‘Cats’ Playing at The Bushnell – Don’t Be Alone in the Moonlight, Make Memories at the Jellicle Ball

“Cats” Playing at The Bushnell. (Photo Credit: The Bushnell)

HARTFORD, Conn. – When I was crying as a baby, my dad used to take me on a car ride and sing me “Memory” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats to calm me down. So my mom tells me. While I have no recollection of those precious father-daughter moments, that song is without a doubt the most prominent memory I have of the Jellicle cats from the Broadway mewsical revival tour, pawsing to play at The Bushnell in Hartford.

On Tuesday, Keri René Fuller’s reprise of “Memory” toward the end of Act 2 as Grizabella – a sad and lonely older grey cat – is a powerful, heart-wrenching showstopper with the operatic fervor of monumental, tragic songs like “I Dreamed a Dream” or “On My Own” in Les Mis. She pours every bit of energy and soul into that song before beautifully ascending to the Heavens as she’s lifted on a rising platform and flown using rigging technology off upstage left.

The lyrics to “Memory” and many other songs in Cats are based on T.S. Eliot’s poetry, the pillar of this musical. Much like poems have a mystique, focusing on imagery and metaphor without disclosing the full story, Cats bewilders. It’s hard to follow what’s going on most of the time. If there was a plot, I couldn’t pinpoint it until I read about it after. So, if you like a show with a strong storyline, this musical won’t be for you. While the cats serve as our narrators, describing different cats in their world, they aren’t there to guide us through a structured story. The scenes flow into each other, overlapping, but are fragmented without much context.

You get the sense of a street cat community, but what exactly are the “Jellicle cats” highlighted in the spooky, discordant, lively opening number by the same name? Sure you can Google it and find that Eliot mentions that type of cat in his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. “The Naming of Cats” directly quotes his poem by the same title, establishing many of the fun character names like Bombalurina and Jellylorum. But while our cat hosts jest about anyone not knowing what a Jellicle cat is, the show doesn’t really fully explain the derivation of the term.

Story aside, Cats is visual poetry and a delight to watch. It really has more of a cabaret style to it, a cat-baret if you will. Most of the cats introduced have their own scenes as though they are individual acts in a circus lineup or a night club. Various genres of dance are featured, from ballet and tap to jazz and contemporary.

The choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, based on the original choreography by Gillian Lynne, truly is the hallmark of this musical. Every movement, even the small, isolated motion of certain muscles, was so precise and calculated. The orchestra, conducted by Eric Kang, matches that precision rhythmically. The dancing was invigorating and elegant as the performers purrfectly executed catlike reflexes with dynamicity, flexibility, and playfulness.

Caitlin Bond took us to the ballet fused with Cirque de Soleil as Victoria, a graceful, angelic white cat featured at the Jellicle Ball. Her most mesmerizing move was when she balanced on one foot and slowly lifted her other leg until it extended in a perfect vertical line over her head. Not to mention she did a split on the floor.

Tion Gaston also dazzled us as a sheer sorcerer of dance in his role as the Magical Mister Mistoffelees. The song by that name was another beautiful one that stuck with you.

As did “Rum Tum Tugger.” McGee Maddox is a rock star as the curious cat who goes by that name, winning the audience over with his charisma and swagger. He brings a rock and roll element to the show, putting a more relatable and current stamp on it.

Tyler John Logan brought even more edge to the production as Macavity, the wild, troublemaking cat who can never be found after thecatastrophes he conjures. He looked like Marilyn Manson meets David Bowie from Labyrinth.

Brandon Michael Nase had a booming operatic voice as patriarch Old Deuteronomy, only matched by Fuller’s Grizabella.

Timothy Gulan was the jester of the court of cats as Peter/Bustopher Jones/Asparagus, giving us a lot of laughs with his dramatic confidence as an actor playing a cat-actor.

The big chorus numbers, such as the opener, were strongest when all of the cats sang together as opposed to individually due to pitch issues in some of the solos.

The cats charmed the audience with their interactivity going up and down the aisles. It was interesting hearing the group as a whole and then zeroing in on the words and personality of the actor right next to you. It’s rare to get close to the action.

Even better, that allowed us to get a closer look at the stunning feline makeup and fabulous, glamorous costumes by John Napier. There were form-fitting tiger-striped body suits, Victoria’s shiny, white spandex outfit, cat ear head pieces, tails, furry tuxedos, and plush get-ups. Some coats even had some sparkle, like Mistoffelees. Rum Tum Tugger’s black pleather leggings, silver chain belt, furry vest, and spiky collar really enhanced his punk rocker vibe.

The glowing yellow cat eyes in the darkness at the beginning of the show made for a haunting opening.

The moonlit set was majestic, twinkling with lights strung above stage.

As snow coated The Bushnell and sparkled in the trees, we all left very much not alone in the moonlight, having shared a paw-some, purr-ty memory that for some could live fur-ever.

Now, someone has to write a rival musical called Dogs!

Cats, directed by Trevor Nunn, runs through Sunday, Feb. 3. At The Bushnell at 166 Capital Ave. in Hartford. More information on tickets and the production is available at bushnell.org.

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Raise a Glass to ‘Hamilton’ and Take a Shot at Seeing it at The Bushnell

hamilton

Credit: The Bushnell

On Wednesday I was finally in the room where it happens — Hamilton at The Bushnell in Hartford — and it was glorious.

I have had my eyes on Hamilton for two years. It’s Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rap-centric, Tony Award-winning musical about the rise and fall of founding father Alexander Hamilton, inspired by historian Ron Chernow’s book by that name. Having listened to the original Broadway cast soundtrack hundreds of times on a loop in my car, I was beginning to think it would never happen. An unrequited love I would never see in person. So I can relate to Aaron Burr there.

With tickets often priced at $600 and up, it began to seem like an exclusive club that I would never be able to afford. Yet, one by one, I’d see friends and acquaintances post the standard Facebook photo with their playbill at one theater or another where they were seeing my prized Hamilton. Soon the exclusive club seemed to be admitting everyone I knew but me. When would I get my shot?

I waited for it. Then on Tuesday, the unthinkable happened. The Bushnell invited me to come review the show after a press cancellation. Press tickets to Hamilton! An unheard of, rare opportunity. “I do, I do, I do!” I scrambled to rearrange my work schedule. An understanding coworker raced over to switch shifts with me upon hearing my news.

After driving through two and a half hours of stop and go traffic from Boston, I was finally, finally going to see my beloved Hamilton. I hugged the communications director when he handed me and my mom our tickets.

Once we passed through metal detectors at a newly implemented security checkpoint for this highly attended, edgy, controversial show, I was star-struck just upon seeing the open two-tier wooden set. Next thing I knew, King George III himself was welcoming us to “his” show, the British were coming, and I was ready. So ready.

When you’ve only listened to a Broadway show, you can only imagine what is happening on stage. The costumes, the set, the lighting, and the actors’ physicality, expressions, and choices are all just a picture you orchestrate in your head. You are the director of your mind’s eye. I was worried I had built this play up so much that it would be a letdown. Maybe it was overhyped.

But let me tell you, seeing Hamilton left me more than satisfied. Experiencing it visually only adds to founding musical father Miranda’s monumental songs, lyrics, and witty wordsmithing. This play covers so much content. It’s a lot to absorb – from the American Revolutionary War in Act I to the architecture of our great nation after the war in Act II.

We see Hamilton, “a bastard orphan son of a whore,” help win a war and independence, get Washington on his side, serve as the president’s right-hand man, marry rich to Schuyler sister Eliza, found the national banks, create a financial plan as treasury secretary, write The Federalist Papers and much more, duke it out with Burr, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams, have an affair, get extorted, get fired, lose his son in a duel, and finally die in a duel of his own. Never has history seemed so cool. I wonder if Alexander Hamilton himself ever would have thought he’d ever be this hip centuries later. I have learned more from this show than I probably ever have from my history books. That is the beauty of art.

While it wasn’t the original Broadway cast I’ve grown familiar with on the CD and there were some technical sound glitches with the opening track and Eliza’s microphone cutting out briefly later on, this show blew me and the audience all away. Man is this cast nonstop! They certainly get the job done.

Lauded for typically having a diverse cast, a site not historically seen on Broadway, Hamilton proudly carries the tagline: “America then portrayed by America now.”

The two-level set adds another layer of intensity to the production value and the ensemble of contemporary, hip-hop dancers breathes life into the Revolutionary War era republic. They are ornaments to the artistic design and are every bit as important as the principals. Their dynamic, precise and accented yet elegant movements coupled with their harmonic, powerful choruses are captivating in nearly every song from “Alexander Hamilton” and “My Shot” in the beginning to the wedding, Ten Duel Commandments, and battle sequences. Their choreography really boosts the narrative. It’s hard to know what to look at because there are so many interesting things going on. If you look away for a second you could miss quick nuances from a mimicking gesture to a subtle comedic interjection.

The dancers mostly wear tasteful, nude-colored period corsets, cutoffs, and leggings. History stripped down. You also see them in Red Coats and American military uniforms.

The ensemble even personifies Burr’s bullet that is destined to kill Hamilton in the final duel sequence. One actress is crowd-surfed gracefully through the air in a dreamlike, slow-motion sequence. She practically floats across the spinning center stage, a feature that adds pace to the show, until that fateful moment when the bullet fatally punctures Hamilton.

And who is Alexander Hamilton, if not Lin-Manuel? Austin Scot plays our handsome title character with a likeable confidence and arguably smoother, clearer vocals. He comes off as more driven than arrogant. His bio doesn’t list any Broadway experience per se, but he deserves a shot after this phenomenal performance.

His mic drop when John Adams fires him, backlit in smoky red is epic.

Josh Tower plays the ultimate frenemy in Burr, always seeming to have his hands calculatingly on the marionette strings, but not actually picked to play in most of the games. His voice rests back in his throat with high-pitched strain as his character fights to be in the room where it happens. It’s a rarity that the villain is also our guide and narrator. Perhaps it works because we don’t see him as all evil and there are some underdog qualities in him that resonate with anyone fighting for a dream. It’s a love-hate relationship.

The Schuyler sisters and worked it, particularly in their introductory song.

Stephanie Umoh is spunky as the eldest Schuyler sister and we feel for her in sacrificing her love for Hamilton for her sister’s happiness.

Hannah Cruz dons stylish, period curls on half her head and an edgy, shaved look on the other as Hamilton’s wife, Eliza Schuyler, blending upper class elegance with posh, contemporary fashion. Her voice is a fluttery, sweet delight, impressively controlled and powerful even when singing grittily through anguish and tears in “Burn” when she finds out about her husband’s affair.

Speaking of the sordid affair, highlights! Isa Briones was sultry yet gentle as Maria Reynolds, the married woman who seduces Hamilton to her bed. For a sex scene, it surprised me that there was very little physicality and sensuality at all in the action. The actors barely touch. You don’t see the affair beyond a sweet, passionate kiss. It relies instead on Hamilton’s narrative and the poetic lyricism of the music to tell that story. It wasn’t much different from listening to the original cast recording, but was musically well done.

Briones’ voice is alluring and clean, tangoing smoothly with gusto in flawless pop vocal licks and riffs. It’s a fleeting but memorable part with one of the most appealing female solos in the show.

And Peggy. She also plays the scarce appearances of the youngest Schuyler sister well, punctuating her lines with sarcasm, humor and innocence. We don’t even learn she dies, she just disappears from the plot, but we definitely remember her.

One of the few musical moments omitted from the soundtrack is the interlude about Hamilton’s best friend John Laurens’ death by gunfire postwar in a very brief scene at the end of Act I. It was endearing and visually necessary to transition us into seeing that actor, Jon Viktor Corpuz, play Hamilton’s son Philip in Act II.

Corpuz is vocal silk and suave as both characters. The frequent double casting in the show in a sense lets personalities be reborn, as nations carry on historically once individuals pass on. It’s precious seeing an adult play a 9-year-old child as a caricature of sorts. Adult perspective adds humor to the world of a child. We see Philip grow into a college graduate – in demeanor if not through stature.

We never see Hamilton’s daughter though, although she is referenced in Philip’s rhymes for his father on his birthday.

Bryson Bruce is tactical, comical brilliance as the French Marquis de Lafayette in Act I and Francophile Thomas Jefferson, who doesn’t enter the narrative until the goofy, joyous “What Did I Miss?” song and dance in Act II. He pours quirky energy into both his characters. You respect Lafayette more, but you appreciate Jefferson’s quips and quid pro quo. Bruce spins his verse rapid-fire as Lafayette, all while maintaining a French accent, in “Guns and Ships,” which is one of the fastest songs in Broadway history. Tony-nominated Daveed Diggs, who played Lafayette in the original cast, spit out 19 words in just 3 seconds in that song.

Any dialogue in the show was built into the rap that runs fluidly throughout the show, but it was easy to understand because the actors annunciated and articulated the words really clearly.

Chandre Hall-Broomfield is playful as Hercules Mulligan, getting a lot of laughs when he presents his leg as Hamilton calls Lafayette’s pants hot. He doubles as James Madison, who he portrays as a snotty, sneezy germophobe, carrying his handkerchief around like Linus from Peanuts. He and Bruce are the dynamic duo of comedy in Act II.

The rap battle cabinet meetings between Bruce as Jefferson and Scott as Hamilton, each holding microphones like they’re performing, are a particularly clever and entertaining commentary on today’s political divide and Washington squabbles.

As for George Washington, Paul Oakley Stovall is very fatherly, vocally commanding and sincere as the general and our first president. He seems to be the moral compass of the show and is the judicious host of those cabinet slams.

And the other George, the king, plays an alternate narrator of sorts who gives us the British perspective. Peter Matthew Smith is sheer comedy royalty. Every line and movement is a punch line. He shows us love is truly a battlefield as oceans rise and empires fall with his giggly, flamboyant, narcissistic sass. He appears three times with variations of “You’ll Be Back,” the ultimate post-breakup letters to his loyal, royal subjects. Not to mention his booming vocals. Yes, King!

There’s just so much to say about this theatrical phenomenon. Forgive me for writing too many damn pages for any man to understand and writing like I’m running out of time. But you only have two weeks to see this revolutionary musical while it’s in town and I don’t want you to miss it. Scrappy and hungry for tickets? They’re scare, but you can try checking bushnell.org. Hamilton has a longer run than most shows at The Bushnell and will be there until Dec. 30.

I have the honor to be your obedient blogger. J.Soy.

Cheers! Have a Merry ‘Christmas on the Rocks’

Credit: TheaterWorks

It’s the bar where everyone knows your Christmas character. Take that, flip it upside down, shake it up, and pour it over ice with a twist and you’ve got Christmas on the Rocks at TheaterWorks in Hartford.

One by one, adult versions of characters from popular holiday flicks spit out into the real world filter into a cozy, quiet, small-town bar decked out in all things Christmas, looking for something and maybe someone as they work their issues.

Impressively, only two actors play all the Christmas characters. Jenn Harris, who has been with the TheaterWorks original since it debuted a few years ago, plays all the women and newcomer Randy Harrison plays all the men with the exception of the bartender.

Tom Bloom returns as our patient, compassionate but straight-talking bar owner who was once quite the facilitator of “the hookup” before internet dating slowed down business. He serves up some fatherly advice, many shots of Wild Turkey and vodka, and a dose of reality. When he’s alone, he flips through the channels watching different Christmas movies, mouthing the words.

Like most bartenders experience, he falls into the role of a therapist without judgement for the most part because “he’s heard it all.” Though he does get rather cross with Clara from the Nutcracker and Tiny Tim when they insult him, so he’s not afraid to call patrons out when they’re being unreasonable. If he doesn’t have any wise counsel, he’s blunt about it. It’s funny because how many times have you spilled all your secrets to a bartender or stranger sitting next to you at the bar, expecting them to hold the answer you’re seeking when they really don’t know what to say or how to help you? It’s a listening game, similar to the position of the audience. We just listen and absorb.

And our endearing bartender sure is generous as none of the characters pay for their drinks. They’re on the house whether he offers it or not. After all, it’s Christmas Eve.

The structure of the play is quite unique, blending seven vignettes written by different authors into one fluid story, featuring characters from A Christmas Story, It’s A Wonderful Life, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, A Christmas Carol, The Nutcracker, and Charlie Brown. The lineup sometimes varies. In the past they’ve had Cindy Lou Who from How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Susan from A Miracle on 34th Street. I’m still hoping for Rusty from Christmas Family Vacation (maybe I’ll get to writing it).

Anyways, the play challenges our perceptions of these popular Christmas personalities as once sweet character spiral into flawed, jaded, and sometimes borderline psychotic individuals. Holiday protagonists like Frosty and Rudolph are villainized.

Harris and her former costar, Matthew Wilkas, who used to play all the male roles, wrote one of the newer sketches with the highest production value – “My Name Is KAREN!”, which happens in the middle of the play. She bursts into the bar as grownup Karen from animated Frosty and holds our barkeep hostage, gagging him with a stocking and tying him up with a string of Christmas lights that twinkle when she plugs them in. This is all so she can stage her vlog, The Karen Show, in a secure, undisclosed location. From singing a fun, tacky theme song to answering tweets that are too Frosty-centric for her liking, she remarkably streams her show from a tablet and smartphone to a projector displaying the video live time on screens on either side of the stage. It adds to the humor as we look back and forth between the live action before us and the video with extreme closeups.

On the run with melted Frosty in a bucket, Karen’s vanity and attention-seeking determination, enhanced by her technology, really comments on today’s self-absorbed and social media consumed society. It’s an inside joke of sorts to the audience who can strongly relate to the concept.

She, like many of the other characters portrayed, gives us a harsher perspective on beloved holiday classics we think we know, resentful that she was forgotten after saving Frosty while he claims all the fame. Harris is hilarious throwing shade at Frosty and Santa for leaving her as a child on a roof at the end of the story, resulting in her falling to the ground and breaking her neck. It’s a question that only an adult would ask that goes overlooked in a simplistic children’s story before we grow skeptical and scrutinize details based on logic instead of suspending our disbelief like we did in the wonderment of being a child.

Drink up, Karen. And that she does. Poor Frosty. Actually that’s what all of our other characters do as they come to terms with deep-routed issues centered on their Christmas backstories.

Harris also stands out in Still Nuts About Him by Edwin Sánchez as Clara from the Nutcracker, sporting a heavy Russian accent, nightgown, and ballet slippers as she downs vodka while freaking out about her cheating, distant, workaholic nut-cracking husband. She cracks herself – manically smashing peanuts on the bar with a nutcracker replica she decapitates. Don’t worry, she has another in her bag. Even though Clara barely smiles, she sends us into uproarious laughter with her physical comedy and outbursts. Harris is actually quite flexible, slipping into spread eagles and splits, exposing her undergarments and all her insecurities.

Credit: TheaterWorks

Harris is depressing as a paranoid, mentally scarred Zuzu from It’s a Wonderful Life who is terrified that the angels are after her every time a bell rings because she let the secret out that that’s how they can get their wings in A Miserable Life by Jacques Lamarre. I could take or leave that storyline, which is very sad. But it does get funnier as it goes along, from other variations on the saying and a haunting Carol of the Bells to a special delivery of angel wings from her father, George Bailey’s angel on Amazon. The ending of the sketch is a morbid, yet uplifting, so it redeems itself.

Meanwhile, Harrison pours misery into his string of characters, including A Christmas Story’s Ralphie, who opens the lineup, in “All Grown Up” by John Cariani, claymation Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer’s elf dentist Hermey in “Say It Glows” by Jeffrey Hatcher, A Christmas Carol’s Tiny Tim in “God Bless Us Everyone” by Theresa Rebeck, and Charlie Brown In Merry Christmas, Blockhead at the end.

But we get laughs in his Ralphie sequence – from his Trump crack, a joke added after the 2016 presidential election that keeps with the times, to his fetish for plush stuffed animals and outfits thanks to the pink bunny onesie from Aunt Clara. Some of the humor comes from perspectives that completely flip our understanding of holiday storylines like how Ralphie actually really, really loved that bunny suit and irony like the fact Scut Farkus shot Ralphie’s eye out in a NRA BB class he was teaching.

Harrison shines comically as Hermey, one of my favorite bits in the show, playing up the flamboyant nuances of the character and sexual innuendo behind “dentist” as a euphemism, giggling, strutting, jumping, bouncing, and mounting the bar (and nearly the bartender). And, man he can talk, so much so that the bartender leaves the room at one point during his story full of anger, hurt, vengeance and guilt about a bloody falling out with a smug, celebrity-tainted Rudolph that costs him his red nose. Order several “root canals,” it’s going to be a long appointment. But we adore this sassy elf for it.

Tiny Tim has always been my least favorite character in this show because he’s the grimmest, darkest persona and there doesn’t seem to be a real reason for his depressed, arrogant mood that has him perhaps even more cynical and entitled than Scrooge.

Even though Harrison’s Charlie Brown is really mopey and you feel bad for him, amplifying the hallmark qualities of that character, his closing storyline goes from a broken, pathetic marriage with Lucy who yappers on over the phone with the honking gibberish of the Peanuts adults and teacher to hopeful with the entrance of Harris as Little Red Haired Girl, his childhood crush. It’s the only scene all three actors are on stage together, ending on a heartwarming note that we are not alone and things can always get better.

Credit; TheaterWorks

Not to be mistaken for A Christmas Carol down the street at Hartford Stage, this too has become an original holiday tradition in our capital city. If you’re someone who anticipates watching Christmas movies every year, you’ll really love and appreciate Christmas on the Rocks.

While you can’t buy a drink from the set bar, which is quite realistic and charming with iconic Christmas décor like the leg lamp Ralphie caresses out of nostalgia the way he does in the film, you can sip on something from the theater bar while you watch.

More information on the show and buying tickets is available on theaterworkshartford.org.org.

God Bless ‘A Christmas Carol’ at Hartford Stage

Scrooge

Michael Preston as Ebenezer Scrooge. Photo Credit: Hartford Stage

You may run into a ghost, or several, at Hartford Stage’s annual original production of A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas – a holiday homecoming masterpiece to look forward to every year.

Not much changed in this year’s production, as the once new faces of John-Andrew Morrison (Mr. Marvel), Kenneth De Abrew (Mr. Fezziwig/First Solicitor) and Shauna Miles (Mrs. Fezziwig/Mrs. Cratchit) become familiar as they return for a second year.

Michael Preston, who long played Marvel and has served as a mentor for Morrison in showing him the ropes of the role, reprised his leading stint as our Ebenezer Scrooge for the second time in the footsteps of Bill Raymond. Everyone has settled into their new seats at the Christmas Carol table quite nicely.

Mr Marvel

Scrooge (Michael Preston) seeks to collect from inventor Mr. Marvel (John-Andrew Morrison). Photo Credit: Hartford Stage

Preston plays a more austere and senile Scrooge who seems to be losing his mind. He shows the most humor during Spirit of Christmas Present’s visit when he is overly happy drinking the elixir of life, as well as toward the end when he does snow angels in his nightgown and balances a rather large turkey on his chin, no doubt showcasing circus talents gained from many seasons as a clown in St. Louis. He is a veteran in this production and it’s nice to see a change of pace with him in another role.

Speaking of veterans, Noble Shropshire (Jacob Marley/Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge’s housekeeper) has been with Hartford Stage’s rendition of A Christmas Carol as long as it’s been around. He is a core element of this production who keeps us coming back. Everyone wants to see Shropshire flying from the bowels of the stage through a foggy red backlit trap door as the haunted ghost of Marley, Scrooge’s partner (who died seven years ago this very night) and donning a dress as the dutiful Mrs. Dilber waiting on the “Wicked Ole Screw.” He and Preston have strong chemistry in their scenes together, drawing out the most playful, childlike side of Scrooge.

Marley

Marley (Noble Shropshire) rises from the spirit world, haunting Scrooge (Michael Preston) with a warning. Photo Credit: Hartford Stage

Alan Rust is another longtime cast member, oozing jolliness in the roles of Bert and Spirit of Christmas Present.

spirt of christmas present

Alan Rust as the Spirit of Christmas Present. Photo Credit: Hartford Stage

Robert Hannon Davis was back as the affable father Bob Cratchit and Scrooge’s clerk. He always makes you feel at home when you see him play this family man part.

Morrison showed range from a concerned, resolute inventor trying to make ends meet to a giddy romantic who is overjoyed to go for Christmas dinner with lovely doll vendor Betty Pidgeon (Rebecka Jones, who also plays the divine, shimmering Spirit of Christmas Past).

Ghost of Christmas Past

Rebecka Jones as the Spirit of Christmas Past. Photo Credit: Hartford Stage

Miles is a bright addition to the cast as both Mrs. Fezziwig and Cratchit, as is De Abrew as the jolly Mr. Fezziwig and determined solicitor who can be persuaded to attend any event if lunch is provided.

Fezziwig

The Fezziwigs (Shauna Miles and Kenneth De Abrew). Photo Credit: Hartford Stage

De Abrew and Buzz Roddy (Second Solicitor) played well off each other, particular in the sequence when they’re quarreling over who will take a woman they’re both keen on to church.

scrooge pjs

Kenneth De Abrew (First Solicitor), Michael Preston (Scrooge) and Buzz Roddy (Second Solicitor). Photo Credit: Hartford Stage

Vanessa R. Butler has risen in the ranks in this cast, from ensemble and a party guest at Scrooge’s nephew Fred’s Christmas dinner to Belle, once Scrooge’s fiancée, and Fred’s wife. She truly shines with grace and beams full of light.

Saturday evening, Dec. 1 audience members saw Reid Williams, of the Hartt School, by her side as 30-year-old Scrooge and Fred, standing in as understudy for Terrell Donnell Sledge. He poured joyous Christmas spirit into Fred and played both a romantic and money-focused, serious workaholic as young Scrooge. Well done!

The precious thing about A Christmas Carol is that it excels in its smaller moments, giving the spotlight to everyone in the ensemble at one moment or another. Everyone fully commits. Sarah Killough stood out as Fred’s ditsy, giggly sister-in-law in the dinner party scene and she paired well with Mark Lawrence as the awkward bachelor, Mr. Topper.

The children, as always, were adorable and talented, particularly Tiny Tim (Andrew Michaels/R.J. Vercellone), the “Turkey Boy” (Damien Galvez or Nicholas Glowacki), and the cider children/Ignorance and Want (Ethan Dinello/Max Kerz and Divena Rai or Anderson Wilder, respectively).

The Victorian dressed, black-lit dancing ghosts, including one actually flown high above the stage, accessorized with glowing death devices and chains, are the hallmark of this production. The choreography is precise and elegant, very pleasing to watch.

While the ghosts don’t do much more in the way of audience interaction than stare down the people in the front row, you may want to prepare your children for this part of the production because some young kids in the audience were scared of them. The Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come is also unsettling and wreaks of doom, circling the stage on a tall tricycle. Otherwise, this production is very child-friendly.

From snow and glitter sprinkled on the stage and audience to lighting and clock projections, this show has high quality production value. Not to mention it is backed with a dynamic and memorable score with spooky original music by John Gromada.

This show is nothing if not consistent, never failing to entertain. Even when the production, staging, and costuming remain the same, it maintains a freshness born out of holiday nostalgia. It’s like every Christmas movie you have to wait a whole year to see or the thrill of a long-anticipated white Christmas snowfall.

This show is the perfect way to graduate from Halloween and fall into winter and the holidays. It truly has a Nightmare Before Christmas vibe to it that is grim, exquisite, and joyous all at once.

From the parlor games to the unique addition of Scrooge inviting everyone over his house to celebrate Christmas, this holiday ghost story is full of fun moments and has a very happy ending that includes the audience.

Be a guest of Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas. It’s a party to die for that you won’t want to miss.

A Christmas Carol, directed by Rachel Alderman, runs through Dec. 29 at Hartford Stage, located at 50 Church St. in Connecticut’s capital city. More information on the production and ticket purchases is available on the theater’s website at https://www.hartfordstage.org.

The Play That Goes Wrong in All the Right Ways

HARTFORD – The drive from Boston Tuesday night went all wrong, getting this reviewer to The Bushnell 15 minutes late to a seat in the middle of the row. It was only fitting when going to a show called “The Play That Goes Wrong.”

But surprisingly everything that goes wrong in this production makes it go so right. I started laughing instantly and never really stopped the whole play. It’s been awhile since a theater production has done that for me.

The play, directed by Matt DiCarlo and created by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, is a disaster in every aspect. But that’s the comedy of it. From missed lines and overly embellished acting to Magoo-like set-falling catastrophes and prop misplacements, the show’s imperfection is perfectly uproarious. It’s raining guffaws.

Stunts and physical comedy abound, the cast really brought down the house with the slapstick humor in this murder mystery play within a play.

You had Yaegel T. Welch playing the dead body and trying to inconspicuously crawl out of the room when the stretcher rips before his fellow actors can carry him off the stage in it. The terror on his face with the awareness of the audience is priceless as he slinks out of the room, casually tilts his head to the side, and crosses his arms like a mummy before closing the door. His signature move.

Then there were the two actors  (Peyton Crim as Thomas Colleymoore/Robert and Ned Noyes standing in as Inspector Carter/Chris) holding on for dear life and maneuvering the set as a platform lurches closer and closer to the ground while they’re on it.

Not to mention the stage hand (Angela Grovey) summoning her inner diva and duking it out with the leading lady (Jamie Ann Romero) for the main female role, each getting knocked out and trying to knock each other out. Plus the sound guy (Brandon J. Ellis) in the play world who doesn’t really want to be there keeps playing Duran Duran to annoy the actors before he gets called out to read the female lines. And you can’t forget the god-awful, spit-spray invoking prop liquor or the bellowing one-liners from Crim basking in the irony of the mishaps.

Sid Solomon, understudy, played Max/Cecil Haversham flamboyantly fabulous as he cringes during the advances of the female character with whom he is having an affair.

Scott Cote as Perkins/Dennis keeps one scene looping as he forgets his line, driving his fellow actors into a fury.

The interactivity and reactiveness of the actors to the audience brought a spontaneous rawness and familiarity to the show that only live performances allow. In response to shouts from the audience about where a missing prop was hidden, Noyes, the inspector and director of “The Murder at Haversham Manor” in our play within a play, heckled the audience, shouting, “This isn’t the movies, I can hear you!” Then throwing a little shade, “They wouldn’t do this at the Hartford Stage!” The local references made the play even more relatable. Noyes, who usually plays Max/Cecil Haversham, had the look, voice, and mannerisms (or should I say “manorisms”) of John Cleese.

And a Monty Python vibe this play certainly had with elements of theater of the absurd.

The actors even stayed in character at intermission, running through the house as Noyes yelled at the others something like “I can’t believe you thought this was a suitable disguise to get a snack!”

This is the one play that the more it goes wrong, the better it gets. Such mistakes could not have been orchestrated more perfectly. It’s a hoot!

“The Play That Goes Wrong” opens The Bushnell’s fall season in Hartford, running through Sunday, Sept. 30. More information on the production and buying tickets is available at www.bushnell.org.

Gloria, Emilio Estefan Musical Has You ‘On Your Feet’ at Bushnell

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Photo Credit: The Bushnell/On Your Feet

The story and Latino pop music of Gloria and Emilio Estefan lift you on your feet with congas galore propelled and the rat tat tat tat tat tat of the drums in the latest show to hit the Bushnell.

The upbeat musical bolsters your spirits, but it also gives a reality check. Not only does the musical unearth the history of the Estefans, but it also delivers messages that are relevant in today’s political climate.

Mauricio Martinez charms us and makes us laugh as the suave, impassioned Emilio Estefan, but he also portrays a spicy, persistent fighter. Not only do we witness Gloria battling music industry standards that demand separate markets for Latino songs and Spanish over English lyrics, but we also see Estefan stand up for Cuban immigrants’ recognition as Americans. He delivers the most poignant line of the play when a snooty, white traditional music producer tells him he won’t back Gloria’s music fusing Latino and American pop, insisting it must be sung in Spanish.

When Martinez said “look me in the face because this is what an American looks like” it resonated with the audience given today’s political upstir over immigration. Christie Prades also combats prejudice with a softer approach, remarking how she is singing in English because she is American and that is her language.

As the Estefans push hard from every angle to get their music out there, they are also fighting for all immigrants – Cuban and otherwise – to be treated as American residents, just like everybody else, and not typecasted.

But we also see an internal cultural and familial struggle between Gloria and her mother (Doreen Montalvo) as they clash over whether the road life of a musician pulls the singer away from her family duties. It’s heartwarming and inspiring to see them reach resolution after Gloria nearly dies when a tractor trailer hits her bus, causing a severe spinal injury that could have paralyzed her. Prades shows Gloria’s internal strength and pride while portraying her physical frailty and insecurities in recovering from her injuries.

Despite those heavy moments, the musical livens you and fills you with joy. Prades has sweet spice to her vocals. While you could hear fatigue in her voice after Gloria is hospitalized, she maintained power the rest of the show. Martinez’s voice was tender and silky to the ears.

Debra Cardona may not have been meant to deliver dynamic singing as Gloria’s grandmother (Consuelo), but she sure got the laughs in her quips and encouraging manipulation.

Spirited dance numbers flow into the aisles as actors pulled audience members up to dance with them, adding a rare interactive component that drew the audience in more. It was appropriate considering how much fans are a part of the music scene.

The adults were all very talented in this cast, but the child actors also shone from the fast-moving, fancy footwork of Jeremy (Carlos Careeras/Jordan Vergara) to the smooth, impressive voice and dynamic dancing of young Gloria (Ana-Sofia Rodriguez/Carmen Sanchez).

As always, the set was beautiful and the costumes were awestriking with a lot of sparkle.

The band was front and center in the production, stationed on stage as Gloria’s instrumentalists.

It almost seemed like the performance was never going to end because of the prolonged curtain call. At that point it felt like a concert because the whole audience was up dancing.

The show closed at the Bushnell Sunday. More information on upcoming shows at the theater is available on www.bushnell.org.

Know Your Apartheid History Before Seeing ‘A Lesson from Aloes’

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Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson

If you have not read anything about the plot or Apartheid history behind “A Lesson from Aloes, you will leave Hartford Stage very confused.

I usually like to go into plays blind, without reading anything about it before, so that it won’t influence my opinion and I can interpret the play on my own. But it was a mistake to do that with this play by “Athol Fugard” because it was very hard to follow and understand the context of what was happening. It took me a very long time to figure out the play was even set in South Africa and then once I placed that I finally started to put together it was about Apartheid.

Part of my trouble identifying the setting of the story was subtle inconsistencies in their accents. One minute Randall Newsome sounded theatrically British and then I started to pick up a hint of a Scottish accent. I still don’t really understand where his character is supposed to be from, but the dialogue makes reference to him not being from South Africa. His wife, Gladys (Andrus Nichols), on the other hand sounds pretty steadily British, but she admits she hasn’t been to England besides perhaps a visit and what she sees in a painting at her rehab facility.  She alludes to being from South Africa even though people are more likely to assume she is from England because she is white.

Race plays a major part of the story and is at the crux of the political scene during Apartheid. But the characters dance around it themselves. They touch on it in a dramatically building dinner scene with their friend Steve (Ariyon Bakare) who is moving to England after a government-imposed ban that is forcing him out of the country. Even as the only black South African character, he is polite and reluctant to delve into the complex racial prejudice and segregation that plagues the country during the time period.

Just as the lead male character has a hard time identifying one particular aloe plant, it is hard to fully identify the characters in the story. They are complicated and even by the story’s end, there is a lot left unexplained. The three-actor cast does a good job at peeling away the layers at the core of their backstories, but we never completely get to the roots.

If the play had continued to be Piet talking about aloes and to his seemingly emotionally, vegetative wife, the play would have been a complete bore. But unanswered questions about the pasts of the characters ultimately maintain our intrigue.

Piet’s fixation on aloes could be seen as representative of the pleasantries that distract from having to talk about racial injustice and issues that are uncomfortable.

But the playright, Fugard, writes about the theme of “drought” in his notes about the play just as the aloes Piet collects are resilient to survive through conditions like drought, according to the playbill. Drought doesn’t have to mean a literal lack of water, but can also symbolize the barren social and cultural nature that comes with being denied basic necessities and the need to survive through all that is taken away. Physical survival, social survival, political survival, you name it.

Just as Piet seeks out aloes to bring home, he does try to help black South Africans in the protests resistant the government segregation that put solely white politicians in power. He nurtures the aloes just like he wants to assist people struggling to survive. Maybe he focuses on the aloes because it distracts himself from realizing he can’t assist people to the extent he wants to. Piet takes the aloes out of their environment and makes a new home for them. But he can’t control the environment of the South African political landscape during Apartheid.

Even when you glean that the play is about Apartheid, it is not abundantly clear how the characters are related to that history and what their role is. It is only hinted at.

For instance we learn the wife is recovering from some sort of mental health episode or break down, but we don’t know exactly why or what she went to through. We hear that she is very upset about police taking her diaries. We don’t know what’s in them or why it’s a big deal. We don’t know why they raided their house. And she also alluded to some sort of mistreatment in how she was handled in her rehabilitation facility, but we never quite find out what happened to her and why she was there.

As a white South African, she too is a native, but she has a different experience than Steven because the color of her skin protects her and historically plays into how she is treated.

Piet is trying so hard to identify the aloes and understand them scientifically because he can’t do the same thing with humans. There is a sense of grappling to understand and classify things, but the play doesn’t even do that for the audience so how can we expect the characters to do so?

There are rumors that there was an informant that led to prison time for Steven and others in their cause, which is not even clearly identified as a protest. People in their circle suspect Piet of being that informant because he is white. When Steven confronts him about it after a lot of prodding from Gladys, who seems to have a more bleak and realistic understanding of what’s going on, Piet owns up to it even though it wasn’t him. When Gladys asks him why, he says because they were going to think it anyway. We never find out who the informant is, but it is a case of how perception can often be reality.

So there is a disconnect between societal labels and judgments placed on people and their actual history. Similarly black South Africans were being vilified for their skin color, when the white people responsible perhaps new nothing about them beyond how they label them.

The first act drags a little bit more than the second because of the two person dynamic, but the intensity goes up when we introduce the Steven and anticipate whether or not he will come to dinner.

Also, there are inconsistencies in Gladys’s behavior that suggest she isn’t stable, so it makes us curious about what’s wrong with her and what her story is. In the beginning she is almost silent and expressionless, but later on she becomes almost manic and paranoid, yet there are periods of joy. But we don’t really find out, so maybe that just goes to show that even if we did know what she was a victim of or what mental health issue she is battling, it doesn’t define her.

Piet is the only really consistent character throughout on an emotional level, throwing himself into the simplicity of classifying aloes as a distraction. Aloe plants are known for their medical traits and ability to soothe and heal, so maybe he is also looking for that comfort.

On the contrary, aloes make Gladys very uncomfortable because of their prickly appearance and she does not understand his fixation on them. Similarly she does not like being classified, so maybe it was the labels she has more problems with then the aloes themselves.

Even though the whole story takes place in one house, the interactions are interesting and most riveting elements of the story lie in what isn’t revealed or explained. Maybe that is reflective how we can’t always know everything there is to know about a person and how history has gaps in the narrative depending on what’s withheld and who’s telling the story.

“A Lesson from Aloes” just closed Sunday at Hartford Stage, but if you ever go to see this play elsewhere, I suggest reading up on the history about it first so you will understand it better.