Matthew Wilkas as Hermie the Elf in Theaterworks Hartford's Fifth Edition of CHRISTMAS ON THE ROCKS (Photo Courtesy Theaterworks)

Tom Bloom is the Bartender and Jenn Harris is the insane Karen in CHRISTMAS ON THE ROCKS (Photo Courtesy Theaterworks)

Clara, Hermie and Karen. Just 3 of the 8 characters collectively played by Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas in Christmas On The Rocks (Photo: Theateworks)

"GOOD GRIEF!" Having been in therapy for years, Charlie Brown drowns his sorrows in the shabby Christmas On The Rocks bar. (Photo:Theaterworks)

“Christmas On The Rocks” - a jolly holiday tradition from Theaterworks Hartford CT

Director Rob Ruggiero has once again revived the newest Holiday Tradition with Theaterworks Hartford's production of CHRISTMAS ON THE ROCKS 2017 (Photo Courtesy Theaterworks)

By Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Critics On The Aisle ©

Christmas on the Rocks, is a belly-laugh-a- minute holiday comedy that can be enjoyed even if one is celebrating Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or Festivus. Its run has been extending by popular demand and is now playing through December 23 at Theaterworks in Hartford, CT. 

The show satirically visits favorite childhood characters - Tiny Tim (A Christmas Carol), Clara (The Nutcracker), Charlie Brown (Peanuts), Karen (Frosty the Snowman), Ralphie (A Christmas Story), Hermie (Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer) and Zuzu (It’s A Wonderful Life) -  in a bar on Christmas Eve somewhere in a shabby corner of the universe. 

Now all grown up, each character tells the sympathetic attentive bar owner their respective cares and woes of life after the glory days of fame and fortune as kid stars came crashing down.

Tom Bloom* plays the bartender as a world-weary soul who has seen it all, yet still has kind words to offer to each of the manic and weird visitors who walk through his door.  The barman is onstage throughout the show (90 minutes, no intermission) and is the bright holiday ribbon that keeps the seven scenes seamlessly tied together.  Mr. Bloom’s believable portrayal of a calm regular guy surrounded by mayhem and insanity is highly applaudable. 

Having premiered at Theaterworks in 2013, this fifth edition of Christmas On The Rocks is once again directed by the indefatigable Rob Ruggiero, who also has been the Producing Artistic Director of the theater since 2012.  This edition’s diverse comic scenes have been written by playwrights John Cariani, Jacques Lamarre, Jeffrey Hatcher, Theresa Rybeck, Edwin Sanchez and the newest writing team of Jenn Harris* and Matthew Wilkas*. 

Ms. Harris and Mr. Wilkas are also brilliant comedic actors who play multiple roles and wear all the funny hats, wigs, costumes, dresses, tights, pajamas and pointy shoes in this uproarious show.  Jenn Harris plays all the women’s parts – from a Russian Ballerina and a murderous Internet Star - to a mentally challenged adult girl in jammies who hears bells everywhere.

Matthew Wilkas gets into the spirit of the thing with his portrayal of a bitter, cynical Tiny Tim; a deranged Elf who fancies himself to be a dentist whose arch-enemy is a reindeer with a bright shiny nose; and a middle-aged sad sack in a failed marriage who exclaims “Good Grief!” as often as possible.  These two actors are superb – each has the kind of rubber face, comic timing and infinite variety of vocal characteristics and accents that creates a laugh fest from start to finish. 

The bar set, designed by Michael Schwiekardt, is typical of the bygone tacky rundown neighborhood bars in big cities that were patronized by alcoholics and depressives. It’s the perfect showcase for these wacky characters to tell their stories and drown their sorrows. 

Alejo Vietti has designed recognizable costumes to easily identify each cartoon/movie childhood character.  Mark Adam Rampmeyer has bewigged each of the 8 familiar holiday characters to perfection. (Tom Bloom wears his own hair!) Clear sound thanks to the engineering of Michael Miceli and the bright interior bar lighting by John Lasiter add to the enjoyment of a glowing night in the theater.  Production Manager Bridget Sullivan and Stage Manager Kate J. Cudworth make sure that the snow falls where it’s supposed to, and the booze bottles and beer taps are filled each night. 

This is one of those shows that would be ruined by a too-much-information review.  The words “spoiler alert” come to mind.  Knowing more than necessary about the wacky show before seeing it would spoil the surprise. 

It’s a holiday tradition to which you’ll go to experience lots and lots of laugh-out-loud moments. It’s not too far-fetched to say that if Santa himself bought a ticket to Christmas On The Rocks he’d belly-laugh his way all through the performance. This show contains strong language and some sexual content. Recommended for ages 16 and up – not for the kiddies!  

Final thought: “Christmas on the Rocks” is the holiday gift that keeps on giving long after the final curtain. If you need some good cheer, it’s not to be missed. 

Tickets and showtimes through December 23 can be found at www.theaterworkshartford.org or call the box office at 860-527-7838.  Theaterworks Hartford is located at 233 Pearl Street in downtown Hartford, CT. Affordable parking behind the theater.  Get ready for a ho-ho-ho of a time! 

*indicates member of Actors Equity Association

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L-R Victoria Bundonis, Michael Iannucci, Craig MacDonald, Erik Bloomquist and Molly Densmore THE GAME'S AFOOT at Ivoryton Playhouse

Maggie McGlone-Jennings as Mother Gillette and Craig MacDonald as William Gillette in Daniel Nischan's Gillette Castle Set.

Michael Iannucci is Felix the actor and Katrina Ferguson is Madge his drama queen wife in THE GAME'S AFOOT at the Ivoryton Playhouse

Playing musical chairs are Simon and William Gillette (Erik Bloomquist and Craig MacDonald) on a stormy winter night in Gillette's Castle

Gossip Columnist and all around villain Daria Chase is deliciously played by the incomparable Beverley J Taylor in THE GAME'S AFOOT at Ivoryton Playhouse

Ivoryton Playhouse brightens November with madcap comedy “The Game’s Afoot”

Photo By Anne Hudson

Erik Bloomquist as Simon, Victoria Bundonis as Inspector Goring and Molly Densmore as Aggie in Ivoryton's THE GAME'S AFOOT

By Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Critics On The Aisle
 
(Photos by Anne Hudson, Set Design by Daniel Nischan)
 
A madcap comic caper has arrived on the stage at the Ivoryton Playhouse with Ken Ludwig’s wacky murder mystery The Game’s Afoot. The talented cast has taken its cue from Playhouse Artistic Director Jacqueline Hubbard, as each actor blithely chews up the scenery, hams up the lines, and generally has a good time emulating the dated outrageous acting techniques of the 1930’s.  Hubbard’s deft direction makes for fast-paced action in this outrageous comedy.
 
This is a fun night in the theater, designed to be taken tongue-in-cheek, laughed at and enjoyed, leaving all worries and problems outside of the historic playhouse. And, when it comes to set design, the comedy takes place in a brilliantly designed and built replica of the great room in Connecticut’s own historic Gillette Castle – thanks to Scenic Designer Daniel Nischan and his masterfully brilliant crew of builders and carpenters.
 
William Gillette, the legendary actor and playwright who brought his interpretation of Sherlock Holmes to the New York stage, is played by Craig MacDonald with the theatrical hysteria so prevalent in days gone by. Mr. MacDonald emulates a thespian of the most dramatic order. Playing to the last row of the balcony, his dramatically exaggerated gestures and vocal gymnastics are what would be expected of Mr. Gillette himself.
 
As Gillette’s dotty mother Martha, teetering on senility, Maggie McGlone-Jennings, gives a performance bordering on sheer madness. Mama Gillette is not happy that son William has invited a gaggle of actors to the castle for the 1936 Christmas holiday, especially since their butler has been given time off and she will have to do most of the serving herself.  Her overbearing presence is felt keenly by all the invited guests – she sarcastically competes with the females and flirts coquettishly with the males, all the while doting on her adored son.
 
An attractive young acting couple from Gillette’s stock company, Aggie and Simon (Molly Densmore and Erik Bloomquist) sweep onto the scene with giddy sophistication and blatant charm. Ms. Densmore plays the beautiful ingénue with a lovely innocence, while Mr. Bloomquist perfectly acts the quintessential matinee idol: bored, blasé, ’prettier than thou’ and obviously a cad. Dressed to the nines, they are the perfect couple. Could he be a murderer? Could she?
 
Katrina Ferguson as Madge and Michael Iannucci as her husband Felix are the older married duo come to the castle for the holiday celebration.  They, too, are actors, and Felix professes to be Gillette’s best friend – although they seldom agree on anything, and often compete ferociously. Ms. Ferguson convinces us that she is the epitome of a glamourous leading lady of the Broadway stage of 90 years ago.  Her character delights at the absurdity of their weekend in in Gillette’s enormous and eccentric castle. Mr. Iannucci’s time to shine comes in the second act, with a murderously funny game of hide and seek (a dead body, that is). He’s all over the stage in a frantic effort to keep things hidden from an investigating police woman.
 
That woman, Inspector Goring, is summoned to the castle in error, but proceeds to try to deduce who is who and what crimes have been perpetrated, with little help from the weekend guests.  Victoria Bundonis plays the practical-yet-star struck inspector who has a fuff-fuff English accent, although she is intended to be with the Middlesex County Connecticut police!  Another nutty way that this comedy is all about things that are not as they seem, nor do we want them to be. Could the erstwhile English lady inspector be a homicidal maniac from Newcastle or a Midsomer murderer?
 
The final guest to arrive at the house party weekend is gossip reporter and theater critic Daria Chase. She is hated by every assembled guest for having reviled them viciously in her newspaper column. Without a doubt, Beverley J Taylor as Daria gives a tour de force performance in this mad comedy. From the moment she appears, in a perfect wig by Elizabeth Cipollina, all eyes, on stage and in the audience, are upon her. The eyes of the on-stage characters have daggers in them. Ms. Taylor, as Daria, commands the stage with the grace of a swan, and delivers each line with a honeyed drop of venomous poison.
 
Twists, turns, misdirection, smoke, mirrors, gadgets and unexpected revelations pepper this looney whodunit.
 
With lighting design by Marcus Abbott, sound by Tate R. Burmeister and costume design by Kathleen T. Gephart, this team creates the illusion that we are inside the castle on a stormy snowy night in the first third of the past century. Stage manager Laura Lynne Knowles keeps all weapons of mass destruction in their proper places. For the period between Halloween and Thanksgiving, this perfectly insane comedy is in the appropriately antique theater.  Please don’t reveal the victim, the killer, or the ending. That would be telling!  
 
Get a ticket for yourself and round up your best party friends for the maddest, funniest, who- done-it house party in a castle high above the Connecticut River.
 
The Game’s Afoot runs through November 19th, 2017.  Performance times are Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm. Evening performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday and Saturday at 8pm. 
 
Tickets are $50 for adults; $45 for seniors; $22 for students and $17 for children and are available by calling the Playhouse box office at 860-767-7318 or by visiting www.ivorytonplayhouse.org  (Group rates are available by calling the box office for information.) The Playhouse is located at 103 Main Street in Ivoryton, Connecticut.
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Schlepper (Christian Michael Camporin) and Peddler (Adam Heller) with Mitch Greenberg, Nathan Salstone and Sara Capner Photo by Diane Sobolewski

Sean MacLaughlin as Sal the Italian Downstairs flirts with Rebecca (Samantha Massell) as David (Christian Michael Camporin) listens. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

Rebecca (Samantha Massell) checks the pattern as Ben (Nathan Salstone) sews the dress. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

L-R The QUINTET, Jeff Williams, Sarah Solie, Danny Lindgren, Ellie Fishman and JD Daw. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

Singing "Three Sunny Rooms" is Lori Wilner as Rachel and Adam Heller as Avram in Goodspeed's RAGS. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

“RAGS” at Goodspeed Musicals: A Joyous and Tuneful American Story of Hope

In their finest attire, Rebecca and Bronfman (Samantha Massell, David Harris) go uptown with the swells.

Photo by Diane Sobolewski

 By Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Critics On The Aisle
 
An exceptional “new” musical has opened at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, CT.  Playing through December 10, the quintessentially American tale illustrates the struggles, hopes and optimism of immigrants who came to find their dream in the “Brand New World” in the beginning of the 20th Century.  As the newcomers disembark from a long ocean crossing in steerage, the main characters, Rebecca Hershkowitz and her son David, along with their new friend Bella sing “If We Never Meet Again” a glorious anthem which sets the tone for the rest of this engaging show.
 
When the displaced foreigners arrive on Ellis Island, a quintet of exploitive wealthy bigots sneeringly confront the newcomers. They voice their displeasure of the new arrivals in a ragtime ditty “Greenhorns.” This memorable tune, often reprieved, illustrates the difficult future the immigrants will face living eight to a room in squalid tenements while trying to find their place in life on Manhattan’s lower East side.
 
Although RAGS appeared briefly on Broadway in 1986, the original creators Charles Strouse (music) and Stephen Schwartz (lyrics) have teamed up with writer David Thompson, who has adapted the late Joseph Stein’s book. The result is this uplifting piece that reveals the determination of all those hard-working immigrants who eventually built America and generations later still do - with the promise of a better life.
 
Rebecca is played and sung magnificently by Samantha Massell*, who brings to the character the strength and fortitude of a widowed young woman alone in a somewhat hostile environment. Rebecca uses her talent for sewing to design and create a new look in women’s fashion – hence the title RAGS.  Her fashion sense comes to the attention of factory owner Bronfman (David Harris*) who uses his charms (and lovely tenor voice) to beguilingly exploit the seamstress.  Competing for Rebecca’s attention is downstairs neighbor “the Italian” Sal (Sean MacLaughlin*)– whose booming baritone is showcased in the delicious duet “Blame It on The Summer Night” – played out on the tenement rooftop.  Through all this turmoil, Rebecca’s young son David (convincingly portrayed by Christian Michael Camporin*) struggles to keep his mother close while trying to keep her suitors at arm’s length. 
 
Rebecca’s friend Bella is a bundle of energy and optimism as played by Sara Kapner* who beautifully duets with Ms. Massell in “Children of The Wind”, and the aforementioned “If We Never Meet Again.” Bella’s song-writing beau Ben is dazzlingly played by show-stopping Nathan Salstone* (“Bella’s Song,” “Yankee Boy”).  Mr. Salstone’s character is probably based on the Tin Pan Alley songwriters of the day – Irving Berlin instantly comes to mind.
 
The brilliant Adam Heller* is perfectly cast as Bella’s father Avram, who is reduced from being a teacher in the Old World to a peddler in the new one.  A more experienced street peddler, Rachel, sets her cap on snaring Avram into sharing her “Three Sunny Rooms,” a show stopping lovely, witty, and melodic song which highlights the buoyant spirits of the newcomers to New York.  Lori Wilner* delightfully portrays Rachel as a world-wise widow who uses wit and guile to catch Avram’s heart. 
 
In the tenement, struggling to get out as much piece work as possible each day, is Jack (Mitch Greenberg*) and Anna (Emily Zacharias*) who keep the Jewish traditions alive in their crowded apartment while making a new life for themselves surrounded by the chaos of their daily struggle to put challah on the table.
 
Vocal arranger David Loud beautifully blends the voices of the quintet (J.D.Daw*, Ellie Fishman*, Danny Lindgren*, Sarah Solie* and Jeff Williams*).  These talented actors do double duty as immigrants in many scenes, often magically appearing throughout the theater in the balcony, in the aisles, or in front of the first row of the orchestra.  This terrific staging technique makes for an even more intimate feel during this poignant musical.  
 
Director Rob Ruggiero has once more worked his magic by helping the actors tell a story that, in the wrong hands, could be overly sentimental. Instead, the joys, hopes, tragedies, social barriers and enthusiasms of the immigrant class in early 1900’s America (and indeed today) come across as “the story of most Americans.” Most of us can go back to old photos of our ancestors who arrived on these shores to see people who were determined to do nothing more than to pursue a new, happy, successful life.
 
Choreographer Parker Esse has thoughtfully scaled down the usually ebullient dancing on the Goodspeed stage to expertly fit the story – a few rapid explosions of joy by the immigrants, a lively beach-side strut, and a delicate waltz by the moneyed swells. The revolving set by Scenic Designer Michael Schweikardt recreates the crowded, cluttered conditions of a tiny, dark tenement apartment. The actors sometime need to move quickly to keep up the merry-go-round pace of the moveable floor.
 
Linda Cho has magically opened her sewing basket as Costume Designer for RAGS. Her interpretation of the way each character dressed is a tribute to her talent for authenticity – from the Old World Jewish mode of dress to the elegant fabrics of the high society New Yorkers and the dresses created by Rebecca.
 
Lighting design by John Lasiter gives the show a bit less of the usual Goodspeed technicolor and more of a mood of the uncertainty of dark times. There are moments of tragedy and sadness that need to be embraced by somber illumination, and these are well executed.
 
Sound designer and Audio Supervisor Jay Hilton has created amplification that sounds totally natural. When the actors are singing in the aisles, close up, there is not even a hint that their voices are electronically enhanced. Wig and Hair design by Mark Adam Rampmeyer proves once again that each era can be identified by the way both men and women fussed with their hair: upsweeps for the ladies; pomades, and beards for the men were the order of the day in the beginning of the 20th Century.
 
In addition to the swing actors (Catalina Gaglioti, Giovanni DiGabriele and understudy for David, Gordon Beck) there is one other prominent addition to the Goodspeed stage - the Projection Design by Luke Cantarella.  From the spirited opening Prologue to the Worker’s Strike to the Finale, the plight of the immigrants is played out in brilliantly projected black and white images – all authentic photos, all heartbreaking or uplifting. The finale image is a piece of theatrical magic.
 
Music Director Michael O’Flaherty is in his 26thseason as Goodspeed’s Resident Music Director, and in this show he and orchestrator Dan DeLange pull all the stops with a plethora of musical idioms to bring this story of struggle and triumph brilliantly to life. (O’Flaherty has written music and lyrics for A Connecticut Christmas Carol which will be produced at Goodspeed’s nearby Norma Terris Theatre Nov. 17- Dec. 24th).
 
Someone recently told us that they thought that RAGS is an “important” musical for our times. Albeit in total agreement, it’s nonetheless an exhilarating theater experience, peppered with all the ups and downs of the human experience, surrounded by beautiful music, wit, and laughs that come in just the right places.  One of the “must see” shows of the season.
 
RAGS will run until December 10, 2017. Curtain times are Wednesday at 2:00p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m. (with select performances at 2:00 p.m.), Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. (with select performances at 6:30 p.m.).
 
Tickets are available through the Box Office (860 873 -8668), open seven days a week, or online at goodspeed.org. For show highlights, exclusive photos, special events and more, visit www. goodspeed.org or Facebook, Twitter @goodspeedmusiclInstagram and YouTube.
 
*Denotes member of Actors Equity Association
 

Photo by Anne Hudson

L-R Ryan Knowles, R.Bruce Connelly, Sam Given, Stephen Wallem, Will Clark, Amanda Huxtable

Photo By Anne Hudson

When Jesus (Will Clark) comes to visit, Alvin (Stephen Wallem) KNOWS he's in trouble!

Photo by Anne Hudson

Amanda Huxtable plays Diane the TV EXEC. Note her Manolo shoes..they are also a character in the play.

Photo By Anne Hudson

When the Devil (Ryan Knowles) comes a calling, Moses (R.Bruce Connelly) is speechless!

Ivoryton Playhouse rocks with laughter throughout the World Premiere of Mike Reiss’ “I Hate Musicals: The Musical.”

Photo by Anne Hudson

R.Bruce Connelly is Lee the Do-Little-As-Possible Agent in "I Hate Musicals.." at Ivoryton Playhouse

Ivoryton Playhouse rocks with laughter throughout the World Premiere of Mike Reiss’ “I Hate Musicals: The Musical.”

By Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Critics On The Aisle

For a unique one-of-a-kind offering at the Ivoryton Playhouse in rural Connecticut, popular television writer and producer Mike Reiss (The Simpsons) has created a wacky story of a depressed down-on-his luck comedy writer trapped in the rubble of an LA earthquake.  His life plays out before his eyes in the form of a musical -- and the cranky guy hates musicals! It runs through October 15. Hurry. Don’t miss it.

I Hate Musicals: The Musical is chock full of Broadway and movie song parodies, some original music composed by Walter Murphy, a song about the Pope written by Christopher Howatt, and more pages of popular culture references than can be jammed into a barrel of monkeys. The laughs are so many and so fast that you might want to think about seeing the show twice to get it all.

With six brilliant actors and a stunningly talented musician playing everyone from Sigmund Freud to Satan, Moses, and Jesus to Lee the Hollywood agent, this mad romp mocks and exploits stereotypical characters and Broadway shows. Lampooned are Jews, Catholics, gays, Hispanics, Sondheim, Hamilton and the Hollywood elite – all with hilarious results. Even the thin-skinned will be able to laugh at themselves as this insane story unfolds. The play has a limited run through October 15th, so see it before it’s snatched up by a smart Broadway producer.

Leading the cast as Alvin the whiney out-of-work comedy writer is Stephen Wallem*, a SAG Award-nominated actor best known as Thor Lundgren for seven seasons on the Emmy-winning Showtime series “Nurse Jackie.” This delightful actor/singer has a huge voice which fills the theater, and he’s literally “trapped” onstage for the entire 90-minute run (without intermission) of this wild ride. His dialogue is fast and furious, and his timing to get the most out of each laugh-line is impeccable.

Returning to the Playhouse for another of his signature mad character roles is R. Bruce Connelly* as Lee the bumbling agent. Having seen consummate professional Bruce in so many Ivoryton productions, he never fails to give a memorable comedic performance, and, as usual, he’s a delight to laugh at, and with, in this show.

Will Clark makes his Ivoryton Playhouse debut with his portrayal as Jesus a laugh riot of comedy perfection. It’s probably accurate to say that even priests and nuns who visit this show will roar at the irreverent antics of Mr. Clark’s riotous turn as The King of The Jews.

Tall and pale and young and lovely Sam Given* is truly over-the-top in his multiple roles - as a clueless security guard; as Sigmund Freud; and as one of the most blatantly stereotypical screaming gay characters ever to grace any stage, anywhere. Sam’s energy is boundless, he can float like a butterfly, do a mean split, and he can out-tinker Tinker Bell. And, since this is a musical of sorts, he does have a high-note to deliver during the finale that will shatter your eyeglasses.

Handsome Ryan Knowles* has one of the most gorgeous bass-baritone voices in showbiz, and it certainly brings chills up the spine as he wickedly romps onstage as Satan. With Ryan’s brilliantly satanic performance, one might think that going to Hell wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

Amanda Huxtable* is a quadruple delight in every one of the parts that she plays in this Mike Reiss nuthouse of a show. From the sarcastic TV exec Diane to the Bronx version of the Virgin Mary, Amanda never disappoints, and her characterizations are so brilliantly executed that it’s hard to believe that there is only one actress on stage and not four! Brava, Amanda.

Musical Director and Vocal Arranger Mike Morris usually unseen (with his orchestra hidden under the stage), is marvelously funny as the onstage piano player whose virtuosity is only matched by his quick wit. Mike is just as comfortable, it seems, as an actor as he is as a classic-level musician. This time, he is sans orchestra, with only his piano to make terrific music.

We can only surmise that Director James Valletti had a great time working with this boffo play and cast. The zaniness that reigns supreme can only come to fruition when such a fine director and gifted actors are in sync.  In I Hate Musicals: The Musical, the synchronization is flawless.

Choreographer Schuyler Beeman has once again put on his “funny hat” in creating all-out-crazy movement and dance for this production.  Ivoryton audiences will remember his acting chops in a brilliant portrayal as Carmen Ghia in The Producers a few seasons ago.  Schuyler knows just how to create the steps and motions that add oomph to each scene.

Each spoken word and quick lyric is fully understood thanks to Tate R. Burmeister’s sound design, and the sound effects combined with Marcus Abbott’s lighting help create a couple of edge-of-your-seat California earthquakes.

Dan Nischan’s set is simple and highly effective.  The office walls (broken by the earthquake) on either side of the stage are effectively used throughout, and the Hollywood sign in the sweeping hills outside the TV executive’s office is executed with a combination of part realism, part fantasy. Hooray for Hollywood.

Elizabeth Cipollina no doubt had great fun creating the costumes and wigs for this non-stop carnival of a show. Her blonde-floozy wig and tight tight dress for Ms. Huxtable makes the Kardashians look like boys in comparison, and when she dresses Sam Given in Joseph’s technicolor dream coat it is a kaleidoscope in fabric. Bruce Connelly’s Hawaiian shirt, we believe, came from his own wardrobe.

A big shout out to an unsung hero of theater – the stage manager. James Joseph Clark* returns to Ivoryton once again to make sure that each prop in in its right place, each actor is nearly sober before an entrance, and that playwright Mike Riess’ real Emmy Award has been replaced by a cardboard replica prior to its being thrust into the backside of one of the actors.

Ivoryton audiences turned out in droves in June 2013 to see Mike Reiss’s hilarious play, I’M CONNECTICUT, which was a huge popular and critical success. He later scored again with COMEDY IS HARD in September of 2014 with Micky Dolan and Joyce DeWitt.  After seeing this latest offering, we can’t help but believe that this will live long and be well.  

As the legendary Mickey Rooney once screamed from his balcony seat after seeing a particularly good theatrical performance “If you don’t like this, you don’t like show-business!”  We feel the same sentiment about “I Hate Musicals: The Musical.” You gotta love it!

Performance times are Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm. Evening performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm. Until Oct. 15.

Tickets are $50 for adults, $45 for seniors, $22 for students and $17 for children and are available by calling the Playhouse box office at 860-767-7318 or by visiting  www.ivorytonplayhouse.org  (Group rates are available by calling the box office for information.) The Playhouse is located at 103 Main Street in Ivoryton.   *denotes member of Actors Equity.

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Book Review: “The Devouring” is the 12th riveting and cinematic Billy Boyle WWII mystery novel by James Benn

Photo courtesy SOHO Press and JRB.

By Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Critics On The Aisle

James Benn is a master of mystery novels, all of which include well-researched historic fact to greatly heighten the plausibility of every dangerous twist and turn in the plots. In The Devouring, Benn exposes the shocking truth about Swiss greed and deadly complicity, on every level, with the Nazis during WWII.

The constant hair-raising encounters and escapes from seen and unseen enemies and uncharted territory have just enough dark humor to endure the ever-present threat of the capture and death.

This thrilling mystery kicks off with a bang from page one.

US Army detective, Captain Billy Boyle, and his resourceful and witty buddy, Lieutenant Piotr “Kaz” Kazimierz, crash land in occupied France enroute to neutral Switzerland.  They have lost crucial gear and   must avoid roads and deal with the danger of mistaking pro-Nazi locals for French résistance fighters.

The daring duo are spotted by a powerful guy who turns out to be an ethnic Sinti whose family was murdered by the by Nazis. He’s now killing any of the enemy who cross his path. The Sinti warrior offers to lead Billy and Kaz to the Swiss border. The dangerous hike leads to close encounters with the enemy, including a happy surprise when caught by a young, unhappy Nazi soldier on the run.   

Their crucial rendezvous in nearby Switzerland is to work undercover with the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to investigate Swiss banks that are laundering looted Nazi gold from concentration camp inmates, private property of ‘enemies of the state’ and national treasuries of the conquered countries.

The US and Swiss governments are about to embark on diplomatic discussions about the Safehaven Protocols, especially the war materials supplied by Switzerland to the Nazis regime and preventing them from using tons of looted gold and other valuables after the war.  With the talks about to begin and the Gestapo and its undercover agents ever present, the OSS (now the CIA) wants Billy and Kaz to protect pro-allied Swiss and US assets.

Benn has done another masterful job of maintaining the suspense and fast-paced action at Mach speed right up to last edge-of-your-seat moment.  As with the previous Billy Boyle WWII mysteries, this one can easily be seen in the mind’s eye as an exciting feature film – it’s that perfectly cinematic, as are the first 11 Billy Boyle mysteries published by SOHO Press in New York City.

The Devouring,  author James Benn’s 12th Billy Boyle novel, goes on sale Sept.12, 2017.  For information about upcoming book signings throughout the USA, go to www.jamesrbenn.com and click on “Events” at the top of the home page.

As one sage person who read an advance copy of the novel told us - “It's about refugees, crooked businessmen, and corrupt politicians. You know, current events....”

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For additional Book Reviews, Theater Reviews and Travel Stories, scroll below or go to www.outntravelin.com,  www.outandtravelin.com, or criticsontheaisle.org.

 

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Michael Notardonato as Tony Manero wows 'em in the disco during Ivoryton Playhouse's SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE

The cast of Ivoryton's SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE dance to Todd L. Underwood's vibrantly choreographed disco numbers at the 2001 Disco in long-ago Brooklyn

Ashley Jeudy is the vivacious Candy who sings the Bee Gee's music brilliantly in Ivoryton's SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER

Christian Alvarez as Cesar and Arianne Meneses as Maria do a fiery disco number to try to win a $1000 prize in Ivoryton's SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE

As Ashley Jeudy sings, Nora Fox as Annette, Michael Notardonato as Tony, Caroline Lellouche as Stephanie dance wonderfully in a Todd L. Underwood ballet

“Saturday Night Fever” will make you feel like dancing at Ivoryton Playhouse, CT

Michael Notardonato and Caroline Lellouche as Tony and Stephanie in Ivoryton Playhouse's SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER

By Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Critics On The Aisle

(Photos courtesy Jonathan Steele, Anne Hudson, Ivoryton Playhouse)

It’s disco fever time in Brooklyn 1979 at the Ivoryton Playhouse through September 3, as the terrific cast of Saturday Night Fever expertly dance and sing the legendary Bee Gees hits. All the rhythmic and melodic classics: "Stayin' Alive," "Night Fever," "Jive Talking," "You Should Be Dancing" and "How Deep is Your Love?" are excitingly performed by an ensemble of young performers who are skillfully choreographed and directed by Todd L. Underwood. (He has just been appointed the theater’s associate artistic director following a string of critical and box office successes at Ivoryton.)

Originally based on Nik Cohn’s factual 1975 New York Magazine article “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” and the film, the stage adaptation by Robert Stigwood and Bill oaks premiered at the London Palladium in1998, and then at Broadway's Minskoff Theatre October 21, 1999, playing 501 regular performances.

Loosely following the 1977 blockbuster movie, starring John Travolta, this stage version stars the multi-talented dancer/singer /actor Michael Notardonato* as Tony Manero.  Stuck in a dead-end job, and hemmed in by a stifling family life, Tony’s one ambition is to become King of The Disco.  He meets Stephanie, a talented dancer in her own right, and after fits and starts they team up for the big dance competition being held at the 2001 Odyssey Night Club. The prize is $1000 and the couple plans on using the prize money to pursue a better life away from Brooklyn.  Stephanie is played by glorious fluid dancer Caroline Lellouche*, who was seen at Ivoryton in last year’s Chicago and is now beautifully cast as Tony’s love interest.  Both of these actors have appealing voices, and hit all the right notes with ease.

Each of the dance numbers in this production is a show-stopper.  The blended voices of the cast, coupled with their extraordinary dancing, is reason enough to rush out to buy a ticket or two or a block of ten.  When the ensemble opens the show with “Life Goin’ Nowhere-Stayin’ Alive” it is immediately evident that this is a cast of polished professional singer/dancer/actors.  Hearing Nora Fox* as Annette sing “If I Can’t Have You” and being mesmerized by the magnificent vocals of Ashley Jeudy* as she brings “Nights on Broadway” and “Night Fever” to life are two examples of the quality of the many musical gifts this show offers.

The four buddies of Tony Manero – Joey, Gus, Double J, and Bobby C. are played by Tom Di Feo, Joey Lucherini, Colin Lee* and Pierre Marais*.  These actors, under Mr. Underwood’s expert tutelage, bring a vibrant energy and stage presence to their being-alive characters. They dazzle their dancing and vocal prowess to perfection in the “Dog Eat Dog” number.

Conductor Michael Morris and the Ivoryton Playhouse musicians, although hidden under the stage, skillfully bring the Bee Gee’s music to life. The only discordant note is that, because of the way the book is written, many of the scenes in the disco have dialogue competing with the music. As a result, much of what is being said by the actors is lost among the sparkles of the disco ball tunes. In the original London production, all the dialogue and lyrics was clearly heard and understood. Some tweaking of the sound system which pits the words against the music might fix this problem.

This American reworking is vastly over-written, including the addition of a few unmemorable non-Bee Gee songs. As a result, it’s a long show with too many scenes – no fault of the creative people at Ivoryton - they have to abide by the licensing rights. Set designer Martin Scott Marchitto has been overly ambitious in building too-complicated versions of the Brooklyn Bridge and a strangely done interpretation of a mirrored dance studio. Many of these props could easily have been creatively simplified to avoid long stage waits. However, the designer’s major disco set, with its stage right and left balconies, works terrifically well.  

Marcus Abbot’s lighting skillfully follows the action, and the colorful disco ball effects heighten the dance fever in the big production numbers.  Lisa Bebey’s costumes are fun – bell bottoms and funky outfits galore – and Tony’s outfits illustrate that he spends every penny of his salary at the paint store on the best sexy clothes he can buy.  Elizabeth Cippolina has gone overboard in the wig department, giving two of the male actors cringe-worthy ‘70’s long shaggy rat’s nest hairdos. But Monty the DJ’s Afro do is just right – big and fun and dramatic.  Monty is portrayed by Jamal Shuriah* and his mellifluous voice, blended with aforementioned Ashley Jeudy* in “Night Fever” and “More Than a Woman” is delicious to hear.

With all the talent onstage, it’s best to just endure the story which is an overwrought melodrama with too many unnecessary sub-plots and characters. You’ll want to see this show for the beautifully choreographed dancing and harmonious vocals of the brilliantly talented cast; and to watch Tony, Stephanie, and Annette in a spellbinding ballet. Enjoy the incredible hip action of Mr. Notardonato’s Tony in his big solo disco dance number; and the exciting Latin brilliance of Christian Alvarez as Cesar and Arianne Menezes as Maria as they give their all in competing for the big dance prize. Reason enough to see this ground-breaking disco musical. All that, and to hear and see the musical magic of the Bee Gees’ iconic songs interpreted with gusto.

At the curtain call, you’ll be able to answer the Barry, Maurice and Robin musical question “How Deep Is Your Love?”  Quite deep, you’ll undoubtedly agree, because of these Broadway-quality performers, musicians and director/choreaographer lovingly giving their all. (* denotes member of Actors Equity Association)

Saturday Night Fever runs through September 3rd, 2017. Performance times are Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2pm. Evening performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday and Saturday at 8pm. Additional matinee performances on Saturday, August 19th at 2pm and September 2nd at 2pm.

Tickets are $50 for adults; $45 for seniors; $22 for students and $17 for children. These tickets are in great demand. Call the Playhouse box office at 860-767-7318 or online at  www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.  

(Be sure to visit www.criticsontheaisle.org and scroll down the page for additional timely theater reviews)

 

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Gizel Jimenez as Ado Annie and Matthew Curiano as Ali Hakim exchange a "Persian goodbye" in Goodspeed Musicals OKLAHOMA!

Jake Swain (L) as Will Parker tells his cowpoke mates about the wonders of "Kansas City" in Goodspeed Musicals OKLAHOMA! till Sept. 27

The cast of Goodspeed Musicals OKLAHOMA! give a rousing "OKLAHOMA OK!" in the grand finale.

Terry Burrell as Aunt Eller tells "The Farmers and The Cowmen" that they should be friends in Goodspeed Musicals OKLAHOMA! in East Haddam, CT.

Rhett Guter and Samantha Bruce are Curly and Laurey singing "People Will Say We're In Love" in Goodspeed's OKLAHOMA!

“Oh, What a Beautiful Show!” Goodspeed Musicals’ “OKLAHOMA!” is breathtakingly fresh and exciting

Rhett Guter as Curly with the cast of OKLAHOMA! at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam CT. (Photo by Diane Sobolewski)

 By Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Critics On The Aisle

(Photos by Diane Sobolewski)

For the first time on the Goodspeed Musical’s stage in East Haddam, Connecticut, the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, OKLAHOMA, will wow audiences through September 27.  Brilliantly Directed by Jenn Thompson, this beautifully stirring production is fresh, fast and contemporary, infused with more energy and excitement than any other version of this show that we’ve ever seen.

Rhett Guter plays cowboy Curly with a youthful exuberance that consistently charms the audience. Winner of the Connecticut Critics Circle award for last summer’s performance as Conrad Birdie in Goodspeed’s Bye Bye Birdie, Mr. Guter opens the show from the theater’s aisle, singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” with a sparkling enthusiasm that sets the pace for the rest of the show.

Curly’s love interest is farm girl Laurey, beautifully sung and acted by Samantha Bruce.  Ms. Bruce gives Laurey a mildly stubborn streak that is natural without being indignant.  She is as afraid to admit her romantic feelings for Curly as he is afraid to admit his feelings for her.  Their raging hormones and hidden passion gets recognized, wisely, by Aunt Eller, played with big-hearted love and biting wit by international star Terry Burrell (Dreamgirls -Broadway, Showboat – London, Swinging on a Star – Goodspeed and Broadway).

Boyishly dim cowboy Will Parker is played with more buoyancy than a rubber ball by delightful Jake Swain whose voice is a perfectly honed instrument for the effervescent “Kansas City” song-and-dance scene. The irrepressible Ado Annie Carnes is played with intuitive comic precision by more-than-adorable Gizel Jimenez.  Her big number, “I Cain’t Say No!” is done with innocently naughty innuendo and a big Broadway voice that could make the balcony seats vibrate. When these two scene-stealers join up for “All Er Nuthin’” in Act 2, the perfect combination of talent and chemistry lights up the stage.  These are two actors to watch for in future successes.

Also in the running for Ado Annie’s affections of a carnal nature is Persian Peddler Ali Hakim.  Broadly played by Matthew Curiano, the peddler is deliciously smarmy without ever having to curl his moustache. Forever getting himself in and out of trouble with women, Ali Hakim goes from town to town like a one-man circus.  Mr. Curiano’s comic timing brings the peddler’s circus to life.  

Menacing ‘villain’ Jud Fry is powerfully acted and sung by Matt Faucher.  His solo number, “Lonely Room” although not a great song, is delivered with such passionate sadness that the emotional impact on the audience is palpable.  Mr. Faucher’s voice is deep and deliciously mellifluous to hear. Curly and Jud sing a duet - “Pore Jud is Daid,” to which director Thompson has given a winningly comic vibe.  Its sympathetic words and emotions have been turned upside down to make it a funny and sarcastic interpretation of Hammerstein’s lyrics.  Curly smirks deliciously as he irreverently mocks the unwitting Jud.

The principal cast is backed by an ensemble of young professionals who are exceptional dancers, singers and actors. These energetic farmers and cowboys, with lovely wives, girlfriends and townspeople kick up a storm, glide through an exquisite and thrilling “Out of My Dreams” ballet sequence, and fight, whoop and holler in big dances brilliantly choreographed by Katie Spelman.

Tensions arise between the farmers and the cowboys and come to a boiling point in the rousing “The Farmer and The Cowman.”   Voices of reason, Aunt Eller and Ado Annie’s father Andrew Carnes, try to impart calm and harmony between the two groups. Playing Papa Carnes is C. Mingo Long, whose stage presence dazzles. His ornery believability radiates from the moment he walks on stage toting a shotgun (as those prairie fathers of virgin daughters often did) to his closing scenes as territorial Judge of a fledgling new state.

Wilson Chin’s Scenic Design is a testament to his talent.  The open prairie, the loneliness the wide-open spaces and big sky, and the basic structure of the homes of the pioneers who settled the Midwest and West are all simply yet effectively done.  The cornfields and windmills are all there, and Philip S. Rosenberg’s pastel lighting successfully evoke the perfect sky mood for each scene.

Tracy Christensen’s period costumes in harmony with wig and hair design by Mark Adam Rampmeyer give each character the authenticity of people determined to survive in a new environment. Director Thompson asked each acting cowboy and farmer to refrain from shaving or cutting their hair during the run to further emphasize reality. While the men are sufficiently grubby, the women brighten up the stage in frilly frocks worthy of a turn-of-the-last-century operetta.

Oklahoma!  is a classic musically – the BIG title song, near the close of the show, is as inspiring as it is familiar, and this cast brilliantly interprets the mood and exciting emotion of creating something new and alive- in this case, a new state, where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain. The legendary score—including “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” and “People Will Say We’re in Love” is played beautifully by the Goodspeed Orchestra, with Conductor Michael O’Flaherty, assisted by F. Wade Russo, playing Dan DeLange’s orchestrations exquisitely.    And in order to hear the singers, actors and lovely music, Resident Sound Designer and Audio Supervisor Jay Hilton, celebrating his zillionth year at Goodspeed, has once again worked his flawless technical magic.

Choreographer Katie Spelman and Director Jenn Thomson worked on Oklahoma! with the contributions of David Chase for his additional dance arrangements, and Unkledaves’s Fight-House for the brawling action between those darn stubborn farmers and gun-toting cowmen.

With each big number, you’ll be tempted to stomp your feet and kick up your heels during this brilliant production of one of America’s best-loved musicals.  Each member of the cast and crew gets a big Bravo and YeeHaw from www.criticsontheaisle.org

Oklahoma! runs until September 27, 2017. Curtain times are Wednesday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m. (with select performances at 2:00 p.m.), Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. (with select performances at 6:30 p.m.).

Tickets are available through the Box Office by calling 860-873-8668, open seven days a week, or online at goodspeed.org

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Photo by Jonathan Steele

Annalise Cepero, Arianne Menenses, Mia Pinero and Carolina Santos-Read all sing "I Feel Pretty"

Photo by Jonathan Steele

Max Weinstein, Colin Lee, Daniel Miller, Hillary Ekwall and Pierre Marais are all JETS

Photo by Jonathan Steele

Conor Robert Fallon (Center) leads the West Side Story Jets in The Jet Song

Photo by Jonathan Steele

In a war council, Victor Borjas as Bernardo faces off with Conor Robert Fallon as Riff. Christian Alvarez, Tom DiFeo and Jason Daniel Rath - Sharks- look on.

Photo by Jonathan Steele

Natalie Madlon as Anita (Center) sings about "AMERICA" with Annelise Cepero as Francisca and Arianne Menenses as Consuela

‘West Side Story’ is a gritty musical triumph at Ivoryton Playhouse in CT

Photo by Jonathan Steele /Courtesy Ivoryton Playhouse.
Mia Pinero as Maria and Stephen Mir as Tony