Hartford Stage’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ Gets a New Scrooge

Scrooge

Michael Preston as Scrooge in Hartford Stage’s “A Christmas Carol – A Ghost Story of Christmas.”                                                                                                                          Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson

“A Christmas Carol” is nothing without Ebenezer Scrooge and Hartford Stage’s version just isn’t the same without Bill Raymond.

This year, the 20th anniversary of the beloved Connecticut holiday production, brings a new Scrooge in Michael Preston, who longtime patrons of this show will recognize as former regular Mr. Marvel, the steam-fueled clock inventor.

He has tough shoes to fill taking over for Raymond, who reprised the role for 17 seasons and retired last year. Raymond brought comic nuances in physicality, movement, expression and character choices that are greatly missed.

But he brings his own take on Scrooge that is different, as it should be. He is more gruff and stern, coming off as a senile curmudgeon losing his mind with age. The further along the story and spirit journeys take him, the lighter his humor and demeanor becomes and the more comedy and childhood heart Preston introduces.

Standing alone he does a fine job, but he unfortunately has to compete with our memory of Raymond’s Scrooge and does not measure up to him. But to be fair, no one can. That is the beauty of theater as actors rotate through roles. Each person puts his or her own stamp on a character to put a fresh spin on the story. Preston does have one thing on Raymond though drawing audience awe and delight– his juggling and balancing acts. I do however miss him as Mr. Marvel because he is stronger with comedy and a more upbeat, impassioned character. That element he brought to Scrooge later in the play had the most spark – like when he hides and sneaks up on Mrs. Dilber (Noble Shropshire).

“Playing Scrooge is really a dream come true for me,” Preston said in a press release. “I get to pay homage to Bill but also make the role mine. I’m completely honored and humbled. ‘A Christmas Carol’ is at the very generous heart of the Hartford community. With the 20th anniversary of ‘A Christmas Carol, Michael Wilson’s adaptation is even more important in this particular world that we’re in – the idea that change is possible and that the spirit of humanity resides in even the most troubled being.”

 

scrooge pjs

                                                                                                                       Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson

Since Preston is Scrooge, you can expect a new Mr. Marvel. While Preston was iconic in the role, John-Andrew Morrison was delightful in his own right, pouring vivacious mirth into the watchworks vendor.

Mr Marvel

Michael Preston as Scrooge and John Andrew-Morrison as Mr. Marvel.                                                                                                                                                                        Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson

 

Rebecka Jones replaces the elegant Johanna Morrison as the Spirit of Christmas Past, carrying on the legacy of the sparkling role and keeping the sleigh on the same caliber path.

Ghost of Christmas Past

Rebecka Jones as the Spirit of Christmas Past and the children of “A Christmas Carol.”                                                                                                                                            Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson

Kenneth De Abrew is an undeniably dynamic addition to the cast as the affable lunch-loving First Solicitor, taunting Undertaker and jovial Mr. Fezziwig.

Fezziwig

Kenneth De Abrew as Mr. Fezziwig,Shauna Miles as Mrs. Fezziwig and the cast of A Christmas Carol.                                                                                                            Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson

Every production brings new children to the cast, each adorable and professional from the carolers, boy who delivers the prize turkey as big as him to Scrooge, and Bert/Ghost of Christmas Present’s children to the Cratchit kids and Tiny Tim.

While the casting changes bring a new chapter to “A Christmas Carol,” the veteran actors continue to excel, making you want to come back.

Aside from Raymond, Shropshire has always been the backbone of the Hartford Stage tradition as Jacob Marley and Mrs. Dilber. There’s something familiar and endearing about his performances as both characters. He shows true versatility as an actor to play the sweet yet candid housekeeper Dilber and the frightening spirit of Marley. And that is saying something, given he plays both male and female roles!

Alan Rust returns as the adored, jolly Spirit of Christmas Present and cider seller Bert. Robert Hannon Davis returns as Scrooge’s loveable assistant, Bob Cratchit.

spirt of christmas present

Alan Rust as the Spirit of Christmas Present.                                      Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson

They are just two of the doubled roles, playing parallel characters that straddle Scrooge’s Victorian England reality and the spirit world or past.

Terrell Donnell Sledge plays both Fred and Scrooge at 30, drawing connections between the two as Scrooge reflects on his life. You see a stark contrast between joyful, kind-hearted Fred and Sledge and Preston’s portrayals of Scrooge in his dark days from 30 to present. Fred is everything Scrooge could be if he weren’t so consumed by wealth and greed.

He is well paired with Vanessa Butler, as both Fred’s wife and Scrooge’s lost young love Belle. She dazzles and glows at both characters, having played Fred’s sister-in-law previously. It was the first time I really understood the importance of having the same actor play both characters – Scrooge is uncomfortable with Fred being married because it reminds him of the pain of losing Belle. It’s another way we see the contrast between Scrooge at 30 and now and Fred. Fred’s wife also parallels with his late sister Fran, singing the same Barbara Allen song she does.

The musical element of this rendition of “A Christmas Carol” is what makes it unique from the dancing spirits to the harmonious partygoers. The artistry of the singing and dancing serves scenic and historical purpose also – enriching us in the culture of Dickensian Victorian England. You even experience it in the writing with the quips at Charles Dickens’s language and expressions in the original stories from calling “dead as a doornail” disrespectful to the repetition of “Marley died seven years ago this very night” and Scrooge’s “Bah Humbug!” The games Fred and his guests play at his Christmas party like “I Love My Love with an A” and “Yes and No” draw us further into Victorian entertainment.

All of these arts and cultural details allow the ensemble to shine. Even minor characters have their spotlight moments like the Sarah Killough as Fred’s bookish, flirtatious, and giddy sister-in-law, also a ghostly apparition and the dance captain, and Jake Blackslee debuting with Hartford Stage as socially awkward bachelor Mr. Topper.

The flying and dancing spirits, Marley, and cycling Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come emerging from mist and a red, hellish glow from a trap door are always the staple of “A Christmas Carol,” bringing a Halloween spookiness and darkness to this otherwise cheerful ghost story.

Scrooge ghost of christmas past

                                        Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson

The set and visual effects from the golden sparkles and glitter that fall from the sky as the spirits of Christmas Present and Past enter to the lighting are as stunning as always.

Be prepared to experience your first snow of the season at the end. This reviewer must have been sitting right under the drop point, leaving the theater with paper snow coating my hair in clothes. But it was welcomed fun, making me feel part of the story. Because the only way stories like “A Christmas Carol” are passed on from generation to generation is having someone to listen to them and retell them.

And “A Christmas Carol – A Ghost Story of Christmas” is a story I want to keep hearing and seeing Hartford Stage tell every holiday season.

The holiday favorite runs through Dec. 30 and tickets start at $25. More information on the production and ticket sales is available at www.hartfordstage.org/christmas-carol.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

‘Christmas on the Rocks’: Every Time a Holiday Character Takes a Shot We Hear Christmas Stories With Twisted Plots

Hermie

The bartender (Tom Bloom) listens to Hermey (Matt Wilkas). Photo Credit: TheaterWorks

A bar once new to Hartford has become a staple to visit come Christmas time. You know the name of every character who comes in, though the bar’s name escapes you. It’s the kind of bar where you spill your holiday sob stories to an old-time bartender over a “root canal” mixer or wild turkey shot. It is a Christmas cocktail with a kick – and that is “Christmas on the Rocks,” a holiday tradition of twisted Christmas stories at TheaterWorks.

The bar has the same charming, realistic look every year, complete with a leg lamp, Christmas decorations, and a seemingly working tap. Mostly the same characters filter in and out telling stories you’ve heard before – Ralphie from “A Christmas Story,” Hermey the elf dentist from “Rudolph,” Karen from “Frosty the Snowman,” Tiny Tim from “A Christmas Carol,” Clara from “The Nutcracker,” and Charlie Brown. So what keeps people coming back? It might be the nostalgia of watching holiday classics at home in your pink fluffy bunny pajamas. But it’s also because every year, the menu has a little bit of a makeover.

While the show mostly features the same grown-up Christmas characters bemoaning their real-world gripes annually, this year’s production introduces a few new personalities to the line-up.

Zuzu (Jenn Harris) from “It’s a Wonderful Life” replaces the “Miracle on 34th Street” vignette. While the concept of an angsty, paranoid adult Zuzu afraid of bells and wing-seeking angels had promise, the sketch didn’t have the same level of edge, humor and intrigue as the other stories. It was more tragic than amusing and didn’t add much to the string of Christmas tales. However it built as it went along and came to an endearing, crashing close with an Amazon box full of laughs.

The show also introduces a new bartender – Tom Bloom, who has a resume that includes Broadway and television. He is like the wise, elderly neighbor next door who will put you in your place when crossed but who will always be there to offer sound advice and lend an ear. He has to face a lot of characters with a dash of crazy and serious issues, but he listens unconditionally nonetheless and gives them a shot of genuine kindness and perspective to guide them back on track. Most of them.

In the later vignettes, he is more judgmental and harsh with the characters. He embodies the spirits who visit Scrooge to Tiny Tim, teaching him a lesson. He cracks through the manic, jealous, age-conscious nut that is Clara, sinking his teeth into her cruelty but also dishing her sympathy.

Whereas the former bartender was like an endearing Father Christmas, Bloom was more like us – the audience. He is the receiver of stories and has his own preconceived notions of the characters that are challenged. Sometimes we see his judgement and other times his support, just as someone hearing a story or watching a movie is a listener. You have to take the narrator’s words for truth no matter how far-fetched and absurd it sounds, you’re sucked into the world of the story and you react stronger to some parts more than others. You pass judgements. In that regard, a bar is a perfect venue and metaphor for storytelling because the bartender naturally falls into the role of the captive listener. They are all-knowing in a sense just like the reader as you get a third party window into the world of the storyteller.

The beautiful thing about “Christmas on the Rocks” is the structure of individual one-act plays anchored by the bar setting to a flowing, connected narrative. It makes sense because the people that come into a bar all lead separate lives with different stories and the bar brings strangers from different walks of life together.

The one narrative that leaves our bartender mostly silent is in “My Name Is KAREN!” when he is gagged with a fluffy Santa and bound with Christmas lights as Karen from ” Frosty the Snowman”broadcasts her vlog live and answers her fans’ Tweets. The sketch written by the two other actors in the production, Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas, is one of the newest and most memorable vignettes, largely because it is the most current and utilizes video technology projecting what Karen is recording live-time on large screens. The utilization of such new technology in a quiet old bar in a production featuring the modern time tribulations of characters from old yet timeless Christmas stories represents the clash and conflict the characters face as they reflect on the past and deal with current problems. The segment also represents the need to be heard and the focus on self that the age of social media and YouTube has enabled. That perhaps is why the bartender is held hostage – because of Karen’s desire for a captive audience.

The actors also added in lines to older vignettes to keep it current, including a Donald Trump crack from Tiny Tim.

“Christmas on the Rocks” regulars also come back from year to year to see Harris and Wilkas. The production really tests their versatility as actors as they play multiple characters with gripes. The most vibrant scenes involve both actors’ knack for physical comedy. Wilkas excels as a flamboyant Hermey the elf, seemingly  channeling Jack from “Will & Grace” and Dana Carvey in his voice and expressions as he hops on the bar and caresses the bartender while speaking innuendos. Harris’ Russian accent, nut-cracking (peanuts were harmed in the making of this production), and splits lift the audience into laughter. Her close-ups as the fame-obsessed Karen on live camera drive the punchlines of her delivery.

Wilkas has the more depressed characters, while half of the ones Harris plays are more angry. However, the opening sketch with Ralphie, now a sexually frustrated and divorced “plushy” who needs fluffy things nearby to be intimate, is strong because of the writing and “A Christmas Story” references. His Charlie Brown scene at the end is the perfect way to close, presenting one of the only happy endings in the vignettes as he finally gets a moment of joy kicking the football and dancing with his childhood crush.

If you want to drink something simple and sweet go to your local bar. But if you want something with a flavor and edge to spark a good laugh, go to “Christmas on the Rocks.”

The show runs through Dec. 23, so you have plenty of time to see it this holiday season. Ticket information is available at www.theaterworkshartford.org/event/christmas-on-the-rocks-3/.

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

midsummersnight

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.