Memorial Boulevard Theatre Finds Some Music to Love as Queen Guitarist Rocks Bristol

BRISTOL, CONNECTICUT — All hail the Queen. Or in this case the Queen celebration as a piece of rock royalty and a Queen tribute band featuring Bristol natives rocked Memorial Boulevard Theatre Saturday night for the first concert of its kind at the refurbished theater.

Anglo-American guitarist Jamie Moses started playing with Queen’s surviving members like Brian May the year after Freddie Mercury died in 1992. After touring with the band for several years, he was back playing the iconic rock music when he collaborated with internationally touring tribute band Celebrating Queen and Tommy Williams of The Hooters, who has played with Bob Dylan.

Bristol natives Shawn Fitzgerald and brothers Joe “JJ Midnight” Archambeault and Carl “CJ Midnight” Archambeault are members of Celebrating Queen. Joe Archambeault, the front man and lead singer for the tribute band, said it was special to be back performing at Memorial Boulevard, where he attended seventh grade.

Queen favorites like “Another One Bites the Dust,” “Don’t Stop Me Now,” “I Want It All,” “Fat-Bottomed Girls” and “This Thing Called Love” reverberated through the auditorium of the nearly sold out house from the floor to the balcony. Archambeault worked the crowd, roaming the aisles and engaging the audience.

Love filled the theater for one of the most memorable moments in the show — “Somebody to Love.” But instead of taking the lead for the whole thing, Archambeault came down to the audience’s level and invited everyone to sing the opening, pointing the microphone to the crowd. He sang with Bristol pride, not forgetting his roots. His stutter step dancing during the “Got no feel, I got no rhythm/I just keep losing my beat” line brought priceless, humorous storytelling to the song. And with sweat trickling down his face by the end, his stage presence never lost energy.

Moses blended in with the band, producing guitar backing on par with the real Queen, perhaps because he was one of them, and sometimes singing harmonies. But Celebrating Queen also made sure to give him his featured moments and recognition as he stepped forward for impressive, impassioned guitar solos, including one of the best guitar solos of all time, in my opinion, in “Somebody to Love.”

And you can’t have a Queen concert without “Bohemian Rhapsody,” so, of course, that’s what Celebrating Queen closed with before singing “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” for the encore. “Bohemian Rhapsody” was the song that got me hooked on Queen. The first time I heard it, I was confused what message the band was trying to get across (and I still don’t entirely know!) and thought it was strange. But then, my sister, Jamie, who has a knack for comedy whether she intends to or not, sang it a cappella in the dark, only lit by flashlight, once when we lost power at our Farmington house to entertain us and had me almost on the floor laughing. Then I started listening to more and more Queen and was hooked, mesmerized by the complicated, layered guitar riffs and the range of the vocals and harmonies. It became my favorite band. I even saw Queen’s “We Will Rock You” musical in London, which is the only musical I’ve ever seen get the audience on its feet dancing like it was a concert. “Bohemian” has since become my go-to karaoke song, which certainly gives you a lot of floor time because it’s about eight minutes long, but it doesn’t get boring or repetitive because it has so many diverse parts to it. If they hadn’t played it, I would have been disappointed, but this band doesn’t disappoint regardless and they came through to close out a fantastic night of rock in Bristol.

It was Memorial Boulevard Theatre’s first rock concert, so the show had more meaning than simply celebrating Queen. The concert celebrated art as the theater group works to bring more plays, concerts and shows to the town-owned former middle school to help bring thriving art to Bristol and this portion of Connecticut. When you start with royalty that sets the bar high, but it leaves no doubt there are great things to come from this growing theater initiative.

For more information about Celebrating Queen, you can visit their Facebook page, YouTube channel, My Space page, Reverb Nation page and on ustream.com. Jamie Moses and Tommy Williams also have personal websites. More information about Memorial Boulevard Theatre is available on the organization’s website, http://www.memorialboulevardatc.org and on Facebook under Memorial Boulevard Arts & Technology Center.

Grammy-Nominated Pianist Uses Music to Tell Mother’s Story of Escaping Nazis

Music tells a story.

That’s certainly the case with “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” featuring Grammy-nominated pianist Mona Golabek at the Hartford Stage.

The show is a poignant must-see production because it is more than a play. It is history and it is personal as Golabek plays her mother, Lisa Jura, who was one of the Jewish children sent by her family on the Kindertransport to from Austria to London to escape the Nazis and have a better life. Jura had a gift at playing the piano, so her parents risked parting from their daughter so she could have a chance at pursuing her dream of being a professional pianist.

It’s based on Golabek’s book, “The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport” A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival,” which she co-wrote with Lee Cohen, telling the story of her mother and grandmother, Malka. Director Hershey Felder (George Gershwin Alone) adapted the story to the stage.

Mona Golabek plays her mother, Lisa Jura in "The Pianist of Willesden Lane" at the Hartford Stage and tells her story of escaping Nazi-riddled Vienna on the Kindertransport to pursue her dream of being a pianist. She also plays piano interludes throughout.  Credit: Hartford Stage

Mona Golabek plays her mother, Lisa Jura in “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” at the Hartford Stage and tells her story of escaping Nazi-riddled Vienna on the Kindertransport to pursue her dream of being a pianist. She also plays piano interludes throughout. Credit: Hartford Stage

“An expression of hope and the life-affirming power of music, The Pianist of Willesden Lane tells the true story of a young Jewish musician who was sent from Nazi-rulled Vienna to the relative safety of London during the Blitzkrieg,” the Hartford Stage said to describe the show.

While I appreciate classical music, contemporary music with words is usually what holds my attention the most, however, I found myself charmed and enthralled by the music as Golabek played the classics because it was a focal point in her mother’s story and accompanied the spoken words exquisitely. Even without words in the music, you could feel the emotion and find your own individual meaning in the songs.

The one-person production is intimate and feels more like Golabek sitting us down in her living room, as her mother, and telling us her story as if we were close friends with interludes of classical piano music. While it doesn’t have a plot, per se, or much action, I envisioned it through her words and the music and pictured where Jura was and what she experienced through the oral narrative.

Golabek impressively also voiced the different people that her mom encountered on her journey, which helped captivate the audience. When asked what it was like to play her mother and multiple characters, Golabek said it was hard to come up with a short description, but said it was definitely “wild.”

Visually, the set was simple but beautiful. A grand piano was, of course, the center piece on a platform with steps on either side leading to the floor and a wall backdrop with frames. The production made use of modern technology to project historic videos and photos/paintings into the pictures, changing to match the story throughout the play.

Golabek is a recording artist, radio host and concert pianist with international prestige. She founded the non-profit, Hold On To Your Music. In addition to being nominated for the Grammy Awards, she has been honored with the Avery Fisher Career Grant and the People’s Award of the International Chopin Competition. PBS has featured her in many television documentaries like More Than Music, which won the grand prize at the Houston Film Festival in 1985, and Concerto for Mona. Golabek has also played concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Royal Festival Hall and internationally.

Her best-selling CD, Carnival of the Animals features the voices of Audrey Hepburn, Ted Danson, Lily Tomlin and other celebrities. Other recordings include Ravel’s Mother Goose featuring Salisbury, Connecticut resident and Academy Award-winning actress Meryl Streep and the Piano Trios of Arensky and Tchaikovsky.

Golabek signed autographs after the show and her book and CDs were available for purchase.

Trevor Hay and Felder make up the creative team behind the production, who also designed the set. Jaclyn Maduff designed the costumes, Christopher Rynne was the lighting designer, Erik Carstensen did the sound, Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal were the projection designers and Cynthia Caywood served as dramaturg. Robinson & Cole LLP was the main sponsor for the production.

The show runs through April 26. Ticket prices start at $25. You can call the box office at 860-527-5151 for more information or visit www.hartfordstage.org.

Gallery: Queen Guitarist Jamie Moses Rocks Bristol With Tribute Band

The music of Queen filled Memorial Boulevard Theater on Saturday, April 11 to open the season and raise money for the theater.

Celebrating Queen, a Queen tribute band touring internationally, made a stop in Bristol, Connecticut for a show featuring guitarist Jamie Moses, who has played with the surviving members of Queen dating back to 1992.

Queen Guitarist to Rock Bristol in Tribute Queen Concert Fundraiser

It’s good to be the king, or in the rock world, Queen. And Bristol — no, not England, Bristol, Connecticut — will witness a piece of rock royalty on Saturday night as an acclaimed guitarist who has played with Queen — yes, the real Queen — joins a popular international tribute group for a charity concert celebrating the music of the legendary rock band.

The Central Connecticut Chamber, task force for the Memorial Boulevard Theater and the Everybody Sings Project are hosting the concert to raise money for the theater.

Jamie Moses, who has played and toured with the surviving members of Queen dating back to 1992, and tribute band Celebrating Queen are stopping at Bristol on their mini U.S. and Europe tour. Moses is performing at the Memorial Boulevard Community Arts Center with Tommy Williams of The Hooters and Bristol natives JJ Midnight (Joe Archambeault), CJ Midnight (Archambeault) and Shawn Fitzgerald.

“This was something that was talked about a few years ago with Jamie Moses, Spike Edny of Queen with Neil Murray from Whitesnake….then came a phone call that upper management did not really like the idea…..but this is Bristol, first show MBS, so many citizens went to school there, this is a chance to remember the greatness of that theater, and experience the rich future shows like ours exemplifies,” Joe Achambeault said.

Moses has also played with Led Zeppelin, The Who, U2 and other rock icons.

The concert starts at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 11 at the Memorial Boulevard Theater at 70 Memorial Boulevard in Bristol. It’s recommended to buy tickets in advance.

Connecticut Theatre Company’s “Gypsy” Is a Star

Having never seen “Gypsy,” closing this weekend at the Repertory Theatre in New Britain, I spend two-thirds of the show wondering how it got its name.

At first, I thought the musical was all about Seattle’s Mama Rose (Susan Smith Thom), the ultimate show mom who wants one of her daughters would be a star as she lives vicariously through them. And then it seemed the focus of the story was on her baby, June (Kristi Yurko as young June and Becky Sawicki as the older June), the one she wants to make a star, but she runs away after years of her mother forcing her to do a childish act and treating her like she’s 9 going on 10. But it isn’t until later in Act 2 that we hear the title mentioned and understand why it’s called “Gypsy.”

In this case, that reason is Kristen Norris, playing Louise, who goes from a second string daughter to a burlesque legend. Louise is supposed to be the daughter with no talent, and besides Norris’s powerful voice, she pulls it off well, getting a lot of laughs as an awkward youth who doesn’t really want to be a performer but who is forced into it. Despite being a trained dancer, Norris fakes being a clumsy dancer well.  While she doesn’t look remotely close to Yumeko Stern, who plays a young, quiet Louise who wants her mother’s attention, she develops the character well showing the aftermath of always playing second fiddle to June. She develops her character, taking her from a twitchy tween or teen to a refined, elegant force to be reckoned with as she gains celebrity status as Gypsy Rose. Norris tells her character’s story with her face, so you can imagine what Louise is thinking at any given moment.

Even though June runs away in Act 1 and is never seen again in Act 2, Sawicki is not forgotten as the character. Her dancing makes her stand out from her flexibility to do splits to her grace in a ballroom routine with Tulsa (Stephen Michelsson), who is also light on his feet with fancy footwork and energy. Then there’s Sawicki’s classically trained, sweet operatic soprano voice that makes her shine.  She is also expressive and you really feel for her as June as her mother negotiates the terms of a gig meant to make her a star and she emotes the sorrow as her mother’s hover parent nature overwhelms her while she watches her own dream potentially slip away due to Mama Rose’s demands.

The transition from Yurko to Sawicki is flawless and they were cast well as the younger and older June, though the blond wigs certainly help you see the resemblance. The first thing I noticed about Yurko was her dynamic reactions to everything going on in a scene. She doesn’t have to have a line to be present in the scene. Then I started to count how many splits she did in the show (think I saw three). She also excelled as a dancer.

As for Mama Rose, at first I found Thom’s acting to be understated and flat, but it built up as her character becomes more obsessive about making her daughters stars as passion, determination and eventually rage bubble up inside her as a mother living vicariously through her children’s success. She is the most impressive when she sings and is a strong belter with a beautiful voice.

She pairs well with Peter Bailey as Herbie, the agent turned candyman turned agent who will do anything for Mama Rose to get her to marry him. Bailey gives off a humble air about him and seems to be the most grounded character, even if he doesn’t always speak up about what’s bothering him. But his singing speaks loudly for him. The richness of his booming operatic voice is almost too big for the small space of the quaint Repertory Theatre. He fills the room with his sound, a voice that belongs in a much larger venue like the main stage at the Warner Theatre.

My favorite scene was probably when the burlesque performers are teaching the innocent Louise about the trade and the importance of gimmicks. The first one brought jazziness to her belting and I really enjoyed Vin Cassotta’s purposefully bad, screeching trumpet playing in that scene as the sound of her instrument prop.

As for the story, a lot happens in “Gypsy.” I saw it essentially broken up into three story lines — Mama Rose’s push for June to be a star with Louise in the rings as the sister on the bench, then her grappling to make Louise succeed and fulfill her dream of fame in the entertainment world even though she doesn’t feel it’s her calling and finally Louise’s transformation into Gypsy Rose Lee in the burlesque scene. You start off thinking it’s all about Mama Rose and June, but really, it’s Louise’s story, whether she’s the star or not at any given point in the play.

The real star of the show, besides the aforementioned actors, is Webster the dog. It’s the first local show that I’ve seen with a live animal and he seemed to be enjoying himself as much as anyone else when he was on stage, tail wagging.

But I also have to hand it to the ensemble for playing multiple roles and bringing something different to each one of them. The crowd sighed with sympathy every time Lauren Hyne left the stage whimpering and she also brought humor to her roles as Agnes (or Amanda) and a show girl. Jeanie D. Wright also drew a lot of laughs. It was hard to keep track of who Michelsson was playing from Tulsa to an announcer to Monsieur Bourgeron Cochon, but he made each one distinct.

When the play shifted in time to the older characters, it was confusing whether the female ensemble were supposed to be the older Vaudeville boys or new female characters dressed in the same boys outfits given Mama Rose’s propensity for tradition in her acts. Hats or wigs would have helped make that clearer.

The set transitions left much to be desired and were a little clunky, sometimes delaying the start of the scene and one time props fell off the set piece. However, that was all while the lights were down and once the scenes started up again, you forgot about it.

The most touching moment comes at the end when Gypsy and Mama Rose walk hand in hand upstage and part the curtain. The lighting on the dark backdrop makes it look like they are about to walk out into the spotlight together for the performance of a lifetime.

And you are in for a treat if you see this show.

It closes at 2 p.m. at 23 Norden Street in New Britain and you can purchase tickets at the door. You can find more information about tickets and the production at www.connecticuttheatrecompany.org/season/gypsy.

Farmington Valley Stage Company’s “Critic’s Choice”: The Review

Frankenstein’s monster paraded all over Critic’s Choice at the Farmington Valley Stage Company on Saturday in Collinsville.

That might be the sort of “black box” shredding review Broadway theater critic Parker Ballantine (Christopher Berrien) would give a play that he hates, but in this case his words about his wife’s debut play, though a minuscule moment in the show, are intended here to illustrate hints of literary symbolism about Critic’s Choice, written by Ira Levin, as opposed to casting judgement.

Here’s why. Just like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein starts off with a more distant perspective through a letter, the play opens with the seemingly cheerful, happy-go-lucky home of the Ballentines as they each read a newspaper sharing stories through the text they are consuming. They don’t seem to have any problems.

Then, Frankenstein steps into the story of the scientist and his creation. In Critic’s Choice, we also peel away more layers, starting with Angela (Terri D’Arcangelo), who we learn is Parker’s second wife, declaring out of the blue that she wants to write a play much to his dismay as a renowned critic. He and his son, John (Timothy Scalzo) make snide remarks about her venture, betting against her from the onset that she’ll never finish the script. Parker’s reaction to a wife writing a play could be viewed as reminiscent of how Shelley faced suppression of the female voice as a writer.

Angela becomes consumed by the play she is creating, much like Frankenstein mad at work trying to create life and Shelley writing a book. The monster in Shelly’s novel, the voice at the center of the book, can be viewed as symbolic of Shelley’s anxiety over writing the story, her own monstrous creation of sorts.  There are also references to Angela having a problem bearing children, which can also be double meaning for her figurative baby, her play. It is said that Shelley also had worries over being a mother, not knowing if the child born would wreak havoc and have monstrous qualities. In a way, Angela’s play becomes a beast and a monster that begins tearing the seemingly perfect family apart

Angela becomes somewhat of a monster herself, consumed with overprotectiveness over her baby, or play, valuing what she wants to hear over the truth. Honesty is something Parker views as his honor in his work, so he is faced with the moral dilemma when he wants to review her play. Should he be truthful or should or should he write a nice review so he won’t hurt her feelings? Should he even review her play at all? Eventually, the story comes full circle structurally after the review just as Frankenstein ends again with the letters.

There’s no doubt that each member of the cast has talent. Berrien’s Parker had range, from the jesting, devoted husband to the angry, stubborn ethical critic to the emotional alcoholic. Arcangelo seemed to play two different characters as Angela, turning a complete 180 from sweet and bubbly to bitter, defensive, entitled and angry. While both actors were talented individually, the chemistry and connection between them didn’t seem to really set in until their characters were at war with each other. That’s when the most passionate expression seemed to evolve. Betsy Bradley, who played Charlotte “Charlie” Orr, Angela’s mother, had the most genuine demeanor and mannerisms. Her reactions were honest and frank, making her believable.

Scalzo had the best one-liners as John, speaking more maturely than his age with some adult humor thrown in that sparked laughter because of the shock factor.

Dian Pomeranz played an understated maid, Essie with very funny lines and reactions as a character on the fringe of the story.

Virginia Freese, who played Parker’s ex-wife, actress Ivy London, who his marriage ended with because he gave her a bad review, was energetic and a force to be reckoned with in the play. She drew attention in her scenes in her scarlet-accented outfits and ruby red heels. That was partially thanks to the costuming done by Cindy Braunlich, who particularly gave the characters some glitz, glamour and sparkle as they get ready to go to the theater.

Rodney K. payed Dion Kapakos, the director who picks up Angela’s show, and showed strength in comedic timing, character voicing and you’ll never forget that laugh.

The set, designed by technical director Ken Jones, was incredibly detailed from the books and notes on the desk in Parker’s office to the decor in their living room. It looked like a real apartment and it helped that no set pieces needed to be moved. The production recycled some set pieces from 9 to 5 and My Favorite Year with Theatre Guild of Simsbury, the latter of which Berrien starred in.

Critic’s Choice is three acts, which seems to be rare on stage nowadays, with just a 15-minute intermission between Acts 1 and 2, so be prepared to be sitting for awhile for what is a lengthy, but interesting, dialogue-driven play.

This marked the Farmington Valley Stage Company’s first production under the new management of executive director Doreen Cohn, who also directed the production,Ron Faibusch, who is the president and business manager, and Jones, who is the vice president and theater manager.

Hopefully it is one of many great ones to come. And hey, that Frankenstein might be a monster of a book, but it’s a classic. No, the play is not about Frankenstein and maybe the author never intended it to be as symbolic as this reviewer has made it, but for some reason the line referencing the monster in Parker’s review made me think more and more about that book.  So, Angela, was Parker’s review really a “black box” or was it a “white box”? You’ll have to see it to find out what that means. In the end, it’s all a matter of perspective. The show runs through March 21 and is at the Canton Town Hall auditorium on Main Street in Collinsville. Grab a drink at Wilson’s, Francesca’s or Crown & Hammer first before heading to the quaint theater in a charming, artsy town.

Remaining shows are March 13, 14, 20 and 21 at 8 p.m. and March 15 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 online with a $1.50 processing fee and $22 at the door for adults and $18 for students and seniors online, plus the processing fee, or $20 at the door. More information on the show and tickets is available on the Farmington Valley Stage Company’s website, www.fvstage.org.

“Reverberation” Debuts Globally at Hartford Stage

Wes (Carl Lundstedt, left) and Jonathan (Luke MacFarlane, right) share an intimate moment together after meeting on Grindr in "Reverberation" by Matthew Lopez.

Wes (Carl Lundstedt, left) and Jonathan (Luke MacFarlane, right) share an intimate moment together after meeting on Grindr in “Reverberation” by Matthew Lopez. Credit: Hartford Stage

An intense sex scene in dim lighting between two male characters who met on Grindr and full frontal nudity make for a shocking opening to Reverberation that was a major talking point at intermission for the world debut of the latest play by Matthew Lopez at the Hartford Stage.

Too racy for the Hartford Stage? For some, maybe. But if that’s all you’re going to judge this show on, you’re missing the poignancy and artfulness of a play that has more layers buried deep beneath mere nudity.

For a play that only has three actors, Reverberation kept me interested the whole time throughout because of the writing, the characters, the acting and the set.

The further into the story we get, the more layers Luke MacFarlane peels away from his character, Jonathan, a single homosexual sympathy card writer grappling with self and loneliness living by himself in a New York City apartment. He was able to bring humor, sadness, vulnerability, strength and likability to Jonathan and a complexity that made him very real. I felt for him as though he was someone I actually knew and wanted to help.

Then enter Claire, his new upstairs neighbor, and everything changes. Aya Cash plays a  young, funny, spunky, outgoing, nosy, flighty and free-spirited character who owns very little and is known to pack up and move around the world. Claire is in a lot of ways the exact opposite of Jonathan, namely in how open she is in comparison to his private lifestyle and how well-traveled she in contrast to his seclusion. But the chemistry between them proves strong and she is able to whittle her way into his world and draw him out. The chemistry between Cash and MacFarlane is also very real and connected. They play off each other well with even the smallest moments from their cuddle sessions to Cash singing Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” to get his character to drop the morning paper. They each fill in holes in each other’s lives as each of them long for connection.

Reverberation 14

Jonathan (Luke MacFarlane) and Claire (Aya Cash ) in “Reverberation” by Matthew Lopez at the Hartford Stage.

Carl Lundstedt seemed to be less polished than the other two actors as Jonathan’s opening scene Grindr hook-up Wes, but what was impressive was his ability to say his lines confidently while completely in the flesh in front of an entire audience. That is something that could easily make an actor break character out of nervousness, but he stayed in character the whole time with ease. Wes, as a man in his 20s, brings a younger perspective that pushes Jonathan to be with the times while at the same time disrupting his solitary life by reminding him of his past. Lundstedt is very good at making the tone of some of their exchanges awkward while showing that his character clearly doesn’t feel awkward.

In the opening scene, Wes remarks on how many books Jonathan has around the apartment, sparking a debate about the Kindle versus reading a physical book. Jonathan loans Wes his favorite book, “Another Country” by James Baldwin, which is theme that reverberates later when Wes returns the book and reads an underlined passage about connection that seems to describe the transformation of Jonathan and Claire’s relationship. Now I really want to read that book and I think Lopez does a good job at representing art and literature in his work in a similar way that one of his other plays, Somewhere (which also was performed at the Hartford Stage) is an ode to West Side Story. Lopez is a former writer for HBO’s “The Newsroom.”

When Wes returns, he revives the conversation about the Kindle and books and is seemingly converted. Meanwhile, Jonathan has been giving the Kindle a shot. A seeming role reversal. Wes also plays a song that reminds him of his last boyfriend Gabriel, who we later find out died. It triggers a very violent reaction that seemed out of character for him that made me wonder how Gabriel really died and whether Jonathan’s sadness comes out of accidental homicidal guilt.

Lundstedt’s and Cash’s only scene together is when Wes is fleeing Jonathan’s apartment after a bloody beating that comes out of nowhere and it’s a shame because I would have liked to see how they’d interact. When Claire talks about “Real Real Boy,” a guy she meets at a department store, I half expected it to be him.

Reverberation is very contemporary, which makes it very relatable. “Shake It Off” just came out last year (can you tell I’m a Taylor Swift fan?!) and there is a reference to “The Interview” on the radio station Jonathan is listening to in one scene. So, the play is very present.

But for Jonathan, a lot of his past echoes, or reverberates, into his present. Later on in the play, Jonathan tells us his version of how Gabriel died and that he used to live in Claire’s apartment with him. Then it becomes clearer why he’s so guarded and vulnerable. Claire almost seems to fill Gabriel’s absence in female form.

The set is two levels with Jonathan’s apartment on the first floor and Claire’s on a platform above his, connected by stairs. Without the fourth wall, we are let into both their worlds simultaneously. The differences in their apartments show their personal contrasts. Claire’s apartment is bare with nothing but a bed, a clothing rack, a small TV and a folding chair. Jonathan’s apartment, however, is very detailed from every item of clothing askew on the floor to his books, “compassionate” paintings and music player. It looks like it could really be someone’s apartment in New York.

Jonathan doesn’t venture into Claire’s apartment, his old apartment, until the final scene. By that point, she’s gone, begging the question of whether she was really ever there at all or a figment of his imagination. He also makes a reference earlier to how he doesn’t believe in ghosts, but that scene makes me wonder if Claire was a projection of Gabriel’s ghost.

There are a lot of unanswered questions at the end of the show, but it leaves you thinking about a lot. And that is exactly what good writing and theater does.

Performances run through March 15. There are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday shows at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday shows at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. There is a Wednesday 2 p.m. matinee on March 4.

Tickets start at $25 and you can purchase them by calling the Hartford Stage box office at 860-527-5151 or by visiting www.hartfordstage.org

“Reverberation” by Matthew Lopez is debuting globally at the Hartford Stage. Credit for Photos: Hartford Stage

Round Two of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” Still Brings the Laughs at Broad Brook

It’s been a “dirty, rotten…” couple of weeks in Connecticut. but in this case that’s a good thing.

Broad Brook Opera House and the Warner Theatre Stage company have simultaneously been putting on “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels the last two weekends. And Broad Brook’s giving them what the want with one more weekend of shows next week.

The Warner was my first exposure to the story of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” having never seen the movie, so I knew the twist at the end and I admit I was worried that it wouldn’t be the same second time seeing it at Broad Brook without the element of surprise. I was right. It wasn’t the same. But that’s why I loved it and I love theater. Because every production puts its own stamp on a show.

The play is based on the movie by the same title starring Michael Caine as Lawrence, Steve Martin as Freddy, and New London native Glenne Headly as Janet Colgate (Christine Colgate in the musical, played by Christine Voytko in the Broad Brook version), the main woman Lawrence and Freddy compete to con.

The opera house in Broad Brook is smaller and much more intimate, fitting considering the relationships in the show, taking you closer into the worlds of the ladies and their “princes.” The cast utilizes the aisles and plays jokes to the four-piece band, pulling them into the uproarious scheming and hilarity.

Broad Brook played up the comedy from Brian Rucci’s expressive Lawrence and Randy Davidson’s vulgar, unkempt, hammed up vagabond of a charming scam artist, Freddy, to Michael King’s exaggerated French accent as the crooked Chief of Police Andre and Tracy Funke’s knack for twinkling comedic reactions and exchanges as Muriel.

Just wait until you meet Ruprecht, witness the love sequence involving Andre (King) and Muriel (Funke) and see a “doctor’s” unconventional tactics to cure Buzz’s psychosomatic “paralysis” due  to dance fever. You won’t stop laughing.

Christine Voytko is both delightful as Christine and sassy as a duplicitous character. Emily Stisser emoted the transition from the bubbly, man killer Jolene to disgust upon meeting Lawrence’s “brother” Ruprecht

The ensemble was small, but added flavor and depth to the resort world. Most stunning was how the production utilized the ensemble to make set changes in choreographed dance numbers that made the transitions smooth. Jon Todd, James Galarneau, AJ Ganaros, Andee Wadas, MickeyGrabner, Madeline Lukomski, Rachel Shuttleworth, Reva Kleppel, Michell OrtizSaltmarsh, Kellie Comer and Maryanne Wilson-Feyer comprise the ensemble.

Stunning vocals came from Funke, who is strong at adding character acting into her songs, and the booming tenor of Davidson, who sometimes overpowered Rucci in duet numbers. The songs are catchy (I still have “Giving Them What They Want” stuck in my head), especially “Great Big Stuff,” All About Ruprecht” and the ongoing jazzy theme song.

There was one issue with microphone feedback during a kissing scene as the microphones got too close, but other than that, the sound suited the small space. There really wasn’t a bad seat in the house.

One thing I didn’t understand in either the Broad Brook or Warner productions is why scoundrels isn’t mentioned (at least not more than once) even though it’s in the title. Maybe it’s because the characters don’t think they’re scoundrels. They have heart.

And so does the cast.

“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” has final shows Friday and Saturday, Feb 20-21, at 8 p.m. and Feb. 22 at 2 p.m. Visit www.operahouseplayers.org for more information on how to buy tickets. Tickets are $21.

Dirty, Not So Rotten Scoundrels Play at the Warner

 L to R:  Nicole Thomas (Ensemble), Jonathan Jacobson (Lawrence Jameson), Lyle Ressler (Ensemble), Alyssa Fontana Bunel (Christine Colgate), Nora DeDominicis (Ensemble), Geoff Rucksdeschel (Ensemble). Photo Credit: Warner Theatre


L to R: Nicole Thomas (Ensemble), Jonathan Jacobson (Lawrence Jameson), Lyle Ressler (Ensemble), Alyssa Fontana Bunel (Christine Colgate), Nora DeDominicis (Ensemble), Geoff Rucksdeschel (Ensemble). Photo Credit: Warner Theatre

The latest Warner Theatre musical is certainly dirty and chock-full of scoundrels, but it is by no means rotten.

Directed and choreographed by Warner regular Sheila Waters Fucci, it is no surprise that dance is a key element in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It’s only appropriate because the two conmen in the show — Lawrence Jameson (Jonathan Jacobson) and Freddy Benson (Randy Ronco) — and French sidekick/Chief of Police Andre Thibault (Eric Lindblom) put on a lot of song and dance into wooing women and swindling them of their fortune and jewels at Beaumont-sur-Mer in the French riviera.

The play is based on the movie by the same title starring Michael Caine as Lawrence, Steve Martin as Freddy, and New London native Glenne Headly as Janet Colgate (Christine Colgate in the musical, played by Alyssa Fontana Bunel in the Warner production), the main woman Lawrence and Freddy compete to con.

Waters Fucci choreographed many elegant and playful dance numbers featuring the guests, hotel maids and leads. Some of the ensemble dancers were more experienced and others, but that’s not unusual, and each one put character and enthusiasm into their roles that made the ballroom dance sequences delightful.

It was a nice surprise to see producer Sharon Wilcox grace the stage again with the first line of the show, a sleek, red wig, and some solos after more than 20 years since her last time in a Warner main stage production.

Most charming was Becky Sawicki as the young, wealthy Southern blonde belle Jolene Oakes, who nearly cons Lawrence into marrying into her while he seeks her money in efforts to distract her with romance. Her Southern accent gave her character spunk and pizzaz and her pep made for a lively dance number with lifts that lands her sitting on the shoulder of her dance partner.

Becky Sawicki (Jolene Oakes) & Randy Ronco (Freddy Benson/Ruprecht). Photo Credit: Warner Theatre

Becky Sawicki (Jolene Oakes) & Randy Ronco (Freddy Benson/Ruprecht). Photo Credit: Warner Theatre

The show required a lot of accents, including Lindblom’s and ensemble member L. Nagle’s French accents.

Mary J. Johnson was strongest as Muriel Eubanks when she had to bring out her character’s passion in love scenes with Lindblom’s Andre.

Bunel has the most powerful performance toward the end with more edge to her voice and confidence in her character.

Ronco excelled at comedy in his role as Freddy, fake brother Ruprecht and a soldier with psychosomatic paralysis from the waist down from a Kevin Bacon-like dance incident.

The show almost pokes fun at the elements of musical theater in a loving way, from Jacobson’s Lawrence snapping his fingers for the perfect lighting to Johnson’s line “Is the balcony moving, while the balcony is dragged off stage for a scene change.

The stage crew was sometimes distracting to the storyline because of all the times they were on stage with set changes during the scenes. Ronco designed the set and his wife worked back stage.

There was one microphone issue during Saturday’s show and the band sometimes overpowered the singers, but otherwise the production was stunning and seemingly professional, like most Warner productions.

The slower songs dragged down the plot a little, but dance sequences and more dynamic numbers like “Great Big Stuff,””All About Ruprecht” and, of course, “Dirty Rotten” brought up the pace.

There’s a twist at the end that is surprising if you haven’t seen the movie. Just you wait!

The show continues next Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Call the box office or go to the Warner Theatre website for more information.

L to R:  Alyssa Fontana Bunel (Christine Colgate), Jonathan Jacobson (Lawrence Jameson), Randy Ronco (Freddy Benson) Credit: Warner Theatre

L to R: Alyssa Fontana Bunel (Christine Colgate), Jonathan Jacobson (Lawrence Jameson), Randy Ronco (Freddy Benson) Credit: Warner Theatre

The Honeymoon’s Over in Hartford Stage’s “Private Lives”

Imagine being divorced and done with your ex and then running into him or her on your honeymoon for your second marriage. What would you do?

That’s the problem 1930s British exes Amanda Prynne (Rachel Pickup) and Elyot Chase (Ken Barnett) run into at a resort on the French seaside five years after their break-up while honeymooning with their new spouses, Victor Prynne (Henry Clarke) and Sybil Chase (Jenni Barber), respectively, in Private Lives at Hartford Stage.

But their new lives become anything but private as old love threatens new and flares up again over all their years of rage and resentment. The result? Immorality. Comedy. Violence. Raw passion. Heartbreak. A happy ending, sort of. Gunshots. Romance. Drama, definitely drama. Cigarettes, a lot of cigarettes.

The star of the show for me was the set, designed by Alexander Dodge, who was also the set designer for Tony Award-winning A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder at Hartford Stage and on Broadway. There were only two pieces, but the attention to detail was impressive. The opening half of the play on two hotel balconies drives the plot, first juxtaposing Amanda’s and Elyot’s new lives by alternating between the couples’ separate conversations, then creating tension in their plans when they see each other and finally allowing them to literally climb over the balcony back into each other’s lives as the each spend time on the other’s hotel balcony to share cigarettes, drinks and embraces.

With little other stage space, I wondered if the entire play would take place on the balconies, until two of the characters run off together and the set dynamically spins around on a wheel to the fancy interior of a Parisian place. Quite a literal plot twist! And then one more spin at the end.

Darko Tresnjak, who won Best Direction for the Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Choice awards for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, is the artistic director for Private Lives.

The other stand-out moments came from the actress with the least stage time, Carine Montbertrand, who plays French maid, Louise. All of her lines are in French, so she plays up her character in such an animated way that even if you don’t know what she’s saying, you laugh because of her fierce reactions to the leads and her slow walks out of the room with a look of distain on her face. I did catch a “ce n’est pas ma faute” in there, which means “it’s not my fault.” If you speak French I’d be interested to see if you found her scenes even funnier.

Pickup is stunning and spirited as Amanda, an elegant tall, slender brunette. She is reminiscent of The Newsroom’s MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), which is only fitting because Mac and Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) muddle and battle through rekindled love in the same way Amanda and Elyot do.  You see the most emotion and physicality from Barnett when he is alongside Pickup. He masters sarcasm and imagination with humor in the irony of the situations presented and the contrast of a serious, pompous demeanor with what he is actually saying, sometimes casting a subtle smile to let the audience in on his jokes. Barnett also dazzles the audience with his masterful piano playing at one point.

While Pickup and Barnett excel in connection, their chemistry with their characters’ second spouses, Victor (Clarke) and Sybil (Barber) is lacking and artificial. You would never believe that those two are the ones they end up with, but maybe that’s the point. Maybe they need to be more distant from those characters to accentuate their residual love for each other. Clarke’s Victor is more sensitive and submissive, much like Barber’s Sybil, who works herself up into hysterics over Elyot’s secrecy and former wife.

The expressiveness in Pickup’s and Barber’s character voices added punch and comedy to their lines in a script by English playwright Noël Coward that is bound to make you laugh.

With a cast of five, it’s amazing how much the production captures your attention through mostly wordplay. The most action you see comes in the form of physical violence and stage combat. The audience was laughing during the scenes because the tone was almost comedic in how irrational the characters were being, but it did evoke some gasps when a head is smashed into a wall and gunshots are fired and it settled in that it was actually a serious moment of domestic violence. So, it might not be the best show to bring the kids to, though the violence is very choreographed.

The play doesn’t have an intermission and that does make it feel longer without the break, so make sure you use the restroom and get your snacks and beverages at concessions before the show.

Private Lives runs through Feb. 8, including Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets start at $25 and discounts of up to 40 percent are available for groups of 10 or more. For more information on tickets, call the box office at 860-527-5151 or visit www.hartfordstage.org.