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.

Advertisements

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

On_Your_Feet_mobile3_0

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’

20180517062643-38ec347d-me

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.

‘Love Never Dies’: A New Genre of Musical Sequels is Born

Love never dies, unfortunately for everyone in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel to “The Phantom of the Opera” by the same name.
While the production May 29 at the Bushnell was musically phenomenal, the story line – written by Ben Elton and based on Frederick Forsyth’s “The Phantom of Manhattan” – takes some liberties that create a disconnect from its predecessor. For one, apparently soprano opera muse Christine Daae and the Phantom conceived a child together 10 years back even though the only real time they spent together was during her brief abduction.
The new musical, in true opera form, has a love triangle, a woman foolishly enamored with a man who terrorizes her, jealousy, tragedy, and death.
Every character is flawed in a way that, although human, seems inconsistent with the resolution of “Phantom.” The only one who has redeeming qualities is Christian Harmston’s Gustave, Daae’s pure, adorable, and musically gifted son. His voice was clear and beautiful. While he didn’t go for the highest note in the original “Phantom” theme song, he probably could have hit it well.
Meghan Picerno is exquisite and elegant as Daae and she sings with stunning vibrato and power, but this version of Christine is certainly not an icon of female empowerment. You can’t help but see her as weak. Even though the Phantom obsesses over her in a creepily possessive and controlling way, often frightening her, she has deep undying suppressed love for him. Stockholm syndrome maybe? Though, in an era of “me too,” maybe it’s not fair to be so hard on her because she may be a victim, but it’s hard to tell if that’s an intended characterization of her.
Nonetheless, she lacks the purity that makes her so likable in “Phantom.” Raoul (Sean Thompson), who Christine chooses over the Phantom in the original and marries, references her high, expensive standards he can’t live up to, making her sound shallow and materialistic. The only endearing moments for her character are when we see her with her son. Then we see a flicker of the old Christine we know and love with her gentle compassion.
SPOILER ALERT
Raoul also loses his appeal in the sequel, no longer the charismatic knight in shining armor who protects Christine like he was in “Phantom.” In “Love Never Dies” he is in debt, largely due to gambling. We also see a very jealous and insecure side of him as he questions whether Christine still loves him. He can be quite nasty and belligerent, drinking his sorrows away into the morning and snapping at bartenders who try to cut him off. Only toward the end when he cradles Christine’s dead body in his arms in tragic tenderness do we see a glimmer of the old, likable Raoul.
Oh, had I not mentioned it before? Again, SPOILER ALERT!
Christine dies! It tarnishes the story and takes away the hopeful escape we see for her and Raoul in the original. It really does kill the notion of a happily ever after — between that and her marriage rut. It doesn’t really seem to add much to the story either. And doesn’t that mean love does die? Maybe the Phantom will love her forever, beyond her death. But we don’t know that. And when he succumbs to his mortality, any remaining essence of their love will vanish from existence.
The only thing it does accomplish story-wise is create a delicate closing moment when her son looks upon the Phantom for the first time as his real father and touches his face as an apparent sign of acceptance. So, maybe the love that never dies is actually a father-son loving bond instead of romance. But is that moment really necessary? Are we really feeling sorry for the Phantom, who is even more of a lamenting, possessive, disturbing stalker type in this sequel? It’s great he now can feel loved by another human despite his deformed appearance and life of seclusion. But was he really looking for that?
Besides, he already experienced that in “Phantom” with Christine. But he clearly didn’t learn something, backsliding further into self-loathing and despair in the sequel. But that despair doesn’t make him a victim. Instead, he has a mystical power over Christine and seems to feel entitled to get what he wants. It’s almost a “Beauty and the Beast” dynamic between him and Christine. However, she can never fully stop being afraid of him and we never seem to see the good beneath his tormenting exterior. The ending almost seems more appropriate to set a movie up for another sequel. But musical sequels are very rare. So I suppose “Love Never Dies” has that going for it.
SPOILER ALERT
Also, the way Christine dies, accidentally shot by her old opera friend Meg Giry (Mary Michael Patterson), is far-fetched. We see Meg is pitted against Christine as a competitor. Her mom, the austere Madame Giry (Karen Mason), certainly drills that into her head. Christine inadvertently threatens Meg’s leading lady stardom and position in the Phantom’s Coney Island circus.
However, her character seems kind and compassionate throughout the show and does not seem extremely rattled by Christine’s return or troubled at all. So it’s a leap for her character to kidnap Christine’s son and attempt to throw him into the water to drown before threatening to shoot herself. The only goodness we really see in the Phantom is when he talks her down from her hysteria to save her life. Then, when the gun accidentally goes off and fires a fatal bullet at Christine, she clearly feels sorry for what she did. But she runs off like she’s guilty so that last sequence denies her from being pure of heart and one of the only likable protagonists. We do see human compassion emerge from her mother though when they initially suspect she abducted Gustave and she shows concern before racing to help find him.
“Love Never Dies” maintains the Gothic decadence of “Phantom,” blended with an “American Horror Story: Freak Show” vibe. The circus element was both haunting and fun with many acrobatic interludes and lively sideshow performers.
With that being said the flaws in the story line are not the fault of the cast and the production team. They did very well with what they had to work with, particularly considering how challenging the music of a Webber score can be.
Where the story and characters are lacking, “Love Never Dies” is musically impressive with powerful vocals from Gardar Thor Cortes as the Phantom.

While you can hear a lot of the songs were a strain for Cortes and Thompson (Raoul) in the lower registers as they went a little out of tune, it was miraculous they were able to hit all the notes given the expansive range the music required of them. Nonetheless the two male leads were otherwise strong vocalists, particularly Cortes who really fills the room and sings out over the orchestra. In that regard, you could see how his Phantom would be alluring to Christine despite his demeanor.

While Patterson’s Meg is overshadowed by Christine, her voice is by no means second fiddle. She sounds exquisite and even is very successful at delivering comedy through opera, which is not easy in such a dramatic style of music that requires a lot of serious focus and stamina.

Speaking of stamina, I was blown away by the orchestra and the instrumental precision.  I enjoyed their interludes just as much as the lyrical pieces. It takes one thing for a singer to hit all the notes, rhythm, and expression of a song, but it is even more difficult for multiple instruments played by several different people to attain the same unified accuracy of one person. They breathe life into this production and bring personality to the orchestration.

The songs themselves were very enjoyable to hear. Themes from “Phantom” are woven into the sequel. However there is scarcely a song that proved to be as memorable as an “Angel of Music,” “Music of the Night,” or “The Phantom of the Opera.” I can’t say that there are any songs from this musical that will stick in my head or that I will find myself singing at random. The only one that comes even close is “Love Never Dies,” as the title song should. However, all of the music is beautiful. It is just very hard to surpass a legend in musical history.

Despite the flawed story, the concept of a musical sequel is something unique that I hope to see a Broadway tackle more often.

The set was ornate, the make up was beautiful, and the show was ultimately very well cast.

He is still here, the Phantom of the opera. And we do still want to hear him sing as horrible as he may be as a human. Can we expect another sequel about the bond between him and his newfound son? I implore Webber to do something unprecedented – a musical trilogy.

While “Love Never Dies” has moved on from The Bushnell, the fabulous lineup continues. Next up is “On Your Feet,” the story of Gloria and Emilio Estefan. More information about tickets and upcoming productions are available at bushnell.org.

‘The Age of Innocence’ – Based on First Pulitzer Prize Novel By A Woman – Casts Modern Satire on 1800s High Society

ageofinnocencepic

Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson

Chances are that audience members attending “The Age of Innocence” Wednesday night at Hartford Stage bought tickets out of interest in the story and the theater. However in 1800s high society New York, people did not necessarily go to theaters to see the shows but rather to watch the people attending them.

That’s where our story – the stage adaptation of Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by the same name – begins. At the opera. We peer through the binoculars of a male traditionalist into scandal unfolding in a nearby box. How dare an established upper class family like the Wellands parade their relative Countess Ellen Olenska out in public after a rumored affair and separation from her Count husband? It could surely ruin her beautiful cousin May’s reputation!

Today this petty outlook may seem ridiculous. But it was a very serious reality locked into the structure of society during the time period. So you may think a play like “The Age of Innocence” could be a droll nostalgic walk through history that is hard to relate to in the modern day. Not so in this production.

Tony and Emmy Nominee Douglas McGrath puts a satirically comical spin on the narrative that is very much catered toward a modern day audience. Because of the time gap, we are able to absorb the dialogue from a contemporary perspective that the characters, and even Wharton herself, would not grasp because of societal and cultural evolutions that had not happened yet. Like May (Helen Cespedes) exclaiming that having several small tables at a wedding reception instead of one long one would be exotic. The dramatic irony is not lost on us.

Four-time Tony winner Boyd Gaines takes the helm as the trusted, affable, and reflectively humorous narrator, Newland Archer, who guides us through a story that is actually timeless. A secret love triangle. His younger self, played by Andrew Veenstra, is in love and set to marry May, the woman of his and society’s dreams. But then he realizes he is actually in love with her cousin Ellen. Will he follow his heart or heed to society’s expectations? The mechanism of an adult narrator reflecting on his youth gives the same charm to the play as “A Christmas Story.” It also accentuates the theme of the seeming innocence of young love that might not be so innocent in the grand scheme of things.

Veenstra presents a charismatic, upstanding gentleman engaged to a pillar of New York society, yet he grapples with his morals as he defends and falls for the one character, Ellen (Sierra Boggess), who defies every societal standard in his world. Cespedes is lovely as May, so it is hard to fault her porcelain character for adhering to the views and rules she grew up with. But it is also hard to dislike Ellen, as Boggess pours sincerity and bright energy into her character.

The set designed by John Lee Beatty is astonishing. The backdrop of a ballroom left dark except for an annual party is very fitting for the entirety of the story. It represents the confines of society and ornate tradition. A room left dark and uninhabited most of the time, like a dining room, becomes a product of history. The room grows archaic and distant in functionality just as Newland (Veenstra) and Ellen find themselves challenging tradition and society. They try to tunnel through the walls to get out of that room, but the foundation is too strong to completely escape it even as their views evolve.

Darrie Lawrence gives matriarch Mrs. Manson Mingott, Ellen’s and May’s grandmother, a cunningly humorous Mother Tyrell quality (Game of Thrones) as she utilizes her status and leverages societal expectations to serve as a helpful manipulator.

“The Age of Innocence,” directed by Tony Award winner Doug Hughes, is story that really resonates with the audience, elevating the novel that made Wharton the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction to a modern day crowd.

It runs through May 6 at Hartford Stage on 50 Church Street. More information on tickets is available at http://www.hartfordstage.org.


Jessie Sawyer
jessie.l.sawyer@gmail.com