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Review: “The Comedy of Errors” at Shakespeare & Company

By Dan Shaw

When you walk into the Tina Packer Playhouse at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox for its production of The Comedy of Errors, you feel as if you’ve stumbled into a backyard barbecue scene about to be shot for a John Waters movie. The actors, who are dressed in an eclectic (if not eccentric) array of casual clothes, are already on the Astrotuf-covered thrust stage; they are dancing, rollerblading and chatting up the audience. They have you laughing before the play has even begun.

The Comedy of Errors is a case of mistaken identity — a pair of separated twin brothers, their twin servants and the havoc that ensues when their lives crisscross and they cannot be distinguished. Director Taibi Magar has made the play a screwball comedy that seems like an episode of The Sopranos hijacked by the Marx Brothers.

Physical comedy has always been one of the hallmarks of Shakespeare & Company, and The Comedy of Errors is like a master class in slapstick where all the students will get an A+. Every pratfall and punch line is a knockout. Every exit and entrance is an event unto itself. Every actor in every moment is thoroughly engaged and engaging.

As Antipholus of Esphesus and Antinpholus of Syracuse, Ian Lassiter makes the twin brothers so distinct that you marvel as he switches back and forth between the two roles. As his twin servants (both named Dromio) who are thoroughly perplexed by which master they are waiting on, Aaron Bartz is delightfully frustrated and confused. With her blonde updo and pedal pushers, Kelley Curran looks like a caricature of a mobster’s moll, and she nearly steals the show with her performance as the haughty wife who is dumbfounded by her husband and his doppelganger. As her sister, Cloteal L. Home is sexy, flirty and fiery.

There’s no need to catalogue all the ways that Magar has ingeniously produced a 90-minute comic tour de force. Whether she has the actors singing like pop-music stars or astonishingly miming a slow-motion homage to Chariots of Fire,  the surprises are fast and furious, including how she cleverly brings the two sets of twins together onstage for the final scene.

It’s hard to imagine that you will see a harder-working or more enthusiastic ensemble on any stage in the Berkshires this summer. Casting directors should hie thee to Lenox because this production is a showcase for comedic talent. And anyone who wants to laugh out loud while being reminded that there are never-ending ways to reinterpret the Bard should see The Comedy of Errors, which Shakespeare & Company has made a comedy of perfection.

The Comedy of Errors (through August 23)
Shakespeare & Company
Lenox, MA
(413) 637-3353

Dan Shaw is the co-founder of Rural Intelligence.

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Posted by Dan Shaw on 07/22/15 at 06:26 PM • Permalink

At Rhinebeck Writers Retreat, Watch Musicals In The Making

By Robert Burke Warren

When it comes to creating art, inspiration is only a fraction of the process. Artists also contend with time constraints, isolation, and financial woes, especially in aggressively capitalist, crowded, notoriously noisy New York City. Musical theater folks have it particularly hard; Broadway depends on lavish sure-thing revivals, and for-profit producers are increasingly less likely to take a chance on new material. Money is tight. Yet musical theatre is hardly dying out, in part because of benefactors like Rhinebeck’s own Kathy Evans, former executive director of the National Alliance of Musical Theatre, and a modern-day Medici of sorts.

Every summer since 2011, a handful of promising writers have been spending time at Evans’ Rhinebeck Writers Retreat. Evans is following in the footsteps of the great patrons of yore, although in lieu of big money, she provides essential time, space, and encouragement; all free. This year marks the fifth annual retreat, at which she bequeaths selected writers a week of peace and quiet, plus meals, a small stipend, and lodging in the Hudson Valley woods. Of the eight weeklong workshops, five feature Saturday “Meet the Writers” receptions, where the public is invited into homes in the Rhinebeck area, enjoy hors d’oeuvres and wine, and talk to the creators in a charmed atmosphere of appreciation and possibility.

“Many of our artists have gone on to exciting things, other residencies and awards,” says the ebullient, quick-to-laugh Evans. In fact, Variety recently announced that two musicals developed previously at Rhinebeck Writers Retreat will be featured in National Alliance for Musical Theatre’s Festival of New Musicals in NYC in October — Noir by Duncan Sheik and Kyle Jarrow and The Last Queen of Canaan, by Rebekah Melocik, Jacob Yandura and Harrison David Rivers. 

“From just an idea to concept to success, I couldn’t be prouder about the retreat,” Evans says. And word has spread. In 2012, for example, there were 55 applications. This year, there were 90.” Of those, 17 writers will be on retreat, working on eight new musicals.

“Musical theater has always been a passion for me,” says Evans. “I worked in the corporate world most of my career until 15 years ago when I became executive director at the National Alliance of Musical Theatre. Part of its mission is supporting new work. I became engrossed in that world and decided ‘This is what I want to do, I want to help these writers who are so creative.’ There’s so much talent out there and not enough opportunity, so I wanted to give them an opportunity to develop.”

Tim Rosser and Charlie Sohne.

The season’s first musical theater writing team gave a taste of what the week was like at the reception on July 11. Charlie Sohne, bookwriter/lyricist, and Tim Rosser, composer, both recipients of a 2015 Jonathan Larson Grant, presented three songs from their work in progress, Run Away Home (one of which they had written that morning). The week away from the distractions of the city and in a house where all their needs were met did more than give them a place to work.

“We are actually changing the entire way we’re telling the story,” says Sohne.  “That wouldn’t have happened without this week of intense, uninterrupted work.”

Evans began the retreat modestly, but has since honed her skills as fundraiser extraordinaire, enlisting financial commitments from a widening circle of donors. “I’ve learned if I tell my story passionately,” she says, “and tell why it’s so important to support writers, people get it. People want to support the form and support writers. My task is to find those people who share my passion.”

You’ll find them — and the musical theater writing teams — at the “Meet and Greet” receptions held on Saturdays from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Admission is free, but space is limited to 30 per reception. Reservations accepted and address info given by email: 

August 1, Staatsburg, NY
Elizabeth A. Davis, Luke Holloway, Jason Michael Webb, creators of Indian Joe.

August 8, Germantown, NY
Kellen Blair, Joe Kinosian, creators of The More Things Change

August 22, Red Hook, NY
David Hein, Irene Sankoff, creators of Mitzvah

August 29, Staatsburg, NY
Mike Lew, Rehana Lew Mirza, Sam Willmott, creators of Bhangin’ It

Check Rhinebeck Writers Retreat website for bios and show synopses.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 07/18/15 at 09:38 AM • Permalink

Review: “Merrily We Roll Along” at Sharon Playhouse

By Dan Shaw
Walking out of the Sharon Playhouse after its exhilarating production of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, it’s impossible to comprehend how this musical was a flop when it opened on Broadway in 1981, closing after 16 performances. The story of three best friends — composer Franklin Shephard (Jason Tam), lyricist Charley Kringas (A.J. Shivley) and novelist-turned-critic Mary Flynn (Lauren Marcus) —  the show begins in California in 1976 when success has shattered their triumvirate and bonhomie has devolved into bitterness. The show moves backwards through the 1960s in New York City until the final scene in 1957, when the three meet as optimistic college students intoxicated by possibility and youthful dreams on a rooftop near Columbia University.

Sondheim’s genius is that his cynical story — he’s basically saying be careful what you wish for — is nevertheless full of heart and by the time you leave the theater you feel euphoric despite the plot’s inherent sadness. As both the composer and lyricist, Sondheim wrote words and melodies that fit together like pieces of a complicated jigsaw puzzle. But it’s not until the final scene that the big picture finally comes into full focus — -and it’s not exactly what you expect. Merrily, like Sondheim’ brilliant Company, is a sociological musical about quintessential New Yorkers, and it captures the Broadway era before Andrew Lloyd Weber and Disney. It’s a psychological show, too, as if Sondheim had stolen files from the main characters’ psychoanalysts.

The onstage Sharon Playhouse orchestra captures all the exuberance and urgency of Sondheim’s score from the magnificent overture to the reprise of “Old Friends” at the curtain call. The music is reason enough to see this show, which is summer stock as it should be — invigorating, entertaining and thought provoking.

The performances by the three principals make this production soar. They have perfect chemistry, whether they’re loving or hating one another. Tam’s transformation of Franklin from arrogant to earnest is convincingly heartbreaking. Marcus plays Mary, the troika’s third wheel, with the perfect balance of pluck and pathos. And Shivley’s Charley stops the show when he sings “Franklin Shephard, Inc,” humorously and poignantly unloading all his anger and pain about how his show-writing partner has betrayed and disappointed him.

The three main supporting players are just as well cast. Emma Davis as Shephard’s first wife is especially endearing when she joins Tam and Shivley for “Bobby and Jackie and Jack,” a rip-roaringly funny parody about the Kennedy family as they capture the White House and the nation’s imagination in 1960. Sarah Cline, as the Broadway star who lures Shephard away from his first wife, and David Fanning, as her Broadway producer first husband, convey the schmaltzy side of “show business” as it was called when Sondheim was starting out in the 1950s.

In the second act, on the opening night of Franklin and Charley’s first Broadway show, they stand at the stage door listening to the audience’s enthusiastic applause. They perform a number called “It’s a Hit,” which they could also be singing about this production of Merrily We Roll Along.

Merrily We Roll Along (through July 19)
Sharon Playhouse, Sharon, CT



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Posted by Dan Shaw on 07/16/15 at 01:23 PM • Permalink

Review: “Oklahoma!” at Bard Summerscape

By Dan Shaw

Everything is up to date at Bard Summerscape, where director Daniel Fish has gone as far as he can go in reimagining Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! (which opened on Broadway in 1943), transforming it into an edgy, immersive and sexy musical.

If you’ve seen Oklahoma! performed at junior high schools, colleges, community theaters and on Broadway (as I have), you will be awed by how the familiar feels as fresh as the just-shucked corn piled on the set as you take your seat at one of the long picnic-style tables that ring the stage in two tiers.

Scenic designer Laura Jellinek has transformed the black box LUMA Theater into a rustic setting made of plywood with a tinge of the Brooklyn hipster DIY aesthetic. The accomplished actors and new musical arrangements give the production a thoroughly contemporary attitude. You know this production is like “a bright golden haze on the meadow” when the swarthy Damon Daunno (who plays Curly) opens the show with a bluesy rendition of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin” that he performs with the swagger of the young Elvis Presley.

As Laury, the girl of his dreams, Amber Gray is not demure, a far cry from Shirley Jones’ portrayal in the 1955 movie. The sexual frisson between Curly and Laury is hardly innocent, but it’s still family friendly. When Daunno sings “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” it becomes a true song of seduction. The lyrics “Don’t you wisht y’d go on forever and ud never stop” make you envision Curly and Laury enjoying a long night of lovemaking on the edge of a cornfield.

As the promiscuous and likable Ado Annie, Allison Strong dressed in a tank top, barely-there denim cut-offs and cowboy boots looks as if she walked right off the set of Girls.  When she sings “I Cain’t Say No,” it’s less a cheerful, cornball showstopper than a Nashville ballad that conveys her feisty sense of independence and unbridled pleasure in keeping company with a variety of men. And when Gray sings “Many a New Day,” it comes across as a defiant feminist anthem.

Jud Fry, the farmhand who lives in the smoke house, is not the usual monstrous sociopath, and you feel empathy for his alienation and anomie. The ruggedly handsome Patrick Vaill makes Jud a misunderstood bad boy who should not be looked down upon but given a second chance.

Unlike other productions of Oklahoma! I’ve seen, Aunt Eller, Will Parker and Ali Hakim don’t come across as caricatures. Mary Testa, James Patrick Davis and Benji Merman respectively imbue their roles with “plen’y of heart and plen’y of hope.” Because every member of the audience sits just steps from the stage and the actors sometimes sit or dance on the tables, the performances have a verisimilitude that is as engaging as it is unexpected.

After intermission, the audience returns to the theater where they’re served lemonade, cornbread and chili (that has been simmering in crockpots on the tables in front of them during the first act). You feel part of the hoedown that ignites Act 2 as the company square dances to “The Farmer and the Cowman.” With a bluegrass style band on stage, the music has a country twang that pays homage to the original score while making it much more appropriate to the book.

Without irony or cynicism, director Fish has breathtakingly updated Oklahoma! and maintained its all-American spirit while making it a musical of our time. If it moves to New York, as it ought to, Oklahoma! would no doubt become a cult show that would endear a new generation to the magic of Rodgers & Hammerstein. 

Certainly, aficionados of Oklahoma! will appreciate Fish’s innovative interpretation more than those unfamiliar with the show. Nevertheless, anyone who loves live musical theater should immediately try to get tickets to Oklahoma! at Bard Summerstage where the avant garde is accessible and entertaining. Oh, what a beautiful morning it is the day after seeing this extraordinary show.

Oklahoma! (through July 19)
The Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College
Annandale-on-Hudson, NY
(845) 758-7900

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Posted by Dan Shaw on 07/07/15 at 04:08 PM • Permalink

Review: “My Fair Lady” at Sharon Playhouse

Sharon Playhouse My Fair Lady Get Me to the Church on Time By Dan Shaw

As the nine-piece Sharon Playhouse orchestra delivers a rousing rendition of the lush, melodic Overture to Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady, the heart overflows with expectations and the mind with anxiety: One wonders whether Rufus Collins as Professor Henry Higgins and Lee Harrington as the cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle can make these familiar tunes their own and banish the ghosts of Rex Harrison, Julie Andrews (on Broadway in 1956) and Audrey Hepburn (in the 1964 movie)

The good news is that Collins and Harrington can really sing and act. In fact, Collins looks like he is Rex reincarnated, and he self-assuredly plays the self-assured, arrogant linguistic expert who takes on the challenge of transforming a guttersnipe with an atrocious accent into a proper lady with perfect diction. When he nails “Why Can’t the English?” in the opening scene, you know he will keep the production on course.

Sharon Playhouse My Fair Lady Eliza DoolittleEliza’s first song is “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” and the number would be perfect if not for the fact that she is accompanied by the ensemble whose dance number could be more, well, loverly. When Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle played by Peter Cormican arrives on stage for his first showstopper, “With A Little Bit of Luck” (the other is “I’m Getting Married in the Morning” in Act II), his spirited delivery gives you confidence that the show — more or less a three-legged stool — is on solid ground. (For some reason, the character of Colonel Pickering, played by Michael Douglass, who’s a constant presence on stage seems inconsequential in this production.)

The crucial transformation scene in Act I that takes place in Higgins’ study is appropriately fraught with tension as the merciless professor pushes Eliza to the edge — where she finally utters a few phrases properly. They are joined by Pickering to perform “The Rain in Spain,” which is a joyous moment for all of us.

And then they head off to Ascot. Director Richard Stafford expertly stages the satirical scene, poking fun at the upper class’s reserve as they watch the horse races. If only his choreography were more polished. You get the feeling that several members of the ensemble are not trained dancers and that he was flummoxed by their skill set; I wished he had taken a less-is-more approach.

With three strong leads (who have Equity cards unlike the rest of the cast), the Sharon Playhouse production of My Fair Lady is testament to its staying power and proof that it is one of the most amusing, literate and deservedly beloved shows from the heyday of the Broadway musical. And guaranteed: you will be humming, if not singing, as you drive home.

My Fair Lady (through July 5)
The Sharon Playhouse
49 Amenia Road, Sharon, CT
(860) 364-7469

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Posted by Dan Shaw on 06/24/15 at 11:53 AM • Permalink