(L-R) Connor Walsh, Karina Gonzalez, and Ian Casady in Houston Ballet's "Tapestry" PHOTO: Amitava Sarkar

(L-R) Connor Walsh, Karina Gonzalez, and Ian Casady in Houston Ballet’s “Tapestry”
PHOTO: Amitava Sarkar

Last week at Houston’s Wortham Theatre Center I had the privilege of attending Thursday’s Opening Night of Houston Ballet’s FALL MIXED REPERTORY, presented in advance of the company’s performance of that same 3-ballet program this first night of October, right here in Montgomery County at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. With free seating available for this evening’s offering, parents may want to consider bringing along any youngsters who are not easily frightened by ghosts as this Halloween month gets underway. Three separate ballets are presented, and as one might expect, the ballet titled GHOST DANCES is both spooky and intriguing. Choreographed by Christopher Bruce, the scene opens in a dark and shadowy underworld cave with a dimly visible, desert-like landscape beyond. (Set design by Mr. Bruce and lighting by Nick Chelton). Three muscular but very ghostly figures appear, looking much like hairy and skeletal cavemen from beyond the grave (Costumes by Belinda Scarlett). As they first begin to move about with exotic angularity, there is an ominous silence with the absence of music, and only the robotic thumping of their footfalls. Then begins the eerie but enchanting recorded Andean pipe music of Inti-Illimani, creating yet another level of mystery. In slow procession, various shadowy figures drift into this cave as we begin to realize this is the land of the dead, and our ghosts are guiding their entry with various ceremonial folk dances inspired by traditional South American commemorations of The Day of the Dead. But there was nothing dead about the audience with which I enjoyed this fascinating production. At the ballet’s conclusion the crowd erupted with loud cheers and thunderous applause.

The avant-garde second offering from this brilliant ballet company was the World Premiere of choreographer, Garrett Smiths’, REVEAL, performed to the exquisite “Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra and Tirol Concerto” by Philip Glass. (Ermanno Florio conducted the Houston Ballet Orchestra with Denise Tarrant on violin, Barrett Sills on cello and Katherine Burkwall-Ciscon on piano). The ballet begins with audible thunder and a kind of shadow play as the first dancer appears to be doing a few rather static rehearsal steps, while a second gyrating figure appears across the stage in a misty doorway. The rhythmic swirl of the escalating music soon animates the dozen dancers that emerge, sometimes in pairs with costumes of contrasting black and white (designer, Monica Guerra), or as a group of eight whirling men in long, open black trench coats. There is an overall androgynous quality to the piece which seems like an extended search for identity that may not please those looking for a Swan Lake experience, but there are various dramatic lighting effects as well as moments of sublime grace from the dancers. Call mine a “mixed” review.

The evening’s third offering was a chance for me to revisit a Houston Ballet production I had enjoyed several years ago. In March of 2012 I had the pleasure of seeing the World Premiere of company Artistic Director, Stanton Welch’s romantic and visually dramatic ballet, TAPESTRY. This superb cast of more than two dozen dancers is again headed by Principal Dancers, Karina Gonzalez, Ian Casady and Connor Walsh. In all humility I would be hard pressed to improve on my previous comments, and with that in mind, please allow me to once again share my 2012 reflections on “Tapestry”:

The set design produced the dramatic tone with a vast array of vertical, parallel and equi-distant cords set back and running from floor to ceiling and fully across the width of the stage. In the upper reaches of this very linear visual field was another set of intersecting cords running horizontally across the stage and creating a kind of woven web that would frame the dancing as the various performers sometimes emerged from backstage through the cords and sometimes faded back through them to disappear. What happened in between was a showcase of the dance talents of this large company.

It is never difficult to imagine the athleticism and physical strength required by such professional dancers, but in this case we have an additional proof. The male dancers wear tights alone as their uniformly classic physiques are revealed while dancing bare-chested. I need to get back to the gym right away! The lush music of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 accompanies the work as Ermanno Florio beautifully conducts the Houston Ballet Orchestra and violinist, Denise Tarrant, superbly performs the violin solo. The lovely and sensual dancing is characterized by gentle elegance, vast variety, playful charm and an extraordinary collective delicacy. The stately, regal and bird-like grace of the many ballerina’s slender and undulating arms seemed more striking than ever. There were impressive slow-motion moments, and the aforementioned framing grid effect gave added visual impact to the many beautiful extensions from the dancers. Shadowy golden lighting from designer, Lisa J. Pinkham, and soft, rose-colored costumes for the ladies (designer, Holly Hynes) added to the glow.”

Houston Ballet’s FALL MIXED REPERTORY will be performed at 8 p.m. tonight, October 1st, at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. Free mezzanine & lawn seating is provided courtesy of Cullen Trust for the Performing Arts. Those wishing to purchase Orchestra seats ($20) may do so at the Pavilion Box Office, at all Ticketmaster outlets, by calling 800-745-3000, or online at www.ticketmaster.com.

Posted in BroadwayStars.com, ThePeoplesCritic.com, Houston Community Newspapers online, Houston Ballet, Tapestry, Reveal, Ghost Dances, Christopher Bruce, Garrett Smith, Stanton Welch | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A Fond Good-Bye to BYE BYE BIRDIE at the Owen Theatre

[Click any photo to enlarge ]

Cast of "Bye Bye Birdie" PHOTO: Brad Meyer

Cast of “Bye Bye Birdie”
PHOTO: Brad Meyer

As I put pen to paper for this review, I am reminded of that wise old expression: “Better late than never.” As a critic, I have never been fond of reviewing shows on opening nights as I feel it is best to let cast and crew work out the kinks and get their feet on the ground in front of an audience before I enter the picture. Thus, I often attend productions on the second night of performances before preparing my remarks for devoted readers of The People’s Critic. My recent out-of-town travels made that option impossible for the Owen Theatre’s August opening of The Players’ Theatre Company production of a fun-filled, BYE BYE BIRDIE. While Opening Night had not been a possibility for me, I’m very glad the theatre invited me to attend the gala closing night last Saturday.

On entering the attractive lobby, there was an immediate buzz of excitement generated by a long receiving line of handsome and smartly uniformed Aggie cadets from Texas A&M University. They greeted arriving guests with wide smiles while handing out the show programs. (I never mentioned they were shaking hands with this U.T. Longhorn, Class of ’66. Why start trouble?) Before the show began, these eager lads were called to the front to be introduced by Owen president, Mark Wilson, and the show’s talented director, Mary Yost. They explained that this fine contingent is called into service for the closing night of each of the Owen’s productions, serving as volunteers to break down the set when the curtain falls. Gig’em Boys!

With its book by Michael Stewart, music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams, the 1961 Tony Award-winning original Broadway production of BYE BYE BIRDIE would spawn countless revivals, tours, and of course, the ever-popular 1963 film version. Most recently I had the opportunity to see the 2009 Broadway revival in New York. With its enormous and energetic cast of 44 local thespians, this current Conroe edition at the Owen was smoothly directed by Ms. Yost. Dave Englert beautifully conducted the terrific 17-piece Virtuous Pit Band from its unusual location to the rear of the audience. Credit the fine cast singing to Vocal Director, Joshua Yost, and the bright costumes to designer, Marieda Kilgore. The cheerful plot is set in the Presley rock-n-roll era of the 1950’s and gently spoofs the fan pandemonium that ensued when Presley was drafted into the army. In this story we have vocally talented Jared Barnes portraying about-to-be-drafted rock star, Conrad Birdie.

Amy Barnes as Rose and Ben Miller as Albert PHOTO: Brad Meyer

Amy Barnes as Rose and Ben Miller as Albert
PHOTO: Brad Meyer

Conrad’s agent, songwriter Albert Peterson (Ben Miller), is panicking at the thought of losing his prime client, but Albert’s secretary and amorous girlfriend, Rosie (dance sensation, Amy Barnes) suggests a publicity stunt send-off for Conrad featuring a new song by Albert titled “One Last Kiss.” The plan is to have Birdie sing the song on the Ed Sullivan show before planting a kiss on one randomly chosen Birdie Fan Club member.

Jared Barnes as Conrad with devoted fans and starry-eyed Kim (Sachi Tanaka) PHOTO: Brad Meyer

Jared Barnes as Conrad with devoted fans and starry-eyed Kim (Sachi Tanaka)
PHOTO: Brad Meyer

Pretty Sachi Tanaka plays the lucky teenaged winner, Kim MacAfee, a teen who lives in Sweet Apple, Ohio. Kim is on the mature side of adolescence as Miss Tanaka sweetly sings the coming of age song, “How Lovely to be a Woman.” Kim’s parents, Doris and Harry (amusingly played here by Julia Reece and Michael Hayes) have initial misgivings about their daughter being involved in this Conrad Birdie campaign, but they change their tune when confronted with the possible celebrity of the family appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show along with Kim’s little brother, Randolph (Hayden Olds), to sing the hilariously reverent, “Hymn For a Sunday Evening.” Doris and Harry bring more fun to Act II when they sing the comical, “Kids,” reflecting on all the problems parents have in dealing with teens. Mr. Hayes gives us a Harry that is deliciously droll.

Mother Mae (Martha Davis) eyeing Rose and Albert suspiciously PHOTO: Brad Meyer

Mother Mae (Martha Davis) eyeing Rose and Albert suspiciously
PHOTO: Brad Meyer

Adding to the comedy is the character of Albert’s possessive and overbearing mother, Mae (Martha Davis), who specializes in insulting Rosie in hopes of frustrating her romantic intentions with Albert. Miss Davis gives us a Mae who is a real drama queen and wants her son all to herself. Rosie just wants to settle down with Albert and sings longingly of his becoming “An English Teacher.”

Utilizing the fine set design of Roger Ormiston, the lively and colorful cubicle staging of the Telephone Hour song has the town’s teens gossiping on the phone about the exciting news that Kim is going steady with young Hugo Peabody (Eric Phillips). The complicated number, full of challenging counterpoints, was beautifully executed by this large cast of talented young performers. I wish I could name them all. Lovely songs seem to follow one after the other. With his powerful voice and hip-swiveling gyrations, Mr. Barnes gives us fun-filled and over-the-top performances of “Honestly Sincerely,” and “One Last Kiss,” while his teen admirers squeal with delight. One of the finest voices in this cast is Mr. Miller as Albert. Performing tunes such as, “Put on a Happy Face,” and “Rosie,” his smooth, mellow vocals might call to mind the Hollywood likes of crooner, Dick Haymes.

Amy Barnes cuts loose as Rosie PHOTO: Brad Meyer

Amy Barnes cuts loose as Rosie
PHOTO: Brad Meyer

And speaking of Rosie, Miss Barnes stands out in this cast for her exciting and seductive delivery of the athletic and acrobatic choreography of designer, Melody Johnson, during the dazzling and uproarious, “Shriner’s Ballet.” Like the show itself, it was great fun!

Up next at the Owen Theatre will be Ken Ludwig’s comedy, MOON OVER BUFFALO, playing from October 16th through November 1st. For tickets, show dates and information call 936-539-4090 or visit the website at www.owentheatre.com.

Posted in Broadway, BroadwayStars.com, Bye Bye Birdie, Conroe Courier, Houston Community Newspapers online, Owen Theatre, The Courier Columns, The Players Theatre Company, The TICKET, ThePeoplesCritic.com | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Crighton Strikes Gold with “ON GOLDEN POND”

Marilyn Moore as Ethel & Don Hampton as Norman in "On Golden Pond" PHOTO: Michael Pittman Images

Marilyn Moore as Ethel & Don Hampton as Norman in “On Golden Pond”
PHOTO: Michael Pittman Images

[ Editor’s Note: Click any photo to enlarge ]

There was a special kind of warmth and intimacy coming across the footlights when director, Jim Walker, stepped out on the Crighton Theatre stage last Saturday night to speak with great affection about the cast and crew of his very marvelous new Stage Right Production of Ernest Thompson’s touching play, ON GOLDEN POND. That same warmth, intimacy and great affection would soon permeate the heartwarming and marvelous performance of the play that followed. It would be a memorable night of theatre with a memorable cast to match the fine direction of Mr. Walker. Score another winner for producers, Steven & Carolyn Wong.

This charming tale tells the story of the Thayers, an elderly couple opening up their cozy Maine cottage “on Golden Pond,” for yet another of the many summers they have enjoyed there for forty-eight years. Norman (Don Hampton) is about to become an octogenarian, and the years have begun to steal a bit of his memory while replacing it with a cranky and cantankerous disposition. This is a strain for his perky and optimistic wife, Ethel (Marilyn Moore), whose cheerful nature is the very opposite of his own. With curling lip and sneering expression, Norman grumbles about everything from the latest major league baseball news to the rickety screen door that keeps falling off its hinges. Ethel counters with good cheer as she dusts and sweeps the long-closed cottage, and admires the diving and singing of the returning loons that are visible out on the pond. With lines like, “You’re the sweetest man in the world, and I’m the only one who knows it,” we can sense that it is Ethel’s patience, understanding and joie de vivre that have allowed this longstanding marriage to survive the occasional bickering her husband so often provokes. It must be said that both Mr. Hampton and Ms. Moore have really “nailed” their rich characterizations of Norman and Ethel, and their very different ways of coping with old age. These talented actors make the characters very much their own, but on some level the elegance of their performance seems almost to be channeling the spirits of Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn who passed into cinematic legend playing these same parts in the 1981 film that garnered Best Actor & Actress Oscars for them, and a third for Mr. Thompson’s screenplay. Thanks to the comic wit of the play’s fine script, the relationship of Norman and Ethel is great fun to watch, in addition to being central to the plot.

The cast of "On Golden Pond" PHOTO: Michael Pittman Images

The cast of “On Golden Pond”
PHOTO: Michael Pittman Images

But the couple is not always alone as several other interesting characters visit the cottage.

Charlie the mailman arrives. (Allen Dorris at right) PHOTO: Michael Pittman Images

Charlie the mailman arrives. (Allen Dorris at right)
PHOTO: Michael Pittman Images

Allen Dorris plays Charlie, the jolly local mailman who arrives by boat to make his deliveries of both mail and merriment. Mr. Dorris brings an infectious laugh and comic skill to his amusing performance.

Jennifer Hennessy Marshall as the Switchboard Operator PHOTO: Michael Pittman Images

Jennifer Hennessy Marshall as the Switchboard Operator
PHOTO: Michael Pittman Images

Another character adding levity to the piece is the nutty and snorting switchboard operator (Jennifer Hennessy Marshall) who casually handles phone call connections for this rural community while chewing gum and manicuring her nails.

Chelsea (Kim Bryant at left) visits Mom & Dad PHOTO: Michael Pittman Images

Chelsea (Kim Bryant at left) visits Mom & Dad
PHOTO: Michael Pittman Images

Next we meet the Thayer’s 42 year-old daughter, Chelsea (Kim Bryant), who lives in California and is somewhat estranged from her parents because she and her father have never seen eye to eye. Ms. Bryant gives a sensitive performance as a daughter hoping for reconciliation.

Bill (Jim King at left) meets Norman (Don Hampton) PHOTO: Michael Pittman Images

Bill (Jim King at left) meets Norman (Don Hampton)
PHOTO: Michael Pittman Images

Chelsea is engaged to Bill Ray (Jim King), a dentist who is amusingly ill at ease in meeting Chelsea’s parents for the first time.

Billy (Ian Montez) prepares the fishing gear. PHOTO: Michael Pittman Images

Billy (Ian Montez) prepares the fishing gear.
PHOTO: Michael Pittman Images

He has a feisty teenaged son, Billy Jr. (Ian Montez) who has a knack for getting reclusive Norman out of his shell as they go off together on local fishing expeditions. I recall describing young Mr. Montez as “adorable” when I reviewed his performance in the 2009 production of “Cheaper by the Dozen.” He’s still very cute here, and brightens up the stage with terrific acting and a winning personality.

Speaking of the stage, Jill Villalobos acts as Stage Manager, while Mr. Hampton’s lovely cottage interior set design serves as home to all this action and was beautifully constructed by Master Carpenter, Dennis O’Connor. The sound designs of Melody Montez, the effective lighting of Roger Ormiston, and the costume designs of Marieda Kilgore were all additional elements making this show a must for those seeking a really satisfying experience in the theatre. Don’t miss it!

ON GOLDEN POND continues through September 27, 2015 with Friday & Saturday performances at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., all at the beautiful Crighton Theatre, 234 N. Main St. in Conroe. (Prices are $20 adults, $18 for seniors and groups of 15 or more, $15 for youngsters 16 and under, and senior groups of 12 or more persons). For tickets and information call 936-441-7469 or visit the website at www.stage-right.org

Posted in BroadwayStars.com, Conroe Courier, Crighton Theatre, Henry Fonda, Houston Community Newspapers online, Katherine Hepburn, On Golden Pond, Stage Right Players, The Courier Columns, The TICKET, ThePeoplesCritic.com | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Epic Concert and Soloist for Houston Symphony at Pavilion

Houston Symphony Orchestra at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion PHOTO: Ted Washington

Houston Symphony Orchestra at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion
PHOTO: Ted Washington

Pavilion entrance sculpture by J. Hester honoring Pavilion founder, Cynthia Woods Mitchell

Pavilion entrance sculpture by J. Hester honoring Pavilion founder, Cynthia Woods Mitchell

Pavilion Entrance Sculpture by J. Hester Honoring The Woodlands founder, George P. Mitchell

Pavilion Entrance Sculpture by J. Hester Honoring The Woodlands founder, George P. Mitchell

For those of us fortunate to have homes in The Woodlands, Texas, there have been countless opportunities through the years to enjoy the wonderful concerts of the Houston Symphony Orchestra at its “summer home,” the famed Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. The excitement of the orchestra’s annual cannon-blasting performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture has become traditional on the eve of Independence Day. But I would suggest there has never been more musical excitement on the Pavilion stage than during last Thursday night’s concert titled, Music of The America’s. If the performance was available on a CD, I would buy a copy immediately.

There were several reasons for the extraordinary excitement that filled the air on that lovely summer evening. Perhaps first among them was the electrifying performance of conductor, Andrés Orozco-Estrada, who just began his tenure as the Houston Symphony’s 15th music director.

Houston Symphony Music Director, Andrés Orozco-Estrada PHOTO: Werner Kmetitsch

Houston Symphony Music Director, Andrés Orozco-Estrada
PHOTO: Werner Kmetitsch

Let us hope he will be with us for many years to come. The animated physical energy he brings to every gesture of his baton is only equaled by his evident passion for both the music, and the 89 talented musicians under his direction. His athletic movement on the podium suggests he may have been a great ballet dancer in some previous existence, and I suspect if he just stood on the empty stage waving his arms without an orchestra, there might be those who would pay for a ticket just to watch him in action. Clearly, the excitement he projects is brilliantly reflected in the performance of the orchestra. Adding to the glow of excellence are the superb acoustics now achieved in this arena where sound problems have not been unknown in the past. An additional treat are the pristine projections on the enormous high definition screens at either side of the stage, allowing intimate looks at both the conductor and orchestral soloists throughout the performance.

Gianluca Littera PHOTO: Courtesy of The Woodlands Pavilion

Gianluca Littera
PHOTO: Courtesy of The Woodlands Pavilion

Another reason for the dramatic success of this concert was the stunning selection of exciting works, all thematically linked with Latin American roots. Two of these selections featured the astonishing talent of the evening’s featured soloist and renowned master of the harmonica, Gianluca Littera. He joined the orchestra first for the unusual and very beautiful Villa-Lobos composition, “Harmonica Concerto.” The crisp clarity and precision of his artistry as he raced up and down the full range of the instrument, blended beautifully with the fluid motions of his body and created the perfect marriage of soloist and orchestra. Further evidence of Littera’s brilliance came with his performance of the next selection, “Toledo, Spanish Fantasy for Harmonica & Orchestra.” by composer, James Moody. With its dazzling, rapid-fire pace, lashing excitement and seductive rhythms reminiscent of Ravel’s “Bolero,” it was yet another showcase for this exceptional musician.

Also on the program was Revueltas’ composition of “Sensemayá,” with its undulating pulsations and intense crescendos reminding one a bit of Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps.” An additional treat was the performance of Piazzolla’s virtual smorgasbord of musical variations in the orchestral piece, “Tangazo.” Richly somber one moment, rhythmically awakening the next, it seemed, at intervals, to highlight every section of this great orchestra.

The cheering and delighted audience would eventually be rewarded with several encores, but not before the exquisite final offering on the formal program. It was a rapturous performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story.” These classic and familiar melodies from the legendary American musical have never sounded better. At the conclusion, the audience — at first spellbound — erupted in applause and shouts of “Bravo!” It could not have been more deserved.

The Oak Ridge High School Orchestra, directed by Linda Nicolosi, delighted arriving guests with a pre-concert performance on the Pavilion plaza. PHOTO: Courtesy of ThePeoplesCritic.com

The Oak Ridge High School Orchestra, directed by Linda Nicolosi, delighted arriving guests with a pre-concert performance on the Pavilion plaza.
PHOTO: Courtesy of ThePeoplesCritic.com

Readers desiring information on the Houston Symphony’s upcoming performances may call The Patron Services Center at (713) 224-7575, or visit the website at www.houstonsymphony.org.

Posted in Andrés Orozco-Estrada, Ástor Pantaleón Piazzolla, BroadwayStars.com, Concert Reviews, Conroe Courier, Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, George Mitchell, Gianluca Littera, Harmonica Concerto, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Houston Symphony, James Moody, Leonard Bernstein, Sensemayá, Silvestre Revueltas, Spanish Fantasy, Tangazo, The Courier Columns, ThePeoplesCritic.com, West Side Story | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

For Rockaway: THE SHOW GOES ON!

PHOTO: Courtesy of ThePeoplesCritic.com

PHOTO: Courtesy of ThePeoplesCritic.com

As I close in on completion of two decades of work as a critic, I feel compelled to weigh in on what is surely destined to be one of the great New York City engineering projects of our generation. When last Memorial Day weekend got under way, it seemed that every local politician emerged to join the mayor for the dedication and Grand Opening of the first restored section of Rockaway’s once Sandy-destroyed boardwalk. Glorious as this new designer stone structure turned out to be, perhaps it could be more properly titled an Ocean Promenade than a boardwalk. I’m not one known for being speechless, but that opening afternoon when an NBC-TV reporter confronted me with camera and microphone for my opinion on this grand construction I simply blurted out, “It’s a treasure!” These months that followed have only served to confirm that first impression. One can safely say this gorgeous new boardwalk, with its gleaming handrails and approach ramps, deserves its growing reputation, both in New York and beyond, as an important recreational destination. It is eye-poppingly spacious, attractively designed and, most importantly, a work of structural solidity, which combined with expanded beaches, sand dunes and beach grass installations, should be well-prepared to challenge the roaring sea whenever necessary. Anyone who longs for the splinters and nails of rotting wooden boards after this, may be too much a captive of nostalgia. I invited two talented friends to visit this new wonder. One is a retired Mason from upstate New York with long experience in stone work. The other is a longtime building contractor from Australia. Both agreed this structure is a stunning masterpiece of construction.

Bentley on the Boardwalk PHOTO: Courtesy of ThePeoplesCritic.com

Bentley on the Boardwalk
PHOTO: Courtesy of ThePeoplesCritic.com

As a frequent bike rider on the new surface, I have watched related developments with interest. At first I worried about the fact that the installed lighting fixtures were creating alternating areas of light and darkness that would produce evening dangers for the visually handicapped, as well as possible nighttime security issues. Happily, that problem was recently corrected with nearly all the light poles being topped with new, much brighter light fixtures that even seem specially designed to keep off those pesky seagulls. I had also been concerned that the beautiful deck of the promenade might become an abused surface with food and drink spills, chewing gum, or even doggy deposits from careless pet owners. Once again it’s been Parks Department to-the-rescue as I began to see a special cleaning truck with power-wash equipment slowly moving along the deck and inspecting for any area needing a quick clean-up. That suggests the city is committed to maintaining this “treasure” in the way it deserves. (One additional consideration should be making sure that the sand that accumulates where beach pathways meet the deck is swept away periodically so it does not become an eyesore or hazard.)

Our community is also fortunate that there are numerous lucky police officers assigned this “plum” detail who are widely in evidence, patrolling both on foot and bicycles. Fine concession stands in three locations offer a variety of tasty food and drink. To add to the fun, several nights a week these venues feature live entertainment from such talented bands as Rockaway’s own Funky Squid, which recently had the Friday night crowds cheering at the 106th St. location. The future is looking bright, and one can only imagine the positive economic benefits these developments will mean for the area as we move toward the scheduled completion of the entire project during the next two years. As I look back on the terrors of Hurricane Sandy three years ago, perhaps that old saying is true after all: “IT’S AN ILL WIND THAT BLOWS NOBODY GOOD!”

Posted in Funky Squid, Rockaway Beach Boardwalk | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A Brilliant “LA CAGE” from Goodspeed Opera House

Jamison Stern as Zaza in Goodspeed Musicals' LA CAGE AUX FOLLES PHOTO: Diane Sobolewski

Jamison Stern as Zaza in Goodspeed Musicals’ LA CAGE AUX FOLLES
PHOTO: Diane Sobolewski

[Click any photo to enlarge]

There are rare times in the world of the theatre that all the elements just seem to come together perfectly. The current Goodspeed Opera House production of La Cage Aux Folles is one of those times, and I think I have discovered that perhaps you really can, “…go home again.” Tucked away and off the beaten path in the little town of East Hadddam, Connecticut, it was in 2012 that I first had the pleasure of discovering this great theatre. Actress, Sheila Smith, and the great Broadway orchestrator, conductor (and one of my fellow members of The Lambs Club), Don Pippin, were collaborating there on a special Goodspeed event in connection with its production of MAME. [See earlier review at: http://thepeoplescritic.com/2012/06/15/i-have-a-little-secret-id-like-to-impart/ ] That was a wonderful first experience of Goodspeed for me, and this La Cage was a wonderful welcome home. Based on the play by Jean Poiret, this musical edition features the very witty book of Harvey Fierstein and the delightful music & lyrics of Jerry Herman, — clearly a winning combination.

Jamison Stern (left) and James Lloyd Reynolds PHOTO: Diane Sobolewski

Jamison Stern (left) and James Lloyd Reynolds
PHOTO: Diane Sobolewski

Winner of six 1984 Tony Awards (including Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Book), the production works beautifully on many levels, but Director, Rob Ruggiero, and Musical Director, Michael O’Flaherty, never lose sight of the two primary elements that comprise a musical comedy. And I might add, that as lush and lovely as this musical score becomes in the hands of the show’s talented vocalists and musicians, the comedy is king here with the uproarious performances from this cast. In this special circumstance, perhaps I could even risk saying the comedy is queen, because the nutty plot surrounds a gay couple that runs a very gay “drag” nightclub in Saint-Tropez called La Cage Aux Folles (with the French slang roughly translating as a “cage for very effeminate gays”). With a seemingly endless supply of handsome tuxedoes, and looking as dashing as Douglas Fairbanks, Georges (James Lloyd Reynolds) is the elegant and impeccable emcee and manager of the club. His very flamboyant lover, Albin, is portrayed here by the multi-talented Jamison Stern. While there are a few touching moments when this fine actor could break your heart, the essence of his zany performance is the epitome of comic mastery.

Cedric Leiba Jr. as Jacob (right) with James Lloyd Reynolds as Georges PHOTO: Diane Sobolewski

Cedric Leiba Jr. as Jacob (right) with James Lloyd Reynolds as Georges
PHOTO: Diane Sobolewski

He has the audience howling with laughter throughout the show as Albin portrays the even more flamboyant character of Zaza in the nightclub act. But he is not alone, especially when it comes to the hilarious character of Jacob (Cedric Leiba Jr.), Albin’s ultra-gay assistant and butler, (who much prefers to be referred to as his maid). Leiba is a comedy genius in this deliciously comic role, and plays it to the hilt.

Georges and Albin live in a garish apartment above the nightclub with no shortage of bawdy statuary and gay pink accents, right down to the eye-catching and silver-trimmed divan that highlights the room.

Conor Ryan as Jean-Michel (left) with James Lloyd Reynolds PHOTO: Diane Sobolewski

Conor Ryan as Jean-Michel (left) with James Lloyd Reynolds
PHOTO: Diane Sobolewski

They have been lovers for years, though a one-night stand years before resulted in Georges becoming the father of his now grown son, Jean-Michel (Conor Ryan). Georges and Albin have affectionately raised the boy as their own, with Albin very much playing the maternal role. Things begin to get complicated when Jean-Michel arrives for a visit bearing the news that he is planning to marry Anne Dindon (the beautiful Kristen Martin). He wants to bring the parents of the bride-to-be, M. & Mme. Dindon, (droll performances from Mark Zimmerman & Stacey Scotte) to meet his own parents. But alas, Jean-Michel’s mother, Sybil, has been estranged for years, and Georges has no desire to reconnect with her. Worse still, it turns out that Anne’s father is the leader of the French TFM Party (Tradition, Family & Morality) which has at its core an intolerance of homosexuals. In addition to asking that Sybil be invited, Jean-Michel wants the apartment redone in more traditional style, and worst of all, does not want the very effeminate Albin to be present at all during the visit of Anne and her parents.

Les Cagelles perform "We Are What We Are" PHOTO: Diane Sobolewski

Les Cagelles perform “We Are What We Are”
PHOTO: Diane Sobolewski

The glue that blends all these confusions into this delicious piece of theatre is the aforementioned music and comedy.

Cast of La Cage aux Folles PHOTO: Diane Sobolewski

Cast of La Cage aux Folles
PHOTO: Diane Sobolewski

Right out of the starting gate we have the joyful nightclub number, “We Are What We Are,” performed by the club’s glamorous drag queens, Les Cagelles, and they shortly evolve into a dazzling troupe of tap-dancing sailors that could have easily formed a grand finale rather than an opening number (Choreographer, Ralph Perkins). Colorful feather boas and glittering costumes abound in various show-stopping numbers (Costume Designer, Michael McDonald), while the attractive scenic designs of Michael Schweikardt nicely frame the action.

Jamison Stern as Zaza with Les Cagelles PHOTO: Diane Sobolewski

Jamison Stern as Zaza with Les Cagelles
PHOTO: Diane Sobolewski

While applying his make-up for the show, Albin’s delicious excesses highlight the way he handles life’s challenges as Mr. Stern displays his resounding voice in the song, “A Little More Mascara.” Finally onstage in a glistening white gown, sparkling jeweled necklace and ermine-white feather boa, Zaza cheerfully announces that “No ostriches were harmed during the making of this costume.”

Meanwhile, the beaming and very handsome Mr. Conor brightens the production with winning charm and personality as he brings his richly resonant voice to the melodically wonderful, “With Anne on My Arm.” That tune is sweetly reprised when Georges and Albin duet for, “With You on My Arm,” and the poignant “Song of the Sand” that follows is a touching reflection of lost youth that is tenderly performed by Mr. Reynolds.

The Cast of Goodspeed Musicals' LA CAGE AUX FOLLES Photo: Diane Sobolewski

The Cast of Goodspeed Musicals’ LA CAGE AUX FOLLES
Photo: Diane Sobolewski

Toward the end of Act One, Albin and the Cagelles offer a knockout number that even features the gymnastics of a very athletic Can-Can.

Jamison Stern with Les Cagelles PHOTO: Diane Sobolewski

Jamison Stern with Les Cagelles
PHOTO: Diane Sobolewski

Mr. Stern rules the stage and captivates the audience with spontaneous banter, hilarious saucy wisecracks, and fine singing that might occasionally remind one of Bette Midler, Madeline Kahn, or even French chanteuse, Édith Piaf. And capping it all is the one-on-one intimacy of Albin’s heart-wrenching appeal for understanding with the electrifying, “I Am What I Am.”

The cast of Goodspeed Musicals LA CAGE AUX FOLLES Photo: Diane Sobolewski

The cast of Goodspeed Musicals LA CAGE AUX FOLLES
Photo: Diane Sobolewski

As plot lines converge toward the inevitable happy outcomes in Act Two, songs like the tender “Look Over There,” continue musical excellence, and the hilarity reaches epic levels surrounding the meeting of the bridal couple’s parents. I dare not give away the fun filled details, but I must tell you that the comic timing, antics and body language of both Mr. Stern and Mr. Leiba continue in classic fashion, with able support from the fine supporting cast and talented Ensemble. For lovers of musical theatre with the prospect of seeing this production, it really seems safe to cite the title of one of the show’s biggest hits, “The Best of Times is Now!”


LA CAGE AUX FOLLES continues through September 10th at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn. Please visit www.goodspeed.org for details and availability.

Posted in Broadway, BroadwayStars.com, Don Pippin, Goodspeed Opera House, Harvey Fierstein, Jerry Herman, La Cage Aux Folles, Sheila Smith, ThePeoplesCritic.com | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Summer Fun from GUYS & DOLLS at RTC

[ Click on any photo to enlarge ]

Cast Members of RTC's GUYS & DOLLS Photo: Courtesy of RTC

Cast Members of RTC’s GUYS & DOLLS
Photo: Courtesy of RTC

It doesn’t get much better than this for residents of the once Sandy-ravaged Rockaway Beach. The pleasantly warm summer weather and low humidity have the beach crowds flocking to newly restored areas of the previously destroyed beach and boardwalk; but better still, summer theatre treats await the area at the evermore popular Rockaway Theatre Company now performing Frank Loesser’s musical classic, GUYS & DOLLS, at the Post Theatre here in New York City’s Gateway National Recreation Area of the National Parks Service. With its book by Jo Swerling & Abe Burrows, this delightful production is skillfully directed by John Gilleece, and features melodic musical direction from Heather Arzberger & Richard Louis-Pierre. The bright energy of their terrific 10-piece orchestra keeps things beautifully rolling along right from the lovely Overture. After my attendance at last Friday night’s performance, I score this show as Highly Recommended.

I like to think I have a personal connection to Guys & Dolls because at the time composer, Frank Loesser, debuted the show on Broadway in 1950, his sister lived across the street from my boyhood home in the little Hudson Valley town of Peekskill, New York. Needless to say I never got any Broadway credit for that. But enough about me. This show is so much fun that through the years it has already had 5 Broadway revivals and a Carnegie Hall presentation in 2014. Let me assure you the fun continues in this RTC edition. As delightful as it is, it has one major drawback from a critic’s point of view: The cast is so enormous there is no practical way to acknowledge the countless talents on display without offending those I might miss. To compound that, the company has so many skilled performers, it was determined that many of the lead roles would have duplicate casting, thus providing a secondary cast for alternate evenings. After several successful weeks already, the word is out that both casts are splendid, so with apologies to the alternate performers I have not seen, let me give some broad outlines of the fun that awaits future audiences.

Matthew Smilardi as Nathan Detroit Photo: Courtesy of RTC

Matthew Smilardi as Nathan Detroit
Photo: Courtesy of RTC

The familiar plot centers on an amusing cast of gangsters, Bible-thumpers, gamblers and showgirls living on the fringes of the 1950’s Broadway scene. Veteran gambler, Nathan Detroit (Matthew Smilardi – alt: John Panepinto) is ignoring the wishes of his longtime fiancée, cute showgirl, Miss Adelaide (Caitlin Byrne – alt: Nicole Mangano). Nathan is angling to arrange a bigtime crap game in spite of Adelaide’s insistence that he quit gambling.

The Hot Box Girls PHOTO: Courtesy of RTC

The Hot Box Girls
PHOTO: Courtesy of RTC

Miss Byrne is sensational as this adorable nightclub singer who is losing patience at being “engaged for fourteen years,” and having to make up stories in order for her mother to believe that she and Nathan are already married with children. Byrne’s terrific voice and flair for comedy would have carried this role on any stage, anywhere, and Broadway audiences wouldn’t have hesitated to declare her a star. Whether leading the talented Hot Box Girls in both “Bushel & a Peck,” and the uproarious, “Take Back Your Mink,” or joining in brilliant duet with smooth-voiced Smilardi for the savage, “Sue Me,” or better still, knocking the ball out of the park with the hilarious, “Adelaide’s Lament,” this gal has it all. Wow!

Paralleling the pairing of Nathan and Adelaide, we have romantic sparks flying between bigtime gambler, Sky Masterson (Daniel Velez – Alt. Michael Whalen), and the initially prim and sanctimonious leader of the Save-a-Soul Mission, Sr. Sarah Brown (Renee Steadman – Alt. Maria Edwards). Steadman has a glorious voice that shines in numbers like, “If I Were a Bell,” and in pleasing duets with vocally talented Mr. Velez for, “I’ll Know,” and the charming “I’ve Never Been in Love Before.” Don’t miss the pair’s whirlwind trip to Cuba where Bacardi rum and lively Latin dancing flow freely. And speaking of dancing, those showgirls in the Hot Box Nightclub scenes are sensational. I only wish I had some sharp color publicity photos to give justice to the beautiful costumes on the beautiful and talented women in this cast. (Costume designer, Kerry O’Connor with Susan Corning).

The Gamblers Roll the Dice in GUYS & DOLLS Photo: Courtesy of RTC

The Gamblers Roll the Dice in GUYS & DOLLS
Photo: Courtesy of RTC

And if you think gangsters can’t dance, think again before you see the talented guys in this cast do their stuff while gambling their way through numbers like, “Oldest Established,” and “Luck be a Lady.” (Choreographer, Nicola DePierro-Nellen).

The rowdy esprit de corps that permeates the wonderful ensemble efforts of this cast is highly visible in the interactions of these lovable gangsters. A standout in that regard is the

Chazmond Peacock in the role of Nicely-Nicely Photo: Courtesy of RTC

Chazmond Peacock in the role of Nicely-Nicely
Photo: Courtesy of RTC

brilliant performance of Chazmond Peacock in the role of Nicely-Nicely. His joyous delivery of the show’s Act Two blockbuster, “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” was a Broadway-caliber performance. Yet another Act Two treat came from Cliff Hesse in the role of Sarah’s kindly grandfather, Arvide. His tender and sweetly sentimental delivery of the song, “More I Cannot Give You,” brought warm applause from the audience. Of course there are plenty of plot twists and turns as Sky attempts to gather a dozen sinners in an effort to help Sr. Sarah save the struggling mission. The action all plays out in beautifully staged Broadway scenes full of oddball characters drifting through Time Square. (Scenic Designers, Frank Caiati, Danielle Rose Fisher, and Mr. Hesse). The crisp sound designs of Mr. Louis-Pierre and eye-catching lighting designs of Andrew Woodbridge added to the luster of a polished performance that surely owes much of its success to the efforts of some seventy contributing individuals found in the printed program’s production credit listings. Therein lies a clue to why such a rich spirit of community pervades the atmosphere in this cozy local theater. Friends, family, and visitors blend into an audience that bubbles with enthusiasm not only during the show, but also during an intermission that allows a 50/50 Club chance to win big bucks, along with available refreshments, and even hot dogs sold on stage from the Broadway vendor featured in the show.

Complaints? Not really, but I will make a prediction. I bet before long a company with this depth of talent will soon have its own resident photographer to skillfully record the visual history of the great work they are doing on the stage. Try to capture one of the few remaining tickets. You won’t be sorry.

GUYS & DOLLS continues this week with performances on July 16, 17 & 18 at 8pm, and closes on Sunday July 19th with a 2pm matinee. Visit the website at www.rockawaytheatrecompany.org. For information or reservations call 718-374-6400 or email: rockawaytheatre@verizon.net

Posted in Broadway, BroadwayStars.com, Frank Loesser, Guys & Dolls, Post Theater, Rockaway Theatre Company, ThePeoplesCritic.com | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment