Tuesday, June 26, 2007

"Glass Menagerie Succeeds at BTF" - What is My Problem?

Finally, this is not my favorite Tennessee Williams play. I say this after having spent a portion of the past spring semester attempting to convince a student that the play was and is of great value. Yes, it is most thoughtful and it bequeathes a multitude of emotional variance. The characters are non-simplistic. It stretches boundaries and begs for empathy: for one so wounded, Laura (Aya Cash); and one deluded yet perceptive beyond her own wishes, Amanda (Kate Maguire). Williams' voice is clear and his craft undeniable. That said, I do not imagine that I will soon again attend a performance of "The Glass Menagerie." I speak, here, for myself only.

Eric Hill is a director to whom production elements are vital. I've been watching Hill direct for two decades. His sets are never claustrophobic. This time, working with Carl Sprague, Hill supplies many wooden beams but the overall effect is to provide witness - to a very vulnerable, pain-ridden family. It's the mid-1930s in St. Louis and the surroundings are drab, moods, for the most part, dismal. Scott Killian's music is atonal, sometimes harsh, difficult.

Tom Wingfield (Tom Story) is also narrator of "Glass Menagerie." He works in a warehouse, writes poems, becomes exasperated with his mother, onetime Southern belle.....Tom has a friend, Jim O'Connor (Greg Keller), a co-worker, who crowns Jim as "Shakespeare." Laura remembers, vividly, that she sat across from Jim in high school when he dubbed her "Blue Roses." Jim, reminded, jokingly yet affectionately reflects upon that moment. Laura collects glass animal figurines. She and Jim dance and he, clumsily --- you must realize what occurs.

"The Glass Menagerie" is a memory play. My memory tells me that I saw a Williamstown Festival production and a Long Wharf production several years back and raved about neither one. I do appreciate the film version which Paul Newman directed. Why, however, am I surprised that "The Glass Menagerie," to me, is not number one on my list?

Maguire is something special. She has been transformed, through make-up and Olivera Gajic's outfitting, into a woman who is breaking down. Amanda retreats into fantasy even if she is horribly unhappy and sad. Nostalgic, she will never recapture her youth and her daughter, who is not crippled but is handicapped, is destined to be forlorn. Maguire is known to many as the BTF Artistic Director. I first watched her when in 1991 she appeared in Shakespeare & Company's "The Aspern Papers." She was and is an impressive actor.

This "Menagerie" is part reverie, part horror, and terribly real. All of the cast members are affecting.

When The Gentleman Caller (Keller) enters, he injects the proceedings with animation. He is a bit inappropriate -- quite spontaneous. Otherwise, it's a story of people who are helpless, victims to predicaments.

This rendering of "Menagerie" is not especially tender. Instead, it draws keen focus upon the depressing reality of circumstances. Amanda is disappointed with: both her children and with life issues she faces. Matthew E. Adelson's lighting is key as it provides tone, atmosphere in a proactive mode.

How to respond at the conclusion of this show, which continues its run at the Unicorn Theater (Berkshire Theater Festival, Stockbridge) through Sunday? The production is, to say the very least, commendable. It is about failure and perhaps that makes it difficult to assimilate.

(413) 298-5536

Friday, June 22, 2007

Barrington's "West Side Story" -- Composite Hit

Barrington Stage Company's resplendent, lovely, smashing presentation of "West Side Story" boasts the best in musical chemistry. This begins with Julianne Boyd who founded the company and directs the current production. It includes Joshua Bergasse's choreography which recalls that of Jerome Robbins in the original 1957 Broadway version as well as Bergasse's sometimes singular additions. Musical Director Darren R. Cohen and his players honor Leonard Bernstein's ever-distinctive music and memorable lyrics furnished by Stephen Sondheim. Arthur Laurents wrote the book. Anne Kennedy outfits the actors beautifully and Luke Hegel-Cantarella's sets are most evocative.

Sounds pretty good, no? Since theatergoers know the tunes if not the 1961 film or another rendering, BSC has to be on its mark. Boyd's highly spirited production is a pleasure, a winner. That said, it's difficult to resist the temptation to compare and contrast with previous depictions.

Here's a back story I discovered. It was in 1949 that Robbins gathered together with Bernstein and writer Laurents. It was the choreographer's notion to modernize and transform "Romeo and Juliet" - with music. Thought of as "East Side Story," the script would focus upon a Jewish young man's love for a girl who was an Italian Catholic. The scene was to be the lower East Side, complete with with street gangs. But, the project was delayed because of scheduling issues and by the mid-1950s, the first plan was dated. It was Bernstein who turned to Sondheim, then twenty-seven, to provide lyrics. The musical grew, evolved.

"West Side Story," as many realize, finds Tony (Chris Peluso), once a Jets (gang) leader, falling for Maria (Julie Craig). As he does so, Tony distances himself, he hopes, since the Jets are about to take on the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang. Unfortunately, Tony kills Bernardo(Freddy Ramirez), who was also a Shark honcho. Maria's true friend Anita (the impressive Jacqueline Colmer) pleads with Maria to stay clear of Tony. You know what follows: Tony is killed by a Shark and Maria is heartbroken.

"Tonight" and "One Hand, One Heart," duets featuring Peluso and Craig, could not be more precious. Each has a lovely voice and the blend is quite special.

Production numbers such as "The Dance at the Gym," "Tonight Quintet," "The Rumble," and "Somewhere" evidence the quality of movement (thanks to choreographer Bergasse) and precision dance.

The leads are talented and oftentimes stirring. Virtually all of the actors seem excited, pumped up, ready to: rumble, dance gymnastically, fall in love, perform forever.....

Bernstein's score for "West Side Story" only grows richer with age. It's American opera but also seminal musical theater.

The production is not perfect: Justin Bohon does a splendid job as Riff but the actor, trying for a New York accent, is inaccurate. The very beginning of the show seems tentative and perhaps the pacing is a bit off. But, these are minor quibbles.

Essentially, BSC's "West Side Story" flies high. It is reflective of Boyd, who continues to bring stellar performers to her company. She's done this many a time and she, as prime mover, deserves the primary accolade.

"West Side Story" continues through July 14 at Barrington Stage in Pittsfield, MA
(413) 236-8888

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Goodspeed's "Singin' In The Rain" Dazzles

I've been trying to come up with negatives about The Goodspeed Musical production of "Singin' In The Rain." Forgive me and forgive the pun: I come up dry. On stage, though, at the old Opera House in East Haddam, the showers begin precisely on cue for the title tune and number.
The presentation entertains throughout.

Remember the classic film with Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O'Connor? Fear not -- you will never forget it. The current adaptation, quite faithful to the MGM movie, is a major hit unto itself, scoring points all over the lot.

It's 1927 and the opening number, new for this production, is called "Goin' Hollywood." It's a stunner set at Grauman's Chinese Theater complete with music, dance, a production company flying around.....Not only that: these performers, led by director Ray Roderick and choregrapher Rick Conant, appear to be having the times of their lives!

There's the ill-fated romance: Lina Lamont ( Stacey Logan) has wrapped a motion picture called "The Dueling Cavalier" with handsome Don Lockwood (David Elder). Problem: her impossibly irritating, nasal voice. True love: Don falls for Kathy Selden (Sarah Jane Everman) who hopes to get into movies. She will literally become Lina's singing voice and before long Kathy will replace Lina as the woman in Don's personal life. Logan's depiction of Lina is droll, diverting, exaggerated - and out-and-out winner.

Meanwhile, Scott Barnhardt plays Cosmo Brown, a kind of Sancho figure to Don Elder. Barnhardt is delightfully frantic in the role originated by Donald O'Connor. Elder doesn't attempt to be Gene Kelly but he's a fine dancer, possesses a rich baritone voice, and is charismatic. Selden is sweet rather than glamorous; she makes for a neat fit. A youthful Debbie Reynolds starred in the film version.

It was quite a technological feat for Goodspeed to create a storm without spraying those in the first row of the orchestra -- and without freezing out Elder. The moderate rain must be of moderate temperature, too.

Familiar tunes? "You Are My Lucky Star," "You Were Meant For Me," "Moses," "Good Mornin'," and, of course, "Singin' In The Rain." They were penned by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed. Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote the film screenplay while Kelly and Stanley Donen choreographed the film.

Goodspeed is fortunate to have had talented James Noone design the many drops for the show; and the theater has a splendid scene shop facilities to create sets.

Naysayers somewhere will surely claim that Elder cannot compare with Kelly; that Barnhardt hasn't O'Connor's comic chops; that Reynolds was one of a kind. Why even bother to mess with a legendary film musical?

"Singin'" is both funny and fun. There isn't any pretention about it being the movie. The performers are excellent and the resultant show is terrific. It is not in competition with the movie. The current production, which began in April and concludes July 6, feels fresh. Those who missed a golden era of musical comedy on Broadway decades ago would do well to visit the Goodspeed now.

(860) 873-8668

Friday, June 01, 2007

"Nightingale" - Lynn Redgrave Stars as Writer/Performer: Her Subject Less So

Watch Lynn Redgrave enact life and times of her fictionalized grandmother for ninety minutes at Hartford Stage and you, too, will be taken in -- to an extent. Known foremost as an actress, Redgrave has carefully honed her script and her rendering is detailed, emotional, and quite admirable.

Her grandmother's name was Beatrice Kempson and the protagonist of the current one-woman piece is named Mildred Asher. Since very little was known of her, Redgrave creates; hence this could not be called non-fiction. The problem is that the woman is not all that captivating, scintillating, or even sympathetic a figure. Redgrave has poured her considerable artistic presence into the play. As the house grows dark, one appreciates the energy, quality, and scope of her work. Mildred, however, is not galvanic.

Her life was unfulfilling. Her physical/sexual relationship with her husband was difficult from the outset and Redgrave's depiction of the wedding night scene is masterful. Redgrave speaks of Mildred's children. Her daughter, Rose, becomes an actress. Her son, Markie, dies during the Second World War. She and her husband, Errol, are anything but a warm, loving couple.

"Nightingale" feels like an on-stage memoir. Redgrave carefully provides specifics and shading. She is a most versatile actress and succeeds as she embodies Mildred during many phases of her life. Tone, rather than dramatic impact, triumphs.


Mildred, inspired by Redgrave's grandmother, was an unhappy woman. She, unfortunately, did not closely connect with those nearest her: husband, children......perhaps she was depressed.

What's inspired about the Stage production, extended until July 1, are the production elements. Rui Rita and Jeff Nellis are splendid with lighting which is often subdued to accurately represent mood. Tobin Ost's set design, while miminal, effectively transports the theatergoer from a cemetery scene to hillside one, for example, in Switzerland.

Joseph Hardy ably directs Redgrave and one must applaud this actress for her precision, commitment, and skill. I cherish Redgrave rather than Mildred.

(860) 527-5151