s murders?

It’s part of the dramatic irony and questions that makes the play all the more comical for a sensible audience that has all the information about the nonsensical plot that unfolds.

Michaelian was part of the Flock team who discovered the Connecticut connection to “Arsenic & Old Lace.” When the theater company learned of the historical relevance of this play to our state, they chose to add it to their lineup.

The historical significance to Connecticut made it a perfect example about how theater can be both real and insane, ultimately making us think as we escape into the story while grasping the features that we can relate to the most.

Fore more information about Flock Theatre, visit www.flocktheatre.org or “like” the theater company on Facebook at facebook.com/flocktheatre.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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‘The Glass Menagerie’: A Unicorn of a Production

  
Light illuminates horses and a unicorn made of glass with sparkling color, putting a delicate spotlight on a subtle corner table display that is centerfold metaphorically in Backyard Theater Ensemble’s “The Glass Menagerie opening Saturday at the Thomaston Opera House.

Chet Ostroski invites us into his character, Tom’s home, narrating between drags on a cigarette under the light of an outdoor lantern. He talks about the artistry of storytelling, likening his role to that of an illusionist of truth. Ostroski presents us with two characters – a seemingly content, reflective and jubilant narrator juxtaposed and a sarcastic Tom who feels unhappy, trapped and stagnant working in a factory and putting up with his talkative, pushy, yet ultimately caring mother, Amanda (Lucia Dressel).

So, it’s not a story of nostalgia. Not all memories are pretty. But they are real and they are life.

Initially, Tom appears to be the main character, but the story really turns out to center around the meekest character, his younger sister, Laura (Nicole Thomas). She’s painfully shy and walks with a limp, hiding from the world at home and solely passionate about her glass animal collection, which her mom calls the glass menagerie.

She tells us about the only boy she ever liked, who nicknamed her “Blue Roses” in high school. Thanks to her mother’s plotting to have Tom bring home a gentleman caller for Laura from work and coincidence only seemingly possible in theater, she has the chance to reconnect with him.

Thomas is convincing in the physicality the role require in walking with a limp, but it’s not overdone and she also presents us with a timid, quaint persona as delicate as her glass menagerie.

She describes her favorite glass figurine, a unicorn, as unique from the rest and stresses to Jim O’Connor (the dimpled and dapper Matt Albert), her crush from the past, to be careful not to break it. But he does and in a sense breaks her. While she says it’s okay when its horn breaks off because it then fits in with the rest of the horses, you can see in her subtle expressions that it’s actually quite tragic, just like when O’Connor starts to make her feel happy and accepted like a “normal” girl and then breaks her heart. She may have been better on her own like a unique unicorn. The despair in her face in reaction is heartbreaking.

The play by Tennessee Williams is sheer literary artistry, so you really need to pay attention to the words because there’s a lot of symbolism in them.

Even though the stories Tom tells are more about his family dynamic and his sister, he needs to be the narrator because that’s his higher purpose. He’s not nicknamed Shakespeare for nothing. By being the narrator, he’s able to fulfill his desired role as writer.

The lighting is crucial in portraying his memories, particularly in the silhouetted scenes against stunning illuminated colored backdrops. They add character to an otherwise simple set with limited props.

Ostroski’s Tom is constantly telling his mother he’s going to the movies, but we suppose it’s not really where he goes until the early hours of the morning daily. Later on, he tells Jim that he’s sick of going to the movies, where everyone is sitting still while they watch celebrity actors doing amazing things as they’re physically going nowhere. It represents how he feels about his place in life. It’s his glass menagerie. It’s something that the audience can easily relate to – wanting to be further along in your life than you are and grappling for greater accomplishment and purpose.

How would watching a play differ from going to the movies in Tom’s eyes? Who knows. But seeing actors live does make the magic Tom references more real. And although fiction, it sends a message. So, I’d beg to differ with him. This play is thought-provoking and takes our minds on a journey.

We may be sitting still, but our minds are very actively traveling elsewhere as we analyze what a play means to us and teaches us.

This play doesn’t have a happy ending or necessarily a sad ending. It’s unresolved. That could leave the audience hanging. But that’s also life – which continues on a confusing, challenging journey even after the story is over. Our imagination and questions at the end of the play are much like the uncertainty and unpredictable nature of finding your way.

“The Glass Menagerie opens Saturday at Thomaston Opera House and runs for the next three weekends. For more information on the production and tickets, you can visit http://backyardtheater.org/upcoming-events.

The Bushnell Announces Its 2016-17 Season Lineup

Fun Home understudy

Fourth-grade Broadway “Fun Home” swing Alessandra Baldacchino, 9,  sings “Ring of Keys,” the hit song from the Tony Award-winning musical. Credit: Jessie Sawyer

The Bushnell has a lot of Tony Award-winning smashes in its 2016-17 season lineup. “Disaster! On Broadway”star and sassy comedian Seth Rudetsky announced the following shows coming to Mortensen Hall, with Broadway singers performing some of the songs from the upcoming roster of shows:

  • “If/Then” – Aug. 3-7, 2016
  • “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” – Oct. 25-30, 2016
  • “An American in Paris”- Nov.15-20, 2016
  • “The King and I” – May 30-June 4, 2017
  • “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” – Dec. 27, 2016-Jan. 1, 2017
  • “Fun Home”- June 20-25, 2017
  • “Disenchanted” – Sept. 30-Oct 2,2016
  • “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” – Dec. 9-11 2016
  • “The Book of Mormon” – February 14-19, 2017
  • “Circus”
  • “Beautiful: The Carol King Musical” – Jan. 17-22, 2017
Carole King musical

A Broadway actress performs songs from “Beautiful: A Carole King Musical” in the Broadway series preview event at The Bushnell. The musical is coming to the Hartford theater.

The Bushnell also brought in some Broadway actresses to sing some of the songs from the shows, including adorable and expressive “Fun Home” understudy Alessandra Baldacchino, 9, singing “Ring of Keys.” You may recognize the Tony Award-winning musical’s hit song from the cast’s performance at the Tony’s.

Rudetsky also said there’s another musical that’s a surprise that he wasn’t allowed to announce. So we’ll just wrap by saying, “Oh what a night.”

The Bushnell also announced that while it can’t get new popular rap and lyrical musical “Hamilton,” about Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, just yet, the theater plans to as soon as it can.

“I’m thrilled that the staff at The Bushnell has again put together an exciting and well-rounded season of high-quality Broadway entertainment,” Bushnell President and CEO David Fey said. “There is much to appeal to families, Broadway traditionalists, and those who enjoy contemporary theatrical offerings.  I think our season ticket holders and single ticket buyers will be very happy with these award-winning selections.”

It’s exciting to see a Tony Award-winning lineup coming to The Bushnell, as well as some other popular shows like “The Book of Mormon” and “Rudolph” returning.

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow in ‘Romeo & Juliet’ at Hartford Stage

Romeo & Juliet HSC 2-11-16 399.jpg

Photo Credit: T. Charles Erikson

 

Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? Shakespeare’s classic tragic love story “Romeo & Juliet” opened at the Hartford Stage this past weekend telling the story of love physically stifled by miscommunications and hatred in the blood yet prevailing thematically and historically.

How do you retell Shakespeare’s most popular play in a way that’s unique?

Well, to start with, you have Darko Tresnjak, directory of Hartford Stage original “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” turned Tony Award-winning Broadway hit, as artistic director and scenic designer.

“’Romeo & Juliet’ is a play of seemingly infinite possibilities, reinvented from generation to generation for over 400 years, a symbol of romantic love infused with iconic imagery and unforgettable language that has become a part of the vernacular,” Tresnjak said in a statement. “We look forward to exploring this eternally modern play with a company of great stage veterans and rising stars.”

This set was sheer poetry visually. It starts off simple with a pebble Zen garden-like landscape center stage, serving as a town square of sorts, backed by stacked tombstones with background actors constantly adding flowers or candles as part of the scenery. The center of the gravesite has an electronic door that moves up and down and creates an additional upstage set for highlighted actors. It also has a protruding moveable platform that serves as Juliet’s balcony. The Zen garden section of the stage has a center piece that rises and lowers, either carrying actors up, elevating Juliet on top of the stone bed in the final scene or serving as an altar for Romeo & Juliet’s wedding. While it’s a fairly bare set, the pieces that do move are top-notch engineering and by no means simple.

The actors also make their way into the audience, drawing the crowd in by utilizing the aisles and treacherously balancing on the railings right alongside patrons as they deliver lines. It helped give height to their performances and humor.

Because the set is so bare, lighting gave an ominous feel in the nighttime scenes. Romeo’s friend and the prince’s kinsman, Mercutio (Wyatt Fenner) delivered a beautifully mischievous monologue before crashing the Capulets’ party with strategically placed flashlights casting his shadow three times onto the stone grave wall behind him, making his character bigger than life. Literal foreshadowing, perhaps, for the dark end in store for his character?

The costuming, by Ilona Somogyi, modernized the characters’ dress a bit, making the show more visually relatable to a contemporary audience.

Tresnjak also cast diverse actors. Most of the Montagues were white and most of the Capulets, including Juliet and her parents, were black, adding a slight racial element to the families’ rivalries. It’s something that’s been done before on Broadway in the version with Orlando Bloom as Romeo and Condola Rashad as Juliet. There’s a line when Romeo is describing Juliet as “fair,” which could be construed as the color of her skin, but Shakespeare uses a lot of wordplay that has multiple meanings, so that doesn’t have to be a physical description and could instead connote her purity and innocence. This is a moment where the director uses casting to present an alternate and unique interpretation of the text that brings a refreshing quality to the story.

While it’s not a musical, the production utilized music at specific parts, including tribal melodies in the Capulets’ party.

Chris Ghaffari delivers us a playful, comical and intellectual Romeo with a Bruno Mars/Jason Mraz look to him with his vest and hat. Kaliswa Brewster brings youth, passion and positive spirit to his lover, Juliet, reminding us her character is only a teenager. The lovers fall hard for each other and marry in a day after meeting at Juliet’s family’s masquerade party, emphasizing the themes of identity, deceit and layers of human beings. While seemingly unrealistic and foolish, this is a love story that transcends time and sends a message about prejudice and misguided hatred.

Given that the lines are in a more antiquated form of English in Shakespearean tongue, you may not always understand what’s being said. But that’s why the acting is so important. The actors deliver their lines in a more emphatic and expressive way that allow us to understand their meaning and emotions even if we don’t know exactly what they’re saying.

Fenner stood out as a manic Mercutio, the production’s jester at times and other times erupting with rage.

His death has artistic qualities to it. He tries to get on his bicycle, which he is always riding, but is not strong enough to move it while he is moving us all. That moment, like his bicycle, is a vehicle to redirect the plot. He also uses an artificial blood capsule in his mouth and body, smearing the blood on himself like it is paint. Fenner clearly worked out for the role, bearing his six pack in the rumble.

The fight choreography was precise and powerful. Fenner and Jonathan Louis Dent, as Capulet nephew Tybalt, were visibly breathing though when they were supposed to be dead and you could see their stomachs moving up and down. They could have taken shorter breaths to avoid that and stay more still like Brewster and Ghaffari.

Timothy D. Stickney gave a jovial and understanding quality to Capulet, praising Romeo before he kills Tybalt despite the rivalry between their families. That goes away, of course, when there’s a murder in the family.

Who is responsible for the death of Romeo and Juliet ultimately? Is it the impulsive and foolish nature of the youths? Is it the judgement and scorn between the Capulets and Montagues? Or, do we shoot the messenger who never delivers the ever-important message to Romeo about Juliet faking her death with a sleeping potion? Or, is the person who orchestrated Juliet’s whole escape plan and went behind the backs of the lovers’ families to marry them – Friar Laurence (Charles Janasz)?

Janasz gives more weight to his character’s responsibility in the whole scheme, breathing remorse into the friar as he pleads at the end while revealing the part he played in the deceit that led to the young lovers’ suicides.

The question may go unanswered, but one thing’s for certain. It’s a “Romeo and Juliet” to be remembered.

The play runs through March 20 at the Hartford Stage on Church Street. You can visit www.hartfordstage.org for more information about the productions and tickets.

Colchester Community Theatre Takes Us Under the Sea With ‘The Little Mermaid’

While Ariel (Liv Kurtz) dreams to be part of the human world, Colchester Community Theatre made us part of their under-the-sea world in the group’s production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.”

Putting mermaids’ fins and fish on any land stage certainly is a challenge when you lose the magic and abilities that Disney animation allows. But Colchester found a way to work around the seemingly impossible in its own charming way at Bacon Academy on closing day Sunday, Valentine’s Day.

You obviously don’t have water for the sea creatures to swim on or the ship and Scuttle to float on (hmm…new idea, “The Little Mermaid” the musical done in a giant aquarium shark tank). But that’s where suspension of disbelief and creativity come in.

Costumes were a big part of that and the make-up was so detailed and beautiful, which was stunning even if you couldn’t see the intricacies until greeting the cast up close after the show.

I adored the skating fish in “Under the Sea,” probably the strongest number in the entire production, largely because of the colorful and creative costumes. The jellyfish with shiny umbrellas and precious little oysters were other standouts.

Later in the show, I equally loved the tap-dancing seagulls, though they didn’t all have taps and it was sometimes confusing where the sound of their clicking footsteps originated.

When Kurtz plays Ariel the mermaid, she cruises around on skates. Personally, I think if you’re going to use skates, go all out. Sometimes she was walking when she had them on and we need to believe she’s swimming, so I do think the skating could have been weaved into the staging more beyond entrances and exits. It would have been catastrophic to have all the characters skate on stage, especially in the large ensemble scenes that have a lot of children. But I would have liked to see more of the sea-faring main characters, like King Triton (Mike Byrne), to distinguish them from humans more.

It would even have been lovely to see Ariel’s sisters all on skates. However, aesthetically, they stood out with their sparkly and colorful mer-garb and hair colors from pink and purple to blue and white. Flounder (Kassidy Hambrecht) could have used them, as well, and looked more fish-like, but the costume did have the recognizable blue and yellow colors from the cartoon.

The set wasn’t anything ornate, but it was clear the cast and crew put their heart into the pieces that gave the show a child-like quality to it, which is important when it’s a show geared toward a young audience.

While you may hate Ursula (Diane Ozmun) and her eel henchmen Flotsam (Laura Plourde) and Jetsam (Jason Sedgwick), the talents of the actors playing the bad guys were top notch and stood out the most to me in this production.

Ozmun had a stunning operatic voice with a lot of body to it that breathed power into her sinister persona. I would have liked to see her use her arms and movement more to fully utilize her beautiful, flowing octopus dress and emulate the creature she was.

Plourde could have voiced an animated version of the show with the slithering, airy quality she tactfully produced in her spoken lines and songs, fully embodying her character. She and Sedgewick were in sync as a team and they moved loosely like eels swimming. The flashlights in their sleeves also were a nice touch.

Michelle Rocheford Johnston stood out comedically as Skuttle, describing human things, like the Dinglehopper, or fork, to Ariel (it’s used as a brush, obviously).

Kurtz was sweet and innocent as Ariel with a young, clear voice. Sometimes her vocals were inconsistent. In “Part of Your World,” it sounded at times like some of the lyrics were either forgotten or swallowed in her annunciation. When she sang the “I want more” lyric, she lost some breath support on “more,” causing her to have to take a breath in the middle of a held-out note. However, the second half of the song was stronger. I was most impressed when she stood up and sang “ready to stand” and beyond because then she added depth to the song in dynamics, style and emotion.

She gave us an Ariel who isn’t perfect and is still figuring things out, giving the show a coming of innocence feel to it. Kurtz excelled in the parts when Ariel had to interact with Prince Eric (Ian Yue) without her voice because it requires, as Ursula (Diane Ozmun) would say, more body language….and facial expressions and delightful dance as an alternative way to speak.

It was confusing, however, that Ariel has two solo numbers in the play while she is voiceless. While it is theater and it probably represented her inner thoughts, they didn’t necessarily add anything to the story. For instance, when she’s singing about Eric, we would have been able to get the same message without the songs through her facial expressions and demeanor. Those songs, while beautiful, added length to an already long musical.

Yue’s clean tenor tone gave him the princely poise that perhaps didn’t always come through in his goofy, adventurous take on his character, who struggles with whether he really wants to bring a prince. Like the remake of the stage version of “Cinderella,” the princess, Ariel in this case, plays a big role in guiding an otherwise lost prince. The voice of the prince’s savior in “The Little Mermaid” is like the glass slipper in “Cinderella” as the prince searches for the woman with the reoccurring singing voice that captivates him. She’s his instinctual true love.

Although kissing the prince is a vital part of Ariel’s contract with Ursula, Ariel and the prince never share a kiss even at the end. That would have wrapped up the story more nicely, but perhaps it was because of the young cast with a lot of children. Ursula’s motives of taking Ariel’s voice are unclear and she doesn’t appear as a young woman trying to win over Prince Eric like in the movie.

Sebastian (Chelsea Kelle) seemed to have a stronger connection to Ariel than the more passive and quiet Flounder (Kassidy Hambrecht). Kelle took on the challenge of voicing Sebastian with a Jamaican accent, and while it sometimes came in and out of her lines and songs, she did exceptionally well with it. She played a more graceful and professional, yet concerned and compassionate, Sebastian than the neurotic and strict Sebastian we see in the cartoon. She served as our ambassador to the sea, leading the “Under the Sea” number. Her costume could have used some claws to make her more crab-like, but she moved her arms a lot to make up for it and embrace her crustacean character. Another strong scene for her was her comical evasion of Chef Louis (Steve Sabol) while Ariel is the prince’s guest.

Speaking of the cooking scene, the funniest moment in the entire show was when precious children dressed as fish were passed down the conveyer line as Chef Louis struck the counter behind them with strokes of his stage knife, making loud chopping sounds that prompted the children to lie flat and play dead. The moment when one of the fish pleads with the chef not to cook her was so cute. She had the whole audience behind her wanting her to be spared.

There were some challenges with the sound in the production. Microphones occasionally cut out, including Ariel’s, and there was a lot of interference in the sound. Volume levels were sometimes too piercing and inconsistent. Sitting right in front of the tech booth, however, I could hear the crew was aware of the issues and they worked quickly to resolve them.

While the stage version cannot compare to the animated Disney film, I admired the spirit and passion the cast put into the show and the energy needed to make it a show enjoyable for children and adults. And with a cast so large with several children, they gave us a very delightful afternoon of entertainment that literally lit up the audience, many of whom purchased light-up tritons.

A lovely afternoon under the sea!

 

Two Movie Stars Read ‘Love Letters’ at The Bushnell

Ali MacGraw, Ryan O'Neal

Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal in “Love Letters” at The Bushnell. Credit: Austin Hargrave

Dear Theater-goers,

Letter-writing is a lost art, unless you count all the texting, Facebooking, tweeting and SnapChatting.

But it’s something that Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III keep alive as they write letters with love to each other from childhood to adulthood until one of their tragic deaths.

It’s much to Melissa’s dismay, as she continuously said she hates writing letters. Andy loves it. Regardless, their letter-writing and love withstands the tests of time even if they never fully get to be a couple and their lives take a lot of twists and turns.

Movie actors Ryan O’Neal (Andrew) and Ali MacGraw (Melissa) bring their characters’ words to life. Rejoining each other on stage after starring in “Love Story” in the 1970s, these two are what make “Love Letters” such a success at The Bushnell Performing Arts Center.

The show could be pretty droll if you didn’t have the right actors in it. It’s very simplistic, almost with an “Our Town” bare-set feel to it. There’s just a lamp set upstage. O’Neal and MacGraw sit toward the very front of the stage in two chairs side-by-side at one desk. With water glasses on hand, the whole play is them reading their characters’ letters to each other from binders. There is no action and they’re sitting the whole time.

But where the show is lacking in movement, O’Neal and MacGraw implement vocal and facial expressions to really make you imagine the words they are speaking from the letters and understand their characters, emotions and intent. The way they read is much like voicing characters in animated features. Vocal intonation and delivery is so much more important because it represents the action that we’re not seeing and can only imagine.

While they didn’t change the sound of their voices in reading the letters from their elementary school years to map the physical change in age we’re not seeing, the words and style of the book are so vital in making that distinction. Having adults read the words of children reminded me of retrospective narratives like “A Christmas Story” when you have the adult reflecting on his or her youth.

The Bushnell often hosts big musical productions with a lot of people on stage, so it was unique to have such a small show with only two actors in the big space at Mortensen Hall. The acoustics of the theater are often challenging, especially the further back you sit. Initially on opening night Tuesday, I had to strain my ears to make out what O’Neal and MacGraw were saying since the play itself does not require loud, dynamic voices. However, it seemed like the more the actors adjusted to the space, the more they projected and the easier it was to hear them.

Because the show relies so much on words, you really have to pay attention or you’ll lose interest. But the way the actors deliver the lines helps make the words more compelling. I could really grasp who these people were.

Andy is ambitious and a scholar. He has a passion for writing and is success-driven. Melissa struggles with mental health, going to rehab for help and having a hard time admitting she’s in love. The two are ships passing in the night and their timing is all off. But they always have their letters.

When they take breaks from letter-writing, the actors portray this by silence and somber, indignant expressions as they ignore each other. It served well to represent the anxiety of waiting to hear back from someone and the uncertainty that follows when words are absent.

I also enjoyed all the references to Connecticut and Hartford, which makes the unseen setting of the story more real and relatable as you watch the show in the capital city.

While the ending is tragic, this is a true love story, so it’s only fitting that it runs through Valentine’s Day on Sunday. If you’re looking for a good date night activity this weekend, what epitomizes the holiday weekend more than “Love Letters”?

The Bushnell is located at 166 Capitol Ave. in Hartford. For more information about the show and purchasing tickets, visit bushnell.org.

Love,

Jessie Sawyer
Entertainment CONNeCT

Ali MacGraw, Ryan O'Neal

Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal in “Love Letters” at The Bushnell. Credit: Austin Hargrave

‘Rock of Ages’ Melts Your Faces Off at Warner Theatre

Get ready to have your faces melted off with the sound of a bunch of really sweet 80s bands as the Warner Theatre puts on the first community theater production of “Rock of Ages” in New England.

This musical has the feel of a rock show. Dancing in your seats and audience participation is encouraged!

Rock of Ages dance number

Credit: Mandi Martini

Director/choreographer Sharon Wilcox, also the Warner’s production manager, describes “Rock of Ages” in her message to the audience as a “simple show with a simple message,” quoting narrator and “dramatic conjurer” Lonny Barnett (Michael King), who says, “They are the perfect illustration that on the Strip, the dreams you come in with might not be the dreams you leave with…But hey, they still rock!”

Rock of Ages group shot

Credit: Mandi Martini

Small-town girl Sherrie Christian (Katie Brunetto) meets city boy/bar employee/singer-songwriter Drew Boley (Noel Roberge) when she begins working at L.A. staple The Bourbon Room on her quest to become an actress. Her dream spirals downward in their “friendship” after a tryst with rockstar Stacee Jaxx (Tony Leone) and her turn to exotic dancing at the Venus Club. But will Sherrie’s and Drew’s love for each other survive the journey?

Pun intended as their “Don’t Stop Believin'” duet tells all in a show-favorite number that represents the production and following your dreams. Both have powerful, yet sweet voices.

Rock of Ages Katie and Noel

Sherrie (Katie Brunetto) and Drew (Noel Roberge) in “Rock of Ages” at Warner Theatre in Torrington. Credit: Mandi Martini

Meanwhile, former star and The Bourbon Room bar owner Dennis Dupree (Kevin Sturmer) is fighting Hertz Klinemann (Dick Terhune) and his sprightly son, Franz Klinemann (Anthony Amorando) as they try to tear down the bar and other businesses on “The Strip” in a development plan.

On opening night last Saturday, the ushers handed out electronic lighters that lit up the audience. Seeing the glow from the main stage theater, which sits over 1,000, triggered a domino effect of lighter clicking and rocking out, unifying strangers with music. What a sight that must have been from the stage. That decision alone was sheer brilliance and it was also nice to take home a souvenir from the show. Honestly, the lighters make people interact more with the show and I don’t know if as many people would have danced in their seats without them. They’re like an invitation to rock in the show bar.

There’s nothing like hearing a song that you know, having it bring back memories to moments you heard it in your past and singing along to it. If you know and love any of these songs, this is definitely the show for you.

“Anyway You Want It,” “Beaver Hunt,” “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” “Cum on Feel the Noize,” “Don’t Stop Believing,” “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” “The Final Countdown,” “Harden My Heart,” “Heat of the Moment,” “Heaven,” “Here I Go Again,” “High Enough,” “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” “I Wanna Rock,” “I Want to Know What Love Is,” “Just Like Paradise,” “Keep on Lovin’ You,” “Kiss Me Deadly,” “More Than Words,” “Nothin’ But a Good Time,” “Oh Sherrie,” “Renegade,” “The Search is Over,” “Sister Christian,” “To Be With You,” “Too Much Time on My Hands,” “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” “Wanted Dead or Alive,” “We Built This City” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It.

Rock of Ages Stacy Jax

Tony Leone as Stacee Jaxx. Credit: Mandi Martini

Given that all of the songs in the show are 80s rock music history that people may have heard in concert or on the radio, you can connect more to this show than a lot of musicals where the songs are written for the plays and contained to the productions.

The strongest parts of “Rock of Ages” are just when the performers are rocking out with the songs and dance numbers.

Rock of Ages Stacy Jax 3

Tony Leone as Stacee Jaxx in “Rock of Ages” at Warner Theatre. Credit: Mandi Martini

The show’s “pit band,” Arsenal, is written into the show, backing all of the rock numbers. The instrumentalists or orchestra are often hidden from site under the stage, overshadowed in recognition by the actors, so it was refreshing to see the band highlighted and featured as characters like everyone else.

Music director/conductor/keyboardist Dan Ringuette (Steel Keyz), first guitarist Mark Garthwait (Waylin’ Stringz), second guitarist Meric Martin (Rikki Riffz), bass Dan Porri (Daxx Slaughter) and percussionist Nate Dobos (Izzy Drummond) take us on our rock journey.

Rock of Ages band

Ladies and gentleman, Arsenal! Credit: Mandi Martini

These performers gives the show a real rock concert quality. Vocals, instrumentals and dance in this production of “Rock of Ages” rise above volunteer community theater to true professionalism and spirit of Broadway.

A lot of the actors in the show actually are musicians and in bands performing paid gigs, such as Roberge, so they’re building on what they do in real life and giving you a real show. It’s nice to see live instrumentals instead of faked guitar playing in some shows where the actors don’t actually play.

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Drew (Noel Roberge) peforms with Arsenal. Credit: Mandi Martini

The plot of the show isn’t very deep and as a writer I’d normally want more from it, but I actually think the book drags the energy from the rock performances. The moments where it goes from song to song to song are the most dynamic and moving. However, the acting is incredible and every performer, whether a lead or ensemble member, puts in his and her all and fully develops each character to their core. There was not one person on stage that I didn’t think belonged there and each one was incredibly impressive.

The show doesn’t need a complex plot to be engaging and interesting, however. The lines are funny, from the character who introduces herself as Regina Koontz (AlexaRae Campagna), pronounced Redge-eye-na, to Arsenal yelling how they hate their lead singer, Stacee Jaxx (Leone).

The delivery of the characters are what makes the lines in this show compelling.

A highlight to me was the narrator, Lonny Barnett (Michael King) as our lovable, goofy rock tour guide who inserts himself into the story. As a community theater actress myself, I appreciated his jokes about the structure and style of elements typically included in a musical. I could tell he was wearing shirts with funny sayings on them, but my one complaint was not being able to see them from further back in the orchestra.

He paired well alongside Dennis Dupree  (Kevin Sturmer). Their duet, “Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore,” when they realize their love for each other, was priceless. Go, go Fogcaster 5000.

Rock of Ages bar owner and narrator

Our narrator, Lonny (Michael King) and The Bourbon Room owner Dennis Dupree Kevin Sturmer. Credit: Mandi Martini

Leone embodies rock as Stacee Jaxx, able to play charming and a womanizing jerk well as you see him go from a star to a washed-up drunk. What always amazes me about Leone is his versatility as an actor. He fully dives into the role from his powerful voice to every muscle and movement, making him fully believable in whatever character he plays.

Rock of Ages Stacy Jax 2

Tony Leone as Stacee Jaxx in “Rock of Ages” at Warner Theatre. Credit: Mandi Martini

He also plays the father in the show alongside Erin West Reed as the mother.

Brunetto is always an actress that people pay money specifically to come see perform and sing in Connecticut’s community theater scene, also excelling as a dancer.

Rock of Ages Katie

Katie Brunetto as Sherrie. Credit: Mandi Martini

Campagna was another standout actress as spunky activist Regina, who is trying to save “The Strip” and The Bourbon Room from being torn down. She was very light on her feet and her movements drove home the urgency in her messages and intent. Her voice was incredible, as well.

Rock of Ages Save the Strip

Credit: Mandi Martini

Anthony Amorando is charmingly hilarious as the flamboyant, yet straight, German Franz Klinemann, a character who turns from nemesis to protagonist and Regina’s love interest.

Reed plays Venus Club’s Justice Charlier, who recruits Sherrie to be a stripper. Her alto voice has a smoky, jazzy quality to it that really impressed me.

Rock of Ages dance club owner

Erin West Reed as Justice Charlier in “Rock of Ages.” Credit: Mandi Martini

Ruben Soto had the groove (and the Afro!) as both the mayor and music producer Ja’Keith, though I admit I was confused distinguishing his characters. Sometimes the character names are hard to follow in the show, not being familiar with it. Soto also puts a lot of energy into dancing in the ensemble and has fantastic tenor vocals.

You might not ever know Waitress #1’s name, but Katie Chamberlain has a memorable performance.

Kaitlyn Anthony plays reporter Constance Stack and Peter Bard is Joey Primo. Christopher Franci takes on the role as a sleazy produer and Geoff Ruckdeschel plays a strip club DJ.

Caitlin Barra (Destiny), Sapphire (Lauren Jacob),  Leanna Scaglione (Young Groupie) and Campagna (Candi) stand out as dancers that really emulate living life with their energy.

Rock of Ages group shot 3

Credit: Mandi Martini

Anthony, Bard, Barra, Chamberlain, Franci, Jacob, Ruckdeschel and Scaglione are also in the ensemble, as well as Stephen Lenczewski.

And I can’t forget the backstage singers even though you never see them — Anne DeMichiel, Martha Irving and Lana Peck.

Also, let’s hear it for all the wigs in the show! Everyone’s crimped, curled and big hair has its own character!

Rock of Ages 1

Credit: Mandi Martini

There are a lot of people who made the show possible production-wise in addition to the directing team, including costumer Renee C. Purdy.

So, don’t miss the show of the ages.

Rock of Ages Wolfgang

Noel Roberge as Drew. Credit: Mandi Martini

The Warner Theatre is located at 68 Main Street in Torrington. For more information on “Rock of Ages” and buying tickets for closing, and Valentine’s, weekend, you can visit www.warnertheatre.org or download the new Warner app.