Hear The People Sing in ‘Les Misérables’ At The Bushnell

Les Misérables by Cameron Mackintosh, opening night November 28

                                                                                      “One Day More.”         Photo Credit: Deen Van Meer

It takes tremendous finesse and talent for a show about the bottom barrel of misery and tragedy to bring you joy and hope. And that is exactly what the entire cast and directing team of touring ‘Les Misérables’ accomplished on opening night at The Bushnell in Hartford on Tuesday night.

From the intricately detailed set to the physicality and vocal stamina of the performers, ‘Les Mis’ was awe-striking and captivating at every turn in telling a love story amid the tale of the fight for justice and mere survival during a time of revolution and socio-economic struggles in early-1800s France.

The artistic design team took a very cinematic approach to this production, utilizing projection, video, and motion graphic elements to enhance the look, projecting the title and author Victor Hugo’s name on the backdrop screen at the beginning like the opening credits to a movie. The roaring crescendo of a dynamic orchestra and powerful chorus drew us in as we saw prisoners rowing a boat through a scrim that projected video images of splashing water adding an element of realism.

The technology of the projections also served to show movement and travel as Jean Valjean (Nick Cartell) carries an injured Marius (Joshua Grosso) through the bowels of Paris in the sewer tunnels.

The projections also play a vital role in Javert’s (Josh Davis) epic jump and fall from a bridge. Usually during this iconic suicide scene, it usually seems like a cop out when the bridge isn’t high and the actor doesn’t actually jump. It loses the magnitude and impact. I even saw an actor simply step off into the wing in a high school production, not making it clear Javert died, perhaps to escape the subject of suicide. So when I saw Davis on a bridge at floor level, I was ready to be disappointed and see him simply crouch or step behind the bridge only to melt into darkness and vanish thanks to lighting-created illusion.


But the staging of this scene turned out to be captivating. The team utilized a technique I’ve seen in the movie, “The Omen,” manipulating perspective of horizontal movement to look like a vertical fall. Davis, standing on the bridge railing, flailed his arms as the set piece moved backward into darkness to take him further away as we saw video scenery behind him emulating the moving abyss he was falling into. That made it look like a realistic fall and compensated for not positioning the bridge at a high location.

The physical set was gorgeous, with several pieces smoothly maneuvered on and off stage for scene changes. In each scene, the stage transformed into believable villages or the city of Paris. The most striking sets were probably the ornate gate outside the hideaway, quiet home of Jean Valjean and Cosette (Jillian Butler) and the furniture-stacked, tall barricades protecting the French revolutionaries.

The battle scene at the barricades was so realistic it was a little frightening. With all the flashes and gunshot sound effects, it was slightly anxiety-inducing given the recent shooting massacre in Las Vegas.

But it wasn’t just the set that was so important in telling a story of this magnitude. The leads and the ensemble carried the storyline well on their own with their sound, energy, acting, and movements.

Cartell (Valjean) is a vocal powerhouse whose voice matches his brute physicality in his opening “Soliloquy.” He shows great control over his voice, demonstrating strength even when his sings softer and quiet prayer song “Bring Him Home” at the barricades. Davis matches him with a booming voice. Melissa Mitchell gives us an emotionally sweet soprano melody in “I Dreamed A Dream.” Even though she was slightly off-pitch at times, it didn’t detract from the number. Butler was an absolute songbird as “Cosette” hitting the high note in “A Heart Full of Love” without flinching. Joshua Grosso (Marius) and Phoenix Best (Eponine) blended nicely with her.

Grosso’s Marius was playfully and adorably dorky in his first attempt to win Cosette’s love. While he paired nicely with Mitchell, I was actually more drawn to his chemistry with Best. Their kiss right before Eponine dies was a nice touch that isn’t part of most productions I’ve seen given that she suffers from her unrequited love for Marius the whole show. It was a beautiful tribute to their friendship and how he cares for her immensely even if it’s platonic. Her emotional “On My Own” brought tears to my eyes and I related with her spunky yet sensitive character the most.

Even though I despised her parents, the Thernardiers, they were amusing villains that won the audience over despite their transgressions. J Anthony Crane was able to be both sinister and an affable fool as Thernardier and he was well-paired with Allison Guinn (Madame Thernardier) as his loathing, yet adoring, wife. Guinn had such grit to her operatic voice that personified her character. The dynamic comic duo got a lot of laughs because of their physical comedy, particularly Guinn when Madame Thernardier tries to seduce an uninterested Jean Valjean by perking up her – body. They brought down the house in “Master of the House.” Their re-entry in the wedding sequence drew even more laughter as platters fell out of her robust gown.

The children in this production are just as phenomenal as the adults. Zoe Glick and Sophie Knapp trade off playing young Eponine and Cosette in this run and are adorable. Jordan Cole and Julian Emile Lerner alternate as Gavroche. The Gavroche we got on Tuesday night was precious, fierce, and sassy, even flipping the bird at Javert. He really showed what little people can do. He brings honesty and innocence to the narrative, facing the same circumstances the adults do with bravery.

Intertwining separate storylines create a larger story about humanity, the misery people endure, and how they fight through it for a greater cause. Hugo’s story also incorporates large character arches, transformation, and role-reversing circumstances.

Javert, an officer of the law who is very by the books, releases Jean Valjean out of prison, branded with a number for stealing a loaf of bread to save his sister’s child and a condemning paper identifying him by his crime. So he finds himself in another prison of judgement that prevents him from turning his life around as people define him as bad and a criminal. He gets into fights defending his character and is pretty beat up in the process. Ironically there is no punishment for the people who are cruel and violent toward him and regard themselves as better than him. They, like Javert, have no compassion for his circumstances as a nice man trying to save a child’s life. The law is the law.

When all hope seems lost, the Bishop of Digne (Robert Ariza/Nicholas Edwards) shows him kindness and takes him in, but he steals from him. When a crowd and police try to make him answer for another crime, potentially sending him back to prison, the bishop vouches for him and gives him the church’s silver to make himself an honest man. He becomes a wealthy, well-respected upper class citizen who can do no wrong. That is, until Javert discovers his identity and makes it his life’s mission to put the fugitive back in prison where he believe he belongs.

Fantine (Melissa Mitchell) is also a victim of circumstance and prejudice when she is cast into a life of poverty and prostitution after petty women make her out to be a slut when they find out she is a single mother paying innkeepers to raise her daughter. Never mind the fact that her child’s father abandoned them. Her boss fires her. It’s Jean Valjean’s factory and he does nothing to help. She has to sell all her belongings, even her hair, the ultimate symbol of innocence being violated in literature. When she refuses to bed a captain and has to fight him off as he abuses her, he feigns being the victim and accuses her of attacking him. Javert, who destains criminals and takes a high-ranking official’s word over a prostitute’s, believes him and wants to take her in. It’s not right, but that shows the double standard in the society of the play. The real victims are the criminals and the real villains are people like Javert who do nothing to help and perpetuate the injustice.

Jean Valjean empathizes with Fantine, learning it’s the events at his factory that put her in this position, and stops Javert from locking her away so she can seek medical treatment. But to no avail, she dies. He makes it his life’s mission to care for her child, Cosette, who we see mistreated by Thenardier (J Anthony Crane), Madame Thenardier (Allison Guinn), Young Eponine.

The Thenardiers serve as the comic relief in this tragedy, and we certainly need it to balance out the heavy material. But they are also cruel, self-serving swindlers who aren’t to be trusted. After Jean Valjean rescues Cosette from them, their finances plummet. As Cosette rises in status, Eponine falls into poverty, trading in an elegant dress for rags, essentially swapping circumstances with Cosette. But the difference between her and her parents is that their characters never change, but she becomes a likeable protagonist who stands up against her father and selflessly helps Marius even though it brings her heartbreak.

As Gavroche, a little boy fighting with the revolutionaries, when people die they are all equals. Their status in life no longer matters. Both good and bad people die. And as the Thernardiers point out after the battle, they survive despite being awful humans.

That is the irony that drives Javert to his breaking point. While he chases Jean Valjean and considers him evil, he learns his perceptions were completely wrong. Valjean shows him mercy many times when he can kill him and rescues him when the revolutionaries take him captive. It turns his world upside-down and when he can’t bring Valjean to justice in the only way he knows how, he can’t make sense of the world anymore and takes his own life instead.

The play overturns systematic injustice and prejudice in a way that is relevant to the surfacing social and racial tension we are experiencing in our country today. ‘Les Mis’ teaches us that things aren’t always as they seem and that right and wrong should be subject to circumstances. It challenges convention.

“Les Mis” isn’t just a story about the individual. It’s about unifying to battle our demons and the strength that lies with the people.  There are many powerful choruses from the prologue to “The People’s Song” and “One Day More.”

While almost everyone dies in this show, we see the dead as a group at the end of the show for the finale. They gather as a crowd behind the newlyweds – Marius and Cosette. Yes, there is even a wedding in all of this misery. But they died for a greater cause trying to make things better for future generations. The wedding represents union and a new life. The fact that all the dead are standing behind them shows how they symbolically died for them and support them. This happy ending for the couple amid so much sorrow and terrible endings for others represents that even in the darkest of times there is a glimmer of hope and light.

Luckily for you the production runs for more than “One Day More.” “Les Mis” will be at The Bushnell for four days more, ending Oct. 8. More information on the production and tickets is available at bushnell.org.


‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ Casts Comic Shakespearean Spell on Hartford Stage


Credit: T. Charles Erickson

Marry who your father wants or death. Or get thee to a nunnery. There’s a serious price at stake for fair Hermia (Jenny Leona) at the top of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Hartford Stage if she refuses to marry her father’s pick Demetrius (Damian Jermaine Thompson) and cut ties to her true love Lysander (Tom Pecinka). But, from bottom of the play Tony Award winner Darko Tresnjak directs, asinine and uproarious comedy dissolves all peril and casts a spell of laughter on us all.

In classic Shakespearean fashion, this masterpiece is chalk full of doubling, mistaken identities, and trickery. The tragic yet classic love triangle is essential to the comical geometry of this play and is a timeless device that makes the play relatable no matter what era we are in. And there are a couple. Hermia loves Lysander, Lysander loves Hermia, and Demetrius unrequitedly loves Hermia. And then Helena (Fedna Laure Jacquet) loves Demetrius but seemingly has no admirers. We delight in Demetrius’s dogged pursuit of Hermia and Helena’s embellished misery and heartbreak as she chases Demetrius. While the actors are adults, they play their characters young as believable schoolboys and schoolgirls.

Then we have a parallel love triangle in the fairy kingdom of Oberon (Esau Pritchett) and Titania (Scarlett Strallen) as Oberon feels threatened by the motherly love Titania has for a late friend’s baby she takes in as her own.

Oberon turns character dynamics on their heads, bottoms up if you will, when he enlists Puck (Will Apicella) to find a flower with the magic to make Titania fall in love with the first wild creature she lays eyes on upon waking. He plots to distract her so he can steal the baby from her and win his queen’s love back when she realizes what an ass she’s made of herself.

Enter Bottom (John Lavelle). He (a crashing chauffeur) and team of aspiring players (a bootboy, tailor, chef, and painter) are the tangential third world in the play that bind all of the realms together as they work tirelessly to put on the Romeo-and-Juliet-esque play “Pyramus and Thisbe” for a wedding in the court of Duke Theseus and Queen Hippolyta. Nick Bottom wants to play every character and Lavelle plays him up as a flamboyant diva whose knack for overdoing it elicits a lot of laughter. Bottom has no problem being an ass and making an ass of himself, so an ass he becomes when Puck transforms him into a donkey. A little more string-pulling and, hee-haw, Titania falls in love with an ass to the confusion and disgust of her fairy subjects.

While Oberon is scheming, he observes Helena following Demetrius around in the woods and empathizes with her pain. So he asks Puck to use the same magic on the Athenian boy to make love right. But Puck uses the magic flower on Lysander by mistake so he falls for Helena. When Puck tries to correct his error and uses it on Demetrius, he too falls for Helena. Boom. Another love triangle. Except this time, to Hermia’s dismay and confusion, Hermia is the one chasing her love with no one loving her in return. Both men seem to despise her. The musical chairs of love connections creates comedy like no other. The more entangled and hazy the characters’ worlds get, the more enjoyable it is for us to watch. The role reversals of lovers ups the ante in the play and drives it in a more lively and dynamic direction.

But as witty and crafty as the literature and story of the play may be, the actors make the show. The physical comedy in this play is phenomenal. Sometimes the movements and expressions of the characters brought more laughs than the lines they spoke. They were that good. Everybody had a moment from Snout’s (Brent Bateman) phallic wall and chink in “Pyramus and Thisbe” to Flute’s lollipop sucking to the sexual pose duel between Lysander and Demetrius as they try to attract Helena during a feud with a confused Hermia.

I also enjoyed the double casting of Strallen as Queen Hippolyta and Titania, Pritchett as Duke Theseus and Oberon and the housemaids as fairies because it made it more symbolic. The players also all have a role in the court of Theseus and their performance of “Pyramus and Thisbe” seems to connect the parallel universes despite how silly and mediocre the production is. There’s something endearing about their characters and performance that makes you delight in its flaws. You can’t help but love the shy Italian lion and man in the moon with his dog and appreciate the foresight of the actors to warn the royal court that it is not a real lion so they’re not scared and to assure them the actors are playing parts and the deaths aren’t real. It just goes to show how theater is so universal and magical.

Puck says at the end of the show “if these shadows have offended,” but the whole point of theater is to be edgy and impactful, so no apologies necessary. Actually the innuendos make the play the comic genius it is!

The play reunites a Tony Award caliber production team including director Darko Tresnjak and set designer Alexander Dodge, who were both involved in the Hartford Stage original plays “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” and “Anastasia” that went to Broadway. Dodge crafted the simple, yet magical set for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” complete with a spinning house and twinkling shrubbery.

While the fairy chorus was pitchy in their first song, it was a delight to hear Strallen sing at the end and bring her sweet, powerful Broadway vocals from “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love in Murder” back to Hartford Stage. It was a joy to see Hartford Stage’s Bob Cratchit, Robert Hannon Davis, as Peter Quince and Egeus.

All the world’s a stage and all of us are merely players, says Shakespeare. Hermia, Lysander, Helena, and Demetrius in a way become part of another play within a play in the show as the actors have to transform their characters and execute the role reversals. And they did so brilliantly, pouring a physical display of comedy into the production that gave it depth despite how frivolously it seems to resolve the characters’ love plights.  

Yet “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” challenges the convention of love and reminds us to dream and fight for our dreams. And in this case, the dreams shed light on life and melt into a more stable, happy reality.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” runs Oct. 8 at the Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford, Conn. More information on purchasing tickets and the production is available at www.hartfordstage.org.

‘Finding Neverland’ Soars and Sparkles at The Bushnell

Christine Dwyer as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies in Finding Neverland Credit Jeremy Daniel _IMG_4741smaller

Christine Dwyer as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies in “Finding Neverland.” Credit: Jeremy Daniel

Have you forgotten how to play? Take the second star on the right and go straight on until you reach The Bushnell to find your inner Lost Boy and pixie dust glimmer of childhood spirit in the stage adaptation of the film “Finding Neverland.”

The musical brings to life the magic of J.M. Barrie’s imagination as he grapples with writer’s block, life setbacks, and literary ennui and ultimately culls through his everyday experiences to craft the beloved classic we know as “Peter Pan.”

Barrie’s sense of childhood wonderment and joy is reignited when he meets his muse, Sylvia Davies and her children George, Jack, and – surprise, surprise – Peter and Michael. It’s inspiring, as a writer, to really delve into his creative process and see the struggles he faced in crafting his masterpiece and getting his producer and acting troupe on board with a play geared toward children. But “Peter Pan” is valuable for adults to experience too because it encourages us to tap into the child in all of us to infuse our adult lives with the same simple pizzazz, curiosity, fun, aspirations, and positivity we might have lost sight of in the mix of growing up.

Billy Harrigan Tighe, playing the role originated by Johnny Depp in the film and Matthew Morrison on Broadway, delivers us a charismatic, perseverant, and optimistic Barrie who just needs to find his Neverland to get out of a writing rut. As he rediscovers his childhood spirit and is steadfast in his belief in his story, you don’t feel sorry for him because he picks himself up quickly. His writer’s block and marital troubles are a mere shadow once “Peter Pan” takes hold and he spends time with the darling Davies family. His silky, crisp tenor vocals make us trust and love his character more.

Michael Davies (Turner Birthisel, Wyatt Cirbus, Tyler Patrick Hennessy depending on the performance) is a precious hoot with his pep. You feel for Peter Davies (Turner Birthisel, Connor Jameson Casey, Wyatt Cirbus, Bergman Freeman, Colin Wheeler), the inspiration for the title name, as he grows and taps into his child creativity despite having a hard time with losing his father and understanding his mother’s illness.

Tighe’s duet with Peter was adorable with beautiful harmonies when his voice wasn’t drowning out the child actor’s.

Christine Dwyer embodies a calming, gentle, and kind persona as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, juxtaposed against her protective mother and Barrie’s materialistic, shrill wife, Mary (Kristine Reese). It’s no wonder she played Elphaba on Broadway because her voice stands out above the rest with a power and sweetness that’s captivating.

John Davidson is able to temper his overbearing role as Barrie’s pressuring producer Charles Frohman with comedic punctuation. Even though he parallels with Captain Hook as possible inspiration for the villain, he maintains a dose of likeability. His haunting Hook also is the centerfold of bringing drama and intrigue to Barrie’s story and serves as his daring alter-ego that inspires him to take risks. Even though we hate villains, they are crucial to personal growth.

Billy Harrigan Tighe and John Davidson in Finding Neverland Credit Jeremy Daniel_IMG_0140 smaller

Billy Harrigan Tighe and John Davidson in “Finding Neverland.” Credit: Jeremy Daniel

“Finding Neverland” is charming in large part because of the ensemble who put a stamp on the show with humorous, memorable cameos from the actor playing Michael realizing he’s afraid of heights while stage flying to the actor playing Nana coming to terms with wearing a dog costume. The most lively scenes are the play-within-a-play moments when we see the acting troupe bring “Peter Pan” to life on stage and in the Davies’ nursery.

Plus the production can’t help but win us over with a real dog on stage.

NeverlandTour Credit Jeremy Daniel_IMG_0443 smaller

“Finding Neverland” Tour. Credit: Jeremy Daniel

Visually, “Finding Neverland” makes good use of projection technology in a tasteful way that doesn’t overdo it – particularly in the clocklike dance number. Moving imagery enhances the sensation of spinning and movement in a scene of spiraling montages. The wind tunnel toward the end with a gust of glitter that carries Sylvia’s robe into the celestial night is breathtaking.

The shadows cast on the walls in a romantic scene between Barrie and Sylvia magnify action with sheer artistry, also paying homage to Peter Pan’s introduction into the Darlings’ lives trying to reconnect with his own shadow.

I appreciated the literary and inside jokes with the audience about moments in Barrie’s life that inspired parts of the story. The musical was a delightful capsule examining the creative process that brings art and other worlds to life.

It was a short musical with acts that went by very quickly, but it was very sweet.

Do you believe in fairies? You have to so they can believe in themselves. Just like art and theater require the belief and support of everyone involved and the patrons to exist. The more we believe in art, the more the artists believe in themselves to keep the magic alive.

Show that you believe and find your Neverland at The Bushnell on Capitol Avenue in Hartford, Connecticut through Sunday. Tic tock. More information on the production and tickets is available at www.bushnell.org.


Caption: The Bushnell Changes Its Major to ‘Fun Home’

Fun Home

The cast of the national tour of “Fun Home.” Credit: Joan Marcus

Caption. Audience chatter subsides as action begins without warning on stage. An adult cartoonist doodles away on the fringe of an exposed set.

The curtain was open since we came into Mortensen Hall, but we barely noticed. We saw it, sure, but it just scratched the surface of a complex story with layers of comedy, self discovery, and tragedy.

Welcome to the “Fun Home” – a touching musical meets graphic novel with swagger. It’s adapted from the 2006 bestselling “family tragicomic” by American cartoonist Alison Bechdel. An adult Alison (Kate Shindle), self-described as a lesbian cartoonist, sketches a story for us, and ultimately herself, about growing up in her family’s funeral home and coming out in college. Her autobiographical cartoon seeks to answer a deeper question as she digs away at the layers to understand her closeted gay father and his suicide.

The musical is aptly set in a funeral home, which Small Alison (Carly Gold) and her brothers call the “Fun Home” in their play commercial that gets all the laughs because of the hysterical, popping, and undulating physical comedy of the child actors. That dynamic dance sequence is full of zest and lively fun, everything that a funeral home – a place of sorrow and death – is not. But from the perspective of a child living in the present, it’s perfect.

And it makes sense because adult Alison is coming to terms with her dad’s death and whether her coming out triggered depression about his own closeted lifestyle and his demise.

Bruce shows Alison a glimpse of death when he calls her in to hand him scissors while he is dressing a dead body to prep it for a funeral. But she always wonders why. Just as her father’s personal life and decision to end his life remain big questions for her.

The structure of the show is rather interesting. We see Alison’s dad sternly lecturing her on the distinction between being an esteemed artist and mere cartoonist, as well as spewing his literary opinions, trying to shape her into who he wants her to be. Her mom is very active in the arts world as well as an actress and she doesn’t want to be bothered with Alison’s inquisitiveness while she’s playing piano. But their parenting ends up being mostly theatrics and unravels when Alison comes out to them in a letter and they are very absent when she needs them the most. She has to navigate through her sexual identity and life herself from a teen on.

In parallel, it takes her coming out for her father to understand himself as a married closeted gay man. Her father withdraws to live his lifestyle and then tries to brush it under the carpet. As Alison puts it, he kills himself and she ends up a lesbian cartoonist. He promises her a ride in a car to talk about things, but that doesn’t happen until she’s an adult. And even then there’s no real substance to the conversation. Alison sings about the telephone wires, maybe because she longs for understanding and communication. And her mom is a victim in the situation. It seems like Alison’s coming out becomes about everybody but Alison.

Robert Petkoff demonstrates character arc in the closeted Bruce while hiding it on the surface at the same time. His internal conflict manifests in tension with his wife and snapping at his family. Alison’s mother has to shoulder the disclosure of his affairs with men because Bruce can’t find the voice to tell it himself. Ultimately Alison takes on telling his story.

The interaction between an adult Alison scrutinizing and commentating on her past and her child and teen selves gives so much more dimension to her character. The adult narration over the visual action of her youth sparks comedy, like when she’s reacting to some of the diary entries she wrote.

“Fun Home” is light-hearted and brings child perspective into the story so well. The juxtaposition of raw innocence with more complex themes give this musical depth. The songs are deliberate and introspective rather than frivolous singing for the sake of the song. You see this in “Ring of Keys,” very melodically and emotionally well-delivered by Carly Gold, as Small Alison sings about her experience of being attracted to a woman for the first time and identifying with someone who is more like her even though she doesn’t quite understand her feelings.

“Ring of Keys” is the song you come to see “Fun Home” for and it is the one you’ll leave remembering. That and Medium Alison (Susan Moniz) singing “Changing My Major” (to Joan) about her first romantic encounter with a girl. The innocence of Moniz’s delivery produces sheer and honest comedy. The trio harmony between the three Alison’s toward the end was the most melodically beautiful music in the show.

Otherwise “Fun Home” isn’t a musical full of catchy tunes. It’s more about the story. The actors sing more for character than tonal quality, sometimes straining, but their musicality is evident and it makes the songs real and honest. Sometimes you do lose what they are saying in the layering of the voices singing or talking at the same time.

The orchestra is set upstage rather than underneath in the pit. The set’s simplicity and high attention to detail make it feel like home, even if it is a FUNeral home. The lighting complimented the scenery well, with use of shadow for Bruce in one of his solos and the window on a family trip.

The show comes full circle at the end with Small Alison calling for her dad’s attention and wanting to play airplane. And we’ve seen both of them struggle and endure chaos. All Alison wanted was his attention, approval, and investment in her. But adult Alison leaves us with this – “Caption. Every so often there was a rare moment of perfect balance when I soared above him.” Despite their rocky course, there is love in there somewhere.

It makes you wonder, if your life were a cartoon, how would you caption it?

“Fun Home” runs at The Bushnell (166 Capitol Ave., Hartford) through Sunday, June 25. More information on tickets for the production is available at https://bushnell.org.

‘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


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’


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: