‘Oh What a Night’ of ‘Jersey Boys’ at The Bushnell

Oh what a night it was for “Jersey Boys” at The Bushnell Wednesday night.

It’s more than a show about Frankie Valli (with an “i”) and the Four Seasons, though you’ll certainly enjoy it if you are a fan of hit songs like “December, 1963 (Oh What A Night),” “Sherry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.” This musical has depth and Jersey grit, blending comedy and harsh reality.

The story is structured around – surprise, surprise – the four seasons, charting the rise and fall, and rise again, of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, as well as the tight and sometimes tenuous relationships the boys build and struggle with as they chase their dream parallel a rough and tumble life ridden with gang fraternization, debt, and bad habits that die hard.

“Jersey Boys” starts off in the spring, a season full of life and birth. Our first act narrator, Tommy DeVito (Matthew Dailey) discovers, protects, and builds Frankie Castelluccio (Aaron De Jesus) into a hit singer, taking him under his wing like his kid brother. Despite his short stature, the first thing you notice about Frankie is his angelic voice and high pitched falsetto. De Jesus channels Frankie Valli’s distinct vocal timbre well with cartoonish charm often reminiscent of “The Chipmunks.” But when you’re a guy who can sing higher than a soprano, flaunt it! While Frankie does get into some scrappy situations thanks to Tommy’s brushes with the law – a lot of break-ins and jewelry store robberies that land him in the slammer – his unsavory friends manage to get him off the streets and keep him out of serious trouble for the most part. It’s the music that really saves Frankie and gives him a more successful and upstanding life.

Then comes summer, the high life – a season of parties and fun. While our Four Seasons are certainly having a good time – as evidenced in the comical “Oh What a Night” scene when the group’s new nerdy, straight-laced songwriter, Bob Gaudio (Cory Jeacoma), writer of the hit “(Who Wears) Short Shorts,” has his first dalliance with a lady of the night – they are working hard. Particularly Frankie and Bob, who form a side deal to share the profits of any side gigs and outside songs Bob produces.

Tommy is still our narrator, as Dailey exudes his character’s godly, overinflated ego. It makes sense he is telling the story instead of the star – Frankie – because he takes credit for the success of the group and Valli. Unfortunately, with a rise there eventually comes a fall. Unbeknownst to the group, Tommy racks up 160 large in loans from his mobster friends and a half mill in unpaid taxes. The debt is the crisis that ends Act I and Act II chronicles the fallout of the situation.

Listening to the energy in the songs of the Four Seasons, you’d never think of all the trouble going on behind the scenes. That makes the story about more than the music. This is where life comes in. Fall is a season of both vibrant color and contradicting grimness, so it’s a suitable backdrop for the fall of the group and the struggles they face. Bob takes over a lot of the narrative as the man who writes the music and works with Frankie to get the music deals. We see Frankie’s relationship with his sassy, redheaded wife, Mary Delgado (Kristen Paulicelli), go south and the strained relationship with his daughter due to all of his time on the road. The boys learn to walk like men, though leading alternate lives on tour with other women and the band as their family.

Act II closes with winter, cold and colorless, yet serene. The mob sentences Tommy to live forever in Las Vegas to teach him a lesson, so he can never leave Nevada.

Frankie and the band take on Tommy’s debt. Frankie tours everywhere and plays at whatever gig he can to make money to pay off the money owed to the mob and the IRS.

Bob decides he doesn’t like performing and focuses solely on writing music – including a song different than anything of the time, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” that radio stations won’t play at first because of its unconventionality. That song goes on to sell millions and is one of the group’s biggest hits, with the horn section Frankie always wanted.

Then there’s the defining moment when Nick Massi (Keith Hines), the group’s Lurch-like bass who barely says anything or emotes, finally stands up for himself, speaks out about Tommy’s disgusting, towel-hogging hotel tendencies, and leaves the group because he said it and because he wants to go home. Sometimes the straight man in a comedy can be the funniest. The stoic, monotone voice and dry persona Hines pumps into the character juxtaposed against the hilarity of what he says makes Massi one of my favorite characters.

I adored the minor character of Joey (Pesci), a bowling alley attendant who fixes games for Tommy and recruits Bob for the group. His innocent, nerdy loyalty contrasted well with Dailey’s tough guy Tommy and knocked the comedy pins out of the bowling alley.

Barry Anderson was delightfully fierce as the flamboyant and particular music director, Bob Crewe, who eventually helps the Four Seasons record and get their music out there.

The music was a highlight, however the audio of the vocals sometimes overpowered the background music instead of blending the two, occasionally making it hard to understand the singers – particularly in the opening scene with the French versions of the songs.

Nostalgia and familiarity with the songs made me really connect with this musical and even though I couldn’t relate to the lives of the Four Seasons, I could empathize with their situations. This is a story that needed to be told. And this is a musical that you should see.

“Jersey Boys” runs through March 26 at The Bushnell in Hartford. For more information on the production and tickets, visit www.bushnell.org.

Cheers to Another ‘Christmas on the Rocks’ at TheaterWorks – Introducing Karen

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Jenn Harris as Karen (from Frosty the Snowman) and Ronn Carroll as the bartender in “Christmas on the Rocks” at TheatreWorks in Hartford. Photo Credit: http://www.facebook.com/TheaterWorksHartford

Hartford’s TheaterWorks is serving up its traditional Christmas special on the rocks with a minor change in the ingredients this holiday season.

It’s like laughing with friends over a drink, or may as well be with the familiar and realistic bar set decked out with Christmas decor from the infamous leg lamp to twinkle lights. The bar is described in the program as “a local bar in a lonely corner of the comos, Christmas Eve.”

The actors are the same as last year. Ronn Carroll is the warm, welcoming and fatherly bartender – our host of sorts for the evening as multiple grown-up Christmas characters stumble across his bar one-by-one and talk to him about their holiday woes.

Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas show their versatility playing all of the Christmas character roles.

Harris introduces a new character to the series of vignettes, each written by different playwright. She swaps Cindy Lou Who for Karen from the animated version of “Frosty the Snowman” in a very modern new media infused scene entitled “My Name is KAREN!” that she collaborated on writing with Wilkas.  She presents a bitter, fame-crazed Karen, who is furious with Frosty for how everyone knows his name and fails to give her due credit for saving him. Fleeing the police after snowman-napping a melted Frosty in a bucket, she bursts into the charming but empty holiday pub on Christmas Eve. She holds our beloved bartender hostage as she live-streams a video blog of sorts, yelling to the world that she is KAREN and denouncing Frosty. The scene has added visual intrigue with two projected screens on the side displaying what seems to be the live broadcast, with Karen’s face hilariously close to the screen.

The other vignettes are the same as year’s past, but darling. Audio of different Christmas movies plays to simulate the bartender flipping through channels watching them. Wilkas opens the show playing a nostalgic and depressed Ralphie from “A Christmas Story” in “All Grown Up” by John Cariani. He sets up the plot of several Christmas icons coming to life, entering the real world from their stories. It’s a very quick explanation the bartender is quick to accept and that we’re supposed to believe. The magic of Christmas, you know. The scene has a tapestry of popular lines from the movie woven into the dialogue. Wilkas’s re-enactment of Ralphie’s first introduction to the leg lamp got a lot of laughs.

Wilkas later plays a flamboyant, sassy, hyper and spiteful dentist elf Hermey ,  who describes taking down fame-hogging Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer in “Say it Glows” by Jeffrey Hatcher. It’s one of the most lively scenes in Wilkas’s expressiveness and the physicality that he puts into the animated elf. It’s his most high-energy character, as many of the others are much more depressed.

He also plays a downtrodden, unappreciative Tiny Tim in “God Bless Us Everyone” by Theresa Rebeck – English accent and all.

The stories alternate between male and female protagonists. Harris’s characters are the more obscure of the Christmas characters – which makes you realize how many holiday stories have male main characters. If you’re seeing the show for the first time, it’s always fun to try to figure out who each character is. Before Karen, she starts off as the cutest little girl in the world – Sue – from “A Miracle on 34th Street” in “The Cane in the Corner” depicting the stressful life of a single working mom. She’s a realtor now and buried in her job and cellphone. The scene has one of the more uplifting endings, closing with hope, though most of the characters come to some self-realizations that even slightly pull them out of their slumps.

Harris has more comical roles in the show – particularly her scene as Clara from “The Nutcracker” in “Still Nuts About Him” by Edwin Sanchez. I enjoyed her Russian accent and when she maniacally smashes peanuts in the rage of a jealous, overlooked wife – she’s married to the Nutcracker.

The last vignette, “Merry Christmas, Blockhead” by Jacques Lamarre wraps the show up very nicely with an uplifting ending. It’s the only scene that Harris and Wilkas appear in together. Wilkas presents a Charlie Brown who hasn’t changed at all in his depressed demeanor – now married to Lucy (his sister Sally is married to Schroeder). The scene starts off very sad, particular when you hear what happened to Snoopy. Harris’s entrance as Little Red-haired girl changes the tone of the scene as she and Charlie Brown interact. Their dance is so cute and brings back the child in all of us, closing the show with more hope for the future.

Carroll’s bartender is the only character who appears in all the scenes. He’s like our narrator and has a certain all-knowingness about him. It’s interesting how his character has more sympathy for some characters than others. He’s endearing with some of them and gets frustrated with others who he yells at, particularly Clara and Tiny Tim. He walks out of the room during Hermie’s monologue because he’s so ridiculous and we acknowledge his annoyance. Just like the characters are timeless, so is he – almost like he is Father Christmas. His cane is placed in the corner, so could he be Santa?

Rob Ruggiero is the returning director, who put the original show together at least a couple years ago. Last year, he mentioned considering adding Zuzu from “It’s a Wonderful Life” as a character. I’d also love to see Rusty or Audrey from “Christmas Family Vacation,” Kevin from “Home Alone” and the little boy in “Love Actually” too – and Rob, if you’re reading this, I’d love to write a vignette for future consideration.

“Christmas on the Rocks” is a TheaterWorks original production and is a holiday tradition with a twist that you won’t want to miss! If you are familiar with all of the Christmas stories represented in it, you’ll connect with it and laugh the most.

More information about “Christmas on the Rocks” is available on the TheaterWorks website at http://theaterworkshartford.org. The show runs through Dec. 23.

Bill Raymond Plays Scrooge for the Last Time in Hartford Stage’s ‘A Christmas Carol’

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Bill Raymond and the Ghosts of A Christmas Carol. Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson

God bless Bill Raymond, who has warmed our hearts as Scrooge in Hartford Stage’s annual “A Christmas Carol” over the past 20 years and who is retiring the role after this run. 

Raymond is the heartbeat of the show – and he will be missed. He gives us the gift of both his comedy and more serious acting, blending them into a lovable, humorous, perhaps senile, money-hoarding curmudgeon who we can’t quite call a villain. He also puts physicality into to role, from the hip-thrusting windup to get his character’s old self down the stairs to air sword-fighting an imaginary spirit (while enjoying spirits of his own), complete with light saber sound effects. 

One of my favorite parts is when Raymond takes awhile to lock up for the night and you hear the key against the locks for an extended period of no dialogue as we all watch him do it. Only then his employer Bob Cratchit asks for his wages so he has to go through the whole rigamarole again to unlock his desk. One minor note! Scrooge either forgot to lock up or he only turned one lock making it unnoticeable. 

Noble Shropshire is as important to this production as a feather duster is to his opening character Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge’s maid. More notably, he doubles as Jacob Marley, who also helps Scrooge out, albeit it at the cost of overnight visits by three spirits – the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Future and Christmas Yet to Come. Shropshire has the challenge of playing a woman – often a comedic tool in theater – and a horrifying spiritual flown up from the red, smoky bowels of a stage trap door. He emphasizes classic Dickens lines like “the wicked old Screw,” Marley “died seven years ago this very night” and “dead  as a doornail” (to which Raymond responds “that’s not very nice) like punch lines. His facial and vocal expressivity makes Mrs. Dilber a powerful caricature.   

Johanna Morrison, Alan Rust and Michael Preston are other favorites reprising their roles as Bettye Pidgeon, the doll seller, Bert, the cider maker and Mr. Marvel, the inventor and steam enthusiast in the marketplace – all debtors to Scrooge. It’s always good to see their faces again.

Morrison is lovely as always, doubling as the Spirit of Christmas Past. Her entrance on a glittering sleigh gliding through puffs of fog is always breathtaking artistry. She also played Old Josie,  pawn dealer of sorts. 

Rust is jolly and fatherly as Bert and the Spirit of Christmas Present. The two children riding on his cart and sitting at the base of his festive throne as cherubs are adorable. The clever use of gold glitter for his happy juice makes his seasons sparkle and sets the tone for a giddy, drunken Scrooge. 

Preston is lively entertainment and passionate as Mr. Marvel. I always thought he played the uncredited role of the Spirit of Christmas Future, but it turns out that a Hartt student is usually granted the privilege of riding a tall tricycle as the ominous sprit.

The doubling of ghost and person is symbolic of how Scrooge could have learned from the people in his life and how integral the ghosts are to his everyday life afterward. Morrison as Betty is selling dolls – a nostalgic toy from childhood – and Scrooge carries the doll he confiscated as collateral for her debt with him when he’s with the Spirit of Christmas Past. Bert sells cider, something you might drink at a party with friends to live in the moment, and Scrooge drinks cider when he’s with the Spirit of Christmas Present. It’s implied that Marvel is also the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come because of his clock hat and the contraption he scoots around carrying his invention – a steam-powered clock. There’s also the beautiful clocks projected in light on the floor. Time is always an unknown when you think about the future, which is why his cutting-edge clock invention is crucial. The mirroring also humanizes the spirits.

In a flashback scene with characters whirring through Marvel came in complaining Scrooge took his invention though it appeared it was still on the cart.

The ensemble is also very talented from a silly flirtatious exchange between Scrooge’s nephew Fred’s sister-in-law (Vanessa R. Butler) and Mr. Topper to the glow-in-the dark Victorian styled ghostly apparitions. Butler also served as dance captain. Every time the ghosts appeared they danced both gracefully and abruptly startling, clinking and pounding their chains on the floor bringing percussion to the moves. One ghost was even flown across the stage, giving it visual levels. Every now and then the spirits would lunge out toward the audience and half, never touching the spectators but not afraid to stare them down in the front row. 

It’s all in good fun though and the high energy and humor in an otherwise dark Christmas story makes the show appealing for children who don’t spook easily. 

I was delighted to see Robert Hannon Davis return as the endearing Bob Cratchit. He is a friendly familiar face and a kind and gentle presence. He is straight man to Raymond’s comedy, often smiling politely when Scrooge is being hilariously eccentric almost cuing us to laugh. He’s with us. 

Rebecka Jones plays a composed and loving Mrs. Cratchit, but I most enjoyed her as Mrs. Fezziwig. She and Charlie Tirrell as Fezziwig, Scrooge’s jolly first employer, had extraordinary comedic chemistry.

The children in this production were as adorable as always, particularly Charlize Calcagno as Tiny Tim.

Hartford Stage casts people of all ethnicities no matter the traditional expectation for how the characters look, which is why you’ll see Terrell Donnell Sledge as a Black 30-year-old Scrooge when younger and older Scrooge are white. It’s meant to be about the spirit of the person playing the character, not just their appearance. I particularly enjoyed him as the cheerful and compassionate Fred, Scrooge’s nephew. 

Flor De Liz Perez was sweet as Belle and understanding and patient as Fred’s wife.

Not much has changed with this annual holiday production, but just like a Christmas movie you only get to watch it once a year and you look forward to it. Only with theater, you have the added nuance of it being live so anything can happen, which keeps it interesting.

There were times in the show when the actors relied on their own vocal projection for sound as opposed to mikes, so sometimes some of the lines were hard to hear. Luckily Hartford Stage is such an intimate setting that it was not as big of a problem as a larger theater.

It will be interesting to see what Hartford Stage does with “A Christmas Carol” yet to come without Raymond as our favorite holiday miser.

You can hear from Raymond and the cast at talkbacks following the performances on Saturday, Dec. 10 at 2 p.m. and Wednesday, Dec. 14, 7:30 p.m.

The play was adapted by original director Michael Wilson and Rachel Alderman directed this production. Hope Clarke choreographed the show.

“A Christmas Carol” runs through Dec. 30. For more information on the production and tickets, you can visit the Hartford Stage’s website or call the Box Office at 860-527-5151.

A glimpse of “A Christmas Carol” five years ago:

Theatre Guild of Simsbury to Enchant Farmington Valley With ‘Beauty & The Beast’ on 25th Anniversary of Animated Film

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Patrick Spadaccino (Beast) and Kimberly Korfel (Belle) rehearse for Theatre Guild of Simsbury’s “Beauty & The Beast.” Photo Credit: Jessie Sawyer

Theatre Guild of Simsbury presents a tale as old as time to enchant the Farmington Valley this November with a unique interpretation of Disney’s “Beauty & The Beast,” 25 years since the Disney animated film.

Artistic Director Jane Cerosky, making her debut at TGS, has assembled a talented cast of about 40 adults and children to bring this classic Disney fairytale to life, staging it as a bedtime story-inspired dream.

“I am very honored for the trust TGS has put in me to direct this show. My vision is to be true to the story, in part by making the audience relate to the characters as real people, not just caricatures,” she said.

TGS jumped on the opportunity to be one of the first adult community theaters in Connecticut to perform the musical once the rights became available again at the close of the Broadway tour in July. The group read it back in 2010. It’s an “enchanting story for young and old,” TGS president Donna Sennott said.

Years after an enchantress turns a prince into a beast (Patrick Spadaccino), he takes bookish Belle (Kimberly Korfel) as prisoner in place of her inventor father Maurice (Rick Anderson, of Simsbury). Belle may be Beast’s last chance at true love to break the spell before the last rose petal falls.

“I’m thrilled to be playing the Beast because this play is a powerful story of love and transformation, with lots of wonderful music and humor sprinkled in – there’s a little something for every audience member to enjoy,” Spadaccino, of Middletown, said. “Since I wear heavy makeup through most of the show, I can’t depend as much upon facial expressions and similar physical subtleties. I need to convey a range of emotions – scorn, regret, anger, tenderness, sorrow, love – while most of my body and face are obscured.”

Meanwhile, manly, narcissistic hunter Gaston (Geoff Ruckdeschel) has his sights set on wooing and marrying Belle much to her distaste. When rejected and publicly humiliated, he orchestrates a dastardly scheme, amid his daily diet of five dozen eggs, to put Belle’s father in the loony bin with the help of his goofy sidekick, Lefou (Al Girard, of East Hartford), and Monsier D’Arque (Rick Rendiero), head of the asylum. When Gaston sees Beast as a threat to his future with Belle, he rallies a mob to kill him.

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Geoff Ruckdeschel flexes as Gaston in rehearsal for “Gaston” in Theatre Guild of Simsbury’s “Beauty & The Beast.” Photo Credit: Jessie Sawyer

Going beyond a fairytale about love and good versus evil, “Beauty & The Beast” teaches “how appearances can be deceiving, for beauty is found within.” The physical transformations of the Beast and his subjects symbolize personal transformation and character arcs.

“Transformation stories are very powerful, but in order for such tales to work, the audience must witness and become engaged in the transformation,” Spadaccino said. “Both Belle and the Beast change dramatically over the course of the show, and audiences need to care about these characters. They must want them to change and celebrate with them when they do. So, while this play is a fantasy, there needs to be enough realism to create that audience engagement.”

Deeply immersing himself in the character, he wrote a journal in Beast’s perspective about his backstory.

“That helped me to better understand why the Beast is the way he is. What made him so cruel and uncaring? Why was his generous, loving nature suppressed for so long? What is it about Belle that helps him finally change?” Spadaccino said. “Physical training was also part of my preparation for this role because the Beast has both dance and combat scenes. I experimented with different movement styles to help convey the discomfort and awkwardness of changing from a man into a beast, and I did weight and aerobic training to reduce the likelihood of injuries.”

Windsor Locks native and Torrington resident Ruckdeschel, who is playing a lead character and villain for the first time, also worked out a lot to build Gaston’s physique. He enjoys putting his own take on the character, also mindful of “certain expectations for the well-known villain of ‘Beauty & The Beast.’”

Korfel studied musical theater performance at Hartt, where she met choreographer Tracy Funke, of Manchester. In addition to singing a lot, she has been “studying the character as Disney created [Belle] and using what we know about the beloved princess to help complete unwritten pieces of her story.”

“I am so grateful to be joining this wonderful group of dedicated and talented performers! Playing the role of Belle is an absolute dream!” Korfel, of North Granby, said. “She has always been one of my favorite Disney characters and I am beyond honored to bring her to life in this production.”

It’s also a blessing to have the rare opportunity to act alongside her oldest daughter in the show, she said.

“I could not be more proud as I watch her learning how much hard work goes into a production of this scale and seeing her rise to the challenge,” Korfel said.

A 20-piece orchestra, led by music director Willard Minton, plays Alan Menken’s award-winning score.

“From boisterous full ensemble production numbers like ‘Gaston,’ ‘Human Again’ and, particularly, ‘Be Our Guest’ to sensitive and introspective solos and duets sung by Belle, the Beast, and Mrs. Potts (who gets to sing the title song!), the score is one of the most beautiful I have ever worked with,” Minton said. “The very first Disney animated musical to be fully adapted to the Broadway stage, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is a show that speaks to all ages, and should not be missed.”

Costumer Cindy Braunlich sews even more magic into the production with elaborate and stunning costumes, including rentals from three warehouses and others she is building with the help of volunteers.

“You have to strike the right balance between what the audience expects to see (i.e. Belle’s golden ball gown) and putting your own mark on the show so it is a visual exciting to watch,” said Braunlich.

Cerosky said she is proud of the work the leads have done to prepare and that she knows the musical “will be a blockbuster” with the talented cast and production team – including set designer Doreen Cohn, lighting and sound designer Michael Hunter, Dian Pomeranz on set dressing and props, stage manager Heidi Bengraff and Assistant Director Randy Ronco, who is overseeing stage combat.

“This is a big show that requires the best team in the area and we all are going to make TGS very proud with this production,” Cerosky said.

You can see the magic of “Beauty and the Beast” at Simsbury High School, 34 Farms Village Rd., on Nov. 12 and 19 at 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 13, 19 and 20 at 2 p.m. Tickets cost $19 for students/seniors and $22 for adults when purchased in advance online at www.theatreguildsimsbury.org, $21 for students/seniors and $24 for adults at the door and $18 for students/seniors and $20 for adults when purchased after Oct. 17 at the Simsbury Senior Center or Fitzgerald’s Foods in Simsbury.

Tale As Old As Time, ‘Beauty & The Beast’, Returns to the Warner on 25th Anniversary of Disney Animated Film

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Tyler Reid von Oy (left) as Beast and Caitlin Mandracchia (right) as Belle debut at the Warner in “Beauty & The Beast.” Credit: Luke Haughwout

Belle may come from a little town, a quiet village, every day like the one before, a little town full of little people. But in Torrington on Saturday night, hundreds flocked to Belle’s little town, which grew big, resonant, beautiful and magical. And the little people in it were a big hit and full of talent. Bon jour! Hello! Welcome back to the Warner, Beauty & the Beast!

The Disney spirit was alive in the main stage auditorium for young and old, including at least one little girl wearing her golden Belle dress and many people – including this reviewer – illuminating the theater with red glowing enchanted roses purchased in the lobby. The production is a wonderful version of the beloved Broadway fairytale musical that celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Disney animated film.

Producer Sharon Wilcox said the Warner has been waiting with excitement to do the show again after producing it years ago on the main stage. The rights became available again this year at the close of the Broadway tour in July, so it’s been a popular choice already for community theaters in Connecticut. Two others – Theatre Guild of Simsbury and West Hartford Community Theatre – will open their productions of the show next weekend as the Warner closes theirs.

Director Donald Birely is no stranger to Beauty & The Beast having toured professionally and nationally as a cast member in the musical. And now he has enchanted the Warner stage with his vision for the story.

Instead of a voiced over intro, he chose to have Jim Wood, playing Maurice, address the crowd, with the narrative. That approach made Maurice more invested in the story and highlighted his role as a father.

As we listened, actors aesthetically pantomimed the action. We see a young prince turn away a hooded beggar woman when she offers him a rose in exchange for shelter from the bitter cold, but she warns him not to be deceived by appearances, for beauty is found within. When he refuses to help again, the old woman transforms into a beautiful, glittery enchantress. The prince tries to apologize and seeing there is no love in his heart, she gracefully waves her arms, casting a spell that turns him into a beast and enchants the castle. He has to shows he can love and be loved in return before the last petal on the enchanted rose falls to break the spell or he will be doomed to be a beast forever. 

Then the dark, mystical opening transitions into a much brighter, simpler setting in a cheery small town for “Belle” – one of the most popular songs in the musical and Disney animated film. It introduces one of our culture’s most beloved Disney princesses, our grounded and bookish female protagonist.

The ensemble in this show really puts in a lot of energy and thought to their characters to flesh out the story and setting. Individual soloists were expressive and talented singers, however some were less audible, expectedly the ones who did not have microphones in “Belle.”

There were also some audio glitches in the beginning with some of the mics and delayed sound effects. Gaston’s gunshot blast was delayed on his entrance and many ensemble members noticeably reacted early in anticipation of the sound effect. Wilcox had made a reference to minor audio technical difficulties before the show started. However, the crew seemed to resolve those issues early in the production.

Beauty & The Beast is known for its beautiful and robust orchestral score by Alan Menken, who has written a lot of Disney songs. The dynamic instrumental opening is an imperative and powerful element to lead into the story, but there were were moments when the entire orchestra wasn’t together and lagging a little bit. When in tempo and in sync with the performers, the orchestra – stationed below the stage – produced quite beautiful instrumentals, led by music director Holly J. McCann. However, tempo issues sporadically arose at later points in the show when it seemed like the orchestra was behind tempo, meaning the singers on stage had to slow down to follow them as opposed to the other way around – particularly in the mirky “Maison de Lunes.”  That being said, the orchestra mostly enhanced the onstage vocals, adding musical layers to the songs. The horn section was triumphant when it had the melody.

Speaking of music. Wow! The vocals in this production are top notch, some performers on par with the professionals. Warner newcomers Caitlin Mandracchia (Belle) and Tyler Reid von Oy (Beast) had strong acting and musical chemistry, blending well and acting the songs in a way that made their characters easy to connect to and real.

When Beast’s lack of manners show through as he guzzles his soup down like he’s drinking from a cup, Mandracchia cleverly and adorably mimics his eating habits in a dainty Belle way. The awkwardness as Beast tries to be a gentleman around Belle, with the counsel of Cogsworth and Lumiere, create some preciously funny moments.

Mandracchia’s voice was clear, sweet, strong and hopeful like Belle’s persona. She did a good job at being politely defiant during Gaston’s proposal in “Me” and her expressions and sarcasm said it all about how repulsed her character was at the prospect.

Reid von Oy’s voice was harmoniously booming – sheer music royalty. Do The Three Tenors need another? He was foreboding as Beast toward the beginning of the story. He embellished his character’s wild, animalistic side in every hunched-over, skulking and bounding movements across stage and up stairs.

Mandracchia tugged at our hearts with the forlorn, beautifully sung “Home.” Beast captured our sympathy with his impassioned and emotionally introspective solo to close Act I, taking an impressive risk by singing his last note higher than written.

Every performer had stunning vocals -enhanced by an off-stage choir – particularly other lead characters like operatic, fluttering soprano Anne Kanter (Madame De La Grande Bouche, the wardrobe), Rebekah Derrick as the motherly and hospitable teapot with a British accent (Mrs. Potts), Eric Linblom as the tightly wound and often flabbergasted, by-the-books head of household (Cogsworth, the clock) and the bellowing, belting Michael King as Gaston. Wood was eccentric and lovable as Maurice and also sang very well.

You could say the Warner’s Gaston was the King of comedy in this production. King put an exaggerated self-absorbed, macho and Dudley Do-Right oblivious take on the character that uniquely made our villain a vehicle for comedy alongside town fool sidekick Lefou (Richard McKenna). The duo made for a strong comedy team, infusing some scenes with slapstick physical humor. They also took risks. King had McKenna practically dangling backward from the edge of the passoral stage extension above the orchestra. McKenna was frantic, manic and clownish as Gaston’s fanboy. His hair had an electrified look to it that brought out his eccentricities with the help of his expressions between stage beatings from Gaston.

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Gaston (Michael King) surrounded by his Silly Girls (Jean Marie McGrath and L Nagle on the left and Cassandra Whitehead and Ashley Billings on the right. Credit: Luke Haughwout

Jean Marie McGrath, Cassandra Whitehead, Ashley Billings and L Nagle also provided some comedy as the ditzy, swooning Gaston admirers. He can do no wrong by them. All of them were fabulous dancers, also featured as enchanted napkins in “Be Our Guest.” While not pertinent to the plot, their caricatures accentuated Gaston’s tunnel vision despite occasional distractions in his private dalliances with the ladies. They are his cheerleaders and he is like the most popular athlete in school.

“Gaston” and “Be Our Guest” are the highly anticipated numbers to see in this production with the most choreography and physical/musical energy. Matthew Farina choreographed the show. The mug clinking added extra percussion to the song and brought it uptempo. All actors had to clink at the same time for that to be effective and they were in time. 

Choreography aside, “Be Our Guest” was also fun to watch because of the costumes – including but not limited to Rockette-like napkins in flowing dresses to silverware servants, China plates, salt and pepper shakers, spatulas, a sugar bowl, a cheese grater and a dining room rug. Plus there was Lumiere (Rick Fountain), our comical host and ladies’ man, rather candelabra, with electric lights he could flicker to turn in his flames. Becky Sawicki was sexy, sassy and flirtatious as his lover, Babette. Her tall wig and feathery dress brought out the feather duster in her. Her tango with Lumiere brought out their constant lovers’ quarrel. Derrick looked refined and proper in her teapot costume as Mrs. Potts. Jake Kordas was adorable as the seemingly floating head of Chip when Derrick pushed him out on a cart. Cogsworth’s dignified clock attire was very time-appropriate.

Costume designers Renee C. Purdy and Aurora Montenero did a stunning job with wardrobe. You could hear audience members gasp in delight and amazement when Belle appeared at the top of the stairs in her signature sparkly, yellow ball gown cascading down the stairs for waltz number “Tale As Old As Time,” sung endearingly by Derrick as Mrs. Potts with much vibrato and delicacy.

Fur, fangs, tale and prosthetic facial features turned our prince into a hideous beast. Even Beast looked handsome in his blue fancy attire. 

Wigs, hair and makeup were also crucial to the costumes – also handled by Purdy and Montenero. The makeup – particularly for painted opera beauty Madame De La Grande Bouche (Kanter) – was stunning. Marrianne Parks assisted with makeup.

This was the most visually impressive production and set I’ve ever seen at the Warner. And that’s saying something because there have been many. The castle, complete with staircases and balconies, allowed more depth and levels to the staging of scenes like “Be Our Guest” – which also had a lot of lights and a drop down illuminated “Belle” sign. Certain pieces like the library changed the vantage point of the castle. The fountain was a nice centerpiece to the village and the barrel seats brought out the pub feel in “Gaston.” SceneWorks Custom Sets & Scenery is credited for stage design and Kevin Hales and Steve Houk served as House Carpenters. 

Maurice steered his electronically powered  invention vehicle around stage smoothly. It was a very intriguing and well designed contraption!

Howling sound effects and projected evil eyes represent the wolves Maurice, Belle and Beast encounter and Maurice’s offstage yells signify the attack on him. Chris LaPlante designed the sound and LBC Lighting designed the lighting.

One of the scenes I most looked forward to was the final Beast transformation scene. On Broadway you see the Beast flying and spinning through the air seemingly changing before your eyes back into the prince. Fight choreography between Beast and Gaston and an implied offstage fall by our villain that also takes Beast out of sight temporarily leads into the pivotal last chance for Belle to break the spell as Beast is dying. Every moment the Beast was back on stage for that scene, he had his back to the audience and his face obscured. His voice sounded different in this part so it looked like a double was used. However the transformation remains a mystery as a machine pumped fog to obscure our vision and magically reveals the prince.

See the magic for yourself on closing weekend Nov. 10-12. Visit warnertheatre.org for more information on the production and purchasing tickets.

Tony Award-Winning ‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder’ Returns to Its Home State of Connecticut

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National Touring Company. (L-R) Kristen Beth Williams as Sibella Hallward, Kevin Massey as Monty Navarro and Adrienne Eller as Phoebe D’Ysquith in a scene from “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder.” Photo by Joan Marcus.

Why are all the D’Ysquiths dying?

Only the audience and Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey) are privy to that curious mystery in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” The Tony Award-winning musical that originated at Hartford Stage is playing now at The Bushnell Center for Performing Arts through Sunday.

Monty is one of the few characters with a hand in multiple deaths since serial killer Dexter who is a likable protagonist we are rooting for despite his nefarious actions. “Dexter” is a dark drama with occasional humor, whereas “Gentleman’s Guide” is very comical in the way it presents the deaths of the wealthy and elitist D’Ysquiths. Though you could argue that Monty didn’t directly kill anyone and rather orchestrated the circumstances that led to their demise. The audience was laughing hysterically at every murder.

In a way, Monty is like Ponty in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” both start off poor with low status and trying to fast-track their way to the top. Instead of being a window washer trying to rise in the ranks of a major corporation without experience, Monty is trying to rise in the ranks within his estranged family to gain status and wealth from his lower position to society and speed up the process by picking off the upper class D’Ysquiths in line to be earl one by one so that he can become earl himself. Monty has the added motivation of revenge for his mother, who was cast out of the family for marrying his Castilian father for love and not wealth, and love to win over the vain and money-conscious beauty, Sibella (Kristen Beth Williams).

Sibella claims she loves Monty, but won’t marry him because he’s not rich. She says she doesn’t know what she would do without him, but she marries a wealthy man she doesn’t love. It isn’t until Miss Shingle (Jennifer Smith), a friend of Monty’s mother, reveals he is an heir to the D’Ysquith family and he proves it to her and rises in wealth and status that she truly grows attracted to him. Monty asks her if it ever occurred to her to marry for love, yet he also is shallow in his quest for wealth to be the man Sibella wants and his obsession with Sibella despite how she doesn’t love him for him. He loses his grasp on morality as the play goes on, yet he doesn’t lose his charisma. Even when he becomes involved in a love triangle with Sibella and his D’Ysquith cousin, Phoebe (Kristen Hahn).

Everything comes to a head with the final murder that lands Monty in prison, where he confesses to his hand in the deaths in a diary titled “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” Irony plays a major role in the comedy of the musical, as that’s one of the few murders he didn’t commit. If not him, then who? And will his diary confession give him away?

This was my second time seeing the musical, the first being on Broadway when I missed the first 10 minutes, so I understood the intricacies of the plot much better. While the first song, “A Warning to the Audience,” was beautifully sung, I could have taken or left and didn’t feel like I missed much the first time because it was hard to hear what they were saying and it didn’t really add much to the plot. However, it did set the tone for a very light-hearted musical about murdering to inherit the family money.

The vocals were stunning with operatic flourish,  though the power of the notes sometimes compromised the diction and ability for the audience to understand the words. So, some of the jokes were lost. But the embellished action and expressions in the story told on a stage-like upstage set helped us grasp what was happening when the lyrics were lost. The effects for the murders from a priest falling down a spiral staircase projected on a screen to animated bees chasing a flamboyant bee keeper were also key in delivering humor.

Massey, Williams and Hahn were particularly impressive in the clear tone and power of their voices, as well as John Rapson who had the particular challenge of playing nine characters – most of the D’Ysquiths, women included.

Rapson, who was significantly younger than Connecticut actor who played the parts on Broadway, successfully tackled characters of different ages and genders that are snobby and kind, funny and serious and educated and fickle. His versatility and familiar face really drove the comedy and intrigue. He has a farcical, flamboyant and energetic way of playing all the characters.

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National Touring Company. The cast with John Rapson as Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith (red) in a scene from “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder.” Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

We saw a slightly meeker Monty in Massey that made him delicate and likable and more on the fringe as the puppet master designing the circumstances of the D’Ysquith’s deaths from the shadows. The urgency in his character’s desire for physicality and passion in his love for the dismissive Sibella was a vehicle for comedy as his hands and limbs emphatically trembled when he got to kiss her.

The musical doesn’t have many catchy songs that will get stuck in your head like a “Wicked” or “Rent,” besides “Why Are All the D’Ysquiths Dying?,”I’ve Decided to Marry You” and “Poison in My Pocket,” but the score is very powerful.

The staging of “I’ve Decided to Marry You,” when Phoebe makes that pronouncement to Monty as he hides the married Sibella in his bedroom during their affair, was very memorable, comical and dynamic as Massey dodges back and forth singing about his loves while trying to keep them a doorway apart.

The love triangle seems to work together in the end secretly to free Monty, so it seems that he will face no consequences for his actions.

Until another less-known D’Ysquith lurks on a roof above him singing about how he’s sitting there with poison in his pocket.

Could Monty face the same fate as his victims as the plot comes full circle post-story? We don’t find out.

But one thing’s for sure. Even after the D’Ysquiths dropped dead, the audience was very much alive with applause and a standing ovation.

More information about the production and purchasing tickets is available on www.bushnell.org.

Hartford Symphony Orchestra and CONCORA Perform Wonderland of Danny Elfman’s Tim Burton Film Scores

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Credit: Hartford Symphony Orchestra

There was magic in the air last Saturday night at The Bushnell.

This is Halloween! So, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, teaming up with the singers of CONCORA, took us on a big adventure through dark, spooky and whimsical worlds like Sleepy Hollow, Gotham, Wonderland, the planet overtaken by apes and nightmares before Christmas in a performance marrying Danny Elfman scores from Tim Burton films with projected movie clips and story sketches.

Some audience members went a step further and got festive with various Halloween costumes from Tim Burton characters like Sally in “Nightmare Before Christmas,” Beetlejuice and the Mad Hatter to one little girl dressed as Cinderella. They were entered for a chance to win HSO tickets.

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Filmmaker Tim Burton. Courtesy of HSO

What’s this? Did you know Danny Elfman scored all but a few of his good friend Tim Burton’s movies?

 

While Elfman wasn’t there – wow, what a joy that would have been – HSO and Concora brought his songs to life, connecting to Tim Burton movie fans through music. The program featured segments of the scores of “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” “Beetlejuice,” “Sleepy Hollow,” “Mars Attacks,” “Big Fish,” “Batman” and “Batman Returns” in the first act and “Planet of the Apes,” “Corpse Bride,” “Dark Shadows,” “Frankenweenie,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Edward Scissorhands” in the second, closing with an encore of “Alice and Wonderland.”

Live before our eyes, we got a taste of what performing a movie score is like. Except, unlike in a film, we could actually see the orchestra and chorus. Although we were watching movie clips throughout most of the show, the music was more front and center as we watched the instrumentalists and singers produce sounds with vigor and enthusiasm. It really showed how important music is in films and in setting the mood.

Guest conductor Sarah Hicks thanked the audience for supporting live music and the program really made you appreciate it more.

“Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” was the main movie to really kick off the show. There were some issues with tempo consistency and the percussion sounded slightly out of sync from the orchestra. However it was enjoyable to see the quirky Pee-Wee and scary Large Marge live in the music and to hear the instruments portray a scene showing an obstacle course of inventions.

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Danny Elfman has scored all but a few Tim Burton movies. Courtesy of HSO

A lot of Danny Elfman’s scores include very ethereal, angelic and lyric-less vocals in films like “Sleepy Hollow”, so adding Concora to the musical blend boosted the already dynamic instrumentals. Hicks comically described “Beetlejuice” as the only sheet music asking the choir of children and adults to make “ghostly spectral sounds.”

The choir only sang words in “Alice and Wonderland” and I would have liked to see more of that in Elfman’s songs that have lyrics in the films like “Nightmare Before Christmas.” It would also have been interesting to hear the techno pop lyrics from “Charlie and The Chocolate Factory” from the songs about the characters and Oompa Loompas. Although the choir was slightly off in timing from the young soloist brought downstage next to Hicks to sing the notable “Alice” lyrics, I really enjoyed hearing those words song as a key element to punctuate the song and accentuate the rhythm. And the boy featured as a soloist was so brave to sing it miked front and center!

As Hicks conducted, she listened for tempo through an earpiece metronome and watched a monitor playing the images on the screen and flashing light cues for pacing.

“Please watch me at the end. I have to coordinate the downbeat with a martian’s head exploding,” she quipped she told the musicians during the score from motion stop animated “Mars Attack.”

“Nightmare Before Christmas” was an audience and reviewer favorite segment of the program. Any Tim Burton movie you loved or identified most with made the music highlighted more nostalgic. The visuals of the sketches for characters and scenes gave you a glimpse into Burton’s creative mind.

There were times in some of the songs where the violins sounded slightly grating on the lower notes as opposed to a clearer sound on the sweet higher notes. Occasionally it sounded like some of the violins weren’t completely in sync with the tempo of the rest of the orchestra, but that wasn’t the case for the majority of the show. The strings were impressive, particularly the cellos, and the flavor of reed and flute ornamented the score. The French horn section produced robust and triumphant sound at the parts they had the melody. The choir sung beautifully and was mostly layered yet uniform.

The more contemporary films scores brought increased interest in orchestral and choral music, attracting a broader audience instead of relying on classical music lovers to fill the theater. More programs like this from the Hartford Symphony Orchestra would be interesting to see, particularly other film scores.

I enjoyed traveling through Alice’s rabbit hole into Burton’s and Elfman’s various Wonderlands fusing film and music.

For more information about the Hartford Symphony Orchestra’s and CONCORA’s seasons, visit hartfordsymphony.org and www.concora.org, respectively.